Clark Reeper and the Fastest Blade in the West
Note: Max Rossiter and all related characters are the exclusive intellectual property of John Wescott, used here with the author's permission.
Now I've seen quite a few strange weapons, and even found myself wielding them from time to time. Of course, I prefer my trusty pair of Colt Peacemakers, finest pistols in the world, and a long-bladed bowie knife from close-up work, but I've fought with everything from a Cossack saber to a Maxim Machine Gun, to some kind of Indian Thuggee pick-axe. I guess it all goes with my job choice. You see, my name is Clark Reeper, and I am a bounty hunter.
Bounty hunting isn't the most peaceful pursuit, and I find myself relying on guns, blades and sometimes my fists pretty regular. I figure I'm a fair brawler, but I've met some folks that put me to shame. One was this Celestial fellow name of Wong Fei Hung, an artist with his legs and fists. But this one time I met me an oriental warrior of the Japanese persuasion, though he was as white as I am. It's a long story, and it started with me taking a job that hopefully I wouldn't need my six-guns to see to the end.
Any easy job is one I take, no questions asked, on account of it ain't just myself I'm looking out for. See, I'm the adopted father of a little fellow named Charles Green. He's only ten-years-old, and small for his age, with thick glasses, curly brown hair, and bright brown eyes, and he always wears a neat Norfolk suit and peaked cap. I'm a tall, gaunt gent dressed in a tattered duster, with a crumbling Stetson on my head. Folks think it's a bit odd for someone looking the way I do to be traveling around the country with a little boy, but I love Charles like he's my own flesh and blood, and I'd do just about anything for him.
So when I heard a big-time international criminal gang was looking for a hired gun, I signed right up. It meant going back to New Orleans, the city where I spent most of my childhood, and where that childhood met its grim end, but I didn't mind much. My old nemesis there had gone, and it was safe as any place. Without much of a care I headed into a fancy hotel on Bourbon Street, looking to meet the woman called Madame Fox.
Charles and I were sitting outsider her office, waiting to be called inside. Charles was reading one of his dime novels, his small legs swinging idly as he turned the pages. I was staring ahead at the two burly guards that stood in front of the door. Both of them were Japanese fellows that seemed built like bulls with an attitude to match. Each one had spiky black hair, a pair of large smoked glasses that seemed to cover the upper half of their face, and their backs and chests were coated in intricate multicolored tattoos. I would have been admiring the detailed dragons, flowers, tigers and other symbols, but I was staring at the large sword each guard had thrust through their belt.
"Boys?" A femine voice, soft and lilting like bird song, came from behind the closed door. "Send in the Gaijin."
The two guards stepped aside, and one opened the door. I tapped Charles on the shoulder and together we walked inside to see Madame Fox. She was sitting behind a large mahogany desk in the center of the well-furnished room, two wicker chairs before her. I sat down and took off my hat, and Charles did the same. The burly guard gently shut the door, and I noticed his pinky finger was a bit shorter than it should be.
"So." Madame Fox leaned forward on her desk. "You are the only one to answer my queries. Tell me, Mr. Reeper, is there something different about you?" She was dressed in a white robe and hood, but it was tight enough around her body to make my heart beat a little faster. The pale skin was visible beneath her hood, as was her dark black hair. Her movements were quick and furtive, like she was about to bolt without warning.
"I got a hankering for money, ma'am," I muttered. "And folks in this country aren't too friendly towards your kind. Celestials are always getting caught up in riots or strung up by mobs."
She laughed, and it sounded like music. "We are not of China. We are Yakuza. Tell me, Mr. Reeper, have you ever heard of the Yakuza?"
"That some sort of cow?" I wondered.
"No, Mr. Reeper. Yakuza is often called the Japanese Mafia." She smiled. "Does that change your willingness to serve me?"
I knew what the Mafia was, and I had worked for them and other big gangs before. "Not really. Your notice said no killing was needed, and if that still goes than I'll sign up."
"Excellent." Madame Fox drew a small curved dagger from her belt and began to clean her nails. "A long time ago, a sword of great value was stolen from my family, a Katana of the finest make. It was taken by a thief, a wild man, who fled into the mountains and was never seen again. As he grew older, he met a man from your country, a Gaijin. He took the Gaijin under his wing and trained him in all the arts of the Samurai."
"Listen, ma'am you got to stop using all these funny words. I'm still trying to figure out what a Guy-Shrink is." I saw my reflection in her curved dagger as I chuckled.
"A samurai is a Japanese warrior," Charles said, his shrill voice a little nervous. He was a smart boy and real bookworm, and I have no doubt the little fellow knew more than me. "They're sort of like European Knights. They served lords, and were good swordsmen, but I didn't know there were any still around."
"There aren't." Madame Fox stabbed her dagger into her desk. "Nothing but imposters, like the old man who stole the blade. His name was Hiroshi, and he died years ago. But the Gaijin he tutored in the Way of the Samurai returned to this country, and he took the katana with him."
"I reckon you want that blade back."
"Yes." Madame Fox pulled back her hood and I stared at her pale face and deep otherworldly eyes. "His name is Max Rossiter. He owns a ranch in Northern Texas now, a profitable place, and the sword lies unused there." She drew a scroll from her robe. "I will give you directions."
"Now, hold on a second." I stood up and let her get a good view of my irons. "You think he'll give it up without a fight?"
Madame Fox smiled sweetly. "Well, Mr. Reeper, if you wish to avoid bloodshed, I suppose you will have to do what Hiroshi did all those years ago."
"Take the katana and leave before he knows it's gone."
That's how I found myself riding towards the Rossiter Ranch a little past midnight, my boots padded and my hands gloved. Charles was sitting on the horse behind me, and just like I had told him, he was keeping real quiet. I stopped the horse in the tall grass around the ranch and scoped the place out. It was decent sized establishment, several head of cattle grazing and more corrals, a large barn, a few cabins for the ranch hands, and a large house right in the middle where Max Rossiter and his blade must be resting.
"All right, son," I whispered, getting off of the horse. "You stay put and don't go forward, even if you hear me hollering. If I'm caught, you ride away and don't look back, and I'll meet up with you later."
"Mr. Reeper?" Charles asked. "Are you sure about that? Madame Fox seemed a little weird. Her eyes seemed so big, and I couldn't really stop staring into them."
I smiled at Charles. My little fellow was growing up. "That ain't weird, son. That's just women for you."
"Well, be careful, please." Charles shivered slightly in the cold prairie air.
"I always am. Don't worry." We embraced, and then I crouched low and head towards the ranch. I stayed close to the ground and the tall grass did a good job concealing me. The moon was out, and I could see just fine, and the only sentry was snoozing away in a rocky chair, a bottle of whiskey in his lap. I tipped my hat to him as I ducked into the ranch house.
It was a nice two-story house, and I figured Rossiter had done okay for himself after he filched the sword and came back to America. I spotted a picture on the wall of the man himself and his family. Max Rossiter was wiry and fit, with straight black hair. A widow's peak and a neat beard/moustache combination framed his face, and the gaze in his eye, even in the photograph, told me he had seen battle before. A woman was by his side, a pretty blonde in a calico dress, and she had a little dark haired boy in sailor suit, maybe two or three years old, in her lap. They looked like a nice enough family, and I sure as hell didn't want to hurt anybody. I figured I'd pinch and hightail it out of there soon as I could.
