Friday, August 13, 2010

A Fistful of Donations

(The following story is an entry in Maidens of the Kaleidoscope's Weekly Writing Challenge. This week's challenge - write a Wild West themed story involving Touhou characters. As someone who spent many a Sunday morning watching spaghetti westerns, I felt compelled to take part. Enjoy!)

The desert sun beat down mercilessly on the stranger's shoulders as she rode lazily towards the town. Not that it bothered her much. For one, she was used to the powerful rays of the sun, but also, her detached sleeves kept her cool.

The stranger approached the town easily. She'd seen the prairies and she'd been over the sierras. She'd ridden from the plains to Mexico, and seen every ramshackle frontier town west of the Pecos. This town, from a distance, appeared to be no different. It was just your standard one-saloon village with a single main street separating two rows of clapboard two-story buildings facing each other, the desert all around, hazy purple mountains ringing the horizon. But as she rode slowly onto the main street, she noticed right away that things were not what they seemed from a distance.

Eyes peeked out from behind drawn curtains. Shutters slammed closed. People on the street hurried inside, pulling down shades. The stranger let a long sigh slide out from clenched teeth, giving her cigar a puff. Trouble. Again.

If it was trouble she had to face, she wasn't going to do it without a belt or two of whiskey in her, so she tied her horse at the post of the town saloon. She pushed open the swinging doors, stepping inside casually.

No one was in the saloon, save for the bartender - a tall woman with long white hair and a funny little blue hat. The bartender regarded the stranger cautiously.

"If you're lookin' for trouble, yer in the right place, stranger," said the bartender. "Cuz it's in stock."

The stranger noticed the bartender reaching under the counter. Undeterred, the stranger continued stepping casually to the bar. She spat the end of her nearly spent cigar, deftly striking a nearby spittoon with a satisfying ring.

"If I were lookin' for trouble you'd know by now, barkeep." The stranger's eyes were unflinching, never blinking as she sidled up to the counter. "Whiskey."

The bartender paused a moment. She had a wise look to her, as if she'd judged a thousand faces in her life and never been wrong. "Alright, stranger," she said at last, putting a bottle and a glass on the counter, pouring a shot. The stranger downed it immediately, and tapped the bar for another. The bartender obliged.

"Awful quiet 'round here," said the stranger. "Too quiet."

"Tends to get that way when strangers come to town," said the bartender. "Things ain't been too peaceful 'round these parts lately. You got a name, stranger?"

The stranger downed the shot. "Reckon I do. But you can call me Red," she said. "Red White. And who's pourin'?"

"Name's Keine. Used to run the schoolhouse 'round here, but folks these days is a-scared to even let their little 'uns outside."

Red White drew a cigar from her sleeve and clenched it between her teeth. Drawing a match from the other sleeve, she struck it across the bar, and took her time as she puffed, bringing the tip to a soft, red glow. "Ain't ya got a sheriff?"

Keine snorted derisively. "Yeah. If you call a coward with a badge a sheriff."

"Sounds like you get yerselfs a situation."

"You got that right. You ever hear of Marisa and Alice?"

Red knew the names all too well. Couple of low-life varmints who preyed on podunk little towns like this one. "I heard tell of 'em."

"Well, them's the situation we got here. Ain't nothing we can do 'til the Federales get here."

"Federales couldn't find their own backsides if you tied a bell on it." Red turned from the bar. "Guess yer outta luck."

She walked towards the swinging doors, and then stopped.

"Problem, Red?"

"Not for me it ain't," she said. "But I reckon ye might wanna close up shop."

It was then that the barkeep heard the distant but approaching galloping of horses. "Consarn it," she grumbled, heading out from behind the bar and behind a door, the bolt sliding into place.

Red pushed the swinging doors open, stepping out into the sun, puffing her cigar casually as she watched the approaching outlaws.

Marisa and Alice rode on wildly, hooting and hollering to announce their presence. Red shook her head as they approached. Amateurs. The kind that'd probably turn tail at the sign of any real threat. She stepped out into the street, meaning to check into the inn across the way. But something made her stop when she got to the middle of the street. Maybe she was bored, or maybe she was itching for a fight. Either way, she turned to face the two outlaws, and stood her ground.

Marisa and Alice galloped towards her but, seeing that she wasn't getting out of the way, pulled back the reins of their horses. They regarded Red steadily. Marisa looked much like she'd been depicted on her wanted poster - wide-brimmed black hat, sun-bleached hair, cocky smirk. But it'd been the first time Red ever laid eyes on Alice, a mean-faced kid with piercing blue eyes. Red hated her immediately.

"Somethin' wrong with yer legs there, stranger?" Marisa said. "Cuz it ain't like folks with any sense to stand in front of a chargin' mare. Least of all one I'm ridin'."

