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Riding a horse sucked. How the others went about it without looking so much as bothered seemed some sort of superhuman feat. It was a troublesome task to try and stay balanced on the beast, and his only glance up toward the others honed in on Shasta's exposed neck and he was at once queasy. That was going to be his neck.
Roland survived the first part of the ride to find his legs felt bowed out of shape when his attempt to dismount like Leigh had resulted in his legs buckling under him. He'd scrambled back to his feet immediately and spent the rest of the evening with an aching back and hips.
Gail questioned him once they'd set up a hasty camp. It was a familiar back and forth, and she fed him throughout the procedure, which was nice. He didn't turn away the food even as time progressed and the aching hunger left as it gave him something to occupy his hands with while talking. It was more food than he rightly needed. By the time he was trying to curl himself into Gail's sleeping bag he was perhaps uncomfortably full but it was a welcome change.
When morning came, Roland was awoken to his heart racing first from a dream, and then from Shelly's voice. His nose was stuffy, and his throat dry. It was a normal discomfort, and the raspy coughing that started after greedily drinking from a waterskin was as much a part of his morning routine as breakfast. It would clear up before the hour was out, sometimes longer on bad days.
Gail was sprawled out on the dust by the fire, snoring. When Roland saw that the others were already up, he hurried reached over to shake her shoulder. It took a few tries, and even when Gail was alert enough to sit up she still looked half-asleep.
"What's it?" Gail whined.
"Morning?" Roland suggested. He wasn't sure exactly what Gail had been asking, but the answer seemed helpful enough. Gail pushed herself up with a steady grumbling.
"Shasta. Yond," Gail managed to drone out a greeting. Then she pushed some dried jerky and fruit into his hands. Roland found he was famished and quickly devoured the offering.
The thing that finally seemed to wake Gail up was when, after rummaging through her own bag in the cart, she stopped to study Missy. She was frowning.
"Mr. Yond, isn't there anything we can do for your girl?" Even as Gail spoke, she was dampening her own handkerchief and set it over the girl's forehead and gently over her eyes to try and conserve some moisture. "That native man, he'd been able to heal, right? Can't one of you do something? Ro?"
Roland didn't know how to help, and gave her a shrug. His own talents seemed to be more solidly within the realm of following simple commands. Clean this, fix that, perform a task. There was also Leigh's standing order not to get near Missy that Roland wasn't looking to break.
With no satisfactory resolution, they'd set out for that day, but only after Gail had chided Roland for getting a sunburn and pulling off her own hat to toss at him to wear. They were all in the sun equally, so Roland didn't understand how she'd expected him to avoid it, but dutifully put the hat on. Roland hadn't wanted to get back on his horse but voiced no complaints as they set out, with Gail putting a significant increase into their already hurried pace.
As they followed the track, every so often Gail would call out to him to ask if they looked like they were getting close. He shook his head every time, eventually growing tired of the question. He hadn't been paying much attention to the countryside at the time. He'd explained how the train robbery had gone last night, couldn't she remember? He'd been certain the direction of the train and had provided which side of the track to search but that was the extent of his knowledge.
Gail suggested spreading out, each a good few yards apart to better comb through the underbrush to look for Colette. It was a frustrating process, clinging to his horses back while trying to also scan the surround brush for the girl.
Roland wondered if it would be okay to try and use magic. He'd had the bag of coal close by and every so often when he felt more stable he'd pluck out a smaller lump to hold it in his hands. It felt....familiar. It felt like he could be competent.
Now, leaning back precariously to plunge one hand into the bag, Roland tried to think about the girl. He'd only seen her a short time. She looked like a proper lady in her dress, and with golden hair and pale skin not unlike Matron. They were different ages though, and there had been no cruelty in Colette. Bravely, to be sure.
"Find. Help us find her. Find Colette."
The coal was fairly unhelpful. It wasn't the coal's fault, Roland didn't know what he was doing. Part of him hoped the magic wouldn't work if only because he feared casting it would draw the Sheriff that much closer.
Then he saw her.
"There!" Roland's voice had come out raspy, cracking in pitch but he could see the shape of the girl ahead, crumpled beneath a thorny bush. Roland needed to go faster. He shook his reins unhelpfully, then flailed his legs.
The horse reacted as horses do, by picking up into a gallop that threw Roland from the saddle within three steps. It wasn't a hard fall, as the gentle horse hadn't been going fast, and he was on his feet and running within seconds. (1`b76-Bean)
It was a short run, and Roland skidded to a stop in the dirt beside the girl's body. She was still. Too still, and covered in dirt and [i blood] and Roland didn't know what to do.
"Here!" Roland tried again to shout, and he gently rolled Colette onto her back, then, after hooking his arms under her armpits, dragged her out so she was no longer under the bush.
