I jump back, rubbing my chin where it glanced off something metal and cursing myself for being so addle-headed as to not see where I’m going.
“Sorry,” I mutter, and try to force my way past them.
“Not so fast,” the man on the right says, moving to block me. “Where you off to in such a hurry, little sister?”
He has deep-set eyes and a squashed nose. I don’t know him, but the man next to him is called Vasquez, a regular at the Homestead.
“You know damn well where I’m going,” I say crossly. “So let me get on with it.”
“What you got in the bag?” Vasquez asks, nodding at my sack.
“We’ll be the judge of that,” the stranger says. “Hand it over.”
I clutch the sack tighter and wonder if I can reach my gun before they get theirs, and if a bag of biscuits is worth killing over.
“Don’t be stupid, girl,” Vasquez says, his hand on his pistol. “Do what Grady says.”
I clench my jaw hard, but relax my grip on the bag, glad I kept my money tucked away. The stranger, Grady I guess, closes in and lifts it from my shoulder while I glare at him; at least I can refuse to hand it over, a small and meaningless victory.
He opens the bag and digs his hand in, and to satisfy my anger I picture how he’ll look when the shakes tear his arms off. Bloody, I reckon.
“What the hell is this?” he asks, holding up a fistful of chimes.
I don’t answer, and he lets them fall to the ground, where they land with a jangle. He pulls out the snakeskins next, and the biscuits, and then rattles the empty bag.
“That it?” Vasquez asks, looking doubtful. He makes a long gargling sound and then spits a shiny glob into the dirt. It’s not enough to steal; they have to be disgusting as well.
“I told you it weren’t worth your time,” I say.
Grady scowls at me. “You’re hiding something.”
Now my hand is on my gun, and I make sure they can both see it.
“That’s enough,” I say. “You’ve had your fun. Don’t make this more trouble than it needs to be.”
Vasquez sniffs, to prove he’s not impressed. “Come on,” he says to his friend. “She ain’t got nothing.”
Grady looks me up and down and sneers.
“Yeah,” he agrees, shoving a biscuit into his mouth, which only partly muffles the name he calls me. He drops my bag on the ground and they walk away from me laughing. I squeeze my hands into fists and slowly count to ten to make sure I don’t accidentally shoot them both in the back. Then I kneel down in the dirt and slowly repack my bag.
Hunters. I hate hunters.
I stand up and compose myself, sling my bag over my shoulder, and push open the door to the Homestead.
The noise hits me first, the roar of men’s voices all speaking over one another and the tinny sound of a piano underneath. It’s dark in here, and I take off my hat and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dimness after the bright afternoon sun. Tables are spread out across the room with mismatched chairs, more than half of them occupied. To the right stretches the bar, a long wooden counter that’s lost most of its shine, stools and spittoons placed in front, a tall redheaded woman behind it. The floor under my boots is sticky with old liquor and tobacco spit as I make my way toward her. She’s arguing with a sloppy-looking fellow who’s swaying on his feet.
“Jus’ one, Elsie, tha’s all I’m asking fer,” he says, his voice thick and slurred.
“Jessup, go sit down before you fall over. And don’t even think of starting something tonight, or you can find another place to do your drinking.” Elsie glares at him mean enough to send him stumbling away. “And that goes for Dollarhide, too,” she calls after him, her hands planted on her hips. She turns and catches sight of me, worry flitting across her face. It’s gone just as quickly and she gives me a wide grin.
“Well, here comes trouble.”
“Hello, Miss Elsie,” I say with a small smile, pulling myself onto a stool.
“What can I do you for, Willie?”
“I’m here on business.”
“What do you got for me?” Elsie says, pouring me a glass of prickly pear juice. “Did you want something else, sweetheart? Coffee?”
“No, ma’am, that’ll suit me fine.” I put my sack on the bar and take a large gulp of the juice. It’s not cold, but at least it helps clear the dust from my throat.
Elsie opens my sack, carefully taking out the biscuits and the chimes, which are only slightly dusty. They aren’t worth much, but it’s something, and I already owe Elsie more money than I could ever hope to pay back. She’s kind that way; she was close with Ma and always looks out for us. She also knows more about the shake hunters than anyone in town, and I trust her judgment.
“Biscuits, those can go with supper tonight, and chimes. Micah make these?”
I nod and Elsie smiles. “I thought so. Clever boy, even if he never comes to see me. You want this back?” She holds out the worn cloth the bread was wrapped in.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, feeling my cheeks get hot at the obvious proof of how poor we are.
“And some skins, too. You do them yourself?”
“Micah killed them, but I skinned ’em.”
“Well, you did good,” Elsie says. “Now what are you needing, dear?”
“Flour, hominy, beans, coffee, dried fruit.” I rattle off the list I made in my head. I’d love to get some meat, even salted, but beans are cheaper and they’ll go farther. “Lamp oil, a spool of thread, and a brick of that yellow soap if you still have it.”
I take another drink and meet Elsie’s sharp gaze. “Some information, if you’ll give it to me.”
Elsie blinks, her face carefully blank. I don’t say anything, just stare back and after a long moment she sighs. “Damn. I was hoping McAllister would let it go. He bother you?”
I give a quick jerk of my head that could be a nod.
“I’m sorry, Willie. I didn’t think they’d be after you already.”
“I didn’t even know Pa was back.”
“He came in a few days ago. I tried to get him to go home, I really did—”
“It ain’t your fault, Elsie. He wouldn’t have done us much good at home, anyhows. Did you see what happened?”
“Some of it. McAllister was sitting with Fullerton and them and he was winning big. Making a lot of noise about it, too, which didn’t go unnoticed. Then this morning he’s down here screaming that someone lifted his winnings.”
“And that someone was Pa,” I say bitterly.
“Looks that way. Harry took off sometime in the night, but everyone heard McAllister bragging. If it hadn’t been your pa, someone else would’ve done it.”
“Any idea where he might be headed?”
“That I don’t know, but I can ask around. I’ll get Ned to find out who was on the gate last night.”
“Anything you need, Willie, you let me know. I’m sorry I didn’t keep a closer eye on him for you.”
I shrug. “Ma couldn’t control him, neither. I don’t know why she married him.”
“Well I wish she’d had a little more of one and less of the other. McAllister wants four hundred dollars, and I ain’t got anything close to that. So now I gotta go to the Judge with my tail between my legs, and that ain’t a conversation I’m looking forward to.”
