The sun burned its heated mark down on the back of my neck, weaving its way through the loosened strands of my hair to burn a thin lace like pattern on my nape. Rose shifted beneath me, her hooves uneasily moving across the dusted earth and puffing up ashen like dirt that hovered ominously in the air. A hot breeze ran its touch over my shoulders and down my spine, a twisted strand of blonde hair catching in front of my eyes and blurring my vision. I tucked it back from my face and under the brim of my hat, the roughness scratching against my bare palms. Pa's head barely tilted up, his hat shifting and re-sketching the shadows across his face, paled and darkened over his stubble. His lips parted somewhat, his gaze focused on the hawk, its snow white feathers gathered together to create a downy surface barely dotted with the occasional black feather. The breeze ruffled it and its claws readjusted on the knobbed branch. Pa lowered his face again, his dirtied fingers gripping the pad of paper tightly, his other hand moving in stunted movements over the paper. The branches next to pa shifted and hooves clumped across the dirt, the sun catching over Charlie perched on his horse, his hands loosely clutching the reins. The hawk took off, wings beating the air viciously and pa's head turned, watching it go and the sunlight cutting awkwardly over his back. He shifted his jaw back and forth slightly, his jacket deeply creasing. Charlie's horse edge closer, his own face half buried in shadow and his chin etched with his blonde stubble. I lowered my eyes, the heat of the sun seeming to burn deeper and darker, his gaze clear and with a deeper edge that crawled underneath my skin.
"Coach is headed for Bisbee, Boss," he said, his voice clipped with accent and his gaze turned away but it's memory hovering. "Girded with irons, Pinks on top, double shotguns, and a Gatling." A smirk of malice wrote itself onto his lips at the prospect. Pa clicked his tongue and his horse walked cautiously down slope, flattening patches of brown grass and chunks of heavy dirt. I clicked my own tongue and Rose tossed her head, neighing somewhat and followed, her alternated steps causing me to slide somewhat on the saddle. I gripped my thighs and adjusted my hold on the reins, the sun burning its mark through my clothes in a heated clutch. The barbed branches of a low tree ran along my legs and Rose's flank and she neighed lowly, shifting her head. I let go of the reins with one hand and dug my fingers behind her head to scratch her affectionately. Pa's shape moved ahead of him, revealing the outfit awkwardly situated. They lowered their gaze as the spotted me, focus directed towards any other various activity they had. Pa rode through them casually, stance tall on his horse with a deep seated confidence that no one dared question. I ran the rein through my fingers as I followed him over to the ridge, the odd shadows of the horses and their riders flanking either side of me. I swallowed the dryness on my tongue as I pulled on the rein firmly and Rose stopped the lines of her jaw tight. Pa glanced over at me, confirming that I was seated beside him before turning back to the outfit. Charlie nodded with unspoken understanding, his gaze shifting over everyone and jerked his hips to get his horse to move forward. Everyone but Pa and I followed; their combined hoof beats crashing against the dying earth and exploding it in low hanging dust and clipped grass. The taste and scent of both hovered in the air like a dirtied mist. I shifted, my legs beginning to ache with the pressure of holding of them tight.
"Stay close to me," Pa said quietly, firmness to his tone that bore no room for question or negotiation. I glanced over at him, my eyes half in shadow as he stared off into the distance to where the puffs of dust gave away the presence of the outfit, their low sounding hoof-beats a gentle hum in the background. Familiar irritation grinded through my spine like the sun's heat and I gritted my teeth to keep back words that I knew he wouldn't appreciate.
"I know pa," I responded and turned back to follow his gaze to where the billows of dust faded. A gunshot echoed harshly through the air, splitting the near quiet with the heat of it. Pa's head snapped to the side to where the sound originated, his crystallized blue eyes carving its gaze over the chipped cliff sides. I watched him, a miniscule breeze brushing back the hairs on his neck as he waited, listening …. He turned his head back, the cut of his hat shading over his eyes.
"Stay close," He repeated, the same gravelly edge to his voice that barely betrayed anything more than basic affection.
