Langton (9K)Desperate Dip

The tramp steamer cleared the final breakwater at the mouth of the harbour as it laboured into San Francisco Bay. Langton hung back from the other passengers huddling the rail straining for the first glimpse of their destination. Almost all his fellow passengers were shoddily dressed and reeked of poverty, more than likely would-be gold miners who'd found only hunger and cold in the snow-choked passes of the Klondike.

steamer (6K)

Langton certainly didn't look or feel much better. He'd been forced to hop the steamer out of Portland with only a few spare belongings in a saddlebag and cash in a money belt when Dineen and his Wells Fargo bloodhounds were closing their trap on him. He had bribed the wrong person in the company for information on upcoming shipments, and they had come very close to pinning him down in his hotel.

Langton wasn't surprised at the stoolie's treachery; after all, if Wells Fargo couldn't trust him, why should he? He had pried from his informant a few details on a diamond delivery by train to Frisco, but for all he knew now, it could be another trap set for him by Dineen, security chief for the company and Langton's sworn enemy.

The only uncertainty nagging Langton now was what would be waiting for him at the dock. He wasn't sure if he had covered his tracks in his rush from Dineen and his hired guns. Perhaps they had picked up his trail and traced him to this boat. If so, there was sure to be a welcoming party dockside, with cold steel and hot lead to greet him, not warm handshakes.

The landing dock loomed larger on the starboard bow. Langton avoided giving into the temptation to push through the bodies to examine the waiting crowd dockside; he wanted to be sure to spot any welcoming party before they saw him.

He peered over the shoulder of one of the hard-luck miners and scanned the milling figures for familiar faces. So far so good ... he didn't see anyone packing a gun, or any heavies standing together in small groups.

The weatherbeaten steamer slowly lumbered into position parallel to the docks. Two sailors stepped forward from the captain's cabin, and began to untie the ropes holding the gangway against the outer wall of the ship's stack. The boat eased into its berth.

Langton looked down between the hull and the planking of the dock. Froth bubbled up from the beating of the ship's propellors, and the hull thudded rythmically against the wooden pilings, slipping out from the dock a few feet to expose a thin strip of dirty brown water before swinging back to slam the dock again. Langton ran his right hand over the heavy Colt .45's strapped against his thighs, hidden from sight by the long, frayed buckskin jacket he had won in a poker game two nights before from a panned-out prospector.

The gangway slid into place to connect the rocking boat with dry land, and the first passengers began to slowly test their way down. Langton took one last look through the crowd gathering dockside to greet the members of the landing party, and satisfied he was not expected, milled in with the press of bodies making their way to the gangway.

As he placed his deerskin boot on the first step of the ramp, his right hand froze on the railing. A familiar figure stepped out from behind a pile of lumber stacked on the edge of the dock, and leered an unhealthy smile as he saw Langton at the head of the gangway.

Dineen ... the man who had dogged his steps, stalked him relentlessly ever since Langton had first relieved Wells Fargo of some of its surplus cash ... rested his hand on the butt of his gun in its hip holster, and motioned for two other heavyset men to approach. Together they took up positions at the end of the ramp, supremely confident their quarry was boxed in.

"Come on, fella, what's the holdup? Move on or get out of the way!" Angry voices rose sharply behind Langton, and impatient, jostling hands began to push on his back and shoulders. Below him, Dineen advanced one, two slow steps up the gangway, and brought the dark borehole of his revolver to bear on Langton's middle.

With his left hand, Langton brought up his saddlebag and threw it heavily at Dineen, spoiling Dineen's aim and throwing him momentarily off balance. Langton brought his whole weight to pivot on his right wrist, swung his legs over the side of the gangway, and pitched down into the green-brown surf pounding against the dock's pilings, disappearing from sight.

Dineen swore, dashed up to the middle of the gangway, and brought his gun around over the edge to point to the water below. The boat shifted in its rhythm, and swung over to slam against the structure with a shuddering blow. Moments later, as the ship once more surged out from the dock, there was not a shadow of a target to shoot at.

Chapter Two --- Bottle Bluff