Ferocious rain pounded the wooden roof over Pete’s head, the deluge worming its way through the shingles to drizzle down in thin streams to the tavern floor. Amid the peanut shells and sawdust the barmaid had seen fit to put out buckets to catch the leaks. Apparently she had run out, and substituted a spitoon. Now there was a steady metallic ringing as drops plunged into its funneled neck.
“You gonna bet, Injun? Or just stare at the rain?”
Pete drew his focus back on the cards in his hand. A pair of deuces, and jack else. He smiled and glanced at the coins on the table. “What’s the bet?”
“I raised ya a dollar, Injun.” The weasely little man was seated across from him. Two other players sat with their arms crossed, angrily staring at the stack of coin and paper on Pete’s side of the table.
“So I see.” Pete tossed one coin into the pool.
“You better be adding another one to that!”
“Nope.” Pete leaned back in his uncomfortable wooden chair and put one hand over his belly. Not only was it more comfortable, his hand was also conveniently close to where his pistol was holstered. “We agreed at the start of this here game, gentlemen, that paper money was only worth half a silver or gold coin.”
“Bullshit!” The skinny fellow leaned forward on his hands, partially rising. “Either you put another one in the pile or I’ll, I’ll-”
“You’ll what? Tell O’brien on me?” Pete snickered, glancing at the bar. The short, stout ginger haired man was busy wiping a greasy rag inside of a mug. The owner didn’t mind gambling in his establishment, as long as no one got too rowdy. When they did he often produced his shiny new Winchester and told them just how eager he was to use it.
“I don’t need that mick!” The man actually stood up, his hands going to his waist. There was a crude relic of a pistol at his side, one that probably only fired half the time due to poor maintenance. Still, a gun was a gun and Pete slowly stood up himself.
“Now, look here...” Pete was distracted as the doors swung open, and a great shaggy hump of a man forced his way inside. He stepped about three paces in before he shook himself, sending water flying in all directions. O’brien cursed as he was peppered, and even all the way across the tavern Pete found himself the victim of a few droplets.
“What the hell?” Pete’s antagonist was positioned between himself and the stranger, meaning the cranky little man had been spattered thoroughly. When he turned about, hand touching the hilt of his weapon, he turned three shades paler and quickly sat down.
“Did you see a ghost, partner?” Pete peered past him and took in the stranger. He was about six and a half feet tall, with a wild tangle of hair that merged with a scraggly beard. One of his eyes was hidden beneath a crude patch, but the way he carried himself suggested no cripple.
“Shut up, or we’ll be the ghosts!” The man cringed, afraid to turn around and look. “That’s Colonel Bobby Eaton!”
“Beautiful Bobby?” Pete whistled. “Heard he was dead. Got himself shot up in Virginia City.”
“Got shot up alright.”
Pete glanced up and noticed that he had drawn the Colonel’s gaze straight to him. The man’s single eye blazed with an inner light that Pete could respect as much as be wary of.
Pete wasn’t afraid of any man, but he was wary of more than a few.
“Got shot in my side, here,” Eaton clumped across the floor, crushing peanuts in his wake. During his walk, he kicked over the spitoon, which ended the damnable racket. Pulling up his dingy shirt, he revealed a wicked scar. “Then they shot me in my leg, my ass, and finally put a bullet right in my left ear.”
“In your ear?” Pete stifled a grin. Disbelieving a mankiller’s bullshit was as likely to get you dead as dueling with him.
“That’s right. Spat it out a few days later.” Eaton threw his head back and laughed, filling the tavern with the sound. “You got anything to drink in this piss stain of a ghost town?”
Pete grinned. Cheyenne wasn’t a piss stain by anyone’s estimation. The bustling city benefited from a major rail line. “O’brien got some pretty good Whiskey.”
“O’brien?” Eaton swaggered over to the bar and leaned low to meet the man’s gaze. “That your name, you little Irish chicken shit?”
O’brien was flustered, his face flushing red. Before he could stammer out a response, Eaton guffawed again.
