Darting her hand out, she caught the mug of beer as it slid down the smoothly polished bar. A bit of suds splashed out onto her forearm, thrilling her with its coldness.
Slowly, she brought the mug to her lips and swallowed a generous amount. Foam clung to her lips, forcing her to wipe it away, but she didn’t mind.
“I’ll tell you this, Sergio,” she said with a sigh. “Nothing is better than a cold mug of beer after you’ve been on the trail.”
“You Americans always serve beer far too cold,” Sergio said with a sniff. “Beer is to be served at the right temperature.”
“Well,” Lucky said with arched eyebrows “if you tip the bartender, he might warm it up on the stove for you.”
They were sitting in a mid-tier tavern called the Dew Drop Inn. Not so nice a place as the Tiger, but still a far cry from a dive with broken furniture and sawdust on the floor to absorb spilled beer and vomit. A full sized stuffed grizzly drew your attention as soon as you walked in the swinging double doors, its maw forever frozen in a frightful snarl. It wasn’t alone, as the heads of a coyote, buck, and a mountain lion stared down from the wall over the bar.
“This is intolerable,” Sergio said, slamming his mug down hard. “How long are we supposed to wait?”
“As long as the Marshall requires,” said Lucky, though she was growing impatient herself. They had hit Sweetwater in the early afternoon, and now the sun had sunk low in the sky.
A commotion near the back caught her attention. Two cowboys, still in their dusty chaps, were dragging a skinny fellow toward the door by his feet. Without ceremony they chucked him into the street, while the Barkeep tried to pretend he was busy scrubbing out an already clean glass.
“Go on, get!” one of them shouted, kicking dust on the man’s sprawled form. “Lousy cheat!”
Lucky watched the two men return to their table, which now had an empty seat. “If you’ll excuse me, Sergio.”
“What are you doing?” he asked as she rose to her feet and smoothed out her skirts.
“Just picking up a little extra spending money,” she said with a wink. Sergio’s swarthy face screwed up in a frown. She was starting to wonder if he was ever happy about anything. The only time he didn’t seem miserable was when he cast furtive, longing looks at the red haired Marshall.
“Fine.” He sighed. “I’ll just wait here until our companions get back with whatever misfits the good Marshall has decided will accompany us on our journey.”
Misfits, she thought as she maneuvered between tables and patrons. I suppose that’s what we are, myself included.
The cowboys at the table perked up at her arrival. She played up her beauty, of course, keeping her stride just brisk enough that there was a generous bounce in her cleavage.
“Seniorita, you’re prettier than a new set of horse shoes!” said one ruddy cheeked man with good muscle on his arms but an extremely rounded belly.
She smiled at the compliment, pouring on the charm. Judging from the way sweat broke out on their foreheads, she was succeeding.
“Good day, gentlemen,” she said, allowing her accent to become more pronounced. “I was wondering if I could join you for a few hands.”
The cowboys exchanged glances. Clearly they wanted to spend some time with her, but gambling was normally a man’s purview. They needed a bit of prodding.
“I don’t mean to bother you,” she said, digging in her belt pouch “but my father taught me to play poker, and I’ve always wanted to play in a real game.”
She withdrew a stack of gold coins and sat them on the table. “I have money...”
“Shoot,” said the man with the big belly “settle on in missy, we’ll give you a go!”
They all chuckled at his double speak while Lucky pretended to be oblivious. She made to pull her chair out but one of the younger men at the table quickly rose from his own seat and did the gentlemanly thing.
“Thank you,” she said, sitting down and picking up the cards. They were worn, but didn’t appear to be marked. “My deal?”
With a practiced hand, she ripped through the cards. Gracefully, she began dealing them out. “The game is five card stud, deuces and one eyed Jacks wild.”
“What about bets?”
Lucky smiled sweetly. “The sky’s the limit!”