Red spat her cigar onto dry earth. Nervous townspeople peered through curtains in their windows. Red looked at Marisa. "I ain't never been one to be known for havin' a lot of sense."

"Maybe you ought not neglect it," Alice said.

"Wasn't talkin' to you, Fancypants." Red said, keeping her eyes on Marisa. Alice, furious, reached for her piece, but Marisa raised a hand to her. Alice relented.

"Mighty bold talk," Marisa said to Red. "Surprised that mouth ain't bought you a trip to the bone yard yet."

"Kinda surprised 'bout that myself at times. But I reckon y'ain't come to town to wax philosophical with me, have ye?"

"What I do on my time's my business, stranger," Marisa said, the meanness in her eyes showing now.

"Reckon you're right," said Red. "But it just so happens your time is my time, too. Seein's how you're sittin' there, flappin' that jaw at me."

Marisa grabbed for her six-shooter, but Red had already drawn both of hers, pointing her guns at Marisa and Alice. The three of them were motionless as the desert breeze stirred eddies of dust in the street. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked.

"Now then," Red continued. "Why'nt you two strays find another trash heap to dig in?"

Marisa and Alice looked at each other. Alice was fuming. Marisa turned back to Red, a sly smile on her face. "This ain't over, stranger. T'ain't over by a long shot. Heeyah!"

The two spurred their horses, turning round, and headed out of town.

Red lowered her guns as she watched them ride out of town. Now that was a damn fool thing to do, she thought to herself.

Townspeople began to slowly trickle out. When it finally set in what had happened, they cheered, rushing up to Red, shaking her hand. Red obliged them, still wondering what kind of revenge she'd invited on these people.

From out of the crowd stepped the sheriff. She tipped her hat to Red, and then extended her hand. "Name's Sheriff Sanae, stranger. I don't know what you said to those two, but I gotta thank ye for clearin' 'em off."

"T'weren't nothin'," Red said. The sheriff had the eyes of a coward, alright - shifty, nervous, clearly relieved that someone had done the dirty work for her.

"What're ye thankin' her for?," a small voice piped up. A small girl in a blue dress pushed her way through the crowd. "I coulda run 'em off one-handed. I'm the strongesta any of you yellow-bellied coyotes."

Red smiled at the kid. Now this one, she liked. "What's yer name, young'un?"

"Name's Cirno, and what's it to you?" The girl scowled.

"Yer a spry one, ain't ya?" Red smiled, ruffling her hair. Cirno pushed her hand away, blushing.

"What say I buy you a drink?," the sheriff said, throwing an arm around Red.

"I'd thank ye kindly," said Red. "But I best be movin' on."

The crowd stopped, their faces crestfallen. Sanae looked incredulous. "Movin' on? Waddaya mean, movin' on?" The sheriff started to look nervous. The crowd murmured with worry.

Red felt their eyes on her. "Prairie's a big place," Red explained. "and I ain't the sort what stays put for very long."

Cirno shook her head, disgusted, and walked away.

"Now, just hold on a second," Sanae said. "You just got here. Why don't ya-"

"Ah, don't waste yer breath, Sheriff," said another voice. The crowd turned and parted, revealing a girl with twin ponytails and a green hat. "Wouldn't make no sense for this'un to stick around for what those two buzzards is likely to bring back here, now, would it?"

Sanae laughed nervously. "Nitori, y'ain't exactly bein' hospitable now, is ya?"

Nitori locked her eyes on Red. Red met her gaze for a few seconds, then looked away. She couldn't deny what Nitori had said. Maybe Red was just as much a coward as the sheriff, or even more so - at least the sheriff wasn't going anywhere.

Nitori spat on the ground. "Manners is the leasta my concerns right now, Sheriff. You think Marisa and Alice are just gonna stay gone? After the little stunt this firecracker pulled, you better believe they'll be back with guns blazin'. And by then, she'll be long gone. She don't care what happens to the likes of us."

The crowd turned to Red. Some looked angry, some looked disappointed. Few looked hopeful. The sheriff hung her head. Red heaved a sigh. She knew it shouldn't matter what a bunch of prairie dogs thought of her. But she also knew that if she turned her back now, the eyes of these people would haunt her for the rest of her life. Damn my hair trigger, she cursed to herself.

"Now hang on a minute," said Red to Nitori. "You really think those two'll be comin' back?"

"You know just as well as I that those two'll be comin' back like flies to a cow patty," Nitori sneered.

Red smiled, sauntering up to Nitori as the crowd made way. Nitori held her ground, eyes unmoving. "Now what kinda way's that to talk 'bout yer town?," Red asked.

"Won't be worth more'n a cow patty after those two get through with us."

Red stopped, and scratched her head. She turned back to the sheriff, who'd been following Red with hopeful eyes. Red looked around the crowd. "But this is your home. And there's more of you than them. Ain't ye never thought to ambush 'em?"

