Story by Adam Riley
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
A small crowd gathers as an elaborate carriage trundles down the main thoroughfare and creaks to a halt outside the double swinging doors of the Occidental Saloon. A motley group of cowpoke, prospectors, and ruffians look on, incredulous, as the driver leaps onto his seat.
“Come one! Come all! Tomorrow night, for our final performance, Madame Cherie Bouchard’s Vaudeville Theater! Be amazed at ‘Chang’s Mystical Arts of the Orient’. Be entranced by the sultry songs of Madame Cherie. Feast your eyes on our very own ‘Dancing Daisy’. And finally, I, Dead-eye Dave, will test my skills against your sharpest shooter…and I assure you, folks, I have never been bested!”
Dave hops down and heads straight for the bar. Daisy, in her tight corset and black boots, turns every head as she saunters to the card table. Chang waits quietly on the steps outside, watching the crowded street from the corner of his eye. As Madame Bouchard steps onto the weathered boardwalk, a handsome blue-eyed cowboy, dressed entirely in black but for the bronze deputy badge, approaches the striking woman.
“Mornin’ Cherie, welcome back to Laredo. McCann regrets that he couldn’t be here to welcome y’all, but he had some business to attend at the bridge.” Cherie Bouchard smiles and places a velvet-gloved hand on his cheek. “Washburn, that face of yours is welcome enough.” For a moment, the two stand together, eyes locked, until the distant crack of gunfire pulls them from the trance.
At the end of the tree-lined promenade, Cherie spies the cool green waters of the Rio Grande. A panicked horse gallops toward them dragging a torn and broken body; close behind, a rider atop a great, beautiful mare. An enormous mustache obscures his face, but even under the hat, Cherie could see the cold steel in his eyes. The silver of the sheriff badge catches a momentary glint of sun. He dismounts, kicking the motionless body as he approaches.
“Another freeloader,” he growls, looking around sharply. “Let this be a reminder to all of you! You wanna cross that bridge, then you pay what I ask, understood?”
“What do you want me to do with him, boss?” Washburn asks, a bit hangdog.
McMann hands him a blood-splattered envelope. “Throw that in the safe, then drag his ass into the bush.”
“Bury him?” Washburn asks.
“Hell with that. Vultures gotta eat, same as the worms.” McMann spits. Washburn shakes his head in disgust and throws the corpse into the saddle.
McMann turned towards Madame Bouchard, “Mon chérie! Enchanté!” He reaches out to kiss her bare hand. “I anticipate that your tour of the southwest was a resounding success?”
“Honey, it’s been rowdier than a cock in a hen-house! Now get me inside and buy me a drink. Tonight, you and your boys get an intimate rehearsal performance. Let’s keep it, shall we say, ‘exclusif.’”
— ♦♦♦ —
“This is it, y’all,” says Cherie. “No more short-cons or card sharping. No more peddling cheap snake oil or circus tricks. We’ve finally made it back to Laredo. We’ve got half the Texas Rangers on our tails, a carriage full of loot, and just one more con to get us across that bridge before we can say ‘Adios, Estados Unidos.’”
“So, what’s the play boss?” Dave spins his revolver carelessly in his hand as he takes another pull of his whiskey bottle. The backstage room is dimly lit by a few smoky gas lamps, a cheap red velvet curtain pulled around them.
“You better go easy on that bottle, or you’ll be seeing double,” Chang admonishes lightly.
“That’s why I’ve got two guns, Chang!” Dave belches and takes another swig. He seats the pistol back in its holster. “I know McMann,” he says. “We go back years. He ain’t no lawman. He’s a gangster in a ten-gallon hat. He’s planning to rob us blind and have our bodies in the river before dawn.”
Daisy breaks the ensuing silence. “I didn’t sign up for no murdering.”
“Look,” whispers Cherie, “McMann has been extorting that bridge crossing for years. He runs just about every shady operation in this city. His safe is our ticket to retirement. We get it and we’re free. A classic grab and run.”
Chang looks askew at Cherie. “Let me get this straight: You want us to crack a safe, take out a gang of killers, and get our asses across a heavily guarded bridge to Mexico by sunup?”
“Hell with the safe,” Dave cuts in. “Let’s jump the carriage now and I’ll take care of the bridge guards myself. Why get greedy?”
“Never in my life have I known Dead-eye Dave to back down from a score. Your fingers feeling a little heavy?” Cherie chides. “And who said anything about cracking it? In a few hours, we’ll have the whole McMann gang at our fingertips.”
Chang raises his eyebrows. “What’d you have in mind boss?”
Cherie smiles, “I think you know. Tonight, we give them ‘The Dragon’s Kiss.’”
— ♦♦♦ —
Gas chandeliers flicker in the diffused haze of opium and tobacco. The sour smell of whiskey permeates the sawdust-covered floors of the Occidental Saloon.
McMann and Washburn stand at the threshold as Daisy takes the stage. “This little rehearsal is the perfect distraction,” says McMann. “The law has a reward out for the Bouchard Gang, so let’s make sure they’re hanging high by the time the Rangers get here. Get their carriage secured, and we’ll nail ‘em after the show.”
“Sure thing, boss.” Washburn catches a glance from Cherie as he exits the double doors.
A dozen of McMann’s closest lackeys cheer as Daisy reaches the climax of her sultry burlesque performance. She falls into the crowd and giggles, “mind if I join y’all?” Cherie sits at the piano and begins a classic vaudeville tune. Some in the small crowd sing along.
