Science Fiction: High Society

 

This story is a result of two things. First, I wanted to revisit Dakota Jack, who first appeared in “But a Dream” and who has shown up in some of my other writings as well. Second, I had the song “High Society,” written by Cole Porter and sung by Louis Armstrong, stuck in my head. Many of the characters that appear in this story are named after characters in the film High Society, although their names are pretty much the only similarity.

We lay naked together in her parents’ barn, watching the skies through the holes in the roof.

“Tell me about it again,” said Tracy. Brown hair fell over the olive skin of her face as she sat up. Her eyes glittered like a pair of emeralds in the evening light.

I didn’t move. My body was young, but she still had a way of wearing me out. I looked at her sleepily and smiled. “It’s all just memories from childhood. I don’t even know if they’re real.”

“Come on, Dakota.” Her voice took a pleading tone, knowingly baiting me. “Just tell me a little.”

With a resigned sigh, I gave a nod. “I only remember bits and pieces of my real home—the home I had before the white man put my people on the move. But the land was open there, and the air was crisp. Just breathing gave you energy to run, swim, and hunt. It was a land of freedom, a land of possibilities, where you could do anything. Nature walked right next to you, so close that you could touch it. But we never took from it, besides what we needed for food and clothing. We were too thankful to hurt the earth that had given us so much.”

She smiled a reckless smile that did remind me a little bit of my old home back east. “And was it green?”

I breathed in and brushed her hair out of her face. “During the spring, it was even greener than your eyes.”

Tracy rolled her eyes at my stale cliché, but kept her smile. She dropped, and I grunted in surprise as she landed heavily on top of me. Then she rolled onto her back and curled up, pulling my arms over her body and turning me into a red-skinned coat. Her eyes watched what little we could see of the stars, and her breath came out as a deep purr.

“It won’t be long until I’m out from under my daddy’s thumb. Then I’m gonna go east and see the green for myself. You’ll join me, won’t you Dakota?”

Since she couldn’t see me, I didn’t try to smile. I swallowed and gave a small shudder as I thought of going back there, a stranger again in a new land. “We’ll see,” I said.

*          *          *

As usual, I’m late. The stagecoach—or what’s left of it, anyway—is trashed. The wheel axles have been snapped, and the coach itself has been knocked on its side. The robbers cut the horses loose and left the half dozen guards lying dead in the sun for the buzzards to pick clean. And the leader of the gang—my bounty—is long gone.

“Just about par for the course,” I mutter. I swing out of the saddle and reign up my horse on the busted up coach. If my luck is any good at all, the gang at least dropped some of the cash from the strongbox.

As expected, my luck is about as bad as my timing.

The strongbox lies open in the sun, its hinges broken and every last bit of coin gone. My horse nudges me with his muzzle as I walk back to him. I squint up into the sky and shield my hands against the sun. It’ll be noon in a few hours. I pull a canteen from one of the saddlebags and take a long swing of the lukewarm water. If I don’t get myself under a roof before that desert sun hits its high point, I’m going to be wishing I had it as nice as these dead gents.

“Don’t go…” The voice trembles its way across the brush and dry cacti to my ears just as I’m about to hop back into the saddle and go on my way. I look around, but don’t see anyone immediately. It’s only after taking a quick walk around the stagecoach that I realize that one of the corpses isn’t really a corpse.

“Please,” he groans, “don’t leave me.”

The lucky survivor looks to be in his late thirties, with sideburns that reach almost down to his chin. He’s starting to lose his hair, and his sorry excuse for a comb-over makes it look like his mother parted his hair for him. I would make fun of him, except for the fact that his shirt is soaked through with blood. He tries to get up, grabbing the edge of the stagecoach for leverage. But his hands are even weaker than his voice, and he just drops to the ground again. He looks me in the face and tries to stammer out something else, but passes out instead.

“Great,” I mutter, looking down at the near-corpse and then up at the circling buzzards. “You’d best be willing to give me a reward for this.”

*          *          *

It’s nearly sundown when he wakes up again. I’ve spent most of the day lying under what little shade I could make out of the busted black stagecoach. My horse isn’t quite so lucky, and he lets me know it by kicking the side of my pathetic little shelter whenever he thinks I’m getting too comfortable.

My host wakes up to see me mixing a bit of black powder into my canteen. He tries to rise, and then looks in surprise at the bandage around his arm and shoulder.

“Don’t try to move.” I hand him the canteen. “Just take a swig of this. It’ll help get your strength up a little bit.”

He takes a suspicious sniff of the concoction. “What’s in it?”

“Just drink.”

He takes his first swig and gags. I let him sputter with the first few swigs, and then decide to tell him what’s in it.

“It’s an old remedy my mother taught me. Some crushed herbs, a bit of alcohol, and a few ground up centipedes.”

