Hell and High Water
Nero Van Wessel leaned on the railing of the riverboat, feeling the sun caress his skin like a lover's hands. It was pleasantly warm, without the desperate dryness that characterized most of the border country. Perhaps that was because of the cooling influence of the Rio Grande, flowing in a muddy pathway under the Texas Pearl, leading down to Galveston and the blue Atlantic beyond. Nero pulled the brim of his pearl gray bowler hat low, shielding his bright blue eyes.
He was a young man, and wore his years well. His bright eyes, light blonde moustache, pearl gray vest, suit and striped tie nearly distracted from the pearl-handled Schofield revolvers on his hips. Nero turned away from the river and watched the well dressed guests of the Texas Pearl parade past him, feeling like he was looking through the window of a wonderful shop. He tipped his hat to two ladies in flowing pastel dresses and grinned he heard their sham shy giggling.
Then he saw who he had been looking for – Griswold Scudmore. The robber man was corpulent, but the fat didn't rest easy on him, like too many clothes on a ragged clothesline. Scudmore wore a checkered black suit with a string tie, and removed his Stetson as he approached Nervo Van Wessel. "The young Mr. Van Wessel!" he cried, holding out a meaty hand. Beads of sweat appeared on his puffy face. "It is an honor, sir, to finally make your acquaintance!"
"Likewise, Mr. Scudmore," Nero said, gratefully shaking Griswold's hand. It was time to bait the trap. "My father always spoke highly of you."
"Really?" Scudmore asked. Given that Nero's father was Orville Van Wessel, one of the wealthiest old money men in the country, this was enough to make Scudmore shiver with delight. "I had certainly hoped to gain his friendship. And perhaps his interests, in business affairs." He folded his hands. "Let me speak plainly – has your father mentioned investing in some of my concerns? My oil wells and railroads and such?"
Nero maintained his smile. Scudmore was a robber baron of the most notorious kind, sucking up every kind of fund into his private coffers, like a starving man that was never full. "He has expressed interest," Nero said. He paused after that, keeping Scudmore in suspense.
"And?" Scudmore prompted.
"Well, he's a little apprehensive. He knows you make your living out in the West, and he's afraid that the security on the frontier may be somewhat lacking."
Scudmore head bobbed. "Is that so? Well, I hope you tell him to put his fears at ease. As a matter of fact, I keep my company's every profit right here on the Pearl! They're secure as can be, kept right under our feet in the lower holds. All under the watchful eye of Corporal Mercer, here." He pointed to a fellow standing near the prow, watching the river's progress with folded arms.
This was Corporal Jeremiah Mercer, a former Union officer dishonorably discharged under circumstances that none of Nero's research could reveal. Nero looked at the square jaw, blocky nose, and ash gray eyes of the soldier, noting the broad brimmed campaign hat and black uniform. "He seems a stolid fellow," he said.
"He's the Devil's Own soldier, sir," Scudmore agreed. "So you see, what fool would ever attempt to rob the Texas Pearl?"
"What fool indeed?" Nero asked. He touched the brim of his hat and waved goodbye to Scudmore, walking swiftly along the deck to the nearest doorway. He walked past the slowly revolving paddle wheel, watching the muddy water cling to the wooden blades, and then stepped inside. He headed to his stateroom, humming to himself as he reached the door, like any philandering young bachelor seeing the country.
He knocked three times on the door, paused and knocked three times more. It was the proper code, and he smiled as he heard the scrambling inside the stateroom, and then the door opened. Nero looked down and smiled at Claudius Van Wessel, his baby brother and perhaps the only person in the entire world who truly earned his respect and affection. "Hello, Claudius," Nero said, stepping inside. "Enjoying our little river voyage?"
"I'm not getting seasick, so it's pretty good," Claudius said. He motioned for Nero to come into the center of the elegantly furnished stateroom. "Oh, I gotta show you what I've taught Bee to do! He's really full of amazing things, and I'm trying to catalogue them and help him use them." Claudius shared his brother's blonde hair, though his was tucked under a straw boater's hat. He had a pleasant round face, a bulbous nose, large ears, and wore a schoolboy's suit, vest and tie.
Grinning at his younger brother's enthusiasm, Nero followed Claudius to a desk in the corner, where the boy's automaton pet awaited. Bee was the size of a billiards ball, with glowing green eyes and a pair of nearly translucent, constantly beating wings holding it aloft. The low light of the stateroom was reflected in the shining copper surface of the tiny contraption.
"Watch this, Nero," Claudius said, facing Bee. "Okay, Bee. Use your blowtorch. Just make a little fire, okay?"
A tiny nozzle projected up from Bee's back, like a Swiss Army knife's blade. Blue flame appeared at the end, and then suddenly swelled like a fire blower's expulsion. Nero and Claudius ducked down until Bee hastily ended the fiery display. "He's still working at it," Claudius explained. "So, I think he'll be pretty useful on the mission tonight."
"I'd rather have him remain here with you," Nero said. "Keep you company, you know."
"Well, won't I go with you?" Claudius asked.
Nero pretended to consider it. "No," he finally said. "For goodness's sake, Claudius, it's a robbery! It'll be dangerous!" He put his hand on his younger brother's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Trust me, it's best to leave this kind of thing to the professionals."
