I don't know why I went to the saloon that night. It isn't usual for me; I'm a quiet girl at heart, and all the noise and folk crammed into that bright, smoky room has always seemed vaguely repellent. Not that night though. Maybe I felt lonely, wanted some company, some action, some adventure. Well, whatever I wanted, I found myself at the bar on that warm summer night, clutching my glass protectively and looking around at all the different faces.
Ole' Smoky Sam was hunched behind the bar as usual, solid and reassuring. As far as I could remember, he"d always been the barman here in Laxton. Things changed, fights broke out, people died, babies were born, but Ole' Smoky Sam was always there. Like a cliff on a stormy coastline, he was weathered by the ever-changing tides, but his stubborn presence remained, his basic shape immovable.
And there were Reg and Joe sharing a game of cards in the corner, both with beards falling down past their waists and of exactly the same shade of grey (although they'd never admit it). They wore identical expressions of grouchy concentration, and it was hard to tell who had the upper hand. Not that it mattered - if one of them lost any money to the other, he'd just win it back the following evening.
I could see Shelley and Jane too, hovering in and out between the crowded tables, eagerly waiting for any man"s gaze to fall on them. They obviously became impatient for as I watched, Shelley whispered something to Jane, and they both tittered. Then Shelley conjured up a tiny wisp of sparkling light, cupping it subtly in the palm of her hand. She and Jane exchanged mischievous looks and another giggle, then Shelley turned and blew the shining stream into the face of a ruggedly handsome man sitting at the table nearest her. Immediately he looked up and his gaze locked upon her, eyes glazing over as her flirtatious magic took effect.
I sighed and looked away, telling myself I wasn't jealous of Shelley's particular power. I wasn't wholly successful. I had power enough of my own, but I had never gotten into the habit of using it for such petty things. I never really had much call to use it at all. Sure, reading minds had its high points, not to say amusing ones, but it was also grossly invasive, the greatest breach of personal privacy imaginable, and I disliked (still do, in fact) using it without permission and the knowledge of the intended.
As I sat there, idly watching the bustling activity in the room, I did not give much thought to any folk I hadn"t seen before. Laxton often found itself catering for travellers passing through, mostly on their way to the larger town of Havernick to the south. So the strangers in the room did not particularly attract my attention.
A man was leaning casually against the wall near the doorway. One leg was out in front of him, the other braced against the wall. He was tall and slim, wearing a dusty salmon shirt, blue necktie, and faded jeans with full ten chaps over them. Round his thin waist hung a leather holster with his gun slung in it. His face was a little sunburnt, and his blue eyes scanned the room incessantly. Not in anxiety - no, he didn't look worried - but in a frank, casual way that showed he took an interest in others. His pale Stetson dangled from one hand down by his side; in the other he held his drink, swirling it round in its glass. Every now and again he raised it to his lips, but his eyes never stopped their inspection of the folk around him. Occasionally he smiled or nodded to someone, but no one approached him.
I was staring. I knew it was rude, but something drew me to this man, something hidden about him. In appearance he looked open and honest, but I could sense the secret depths of his character, lurking just out of reach.
Almost unwittingly, I sent out my power towards him, brought forth its creeping tendrils to pick into his mind, to seek out those private seeds of truth and peel them open before me.
He must have felt the prying, prickling sensation in his mind, because his eyebrows twitched in a slight frown, and I saw his shoulders tense. Mental walls slammed up in his mind, blocking my probing, and his gaze whipped round and fell upon me. For a moment his eyes were hard like flints, but when he registered my confused expression they softened, and he gave a tiny, almost imperceptible, shake of his head. Gently, but firmly, he pushed me out of his mind.
Immediately I looked away, embarrassed, and stopped my nosiness. I stared hard at the grain of the wooden bar-top, drumming my fingernails on it, feeling intensely ashamed of my lack of tact. I could still feel the man's eyes upon me, like a soft, disturbing caress down my back - it made me acutely uncomfortable. I felt a flush creeping over my face. But when I dared to glance back over my shoulder, the man"s gaze had turned back to the rest of the saloon.
"Another drink?" Smoky Sam's gravelly voice made me start in surprise.
"What? Oh, sorry, yes," I replied, a little flustered.
He pushed a brimming glass towards me and, as I sneaked another look back at the man by the door, he followed my stare.
"Ah," Smoky Sam grunted. "It's not often you see Solo in here."
"Solo?" I asked. "That's his name?"
"Well, I couldn't say as to whether it's his right name, but that"s what us folks in Laxton call him."
"Oh." As I took a sip of my drink, Smoky Sam leant over the bar and whispered in my ear.
"'E's a nomer."
"What?" Surprise wiped my mind to a sudden blank.
"A nomer." Smoky Sam nodded solemnly and tapped his hooked nose with a finger.
"A nomer?" I had heard of them, of course, but never had I heard the word used in a real situation, and it took me aback. "You mean... He has no magic?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
"But..." I floundered. "But how does he... How does he live?"
Smoky Sam shrugged, picked up a glass and began to polish it. "Why don't you go ask him yourself?"
