Daisy Bell, the given name of my less than desirable mode of transportation plodded along with no sense of urgency. I followed my drinking companions out of town, a simple enough task. Doing it discreetly was nigh to impossible. Having resigned myself to a game of wits, as opposed to stealth or speed, I planned my next course of action.
My guess, we arrived in Misery for the same reason. To acquire the Yaqui Blood Star. I don’t know what the two women’s intentions were, but they would need to be dealt with. With no desire to dig multiple graves in the hard pack scrabble passing for dirt in these parts, I’d have to find a way to end this game on friendly terms. I, for one, am not good at sharing. Making it a certainty that someone was going to be mightily disappointed.
Diamond Jim lived like a hermit. A drastic change in circumstance for the former flamboyant ladies man, given to excessive gambling and drink. You hear a great deal of talk about things happening in threes, both good and bad. Jim balanced his obsession with the bottle and cards between two women. But, hell hath no fury like that of a scorned woman. Legend had it a gal by the name of Rosemary stabbed him in the back with a penknife and left him to bleed out. She got the end of a rope for her trouble and Diamond Jim disappeared. Along with a bauble reputed to have shamanistic capabilities. In the right hands it could ease a man’s burdens. Based on Jim’s current life style I assumed his were not the right hands.
To gain this much information on a man who doesn’t want to be remembered, you have to play an awful lot of cards and buy enough whiskey to float a boat. But information was my ace in the hole. Although we’d never met, I now knew Diamond Jim like a brother. To get what I wanted, I’d entice him into a game of cards, accompanied by the bottles presently clinking in the sack over Daisy Bell’s flanks, all to gain his confidence and ultimately learn the location of the mythical amulet last seen in his possession. My life’s work would not be for naught. A believer in magic once told me, all magic carried a price. While it delivered the goods, it kept a balance sheet. Sooner or later the deficit required payment. If this was true, a greedy man could find himself in an unfavorable situation. It occurred to me, Diamond Jim may have rode the Blood Star goody train for too long because his luck was about to run out with the appearance of the two mysterious females making their way to his door.
My assumption was the woman calling herself The Traveler was betting on the disarming Jim with her more than adequate feminine wiles. She’d make her play in the pretty black dress I could hear rustling in the wind from here. It didn’t take a genius to know a gentleman liked the attention of a pretty lady, and The Traveler had pretty in spades. She also had a mysterious side that could put off a careful man. My advantage lay in the fact that Jim’s near death experience with Rosemary soured him on women forever, leaving me to play off this aspect.
Snake, on the other hand, would be a bit more straightforward. She was all about the hard approach, one withering glance from her and your mouth would dry up. Chances were darn good her presence would put Diamond Jim in a cautious mood. Which might work to my benefit as I’d become a cautious man myself. Might wasn’t all that. Might could be defined as a long shot with optimistic tendencies. In short, my odds against the two women looked dismal.
Daisy Bell and I arrived at Diamond Jim’s humble casa in the midst of pandemonium. Jim lay in his dooryard with Snake and Traveler leaning over him. On closer inspection I recognized Diamond Jim was having some kind of fit. Blood leaked from his ears and nose, while red froth covered his beard. His limbs were stiff, and he shook like he was riding a wagon on a washboard. “What happened?”
Snake gave me a look designed to shrivel a lesser man. “Do we look like docs?”
I shrank back and averted my eyes. “Can’t you do something? He’s having a fit.”
This time Traveler turned a dangerous smile in my direction. “He’s been poisoned.”
“But how? Who?” I stood and backed away, my hand firmly on the hilt of Dragon Breath.
“It wasn’t us you buffoon,” Traveler spat.
I looked up and met the deep abyss of Snake’s shooting irons. Guess she took offense at my questions. “Sorry, you must admit, it looks a little suspicious, you two standing there while he flails in his death throes at your feet.”
After a moment, Snake nodded and holstered her weapons. “Yeah, I guess. Why are you following us?”
“I’m not. I just happened to be passing by when I saw the commotion.” I knew how absurd this was before I said it, but I couldn’t stop myself.
Snake spit off to the side. “Yeah, and moon is made of cheese.”
Diamond Jim shook his last and stillness settled over us. Traveler stood next to Snake and eyeballed me, before her gaze wandered beyond me and out at the empty desert. “We are not alone.”
Straightening my glasses, I took a turn at looking around, but there was nothing to see but cacti and sage. “You mean me?”
Snake pulled out a cigarillo. “Why are you here?”
