“Steady,” Doc said, standing protectively behind Z as she tottered a few steps forward. “Don’t rush it, it’s not a race.”
“Good thing,” Pete said with a snort. “I’ve seen snails move faster.”
Doc frowned in disapproval, but Z grinned, as he’d known she would. She wasn’t a joyless, suspicious curmudgeon like, quite frankly, every other Chinese he’d ever met. They had spent a great deal of time together, though Pete suspected she was mostly trying to learn the language.
Or languages. Z had cajoled him into tutoring her in some Indian dialects as well.
He grinned, remembering well her methods. They had to be careful, of course. Big Man wouldn’t approve, and her family might just do her in for dallying with a scarred injun desperado. Neither had any illusions about what they meant to each other, or where their trysts were taking them. Once the tunnel was complete and Big Man could float his gold down to Wyoming right under the noses of the law—literally—there would be no more need for the alliance, no more need for Z to be near.
Still, when he’d heard of her injury...it was fortunate that Big Man did in that moron who struck her, because Pete would surely have done so himself. He had resigned himself to the fact that he was going to lose her, just like he’d lost everything else he’d ever cared about.
But then he didn’t. Out of the blue, Little Manny comes riding back and saves the day. Manny the nasty drunk, who’d beaten a scrawny Indian kid half to death for dropping a bottle of whiskey. A man who he’d sworn to kill if he had half a chance.
Manny went and saved the damn day. Now Pete owed him, owed a man who was one step less vile than his father. At least, he used to be.
Now it was hard to reconcile his memory with the caring, attentive man before him. Doc had either changed, or he was doing one of the best acting jobs in the history of mankind. Pete, seeing himself as somewhat pessimistic but overall pragmatic, assumed it was the latter. No need to give Manny too much credit.
“That’s enough for today,” Doc said, helping Z back to her cot. Her strength was improving but she was still dreadfully thin. The bowls of thin gruel she’d been able to keep down after the surgery were slowly adding meat to her frame, but she seemed to have a long way to go before she was the healthy, vibrant woman he remembered.
Z shook her head stubbornly. “A few more minutes, please,” she said.
“All right, but don’t strain yourself,” Doc continued to support her as she made her mincing way about the tent. “Truth be told, you’re making a remarkably quick recovery all things considered.
Eventually, even the willful Z tired out, and allowed herself to be seated on the cot. Sighing, she eased back and lowered her head to the pillow. Once her eyes were closed, Doc stared at her for a long moment. It was easy enough to see the longing in his eyes.
Doc was clearly not going to leave the tent for some time, parking himself behind a crude wooden desk Big Man had scavenged for him. Z seemed to be drifting off, so he had no reason to linger.
He looked about for Rose, but she was napping, as she often did during the hottest part of the day. Big Man seemed to be rather fond of her, calling her his daughter when others were in earshot. Pete grinned to himself, drawing a few stares as he wound his way through camp. Manfried Dalton was no fool. A man.who can draw that fast and still hit what they’re aiming at, with two guns no less, was nothing short of legendary, as in you might hear about such a person but never meet one.
And Rose was a woman, to boot. A girl, really, in so many ways. Her childlike innocence belied her capacity for violence, however, even when her body’s sleek profile made him wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
Pete groaned inwardly when he heard the familiar baritone. Bad News Bill waddled into view, flanked by Zeke Dalton and Kansas.
“What’s going on, Bill?”
“Big Man wants you and Doc to ride out with us,” Bill said. “As in now, redskin!”
Pete exchanged glances with Zeke and Kansas. They seemed grim, even the normally jovial Kansas. Figuring that something was up, he turned on his heel and headed back to Doc’s tent.
“Get your gear,” Pete said without preamble, thrusting his head into the tent. “We’ve got to ride out.”
“What?” Doc turned around, brow furrowed above his intense gaze. “No! I have to stay with my patient.”
“I get the feeling there’s another patient what needs your time, Doc,” Pete said, licking his lips.
