It took almost fifteen minutes once I got off the train to Sacramento for someone to take me for a greenhorn and try to rip me off. Which is… Actually, come to think of it, that’s pretty good. They could have tried to scam me right at the train station.
“Ten dollars for a stagecoach ride? That’s outrageous. Your coach itself can’t have cost three times that.”
The stagecoach operator spat a bit of chewing tobacco. “You can take it or you can leave it, but that’s the fare for Gomorra. Ain’t no trains runnin’ out there, not since the Wasatch rails got blown up last month. There’s outlaws out to raid everyone they see, and that ain’t the worst of it. You ever seen a tumblebleed?” I shook my head. He interpreted that as meaning, ‘please tell me about them,’ and he was wrong. “It’s this critter, looks like a tumbleweed but it’s really like a big tick made outta straw, bounces all over the plains ‘til it smells blood, then it bounces on over to you, starts sucking out your juices!”
I just stared at him.
“And… and that’s if the giant birds don’t get you first! Giant flesh-eating birds, big as a house! Scoop the whole coach up in their talons and carry it back to their nest so they can feed ya to their bear-sized babies!” he added, pantomiming as if his left arm were a horse futilely flailing about as his right arm swooped in to drag it away. “They rule the skies out there and, and… It’s ten bucks, take it or leave it!”
I left it.
* * *
In no particular hurry, I walked the streets of downtown Sacramento, taking in the sights — mostly looking for basements. I’d read on the way over that the city recently had to raise its ground level about ten feet, so most of the buildings had their first floors buried and became basements. If you knew what you were looking for, you could see how everyone’s front doors had been hastily cut out of second story windows.
I mention this only to emphasize that I was not looking for trouble. I was looking for architecture.
But when I ducked into the sixth or seventh alley off of Front Street, looking at an awning that had become a sidewalk, what I found was a mugging. There was some shady, shiftless man and a woman in white performer’s makeup holding out a handful of bills toward him. It only took her a second to notice me, at which point she cried out, “Help! I’m being robbed! Save me!”
Her assailant looked confused for a moment, clearly not expecting to be caught in his misdeeds, and stammered an inept defense for a few moments before wisely deciding to take off.
The woman giggled into her hand once her assailant had left. “Why, thank you!” she said, bowing theatrically. “I just don’t know WHAT I would have done if a big strong man hadn’t come along to save me like that.” She stepped forward, allowing me to see her a bit better. She was pale; though she was in makeup, most of it had rubbed off, leaving patches of white around her cheeks and the remnants of a red star around her eye. “I’m EVER so grateful. Is there anything I can do to thank you?”
I tipped my hat at her bashfully, secretly kind of pleased that I’d got to use my brand new hat for the quintessential “aw shucks” cowboy gesture you see in the dime novels. “You don’t have to thank me, miss…?”
“Cline,” she said like it was the answer to some kind of challenge. “Avie Cline.” She offered her hand, which I took, leading her back out to Front Street. Her hands were far too cold for this kind of weather; must have had bad circulation.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Cline.” I gestured to the design on her face. “Might you be some kind of performer?”
“Oh, but of course!” she said. “I am a snake charmer — THE snake charmer — one of our featured attractions at Ivor Hawley’s amazing, momentous, often imitated but never duplicated, traveling four-ring circus!” She bowed with a flourish. “Perhaps you’ve heard of us?”
“Can’t say I have, Miss,” I admitted. “I just got into town, actually–”
“Ooh, delightful!” she squealed. “Why don’t I…” She spied something over my shoulder and interrupted herself. “… hang on. Hey, Mongwau!” she directed behind me. “Look! We made a new friend.”
“Mongwau” was a muscular, shirtless man, his head shaved and tattooed and his chest covered in scars. He sized me up and didn’t appear to like what he saw. “What, Avie? This is who you found to pay your half of the bills?”
“ACT-ually,” Avie said, “this fine gentleman came to my rescue after a horrible cad tried to rob me. I was just thinking of how we could show our gratitude.”
“Riiiiiight. Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” He turned away, obviously dismissing me, before his brain caught up with him. “Wait, are you serious, Avie? You KNOW what a hurry we’re in. I wanted to leave for Gomorra before sundown.”
“You know,” I offered, “I’m headed out to Gomorra as well. I was looking for someone to take a coach with; the coachman took me for a rube, said it was ten dollars for a ride, gave me a whole song and dance about how apparitions stalk the night out on the plains.”
