Post by lissilambe on May 27, 2010 21:06:20 GMT -5
Three hours’ ride south of Mesa City... ...stood a cluster of old buildings alongside a vanishing roadway. At one time only a few short years before Mesa City was founded, it served as a way station for carriages, a hostel for travelers of all stripes, and a stopover for mail and overland cargo. But with the new town, and the religious bent of most of its residents, this passage saw less and less travel. It was already weathered and decrepit; already suffering from the hard environment. Johnny Thunder and his horse Lightning walked up to the half-dozen wooden structures, and for just a moment, his bright eyes saw that these weren't just the past‑ but a harbinger of the future. Many other towns and villages, all over the west, would see this fate. That moment of clarity left him more confused about his purpose now.
“So you are Jonathan Thunderbolt?” The well-dressed man looked Johnny over carefully as he sat on a rickety porch step. Jet-black hair framed the leathery, lined face; dark eyes seemed to take in every inch of the vigilante slow and careful. He puffed at a cigarette, but otherwise didn't move from his seat. A palomino stood patiently to one side, a small tube strapped to the saddle that seemed to beckon to Johnny.
“I prefer to go by Johnny, but yeah, that'd be me,” John Tane replied as he slipped down from his horse and walked up to the Indian who looked up at him, judging him. “Thanks for meeting me out here, Mr. Proud.” He held his hand out for the older man.
Walter Builds Proud looked at the outstretched hand, and instead took a deep drag of the cigarette. He exhaled slowly, the smoke wafting up into the air as he disregarded the handshake. “You're welcome. When James sent me the letter about all of this, I told him 'there is no way I'm going to do this without meeting the Thunder'. And I meant that.”
“Of course, I understand completely,” Johnny said as he pulled out a canteen of water and took a drink, then offered some to Walter. “I know I'm asking an awful lot of you.”
“You are. Almost too much. What's in my package, it's treacherous. Like spitting on everything my forefathers lived for.” Walter took the vessel and sipped at the water. “But the Thunderbird speaks to you. Through you. James assures me this is true, that the color of your skin is like a disguise.”
Johnny looked back into Walter's eyes, not flinching. “I'm not going to insult you, and your ancestors, and say I understand all this. That I'm some chosen one, or here to stop what's happening to your people. Heck, I can't even say I believe everything I've seen so far.”
Walter gave a snort and stamped the cigarette out. He stood up now and dusted off the seat of his trousers. “You're honest for a White Man. I'll give you that. I'm not sure honesty is what's needed here, not that kind of honesty. Not with what you want me to do.”
“It's going to happen anyway. Whether or not I'm involved, your people, their magic, it's going to go away. You're not going to stop that by not helping me,” Johnny said firmly now.
“But you think you can at least get justice for this...betrayal?” Walter seemed unconvinced, but he slowly walked to his horse and started to unstrap the tube.
“It's probably the closest your people will get to justice,” Johnny said in a low voice. He rubbed the back of his neck now, and looked away. “There's not a lot more I can do for any of the native people. And with your help, some sliver of the old ways, the magic ways, they'll continue. And you can bite Coyote back for this. If you just give me a little trust.”
“Oh, I trust that you're going to do this, and it's going to hurt the People,” Walter said with spite in his voice, and he slapped the package into Johnny's hand. “Believe me, I trust that. But James says this is the best of a choice of bad roads. So do what you have to, Jonathan Thunderbolt. And leave me out of it from here on.”
Walter mounted up on his horse, and trotted east, away from the small bundle of buildings, and the conversation with Johnny Thunder. Johnny let the man disappear on the horizon before strapping the precious package to Lightning and heading back to Mesa City.
In Mesa City proper... ...Augustus Breyer rode up to the house on the low hill. It was new, there was no doubting that; the wood and stone were untouched by the hard environment, and the path up through the gate and to the main door was sharply-drawn. Breyer stepped down from his small carriage and made his way to the ornate double-doors and slapped the heavy brass knocker to announce his presence, all the while running his soft brown eyes all over the new-crafted landscape. He let out a sigh and clutched at his leather satchel.
“Welcome, welcome,” Gideon Steele said as he opened the doors and greeted his partner. Casually dressed in his smoking jacket, he had a thick cigar in one hand and broad excited grin on his face. “My first guest to my new abode. Come in, come in.”
Augustus stepped into the large foyer with hesitant steps, and continued to glare at the tall ceiling, etched mosaic floor, and stretches of paintings and tapestries. “Could you be more obvious?” he snapped as he followed his host into the house.
“Of course I could, Augustus,” Gideon laughed. “Why hide myself at this point? Besides, it's me. No one will notice that this wasn't here more than a week ago. It just makes sense that a major rail baron would have a nice home near where his company's goal is near completion. I've been doing this sort of thing a long, long time. Have faith.”
“I have faith, which is why I decided to work with you,” Augustus said as they entered the study, and Gideon poured a glass of fine whiskey for the new arrival. “I just don't have faith in you. That would be a mistake. That is, after all, the whole point of your existence.”
