Issue 15: "Mind Steel Razor Trap" Aug 21, 2009 22:36:48 GMT -5
Post by Admin on Aug 21, 2009 22:36:48 GMT -5
Weird Western Quarterly[/b]
Issue #15: “Mind Steel Razor Trap”
Written by Don Walsh and Susan Hillwig
Cover by James Stubbs
Edited by Mark Bowers[/center]
The carriage rolled into the heart of Phoenix , Arizona, and to a stop before the Tellier Hotel. Blond-haired John Tane stepped out of the carriage and adjusted his spectacles, glancing back and forth at the busy street. The teamster pulled John’s luggage from the back of the carriage and handed it to him, bid him goodbye and then drove away.
John hefted up his suitcase and walked into the lobby of the hotel and secured a room. Up the main staircase, John opened up his suitcase and settled in, taking out clothes and packing them away into the simple bureau. The secret panel with his special equipment and ‘dress clothes’ he kept secured, and tucked the case under his bed. That was for later tonight, after his meeting.
He pulled out a fine silk shirt and blue velvet vest and laid them on the bed, then walked over to the small wash basin. He splashed the scented water over his face, toweled off and dressed up in the finery. He glanced in the mirror and sighed as he adjusted his spectacles again, then tugged uncomfortably at the silk cravat. Pretending to be me is one thing, John thought bitterly as he tugged at the cuffs. Fine, I’m a milquetoast teacher who avoids confrontations, and makes his father sigh each time. But this...
He plucked his hat off the wall peg and stalked from the room angrily. He reached the top of the stairs and stopped himself, taking a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. Then he sauntered slowly down the stairs, pacing himself carefully as he reached the lobby.
“Mr. Tane, how good to meet you,” Augustus Breyer said in that slick, oily voice of his, putting out a stout, flabby hand to shake. “I must admit, I was surprised to receive your message after the...delicate matter in Mesa City some weeks back.”
“Well, Mr. Breyer, that’s the way ruffians will behave,” John said as he lightened his voice and gave a limp response to the shake. He shrugged his shoulders noncommittally and added, “What more can one expect from such people? Part of why I wanted to learn about you, and your outfit, and discuss the sale of my own interests in Mesa. Time for me to ascend from such a piddling little dust bowl and get back East, to genuine civilization.”
John Tane’s heart froze, and he struggled to restrain the shock from showing on his face. He couldn’t let Breyer see a single slip of his guise. But Jeanne Walker’s voice was a hard thing to resist.
“John Tane? What are you doing here?” Jeanne asked as she walked up to the two men and put a hand on John’s shoulder.
“Hello, Jeanne. Delighted to see you again,” John said in a soft, calm voice. She couldn’t help but notice the lack of emotion in it, nor could she fail to notice the soft lilt to his voice either. “You’re still in Phoenix? I thought a woman like yourself would have long moved on to her next...dalliance.”
Now it was Jeanne’s turn to stare in shock, and feel her heart skip a beat. She shook with suppressed rage, and her mind raced to figure out what was happening. She’d never expected to see her dear friend here, so far from his home, and with a snake like Augustus Breyer. Especially not in light of the Sanderson brothers, not as she understood the news report and John’s letter. This had to be a ploy. It had to.
Please let it be a ploy, Jeanne thought bitterly. In her short time in Mesa City, she’d grown very fond of John, especially their mutual hobbies that gave the man more depth than most she’d known.
“Jeanne? Are you alright?” John gave a soft chuckle as she shook herself out of the stunned musing. She saw the soft, limp hand offered to her and chose to ignore it.
“I’m fine, Mr. Tane. Thank you for asking. I shouldn’t have interrupted, you’re clearly busy,” she answered in a cool, professional voice. “I’ll take my leave of you both.”
“Jeanne Walker?” Augustus asked with an arched brow, a smile forming on the round, ruddy face. “I do believe my superior would be most interested in meeting with you.” He pulled a business card out and handed it to her. “Mr. Steele has heard much of your professional work, and would very much like to talk to you about things. I hope you’ll take him up on the offer. I could even step away a moment and set something up for you this evening? If you’re not too busy.” He stared into her eyes with a determined earnestness. “It’s very important to him.”
Jeanne felt even more uncomfortable, and felt the skin crawl over the back of her neck now, as she took the card. She read the name ‘Gideon Steele’ on it, of Bray & Steele Rail Road. She sighed and nodded at the man, partly to see what this man wanted to say to her. Maybe it would give her a chance to learn more about the company’s dealings, and important leads. At the least, as she watched Breyer hurry to the hotel desk, it gave her a chance to stare down her friend.
“What the blazes is wrong with you, John Tane?” she hissed furiously. “Dalliances? What are you doing with that snake?”
“Listening to him,” John replied softly, patiently. He immersed himself in his role, giving a slight swallow as he realized if he let the guise slip for even a moment, it could all fall apart. It was basic knowledge about masks and guises he’d learned from James Thunderbourne when he was training for his time as Johnny Thunder. Don’t slip, not a little. It was the only way the flimsy disguise he wore as Thunder worked at all. “Perhaps arranging a little business deal. Perhaps finding a solution to my backward situation back at home. He seems like a rather knowledgeable, capable business man. What are you still doing in Phoenix? I thought your latest job was complete, and you’d be off on your way...wherever?”
“Something came up,” Jeanne growled under her breath. “A second job. Something important. And now, apparently, I’ll be getting an appointment with Mr. Steele.”
“That must be very exciting for you, Jeanne. I hope you have good luck with this other job,” John replied as he screamed inside. He wanted to spill everything, but he saw Breyer coming back and realized his chance had slipped away for the moment.