The closet door slammed open and Doctor Julius Marion Torrent tumbled to the ground, a tangle of spindly limbs, a tattered lab coat and wild gray hair. Doc Torrent looked up, grinning at Nero and Claudius. "Just testing out the incapacitating fluids for tonight's excursion, gentlemen. Do not be alarmed by my sheer genius."
"I wasn't, Dr. Torrent," Claudius said. "Um, would you mind helping me remember all the things you built into Bee? I counted a torch, a dart gun, some kind of electrical coil, and I'm sure there's a lot more."
"Of course," Torrent said. He paused for thought, biting his thin lip. "I don't remember."
"What?" Claudius asked.
"My mind is a tempest of creative energies, my dear boy. Some memories are inevitably blown aside." He remained lying on the ground and rested his head in his hand in an attitude of relaxation. "In fact, I must remind myself to check in on Model X. I'm quite sure he's in tiptop condition though, and has yet to return to the assassination business. Well, mostly sure." At that moment, a heavy trio of knocks came on the door. "Oh!" Torrent cried. "Who could that be?"
"Easy, Doc," Nero said, approaching the door. "Just the rest of the fellows." He opened the door, and two more men, both in ill-fitting blue sailor's uniforms, stepped inside. These were the remaining members of the Van Wessel Gang, who were working their passage as common seamen, having easily infiltrated the Texas Pearl's crew.
They moved to the table in the middle of the room, Doc Torrent finally standing up to join them. Nero produced four cigars from his coat pocket and handed them out. Kilpatrick, the taller of the two men, gladly accepted one and then produced a match, held expertly in thin fingers.
Nero hadn't bothered to ask Kilpatrick's first name. He was an Irishman, tall and ramrod straight, with sandy orange hair under a peaked cap. Kilpatrick was a veteran of the War Between the States and several of the Indian conflicts, and was an expert sharpshooter. A LeMat revolver, pilfered from a Confederate colonel, hung on his belt, and a Sharps Rifle waited for him in the back of the room. He still wore the blue tinted sharpshooter's spectacles, making his eyes seem far away.
The man next to him was hunched over, with a carefully cultivated pot belly. He had a stiff graying beard, emerging like a train's cowcatcher from his chin, and flashing twinkling eyes. This was Slim Slugg, an outlaw to the manner born. He had rustled cattle, stolen horses, robbed banks, trains, stagecoaches, kidnapped, extorted, drunk, murdered and much more. A Winchester rifle rested on his back, and his tightly clutching fingers rarely left the handle of the sawed-off shotgun on his waist.
Slim Slugg looked at the cigar like it was some kind of insect. "Fancy tobacco, Van Wessel," he said. "Mighty fancy. But so far, you ain't done much but give us good smokes, better liquor, and no money. And even worse, you got me enduring the pencil neck's company, and this stinking Papist over here." He nodded to Kilpatrick. "Damn Paddy ain't hardly better than darkies, far as I'm concerned."
Kilpatrick puffed at the cigar. "I lived through Antietam, Slugg," he said. "It'll take more than that to rile me."
"I don't aim to rile, boy. I just speak the truth."
Nero raised his hand and they both fell quiet, though Slim kept on grinning through his yellow, tobacco-stained teeth. "Right, gentlemen, enough of this. You all know why we're here. Griswold Scudmore is one of the wealthiest of the Nouveau Riche. He's made a fortune by exploiting labor, stealing land, bilking countless men out of their investments and buying off or eliminating everyone that's gotten in his way." Nero tapped the table. "And we're gonna rob the bastard blind."
Slim nodded. "Now you're speaking my language, young fellow! What's the plan?"
And Nero told him, explaining how with Doc Torrent's inventions and his expertise, they'd bash their way into the central hold of the Texas Pearl, empty the safes, and slip away on a stolen lifeboat to the Mexican shore, where tequila and senoritas awaited them. Outside, the sun went down and sent a blaze of brilliant shades across the wide desert and flowing river. Nero looked up at the window and suddenly came to his feet.
"I'll return in good time, fellows, but I'm afraid I must attend this evening's ball before our robbery can begin in earnest." He straightened his tie and adjusted his cap. "I'd invite you, Claudius, but it's a little late. Doctor? Could see the boy goes to bed at a decent hour?"
"I can help!" Claudius added.
"Nonsense, my dear fellow," Nero replied, examining himself in the stateroom's mirror. "Tell me, gentlemen, and be honest -- how does my hair look?"
"A half-pint whippersnapper and a dancing dandy," Slim muttered. "I sure know how to pick them."
Kilpatrick's face remained impassive. "We'll wait for you her, Mr. Van Wessel," he said. "Don't take too long."
But the debonair robber had already reached the door. "Oh, don't worry," he said. "I don't want to miss this." He left them, and headed for the ballroom of the Texas Pearl with a merry spring in his every step.
Nero Van Wessel enjoyed dancing, and enjoyed the company of women even more. He entered the ballroom just as the evening's entertainments were about to begin. His eyes flashed quickly over the calico clad figures, a keen mind identifying every gray-haired matron, lady already on a fellow's arm, and woman with a big nose or a pimply face. Nero licked his lips as he moved to the far wall, leaning against the gilded surface and adjusting his hat brim.
