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Alexis A. Hunter
THE SECOND HE STAGGERED through the door, Della knew his face from the poster. Flouncing across the saloon, she didn’t wait for Mr. Windham’s prompting. She threaded her way between tables, dodging a few drunken, outstretched fingers.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said, hooking her arm with his. His wide, glazed eyes rolled to her face, and she gave her best saucy grin.
Instead of steering him to the bar, she pushed him into a booth tucked into the shadows of the saloon’s back corner. “What’ll ya have, mister?”
He looked up, clawing at his throat. Della leaned in to get a better look at the raw-red line. No mistake then, her first instinct had been right. He couldn’t seem to speak, dark brown eyes bloodshot and desperate. Della squeezed his trembling hand. “I know what you need. Sit here a minute.”
Weaving her way back through the tables and fingers, her mind flew. She’d imagined this day so many times, and now that it was here she had to force herself to quit shaking. Only careful planning would save them both.
“Tall glass of water and three shots of whiskey,” she said quickly, staring back toward the shadows as she spoke.
“You’re supposed to bring ’em to the bar to get sloshed, Della,” Mr. Windham said, eyes glittering. “Still—good of you to take the initiative.”
A shiver worked through her. Without reply, she balanced the water and the shots and moved back to the man in the corner. She tuned out the raucous banging of the piano and the cries of the poker players. Smoke hung like a haze in the air.
“Here ya are.” She arranged the water and the whiskey in front of him.
He reached for the whiskey—just like a man. Smacking his hand away, she slid the water closer. “Not until you drink this. You’ll be no use to me drunk off your ass.”
He hesitated for a fraction of a second before wrapping his long fingers around the glass and gulping down water. Feeling the gazes of the other drunkards, Della shifted herself between them and the haggard man. She examined him as he sucked the water down. More a boy than a man—he was thin through the chest like an underdeveloped colt. His poster made him look a lot older. Still, Della figured it was better this way.
“Thanks,” he rasped when he finished the water. Sinking back against the scarlet booth, he rested his head against the wall. His eyes flickered shut. “Damn, I needed that.”
“What you need is more caution, Colton Lynwood,” she said.
He snapped upright, eyes flashing open. “How do you know who I am?”
She almost snorted, but restrained herself. “Please. Your poster’s been hangin’ on the sheriff’s wall for months. And Mr. Rhett sent a telegram yesterday sayin’ you might be comin’ this way.”
“Shit.” He downed one of the shots.
“That’s right, Colton. Now I got a plan, but you got to follow me and do exactly what I say. You do that, and you’ll be free soon enough.”
He laughed, a loud, rasping bark that blasted through his raw throat and drew the attention of every man in the room. Della’s face flushed. “Hush! I mean it.”
“Ain’t no whore gonna tell me how to escape. I’m Colton Lynwood—most fearsome bank robber in the West.” He threw back the second shot.
She stole his last one, enjoying the way it burned down her throat.
“Hey, that’s mine!” he growled.
“Mine.” She grasped his arm. “Now c’mon, there’s no time for arguing.”
Unsteady as he was, she had no trouble pulling him toward the back of the saloon. She reached the stairs before Mr. Windham spotted her. His eyes held that nasty glitter that made her stomach churn. “Why, Della—you finally pick you a good first ’un? You know, after this, you don’t get t’ choose, right?”
Colton laughed, catching his boot on a step and going down face-first. She helped him up, forcing a grin for Mr. Windham. “I know it, sir.”
A series of loud whoops and hollers emanated from the crowd below—the regulars who knew little Della Everett well.
Her face flamed scarlet as she dragged Colton up to her room. Shoving him onto the bed, she closed the door behind her. “What on earth’s wrong with you? You can’t possibly be drunk.”
He sank back on her mattress, glazed eyes rolling to the ceiling. “Not drunk. I just … I saw it.”
She turned her back on him, rifling through her clothes drawers and gathering what few provisions she needed: scraps of jerky and hardtack, the canteen she lifted from the General Store, a coarse wool blanket and a pair of real boots—not the high-heeled woman shoes that made her feet ache.
The bed squealed and a moment later she felt hands wrap around her stomach. Colton pressed his body up behind hers, his stubbled jaw rubbing against her neck. A shiver worked through her. “Get off me.”
He just chuckled real low, kissing her bare neck.
“I said …” She elbowed him sharp in the gut and twisted away. “Get the hell off me.”
He sank to the bed, lips flapping open. “What was that for? You never done this before or something?”