“Oh, fine riposte, Augustus,” Gideon said, and beamed with pride as he sipped at his own glass now. “Enough of this verbal duel though. Let us get to important matters.”
Augustus took a seat in an overstuffed chair and took a drink of the liquor. “I convinced Gaines to come to Mesa City, stir up trouble and get our brave hero out in the open where we can kill him.”
Gideon glanced up over the rim of his glass, a curiously surprised look on his face. “That was rather more blunt than normal from you.”
“I'm getting tired of this,” Augustus said. He put his whiskey on a side table and leaned forward. A stubby finger jabbed at Gideon angrily. “I wasn't happy with all of this to begin with, but now I'm supplying a monster like Gaines with new men to hurt more people so that we can kill another person. And why? So you can fornicate like a beast in heat?”
Gideon's eyes widened, and his face contorted with anger and mirth. Augustus was developing quite the backbone. “Mind your manners, sir. This is for a grander vision than merely bedding Jeanne Walker. That's just a extra treat. No, this is for the future of your people. This is for the future of Turtle Island, and the world in general. You should be more grateful.”
Augustus stood up now, straightened out his slacks and buttoned up his suit coat. “Don't drag this out. That's what I'm saying to you. The woman is on the cusp of sinful submission, and thus has served her function. Distracting and disturbing Johnny Thunder. Anything further on that front is...as you say, extra. The railroads are the real plan. And we're a step away from completion. Thunder will be removed as an obstacle, Madame .44 is no longer a concern, no one else is even close to what's happening here, no one else suspects. If they do, they're in no position to do anything about it. So don't drag your feet.” He gave a derisive harumph and started to leave. “That's all I'm saying.”
“You're like a nervous biddy, Augustus,” Gideon replied as he stood and walked the man to the front door. “My part is all set. Everything's in motion. Stop your griping, find your guts,” he paused to glance at the man's portly appearance, “and prepare to deliver your people from the evil Red Man.” The two of them stared at each other and Gideon forced a short laugh from his lips. “Let me get my coat, and treat you to lunch in town. Mesa City needs to grow some, but the local eatery is quite good just the same. Put this ugliness behind us.”
Augustus waited at the front door and then followed the impeccably dressed Gideon from the house, and all the while pondered what he overlooked. Mind's as twisted as a nest of snakes. Does he even know what he's planning? What have I done? His face paled at his next thought, and he dabbed his forehead with a silk handkerchief. Have I damned myself? Will I never be born now?
Only a short time later... ...the stage coach rolled up to Mesa City's hotel. The driver helped the lovely blond woman to the ground and began to gather her luggage, as Jeanne Walker stood and looked at the town she never expected to see again.
“Jeanne!” John Tane called from down the road, as he caught sight of her. And the sight of her did catch him; his heart leaped and his throat tightened up. His voice turned into a squeak as he pressed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and headed toward her. “Jeanne, you're back in town. This is great!”
“Mr. Tane,” Jeanne replied with much greater restraint. Her eyes bored into him, and brought the school teacher to a stop. “Good day to you, sir.”
John stopped short at the cool voice, and held his hand out to shake. “What brings you back to Mesa?”
“Unfinished business. Speaking of which, how did your business with Mr. Breyer go down in Phoenix?” She raised her voice just enough to draw the ears of passersby and bystanders, who now started to stare at the two people.
“It went,” John muttered and rubbed the back of his neck. He glanced nervously as people tried to form a nonchalant audience, pretending to not notice, but obviously intrigued. “What sort of business?”
“None of yours, Mr. Tane. I assure you, there's little we need to talk about anymore,” she replied and tipped the driver a silver coin when he returned from putting her luggage in the hotel lobby. “Thank you, sir, very much,” she said sweetly, with a warm smile, at the teamster.
“Anytime, miss. Take care now,” he said and then clambered onto the coach and started rolling it down the street.
“Jeanne, we should talk, please,” John said in a lower voice as he stepped closer to her. “I know that Phoenix was...strange, but it's okay. I don't mind giving us a second chance now.”
She pushed past him, and toward the doors of the hotel. “Keep a mind to keep your distance, Mr. Tane. I'm here only long enough to check in, and then I have a meeting.” She glanced over her shoulder and stared hard at him. “With someone who knows how to treat a woman proper, too. So good day to you, Mr. Tane.” She pushed through the doors and left John on the street to stare at the wood.
Slowly, the crowd murmured and parted; some glanced at John with new eyes now. Breyer's name was not well-liked in town after the Sanderson brothers a few months back, so it dismayed several of them to hear the respected school teacher involved with him. John just slowly walked down the street, boots trudging through the dirt. A rush of hoof beats drew new attentions, and John glanced up at the wild-eyed rider.
“John, yer pa in his office?” Mike Taylor asked, sliding from the horse as it was still slowing. He was dirtied and scared, and grabbed John's shoulders for support.
“He's up at the house, actually,” John said as he held the older man steady. “What's wrong?”
