previous chapter

Dim Caffeinic Nights

by Spider Joe


Chapter 47

It was Night, and a good night it was for business in the District of Thieves, for daylight had retreated abruptly when the sun, embroiled throughout the day in an exhausting attempt to withstand the brutal onslaught of irresistible time, collapsed in defeat behind the doors of its citadel in the west, emptied of all vitality after contesting with the moon for the mastery of the ethereal domain, and, as the inhabitants of the Thieves' District learn at an early age, when the light of day has evacuated its place of prominence in the celestial sphere, night, the blissful harbinger of coolness, the mother of the moon, is never far behind, and with night comes the comforting, concealing, ever-endeavoring darkness that clothes the activities of those denizens of the darkness in the secure raiment of vacuous solitude wherein they pursue those activities with unabashed amorality, activities that the ordinary people -- those with lives, with families, with purpose -- would shun as unsavory and ill-spoken. But that was the sort of night it was, particularly at Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price.

It was almost time to open. San Pedro was polishing cups, mugs, and demitasse at the coffee bar. Schultzie was seeing that each table was properly uniformed in red-and-white checked cotton and correctly accoutered with ashtray and candle. He moved about the room with unfathomable grace, polishing (though the wooden table tops already shone), dusting (though there was no dust), and aligning chairs (though each wooden back, by long hours of drill under Schultzie's fastidious instruction, already knew its proper and most precise place). Fingers Ichikawa was putting out fresh decks of cards (seals unbroken) and examining (with skeptical eye) the latest shipment of dice. And Slick Levin, the stand-in piano player, was warming his hands on the erstwhile fiery keys of Sam's old upright. It was Slick's last week filling in for Sam. His gig with the Lounge Lizards at the Blue Parrot was pending, and he was looking forward to a week of composing and rehearsing.

Spider Joe walked over to the piano.

"Well, Slick. How's it going?"

"Well, I suppose. I don't expect much, these days, anyway, I guess."

"Why so depressed? The patrons have enjoyed your sessions. Some of them will be sorry to see you depart for the Blue Parrot, in spite of their fondness for Sam."

"Thanks, but that's not it. This place is great. Really."

"So why so grim?"

"Well, I've been thinking. I guess its partly because I feel burned out. It's been so long since I turned out a new tune," he said. "I'm not counting those little ditties I take on commission. I'm talking about real songs. Power songs. Songs that really move the audience. I haven't had a song like that in months, not since I was composing incidental music for the Amateur Night Review at the Romeo Club in Taipei. But that...that was another time, another place, maybe even another Slick Levin."

"Ease up, Slick. I'll tell you a story," said Spider Joe. "Maybe it will inspire you."

"But then again, maybe not," Slick said.

"Yeah. Maybe not. I should forget it?"

"No. No. I appreciate what you're trying to do. Tell me your story. Maybe something will come to me after all."

"Well," said Spider Joe, "this all takes place some time ago, though not too long. It was a dark and stormy night in the Thieves' District, and on this night someone was working long, late hours at Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, where no one ever complains -- and lives. It was Manolo's new saucier. You know him. Franco Gorillo. Franco had just come over from the States after a stint as a catcher for the Flying Sauciers, a circus act he'd helped form when he was hiding out from the Feds after that Frisco hit.

"Franco was new to the chef racket and wanted to make a big splash. He spent most of his regular shift handling customer complaints for Manolo. He handled them well. Very well. And permanently. But he was, after all was said and done, a true chef at heart. He aspired to being more than a mere hit man/saucier.

"On this night, an uncharacteristically rainy night, he had labored many long hours perfecting a new recipe, an extravagant new recipe, a masterpiece he called blue paella meringue cake. It was a luxurious concoction, one he had worked on for days in the little development kitchen at the back of Manolo's. The development kitchen was, as you might guess, unsuspected by the loyal clientele who were content to merely reap the unexpected benefits from the research that went on at Manolo's Iberian Cuisine. Kung Pao Paella, Paella Flambe, Paella bisque, and Paellawurst were only a few of the gastronomical delights that were conceived, developed, and released through the development kitchen.

