The sun rises slowly into a cloudless sky above the town, which has lost some of its pallor in the three weeks since the events of The Heat and the Meat. While the drought was undoubtedly hard, causing the deaths of five citizens through nervous exhaustion and malnutrition, the rains eventually returned to California. The water table has recovered, the soil is beginning to recover, and a sense of normality has returned to the streets.
A large man with a prodigious beard by the name of Orius Cain stands by the well, taking in the day. He samples the water and promptly spits it out onto the dirt. Tastes like someone died in it, he mutters.
His attention is soon drawn by a murmur at the other end of the street that quickly grows through hubbub in to full-blown hullabaloo. Townsfolk swarm from the buildings toward a group of dusty, tired looking men on horseback . Their shouts and hollers soon rouse Samuel Petty from his drunken slumber in the flophouse; he pulls on his boots and goes to investigate.
The men who rode into town, it transpires, are the same ones who were given up for dead weeks past after failing to return from their hunting expedition. Atticus Huxtable is at its head, leading a very sickly looking Emmett Haskin. The others, while clearly tired, seem more or less well. Haskin is quickly ushered into the Barber’s for urgent medical attention, after which Huxtable walks to the well to slake his thirst.
While drawing up water, Huxtable introduces himself to Orius Cane and Sam Petty, never having met the men before. His relief at having returned to civilisation – and a water source – quickly evaporates in the morning sun as Roy Goodwin joins the conversation. Goodwin insists the hunting party has been gone for three weeks and were presumed dead, while Huxtable’s recollections tell a very different story.
The party, says Huxtable, has only been gone two days. The buffalo, as they had guessed before setting out, were about a day’s ride from town. Despite a dangerous stampede and a vicious attack by some prairie ticks, they managed to bring down three buffalo in all. The animals were butchered for their meat, which was hastily air dried and salted for transport. The men headed back toward town, spent an uneventful night camping on the trail, then completed their journey the following afternoon. The effects of heat stroke and dehydration undoubtedly took their toll on poor Mr Haskin, but all told the journey took only two days – no more, no less.
Misters Cane and Petty step in at this point; both men have been in town for at least two weeks now, yet they have never seen Atticus Huxtable before in their lives. Huxtable concedes that they have never met before, yet is adamant he was gone only two days.
Unfortunately, Huxtable has no time to investigate further; he has a job to do. On the way back into town, Mr Haskin asked Atticus to take care of the saloon for him until he returned to health, and Atticus Huxtable is not a man to break a promise. The saloon, however, is firmly boarded up. Saloon employee Jesse Norton was left in charge while Haskin went away on the hunting expedition, but a fight broke out two nights in and the pressure turned out to be too much for the young barman. He boarded the place up tight, went home and hasn’t reopened it since.
Orius, Sam and Atticus head out to Jesse’s house and convince him to open up the saloon again. Jesse agrees on the condition he doesn’t have to speak to anyone else from Hoyle’s Hotel and Casino. Alicia Moreau, it seems, has been very keen to determine what happens to a building once its owner and proprietor disappears and is given up for dead. She had just convinced Cillian Obannan to organise and preside over a public auction of the building (thereby rendering him unable to bet on the property or sponsor any other interested builder), and it looked as though the Saloon was practically hers. Now Haskin is back, of course, things are different.
As the men go to open up the saloon again, they quickly notice they are being watched by a number of people doing their best to appear nonchalant. Without breaking his stride Orius seizes one of these toughs, drags him into an alleyway and slams him against the side of a building. A couple of punches to the gut soon put the man in a talking mood – the men are of course employed by Alicia Moreau, who has taken a very keen interest in these unexpected signs of life at Haskin’s saloon. The hunting party was only gone for three weeks, but it seems this was ample time for Moreau to get used to having the monopoly on the entertainment racket in town.
With Orius’ interviewee sent packing, the boards are prised from the saloon door, the tables are righted, and Haskin’s opens for business again. On account of his successful interview of a few minutes previous, Orius is hired to work security for the saloon. People slowly begin to trickle back in, a messenger is sent to offer Polly her old job back, and Orius and Sam help themselves to a bottle of whisky while Huxtable goes to check on Haskin.
