The sun was suspended just above the horizon. It blinded Abigail and she had to look down and hope that her horse would find sure footing. Earlier there had been talking and some joking among the other riders, but that had stopped sometime in the last hour. Something didn't feel right. Maybe it was the growing cold that gripped the mountains this time of year; maybe it was the coming of nightfall; maybe it was something else.
"When will we set up camp?" she asked the man nearest her. She referred to him as a man; he was only a few years older than she was. He called himself Earl.
"Not much longer now," Earl said. "We will stop perhaps an hour after sundown. Too dark to ride much after that."
Another man, who was both older and fatter and who had happened to overhear, said, "What, worn out already, kid?"
"No, but –"
"Why we ever let a girl come along is beyond me." He went on. "This ain't no place for a girl. Slow us all down."
"Don't mind him," Earl said when the man rode off with importance. Even the man's horse thought too much of himself, but then animals often sense and assume their owners personality. It is a mercy they can't talk, too.
"Earl?" said Abigail. "Do you think we will find them tomorrow?"
"I believe so," Earl replied. "Jackson says we're closing in on them. Should have ourselves a nice friendly shoot-out, come morning."
"You ever fought before?"
"Sure, plenty of times."
"Ever killed a man?"
"I have." He answered. He didn't seem to like that question.
"I haven't," Abigail said.
"That is not surprising; you're young."
"I am not all that young. I am almost as old as you."
"It is different. You are a girl."
"Plenty of women have killed men."
But Earl would not engage further, so Abigail turned away and watched her horse's head bob up and down as he walked. It seemed like she had been on the trail with these bounty-hunters for years, yet it had only been two days. She rode with them because her brother did; he had gone ahead to scout yesterday and had not yet returned. Now Abigail was left with a bunch of men who swore and drank and would not let her do either of these. She slept on the hard ground for a few hours at night, and was stiff from riding during the day. Home was becoming a mythical thought; it was a distant place, more of a mindset than anything geographical. It stood on its frail wooden porch in its flat, patchy plot of land somewhere in the far recesses of her imagination. It would be strange, sleeping on a bed again.
"Look here," said Earl, reaching into his pocket. He pulled something out and handed it to her. Abigail found herself staring at a tiny piece of wood carved to look like an angel. It was small, perhaps two inches in length, and crude; the face was no more than a flat surface, the robe was simple, and the wings were small triangles. But the edges had all been smoothed, either by careful craftsmanship or, more probably, by being fingered so much. "I made this when I was a boy. My mother was sick and so I carved an angel for her. I suppose I thought it might heal her."
"It must have cheered her up considerably." Abigail said.
"She never saw it. She died before I finished." Earl looked at the angel where it lay in Abigail's palm. "Carried it around ever since. Guess I'm waiting for it to prove itself for a good-luck charm."
"Maybe you ought to try something else." Abigail suggested.
"What could be a better charm than an angel? No; it will prove itself sometime." Earl watched the wooden angel for a while longer and then looked up at Abigail and smiled. She reached out and offered it back to him. "Why don't you hold onto it for me?" He said. "You may be luckier."
Abigail slipped the angel carefully into her pocket. "I will keep it for you, for a while. But I do not believe in luck."
As that last word slipped out of Abigail's mouth, a sound like thunder ripped through the quiet evening air and echoed up and down the mountain pass. The horses were spooked and every rider jerked to attention; Abigail's ears rang. For a second there was nothing. Then Abigail's eyes fell on the old fat soldier who had called her "kid"; he was a few yards ahead of her and was leaning off his saddle in a peculiar way. He leaned further to the side and fell suddenly and heavily to the ground, and he lay still. Abigail blinked. The voice of the head marshal, Marshal Elias Jackson, came sharply through the cold: "On the ridge above! Take aim and fire!"
In an instant, everything on-sight changed. Men reined their horses one way or the other; dust flew up and obscured much of the scene, and after the silent breath had been taken, the band of bounty-hunters fell into the plunge. Shots rang throughout the mountains, and it was impossible to tell exactly where they came from. Abigail's horse reared and she was thrown; the ground was hard with frost, and already stained with blood. She stood and looked around for anywhere she might go to be safe. The narrow pass was a mass of confusion and noise; men were shot down by an invisible enemy and trampled by their own horses. In the remaining light, Abigail could see that the pass widened ahead and that there was a forest in the distance. She would have to get through the battlefield, but if she could do that, she would be safe there. She was a small girl; an easy thing to miss. Yes, the forest was the answer. She tried to step forward but her feet would not move. There was a body on the ground, directly in her path. Step over it, she told herself. Her feet disregarded the order.
