Chapter One

Scene 1 - Bullies

Calvin halted his pace and leaned his hand against a tree, panting.  His chest was afire from running, and despite the stampeding herd within him, he inclined an ear to listen for any signs of pursuit. The only sound he heard was his heart pounding in his chest, dancing a cadence to his labored breathing.  His eyes scoured back the way he had run, but the bushy pines and scrubby brush got in the way. He could not tell if Pruitt and his bunch were still on his trail. 

Squinting his eyes shut, Calvin focused on drawing in big metered gasps. He needed more air, and wanted the damn tom-tom in his chest to subside so he could hear if the gang was still after him.  The beating eventually slowed, and as it did he kept his ears sharp for any noise that may be Pruitt, or the others, behind him. Six men afoot, racing as fast as they would have to in order to have a chance of catching Calvin, would make a noisome racket as they crashed though the scrub and trees.  As he reckoned it, the Bully Boys should be at least a quarter mile behind him, fast as he was running, even in these mountains.

Calvin had kept to the lower and easier passages; less densely foliaged ways, and he was keen on avoiding the heights, with its treacherous slopes and ridges.  Calvin was sure to tread places where his natural speed would prove to his advantage. He would use those higher passages as a last resort, when Big Bull Pruitt, an ox of a man with a thick neck… hell, thick everything, would be plum tuckered from chasing Calvin’s sprinting. 

He smiled, imagining the fat galloot doubled over with side-stitches, cursing and hollering, ordering Hodges, Reeding and the others to press on and “git that varmint!” 

Calvin chuckled and opened his eyes, once again staring back into the sun-dappled green wood behind him. Nothing.

They ain’t gonna catch me, thats for sure, Calvin thought, then pulling a pitch-sticky hand off the tree he was leaning on. Not me, I’m too gall-darned fast for them! He unthinkingly started to wipe his hand on the hip of his brown wool pants, but stopped.  No sense ruining his good pants.  He had bought these pants just last week, and they were expensive, with doeskin reinforcements in the knees and backside.  He thought about using his handkerchief from the leather poke strapped to his belt, but decided against that as well. Instead, Calvin scraped away some of the brown pine nettles underfoot and rubbed his hand into the cool dirt below. The soil would cling to the pitch, and make his hand less sticky.  

Spreading nettles back over the bare spot in the dirt to help cover his trail, Calvin felt his breathing and heartbeat was near to normal now. His thoughts cast back to the scant hour before, and he shook his head in disgust.  How could he have done it again, he wondered. Got himself in trouble. Again. Egging on the bully.  He spat. He hated bullies, ever since he was a boy in Philly.  Maybe it was because he was what most men would call a runt, short and springy, and some found it easy to pick on him. Likely though, the inner resentment for bullies was from the innumerable times in his youth, when the big kids would pick on him, calling him names. Tiny. Little. Runt. Boy.  Of all those names, he hated ‘Boy’ the most.  Calvin Drake never stood for it back then, in Philadelphia, and he wouldn’t stand for it now. He would not be bullied by anyone.

And Big Bull Pruitt was the mother-lode of bullies.  His wide square cow-face had a persistent slit that always seemed to be set in a leer, like he was just then thinking of something lurid, or tawdry, or worse.  He had a thin, straight mustache that only accentuated the effect. Something in that man was just plain mean hearted.

The sun had been wide and high over Main Street, and Calvin had just dropped off his last delivery of the day for Mr. Pike at the General Mercantile Store.  Coming out of Polk’s Grain and Feed, Calvin was heading down the street to the Empire Saloon, looking for a well-earned drink. He tickled the silver dollar in his pocket, that day’s pay.  Not twelve feet down the boardwalk, sitting on an empty whiskey crate outside the Yuba Hotel, was Pruitt. With a length of piggin’ string, the big man was casually practicing roping his well-worn boots, which he had lazily propped up on the hitching post, blocking passage down the boardwalk.  His cronies were idling behind and around him like cattle waiting for the feed bucket.

Calvin glanced around, noting the folks going about their business, taking note of the cart being pulled by a single sway-back gray mare coming up the narrow dirt street, and thought about crossing the street, hopping down off the boardwalk and avoiding Pruitt altogether. Pruitt had not yet sighted Calvin, but he’d caught the notice of the lanky, sharp-eyed Injun Jim Reeding. Reeding muttered something too low for Calvin to make out, nudging Bull Pruitt and jutting his jaw in Calvin’s direction.  The bully Pruitt’s gaze fell on Calvin, and those thin lips raised in a smile that held no mirth.

