Blondie wins the first hand with nothing but a two pair.
He scrapes the coins to his side of the table warily, taking up the deck to deal the next. There's the question of what Angel wants, and it's damn certain not a card game. Or it’s got to be more than that . Far too much history for it to be otherwise.
They kept it simple for a long time while coming up north. Eat, sleep, fuck, rinse, repeat. Follow the trail, make camp. Sometimes Angel Eyes would say something offhand about gods, wax cynical poetic about the divine, and that would turn into strange mythos that Blondie was never sure if he’d heard, invented, or truly believed. Mainly Blondie would listen without having much to say.
It was comfortable. Or Blondie could call it that. He picks up his hand, Angel Eyes regarding him from behind the red-patterned cards.
“You still living at his house?” Blondie chances the question without looking at him.
“Yeah.” It's not as if Angel Eyes had any respect for the dead. And there was a cycle, a filling of roles, that they tumbled into in the town. Sue would call it Naa’in tribe, with an air of derision. Blondie never asked what it meant. Castellan likened it to cogs fitting into a clock.
Blondie still doesn't feel like he fits anywhere. But it’s not quite the same sense of nowhere it was before.
“So you haven’t gone anywhere either,” Angel inclines his eyes upstairs to their old room. Old habits, is it?”
“Thought you didn’t like stating the obvious,” Blondie’s lips trip over Angel’s words. That was an old quip.
“I don’t like it when others do. Remember that I’m a hypocrite, Blondie,” And that one even older. Did he come here to talk about ancient history?
Angel Eyes pauses from the game for a moment to fetch a bowl of soup from the bar counter. Blondie doesn’t bother to hide his stare, and Angel plays the old game just as well, the curve of his ass visible beneath his coat when he leans onto the counter. Wish it felt as careless as it used to. But that seemed a stupid thing to wish for, now.
Angel returns to his seat with the steaming bowl, examining the next hand and putting down a bet before taking a spoonful. Blondie tries not to let his eyes wander. Especially not to the slight exposure of Angel’s collarbones. He swallows a drink of water, slight guilt poisoning the taste of habit.
“I feel like I might have carved up the caribou that’s in this stew-- one of yours?” Angel raises an eyebrow at him. That was another reason it was so remarkable that they'd missed each other for a solid month, given how closely their roles intertwined. Hunter and carver. Practically a pair.
“We’ve been thinning the herd,” Blondie drops his cards down, that hand goes to Angel Eyes. So that’s even for now. Though they'd both wagered more on the last hand.
“But they're still in good number?”
“That's what Sue said, yeah.”
Angel turns over the queen of hearts in the flop, fittingly. Sue is the eyes, ears, and heart of Tweechik, and she gave the place it's name too. The cheaper version of the real Indian settlement much further north. Blondie had learned what the locals called Old Crow Pass almost as soon as he'd met her.
“Funny that we rode in when they found the first body,” Blondie pushes forward his bet. Angel raises an eyebrow, sees his wager. I guess I wanna talk about history too.
“It was...how would Sue put it. A good omen.”
Blondie supposes that's what he meant at the time, too. The scene is just as vivid in Blondie's mind as it was with the summer rain at his back, Angel and Sue by his side.
The rain was just starting to taper when they followed the strange woman into the brush, Angel glancing warily back to where the horses lay waiting. She wasn’t someone it was easy to get a handle on. No idea whether to trust a woman like that. Blondie would have probably followed a man, but didn't know what the hell to make of her. She moved quickly through the brush, motioning at them to leave their horses.
“He’s not going to make it, but he’s breathing. We might as well try,” she swore again in syllables Blondie had never heard before, “Some kind of bear attack, nothing like any I’ve seen.”
The body was lying face-down on craggy, moss-covered rocks dusted with growth. The gashes on its back were the first thing to come into view, straight through a jacket of thick hide that Blondie didn’t recognize. The woman didn’t ask for their help at all, simply wedged her hands around his arms and starts to lift him up. Blondie rushed to her side, but she’d already gotten the body lifted and shook her head with a frown at him.
God above, she’s strong. The man has to be about Blondie’s size, and she’s got him thrown over her shoulder like a sack of flour. And she’s not tall herself. There’s blood all over the would-be corpse’s face, staining her coat.
“I’m going to take one of your horses, you ride together. Or if you wait, I’ll bring the horse back. I don’t know where you’re bound, but by the trail it must be Tweechik.”
Blondie bristled instinctively, “Hold on here--”
She stepped right past him without so much as a glance, “A man is dying-- and I know life might be cheap for people like you, but out here it could bring down the whole damn town.”
Blondie had never had anyone speak like that to him before. Probably most are dead who have tried . It wasn't a thought he was proud of. But he let her continue down the trail without a word, and Angel Eyes didn't complain either. Surprisingly.
She did struggle slightly getting the man’s body onto Blondie’s horse, and seemed at least somewhat grateful for Blondie’s height as he helped her. The body was mighty cold. Maybe just compared to desert corpses, but Blondie was surprised the man was still breathing. He certainly ain’t conscious.
Blondie hefted the remainder of their pack onto the other horse, thankfully not as heavy at this point in the journey. Except for the gold. The woman paid absolutely no notice to the chink and weight, mounting the horse, and jerking the reins.
“Keep pace if you must, or look for the house with the antlers by the door,” she set the horse at a harder gallop than Blondie has ever seen it ride. He shook his head, talking out a quirley and pulling himself onto the now over-laden beast behind Angel.
“Hell of an introduction.
“Auspicious.” Angel Eyes smiled. Blondie wasn't sure if that word was Latin or not, but he wasn't surprised that a place with a body count would put Angel in a good mood.
It was a slow ride into Old Crow Pass, and their clothes were still soaked from the rain. Blondie found himself thoroughly looking forward to finding a bath house. If there's even one in this town. It was even sparser than he’d expected, even fewer buildings than the rotting town they’d left behind. The wooden structures scarred the landscape in ramshackle order, the road neither straight nor easy to follow. Is there even a church? Tall order when an entire town leaves God behind.
Somehow, it made the place seem more welcoming.
They found the house with the antlers at the back of town, with Blondie’s horse nowhere to be seen. It was a dark, weather-worn cabin that looks like it might be the oldest building in town. Blondie approached the door, wondering if they ought to knock. Angel just tugged the heavy wood open.
The house had few windows, presumably to keep the cold out in the winter months. When Blondie stepped in, he could see the short muscle of the woman they’d met in the trail, making preparations in the kitchen.
“Your horse is in back,” the woman looked up from chopping a pile of what looks like mosses.
“The man - -”
“He's dead,” she tilted her head towards the other room. Angel Eyes smiled out of the corner of his mouth at Blondie, crossing inside. Another woman was there, surprisingly, dressed in clean, neat clothes, with her dark hair pulled back in a tight bun. Heavy-set jaw and strong cheekbones, much taller than Sue. Doctor’s assistant? She was making notes in a large book, studying the corpse with sharp interest. The man was stretched out on a table unlike any Blondie had seen before. Looks like it was made for bodies like that. Or bigger.
But there’s a bed in the corner as well, and parts of it look like a normal doc’s home. Almost normal.
The woman busied herself with a number of sharp instruments, variants on knives. Each of seeming made for a particular type of flesh or bone. So a surgeon. A woman who’s a surgeon. Blondie worried at his lip, wondering what kind of warped place Old Crow really was. The other woman crossed into the room.
“Who are these two?” the surgeon asked.
“Self-described strangers,” the first woman had a funny derision in her voice. It's then that Blondie realizes he never asked for her name.
“I'm Blondie,” he jerked his thumb behind him, “That's Angel Eyes.”
“Sue,” she meets his eyes with what could be a real smile, “And that's Castellan.”
Castellan only paused from her work a moment before using a large knife to tear open the man’s shirt front , exposing the deep claw marks criss crossing the coagulated blood. Reminds me of a coyote scratch . She picked up a smaller blade, examining its sharpness in the light from the window. The screech of a kettle interrupted the silence, which was Sue’s cue to leave and return with a tin cup that smelled peculiarly earthen.
“You two staying in town?” Sue sipped at whatever the hell that steaming concoction was.
“That your business?” Blondie almost wanted to add a ‘ma’am’, but he got the sense that she might not take kindly to that. Certainly ain't like any woman I've met before.
“You're from the West, aren't you? Well, I've seen kind like you out looking for gold, and let me tell you, it’ll be my business when you're out with the scurvy, or Castellan’s when we have to cut your fingers off from the frostbite.”
“It’s not any concern of ours, Sue,” Castellan had resumed making neat lines of charcoal in the book, the image of the corpse's chest starting to take shape, “The Pass provides just enough for the people who already live here.”
“Well, you've got one less, don't you?” Angel Eyes stared her down, but she didn't seem to find this comment unsettling. Quite the opposite, her face assumed a blank, glassy smile.
“If you can shoot, it's possible you'd be an adequate replacement. But that's not my business,” She resumed the sketch, paying them both no further attention.
Angel Eyes stepped to the other side of the room to get a better look at the body. Sue looked momentarily like she wanted to grab his arm, but let him go. He narrowed his eyes at the bloodied neck, “No teeth marks. But a lot of claw marks.”
Castellan glanced up, “Yes. Unusual.”
“Is it?” Angel watched her carve out the wound along the left ribcage in black charcoal. The wound doesn't go deep enough to hit bone, “What kind of animal could have made those marks?”
“Would have said bear, but - -”
“Not deep, is it?”
“Yes,” Castellan narrowed her eyes at him, but it wasn’t a challenging look. Curious, even . She picked up the smaller knife again, “I'm going to cut him open.”
She stared at Angel. Does she expect him to leave? Angel made a gesture as if to say ‘be my guest'. There was that glassy smile again. The knife entered at the top of his breast, then criss-crosses beneath collarbones. Angel watched her peel the flesh off the ribcage, examining the wounds from the inside. It was just now that the rank smell of blood hit Blondie’s nose. Guess the desert makes a corpse stink faster.
“So, what do you think?” Castellan asked Angel. Angel just smiled; slow, sick and careful.
“I don’t think this was an animal.”
“I don’t think so, either,” she prodded at the one that almost made it to the bone, “And two strangers in town found close to Carver’s body. That's unusual too.”
“You think I’d stand over the corpse of someone I’d ripped open with bear claws, of all things, and drop hints about how I did it?” Angel Eyes seemed mildly offended that she thought him capable of that kind of theatrics. Blondie fought the urge to snort.
Angel shook his head, “You’d be more subtle than that, at least.”
“You’re right. I would,” she smiled differently then, somewhere between her glass smile and the one Angel had just given her. Blondie realized with a lurch -- this is someone who understands the way Angel thinks.
Blondie was unwilling to admit that did scare him a little about her.
Sue gave the two of them a long, considering look, briefly sharing a glance with Castellan. Then she turned to Blondie, “Come into the kitchen.”
Blondie just nodded, fingering a quirley out of his pocket. It was kept neatly enough, iron stove with the kettle whistling. He didn’t recognize any of the plants on the counter. You can make something out of pine needles? The place was truly stranger than he anticipated. He rummaged in his pockets for the familiar taste of a quirley, “You mind if I smoke?”
She threw a mix of some kind of dust into a tin cup, then stirred the hot water into it. She offered it to Blondie, or pushed it into his hands. Then she took a seat at the table. He sat down opposite her, lighting up the quirley with a match. She glanced down to his cup insistently. Hell of a hospitality up here . He took a hard swallow, the drink hot, bitter and ashy to the taste. It warmed him up, but that was the best he could say about it.
“Now you won’t get scurvy,” she sipped hers carefully, “If you drink it often.”
“Guess I’ve had worse coffee,” that morning, in fact. He took another sip of the brew, grimacing but getting used to it.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You can ask.”
“How many men have you killed?”
“Seventy-two,” Blondie has kept count of every damn bullet. Sue’s face remained impassive, for the moment.
“More. Probably a lot more,” Blondie didn’t know if Angel kept count. Figure he might, though.
She drained the last of her moss-coffee and set it down on the counter, “Alright. Another question. Who's he to you?”
“Who's she to you?” Blondie figured it was time to turn the questions on her.
“My partner. And my lover.”
He coughed on the quirley for a moment. She raised an eyebrow, maybe thinking she’d misjudged him, but daring him to say something disparaging. Guess she was thinking we were something of the same.
“Yeah. Guess you could call us that,” Blondie figured they were both, and neither.
“Hm,” she cast a wary look back to Angel Eyes, “So you don’t know the answer to that question. Well. You’re sticking around?”
“Sure.” Blondie considered her first comment carefully. It was odd thinking of Angel being anyone’s anything. Not a lot of space in his world of gods and angels. But hell, it had been many miles together. Partners was probably the least of what one could reasonably call them. Blondie pushed that thought to the back of his mind, sucking hard on the quirley.
“I meant what I said. Tweechik can’t support more strangers. You’ve got riches in your bags that’d get you anywhere in the West, and they might room you here for what’s left of the summer. But when the cold weather hits, town’s gotta eat. And everyone has a share in that, everyone’s part of the caribou cycle in some way or other.”
“What, like we’re Indians in a tribe or something?”
“No,” Sue’s gaze was somewhere between fierce and sad, “Nothing like that. But we all got jobs to do. Naa’in as we are.”
“Alright,” Blondie frowned, not daring to ask about that word. Didn’t know what to expect coming up here, but hell. At least this will keep things interesting.
“So what was his, the dead man?”
“Carver hunted, contrary to his name. And seeing as you both can shoot, at least one of you will be a reasonable replacement,” she acted like the matter was already settled but Blondie didn't see any reason to protest.
“Yeah, and what do you do?”
“I also hunt. Along with two others. But the caribou hit the tundra nearing September. Soon. We’ll need at least another. Maybe two,” she collected his empty mug, “So come by tomorrow, after you're settled. We’ll see what to make of you.”
The damp had found its back into Blondie’s bones as they rode back to the town center. The saloon, at least, was easy enough to find, and easy to know where to keep the horses too. They booked one room with a bed for two, and with only a minor squint, no comment from the wizened old clerk. They seem to be used to strange characters in this town.
The room was darker than they tended to be in the west, smaller windows to keep the heat in, and with a small stove in the corner, just like in the abandoned jail. Angel wasted no time pulling the curtains shut, stripping off his wet clothes with the same practical impropriety that Blondie has gotten used to by now. Blondie got the fire going before stripping down as well, rubbing his hands next to the stove.
“Type of killing I haven’t seen before."
“Did she want you to find him?”
“I think she’s as interested in finding him as I am. Or her, I suppose, no sense being sure the killer is a man, in these parts," he laid out the wet clothes along the floor, "You ever met a woman like that before, Blondie?”
“Never,” Blondie rubbed the bare flesh of his arms. The thought of anyone who could make friends with Angel is strange enough, much less a woman who’s a surgeon. Blondie realized then he wasn’t sure if he could call he and Angel friends. Probably would have to.
“Picked the right place, I'd say,” Angel had reclined on to the bed and was lighting up his pipe. Blondie gave him a once-over, smiling just a bit when Angel did the same. When he rolled over to wrap the blanket round his shoulders, Blondie admired his ass, losing his train of thought for the moment. Angel smirked. Sonofabitch.
“It’s interesting, I’ll give you that,” Blondie fished the kettle out of his bag, deciding coffee was necessary to rinse the taste of moss from his mouth, “You gonna sleep?”
“In a minute,” he gestured with the lit pipe, but had one eye on Blondie’s fussing with the pot. So he was serious about that one.
Blondie didn’t speak much while the water boiled, taking out a quirley of his own. Once it was steaming, he took it off and waited, “Be about a half a minute. Then you add it.”
Angel just grunted in agreement, eyes lidded, “How much of the grounds?”
“Four for half the pot, eight for it full,” Blondie kept the quirley tight between his teeth as he poured it. The steam was warm next to his bare skin, “Wait a bit, stir again. Then wait again, same amount of time. Minute or so. Then it’s better. But it’s still pretty shit.”
“Venumem bibere in-- “ Angel stifled a yawn, “I’m not sure you could call that gold. But that’s interesting enough.”
“Yeah,” Blondie poured the finished coffee, considering all that had happened that day. Despite walking in on a murder, it was Sue’s question that had him pulling a face as he sipped the coffee. I really didn’t think what I was getting into, coming up here with him. The thought of meeting his past self, somehow explaining this made Blondie unexpectedly dizzy. Then again. Not the first decision I still can’t explain.
Not even close. He turned to ask how or why Angel had even thought of going North, much less with him, but the question died in his throat. True to his word, Angel Eyes had indeed dropped off to sleep. Bastard looks far too innocent when he sleeps. Blondie supposed snakes were the same way. Coiled up tight and with the rattle’s poison safely camouflaged. He pushed that train of thought back with a grimace. Too many reminders of who Angel was gave Blondie waking nightmares, gunfights, cliff tumbles, an old, shared noose. But he is, all of that.
It was the best and worst part about the man. Blondie tugged the remainder of the blanket over himself, settling in to study Angel further. It was easy to envy Angel's confidence, even now. But would he really be able to answer Sue straight?
I mean. What the hell am I to him?
The evening certainly didn’t hold the answer to that question, even when Angel Eyes woke and they surveyed the place. The next morning neither. Though Angel's coffee did show an improvement. But the rest of what Sue had said -- about Old Crow, or Tweechik, as she’d called it-- was starting to take shape. There was a sparse general store, with a terse owner rather mistrustful of strangers and who sneered at the idea of gold. There were comings and goings from a smokehouse, but most folks didn’t give them a second glance. Not that there are too many of them here.
Blondie saw only one, maybe two other women in town too, and the same faces kept turning up. Might be less than fifty people in this whole town. When they get to Sue and Castellan’s, she was waiting outside with a cynical air of impatience.
“Morning might be something different in the West, but out here means sunrise.”
She looked at them as if expecting an apology. Neither of them spoke. She shook her head and picked up two heavy rifles. “We’re after small game today, but you can get used to these.”
Blondie took the gun from her doubtfully, feeling the weight of it settle on his shoulder as they set off. He'd hunted in the desert only a handful of times, gotten lucky a few of those. It was near impossible to find any game out in the desert, and Blondie had stuck to what he was good at-- just shooting. Not that it was a good thing.
“Peter, George,” Sue nodded respectfully to two men who greet her as they pass out of town. The men carried long guns like theirs, and seemed to know Sue. So the other hunters.
“Who's these fellas?” the more heavy set one, George, fixed the both of them with an unfriendly stare.
“We’ll see, won't we?”
“You got poor Jack Carver ’s replacement so early? Or one of em?” Peter was skinnier than Blondie would expect, for a hunter, but was carrying a snatch of what looked like rabbit, and something with long quills. Strange game. Strange as anything else up here.
“Keep your smarts to the trail, Peter,” she waved him off, but not unkindly, “I'll see you all at the rites tonight. And maybe then I'll know.”
It was some kind of sign that neither of the hunters asked for their names, for the moment.
They arrived at the forest on the edge of town, Sue stating a few types of game to look out for. Angel looked a little out of his element carrying the heavy gun, boots loud in the frost speckling the shadows of the forest floor. Blondie had expected it to be icy all the time here, but the summers seemed to be more like the bad winters in the West.
“Wait em out?” Blondie asked Sue warily, and she nodded.
“Try to move as little as possible.”
A crackle in the bush set both of them on edge -- Angel narrowed his eyes and pulled out his Remington from its holster, shooting at nothing for a moment. The resounding bang! echoed through the trees. A man might have run. But whatever the animal was didn’t show itself.
“You’re trying to outthink a human. Animals don't think like humans,” Sue cocked her head at Angel. He nodded gruffly. Blondie listens, and tries to think as a rabbit would. The noise had come from just to the east of them. The rabbits here don’t fear gunshots. So what do they fear?
He took a chance to step forward. Sue frowned, but didn’t stop him. He shouldered the large gun, keeping one hand close to his Navy. It’s not like a man, but-- I know where my skills lie. He stepped closer, one foot at a time. Watching. After the thirty-third step, a white flash jumps out of a bush. Blondie’s draw was as quick as ever, quick enough even to catch the blur of white fur by the neck.
He smiled a little when he turned back to Angel and Sue. She looked a bit surprised, and Angel just smirked approvingly. So maybe the game’s not so strange here after all . Feels better, in any case.
“Not a bad trick, for small game. You’ll have to learn some new ones for the vadzaih , the caribou,” she picked up the rabbit, “It’s lean. Not worth much to bring in, but we may as well eat between the three of us.”
The three of them worked silently to build a fire, at Sue's direction. She also seemed impressed with their wood-foraging, but then again, they had made it all the way up the coast trail to the north. Even in the summer, a good fire is what makes camp. When the fire had a safe crackle, their attention turned to Blondie's catch-- and to lunch.
Sue took out a knife to slit open the snow-white hare, but it dug in at the neck too hard, and she cursed in that strange tongue Blondie remembered from yesterday. Angel took a knife out from his left boot, taking the animal from her and effortlessly cutting it open.
“You don’t sharpen it that much, do you?”
“Castellan tells me that,” she shook her head, but let Angel continue gutting the beast, “And you don’t hunt much?”
“You could call what I used to do hunting,” he pulled out the entrails smoothly while she took out a pan from her pack. So now she’s sizing him up.
“Blondie might be better at this kind,” she said it casually, but watched Angel’s reaction. Blondie watched his face shift from slightly annoyed to considering. Angel always had a way of making Blondie feel as if he wanted Blondie to be better-- not good, of course. But like he’s looking for something I can do like he does.
Blondie wished he had given up wanting certain talents Angel Eyes found effortless.
“He does alright,” was all Angel said, finally. Blondie didn’t know how to take that but couldn’t help the smile on his face. Sue noticed too, smiled back at both of them.
“And you’re good with the knives,” she plucked a strip of cooked rabbit meat straight from the pan, “So there’s a good chance there’s space here for you both.”