Morning Cloud’s Law

The bar was crowded with cowhands in from the drive. Smoke hung in the air. Piano music jangled on the eardrums and whores plied their wares among the dusty cowpokes who slaked their thirst with whisky – every once in a while, a successful transaction would result in the couple proceeding upstairs to the privacy of the rooms above.

Frenchie Bresson plied his own trade, playing poker and relieving the cowhands of their pay with easy guile and an expressionless face. Slim and dark, his Mediterranean heritage showed in his olive skin and clean bright teeth when he smiled. Bresson was a meticulous man, dressed in a tailored suit of black and a slim tie at his neck, occasionally drawing from a dark cheroot as he slid the cards dextrously in his hands. Mostly, those who lost, did so with good grace and if they didn’t, he was quick with a gun. They played the game and took their chances and Bresson was a known professional, so taking him on was done with care.

Rob Miller rode into town that night. He and a few of the boys from the Crossed Y ranch. The youngest of the Miller boys, Rob was none too bright and thought he would best Bresson at a hand of poker.

Losing didn’t come easy to Rob Miller. Hand after hand his pile of dollar bills dropped. Then it happened, he won a hand. Frenchie smiled. A cold smile that never left his lips. Dark eyes flashed with anger as he reached across and grabbed the boy’s arm. Cards slipped below the boy’s cuff. Rob stepped back, pulling his arm free and reached for his pistol, but Frenchie was there before him. Staring at the muzzle of Frenchie’s gun, he hesitated.

“Good lad,” Frenchie said quietly. “No point dying. Now, I’ll take that money and we will call it quits.”

He reached across and swept up the winnings. “Go!” he instructed.

Like a whipped dog, Rob slunk away, fury etched on his reddening face. “You ain’t heard the end of this,” he snarled.

“Yes, I have. Now go while you still have some dignity left.”

One of the other players at the table turned to Frenchie. “He’s dangerous that one.”

“I know.”

“Well, you just watch your step, is all I’m sayin’.”

“Well, I’m done for tonight. Guess I’ll be off.” Frenchie rose and picked up his winnings. He tipped his hat to the others before striding across the saloon bar and out into the night.

He walked past the young woman standing by the rail, rolling a cigarette, and stepped onto the street. As he headed for the livery stables, he was unaware of the shadowy figure that stepped out from between the buildings and fell into step behind him.

***

They found him the next morning. He was lying face down by the livery yard with two bullet wounds between his shoulder blades.

The stable boy came out to see to the horses at first light. He nearly stepped on the body. Dropping the armful of hay he was carrying, he ran back to the jailhouse to alert the Sheriff.

***

I first saw Sinistré lounging against the bar of the town’s saloon, smoking a pipe and sipping whisky from a tumbler. She appeared relaxed and at home with her surroundings, but I could see in her demeanour the coiled spring of a professional gunfighter. Watching everyone and missing nothing. I’d heard about her coming into town earlier in the day and worried.

I’d been sheriff for a few years at that time and havin’ recently turned forty, was wonderin’ just how much longer I could keep going before the job was ready to be handed over to a younger man.

Things had been pretty peaceful up to that point, then two things happened to upset my peace. She came into town. And so did Rob Miller.

The last thing I needed was a gunslinger in town, especially as the Miller boys had ridden in and Rob, the old man Sly’s youngest was wanted for murder in Tucson. I was going to have to arrest him, and wasn’t looking forward to the fallout that would follow. Sly would do all he could to keep the noose from tightening around young Rob’s neck – and it was my job to see the law enacted properly. And there, in the middle of it all, Sinistré rides in with her companion – a loose cannon with a fast gun hand. That was why I had a no guns policy in my town and enforced it across the board. Sinistré hadn’t been by the jailhouse to surrender her weapon, so I went to the saloon bar to take it off her. And I weren’t lookin’ forward to it, I can tell yer.

I walked across the crowded room and drew up alongside her. I looked at the dusky skinned woman resting against the bar, gun holstered at her left hip. I glanced down at it. Tied to her thigh, the holster hung low and was well worn with use. In it lounged a peacemaker.

She was half Comanche, folk hereabouts said. Her raven hair fell around her heart shaped face and this close I was aware of a soft, musky smell that made my blood move faster in my veins. She had braided beads in the strands that fell down the front of her dark cotton shirt. Her hat had an eagle feather tied to the band and the brim dropped low over her dark eyes.

“Sinistré, I presume,” I said unoriginally.

“Yup,” she replied, casting an incurious glance at me, while sucking on her pipe. She blew a smoke ring and watched it drift into the air and dissipate. “Anything I can do for you, sheriff?”

“As a matter of fact,” I said, “there is. This is a no-guns town and you haven’t surrendered yours.”

“That’s mighty observant of you… sheriff…?”

“Pat, Pat Benson. And yes, it is mighty observant of me. And town rules apply to everyone.”

“Mmm,” She took another puff then said, “You planning to arrest Rob Miller?” As she said it, she looked along the long bar to the far end where the fair haired young man was drinking with his brother and a couple of companions. The two Miller boys could ’a’ been twins, I observed. Both had the same short spiky fair hair and ruddy tanned faces aged before their time by being out in the harsh sun. But Dan was older than Rob by about a year and a half. He was also the brighter of the two – knowing enough to keep his self outa trouble. He wasn’t wanted for murder anyways.

“That I am,” I said to Sinistré.

“Mmm.”

I was beginning to dislike those “mmms” as they worried me.

