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It was a good thing she'd given Leigh permission to just abandon her, because this woman was asking exactly the kind of question Leigh least wanted to answer. He took the opportunity to wordlessly lengthen his stride, ruminating himself over the answers. What could shred a caboose? Obvious; the kind of people who'd be interested in Pahana. Or his daughter. What interest would bounty hunters have in Pahana's daughter? A little more concerning, given that most of the world should not be aware that Pahana even had a daughter. It wasn't exactly part of the mythos. It might just have been an unfortunate spur-of-the-moment reaction to her introduction, depending on if she'd taken his advice to stop introducing herself with that surname. A train robbery didn't sound spur-of-the-moment, though.
Well, he supposed he'd just ask Missy when he caught up with her. His compass and his spell tugged him right down the road, around a corner, up a little alley. Along the way, right as he drew up beside it, an inn door slammed open so hard that one of the hinges pinged off the front step, leaving it hanging at a limp angle like a duck with a broken neck. Leigh paid little attention to the woman's figure in the doorway. It wasn't Missy, it wasn't the boy, he didn't care. Then it was around that corner and up that alley and he was tripping over himself to stop running, because his compass had just swung around as he passed something. He pawed his hat back, looking wildly. He was around the back of most of the buildings on the main road, where people threw trash and such. There was nothing here! Was Missy in one of the buildings he'd passed? The compass should have swung around as he passed by the front door, not just now at the back one!
He stomped around in a circle. "Little Missy! Can you hear me? Shout if you can!" He paused, awkwardly added, "Don't mind about the running away, I'm not mad or--"
He was cut off by a sudden blow to the side. He suddenly found himself grappling with a tall, shockingly wiry woman, for no reason that his off-guard brain could produce. It took a flash of red scarf and a faceful of silver curls before his brain connected a few dots. The bandits, the woman in the doorway. She was with them. That clinched one thing: Missy must be nearby.
"You aren't the... usual type... who's after Pahana," Leigh commented between grunts, struggling to get free of the woman's hold. The woman sneered back at him.
"Who the hell is Pahana?"
"Answers that." Leigh drove a vicious palm right into the woman's oversized nose. She fell back, swearing, and Leigh found himself knocking into the side of a little storage shed as he fell back the other way. His compass tugged at him, straight backwards. Leigh, leaning against the shed, smiled.
"Ready or not, kids!" He yanked open the shed's door. "It's time to get going!"
The shade between buildings had done little to ease Roland's discomfort. Everything was blistering exhaustion, and he owed it only to his racing heart that he was still finding the energy to keep going. He was making up plans as they went, taking turns in the split second he had had upon reaching them and it wasn't long before he'd lost any idea which way he was headed in relation to the main road.
When he risked a glance behind him, he could see no pursuit. A breathy laugh escaped him, and then he stumbled on a loose rock for having forgotten to look where he was going. Falling hard against the wall of the next building, Roland almost dropped Miss. Pahana and had to stop and readjust his grip on her. He wished he could have changed sides, but feared if he let her weight down now, he might not have the energy to pull her back up.
Two things happened then. First, he began to hear the drumming of running feet too close for comfort. Then, Roland was pretty sure he had a heart attack.
He'd never had one before to know, but the Matron had explained when one day the old doctor stopped coming that he had passed away of a heart attack. That one's heart could give out, it must have been a painful thing, and it was the only explanation for the sudden throbbing. He felt like....he was bleeding, but there was no cuts. It was less a physical bleeding, and more like he felt his very soul was bleeding out.
A whine escaped him. Roland was long past the age where crying was the solution to anything, but he found himself desperately wishing he could crawl into some dark corner right now.
He needed to focus. "I am going to save you."
Roland pushed back to take their combined weight on his own feet.
Again. "I am going to save you."
Roland took those first shaky steps. He breathed in and out.
[b AGAIN.] "I am going to save you."