The man smiled a big grin, one that didn’t seem to match any of the rest of his face. “Well, isn’t that just GREAT, Avie? Let’s just ride on down to Gomorra with our new friend… our new friend…?”
“Right, our new friend Mario. I’m sure you’ll just get along smashingly on the WHOLE ride down there!” Clearly, he was calling back to some conversation they’d had before — Avie seemed to bristle at his statement, like somehow it was a punishment or unpleasant duty, but I found it best not to pry. After all, it was this or ten dollar stagecoach rides.
“Here,” he gestured to me. “You can at least help me with the errands.”
Mongwau, I discovered, was a Hopi fellow who worked for the circus, just like Avie did. He was some sort of combination sword-swallower and fire-eater, putting on an act centered around his amazing ability to withstand punishment. They were there to pick up some things for the ringmaster, some standard supplies, a rather important ledger of some sort and ten pairs of pants.
“Ringmaster Ivor has all his tailoring done by this one guy,” Mongwau told me ruefully as we waited for said tailor to come out with our order. “Says nobody else knows how to do it right.” Whatever hostility he felt toward me clearly was lifting as he found me the only one nearby to complain to about the indignities he puts up with; he definitely felt there were a lot of them. He didn’t want to waste any time getting back to the coach and on his way, meeting back up with Avie at the station.
I wanted to hide from the “giant bird” guy, then pounce out and shout “AH-HA!” when he offered my new companions a more reasonable rate, but Mongwau didn’t look like he wanted to wait around for such theatrics, and the coachman was very pointedly trying to pretend he’d never seen me before. After paying my dollar and packing my things, we settled in for a nice, long ride.
Which became awkward about five minutes in once it became clear that Mongwau wasn’t able to read that black-bound ledger in the rickety stagecoach without getting motion sickness, and each of them had clearly told each other every story they had. They stared at me expectantly, the circus performers expecting entertainment of their own.
“So, Mario. What accent is that, Boston? What brings you out here to Gomorra?”
“New York, actually. And… well, there’s a story behind that.” I don’t know why I paused, because the story was obviously what they were waiting for. “I was a policeman… pretty good one too. Too good, it turned out.
“There was a horrible murder in Red Hook — it’s a neighborhood — a woman named Ethel Mulroney found hacked to pieces. The city was in an uproar; she was society-page royalty. Newspapers were all just fanning the frenzy until the Red Hook killing was the only thing on everyone’s lips. They found some poor bootblack named Taylor and accused him. They tried to railroad him, despite his ironclad alibi witnesses, and the fact he couldn’t possibly have swung the murder weapon. They wanted the whole mess over with, so they told me to drop it.
“I couldn’t. I found the real killer, I found where he hid the murder weapon, and I got a confession. They wouldn’t charge him or drop the charges against Taylor… until I went to the newspapers. Then, well, they kind of had to admit their mistake. But they, ah, they made it clear I wasn’t going to be welcome anymore. So I came out here to Gomorra to start a new life for me and my family, going to work for a Miss Lillian Morgan of the Morgan Cattle Company.”
Avie whistled. “Wow. You must be a noble, upstanding sort of fellow, to go so far to get an innocent man off. A real law-and-order type.”
Mongwau laughed. “People like you tend to get shot in the gut and left to bleed out in a ditch around here. The West ain’t kind to your type, Mario.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I said. “You folk seem nice enough.”
Both of them erupted into hysterics; at least this time, unlike with Miss Lillian, I knew they were going to laugh at it. Carny folk are not known for their trustworthiness. “Oh man, you are just a treasure,” said Avie. “We’re going to have to take you to see Ringmaster Ivor. He loves to meet people like you.”
Now, you may think me an idiot for going along with these two shady folks, just because I felt sorry for Avie being mugged. I’m not totally credulous, you know, and I’m more than aware of how frequently criminals victimize each other. But I wasn’t carrying anything particularly valuable, at least anything that could be stolen, and I still had my service revolver in my pocket, where both of them were unarmed. If the circus folk decided they could roll me, well, someone was going to be in for an incredibly unpleasant surprise.
And besides, I’d rather be mugged by circus folk than pay ten dollars for a coach ride. THAT’S robbery.
