Shy gave the horse her heels, its forelegs buckled, and, before she had a notion what was happening, she and her saddle had bid each other a sad farewell.
She was given a flailing instant aloft to consider the situation. Not a good one at a brief assay, and the impending earth gave her no time for a longer. She did her best to roll with the fall—as she tried to do with most of her many misfortunes—but the ground soon uncurled her, gave her a fair roughing up, and tossed her, flopping, into a patch of sun-shrivelled scrub.
She stole a moment just to get some breath in. Then one to groan while the world stopped rolling. Then another to shift gingerly an arm and a leg, waiting for that sick jolt of pain that meant something was broke and her miserable shadow of a life would soon be lost in the dusk. She would’ve welcomed it, if it meant she could stretch out and not have to run any more. But the pain didn’t come. Not outside of the usual compass, leastways. As far as her miserable shadow of a life went, she was still awaiting judgment.
Shy dragged herself up, scratched and scuffed, caked in dust and spitting out grit. She’d taken too many mouthfuls of sand the last few months but she’d a dismal premonition that there’d be more. Her horse lay a few strides distant, one foamed-up flank heaving, forelegs black with blood. Neary’s arrow had snagged it in the shoulder, not deep enough to kill or even slow it right off, but deep enough to make it bleed at a good pace. With her hard riding, that had killed it just as dead as a shaft in the heart.
There’d been a time Shy had got attached to horses. A time—despite reckoning herself hard with people and being mostly right—she’d been uncommon soft about animals. But that time was a long time gone. There wasn’t much soft on Shy these days, body or mind. So she left her mount to its final red-frothed breaths without the solace of her calming hand and ran for the town, tottering some at first, but quickly warming to the exercise. At running, she’d a heap of practice.
“Town” was perhaps an overstatement. It was six buildings, and calling them buildings was being generous to two or three. All rough lumber and an entire stranger to straight angles, sun-baked, rain-peeled, and dust-blasted, huddled about a dirt square and a crumbling well.
The biggest building had the look of a tavern or brothel or trading post or more likely all three amalgamated. A rickety sign still clung to the boards above the doorway but the name had been rubbed by the wind to just a few pale streaks in the grain. Nothing, nowhere, was all its proclamation now. Up the steps two by two, bare feet making the old boards wheeze, thoughts boiling away at how she’d play it when she got inside, what truths she’d season with what lies for the most likely recipe.
There’s men chasing me! Gulping breath in the doorway and doing her best to look beyond desperate—no mighty effort of acting at that moment, or any occupying the last twelve months, indeed.
Three of the bastards! Then—provided no one recognised her from all the bills for her arrest—They tried to rob me! A fact. No need to add that she’d robbed the money herself from the new bank in Hommenaw in the company of those three worthies plus another since caught and hung by the authorities.
They killed my brother! They’re drunk on blood! Her brother was safe at home where she wished she was, and if her pursuers were drunk, it would likely be on cheap spirits as usual, but she’d shriek it with that little warble in her throat. Shy could do quite a warble when she needed one, she’d practiced it ’til it was something to hear. She pictured the patrons springing to their feet in their eagerness to aid a woman in distress. They shot my horse! She had to admit it didn’t seem overpowering likely that anyone hard-bitten enough to live out here would be getting into a sweat of chivalry, but maybe fate would deal her a winning hand for once.
It had been known to happen.
She blundered through the tavern’s door, opening her mouth to serve up the tale, and stopped cold.
The place was empty.
Not just no one there, but nothing there, and for damn sure no winning hand. Not a twig of furniture in the bare common room. A narrow stairway and a balcony running across the left-hand wall, doorways yawning empty upstairs. Chinks of light scattered where the rising sun was seeking out the many gaps in the splitting carpentry. Maybe just a lizard skittering away into the shadows—of which there was no shortage—and a bumper harvest of dust, greying every surface, drifted into every corner. Shy stood there a moment just blinking, then dashed back out along the rickety stoop and to the next building. When she shoved the door, it dropped right off its rusted hinges.
This one hadn’t even a roof. Hadn’t even a floor. Just bare rafters with the careless, pinking sky above, and bare joists with a stretch of dirt below, every bit as desolate as the miles of dirt outside.
She saw it now as she stepped back into the street with vision unhindered by hope. No glass in the windows, or wax paper, even. No rope by the crumbling well. No animals to be seen—aside from her own dead horse, that was, which only served to prove the point.
It was a dried-out corpse of a town, long since dead.
