Authors: Andrea Parnell
When her breath returned, she found herself inside the opening of the mine. She could see no one but could feel the press of bodies crowded in beside her, smell the acrid scent of fear in the small enclosure. Her own fear churned wildly in her stomach and threatened to erupt. All around, Chinese voices murmured words she could not understand. From outside, as the sound of the stampede died away, came her father’s moans.
Ching, the one who held her, whispered a Chinese prayer. She had heard him say it before, but never with such intensity as now. Hearing the strange chanted words restored life to her numb limbs. Her father wasn’t dead. She heard him calling.
“Let me loose, Ching,” she cried as she twisted and pulled to wrench herself free. “Papa...”
“No, child. You cannot go.”
“I will!” Lilah screamed, clawing and kicking at Ching. “I will! Papa needs me!” She gave a push, one of great strength for a small girl. As Ching stumbled and fell back over a barrel, Lilah flung herself away and dashed out.
Clement still lay in the dirt, his legs bloodied and twisted, his face battered and bleeding. Sobbing, Lilah knelt beside her father and with the hem of her torn nightgown wiped the blood and dust from his face. No longer knowing fear or terror for herself, she only glanced up as she heard again the sound of running horses.
“Lilah, go back,” her father whispered, seeing the approach of the six riders who had driven the herd. “Go back.”
“No, Papa,” she cried. “I’ll stay with you.”
Tears streamed jaggedly down her cheeks. Her small frame quaked with sobs as the riders circled the pair on the ground and reined their horses to a halt.
“Good God! It’s Damon!” A lean rider on a pinto horse started to dismount. “I’d better see...”
“Stanton,” her father whispered.
A second man, heavyset and with a rumbling voice, drew his Colt six-shooter and waved it at the first. “Leave him, Stan. It’s no more than he deserves for coddling these damned Chinese.”
Lilah looked up slowly. Her blood ran like dry sand in her veins. She shook as if her bones were a dangling stick toy tied at the end of a string. Six faces, obscured by dust and sweat, but with eyes that blazed, loomed out of the darkness. She couldn’t bear the sight. Her eyes fell, lingering on the stirrup of the man Stanton. On the leather foot cover, a silver medallion reflected the glow of the torch flame. The image on it, a winged S, scorched into her mind.
Clement Damon tried to rise. Failing, he cried out, then slumped back and remained motionless.
“Papa!” Lilah screamed. “Papa!” Heart pounding like a great stone against the walls of her small chest, Lilah sprang to her feet. She lunged at the nearest rider, the one who still held a gun in his hand. Her tiny fists beat at the man’s boot. “You’ve killed my papa! You’ve killed my papa!” Lilah’s small fingers clutched the boot as she tried futilely to pull the man from his horse. “You’ll pay!” she screamed with tears flooding her face. “You’ll pay!”
“Goddamn Damon brat!” The man kicked out both boot and stirrup, catching Lilah squarely on the forehead, toppling her to the ground beside her father. Blood trickled from the wound on her head.
“Damn, Newell! You didn’t have to do that,” the man called Stanton said.
Newell spat on the ground and shot another look of warning at Stanton. “Forget the brat, she loves the Chinese as much as her father did. Now, fan out, let’s see how many of those yellow bastards are dead.”
Sobbing, Lilah crawled nearer her father and buried her face against his chest. A long while later she awoke from a faint in the arms of Ching. Flames raged all through the compound. Someone had taken her papa away.
Too late. Lines of disappointment creased Tabor Stanton’s brow as he entered the Broken Spur Saloon in Crescent City. Delilah’s sultry voice, hot and seductive as a torch’s glow on a dark night, rang out the words of her last number.
Listen to me, stranger, whatever your game,
I’ve come here to warn you of Delilah’s flames.
Stripes of silver sparkled in her black costume as she spun slowly across the stage. The usually rowdy saloon crowd sat and listened as quietly as a passel of mice waiting for the cat to get past.
Flames. He could almost feel them in the room. He could almost see them in Delilah’s fiery red hair. She was the most talked about entertainer around. Remarkably so, since no one knew much about her. Last year he’d caught her act when he’d made a trip north, seeing her perform once in Yuba City, once in Chico. He had tried to catch up with her again, but learned her short tour had ended.
