Joaquin Murrieta wrapped his reins three times around the hitching rail in front of the Cosmopolitan Hotel. He patted his horse's dusty neck and then stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the hotel. Three men approached from his right. The man in the middle, the tallest, snarled, "Get out of the way, old man!"
* * *
Joaquin turned and looked at the men. They were dressed in jeans and patterned shirts. They wore wide-brimmed hats and pistols hung in holsters at their sides. They were young.
Joaquin's eyes glittered for a moment. There was a time when he would have taken blood for such disrespect. Not now.
He stepped aside and said, "Your pardon, sirs."
The men swept by without another word. Joaquin watched their backs recede. An ancient man, white-bearded and hatless, stepped away from the hotel's door. He said, "Sorry about that, mister. Most folks in our town don't act like that. Come on in and make yourself at home."
Joaquin turned to the man. "I thank you. I have traveled far and need rest."
"Well," the old man grinned, "The Cosmopolitan is the best hotel in Tombstone and for fifty miles around. I'm Bill McKean, the stable hand. I'll take your horse if you like."
I would appreciate that very much, Mr. McKean. Those young men, they live here too?
The old man shrugged. "On ranches near. The Bernard Cattle Company took over several local spreads and brought these fellows in. The tall mean one calls himself Kid Vineta. He's the ringleader. They think they can do what they please. They won't think so when Big Kitty gets back to town, I can tell you."
McKean grinned. "She runs the saloon next door. If they act up in there when she's around, it'll be the last thing they do."
"This Big Kitty is a strong woman?"
McKean spit in the dust next to the hitching post. "Why, mister, they say a bear broke into Kitty's cabin up to Volcano in the California gold country several years back, got her out of bed after midnight, tried to eat her."
"She was seriously injured?"
"Hell, she was killed. Kitty stuck a Bowie knife in that sow. Served up bear stew to the whole town for the next week."
"She is a formidable woman."
"That ain't the half of it, mister." He gestured down the block with a grimy thumb. "See that saloon down there?"
Joaquin looked through dust-laden heat. "I see tents and lean-tos attached to a large shack."
"That's it. Belongs to Big Nosed Kate."
Joaquin thought for a moment. "She is associated with Doc Holliday?"
McKean nodded. "That's her. She and Kitty don't get along."
"They are enemies?"
"Let's just say that they agree to disagree. Lordy, if they ever tangle I foresee fatal consequences for one or both of them. They do agree on one thing."
Joaquin looked at McKean. "And that is?"
McKean spat brown juice in the dirt beneath the horse. "That those pups who rousted you got to learn to behave."
"More coffee, Mister?"
* * *
"Please, it is very good." Joaquin pushed his cup to the table's edge. Mrs. Colby—proprietor, cook, dishwasher and waitress of the Nugget Café—tilted the heavy pot she carried and poured. Mrs. Colby's brown hair was shot with gray and she was sturdy, though trim. She wore a calico print dress, somewhat faded, and a plain apron, somewhat stained.
Joaquin said, "Thank you." Mrs. Colby smiled and turned to leave. Joaquin continued, "May I ask you a question?"
Mrs. Colby glanced at the other three diners seated at a large table near the window, decided they could wait a few moments for more coffee and nodded to Joaquin. "Sure."
Joaquin smiled. "Several people in town have mentioned a certain woman in passing, a Big Kitty. Can you tell me something about her?"
Mrs. Colby frowned. "Mister, I ain't no gossip!"
Joaquin leaned forward. "Of course not. I want no gossip, just enough information about her so that I will make no blunders. I wouldn't wish to offend Miss Kitty by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person."
"Well, when you put it that way . . . "
Joaquin patted her hand. "It is that way. You are a responsible person of business and know how careful one must be."
Joaquin sipped from a glass of what passed for brandy in Big Kitty's saloon. The slightly amber liquid, though possibly derived from grapes, was also likely used to start fires and dissolve paint. He swallowed with stoic determination. His stomach needed as much help as it could get digesting Mrs. Colby's pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy.
A young cowboy stood a dozen feet to Joaquin's right. His clothing and gear were worn. He looked weary from many hours spent in a saddle. A half full mug of beer stood on the bar before him.
Kid Vineta and four of his gangsters pushed through the bar's swinging doors. Curses and general abuse trailed after them like yipping dogs. They pushed up to the bar and demanded service. The bartender produced bottles and glasses.
Vineta noticed the young cowboy. His eyes glittered. He turned to the young man. "Say, what kind of pistol is that, mister?