Shy stood in that forsaken place, up on the balls of her bare feet as though she was about to sprint off somewhere but lacked the destination, hugging herself with one arm while the fingers of the other hand fluttered and twitched at nothing, biting on her lip and sucking air fast and rasping through the little gap between her front teeth.
Even by recent standards, it was a low moment. But if she’d learned anything the last few months, it was that things can always get lower. Looking back the way she’d come, Shy saw the dust rising. Three little grey trails in the shimmer off the grey land.
“Oh, hell,” she whispered, and bit her lip harder. She pulled her eating knife from her belt and wiped the little splinter of metal on her dirty shirt, as though cleaning it might somehow settle the odds. Shy had been told she had a fertile imagination, but even so, it was hard to picture a more feeble weapon. She’d have laughed if she hadn’t been on the verge of weeping. She’d spent way too much time on the verge of weeping the last few months, now that she thought about it.
How had it come to this?
A question for some jilted girl rather than an outlaw with four thousand marks offered, but still a question she was never done asking. Some desperado! She’d grown expert on the desperate part but the rest remained a mystery. The sorry truth was that she knew full well how it came to this—the same way as always. One disaster following so hard on another that she just bounced between ’em, pinging about like a moth in a lantern. The second usual question followed hard on the first.
What the fuck now?
She sucked in her stomach—not that there was much to suck in these days—and dragged the bag out by the drawstrings, coins inside clicking together with that special sound only money makes. Two thousand marks in silver, give or take. You’d think that a bank would hold a lot more—they told depositors they always had fifty thousand on hand—but it turns out you can’t trust banks any more than bandits.
She dug her hand in, dragged free a fistful of coins, and tossed the money across the street, leaving it gleaming in the dust. She did it like she did most things these days—hardly knowing why. Maybe she valued her life a lot higher’n two thousand marks, even if no one else did. Maybe she hoped they’d just take the silver and leave her be, though what she’d do once she was left be in this corpse town—no horse, no food, no weapon—she hadn’t thought out. Clearly she hadn’t fixed up a whole plan, or not one that would hold too much water, leastways. Leaky planning had always been a problem of hers.
She sprinkled silver as if she was tossing seed on her mother’s farm, miles and years and a dozen violent deaths away. Whoever would’ve thought she’d miss the place? Miss the bone-poor house and the broke-down barn and the fences that always needed mending. The stubborn cow that never gave milk and the stubborn well that never gave water and the stubborn soil that only weeds would thrive in. Her stubborn little sister and brother too. Even big, scarred, softheaded Lamb. What Shy would’ve given now to hear her mother’s shrill voice curse her out again. She sniffed hard, her nose hurting, her eyes stinging, and wiped ’em on the back of her frayed cuff. No time for tearful reminiscences. She could see three dark spots of riders now beneath those three inevitable dust trails. She flung the empty bag away, ran back to the tavern, and—
“Ah!” She hopped over the threshold, bare sole of her foot torn on a loose nail head. The world’s nothing but a mean bully, that’s a fact. Even when you’ve big misfortunes threatening to drop on your head, small ones still take every chance to prick your toes. How she wished she’d got the chance to grab her boots. Just to keep a shred of dignity. But she had what she had, and neither boots nor dignity were on the list, and a hundred big wishes weren’t worth one little fact—as Lamb used to boringly drone at her whenever she cursed him and her mother and her lot in life and swore she’d be gone in the morning.
Shy remembered how she’d been then, and wished she had the chance now to punch her earlier self in the face. But she could punch herself in the face when she got out of this.
She’d a procession of other willing fists to weather first.
She hurried up the stairs, limping a little and cursing a lot. When she reached the top she saw she’d left bloody toe prints on every other one. She was working up to feeling pretty damn low about that glistening trail leading right to the end of her leg, when something like an idea came trickling through the panic.
She paced down the balcony, making sure to press her bloody foot firm to the boards, and turned into an abandoned room at the end. Then she held her foot up, gripping it hard with one hand to stop the bleeding, and hopped back the way she’d come and through the first doorway, near the top of the steps, pressing herself into the shadows inside.
A pitiful effort, doubtless. As pitiful as her bare feet and her eating knife and her two-thousand-mark haul and her big dream of making it back home to the shit-hole she’d had the big dream of leaving. Small chance those three bastards would fall for that, even stupid as they were. But what else could she do?
When you’re down to small stakes, you have to play long odds.
