’It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.′
--- Theodore Roosevelt
Shafts of yellow sunlight filtered through the shabby, hole-riddled walls of the dirty, ramshackle hut. Mixing with the floating dust and grime that drifted through the room. The errant debris fell like starry, gold-flecked embers cascading down to the rough floor. The tiny room sat unfurnished except for the small, dust-covered wood table separating the two men that sat around it.
On one side of the table sat a copper-haired man, eyes shining from beneath the wide half-folded brim of a weathered cavalry hat. His youthful face was locked in distant wonder as he ignored the man chained to the chair across the table from him.
His clothing was well-cared for, fitted to his sturdy physique. His narrow face shone in the warm shafts of sunlight, igniting the short reddish scruff that lined his jaw with its glow.
Across from him, the restrained man shifted uncomfortably in his seat as blood slowly seeped into his collar. A lazily stitched gash ran across his brow, peeking out from beneath shaggy grey hair. He might have been handsome once when he was young. But now, the weight of a violent alcohol-soaked career sat heavily upon every sagging feature of his aged face.
The stout frame of his youth had given way to the rumpled paunchy body of middle age. His coat was ripped in several places, caked in the mud and dirt of two counties, his bare feet bore the scrapes and blisters of all those miles. His legs roared for respite and his stomach ached for sustenance, finding little amongst the savage, hateful company of his captors.
Despite this, he sat in silence with his wrists bound to the legs of the chair by heavy iron shackles. He stared at the young man through the sunlit debris. The younger man sighed serenely, lowering his gaze to his prisoner as he spoke. A friendly, almost musical voice lilted out of his mouth while he smiled brightly as if he were speaking to a dear friend from the old country.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better setting for this little discussion. What do you think?”
The captive man gave his tormentor a mocking sneer, pulling lightly against his restraints as he sat as upright as he could.
“I think you’re a seditious, rabble-rousing murderer who’s going to get himself and a lot of other people killed,” the bloody man snarled.
“Maybe,” the fiery-haired captor chuckled, unbothered by the chained man’s hostility, he tucked a hand into his brown leather vest and withdrew a thin metal star from his inner pocket, “But that’s a lot of big talk from a class traitor like you, Marshal Moon. How many strikes have you broken? How many organizers have you shot?” he leaned closer, his voice dropping into a conspiratorial whisper, “How about, how many times have you just arrested the closest, poorest person to a crime so you could go back to drinking?”
“What do you know!” Moon scoffed, holding his head high defiantly, “You kidnap me, drag me halfway across the state. Barefoot, I might add, you cretin. Tying me to trees all night like a damned savage. You have no right to judge me!”
“Maybe, maybe not,” the man said, shrugging as he leaned back in his chair, “But right or not, here we are. And Boss Man, I am feeling mighty judgmental today.”
“So what? You finally gonna kill me?” the marshal laughed, “I’m a state marshal! They’ll hang you!”
“Oh they’ll hang me all right, for that and more,” he laughed, standing up from the table as the door to the shack swung open.
A gruff-looking man wearing a poorly-fitted buckskin jacket shambled into the room, a lever-action rifle held in his hands, he glared at the captive marshal.
“Camp’s set, Quinn,” the man said sharply, “Lennie and Josiah are out covering our tracks. Miss Carmelita and Mister Higgins are wanting to get on to town before they lose the light. You need anything?”
“No, thank you, Joseph,” the man answered, slipping off his long stylish woolen coat and draping it over the back of his chair before loosening the cuffs of his shirt and rolling up his sleeves, “We were just in the middle of giving each other professional feedback.”
“Yeah,” the marshal laughed mockingly, “You, the back-shooting anarchist.”
“And, you, the boot-licking capitalist.”
Joseph looked back and forth between the men uncertainly for a moment before speaking, “If you say so, Quinn. Holler if you need something.”
The man ducked out, the loose-fitting door banging shut behind him and leaving the two men alone once more.
“Ah, he’s a good one, that Joseph. Don’t you think, Moon?”
“Well, a week ago he pissed on my head while I was sleeping so I might be a bit biased,” the Marshal retorted sarcastically.