Though it ran contrary to her character, she was merciful. She didn’t quite take them for everything they had, and made sure to lose a hand or two. All in all, she ended up with almost twenty dollars more than she’d sat down with. Not bad, not bad at all.
When the men stopped smiling at her and started grumbling she excused herself, blaming feminine weakness.
“All this excitement has me about to fall out, gentlemen,” she said. “Thanks for the game!”
They were scowling, but they did stand up as she left the table. It was a good thing that they weren’t going to stay in town long, because she’d seen what these types did to cheaters.
And of course, Lucky wasn’t going to play cards without cheating. It would be like riding without a saddle—though that didn’t seem to bother Swimming Fox much—or eating pie without crust.
It took her a moment to realize that Sergio wasn’t at the bar any longer. She sat down in the stool he had been occupying and asked the barkeep where her companion had gone.
“He’s looking at the distellery in the cellar,” the venerable man replied. “Swears up and down he can get it working again.”
“From what I understand, he’s a man who’s good with his hands.”
I wonder how good...
Smiling at her private joke, she sweetly asked the barkeep if she could join him.
“I don’t know,” he replied cautiously “maybe you should let the man work. Stills can be pretty darn dangerous. Don’t want your pretty face getting ruined, do we?”
“Oh, I’ll be careful,” she said, patting his hand. He grinned with mostly gums and relented, pointing out the trap door in the kitchen which led to the cellar.
She nearly ran into him as he was on the way back up.
“Where are you going?”
“I was just checking on you,” Lucky said. “Were you able to fix his distillery?”
Sergio shook his head. “I need some galvanized rubber hose, which he does not have in supply. Has our fearless leader returned?”
“Afraid not. I’m beginning to think we should go and look for them.”
“I’ve never been to Sweetwater. You?”
Lucky shook her head. “It is not a large town. Where could they have gotten off to?”
The pair returned to the bar, where Lucky generously paid the tab, and then went out into the streets. Torches and gaslight lanterns provided some light, but overall their effect was limited. One had only to step into the shadow of a timber building to be in almost total darkness.
“It’s...rather dark,” Sergio said, twisting his mustache between thumb and forefinger.
“Indeed.” Lucky swallowed hard, because she was certain the three ruffians on the road behind were following them. “Perhaps we should return to the bar.”
“Too late,” Sergio hissed. A pair of men broke out of the shadows ahead and moved to cut off their path. Lucky rubbernecked enough to see that the trio behind them had quickened its pace.
“Are you armed?” she asked, fingering the derringer—one of her derringers—that she kept in her bodice.
“Yes.” Sergio had a glassy look in his eyes, and from the set of his jaw she figured he was about to do something stupid.
“Well, look what we got here,” said one of the two men who had interposed themselves in their path. “It’s a little dark to be wandering about, isn’t it?”
“Shut up, you, you filth!” Sergio pulled out his pistol and squeezed the trigger. One man fell over with a cry of pain, and then the street exploded with action.
Lucky grabbed Sergio by the elbow and yanked him down behind a rain barrel just as a barrage of gunfire tore through the air. One of the rounds punched a hole right through, dousing them with a spout of water.
Getting to her knees, Lucky pressed herself against the barrel and leaned out just enough to line up one of the ruffians in her iron sights. The derringer jerked in her gloved hand, the acrid smell of gunsmoke burning her nostrils. Her shot sliced through the hand of the nearest, causing him to drop his piece and clutch his crimson stained hand.
Dropping the derringer in the dirt, she drew another one from her garter and turned her attention to the other side of the street. The remaining attacker was using a tipped over horse trough for cover as Sergio squeezed the trigger over and over again, eyes glinting with a hint of madness.
“Get down, idiot!” she cursed in Spanish, pulling him to the mud just before the man fired back.
Lucky heard the scuffle of footsteps getting nearer. Taking a deep breath, she popped up until her chin was just above the rim and squeezed off a wild shot. As luck would have it, she put her round right in the man’s thigh. His hand clapped over a geyser of sanguine fluid, face already going white as he bled out.
