|"She's my sister. She wasn't always like you saw her. Time was when she
was real full of life. Course, bein' a missionary's daughter ain't easy.
My father... My father. He said she was, uh, on the road to destruction.
He tried to rein her in. But the harder he pulled, the wilder she got. Like
she had a demon inside of her. Started doin' crazy things. Goin' off with
men, drinkin'. He tried lockin' her up.... Sendin' her away... Beatin' her.
I should've stayed. I could've saved her. But I couldn't see past savin'
myself. Every time I went home, she was worse off... Till she finally got
to be how she is now. Every penny I got goes to keepin' her. And when I see
her, it tears me up so bad... It takes me a week before I stop wantin' to
- Josiah Sanchez, Penance
"Stop that, Hannah!"
Josiah was only dimly aware of the shrill cries around him as he fought to keep hold of the frail woman thrashing in his arms. One of his arms was wrapped around her midsection, pinning her hands to her sides, while the other cradled her bloodstained gray hair. Again and again, his knuckles scraped across rough plaster as she redoubled her efforts to bash her brains out against the wall.
Gradually, her struggles weakened and he was able to ease his entire body between her and the wall. And then he just held her, rocking back and forth as she sobbed and knocked her head against his chest. Through it all he talked, repeating the litany that Hannah was good, that Hannah was loved, that Hannah's big brother wanted nothing more in this world than for her to be happy and healthy and whole again.
With a corner of his shirtsleeve, Josiah dabbed at the bloody furrows Hannah had clawed into her cheeks. He raised smoldering eyes to the women waiting nearby to settle Hannah in bed as soon as she calmed.
The Mother Superior pursed her lips and glanced toward the young novice cringing in the corner. She nodded a wordless promise to deal with the problem.
The girl kept her eyes down, lips moving soundless as she worried her rosary beads. The oversized wooden crucifix at the end of the strand swayed with each prayer that slipped through her fingers. Tendrils of bright blonde hair peeked out from beneath her veil, dangling in her eyes. Mother Superior heaved a tired sigh and moved to block the cross from Hannah's line of sight. Her sharp whisper sent the novice scurrying from the room.
Hannah relaxed in Josiah's arms with a low moan of relief. Turning away from the waiting nuns, he rested his cheek on top of his sister's head and took his first real look around her room.
The sisters must have whitewashed recently. Hannah's latest fresco covered less than half of one wall -- the usual drab parade of nuns in sober shades of gray and brown, for the most part. No matter how many boxes of multicolored chalks and paint sticks her brother bought for her, Hannah's palate kept stubbornly to the shadows -- except for the occasional jarring touches of yellow and red.
Josiah could almost pinpoint the moment the new girl must have taken over caretaking duties. On the wall, images of brown and gray nuns gave way to pictures of yellow-haired girls splashed with crimson.
"Let's see what you've painted for us today, Hannah," Josiah said conversationally, rubbing soothing circles on the artist's frail shoulders. He trailed one finger down the wall, brushing over two blonde figures all but saturated in red. "The martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity, is it? You did a fine job with the lions. And this must be Saint Catherine on the wheel? And would you look at these flames. You can almost feel the heat. You always were partial to Joan of Arc, weren't you?"
Hannah raised her head from his chest to peek shyly at the saint burning to death just above the footboard of her bed. She blinked at her brother and nudged him with an elbow, eyebrows raised expectantly as his finger moved on to point to a particularly graphic depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes.
"You've been practicing your Agnes, haven't you?" Josiah continued agreeably, keeping his voice level as his fingers skimmed across the image of a yellow-haired girl smiling serenely as her breasts were ripped off with hooks.
He scooted away from the wall, his grip on Hannah relaxing into a one-armed hug as he studied the smudged finger-painting behind him. "And here's Saint Cecilia in the bath," he said, smiling sadly as Hannah let out a rusty chuckle. "Yes, I know -- they boiled her in her bathtub, chopped her head half off her shoulders and it still took her three days to die. Remember how you used to laugh when you read me that story? You used to say it was a wonder we ended up with any martyrs at all, if it was that hard to kill them off."
