Dragon Lady

Chapter One: The Lotus Flower

 

The irony of it never failed to amuse Langton. He spent a fair time in mining towns, and the bars were always bursting while only a few staggerers were out on the streets in the bright midday. Seems the miners couldn't wait to hit straight for the dark saloons the moment they emerged above ground after a week or more in the dusty black shafts and pits.


Langton paused on the boardwalk beside the entrance to the saloon. The notes of a nameless cowboy tune floated to his ears from a piano towards the back. He couldn't decide which sounded worse, the dead piano keys or the random bursts of gunfire in the streets. It didn't seem to matter much either way to most of the drunken miners. The only time they became excited was whenever a poker table laden with the wages of the last shift was overturned.


Slowly, he eased open the batwing doors with his left hand, all the while keeping his right hand by his hip holster. He tugged the brim of his hat a little farther down on his forehead, and slowly and silently shifted to his left. He stood still for several seconds until his vision adjusted to the smoky gloom of the dive.


Langton cringed as he glanced down to the floor of the bar. Patches of grimy sawdust and hay were ground into the hard-packed dirt between the puddles of mud and broken glass, and black, wet stains spattered tables and chairs alike. The sawdust on the floor hadn't been changed for several days, Langton thought. But he knew it was more important in a hellhole like this to keep your eyes on the action than to watch too closely where you stepped.


So this was the notorious Lotus Flower, in the Chinatown ghetto of Tombstone, Arizona territory .. the bar where he was supposed to meet the fat Chinaman. More likely someone would come for him. This didn't look like the kind of establishment the Fat Man would frequent.


Langton didn't know why he had been sent for by the Fat Man, but the prospect of easy money piqued his curiosity. The Chinese controlled the bars in Tombstone, and no one knew for sure what deals might be done or undone or for what …. drugs, prostitution, coolies, gambling … but for sure it was unsavory.


That didn't matter to Langton. He was a violent man when he had to be, but he had his own code of justice. He didn't meddle in other folks' business if there was no profit in it.


Langton looked over the crowd at the gaming tables, checked the faces lined up along the bar. He had a vague feeling someone somewhere was watching him. He shrugged it off, chose elbow room beside an older gent, a barfly down on his luck cadging drinks wherever he could.


« Gimme a whisky, barkeep. »


As the barkeep turned for the bottle, the barfly perked up. « Don't let him water your drink, mister. »


The barfly was right. Langton's first drink was watered down. Usually, he didn't tolerate being cheated by a barkeep. Sometimes, depending on the type of establishment, he'd draw his pistol and whip the bartender with it. He kept the sight on the end of his gun's barrel razor-sharp for times and purposes like this.


Often, just grabbing the barkeep by the shirt-front and showing him the wicked cutting edge up close was enough. But Langton was known to give the occasional demonstration and carry out his threat, if he judged the barkeep – or anybody else – had earned it.


Langton decided to let this one grievous mistake go unpunished. He didn't necessarily want to queer his appointment with the Fat Man. But when the second drink proved to be even weaker than the first, Langton decided he had enough. He would let no man play him for a fool.


« Let's make a deal, barkeep. You give me a fresh bottle of your best whisky, and take your watered-down drink away. »


« What's in it for me, mister? » answered the barkeep with a hint of swagger.


Langton raised his gaze, looked the barkeep square in the eye. Not bad, he thought. The man has a spine after all.


« Maybe I won't grab your scrawny neck and pistol-whip you into a bloody mess. »


Langton held his steely gaze on the barkeep. Slowly, he edged his right hand out of sight below the level of the bar. The barkeep, even more slowly, edged his hand below the bar on his side, and paused. A bead of sweat broke on his upper lip, as he stared into the coal-black orbs of Langton's flinty, chiseled countenance.


After several breaths, he brought his hand back up, nice and easy, and placed the full, unopened bottle of whisky before Langton. A ghost of a smile played across his thin lips.


« On the house, mister. It's gotta be the best, it's all I got. » He turned, and went about his business, freshening up the other patrons' drinks.


There it was again, that tingle, that feeling of being stalked by someone unseen. He kept his left hand around his glass on the bartop, his head bent toward his bottle, and his right hand close, but not too close, to the holstered gun on his hip.


Slowly, he scanned the other patrons along the bar, down one side of where he sat, then up the other way. Some men were stone-faced and immobile, their hands and eyes on their drink. Others were engaged in animated conversation, and still others were plying themselves with liquor in one hand and grasping a woman with the other. No one seemed interested in him.


He checked the mirror on the back wall over the barkeep's head, saw nothing … then he heard the soft swish of a curtain being pulled, coming from behind the bar. He caught a glimpse of what might have been an eye, then it disappeared, as the small space between the bottles on the back wall once more assumed the colour and darkness of its surroundings.


Langton poured a glass of the dark liquid for the barfly, who nodded in gratitude and downed the rotgut with two quick bobs of his adams apple. Satisfied the whisky wouldn't kill him outright, Langton poured himself a glass and topped up the barfly's glass as well.


Langton then turned back to the bar, and beckoned the barkeep over with one crook of his index finger. The barkeep pretended not to notice, until Langton slid a pair of crumpled bills onto the wood of the bar. He sidled over slowly, then turned to Langton with an ingratiating smile on his face as his fingers closed on the cash.


« I'm looking for a Chinaman name of Wang Lien. Some folks call him the Fat Man. I hear he's an important man in Chinatown. »


« Sorry friend, can't help you. We don't like Chinamen in here. Take my advice, don't ask any more questions about Chinamen. They'd just as soon stick a knife in your back as look at you sideways. »


Langton wanted to press it, but thought better of it. The fewer folks knew what he was up to, and who he was asking questions about, the better. He nodded, and the barkeep went back to the other customers.


« Mister, you looking for the Fat Man? »


Langton turned to the barfly, who had perked up from his alcoholic stupor on his right.


