The rank tang of shit-stomped mud hung heavy in the dead autumn air. The street was busy, it being market day in the grubby little flyblown town of Forsaken, Wyoming. Never was a place more aptly named. I took in the dark storefronts, the clots of people moving not with intent but with the slow steps of resignation. Life on the frontier is difficult, to be sure, and it’s even tougher on some than others. From the looks of this town, hardship and deprivation were two of the more familiar traits the fine folks of Forsaken had to contend with.

“Scorfano? Scorfano!”

I walked a few steps before I realized the shouting voice was hailing me. Indeed, the word being shouted was my given name at birth. Scorfano means ugly one in Italian. The second cruel trick my father played on me—saddling me with that maligning name. The first was fathering me at all. Apt though it may be, it is not a name I like. And the only people who once knew me by that name would not know me now.

I had left them all behind, back East, on the eve of my thirteenth birthday, though I was nearly a grown man by that time—at least in stature. I hadn’t heard that name in fifteen years. I’d spent that time doing my best to grow up in other ways. And trying to lose myself in the West. Mostly it hasn’t worked.

A sudden gust of windblown grit pelted my face. I sighed and turned to see who was calling to me. I should have kept on walking. Hell, I should have run.

“It is you!”

A young man in bright blue dandy garb walked toward me. His clothes warred with the drab, earthy tones surrounding him as he crossed the street and walked straight into the path of an oncoming team of draft animals. The farmer driving them yarned hard on the reins, halting the mammoth beasts in time to avoid killing the young fool, who barely gave the situation a glance. He merely tossed the red-faced farmer a wave of forgiveness.

The young man smiled as he advanced on me. He didn’t see the farmer leap down from his wagon seat and in two strides reach him. The beefy man of the fields balled the velvet lapels of the young man’s fancy-cut frock coat.

“See . . . see here!” sputtered the young man. “Do you know who I am?”

“Don’t care,” spat the farmer through gritted teeth, “but you’ll soon be less toothy.” The farmer’s Teutonic accent was as angular as his ropy forearms were thick. And he pulled one of those arms back for a straight-on ramming at the young fool’s as-yet-unmarred countenance.

I don’t normally interfere in other men’s quarrels—it’s a good way to wind up hurt or worse—but technically I was the cause of this dispute, though I knew not why.

I stepped in quick, and though the farmer himself was a brute of a man, every inch and then some of six feet, and as wide as a wagon wheel, I am rarely overpowered in height and girth. I am on the north end of six foot four and carry little in the way of paunch, or what my good friend, Maple Jack, refers to as “reserve flesh for hard times.” My hand closed around the farmer’s wrist and held fast, stalling the vicious blow, and he turned a bright red face from the young man to me.

An oath of anger died on the farmer’s lips as his wide eyes took in my facial features. As I mentioned, I am not a pretty man. Truth be told, I am one of the homelier men you are ever likely to meet—a top lip split from birth beneath spiky black whiskers, pocked cheeks, an oft-broken nose, and dark eyes set in a wide, blocky head. What cruel quirks of circumstance conspired to make me so aberrant, I know not, nor do I care at this point. What’s done is done.

“Friend,” I said, smiling through my beard stubble. “The greenhorn meant no harm. And besides, he is no match for you.” I straightened and looked down at the farmer, letting my unspoken invitation settle on him like street dust on new shoes. The spark of rage in his eyes dimmed. As I released his wrist he yanked, to show he could maintain a head of steam. I let him. His other hand freed the greenhorn with a shove and a flick from his meaty fingertips, as if he were shooing a bluebottle fly.

Only then did I see that the entire town had paused in its duties, every eye of its meager populace fixed on the scene, pleading, hungering for excitement . . . for blood. As the German farmer strode to his wagon, I saw outright disappointment on not a few of the staring faces. Within seconds a small swarm of the farmer’s cronies clustered about him, yammering as groups of men will do—as much or more so than any clutch of women—cutting their eyes now and again in my direction.

“Thank you. I—”

I had momentarily forgotten about the fool who caused this ruckus, who I had not yet looked upon at this close range.

I faced him and got a good look at the young man then. Of course up close I knew him. His was a face I doubted I’d ever see again in all my days.

Unruffled by the recent affront to his dignity, the young man smoothed his lapels and smiled up at me, stretching his neck forward. “It is you, Scorfano! I never thought to see you again and certainly never expected to find you of all people here in this … this savage wasteland!”

“Thomas,” I said, nodding down at him. For in truth, I could think of nothing else to say.

He fidgeted in the street, with the entire town watching, and finally grasped me tight about the middle with both arms, his blue derby hat with a wide, black silk band falling to the rutted street. I pushed him away.

“It’s so good to see you,” he said, retrieving the garish topper.

I knew if I asked him anything at all, there would be nothing for it but to listen to him explain every minute of the past fifteen years. And as I recalled, he was a talker even as a child. I saw no reason why that should have changed. By my math he was but twenty-two years old, and he looked less than that age. The intervening years had been kind to him.

“I have to go,” I said, turning away.

His frantic little boy’s voice reached me and I felt his hand on my arm. “You can’t leave like that. Old friends and all.”

I kept walking toward the livery, temporary quarters for my big Percheron stallion, Tiny Boy. Thomas worked hard to keep up with me. When I’ve a mind, I can scissor my legs faster than any man I know and can cover a lot of ground in the process.

“Scorfano . . . wait! At least let me buy you a drink. Or perhaps a meal?”

I kept walking.

“Please,” he said. “Slow down!” I heard his voice begin to take on a frantic, desperate edge I did not expect. Then in a lower tone he said, “I need help. I fear I may be in grave danger.”

I closed my eyes and stopped, knowing I would come to regret this decision for a long time. I turned around.

“One drink,” I said. “I have places to go.”

He smiled again and I saw the same brown-headed boy I had played with so long ago, in a different life and in a different time. For a moment, I could almost believe I was looking into the eyes of a friend.

Like I said before, I should have run.

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