“Just kidding, you’re alright!” His hand disappeared into his clothes. When it came back out his gnarled fist bore several wadded up bills. “Gimmie a bottle of something decent!”
“Right away, sir.” O’brien’s eyes were wide as silver dollars, on account of how badly Eaton overpaid. That was the way of an outlaw, though; You overpaid for everything and smiled at more insults than you took offense to. Drawing attention to oneself in a big city like Cheyenne wouldn’t be worth the gamble to Eaton.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.” Pete collected his winnings, stuffing them into his trouser pockets. The others were so frightened of Eaton that they didn’t seem to notice that the hand never ended, but Pete raked in the pot anyway. He sat next to the big man on a three legged stool and smiled.
“So,” he said “the great Colonel Eaton is alive and well.”
“There’s life in the old boy yet,” Eaton said before taking a long pull on his whiskey. Pete was amazed at the amount that spilled down the old timer’s throat.
“Colonel,” said Pete “have you ever considered riding with some like minded others?”
“I been in gangs before, boy.” There was a heavy note of menace in Eaton’s tone. He set the bottle down heavily and fixed Pete with a one eyed stare. “Spit out what ya got to spit out.”
“Ever heard of the Daltons?”
“The Dalton Boys?” Eaton cackled. “Dumbshits who think they can rob a train and get away with it.”
“Dumb shits who did rob a train,” Pete corrected. O’brien moved away stiffly and cleaned a section of bar, his back pointedly to them. “Dumb shits who have to move a fortune in gold bars and need the manpower to make sure it gets where it’s going.”
“And where would it be going?”
“That is on a need to know basis, friend.” Pete downed a shot of whiskey, savoring the burn. “And Big Man decides who-”
The saloon doors swung open once more, and a blast of humid air stirred the peanut shells and the hair on both men’s heads. Standing there, dripping water, was a thin figure swaddled in a woven pancho and wide brimmed hat. Pete’s mouth flew open when the hat was removed and he saw a freckled-faced girl no more than nineteen summers old. Her coppery mane shimmered in the gaslight, her eyes a brilliant green. Those same eyes dispelled any feelings of lust he may have had, however, because they were unfocused and dream like.
“Don’t just stand there,” Eaton growled. “Take off your coat, you’re dripping water on the floor.”
“As much as it matters,” said Pete with a grin, which earned him a black glare from O’brien.
The girl doffed her pancho and hung it on the empty coatrack near the door. The rain caused her clothing to cling to her body, which was as sweet as any daydream Pete had ever known. Her movements were somewhat awkward, as if this were the first time she had ever hung up her coat in a tavern.
“Where’s the food?” The girl’s voice was oddly clipped. Maybe she was in a rush to get the words out before she forgot them. “You said that if I took care of the horses you’d get food.”
“Sorry, Rose.” Eaton pounded his massive fist on the counter. “Barkeep! Get us two plates of something hot and satisfying!”
O’brien gave him a narrow eyed glare, but moved to the end of the bar and stuck his head through a curtained doorway. In short order two bowls of pheasant stew were set down on the table along with bread that seemed rather stale by Pete’s estimation. Both of the sodden travelers dug into the repast like starving beasts.
“Who is this...person?” Pete swallowed. “Is she your daughter, or-”
“Naw, she’s no kin of mine. Found her with some Crow Injuns camped near the Kansas border.”
Pete’s face fell, and his stomach churned at the mention of the Crow. “I take it she was kidnapped by them, then? Is that why she’s...funny?”
“Kidnapped?” Eaton guffawed. “You’re joking, right? Naw, the Crow found her wandering in the wilderness. Says she was looking for her sister, and she was, uh...the way she is already.”
“You going soft, Colonel?” Pete raised an eyebrow. “Or are your motives less...pure.”
Eaton dropped his spoon in the bowl and his hand darted out quicker than a striking snake. Pete found his boots lifted off the dirty floor as the Colonel took a two handed grip on his shirt collar.
“What you take me for, a stinking rapist?” Eaton shook him. “Can’t you see she’s got herself a condition?”