Elsie doesn’t argue with me, doesn’t say it’s a bad idea, doesn’t ask any questions. She gives me no pitying glances, for which I am grateful. It is easier to be strong when those around you are, too, and determination is etched into every line on Elsie’s face. She reminds me of my mother, a hard woman in a hard land, and I resolve to be the same.
“All right, then. Do what you need to do.” Elsie looks over my head, scanning the sea of faces across the room. “The Judge is at the back. Be firm, be polite, and hold that tongue of yours.”
“I’ll do my best.”
I push my empty glass across the bar and hop off my stool, squaring my shoulders for the unpleasantness to come.
I weave through the tables toward the farthest corner of the floor. Even through the smoke and the dim lighting I make out the Judge, his balding head sitting atop the massive bulk of his body. Three hunters sit with him at his table, and they fall silent when I approach, stopping a few feet away.
“Miss Wilcox,” the Judge says in his deep, cultured voice. He emphasizes the Miss, and already I am annoyed. But I try not to scowl, as it will only encourage him to bait me further.
“I assume you’ve come to pay your dues?” He gazes at me with disinterest, like I am of no more consequence than a horsefly, a look he has perfected.
“Yessir.” I dig in my belt for the twenty dollars and hold it out. The Judge nods to the man on his right, who takes the money from me and hands it to the Judge. He doesn’t even bother to count it; I reckon it’s nothing to him. He’s rich enough to leave Glory, to sit pretty in some place out west. He stays because he wants to, because here he doesn’t have to bother pretending to be a decent man. None of them do.
I swallow hard. “I also—well, I wanted to ask you.”
“Spit it out, girl.”
“I would like to take out a line of credit with you, sir.”
“Would you?” The Judge sits back in his chair, and he can’t keep a smug smile off his face.
“I need—well, my father left me with a debt, and I intend to pay it off.”
“And how much is this debt?”
“Four hundred dollars.”
My cheeks flush and I duck my head. He knows damn well what the answer is, he just wants me to admit it; I won’t give him the satisfaction.
“I see. Well, honorable as your intentions may be, I’m afraid I can’t help you.” He’s enjoying this, and I count to five in my head before I answer.
“Please, Your Honor. I have three younger siblings.”
“If you think appealing to my better nature will change my mind, you’re wrong. I am not a charitable man.”
“I’m not asking for charity,” I spit at him. Then I take a deep breath, trying to regain control. It’s almost physically painful to say, but I get it out. “Please, sir. I’m begging you.” The words leave a sour taste in my mouth.
“Miss Wilcox, I do not lend money to people who cannot pay it back.”
The Judge raises his thick brows mockingly. “Oh? And how will you manage that? Are you looking for Pearl to find you a place? I suppose you’re not hard on the eyes, if you would fill out some.”
The men snicker amongst themselves, and there’s a prickling at the back of my neck. My fingernails dig into my palms as I leash my building temper. I have to try. For Micah and the twins I have to try.
“Your father stole money from the man; he has the right to demand satisfaction.”
“Not from me,” I say through clenched teeth.
“As I understand it, your father has made himself unavailable. Perhaps you should take it up with him instead of sniffing around at me.”
“Miss Wilcox, I am not interested in your tears or your pretty pleas. Whatever trouble you’ve stepped in, it does not concern me.”
I open my mouth and the Judge holds up a meaty hand.
“We’re done here,” he orders, and one of the men stands up and reaches for my arm to escort me away.
“Don’t touch me,” I snap at him, yanking my arm back.
“On second thought, perhaps Pearl wouldn’t want you after all,” the Judge says, and his men laugh again.
“I’ll turn to whoring the day you get a woman for free.” The words are out before I can stop them.
“Watch your mouth, girl.” The hunter who took my money leans forward menacingly. The Judge raises a hand in warning, and the man falls back restlessly.
“You are young, and foolish. I will forgive you your impudence this once. Good day, Miss Wilcox.” If anything, his smile has gotten smugger, but there is no mistaking the calculated hatred in his eyes.
I turn my back on him very deliberately and walk to the safety of the bar, welcoming the noise to drown out the thought in my head: that was my only chance, and I blew it all to pieces.
That was woefully stupid. I sit at the bar stiffly, admonishing myself. Maybe if I hadn’t lost my temper I could’ve convinced him. To make me feel doubly bad, my friend Clementine is coming toward me, and she’s the very kind of girl I just slighted.
“I thought that was you, Willie,” Clementine says with her dimpled smile, her hair curling just so to frame her wide face. Clem is everything I am not: small and soft, her skin all cream and sugar. She’s lovely, even with her face all done up in white and pink and red. She hugs me gently and I smell flowers. I’m suddenly all too aware of the dirt under my fingernails and the fact that I can’t remember the last time I brushed my hair.
“I was upstairs. It’s been forever since I seen you, Willie.”
What Clem doesn’t say is why; she’s been working for Pearl for almost two years, ever since her parents died on the road. Things haven’t been easy between us since. Clem thinks I look down on her, for choosing this work, but it isn’t that at all; it scares me to see her here and to know how easily I could fall into this life, too.
“How’ve you been, Clem? They treating you right here?”
“Pearl’s been decent to me. She takes care of all us girls.” Clementine glances back over her shoulder quickly, then leans in closer to me. “What about you, Will? I saw you talking to the Judge. Is everything all right?”
I can’t lie, not with those big honest eyes staring at me. “No, it ain’t.” I put my head in my hands. “I’m hard pushed here, Clem, and I’m only making it worse.”
“Here, now, stop that worrying. You’re getting a fine wrinkle between those eyes.” Clem gently touches my forehead with her thumb, smoothing out the line.
“Leave off,” I say, swatting her hand away. “It’s my wrinkle. I earned it, I’ll keep it.”
I sigh, long and loud. “Yeah, it’s true.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Clem crooks an eyebrow. “I do, but you won’t like the answer.”
I shake my head. “Clem, please . . .”
She slides gracefully onto the stool next to me. “Maybe you don’t want to hear it, but it is a way to make money.” She folds her hands neatly on top of the bar. “I know most folk look down on us line girls, but I don’t go hungry and I always have work. Maybe it ain’t what I wanted for myself, but one day I’ll have enough money saved to buy my way out of this town.”
I look up, surprised. Clem and I used to talk about getting out of Glory. It was just child’s talk, though, running away to have adventures, before life became real and messy. I gave up on those dreams a long time ago.
“That’s the whole point, ain’t it?” Clem asks. “To get you and yours out? Isn’t that what we always said?”
“I didn’t think you remembered. Where will you go?”
