The cow took another mouthful of grass and munched, lazily raising its head to stare at Emmy as she walked casually toward it.
“Take it easy, flank steak,” she said soothingly. The cow went back to its grazing, and she was able to get close enough to see its brand; A flat line with three shorter lines above it.
“Are you quite finished?”
Emmy turned around, hands on hips, and glared up at Sergio on his gelding.
“Reckon so. Cow’s got the right brand, means we’re pretty damn close to where we need to be.”
“What is that brand supposed to be?” Lucky asked, squinting from the saddle at the cow’s flank. “Grease popping off a skillet?”
Emmy chuckled. “Kinda looks like it, don’t it? Naw, it’s supposed to be a crown.”
“Like the gold hat what a king wears.”
“So...this man you wish to recruit for our posse, his name is Crown?” asked Sergio.
“Close. Fella calls himself Marcus King, and those are his cattle grazing in that field. Ranch can’t be far.”
Sure enough, the next rise in the land they came over revealed a one story home, smoke drifting from its lone chimney. The walls were painted some god awful yellow that made the house look like a great big buzzard puked all over it.
During their approach, a dark skinned woman came out of a rickety barn, bearing a basket full of linen. She hung it up on a line, pinning it in place with wooden pegs, with her back to the party. When they were about two dozen paces away Goliath whinnied a greeting to a field horse, and the woman’s head darted up.
She was a plain negro woman, face wizened by time in the sun. Her homespun dress was simple but tidy, with nary a patch or ragged seam in sight. Her thick lips broke into a smile when her brown eyes fell on Emmy.
“Amelia Louise,” she cried out in a southern drawl. “Lordy, lordy it’s been a minute, hasn’t it?”
Emmy felt her cheeks stretching in a smile of her own. She slipped out of the saddle and accepted a hug from the woman. “It’s been a while at that. How you holding up, Tammy?”
“Fine, just fine darling.” Tammy pinched her cheek, which brought smiles to the faces of her companions. “You’re so skinny! You know you need to eat more than beans and pemmican, don’t you?”
“Quit yer fussing,” Emmy said grumpily, though her smile stayed on. “Where’s Mark?”
“Him and Buckcherry are out chasing down a half grown bull that wandered off.” Tammy shielded her eyes from the late afternoon sun and looked to the West. “Here they come now.”
Emmy followed her gaze to see dust rising above the shimmering heat patterns on the plain. Gradually the blurry image resolved itself into a man on the back of a massive dark brown stallion riding hard after a stout bull that looked mostly grown to Emmy’s eyes.
While they watched, the man sent a lasso through the air, which settled down on the bull’s neck. Tying the excess slack to his pommel, he reigned in his horse. The bull was stubborn, and refused to be slowed.
Undaunted, the cowboy spurred his mount until he was riding abreast of the wayward bull. Then he vaulted out of the saddle, losing his hat in the process, and came down hard on the bull’s back. His hands wrapped around its stubby horns. With a mighty wrench he twisted its head to the side and it collapsed on its belly in the dirt.
“Impressive,” said Sergio, while Lucky nodded her agreement.
“White men are too lazy to hunt the thunder,” Fox muttered. “So they keep their bellies full with their fat, slow cows.”
“MARCUS!” shouted Tammy. “Get your calloused ass over here! We got company!”
Mark got to his feet, leading the now docile bull by its lead. He cupped one hand to his mouth and shouted back. “Who is it?”
“It’s Emmy Lou!”
Mark broke into a trot, almost dragging the bull behind him. As he approached, it struck Emmy how old he seemed. He was still a vital, virile man, but a few years ago he wouldn’t have been soaked with sweat after running down one calf, however large.
Still, he had the same easy smile on his broad featured face. He wore a red plaid shirt tucked into dusty denim pants, a blue scarf at his neck. As always, he had his pistol by his side, though he was no longer carrying extra bullets on his belt.
Emmy accepted his hug and gave as good as she got. For a moment the warmth of his touch dispelled her grumpiness.
“How you doing, Emmy Lou?” He peeled back her vest and stared at her silver star. “Still working for the government, I see.”
“It’s a living. Looks like you two are doing all right.”
“Folks only pay me about sixty percent of what they would a white man, but I reckon we’re doing better than most.”
“How about we all head inside?” Tammy asked. “I have most of a haunch of deer meat left, and I was just about to put pie in the oven.”
“What kind of pie?” Emmy said, green eyes wide.