I sat in silence for a moment, contemplating what I'd been told. I"ve always been a relatively shy person, never one to put myself forward, to start the conversation or begin the introductions. But there was some force awork that night that seemed to guide my feet and mind and gave me no choice in the matter. Something inside my heart was acting within me, and it was stubbornly bypassing my brain. I found myself walking over to the man by the door. To Solo.
He watched me approach, an expression of polite interest on his face. As I came closer he shifted slightly against the wall.
"Evenin'," he greeted me. His voice was deep and soft, tinged with the familiar southern drawl.
"Howdy," I said, somewhat timidly. "I just wanted... I... I'm sorry."
He looked a little surprised. "And why's that?"
I glanced away, embarrassed, and ran my hands down my upper arms in a protective gesture. "For what I did just now," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Aw, that," he said. "That's nothin"."
I felt an inordinate sense of relief. Some folks had grown pretty angry when I"d tried to use my power on them without permission, and rightly so. Somehow I'd known that this man wouldn't be like that, but I felt better for the apology. I smiled hesitantly, and he flashed me one back.
"I hear you're known as Solo," I said.
He gave a slight nod. "That's right." There was a pause. "Some prefer Sol."
I sensed that this was permission of some kind being granted, though quite of what I did not know.
"Sol," I repeated quietly. Then, "I'm Becky." I held out a hand. He shook it briefly, his grip cool and firm.
"Howdy, Becky," he said.
We stood in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds. At least, I was uncomfortable - Sol seemed completely unconcerned.
"I also hear," I began hesitantly, "that you're a nomer."
Not so much as a twitch of surprise or resentment. "That's right."
"But... But..." I was astounded at his calm acceptance of the unimaginable. My curiosity overrode caution and politeness. "Isn't it hard?"
He didn't seem offended at my reaction. He gave a little shrug. "Yeah, I guess."
I was fascinated by this man who seemed so disaffected by his lack of what we all took for granted, but I couldn"t think of anything else to say. I stood, shuffling my feet nervously whilst he calmly took another drink. As he did so, the top of his shirt gaped slightly, and I caught sight of a small silver cross hanging against his smooth chest.
"What's that?" I asked.
He glanced at me. "What's what?"
"Oh." He took it out from under his shirt, held it up in front of his on its leather thong and squinted at it. Then he let it drop. "It's nothin'." He smiled at me apologetically.
"I haven't seen you round here before," I said eventually.
He shrugged one shoulder. "That"ll be 'cause I don"t come here much."
"And why's that?"
He opened his mouth to answer me, then shut it again, leaving whatever it was unsaid. Instead he contented himself with another shrug. He swirled the drink around again in his glass, then took a swig, looking out over the room once more. His secretive, almost dismissive, behaviour would maybe have offended another girl, but the only effect it had on me was to make me more curious and awestruck. I could still sense that there was something else to this man than he was letting on, something deeper and confined. Maybe it was my power telling me this, allowing me a greater insight into his inner self than others would see. However it was I sensed it, I knew that I wanted to reveal it, to share in his hidden secrets. It wasn"t just plain nosiness either - it was more a strange instinct that led me on. It was as if, unbeknownst to himself, he was calling me to him.
Suddenly there came a commotion from the direction of the bar. Sol looked over, eyes narrowing a little, and I turned to see what was going on. With an abrupt and unpleasant sinking sensation in my chest, I recognised Rob Buckel. It seemed he was causing a bit of trouble for Smoky Sam, loudly announcing his need for a drink whilst the old bartender was serving someone else.
"'Ere!" Rob called, waving and clicking his large fingers impatiently. "Over 'ere, Sam! Can't you see a fella needs a drink?" He looked drunk enough already, half slumped against the bar, his legs none too steady beneath him. I closed my eyes briefly and hoped vehemently that he wouldn't spot me. Rob had been turning his forceful attentions upon me for a long while, and I usually managed to avoid him. Any encounters we had had before, however, had been far from pleasant. The last time I had been obliged to hit him over the head with a conveniently placed bucket.
"'Ere! Sam!" Rob"s slurring voice continued to be raised above all else in the room. He stumbled sideways along the bar, sweeping a handful of glasses onto the floor. The loud smash stopped any other conversation. "Gimme a drink!" he howled.
"Now there, Rob," came Smoky Sam's sensible tones. "There's other folks needin' refreshment here too."
Colour was rising at the back of Rob's neck. "Dammit, Sam, you greasy ole' varmint! Get me a drink!"
When I saw Sam leaning over to comply with Rob's unreasonable wishes, I felt it was probably time to make myself scarce. At any moment he might turn with his badly-earnt drink and see me.
"'Scuse me," I whispered hoarsely to Sol, watching Rob cautiously out of the corner of my eye. "I'd better be goin' now."
Sol followed the darting of my eyes, then looked back at me. I turned to leave, but he caught hold of my arm. "Sorry ma'am," he said, "but has that fella been causin' any trouble for you?"
I licked my lips, flattered at his concern, but nervous of Rob discovering me. "He... I..." I started, but was interrupted by a loud shout from across the room.
"Oy!" came Rob"s voice. "Who're you? Whatcha think yer doin'?"