“North. Edgewater, maybe. Anywhere that isn’t here. I’ll get as far from Glory as I can, and find myself a rich husband who will keep me in ribbons and lace, and I’ll spend the rest of my years trying to forget the last two.”
Clem sounds as bitter as I’ve ever heard her, and I feel a pang of regret that I never guessed what was hidden under those layers of makeup. I touch her shoulder lightly.
“Sorry, Clem. I know—I know it must be hard here.”
The smile Clem gives me is brittle, but real. “Life’s hard any way you take it, Willie. You know that.”
And she’s right; I do. All we have are bad options, and you pick the one you can live with. You keep moving forward, because what other choice is there? As far as I’m concerned, Pa made his choice, and now it’s time to make mine. It comes down to this: I won’t let anything hurt my family, not if I can help it.
“So what are you going to do?” Clem asks.
“Whatever it takes,” I answer. “I’m going to track down my father and get back what he stole. And if it’s gone, then I’m gonna drag his ass back to Glory and he can answer for what he’s done.”
“You can’t go out there alone,” Clem says, her eyes wide.
I survey the room full of rowdy, reeking men, men who would probably kill me for less than what I have in my pockets.
“No,” I say, my stomach sinking. “No, I can’t.”
My hands are sweating, but at least I made a decision. Maybe it’s a bad one, maybe it’s all kinds of foolish, but it’s something, and I cling to it.
“Oh my,” Clem says. “Here comes Ned to make sure I’m not corrupting you. Take care, Willie.”
Ned Evans walks behind the bar, setting a drink in front of me. He nods a brief good-bye to Clementine as she eases herself off the stool and glides away with a rustle of silk and perfume.
“You look like you could use this,” he says with a wink. He’s Elsie’s uncle and a kind one, even if he’s partial to gambling.
“Thank you. I surely could,” I say, and wrap my hand around the glass so hard I can see the white of my knuckles. The glass is cloudy and there’s a chip in the rim; I wonder how old it is, how many lips drank from it, how many hands clasped it. I’d be willing to bet this glass is older than me, if I had money to bet. I take a sip, letting the amber liquor burn down my throat and settle in my empty stomach.
“Judge rattles everybody, sweetheart. Don’t pay him no mind. Elsie says you’re looking for your pa.”
“I am.” I take another small sip and grimace. “Any news?”
“Well, I spoke to Santos, he was on the gate. Said your pa ducked out just before sunrise with Washburne,” he says, naming a hunter Pa likes to run with.
“Any idea where he was headed?”
“Santos says east.”
“Best, then,” I say, turning the glass around in my hand. He has a few contacts there who still bother to buy whatever sorry hides Pa’s selling. Best is due east, maybe two days out; Pa’s probably halfway there by now.
I drain my glass and set it down hard. “A hunter to go with me to Best.”
“I don’t want to. I have to.”
“Is that the way of it, then?” Ned sighs. “All right. Elsie would know better than me who to trust. How much you looking to spend?”
“I guess as much as it takes. How much is a hunter?”
My heart sinks; it may as well be the four hundred. “I don’t . . . I don’t have that much,” I whisper. Everywhere I turn is a dead end; I just can’t win.
Ned leans forward, one hand rubbing the gray stubble on his chin. “You ever play cards, Willie?”
I give him my most withering look.
“I’m sure.” I’m not really listening. There’s a burning pressure behind my eyes that I’m not sure has anything to do with the whiskey.
“Bluffing, for instance.” Ned smiles at me. “Bluffing can be a very useful trick. Say, for example, you can’t really spare the money to call a bet. If you got a good enough poker face, you bluff and you go all in. You play the game right, you may come out on top.”
And suddenly I’m listening very hard to what Ned is trying to tell me. “What happens if—if your bluff gets called?”
Ned shrugs. “Well. In poker, you lose your money. But sometimes, could be you got nothin’ left to lose.”
I meet Ned’s eyes and nod slowly, hoping I understand. The whiskey is making me feel fuddled, but in a pleasant, comforting way, like all the hard edges of life are blurred and softened. I can understand why men lose themselves to drink, if this is the way it makes them feel. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the hard knot of panic in my chest starts to loosen as the whiskey spreads its warmth. I feel bold, and almost happy. Ned gives me his bright smile and starts to whistle as Elsie comes up behind him with her hands on her hips.
“Uncle, what in tarnation is Willie drinking?”
“It’s hardly more’n a drop, Elsie.”
“Ned, I swear, sometimes . . . ” Elsie shakes her head. “You’re gonna get the child drunk, her with nothing on her bones and you with nothing in your head. Willie, you need to get some food in you.”
“It’s all right, Miss Elsie—”
I should protest harder, but I can hardly turn down a free meal. I try not to look too much like a poor orphan when I smell the stew that Ned sets in front of me.
“There you go. Best SOB stew in town,” Ned says proudly.
“Ned!” Elsie smacks him lightly on the arm, a look of long suffering on her face.
“Beggin’ your pardon.” Ned winks at me. “Son of a gun stew, that is.”
It’s been so long since I’ve had any meat other than snake, I have to force myself to take small bites and chew. Even though the meat is offal, and old offal at that, it’s still the best meal I’ve had in days. I feel somewhat guilty, thinking of my family and the empty pantry at home.
“Now then,” Ned says as I eat. “Elsie, our Willie here needs a hunter.”
Elsie narrows her eyes at me. “You sure about that?”
She purses her lips and breathes out hard. “All right then. Let me see who’s here.” Elsie looks over my head, scanning the sea of faces across the room. “You don’t want Jennings, that man can’t hit the broad side of a barn.”
“And not Grady,” I tell her. “I’m not feeling kindly towards him today.”
“I’d trust you with Lady Jane, but she’s holed up with a bad leg. Ramos, maybe? How much you looking to spend?”
I swallow a mouthful of stew and shoot a quick glance at Ned. “One hundred,” I lie, hoping my voice sounds steady.
“Hmm. That’s too low for most of the practiced hunters, them that’s been at this awhile. You got two choices. If you want to hire a professional, you’ll have to settle for an old-timer or a drinker. Someone like Dollarhide or Sanchez.”
Ned snorts. “Dollarhide is half in a whiskey barrel, and Sanchez can’t see farther than I can spit.”
“What’s the other choice?” I ask. I’ve seen Dollarhide around the Homestead, and he’s a wicked drunk. Word is he killed a horse trader up north before he came under the Judge’s protection. I wouldn’t trust him to watch his own front, let alone my back.
“Green as deer grass, you mean,” Ned interrupts.
