Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
It had been a long time since I was on a train, and I found I hadn’t missed it a bit. The rocking made me a little uneasy in the stomach, and also sleepy, a real bad combination. Our crew sat at the west end of a car on a train going roughly west to east, from Texoma to Dixie. It would be a long ride. We’d have to switch trains in Dallas.
“Was that your boyfriend who brought you to Sweetwater?” the woman sitting across from me asked. Her name was Maddy Smith. She was wearing guns, like me.
“Nah,” I said. “I’ve known Dan Brick since we were yay-high.” I held my hand out. Maybe I’d been four years old.
“Really?” I’d never thought about Dan’s looks. “He’s a good friend.”
Maddy looked at me, smiling. “If you say so. He don’t feel that way.”
“Huh.” As far as I was concerned, talking about Dan was at an end. I looked out the window again.
The land outside was open to view till there was a ridge of low hills. The sun was beginning to cast long shadows for the small trees, the few farms. The towns were far apart in this stretch of Texoma. We’d gone through miles that were entirely empty. The population of Texoma wasn’t what it had been before the fields dried up and the farms got repossessed and the influenza took people from every family. When it had still been Texas.
Our car was half-empty. Not too many passengers wanted to share space with gunnies.
My new crew, the Lucky Crew, was all in the same half-drugged condition I was. Across the aisle, gray-whiskered Charlie Chop was out and out snoring. Rogelio was staring out the window looking angry and handsome, which seemed to be his resting face. Jake, the crew leader who’d hired me, was looking ahead resolutely, making sure he was alert. He and I had run out of things to talk about thirty minutes before. Jake and I were turned toward Maddy, who was about my age, as she sat on the crate. That crate was our cargo.
Even if I was going to Dixie, it felt good to be working. My last job had almost killed me, but the long recovery had ended in me feeling as antsy as I’d ever felt in my life.
So I’d needed a new crew. Jake had needed another shooter. Here I was. This was not the job I’d have picked for my first one back, but it was better than none.
“That your grandfather’s rifle, you said?” Jake remembered what I’d told him about the Winchester.
“Yep. He left it to me.”
“He a shooter?”
“Not by profession, but he shot just about everything we put in the pot.”
“So it’s a family trait.”
“If so, it passed my mom completely and came to me doubled.”
Jake laughed. “Your mom teaches school in Segundo Mexia, doesn’t she?”
“To Jackson Skidder.” Who had spotted my shooting talent early and encouraged me to learn. Didn’t matter to him that I was a girl. A skill was a skill.
“He’s a well-to-do man,” Jake said.
I nodded. Jackson worked hard, was clever about people, and took chances when he had to. He also took good care of my mother, Candle.
Jake glanced at his watch. “Time to shift,” he said.
We all stood and stretched.
Maddy looked grateful to get onto some padding, as she took her new seat by me. Jake took the crate. Rogelio and Charlie took the seat Jake and I had vacated. Some of the other passengers turned to look at us, though they should have been used to the drill by now.
A couple of them were from Texoma, like we were. Then there were some older and more prosperous people returning to Dixie from wherever they’d been. Lots of trains terminated in Dallas. Not too many went from Dallas to Dixie.
There were two passengers I was keeping my eye on. They didn’t fit in. The closest was a blond woman, about ten years older than me and Maddy (both of us were around nineteen). She was dressed in a straight skirt and short-sleeved kind of tailored blouse, with a little hat and low heels. She was no Dixie woman, for sure, and no Texoman, neither. Either. I guessed Brittania.
The other passenger to watch was bareheaded, short, and black-haired. He wasn’t nearly as impressive. But he hummed with power. When he stood for a moment and I saw his vest, I knew for sure he was a grigori, a Russian wizard. When I looked hard, I could see the ends of a tattoo above his collar. Another sign.
Jake was crate-sitting, facing the west end of the car with a line of sight over my shoulders. I heard that door open. Jake’s hand went to his gun. The newcomer was a fancy man, dressed sharp like the blond woman, and also wearing a hat. He took a seat by her and they exchanged a few words. Jake turned to watch them.