« What can you tell me, old man? »


In response, the barfly pushed his glass closer, watched with greedy eyes as Langton filled it with the vile fluid till it trembled at the very rim. He tipped the glass to his lips, then turned his moist, rheumy gaze to Langton.


« He lives under the whorehouse two streets back behind the jail. »


Langton moved to top up the ruined man's glass again, but then held the bottle in mid-air an inch above it. « Tell me more, friend. »


« Can't tell you much more, mister. Just watch your step … no one gets in to see the Fat Man without an invitation. Sometimes folks go in there and never come out again. »


Langton had heard stories like that before … rooms deep in curtained mazes, hiding opium dens, whorehouses, even whispers of an opulent chamber where men were tied down and tortured to death. Few people really knew what went on in the rabbit warren of hovels behind the main streets of Tombstone.


Langton wasn't a music buff, but the piano player was hitting so many dead keys, he turned to look that way. He was surprised to see a small Chinese man-child pounding away on a rickety stand-up near the back of the bar. A hulking form hurled obscenities at the young player.


« Cummon ya little Chink bastard, play the Yellow Rose of Texas! » The big man leaned over the kid, spilling his drink on the keyboard and on the kid's fingers as the waif played bravely on.


« Are you deaf, ya little monkey!? » he bellowed, and put his hand on the kid's shoulder and shook him.


Langton spoke without thinking. « Back off, Jack, » he mouthed, just loud enough for the red-faced drunk to hear him and peer his way through the smoky haze.


Langton surprised himself with his own actions. ' I should have kept my nose out of it, it's none of my sweet business.' But the drunk's actions had touched a nerve somewhere inside Langton when he grabbed the youth. Langton knew there was no backing down now.


He slid his liquor to his neighbor, stepped away from the bar and confronted the mean drunk. Langton was no slouch … he stood just under six feet, lean and loose-limbed on soft feet. But he was giving away six inches in height and an easy hundred pounds to his opponent.


« You should know better than to mess with Maddog McCabe, » sputtered the drunk. He lifted his meaty hand, waved an index finger in Langton's face. Langton didn't flinch.


« Get your dirty finger out of my face. »


McCabe's face went even redder with rage. Spittle sprayed in Langton's direction as he raised his hand again. Made to jab his finger on Langton's chest.


Langton moved with the deceptive speed of a striking rattlesnake. He wrapped his fist tight around McCabe's finger, bending it back and forcing McCabe towards the floor. McCabe winced, cried out. But he did not fold. His left hand clawed his hip holster, found the grip of his gun, yanked it out and began to bear it on Langton.


But Langton was quicker. His boot flicked out, caught McCabe's wrist before he could level the gun, and sent the gun tumbling into a pile of sawdust under the bar.


Keeping his grip on McCabe's index finger, Langton delivered a short punch with his free hand to McCabe's soft midsection. Then he wrenched the bigger man's arm behind his back, frog-walked him to the batwing doors, marched him out onto the sidewalk, and pitched him headlong into the midday dust of the street.


Langton walked down the boardwalk without glancing back.



Chapter Two: The Dragon Lady

 

The spies of the Dragon Lady were quick to summon her to the secret hole that looked into the Lotus Flower. Who was the gunman? Why was he asking for the Fat Man?


The Dragon Lady did a brisk business in reward money. She had copies of current and not-so-current wanted posters from local sheriffs, detective agencies and the Wells Fargo express company.


If a man whose face was on one of these dodgers entered the Dragon Lady's den, he'd best not pass out drunk here. He wouldn't want to welch on his bar bill, either. There were three or four toughs on the Dragon Lady's payroll at any time in the bar who could drag out drunks, or come up behind a deadbeat and stick a gun in his back. The offender was likely to wake up behind bars, soon to face the music.


Otherwise, she left them alone. It would be bad for business if she busted every petty crook who came into her bar. They made up a sizable share of her clientele, after all. Just as long as they didn't cause trouble and cost her time and money.


But she made an exception for those men with a high price on their head. Sometimes the reward money was just too good to pass up. People had short memories, and if there was a reward out for those folks, they were fair game for her, or for anybody else for that matter. The regulars always came back for the booze, gambling, drugs and women without a second thought.

She put her eye to the spyhole just in time to witness the exchange between Langton and the barkeep. She recognized him right away. It was the gunman the Wells Fargo agent Dineen had spoken to her about.


« Don't do anything, » Dineen had cautioned. « Langton's slippery and dangerous. Send me a wire the moment he sets foot in your bar. I'll pay double whatever's on your poster if I can arrest him myself. »


The reward for Langton was more than she'd made off her last ten bounties. She could grab him now, but the temptation to hold out for double or nothing was too great. She watched him carefully, noticed he kept shifting around, casually but intently checking out the action up and down the bar and in the mirror. Maybe he wouldn't be all that easy to walk up to from behind after all.


She noted Langton's coal-black eyes, the hard line of his jaw, the cold set of his lips …. then she realized she had been staring too long. His eyes flicked over to meet hers for a split second, and she hurriedly drew the curtain back over the peephole. Her face was warm, and her breath had caught in her throat.


She decided to send the wire to Dineen in Frisco first thing in the morning. But that meant Dineen wouldn't arrive for several days at the earliest. In the meantime, she decided to find out what he was up to. She might make a few plans of her own for the man they called Langton.



Chapter Three: The Piano Player

 

Perhaps it was a creak in the worn boards of the sidewalk that gave the little piano player away. He was sure he could follow anyone, anywhere, without being detected. But not this time.


He lost sight of Langton for several seconds, as the lanky man turned around the corner. The piano player used the opportunity to break from cover, hurrying to the edge of the building to peer around at Langton and plan his next move.


In the same second, a left hand grabbed him roughly by the shirt front, yanked him into the alley and hoisted him against the wall, eye-to-eye with the stranger who had just thrown his abuser into the street.

Langton said nothing yet. With his free hand, he frisked the small form. He had bee

n surprised once before by a quick slash from a hidden blade by an unlikely assailant, and vowed he would not make the same mistake twice.


