“Say, Sergio,” Emmy said as she speared a sausage link with her fork. “You ain’t got a problem with colored folks, do ya?”
“Colored folks?” Sergio looked up from his tin plate, the firelight making shadows dance across his face. Across the campfire the Mexican woman Lucky picked at her beans and sausage platter with distaste writ large on her pretty face. Fox was brushing down her brown and white spotted mare, her own meal long since devoured.
“You know, negroes.” Emmy took a pull from her waterskin. “You ain’t got a problem with their sort, do ya?”
“I...no.” Sergio shook his head. “I mean, as long as it’s one of the civilized ones.”
“Civilized, is it?” Emmy felt her lips curl in a snarl. “That word gets thrown around quite a bit out here in the West. Ain’t properly sure it applies to anybody I ever met.”
“I see,” said Sergio, his eyes narrowing. “Why ask if I have a problem with negroes?”
Emmy Lou didn’t answer. She rummaged around in her shirt pocket and took out a harmonica. She didn’t have much spit, so she took another pull from her waterskin. One of the reeds had been chipped, but it didn’t really affect the sound when she put it to her mouth and blew.
Playing a few bars of “Home on the Range,” she found that Sergio was staring at her, dark eyes intense.
She removed the instrument from her mouth. “Not a music fan, I take it?”
“No, it’s not that,” he said. “It’s nothing.”
“Don’t seem like nothing.” Emmy glanced across the fire, saw that Lucky had finished her meal and was dealing out solitaire on her skirted lap. She looked mighty silly in her tavern girl gown with leather breeches underneath, but having your girly parts slap against a saddle for twelve hours a day wasn’t any way to go, either.
“I...” Sergio sighed. “That song...my daughter liked it a lot. I used to sing it to her sometimes.”
“Do you want me to stop?” Emmy rolled her eyes skyward while she recalled the songs she knew. “I can play something else.”
“That’s not necessary,” he said quickly. “Besides, there are many things that remind me of my family. Watching the sun rise red and gold on the plain, like I used to do with my wife, for example. I can’t expect the sun to stop rising because it makes me feel bad, yes?”
Emmy blew a few notes of “Camptown Ladies,” but she wasn’t feeling that upbeat. After a moment she set the harmonica down and eyed Sergio.
“I know it doesn’t seem like it now,” she said “but it gets easier.”
“Dealing with it. Losing somebody.”
“Ah.” Sergio licked his lips. “And...have you lost somebody as well?”
“My mama.” Emmy stared at the harmonica in her hands, turning it over and watching the firelight glint off its nickel surface. “She taught me to play, you know.”
“How did she die?”
Emmy’s mouth twisted into a grin devoid of warmth.
“Stepped on a rattlesnake what crawled into our cold shed. My sister found her lying on the floor, already stiff as a board.”
“That’s terrible.” Sergio’s lips became a thin, tight line. “It must have been tough. How old were you?”
“Twelve. Had to take care of my daddy and my sister after that.”
“Are...is your father still alive?”
“Was last time I saw him,” Emmy said stiffly. “Getting on in years, but still kicking. I’m more worried about my sister. Got herself an independent streak a mile wide, and that’s no good for someone with her condition.”
Emmy snapped her gaze up, hot words on her tongue about minding one’s own business, but one look into Sergio’s soft brown stare diffused them.
“She’s...she ain’t right in the head.” Emmy picked at a strand of hair near her temple. “She used to sit and stare at a sunbeam for hours, real intent like. Then she’d stab a bit of straw into it, over and over again. Never could figure out what she was up to.”
“I see.” Sergio cleared his throat. “There are...facilities for such people. Did you ever think...?”
“Thought about it, sure. Problem is most of those places are run by religious folks and religious folks tend to scare Rosie. Sides, she’s got me and my daddy to take care of her.”
“But aren’t you always on the trail?” Sergio set down his largely untouched plate.
“What’s that supposed to mean? And eat your damn beans, or you’ll be sorry when something nasty comes slithering up to have a taste.”
“I mean...who is taking care of your family now?”
Emmy rose to her feet and dusted off her bottom. “Just eat your damn dinner, Spaghetti.”