He paused, on the off chance that Hannah might have something to add to the conversation, then continued on to the final images -- dozens of crumpled figures ringing a single woman about to be hacked to pieces by turbaned swordsmen. "Would you look at that? Saint Ursula and the eleven-thousand virgin martyrs. Mighty ambitious of you, Hannah." He kissed the top of her head, careful to avoid the blood drying into her silver hair.
"But don't you think it's time for a change of scenery? Think you could paint me a flower this afternoon?" Hannah ignored the question and reached over his shoulder to rub at the nearest chalky image, blurring Saint Cecilia into a murky mauve smudge.
Josiah sighed in relief at this loss of interest in the early Christian martyrs and nodded to the waiting attendants. Two nuns rustled forward and lifted Hannah away, clucking softly over her injuries as they led her out of the room. Josiah stayed where he was on the floor, idly studying his bloodied knuckles.
He let his head drop back against the wall, not caring in the slightest that he was smearing Saint Agnes. The Mother Superior remained with him in the small room, her hands tucked into the wide sleeves of her habit as she waited to see how he would react to all he had seen and heard this day.
"It's been a while since she worked herself into a state like that," Josiah ground out finally, clenching his fists, testing the pull and ache of abused skin across bruised knuckles.
"It has indeed," the nun agreed softly, picking up a bucket of water from the corner and moving toward the wall with a dripping rag. She swiped the cloth across Saints Perpetua and Felicity, watching for a moment as the images wept and ran down the wall in dull reddish streaks. "It's a blessing you were able to come so soon," she continued, washed away Joan of Arc.
Josiah shifted wearily out of the way of the cleansing rag, turning to watch the wall and its vanishing frescoes. He found himself staring at Catherine of Alexandra, pinned to her spiked metal wheel. Around and around she turned, always ending up exactly where she began, tearing open the same old wounds. The Catherine wheel had shattered, he remembered. God's great mercy broke the wheel that should have broken Catherine, forcing her persecutors to chop off her head instead. Hannah used to have a great deal to say about those halfway miracles of the Lord.
"I was in the area. Friend back in Four Corners passed along your message," he answered at last, turning his eyes away as Catherine vanished with a few swift swipes of the rag. "It was the girl who set her off?"
"I am sorry. I should have made certain that Marta kept her hair covered and put her crucifix away when she attended Hannah. And I am afraid she has been somewhat ... thoughtless in her words and deeds while in this room. I will deal with the matter." Mother Superior dropped the rag back in the bucket and nodded, satisfied, at the wall that was now a uniform and inoffensive expanse of beige.
She turned back to Josiah. "It was good of you to come." The words carried a distinct tone of dismissal.
For a long moment, Josiah Sanchez simply sat, not raising his head, not meeting her eyes. Then he heaved himself out of the puddle of colored water that had pooled around him without his notice. Without another word, he headed for the door.
There was no use protesting that he wanted to stay. Both of them knew better.
+ + + + + + +
Vista City was a hellhole.
Ezra P. Standish slammed his empty glass down on the pitted, uneven tabletop with a little more force than necessary and glared around the interior of the hellhole's premiere saloon -- if two poles, one wall and a thatch roof could be said to constitute a saloon.
A lizard eyed him incuriously as it sunned itself on the rock that doubled as the establishment's bar. The bartender, drowsing in the meager shade near the wall, ignored him entirely. "Would you care to engage in a game of chance?" Ezra inquired pleasantly of the cantina's only other customer, a dusty old prospector snoring gently beneath his enormous sombrero. Ezra leaned forward and peered under the hat brim. "Queria a jugar a los naipes?" The old man snored a negative and Ezra settled back in his rickety chair with a disconsolate sigh.
