Green eyes narrowed and focused, Rose spun her twin pistols in the air. She would rapidly resheathe them, and then in a flash they would be in her hands once more. The gunslinger was wearing a black pair of trousers and matching button up shirt. A ten gallon hat—gifted to her from Big Man—kept her face in deeper shade.
She stood in the shadow of the crane tower, moving slowly around it as the sun chased the shadow to the other side. Most of the men in camp gave her a wide berth, remembering what had happened on her first day.
“Magnificent, isn’t she?”
Doc turned to see his father striding out into the sunlight. The big man thrust his thumbs into his suspenders and beamed with pride.
“You’re dressing her like yourself now?” Doc asked with distaste.
“Me?” Big Man laughed. “Son, she chose to dress like that herself. What’s wrong with wanting to carry on someone’s legacy?”
“When the legacy is robbery and murder-”
Doc’s head snapped to the side, the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. He stared back at his father in shock.
“That’s enough of that,” Big Man said coldly. “You don’t talk like that about family. Hear?”
Doc nodded, hating his father terribly at that moment but fearing him more.
Big Man swaggered off, leaving Doc to stew. He went back inside the large tent bearing his patient, which had become his de facto quarters.
Z was sitting up on the cot, playing a hand of solitaire. She smiled at him, brown eyes shining. She really was a lovely young woman, even with the way her left eye tended to drift about. According to Pete, her vision had been normal before her injury.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, checking her over.
“I am fine,” she said in heavily accented English. “The nausea has faded, as well as most of the , uh, the spinning...”
“Everything looks good,” he said, checking her skull. For someone less than a week removed from surgery she was doing quite well. Most of the swelling around the sutures had gone down, and there were no signs of infection.
“You and your father were fighting,” she said simply.
“Does it hurt?”
Doc started to ask what, then remembered his bloody lip. He used a bit of cloth to dab at the wound, but it seemed to have already clotted.
“Not really,” he said, discarding the cloth.
“Your father is a wicked man.”
“You’re preaching to the choir.”
“I am sorry?”
“I mean, I’m already convinced. I know he’s a rat bastard, but what can I do? I tried to get away, and he dragged me back. No matter what I do, he always finds a way to win.”
Doc forced himself to calm down.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly.
“My father knew Dalton was a wicked man,” she said, flipping another card over on the cot. She grimaced as it didn’t go anywhere. “We had little choice but to work with him.”
“Why is that?”
Z smiled, and gathered up her cards.
“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” he said.
“The coal ran out, and our work with it. The company brought us here by train, and refused to pay for return tickets.”
“So you’ve been camped out here for the last five years since the coal ran out?” Doc poured some more oil in one of the lanterns flanking the entrance. “How did you survive?”
Z’s cheeks darkened, and she busied herself with her cards.
“Not something you share with outsiders?” he asked with a grin.
“No.” Z sighed. “It is not, but...you are a different kind of man than your father. Anyone can see it.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Doc said with a laugh.
Z picked stray threads from her blanket, eyes downcast. “There was a...very small vein of silver. It’s gone now, but it got us by for a couple of years.”
“So when dad came riding into your camp, he seemed like a godsend.” Doc sighed. “I don’t suppose you can fill me in on what the deal with the mine is?”
Z smiled. “I can do that in good conscience.”
Doc chewed his fingernail, digesting what Z had told him while she slumbered peacefully. It was just like his father to try and move the Earth—literally—to avoid parting with even a small portion of his ill gotten gains. He could have taken to gang and ridden to Mexico, all of them laden with as much gold as they could carry, and lived comfortably for the rest of his life.
But that wasn’t good enough for Manfried Dalton. He had to have it all, all the gold, all the power, all the time.
“That will ruin your teeth.”
Doc glanced at Z. Her eyes were open and she was smiling softly at him.
“I do it when I’m nervous,” he said, wiping his nail off on his trousers. “Am I disturbing you? I can leave.”
She raised up into a sitting position. “What makes you so nervous?”
“It’s my father. Once again he’s found a way to cheat everyone. Cheat the law, cheat me, probably going to cheat your family if he gets half a chance.”
“Unless someone stops him.”
“Who, the law? They don’t even know where we are...” Doc swallowed hard. “Wait, you mean me, don’t you?”
“You got the wrong man, dear,” he said with a mocking laugh. “I’m no hero.”
“What do you think it takes to be a hero?” she asked.
“Heroes are fearless,” Doc said sadly. “And I’m scared all the time.”
“What scares you, Doctor?”
Doc narrowed his eyes. Z seemed to be going somewhere with her line of questioning, but to what purpose?
“I suppose,” he said slowly “I’m scared of dying. Scared of going back on the bottle, heck, I’m even scared of the dark anymore. I’m scared of my father most of all. Not just what he’ll do to me, but what he’ll do to other people. Maybe I came back to try and keep a lid on the madness, if I can.”
“Have I what?”
“Have you kept a, a ‘lid’ on the madness?”
“No,” Doc said with a helpless laugh. “Other than saving you, I haven’t done a damn thing worth mentioning since I set foot in this camp.”
Z’s almond shaped eyes encompassed him for a time. She seemed to be assessing him, as if she were staring right through his skin to see his soul. It was quite unsettling, and he finally opened his mouth to break the silence.
