Travis Quill smiled. He didn’t play cards, but he never minded watching a game, especially when a man he was hunting sat at the table, completely absorbed in trying to figure out whether the other players were attempting to cheat him. It never failed to amaze Travis that an outlaw whom you could never have surprised on the range could sit at a poker table and think his only worry was the two other men at the table.
“Call,” said Mason, the man Travis had come to take to jail or, if Mason happened to resist arrest of course, to kill.
Had Travis imagined it, watching Mason from his own seat at the bar, or had Mason actually somehow managed to make the innocent monosyllable sound evil? When a man like Mason called a bet, did the act represent a tiny furthering of a life so corrupted and vicious that his morality influenced the very sound of his voice, or was it that Travis’ own morality made it feel that way?
Chicken and egg. The life of a bounty hunter, Travis sometimes thought, had too many moments for contemplation. How strange that he’d decided he wanted to try it for exactly that reason, at a moment when the shelling during the siege of Petersburg had gotten so loud that he truly had difficulty figuring out whether he was still alive or had died already, at last. The life of a soldier had been full of waiting, but no time alone with your thoughts: it was a life with your comrades, under your captain, of mind-numbing routine.
“I just want to think,” he’d said to himself, “just think.”
He didn’t mind action, but he didn’t want so much of it that he couldn’t think. Now, waiting for Mason’s game to finish, listening for clues as to where he might take him, or kill him, observing him and his gang, he realized that he had gotten his wish, but that perhaps he hadn’t considered the need to have pleasant things to think about.
“We gon’ kill Yost tonight?” asked Little Frank, sitting to Mason’s right, and suddenly the time for idle speculation had ended. Little Frank, demonstrating a disappointing lack of creative irony on the part of Mason, was in fact the smaller of the two Franks. Also the handsomer, it appeared, though Big Frank, seated on Mason’s other side, did not make it a difficult competition. Mason himself, with his fine aristocratic features, his fine clothes, and his blond hair, would have won any competition in morally tarnished good looks.
“Yep,” Mason said, not even looking around to see who might be watching, but instead looking at his cards, and then the faces of his opponents.
Mason had ruled this saloon in Bitterwood, Kansas, Travis knew, for the past few days, under the name Jones. It had taken Travis two days to figure out who Jones was, and it was almost time to strike, but the mention of Yost, which Travis recognized as one of the early aliases of Sonny Curtin, gave him serious pause. Curtin had been a member of Mason’s gang before some kind of falling out a year or two back, and since then Curtin had struck out on his own, doing little robberies, but as far as Travis knew, killing no one.
Now Travis had the prospect not only of getting Mason, Big Frank, and Little Frank, but Curtin as well. The problem was deciding whether or not to let Mason kill Curtin—though of course their plans of killing him, whatever those plans were, might not go off right, which would create a god-awful mess.
Truth to tell, it was a god-awful mess anyway. Mason’s deeds had reached a degree of evil where Travis felt almost obligated to save Curtin, who probably would come peacefully if Travis apprehended him. The latest word on Sonny Curtin was that he kept a woman—a widow who had come west and lost her husband the first winter—and the daughter, now eighteen years old, Sonny had by her somewhere here in Kansas, where Travis had been tracking Mason for the past two weeks. It certainly fit Mason’s character that he would set up here in Bitterwood expressly to kill Sonny Curtin—it was just Travis’ bad luck that he had arrived on the evening the murder was going to take place. Had he arrived the day before, he could have found a chance to get the three outlaws before they headed out after Curtin.
It could be worse, he supposed. He could have arrived the day after, with Curtin dead and Mason a fading memory.
If only he knew where Curtin’s little family lived. He suspected that finding out exactly that had been why Mason and the Franks had come to Bitterwood, which meant it couldn’t be common knowledge, which fit Curtin’s profile: moving around very frequently, sending a little money to his woman and his kid, coming home for dinner once every few months.
Travis realized that he had started to idealize Curtin, only because anyone Mason wanted to kill had to be better than Mason. Travis cursed inwardly; yes, Curtin’s little family could be in danger. Mason didn’t like witnesses, and he’d killed women and children to make sure there wasn’t anyone left to identify him and his gang.
Well, Travis thought ruefully, at least it’s a better problem than chicken and egg.
Maggie Curtin levelled her rifle at the jackrabbit. She had been lying there in the wheat field for half an hour, waiting, and now, finally, she was going to be able to bring something meaty home to pa for dinner. The jackrabbit had approached, his ears, as jackrabbit’s ears always did, almost making Maggie giggle and ruin everything. He had looked around and begun to nibble. He was enormous, and at that moment Maggie Curtin could not have been happier: a big fat rabbit, a happy pa, a happier ma to have him back for a day or two at least, and Maggie to thank.
