The town woke to discover Miss Margelene’s Silver Saloon had sprung up overnight, tacked onto the end of their only meager road in gaudy glory. The western-most, barely settled settlement of Gomer’s Gulch could only be considered a town in the most generous of estimates, but the people who lived there, mostly foolhardy prospecting men and a smattering of desperate families, called it a town all the same.
They already had a saloon, of course; a handful of men camped anywhere long enough always sprouts one. Theirs was called Rabbit’s, the owner’s nickname, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was due to being such a dirty hole. Miss Margelene’s place, on the other hand, was the furthest you could get from Rabbit’s, figuratively speaking. Literally, it was two doors down. Rabbit’s was utilitarian: squat, flat-roofed, and barely held together by bent nails. Miss Margelene’s was downright beautiful, a sparkling shade of its namesake silver. The second story sported a gilded balcony over fluted columns, and everyone knew the name because it hung in big cursive letters, two feet tall, in front of the gabled roof.
Dex rode in late that morning, the supplies he needed forgotten once he saw the silver saloon. Instead, he hitched up his horse and joined the crowd in front of Rabbit’s to speculate about their new neighbor. He stood out, a head taller and better washed than the others, but most mode room for him with a smile.
“Rabbit, how much did I drink last night?” Dex asked.
“Half as much as it’d take for a delusion like thissun,” replied Rabbit, who was short and squalid, like his bar.
“And that’s iffen he didn’t water his horse piss down,” muttered someone.
“This ain’t about my liquor!” said Rabbit. “Even kids can see that abomination. The question is how on earth those misfits got it up in a single day. Not even! Must’ve been lessun ten hours.”
No one had an answer, but everyone knew which misfits he meant. In a town the size of Gomer’s Gulch, everyone knows every one of the comings and goings, let alone a coming as peculiar as last night’s. The caravan had arrived in the settling dusk, torches blazing up and down three covered wagons. Not covered with any old canvas either, but draped in rainbow arrays of silken cloth and garlanded with bells that tinkled with every step of the big black horses pulling them. They’d made camp just outside the town perimeter, dark figures tended horses and made a cook fire, but no townsfolk got close enough for a good look. When a band of ornery men decided to greet the newcomers, they turned back around with glazed expressions before they’d gone half way. Unable to elaborate, they simply said they’d changed their minds.
“What in tarnation is that?” shouted a ruddy man riding in hard on a heaving grey horse. The man had a pointed beard, well-trimmed, and a six-point star on his chest, well-polished. His red-headed wife, Hannah, pale and pretty, was saddled behind him. While he dismounted and stared at the new saloon, Dex helped Hannah down and began with what little he knew.
“Caravan came in last night, and -”
“Shut your fool mouth,” the Sheriff said and spat at Dex’s feet. “And get away from my woman. You tryin’ to play at bein’ sheriff? Well you ain’t. You lost. Rabbit, what’s that building?”
“Nobody knows, sir,” Rabbit said with a shrug. “Was here when we woke up.”
“What do you mean? Buildings don’t appear overnight – certainly not ones that fancy. Didn’t anyone hear them hammering? Don’t you sleep in your bar, Rabbit?”
“I do, but I didn’t hear a thing. Ain’t you s’posed to sleep in town too, sheriff? Keep your ear to the ground for trouble? Ain’t you s’posed to defend us from the bandits? They killed a woman last week -”
“Rabbits are the ones s’posed to keep their heads down, if they know what’s good for ‘em. Hows ‘bout the rest of you lumps? Anyone go in or out of that place? Who owns it?”
“No one’s been seen, but I have suspicions the owner is one Miss Margelene,” said Dex flashing a grin at the big sign, but he stepped away before his boots could be sullied again.
The sheriff scowled. He left his wife to tend the horse and stomped down to the new saloon. Dex, Rabbit and most of the men followed. Some children scurried along behind them.
The doors alone were taller than any other building in town and such a deep black they looked like an opening on a moonless night. The sheriff’s raised his fist, but it caught mid-air, hovered, before he gathered himself and pounded.
“This is the law! Open -” he demanded, and the doors opened, swung right out and swept the sheriff off his feet. He hit the dirt road hard.
No one laughed, not only because he might shoot, but because they were busy attempting to glimpse the interior while the black doors banged against the wall. It was more luxury than they'd ever seen, even the men from big cities. There were no windows, but long strings of lanterns bathed the big room in flickering light. The floors were herringbone parquet and the walls looked metallic, imprinted with crescent moons. There was a bar to the left, cabinets of exotic liquors and pewter mugs behind a carved wood counter with a smooth, stone top. There was a raised stage to the right with royal purple curtains. The heavy tables were ringed with upholstered red chairs.
