From Sarah Todd:
Bandits hit the Joiner farm in the night, the day after Pete left. Nina Joiner turned up at Sarah’s door, streaked in blood and crying, but it were too late for anything but the cleanup. Sarah saw to Nina, then took her home in her own buckboard, dragging the black horse along behind it.
The barn was ash, and the livestock were gone. The fields were plowed for planting, but the seed crop was gone.
“I’ll find you new seed,” Sarah told Nina, “and I’ll send round the boys to get things tidied away as much as we can.”
They’d lost three men: old Joiner – Nina’s pa – and two hands. The burials would be in the morning. Sarah would be back for those, then she would hunt down the bandits and see what she could recover.
In town, the rumor of the destruction at Joiners’ was milling as she got there, drunk men arguing and fighting in the street as tempers drew dangerously short.
“Go home,” Sarah said, kicking one man in the back of the head as she went by. “I’m not arguing with fist fights tonight.”
“What are you gonna do about it, Sarah?” one of the men called.
“Gonna go out and find them,” Sarah answered. “Any man wants to join me’s welcome.”
She looked at the restless men with a cool eye, then kept moving. There would be a decent posse by morning. She just hoped weren’t too many of them hung over.
She went back to bed, waking up to the rooster at dawn and saddling a sleepy black horse in the front yard to head back into town. The men there were predictably militant, yelling things back and forth that she’d heard so many times it bored her.
“Don’t kill no one,” she said to one of them as she went through. “I’m going to the Joiners’ to pay my respects, then I’ll be back.”
There were protests, predictable noisy ones, about trails getting cold and hangings by lunchtime, but she ignored them, and no one actually said anything direct to her.
The Joiners’ place looked no better by daylight. The house was marked with ashy scars and bullet holes, and the women were in full grieving mode, now, standing in huddles in the bare yard, crying and talking. Sarah dismounted, giving the horse a stern look that he mind himself, then went to find Nina.
“Jacob died last night,” Nina said. “Nothing Doc could do to help.”
Sarah walked back with her to the family plot, where they planted their loved ones, and stood at the feet of the four fresh graves, taking her hat in her hands.
She had nothing to say, and Nina seemed to expect no more than that, so they just stood.
“Carmine’s pregnant,” Nina said after a moment.
“I’ll do what I can,” Sarah answered. Carmine was Jacob’s wife. All together, four generations of Joiner lived in the house behind her, and five were represented in the plot before her.
“Don’t know what we’d do without you,” Nina said, putting her hand on Sarah’s shoulder.
“I’m taking a posse out to find them what did this,” Sarah said. “Though it don’t help nothin’, now.”
“It does,” Nina said. Nina wasn’t an angry or violent woman. She wasn’t the type to want bloody revenge, but even the reasonable ones knew that taking life for life was what kept this kind of stuff tamped down.
Sarah took out a paper and rolled a gremlin cigarette, smoking it quietly as they stood for a minute longer. Finally, she threw the butt away and put her hat back on.
“Time’s wastin’,” she said and Nina nodded. “When were you fixin’ to get seed in the ground?” Sarah asked.
“Today,” Nina said. “Or tomorrow, depending.”
“See Granger,” Sarah said. “I’ll cover it.”
Nina put her hand over her mouth for a moment, then nodded and left. Sarah watched her with pity, then tracked down her wayward horse and returned to town.
The crowd there milled with more undirected anger, on the verge of combusting.
She stepped off of the black horse onto the bed of a buckboard, turning to face the men.
“Jacob Joiner is dead,” she said. “That makes four men last night.”
The commotion grew and she held up her hands.
“We’re going after the bastards. But any man here hung over or too stupid to ride with me best go home, ’cause any man gets in my way this ride, I shoot him myself. Think on that one.”
She looked down behind her, finding Granger where she’d expected him.
“Someone from the Joiners should be round today,” she said. “You give ’em what they ask for.”
He nodded, wiping his glasses and putting them back on. She turned to look at the crowd again.
“Joiners need fit men to fix things up, there. They need horses and equipment for planting. They need ladies to come mind the kitchen and the children. We’ll raise them a barn when I get back, so we need lumber assembled in the meantime. There’s no dishonor, seein’ what needs seein’ to. The men what did this will get what’s comin’ to ’em, I give you my word. I don’t need all y’all with me, this ride.”
Thor was at her feet.
“We shut down the mine while Apex heals up,” he said to her. “Like to see it through with you.”
“One,” she said loudly. “Who else rides with me?”
She waited, picking out men she could count on, then assigning a couple more good guys to go to the Joiner homestead and oversee things there.
“Bring your wives,” she called after them, and one of them waved.
She looked for her horse.