She heard Sergio firing again, didn’t realize he’d had time to reload. Instead of trying to aim around the man’s cover, Sergio blasted his entire payload right through it. A moan of pain and a heavy thump seemed to indicate he’d hit.
Lucky let her second derringer fall from her fingers and was about to draw a third when she noticed that the last living man had yielded to the better part of valor.
“Are you hit?” she asked, taking in Sergio’s sweat damp face.
“No, I am not.” He rose from the ground, dirt caking both knees. “I think we should perhaps--”
“Head back to the Dew Drop? Way ahead of you.”
Making haste, they quickly returned to the tavern. Their gunfight had drawn attention, as half the patrons were standing out in the street peering intently into the darkness. Of course they were pumped for information, as they were coming from the direction of the gunplay.
“What in tarnation was all that?” asked an old prospector with one ear.
“We were just--” Sergio began.
“--taking a walk, and then we heard gunshots!” Lucky grabbed Sergio’s arm and shivered. “I was so frightened!”
Sergio opened his mouth to speak, brow furrowed in confusion, but Lucky squeezed his arm extra tight and gave a subtle shake of her head.
Once they were safely ensconced in the Dew Drop, Sergio arched his bushy brows and demanded an explanation for her lie.
“It’s simple,” Lucky said “I do not wish to go in front of a judge, who may or may not decide to believe us when we say were set upon.”
“We left dead men in the street-”
“Shh,” Lucky said, pressing her finger against his lip. “Not so loud, dear.”
“One gets used to it. It’s the nature of the West.”
Sergio tapped his fingers on the bar in irritation, but he dropped the subject.
They each made it through about half a mug of ale when Emmy Lou finally came swaggering in the front door. She was followed by Fox and the colored man, Marcus. Two of them were grinning—Fox was her usual stoic self.
“Well,” Emmy said when she spotted the two of them sitting at the bar “I hope ya’ll have had a fine time of things while we’ve been busting our humps!”
“The finest,” Sergio said, offering her a toast with his mug. He gave Lucky a sly wink. Maybe he wasn’t so stuck up after all.
“Did you find any more recruits?” Lucky asked.
Emmy broke into a grin. “You bet yer ass we did. Two former Texas Rangers who are little long in the tooth but can still shoot straight, their cousin from down South—I think his name is Pedro or something—and a young feller what can’t shoot for shit but has a guitar and the voice of an angel.”
“I still question the worth of adding such a man to our ranks,” Fox grumbled.
“Get stuffed, Fox,” Emmy said with a glower. “If I can hear some guitar music before bed I sleep like a baby. Besides, he’s so easy on the eyes even you have to be into him a little.”
“Hardly.” Fox huffed and turned her head away.
“Where is this veritable army?” Sergio asked.
“Gonna meet us on the North end of town around nine o’clock tomorrow morning,” Mark said. His cheerful eyes narrowed. “Might be a waste of time, though. Nobody’s seen hide nor hair of Big Man Dalton or his crew since they hit that train by the Montana border.”
“I done seen him!”
Lucky stared past Sergio’s elbow and saw a reed thin man in rough homespun trousers. He had the look of a scavenger, with mismatched boots and a gentleman’s bowler hat in bad need of a wash. She immediately discounted the man’s veracity, but Emmy clumped across the floor, spurs rattling, and stood before the man with arms akimbo.
“That so, old timer?” Emmy peeled back her vest, revealing her badge. “I’d love to hear about it.”
“Of course, of course,” he said, smiling nervously. He licked his lips. “Anything to help a peace officer. My throat’s a little dry, though...”
Emmy grinned and signaled the barkeep with her hand to pour the old man another drink.
“That should lube up your voice,” she said. “So spill.”
“I’m felling a little peckish...”
Emmy sighed and ordered a bowl of squirrel stew.
