Dave P. Fisher                        
Author & Western Humorist

Double Diamond Books                      
  
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Monthly Feature
      A Pack of Scoundrels
                            
the sequel to Buck the Tiger

In this scene Bella Priest is preparing to leave New Orleans on a riverboat to relocate to copper-rich Butte, Montana. Accompanied by her accomplices, her goal is to create her own criminal empire in Butte.
 
                               
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Thatcher and Bella sat at the long, polished dining table as a servant laid out dishes of breakfast fare. Savannah Benson walked into the room dressed to fit her wealthy station in life in a lavender dress with a cameo brooch holding the lace collar snug against her throat. Her white hair was spun into a bun at the back of her head with a carved ivory pin holding it in place. She held her chin high and her wrinkled face showed the pride of an aristocratic heritage. She was from an old southern family and made no attempt to hide her contempt for any she considered disreputable.

“Good morning, Auntie,” Bella said in a pleasant voice from across the large table.

Mrs. Benson looked at her and gave a harrumph of disapproval. She jerked her stately head toward Thatcher, “Why is that scalawag at my table?”

“He is a friend, Auntie.”

The old woman placed a cut of ham on her plate, then glanced upward at Bella, “It is a poor woman who chooses a parasite scalawag for a friend, let alone a suitor. Then again, you two are well past the suitor stage and carrying on indecently, so it matters little as you have chosen the base element.”

“Why, Auntie!” Bella exclaimed feigning shock.

“Oh, please, your false modesty will give me indigestion. I am an old woman who has known more of life than you think. Feed the reprobate and then I want him out.”

Thatcher looked at the old woman, “I am sorry you find me so disagreeable, Mrs. Benson.”

As Mrs. Benson sliced her ham she remarked, “You are sorry indeed, sir. A traitor to his homeland. A man who made money on the bones of the defeated. I know all about you Mr. Thatcher. At least carpetbaggers came from the north and pillaged, that is to be expected from jackanapes Yankees, but a son of the South doing so is reprehensible and unforgivable. I would not be surprised if you robbed the pockets of fallen Confederate heroes as well. Yes, I find you disagreeable.”

At that moment there came the sound of arguing and then the stomping of feet down the hallway. Two men in ill-fitting suits barged into the dining room. Ruben hurried in behind them obviously flustered, “I am sorry, Mrs. Benson, but they forced their way past me.”

Mrs. Benson glared at the two men, “It is not your fault Rueben, you may leave them.”

Rueben nodded his head, turned, and left the dining room.

“Well, if this is not the morning for a reprobate reunion,” Mrs. Benson said with thick contempt. “Jessie Joe and Bobby Jack Kersey. The trash has come out of the bayou. What are you doing here?”

Jessie, the elder brother, grinned, “Why Aunt Savannah, such a way to greet your nephews.”

“You are trash. Why are you here?”

“For breakfast, and because Cousin Bella invited us.”

The old woman cast a sardonic eye on Bella, “Did you drag the swamps for reprobates, my dear? We have a scalawag and two pieces of bayou trash at breakfast. Will you be bringing General Sherman in next? Go troll the lanes for Gypsies while you are at it, and bring them in as well.”

“Please, Auntie don’t be angry.”

Mrs. Benson cringed, “You young people and your sloth-like speech. Contracted words are a sacrilege to the civilized tongue. Say the full words, Bella. ‘Do not be angry’, ‘don’t’ is not a word.”

Bella smiled though her eyes reflected irritation, “Do not be angry, Auntie.”

“Better. I am still angry, however. Why are these reprobates in my home?”

“I was going to tell you this morning, Auntie. I am moving out today.”

Mrs. Benson looked directly at Bella, “Moving where?”

“To St. Louis.”

“What on earth are you going to do in St. Louis?”

“Mr. Thatcher is opening a bank and has asked me to be his assistant. It is a splendid opportunity for me.”

Mrs. Benson stared at Bella for a moment then huffed, “The only business that scalawag would open is a house of ill repute. Are you to be his madam?”

Bella flared her eyes wide and gasped, “Why Auntie! You shock and embarrass me. Such a thing to say!”

“Deny it then.”

“I do deny it!”

“Ah,” the old woman waved her hand at Bella, “I do not believe you. Go. Off with you to serve the devil, you certainly have the company for it.”

Bella stood up stiffly, feigning indignation. “Very well, then, I shall leave immediately.”

Bobby looked at the table with its breakfast fare on platters, “Does this mean we ain’t getting breakfast?”

His brother punched him in the shoulder, “Shut up. We’re here to help Bella move.”

Bella walked briskly out of the dining room with Thatcher and the Kersey brothers following her. Once out of the old woman’s hearing Bella turned to the brothers, “You get the crates on the boat?”