"Abigail! Abigail!" Earl's voice reached her ears and she turned frantically to find the source, but the source found her first. Earl gripped her arm tightly and took off running, pulling Abigail beside him. She tried to look around so that she might warn him if a danger was headed their way, but there were too many things to trip over, and she found herself staring at the red-stained ground as she ran.
The sound of gunshots followed closely behind them. Abigail turned back to look over her shoulder and saw a large group of men, twice as many in number as Marshal Jackson's gang; they were coming down from the ridge above the pass on native ponies that knew how to run on steep places. The bounty-hunters were all on foot by now; their horses had run away or been killed in the crossfire. The bandits met Jackson's gang at the bottom of the hill and it was a massacre.
Finally they reached the outskirts of the fighting. The forest was within reach now; they just had to run a little farther. Abigail could hear nothing, and was aware only of the fact that she had just seen twenty good men die. The knowledge had little impact at the moment. She only knew, in some vague sort of way, that that is what happened.
Abigail looked to her left and found that Earl wasn't there. She turned quickly and saw that he had fallen, a yard or two behind, and she ran back toward him. Earl was trying to tell her to keep going but she wouldn't have any of that.
"I am shot," he managed to say. Abigail didn't know where he had been hit and she didn't think to ask. She pulled him to his feet and told him to lean on her; he did, and she almost fell under the weight. They took a step. "My revolver," Earl said. Abigail turned back and reached blindly through the long grass until her fingers felt a cold metal. She grabbed the gun, which was far heavier than she'd anticipated, and looked up, facing the field where the shooting had been. Men on horses were emerging from the dust-cloud and riding towards them, fast. She went back to Earl, pulled his arm across her shoulders, and they began to run. Abigail's vague awareness vanished as the forest approached them; she heard every breath that Earl took, every blade of grass they brushed against, every horses' hoof that beat the ground behind them. When she imagined that she could hear the horses' breath being drawn, they reached the trees.
Earl collapsed behind a large pine, and Abigail took a stance behind its neighbor. She still clutched the Colt .44 in her hands, and for a moment she saw the last ray of sunlight glint off of it.
"Are you hurt much?" She asked breathlessly.
"I believe so," he said with a shudder. "Can't hardly breathe."
Abigail looked down at Earl, and saw that his arm, his chest and his right leg had been hit. He might live, were it not for the shot to his chest; she expected that a lung had been hit. A thin line of blood had begun to trickle from his mouth.
"How do I fire this revolver, Earl?"
"Let me…" He attempted to get up, but crumpled under his own weight. "It's loaded and ready… aim and shoot. Don't let it kick you back."
Abigail leaned out from behind the tree and pointed the gun at the approaching band. Her eyes grew wide – there were at least thirty men. The entire posse was riding out for them; Marshal Jackson and his men were gone, every last one. She took aim as best she could, and pulled the trigger. She was almost knocked backwards, but she had anchored herself well and kept her footing. Not one of the bandits had fallen. She fired again. They were well within range, but she could not hit them. They kept coming; they would not stop. Hiding had been an idiotic plan.
Earl had begun to whimper in pain. Abigail looked down on him with something like disgust; why could he not fight like a man? She took another shot at the bandits, the closest of whom was now within ninety yards, and missed.
"God, God…" Earl had begun to say. Whether he was praying or cursing, Abigail couldn't tell. She dropped her arms to her sides and stared at her approaching fate. Her left hand brushed against a small lump at her side. She reached into her pocket and her fingers touched the wooden angel, their lucky charm. She looked again at the riders, and it suddenly occurred to her that this would not be the end. This was a band of murderers, liars, and thieves: violators of every law of decency that existed. They would not shoot her down like a dog in the street, not yet, anyway. Her fate, she realized, would be much worse than that. Without a word, Abigail turned to Earl, raised the revolver, and shot him in the head. It was an act of mercy.
The bandits were within ten yards, and Abigail's eyes filled with hot tears that blurred her vision. She tried to raise the gun with one hand, but had to use two; she pressed the cold metal barrel against her right temple. She exhaled; the breath was long and slow, and for a moment it was the only thing she could hear. Then, click.
Abigail opened her eyes. She had run out of bullets.