Calvin shook his head and set his jaw. Calvin Drake was no coward. He’d not be cowed into walking in the dust of the street to avoid the bully.  He’d not run with the herd.  Furthermore, giving in to Pruitt’s intimidation would only make it worse for the next time.  So Calvin lifted his chin and held out his chest as he made to pass the bunch. His eyes narrowed and he looked right into Pruitt’s beady little eyes as he approached. He saw menace in those eyes. 

“Hey Rake!” Pruitt bellowed, his pencil mustache raising as the lip below it sneered. The bully remained reclined, calm and smug. 

The comment puzzled Calvin, not understanding Pruitt’s meaning. He instinctively halted, more to ponder the meaning of the words than to engage in conversation.  Conversing with the likes of Pruitt and his gang was like pissing into the wind.  Wholly unsatisfying and a usually messy prospect. 

Seeing the perplexed look on Calvin’s face, Pruitt’s sneer grew to a grin, belief that his fish had just nibbled on the line. Now, time to set the hook. 

“That’s yer name… Rake!” called Pruitt, spitting out the last word with emphasis.

Mal Corwin, one of Pruitt’s herd, guffawed, and the other four of Big Bull’s pack began the back slapping and chortling associated with an inside joke. Calvin could tell that Pruitt’s bunch were as much in the dark as he was, their bluff and bravado purely to save face with their leader. Despite the anger building inside him, Calvin was not going to give the overgrown lout the satisfaction of letting the bully or his men get to him. He took a few more steps, intent on passing the gang, undaunted.

“Calvin Drake, skinny as a rake…” Pruitt jabbed in a sing-song voice. 

Calvin halted again, rolling his eyes at the inane rhyme.  Sure he was small, but Calvin could never be called skinny.  “You think you’re clever, Bull? The big man knows how to make a rhyme…!” The sarcastic words escaped Calvin’s mouth before he had a chance to get reign on them.

It was too late. Calvin knew it.  He had mouthed back to the biggest bully in the town of Nevada, and having ridden into that draw, he had no choice but to spur on and rely on his instincts to protect him.  Noting that Pruitt’s little rope was currently looped over his boots, Calvin quickly took the few remaining steps down the boardwalk to Pruitt, and causally pushed aside the big man’s legs and feet like they were one side of a hinged bat-wing saloon door, and moved right past.  Pruitt’s feet clomped heavily to the rifted pine boards, and he toppled completely over onto his side. His feet got caught up in his own calf-tie lasso still wrapped around them. The cow-tie cinched up as the big man toppled, and it bound his feet tighter as, in his unexpected fall, he tugged other end of it, which was still tight in the bully’s grip. Pruitt’s goons stood there gape-mouthed as Calvin sauntered past, continuing his way down Main Street’s sloping planked walkway, as if he were the mayor himself. 

It was then that Calvin remembered Pruitt’s revolver, that Colt Dragoon the big lout was always bragging on about.  But Pruitt would never draw on an unarmed man, nor shoot a man in the back. At least Calvin hoped that was the case. And as he himself wore only a twelve inch Bowie knife on his hip, and not a gun, he reckoned he wouldn’t be seeing any lead flying his way.  So he kept walking down the hill, head high, ignoring the barrage of insults from Pruitt and his gang.  Keep on walking, he thought, into the saloon, and you’ll be safe enough.

The threat of “You’re a dead man, Drake!” rang from up the hill behind him.  But Calvin had pushed aside the red-painted bat-wings and barely heard the pronouncement.  He bellied up to the bar, slapped down the fat dollar piece and watched Old Keating pour a glass of the dark amber liquid before Pruitt and his boys burst into the place, calling him out. The silence was broken only by the rattling of dimes, change for the drink that the barkeep dropped onto the slick, lacquered bar, which always gleamed like it was wet.

The shot of whisky went down hard, and left a burning trail all the way to his stomach.

“I said get yer scrawny ass outside, Drake.  You got some apologizing to do.”

Calvin swallowed hard and turned to look at Pruitt and his gang. Big Bull Pruitt was grinding the knuckles of his right fist into his left palm.  He was red-faced and scowling.  Flanking him were Buford Briggs and James Reeding.  Buford was an angular thug, and was thumping a hickory club against his palm. Reeding, sometimes called Injun Jim, for his unnatural fascination with the savage red indian, was fondling the indian stag-handled knife he always wore, tied to his leg like a six-shooter.  Behind them were the rest of the motley bunch, Hodges, Corwin and Masting, looking ominous. As ominous as they could, being grimy, sniveling lackeys of a dim-witted gang boss. 

Looks like I’m pissing into the wind, like it or not, Calvin thought. The taste of whisky still on his tongue, he swallowed again, now resigned to the fact that he was going to have it out with these louts, like it or not.