The cowboy glanced down at the holster on his right hip. He shrugged. "It's an old Colt. It's broke, though. I think it's got a busted spring. I don't have call to use it much, but I guess I should get it fixed."
Vineta spoke carefully. "Mind if I look at it?"
The cowboy said, "Sure."
The Kid straightened and his muscles tensed, ready to draw and kill as soon as the cowboy touched his gun. Joaquin moved before the cowboy could reach for his broken pistol. His arm uncoiled like a striking snake and flung the rest of the brandy into Vineta's eyes. Vineta screamed and clutched his face.
Vineta groveled on the barroom floor and cried, "I'm blind! God help me, I'm blind!"
The tough behind Vineta pulled a Bowie knife and advanced on Joaquin. Violence again. Joaquin hesitated. He hesitated though he knew the young toughs would think him afraid. Fear encourages such men, excites them, makes them feel justified in whatever they do. He thought of the blood his knife had drunk, of the hearts pounded open by his blunt bullets. Such acts appalled him now. If God could have mercy on men such as these, then so could he. He would not kill again if he could help it.
Joaquin met the man's eyes but without defiance. "Wash your friend's eyes with warm water. He will recover. I meant only to prevent bloodshed."
The man laughed. "Well, old fool, you're too late to do that. Blood will be spilled here. Yours first." He raised his knife, took another step forward. Joaquin spread his hands wide. The man grinned and prepared to lunge.
An iron frying pan impacted against the knife-wielder's left temple with a clock-tower gong. He fell to the floor like a sack of rice. His Bowie knife landed on the bar and spun slowly.
A glowering woman, well over six feet tall, stood in the kitchen door. She transferred a second frying pan from her left hand to her right. She asked, "Who's next?"
One of the other gangsters reached for his pistol and drew. Joaquin drew first. The crash of his heavy .44 froze everyone in the bar. Its cloud of smoke washed over and around the gangsters. The man who had tried to draw looked at the round hole in his hand in stunned wonder.
The big woman charged into the room screaming obscenities. Her frying pan rose high. Two swift, loud clangs sounded. Both remaining gangsters slumped to the floor.
Joaquin lowered his pistol. The young cowboy, leaving his unfinished beer on the bar, turned and walked through the bar's doors. He didn't look back.
The woman dropped her frying pan on the unconscious Kid. She walked over to Joaquin. "Thanks for getting that fellow with the gun, Mister. I wasn't sure I could get to him."
Joaquin looked up at the woman towering above him. She had a wide, pleasant face, slightly freckled. Her nose was sunburned. Her sun-bleached light brown hair was pulled back and tied with a yellow ribbon, though some had escaped restraint. She wore slacks and a man's shirt with the top three buttons undone. Her impressive bosom heaved impressively.
Joaquin smiled. "You needed little help."
The woman shook her head. "That fellow might have got me." She glanced at the gangster now dribbling blood on the barroom floor. "You should have killed him!"
Joaquin shrugged. "It was not necessary. " He smiled. "I am pleased to meet you. I have heard much about you, Big Kitty."
"What did you call me?"
"I meant no offense. Others call you 'Big Kitty'. I assumed that you permitted it. I apologize if that is not so."
"I'm not offended, stranger, just surprised. You see, my name is Priscilla Barnes. I'm not Big Kitty." She looked at the unconscious cowboys sprawled around the bar. "These fellows would have been in real trouble if Big Kitty walked in here tonight."
Joaquin glanced at the bruised, bleeding men.
Priscilla continued, "Big Kitty believes in solving problems permanent, if you know what I mean."
Joaquin nodded, "I understand."
Priscilla continued, "Besides, compared to Kitty, I'm just a little bit of a thing."
Joaquin tilted his head and looked up into blue eyes sparkling with a merry light. He smiled. "As you say, Miss Barnes." He holstered his pistol.
She patted his hand. "Thanks for helping me out, mister. None of these other weasels here even lifted a hand."
Joaquin inclined his head in a polite bow. "It was my pleasure. Now, if you'll excuse me, I wish you good night." He turned and walked toward the door.
Priscilla called after him, "Good night, stranger! And say . . . "
Joaquin paused and looked back over his shoulder.
"If you don't mind my saying so, you're pretty spry for an old fellow. You should stick around for few days."
Joaquin's eyebrow arched a question.
Priscilla winked. "Kitty and me could show you a good time when she gets here. Maybe you and McKean."
"They don't call him T-bone for nothing."
Joaquin inclined his head in a polite bow and holstered his pistol. "Good night, Miss Barnes."