He couldn't hear the feet over his own thunderous breath. He didn't know how close any pursuit was, but he was going to save Miss. Pahana one way or another.
As it turned out, a way presented itself in the form of a storage shed behind one of the larger buildings. It wasn't particularly sturdy, and the door was hung wide for any and all to see what someone had paused mid task of shoveling into the shed. A cart of coal, an abandoned shovel, and someplace to hide.
Maybe Roland was going to cry for an entirely different reason. Beelining for the structure, Roland barely got Miss. Pahana through the door before collapsing to his knees. He lowered her, mindful not to let her head fall sitting against the side of the shed. His arms were so far past screaming at the movement, instead giving only a mild pang amidst the numbness.
There wasn't room to move far. Roland collapsed beside Miss. Pahana, taking a few quick gulps of air for himself before digging his hands into the pile of coal next to him.
"Shut," He pleaded, and the door shuddered. "Close. Please please please just close."
The hinges gave way, and the tin door swung closed with a hollow echo, pitching them into darkness.
Coincidence was being a bitch, but Gail decided she wasn't going to turn away what might be her best lead to finding Roland now. With the shots fired, it was likely any bounty hunters left in the town were now on high alert and she wasn't about to let Roland risk his life again.
"Well your daughter sure chose one hell of a person to run away with," Gail muttered, but picked up the pace to trot after Leigh as he began to run. The damn bastard had longer legs, it was hardly fair. Gail considered commandeering one of the horses, but that might take just as much time as it would to chase Roland down.
"Was your train half blown to hell?" Gail asked. "Caboose shredded? Got any ideas how something like that could happen? And Roland didn't mention a third person, just took off saying someone had taken your girl. Why'd bounty hunters be after your kid?"
Gail was trailing behind, huffing but doing her best to keep up. The man seemed to be consulting some sort of compass, which didn't really seem appropriate at the time they were racing to save the lives of two children.
"Blast it all, run ahead if you can, you long-legged freak, I'll catch up," Gail growled out. "The kids are the priority."
The web that had been feeding her magic, flooding her with it, was gone now. Something was mushing up in her gut and the web dissolved along with it until the only thing bolstering Colette's web was Missy herself. She was feeling so drained. The drain felt dry, even though she'd been thinking of the magic in terms of water all this time, like rock scraping along the inside of her skin. Too much more of it and she'd be grated away, like a too-thin piece of wood being sanded down.
She groped for any other connection she could find. This was barely spellwork, at this point, she could hardly even make herself speak the words. Or maybe she was speaking? She couldn't really feel her own body, yet.
There were more webs now, circling Missy like lassos. One strong, well-anchored web that let her know her prayers were being answered. Leigh was here. He was touching her with magic, his locus pulling hers closer and closer. But his magic was staying on his end of the web. It wasn't coming down the web like the other one had. She couldn't feed any of it to Colette.
But the second web. That one was nearby, so close she thought she must have been touching the source of it. It wasn't as strong as the one connecting her to the flood or the one leading Leigh to her. It was barely there, fluttering as if in a breeze, about to be torn away at any moment. The anchors were loose. It was a web that meant a bare association, positive feeling but no history or connection. It wasn't much at all. But there was magic on the other end of it, of course there was.
So Missy reached out to seize it. Numbly, she sensed her body grabbing the source of the magic, pressing her free hand into the bare skin of his neck. "Live," she continued to murmur. "Live, Colette."
Leigh dropped along with his attacker, whose limp arms slithered off of him the moment they were on the ground. Something wet soaked the back of Leigh head. Disgusted, he rolled off and onto his knees, which was as far as he got before a badge was being waved in his face. He felt himself sag just a little at the confirmation that they were indeed mixed up in his 'Pahana' myth, and even more at the revelation that the Pahana they were hunting was a woman. There was only one person that could be.
