The general store's bell jangled in violent alarm as the children burst inside, a laughing blur of mouse-brown vanishing instantly amongst the shelves. Following rather more sedately behind, Maria caught the door before it could slam and snapped, "Clara! Jimmy! Don't touch anything."
Their reply, a long-suffering "Yes, mama," chorus, was of little comfort.
Primping her hair a little and straightening out her apron, Maria crossed to the counter and favored the ruddy rotund owner and his cool wisp of a wife with her Sunday best smile. "Good morning, George. Lynnette. Fine weather we are having today."
"That we are," George readily agreed, hands resting on his belly, a daft smile on his face.
"Ms Woodbridge." Lynnette, lurking at the stockroom door, did not move.
"Just a few essentials today, thank you." Placing her list to one side on the counter, Maria took out her purse and carefully counted out the contents, searching every fold in the fabric for stray coins.
George and she both looked at the results.
"Perhaps half measures on the salt and oil, and dripping instead of butter," Maria allowed.
"I could open a line of credit for you," George began and then gave his wife a wounded look and rubbed where her bony elbow had struck his side.
"No thank you, George," Maria said primly. "Unlike my dear departed husband, I believe in paying the fair price for what I receive. I'll take the half-measures, thank you, and leave off the oil for the lamps entirely."
While George fetched the little she could afford, Maria corralled her children, ignoring their requests and protests and slapping at Jimmy's knuckles when he reached sticky fingers out for the cheese wheel. Meeting his pouting frown with an apologetic smile, Maria did her best to flatten his hair. In color, her children had fallen between her and her late husband, God forgive him (for surely only more patience than a saint could ever truly forgive that man), but the waves in Jimmy's naturally wild hair, the turned down bow of his lips and sharpness of his nose were all disquietingly James.
The bell rang again as George was handing Maria the last of her bags. A broad shape filled the doorway, cast in sinister shade by the bright sunlight it blocked. Maria pursed her lips while Lynnette stood up straighter, primping her hair. With a heavy clunk of boots, the shape moved forward and resolved itself into the no less broad shoulders of what passed for the head of the local law enforcement: Herbert Strang.
"Well, if it ain't the good Widow Woodbridge," Strang boomed, sweeping his hat off. "It is always refreshing to see your exotic beauty here in our little old town."
"Sheriff," Maria said.
"Going home, are you?" Strang didn't wait for an answer. "You know, it beggars my heart thinking of you all the way out on that homestead, all by your lonesome." He clasped his hat to his heart, his thick tongue flicking against his lips. "Why, damn near anything could happen to you out there, and with what protection? It's like I always say, every good woman needs her a man."
"Should I ever meet one, I'll be sure to ask him." Maria deliberately looked away, seeing his face begin to flush red out of the corner of her eye as she clicked her tongue. "Clara. Jimmy. Come along now."
She ushered them out into the sun, handing the smallest bag to Jimmy to carry and another to Clara, refusing to look back despite the eyes she could feel on them all the way to the corner. The exact second she was sure no one was watching, Maria quickened her step, hurrying her children along in front of her until they were almost running. By the time they'd gone far enough that she felt both safe and silly for the speed, they were all but out of the town, and she let the children stop to rest for a bit on the stagecoach porch.
Kicking his legs, Jimmy asked "Can we take the coach back, mama?"
Clara hushed him and, when he protested, tickled him until he lost the question to breathless giggles.
Maria looked away, wiping quickly at her eyes, and settled her gaze on the town notice board, where a number of dangerous looking men, and one oddly demure looking young woman, were staring at her from between large "WANTED" signs and equally large dollar bounties. Jimmy screeched and Clara laughed. Maria stared at a vaguely familiar and horribly ungroomed moustache and thought about how much she had loved James Woodbridge when he'd swept her off her feet and how much she hated him and perhaps still loved him now, the useless bastard father of her beautiful half-starved children.
Tearing the wanted posters from the board, she shoved them in her bag without a second thought, and turned back to the road. "Come along, children. We have a long walk ahead of us."
Hannah was leaning against the cabinets. James's hair had been lighter than the children's, and Hannah's was lighter again still, sun-bleached into an almost white halo that dramatically framed a face both so like and so unlike her brother's. A faint line of a scar vanished behind the kerchief wrapped around her neck. Maria pretended she couldn't see the brown dots of dried blood on the fabric.
"Have you been here long?"
Hannah shook her head.
"There's a little coffee left," Maria said. Hannah nodded. "You already let yourself in. You could have helped yourself."
One of Hannah's shoulders barely rose and fell. "Should lock up."
