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Leigh didn't even twitch, no matter how she kicked him. Good. His breathing was shallow but slow. He wouldn't be suddenly waking up and causing problems. And all his lost energy was buoying Shelly up against the exhaustion of two days of hard riding and very little sleep. She bent down to haul the limp man over her shoulder. In a matter of strides, the father had replaced his daughter's previous position sideways across Shelly's saddle. The rest of her belongings were gathered swiftly and tied on to Cupcake too.
She was grabbing the saddle horn, ready to mount up herself, when something tickled its way across her cheek and neck. A little brown bird alighted there on her shoulder. It bobbed its head rapidly, looking at her with little button eyes. Shelly let go of the saddle and reached up, letting the creature hop into her palm where she could inspect it.
"Sparrow?" she said, uncertainly. The sparrow made a chirpy noise in its throat, then opened its beak. From within, ghostly and strange, came a human voice.
"The bird carries a healing spell. Place her upon the chest of the injured."
Shelly lifted it closer. The bird was completely unremarkable. "And how the hell is that meant to activate it?"
The sparrow let loose a series of three rapid peeps, fluffing all over. It started as if to fly away. Shelly reflexively closed her fingers over its wings. The bird fell immediately still, pulsing rapidly beneath her fingers. Well, the instructions had been vague but clear. Shelly made her way over to the cart where the two girls slumbered, slotted together like a set of quotation marks. One dark, one light. Shelly reached down and pressed the bird between her palm and the blonde girl's chest. It fluttered there, startled and trying to escape. Shelly hesitated, uncertain, before letting go completely.
It was like... a wave going out from the shore, pulling sand out from beneath you. A door shutting right in your face, briefly sucking the air from your face. A shift of vacuum that suddenly stabilized, cut off. The bird fluttered up past Shelly's face. There was no visible change in it, or in the environment. But all at once, the natural paleness of the girl's skin leaked downward like dripping paint through the red swelling of her arm and sunburnt skin, a coat of health skin that settled into place immediately. Bizarrely, the renewed areas had no freckles at all, which stood out against the rest of her skin. In her sleep, the girl shuddered hard, shifted as if waking, scrunched her nose and exhaled hard. Her breath eased. Her arm had smoothed out. Color rose back into her cheeks, natural now. She was healed.
Beside her, Missy Pahana grunted and shifted as well. Her eyelids fluttered, one arm pulling beneath her body.
Shelly immediately backed up. It was definitely time to go. She seized Cupcake's saddle and hauled herself up. The horse was not best pleased with more riding after the last two days, but he was a hardy Native breed, and used to tough demands from his riders. At a trot, they'd reach St. Louis far before this lot could, dragging a cart behind them.
Roland kept his head down and his hands busy when they finally, mercifully, stopped to make camp. Despite the gentle tone she used with the girl’s, Roland could tell Gail was in a foul mood that evening. By the time they’d settled in for the night she was muttering under her breath about Shelly being selective with who she was apologizing too, and about her sore knees. Roland wasn’t sure if the knees were from getting older or if that was a normal occurance after riding for so long.
True to his promise to Leigh, Roland kept to the opposite side of camp as the wagon where the girls were sleeping. He’d seen Missy up and about at one point, and he’d tried to catch her attention to give a little wave but was ignored. He pretended he’d raised his hand to brush his hair out of his eyes.
Without a blanket, Roland made a temporary pillow from one of the saddle blankets and hunkered down for the night. Despite the days being hot, the nights were still chilly and Roland found himself waking up every so often rather than falling into any sort of satisfying sleep.
When there came a heavy thump, Roland had at first hesitated to roll over and see what had happened. He’d just been dozing off again but there came the footfalls if someone getting up and walking. When he finally made the effort, it was to see Shelly over Leigh, and kicking him.
Roland’s stomach plummeted. What had happened? Gail had been pointedly making sure Shelly was never left on watch without Gail also being awake, going so far as to tell Roland not to be alone with the woman. Leigh was asleep though, and Gail too. From his angle, Roland couldn’t see the girls.
