By Owen Lean
“Oh, for God’s sake, hurry up and die.” Christine Perfect snarled. “Or stop your incessant baying. Either works.” Understandably skittish ever since we’d witnessed her transformation, she anxiously sniffed at Cheyenne’s thin, dry air.
“I’m prepared to believe him, Christine.” Allie Hensman said. “He don’t look like he’s hallucinatin’. Well, not yet; probably will before he finally kicks it.”
“Thank you, ladies.” I spluttered. “But if you don’t mind just trusting me on this one, I’m currently hoping to avoid ‘kicking it’ within the next twenty-four hours, and if de Boré finds me in this state, my chances are slim.”
I’d spotted the cur spending more money on a cigar from Chicago Montgomery’s shop than anyone needs to unless they are compensating quite heavily for something. Assuming Miss Perivale wasn’t planning on relieving my symptoms again, it seemed that for now, discretion was the better part of not getting murdered in our sleep.
“We are not leaving until I’ve restored my pack.” Christine glanced at an old-timer walking his Cocker Spaniel; she once again sniffed the air and shook her head.
The idea of scouring the town’s entire canine population hardly fit with my plans of survival, and I wasn’t above sacrificing status to save my life. “While I appreciate your need, Lady Perfect, might I suggest the selection in Laramie or, indeed, Deadwood will be greater? Perhaps we might suffice as your pack until then.”
She turned to me quizzically and, as I felt the usual eight coughs rise in my throat, bowed my head to her, in my best impression of a submissive hound. In response to Allie’s puzzled look, I motioned for her to do the same.
Our new ‘Alpha’ smiled to herself, but agreed that we would immediately check out of the Grenville Hotel.
Beverly Osterman perched behind the desk, and I asked her where I might send a telegram. She suggested that I’d have better luck dropping her name at the Pendulum Publishing House as they often made use of the Pony Express. With my message sent, I followed Christine’s lead on the road north. Honestly, though, it was my horse leading the way. The blighter didn’t seem to want to go anywhere else but Deadwood.
As we bid farewell to Cheyenne, I could sense little more than the saddle beneath me and my heart was missing eight beats every minute. Despite my haze, I managed to mumble some instructions about an old hideout near Laramie before I felt the saddle slip and the hard earth welcoming me to unconsciousness.
There were a lot of voices that I would have been happy to wake up hearing. Just my travelling companions would have been fine. A certain lady I’d recently messaged would have been even more welcome. The voice of the insane demolitionist I’d last seen in this same building was so far down that list, it had fallen off and was rapidly descending to blazes.
“Them Agents are EVERYWHERE,” Dynamite Jacc furtively whispered to my travelling companions. “Unless you lay COMPLETELY low, they start tracking you with their ghost rock light beams.”
I opened one eye, curious as to whether he had even left the run down shack all these years. Christine was staring blankly at him with a look that told me it was taking every ounce of willpower she had not to bite his head off. Literally most likely. Allie had clearly noticed the same look as she was doing her best not to laugh. She almost succeeded. Thankfully Jacc hadn’t noticed me yet, so I reclosed my eye and pretended to still be asleep.
“Cuz the civil war never ENDED you see. They CHANGED TIME, that’s how they won, and so them ‘Federates now have them time beams, one shot and your whole body starts turning into ghost rock, and you don’t know until they take it and use it to fuel even MORE powerful gizmos!”
Clearly, over the years, Jacc had reached an entirely new level of delusion.
“I reckon that’s what happened to Jonah, you know. They don’t like youse Brits either.”
My insides certainly felt like they were turning into ghost rock, and I coughed so hard that the eighth one shook me off the cot they’d laid me out on.
“Snakes! Jonah, you alright, buddy?” Jacc came running over to pick me up. “You know you’re my pal, ain’tcha? I wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt you, you know that.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t.” I groaned.
“Anythin’ I can do ta help ya, old buddy? You know I got’cha back?”
“Yes. You wouldn’t mind heading into Laramie and buying me a bottle of proper British gin? I’m sure McDaniel’s will stock it.”
After a good ten minutes of nonsense, Jacc finally got on his horse and rode away. I managed to return to the cot without vomiting and did my best to lose consciousness. I must have partly succeeded because the next time I was aware of anything, Christine returned, bloodied from numerous bites. Mud and grime filled the gaps of her torn clothes. Two grey wolves paced and growled behind her.
