Holstering her revolver, Ruth Achebe hurried along the boardwalks of Coyote Run, bare feet slapping, skirts tied to her knee, smelling of gun oil. Coyote Run was a quiet town, especially compared to the tales of turmoil blowing through the untamed West, so the shouting of a crowd plucked at her attention.
She stopped at the corner of an intersection, joining folk lining Main Street to watch Sheriff Joseph Marquez, Uncle Jo to her, prod a trio of rough men down the street. The men were bound at the wrists, wrists secured by lengths of rope to the saddle of Uncle Jo's youngest, most eager deputy, Kenneth. Kenny's left arm was in a makeshift sling stained with soot, sweat, and blood. His face was drawn, but pride swelled his grin.
The bound men were clad in travel-stained clothes and unshaven cheeks. As they drew close, Ruth smelled whisky and ash. One was tall, one portly, and one small and unassuming. The tall one and the portly one spat curses and slurs at the crowd. The unassuming one only looked about mildly.
As they passed into the intersection, Ruth noticed something about the small one. On the back of his right hand was a tattoo of a giant moth. It drew her curiosity, and as she squinted, she thought she saw its wings flutter. She knew it must have been a trick of shadows. Nonetheless, she stepped back.
"I do wish you would consider how your dress reflects upon your father and me."
Ruth started at her mother's voice. She turned to find her mother just behind her, impeccably clad in a dark blue dress, cinched with an ivory sash, high collar fully buttoned. She looked perfect, as always, and constantly pushed Ruth to do the same. Though her mother's eyes were for the procession of men Uncle Jo marched down the street, Ruth knew her mother had taken in every detail of her appearance. Ruth looked down at her oil-stained gingham dress, rolled up sleeves, and legs bare to the knee. Blushing, she untied her skirts and let them fall to her ankles.
"Sorry, mother, I was—"
"Yes. I can smell the oil. Did you really have to bring it with you?"
Instinctively, Ruth put a hand to the butt of her revolver. It was a Scorpion 1860. It had been Uncle Jo's during the war and was nearly as old as her. It was old-fashioned, but Uncle Jo had taken good care of it and insisted that if she did too, it would take care of her in return.
"Well, I wasn't gonna leave it layin' about." Ruth winced when she realized she'd dropped her Gs. Her mother flicked her a harsh look. Before the inevitable lecture on diction, Ruth said, "I did not wish to be irresponsible, mother," elevating her diction.
Her mother sniffed, but nodded.
A gasp rose from the crowd. Ruth turned her attention to the men in the street and saw the smallest of them had collapsed. Before the man could be dragged down the dusty main street of Coyote Run, Uncle Jo called for Kenny to halt. He shouted for the tall one and the fat one to stand aside while the Doctor Moore was sent for.
The hubbub of the crowd rose.
The rope holding the tall one to Kenny's saddle went slack.
Ruth looked at Kenny. He had his knife drawn and had sawed through the rope. Ruth assumed he'd made a mistake, that he'd meant to cut the small one loose to avoid dragging him. But he applied his knife to the rope holding the fat one next. His expression was placid and Ruth felt her throat tighten. The hand holding the knife was marked with a tattoo. Kenny Higgins didn't have any tattoos.
The tall one put his hands, still bound at the wrist, to his head, as though suffering a sudden headache.
Quiet panic shivered up Ruth's spine. All around her, the crowd trembled, balanced on the jaw-clenched edge of terror. Hot wind gusted through Coyote Run. She felt like an autumn leaf, fragile and tenuous.
The rope holding the fat one went slack.
"Ruth. Home. Go home."
Her mother's voice was careful, calculated, but trembled. She'd never heard her mother frightened before.
The fat one raised his bound wrists over his head and strained, cheeks going red with effort. Ruth could hear the quiet popping of threads over the building panic of the crowd.
"Ruth…" Her mother put a hand on her shoulder.
"Last warning." Uncle Jo's voice cut like a high noon bell through the hot panic holding the crowd at the edge of madness.
Ruth felt her shoulders relax, her fists unclench, her chest swell with a deep breath. Uncle Jo had his revolver drawn, hand steady, aimed at the fat one. Ruth had seen Uncle Jo shoot and knew he could kill both men in a matter of moments.
"You don't think I'll save the hangman the trouble?" Uncle Jo's voice was steady as his hand. The fat one relaxed his shoulders. The tall one lowered his hands. For a moment, it looked like the Sheriff of Coyote Run had everything under control.
