The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|Heath Burnley watched the stranger step through the bat-wing doors of Rattler’s Fang, Colorado’s only remaining saloon, the Frisky Piebald. Their eyes met and, after a quick flick down to the star on Heath’s cowhide vest, locked. The stranger had the hard look of a gunfighter, but wore the clothes of a gambler dandy. His slim body was dressed out in a white shirt with one of them tab collars, a dark cravat with little stripes on it and a diamond stick-pin through it, a vest, trousers and suit jacket all made of a thin-looking, dark brown cloth – silk, maybe. The only things he wore that seemed sensible to Heath were his black boots and the two-gun rig he had strapped on beneath the suit coat, the muzzle-ends of the holsters tied to his thighs with leather jesses. His hands, hidden by a pair of gray leather gloves, hovered nearby, where they could flick back the coat and draw in less than a heartbeat. Not wanting to spook him into an unnecessary exchange of bullets, Heath kept his hand away from his Colt – but not too far away. The man was stock-still, though dressed like he was, he should have been shivering. His face was weathered and flushed red from the cold wind blowing through the Rockies, but his expression was rock hard and stone cold. A dark brown bowler hat was pulled low over slate gray eyes. The dust of the trail covered him, dulling his colors, blending them together so that as he stood there motionless for a long moment, he looked like a statue.
The stranger’s eyes drifted from Heath to take in the rest of the saloon. The Piebald was doing a good business for a Saturday night in Rattler’s Fang. All the regulars were here: all three of them. Like as not, the stranger was on his way up to Leadville, where Thaddeus Gadsden had his big-time silver mine. He’d abandoned Rattler’s Fang, along with most everybody else, when his claim here had played out back in ’79. Gambler or gunfighter, the stranger wasn’t going to find much action around here, that was certain. He seemed to relax a touch, probably because none of the three occupied chairs was being kicked back as an angry man rose to shoot him. He tipped his hat to Heath and headed for the bar, where Heath stood leaning back on his elbows.
Heath watched him walk across the room. His stride was confident, smooth; every move was controlled, no wasted energy. Heath noticed that the barmaid, Millie, watched him, too. She seemed almost hypnotized. They were the movements of a natural-born killer; a mountain lion dressed up like a politician. Which, now that he thought about it, wasn’t that far a stretch. He bellied up to the bar and a silver dollar clicked as he placed it on the polished surface.
Mel Sampras, who had just been polishing it, set down his bar rag and asked, “What’ll it be, mister?”
“Whiskey, please,” replied the stranger. Mel’s limp, a souvenir from the Comanche war, was noticeable even in the few steps it took him to get a glass and fill it from a bottle on the mirror-backed shelf behind him.
A gloved finger slid the shiny coin across the bar. “Keep the change and leave the bottle, if you please.”
“Yes, sir.” Mel took the coin and put it in the till. “Anything else I can get for you?”
The stranger drained his glass before he answered. “You can tell me where I might find Miss Lily Ambrosius. I believe she’s the owner of this establishment, isn’t she?”
Surprised, Mel glanced over at Heath, who asked, “What business do you have with Miss Ambrosius, stranger?”
As he peeled off his gloves, the gunslinger looked at Heath, and his eyes were sharp as ice picks. ”I beg your pardon, Sheriff, but my business with Miss Ambrosius is a private matter, and no concern of yours.”
“That may be so, stranger, but I’m sorry to inform you that Miss Lily Ambrosius is dead.”
“What?” The stranger’s reaction was immediate; his gray eyes widened in shock. He cared for Lily Ambrosius; that was obvious. Then they narrowed threateningly as he frowned. “How…”
“Consumption took her nigh onto six months ago,” Heath told him, and his shoulders sagged. “She willed this place to her friend and head barmaid, Sally Calico. A wedding gift, she called it, though Sally had been married for some time by then.”
“I see. The lucky bridegroom received a sizable dowry, then. He’s a lucky man, whoever he is.”
“Even if she came to him with nothing, the man who married Sally Calico would still be the luckiest man on earth. And he just happens to be me.” He held out a hand. “Heath Burnley.”
The gunslinger’s face softened with a grin that didn’t quite thaw the ice in his eyes. He gripped Heath’s hand firmly and gave it a shake. “Congratulations, Sheriff. My name is Trevor Ambrosius. Lily is… was my sister.”
“Thank ye kindly, Trevor. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Miss Lily was one of the finest people who ever set foot in Rattler’s Fang.”
“Seems that I remember the name Burnley from Lily’s letters… Pete, wasn’t it? I believe that she and he were quite close.”
“Yeah,” Heath said. “Pete was my brother. He and my other brother, Jack, and I came to Rattler’s Fang back during the rush in ’74. When it turned out that Thaddeus Gadsden had staked the only claim to silver-bearing land around here, we ended up workin’ in law enforcement.”
“Yes,” said Trevor, “Lily wrote in one of her letters about you – well, mostly about Pete – rescuing Gadsden’s little boy from kidnappers who stole the boy during the Centennial celebration. The way she tells it, it was quite a feat of bravery.”
“Yeah, well,” Heath replied, “you know how tales grow in the telling.”
“You’re too modest, Sheriff,” said Trevor, as he poured himself another drink and offered the bottle to Heath. Heath nodded, and Mel set up another glass, which Trevor filled. “Lily, though she may have centered her account on the Burnley she found most interesting, was never one for embellishment of that kind.”