Her own breath was her only company, echoing in the emptiness, hard on the out, ragged on the in, almost painful down her throat. The breath of someone scared near the point of an involuntary shitting and all out of ideas. She just couldn’t see her way to the other side of this. She ever made it back to that farm she’d jump out of bed every morning she woke alive and do a little dance, and give her mother a kiss for every cuss, and never snap at her sister or mock Lamb again for being a coward. She promised it, then wished she was the sort who kept promises.
She heard horses outside, crept to the one window with half a view of the street, and peered down as gingerly as if she was peering into a bucket of scorpions.
They were here.
Neary wore that dirty old blanket cinched in at the waist with twine, his greasy hair sticking up at all angles, reins in one hand and the bow he’d shot Shy’s horse with in the other, the blade of the heavy axe hanging at his belt as carefully cleaned as the rest of his repugnant person was beyond neglect. Dodd had his battered hat pulled low, sitting his saddle with that round-shouldered cringe he always had around his brother, like a puppy expecting a slap. Shy would have liked to give the faithless fool a slap right then. A slap for starters. Then there was Jeg, sitting up tall as a lord in that long red coat of his, dirt-fringed tails spread out over his big horse’s rump, hungry sneer on his face as he scanned the buildings, that tall hat which he thought made him look quite the personage poking off his head slightly crooked, like the chimney from a burned-out farmstead.
Dodd pointed to the coins scattered across the dirt around the well, a couple of ’em winking with the sun. “She left the money.”
“Seems so,” said Jeg, voice hard as his brother’s was soft.
She watched them get down and hitch their mounts. No hurry to it. Like they were dusting themselves off after a jaunt of a ride and looking forward to a nice little evening among cultured company. They’d no need to hurry. They knew she was here, and they knew she was going nowhere, and they knew she was getting no help, and so did she.
“Bastards,” Shy whispered, cursing the day she ever took up with them. But you have to take up with someone, don’t you? And you can only pick from what’s on offer.
Jeg stretched his back, took a long sniff and a comfortable spit, then drew his sword. That curved cavalry sword he was so proud of with the clever-arsed basketwork, which he said he’d won in a duel with a Union officer, but that Shy knew he’d stolen, along with the best part of everything else he’d ever owned. How she’d mocked him about that stupid sword. She wouldn’t have minded having it to hand now, though, and him with only her eating knife.
“Smoke!” bellowed Jeg, and Shy winced. She’d no idea who’d thought that name up for her. Some wag had lettered it on the bills for her arrest and now everyone used it. On account of her tendency to vanish like smoke, maybe. Though it could also have been on account of her tendencies to stink like it, stick in folks’ throats, and drift with the wind.
“Get out here, Smoke!” Jeg’s voice clapped off the dead fronts of the buildings, and Shy shrank a little further into the darkness. “Get out here and we won’t hurt you too bad when we find you!”
So much for taking the money and going. They wanted the price on her too. She pressed her tongue into the gap between her teeth and mouthed, “Cocksuckers.” There’s a certain kind of man, the more you give him, the more he’ll take.
“We’ll have to go and get her,” she heard Neary say in the stillness.
“I told you we’d have to go and get her.”
“You must be pissing your pants with joy over the outcome, then, eh?”
“Said we’d have to get her.”
“So stop pointing it out and get it done.”
Dodd’s wheedling voice. “Look, the money’s here, we could just scrape this up and get off, there ain’t no need to—”
“Did you and I really spring from between the same set o’ legs?” sneered Jeg at his brother. “You are the stupidest bastard.”
“Stupidest,” said Neary.
“You think I’m leaving four thousand marks for the crows?” said Jeg. “You scrape that up, Dodd, we’ll break the mare.”
“Where do you reckon she is?” asked Neary.
“I thought you was the big tracker?”
“Out in the wild, but we ain’t in the wild.”
Jeg cocked an eyebrow at the empty shacks. “You’d call this the highest extent of civilisation, would you?”
They looked at each other a moment, dust blowing up around their legs, then settling again.
“She’s here somewhere,” said Neary.
“You think? Good thing I got the self-described sharpest eyes west of the mountains with me, so I don’t miss her dead horse ten fucking strides away. Yes, she’s here somewhere.”
“Where do you reckon?” asked Neary.
“Where would you be?”
Neary looked about the buildings and Shy jerked out of the way as his narrowed eyes darted over the tavern.
“In that one, I reckon, but I ain’t her.”
