The US Marshal was not intimidating in any way. Yes, he was at least 50 pounds bigger than me, but all that weight seemed to be lurking around his midsection. Judging by the strain it was causing his shirt buttons, I gathered that he hadn't fought much of anyone for many years.
My hands were cuffed behind my back, the metal clanked musically as I walked. I wished I had my hands free so I could wipe the tears off of my cheeks. I wished I could catch my breath and stop crying.
"In you go," he drawled, waving his overly-polished pistol in the direction of the jail cell door, the cuffs suddenly releasing my wrists. Unfortunately, I had no choice but to enter, joining four other criminals in a cell that was clearly built for one. As soon as I entered, he locked the door and strolled back outside.
I immediately swiped the offending tears off of my dusty cheeks, hoping that none of the other criminals saw me. Crying had the tendency to make you appear weak.
One of them, who'd turned the latrine bucket into a seat, tipped their hat at me. "Howdy, miss." The voice, while gravelly and rough around the edges, was decidedly not male. Their chest was flat, yes, and their shoulders were broad, but those hips were far too curvy to belong to a man.
"You must be Shayne Fargo," I guessed, having seen their face on many a wanted poster. Whatever they did, it must've been something extra naughty to fetch such a high reward.
The hat came off, revealing a thin smile and two bloodshot blue eyes. "Always nice to meet another wild woman." Being in the company of a fellow female criminal who wasn't in the middle of seducing some hapless drunk was a rare event. In fact, I'd never even met another girl like me.
She stuck out her hand for a shake. "Mae Hardy," I replied, the lie sliding easily off of my tongue. "Better known as Judge Hardy. Anyone know why we're all together?"
"Beats me." The one beside me was obviously female, with long blonde hair and lips painted pink. According to a lone wanted poster on the far wall, she was Pistol Dolly Renoux, wanted for a murder and an attempted murder. I'd never heard of her before.
The final female, who was lounging on the tiny cot without a care in the world, snorted with laughter. "Everyone beats you, Doll." Her skin was dark, and her hair was tied back into two braids that were so long they touched the floor.
"Least I ain't the one who shot someone innocent," she retorted, playing with the ends of her hair like a little kid. For a moment, it looked like a fight was brewing, but then the braid girl flopped back onto the cot and sighed.
I didn't ask her name. I doubt she would have volunteered it. Sensing my curiosity, Dolly motioned to another wanted poster, identifying her as Two-Shot Tilda Izard. Five counts of bank robbery and three murders.
Funny how I felt perfectly safe in the company of murderers, robbers, and who knows what else. I suspected it had something to do with the fact that they weren't trying to get my clothes off or steal a kiss.
The Marshal returned with two of the most handsome men I'd ever seen up to that point, a redhead and a blonde, both of whom were clearly lawmen. "Ladies, let's talk business, shall we?" The Marshal's voice was pompous and silky smooth. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention.
The four of us had never met. We knew nothing of each other's past, or of our futures. But in that moment, four spines stiffened and four minds united against a common enemy so quickly, it was almost spooky.
Tilda stood up and spat through the bars, narrowly missing his boots. "Get on with it then," she drawled in a dangerous tone. All four of us were on our feet, our hands reaching for empty holsters. My heart crept up into my throat.
The handsome lawmen with red hair snickered loudly. "You're in no position to bargain, sweetie." Tilda narrowed her eyes as the air crackled with tension. I could practically taste it.
"My associates and I need your assistance in the capture of a few criminals," drawled the Marshal, eyeing each of us contemptuously. Sensing that we weren't exactly over the moon, he continued talking. "All you need to do is lure them to the rendezvous point, and we'll take over from there. How's that sound?"
I turned away from the bars and sat back down on the floor. "No thanks." Something hot and bitter curdled in my stomach. I wasn't about to double-cross somebody, not after what I'd been through. Not after what had happened this afternoon.
"Yeah, what's in it for us?" Evidently, Tilda and I were thinking along the same lines. If we double-crossed fellow criminals, no one would ever trust us again. Plus, why work for free?
The Marshal's pleasant expression curdled into something sour. "I don't hang ya'll like the lowdown floozies you are." In seconds I was back on my feet, wishing I could punch him in the face. I was a criminal, yes. That was a label I deserved. But floozy? No.
"That's not nearly enough," I snorted, resisting the urge to kick the bars in anger. He'd probably string us up anyways as soon as we finished the job.
"You're in no position to bargain, Miss Hardy." The blonde lawman, who'd been silent up until that point, suddenly entered the conversation. And something about him was far more frightening than the blatant malicious intentions of his companion.
"Maybe not." My hand hovered over my empty holster, an old habit that had the tendency to save my life. "But I've got nothing to lose."
We studied each other for a moment. His eyes wandered where they shouldn't have, despite the fact that my men's clothes didn't fit me properly and left much to the imagination. "If you think your life will be the first to go, you're wrong. There are many other things to lose."
"I agree." That seemed to confound him. In fact, it made his cheeks turn red and his eyes narrow, the first sign that I'd rattled him. Usually, it was a lot easier to rattle men since I had more book smarts than most.