“Well, anyhow,” said Heath, waving off the praise as he picked up his drink, “we come through that all right, even if the worst of the bunch, Leroy Sykes, got away. We got appointed the local peacekeepers.” He held up his glass, saluting the strange man, the brother of his friend, who did the same. Then they drained them. With a sigh and a smack of his lips as the warm liquid rolled down his gullet, he continued. “Between the three of us, we did a pretty good job of it, too. Then Pete got himself shot in the back, right outside that door. 1877, that was. June. It about destroyed Miss Lily. He had just been in here, talking about their wedding. She heard the shot and come running. Pete was already dead by the time she got to him. Never did find out who killed him.”
“I’m sorry.” He refilled their glasses. These they sipped at a more leisurely pace.
“Yeah, well, what’re you gonna do, right? Pete knew all about the risks. They come with the job.”
“Still, you have my condolences, for what they’re worth.”
“Thanks. So, Trevor, where do you come from and,” Heath turned the subject in the direction his own interests lay, “what brings you to Rattler’s Fang?”
“You can call me Heath.”
“Oh, thank you. Well, Heath, I’ve lived something of an itinerant life since Lily and I parted in St. Louis, though I’ve maintained an address there, at the post office, to which I’ve regularly returned to receive her correspondence. I’ve always been interested in what she was doing, though disinclined to accept her invitations to come and join her here. I’m afraid that I’ve seldom responded to any of it.”
“Can’t say as I ever heard Miss Lily mention you.”
“Not at all surprising. We had a… disagreement concerning the use to which the inheritance she received from our parents should be put. I left her in a bit of a huff. I’ve come to regret that.”
“So you came here to, what, kiss and make up?”
“Something like that.” He sipped his drink.
“A bit late, though, I reckon.”
He was quiet for a long moment. “Yes,” he said at last.
“Well, the Frisky Piebald is legally Sally’s, and…”
Trevor Ambrosius straightened up and said, “Oh, Sheriff – Heath – don’t misunderstand. I have no interest in acquiring my sister’s establishment.”
“Oh.” Heath looked at him for a moment.
“I wonder… where is she buried? I’d like to pay my last respects.”
“Why, she had a crypt dug for herself right here, under the saloon.” Something sparked in Trevor Ambrosius’s eyes. “I’ll take you down, if you want.”
They drained their glasses and Trevor grabbed the bottle by its neck and followed Heath through the back room and into a door off to one side that led down. These steps had always been a real mystery to Heath. They went down forty, maybe fifty feet, and had been carved into the solid rock. So had the room they stepped into at the bottom. It had a tall, arched ceiling with stone rafters and a floor polished bright as a brand new silver dollar. A thing like this would have taken a hell of a lot of work to hollow out. It would have been as big a project as Gadsden’s silver mine. Thing was, Heath didn’t remember any dig like this happening in Rattler’s Fang.
That mystery aside, there was still the torches that didn’t never go out, standing at either end of the big stone coffin on the waist-high platform in the middle of the big room. The gunslinger went right to it and laid his hand on the big letter “A” in raised carving on the lid. Heath thought he saw a trace of some kind of blue light pulse around the gunslinger for an instant, and then he gripped the edges of the lid and heaved upward.
“Hey,” cried Heath, shocked at the gunslinger’s nerve. “You can’t be disturbing–“ The sheriff stopped, though, and let the lady’s brother get his last look at her. If their positions had been reversed, he thought, he might have done the same thing himself.
The heavy lid seemed to rise up easily, swinging on hinges as if it weighed no more than the batwing doors on the front of the Frisky Piebald. Inside the box lay the drawn, wrinkled corpse of Miss Lily Ambrosius. She looked just the same as she had the day she died, which, now that he saw it, seemed mighty strange to Heath.
The gunslinger stood there for a long time, his head bowed low. Finally, he gently lowered the lid. He turned to Heath, blinking back tears. “It’s really her. I couldn’t believe…” he trailed off, and stood still for a long moment, shaking his head. Then, he seemed to get hold of himself. “No, Sheriff. I didn’t come here to claim the saloon.”
“There is something, though, right?”
“Well… yes. Not something with much intrinsic value, of course, beyond the few ounces of silver of which it is composed,” the dandified gunslinger hastened to assure him. “It is an item of purely sentimental value to our family – of which I am now the last surviving member - that she had in her possession. I had thought that she would have been wearing it, even…”
“What is it?”
“A small, silver locket, patterned with a labyrinth.”
“Labyrinth. A maze. Also, the locket is suspended from a chain with links so cunningly wrought that they blend together, almost indistinguishable from one another.”
“Oh, I know what you mean. That necklace with the swirly lines all over it.”
“Yes,” Trevor said, his voice betraying excitement. “Do you know where it is?”
“Why, yes. Miss Lily always wore it. When she was on her deathbed, not five minutes before she passed, she gave it to Sally, and made her promise never to take it off, until its true owner came to claim it. That’d be you, would it?”
“I don’t know who else she might have meant.”
“Well,” Heath said, and paused to take a long look at the stranger who called himself Trevor Ambrosius, “she said Sally’d know the right one when he showed up. I don’t know why the blazes Lily wouldn’t just say it was her brother, but I guess that means we need to give her a look at you.”