She stormed off, leaving the warmth of the campfire behind. For a moment she considered going back for her long overcoat to fight the chilly autumn air, but that would have meant walking past both Sergio and Fox. Neither prospect seemed compelling at the moment.
The stars twinkled overhead, a magnificent tapestry of tiny campfires. Some science fella had told her once that each and every one of them was a sun in its own right, but that just seemed like hogwash. Stars were gentle and silver and cool, not bright, blazing and downright deadly. Total opposites.
Just like her and Sergio. Emmy knew better than to pry into other people’s business, but that seemed to be the Italian’s main occupation. How he managed to find time to invent anything when he was constantly finding fault with everyone else was beyond her.
She admonished herself silently, leaning up against a butte and taking out her cigarette tin. Sergio had suffered a major loss. What would she be like, if her father or sister suddenly were killed right in front of her?
Emmy shoved concern for her father into a corner of her mind and left it there. Either he was alive and well or he wasn’t, and fretting over the matter would only give her a sour stomach.
Keen senses honed by life on the trail picked up Sergio’s advance before she saw him directly. She knew it was the Italian and not one of her female companions because of the way his silhouette walked as it was framed against the campfire.
“What do you want?” she snapped, but her bite lacked venom. Sergio held up his hands, palms outward, his face covered by a sheepish frown.
“To apologize,” he said. “It was not my place to question your love for your family.”
“Damn right it wasn’t.” Emmy sighed. “Don’t worry about it, Spaghetti. Fact is, I’m a whole lot better at loving my daddy and sister when I’m a long way off from ’em.”
Emmy poured out a line of tobacco. A sudden gust made half of it spill onto the plain. Cursing, she turned her back to the breeze in at attempt to fend it off.
“Why is that?” Sergio asked softly, an amused smile on his face as she struggled to roll her cigarette.
“Dunno. Guess some folks are just better off alone.” Emmy cursed again, even louder. “Why the hell does the cotton picking wind have to pick up right god damn now?”
“Here.” Sergio stepped to her side and extended his waist length green coat, blocking some of the wind. Emmy managed to get her cigarette lit, puffing the ember until it glowed bright orange. His scent filled her nostrils, making her keenly aware of him as a man.
“Thanks.” She pulled away quickly and offered him a drag. He took the white object in his delicate fingers, nimbly holding it away from the wind.
“It’s nothing.” Sergio handed the cigarette back to her. “Being alone is no way to live your life, Amelia.”
“Oh, I get it,” she said, blowing smoke in his face. “Mr. smooth foreigner’s gonna put the moves on the poor, backward country girl who’s just so powerful lonely!”
Sergio’s eyes went wide. “That is not what I meant!”
“You think I’m alone because I have’ta be, mister?” Emmy jabbed her finger at him, Sergio moving back to avoid her lit cigarette. “I done had plenty of men drop down on one knee and wanna make me their wife! Shoot, one robber baron proposed to me on the spot after I caught the rustlers who nabbed his prize Arabian thoroughbred!”
“Of course you are a lovely woman,” he said quickly.
“Lovely,” Emmy’s face screwed up in a sneer. “Not smart, but lovely. Not tough, just lovely.”
“Very well,” he said crisply. “If you intend to take offense at every word which spills from my lips, then I shall take my leave.”
“Good riddance.” Emmy watched him go with a touch of regret. He was just trying to be kind, in his own intrusive way. For a moment she considered going after him, trying to smooth things over.
“Aww, hell,” she said, pointing her boots toward camp. “Guess I was being nasty. Ought to apologize...”
She never got the chance. Swimming Fox intercepted her as soon as she walked into the pool of radiance cast by the fire. The indian woman’s lips were tight, her eyes hard as flint.
“What’s gotten into you, Fox?”
“We’re being watched,” she said softly. “Do not look, but just north of that tree covered outcropping there’s a scout.”
Emmy kept her eyes focused on Fox’s, though she longed to take a gander. “Indian?”
“Too far away to tell.”
“I see. What do you think he wants?”
“To see if we are worthy prey, of course.” Fox chuckled, her broad shoulders shaking. “What else do scouts want?”
“Well, he’s too far away to hit us with a rifle shot, unless he’s Buffalo Bill. We’ll keep an eye on ’em, see what he does at first light.”