“Course you ain’t fucking her. You know how I can tell? You got bigger tits and less sense. If you was her, I wouldn’t have to fucking look for her now, would I?”
Another silence, another dusty gust. “Guess not,” said Neary.
Jeg took his tall hat off, scrubbed at his sweaty hair with his fingernails, and jammed it back on at an angle. “You look in there, I’ll try the one next to it, but don’t kill the bitch, eh? That’ll half the reward.”
Shy eased back into the shadows, feeling the sweat tickling under her shirt. To be caught in this worthless arsehole of a place. By these worthless bastards. In bare feet. She didn’t deserve this. All she’d wanted was to be somebody worth speaking of. To not be nothing, forgotten on the day of her death. Now she saw that there’s a sharp balance between too little excitement and a huge helping too much. But like most of her lame-legged epiphanies, it had dawned a year too late.
She sucked air through the little gap between her teeth as she heard Neary creaking across the boards in the common room, maybe just the metal rattle of that big axe. She was shivering all over. Felt so weak of a sudden she could hardly hold the knife up, let alone imagine swinging it. Maybe it was time to give up. Toss the knife out the door and say, “I’m coming out! I’ll be no trouble! You win!” Smile and nod and thank ’em for their betrayal and their kind consideration when they kicked the shit out of her or horsewhipped her or broke her legs and whatever else amused them on the way to her hanging.
She’d seen her share of those and never relished the spectacle. Standing there tied while they read your name and your crime, hoping for some last reprieve that wouldn’t come while the noose was drawn tight, sobbing for mercy or hurling your curses and neither making the slightest hair of difference. Kicking at nothing, tongue stuck out while you shat yourself for the amusement of scum no better’n you. She pictured Jeg and Neary, up front in the grinning crowd as they watched her do the thief’s dance at rope’s end. Probably arrayed in even more ridiculous clothes secured with the reward money.
“Fuck them,” she mouthed at the darkness, lips curling back in a snarl as she heard Neary’s foot on the bottom step.
She had a hell of a contrary streak, did Shy. From when she was a tot, when someone told her how things would be, she immediately started thinking on how she’d make ’em otherwise. Her mother had always called her mule stubborn, and blamed it on her Ghost blood. “That’s your damn Ghost blood,” as though being quarter savage had been Shy’s own choice rather than on account of her mother picking out a half-Ghost wanderer to lie with who turned out—no crashing surprise—to be a no-good drunk.
Shy would be fighting. No doubt she’d be losing, but she’d be fighting. She’d make those bastards kill her and at least rob ’em of half the reward. Might not expect such thoughts as those to steady your hand, but they did hers. The little knife still shook, but now from how hard she was gripping it.
For a man who proclaimed himself the great tracker, Neary had some trouble keeping quiet. She heard the breath in his nose as he paused at the top of the steps, close enough to touch if it hadn’t been for the plank wall between them.
A board groaned as he shifted his weight and Shy’s whole body tensed, every hair twitching up. Then she saw him—not darting through the doorway at her, axe in his fist and murder in his eyes, but creeping off down the balcony after the bait of bloody footsteps, drawn bow pointed exactly the wrong way.
When she was given a gift, Shy had always believed in grabbing it with both hands rather than thinking on how to say thank you. She dashed at Neary’s back, teeth bared and a low growl ripping at her throat. His head whipped around, the whites of his eyes showing and the bow following after, the head of the arrow glinting with such light as found that abandoned place.
She ducked low and caught him around the legs, shoulder driving hard into his thigh and making him grunt, her hand finding her wrist and clamping tight under Neary’s arse, her nose suddenly full of the horse-and-sour sweat stink of him. The bowstring went, but Shy was already straightening, snarling, screaming, bursting up, and—big man though he was—she hoisted Neary right over the rail as neat as she used to hoist a sack of grain on her mother’s farm.
He hung in the air a moment, mouth and eyes wide with shock, then he plummeted with a breathy whoop and crashed through the boards down below.
Shy blinked, hardly able to believe it. Her scalp was burning and she touched a finger to it, half expecting to feel the arrow stuck right in her brains, but she turned and saw it was in the wall behind her, a considerably happier outcome from her standpoint. Blood, though, sticky in her hair, tickling at her forehead. Maybe the lath of the bow scratched her. Get that bow, she’d have a chance. She made a step towards the stairs, then stopped dead. Jeg was in the doorway, his sword a long, black curve against the sun-glare of the street.