"What do I have worth taking?" Maria scoffed. Hannah's gaze was steady. "They'd get in anyhow and cause twice the mess doing it."
Hannah nodded a little in acknowledgement. Maria busied herself in the kitchen for a moment, putting the last of the groceries away, spreading them out a little so the cupboards didn't look quite so bare. When she looked back, Hannah had the bounty posters spread out. Maria sat at the table and pulled them close with a defiant look.
"I've been thinking of a career. Clara is old enough to look after Jimmy, and the sewing and cleaning I do for people is hardly enough to keep me fed and clothed, let alone three of us."
Hannah growled. "I bring money."
"And I'm not ungrateful, believe me."
"This. It's not a job for you."
"You do it," Maria accused. Hannah inclined her head, which appeared all she had to say on the subject. Maria huffed, rearranging the papers uselessly. "The land here's poor for farming and grazing. The well's all but dry half the year. There's space, and I suppose there are those always willing to pay a pretty dollar for that, but then what?"
She frowned at the moustache and set it aside, going back through the others.
"Just one of these men would keep us clear through the winter. Three would let Clara and Jimmy go to school."
"Have to find them first," Hannah warned.
"James had many unsavory connections." Maria didn't look up when Hannah scoffed.
"What's unsavory?" Jimmy asked from under the table.
"Criminal," said Clara, appearing to still be buried in her book.
"Little pitchers," Maria sighed. She collected the posters together, put the moustache on top, and then picked it up again. "It's this or I find someone who will marry a widow with children which, frankly, seems the far harder bounty."
Jimmy tugged at her apron and she leant back to look under the table. He was biting his lip thoughtfully.
"Are you gonna marry the sheriff," he asked.
Maria swallowed her instinctive response and asked instead, "Do you think I should?"
"No," Jimmy said promptly. "He's mean and he smells weird."
"And he's not interested in having us around," Clara said, actually looking up this time, brown eyes wide. "He only ever looks at you, mama, and not in a nice way."
"Then it's a good thing that my marrying that man will never, ever happen," Maria avowed.
Hannah relaxed into the seat opposite, pulling the posters back and stretching her feet out, either oblivious to or not caring about Jimmy playing around them.
"I've seen you..." Moustache man still in hand, she crossed to the dresser and, digging in the drawer, pulled out the photo album she'd shoved away after James's funeral. She started at the beginning, but it was wedding photos, which hurt a surprisingly lot, so she flipped to end and started backwards instead.
Less than half a dozen pages, she found it: the last time James had had something like a regular job though, of course, it had turned out to mostly just been a way to scam the railroad company out of good metals. The photo was of the work crew, a group of rough and ready men given to drink that Maria had had the misfortune of having to entertain on far too many an occasion. The men were uniformly grubby and well-built, with little to distinguish them save the bright spark of laughter in James's eyes and there, at the back, under a perpetual glower, a terrible mess of a moustache.
"Got you!" She crossed back to the table and slapped the poster and the album triumphantly down in front of Hannah. "There, see? I have a place to start."
"Old photo," Hannah commented blandly.
"They all still hang around the saloon down by the tracks," Maria said. "If I can't find him directly, I can find people who know him, and ask them." She considered this. "Or just follow them. Asking questions get you noticed."
Hannah sat up in her seat, lips and shoulders tight. "Follow them?"
"I have Stubborn to ride and ammo for the Winchester. And people underestimate women."
"Not enough," Hannah countered.
"It's what I have," Maria said defiantly, pushing her own second thoughts away in the face of Hannah's disbelief. "There's nothing you can do to stop me. You'll leave soon and--"
Hannah sighed. "I will help."
"--I never know when. You'll." Maria blinked at her.
"I will help," Hannah repeated forcibly, and closed the album.
"Do you see anything?" Maria asked.
Hannah silently offered her the glass.
Taking it with a murmured word of thanks, Maria put one end to her eye and carefully twisted the other. Her grandfather had had a telescope that was something like this, and stories of the paths of light through an elaborate contraption of wheels and lenses that had gone over her head as a child and which she now barely remembered. Only the calm sound of his voice and the hours he spent making minute adjustments until she'd slept and had to be woken to peer through the tiny eyepiece to see a thousand glittering stars.
And if the telescope had been as difficult to focus as this spyglass, she thought, no wonder.
The saloon was on two levels, a ring of guest rooms at the top and the bar below. Maria assumed there was also a cellar, though she could see no trap from their vantage point. She shifted a little sideways for a better view and froze when she bumped into Hannah, who didn't move at all, a warm weight against her side, barely breathing. Maria, pretty sure she'd broken a dozen branches every time she so much as twitched an elbow, had no idea how Hannah managed it. Perhaps she could get lessons -- though that just made her think of the guns and how well that had gone.