"Funny you should say that," he grunted, pushing himself up to his feet. "In fact I'm here in the glorious city of St. Louis looking for exactly that person: Missy Pahana. My daughter." He held out his gloved hand for a handshake. "Leigh Yond, at your service." She'd mentioned once or twice now that she was chasing after that boy to protect him, for whatever amount of sense that made. Perhaps he was an unwilling witness? He thought they usually put those in jail or something, they didn't tie them up and cart them right past the thugs they were testifying against in the street. Of course a fight would break out.
"I've yet to figure out how my daughter got mixed up in this," he admitted. "She ran away from home a few days ago with a friend, name of Colette Sutton. I only arrived in town following the train she was on a few minutes ago." A quick glance at the compass hanging around his neck pointed in the same direction the boy had bolted, so following him was probably a safe bet for finding Missy. Leigh legged it in that direction, ushering Inspector McCarthy along with him.
Gail's original assessment that this new man, another Irishman, was with the bounty hunters was clearly wrong. She'd mislabeled the man who, now equally getting his ass kicked as much as he was doling out the punishment, was doing more of the former. Huh.
The man moved well for his age, and she was relieved that assault wasn't being directed at her. The bounty hunters, however, had already had their warning. Gail patiently waited to see if the man was going to do anything about the chokehold himself, but he ended up looking at her.
This was going to be paperwork, but at this point, she wasn't sure she could bring herself to care. When the ginger man finally relaxed enough to give her a better shot, she fired her first shot directly into the forehead of the attacker.
"I'm not paid nearly enough for this shit," Gail said, and pulled the hammer of the revolver back to get the next shot ready. As she approached the man groaning on the ground, she brought her boot down on his thigh to hold him steady, then fired the next shot through his knee. His whines turned to screams, but at least they were done with pursuit.
Then, turning about, Gail fished her badge from her pocket, and held it up for the newcomer's scrutiny should he still care to know what sort of authority she had. Of course, that authority was supposed to be limited to the State of New York, but these were unique circumstances and she had made a promise to protect Roland, come hell or high water. This was starting to feel like a combination of both.
"Inspector Gail McCarthy, and if you get in my way there's still a few bullets left," Gail said, pleased she had recovered enough breath to say this more clearly. "Now, there are more of them, and I just gave away our location to the entire district. [b Also] you just let my charge get away so unless you know where I can find some Pahani lady he's going on about I'm going to have to ask you, politely, to fuck right off. Capice?"
She was reaching for her gun. Shasta was going to fight him. Again. Roland braced himself, lowering his shoulder with every intent of barreling into her before some other force did it for him.
Shasta plummeted to the floor, and the man behind her spoke again. Roland didn't have time to wonder just who the man was, but it was clear whatever side he was on, it [i wasn't] Shasta's. Roland could work with that.
"Thank you," Roland choked out as he stepped wide around Shasta to reach Miss. Pahana. He didn't have time to look over her now, they needed to get out first.
His hands were still bound, making this part difficult, but Roland grabbed Missy's shoulder and pulled her up enough to slip his arms around her middle. A single heave and he hauled her up onto his shoulder like a sack of coal. Coal. That would help right now.
There wasn't time. Stumbling to get his balance, Roland turned and, getting used to the change in equilibrium, quickly picked up the pace till he hit the door at a shuffling jog.
"Hold on, Miss. Pahana," Roland muttered, as he carefully maneuvred the steps down to the dirt road. The man had said Miss. Pahana was healed, and Roland was going to have to take his word for it right now.
He had two choices. One, run back to Gail. She was an Inspector, she'd protect Pahana from the bad men, but that way was also the bandits.
There came the shrill crack of gunfire, and Roland chose option two: taking off in the opposite direction, angling for an alley in the hopes of getting off the main road. Miss. Pahana was heavy, and kept slipping but he jostled her back in place. His arms were screaming at the uncomfortable angle, his back aching at the unequal weight and whatever belt Miss. Pahana was wearing was beating a bruise into his neck.