I walked through the house, my padded boots making less noise than a mouse, until I reached the living room. Hanging on the mantel above the fireplace was the katana Madame Fox had been asking for, and I could see why. It was a bit longer than a cavalry saber, curved slightly, and looked sharp enough to cut the wind that passed over it. Though the blade hadn't been used for a while, it was polished and shined so that I could see myself reflected in the blade. Slowly, I reached out and picked up the sword, holding it gingerly by the hilt. I had brought a leather scabbard along, and I sheathed the katana in that and placed it on my back so that I could have my hands free.
As I turned to go, the tip of the sword on my back brushed a fire poker leaning against the wall. The heavy iron tool fell to the ground, raising a real racket as it clattered away. "Son of a gun!" I whispered. I headed for the door, the sounds of voices echoing from upstairs. My hands fell to the revolvers at my waist on their own accord as I made it to the door.
I kicked the door open and started running through the open ground towards the outskirts of the ranch when a gunshot shattered the night's stillness. The dirt a few paces from my foot kicked up as a harsh voice shouted a warning. "Stay where you are! Move, and I drop you!"
I raised my hands and slowly turned around. Max Rossiter stood on the porch of his house, still in his bedclothes, a repeating rifle in his hands. He wife stood next to him in her dressing gown, covering her mouth. "I wouldn', mister," I said, keeping my hands in the air. "I'm sorry I woke you."
"Mighty kind of you." Rossiter walked off his porch and approached me. "That's my sword on your back. Why'd you take it when there's money in the house and cattle in the field worth a hell of a lot more? Someone hire you, or are you just some damn sticky-fingered thief?"
"Easy now," I started to say, but he worked the lever on his rifle and pushed it close to me.
"Max!" the woman cried. "He's just a thief!"
"He's sneaking out of here with my katana, Libby," Max said firmly. "But don't worry. He's gonna give it back and then he'll spend the night locked up before the sheriff comes for him in the morning." His eyes went to my gun belt. "Hand over those pistols… now."
"All right," I said. Then I made my move. I grabbed the barrel of Max's rifle and pushed it upwards, all the while drawing one of my revolvers and placing it under his chin. I clicked back the hammer and he dropped the rifle.
"Max!" Libby started to her husband's side, but I drew my second revolver and covered her.
"Nobody need die tonight!" I kept my guns level. "This katana ought to be returned to its rightful owner, and I'm doing just that."
"If you knew anything about it, you'd know I was the rightful owner," Max retorted. "That katana was given to me by my mentor and it is my most prized possession. I've killed to protect it before and I'll kill again if I'm forced to."
"Well, the woman I work for seems to think your friend swiped it from her family. Now I'll take it back to her, and I don't want no more trouble from you."
"I am its rightful owner," Max Rossiter repeated. "Now I'm gonna take it back." Without warning he struck, driving his flattened palm into my face as his elbow crashed into chest. I'm not exactly a tortoise when it comes to firing my six-guns, but this fellow was faster than lightning and it hurt twice as much when he struck. Before I knew what happening, Max had dashed behind me and yanked the katana from its scabbard. He swung the sword at my neck, but stopped right before the sharp blade cut my head off.
"Now drop your guns before anyone gets hurt permanently," he commanded.
I dropped them.
"Good." He kept his katana poised. Everything seemed to be quiet for a few seconds, and then I heard familiar footsteps running towards us.
"Mr. Reeper! Don't hurt him, please! Clark!" Charles came running, his polished boots kicking up dust. The poor clumsy kid tripped before he reached me and fell flat on his face, but he was up and running as soon as he could lift himself up, and then was at my side. "Please."
Rossiter to one look at Charles's face, covered with dirt and tears, and he pulled the sword away from my neck and stabbed it into the ground. "Your father was trying to steal from me," Max said gently to my boy. "But I never meant to kill him."
"Thank you, sir," Charles said.
Max put an arm on Charles's shoulder. "I could never kill a father in front of his child. I've got a boy of my own you know, a lot younger than you. Libby?" he called for his wife. "Take him inside and give him a little of that hot chocolate I bought last week in town. We'll be in shortly."
"Sure, Max." Libby led Charles inside. We waved goodbye to each other.
"I'm much obliged as well." I retrieved my pistols and slid them back in their holsters, but Max made no move to stop me. "You want to finish this out here, your sword against my pistols, or should we ride out and do the killing away from the ranch?"
He withdrew his sword from the ground, but the kept the point low. "I don't want to do any killing. Those days are gone for me, hopefully forever." He held out his hand. "Why don't we go inside with your boy and have a little coffee while we talk this thing over?"
I nodded. I didn't want to do any killing if I didn't have to, and this fellow seemed to have the same disposition. I shook his hand. "That sounds mighty fine. Name's Clark Reeper, and I already know yours, Mr. Rossiter."
"Call me Max," he said, and then we went inside to have a little coffee.
I found Max a likeable enough person, and he was certainly kind and merciful where he didn't have to be. He got on well with me and Charles, and seemed genuinely surprised that his katana might have been stolen. He told me about the man who had given it to him, the old Japanese man called Hiroshi.
"He found me during a time when I was completely lost… rudderless, I guess you'd say. He taught me the way of the samurai." Max said simply. "Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still hear his words, his teachings, echoing in my brain. I named my horse after him, and then later, my son. God knows my boy will probably never live down having the same name as my horse." He shook his head and chuckled. "He talked of many things, too many almost, but never himself. If this Madame Fox believes he stole her family's katana, I'd say she's dead wrong, but then again truth is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe I better sit down with her face to face and have a talk."
"I'm not saying you got to give it back," I pointed out. "I figure I get paid either way, so it don't matter none. But maybe you ought to go and speak with her, show her the sword. I'd gladly take you right to her front door."
Max and Libby exchanged a glance over the table. She sighed and gave a curt nod. Max stood up and embraced her. "We'll leave tomorrow morning," he said. "There's a fueling station for the Mississippi paddleboats a few hours ride from the ranch. We can be in New Orleans by tomorrow evening." He turned to Libby. "And then come right back."
True to Max's word, he let Charles and I sleep at his house and water our horse in his barn before setting out the next morning. Max said goodbye to his wife and son, lifting little Hiro into his arms and kissing him tenderly on the forehead. His katana rested on his back, comfortable in a wooden scabbard and he carried a revolver on his belt.
"You know how to handle that six-gun?" I asked as we walked to the horses, Charles already mounted on mine.
"I'm decent with it," he said, grinning.
"Decent don't win gunfights."
"Well, then I'm glad I brought you along. To be honest, I'm more comfortable with the sword." Max climbed onto to his horse as I did the same to the mine. We waved goodbye to Libby and Hiro, and headed off, away from the ranch and into the Texan plains. Just as Max had said, we came to a steamboat refueling station in a couple of hours, and the boat was just docking. I had some cash in my pocket, and I paid for all of our tickets.
Soon we were sitting on the deck, looking down at the brown water churning as the paddle boat cut through it. Charles was asking Max all sorts of questions about what being a samurai meant, and Max was doing his best to answer them.