Hannah had insisted on practice. Maria had pointed out the cost of ammo. Hannah had stared at her. Maria had pointed out that she'd been shooting on and off since she was barely old enough to hold a gun. Hannah had stared at her. Maria had pointed out that she regularly shot coneys and the occasional fox and, one time, she was pretty sure, a coyote. Hannah had stared at her. Maria had thrown her hands up in disgust, found some old tin cans, set them on the far fence, and proceeded to knock five down and at least wing three others.
Hannah had stared at her some more and then come around and carefully positioned Maria's arms and told her not to close an eye. And if Maria had had trouble concentrating, if she had, in fact, missed twice as many as before, it was certainly because of her anger at being moved like a doll, and for no other reason.
"Horses," Hannah said.
Maria swung the spyglass to look and then had to raise her head from the eyepiece because the swooping made her dizzy. Even without it, she could see two men coming riding down from -- well, from up that road there, wherever that went, and perhaps she should have studied a map more, or at all, or found a map, for that matter. But, no, goddamnit. She had set her will to this and she would overcome. The Salazar spirit: often bent, never broken. She raised the eyeglass again.
Maria tried not to bristle. They'd discussed this. You never went straight in. You always confirmed. Shoot the wrong man and the next wanted poster had your face on it, made you two hundred dollars in someone else's pocket. She peered through the eyeglass, following the man from his horse to the door and in, as she had followed every man to this place for the last five nights. It was him. She'd know that moustache anywhere.
"It's him," she repeated. "I'm sure."
"Same time as before," Hannah said, shifting a little against Maria as she checked her pocket watch.
"Man has a routine," Maria agreed. Routines were good. Routines made people feel in control, made them stupid and predictable, and made them a hopefully easy target. "He'll drink for a couple of hours, take a girl upstairs for twenty minutes top -- poor ladies -- and then follow the rail back as far as the creek before turning towards the rail worker settlement."
Hannah made a noise that may or may not have been an agreement, and put a hand on Maria's back when the other woman started to get up. She left it there even after Maria still, warm and steady. They waited. One hour. Two. Through the glass, through the saloon windows, Maria watched moustache take a plump redhead up to a private room. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen -- and there he came, no pun intended, laughing and doing his belt up. Ten minutes later and he was gone.
"Just like I said." Maria grinned at Hannah's nod and then, when Hannah took her hand away and moved backwards down the slope, followed, until they were far enough back to stand. "So we're ready."
Hannah did that infuriating half-shrug, but then nodded, heading back towards their rides without another word.
Maria grinned wider and clapped her hands. "Let's go get us a bounty!"
And if Hannah rolled her eyes, Maria definitely didn't notice.
Hannah checked her watch again.
"He'll be here," Maria insisted. "He went through here the last five times which I still say was three times more than we actually needed to check."
Hannah waggled the watch at her, the gold hands glinting in the bright moonlight.
Maria scoffed. "He'll be here!"
They sat in silence. Maria looked up. Not a cloud in the sky, just a moon as bright as day and too many stars to count or even conceive. Was there, up there, someone looking back? Not Heaven, not really, she wasn't sure she believed in that these days, certainly not that it was a physical place you could see with your eyes, but something, another distant land on which some strange and different woman was looking up, wondering the same thing.
Hooves draw Maria's attention back to the road, and she shifted her grip on her rifle. Hannah shifted silently, moving them further back into the shadows as the horse clopped sedately up to the branch and stopped. There was a curse and fumbling and then the dull thud of feet on the path. Maria tightened her grip, ready to swing the rifle up the moment Moustache stepped up to move the branch.
The footsteps moved away.
Confused, Maria stuck her head out, shaking off Hannah's warning hand. Moustache was walking down to the creek, grunting as he fumbled with his buttons. He stopped at the bank, tips of his shoes in the water, and let his trousers fall to his ankles, sighing happily.
"Did-- Is he--" Maria searched for an appropriate phrase. "Making water?"
"Pissing like a racehorse," Hannah smirked.
They listened to the splashing for a few more seconds.
"So should we wait?" Maria asked. Hannah looked at her in disbelief. "He has all his, his junk out!"
"You have kids."
"It's different when it's your husband," Maria said primly, straightening her jacket and ignoring the heat in her cheeks.
Hannah nudged her out. "Pants down, easy target."
"Mierda," Maria muttered, but she went with it, moving out into the road and bringing the rifle up as she stepped on to the wet grass. "Freeze," she tried, and it came out weak and cracked and Moustache gave no sign of noticing. Clearing her throat, she tried again. "Freeze!"