* * *
We rode the next few hours without incident. Having given my story, Avie and Mongwau gave theirs, which I won’t bother to relate to you at this point because I am certain not a word of them was true. And I say this not merely because of the untrustworthy reputation of carnival folk, but because Mongwau told his story first, nodded off during Avie’s, and when Avie was done began to tell ‘his story’ again, even though it had nothing in common with the first story he’d given. He got about to the point where he valiantly fought off a band of white raiders at seven years old before Avie’s giggling tipped him off.
We came to a stop at least an hour and a half before we should have reached Gomorra, in a dusty little town apparently called Liver Creek, according to the sign we passed as we entered. Mongwau craned his head out the window before we’d even come to a complete stop, angry at the delay. “Hey! This ain’t Gomorra. What’s the hold up?”
“Gettin’ into bandit country,” the driver said as he slipped out of his seat. “Gotta stop by the coach office and get a gunman to watch the rest of the way. Won’t take too long.”
My companions seemed to buy this explanation, at least enough to not object, and settled back down. But I’d had to go to the bathroom for the past hour and figured I’d take the opportunity. I strode up alongside the driver as he walked to the office.
“So. Don’t need anyone on birdwatching duty?” I ribbed.
“Oh, shut up.”
What we saw when we walked into the office, though, put some more credibility behind the driver’s proclamations of danger. To wit, everyone in the lobby had been made to lay down on their faces, and there were three people with their faces covered by red bandannas up at the counter, urging the employees to fill sacks with valuables.
They turned to look at us. The only parts of their faces visible were their eyes, but that was enough. In the center, there was a near-giant of a man, clearly grinning beneath his mask, his grey duster hanging off his titanic frame like a tarpaulin off a half-finished skyscraper. He had a holster at his waist, but no pistol held in it; instead he had a lever-action Winchester in each hand. He looked quite excited that someone else was there to see and fear him.
To his right stood a black man who fanned out a hand of playing cards as if they were a threat. Some sort of tooth or claw hung from a necklace on his neck, and he carried no visible weapon save those cards, making him appear as if he fancied himself some kind of mystic. He was clearly nothing but irritated at the interruption.
And to their left, a woman, dirty blonde, holding a six-shooter too large to fit in her companion’s holster in a relaxed but alert stance. Though the smallest of the three, she was the one that transfixed me; her cold blue eyes seemed to take me apart, slice me open to appraise any sort of threat I posed and how quickly it could be neutralized. She seemed neither excited nor irate. If “deadly” was an emotion, she expressed it.
“Lie down on your face,” she intoned evenly, “and don’t do anything foolish. Sloane will shoot you if you try.” She nodded slightly to the giant next to her, who seemed to be in charge.
“Listen to the lady,” the big man said. “Or I might just shoot ya just for the fun of it.”
The driver complied immediately, and I held my hands up, thinking of my options. “Whoa. Hey. Let’s all be reasonable here. Nobody has to shoot anyone.”
“Right now the one deciding if anyone gets shot is you,” the black man added in a sort of dirty British accent, “and you seem to be choosing ‘yes’.”
“Okay! Okay!” I put my hands up above my head and slowly bent my knees. “Getting down now!” All around me, terrified, panicked faces looked up from the ground at me, smeared with dust. Nobody else seemed able to stop these people, no matter how desperately they wanted to. I could practically hear the pleading just coming from their eyes.
I had to be quick. They hadn’t seen my service revolver in my jacket, or they would have had me drop it. Thugs like these are only courageous when they think they have every advantage. All I would have to do was get my gun out and get close to their leader, close enough he couldn’t bring one of those rifles to bear on me, and the tables would turn entirely.
Just as their attention shifted away from me and back to the employees at the counter, just as my knee started to touch the ground, my hand darted for my revolver and I broke into a roll as I drew, sliding beneath the reach of Sloane’s tree-like arm.
I wanted to tell them “Everyone drop your weapons, we still don’t want anyone to get shot.” I got as far as “Ev–” before the woman kicked me in the chest, knocking the wind out of me and sending me sliding on my back toward the door, gun bouncing out of my hand. My immediate plans went from “try to neutralize criminals” to “try to somehow start breathing again.”
Sloane guffawed, like he’d told a joke and didn’t care to see if anyone else was laughing, before swinging one of his rifles down at me. He said nothing; his sneer was all he needed.
The last thing that went through my head was “I really shouldn’t have tried to be a hero.”
The last thing that went through my heart was Sloane’s bullet.