She planted her hands on her hips, stepping closer and wishing she was wearing something more intimidating than the frilly satin stuff Windham made her wear. “We are not doing anything, Colton. You need to understand—I’m here to help you. Way I see it, you lost a partner back in Rykerton, and you need another or you’re going to get yourself caught. Everybody knew Jude McDowell was the brains of your operation and he’s dead. Looks to me like you need new brains, and you certainly ain’t got none.”
His brow furrowed. “You wait just a goddamn minute—”
“No,” she growled, shoving him back against the bed. The springs squealed and a muffled whoop echoed from downstairs. “You need me, Colton. And damn if I don’t need you too. You’re my escape, my ticket outta here. Unless you wanna end up at the wrong end of a bullet or swinging at the end of a rope like your friend, you just better listen to me.”
A pale wave crested on his face. He rubbed trembling fingers over his jaw. “ … I done him wrong.”
She sighed. “You done the only thing you could, way I see it. Now start bouncing while I git ready.”
“Yeah. Gotta make ’em think we’re doing what they think we’re doing.”
He frowned again, a childish pout plumping his lips. “An’ why can’t we just do what they think we’re doing?”
At this, she laughed. “’Cause I’m not a whore. Not so far, anyway, and I have no intention of ever being one, see. Now … a bank robber, infamous and hunted, yeah. I can take that.”
“Well, it is awful fun.” He gave her a sloppy grin as he started bouncing.
She shook her head and tugged a pair of men’s breeches and a white button up shirt out of her dresser. Slipping behind the dressing screen, she quickly changed while he bounced away, making the springs squeal. He started groaning, and she poked her head over top of the screen to see him laughing as he did so.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Makin’ it sound real, missy. A man don’t make this much squeakin’ without some moanin’.”
She shuddered. “I’m glad I don’t know that.”
“You know, we could …”
“Nope.” She stepped out from behind the screen dressed as a man. She knew it wouldn’t fool anyone—and it really wasn’t meant to. She just figured it’d be hard to escape in a dress. Let alone a saloon girl’s dress. “Alright, finish up.”
He bounced faster for a few minutes before giving a dramatic cry and falling back on the bed. Laughter rippled through him, a bit on the delirious side.
“Alright, you had your fun, c’mon.”
He didn’t move, just kept laughing until he couldn’t breathe and he was left sucking empty air.
Della sighed and sat beside him. Leaning over, she realized he was crying now. Her voice took on a softer edge. “What’s got you so messed up, Colt? You’re actin’ like you’re drunk or sun-struck.”
He wiped at his face, rolling to grab her hand. “I done him wrong, and now he won’t leave me be.”
He shivered. “Keep hearin’ his spurs jinglin’. He’s coming again for me soon. You gotta keep him away. Gotta keep him away or he’ll hang me again.” He rubbed the raw skin on his neck.
She tilted his head back for a better look. The skin had been rubbed off, leaving a sticky mess of tender flesh. “My god, Colton. Word was you jumped off the gallows ’fore they got the rope ’round your neck.”
He swallowed, wincing. “I did.”
Della tugged the blanket around her shoulder. She knew she should sleep while she could, but she just couldn’t manage it. Colton, however, snored beside her. Rolling over to face him, she watched his side rise and fall. It had taken only five minutes of fending off his creeping fingers to make him see he wasn’t getting any.
She’d told him they should ride out right away. But the man was broken. Exhausted. Through bits of mumbled words, she realized he’d run his horse into the ground and walked the rest of the way to town.
So despite the twisting unease in the pit of her stomach, she’d agreed they should sleep first. Hadn’t exactly wanted to sleep next to him, but she figured she had to do it. Besides, they were partners—nothing more, despite Colton’s wandering hands.
In the dark of her room, she watched him sleep. Something about his steady breathing soothed her. It’d been so long since she slept beside someone. Used to be little Sadie sleeping nearby, with the gentle hum of Mama and Papa’s conversation downstairs. Used to be. But in the past four years, she’d slept alone—fought to keep it so, certainly—and listened to the off-key plunking of the piano below.
Almost without meaning to, she reached out and traced Colton’s jaw with her finger. The stubble pricked her skin in an pleasing way. Despite what people said, this man did not look innocent sleeping. The corner of his mouth twisted up in a leering way that made her wonder if he wasn’t really asleep after all.
But he wasn’t touching her, so she let it be.
She slipped into a sort of half-sleep as the night ticked away.
A blow to the face startled her awake.
“What the hell—” He struck her again, snapping the side of her head, the pain waking her fully. Sitting up, she struck back. Only then did she realize he wasn’t trying to hit her. He flailed beside her, pedaling backward on the bed. His eyes wide as wagon-wheels, his mouth gaped open.
“Colton. Colton, what’s wrong?”