« Speak up, kid! Who sent you? Do you speak any English at all? »


« Put me down, mister! »


So the little China boy can speak after all, thought Langton. Cheeky little punk, too.


« I'll give the orders around here, kid. »


Langton had few scruples when it came to getting his way with others. His rough voice, razor-sharp gunsight and calloused knuckles were all powerful tools of persuasion.


Yet there were lines that even he would not cross. Bullying children was one of them. The kid knew this, and played it to his advantage. After all, this stranger had intervened on his behalf in the Lotus Flower just a few moments ago.


Slowly, Langton eased the slight form of the child down the wall and set him on his feet. But he did not relax his grip on the urchin's shirt front. Chasing children down unfamiliar back streets held no appeal for him on this day.


« You Langton, Mister? »


« Who wants to know, little man? »


« I am not little man, old man. My name is Willie. »


« All right then, Willie, tell me who sent you. »


The boy peered back at Langton through slit eyes of almond black. No answer came from his lips.


« Okay kid, you win. I'm Langton. Now tell me who sent you or else ...., » Langton bluffed.


A hint of a smirk played on the kid's lips. He seemed to savor the small triumph he had wrested from the big man.


« Wang Lien sent me to find you. He's the Fat Man. Let me go and I'll take you there. »


Langton followed Willie down one dark alley after another. Almost imperceptibly, they entered the local Chinatown, a warren of shabby shanties and low lean-tos. Clutches of gibbering men were gathered on the stoops and in the mouths of narrow alleyways.


Some called out to Langton, doubtlessly tempting him to enter into their dark holes to sample illicit pleasures of the flesh. Some sat slumped over, their eyes fixed on an inner realm only they could see through their opium-induced haze.


They came at last to one hovel slightly less rickety than the rest. Willie spoke briefly to two sullen shapes guarding the entrance, who then grudgingly stepped aside and left Willie and Langton just enough room to enter.


Langton was led through a maze of shifting and parting curtains of various colors. He soon gave up keeping track. Women, children and old men seemed to scurry in random directions around him.


At one turn, the acrid stench of spent opium and unwashed bodies assaulted his nostrils. He hesitated, turned to part the curtains and glimpsed rows of men, not all Chinese, lying on rough bunks, in a haze of smoke, heads lolling, eyes glazed, and limbs splayed awkwardly.


Willie reached back and grabbed his arm, took him through two or three more curtains, until they came to a larger, well-lit room, with silken curtains and comfortable furniture. Jade icons rested on small tables, beside tea sets and trays of food.

A fat man reposed amid the cushions. He waved Willie away, and turned his gaze to Langton.



Chapter Four: The Fat Man

 

The Fat Man was finishing a meal and licking his fingers when Willie parted the curtains for Langton to enter. Langton declined the offer to partake. He didn't make anything of the Chinaman's morbid obesity. He knew corpulence among these people represented power and authority, and demanded a certain respect.


Wang Lien wasted no time coming to the point. 


« You big gunfighter, Misser Langton? You shoot many men? »


Langton said nothing, but made a nearly imperceptible nod.


« Good, good. You shoot women too? »


Again Langton remained silent. Only a slight creasing of his forehead and a twitch of his eyebrows betrayed his reaction.


Wang laid out his problem. His business interests depended on a steady flow of women and opium from the Chinese importers in Frisco, to run his cribs and dens throughout the Southwest. His last two shipments into Tombstone, stagecoach runs in from the railhead a hundred miles north in Bisbee, had gone missing along the way. No trace of the drugs, the women or the drivers had been found, until the body of the driver of the first coach turned up in a most unlikely place.


It was lying swollen and bent-legged on the heap of bodies in the alley behind the opium den run by the Dragon Lady, below the Lotus Flower. It was among the other corpses of the unfortunates who had drawn their last breath from the pipe, and were thrown out and left to rot.


It was common knowledge that few men made it out of the opium dens alive. Once their money was gone, they were given the golden bowl … a hit of pure China white that sent them off on a voyage of no return.


Normally, the corpses were picked up sporadically by the local undertaker for a token fee and buried in a pit behind town, but Wang often sent a beggar to check the corpse pile in case any of his clan or tong ended up there. The body of the driver got thrown into the pit before Wang had a chance to see it.


When the body of the second driver was thrown onto the heap, Wang had it brought to him before the undertaker made his rounds. There were ligature marks on the neck, ankles and wrists, and the corpse stank not only of death, but of opium as well. Both feet were swollen, and the soles burnt red and black.


So the rumors about the torture chambers in Chinatown may be true after all, thought Langton.


The supply interruption hadn't been good for the Fat Man's business. Without a dependable source of opium, men were leaving his dens and getting their fixes in the competition's operations. More houses were opening all the time, with more and purer dope, while Wang was forced to cut his dwindling supply thinner every day.


Women were a problem too. There would always be clients for his women, miners between shifts and roustabouts in town for a drunken spree, but they never had much money. Besides, they often beat the women up, usually so bad they couldn't get back on their backs for several days or even longer.


Wang needed fresher, younger girls, who would command higher prices and cater to more discerning, less bruising customers. He couldn't match the entertainments of his competitors. He wasn't sure how much longer he could stay in business.


Wang was fairly sure his women were ending up across town at the Lotus Flower, and that his drugs were being sold all over town, he told Langton. But he couldn't prove it. He didn't see his women before they were delivered to him, so how could he know what they looked like. Same with his drugs … all he knew was that even though his shipment never arrived, the town was awash with opium. It had to be his that everyone was smoking .... everyone that is, except his own usual customers.


« I want you to find out what's happening to my shipments, Langton. I want you to meet the next one at the station in Bisbee, watch my man, make sure it arrives here intact. »


« What's in it for me, Wang? »


Langton didn't much care where the money came from, cash was king, after all. Wang offered him drugs and women, all he could handle, but Langton demurred. First the cash, then he would be free to choose his own pleasures as he wished. It didn't take long for them to settle on a mutually acceptable fee for services rendered … if Langton could fulfill the terms of the arrangement..