So Shelly hadn't been hand picked by some nefarious stranger? She was just a [b coincidence]? "When we get back to town, I'd like to you to help me send a message to your contractor." She needed to find this person, fast. Who knew how many bounty hunters were on Roland's trail already.
"So you lot really hide? In plain site?" She made a mental note of the phrasing, and was determined to look into other bounties once she was back in her home state. If there were others like Roland, how better to find them if their information was being broadcast to any and all manner of mercenaries?
They were a right cheery lot. Gail chattered on about nothing to fill the silence during the day when it became unbearable, and it was clear none of the other adults were feeling like acting with much maturity. It left a stale, electric tension to the air.
By the time it became night, with the others so fixated on getting to bed, it left Gail with some free time. She took Roland aside not long after they'd stopped, and after getting him to brush off as much coal as possible, handed him a shirt damped with water to try and wipe off as much coal from his face and neck as possible.
Before turning into the night, while Roland went to town on every food item Gail handed him, she was able to coax out of him what had happened since they'd last seen each other in more detail. He'd been hesitant at first, per usual for him, but also true to habits he was more open with his words the more food Gail got into him. Truly the kid was a bottomless pit.
"Alright, that's enough for tonight, kid," Gail said, tying closed her leather bound journal she'd been taking notes in from the dying light of a candle. The others had gone to bed already, or were at least pretending to sleep and Ro was still looking like he needed the rest.
"Thanks. For coming."
"Hell of a way to show appreciation, gallivanting half across the country. Making me come all this way and that's all I get what? A 'thanks'? Don't think I'm not coming up with some grand repayment you're gonna owe me. It'll be a doozy. Your probably gonna spend the rest of your short life repaying it. Now get your ass to sleep, if I see even one yawn out of you tomorrow your gonna be hoofing it on your own two feet, got it?"
Roland grinned, clearly not taking the threat to heart. Gail was torn between wanting to wipe the smug expression off the brat's face and just....glad.
Gail left Roland to get into Gail's sleeping bag , and took first watch sitting by the fire with her shotgun across her knees. Tomorrow was going to be a long day, but Gail couldn't say she wasn't concerned about Missy, but she also couldn't help a selfish feeling of relief her own charge was in better condition.
Making camp that night was awkward, to say the least. Shelly and Leigh had spent the majority of the afternoon in mutual frosty silence, each petulantly trying to ignore the other more obviously. It at least kept the nosy questions to a minimum, now. It did create a fairly hostile atmosphere, however, as the boy himself seemed like a naturally tight-mouthed person, leaving only Gail willing and able to talk to anybody for hours on end. Making camp was awkward, but primarily a relief to escape silence into sleep. Leigh was more familiar with his bedroll spread across the rocky ground than he was any bed on Earth. Less familiar was the little body shoved in with him, her labored breath wheezing right in his ear. Leigh spent minutes arranging himself comfortably, ending up against her side with one of his hands pressed to her ribs on the other side, so that if the shallow expansion of her lungs ceased at any point he would hopefully feel it even in his sleep. She didn't close her eyes. She stared glassily up at the stars, hand more loosely gripping her unravelling braid, no longer able to murmur aloud.
He vaguely remembered waking in the night, finding his nose pressed into dark hair. He might have said Soyala's name. He might have said Gil's. He was confused, the body in his arms as familiar as the wheeze in his ear, but neither sensation belonged to the other. He fell back asleep with the vague assurance that Gilbert would take care of it.
When dawn broke, Missy looked worse than ever. She'd unmistakably lost her voice by now, and her eyes were just barely open, drooping with exhaustion. Her lips were cracked almost to blood.
Leigh himself woke with an immense headache. He had to drag himself up, his arms shaking the whole time. The sensation felt like waking up after an injury, but he was as whole as ever. It took long minutes for him to identify the cause. The sensation of a bare hand against his neck in the night. His neck muscles were as tense as steel cables. Missy had been using him to power her spell all night.
Well, whatever kept these girls alive. Leigh should have thought harder about going to sleep next to her. He might never have woken up. Though, in that case, Missy wouldn't have, either, so. Not a thing to lose sleep over.
It sure made it horrible to heft her back into the cart, though. Leigh scowled bloody death at the stale loaf of sourdough bread in his back, gnawing on it while waiting for the others to wake up. The crust was like knives in his gums. It was typical, but infuriating to his current state. He had to eat as much as possible, to regain his strength. Who knew what magic he'd be called on to do to save Colette when they found her. He'd need energy.
He felt like sleeping where he sat. His temples throbbed. His eyes felt achey and swollen, and his nose tender. He was regretting every moment of his life from the very moment he'd taken a nap on that cattle drive to the present.
