Take a load off your weary dogs, and perch yourself on the log over yonder as we settle in with the witchy sisters, Snake and Smoke, as they partner up with our gambling man, Sam, for part deux of Chapter 11 from our ongoing saga of CONJURING MISERY, brought to you by the combined talents of Jami Gray, Camille Douglass, and Dave Benneman.
The urge to push Sam’s pig sticker away from my neck left my hands curled in fists. Even worse was the unnatural desire to destroy Smoke for the suggestion in the first place. That last one shook me. Never, at any point in our cursed lives, had that ever been a consideration. To be riding that violent line now meant things we are so not good.
Smoke’s concern hovered around me, and added a worried light she couldn’t hide in her quick, fugitive looks. I was feeling plenty of concern myself, and not just because my limbs were trembling like a newborn filly. “Get it off.” The words made it out on a growl between gritted teeth.
“Patience, Miss Snake. Dragon’s Breath is doing her best but it’s being a mite stubborn.” Sam’s voice contained a curious mix of fear and exasperation.
I got the fear part. Especially since the heat against my neck was rising faster than a dust devil leaving me to wonder if I might be wearing a twin of Sam’s little keepsake. “My patience is being sorely tested, Gambling Man.”
Truth was, the dark whispers were gaining strength as that heat crept through the links holding that cursed stone in place. Donoma’s warning of the stone choosing the strongest to hold it reverberated through my aching skull, finding purchase with scorpion stinger intensity.
Why was I just letting Sam put that damn blade to my throat? The stone choose me, and why wouldn’t it?
Closing my eyes, I ground my teeth until sharp pains joined the whispers. When that didn’t shut them up, I tried shaking my head—hard.
“Snake, you doing alright?” Smoke’s voice curled through the holes being bored through my brain.
“No.” The one word answer came out through gritted teeth. To drown out the rising whispers, I held tight to the reason I was enduring this in the first place—Cyrus. This stone was the only way to save him. There was no way in hell I wanted to add more darkness to my already inky soul. Maybe it was selfish, but if I could save my nephew it might smudge away a bit of the stain. But if the man struggling with his sword at my neck didn’t get it in gear, that darkness would swallow me whole. “Hurry the hell up, Sam.”
His response was merely a grunted acknowledgement, sweat beading his brow. His knuckles were white with strain as he continued to pit his blade against ancient magic. Doggedly he kept on. It was fairly impressive—his determination—but it was trembling under the stubborn weight of old magic.
My hand curled into fists, driving ragged nail edges into my palm. The pain was nothing more than a gnat’s ass, but it was all I had.
Familiar power wrapped around me and the rolling syllables of Smoke’s spell slipped between the temptation urging me to keep what was mine. Thankfully it also dimmed the urge to turn Sam’s blade from my throat.
Unfortunately the lessening of the whispers meant the high pitched squeal as magic and metal met raked across my eardrums, increasing with each passing second. The pitch reverberated in my molars and I couldn’t suppress a groan. Even Sam’s jaw was locked down hard, his eyes eerily bright behind dusty spectacles.
As the sound hit its zenith, Sam twisted his wrist, muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath and the lanyard holding the stone broke. The sound abruptly cut off and the weight around my neck fell away, only to be caught by Smoke’s hastily covered palm.
The sudden release of painful pressure, both physical and mental, left me reeling. Thankfully, Smoke was there, making sure I didn’t dissolve into a boneless heap. When she was sure I was steady, she ripped her already battered shirt, and wrapped the piece of ragged cloth around the gem.
With the weight gone and the stone hidden from sight, I finally managed to suck in a deep breath. All my aches and pains stepping forward, demanding attention.
“Better?” That was Sam, who was currently leaning heavily against his pig sticker like a damn metal walking stick. A little pale, but resolute, he tried to disguise the cost of fighting the stone. He was doing a damn sight better than me, since I could only sprawl like a drunk against my sister.
“Yeah,” my answer was rough, but understandable. “I need a damn smoke.” Patting my pockets, I found one straggling half-finished survivor. Putting it to my lips, I snapped my fingers to light it. The ache in my head left me narrowing my eyes against the sunlight. Which reminded me, “Where the hell is my hat, Sam?”
That straightened the Gambling Man right up. A few uncomfortable tugs on his dust covered jacket and a quick flick of his scarf proceeded his, “Well, Miss Snake, your sister and I were caught in a bit of a pickle.”
Rolling the cigarillo to the side of my mouth I asked, “Pickle?”
Before he could respond, Smoke drawled, “The bitch brought the mountain down on us.”
Catching the quelling look the two shared left me wondering. “And?”
“And, what?” Smoke came back.
Instead of reasking the question, I growled.
Sam coughed delicately. “The plummeting rocks necessitated a slight emergency and your hat was set aside.”
They lost my damn hat. After I just got the thing broke in the way I liked. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to howl or cry. “You set it aside?”