« I've got five women and a load of opium coming in on the Bisbee train in three days, Langton. I need you to ride with my man on the coach into Tombstone. I want you to guard the shipment until it comes directly to me. »


« Why did you send me to the Lotus Flower, Wang? »


« I wanted you to get a feel for the competition, to see if you could find anything out on your own first, » said Wang.


It was only the softest rustle and the slightest tremor of the curtains in the far corner of the room, but Langton sensed that someone was lurking behind, listening to their conversation. He briefly debated going over to the corner and pulling the curtains apart to expose the eavesdropper, but decided against it. He knew there was no such thing as a secret in Chinatown.



Chapter Five: Cam Dineen

 

Cam Dineen read once more the telegraph with the hated name that the Dragon Lady had sent him that morning.

It had taken long enough for Langton to show up, thought Dineen. Usually a bounty as big as the one on Langton's head brought results sooner than this.


Mr. Valentine, the president of Wells Fargo, had laid it on the line with Dineen not so long ago. Dineen's strict instructions were to inform the Wells Fargo rep in the closest office to Langton's whereabouts, and let him deal with the criminal. Stay out of it.


But Dineen's pride and his burning hatred of his arch-rival were all-consuming, to the point where his loyalty to his company was compromised. He didn't give his boss's implicit instructions a second thought.


Three day's travel by train and horse from his office in Frisco to Tombstone, thought Dineen. Anything could happen by the time he got into the wide-open mining camp.


If he did contact his people in Tombstone, thought Dineen, Mr. Valentine would find out what was going on within the hour. Dineen would be denied a piece of the action, no doubt. But Langton must be his, and his alone – the reason for every day he stayed alive, until he ran down the hated gunfighter who had mocked and eluded him all his career.


Dineen went back to the telegraph office, reached over into the basket marked FILING, and removed the other copy of the Dragon Lady's telegram. As the telegrapher opened his mouth to protest the breach of company policy, Dineen put a finger to his own lips, then peeled off a healthy banknote from his money clip. After a quick, furtive glance around to ensure there were no witnesses to the transaction, the older gent nodded conspiratorily and smoothly palmed the proffered bill.


Dineen then left the Wells Fargo building, and strode across the street to Western Union. It wasn't uncommon for agents of one company or the other to use the services of their competition. Sometimes it added an extra layer of secrecy and security to their operations.


« DL –Keep eye on L only stop reward yours plus bonus when I capture stop Arrive in Tombstone soonest stop CD. »



Chapter Six : Maddog McCabe

 

McCabe brooded morosely over his drink. The bartop was stained in shades of blood and rotgut, ridged in black with the scorch marks of innumerable smokes, and cratered with the slashes and stabs of a thousand knives.


The dirt floor was caked with clumps consisting mainly of sawdust, held together by sweat, spilled liquor and vomit. Smoke rolled in clouds over rough and wobbly tables, where grizzled gamblers tossed bills, coins and cards with careless flicks of their wrists.


McCabe wouldn't go back into the Lotus Flower for a few days. His humiliation was too raw just yet. He wouldn't make it inside anyway, the bouncers knew him now, and would laugh in his face and show him the door.


He was spoiling for Langton. His hatred was bitter and all-consuming. He would find Langton, and gun him down from behind if he had to. I might be a coward, he thought, but I'm not stupid.


He had prowled the blackest holes of Tombstone, searching for him, places where even the miners feared to tread --- dens where the opium smokers and eaters sprawled heavy-lidded and slack-jawed on filthy straw --- pits where brawlers beat each other bloody for five and ten-dollar purses, no quarter asked and none given – anywhere he could talk or muscle his way in and stay for more than five minutes --- and could not find him. He'd watched the hovels that passed themselves off as hotels and seen no sign of Langton entering or leaving.


McCabe fed his hatred with another swill of his poison, draining his glass and reaching for the bottle. He'd run out of places to look. He would need help, someone with connections and informers who could locate Langton. There would be a price to pay .... there always was for men like him... but it would be worth it. It was time to pay a visit to the Dragon Lady.



Chapter Seven: Willie

 

Willie was an orphan, and lived by his wits. His parents had been lured to the Golden Mountain, the name America was known by in China, by the flesh merchants with promises of free land and endless opportunities. The ship that carried them to San Francisco was little different from the slaveboats that had hauled the Negroes from Africa only several decades earlier.


Willie and his father were sold to the South Pacific Railroad Company, and his father soon perished with so many other coolies in one of the countless rock slides and dynamite blasts as the endless steel tracks were forced through the high mountain passes.


Willie knew then that his turn would come. Sooner or later the white man would point his finger at Willie, and he would be sent up the slope with the dynamite lashed to his back. Several times, Willie had seen the white man press the ignitor before the coolies could make it back down safe off the slope. He knew he would have little or no chance of survival if he stayed. So he bolted, and this was where he went to ground, in Tombstone, with many more of his countryfolk.


He never learned what happened to his mother, and the more he saw and experienced in the shadowy half-world of Tombstone's Chinese ghetto and the misery of the silver mines and railroad camps, he realized he was better off not knowing.


Willie had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, when money changed hands and secrets were shared. He made it his business to know what was going on, and usually found a way to profit when deals went down in Chinatown. He also possessed an intimate knowledge of the labyrinths and secret passages that linked the drug dens, gambling pits, cribs and whisky joints that festered in the lawless mining camp.


He had been close enough to eavesdrop when the Fat Man pitched his deal to Langton. And he often found his way to the Lotus Flower, noting who came in, how the deals for drugs and women were made, and what went on in the private chambers of the Dragon Lady herself.


Yes, he knew what happened in her satin-sheeted bed, how unfortunate men were used, abused, and made to disappear after she was done with them. Some were tossed down disused mine shafts, he knew. Others were hauled out of town and dumped, left for their bones to bleach in the desert sun.