Shelly stirred awake with a groan. Her usually-messy silver hair was a thunderhead around her skull. She looked roughly a thousand years old, though in spite of the hair she couldn't have been much older than Leigh himself.
"Dobroye utro," she yawned.
"Eat quickly," Leigh snapped. "We need to find Miss Sutton fast. Missy's at the end of her rope."
"Friendly," the woman muttered. Leigh gritted his teeth so hard that he felt it grind in the pits of his eyeballs. She at least packed up about as efficiently as Leigh had, and munched on her own breakfast of dried beef. He was so miserable, hunched over his bread, that he didn't notice the woman sneak a hand into her confiscated leather back, slipping a handful of mistletoe berries into her coat pocket.
"'Acquaintance' is a generous word for it. I've only spoken to the man over telegram, to confirm that I was taking the job after I found it in an ad in the paper," Shelly shrugged. Leigh, despite the cold shoulder he'd been attempting to give her, turned to stare directly at her.
"Someone put a description of a kid's locus in the newspaper?!" Privately, he wondered how on Earth anyone put any stock in the Locust Sheriff fame if things like that went unpunished. Though, naturally, if someone WAS describing loci in the local papers it wasn't as if Leigh was going to just shrug and go home. Especially now that it had affected himself and his daughter.
"No. The ad had a bolded line assuring the reader that the boy the bounty was for had locus standi."
Leigh's face darkened. "How does that sentence constitute a 'no'?"
"I thought you were educated."
"The only Latin I know is caveat emptor."
"It's a legal term, meaning the person bringing a case has the right to accuse the person they're accusing. Of course, it's reversed. The ad-placer would need locus standi, not the subject of the bounty. I placed a telegram accepting the job and inquiring what locus the boy had, exactly. The response only said 'coal', then told me where to meet the others who'd accepted the bounty." It had been an irritating shock to hear that she'd have to work with strangers, though at the time she'd optimistically thought it wouldn't be so bad. It was how she'd met her friends, after all. And it wasn't like her friends were going with her, Lawrence having a real job now, Morris and Tooly caught up in danger, and Troy stuck deep in a whiskey jar. Sparrow had agreed to keep her company on the way, but had refused to participate in the bounty-taking, especially once he had heard it involved trains. She'd thought maybe these other hunters would be useful, more fool she.
"Hmm. Anyone who didn't already know wouldn't make anything of that response," Leigh muttered, clearly weighing whether this constituted a breach of taboo or not. "Did you understand before accepting the job?"
"I suspected. It seemed unfair to pit normal bounty hunters against a boy who might fight back harder than expected."
"I'm sure chivalry was a primary concern of yours."
Shelly looked ahead and didn't answer. Didn't let him provoke her. She didn't have to explain herself to this nobody. He was in no position to judge her--he looked like he'd been wearing the same set of clothes for weeks on end even before the coal-cloud, and here he was chasing a bastard daughter crossing state lines to escape him. He probably didn't have anyone who would stand by him or go to any length to keep him safe. Which would come in pretty handy, when it came time to fight him. Though really. If this man was supposedly powerful, he sure didn't look or act it.
Gail had never heard so many people repeat one man's name before. Whatever Leigh's name meant the two strangers were acting pretty strange about it. Not that it was any of Gail's business, and it was clear Leigh wasn't in a mood to talk about it.
"This is all by where you're from, then?" Gail mused aloud, deciding not to join in Shelly's interrogation. It seemed nosy enough to make demands about one's family and lineage, barring it being necessary to an investigation. What sort of social etiquette was involved about inquiring about another's locum seemed to be a readily enough topic for Shelly to give up, but Leigh had not been so inclined.
A quick glance back confirmed Roland was still following along at a slower pace. Despite having managed to clamber up onto the horse, the boy had no great gift for riding and it was more to the credit of the horse that it was even following along.
Roland's coal must have been one of the European types. As he didn't know his family, it was impossible to tell where he was from beyond that. With the accent, it made sense Shelly had a plant-based locum. It sounded like Missy took after her mother, and as a Navajo is made sense her locum was some form of animal.
"This girl's gonna make it whether she wants to or not," Gail spat back at Shelly, but urged the horse pulling the cart on a little faster. Ideally, Gail would have been able to propose that splitting up might make them more time. Leigh and Roland would make the ideal team to ride ahead and find Colette, but Gail didn't trust Shelly enough to be the only thing between the bounty hunter and Missy. That, and Roland's abysmal riding. They were making good time though, and if they kept on through the night they'd get there sooner. It would be slower going, but they hadn't exactly been cautious at any point of this detour.
"And that's a story I'd rather like to hear more about that myself, Ms. Shasta. () "I can't divulge too much, as its still an open case, but some folks found out Roland's abilities young, took him, put him to work. Far as I can tell he's the only one they found, but I also thought I had every last one of those bastards locked up.
