Emmy tugged her collar up a bit higher, trying to keep the Autumn breeze from freezing the sweat on her back. It was one of those days where if you were in the sun you were hot, but if you were in the shade or it clouded up you were downright chilly. She wished it would go ahead and get cold already, because the suspense was getting old.
She glanced over at her companions. Fox sat stoically bareback upon her spotted steed, eyes fixed on the North, their eventual path. The Big Horn range could be seen in the distance, though it was still several day’s ride away. At one time, this territory had belonged to Fox’s people. It must have been hard for her at times, like a twisted homecoming.
Sergio could barely keep his bloodshot eyes open. The man had put on an epic drunk last night, trying to keep pace with Lucky. That Latina could put it away, no question about it. Long after Sergio was a snoring heap on the tavern floor the raven haired beauty was still working on a bottle of tequila.
Lucky sat astride her deep brown mare, seeming fresher than Sergio but somehow more annoyed. She had been able to sleep, at least for a few hours, on a real bed. A return to a bedroll on the unforgiving ground probably wasn’t very high on her list of experiences.
Maybe it had been a mistake to take her along. Her and Sergio were getting a little too close...
Emmy shook her head, silently admonishing herself. That wasn’t fair. When the Navajo had attacked she’d held her own and then some. Lucky was cool under pressure. The fact was Emmy didn’t want to like her, because she was pretty and curvy and confident and men just seemed to fall under her spell when she batted those big brown eyes.
Except for Sergio, who had tried to kiss her on the trail. Or maybe she’d tried to kiss him. It didn’t matter, because it was a moment of weakness and she wasn’t about to repeat it.
“Heads up,” she said when she spotted the crew riding toward them. In the lead, his red and wrinkled hide covered by stained denim, rode Jerry Krupp. He was getting on in years—he claimed to be sixty five, but was rumored to be at least ten years older than that—but he could keep up with the youngsters beer for beer, shot for shot, and mile for mile. At least, he claimed he still could. If nothing else, she was glad to have him along in an advisory capacity, and he wasn’t likely to spook under fire.
The same thing could be said of his long time partner and one time protege Gene Pusser. He was a great bear of a man, his rounded hairy form bouncing along on the back of a gelding that seemed a tad too small beneath his bulk. His gunbelt cut him across the middle, creating a depressed equator at his midsection. Gene wasn’t the nicest, most polite man you’d ever meet, and he certainly wasn’t going to be scrambling up in a tree or on top of a mesa to scout the enemy, but he was a good twenty years younger than Krupp and had always been a better shot.
Their ‘cousin’, Pedro, was a small, unassuming man who smiled often and spoke only broken English. Apparently, he was a farmer who’d lost his crops to drought. Emmy knew that was a line of bull. Pedro was on the run, though she had a gut feeling it was from organized crime types and not the law. Otherwise Krupp and Pusser would have turned him in for the money; both were known to have whiskey habits that kept their coin purses light.
“Madre Dios,” Lucky muttered. Emmy followed her line of sight and realized she was staring at the last member of the crew, Sam Crenshaw. He was a handsome lad of about twenty years, blonde and tanned and leanly muscled from head to toe. Not the straightest shooter, at least according to Pusser and Krupp, but he’d been hand picked by Sheriff Judd, who was known to have an eye for talent.
Unfortunately, the good Sheriff had been forced to call of his pursuit of the Dalton Boys due to a relapse of the gout. That left the four men in his posse in a kind of limbo, no longer technically operating under the auspices of law enforcement.
Emmy had provided a kind of solution. Of course, the four of them were getting a smaller share of the bounty than the rest of their crew, but they needed her to deputize them. Otherwise, getting paid for their bounty might be difficult, though not impossible.
“Well, I’ll be a son of a coyote,” Sam said, breaking into a grin. “How you doing Lucky?”
“Sam.” Lucky was blushing—actually blushing! Emmy had never seen her so frazzled, not even when facing down a horde of angry Indians.
“Nice to see you again,” Sam said, his smile fading as he picked up on her iciness.
“What in the hell is this, Marshall?” Krupp kicked his horse into a trot and rode in a circle around Fox, Sergio, and Lucky. “I remember your giant Indian sidekick, but what’s with the seniorita with the massive cha chas and this scrawny dude? You call this a posse? And I thought you had Marcus King on board. Was that a lie to get me out of my comfortable bed this god damn early in the morning?”
“Marcus is buying a few supplies. Once he gets here we’ll make for Copper Mills.”