A gunshot shattered the moment before it could settle. Panic spilled into stampeding terror as the people of Coyote Run fled, screaming.
Ruth watched Uncle Jo stagger back, his revolver slip from his grip. Blood spread from a wound in his right shoulder. She followed his gaze to Kenny, still astride his horse, one arm bound in a sling, the other aiming his revolver at Uncle Jo.
Her mother's hand on her shoulder tightened.
Kenny fired again. Smoke and fire spat from the barrel. Uncle Jo staggered and fell, clutching his belly.
With a great roar, the fat one broke the bonds at his wrists. He mounted Uncle Jo's mare, and the horse grunted and danced until he took a tight rein and thumped her between the ears. The tall one mounted behind Kenny. While the people of Coyote Run panicked, the outlaws kicked their horses, leaving their small compatriot sprawled in the dirt.
Their escape pointed them at the side street Ruth had just come down.
They would ride past her close enough to touch.
Through her fear, Ruth put a hand on the butt of her revolver, the panic of the crowd a background buzz to her focus. It was Kenny who caught her attention. He was an earnest young man with a ready smile. He'd grown up in Coyote Run, just like her. They had attended school together, attended church together. But as he rode past, Kenny's gaze fell upon her, and the young man she knew was gone. This man's gaze was flat and calculating.
Then there was the tattoo, clear as day, a giant moth on the back of his right hand. Its wings fluttered.
They galloped past her in a moment.
Ruth drew her revolver, and stepped out of her mother's grip, taking a wide stance.
No one was in the street but for the men and the horses they rode. Uncle Jo had impressed upon her the importance of knowing what was beyond a target, in case she missed. She'd only ever shot tin cans off posts, game for food, and varmints. Aiming at a person made her jaw clench.
She took a breath and squeezed the trigger.
The fat one twitched and hollered. Uncle Jo's mare jumped and kicked. Ruth cursed herself for a fool. She could have hit the horses. But the horses continued to gallop and the men got away.
• • •
Ruth paced in the courtyard behind her parents' house, practicing what she would say.
"I know y'all think I'm just a kid, but I can track and hunt and camp. Daddy taught me. And Uncle Jo taught me to shoot. He said I'm gettin' real good. Besides he was my uncle and…"
Ruth cleared her throat and wiped her cheeks. She knew she wouldn't convince anybody by crying. She had to be tough to have a chance of convincing Deputies Samuel and Joshua. She'd also have to find a moment alone with the deputies as no amount of toughness would convince her mother.
She cleared her throat, took a breath, and started again. "I know y'all—"
Ruth yelped and flinched. Ears hot, she turned to find her father astride his horse, dusty and travel stained. With the sun setting on the far side of town, he was little more than a shadowy silhouette.
"Something wrong?" He asked. "You're jumpier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."
Her father dismounted with a weary grunt, and Ruth grabbed him in a fierce hug. A moment ago she'd been ashamed of her tears, now she let them fall. He hugged her back and kissed the top of her head.
"Did something happen?"
Ruth took a deep breath. Her father smelled strongly of sweat, dust, and horse, but also pipe tobacco and peppermint candies. He always came home with candies.
"Uncle Jo's been shot." She said it quickly.
She felt her father stiffen and he stepped back, hands on her shoulders. "What happened?"
She outlined the events of only hours ago.
"Kenny Higgins shot Uncle Jo?"
Ruth swallowed hard. "It was like he was a different person." She didn't know how to describe the tattoo Kenny suddenly had without sounding crazy. "Uncle Jo's in the parlor. Mama and Doctor Moore are with him."
Ruth helped her father unsaddle and brush down his horse before they went inside. Her father would be no more inclined to allow her to track down Uncle Jo's attackers than her mother, so she didn't bother bringing it up.
The entryway of the Achebe residence was small and tidy and well appointed. Though her mother's side of the family made good money managing the silver mine, her parents weren't interested in opulence. Deputies Joshua and Samuel waited there, Samuel's boots clicking on the wooden floor as he paced, Joshua sitting on the leather cushioned chair, fiddling with his hat. They looked up when Ruth and her father came in.
Deputy Joshua stood. "Mr. Achebe…" he looked at Ruth. "I take it you've been made aware?"
Her father nodded.
"Mrs. Achebe and Doctor Moore are waitin' with 'im." He gestured to the parlor door, just off the entryway.
Her father went to the door, then turned to look at Ruth. "Are you coming?"
Ruth bit her tongue and shook her head.
Her father gave her a nod and went into the parlor. The door clicked softly behind him.
