“Seeing as how this is a family matter.” I finished my drink and rested my righthand on the hilt of Dragon Breath. “I’ll make my way over to Mademoiselle Angelique’s Boarding House where a hot bath awaits.”
“No one moves until I get what I come for.”
Charlie moved to the end of the bar and some of the patrons tip-toed out the door. Not that drunken cowboys are known for their stealth, but there’s nothing like eminent gunplay to sober a man up.
“Hey amigo, you’re playing your cards all wrong, if you don’t mind me saying.” Smoke moved away from Snake while I had Villalobos’s attention. “First, we don’t have what you’re looking for.”
“Second.” Smoke spoke up. I slid in the opposite direction. “If you blow Jinx’s brains out for us, we’ll have to exact our pound of flesh from you in return.”
Snake, now left front and center turned to face Villalobos. “Thus making us the hero’s in Meemaw’s eyes.”
“Since dead men tell very few tales.” Smoke chimed in, and I moved again. “Meemaw would never be the wiser and we’d finally be rid of that degenerate.”
We slowly flanked Villalobos.
Jinx blinked his eyes disbelieving. “Hey, I’m getting a little sick of this conversation.”
“Shut up.” Four voices shouted in unison.
“I won’t shut up, I…”
Villalobos pistol whipped Jinx spitting a string of Spanish curses.
Smoke and I both used the distraction to move a little more.
“Stay where you are.” Villalobos waved his gun at me.
“You my friend are holding eights and aces. If I were you I’d fold while I was still drawing breath.”
“You think you are so smart, si.”
“Even you can see you’re outnumbered. If you know anything about these ladies, you should know you’re out gunned as well.” I watched Smoke move a little more and her hands were began to glow faintly. She looked exhausted and I wondered if her magic would work.
“The man is making sense.” Jinx received another crack to skull for his comment.
Snake opened the fresh pack cigarillos Charlie left on the bar and lit one turning her back on the show. “The Gringo’s right, you ought to get out of here while you can, and take the pile of cow dung with you.”
Charlie cleared his throat. He’d circled around to the door of the saloon. He braced his double barrel against his shoulder and aimed it at Villalobos. “This is what you might call two birds with one stone.”
“Santa Maria. You said this would be easy pickin’s.” He pistol whipped Jinx a good one and let him slump to the floor then holstered his shooting iron. “Take out your own trash.” He backed out the door holding his hands well away from his gun belt.
“You folks can tire a fellow out. I believe two beautiful women and a hot bath are calling my name.” I started toward the door but paused with my hand in the air. “The stage is due through here before noon. You two should get some rest.”
“How much rest are you going to get?” Snake asked with a smirk.
“I barley have the energy to walk across the street. Besides I can sleep on the stage coach.” I pushed the doors open wide. “See you in the morning.”
“Good night Gambling Man.”
Fat back sizzled in a pan, Ida’s long brown hair hung loose down her back as she worked her magic at the stove. I sipped my coffee slowly. “I’m sorry Ida, you knew I’d be leaving sooner or later.”
A pan slammed down hard enough to shake dust from the rafters. “Later, that’s what I thought.”
I seem to be able to raise the ire on the most timid of women. “Business calls.”
“You are leaving with those two hoodoo witches.”
“What do you know about them?”
“I don’t have to know about them to know what they are. The air changes when they’re in the area. You can feel it.” She accented this last with another bang of the cast iron skillet.
This last gave me pause. I’m certain not everyone felt what Ida just described. It caused me to consider what other attributes she harbored that were not revealed in the boudoir. A plate slid across the table to me, two eggs and fat piece of bacon and a chunk of bread. “Thank you, Ida.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Mademoiselle.”
“I’ve thanked her plenty, believe me.”
“Where will you go?”
“The stage to Santa Fe, from there I guess the rail back east somewhere.” I shrugged.
“Will you come back?”
“Can’t make any promises, but if I make it back this way I’ll search you out.”
A commotion in the next room drew my attention and the hackles on Ida’s neck come to attention.
“They’re here,” she said.
“Is he still here?” Miss Snake’s voice cut through the air.