"Franco, you know, was a saucier without peer, and was so acknowledged by all of us around here. To the regular patrons who had come to expect more variety in their paella, no meal was complete without his a l'orange, or his white wine with truffles, or his putanesca. But that was not enough for him. He was ambitious. He was also adventurous by nature, and, struck no doubt by the irresistible fancies of his culinary muse, he had on this night resolved to expand his horizons, to go one step beyond, to push back the envelope of saucier achievement.

"Franco was a genius. As you might suspect, when he created in the kitchen, he was a true artiste. No recipes. No notes. Nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch. He added one thing on impulse, another on fancy, and third on some mad whim, secure in his ability to glean the ingredients afterwards from the taste of his success. Finally, after what seemed an eternity of being poised just on the edge of success, he had it. A perfect blue paella meringue cake. The texture was heavenly. The taste was exquisite. A masterpiece, indeed, and one that would have done credit to any great chef.

"Manolo had long since left his restaurant to have coffee with the crowd over here, and was still drying out next to the fireplace by San Pedro's coffee bar. Franco was eager for him to sample the new creation. He left instructions with his assistant, Sergio, for the cake to be sent over as soon as it could be transported safely, then rushed over himself with the news of his achievement. Needless to say, we were all eager to sample his creation. We waited for several minutes, then for many minutes. No one came. No cake. No Sergio. Nothing.

"'What's keeping them,' Franco asked.

"'Wait here,' said Manolo, 'I'll go see.'

"He was only gone a moment. When he came back, he stood in the doorway for a moment, saying nothing. 'Franco,' he said finally, 'you'd better come out here for a moment.'

"We followed him out the alley door. There, lying on the floor of the alley, surrounded by an ever-widening poor of blue floating globules of meringue, splattered from above by the brutal rainfall, and on the sides eroded by the mad rushing water, was his cake: no longer meringue, barely blue, and paella by only the wildest stretch of the imagination. Of Sergio there was no sign.

"'Well,' said Manolo, 'I think Sergio blew it. It looks like he dropped the cake. Maybe he was tripped. Maybe he was caught by some sudden violence of the storm.'

"'My cake,' said Franco. 'Ruined.' Franco knelt in the rain, tried vainly to pull together the blue, amorphous ruin of diluted cake. 'Where is he,' he said, in a voice that chilled me to the quick. 'Where's Sergio?'

"'Gone, Franco,' Manolo said. 'Gone forever. He'll not come back as long as you are alive. The cake is gone, amigo. There's nothing you can do.'

"'You still have the recipe, at least,' I offered.

"'No, my friend,' Manolo said. 'You see, there was no recipe. That we would have finished later, after the tasting. After all, a chef in the throes of creative frenzy cannot afford the distraction of taking notes. Franco labored long to perfect this cake, knowing that we could unlock the deep mysteries of its hidden ingredients by taste alone, and from the taste reconstruct (but only in our minds -- never on paper where it might fall victim to avaricious caprice). Culinary triumph was within our grasp, but, alas, it was not to be. I am sorry, Franco. There is nothing to do but start again. Do not regret it over much. It was good that we had it as long as we did.'

"'Gone. It's gone,' Franco said philosophically. 'Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don't think that I can take it, and it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have the recipe again.'"

"Gee, what a story." Slick sat motionless for a long time. "The poor guy."

"Well," Spider Joe said at last, "That's it."

"Yes!" Slick exclaimed, "That's it! I have it!" And his hands glided gently over the keyboard as he sang:

My blue meringue won't come back
My blue meringue won't come back...

Spider Joe sighed and retired to his rooms upstairs. You win some, you lose some.

Chapter 48

It was night. Franco sat under a tree. He had a book. He was reading. In the dark. Franco remembered how Papa Hemingway ascended the Twin Peaks of Kilimanjaro. Franco always remembered Hemingway. Who's Hemingway? It didn't matter. Franco always remembered Hemingway. He made a vigil. He looked up. It was Manolo.

"Hello," he said.

"Hello," he said.

"You are back," he said.

"Yes," he said. "I am back." He sighed.

"Yes," said Franco. "I see this."

The looked at each other.

"Where have you been," Franco said.

"Spain," he answered. "I have been to Spain."