Moustache made an inquisitive noise, looking over his shoulder, still somehow relieving himself. He slow-blinked at her, turned back to the water and then jerked back around, half stumbling, eyes wide. Maria deliberately did not look down.
"Hands up!" she yelled.
"Wha' the fu--?" Moustache slurred.
"Don't move!" Maria yelled. "For crimes against the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and--"
Hannah slammed into her, knocking down. Light flashed and thunder rumbled and, half-stunned, Maria found herself thinking that that storm had come on quickly before she realized Moustache had somehow pulled a gun and fired. She fully expected a second shot, but Moustache just leapt awkwardly over them, trying to yank his pants up as he hopped towards his horse.
"Stop!" Maria yelled, scrambling for her rifle. Hannah gave her a look. "Well, he might have?"
Maria got the rifle up, hand steady, finger on the trigger. She followed Moustache with the barrel as he managed to get his pants mostly up, followed him as he grabbed at his horse, followed him as he tried to clamber up, slipped, managed to get a foot in, pulling himself up, slapping at the horse's flank to make it go.
"Shoot!" Hannah yelled, reaching for her own guns.
Swearing, Maria swung the rifle a precise quarter-inch to the left and put a bullet through the horse's mane. Hair puffed up, bright strands in the dark. The horse reared, sending Moustache falling with one foot still caught in the stirrup, and charged away. For one horrified moment, Maria was sure Moustache would be dragged for miles or into the creek, but after only a few feet he fell free, rolling over in the dust. The horse leapt their carefully positioned branch with ease and galloped swiftly out of sight.
There may have been a tiny flaw in their plan, Maria mused, blinking after it.
Recollecting herself, she hurried over to the downed Moustache and carefully kicked both of his guns away. She would definitely remember to check for a second weapon in future bounty hunts. Important to pay attention to little details like that. Moustache groaned and she shoved the rifle barrel into his back.
"When a lady tells you not to move," she said primly, "you should do that."
Moustache mumbled something that was possibly an insult and, Maria had to admit, rather more probably a protestation of pain. Hannah joined her with a rope in her hands, and Maria moved out of the way.
"Well," she said as Hannah tied Moustache's hands behind his back. "I thought that went rather well. Yes."
Hannah didn't say anything, and her face was in shadow, but Maria was certain she caught just the barest curl of smile. Victory!
"There's room on--" Maria started and Hannah snapped "Yes" right over the top of her.
They plodded on in relative silence, which actually meant a constantly litany of mumbled complaints from behind them, punctuated with curses every time Hannah tugged the rope to make Moustache speed up.
"It is quite a long way," Maria said eventually. "And he is tied up. And we have guns."
"Safer this way," Hannah insisted and wouldn't be drawn any more on the subject.
When the silence got too much for her again, Maria offered, "At least it's a nice night?"
"Not from back here it ain't," Moustache moaned. "Hey! Hey, ladies! Gimme a break huh? I've got kids."
Maria looked back. "Kids?"
"Liar," Hannah warned.
"Yeah! Starving, hungry kids who rely on me to get by, the poor blighters." Moustache clutched his hands to his heart as best he could, given then were tied together and on a leash. He screwed up his face, blinking rapidly. "They'll be missing me something awful if I don't go home." He wailed. "Oh, mercy, mercy, however will they live now?"
Maria asked, "What are their names?"
"Uh. Junior. And." Moustache looked all around them with desperate eyes before looking up at her with attempted innocence. "Girl?"
"Girl," repeated Maria disapprovingly.
"She's the only girl." he said stoutly then yelped as Hannah jerked on the line.
"I don't believe you are being quite honest with us, sir," Maria sniffed, flashing a grin at Hannah.
"Here," said Moustache thoughtfully. "I know you."
"I don't think so," Hannah growled, tugging on the line again.
"Not you. Her," Moustache insisted. "Hey, hey, yeah. You're Jim's broad. The dancer!"
"Singer," Hannah said to Maria's surprise. She had no idea Hannah knew anything about her life before James.
Moustache scoffed. "Not the way I heard it."
"Really," Maria said sharply.
"Maria," she corrected before she could stop herself.
"Right, right," he nodded, before whistling. "Man, Jim said you moved like silk on stage and smiled like sunshine. Couldn't take his eyes off you."
Despite Hannah's warning humph, Maria made Stubborn slow down to bring herself alongside Moustache. "Smiled like sunshine?"
