“Are you mad at me?”
Pete glanced up from the knife in his hands, already sharpened past the point of being brittle. Rose’s thin face was lighted eerily by the flickering camp fire, her unwavering gaze all the more unsettling.
“Yes.” He thrust the knife back into its sheath and strapped it to his thigh.
“He told me to shoot him.”
“I know, but that doesn’t make it right.”
“Outlaws don’t care about what’s right. They take what they want and shoot anyone who gets in the way.”
Pete was fumbling with his whetstone, trying to fit it back into its oiled leather sack. At her words his frustration grew to knew heights and he hurled the stone into the darkness of the Wyoming night.
“You’re mad at me,” she said. “I keep making you mad when I talk.”
“It’s not that your talk, it’s the damn fool shit you keep saying!” Pete leveraged himself to his feet, blinking smoke out of his eyes. “Bobby filled your head with all kinds of deep blue legendary cowboy bull and it stopped being amusing two days ago! An outlaw’s life is hard, and dangerous, and most of the time you’re just bored as hell...but never able to relax.”
“You don’t like being an outlaw?”
“No, I don’t like being an outlaw. Don’t know nobody who does.” Pete chuckled without mirth. “Well, Big Man Dalton, maybe.”
“He’s going to be our boss.”
Pete looked down at her and sighed. So deadly, and yet so childlike at the same time. Kind of like a baby rattlesnake. They may have been a lot cuter than their grown up selves, but their venom was even worse.
“Yeah,” Pete said. “He’s gonna be our boss, and he ain’t gonna take kindly to no women folk on the trail.”
“Bobby said I might have to duel my way into the gang,” Rose said, flipping one of her pistols out of its holster and taking aim at a phantom target. “I’m really fast.”
“You’re fast, all right,” Pete said grudgingly. “Maybe faster than anyone I’ve ever seen...except Big Man.”
Rose’s eyes gleamed in the firelight. “If I shoot him, will I get to be leader?”
“No!” Pete’s jaw dropped. “That’s just the stupidest...even if you were lucky enough or quick enough to get the draw on him, his son and two brothers are part of the gang. They’ll gun you down, and won’t wait for it to be an ‘honorable’ duel. You just try and stay on Big Man’s good side—if he even has one.”
Rose grew silent, digesting his words. Pete sat back down and rummaged around inside his shirt pocket. He withdrew a partially dried green husk and popped it into his mouth. The sour, acrid taste had his eyes watering in seconds, but still he managed to choke it down.
“Daddy says you’re not supposed to swallow chewing tobacco.”
“It ain’t tobacco, and isn’t your father dead?”
Rose sat there staring at him, eyes slightly glazed.
“Dream cactus,” Pete said with a sigh. “Peyote. It’s where I get my name. Peyote Pete.”
“Does it taste bad?”
“I reckon so. Can’t you tell by the face I’m making?”
“Why do you eat it?”
“Because it makes me forget,” Pete lied. It didn’t make him forget tragedies in his past, but it kind of threw a muffling blanket over them.
“What does it make you forget?”
“I dunno. I forget.” Pete settled in with his back to a moss covered boulder and tipped his hat down over his eyes. His stomach churned, but it was far from his first Peyote trip and he knew there would be no vomiting in his future.
“Can I have some?”
Pete laughed, not bothering to remove his hat from his eyes.
“Not a chance in hell am I giving peyote to a...” Pete closed his mouth. “Well, to someone like you.”
Rose was quiet for all of ten seconds. Then;
“I’m a dummy.”
Pete tipped his hat up, saw her sitting next to the fire with a trembling lip. Her eyes were tearing up, and he rolled his eyes skyward and sighed.
“I didn’t call you a dummy—”
Her eyes, normally so unfocused, said it all. You were about to.
“Well, even if I was gonna, you’re not a dummy.” Pete grinned with grudging admiration. “In fact, anyone who picks up shooting—with two guns at once no less—as fast and as completely as you have, well...that person’s a certified genius.”
“Really?” Rose sniffled. “What’s a certified genius?”
“Someone who’s powerful smart,” Pete said.
“I’m...smart? No one’s ever called me that before.”
“First time for everything, ain’t there?” Pete pushed his hat back over his eyes and awaited his trip. He heard Rose shuffling to her feet, walking around the campfire. Without looking up, he called out in irritation “Now what?”
He gasped when she plopped next to him on the ground, setting her head on his shoulder. Pete awkwardly clawed the air with his hands for a moment, unsure of what to do.