“What?” I said.

“Well, I was just wondering if you was planning on getting yourself killed, is all.”

“He is unarmed. As I said, no guns in this town, which is why I will be able to arrest him without getting shot.”

“Mmm.”

What?” I said irritably.

“Well, he ain’t armed, that’s for sure, but the two fellas watching his back are.”

“What?” I was repeating myself, I could tell.

“See the card player facing us over in the far corner?”

I looked across the room to the far corner where a group of cowboys were playing cards. Facing us was a sharp type in a black frock coat, dark hat pulled low across his eyes and thin tie around his collar. “Yes.”

“Well, he’s carrying. Got a piece below the table. He rides with the Miller outfit, has been for a few months now. Rudy Glenn. If you arrest the Miller boy, he’ll put a bullet in your back. And if he was to miss, the bandito on the landing will do it instead.”

I looked up at the landing, but could see no one.

“He’s behind the door. It’s just ajar.”

It was and looking more closely I could see a slight movement and a shadow.

“So,” she continued equably, “You could take my gun and get yourself killed arresting Rob Miller, or you could leave me be, and I’ll watch your back. Up to you.”

“I could disarm ’em…”

She gave me an exasperated look. “So which one do you want to kill you?”

I sighed. I had no choice and we both knew it. “Okay, but when I’ve done with Miller, I’ll be back.”

She shrugged and took a sip of her whisky. I walked down the length of the bar and confronted Rob Miller. “Rob, you are under arrest. I’m taking you to the jailhouse so’s the US marshal can come and collect you for trial. Best to come quietly, boy.”

Dan started to speak but was silenced pretty quickly.

I heard rather than saw the two shots that rang out. Looking round, the card table was on its side and Rudy Glenn was lying on his back with a hole in his forehead. Bloodstained matter was spread across the wall behind him and a dark stain oozed from the back of his head onto the wooden floor. There was a crash as the banister fell to the floor closely followed by a dead body, blank eyes stared at the ceiling and blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth; a reddening hole in his chest. I looked along the bar just as Sinistré was holstering her pistol. She lifted a hand to her forehead in salute and treated me to a smile. That smile cut through a man in the way no smile had ever done before. I dragged the struggling, handcuffed prisoner along the bar. Yes, I had been told that she was fast but seeing it – or, more accurately, hearing it – brought it home hard. She was very fast and ice cold, too.

“Come with me,” I instructed her. She arched an eyebrow and complied wordlessly, lifting herself away from the bar with the agility of a mountain lion and falling into step behind me. I sensed rather than saw humour in those dark eyes of hers. The crowd separated before us as we made our way to the door. No one tried to stop us. No one was prepared to risk it, I reckon.

Together we walked out of the bar and along the main street pushing the handcuffed prisoner ahead of me to the jailhouse. I was aware of Dan Miller following us out of the saloon and going to his horse hitched at the rail. He mounted up and rode fast out of town. That didn’t bode well. He’d be heading out to the crossed Y.

I secured Rob in the cell and went to my desk. I took out a deputy’s star and tossed across the desk to Sinistré. She stood there and looked at it, then lifted her eyes to meet mine, a question in her arched eyebrow.

“His father is gonna be coming,” I said, nodding in the direction of the cell. “I’m going to need some help. Besides, if you want to keep carrying that gun, a star is the only way I can let you do it.”

She smiled again. I wish she wouldn’t keep doing that, it affected my concentration. “Well?”

She reached across and picked up the star, pinning it to her shirt. “Sure, why not? Got nothing else planned at the moment.”

***

They would come. I knew that. Once Dan got back to the homestead with the news. Old Sly wasn’t about to allow his youngest to face the hangman and busting him out of my jail was the likeliest option for him. I guess Sinistré knew that too. Not that it seemed to bother her. She sat down in the leather chair opposite my desk and spent a while cleaning her colt. When she finished, she holstered it and applied her attention to the Winchesters in the gun rack on the wall behind my desk. One by one, she took them apart and cleaned them out, applying herself in silence to the task with dexterous competence. This woman knew how to handle a firearm as I had already witnessed. Her hands were careful and delicate as they handled the items with skill and the ease of someone at home with their work. I’d noticed that on her saddle she carried a ’73 which she brought into the jailhouse and placed on the desk ready for cleaning, identical to the ones in the rack except… “Is that a One of One Thousand?” I asked, eyeing the rifle with envy. It was a beautiful weapon and a rare piece at that.

“Yup. It belonged to a friend of mine; Frenchie Bresson. Reckoned it was the best hundred bucks he spent. Left it to me.”

She picked the weapon up and started disassembling it.

“Why’re you here?” I asked eventually.

She paused briefly and looked up. “Him,” she said, nodding towards the prisoner in the cell.

“I ain’t done nothin’ to you,” he protested.

“Killed Frenchie Bresson,” she said, lifting the rifle to the light and wiping it with a rag. “Shot him in the back.”

“There ain’t no proof of that!”

“Shut up!” I ordered. “That’s why he’s wanted in Tucson, ain’t it?”

“Yup.”

I went to the stove and poured a coffee. “Want one?” She shook her head and turned her eyes to the piece she was cleaning.

“Were you going to shoot him?” I gestured to Miller.

“Was. But you kinda took that option away from me with your gun-free town.” Disapproval dripped from her words.

I walked back to the desk with my coffee, slouched in my chair and rested my feet on the desk, tipping the chair back on two legs.