For a time, all seems well at Haskin’s saloon, until a group of toughs in the employ of the casino come in and occupy a table not far from the door. Orius, playing the diplomat card, walks over, turns a chair backward, straddles it and plunges his bowie knife into the tabletop. He asks the men why they’re drinking at the saloon and not at the casino. A man by the name of Steven Jenks just about keeps things civil as he tells Cane casino employees are not permitted to drink there, and that they have already paid for their bottle of whisky up front. While the tension doesn’t subside, Orius at least consents to let the men keep drinking.
Unfortunately, the uneasy peace doesn’t last. The more the men drink, the more abrasive they get; fairly soon they start making unkind remarks about the saloon’s patrons and driving them away. Atticus Huxtable heads over and informs the toughs that they are welcome to drink in the saloon, but not to harass the customers. Jenks flat out denies harassing anybody and asks precisely what Huxtable intends to do about it.
Atticus Huxtable draws his gun, and a sudden hush falls on the saloon. The air is suddenly still, silent and so thick with tension you could cut it with a knife. Instead, it is torn violently by a sudden, deafening cacophony of noise. In an eruption of soil, steam and wooden splinters, Orius Cane disappears into the ground. The whole floor of the saloon shakes as the sound reverberates off the walls, ending in an ear-splitting crescendo as Cane bursts up from the floor on the other side of the table. He draws his knife, seizes one of the men and puts the edge of the blade against his throat. “This doesn’t have to be this way”, he growls.
Unfortunately poor, stupid Steven Jenks has a different idea. As the strange mechanical contraption now discarded at Orius’ feet roared into life, Atticus’ attention briefly wavered from the man he held at gunpoint. Seizing the opportunity, Jenks leaps to his feet and smashes a fist into Huxtable’s jaw. Atticus’ head is spun to the right. It snaps straight back, and the saloon’s newest proprietor narrows his eyes. He pulls the trigger and shoots Steven Jenks through the heart.
The light is gone from Jenks’ eyes before he even hits the floor, and the saloon is empty of customers not two moments later. The men from the casino drag the corpse out with them as they flee the scene, leaving a trail of blood that begins to sink into the floorboards. Huxtable’s nostrils flare, pulling in the familiar smell of blood and cordite. He sighs, and the cleanup operation begins. Orius Cane carves the name of Steven Jenks into the table, which he claims for his own purposes as long as he’s working at Haskin’s.
The blood has largely been cleaned up (which is more than can be said for the floorboards) by the time Mr Foley walks in to the saloon. He apologises profusely for the conduct of the casino employees, tells Huxtable he was absolutely right to shoot Steven Jenks dead, and emphasises the men were not acting as representatives of Hoyle’s hotel and casino at the time of the incident. He, on the other hand, is. Inquiring on Ms Moreau’s behalf, he asks if Haskin might be persuaded to sell his saloon and retire, considering his fragile condition. Huxtable refuses to consider it until he has spoken to Haskin himself. Foley says that he will report this information back to Ms Moreau, but warns that disappointing her would be unwise.
After Foley departs, Orius and Huxtable decide to take their new working relationship on a field trip to the casino. Petty, raising his head from the bar, points out that they are both known to be working at the saloon and, as such, might not have the easiest time getting in. Eventually they resolve to all go over together, since the saloon is unlikely to be getting any more business today anyway.
While Orius and Atticus ready themselves to leave, Petty wanders over to Rufus Mattox’s place of business and make sure nobody from the casino is trying to worsen his already serious condition. After being asked to deposit his weapons in a pail at the door (he has none), Samuel is admitted to see Haskin. While the saloon owner can’t be said to be in a good way, he is at least sitting up and drinking water. Having been apprised of the situation, he instructs Samuel to tell Huxtable not to sell up. Samuel returns to the saloon and conveys the message, before all three leave Jesse Norton in charge head up the street to the casino.
Likely under close instruction by Mr Foley or Ms Moreau, the toughs at the door of the casino allow all three men to enter. Huxtable and Petty go to the bar, while Crane finds himself a spot at a card table. From there, he begins to make plans for a bit of snooping around the place. He spots a door, making note of it before returning his attention to the game at hand.
Mr Foley, composed as ever despite his recent ordeal, insinuates his way across the room in order to welcome Atticus to Hoyle’s. Despite some protestations from Mr Foley, Atticus presses successfully for an audience with Ms Moreau in order to discuss her attempts to acquire the saloon. Mr Foley informs Atticus that the croupier staff on the floor are soon to be relieved, at which point there will be an opportunity for them to converse for a few minutes before the next shift begins.