Ruth looked from one deputy to the other and realized this was her chance. "I suppose you'll be headin' out soon?"
Both men looked at her.
Deputy Samuel was young and handsome. He had smooth features and black hair. He was arrogant, but affably so. Occasionally, he even admitted to being wrong. Deputy Joshua was a grizzled veteran. His shaggy curls were nearly white. His large nose had been broken more than once. His eyes were always sad, even when he smiled.
"How do you mean, darlin'?" Joshua said.
"To go after them," Ruth clarified. "I suppose it's quite nearly dark. It might make more sense to wait for mornin'. But surely they'll be ridin' as long as they can. If they get too far ahead..." She trailed off as she recognized a look of defeat on Deputy Samuel's face. "You're not going after them."
"We've sent a rider to let the Marshals know," Deputy Samuel said. His voice was smaller than usual. "They burned out the Johnson homestead. Hanged the family first. Not one of them left alive. Even the newborn."
"They're a wanted gang," Deputy Joshua said. "Always three of 'em. Even when one falls, they manage to recruit a local. Never woulda' thought Kenny..."
"Besides. We can't leave the town undefended." Deputy Samuel said.
"Cowards." Ruth whispered the word, not sure she meant it, but the sound carried in the entryway. Samuel stopped pacing. Joshua stopped fiddling with his hat. Neither met her gaze.
The door to the parlor opened. Her mother stepped into the entryway. "Uncle Jo wants to see you, Ruth."
Ruth regretted calling the deputies cowards. The idea of walking into the parlor, of seeing Uncle Jo lying in pain, almost certainly dying, terrified her. Her shoulders cramped and her stomach clenched. Her mother looked drawn and thin. The doorway to the parlor was a gaping shadow behind her, from which Ruth could hear the careful, pained breathing of Uncle Jo. She moved before she could think, before she could flee.
The room was dark and her eyes adjusted slowly, but she knew her way around well enough. By the sound of his breathing, she could tell Uncle Jo was lying on the sofa. She avoided the low parlor table and knelt next to the couch, blinking into the shadow at Uncle Jo's face.
"I'll leave you to it, then," her father said, standing from one of the chairs. Dr. Moore was with him. Ruth wished they would stay. The door closed with a click. Ruth bit her lip.
"I ain't dead yet, little miss." Uncle Jo said, his voice bare a whisper.
Ruth sniffled a laugh and more tears spilled down her cheeks. "Of course not. You'll outlive the hills, Uncle Jo."
He laughed, but it was like a breeze through aspen leaves. "Maybe so."
She could make out the lay of his body now. He was bare from the waist up, a bandage at his shoulder and belly. His portly frame was smooth but for the bandages. His hands were folded at his breast bone and she put a hand atop them.
"You know you're one of my favorites, right?" Uncle Jo said.
"Of course. Mama's second favorite then?"
He laughed again, then winced. She could feel him tense under her hand.
"I have something for you, Ruth. The ring, on my left hand. Take it."
She'd noticed the ring before, of course, but had never asked about it. It was just a part of Uncle Jo. She'd assumed he'd been married at one point.
"Don't you ever just do as you're told?"
Ruth snorted. "You taught me better than that." But she gently took his left hand in hers and slipped the ring off his finger. It was surprisingly heavy.
"There's an old story. I heard it from an old shaman feller. She heard it from someone else. The story says magic got spilled into the world long ago, by God maybe, or maybe someone else, and bit of magic got comfortable in that there ring."
Ruth frowned at Uncle Jo. She'd never heard him talk like this before. She feared he was losing his faculties and moved to fetch Dr. Moore, but he grabbed her by the wrist, grip strong.
"You get three tricks a day. They have to be small. See in the dark. Sober up. Grow a beard." He laughed and winced. "I used that once a month or so to keep up appearances."
"Folk here had a hard enough time with a Taranaki sheriff. If they knew I was a woman to boot…"
Ruth jerked and tried to look more closely at Uncle Jo in the shadows. Surely he was kidding. Surely he'd lost grip on reality. He didn't look any less like Uncle Jo than he ever had.
"Wear the ring, Ruth. You'll know the truth of it soon enough." He sighed, settling into couch and shadows. "Send the doctor back in, would you?"
Ruth kissed his forehead. "Of course."