Eight hours. Eight hours since he and Josiah had pelted into this hellhole. Eight hours since Josiah left him on the outskirts of town and rode off like the hounds of hell were on his tail. Seven hours and fifty-six minutes since Ezra recovered enough from his spluttering outrage to follow.
He'd trailed the preacher to the convent outside town. There, he'd shared an enlightening conversation with a chatty little urchin outside the gates. After idling several hours in the punishing midday heat, with no sign that Josiah planned to emerge from the nunnery any time soon, he had retreated back to town and the dubious comforts of the cantina.
Ezra fished out a deck of cards and riffled them from hand to hand, amusing himself with the notion that the motion of the cards might stir a faint breeze. The only thing more oppressive than the heat was the thought of returning to Four Corners with their mission incomplete. Chris Larabee would... Ezra shuddered and reached for his glass, remembered it was empty, reached for his pocket flask, remembered it was empty, and leaned back with a defeated sigh. Best not to dwell on Mr. Larabee's reaction. He would duck that punch when he came to it.
They'd been sent, the two of them, to chase a rumor that Elias Marsh had been seen haunting the border towns again, perhaps gathering men to replace the one's he'd lost when his gang rode straight into an Army ambush the year before. They'd found tantalizing hints, second-hand sightings of the legendary bandit, and one solid lead. A lead they had abandoned the moment the telegram arrived and Josiah lit out for Vista City without another word. Without even waiting to see if Ezra would follow.
Ezra grimaced. Now there was an embarrassing revelation. He had followed. Tailing meekly along on that wild ride, neither expecting nor receiving an explanation for the preacher's bizarre behavior. Knowing only that something was terribly wrong and there was nothing Josiah thought Ezra could do to help.
After his conversation with the boy outside the convent, Ezra was tempted to agree. He was the last person anyone in their right mind -- he winced at his own poor choice of words -- would come to him for advice about family problems.
Still. Still, it might have been nice to be asked.
In dire need of a drink, Ezra peeled himself out of his chair and headed toward the bar. He nudged the sunbathing lizard aside with one finger and refilled his glass with watery whiskey from an earthenware jug, flipping a few coins onto the sleeping bartender's chest.
He raised the glass for a quick inspection for any floating insects and turned, ready to down the drink and resume his vigil outside the convent. Perhaps the boy he'd met might like to pass the time with a few hands of--
Six strangers strolled into the cantina, laughing and elbowing each other out of the way as they headed toward the bar. They brushed past Ezra as if he was invisible and scooped up the whiskey jug, leaving a gold coin shining in its place. The bartender snapped awake, snatched up the coin and, with a hopeful glance at the newcomers, uncorked a fresh jug of liquor and set it on the edge of the bar, ready for the next round.
Ezra set his glass down untouched and turned to study the strangers now crowded around his former table, tossing bright coins onto the rough wood as one man shuffled a battered deck of cards.
A slow smile spread across Ezra's face. This day was looking up.
+ + + + + + +
The desert swam around Josiah. Currents of air shimmered above the furnace-hot sand and rocks, creating a pleasantly liquid view of the world that went well with the liquor heating his blood and watering his vision. He tilted the earthenware jug in a toast to the saguaro cactus that appeared to be undulating off to his right and belted down another mouthful of his chosen painkiller. Drunk enough to see a cactus dance wasn't nearly drunk enough to suit him.
He stumbled forward another step, absently tugging on the reins of the puzzled horse trailing after him as he staggered away from the convent.
Bless the boy -- whatshisname? Pedro? Miguelito? Diego? -- Josiah raised the jug in benediction in the boy's general direction. Bless the enterprising young nameless one, who was always there after every visit, waiting with a shy smile and a jug of his grandfather's homebrew for sale. The fumes from the raw liquor were strong enough to peel paint. After visits like this one, Josiah nurtured the forlorn hope that one day he would drink so much that the fumes would seep into his brain and start peeling away a few layers in there.
