A bit of wind kicked up the edge of the tent, filling the lamp lit interior with fresh air. Pete was grateful for the reprieve; It must have been a hundred and two inside the canvas structure. Sweat rolled into his eyes, stinging them shut. For the twelfth time he fished out his handkerchief and used it to mop his forehead.
Nearby, Big Man and Little Man—or Doc, what most were calling him now—sat on stools next to Z’s still form. One look at the girl’s wan face, wrinkled from dehydration, made him shiver. Unlike most of the men in camp, he’d spent some time speaking with the young Chinese woman. She was polite, but guarded, and the idea that so many men would be but a sheet’s breadth from her naked body would probably have bothered her immensely.
“I’m going to have to cut her open, Dad.” Doc leaned back and sighed, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. “There’s no other way.”
“So cut her open.”
“Dad, this is not the ideal arena for a surgery!” The junior Dalton turned his ice blue gaze on his father. “I’ve done some cutting, but never on a patient’s brain! I mean, I’ve seen it done, but--”
“You’ll do fine,” Big Man said. “You learned to shoot by watching me and your uncles.”
“It’s not even close to the same thing.” Doc snorted. “We need to get her to a hospital.”
“That’s not gonna happen.” Big Man nodded toward Pete, who sat up a little straighter. “Pete here used to be apprenticed to the Medicine Man of his tribe. He’ll pitch in where needed.”
Doc’s eyes flicked over to Pete. Carefully, he licked his lips and kept his tone even. “No offense to Pete, Dad—you know I’ve always liked you, Pete—but Indian medicine?”
Pete grinned, allowing a bit of Crow pride to swell in his chest for the first time in many years.
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss us, Doc,” he said. “I once assisted my Akbaalia when he dug an arrowhead out of my cousin’s skull. She’s still running around today.”
Doc closed his mouth and nodded grimly. “Fair enough.”
He used a grease pencil to make notes on a bit of leather parchment. When he was done he handed it to Big Man. “This is a list of what I’ll need.”
“You’ll have it,” Big Man took the parchment and carefully folded into a tidy bundle he could stick in his shirt pocket. “You’re not just saving her life; You’ll be saving Jimmy’s as well.”
“You have to admit, Dad,” said Doc with a sneer “that it was kind of a stupid plan. I mean, a hostage exchange?”
“Ten thousand bars of gold, son.” Big Man’s cold gaze made his son blanch. “That’s an awful lot of temptation. Seemed like a good idea when that yellow bastard suggested it. Keep both groups honest.”
“I need to do the surgery soon,” Doc said, trying to pretend Big Man didn’t terrify the hell out of him. “Tomorrow, if possible.”
“I’ll send some boys to town. They’ll be back at first light tomorrow, I guarantee it.”
Doc nodded, chewing on his lower lip. Big Man stopped for a moment and his gaze seemed almost tender.
“You look so much like...” then the moment passed, and his eyes were hard as steel. Big Man sauntered out the tent, his voice bellowing across camp as he summoned a road crew.
Doc stared after him, shaking his head. Then he gently lifted Z’s hand and took her pulse, using his silver watch for timing. Pete shifted on his stool, remembering that the timepiece was a gift from Doc’s dead mother. It had been a long time since he’d thought of his own mother.
“Say, Pete, the word around camp is you were tight with the patient here,” Doc said, his brow furrowed as he studied the young woman’s forearm.
“We spoke a few times, but I wouldn’t say we were close.”
“Do you know anything about these?”
Pete leaned forward, staring hard at the dark marks on her skin. They appeared like looping, cyrillic designs that resolved themselves into a crouching tiger. There was a matching mark on her other arm, this one of a big alligator or some such.
“No,” Pete said, licking his lips and blinking sweat out of his eyes. “She tended to keep pretty covered up, even in the hottest part of the day. Are they tattoos?”
“That’s what I thought at first,” Doc said “but I’ve seen tattoos, I even worked on a man from the Samoan islands once who was covered head to toe. These look more like brands.”
“Brands? Like on cattle?” Pete scoffed, then became angry. “Who would brand a human being, Doc?”