His horses hoof steps broke evenly on the cracked earth, his posture swaying somewhat with the movements, his hands evenly spaced over the reins and holding them loosely. He drew on them firmly, altering the fold of his jacket to reveal his gun holstered by his side, the golden cross on the handle glinting of the suns reflection. Six black horses broke through the low hanging trees lower down, the coach dragging behind it with the shape of its drivers barely visible. Pa glanced back at Campos on the higher rocks, his pose low over the earth with his riffle carefully aimed in front of him. He froze on the edge, pulling his rifle closer to him so that it aimed higher, the longer strands of his hair heavy over his face. Gunshots echoed and I turned back to see the Outfit charging after the Coach, dust exploding over the hedges and earth. I licked my lips and moved farther up on the saddle, the edges of it rough against my thighs. Pa barely glanced over at me before redirecting his gaze to the scene unfolding, the gunfire now echoing into one another and violently crashing against the background of my ears. The horses and Coach collided into a blurring herd of shapes and sounds, ashen dust billowing upwards and coating everything until only sharp edges stood out. A louder gunshot crashed through the air and my shoulders tensed at the sound, Campos still poised over his riffle with his fixed posture. Sharp, short shots broke louder, puffs of dust echoing off the dust where he crouched. Rose tensed and shifted backwards, her head jerked somewhat with nerves.
"Easy, girl," I murmured, tangling my fingers through her mane and grazing her head lightly. "Easy, there." She ducked her head, ears turning to catch closer to my fingers and I scratched the grooves behind them with comfort. I looked over at pa, his face trained on the ambush and the sun catching over the side of his face and turning his stubble to roughened gold. His stance was calm, solid confidence that betrayed no fear, no tremor or doubt. Complicated affection for him beat against my insides and I turned away, quiet resentment fighting their way in through my heart beats quickened by the echoed gunshots.
He clicked his tongue and I turned as he jerked his horses head around the flank of Rose. His horse backtracked and I snapped my head around, my loosened braid hitting lightly against my back, the frayed strands of it hovering around my head in a gold haze.
"Follow me, love," pa directed and his horses hoof steps thudded down the slopped hill and amongst the hardened earth and down to a low slope where a couple dozen cows stood in awkward formation, lowing throughout the deadened grass.
"Ya," I ordered quietly and Rose picked up her ears and clopped after him, hooves gripping the slope and broken grass and rocks. Pa swept his hand into the side of his jacket and pulled out his gun, directing it towards the sky and firing. The cows mooed and all started to herd together, over the edge, their flanks blending in a dizzying formation. Pa fired again, powder dusting up from the barrel, barely standing above the ever moving group of cattle, their hooves beating loudly.
"Ya," I yelled, a straggler brushing back my legs and thundering after the others, its head bowed and mooing lowly in panic. "Ya." Pa tucked his gun back into its holster and reached out between us and grasped onto my reins, his fingers over my own and tightening them to bring me to a stop.
"Good girl," he congratulated, squeezing my fingers with quiet affection before letting go and drawing them back to his own reins. "Good girl." I turned away, licking my dusted lips and tightening my fingers into the leather of the reins. He brought his horse forward again, Rose dutifully following as the Coach turned from the stampede of cattle, the harness breaking and the horses galloping off with panic, their manes tangled and hoofs blurred darkly. The Coach crashed into the rock and flipped, the two surviving drivers falling to the sides and collapsing into the dirt. The outfit broke closer to the destruction, the remaining wheels on the coach spinning and dust musty in the air. Charlie swung his leg over his horse and landed solidly on the earth, unbuttoning the first button of his jacket and strutting easily through the barbed bushes. A dark shape burst through them hurriedly and Charlie pulled out his gun and shot him, the shape falling and him adjusting it back into his holster with barely a pause in his step between. He stopped for a moment next to a barbed bush and shot into the ground next to it, a shape barely forming between the crunched branches. He turned again and walked deeper into the thicket, stepping with a pronounced air and a saunter to his walk.
"Names Charlie Prince," he said his voice rough with arrogance and the heat. "I expect you've heard of me." An elderly man slowly rose from the branches, his grey hair dirtied and his face leathery with wrinkles.
"…Named Charlie Princess," he was saying, his voice thick with conceit and edge roughly with pain. "That you, missy?" Charlie pulled out his gun and shot him in the stomach, the man's shoulders collapsing in agony.
"I hate Pinkertons," Charlie said simply, tucking his gun back into his holster, the cut of the sunlight illuminating the golden hairs on his chin and neck.
"Byron McElroy," pa greeted, tugging lightly on his reins and folding his hands respectfully over one another. "When did your hair grow all grey, Byron?" Byron coughed dryly, back curved on itself and tense with pain.
"Go to hell, Ben Wade," he grunted, glancing partially up, his clear blue eyes betraying a strength in them that contrasted against the age of his face and stance. Pa smiled slightly and his horse stepped lightly around them and to the fallen Coach, its wheel still lazily spinning.
