The horse was a good, strong runner, unafraid of going off the beaten track. They made fantastic time, stopping just once to rest in the dead of night.
The stranger thanked his lucky stars the whole night through for the company and help of such a fine animal. He had no idea where they were headed, and didn't much care, so long as it was away from that sheriff and his suspicions, and that angry old man and his frightened wife. Any place had to be better.
They arrived at the mouth of a tiny town, which was little more than a ramshackle street, before sun-up, and headed for the one place that smelled like food and looked like public domain: a little lean-to shed with a shaky hand-painted sign which read BlackSmith. The place was shrouded in shadow, but the stranger thought he could make out a figure hunkered down in one corner, away from the glowing embers near the gate that separated the property from the street. The stranger cleared his throat and plastered a small smile on his face. "Good morning, smithy."
A large, gnarled looking old man got to his feet and glared hard at the stranger. "T'ain't mornin' yet, boy. Come back after I open up shop."
Before he could stop himself, the stranger snapped, "I don't exactly need a new shoe, smithy." The horse snuffled and shifted uneasily underneath him, and he forced himself to relax. "I just wanted to ask you a question."
"Told ya. Ain't open."
The stranger could smell metal heating up, hot and fierce, but he could also smell bacon. As much as it grated his pride to push, the need for sustenance overrode the need to hold his head up high after being twice rebuffed. "If I come back later, do you think you'd be interested in hiring? Just for a couple hours. Maybe in exchange for some of that bacon?"
"Ain't hiring nobody that don't listen."
"Alright," the stranger said through gritted teeth. He angled the horse away from the blacksmith's door, and headed to the other end of the town. He found a saloon, but the sun wasn't up yet, so he wasn't surprised to find the doors still latched. He tied his horse to the water trough, and strolled casually through the town, taking it all in.
There wasn't much to the place.
One lone youngster, about ten feet tall but just barely growing in his whiskers, came out of a shack in the middle of town, with a shiny star pinned to his chest. His shaggy yellow hair needed a trim, badly, and he needed to stick that hat of his on his head instead of carrying it around in his hand before his nose peeled right off. But he was a good looking fella, and it made the stranger nostalgic for... something.
But then the young lawman fixed his eye on the staring stranger, and the unnameable feeling that smacked of want and need was gone. All the stranger wanted and needed at that moment was to get a hot meal in himself, some grain for his horse, and to get the hell on with finding a new life. He fetched his horse and led it back to the blacksmith.
"Say, friend, how far is it to the next town?"
The blacksmith didn't look too pleased to be bothered again. "Listen here, cowpoke. I ain't open and that's-"
"There some problem here, George?" The young lawman didn't look so babyfaced young, standing up close and personal like he was.
"This here cowpoke wants a job. Says he wants to get underfoot for a piece of bacon. Like a damn barnyard cat."
Heat flushed the stranger's face. Then his stomach rumbled. The lawman chuckled, and the babyfaced demeanor was back. "Been a while since you've eaten, huh?"
"A day or so. Three days before that."
"Cut him a break, George. Let him have a piece of meat."
"You want to take on a charity case? You hire him, Joel, and give him the scraps of your breakfast!"
"No thanks!" The lawman turned to the stranger. "You'd better move on, friend."
"Can you tell me where the nearest town is?"
The lawman's smile was indulgent, like the smile a man gave a petulant child. "Friend, this road runs two ways, and I guarantee, you're bound to hit some kind of civilization in either direction. The trick is to get going."
The stranger stared at the young lawman in disbelief. He had half a mind to argue again, but the lawman's smile soon turned cold and hard, and his hand began to move slowly, but obviously, to his hip. The stranger wasn't armed, and even if he was, the last thing he wanted was trouble, especially trouble with a lawman. Embarrassed and defeated, he turned away from the unwelcoming men and began to trudge towards his horse.
Before he could get more than two steps away, the stranger heard the blacksmith growl, "Oh, I'm gonna regret this." A little louder, the grumpy old man asked, "You got any cash on you, boy?"