“Then we must set a watch.” Fox inclined her head toward Emmy’s bedroll, nestled up next to the fire. “Sleep now. I’ll awaken you in a few hours.”
“Right.” Emmy started to turn away, then drew herself back. “Fox, I know I ain’t said it yet, but...it’s good to see you again.”
“You were a sight for sore eyes, yourself,” Fox said in a whisper. Then she broke into a broad grin. “Get your sleep. You know you get cranky when you’re tired.”
“And you get annoying after immediately,” Emmy growled. “Damn redskinned backwards skirt chasing...”
Emmy continued to grumble even when she put her head down and closed her eyes.
Roughly, she shook Sergio’s shoulder. He mumbled and rolled over on his side, snuggling deeper into his wool blanket.
“Fraid not, Spaghetti,” she said quietly. “You gotta get up. I can’t keep my eyes open another second and it’s still three hours til dawn.”
“How is this my concern?” he grumbled. “Go to sleep!”
“That ain’t how watch works, chump.” She took hold of the edge of his bedroll and gave it a mighty heave. Sergio spilled out onto the dirt. When he scrambled to his feet there was murder in his eyes.
“What do you think-”
“Shh,” Emmy said, putting her finger to her lips. “You’ll wake up the others. I made some coffee, and it’s been quiet all night. You’ll be fine.”
Sergio grumbled, but he did so softly. Emmy Lou sank gratefully into her bedroll as he dusted off a log and perched on the edge. She raised an eyebrow when he pulled his pistol from its holster and laid it across his lap.
“Careful, Sergio, or you’ll shoot yourself in the credentials.”
His dark eyes focused on her dimly lit form.
“I...never mastered the art of the draw,” Sergio said with a sheepish smile. “Most of the time I get the barrel caught up in the holster.”
“You’re probably getting too excited. It’s like cutting into a peach, you don’t go at it all stiff; Your draw should be smooth, like the Mississippi.”
“It’s hard to be smooth when you’re scared for your life.”
Emmy grinned, keeping her giggle at low volume. “Yeah, but that’s when it counts the most. If you want, before we hit the trail in the morning I’ll show you some pointers.”
“That...would be helpful, thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got a date with twenty winks. Wake me if you hear or see ANYTHING. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, snapping off a salute that didn’t seem too terribly mocking.
Emmy snuggled into her bedroll. Lying on her side was a no go, due to the hard sun-baked dirt, but she was reasonably comfortable on her back. She heard little metallic clinking noises coming from his direction. She ignored them, figuring he was just being fussy with his pistol.
Her eyes had been shut all of five minutes, her mind in the hazy place between dream and reality, when he roughly shook her shoulder.
“Marshall,” he said in a husky whisper. “Marshall, I saw something!”
“What was it, a damn jackrabbit?” Emmy tossed the blankets off herself and rubbed her eyes. The first thing she saw when she opened them was the long, cyndrilical object in Sergio’s hand. It appeared something like a rifle, but tapered on one end with no stock or trigger.
“What in blazes is that thing?”
“It’s a telescope,” Sergio said with some pride. “I made is several years ago. Light comes in through the larger lens--”
“I know what a damn telescope is, Spaghetti. Why do you have one in your hand?”
Sergio pointed behind him at the tree-laden hilltop. “I know you thought there was someone on that ridge, and you were right! Once they realized I could see them with my little toy here, they galloped away fast as the wind! I guess I’m more intimidating than I thought.”
Emmy Lou wasn’t really listening, because she had slapped a palm over her eyes.
“God Damn IDIOT.” Emmy sighed and picked up the empty pot they’d cooked their beans and rice in. She used a wooden spoon to create a tremendous ruckus. Fox was awake immediately, rolling to her feet with a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other.
Lucky sat up straight, her face contorted in misery. Her bleary eyes focused on Emmy, who wasn’t in any mood to be gentle. The redhead plied her improvised instrument all the more fiercely.
“Get up, seniorita!” she cried. “Good chance we’re about to have some company, and not the friendly kind!”
“What direction? How many?” Fox was scanning the rolling hills, turning slowly in place to see all around.
“What direction did the scout ride off in, Sergio?”
“Northeast, Fox. Spaghetti, you got a pretty good look at him, right? What are we dealing with, is it bandits or injuns--”
“Injuns!” Sergio shouted. He covered his mouth and looked apologetically at Fox. “I mean, Indians. He had the look.”