Panting now from the heat, he staggered toward the shade of an overhanging cliff, collapsing against the rocks with the jug cradled protectively against his chest. As he touched the sun-blasted sandstone, he felt the first of the memories he was trying to out-drink wash over him.Hot sun above, hot rocks below. Fifteen-year-old Josiah Sanchez pressed himself closer to the stone ledge, trying not to twitch like bacon on a hot griddle, willing the men passing below to keep their eyes turned piously to the ground.
Sweat trickled down his forehead, stinging his eyes and blurring his view of the figures marching in a slow procession along the mountain path directly beneath him. He closed his eyes as a small, muffled gasp floated over the boulder beside him. Josiah offered up his first heartfelt prayer in weeks, and was rewarded when the marchers continued on their way, their hymn uninterrupted. Slowly he relaxed, listening to the familiar words of the plainsong chant and the equally familiar sound of rawhide lashes scourging flesh.
The men below were stripped to the waist, their shoulders covered with welts from the small whips they were flailing against their own backs as they chanted. At the head of the procession was a huge rawboned man with burning eyes and wild curly hair, marching just ahead of a rough pine coffin. Alone among the congregation, he had whipped his back hard enough to draw blood.
Despite the risks, Josiah edged his gangly adolescent frame closer to the edge of the cliff, the better to look down upon his father.
Joaquim Sanchez was going to have a great deal to say about his son's absence from the funeral services for old Alvero. But any punishment the missionary might hand out paled beside the rewards of a free afternoon. In fact, after so many years of harsh punishments for minor transgressions, something deep within him reveled in the thought that he was earning this one. This was Old Testament-quality disobedience. This was at least one broken commandment and two deadly sins -- and it wasn't even noon yet.
A noise beside him interrupted Josiah's smug contemplation of his own wickedness, freezing his blood. Over the crack of leather that punctuated each downbeat, he could hear a small breathless voice chanting on the other side of the boulder, maddeningly out of reach.
Gritting his teeth, he lowered his forehead to the hot rock, surrendering to the will of God.
For a moment, the voices below fell silent and the whips stilled. Then the chant began again as the Penitentes moved slowly out of view, snatches of their hymn floating back to him on the breeze."Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla:
teste David cum Sibylla."
The Latin chant died slowly away, while the small voice providing the unnecessary and unwelcome translation beside him gradually increased in volume."Day of wrath! O day of mourning
See fulfilled the prophets' warning
Heaven and earth in ashes burning..."
Slowly, Josiah felt his muscled unknot as he realized the small voice was singing solo. He pulled himself to his knees and peered over the boulder just as the voice fell silent. A girl huddled in the shade on the other side, her face buried in her hands while her shoulders heaved and shook.
Josiah leaned forward on his elbows and studied the scene for a long moment. Then he reached down and gave an unsympathetic tug to one of the girl's long blonde braids. She let out another muffled snort as her shoulders shook even harder.
"They're gone, Hannah," he prompted, the unvoiced No thanks to you' hanging heavy in the air between them.
Hannah looked up at last, her eyes brimming, her hands clamped over her mouth, her face beet-red with the effort of staying silent. Her shoulders convulsed one more time before she doubled over with a scream of laughter.
"That wasn't funny," Josiah grumbled, clambering awkwardly to his feet. Since he hit his growth spurt the previous spring, everything seemed to come awkwardly to Josiah. He took one last cautious look toward the trail below before turning a sulky adolescent glare on his giggling little sister.
Hannah bounced to her feet and flashed him an unrepentant grin before skipping away, still laughing. She resumed her rendition of the Dies Irae, smacking herself dramatically on the forehead at the end of each verse."Thou the sinful woman savest -- ouch!
Thou the dying thief forgavest -- ouch!
And for me a hope vouchsafest--"
Josiah caught up to her in three ground-eating strides and grabbed her hand before she could smack herself a third time. After a quick glance heavenward for any sign that the Almighty was about to smite the puny blasphemer, he completed the motion, thumping her gently on the forehead with her own hand. Twice.