“I didn’t hear you say it,” Calvin said with a smirk raising the corner of his mouth. You wanna play games, lets go, he thought wryly.

A fog of confusion momentarily passed over Pruitt’s face. “Wha?” he muttered. “Say what?”

In a matter of fact tone that would make a tinhorn lawyer proud, Calvin continued, “You said,” he paused just long enough to further complicate matters, “that you said get yer scrawny ass outside.  I said I didn’t hear you say that.”

Pruitt’s eyebrow became a ‘v.’ The bully blinked in bewilderment. “Well,” he said hesitantly, “er… I said it.” Heavy arms crossed his chest.

“Yes,” Calvin nodded, “you said you did!” His tone was syrupy and patronizing.

“I did say it,” Pruitt boomed. “You callin’ me a liar? Boy?” His expression was menacing and malicious, but Calvin seethed from the insult. Boy? he thought. Boy? Calvin wanted to lurch at that cow-face and turn it into bloody pulp. His fists were clenched and he crouched, as if he was going to pounce on the Bull.

“Now I don’t want no trouble in here from you fellas,” Old Keating muttered from behind the smooth dark-wood bar.  Keating had a jutting white beard and was scrawny as an old goat.  He wore a barkeep’s apron and one of his bony hands rested on the bar, but his other was hidden behind it, as if he might be reaching for a hidden greener.  As if on cue, the rest of the patrons scattered into corners, hustled past the bullies out the door, or retreated up the stairs.

Calming himself, Calvin straightened and addressed the barkeep, not taking his eyes from Pruitt. “I mean no trouble here, sir,” he stated in his most innocent sounding voice. “I do believe it is Big Bull and his cows there what want the trouble. Sir.” He jerked his thumb toward the ill mannered group.

A sustained grumble, not unlike cattle lowing, emanated from the gang. It was obvious that Calvin was making the situation worse, not better.  He reprimanded himself, and chuckled in amusement at the knack he had for loading up trouble on top of trouble with that smart trap of his.  Then he realized that his internalized laugh was taken by the gang as mockery in their direction. Just let me add another shovelful on the heap, he thought.

“If’en you don’t go outside on your own, Drake,” Pruitt demanded, “we’ll be happy to grab you and haul you out!” Hodges, the lean, full-bearded one added ahigh-pitched “Thats right!” to his boss’s demand, which, to Calvin’s sensibiility, seemed ridiculous. What is it about the weak-minded that they fall into herds for support of one another?

Shaking his head in declination, Calvin said, “I have no mind to either walk out with you, nor be taken out by you. And further, I’ve no mind to be beaten to a pulp by you and your men once you get me out there.”

“Then we’ll just have to make pulp of you in here, Drake.” Pruitt’s fingers were now idly rubbing his pistol butt, and his nostrils were flaring in anger.

Behind him, Calvin heard the click-click of Old Keating’s double-barreled Parker lead-sprayer. Keating held the shotgun past Calvin’s shoulder, leveled at Pruitt and his boys, who had become suddenly still.

“As I said,” the barkeep said in an even tone, “I don’t want no trouble, and you fellers are about to cause some trouble.”

Pruitt puffed out his chest. “Just give us Drake here,” he said, the veneer of his bravado cracking a bit, “and there’ll be no trouble here.”

“I don’t care what ya do,” Old Keating said cooly, “as long as it happens outside the Empire.  So here is what’s gonna happen. The lad here is gonna walk past you boys, unmolested, out the door.  I’m gonna count to ten, then I’m gonna count to ten again.  If the whoery lot of you ain’t outta here when I get to that second ten, I’m gonna have one helluva mess to clean up, if you get my drift.”

It took a jot for Pruitt and his lads to work out Keating’s plan, and by the time they had, the barkeep was counting “two” for the second time and Calvin was sprinting up Main Street. He had even taken time to snatch his change off the bar before sprinting past the bunch, the bat-wings flapping and creaking in his wake.

No Name Stranger is a divergence from my staple of Fantasy fiction.  It begins as a western, and develops into a  science fiction tale about a man from the distant future, who has been an unwilling subject of time travel.

This work has been a lot of fun, but has also required the most research of any project to date. The opening action takes place in and around Nevada City, CA, during the gold rush. As the novel unfolds, the protagonist, the stranger who has no memories of his past, slowly learns of his special abilities and bit by bit he recovers his terrible memories.

The opening scene below introduces the stranger’s side-kick, a lad from Philadelphia who has come to the gold fields in search of his fortune. Unfortunately for Calvin Drake, there are bullies in town who would like nothing more than to give him a good hiding on account of his wayward tongue.