Courtship at these events was as intricate as any bird's mating dance. Nero was an old hand, and plied his arts well. He was confident and felt at home there in the soft light of the ballroom, below the crystal chandelier and to the slow sounds of a full band playing a leisurely waltz. Griswold Scudmore and Corporal Mercer stood near a red velvet stairwell, watching the proceedings. Nero was careful to nod to Scudmore, ensuring his politeness.
Then he saw her. In all the lime, lemon, pink and blue dresses, she was wearing black, and that held Nero's eye like nothing else. She had alabaster-pale skin, dark hair swept back and gloved hands neatly folded. Her bearing was perfect, and Nero's heart beat faster when he saw her walking across the ballroom floor, heading straight for him. Her eyes were a murky green, and Nero straightened up and touched the brim of his hat to her.
"Good evening, ma'am," he said. "Quite a night, is it not?"
"You are Nero Van Wessel?" she asked.
"That I am. I believe you have the advantage of me, ma'am, in more ways than one, I might add." She held out her hand and he kissed it. "I haven't had the pleasure of making your acquaintance yet. I believe I would remember if that happy event had occurred."
"My name is Nina," she said. "Will you dance?"
"Will I?" Nero asked, smiling at his good fortune. "My good woman, I intend to do a lot more than that." He took her hand and they stepped out into the dance floor. Van Wessel moved expertly, and the mysterious Nina matched him in every way. His hand closed around her, and Nero noted the knotted strength kept there, strangely present in the soft hands of a woman.
She leaned her head forward, her lips pursed. "How very forward of you, my dear Nina." Nero strengthened his grip on her shoulder. "Now what would your parents say?"
"They are dead." Nina's hand shot up and grabbed Nero's throat with steely fingers. "Join them." She held her other arm down, a stiletto blade sliding noiselessly from her sleeve. She raised the dagger, and Nero saw that the blade was slick with venom. "It acts slow, Mr. Van Wessel," Nina hissed. "Those who fail to pay the Black Hand deserve such a death."
"Oh dear." Nero struggled to talk, and considered reaching for her hands. He knew he couldn't break grip, and let his fingers fall to his revolvers instead. He drew out one pistol and bashed the butt hard against her chest. Nina let go, and Nero Van Wessel leapt backwards, drawing out his second revolver. "Drop the blade, my dear," he said, landing on the ground. "I'm sure your employers and I can—"
She hurled her dagger, sending it spinning end over end through the air. Nero rolled out of the way, and the poisoned blade thwacked into the wooden floor next to him. It vibrated after striking, and the noise of it rang in Nero's ears. He leveled both revolvers at Nina, just as she was drawing another dagger. He fired, blasting it out of her hands. "Come now, kitten," Nero muttered. "You're not the only one with claws!"
He fired, and she ducked the shot. He fired again, but a dagger struck the barrel of his Schofield, forcing off his aim. The other guests screamed and scattered, running from the dance floor in a rustling flurry of bright gowns and frock coats. Nina produced another dagger, gritting her teeth as she prepared to throw it, when something struck her from behind. She tumbled to the ground, and a rifle butt struck her chest. Nero looked up to see Corporal Jeremiah Mercer and three of his men standing over her.
Corporal Mercer gave Nina a savage kick, driving the tip of his boot into her face. "This strumpet known to you, Mr. Van Wessel?" he asked, still keeping his voice low.
"Never seen her before in my life."
"Then I figure you owe money to the Black Hand. The Italian Mafia owns this woman – Nina Scellone, the Black Countess, she's called." His men grabbed her slim arms and hauled her to her feet. Mercer produced a Bowie knife and placed the blade to her throat. "Count yourself lucky that my men and I were here to protect you, sir."
"Oh, I do, corporal, rest assured…" Nero stared at Nina Scellone's eyes. "And yes, I do recall some unfortunate gambling debts to a few Sicilians in New Orleans. I should have expected this." Nina didn't look pleading or sad, merely hateful, like a trapped animal. Somehow, that made Nero feel even worse.
Griswold Scudmore made his way through the terrified guests and private guards, and joined Mercer. "What's this commotion all about?" he demanded. "Who is this woman who would murder my guests?"
"An assassin, sir," Mercer explained. "Sent to kill young Van Wessel here."
Nero could see the hatred spread across Scudmore's pudgy face like a tide. He could imagine Scudmore's thoughts – she was ruining a potential investment. She had to be punished. Scudmore nodded to Mercer. "Take her to the hold. Lock her up. Do what you will with her."
"Um, excuse me?" Nero asked, looking at Corporal Mercer. "My good man, may I ask you why you were discharged from the armed forces? Curiosity has a hold of me and I cannot disappoint it."
Slowly, Mercer turned to glare at Nero Van Wessel. "Was a woman," he said. "Couple women, actually. That's all you want to know, Mr. Van Wessel. Sleep well, knowing this hellcat ain't gonna be scratching no more." He grabbed her neck and pulled her forward, his men dragging her by her arms. They pulled her from the ballroom, and Nero hung his head.
Scudmore smiled at Van Wessel, wrapping an arm around the younger man's shoulder, like an octopus's tentacle ensnaring prey. "No harm done, eh?"
"None at all," Nero said, shrugging off Scudmore's hand. "You'll have to excuse me, sir. I have suddenly lost the urge for dancing." He left the ballroom, breaking into the run to reach the open deck. But he was too late, and Nina Scellone had already been taken to her prison. Nero shook his head, trying to force the image of her eyes from his skull, and trudged back to his stateroom to prepare for the evening's activities.