"His exact words. He talked about you all the time, you know. Said you were the best thing that had ever happened to him." Moustache nodded resolutely, moving closer to Maria, lowering his voice. "Said he'd loved you from the very first moment he set his eyes on you and he'd never love another that much ever again."
Maria swallowed, blinking rapidly.
"And do you know what else he said?" Moustache all but whispered.
Maria leaned in. "What?"
"Hopelessly naive." He grabbed at her, and Maria shrieked as she went out of her saddle, her weight hitting the rope yanking it from Hannah's hands.
Maria fell heavily, feeling a stab of pain, hearing something tear and hoping it was only her jacket. She rolled back to her feet in time to see Moustache leap onto the back of Stubborn and kick in his heels. The mule broke into a slow walk and then stayed happily at that exact gait no matter how many kicks followed.
"What is wrong with you?" Moustache growled, throwing his hands up in frustration.
"I've often wondered that exact thing," Maria agreed, grabbing the trailing rope and setting her heels in. Moustache yelped and went over backwards out of the saddle and she heard his head thump into the ground with not a small bit of satisfaction. "And, to answer your previous question: yes, you will be walking the whole way."
This time Hannah wrapped the rope around his whole body and rode with one hand on a pistol.
Maria brushed at the dirt on her clothes, then at her hair, with ineffectual hands, before sighing and sitting up straight in Stubborn's saddle.
"You were right."
Hannah smirked at her.
"Yeah, yeah," Maria muttered.
They rode, abreast and tugging Moustache behind, back up the trail until it joined a proper road, and followed that into town. Maria could feel exhaustion setting in but it wasn't far now. Just to the sheriff's office, and then back to the house, to grab a few hours sleep before the children woke up. So fondly was she thinking of her bed, that she almost rode Stubborn into Goldie.
"We've stopped?" Moustache grumbled something and she put her hand on her rifle until he subsided. "We've stopped."
Hannah nodded up at the sign. Maria followed her gaze, noting the "Sheriff" stencil right above the dark windows, next to the equally dark door. Sliding off Stubborn, she walked up and knocked anyway, then again. There was no response.
"All right. All right." She sighed and turned back. "I guess we just have to wait until morning?"
"Seriously?" said Moustache.
"I will gag you," Maria said. Hannah jerked him over to the horse post and tied him to it and then sat down on the steps, watching him suspiciously with her pistol ready. Maria sat down next to her.
"I hope Clara doesn't use up all the oatmeal," she sighed.
Hannah shuffled a little closer, so their shoulders were touching and together they looked up at the slowly fading stars.
Maria groaned, stretching, thinking she should send Jimmy out to get the eggs, and how it felt like she'd barely slept at all, and was she still wearing her clothes and what had happened to make her bed so hard and pointy and uncomfortable and what was that terrible noise and whose body was that pressed against her and--
"I'm not asleep," she yelped, bolting upright.
Moustache, hanging off the horse post, let out another disgustingly liquid wood saw snore. Hannah, still stretched out on the stair next to where Maria had been, looked at her blandly.
"Quite awake, yes," Maria said in a rather quieter fashion.
She caught sight of herself in the still dark windows of the Sheriff's office and tutted. Her jacket had definitely been torn. She should have thought to bring a clothes brush with her. Bounty hunting was clearly dirty work in a rather more literal sense than she'd taken it to be. Still, she reminded herself, her mother had raised her to be a good Catholic girl, and though she was not really any of things any more, still, vanity was not more important than good work. And they had done good work. They'd caught a criminal!
Hannah rose to her feet with enviable grace. Maria doubted the other woman ached at all. She must sleep rough all the time. Waiting for Hannah to be occupied rousing Moustache, Maria quickly stretched as hard as she could and then did her best to look nonchalant when Hannah looked around.
"Well, now!" boomed out Sheriff Strang's inimitable voice and Maria spun to find the man in question somehow already so close she couldn't stop the squeak that escaped her or the automatic dance backwards. "This is a surprise. Such lovely ladies and at such an early hour."
"You, ah. You're quite early yourself, Sheriff," Maria stammered.
"Early to rise and so on," Strang said, his gaze slowly rolling over her from head to toe, his tongue flicking against his lips. "Why, you'd have to not go to bed at all to get one over on me, as many have learned to their chagrin."
His gaze slid across Moustache without apparent interest and settled on Hannah.
"Miss Woodbridge, isn't it. Don't believe we've been formally introduced."
"Sheriff," Hannah said, resting her hand on her belt, just in front of a pistol.
"A pleasure, a pleasure. Thought you'd gone back East after your brother's funeral, God rest him. I hear you--"
"Sheriff," Maria interrupted. "Meaning no disrespect sir, but I do need to get back to my children, and I don't want to take up too much of your time, valuable as it is."