“But affordable,” Elsie finishes, ignoring the old man. “And maybe it’s better you hire one of the new boys. Most of these men would rob you soon as they get you outside the fence. They’d leave you stranded and steal everything, even your virtue. These youngsters may be all hat and no cattle, but at least they’ll try to bring you home in one piece.”
I think it over for a moment. I can shoot well enough and I don’t tire easily. What I really need is someone I can trust. “All right, one of the new hunters it is. You got a name for me, Elsie?”
Elsie nods decisively. “What you want is the Garrett brothers.”
“I can’t afford two hunters.” I can’t even afford one, I remind myself.
“They work together and split the single fee. They’ll be able to watch your back, and they’re honest. Well, as honest as their kind can be. Benjamin and Curtis. They ain’t been here long, but I’ve heard nothing but that they’re decent folk.”
“You think they’ll hire on for the price?” I look at Ned as I ask, though it’s Elsie who answers.
“I don’t see why not. That’s Curtis sitting by his lonesome next to the staircase. Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
“I’m looking for Curtis Garrett.”
“I’m Garrett. What can I do you for?” His voice is cautious but polite, which is more than I can say for some of the men in Glory. He’s tall, I can tell from the way his boots stick out from under the table; newer boots than mine, stiffer leather with shiny roach tips. He has an open, honest face, round and clean-shaven under sandy brown hair. I put his age closer to thirty than twenty, judging by the laugh lines around his mouth and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. He could be younger; the sun is unkind and takes its toll early here.
“Mr. Garrett, my name is Wilcox.” I avoid telling people my first name if possible, and I see no reason to give it to this man, even if I’m inclined to take a shine to his friendly face. “I’m in need of a hunter to go east, most likely all the way to Best. I was told to speak to you.” I hold out my hand to him, and he gives it a firm shake.
“Nice to meet you, Miss Wilcox,” he says, like he actually means it. “It must be my lucky day; I’ve never had the pleasure of being recommended to so lovely a lady.” He smiles at me, still holding my hand, and I can’t help but smile back; his teasing is gentle and harmless. I wonder how long he’s been a hunter, if those hands did something I’d rather not know about.
“You’re a fair hand at flattery, Mr. Garrett, but how are you with a pistol?”
Garrett gives a surprised laugh and releases me, clapping. “Full of piss and vinegar, ain’t you? I’m curious as to what you said to the Judge to make Vargas put his hackles up.” He pushes out a chair with his boot for me, which I settle into.
“We had a—a misunderstanding.” Garrett raises his eyebrows, but I refuse to say more. My mouth has gotten me into enough trouble for one day.
“I see. There’s not many would want a misunderstanding with the Judge. Now tell me, Miss Wilcox, why I should go up Best way.” He’s still smiling politely, but his eyes are serious. To his credit, they stay on my face, which is a rarity for the hunters.
“You’re new to Glory, Mr. Garrett, but it may be you know of my father. Harrison Wilcox?”
Garrett nods. “I’ve met Harry. Trapper, right? Not that there’s much in the way of hide these days.”
“Mostly we do snake and lizard skin.” I pause, biting the inside of my cheek. “Well, the thing is, I’m in a tight spot of trouble, and I need to find my pa.”
I scowl. Does the whole town know my business? “What if it is?” I ask him. “It doesn’t change what I need.”
“Well, you certainly have a situation, I’ll give you that. Now if I go looking for your father—”
“Mr. Garrett, you misunderstand me,” I interrupt, straightening my back, glad the whiskey has made me bold. “I intend to look for him myself. What I need are extra guns and eyes.” As if I would send hunters to track down my father alone—he’d come back a body, or not at all.
He makes a small coughing noise, which I take to be surprise.
“I don’t see how. Since I’ll be funding this expedition, I make the terms. And the terms are, I go to Best. The only question is who I go with.”
Garrett rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Fair enough. Can you use that?” he asks, pointing to my holster.
“I wouldn’t carry it if I couldn’t.”
He nods approvingly. “All right, then, Miss Wilcox, here’s the deal: my brother and I charge one hundred for Best and back. We take care of food and transport, but you provide your own weapons. Take no more than you can carry; we travel fast and light. If it’s sunup we’re on the move, and we bed down at the way stations on the Low Road. Those are few and far between, so if you can’t keep up, we’re in trouble. We don’t want to be caught outdoors at night.”
“I’ll keep up. And as for the money, I can pay you fifty now, and the rest when we return.” My stomach churns at the lie, and I hope he doesn’t notice that I can’t meet his eyes.
“As soon as possible,” I say. “I have to make a few arrangements, but I was hoping to leave by tomorrow.”
Garrett gives a low whistle. “You don’t give a fellow much notice. I need to run this by my brother, but I think I can safely say we have a deal, Miss Wilcox.” He stands up and holds out his hand, and we shake on it. I’m slightly stunned at the swiftness with which this is happening; some part of me did not expect it to work.
“I am—grateful to you,” I tell him haltingly. “And you can stop with the misses; everyone calls me Willie, or Will.”
“Call me Curtis. We’re going to be seeing a lot of one another, might as well get familiar. If you’ll excuse me, I have to see Miss Elsie if we’re going to leave tomorrow. We set out at dawn. Meet us at the gate and we’ll take it from there. It was a pleasure to meet you, Willie.”
“And you, Curtis.”
He pauses for a moment and rests a hand on my shoulder. “Get some sleep while you can; lord knows there’s little enough to be had on the road.”
My stomach twists as he passes me by. I don’t want to cheat this man, who smiles at me with kind eyes. But I have no choice, I tell myself, and cringe as one lie begets another.
The heat hits me like a solid wall when I step out into the sunshine. I breathe in the scorching air and the heat sears my lungs, clearing out the smoke and noise from the bar. I don’t know how folk can stand to live in there, crammed together with no space to think. I put my hat back on and tuck up my hair, adjusting my sack on my shoulder. It feels full to bursting, and I suspect Elsie threw in a few extra items.
I haven’t taken more than a few steps when I hear the door to the bar swing open behind me.
I turn, confused, and find myself staring into a wrinkled face, uneven stubble darkening the crevices. It takes me a minute to match the name to the face; Dollarhide glares at me, his eyes small and folded into the corners.
“Can I help you?” I ask, feeling uneasy. Just how many hunters are going to accost me today? And it’s only the afternoon.
“I heard you’re lookin’ fer a hunter,” he says, his lips curling back to reveal tobacco-stained teeth.