"Mr. Rossiter? What exactly is a samurai's job? If you don't mind me asking, I mean. Are they like knights?"
Max grinned. "Not exactly, Charles. Hiroshi used to laugh at anyone who made that comparison. He said knights were just thugs for the big landowners, robbing from the peasants without care. The samurai were different. They followed the bushido code, protecting their people from bandit gangs and rival lords. They lived a life of honor."
"I don't know if your old friend lived that life. He did steal that sword," I pointed out. I probably shouldn't have said that, but I was still a bit raw from the way Max had beaten the stuffing out of me the previous night.
"There's no proof of that. My master was a samurai and he lived the bushido code to his dying breath. I can't see him stealing anything," Max muttered to me. He turned back to Charles. "Of course, as time passed and there was little need for war, the samurai lost their meaning. They became decadent, writing poetry, taking taxes and bribes and raising fighting dogs. But the old bushido code remained, living on in Hiroshi." Rossiter smiled at Charles. "And I guess, it lives on in me, at least to some degree. You see, the bushido code tells us that the spirit of the sword's owner lives on in the sword itself. So you see, Hiroshi, my old master, is never far, as he's always by my side when I'm in a fight."
"Wow," Charles whispered. "So you try and live honorably and protect peasants and do all the things the Bushido tells you do?"
"I do my best."
"Then I figure you won't get far." I spat into the water below. "Charles, I don't think folks who live by a code live long. There's a reason there ain't no more knights or samurai. All the 'honor' stuff is a load of bunk."
"Is that so, Mr. Reeper?" Max asked, raising an eyebrow. "I suppose you don't live by any code."
"You're supposing rightly."
"But how come you didn't kill me and my wife in our beds and then take my katana? You had the opportunity."
"Just wouldn't have been right," I said, before I caught myself.
Max smiled. "It seems to me you have more in common with the samurai than you're willing to admit."
"Um, excuse me?" Charles asked. "What are those boats there?" He pointed over the railing into the waters below, at a pair of flat-bottom keel boats sliding swiftly through the water next to our large steamer. I looked down at the crowds of men clustered on the decks of both boats, and dashed across the deck of our boat to other side. I looked down and just as I had feared, two more keelboats similar packed floated along next to us.
"Ah hell," I muttered. "Pirates." You couldn't live for too long in New Orleans and not know about River Pirates. Being raised by a Voodoo Queen who controlled a good portion of the city have me a damn good education in the unsavory aspects of Ol' Miss, and I knew how bandits like the River Pirates worked. I dashed back to Charles and Max, and they had caught wind of my agitation.
"What's going on, Clark?" Max demanded.
"Goddamn River Pirates, that's what's going on!" I drew out one of my pistols and started looking for the captain. "We got to stop the boat and head for the banks, then make some kind of defense. And pray they don't set the boat on fire."
"Pirates?" Charles asked. "Like with eye-patches and peg-legs?"
"I wish they were half blind and had trouble walking!" I drew out one of my peacemakers and pulled Charles away from the deck railing. "You'd best go inside, son. Find a good place to lie low and stay there. Things are gonna get pretty messy."
Charles nodded and dashed off. I smiled grimly after him and watched the events on deck. A few sailors pointed and went for their rifles and the passengers started realizing something was up, but then the pirates struck.
Grappling hooks were hurled up into the deck of the boat, and like heavily armed spiders the River Pirates pulled themselves on board. A few gattling guns and old cannons opened up from the keelboats and raked the deck with gunfire. Ladies screamed and for cover, and the passengers packing guns drew them and prepared for the worst. They didn't have to wait long.
"They're coming starboard!" A sailor cried, just a hurled hatchet from one of the River Pirates slammed into his head and ensured he wouldn't say anything again. The River Pirates hopped over the railing, a motley lot dressed in loose fitting buckskin jackets, overalls, and even stolen tattered Confederate uniforms. Some were white, some Black or Indian, and quite a few were those odd mixes of all three, Melungeons or Redbones. They carried scatterguns, many sawed-off, revolvers, cutlasses, hatchets, clubs and every other boarding weapon under the sun.
I fanned off my revolver, killing a pair of the pirates before they made it on deck and sending their bodies down into the water. A blast from a sawed-off wielding by a Melungeon in a broad-brimmed hat nearly took my head off, and I ducked down and returned fire, hitting my attacker right between the eyes and finishing him instantly. The crew and other passengers were putting up a good fight, but they were outnumbered, outgunned, and the River Pirates swarmed in from all angles. Some sailors pushed some barrels in front of the wheelhouse for cover, and I joined up with them, keeping up a good barrage on the charging buccaneers.
Max Rossiter faced the incoming pirates calmly, staying right in the open with cannonshot and bullets whizzing around him like he was in a trance of some kind. A hand went to the handle of his katana. "Walk away now. I have no wish to hurt you," he said calmly. "Leave this boat. Sail away. Don't force me to shed your blood."
A weasel-faced pirate with an eye-patch pointed his cutlass at Max. "He's got the sword we're after! Kill the peckerwood!" He swung his cutlass for Max's chest, and I figured the American samurai's days were over. But Max's katana came out like a gray blur, and didn't just block the blow, but cut the cutlass in half. My eyes widened as Max spun his sword around and killed the unfortunate pirate with a single stroke across the chest.
"The sword! Get it!" The other pirates cried. They came on him like a pounding wave, but Max was a steadfast rock. His sword swung round in a deadly arc, decapitating a pair of pirates in a single blow, before he brought it round and ran through a hatchetman in front of him. He kicked the body off of his blade and stabbed it backward, impaling a dagger-wielding pirate sneaking up on him. He lashed out with his leg and kicked a bandit pistoleer right through the railing, ducked a rifle shot, and stabbed his sword up through the open mouth of the rifleman. Soon severed limbs and hacked bodies lay thick on the deck, and Max's crimson katana only seemed to get redder.
I spotted a River Pirate with a forage cap and a sharps rifle drawing a bead on Max from across the deck, and knew he wouldn't be able to hack through that fellow in time. I leapt out from behind the barricade, my pistols blazing in my hands. The sniper took two slugs to the chest and slumped dead against the railing.
"Good to see you, Clark!" Max said, his face covered with the blood of his enemies. "You doing all right?"
"I'm getting by!" I shouted back. I looked off of the deck and spotted one of the keelboats aiming its fourty-pounder cannon right at us. "Now get down!" Max and I hit the deck as the cannon thundered. The lucky shot tore into the wheelhouse and sent the riverboat careening out of control. Max and I dashed for the cover as River Pirates slid on the tilting deck. We dashed below decks just as the boat slammed into a sandbar and held still, though everything was sort leaning to the left. The sailors and passengers manning the barricade raised their guns and let us pass.
Inside the boat, the women and children passengers huddled in terror. When Charles spotted me and Rossiter, he let out a cry of relief and ran to us. "What's going on?" he asked, his voice high with terror. "Did the pirates take over?"
"We're holding them off, for now," I said. "But I think they want the sword."
"They do," Max agreed. He looked at the women and children in the small room. "We have to get off the boat. If we're gone, then these people will be safe."
"They're making another charge!" One of the sailors shouted. "All guns to the barricade! Blow them out of the water!"
