Luciana tried to keep her eyes on the wagon trundling along ahead of her. It was obvious that Sam wanted her attention, and she was not inclined to give it to him.
The day was breezy and cool. She had wrapped a pancho over her shoulders to ward off the chill, which she drew tighter about herself to hide her face.
“Was it something I said?”
Lucky sighed. “We had a wonderful night together, but that’s all it was.”
“And there couldn’t be a second wonderful night in it for-”
“No, there cannot.” She turned to face him at last. “Sam, you are a handsome young man with his whole life ahead of him. I am a second rate Faro dealer who will be dead before she’s forty. At times, I wonder why I ever left home.”
“My father’s estate. I am...was...to be wed to the son of a powerful ally.”
“Do you love the guy?”
“What?” Lucky shook her head and laughed. “I have only spoken to him briefly at parties. He seemed nice enough, but his family are pig farmers. I can’t stand the smell of pig shit.”
“So you ran away and became a card dealer cause you don’t like pig shit,” Sam said with a laugh. “I can relate. I used to be a cowboy. Figgered I’d get used to the smell. Then I realized the truth.”
“And what truth is that?”
“That there is no getting used to the smell.” He cackled at his own jest, and Lucky felt the corners of her mouth turning up in a grin. “Seriously, though shouldn’t you marry somebody you love?”
“Love is for peasants. Marriage among the elite is about cementing old alliances or forging new ones.”
“You mean to tell me,” Sam said, taking off his hat and holding it over his heart “that you’re a Mexican Princess?”
“Don’t be an ass.” Lucky kicked her horse into a trot and pulled ahead of the wagon. That disgusting old lecher Krupp winked at her, his eyes lingering on her bust. She ignored him and caught up to Emmy and Fox, who were riding point.
“Well, look who we got here,” said Emmy. “It’s the Gambler.”
“The Gambler?” Lucky shrugged. “I suppose there are worse nicknames.”
“No doubt. My little sister used to have to be told to close her mouth, so I called her Drooly.”
“I can’t imagine your parents liked that much.”
“My daddy tanned my hide with a leather belt,” Emmy said with a grin. “Don’t know what my momma thought about it, on account of I can’t speak to the dead.”
“You are Andiciopic,” Fox said solemnly “you can do anything.”
“I can shove my foot up your Injun...” Emmy held up her hand and the posse stopped.
“What is it?”
“Shh,” Emmy waved Lucky to silence. “See that ribbon of smoke there? We’re getting close to where that cabin’s supposed to be.”
“Do you think it’s really Jimmy Dalton? I mean, why would he be out in the middle of nowhere like this?”
“Calm down, Lucky. There’s no telling what snakes like the Daltons are up to. Most likely he’s cooling his heels cause he pissed off his daddy. Everybody knows they fight like cats and dogs.”
Lucky wasn’t satisfied with that answer, but she held her tongue. This was clearly a situation where the Marshall was the expert. ‘The Texas Terror,’ that was what Sergio called her. Hopefully, she lived up to her reputation and the eight of them all told would walk away rich.
She’d still have to go back home, of course, but her nest egg could fund an excellent escape plan. Maybe she could fake her death, save her father’s honor...
“Heads up,” Emmy said. “They got a scout keeping an eye out.”
“I don’t see anyone.”
“Me and Fox can spot him. Right Fox?”
The Indian woman nodded. “In the spruce tree. Has a rifle across his lap. He’s sleeping, though.”
“For real?” Emmy craned her neck. “Damn, Fox, I can’t make out that much. Didn’t even see the rifle.”
“How do you want to handle this?”
“Hmm.” Emmy scratched her chin. “Fox, figger you can sneak up on that fella and take him out?”
Fox arched an eyebrow. “I can, if I don’t have to be gentle.”
Emmy scrunched up her face and stared at the distant tree. The sun shone down cheerily on the placid scene, a cozy stone cottage a stone’s throw from the sentry was well kept and inviting. It was entirely too lovely a scene to be the sight of a killing.
At least, that was Lucky’s perspective. The Marshall nodded grimly at Fox, which the Indian woman seemed to accept with glee. She crept into the underbrush and melted into the landscape.
“She’s a little bit eager to be killing,” Lucky said.
“Yeah, Fox loves to spill blood. Some folks think it makes her crazy, but she’s reasonable enough.”
“I can tell you two are close,” Lucky said.
“What have you heard?” Emmy arched an eyebrow. “Sergio been spoutin’ some crap?”
“I...don’t know what you mean.” Lucky cleared her throat. “I only meant that I can tell the two of you are good friends.”
“Oh.” Emmy laughed. “Yeah, I reckon we are at that. Fox got accused of putting an Injun curse on some fella in Lubbock, was on her way to be lynched when I intervened.”
“So it’s gratitude, then?”