He'd get Miss. Pahana away from Shasta first. Once they were hidden, he could find a way to track Gail down, or she'd find them. Gail always found him, it seemed.
When this was over, he was going to sleep for a solid month.
Leigh lifted both hands as well as both eyebrows at that pronouncement. "Law enforcement?" She was certainly the right ethnicity for it. "You got some kind of badge proving that? Because I'd hazard these gentlemen with you aren't much the law-abiding sort."
In fact, the two he'd winded earlier had caught up now, ugly snarls painted across their faces. Apparently not giving a hoot about the pistol aimed at Leigh's chest, one seized his shoulder and spun him around to meet his other fist coming across Leigh's jaw. Hell with this. Police Lady would just have to understand if he didn't keep standing here, letting himself get beaten up. That in mind, Leigh ducked under the next punch to drive shoulder into gut. The man stumbled back, his knee flailing dangerously close to personal areas. Leigh grabbed what he could, hooked his leg around the leg that wasn't kicking, and yanked with both arms and leg. The man crashed to the ground hard, where Leigh proceeded to apply boot to personal areas.
There was still one more. Leigh discovered that when he was seized from behind in a chokehold. This guy was apparently a bit savvier when it came to brawling than his fellow. Leigh sputtered, struck back with his elbows. Damn, this bastard was big. He made a fine target that way, but it was hard to make any of the blows count.
Leigh missed Senior like never before. The man's whole job was to be big and stop people sneaking up on Leigh. The arm across Leigh's throat was cutting off air now, all that shifting just lodging it more firmly under his chin. Leigh went for his pistol, only to find the man's hand already clamped over the holster. That left...
Leigh shot a look at Police Lady. Her or magic. And none of these people gawping at the street fight were loci, probably. Not the man he was fighting, either. Certainly not a policewoman. And to cap it all off, somebody had maybe been talking about Pahana. If there was one thing Leigh was loathe to do, it was magic in front of so many witnesses, and if there was one thing Leigh would rather die than do, it was run into another sect of people calling him Pahana, which doing magic was sure to lead to.
He went limp in the chokehold. Now or never, Lady.
Oh jeez. At the commotion at the door, Shelly whipped around, finding their other prisoner standing there, still bound, eyes wild. She should have put money on that thought, earlier. She could use some kind of compensation for this clusterfuck of a job. Now it was just a matter of wondering if they'd even managed to send a telegram without her. The odds on that one were plummeting.
Shelly pushed upright, one hand up, the other at her hip. "Simmer down, kid! She's still hurt!"
"She's not," Sparrow put in, evenly, without getting up. He brought his temporarily abandoned pipe back up to his mouth, as if they weren't about to be set upon by a crazed adolescent. "I healed her. Are you injured, too?"
"Nobody touched him! Sparrow, whose side are you on here?" Shelly spat. He shrugged at her.
"The side not hurting children, I suppose."
Fuck, fuck, fuck, all fuzzy friendship feelings were well gone. Friendship was bullshit. Shelly stepped forward, ready to wrestle this boy to the ground and find some damn way to keep him there.
She crashed suddenly to the floor on her face, her leg yanked back behind her.
"I'd go quickly," Sparrow advised the boy, over Shelly's furious howl.
Gail was shouting, but that wasn't particularly surprising. She'd understand. Miss. Pahana could be in trouble, and once she was safe, Roland could take the time to explain everything. He also wanted to ask what she was doing all the way out here. She'd always claimed to be so busy with work, why would she leave all that behind?
Shouting was getting him nowhere. He didn't know where Shasta had taken Miss. Pahana. He couldn't see them on the street, and entering every building on the street was going to take too much time. He needed a better way to find them. He needed-
He needed to recognize the horse he'd been seeing carrying Miss. Pahana. The horse wouldn't be inside. Wheeling about, Roland realized he could no longer see Inspector Gail, but he also couldn't see the bandits, which was good. What he [i could] see, was the brown mare with the old saddle and ropes still draped across it. It was outside an inn.