“Not a chance,” Doc said with a growl. “I don’t care what my father says, he demanded I perform this surgery—against my best advice—and somehow she survived. HE rolled the dice, and she won the game. I will NOT abandon her at this stage of her recovery.”
“That your final word, Doc?” Pete said.
“That’s my final word.”
“Good enough for me.” Pete licked his lips. “Mind if I, uh...take a few things? I studied under my tribe’s Akbaalia for a while, I can probably at least make ’em more comfortable.”
Doc nodded, and even helped Pete gather up some essentials. Bottles of Iodine, gauze bandages, some clamps and forceps useful for digging coyote teeth and cactus needles out of human skin, and a bottle of clear fluid Doc made certain to point out was only to ease the passing of those beyond help. All went into a black leather case that Pete dragged outside into the fading sun.
“Where’s Doc?” Bill demanded when Pete came hustling up.
“He’s not for coming. Got to tend to his patient.”
“Bullshit!” Bill spat in the dirt. “Let me see that mother fucker, I’ll set him straight!”
“Pete.” Zeke’s soft tone drew his attention. “It’s Jimmy. He fell off a stallion he was trying to break and did something to his thumb. Now it’s turned black and swelled up like a rattler bit him.”
“I see.” Pete sighed. “And of course the coolies won’t release him to come here. I think I can handle it, Zeke.”
“Yes. Once I saw my Akbaalia tend to a man who’d had his foot stomped on by a horse. One of his toes was broken under the skin, and the medicine man set it straight. It took a while, but eventually the brave was walking normally again. This sounds like something similar.”
“Well...” Zeke looked to Kansas. The scrawny man cleared his throat. “It’s like this, Pete...chances are if you can’t figure it out we’ll have to bring Jimmy back with us.”
“If we have to bring him back, the yeller guys ain’t gonna take too kindly,” Kansas grasped at the air with his empty hands. “There might be blood. And we know how you feel about that.”
“You don’t want to be there, Pete,” said Zeke. “It could get ugly, real fast. We all know you don’t have the stomach for killing.”
“I done killed, when I’ve had to,” Pete said, patting the pistol at his side.
“Calm down, Pete, we ain’t questioning your manhood,” Kansas said. “We just want you to know what’s going down. Follow?”
“Yeah.” Pete dropped his hand back to his side. “I follow.”
Pete knew what wasn’t being said. Big Man was pissed that his boy had come to harm, no matter how minor, while under the care of their partners. Jimmy was coming back with Bill and the rest, period, and they were expecting trouble.
“You know,” Pete said as they made their way for the open air stables “I said this was going to play out badly from the get go.”
“Yeah, you did, Pete,” Kansas said.
“I don’t much feel like celebrating being right, though.”
“Imagine that,” Zeke said.
“You sure you don’t want to say goodbye to your girlfriend before you go?” Bill made kissing noises with his spittle flecked lips.
Pete ignored the chuckles from his companions, losing himself in his own world as he often did. Lamenting that he had no more peyote bulbs left, he wondered about giving the clear liquid a go. What was it? Probably poison, but the kind that killed you slow and soft. If you had to die, that was the way to do it. Slow and soft...give a man time to reflect on things.
The Montana sky was slightly overcast as they made their way out of camp. Rather than ride through the narrow and serpentine canyon path, they used a tunnel Big Man had dug for easier egress. It was crude, with creaking timbers overhead and the occasional minor cave in. Still, the tunnel opened up behind a dense copse of trees on a steep hillside, making it almost perfectly concealed from the road.
Pete and the others galloped down the trail, Zeke setting a hard pace. The spray from the Sweetwater river splashed up onto his thighs. If they kept up like this, they would be at Copper Mills Ranch early the next morning.
After a time Zeke slowed, allowing the horses to recover their wind. Pete scouted ahead and found a nice stream they could water their mounts at. He plucked some wild onions to add a little flavor to their hard tack and stale cheese.
Bill had a bottle of scotch, but wasn’t too keen on sharing. Fortunately, Zeke was willing to part with a few swigs from his flask of something dark and bitter and warm, but it cut through the dust nicely. That was the thing about Zeke, he was almost human...for a Dalton.