“Well, that’s what happens when you fall asleep next to the latrines, Marshal. You were a military man. You should know that.”
“I don’t exactly get a choice which tree your boys tie me to.”
“Yea, well,” Quinn shrugged futilely, “Whose fault is that?”
“Yours,” the marshal growled angrily.
“I can see how you might feel that way,” Quinn said, ignoring the dangerous edge in the marshal’s voice as he slid his chair back away from the table, “But you see, the way I see it, you walked the path to that piss-covered tree every morning you woke up and chose to help oppress your people,” he held up the badge once more, letting the metal catch the sunlight still streaming in through the walls, “Every time you put this on before running a family off their plot for some fat rail man who doesn’t care if any of us live or die. If you wanted to be treated with respect, Marshal Moon, you shouldn’t have treated your office and your fellow man with such contempt and disrespect.”
“Christ,” the marshal scoffed again, rolling his eyes as the young man sat his hat on the table. He stood over the bound marshal, a lopsided smile on his face as the marshal continued, “More of your idealistic bullshit. It’s worse than you taking my boots.”
“What about all the boots you’ve taken, Moon? How many people suffer in squalor because of you and your kind?”
“Ha!” the marshal laughed again and sneered viciously at his captor, “I’m not having another debate with you, boy. Grow up. We’re civilizing this country and sometimes that means breaking a few eggs. Not everyone is up to the task of earning an honest living. Clearly.”
Quinn ignored the marshal’s statement, pulling a pair of rawhide gloves from his gun belt and sliding them onto his hands as he spoke.
“Civilized? Hear me, Marshal. I’ve seen what your civilization looks like. Cities wreathed in acrid smoke. Iron monstrosities that scream like demons day and night. Electric lamps that blot out the stars. And worse, the starving children crawling through rat-infested shacks, not unlike this one.”
Quinn hooked his now gloved thumbs into his belt, fixing the marshal with a strangely wistful gaze as if he were looking through him rather than at him, “I left that behind when I was still a boy. Worked my way over and joined the cavalry when we arrived. I believed, Marshal, with all my pithy little soul, I believed that America was different. That here, men were free to live unoppressed by the silk-clad robber barons that plague the empire. I wanted to defend my new home, and a lying man in Union blue and gold sold me a story and got my body for a song. A month later, I was in the mountains, helping ride down striking miners and burning people’s homes. Does that sound civilized to you, Moon?”
Marshal Moon leaned forward slowly before spitting a thick glob of saliva onto the floor between them, sitting back upright as he spoke, matching Quinn’s even gaze with a hateful one of his own.
“As I’ve said before, sometimes you have to break a few eggs.”
“Well, if that’s how you feel,” Quinn sighed resignedly, leaning down and gently setting one of his gloved hands on the marshal’s shoulder, “Let’s break some eggs,” his other hand surged forward, snapping the marshal’s head back and splitting open the wound on his brow.
The marshal had no time to recover as another heavy blow smashed into his cheekbone, rocking him back in his chair again. The legs screeched as they dragged across the dirty floor, threatening to upend him. He tried to sputter a curse but was cut off by a third blow, splitting his lip and sending him careening to the floor.
Quinn stood over him for a moment, looking down at him contemptuously before seizing him by his collar and dragging him upright once more. The marshal’s head lolled drunkenly as the man braced him with a hand once more, pulling back his fist again as the bleary-eyed marshal tried to focus on his tormentor.
The heavy grunts and wet thwacks emanating from the shack made her wince with displeasure as she stood next to the wagon. She waited as patiently as she could manage for the heavyset man in plaid suspenders who unanimously labored behind her to finish emptying the wagon bed.
A sudden gust of wind whipped around her fiercely, pulling at the lightweight fabric of her flowing black skirt and the hand-sized golden flower stitched onto its side. The voluminous arms of the unassuming linen shirt she wore beneath her dark purple vest ruffled and flowed wildly amidst the chilly torrent of air.