From the other end, two new men entered, and we all tensed.
“Dressed too nice,” Maddy muttered.
“Dressed too new,” I said. The two were young, early twenties, one blond, one brown-headed. Everything they had on was brand-spanking new. Levi’s, shirts, gun belts. Down to their cowboy boots. They’d gotten a payout of some kind.
I stood with my rifle pointed at the blond man, a step or two ahead of his friend. “Turn around, man, and go back where you came from,” I said. “We don’t want any trouble with civilians around.” Unless the two were prepared to kill everyone in the car, there would be witnesses. I registered that the grigori had stood and turned to watch.
The two newcomers didn’t seem to know there was a wizard at their back. Unless they were the wizard’s employees, they were fools. I knew there was other movement in the train car, but I kept my eyes on Blond and Brown, and past them on the wizard. Everyone else had to shift for themselves.
The wizard’s hands went down. He was not protecting the two. So they were idiots.
Then a lot of things happened in a flash.
The blond one pulled his shiny new gun, and I killed him. The brown-headed one had drawn his weapon, too, when Jake took him down.
I kept the Winchester aimed at them, just in case. My eyes flicked around, trying to see what was going on around me. There was an old couple crouching low on the floor in front of their seat, like the seat would protect them from a bullet. The fancy couple, both with guns in hand, looked down at the two dead men in the aisle right by them. The wizard had resumed sitting with his back to us like nothing had happened. A couple of other people were yelling, the usual “Oh my God!” and “What happened?”
Didn’t take too long for the train staff to get there, and Jake took over the task of explaining. All the rest of us lowered our weapons and sat down, so we wouldn’t look like we were going to shoot someone else.
Maddy and I ended up carrying the bodies to a freight car. Guess Rogelio didn’t want to get his hands dirty, and Jake was still talking. Charlie was sitting on the crate. After we’d gotten Brown deposited by Blond, we took the opportunity of going through their pockets. They were both twenty, both lived in Shreveport, and they had a lot of cash, which Maddy and I appropriated since they didn’t need it anymore. This was not something I usually did, but it was either we got it or the railway people.
Maddy saw the picture in my wallet as I put the money away. “Who’s the baby?” she said. “Yours?”
“No. A friend’s.” Not strictly true, but I didn’t want to tell Maddy the whole story of my friend Galilee, how she’d run away from Dixie pregnant by her employer’s son, how the baby had turned out to be a boy she’d named Freedom. Galilee Clelland had been my best friend, and when she’d died in the middle of a road, I’d gotten a hole in my heart. “I may see the grandparents on this trip, and I brought a picture to show them,” I said, despite myself.
Maddy looked at me curiously, but she could tell I didn’t mean to say any more.
The car was quiet again when we got back, at least until Jake began to talk.
He told us a bunch of stuff. We would be getting into Dallas soon, and getting off with the cargo. The Dallas law would come to our hotel to talk to us. When he was through, we all leaned in.
“What did you find on the bodies?” he asked.
I said, “They come from Shreveport. They lived on the same street. Stewart Cole and Burton Cole.”
“No letters or telegrams or receipts?” Jake looked disappointed. His mustache seemed to droop.
Maddy shook her head, her braid whispering across her back. “Not a damn thing,” she said.
“Take off their boots?” Charlie pointed to his own in case we didn’t speak English.
I nodded. “Only this.” It was a scrap off an envelope. It had 3rd car from rear written on it. Our car.
We had targets painted on our backs.
Or maybe the bull’s-eye was on our cargo.
At the Dallas station, we were met by the law. They were pretty anxious to know why we’d shot the two men. We watched the Coles’ bodies being unloaded from the freight car as the detective questioned everyone who’d witnessed their attack. To my surprise, everyone agreed that both men had drawn before Jake and I had shot them. Didn’t often happen that everyone agreed, and it sure made life easier for us.
The well-dressed couple acted like they were in charge of everything. The blond woman introduced herself to the police as Harriet Ritter, and she showed them something she carried in her purse, some badge or identification. They acted real respectful after that, to her and her companion, whose name was Travis Seeley.