The stranger stopped, and swallowed the sharp retort that first popped into his head. "No, sir," he said, meek as he could manage.
The blacksmith looked the stranger up and down. "Hmph. You look like you you don't weigh more than ninety pounds soakin' wet. You think you can heft, say, a sack of horse feed, or a full tub of water?"
The stranger had no idea if he could lift more than his hands right at the moment - truth was, he was feeling faint. He was thirsty and hungry and he could use a few minutes with his eyes shut. But he wasn't going to get anything to slake his thirst or hunger if he didn't get his hands on a few coins. "I'm stronger than I look," he said, and hoped like hell he didn't fall over on his face the moment he tried to earn his keep.
The blacksmith grunted again, before finally saying, "Well, I got bad knees, and I been puttin' off a lot of haulin'. So you stay here and help me out today, and I'll give you a day's wages."
The stranger looked back at the lawman, who was no longer smiling indulgently, and grew nervous. He didn't want to stick around a town where he wasn't wanted, particularly by the law. But maybe he'd be able to get enough to feed his horse and himself. He turned to the blacksmith and gestured at the lawman. "He gonna be okay with that?"
The blacksmith looked at the stranger like he was a three headed dunce, "Are you hungry or not?"
"Yes sir, but I don't want no trouble."
"Joel," the blacksmith growled. "He don't want no trouble."
The lawman waved his hands dismissively. "It's your headache, George. Do what you want!"
What George wanted to do was boss somebody else around, and to make that somebody else do some very heavy lifting. The stranger didn't complain, but before the day was over he thought he might be sick from the pain in his gut. He pushed through, though, and didn't get sick, or even have to sit down. And at sundown, the smithy made good on his word. "Here you go. Fifteen dollars. Got a place to stay, boy?"
"Don't need one." The stranger pocketed the money, but his mind was already miles away. He was already scouting escape routes, looking for the best land to cut through, hoping for another small town to hide in for the day. "I can sleep on my horse."
"That's ridiculous. I got a bedroll right here. You could earn that kind of money every week, boy, and three square meals a day. And you got big, strong hands. You could be running this place in a few years..."
Or Deputy Joel can come over here with a wanted poster in a few days... The stranger tipped his hat. "Thanks for the work, smithy, I'm much obliged. Hope you can find someone to help you regular." He hurried away from the blacksmith as quick as his feet would carry him. He begged the clerk at the general store to let him in before locking up for the night, bought a couple apples and some more jerky, and then mounted up and left that no-horse town as fast as he possibly could.
Once he was out of sight of the little town, and off the beaten track again, the stranger napped in the saddle while the horse took its time, happy to explore the unknown. The nap and exploration didn't last long though - the sounds of merriment woke the stranger and led him to a wagon train camp. There were folks milling about, eating some kind of gamey smelling meat and drinking who knew what, and they were laughing and singing and cavorting like they were having a grand old time. Like they weren't making the most treacherous journey of their lives.
In the middle of it all sat a group of men who looked like they were playing cards. The stranger could see money on the table. He thought about cards, about the kinds of tricks men were wont to play when there was money on the table, and he thought, what the hell, why not?
The folks on the train welcomed him with open arms and fed him something that tasted exotic and divine, likely made by the immigrant women he could hardly understand, but who made their affections clear enough. He made the circuit, quietly charming the young women while their mothers weren't looking, and inched his way towards the card game.
Poker. Easy. Chancy, too. But he might, just might, be able to double his earnings before the sun came up.
He soon found that the men had been drinking too much and weren't really much at card playing. His luck warbled and wavered, but it never left him. He left the wagon train, though, while most of the morose card players were too drunk and sad about their losses to try to steal his winnings back.
The good news was he wouldn't have to stop and beg for work again for quite a spell. The bad news was he couldn't really afford to sleep in the saddle again, not until he put some real good distance between himself and the wagon train, and the angry blacksmith with the suspicious young deputy, and the family he'd taken the spotted horse from, and the Wards, and whatever the hell it was what landed him in the Wards' barn in the first place.