“Well, stuff me full of sawdust and mount me over the mantle,” Emmy said when Sergio huffed his way into the stable. His hair was damp, and his shirt clung to his sweaty body, becoming transparent in places. Once he was through the wide threshold he bent over with his hands on his knees and panted.
“All tuckered out, Spaghetti?”
Sergio’s head snapped up, and his dark eyes narrowed to slits.
“You.” He straightened up and adjusted his shirt. “You are a sneak! Trying to leave town without me!”
“I done told you to meet me at the stables-”
“You ‘done told’ me to meet you at the Golden Spur!” Sergio angrily stalked out the door and stared up at the battered sign above the stable. “This is NOT the Golden Spur!”
“Did I say Golden Spur?” Emmy rolled her eyes skyward as if she were trying to recollect. “Guess I got turned around somehow.”
“Indeed.” Sergio seemed to notice her horse for the first time. His jaw gaped and he took a few steps back. “Is that...that monster your steed?”
“Hey!” Emmy folded a crocheted blanket in half and put it across the chestnut stallion’s back before setting her saddle in place. “Don’t talk like that to Goliath. He’s big but he’s sensitive.”
“Goliath, is it?” Sergio’s mustache twitched. “A fitting name for a beast. How much does it eat?”
“Figger bout one and a half times more’n your average horse,” Emmy said. “Takes about that much more water, too, but he don’t get tired and he’s powerful smart. Watch this.”
Emmy put her hand on Goliath’s flank. “Goliath, count to ten boy.”
Goliath whinnied and struck his hoof on the ground nine times.
“I think he miscounted...”
“Shut your foreign hole! Damn horse can count to nine and that’s nine higher’n I heard you count.”
“As you like.” Sergio folded his arms over his chest and watched while she loaded Goliath with her trail gear.
“What’s the shovel for?” Sergio asked when she packed the short-handled spade into her bedroll. “Digging graves?”
“More like latrines, but there’s a lot of reasons you don’t want to be without a shovel on the trail.”
Emmy unrolled a dark brown blanket on the floor. Sergio gasped when he saw the collection of weaponry contained therein. A tarnished but sturdy backup pistol, a lever action Winchester rifle, two bowie knives, and an army issue Colt with an extra long barrel for distance. She assured herself that all were clean and loaded before rolling the blanket back up and settling it behind her saddle.
“Do you have enough?” Sergio asked in a mocking tone.
“If we’re running after the Dalton Gang, probably not.”
“And what of your posse?”
“We’ll pick ’em up as we go,” Emmy said, putting her hands on her wide hips. “I ain’t about to ask around Carbon. This town is littered with lily livered cowards from top to bottom.”
“Then where will we find suitable men?”
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, Spaghetti.” Emmy Lou winked. “I’ve been down this road before.”
“I see.” Sergio sighed. “But we don’t even know where to look! It’s been almost three weeks since Bad News Bill left town. He could be all the way in California by now!”
“I don’t think so, pilgrim.” Emmy tied down her equipment and gave it once more check before nodding in satisfaction. Sergio waited patiently until she finished. “Bill’s joining up with the Dalton Boys. Now, the Daltons done robbed a train up by the Montana border. That much loot’s to much for them to carry far. If we start at the place where they nabbed the gold, maybe we can pick up their trail.”
“A trail over a month old.” Sergio sputtered out a string of Italian. Emmy didn’t speak the language but she recognized cussing when she heard it.
“Calm down, Spaghetti.” Emmy slapped him on the shoulder. “Like I said, I know what I’m doing. The tracker I got in mind could follow a snowflake in the Rockies smack dab in the middle of a blizzard. We just gotta catch up to ’em.”
“But it sounds like the Daltons are recruiting an army to help them move the gold...”
“One thing at a time, Spaghetti. One thing at a time.”
Emmy pushed up the brim of her hat and was treated to a vista of the Sweetwater Mountains. The red and yellow striped range rose up from the landscape, beginning as a series of low hills and culminating in snow-touched peaks that she knew were much further away than they appeared. Several lines of smoke marred the beautiful scene, but the sight of them only caused her to grin.
“See that, Serigo?” Emmy turned a bit in the saddle but didn’t see her companions beside her. Craning her neck, she spotted the tinkerer as he poured water over his head. “Damn idiot!”
She turned Goliath around and trotted back a hundred yards to where he was sitting atop his spotted gelding.
“Would ya quit wasting water?” Emmy fixed him with a hard line stare. “I done told you to wear a hat, but what the hell do I know?”
“I should have listened.” Sergio squinted up at the midday sun. “I never expected it to be so warm in Autumn.”
