The irony of it never failed to amuse Langton. He spent a fair time in mining towns, and the bars were always bursting while only a few staggerers were out on the streets in the bright midday. Seems the miners couldn't wait to hit straight for the dark saloons the moment they emerged above ground after a week or more in the dusty black shafts and pits.
Langton paused on the boardwalk beside the entrance to the saloon. The notes of a nameless cowboy tune floated to his ears from a piano towards the back. He couldn't decide which sounded worse, the dead piano keys or the random bursts of gunfire in the streets. It didn't seem to matter much either way to most of the drunken miners. The only time they became excited was whenever a poker table laden with the wages of the last shift was overturned.
Slowly, he eased open the batwing doors with his left hand, all the while keeping his right hand by his hip holster. He tugged the brim of his hat a little farther down on his forehead, and slowly and silently shifted to his left. He stood still for several seconds until his vision adjusted to the smoky gloom of the dive.
Langton cringed as he glanced down to the floor of the bar. Patches of grimy sawdust and hay were ground into the hard-packed dirt between the puddles of mud and broken glass, and black, wet stains spattered tables and chairs alike. The sawdust on the floor hadn't been changed for several days, Langton thought. But he knew it was more important in a hellhole like this to keep your eyes on the action than to watch too closely where you stepped.
So this was the notorious Lotus Flower, in the Chinatown ghetto of Tombstone, Arizona territory .. the bar where he was supposed to meet the fat Chinaman. More likely someone would come for him. This didn't look like the kind of establishment the Fat Man would frequent.
Langton didn't know why he had been sent for by the Fat Man, but the prospect of easy money piqued his curiosity. The Chinese controlled the bars in Tombstone, and no one knew for sure what deals might be done or undone or for what …. drugs, prostitution, coolies, gambling … but for sure it was unsavory.
That didn't matter to Langton. He was a violent man when he had to be, but he had his own code of justice. He didn't meddle in other folks' business if there was no profit in it.
Langton looked over the crowd at the gaming tables, checked the faces lined up along the bar. He had a vague feeling someone somewhere was watching him. He shrugged it off, chose elbow room beside an older gent, a barfly down on his luck cadging drinks wherever he could.
« Gimme a whisky, barkeep. »
As the barkeep turned for the bottle, the barfly perked up. « Don't let him water your drink, mister. »
The barfly was right. Langton's first drink was watered down. Usually, he didn't tolerate being cheated by a barkeep. Sometimes, depending on the type of establishment, he'd draw his pistol and whip the bartender with it. He kept the sight on the end of his gun's barrel razor-sharp for times and purposes like this.
Often, just grabbing the barkeep by the shirt-front and showing him the wicked cutting edge up close was enough. But Langton was known to give the occasional demonstration and carry out his threat, if he judged the barkeep – or anybody else – had earned it.
Langton decided to let this one grievous mistake go unpunished. He didn't necessarily want to queer his appointment with the Fat Man. But when the second drink proved to be even weaker than the first, Langton decided he had enough. He would let no man play him for a fool.
« Let's make a deal, barkeep. You give me a fresh bottle of your best whisky, and take your watered-down drink away. »
« What's in it for me, mister? » answered the barkeep with a hint of swagger.
Langton raised his gaze, looked the barkeep square in the eye. Not bad, he thought. The man has a spine after all.
« Maybe I won't grab your scrawny neck and pistol-whip you into a bloody mess. »
Langton held his steely gaze on the barkeep. Slowly, he edged his right hand out of sight below the level of the bar. The barkeep, even more slowly, edged his hand below the bar on his side, and paused. A bead of sweat broke on his upper lip, as he stared into the coal-black orbs of Langton's flinty, chiseled countenance.
After several breaths, he brought his hand back up, nice and easy, and placed the full, unopened bottle of whisky before Langton. A ghost of a smile played across his thin lips.
« On the house, mister. It's gotta be the best, it's all I got. » He turned, and went about his business, freshening up the other patrons' drinks.
There it was again, that tingle, that feeling of being stalked by someone unseen. He kept his left hand around his glass on the bartop, his head bent toward his bottle, and his right hand close, but not too close, to the holstered gun on his hip.
Slowly, he scanned the other patrons along the bar, down one side of where he sat, then up the other way. Some men were stone-faced and immobile, their hands and eyes on their drink. Others were engaged in animated conversation, and still others were plying themselves with liquor in one hand and grasping a woman with the other. No one seemed interested in him.
