~~~As the assassin galloped towards the Main Street bridge and the route out of town, he was very pleased with himself. He was sure his target was dead, and that he had tied up the loose ends.
Behind him, the California was wreathed in the lingering fragrances of burnt black powder and blood. There was no movement, no sound...except one...
No, he had not done a perfect job.
He had, in fact, not succeeded in tying up all the loose ends. He had been instructed to see to it there were no witnesses. He thought he had done so, but actually had failed. There was a witness, and she was utterly, inexpressibly pissed off.
Now, keep in mind, that while this witness’s degree of irritation was arguably in the realm of the inexpressible, she did, nonetheless, make a spirited effort to find words that would serve as a pretty fair approximation of how she felt at that point in time:
“Goddam, no-good, cowardly, cocksuckin’ WEASEL-FUCKER!”
Dio pulled herself up from the floor, her pistol drawn, clutching at the bullet-graze on her neck as blood dripped from between her fingers. She staggered the few steps to where Al’s body was slumped over the counter. Dio looked at Al Husar for only a moment and then lurched towards the door. There was no need to bother with checking for a pulse. The ex-soldier’s Navy had done its work: the entry wound wasn’t too bad, but the exit wound where Al’s right eye used to be was relatively impressive. Blood, and some bits of skull and brains were splattered across the counter and the basket of biscuits.
There was also no point in trying to find Estwee--she’d be hiding, terrified. Instead, Dio decided to try the closest place that someone was likely to be this time of the morning: the Collier Boarding House, run by her friend Foxy Innis, just up the slight rise at the end of Main Street.
As she headed for the boarding house, she muttered bits and pieces of phrases that made it pretty clear how she felt.
”...no-good cowardly....ah, sonofabitch that hurt....goddammit it to hell an’ back...."
Finally she staggered through the door of the Collier House, calling out, “Hey, anyone here?...Deac?...Foxy?...Goddammit!...DEAC!...FOXY!!"
Deacon Dryke, the 15 year-old younger brother of provisioner Percy Dryke, was upstairs in his room at the Collier House, suffering with a bad head cold, when he heard some kind of noise downstairs. He sat painfully up and shook his head, sneezed, and then began crawling out of bed. “Hello?” he asked stuffily, “why are you yelling like the house is burning?”
“I'm down here, Deac,” answered Dio somewhat weakly. “No, the house ain't burning...but I'm shot...and Al Husar is dead.”
Deac was just in the process of blowing his nose but this news roused him to a better semblance of wakefulness. Nonetheless, “Wha..ahh.. whaat?” was all he could manage to say.
The boy pulled on his trousers and stumbled down the steps to find Dio sitting at the boarding house dining table, a huge hog-leg of a revolver in one hand, while her other hand was pressed to her neck, dark blood oozing out between her fingers.
Deac sneezed one more time, then hurried closer to take a better look. Dio did not seem happy to see him as he pried her sticky fingers away from the wound in her neck.
“Goddammit,” was all she said.
Deac was horrified, “Do ya need something? Is a doc around? What can I do?”
Dio pointed to the stove. “Hot water...towel...”
Deac got the idea and grabbed a towel which he handed Dio so she could press it to her neck. Then he raked up the coals, stoked the fire in the stove, and put water on to boil. While he was doing so, Dio became more talkative.
“We was at the California,...some belly-crawlin’ sonofabitch come up behind us...asked Al something and said he had an answer to his message...an' he shot him in the back o' the head...then took another shot an' grazed me.”
Deac had found another towel and dipped it in the water heating on the stove, and had begun trying to clean up the wound, to see if it was still actively bleeding. His hands were shaking as he did so.
Who was it?” asked Deac as he held the towel to her neck hoping that the bleeding would stop soon.
Dio didn’t seem to have heard the question. “Don't know how the hell the feckless cocksuckin puke missed me at that range, 'cept I was already rollin out of m' seat an pullin’ m' iron...”
“OH my God,” said Deac in a congested but clearly excited voice, “Al is dead...”
Dio looked up at the boy who was now pressing the towel onto her neck harder than was really necessary. “Holy Christ and his horn-blowin' angels...you ever had someone let off a Colt right next t' yer goddam head? Sonofabitch, that was fuckin’ loud...”
Deac nodded, “Yes at the last shooting contest, someone fired when I was right next to them...I was half deaf...”
Dio looked at him a moment and then commented drily, “Well hell, try it with the goddamm piece pointed at ye...fuckin’ deaf ain’t the word to describe the ringin’ I got in m’ ears right now...oh and we’re gonna need to wash all round that wound, get the burnt powder outta m' skin..."
Deac glanced under the towel, and noted with relief that the bleeding seemed to have stopped. He went to the stove and got the pot of water that was now boiling.
“So who do you think did it? One of Hearst’s men maybe?” he asked, as he began cleaning her neck and shoulder
Dio shook her head. “I have no goddam idea....twas some unemployed sojer...a kid I seen around here now an agin, but never talked to him more'n a few words."
“Is he still outside?” said Deac in agitation, “We have to call the sheriff!”
The boy settled into a sneezing fit after he made this exclamation. Dio waited until he was done and then answered calmly, "No, Hon, I think he was most likely long gone by the time I got up an’ looked to see if Al was gonna mebbe make it. Oh, by the way, after we’s done gettin’ this wound bound up, you better go clean up Estwee's lunch counter for her...goddam blood an’ brains an’ bits o’ skull all over that sonofabitch...Estwee ain't got the stomach fer cleanin that up, I reckon...nice gal but..you know, she takes a fright at things quite easily, an’ I fear she won’t have much enthusiasm fer such a task.”