He gags, but the medicine has already gone down the hatch.

“Oh, come on. For somebody who’s been shot in the shoulder and lost as much blood as you have, you’re acting like a big baby.”

“Did…did you just poison me?”

“Do you really think I’m going to waste an entire day out in the desert making sure you don’t bleed to death just so I can poison you? What kind of twisted mind do you have?”

“Sorry…I’m sorry, okay? It’s just…I didn’t expect anyone to come along. I thought I was done for.”

“Yeah, well you’ll be fine. ‘Course, I’m no doctor, but I know a thing or two about gunshot wounds. I’ve had a few myself, and yours isn’t much more than a scratch and a bleeder.”

He looks at the bandages with a rueful smile. “Guess I owe you, huh? What’s your name, stranger?”

“Jack.”

He looks at me skeptically. “You don’t look much like a Jack.”

“Yeah? Well what’s your name?”

His face suddenly falls, and he gives a bit of a blush. “Marion.”

“There you go then, Marion.”

“Are you looking for George Kittredge and his gang?”

“Nope. Just for Kittredge himself. The gang’s not worth more than a few silver dollars for the lot of ‘em. Their leader’s the big reward. Not that it matters now. I’m about as good at tracking as I am at making tasty medicine.”

“Gold Basin.” He closes his eyes with that utterance. His face gets pale, and I almost expect him to pass out on me.

“Pardon?”

“Kittredge went to Gold Basin, a few days west of here. Said he had some big business to take care of before meeting up with the gang again.”

“You’re serious?”

Marion nods. “They came in and took care of us pretty good. We didn’t even get a chance to fight back. They were pretty cocky; figured any survivors were as good as dead anyway. Kittredge himself mentioned Gold Basin. Said he had to meet someone there before the next job.”

I put on the broadest smile I’ve had in weeks. “Marion, I could kiss you right now.”

My horse interrupts the scene with a kick to the stagecoach before I get a chance to follow up on my statement. I sit up and shoot him an impatient look. He glares back at me.

“Hell of an animal you’ve got there,” says Marion, arduously forcing himself into a sitting position.

I stand up and start petting the horse’s light brown coat to calm him down. “Thanks. His name’s Dinner.”

“Dinner?” Marion arcs an eyebrow.

“Well, that’s not his full name.”

“And what’s his full name?”

“Dinner, three sets of moccasins, a pair of pants, a couple dozen arrowheads, and some nice jewelry.”

Dinner gives me a disdainful snort. I ignore him and walk back to Marion, grabbing him by his good shoulder and hoisting him to his feet.

“Do you know where Mojave City is?”

Marion wrinkles his brow in thought, and then nods.

“Good. Get up in that saddle and head on back there. Talk to a woman named Ella Grey. She knows a treatment for just about every injury known to man, and she’s the best there is.”

Marion sways in the saddle. He has to grab my shoulder to steady himself. “I don’t know if I can make it.”

“You’ll get your strength back if you take it easy.” I hoist a couple of canteens and a box of rations out of one of the saddlebags. “These are mine, but there should be plenty of food and water for you to make the trip. Trust me, it’s better to head back to Mojave than to follow me out to Gold Basin.”

I give Dinner a slap on the rump, and he starts galloping home.

*          *          *

Personally, I’m getting bored with these dying towns out in the middle of the desert. Burning hot days, freezing nights, and a summertime that lasts all year round just isn’t the life for me. I’m living out on the edge of civilization, where half the time the law is just as corrupt as the people I hunt down. The areas that aren’t dry, sandy, and uninhabitable tend to fill up with criminals and lowlives. It makes for decent work if you want to be a bounty hunter, but it gets tedious, especially when I don’t have anyone to do my planning for me. For all the pain Myrna caused me, she had a habit of coming up with just the right scheme to catch a crook. Now I’m stuck with the run in and shoot everything dead strategy. For some reason, I don’t think that will get me too far.

Now if I go down south a bit farther, I hear that Mexico has some nice places. The weather might still be hot, sure, but there’s at least some good liquor and fine-looking señoritas down there.

But no, I’m stuck up here in the States, tromping through the sand. I get about half a mile outside the town of Gold Basin when thunder breaks open the sky. A drop of rain falls, followed by a million of its friends. Before I know it, I’m soaked right through to the skin. The cold and wet makes it tough for me to daydream about finding a nice beach somewhere in Zihuatanejo.

Greystone Valley by Charlie Brooks

Greystone Valley by Charlie Brooks

Rainwater runs down my face. I sneeze and pull the brim of my hat down. Who am I kidding? The liquor in Mexico probably tastes like piss, and the women wouldn’t want a thing to do with me.