“Smoke!” he roared, and she was off down the balcony like a rabbit, following her own trail of bloody footprints to nowhere, hearing Jeg’s heavy boots clomping towards the stairs. She hit the door at the end full tilt with her shoulder and burst into the light, out onto another balcony behind the building. Up onto the low rail with one bare foot—better to just go with her contrary streak and hope it somehow carried her through than to pause for thought—and she jumped. Flung herself writhing at a ramshackle balcony on the building across the narrow lane, as if flapping her hands and feet like she was having a fit might carry her further.
She caught the rail, wood smashing her in the ribs, slipped down, groaning, clawing for a grip, fought desperately to drag herself up and over, felt something give—
And with a groan of tortured wood the whole weather-blasted thing tore from the side of the building.
Again Shy was given a flailing instant aloft to consider the situation. Again not good, at a brief assay. She was just starting to wail when her old enemy the ground caught up with her—as the ground always will—folded up her left leg, spun her over, then smashed her in the side and drove her wind right out.
Shy coughed, then moaned, then spat more grit. That she had been right about her earlier sandy mouth not being her last was scant comfort. She saw Jeg standing on the balcony where she’d jumped. He pushed his hat back and gave a chuckle, then ducked back inside.
She still had a piece of the rail in her fist, well rotted through. A little like her hopes. She tossed it away as she rolled over, waiting again for that sick pain that told her she was done. Again it didn’t come. She could move. She worked her feet around and guessed that she could stand. But she thought that she might leave that for now. Chances were she’d only get to do it one more time.
She floundered clear of the tangle of broken wood against the wall, her shadow stretching out towards the doorway, groaning with pain as she heard Jeg’s heavy footsteps inside. She started wriggling back on her arse and her elbows, dragging one leg after, the little knife blade hidden up behind her wrist, her other fist clutching at the dirt.
“Where are you off to?” Jeg ducked under the low lintel and into the lane. He was a big man, but he looked a giant right then. Half a head taller than Shy, even if she’d been standing, and probably not much short of twice her weight, even if she’d eaten that day. He strutted over, tongue wedged into his lower lip so it bulged out, heavy sword loose in his hand, relishing his big moment.
“Pulled a neat trick on Neary, eh?” He pushed the brim of his hat up a little to show the tan mark across his forehead. “You’re stronger’n you look. That boy’s so dumb he could’ve fallen without the help, though. You’ll be pulling no tricks on me.”
They’d see about that, but she’d let her knife say it for her. Even a little knife can be a damned eloquent piece of metal if you stick it in the right place. She scrambled back, kicking up dust, making it look like she was trying to push herself up, then sagging back with a whimper as her left leg took her weight. Looking badly hurt was taking no great effort of acting. She could feel blood creeping from her hair and tickling her forehead. Jeg stepped out of the shadow and the low sun shone in his face, making him squint. Just the way she wanted it.
“Still remember the day I first put eyes on you,” he went on, loving the sound of his own bleating. “Dodd come to me, all excited, and said he met Smoke, her whose killer’s face is on all them bills up near Rostod, four thousand marks offered for her capture. The tales they tell on you!” He gave a whoop and she scrambled back again, working that left leg underneath her, making sure it would work when she needed it. “You’d think you was a demon with two swords to a hand the way they breathe your name. Picture my fucking disappointment when I find you ain’t naught but a scared girl with gappy teeth and a powerful smell o’ piss about her.” As if Jeg smelled of summer meadows! He took another step forward, reaching out for her with one big hand. “Now, don’t scratch; you’re worth more to me alive. I don’t want to—”
She flung the dirt with her left hand as she shoved up hard with her right, coming to her feet. He twisted his head away, snarling as the dust showered across his face. He swung blind as she darted at him low and the sword whipped over her head, wind of it snatching at her hair, weight of it turning him sideways. She caught his flapping coat tail in her left hand and sank her eating knife into his sword shoulder with the other.
He gave a strangled grunt as she pulled the knife clear and stabbed at him again, blade ripping open the arm of his coat and the arm inside it too, almost cutting into her own leg. She was bringing up the knife again when his fist crunched into the side of her mouth and sent her reeling, bare feet wrestling with the dirt. She caught hold of the corner of the building and hung there for a moment, trying to shake the light from her skull. She saw Jeg a pace or two off, bared teeth frothy with spit as he tried to fumble the sword from his dangling right hand into his left, fingers tangled with the fancy brass basketwork.