“Good news, Ms. Walker,” Augustus said, beaming. “Mr. Steele is free this very evening, if you are, to meet for dinner, out at his place? If you’d be so obliging? In ninety minutes?”
Jeanne stared at Breyer, and back to John, and then back to Breyer. She felt trapped and rattled, but the chance to learn something to help her ultimate goals was too much. And maybe this would sting John as well, make him snap out of this bizarre behavior of his. “That would be just perfect, thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Breyer. I’d best be up to my room and make myself presentable then. Have a delightful evening, Mr. Breyer.” She turned back to John with fire in her blue eyes. “Mr. Tane.” She turned on her heel and stormed up the stairs, as John glanced after her, then turned back to Augustus.
“If you’re ready for our business dinner?” he asked, aching inside, and desperate to get past what was going to be anything but a delightful evening.
“After you, Mr. Tane,” Breyer said as they headed out of the building.
Jeanne slammed the door to her room and stood in place shaking for several moments. It was all she could do after the strange scene down in the lobby. After a short time, she had taken several long breaths and then forced herself to relax. She sat down by a table in her room and glanced at the mirror.
He’s up to something, Jeanne, she told herself as she looked at the disheveled, rattled blonde in that stared back at her. She tore the wig off and let her red locks fall down the nape of her neck. And he’s just some guy. And a white hat as well. A big stiff. Why are you even caring if he’s up to something? Or even if he isn’t? Why am I even going over this?
She watched as her reflection seemed to talk back to her. “Dear Heavens, girl, you’re really hung up on him, ain’t ya?” She chuckled when she heard the rough words and shook her head. She had ninety minutes before dinner with Gideon Steele, that could be enough time to...what?
“What, then? Know-it-all, what do I do?” she asked her reflection sharply. Go and trail after John like some unbranded horse you want to corral? Bust into his room and dig through his stuff, like he’s some criminal? He’s not the criminal, you are. You’re Madame .44, you’re not supposed to get flustered by some guy like a debutante comin’ out in Gotham society.
“Enough of that, you’re Madame .44. Let’s take this like an intelligent outlaw already, damn it,” she said aloud. She stood up and gathered together what she’d need for the night. No need to follow John. If he’s meeting with Breyer, it’s because he’s trying to dig up stuff he can use as Johnny Thunder, or he’s really the guy you met in the lobby, in which case you want nothin’ more to do with him. She got her camera case out and rolled up the white garb of her masked life, stashing them under felt flaps within the bulky box. That means focusin’ on Steele, and maybe getting a jump on B&R at last. If John’s bein’ Johnny, he’ll root through my room tryin’ to figure out why I’m still here in town. She glanced around and then grinned mischievously. She set aside a lovely dress for the dinner, then rearranged her drawers. She pulled a folded paper out from under the table and slipped it into some of her delicates in a top drawer with a chuckle. “That’ll fix Mr. Uptight’s wagon for that ‘dalliance’ comment.” She then grabbed her dress and prepared herself for the dinner.
John Tane returned to his room and closed the door behind him, leaning against it as he exhaled heavily. He thumped the back of his head on the wood, and then did it again. He took off the glasses and chucked them onto the top of the bureau, rubbed the bridge of his nose and finally moved further into the room. He yanked the cravat from his neck and started to undo the shirt in a haste.
“Well, as much as I find your offer for your property a bit high, Mr. Tane, it’s not totally unacceptable. Especially if you were amenable to providing some help.” Augustus said with a long pull of his cigar as the dessert course was removed from the table. “Some of your neighbors and fellow Mesa citizens have continued to stymie further expansion of our rail plans. And now, as I understand it, there are some masked...individuals who have helped to exacerbate the situation. You could say, they’ve derailed our plans.” He chuckled that slimy oily laugh that made John’s flesh crawl.
“I know who he was talking about,” John muttered as he pulled the suitcase out and slid the secret panel out of the way. He pulled out his gear, face set in a determined look. “And made me glad to hear.”
“You must mean the ruffian, Johnny Thunder,” John said as he sipped at a glass of brandy. “And that strumpet of his, Madame Gun or something. They’re...irritating. How can we build up a sense of propriety, establish a reputation for law and order, with that lot running around?”
He peered into the mirror to check the darkened hair, and smear the black greasepaint around his eyes. It made him sick to think of the discussion, but he learned enough to investigate further. “His strumpet,” he muttered. “After tonight, I’ll be lucky if Jeanne ever talks to me again.”
“So you think we can come to an accord? We’ll accept the price for your land in return for your influence in getting the remaining property owners to sell, preferably at a lower rate.” He took a deep puff, a satisfied look on his face. “Do we have a deal?”
Johnny Thunder secured his blue kerchief with his wooden thunderbird and then settled his white hat into place on his head. He belted his weapons into place and then stepped cautiously out onto the windowsill. He peered around to make sure there was no one watching and then made his way carefully from one sill to another, until he was making his way into Jeanne’s room.
He slowly moved through the room, shaking a bit as he looked over the top of the furniture, and poked at the safe parts of the luggage initially. “She took her cameras. That’s good, she’s just working tonight,” he muttered as he failed to find anything to give him a clue to her other job she’d hinted at. He looked at the bureau drawers and squared his shoulders up.
“She’s getting her jollies out of this,” he grumbled as he opened up the last of the drawers and saw papers tucked underneath her undergarments. He cringed as he pulled at the papers with two fingers, struggling to work them around the fabric without touching anything. “Oh yeah, somewhere, she’s laughing.” He finally retrieved the paper and slid the drawer shut, doing all he could to not think of her having dinner with this Gideon Steele.