Max and I exchanged a glance and ran to the crude cover, I reloading one of my six-guns and Max drawing his. Just as we reached the end of the hall and the barricade, I spotted a familiar figure striding across the deck like he owned it. He was a tall fellow with a frock coat and a preacher's collar, a top hat on his head and thick sideburns. Two massive revolvers were tucked into the silk sash around his waist, along with a heavy cavalry saber. Some River Pirates pushed a cannon behind him, pointing the weapon at the barricade and loading it.
"Son of a gun!" I cursed as I recognized the River Pirate commander. "Lazarus Morrel!"
"Who?" Max asked.
"My father used to work for John Murrel, the River Pirate King who controlled a thousand-man gang in the Natchez Trace, and my adopted mother did business with him regular. This fellow looks like his kid, though he's all grown up now." I shook my head. "He was mean as a wild cat when he was a kid, and I don't think he's changed much."
The sailors tried to stop the cannon, but they couldn't stop Morrel. The River Pirate King drew his two revolvers and opened fire, the big bullets blasting limbs off and making skulls explode. Twelve shots came out of them irons, and twelve men died from them. Then the cannon went off and finished off the rest.
As the women and children screamed and cowered, Lazarus Morrel and his men entered the ship. He walked down slowly, let everyone hear each step from his large boots, until he stopped in front of me and grinned.
"Well, well, if it ain't Clark Reeper?" he said in a low gravely voice. "I remember playing tag with you while our parents discussed business. I always won, if I recall."
"You was always bigger than me, and you pushed me down first and then tagged me," I pointed out. "That ain't fair."
"No. I suppose it ain't." He looked me and Max over as he calmly reloaded his pistols. "I guess you know what I'm looking for. I want the sword." He pointed one of his six-shooters at my forehead, but I just stared back into. He grinned. "Maybe I ought to pick one someone who ain't my own size." He swung the muzzle of the pistol to Charles's forehead.
I put my hand on Charles's shoulder and tried to keep him calm as I looked at Max. The Fastest Blade in the West looked as nervous as I did and he drew his katana and held it aloft. Morrel stared at the blade and smiled.
"Now that is what I want to see!" He said. "Hand it over, or I'll cover you in the boy's brains."
Slowly, Max kneeled down and arranged his sword so that the blade was in his hands and the handle faced Morrel. He held it up for Lazarus Morrel to take. The River Pirate commander kept his gun trained on Charles as he reached out to grab the handle, but Max had other plans. He hurled the sword into the air, caught it by the blade and slashed off Morrel's gun hand. The River Pirate fell to his knees as blood spurted from his severed wrist, howling in pain and rage.
Max ran down the hallway, me and Charles close behind. "What are you staring at?" Lazarus shouted at his underlings. "Get them!" The River Pirates ran in pursuit down the wooden hallway, but we turned the corner and spotted a glass window overlooking the brown Mississippi. I drew one of my pistols and fired, then picked up Charles and hurled myself through the shattering glass. Max did the same, and together we plummeted into the water below.
The Frothy waters boiled around us and we swam to shore. Growing up in New Orleans, I never had much problem swimming, but the rapid plunge and churning river was still a mite troublesome. Poor Charles almost went under, but I kept a good grip on him and made sure his head was over the surface of the water. Rossiter reached the shore with several swift strokes, and then helped me and Charles ashore. Cannon shot and bullets were whizzing around us, but they didn't want to hit the katana by mistake, so they were firing high.
We dashed into the thick bayou underbrush and ran into the trees, me still carrying Charles, until the booming cannons were a distant sound behind us. I set Charles down on a log and caught my breath while Max hacked some branches down and created a makeshift fire. He drew some flint from his belt, cracked it on the edge of his sword, and soon had a merry fire going.
"Say," I said, still breathing hard. "That there blade's pretty useful."
"It is that," Max agreed, leaning against a tall oak tree. The woods were dip and thick with green underbrush, puddles of water and various critters. It would take an army to search it and pull it out, but an army of River Pirates was what Lazarus Morrel had. Max stared at himself in the blade of the katana. "I wonder why they want the sword. Or how they even know about it?"
"Maybe another Yakuza group wants the sword?" Charles asked as he dried himself off before the fire.
I pulled off my Stetson and dumped the water out. "Could be. If one of these Yak gangs knows about the katana, I figure a whole bunch of them might know as well. If we see any big oriental fellows with lots of tattoos and missing fingers, we should play it careful."
"Lots of tattoos?" Max stroked his chin. "Wait. When you saw the Yakuza in New Orleans, did they show you their tattoos?"
"Sure did," I said. "Them big fellows didn't even bother wearing shirts."
"Then they can't be Yakuza." Rossiter looked thoughtful as he cleaned blood and river water off of his blade. "When I was in Japan, Hiroshi and I often battled Yakuza Gangs. They attacked the small villages and sometimes controlled whole towns. They always wore tight fitting clothes to try and cover their tattoos, unless they were playing cards amongst themselves."
"So, the people we met in New Orleans were trying to pretend to be Yakuza, without even knowing what Yakuza were really like." Charles shook his head. "That's kind of weird. I mean, what could be scarier than a bunch of tattooed Japanese gangsters?"
Rossiter stared into the fire. "I've seen some things," he muttered darkly. "Thugs that would put these fools to shame." He stared up at me. "You ever heard of Angelwing?"
"I might've. Town of outlaws somewhere in the Montana Territories, if I'm not mistaken. Never quite figured out what happened to it."
"I burned it… to the ground. I killed them all." Max's force was as hard as the steel of his katana. "I just want you to know that, Clark. Back on that boat, I felt like I did in Angelwing, back in the bad old days. Those days are over for me. I want you to know that."
I nodded, a mite surprised by the serious tone in Max's voice. He was deadly as could be with that sword of his, but I don't think he was proud of it. Before I could say anything else, the sound of pounding hooves and several pairs of boots sounded through the bayous. With catlike speed, Max scurried up a tree and hid in the branches. I pushed Charles up until Max grabbed him, and then I hauled myself there as well.
We all huddled in the top of the tree as a small party of men rode right under us. Lazarus Morrel was on one of the horses, his hand bandaged where Max cut him. A few other River Pirates, also mounted, were riding with him. On foot were a couple of burly men dressed in a crude uniform of white shirts, suspenders, and flat caps. They were armed with heavy wooden cudgels, as well as firearms. One of them looked like he had been sharing a home with grizzly bears for most of his life. He was covered in scars, and his right arm had been removed up to the elbow and replaced by a long metal chain, on which hung a heavy spiked ball. I recognized him as Tommy Knuckler, and his gang was the dreaded Live Oak Boys of New Orleans, so called for the wood they used for their clubs.
"They were here," Lazarus cried, looking at the blazing fire. "Find them."
"They could be anywhere in these damn woods!" Tommy Knuckler cried, swinging his metal chain in a lazy circle.
"Than tell your men to search carefully." Lazarus Morrel leaned off of his horse and stared hard at Knuckler. "That's what I'm paying you back-alley brawlers for."
"Well, I want to know who's paying you!" The head of the Live Oak Boys gestured to his men. "I know you don't want some overgrown toothpick! You got plenty of swords you could play with. What's so damn special about this one?"