• • •
She dressed without lighting a candle, moving carefully so no floorboard squawked, no hinge creaked. Her mother would have frowned to see her wearing trousers rather than a proper skirt, but if she let herself dwell on what her parents might think, she'd never go through with it. Dressed, she slipped down to the pantry where she filled her pack with one of her father's survival kits. She didn't know how long she'd be tracking the trio, but her father had taught her to survive in the surrounding desert for weeks with one of those kits.
She let herself out the back door and hurried to the workshed, her moccasin-clad feet making no sound and leaving little trace. The shed was locked; it was where her parents stored their firearms. She let herself in with her key, closed the door behind her, and let herself take several deep breaths. The smell of leather, oil, and sawdust was comfortably familiar.
The leather gun belt was snug around her waist, the revolver Uncle Jo had gifted her a reassuring weight on her hip. Then she considered the long guns. For a moment she admired her mother's elephant gun, the one she'd brought back from her travel abroad during the war. It was impressive, but impractical. Her father had a pair of P53 hunting rifles, alternating which he took every time he ventured out. She selected one and turned to leave when her eyes lit upon her mother's sword cabinet.
Ruth had taken lessons from her mother since she was big enough to hold a foil. She'd earned innumerable welts and bruises in pursuit of the art of fencing. She thought she was getting pretty good, but surely there was no sense in taking a rapier to what was certain to be a gun fight.
Even so, she took one of the simple, straight blades. Just in case.
• • •
The smoke smelled of kerosene, grease, and death.
Ruth had tracked her uncle's killers across the desert for two days. They'd ridden their stolen horses hard and hadn't bothered to hide their tracks. Now she found the site of their most recent massacre, a supply wagon train, likely headed for Coyote Run. The murderers had taken what they needed and burned the rest, including wagons, horses, and people. She thought she recognized the charred body of her uncle's mare.
The next day she caught up to them.
She followed them for three more days through the hilly desert, staying well back, in harsh shadows, and just below each hilly rise. She subsisted on the rations in her father's kit, just as she'd been taught, careful how much she consumed, how much she had left, how much she'd need for the trip back.
The men gave no indication they'd seen her. They seemed to have no destination, weaving across the desert, gorging themselves on the supplies they'd stolen. She watched them for habits. The tall one and the fat one traded off driving the wagon, though the fat one didn't like the chore and often bullied the tall one into doing it. Despite his unathletic physique, the fat one preferred to plod along beside the wagon, showing remarkable endurance.
Kenny, or the man who had been Kenny, rode inside the covered wagon with the supplies. She didn't know what he did in there. When they stopped for the evening, Kenny would emerge and order the other two about like he'd been their boss for years, telling them where to dig the latrine, build the cookfire, and which supplies to use.
Ruth was more certain now than ever that man was no longer Kenny. Somehow the small man with the moth tattoo had taken control of him. Possessed him. She shivered at the thought.
After they'd eaten their fill, the three would bed down, Kenny going back inside the wagon, the fat one taking first watch, and the tall one rolling under the wagon with a blanket. The fat one woke the tall one halfway through the night to take second watch. Except on that night, once the other two had gone to sleep, the fat one withdrew a jug.
From the little vale in which she hid, Ruth watch through a brass spyglass as the fat one, illuminated by the setting sun and crackling campfire, took a swig of what had to be spirits.
"Patience," she told herself.
She would have to strike tonight. Though she'd thought their route had been haphazard, she realized they were headed for Dry Creek, a town about four day's ride on the established route. She'd gone there with her father several times and recognized the rocky formation in the West. These men would be upon that town tomorrow afternoon at the latest.
She slid into the little valley where she'd made cold camp. Her horse, Cinnamon, stood placidly, swishing his tail in his sleep. She put a hand on his shoulder to let him know she was there. He grunted and flicked and ear, but otherwise didn't react. She dug into the saddlebag still on his back, retrieving a canteen and rations. She took a swallow of water and a mouthful of jerky. Her stomach was knotted and she didn't want to eat more for fear of spewing it back up.
"Patience," she whispered again.
She sat on the ground, cross-legged, and made sure her weapons were clean and well oiled, that the firearms were loaded and ready. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She'd been meditating with her mother for years. Though it wasn't as good as sleep, it was restful.
Hours later, she jerked to with a deep breath and a fluttering of eyes.
The stars sparkled thick overhead. She leaned back and let her gaze follow the thick white band of stars so far distant as to be a gentle blur. Her parents loved astronomy. Telescopes were one of the few extravagances they allowed themselves, and they spent some nights exploring constellations and imagining far off worlds.