"Well, would you look at all this," he observed lazily, taking in the finer details of the now ruined Coach. "Y'all spare no expense this time, Byron. I gotta say, though, it's probably cheaper just to let me rob the damn thing." A chuckle stretched out on his last words and he smiled slightly, pure enjoyment from his own humor. Byron stared up at him, his hand clutched to his stomach, tendrils of blood leaking through his fingers. Pa gripped his stirrup and pushed himself off, landing firmly on the ground and his boots crunching on the grass. I grasped my own stirrup and propelled my leg over, blood rushing back under my skin and becoming pins and needles that prickled when I set my feet onto the ground. My feet connected strongly and I held onto the saddle of Rose for a moment, my legs stiff and too broken in. I ran my fingers down her flank and walked around, each step loosening up legs and un-sticking the fabric of my pants from my legs hotly.
"If you're going to kill me, just as soon get to it," Byron gritted out harshly, his head bowed and his fingers clutching his jacket with the deepened red blood staining his fingers.
"I ain't gonna kill you," pa said solemnly. "Not like this." Charlie glanced over at him; his fingers hovered over the bullets he was reloading. His gaze redirected to me and I lowered my eyes, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
"Won't change a thing, lettin' me live," Byron gasped gruffly, each word pronounced and roughened as his chest moved with harsh pants, the blood still leaking over his twisted fingers. "I'll come for you." He looked up on his last words, his eyes clear with defiance and hatred. He coughed coarsely, the sound of the blood in his throat thick and coagulated.
"I'd be disappointed if you didn't," pa gravely responded, his brow knotted and eyes broken with an almost concern and sympathy. Byron stared back with his defiance, his harsh pants barely stirring the twisted strands of hair on his beard. His eyes barely shifted and settled on me.
"And this must be your daughter, the beautiful Sarah Wade," he wheezed, each word heavily pronounced with a sharpened edge that rasped like a blade being sharpened. "The one woman in the entire West that no man can touch."
"Or lay eyes on either," pa sternly answered, all sympathy presumed or not gone from his voice and now hardened. "And unless you want me to cut you down right here I'd stop staring at her." Byron continued to stare with insolence, the feel of his eyes burning through me with discomfort but I stared back, my heart humming loudly in my chest and my tongue going dry from the heat. He lowered his eyes, his shoulders giving in as his fingers tightened on his stomach and he sighed sharply.
"She's lit!" Someone yelled, breaking through the heated silence. "She's lit!" Pa glanced over before moving away from the Coach, his arm barely reaching out and pressing against my elbow. I followed him as he knelt onto the dirt and I joined his side, the grit of the earth digging into the cloth of my pants and imprinting through to my skin. An explosion ripped through the wood of the Coach, dust and broken shards crashing out of each end and thickening in the air. Pa blinked simply, glancing over at it with an almost disinterest. Tommy rushed over to the now opened end, disappearing into the thicket of dust. I stood as pa did, walking over after him as he whistled, the dust coating the inside of my throat and against the bare skin of my neck dotted with sweat. A shot echoed inside the Coach where Tommy disappeared, pa tucking his thumbs into his belt and standing proud as one of the men walked in front of him. His head bowed and eyes downcast as he walked by to assist Tommy, now standing by the destroyed door, a rusted looking metal case in front of him. He looked up at pa with a grin before shooting at the lock, the metal of it easily breaking and he knelt to untangle it. Pa pulled at his cuffs before setting his hands on his hips as they all knelt to the case and stuffing their satchels. He glanced over at me with a small, proud smile.
"You'll be eating well tonight, love," he declared with a hint of warmth before turning back. I swallowed a bitterness on my tongue from thirst and the heat, a tender twisting in my stomach at the prospect. I knew better by now not to ask until offered though. The men around Tommy separated and a man rushed out of the overturned Coach and grabbed onto Tommy's shoulder and pulled him back, a gun in his hand.
"I'll ask you to put down the money," he said roughly, shaking Tommy as he forced him to a stand. "You step back. You men step back! All of you men step back, right now or this man dies." Pa quietly gestured with his fingers for everyone to lower their weapons, his eyes trained perfectly on Tommy and the man with the gun.
"Not a smart move friend," Tommy grinned, sweat from the heat dotted along his face and neck. Pa stared at the two of them, his eyes narrowing slightly and his fingers crawling closer to his gun. A twist pulled in my chest, a sense in the back of my mind alerting to me what his next thought was before he reacted on it. Tommy's face paled somewhat, his eyes widening with fear and a realization to what was going to happen next.