He unfolded the paper, and saw a train schedule, one particular arrival circled, and the word “crier” and a dollar sign next to it. “Payroll train? Maybe?” He put the papers back and chewed thoughtfully at his lip. There was no way she was this sloppy, he realized. She had to have left it, as a message.
Finished in Jeanne’s room, Johnny returned to the window and made his way to the ground below, then started to creep around the shadows and alleys between the buildings, for his next destination. I wonder if this is what James had in mind when he started me on this whole rigmarole? he mused as he headed for Breyer’s office.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you two yet,” James Thunderborne said as he laid out some tin cups on the sawbuck table.
“Thought it might be prudent to check in. The time’s drawing close.” The old man shrugged off his fringed buckskin jacket and draped it behind his chair before sitting down. His hair was gray, with a strange pale blond streak that ran back from his temple. His companion, who sat in the chair next to him, was getting up in years as well, but the long, fiery red hair that spilled back on his head hadn’t dulled with age yet. “How’s he been coming along?”
James took the coffeepot off the potbellied stove and said, “He’s fast...both his hands and his head. Not like Windrunner, of course...”
“Course not. Couldn’t get that lucky,” the old man muttered.
“But they do have the same heart. It’s easy to see why Windrunner wanted me to watch over him.” James filled the cups before sitting down himself. “I can feel a part of him resisting a little whenever I bring up our ways, though. That worries me sometimes.”
“Windrunner did the same thing at first, don’t forget that. It’s just natural for white folks to get skittish when you bring up spirits and totem animals and such.” The old man glanced at his red-haired companion, who was garbed like a traditional Blackfoot warrior. “Present company excluded, of course.”
His companion said nothing, merely took a few pinches of sugar from the nearby bowl and dashed them into his cup before drinking.
“Anyways, I wouldn’t fret too much ‘bout it,” the old man continued. “If’n he’s meant for this like all the signs say, then he’ll be ready.”
“Yeah...but ready for which part?” James said, then sipped his coffee. “This Bray & Steele affair is going to be hard enough on him, but what you’ve got planned...” He set the cup down and stared hard at the old man. “The stakes are awfully damn high, Hawk, and John Tane is too good a man to sacrifice on a million-to-one shot.”
Hawk, son of Tomahawk, stared right back at James with eyes that had seen horrors that should never be voiced. “You don’t think I sweat that notion out every time I ask somebody else to help us with this? If’n I had my druthers, I’d head out to Puerta Del Sol all by my lonesome and take care of this, but we both know that one man ain’t gonna be enough.”
“Considering what we’re gonna be going up against, I’m not sure any amount of men will be enough,” James answered.
“What do you suggest then? We just sit on our hands and pray that sonovabitch doesn’t spread his poison any further than he already has? It’s going to happen, James, and we’re damn lucky that it hasn’t happened yet.”
“I know, it’s just...I feel like we’re not giving the boy any choice in the matter.”
“Ahwehota was not given a choice either.” Both men turned to look at Hawk’s redheaded companion, who had not spoken since their arrival. “The spirits dragged him away from the white world and into ours, yet he never denied the responsibility they thrust upon him. If Jonathan Thunderbird has Ahwehota’s heart, as you say, then he shall not deny it either...even if it means he might become lost like Ahwehota.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself, Firehair,” Hawk replied, and his companion silently nodded. “When the time comes ‘round, if’n this boy’s all he’s cracked up to be, he’ll stand with us. And if’n he don’t, then I reckon he wasn’t meant to be a part of this.”
“I suppose you’re right,” James said. “You said before that the time was drawing close...about how much longer do you figure?”
Hawk polished off his coffee in one quick shot. “Soon’s we finish forging the gun, we’ll round up the army to back it up.”
Augustus Breyer rarely had reason to be worried about anything. He knew there were very few on the Earth that could match wits with him, and even if intelligence couldn’t get him out of a mess, it didn’t matter. There was very little that could truly hurt him, physically. So there wasn’t much that made him nervous.
The huge man he talked with now though, was on that very short list. Six feet and a few inches, bulky and hard looking, Ernest “Ghoul” Gaines definitely rattled Breyer. His whole gang left a bad feeling in the business man’s gut, as he looked over the Black Hearts. Their reputation as depraved and revolting certainly preceded them. But Breyer had been assured that they were in a listening mood, and after all, he was Augustus Breyer, and even this group couldn’t really hurt him. Still, he swallowed hard.
“Are you certain you and your fellows are up to the task at hand?”
Gaines growled at the question, as the three men behind him shifted. The smallest of the group, a lithe man standing not quite five feet, chuckled at the question, as did a man of average height, who slapped the smaller man on the back as well. This man gave a grin that revealed a row of pointed teeth and Breyer’s eyes bulged almost comically.
“This ain’t nuthin’ complex, Breyer,” Gaines answered at last. “Our money’s comin’ in on that train, so we get paid for keepin’ our cash outta the hands of the hussy whut been messin’ up a lot of the gangs roamin’ around anyway. I’m not seein’ how this ain’t a considerable pile o’ flint we get to fix in one almighty fun row.”
“Good, good,” Augustus said as he wrung his hands now. “Just as long as we’re clear on the subject of Madame .44. She doesn’t walk out of this ambush. My employer doesn’t care one whit what happens to her, as long as she doesn’t walk away from it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the short man said as he made a rude gesture that rattled Breyer. “No cherry’s ever walked from one of our shindigs before, right fellas?”
“Wee Willie’s got it right, Breyer,” added the man with the razor-sharp smile as he clapped a firmer hand on his shoulder. “You jest make sure you pony up when we let the cash arrive.”