Roland wasted no time. Shoulder past two men exiting, Roland shoved his way through the doors and cast his sight around the room, temporarily blinded by the change in lighting. His chest was heaving, drawing in breathes too fast, loud and rattling in his ears.
"Boy, are you alright?" A woman asked.
He didn't respond. At first because he didn't have the spare breath, but then it was becuase he had found his goal.
Miss. Pahana, Shasta, and a man.
Roland stumbled the best bee-line he could for them around the tables, noting that people were quickly shuffling out of the way. He must have looked almost feral at that point. He didn't care, not till Miss. Pahana was safe.
"Roland [b stop!] You idiot, let me untie you!" Gail huffed out as she ran, and hearing footsteps behind her she could see the crowd who'd originally detained Roland were also following. Fantastic. She'd carry out her threat just once she'd taken care of whatever sun-fried lunacy Roland was going on about. Miss Pahana? And now he was shouting for someone named Shasta?
Unfortunately, running was not a strength of Gail's. Even half-starved and stopping every so often to frantically look about she wasn't able to catch up to Roland. He was gaining ground, even. If witness protection wasn't going to work out, maybe she could get him a career on a sports team.
A new shouting called Gail's attention for a moment, and she glanced over her shoulder to see a new face had joined the chase. She dismissed him almost immediatly.
An unfortunate mistake, because he was shortly after caught up to her. Maybe it was that confounded magic again, but now Gail was being pulled off balance by the unmistakable weight of a hand pulling at her.
He was going for her gun.
She let herself be pulled to a stop, pivoting with the motion to shuffle the rest of her momentum to a stop to face the new threat. Roland was slipping away, but he'd just have to look after himself a little longer.
"I'm not letting you grimy fucks lay one more hand on the boy!" Gail growled out, though being winded the force of the words came out with a bit of a whistle. She shoved at his hand, following the basic training she knew for fending off an assailant, but combat was never her strong suit.
That's why she carried guns, and her other hand had instinctively flown to the handle of the revolver on her hip, raising it level to the man's chest. "You're assaulting a law enforcement official, and if your next move is to do anything other than raise your hands to the sky I'm going to fill you with lead, paperwork be damned!"
Leigh had spent most of the last few days cursing. It wasn't especially satisfying, without an audience. Senior's absence was just another source of the cursing, recursively. Yeah, sure, Leigh understood. Junior was traumatized, Junior had been through so much, there was no way Senior could abandon his family in their time of need to go haring off after some miscreant girl-children.
Not like Leigh had devoted a whole decade to Senior's family or anything. Not like it was Leigh's family suddenly at stake and in danger. Not like Leigh had literally ridden out the same day to track Junior down the instant they'd heard that he was missing-maybe-kidnapped.
Everyone's loyalty ran out at some point, Leigh supposed. Senior's might have seemed endless, but Leigh had finally hit bottom. Fine. Once again, it was just Leigh and Della Rosa, out on the trail, riding solo across the desert on the tail of a pretty little native girl. Old times come back again. Only now Leigh knew exactly what kind of things could happen to pretty little native girls, and exactly what kind of life he'd be left with afterwards.
They'd gone east, by all accounts. Probably heading for New Orleans ultimately, though currently they were quite a bit north of that. Witnesses had only reported the two girls on their own--either the native boy had an allergy to trains or they'd parted ways at some point. Not Leigh's problem. The boy wasn't able to protect Missy anymore; he was just dead weight if they hit another conflict. Better to cut him loose.
Della Rosa was good, but she wasn't as fast as a train engine. Leigh longed for the flight spell that had gotten them to the Grand Canyon in hours. He fell asleep every night beneath the blue star with his spelled compass pointing ahead, tugging him towards his missing girl.