“What kind? Crow? Apache? Better not be Navajo or we’re in trouble.”
“I...I don’t know!”
“Well, what did he look like?”
“Like an Indian!”
Emmy sighed and surveyed the area. They’d camped in this particular spot because of good visibility, not defensiveness. There wasn’t much cover to be had. Without any other options she focused on the step hillock the indian scout had been occupying.
“Get your shit together, girls...and boy,” she said, rolling up her blankets. “We need to make for that hill but quick.”
“We should ride on, try to put distance between us and pursuit...if we ARE being pursued.”
Emmy ignored the jab. “No can do. Indians who get by on raiding bring extra horses with them. We’d never be able to put enough distance between us and them.”
“Extra horses will slow them down-”
“Not if they ride the ones they’re on till they drop, then switch to a fresh horse.”
Sergio closed his mouth, his thin nose twitching. “I...didn’t know they did such things.”
“Not all Indians mistreat their brothers and sisters,” Fox said sternly, her jaw set hard.
All eyes turned toward Lucky, who was busy bundling up her own bedroll. “I don’t mean to be rude, but that hill is surrounded on all sides by flat land. We won’t have anywhere to retreat if things go badly.”
“Well, who died and made you commander in chief?” Emmy spat in the dirt. “Our best chance is to get to high ground and hold it. Indian raiders aren’t mindless barbarians. If they see that we’re a tough nut to crack, they just might wander on.”
“I think we should ride on,” said Sergio.
“I agree,” said Lucky, crossing her arms over her chest and jutting out her chin defiantly.
“What is this, a mutiny?” Emmy sighed. “I’m the damn Marshall and you’re my damn posse! Fox, you don’t believe this bull do you?”
Fox shrugged. “Running or fighting both present great risk, Andicopec.”
“And what would you rather do?” Emmy asked.
Fox grinned, showing off straight white teeth, and raised her knife blade before her. “You know what’s in my heart.”
“Then let’s head for the hilltop.” Emmy put her fingers in her lips and whistled. The others had hitched their horses, but Goliath never needed hitching. The big black beast galloped over to her side and accepted her pats on his nose.
“Nothing is decided,” said Lucky. “The vote is two to two!”
“Really?” Emmy glared, then vaulted into her saddle. Staring down at Lucky, she bared her teeth in a ferocious grin. “Well, the thing is only the senior members of this here enterprise are the ones what get to vote.”
“That’s not fair!”
“My daddy always said, life ain’t fair. A fair is a place you to watch a hog contest.”
Emmy kicked her horse into a cantor, deciding to lead by example. Her green eyes stayed peeled for danger from the Northwest, though likely she would hear any pursuit long before she saw it.
She reached the bottom of the hill and whistled. It was steeper than she thought, so steep they would have to walk the horses to the top. Pine trees dotted the hillock, providing good cover, and she was pleased to note the southern face was nigh impossible to scale. All in all, there were worst places to make a stand.
The others were not so swift to join her, and Emmy fretted and huffed while she waited, dead certain they would be set upon by a war party. When they finally arrived she shooed Sergio and Lucky up the slope.
No sooner than her boots touched the rocky ground on top she heard the first murmur of hoofbeats in the distance. The sun was not yet visible, but the horizon was tickled with enough pink light that they could see.
Emmy Lou saw the first man ride into view, his face painted darker than the rest of his body. Judging from his accouterments, he was Navajo, likely one of the rogue tribes who refused to be relocated to a reservation.
He was joined by another, and another...Emmy stopped counting once she got to twenty.
“What in the hell did we step in?” she said. “Everybody keep down under cover! Maybe they won’t find us.”
And maybe I’m a Chinese Faro dealer, she thought.
She observed the band as they rode hard for their former campsite. The Navajo split up and circled around the dying embers of their fire. For a time she was hopeful that they would simply give up. Soon enough, however, they had picked up the trail and were heading toward the hilltop.
“Jig is up, folks,” Emmy said rising to her feet. She went to Goliath and took down the canvas case holding her weapons.
“What do we do now?” Sergio asked, grimly checking his pistol.
“Now,” Emmy said “we fight for our damn lives!”