“The Casey ranch, there's...some kinda trouble brewin', John,” Mike said, the words racing out of his mouth, stumbling over each other to talk. “They got a fire or somethin' at their barn, and...and shots...I din't stay to see whut was goin' on, just came here right off.”
“Pa's deputy is at the office, you should go and tell him,” John said. “I'll go up and tell my father myself and send him down here. Go!” He slapped Mike on the back, and then headed out for his own house.
He had seen the buggy as he and Jeanne argued so publicly. He'd caught sight of Steele and Breyer, how they tried to remain inconspicuous during the display. Now Johnny Thunder was needed, and a grim smile creased John's face as everything continued to move forward.
The Casey Ranch... ...was in turmoil, as Mike reported. The barn blazed bright against the blue afternoon sky and the horses were long gone from the corral, which had been broken apart. Johnny Thunder rode up over a low rise to survey the situation, and reined in Lightning. He hopped down from his mount and crouched up close, eyes squinting under the bright sun.
“No one in sight,” Johnny mused at Lightning. He peered down and saw nothing but the fire moving. “Seems to me, boy, that the Caseys would be trying to fight that fire if they could.” Lightning whinnied and his head bouyed up and down as if answering him. “Their wagon's missing. I'm going to take that as a good sign. I hope it's a good sign. Which means, you go home, pal.” He stood up and stroked the horse's black neck. “Go home, and God willing, I'll be back home soon.” He slapped his horse's rump and sent him off.
He turned back now, and took a deep breath to steady himself. He watched Lightning reluctantly trot off and let the breath out slowly. It's a trap, boy. No reason to put you in harm's way. Here's hoping I got Breyer read right.
With that, he started down the small rocky slope, the controlled slide depositing him near the edge of the broken fence. The barn had just collapsed under the flames, and Johnny knew that the town would arrive soon. He had to set off whatever was going on here soon. He drew his firearm, and dashed to the farmhouse. He crouched low, and crept to the door, where he paused and listened.
Now you're just delaying, Johnny chided himself as he tensed up, between the front door and a window. Have to hope the family's safe somewhere else, if the wagon's not around. Pa and the town will be along anytime now, that could get things messed up bad.
With a sudden lunge, he crashed through the door and rolled up with his gun out and ready. The family room was empty though, and that just made Johnny more concerned. He crept into the house, headed now for the kitchen, when he heard a scuffle from the second floor, and a man bounced down the stairs in a crash.
“Yeah, yeah, git out of my way, I know,” growled Ghoul Gaines. The vicious killer stalked down the stairs, as two more men peered out, one from the pantry, another from the root cellar. “Take 'im alive, I know whut I'm doin'.” He turned his Dragoon on the sprawled man and fired into his chest twice. “Never tell me mah bizness, boy.” He turned his attention to Johnny now. “You there, git yer hands up and drop the gun. I bin told to take ya alive, but I'm happy to ignore that if yuh give me a reason.”
Johnny tossed his gun to the side and put his hands up. “And the Caseys?”
“Don't remind me,” Ghoul said as one of his men stepped up behind Johnny and coiled rope around his wrists. “Almost no killin' at all today. Makes me right ornery, it does.” He loomed over Johnny, rotten breath crawling over the hero's face. “But Fancy-Dan Breyer, he sez I can't go and kill the Caseys. So we convinced them that it wuz smart to run off and let us wreck his farm a bit, rather than give me a reason to kill 'im and his family.”
Johnny was relieved to hear that, though he was being shoved out of the house. “So what now? You don't want me dead, since I'm still walking. So Breyer's pulling your strings, and you can't kill me. What are you planning?”
“Tough talk,” Ghoul said as his wide palm slapped the back of Johnny's head. “Fancy talk. Mebbe there should be less of that while we got ya over a barrel, huh? Boss man's wantin' a word with you, so jest shut yer trap. Tole yah I'm damned ornery right about now.”
Johnny held his tongue and let them lead him to their horses, hidden off the property. Each gamble was playing out the way it was supposed to; each bead of sweat and thump of his rapidly beating heart reminded him that at any point now, he could lay down a losing card.
Meanwhile, back on the far side of town... ...Gideon Steele directed his buggy up the lane to his new homestead, and as he drew closer, a wicked grin crossed his face at the sight that greeted him. Jeanne Walker sat on the porch, relaxed on the bench and whistling to herself. She rose to her feet when she saw him step down from his vehicle and headed up her way.
“Jeanne! You're here! What a delightful, delightful surprise,” Gideon said as he stepped quickly onto the porch and took her hand in his. He swooped low and gave the back of her hand a long kiss as she chuckled.
“I thought we should talk, Gideon,” Jeanne said as she turned about and slipped her arm around his, so that the two of them faced his front door.
“Oh indeed. There is a whole future we should discuss,” he answered as he opened his house to her. “I'm very glad to see you back here. I've missed you, and your little...escapades.” He dropped the word carefully, as he shut the door behind them, his eyes peering at her for a reaction.