He checked the mirror on the back wall over the barkeep's head, saw nothing … then he heard the soft swish of a curtain being pulled, coming from behind the bar. He caught a glimpse of what might have been an eye, then it disappeared, as the small space between the bottles on the back wall once more assumed the colour and darkness of its surroundings.
Langton poured a glass of the dark liquid for the barfly, who nodded in gratitude and downed the rotgut with two quick bobs of his adams apple. Satisfied the whisky wouldn't kill him outright, Langton poured himself a glass and topped up the barfly's glass as well.
Langton then turned back to the bar, and beckoned the barkeep over with one crook of his index finger. The barkeep pretended not to notice, until Langton slid a pair of crumpled bills onto the wood of the bar. He sidled over slowly, then turned to Langton with an ingratiating smile on his face as his fingers closed on the cash.
« I'm looking for a Chinaman name of Wang Lien. Some folks call him the Fat Man. I hear he's an important man in Chinatown. »
« Sorry friend, can't help you. We don't allow no fat Chinamen in here. Take my advice, don't ask any more questions about Chinamen. They'd just as soon stick a knife in your back as look at you sideways. »
Langton wanted to press it, but thought better of it. The fewer folks knew what he was up to, and who he was asking questions about, the better. He nodded, and the barkeep went back to the other customers.
« Mister, you looking for the Fat Man? »
Langton turned to the barfly, who had perked up from his alcoholic stupor on his right.
« What can you tell me, old man? »
In response, the barfly pushed his glass closer, watched with greedy eyes as Langton filled it with the vile fluid till it trembled at the very rim. He tipped the glass to his lips, then turned his moist, rheumy gaze to Langton.
« He lives under the whorehouse two streets back behind the jail. »
Langton moved to top up the ruined man's glass again, but then held the bottle in mid-air an inch above it. « Tell me more, friend. »
« Can't tell you much more, mister. Just watch your step … no one gets in to see the Fat Man without an invitation. Sometimes folks go in there and never come out again. »
Langton had heard stories like that before … rooms deep in curtained mazes, hiding opium dens, whorehouses, even whispers of an opulent chamber where men were tied down and tortured to death. Few people really knew what went on in the rabbit warren of hovels behind the main streets of Tombstone.
Langton wasn't a music buff, but the piano player was hitting so many dead keys, he turned to look that way. He was surprised to see a small Chinese man-child pounding away on a rickety stand-up near the back of the bar. A hulking form hurled obscenities at the young player.
« Cummon ya little Chink bastard, play the Yellow Rose of Texas! » The big man leaned over the kid, spilling his drink on the keyboard and on the kid's fingers as the waif played bravely on.
« Are you deaf, ya little monkey!? » he bellowed, and put his hand on the kid's shoulder and shook him.
Langton spoke without thinking. « Back off, Jack, » he mouthed, just loud enough for the red-faced drunk to hear him and peer his way through the smoky haze.
Langton surprised himself with his own actions. ' I should have kept my nose out of it, it's none of my sweet business.' But the drunk's actions had touched a nerve somewhere inside Langton when he grabbed the youth. Langton knew there was no backing down now.
He slid his liquor to his neighbor, stepped away from the bar and confronted the mean drunk. Langton was no slouch … he stood just under six feet, lean and loose-limbed on soft feet. But he was giving away six inches in height and an easy hundred pounds to his opponent.
« You should know better than to mess with Maddog McCabe, » sputtered the drunk. He lifted his meaty hand, waved an index finger in Langton's face. Langton didn't flinch.
« Get your dirty finger out of my face. »
McCabe's face went even redder with rage. Spittle sprayed in Langton's direction as he raised his hand again. Made to jab his finger on Langton's chest.
Langton moved with the deceptive speed of a striking rattlesnake. He wrapped his fist tight around McCabe's finger, bending it back and forcing McCabe towards the floor. McCabe winced, cried out. But he did not fold. His left hand clawed his hip holster, found the grip of his gun, yanked it out and began to bear it on Langton.
But Langton was quicker. His boot flicked out, caught McCabe's wrist before he could level the gun, and sent the gun tumbling into a pile of sawdust under the bar.
Keeping his grip on McCabe's index finger, Langton delivered a short punch with his free hand to McCabe's soft midsection. Then he wrenched the bigger man's arm behind his back, frog-walked him to the batwing doors, marched him out onto the sidewalk, and pitched him headlong into the dust of the midday street.
Langton walked down the boardwalk without glancing back.