Cowboys & Devils (Devil Aster Days Book 3)

Part 1:
Outlaw From Hell

 

Texas, 1884.

 

A large and dangerous racket headed towards the small and defenseless settlement of Granger. A wild bunch of men acting more like beasts, they fired their guns into the air and screamed as loud as their whiskey-soaked throats could manage. They wanted everyone to know they were coming, to take warning and stay out of their way. By the time they arrived on the dirty main drag of Granger, guns still a-blazing, the street was already cleared out. The people of Granger were smart enough to stay indoors.

The unruly gang
of degenerates hitched their tired, panting horses outside of the saloon. They hustled inside eager to wet their gullets with more alcohol they had no intention of paying for. The leader of the gang led the way, bursting through the swinging door entryway with so much force the thin flapping doors almost fell off the hinges.

Without a word, the gang leader glanced around the saloon. He sized up the joint
while his gang lined up behind him. The bartender stood behind the bar idly wiping down the counter, trying not to look as troubled as he felt. Near the stairs a line of women waited to get a look at their prospects, twirling their hair in an attempt to look younger and more enticing. A lone man sat at the grand piano in a darkened corner of the room, his back turned to the entrance.

The bar was empty save for the pianist, the women, and the bartender. They were the only ones who stuck around to deal with the notorious crook and his gang come to town. The gang’s leader cleared his throat. The pianist turned to face him.

With all eyes on him, the gang leader spoke.

“Howdy
y’all!” he said, his voice full of cheer. His gang remained still in their lineup behind him, making sure their guns were plenty visible. They smiled through dirty teeth, the kind of smiles that let you know you’re about to
not
be okay.


My name is Ulric. Maybe you’ve heard of me. I’m kind of new to these parts, but most folks have been awfully kind to me so far. These are my boys. Say hi boys!”

The boys
cast their lustful grins towards the women. Some gave a polite wave. Others took their hats off, revealing nasty crops of greasy, dirty, or in some cases missing hair. The bartender, being a seasoned owner, had seen his fair share of nasty outlaws inside his establishment. He didn’t so much as flinch at them.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked Ulric. “Our doors will remain open
as long as you don’t start any trouble.”

“And trouble you will avoid, so long as you serve us kindly,” said Ulric
, stepping closer to the bar. “See, we’ve just been riding for so long that it seems we’ve all forgotten what a good time feels like. I think you should be flattered that we’ve chosen to spend our time in your lovely establishment.”

The bartender inhaled sharply through his nose. “You got money?”

“Money?” Ulric repeated. The man looked perplexed for a moment.

The pianist’s eye wandered across the room, far away from the safety of his ivory keys. He studied Ulric’s gang, already taking their seats among the emptied-out bar. The pianist counted seven men, including Ulric. He turned his attention back to the keys, for now. The melody he played was soft and relaxing, and he hoped it would help in lowering the tension in the room.

“Money…” Ulric repeated, leaning against the bar. He took everyone by surprise suddenly when he hopped up, parking his butt on the bar counter.

“Of course we have money!” he said to the barkeep, a warm smile spread across his handsome face. Ulric was a good-looking man, not like his dirty gang of degenerates. Besides his hygiene and physical appearance, it was clear that Ulric was on a different level than his men. It was easy to tell in the way he conversed so freely, so naturally, and with such a sharp vocabulary.

“We have loads of money,” Ulric went on. “We got more than enough money from robbing the Cedar Point Bank, ain’t that right fellas?”

The men that managed to pry their attention away from the ladies gave a
hearty cheer.  The ones who couldn’t, followed along with a dull roar of enthusiasm.

“The problem with that, though,” said Ulric, “And you’re not pouring any drinks yet…” The barkeep reached for an empty glass and slid it under a tap. He began pouring a single drink, and Ulric continued talking.

“The problem with the money is that we had to stash it all as soon as we pinched it, so none of that money is here, per se.”

“I don’t serve folks who can’t pay,” the bartender said. As soon as the words left his mouth he regretted them. The women and the pianist held their breath, as did the bartender.

“Is that so?” said Ulric, a mix of puzzled disappointment on his face. “I understand, you’re only enforcing proper procedure. It makes a lot of sense.”

Everyone not affiliated with Ulric’s gang breathed a sigh of relief.

“But that
does
pose a problem for us,” Ulric went on, “as we’ve been riding for so long with so little whiskey to drink, and now just as we are lucky enough to happen upon your lovely establishment, we no longer possess the necessary form of payment to acquire the goods you sell!”

Ulric flashed a confident smile towards his gang. The boys all grinned back, not looking the least-bit troubled by the bartender’s insistence on payment.

“Well, I guess if we can’t pay for your goods and services, we might as well leave.”

The pianist turned slightly again to see what would happen next.

Ulric hopped down off the bar. He walked back toward the entrance, where he was surrounded by his men again, all still grinning and looking not the least-bit phased by this turn of events.

“I guess we’ll just be moving along then,” the leader said. He turned to go, but acted as if something caught his eye. Ulric stopped next to the door, where a large board was nailed to the wall. Pinned on the board were numerous scraps of paper: newspaper clippings about recent local events, a letter from the sheriff of Granger declaring the town “protected” from outlaws, as well as several wanted posters.

Ulric’s eyes landed on one specific wanted poster, featuring a somewhat accurate (though Ulric felt the artist took some liberties with his hair) portrayal of himself. The easiest words to read on the poster, because they were written the largest, were “WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE.”

“Well now looky here,
” Ulric called to his gang, feigning surprise. “Looks like they
have
heard of us! Ain’t you ever seen a more handsome devil, huh folks?”

Ulric reached out and tugged the wanted poster off the board on the wall. He held it up beside his face and turned to his gang.