Ruth stood. She holstered her revolver on her right, her mother's rapier on her left, and put her father's rifle on its sling over her shoulder. Her uncle's ring was heavy on her left ring finger. It was oddly snug and occasionally tingled, but hadn't displayed any tricks or magic.
She stole upon the camp under starlight and shadows.
The fat one leaned against the wheel of the wagon, jug on its side beside him. The campfire had burned down to coals but she could make him out as a large, lumpy shadow limned in the faint light of stars.
She'd packed plenty of rope to truss the men, hoping she could take them alive. She'd start with the fat one as he seemed passed out from drink. If she was careful and thorough, she could tie him without struggle or sound. She slid her rifle on its sling down and around so it rested on her back, and reached for the rope coiled at her side. She bit her tongue on her nervousness and tried to suppress a shiver of fear up her spine.
A flicker of shadow caught her attention and she swung to the right, reaching for the rifle with shaking hands. The tall one loomed in the shadows, hand to his head.
There were stories, of course, of gods, animals, and people with strange powers. Normal folk dismissed such things, but she'd felt it twice now, building panic when the tall man touched his temple. It might have been coincidence, but she didn't think so. The panic thickened, making her knees wobbly, her fingers stiffen, her chest heavy. She knew she'd be lucky to get off a shot. But the ring on her left hand tingled, and a wave of calm washed over her.
She put the riflebutt to her shoulder, steady as a rock, and aimed at the man's chest.
"I'm here to take you in. Surrender."
Her voice carried through the darkness, and she was both proud of the strength of her tone and worried she'd woken the others. The tall man fumbled at his belt. She heard the scrape of gunmetal on leather and she squeezed her trigger.
She was used to the kick of her father's hunting rifles. She'd hit targets from 250 yards and was steadily improving. She'd hunted game and varmints. When the tall man crumpled, the kick felt no different, but she winced.
She spun to face the wagon even as the fat one roared awake, swinging with a berserker's strength and speed. He struck the rifle, knocking it from her hands, snapping the sling. The longarm went skittering away as she stumbled back. Even from the indirect blow, her vision spangled.
On desperate instinct, she drew her revolver, blinking rapidly, trying to clear her vision in the star-lit darkness. She fired into the blurry shadows. She didn't know if she missed, or if the fat man just didn't react. He came for her, a massive shadow of swinging limbs and inarticulate roars. She blinked and fired again, certain her shot hit the center of those shadows.
The ring tingled, warm on her finger. Her vision cleared and the darkness brightened. She could see clearly, though all in shades of grey. And as the fat one roared for her, still swinging wildly, she realized he was leaving himself wide open. If he were a fencing opponent, she'd have scored a dozen times by now.
Dancing back and to the side on her moccasin-clad feet, Ruth holstered her revolver and drew her mother's rapier. He must have heard the sound of the blade being drawn, for he turned to her. But only mostly. He reared back to deliver a blow with his mighty fist, but the attack was so telegraphed as to be laughable. And when he swung, she was already off to one side: out of range and ready to counterstrike.
She thrust with the long, slim, sharp blade, taking the man in the armpit. The blade struck true, and though his hide was tough, it could not resist the pointed lunge. The blade sank halfway into the man's trunk before it caught. The man's roar turned to a gurgle and he toppled before she could wrench the blade free. His fall pulled her blade from her grip. For several moments, Ruth looked at the bodies of the fat man and the tall man. She couldn't stop the sick feeling growing in her chest.
Ruth swallowed her bile.
The light of a lantern emerged from the wagon, and Ruth turned, drawing her revolver and pointing it at the man who'd been Kenny. He held up the lantern in his right hand and raised his left hand as best he could, the arm still in a sling, to show he was unarmed.
"I have to thank you for that," the man said with Kenny's voice but none of his character. "They were becoming entirely too reckless."
He held the lantern with his right hand, so she couldn't see the moth tattoo. With the lantern illuminating camp, her eyes shifted and her vision returned to normal.
"I could feel you coming, of course," the man said. "It's your will. Too strong to subsume, just like that lawman. But there are others now. A town nearby. Perhaps you know it?"
Ruth bit her tongue. She wanted to shoot the man, but she also wanted to know what was going on, and he seemed fond of talking.
"We're close enough. I can reach out and claim one of those weak-willed bodies as my own. I will, but I wanted to meet you first. It's rare to meet someone with a will stronger than mine. They call me Adam. What's your name?"
Ruth snorted and cocked her revolver.
Adam laughed. "Perhaps we'll meet again someday." The man collapsed. The lantern tumbled from his hand and went out.