“Whut Grin said,” Gaines emphasized. “Now git. I’m tired of listenin’ to your book-talkin’.”
Augustus turned and headed for his own horse as the four vicious men talked up plans, and laughed, and Breyer shuddered at what they were most likely talking about.
“Miss Walker, what an absolute delight it is to have such a lovely and capable young woman to dine with this evening,” Gideon Steele said as he gave her a low bow. He took her hand in his and delicately laced the top with a kiss then stood up right again. “And you are indeed looking lovely. What a magnificent dress.”
Jeanne blushed at the comments; she never was one to take compliments, especially since she spent so much of her time dressed in serviceable clothes, or her disguise, dirty and dusty. She had a couple of the expensive fashionable dresses sure, for those formal occasions, but she never thought she could raise such an interest in someone like this. “Thank you kindly, Mr. Steele. I must say, the invitation came as a surprise, but a welcome distraction.”
He turned toward the interior of his house, an arm hooked with hers to escort her through the rooms. “Please, it’s Gideon. My chef prepared an excellent meal for us in the dining room, and there we can talk at leisure.”
She loved the way he spoke, with a richness to his voice; the words flowed one into the other without hint of uncertainty. Dark hair swept back from a handsome, rugged face, groomed mustache dark against the tanned skin. His piercing eyes never once looked away from his guest as he led her through the opulent building, into a room light by an elegant chandelier flickering from above. All candles, and they perfumed the dining room, adding to the mouth-watering smells of the food, and Jeanne’s head swam with the sensory overload. “Oh my! This is...is beautiful, absolutely stunning,” she gasped.
“Then it’s worthy of you, Miss Walker,” he said as he pulled her chair out and she settled down at the table.
“Jeanne, please,” she said as she looked over the table, and ran a finger over the silver place settings. “You must call me Jeanne, Gideon.” She flashed a smile at him, and for a brief time, she’d forgotten her original purpose for coming. Moreover, she’d even forgotten about the secondary impetus, as his gaze caught hers: the very idea of John Tane slipped from her mind.
“Very well, Jeanne,” he said in that special voice of his as he served up the first course of dinner to each of them. “I dismissed the servants for the night, Jeanne, because of what I need to discuss with you. It’s important that we feel totally free to talk, I find that most important.”
She thrilled to the way he said the name Jeanne, and something about that newest sensation made her blink. She realized she’d been looking into his gaze the entire time and so now she turned her face, forcing herself to look at the numerous pieces of art and furniture and other items to look at. “Well, I am touched you wish to confide in me, Gideon, though I must confess, I don’t understand what you think I can do for you.”
He had settled into his chair after pouring out a sweet-smelling wine with the first course and lifted his glass. “I think you’ll be surprised at what you can do, Jeanne. A toast, to a new relationship, a blossoming of two people coming together to accomplish great things.”
The soft ting of the two crystal glasses sent a shiver down Jeanne’s spine, warm and alarming as she caught the subtext in his words. She blinked again, sipped at the wine and then began to eat. “So please, Gideon, what is it that’s brought me here?”
“Your time as a photographer has placed you in contact with various men of influence, I assume?” he asked as he drank deep. “Through the newspapers and magazines?”
“Yes,” she replied simply, wanting to know what was next.
“I fear my partner is up to something...shady,” he said in a low voice, a low vibration at the very back of his words that made her want to lean in and listen closer. “Milton, he...he was a good man at first, but...but as our railroad has expanded, he’s become greedy, lost sight of our nobler mission.” He leaned back as he said that and then stood up to retrieve the next course.
“Do you have any proof of this?” she asked when he returned and served up slices of beef that steamed, and smelled sweet beneath the rich brown gravy. “There’s nothing really wrong with being greedy, I suppose.”
“No, making money for money’s sake isn’t a terrible thing, but when he hires bad people to hurt someone who won’t give up their home,” Gideon said in that torn, emotional voice, as he sank into his chair. “Or use that money to buy influence, like on the Indian Affairs boards, to move them out of his way...” His voice drifted off as he poked at his food and struggled to keep a stoic face in front of his guest.
“I see.” She reached a hand out for his, the fingers resting over his, and feeling the heat in them. Such a heat that radiated from this man as he turned his hand upside-down, and let the fingertips curl to hook with hers. “I...I definitely see a need...” The word rattled her again as she pulled her hand back and returned to her meal. “A need to look into this man. Yes, I can talk to some of my publishers and editors. I assume you want me to try and find this proof?”
“Yes, Jeanne,” he said. “If my suspicions are correct, he has to be stopped.” His eyes stared out in a determined gaze now, sitting up tall and broad-shouldered and noble. “I have to use whatever I can to keep people from being hurt by his corruption.”
Her heart swelled at his words, swept up in the honorable intentions and strong proclamation, and she knew she had to help him. He was so handsome, and so good, and so much like...
“John...” she muttered so low as he collected the next course.
“Excuse me, Jeanne? Did you say something?” he asked as he served her again.
“John...Able,” she answered quickly, flustered by his eyes, and the smells and the warmth that was filling the dining room. “He...he’s one of my editors, back in the States. He...he’ll be a big help, this is just the kind of thing he likes to sink his teeth into.”
“Excellent,” Gideon Steele said as he sat back down and reached out to touch her fingertips with his again, feeling the way they trembled in his slight, yet firm, grip. “So, Jeanne, tell me about yourself. I want to hear about how you got into this field. And later, I can show you my collection of your work. If you have the time?”
