Doc reigned in his gelding, patting the gentle beast on its smooth neck. Big Man nimbly slipped out of his saddle and crouched in the shallow creek. It was a familiar sight, something he’d borne witness to a hundred times before. Manfried Dalton had the eyes of a hawk, everyone said so. Supposedly he’d led his company around dozens of Union ambushes during the war, all based on clues so tiny they escaped most people’s notice.
Even Doc, with his untrained eye, could see what had Big Man’s attention this time. A bit of shadow on a rock created not by the sun but a sticky liquid.
“Seems fresh,” Big Man said, rubbing his fingers in the stream to wash them. “Less than a day old.”
“I take it you weren’t expecting company?”
Big Man’s icy glare flashed his way. “Not the hostile sort.”
Doc sighed. “Not everything I say is about picking a fight, Dad.”
Big Man grunted, which was almost an apology from him. He unfolded from the ground and got back in the saddle. “C’mon. Camp ain’t far.”
“You’re not worried about the blood?”
“No signs of a struggle. Could just be someone lost their balance and skinned a knee.”
Doc noticed that Big Man kept one hand on his pistol and the other on the the reigns, and followed suit. From his relaxed posture, it seemed his father truly wasn’t worried, but a life on the run was full of uncertainty.
Which was why he left it behind in the first place.
Doc’s grin had an edge, but it was directed at himself.
“What’re you about, boy?”
He let the grin fade from his face, but not without some pleasure at having gotten under the old man’s skin.
“Nothing. I was just telling myself a lie.”
“I was trying to convince myself that I...I left the family because I wanted stability.”
“Stability only exists in the short term, son.”
“Yeah. So you’ve said.”
“If you didn’t really want stability, why did you leave?”
Doc studied his father’s lined face carefully. His sky blue eyes were as unreadable as ever, but he seemed relaxed, attentive. Doc took a deep breath and decided he might as well be honest, both with his father and himself.
“Well, I guess I wanted to find a girl and settle down. Get married, maybe start a family of my own.”
Big Man slapped his thigh, his cackle echoing off the walls of the ravine.
“What a god damn sissy,” he said when he caught his breath. “I loved your mother, I really did, but I swear she gave me a daughter sometimes.”
“Romance isn’t about ladies in frocks sighing and swooning, Dad,” Doc said somberly. “It’s about...well, about passion.”
“Passion?” Big Man cackled again. “You can find all the passion you want in the arms of a soiled dove. Don’t worry, boy, with your share of the gold you’ll be able to have any woman you want.”
“As long as I live in Mexico, a fugitive for the rest of my days.”
“Sometimes you get what you want. Sometimes you get what you need. Focus on the fact that you’re getting what you need.”
“What I need is to be...Dad, I think we’ve been spotted.”
Big Man followed his pointing finger, and broke out in a grin. “I should hope so. Lester Half-ear probably spotted us five minutes ago. See that long barreled Colt he’s got there?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of hard to miss. How does he carry that thing?”
“Just fine. And if we’d been hostile...” Big Man put his finger to his ear and made soft retorts with his lips.
“Lester’s new. How many new faces can I expect to find?”
“Well, let me think...James, Zeke, and Jasper are still around, of course. They know the value of family.”
“All right, I’ll get off of it. For now. Pete’s still our tracker, and he might be better than I am—but don’t tell him I said that! The Hershell brothers, and Kansas Joe are still about...unfortunately. Bout the only other guy you’d know is Bill Coyle.”
“Bad News Bill?” Doc shook his head. “thought you said you’d never work with that piece of shit again after he raped that apache girl.”
“Times change. Get used to it.”
Big Man led him up a winding path that gradually worked them to a higher elevation. At times they had to dismount and walk their horses single file through narrow crevices. When they at last came out into the fading sunlight, Doc was shocked to find a bustling scene more reminiscent of a miniature city than a camp.
There were permanent works, like a prominent wooden crane used for quarrying. In its shadow were rows of military grade tents, each large enough to hold at least two men. Coolies ran around, bearing heavy loads in baskets on their bent backs. A well-built but aging rail system was in place, winding its way on its timber supports up the side of the cliff face.
“If you have a coal mine, why did you rob a train?”
“Coal’s long gone, son. They’re just capitalizing on the existing earthworks.”
Doc scanned the mining camp, soaking in all the bustle. “This is a massive undertaking. Why?”
“It’ll become clear soon enough,” Big Man dismounted and handed his reigns to a Chinese youth. Doc followed suit, hastening after his father as he strode quickly toward the largest of the tents.
“You have a very important role to play, son,” Big Man said when Doc came abreast. His father held the tent flap open. From the darkness inside came the fetid smell of sickness, of wounds that wanted closing.
Doc ducked inside, his eyes peering about the gloom. It took several seconds for his eyes to adjust, but he could make out a shape lying prone on a cot well enough.