He arrived in St. Louis bitter, exhausted, starving, and half-okay with the idea of letting a meteor just wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. If it took willful teenage runaway daughters with it, it would be a small sacrifice. His first act was to collapse on the front porch of a shabby drinking establishment with a mug of warm beer, Della Rosa hitched to the post. His second act was a long swig of said beer.
His third act was to blink owlishly as an extremely gangly young man bolted past him, hands tied in front, shouting for someone that sounded suspiciously like 'Pahana'. People along the street were stopping, drawing back, whispering and crying out. Nobody intervened. Possibly because a few seconds later, a diminutive woman absolutely bristling with weapons came thundering in pursuit, at the head of a ragtag group of men less well-armed but equally furious.
Leigh set his mug down on the step and heaved himself upright. His knees creaked. He planted his fists in his lower back, inhaled deeply, and then vaulted down to street level. As soon as he was on the ground, he was running. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he hollered, "Somebody looking for Pahana?"
He got the attention of a few of the bandits. Honestly, their reaction was more confused than actually interested. Maybe nobody had been saying Pahana after all. Not like Leigh spoke Hopilavayi. Still, they slowed down for just long enough that Leigh could catch up and apply elbows to solar plexuses. The two who'd slowed doubled over. Leigh blew past them, gunning now for his well-armed countrywoman. In fact, he had one hand on Firstborn as he went, ready at any moment for either gun or locus to become necessary.
"Ma'am, I'm not sure you're ready for this fight! Would you like to borrow my pistol? He looks incredibly dangerous, you might need it!" He huffed, pulling up close. He was almost within arm's reach. If he could just get the back of her collar...!
His grasping fingertips hit gun rather than clothes, but hey, it was attached, so he planted his feet and yanked backwards.
No good deed goes unpunished.
Just once, Gail would have liked to be able to do her damn job, without complications. This was gonna be the case of her career, the type of once in a lifetime breakthrough that was gonna get her that promotion.
Human trafficking? Busted.
Her witness? Vanished.
The knob-kneed brat had bolted, and while a part of Gail could understand the kid's motivation, it made her job a hell of a lot harder. She'd gotten the kid out of that hell hole and to a safehouse, and while she had enough evidence to put the people responsible away for a long time, it wasn't enough to drive the point home. No, if these people were going to truly pay, it was going to take the keystone piece of the case: Roland, the magic-wielding orphan who'd been held hostage and basically groomed by these sick fucks his whole life.
The plan had been for him to remain hidden, testify, then Gail had promised to set him up in witness protection. He'd be safe, and get a normal life. But no, instead the kid had gone and decided he'd set off on a trek of his own with [b clearly] no idea where he was going.
A few times she'd almost lost his trail for the sheer stupidity of it. He'd been secreting away on ferries and walking in such a bizarre path that clearly doubled back multiple times. There was no sense to it, and Gail assumed he was blindly throwing himself into whatever opportunity presented itself rather than seeking transportation somewhere. At least, until the train.
The train itself had been torn apart in such a manner that could have only been inhuman in origin. The passengers spoke of bandits and a boy matching Roland's description being onboard. He'd even left his handkerchief, a present Gail had presented him with in their early acquaintance in hopes to build his trust. The idiot.
Now she found him, somehow scrawnier now than he'd been before. Wild eyed, howling and clawing as several shorter men were tying him up. Of course the damned fool needed saving. [i Again.]
"I won't be repeating myself," Gail said, leveling the shotgun at the legs of one of the bandits a few paces back from Roland. Enough at least that he wouldn't be harmed if she needed to take the shot.
"Ma'am, this bounty-"
"That [b young man]," Gail snarled, "Is a federal witness, and under my protection as an Inspector of the State of New York. Also a good friend of mine, and I'm about to do to all of you twice over whatever you've done to him if you don't [b back. The fuck. Off."]