"Not. Funny," he said, fighting to hide a grin of his own. "And it's not even an exact translation."
Hannah crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. "Is. Too," she countered, twisting deftly out of his grasp and resuming her bouncing path downhill. "And at least my translation rhymes."
Josiah snorted and followed, a slow smile splitting his own face as he prepared himself for an afternoon entirely free of adult influence. While his father and the congregation were occupied with the tedious funeral of an unpleasant old man, there would be no lectures, no chores, no scripture readings, no hours spent hunched over the Rosary in contemplation of the Sorrowful Mysteries. No responsibilities at all, in short, except his ten-year-old sister. And looking after Hannah was something he had done for so long that it came as naturally and effortlessly as breathing.
Without breaking stride, Josiah reached out and hooked one of Hannah's arms, pulling her back from the steep drop-off and resettling her by his side, with his body between her and the cliff. She wrinkled her nose but fell in step beside him, chattering away. She flitted here and there on the path, darting back to him to display her finds and pepper him with questions in a mish-mash of Latin, English and Spanish. What kind of flowers are these? How far can you throw this rock? Is this lizard poisonous?
Josiah led the way down the slope, turning now and then to lift Hannah over high boulders or treacherous stretches of loose rock. He kept enough of an ear on her conversation to identify the flowers, confiscate the lizard and heave the rock a respectable distance. All the while, he watched the horizon, beyond the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristos mountains where the Sanchez family maintained their remote mission.
For most of his life, the mountains had marked the boundary of his world. Everything he knew or needed was contained within -- the mission, his sister, his father, his mother's grave. But lately, when he stared at the mountains, what he saw was not the line where his world ended, but where a wider world began. A world of unimaginable freedom -- not just an afternoon, but a lifetime away from his father's rule.
And then Hannah slipped her hand into his and Josiah turned his attention from the horizon to the here-and-now.
"Father's going to be so angry," she said matter-of-factly, watching him closely to see how worried she should be.
"Not at you," he assured her. Nine-tenths of the job of looking after Hannah involved getting between Hannah and their father. Hannah, whose birth had been the death of her mother and whose life served as a constant reminder to Joachim of that original sin. Nothing Hannah could do could please him. Not the hours she spent studying his beloved scriptures, not her best efforts at housekeeping, not the pictures she drew for him, and certainly not the questions and comments that spilled out of her in an unstoppable flood.
She wormed her way under the crook of Josiah's arm, still unconvinced.
"Is it wicked to hide like this? Father says I'm wicked," she pressed, peering up at him.
He squeezed her head affectionately. "Well, I say you're not."
Satisfied, Hannah slipped away from him, leaving only the echo of her laughter behind.
The whiskey jug was empty and the desert was dark as pitch by the time Josiah staggered back to town, rumbling softly to himself in Latin.
His desert serenade broke off as he smacked face-first into an adobe wall. Blearily, he reached out and patted the rough mud bricks, his ears slowly registering the sounds of clinking glasses and loud conversations on the other side.
Still humming in minor key, Josiah scraped along the wall until he found the entrance, squinting against a sudden assault of light, noise and odor. Vista City's sleepy cantina had transformed itself at twilight. It seemed the town's entire population had crowded into the place to drink, fight or dance beneath the lanterns that dangled precariously close to the thatched roof.
A small spark of interest kindled in Josiah's hazy brain as he spotted the stone bar, now crowded with customers and lined with bottles and jugs that were probably more water than whiskey. Lurching forward with a sudden sense of purpose, he crossed the threshold and made an uncoordinated grab at one of the bottles, snagging it on his third try. Ignoring the bartender's howl of protest, he carried his whiskey toward the tables, falling into a chair without bothering to check if it was occupied or not.
