Deke Dambacher stared morosely into his bourbon. Technically, it wasn’t drinking alone if other people were in the room. Even if none of them happened to be interested in making conversation, or eye contact. There were a lot of technically-s around these days. Technically, Cerro Muerte was still a silver mine, even if it didn’t have any silver. Technically, Deke was a landowner, even if that land was worthless. Technically, Rosin’s Hollow was still a town, even if everyone who could afford to had left.
Deke wasn’t completely sure that that last one was true, even technically. The town had sprung up around the mine, and withered like a dried-up apple once the mine was played out. Most of the remaining population was in Miz Blaumer’s boarding house with him right now, drinking. The proper saloon had gotten burnt up during a drunken fight last year, and it was easier to just move operations here than it was to get the lumber in to do repairs. The half-burnt shell of the building still stood just down the street, a smoke-blackened ruin presaging the fall of the rest of the town.
Ten miles of treacherous mountain road separated Rosin’s Hollow from the outside world, winding its way a mile down the slopes of Cerro Muerte before reaching the safer plains below. It was a wonder that old Fiddler had ever made it up high enough to found the mine in the first place. But the love of precious metals did strange things to men, and if the silver called for you to traipse up an inhospitable mountain, then up the mountain you went.
Deke turned his glass around in his hands and thought about his luck. He’d come into the Hollow later than most, after the mine had already stopped producing and the smart ones had cut and run. The town still boasted a few dozen residents at that point, all of them desperate to get out. Deke had bought mining claims off of a few of them for pennies, barely enough to afford to get out of town and try again elsewhere. But “barely enough” was still enough, and so they took his money, cursed him for a thief, privately called him a sucker and disappeared down the mountain.
Once even the desperate ones were gone, the ones who were left were the broken and the lost. Fewer than ten all told, occupying a town so small you could just about spit across it. Each had come here for their own reasons, but they all stayed for the same one: they had nowhere else to go. The world had given up on them, and now they were just waiting out their time in the desert sun, withering away like the town itself.
Rosin’s Hollow had no hope left in it. Deke aimed to change that, though.
He finished his bourbon and thought about leaving. “Home” for the time being was just one of the rooms upstairs, but it didn’t feel overly compelling at the moment. On the other hand, he could kick off his boots there and sit back in a chair that was a sight more comfortable than the bar stool. And the construction of the boarding house meant that if anything did start happening down here, he’d hear it just as plainly as if he were still in the room.
Deke had just about convinced himself to stand up when a hand reached out to touch his glass. It was smaller than his own, but no less rough. You could call it dainty if you had a mind to, but no stretch of poetic imagination could describe it as delicate. This was a hand that had known work all of its life.
“Another, Deke?” The owner of the boardinghouse, Clarinda Blaumer, gave Deke a smile that matched her hand. It was a worn smile, hard-working and perfunctory. A business-only smile.
“Much obliged, Miz Blaumer.”
“You can call me Clarinda, Deke.”
“Yes’m.” It was a conversation they’d had almost daily since his arrival several months ago. Deke appreciated the offer, but kept her as Miz Blaumer for now. He’d know when the time was right to take her up on it.
Clarinda returned with his bourbon, which Deke met with coins on the counter. She scooped up the coins and gave him a more genuine smile, one that came from an actual person and not just a customer-facing mask. It still didn’t quite show up in her eyes, but implied that she was thinking about letting it. The look said that although her trust could be gained, she didn’t count him as a friend yet.
Deke was waiting for that smile to touch her eyes. Once it did, then he’d start calling her Clarinda. To do so earlier would put her on edge, no matter how often she encouraged him. Deke knew how these things worked. He was good with people.
Lifting his bourbon in a gentle salute to Miz Blaumer, Deke stood up from the bar and walked over to the small table by the window. It was ringed by four thin wooden chairs, three of which were empty. The fourth one was bravely supporting the weight of Father McCaig, an enormous man sweating in his black hat and cassock. The Bible was open before him on the table, and his lips quivered softly as he read.
“Padre,” Deke greeted him, sitting at the far side of the table. The priest looked up from his reading with an open smile.
“Deke, m’lad! Evening. A pleasure.”
“Fair sure I’m older’n you, padre. Not precisely a lad.”
“Sure, and I should call you ‘old man’? No way to make friends, that, m’lad.” Father McCaig smiled and wiped his brow. “Looking for conversation? Or can I provide spiritual assistance? I’m gone tomorrow, y’know, so get it whilst ye can.”
“You’re leaving?” Deke asked in surprise.
“I’ve done me half a year preaching to the blank faces of Rosin. I’ve reminded you all that the lord Jesus is with you wherever you go, even up here in the hills where it can be hard to see Him sometimes. And now I’m called to move on and keep spreading His word. This country’s big, boyo, and getting bigger all the time. There’s work to be done.
“I’ll do a final sermon tomorrow, say me farewells, and then I’ll be on me way. I’ll not forget ye in me prayers, though.”
“And I’m sure we won’t forget you either, padre.” The two men toasted with their glasses, and as they drank, Deke thought about Father McCaig’s sermons. The man preached softness and warmth, a loving God that was at odds with the harsh world surrounding them. He spoke of a caretaker, a shepherd who looked after his flock, when it was obvious to anyone in Rosin’s Hollow that God only helped those who helped themselves. Small wonder that McCaig had found no converts there.
Deke held no ill will against the man himself, but he would be relieved once McCaig was gone and he was no longer socially required to sit through his insipid homilies. Religion had its uses, but Deke preferred his in the fire and brimstone style.
“So where are you off to next?”
“Well, I’ll need to–” Whatever Father McCaig was about to say was cut off as the front door to the house burst open, startling everyone in the bar.
“Miz Blaumer!” came a shout from the front hallway. “Pour me a drink! It’s a celebration.”
Striding into the sitting room came a young man with a shock of untidy brown hair, currently in even greater disarray than usual. His clothes were ripped and he was covered head to toe in dust and mud. As he approached the bar, it became clear that the mud was in fact dried blood, great splotches of it staining every visible part of his body.
“Taylor!” Clarinda bustled over, whiskey in hand. “My God, boy! What happened to you?”
He waved his hand as if it was unimportant. “Cave-in. Don’t matter, I’m fine. And it was worth it! Guess how I’m payin’ for this drink.”
Clarinda crossed her arms. “Cash on the bar, I’m hoping.”
“Better, Miz Blaumer.” Taylor’s grin widened. He downed his drink in one quick swallow. “I’m paying with this.”
He dropped a fist-sized rock onto the wooden bar with a thunk. The rock was a rusty red color, dingy and dusty like Taylor himself. But running through the center of it, unmistakable even through the dirt, was a finger-thick vein of pure silver.
“Is– is this–” Miz Blaumer began. She picked up the rock and turned it around and around.
“From the mine, sure enough.” Taylor leaned his arms on the counter as if to tell her a secret. “The mine’s not played out. There’s still silver in it!”
The bar’s other drinkers, Raymond and Porfirio, were on their feet and crowded around Taylor. Father McCaig let out an undignified whoop and cried, “Lord be praised!”
But Deke’s eyes fixed on the rips in Taylor’s shirt. The shirt was fairly shredded, but if you knew where to look you could see one sharp-edged tear just below the heart. Deke knew where to look. He’d put a knife there last night, just before dragging Taylor’s body out to the old mine. The mine wasn’t the only thing back from the dead.