"It was made by Masamune Okazaki!" Morrel blurted out.
"You speaking Spanish or something?" Knuckler asked. I was feeling the same thing, but I looked at Rossiter and found recognition in his eyes.
"It doesn't matter. Just find the damn thing." Lazarus gave his horse some spur and he rode out, followed by most of his riders.
The Live Oak Boys split up as well, and as soon at it was safe Charles, Max, and me climbed down from the tree. "A Masamune Blade!" Max whispered to himself. "Hiroshi… I never would have guessed!"
"What's a Masamune Blade?" Charles asked curiously.
"Masamune Okazaki was one of the greatest sword smiths of Feudal Japan. His weapons were skillfully made, but he was more than that, and so were they. They became more than mere instruments of death."
I looked at his katana. "That sword was an instrument of death back on the riverboat and nothing but," I said.
"True. But Masamune's weapons have the possibility to become so much more than just swords." Max was very excited and speaking fast. "There is an old legend that Masamune and his student Muramasa had a contest to create the best sword. Muramasa's blade was an excellent weapon and when it was stabbed into a stream, it cut the leaves, fish swimming by, and the wind itself. When Masamune's sword was plunged into the water, the leaves floated by, the fish passed, and the wind was uninterrupted."
"Who won?" Charles asked.
"A passing monk judged the contest. He declared that Masamune's blade was the winner, for it was not a bloodthirsty weapon. It did not needlessly cut what was undeserving of cutting."
"Wow," Charles whispered.
"That's some story," I muttered. "But I reckon that in the real world, the sharpest blade is the one that wins." I looked around for any more Live Oak Boys or River Pirates. "If the Live Oak Boys are out here, we must be near New Orleans. They're a local gang, thugs and rowdies, but still dangerous."
Warily, we walked through the bayous, going slowly and avoiding and the Live Oak Boys and their patrols. By and by, we came to the outskirts of New Orleans. Still dripping from the bayou and the river, and with a good deal of blood on us, we must have looked quite the sight. I spotted a cheap hotel on the edge of town and booked a pair of rooms, and then we washed up and rested a little.
After I had slipped back into my dried duster, Max entered our room, his katana still on his back. "Well," he said simply, "I am here. I think its time we called your employer."
Madame Fox had given her the number of the hotel she was staying at. New Orleans had but recently installed phone lines, and it was kind of odd to pull that receiver off of its prongs and put it to my mouth and ears while I spun in the proper number. In no time at all I was connected and Madame Fox's lilting voice was echoing into my ears.
"Mr. Reeper! I have been so worried about you! I heard the steamboat was attacked and I didn't know what to think."
"How'd you know I was taking a steamboat?" I asked.
A second's pause. "I know your style, Mr. Reeper. That is why I hired you. Look, if you have any things to say to me, anything at all, just come down and let me know." She seemed quite friendly.
"Sure. Matter of fact, I got me Max Rossiter here, and his sword."
"Are you certain?"
"I reckon so. We'll take it over there and then you can discuss terms. If you can prove it was really stolen Max may even give it back to you. And either way, I still want my payment."
"And have it you shall. Please, I look forward to your visit." She hung up.
It was a mite queer that she was so friendly, especially after I had told her a lot of things she probably wasn't too keen to hear about. I shook those thoughts out of my mind, put on my head, and then headed out into the hall to meet Max, Charles close behind.
"You better stay her, son," I told him. "I'm getting the idea that there might be trouble at Madame Fox's place."
"Oh, okay." Charles gulped and clasped his hands. "Well, be careful, then."
"We will." I grinned and nodded to Rossiter. "I got the Fastest Blade in the West as a partner. I ain't got much to be afraid of."
I waved goodbye, and then Max and I walked out of the cheap hotel where we were staying and into the cobblestone streets of New Orleans. We had been traveling through the bayous for some time, and it was just about evening. The streetlights were flickering away, and moonlight started to shine down on the gothic architecture that lined the street. As we walked down the humid streets, I noticed they weren't nearly as crowded as they ought to be. About a block or two away from Madame Fox's building, I turned and spotted a large crowd of men walking towards us, heavy wooden cudgels in their hands.
"Max," I said. "Looks like we're not getting the welcome we deserve."
"I noticed." Max gestured with his sword point down the street. Another mob of the Live Oak Boys was there to welcome us, and Tommy Knuckler stood at their head.
"Goddamn!" He said, swinging his spiked metal globe around his head. "We been looking for you two all day!" He rammed his sphere into the ground, sending up chips of macadam. "Don't plead, cause we ain't listening. We're killing you both and taking the sword. Now boys, beat them into a pulp." Knuckler grinned as both mobs of Live Oak Boys, one in front and one in back, advanced.
"What do you figure?" I asked Max. "You got a plan?"
Rossiter drew his pistol with one hand and his katana with the other. He swiftly moved behind me so that we stood back to back. "Yeah. You take the mob in back. I'll take the mob in front."
I drew own revolvers with a practiced spin just as both groups of the Live Oak Boys charged. "Sounds like a plan." I opened up with both of my revolvers, carving a swath in their ranks with a wave of lead. I emptied one pistol, and then drew by bowie knife soon as the bastards were in range. I took a heavy club to the chest, but the stabbed the fellow who smacked me, then fanned out pistol to kill the thugs around him. I withdrew my knife and held it point down as the Live Oak Boys made a wide circle around me.
The gang charged Rossiter from the front and he held his own with his pistol and katana. The Masamune Blade hacked right through the cudgels and clubs of the Live Oak Boys, and it cut through their flesh with equal ease. Max had a good number of bodies in front of him, and still his sword was swinging.
"You lazy louts!" Tommy Knuckler shouted. "Can't handle some yahoo with a toothpick? I'll deal with him!" He ran to the front of his gang, pushing and shoving to reach Max. The two combatants faced each other, Knuckler swinging his chain and globe as he slowly approached the American samurai. Without warning, the metal sphere shot forward. Max swiftly moved to the side, dodging the blow. But Tommy brought the globe back with a yank of his arm, and this time the spiked ball crashed into Max's side and sent him sprawling.
"Max!" I ran to his side, my pistol drawn.
"No." He held out his hand to stop me, and painfully pulled himself back to his feet.
Knuckler laughed as he came again, a running charge this time, with the swinging spiked globe at his side. Max was on his feet, his sword held high, but Tommy Knuckler swung the sphere in a lethal uppercut aimed at Max's chin. Max swung his sword down and warded off the blow, but the katana's blade became caught in the chain as it looped around. Max held the sword tightly, his teeth gritted.
"I got you now!" Tommy shouted, pulling with all of his might. "Just get rid of your big knife, and you'll be easy pickings!"
"You want the sword?" Max asked. "Take it." And then he let go of his blade. Tommy Knuckler had been pulling on his chain so hard that the ball and sword flew backwards in his direction. The katana went into his chest and projected out the other side, while his spiked metal ball slammed into his staring face and crushed his skull.
Calmly, Max walked over to the corpse and withdrew his blade. He pulled the bloodstained katana out and held it aloft. The Live Oak Boys took one look at that sword and fled, their boots pounding on the cobblestone street. Max turned to me with a grin. "Sometimes all that must be done to win a battle is to let go," he said, sounding like he was quoting.