Jessie nodded, “Yeah, there’s ten of ‘em, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then they’re on board.”

“We’re meeting the Armisteads on board,” Bella said. “Grab up my trunks and take them to the boat. Hollis and I will meet you on board and we’ll all go over the plans.”

Jessie and Bobby followed Bella to her room and each picked up a trunk. Jessie grunted as he lifted the trunk, “What’d you put in here, gold bars?”

“My things. Now, go!”

As the brothers staggered down the stairs carrying the trunks Bella looked at Thatcher, “Did you hear back on how the job in Silver Bow went? Did they get the documents?”

Thatcher shook his head, “Haven’t heard yet. Rainier was supposed to send me a wire this morning. I intend to check the telegraph office on our way to the boat.”

Together they left the house and flagged down a carriage. “I need to pick up my things at my house first,” Thatcher said.

Thatcher assisted Bella into the carriage then climbed in beside her. He called to the driver, “Take me to Chestnut and Felicity Streets.”

The carriage started off.

Reaching his house Thatcher called to the driver, “Stop here, and wait, I will only be a minute.” Thatcher hurried toward the house.

A few minutes passed before Thatcher emerged carrying a small trunk. Placing the trunk in the boot of the carriage he climbed in beside Bella and instructed the driver to drive to the telegraph office on the corner.

Stopping at the corner, Thatcher left the carriage and hurried into the telegraph office. A moment later he hurried back out with an angry scowl. “To the docks, driver. The Water Queen.

Bella looked at the crumpled paper in Thatcher’s fist, “Well?”

“They balled it up,” he snarled through clenched teeth.

“Our men didn’t get the documents?”

“They got themselves killed trying.”

Bella cursed, then looked at Thatcher, “Rainier was supposed to hire men who could do the job.”

Thatcher replied sharply, “So, I thought as well. I wired him enough money to buy professionals.”

“What went wrong?”

Thatcher handed Bella the crumpled message. “That’s all I know.”

She smoothed the paper out and read, There were two couriers. Our men were killed. They did not get the papers. Rainier.

“There was only supposed to be one courier!” Bella snapped.

“That’s what Rainier told me. Obviously his information was wrong.”

“He isn’t any use to us if he can’t get his information right.”

Thatcher knew Rainier was working for Bertram, and possibly someone who controlled Bertram, but he wasn’t sure about that. Rainer was working both sides of the fence and got something crossed up.

Bella sat fuming, she wanted those Anaconda documents. She knew Gordon Fox wanted to have full control of the copper future, and the Anaconda prospect was the prize jewel. She had no idea if he knew about the banker’s documents or not, but if she had them she could grab control for herself.

Hollis had no knowledge of Gordon Fox, nor did he need to. She was working with, and against, Fox and Hollis both. She was operating her own scheme that would eventually do away with both men, leaving her the sole boss and controller of the evolving Silver Bow crime syndicate.

Whoever controlled the Anaconda mines controlled everything. If she had it there would be no need for Gordon Fox or Hollis; however, she wasn’t going to reveal to Hollis her true purpose for obtaining the controlling shares of the Anaconda prospect that Fox had so willingly let her in on thinking he had recruited her as a partner.

To keep Thatcher thinking they were working together she remarked, “Those shares are worth a fortune. We could have done a lot with that money.”

“Tell me something I don’t know. They’re gone now though. That banker has them tucked safely away in his safe.”

Bella sat silent as she thought through the situation. If Fox had a plan for stealing the documents for himself he didn’t get them either, which meant he wasn’t any farther ahead than she was. She could still engage her original plan of getting in tight with Fox and exploiting him from within. “Then, we forget about those,” Bella declared. “There’s a lot of fish in that sea, and by the time we’re done we’ll be millionaires ten times over.”

“Yes, we can get more, and we will. It just makes me mad. Incompetent fools.”

“We’ll be there in a few weeks, calm down. Do the Armisteads have any idea about our true purpose?”

Thatcher shook his head, “No, they believe we’re running the House, and that’s it.”

Bella smiled lightly, “Good. I want it kept that way.”

“We’ll keep them too busy to look under the circus tent.”

“I’ll have Felix twisted around my finger soon enough, and then he’ll be too impassioned with me to see beyond his own nose. He’ll make sure no one peeks, as you put it, under the tent. Maximus, on the other hand, won’t twist.”

“He doesn’t need to be twisted. He’s too dull witted to catch on to anything. How much do your cousins know?”

“Only that they are to work for Maximus as guards and take care of delinquent debtors.”

“So, the players are in place to make the House a believable business.”

“Yes. The perfect cover.”