“For the same reason you’re here.”
“Then, what pray tell, do you think I’m here for?” The match flared, hit the tip and spice hit the air.
“It’s time we stop beating around the bush.” Traveler smoothed out her overskirts and then knocked dust from her black pants. “Maybe we can join forces.” Her offer came out in a deceptively casual tone. Too casual in my opinion, but I held my tongue and let her continue. “It’s clear we have competition and they’re a step ahead us.”
“What makes you think they haven’t already won the race?” They exchanged that look again, leaving me with the impression I was not here. “What?!”
In unison, they turned and looked at me.
Uneasy and frustrated, I snapped, “There is something going on here I don’t understand. You two keep doing that thing.” I pointed a finger at Traveler. “You almost knocked me on my ass when we shook hands.” My finger moved to Snake. “She pulls her guns faster than any man I ever saw, and I have little doubt of her accuracy should anyone be stupid enough draw against her.”
They both grinned at me.
“He’s not as slow as you thought he was.” Traveler tilted her head in my direction.
Far from slow, but leaning heavily toward grumpy. “I’m tired, thirsty and I smell like a jackass.”
Snake gave a playful wink. “Let’s not stop at the smell.”
Traveler chuckled. “Be nice, Snake.”
Folding my arms over my chest, I huffed out a breath. “I want some answers.” Again they traded that look.
“You first.” Snake leaned one shoulder against the doorway drawing on her cigarillo, then releasing a steady stream of smoke. “What put you on the long stagecoach ride to Misery? Surely not the whiskey, or an abundance of high rollers.”
“I’m searching for an amulet said to have magic.” Tension lifted off me like mine timber. I’d kept that secret so long I’d forgotten its weight. My shoulders lifted in a half-hearted shrug. “If you believe in that sort of thing.”
“Do you?” Traveler’s gaze zeroed in on me, searching for the truth. “Believe in that sort of thing?” she clarified.
Interesting question, but no harm in answering honestly. “Yesterday, I would have said no, but I would have been kidding myself. Truth be told, if I didn’t believe at least a little, I wouldn’t be here.”
Traveler traded another of those damn side long glances with Snake, who took another drag before asking, “Does this amulet have a name?”
Deciding sharing time was over, until these two anted up, I removed my spectacles and wiped the dust from the lenses with the end of my scarf, hoping to appear confident. “Oops, it appears my turn is over. What do you know about it?” And failed ambitiously.
Sam’s bravado act made me want to chuckle. Instead of giving in, I blew out another lungful of smoke, narrowing my eyes against the sting. “You sure you want to play this hand, Gambling Man?”
That earned me a glare he couldn’t hide behind the round glass of his spectacles. “I didn’t waste my money on some damn fine whiskey or my time sitting on the back of an ass to give up just because mystery and danger decided to join the hunt. Put up or shut up.”
“I’m calling dibs on being mystery,” Smoke muttered.
Our lucky gambler had balls, that’s for sure. Shaking my head, I took one last drag, dropped the finished cigarillo to the dirt, and used my heel to grind it out. “Fine, but can we move our conversation inside? I’d rather hold this conversation without the carcass centerpiece, if you don’t mind.”
Sam shifted his stance and dropped his arms before waving a hand toward Diamond Jim’s door. “After you, ladies.”
Smoke gave me a silent warning, which I answered with a nod. Letting Sam follow at my back wasn’t ideal, but my gut said he was playing it straight. For now. So I let my sister lead the way inside, my neck itching the entire time, whether from the unseen eyes lurking out among the sagebrush and sand or from the man behind me, didn’t really matter. There wasn’t much to Diamond Jim’s shack. A pot bellied stove squatted in the corner, a pile of blankets I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole lay nearby. There were a couple of haphazard cupboards lining the opposite side above a rusty basin. A cracked pitcher sat on the rough wood counter. A lantern held a place of honor in the center of an upended whiskey barrel serving as a table between two crates with faded lettering.
Smoke poked around the cupboards as I shifted to the far side of the one room shack, standing just to the side of the meager window draped in a gray cloth. Sam left the door open and slid to the side by the table, keeping Smoke and me in sight. Good thing he didn’t close the door, because the reek inside was eye watering. Maybe we should’ve stayed outside.
Smoke muttered a few unintelligible words under her breath and flicked her hand toward the door. An unexpected breeze swept through the interior, leaving breathable air behind. Sam’s eyes widened and his Adam’s apple bobbed. Regardless of his earlier statement, I was betting Sam was still coming to terms with the existence of magic. Deciding to get this conversation rolling, I drawled, “What do you know about the Yaqui Blood Star, Sam?”