"That was some fast think," I said admirably. Then an awful thought came into my mind. "Oh God."
"What is it?" he asked.
"Them Live Oak Bastards knew to meet us here. That means they got some idea where we're bedded down. And that means-"
"Charles," Max whispered. Together we both turned round and headed back to our hotel, breaking into a run as we raced down the darkened streets. The fury that I always felt when my damn foolishness put poor Charles in trouble was burning inside of me, and Max seemed equally concerned for my boy, but we still didn't make it in time.
The River Pirates stood outside the hotel in even ranks, Lazarus Morrel right in front and Charles next to me. The kid had struggled and received a bloody nose for his trouble, but otherwise looked unarmed. He called out when he saw us. "Mr. Reeper! Mr. Rossiter! I'm sorry, they just burst in as soon as you left!"
"Ain't no fault of yours, son," I said. I looked at Lazarus as he calmly drew his saber and held it lazily around Charles's neck. Max touched the hilt of his katana, but even he couldn't do nothing to help.
"Hand over them pistols, Clark," Lazarus ordered. I took both of them out and tossed them to the ground. Max did the same with his own colt. "Good. Now we're all gonna go nice and quiet to my place a ways out of town. We're gonna have one hell of an evening."
"How'd you know where we were staying?" Rossiter demanded.
"Don't go asking questions, boy." Lazarus stepped in front of Rossiter, his saber pressed to Max's neck. "You keep that sword of yours though. I got a fellow at my place you're gonna want to meet. Trust me, it will be the evening's entertainment that will make this a night to be remembered."
Lazarus Morrel kept his army of River Pirates headquartered in an old cave a few miles out of town. The secluded cavern was well hidden in the underbrush of the bayou, and was big enough to fit his whole crew of rascals and robbers. A large common room was serving as the center of the merriment of the pirates. A whole bar had been set up, stolen liquors poured out and drunk down as dancing girls worked their legs for the admiration of the hooting crowd. The pirates cheered when Lazarus and his prisoners walked inside.
Max, Charles and I were surrounded by the pirates. If any of us tried to make a run for it or grab a weapon, we'd be blown to pieces and we knew it. I couldn't figure why Lazarus hadn't killed us all already, but I soon found out why.
"Max Rossiter!" Lazarus said gleefully. "Deadly with any sword! The man who destroyed Angelwing all on his lonesome."
"What do you want with me?" Max asked calmly.
"A test!" Lazarus clapped his hands, and a caped and masked figure stepped out of the crowd. He wore a long black cloak, an old fashioned tricorner cat, and his face was obscured by a pearl white mask, a bit like a domino, but with a larger beak. He adjusted the silken cuffs of his sleeves, pushing his cloak back and revealing a rapier with an ornate jeweled hilt at his side. "Introduce yourself, buddy!" Lazarus said, slapping the masked man on the back.
He stepped away from Lazarus and bowed low. "I am called Larva King." His voice had a thick Italian accent. "In my native Venice I learned to master the arts of the sword. I have traveled Europe and the world round, discovering new styles, dueling vast and varied opponents, and always perfecting my already perfect technique."
Rossiter stared at the sword. "You ever fought samurai?"
Larva King shook his head. "To my everlasting shame, a battle with the great sword masters of the orient is one I have passed up. Until now." He drew his rapier with a flourish. "Let us duel, Max Rossiter. First blood wins."
I looked Max over and saw it weren't anything near a fair fight. Rossiter was tired, beaten from his battle with the River Pirates, the Live Oak Boys and Tommy Knuckler, while Larva King was in perfect condition. "Why should I fight you?" Max asked.
"Duel or die." Lazarus drew his revolver and pressed it into Max's back. "What's it gonna be?"
Max drew his katana and stepped forward. He held his blade loosely with one hand, and swiftly brought it up above his head in a fighter's stance. Charles and I both gasped, Lazarus chuckled, and the Larva King smiled as he bowed low, and his own rapier facing the floor. The American Samurai and the Italian fencing master circled each other, and total silence fell upon even the most gregarious outlaw in the joint. For a few seconds the two combatants just sized each other up and then the Larva King struck.
His rapier moved with blinding speed, a gray blur rising out of the ground like a roaring tornado and sweeping for Max's head. But Rossiter was quicker still. He brought his katana down and blocked the blow, then lunged forward and the battle was joined. Max forced the Larva King back with a flurry of swift strikes, and it was all the King could do to block them all. But just as the tip of the Larva King's cape was torn by Max's katana, the Larva King stepped to side and stabbed for Max's exposed chest. Max blocked the blow, but the tip of the rapier was half a hair away from his breast.
"I admire your skill," the Larva King said. "Your speed is amazing, you form magnificent."
"Hell," Max said, grinning ruefully. "You ain't seen nothing yet." He leapt into the air, his katana held high over his head. The Larva King raised his blade to block, but Max struck with such forcefulness that the rapier was pushed backwards. The Larva King howled in frustration, stepped backwards and slashed his sword across Max's cheek.
"First blood!" he cried. "I am in the winner!"
Rossiter touched the small cut on his cheek and looked up at Larva King. "That was some good swordsmanship. Check your ear."
"What?" The Larva King, a hand reaching for his left ear. "I didn't quite hear…" His ear fell off at his touch, and he gasped when he saw the bleeding ear in his hands. He solemnly pocketed the severed ear in his coat pocket, and bowed low, doffing his hat. "My good sir, you are the winner. I salute you, for you are truly the better swordsman."
Rossiter sighed and leaned on his katana handle. He was quite weary from all the hacking and stabbing he had been doing lately, and I see the toll all the fights were taking on him written in his hard eyes. "You happy now, Morrel?" Max asked, swaying on his feet.
Lazarus Morrel let out a growl of rage and stepped through the crowd. He drew his sword slugged Max across the face with the heavy saber handle. Rossiter fell to the ground, the sword tumbling from his limp hands. "Not so tough now, are you?" Lazarus shouted. "I'll teach you for humiliating me in front of all my men!" He raised his cutlass high. "You like swords? I'll give you all the sword you want!"
Before I could make a move to help, Lazarus brought the saber down. It would have lopped off Max's head, if the Larva King hadn't parried the blow. The Larva King pushed the saber back with one hand. "He defeated me in honest combat. I will not see him slain by an oaf such as yourself!"
"You work for me, you masked pansy!" Lazarus cried. "Back off or my men will tear you in half!"
"Tear you in half. A fine idea, my good man." The Larva King slashed his rapier around, grasped the jeweled handle with both hands and forced the blade into Lazarus Morrel's waist. I barely had time to cover Charles's eyes before Lazarus's upper body fell away from his legs and lay bleeding on the ground.
After that everything went straight to hell. I rammed my elbow into the face of the River Pirate guarding me, regained my pistols and started shooting my way to Max Rossiter, Charles huddled close by. The Larva King kept the River Pirates off with his swirling rapier, and Charles and I kneeled down next to Max.
"Looks like that honor thing you're always talking about paid off, in a big way," I told him as I helped the samurai to his feet. "Larva King's on our side now."
"Is that so?" Max asked, leaning against me for support while Charles helped him walk. We headed towards the door, my blazing pistols holding the River Pirates at bay. Behind us, several of Lazarus Morrel's men picked up his body parts and carried them away. It looked like the King of the River Pirates was finally finished.