Damned thing had ended up at a hitching post in front of the tavern, drinking water.
Dumber than a bald fish.
She whistled. It ignored her.
“Someone get me that damned animal so I can go get my gear,” she yelled, motioning at the horse. The crowd began to break up as men, appointed tasks, found themselves less angry and more productive. She waited for someone to bring her the horse, then swung a leg over and rode for home.
She’d be gone a few days, she had no doubt. She left grain for the cows, then rode to the next homestead over, the Pillars, and asked if one of their young’uns could feed her stock while she was out. Vera Pillar was more than happy to volunteer her Grant to do it. Sarah got the guns, ammunition, food, and water she’d need for five days out, packing up the horse and whistling to Dog.
“Give them vermin hell while I’m out,” she said to him, and he dipped his nose between his paws. He was loose, and would feed himself on parasitic native animals while she was gone. He’d also see to the cattle, should anything bigger than a varmint happen through.
She mounted up and made for town.
Thirteen men were waiting for her there, including Thor. The rest of the town seemed to have made its way to more useful activity.
“You got any idea who done the Joiners?” one of the men asked.
“They stole cows,” Sarah said. “One thing harder than anything else I know is hiding a bunch of cows.”
She had an idea, though. The failed raid on the Goodsons put her in the mind that Bruiser and his crew were still on the hunt for a score, and they’d got the jump on her, this time. No matter. The Joiners were popular in town, and Lawrence would turn death for death on Bruier’s crew, maybe this time enough that he couldn’t hit the stronger homesteads like the Joiners.
They started at the Joiners’ place. Sarah noted the improvements there, already, and Nina and her kin came out to wave them off as they started across the plowed field following the obvious tracks there.
Once they got to the hard ground on the other side, the men spread out, basically just watching for dung. A well-fed cow or horse will drop up near eighty pounds of manure in a day, and when you head out with forty of them, you’re lookin’ at a cow pat just about every time the last one goes out of sight. They wouldn’t be eatin’, sure enough, while the bandits moved them, so they’d thin out as the going went on, but for now, it was good as a road, for direction.
They rode quickly, making up time on the slower cattle and making camp late, just coffee, jerky, and a fire as the temperature dropped. This time, Sarah had a blanket and enough dry wood around to keep proper warm. Up before dawn, they followed another full day, harder this time, but true enough, across the dry creekbeds that criss-crossed this part of the country. Once a year, Lawrence was practically drowned in rain, and these channels in the landscape stole away all of that water eventually, but they spent the rest of the year dry, cracked, and pointless.
The third day on the trail, they hit canyon land, where the little creeks and streams hit more permanent water. The levels were down, now, but this was land that could support a man for a while, if he could find enough cows to steal and butcher. The men could feel it, and Sarah knew it true enough – if they were going to have trouble, this would be where.
They stayed in small groups, picking their way across the barren red rock, splashing across clearwater streams and keeping to shadow and overhang where it existed. Sarah drank frequently, but her mouth was always dry, anyway.
They stopped to let the horses drink at a crossing when she heard it.
“Shut up,” she said to the men with her. They raised their heads to watch her.
There it was again.
She nodded her head toward it, and they pulled their horses’ heads up. They’d heard it, too. She waved an arm, getting the attention of the next group over and motioned that they should head up on top of the ridge, if they could find a path. Thor and the two men riding with him went back the way they came, to a path Sarah remembered that looked promising.
There was no point to being up there, save for gunning folk down. With no crossings, the high land was the same as an island. The cattle would be down low, and Sarah was betting the bandits would be with them.
Some of them, by any right.
She pushed the black horse across the stream, then dismounted, dropping his reins onto a stubborn bush that was making a go of life in solid rock. She pulled her rifle before she left him, creeping forward in the shadow side of the canyon.
She put her rifle scope to her eye, scanning the ridge on the opposite side of the canyon.
“Hat,” she murmured, stopping dead. The men behind her continued forward. She’d have stopped them, if she hadn’t been so busy waiting for the hat to move.
A man could get down. He could even get down low enough that the top of his head didn’t show any more. But men forgot to either duck lower or take their damned hats off. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d taken a man out because he’d left his hat up too high when he got in cover.
Worse, the bandits wore bits of this and that in their hats, things that they were proud of, that they’d stolen from the folk in Lawrence. This weren’t one of her men, and she could tell at a hundred yards.
She held still when the shooting started, using her off eye to scan, but staying on her target.
Damned fool stood up.
Dumber than a whole flock of seagulls.
She shot him in the chest, reloaded and adjusted, watching for his buddy.
Dumber than his dead friend, the second one got up from his own cover, hat in hand, and went to see for sure that his friend was dead. Sarah got him, too, then she eased up onto her feet again.