“I’ve got to go darling. Take care of yourself.” I kissed Ida on the forehead and tucked the last of my money into her apron.
I pulled on my new white coat and stepped into the main parlor while Mademoiselle explained it was none of their business. “It’s okay Mademoiselle Angelique. They’re friends.”
She hurumphed and turned her large bosom about face leaving us alone in the parlor.
“You don’t look any worse for wear.” Smoke ventured.
“I must say you both look a bit more agreeable this morning as well.”
Smoke pirouetted in her all black outfit.
Snake wrestled with her hat which didn’t seem to be cooperating. “Who does that cow think she’s talking to?”
“She’s very protective of me.” I grinned opening the door to usher them outside. “However,” I continued in a conspiratorial tone, “if she knew she had the last dollar I have to my name she would have thrown me out on my ear.”
“How are you planning on traveling with no money?” Smoke turned looking concerned.
“I hoped you would stake me into a game once we hit Santa Fe.”
“And until then?” Snake punched her hat. “Damn it.”
“I will either travel on the kindness of benevolent strangers, or stay on here until I can earn some money.” I checked my time piece.
They looked at one another a knowing smile grew on Snake’s face. “No one had ever described me as a benevolent stranger before.”
Smoke gave me a shove. “Let’s go, I’ll stake you after I hear the tail of the red scarf and what lies beneath it, and it better be worth it.”
I walked toward the livery where the stage should be pulling in soon. Snake threw her hat and stomped it down ten or twelve times before giving it a swift kick sending it further up the street.
“Can I help you break in your new hat Miss Snake? I feel awful about losing the old one.” Smoke gave me a wary look and shook her head.
“I suggest you hold your tongue Gambling Man before you lose it.”
I did as suggested for most of the ride. The coach was full after we joined. A banker, his wife, and a judge sat across from the three of us. I played kneeseies with the judge. The ride jarred my achey joints and my teeth rattled like a cup of dice. The self important overindulged judge blew smoke from a cigar into my face while he described all the cases where he’d proudly sent men to the gallows. He recounted how each one died at the end of the rope in vivid detail. My throat closed up and the scar around my neck burned as if the rope that created it still held fast. Leaning over I whispered to Smoke, “Can’t you do something about this blowhard? He’s killing me.”
She grinned. “Snake dear, may I have one of your cigarillos? It seems our companion is a might uncomfortable.”
“Of course sister mine.” Snake offered up one of those hideous smelling prairie dog turds with a mischievous twinkle.
The judge pontificated about a Mexican fellow who took a good five minutes to die because the rope did not break his his neck. All the while a chain of smoke rings drifted across the coach and encircled his neck. He paused in his diatribe long enough to loosen his collar and cough. Fascinated, I watched his face turn crimson as the chain tightened around his throat.
“Say when handsome,” Smoke said.
The judge hammered on the roof of the coach, but the driver did not slow the team. The banker and his wife stared spellbound. When the judge’s legs stiffened and he did the very jig he’d recounted about the Mexican, I nodded to Smoke. “When.”
She took another drag and blew the smoke directly at the judge. The chain dissipated and the coach assumed a grave silence. Smoke closed her eyes and passed still glowing cigarillo to Snake. I closed my own eyes and recollected how much I’d learned in the last few days. Nightmares haunted my rest until Santa Fe.
Staring through the haze of smoke I took advantage of the blessed silence of the rickety stage ride to settle back for a spell. As much fun as it would’ve been to watch the self-important jackass dance his final jig, at least the blowhard’s yammering was no longer buzzing in my brain. I tugged the brim of my ill-fitting hat down over my eyes and folded my arms, keeping my hands real close to my girls, Pearl and Ruby. The monied couple looked a little skittish and I didn’t want anything untoward to happen.
Next to me Sam feigned sleep, not well, but enough I’d let him be. Based on his reaction to the neck stretching yahoo across from us, I caught an inkling of what might be behind his creative neckwear choices. Getting up close and personal with Death, now that would also explain some of Gambling Man’s other unique skills, not to mention why I was finding his presence much more entertaining than most.
