The tent flaps were flung upwards with violent force, nearly upending one of the support posts. Doc looked up from the game of gin rummy he was playing with Xi and dropped his cards from nerveless fingers.
“Pete?” he indicated that the men carrying him put their burden down on a nearby cot. “What happened?”
“He got stabbed,” said Sid, a lanky gray haired former cattle rustler. “They found him with some skirt—and she had a badge!”
“A badge?” Doc shook his head, turning his attention to Pete. There was little chance it was Rose’s sister, and he had no time to mull it over with Pete bleeding out. He pulled away the crude cloth compress and sucked in air through his teeth.
The cut was bad, made by a large bladed weapon. When he inserted a probe, he discovered it was six inches deep. It seemed the heart had been left unharmed—otherwise he wouldn’t have lasted this long—but the young Indian had lost a lot of blood, possibly too much.
Still, he vowed to save Pete if he could. Xi proved herself to be a capable assistant, heating a cauterizing rod over the firepit until it glowed nearly white hot.
Doc was glad Pete didn’t have to be awake for the next bit. Using the rod, he cauterized the inside of the wound, hoping it was enough to prevent an infection. Then he sutured up the gash, Pete’s ghostly pallor making him all the more diligent.
It was nearly three hours when he came outside the tent and dunked his head into a bucket of rainwater. When he came up for air, he noted that a gaggle of folk were waiting on news of Pete. It seemed that he had friends both in the gang and with the coolies.
“He gonna be all right, Doc?” asked Sid.
“I don’t know,” Doc said honestly. “I’ve stopped the bleeding, but he’s not out of the woods yet. If he makes it til morning, then he’s got a fifty-fifty shot.”
“We need to string that lady Marshall up for this,” said one man, spitting in the dirt for emphasis.
“Lady Marshall?” Doc asked.
“Your Pa is questioning her right now,” Sid said. “Apparently she’s clammed up tight.”
Wordlessly, Doc moved through camp. The late afternoon light seemed far too cheerful for the grim business of the day. Though many he passed pressed for details of Pete’s fate, he rudely ignored them. There was only his father’s tent, nestled up high on the cliff near the mine shaft opening. Nearby the canvas structure sat Platinum, Big Man’s aging stallion, and a set of wooden crates that Doc would have bet a pound of his flesh contained the missing bars of gold.
Before he even reached for the tent flap, he heard a sharp slap of flesh on flesh, followed by his father’s angry barking.
“I’m only going to ask one more time the nice way,” said Big Man as Doc came in the door. “What happened to my son?”
The Marshall had the same copper mane as Rose, but it was hard to see a family resemblance when her face was covered in blood. Big man had broken her nose, busted her lip, and one eye was swollen shut. His uncle Jeb held one of the woman’s arms, while Sid’s brother Mark held the other, keeping her fast against a wooden post.
“Got himself shot up by one of my posse,” the Marshall said, voice garbled by her swollen lip. “Turns out he was faking his hand injury to lure you out.”
“Lure me out?” Big Man threw back his head and cackled. Doc couldn’t keep a scowl off his face. “You expect me to believe my own flesh and blood was gonna do me in?”
“Believe what you want, buster. It ain’t no concern of mine.”
“One of your posse,” Big Man said cooly. “Shot my son. You’re going to pay for that.”
The Marshall hung her head, seeming defeated. Big Man’s eyes were glassy, but Doc knew his father wouldn’t cry in front of company. Once, and only once, could he remember Big Man shedding tears in public, and that was at Doc’s mother’s funeral. Right now, Big Man’s thoughts would be on vengeance, hurting those he saw as responsible for his own pain.
“Now,” Big Man said, striding before her. “Tell me how many men you have with you. What kind of weapons? Where’s your camp? Talk.”
Big Man raised her head with a hand under her chin, and she responded with a stream of bloody spittle in his eyes. He swore, flinging a sleeve over his face.
“Bitch!” He pulled his hand back for a vicious blow. Before he could even begin his swing Doc stepped up and caught his wrist.
“Let go of me, boy,” he said with a growl.
“Do you know who this is?” Doc asked.
“The Texas Terror,” Big Man said mockingly. “Like most legends, she’s mostly just hot air.”
“It’s Rose’s sister.”
Big Man blinked a moment, then laughed hard.
“Are you serious?”
“Take a look at what you left of her face. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Big Man stared at the Marshall. Her own open eye was focused on Doc.
“Rose?” she asked around a swollen mouth. “Rose is here?”
“Son of a bitch,” Big Man said. “I think you’re right, son.”
“Is Rose all right? Please, let me see her! Do what you want with me, but you have to be careful with her, she has a condition!”
“Listen to her,” said Big Man with a grin “a second ago she was all bravado, but now she sounds like any other woman.”
Big Man turned and put his arms akimbo before addressing the Marshall.