I get into the city limits and duck underneath an overhang in front of the post office. A little bell on the door gives a busted jingle as I step inside. The single clerk looks up at me for less than a second, then goes back to his game of solitaire. My boots alternate between clunking and squelching noises as I pace up to the wall where they display the wanted posters in this town. There’s only about half a dozen of them total, and they’re all small fries. A couple of petty thieves. One guy used to write a newspaper before he slandered the mayor. There’s one fellow who’s wanted for attempted loitering, whatever that is.

And there’s no George Kittredge.

I mutter a couple of curses under my breath. This one guy and his gang are worth enough to get me by for a month, and it looks like someone’s already caught him.

“Hey, hello there.” The clerk looks up with irritation on my face as I give a rap on the table in front of him. “I’ve got a question about your posters here.”

“You…a…law…man?” The bald clerk speaks in a slow drawl that a dead tortoise could outpace.

“Sure, if that’s what floats your boat. I’m from down south a ways, and I’m wondering if you can give me some answers.”

“I…might…”

“Great.”

He shoots me an irritated look. “It…ain’t…nice…to…cut…some…one…off…”

“Yeah, I know. But I’m in a bit of a hurry. I’m wondering if you know anything about George Kittredge. Last I knew, he and his gang were wanted for some pretty big stuff. Murder, robbery, that kind of stuff.”

He frowns and looks longingly at his abandoned game of solitaire. The Queen of Diamonds smiles back at him. “…Mistake.”

“Pardon me?”

“It’s…a…mistake.”

I look down at his game to see if he missed placing an ace or something. It just looks like a jumble of cards to me. “What’s a mistake?”

“The…poster. Lawmen…made…a….mistake. George…ain’t…done…nothin’.”

I open my eyes wide and give a quick shake of my head. I swear I almost dozed off trying to listen to this guy. “You know him?”

He nods and doesn’t say anything, saving me at least a half hour.

“Do you know where I can find him?”

“Last…guy…wanted…to…know, too.”

“There was someone else looking for him?” Just what I need: competition.

He nods again.

“Well, what did you tell the last guy?”

“George…ain’t…done…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know he hasn’t done anything. What makes you think the wanted posters were wrong?”

“He’s…a…good…man. A…family…man. And…he…”

“Okay, wait a second.” I look past his cards and find some paper and a pencil. “Look, I’m in a hurry here. I’m soaked, and I’m miserable. I’m just not capable of tact right now. Can you just write down what you’re trying to say? The clearer you are, the quicker I’ll be gone. That way I don’t have to die of old age, and you get an obnoxious critter like myself out of your office. Do we have a deal?”

He shoots me a look that burns enough to dry my clothes. With a deep frown, he grabs the pencil and paper away from me and starts scribbling down words. When he’s done, he slams the pencil down and throws the paper back at me.

I take a moment to read it over. I blink my eyes, and then give a laugh as I recognize a familiar name.

“You’re kidding.”

He shakes his head. I fold the paper up carefully and put it in my pocket. I give a wince as I realize that the paper is instantly ruined in my soaking clothes.

“Thanks. By the way, I think that red jack goes on your queen.”

He just continues to stare holes in the front of my head. I dodge his glare by sprinting outside, only to find out that it’s still raining.

*          *          *

“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t see you on the guest list.”

The world inside the town hall is the exact opposite of what’s going on outside. Where nature is pouring down enough gloom and water to make me want to build an ark, the reception is bright and warm. Guests mill about like ants at a picnic, and the entire place is draped in gold and red cloth. Food and fine liquor is piled high on a series of tables; my stomach comes close to leaping right out of my body and chasing after the hors d’oeuvres. Unfortunately, the gorilla in the suit at the door won’t let me in.

“Well, don’t you have someone you can talk to? I’m sure it was an oversight. I’m a friend of the bride’s.”

He gives a mute shake of his head. I start to wonder how much of a scene I really want to make over this. My ultimate decision is to go with discretion. I reach into my pocket and pull out the few coins I still have left.

“What’s it worth to you to find me on that list of yours?”

He pauses for a moment as I let the light inside dance off of my silver coins. Then, wordlessly, he sticks his hands out. The money disappears as soon as it hits his palm, and so does he.

I breathe a sigh as I head to get myself some food. This bounty had best go well. So far I’ve given up my horse, my dignity, and the last of my money. Luckily, the free food makes up just a little for all that.

“Jack? Is that you?”

I look over my mountainous plate of fruit and cheese as someone pulls up a seat at my otherwise empty table. He’s a middle-aged man whose face is so pale you’d think he recently suffered a stroke. A bald pate shines in the lit room even through his lazy comb-over, and his brown mustache is poorly trimmed and badly drooping, as though it is ashamed to be part of his face.

“Dex? I guess you’re the other guy, huh?”

“What other guy?” It takes a moment for the light of realization to go on in his eyes. “Ah…you talked to the guy at the post office, too.”