"Across the water?"

"Yes," Manolo said. He pointed toward the north.

"I know the water," Franco said. "In my village there was an Old Man. His name was Carlos. He had bad luck. No one would go out with him. Then there was a big fish."

"I know," said Manolo. He knew the story. He sat down. "I remember," he said.

"The Old Man went alone because no one would go with him," he said. "The other fishermen told their sons to stay away from the Old Man because he was bad luck. Then he caught the big fish. But the sea took it away from him. The sea is like a woman. Temperamental. Beautiful and angry. The strength of her hidden inside. That is the sea."

"You are wondering why I went to Spain," he said.

"No," said Franco. "I do not wonder. You went to see the bulls."

"No," he said. "I did not do this. For me there were no bulls."

"I do not understand. Life is not easy. Always, it is the same for he who fight the bulls. Life does not matter. He laughs at life. Death does not matter. He spits at death. There is only the bull. The man and the bull." He looked at him.

"For me there were no bulls."

They sat for a time. No one spoke. Then Franco spoke.

"I am wondering why you went to Spain."

"To see the camarones."

"To see the camarones."

"Yes. The camarones. That is why I went to Spain."

Franco nodded. "I know this," he said.

"I went to Madrid," he said. "To the Plaza del Camarones. I went to see the Running of the Camarones. They ran well."

"I see," said Franco.

"I have watched the bulls run. Death. Violence. Blood and sand."

"I know," he said.

"It is the same for the camarones," he said. "And for the camaroneador. For he who fights the camarones, life does not matter. He laughs at life. Death does not matter. He spits at death. There is only the camarones. The man and the camarones." He looked at him.

"Yes," said Franco. "It would be the same."

"I went into the ring," Manolo said. Franco looked at him.

"Yes," he said. "Into the ring. I fought them." He said nothing for a moment, remembering. "With nothing but cape and sword I fought them. I skewered them with my sword." He looked straight ahead. "They came by the thousands and I fought them. Tonight, the ladies of Madrid all wear the ears of camarones in their hair."

"Yes. I suppose they do."

"And now I have come back."

"You have returned."

"Yes," he said.

"And now you must make The Paella," he said.

"I cannot," he said, and Franco looked at him.

"Why not?" he asked. "Always you make The Paella."

"This time I cannot. There will be no Paella."


"Because," he said. "Because I went to Spain, and there every day I ate The Paella for every meal. I am tired of The Paella."

"But always there has been The Paella. Every night, the patrones come from Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. They come to Manolo's. They come for The Paella. Each night you have done this. If you do not make The Paella, they will be sad. You must make The Paella." He looked at him.

"You are right," he said. Manolo thought a long time.

"So," said Franco. "You will make The Paella?"

"I will make The Paella. Yes." Manolo said. "It will not be easy."

"No," Franco said.

"It has never been easy to make The Paella," he said.

"I know," he said. "It is like the bulls."

"Yes," said Manolo. "Like the bulls. And like the camarones when they run through the Plaza del Camarones in Madrid."

"Yes," he said.

"But I was there," he said. "I saw them run. They run well," he said.

"I know," Franco said. "It is like the diver in my village, the one who dove for pearls. He also had bad luck."

"But that was Steinbeck," Manolo said. He looked at him.

"You are right," he said. Who was Steinbeck? It didn't matter. Franco always remembered Hemingway.

"Come," he said. "Let us go and make The Paella."

They stood and walked toward Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, where no one ever complains -- and lives.

Chapter 49

The Old West, where men were men, women were women, and sheep were irresponsible...