I’d hoped to pick up more information, but they moved too far away for me to hear any more.
Next morning we walked to the station, Jake and Rogelio carrying the cargo. It wasn’t awful heavy, but the crate was bulky. Maddy and I took front guard. Charlie brought up the rear. People gave us quick glances as we went through the street on the way to the station, and then did their best to avoid us. Which was good. I hardly knew my new crew, but they were working well together.
Maddy was a poor girl from a farm in the middle of nowhere, Jake had been Lavender Bowen’s former second, Charlie had made a name for himself throwing his hand ax in the border skirmishes. As far as I could tell, Rogelio handsomed people to death. He hadn’t shown me another skill, but Jake vouched for him. Which is to say, we didn’t look well dressed or equipped with fancy stuff, but we all had experience.
We loaded up into our car, eyes and guns at the ready. No one kept us company today but the fancy couple. The grigori had reached the end of his journey, or he’d chosen another car. The Dallas police didn’t show up, so we were good to leave.
It was the most boring day of my life.
Jake gave me ten minutes to stretch my legs, so I wandered through the train, giving Harriet Ritter and Travis Seeley a good look as I passed them. They smiled at me. They looked glossy and well rested.
Two cars away, I happened upon another gunnie, who grinned at me when she saw my Colts. I asked if I could sit for a moment.
“Have a seat, and welcome. I’m Sarah Byrne.” Sarah was in her thirties. From her clothes and her possessions, she was down on her luck.
“Lizbeth Rose,” I said, shaking her hand. “You working?”
“No such luck. I’ve been getting over an injury.” She had a scabby cut on her cheek, must have been bad when it was fresh. “You?”
“Yeah, I’m with a crew new to me.”
“You all need any help? I’m free.” She looked eager.
“I’ll tell our crew leader.”
“Maybe I know him?”
“No.” She looked kind of relieved for just a second. Not a good sign.
“You’re heading away from home,” I said.
“My sister married a man in Jackson. I’m going to visit. I have to switch trains twice more.”
Two seats ahead of us, a man who’d been fighting with his wife, not too quietly, hauled off and belted her one.
Next thing I knew, I was right beside him and I was putting my gun in his face. “Not here,” I said. “Don’t you do that.” The wife was just as shocked as he was, and she looked down, wouldn’t meet my eyes. He blustered and blew, but he shut up. A Colt is a powerful argument.
When I was sure he wasn’t in a hitting mood, I said good-bye to Sarah.
“I got to get back to my crew,” I said. “Nice talking to you. Always good to meet someone else in the business.”
“If your crew leader needs an extra hand, I’d sure like to get work before I go to my sister.”
“I’ll tell Jake,” I said.
I did tell Jake about Sarah Byrne. He just grunted, but after a minute he said, “Good to know.” This trip had already produced some surprises. It might produce more. Maybe an extra gun and pair of eyes would be a good precaution.
We spent another night in a cheap motel in a little town, don’t even remember the name of it. After being jiggled around all day in the train, we slept like logs. Charlie snored so loud, Maddy and I could hear him from our room right beside the men’s.
I was getting used to Maddy. I liked her. She wasn’t an exciting person, but she was agreeable, and she was determined to do her job. She’d decided our cargo held the crown jewels the Russian royal family had smuggled out with them when they’d been rescued. I tried to figure out why anyone would hire us to guard them, and why they’d send the jewels to Dixie, of all places. But Maddy had her fantasy. She pointed out that Tsar Alexei’s first wife had been from Dixie. So it all made sense, to Maddy.
Jake, our leader, talked a lot about his boyfriend. Charlie talked about anything and everything. Rogelio was a silent brooder.
Third day, we crossed into the country of Dixie. We were approaching Sally, our goal, a little town in Louisiana. I wanted to get off that train so bad I was itching, and the others were the same. We had fallen out of our best readiness because we were too warm and no one approached us and we were sick of guarding the crate, which didn’t tick or ring or do anything but sit there.
Everything was boring until the train blew up.