Stingaree 6

Night had fallen and Stingaree was coming to life.  The Dusky Rose was no exception.  Ambrose Duncan sat at a table in a corner of the billiard room having a beer with Price.  Duncan, of course, never really socialized with the hired help.  He wanted action, and was prodding Price to commit.

“You got a plan for this Youngblood greenhorn yet?” he asked.

“I’m working on one,” his henchman said.  “The first thing we have to do is find out what he’s done with the, the… trephanizer.”

“Intraphanator,” Duncan corrected him.

“Yeah, that.  To do that, we need to find somebody that Youngblood doesn’t know.  He sure as hell ain’t gonna forget me for a while, and he ain’t likely to take kindly to me pokin’ around his establishment.”

“Send a couple of the boys who weren’t there.  He won’t know them.”

“Most of his employees will,” Price said.  “It’s awful risky.  We’re on the outs right now over there, and once they get the idea we’re up to somethin’, they’re gonna get a whole lot more alert.”

“Yeah, that’s a risk.  How about Charlotte?”

“That girl that was here earlier?”

“Yeah.  She seems amenable to doing a bit of work for some hard cash.  She works there.  Couldn’t be any problem asking her to just keep her eyes open.  And her ears.”

“That might work,” Price said.  “You think she’ll do it?”

“The girl loves money, and we got plenty of that.  I’ll get a message to her tomorrow, and we can—”

Whatever else he was going to say was cut off by an incoherent shout from the bar out front, followed instantly by a cacophony of gunshots and cascading glass.  Duncan’s employees were always armed, and they began returning fire within seconds.

Devlin appeared in the doorway, one arm limp at his side.

“Masked men in the street,” he gasped before he was hit in the back and went down.

Duncan and Price ducked into the bar, guns ready.

“You men, out the back!” Duncan barked.  “Get to the side of ‘em, and give ‘em a taste of lead.  Price, you and Rodriguez keep them looking this way.”

Price and Rodriguez began a steady return fire from their covered positions into the street where a half-dozen men on horseback, gunny sacks covering their heads, blazed away as townspeople screamed and scattered.  Duncan moved behind Price and added the fire from his own Brandon & Wells gas compression pistol, its explosively-shaped darts zipping through the stucco wall across the street as if it were paper.

Then his own men took the horsemen under fire from the side, causing one to cry out and another to slump in the saddle.  Surprised, confused, they fired back at this new assault as one of them drew an amber colored bottle from his saddlebag and pulled a long string from the neck.  In a shower of sparks, the wick caught and flared, and he threw it in through the front window where it shattered, erupting into a fireball of liquid that coated a table and the front of the bar.  That accomplished, they wheeled their horses and rode away fast, turning the first corner they came to in order to put a building between themselves and that unexpected posse of gunmen.

“Get this fire out,” Duncan told Price as he crossed to the front window.  Looking out into the street, he was disappointed to see that neither of the wounded men had fallen from their saddles; he would have loved to have a long conversation with a captive.

“Everyone all right?” he called to the men at the mouth of the alley.

“Yes, sir,” came the reply.  “We hit a couple of them, though.”

“That’s good.  Come in here and help with this fire.”

Somebody’s going to pay for this was his only thought as he took off his coat to pitch in.

*          *          *

The horsemen slowed to a trot as soon as they rounded a corner; no need to attract any more attention than they already had.  Clear of the scene, they pulled the sacks from their heads, becoming nothing more interesting than a group of ranch hands in town on some cattleman’s business; at least if you overlooked the fact that two of them had been shot.

“Red, we gotta stop,” one of the riders said.  “Draco’s hit bad.”

“I know,” the leader replied.  “We need some more distance first.”

He zigzagged around two more corners and led them into an unguarded freight yard near the waterfront, going to the end away from the stevedores stacking crates for loading.  One of the men by now had to be supported in the saddle by one of his fellows riding alongside.

“Get him off the horse,” Red ordered as he led them into a cul-de-sac among some baled timbers. “Let’s see how bad off he is.  Anybody else hit?”

“Stevens, you are, ain’t you?” one of the others asked.

“Just a graze, Cap’n,” a younger man replied.  “I’ll be fine.  I don’t get it, though.  It’s as though they were waiting for us.  I’ve never known Mr. Belmont to be that far off in his scouting before.”