The man who'd tried to speak now stood, and his comrades followed suit, all of them raising their hands. Five total here, but there were likely others. "Ma'am, we're not breaking no laws here. We've got a bounty to bring this boy here in."
"And I'm not breaking any laws here, telling you upstanding citizens to let this child go-"
Roland had at once scooted clear of the bandits the moment he'd been released, and barely spared a watery-eyed glance for Gail before he was pulling something out of his mouth and hurrying to untie his feet. However, and fairly unexpectedly, the boy did not stand up and come stand by Gail as would have been preferable in this situation.
That little shit, soon as he could, had scrambled off at a dead sprint further into town. "What the [b fuck], Roland?!"
"They took Miss. Pahana!" He'd shouted back, as though that meant anything to Gail.
She turned back to the group who had at first lunged as though to chase Roland, but seemed to think better of it. "You lot better get out of town. If I see you again I'm taking knee caps," Gail threatened, clicking the safety into place on his shotgun before taking off after Roland's rapidly retreating form.
His wrists felt chaffed, and his whole body ached through the next day, but Roland took the ride in silence. He kept furtively glancing at Miss Pahana, but was unable to see any change in her condition as they rode. He wanted to check on her, despite not knowing exactly what he would be checking. What did doctors do? They checked for a pulse, right? And bleeding?
By the time they reached St Louis, Roland's anxiety had reached grating levels. He felt on edge and it was only exacerbated by the fact he hadn't slept a wink that night. He felt at once full of energy and ready to just collapse into a slumber for the next week. His stomach felt sharp, full of rusty nails that were rattling about. He should never have run. His freedom wasn't worth that girl's life, and now it could mean this one's.
When the bandit woman, Shasta, reached town she clearly separated from the others, and she was [i taking Miss. Pahana with her.]
"I think I hate that woman. This payoff better be worth it."
A low whine escaped Roland, and he pulled for the upteenth time at the knots holding him in place as Miss. Pahana disappeared from sight. "No."
He wasn't getting free that way. Kicking with his legs, the horse beneath Roland startled and began to walk before one of the bandits snapped at it and the reins holding it in place.
Coal. Roland needed coal, and he needed to rescue Miss. Pahana from Shasta. "Bring her back! Miss. Pahana!"
"Guess the kid [i can] speak," One of the bandits chuckled. "Richards, Smith, lets not keep our employer waiting."
"Why's it always me? Send Brent!"
"Smith, I swear to the lord almighty I am just one more comment short of ending your time on this green earth. Telegram. NOW."
Johnson grabbed a handful of Roland's sleeve and yanked him free from the horse. He didn't topple to the ground entirely, as his hands were still tied to the pommel of the saddle but it was a startling motion, and now put the body of the horse itself between him and the direction Shasta had disappeared in.
Another bandit freed Roland's hand from the pommel, but they were expecting Roland's next lashing out and he was handily restrained.
"Kid, we can do this the easy or the hard way. Either you shut up, and we'll walk in and get a room all civil like, or we're gonna hog tie you and leave you in the stables," A bandit grunted.
"I'm not going without Miss. Pahana!"
Roland's words were met with a sigh, and his legs getting swept out from under him with a solid kick. The bandits, clearly practised at transporting live bounties, were setting to work tying Roland's feet even as he kicked and spat at them. Some manner of cloth was shoved into Roland's mouth to shut him up, soured by sweat and the sun.
"Hey, Johnson, run after Williams and have them ask just how 'unharmed' this kid's gonna have to be. He'd be a lot quieter if we cut out his tongue."
Another sigh. "No, Johnson. That was joke."
"That's pretty dark, Harris. His [i tongue?] Do you actually do that?"
"I seen it done. Fella died though."
"Isn't this kid supposed to be alive?"
"Johnson, you are a dumb sonuva, ain't ya?"
