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Stalemate

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A few clouds gather at the horizon as the dusk turns red like an evil eye, burning any bare skin it can see. Even the air is tinged red with waves of heat, and his clothes trap the sweat against his body.

McCree, holding the reins in his right hand, retrieves with his left a small tin from his pocket. He didn't have the time to grab the papers to roll a cigar before he left, but with the sun low in the sky and the ruins of Spanish masonry around him - none of them tall enough for shade - he reckons he might enjoy a good solitary chew. There's nothing like being alone in the desert with his horse and his thoughts.

Holding it vertically, he taps the tin until the tobacco moves to one side and then pinches it between two fingers. He closes his eyes as he works it around with his tongue, relishing it despite the way the mildly spicy flavor stings the open sore on the inside of his cheek. He purses his lips and propels warm brown spit out of the corner of his mouth, as if blowing a lock of hair out of his face. Tobacco juices run down his chin and dampen his facial hair, and he wipes it with the back of his hand.

His horse bends her long neck to nibble at a yellowish patch of needlegrass like stubble on the dirt. He pulls her reins back with a firm, “Hey, hey, no time for that.”

She raises her head, and webs of slobber swing from her bit. She snorts and stomps her front hoof, striking the rocks with a sound like flintlock. He almost expects to see a small spark. Finally she starts moving again, though the reins jerk hard enough for him to feel it twisting through his gloves.

Coyotes drinking from a warm spring watch him as he passes and he watches them in return. He wonders where their den is, if it's near the Deadlock camp and if they're the night visitors he loses sleep over. He reaches for his peacemaker, in case they attack his horse.

Two cubs hide between their mother’s legs while a third licks her bloodied muzzle. An elder, stumbling on his weak legs, kneels before the water. His grey fur is thinning and his ribs are sharply visible.

McCree withdraws his hand from his holster and tips his hat at the coyotes instead. They scatter, cackling amongst themselves. One by one they disappear into the traces of green in the distance, and another sound takes their place - raised voices in the limestone canyon ahead.

His horse twitches her ears and he flattens himself against her, slipping out of the stirrups and riding sideways on her flank. They’ll see her coming, but they won’t see him until it’s too late.

He approaches the canyon with his peacemaker ready. He can hear three distinct voices. Three bullets, then.

The narrow path of the canyon widens into an orange valley strewn with juniper and cottonwood. His horse pulls her lips back over her teeth, slobbering in long loose strands. He can feel her breath quicken and her muscles tighten. The closer the voices, the more tense she becomes.

Someone calls out, “Alright, on five, we drop our weapons! One... two... three... ”

“Wait a goddamn minute!” This one has to be an omnic, judging by the unnatural cadence. “I'm not dropping anything!”

“Now, don't do anything rash.”

“Rash? Rash? You want to talk about being rash?”

A third person says, “Can’t you get her to stop? Is there some kind of manual override?”

“No one overrides me!”

With ease McCree climbs back onto his saddle and whistles, high and clear. The argument comes to an abrupt halt. He rides towards them and sees a circle of three figures, guns raised in a Mexican standoff. Their horses graze in the middle of an old church twenty feet away, finding weeds between the cracked clay tiles.

He was right about the voice belonging to an omnic. At seven feet tall, she towers over the two humans, and her eyes are pilot lights in her smooth chrome skull. She wears only a pair of gaudy floral cowboy boots and a quilt-sized wool poncho, with tassels on the fringed edges like thick golden braids, and she's big enough to stomp anyone who would mock her tastes. Her right hand extends towards the woman on her left, and from her wrist, a double-barreled cannon glows like an atom bomb about to drop.

The olive-skinned woman besides the omnic is almost half her height, but her forearms and calves are thick with muscle. Her dark hair is cropped short and light hairs grow on her upper lip. When he was first introduced to her, McCree mistook her for a man, and several Deadlocks still think she is one. She doesn’t correct them. The scope on top of her carbine is black and sleek like a missile pointed at the omnic, and the pouches at her belt are stuffed full of ammo. Her elbows and the knees of her beige trousers are dusty, as if she was suddenly thrown from her horse.