Dead-eye Dave runs the poker game by the front of the house. McMann takes a seat and scowls as Dave slides a stack of chips across the table. The two other players would be easy marks, but Dead-eye knows McMann – he’s quick on the draw and tougher than a rattlesnake. He surreptitiously unbuckles his pistol holster beneath the table before dealing cards.
Chang appears on stage and a hush fills the room. His voice cuts in deep and clear. “You are about to witness the greatest acts of Oriental prestidigitation! I have traveled the Far East in search of our most sacred rituals. Tonight, I bring them to you, unadulterated.” Smoke fills the stage and settles down amongst the front tables. Chang quickly pulls something from the loose sleeve of his robe and throws it to the ground. An explosion of light fills the room. The men are spellbound.
“Come forth, Daisy, and let us dispel your physical form.” Cherie throws another smoke bomb from backstage that goes off with a loud crack. Smoke billows from the back of the stage as Daisy takes her place, the haze beginning to obscure the view. The card game halts as all eyes follow Daisy. “Are you prepared, my dear, to receive the Dragon’s Kiss?” Daisy gazes toward the audience, entranced, and nods.
Chang throws a great blue cloak dramatically over them both. They vanish, and the stage is engulfed in an enormous explosion. The crowd is knocked out of their seats from the impact as shards of wood and glass rain down. The evening sun settles on the smoke and chaos within, as the back wall of the building crumbles.
Two men leap to their feet at the front of the room. McMann rounds on Dave and screams, “You bastards!” He reaches for his pistol, but too slowly. Dead-eye drops the hammer on McMann as the ceiling collapses. The bullet strikes McMann in the shoulder and he crashes through the front window of the saloon. Dave rolls clear of the falling debris and drops two more men with a single bullet each. He takes a carefully placed shot at the gas chandelier above. The chain snaps, falling onto the crowd in a chaotic burst of flames. Frantic bodies scatter, and the Occidental burns.
— ♦♦♦ —
Outside, McMann stumbles around the side of the building. A crowd looks on, aghast, as flames begin to lick the shattered entrance. McMann rounds the corner just in time to see his precious safe dragged into the desert by a panicked horse. He grabs the halter of his mare and throws himself into the saddle. “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let that French cow take me for a fool!” He snarls, riding hard after the runaway stallion.
McMann rounds a low hill and spots the horse slowing to a halt near a dried-out wash. As he approaches, he makes out a body: the freeloader from that morning. His shoulder throbs as he gingerly hops down from his horse. The enormity of his predicament hits him. His saloon is gone. “They’ll be begging to die by the time I’m done with them,” he thinks. He bends down to loosen the rope from the safe and quickly looks around to ensure that he is alone. “At least they didn’t get my money, and the boys at the bridge will make sure they’ve got nowhere to run.” He spins the combination and pulls the handle to open the heavy steel door. Inside, at the bottom of the empty compartment, rests a single velvet glove.
Footsteps sound behind him and McMann reaches for his pistol. “Hold on there, chief! Texas Rangers here. Why don’t you go ahead and drop that piece.” The gun falls with a thud and McMann turns to see two mounted officers with rifles drawn.
“Look, boys, I’m glad you’re here” he growls. “I’m Sheriff McMann of Laredo, and we just got heisted by the Bouchard Gang. Help me get these bastards, will ya?”
“That’s exactly who we’re looking for Sheriff. But first, why don’t you tell me about that dead pilgrim over yonder?” One of the Rangers dismounts and goes to look at the corpse.
“That’s one of my boys,” McMann says casually. “That damned Dead-eye Dave took him out earlier today.” The Ranger picks up a bloodied envelope pinned to the freeloader’s shirt. Inside, he finds a letter with a bronze deputy badge. McMann’s eyes go wide in surprise. “Washburn…”
“Well, Mr. McMann, Looks like we’ve got a signed affidavit here from your deputy saying you killed this man earlier today.” Seconds pass, the three men locked in a tense standoff. Fast as a whip, McMann drops to his knees and grabs his pistol. Two simultaneous cracks fill the air. Smoke drifts up from the Rangers’ rifles. McMann drops limply to the dirt.
— ♦♦♦ —
The dusty carriage rolls up to the bridge as the setting sun casts a downy orange glow over the peaceful river. Washburn pulls to a stop outside of the toll booth and two of McMann’s cronies step out to greet him.
“Whatcha got there Washburn?” asks the first.
“The notorious Bouchard Gang! Boss wants me to dump the whole lot in Mexico and let the coyotes sort ‘em out.”
The second guard smiles. “Too bad. Would have loved to see that Daisy dance. Hey, what was all that commotion up there? We heard an explosion.”
Washburn slaps the reins. As the horses begin moving, he calls back with a grin, “let’s just say they went out with a bang.”
Halfway across, Cherie hops into the driver’s seat and kisses Washburn hard. “We did it mon amour!”
Chang sneaks his head out through the window. “Now, boss?”
“Oui,” Cherie calls back playfully. A wooden dynamite crate drops onto the center of the bridge. As the Texas Rangers come charging down the main street at a full gallop, a shot rings out from Dave’s pistol. Chang’s box of fireworks explodes into a massive ball of flames and the bridge buckles into the river below. “Adios!” cries Cherie with a coquettish grin, and the Bouchard Gang bounces off into the warm Mexican night.
— ♦♦♦ —
So, would you want to know the day you were gonna die, if you could? I heard that before. It’s one of those hypnotical questions. But it’s more than just a riddle. That happened to my dude Carlo. Changed everything.