“Yep. Less than an hour ago.”

“Less than an…?” Dex rubs a calloused palm over his face. “Jesus, I talked to him three days ago. He wouldn’t tell me a thing. I had to actually do detective work to get this done—”

“Well, then it’s a good thing you were a sheriff before you went bounty hunter, then.”

“How the hell did you get any information out of him?”

I stuff some food into my mouth, chew it about three times, and then swallow it down. “Same way I used to get information out of you…by being an obnoxious son of a bitch.”

Dex takes a look to his left and then to the right, making sure no one is eavesdropping on our conversation. Most of them are busy putting the final touches on what will be the most magnificent wedding celebration this tiny town has probably seen in years. “Seriously Jack, what are you doing here?” His voice is a low whisper, with just a touch of anger in it.

I gesture at my now empty plate and pat my stomach. “Free food. Why else would I be here? Certainly not because the groom has a bounty on his head or anything.”

Dex rubs his temples. I watch a few more of the fading hairs on his head go gray. “How the hell did you even track him down here? The post office won’t put up his wanted poster. Everyone else in this mudball of a town believes that he’s a saint.”

“I’m not basing my operations around these parts anymore. George and his gang have hit up at least four stage coaches and pulled a bank job. He might be keeping things quiet around here, but this is the only town in the union where he’s not a known criminal. Besides, I’ve got a little woman in my corner who’s making sure I stay on top of things.”

Dex’s face goes a little paler. “Aw, damn. I forgot; you’re working with Myrna these days, aren’t you?”

I shake my head. “No…the little lady is Ella. Basically, she’s going to kick me out on the street if I don’t get things rolling and start making some money.”

“Ah. So Myrna finally wised up and left you, huh?”

“Something like that.”

“Look, I need this bounty. I’m this close to getting in good with the department again and getting some sort of legitimate post. There’ve got to be a hundred better bounties out there that are better than this guy.”

I give a sarcastic chuckle. “Dex, I know you’re kind of new to the whole bounty hunter business. In case you haven’t noticed, though, they give out bounties based on the severity of the crime. Robbery and murder places the reward a mite bit higher than shoplifting from the general store. Besides, when it gets this big, they want the guy dead or alive. Makes it a lot easier, because then I don’t have to ask questions after I shoot.”

Dex sighs and looks around the room again. The wedding isn’t supposed to really start for another hour, but people are already milling about nervously, just waiting for something to go wrong. “Okay, how about this? You let me bag Kittredge, and I’ll help you nab his gang.”

“You mean his gang that, when put together, is worth half of what the leader is?”

“Jack, this is a high profile guy. If I bring him in, I’m back with a star on my chest. There won’t be any questions asked.”

“And if I pull him in, I can actually buy myself a hot meal and a change of clothes. See my dilemma?”

“Please, work with me a bit.”

I take a long look around the hall, noting where all the exits are and checking the stairs. “I’ll tell you what…you can take all the credit you want, but you’ve got to cut me in if I help you catch him.”

Dex takes a few minutes to bite his thumbnail. He always does that when he’s nervous. And since he’s seen me on a job before, he’s got a right to be nervous. “Fine…we’ll split the reward right down the middle, fifty-fifty.”

“Seventy-thirty.”

“What? Why?”

“The credit is worth twenty percent on your side.”

“Fine, seventy-thirty.”

“Good.” I shake his hand enthusiastically as we reach our agreement. “You’ll have to do the math, though.” I shove my seat away from the table and stand up.

“Looking to stuff your face a bit more before the wedding?”

“Nope. Looking to renew old acquaintances before we start looking.”

“We don’t need to look anywhere. He’s going to walk in to be married in an hour. We just have to step up and grab him when he does.”

“He’s not going to show, Dex.”

“Why not?”

“You really think either one of us is really that clever? You weren’t canned because you had some bad luck; you were canned because you were a lousy lawman. If you found out about this whole wedding and I found out, then everyone knows. Half the people in this crowd are probably bounty hunters. He’s not going to show his face around here.”

“Then why would he schedule a wedding at all, if he’s going to stand up his bride?”

“You’re the sheriff, Dex. You figure that out. I’m going upstairs.”

“What’s upstairs?”

“Like I told the guy at the door; I’m a friend of the bride. And she’s going to want to know her husband-to-be is about to stand her up.”

*          *          *

I had been staying in a rented room above a saloon back when I knew Tracy. It was my first time really out in the west, without a friend or a partner to show me the ropes. The landlords were a nice enough couple—nice enough to rent to me, at least. They asked me not to show my face during the busy hours downstairs; booze, guns, and an Indian like me tended not to mix. So instead I spent my evenings lying on the stained mattress of my bed and listening to the sound of the tinny piano and drunken laughter downstairs. Sooner or later, Tracy tended to find just the right words to get away from her folks and come see me. She played them like a Stradivarius—or at least a fifty-cent kazoo.