Across from him, an older woman in dirty fatigues can't decide whether to aim her pistol at the omnic or the man. A patch with the universal symbol for first-aid is embroidered on her small satchel. Her honey-brown eyes flicker back and forth, and one hand clutches the tawny pelt around her shoulders, touching the fur for comfort. Coils of thick hair have escaped her headwrap and hang like silver bells around her face, roughened from a life McCree can only guess at. Even under stress, she carries herself with a quiet beauty, like a pool of clear water in the mountains.

“Howdy,” McCree says. “What seems to be the problem here?”

He recognizes them as the Deadlocks who failed to report in from their last patrol: Gen, the omnic; Marah, the doctor; Kah, the soldier. New recruits run away all the time, and he's surprised he found them. These retrieval missions are mostly a formality, used as punishment. McCree gets stuck with them when he steps out of line, which happens more often than not.

“Great, this is just great,” Gen says. “Just what we needed. An interloper.”

“Show some respect! He’s been with the gang since before you were activated,” Kah barks at her.

“And how’d you know when that was? I'm older than you, and I've seen things you wouldn't believe.”

“So you're just a heap of scrap metal past its expiration date, then?

“Kah, stop provoking her,” Marah speaks up. “And Genny, there's no need to -”

Kah furrows her eyebrows. “Oh, so she's got her own cutesy nickname, huh?”

McCree holds up a hand. They fall silent, even Gen, and stare at him as he reaches for his tobacco tin and pinches a thick wad out. There’s a twinge of satisfaction in his chest at how seriously they take him; this is why he likes new recruits.

While chewing, he says in a voice borrowed from too many Western movies, “I want an explanation, and I want this over with before sundown. What I don't want is a waste of my time.”

Kah says, “This tin can made a move on my woman.”

“Real clever!” Components move around in Gen’s wrist cannon and it begins to hum. “Never been called that one before!”

Marah gasps, “Don’t you dare! Put that thing down!”

Reluctantly, Gen powers down her cannon, but she doesn’t retract it.

“You’re telling me,” McCree says, “that this is some sort of... lover’s quarrel?”

“That’s right, sir,” Kah says. With her limited ability to form expressions, Gen manages to sneer.

“It’s not like that. There’s been a misunderstanding,” Marah blurts out. “I admit I’ve been leading you both on, but a lady’s allowed to flirt. Kah, you’re a sweetheart, and Genny, you’re a lovely gal, but I’m not interested in a relationship right now. I never meant to put you two in this awkward situation.”

McCree watches them with idle curiosity as they process Marah’s confession. He hawks and spits out the last of his tobacco. Running a tongue over his browned gums, he takes out his canteen and shakes the last droplets into his mouth. Birds circle above, their cries echoing for miles.

He recalls where the gang found Marah - two months ago, outside a casino, with five thousand dollars sewn into the silk lining of her handbag. They didn’t ask any questions. They took her information about the vault and let her ride away with them and the money. He wonders how many broken hearts she left in Reno.

“I’m sorry. I had...” Kah lowers her carbine. “I thought... it was more serious than flirting.”

After a moment, the cannon disappears into Gen’s wrist and a metal latch covers it seamlessly. “I just got competitive. That’s how I am.”

Marah laughs softly. “I know, Genny. And it’s flattering, but this got out of control. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

“It’s not your fault, darling.”

McCree says, “Are y’all coming back to camp or what?”

One of their horses has wandered from the church and whinnies as she makes her way towards the trio. Kah meets her halfway and strokes her flank, whispering gentle words to her. Gen thud-thuds to the church for her own horse, and Marah follows at a slower pace.

The wind blows sand in McCree’s face like the embers of a dying fire, and light catches on the barrel of Marah’s pistol, held at her side. Out of the three, he imagines she’ll survive the longest in the gang.