“What have you done?” She was a coolie, maybe in her late teens or early twenties. She might have been pretty, but her face was streaked with dirt and dried blood. A white bandage was wrapped around her head, with a prominent red stain near the temple.
“There was something of a disagreement and she stormed out of camp. One of our boys got a little...enthusiastic...when it came time to subdue her.”
“Don’t approach the woman,” he heard behind him, accompanied by a metallic click.
Doc turned about slowly, knowing the sound all too well. Sure enough, he was staring down the barrel of a cocked pistol, but he was unprepared for the wielder. A slip of a girl, thin like a reed, with dark red hair. “Reach for the sky, or the devil he may take ya!”
Doc did as he was told. Big Man came in behind, was greeted with a second pistol the girl produced from her belt.
“Who in the hell are you, and how dare you aim a gun at me?” Big Man’s hand twitched inches away from his own custom pistol. In spite of the fact that the girl had him dead to rights, Doc wasn’t sure he would bet against him. She was a woman, after all.
“I’m Rose. I’m supposed to keep her safe from menfolk. By any means necessary.”
“You listen here, missy,” Big Man said. “I run this damn camp. And if you think I’m shaking in my boots because some stripling brat--”
Big Man went for the draw, not in a terrible hurry. Doc flinched as the girl fired, expecting to see his father fall over dead. Instead the senior Dalton stared at his feet, where his gunbelt now lay. The girl had shot his buckle off.
“I wouldn’t,” she said, green eyes utterly unforgiving.
“Easy now, miss,” Doc said. “I’m a doctor, understand?”
“I don’t like doctors,” she said. “They touch you in weird places and give you bad tasting stuff.”
“But they help you get better, right?”
“Sometimes,” Rose said.
“Well, I want to help this young lady. May I?”
Rose nodded, while Big Man fumed.
“She’s not responding,” said Doc. He checked her vitals. Her pulse was steady, but weak. “Dad, can you bring me my bag?”
Big Man huffed, but turned on his heel and left the tent. He hadn’t gotten two feet from the exit when he bellowed for an explanation about the girl. Doc sighed and went in search of his horse so he could reclaim his bag.
His father was shouting at a thin, filthy man in ragged trousers and no shirt. He had a prominent scar on his belly, his sweat turning it fish belly white. Big Man seemed poised to throttle him, so Doc intervened.
“What’s up, Kansas?” he said to the little man.
“Manny?” Kansas broke into a jagged grin, his teeth like broken glass. “Long time no see. Can you please tell your Pa that I had nothing to do with the weird girl Pete brought back?”
“Pete.” Big Man’s soft voice held loads of menace. “Where is that addle brained injun?”
Doc spotted the offending party, striding through camp toward them. He kept in the shadow of the cliff face, as the sun was quite potent for Autumn. The indian scout hadn’t changed much. Same black top hat with a white feather stuck in the brim, his denim pants always in need of repair. The scar on his cheek was a bit jarring; Doc had been used to seeing it at one time, but after so long away he was struck by how gruesome it was.
“You better have a damn good reason for bringing a lunatic into camp, Pete.” Big Man went to tuck his thumbs into his gunbelt, then remembered he’d left it in the tent. He tried to make up for his lack of armament with ice in his stare. Doc felt a shiver run down his spine and figured he’d succeeded.
Pete didn’t seem impressed, but then again the man was frequently out of his wits on peyote. “I can explain, boss.”
“So start explaining.”
The Indian sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I found Bobby Eaton, just like you wanted, but he...died on the trail.”
“I said get Bobby Eaton if you could,” Big Man said in a growl. “I also said get me at least three good shooters if you couldn’t find him. Why did you bring back a woman?”
Pete brightened up. “Boss, you have to see her shoot. She’s worth a dozen good men!”
“Bull shit.” Big Man took his hat off and scratched his sweaty scalp. Time hadn’t taken much off the top, adding to the portrait of virility. “I’ve seen trick shooters pull off some insane shots, but there’s a big difference between being able to hit a target and hit a man who’s shooting back. She’ll probably go all to pieces the first time someone points a piece her way.”
“I beg to differ.” Pete actually had the balls to grin. “I notice you’re without your big iron, boss. What happened to it?”
Big Man glared. “Go and tell this woman—what’s her name?”
“Go and tell Rose that I am allowed into any tent at any time for any reason,” he said stiffly. “Then bring her to the center of camp. And bring me my damn gun.”
Pete nodded and moved quickly to obey. Doc cleared his throat, drawing Big Man’s cold blue gaze.
“I need my bag, dad.”
“Of course.” Big Man slapped Kansas on the bicep and pointed toward the stables. “Get my boy his doctor bag.”
“Doctor bag?” Kansas sputtered. “You mean, you actually did it? They made you a doctor?”