My question snapped his attention from Smoke to me. Despite my earlier musings to my sister on his intelligence, Sam was far from stupid. “Legends say it holds shamanistic powers.”
“Such as?” Smoke cut in sharply, closing the last cupboard.
Sam shrugged, his face carefully blank. “Native peoples say Shamanistic power is for spiritual purposes. Blessings, healing of the spirit and such.”
Time to clue Sam in to a few facts. “The Blood Star is a hell of a lot more than a focal stone for a medicine man. Talismans don’t garner reputations as fearsome as the Blood Star because it’s all goodness and light.”
“Fearsome?” Sam cocked an eyebrow. “This particular piece is meant to bring its bearer unending luck. I wouldn’t consider a run of luck dangerous.”
I couldn’t suppress the snort as I used a gloved finger to inch the material aside and scan the exterior. “Wouldn’t you? I’m thinking Diamond Jim may disagree with that assumption.” Nothing moved in the dust and sage but the tension singing along my spine kept me vigilant.
“I sincerely doubt the Blood Star poisoned Diamond Jim,” Sam shot back.
Turning from the window and letting the dingy material drop back, I leaned against the wall. “Nope, that would be courtesy of Levi Mendes.”
Interest sharpened Sam’s blue eyes. “Who is Levi Mendes?”
“A very, very bad man,” Smoke offered as she straightened from checking out the nooks under the basin, a tin can in hand. “And at some point, he must have visited with our dearly departed.” She tilted the tin, peering at the contents, then bringing it up for a delicate sniff. Her nose wrinkled and her gaze met mine. Worry added a deeper luster to her dark eyes.
Shifting from the wall, I took a step forward. “What is it?”
She held up a finger, stopping me. “Give me a minute.” She wet her fingertip and dipped it inside the tin. When she lifted her finger, dark granules dotted the tip. Her tongue darted out, capturing a few flakes.
“Really?” I asked. “You think that’s smart?”
She rolled her eyes, her mouth working for a minute before she turned her head aside and spat into the basin. “Arsenic.”
“I sincerely doubt the Blood Star put Arsenic in Jim’s coffee.” The glib comment came from Sam who was studying Smoke. “So, I ask again, who is Levi Mendes?”
Grabbing the conversational reins, I said, “The man who wants the Yaqui Blood Star and is not above killing for it.”
Sam’s attention darted back to me, skepticism etching tightening his mouth and narrowing his eyes. “Never heard of him.”
“Isn’t he the one who hired you?” Smoke asked, putting the tin on the counter, before turning back.
Sam blinked but stayed quiet, refusing to show his hand.
Time to show some cards. “Since Diamond Jim isn’t one for entertaining, let’s all admit we’re here for the same thing, shall we? The Blood Star. Whether you believe in magic or not, I’m sure we can all agree it’s definitely worth a pretty penny.” That got me a reluctant nod from Sam. “Right then, we can then assume whoever is out there watching us wants the same thing.” Another slow nod. “I’m not sure what your stake is in recovering this piece, but our,” I nodded to Smoke, “interest probably out weighs yours. It’s not like we ran into each other at the butt end of the world on a whim.” I waited until he put the pieces together that Smoke and I were partners before continuing. “Factor in the determination of our invisible friends outside to ensure none of us claim the Blood Star, and I’d say our odds rise dramatically if we work together.” I held Sam’s gaze. “You’re a gambling man, Sam, how do you think this plays out?”
I could practically see the wheels in his mind spinning. A long moment ticked by as both Smoke and I let him ponder his current predicament. Bored, I pulled out another cigarillo and lit it.
Finally he blew out a slow breath. “Make me a proposal.”
“Here’s a proposal. We let the dandy make a snack for our new friends outside while we get out of this hell hole,” I muttered.
Snake turned sharply to look at me, “Smoke!” Chastisement hung from her words.
I shrugged, looking over at Sam. I could see a sheen begin to gather on his forehead that I doubted had anything to do with the stifling heat in the shack. “Don’t worry if we fed you to them it would only make them ravenous for human flesh. Our mules may be steady but they’re certainly not fast enough to get us off this mountain in one piece if revenants are chasing us.” I grabbed the cigarillo from between Snake’s lips, she started at the sudden movement but I already took a long drag and handed it back to her before she could really start bitching. “Don’t tell mama.”