“Well, I ain’t gonna have murder in my town.” I stood by my policy – it kept the peace and helped me stay alive at least.

“Fair fight ain’t murder. I ain’t never shot anyone who didn’t draw first. Your no guns policy kinda spiked mine.”

“And if he shot you in the back, like Bresson?”

“Chance I was prepared to take.”

“And now?”

“And now, I have to let the law take its course. A bullet or a rope, makes no difference to me, as long as he’s dead and justice is done.”

“We still have his old man to deal with,” I mused.

She snapped shut the chamber of the rifle she was working on with a satisfying click. “This’ll sort Sly out,” she replied, holding it up for inspection.

“He won’t be alone,” I said evenly. This wasn’t going to end well. She tensed, looking across at the window that opened out onto the street, then I heard hooves in the street outside.

“Sheriff!”

I reached for the Winchester on my desk and dropped my legs to the floor.

“Sheriff! I wanna talk, ya hear?”

I stood and walked to the door. Opening it a mite, I peered outside. One rider sat on his horse in the street. Rob’s older brother, Dan. I glanced up at the clock – barely an hour and a half since he rode out of town. I figured he’s seen Sly and been sent back with an offer of amnesty while Sly sorted out his strategy and got the boys together.

“Watcha want Dan?” I called out. I was ready enough to play the game so long as it suited me.

“I don’t want no trouble, Sheriff and neither does Pa. You just hand Rob over and no one will get hurt.”

I looked back to Sinistré. There was a half-smile on her face. She arched an eyebrow, waiting to see how I would respond. This was my town and I upheld the law. If I backed down, I might just as well throw in the badge. If I stood my ground, Dan would bring the others with him and try to bust Rob out – and there was only the two of us against at least a dozen of the Crossed Y boys.

The odds weren’t good.

As if reading my mind, she murmured, “them’s the odds I like.”

I snorted in response. I preferred the quiet life. Gunfights were exactly the thing I wanted to avoid.

I turned back to the door. “Dan, you know how it is. Rob’s wanted in Tucson. I’ll see he gets there in one piece and he’ll get a fair trial, y’hear?”

“That ain’t good enough, Sheriff, they’ll hang him and Pa ain’t gonna let that happen.”

“Dan, by all accounts he shot a man in the back…”

“I did not!”

I turned back to Rob. “Shut it boy!” Then back to the street. “That’s for a jury to decide. He’ll get his hearing and if he’s guilty, then hangin’s what he deserves.”

Dan tugged on the reigns of his black stallion. “Sheriff, you got till dawn to figure things right. If we don’t have Rob back by then, we’ll come and get him. And that half-breed squaw ain’t gonna save you.”

I looked across at Sinistré, but she remained enigmatic. I guess she was used to the insult – although from what I had heard, those who used it didn’t last very long. She turned her attention back to the Winchester and clicked the action back and forth a couple of times – as if there was nothing else going on in the world. She was so calm, she made butterfly wings flappin’ look like a thunderstorm.

I turned my gaze back to the street. “You mind my words, Sheriff!” Dan swung the horse round and galloped off, kicking up dust as he went.

So, that was it. We wait. And then we deal with what happens next.

Sinistré tensed, then relaxed as footsteps echoed on the wooden sidewalk. “Lucy,” she said.

“Your companion?”

She nodded. There was a tap at the door. “Come in,” she instructed. The door opened and a slender, fair, young woman entered carrying a wicker basket. “I brung vittles,” she said, placing the basket on my desk and taking out bread, cheese and meat. “Figured you’d be wantin’ some.” Dressed in shirt and pants, like her companion, Lucy was a fine looking woman with honey blond hair falling loose about her shoulders and a kind smile that was easy on the eyes. She reached forward and kissed Sinistré lightly on the cheek. “How’re you Mornin’ Cloud? I heard the commotion. Figured you was involved somehow.”

“I’m fine, darlin’.”

“Morning Cloud?” I Asked.

“My Comanche name,” Sinistré took a hunk of bread and chewed a bite off. “Thankin’ ye,” she said to Lucy. “Sheriff, take some, gonna be a long night.”

I helped myself and turned to Lucy. “You’d better be gettin’ back. Things will be getting dangerous around these parts.”

She smiled. “I can shoot. Besides, I reckon’ you two desperados will be needin’ all the help you can get.”

“What about me? I ain’t had nothin’ to eat fer ages.” Rob rattled the bars of his cage. I nodded, “Best let him have some, sweetheart.”

Lucy smiled and took some chow to the boy. “You’d better let me go,” he said. “Pa will see you dead otherwise.”

I smiled. “Listen up, son, you will be facing trial in Tucson, come what may. Your Pa won’t be stopping that. Eat up. You’ll need your strength.”

I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was just past ten. “We should get some rest,” I said.

“Sure, I’ll take first watch.”

I sat back in my chair, feet on the desk and pulled my hat down on my face. Lucy curled up in the big leather chair opposite while Sinistré sat by the window looking out on the street, the ’73 cradled in her arms.

I must have dozed, because it was gone midnight when she nudged me awake, her musky scent filled my nostrils and something skipped inside my chest. We swapped over and she slept in my chair, lifting her long legs lazily onto the desk.