“Partly. I think another factor is that there ain’t many women in the bounty hunting game. It’s hard to find a man who’ll watch your back...without spending too much time watching your back, if you catch my drift.”
Lucky laughed. “Krupp is rather disgusting, isn’t he?”
“Some, but he’s a steady one. He’ll throw cold water on any idea you have, sure, but he’ll back you to the hilt once you’ve made up your mind to act.”
Lucky was silent for along moment, regarding the distant sentry. Fox had disappeared utterly.
“That man is going to die.”
Emmy spat in the dirt. “Better him than us.”
“What if he’s not an outlaw?”
“He’s guarding an outlaw. That’s aiding and abetting.”
“Don’t spout your legal nonsense at me. What if he’s a child?”
“An armed child will kill you just as dead as an armed adult.”
Lucky turned to glare at the Marshall. “You have an answer for everything, don’t you? Everything you do is perfectly justifiable, and the rest of the world can go hang itself.”
“Now see here,” Emmy said, jabbing her finger at Luciana “I’m acting in the best interests of the law and the glorious Union.”
“Yes, but you still take the gold for your bounties.”
“Well, a gal has got to make a living—head’s up!”
Lucky shielded her eyes with her palm, squinting until she could make out the tree. The sentry was no longer sitting in the low branch.
“Well, I suppose the the point is now moot,” Lucky said snidely.
“Hang on a second,” Emmy said, freckled face screwed up in concentration.
Lucky closed her mouth, followed her line of sight but didn’t see anything other than the sun swept fields surrounding the cottage and the dirt road as it wound lazily through the landscape.
“Sergio!” Emmy barked. “Bring me that doohickey you got what lets you see stuff far away like you’re close up!”
“Telescope?” Sergio fished a metal cylinder out of his pack and handed it to Emmy. “I hadn’t thought you were overly fond of the device.”
“I wasn’t fond of your dumb ass tipping off the Navajo,” Emmy said. She extended the cylinder and looked through the tapered end. “It ain’t working, Spaghetti!”
“Try taking the lens cap off,” he said helpfully.
“Oh.” Emmy lifted the scope to her eye again and froze. The color drained from her cheeks, and she softly swore.
“What is it? What do you see?”
“I see trouble, that’s what.” Emmy pointed toward the north. “See that cloud of dust up there on the road? That’s no less than four mean mothers trotting along like they got someplace real important to be.”
“Is one of them Jimmy Dalton?” Sergio asked.
“Just a sec, they’re a ways off as of yet...” tense moments passed while Emmy scrutinized the distant figures. “I don’t know who the big bearded guy is or the Injun feller, but I recognize Zeke Dalton plain as day. Skinny little runt with no shirt must be Kansas Joe.”
“What are they doing here? I thought Jimmy was the only Dalton in Copper Mills?” Lucky glanced at Sergio. He was staring intensely at the riders, his posture stiff and nostrils flaring.
“Give me that,” he said, roughly pawing the telescope away from Emmy.
“Marshall,” he said in a voice trembling with emotion “the big man is Bill Coyle.”
“Damn.” Emmy licked her lips. “Now, don’t go getting all fired up, Sergio.”
“Don’t got getting all...” Sergio sputtered, his dark eyes enraged “are you jesting with me? Are you suggesting I just let the man who murdered my-”
“Not at all, Sergio,” Emmy said calmly. “I’m not the enemy here, alright? You want to put that away?”
Sergio blinked, then looked at his hand. Lucky gasped when she saw that his pistol was bared, though it was not pointing at Emmy. Carefully he put it away and looked an apology at Emmy.
“Like I was saying,” Emmy said turning back toward the cottage “don’t get hotblooded and start shooting before it’s time. We’ll take Coyle in like all the rest. Right now, I’m a little worried about Fox.”
Lucky shifted in her saddle. Her nerves were frazzled; She was tired of all the waiting. The actual fighting wasn’t what troubled her. It was waiting for the fighting to start. She had to admit, there was a certain thrill in the heat of battle once it was joined, a feeling of being alive that she didn’t feel at any other time—except, maybe, when she was playing poker.
“Why are you worried about her? I cannot even see her!”
“There’s one of two possibilities,” Emmy said “either they know about the sentry, in which case they’ll know something is up when they don’t get challenged. Or they don’t know about the sentry and we’ll get a few more minutes of chin scratchin’ time. Hopefully they don’t spot Fox in either case.”
All three spun in a circle, eyes wide as dinner plates as they spotted Fox, leaning casually against a boulder.
“They won’t spot me, but they might spot you if you don’t move behind cover.”
“Fox,” Emmy said, clapping the big woman on her shoulder. “What about the sentry? Hope you stashed his body good.”
Fox glared at Emmy, and Lucky got the feeling the Indian was insulted.