"Shit," he quietly swore. Pa whipped out his gun and there was an explosion of powder and sound as blood splattered Tommy's neck, followed by another blast as blood sputtered from the man's forehead. I flinched as they both collapsed into the dirt, my heart racing against my ribs and twisting nauseatingly in my stomach. Pa turned to the outfit, their eyes all wide and frozen, uneasily shifting on their horses as they dared not move or speak. Pa turned from them and walked over, Tommy still making minuscule movements in warped agony in the dirt.
"Well Tommy …," he said strutting over with careful footsteps and reloading his gun with care. "…It seems that there was a Pinkerton … inside that coach that wasn't quite dead yet. Now I know Charlie told you, because … we done got but a few rules in this outfit." He dropped the shells by Tommy's head, the blood smeared across his throat and lips, his eyes wearily shifting and clouding over with pain. "And this is what happens when you put us all at risk." Tommy choked and pa flipped the gun between his fingers and slipped it back into his holster. He turned back to everyone else, his stance tall and threatening with no word necessary to give off warning that his actions were not to be questioned. I walked past him, the lining of his jacket catching against my own and his gaze turning to follow. The dirt shifted to accommodate my footsteps and I knelt by Tommy's side, the light scent of metallic blood coating my nostrils and coating my tongue sickly. His eyes were open and glazed over, his blood stained throat still and silent. I reached over and gently placed my fingers on my eyelids and dragged my fingertips down so that they closed his eyelashes soft against my skin. Rocks shifted loudly and echoed after and I looked up, three men on horses barely hidden by the dying trees scattered alongside the hill. I stood as pa whistled for his horse, jogging over somewhat to greet her. I followed over to Rose, throwing her head somewhat, uneasily stepping and placed my foot into her stirrup and swung over. My leg seized painfully and I fisted my fingers through the reins and clicked my teeth. She galloped after Pa, billows of dust kicked up by her feet and grass crunching. One of the men on the hill moved closer to the edge, the other two behind him and smaller in size. I gripped my thighs on the saddle as Rose climbed the slope, her hooves catching into the crumbled earth.
"Morning," Pa greeted politely, his voice low with no indication behind it as to his true intentions. The man in front shifted uneasily on his horse, the wear of his clothing old and worn, with a dusted appearance to them that gave away an indication that he was poor.
"Those are my cattle," he said simply, his fingers fixed behind him presumably on a gun and the set of his face suggesting a forced confidence. "I want 'em back." Charlie chuckled in disbelief at his naiveté, glancing over at Pa to make sure that he was still recognizable as who he was.
"Careful, rancher, that's Ben Wade, you're talking to," Charlie warned politely, the always present edge of malice entwined over his words. I shifted my gaze from the rancher and onto the man behind him and my heart slowed to a pained and broken stop. He was beautiful. Deep, clear blue eyes standing out of his pale, lightly freckled face and flecks of black hair falling over his forehead in disheveled disarray. Everything froze inside me, everything broken and everything whole. Everything falling and yet standing perfectly still. I swallowed hard, my heartbeat drawn out in an echoed sound and feel that touched every inch of my body. He stared back at me, his lips perfectly parted and his eyes so impossibly blue and beautiful. Everything was gone, everything frozen and insignificant and it was only me and him, my heartbeat and his eyes …
"Campos," Charlie said and everything snapped back into sharp focus, every detail now over pronounced and unbroken. The boy broke away his gaze to the rancher and kicked his leg over his horse and settled his feet onto the ground next to the rancher who already stood. Rose shifted and I tightened my fingers on the reins, the feel of them trembling with a shiver that seemed to crawl underneath every inch of my skin and back again.
"You'll find them on the road to Bisbee," Pa said, tucking his fingers into the side of his belt near his holster. Campos urged his horse forward, his hand outstretched and he took the joined reins from the three horses, the leather of them collecting in his palm.
"Boys," Pa winked, his hand tucked again over his holster and turning his horse. Panic ran itself along my insides like a knife and I gripped the reins tightly, the leather and stitching getting under my fingernails and I shifted my hips to encourage Rose around and forward. She dutifully followed after Pa's horse's tail, her head lowered and her ears flicking back her hair. I gritted my fingernails into the leather, the pressure of the twisted stitches imprinting on my skin. Don't turn back, don't turn back, don't turn … I turned my head back, my braid unsettling against my shoulder and stared back at him. He stood in the dirt, his hat over his face but his crystallized blue eyes clearly visible staring back at me. A broken yearning clawed its way through me with heartbreaking force but I turned away, clutching the reins tighter and urged Rose on.