"I suppose I have cast my lot with you!" the Larva King cried, joyfully cutting down a charging River Pirate. "As much as I enjoy practicing my awesome skills, I suggest an egress would be most beneficial."
"That sounds mighty nice!" I agreed, moving as fast as I could to the cave entrance. We all made it out into the dense forest that surrounded the cave entrance, but that was far as we got.
Madame Fox was there to welcome us, a score of her burly Yakuza guards with her. The Yakuza all had their katanas at the ready, and some were packing clubs, scythes, bits of wood attached with rope, and numerous other exotic Japanese weapons. Madame Fox stepped forward, nearly floating above the grassy ground.
"Gaijin," she whispered, coming over to me. "You have caused me so much trouble."
"I could say the same thing about you." I pointed one of my pistols at her. "First of all, I don't trust you to pay me that money. Secondly, I reckon the katana wasn't stole, and you just wanted me to steal it! Thirdly, you hired Morrel to take the sword back. There ain't no end to your treachery!"
"You are…somewhat right." Madame Fox folded her hands in her white robe. "I did not pay Lazarus Morrell a cent. I wooed him, and took his will for my own. As for the katana, it was indeed stolen. A long time ago, I stole it from Masamune Okazaki. The old Samurai, Hiroshi, stole it from me. And now I will take it back."
Charles looked at me and then back to Madame Fox. "B-but Masamune Okazaki lived really long ago! You couldn't have been alive at the same time! No human being could live that long!"
"How true." Madame Fox stared at her Charles and grinned, but she weren't nearly as pretty as she had been. Her face was elongated and furry, making a small whiskered snout. Reddish brown fur appeared on her cheeks, and her deep black eyes appeared the same. Her hands became claws, and not one by nine fluffy red tails sprouted from her backside.
"A kitsune!" Despite his exhaustion, Max drew his katana and pointed it at the odd fox-woman in front of us. "Trickster Fox Spirit! I heard tales of you from Hiroshi, but I never assumed that you could be real."
"Then you are a fool. But I already knew that." Madame Fox swished her nine tails. "Hand over the katana now, gaijin, or my men will hand it over for you." A burly yakuza stepped forward, grunting angrily.
"They are visions, conjured up by your magic!" Max stabbed his blade at the yakuza warrior, but the giant blocked the blow with his spiked club as he revealed his own true form. He was a giant, a head taller than the tallest fellow, with bright red skin. The smoked glasses vanished to reveal three large eyes in a triangular formation, his teeth grew into fangs, and the spiked hair became a pair of horns. The tattoos stayed as intricate and frightening as they had always been. Whatever it was, Max proved it was mortal. He ducked its swinging club and stabbed his sword into the monster's chest, pulled it out, and took off the retching creature's head.
"By all the Saints!" the Larva King cried. "What demons are these!" The other yakuzas had changed as well. Some were red, some were bright blue or dark purple, but they all had the three eyes and the large fangs and horns. With a hooting roar the three-eyed fiends fell upon us.
"They are Oni!" Max cried, ducking a whirling quarterstaff wielded by one of the monsters. "Tiger-Oxen. They may be big, but I don't think they have the skill the match." He hacked off the arm of the Oni as it struck at him, but the beast just roared in rage and punched Rossiter in the chest. I guess the Fastest Blade in the West was dulled from all of his fighting. He tried to come to his feet, but the one-armed Oni smacked him on the head with the quarterstaff, and poor Max went down.
"Foul beasts!" The Larva King ran to Max's side, but several Oni ran to intercept him. The Italian sword master fought well and slew one of his attacker, driving his blade through the demon's open mouth, but an Oni behind him slammed his sword handle on the Larva King's head. The masked swordsman crumpled to the ground without a sound.
"You many-tailed strumpet!" I shouted at Madame Fox, firing both my guns at her. The Kitsune jumped over the bullets, laughing musically. She tapped my back with one of my paws, and I went face down to the floor. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stand, move, or even open my mouth to talk.
"Stupid gaijin," she said, drawing a curved dagger from her robes. "Let me finish you!"
"No!" Charles ran in front of me and shielded my body with his little one. "Please! You have the katana! You don't have to kill anyone!"
Madame Fox stopped. She turned to her Oni and saw one of them hold Max's katana aloft. "Perhaps you are right, little one," she said. "Such a clever boy. Clever as a fox." She tapped Charles's head and my boy changed. He shrank to the size of a small dog, hunched over and sprouted honey brown fur in the place of his suit, little whiskers instead of his freckles, and his glasses remained. He squeaked pitiably and Madame Fox picked him up and held him in her hands. "Come my friends," she said, lifting in the air. "We will leave the gaijin for their friends in the cave. We sail with the tide."
The next thing I remembered was harsh torchlight inside the River Pirate's cave. Max, the Larva King, and I were sprawled out on the floor, bound head to foot. I shifted my weight to my right and spotted a wheelchair sitting next to me. My mind was filled with poor Charles, now transformed into some sort of fox. I promised myself that I'd get him turned back or die trying.
"Y'all awake?!" a familiar voice asked. I looked at the wheelchair and saw Lazarus Morrel seated in it. The River Pirate King was missing one hand and both legs, but his temper remained. He held his saber with his good hand. "Yeah. It looks like you are." He swung the saber down towards me, and the heavy blade cracked the rock above my head. "Most of my boys left me, same as beautiful oriental who convinced me to go after you in the first place. Seems I can't retain much power like this. But I don't care." He pointed his blade at me, then Max, and finally the Larva King. "I got other things to preoccupy my mind with!"
I never figured I be killed by man with no legs and one hand, but it looked like that was the way things was gonna play out. I looked up at the saber, and felt the ropes around me, and a mad idea came into my mind. I tightened myself up as best as I could, and got ready to move.
"You're going first, Clark," Lazarus said. "Just cause I've known you the longest." He raised his saber and brought it down towards my chest. I pushed myself away, rolling from the blow but staying just close enough so that the blade cut through the rope binding me. With my hands free, I pushed myself out of the way and struggled to slip out of the rest of my bounds.
"Damn slippery bastard!" Lazarus called, wheeling after me and swinging his sword. "Come back here and let me cut you to pieces!"
I lashed out with my leg and kicked Lazarus's chest, knocking the saber from his hands. His sword fell to the ground where I quickly reclaimed it, pushing the wheelchair away as I grabbed the blade. Lazarus rolled backwards, drawing a revolver as he steadied his wheelchair. "Fine!" he shouted. "Guess I'll just shoot you!"
I hurled the saber at him with all of my might, and I guess luck was with me. The heavy saber spun through the air and collided with Lazarus Morrel's neck. The River Pirate King's head flew off, and the resulting spurt of blood sent the wheelchair rolling away. "Now that's something you don't see every day," I whispered. I picked up the saber and freed Max and the Larva King.
"Good thinking, Clark," Max Rossiter said as we examined the room. I found my bowie knife and pistols, Max's and mine, and Larva King's rapier in the corner, and Max stuck with Lazarus's saber. "I am sorry for all the trouble I caused you."