“Right,” Emmy said, grinning. “Don’t mean to critique your work. You know I dig your style.”
“What’s the plan?”
Krupp rode up, uninvited, to join their pow wow. His leathery face was filthy with trail dust, and once again his gaze lingered on Lucky’s bust.
“We need to rethink the plan,” Emmy said with a touch of annoyance in her tone. “Turns out there’s more of ’em than we thought, and we don’t even know how many people are inside the cottage.”
“Three,” Fox said. “Jimmy Dalton is passed out with an empty whiskey bottle in his hand in the common room. Two others are playing some sort of game in the kitchen.”
“Good work, Fox,” Emmy said. “That brings the total to seven. Seven versus eight. Odds are in our favor.”
“Emmy,” said Marcus, trotting up on foot. He’d been concealing the wagon and team in a copse of fir trees nearby. “Did you spot the fresh faces?”
“Yes we did. You ready for some action, old man?”
“No,” he said, unslinging the rifle from his shoulder and checking the breech. “But I guess I’ll saddle up anyway.”
“So, this is it, huh?” Sam’s voice held a definite note of panic. “We’re going to fight.”
Lucky wished she could reassure him somehow, but it might seem awkward given their earlier conversation. Emmy smiled, a bit too widely, and smacked Sam on his tight buttocks.
“Hello!” he yelped, leaping a foot in the air.
“Don’t worry, Picky,” Emmy said. “We’ll keep you out of the worst fighting.”
“Why ya’ll gotta call me that?” Sam asked.
“Cause you’re always picking on people,” Krupp said, strumming a phantom guitar.
“How do you wanna handle this, Emmy?” Marcus asked. “Those aren’t just trail bums riding in off the road.”
“I figger they could hole up in that cottage for awhile,” Emmy said. “Since we don’t have time to lay a siege, we’ll wait for them to come out.”
“Why would they come out?” Lucky asked.
“Simple, to look for their missing guy. Once they’re out in the open we can cut them down in a crossfire.”
Emmy took a short stick from the ground and drew a crude map of the area.
“Me and Fox will get over here,” she said, pointing at a thicket across from where the man had stood sentry. “Krupp, you Pusser and Pancho-”
“Is Pedro,” Pedro interjected.
“Right, sorry. You two and Pedro take up positions on this low hill. Should give you pretty good vantage. Now, Sergio, I know you want a crack at Coyle, so I’m a gonna put you....Sergio?”
Emmy whipped her head around, red locks flying. “Anybody see Sergio?”
Lucky scanned about, as did everyone else. She spotted a lone figure darting toward the cottage, an oblong, squarish shape in its hands. It must have been heavy, because he was bowed almost in half as he trudged through the high grass.
“Marshall!” Lucky cried, pointing toward the scene. The riders were nearly abreast of the sentry tree, talking casually from all appearances.
“That god damn fool,” Emmy said softly, her face white as a sheet.
Sergio slid to a stop, lifted his weapon—Luciana assumed that’s what it was—to waist level and screamed in a ragged voice;
As Sergio lifted the heavy metal box, a tripod of thin but sturdy steel deployed. The rods found purchase in the sun baked dirt. The Italian gripped a crank handle attached to the side of the device and spun it for all he was worth.
The big man turned in his saddle, hand reflexively going for his sidearm. It was too late, as Sergio fired his strange weapon. To Lucky it appeared as if the box in Sergio’s hands shook, while Coyle was covered from the waist up in plumes of smoke. A split second later she heard the rapid retorts, and could even feel them in her belly.
Coyle’s horse galloped away, its back bloody and eyes wild. What was left of Bill Coyle slumped on the ground. It was hard to make out details at that distance, but the man was clearly missing to many body parts to be anything but dead.
Sergio screamed, dropping the weapon to the grass. He stared at his hands, face contorted in agony.
“Charge!” screamed Emmy Lou, leaping astride Goliath’s back and readying her rifle. As the massive steed’s hooves tore up the ground, she fired a shot. The little man—Kansas, Lucky thought—yelled and clutched at his neck before pitching backward out of his seat.
Luciana struggled to control her own mount. The mare was rearing up, frightened by the sounds of gunfire. Digging her spurs into its side, she yanked hard on the reigns until it dropped back to all fours.
By the time she got the beast pointed in the right direction, the battle had been joined. Sergio had found cover behind a low line of stones but was either unarmed or too injured to wield a weapon. He just cringed as the remaining riders sent a barrage of bullets his way while they scrambled for their own cover.
Krupp and Pedro were galloping hard toward the south, probably intending to outflank the riders and cut off their escape. Pusser, none too swift on his long in the tooth gelding, was struggling to catch up to Emmy and Fox.
Marcus moved past both women in a flash, the legs on Buckcherry moving in a blur. Unlike her own mount, the black man’s horse seemed almost eager for battle.