It was night in the sleepy West Texas town of Loma Sonoma. All was quiet, though the occasional soft tread of a tired horse could be heard as some lonely homesteader or sleepy cowperson made the long trip home through the town street. Night in the Staked Plains, after all, was not the time for ordinary citizens -- those with lives, with families, with purpose. Even in the almost but not quite civilized environs of a frontier town west of the Pecos, the mundane traffic of banal commerce passed with the sun from sight at the end of each lethargic day. Night, after all, was the time for drifters, rustlers, robbers, horse thieves, cow thieves, sheep thieves, mule thieves, goat thieves, chicken thieves, even the occasional cowperson. At each day's end, as if by plan and simultaneous with the closing of the workaday shops and the old street scooper's last pass through the town street, the lights of the French Quarter, the shady, seamy end of town, were lit, for even a sleepy West Texas town like Loma Sonoma could boast its own Thieves' District, known in the quaint vernacular of the local rustics as the Quartier des Voleurs. Before the sun could complete its sudden dash behind the broken silhouette of the western sky, the noise, music, and dim light of the rowdy houses spilled painfully onto the softness of the dusted streets. Each night, when darkness assumed its deliberate watch over Starbright County, all the drifters, rustlers, robbers, horse thieves, cow thieves, sheep thieves, mule thieves, goat thieves, even the occasional cowperson, had long since taken their places at the bars and tables of their favorite saloons and Faro parlors, places they would hold and jealously defend as long as darkness lasted. And of all the rowdy houses and gambling halls on all the streets in all the towns across the entire frontier, the one of greatest renown, the one of illest repute, the single most notorious hovel-in-the-wall in the Old West, was an infamous hellhole where many an ornery cuss had come to take his last drink -- though not always by choice. Here Kid Curry gunned down Kid Cumin, Kid Cayenne, and Kid Oregano over a cup of spiced coffee. Here Mac the Knife, Queen of the Comancheros, shot old One-Eyed Two-Gun Three-Fingered Kozinsky over a Faro hand. Here Mark Parity, Ace Detective for the Pinkertons, single-handedly retired the Rio Rojo boys. To this place came all the refuse of the great western migration, sometimes encountering the deadly temptation of listlessness, sometimes pausing for a time before resuming their westward exodus, sometimes lingering seemingly forever, unable to resume a journey that promised no end. And here, enjoying its place of pride on the street that ran through the middle of the sleepy West Texas town of Loma Sonoma, could be found the imported rattan swinging doors of Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price.

Spider Joe long since had seen to the business of opening the Cafe and setting up for the evening's entertainment. He lounged in his favorite chair, feet up on his private table, nursing a cup of coarse, chewy coffee brewed from San Pedro's finest stock of dark-roasted Antiguan. At the table next to him sat the life-sized cardboard cutout of Mazzola, the hereditary warchief of the Chiracahua and White Mountain Apache, to whom the lands encompassing the West Texas town of Loma Sonoma, had once belonged.

Spider Joe tasted the coffee with a critical keenness. This particular cup had been brewed by Mountain Man Minetti who, former bouncer at the Cafe, now venturing on a new career as coffee trainee. For the last several nights, Minetti had been assisting San Pedro in the time-honored rituals of the coffee bar. The cowpersons had taken to calling him Mountain Grown Minetti in honor of his career move. The coffee was not bad, Spider Joe thought. It was fine. It was even good. Minetti has a future in the coffee saloon business. And to think, he thought, I knew him when.

Resting at the center of his table was a mysterious transparent cube made of a strange glass-like substance encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi." Spider Joe picked it up and toyed with it absent-mindedly while he took note of how things were shaping up in the saloon.

Around him, the modest beginnings of the night's routine revelry had given way to the subdued riot of a rowdy house full of patrons unbothered about maintaining sullen, secretive lives. After a hard day of robbing trains and punching cows, these folks were ready for a night uninhibited by the bonds of convention, untroubled by the ambiguities of rectitude, unconcerned about the stern and inevitable reproach of swift justice. Sam was sitting on a stool in the corner of the room, a banjo on his knee, crooning old pioneer ballads to the delight of his audience. Q was dealing Faro to a mob of cowpersons who, their pockets full of change, waited eagerly for a chance at a big score. Schultzie, as always, kept a masterful eye on all of the patrons at once, while Beau Bierman, pride of the Texas Rangers and recuperating from a recent outbreak of the El Paso Salt Wars, amused himself by throwing particularly troublesome cowpersons over three or four tables, out through the swinging doors, and onto the street. It was a tranquil scene. It was already seven o'clock, no one had been shot all evening, and all the knifings had been fairly minor -- as knifings go. Still, it was early. Things were going to pick up real soon.

Chapter 50

The Old West, where men were men, women were women, and sheep were indisposed...

