Western Wednesdays—DARK VOYAGE OF THE MITTIE STEPHENS

I have to be honest, I chose today’s book solely because of its title. While not nearly the cardinal sin as judging a book by its cover (and I know I’m not the only one who does that), I do feel a little guilty. However, I have to say that the book lived up to its ominous and intriguing title. Dark Voyage of the Mittie Stephens by Johnny D. Boggs pulled me in from the get go just as I’m sure it will you. Enjoy everyone!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Creeping clouds blanketed the bright moon like a shroud, covering the City of the Dead in darkness. The deep blackness came as an answer to Bobby Randow’s prayer as he squeezed between two tombs, one granite, the other marble, and tried to catch his breath, afraid the men trying to kill him would hear his heart pounding. Gripping the butt of the Dance revolver in his right hand, Randow listened, chancing a quick glance skyward, knowing the clouds would soon pass, and the cemetery would be bathed in moonlight.

He’d die here in this century-old, above-ground graveyard, die in the midnight fog, die violently and alone, and no monument would note his passing, no newspaper would publish his obituary. No one would know he was dead, not even his mother, except his killers—and the catfish feeding on his remains after his murderers disemboweled him, filled his insides with stones, and sank his corpse into the Mississippi or Pontchartrain.

Well, it was his own fault. No one else to blame. He had tossed in his ante in a crooked game because of greed, decided to become a criminal instead of a wandering gambler, justified it with claims that the Yankees owed him plenty for four years of suffering, for the deaths of his father and brother. $100,000 in gold had lured him, but some deep-seated honesty, or the quiet Episcopal morality inherited from his father, had broken its spell, and he had tried to back out of this deal. Randow could have left New Orleans, simply slithered out of the city like a serpent, and would have been sitting in the saloon on a stern-wheeler heading upriver now, dealing draw poker, but he had decided to face his comrades, tell them why he wasn’t going through with the plan. Southern pride. Texas stubborn streak. Lunacy. Whatever the reason, it had likely gotten him killed.

He had known that was coming, too. That’s why he had cleaned and loaded the revolver before leaving his hotel, why he had placed six percussion caps on the Dance. Most men, scared of blowing off a toe, kept the nipple underneath a revolver’s hammer naked. The memory caused him to check the pistol by feel, for the night remained black. His thumb rested on the cocked hammer, finger twitching inside the trigger guard. He had fired three rounds, put two bullets in Victor Desiderio’s stomach when the shooting commenced, sent another shot chasing three other killers. Or had he pulled the trigger four times? He bit his bottom lip, tried to concentrate. His memory kept fading. He. . . .

Hushed voices. Moments later, footsteps tapped the stones lining the cemetery’s path near Randow’s sanctuary. Then silence.

Randow lifted the .44 and waited. The clouds cleared, and the moon, just a couple of days past full, soaked the thickening fog and cold, damp houses of the dead. He pressed his body against the granite tomb, and pushed wet bangs off his forehead. Somewhere along the way, he had lost his hat.

“There he is!” A bullet’s whine followed the shout. Randow crouched, pivoted, and answered the shot, firing blindly. Two rounds left.

“There!”

“I saw it.”

Too late he realized his error. They hadn’t seen him, couldn’t have, until he panicked, and they spotted the muzzle flash. It had been a bluff, not even a good one if he had played his hand smart, shown a fip’s worth of patience. Rifles cracked repeatedly, lead chipping the marble tomb, ricocheting off it and the granite over his head, behind him, in front of him, peppering the cramped quarters, and a fear swallowed him that he had not felt since 1862, when he had been caught in the federal enfilade at Corinth. Death had hovered near him that day, and again this night. Instinctively Randow covered his face with his arms, although only the grace of God could protect him now.

He had chosen poorly for a hiding place. The cannonade sounded like the Yankee musketry during his baptism in battle at Elkhorn Tavern, and later during the savagery of Franklin. Those Henry rifles—“Yanks load ’em on Sunday, then shoot all week”—the boys in the 9th Texas Cavalry had often joked—never let up. Bouncing bullets inched closer to him, causing his eardrums to peal, while another shrieking whine almost deafened him. Eventually the gunshots stopped, the echoes faded, but the whine continued until he recognized the sound.