Meanwhile, back at the card table, things aren’t going so well for Orius, whose suspicions (or maybe it’s the whisky) have him on edge. Suddenly convinced the croupier is cheating by way of a false layer of baize, he plunges his knife into a tabletop for the second time that day to begin carving the name Steven Jenks. Luckily, Huxtable rushes over at this point and manages to clam the big man, who sheathes his knife. Mr Foley walks over to inform Atticus that Ms Moreau will see him now. He is followed by two men carrying a fresh roll of baize, who immediately set about repairing the table. Orius decides to take in some fresh air outside and clear his head.
Ms Moreau sits calmly behind an intricately carved wooden desk. She retains her composure throughout her conversation with Mr Huxtable, denying that the men in the saloon were acting under her authority. When quizzed about her interest in the Saloon, she states merely that she offers a service to the town – and a superior one to Mr Haskin’s offering, at that. She wishes to own the saloon, she claims, because the town deserves the best and, of course, because she worries about the health of Mr Haskin. The conversation is civil, if terse, and Atticus leaves having informed her that Mr Haskin has no intention of selling up.
Meanwhile, in the street outside, Orius again fires up the infernal contraption that made such a mess of the floor at Haskin’s. Slipping into an alley and driving himself down into the ground, he re-emerges behind the door he noticed earlier, in a cramped stockroom containing crates of whisky, rails of identical croupier waistcoats and a tray of individual playing cards. Pocketing the cards along with one of the waistcoats, Orius then sets to soaking a waistcoat with a bottle of whisky from one of the crates. He pauses, ready to torch the building, before thinking better of it and returning to the street by way of the newly dug tunnel.
Atticus descends the stairs and rejoins Petty, who has been conversing with the bar staff in search of information and free whisky. Neither seems especially forthcoming, so he takes his leave along with Mr Huxtable. The three men return to the saloon for a nightcap before resolving to reconvene at ten o’clock the following morning. Orius returns to his standard issue railway surveyor’s tent just outside of town, Atticus retires to the spare bedroom upstairs and Sam Petty wrestles a bottle of whisky from Jesse’s hands, drinking until he passes out.
Thanks to Jesse Norton’s custodial neglicence, Orius is able to push open the unlocked saloon door the following morning just as Atticus begins to descend the stairs into the main bar. The men are surprised to see that some jester has filled the bar with tumbleweeds in the night (most likely some clever joke about their lack of customers). Sam Petty wakes up just in time to help out with the cleanup effort, punting one of the tumbleweeds through the open door.
As Orius draws back a leg to do the same, however, the tumbleweed lashes out at him instead, drawing a thin line of blood from an arm lined with jagged thorns. All around the men, the tumbleweeds stir into action and start to coalesce on the surprised bar staff (and resident barfly).
Atticus Huxtable manages to put his gun to use and get rid of one or two tumblebleeds, but they are swift and numerous. Nobody manages to escape unharmed, and fairly soon blood begins to pool on the saloon floor for the second day running. This, in fact, turns out to be their salvation for, while dangerous, tumblebleeds are not smart. Drawn to the blood on the floor, the vampiric creatures begin to lap at the boards, wrestling one another out of the way to get at the fresh blood. Orius Crane seizes a bottle of whisky from behind the bar, inserts the muzzle of a lemar grapeshot pistol into the neck and pulls the trigger. All but one of the tumblebleeds burst into flame; the last is swiftly dispatched by gunfire and now there is only a growing inferno to deal with, as opposed to the tumblebleeds. Atticus begins to seriously question the validity of his staffing choices.
Through quick thinking and quicker emptying of the spitoons lining the bar, the blaze is extinguished with only moderate damage to the already traumatised saloon floor. Through the smoke, the steam and the acrid smell of burnt tobacco juice, a figure appears. Ms Moreau stands in the middle of what was, until yesterday, a somewhat respectable drinking establishment.
Ms Moreau has come, it turns out, to say that she no longer has any interest in acquiring the saloon. Furthermore, she has been doing some soul searching of late and has come to the realisation that Mr Haskin is right. This town does need order; just not in the way Mr Haskin thinks. While he would make “Wild” Anne Munny sheriff, she thinks it takes more than a tin star pinned to a lady with a big mouth to lend order to a lawless town. What this town needs is structure. It needs a government. It needs a mayor.
Ms Moreau has already had private audiences with Misters Goodwin and Obannan, both of whom have backed her proposal for mayoral elections. While she expects Obannan will himself become a candidate, she is officially announcing her candidacy for mayor.
There will be an election.