“Listen up, boy,” hissed Eaton, his face inches away. “And listen up good. You might think you’re hot shit on a silver platter, but you’re just a cold cow patty on a tin plate! I done rode hundreds of miles getting’ shot at by Injuns and Yankees and the Devil himself. You’re just a firecracker. I’m a stick o’ dynamite. Comprende?”
Pete was feeling a bit miffed at his rough treatment, but he knew better than to call the Colonel on his posturing. More than one man had been left shot full of holes after running afoul of Beautiful Bobby.
“Yeah, I got it.” Pete kept his tone respectful. “Didn’t intend to ruffle your feathers.”
Eaton dropped him back onto his stool and visibly calmed. The girl, Rose, hadn’t stopped eating during the altercation, but Pete noticed her green eyes watching intently. For a moment, at least, before they glazed over and she seemed to daydream once more.
“With all respect,” Pete said, adjusting his shirt. One of the buttons had popped loose, which caused him a bit of chagrin. “Big Man’s offer extends to you, not your tagalong. No offense.”
“She’s more’n just a tagalong, son.” He glanced outside, where the rain had slowed to a mere sprinkle. “Rain’s let up. C’mon, let me show you something.”
Eaton bustled to his feet and shuffled toward the door. Rose tilted her bowl and quickly lapped up the rest of her stew. A trail of brown slime ran down her chin, which she wiped away with her hand before hurrying after Eaton.
Pete’s eyes widened in alarm when he noticed the brace of pistols at the girl’s sides.
“Now hold up a minute!” Pete rushed out the door and found Eaton digging through a leather pouch on his belt. “You can’t just give imbeciles weapons. Are they loaded?”
“Reckon so. They don’t shoot if you don’t load ’em.”
Pete snapped his head around to stare at Rose. She had spoken, but with the same pitch and inflection as the Colonel. The girl turned her head and spat in the dirt, then stuck her thumbs in her belt and gave him the meanest thousand yard stare he had ever seen.
“Colonel...” Pete back pedaled a few feet then turned to tug at Eaton’s sleeve. “What have you done, man? You’ve turned her into a, a, another you.”
“Naw,” Eaton said with a grin. “I’ve turned her into somethin’ better than I ever was.”
Eaton whistled, then flung something into the air. Pete caught sight of a tiny metallic object spinning in an upward arc. He flinched, hand on his pistol, when he heard the shots ring out. The coin was knocked into the air and kept aloft for a split second longer than it should have before tumbling to the mud.
Pete stared at Rose, who stood with both revolvers drawn. Her thumbs were on the hammers, ready to pull back for another shot, and her green eyes gleamed with menace. A bit of smoke drifted past her freckled face, and then she spun her pistols adroitly before holstering them with a smooth motion.
“Here.” Eaton bent over and picked up the coin, wiping mud off of it. He handed it to Pete, who could scarcely believe his eyes. The coin, still warm in his palm, was riddled with holes to the point of being a jagged chip of metal.
“In the dark?” Pete sputtered. “With two pistols?”
“You never seen somebody shoot two of em at once before?”
“I never seen somebody shoot two of em at once and hit before.” Pete shook his head in amazement. “How in the hell does she do it? It’s bad medic—bad luck.”
“It ain’t bad mojo.” Eaton grinned, seeming like a proud parent. “Just in her nature to be good at it in spite of being a bit...off. Figgered I could use an apprentice.”
“Apprentice? To being what, a desperado?”
Pete looked at Rose, who stared back. Her green eyes were focused on the grisly scar on his cheek.
“Don’t be rude, girl,” Eaton said. “Pete’s self conscious of widdle scar.”
He turned to Pete and grinned. “She’s a good kid, but you get mostly blank stares.”
“I see.” Pete hooked his thumbs in his belt and regarded the girl. “It’s not really my call, but I can take you to meet Big Man. If you’re still interested.”
“Gold is ALWAYS of interest to me,” Eaton said before engaging in a belly laugh.