One of those nights, Tracy came late. Someone else beat her to the door.

“Telegram for a Mr. Dakota.” The kid was maybe fourteen, and shoved a yellowed envelope into my hands as soon as I opened the door. I glanced at the address—Dexter Haven, one of the first contacts I had made out here.

“Thanks.” I fished through my pockets for what few coins I could scrape together. They disappeared as soon as they hit the boy’s palm, and so did he.

I closed the door and slid the deadbolt back in place. The music downstairs broke off as some drunken fool broke the piano. The music of my life ground to a halt as I checked the telegram.

Borden Capano located in Piedmont. [STOP]

Current crimes include extortion, racketeering. [STOP]

Reward is US $1,000. [STOP]

-Dex

I crumpled the note, took two deep breaths, and started packing.

Tracy didn’t come by until I was already out the back door.

“Hey, sorry I’m late.” She wore a puffy old skirt that rustled like the eastern wind when she moved. “Daddy was clinging extra hard tonight.”

She rushed over and kissed me, and I returned the gesture. But that’s all it was—a gesture. She knew immediately something was up.

“You going out somewhere, Dakota?”

I took a deep breath. My body grew hot, and sweat started forming on my brow as I tried to write a story in my head to get me away from there. “I’ve got to go for a bit.”

Tracy’s eyes lit up, and she looked at the stars as though some great god had just spoken to her. “I knew this was coming. We’ve gotta sneak back into my house…”

“Tracy, no.”

“Don’t worry; I only have a few things to take with me. I won’t bog us down at all.”

“No, I mean that it can’t be like that. I can’t take you with me.”

She looked deeply into the inky abyss of my eyes, trying to figure out what kind of joke I was trying to play. “But that was part of our plan. We were going to hit the road together, weren’t we?”

“It’s a different situation now. We don’t have the money to go together. Even if we did, it wouldn’t be a good idea.” I pushed the crumpled envelope into her hands. “This is the man who killed my father. There’s going to be blood before all of this gets taken care of.”

She scanned the note quickly, and then tossed it aside. I expected to see tears; I expected an entire tempest to open up and tear us both apart. Instead she stayed collected, but regarded me with a new hardness in her face. “Who’s more important to you: me, or this bounty?”

I took a deep breath and shook my head, refusing to answer. “This is going to happen, no matter what.” My skinny nineteen year-old wrist pushed aside the flap of my duster, revealing the old service pistol I had picked up at a pawn shop. “I can’t have you in the way once the bullets start flying.”

She bit her lower lip, but still stayed calm. Taking a deep breath, she set her mask again, hiding her emotions behind an expressionless veil. “You always act like you’re the adult, like you’ve been everywhere before. Well let me tell you something, Dakota. You’re not much older than I am, and you certainly don’t have any more common sense. Do you even know how to shoot that thing?”

I shrugged, and pulled the gun out of its holster a bit. It was heavier than I expected, and I almost dropped it before I re-holstered it. “I’ll learn. I’ll take care of Borden, and then I’ll come back for you. The bounty will be our dowry, okay?”

She searched my face again, still trying to find some hint that I was playing a cruel joke. “No, it’s not okay, damn it!” With one violent motion, she raised her hand and held it in front of my face, halfway in the motion of slapping me. I winced and closed my eyes, but she dropped her hand. Trembling, she walked away. “You’re not coming back. And I don’t want you back if you do.”

I hesitated before opening my mouth. Whether by accident or subconscious design, I couldn’t find any words to say until she turned her back on me and ran down the street, getting away from my life and my lies as quickly as she could.

Eventually, it started to rain.

*          *          *

The door creaks open, and I take a moment to observe her before I step into the dressing room. Her olive skin, dark hair, and speckled green eyes look like they came out of a dream I had a decade ago. She moves like she belongs in a forest—not that I remember what a forest looks like. She takes a moment away from her mirror to look out at the rain, the natural enemy of all weddings. I take the opportunity to step in. If she hears my boots on the carpeted planks of the floor, she doesn’t show it. But she’s good at hiding lots of things.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” She gives a start at the sound of my voice. “It’s like rain. On your wedding day.”

I obviously have no idea what irony is.

She looks at me like I’m some sort of bogeyman. “What are you doing here, Dakota?” Her voice sounds like breaking glass, and throws off the aura of perfection that the rest of her gives off.

“It’s Jack these days. Folks call me Dakota Jack.”

“Jack? Is that something new you picked up in your travels?”

“Somewhere along the way, yeah. I can’t rightly remember where, though.”

A vein bulges on her forehead. “That name suits you. Something dirt common, reminding everyone that you’re a nobody who likes to play cowboy.”