Angling his trajectory so he would pass close by the dirt road, Marcus let his lariat fly. It settled around the shoulders of one of the men—she thought it might be Zeke—and yanked him out of his saddle. Marcus dragged the man for a dozen feet before a sudden collision with a tree stump wrenched the lariat out of Marcus’s hand. Zeke Dalton lie very still, throat still encircled by the hemp.
Lucky was torn between joining the fight and finding shelter. Emmy hadn’t given her an assignment, after all. When she spotted Sam, one foot in his stirrup while his eyes were trained unwaveringly at the carnage below, she made her choice.
“Come,” she said, taking him by the hand. She led him behind a man sized boulder. Desperately, he clung to her like a swimmer in storm tossed seas.
“I’m sorry,” he said, weeping. “I’m sorry, I just can’t...”
“Shh,” she said “it’s all right. Sam, I have to go. You stay here and...watch the horses.”
Bracing herself, she took a deep breath and climbed back aboard her horse. The idiot beast was flicking its ears, snorting in its eagerness to rejoin its equine brethren who had mostly galloped down the slope.
Lucky kept far away from the gunfight, instead trying to join Krupp and Pedro. Besides, the Marshall seemed to have things well in hand. She and Fox were keeping the one remaining rider pinned down behind his meager cover, while Pusser crept toward the cottage.
“Well, hello there pretty,” Krupp said, winking at her. Pedro arched an eyebrow at her presence, but didn’t say anything. That suited her fine, as the little man tended to put her ill at ease. “The Marshall send you our way?”
“No,” Lucky said. “I doubt she knows that I am here.”
“Really?” Krupp cackled, giving her a lewd stare.
Suddenly, she didn’t feel all that comfortable.
“You know,” she said “I’m going to check on Sergio. I think he may have been injured.”
“Now hold on, here,” Krupp said, moving his horse to block her passage. “You ain’t no doctor. Though I think you can help me with a little something...”
She definitely didn’t like the gleam in his eyes, or the sudden way that he and Pedro got very quiet. It was like the feeling before a storm hit, or the tense moments preceding a tavern brawl.
“Out of my way,” she said, a derringer in each hand. Krupp’s eyes went wide and Pedro almost fell out of his saddle.
“You won’t shoot,” he said, eyes on the guns.
“Are you a gambling man?” she asked icily.
The sound of breaking glass drew their attention back to the cottage—though Lucky made certain to keep her weapons trained on Krupp. Judging from the way that Fox and Emmy scrambled for the barely adequate shelter of a tree, they were being fired upon from inside the cottage.
“They need back up,” Lucky said, putting away one of her guns so she could take up the reigns. She didn’t stop pointing the other one at Krupp until her horse was in motion.
She tensed up as soon as her back was turned, but soon Krupp and Pedro were riding hard at her side. Krupp noticed her attention and gave her a little wink.
As much to make a point as anything, Lucky pulled her rifle from its holster on her saddle and raised it to her shoulder. The mare began to slow once it sensed she no longer had the reigns, but that was only going to help her. She lined up the last rider in her iron sight and squeezed the trigger. He cried out in pain, disappearing into the brambles as he lost his feet.
When she looked back at Krupp, he wasn’t smiling anymore. Pedro pushed on ahead both of them, firing wild shots from his revolver. As far as Lucky could tell, he didn’t hit anything but hopefully he gave the snipers inside the cottage something to think about.
She angled her approach to avoid the cabin’s south facing window. Krupp circled around to the north side, hopefully to back up the Marshall and Fox. Lucky dismounted and plastered herself against the rough wooden wall of the cottage, hoping they didn’t think to shoot straight through it blindly.
From within she heard shouting, a heavy thump, then the sound of scraping. She risked a glance inside the window and saw a chinese man tipping a table over in front of the cottage’s lone door. A man who must have been Jimmy Dalton crouched on the floor, pistol held awkwardly in his left hand. His right was bandaged heavily but she could tell how much it was paining him as he gingerly cradled it to his chest.
“Block it off, you yellow bastards!” he bellowed.
If the men heard, they gave no reply. Pedro stepped up to her side and waved her away, bringing his rifle to bear.
Lucky barely scrambled out of the way before he fired. Glass shattered and men screamed as he gunned down both the men blocking the door. Jimmy Dalton sent a wild barrage back at Pedro, all but one of his shots a cold miss.
Pedro fell to the dirt, gun slipping from his nerveless fingers. A red stain was spreading on his chest. Lucky gasped at the sight of his sightlessly staring eyes. She took a brief moment to pray for his soul.
Then she steeled herself for action. Jimmy had fired six times, and she doubted he could reload with one hand. She rose back up and pointed her rifle square between his eyes.
“Don’t move a muscle, don Dalton,” she said sweetly. “You’re worth much more alive than dead.”