Propped against the back wall, Tabor eased a leather pouch and a pack of papers from his shirt pocket. He could have used a drink, but the barkeep had quit pouring until Delilah finished her song.
She’s no redheaded angel, don’t you fall for her smiles.
‘Cause the devil taught Delilah how to use her wiles.
The black plume pinned in the red curls fluttered as Delilah pranced her way to the front of the stage.
Jake, barkeep and manager of the Broken Spur, used the corner of the once-white apron covering his ample belly to wipe large beads of sweat from his brow. He contemplated asking Delilah to stay on a few more days. It sure would be nice if she did. Normally he’d be worried about the lapse in drinking. This one, though, wouldn’t hurt his business any. Delilah had a way of building up a powerful thirst in a man. Ten minutes after she left the stage, his customers would pour down the liquor like it was the last day any of them would get a drink.
While Delilah rolled her hips and winked at her audience, Tabor rolled a smoke and struck a match against the rough surface of the wall. A tiny flame flared up in the darkened room. Onstage Delilah momentarily diverted her eyes to the source of that light. Her smile deepened. Not for him personally, he was sure. After all, for Delilah he was just another cowboy in a sea of faces. He had to hand it to her, though. The lady knew how to hold a crowd. He couldn’t help wondering why she wasted her talent in mining and cattle towns when she could play any hall in San Francisco.
Nobody knew Delilah’s real name, nor any more about her than was told by the handbills advertising her act. Rumor was that she was British and spent only a few months each year performing in the States. He’d heard men speculating she was a baroness or duchess keeping up one of those large British estates gone penniless. He could believe that. Delilah was as fine a woman as he’d ever seen, certainly not the usual dance hall doxy. Everything about her bespoke class, and that custom-made costume she wore would cost six months of a cowboy’s pay.
Tabor’s eyes surveyed every curve of Delilah and every detail of the costume. The rows of black satin ruffles on the sleeves made the mass of red hair tumbling over one shoulder look like a cascade of fire. Silver shoes drew his eyes to black stockings and lace garters. Delilah showed more leg in her dance numbers than most men ever saw on their wives.
As she propped her foot on a chair and swung her skirt up over one knee, Tabor exhaled a breath and threw his half-smoked cigarette to the sawdust floor. He crushed the smoldering butt with his boot heel, never taking his eyes off Delilah. Certainly no performer since Lola Montez had taken California with such intensity. Miners and cattle hands rode as much as fifty miles to see Delilah’s fire act and hear her sing. Not one ever complained the trip wasn’t worthwhile.
Delilah, hands on her hips, bent over the footlights and sang to a man at the table nearest the stage:
She’ll tempt you, she’ll tease you, she’ll raise all your hopes.
Then leave you standing with your arms full of smoke.
She bent lower, tickling the man’s nose with a feather-trimmed fan. A unified gasp rose up in the room as the rough crowd waited in hopeful expectation for Delilah’s bosom to fall free of the daring neckline of her costume. She shimmied provocatively, heightening the anticipation, then reached into her bodice and drew out a lacy black hanky.
With languid movements, Delilah trailed the scrap of cloth over the curves of her breasts. With absolute silence reigning in the room, she tossed the handkerchief toward a dusty cowpoke, who surged to his feet and caught it. A cheer boomed out from the crowd as the lucky man pressed the perfumed handkerchief to his lips and gave a whoop.
Tabor smiled a knowing smile. That fellow wasn’t the lucky one. He knew the way Delilah played her game. In a minute, as part of the finale, she would produce a small silver mirror from her pocket and reflect a beam of light into the room. The man that light settled on would be the one who received an invitation to join Delilah for the evening. Sometimes the invitation led to the privacy of Delilah’s hotel room—if the man was lucky. He’d planned on being that man and being lucky. As women went he had a weakness for redheads.
You think that if you hold her it would be paradise,
But if you love Delilah there’s a terrible price.
So listen to me, stranger, whatever your name.
You can get burned in Delilah’s flames.
The melodic strains of her voice floated through the saloon and gave every man listening the feeling of having a sweet, burning fire licking over his skin.
If she takes a shining to you and takes you to tame,
You’ll find you’ve been burned in Delilah’s flames.