"Yeah, right." Nitori said. "With what? Maybe y'ain't heard, but Marisa and Alice're the fastest draws and sharpest shooters this side of the Rio Grande, and we never had no more'n a handful of rusty six-irons between us to start with. We didn't stand a chance. We ain't got no guns no more. They took 'em all. T'ain't got no money in the bank left to buy more if we wanted, neither. Hell, we only got enough provisions what to last us another few weeks at the most. Guess ye could say we're in a tight spot. Now then," Nitori crossed her arms. "You got any bright ideas, stranger?"

Red drew a cigar from her sleeve, clenching it between her teeth. Drawing a match from the other sleeve, she struck it across the side of her boot before lighting it, carefully, savoring the smoke. "Correction: Marisa and Alice were the fastest draws and sharpest shooters this side of the Rio Grande." She looked around her, scanning the buildings of the town. The blacksmith's caught her eye. She turned to Nitori.

"You as good with your hands as you is with your bark?" Red asked her.

Nitori grinned. "I might be. Watcha have in mind, stranger?"

Red squinted in the late afternoon sun as she eyed up the windows of the town. "'Bout how much iron ye got left in yon smithy?"

"T'ain't got much, maybe enough for a few score horseshoes."

Red nodded. "That'll do. That'll do quite nicely. But we need to get started now."

Red set to work in the smithy, melting down and shaping the iron, hammering away. At the other end of the shop, Nitori worked on the stack of planks she pulled up from the floor of the general store - tracing the shape she'd designed over them, sawing the shapes out, sanding them down, shaping them. Then the iron and wood pieces were assembled together. It took them all night, and by dawn they were both worn out, but surveying their handiwork at last, they couldn't help but feel satisfied: thirty reasonable facsimiles of black-powder rifles. Really no more than slender iron cylinders nailed to wooden stocks. Making actual guns was out of the question - time was of the essence, and time (not to mention ammunition and powder) was something they didn't have. They had to pin their hopes on the design, and their ability to bluff.

"Reckon they'll fall for it?," Nitori asked, scratching her head.

"From far enough away they'll look real enough," Red said, wiping the sweat from her brow. "But I s'pose we'll find out just how good an imitation they is once they get here, won't we?"

Quickly, Nitori and Red roused the residents of the town, explaining the plan. Most people balked but, having no other real options, eventually relented.

Red spent the day with her feet up at the saloon, her eyes closed. Keine polished glasses while Cirno play-acted being in a shoot-out.

"Pyer-pyer!" Cirno said, pointing her fingers like guns at her invisible enemy as she ducked behind chairs. "Take that, rapscallion!"

Keine ignored the noise as long as she could, but eventually had enough. Reaching under the counter, she took out a short club. "Consarn it, Cirno," she hissed in a loud whisper. "Red's tryin' to catch some shut-eye! Why'n't you scamper off and play some place else?"

"The kid ain't botherin' me as much as that rotgut you call whiskey," Red mumbled, her eyes still closed. "Leave the lil rustler alone."

Cirno stuck her tongue out at Keine, and continued her invisible shoot out. Keine sighed, and furtively added more water to the whiskey.

After a while, Red decided sleep wasn't going to happen. There was too much on her mind. Rubbing her eyes, Red sat up slowly, yawned and stretched. "I do believe I'm gettin' the feelin' we may've been forgotten by our illustrious guests." She smirked. "Perhaps they're bigger cowards than I thought."

Nitori came rushing in. "Rise and shine, prairie blossom. Scout on the roof's spotted your two new friends a-comin'. And they brought company."

Red sighed as she rose to her feet. "Now ain't that a damn shame. I ain't even had my coffee yet."

Stepping out into the noon sunlight, Red eyed up the windows as she stepped into the street. She hoped there were people behind those curtains and shutters, waiting and ready for the signal. If they changed their minds, she'd know soon enough.

Stepping to the middle of the road, Red stood her ground as seven riders galloped into town. She recognized Marisa and Alice immediately, but didn't recognize the other riders.

They slowed to a trot and then stopped just in front of her. Getting a better look at the other riders, she saw they all looked a lot like Alice in some way, but were all a little smaller, or younger, than she. Red nodded. Vermin tend to have big litters.

Marisa spat onto the dusty ground. "See you haven't grown yerself any sense since yesterday. Yer still standin' in front of chargin' horses. And yer still in town."

Red shrugged. "What can I say? The place grew on me. I see Fancypants brought the family."

Alice glared at Red. "I'm gonna enjoy draggin' yer carcass behind my horse."

"Well now," said Red. "That's mighty presumptuous of ye, ain't it?"

Red drew a cigar from her sleeve. Then she drew a match from her other sleeve.

"Those things'll kill ya, you know," said Marisa.

"You only live once," Red said, and struck the match across the side of her boot. "But I was plannin' on livin' past the afternoon."