Another one of those silent conversational looks passed between my sibling and the man who dared to abandon my hat.
“To be fair,” Sam continued in a remarkably steady voice, “I thought you might prefer having your sister at your side. As the hat, no matter how loved, could be replaced.”
His implication slapped the mad right out of my head. My heart thumped hard as I turned to Smoke. “Start talking, sister mine.”
“Nothing to talk about. Sam laid it out nicely.”
Sam studied his shoes while Snake gave me a look that would wilt a desert flower.
“Your looks don’t scare me. The Yaqui Blood Star choosing you scares me a little but now that we’ve pried it off your neck you don’t look so tough.”
Snake scowled at me but it dropped the glare down a few notches. “Fine. We’ll talk about it later but we will talk about it or I’m fixin’ to sic meemaw on you.”
“You ladies sure do like to use your grandma as a threat with your kin.”
“You talking about my meemaw?” Snake and I snapped simultaneously. We’d have followed it up with yet another hard look but we couldn’t stop grinning at each other.
Sam shook his head. “I would never disparage what sounds to be an embodiment of virtue and maternal care.”
The snort escaped me while Snake sighed. “Whatever she is, she’s ours.”
“Speaking of ours, Cyrus.”
With that I stood and dusted off my pants and Snake followed suit. “Any mules left?”
“Just the ever loyal Daisy Bell.” Sure enough off in the distance a hundred yards away stood the ever practical Daisy Bell.
“Figures,” Snake growled, “The only one who doesn’t appreciate the worth of a mule is the only one who has his stick around.”
“Jealousy doesn’t suit you Miss Snake. Daisy Bell and I came to an understanding and as a result I may have changed my mind about the value of that particular mule.”
My eyes rolled of their own accord. “Well, no time like the present. Get your ass up on your ass. Snake and I will walk.”
“That doesn’t feel very gentlemanly especially with the two of you close to death within the last few hours.”
“Sam, really by now you should know we’re not ladies and that death is a constant companion of ours.” I tried for kind but then Snake decided to jump in.
“That’s right, now get your ass in the saddle princess.”
I thought briefly that Snake had finally managed to offend Sam before I realized he was smiling behind his scarf. Nope he’d just decided to accept the rude, the crude, and the absurd.
Climbing out of a canyon with nothing but a mule and a bottle of booze did not lend itself to a speedy exit. Of course when you’re drinking and walking in the heat you’re probably too stupid to live. Unfortunately having both visited death in the last few hours Snake and I felt a little cocky. Sam on the other hand went from mysterious gambling man to a clucky mother hen. He hid the bottle after a spell and forced me and Snake to double up on Daisy Bell, much to the mule’s chagrin. Still, we giggled and we swayed up until Sam hit us with the ol’ one, two.
“Ladies, I do not want the reputation of a man who would stop two hard working women from having a little fun but you yourselves have mentioned a desire to rescue your nephew and to avoid your meemaw’s wrath.”
Snake sucked in a breath through her teeth and I let out a low whistle.
“You really know how to hit a girl where it hurts,” Snake grumbled.
“Are you feeling more focused?”
“Yep.” I answered for both of us. Reality hitting me like coffee thick as molasses and a twelve hour nap.
“Then my job here is done.”
Time flew quickly after that. We took turns on the sturdy ol’ gal and made it out of the canyon sore but upright. We dropped Daisy Bell off at the stable and continued to the saloon. We all needed a stiff drink, a hot bath, and a little shut eye before going after Cyrus. Considering all that we’d been through I thought we looked a little worn but respectable. The stares upon entering the saloon suggested otherwise. I considered cleaning up a bit before having that drink but Snake decided otherwise. Pushing past me she sidled up to the bar, blood, dirt, and all. How had I not noticed the blood?
I glanced at Sam who shrugged and followed Snake to the bar, his stint as chaperone apparently having ended once we made it out of the canyon. Not one to let a few stares stop me I joined them. We were quiet until Charlie poured the amber colored liquid in three glasses and we let out a simultaneous sigh. We clinked glasses and just as the burning liquid coated my tongue I heard two sounds that always meant trouble in quick succession: the saloon door banging open with unnecessary force and Jinx’s voice.
“My nieces aren’t stupid enough to trade me for the Star.”
We turned simultaneously to see Jinx being held at gun point. He was a little bruised and a little bloody but otherwise fine. Pity.
Snake beat me to the punch. “He’s right you know. On the other hand, if you’re willing to pay us we might be willing to take him, but our price won’t be cheap.”
Mendez didn’t look surprised. A few days in Jinx’s company didn’t tend to endear him to anyone, but he had an ace up his sleeve. “Want me to tell that to your grandmother?”
“Fuck.” Snake and I both hissed simultaneously.
Sam grabbed his glass from the bar and downed the liquid in one big gulp before turning to us, “I really need to meet this woman.”
CONJURING will make its return sometime after the New Year, so from the three of us to all of you…have a fabulous holiday season and magical New Year!