A shot rang out from the direction of the house, the jackrabbit leaped away, and everything went completely wrong. The instincts her father had taught her, for hunting, came to her aid without Maggie even thinking about them. Keeping her head well down so that she couldn’t be seen over the slight rise that lay between Maggie and the little farmhouse, hardly more than a cabin but Maggie’s home all her life, she crept on her belly until she could peek over, among the stubble of the wheat, to see what was happening.
What she saw made her sight her beloved Winchester in an instant, even as her heart began to pound harder than she thought it ever had before.
Three horses stood tied to the rail outside Maggie’s home. Three men stood there, holding rifles trained on the door of the house. Maggie lay about a hundred yards from them; the backs of two of the men—a very tall man in simple clothes, and a man in what looked like a dark suit—were to her, while the third man, a short, nervous-looking man dressed simply like the very tall man, kept watch, turning this way and that, looking for motion in the wheat fields and by the barn.
“Yost!” Maggie thought she heard the man in the suit call.
“Men may come someday,” Pa had told her once, the previous summer, while they were skinning two jackrabbits they’d shot, “asking for a man named Yost. You’re old enough now to understand this, I think. Yost is me. I’ve done things I’m not proud of, Maggie, in order to live.”
“What do you mean, pa?”
“Well, sweetheart, I’m afraid to say that the marshal would call me an outlaw.”
“You mean like go-to-jail outlaw?” Maggie’s eyes had gone wide, and she felt tears coming into them, but she was proud of how strong she was—pa had called her his tough ‘un since she was small.
“‘Fraid so, Maggie. But listen to me, sweetheart, I promise you I never killed anyone, and that’s really important to me. Closest I ever got was when a very bad guy, who I’m ashamed to say I worked with, on robbing people—never anyone who really needed the money, Maggie—well, this bad man tried to hurt a woman, and I stopped him.”
“Had to shoot him, sweetheart. In the leg. And that’s why people may come looking for Yost—the bad guy’s name is Mason, and he told me he was gonna kill me someday.”
“Yost!” The man in the suit yelled again. What had that first shot been? “Come on out of there and die like a man!”
Maggie acted without thinking: she aimed at the man who must be Mason, tried unsuccessfully to quiet her breathing, and pulled the trigger.
Mason went down. Had she hit him in the leg? The little man, who had thankfully not been looking in the direction of the wheat field, spun around, trying to figure out where the shot had come from. Then there was another shot, and the big man went down, backwards like a tree failling. Had pa fired that shot?
The little man still hadn’t found Maggie with his searching eyes—he wasn’t even looking in the right direction. Should she risk another shot? Mason was up now, holding his thigh and limping badly. She watched the little man untie two of the horses from the rail. No more shots came from the house. Why?
Again, hardly thinking, Maggie fired at Mason, who was limping over, in a protective crouch, to where the little man was holding a horse for him. She missed, probably because she was breathing very quickly out of fear. Dammit. The little one was pushing Mason up onto the horse.
Should she try to kill the horses? She decided she would much rather the outlaws flee, so she could find her father and mother and make sure they were safe. The big man wasn’t moving—was he dead? What had that first shot been—the one that had frightened the jackrabbit?
Mason and the little man were in the saddle. She saw Mason take a pistol from his holster and fire it into the doorway of the house; she heard the gunshot a moment later, biting her tongue to keep from screaming until she tasted blood. Then the outlaws were riding away, toward Bitterwood, taking the dead man’s horse with them.
Maggie realized that she had clutched her Winchester so tightly that her hands had begun to cramp. She forced herself to remain motionless until the outlaws’ horses were out of sight, and then she sprang up and ran toward the house, fighting the urge to cry out “Pa!” as she ran.
Her father lay on his back in the front room. Her mother knelt beside him, cradling his head in her lap. A pool of blood, a terribly big pool of blood, stretched out behind him, in the direction of the farmhouse’s natural tilt, the tilt down which pa had taught her to roll the little wheeled toys he made for her.
“Shh,” Laura Hunter was saying, “shh, Sonny. Shh. It’ll be alright. Maggie will fetch the doctor.”
Maggie closed her eyes. Maybe when she opened them, she’d be back in the field, about to shoot the jackrabbit. The last ten minutes would never have happened.
She swallowed the enormous lump in her throat, opened her eyes, and gave a sob, because of course her father still lay there dead, eyes staring at the ceiling. Of course.
Maggie darted to her mother and fell on her knees next to her. She put her arms around her mother and held her close.
“Maggie?” Ma said. “I think you need to go for the doctor.” But Laura said it dully, as if something inside her knew her man was dead, but it didn’t have the heart to tell the rest of her that.