“What are you about, girl?”
“You’re nice,” she said, her eyes closed. “And sad.”
Pete opened his mouth, closed it, and tried to ignore the tiny bit of warmth trying to spread through his chest.
He wasn’t feeling so sweet on the girl in the morning, when his arm was stone cold asleep. The girl barely stirred when he roughly rolled her off of the useless limb and strove to restore feeling by rubbing the skin with his working hand. The peyote bulb must have been more dried out that he thought. Soon he would be like the Akbaacia, the medicine man of his old tribe, and need to ingest thirty or more just to enter the spirit realm.
Get stoned out of your mind was more like it. Pete stubbornly forced the memory away just as he tried to force feeling into his hand. As the thousands of invisible needles jabbed into his flesh, he tried to focus on all the things he hated about tribal life.
Eating pemmican. The smell of horse shit. Not having a name for six years. Getting branded on my FUCKING FACE--
“Who branded you on the face?”
Pete snapped his head around and glared blearily at Rose. Her hair was matted and filthy, a line of dried spittle on the side of her mouth.
“You’re a mess,” he said.
“I didn’t puke on myself.”
Pete stared down at his shirt and cursed. There was a crusty film on his vest and shirt.
“I cleaned some of it off,” Rose said. “I would have done more but every time I got close with the wet rag you screamed I CAN’T SWIM and thrashed around.”
“I--” Pete sighed. “Thanks, I suppose.”
“I used to clean up my daddy when he threw up on himself. Only he didn’t eat gross tasting plants, he drank gross tasting stuff instead.”
“That’ll do it.” Pete worked the stopper out of his water skin and drained about half of the contents in one go. It was warm and tasted of leather, but it was wet.
“I’m almost out of water,” Rose said, displaying her limp skin.
“We should cross over the Sweet water river in a few hours,” Pete said, squinting in the morning light. He put his hat atop his head and sighed in relief. “Most likely we’ll make it to camp before nightfall.”
“Good.” Rose stretched like a cat, and Pete couldn’t help but notice her sensuous curves. It was a shame that nature had made her an imbecile.
“Rose,” he said, and she did not respond. “Rose. ROSE.”
“What?” She stared at him with those green eyes, as fresh as new leaves in the spring. It was hard to believe she’d killed five men in the brief time he’d known her.
“Why be an outlaw?” Pete spread his hands out slowly, tried to keep his tone calm.
Rose blinked several times.
“Look,” Pete said with a sigh. “I’m not judging you. I’m the last man on the face of the Earth who has a right to judge, but you’re taking a road that you may not be able to come back from.”
Rose drew one of her pistols smoothly and Pete tensed, but she flipped the chamber open and shook out all six bullets. Using a short bristled brush, she began cleaning the weapon.
“Girls are only allowed to do a few things. Get married and have kids, or be a nun. Can’t do either one.” There was no note of self pity in her strange tone; She was simply stating a fact.
Pete couldn’t help but smile. “World ain’t got a place for you. That’s what you’re getting at, right?”
Rose nodded grimly.
“I can relate.” Pete felt his belly churn. The thought of piling food into it was revolting, but he knew better than to keep going on an empty gut. He withdrew some tough jerky from his knapsack and worried it into submission.
The pair crossed the Sweetwater river just after noon, refilling their water skins before leaving it behind. A hawk circled in the sky high above, an omen that Pete chose to ignore. Soon he led Rose off the trail and up a steep-sided ravine. They had to dismount and lead their horses by the reigns, feet sinking in reddish sand. By the time they made it to the top of the rise, both were thoroughly soaked in sweat.
“Isn’t there an easier way?” she asked between pants.
“This is the easier way.” Pete scanned the landscape, taking a moment to appreciate its majestic beauty. Out here, with mountains and rivers spreading out in all directions you could almost pretend that you were the only man on Earth, free of the squawking and sputtering and choking black smoke...
He led her into the shadow of a rust-colored overhang, still leading their horses. The path was narrow, barely able to accommodate them single file. Rose didn’t seem to sweat the nearly sixty foot drop to their left, but Pete certainly did. His eyes were locked on the ledge below him, scanning for any perceptible crack.
Pete relaxed when they reached the bottom of the ravine and were able to get back in the saddle. Their horses splashed through a very shallow stream while trees and cliffs conspired to keep the sun off their backs.
“It’s nice down here,” Rose said, enjoying the scenery. A fox trotted out of the water some thirty yards away, a silver scaled fish in its maw. Birds tittered in the boughs above, their songs echoing between the narrow walls.