Time to concentrate on the real reason I willingly trapped myself in a stagecoach with strangers—the tracking spell Smoke managed to tag Mendez with during our little saloon showdown. Normally it was next to nothing for Smoke to bag and tag our prey with a tracking spell, but the last couple of days of heavy lifting left each of us a mite shy of shiny. Combining our magic not only compensated for that, but allowed us to track a longer distance. A necessary thing since the tethering line was humming it’s little heart out all the way to Santa Fe. If my estimates were right, we’d hit town close to sundown, just a handful of hours behind Mendez. Unfortunately, I was fairly certain Jinx was eating our dust trail even now.
If I was the spiteful kind, our dearest dumbass coz would find himself making nice with some of the desert’s more prickly characters. Ah hell, who was I kidding? I let my darker impulses out to play and sent an invitation to a few of my venomous and stinger inclined friends before letting my lips curl in vicious satisfaction as my teeth kept my cigarillo firmly in place. A minor delay in the overall scheme, but it eased some of the black fury in my heart to know Jinx would be highly uncomfortable for a span of time. Meemaw would understand.
A muffled huff of breathe from Smoke indicated she caught that move. Sliding a glance on over I caught her lips twitching as she stared out the window.
Family taken care of, I turned my mind back to the problem at hand. Shanghaiing Mendez and getting Cyrus’s whereabouts out of the cowardly bastard and who hired him. I was still betting on the Sullivan clan being the one holding his reigns. So trading the Star for Cyrus might be the right solution, or least the right solution to not furthering the feud between us and the Sullivans, but I had no intentions of letting Mendez off that easy.
Setting the trap was the easy part—we offer the Star in exchange for Cyrus. Problem was getting the thrice damned curse lifted from the boy. Mendez couldn’t do that, that responsibility belonged to the one who cast it. If the Sullivans were bound and determined not to show their hand, we’d get Cyrus back but he’d still be dead of the curse. My gut was screaming this was the ultimate ouroboros—Cyrus’s death was a sure thing no matter how this played out.
Dark, dangerous thoughts crept closer, and thanks to the fear of losing the best of our family, gained traction. There was a spell, a multi-layered, formidable, and completely treacherous spell that offered the barest ray of hope. Unfortunately, I needed Smoke’s help to pull it off, and I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to like it. Not one little bit. I stumbled across it once in a dusty little family journal dating back from before our family set foot on America’s soil, it was called a Rider spell. It required the worse ingredients known—blood sacrifice and a soul-bound deal. Smoke wouldn’t have a problem with the blood sacrifice part, it was the soul-bound deal she’d be taking issue with.
Tying a demon rider to the Star was risky, especially considering the uncertainty of linking demon magic with the ancient magic of the stone, but it would guarantee that the one who threatened Cyrus would be permanently out of the game. Of course, my place on the board would be forfeit. While that didn’t bother me—much—it would probably piss Smoke right the hell off. Thing was, I was pretty certain she hadn’t run across the full spell, and if she had, well, then, it was up to me to fast talk my way around how to negotiate the demon deal part. If we did manage to tie a demon to the Star and take out the castor as payment, it left me skating a paper thin line considering my history with the denizens of the lower realm.
The cherished memories of Cyrus’s bright eyes, impish smile, and sturdy little arms wrapped tight around my neck as he whispered I was his “favoritist” auntie outweighed any possible trepidation. Didn’t matter that I knew Smoke shared that title with me, that boy didn’t deserve to get caught between the vengeance of two unforgiving clans. He deserved a chance to get out and above our families’ histories. Smoke would make sure he did. And I had no problems doing what it took to ensure the same, even if it meant lying to my beloved sister.
Besides, say the worse happened and I joined the demon ranks, I’d make damn sure to keep my focus on the Sullivans—a scorched earth policy tended to work best anyways.
Decision made, the constant worry and anger settled into steel hard determination. As soon as we hit Santa Fe, I’d get Smoke on board and set the wheels in motion. It was time to bring Cyrus home.