Jeanne’s head swam as she drank up her glass of wine, swallowed hard, and smiled back so sweetly. She didn’t take compliments well, because she didn’t get this sort of attention often. She had to admit to herself, she liked it. Just don’t like it too much, girlie, a voice inside of her chided. Just stop looking into those dark, handsome, amazing eyes, and stay focused.
When he brought out the rich decadent dessert his chef had worked so hard on for them, her inner voice realized that the focus was done for.
John was out in front of the hotel, leaning against a post and relaxed as he pondered his next move. He had the information he’d uncovered in Jeanne’s room, and had found nothing useful in Breyer’s office, so now he had to weigh what direction to take next. He was a teacher and occasional gunslinger; this investigating stuff was outside his experiences.
You’re smart though, Tane, so use that brain of yours, he mused as he looked out on the street, at the passersby and the routine of city life. You’re not the fastest trigger, and you’re not the best brawler, and there are better riders in this whole masked man world you’re in now, but darned if you’re not the smart one. The educated one. Get with it!
“Good morning, John,” Jeanne said as she stepped out of the door to see him standing there lost in thought. “Rough night?”
He glanced back at her and smiled. He adjusted his glasses and turned to face her now. “You could say that, Jeanne. Yourself?”
“Not in the slightest,” she replied with a jaunty smile and a flick of her fake blonde hair. “I had the most amazing meal, and got to spend time with an amazing man.”
John’s heart stopped for a moment, but he kept control of his reactions still. “Good dinner, then?”
“Yes. Very good dinner. And wonderful company. He’s so smart, John. Well-educated, and a good man at heart,” she added as she walked past John and paused just past the wooden walkway. “And he trusts me, trusts me to help him, John.”
There was a wrenching feeling in John’s chest as she spoke, and his fists clenched up tight, knuckles turning white as he stood there. “Or he’s just leading you on, for rather obvious reasons, I’d think.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jeanne snapped as she turned back at him. “Was that judging my upbringing? Not all of us can be all formal education and book-talking!”
“I’m referring to the fact that he might just find you darned gorgeous, and want...to...” John’s furious response was staggered by his modesty now and he looked away as he wiped his glasses. “Just saying.”
“He’s not the one who looted my inexpressibles, John,” she taunted with a wicked smile. “He’s not the one to look into. He’s not the bad guy in this, and I think, if you look closely at the chain of command in B&R, you’ll see who Breyer reports to. That should tell you all you need to know, John. At least, where the big bad railroad conspiracy is concerned. For anything else you need to know, Mr. Tane, I’ve not a cotton-pickin’ clue where you can be told that!” She turned and stalked off down the road now as John smacked the back of his head into the wooden post.
She came out of the hotel, he slowly thought, and she was the only one...well, anyway, that means he didn’t...well, anyway...maybe I can make this up to her. He lifted his head back up and watched her vanish into a small knot of people down the road, and then sighed. So if she’s so blessed concerned with the rail road, why is she hitting the newspaper’s payroll? He glanced down the street in the other direction and then slowly sauntered toward the Phoenix Crier to learn more.
He slowly walked down the streets and turned the corner to find the newspaper’s building, and glanced through the large pane window to see the small office inside. He slumped his shoulders a bit and coughed before going through the door. He smiled at the woman at her desk as she glanced up. “G’day, ma’am, I was hoping to inquire about writin’ for the paper. Been kind of a dream of mine, and now that I’ve recently moved into the area, and gotten a feel for the city, I though it was time to make myself known.”
The woman smiled at him and leaned forward. “Well, Kenny’s out right now, on paper business, but I’d be happy to take your name and information, and let him know you were here.” She pulled out a pencil and pad of paper.
“Kenny?” John asked as he glanced behind her at the closed office door to the rear of the room. “You’re awful familiar with Mr. Colson, I gather?”
“I hope so, he’s my husband,” she answered with a laugh. “I’m Mary, and the paper’s somethin’ of a family operation. Our son helps out, and my cousin pitches in. My brother even does his part from time to time, when he’s in town, which is less and less these days, what with his real company just takin’ off like it is.”
“What’s this real company, ma’am, if you don’t mind my askin’?” John smiled back at her, and adjusted his spectacles.
“Oh, well now, I don’t know how good a writer you can be, if you don’t know about Milt and the railroad he and Gideon run,” she replied with a good-hearted laugh at John’s expense.
“Of course, how foolish of me. Milton Bray’s your brother. That’s a powerful bad hiccup I’ll have to overcome. I’m James,” he said as she jotted the name down. “James Thunderbourne. I’m at the hotel right now, but I’ll just check on in later this afternoon? Or tomorrow? Whenever Mr. Colson will be back in?”
“Tomorrow morning would be good, Mr. Thunderbourne,” she answered with a nod. “I’ll let him know to expect you. Have yourself a good day now.”
“You too, ma’am, and thanks for all yer help,” John answered with a nod of his head and left the office. He walked away from the newspaper and mused over the information. A family business, with connections to B&R, and expecting a payroll delivery, and from out of state? Just a little suspicious. I think I’m gonna want to check that train out myself.
Jeanne reached the intersection, and stopped short, in a huff. She’d dashed out on John without really thinking about where she was going. In truth, she had no particular place to go just yet. The train was due to arrive around one o’clock that afternoon, but until then, she had little to do. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw John had left, and wondered if she wanted to turn back. She also wondered if John was catching all the hints and clues she kept dropping him. She had her plan for the train job all set, but having the good guy show up to interfere in her criminal enterprise would make her getting her gang busted much easier for her, and her reputation. Hiring the two for this job was difficult; especially in the wake of Silk Black’s collapse, Madame .44’s name had taken some hits.