“Whatever do you mean, Gideon?” she asked cautiously, her face nervous.
“Please, Jeanne. It's alright. I know these things. I know a lot of things.” He stepped back up to her quickly and escorted her to his study. He settled her on the divan, and poured out two glasses of wine, handing one to her. “I know about your past-time.”
She sipped the wine, slowly, her lips pressed to the rim of the glass, matching the ruby red of the liquid. His eyes danced to watch the way she responded, struggled to fight down the hungry leer he felt within his heart. “You said you had a lot to offer, the last time we took dinner together. What did you mean, Gideon?”
She stared back up into his eyes now, and she felt her own heart leap. That face, rugged and handsome, those eyes deep and dark, like pools a person could drown in, the voice like silk and velvet on her ears. She swallowed hard and fluttered her eyes at him as she felt his animal magnetism works its will.
“You're already famous as a photographer, but you could be bigger. Reach people you never could before,” Gideon replied as he watched the way she responded. Each movement of her body, every flush of her cheeks told him more and more. “I know about your crusade, as well. Your secret one, the one you fight in your fiery mane.”
She gasped and her hands trembled. She put the glass down to keep from dropping it, but Gideon held her hands in his now, and held them. “I...I don't know what...”
“Don't. No need to hide it from me. I love masks. I love tricks and games, they excite me nearly as much as a beautiful woman who indulges in them,” he said to her, his face closer, his words dropped into a husky whisper that tickled the back of her neck. “I've known since Silk Black. I can help your crusade as well. Especially if you make this your home, you'll need that help against Johnny Thunder. He won't stand for someone like Madame .44 in his territory. You know this.”
Her fingers entwined with his and she gazed into his eyes. “What do you want, Gideon?”
“You don't really have to ask that, do you?” He chuckled and brought his lips down to meet hers. Soft as satin, and tasting of wine, Gideon drank the kiss in again and again. “You play the heroine so well, but there's a wicked side of you deep down, Jeanne. You know this, otherwise you'd be like the other masked men. Instead, you play the game. You hornswoggle hardened bandits like they asked for it, and you love it. Let's love it together.”
“Gideon,” Jeanne murmured as her eyes closed and her arms wrapped around him. She pulled in closer, felt his heat, felt a hand run along the ends of her blond hair. “The honey you drip, saying all the right words. Doing all the right things.”
“I can show you the world, Jeanne. Be mine, stay here with me. I'll have your bags sent for, and you'll never be troubled by schoolteachers and lawmen ever again,” he added, his lips scraping the shell of her ear.
“How can a lady like myself turn down such offers?” Jeanne asked back breathlessly.
“That, my g'hal, would be the general notion.” He chuckled as he kissed again and leaned her back onto the divan.
And an hour out of town, by a work camp... ...Ghoul Gaines shoved the disheveled Johnny Thunder ahead of him, toward a large pavilion. Inside was a rough table strewn with maps and other papers. Augustus Breyer had a seat on the side opposite of the makeshift entrance, and he glanced up at the vigilante and his captor.
“Here he is,” Ghoul grunted with irritation. “Brung him in alive. When do I get to kill 'im? I'm getting a mite peckish.”
Augustus shuddered at those words as he stood up and paced around the table. “Behave yourself! I didn't risk howling voids for you to go around giving in to primitive appetites.”
Johnny watched the two glare at each other as he continued the shifting of his wrists. His arms were so sore now, his skin ragged and starting to bleed on the ropes, but the razor he'd hidden within the sleeve had nearly done its job. “Howling void? Primitive appetites? So you're not just some codfish aristocracy come out here to make good people's lives miserable after all?”
Augustus turned that sallow face toward Johnny; eyes narrowed angrily and he slapped the adventurer. “You just shut up! I'm sick to death of all of this. And you, brought up with the Word of Wisdom, you work with the heathens to what end?”
Johnny felt the ropes at last give away, and stretched his fingers behind his back. Then he reached up and twisted off the thunderbird clasp at his kerchief. “Yeah, I'm betting my hunch is right on the money,” he said as he tossed the wooden object at Augustus. At the same time, he brought his boot up between Ghoul's legs, hard as possible.
“Gahh!” Gaines croaked as he staggered back and clutched the injured body part. “Fight like a man, ya bastard!”
Breyer's hands instinctively caught the object tossed at him and then yelped in pain of his own. Smoke sizzled from his palms as he dropped the thunderbird to the ground and staggered back from Johnny. “No!” he gasped in fright as he stared at the bird-shaped burn in his palms, then up to Johnny. “How?”
The tent flaps pulled open as James Thunderborne and William Tane rushed in. William kept back as James reached into a leather pouch and tossed a powdery substance in an arc at Gaines.
“Gaahh! Whut? Get it off!” Ghoul screamed in pain as it sizzled against his flesh. William pulled out a Bible from his vest and with a grim face, flipped open the book.
“You...you knew?” Augustus looked pale as Johnny grabbed him by the collar.
