Passing into the door, Vincent looked behind the counter of the dust choked general store and stopped cold. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, feeling the blood rush from his face. No, it can’t be her, he thought, shaking his head. He knew he wasn’t all there upstairs, but he didn’t think he was quite bad enough to be hallucinating yet. The woman turned from sweeping behind the counter, smiling the fake but pleasant smile that shopkeeps use for customers. When she saw him her composure faltered, and she set the broom down near the register, looking ready to come around the counter.
“Welcome to Dee’s, sir. Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Vincent coughed and reset his face to the impassive mask he usually wore, chiding himself for letting it slip even for a moment. “Thought I had for a second.” He walked over, untying the thongs on the jerry can, and set it on the counter between them. “Looking to get some gas. You Dee?”
She raised an eyebrow at him, and Vincent was struck by memory again. The movement was so familiar, it was like he knew this woman. They could’ve been twins, he thought.
“I am, and this here’s my place.” She smirked at him, and again he marveled at the resemblance. Dee reached out a long, delicate finger and tapped his gas can. “We have gas, but I don’t have to tell you how much it’s worth. Hope you’ve got something to trade, Mr. …”
“Vincent. And I do.” He reached into his jackets inside breast pocket and retrieved one of the vials of precious salt, setting it next to the can. No reason to sell the entire farm up front. “How much will that get me?”
She looked with suspicion on the vial, and lifted it, opening the lid. Sniffing, her eyes widened. She dabbed a finger on her tongue and used it to withdraw some of the course powder, tasting it with slow relish. “Salt! Well, well, well, Mr. Vincent. Looks like you do have something worth trading. For this vial, I can fill your can. If you’ve got more, I can probably send you off with more.”
Her voice was like music to him. Even the timbre of her speech was similar. Enough differences were there to make it obvious they weren’t the same woman, but the similarities were so striking that he was developing a crawling feeling in his gut, and he wanted to quit this town as soon as he could. This was bringing back bad memories.
“Tell you what,” he grunted, “you fill that can, and when I come back here with my bike we’ll talk about a refill. In the meantime I’ll take some water, and some food. You trade in ammunition?” He reached into another pocket and brought out a bag of loose cartridges. This was ammunition he had collected, but fit none of his guns. Shotgun shells he jealously guarded, as well as cartridges for his antique Colt Army .45. The rest he traded to people as could use them.
Dee took in the jumble of cartridges with an expert eye, saying, “I do… Some of this might be useful to the boys on the wall. This’ll get you a gallon of fresh water and a week’s worth of trail rations.”
“I’ll take it, and thanks.”
“Just a minute and I’ll have your goods.” She smiled at him, snatched up the salt and ammunition, and after stowing them in a lockbox under the counter, grabbed his gas can and walked into the back room.
Vincent watched her go, admiring the sway of her hips in the long skirt she wore. If this were another time, another place…
He put a stop to that line of thinking, choking it off and putting it in a deep, dark corner of his mind. He wasn’t about to let wishful thinking tether him down again. That would be inviting another disaster, and he wouldn’t let that happen again.
From where he was leaning against the counter he could hear the sloshing of the gasoline and water, and the rustling of the food stores as she partitioned out his lot. Her sweet voice called out, “So, where ya from, Mr. Vincent? We don’t get too many visitors out this way.”
“Oh? I hear it’s nice out there. That they don’t have the problems we do with these damned orcs. Sounds like a paradise.”
“They got their own troubles, believe me. Bunch of enclaves where people are holed up for defense, but instead of orcs, it’s gnolls.”
“The hyena men?” She shuddered as she came back into the store proper with his gas, water, and rations. “I hear they’re right brutes.”
“You hear right,” he replied, taking the cans and food from her. This was a subject he didn’t much fancy dwelling on.
“Well, good luck with getting to your bike,” she said, staring at him, trying to make sense of his inscrutable expression.
“Thanks. I’ll probably be back before sundown. Then we can talk about another trade.”
“And maybe we can get a drink afterwards? There’s a nice saloon in town. They cook a mean squirrel stew.”
“Maybe. We’ll see if I make it back.”
With that he turned and stalked out of the general store, making his way back through town to the gate. The guard, the tall black man with the hard face, was waiting next to the gate for him. As Vincent approached the man stopped leaning against the wall and walked over to him. “Hey, stranger. Tassin, was it?”
Dear god, what now? Vincent wondered, sighing. Today was becoming exasperating. “That’s me. What can I do for you?”
“Wanted to ask if you’d seen anything around the walls. We had a scout running around the direction you came from, but he isn’t back yet. Been gone two days. You seen him?”
“No. I wouldn’t count on him coming back.”
The man squinted at him, not liking his tone. He put his hands on his rifle as though he meant to make this an official matter. “And why’s that?”
“Because I ran into a pack of orcs about eight miles out of town last night. If it’s been two days, they probably got him.”
The man’s eyes widened. “Orcs? That close? They wouldn’t dare come within ten miles of town.”
Vincent grunted a short chuckle. “Oh, they dare. I got the missing shotgun shells to prove it. If I’d have known you’d want proof I’d have brought one of their heads.”
The guard held up a hand and shook his head, lip curling. “I wouldn’t ask a prisoner to carry an orc head eight miles, let alone a free man just passing through. I appreciate the warning, though. We’ll keep a lookout.”
Vincent nodded. “You do that. I’m free to leave?”
The man stepped aside and Vincent walked past him, out of the gate, and started down the long road back to his motorcycle.
If you enjoyed this story, you can find more of my work in the DimensionBucket Media anthology, Darkest of Dreams:
(Part 1 here: https://steemit.com/fiction/@jimfear138/fire-on-the-bayou-part-1)
(Part 2 here: https://steemit.com/fiction/@jimfear138/fire-on-the-bayou-part-2)