The night seemed to drag on forever. The silence broken only by the breathing of the other three as they slumbered. Miller snored a bit then settled back into steady breathing. The two women slept the sleep of the innocent and I wondered about my companions. The half-breed Comanche who, apparently, had hunted down and shot her grandfather in revenge for a raid on the village that killed her mother. There was something exotic about her, yet also a coldness that ran through her heart and showed itself in the ice in her dark eyes. Like most men, I found myself attracted to her and like all men, I was to be disappointed. I watched as she slept and thought how gentle she looked, yet could spew death at a moment’s notice. She was dangerous like a coiled snake. I thought then, how fortunate I was that she was on my side during the forthcoming fight. And, I liked her. People did. Those that weren’t trying to kill her, that is.

***

They came just before dawn.

Lucy nudged us awake. “Horses, outside,” she hissed.

“Heh! Pa will kill y’all,” Miller sniggered.

“Shut it, boy!” I snapped, walking to the window and looking out. “They got a gunslinger,” I observed.

Sinistré came across and looked over my shoulder. “This one’s mine,” she said. I wasn’t too inclined to argue. Taking on ranch hands was one thing, standing face to face with a hired gun was outside my league and I knew it. I could handle a gun alright and it had served me well in law enforcement, but I wasn’t fast – not by the standards of the professional gunfighter. I’d be dead before I got my piece out of the holster.

She stepped outside the door. I stood just inside with the Winchester in my arms, ready. Lucy picked up a rifle and waited by the window.

The gunslinger slid from the saddle of his horse and stood facing her, feet slightly apart, body braced, right hand just above the grip of his pistol. Oddly, she lounged against the rail and patted one of the horses with her right hand, but she never took an eye off him, her coat was already pulled back from her left hip where the gun lounged in its holster and as I watched, I could see that despite appearances, she wasn’t remotely relaxed. There was something hard and wiry about her body as she watched the man. Like a cat about to pounce, she watched and waited, eyeing him up for the miniscule movement that would signify a draw.

He was dressed mighty fine, I reckoned, though. Black frock coat, neat tie and black wide-brimmed hat. His cotton pants were smooth and clean – no trail dust for him and his boots were finely made with silver tips and decorative leatherwork. This man made a good living from his trade. But, then, so did she. Unlike this man, she was understated. Sinistré didn’t do overt shows of finery.

“Kelly,” she said. “Been a while.”

“Half-breed whore,” he responded with easy malice, a humourless smile spreading across his weather-beaten face, white teeth showing beneath the narrow moustache. She didn’t bite. She had a code and that code never varied. She always waited until the other pulled first.

“Send the boy out,” he said. “No one needs to get hurt.”

There was a pause. The only sound being the horses stamping their feet and snickering.

“Nope,” she replied slowly. “Not gonna happen. He’s wanted for murder and he is gonna face trial before gettin’ hanged.”

“Uh, huh! Shouldn’t that be if a jury finds him guilty?”

“Oh, they will do that alright. There’s a witness. Your boy’s as good as dead.”

I saw a sharp intake from old man Sly. They didn’t know that. Come to that, neither did I. I wondered who it was. I also realised that her gambit now made life very dangerous for someone. But, then, who else knew?

Sly leaned down and whispered to Kelly. Kelly shook his head and turned his attention back to Sinistré. “Get the boy out.”

“Nope.”

His hand twitched over the handle of his gun. “I said…”

“I heard yer. The answer’s still no. So whatcha gonna do about it?” She pushed herself upright and her body tensed as she prepared for the inevitable.

He was faced with a choice. Back down or draw. Not a choice really.

He drew.

It seemed to me that it all happened in slow motion but it was over in seconds. He gripped the handle of his weapon and tensed his legs, bending slightly at the knees as his hand lifted the gun up and back out of the holster. The muzzle never made it. The slug from Sinistré’s 45 smashed through his skull, pounding out the back of his head, spraying blood, bone and brains with it, throwing the lifeless body back, where it landed spread-eagled in the mud staring sightlessly at the grey dawn sky, a dark stain spreading from the back of his head into the dust of the street. In that moment, two of the others lifted their rifles. I took one out with a chest shot, throwing him from his saddle, she silenced the other, with barely a flicker of her eyes. Sly and Dan sat staring, hatred and fury barely suppressed in their faces, as they looked at the three bodies lying in the street. Sly’s horse whinnied as he pulled on the reins. “This ain’t over,” he shouted as he turned and galloped out of town, the others following.

Sinistré holstered her pistol. “We need to leave,” she said.

I think I was ahead of her with that one. We could withstand a siege for so long, but I had no idea how long the Marshall from Tucson would take to get to us and we were vulnerable. In a straight fight, we had taken out three of half a dozen hands, but Sly had more and if they had all drawn we would have been in trouble and we both knew it.

“They’ll try and break Rob out somehow and we’re outnumbered,” she said. “If it was me, I’d try to burn us out.”

“Big risk, they might kill Rob in the process.”

She shook her head. “They will be figuring we wouldn’t let that happen. Is there a back way out?”

“Yup,” I nodded to the door next to the cell. “Through there.”

These old timber buildings would burn readily enough and they could shoot us down as we tried to escape, so the back was our best option if we was quick about it and got the horses round from the front.

Our thoughts were prescient as it turned out. A few moments later riders approached with burning torches. Shots rang out and the windows of the jailhouse burst in, shards of glass flying across the room. We ducked for cover as burning torches followed. Between us we managed to stamp some of them out, but others took hold. Lucy pushed the remaining glass out with the butt of her rifle and let off a few shots at the departing riders. She winged one, but they were soon out of range. More shots rang out as they came for another pass and we shot back. I felt a burning in my left shoulder. “Shit!”