“Yessir, I was. I’m afraid I already made a deal, or I’d be happy to consider you.” Like hell, but I’m hoping the lie will appease him.
“It ain’t about that.” He moves close enough that I back up without thinking. “I hear your daddy took a lotta money, little girl. He pass any of that along your way?”
I let out a sharp laugh. “My pa takes money from me, not the other way around.”
“Then where you get the money fer a hunter, I wonder?”
“None of your damn business,” I say, prickling because he’s not all wrong. “Just leave me alone.”
“I got a better idea,” he sneers.
I start to move back and he grabs my arm just below the shoulder, pulling me so close that I almost gag at the reek of alcohol on his breath.
I try to yank away, but Dollarhide’s fingers are like iron, and I grit my teeth as he starts to squeeze. I aim a punch at his face and my knuckles connect sharply with his cheekbone. Dollarhide howls in anger, but doesn’t loosen his grip on my arm; he’s too soaked to feel much pain and I’m not as good with my left hand.
“Let me go, Dollarhide,” I order him, trying to keep calm.
“Give it up, girly.”
“I don’t have any money, you blame idiot,” I yell, tugging at his fingers. He’s drunk but strong, and I’ll have bruises to show for this tomorrow.
He shakes me hard, and he’s got hold of my gun arm, but I can reach with my left. At this range it hardly matters how good my aim is. I call myself all manner of fool and swear I will never leave the house without my knife again.
“I want what’s mine,” he says, slurring his words. I don’t really want to shoot this man, but I do want him to let me go. My hand is on my gun when I hear a voice.
“Need help leaving, Dollarhide?”
“This ain’t your business, Garrett.”
“I’m making it my business.”
I use Dollarhide’s momentary distraction to aim a well-placed kick at his knee, and there’s a solid crunch as my boot connects. Dollarhide yelps and stumbles as he releases me, both his hands going to his injured leg.
“I got nothing that belongs to you, Dollarhide,” I tell him evenly. “You keep your mucking hands off me or next time I won’t be so polite.”
Dollarhide looks from me to the man at the door, and swears. He struggles to his feet and stamps back to the bar. There’s a moment of silence as the stranger and I regard one another.
“You must be the other Garrett brother,” I say finally.
“That I am.” His voice is low and slightly gravelly, but I suspect that may be an affectation. He’s tall, like his brother, but slimmer. Darker, too, enough that I would bet some of their kin come from over the border. He’s younger than Curtis, but it’s hard to guess his age with half his face obscured by a beard. Only his eyes stand out, a shrewd amber peeking out from dark hair in bad need of a trim.
“Nice to meet you,” I say, holding out my hand.
“I guess Curtis does the talking.” I put down my hand when it’s clear he’s not going to shake it. “And the smiling.”
“Miss Wilcox, it’s my understanding that you wish my brother and I escort you to Best.”
“Accompany, not escort.” I don’t like this hard case of a brother, and it’s clear he doesn’t cotton to me, either. “You got a problem with that?”
“Matter of fact, I do. We’re hunters, not babysitters.”
“Mr. Garrett, I don’t need looking after. I would go on my lonesome if I knew the way.”
He snorts disbelievingly. “You ain’t serious.”
“I usually am. I can take care of myself.”
“Like with Dollarhide there?”
“I was handling that,” I say crossly.
“Looked more like he was handling you.”
The hot, familiar buzz of anger bubbles under my skin, and I’m starting to regret hiring Curtis if this man is attached. “I made an agreement with your brother; if the deal’s off, then stop wasting my time and tell me so.”
Garrett shakes his unkempt head. “Curtis is holding firm. But I ain’t as tenderhearted as my brother.”
“It means that the only payment we take is cash money.” Garrett eyes me levelly, and I stiffen at the implied insult.
“That is all I am offering,” I say, making my voice as cold and unflinching as I can.
“I hope so. ’Cause I’m not moved by pretty words or pretty eyes like Curtis. If you bilk us, I got no problem turning you over to the Judge. I think you know his brand of mercy.”
A chill creeps up my neck despite the heat. Garrett’s bright eyes bore into me, and it’s like he knows; somehow he knows I’m lying. I should call this off now, while I still have the chance, just turn my back and go home. Something inside me balks then; I know what waits for me at home. My life stretches out endlessly before me, an unwavering path of snake meat, ill-fitting pants, and a crumbling house. Three pairs of eyes pleading at me, the constant fear that it will never be enough; nothing ever changing, until I’m too old and broken to care. There is nothing this man or even the Judge can do that scares me more than dying ancient and wasted in Glory, with only ghosts and regrets to keep me company.
“You’ll get your money,” I tell him.
“As the crow flies,” I say quietly. “Good-bye, Mr. Garrett.” I start walking away, not bothering to wait for his reply; just as well, because it never comes.
It always feels twice as far going back home, and I may as well take my time because I got no rest coming once I get there. There’s washing to bring in and dinner to start, and I begin a mental list of what to pack. Part of me can’t believe I’m really doing this, and part of me thrills at the idea of leaving Glory. Micah will be mad, but then he’s always mad at me for something. I adjust the bag on my shoulder, wishing my life could be simple. That’s a long road to start going down, though; I could wish for a lot of things, and if wishes were pigs we’d all eat bacon.
My thoughts are interrupted when a commanding voice calls out to me.
“Daisy, is that you?”
“Come here so I can see you.”
“Hurry up, now, Daisy, I’m old and I got no time for dawdling.”
I sigh softly, but I’ve learned from experience that it’s useless to argue with the woman, she’ll only pretend she can’t hear you. I step around a wheelbarrow with no wheels and kick aside an empty can, weaving my way through the debris to the porch.
She waits for me impatiently, her hair stark white against her brown face, back straight as a board. Most old folks stoop, but then Bess ain’t like most folks. I’ve never seen her smile, not in all my born days, and she has the kind of strength that only comes from being hard-pressed your whole life. She made her way here from Georgia, and even though most of her family kept going west, Bess stayed put. She still has the accent; her voice is round and deep, all burnt sugar and smoke.
“Now then,” Bess says when I climb up the steps and knock over a birdhouse, “let me get a look at you, Daisy.”
“You’re too thin. You need to drink some cream; it’ll fill your face out some.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, biting back another response. Drink some cream, indeed; as if it were that simple. As if my jaw doesn’t clench at night with hunger, as if I’m not living on weak coffee and desperation.
“Sit with me, my dear,” Bess says, easing herself into her rocking chair. She bangs her cane against an overturned bucket, which I reckon is for me.