She rolled her eyes at me, snorting. “If you think mama doesn’t know you steal my cigarillos on occasion then maybe the revenants are already gnawing on your brain.”
I inclined my head at her before turning back to Sam who had begun to twist the fabric of his scarf unconsciously. “I go by many names, but to you I’m Smoke. Snake here keeps it simple, but as you might’ve surmised, we’re sisters. What that means for you is this, if you hurt one of us, the other one will come after you. Say by some cunning of wit, and I do believe you have wit despite my earlier assessment, you manage to hurt both of us, we’ve got a lot of kin who believe in vengeance. Our clan is meaner than a rattle snake whose had his morning sunbathing interrupted. I mean, do nice people name their children Snake and Smoke?” I finished my speech by giving the man before me a hard stare.
If the scarf wasn’t covering his neck I swear I would have seen his Adam’s apple bob. Then he bucked up, straightened his shoulders, and held out his hand. “Pleasure to meet you Smoke.”
I took his hand with some trepidation and was surprised to find it dry and warm and whatever he had zapped me with last time appeared to be minding its manners.
“This here is real heart warming and all but we’ve got revenants waiting to suck the marrow from our bones, and, if I’m not mistaking, a deal to make.” Snake stepped forward as I dropped Sam’s hand. “So, how do you see this playing out?” Snake’s words were directed at Sam. I already knew what we wanted the Blood Star for.
He reached up to straighten the already settled spectacles giving himself a moment to contemplate. “If what you are saying is true, I would assume that no one really wants to own the Blood Star for too long. I would suggest a shared custody of sorts to be determined at time of acquirement. For now we just need to get our hands the damned thing.”
Sam using “our” was encouraging. Snake didn’t miss the word either as interest sharpened her gaze. “And what is it that you have to bring to this table exactly?”
He wasn’t flustered by Snake’s harsh tone. “Well, I found Diamond Jim didn’t I?”
Taking one last drag from her cigarillo Snake pinched the end and tucked it away, all the while blowing a perfect smoke ring. “That’s fine and dandy Sam, but Diamond Jim is dead, and as you don’t seem to know Levi Mendes I’m not sure how you’d be able to help us.”
“Fair point my lady, but I am good at gathering information. I didn’t even know the Blood Star existed until last week and yet I’m hot on your trail after having to travel from a state over to get here. Information is my specialty and now that I have a name, I will find your Mr. Mendes. Not bad for a guy who only learned magic was real a week ago.”
Unimpressed, Snake crossed her arms. “This arrangement can be terminated at will.”
He nodded, “Of course, one doesn’t like to be locked into a contract should it prove to be a shit deal.”
I walked over to the door and opened it, before looking over my shoulder. “We in agreement then?”
Sam added a firm, “Yes.”
“Good enough for me.” I turned my attention back outside. The revenants were coming closer but they were cautious, weakened in the late afternoon sun. The dark weight of their presence gathered on the edges of awareness like thunderclouds before a monsoon. I was glad the mules were tied close to the shack and reasonably out of harm’s way. Our wheelin’, dealin’, pissing contest could have left us going back to town on foot. It would have been nicer to have made our getaway earlier, there was no helping it now. Clearing my mind, I reached into the dark place of my mind and let the language come spilling out of me. It was an odd combination of lyrical and guttural but by the time I came out of the trance the revenants were fleeing down the mountain.
Sam walked up to stand beside me, touching my elbow inquiringly. “Ah, pardon me, but were you just speaking in tongues?”
Behind me Snake snorted.
“Some people have called it that, but I don’t know it’s name. It’s passed down through the generations. I inherited it from our Meemaw. Snake inherited…other things.”
He looked at me skeptically. “Uh huh, but why exactly were you singing, moaning, and talking gibberish?”
Shielding my eyes I searched the area about ten yards from the mules and pointed to the freshly flayed carcass of a jackrabbit. “Like we keep telling you, revenants. If you go searching this hill top you will find any formally living creature to be in the same state as Bier Rabbit over there.”
Immediately Sam walked out to test my words. While he spent the next ten minutes wandering around the hill looking at the remains of other brutally assaulted creatures, Snake and I leaned against the shack, letting the skeptic come to his own conclusions. He wandered back looking a little gray. “What does this mean?”
“It means,” I answered in a kind tone, “that we need to get off this hill before nightfall.”
Looking up at the orange sun descending, we got to getting.
Tune back in for Chapter 4 in two weeks.