“Not exactly, not at first,” Johnny said as he shoved the man against the table. He held the clasp over him, as he angrily continued, “But when Thunderbird explained that I was chosen because of someone Coyote brought into all this, it started to fall together. James and I, we sat up one long night talking all about it, with the Sheriff.”
“You betray your God!” Augustus screeched in fear as he struggled to push Johnny off, but the token held him back. Behind Johnny, the salt burned into Ghoul's body, James pulled out a rattle and started to say strange words, while Sheriff Tane read from the word of God, words of banishment for the evil spirits. Ghoul struggled to stand, but with his patron weakened, and the dual assault, he could only stagger in rage as he smoked and his flesh cracked.
“I betray God?” Johnny's eyes opened wide in fury. “You allied with Coyote to steal what belonged to a good people, and you dragged out an evil spirit to do your work, and all for what? To 'save this land for good and just white men'?” Johnny leaned in and whispered, “What sort of angel does that?”
“A damned one, but I was sacrificing to clear the land of wickedness!”
“The sheriff explained that our angels, they're spirits of mortals yet to be born,” Johnny said as he stood up straight now and tossed Augustus to the ground. “You were so desperate for life? If you did some great deed to move them forward, you'd be rewarded with mortal life?”
“Rewarded with free will!” Augustus screamed in defiance. “Don't you get it! You can choose!”
“You got your chance to choose, Breyer,” Johnny said. There was a blast of flame from Ghoul, as his form erupted and burned to ash suddenly, as if emphasizing Johnny's fury. “You chose to listen to a bad man, with a slippery mind and devious tongue.”
“Oh God,” Breyer moaned as he glanced at the three men surrounding him now.
“Too late for that, I say. You thought you were crippling the Indians, and instead, you were just giving one of their gods a chance to play with all sorts of new toys,” Johnny said. “If we keep jabbing at you with things like this,” he held the clasp up before his frightened eyes, “we might finally get rid of you, but it'll hurt like the dickens. Or you can just go. Take yourself out of this right now, and maybe you can get forgiveness.” He knelt down and faced Breyer eye to eye. “Well?”
“I'll go, but it doesn't stop what started here,” Augustus growled with the last of his scant courage. “Nothing can. You have to realize it.”
“Maybe I do. Maybe I have to make a real hard choice, James and I,” Johnny answered. “But we're going to make it without you.”
Slowly, Augustus Breyer withered before the three men. He withered like a delicate flower under a noon-day sun, wilted from sight until the man was gone. Johnny stood back up slowly and kicked at the ground where the fallen angel once lay. “I hoped I'd feel more justice out of this.”
“We got another varmint to get justice out of, son,” William said with a clap of his hand on Johnny's shoulder. “C'mon.”
A day later... ...Jeanne Walker sat at a table in the corner of the saloon. She sipped a cup of tea and focused her attention on the leather-bound journal in her hands. She'd retrieved it from the post just that morning, and now read through it; all the while, she fought to ignore the stares from other patrons and passersby at the window. The town, while growing, was still small enough for few people to miss the news. Everyone knew that her baggage had been moved from the hotel, and everyone now knew that she'd never checked in, or stayed at any self-respecting boarding house or God-fearing neighbor’s home.
The Diary of James Bray was embossed in gold letters on the front of the journal. Her reporter friend back in the States had tracked the old man down at last, and with advice she'd provided him, they'd gotten the diary. More than she'd hoped for, she thought as she flipped through the days of the man's life.
A man coughed as he headed for the saloon's exit, and she easily caught the vulgar word that slipped into the sound. She tried not to feel the heat that rose in her face, but instead read of the evil spirits that had begun to bedevil James Bray. A wealthy man involved in questionable business practices, Bray had made a fortune on the backs of others, and then found ghosts haunting him.
She drank the tea and leaned back in her chair. She read about Gideon Steele's arrival at Bray's doorstep; how Steele had offered a solution to the old man, to escape his ghosts. How Gideon could use these resources of Bray's for good purposes: to build, to create and bring strength to the States. This creation would keep the ghosts at bay, put them to rest. After establishing Bray & Steele Rail Road, after proving his business acumen and spiritual expertise, Bray signed over a letter of attorney, and their rail plan exploded in growth after that.
The serving girl cleared away the now-empty cup and plate, and left behind the generous tip Jeanne had put on the table. She hadn't needed the diary at this point to confirm all the suspicions. It had arrived too late for that purpose, though she appreciated the help her friend had given her, and felt a certain contentment in knowing the history of the matter from the other side of the story. She slipped the book back into the envelope, and returned it to the post, to be mailed back. She couldn't let Gideon find it in her possession. No mistakes at this point, not with all she had the chance to accomplish. More dirty looks and upturned faces left her rattled more than she expected. She returned to her horse and started the walk back to Gideon's place.
As she neared the homestead, she saw Gideon at the front door, and face-to-face with him. He stood there, watching Gideon with a hand resting on the handle of his holstered revolver, and she felt ice clutch her heart, and hands twist her stomach into knots. She urged her horse to a trot and moved in quick.