“Only for a moment,” I say. I clear the bucket of dirty mugs and perch on the edge, my knees almost to my chin.
“Would you look at that,” Bess says, her eyes gazing at the flat land beyond the fence. Her dark brown hands curl over her cane, the fingers knobby and wrinkled. “It’s gonna be a beautiful sunset, Daisy, mark my words.”
“It always is, Miss Bess.”
“Every day the same, but every one different.”
I start to fidget. How long am I going to be stuck here? Maybe she’ll fall asleep and I can just leave. I sneak a glance, but her eyes are wide open and glued to the desert. What she’s looking at I can only guess; maybe she sees the same beauty I see, the lines flat and unbroken, the dust drifting up hazily.
“Did I ever tell you about the painter I met in Llano?”
I blink, startled. “I don’t think—”
“He did landscapes, now and then a portrait, but mostly pictures of the desert. And he told me the only way to get that sky right was to mix some of the dirt in with the paint. Now ain’t that something?”
“I reckon so.”
“Dirt,” she says again, and shakes her head, like she still can’t believe it.
“Miss Bess, I need to be heading home. The boys and Cath will be wanting dinner soon.”
“All right, then, help me up,” she says, and I give her my arm to cling to. “I have something for you, it’s just inside.”
Bess shoves at her front door and I hear something splintering behind it; it opens just enough for her to turn sideways and step inside.
“Miss Bess, if it’s too much trouble—”
“No trouble at all,” she calls from somewhere inside. “Give me a moment to find it.”
I roll my eyes; she could be in there all day and still not find what she’s looking for. There’s a crash followed by the sound of something rolling and I push at the door.
“Are you all right?” I call.
“Fine, I’m fine.” Bess slips back out onto the porch, her white hair slightly mussed but otherwise unmarked. “Here you are,” and she hands me a small pouch of paper, twisted up at the ends. “Open it when you get home,” she says, folding my hand over it.
“Thank you, Miss Bess,” I say, and kiss her offered cheek.
“Of course, Daisy. Now off you go.”
“Bring those little ones by to see me,” Bess calls.
“I will,” I call back. She’s a good sort, Old Bess. Her, and Elsie and Ned, and Doc Kincaid. The Judge and the hunters, they take up so much space with their talk and their violence, it feels like there’s nothing left for the rest of us. It’s easy to forget there are still good people here. Sometimes I think this town may be worth saving, but mostly I think given half the chance I’d walk away and never look back.
I’m tired to my very bones by the time our fence comes into view. I swing it shut loudly behind me, and in the space of a breath an answering shout comes from somewhere behind the house. The twins are like dogs that way, ears always tuned to the gate. They run out to meet me, and I’m not too tired to smile at them.
“Hey there, tumbleweeds,” I say. “Where you rollin’ to?”
“Willie, you were gone forever,” Cal complains as I ruffle his hair. He has fingernail scratches across his forearm, from itching or fighting I can only guess.
“What did you get?” Cath asks, tugging at my arm. I use my thumb to wipe dirt off her cheek before she squirms out of reach.
“Wait and see. Why are y’all covered in dirt?”
“Micah made us go outside. And he called us names.” The twins stare at me with matching expressions of noble suffering that I don’t believe for a moment.
“Mm-hmm,” I say. “Did he make you crawl underneath the house, too?” It’s a favorite game of theirs, though I don’t understand the appeal. At least they seem to have forgotten all about this morning; I envy them such short memories.
“Take this inside and tell Micah to meet me out back.” I give my sack to Catherine, and the twins race to the house to sort through it.
I walk around back to our empty plot of land, trying to work out a kink in my neck. We have four snake traps set up back here, small boxes that Micah made out of wood and wire netting, and ten more outside the perimeter. I don’t like to venture outside the fence much, not if I can help it. Only once a week do I risk it, and only with Micah to watch my back.
I’m not expecting to find anything; we need to move the traps again, find new snake holes. I grab the hoe, its blade dark with snake guts, and check the traps. The first three are empty, but when I tap my boot against the last one I hear movement.
“Yeah.” I nod and he moves into place, our routine familiar and well-oiled. I get a good grip on the hoe while Micah flips the trap open to reveal a rattler coiled tight as a fist. It hisses angrily but I strike before it does, severing the head cleanly. I pick up the body by the tail, disappointed; it’s small, not even a foot. It’s not worth skinning, but I can at least throw it in the pot for dinner.
“I need to replace the latch on this one,” Micah says, kneeling down to examine the trap. “It’s getting loose.”
“Take this inside, will you?” I ask, holding the snake out.
Micah lifts his eyes to my face. “Did you get the money?”
I look away, too tired for what’s bound to be an argument. “The Judge wouldn’t give it to me.”
He scoffs and stands up. “I told you he wouldn’t. Closefisted bastard.”
Micah shrugs and grabs the snake from me. I kick the trap closed with a bang and start pulling down the laundry. The shirts and underthings go over my shoulder and I head inside, knocking the dust off my boots. I walk through the front door slowly, dumping the clothes in a pile and taking off my hat and hanging up my gun. For months after our mother died, I couldn’t stand to be in this house; every room, every piece of furniture was a painful reminder. Memory can be a terrible thing. It’s still hard sometimes, to come in and expect to see her, but now I worry that I’ll start forgetting, that the chairs will turn into ordinary chairs and not the ones she sat in. I shut the door and lock it carefully, leaning my head against the wood for a moment, ignoring the shouting in the kitchen and what looks like broken porcelain on the floor. I can feel a headache coming on, a slight pounding in my temples that promises to only get worse.
I sigh and brace myself for the kitchen, where the twins and Micah are yelling at each other, their voices overlapping so no one can understand what’s being said. The whole scene is almost comical, as Micah towers over the twins, but their ferocity is equally matched. Sam sits at the table, watching the fight like an amused spectator trying not to laugh. He catches my eye and winks, suppressing a grin.
“—big ugly cactus brain—”
“—I’m telling Willie—”
“—if you bite me again—”
“Enough!” I yell, loud enough to be heard. “Were y’all raised in a barn? I know Ma taught you better than this.” They fall silent, and Micah at least has the decency to look sheepish. “What, we don’t get enough trouble from strangers, you gotta fight each other, too? Shame on you.”
“Sorry, Will,” Micah says.
I glare at the twins until they, too, mutter apologies.
“Too right, you’re sorry. Now what happened to the plate?”
They all start to talk at the same time, and I close my eyes and sigh.