An even bleaker fate awaited those who had incurred her displeasure, or failed to satisfy her desires. Several of the bodies bore burn marks in various places … testaments to her cruelty, and marks of scorn for the inadequate. These victims were tossed onto the pile of other wasted hulks who had spent their last living hours in her dead-end drug den.



Chapter Eight: Bisbee Station

 

Women and drugs, thought Langton. What the hell, he couldn't change the world. In his time, he'd used both. However, he never used alcohol or drugs so much that they spoiled his aim.


Actually, he reflected, women were most often his downfall, always getting in his way and foiling his plans. Especially when he thought he knew what he was doing, he thought ruefully.


He arrived in Bisbee scant minutes before the train pulled into the station. He knew there were supposed to be five women and one crate of opium to go into the coach Wang had sent him up with. You could never be sure when women were involved, said Wang, and Langton had to agree with him. One Chinaman was also included, guarding the women and the drugs, and would drive the coach back into Tombstone. Langton would ride shotgun beside him.


With a final chuff of steam and squeal of brakes, the train pulled in level with the platform. Doors opened down the line, and passengers began to step down. Presently, a male Chinese stepped out of a near car, soon followed by a file of women.

As the group descended from the train and assembled on the platform, Langton observed that there were not five women, but six in all. He looked the women over carefully. Why, he asked, were there six, and not five as he had been led to expect? The Chinese answered with the shrug universal to all languages. So sorry, so sorry, then an unintelligible stream of sibilant Cantonese.

The women were no help either. Several could barely walk, as their feet were bound and twisted into grotesque shapes. Others, Langton observed, couldn't utter a word if they wanted to. Their tongues had been removed at birth, when they were sold into slavery by parents who wanted only sons to carry on the family name and provide for them in their old age. This was likely not the only surgical injustice inflicted on them, Langton knew.


Langton quickly tossed all scruples aside. He had a job to do, and it was not up to him to right all the wrongs in this world. He decided whoever sold these women to the Fat Man must have added one more as a gesture of goodwill. Maybe it was none of his business after all. He herded the motley crowd into the coach, and watched the Chinese driver load several crates.

Satisfied, Langton climbed up onto the shotgun seat beside the driver, and they began the ride into Tombstone, half a day's drive away.




The Dragon Lady looked Langton over from the corner of her eye. Her spy in the Fat Man's chambers had been right, this was the man she had watched from concealment at the Lotus Flower.


Maybe she was pushing her luck, after all this was the third time she was pulling this stunt. But they couldn't be onto her, there had been no witnesses left alive after the last two heists. It didn't matter anyway, she was here now and she was committed. It would work again this time, she would make sure.


She stole another glance at the round-eye – stared maybe just a second too long, as he seemed to feel her gaze on him and turned to look back at her. She flashed a coy smile of naïveté, and quickly turned her head. She'd make special plans for him later.


She had met the train one stop up the line from Bisbee, accompanied by a Chinaman in her employ similar in stature to the fat Chinaman in Tombstone. The man introduced himself to the guard, explaining that the woman in his tow was a gift to the Fat Man, and handed over a parchment inscribed in Chinese characters attesting to his friendship and goodwill. The guard bobbed his head several times, nodding and shuffling his feet, and uttered his understanding. A few bills from the bogus fat man pressed into the guard's hand sealed the deal. It was as easy as that.


She felt for the small pouch of powder concealed in the flounces of her dress. She would wait patiently for the right moment – then the drugs, the women, and yes, the rough-looking round-eye – would be hers, to do with as she pleased. She was sure she could handle both him and the driver – and then her own hired gun would arrive and take over the transport of the merchandise … Mad Dog McCabe.



Chapter Nine: The Abandoned Mining Camp

 

Langton watched the sagebrush and cacti slide silently by as the stage rolled on through the desert toward Tombstone. He was familiar with the terrain, after riding this way in the opposite direction to meet the train at Bisbee. Although the lay of the land was mostly flat, there were several dry washes, low hills and blind turns where highwaymen might lie in ambush.


He kept his rifle across his knees as the Chinese handled the reins. It had taken some persuasion, but Langton had convinced the driver to hold his tongue so Langton could stay alert. Langton was not predisposed to idle chatter. His thoughts were too dark and sinister to share with strangers for the sheer sake of company.


Several times, he checked his back trail, looking for telltale dust clouds that might betray the presence of pursuit. It was difficult, for their coach had stirred up the dust in its wake already. A dry desert breeze rose, further obscuring their back trail with its own dust devils and gusts. Mirages hovered and receded as the afternoon heat radiated from the flats on either side.


At one point, he motioned for the driver to stop the coach. He rapped against the door, then told the driver to silence the women inside. For several moments, they stood quiet and motionless, as Langton listened for the pounding of hooves or the clank and creak of saddlery on their back trail. He climbed to the top of the coach, crouching down to offer a smaller target, and scanned the perimeter. Although he heard or saw nothing, he was not satisfied. Someone was out there.


The coach turned around a small butte and drew near an abandoned mining camp. The collection of shacks, open shafts and piles of mining rubble was similar to any one of the hundreds of claims that had been dug and deserted as worthless following the big silver strike at Tombstone several years ago.


A small voice inside the coach spoke a short message in a tone of urgency, and the driver translated for Langton. It was time to offer the occupants of the coach a comfort stop. The few weathered, tumbledown buildings, open to the sky and slanting at odd angles, might offer some privacy to the passengers. Hell, thought Langton, I could stretch my legs a little myself.


He motioned the driver to pull over, and after carefully looking and listening, stepped down to the ground with gun in hand and began to walk around the site prior to letting the women out. Only when he was satisfied that they were alone did he open the doors.


This was the moment the Dragon Lady had been waiting for.


As the women filed out one side of the stagecoach, Langton led the driver to the other side to afford them a moment of privacy, and to satisfy his own call of nature. Once Langton's back was turned, the Dragon Lady nimbly climbed up the side of the coach, out of sight of Langton and the driver, just high enough to reach the water canteens on the seat.