“Ah, my dear, you're back just in time,” Gideon called past Johnny Thunder, who glanced over his shoulder now. Johnny's throat went dry as he struggled to keep his composure. “Johnny wanted to speak to us. I think we need to put an end to all of this one-sided rivalry.”
Jeanne slid down from her horse gracefully, and swept up the stairs to flank the vigilante. “What are you doing here, Thunder?”
“Jeanne, I came to warn you, to tell you about this...man who is really...you're not going to believe this, but he's an Indian trickster spirit, Coyote. I know it sounds insane, but you have to believe me,” he said in a rush of words.
She shoved past Johnny and hugged Gideon, kissed him and pressed close and then tossed a steely glare over her own slim shoulders. “Your point?”
“You see, she knows. She knows my secrets, and I know hers, and we're perfect for each other,” Gideon said now as he held her as well. “We fit together so perfectly, unlike you. You never understood her true fire, but then, you're not who you think you are either, are you, John?”
“I know what you're planning, you twisted up critter,” Johnny snapped in return, sick to his stomach watching the two of them.
“So? I know all your secrets, John Tane,” he said calmly as he let his fingers stroke Jeanne's blond locks. “You did try to play a good game, but you're out of your depth here. You serve an important purpose to the people though, and so I'm not going to take your life. Your woman, your secrets, your pride...sure.” He grinned and kissed Jeanne again. “But you can continue your time as the masked man of these parts. Unless you push it. Press me further.” His face darkened now, and his eyes turned feral, and fierce yellow. “Go ahead, and I will tell everyone everything I know about you. You and your father and your friend out in the hills, and what do you think these God-fearing people will do to you all?”
Jeanne gave a hug and a giggle as she turned to look at Johnny. “See why I'm staying here, John? You just don't have that kind of fire, like a woman needs. You're a nice guy, but that's just not enough for someone like me.”
Johnny stared at the two of them for a long time, silence building between the two, as Gideon's normal, handsome face returned. “Nothing can stop my plan at this point anyway. Even if you somehow managed to avoid my ruining the rest of your life. Go, and be Johnny Thunder, and a hero, and just accept that this time, you were beaten.”
The couple turned around and entered the house, the door slammed hard in Johnny's face as he stared unmoving for several more moments. Then he called for Lightning and tore off into the distance.
Late that night... ...Jeanne stalked through the silent, shadowy rooms. She held a cylindrical package in her hands as she moved around in the dark, bare feet padding along smooth wood. She found his office, and glanced around nervously. She felt sick as she walked, so carefully, step by step. It took a lot of liquor, and a lot of...exertions (she shuddered at the thought) to put Gideon into the deep sleep she needed. She blinked her eyes and cleared them as she stepped up to his desk.
Another tube sat rested on the parcels for the outgoing post. She picked it up gingerly in one hand and rested the other in its place. She leaned against the desk for precious seconds, to gather her strength, and then headed back out of the office. She reached the fireplace, only embers now this late in the winter night. Carefully, she poked the coals, and slipped the stolen parcel into the center, and watched it smoke. Slowly it curled up into the chimney, slowly the embers heated it until flames flickered to life, and spread across its length. It ate at the original parcel as she watched with a smile, and then padded back to the large four-poster bed, and slipped under the sheets. He stirred and snuffled and rolled over to slap a heavy arm over her stomach in his sleep, and she just rested her head into the overstuffed pillows, and stared up at the ceiling. I seem to do that a lot these nights, she bitterly thought.
Morning rose up... ...and William Tane ate his breakfast as he watched John glumly poke at his own plate. “Not easy, is it, son?” he asked at last as he gulped down the last of his coffee.
“No,” John said without really paying attention. “What do you mean?” He looked up at his father now, as the older man took the dishes to the sink.
“What do you think I mean?” he asked as he wiped them clean. “Gettin' your heart broken. Doin' the right thing and gettin' your heart broken because of it.”
“Pa, there's just so much going on,” John mused as he pushed the plate away. “Too much. I...I gotta tell you--”
“Nothin' doin', son,” he cut John off. “Nothin' you gotta tell me. I'll 'fess up somethin' though. I used to be so disappointed in you, John. When you made that promise to your Ma, and swore off violence, I thought you were just usin' it as an excuse to be a nancy-boy coward.” He turned back to his son and leaned against the sink. “I was wrong, and I'm sorry about that.”
“But, Pa--” John stood now, and wanted at that moment to tell him everything.
“'But Pa' nothin' doin', son. I don't need another gunslinger around, not with Johnny Thunder, not with that girl out there too,” William said as he went over to start strapping on his gun belt. “I'm a sheriff. I'm gettin' older, and slower, and it's good to know that there's someone out there watchin' my back. And it's good to know that my son is doin' his best to keep more crooks and bandits from growin' up and that's jest as important.” He smiled and shook his head knowingly. “I'm most pleased with the two of 'em runnin' around these parts. I s'pect that there's a lot that he gits up to that I wouldn't even understand. It's okay. I don't mind, not anymore.” He headed for the front door, opened it up to look at the bright new morning. “Yup, I'm jest gonna trust that the two of you know what you're doin'.”