“I’m not sure,” Doc said “but I’m not so sure these are some form of punishment. Most cultures that use a shaming mark make it ugly and distinctive, like on the face.”
“You’re the smart one, Doc,” Pete said, scratching his cheek.
“What have I gotten myself into, Pete?” Doc’s tired voice snapped Pete out of his reverie. “If I can’t save this woman, I’m going to lose my little brother.”
Pete held his tongue. Jimmy was a little shit, possessing all of Big Man’s capacity for violence and none of his intelligence. “James can take care of his own self, Doc.”
“No, he can’t.” Doc chuckled. “No one in this family can.”
“Your dad does all right.”
Pete shrugged. “He robbed a government train. Folks said that couldn’t be done, and he did it.”
“Yeah, he’s a great criminal.” Doc laughed, the edge directed at himself. “And I guess I’m a criminal again, too.”
“Your Pa has saved my life more times than I can count,” Pete growled. “Yours, too.”
“Yeah. He saved us while we were committing crimes, so we could help him commit more in the future.”
Pete stood up. “Going to take a walk. Getting stuffy in here.”
“Walk?” Doc smiled, which seemed genuine for once. “As in walk in the direction of a certain redhead?”
“You’re kidding,” Pete said slowly. “She’s...c’mon, Doc, you’ve met her. You know she’s kinda...off.”
“She might be,” Doc said. “But I bet your boots will be pointing in her direction once you hit the dirt outside.”
Pete shrugged as if it didn’t bother him. The truth was, he was livid that the junior Dalton had been able to see through him so easily. Pete prided himself on keeping his hand hidden; if somebody who hadn’t even been around in years could read him, did that mean the rest of the camp had done the same?
The sun peered down from behind scratchy clouds, muting its bright light to something more tolerable. In the distance he heard the constant tap tap tap of excavation work, mingling with hammering as his uncle shoed a horse. All in all, Big Man had gathered almost forty men, most of whom had a price on their heads. Add in the coolies, laborers and camp followers, and there were over a hundred people all told.
Pete stopped, preparing himself for the inevitable. He knew that voice.
Guess I couldn’t be lucky enough to avoid him forever...
A hard, heavy slap on his shoulders nearly bowled him over. He turned his head to gaze up into the rheumy, bloodshot brown eyes of Bad News Bill. The man’s ruddy face was mostly hidden by a bristling beard with more than a few gray streaks. His tobacco habit left him with a permanent black smear down the left side of his whiskers, but Pete was grateful for the chew. Otherwise, the rotting remnants of the man’s teeth would have stank to high heaven.
“What’s the matter, redskin? Cat got your tongue?”
“It’s good to see you, Bill,” Pete said. “Nice to have a straight shooter on board.”
“Bah, I needed a place to lie low. Most likely this fool scheme will get us all hung...but they’ll have to catch Bad News Bill before they kin string him up!”
He held his heavy belly and guffawed. Pete tried to move on, but Bill caught his arm.
“Hold up, there, Injun,” he said in his raspy voice. “I hear you done brung in a dame what can outshoot Wild Bill. What’s up with that?”
Pete smiled. “Actually, she could out shoot anybody I ever seen.”
“Bah! Anybody but Bad News Bill!” The bearded man put his hands on his hips. “Why, I can shoot the eye of a sparrow out at a hundred paces!”
Holding his tongue in check, Pete just nodded and went on his way.
You could hit a COW at five paces, you brutal drunkard.
As he walked through the tent city, he noticed a mine cart come rattling along the railway bridge. A pair of Chinese men, bent in half and sweating from their labors, strove to push it down the track. Using levers, they tipped the cart up and allowed a cascade of stones to tumble onto the ever growing pile. When they’d started this mess, Big Man had sworn most of the digging was already done. That had been three months ago, and still the coolies were bringing out load after load to dump in the hot sun.
He passed by the crane, blocking the coolies from view. Saint Louis, the camp’s cook, knelt outside the mess tent, whistling as he skinned a brace of coney.
“Rabbit again cookie?” Pete called as he strode past.