“What are you-”
“Heroes feel fear, Doctor,” she said “they just overcome it.”
Doc sighed, throwing his hands up helplessly.
“I don’t know if I can.”
“I know you can,” she said. “You can beat your fear. Stand up to your father.”
“You make it sound so easy,” he said hotly. “What am I, a miracle worker?”
She tapped the side of her head. “Some might say yes.”
Doc clenched his teeth, more frustrated with himself than with the girl. Why couldn’t she understand that he was just a man, while Big Man was a force of nature?
“I can’t beat him,” he muttered. “I don’t know how.”
Z smiled, and sat cross legged on her cot. She patted the spot next to her invitingly.
“Then sit down with me, Doctor,” she said “and I’ll tell you how you can.”
Doc mopped the sweat off his brow with a rag. Unfortunately, it was the same rag he’d used to polish his boots with earlier. Cursing, he reached for a bottle of alcohol to clean the stains from his skin.
He couldn’t help being distracted. Z, or Xi Feng Ru, had proven to be a font of information. Doc was no geologist, but the plan seemed sound enough. He knew of an underground cavern system that spanned from Illinois to Missouri. Certainly an underground river in an area as mountainous as Montana wasn’t so hard to believe.
What he did have trouble believing was his father’s greed. Ten thousand bars of gold, and they were only going to give Xi’s people a thousand? Ludicrous, especially after there had been so many fatalities digging the tunnel to reach the river.
There were other problems with the plan, of course. Doc had spent some time in caverns and caves, mostly hiding from the law. Underground waterways tended to be more erratic and treacherous than their surface cousins. Also, they usually were only a few feet deep, making it likely that any kind of watercraft would be out of the question. The thought of trying to lug canoes over stalagmite mounds made him shudder.
Even if there were parts of the plan he couldn’t wrap his head around, it was easy to see that the badly treated coolies weren’t about to walk away with just a thousand bars of gold. If Big Man didn’t have his head stuck up his ass, he’d see it too.
Or maybe he did see it. His father could be planning a terrible fate for Xi’s people.
His hands clenched into fists. The cool fall air did nothing to abate the hot bile rising in his throat. Even the moon, implacable and silver in the inky heavens, brought him no sense of peace.
“You look really mad.”
Doc’s head whipped around at the voice. Rose leaned out of the shadows of the crane tower, chewing on a wheatstraw. She was wearing her hair down, and but for the glassy eyed dazed manner she conducted herself with she would have been quite beautiful. As it was, what Doc mostly felt was pity and a little bit of fear.
“I am.” Doc’s eyes had adjusted to the gloom outside his tent, and he noticed black stains on the girl’s denim pants. “Have you been climbing the crane again?”
Rose was staring at the moon.
“Rose,” he said. “Rose?”
The girl kept staring at the sky, rocking slightly on her heels.
“Okay, then.” He sighed and made to walk away. Very softly, Rose began signing. Doc halted, listened to the words. It sounded like ‘rock a bye baby’ to his admittedly tone deaf ear.
“Rose, are you all right?” he asked when she finished the song.
“Daddy used to sing that to me and my sister. She said it was for babies, but I think she liked it too.” Her eyes clouded up with tears. “Daddy...”
“Rose,” he said softly. “I’m sorry about your father. How did he die?”
“He got sick,” Rose said. “Consumption. Emmy Lou ran off to be a big time bounty hunter to get money to fix him. But she was gone three years and never came back.”
“Then he died,” Doc said.
Rose nodded. Her face twisted into a sneer. “I had to take care of him. Clean him up when he pooped on himself. Where was she? Why didn’t she come back and help me?”
“I’m sure she had her reasons,” Doc said.
“Emmy Lou’s what my Daddy called a ‘fair weather friend.’ She didn’t like having a sick sister AND a sick daddy.” Rose’s teeth ground together audibly. “I hate her.”
“You shouldn’t hate your sister,” Doc said.
“Why not?” Rose turned her gaze on him. “You hate your father.”
“I don’t hate my...” Doc’s lips stopped moving. He couldn’t say it. Physically, he couldn’t force himself to say it.
Doc laughed, shaking his head. “I’m a bad example.”
“No you’re not,” Rose said. “People are all bad. Everyone is just out for themselves and you have to carve out your piece before someone beats you to it.”
Doc’s mouth closed, and it was his turn to grind his teeth. Word for word, that was something Big Man was fond of saying.
“I don’t think you should spend so much time with my father,” he said icily.
“Why not?” Rose glared at him. “He’s lonely. He knows you don’t like him, and his youngest son isn’t here, and all he wants is for you to be happy.”
Doc blinked. “What did you just say?”
Rose paused, mouth open. He could almost see her shifting gears mentally. “Why not? He’s lonely. He knows you don’t-”
“No, not all of it,” Doc said, laughing in spite of himself. “Just the end. What did you say at the end.”
“He just wants you to be happy.”
Doc was speechless for a moment. Then he managed to stammer “He..uh, he said that? Specifically?”
Rose shook her head. “No, but you can tell it’s true.”
“Oh, can you?”
The red-haired woman stared up at the moon. Doc sighed. He hadn’t meant to put so much venom in his tone.
When she didn’t respond he tucked his hands into his pockets and returned to his tent. Suddenly it had gotten much colder.