He rested, grateful for the distractions only a rowdy saloon in a lawless town could offer. To his right, a pretty girl in a tight red dress was picking the pockets of the man who had pulled her onto his lap. In the center of the room, musicians pounded out a driving rhythm that sent dancing couples twirling into the furniture, the customers and each other with wild abandon. And off in one corner, a small crowd had gathered to stare at the pile of gold coins accumulating in the center of a poker table.
Poker table. Josiah frowned over the rim of his bottle, suddenly aware that he'd forgotten something -- something important -- in the middle of all the remembering he'd done today. He squinted toward the table again and found a familiar pair of green eyes staring back at him over a fan of cards.
Ezra. That was it. He'd forgotten Ezra. Josiah dropped his gaze and tossed back another drink. Ezra, who had clearly idled the day away in a shady cantina while Josiah cycled through the endless levels of his own personal Hell.
A burst of laughter from the poker table brought his head snapping up again. Ezra was leaning forward, raking in his money with a smile as he bantered with the unpleasant customer in the eye patch seated beside him. Ezra's eyes flickered toward the preacher again, trying to telegraph a message that Josiah was far too drunk to understand.
And that was just one too many people today looking at him as if he was the solution to all their problems. Ezra should know better. Lord knew Hannah should have known better. With a grunt of disgust, Josiah caught up his bottle and turned his back on the poker players, elbowing his way to a far corner where he could get on with the business of drowning his sorrows or himself, whichever sank first.
He woke twelve hours later to a blinding headache and an empty room.
+ + + + + + +
Another day, another vigil.
Ezra shifted uncomfortably in his hiding place, never taking his eyes off the crumbling remains of the old mission in the valley below. The small cave protected him from the sun but not the heat, and he sat sweating in his shirtsleeves, his half-empty canteen calling to him like a lover.
He blew out a gusty sigh and left the water where it was. The only way to refill the canteen would be to leave the cave. The only safe way to leave the cave was under cover of darkness -- and twilight was a day away.
The next drink of water could wait. Ezra could wait. Patience was Ezra P. Standish's middle name.
As soon as night fell, he would quit this damnable granite oven, collect Josiah and return to Four Corners for reinforcements.
And really, it wasn't such a bad trade. A few hours of discomfort were a small price to pay for the look on the others' faces when he told them that the mission had been a success after all. That the one-eyed bandit Elias Marsh had been found -- holed up under their very noses in fleaspeck Vista City, luring new recruits to his gang with gold coins and free drinks.
True, Ezra would feel better about his current situation if he had managed to alert his colleagues to Marsh's whereabouts. No telegraph wires ran through Vista City. No stage lines. No roads. The only way to get word to Four Corners would have been to send Josiah -- but Josiah had barely been able to stand last night, never mind spot the wanted man sitting at Ezra's elbow.
And so he had resigned himself to an unpleasant evening in the company of One-Eye and his merry band of thieves.
Ezra's gaze drifted toward the jacket he had folded neatly over a rock slab, off the dusty cave floor. The soft black fabric bulged at the pockets under the weight of the gold coins he'd won, ruining the tailored lines of the garment.
He'd taken some satisfaction in fleecing those men of their ill-gotten gains. But even that had been tarnished by the stories they traded over each hand of cards.
Ezra glanced down at the notebook balanced on his knee, crammed cover-to-cover with his report to Judge Travis. Idly, he flipped the handwritten pages, reassuring himself that it was all there: every word, every story, every coin he'd raked in across the poker table, the metal still warm from the robbers' pockets.
First hand, sixteen dollars on the table, a full house in his hands, and the story of the Fenton bank job ringing in his ears like a reproach as he collected. Fenton, where a girl waiting in line at the bank had screamed and the deputies had come running, guns blazing. The gang had been forced to flee with nothing but half a cash drawer and the girl for their troubles. They'd left her, what was left of her, out in the desert, afterward. Marsh had elbowed Ezra in the ribs at that point in the story, his eyebrow waggling obscenely over his eyepatch. Ezra smiled pleasantly and dealt the man two pair -- aces over eights -- to keep him talking.