“Will you shut up, you damned fool?  Why don’t you just put an ad in the paper?”

“Sorry, Cap’n, but really, what the hell was that?  The boss said they’d be sleepwalking.  Start a fire, maybe deal with a bartender or two, and disappear.  Instead, we get ambushed, and we’re looking at maybe losing Draco.”

“We ain’t losing Draco,” the leader snapped.

“Well, look at him! He’s barely conscious, and he’s lost more blood than a hog in a slaughterhouse.  And for what?  Because we were given faulty orders!  Maybe it was us that Mr. Belmont wanted hit.”

“Now you listen to me,” Red snarled, jumping up from Draco’s side, grabbing Stevens by the lapels and backing him up against a lumber bale, “you say that name one more time, and I’m gonna make sure that nothing else ever comes out of that mouth again!  There’s plenty of reasons they could have been ready for us, and they don’t all involve a double-cross.”

“Damn, Cap’n, I’m just sayin’ that—”

“I know what you’re saying, and I’m telling you to stop.”  He pushed his young underling against the lumber and turned back to Draco.  “What was the name of that doctor the boss gave us?”

“Greene, Cap’n.  His office is up on that rise north of town.”

“That’s too bad.  Don’t look like he’s gonna make it much farther.  Well, use his bandana and put some pressure on that wound.  Stevens, find something to bind it up with, cloth or straps or something.  He’s just going to have to tough it out for one more ride.”

*          *          *

Duncan stood back from the still-smoking bar, the fire out, but ready to make a comeback should it find a lightweight fuel source.  Price and Rodriguez took both sides of the smoldering table and pitched it out into the street through the shot-out window.

“Son of a bitches!” Duncan swore, dabbing blood from a sting at the side of his neck where a wood splinter had grazed him.  “Anybody recognize any of ’em?”

“No, sir,” Rodriguez said.

“Not with those sacks over their heads,” Price added.  “Coulda been anybody.”

“But it wasn’t anybody, was it?” Duncan pointed out.  “It was somebody who targeted us, tried to burn us out.  Now we need to figure out the why of it, and that’ll tell us who.”

“With all respect, Mr. Duncan,” Rodriguez said, “there’s a lot of folks down here who stay mad at us all the time.”

“The price of success,” Duncan said with an evil smile.

“You don’t suppose this was Earp, do you, boss?” Price asked.

“Earp?” Duncan thought about it for a moment.  “No, not his style.”

“He was pretty riled when he threw us out of the Oyster,” Price said.

“I doubt he was as riled as he was when those cowboys in Tombstone killed his brother, and we all know what he did to them.  No, if Earp wanted us dead, he’d walk through the front door, guns blazing.”

“Who, then?  That tinhorn?”

“He’d probably like to,” Duncan said, “but he hasn’t been in town long enough to find anybody to hire.  Anyway, we’ve all met the little weasel.  He hasn’t got the spine for it.”

“I don’t know, boss.  He wasn’t afeared to put a gun to Willy’s head, was he?”

“Yeah, but he didn’t shoot him, did he?”

“Didn’t have to after Earp took up for him,” Rodriguez pointed out.  “Either one of ’em might be behind this.  Trying to even the score, as you might say.”

“Could be,” Duncan allowed.  “There’ll be time enough to settle with him.”

“What about Earp?”

“What about him?”

“Well, if he’s appointed himself Youngblood’s protector, that there’s what you call a complication.”

“We don’t know whether he has or not,” Duncan said.  “He might have just been there by chance when you all showed up, and his lawing instincts flared up.  That’ll be something else we can ask Charlotte to keep an eye out for, that, and to find out where he’s keeping my machine.”

“You think she can do it?” Price asked.

“She can try.  If it’s too much for her, then we’ll just have to think of something else.”  Duncan punctuated the statement with an evil laugh.  “Let’s get this glass swept up before the customers start coming in.”

*          *          *

As the clock approached eleven, Stingaree was howling in full-throated glory.  Every iniquitous den, the Oyster included, was packed with sailors, ranch hands, gamblers, and flim-flam artists, some seeking a good time, others seeking the coin of the revelers.