“You want beef? Tell the cows to start fucking more!” Both men laughed at the jibe, which was neither new nor particularly funny, but part of running with a gang was indulging each other in old jokes.
Or a few new ones. There were more than a few snickers directed his way. Pete was favored by Big Man and had been running with the Daltons for most of his life. The jealousy engendered by these facts made Pete a frequent target for insults, though most men knew better than to take it farther than that.
Today, though, there was a little something extra in their derision.
“Hey, Pete,” said Zeke Dalton, a less scary version of his brother Big Man. “Heading off to see Thorny?”
Pete glanced at the middle aged man, his hawkish nose and eyes offset by pudgy cheeks and a scraggly beard. Maybe scraggly beards ran in the family, which was why Big Man and Doc were both smoothly shaven.
“Don’t know where my feet will take me, Zeke.”
“Ain’t you sposed to be cutting on that yeller girl today?”
“Nope. Doc needs some stuff for the operation. We start cutting at first light.”
“Well, between you and me...” Zeke got close, whiskers brushing Pete’s ear “...I don’t think Manny’s got what it takes. If the girl lives, she’ll be a bigger idiot than Thorny.”
“Rose isn’t an idiot!” Pete snapped, then immediately regretted it. His outburst only confirmed what everyone seemed to know.
He was smitten with the strange gunslinger.
“All right, all right,” Zeke held his hands up, palms outward. “I know what happened to the last guy who pissed you off.”
His eyes went to one of Pete’s decorative necklaces. It was a simple leather braid with a bit of hide tied to it. The hide was worn but you could still make out a bit of reddish hair on one side.
“I’m not angry.” Pete shrugged his shoulders and thrust his hands into his pockets. “See you around, Zeke.”
Just to prove that Zeke wasn’t right, he walked all the way around the valley twice before heading up to Rose’s tent. He wasn’t surprised to find her outside of it, sitting cross legged before an improvised table.
“Does big man know you stole a horse trough?” he asked as he strode to her side.
Rose didn’t answer, at least not with words. Her green eyes flicked to him for just a moment before returning to her task. Before her on the inverted trough was one of her revolvers, completely taken apart. Each individual bit was standing alone in a precise pattern. It was as if the gun had exploded into intact components and arranged themselves neatly on the table.
He watched while she used a stiff bristled brush to clean out each of the chambers on her revolver. She would pick up the piece between slots, peering through it with one eye squeezed shut.
“You’re awful thorough.”
“Take care of your guns, and they’ll take care of you.” Apparently satisfied with her work, she began snapping the revolver back together.
“Bobby tell you that?”
“No. My dad did.”
“Guess you had it rough growing up.”
Rose cocked her head to the side, seeming for all the world like an inquisitive dog.
“I mean, were there a lot of people you had to shoot?”
“No. Mostly wolves and coyotes.” Rose flipped her pistol through a few spins and smoothly holstered it. “First man I killed was a carpet bagger. Tried to steal my daddy’s horse.”
“I see.” Pete cleared his throat. “How did...how did that make you feel?”
Rose’s eyes narrowed, her brow furrowing in thought. After a moment, she shook her head. “I don’t know. Nothing I guess. My sister cried a lot after on account of he shot the man’s partner, but I never did.”
Pete put his hands on his hips and glared.
“What?” Rose blinked. “What did I do wrong?”
“It’s a hell of a thing to kill a man,” said Pete. “The first time I pulled that trigger on a living soul, I was useless for almost a week. Big Man actually had to tie me to my saddle I was such a wreck.”
Rose grunted. “Why?”
“Why were you useless for a week? Wasn’t he a bad man?”
“I...” Pete closed his mouth. How long had it been since that day on the dusty roads of Montana, barely thirteen years old and scared out of his mind? “He wasn’t a bad man, just a man with a grudge.”
Pete sighed. He dragged a stool over and plopped down on it. “I hadn’t been with the Daltons but a few months. A few miles outside of Debonshire we got waylaid by a lawman and his posse. We didn’t have such a big band back then, it was just Big Man, his brothers, his sons, and me. Sheriff’s men had us outnumbered two to one, but the Daltons gave ’em hell.”
