Welcome back to the dusty streets of Misery where Jami, Camille Douglass, and Dave Benneman have gathered many a listener to their tale. Mosey on up to Charlie’s bar and sit for a spell as we rejoin our tale of a woman scorned, a curse, and a bad hand of cards with the first half of Chapter 6 from CONJURING MISERY…
Chapter Six (the first half)
Suspicion cluttered my brain. Jinx had contracted me to find the Yaqui Blood Star, and then the Scary Sisters show up and make like they’re my friends. Winning my trust in one short afternoon. Was I being played? Perhaps. Snake certainly put on a good show of her dislike of ‘Uncle Jinx’. The fact remains, they’re blood, and that makes me a mite uncomfortable. Smoke’s earlier warning about her family tracking me down should I manage to harm them, resounded loud and clear. Even with Dragon Breath at my side, I didn’t think I stood a chance against either one of them. As a pair, they were more than intimidating, especially if like me, you’ve witnessed what they’re capable of. So either Jinx was in cahoots with the Sisters, or the Sisters were working against their uncle. If that was the case, why did they want the Star?
Couple all this with the spook Two Crows, and a decomposing corpse walking into the poker game and you have one very unholy trinity. Dread washed over me, like having eights and aces dealt again and again. If I’m destined to die, I’m not going alone. I discreetly slid Dragon Breath from her scabbard and pressed her against the side of my leg. The power that flowed from this mystical sword emboldened me. I leaned over to Smoke, “And what exactly am I supposed to do?”
“You, my friend, are going to show off your skills. We have a name. Donoma, Diamond Jim’s girlfriend.”
That isn’t the name I knew her by, but I know a little about her just the same. Donoma, or Night Bird as I heard it, gifted the Yaqui Blood Star to Diamond Jim, she loved him and the Star was all he needed to run away with her. Jim’s other woman, Rosemary, made different plans that caused her to stab Jim. The legend of Jim’s miraculous recovery was shrouded in secret. What little I knew led me to reason that Night Bird nursed Jim back to health. Now I was beginning to see that the Yaqui Blood Star may have had a part in the process.
I nodded at Smoke and went to help Gunther up, as Villalobos hadn’t made a move after Snake’s orders. I was undecided what to do with the trinket should I track it down now. If Jinx was in cahoots with the Scary Sisters, I was greatly out numbered. Not yet out witted though. Two Crows was a wild card in this game. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Gunther had a purpose. He acted the buffoon, but too often of late things were not what they appeared.
Villalobos gave me a dark look when I walked out of the poker room supporting Gunther with one hand and Dragon Breath in the other. I was unsurprised he didn’t follow, and I was grateful. Two things burned brightly before me. Get Gunther talking again, which would be nigh too impossible with Villalobos around, and find Two Crows. It would be a long sleepless night.
In my room I poured black coffee into Gunther and helped him clean up. The visage of Diamond Jim’s rotting corpse had jangled Gunther’s brains a good one. I got him talking about his dead friend again by telling him what I thought I knew and making a generous offer of recompense, of the monetary sort.
“No, that’s not how it happened,” Gunther argued, his face marked by the night’s adventures. “Rosemary wouldn’t hurt a hair on Jim’s head. He had a way with the ladies back then.”
“Are you saying she didn’t stab him?” I poured more coffee.
“Of course she stabbed him. Admitted as much before God and everyone. But she was trying to kill Night Bird. Jim got in the way.” He took the offered cup in both hands, the liquid sloshing inside as his hands shook. “Rosemary thought Jim dead so she went to the rope without regret.”
Hmm, strange what guilt will make a person do. “What about Donoma?”
“I don’t know no Donoma, but I helped Night Bird load Jim’s body onto a mule. She said she was going to give him a proper burial. I don’t think she meant a Christian one, if you get my meaning.” He shook his head. “Them savages have some funny ways about them.”
“So you’re saying Jim was dead?”
“Yup, that’s what I’m saying. So believe me when I tell you, no one was more surprised to see him in this dung heap of a town than me. I didn’t recognize him at first. Not until I saw that sparkling tooth of his.” He took a sip before continuing, “Standing right next to him in the Wild Hog I was. He was settling up his account when I saw that forsaken tooth.”
Curiouser and curiouser. Why would a man, known for his carousing, decide to keep playing dead? “I guess he was happy to see you.”
Gunther grimaced. “To the contrary. He pretended not to know me. I followed him out of the store. He shushed me, and then invited me back to his place. Speaking of dung heaps.”