"Of course, of course," he said grandly. "What can the office of the Sheriff do for the fine Widow Woodbridge on this morning?"
"I have brought a bounty for the paying," Maria said, pointing at Moustache.
"A bounty? Well, I never!" Strang laughed. "You've been an influence on her, I see, Miss Hannah. Well, I can't say I recognize this fella as being someone of any particular infamy. Do you have this ruffian's name?"
"I have the poster," Maria said, putting her hand inside her jacket, and then further in, and then further still with some dismay as her fingers went right through where a pocket should have been and came freely out the otherwise. "I. I must have dropped the poster when I fell--"
"You fell? My dear lady!" Strang grasped her hand before Maria could stop him, his thick sausage fingers pale and clammy against her skin. "I hope you are not injured."
"I. I'm fine." She tried not to pull her hands away. "I'm sure you must have copies of the flyers. They were posted on the town notice board just recently."
Maria took her hand from his to point needlessly with it, and placed them both behind her back.
"I'm afraid not readily to hand. What was this fellow's name again?"
"It was--" Maria realized she had been calling him Moustache so often in her head, she had clean forgotten the real version. If only she hadn't been so tired, and Strang less off-putting. "He's had many aliases. But he's wanted on crimes in many counties. States! He's crossed state borders."
"Perhaps the gentleman could answer?" Strang suggested.
"M'name's John Stone," Moustache immediately blatantly lied. "I'm a rail worker. These here ladies have done mistaken me for some other man. Easy mistake, happen to anyone, let me go and I'll speak no more of it."
"He's a liar and a criminal," Maria said. "He's an old associate of my brother, and you know what that means."
"I'm not sure what I can do without actual proof of that," Strang mused in an oily tone. "I'll need to see your license if you want me to hold him on this little."
"Here," Hannah said, reaching into her own jacket.
"Now now, Miss Hannah. The Widow Woodbridge said the bounty was hers," Strang chided. "So it's her license I'll be needing."
"I don't have one," Maria admitted. "But the state--"
Strang tutted. "County law has jurisdiction here, my dear, and county law says you need a license. I'm afraid there's nothing much I can do for you today. Mister Stone, why don't you come up into my office and let me see what I can do for you today."
And as if the other two had vanished, he put an arm around the suddenly nervous shoulders of Moustache and led him up and through the front door, unlocking it in front and relocking it behind them in so smooth a sequence that Maria was left breathlessly gasping.
"What just happened?"
"Sheriff," Hannah said.
"I mean, what just happened?! He stole our bounty! He stole-- Did you see that?" Maria whirled on Hannah, expecting equal outrage and instead seeing infuriating calm. "How are you just standing there? We did all that work! I needed that money! And Strang just-- He robbed us! Why aren't you mad?"
Hannah raised a shoulder cautiously. "It happens."
"It happens?!" Maria scoffed.
"It happens," Hannah agreed tightly. "Said this wasn't a job for you--"
"Not for--!" Maria gaped at her. "Because it was dangerous, not because of, of, of this." A sudden horrible thought occurred to her. "Did. Did you know this would happen? Is this-- Are you trying to teach me a lesson?"
Hannah's jaw worked, but she made no response, and Maria felt her gut turn cold. There was a sharp crack, and it was only after Hannah took a step back and her palm began to sting that Maria realized she'd hit the other woman. A fleeting need to apologize was drowned out by a rush of disappointment, frustration and anger.
"It seems I still haven't learned my lesson," she snarled out. "Never trust a Woodbridge."
Turning on her heel, she walked away without looking back, not when she untied Stubborn, not when she mounted, not the whole time the stupid mule slowly paced out of town, not even, hours later, finally back at home, when she collapsed against the fence and cried.
Chores had taken up a few hours of useful non-thinking but, now that Maria was setting to make dinner, she couldn't stop thinking of Hannah's face. She rubbed at her palm and then forced herself to stop and go back to peeling potatoes. There was no point dwelling. She couldn't undo what she had done. She just needed to, to move on. Somehow. Apologize, obviously, because slapping was uncalled for, even in the heat of the moment, even when it might, just, have been a little deserved. No. Apologize, that was the right thing. And also a little difficult because Maria had no idea where Hannah lived when she wasn't with them. Could you hire a bounty hunter to deliver a letter to another bounty hunter? Probably, if you had money, which she did not.
Cut the potatoes, Maria, she told herself, and did.