When things were moving fast, Shy had a knack for just doing, without thoughts of mercy, or thoughts of outcomes, or thoughts of much at all. That was what had kept her alive through all this shit. And what had landed her in it in the first place, for that matter. Ain’t many blessings aren’t mixed blessings, once you got to live with them, and she’d a curse for thinking too much after the action, but that was another story. If Jeg got a good grip on that sword she was dead, simple as that, so before she’d quite stopped the street spinning she charged at him again. He tried to free an arm but she managed to catch it with her clawing left hand, pressing up against him, holding herself steady by his coat as she punched wildly with the knife—in his gut, in his ribs, in his ribs again—her snarling at him and him grunting at her with every thump of the blade, the grip slippery in her aching hand.
He got hold of her shirt, stitches tearing as the arm half-ripped off, tried to shove her away as she stabbed him again but there was no strength in it, only sent her back a step. Her head was clearing now and she kept her balance, but Jeg stumbled and dropped on one knee. She lifted the knife up high in both hands and drove it right down on that stupid hat, squashing it flat, leaving the blade buried to the handle in the top of Jeg’s head.
She staggered back, expecting him just to pitch onto his face. Instead he lurched up suddenly like a camel she’d once seen at a fair, the brim of his hat jammed down over his eyes to the bridge of his nose and the knife handle jutting straight up.
“Where you gone?” The words all mangled as if his mouth was full of gravel. “Smoke?” He lurched one way, then the other. “Smoke?” He shuffled at her, kicking up dust, sword dangling from his bloody right hand, the point scratching grooves in the dust around his feet. He reached up with his left, fingers all stretched out stiff but the wrist all floppy, and started prodding at his hat like he had something in his eye and wanted to wipe it clear.
“Shmoke?” One side of his face was twitching, shuddering, fluttering in a most unnatural way. Or maybe it was natural enough for a man with a knife lodged through his brains. “Thmoke?” There was blood dripping from the bent brim of his hat, leaving red streaks down his cheek, his shirt halfway soaked with it; but he kept coming on, bloody right arm jerking, hilt of his sword rattling against his leg. “Thmoe?” She backed away, staring, her own hands limp and all her skin prickling, until her back hit the wall behind her. “Thoe?”
“Shut your mouth!” And she dived at him with both palms, shoving him over backwards, sword bouncing from his hand, bloody hat still pinned to his head with her knife. He slowly rolled over, onto his face, right arm flopping. He slid his other hand underneath his shoulder as though he’d push himself up.
“Oh,” he muttered into the dust. Then he was still.
Shy slowly turned her head and spat blood. Too many mouthfuls of blood the last few months. Her eyes were wet and she wiped them on the back of her trembling hand. Couldn’t believe what had happened. Hardly seemed she’d had any part in it. A nightmare she was due to wake from. She pressed her eyes shut, and opened them, and there he still lay.
She snatched in a breath and blew it out hard, dashed spit from her lip, blood from her forehead, caught another breath and forced it free. Then she gathered up Jeg’s sword, gritting her teeth against the urge to spew, rising in waves along with the thumping pain in the side of her face. Shit, but she wanted to sit down! Just stop. But she made herself turn away. Forced herself up to the back door of the tavern. The one Jeg had come through, still alive, a few moments before. Takes a lifetime of hard work to make a man. Only takes a few moments to end one.
Neary had dragged himself out of the hole his fall had put through the floorboards, clutching at his bloody trouser leg and looking quite put out about it. “Did you catch that fucking bitch?” he asked, squinting towards the doorway.
“Oh, no doubt.”
His eyes went wide and he tried to drag himself towards his bow, not far out of reach, whimpering all the way. She hefted Jeg’s big sword as she got close, and Neary turned over, eyes wide with terror, holding up one desperate arm. She hit it full-blooded with the flat of the sword and he moaned, clutching it to his chest. Then she hit him across the side of the head and rolled him over, blubbering, into the boards. Then she padded past him, sliding the sword through her belt, picked up the bow, and dragged some arrows from his quiver. She made for the door, stringing one as she went, and peered out into the street.
Dodd was still scraping coins from the dust and into the bag, working his way towards the well. Insensible to the fates of his two companions. Not as surprising as you might suppose. If one word summed up Dodd, it was “insensible.”