The Van Wessel Gang waited until midnight to make their move. Claudius Van Wessel stood near the door, watching as Slim Slugg, Kilpatrick, Doc Torrent and Nero walked carefully onto the deck. Claudius looked up at Nero, his blue eyes wide as oceans. "I could still go with you," he said, keeping his voice to a whisper. "I could help."
"My word's final, Claudius. I didn't steal you away from our parents to endanger you," Nero said.
"Steal?" Claudius asked. "But you said you had their permission, and it would just be for a little outing and—"
"A slip of the tongue," Nero said quickly, grinning swiftly. He ruffled his younger brother's hair. "Stay here, with Bee, and we'll send for you when we've secured the lifeboat. You understand?"
"All right…" Claudius agreed.
"Excellent. We won't be long." Nero carefully closed the door behind him, and motioned for his friends to follow him. They wore padded shoes and silently crossed the deck, carrying their weapons on their belts, slung over their shoulders or tucked under their arms. They moved below decks, wordlessly following deserted hallways that they had taken to memory.
Nero brought up the rear, one revolver held in his hand. He had told them about Nina Scellone, the Black Hand assassin and the attempt on his life. Slugg had wanted to end the job right there and make a run for it, but Kilpatrick and Torrent wouldn't consider it. Kilpatrick needed the money and Torrent needed a purpose, and the job gave them that. Slim had grumbled and looked like he had bitten into horse manure, but even he held his tongue now.
They walked carefully down the hall, going down a narrow flight of stairs, and then reaching the lower holds of the Texas Pearl. Ahead of them was a door of iron bars, a grate blocking their path. Just like Nero had discovered from his wanderings around the ship, there was one guard in front of the gate, and two more behind it. Nero stepped back, letting Slim and Kilpatrick do their jobs.
Firstly, Kilpatrick took a bullet from his belt and tossed it to the ground. It tinkled slightly, barely audible in the long hallway. Just as they suspected, the lone guard, bored out of his mind and eager for any distraction, walked forward to examine it. Like Corporal Mercer, he wore a dark uniform, peaked cap on his head, and a shotgun held on his shoulder.
As he walked down the hall, Slugg stepped in front of him. "Howdy," Slugg said, pressing the muzzle of his sawed-off to the guard's chest. The fellow's mustached face went white. "You try and holler, I'll blow you in half." Slim leaned forward, pressing his face closer to the guard's. "You try and resist, I'll cut you up good. You try and break away from me, I'll put one in your guts and you'll die slow. You got me, sonny?"
"Yes," the guard whispered.
"Good. Now you go on and call your friends over. Real easy-like, now, no screaming or nothing." Slugg smiled. "Least, not yet."
"Bill? Shorty? You'd best come over here!" There was only a hint of terror in the guard's voice. Two more of Scudmore's gun thugs walked over to the gate, unlocking it and stepping into the hall. Slugg drove his knee into the captured man's chest, tossing him backwards and into the other two guards. They went to the ground in a tumble, and then Kilpatrick was on top of them.
Kilpatrick drew out three syringes, each full of a neon green liquid that glowed faintly in the dim hallway. Kilpatrick moved quickly, sticking a syringe into each of the guards. Torrent's concoction worked quickly, and they were unconscious in seconds. Kilpatrick and Slugg dragged them away from the gate, and into the wider hall.
"Limp as fish," Kilpatrick muttered.
"You sure your concoction is non-lethal, doctor?" Nero asked Torrent. "I've no wish to stain my hand with innocent blood."
"Damn fool notion in this business," Slim said to himself.
Doc Torrent nodded. "It's completely harmless, Mr. Van Wessel. It may lend their skin a greenish tinge, but beyond that there are no adverse effects." He held out his hand. "Shall we?"
They all walked to the metal gate, passing through easily. They reached another hallway, and Nero stared at the heavy reinforced metal doors on both sides. He figured this was where they must be keeping Nina Scellone – if she still lived.
At the end of the hall was a set of safes, and Slugg rubbed his hands as he saw them. "Stand back, boys," he said, kneeling down. "I'll crack these suckers and—"
"No need." Doc Torrent produced a thin metal rod from his pocket. He twisted it, and a dozen tiny mechanical arms extended from the tip like a blooming flower. "This automated lock-picking apparatus will make even the most finely crafted vault an easily entered chamber." The little arms whirred madly. "It can also trim nose hairs."
Nero nodded. "Impressive doodad, my good doctor, but I think its best to let Mr. Slugg handle this one." He looked down the hallway, his eyes flashing from door to door. A rung of keys rested on a nearby peg, and Nero's eyes flashed from one steel door to the other. She had to be here. There was no more secure space on the whole riverboat. "You three get to work on those safes," Nero said. "I'll keep watch."
He stepped forward, listening to Torrent, Kilpatrick and Slugg busying themselves with the various safes, working the dials and cracking them open like they were fat eggs on the stove's edge, one after the other. Nero felt his mind slinking back to Nina, thinking about her eyes and her pale skin, and utter contempt she had for him. He probably deserved that. He had abandoned his family, left debts and women and duties all over the country, and just kept on running. Nero didn't think she deserved to die.