He'd lost twenty-four dollars to One-Eye in the next hand, in exchange for a final accounting of the stagecoach that had vanished south of Red Fork last spring. Then a small straight won Ezra thirty-seven dollars and the details of the train robbery that had cost the Army a five-thousand-dollar payroll shipment and cost the four soldiers guarding it their lives.
And so it went for the rest of the evening, every coin a story. He'd smiled and nodded and made encouraging noises to keep the conversation flowing. He'd flattered and charmed and taken them for every penny he safely could. And through it all, he'd watched Marsh's scarred face, looking for a flash of distrust or flicker of unease. Surely Marsh would realize he'd said too much, shared secrets that would send any decent man running to the authorities?
But Marsh's one good eye had reflected nothing but a smug certainty that he and his new gambling friend were of like kind.
Which was fortunate indeed, Ezra reminded himself sharply. Other kinds of men seldom lasted long in the company of thieves. He closed the notebook with a snap and turned his attention back to the view outside the cave. An enormously fat bandit plodded slowly across the mission roof, idly scanning the horizon for any sign of movement. Ezra held his breath as the outlaw's dull eyes swept across the entrance of the cave and moved on without pausing.
Yes, it was fortunate he had been in the cantina last night. A more trustworthy man would have found no place at last night's poker table. A decent man would have shied away from them and their blood money. A good man would have missed the point entirely.
At one point in the evening -- while One-Eye was merrily revisiting a wagon train he'd plundered -- Ezra had found his gaze straying across the cantina, searching for Josiah, feeling a sudden need to see himself reflected through different eyes. He found the preacher staring dully back, looking at him without seeing him at all.
Ezra had squinted at him, willing the preacher to pick up on the clues -- the slightly raised eyebrow, the subtle tilt of the head that all but screamed the-gentleman-in-the-eyepatch-to-my-right-is-a-dead-ringer-for-the-face-on-the-wanted-poster-in-your-right-jacket-pocket. But by then Josiah had turned his back, losing himself in the smoke and shadows of a distant corner.
By the time the poker game finally broke up, the players were the only ones left awake in the cantina. Josiah snored in the corner, unmolested. The hard men and loose women of Vista City knew by now to steer clear of the volatile man during his visits to town.
Ezra waved a brittle, cheery farewell to the Marsh gang as they staggered off into the night. As the last man stepped beyond the circle of lamplight, he slipped after them.
It had been sheer, blind luck that he'd stumbled across the cave before the gray light of dawn caught him out in the open. What on earth had possessed him to tail the gang back to their hideout? The sensible thing would have been to wait for first light, scrape Josiah off the cantina floor and high-tail it back to Four Corners for help.
But the voice of reason in Ezra's head had been shouted down by the voice of experience. Professional gamblers heard hundreds of poker table confessions. In Ezra's experience, wanted men shared their secrets for only one of two reasons -- to intimidate the other players into losing, or to impress the other players into spreading their legend around. Elias Marsh was no fool. He knew what he was doing when he struck up a conversation with an itinerant gambler -- someone who might drift through a dozen towns in the coming weeks, entertaining his marks along the way with tales of his brush with the infamous Marsh gang.
By the end of the month, people would be jumping at their own shadows for fifty miles in every direction. And every lawman in the territory would be zeroing in on Vista City.
Ezra leaned forward with a frown, watching a sudden flurry of movement around the mission's front gate. One-Eye had no intention of being here when those lawmen arrived.
+ + + + + + +
Cruel sunlight slanted through the cantina's thatch roof to stab at Josiah's eyes.
The suffering man twitched, trying to escape the sunbeam without actually moving his throbbing head. Beneath his face, the tavern table pitched and swayed in time to the alcohol still sloshing, undiluted, through his veins. Purgatory. Penance. Punishment richly deserved.