Doc smiled, allowing himself to feel proud for a moment. “Believe it or not, yes.”
“Good,” Kansas said, bobbing his head. “We need a doctor. Just the other day I was pushing a mine cart and I felt something give in my shoulder, now it hurts whenever I raise my arm like this-”
“Kansas.” Big Man’s voice was quiet but effective in shutting the little man down. “The bag?”
“You got it boss.” Kansas took off at a good clip, kicking up dust in his wake.
Big Man strode away, leaving Doc to his own devices. He went back into the tent and found Pete and Rose just exiting.
“Damn it, Rose, you screwed up,” he said in a rush. “Big Man is pissed. Why did you shoot his gun belt off?”
“You told me to keep the menfolk away--”
“Yeah, that I did.” Pete sighed and rubbed his eyes, which boasted dark circles beneath them.
Doc was watching the girl—Rose, her name was Rose—carefully. In the gloom of the tent, staring down the barrel of a gun, he hadn’t noticed her strangeness. With bright sunlight and no distractions, he could see the odd way her gaze never seemed to focus on any one thing. She clearly deferred to Pete, from trust or necessity he couldn’t say.
His best guess was that she’d had a high fever as a child, or suffered some kind of injury, because she was too well formed to be retarded. If you ignored her odd mannerisms, she was even quite lovely in spite of the forest of freckles on her cheeks. Her lean, tight body pressed against her riding leathers, reminding him of how long he’d been without a woman.
The strange girl and her Indian escort left, so he turned his attention to a different woman. Kansas dashed up, cheeks puffing out, and handed him his bag.
Kansas was helpful enough to fetch him a pail of fresh water from the merry stream burbling on the edge of camp. Doc washed his hands up to the elbows and washed his face as well.
“Is this wound on her head her only injury?” he asked Kansas.
“Far as I know,” the little man shrugged.
“Who is she? Why is she here?”
“Uh...” Kansas swallowed. “I don’t rightly know, but we’re supposed to take care of her. Big Man’s real worried on account of her people have Jimmy--”
“What?” Doc turned around and loomed over the scrawny man. “Jimmy’s been captured? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“Not captured,” Kansas said. “Not really.”
“The mine, the coolies, this girl...” Doc sighed. “What’s going on, Kansas?”
“Like I said, I don’t know everything. You know your pa, he keeps his cards close to his chest. I know he shot Lenny right between the eyes for braining her so damn hard.”
Doc grunted. He didn’t know who Lenny was, and it seemed he never would. Carefully, he removed the bandage from her head. The wound had seeped through the gauze, dried blood sticking the sheets together. Using a cloth dipped in the pail, he gently washed the blood away and peeled the bandage off her skin.
He sucked in air through his teeth. It did not look good. He could clearly see a concave section of her skull that had been fractured. Most likely there were bone shards dug into her brain. The wound itself had been cleaned well enough, but there was still a bit of sepsis trying to set in.
“Poor girl,” he said softly. “I don’t know that there’s anything I can do for her, Kansas.”
A ruckus outside drew their attention. There was a great deal of shouting, and the thunder of dozens of feet moving past.
“Let’s go see what my father’s up to now,” Doc said.
“Ain’t you gonna put her bandage back?”
“No, it needs to air out a bit.” Doc didn’t add that he thought the girl was beyond help.
The followed the exodus toward an area roughly center of the camp. A well stood in the sun, walled off by adobe bricks. Big Man was speaking at top volume to Rose and Pete while bandits and coolies looked on, eyes eager for excitement.
“Done told you Pete, it doesn’t matter a lick what you say she can do.” Big Man jabbed a finger at Rose, who didn’t seem to notice the rancor implied. Her eyes were fixed on the big crane, scanning it from top to bottom. The green orbs were full of focus and intent, not the idle daydreaming of a child.
“Boss, if you’ll just give her a chance,” Pete began.
“Oh, I’ll give her a chance, all right.” Big Man seemed to notice the gathering for the first time, though Doc knew he had intended to draw attention all along. “Gentlemen! What we have here is a prospective recruit. A girl who can supposedly outshoot any one of us. How do you like that?”
A chorus of boos and catcalls rang out, a wave of derision that broke upon the implacable cliffs of Rose.
“Bull shit!” hollered one man Doc didn’t recognize.
“Prove it, missy!” shouted Doc’s uncle Jasper, a man for whom he had little warmth.
“She can stay in my tent, keep me company,” said someone in the crowd, spurring a wave of laughter.
“Do you hear that, Missy?” Big Man said with a grin. “They don’t think you’ve got what it takes.”
Rose used her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the sun. She was still examining the crane, eyes taking in every detail from timber to twine.
“Hey,” Big Man said. “HEY!”
Pete tapped her on the shoulder and drew her attention. “He’s talking to you, sweetie.”