The boys and Cath file out of the kitchen dejectedly while I turn back toward the door to pick up the largest pieces of broken pottery. Of course it would be one of our good plates, the ones my parents got for their wedding, and not the usual dented tin ones. There’s a tap on my shoulder, and I turn to see Sam holding the broom, sweeping the smaller pieces into a pile.
“Sorry,” Sam says with a guilty grin. “I shoulda been keeping a closer eye.”
“I guess y’all had a rough time this morning,” Sam says. “It’s enough to make anyone rowdy.”
“Micah told you about it?” I dump the shards of porcelain out the window, where no doubt I’ll step on them later.
“Yeah. That was a real low move of your pa, to skip town. It ain’t your fault he stole that money, and y’all shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
Anger bubbles up in my throat, scratchy and sour. He may come over every day, it may be the truth, but Sam isn’t kin; he hasn’t earned the right to talk about Pa like that. I know he’s a thief and a scoundrel, but he’s still my pa. He still sang songs to us and made Ma laugh, and when he came home drunk and flush he would pick up the twins, one in each arm, and dance them around the kitchen.
“Sam, I appreciate your concern, but this is a family affair and I’m not having this talk with you. Now I need to start dinner, and I hate to be rude, but I can’t feed any extra mouths.”
Sam hands me the broom quietly and gets his hat from the rack.
“I didn’t mean to offend. I’m sorry.”
The door closes softly, and I wince. Now I feel mean; I wish Sam had slammed the door, so I could be self-righteous in my anger, but that’s never been his way. I sit down heavily at the table, ashamed. Now I’m a bully as well as a liar; this has been a poor day for my character. Dinner doesn’t wait for self-pity, though, and I have to set the beans to soaking.
I find the sugar sack abandoned on the table and start to unpack it, putting the hominy and flour in the pantry and the dried apricots in a bowl. I pour out a good portion of the beans into a pot and cover them with water so they’ll soften before I cook them. I feel around the bottom of the sack and find Elsie has added a surprise: a small jar of sorghum molasses. I send out a silent thank you, hoping it makes its way to her. I save the twisted bit of paper for last, trying to guess what’s inside; with Bess, you never know. I unwrap the paper carefully and almost cry at the handful of peppermint drops. They’re sticky with age, but I can’t help myself: I immediately pop one in my mouth and let the cool sugar melt on my tongue. The rest I pour into my favorite chipped coffee cup that I hide on the top shelf of the pantry.
There’s still some meat left from the last snakes Micah and I killed, though it’s maybe a day away from turning. I cut the strips into smaller cubes, stretching it as far as it will go. I’ll throw it into the pot last, after the beans are all but done; snake is lean, and falls apart quickly. I turn to grab a rag to wipe my hands when a flash of brightness scurries across the wall and I jump back with a stifled screech.
“Calvin!” I yell, throwing my rag at the lizard now sunning in the window. “Get that yellow-bellied monster out of my kitchen or we’re having lizard for supper.”
Cal rushes in, crooning to his beloved pet. “Come here, Goldie,” he says, gently prying the lizard from the glass and cradling it to his chest. I’ll never understand his attachment to that scaly thing, but he loves it more than anything. Cal has always been like that with animals, and I guess you take what you can get when there’s nothing soft and furry to hold. I doubt that lizard even wants to be here, but it hasn’t found its way out of the house yet.
I drain the beans and start them cooking, adding a pinch of salt and some of the molasses for a touch of sweetness. This past year I’ve managed to become a half-decent cook. I would be better if I had more to work with, but like Calvin and Goldie, you do the best with what you’re given.
“So what now?” Micah asks, setting bowls out on the table. “Does Elsie have extra work for us? I can do repairs at the Homestead if she’ll let me. We won’t come up with four hundred selling skins.”
I stir the beans, making sure they don’t stick to the bottom.
“Will? What are we gonna do about the money?”
I fish a bean out of the pot with my spoon and blow on it. “I took care of it,” I say, half under my breath.
“What? What does that mean?”
The bean is hot and doesn’t put up any resistance as I chew. I take longer than I need to swallow, delaying my answer.
I steel myself and turn to face him. “I hired a hunter. I’m going after Pa.”
“You hired a hunter.” Micah stares at me dumbly. I take advantage of his momentary silence and shout for the twins.
“Catherine, Calvin, come sit down. Dinner’s almost ready.” Micah’s still staring at me, so I keep going. “I’m leaving for Best first thing tomorrow.”
“You’re leaving for Best.”
“Please stop repeating everything I say,” I tell him crossly.
“A hunter? Will, he’s likely to take you halfway and leave you for dead.”
“You really think you can find him?”
“He’s only a day ahead—if I catch up, maybe I can get to him before he loses all of it.”
“He could’ve spent it already, Will, you know how Pa is with money.”
“I know. And if I have to, I’ll drag him back to Glory. We’re not taking the blame, not this time.” My voice is steady, but inside I’m shrinking; I hope it doesn’t come to that. I can feel Micah’s eyes on me, feel the judgment coming off him. “I know he’s our pa, but if it will keep us safe—”
“To hell with Pa,” Micah interrupts. “He don’t deserve any kindness from us. What about you? Do you know how many people die on the road? How many just disappear?”
“You got a better plan, I’m all ears.” Micah looks down. “That’s what I thought. Look, I’ll have two hunters with me. That’s as safe as I can make it.”
“Two? How’d you wrangle that?”
“They’re brothers, they work together.”
“Willie,” Micah says slowly, “how can we afford two hunters?”
Damn. I was hoping he wouldn’t catch on. “We can’t,” I say, shrugging. “But they don’t know that.”
Micah makes a strangled sound in his throat. “They’ll kill you when they find out.”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. And I ain’t so easy to kill, you know.” I smile, but Micah won’t budge.
“I’m going with you,” he says.
“Like hell you are.”
“I’m serious, Willie. You want to go on the road with two hunters who have reason to kill you? If something happens, what are the twins and me gonna do? Did you even think about that?”
“Don’t do that,” Micah says, his face screwed up in frustration. “Don’t act like this is only up to you.”
“It is,” I snap at him. “I’m the one responsible for everyone. You don’t have to point out how risky this is, Micah, believe me, I know. But until something happens to me, I am in charge of this family, and I will decide how to take care of it. So you are staying here and watching the twins and that’s final.”
Micah glares at me and I glare back.
“Now sit down and eat your damn beans. Cath, Calvin!”
“We’re right here,” Cath says, skidding into me.
“Hands,” I order, and it comes out harsher than I mean it. I take a deep breath and swallow my anger as the twins hold up their hands. Filthy; I doubt they used any soap at all.