Watching him stare into his cup, I offered, “More coffee?”
His smile was weak, but there. “No offense Sam, but your coffee isn’t fit to wet down a dusty trail. You got anything harder around?” He set the cup on the side table.
I rummaged around until I found a bottle of Charlie’s best. “Will this do?”
He raised his hand and wiggled his thick fingers to pass it over. “It’s got to be better than the swill you call coffee. Tastes like someone washed their socks in it.”
I handed him the bottle. He pulled the cork with his teeth and drank from the bottle. Classy guy. Still, I needed more. “I traveled here to meet with Diamond Jim at his request. Someone poisoned him before I could talk with him. Do you know what he wanted to talk to me about?”
“He wanted to talk to you?” Gunther laughed. “I find that unlikely. Mostly people was looking for him. Not the other way round. It’s why he pretended he didn’t know me. He was tired of running. Seems like the Yaqui Blood Star killed him twice and still he stumbled into our poker game. Anything that brings a man that kind of misery isn’t worth no amount of gold.”
Had Diamond Jim felt the same? No harm in asking. “That being the case, do you think he wanted me to relieve him of the Star? Maybe return it to its rightful owners?”
Gunther studied me, for once his florid face unreadable. “Maybe, maybe not, I can’t rightly say.” He blinked and the weird stillness disappeared. “But we’re getting away from the story.” He eyed the two hundred dollars lying on the table between us. “If you’re paying me to tell the story, then you have to let me tell it my way.”
Stifling my sigh, because I’d rather get this over with, what with my other tasks waiting, I gave him a nod.
He lifted the now half-empty bottle in acknowledgment. “Me and Jim tied one on that night reliving old times for a bit. Finally he got around to telling me about how he woke up in a sweat lodge. An old woman was tending to him. He had a head full of demons and nightmares. Nothing but skin and bone. He couldn’t recollect anything at first. The old woman fed him soup and chanted over him. A fever had a grip on him. He didn’t rightly know how long it went on that way. One day he felt a little stronger and asked the old woman for meat. She left him alone for a bit, it was then he saw the Yaqui Blood Star hanging round his neck.”
Gunther paused and took a long pull from the bottle. I wanted to shake him. Tell him to hurry it along. I could see the night sky giving way through the window. I bit my tongue and waited him out. Sometimes this was the only way to clear a man of his encumbrances. Patience was important for a gambler, and I had it in spades.
Gunter wheezed, probably from the influx of alcohol, then got on with it, “He said it all rushed back to him. He remembered everything. Even the dying. When the old woman returned he realized it was Night Bird herself. Except instead of a stunning beauty she was an old crone. It was then that Jim decided he had to git out of there. That night he slipped out with a hunting knife and the clothes on his back.”
“And the Yaqui Blood Star?”
“Still around his neck as he told it to me.”
“As far as you know, he still had it? Even then, when you met?”
“Yup. He told me he wished he’d never laid eyes on it or that she devil what gave it to him.”
“I thought he loved her?”
“I never said that. She loved him.”
Ah, a slight distinction, but important nonetheless. “So where is the Star now?”
“That would be the question of the hour. Maybe the someone what poisoned him stole it? Maybe he came back from the dead to git it back? Which would make it someone in that room tonight.”
The control I normally held over my facial muscles fled. I blinked.
Gunther grinned. “Hadn’t thought of that, did you?”
No I hadn’t. But if Gunther was right, whom was holding it and who were they holding it for? And who raised Diamond Jim from the dead? Night Bird? It was her trinket to begin with. Maybe she was here taking back what she thought of as rightfully hers. Both the trinket and Jim’s life. “You said you helped Night Bird load Jim’s body.”
“That’s a fact.”
“What did she look like?”
“Dark hair, dark eyes, lighter skinned for an Injun.” When Gunther narrowed his eyes, they about disappeared. “Are you thinking one of them two fillies at the game tonight was Night Bird?”
“Nah couldn’t be.” I stood gathered my hat and adjusted my scarf to conceal the scar that ran across my throat. It would seem Diamond Jim and I had one thing in common.
Gunther didn’t bother getting up. “Going somewhere?”
Tugging the scarf into its familiar place, I brushed the wrinkles from my jacket. “I’ve got places to see, things to go and people to do. Make yourself comfortable if you like. The room’s paid for.” I pulled the door closed. Dragon Breath once again free of her scabbard. Yes, I had people to do for sure.
Come on back next week for the second half of our adventure, when we touch base with Snake and Smoke…