“You’ve been hit,” Lucy said.

“Yeah, flesh wound. I’ll live,” I said, returning fire out the broken window.

“I’ll get the horses,” she said as Sinistré loosed off shots after the retreating riders.

“No…”

“Let her,” Sinistré said. “We can get the prisoner and take him through. She’ll be okay, I’ll cover her.”

I acquiesced and went back to the cell, unlocking it and commanding Miller to get up off the bed and come outside. He hesitated, but moved quick enough when I reminded him that I was happy to let him burn, as would happen before his Pa got to him. I could hear shots as Sinistré provided covering fire for Lucy while she got the horses.

“C’mon, git!” I instructed as I pushed him towards the door at the back of the building. Lucy was waitin’ outside with the horses ready for us and not a scratch on her. “You must lead a charmed life,” I remarked as we mounted up and rode hard to the high ground above the town. We paused and looked down in the grey light of early morning. The glow of the burning jailhouse lit up the sky and a plume of black smoke rose up.

The raiders would know soon enough that we had skit and would come after us. “They will be coming, so we’d better ride,” I instructed.

“I dropped a couple,” Sinistré replied. “I guess Ol’ man Sly will ride back for reinforcements before coming after us. Only him and Dan left standing at the moment.”

“That’s good. Gives us a head start. And you okay?” I asked.

She nodded, “I’m good. You’re the one is injured.”

Lucy came up beside me. “We’d better stop and look at that shoulder of yours.”

“I’m fine,” I said. Just a flesh wound. I’ve had worse.”

“It’s a two-day ride to Tucson and the heat will be gettin’ up. I’ll put a bandage on it.”

So we stopped while Lucy cleaned and dressed my injury with rags torn from the tail of her shirt. We checked up on our water supplies too. We had to cross the Gila, so we would be able to let the horses drink and fill up our canteens, but that was half a day off. I figured we would have enough until then if we was careful.

“We’ll have to head south rather than go through the mountains,” I said. Sinistré nodded. It made sense. The journey would be longer, but easier on us and the horses.

So we rode, heading south of Mount Graham and to the deserts that skirted it Even so, it was hard terrain, with the horses having to climb escarpments and drop back down to the desert floor of the wide valley between the mountain ranges.

The heat of the desert parched our throats and the sweat evaporated from our skins before it had time to form. We took it easy with the water as I wanted to make it last. The wound in my shoulder ached and I felt faint. I felt myself drift off and nearly slid from the saddle. Our prisoner must’ve been watching, ’cos he spurred his horse and tried to make a run for it.

“Hah!” He yelled as he kicked at the horse and drove it into a gallop.

He didn’t get too far.

Sinistré lifted the ’73 from its holster and raised it to her shoulder. She loosed off a round that kicked up the dust before the horse’s hooves. “Next one is between your shoulders, boy!”

He spun the horse round and looked at her. She eyed him back along the barrel of the carbine. “All I need is an excuse to cheat the hangman,” she said. He thought about it and turned the horse, figurin’ that he would bide his time. His pa was comin’ so best not to risk a bullet.

Sinistré tied his hands to the pommel of his saddle and set him in front.

“You okay?” She asked me.

“Yeah, just a momentary thing,” I replied. “We’ll be at the river soon, we can rest up there for a while.”

“Yeah.”

“You wouldn’t have shot him in the back,” I said, my voice kept low so as Rob didn’t hear me. It was a statement, rather than a question.

“He didn’t know that,” she replied, her voice deadpan.

We stopped at the river to rest, allow the horses to drink and to refill our canteens. Lucy checked out my shoulder. Apart from a dull ache, it was mending okay. “No sign of infection,” she said.

“Good,” I smiled. “Aches, though. Just as well it’s not my shootin’ hand.”

The river was shallow enough here to cross on horseback and we waded our mounts across, before riding up the far bank. Sinistré turned to look back. She pulled a spyglass from her saddlebag and passed it to me. “See ’em, Pat?”

I lifted the telescope to my eye. On the horizon, I could see dust and riders. “Aye.”

“Six or seven,” I figure.

I peered into the distance, watching the approaching riders. “I make six.”

“Two to one,” she said. “I can live with that. They’ll catch us by nightfall at the pace they are going.”

“They won’t keep it up in this heat, their horses won’t cope.”

“Let’s hope not.”

“Yup. And we better move on,” I instructed.

We headed on south across the desert in the searing heat. It must’ve got to a hundred degrees in the middle of the afternoon and we slowed down. From time to time, we glanced back at our pursuers, they must’ve felt it too. It seemed to me, they weren’t getting any closer.

***

We made camp for the night at the edge of a ravine. Lucy went out for some kindling and returned a while later with an armful of desiccated mesquite twigs. “Guess I’ll go git supper,” Sinistré said. “’fore it gits too dark.” She took her carbine and wandered off. I heard a couple of shots a few moments later. She came back with a couple of rattlers draped around her shoulders. “Good eatin’ on a rattler,” she smiled. “Tastes like chicken.”

Lucy took the rattlers, slicing off what remained of the heads and kicking them away. She expertly skinned and gutted them, chopped the bodies up and placed them in a pan she got from her saddlebag and before long the aroma of cooking meat made me realise I was gettin’ hungry. Even our prisoner looked like he was ready for some supper.

Sinistré was right, once cooked, the meat was tasty enough, if a little tough and gettin’ the meat out from the ribs was fiddly. But it tasted good and filled a hole right enough.