Bolt action. She put the shell casings in her duster pocket, pulling her hat down a fraction to keep the bright light from above out.
Half the canyon was sizzling red, the other half was in shadow. If a man weren’t careful, it was easy to mistake a movement in that shadow for an enemy, when it were really your friend, coming to warn you about the bandit behind you. With her hat low, she could see better, but not good.
With her back to the rock, but not flat against it, she moved forward at a speed quick enough to pick up the tails of her duster, holding her rifle by the barrel and taking out a handgun. The gunfight was picking up, and the cows caught in the middle were panicky.
Only thing worse than a panicky horse was a panicky cow, on account of them being even dumber.
She found one of her men laying on his back, clutching his stomach around a bright red wetness seeping through his shirt.
“Hold tight, Marcus,” she said, patting him on the shoulder and moving on. A bullet cratered the rock by her head, and she dropped to a knee, scanning.
There was shouting. The two men she’d killed up high were important, but they weren’t the whole of the ambush there for Sarah and her men. There were more men up high on both sides, firing down into the milling confusion of cow and men. A handful of bandits were there with the cows, hidden in among rocks and willful shrubs, hard to see in the mottled light.
Sarah cursed, dragging another of her men back as he dropped his gun and grabbed his shoulder.
Without anything to shoot at, eventually the gunfire trickled off.
Sarah took a quick look at the man’s injury, then moved as far forward as she could, lying on her belly and peering through her rifle sight.
“This is Sarah Todd,” she yelled. “Run now if you’ve got any int’rest in livin’.”
Someone stood. She put him down.
“You’re pinned,” someone else yelled back. “Don’t matter if you’re Sarah Todd or not, you’re a dead man.”
Her shot was greeted by several more, but none of them could reach her.
“You killed four men,” Sarah yelled. “I’m comin’ for you, can’t you do nothin’ about it but run.”
There was a manic laugh and more shots.
Another man shifted behind his woody cover and she put lead through him.
Bolt action, shell.
More shots at her, all guesses.
“I told Bruiser to cut it out,” Sarah yelled. “His fault all y’all got to die.”
She couldn’t see the men up high, and there was a good chance one of them would figure out he could just come to the edge and peek over to get a clear shot down at her.
Risk she had to take.
A man ran and she put a shot in his back. He fell facefirst into shallow water. The cows were ready to bolt, if they could pick a direction.
She ignored them.
She’d used cows for cover before, but it was worse than being out in the open, when they got like this. They were more like to trample you than you were to get shot.
She heard the footsteps above her on the gritty rock, staying still. She weren’t hard to spot, but moving would just bring the shot faster. She waited, knowing either they would make a mistake or they would end her, watching the men who remained in the canyon floor.
And then a body fell.
It landed feet from her, snapping as it hit the rock, and she glanced at it. Unshaven, dirty, and decorated. Bandit. With a red shirtfront.
She remembered Thor had a flourish for knifework, when the mood struck. If the point of that was to be secrety, she figured he’d failed, dropping the man over the edge.
There was another burst of gunfire, and the men remaining in the canyon slumped, one by one.
“That’s all of them, Sarah,” Thor yelled down.
“You got men hit?” she called back up, staying still.
There was always one.
“Nah, we’re good,” Thor answered.
There was a shot, and then the owner of the pistol made a break for it. Sarah dropped him, then stood.
“How about now?” she called.
“Dammit,” Thor answered. “I’m hit.”
“Serves you,” she said, going to the far side of the herd of cows and whooping at them, getting them moving in the right direction. Once started, they calmed, picking an easier way over the rocks. She watched them for a minute, then went to check on her two shot men. They were both still breathing, and the one with the hole in his shoulder would probably ride out. Marcus needed help in a bad way.
“Go get my horse,” she said to the second man. “The huge black one.”
He scrambled away, and she peeled Marcus’s hands off of his stomach.
“How’s Enid?” she asked him.
“Gonna be madder’n hell if I don’t make it home,” he grunted. She looked after the man who’d left as she pressed her hands down hard on Marcus’s wound.
“She didn’t want you to come?”
“Didn’t tell her,” Marcus answered. Sarah laughed.
“You’re a damned fool, moving forward when I stopped.”
“You always stop,” he answered. “Fight’s forward.”
She always lived, too.
She gritted her teeth at him.
“I’m going to do a damned sight of work on you, Marcus,” she said as his eyes fluttered and began to roll. She pushed harder, the surge of pain bringing him to with a groan. “A damned sight. You live through it. Got me?”
“Tell her your own damned self,” she said, looking up as the second man came back, leading her horse.