Filling a pot with water and adding a little salt, Maria set it over the logs and, with a little kindling and a lot of cursing, got the fire going. In the future, she supposed, she'd have to get used to cooking at night despite her preference for eating in the middle of the day. Using the fire for light and warmth at the same time would save money. Sighing, she added the potatoes to the water and, as she turned back to fetch the peelings for the compost, she saw something move beyond the far fence outside the window.
For a moment, she thought she'd imagined it. A trick of the light, or Stubborn somehow wandering around. Then there it was again, a dark motion between the bushes.
"Kids," she called. There was no response. She raised her voice a little. "Clara, Jimmy, are you in the house?"
"Jimmy's in the pantry," Clara called from the front room.
"No 'm not," Jimmy protested from in the pantry.
Maria crossed to the far window, looking out. Nothing. No, not quite nothing. The side-gate wasn't latched, and after the great chicken escape, even Jimmy remembered to latch that gate now.
"Clara! Jimmy!" Maria ran to the pantry and yanked the door open. Jimmy blinked up at her owlishly, his soldiers arranged all over her shelves, boxes and bags. "What have I told you about-- Never mind that now," she corrected herself, picking him up despite his protests.
She turned around and almost bumped into Clara, unable to stop the squeak that escaped her, which made Jimmy giggle and Clara's face pale.
"What's wrong, momma?" Clara asked.
"Nothing, dear," Maria said, "but take your brother down into the storm cellar, and lock the door behind you." Clara stared at her, eyes huge. Maria laughed nervously. "Quickly, now."
Clara took Jimmy without protest on her end, and went. Maria waited until she heard the lock clack shut before going back to the window.
There were definitely at least two of them, probably three, maybe more. Maria couldn't tell directly, but she could see two open gates and a bush move and it didn't take a genius to work out the house was dead centre of all that. Her first instinct was to grab and load her rifle, which she did, and to rush outside, which she didn't. She knew this land, had for more than a decade now, and she knew the places to stand if you didn't want to be seen from inside the house or out, if you needed a moment away from your husband and children to just breathe. Maria breathed. She could do this. First step: find out what they're actually doing.
The privy window was narrow, but she was flexible and motivated and it let her drop out into a shady corner of the house with, if you were cautious about leaning out, a good view of the yard.
She saw his gun first, then his hat, black, of course, then his face, all narrow planes and sharp lines and a scar across a cheek that she'd seen in the same photo as Moustache because, of course, she had. Of course Moustache had a gang. She'd seen the photo! Why hadn't she thought of that?
Hannah had been right. So right.
Mister Sharp was coming across the back yard, kind of crouched over and scuttling like a half-cowboy crab, and Maria realized he was heading for the pantry door. There was no time to go back in through the privy window, and she didn't want to risk taking a shot and bringing his friends running. Catch them with their pants down, that was the key. She could get through that door first though, so she did, inside and immediately left, into the gap where the potato sacks would have been if she had any left. Pressed against the wall, she held her breath.
Opposite her, left just as high as Jimmy could possibly reach, a little wooden corporal saluted her.
Footsteps approached outside, hesitated on the step and then came to the door. It slowly opened, letting in a gun barrel, then a hand, then the whole man and, as the door started to close behind Mister Sharp, Maria thought about how he could have come through while Jimmy was still in here and swung her rifle so hard into the back of his head, it laid the man flat out cold.
The thump-crunch is so loud she freezes but there's no outcry.
The thump-crunch was so loud she froze. There was no outcry. Grunting with effort, she dragged the man the rest of the way in and closed the outside door behind them. For a moment, Maria considered taking his gun, but she hadn't practiced with pistols and knew her rifle. So long as she didn't need to reload at speed, she was fine. Just in case, though, she took it away and hid it in the rice, and then went back to check him for a second one. She found it. She also found the wanted poster she'd lost, and her handkerchief too, so neatly and memorably embroidered. Even without Moustache recognizing her, she'd practically lead them right to her house.
No, she told herself. No time to think about that now. Don't get distracted.
Hiding the second gun, Maria went back outside. It might have been safer to go through the house, but there were just as many places people could sneak up on her from as she could from them. The other one had to have been coming in the front. If it was her, she would have checked the windows first, and the end of the porch with the seat gave the best view into the house while still offering cover. Maria went the other way, intending to come around from the far end to get a clear view, but when she turned the corner, it was to find a heavy-set man grunting as he tugged at the outside cellar doors.
There was no choice. Her rifle sounded.
He looked at her in dull surprise, coughed, a startling spray of bright red, and fell back.