That’s when she heard it. A faint, tinkling silver sound. Spurs against wooden floor boards. The memory of his earlier words drifted through her, and she rolled slowly to face the door.
A corpse dangled from the ceiling, head stretched up at an awkward angle by the rope that held it. Blood seeped from the snapped neck, a piece of bone stabbing through the skin. The right leg kept twitching, causing that jingling sound to echo through the room.
“Oh, God …” she whispered, unable to move.
“Get him away, get him away,” Colton said. “There was nothing else I could do!”
The face seemed to melt—a pool of pale flesh sucking in the dark eyes. The corpse’s hands lifted, a blood-soaked rope materializing in his palms. The apparition dangled the rope from its bony hands, a noose at the end swinging under his feet. A noose for Colton.
“Git out and let’s move,” Della growled, jolting out of her stupor.
Colton didn’t move. Pressed back against the headboard, his face was as pale as the sheets. Della grabbed him by the arm and jerked him sideways off the bed. He fell to the floor—she couldn’t bear his weight—and gave a cry. Della rushed to the window, prying it open.
“It’s just a ghost, Colt. It can’t hur—”
She whirled to see Jude’s spirit changing, shifting. The rope hanging it from the rafters disappeared in a shimmering cloud. The iridescent form with the melted face bore a knife now, and it headed straight for Colton’s sprawled out form.
Della cried out a warning that should have contained words, but her throat strangled the cry. She leapt forward and struck the ghost—surprised to find it had mass. She knocked it sideways, overcome by the rotting stench of death. As the spirit fell, the knife caught Colton’s flesh, tearing a long, jagged line in the his arm.
He howled and rolled to his feet, spurred to action by the pain.
Della scrambled back from the ghost. “Go, git—out the window.”
Colton didn’t balk at her orders this time. He ducked out the window and she followed, snagging her satchel as she clambered out.
The night air kissed her face, cooling her feverish temple as she slid down the porch roof. Colton skated in front of her, maintaining his balance for a minute before going down hard on the shingles. A nasty cracking sound made Della cringe as he rolled and tumbled off the edge of the roof. Della twisted at the last minute and caught the wooden edge, holding herself aloft for a few seconds before dropping lightly to the dusty road.
Mr. Windham’s voice echoed from inside as a lantern lit the darkness.
“C’mon, Colt,” Della said, gasping as she tugged him to his feet. He cradled his bloody arm, gritting his teeth as she helped him down the street. A glance back told her the ghost had materialized in front of the saloon; Windham stood, wide eyed and frozen, behind the specter.
When they reached the stable, she left Colton standing on his own and tugged the barn door open. He stood, sides heaving and watching her out of pained eyes.
Della slipped inside and selected two of Mr. Anderson’s finest horses. She almost laughed at the thrill as she slipped the bits into their mouths and strapped their bridles on. Leading them out, she handed the black gelding’s reins to Colton.
He stared at the massive creature’s back, exhaustion and fear fighting on his face.
“Well, git on—we don’t have no time for a saddle.”
Wincing, he rubbed his arm. When he released the limb, it dangled awkwardly and drew another sharp cry from his lips. “ … I broke it.”
“Tell me ’bout it.”
Again, she felt laughter bubbling inside—a giddy excitement she fought to stem. “Alright then, I’ll help. When we get far enough away, we’ll make you a sling. Until then—” She grunted as she boosted him onto the horse’s back. “You’ll just have to stand the pain.”
He leaned over the horse’s neck, gripping the reins with one hand. Della moved to her own horse, a dark bay chosen specifically to blend with the shadows. The palomino she’d left in the barn was quicker, but much of the night still stretched ahead.
“You hear that?” Colton asked as she swung astride the bay.
She lifted the reins. “What?” The horse snorted and pawed the earth.
Della spun her horse around to get a better view of the saloon. Jude’s spirit had disappeared—in its place stood a man. A tall, broad-shouldered man who froze when he spotted them. Lifting a lantern, the man called out to them. “You stop right there!” An unfamiliar voice. Della squinted to make out the features of the man. When the moonlight glinted off a star on his chest, she knew.
Couldn’t be the town’s sheriff—he was a short, plump man. No, there stood Rhett Jackson, U.S. Marshal.
A shiver worked through Della, a grin spreading on her face. “Well, isn’t this just the perfect get-away. C’mon, let’s go!”
With a last glance at the saloon, she squeezed the bay’s sides and the creature bolted forward. Colton and his black gelding followed close behind. The two riders leaned low over the animals’ necks—black blurs in a night full of shadows.
A pale slip of a moon tried its best to aid Rhett Jackson, but its glow was not sufficient.
After half an hour, Della pulled up on the reins and eased the bay horse into a jog. Sweat dampened the creature’s neck. Colton didn’t slow up until Della shouted after him.
“What? We need to get outta here, an’ quick,” he snapped.
“No. We need to pace ourselves. You wanna run that horse into the ground like before? Walk to the next town?”
He sighed, allowing his horse to jog beside hers. “What’s the thrill of an escape if you can’t tear ’cross the plains?”
She chuckled at that. “Not as fun, I’ll admit. But we had half an hour or so of that. And I’d really prefer not to wander out here on foot, eh?”
They fell silent as the hours passed. Jogging mostly, every now and again Della glanced back and upped their speed to a long lope. She couldn’t really see any signs of Rhett or the spirit on the dark horizon behind them—but that bugged her. “What color horse he got, Colt?”
“What color horse does Rhett ride?”
He snorted. “Damned if I know—I’m always lookin’ forward.”
“It really is a good thing you came to my town.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He winced as he twisted his arm to examine the cut streaking down it. Della leaned over to examine it, but the gash didn’t look too deep.
“I mean, you’ve got a name for yourself—but you’d be dead and hanging by now if it weren’t for Jude.”
He shivered. “Don’t say his name.” Twisting from side to side, Colton scanned the scrubby plains around them. He jumped and she followed his gaze.
“A cactus, nothing more,” she said.
“I knew that.”
She let him have that one. They rode on until Della noticed her bay begin to stumble over its own feet. The creature’s head hung low, ears wobbling sideways. The moon was sinking toward the west and soon a treacherous sun would rise.
“Alright, time we rest up. It’s almost dawn, I figure.”
“Who put you in charge? Y’know what, who even said you could come?”
“I did. Do we really have to go over this again?”
Despite his protests, he followed her lead to their right where a ridge rose and offered some shelter from sight.
“Don’t like takin’ orders from a woman. No—shit, you ain’t even a woman, are ya? A girl, more like.”
“If by that, you mean I’m not a whore yet—then yeah, I’m a girl. But I got a lot of cunning and I know how to get us out of messes and plan ahead. And what do you know, Colton?” She eased her horse to a halt and slid off its sweaty back. Hair and sweat clung to the insides of her legs as she wrapped the reins around a cactus.
He slid off his own horse with a groan, stumbling when his boots hit the ground. “I know … how to rob banks and shoot deputies dead. Fact, I’m the best aim this side of the Mississippi. Bet you can’t shoot to save your life.”
Della whirled on him, wishing she could refute the claim. Her lips worked for a minute before she shrugged. “You’re right. I can’t. Yet. That’s why we make a good pair. Good partners.”
He wrinkled his nose at her, stalking closer until he towered over her.
Damn, she hated being short.
His breath buffeted her face, eyes shining with a cruel light. “Only kinda partner I want to be with you involves a bed and a lot of squeakin’.”
Her face flushed with a heat that started in her stomach and worked up. Striking out, she shoved her palm hard into his broken arm. He let out a shout of pain and spun away.
She stalked into the shadows of a rocky alcove with her satchel. Tugging the blanket out, she spread it on the ground and settled on it. She watched Colton stagger around for a while, just a tall, lanky shadow. The horses dozed, heads drooping wearily.
Colton cursed and growled, but eventually fell silent and wandered back to her. He stood there for a minute, and she considered saying something cruel. Instead, she sighed, patting the blanket beside her. His shoulders stiffened, good arm cradling the bad one, and then he eased himself down beside her. Twisting, she handed him a strip of jerky from her bag and gently rolled back the sleeve from his damaged arm.
“What are you—”
“Hush. Eat and let me take a look at this.”
He grunted, tearing off a bite and watching her work. She had only the canteen full of water, but had a vague idea where a spring might be in the terrain ahead. Ripping the lower edge of her shirt, she ignored his perverted grunt. She dampened the strip and brushed the jagged cut clean.
Colton clenched his jaw, but did not cry out. He breathed hard through his nose as she applied more pressure—not to be cruel, but because grains of dirt clung to the blood lip of the cut. “Guess this means that ghost can hurt you after all.”
He shuddered. “Guess so.”
“Wonder if it can hurt me? Or maybe just you ’cause you screwed over your buddy—like your mama never taught you shit.”
She expected him to yell at her, but he just laughed. “Did you just say—”
Chuckling, she nodded. “I can say it if I want to.”
Shoving the last of the jerky into his mouth, he reached over with his free hand. She stiffened as he slipped his fingers under the collar of her shirt. Still, she didn’t pull away—just looked into his eyes. He stuck his tongue out, the pink wet muscle covered in bits of stringy jerky, and eased the silver cross out from under her shirt. He held it between his fingers. “I don’t understand this. Saw it on ya when you wore the whore outfit. Just can’t make sense of it.”
She pried the cross out of his fingers and slipped it back under her collar. “Was my Papa’s.”
Ripping another scrap off the bottom of her shirt—it was a man’s size and hung close to her knees if she didn’t tuck it in—she began to form a makeshift sling. “The cut ain’t too bad. With our limited supplies, figure it’s best you have a sling instead of a bandage, eh?”
He nodded, resting against the rocks. “Good thinkin’. I need my good arm. It’s my shootin’ arm.”
He cracked an eye open and looked down at her as she slid the sling onto his shoulder. “How you know that?”
She smiled. “Been hearin’ about you for a while, Colton Lynwood. You’re in the papers a lot. They chatter about you in the saloon sometimes.”
“Well, that’s delightful news,” he said, grinning. “Just delightful.”
“You’re a vain peacock of a man if I ever saw one.”
“That’s why you admire me, ain’t it?”
She chuckled, but didn’t reply. A moment of silence stretched.
“So he was gonna make you into a whore then? But why not already? You look old enough for the job.”
Her features flushed as she adjusted the sling and sat back. “Just about old enough now. Only by Mr. Windham’s tenuous mercy that I didn’t end up whoring before you came.”
“How’d you end up with ’im?”
She blinked a few times, turning her face away. “Nowhere else to go after—” She shook her head. “Never mind, you need to rest.”
“Don’t wanna rest. My mind’s spinnin’.”
Pale streaks of yellow rose from the east as Della chewed on a strip of jerky. “Tell me about Rykerton.”
He sighed. “How about I tell you ’bout the time we robbed the Smithton Bank instead? Boy, was that a hoot and a holler.”
“No, Colt. I want to hear about Rykerton.”
He wrinkled his nose. “You’re a bossy little thing.”
“Have to be. “
He chuckled, but the sound was bereft of mirth. “Fine. Not much to tell. They had … him … all strung up and was leading me up onto that death-podium. Only, I’d been working at my ties for a while. So the moment I slipped free of ’em, I leapt down and ran through the crowd.” A faint smile tugged at his lips. “Knocked over an old lady or two.”
She smacked his knee. “That’s not nice.”
“They’re not nice to be gathering around and cheering at the death of a man.”
“Well—you do steal and shoot and kill, partner.”
She sighed, easing back against the rocks and imagining they were pillows. “So then what happened?”
“Nothing really. I stoled a horse and blasted outta town.” He looked away, but she let it be.
“Wake up,” Colton hissed, jarring her side.
Della blinked and stirred, her stiff muscles groaning. “What?”
He shifted to the edge of the rocks, peering out across the plains. “Rhett’s out there. We gotta run.”
Standing, he started for the horses, but Della scrambled to her knees and tugged him back down. He snapped his jaw shut hard to squelch a cry, glaring as he sank beside her.
She held him there when he tried to pull away. “We come flyin’ outta here now and he might catch us. Best to let him pass by.”
“Let him pass by? He’ll see the horses! There’s canyons ahead, we oughta—”
“No way. Canyons are deathtraps, Colton. How can you not know that?”
He grunted. “Well then, what the hell are we gonna do?”
“Sit tight for the moment. He’ll pass by soon.”
She edged around, slinking on her stomach to peer under the horses and across the plain. The sun burned directly overhead, heating the earth and causing sweat to bead on her brow and down her back.
A band of three men on horses picked their way across the earth, heads turning in constant search of the terrain. Della gauged the distance between them, then turned to look further west. Canyons limbering that direction, arcing northward, more plains to the south.
She tugged the cross from under her shirt and twisted it repeatedly between her fingers. Colton nudged her in the ribs with his boot. “Well?”
“I think we could slip out, but they’d definitely see us. Thinking they might anyway—you’re right, there’s no hiding the horses. So the choice is canyons or plains.”
“You said canyons—”
“I know, but we’d have to cross diagonal to get to the plains and that means crossing Rhett’s path. He’d catch up quicker.” She twirled the cross.
Colton didn’t say a word. She looked up to find him watching her. Waiting, expectant. “What?”
“Well, you said you was the brains—now tell me what to do.”
She sighed. “Of course, now you listen.”
He grinned, exposing yellowed teeth. She shook her head, slipping the cross back under her shirt. “Mmm … plains it is. More immediate danger, but we won’t get boxed in.”
Colton’s eyes lit up. “I like immediate danger.”
She laughed, smothering the sound with her hand.
His eyes danced brighter. “Damn, I’m glad I let you tag along,” he said. “Missed havin’ an audience.”
“Let me tag along?” she demanded, rising low on her feet.
He gave a sloppy grin and shrugged. It made him look so much more like a boy than an outlaw. “What can I say? A man has to have his delusions.”
“You’ve got plenty of delusions, Colt.”
He watched her pack the blanket and their supplies back up, an odd shadow on his face. “Nobody ever called me Colt before.”
Blinking, she looked up. “That bother you?”
“That nobody ever done it, or that you do?”
He smiled. Not a leering smile, but a real one. “Nah.”
Turning back to her satchel, she hid her own smile. “C’mon, let’s go.”
They slipped out from behind the rocks. Once again, Della helped boost him up onto the black gelding’s back. Sliding the strap of her satchel over her head, she climbed astride the bay. The horse snorted lightly as she angled it southwest.
“Just full out or you gonna ease it that way first?” Colton adjusted his sling, gaze on her.
Della lifted the reins. “Full-out. Might as well.”
Colton drew his revolver, spinning the chamber. “I got two bullets.”
“Only two? What kind of bandit are you?”
“Shut your mouth, woman. I had to put one in my old horse and this ain’t even my gun. Mr. Rhett over there has my gun—and it’s a fully loaded beauty, let me assure you.”
Della shook her head, sucking in a deep breath, and squeezed the horse’s sides hard. The animal bolted forward, and Colton followed close behind. Leaning over the horse’s neck, Della wrapped her fingers deep in the gelding’s black mane.
The horses streaked across the swelling plains, leaping over bramble patches and whipping around cacti. Della’s heart hammered in her chest, an exhilaration she’d never felt before. The wind tore at her, whipping strays hairs loose from her braid. She had to strangle the urge to let out a loud whoop, but Colton let loose.
Yelping like a coyote, he beat the air with his good fist. She opened her mouth to rebuke him, but glancing east toward Rhett, she decided not to. The man had spotted them and the race had begun. Secrecy no longer mattered. The adventure—the escape—was all that mattered.
Releasing her own restraint, she tilted her head back and screamed with laughter. A mix of adrenaline and the power of freedom, the sound cracked through the air and drove her horse faster. Colton laughed at her, shouting, “You’ll make an outlaw, yet!”
She grinned back, but noted the tense lines around his mouth. The sling worked, but a full-out gallop jarred his arm horribly. The bone needed set, and the only place it’d get set was the next town, Pullman.
If they escaped Rhett.
The staccato pound of hooves against hard-packed earth, the rush of blood through her temple, the roar of a fierce wind—the sounds drowned her, submerged her in the sweet thrill of escape, and she knew in that moment at least one reason why the outlaw did what he did. Why Colton lived by the gun when he didn’t have the smarts for it—because there weren’t no thrill on earth like slipping through the hands of the law.
A flash in her mind brought the face of her father, frowning and ashamed. Her stomach clenched up and a wave of nausea rocked her.
But she fought it away, turning her eyes to the heaven that abandoned her. The heaven that took him and her family. Reaching under her collar, she eased the necklace out and snapped it off her neck. The silver cross glistened in her palm as the earth streaked by and Colton hollered at the sun.
Another glance at the sky and Della tossed the cross into the dust left in their wake. Now—now you’re free.
The horses’ pace began to ebb as they made it to the stretch of plains. Rhett kept his place forty yards back, his deputies slinking behind. A pistol fired, cracking the air. Della heard the whine of the bullet shoot between her and Colton.
Colton lifted his own revolver, twisting to fire back.
“Colton, no!” Della howled, but too late.
He snapped off a shot, then turned around. “What the hell’s wrong now?”
“You’re a good aim, but you can’t hit him like this. Save it. You got one bullet now.”
He growled at her, but tucked the gun back in his pants.
They crested another hill and stormed down it, the land temporarily obscuring their pursuer. Colton gave another giddy cry, but it was cut off. Della watched as his black gelding’s front leg sank into a gopher hole. She snapped back on the reins, a cry strangled in her throat. A muffled crack and the horse went down hard, sending Colton flying through the air. He hit the ground on his good shoulder and rolled.
The horse lay in a mangled heap, raucous screams tearing up its throat as it tried to scramble out of the hole. Each move brought the creature more pain and it eventually stilled, its cries ringing through the heat. Della’s horse shuddered, snorting uneasily.
“Colton! You alright?”
He groaned and pulled himself to his feet. The distant thunder of Rhett’s approach grew louder. Closer. Colton tugged his revolver from his pants and without hesitation shot his horse through the head. The creature stilled, a cry dying in its throat. Della fought back tears.
“Hurry, climb on. We can—”
Colton rushed her, face twisted with shadows she could not interpret in that moment. Gun tucked back in his belt, he extended his good arm and shoved hard against her side. Her fingers, tangled in the bay’s mane, sent waves of white pain up to her brain as she twisted and fell to the earth. The fall stole the breath from her lungs. She tried to cry out, to protest, as Colton groaned and struggled, fighting his way onto the horse.
By the time he made it, his sides were heaving. Sweat darkened his armpits and moisture streaked his face—sweat or tears, she could not tell. He opened his mouth to say something, but Rhett and the deputies roared to the top of the hill and forced him to spur the bay forward. The horse cried out, hindquarters bunching as it shot forward.
Dust kicked up around Della as she crawled to her knees.
Rhett thundered past, firing his pistol. One of the deputies stopped.
Colton wouldn’t let himself think, and it wasn’t terribly hard since Rhett rode so hard and close behind. Bullets whizzed past his ear, smacking the earth as he raced by. The bay horse snorted great, heaving breaths as it tore westward.
And Colton tried not to see Della’s stunned face in his mind. The jingle of phantom spurs shook him, startling his heart still faster in his chest. He swung his head from side-to-side, but did not see Jude. Just his frantic mind playing tricks.
Peering forward, Colton spotted a wide strip of blue. A swollen river stretched from north to south, bending west as it descended. He didn’t have time to weigh the options—he wasn’t, after all, little Della Everett.
Surprise flickered through him when her name brought a tingling sensation of pain.
No. It didn’t, that was just his broken arm.
“H’ya, h’ya!” he cried to the horse, stabbing its flanks mercilessly with his spurs. The horse snorted, lowering itself over the earth and flying toward the river.
Colton didn’t pull up as the big blue loomed ahead. He drove the horse straight in. Water splashed around him, soaking his thighs. He kicked again, enjoying the cool swirls around him. The horse moved deeper, swimming now. But its breathing was ragged and swimming labored. A strong current tugged them south, but Colton didn’t want to go south.
He stabbed again with his spurs, twisting to glance back at Rhett. The marshal sat astride his horse, just watching, gun draped over his knee.
Colton turned back in time to realize the horse was losing the battle. The horse could barely keep its head above the water. Only the ears, eyes and muzzle protruded, the water sweeping up to Colton’s chest.
“Shit,” he growled as the horse went under. He kicked off the animal and it emerged again, fighting its way toward the shore. Colton flailed in the water, realizing his error. His bad arm sent tremors of pain through his body as he kicked and pulled with his good arm. He slipped under the water, choking and bobbing back up.
Reaching out, he snagged the horse’s mane. He rolled onto his back, letting the creature pull him back in. The animal’s hooves churned the waters, nostrils spraying water into the air as it dipped under and back up. Colton’s racing heart slowed, exhaustion and cold water seeping in. He went under twice more, and the horse as many times before they reached a shuddering halt just at the river’s edge.
Colton crawled onto the shore, dragging himself to his knees. The cold steel muzzle of a pistol pressed against his temple.
Looking up, Colton coughed up water and sucked in air.
Gazing at the deputy, Della assessed his height as he slipped off his horse. A trail of dust wafted, the only sign Colton and Rhett had left behind.
“Y’ alright there, missy? “ The deputy stretched his long limbs out. He was a lean man, built similarly to Colton. A pistol gleamed in its holster, hanging low on his right hip. Her fingers twitched as she sat in the dirt. She glanced at Colton’s dead horse, then back to the deputy’s gun.
“I reckon so,” she said, adding a quiver to her voice.
The deputy stalked closer, and she glimpsed a long hunting knife tucked into his belt. Left hip. Good—she was no good with a gun anyway. Sniffing as if near tears, she cradled her right shoulder. “He knocked me off pretty good.”
The deputy squatted in front of her, reaching out to examine her arm. “He’s a mean ’un, for sure. Never took a hostage before though—he rough you up, or … anything?”
Della dropped her gaze as the man gently turned her arm. She didn’t respond to his question, allowing the silence to make an answer he’d expect. He made an odd clucking sound and patted her supposed good arm. “There now—how about we get you back—”
Della snaked her hand out and ripped the blade from his belt. His eyes widened, but he didn’t have time to react before she leapt to her feet and struck out. Her boot connected with his jaw, knocking him back. He hit the dust, but tried to stand.
“I’m not goin’ back nowhere, mister,” she growled, striking out again with her foot. She caught him in the side of the head, and he went still.
She waited a moment, watching him with a cautious eye. When he remained still, she knelt by his side and tugged the pistol out. “You won’t be needing that, now will ya? “ Slipping it in the back of her pants, she approached his palomino steed. It snorted at her, but didn’t balk when she slipped into the saddle.