“The best!” Emmy turned to Marcus. “Can you show us where we can water the horses? Been riding many a mile.”
After tending to their mounts, the posse followed Marcus and Tammy into their home. The inside was basic but neat, with nary a cobweb even in the corners. Their kitchen doubled as dining room, though there weren’t enough seats for everyone. Marcus disappeared and returned minutes later bearing a brace of milking stools, which he and Tammy used despite Emmy’s protests.
“Host still means something in this household,” Marcus said. “Treat your guests like family, only better!”
Tammy glared sharply at him before turning to get the pies out of the black iron oven. Sergio saw her expression and quickly blurted;
“We don’t mean to impose on you!”
“You’re not imposing,” Tammy said without turning around. There was a bit of irritation in her tone but she sounded genuine.
“Don’t mind the missus,” Marcus said with a toothy smile. “She don’t much care for me quoting my old master.”
“That man owned both of us like cattle,” Tammy grumbled.
“Yeah, but he never beat us, or made us sleep on dirt floors.” Marcus jabbed his calloused finger at her. “Need I remind you, woman, that when he died he made me his heir? It was that money that bought the deed to this ranch.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” she said. “I also haven’t forgotten that he had my brother’s toes cut off for whistling at a white woman.”
“He was...” Marcus sighed. “He was a lot younger then...”
“Uh, anyway,” Emmy cleared her throat. “Marcus, how’d you like to earn a little extra bread?”
“Am I going to get shot at?” he asked somberly.
Emmy shrugged. “I can’t say that you won’t, not for sure.”
“We’re going after the Daltons,” Lucky said. Emmy shot her a dirty look. The Latina shrugged her shoulders. “What?”
“Was kinda gonna build up to that little fact,” Emmy griped. “Oh well, you know what we’re up against now, Marcus. You in for one last ride?”
“I don’t rightly know,” Marcus shot a meaningful glance at Tammy. “I’ll have to...think it over.”
“Sun will be setting soon,” Emmy said. “Think we can crash in your barn tonight?”
“In the barn?” Sergio shifted in his seat. “With the animals?”
“What’d I say about complainin’, Spaghetti?”
The pies were set upon the table, ending all conversation as mouths watered and bellies grumbled. Emmy tore into her piece right away, even though it was still piping hot. She had a technique for eating hot pie, that involved moving it around so much on your tongue it never had a chance to burn.
Sweetness exploded in her mouth. The sauce was rich, the crust possessed of perfect flakiness.
“Tammy, you cook so damn good how’d this ugly mother ever get a ring on your finger?”
“Hey!” Marcus’s bottom lip quivered, though his eyes stayed merry. “At least I’m not like that Injun feller on the road the other day, with my face all scarred up.”
He gestured toward his face. Most of the table let his comment pass by without acknowledgment. Fox, however, dropped her fork onto her plate. Emmy was shocked to see the placid Indian woman was actually shaking.
“What kind of scar?” she demanded, eyes blazing like bonfires.
“Ah...not sure,” Marcus shrugged. “Kinda looked like a bad burn, maybe he got too close to a branding iron.”
“On his right cheek?” Fox asked insistently. “Are you sure?”
“Real sure, yeah.” Marcus arched an eyebrow high on his ebon forehead. “What’s the big deal?”
“The deal,” Fox said with a touch of mockery “is that such a man has been marked by my people as a Hestovatohkeo’o, and should not be trusted.”
“What in the world is a Hesto- , Hesta-, ah...”
“Double faced man,” Fox said grimly. “A terrible trickster who brings ruin upon People.”
“Well, this feller seemed all right,” Marcus said. “Had some white woman with him, I think she was an idiot or something. The Injun man bid me good day and rode on his way, and I rode on mine.”
Fox snorted and picked up her fork. She muttered something in her native tongue, which Emmy had picked up a smattering of. To her untrained ear, it sounded like Fox had said a chant to ward off evil spirits.
“Why are you so frightened?” she asked in her halting command of the Sioux tongue.
Fox turned her brown eyed glare on Emmy but didn’t respond.
“Fine, be that way,” Emmy grumbled. The exchange had not gone unnoticed, with Sergio and Lucky exchanging glances with their hosts during the awkward silence that ensued.
“Say, Emmy,” Marcus said, bringing the tension to an end “you’re not planning on taking down the Daltons with this few bodies, are you? I mean, I’m flattered you thought of me and all, but what good’s an old cowboy gonna do, really?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Mark,” Emmy said with a wink. “We’re going to hit Sweetwater in a couple days, and I’m hoping we’ll pick up a few more deputies there. Sides, what’s wrong with this crew?”