"Which leads me to wonder who was left to hire you? And how did you go about making this gentleman's acquaintance?" That this man knew enough about Roland to set not only just any bounty hunter, but another Loci after him was concerning. Those fools hadn't known any better than Roland what Loci were. At least, none of the ones Gail had arrested did.
Before they'd set out, Sparrow had given Leigh an odd, burning look.
"What's wrong? You know him?" Shelly leaned down.
"Not personally," Sparrow murmured. "I'd heard rumors a tribe had found Pahana, but that he refused to go with them."
"Pahana? Like the girl?" Leigh had a different surname, despite their relationship. Shelly assumed that if the girl was a bastard, the name would be more tied to her mother than her father, but maybe not.
"It's a story of my people. He's very powerful, and valuable. Some wish to follow him, others to..." he trailed off meaningfully.
Shelly sat back up. "Well, we'll see what's what when we get back with the other girl. You get some rest while we're gone and score some points with those birds of yours."
"Be careful," he'd said as they rode away.
The trek across the desert was punctuated by awkward small-talk in between long silences as Shelly contemplated the mess she found herself in. She could still get that bounty on that boy, once they were back in St. Louis, if she decided to. Alternately, maybe there would be a bounty on this man she could get without continuing to maim children. She could avoid disappointing Sparrow while still saving Morris. No choosing between her best friends. It was a good plan, except that she wasn't sure she could beat a man so powerful that a whole tribe was apparently fighting over him. She'd have to get more details on that situation, somehow, from him or Sparrow. But if she got the element of surprise somehow, her own special magic could probably take care of that. In fact, it worked better against more powerful people.
In the meantime, she'd just have to be docile and hopefully lower their guards a bit. Be friendly. She could be friendly. If only Leigh would stop evading her questions.
The cart bumped over a rock, with a noise like it might collapse into matchsticks at any moment. Shelly glanced at the girl in the bed of it. She was limply bouncing over every bump in the ground. Shelly gestured at her rolling head to Leigh, who muttered something that yanked Shelly's scarf right off her neck and coiled it beneath Missy's head. Fair enough. She gritted back a scowl. Wouldn't want the girl to die now, after all this effort they were taking to save her. Even with her head somewhat protected, she didn't look good at all. Her spell-murmurs were getting hoarser and threadier, the lines on her face becoming more pronounced even as the color leeched from her skin. Her breath was labored. She looked aged about ten years since Shelly had first seen her on the roof of that train.
"I hope she lasts twenty-four hours," Shelly said. Then, "Anyway, what's the story with you two? Why was a man offering me money to kidnap Longshanks there? And why is that the police's business?"
"Yond?" Leigh heard Sparrow repeat, in a far-too-familiar tone of voice. "LEIGH Yond?"
Loudly, Leigh said, "The Inspector is absolutely right, we should get moving as soon as possible, just let me get the little missy in the cart and we'll be right on our way!" He hastily fumbled getting his daughter out of the saddle and into the stupid rickety contraption. It was like handling a bag of wet sand, though Missy was marginally more chatty. He nearly dropped her in his haste. Sparrow's attention was like radiating heat against his back, as he deliberately kept himself bustling and unapproachable. He loudly narrated everything he was doing to Missy as he did it , hoping to ride roughshod over any possible conversation. He, quite unfortunately, thought he saw Sparrow and Shelly murmuring to one another despite his best efforts. But she wasn't Native. Non-Natives didn't usually give two figs about the Pahana story. He was probably fine if she knew about it.
As soon as he could be reasonably sure Missy wouldn't topple right back out, he was scrambling back into his own saddle. "Ready when you are!" He looked back at the others. "We're losing daylight, here!"
Shelly unhurriedly nudged her white mare up to join Della Rosa. "You seem in a hurry all of a sudden." She seemed neutral on the subject, so far. Leigh dared to hope she wouldn't mention it. "Leigh Yond, right? But the girl is Missy Pahana?"
Typical. Leigh sighed. "We have a complicated relationship. And as you can see, her mother was Navajo."
"What's her locus she's casting with, anyway? Her own hair?"
That question was somehow even worse. Leigh gritted his teeth. "It's hair from her locus. She takes after her mother, obviously; it's an animal." Hopefully vague enough. He took the moment to look over at the two greenhorns. "Typically people from certain regions share a broad category of locus. Native Americans north and south do magic with animals, while Europeans have minerals, and Asians," a nod to Shelly, "use plants. Mixed heritage makes it a little more unpredictable. And there are always random cases of divergence." Those cases were fairly unwelcome, usually, even among the spread-out community of loci. He added a bright, false laugh, "But doing magic with your own hair is outlandish, even for half-bloods!"
The thought of how a desert could become a loci was occupying Roland's mind. He couldn't shake the scars on Shelly's neck from his mind. Someone out there, a ghost and a sheriff. Maybe others. Roland hadn't known there were rules. The Matron must not have either, or she had disregarded them entirely.
What would the Matron have done against a ghost? Or an entire desert?
Gail didn't seem worried in the least. She'd mentioned someone in the past, someone who was supposed to be able to help Roland. Someone like him. Now, Roland wasn't so sure he wanted the Sheriff's brand of help, if it was going to come with a noose.
The bag Gail gave him was clean, until it wasn't. Not after it was in his hands. It felt strong, like it could hold a lot of weight. Roland would come to appreciate the bag, but his attention was held fast by the paper bag. Food. Roland's mouth watered at the thought of sustenance, whatever it was.
Roland skipped the extra step coming down from the general store and hurried to trot back to where they had all dispersed minutes before. He was surprised to find there was someone else there as well, along with Leigh, Missy, Shasta and some horses.
It was the man from the inn. He and Leigh were standing facing each other, but the man was also holding what looked like a bird. As Shasta was there, it seemed she and the man were not entirely at odds with each other. Roland wasn't sure why this man would be an associate with the bandit, but it wasn't his place to make demands and he really wanted to get to the part where they got to eating.
Roland kept his distance from Shasta, but approached the two on foot. Missy was on the horse, so Roland figured this was still obeying Leigh's request to keep clear of her if he handed the bag to Leigh himself. As he approached, he was surprised that, from a quick glance before staring determinedly down at his own feet, Leigh's face looked significantly less disfigured than before.
"Thank you for earlier," Roland said to the stranger, before holding the paper bag out to Leigh. "Gail said to see if Missy can eat. She'll be here soon."
As though summoned by her own name, Gail truly did arrive just after. She was perched upon the driver's seat of a rickety little cart. The thing looked fit to fall apart if it hit so much as a pebble. One horse was pulling the contraption, with another tied to the back of the cart and following diligently.
"It'll be dangerous to ride with Missy being unconscious, and if her friend is in a similar condition we'll need some way to transport both of them," Gail announced. "We've got a few hours of light left, so if we're going to rush into this we'd better get a move on. Ro, get on that horse back there."
Roland had no idea how to ride. Would the horse even be able to carry him? Gail was telling him so often he was impossibly big. "I can't."
"Not a suggestion, kid. Up. Now."
"Don't know how."
Gail paused at that. "Hell, kid, its not hard. Come on, I'll show you and we'll get that new bag of yours hooked up. Mr. Yond, as soon as you get your girl situated we'll get going."
"A river can serve just as well as a bath," Gail called over her shoulder. She would carry buckets of water up to a trough if necessary, or shove the lot of them into the Mississippi itself if that's what it took. Roland, clearly shuffling his feet as though deciding who he should be following, finally set himself to follow along with Gail.
Gail had spoken briefly with the sheriff upon arriving to town, and was her first stop now they were getting ready to leave. She'd left her belongings there, just a suitcase with her uniform, a money order, a duster coat and some spare clothes. She grabbed the money and the coat. They had some horses at the stable, and Gail was able to inquire about borrowing two, and they had an old cart.
Next, the general store. Leigh said Roland would want to take as much coal with him as possible, but his threadbare pockets were straining with the stuff. It looking positively ridiculous.
She made Roland wait outside, as she did at the police station, but when she came out this time, to put a sturdy leather saddlebag in one of his hands and a paper bag in the other, he was speechless in a more awestruck way than his usual moping.
"There's bread, some preserves and jerky in there," Gail nodded toward the paper bag. "You look like shit, eat something. And see if Leigh can't get his girl to accept anything. Even if we just get some of the preserves on the girl's tongue it might give her some strength. Then put your charcoal in the other bag, you look more foolish than usual.
"That should be enough time for the stablehands to bring the horses round. You run ahead, I'll bring the cart round."
Apparently, the Leigh Yond charm had evolved into a kind of mass insanity. Rumors were one thing, but this? Were people just that bored with their lives, in general? Did lying about a person they'd never met liven up their existences so much that they couldn't stop doing it? To say nothing about how bored the people who BELIEVED it must be. Did none of them know how their own loci worked? How could one man's locus be the whole damn desert?
Speaking of unrealistic expectations about the desert... "I don't think a bath is in the cards unless you're some kind of heiress. I can't afford that much water. Anyway, leave the kid alone, the more coal he has the better his spells will turn out. A locum just starting out wants as much as they can get their hands on, until they have a feel for what they can do with how much." Some, like Leigh, never got past their hoarding days, if their locus was rare and they weren't guaranteed to get more regularly. Though Leigh's personal solution to that problem was on the more extreme end. "And, no, you're stuck with your locus for life. So start getting used to it." As for her stated intention to track down the Sheriff, well, good luck with that. She'd find a certain amount of trouble finding a tireless demigod who could command the desert to do his bidding and hunted down criminals as a life calling. Leigh would be somewhere back in California doing another stint as a ranch hand, probably, working up the money to feed himself and now maybe a kid, too.
Their dramatic rescue was put on a bit of a pause as everyone split up to track down horses and carts. Leigh had to settle a tab with a fairly angry bartender and discovered that naturally someone had stolen the decoy wallet from his saddlebags. Joke was on them. It was a small stack of one-dollar bills spelled to look like hundred-dollar ones, with the serial numbers intact and untouched. The thief would find their haul was worth about three dollars. This was far from the first time Leigh had abandoned his horse in a huge rush to stick his nose into something. His real wallet was safely inside his vest.
Della Rosa at last retrieved, he rejoined the others. Shelly Shasta had retrieved her own horse, an extremely lean white number with ashy gray speckles across his rump and red dust clinging to his legs and sides. From the looks of her saddlebags, she was as widely-traveled as Leigh himself was. She looked stocked up and ready to spend the next few weeks in the desert. Beside her horse stood a small Native man dressed in the style of the Coyote clan. He was feeding birds when Leigh approached. The birds did not scatter even as Della Rosa came closer.
"Another bounty hunter?"
"The doctor I mentioned," Shelly said. "Sparrow, this is the guy who was hit with a shovel."
"I could tell," Sparrow said. "Hello. I am sorry you were hit in the face with a shovel. I can help you, if you like."
"If you're offering, I'll accept gladly." It wasn't worth an extra stop, but a quick heal along the way would do wonders. Leigh was still blinking back reflexive tears with every long sentence and uneven step. He'd been hurt worse, but not often in the face. The pain there seemed to have a direct line to his tear ducts, as useless and humiliating as that was. It would be nice for it to stop throbbing so he could breathe through it again, too. He swung off Della Rosa and approached. Sparrow knelt down to the birds he was feeding and, very casually, picked one up with his hands around its wings. The bird's little feet stuck straight out in front of it, but it didn't struggle. It looked vaguely disgruntled, but not particularly alarmed. Sparrow's other hand traced a circle just above his throbbing nose, while he murmured something in his own language. The pain swooshed out, lower and lower with every throb like a receding tide. It settled into a vague irritation, like a slightly sharper echo of a sneeze caught in the sinuses. Sparrow pulled his hand back.
"I focused on repairing the cartilage. You will still bruise there and in the eyes, but the swelling should be minimal. You will keep your sight."
Leigh pulled in an experimental breath, winced. "How long till I can breathe through it?"
"Hours, perhaps a day." His hand opened, and the little brown bird fluttered free into the sky. Sparrow glanced at Shelly. "I am glad you changed your mind about the job."
She shifted in the saddle. "Yeah. Well. You wait here at the Mule Ear, alright. I'll be back in a few days to get you. Once we're done, you and I are blowing this place and getting right back to Morris, Troy, and Tooly."
"I look forward to it." He nodded gravely.
Shelly being cooperative was a welcome change in complications. "I'll be holding onto Lohr, I think," Gail said easily, giving her shotgun a gentle pat but she relaxed her hold to one hand so it swung more easily at her side. "After it, it seems like I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here."
And there went Leigh making a statement that at once unsettled Gail, and was also a sentiment she couldn't help approving the idea of how much better she'd feel once her growing flock of charges was patched up and scrubbed up.
In a spot of wisdom, Gail kept her mouth shut and instead let Leigh direct the discussion on loci. There were berries. Whether they were mistletoe as Sherry said, or not, was entirely beyond Gail's realm of knowledge. So Shelly was making the claim to be able to cast magic when touching these berries? Hard to come by or not, it hardly seemed fair that Gail was stuck with Roland, the living chimney. "nhy6utw ar" .
"Any chance of changing loci?" Gail asked. If Roland could switch to something like potatoes or grass he'd be a lot easier to keep clean.
Then the conversation went to the Sheriff. Gail had at first nodded along with Sherry but found herself becoming skeptical at the claims of being able to use the desert to cast magic. "Hang on, I heard of this Sheriff of yours but nothing quite so fantastical. Only rumours in New York, but I've got some leads I'm gonna use to track him down once Ro testifies. I don't know how you Loca folk regulate yourselves under the law, but this Sheriff fella is either fighting the good fight, or on some kind of ego-trip and I aim to find out."
If Shelly's neck, now exposed, was an alarming sight, Gail was downright enraged that when Roland spoke, suddenly at her side, she turned to see he had somehow collected even [b more] coal.
"What the blazes ya think you're doing, kid? You drop that mess right now, do you even need all that?" Gail stepped back and realized that, in contrast, Leigh and Missy seemed slightly less stained. Shelly remained right in some sort of medium between the two levels. On top of that, Roland looked half spooked to death. Gail let out an exasperated sigh.
"Ghosts and ghouls aside, I'm going to have to advise against carrying Missy that way on a horse. I'm going to commandeer a cart, and we'd best be getting on our way if we're going to save this girl in time to get you all baths before you end up looking that way forever."
Roland, already nodding to Leigh's demands before the list was complete, managed to drop the knife entirely when Leigh started walking away. He didn't want to get close, but dropping his hands into the coal dust still covering the ground he snagged at strings of their connection. "Come clean."
It was one of the spells he had been more often been called on to cast in the past. Matron never liked it when he stained the walls or floor with his passing and such it was a common order to clean up after himself. From this distance, and with the sheer amount of coal caked on them, it didn't wasn't entirely effective, but at least some of the coal came loose. If Leigh could stop moving for a moment, Roland could make it work better, but Roland didn't think his voice would get the request out in a way that would work. Especially if Roland was to stay away from Missy now, who Leigh was holding.
They were collectivly walking away, and the words Roland could catch of their conversation were clearly about these new words of magic. Roland wanted to hear them, and raced to retrieve Gail's knife and finally cut his hands free.
It was an exquisite agony, as his sense of feeling brought with it both pins and needles in his actual hands but also great stretches of pain across his shoulders and back at finally being able to move the limbs again.
Coal. Leigh said to get coal. Roland was already covered head to toe in the stuff, and filling the remainders of his pockets was a quick task after trotting back into the shed. He haphazardly shoved the first pieces he grabbed into his pocket then hurried to fun after the others, careful to braces his hands over his pockets to keep as much of the precious substance from falling out as possible.
He heard Leigh shout something else back to him as he approached, and Roland didn't have a response. He'd never hit someone before, and thus had no scale of how likely it was that Leigh was losing some of his looks. How well did faces heal?
Roland was careful to give Leigh a wide berth to edge around to stand on Gail's far side. If her presence had initially had a calming effect on his anxiety, it wasn't enough for the ensuing story and reveal that came to pass. A Locust Sheriff? A Judge? And the horrid scars on Shasta's neck, spared from Roland's coal by the scarf that was now clearly there intending to hide the grotesque skin.
Unconciously, Roland raised a hand to his own neck. A cold sweat had made the dust there itch but wasn't quite enough to wash any of the grime away and Roland found himself remembering the pain of the ropes binding his hands....and what would it feel like on your neck? And for using his loci to break laws...
Roland was suddenly, painfully, aware of their current location West of the Mississippi. "The desert?" Roland repeated, then decided to press his luck prying a little further. "H-how do they know? What you've done?"
"Lord knows they're all you have going for you," Shelly muttered. The man might have heard, or he might not have. Maybe he was just glaring indiscriminately at everyone except for the Inspector, whom he seemed to like. Shelly walked compliantly along with them. At this point, escaping was against her best interests whether she intended to continue with the job or not. She definitely did not want to rejoin the other hired men, now. They were more trouble than their extra hands were worth. Her best plan would be to continue working with these people and strike when their guard was lowered. Possibly once the locum man left with his daughter and the only people left to contend with were an inexperienced child and a locusless who was a full half of Shelly's size.
Louder, to the Inspector, "You can put the gun away, now. Take mine if you want. I'll help you find the girl. I can't heal, either, but I know one or two things that might help. I was one of the bounty hunters, yes, but this job has been one terrible thing after another. I'd wash my hands of it, if I could."
"I'd shoot somebody for a wash right now," the man put in, ostensibly in support. Shelly hesitated. She... wasn't sure how to respond to that. A joke? While he toted his semi-aware daughter through the streets, on his way to find a possibly-dead child? Was he an idiot, or did he just not care at all about other people? Before she'd formulated a response that wouldn't get her thrown out of the group at the end of a shotgun shell, he added, "You still haven't given us your locus, you know. Makes it hard to trust you. What is it? Metal? Plant? I don't see any critters around here. Insects seem unlikely but I've seen stranger."
This conversational track wasn't much better. Shelly grumbled, unhooked a pouch from her belt and passed it over to the Inspector. If opened, she'd see a mess of dried berries. "Mistletoe. Please be careful. It is very hard to get, around here."
"I know a bit about what that's like," the man agreed, noncommittally but cheerful. He didn't volunteer his own locus, even though that was the next logical step in this exchange. Shelly snorted. Fine, let him keep his secrets. Miserable pile of them that he was.
To the Inspector, "I'll tell you this much--a locum does magic through a locus, which is a material focus for their spells unique to each person. Beyond that, I should be quiet. I've already broken taboo by telling a non-locum about it, and by using magic against non-loci. I'm a locust. Any more, and the Locust Sheriff will find me and silence me."
By now, they'd reached the street. The man had been idling away from them, presumably to pick up his horse, but came back at full attention at her words. A mocking half-smile creased his face as he looked at her. "You've heard of him? In RUSSIA? And you believe it?"
"No, Russia has her own boogeyman. The Judge, a locusless man hanged for witchcraft, whose ghost now hunts down loci who openly do magic and hangs them for it. I think everywhere has stories like this. When I first came to America, I heard very quickly about the Locust Sheriff. They say he's a man as powerful as a God. If you harm a non-locum, or abuse the laws with magic, he will find you and scour you from the Earth. All of the desert is his locus. Even if you escape, the desert itself will come for you, and let him know always where you are. He walks slowly, but he will always find you, in the end." She'd been told this story by Dr. Lawrence, first. Before that, she'd had very few locum friends in America. He'd warned her the first time she'd used magic to help them complete a job, how her actions would bring mystical ruin down on them all. They were all technically in violation, for bringing Troy, Morris, and later Tooly in on it. Shelly had technically been in violation for her whole life prior to immigrating. She'd slept badly for days, until The Judge had let her know it wasn't America's boogeyman who had jurisdiction.
The man barked a laugh. "The desert is a new one on me! How's he punish people in New England, then?"
"I think he stays west of the Mississippi. Presumably, there is an Eastern sheriff on the other side," Shelly answered stiffly. "I wouldn't mock him. You'll find out the hard way, if you're careless, that these stories have truth to them."
"Really? You believe in a demigod who just goes around the countryside smiting evildoers, what, as a hobby? How's he make money to eat? Has anyone you know ever SEEN him?"
"I have seen The Judge." Shelly reached up to pull down her red scarf. Beneath it, along the column of her throat, were scars left behind by deep scrapes. A hanging rope would not normally leave scars, she knew. She didn't know if it was the magical nature of The Judge, or if it was simply the intense struggle that had gone on during their run-ins that had left Shelly wounded more deeply than most strangled people. Her exact memories of their fights were somewhat hazy with terror and adrenaline and lack of oxygen. "If he is real, I do not see why the Sheriff might not also be."
Oh, now he was all conciliatory, huh? He wasn't stopping to ask questions before he ambushed Leigh with a damn shovel. How did he think coal was going to fix a broken nose, anyway?
He followed the kid's gaze just past Leigh's face, to Missy limp on his shoulder. That made more sense. 'How can I help MISSY'. Not Leigh. Everywhere he went nowadays, he was running into friends of hers. Useful for her. Irritating for him. He was always the bad guy now, huh? Now among white people as well as native ones. She couldn't have even known this kid for longer than a few hours on the train before she ended up half-comatose like this, how deep a bond could they even have made?
Unless... He side-eyed the teenage boy looking at his daughter. "You can help by loading your pockets with this damn stuff before we go, so you're not deadweight, too. And by getting it off all of us so we can breathe. Finally, you can help by keeping your damn distance from my daughter. Understand?" He marched off, after where the Inspector was prodding their captured bandit along. He was really starting to feel a connection to Gail. She was abrasive and practical.
"Everyone's untied, but bleeding isn't my specialty," he reported. "Not much we can do except heal the normal way, this time. Unfortunately." Over his shoulder, he barked, "You'll have a lot to answer for if I lose my good looks thanks to you."
Priorities are a bitch, but Gail was going to keep to some.
First was Roland. Keep him safe. That was already proving to be an extensive task but seeing as the little shit wasn't dead yet she supposed it was a passing job for now.
Second, and this one had been more recently been up, was that Roland seemed to have found some tag alongs. For a kid with the social graces of a fish, and perhaps less experience, that was a wonder of on its own. The fact that they were just as much trouble as he was might have been what bonded them together for all she knew. Magic and Mayhem and Missy.
Third, learning more about this loci/locum business. They said its supposed to be secret, but there had to be some manner of regulation to this nonsense. Some manner of laws, protections, limits. Hell, it would be nice to know what sort capabilities Roland had, since the boy clearly had no clear concept of them.
Fourth, was making up her mind about what to do with Shelly Shasta. She was party to what might be the death of one, and then whatever fate had befallen the Miss. Pahana Roland got himself so worked up over.
Shelly wasn't starting on Gail's good side, but Gail wasn't above giving the woman a chance.
"If you'll come along, ma'am, I think we've got some talking to do and we'd best get it done quick. If you'll lead the way, I'd appreciate it if you'd elaborate a little more on this locum business."
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