Slowly, Roland sat up, staring at Shelly even as his mind raced. Was she just checking on Leigh? Had she shot Leigh? Had she gotten to Gail already? Was Roland getting worked up over nothing? Maybe she’d just gotten up to take a piss and noticed Leigh had fallen asleep. Roland found himself desperately wishing Gail was awake too, if only to tell Roland what to do.
He wanted to get to his coal first. His heart was hammering in his chest as he got up into a crouch and prepared to bolt for the tack and saddles just a few feet away if Shelly made a move to stop him from sneaking in their direction.
Gail’s habit of overpacking was useful now that they had yet another injured party to worry about. Roland had been the one to spot her first, tripping over himself in his hurry to get to her despite having no idea what to do once he’d gotten there.
“Carts got plenty of space,” Gail assured, and once they’d gotten Colette into the cart was surprised just how quickly the girl’s presence seemed to effect Missy. The catatonic girl was talking now.
“Your fathers right, you should get some proper rest,” Gail said as they set a course back for town.
The cart was hesitant to turn, but taking a wide arc was able to remain right side up. The horse was slower than before, now pulling an unreasonable load between the 3 people and baggage. Before Gail could address that, she first wanted to get a better look at Colette’s injuries. “My name is Inspector Gail McCarthy, I believe you’ve met my friend Roland. Wiuls you mind if I take a look at your friend? We’re on our way to find a doctor but I might be able to help in the meantime.”
A quick check revealed nothing life threatening on the outside, but Gail was able to wrap the girls arm to brace it. If she had any broken ribs they’d be better braced in that dress than anything Gail could do at the moment. She handed a leather waterskin to Missy, and dampened a handkerchief with the other to moisten Collete’s lips and mouth, hoping for some reaction. The girl wasn’t swallowing or licking at the moisture, so Gail hesitated to pour any water into her mouth. Dehydration was bad, but choking the girl or giving her pneumonia was less ideal.
Gail babbled on, talking about her work or stories about she’d read in the newspaper just the day before to fill the silence as they rode. When they finally broke for the night hours later than they rightly should have, Gail ordered Roland to take down both their horses in the manner she’d shown him yesterday. Gail was more concerned about getting a better look at Colletes injury now that they were stopped.
This time she applied a bit of marmalade on the girl’s tongue while wiping Collete’s mouth. She’d been repeating the process with just water a few times an hour now and the girl was starting to rest, which was a good sign.
“That’s mighty nice of you, getting dinner ready,” Gail snapped sarcastically at Shelly across camp where Missy had wandered to take care of Shelly’s horse. Rooting into her bags, Gail pulled out more of the bread she’d bought from the general store, tipped off a chunk for herself and tossed the rest to Roland. She grumbled to herself as she crawled out of the wagon. She was getting too old for all this clambering around.
Finally getting Missy to lay back down, and once both girls were tucked in for the night in the wagon, Gail laid out her own sleeping bag.
“Sorry, kid, You got it last night,” Gail stifled a yawn. Leigh was taking first watch, which meant Gail could at least get a few hours of good sleep. “Wake me for second watch.”
Everything was going smooth as silk, for once in Shelly's life. The girl was found alive, and everyone was all afire to get her back to town before that status altered any. Nobody had noticed the reclaimed mistletoe berry yet. Leigh probably wouldn't have noticed a bomb going off in his saddlebag; he sat in his saddle as straight as steel, face hard, but every few seconds his eyes were sliding back towards the cart rattling along behind Gail. His daughter was either sleeping or no longer speaking. The locum boy was exhausted by all of this unaccustomed riding. Basically the only possible threat was the Inspector herself.
Shelly didn't dare call attention to herself by calling a halt, even as the sun sank lower and lower. Dangerously low. ...Gone. And still they rode, hardly slowed from the pace they'd first set out at. The horses were sweating hard. Everyone looked pale and pained. Concern was a fire at their backs. Nobody so much as suggested stopping even as blue gloom seeped into the landscape, heat bleeding into gentle cool. Hope eternally whispered that the next step would bring St. Louis into view, or the next, or the next.