Round about the time most of the posse was either dead or taking off with their tails between their legs, this guy we thought was dead up and gets to his feet. He has Big Man dead to rights, see, cause he caught the boss with no bullets in his chamber. I already had my piece in hand, but hadn’t fired it at anything bigger than a rabbit. I squeezed the trigger...and that was it. The man fell to the ground with a hole in his head. I can still see his eyes sometimes, in my dreams...”
Pete blinked, realizing that Rose wasn’t even looking at him anymore. She was taking apart her second revolver with mechanical precision that just seemed unnatural.
“Sorry to bore you,” he said with a sigh.
Rose didn’t look up from her task when she spoke. “I tried to listen. Words are hard, hard to listen to and hard to say.”
“Well....” Pete sighed. “Maybe if you tried talking more often, you’d get better at it. I mean, it’s not like you picked up a pistol the first time and were a crack shot, right?”
“I missed a lot when daddy taught me and Emmy to shoot,” she said.
“Emmy?” Pete licked his lips. “Who’s Emmy?”
“My sister.” Rose’s eyes narrowed. “But I’m mad at her.”
“Why are you mad at her?”
“She left me and daddy. Then daddy died and I was all alone.”
Rose’s hands shook, and the barrel slid from her fingers to clank onto the wooden trough. Her bottom lip was quivering, eyes filling with tears.
“Hey, it’s all right,” Pete said. He patted Rose on her slender shoulder. “You’re not alone anymore.”
Both of them started. Pete snapped his gaze upward and found Big Man standing nearby.
“You never have to be alone again, Rose,” Big Man continued. “You’re one of the Daltons now.”
Pete arched an eyebrow. “Not the Dalton Boys?”
“Please, we’re hardly boys anymore.” Big Man laughed. “And besides, now I’ve got a daughter too.”
“I already have a daddy,” Rose said, snapping her barrel back in place.
“Sure you did,” Big Man said. “But now he’s dead, isn’t he? He won’t be mad if you let me be your new father, you know.”
Rose glanced up from her work. “He won’t?”
“Of course not. Your daddy’s in heaven, and people in heaven don’t get mad.”
“God gets mad.” Rose’s green eyes were wide, and she spoke with more passion than Pete had yet seen from her. “He got real mad once and drowned everybody on Earth. God sends the Angel of Death to lay waste to evildoers.”
“Well, let me tell you what, my dear,” Big Man said, drawing his pistol. “If God gets mad at you and wants to try something, I’ll shoot him dead. How you like that?”
Rose smiled, and Pete repressed a shudder. For some reason, he really didn’t want Big Man exerting influence on his charge. She was like wax, easily molded.
There was no way Pete was going to let what happened to himself happen to her.
“Pete,” Big Man said, drawing his attention. “Go find Hung Fat, and tell him that the number four tunnel has got to be getting close to the stream. If he needs more dynamite, it can be acquired, but I want to breach that cavern by Sunday. Clear?”
“You got it, boss.” Pete rose to his feet and dusted off his knees. “Take care, Rose.”
She didn’t respond. Her focus was back on her pistol, and Pete was only too glad to leave her to it.
Pete knew the guilt gnawing at his chest wasn’t nearly what he deserved. He could have dropped Rose off in any little settlement he chose, or just abandoned her on the trail. Instead, he had dragged her into this den of deviltry, and for what? So he wouldn’t have to return empty handed?
He was good at forcing that type of thinking away, though, and he did so. Pete wasn’t a bad guy. Was there anything wrong with Pete doing what was best for Pete? Surely, that didn’t make him a villain.
It made him a survivor.
Pete didn’t find Hung Fat at his tent. Making a few inquiries, he discovered that the Coolie’s leader had ventured below ground. Pete wasn’t much for going into the Earth, but Big Man had been explicit that he was to speak with Hung Fat, so into the tunnels he went.