Quickly, she pulled the stopper on Langton's canteen, opened her hand above the mouth, and poured a handful of white powder into the canteen. After restopping the container, she did the same for the driver, placed both back where she found them, then clambered back down, went about her business, and climbed back into the stage.


Langton returned, satisfied himself that everybody was back on board, then climbed up once more onto the shotgun seat. One last look around. This might have been a good spot for an ambush, he thought. Time to get moving, been here too long. A sip of water or two to cut the dust, and they'd be on their way.



Chapter Ten: Hogtied

 

McCabe couldn't believe his luck. Maybe now, at long last, he was catching a break.


He rode down into the small draw and met the Dragon Lady according to plan. His rifle was already unholstered, and he was looking forward to plugging the guard and driver. He'd dump their bodies down the old mining camp well, where they would never be found in his lifetime.


It was a sweet deal for McCabe. Cash up front …. never enough, of course, but more than enough for one day's dirty work … but he got to take the women too.


He didn't care much for Chinese women himself. His tastes ran to larger women, with more meat on their bones. But the Chinese girls were always in demand, as long as the miners still worked the silver lodes deep in the Tombstone mines. He had four women working almost around the clock for him now, but he would soon need more. He would have to restock his stable when his girls were shot, stabbed, beaten or worked to exhaustion, as all too often they were.


There was only one problem. He'd gotten a little too fond of the white powder lately. He was finding it a little harder to deceive himself into thinking he didn't need it a little more, and a little more often.


McCabe wasted little time for pleasantries. He knew they were pushing their luck, after all this was the third time they were pulling this stunt. The Fat Man wasn't stupid, he knew. He'd hire some gunman to find out what was going on.


He was in a hurry to get this over with. The draw seemed deserted, but McCabe knew that even the empty places had eyes and ears. He decided not to risk the report of his rifle, he'd toss them down the well alive.


But then he recognized the inert form of Langton, slouched on his side on the ground in a drug-induced coma, where he had slipped to from the shotgun seat of the coach. Rage rose up inside him, turning his whisky-veined face several shades of crimson.


« I know this bastard. Death is too good for him. We can't kill him yet. I want to beat him to death myself … nice and slow. »

 

 

« Hands off, McCabe. He's mine, Wells Fargo wants him, and Cam Dineen is going to pay me big bucks if he's still alive when he gets him. Get rid of the driver, then help me tie him up and load him in the back. He's coming back to the Lotus Flower with me. »


McCabe hesitated. His glance flicked over the Dragon Lady, the women inside the coach, and the baggage on the top. There could be a fortune in there, his for the taking. His fingers twitched as he shifted as his grip on the rifle ….

Slowly, imperceptibly, the Dragon Lady's left hand moved toward the curved knife hidden in the folds of her clothing. She knew his usefulness was coming to an end. If she didn't finish him here and now, it would have to be done as soon as this job was over.


McCabe saw the look in her eyes, and stepped back from the brink. He grabbed the driver's unconscious body by the feet, dragged him to the dry well, and tipped him in. Then he hog-tied Langton, and muscled Langton's body into the vehicle. They headed out for the Lotus Flower as the sun set below the rim of the Dragoon Range.



Chapter Eleven : In the Lair of the Dragon Lady

 

The dreams were dark, tinged with dread and death. Several times, Langton's eyes fluttered open in panic to black silence, only to plunge back into realms of drear and despair.


At last, Langton managed to open his eyes and keep them open. Slowly, the fog lifted from his mind, and the images of gloom receded and disappeared.


He soon realized he lay spread-eagled on his back, on a bed in the darkness. His arms and legs were bound with silk skeins that stretched taut to somewhere in the darkness, and try as he might, panic-stricken, he could not move them in any direction.


He tried to cry out, but the silk gag tied over his mouth and around his head muffled his anguished voice. Langton soon realized the futility of his struggle, and willed his heart and mind to slow down, and save his energy for whatever ordeal awaited him.


Presently, sibilant voices whispered in the darkness, and a dim light shimmered several feet away, showing the outline of curtains from floor to ceiling. The cloth parted, and a small, older Oriental woman carrying an ornate lantern padded over to the foot of Langton's bed.


She bent down below his line of sight, and set the lantern down onto a small table beside the bed. Then, just as silently, she withdrew to the curtain, and returned carrying a larger porcelain urn, closed at the top but for a narrow, flexible tube tipped with an ivory mouthpiece. On the urn's surface, painted dragon figures chased each other over forests of green pine and lakes of azure blue.


The urn was suspended over a small jar. In the gloomy room, Langton couldn't make out what was in the jar, but he didn't need to be told. Once again, he squirmed in his restraints, and tried without success to utter a meaningful syllable through the silk gag.


A brighter light flared as the mute struck a match. She held the flame on its long stick on the dirty white lumps amid the charcoal in the small jar, then removed a small fan from the folds of her robe and gently coaxed the coals to life. Seemingly satisfied, she withdrew behind the curtains.


In moments, the sickly sweet stench of opium reached Langton's nostrils. He drew his breath as slowly and shallowly as he could, even knowing in his heart that intoxication was inevitable. He turned his head as the curtains parted once more, and another female clad in a flowing robe swished silently to his bedside.


Langton's eyes opened wide as he gazed upon her features, recognizing her from the stagecoach ride. So this was the Dragon Lady!


She stood still for a few long moments, then unbuttoned his shirt front. She slowly appraised his chiseled musculature. With a sinuous shrug of her shoulders, her robe slid down her torso to the floor. She reached out with one long slender arm, and ran her fingers over Langton's chest. Her long, sculpted nails dug deep into Langton's flesh, then she withdrew her hand.


Stepping to the urn, she pulled the mouthpiece of the pipe to her lips, and drew a mouthful of smoke into her lungs. A slow smile spread to the corners of her mouth, and a faraway look overtook her almond eyes as the smoke trickled from her nostrils and between her small teeth. Then the Dragon Lady turned her gaze to Langton's eyes, and proffered the mouthpiece.