She padded down the steps of the tavern, near to their edges where they were less likely to give a warning creak, drawing the bow halfway and taking a good aim on Dodd, bent over in the dust with his back to her, a dark sweat patch down the middle of his shirt. She gave some long, hard consideration to making that sweat patch the bull’s-eye and shooting him in the back right there. But killing a man isn’t easy, especially after hard consideration. She watched him pick up the last coin and drop it in the bag, then stand, pulling the drawstrings, then turn, smiling. “I got the—”
They stayed there awhile. He crouched in the dusty street, bag of silver in one hand, uncertain smile lit up in the sun, but his eyes looking decidedly scared in the shadow of his cheap hat. She on the bottom step of the tavern, bloody bare feet, bloody split mouth, bloody hair plastered across her bloody forehead, but the bow good and steady.
He licked his lips, swallowed, then licked them again. “Where’s Neary?”
“In a bad way.” She was surprised by the iron in her voice. Sounded like someone she didn’t even know. Smoke’s voice, maybe.
“Where’s my brother?”
“In a worse.”
Dodd swallowed, sweaty neck shifting, starting to ease gently backwards. “You kill him?”
“Forget about them two and stop still.”
“Look, Shy, you ain’t going to shoot me, are you? Not after all we been through. You ain’t going to shoot. Not me. Are you?” His voice was rising higher and higher, but still he edged back towards the well. “I didn’t want this. It weren’t my idea!”
“Course not. You need to think to have an idea, and you ain’t up to it. You just went along. Even if it happened to mean me getting hung.”
“Now, look, Shy—”
“Stop still, I said.” She drew the bow all the way, string cutting tight into her bloody fingers. “You fucking deaf, boy?”
“Look, Shy, let’s just talk this out, eh? Just talk.” He held his trembly palm up like that might stop an arrow. His pale blue eyes were fixed on her, and suddenly she had a memory rise up of the first time she met him, leaning back against the livery, smiling free and easy, none too clever but plenty of fun. She’d had a profound lack of fun in her life since she’d left home. You’d never have thought she left home to find it.
“I know I done wrong, but … I’m an idiot.” And he tried out a smile, no steadier than his palm. He’d been worth a smile or two, Dodd, at least to begin with, and though no artist of a lover, had kept the bed warm, which was something, and made her feel as if she weren’t on her own on one side with the whole rest of the world on the other, which was something more.
“Stop still,” she said, but more softly now.
“You ain’t going to shoot me.” Still he was edging back towards the well. “It’s me, right? Me. Dodd. Just don’t shoot me, now.” Still going. “What I’m going to do is—”
She shot him.
It’s a strange thing about a bow. Stringing it, and drawing it, and nocking the arrow, and taking your aim—all that takes effort, and skill, and a decision. Letting go the string is nothing. You just stop holding it. In fact, once you’ve got it drawn and aimed, it’s easier to let fly than not to.
Dodd was less than a dozen strides distant, and the shaft flitted across the space between them, missed his hand by a whisker and stuck silently into his chest. Surprised her, the lack of a sound. But then, flesh is soft. ’Specially in comparison to an arrowhead. Dodd took one more wobbly pace, like he hadn’t quite caught up with being arrow-stuck yet, his eyes going very wide. Then he blinked down at the shaft.
“You shot me,” he whispered, and he sank to his knees, blood already spreading out on his shirt in a dark oval.
“Didn’t I bloody warn you!” She flung the bow down, suddenly furious with him and with the bow too.
He stared at her. “But I didn’t think you’d do it.”
She stared back. “Neither did I.” A silent moment, and the wind blew up one more time and stirred the dust around them. “Sorry.”
“Sorry?” he croaked.
Might’ve been the stupidest thing she’d ever said, and that with some fierce competition, but what else could she say? No words were going to take that arrow out. She gave half a shrug. “I guess.”
Dodd winced, hefting the silver in one hand, turning towards the well. Shy’s mouth dropped open, and she took off running as he toppled sideways, hauling the bag into the air. It turned over and over, curving up and starting to fall, drawstrings flapping, Shy’s clutching hand straining for it as she sprinted, lunged, fell …
She grunted as her sore ribs slammed into the wall around the well, right arm darting down into the darkness. For a moment she thought she was going in after the bag—which would probably have been a fitting conclusion—then her knees came back down on the dirt outside.
She had it by one of the bottom corners, loose canvas clutched by broken nails, drawstrings dangling as dirt and bits of loose stone filtered down around it.
Shy smiled. For the first time that day. That month, maybe.
Then the bag came open.
Coins tumbled into the darkness in a twinkling shower, silver pinging and rattling from the earthy walls, disappearing into the inky nothingness, and silence.