“Stop that!” she hissed to herself, and then looked at some people who stared at her outburst as they walked by. “G’morning. Beautiful day, isn’t it?” She waved and smiled nervously. I can’t stop my brain. This is crazy. What in tarnation have you done to me, John Tane?
“Good morning, Jeanne.” Gideon’s voice felt like a velvet glove stroking her neck. She shivered and turned around, her smile growing more wide and warm. “How fortunate for me, to see you out here like this. You seem lost.” He stepped down from his brougham carriage with a smile of his own and took Jeanne’s hand in his to kiss the back of it.
“I...I think I am a bit at a loss,” she replied with a bit of a blush. “My morning plans seem to have changed suddenly.”
“Come have brunch with me then, Jeanne. My morning is open as well, and I’d love to have the company,” he said. “I know where we can get some excellent food.”
“You seem to have the nose for that, Gideon,” she replied with a chuckle. “Why do I feel like there’s a fox snoopin’ around the henhouse, good sir?” she teased him as he helped her into the cab.
“A fox? No. Not a fox at all, dear lady,” he chuckled as he stood behind her and helped her up, and took a momentary glance over his shoulder. It almost looked as if he winked to someone, though no one watched. Everyone knew not to watch Mr. Steele’s business after all. “How much longer do we have your radiance in our fair city, Jeanne?” he asked as he closed the cab door behind them and tapped on the side to have his driver start on their way.
Johnny Thunder regretted the fact that his trusted horse, Black Lightning, had been left behind in Mesa City for the entire trip, but at this moment more than ever. He’d ‘borrowed’ a fiery mustang from an outlying ranch to reach the incoming rail line in time, and then slapped the horse’s flanks to send it back home. Can’t keep you around and risk you getting shot at. Thanks, fella, he thought as he watched the horse race off.
He was on high ground that overlooked the snaking train tracks. He squinted and scanned the area, trying to figure out where Jeanne and her people would strike from. Since Jeanne’s stayed in Phoenix, I have to assume most of her gang, if not all, are here, and not aboard already. So they need to stop it. He thought carefully and then started to crawl around the rocky high ground. He tested various locations, pushing smaller rocks and getting a sense of their instability. A boulder to stop or derail the train seemed to be the best option, he finally decided.
But where? He finally made his way to the far side of the range, and carefully eyed the distance from his low ledge to the rails. “Nah. I can’t really be...” He stroked the back of his neck, adjusted his hat and gazed up the length of the track as it ran through the canyon. “That’s just bunkum, Johnny Thunder,” he chided himself as he crouched low and peered out to the horizon. James, I wish you were here to see what you’ve done to me.
It was a while before the train finally started to appear. Johnny tensed up, and with a “Wha-hooo!”, he leaped out into the air as the train slowed down for the first bend into the canyon. He landed on a car roof with a heavy thud, sliding toward the far edge as he scrambled for any sort of handhold, anything at all to grip onto. He fought down his panic as he finally caught himself at the last moment, legs sliding off the side before he could pull himself back onto the car. His chest hurt, shoulders throbbed, arm muscles felt like stretched out leather, but he grinned as he realized he’d made the leap.
“Alright, loco plan part one accomplished,” Johnny muttered as he lay there face up for a moment. “Let’s find the payroll, and get ready for the rest of the guests.”
Johnny maneuvered across the roof and dropped down into the back end of the car. He shouldered his way in and pulled his revolver out on the pair of men that sat within, with the safe. “Evenin’, gents. Don’t...don’t get excited,” he said as he watched the pair kick up from their chairs and grab for their rifles. “Just me, Johnny Thunder. I’m here ‘cuz you folks are targets, and I’m here to help.”
“Targets? Whatchya mean, targets?” one of the pair asked as they paused and stared at the vigilante. “Who you workin’ with?”
“Me? I’m on the side of angels,” he grinned with a tip of his hat. “I’m here for the black hats that are comin’.” The three men lurched as the train squealed suddenly. Johnny was prepared and grabbed a nearby strap to keep his balance as the iron horse up front struggled to rapidly stop. As things slowed, Johnny took his chance, hurling forward to crash into the two men. He slammed one man into the train wall, the other against the side of the safe to knock each unconscious. “They can blame the accident. So far, so good, now to deal with Jeanne’s people.”
He peered out and saw three men making their way up the length of the train, for his car, while a fourth held a rifle on the locomotive, keeping the engineer and his crew at bay. He was puzzled by the fact that his angel in white wasn’t with them however. He stepped up to the door of the car, and waited. The first of the robbers stepped inside and Johnny quickly grabbed him by the collar while kicking the door shut in the second bandit’s face. With a quick jerk, the man’s face collided with the side of the safe, and Johnny spun around as the door burst open again. Johnny kicked the second bandit’s gun from his hand, then lowered his shoulder into the man’s gut. The man staggered back into the third bandit as Johnny grinned, and drew his revolver. “Okay, gents. Here’s how this is gonna work. One of you is gonna blow the door open, and then someone’s gonna tell me where Madame .44 is.”
The third man held his hands up, showing a satchel he carried and slowly walked into the car as Johnny secured the other two men. “You find out where that scalawag ran off to, and you tell us, here? She never showed, don’t know where she is.” He looked back at Johnny as he pulled dynamite from the satchel and set it into place at the safe door. “Though I gotta say, seein’ you around, I think I know why she ain’t here, and that just makes me even madder.”
