Langton (9K)Chapter Two: Bottle Bluff

Langton fought for his bearings in the cold murk between the ship and the dock, and struck for the surface in panic. His lungs were hot and hurt like hell. His legs were somewhere below him, but they would not respond as he wished.

The heavy iron guns pulled him down. Langton quickly released his holster belt, and the coal-black Colts slid from his hips and began their slide to the deeper darkness below. There was little time left now, his lungs yearned to expel their burning burden.

With one last desperate kick from his icy legs, his head broke the surface, and he pushed the waste air out of his hot lungs. His hands found a slimy, cold pillar in the gloom, and he wrapped his body around it. He inhaled several lungfulls of the stale air, and looked to see where he was.

Thin strips of faint sunlight shone through the slats of the boardwalk five feet above his head. The dark bulk of the ship loomed ten feet to his right in the dock. Footsteps pounded, and voices rose in anger. Dineen's, and those of his flunkies.

camdineen (7K)

"If the bastard shows his head, shoot him straight away! Do you understand? I'm not letting him get away again this time!"

It was time to move. Langton felt for the belt strapped around his waist, satisfied that his cash was safe around his midriff and not still in the bag he had thrown at Dineen. He began moving from pillar to pillar, stopping only to push flotsam out of his path as he moved away down the dockside from the ship's berth. The air was loathsome, and Langton did not let his eyes linger on the dark indeterminate shapes floating in the cold water.

He was not as far from the ship as he would prefer when he emerged from under the dock, but the cold water was beginning to numb his arms and legs. He would have to take his chances and resurface here. It might be all right if he could get topside before they spotted him. He wouldn't have much chance, unarmed and exposed, crawling onto the dock.

Luck was with him this time. A low crate screened his lanky frame from sight as he slithered onto the rough-hewn planking of the dock. Shivering and slimy, his energy at a low ebb, Langton lay still for several heartbeats, drawing air deeply into his lungs and willing his racing heart to slow down. Footsteps sounded near. Langton raised his head over the crate edge to scan the dock.

He caught a quick glimpse of an armed man approaching, pistol drawn and eyes shifting, obviously hunting elusive quarry. Langton quickly ducked down before the hunter's gaze came back in his direction, and pushed his way on his wet elbows to the edge of the crate. His right hand shot out to grab an ankle, and holding fast, Langton came up on one knee, then the other, throwing the surprised detective sprawling onto the rough flooring of the dock. The detective's gun fired aimlessly, then went spinning and tumbling away back toward the ship's berth.

He was spotted almost immediately. Dineen turned, leveled his gun. There was no time for Langton to retrieve the pistol only a few feet away. The man he had upset was struggling to his feet, and Dineen and his other assistant were pushing through the milling crowd, unable to fire yet coming closer. "Manning, get up! Nail the bastard!"

Langton turned and snapped his boot into Manning's groin, and Manning went down again with a yelp. Langton headed for the dock exit, moving for the street, where he would have a chance to elude his pursuers. A bullet spun past his ear, the crash of a gun exploded. He shifted course slightly to veer near a group of dock workers moving crates, hoping Dineen would have to hold his fire for fear of striking innocent bystanders.

The cold water was telling on Langton, slowing him down. The effort of running in wet clothes didn't help either. The footsteps of pursuit pounded nearer. They were gaining. He wished he had a gun.

Langton ran up the end of the docks, sprinted up a street. He was wheezing, the blood rushing, pounding in his temples. With one last spurt, he turned again, jostling passersby, darted around the corner, into the busy street.

Seconds later, Dineen and his two heavies bolted around the turn, expecting to frame Langton in their gun sights. He was not to be seen. Dineen froze -- swore -- planned his move. Langton must have ducked into one of the dives -- which one?

"Foxx, you check the bars on that side of the street. Manning, stay outside, keep your eyes open."

Three doors down, Langton watched them through the grimy window of a darkened bar. He positioned Manning in the street, saw Dineen and Foxx begin their shakedown. He figured he had two minutes to set his trap.

He stared into the barroom, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness of the gloomy sinkhole. He strode to the bar, ordered a bottle of whisky. The barkeep didn't want to serve him, was reaching under the counter for the bung-starter, relaxed as Langton slid him a healthy bill.

The barkeep took a look at Langton's wet buckskin jacket. "Funny about that, I didn't know it was raining out."

"Well, you know how quick these Frisco thundershowers can come up," quipped Langton. He kept his voice light, grinned smoothly as he took the bottle from the counter, and walked over to the dark corner by the door. He could feel the barkeep's gaze on his back.

He sat down, and looked toward the bar. The barkeep shifted his glance, and went back to work polishing the bar. As he turned away, Langton poured the rotgut onto the sawdust floor, and stood up silently to stand beside the door with the empty bottle in his right hand.

The door swung slowly inward from the bright sunlight of the street to the bar's sunken darkness. Cameron Dineen stepped in, stood momentarily helpless as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, and shifted to his left. A sharp jab stung his side, and a voice he knew all too well stung his ears.

"Hello, Cam," whispered Langton. "How'd you know I was coming?"

Dineen played for time, glanced through the window for his lookout man. Did Langton have a gun? What was he packing?

Langton poked the mouth of the bottle into Dineen's spine, jerked it back. "Ease your iron onto the table, Cam. No foolish moves."

Dineen weighed the risk, then laid his Colt on the notched table top. "Filth like you always attracts flies, Langton. You offered our man in Portland good money, but he can't live without his daily pipe of opium." He paused for effect. "You're too late for Hartley's diamonds anyway, Langton!"

Langton stiffened. Diamonds? Maybe there was a shipment coming up after all!

Dineen sensed Langton's lapse of concentration, made his move. Confident Langton had no gun, he spun like a top on his toes, inside Langton's reach. Langton stood open, rocking on his heels, at Dineen's mercy. And Dineen made his mistake.

He couldn't miss Langton with a fist straight to the gut. But his right fist shot up for the decisive blow to Langton's chin --and missed. Langton, thrown off balance by Dineen's quick spin, lurched to his right, found his footing, and rammed the bottle neck-first to Dineen's midsection. Dineen folded like a leaf.

It was time to run. The bartender was starting around the corner of the bar, a thick billy-club clenched in his meaty fist. Langton snatched up Dineen's gun from the tabletop and drove for the doorway. He found it full, as Dineen's lookout man suddenly loomed, gun cocked at his hips.

In his long years as a gunman, Langton had learned many tricks, many tactics, to protect his life, often at the expense of the lives of his enemies. He used one now.

Langton spun into the doorway, hunched low, under the long barrel of the Wells Fargo man's Colt .45. His right hand shot out, ramming Dineen's gun into Manning's already sore groin, bowling him over as his knees went slack. The agent's gun fired, narrowly missing Langton, as the man clenched his fist in agony. The bartender drew back, startled by the gunfire. Langton stepped outside, gun held low under his arm, as police whistles shrilled in the street.

He stuffed the gun into his pants, slowly moved into the crowd milling at the corner. He slipped away, losing himself in the confusion he had started, and headed for Nob Hill.

Chapter Three --- Sanctuary at Nob Hill