Slipping Into Darkness: Part 2
Zeke hurried to the stables, secured a horse then rode to Luna Oscura. A few citizens walked the dusty streets; most were tending their farms in the nearby fertile valley or working the railroad. He hitched his horse then strolled through the swinging doors. The place was deserted with the exception of the escort bartender. It was an American model; big, bulky and spewing steam from its head pipe like a mini-locomotive.
“Hola,” it said in a shrill voice. “¿Cómo puedo servirte?”
Zeke frowned. His French was passable but his Spanish was terrible.
“Yo no hablo español,” he replied.
A red light blinked near its head pipe and the escort rolled into the back. Moments later the bleary-eyed bartender from the night before came to the bar.
“Comment puis-je vous aider?” the bartender said.
“I’d prefer speaking in English if you know it,” Zeke said.
“I do,” the bartender replied.
“Do you remember me from last night?”
“Yes, I do,” the bartender said. “You’re the man who drank himself sick.”
“How did you know I got sick?” Zeke asked.
“I’ve been a bartender a long time,” he replied. “I know when a patron is about to puke. It’s how I keep my floors clean.”
“Do you remember the man I came in with?”
“Josué? Of course. One of my best customers. Spends too much time in here if you ask me.”
Zeke couldn’t argue with him on that. He stuck out his hand and they shook.
“What’s your name?” Zeke asked.
“Rodrigo Ortiz,” the man replied.
“Nice to meet you, Rodrigo. I’m Zeke Culpepper. Look Rodrigo, I got a dilemma. You see, my friend didn’t come back to the barracks last night. Last I saw him he left with a fancy dressed man and woman. I tried to go with him but he told me not to worry. I wish I hadn’t listened to him. But that’s too late now. My commander set me to find him and I was hoping you could help me.”
Rodrigo’s face paled.
“Listen to me mister,” he said. “If your friend left with those two you won't see him again.”
“Who are they and where would they take him?”
Rodrigo swallowed. “I can’t say. All I can say is that you should go back to your barracks and tell your commander that your friend is dead.”
Zeke felt a chill in his gut, Rodrigo’s last words knocking whatever dregs of inebriation out of him.
“What do you mean, dead?”
Rodrigo looked away as he pretended to clean glasses.
“That’s all I can say, Zeke. To share anymore would put my life in jeopardy and I’m not about to die for a Haitian soldier. I have a family.”
“I’m not about to leave here until you tell me who those damn people were!”
“Then you are as dead as your friend,” Rodrigo replied.
“Look, I know you don’t know me very well, but I’m not a man you want angry at you…”
Rodrigo reached under bar then pulled out a double-barreled shotgun.
“I told you…”
Zeke snatched the gun from Rodrigo’s hands before he could finish his sentence. The escort rolled into the barroom. Zeke spun then fired one barrel into the automaton’s headpiece. The automaton spun then crashed to the floor. He turned back to Rodrigo.
“This wasn’t what I planned, but you made the first move,” Zeke said. “Is there anybody in this town willing to tell me anything?”
“Go to the mining camp,” Rodrigo said. “You may find someone foolish enough to talk to you there. But you’ll have to pay for it.”
Zeke tipped his hat. “Much obliged to you. Sorry things had to turn out this way. No hard feelings.”
Rodrigo answered Zeke with a scowl.
Zeke didn’t take any chances. He back out the door then unloaded the shotgun, placing the extra shell in his pocket. He unhitched his horse then galloped out of town back to the base. Zeke jumped off his horse before the barracks and ran to the commander’s office. The commander looked up from his papers, startled.
“Culpepper, what is the meaning for this intrusion?” he snapped.
“Sorry monsieur, but it looks like we got a situation on our hands.”
“Explain,” Saint Fleur said.
“Looks like them folks Josué left with are some bad people,” Zeke replied. “The bartender said if Josué left with them he’s probably dead.”
Saint Fleur placed down his pen then steepled his fingers.
“This is a grave development,” he said. He looked at Zeke, his eyes serious.
“How much time do you need?” he asked.
“Two days at least,” Zeke replied. “But honestly I don’t know how long it might take. The bartender wasn’t exactly giving away information, and I suspect nobody else will either.”
“I won’t leave one of my men in this place,” the commander said. “Take all the time you need. Bring Josué back, Culpepper. Bring him back alive…or dead.”
“I’m counting on alive,” Zeke said. “If it’s okay I think I need to do this out of uniform. I might have to do some things that wouldn’t reflect too kindly on the image of the Grand Army.”
“Of course,” the commander said. “Take whatever you need.”
“Merci, monsieur,” Zeke said.
“God’s speed,” the commander said.
“You might want to keep God out of this,” Zeke replied. “Things might get ugly.”
* * *
The miners’ camp was a days’ ride from the town. It lay at the end of a dirt road that wound through the rocky peaks and ended in a formerly wooded valley sliced by the Pecos River. The valley had once been a haven for the local wildlife, but once gold was found in the river ten years ago the land was swamped by folks hoping to find an instant fortune in the once pristine waters. The trees were cut to provide shanties and the animals hunted to almost extinction to provide food. Once the gold was depleted from the now muddy river, the miners began boring into the hills seeking the rich gold veins within the rock. Those seeking easy wealth dwindled, while those with fewer prospects remained to work the mines. They labored not for the fortune they once sought, but for the stability of steady work and a meager paycheck.