"You caused me trouble?" I shook my head. "This whole problem is on account of me and my stupidity! I aim to go back and rescue Charles and the katana if I can. I'm not you to go to certain death with me."
"You don't have to." Max patted me on the shoulder. "We'll get your son back."
The Larva King grinned, twirling his rapier. "I could never resist an adventure, and battling Japanese demons at the docks is certainly one to be remembered." He paused. "But how are we to reach the docks in time? We would have to walk through the jungle and then through all of New Orleans."
I only had to think for a second before the sound of rushing water gave me an answer. "This is a pirate's hideout," I said. "We'll float there."
After some preparation we headed down the roaring Mississippi in an old flat bottomed keelboat, the deck's cannon ready. The current was good and so was the wind, and in no time we had entered one of the many canals of New Orleans. There was some traffic in the waterways, but most boats cleared out of our way when they saw the cannon. We steered the boat into the harbor, and even though the place was a forest of ship's masts and docks going off crazily in every direction, we didn't have no trouble spotted the large freighter Madame Fox and her pet demons were riding in.
She stood right on the deck, staring at us with that fox face of hers, the little fox cub that had once been Charles sitting next to her. "No-good varmint!" I shouted over the din of the harbor and gesturing with my guns. "Let my boy go!"
Madame Fox reached a hand into her pouch and withdrew it as a clenched fist. She opened her palm and blew, gently sending of wave of fine grains into the dark waters around our boat. The grains changed as soon as they hit the water, and soon our boat was rocking back and forth as scaly claws attacked it. One of them reared out of the water and leapt onto the deck. It was a bit bigger than Charles, had greenish scaly skin, thin black hair, a snapping beak and claws that could split hairs. Max moved quickly, stabbing the creature's head so that greenish goo leaked out and kicking it back into the water.
"Son of a gun!" I cried, firing into the water. "What kind of critters did she summon up this time?"
"The Kappa," Max muttered. "Scaly, fishy things. Don't let them get too close, or they'll break your bones and suck out your guts."
The Larva King and Max stayed near the edge of the deck, fending off the hands of the Kappa as we drifted closer to Madame Fox's ship. When we were in range, I struck a match on my boot heel and lit the cannon's fuse. The booming roar of the heavy gun pushed our boat backwards, but it scoured the deck of Madame Fox's ship, blasting apart the Oni guards on top.
"Now!" Max cried, swinging a grappling hook and sending it to the deck of the ship, where it caught in the railing and held. He clambered up the rope, his saber in his belt and his revolver blazing away in his hand, and I followed him. The Larva King leapt into the air and plunged his rapier into the deck, crawling up the walls like some kind of masked monkey.
The Oni on the deck rushed out to battle us while Madame Fox stayed back. I blew all three eyes out of an Oni, before it could bring its katana around, rolled under its legs as it fell and came up firing. Max battled four of the giants at once, taking off their limbs one by one. The Larva King stayed low, striking at the vulnerable legs and ankles of the Oni. Soon the deck was red with their blood, and their mournful howls drowned out all else.
Madame Fox waited until most of her underlings had gone down before rushing into battle, leaving Charles the fox cub on the deck. She reached a hand into her robe and drew out Max's katana, then jumped into the air, her nine tails and white robes billowing about her. I fired at her with both of my pistols, but she easily avoided the shots, then flew down and gave me a gentle push that sent my flying across the deck.
"Cunning sprite!" The Larva King cried, readying his rapier. "Face me!" He ran to attack her, his rapier held loosely at his side. He brought his sword around, but Madame Fox blocked it with the Masamune Katana, and though sparks flew as the blades crashed, the Kitsune was just a bit stronger. She laid into the Larva King like a bat hitting a baseball, sending the King flying to the other end of the ship.
"Too easy," Madame Fox whispered. "Why do they persist?"
"On account of you keep pissing us off!" Max shouted, running behind Madame Fox with his saber poised. He thrust forward with the blade, driving it right through the Kitsune's stomach. Madame Fox gurgled, but instead of falling, she merely stepped forward and walked away. The Kitsune whirled round, aiming Max's own sword at his neck. Rossiter brought up his saber to block, and the katana cleaved right through the heavy metal blade. Madame Fox struck twice more, hacking off the entirety of the saber until Max held only the hilt in his hands.
"Now," Madame Fox said, a canine growl in her voice, "you die." She swung the sword right in Max's chest. Max held his breath, but nothing happened. The blade stopped right on his stomach. Madame Fox struck again, and still the blade refused to penetrate Rossiter's skin.
"Goddamn," I whispered. "That Masamune was one hell of a sword smith."
"By all the spirits!" Madame Fox roared, as she struck again with all of her might. This time, the blow sent the sword whistling out of her hands. It flew into the air, and Max Rossiter was the one who caught it as it fell. He held the Masamune blade high, and pointed it at Madame Fox's neck.
"The blade won't work when handled by your kind," Max muttered.
I ran across the deck and picked up the little fox that had been my son. "Change him back, you mangy hound!" I ordered Madame Fox.
Reluctantly, she waved her hand and Charles returned to a boy in my arms. I hugged him tightly.
"Did you like being a fox?" I asked my boy.
Charles shrugged. "It was okay, I guess. The fur was a little itchy, though."
"Now, Kitsune," Max said. "You die." He was about to push the sword a little bit further and take off Madame Fox's head, when Charles suddenly ran between them.
"No! Mr. Rossiter, please don't kill her!" Charles cried. "She spared our lives when she could have killed us. And I don't think its right to kill an unarmed person, or fox, or fox-lady. I mean, I don't think bushido is about that."
Max looked at Charles for a long time, and sheathed his katana. "Your life is spared," he ordered Madame Fox. "Go home."
"Thank you, gaijin." Madame Fox bowed low and then leapt into the air, her nine tails spinning around like furry comets as she flew eastward. The Larva King shakily walked across the deck to join us, and we watched her zoom away across the green ocean.
We spent the rest of the day sitting back in our hotel and resting, getting some good gumbo for dinner, before taking a steamboat back up the river to Max's ranch. The Larva King decided not to join us. He was gonna light out for the territories early the next morning, and see what else our country had to offer in the way of the sword. I told him which of my acquaintances he could duel and which ones he should avoid if he didn't want to lose more than his ear. He bowed low and waved his funny cap, and never did take off his mask, a mighty queer fellow, though he was pretty nice.
Max Rossiter and me and Charles split up after spending a day at his ranch and getting to know his wife and little boy. Young Hiro stared with wide eyes at the katana Max replaced on the mantel place, and Max even let him hold the handle for a little. But it was clear Rossiter didn't want his boy to grow up to be a killer, no matter how honorable. I sympathized, feeling the same sort of thing towards Charles.
The evening before Charles and I headed out, I asked Max if he'd ever find an opportunity to wield the Fastest Blade in the West again. A terrible look came into his normally peaceful eyes. "I don't know," he said. "I hope not. I was a bad man once, and I left a trail of corpses behind me. But circumstances, thank god, have changed."
"And if they change again?" I asked.
His eyes flashed to the katana above the fireplace. "I'll be ready," he muttered.
Charles and I headed out that evening, bidding fond goodbyes to Max, Libby, and Hiro Rossiter. I must say that the Fastest Blade in the West couldn't have fallen into better hands.