Sinistré sat next to the fire, lounged back against her saddle and, pulled out her pipe from her saddle bag, lighting it and puffing to get it going. She passed it to Lucy who puffed a few times before handing it to me. “Don’t mind if I do,” I said. So we smoked for a while and drank the rich, bitter coffee Lucy had prepared. A companionable silence ensued and I realised that I enjoyed the company of these women, of whom I knew little.

“Why Sinistré?” I asked. “If your name is Morning Cloud?”

She tapped the holster on her left thigh. “Frenchie Bresson called me that ’cos I’m a lefty,” she said. “It stuck.”

“And Frenchie, how did you know him?”

“He rode with Sam Langman for a while. Sam was a scout for the army, that’s how they got to know each other. Sam rescued me when I was a nipper. I rode with Frenchie for a bit after Sam felt ready to retire. He played the card tables, but was a good enough shot to earn a little from his gun when the occasion arose. Did a bit of buffalo huntin’ too on occasion.”

***

Sinistré was around eighteen when Frenchie rode back into Sam Langman’s homestead.

“Hiya Sam, Army’s recruitin’ for scouts,” he announced, sliding seamlessly from the saddle.

“Ah, I dunno,” Sam replied. “Come on in anyways. The girl will be happy to see you at least.”

Frenchie led his horse to the corral, where he lifted her saddle off and let her loose to much the hay Sam put down for her. “Where is Sinistré anyways?” he asked.

“Out gettin’ some chow,” Sam replied.

Sinistré returned a while later with a brace of buck rabbits. “Frenchie!” She said, dropping her kill and reaching out to hug the visitor. He returned the hug then held her at arm’s length. “My, you’ve grown, girl. How’s your shootin’?”

She picked up the rabbits. “Good enough, I reckon.”

Sam skinned and cooked the rabbits while Frenchie regaled his ward with tales of his time out on the plains. “I think it’s time,” he said to Sam, “for her to come out riding with me. Learn the ropes.”

Sam paused a while. He knew this time was coming. Frenchie was a good bit younger than he was and was still happy to spend days and nights in the saddle and Sinistré was getting to an age where he could no longer keep her on the homestead. She had to make her own way in the world. But Sam wasn’t so old he was ready to quit just yet. “How about I come with you on this ride?” He suggested.

Frenchie reached out a hand. “I reckon that’s a fine idea.”

So they rode out to the plains and Sinistré learned to track – Sam felt that maybe she would follow where he and Frenchie had been and scout for the army. She was a natural at tracking and she handled firearms with skill, so he hoped that the army would probably overlook her sex and mixed heritage.

One day, they found the buffalo. A great herd that went on as far as the eye could see. Huge animals that thundered across the landscape, deafening the ears and stirring the heart. For Sam and Frenchie, this was something they were used to, but for the young woman, it was new and fascinating, but she also noticed something else. “Riders,” she shouted over the deafening roar of galloping animals, “on the horizon.” She nodded to the high ground above the herd.

“Sioux,” Frenchie said. “We best ride back a bit. They won’t hunt while we are too close. Besides, the army want to know where the tribe is, we ain’t to engage.”

As they turned and headed away from the herd, Sam remarked that these days were, like his, numbered. “Too many white hunters,” he remarked. “The injuns take only what they need and use the whole animal. I seen carcasses left to rot after the white hunters have killed. The Sioux would never do that. These herds are dying now.”

***

Sinistré lapsed into silence as her thoughts drifted back to events some ten years previously when Frenchie and Sam were still alive.

“He was right, too, the Buffalo are going fast now. I miss ’em.”

“The buffalo or Frenchie and Sam?” I asked.

“Both. All three.” There was a melancholy in her voice as she reflected on those times past and I felt I’d pushed enough.

Lucy took the pipe from her and took a deep draw, blowing a plume of smoke into the air. “I liked Frenchie,” she said, easy like. “He was a good fuck. Considerate, gentle, knew how to please a woman. Paid well, too.” Which kinda brought that conversation to a natural conclusion.

We took shifts again to keep watch. Since early afternoon we’d had no sight of our pursuers. Camping at the edge of the ravine meant that we were protected from behind and anyone attempting to sneak up would have to make a full frontal assault.

I took first watch and the others put out their bedding rolls and settled down by the embers of the cooking fire. Before we settled down, I tied Rob to a tree and made sure the knots were good and tight. Didn’t want him breaking out and killing us in the night.

The smoke and coffee smell filled the air and the sound of cicadas in the mesquite accompanied it.

I watched my companions. They had said little about their lives, and Lucy had said next to nothing about her past as a whore in hotels across the territory. I kinda knew, but didn’t push it. Her revelation about Frenchie was the closest she’d come to openly admitting her past. Sinistré didn’t seem bothered by it, but it seemed to me they both liked this man and each had an interest in seeing him get justice.

***

We rode on through the wide valley. The mountains to either side. Even so, the terrain was rough with several climbs and dropping back down again. “So,” I asked, “did you scout much for the army?”

She shook her head. “It felt too much like betraying my own kind. The white man was stealing the land and killing the buffalo, making life impossible for the plains tribes. It felt wrong, so Frenchie and I drifted off on our own.”

“And Sam?”

“Sam went back to his homestead. Frenchie was good with cards, so he made a living at the tables. Me, I was good with this.” She tapped the colt at her side.

From time to time, I looked back using her spyglass. The riders remained there in the distance. I figured they was gaining on us. “Reckon so,” Sinistré agreed.