“Copper Mills?” Sergio’s eyes narrowed. “That ramshackle collection of misfits and wastrels is nearly a hundred miles from where the Daltons hit the train! It’s not even in the Big Horn range.”
“I am curious, Andiciopic,” Fox said. “Do you not want to catch the Dalton’s trail at the train robbery sight?”
“Plenty of government fellas have went over that spot with a fine toothed comb,” Emmy said with a sly grin. “I’m not just a sentimental wreck. I didn’t take on the Dalton boys bounty on account...well, not just on account of I felt bad for Sergio.”
“What’s wrong with Sergio?” Lucky asked.
“My wife and child were murdered by a man who rides with the Daltons,” Sergio said grimly.
“I’m sorry,” Lucky said, blushing for the second time in one day.
“Don’t be,” he said. “You had no way of knowing.”
“Uh, at any rate,” Emmy said, clearing her throat. She wasn’t too fond of the looks those two were giving each other. She’d have to make sure they had separate watches so they didn’t make moon eyes instead of watching for hostiles in the dark.
Right, Emmy, she thought it has nothing at all to do with the way you feel for Sergio...
“We’re riding to Copper Mills because I got a telegraph from the governor’s office back in Carbon City. There’s been a suspicious fella hanging around Copper here lately, has a bunch of Chinamen who follow him everywhere he goes. Wears a bowler style hat, missing the tip of one finger on his left hand, got a damn greasy mustache--”
“James Dalton,” Fox said. Then her eyes lit up. “James Dalton! We know where Big Man’s youngest resides.”
“We know where he was,” Emmy said. “Possibly. Still, it came from the Governor’s office, so it must at least have some kernel of truth.”
“Sounds like a god damn stupid plan to me,” Pusser said, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. His piggish eyes focused on Emmy. “Jimmy Dalton’s just one man. Bringing in Big Man and his brothers is where the real payday is.”
“You’re the one who’s stupid, Gene,” Emmy said, hand on her hip. “You don’t know the first rule of hunting; Know your prey. If we nab Jimmy Dalton, and make a big fuss of how we’re taking him back to Texas to be hung, Big Man will come after us.”
“Wait, what?” Sergio seemed to be snapping out of his haze. “That’s your plan? To make us a target for one of the most vicious outlaw gangs in the West?”
“It’ll be fine,” Emmy said with a wink. “We got the advantage cause we know they’ll be coming.”
“Oh, that makes me feel so much better,” Sergio grumbled.
“This could work,” Krupp said with cautious optimism. “Big Man’s as clever as they come, but he’s got a real blind spot when it comes to his boys. Might be that he’s so angry about us getting hands on his kid that he won’t be able to think straight.”
“Or, he’ll raise up an army and come after us,” Lucky said slowly. Pedro grinned at her and she rolled her eyes. “There’s only eight of us, Marshall.”
“I can count, Lucky. There was only THREE of us when those Apaches came calling, and that turned out all right, didn’t it?”
“I’d say a better plan,” Fox said, drawing a dirty look from Emmy “would be to get hold of Jimmy Dalton and make him tell us where his father is.”
Grim nods went around the assemblage, but Emmy only sighed. “You’re gonna, what, hold his feet over the fire? Smack him around until he spills? That method don’t work near as well as ya’ll think it does.”
“I can be very persuasive,” Fox said, brandishing a large knife.
“Look, if ya’ll wanna go through with this plan, at least let me conduct an official interrogation first,” Emmy said. “I done learned some things when I rode with Jerry Lee Roberts. A lot of the times you can get a guy to crow about damn near anything just by lending a sympathetic ear. You know, being nice.”
“You’re incapable of being nice,” Lucky said with a huff.
“Well, at least let me talk to him a little bit before we rake him over the coals.” She brightened up considerably when she spotted Marcus riding in a sturdy but unappealing flatbed wagon. “Looks like time’s up, ladies and gents. Anybody who wants to bail out, do it now or forever hold your peace.”
“Why are you looking at me?” Lucky asked.
“No particular reason.” Emmy kicked Goliath into a trot, approaching Marcus. “You got everything?”
“Reckon I did.” He gestured toward the back. “A dozen pair of manacles, that many canvas sacks, some hard tack and cheese I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy...I think I did pretty good considering you only gave me fifty dollars.”
“You kept the receipts, didn’t you?”
“Wasn’t about to forget that, not with the way you kept carrying on about ’em.” He handed a wad of parchment to Emmy.