Once the man had drained not one but two more mugs of beer and eaten most of the stew, he began to speak. Lucky would have strangled the little man by that point, but Emmy seemed patient. That was not a trait she expected to find in the Marshall.
“Well, about a week past I was cooling my heels in a dung heap called Melville,” he began.
“I know the place,” Emmy said, wrinkling her nose. “It’s a shithole all right.”
“Yeah, one time I got shot in my ass by a ten year old--”
“You were talking about Big Man?”
“Right.” The old timer spooned another dollop of stew into his toothless mouth. Still chewing—or maybe gumming was the right word—he continued his story, unmindful of bits of food flying from his maw. “Well, I done looked up from a little nap and I seen Big Man Dalton himself, riding a big white horse next to the town doctor, some feller named Dillon.”
“The most reliable of testimony,” Sergio said while rolling his eyes.
“I done seen it!” the old timer’s blood shot eyes were livid. “You calling me a liar?”
“I’m calling you a drunk,” Sergio said.
“Do you want to step outside, you hairy little ferringer?”
“Enough!” Emmy slammed her fist down on the table and glared at Sergio. “Go get yourself some stew or something.”
“I’m not eating squirrel,” he grumbled.
“Your loss. It happens to be delicious.” Emmy sat down in Sergio’s vacant stool and leaned in close to the scavenger. “Now, are you real sure you saw what you think you saw?”
The old timer nodded rapidly, his sagging jowls flapping.
“I done seen it! It was Manfried Dalton, and may the Devil take my tongue if I’m wrong! He had the silver-plated big iron and everything.”
“Big Man Dalton shoots left handed,” Emmy said. “Was his gun on the left side?”
“What? I don’t...no, I don’t think it was...”
Emmy laughed. “Easy old timer, I was just testing you. Big Man’s right handed as far as anyone can tell. Did Big Man happen to mention where they were headed?”
“Somethin’ about a camp in the Big Horn range. That’s all I heard, I swear!” He licked his chapped lips, eyes gleaming. “So, uh, my information’s purdy good, right?”
“Sure.” Emmy fished a handful of silver dollars form her belt pouch. The old man cackled as they spilled into his hand. “Thanks, friend.”
“Don’t mention it,” the scavenger said, drooling over the handful of money. Lucky doubted he would make it out of the tavern with his ‘fortune.’
“What now, Andiciopec?” Fox asked Emmy. “We gather more men?”
“Naw, Fox, I figger we’ve got enough.” Emmy grinned. “I mean, how many men can he possible be riding with? Dalton’s always kept his crew small on account of wantin’ the profits to be bigger.”
Fox grunted and turned around, ordering her own bowl of stew. Lucky cocked her eyebrow and looked pointedly at Emmy.
“Why does Fox call you that?”
“Call me what?”
“It means,” Fox said without turning around “an invincible warrior whom bullets cannot kill.”
“What?” Lucky couldn’t stifle a laugh. “You’re bullet proof, are you Marshall?”
“I never said I was,” Emmy said with a sigh. Rolling up her sleeve, she revealed a circular scar on her bicep. Turning her arm a bit so Lucky could see the matching scar on the other side, Emmy grinned. “Took a round right here...”
Emmy bent over and shimmied her trouser leg up to reveal her calf. She pointed out another ugly mark. “...and here...” she slapped herself on the thigh “and here, but I ain’t about to display that one!”
“Bullets cannot kill Amelia,” Fox said stubbornly. “She is Andiciopic.”
“If you don’t mind, Fox, I hope I never have to test that theory.”
“Let’s see,” Lucky said, ticking points off her fingers “we have a bullet proof Marshall, an Indian princess, a crazy inventor--”
“A feisty Latina gambler who’s a little too lucky,” Emmy added with a grin.
“--and an old cowboy. Sounds like the makings of a ballad.”
“If you ever write it down, Lucky, make sure you tell everyone how pretty I am,” Emmy said.
The three women laughed, while Sergio just appeared annoyed.
Business as usual.