Red lit her cigar, taking a few puffs, and then threw her match to the ground. The signal.

At once, the shutters on the windows on the second floor of four buildings - two on each side - were thrown open. In them stood people with their rifles. Doors opened on the lower floors of other buildings - both behind Red and behind Marisa and Alice's posse - with more people holding rifles stepping out of them. They looked surprisingly brave, Red noted, impressed.

Marisa and Alice looked around them nervously. The rest of the posse looked equally uncertain. Marisa looked at Red sideways.

"And just where did a heap of rifles come from, all a sudden?" she asked.

"Funny thing 'bout that," Red said, sending a long plume of smoke from her cigar into the midday sky. "Federales came by not too long after you cleared out with yer tail between yer legs. Seems they're too busy mopping up after scum like you, but they were more'n happy to drop off a a few dozen single-bore .50 caliber Army-issue rifles with precision-tuned sights, a couple kegs of powder, and a big ol' crate of shot. Federales ain't exactly as useless as I reckoned, it seemed."

Alice looked from Marisa to Red nervously, but Marisa kept her gaze steady on Red.

"That is a funny thing." Marisa said.

"Tis, ain't it?"

The posse stood motionless. The townspeople began to shift on their feet, barely perceptibly.

Marisa stroked her chin. "Now, way I reckon, the chances of a wagon train comin' through here right after we left - a wagon train that just happened to have all the lead y'all might be needin' - that's a might slim chance indeed."

"Ye got that right. It's a one-in-a-million hand to get dealt. But then again, Lady Luck's always been awful sweet to me. So lemme ask you-" Red took another long draw on her cigar. "You callin' me, or are ya foldin'?"

Red could see the sweat beading on Alice's brow. Red's own hands, although in a relaxed pose, were wound tight as a rattlesnake, ready to strike at her guns, even if they'd end up being the last shots she ever fired.

Marisa sighed. Her eyes didn't blink. A dust devil blew lazily across the road.

"Stranger," Marisa said at last, gritting her teeth. "You best pray. You best pray to God, if he's listenin', or to the devil, if he'll have ye, that you and me never cross paths again. You might not even see me comin'. But I'll be watchin'. And waitin'. And the next thing you'll ever hear from me is the sounda my lead hittin' that thick skull of yers."

Red smiled. "Consider it noted."

Without another word, Marisa spurred her horse, giving Red one last long look, before turning around, the posse following, and galloping out of town. Red, and the townspeople, watched as the dust from the posse spilled slowly out across the desert to the distant, lonely mountains.

A hearty roar rose up from the townspeople. Hats were thrown in the air as they rushed in around Red, slapping her on the back and shaking her hand, all jabbering their thanks to her at once. Keine pushed her way through the crowd.

"Stranger, consider your tab settled." She smiled.

"I wasn't plannin' on payin' anyhow." Red smirked.

Sanae pushed past Keine, beaming. "What can I say? I am humbled. How'd you like to be deputy?"

"Deputy, hell!" someone shouted. "Make 'er sheriff!" This was followed by raucous laughter. Sanae smiled sheepishly.

Red turned to her right, seeing Nitori standing in the crowd, arms across her chest, shaking her head.

"Yer one loco critter, ya know that?" Nitori smiled. "Just what were you fixin' to do if Marisa called yer bluff?"

Red scratched her head. "Well, now, I hadn't really thought that far ahead." Then she felt someone tugging on her sleeve, behind her. She turned, seeing Cirno. Red smiled, and ruffled her hair. "Well, now, lil buckaroo, what's-"

"Yer stayin', right?" Cirno asked anxiously, her eyes pleading.

The crowd fell silent. Red sighed, and crouched down, eye level with Cirno. She put her hands on Cirno's shoulders.

"I can't." The crowd groaned with disbelief. Red stood, and held up a hand. The crowd quieted down. "I can't stay. I don't stay anywheres. That just ain't the way the Creator made me. 'Sides which, y'all don't need me no more. I ain't gave ye nothin' y'all never had anyways."

Red walked to her horse, untying it from the post in front of the saloon, and saddled up. Cirno rushed up to her.

"Take me with you!" Cirno pleaded. "I'm the roughest, toughest, six-shooterin' partner you'll ever have."

"Then you'd better stick around and take care of the town for me, ya hear?" Red tried to ignore the tears welling up in Cirno's eyes. "You be big and brave, for me, alright? Ya promise?"

Cirno bit her bottom lip, but soon nodded, wordlessly.

"Alright then. Adios, little buckaroo." Red spurred her horse, and galloped out of town as the town watched.

Sanae turned to Keine. "Who was that mysterious stranger, anyway?"

Keine smiled as she watched Red's silhouette riding off towards the unknown. "It don't matter no how."

(Image source: Pixiv)