Leigh was the first to break. "We didn't make it here in a day," he rasped, reining his mare in. "We can't make it back in one."
"We could ride through the night," Shelly suggested, as diffidently as she could, following suit. Leigh looked significantly at Roland, drooping like a bluebell.
"Don't think we'd all make that, either," he said. "Damn it. What I'd give for that eagle boy about now." Grumbling, reluctant, still he dismounted and began the process of making camp. Shelly slid down herself, hiding her smile in Cupcake's damp shoulder. The next little while was all wiping down horses and spreading out blankets. It hurt, but Shelly left Cupcake uncared for, in order to be the first to start a cookfire. She unearthed a tin of beans and a knife from her bags, the tin to heat and the knife to saw it open.
To her surprise, the locum girl staggered up from the cart in order to help. Specifically, that was, to cast a dark look in Shelly's direction and begin unloading and grooming Cupcake. She looked like hell, all dark circles around her eyes and ashy complexion. Her hands shook as she worked. One of them reached up every few seconds to touch the braid she'd clutched for days, before she'd catch herself and return to her work. Shelly watched Leigh finish his own grooming and approach her.
"That's enough, little missy. You need to be resting, not working."
"The horse doesn't deserve to catch a chill and die because I'm sleepy," the girl mumbled back.
"Your health determines your friend's. Is it worth risking them both for a bandit's horse?"
"The horse didn't decide to be a bandit, either." Their arguing seemed rote. Leigh was doing a bad job of covering concern with logic. Missy was doing an equally bad job of covering exhaustion with ill temper. They weren't even looking at each other as they spoke--Leigh was looking up at the sky, rubbing his hands together, while Missy concentrated on the brush she was rubbing down Cupcake's smooth flanks. It was horrendously embarrassing to witness.
It was the best possible thing to cover up the half of a mistletoe berry that Shelly dropped into the heated tin of beans. A piece of flat biscuit was taken out of her bags next and split into three pieces. At last, Shelly slapped a dollop of beans onto each piece, marking the one with the berry in it. This, she offered to Leigh as she approached.
"I am sorry. I didn't mean to make you do my work for me," she said to Missy. Leigh wordlessly accepted his piece of biscuit, biting into it. Shelly was so pleased she met Missy's scowl with a smile. "I am sorry for... other things, also."
"Shooting me? Throwing Colette off a train?"
"I didn't do the second one," Shelly defended herself. "And the first was within the law as a bounty hunter. But I'm sorry I mistook my target, and I regret taking the job at all. Let me make it up to you by bringing your friend to my doctor."
Slowly, glancing at Leigh who was happily munching the food, Missy accepted her piece of biscuit. "...We'll see."
Shelly laughed, turning away and crunching into her own biscuit. The girl was as suspicious as her father was trusting. Between the two, so far, he was definitely the easier target. She wrapped herself up in her bedroll on the ground, listening with warm satisfaction to Leigh murmuring to Missy to lie down, get sleep, don't worry, he'd take first watch...
She wasn't going to get a lot of sleep tonight, but it would all be worth it. As soon as she found a buyer for Pahana. As soon as she had that money, got back to Shan Fan, and saw Morris and Tooly again, it would all be worth it. She thought about that moment as the night hours deepened, smoothing out with the soft sounds of sleep. Leigh alone sat up by the fire, cleaning his big nickel-plated revolver with a dirty cloth. No one else stirred. No one else made a sound. Beneath her blankets, Shelly slipped the other half of the berry into her mouth and swallowed it. She closed her eyes and pictured roots spreading and twisting. A seed, splitting from the flesh of a berry, latching onto the host and digging deep, greedy claws in until the parasite couldn't be pulled from the host without killing both. A pulse of life, of energy, chained them together.