The Marshal reached the end of his rope with the nonsense between us. "Hell's afire, we've got to get on with things!" His fat face was screwed up in a comically enraged expression, like a child whose toys have been taken away. It was both the color and shape of a tomato, which I found mildly amusing.
"Then get on with it," snapped Shayne, kicking the latrine bucket (which was thankfully empty) and pacing the tiny cell. "Make us a half-decent offer, and we might consider it!"
Whatever the Marshal was going to say was interrupted by the blonde lawman. "Full pardon for all four of you."
Four jaws dropped in disbelief. I couldn't keep the expression of obvious longing off of my face as I gripped the bars for support. A full pardon. The ground beneath my feet seemed to sway as I tried to wrap my head around it. Dolly had slid onto her knees, both hands clamped firmly over her mouth. Shayne and Tilda had both taken a few steps back, frozen with the shock of it all.
"Grin Maddox, what in tarnation is wrong with you?!" howled the Marshal at the top of his voice. "They oughta be strung up, not a-wanderin free!" The other lawman nodded vigorously. Without the carefully practiced look of casual malice, he wasn't frightening at all.
Maddox seemed unbothered by this. "I don't see you comin up with a better offer, Evett. 'Sides, they slip up, we'll be on em quick as lightning." The four of us exchanged knowing glances. Given full pardon, we'd disappear like a drop of water in the hot sun.
"I dunno," the other lawman said with a worried expression. "They'se liable to cut and run if we let em out." Tilda muttered a curse under her breath. Leave it to the redhead to spoil any chance of escape.
Maddox opened his mouth to say something, then stopped, wagging his finger in the air with an even bigger grin. "Mack Watson, that's bout the smartest thing you've ever said."
And the three men began to whisper in a quiet conference. Snatches of conversation could be heard. "A full pardon," whispered Dolly to no one in particular, picking herself up off the floor and beginning to pace the cell. Her face was quite pretty when it was illuminated by hope.
Tilda shook her head, her long braids swaying back and forth. "I don't buy it." She paused to spit on the floor and looked at each of us in turn. "I don't buy it at all."
I nodded, lost in my own thoughts. Who you trusted could mean the difference between life and death, between walking free and being in jail. The last time I trusted someone…well, I ended up here. In jail, and at the mercy of three idiots.
But a full pardon?
The Marshal whirled around, red in the face and fuming. "My associates and I have decided upon an offer that we think will benefit both parties."
"Like hell it will," Shayne muttered quietly. The Marshal's furious gaze fell on her and she didn't flinch or turn away. I was beginning to wish I'd met her sooner.
"You're gonna help us round up the Bates Brothers and take Grin with you, and you'll receive a full pardon."
The four of us began yelling all at once.
"Them Bates'll kill us—!"
"I ain't traveling with that lowdown—"
"There's no way in hell—!"
Dolly's eyes were wide with fear. "I heard tell that Will Bates done…violated a woman and left her for dead in the desert." All the yelling ceased at once. I'd heard the same tale too.
"I reckon that's your problem," the Marshal snapped, fed up with our protests. My stomach began to knot itself in two.
Back then, I was a small-time criminal. Yes, I'd killed a few people for money. But they were horrid people who deserved to die. I served justice in places where the law was in the pockets of corruption. In short: I killed for a reason.
The Bates Brothers had never needed a reason to kill anyone.
Shayne stomped her foot angrily. "Then we need a cash incentive!" The rest of us nodded vigorously. The Marshal also stomped his foot and began swearing incoherently. It was almost amusing.
"That will depend on how well the four of you do the job." Grin Maddox had the smile of a cat playing with a field mouse. It made my stomach double-knot itself.
Tilda got real close to the bars, peering at the red-faced Marshal. "This man," she hissed, gesturing to Maddox with a scowl, "looks liable to slit all our throats while we're asleep! I won't do it."
"Maddox won't hurt you."
That was obviously a lie. Maddox had both hands on his pistols, and I saw at least one knife hilt sticking out of his boot. By the look of the smile on his face, he was fantasizing about killing us all. Or something worse.
Dolly, her face white as a ghost, added, "Good. He'll be spitting out bullets if he does." She was obviously terrified of him, and I couldn't blame her. Everything about him made me want to hightail it out of there as fast as I could go.
"I assure you, I have no interest in harming any of ya'll," drawled Maddox, his eyes glittering with a strange malice. There was absolutely no truth in his voice, and all four of us knew it.
"Are we in agreement?" The Marshal was antsy to get on with things. I couldn't blame him for that.
I turned to stare at the three women, fighting to stay calm. "I can't really speak for ya'll…but I don't feel too well bout this."
"I agree," said Dolly, her face still ashen. She had the look of a doe ready to flee into the brush at the first sign of danger.
Behind me, I could hear the smile in Maddox's voice. "I'll have every single one of you strung up by this time tomorrow if you refuse."
Through the bars, the four of us shook on it with the Marshal and Maddox.
It would be the worst decision I ever made.