Slowly, Nero approached one of the metal doors. He slid in the keys, biting his lip until he found a match. He creaked it open, peered inside, and found it open. Nero shook his head, abandoned his post at the end of the hall, and tried the next.
He found her in the third cell he checked. She was chained to the wall, like something from a medieval dungeon. Her hair was ragged, hanging over her hateful eyes like a veil. Her pale skin was smudged with dirt and a curling cut ran around her cheek. She looked up at Van Wessel, somehow unsurprised. "What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Saving you, my dear woman," Nero said, moving to the shackles on her hands. He unbolted them carefully.
"Chivalry, I suppose? No, that sounds damned silly." Nero stared at her. "It's guilt, most likely. You don't deserve this. Not because I forgot to pay some damn Sicilians, at least." He finished freeing her, and watched as she stepped forward. "So, everything's all well and good between us now, right?"
In answer, Nina Scellone planted her foot in his chest. Nero tumbled backwards, out of the jail cell and onto the floor. Nina stepped out, grabbing a fistful of her long knives from where they rested on the wall. She hurled one of them, stabbing into the hem of Nero's frock coat and pinning him to the ground. "No," she said.
Torrent, Slugg and Kilpatrick drew their guns and aimed them at Nina. "Drop the pig-sticker, woman!" Slugg hissed, raising his sawed-off. "I will put you down, swear to god."
"Please, there's no need for this!" Nero cried. "After all, we can just pay the good woman with the profits from the safe. My debts will be fulfilled and the Black Hand won't long for my head. And easy solution, correct?"
Kilpatrick, Slugg, and Doc Torrent looked at each other. Torrent spoke first, his normally enthusiastic voice slow and ponderous. "Well, that may not be the most effective solution," he said. "Because you see, it seems that all of the safes are in an advanced state of, well, emptiness."
"Not a cent in them," Kilpatrick agreed.
Slim Slugg nodded. "We been had, young fellow. I don't know who to blame for this, but I'm gonna go ahead and heap it on you."
"Well, let's just take a moment and think for a few moments," Nero said. He pulled out the blade from his coat and came to his feet, facing Nina. "Scudmore told me that he kept the money aboard. He couldn't have lied to me, not when I was laying on the charm thick as butter on bread."
"Typical upper class idiot," Nina said. "Thinking you can charm your way into anything."
Nero raised an eyebrow. "Well, my dear," he said. "What makes you think I can't?"
Boots came in a staccato thunder down the hall. Nero Van Wessel spun about, just in time to see Corporal Mercer and his soldiers dashing down the hall, rifles drawn. "Oh dear," he said, realizing that things had now gotten about as bad as he could imagine. Nero had rescued Nina Scellone instead of standing watch and this, their doom, was the sadly predictable result.
Nero drew out both his revolvers. "Back down, Mercer!" he shouted. "I've more guns here than you, and I—" He knew he was lying, and the rest of his words were cut off in a barrage of gunfire. Nero threw himself backwards, pressing himself against the wall as gunpowder filled the room.
Mercer's men surged forward, rifles and pistols blazing. Over the gunshots, Mercer's voice rang as strong as steel. "Take them alive!" he shouted. "All of them!"
Nina started her knives into the soldiers, sending the blades into eyes sockets and throats. Nero emptied his revolvers, then drew his push knife and plunged it into the chest of the nearest guard. Kilpatrick fired the underbelly of his LeMat, holding his Sharps rifle with his free hand. Torrent squealed loudly, drawing out a strange, brassy firearm, alive with wires and sparks. It sent out streams of glowing energy, which burned holes through Mercer's mercenaries. Slim merely blasted both barrels of his shotgun, and then produced a short cavalry saber and joined the fray.
But they were outnumbered and simply overwhelmed. A pair of guards took down Torrent, bashing him over the head with rifle butts. Slugg took a shot to the knee and toppled over, tackled before he could stand. Nina had a revolver planted in her face, making her freeze in fear. Kilpatrick was surrounded and slowly tossed down his rifle and pistol. Mercer himself sprang at Nero, bashing him with the handle of his pistol.
"I knew you was no good from when I saw you, boy," he hissed.
"Well, I could have told you that!" Nero replied. He jabbed out with his push knife. Mercer dodged the blow, and then grabbed Nero's hand. Mercer drove his fist against Nero's chin, knocking his head back against the wall. Nero fell his vision go blurry as his head struck down. He moaned slightly, and the knife fell from his hand.
Now all of the Van Wessel Gang, and Nina Scellone had been defeated. They were herded into the corner, kept under a dozen guns. Corporal Mercer came to his feet, looking over them and shaking his head. "You're what passes for outlaws these days?" he asked. "Damn shame."
"I know, mister," Slugg agreed. "They got me working with a damn Paddy!"
"You're not so pleasant yourself, friend," Kilpatrick muttered.
At that moment, Griswold Scudmore stepped into the hold. Scudmore wore a tall top hat, and was enjoying a thin cigar. He looked at Nero Van Wessel, and the others, and then slowly nodded. "Yes," he said. "I had a feeling I was going to disappoint you, Mr. Van Wessel. Of course, I didn't expect it to be in such a manner!"
"I'm a little confused," Nero said. "Care to elucidate?"