“In the bag,” she said, then shook her head in frustration as he tried to pick through it one-armed. “Just bring it all, damn it. Do it now.”
He took her saddle bags off of the black horse, struggling to get them to her. She took one bloody hand and snatched everything she could get out of the medical bag, finding the pliers. She looked at Marcus again, but he was passed out.
“Hold his hands,” she said to the other man. He shuffled, trying to figure out how, with only one arm. “Cross his chest,” she said. “Now.”
The second man crossed Marcus’s arms across his chest and then leaned on them, nodding. Sarah shook her head and plunged the pliers into Marcus’s wound, hitting metal with a click and pulling the bullet out. There were organs in there with holes in them, and that would matter, but right now it was the spreading puddle of blood that concerned her. She found the putty and the foam canister, filling the hole with the foam and covering it with putty before mixing a pat of glue and capping the whole thing with that. The glue would bond to skin, regardless of how much blood was on top of it, and the foam would plug up anything that felt like seeping, for as long as it lasted. By design, it would dissolve in a day or so, and it weren’t perfect. If they jostled Marcus around too much, things would break free and he’d bleed into his own stomach and be just as dead.
“Okay,” she said, sitting back on her heels. “Let’s get him out of here.”
She looked around, but there was no better way to do it than with her blanket. She pulled the rolled wool down from behind her saddle and lay it out next to Marcus. She looked over her shoulder to find several more of the men.
“Shift him onto that,” she said. “Bust up that patch work, you answer to me.”
They moved Marcus over onto the blanket. She watched critically.
“Need two men dragging him,” she said. “Thor, you’re finding a campsite for the night. Bruiser’s men will be around. Heads up, everyone.”
The men set to work, and she walked along behind Marcus, watching as he went over the uneven ground. She gave him fifty-fifty odds of making it through the night, and fifty-fifty again tomorrow. She’d have to open him back up and try to close some of the holes before they got home. If he made it through the night, he might live through that part.
“Caleb, you drop your corner again, I will get my whip and remind you.”
The man looked over his shoulder and grunted. She glowered back from under her hat.
They worked for a couple of hours to get Marcus up and out of the canyon, camping in a protected space Thor found. She peeled the glue off of Marcus last thing to check the putty. It was expanding the way it was supposed to, so she used the blood-stimulant injection on him and went to bed.
In the morning, he was still warm.
“Anyone with a bullet in them stays,” she said as the men drank their coffee around the small fire. “Everyone else, with me.”
The cattle were restless, but stayed close for lack of a food source. She needed to get them back to Lawrence where the Joiners could feed and tend to them, but she had things to get done, first.
“We ain’t going after Bruiser,” Thor said, a question.
“You ain’t,” she said. “You’re the one good gun arm watchin’ over Marcus.”
He didn’t like it, but he didn’t argue. She looked at the ten men who were left.
“He’s picked off homesteads all of the last year. We take it to him, now.”
“We got the cows, Sarah,” one of the men complained.
“And you get to push them all the way home,” she answered. “Any other thoughts?”
There was a sullen silence and she gave them a nod.
“Good. With me.”
She found her horse, mounting up and riding back to where they’d been ambushed. They’d taken the cows this way, so the camp was this way. Bandits didn’t do double-backs with herds of cows. Too much work.
“You four, up high,” she said, pointing. “Everyone else, stay sharp.”
They rode more slowly, now, passing the bodies of the bandits they killed yesterday. Her black horse shied at one of them and she slapped him.
“Stupid animal,” she muttered. “It’s just meat.”
The canyon narrowed as the sun began to peek over the top ridge. They rode two across in knee-deep water that smelled of death. They passed a varmint that had drowned in it.
“They’ll feel right at home, in this,” Sarah observed to no one in particular. She rode with her rifle planted against her thigh, eyes up more than down.
There was a shout. Sarah threw herself off the horse into the shallowing water, running forward to find cover as the shouting multiplied. The canyon widened rapidly to a small, walled-in valley. She ducked behind a loose boulder as the camp stirred to life like an insect mound. Excitable bandits lit off, shooting at nothing yet. She and her men stayed low. There were sounds above them, and she looked up to see bandits on the ridge, engaged with her men up high. She pulled her handgun and shot one, then turned to look out over the valley.
It was a nice setup, all things considered. They had water, they had a little grazing grass, and they had cover on all sides, right until Sarah’s men owned the ridge. Then they had a kill pot.
There were several dozen horses and a few more cows off to the side. Sarah aimed to take them all, ‘fore the day was done.
“Pick your shots,” she said. “More’a them than us.”
A body fell from above. She didn’t bother to look, instead setting her rifle on the top of the boulder and picking a target.
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