Deac nodded, even though he had gone a bit pale and clearly was lacking enthusiasm for the job himself.
Dio looked thoughtful for a moment. “You know how come this happened like this?...Al was tellin' me the mayor tol’ him he couldn't bring his security men to town with him. He had no guard. Left him him wide open to struck down in this fashion...”
Deac looked confused. “The mayor did what?”
Dio sighed. “Well, ye know, Al had hired fellers from town to guard the Gold Star office an’ the mines...an’ to shadow him in case he got jumped. Mayor said he couldn't do that no more....well, shit...now he's lying at Estwee's with a big fuckin’ hole where part o’ his face used t' be.”
She sighed again. Deac was unsure of what to do next. He had things pretty well cleaned up but was not certain of his next step. As if sensing this, Dio looked up and began instructing him, “Deac, yer gonna need to wash that wound with some whiskey and we'll need to put a poultice and bandage on it. Ye think Foxy has any cheap likker around here?”
“I’ll look," he said, and trotted off to the boarding house pantry to look through the shelves.
As he searched, Dio suddenly realized she was still holding the Walker. She slid it into its holster. She was very calm now, and was starting to make a mental inventory of what she would need.
“I can’t find any here,“ called out Deacon.
“No matter, hon.” Dio repleid, “We’ll go by the Gem. Hell, the sun’s up. They’ll be open fer the early drinkers. Papaw allus tol’ me to wash wounds with whisky...seems to make em get better...got no goddam idea why, but it does....Deac would ye walk with me down to the Gem?”
“No, no,” said Deac in consternation, “you should sit!...and rest! I’ll find some whiskey...”
Dio, however, was already standing up, slowly but steadily. Deac know he had already lost this argument. He nodded and ran upstairs to buckle on his gunbelt, stuff his feet into his boots, and then dashed back down. Next, he rather bravely decided to try taking Dio by the arm, to help her just in case she got wobbly--even though he was fully expecting to get slapped for making the attempt.
Surprisingly, Dio just smiled at him. “You ain’t really gotta do that, Hon,” she said gravely. But she did let the boy take her arm. Truth be told, she was actually quite fond of Deacon Dryke, and thought very highly of the boy.
“Ye shouldn’t fret so, Deac.” She went on, “Ye know I done been hurt worse than this, lots worse. An’ usually I’d just do like a cat, go lie under the kitchen table an look after m' self ‘til I either die or get better...an I ain't a gonna die from a fuckin’ lil’ ol scratch like this...”
Deac was not reassured. “Can’t I take you to the Doc’s or something?"
“Naw, it's allright, Deac. Ye done plenty...ye helped me stop the bleedin’ n all, cleaned me up...now jus walk with me in case he's still out there.”
“He?” asked Deac, “he who?”
Dio was starting to look a little irritated. “The feller what shot Al o’ course...who did ye think I meant? Al? Al's still there I know..he ain't goin’ nowhere."
The walked slowly down the street to the Gem, which, yes, was in fact, already open.
“Jemima,” called out Deac, “whiskey fast!...a whole bottle...I’ll pay ya later!”
Deac took the bottle that Jemima held out to him and then turned to the table where Dio had sunk heavily into a chair. He placed the bottle in front of her, “Here..have a sip,” he suggested.
Dio frowned, “I ain't havin none o’ that pizzen in me. It’s goin’ on the outside o’ this wound, not inside o' me.” She picked up the bottle, pulled the cork out with her teeth and began splashing the liquor onto her handkerchief. As she began washing off the wound with the whisky-soaked cloth, her face was impassive, but she did make a small involuntary hissing noise.
“Does it hurt much?” asked Deac solicitously.
Dio briefly looked at him with a fleeting expression that suggested she just might rip off his head and spit down the gaping hole, as her Papaw used to say. Instead, she composed herself and answered him in a very soft voice.
“Yes, Deac. Yes...it does...indeed...hurt.”
Deac, who now was feeling a renewed sense of panic, tried to help by lifting one of her braids out of the way. Dio responded by slapping away his hand.
“Ow,” he said in a small voice. Actually it was his feelings, rather than his hand that had been injured by her slap, but it did serve to calm him down some.
What’re you going to do now?” he asked.
Dio completed cleaning the wound. “Go back to the laundry, finish bandagin’ this...then grab some ammo fer the carbine and some supplies, an I’ll get hoss...”
Deac and Jemima looked at each other. Deac was now feeling the panic set in again, but Jemima just shrugged.
“Yeah,” Dio went on, “I reckon I got me a job fer a spell...gonna have to find that feller an’ kill him. Oh, and thanks fer the whiskey.”
She was already starting out the door of the Gem.
Deac did not feel good about this. “But isn’t there something I can do?”
“Yeah,” replied Dio in a flat voice as she headed for China Row. “See to it that Al gets taken care of properly. An’ clean up Miz Estwee’s lunch counter, fer chrissakes.”
Deacon Dryke watched Dio disappear around a corner. Then he looked up towards the California restaurant where he knew he had a job to do.
“Oh goddamn,” he moaned plaintively. “Why me?”
Finally, after a pause, he squared his shoulders, sighed, and started up the street towards Estwee’s place.