"My son." A voice, a wisp of memory curled through the fog in his head, spouting Proverbs. "Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, not lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." A voice and a half-forgotten memory of a wild-eyed, wild-haired man, hovering over him as he coughed his way miserably through a bout of childhood influenza. The voice of a father who had long ago lost the ability to communicate with his children without filtering his words through the scriptures.
Josiah felt his headache double, redouble, as his traitorous brain dredged up the very memories he had worked so hard to drown the night before. He closed his eyes tighter, as if he could block out the ghost of Joaquim Sanchez along with the sunlight.
He raised a hand to shade his eyes and felt something small and hard slide through his fingers. The object cracked against his nose and bounced away to land on the table with a metallic clink. What the--? Eyes still closed, head still glued firmly to the tabletop, Josiah groped across the sticky wood until he found whatever it was.
Reluctantly, he opened one eye. A gold coin gleamed between his fingers.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra rocked back on his heels and took stock of his situation. He held the high ground. He had the advantage of surprise. He had a small arsenal of his personal weaponry and several boxes of spare ammunition.
He edged closer to the mouth of the cave and stared down at the outlaws milling around the small mountain of baggage, crates and strongboxes piled before the front gates of their hideout. The pile was dwindling with frightening speed as the Marsh gang -- fifteen men strong, by his count -- distributed the load among their horses and pack ponies. Behind them, the mission stood stripped and abandoned once again.
Ezra had, at best, ten minutes to make up his mind.
He turned, reluctantly, to the back of the cave and the final item on his inventory.
Vista City had gotten its start as a mining town, springing up around the prospectors who had chased rumors of gold to this unpromising corner of nowhere. Eventually, the miners left, sorely disappointed, leaving behind a shell of a town and hills riddled with their mineworks and abandoned supplies. Stored and forgotten in the back of Ezra's cave were tarp-covered crates full of rusted shovels and pickaxes, desiccated root vegetables and one straw-packed box that cradled three sticks of dynamite so old they wept beads of pure nitroglycerin.
Ezra scowled down at the unstable explosives. No one, no one at all, would blame him if he chose to sit quietly in his cave until the outlaws moved along. The odds of finding them again might not be high, but they had to beat 15-to-1.
His eyes fell on his discarded jacket and its burden of gold. Gold from the Fenton bank job and the Red Fork stage.
And in the end, it wasn't such a hard choice after all.
+ + + + + + +
Old Emilio limped down the path he'd worn between his front stoop and the Vista City cantina. The blazing sun had burned the grass below to brittle straw and bleached the sky white above him. He squinted against the bright, colorless landscape and pressed on toward the promised shade of the saloon. He needed to get started on the afternoon's drinking -- the bottle he'd had with breakfast was beginning to cool in his belly. In the distance, he could hear his daughter-in-law's shrill complaints as she realized he'd slipped away from her again. He hobbled faster, smiling in toothless anticipation.
The smile faded as he took in the two men standing motionless in the entrance to the cantina. Emilio cleared his throat, glaring up at the man in the long black duster who blocked his way.
The intruder ignored him, his attention fixed on the shanty's interior. The second man -- shorter, dressed in buckskins faded the color of the dead grass around them -- glanced back at the old timer and stepped obligingly aside with a bemused smile. Emilio ignored the opening and turned back to the man still standing between him and his drink. It was a matter of honor now.
Balancing carefully, Emilio raised his wooden cane and poked the man in black in the backside.
The man moved. Fast. Thirty years earlier, Emilio might have been impressed by the speed and skill of the man, or at least intimidated by the pistol he found pressed against his temple in the space of an eyeblink. But all that mattered now was that the gringo had finally cleared the way. Ignoring the gun at his head, Emilo lowered his cane and shuffled happily into the cantina, dimly aware of what sounded like a scuffle behind him, punctuated by muffled swearing. With a contented sigh, he reached the rough stone bar and poured the first round, slightly surprised to see that he and the gringos weren't the first customers of the day.