Something punched her shoulder and Maria cried out, falling. She clapped her hand to the pain and it came away red. That's going to stain, she thought wildly, and, Clara's got more sewing to do, and, sweet Mary, mother of God, I'm shot, and then she was scrambling for her fallen rifle. It barely got off the ground before a boot came out of nowhere to kick it clear from her hands. The jingle of the spurs was weirdly loud. Why was she thinking about spurs? She crawled for the rifle again and cried out as a foot came down on her back and then again into the ribs, flipping her over.
"Who the fuck do you think you are, huh?" Moustache asked. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, gun in the other, steady aimed right between her eyes. "You think a two bit floozy like you can just come up to a man?"
"Please," Maria managed, too frightened to even raise her hands. "Please--"
"Acting all high and mighty, like you're better than us, like Jimbo wasn't just as much a part of this as anything? Thinking you can mess up all our plans?"
"Wh-what? I don't-- Part of what? What plans?"
"SHUT UP!" He screamed, spittle flying. He wiped his mouth again, staring down at her. "You're dead. You're dead. But I'm gonna have a little fun first. And when I'm done with you, I'm gonna get me into that storm cellar and have a little fun with your da--"
His hat flew off.
They both looked at it. Maria looked back. Moustache raised a trembling hand to his hand, and brought it back covered in red and grey. With a tiny whimper, he sank to his knees, and then keeled over in the dirt. Maria stared at him, panting for breath, and then looked up past him to the still smoking gun.
"Sorry," Hannah said.
Strang had not been pleased to see them and even less pleased to see the bodies or hear Mister Sharp confess to the attack on the house. He was outright displeased when Hannah claimed the lot and, license and posters at the ready, demanded she get paid in accordance with county and state law. Later, Maria would think they should probably have waited until they were out of his sight before Hannah handed the money over but, at the time, wanting to see the expression on his face outweighed good sense, and the barely contained explosion was all that she had hoped it would be.
Side by side, they rode back to the homestead in companionable silence. The sun had begun to set and the sky ran a gamut of purples, pinks and blues behind a faint swirl of clouds. Dust flew up as Stubborn and Goldie clopped along at an easy tread, like they could walk all the way to the horizon and over it with the sun without stopping. When they came up in sight of the homestead, though, Maria dug her heels in and, eventually, Stubborn came to a lazy halt. Hannah got a little ahead but quickly turned Goldie and came back, dismounting when Maria did with an inquisitive look.
"I want to apologize," Maria said. "I was. Well. I shouldn't have slapped you. That was wrong of me."
Hannah shrugged a little. "Deserved it."
"You did not," Maria said heatedly. "I think it's very clear I had no idea what I was getting in to and you were just trying to look out for me."
"I should have said. About Strang. Other things." She fiddled awkwardly with her belt, so unusual a gesture that Maria was temporarily rendered speechless. After a moment, Hannah asked, "You okay?"
"My shoulder is a little sore," Maria admitted. The graze was deep enough that it might scare, but certainly not threatening once cleaned and bandaged as Hannah and Clara had done once the, the mess had been cleared away enough to let the kids out of the cellar. Jimmy had thought it a wild adventure, but Maria thought she'd need to watch Clara closely for a bit.
Hannah shook her head. "No. Are you okay?"
Maria made herself think about it, really think about how between this morning and now she had become a person who had killed, and though the thought felt heavy as lead, it was offset by a new understanding of herself. No-one got to threaten her children with impunity. Not one single solitary person.
"I will be," she said and then blinked, confused, at the revolver being held out at her. "What is this?"
"Rifle's no use for close work," Hannah said.
"And you're trying to give it to me," Maria added, in case this wasn't clear to her.
The corner of Hannah's mouth curled up a little as she nodded again.
"I really don't know how to use a pistol," Maria admitted.
"I can teach you," Hannah said.
Maria studied her for a moment and then reached out and gently pushed the gun back towards Hannah, whose face fell. She returned the gun to its holster and started to turn away, but Maria caught her arm.
"I thought perhaps you could look after it for me. Though, of course, a weapon is of no use unless it is close to hand. And I'll need a lot of practice, to get things right. But I do still want to. Get things right." Maria pulled a face at herself and Hannah huffed something that might have been a laugh. "What I'm trying to ask is if you would please stay with us."
"Until things are right," Hannah said cautiously.
Maria rolled her eyes. "Just stay. Please."
After a long moment, Hannah relaxed, nodding her head and smiling. Actually, properly smiling.
"Good," said Maria firmly, ignoring the heat spreading in her cheeks and pooling in her belly. She busied herself remounting Stubborn until it felt safe to look at Hannah again. "I'll put you on the cooking roster."
And laughing at Hannah's disconcerted grimace, Maria turned Stubborn towards the setting sun and headed, one slow, careful step at a time, back to their home.