“Wonderful sport,” she grinned. “Allie, this is Windstarer and Deer Chaser.”
Allie paused for a moment, before stammering a reply. “I… I ain’t got no idea how to respond to this situation.”
Christine just laughed, and her two new packmates chorused a brief howl.
“I don’t suppose you got any NORMAL people in Britain, do ya?” Allie asked.
“Oh, yes.” Christine sat down at the table and started licking the blood off her arm. “Far too many, that’s why all the interesting ones move here.”
Allie nodded for a moment. “That does actually make sense.”
“You’ve got to love it here, haven’t you. The open spaces, the adventures. And the savage moon keeps calling; it’s getting louder the closer we get to our destination.” She happily nipped at the air. “Dammit, it’s nice to be honest around people for a change, I miss my boys, but I’m happy you two know now.”
Allie looked up as a nail dislodged from the roof and landed on the floor in front of her. “You heard the rumours about this place? The Indian lands?”
“That strange lady at the camp told us about it,” Christine said. “Nothing works there. No guns, no machines, sounds splendid.”
“‘Cept in Deadwood, I hear. You heard of Wild Bill?”
“Y’all know he ain’t dead, right? Lookin’ forward to meeting him and giving…”
She stopped at the noise. I’d heard it too, and Christine’s wolves were already bounding to the door. They didn’t arrive, however, before the door broke from its hinges and flew away, a playing card sticking out of it like a bowie knife.
“This is where you retreat? Monsieur Essex, it is a bit pathetic, is it not?” de Boré’s grin followed the door into the shack. Behind the grin’s owner were four burly thugs, each with shotguns trained in our direction. He’d been expecting to have to deal with Christine and Allie and myself and had made sure he had a goon for each of us, plus an extra for good measure. Of course, he hadn’t been expecting the wolves.
Click-Click-Click-Click. Instead of the full throated roar of shotguns discharging their lethal volleys, there was… nothing. The wolves tore into two of the goons as Christine, fingers curled, leapt upon another. Allie plunged the roofing nail into the left eye of the remaining thug. The ladies didn’t notice or care that de Boré had disappeared – only to melt out of the shadows in front of me. I threw up a Barrier just in time to stop that Black Lighting he wantonly threw around. I was not the man I had been in Tombstone, though, and my wall of cards began to burn as I struggled to remain conscious long enough to hold his hex at bay.
“Ah Monsieur, revenge is a beautiful thing.” I saw him laugh through the expanding hole in the Barrier. “You thought you could outrun the Court? We have been tracking you from the start – con comme une valise sans poignée”
“If I am so useless to you, for God’s sake, just kill me!” I wheezed and dropped the barrier. “I’m already dead from this curse, and listening to your bloody voice is far worse than whatever infernal pit they have in store for me. So just cut the moustache twirling and kill me, you jingle-brained windsucker.”
Nines waited out my entire tirade before flicking his cards into the air. “Then au revoir.” He said, and with a last smile, his head exploded.
I will happily admit that I wasn’t expecting that to happen.
“Such a messy hex.” Lady Evangeline Boyet said, wiping her glove with a pocket square. “But fitting for the adversary, I feel.”
“I see you got my message.” I just about managed to say in whatever I had left of a voice.
“Save your strength, you handsome idiot.” Despite her diminutive physique, she slung me over her shoulder like I was a kitten before stepping outside and depositing me over the back of her black Tennessee Walker. From the back of the horse, I could hear a voice I thought I’d gotten rid of.
“Dang stuff just ain’t working!” Jacc yelled. “Got’s to be that flying nullification ray the dang govmint have over the whole of the Dakotas. I’stops any tech, but not theirs, you know? I saws them coming, Miss Hensman! Y’all gots to believe me. I wouldda blown them attackers sky high if it had…”
“And then you hid ‘hind the Retreat?” Allie asked
“Yessiree. I’m a coward, alright.”
“With a massive pile of flat dynamite?”
“I had to stash ‘em somewhere.”
“He can come with us.” I groaned. “Always worth keeping your friends close…” from the grateful noises Jacc made, I understood he didn’t know the rest of the quote.
Lady Evangeline acquired an expensive hotel room for me in Laramie. She paid Professor McDaniels himself to attend me and prescribe a course of his famous elixir. One of the potions that actually worked. While I could recover enough of my strength to continue, she nor McDaniels could do nothing to permanently rid me of the damn curse.
