The man in black was not the kind of man to allow a new face in his town to go unnoticed. The stranger was smart, but not smart enough. Simply dismounting his horse so as to not stick out above head-level with the crowd may have worked in other desperado towns, but not in his town. By the time the man in black was watching the sandy-haired stranger enter the Mission, three reports had already come in about his arrival; one from the Marvin, the stable hand, another from Rita, the town gossip, and another from Happy Jack, one of the man in black’s enforcers.
“Get me Cherry,” he said.
Rupert, who had up until that point been whittling a piece of wood, gave a start and nearly dropped his things. In his alarm, he kicked over the bucket of wood shavings at his feet. “Right away, Master. Sorry about the mess, sir. Should I clean it up now or when I return?”
The man in black sighed and kneaded his brow. “I’ll clean it up, boy. Be quick now.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, Master. I’ll hurry.”
The man in black winced at the pain in his knees as he knelt on the floor in front of the hearth to scoop up the wood shavings and toss them into the fire. Age was catching up to him, there was no denying it. He picked up Rupert’s carving and turned it over in the light of the oil lamp. A thin smile spread across his face. Rupert had been carving a likeness of his Master, albeit a poor one, but there was no mistaking the stick man’s tall hat and long coat. He picked up Rupert’s knife and ran his thumb across the blade. Far too dull.
Rupert returned with Cherry to find his Master sharpening his whittling blade against a smooth rock. The elder man held the blade out to Rupert, who took it with a smile. “Go now,” the man in black said. “Out to the antechamber and take your stick man with you. Cherry will send you back in when we’re done here.”
Cherry smiled warmly at Rupert, who gave her a quick hug around the waist and slipped quietly out of the room.
Cherry and the Master regarded one another stiffly. “Cherry Darling, how nice to see you. I trust you’re behaving.”
“Yes, Master,” Cherry said. “Of course I have.”
“Hm. Did you notice a new arrival in town today?”
“Yes, Master. A handsome young fellow with blonde hair and fair blue eyes. Came into the Mission and bought me a drink, as a matter of fact.”
“What’s his name?”
“Where’s he from?”
“Here. He said he left Salvation twelve years ago to go on the cattle drives down south.”
“Hm. And why has he returned?”
“He wanted to see if Arthur Coby was still alive.”
The man in black turned a sharp eye on Cherry. “And what did you say?”
The girl flinched. “I – I told him I didn’t rightly know. I told him there were rumors that he was still alive but I didn’t fiddle with the affairs of men. And the only reason I said as much was because he’d come here following that rumor to begin with.”
After a long pause, the man in black seemed to relax. “Very good, Cherry, darling. I want you to get as much information as you can out of him, do you understand? Tuck it all away under those pretty scarlet tresses and I’ll call on you if I need you. Send Rupert in on your way out.”
“Yes, Master. Very good.”
Cherry returned to the Mission to search for Casey, but one of the other girls told her that he’d already gone to search for a room for the night. Feeling relieved, Cherry made her excuses and snuck out of the saloon as quietly as she could.
The moon was high and full in the clear night sky by the time Cherry made it to the oasis. She removed her nag’s bridle and set her loose to graze on the sparse grass.
Her mother had always said the oasis was full of magic. There was no natural reason for so much life to spring up around so little water. She said that the oasis would hide itself from evil people if lovers took shelter there, and that a love consummated in that garden would be a love eternal. When Cherry met Kale, he took her there and told her the same stories. He promised her that the Master would never find them there, and that their love would be eternal.
He promised her these things every time they stole away from their homes to meet under the stars and lay together beneath the lazy palm trees. The nag would graze and they would make love and the world, for a while, would cease to matter.
Casey woke to the sound of pounding on his door. With a groan, he sat up and slipped his feet into his boots. Not bothering to put on a shirt or even buckle his belt, he swung the door open. “Where’s the manners in this damn place?” he demanded.
Rupert stood in the door way, unabashed by his elder’s harsh words. “My Master sent me extend an invitation to his office. He says he wants to see you now.”
“It’s early, little man. Can’t your Master wait until after breakfast at least?”
“It won’t take long. Hurry up now, I’m going to get a thrashing if we’re late.”
Casey looked at the boy, no older than eight. His cheeks were ruddy with youth, fingernails bitten and dirty, clothes dusty from playing in the streets. He sighed, unwilling to be the cause of the boy’s punishment. “Alright, fine. Let me just put my shirt on. Wait there.”
The boy led Casey out of the hotel and up the road a few blocks, and straight up to the old jail house. “Your Mastery lives here?” Casey asked, wary.
“He does,” the boy confirmed. “And he’s not just my Master, he’s your’s now, too. Has been ever since you walked into his town, so remember that when you talk to him.”
The jail house was two stories tall, and Casey was led straight up to the second level.
“Master, Mister Till is here,” Rupert said through large double doors.
“Come in, come in.”
The office was small and intimate. A fireplace to the right adjacent to a little sitting area, a book shelf to the left, and a polished cherry wood desk at the end of the room in front of a huge window that overlooked Salvation’s main road and the Mission.
“Take a seat, Casey Till. We must talk.”
Casey obliged stiffly.
“I’ve heard a good deal about you, Mister Till. You see, I have ears all over my town. I also sent a wire out about you, and as it turns out you’re a wanted man much like myself. Banks, trains, cattle. Am I wrong?”
“You will address me as Master.”
Casey smirked. “Alright, Master. You’re absolutely correct on all counts. Now, if I may be so bold, I’d like to know what you’d like with me so I can go about my day.”
“Be as bold as you like,” the man in black said. “Boldness doesn’t offend me, only disrespect. But, getting down to business, I’d like to employ you.”
Casey damn near stuttered. “Employ me?”
“Yes. See, one of my men met his end recently of consumption so I’m short a gun. And, to be frank, I like to keep my friends close and my enemies closer. Really, Casey, you have no choice in the matter. Either work for me or I’ll have you killed. Gain my trust or my malice. It’s your choice.”
“Trust then, I suppose, since you’re being such a brute about it. I came here looking for work anyway so it’s of no consequence to me where I find it. At least this way I’ll be working in a field that’s already familiar.”
“Good,” the Master said with a smile. “You’ll start tonight by following a girl you met last night, Cherry Darling. I’ve been told she’s been having a tryst with a native and I’d like to know more. You may go now.”
Casey couldn’t leave fast enough. Rupert walked him down to the door, but Casey didn’t even bid the boy goodbye. Instead, he staggered into the nearest alley and vomited.