“Oh, ma,” Maggie said, and rocked Laura back and forth. “He’s in a better place.” She had nothing else to say. Nothing. Then she found something, and it didn’t help much, but it seemed to help enough to keep the blackness of the world from engulfing her the way it threatened to. “He loved us. He loved us so much.”
Laura nodded against Maggie’s breast, covered in the flannel work shirt that Laura always said, with a sigh, was a disgrace on a girl pretty enough to be a proper young lady if she would only try.
“I’m going to get the man who done this, ma,” Maggie said.
“Oh, no,” Laura said. “No, sweetheart.”
* * *
Maggie put Laura to bed in the back room. Her mother simply lay there, staring out the window. Sonny came to see them twice a year, usually, and stayed for a few days before he told them he had to be ‘getting along.’ He had only arrived the day before, and now, Maggie supposed, he had gotten along forever.
It hadn’t been an ideal sort of a life for a widow who had always wanted at least to maintain an air of respectability, but Laura Hunter had played the hand fate had dealt her, when her farmer husband had gone into the ground and she had been left on the homestead alone. Sonny Curtin had noticed her in town, buying feed and hiring the little bit of help she could take on to get the wheat in—or so Maggie had pieced the story together—and had come in a wagon to drive her into town for a night of the most expensive things Bitterwood had to offer, as well as, Maggie was sure, a great deal of Sonny’s smooth talk. And the result had been Maggie, though Maggie of course didn’t understand how that process worked, exactly.
“Oh, pa,” Maggie said as she saw his dead body again. She didn’t shed a tear; she went to get a piece of canvas from the barn, on which to haul him out to bury him. She didn’t remember about the big man her father had killed until she saw him lying there in the dirt in his own big pool of blood. She knew she should be willing to bury him, too, but the anger blazed up hot inside her, and she figured she could just let him rot.
That was when she heard the hoof beats, coming fast up the dirt road. She turned to see that a rider was headed toward her on a bay horse at a very fast canter. She dropped the canvas she carried, darted back into the house, and grabbed her rifle. Then she squatted by her father’s dead feet, waiting, leaving the door open to make the intruder think that she and Laura had fled.
From her position she had a view of the big man’s corpse; she watched the man on the bay horse come into view, having slowed to a walk, and look down at the dead body. The man got down off his horse and tied him up, looking around in every direction.
He was dusty from the road. He wore a long gray riding coat over a simple work shirt and black canvas trousers. In a holster at his belt, he had a Colt .45, and on his horse was a Winchester, in a holster on the saddle. His face looked very dangerous in the shadow of the brim his brown hat. The man took his hat off and held it up to shield his vision from the rays of the setting sun as he peered into the doorway where Maggie waited.
She cocked the rifle, sighted it, and got ready to pull the trigger. But then something in the man’s face, framed by dark brown hair pulled back into ponytail like an Indian’s—something about his eyes, and the way they seemed to look for her, or perhaps for anyone alive, to take care of her—made her stop.
“Whoever killed Big Frank Pellet here has a big reward comin’,” he called out, looking around as if not sure to whom he spoke. “He should probably clear off pretty quick, though, if Frank’s friends know he’s lyin’ here dead.”
“My pa’s dead,” Maggie called from the hallway. “And my ma’s in the back room. I ain’t clearin’ out.”
“And you probably have a gun trained on me,” the man replied. “Allow me to introduce myself. Name’s Travis Quill. I bring men like Frank here and his friends to justice.”
“Bounty hunter?” Maggie said.
“That’s one way to put it,” Quill said dryly. “I’m not interested in the whys and wherefores of what happened here, but some parts of it have somethin’ to do with me, and I’d like to help out. And I’m goin’ to get you and your ma somewhere safe, too. Least I can do for killin’ Big Frank here.”
“That was my pa what killed that feller, but I got another one in the leg.”
Quill advanced, settling his hat back on his head. Maggie didn’t know what to do, so as Quill put his right foot on the step she called, “Don’t come any closer, mister.” She heard a note of panic and indecision in her voice.
Quill called back with a gentle, soothing air, “Missy, if I wanted to hurt you and your ma, I could do it, no matter how good a shot you are. You’re gonna have to trust me. I want to help, but you don’t have much time. Soon as it gets dark, if I’m right, a man named Jones, whose real name is Mason, is gonna be back here, and he’s gonna kill you and your ma.”
“That the one I got in the leg? Thought his name might be Mason.”
Quill gave a grunt of frustration at Maggie’s continuation of the stand-off. “Same feller. Could be the guy you got. Can I come in?”
Maggie uncocked the Winchester. “Reckon,” she said.