Pete could well remember a time when Zeke Dalton had held a loaded shotgun to a pregnant woman’s belly during a hold up. If the teller hadn’t dropped that derringer from his shaking fingers....
Well, Pete would never wager on the mercy of Zeke Dalton, generous streak or no.
Soon enough they were back on the trail. As each and every one of them was wanted, they avoided the main thoroughfares, which was simple enough. Most major caravans and settlers used either the Bozeman or Oregon trails, particularly now that the ‘savages’ had been driven from the land.
As the miles disappeared beneath his horse’s hooves, he found his mind drifting back to camp and the two women he’d left behind. Z, whose name he couldn’t even pronounce, , and Rose, a woman whose mind he couldn’t comprehend.
Somehow, the one night he’d slept next to Rose—fully clothed—stood out more than few, brief encounters with soiled doves. Why, he couldn’t say.
“If you pick at that, it’ll never heal,” Bill said mockingly.
“Shut up,” Pete stopped scratching his scarred cheek. It was a nervous habit he had never been able to quite break himself of.
“Ooooooh,” Bill said. “I’m shaking in my boots, Injun!”
“Knock it off, Bad News,” Zeke said. “Horses are rested. Let’s go!”
Zeke kicked his horse into a gallop, and the others followed suit. Pete couldn’t help but smile. It was an old technique for commanding your forces in the field; Keep them too busy to fight.
The sun sank below the horizon and Zeke kept pushing right into the night. At times the moon was obscured by clouds or trees or high hills and they had to dismount, walking their horses until the path was clear.
At others they were able to thunder across the rolling hills, the wind rushing through their hair. At moments like this, he could imagine what it must have been like, to ride after the Tatanka and bring it down with wit and flint arrows.
Not at all like the bedraggled, starving thing his tribe had become. If only they could have seen what was in his heart, they would understand why he did what he did...
Pete forced himself not to think about the past. What was done was done, and moping had never solved anybody’s problems—especially not his own.
By the time the eastern sky was teasing the dawn, Pete and his mount were exhausted. Zeke called a stop in a hollow between two buttes. The men slunk down to the ground, some of them sleeping as soon as their eyes closed.
Pete rolled a cigarette, clucking at his low supply of tobacco. He’d been hasty, packing for this trip. Sighing, he used a bramble from their campfire to light his coffin nail and settled back to look at the sky. Out on the trail, you could really see the stars, more stars than you thought possible. His mentor, the Akbaalia, had little to say about the stars, other than it was the Three Legged Rabbit who had created the night and day cycle.
Pete wrinkled his nose. Now there was a reason why his people had lost to the whites. The pale faces had heroes like Hercules, the strongest man who ever lived. What did the Crow have? A rabbit with a wooden leg who thought the sun was too hot.
He scratched the scar on his cheek. That stupid rabbit didn’t know jack about heat. Heat was a red hot iron held up to your face. Heat was your blisters bursting in your shoes because you’d been running away from the army for days without end.
They were going to get caught. There was no doubt about it, they were going to get caught. Oh, their diminished tribe could have held out for several more days, maybe a week. To what end? Red Cloud had been defeated, there was no point in fighting the whites anymore. No point.
His face wrinkled in a sardonic grin. No, he couldn’t convince himself that he’d done it for the good of the tribe. He’d betrayed his people because he was tired of running, and wanted it to be over one way or the other.
Soon enough, Big Man’s mad scheme was going to be over. One way or the other. What would happen to him if they got caught? The noose, for sure.
The thought of Rose dangling from a gallows made him shudder. Why had he thought of her all of the sudden? He was worried about himself. That was how you survived when you were an outcast. You made yourself useful to someone powerful and looked out for number one.
Desiring more palatable fodder for his dreams, Pete tried to think of what would happen if they succeeded in smuggling the gold down to Mexico. He’d be able to retire, maybe buy a ranch. Or a cantina. Who knew, maybe he’d even get married...
Though he tried to imagine a dark skinned seniorita, it was Rose’s face he kept seeing beneath the veil.