On the last line Delilah pirouetted slowly, slipping the small mirror from her pocket as she turned. The light flashed on a portly man dressed in a blue serge suit.
“Hell,” Tabor mumbled beneath his breath. She usually went for the fat prosperous types. She had again. Damm it! His disappointment was enough to choke on. If ever he needed to lose himself in a woman, it was tonight. Scowling still, he glanced hastily around. The saloon girls standing back in the shadows looked like wilted roses with Delilah in the room. Several eyed the lean, handsome cowboy hopefully. Tabor gave them no encouragement. His gray eyes went back to Delilah. He’d settle for a soft bed alone.
Delilah smiled, made her bows, blew kisses during a couple of curtain calls as the Indian girl and a pair of dandies who rounded out the troupe joined her. A short while after she left the stage, one of the male performers delivered a note to the man in the blue suit. Grinning, the fellow fished a few coins out of his pocket and tossed them on the table, then hurriedly left the saloon.
“Pour me one, Jake,” Tabor called, having made his way to the bar ahead of the crowd. As he sent a shot of whiskey down his throat, Tabor Stanton told himself there would be another time. He’d have been lousy company anyway. Settling up his father’s affairs wouldn’t be a pleasant business. Frowning, Tabor flipped Jake two bits for the drink and headed next door to the Holman Hotel.
* * *
“Loo, help me with this screen,” Delilah, smelling freshly of expensive perfume, said in her soft but aristocratic voice.
Loo, Delilah’s half-Chinese companion, a woman ten years her senior, placed a decanter of whiskey and two crystal glasses on a small game table. That done, she helped Delilah adjust the dressing screen so that it concealed the door that opened into the adjoining room.
Meanwhile Delilah spread a white linen tablecloth over a larger table and hurriedly opened a traveling case. From it she took two English bone-china dinner plates, two silver goblets, and place settings of sterling flatware. Last she removed a silver candelabrum and four scented candles wrapped in blue paper. When all was as she wanted it, Delilah stepped back to the dressing table to splash a bit more scent on her throat and in the cleavage between her breasts.
“You’ll suffocate the man if you use any more of that,” Loo said.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything that kind to Hoke Newell. I want the old cuss to writhe and squirm with the agony of having what he wants most snatched away from him.” Delilah’s tightly clenched hands reddened. The muscles in her face tensed. All trace of the aristocratic British accent deserted her. “I remember my poor papa lyin’ in the dust, hurt and bleeding. And Hoke Newell sittin’ on his horse glaring and cursing. I remember it all.” Her fingers went to a point just inside the hairline on her temple. “I still carry a scar—”
“Hush,” Loo said. “You’ll spoil your looks if you get any angrier. I lost my grandfather that night. Remember?”
“I know, Loo,” Delilah’s voice softened and regained the cultured tone. “This is for all of us.” She filled her lungs with a deep breath. “Have Seth and Todd got the girl ready?”
“They’re ready. Calm yourself. You weren’t this nervous before.”
“I know. But according to the detective I hired to investigate those six, Newell was the leader. In a way, he’s more guilty than any of them.” She took another look in the mirror at her pink satin gown trimmed with yard upon yard of frothy white lace. The bodice, fitted with long loose sleeves, dipped as shockingly low as that of the black stage costume. To make her appearance even more tempting, she unfastened the top two of a row of tiny silver buttons. “How’s Dinah?”
Loo handed her a pair of pink slippers. “Fussing because she always has to go to bed early.”
Delilah stepped into the shoes. “Stay with her. I don’t want Newell to see her.” She glanced anxiously at the door. “I’m ready.”
Loo looked her over. “You’re very unsettling in that color.”
“I know.” Delilah smiled.
Normally pink was forbidden to redheads. Delilah, however, liked the clash of color with her fiery hair and the interesting effect pink displayed on her fair skin. Fortunately she lacked the florid complexion and freckles common to many with her hair color. Her younger sister, Dinah, hadn’t been as fortunate and bore a sprinkling of pale freckles from head to foot.
Delilah fought back a twinge of guilt as she thought of Dinah. Maybe she had been wrong getting Dinah involved in this. She hadn’t seen any other way, though, and she really couldn’t take the time to worry about it now. She wanted to satisfy herself that all the preparations were complete and were flawless.