“I probably deserve that.”

“So did you ever find Borden Capano?”

I nod and tilt my head a little, trying to find an angle where it doesn’t look like Tracy is going to kill me. “Yeah, I did. Took me about eight years longer than I wanted, though, and I didn’t get any bounty out of it.”

“Were you ever going to actually come back for me?”

“I thought about it, a few times. I didn’t know if you’d want to see me, though.” I walk over to the one of the plethora of vases in her room and give the flowers an idle sniff. “Seems that you’ve done all right for yourself, though.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Tracy Kittredge…” I rub my stubbled cheek as I roll her name-to-be off my tongue. “That doesn’t have much of a ring to it. I think you’re better off as Tracy Lord.”

“Dakota!” Her face flushes red and she clenches her fists.

“I’m just letting you know that there’s a bit of a hitch to your wedding. You might want to postpone the whole thing. Or just call it off entirely.”

“You can’t walk back into my life after eight years and take me back.”

“Me? No, one thing that I’ve learned over the years is that classy women like you don’t want to be around me.”

“Where’s George?” The tension in her body evaporates, and she sits down at her vanity again. With one more deep breath, the redness in her face and any evidence of anger has evaporated. I take a cautious step backwards. It’s always a bit more disconcerting when she takes on this eerie calm of hers. That’s when I know she’s quietly contemplating what parts will hurt the most when she tears into me.

“It’s funny that you go directly to him. Are you worried that I’m a real cad and shot him to win your hand, or do you already know why I’m here?”

She doesn’t give a response. The daggers in her eyes grow a little larger, and continue to bore into my skull.

“Anyway, if your George has any smarts at all, he’ll be as far away from here as possible. Unless he’s looking for someone like me to turn him in.”

Her face goes blank. I wonder if she’s still paying attention.

“You know, because he’s a criminal. He commits crimes. Like robbing stagecoaches and shooting people. Are you paying attention to me at all?”

She finally speaks again, but keeps wearing the best damned poker face I’ve ever seen. “You and I had a fling, Dakota. I was young and stupid, and I latched onto the first ticket out of this dirt town I could find.”

I glance out the window, and then try to conjure up the memory of George Kittredge’s wanted poster. How many people were in his gang? “Are you sure you’re not still doing that?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The corner of her mouth gives a small tick—a crack in her armor of deception.

“There’s a hefty reward out for your husband-to-be. Folks in town know it, even if they don’t want to believe it. I’m guessing there are at least five or six other bounty hunters downstairs, waiting to jump on him as soon as he shows up. And you’re sitting up here, talking to me. If you had any sense, you would have called for someone to drag me out of here in a second. You’d probably have people crawling over themselves volunteering to break my face.”

“What’s your point?”

“Just that George Kittredge and his gang have had quite a successful string of robberies. With that kind of money, he could leave the country if he wanted. You two could get married on a tropical sunny island if you wanted. So why take the risk of holding the ceremony here? Are you two counting on the locals to protect him if things go bad? Or did you just take leave of your senses in your desperation to be a proper lady and make up for the mistake you made when you were younger and sleeping with an Indian against your parents’ wishes?”

She turns away from me and looks back into the mirror, staring into her own eyes. “Leave,” she hisses. “Just leave.”

A moment of silence passes, interrupted only by the rain outside. Then I nod and open the door to leave. I almost manage to make my way into the hallway before I feel an impact on the back of my skull and stars burst in front of my eyes. I saw the champagne bottle lying unopened next to her dresser. I knew her well enough to predict what she would do, and I still didn’t do anything to protect myself. The glass of the bottle shatters across the back of my head, and the liquor splashes down the back of my shirt.

I drop to the floor instantly and without protest. Tracy gets a good kick to my ribs before I completely lose consciousness. Then my brain shuts off the lights and decides to let me think about what a stupid ass I’ve been.

*          *          *

“Poor Jack.” A familiar voice drifts out of the darkness of my unconscious mind. It’s not Tracy’s voice; it’s more mature, teasing and harsh. “You think you can handle anything that comes your way, don’t you? You think you’re just an old-fashioned cowboy.”

A mocking laugh comes out of the darkness. Then I feel the last kiss Myrna gave me. The burning heat of her bullet touches my back and forces its way underneath my skin unwanted. It’s not the only thing that gets under my skin. Even through the haze of pain, my mind works overtime trying to figure out why she shot me in the back. I feel the hot desert sand blowing in my face as my memory hits the ground. The bullet keeps worming its way into me, killing me slowly.

By the time Ella pries it out of me, something has already died. A new dream begins, and I wonder if I’m ever going to wake up.

*          *          *

“Son of a bitch, Jack.” Dex’s voice precedes the icy sensation of cold water being splashed over my face. “What happened to you?”