Without further ado, Emmy led her posse out of town and angled to the West. Her intent was to skirt the Montana border until they reached Copper Mills. She would set a hard pace, and hopefully catch up with Jimmy Dalton in three days.
The azure sky spread out above them, spotted with fluffy clouds bearing the dark stain of rain. Getting wet wasn’t high on Emmy’s list of favorite things, so she was grateful when the rain stayed up in the sky instead of drizzling down on their odd procession.
When the sun was high in the sky and the horses were gleaming with sweat, she called a halt for lunch. Fox spied a thin but clear stream bubbling out from a mass of weeds in a hillside. Emmy filled her waterskin and wet a cloth to wipe dust from her face and neck. There was little she could do about the trail dust that seemed in every pore, but at least she had the illusion of being clean.
While they dined on hard jerky and harder biscuits, Sergio sat next to her on the flat rock she’d chosen as a perch.
“Can I help you, Sergio?” she asked around a mouthful of lunch. A few crumbs sprayed out and peppered his sleeve.
“You can start by chewing with your mouth closed,” he said tightly. Using his kerchief, he wiped away the offending bits. He turned his dark eyes on her, and she was nearly bowled over by their intensity. “I want you to know, that if we run into Bill Coyle, he is mine.”
“Oh, is he now?” Emmy laughed rudely. “When the shooting starts, I’m gonna aim at everyone who’s shooting at me. Bill Coyle included.”
“Now, wait just a minute-”
“No, you wait just a minute!” Emmy jabbed her finger into his surprisingly taut chest. “You said when I agreed to bring you along that you weren’t gonna screw everything up in pursuit of vengeance.”
“I must be the one to kill him. I must!”
“You must calm down-”
“Don’t patronize me!” Sergio stood up swiftly. His increasing volume had drawn the attention of the entire posse. “You have no idea what it is like, to have everything, your whole life, just taken away! I have to kill him, because otherwise I have nothing to say to my wife when I see her in my dreams, night after night after night...”
Sergio strode away stiffly, kicking a tin coffee mug that was in his path. Emmy took out her tin and prepared to roll a cigarette. She noticed that everyone was staring at her. “What?”
“Maybe you should go talk to him,” Lucky said. “Or I will-”
“Shoot.” Emmy put her tobacco away. “God Damnit. I’ll go drag his ass back before he stumbles into a nest of rattlers or something. Pain in the ass foreign bastard...”
She found him on the lee side of a copse of pines. He was sitting in the soft bed of needles, picking up twigs from the ground and tossing them through the air to no apparent effect. The gesture reminded her of her sister, stabbing a bit of straw into a beam of sunlight. Once she’d asked the strange girl what she was up to.
“Keeping dust off the floor,” she would say, not even bothering to look up.
Emmy sighed. If she was a lost cause for finding a husband, then her sister Rose was beyond even the Lord’s help.
She shook off the memory and walked up to his side. Sergio heard her spurs rattling, but didn’t glance up.
“Hey,” she said.
He didn’t respond, so she spoke again. “Mind if I sit down?”
When Sergio carried on in silence she sat down in the needles next to him. “I’m sorry. I was kinda being nasty back there.”
“I...was not rational myself,” Sergio said. “When I think of my wife...there’s this massive hole in my chest, begging to be filled.”
“Well, filling it with rage and hate ain’t no way to fix it,” Emmy said. “I understand where you’re coming from, Sergio, but this ain’t a fairy tale. Men like Bill Coyle don’t step outside for honorable duels. They wait until you’re walking out the door and shoot you in the back before you even make it to the street.”
“Are we going to talk about it?”
“We’re talking about it right now. No quests for vengeance on my watch-”
“No, I mean are we going to talk about that night at Marcus’s ranch?”
“Oh.” Emmy licked her lips. Sergio was looking at her, almost bashfully, from under a lock of curly dark hair. “That. There ain’t nothing to talk about.”
“C’mon,” she said, standing up quickly. “They’re gonna be worried about us.”
She offered him her hand, in order to help him up. He held on to it once he was standing, giving her fingers a gentle squeeze.
“Thanks Marshall,” he said “without you, I...I don’t know. I would be lost.”
“Ya wanna let go of me now?” she asked, irritation creeping into her voice. Truth be told, a giddy warmth was running through her chest at his touch, but it was such a foreign feeling that she felt overwhelmed more than excited.
“Sorry.” He released her, and Emmy nodded sagely.
All the way back to camp, she spent her time trying to look at Sergio without letting him know she was looking at him, while he seemed to be up to much the same.