Sam slept fitfully next to me whatever personal hell going on his head causing his hands to shake, the occasional knee jerk along with the occasional mumbled swear word. Our three companions noticeably avoided eye contact particularly the judge. I’d hoped for a little more spine from that one so I could play with him a bit more to pass the time. Instead he kept his eyes glued out the window looking at the never ending landscape of dirt and rocks. I supposed that was a punishment in and of itself. Focused on the old windbag it took me awhile to realize the Snake had gone silent. Snake, a predator like her namesake, could stay silent for hours, but this was a darker silence. The air in the coach heavy from whatever fool plan she had spinning in her head.
We needed to talk and whatever was on her mind was not suitable for mixed company. My little noose trick already had them on edge and I didn’t need any hysterics today. I closed my eyes and looked for the familiar path letting my body relax into a pseudo slumber as my spirit traveled the well worn path that connected Snake’s psyche with my own. As I suspected the usually vibrant home we shared for private conversations was shadowed and gray.
“Sister mine,” I called out to her.
It took Snake a few moments to repeat the process I’d just gone through. “Why are you calling me here? What if the other passengers attack us.”
I laughed at the thought, “That group aren’t really the attack women in their sleep type. Well, maybe the judge but he’s doing everything to avoid our attention at this point. Now, what is going on with you?”
“I’m worried about Cyrus.” The gray seemed to pulse around us.
“As am I, but the curse will be removed shortly. Meemaw’s taking care of Cyrus, she’ll hold the curse at bay until we can get it lifted.”
Confusion rippled through our shared space. “Meemaw doesn’t have Cyrus, the Sullivans do and you know that they’ll never give him back or the sorry sons of bitches will give him back but leave the curse on him.”
In the mind space I couldn’t stare incredulously at my sister but I wished I could. “Sister mine, the Sullivans do not hold Cyrus. You must remember this?”
“What are you talking about Smoke, I know that they hold him. We trade the star and we’ll get back the boy but he’ll still be cursed so he’ll die or be in so much agony he’ll wish for death. The Sullivans aren’t the generous type, they won’t offer the boy and lifting the curse.”
Dread filled my stomach as I looked around our meeting space. The gray that had been instantly noticed hid a darker meaning. Tiny veins of black twisted through our mind home causing the illusion of gray. It touched us both. “The Star,” I mumbled suddenly aware of it’s presence wrapped up in my skirts.
“Yeah Smoke, I know we’re going to trade the Star but it’s not enough.”
“No Snake, look around, look closely.”
I felt her mind wander and a moment later heard her curse. “What the fuck is that?”
“What is it doing?”
“That there is the ten thousand gold doubloon question. Is it making me forget where Cyrus is to fuck with us or is it making you paranoid that all of our efforts will be in vain because we don’t hold the boy or his curse?”
She swore again, “Fuck if I know.”
“Frankly, I don’t know either . If it weren’t for Cyrus I swear I’d bury that cursed stone ten feet under in salt in the middle of barren land.”
“But there is Cyrus.”
“I know that so now we gotta find out where he is. We were going to go straight to the Sullivans but for matters such as these it may be best to have our matriarch handle the negotiations. Particularly given that she’ll know for certain where the boy is.”
“We need to talk to Sam.”
With that we both pulled away from our connected space quickly sitting forward with a collective gasp. The banker who had felt safe enough to stare at our slumber quickly darted his eyes back to the window. Sam startled from his sleep and gave us a questioning look.
“Slight change of plans.”
“You ladies do live a life filled with enough excitement to keep a man spry or put him in an early grave.”
Snake chuckled, “We’re getting off before Santa Fe.”
“Oh and why would we do that?”
“Due to unseen circumstances of being the new owners of a certain bauble we’ll be needing to confer with our matriarch as to negotiations as well as the general state of reality,” I supplied.
Sam’s brow creased, “Does that mean?”
Snake cut in, “It does. You are about to be honored the great privilege of meeting our meemaw.”
A smile broke across his face as he already reached up to knock on the roof to announce our new destination to the driver.
Snake and I exchanged a look. Fingers crossed meemaw liked the eccentric old gambler or he’d be in for a nasty visit.