Zeke looked down on the mining town from atop a bare hill. The town sprawled along the riverbank, smoke rising from the small homes and businesses. Somewhere down there was a person that could tell him where to find Josué. With no idea where to start, he would go to the best place to start; the saloon.
“Let’s go,” he said as he reined his horse. The mare walked down the hill, followed by the mule carrying his provisions. Fifteen minutes later he traveled down the main street. The town was mostly empty, the residents most likely doing their time in the mines. The saloon was easy to find, its entrance crowned with a wooden sign. The words ‘Paradise’ filled the sign, barely visible. The signs of better days could be seen in the fancy columns and windows; the swing door was made of rich mahogany wood. Zeke hitched the mare and mule then hurried inside. The saloon was deserted; there was no one tending bar.
“Anybody home?” he called out from the doorway.
He heard a door open from upstarts and the sound of hard shoes hitting wooden planks. A woman appeared, wearing a simple white blouse and a blue cotton skirt that fell to her ankles. Her auburn hair was pulled up into a bun that crowned her head. She had a pretty yet hard look about her.
“We’re closed,” she said in a husky voice. “Come back at 5:00 pm.”
“I’m not here for service, ma’am,” Zeke replied. “I’m here for information.”
The woman folded her arms across her chest. “What kind of information?”
“I’m looking for a friend,” he said. “Last time I saw him was two days ago. He was seen with a couple of fancy folks before he disappeared.”
The woman laughed. “You ain’t gonna find anybody fancy up here. We’re mining folks.”
“What about the folks who own the mines?” Zeke asked.
A flash of anger appeared on the woman’s face. She stomped down the stairs to the bar.
“Come on in, mister,” she said. “Let’s have a drink.”
Zeke met the woman at the bar. They shook hands; her grip was strong, her hands calloused.
“Name’s Diana,” she said.
“Good to meet you, Zeke. What’s your poison?”
Diana smirked. “My kind of man. I like’em brown and strong.”
Diana grabbed the whiskey bottle from the shelf with one hand and two shot glasses with the other. She filled the glasses and they both drank. Diana wiped her mouth with the back of her hand as she placed her glass on the bar.
“The Duvals own this mine and every inch of the land between here and those hills,” she said. “They’re the closest thing to twin devils walking God’s green earth.”
“Duval doesn’t sound Spanish,” Zeke commented.
“It ain’t,” Diana replied. “They’re Americans just like me, although I hate to claim them. They showed up just about when the gold began to peter out. Offered decent money for everybody’s claims and good jobs for those willing to stay and work the mine they planned on building. They built that mine, but everything else was a goddamn lie.”
Zeke held his glass out for another shot of whiskey. Diana obliged.
“The bartender in El Mirage was afraid to talk about them,” he said. “You don’t seem to have a problem.”
“They can’t do anything to me they already haven’t,” Diana replied.
“Why don’t you just leave?”
“Wish it was that easy,” Diana said. “I owe them, and when you owe the Duvals, you just don’t walk away. Just like your friend I suspect.”
“So where do I find them?”
Diana drank another shot.
“Follow the river south about five miles. You’ll come to a ford and a road that heads due east. Stay on that road for another five miles until you see the mission. That’s where they’ll be.”
“They live in the mission?”
“That ain’t no mission. It’s a goddamn fortress. The graveyard? It’s filled with folks that owed them money and didn’t pay. There’s rumors that the Duvals ain’t right, that they do things to people before they kill’em. Things that make death a blessing.”
“Thanks for the information,” Zeke said. “Looks like I need to pay the Duvals a visit.”
Diana eyes bucked. “You’re going by yourself?”
“Yes I am.”
“I thought you was going to go back and bring the Grand Army! That’s the only reason I told you what I did.”
“Nope,” Zeke said. “I’m handling this alone.”
“Wait a minute!”
Diana climbed over the bar as Zeke turned about. She threw her arms around his shoulders then kissed him hard. He inhaled stale breath and whiskey before he finally pushed Diana away. She smiled as if she won his attention.
“Might as well get one in now,” she said. “Since you won’t be coming back. Like I said, I like’em brown and strong. And I never kissed a dead man before.”
Zeke scowled. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Zeke pushed through the door and went to his horses.
“Hey Zeke,” Diana shouted. “Just in case you do survive, you know where to find me!”
Zeke chuckled as he mounted his horse.
“I won’t be looking, that’s for damn sure.”
As Zeke rode for the outskirts of the town a steam whistle blew, signaling the end of the shift. He looked toward the shaft openings and witnessed a grim sight. Armed guards were the first to emerged, hulking men wearing khaki uniforms and wide brim hats holding Winchesters. The workers trudged out moment later. They were dirty and frail, their eyes emitting the hopelessness they felt. Most of them didn’t look strong enough to make it to the hills, let alone climb them. Anger stirred in his gut as he watched the sad procession, making him wish that he had come with the Grand Army, if only to free these desperate folks from what was slavery disguised as work. But the Army’s assignment was done in España Nueva; a treaty had been signed between the rival nations bringing hostilities to an end for the moment. Zeke noticed the guards looking in his direction so he kicked his horse and hurried from the town. He wasn’t running from a fight, he just didn’t have time for one. He had to find Josué.