“That Perivale lady must have hit you with something compelling indeed.” Lady Evangeline said, dropping a trump card onto the table. “I do very much hope she only means to kill you – she was somewhat fair of face if I remember rightly.” She flashed her coy smile at me as she gathered up her cards from the eighth trick she’d won in a row.
“I don’t suppose you feel like a different game?” I sighed. “Whist isn’t really…”
“No? I suppose not; it is a gentleman’s game after all.” She teased.
“Well, we never did finish our poker game before all that dreadful business began,” I offered.
“Yes, that would allow you to make use of that pass you’ve been dying to use wouldn’t it.” She glanced towards the way my hands were holding the deck in a mechanic’s grip. “Besides, what stakes would there be? As far as I’m aware, you’re rather heavily in my debt.”
“Oh,” I attempted my best suggestive look as I leaned in, “I’m sure we could think of something.”
“You get ahead of yourself, sir.” She let out my favourite laugh as she held up her hand and drew my attention to the empty nature of her ring finger. “You are set on Deadwood, then? I can’t talk you out of it?”
“No. There comes a time when you either stop fighting your fate or end up like Oedipus.”
“Indeed. Poor chap, at least he took care of his mother, I suppose.”
I hadn’t told Lady Evangeline of the feverous dream I’d had. Miss Perivale in a long green dress riding towards me on a white horse. Behind her, a tall butte burned.
“You know the medicine won’t last long,” Lady Evangeline cooed. “But in Deadwood, you and I shall figure this thing out together. Anyway, I thought that might be the case” she sighed. “So I’ve hired a bodyguard for you. He’ll meet you downstairs. Hopefully, then I won’t have to save you again.”
“You did find me very effectively,” I said, considering my letter had only said Deadwood via Laramie.
“de Boré wasn’t the only one able to track someone.” She blinked, and for the first time, I became aware of a slight weight in my shirt pocket. Reaching in, I found an Eight of Hearts from the elegant deck I’d seen her use. “When did…” I started, but when I looked up from the card, my trouvaille had gone.
The help Lady Evangeline mentioned came in the form of Lewis “Grizzly” Evans, a prize-wrestler who I agree was impressively burly. From the way Christine eyed him, I don’t believe I was the only one. Our journey to Deadwood through the Sioux Nations would be difficult. The Indians did not take kindly to unexpected guests from what I’d heard. Without using any technology, getting there safely before my curse finished me off had me considering a desperate plan.
The fact the plan came from Jacc illustrates just how desperate I was.
“Because we can’t go ABOVE the land – THEY have their black auto-gyros up there to shoot y’all down. Also, we can’t actually fly because we ain’t birds, so that rules out ABOVE, you see. And we can’t go ROUND the Dakotas because we ain’t got time, and Deadwood is INSIDE. So we gonna go UNDER it. You see, because if we is under it then THEY can’t see us, and you won’t have to worry about the Injuns neither cuz they live on the land not under it, so if we’s go under we won’t really be going through their home because we’ll be UNDER it.”
“JACC!” I stopped him, realising that he’d gotten lost again. “HOW are we going to go UNDER.”
“By walking…. The line…” He said staring off into the distance. We all waited for him to go on. Of course, he didn’t.
“What line?” Christine was the one to break the silence.
“The Indian Branch line. You know about the anti-tech aura the government has, well ‘fore they did that, Hellstromme, who I think y’all know is secretly Abe Lincoln, right? Well, he built a big ol’ underground railroad to his station near Deadwood. Then he had to abandon it because the TRAIN turned into a VAMPIRE underground. S’all abandoned now, so we can go through it and avoid the Injuns, the government, everybody.”
“But what about the vampires…” asked Allie. “Perhaps we should recruit a Holy man, a slinger of Miracles?”
“There is no vampire train,” I whispered to her.
“Yes. Yes of course.” She shook her head, before turning to address Jacc. “And you know the way to it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Jacc. “Just on the other side of Morton pass.” He pointed to the way through the hills we were heading. Our guns had fallen to pieces eight miles ago, and the saddles on our horses were starting to unravel. I had a rather nasty feeling my coat was planning on joining it.
“Well, lead on then.” I resigned myself to the idiot’s scheme. Trapped between the Queen I left behind, and the Ace beckoning me onwards, I suppose it made sense to put my faith in a Jacc.