It was Night. Out in the Old West, it always seemed right that night comes at the end of the day, about the time when all the drifters, rustlers, robbers, horse thieves, cow thieves, sheep thieves, mule thieves, goat thieves, chicken thieves, even the occasional cowperson, are starting to feel pretty tired after eight long hours of drifting, robbing, rustling (horses, cows, sheep, mules, goats, and chickens), or punching cows. Besides -- in the Old West, there isn't much to do after work anyway except sit around the fire spinning authentic folktales in that quaint, rural Texas patois studiously acquired by all who drifted through and settled in Starbright County, Texas. This was, after all, Staked Plains country, where the land is flat for leagues around, broken only haphazardly by intrusions of hill, mesa, or ridge. Standing in the wilderness under the West Texas sky is like standing on the flat face of a dark and giant clock, with the stars above wheeling around to mark the passage of the hands on the dial. Travel through these Plains is a careless proposition. You might spend a week, maybe a month, meandering along the east bank of the Pecos, working your way up from Del Rio, just you and your horse (or mule), with the unmeasured immensity of West Texas dragging along at a slow walk. Maps won't do you much good here. The last Western States highway map showed the Bozeman Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Chisholm Trail, and the Santa Fe Trail, and that was about it. A few rest areas along the way, maybe, and a few watering holes with unlikely names, but beyond that the map was just a big sheet of fool's cap folded (by some unfathomable algorithm) sixteen ways to Sunday and your were on your own. So off you'd go.

It was always tricky traveling through Staked Plains country, though, especially under a New Moon in a land where distance is incomprehensible. You know full well that a spot of light in the distance could be a tiny campfire or a full prairie conflagration -- or something in between -- and it might be two miles, maybe two hundred miles away. Distances mean something different. Consider that speck of light far off in the distance and to the North -- a spot of bright firefly frozen on the horizon, too constant to be a star, but beyond that unknowable. For a long time a speck like that won't change, even as you ride nearer. It'll just sit there like a little Mescalero bead, yellow with a taste of red. And as the moonless dark tightens its grip on the sky, the blackness feeds that distant bright speck and makes it grow -- at least, the night seems to make it grow, the way the darkness of a shut-up room wakes up that secret heart of coal lingering in the ashes of yesterday's fire. So you pass northward toward that nameless glimmer that refuses to change. It won't grow or shrink, it won't even move, until suddenly you find yourself riding through a v-shaped notch in the ridge to find below you a panoramic view of a tiny West Texas town. Here that once tiny light explodes into an array of rustic panes pouring lamplight onto the street in defiance of the grim dusk. And in this way, you would come upon (just as night comes upon) the sleepy West Texas town of Loma Sonoma (still known, by some old timers who remembered when it was a part of proud Old Mexico, as Loma Sonoma de la Romona Pomona).

Which brings us back to the Night. Night is the time for a little fun after a long day of punching cows and eating dust. Like the other drifters who followed that same speck of light, you encourage your horse to hurry along to the most famous, most jaded, and most forbidden hell-hole coffee house in the Old West. Like many a drifter, you might have trouble locating the infamous Quartier des Voleurs. Loma Sonoma, after all, seems rather small to have a Thieve's Quarter. Some, in fact, ungenerously suggest that it couldn't even have a Thieve's Eighth. But the truth is that the entire town is its own Thieve's Quarter. So ride on in, not thinking about the future, unmindful of the past, looking for a place to hitch your horse so you could experience the local legend. For here, in the sleepy West Texas town of Loma Sonoma, was one of the greatest gambling hells and rowdy houses in the Old West, a place where the Faro was honest, the coffee straight up, and where many an ornery cuss had come to take his last drink -- though not always by choice. Clearly this is not a place for those respectable, settled people -- those with lives, with family, with purpose. For at night, they abandon the streets to those interesting few who traffic in darkness. For here, behind a pair of swinging rattan doors, is Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price.