As the wind died down, the woman brushed a thick lock of sable hair behind her ear before resting her forearms against the handles of the matched revolvers stuffed into her gun belt, leaning back against the side of the wagon.
She looked back towards the shack, now blessedly devoid of the sounds of savagery, before sweeping her gaze across the tiny pasture they had claimed.
Their temporary holding was rather deep in the woods, and the wagon train that followed them struggled with the rough terrain as the horses pulled them in, circling together defensively around the shack. She wondered who had placed the shabby building all the way out in the woods, though she knew it was likely just some local's hunting cabin.
Soon the horses were unhitched and the travelers put themselves to work pitching their camp, slowly turning the circled wagons into an impermanent fortress. The men, women, and children of their little band worked well together and she had no doubt that their position would be nigh impregnable by nightfall.
She knew that most of them want to keep heading west, away from the ever-looming threat of arrest or suppression. But she hoped this unplanned stop at the little fishing and trapping town would give them time to come to their senses. Not many traveled through the wild plains, not without a cavalry escort and even they were as likely to shoot them as help them.
No, she could only hope that they might uncover some lead here, some reason to turn their caravan north, if not east. Though, if she were honest, anywhere was better than south or west. West was bad, with tribes and monsters lurking in the grass, waiting to snatch you away. But the South was somehow worse, though civilized, the land was home to all manner of greedy, wealth-hoarding parasites and star-eyed backwater witches.
A heavy grunt and tired sigh preceded the heavyset man as he climbed out the back of the wagon, rubbing the small of his back as he approached. His grimy shirt was stained with sweat that streaked down the sides of his balding head and his baggy pants hung from a pair of thick suspenders.
“Ready when you are, Miss Pilar,” he huffed disconcertingly, taking several deep breaths to recover from his apparent exertion.
“Mierda, Higgins,” the woman said, watching the man struggle to regain his breath, “You going to be okay?”
“I’m fine,” he snapped irritably, waving an annoyed hand at her, “But you could have helped.”
“I’m a lady, Higgins,” she said with a toothy grin as she pretended to inspect her short-trimmed nails, “I can’t be seen doing the work of a plebeya.”
“Ha!” Higgins laughed, setting his fists against his hips and staring down at the smaller girl, “You’re no lady, Miss.”
“Oh yea, bicho?” she said, adopting his posture and scowling back up at him, “You know a lot of ladies, do you?”
“Maybe not, but I bet they don’t get in backwater shootouts for sucker-punching loudmouths or robbing bank transfers.”
“Well, if that’s the standard we’re going with, none of us seem particularly ladylike.”
They both stared at each other for a moment before breaking into chuckles, the tension breaking with ease under the weight of a long friendship.
“Seriously though,” Higgins said, dropping his tone as he spoke, “Quinn said we’re going to be here awhile. Maybe don’t go looking for trouble where there ain’t none.”
“He’s right, Carmelita,” a new voice said, bright and familiar to them both.
The man stood nearly six feet tall, and his broad shoulders and thick arms stretched pleasantly as he pulled off the bloodied leather gloves he wore before tucking them into his belt and pushing the wide brim of his cavalry hat further back on his head.
“I know, Quinn,” the woman said, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms defensively, “I’ll keep my head down.”
“Thank you,” Quinn said sincerely while sharing a knowing look with Higgins, “But I’m sending Mac out after you just to be safe. We don’t know this area too well and we don’t want any surprises.”
“Mac’s been riding all day,” she said, gesturing at the men and women erecting the camp around them, “He going to be up for that?”
“He’s resting his horse and getting some food, he’ll be out after you in an hour, tops.”
Carmelita turned away and climbed into the back of the wagon, leaning over the edge and looking down at the men, “If you say so, Capitan. You have your list, Mister Higgins?”
“I do indeed,” the man said, hopping into action and pulling himself up into the wagon’s seat with a loud groan, “We’ll be okay, Boss. Don’t you worry.”
Quinn nodded at them as Higgins flicked the reins, pulling the wagon towards the edge of the campground. Carmelita gave a sarcastic salute to the man earning a grin and a vulgar gesture from the receding figure in return.