My head pounds in protest as I open my eyes and forget the swirling dreams of unconsciousness. My eyes take a moment to focus on Dex as he puts down the now empty vase of flowers. “Does champagne stain clothing?”

“What?”

“This is my last set of good clothes. I don’t want the champagne to stain my coat.”

“You’ve got a lot more to worry about right now than a few stains. What did you think you were doing?”

I don’t bother trying to get up. Two things that I have become infinitely familiar with in life are hangovers and getting knocked out by angry women. My body doesn’t like moving much after either one. I fish through my pockets and pull out the black leather pouch that I use to hold my cigarettes. Giving it a rattle next to my ear, I remind myself that it’s still empty. My body’s not going to like that much, either.

“What did you do, Jack?” Dex waves his hand in front of my face, trying to keep my mind from wandering.

“You know me,” I groan and prop myself up on my elbows. Mental cannon fire goes off as my brain announces its protest. “I’ve got a way with women.”

“You mean they like to knock you out and run away?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“Well, you also happen to have a way of screwing up a perfectly good bounty. Whatever you told her sent her into a panic. She ran out of here so fast that her own parents couldn’t catch her.”

“I thought she might do that.”

“Well, you’d best hope that you were wrong about Kittredge not showing up. If he’s got half a brain, he’ll stay away and leave us with a cold trail. His butt-kicking bride was the only other link anyone had to him.”

I yawn and stretch, and push myself to my feet. The room spins in protest, but I haven’t had enough to drink for it to keep doing that for long. I pick my hat up off the floor, noting that the back of the brim is a little crushed from Tracy’s blow. “Is that it?”

Dex frowns, the dream of a successful bounty hunt dissolving before his eyes. “That’s about the size of it, yeah.”

“Good. Now I know where I stand.”

“You’re standing on nothing. Our man is as good as gone.”

“No, our man has to stick around long enough to collect his fiancée. He’s not going to ride out of town and leave her behind.” I give a rueful smile. “Only an idiot would do something like that.”

“It still doesn’t help us if we don’t know where she’s going.”

“Did you ride a horse into town?”

“What?”

“Did you ride in on a horse, or did you come in on foot like me?”

“I’ve got a horse out in the stables.”

“Good. I need to take him from you.”

“What?! Why?”

I cross my arms and tap my foot impatiently. Dex and I have played this game before. He doesn’t want to trust me, but he knows he can. It’s just a matter of getting him to realize that. “I know Tracy. I wouldn’t have come up here and gotten myself brained if I didn’t. I know where she’s going. But as much as I like you, we’re still competitors. I’ll let you know where I’m going, but I want to be the first one there. If you don’t let me use your horse, then I’ll conveniently forget everything I know about Tracy Lord, and we’ll let our man get away.”

“Come on, Jack. You’re being ridiculous.”

“Yeah, but when am I not ridiculous? I know you’ve got your reservations, but this is my game right now, and we have to play by my rules. So just pretend that we argued for a bit, and then you caved.”

Dex frowns so deeply that his mustache threatens to eat his chin. He takes a moment of thinking, trying to guess if I’m bluffing or just barking mad. Finally, he gives a heavy sigh and a weary shrug. “Fine, we’ll do things your way. But the split is now 60-40 in my favor.”

I wink and start leading Dex down the stairs and toward the stables. “Forget it, old man. You caved more than that.”

*          *          *

I remember the few nights when we dared leave town. If her father found me sneaking out with her, he would have called a posse together and had me strung up in town square. If he knew the kind of building his daughter had turned into a hiding place, he would have beat her hide red and locked her away in her room for years at a time. Of course, that’s basically what he did anyway. Daddy’s little girl, daughter of the mayor of Gold Basin. She wasn’t allowed to do anything to embarrass the family, and her parents wouldn’t risk the dangers of the world outside their small community.

She brought me to the old windmill twice. The first time came after our first fight. The second time was our last night out. Neither of us knows who built the mill or what it was there for; the winds never picked up enough to really get it going. We liked to believe it was built by some ancient people who had lived in the desert before there was a desert—someone who came even before my people. While the sun was in the sky, the dust and filth inside became our home. When night set in and the weather cooled, we sat outside and looked at the stars, dreaming of escaping this small world and finding a place where we could travel anywhere, a place where we could leave our old lives behind.

Tracy Lord…are you still as predictable as you used to be? For my sake, I hope so.

*          *          *

George Kittredge looks older in person than he does on his wanted poster. He must be at least ten years older than Tracy. The sweaty old man paces in the shadows of a crumbled staircase, nervously wringing his hands when his fiancée enters through the back door. He looks up at her and smiles. For a moment, a life on the lam doesn’t seem so bad, as long as he has a looker like her to come home to.

That moment disappears almost immediately.