“I haven’t harmed a hair on your sister’s head. Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Emmy almost collapsed in relief.
“She, on the other had, well...she’s not what you’d call gentle.” Big Man’s eyes had a wicked gleam to them. “See, I’ve been molding her, shaping her into something truly extraordinary. Something like me.”
“She’s nothing like you!” the Marshall sputtered.
“I disagree.” Big Man put his hands in his suspenders and cackled. “I think she’s more my daughter at this point than she is kin to you. See, you never should have left her alone, for men like me to find. You’ve got nobody to blame but yourself that she hates you.”
“Hates me?” The Marshall’s single eye blinked.
“Oh, yes,” Big Man said, and Doc couldn’t deny he was right. “You left her to take care of your father, and when he died she had no one.”
The Marshall’s eye went wide, and her jaw slack. Big Man seemed to revel in the moment.
“You didn’t know, did you?” He laughed again, a sadistic sound free of joy or mirth. “Poor little Marshall. Came all this way to find me, only to find out you’ve already lost everything that’s important to you.”
“Enough,” said Doc. “Stop torturing her. She’ll never talk.”
“You just might be right, boy,” Big Man said, stroking his smoothly shaven chin. “Cut from the same mold as her sister, she is.”
“Kill me and get it over with,” the Marshall said “unless you want to be a man and give me my gun back, so we can duel proper!”
“Oh, I think that a duel is in order,” said Big Man “but not with me. Bring her along boys, and be gentle. After all, we want this to be a fair fight.”
“What are you planning?” Doc asked, following a step behind his father as he entered the late afternoon sunlight.
“I promised Rose that before we went to Mexico we’d stop in Texas so she could settle up. Looks like the Marshall saved us a trip.”
Big Man arched an eyebrow at his son’s words, but kept moving.
“It’s their family business, son,” he said. “Who are we to interfere?”
“Stop,” Doc said, seizing his father’s bicep. The elder Dalton tried to stare him down as he had a thousand times before but Doc didn’t waver in the slightest. “Stop trying to pretend like you know a god damn thing about family. You’re a murdering psychopath who can’t accept any authority other than his own. You can drag me back here if you want, force me to work for you, but if I ever look in the mirror and see your eyes staring back at me, I’ll kill myself.”
Doc turned on his heel, intending to track down Rose before his father got the opportunity. Unfortunately, word of the proposed duel spread through the camp like wildfire. Long before he made it to Rose’s tent, she was being ushered along the narrow avenues of camp toward the big crane.
It seemed the duel would take place in its shadow. Rose was pacing, moving like an angry animal. It was the most emotion he had seen from her yet. Grunting, he elbowed and nudged his way through the milling throng to stand by her side.
“Rose,” he said, catching her attention. Her green eyes blazed with fury. “You can’t do this. It’s wrong.”
“She was wrong for leaving me and Daddy.”
“Maybe she was, but killing her won’t change anything.”
Rose shoved him away from her violently. He hadn’t been expecting such treatment and fell head over heels to the dust. Doc quickly stood up and stiffly wiped the dust from his bottom. The spindly girl was much stronger than she looked...
The ring of spectators parted for him easily, so his glower must have been terrible to behold. He broke into a trot, reaching his tent and throwing the flap open.
“What’s going on?” Xi asked. She had a cold cloth laid across Pete’s forehead. Doc remembered that the word was they had been rather friendly—maybe more than friendly. The idea made his gut squirm with jealousy, which was something he neither expected nor needed.
“Trouble,” he said, putting on his gunbelt.
“Then, it’s time?” she asked, rising to her feet.
For a long moment he starred at her. Xi was lovely, even with her eye that tended to wander. Her golden brown skin was smooth and shined with a renewed healthy vigor. For a moment, he thought that maybe he could see God’s plan in dragging him back into the life of an outlaw, because he’d been able to save this wonderful woman.
Doc nodded grimly. “It’s time.”
Xi nodded sagely and dug under the cot she had lain on for so long. She retrieved a cloth wrapped longish bundle and held it to her side. When she stood, she swooned a bit, one hand going to the still healing hole in her skull.
“Careful,” he said, trying to get her to sit down. Stubbornly, she resisted.
“No,” she said “I cannot lie around a moment longer.”
“But you aren’t healed yet!” Doc sputtered. “What if you fall and hit your head? You could die.”
Xi smiled, then slapped her hands on either side of his face and kissed him. It was deep, passionate, and possibly the most thrilling thing he had ever experienced. Their hearts were beating next to each other as he crushed her body to his own.
Too soon, she pulled her lips from his own.
“All this world’s creatures walk that path, my dear Doctor,” she said, eyes shining. “But don’t worry. My karma is not to die here, in this place. I know it.”
Doc tried to argue, but she picked up her bundle and ran outside. The sound of gunfire spurred him to follow, heart hammering in his chest.
How could she go and give him something to lose like that?