It’s not a pleasant meal; Micah shoots daggers at me, but when I look up he refuses to meet my eyes. I don’t have much appetite, so I push my beans around in my bowl until the twins are almost finished.
“I gotta talk to you about something important,” I tell them, setting down my spoon. “You remember what happened this morning.”
“Of course we do,” Cath says.
“Hush,” I tell them, “and let me finish. You heard what that man said; we’re in trouble unless we do what he wants. So I went to the Homestead today and I hired a hunter. I’m going to be leaving for a few days, but I’ll be back soon.”
I’m greeted with silence as the twins stare at me, stunned. Micah just looks bored, examining his beans closely.
“Is this because we broke the plate?” Catherine looks like she’s fighting back tears, and something inside me twists.
“No, Cath, it ain’t about the plate,” I say gently.
“We’re sorry. We won’t break things no more. Please don’t leave.”
“No,” Cath says, her face screwed up tight.
“You don’t mean that,” I tell her.
“Yes I do. He’s never here anyhows.”
“Micah, tell Willie she can’t go,” Calvin orders.
“Enough, both of you,” I tell them. “This is not up for discussion. I’m leaving tomorrow, and that’s the end of it.”
“I hate you,” Catherine says, and pushes her chair away from the table. She runs outside, slamming the door behind her. Calvin follows his twin loyally, his small shoulders hunched.
“They took it well,” Micah says from across the table.
I sigh and cover my face with my hands. “You gonna start in again?”
He shrugs stiffly, poking at the last of his beans.
“Why should I? It won’t make no difference. You’re going whether I like it or not, so I won’t waste my breath.”
“Micah, it ain’t like I planned this,” I say angrily. “I don’t want to leave.”
“You do so want to leave.” Always the bone-truth. “Tell me you’re not happy it worked out like this. Tell me you’re not itching to leave.”
“Micah—” I don’t know what to say that won’t be a lie. “It’s not forever.”
“Sure it ain’t.”
“You think I’d do that? You think I’d leave you all behind?” And it cuts me, because I want to, I want to so badly that Micah can read it on my face.
“I think if I could I’d walk out of this life and never come back,” Micah says quietly. And I wish he was still angry, because the anger I can handle, not this; not this calm resignation, like he’s already seen all of the world and found nothing redeeming in it. He sighs mightily and shakes his head. “Just watch your back, big sister. I don’t trust anyone else to do it proper.”
“I will.” I force a lopsided smile. “Finish up, little brother, and help me with these dishes.”
I can’t sleep. I try counting my heartbeats, but every noise and stray piece of straw poking through my mattress conspires to keep me awake. This is the last night I’ll have in my own bed for who knows how long, but there’s no comfort to be found. My eyes are wide open and staring into the darkness, weaving shapes out of nothingness. I hug my knees to my chest, folding myself up into the smallest form possible. The twins are sleeping in Micah’s bed tonight, a final act of punishment. I listen for their breathing; the silence is loud in my ears.
I wish Micah wasn’t so smart, or I was less easy for him to read. I do want out of Glory. I want all of us out. There must be somewhere better out there, somewhere we can breathe and stretch and dream, somewhere we could have a future. Ma tried to get us out, years ago, when things started going cross-eyed. But hunters cost money, and by the time she’d saved enough the twins were here and no hunter in his right mind would take four children into the desert. So the money got spent and Ma got sick, and it’s all I can do to keep us fed and inside the fence. We’re good and stuck in Glory for as long I can see, and this may be the only chance I get to leave. Maybe it’s selfish and greedy, but I’m going.
It’s no use; I won’t be sleeping tonight. I sit up and feel for the matches I keep on my nightstand. The stink of sulfur fills the air as I strike one and light the small stub of a candle by my bed. The flame flickers and holds, chasing back the shadows with one sharp, wavering point of brightness. I pick up the small pile of cloth on the floor and bring it to my lap, unfolding the corners of the rag to examine the items inside. A spool of thread and a needle, the penny knife Micah fixed, another set of matches, a spare shirt and drawers, wool socks, and a small mirror that my mother gave me. I don’t expect I’ll find much use for it, but I want something of hers to take with me. Funny how everything I own in life can fit into so small a bundle, seventeen years contained in my lap.
I tie the corners back together and peel my blanket off my bed, then roll the bundle in the threadbare quilt and secure it with two pieces of twine; it should not be too heavy, though five pounds can feel like fifty a ways down the road. I take off my scratchy nightgown and dip my hands in the washbasin, bracing myself for the cold water. In the soft light I can just make out a bruise spreading across the knuckles of my left hand and I flex it, testing the soreness. I splash some water on my face, and when the worst of the shivers have passed I get the washrag and go to work on the rest of me.
The almost-morning air dries my damp skin while I let my hair out of its braid. I run my fingers through the worst of the tangles before I tightly plait it again. I get dressed, pulling on my worn britches and boots and my second-cleanest shirt. It started life as a bright white, but I’ve washed it so many times it’s turned gray. Still, it’s soft and I’ve only had to mend it twice. My heart hammers in my chest as I button my shirt, and my fingers are nervy as I secure my belt. I take a deep breath, trying to relax. I’ll never make it through the day at this rate.
I’m not hungry at all, but I know I’ll regret it later if I don’t eat. The leftover beans are cold and congealed, but I force myself to swallow a few bites. Some hominy goes into my trusty sugar sack, along with dried fruit and cornmeal. If I can find a way to boil water, I can make hoecakes. I fill a canteen with water, hoping the Garretts have more, or it’s going to be a long and thirsty day.
I can smell dawn coming, a subtle shift in the air. It’s time to go if I want to make it to the gate on time. I load my revolver, carefully slipping each round into the chamber. I holster the gun to my belt and fill up a small drawstring pouch with extra cartridges and fifty dollars, which I hang around my neck. This time I slide my long dirk knife into its sheath, reassured by the feel of a weapon on each hip. I get my hat and my duster coat, and put my blanket roll, canteen, and sugar sack by the door. I stare at my effects for a moment, certain that I’m forgetting something, but all that’s left is the leaving.
I hesitate at Micah’s bed, but I have to say good-bye, no matter how mad they are. A small body shifts in the darkness and sits up.
“It’s time,” I whisper. “I’m sorry, Cath. Love.”
I hold my breath until I hear her answer.
“Love,” she says softly.
“This time mean it.”
My smile trembles in the darkness. “I’ll be careful. Be good to each other. I’ll be home soon.”