“Out here on the trail there ain’t much shade, I reckon.” Emmy undid the kerchief around her neck and handed it to Sergio. “Here. Tie this around your scalp. It’ll help, some.”
“I...thank you.” Sergio stared dubiously at the blue kerchief, damp with Emmy’s sweat, but he unfolded it and arranged it on top of his head.
“All set?” Emmy asked. Once Sergio nodded his assent she jutted her head toward the north. “Good. I see smoke up ahead, and I’d bet all the gold in California that it’s the group I’ve been searching for.”
“And what group would that be?” Sergio’s mustache twitched. “And what are they doing out in the middle of nowhere?”
“The Trans-American All Star Western Spectacular leads a kinda nomadic life,” Emmy said with a smile.
“The Trans...” Sergio’s brow furrowed, his dark eyes glinting with annoyance. “Woman, are we following a circus?”
“Naw,” Emmy said after a laugh. “Circuses are big. This is more like a traveling freak show-come-trick shooter gallery. Oh, they got some yeller Chinese fellas what will flip all around like Mexican jumping beans, but whatever you’re thinking...well, prepare to be disappointed.”
“I am growing quite used to that,” Sergio grumbled.
“Don’t worry, Spaghetti. We ain’t staying for the show. Once I talk our tracker into joining the posse we’ll be headed straight for the Rattlesnake Mountains.”
“A most auspicious name. Truly, I cannot wait.”
“I know a pass through the range, Sergio. It’ll save us a chunk of time, and beats the hell out of riding in the wrong direction until we get to Independence Rock.”
Sergio’s jaw worked, but his mouth remained closed. Emmy tried to muster some sympathy for the man’s recent loss, but his constant criticism had grown stale, so she just shrugged and pointed Goliath toward the trails of smoke.
About an hour before sundown they reached their quarry. The Trans -American Spectacular was camped next to an offshoot of the Sweetwater River. Their troupe consisted of about two dozen wagons and around fifty individuals, less than half performers.
Emmy came to the edge of the creek and peered across. It wasn’t very wide, less than twenty feet, and didn’t seem all that deep. On the opposite bank, their arrival had attracted a bit of notice. Several men who were chopping wood paused in their labors to stare intently at the two strangers.
She waved casually at them and grinned.
“Don’t look so grim, Sergio. You’re gonna spook ’em.”
“I’ve not smiled since my family was murdered. I’m not sure I even can anymore.”
Emmy chewed her lower lip, feeling guilty again. “Fair enough.”
“Is there a bridge we might cross, or a place shallow enough to ford the stream?”
“Not for about four miles in either direction.” Emmy clicked her tongue and Goliath started moving toward the water.
“What are you doing?”
“Water ain’t all that deep, and even if it drops off, don’t worry; Horses are hellacious swimmers. C’mon, Sergio, try being a cowboy for a minute. Yaah!”
Emmy didn’t wear spurs, but just digging her heels into Goliath’s flanks was enough to send him galloping into the river. Water splashed up around her, pelting her with the deluge, but she didn’t mind. The feel of Goliath’s powerful muscles beneath her as he crossed to the other bank was too exhilarating to worry about getting a little wet.
She turned to see Sergio easing his gelding into the water at a very slow walk. The horse became annoyed with his trepidation and plunged right in, despite his shouts to the contrary.
“Don’t try and second guess Horse sense, Spaghetti,” she said when his sodden and miserable form came trotting to her side. “They know what needs to be done at least one third of the time, and that’s one third better’n most men I’ve met.”
“You don’t think much of men, do you?” Sergio took off his kerchief and twisted it in his palms, squeezing out the water.
“I love my daddy,” Emmy said with a shrug. “It ain’t nothing against men, Sergio. Fact is, I don’t much care for most people, you follow?”
“Why not?” Sergio didn’t seem to be trying for a harrangue; His dark eyes were neutral and free of judgment.
“Well...” Emmy sighed. “I guess it’s on account of how they’re always worried about how things seem rather than how they actually are. You know there were people at our church who told my daddy I was gonna end up a soiled dove cause he let me wear pants?”
Sergio’s face flushed red at her colorful language. Emmy threw back her head and laughed.
“Aww, come on, Spaghetti! You done had yourself a boy, surely you know about the mommy and daddy dance!”
“I know of it...I’m just not used to it being discussed in so cavalier a manner.”
“What’s a cavalier? Is that those little black fish eggs what rich fellas eat?”
“Never mind,” Sergio said, pointing behind her. “I think we have company.”
Emmy glanced over her shoulder and saw three men approaching from the direction of the circus camp. The man in the lead was barely five feet tall, thin as a rail and had a scalp so bereft of hair it gleamed in the fading sunlight. Flanking him were two men with thick arms and six shooters at their belts. One of them carried a rifle, though it was slung over his shoulder.