“Not a bad deal after all,” she muttered, kicking the creature’s sides and following the dust trail that would lead to Colton. “A knife and a gun. Colt should be pleased.”
She rubbed her shoulder. “Stupid bastard.”
Night did not bring quiet to the booming town of Pullman. Leaning against the brick wall, Colton stared through an iron-barred window. Lights glowed in the saloon, flat notes abounding from an old piano within. Cheers and cries made his dry throat ache for a taste of whiskey.
But worst of all was the steady hammering just outside the prison.
Colton sank to his cot, shivering. Every blow drove him a little more mad, nerves coiling painfully beneath aching muscles. Rhett hadn’t cared about his busted arm, jerking it behind his back and binding his wrists with a cruel, cutting rope. Every movement brought tinges and shots of pain, so he tried remain still. Still as he could while working at the rope, twisting his wrists back and forth.
Colton tried not to think as he always tried not to think. But the close walls of the prison unnerved him. The bars meant no escape—from death, or from Jude if he should appear. And Colton knew he would. Only a matter of time.
Memories zipped through his mind, distracting him from the pain as he tugged harder against his ties. The jingle of Jude’s spurs as he stood at the gallows. The expectant light in his eyes. The jingle was a sign—time to do the job, it meant. The sound that set countless bank robberies into motion.
But Colton had ignored it.
His hands bound, he couldn’t wipe away the moisture streaking down his face. His only relief was that the sheriff and Rhett did not remain inside the prison. Probably overseeing the building of their new gallows.
He shook again, fighting the pain and tearing his hands loose from the rope at last.
A stiff, cold breeze whipped in through the window. Colton watched the wind twirl about his room, shimmering and visible as it arranged into the form of a hanging man. As Jude took form, Colton stared into the black pits that had once been his partner’s eyes.
He knew there was no escape—they both did.
Colton nodded. A grunt escaped his lips as he climbed on his cot and awkwardly slid the rope that had bound his wrists around the rafter, cinching it tight. Jude’s spirit watched him as he formed a noose and slipped it over his own head.
Ghost and man stared off. Ex-partners, each with ropes around their necks.
“I never been good at apologies,” he whispered.
Jude’s pale face grinned, eyes full of black tar and hate. Blood oozed from between jagged, broken teeth.
Colton stared at the worn floorboards. “I’ll escape that Rhett bastard one way or another.”
He stepped off the bed and fell, the rope snapping tight around this throat. Gasping, he gripped the cutting edge of the noose. His shoulder burned with the movement, but the pressure on his throat was overwhelming. His parted lips sucked desperately at the air, lungs burning. Color rushed to his face; his pulse throbbed in his temple.
The world began to darken until all Colton could make out was the burning-tar eyes of the ghost. The apparition grinned, then sighed, and a new, warm wind blew it into shimmering shards. The wind moaned as it sucked back out into the street. Darkness closed in completely.
Della slipped into the cell, slicing through the rope with the deputy’s knife. “Colt. Don’t you die.”
He hit the cell floor hard and slammed her fist down against his chest. “Come on, you bastard.” Glancing at the open cell door, she pummeled his chest again with quick desperation.
His bugged eyes cracked open. He cried out, or tried to. He choked and rolled onto his stomach, coughing and sputtering back to life.
She laughed, a muffled sound, as she patted his back. The movement jarred his arm and he cried out with more vehemence this time. Grabbing him by the shoulders, she jerked him to his feet.
“Not apologizing for that pain,” she said. “You deserve that one.”
He coughed, rubbing hard at his raw throat. “Sure do.”
“Now if I bust you out, you’re going to swear you’ll never ditch me again. Understand?”
He grinned between great gasps of air. “I’ll try.”
She hesitated a moment.
“You sure you’re ready to live this life?” he rasped. “By the gun?”
At that, she smiled. “Sure am.” She slapped his bad arm again. When he yelped, she covered his mouth with her hand. “Hush. Let’s go raise some hell.”
He staggered out behind her, and smiled.
About the Author
ALEXIS A. HUNTER grew up on a steady diet of John Wayne movies, Bonanza reruns, and hours spent riding—trying not to get thrown off—her ornery horse, Cody. Since then, she has developed a passion for fantasy and science fiction short stories—and it only seemed natural to blend the two worlds. Alexis’s short stories have been published in a variety of magazines, appearing recently in The Ghost IS the Machine and At Year’s End: Holiday SFF Stories. — idreamagain.wordpress.com
Be sure to read “The Shadow Attached To His Name”—the next installment of “By the Gun”—in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Volume II.