“Ain’t that just too bad for you,” Johnny replied as he signaled to the man to help him pull the four other men away from the impending explosion. The heavy metal door fell away and revealed the contents inside, as Johnny leveled his firearm at the robber. “Think what you like, but you’re all going to prison, and your leader is too, if I get my hands on her.” He stepped up and looked at the pile of money inside, and the odd leather envelope. He pulled that out and looked at it closer, closed up in rawhide lacing and sealing wax. He was so intent on it, he nearly didn’t hear the gunshot go off.
“What was that? Your buddy figure out something gone wrong?” Johnny asked, but the robber shook his head, and both of them peered out to see four newcomers arriving. The bandit with the rifle lay dead on the ground, as the quartet moved closer. “Who are they?”
“Not the Madame’s, that’s fer sure. And they ain’t the law, either, I kin jest feel that in my bones.”
“Madame .44! If’n you kin hear me, this is the Ghoul,” cried out the leader of the newcomers. “Ghoul Gaines, and me and my Black Hearts, we’re here to see that money gits to the right people. Put down yer guns, mebbe you kin walk from here, but me, I’m hopin’ you do what we’re ‘spectin’ from ya, which is gunfightin’!”
“Black Hearts?” The bandit gulped hard, his face paling at the announcement. Even Johnny blanched a bit at the names. “Jesus H. Christ, no way am I surrenderin’! I’m outta here, I gotta get outta here!” He dashed to the rear of the train as Johnny glanced around and worked out his position.
“I don’t know what brought you here, Gaines, but you just turn back, or get into bigger trouble than you think!” Johnny shouted back as he peered out and took stock of the situation.
“Who’s that? That ain’t no fine-lookin’ redheaded bitch,” Gaines hollered back. “You look more like that Nancy-boy from Mesa! You lookin’ fer some of what we’re packin’ fer the Madame?” The Black Hearts laughed as Johnny slipped back into the car and slid the leather-bound packet into his shirt. It had Breyer’s name listed on it, and that meant something important to the big picture. That had to go with him.
“You sayin’ yer the Mary that’s gonna give me what I’m lookin’ for, Ghoul?” Johnny shouted back as he slid out of a window on the opposite side of the train car from the arriving gang. He grinned as he heard the other Black Hearts “ooo” at the retort. He’d grin more if he knew why Jeanne wasn’t here to help back him up, he could really use her help. This would be kind of overreacting to my act if she set me up like this, he mused bitterly. He peered out under the train car to see two of the men dismount: Ghoul and a short man that went by the name of Wee Willie if he remembered the post office literature on these people. Wee Willie, who could dash around the underside of the train cars with ease at his size. Where in tarnation are you, Jeanne?
Jeanne shivered and gave a slight moan as she felt Gideon press against her, his lips on hers, a hand in the short hairs at the back of her head. The couch was soft, and held them comfortably as she felt his heat pressed so close. This was so unlike her, but his kisses tingled her lips, and his heat made her head swim. The meal had been splendid, the champagne so bubbly and tasty, and now she let her hand run up and down his back as he leaned her back into the sofa.
“I must say, Gideon, this is very unusual for me,” Jeanne finally gasped as their mouths parted, though her hand continued to caress his shoulder. She could feel his chest press against her, and she enjoyed it more than she ever expected to. “I hope you don’t think I’m some kind of wanton woman.”
“Not at all, Jeanne. Vivacious, beautiful, a firebrand, but I could think no ill of you,” he replied as his fingers slid down her neck, and traced the hollow of her throat. “I don’t much hold to these notions of ‘loose morals’ and ‘bodies are sinful’ and such rubbish anyway.” He looked into her eyes, fiery and hungry, as he spoke the rich words. “We live in a New World, and approach a new age, when rules must be recast to better serve us. Don’t you think so?” He grinned as if he knew something about her, and it made Jeanne feel odd, but free, as her other hand cupped his cheek.
“Gideon,” she moaned softly as his finger played dangerously at the base of her neck and teasingly threatened to dip lower. She tilted her head back as he did, and let those old lessons slip away as his words advised, but her eyes caught the clock on the mantle.
“Good Lord, is that the time?” she gasped in shock. She pulled herself back up as Gideon tried to keep her supine. But as she spoke her exclamation, he cringed and pulled back, though she was much too focused on the clock to notice.
“Yes, it is, Jeanne. Is there a problem with the time? Do you feel this sort of ‘wickedness’ should be reserved for when dark can hide it?”
“None of your honey words right now, Gideon, I...I just have an appointment, important appointment,” she gasped as she practically leaped from the couch, tearing herself from his arms and the heat and her flushed feelings. “It...it has to do with the business from last night. I...I have to go. I...” She stared at him, and felt at her blouse and gasped. Trembling fingers fumbled to button it back up as she dashed for the front door.
Gideon calmly watched her stagger away, and licked his lips as he sat up straight. He straightened out his own clothes and reached down to finish off each glass of champagne from their brunch. This would be an exciting chase, he decided. Usually, this sort of interruption would irritate him, frustrate and maybe even anger him. In the instance of Jeanne Walker though, this chase merely made her more enticing.
He walked to a front window and gazed outside, to see she’d ridden off on one of his horses, and laughed. “Go and save your Thunderbolt, Madame. While you still give him a damn.”
Johnny dove behind a rock outcropping, the spang of the bullet grazing his ear. He fired back and grimaced as he watched the one they called Grin lose interest in him. Instead, the lean man with the smile of pointy teeth turned toward one of the passenger cars. The battle with the Black Hearts had raged for several minutes now, and Johnny had managed to stalemate them for the time being, but he was running low on ammunition, and a knife wound in his leg from Wee Willie was slowing him down.