“Nothing, I’m just saying it seems like a skeleton crew, that’s all.”
Once the pie had been devoured, Lucky produced a set of playing cards in decent shape. She ripped through them a few times, then smiled sweetly.
“Anyone up for a friendly game of poker?”
“Son of a bitch,” Emmy said, flinging her cards on the table. “How in the hell do you have three kings?”
Lucky didn’t respond, just raked in her winnings. Emmy watched four dollars disappear into the dark skinned woman’s purse, never to return.
“You should have quit when you were ahead,” Sergio said soberly.
“Oh, really?” Emmy turned up her sneer just for him. “I ain’t about to take advice from somebody who lost all his dough in the first two hands!”
“Raven-hair whip woman cheats,” Fox said, sipping a mug of ale with her eyes closed.
Lucky shrugged, her eyes glittering mischievously. “Can you prove it, my Indian Princess?”
“No.” Fox grinned. “Which is a good thing. You’re a good shooter, and the last time I caught a cheater at a poker table I cut off his hand.”
Lucky closed her mouth as Fox unfolded from her chair. Emmy cackled along with their hosts, and even the grim Sergio had a grin on his bearded face. It made him more handsome by tenfold.
“Reckon we’d best be turning in,” Emmy said. “Gotta head out early if we’re gonna make Sweetwater on schedule. You riding out with us or what, Marcus?”
“I’ll give you your answer in the morning,” Marcus said, meeting his wife’s implacable gaze.
“Fair enough.” Emmy gapped and stretched, her shoulder crackling like thunder. Once she’d taken a round there, and though the doctor swore up and down the bullet went all the way through she swore there were still bits of it gunking up the works. “Figure I’m about to turn in. Gonna use the outhouse and smoke a cig, then I’m done for the day.”
Emmy carefully checked the outhouse for spiders, snakes, and possums. Seeing by her flickering lamp that the coast was clear, she settled in and did her business.
She was surprised when Sergio intercepted her on the way to the barn. His dark eyes flicked over her slender body, not bothering to hide his interest. For some reason, that annoyed Emmy.
“Something I can do for you, Serg?” she snapped.
“I...could I perhaps convince you to roll me a cigarette? I dropped my tobacco on the trail somewhere...”
“Oh. Sure.” Emmy took her tin out of her shirt pocket and flipped it open. Now she was wondering if he was just buttering her up for free tobacco. She rolled him a cigarette and licked it shut, passing the item to the Italian. “Careful, it’s still a little wet.”
“I don’t mind a little spittle,” he said, putting it in his mouth. She struck a match on the bottom of her boot and used it to light both faggots. Their hands touched while he leaned forward, trying to shield the sputtering flame from the crisp night wind. Emmy couldn’t deny the tingle in her belly at the contact, try though she might.
“You’re all right, Sergio,” she said softly. “I know I give you a hard time, but you’re out here trying to set things right for your wife and son. That says a lot about your character.”
“So, you no longer think I’m a hell bent on vengeance?” he asked with a chuckle.
“Oh, you’re bent on it all right, just not HELL bent.” Emmy laughed. “You’re one of the good guys, Sergio. I’m glad to have you riding with me.”
“Even though I didn’t do so well against the Navajo?”
“Shoot, you came through it alive, didn’t ya?” Emmy cleared her throat and said one of her father’s favorite quotes. “If you did it and lived, then you probably did it right!”
Sergio laughed, his eyes lighting up. “I see. I suppose that’s as good criteria as any.”
“Yup.” Emmy reached for his cigarette. “Let me see that a sec. It’s trying to run.”
Her fingers touched his face as she took the burning brand, his stiff whiskers tickling her skin. After using another gob of spit to stop the run down the paper, she handed it back to Sergio. “Good as new.”
“Thanks.” He took it but didn’t put it in his mouth. Their gazes locked for a long moment, and then Emmy dropped her cigarette on the dirt. Slowly, they moved their faces closer together. She could feel his hot breath as it washed over her nose and lips. His hands squeezed her at the waist as their lips met, while her fingers played with his hair.
“Stop,” she said, breaking the contact.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, panting.
“Everything.” Emmy turned on her heel and almost ran back to the barn, before she did something stupid with a man who had just buried his wife and child.