Youngblood stood at the end of the bar, immaculate in his cream-colored suit, his new wide-brimmed planter’s hat lending an air of joviality, marveling at the amount of money changing hands over every horizontal surface.  The term “wages of sin” was beginning to take on a whole new meaning, and he felt a chill of unease over the familiarity and acceptance he was beginning to feel for his new enterprise.

The place virtually ran itself.  The dealers, the bartenders, the girls upstairs all knew their business, and carried it out with machine-like precision.  Isabella drifted nearly unnoticed through the crowd, her lovely face and Old Mexico charm loosening tongues and wallets alike.  Chato hovered around the edges, not remaining in one place long enough to become intimidating, bringing every altercation to a halt before it could develop.

If he blurred his eyes enough, he could almost not notice what was being transacted.

Janice, rounded and voluptuous in a way only short women could manage, came gracefully down the staircase, arm-in-arm with her beau of the moment, a wiry sailor in bell bottoms and a peacoat.  Her lavender dress was so expertly arranged that one would scarcely suspect how recently she had been out of it.  She gave her sailor a shy peck on the cheek, a pale suggestion of what they had so recently been up to, and let her gaze linger on him as he made his way to the door.

It had scarcely closed behind him when she gave Isabella a subtle hand signal, received a nod in return, and headed out the small back door to the row of outhouses in the lot behind.  Business went on all around.  Youngblood’s eye was drawn to a chorus of boisterous laughter at a table where a patron had just collected a big pot with a stellar hand.  He already understood that if that customer took a hundred, or two hundred dollars out of the room, his good fortune would attract a thousand more from people trying to recreate his luck.  He congratulated the man, a field hand by the look of him, with genuine warmth as he came to the bar to order a round for the house, and it was about this time that a blood-curdling scream was heard from the back, bringing conversation and the piano’s tinkling music to a halt.  A second later the door flew open to reveal Janice, a look of horror etched on her face which was pale as a sheet of foolscap.  She clung to the door frame as if she would fall without its support.

As everyone froze, staring at her, Isabella was the first one moving, going quickly to her side.  Chato and Youngblood arrived together a second later.

“Janice, what is it?”

She couldn’t speak, only point behind her toward the privies with that unrelenting look of utter terror.  The three of them looked out the door, seeing nothing out of sorts.  Chato started out, but Isabella stopped him.

“Get her a drink and stay with her,” she told him.  “Come, Harold.  These girls have seen much.  It will be instructive to see what could frighten a fallen angel so.”

Youngblood followed her into the yard, dimly lit by the glow of the street light at the end of the alley.  He nearly drew his pistol, but feeling sheepish, stopped short, merely keeping his hand on the grip.

Janice had set the lantern on the ground in front of one of the privies, or possibly just dropped it, good fortune causing it to remain upright.  Isabella led him to the door and picked up the lantern.  As she put her hand on the latch, he did draw his pistol, and cocked it for good measure.  With a nod, she yanked it open, moving with it to get out of the line of fire, but nothing inside drew a shot.

She stepped back into the frame, shining the light on a man, at least what had been a man.  He was propped up to sit roughly over the hole, and dark stains had spread from crown to groin.

“Jesus!” Isabella said, pronouncing it Hay-soose, and making the sign of the cross.  She looked back at him, wide-eyed, then tentatively stepped forward.

“Let me do that,” Youngblood said.  “Hold the light.”

He removed the battered bowler from the curly red hair, and as he stepped back out of the light, exposing the agonized face of Charlie Price.

“So, death has come for the Death Angel’s reaper,” she breathed.

“Close the door,” he said.  “Send someone for a deputy.  Try to get Jackson if he’s there.”

“What will you do?”

“Keep everyone out of here until the police arrive.  I just hope they don’t think we did this.”

He stepped back to give her room, and as the door swung to close, some figures on the inside caught his eye.

“Just a moment,” he said.  “What’s this?”

Dark figures scrawled unevenly on the painted surface spelled out a meaningless cypher.

C412?

“Jesus,” Isabella said again.  “He wrote this in his own blood!  What does it mean?”

“I have no idea,” he replied.  “An address, maybe?  A room number?  It was certainly important to him.  I’ll wait here.  You go send someone for a deputy, then bring the key back and lock this.  We don’t want anyone else in here until the police arrive.”