***

We stopped at the San Pedro to water the horses again the following day. And that’s when Sly made his move.

We made our way to the water and let the horses drink. I dismounted and knelt down to fill my canteen. As I moved forward, there was a shot and the slug splashed harmlessly in the water. I turned and rolled to my left, reaching for my gun. There was a shooter up on the ridge above us. I aimed and shot, he ducked his head below the horizon and the bullet kicked up dust from the rock. There were a couple more shots so we dove for cover at the base of the ridge.

“Give us the boy!” Sly called out. “No one will get hurt!”

I held my Winchester close to my chest and glanced across at Sinistré who had Rob covered with her rifle.

“You know the answer to that, Sly. The boy is wanted for murder. I gotta take him to Tucson for trial and I intend to do it.”

Rob started to get up, but Sinistré shoved the muzzle of her rifle under his chin. “Don’t even think it,” she hissed.

“We need to get out of here,” I said, stating the obvious.

“Git the horses,” Sinistré said. “I’ll cover you.” With that, she stepped back from the ridge and fired up at the ambushers above. Lucy and I went for the horses. I grabbed Rob and hauled him onto his horse. Holding the reins of both animals, I spurred mine on and rode hard along the river bank. Looking back, I could see Sinistré galloping after me, lying low across her horse’s neck, reaching back and rapidly firing at our pursuers.

As we reached the shallows, I led our party across the river and headed west towards Tucson. Shots skimmed past us and when we could, we returned fire. We were on open ground now and there was no cover, but so were our pursuers.

***

As we rode, our horses panted in the heat, straining against the reins. Bullets kicked up the dust and ricocheted off the rocks to our right. They were gaining on us and rode hard to our left, flanking us and pushing us towards the cliff face to our right. Sinistré hauled her bay onto its hind legs and turned it around. Lifting the Winchester to her shoulder she loosed off one shot after another and each found its target. Three riders fell from their saddles to the dust, one of them dragged behind his mount as his foot caught in the stirrup. Sly and Dan pulled ahead of the other cowhand left of his posse. Dan aimed his gun square at Lucy as she rode hard for the safety of the escarpment. “Morning Cloud!” I shouted.

“I got it!”

The Winchester barked again and Dan Miller was thrown from his saddle, a bullet in his chest. He fell to the floor of the ravine, rolling over a few times before he lay still, dead.

“No!” Old man Miller cried out in rage and grief, pulling his horse up to stop by his son’s lifeless body. He dropped out of the saddle and knelt by Dan, too engrossed in his loss to follow us as we slowed our ride.

“Up ahead,” Lucy called out. I looked up. There were riders in front of us, breaking into a canter as they saw the pursuing riders. One of them raised a rifle and took out the remaining cowhand, leaving Sly alone with his son.

I pulled my horse to a stop, grabbing the reins of Rob’s mount as I did so, ignoring the rage in his eyes. Rescue wasn’t gonna happen now and he knew it – Tucson awaited and a trial. And a hangin’.

I looked across at Sinistré. “You’ve been hit,” I said. Blood oozed from a gunshot wound in her thigh.

“It’s clean,” she said. Went right through. Nothing major hit, I think.”

“You killed my brother you half-breed whore!” Rob snapped.

“Well, she replied equanimously, “If you hadn’t shot a man in the back, then none of this would a’ happened. Your brother would be alive as would those other boys lyin’ in the dust there and your pa wouldn’t be grieving for two lost sons. No one else to blame but you. And you’re gonna pay for it all.”

He spat and snarled and she just smiled that smile of hers, although I could see pain etched on her face. The sooner we got to Tucson and had out injuries seen to, the better.

The lead rider broke forward and came up to me. “Frank Birchall, US Marshall,” he said, reachin’ out a hand. I took it and shook it warmly. “You must be Pat Benson. I’ve been riding out to collect your prisoner. Guess we was just in time…” He said.

Sinistré raised an eyebrow and glanced back at the dead men lying in the dust behind us. “You reckon?” She said.

***

The court room was crowded for the trial. I sat alongside Sinistré and Lucy. The Doc had patched us up and apart from my arm in a sling and Sinistré’s slight limp we was as good as new.

We sat and watched as they settled down and the judge called matters to order. The prosecution laid out its case that in February that year in Tucson city, Rob Miller, having been caught cheating at the card table by Frenchie Bresson had gone and shot Frenchie twice in the back, killing him outright.

The prosecutor then called out for his first witness; “Call Miss Lucy McClure!”

I turned to Lucy and Sinistré and opened my mouth, but no words came out. “You might wanna put yer jaw back up,” Sinistré observed. I snapped my mouth shut and watched as Lucy stood and walked to the front of the courtroom, the light bouncing off her golden hair like it was a halo. Wearing a new dress of green satin that flounced as she walked, she looked more a lady than the whore she was about to expose herself to the courtroom as. She was some gutsy lady, that one.

Sinistré had a broad grin on her face, ’cos I hadn’t seen that one comin’ and she was right. Neither had Rob Miller. He turned to look at Lucy striding confidently across that room to give her deadly testimony; finally recognising someone that he had ignored at the time, someone who was invisible to cowhands unless they was thinking of a quick hump and even then, the whore was a nobody they cast off with contempt once the deed was done. His face went pale, real pale – for he knew now it was all over and he was a dead man alright. Lucy smiled sweetly in his direction and then went to the witness chair to swear her oath and speak her piece.