She dismounted and indicated that Sergio should do the same. As the approached, the little man plastered a faux grin over his pinched features. He smoothed out his red jacket and white trousers with a practiced hand before greeting them.
“Good afternoon, my friends,” he said, offering a bow. “You have found the Trans-American All Star Western Spectacular. Unfortunately, we won’t be doing any major performances on the road but you’re welcome to follow us to Independence Rock.”
“Much obliged, mister...?”
“Goldstein,” said the man, puffing up his chest. “Bucky Goldstein, ringmaster, at your service!”
“Nice to meet you....Bucky.” Emmy couldn’t keep the grin off her face. “Fact is, though, I’m with the law.”
She revealed her badge, which caused Goldstein’s eyes to narrow. “Don’t worry, I ain’t here to shanghai anyone in your troupe. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
“I see.” Goldstein swallowed hard. “Then what can we do for you, Marshall?”
“Just point me in the direction of Swimming Fox.”
“Swimming who, now?”
“Oh. Sorry.” Emmy chuckled. “I mean, point me in the direction of the injun lady you got doing a knife throwing act.”
“Princess Crow,” he said, eyes widening. “What’s she done now?”
“Not a damn thing, far as I know. I just need to talk to her.”
Goldstein’s eyes scanned her up and down, then he nodded. “Very well. Our stable hands will see to your mount’s needs.”
“Much obliged, mister Goldstein.”
“Please, call me Bucky.”
“No chance in hell of that,” Emmy muttered, but she did so with a smile.
After leaving their mounts to be tended, Goldstein led them through camp. Many suspicious gazes were aimed their way, which caused Sergio to loosen his collar.
“They don’t seem very friendly,” he whispered in her ear. His mustache tickled her neck, but she didn’t jerk away.
“Only care about folks when there’s money to be made,” she whispered back. “Right now they don’t know what we’re about, but we sure ain’t customers or marks.”
“Suckers. Nitwits. People they can swindle out of their money.”
“Why call them marks?”
“Cause when one of these folks think they found a sucker, they put a charcoal mark on the unfortunate individual’s shoulder. That way the whole troupe can try and cheat ’em.”
Sergio’s eyes went wide, his face turned crimson, and incoherent, strangled grunts escaped his lips.
“What in the hell is wrong with you? Did you get a horsefly up your butt?”
“No!” Sergio fairly shook with rage. “The last time there was a circus troupe in Carbon, I discovered a black smear on my shirt!”
Emmy couldn’t resist throwing her head back and laughing so hard she nearly fell over.
“I suppose I am an easy mark,” he said stiffly.
“Oh, don’t let it get to you,” Emmy said. “They probably just figgered you was dumb on account of being foreign.”
Sergio muttered in Italian, probably about his low opinion of Americans. Goldstein gestured toward a hide tent done up in the teepee style. Wild, garish paintings covered the side, depicting Native Indians engaged in the hunt.
“She should be inside,” Goldstein said. “If you value your life, announce yourself before you go in.”
“If you value your life?” Sergio shook his head. “Just what kind of people are you getting me involved with, Marshall?”
“Uh...” Emmy cleared her throat. “There’s something you oughta know about Swimming Fox, or Princess Crow or whatever she’s calling herself these days.”
“Well, I already know she’s dangerous,” Sergio snapped.
“Besides that, you idiot!” Emmy forced herself to calm down. “Fox is what the Injuns call a, ah, a ‘two spirit person.’ And she’s operating under the misconception that I’m one and the same.”
“Two spirit person--”
The tent flap opened, drawing their attention. A pair of brown eyes peered out of the gloom, then a bronzed, rippling arm flung the flap aside completely and a woman came striding out.
She was tall, nearly six feet, with smooth black hair worn well past her shoulders. A leather buckskin outfit adorned her torso, with bare arms and legs creating a sensual look that was anything but authentic, in spite of the feathers and tokens she wore. Her nose was pointed and a bit on the long side, and her eyes were quite hard, but most men still would have found her exotic beauty enthralling.
“Amelia Louise of Texas,” the woman said grimly. “It has been many moons since you darkened my door.”
“Hey, how ya doing, Fox?” Emmy grinned. “Done well for yourself. That is one fine tent.”
Fox ignored her words, just kept walking forward. Sergio took a nervous step away from Emmy.
“You have some nerve, showing up here after ditching me in Colorado.”
“I didn’t ditch you, I just--”
Fox grabbed her by the jerkin and lifted her off her feet. Sergio stumbled away and fell hard on his rump. Her mouth twitched as she glared daggers into Emmy’s eyes.
Then she moved her face forward and crushed Emmy’s lips with a deep kiss.