It was already past seven o'clock at Spider Joe's and no one had been shot all evening. This was largely due to the efforts of Sheriff Fong, who in an attempt to curb the violence had taken to collecting the sidearms of anyone who wandered into town. Alberto Fong was quiet for a lawman, gentle and softspoken. But that look in his eye and that big-iron .50 caliber Butline in his holster spoke loudly enough. Each night he made the rounds with his deputy, Quickdraw Dennis (who could draw faster, better, and with greater deference to the standard motifs of representational art than anyone else in town), collecting weapons from those who had ignored the sign posted on the outskirts of town. Each night they would collect two or three hefty flour sacks worth of assorted pistols, derringers, short-barreled rifles, and the like, and lock them up in one of the empty jail cells. The owners -- at least, left alive and capable of memory and motion -- would come by and pick them up the following morning. It was a good system and it worked.

The sheriff's policy was already having a sanguine effect on the ambiance of the Cafe. In the time since Sheriff Fong instituted his gun ban, sourdough biscuits had become something of a house specialty. Spider Joe had even taken to serving a richer variety of coffees, including some of the milder sorts for those patrons who couldn't hold their caffeine. Though its reputation was not diminished, the Cafe was fast becoming a place where highwayman, horse thief, or cow hand could drop by and relax after work. Not eleven people had died here since Monday -- an impressive tally, though to be honest it did not include the assorted casualties that tended to pile up in the alley out back. All in all, it had been generally peaceful of late. Tonight, however, was different. Spider Joe had a hunch that things would pick up real soon. He sat at his usual table, sharing a moment of solitude with the life-sized cardboard cutout of Mazzola, the hereditary warchief of the Chiracahua and White Mountain Apache.

Chapter 51

The Old West, where men were men, women were women, and sheep were rarely overlooked...

It was Night in the sleepy West Texas town of Loma Sonoma, a time of relative peace, for darkness, after all, is a transitory state, a gloomy mutability between two wings of constant light, a time when the respectable people -- those with lives, with family, with purpose -- and their little buckaroos put aside the cares of the day and linger at the hearth or campsite, nurturing the fires that suppress the illusion of darkness and sustain the memory of light -- but Night was not made for such as these, who evade darkness in burrows of artificial light, who close their ears against the sounds beating down through the dark, who shield their eyes from the shapeless, all-pervading gloom, who cannot sense the wondrous transformation that, from the moment when light is first cast out, alters the matter of the universe and sustains its rendered state until the break of day, for Night is the time when Nature gives body to the insubstantial sounds that course with the wind -- and so they (those respectable people and their little buckaroos) live their nights as they live their days, enduring, it is true, and strong in their own ways, but also insipid, tedious, maudlin, since day for them is nothing more than a committee meeting -- and, at that, an employee activity committee meeting -- that adjourns in the darkness and resumes in the daylight, and so it is little wonder that, for such as these, the tranquility of a West Texas summer's evening is never disturbed by the groans of hapless victims of random crime; not that there were no hapless victims of random crime -- it's simply that (if you exclude employee activity committees) such folk didn't groan that much; and not that all victims of random crime were hapless -- some, in fact (employee activity committees are prime examples) are abundantly endowed with hap, even to excess; and not that all crimes were random, for, to be fair, some were remarkably focused and goal-directed, which does a great deal to explain why there were so few employee activity committees in Starbright County; and, finally, not that all crimes were, in fact, considered at all criminal (not even by the respectable people and their little buckaroos), which also goes a great way toward explaining why there were so few employee activity committees in Starbright County.

Still, Spider Joe found it hard to concentrate on the surrounding tranquility. Over the last few weeks, he had spent many long hours trying to discover the essence of the sourdough biscuit. Some said it derived from an old Indian recipe handed down before the days of Spanish exploration and settlement that began two centuries before. But then again, some said it wasn't. He had found a rare sourdough biscuit once, some ways west of here and hidden away on the dark reaches of an old Hopi cliff dwelling. It was a real rarity, a veritable gem among biscuits and now the treasured centerpiece of his still-growing sourdough biscuit collection. The sourdough biscuit (or pinchoff, as the Old Timers called them) he contemplated now was almost equally rare, a vintage-1831 fortune biscuit showing sure signs of having come from the ovens of the White Mountain Apache, whose hereditary warchief Mazzola had once ruled the lands encompassing the West Texas town of Loma Sonoma. The greatest mystery, however, was the text of the fortune Spider Joe had gingerly removed from the still-pristine (and, apparently, quite edible, though that was the nature of sourdough) biscuit: "To Spider Joe -- Luigi."