"Why not?" Scudmore sighed. "You see, my industries aren't doing as well as I suggested to you earlier. Matter of fact, they're downright collapsing." He shrugged. "So, I came up with a little plan. I pulled out every asset I have, turned everything into cold cash, and have it stored on the shore, on the Mexican side of the river. After I blow up this riverboat and kill everyone on it, the world will think I'm dead, and all my debts will vanish. I'll take my money, go to Europe, and spend my evenings with the finest wine and women of Rome and Paris."
"I'm sorry, did you say 'blow up the riverboat'?" Nero asked.
"Yes. I'll be gone before that happens, of course. I want to fake my own death, not actually die." Scudmore smiled and looked at his watch. He nodded and set it back in his waistcoat. "Ah, yes. I believe the bombs should be going off any moment now. I'll bid adieu to you, Mr. Van Wessel. Shame that we couldn't do business, but circumstances just would not permit it."
"Oh, it's no trouble," Nero replied. "But I'd be careful about creating a fiction death, Mr. Scudmore. Things like that have a way of becoming real."
"Thanks for the advice." Scudmore turned to Mercer. "Lock them, take the keys and toss them over the side when we take the lifeboat and leave the Pearl. And remind me to double your pay."
"No need to do that," Mercer said, nodding to his men. With bayonet points and rifle butts, they forced Nero and his companions into one of the jail cells. Mercer himself slammed the reinforced door shut, and locked it carefully. "I do this sort of thing for fun."
They heard their footsteps pattering away, and then Nero Van Wessel was alone. It was pitch dark inside, but Doc Torrent quickly produced a glowing metal rode the size of a fountain pen. It burned with sickly green energy, which filled the closed chamber and made everything look ghostly and strange. Nero leaned against the far wall, his arms folded and his eyes focused on the tips of his polished shoes.
"So, Mr. Van Wessel, what now?" Doc Torrent asked, his excitement returning to him.
"Now?" Van Wessel asked. "I don't know. I've screwed up repeatedly, and doomed us all."
"Right about that, boy." Slim approached Nero. "But there's one thing keeping me from strangling you right now, just for the hell of it – care to learn what it is?"
"I want to kill Mercer real bad. Or at least know he died, and painfully. Same with Scudmore. And if I get rid of you, ain't no one gonna lead this gang after them." He pointed to Torrent. "The pencil neck there will fall apart soon as you do, Kilpatrick looks all tough, but he ain't much inside, and this Scellone woman's about as crazy as rattlesnake in a frying pan. And me? Hell, I know I don't last long unless someone with good sense is giving me orders." He paused and stared at Nero. "So, boss, what're your orders?"
Nero stared at the solid metal door. "We've got to get free, evacuate the boat, then get ashore," he said. "Then we have to follow Scudmore, pick up his trail by some miracle, and find out where he's got his cash stashed. Then we must triumph in combat against his private army, and the odious Mercer and claim our rich reward." He shrugged. "Somewhat difficult, but I think escaping from this prison will be the hard part."
At that moment, the steel door suddenly swung outwards, letting in a widening shaft of light. Nero shielded his eyes and peered outside. Bee was hovering around the lock, his blue torch burning softly and fading away. Below Bee, Claudius stood with his hat in his hands.
"Nero!" Claudius cried, and ran into his brother's arms. "I got tired of waiting, and I wondered if something had happened to you, and then I snuck out, with Bee, and I saw a whole bunch of people leaving, and then I came here and found you." He stopped and breathed in. "You were trapped?"
"You shouldn't have left your room, Claudius," Nero said, trying his best to imitate sternness. "You could have gotten captured by Mercer and then I don't know what I would do." He paused and patted the boy's shoulder. "But, thank you."
"I knew I could help!" Claudius agreed. "So, now what?"
They started to walk out of the hold, stopping only to reclaim their weapons. Nero slid both pistols into their holsters, giving them a little spin for show. "Now?" he asked, as Scellone slid her daggers into sheathes in her belt and sleeves. "First we get everyone off of this boat. Then we leave ourselves, for the Mexican side. Then we find Scudmore." Nero paused, looking at Nina. "You mind holding off my death for a little bit more?"
Nina did something strange, then. She smiled. It was a slow, predatory grin, but a smile nonetheless. "Mr. Van Wessel," she said. "You are the most entertaining man I have ever been ordered to destroy. I think I'll let you live, just to see what you will do next."
"Don't worry, my dear," Nero replied. "I won't disappoint."
They walked onto the deck, standing near the railing and looking at the moonlit desert on both side. The Rio Grande lapped slowly below the boat, with a bomb ticking somewhere inside. The muddy waters seemed beautiful in the moonlight, like dappled silver, flowing stiffly.
"Evacuation shouldn't be too much of a problem." Doc Torrent held up the glowing rod in both hands, as they walked to the deck. "I suggest all of you ladies and gentlemen cover your eyes." And just as Nero placed his arm over his eyes, Torrent snapped the glowing implement in half.
The result blast of light wasn't exceptional in its brightness, but in its totality. Even under his lids, behind his arm, Nero's eyeballs were bathed in green light. He gurgled like a baby and felt his guts heave, then blinked rapidly to try and make that glow go away. On the seventh try, his vision cleared and he found himself watching the vessel fill with movement.
The Texas Pearl's staterooms opened, one after the other, and the guests stepped bleary eyed and terrified into the darkened deck. They rubbed their eyes, slowing forcing away the emerald glow.