***

Lucy McClure stepped out of the smoky saloon and into the night. She leaned against the rail at the edge of the raised wooden sidewalk and reached for the tobacco pouch she kept inside her cape. Breathing in the cool night air she rolled a smoke. Whoring was work, but it did mean you opened your legs for anyone who was prepared to pay and some of these cowhands smelled worse than skunks. She wrinkled her nose at the memory of the last client who had mounted her and humped a few times before climaxing, then rolled off her and staggered back to the bar downstairs with barely a word. She hadn’t even gotten his name. And cared less.

She licked the paper and ran her fingers along the tube, rolling it gently to form a cigarette as she recollected.

Cleaning herself up, she had come outside for some respite. And some fresh air and a smoke. Men were okay, but sometimes she preferred the gentle caress of another woman and she wondered where Morning Cloud was at the moment. Off on a job somewhere, she guessed. She liked men well enough, but she loved Morning Cloud and her tender caresses. Some thought Morning Cloud cold and hard, but Lucy knew a different side – a gentle, tender side.

She watched as Frenchie Bresson stepped out of the bar, pausing briefly as he took in the night air and crossed to the street. Lucy liked Frenchie. He was a considerate client. Always polite and always clean, and generous with his cash. He smelled fresh and she enjoyed their moments together. He had done well at the tables this evening and as she watched him stride down the street to see to his horse at the livery stables, she wondered if he would like a roll in the hay before heading back. Might as well share some of those winnings, she figured. Besides, someone who could do more than hump and grunt a few times would make a change from the evening’s work so far. Frenchie liked to share his pleasure and took his time, pleasuring her as much as she did with him. He was an expert with fingers and tongue and she shivered with anticipation at his touch teasing upon her skin – and he paid well for it, too. Besides, she always got the feeling that he liked her as well. She meant more to him than paid sex. He always asked for her when he was in town and she always made herself available. Sometimes, she mused to herself, she enjoyed her work. One Frenchie Bresson made up for a dozen dirty cowhands.

Putting the rolled cigarette into the pouch and pulling her cape close, she crossed the street and took a side alley to the back of the town. The shortcut meant she would be at the stables before Bresson.

Slipping through the back door, she waited in the darkness of the building and watched as he came towards the open door. She moved forwards to greet him, but something caught her eye. Bresson wasn’t alone. Someone was following. It was Rob Miller, the cowhand he had caught cheating. She was about to shout a warning when Miller drew his gun and fired twice. Bresson fell forwards and lay still.

Lucy ducked back into the dark of the building and pulled the hay around her, not sure if she had been seen.

“Anyone there?” Miller called out sensing the movement within the stable. Lucy held her breath, her heart pounded and she thought that Miller would hear her. He wandered into the dark interior, looking about, but finding nothing walked out into the night.

Terrified, Lucy grabbed Frenchie’s dappled grey mare, saddled her up and rode out of town.

***

After Lucy’s testimony, guilty was a foregone verdict. Rob Miller was sentenced to hang a couple of days later. There was a crowd gathered to watch the hanging, many of them had brought vittels and drinks almost as if it was a holiday and I felt a vague disgust. A man was gonna die here and these people treated it as entertainment.

Over the past two days, they had been busy sawing and hammering to build the scaffold and now it was ready for its dark purpose.

We sat on our horses at the edge of the throng as they led him out from the jailhouse. Sly weren’t there to watch. Having lost Dan to Sinistré’s bullet and now seeing Rob proved to be a cowardly murderer, I guess slinkin’ back home was the best he could do. Can’t say as I blamed him. A little of me even felt sorry for the old man.

“So that’s what it was about,” I said to Sinistré. “Gettin’ your witness back to the court as well as the defendant.”

“Mmm,” she said, watching as they led Rob out. He struggled a bit and they pushed him roughly the short walk and up the steps. His eyes caught ours. “Fuck you!” he mouthed. I glanced across at her. She smiled – you could almost say sweetly, but beneath the smile was venom. Frenchie Bresson was her friend. Today, Frenchie Bresson was going to be avenged.

She watched, cold and dispassionate as the noose was slipped around Robert Miller’s neck and tightened up. Lucy looked away. “I’ll wait for you,” she said and rode off a ways. She had no stomach for this and I understood.

“Anything you wanna say?” The hangman asked.

Rob shook his head. The hangman nodded and stepped back to the lever and pulled it. The floor collapsed beneath the condemned man and he dropped into the opening. The body jerked at the end of the drop. There was a crack as his neck broke. She watched emotionlessly as the lifeless corpse twitched. Eventually, the feet stilled and the body twisted slightly from left to right.

It was done.

Justice was served. Frenchie could rest in peace.

We turned our horses and rode up to where Lucy was waiting.

Sinistré reached across to the badge on her shirt and unpinned it, holding it out to me.

“Don’t,” I said. “Stay, please.”

“Time to be moving on,” she replied.

“You don’t have to. I want you to stay. We work well together, don’t we?”

“That we do, Pat. That we do. But,” she gestured with the star and I held out a hand. She dropped it into my open palm and smiled. “Everything has its time and this was ours. I like you, Pat. But time to move on.”

“Where you goin’?”

“Where the trail takes us, I guess.”

“California, I reckon,” Lucy added.

I watched as Lucy turned the dappled mare and Sinistré tipped her hat with a smile and then followed on her bay. I watched as they rode out of my life, but never out of my memory or my heart.