In the back a woman descended from an unseen second floor down a grand staircase. The men doffed their hats and made futile efforts to brush off dust and straighten shirts, but every eye stayed fixed on her. She looked ageless and more elegant than the saloon with carefully coiffed black hair and a ruffled Victorian gown.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. I’m Miss Margelene,” she greeted, voice melodious. She had a lilting accent, but it was hard to say from where. “We didn’t intend to open until tonight, but apparently the law is impatient. Can I be of service?” She stood centered in the doorway.
“Yes’m, I, um – I have some questions as to how this here establishment was, um – established,” the sheriff mumbled, tugging his badge.
“Of course, I’m happy to answer - tonight, during the grand opening. For you, sheriff, everything’s on the house. Unless, that is, we’re violating any ordinances? I so hope we’ve met the standards set by your lovely settlement.”
“Standards! How’s about a standard of fair competition and -” Rabbit began, but the sheriff elbowed him and he cut off with a wheeze.
“No ma’am, tonight’ll do,” the sheriff said and donned his hat. “You heard the lady, ya buncha oglin’ buffoons. Grand opening tonight! Now git!” He shoved away the men and kicked a boy in the pants. The doors swung shut behind him.
Dex sped home, desperate to decide what to wear and scrub the ever-loving hell out of it. But more important, he had to tell Rowena everything.
Her modest ranch, home to the world’s finest horses in Dex’s estimate, lay a couple dozen miles south of the Gulch. He always figured the secret to Rowena’s success had to do with the fact that she herself was rather equine. Stately and athletic, even at her age, she never wasted a moment, but when her gray mane came down you could see the barely concealed wild streak. Dex grabbed an indigo shirt from his shack by the barn and hollered for Rowena while he filled her washtub and set to scrubbing.
“Lordy Dex, I know you like to be neat, but you washed your whole wardrobe last week!” she said, exiting the barn with her hair up and a saddle under one arm. “Where are the supplies? I appreciate you ran them bandits off last night before they rustled any horses, but they tore the fence terrible. Looks like one caught his leg though, there’s half a pair of pants hanging on the wire.”
Dex tumbled out the saloon story, and Rowena only interrupted to make him promise he hadn’t drank too much of Rabbit’s swill. Afterwards, he cajoled her to join him for the opening. She was busy, she said, and besides she hadn’t been to a saloon for five years, not since Fred passed, but Dex wouldn’t hear excuses. He hung his shirt to dry then pressed her until she agreed to go gussy up.
He readied the wagon. Rowena stepped out into the fading light of the half-set sun in an emerald pleated dress with earrings to match. He whistled until she clouted him in the chest.
“Shut it, purty boy. I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”
“Pshaw, you can’t be a day older than my mother,” he assured her. “And anyway, we make a purty pair, don’t we?”
Their arrival marked the first time they’d seen traffic in Gomer’s Gulch. It looked like the land had dumped out all the dwellers in a hundred miles to mill outside Miss Margelene’s Silver Saloon. The big black doors were shut again, and the sheriff was on guard with a crisp white shirt, black leather vest and a freshly oiled beard.
“Don’t think you’re gettin’ in Dex, even with your grandma girly-friend dolled up like a hooker,” he said when he caught sight of them. “I’ll throw her out right on top of you iffen you even try to get in.”
Dex drew himself up every inch, ready to defend Rowena’s honor, but she stepped in front of him, laughing.
“Little Stanley Sherman, is that you? I ain’t seen you since Fred tossed you outta Rabbit’s that night, playin’ at being a man, tryin’ start a gunfight. O’course, that was back when you only had a few scraggly hairs on that little chin to cover all your pimples.”
The crowd welcomed the distraction from waiting for the doors to open, but Dex watched the sheriff’s holsters. He tugged Rowena shoulder, but there was no stopping her.
“My, oh my. Can’t say I missed you, but what a surprise it was to hear anyone voted you for sheriff. Almost as surprising as seeing you still have that ugly beard.”
That was the last straw, Dex knew, but just as the sheriff’s fingers twitched, those black doors swung open and knocked him down again, this time on his face. The crowd, Dex and Rowena included, flooded in around him.
There must have been a couple hundred men and a quarter as many women, but the silver saloon accommodated everyone with room to spare. Servers, women in black silk blouses and pink frilled skirts, worked the bar and the floor. On stage, a trio of ladies sang a ditty about a showdown at high noon. Dex thought they shared a resemblance, but maybe it was only their sly smiles.
He snagged Rowena a seat and moseyed to the counter, but before he ordered, he noticed the sad-eyed sheriff’s wife next to him.
“Hello Hannah. Don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a saloon.”
“Hi, Dex. Couldn’t miss this,” she said. Then barely loud enough to hear, she added, “You should watch out. Stanley won’t stop talking about you since the election.”
“All good things, I’m sure?”
“Look at you, grinnin’ like a weasel in a hen house,” said the sheriff, cocking the pistol he had aimed at Dex. “You ain’t never gonna be sheriff, and you ain’t never gonna get the time of day from my girl.”