Slim took action quickly. He fired his sawed-off into the air. "Boiler failure!" he shouted. "Everyone best skedaddle!"
The resulting stampede tour across the deck, hurrying to the lifeboats. The crew of the Texas Pearl moved quickly, readying the lifeboats and lowering them down, one by one, into the river. Nero watched, feeling tension crackling inside his chest. He didn't know when Scudmore had timed the bomb to go off. For all he knew, the dynamite could be blasting to life now, ready to take them all into oblivion.
Kilpatrick remained focus. "One problem, boss," he said. "How we gonna get off?"
"What?" Nero looked at the remaining lifeboats, watching them dip down one by one. "Uh…well…"
"Water's pretty shallow. I've swam it plenty of times," Slugg said. "Running back and forth from lawmen and federales." He wrapped his guns tightly in his vest. "Course, our shooting irons might not be worth much after we get out…"
"Doesn't matter," Nina replied. "I intend to kill Mercer with my hands." She leapt over the railing, a perfect swan dive into the waters below. She broke the surface without a splash, and started swimming expertly to the shore, on the Southern side of the river.
Claudius looked down at her. "She's really pretty, Nero," he said. "But a little weird."
"Sums her up nicely," Nero agreed. "Stay close to me now, and keep paddling until we reach the shore. Then things get really difficult." Bee buzzed around Claudius, making slow orbits. "And keep that little fellow about. He's quite useful." Nero turned to Kilpatrick, Slugg and Torrent. "You fellows up for a quick dip?"
"Why not?" Kilpatrick asked. "But I'm thinking about what Slugg said – gunfight will be tough when our weapons are wet."
"Should be dawn soon," Nero said. "We'll dry them as best we can and hope for the best."
"Heh," Slugg muttered. "I gotta say, you ain't much of a criminal mastermind."
"Well, I've got myself this far," Nero pointed out. "Why change now?"
With that, they pulled themselves over the railing and leapt down into the water. Nero felt the muddy surface of the Rio Grande smack into him, a physical blow that followed up by seeping into his ears, nose and mouth. He ignored it and kept paddling forward, breaching the surface and then helping up Claudius. The youngster was keeping up fine, and there was only a mild current. Doc Torrent arose with a sputtering cough, and swam over to them.
The scientist grinned at Nero. "A most refreshing development," he said. "And we all managed to get off before—"
Back on the Texas Pearl, the bomb detonated. Nero had no idea where Scudmore had hidden it, but its explosion made the water ripple madly, and tore great gouges from the riverboat. Fragments of flaming deck, chunks of superheated metal, and other detritus shot through the air like comets, and came crashing down into the water. Nero held tightly to Claudius and started swimming madly for the shore, hoping that he wasn't sucked under by the sinking riverboat, or crushed by a falling piece of the boat.
He kept swimming, not pausing until he felt mud under his boots and dirt in his hands. Nero hauled himself up, Claudius following him, and they both sat down on the banks of the Rio Grande, and watched the Texas Pearl slipping slowly under the waves. Nero was soaked and dirty beyond belief. He scraped mud from his moustache, and felt sour river water burning in his mouth. Bee buzzed around them in expectant orbits, and finally settled on Claudius's shoulder.
Doc Torrent followed them onto the shore, soon joined by Slugg and Kilpatrick. Nina Scellone joined them, a dagger held in each hand. "I see their footprints, leading off into the hills," she said, pointing with her knife's edge into the distance. The sun was beginning to rise, and the first golden rays were seeping over the low hills.
Slugg nodded. "I expected as much. There's a cave around these parts. Greaser banditos use it to hide. I've rustled cattle a few times, and kept stock in there. Big place, and roomy too."
"That's where the cash will be," Nero said, drawing out his revolvers. He opened the chamber, trying to dry them as much as he could. "And that's where we're going."
The Van Wessel Gang shouldered their weapons, and walked slowly into the distance, the rising sun lighting their way.
The cave was right where Slim Slugg said it would be. The desert hills stood out in the sandy country, each tipped with sage brush and sun-blasted rock. One of the hills was larger than the other, coated with chaparral and cooled by the river's breeze. A deep cave stood out, opening out into a broad, dusty valley. This was the place, and Griswold Scudmore and his men had already reached it. Strong boxes, sacks of cash, and even bars of gold waited inside, gathering dust like so much trash. Nero Van Wessel approached the mouth head on, his hands on the handles of his revolvers, his hat brim low.
He approached slowly, letting each foot fall raise a portion of the brown desert dust. One of Mercer's guards spotted him, and called out. Soon all of the guards pointed their rifles at him, and Corporal Mercer and Griswold Scudmore both stepped out of the cave mouth to stare at him.
Scudmore stared in surprise at Nero. "Mr. Van Wessel," he said, still sounding pleasant. "You've come an awful long way just to die."
Nero grinned. "Funny, Mr. Scudmore," he said. "I was about to tell you something similar."
"It's good to have a sense of humor about such things," Scudmore replied. "Corporal? Have your men blast this tiresome fool to pieces."
"My pleasure." Mercer nodded and his soldiers presented their arms, lowering their rifles in a solid line at Nero. The sunlight gleamed on their bayonets, like they held pure gold at the end of their guns. Nero's eyes flashed from one barrel to the next, knowing that what would follow wasn't quite the most important part of the plan, but it was pretty high up there.