She straightened up, numb.
She backed away slowly from the well, hugging herself with one hand while the empty bag hung from the other.
She looked over at Dodd, lying on his back with the arrow sticking straight up from his chest, his wet eyes fixed on her, his ribs going fast. She heard his shallow breaths slow, then stop.
Shy stood there a moment, then doubled over and blew puke onto the ground. Not much of it, since she’d eaten nothing that day, but her guts clenched up hard and made sure she retched up what there was. She shook so bad she thought she was going to fall, hands on her knees, sniffing bile from her nose and spluttering it out.
Damn, but her ribs hurt. Her arm. Her leg. Her face. So many scrapes, twists, and bruises, she could hardly tell one from another: her whole body was one overpowering fucking throb.
Her eyes crawled over to Dodd’s corpse, she felt another wave of sickness and forced them away, over to the horizon, fixing them on that shimmering line of nothing.
There was dust rising there. She wiped her face on her ripped sleeve one more time, so filthy now that it was as like to make her dirtier as cleaner. She straightened, squinting into the distance, hardly able to believe it. Riders. No doubt. A good way off, but as many as a dozen.
“Oh, hell,” she whispered, and bit her lip. Things kept going this way she’d soon have chewed right through the bloody thing. “Oh, hell!” And Shy put her hands over her eyes and squeezed them shut and hid in self-inflicted darkness in the desperate hope she might have somehow been mistaken. Would hardly have been her first mistake, would it?
But when she took her hands away, the dust was still there. The world’s a mean bully, all right, and the lower down you are, the more it delights in kicking you. Shy put her hands on her hips, arched her back, and screamed up at the sky, the word drawn out as long as her sore lungs would allow.
The echoes clapped from the buildings and died a quick death. No answer came. Perhaps the faint droning of a fly already showing some interest in Dodd. Neary’s horse eyed her for a moment, then looked away, profoundly unimpressed. Now Shy had a sore throat to add to her woes. She was obliged to ask herself the usual questions.
What the fuck now?
She clenched her teeth as she hauled Dodd’s boots off and sat in the dust beside him to pull them on. Not the first time they’d stretched out together in the dirt, him and her. First time with him dead, though. His boots were way too loose on her, but a long stride better than no boots at all. She clomped back into the tavern in them.
Neary was making some pitiable groans as he struggled to get up. Shy kicked him in the face and down onto his back, plucked the rest of the arrows from his quiver, and took his heavy belt knife too. Back out into the sun and she picked up the bow, jammed Dodd’s hat onto her head, also somewhat on the roomy side but at least offering some shade as the sun got up. Then she dragged the three horses together and roped them into a string—quite a ticklish operation, since Jeg’s big stallion was a mean bastard and seemed determined to kick her brains out.
When she’d got it done, she frowned off towards those dust trails. They were headed for the town, all right, and fast. With a better look, she reckoned on about nine or ten, which was two or three better than twelve but still an almighty inconvenience.
Bank agents after the stolen money. Bounty hunters looking to collect her price. Other outlaws who’d got wind of a score. A score that was currently in the bottom of a well, as it happened. Could be anyone. Shy had an uncanny knack for making enemies. She found that she’d looked over at Dodd, facedown in the dust with his bare feet limp behind him. The only thing she had worse luck with was friends.
How had it come to this?
She shook her head, spat through the little gap between her front teeth, and hauled herself up into the saddle of Dodd’s horse. She faced it away from those impending dust clouds, towards which quarter of the compass she knew not.
Shy gave the horse her heels.
Megan Abbott was born in the Detroit area, graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English literature, received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University, and has taught literature, writing, and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego. She published her first novel, Die a Little, in 2005, and has since come to be regarded as one of the foremost practitioners of modern noir mystery writing, with the San Francisco Chronicle saying that she was poised to “claim the throne as the finest prose stylist in crime fiction since Raymond Chandler.” Her novels include Queenpin, which won the Edgar Award in 2008, The Song Is You, Bury Me Deep, and The End of Everything. Her most recent novel is Dare Me. Her other books include, as editor, the anthology A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir and a nonfiction study, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. She lives in Forest Hills, New York, and maintains a website at meganabbott.com.
In the subtle yet harrowing story that follows, she shows us that there are some things that you just can’t get over, no matter how hard you try—and some insights into the hearts of even those we love the most that you can’t unsee once you see them.
Copyright © 2013 by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois