Welcome back the magical version of the Wild West! We’re hitting the home stretch with just a couple more chapters to go, and tonight y’all should be pretty excited because we’ve got meemaw in the flesh! Well, in the written word…same thingish? As always brought to you by myself, Jami Gray, and Dave Benneman.
Traveling with these two is as much fun as a gunny sack full of rattlers. The less than jolly stage coach driver reined in the team and dropped us in Los Lunas. His farewell included a reprehensible oath regarding my mother. When the dust settled I looked around at the three-building-splender that was Los Lunas. “Shall I find us a conveyance, or do we hoof it from here?”
My companions smirked at me.
“I say we find us a drink.” Snake tugged at her hat as if it fought to get away.
Smoke tilted her head at the least shabby structure. “This way Gambling Man.”
The establishment in question barely passed for a saloon. The one eyed bartender set a bottle on our table with dusty jars and backed away warily never speaking a word.
“Friend of yours?” I pulled the cork from the suspect bottle of brown liquid.
“Friend is a strong word, don’t you think so Snake.” Smoke blew the dust out of her jar.
“Very strong. He’s more of a common casualty, I”d say.”
“You mean casual acquaintance?” I poured generously.
Snake took a long drink. Her eyes glistened and she cleared her throat before answering. “I said what meant.”
It came out gravelly, but the rebuke was clear. “I see.” A small sip of the whiskey stole my breath away. “This is true fire water. You be careful lighting up your cigarillo.”
Snake nodded. “While we’re waiting, I believe you owe us a story.”
Smoke leaned back and clunked her heels on the table. “That’s right, and it’s way overdue.”
I untied my scarf and pushed the collar of my shirt down. The scar encircling my neck looked as if a blacksmith had wrapped a piece of hot iron around it. “At the end of the war I found myself traveling south. With the hostilities over I thought all would be forgiven. I didn’t advertise that I fought for the Union, but those Confederates aren’t as dumb as they sound and someone worked it out.”
I took another sip. The drink was getting more tolerable. “Now, that alone won’t get you strung up necessarily, but they weren’t rolling out the red carpet either. Being young and more than a little arrogant weighed in on that side of the scale as well. This particular night the cards were falling just right. I didn’t know it then, but soon learned that several of the losers at the table were related.
“The writing on the wall couldn’t have been plainer. I managed to ignore it anyway. Finally out of money and whiskey they accused me of cheating. As you know, this is a common ruse often employed to scare the winner into giving some or all of the money back.”
“Let me guess, you decided you had beat them fair and square, and were having none of that,” Smoke interjected.
“There was no law in Summerville, South Carolina at the time, so I was on my own. I pulled my shooting iron and rested my hand on the table. The barrel of a confederate issue sidearm screwed into my ear. ‘Let’s all remain calm,’ a low voice behind me. They took my gun, my money and called for the Colonel to adjudicate their complaint. At this juncture I thought I still had a chance of coming out of this with my skin intact. Colonel Sullivan, who not coincidentally turned out to be their uncle. As you might guess, I was found guilty.
“They took me outside of town where an old gnarled tree stood. I sat astride my horse, hands tied behind my back and a noose around my neck, while the Colonel went on about how he was bound by honor in service of Jefferson Davis to uphold the laws of this great nation. He droned on and on. The crowd got bored and slowly drifted away. I actually considered spurring my horse to end my suffering at the hands of this verbose blowhard.
“Finally, no one was left to witness my demise beside the long winded Colonel and his nephews left. When the old bastard finished his speech making, he nodded and my horse lurched out from under me. I swung there for some time while the four of them toasted me with the last of a bottle of whiskey. ‘You can’t have a dry lynching,’ one of them said and they headed back to town to gather more refreshments. That’s the last thing I remember.
“I woke up rattling around in an old ox cart. A Chinaman glanced over his shoulder in wonder. He couldn’t speak English and my China is limited. When I came to a second time he pantomimed cutting me down. I don’t remember how long he took care of me, but when I was feeling well enough to travel he waved me a goodbye, but not before presenting me with the what he used to save my life.” I pulled Dragon Breath from the sheath and laid her on the table. “That’s how we met.” I fixed my collar and returned the scarf to its proper place.
Smoke looked at me all squinty eyed. “When we mentioned the Sullivan clan, didn’t you think…”
I waved away her question. “It’s a common enough name. In Boston every other person you meet is a Sullivan or an O’Grady. They aren’t all related.”
“Can you describe this Southern Colonel?” Snake ground out a cigarillo on the table top.
“Not really. Tall fellow, red hair, thinning in the front. I was preoccupied with providing the entertainment for the night.”
“Would you know him if you saw him again?” Smoke leaned forward with a look as intense as a man in a gun fight.
“Can’t say for sure, but I’d know that voice anywhere.”
“Hmmf.” Was all Smoke managed before a clatter of noise accompanied by a cloud of dust poured in the door from the street. “That would be our ride.” Smoke tossed a silver dollar on the table.
Snake finished her drink and recorked the bottle.
I returned Dragon Breath and followed them out under the watchful eye of the bartender.
Shoving through the saloon’s swinging doors with Smoke on my left and Sam on my right, I stepped in the settling cloud of dust and braced for impact. Sure enough, the brown haze had barely dropped below eye level before I heard the imperious summons of my Meemaw.
“Girls, what in all that’s unholy have you two riled up?” The ratty parasol twirled over one well-padded shoulder protecting the elaborate twists and turns of thick gray hair, while darkened glass spectacles perched on the sharpened tip of her nose. Residents slowed and stared as the wonder that was Meemaw strode forward to stand in front of us while she continued her chastisement. “I’ve got portents squealing like stuck pigs, while the scrying bones are more confused than a liquored up whore.”
Her attention drifted to Sam and her red-painted mouth twisted up into something she probably meant to be flirty but came out disturbing. “Why, hello, handsome. Which delicious level of hell did my granddaughters unearth you from?”
Sneaking a glance at Gambling Man and the color rising under his skin left me smirking. Still, there wasn’t time to enjoy watching Meemaw play with her latest fascination so I stepped in. “Meemaw, a joy as always.”
That earned me a gimlet stare. “Darlin’ Snake, need I remind you of the manners I know damn good and well you own.”
Stifling a sigh that would result in an uncompromising tap on my head from her parasol, I adjusted my tone. “Meemaw, may I present Samuel Conner, Gambling Man Extraordinaire. Mr. Conner, the lovely Agatha Winterbourne, matriarch of our esteemed family.”
Ever the gentleman, Sam captured Meemaw’s proffered hand and brought it gallantly up to his lips. “Mistress Winterbourne, may I say the stories the ladies have shared don’t come close to capturing you.”
Behind me Smoke was suddenly attacked by a coughing fit while I tried to keep my eyes from rolling to the back of my skull. My hand itched for a smoke, but I refrained. Barely. With the required introductions complete, I headed in for more important topics. “Meemaw, we need—”
Her parasol struck with reptilian quickness and I sucked in a sharp hiss. “What you need, disrespectful child, is patience.” She dragged her gaze from Sam and leveled them on me, a sharp, lethal light shining through despite the darkened lenses. “We’ll speak in private. No need to share our conversation with the nosy nellies lolly-gagging around.”
“Come on, Snake,” muttered Smoke as she tugged me back so our questionable elders could proceed us.
Sam offered Meemaw his arm. She took it with another one of those stomach clenching smiles.
As they disappeared into the saloon’s interior, I let the full body shiver loose. “That is so wrong.”
“Tell me about it,” Smoke agreed. “I don’t know if we should warn Sam or just stand back and watch.”
Straightening my duster and resettling my hat, I sucked in a deep breath. “Either way, it ain’t going to be pretty.” With that I lead my sister inside to face the wily, dangerous critter that was my Meemaw.
* * *
Somehow Meemaw and Sam found a clean, unoccupied table tucked into the relative privacy of a back corner. It was as private as we were going to get. One of the girls set a bottle of whiskey and four somewhat clean glasses down before sauntering off. Meemaw made a production of distributing our drinks before raising hers in a silent prompt. When all drinks were aloft, she said, “May winter capture your heart and freeze your balls.”
While Sam’s eyes widened, Smoke and I barely blinked since it was one of Meemaw’s nicer toasts. We downed our drinks and while the rattle of glass against wood faded, Meemaw opened the discussion. “Alright, girls. Since you’re here I’m assuming you were able to retrieve our little bauble?”
“Yep,” Smoke spoke up first. “No thanks to Jinx’s interference.”
Meemaw’s eyes narrowed. “What interference?” A blood chilling edge coated her question.
Squashing my satisfaction at throwing Jinx under the bone crushing wagon, I leaned back and stretched out my legs. “Seems he decided to team up with Mendez for the Star.” Careful to keep any expression from my face, I aimed my attention at the table. Difficult to do since I badly wanted to watch Meemaw’s expression when Jinx’s screw-up came to light. “Guess Jinx was looking to make a few bucks.”
The taunt silence strangled every bit of air from the table. Finally, Meemaw broke it, her voice harder and colder than a witch’s tit. “I’m assuming you have proof, unlike your previous declaration of Jinx’s supposed misdeeds?”
Since our initial complaints against Jinx had hit the stone wall of Meemaw’s affections, my sister and I had planned for just such a challenge. I looked to Smoke, who reached into one of her many pockets and carefully smoothed out a piece of crumpled paper on the table. “Found this in his room back in Misery.” She pushed the receipt of Mendez’s payment to Meemaw with a finger.
Meemaw took her sweet time removing her gloves before picking up the ratty paper as if it was crawling with lice. She stared down at it and from my position beside her, it was hard to escape the sharp scrape of fury emanating from her still form. The edges of the paper began to blacken and curl. Before it could turn to ash, she let it drift to the table. Her hand curled into a fist. “I see.” She raised her head. “And where is my youngest now?”
Despite the recent addition of whiskey, my throat decided to choose that moment to mimic the desert my namesake called home. It took a cough or three to find my voice. “I’m sure he’ll be along shortly.”
Meemaw’s arched brow didn’t bode well. Smoke rode to my rescue. “He’s coming, Meemaw, he’s just had a few…incidents to meander through.”
“Incidents?” Her question made me wince and rethink my earlier decision to waylay Jinx.
Strangely it was Sam who diverted her attention. “Well, ma’am, as you know, traveling through the desert is a journey fraught with peril.” The Gambler’s smile didn’t waver when Meemaw switched her stare to him. His only sign of unease was his bobbing throat which disappeared behind his scarf. “I’m sure your son will be right along.”
“Well then, I’ll be sure to greet him when he arrives.”
The unspoken threat lying under her comment made me certain that Jinx would be safer never making it back to his dearest mother. Guess he finally managed to cross her line. Strange, that realization didn’t fill me with as much satisfaction as I thought it would.
“Meemaw, we have a favor to ask,” Smoke’s deceptively causal approach and the bruising pinch to my thigh under the table, wrenched me out of my thoughts. When Meemaw dipped her head in acknowledgement, Smoke continued, “We’re hoping you would accompany us to the Sullivan’s.”
Little furrows lined Meemaw’s forehead. “Of course, child. Why wouldn’t I? Thad and Mary are keeping a keen eye on Cyrus back at the ranch. I had every intention of attending the meeting.”
Shock ripped through me and my mind spun, almost drowning out Smoke’s muttered curse. Meemaw’s attention sharpened, “What happened?”
A sense of relief flooded me as Meemaw’s words verified that the Star had not been playing with my mind, immediately replaced by dread when I took in the ashy pallor that had spread over Snake’s face. Meemaw’s sharp gaze travelled between the two of us.
“I asked you girls a question and I won’t repeat it.”
I looked to Snake but her eyes stared dead ahead her fear scrawled across her face.
“The star is fucking with Snake’s mind.”
“Really meemaw? You could teach a career sailor a few lines.”
Meemaw glared at me. “I’ll let that go seeing as how close you and your sister are to that damn bauble. It’s probably fucking with your mind as well.”
I bit my tongue. Meemaw didn’t always object to foul language, but when she felt off kilter she felt the need to control anything she could including her grandchildren’s choice of language. That little realization made my stomach knot and churn the spirits we’d been consuming.
“Tell me exactly why you think the star has gone after you.”
Snake looked up from the staring match she’d been having with her half empty glass. She grabbed it and threw back the amber liquid to prove who was boss. The action brought a little color to her cheeks. “I was positive that the Sullivan’s were holding Cyrus. I even came up with a plan to make sure we got him back with the curse removed.”
“And what exactly was this plan?” Meemaw prodded.
“I was going to tie a demon to the star,” Snake mumbled.
Without warning Meemaw reached across the table and slapped Snake hard across the cheek the sound resounding around the mostly empty bar. A few patrons turned to look but quickly glanced away when they saw who it was. Snake reached up to cover her cheek but before she had a chance Meemaw was leaning over the table Snake’s chin firmly grasped in her fingers so Snake would look her in the eye.
“Listen girl. You are precious to me and precious to our family. Who exactly did you plan on offering as sacrifice?”
“Myself,” Snake responded defiantly.
“Never,” Meemaw stated simply. “We walk in the gray but our family has never made a promise to a demon and never will as long as I’m alive and I am too stubborn to die. Saving a child is a noble cause and I know that your heart is in the right place but sacrificing your soul for a life of torment is not an option. Should Cyrus die he will not be doomed for eternity. Our hearts would surely break, but his life is not worth no more or less than your own. We have always found a way, but if we didn’t we would mourn him knowing he has passed on peacefully. The day you or any of my kin pass eternity suffering with demons is the day that I’ll have failed my family.”
The look on Smoke’s face told me she didn’t agree with Meemaw’s logic. Before I had time to ponder my own feelings on the subject Meemaw released Snake’s chin and struck out at me like a viper. I saw it coming but knew better that to stop it. My cheek stung and now Snake and I sported matching red hand prints on our left cheeks. Meemaw sat back in her seat and pointed her finger at me.
“That was for not taking better care of your sister.”
“Mee—” Snake started to protest before I pinched her knee.
“You’re right I didn’t understand how the Star would respond when we took possession. We had been warned. I made the mistake of assuming that if we didn’t ask anything of it we’d be safe.”
Meemaw was silent for a moment thinking over my words. I took that time to glance over the witness to our awkward family drama. Sam sat so still you could mistake him for a wax statue not wanting to capture the attention or wrath of our matriarch.
“You made no wishes you said?”
“Of course not,” Snake said.
I nodded my head in agreement with her.
Meemaw’s gaze swung to Sam. He sighed animation returning once more to his body as he reached for the bottle of liquor, pouring himself a healthy glass and taking a healthy swallow before responding. “Well, Ms. Winterbourne, I can assure you that neither me nor your girls made any outright wishes, but if this thing is as powerful as you suggest I fear it may know the desires of the heart. The ladies’ desire is to save Cyrus is unconditional, Smoke may be a skoosh more practical such as yourself whereas despite Snake’s outward demeanor is more tenderhearted. My own desires are revenge and I would hasten to guess love is a stronger emotion than vengeance so the Yaqui Blood Star went after the weakest link.”
Snake snarled next to me and a lesser man would have not been able to hold her gaze but Sam’s gaze was true. I placed my hand on Snake’s knee to stop her from reaching for either of her girls.
“When I speak of weakness, I mean only what that piece of fancy glass perceives. Objects forged in crucible of Hell have a twisted view of strength. I know firsthand there is not a weak bone in your body. Else whys you’d be buried in the desert. If I had a stake I’d bet it all that your family knows the same. If I may be so bold, I’d say you may be the strongest of us all. Isn’t that why the forsaken thing chose you in the first place? Its mistake was not recognizing the purity of your desire to possess it.
I felt the muscles in Snake’s leg release and I removed my hand assured by the color that flooded her face that she would not murder our gambling man. Not today anyway.
Meemaw looked at Sam with admiration, “That was a lovely way to put it.”
Now color flooded Sam’s face as well.
Turning back to us to give Sam time to cool his cheeks Meemaw looked much more confident than she had before. “Desires and wishes are close but not the same thing. When we get that talisman attached to some other stupid git and it will release you given distance and time.” A smile spread across her face, “Even better that the git is a Sullivan. Now, we need to set up a meet.”
Just then the saloon doors opened letting out a screech as the un-oiled hinges were pushed with force. We all looked up to find Jinx standing there his red hair standing out in wild tufts. The rest of him covered in dirt with a few splotches of blood thrown in to finish off the look. He spotted us in the corner and threw up his hand pointing at me and Snake. He stomped over not dropping his hand until he got to the table where he turned an imploring gaze at Meemaw.
“Shut it Jinx. You’ve gone too far this time and you will need to start repaying your debt to your family before you even think to ask anything of me.”
Jinx’s mouth gaped open. Guess it didn’t feel good to no longer be the golden child.
“You can start that repayment by informing the Sullivans that we will turn over the trinket in question in exchange for the lifting the curse on Cyrus. We need an answer by sun up.”
Jinx’s mouth began to move but Meemaw cut him off.
“Do not speak. You are dismissed.”
Horror shown in Jinx’s eyes. He’d just become an errand boy, the lowest rung in the family hierarchy. A job he hadn’t held since he was six.