Dex drew the fastest he’d ever done, but he saw the sheriff pull the trigger and knew he was a half-second too late. He tensed, but the shot didn’t come. Miss Margelene did, swept in between them, skirts swaying, and Dex was terrified she’d taken the bullet meant for him, but she didn’t flinch.
“Not tonight, gentlemen,” she said, handing each of them a drink. Dex took the mug in his free hand then realized he was no longer holding his weapon. He looked down to find it holstered as if he’d never drawn.
“Thank you ma’am,” Dex said, sure that he owed her for more than the drink. He took a swig and found it was good beer, but unlike any he had tasted. There were strange undertones, maybe mint, he thought. But most strange, he realized, it was cold. Very cold, like the mountain snow he’d crossed coming to Gomer’s Gulch. When he tried to ask her about it, he saw Miss Margelene was drifting off with the sheriff.
Hannah looked distraught, but a waitress was soothing her, patting her back, and Dex figured she was better off here than her home anyhow, so he went to find Rowena. He turned down a couple dance offers on his way, the trio had switched to a romantic ballad, and he circled a couple poker games before spying Rowena, slow dancing with the general store owner. Maybe she was working on a deal for those supplies, he figured, and tossed back his drink, but when they spun around he nearly choked. He’d never seen Rowena beam like that, like a dozen years had rolled right off her back. At this rate, she’d have a new man at the ranch, and Dex would never be so glad to be put out of work.
The night unfurled, and, even with the sheriff prowling around, Dex had never felt better. The trio sang one merry tune after another; drinks flowed, delicious and cold; and even deep in their cups he never saw a soul turn sour, or get thrown out for lack of funds. In fact, he didn’t see anyone leave at all. Even Rabbit laughed, coaxing the bartenders to tell him where the spirits came from. Dex chatted with all kinds, old friends and people he’d only ever tipped his hat to, and they said warm words and told him they had voted him for sheriff. Dex knew they were only being nice, but still it made him flush.
When a waitress with a sunny smile and yellow curls spilling over her black top pulled him away from a game of darts, he let himself be pulled into a whirling circle of fuddled men at the saloon’s center. Together, they tried to keep pace with the jig a smaller circle of waitresses danced in their midst. Every so often, the women would stop and spin the other way, forcing the men to follow. Boots caught and tripped over boots, but the men laughed and tried to stay facing their favorite gal.
While the circle coiled this way and that, one woman pulled a silver scarf out from her blouse and danced forward. She wrapped the scarf around a burly man in a checkered shirt, and swiveled with him back to the center. The men hooted and whistled, and then each girl was going out, wrapping herself a man with her own scarf.
Dex watched and whistled too, until one raven-haired girl fetched the sheriff. Dex stumbled but kept step. His gorge rose when she gave the sheriff’s beard a tug. The circles kept moving, outer going fast to keep up with the girls and their captives.
The fellows in the middle smiled wide, jumping with the girls, a couple ventured to put hands on hips, but Dex saw the sheriff stagger, look left and right.
“Wait, wha-?” the sheriff sputtered and slowed. “Why us? Why-”
The man in the checkered shirt shoved into the sheriff. The music was morphing, volume louder, tempo faster, key minor. Dex heard the women in the center murmuring, indiscernible, saw blurred faces everywhere. He couldn’t tell anymore if he was dancing or the room was spinning itself round.
The women in black threw up their scarves and each exploded mid-air, burst into confetti, rained silver specs down to scattered applause. That is, until the pops and bangs kept going, more and more bursts of confetti until it was thick in the air and no one could see a thing. There were screams and then yells of ‘Smoke!’
Black smoke, heavy and perfumed like incense, poured down the grand staircase. It filled the room and turned everything as dark as the doors, dark as a moonless night.
Dex woke to Rowena slapping him hard across the face. He coughed and sputtered back to consciousness in her relieved embrace as the sun rose over the well-dressed bodies laid out on the bare patch of ground that had been Miss Margelene’s Silver Saloon.
It was the children, terrified and crying, that had shaken their parents awake first. As the adults came around they helped others up, parched and unsteady.
Once Dex was on his feet, he sent some kids to fetch buckets of water and rations. Then he saw the commotion and the little crowd gathering. He pushed his way through and found the six scarfed men from last night, sheriff included, naked and hogtied in silver chains, laid out in their little circle. Some tried to free them, others just laughed. The men didn’t look injured, except the sheriff, and it didn’t take Dex long to realize the bloody gash down his leg looked like it might match right up to Rowena’s barbed wire fence.
While the six men stewed in the small town jail, Dex led the swift investigation that turned up enough stolen property to expose their identities as Gomer Gulch’s notorious bandits, as well as the suspicious duplicate ballot boxes in the sheriff’s possession.
However, he never did find the sheriff’s red-headed wife, Hannah. Neither she nor the silver saloon was ever seen again, but on moonless nights he dreamed of her, smiling on stage in a black shirt, singing about the life she left behind.