Thatcher looked at Bella, “You never did tell me how you found out about the Anaconda field, and the Silver Bow crime organization.”

Bella grinned coyly, “I was introduced to a very interesting man at a party. We shared some intimate conversation, then he got to talking about the mines, and other matters. He said that he and few others were organizing a company to take advantage of the mining boom in Silver Bow. It is amazing how men open up their deepest secrets to me.”

Thatcher frowned, “Yes, isn’t it.”

Bella gave Thatcher an amused smile, “You should know how I twist men around my finger to obtain information, Hollis. They melt like candles in my hands.”

“Yes, I am quite aware of how.”

 Bella read the jealousy in Thatcher’s eyes and tone. It was a key she could use to destroy him when the time was right. She continued in a gentle voice, “I shared that information with you, and you got the ball rolling out there. You did a splendid job of it, Hollis, my dear.”

Holding the frown Thatcher glanced at Bella, “Except those incompetent fools lost what those Anaconda shares would have brought us, plus the money I paid Rainier for them.”

“It’s not your fault, Hollis. There’s just too many miles between them and us to make it work.” She reached out and placed a warm hand on Hollis’ thigh, “I need you, Hollis. You have the kind of brilliant mind I need to make all of this work.” Her face changed to a sad-eyed look, “Please don’t be unhappy, Hollis. I love only you.”

Thatcher looked at the hand on his thigh, then turned his eyes up to Bella and smiled, “I love you too, Bella.”

Bella lifted her hand and sat back against the seat and laughed lightly, “See how easy it is, Hollis? Men melt in my hands.”

The smile fell from Thatcher’s face, “Does that include me?”

“Especially you.”

Thatcher stared at Bella as she looked out the side of the carriage quite pleased with herself. She had meant her words regarding him as a jest, but they made him suddenly realize how used he had been.

Thatcher’s eyes narrowed in anger. He hissed, “Yes, especially me. You have used me as much as all the other men.”

Bella’s conceit tended to overrule her better judgment at times, particularly when she was feeling pretentious. She turned her head and looked at Thatcher with a prideful smile, “And, if I have?”

 As a stab back at her he said, “There was once a man who did not melt in your hands, or fall for your siren song, wasn’t there?”

Bella’s victorious smile slowly faded as she thought back to the only man who had ever seen through her game, and so quickly called her bluff. Virgil Creede. The same man who killed her husband, the one man she had truly loved. She gave Thatcher a cold look, “What do you know about that?”

“I know you and Axel were hired to kill Virgil Creede and, well, we both know how that ended. Obviously, he didn’t melt in your hands. So you are not voluptuous to all men.”

Bella’s eyes blazed with fury, “How dare you speak like that to me.”

“An ego check, my dear. To remind you that even you are not invincible.”

Bella clamped her mouth tight and turned her head to watch out toward the river.

Thatcher sat back feeling compensated for Bella’s treating him with disregard and contempt, and making him seem small and simple to manipulate.

Bella sat silently brooding, refusing to speak further to Thatcher as they moved along. Arriving at the dock, the Water Queen had her gangway down and passengers were boarding. Crates were stacked on the main deck. A stairway led up to the passenger cabins, above the cabins was another stairway to the top deck that held the pilot house, gambling salon, and dining room.

Thatcher stepped down from the carriage and offered a hand to Bella who rebuffed his offered assistance. She gathered her skirts and climbed down on her own.

“Huffy, aren’t we?” Thatcher remarked. “You don’t like it when you get a little of your own back, do you?” He leaned toward her, “No man likes to be made to look the fool, especially me.”

Bella shot Thatcher an incensed look, “Do not forget who is in charge here!” she snarled. “I brought you in, not the other way around.”

Thatcher looked back at her coolly, the truth was out as he had suspected. He was merely another of Bella’s pawns. “I am certain you will remind me of it regularly.”

Bella spun on her heels and marched toward the gangway. She cursed herself for having treated Hollis with disregard, and then let her temper control her mouth. She always wore her feelings too close to the surface, and at times paid the price for a loose word. He had touched a raw nerve and she reacted. She needed Hollis for her plans to succeed, but there was no going back now. Thatcher was a fool if he thought she loved him, but now he knew she was using him like all the other men, and Hollis Thatcher was not that much of a fool.

Thatcher paid the driver, then took his trunk from the boot and walked toward the boat. He was glad that they had booked separate cabins as he considered what Felix had said about Bella cutting their throats in the night.

He had been manipulated right along with the other men who fell for Bella Priest’s siren song. He had gone to Montana, set up the operation, and robbed the jewel courier for the money, all the while Bella sat back laughing. This was a partnership, and she had just made it very clear that it was nothing more, and he was playing second fiddle. Well, that could change.

 


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