Despite Langton's best efforts, his eyes opened wide in involuntary panic. An attempt at no came out through the gag as a stifled grunt.


She climbed onto the bed, draping her weight on his chest, immobilizing his head between her knees. The fingers of her left hand pinched his nostrils shut. She lowered the hookah's mouthpiece closer, and worked it under the gag and between Langton's tightly pursed lips.



Chapter Twelve: Willie's Dilemma

 

Willie had been watching when Langton was dragged into the back door of the Lotus Flower. Usually, he didn't care about the fate of the nameless victims, there was nothing he could do for them.


But this time, he recognized the whisky-swollen features of Mad Dog McCabe, the gwai-lo who had roughed him up in the Lotus Flower two nights before. He had risked discovery by inching closer in the darkness, and was rewarded with a glimpse of the man who had saved him from McCabe for no reason at all.


He knew full well what was in store for Langton. And he knew, even if he hadn't shed a single tear over the fate of all the other victims of the Dragon Lady, this was the one he had to save.


Slowly, carefully, Willie slipped through the maze of the curtain jungle of the Lotus Flower house, careful to avoid detection by the occupants. Sensing that time was of the essence, he risked a quick scurry through the sour-smelling opium den, where emaciated husks of what had once been men and women lolled and sprawled glassy-eyed on filthy bug-ridden bunks, their gaze directed inward to their own private hell.


At last, he crouched behind the curtains of the Dragon Lady's private Shangri-la, and peered between the folds to where Langton lay, sprawled on the bed. Bands of red silk tied around his ankles and wrists bound him to the bedposts. Willie saw no one else in the room.


A tall ceramic vase stood beside the bed, with a long hose fitted with a mouthpiece snaking out from under its lid. A small bowl filled with gleaming coals lined the base of the vase, and a long metal rod, attached to the vase by a thong, rested with its tip in the coals.


By the dim light of several tapers on a small stand beside the bed, Willie spied Langton's gunbelt in a far corner. Reasoning that an unarmed flight through the curtain maze posed its own set of difficulties, he scuttled over to the corner, collected the gun belt, and removed it to his hiding place behind the curtain.


Now to free Langton … but he suddenly realized he needed a knife. The silk bindings were strong and he knew the knots were thick and tight. He cursed himself for neglecting to bring one.


He fingered Langton's gunbelt, finding nothing of use until his fingers ran over the gun's barrel. He nicked his fingertip on the razor-sharp gunsight on the end of the barrel, and a small smile creased his lips.


Willie palmed the gun, then lifted his hand to part the curtains … then froze, as the sylph-like form of the Dragon Lady glided into the room and came to hover over the prostrate form.



Chapter Thirteen : McCabe's Plan

 

McCabe was getting tired of being abused.


He thought Langton was his when he rode down into the draw and found Langton unconscious in the dust. He could have tied Langton up and let the sun burn him black until he died of thirst. He could have broken his bones and thrown him down the well alive, to keep the driver company until the end. Many other grim scenarios played out in his frustrated mind, all futile.


At least, he thought, he'd share in the bounty on Langton, after the Dragon Lady told him that Dineen, the Wells Fargo detective, was coming to collect Langton and pay her off. But it soon became apparent that the Dragon Lady had other plans for Langton. She had him sprawled and spread in her lair of torture, and McCabe knew exactly the sordid fate that Langton would soon face. He could kiss the reward money goodbye.


Sure, he got to keep the women. But they were more of a headache than they were worth. He'd never see half of the money they took in. They never lasted long either .. those few who weren't beaten or worse after a few weeks or so simply ran off for parts unknown. Besides, McCabe was a busy man. Pimping took more time and attention than he could spare.


He knew there had been a fortune in opium on the coach, easy to sell, with lots left over for his personal use. This latest run was the third he'd made with the Dragon Lady, and he was observant. He knew where it was hidden – in a room between the opium den and her dungeon of carnal delights.


It was time to put his plan into action. McCabe made his way to the office of the local Wells Fargo agent. Dineen would be arriving today with the intention of claiming Langton, if he hadn't ridden into Tombstone already. If McCabe couldn't get his hands on Langton, he could at least claim the reward on Langton's head … and steal the drugs from the Dragon Lady as well.



Chapter Fourteen: The Raid

 

At first, Dineen was hard-pressed to credit McCabe's wild claims. Langton was bound and gagged in an opium den in Chinatown? He wanted to dismiss the dirty, whisky-nosed drunk and visit the Dragon Lady at the Lotus Flower, and told him so.


« But that's who's got him tied up, » said McCabe. « And there won't be anything left of him when she's done. »


She hadn't listened to him, thought Dineen. She couldn't leave well enough alone.


« All right, McCabe. Where is this place? »


« You can't just walk in by yourself, she's got guards all around the place. I can get you in though. But I want the reward when we get him out of there. »


Dineen cursed under his breath. It had all seemed simple enough at first. But now he had to trust a dim-witted stranger to lead him into a fortified drug den. Would it be worth it to get his hands on Langton at last?


Common sense said no. But twenty long years of frustration, failure and festering hatred for the one man who was always only one step ahead of him had long since trumped his judgement. He swallowed his caution and his doubt, and conjured a note of swagger into his voice.


« All right, McCabe, you got yourself a deal. Lead me to this hellhole of yours and let's get him. »



The deeper they went into Chinatown, the more Dineen's flesh crawled. It seemed a thousand pairs of eyes watched him take every step, as they passed shanty after dismal shanty.


Dineen held back as they stopped in front of a non-descript shack. Two hulking Chinese emerged seemingly from nowhere to bar the door. What now, thought Dineen. After a brief exchange of words, the guards parted to let them enter. But first they took the guns from both McCabe and Dineen.


As they stepped forward into the gloom, Dineen knew instantly they were trapped. He felt rather than heard the soft tread of steps behind him, and turned and twisted to escape the clutching hands that reached out for him from the darkness.