He was screaming.

Randow clamped his mouth shut, amazed to be alive. He reached for his pewter cross, only it wasn’t there. Hadn’t been hanging from his neck for a month, when he had traded it for a cup of soup up in Jefferson, Texas, after his luck had gone south. His fortune tonight held, though. None of the ricochets had struck him; at least he didn’t think he had been hit. The ringing in his ears faded, and he heard the men cursing, yelling.

“I’m empty!”

“Jammed!”

“Don’t let him get away!”

He had to run. For a moment, he prayed the assault would bring a squad of city policemen. After all, this wasn’t Waco or Fort Smith. New Orleans Parish boasted a population encroaching 200,000. Citizens would hear the gunfire and send the law to investigate. That would be his salvation. The thought was forlorn, fleeting. No one would save him, not in this part of town, not in a cemetery. Only voodoo practitioners ventured here after dark. That’s why Jeff Slade had chosen it as a final meeting place to plan the robbery.

Randow sprang to his feet, squeezed the trigger only to groan at a sickening metallic click. Misfire, or he was empty, had miscounted his shots. In either case, the way sounds carried, Slade and his men would have heard and would charge him to finish the job. So he backed out of the tombs to the next pathway, and ran, holding the Dance tightly, dipping between another set of crypts, across another stone path, finally sliding to a stop in front of a tall whitewashed wall, honeycombed with the graves of the poor—“ovens” they were called—unlike the wealthy and landed gentry resting in the fancy sepulchers behind him.

Clouds hid the moon again, and a chilling mist cooled his face. He heard more shouts, footfalls on stone, and finally nothing except a distant horn moaning somewhere along the Levee. He pushed back the shell jacket he still wore, almost four years since he had taken the oath of allegiance, and holstered the .44. Randow mopped his face, ran fingers through tangled hair. Moonlight sifted through the clouds. The fog thickened.

He had to get out of the graveyard. Just follow this towering wall of ovens. No, no good. Slade, no fool, had posted a sentry at each gate, while he and the remaining two cutthroats searched the City of the Dead. Randow thought back, fighting his memory, placing the voices. Three men, including Slade, one of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s butchers, slayer of members of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, unreconstructed Rebel, robber, thief, murderer, Satan’s right hand. What fine company Bobby Randow had been keeping; his mother would be proud. He spat out the sarcasm. Concentrate. Think!

Slade carried a revolver; the two others had repeating rifles, but one had jammed. Had it been repaired? It didn’t matter. Even if the Henry was beyond repair, its owner packed at least one six-shooter, and the third man had undoubtedly reloaded his weapon. Nor could Randow in all likelihood get past Slade’s guards at the gates. Could he hide, wait until dawn? Slade wouldn’t continue his search with the coming of light, when policemen were sure to investigate. He would want to get rid of Victor Desiderio’s body, if the Spanish blackheart were dead, and he most likely was by now, with two bullets in his gut, or soon would be. Slade wouldn’t wait for Desiderio to recover, couldn’t risk leaving the man alive to save his neck by revealing Slade’s plan to authorities. His throat would be slit, and next his stomach cut open, guts yanked out to feed the Swamp’s rats and feral cats, his body weighted down with stones, and sunk into the water.

Or maybe not. If Slade gave up hope of finding and killing Randow in this sprawling maze of marble and granite, he might leave the corpse, bribe some Cajun waif to fetch the law, and the police would comb the cemetery come morning and find Randow. He’d have to answer for Desiderio, explain the bullets in the dead man’s stomach, his empty revolver, tell what had brought him to a cemetery at midnight and forced him to kill a local gambler. In Texas or Arkansas, Randow would have felt pretty good about his chances—the bullets hadn’t been in Desiderio’s back, and the cardsharp, with a reputation that smelled like stagnant water, had been armed—but not here in New Orleans with its Reconstruction government and Yankee rule. With no friends in this city, Randow liked his odds neither with the law nor Slade.