John watched his father close the door behind him and let out a long breath. A smile fought onto John's face now, and he finished his own breakfast. School lessons, a few more hours of waiting, and then he'd know if his father was right.
As evening fell... ...Gideon's buggy came to a stop in front of the saloon, Mesa City's one restaurant. He was dressed in his Sunday-go-to-meetin' best clothes, and he quickly stepped around his carriage to help the similarly stunningly-dressed Jeanne Walker down to the ground. She smiled at him sweetly and carried herself tall in front of the gawkers that gathered around under the sky of deep purples.
Gideon and Jeanne linked their arms up and at a deliberately slow pace stepped through the swinging doors, as whispers passed among the watchers. The large crowded room went quiet as all heads turned to watch the over-dressed, scandalous pair step up to the barkeeper.
“I believe you have a private room for our fine dinner, good sir,” Gideon spoke as he slid a gold coin across the bar by one finger.
“Yeah, we're ready for ya, Mr. Steele. And yer guest,” he added in a snort. “Head up the stairs and to the first door on yer left is yours. Table's been set, and we'll send up the wine and soup in a few minutes.”
There was murmuring, muttering and grumbling now from the saloon as they watched the ostentatious display. It had been done for only one purpose, but they stayed at their tables, and kept the grumbling low as they watched the fancy couple head up the stairs. The bartender eyed the rest of the customers, the smoke thickly mingled with resentment, but they kept to their own business after a few more minutes.
Inside the room was a table set with fancy place settings, china dishes, silken tablecloth and a tall silvery candelabra, topped with flickering candles to cast a special glow. Jeanne's eyes lit up and she smiled at Gideon as he pulled the chair out for her. “It's lovely. I'm guessing the messenger boy you sent down earlier today provided all of this?”
“Of course. And the food,” Gideon answered as he sat down now. “I couldn't rely on a picayune saloon in a nowhere desert town to have what was needed for a proper celebration, could I?” He chuckled as he poured leaned back in his chair, a smug look on his face.
“Then why not just eat at home? Isn't all this cavortin' in front of the boodle downstairs...gaudy? A little flashy? Pointless?”
“Yes. Yes,” he said, and then drummed his fingers on the table. “And no. The little people need to know who's going to own this town, now that the old ways are fading. I think I'm overdue to change up with the times.”
The door knob clicked as it turned as the two of them talked, and Jeanne stared into those dark eyes, Gideon staring back enraptured. The sound of a pulled cork popped through the pregnant silence. “Good wine.”
Gideon's head snapped to the left and stared at Johnny Thunder in fury. The vigilante stood there with a smirk on his face, his eyes clear of the grease used to mask him; his hat hung down his back, coal-stained hair reflecting the flicker of light. “What did I warn you about?”
Johnny poured out wine into the glasses, took a long swig to drain the bottle and then swung the heavy end into Gideon's face. It thunked heavily against his temple and sent Gideon crashing onto the floor, as Johnny leaned forward on the now empty chair. “I know what you said to me, Kie-yoat, but ya see...we're making a new deal now.”
Gideon dragged himself up to his feet and saw Jeanne standing now. She settled the red wig onto her head, and wrapped her white kerchief around her face. He saw the lower portion of her dress torn away to give her legs movement, and noticed the white trousers she wore beneath the fancy clothes. “Jeanne?”
“Madame .44, nice to meet ya,” Jeanne replied with a wink as she pulled a derringer from under her skirt. “Not my usual weapon, but I'll make do.”
“This is bunkum! You're both loco!” Gideon growled as he looked at the two gunfighters. “Jeanne, I can give you the world by day and fantastic nights.” He gave a saucy wink, meant to sting Johnny, and continued. “And you, I'm going to tell everyone all about you. What do you think you can do to stop me at this point? The last of the plans are in the hands of my foremen! Tracks start laying down in days...hours!” He stepped up close to Johnny.
“I know, and thanks for shipping it out,” Johnny said. “James and I talked a long, long time about this, and we decided you were right. My people shouldn't get the Red Man's magic. Maybe no one deserves it, not now anyway.”
“That's why we had Walter Builds Proud add a couple of rails to your last design, sweetie,” Jeanne taunted as she walked up behind Gideon. “And why I slipped it into your pile of packages last night.”
“Change how? You can't stop the design...not possible, to change it too much, someone will know it's humbug.”
“Not a big change. A couple of rails to cut off the spirits as well,” Johnny said in a somber, heart-broken voice. “Send them all away. All of them.” He emphasized with a press of his fingers to Coyote's chest. “And I'm here, so you know that Breyer's not around to catch it. If he even wanted to after how you've over-reached.”
“What a weakness,” Jeanne murmured into Gideon's ear hotly. “Just like most any randy son of a bitch. Trying to be something special in silks and velvet, and you're just an animal.”