Dineen's quickness saved him. His narrow turn took his assailant by surprise, and Dineen drove his knee sharply into an exposed groin. The dark form expelled its breath, and fell to the floor with a keening moan. Dineen spun around and bolted into the darkened interior, bowling over furniture and persons in his headlong rush.


McCabe stepped over the threshold and into the gloom, then reached for the long knife hidden in his armpit sheath. One quick turn, and it was buried deep into the belly of the unsuspecting guard. McCabe's other hand grabbed his gun from the hand of the guard as the limp body began to fall.


Then McCabe made his fatal mistake. He fired two shots, one for each of the guards. Any element of surprise they were counting on was gone. A swarm of Chinese closed and rushed him, knocking him down and beating him until the world went dark.



Chapter Fifteen: Smoke and Fire

 

Willie had seen enough. He gathered his courage, grabbed Langton's gun, and reached out to part the curtains. Then the shots rang out.


The Dragon Lady froze for a split second, then dropped the mouthpiece of the hookah she was attempting to pry between Langton's gag and his clenched teeth. She slid off the bed, into her robe, and swiftly disappeared behind the curtains whence she had come.


In a flash, Willie sprang to the bed. He used the sharpened sights on Langton's gun to cut the gag, then the bonds that held him to the bed.


It took only moments for Langton to gather his wits and stand up straight. He strapped on his gunbelt and turned to Willie, who grabbed his sleeve and led him to the wall of curtains opposite to the entrance used by his captor. Langton pulled back the cloth, and stood face-to-face with Cam Dineen.


For two, three long seconds, they stood in shock, inches apart, staring at each other in utter surprise. Then Langton acted.

He reached for his holstered gun – but he was too late. Dineen pushed Langton back with all the strength he could muster.


Langton took several steps back, fighting for his balance and struggling to free his gun. Arms windmilling, he careened into the hookah. A cloud of smoke billowed, and a spray of ashes spread along the floor as the top-heavy urn tumbled over and rolled. Flames began to dance along the floor, and curtains smoldered and burst into fire.


Dineen continued into the room, unmindful of the smoke and the flames that licked and leaped around the curtains. He was one step away from Langton as Langton's gun cleared its holster.


But Langton did not pull the trigger. Instead, he swept his hand up and around, clipping Dineen in the temple with the butt end of the gun. Dineen went down in a heap, into blackness.


Langton had only seconds left to make a choice. The smoke and heat would soon be unbearable.


He had a job. Somewhere in this maze was a room, and in that room was a fortune in uncut opium that belonged to the Fat Man. If Langton could find it and make good his escape, he would be a wealthy man.


Then there was Dineen lying crumpled before him – Langton's mortal enemy, bent on destroying Langton for all the years Langton had preyed on Wells Fargo and brought him, Dineen, grief and shame. At last, Langton could rid himself of his nemesis forever just by turning away.


« This way! Hurry! » cried Willie, who then darted through an opening where the flames had not yet begun to climb the curtains. Langton reached down, grabbed Dineen's inert body under his arms, and dragged it through the gap as the whole room went up in a roaring whoosh of red and black.



Chapter Sixteen : Dénouement

 

Dineen awoke to a babble of gibbering voices, as several pairs of Asian eyes leered down at him. He lay in the dust of the street, as the cool night air soothed his temple where Langton had clipped him with his gun.


Smoke rolled from the wreckage of what had been the Lotus Flower and the Dragon Lady's lair. Slowly, it came back to him … his run through the maze of gloom, ending in his brief encounter with Langton, the blow with the gun amid the smoke and fire.


He realized that there was only one man who could have saved him from certain death. The flames that still smoldered among the ashes of the Lotus Flower paled in comparison to the inferno of anguish, shame and self-loathing that consumed him utterly as he wrenched himself upright.


Dineen knew that every breath he would ever take, he took for one purpose only – to bring Langton to justice, no matter what the cost.



Langton barely made it out to the street, labouring under the weight of Dineen's unconscious frame. He dragged the Wells Fargo agent a safe distance from the flames and around the corner of a shack.


Langton had failed. He knew the women were gone, but in the scheme of things, their value to the Fat Man was not great. They were easily replaceable.


The opium, on the other hand, was a crippling loss. The Fat Man had doubled up on this shipment, in hopes of recouping his losses on the two prior shipments that were stolen from him. Langton knew he would have to face the Fat Man, and dreaded admitting his defeat.


Where was Willie?


« Hey Boss! Over here! »

Langton turned, and spied Willie, concealed from the crowd of fire gawkers in a narrow gap between the shacks. Langton looked around, and satisfied that no one was following his movements, edged over to Willie's hidey-hole.


« Look what I got, boss! »



Willie had taken advantage of the chaos and confusion during the fire to raid the drug den and grab the Fat Man's dope. Willie knew he would gain nothing if he returned the drugs to the Fat Man himself. Nothing but pain. So he struck a deal, splitting the fee with Langton. Life looked a little more promising for the homeless orphan now.


The Fat Man beamed with delight as he accepted the jute sack full of opium from Langton. It was not all there, but it would be enough to revitalize his business, especially now that the Lotus Flower's operation had gone up in flames. He'd taken in the women who were displaced by the fire, and his opium dens would again be ready to welcome the frantic users who were desperate for their next bowl of dreams.


Langton took the money, gave half to Willie and decided not to stick around. He knew that Cam Dineen was close, hunting him now with renewed determination. He was sure their paths would cross again.


« Goodbye, Willie. »


« So long, boss. »


Langton mounted his horse, turned it aside, and rode away. He didn't look back.




McCabe awoke to near darkness. He tried to rise, but his limbs were tied achingly tight to pegs driven deep into the hard dirt floor. A rough gag was jammed into his mouth.


The face of the Dragon Lady jeered above his own. Beside him, a small charcoal fire radiated shimmering heat from an iron brazier, and his own knife lay with its point gleaming red among the embers.


It would be a ritual sacrifice. Death by a thousand cuts with a red-hot knife.



The End

 

 

 

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allets's picture

Better and Better

Nice afternoon read ~A~