Still, I can’t be letting a man who sharpens his teeth into a weapon anywhere near good decent folk, he mused, and jumped from his cover to close some of the distance, and take a closer aim. “Don’t tell me I’m borin’ ya already, varmint!” Johnny yelled and fired his gun as he pivoted at the same time.
Arnaud “Gator” Petit had taken the opportunity presented by the vigilante and fired a shot with his rifle. Johnny grunted in pain as the bullet winged his arm, but he managed to avoid a more serious injury. Both men heard a cry from the passenger car, followed by a dusty thud that indicated Johnny’s shot had been more certain.
“Dayum, boy! You gone and done it now! Davey and I, we wuz close, and you gone and done him in,” Gator growled as he fired the rifle twice more in succession, threatening the man who just killed Grin. “I’m gonna chew you up slow!”
Johnny ducked away and rolled under the car for protection, having lost track of Ghoul and Wee Willie, and wondering why Gator wasn’t being more careful with his aim. Man should have got me with either of those shots, why didn’t--
Johnny’s musings were cut off when he rolled into Wee Willie, who slashed out with the Bowie knife already stained in his blood from earlier, and gave him a second slice across the shoulder. “Little runt!” Johnny swore as he continued to roll away from Gator and rammed himself into the smaller man. The two grappled, kicked up dust and rock, until Willie bounced from Johnny from a hard kick, as the vigilante leaned himself against the side of the train car for balance, to catch his breath and assess.
Willie drew a derringer when he stopped rolling, and aimed it up at Johnny, who had drawn a bead with his own pistol on the small man.
“Ya done good, Thunder,” Ghoul said as he jumped down from the payroll car, his own pistol aiming at the man. “Ya got one of my men, ya nearly got a second, and ya hid Breyer’s packet. But ya just don’t got enough to do the job.”
Johnny looked over at Ghoul, as Gator stepped up next to him, rifle ready to fire. “Ya just didn’t have the numbers. Now, ya got Breyer’s papers? Turn ‘em over.”
Johnny squinted, sweat stinging his eyes, weak from his injuries, struggling to stave off dizziness as the heat of the day and the battle got to him. He never wavered with his pistol however, even though he knew threatening to kill Wee Willie would have no effect on Ghoul Gaines. “No can do, Gaines. You gonna surrender?”
Ghoul laughed, loud and hard, soon joined by Gator and Wee Willie, at Johnny Thunder’s statement. “You got some grit to ya, Thunder,” Ghoul said through the laughter. “But we got ya: outnumbered, outgunned, just dad-blamed out-everything.”
The laughter suddenly stopped when a pair of gunshots went off, Ghoul’s gun flying away as his hand burst in blood and Gator’s head snapping to the side before he crashed in a heavy heap. Wee Willie stared in shock as Johnny pulled his trigger without taking his gaze away from Ghoul, and a hole opened up between the small man’s eyes.
Ghoul turned to look up above, and saw Madame .44 perched at the edge, her pistols out, her horse prancing as the sun radiated around her like an avenging angel. Jeanne stared back down with horrified eyes at the nearness of death to Johnny Thunder.
Johnny though, he gave no hint of surprise, fear, or anything else but determination as he marched over to Ghoul. “Now, about that surrendering.”
“You got no idea what yer dealin’ with, Thunder, but yer gonna find out,” Gaines replied as he turned to run, clutching his hand as he raced for the horses. John and Jeanne both opened up with their revolvers, and they watched the shots land solidly across his back, flecks of cloth and flesh flying up behind him, but Ghoul leaped onto a horse and began a hasty retreat that left the two masked crime-fighters shocked.
A day later, and Jeanne and John stood on the porch of the Tellier Hotel, the feet separating them feeling like miles. The payroll robbery had been followed by Milton Bray and his personal assistant, Augustus Breyer, leaving Phoenix for other ventures, and now John felt no more need to keep up pretenses. That hadn’t helped John much at all, however.
“I haven’t a clue what these papers I snatched say,” John explained as he tapped the leather back strapped over his shoulder. “It’s all pictograms and symbols, and I can’t make heads or tails. But we’re finally getting the the jump on Bray & Steele. We retreat to Mesa, get James to help translate and make our next plan. Now’s not the time to give up.”
“I’m not giving up, John,” Jeanne said softly as she looked down at the porch, then over to her horse, then up to the lantern that hung nearby; anything that wasn’t John’s face. “I’ve got places to go, people to take pictures of. It’s my job, remember? My day job, at least.”
“You seemed to be doing great in Mesa. Things seemed...great there.”
“Maybe. But I’m not ready to settle down,” Jeanne said quickly. “I...I got things to sort out, John.”
“Things?” He stared into her face as she glanced around, and straightened out his glasses. “People, you mean, don’t you?”
“Maybe, but what’s it to you, Mr. Tane? Maybe I need to consider what I get from a relationship with someone like Gideon. Rich, gentlemanly, influential, and pretty darned good looking.”
“Right. Not a schoolteacher, in a nowhere town,” John answered bitterly.
“Not a schoolteacher who does nothing but hide, and lie, to everyone close to him,” she snapped back, and finally met his gaze. “Look, John, I like you. I like Gideon. And damned if i don’t like my independence. I got things to do, in both careers, and you’re just going to have to accept that, and learn to deal with that. Or we have nothing more to say. So good luck to you, John Tane.” She turned and snatched up her two cases. She marched with a heavy step on the wooden walkway to her ride.
John stood there for a long time after, dwelling on everything that had happened. And what she had said to him just now. He adjusted the glasses, stepped up to the brougham carriage, and headed back to Mesa City, fingering the sheets of vellum with all the strange writing. “Good luck, Jeanne.”