“You loved it,” Gideon snapped back as his eyes went feral again. “You hear me, Thunder, she loved it, she howled with me, and you'll have to live with that. Your little strumpet won't ever feel the same again!”
“Three things, Coyote,” Johnny said in a calm voice, eyes unblinking, staring into the trickster. “First, you're going to go away soon, so just leave with a little dignity for once in your misbegotten life. Two, the town's aware of your connections to Ghoul Gaines, and Breyer's scandals, and all of that. Anything you want to say to the town about me, has to get past what they already know about you. So I'd just keep your trap shut and walk out of town. That dignity thing I mentioned already.” He gripped Gideon's collar and brought him close now, noses touching. “Third, you can talk up whatever filth you want about the lady behind you, but howls or not, animals or not, I love her and she me, and that's something that you'll never understand, and that makes her pure and clean.” He brought his head into Gideon's face, and the nose broke now.
Gideon howled, a long ululating scream of the coyote, as blood poured from his face. He grabbed a lace napkin, clutched it to his face, and then dashed from the room. Johnny Thunder and Madame. 44 stared at each other for a few moments, shaking with emotion, with the words hanging between them, all the images and memories and emotions whirling like a storm. Then jeers and taunts from the room downstairs filtered up and the two of them broke into laughter.
Epilogue John Tane raced along the main street of Mesa City, before the surprised eyes of the people out on their daily routine. The speed and skill of his ride impressed those who saw the academic as a much quieter, less rugged man.
But John Tane had a goal as he charged across the street, in pursuit of the horse that trotted out away from the town. Jeanne Walker look over her shoulder as she heard the race of hooves behind her, and brought her own mount around.
“Where do you think you're going?” John asked as he caught up to her. He panted a bit, and pulled the glasses from his face. “You...you left again! Without a word, and this time, it's not part of any plan I'm in on.” He wiped the grit from the lenses as he kept his horse alongside hers. “You can't be seriously leaving on me again! Not now, not at this point.”
“John, we did it. We did the best we could, and we sent a bad...man away. The job's done, and it's time for Madame .44 to get back to work. Where I'm needed.” She spoke quick and level, well-rehearsed words, flat and false.
“Don't tell me what we just did,” John said in a soft voice. His head drooped as he slid the glasses back into place. “I'm supposed to be Jonathan Thunderbolt, I'm supposed to be this 'heap big champion', and the best I could do is finish his work. Deprive the Indians of their magic. Well, most of it. Until things change, I guess. I don't know, I just know that the best we could do is banish Coyote back to where he belongs.”
“You like to go on and on when you're all shaky about things, John,” Jeanne said with a gentle smirk. “I wasn't sayin' that you didn't understand what we did, and you aren't here to tell me what it cost you. Cost a lot of people. You're here for some other reason, and I know what it is, and it ain't gonna work.”
“And I say that's bunk.” John reached out and held her chin with his fingers and looked deep into her eyes.
“I'm soiled goods, John. Everyone in town knows it. It's okay,” she quickly added, and rested her chin in his hand, and noticed how good it felt. She tried to stifle the sob in her chest as it welled up like a bubble. “I'm Madame .44, and I fight the bad guys, and protect the innocent. I sneak myself into dens of evil and bring 'em down from within, and give the swag to the people who need it.” She takes a ragged breath and continues, the words just pouring from her now. “To pull that off takes every weapon I got, and this time, it was only my dignity.”
“Jeanne, now you're the one that's going on and on,” John said with a rueful chuckle.
“I know what the town thinks of me, and it's okay, because Madame .44 helped save the day. I don't really understand all of it, but it's true. And I know what it's done to you, because I know you care.” Tears welled up in the blue eyes as she tried to stay composed. John made that impossible, it was eating her up. The way he looked at her, the way he was trying to talk to her. “You mean a lot to me, too much to me, to stick around here and drag you through my muck, and I'm gonna go and be useful and--”
John kissed her, long and hard, with more passion then even he realized he could muster. When the two parted, and caught their breaths, John shook his head at her. “You don't get it do you? I'm not one of those masked men who needs to get in the last word, like in the dime novels. When I told Coyote that we loved each other, that it made it pure, I meant that. People are gonna talk? Guess what? I've been a lily-livered sissy boy my whole life.” He held her hand now in his, with the reins and subtly turned their houses back toward Mesa City. “People have things to say about you, let 'em, let them say it to our faces. Won't matter to me so long as you're there, at my side.”
Jeanne stared at John, and smiled and wiped her eyes. “Look at me, crying like some silly socialite back in the States. Only you, John Tane.”
“We beat an Indian trickster god at his own game. I think we can handle some wagging tongues, Jeanne Walker.” He started to walk back to the town, followed closely by the lady in white. “I think, with you in my life, I can handle anything.”
As the sun continued to rise over the morning, two young people walked away from the horizon and toward a growing city, and a future neither expected before the turn of the year.
Molly Grue: What is the use of wizardry if it cannot save a unicorn?
Schmendrick the Magician: That is what heroes are for.