The serving wench hadn’t brought his whisky. He turned to go back inside when the sound of drunken singing, clear and hollow, echoed out of the night. Without thinking, Knight placed his right hand on the butt of his revolver and slowly turned.
The singing drew closer.
When logs about the house are stack’d,
And next year’s hose is knit,
And tales are told and jokes are crack’d,
And faggots blaze and spit;
Death sits down in the ingle-nook,
Sits down and doth not speak:
But he puts his arm round the maid that’s warm,
And she tingles in the cheek.
Death is master of lord and clown;
Shovel the clay in, tread it down.
Death is master of lord and clown,
CLOSE THE COFFIN, HAMMER IT DOWN!
The refrain repeated as the smell of rye, stale and rotten, floated from the darkness. The form materialized, leading a donkey and cart. As the shadow drew closer, light streaming from the windows illuminated a fat, bloated face covered with stubble.
“Good evening to you, kind sir!” The portly man bellowed with a slight Irish brogue. He removed his top hat and bowed deeply, revealing a few thin strands of hair over a bald pate.
“Mr. Nesbitt Carl at your service.” Knight nodded but kept a hand close to his revolver.
“If I may be so bold, you must be the railroad agent Amado spoke of, sent here by the General himself to put this fair village back in order. Mr. Knight, I presume?” He thrust forward a meaty hand.
“The same.” Knight nodded, but didn’t accept Nesbitt’s hand.
Nesbitt withdrew his hand and smiled. “I see, a man of few words; a man of action and justice.” He lifted his finger and waved it vigorously. “I salute you, Mr. Knight. The General is most serious and must be determined in his resolutions to send a man such as yourself. I, too, am a man of action and recognize a kindred spirit. Men like us are driving the American Empire to the Pacific and taming the red savage. I, for my part, soothe and give comfort to tired working men with my assortment of tonics and spirits.” He motioned to the cart pulled by a dead-eyed donkey.
Knight first took the crates for coffins, but a second look revealed whisky crates. The man he took for an undertaker was nothing more than a carpetbagger, probably driven west when the spoils of war dried up. He sensed something very wrong in this village, something beyond the influence a common rapscallion like Nesbitt Carl could bring.
Knight held scavengers like Nesbitt Carl in disdain, but such cowardly creatures had their uses. He would deal with Nesbitt later, but for now he would keep an eye on him.
“I take it, Mr. Carl, you have business here with Señor Lucero?”
“I come this way every few months. He has a good eye for fine liquor and his patrons expect only the best. I must ensure my customers have enough inventory to last them through the brutal territorial winter. In fact...!” Nesbitt’s eyes grew wide as a smile sprung to his face. He bounced to the back of the cart to retrieve a fresh bottle of whisky.
“As a distinguished representative of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, please accept this complimentary bottle of my finest wares. It’s Kentucky sour mash, only the highest quality. I reserve this for my white customers, being too strong for the weak constitutions of the red race. Only a few drinks and they become delirious.” Nesbitt leaned in and tapped his head. “Tenderizes the savage brain, you know. Amado tells me it’s fit for the tables of the Spanish court. Please take it with my best regards, Mr. Knight.”
“Much obliged,” he said and took the bottle of amber fluid. “You said you come this way every few months. What other towns do you frequent throughout the territory?”
Nesbitt’s eyes darted left and right. “Well, as a businessman I must keep a wide variety of customers stocked. If I tarry too long my competitors, numerous and not known as scrupulous men, will swoop in and prey upon my clientele. This is why I am a man who moves...”
The front door opened, spilling light and noise onto the porch. Isobella emerged holding a shot glass and a half-full bottle and placed them on the rail next to Knight.
“I am sorry, but we are running low...Señor Carl! The cellar is almost empty; take your wares around to the kitchen. Miguel will see to your cart and donkey.”
“Sweet Isobella, I have a better idea. YOU take my cart and ass to the back. This is Amado’s entire order. I will join the patrons in the saloon presently. Mr. Knight, I must see to my customers. Perhaps you will join me in the inn for a drink and a conversation?”
“It would be a pleasure.” He began to roll another cigarette. “I’m going to take in the night air for a spell longer, then I will be in directly.”
“As you wish,” Nesbitt handed the reins to a reluctant Isobella, lifted a few bottles of whisky from one of his cases, and entered the inn. Muttering curses under her breath, the girl led the donkey and cart around the corner. Knight heard a few men cheer as the vendor entered the room. Laughter penetrated the walls and carried across into the night. Knight found himself alone again on the porch, pondering the events of the evening.