Isabel Cavendish decided to take another round along the fences to be sure that all the holes had been mended. The last storm hadn't been kind to the old wooden structures, but with a little help from a stable boy, she had managed to mend the worst damages in three days. Not a moment too soon, she thought, stirring the chopped tomatoes into the boiling bacon and beans. The boys would be back with the herd from the summer pastures within a week.
She took her rifle and mounted her horse, a four-year-old pale grey mare, and looked at the western horizon. Half an hour till the sun would set, but she could make her round in 20 minutes and be back at her humble camp before the last rays left the hillsides. She had sent the boy home hours ago with a message to her father that she would be back after sunset. These last few hours of the day were hers and hers alone.
The green hillsides were bathed in the glow of the last rays of light. This was the most fertile part of the valley, just where the river bended to the east, slowing down and broadening to a majestic stream. Isabel's father had bought these lands of the barber only three years ago, when the raids of the Indians had made it impossible to have cattle in the valley. That was before the peace treaty, though, and now her father's fortune had prospered on the fat herds grazing on the hills each autumn. She breathed in the perfumed smell of the trees and grasses, looking at the lengthening shadows cast by the bushes. If only she could be free to roam these lands every day, Isabel thought with a smile. Then, she shook her head and turned her pale mare back towards the camp.
A noise caught her ears even before the camp came into sight. A faint shuffle of feet in the dirt, and the swishing of horses' tales. She halted her horse and listened intently. How many were they? Five or six? Just enough bullets in the rifle, she thought, setting her mare silently in motion around the camp. She would meet them with the setting sun in her back, making it impossible for them to see her.
She halted behind a thorny shrub and lifted her rifle, peering cautiously through the twigs. There were five men and their horses. A big Mexican with a ponderous belly, an old bearded man, a lad who was no more than a boy, a scrawny scarecrow of a guy with laces on his head and a man in black with a broad-brimmed black hat shadowing his face. Outlaws.
"Dinner's served, boys," the black-clad man called in a rasping voice, taking a spoonful of her bacon and beans. He was obviously the leader of the gang, so he had to go first.
Isabel released the safety catch of the rifle noiselessly.
"You'd better leave my dinner be, lest I shoot your bloody head of, you stinking bastard!"
Four of the men grabbed their guns instantly and aimed at her, squinting in the bright backlight. The man in black just lifted his head lazily, his face still in the shadow of his hat.
"A gal, eh? I guess we'll have ya for dessert, then," he rasped to the general amusement of his men.
Slowly, he put the spoon down and moved his hand upward along the hem of his long coat towards his belt.
"You son of a bitch!" Isabel exclaimed, pulling the trigger.
The black hat landed in the dirt several yards away, making one of the horses rear and whinny. The five guns were fired simultaneously, and Isabel flattened herself quickly onto the back of her scared horse. None of the bullets hit her, so she straightened up and reloaded, aiming at the leader of the outlaws.
The setting sun was shining full in his face now, setting his sullen skin on fire with a golden glow. His skull-like face was framed by lank and greasy locks growing shoulder-long and black. His sunken cheeks were crowned by two high cheekbones, and in the pit of his dark eyeholes, two grey-blue eyes were shining maliciously in the last rays of the sun. Under a crooked nose, a scar on the right side of the upper lip allowed a silver tooth in his mouth to reflect the light and twisted his thin lips into a hideous snarl.
"Butch?!" she exclaimed, aghast, "Uncle Butch?!"
"Niece," he said, giving a short nod by way of greeting.
His men looked at each other, then at their leader with confusion on their faces.
"I nearly shot you dead, you bastard!" she laughed, scrambling off her horse.
Her uncle went to meet her, and they stopped with a couple of yards between them, studying each other with interest.
"Who taught you to talk like that?" Butch asked reprovingly.
"Why, the man who taught me to shoot," she answered.
That brought a smile to his mutilated mouth. It had been a decade since they had met. Then, Isabel had been a little girl of ten, and Bartholomew Cavendish had been doing service as a young major of the Union Army. He had visited them as often as he could, teaching his boyish niece to ride, shoot, drink and smoke.
"Come and have some food," she said, turning to her uncle's men, "you look like a sorry bunch of famished assholes."
She spooned a plateful of bacon and beans for each of them, and they sat down to eat greedily in the light of the fire as darkness fell around them. The eyes of the men were all over her, but Isabel did only have eyes for her uncle. He sat hunched over his food, his broad shoulders relaxed for once. How come she hadn't recognized him? His tall figure was a bit stooping as if he was afraid to hit his head on a low ceiling. The result of too many years in prison, she decided. His face was wrinkled with fine lines around the eyes, a bunch of grey beard grew sparsely on his chin, and his black hair was streaked with grey locks. Most of all, he looked like one of the ravaged alley cats in town. So different from her memory of him.
"You've grown old, Uncle."
He looked up at her with a crooked smile on his lips.
"And you've grown…" he made a movement with his hand to indicate her curves, "… and grown. A real little lady you've become."
Isabel was a short and slender young woman with the big dark eyes and jet-black hair of the Cavendishes. She was wearing her youngest brother Henry's trousers, shirt and leather west, but even those were too big, and she had to fold up the sleeves and the legs. Her face and hands were covered in dirt from working with the fences, and she smelled of horse, sweat and gunpowder.
"A lady?! Ha!" she laughed, "My father would like to make a lady of me, sure. He hasn't succeeded yet, though."
"Matt has always been pretentious," Butch murmured, ladling another spoonful of beans into his mouth.
"Unlike my favourite uncle," Isabel noted smugly, heaving an eyebrow.
"You've only got one as far as I remember."
"I know. Gives me a poor choice, doesn't it?"
Now, it was his turn to laugh, beans spraying to all sides. He wiped his mouth with the back of a dirty hand.
"Don't suppose you've got any whiskey around here, Niece?"
"Now, that's what I call a poor choice."
He took the flask she offered him, though, swallowing about half of its content in one drag before handing it back.
"You've come back after all these years," she said, wiping the mouth of the flask, "why?"
"Business," he answered curtly, looking at the remains of his food.
She emptied her flask, studying the outlaw over the rim. She didn't remember the exact day her uncle had left them for good. He used to come and go as it fitted him, so she had grown used to his sudden disappearances. One day she had seen a poster with his name on it in big fat capital letters, though. That was the moment she knew. He had become one of the most notorious outlaws in Texas and New Mexico alike, his gang hunting down trains and coaches in the desert, killing men, women and children on their way. Some said that Butch Cavendish would cut out and eat the hearts of his foes.
Her uncle put down the empty plate and rose with a sigh.
"Time to go, boys. We don't want to keep up my beautiful niece any longer."
His men scrambled to their feet, muttering, and the big Mexican let out an enormous belch. Butch turned to Isabel.
"Thanks for your hospitality, Bella," he said, stroking her cheek with two fingers the way he used to do when she was a child, "and give my regards to Matt."
"You can give it to him yourself," she said, grabbing the halter of his horse as he swung himself into the saddle, "if you're not loath to pay us a visit."
He glared at her with a piercing look for some moments, his grey-blue eyes shining in the firelight. Then, he pursed his thin lips.
"We'll see about that, my dear."
He bid her farewell with a nod, turning his horse to the south. In a few moments, Butch Cavendish and his gang of outlaws had disappeared into the darkness, only the fainting clatter of their horses' hooves still lingering on the hillsides. Isabel was standing in the light of the dying fire, night creeping steadily in around her. It was time for her to go home.