"No sense gettin' riled up frettin' over that thing, boy," said a voice. Spider Joe looked up into a familiar face weathered with hardship and age, with skin like the bark of the long-lived Sequoia, surrounding eyes that bespoke wisdom untaught in schools, unheard in the normal walks of life, unimagined by the respectable people -- those with lives, with family, with purpose. For this was the war-hardened, steel-eyed face of Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best-loved legends of the Old West. His was a name to reckon with along the frontier, from the Greasy Grass to the Pecos and beyond. Yes, Grizzly Kaekel -- who, disguised as mild-mannered saloon keeper, prospector, miner, engineer, moralist, scout, explorer, Ranger, chef, sheriff, gambler, mountain man, theologian, cowperson, farmer, rancher, riverboat pilot, buffalo hunter, gunslinger, sheep herder, composer, management consultant, and lecturer, was well known in the sleepy West Texas Town of Loma Sonoma. He was the newly appointed District Marshall, the hand chosen by destiny (and by the Department of the Missouri) to bring law and order to the Staked Plains.

"Hello, Grizz," Spider Joe said.

"Howdy, boy," the old traveler replied.

"How've you been?"

"Middlin' fair, I reckon, but standing tall. Been on the trail, me and Bermudey." He motioned toward the swinging rattan doors. His mule, Bermuda Schwartz, had been his constant companion through years of hardship and danger. She was well-known throught the Old West as one of the last surviving descendants of the dreaded feral mules of Minnesota, a full-blooded, attack-trained pit mule. "Flushin' out salt thieves between here and El Paso."

"I can imagine," said Spider Joe. West Texas had good reason to fear a return of the El Paso Salt Wars. During the last outbreak, it took Beau Bierman, one company of Rangers, and two troops of the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry to restore order. "You think we'll see more trouble out this way?"

"Well, I don't rightly know. I reckon El Paso's a fur piece."

"A fur piece?"

"No. A fur piece. A fur piece of distance away."


"Yessir, I ain't sayin' trouble ain't gonna get out this way, but then again I ain't sayin' it is neither."

"Well, I suppose we can hope for the best."

"Yep. Although mebbe I ain't sayin'. There's one thing, though."

"What's that?"

"I hear tell that one of the salt barons is hirin' up all the loose iron he can find, and that Newhall Moose was seen headin' out this way."

"So? Does he have business in these parts?"

"Wellsir, I hear that Franco Gorillo's been gunnin' for Moose for some time. An old score to settle. Somethin' about Newhall Moose gettin' in the way the last time Franco was shootin' up an employee activity committee, or somethin'."

Franco Gorillo, notorious gun slinger and saucier at Manolo's Iberian Cantina, was sitting at the Faro table watching Q deal out a new hand. Franco looked up at the sound of his name, pulled his short-brimmed sundance hat down around his eyes, and returned to the game.

"It's a good thing Sheriff Fong and Dennis 'Quickdraw' Leung are on top of things. They've been confiscating sidearms off of every mean-looking hombre that comes through town."

"Yessir, I reckon that' a plan. I remember what my pappy used to say back in Minnesota, though."

"What's that."

"Wellsir, my pappy used to say to me, 'Old Grizz,' he used to say. (He always called me Old Grizz -- I reckon I've been one of the best loved legends of the Old West since I was knee high to a kelp runner.) Anyway, he says to me 'Old Grizz,' he says, 'Now you mark my words, boy. When shootin' irons is outlawed, only outlaws is gonna have shootin' irons. You remember that, boy.' Yessir. That's what he told me. It goes to the very heart of what we are doing here."

"Then maybe things will get interesting in here after all."


"Take a look," said Spider Joe, and Grizzly Kaekel glanced toward the door. There, his not quite slight frame framed by the frame of the door, stood Newhall Moose. He looked mean. He looked like trouble. And he was armed. There was going to be some serious work here tonight. Real serious.

previous chapters

Sponsored by Donna McMaster.