“Yeah,” Pete said at length. “Nice and hidden. If we had such a hard time getting here, most likely the law won’t even think to look.”
“We’ll be there soon?”
“Yes.” Pete turned about in his saddle enough to stare her in the eye. “Remember, when we meet up with the Daltons let ME do all the talking. Hear?”
Rose nodded. “That’s what Bobby said, too. He also said if someone sasses me, I’m supposed to call them out, and do my share of latrine duty but not more than my share, and--”
“Just slow your roll, there, missy,” Pete said sharply. “Don’t go calling nobody out. Big Man Dalton used to be a cavalry officer for the South. He doesn’t put up with infighting among the ranks, period end of story. If you call someone out, you’d better be prepared to fight to the death.”
“What did you think I meant?” Rose didn’t seem full of bravado, as she did when mimicking Eaton. Rather she was stating something immutable and obvious as the sun being bright.
The ravine’s walls retreated away from them, and they rode through intermittent patches of sunlight. Pete mulled over what he was going to tell his boss. Big Man had sent him to recruit at least three guns for the run to Mexico. Pickings had been slim, and he was going to have a hard time explaining Eaton and his apprentice before the old Colonel had gotten himself killed. Would Dalton even accept the strange woman, or gun her down on the spot?
No, not Big Man. He wouldn’t shoot a woman, not when he could have someone else do it.
Someone like the dumb ass who brought her into camp in the first place.
Pete gritted his teeth and hoped for the best. He expected the worst, but there was no harm in being optimistic. Besides, it was too fine a day to contemplate gunning down such an oddly charming companion as he found himself with.
Rose had her head on a swivel, whipping around to take in every sight, sound, and smell. There was a youthful exuberance to her movements that was strangely compelling. Much like the women of his old tribe, she had never been taught there was a proper way to sit, or to ride, or to angle her chin.
She was free, in a way that his spirit longed to emulate. And he was leading her into a nest of vipers.
The inevitable happened two hours before sundown. Their sheltering ravine had become a full blown canyon, with the creek breaking up into several different streams. The water flowed around tapering crimson formations, smoothly shaped by the flow of ancient rivers.
“Stand and deliver, boys!”
Pete snapped his gaze upward to spot a thin-boned man standing on a medium sized boulder. He was clad in greasy looking buckskins, a tarnished rifle with half a stock aimed in their direction.
“It’s me, Sal.” Pete took off his hat and smiled. “Why don’t you put that thing down before you hurt yourself with it. We both know you can hit anything but what you aim at.”
“Who’s the kid?” Sal scrambled down off his perch and trudged through water to approach. Rose peered intently at him, hands resting on her hips—far too close to her weapons for Pete’s liking.
“She’s a recruit,” Pete said.
“She?” Sal squinted up at her, bearded mouth opening in an o. “So she is, and a pretty one too. Are you out of your mind, Pete? The last thing we need is another woman around here.”
“Another woman?” Rose asked, but they both ignored her.
“Let me talk to Big Man, I’ll smooth it over. She’s good Sal, maybe the best I’ve ever seen.”
They both glanced at Rose, who was digging in her ear with one finger. She pulled it out, stared at it a moment, and then stuck it in her mouth.
“Is she a moron?” Sal said. Rose’s eyes narrowed to emerald slits, and Pete’s heart skipped a beat.
“I’m a certified genius,” Rose said in a low growl. “Pete said so.”
“He didn’t mean it,” Pete said quickly.
“Yes he did,” Rose said.
“You’re damn right I did,” Sal said. “You can dress up a whore like a cowboy and giver some guns and call it a desperado but--”
Rose drew one of her guns so quickly, Pete didn’t even have time to register the movement. It was just suddenly there. Moving in a blur, she struck Sal in the jaw with the barrel. It was not a womanly slap, but a full blown assault. Teeth and blood exploded out of Sal’s mouth before he went down in a heap.
“Rose!” Pete stared at the fallen man, who was barely clinging to consciousness. “What have you done?”
“He disrespected me,” Rose said with a shrug. “You don’t let nobody disrespect you. That’s what Bobby said.”
“Bobby’s dead, or haven’t you noticed? I should think so, since you put a bullet in his head.” Pete got off his horse and sought to help Sal.
“She bwoke my toof,” he said with a mouthful of blood.
“You got off lucky,” Pete said with stark seriousness. “You got off lucky.”