Sweetie, is it? Doc suppressed a grin. Peyote Pete had never shown the slightest kindness to anyone whose name wasn’t Peyote Pete—at least not in front of witnesses. Clearly, the injun was worried for the girl.
“Yeah?” she said, hooking her thumbs in her belt and spitting in the dirt. A low murmur went out, the crowd shocked by her disrespectful attitude.
“Nobody thinks you belong here,” Big Man said coldly. “Well, maybe Pete, but we can all see he’s smitten.”
A few nervous chuckles wafted out of the crowd. Pete pulled his brim down lower and turned even redder. The girl just met Big Man’s gaze spark for spark.
“You have something to prove,” his father said simply. “My crew is full right now. If you want a place, you have to take it away from one of them.”
“Boss,” Pete said.
“Shut up.” Big Man didn’t even look at the indian. “If she’s as good as you say, there’s nothing to worry about.”
He turned his cold stare on the gathering. “Well? Anyone here wanna man up to the challenge?”
“Nobody wants to shoot a woman, boss,” Pete said quietly.
“I’ll do it!” Sal elbowed his way to the front of the crowd and Doc’s heart sank. If there was anyone from his old crew who was more than willing to gun down a young girl it was Greasy Sal. His stubbly face twisted into a grin with new gaps. “Bitch broke my teeth! Somebody loan me a six shooter!”
“Sal, what are you about?” Pete asked quietly.
“I’m a gonna settle the score, that’s what I’m about!” Sal turned to a face in the crowd. “Steve, let me borrow your iron.”
“You can borrow mine,” Pete said, drawing his simple colt revolver. “It’s your funeral, though.”
“What’s going on?” Rose asked Pete.
“You’re going to have to duel you way into the gang, it seems,” he said with a soft smile.
“Should I just wing him? Leave him alive?”
Pete shook his head. “You’re going to have to kill him, Rose. Sal won’t rest until he feels like he’s settled up with you, and that won’t happen until one of you are dead.”
Doc shook his head. Not even a trace of trepidation. The girl seemed as stone cold a killer as he’d ever borne witness to—with possibly one exception.
“All right, give these two some room!” Big Man shouted. The crowd parted, no one wanting to be downrange from either shooter. Sal didn’t have a holster, but her stuck the revolver in his belt and stood with his hand eagerly clutching the air above it.
Rose stood about twenty paces away, her hands at her waist. Her posture was attentive, but relaxed, green eyes steady and cold.
Utter silence reigned over the camp. Only slight breathing could be heard as the two gunfighters faced off. Greasy Sal was shaking, licking his lips. Despite his bravado, he was more than a little afraid.
Doc had watched duels before, many of them involving his father. Big Man had a secret, something he swore by when it came to the draw.
The man who drew second shot first, almost every time.
Sweat stood out on Sal’s brow, running in rivulets down his neck and staining his shirt. Rose was sweating too, but not nearly as badly. She stood as still as a stone, eyes never wavering.
High overhead, an eagle screeched. Sal must have been spurred to action by the sound, because he went for the draw.
Rose snapped both of her pistols out before his hand even closed on the hilt of his weapon. Her fingers flashed, sending a deadly barrage Sal’s way.
One shot took him in the face, blowing off half of his jaw. Sal didn’t have time to be distressed, however, as he took one between the eyes a split second later. Every single shot found its mark, and by the time Sal’s dead body hit the dirt he was sporting no less than a dozen red craters in his hide.
Shock reigned over the camp. No one had even bothered to wager on the outcome, so certain had they been that the woman would fall dead.
Doc looked to his father. The slack jawed face he was making spoke volumes. Sal was far from a master gunfighter, and hadn’t even had a proper holster, but everyone watching knew the point was moot. Rose was every bit the phenom that Pete made her out to be.
Big Man closed his mouth, and then he howled with laughter.
“Hot damn!” He moved toward Rose and took her by the shoulders. She looked to Pete, who gave her a slight nod, and she replaced her guns in their holsters. “You, missy, are like the Angel of Death walking the earth!”
“Is that good?” Rose said, blinking.
“That’s very good!” Big Man grinned. “What’s your name, again?”
“Rose,” she said. “From Texas.”
“The Red Rose of Texas!” someone shouted.
“Mess with this Rose and you get the thorns,” Jasper said. How quickly he’d changed his tune. “She’s the Red Thorn of Texas! The Dalton Boys’s secret weapon!”
“Welcome to the family,” Big Man said, taking Rose’s hand and kissing it. Doc frowned, because he knew his father. It wasn’t affection he was feeling for the girl. It was greed, because she was a resource he could exploit.
Just like his son.
Rose was oblivious. She smiled at the treatment, and accepted the shoulder slaps and congratulations from the gang. It seemed like everyone was smiling except for Doc.
And Greasy Sal, of course, who didn’t have enough of a face left to smile.