So, he had to escape the City of the Dead.

He looked up at the whitewashed wall, made out grass and weeds sprouting on top, ten, maybe twelve, feet high. Walls of ovens served as fences for New Orleans’s Cities of the Dead. Beyond it lay freedom, a chance at life. He touched the cold stone, the depressions marking the crypts, reached up, fingering the edges, tried to pull himself up only to slip, his boot heels clapping the stone pathway, too loud for comfort. He bit his lip tighter.

Randow needed a ladder. Around All Saints Day, families of these departed souls flocked to cemeteries, decorating tombs, crypts, and mausoleums with chrysanthemums, bunting, memorials, brightening the gloomy fields, and Randow might have held out hope of finding a ladder left behind. This, however, was early February. No ladder, barring a miracle, would be around, and Randow figured he was fresh out of miracles. He had used his up this evening. That’s why he still lived.

Moonlight brightened, and he made out the massive tomb across the pathway. He crept urgently toward it, reached up, jumped, and gripped the cold cross, pulled himself on top, and stood, tentatively, using his shaking arms to maintain his balance, boots slipping on wet marble.

He laughed dryly, inaudibly. Randow had gambled a lot in his life—cards and horses had provided his occupation the past four years—taken some wild bets, but this seemed pure folly: run ten feet across the arched top of a tomb slick with rain and scum, leap across a path three feet wide, and grab hold of the top of the wall of graves, pull himself up, and survive.

Well, baby brother Zack had always told him he had legs like a frog, could jump higher, swim farther, and run faster than anyone in Grayson County. During the war, even Colonel William B. Sims had proclaimed, before half the regiment, that Captain Randow’s legs could be used as springals if the 9th ran out of powder and shot. Yet this was crazy. He’d break his leg, or his neck, and save Slade the trouble of killing him. He was about to climb off the precarious perch, to find some other way out. . . .

No shout warned him this time, only a crack to his right and buzzing past his ear. He almost lost his balance and crashed to the ground. Another bullet followed, and he knew they saw him. He righted himself, and ran, springing forward at the last instant, hurdling through empty space as the moonlight vanished and heaven’s floodgates opened, unleashing wind and rain. He crashed against the leviathan graves, a sharp pain tearing through his ribs, fingers clawing frantically, digging into the sod, feet searching for a foothold, hearing curses—his own and Slade’s men’s. The toes of his boots found a secure spot, but it wasn’t enough. He started slipping, sliding, hands groping blindly. A bullet spanged off the wall near his holster. Randow yelled, reached desperately in the darkness, and his right hand grasped something hard, cold, but solid. A piece of metal, biting into his palm. His left hand followed, gripped the narrow pole, and he pulled himself up, swinging his legs up behind him as a bullet tore through his jacket and another whistled past his ear. But he was up, atop the wall, almost burying himself in the sod-covered roof.

“He’s up there!”

Slade swore vilely, and snapped another shot, fired more in anger, desperation, than at a target. The rain fell harder, and Randow rolled over, away from the gunmen, away from the wrought-iron cross someone had pounded into the crypts, a cross that had saved his life. He looked down the far edge of the towering wall, took a deep breath, and jumped, landing on wet grass, sliding, slipping, rolling, tumbling onto a cobblestone street. He pulled himself up and ran, darting down an alley, wind and rain pounding his face, numbing him, running, until a new fear, strange but palpable, stronger, stung him. His eyes widened as frightful questions shot through his brain.

What am I doing?
What day is it?
Where am I going?
Why am I running?

Bobby Randow had no answers.

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2 Responses to Western Wednesdays—DARK VOYAGE OF THE MITTIE STEPHENS

  1. Craig Clarke says:

    Boggs is one of the best, and continually surprising.

  2. Nancy O says:

    Nice. I always love the set up. The need to feel the mood, almost smell the danger.

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