My shoulders slumped in defeat. Sol tried to look me in the eye, but I wouldn't meet his gaze. He stared at me for a moment, then turned to meet Rob's wrath.
"Howdy," Sol said calmly to the man snorting above him. Sol was tall, but Rob was the largest man I'd ever set eyes on, huge and muscled, and he seemed gigantic in comparison to Sol's slender frame. Nevertheless, "How you doin'?" Sol continued.
"Who the hell might you be?" Rob growled. "Who're you with yer hands all over my girl?"
Sol's eyes flickered to me, then back again. He put his tongue in his cheek for a moment in consideration, then he handed me his drink and calmly held out a hand. "Solo," he said.
Rob stared at the outstretched hand as though it were some horrible dead thing he"d found in the street. He was swaying slightly. He frowned at Sol. "Solo," he repeated drunkenly. "Solo... You're that filthy nomer!"
Very slowly and deliberately, Sol drew back his hand. Then, just as slowly and carefully, he placed his Stetson upon his head. "That's right." His voice was low and, although it was not openly hostile, there was definitely a threatening undertone.
Rob started to laugh, more of a snorting through his nose than anything else. I glanced nervously between them. Everyone else in the saloon seemed to be doing the same thing. Some were whispering urgently amongst themselves and gesturing to the door. Some seemed eager for a fight.
Then, "Hey!" Rob called out, directing the words over his shoulder to a group of men by the bar, obviously his cronies. "Hey! Will ya look at this? A nomer's tryin' to steal ma girl!" He laughed louder, and his group of mates joined in. Sol looked up at him, unimpressed.
Again, whatever force as was in me that night came into action. I found I couldn't stand to watch Rob claim me like that. It wasn"t in protection of Sol that I acted - I was sure that he could look after himself against anyone - it was my own anger that made me speak.
"Your girl, Rob Buckel?" I found myself saying. "Your girl? I thought I made it clear the last time we met that I didn't want nothin' to do with you!"
This stopped the laughter from Rob's friends, although it prompted some quiet titters amongst the rest of the folk gathered in the saloon. I could see Rob's anger building, and began to regret my decision to speak up.
"You keep out of this, d'you hear me?" Rob hissed at me.
"Seems you needed something to jog your memory," I replied rashly, and I saw Sol's mouth twitching in a smile. "Did I hit you too hard with that bucket?"
"Keep out of this, you whore!" Rob roared.
Sol's smile disappeared in an instant. Rob opened his mouth to speak again, but stopped in surprise. Looking down, he registered with shock the barrel of Sol"s gun pointing at his belly. Rob"s friends all shot upright, pushing their barstools to the floor, guns drawn. Then Rob looked up again, and he and Sol stood staring each other in the eye.
"You wanna fight, friend?" snarled Rob.
"Friend?" The contempt in Sol's voice showed just what he thought of that. Then, slowly, he leant back and put his gun away. "You don't wanna fight me now," he told Rob. "You're too drunk, friend."
Rob let out a tremendous shout of anger, and launched himself towards Sol. But the slim gunslinger was much more lithe and quick than he was. Sol twisted away from the wall and swung a punch. It made contact with the Rob's head with a sickening thud. The larger man wheeled away, swayed, teetered, then fell. He looked up dazedly from the floor.
"You're too drunk," Sol repeated, standing casually over Rob, thumbs hooked in his belt. "Let's say we finish this proper... Tomorrow at noon?"
Rob was too disorientated to reply, but one of his cronies answered for him. "He'll be there!" he snarled at Sol. "Tomorrow noon! And you'd better watch it, nomer - you"ll be dead in the dust by twelve-oh-one!"
Sol acknowledged the acceptance with a tense nod, then turned to Smoky Sam, hovering anxiously behind the bar. "Apologies to you, sir," he told the old man. Then, tipping his hat to the room in general, he bid everyone a good evenin', and strode out.
I followed anxiously, feeling horribly guilty at what I had brought about. I knew Rob well, and I knew that whatever lay in store tomorrow, it would not be a fair showdown. Rob had his magic for a start, and could draw up a shield around himself at whim. Of course, it was forbidden to use one"s power during a showdown, but Rob would not balk at cheating. Especially after he"d been humiliated by a nomer.
Sol was walking away from me in the darkness. "Wait," I called out to him.
He turned, and to my surprise I was confronted with a wide grin. He raised his hat to me. "Howdy, Becky," he said. His eyes danced with a mischievous pleasure.
I stopped a few feet away from him, facing him in the dull yellow light of a lantern that hung outside the saloon. I hesitated, then said, "Thank you."
He nodded at me. "You're welcome. It's a pleasure to help a lady such as yourself."
I found myself blushing, and hoped he couldn't see it in the half-light. "Listen," I said. "Watch out for Rob. He's... Well, he's no gentleman."
He gave a slight laugh. "I can see that all right. A charming fella."
My anxiety must have shown on my face, for his smile faded and he took a step towards me. "Don't you worry 'bout me," he said, putting a hand to his hat and adjusting its position. "I'll watch him good."
And with that, he turned and walked away into the dusty blackness of the night, leaving me to stare hopelessly after him.