“And they came so close to capturing my devilish nature!” he said. The boys all laughed. The bartender started to sweat. The women were more confused than usual. Even the pianist wasn’t sure what to do, his hands had already stopped playing. Every time he fingered a new key to start up again, he’d catch a dangerous glance from one of the gang members.

Ulric stared long and hard at that wanted poster of himself. When tensions were at their highest, he turned to face the barkeep again. “It’s a damn fine collector’s item, that’s for sure. I’d ask if I could keep it, if I didn’t already have a copy stashed away somewhere. And they’re handing over $2000 to whoever brings me in! Shoot, for cash like that, I’m tempted to turn myself in!”

Again, his boys laughed. The pianist was starting to think the gang would laugh at anything their leader said or did.

“Well, I suppose if you won’t be serving us for free, we’ll just have to move on,” said Ulric. “I respect your level of commitment, even in the face of a known armed outlaw. You do know we just robbed the Cedar Point Bank, right? I
think I mentioned it earlier.”

The
bartender nodded, a blank expression on his face.

“Of course you do,” said Ulric. “It says I did so right here,” he added, looking again at the wanted poster. “Well then, I’m guessing you still haven’t changed your mind about serving us for free?”

The bartender hesitated. He thought about not responding at all. He wanted to say nothing more to the corrupt, degenerate men who plagued him. But Ulric’s glare did not waver as he locked eyes with the barkeep. It was so quiet all of a sudden half of Ulric’s gang jumped when the sound of the pianist banging away on more of the keys filled the room.

The
bartender nodded.

“Right, well I tried to be civil,” said Ulric. “You all saw me. I did the ‘polite’ thing and asked the barkeep to serve us all nicely. Fat lot of good that did. Being a law-abiding citizen is tough here. It’s not like it is back where I come from.”

“And where might that be?” came a voice that no one had heard yet. It was the pianist. The gang almost didn’t notice, since the pianist continued to sit with his back facing the gang.

“Looking away from a dangerous gang of outlaws is a great way to get a bullet in the back,” Ulric said to the man.

“I asked a simple question,” the pianist replied. He continued to play some soft melody. “I expect at the very least a simple answer.” His accent was not from around here. Some place foreign, Britain maybe.

Ulric shrugged.
“Hell,” he said.

The music stopped.

“The truth is I’m an outlaw straight out of Hell,” said Ulric. “Want proof?”

Now every eye, including the pianist’s, was on Ulric.
The spectators expected the worst: the shooting of an innocent. But Ulric’s hand did not reach for a gun. Instead, the man simply stared at his wanted poster, which he had yet to put back up on the board where it belonged. Ulric held up the poster for all to see clearly.

“Watch closely,” he said. “I’ve showed this trick to my own men a hundred times and they
still
can’t figure out how I do it.”

Ulric made a showy display of pretending to empty out his sleeves, but there was nothing up his sleeves. Then he displayed the wanted poster, flipping it around so that everyone could see it from multiple angles. It was just a normal piece of paper. He gripped the poster in one hand, along the bottom edge. Holding it up for all to see, and pulling his sleeve down as far as he could
to prove it was no trick, the man made the impossible happen.

The paper ignited. Somehow, flames spread from his closed hand and engulfed the now-smoking paper.
The women all gasped, the bartender kept his mouth shut in astonished disbelief, and Ulric’s gang erupted into even more shouts and cheers.

Though the pianist did not have a front-row seat to the event, he could tell it was only a well-practiced trick. The pianist was not one for giving in to the wild impossibilities of magic, and as he watched that wanted poster burn in the outlaw’s hand he convinced himself that it was all somehow
just a carefully planned out magic trick and nothing more.

“Well,” Ulric started, “I’m through playing Mr. nice outlaw. As I stare at this burning poster, I’m reminded of why we’re here in the first place. We came for the drinks, and for whatever food you may serve us, and for the gentle touch of a lovely woman. I’ve expressed my interest in those things, and you denied my request. I think any other outlaw would have shot you in the face by now.”

Ulric turned and slapped the burning wanted poster back up on the board. He pulled a pin out of a nearby article and stuck it in the burning wanted poster instead. Immediately, the fire started spreading to the rest of the paper collected there.

The
bartender reacted quickly, grabbing a pitcher of water and rushing over to douse the board before the entire bar burned down.

“Now of course I won’t be shooting you in the head because it
’s not my style,” Ulric said, losing interest in the burning board and walking towards the stairs. Towards the
women
.

“My gang, on the other hand, well I don’t think they can be trusted. You’d better do as they say, unless you want to wind up like that unfortunate teller back at the Cedar Point Bank. Which we robbed, you’ll recall.”

Ulric stopped at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at the buffet of lady parts available to him. He turned back to his gang.

“Tell him what happened to that unfortunate
unruly teller at the Cedar Point Bank,” he said.

“I shot’em,” one of the grungiest looking gang members said.
“Right in his head!”

“I
t was nasty,” Ulric confirmed. “I nearly threw up. But I
didn’t
,” he added, winking at the prettiest woman in the lineup before him.

“I’m going to kick this party off the right way,” Ulric said. “In a private room with…” He climbed the stairs, passing by several of the women who weren’t to his liking. When he came to the last girl, the prettiest, he took her by the hand and said “You! Come along with me dear. The rest of you, try to have some fun, okay? And bar keep, please do as my gang says. I’d rather someone
not
have to pick a bullet out of your head later.”

The
bartender returned to his post behind the counter. The gang moved in on him, screeching their orders to the poor elderly man. The pianist continued to play his soft melody, hoping it would calm everyone down and possibly even lull the gang into a false sense of safety. He could see the outlines of the outlaws in the dull reflective surface of a large brass candleholder strategically placed on top of the piano.

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