"Drain," she whispered. She opened her eyes to watch, raptly, as Leigh swayed where he sat. He ground his knuckles across his eyes, shook his head like a dog, but still he wavered. By degrees he sank lower, lower, until he was crumpled awkwardly on his side, his breath slow and deep and his face as white as snow. He didn't move, even as Shelly boldly stood up and approached him. A prod with her toe elicited no sound. He was completely unconscious. Shelly, meanwhile, was feeling as invigorated and refreshed as if she'd slept the whole day instead of spending it on horseback. Leigh's energy, siphoned into her. She didn't know what his locus was, exactly, but this way it didn't matter. He couldn't cast spells or fight back if he was unconscious. She'd have preferred to do this to the children, too, if only those lugs she'd been with hadn't insisted on the brute force option. Shelly's powers worked better when applied subtly.
Leigh legged it over to where Roland was hauling something big out from under a bush, yards out from where the railroad tracks threw back the sunlight. Even from a distance, he was almost immediately certain it was the body they were looking for: that bush of golden hair was distinctive. Closer up, he could recognize the endlessly-repaired gown as well. Once the boy got her on her back, there was no question that this was Colette.
Leigh was no doctor, but at least certain parts of Colette's problems were apparent at once. The most obvious at any distance was the painful red of her exposed skin, scorched by the sun while she was unable to escape it even by rolling over. The second-most-obvious was her left arm, which bulged along its length. It hadn't apparently broken the skin, but it seemed as if that had been a bullet dodged by millimeters. The area was, well, an even worse color than the lobster-red of her face, to put it mildly. As soon as he was close enough, Leigh was on his knees and stripping away his gloves. To hell with secrecy, he needed his sense of touch. The back of his hand to her mouth showed a steady, if shallow breath. Her pulse was similar--weak, but oddly regular. The way she was breathing, once he could see the motions of her chest, seemed almost mechanical. They didn't match what a girl lying on the ground in her condition should probably be moving like. This, he assumed, was Missy's spell at work. Live, live, live. Again, he was no expert, but he assumed that this forcible circulation of blood was the only reason the girl's arm hadn't turned black from the shoulder down by now.
A quick pat along the rest of her body didn't reveal anything egregiously wrong. There were no gaping wounds, anyway. Leigh couldn't exactly tell by touch if anything else was broken. Regardless, the next step was getting her somewhere they could help her.
"Room in the cart for two?" he asked, looking it over. Just about. Tight squeeze, but maybe putting Missy in contact with her locus would help them both. Leigh scooped her up and hurried to the cart. By the time he was there, Shelly was already rearranging Missy to allow him to lay Colette down beside her.
For the first time in two days, Missy's hand slowly uncurled from around her braid. Fingers half-open and twitching from long disuse, her hand crept downwards, sliding across Colette's arm like a spider until the searching fingers found bare skin and latched on. Missy let loose a long breath, her eyes blinking rapidly.
Leigh touched her shoulder. "Rise and shine, little missy. You coming back to us?"
"...Li. Leigh?" Missy rasped, squinting. She hadn't closed her eyes even once during the trip, but somehow now it was obvious she was truly seeing. A reflexive tear from staring up at the sky gathered on her lashes. Leigh put a hand over her eyes.
"I'm here. Take a rest, now. You've done more than enough."
Missy shook her head, a tiny, weak gesture. A too-familiar scowl formed beneath Leigh's thumb. "...Not yet. Needs me." Another deep breath, and she was back to the near-voiceless mantra. When Leigh removed his hand, though, her eyes remained shut. He wavered, torn. She wouldn't last another day like this. Colette wouldn't if she didn't. If he let her go on, would he just lose both of them, or would Missy simply run out of magic and be spared herself?
She'd never forgive him for trying to stop her. She'd made her choice. Leigh hurried back to his abandoned gloves, snatching them up, then swinging back onto his horse.
"Back to town," he told the others. "I don't know how long either one will last. I can't heal with magic; it's never worked for me before."
"Sparrow will help," Shelly assured him, also reeling in her reins, Cupcake dancing beneath her. "I've seen him heal much worse."
From inside the cart, Missy mumbled, "Issat the ROBBER?"
"Sleep, little missy!" Leigh shouted, putting heels to flanks.
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.
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