A new voice joined now, this one a woman, and it was accompanied with the unmistakable click of the cocking of a shotgun. Roland knew that voice, and he froze momentarily. One of the bandits had a knee on Roland's head, preventing him from turning to see the source of the voice, but he knew the woman it belonged to.
"Gentleman, I'm going to have to insist you stand, slowly, and release my witness," Inspector Gail McCarthy said. It was a statement, a certainty, and even with the lilting brusque of her accent, it came with all the seriousness Roland had come to expect of the diminutive woman.
But hadn't she been in New York?
This was getting worrying. It had been just about a full twenty-four hours since they'd booked it off that train, now, and still the girl with the gunshot wound had yet to regain her senses. She'd just lain there, limp as a rope, wherever Shelly happened to put her down. Her eyes were open and her lips moving, and her hand could not be removed from her braid. She was clearly living, and yet didn't react to any kind of physical stimulus, even when Shelly slapped her. And still she was consuming Shelly's magic in huge gulps, far more than she should rightly need even to regain vitality after a wound.
Of course it occurred to Shelly that she must be casting a spell, but with what? There was nothing in the braid that Shelly could find except her own hair. The ties were cloth, and the girl was clearly white or Native, not Oriental. Maybe Russian, like Shelly, but even so. If the spell was working, Shelly couldn't discern its effects at all. It didn't seem to be doing anything except eating power and keeping her prisoner docile, so it was really working to Shelly's advantage. She was their insurance against the boy, after all.
At last, a whole day's ride later, Shelly and her group thundered into St. Louis, the children tied to their saddles. "Keep your eye on him, I'll get the girl fixed up," Shelly ordered, wheeling Thunder around to where she'd last left Sparrow. "Send a wire back to our employer. Ask him if he's looking for a boy or a girl so we can get rid of the spare."
"You ain't in charge here, Shasta!" her coworker let off a parting shot. She let it go. She wondered what the odds were that they'd still be in possession of their prisoner when she got back. It was about even, she thought.
She burst into the inn with the senseless girl over her shoulder, eyes immediately finding her friend in the corner by a window. He was never anywhere else, when indoors. "Sparrow! Got a patient for you!" She lowered the girl into a seat at the table, stretching her leg out onto its surface. Sparrow lowered his pipe and regarded her reproachfully.
"You shot a child?"
"Look, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I've been keeping her in berries the whole way back."
Sparrow stared at her, apparently silently debating, before giving in to his better nature. He reached into his medicine pouch, withdrawing a handful of seeds and scattering them across the windowsill. Within moments, a little speckled bird was fluttering down to peck at them. Sparrow held out his hand until the bird hopped onto it, then put his other hand on Pahana's leg. A deep breath, a word in his native language, and the huge drain on Shelly's magic lessened. She cut the spell, sure now that Sparrow could save her. He opened his eyes and allowed his locus to go back to its seeds. "You realize we are in public?"
"Natives can do all sorts of crazy stuff right in front of people, nobody will notice. Anyway, if there's a Locust Sheriff he's already on my tail for the train robbery." Shelly collapsed into a seat.
"This girl is the target, I take it."
"Maybe. We'll see." She took a pull of Sparrow's drink. "Stop looking at me like that, I wouldn't be doing this if I had a choice."
"There is always a choice." Of course he'd say that. She KNEW that. She'd deserted the damn army, hadn't she? That was a choice to start having choices again. And here they were, once more bound by orders. Well, Shelly was, anyway. Sparrow was just letting her do it, while he stood by and cleaned up after them, as usual. HE was making a choice. A choice not to do something terrible, even though the consequences might be dire.
Shelly ran a hand over her face. "...I never had to think about anyone but me, until now. This is much harder."
Sparrow smiled, just a little. "White loci."
"Yuck it up, bird boy. We're just waiting on a wire and then we're off again to finish the job." Pahana still hadn't stirred. In fact, despite having been healed, she was looking even worse than before.
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