Tracy walks in with a cold fury in her eyes. The rest of her face is perfectly calm, and he knows immediately that the storm that’s about to break will make the tempest outside seem like a light Sunday drizzle. She reaches underneath one of the frills of her rain-drenched wedding dress. A derringer appears in her hand, and she levels it right at Kittredge.

“You really are an idiot, aren’t you, George? I gave you a perfect plan, and you went and botched it.”

“Sweetie, I followed everything to the letter.” I can’t quite place his accent. It’s southern, but not southwestern. More than likely he’s another in a long line of travelers that Tracy has fallen in love with, hoping that they’d rescue her from Gold Basin.

“No George, you didn’t. Look at you.” She drops her gaze to his shoes, and then raises it up his body until she’s back in contact with his face. He’s wearing a worn out pair of leather boots, with the riding spurs still on. His flannel shirt and faded trousers might suit him well for a few days of riding, but they certainly aren’t wedding material. “You knew you screwed up. You knew there were bounty hunters waiting for you at the wedding. Which means you knew you screwed up. You left survivors somewhere. And when my daddy hears about it, he’ll be sending a posse out to take you down. You ruined it. The wedding’s off, and I’m still going to be stuck here.”

Kittredge continues to shake his head, growing more frantic the longer he looks down the gun barrel. “No, no, it’s not like that. People start talking. They talk about what desperados are in the area, about who’s with certain gangs. Sooner or later, the law starts getting wise. They piece things together, and get a sketch.”

“Don’t try to play me like I’m an innocent little girl. People don’t magically get sketches of you and post them for the law to see. You got cocky. You and your boys probably spent half of the money you made on liquor. You didn’t check the bodies over. You didn’t make sure.” She fires a shot at Kittredge’s feet. He gives a shrill yelp and jumps back. Some big bad desperado. “You always make sure.” The gun comes back to point at Kittredge’s chest.

He looks dumbly down the barrel of her gun, struggling to find words to say.

“Tell me, sweetheart,” continues Tracy. “I had a perfect plan for you. I talked to all of my daddy’s banker friends, found out what stagecoaches were ripe for the picking. I laid everything out for you, and then I arranged for us to be married in the one place where my parents would make sure we’re untouchable. So what part of this perfect plan called for you to get you and your gang IDed down south, and then leave me to the wolves and the bounty hunters on our wedding day?!”

She doesn’t wait for him to defend himself. She starts squeezing the trigger, and for some reason I’m hesitant to stop her. I get the bounty either way, and who’s to say what might happen between us now that my baggage is out of the way?

But I’m still clinging to the hope that life is but a dream. If I concentrate, I can control things this time. But I have to stick to what I know I can control. Otherwise, reality is going to wake me up, and it won’t be pretty.

A gunshot rings out, but not from Tracy’s tiny pistol. I step out from my hiding place behind a fallen beam, with my gun still smoking. Kittredge practically wets himself. Tracy just freezes. He face goes pale, and she drops her gun. Tentative fingers touch the hair on the back of her head. Her hair is still hot from where my bullet passed. A few inches more, and I would have put it right through her skull.

“That was your warning shot, sweetheart.” My voice echoes across the empty mill, and I smile. I should plan these dramatic moments out more often; they’re fun. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got a lot better with this thing over the years.”

Tracy looks pleadingly at me. “Jack, you wouldn’t…”

I pull the hammer back, lining up another shot in case she moves. “You really would have done anything to get away from here, wouldn’t you?”

Tears shine in her eyes. She stays silent.

A few minutes of silence go by. Then we hear the sound of footsteps approaching the mill, coupled with an exhausted wheezing.

“I’m getting to old for this…”

“Hi there, Dex.”

Dex opens the door to see our bounty with his hands on his head and facing the wall, right next to his bride. Despite a flushed face, he still manages a smile. “Gee, what a swell party this is.”

“You’re telling me. Was there still a reward on Kittredge’s gang last time you checked?”

He doubles over wheezing, but still manages a short nod.

“Good.” I walk over to Tracy and pull her wrists behind her back. “Because I’ve got the mastermind here. How ‘bout we forget the split? One for me, one for you.”

Dex gives me a big sloppy grin and grabs Kittredge by the scruff of the neck. “Let’s go.”

“Remember though, if you get back in as sheriff because of this, you owe me.”

“Yeah…I’ll remember that the next time you crash a wedding and get your head bashed in.”

“Thanks,” I say with a wince. “I’ll probably need it.”

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About Charlie Brooks

Charlie Brooks is an award-winning author whose work has received recognition from Glimmer Train, The Chaffin Journal, and New Millennium Writings. He has two novels in print, the science fiction thriller Reality Check and the fantasy epic Shadowslayers. A third novel, while currently unpublished, finished as a quarterfinalist in the Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Awards.