As he stepped into the darkness of the mine, he suppressed a shiver. He knew that the coolies used these tunnels hundreds of times a day and never had any problems, but that didn’t stop his ears from straining for any trace of collapse. At times the timbers supporting the ceiling would creak or groan, and he would grit his teeth and forge on.
Oil lamps were placed every twenty feet or so, though there were spots for more of them. Little work was done this close to the surface, so most of the lighting was further in. Pete reached a junction and followed the descending left hand path.
The tunnel curved sharply, gradually spiraling down. At times he spotted bits of skeletal remains in the wall, ancient birds and fish that were somehow trapped beneath the rock. Perhaps they went on a spirit walk and were awakened before they could return to their bodies...
His path smoothed out until he was walking almost level. He came to a set of rails just as the tunnel ceiling vaulted away above him, forming a large natural cavern. This was the spot where much of the actual coal mining had been done, until the vein had been depleted. No less than ten different chutes terminated in the cavern, but Pete knew where he would find Hung Fat.
Choosing the most brightly lit path, his ears picked up sounds of hammering. He moved to the side as a coolie came by carrying a basket of stone on his back. The man’s sweating face was strained, but he had the energy to sneer at Pete.
I love you too, buddy, he mused. Then again, if the Chinese and the Daltons had gotten along famously, there wouldn’t have been a need to exchange hostages.
He ignored the man and pressed on. The hammering grew louder, until he was nearly overwhelmed by a constant cacophony of dissonant impacts. Four men attacked the end of the tunnel with pickaxes, while others stood by to relieve them. Nearby, a lamp meant to burn away toxic gases glowed weakly.
Hung Fat was squatting next to the lamp, checking to see it was well stocked with fuel. The narrow, slanted eyes on his wizened face grew just a bit wider, and he unbent himself from the cavern floor with grace that belied his years.
Wordlessly, Hung Fat moved upwards out of the tunnel, and Pete followed. Once they were far enough from the hammering to understand each other, the Chinese man slowed.
Hung Fat wore a leather apron over a bare chest and blousy gray pants, with a smoothly shaven pate. Streaks of dirt framed his face as he eyed Pete coldly.
“What does Dalton want now?” he asked in his high pitched but still raspy voice.
“He thinks you should be at the river any day now,” Pete said. “And to tell you if you need more dynamite just say the word.”
“No.” Hung Fat shook his head. “No more dynamite. We have dug too far, too fast, and I worry the ceiling will collapse if we try and blast our way through any more.”
Pete nodded. Steeling himself, he doled out what Hung Fat might consider bad news. “Big Man wants to be at the river by Sunday.”
“Sunday?” Hung Fat closed his eyes, lips moving while he did the conversion in his head. Why was it that Chinese folks were so dead set in their ways, celebrating their own holidays by their own calender? “We can make it by then, yes. Possibly sooner. No dynamite.”
“Right.” Pete started to turn and leave, but he had one last task he had to complete. Big Man hadn’t—wouldn’t--say so, but he was worried about his son. “How is Jimmy doing?”
“Jimmy?” Hung Fat always seemed to act as if the boy was far from his mind, but both of them knew that wasn’t the case. “He is fine. A runner just arrived from our Wyoming camp. Tell Dalton his son is very adept at negotiations. The boy managed to get all the wagons and horseflesh we need at half the cost anticipated. His only complaint is of a broken finger he suffered while trying to crush a scorpion with a hammer.”
Pete had to grin, realizing that Jimmy’s ‘negotiations’ probably involved a loaded weapon. “Thanks.”
“Bide, please,” said Hung Fat as Pete turned to leave. “How is my niece? Is she still feeling ill humors?”
Pete licked his lips. “She was still breathing last time I saw her. In fact, Big Man went and got a big city doctor who’s gonna work on her tomorrow.”
“Excellent.” Hung Fat’s eyes became slits. “I would expect that my niece could receive visitors this Sunday. It would be...regrettable...if I had to send word to Wyoming about her ill health.”
“I’m sure everything will be fine,” Pete said, turning on his heel. “Nice talking to you, Mr. Fat.”
His tasks completed, Pete wasted no time in getting the hell out of that godforsaken hole and back into the sun.