He nodded to Mercer. "You scared, huh? I don't blame you."
"What?" Corporal Mercer asked. He held up a gloved fist, and his men held their fire. "I'm scared of you?"
"Of course, my good man. Otherwise you would face me in single combat instead of trusting to your soldiery to attend to my end." Nero Van Wessel patted his revolvers. "And there's no need to be ashamed, sir. You weren't good enough for the army. You clearly aren't good enough to draw down against me."
When he saw Mercer's eyes grow cold with rage, Nero knew he had succeeded. Wordlessly, Mercer motioned for his soldiers to step aside and let him pass. The black coated guards moved forward, still keeping their dozen rifles trained at Nero. All eyes were on him, which was just what Nero was counting on. Nero then turned back to Mercer. He saw the mercenary walk forward, standing in the sand across from him, his hand hanging over his revolver.
Nero's own pistols were still somewhat wet. He didn't know if they would fire. He still kept his hands near the pearl handles, waiting as calmly as he could. A cold wind blew from the river, rising dust around the two men. Mercer glared hatefully at Nero Van Wessel, and the younger man felt a chill run through him. "Still think you're faster than me, boy?" Mercer asked.
"Nope," Nero said. "That's why I'm cheating. Kilpatrick – now!"
Kilpatrick, Nina, Doc Torrent and Slim Slugg stood on top of the cave, perched on the rock overhanging the tunnel's mouth and looking down at the backs of Mercer's guards. Slim Slugg knew the land perfectly, and guided them to the top of the hill. Kilpatrick now raised his rifle and fired, the Sharps cracking out clearly and striking Mercer in his lower leg. He tumbled backwards, and Nero drew both his revolvers.
Bullets streaked the still morning air. The surprised guards took bullets from Nero and from Torrent, Slugg and Kilpatrick. Nina Secllone leapt down into their ranks, hurling out her throwing knives, and burying each in a squirming target. Nero's revolvers clattered away, bringing down the guards one after the other. One soldier drew a bead on him, but Slugg's shotgun blast struck him in the back and sent him tumbling to the ground.
Corporal Mercer forced himself to his feet, pointing a revolver at Nero's back. "You come back here!" he shouted. "I'll finish you good, boy! You think you're better than me? I'll show you just what I am, boy, and I'll make you wish you stayed in your mansion instead of looking for death!"
Without breaking his stride, Nero spun around. He fired one of his last rounds at Mercer, but the gun clicked and jammed. Jeremiah Mercer smiled and cocked his own pistol. He prepared to fire, when a throwing knife slid into his eye. Mercer's mouth fell open and the six -gun tumbled from his hand. "Oh Jesus," he said and fell over.
Nero looked up and saw Nina Scellone standing next to him, already drawing out another knife. Nero stared at her in surprise. "Shall I ask why?" he wondered.
"Call it chivalry, Mr. Van Wessel," the Black Countess replied. They both looked to the mouth of the cave. Kilpatrick's Sharps rifle continued to fire, and the few surviving guards had ducked for cover inside the cave, huddling behind some of the outcroppings with Scudmore.
Slim Slugg hopped down, Doc Torrent next to him. "Dug in tight, I reckon," Slim said. "Pencil neck, you got something for this?"
"Oh, indubitably," Torrent agreed, producing a thin vial of green glowing liquid from his coat. He hurled it forward, bathing the desert in green light. It burned fiercely, the light clinging to the rocks and the sand long after the vial had shattered. A few wisps of steam rose up. Nero used the opportunity to stuff new rounds in his revolvers, hoping they'd stay clean enough to function.
The remaining guards were hurled from the cave, and Slim's sawed-off thundered, cutting them down quickly. There was silence after the final gunshot, and then Griswold Scudmore stepped slowly out of the cave, his arms held up. "All right," he said. "All right. You beat me."
Nero walked over, nodding. "Good to hear it, Mr. Scudmore. We'll help ourselves to your takings now. We can leave you alive or gun you down here. It's up to you."
In answer, Scudmore grabbed Nero's hand. A derringer slid from his sleeve, landing in Scudmore's pudgy hand. He pressed the muzzle under Nero's chin. "Beginner's luck will only take you so far, Mr. Van Wessel," he hissed. "You run a gang well, and you got intelligence, and daring, and maybe a little grit. But at the end of the day, you're no outlaw, and you know it."
Swiftly, Nero drew one of his revolvers, ramming a fist into Scudmore's side. The derringer went off, the bullet whistling straight past Nero's ear. Nero's revolver barked out again, three times straight into Scudmore's chest. Nero pushed the body down, leveling the gun at Scudmore's surprised face. "Don't go telling me what I don't know, Mr. Scudmore," Nero said. "Now kindly go to Hell." He pulled the trigger once more.
It was over then, and his gang quickly pulled out all the loot they could. Nero gave his share to Nina, and it was just enough to cover his gambling debts. Claudius came down from the hillside, walking gingerly around the bodies, to join his brother. "Nero?" he asked, Bee making quick, protective circles around him. "It's done with?"
"We've got our payday, Claudius," Nero explained, gesturing to the mounds of dollars and treasury notes. "But I've got a feeling our days of banditry won't be over for quite some time."