I sat down on my bed and finger combed my tangled hair.
The boy stepped in through the open door and froze at the sight of me.
“I feel well enough to leave now,” I said.
“As much as I’d love to stay and help ya’ll fight off the bandits, I have my own man to kill. I can’t risk dying again and lettin’ him get away.”
He cleared his throat and stared at the ground.
“Why do you wanna kill him so bad?”
“He murdered my baby sister.”
His blue eyes narrowed.
“That so? Ya want company to complete the task?”
I tilted my head. He almost looked sincere.
“Thanks for the offer, but I need to do this alone.”
The boy nodded without meeting my gaze.
“Then at least allow me to guide you out of this hell hole. I wanna make sure you make it out alive. It’s the least I can do after… you know.”
I crossed my arms and studied him intently. People who loved getting their way through violence were often shrewd and charming when they needed to be. There was no reason why he would be any different.
I had no idea what the kid had been up to since we last parted ways, but a small part of me wanted to trust him. He was the only person left in the world, besides Max and the saloon girls, who knew me somewhat. The thought made me shudder.
“Why are you being so accommodating?” I asked. “What do you want?”
“The night that you chose to leave me alive changed me, you know. You’re the most merciful person I have ever met.”
I shook my head.
“I’m not a good person.”
“I meant what I said. I want to do right by you after what you did for me.”
“I can’t believe we’re here right now, talking about this.”
“It is a little strange.”
I almost laughed.
“I’d say it’s very strange.”
He walked out and left me to my privacy. I closed the door to have a final moment alone in the room. I would soon return to life’s big game of survival for the sole purpose of killing Max.
I stared at the broken mirror and gasped. I looked at the distorted reflection and saw the person that I had become. That mirror told the truth about me.
I gathered my wits and walked downstairs. I found the surgeon and four other men sitting on the dirty floor with their shotguns and their rifles.
“Get down,” hissed one of them.
I dropped to my hands and knees.
“Thank you for helping me and for keeping me here while I recovered, but I need to get outta here and finish some business elsewhere. Doctor, thanks for saving my life.”
The doctor tipped his hat before gazing back out the window.
“Just doin’ my job, Ma’am.”
I found the boy sitting in the dark corner of the room. His oversized coat and wide eyes reminded me how young he still was. I couldn’t ask him to risk his life for me, even if he had been a devil a few years ago. I took in a deep breath and no longer regretted sparing him that night. Mercy had its place.
“This journey is my own,” I said. “So, I’ll leave alone.”
I looked at the doctor.
“Is there a horse I could use? My… Angel was in that burning stable.”
I regretted eating earlier that morning. Thinking about my dead loved ones again made me feel the worst form of ill. I fought the urge to empty the contents of my stomach right there by thinking of the beautiful views I would see on my final quest.
The boy began to mutter in protest, but the doctor raised a hand to silence him.
“Let her go, George. She can take the quarter horse out back.”
“What’s the best way outta here?” I asked.
“Ride behind the buildings as fast as you can get that horse to run. I doubt that the bandits will be able to get a decent shot at you since they’re hidin’ in the building across the road. They’d be more interested in killing us since we’re guarding the money. We’ll all cover you if needed.”
I winced at the thought of enduring another bullet wound, but it was a chance I had to take.
I went to open the back door and stopped before turning the knob to face the boy named George.
“George, it wasn’t your fault. The death of your brothers. None of that was your fault.”
The kid removed his hat and stared at me as though I were a ghost or something.
“What is your name?” he asked.
I gave him a bittersweet smile. After he had put me through hell years ago, it settled my stomach a little to know that I would be parting with him in peace.
It stung to take my gaze away from his newfound kindness only to step back out into the corrupt world. I walked outside, half expecting one of the bandits to appear around the corner and shoot me.
The quarter horse stood just outside. It was tied to the post as the doctor said it would be. I walked up to the animal and brought my hand to his muzzle so he could take in his new master’s scent. I climbed into the saddle and silently begged for God to spare me yet again.
I urged my mount into a run, cringing at the sudden noise that our departure made. No shots were fired, but it was not until I rode out of the town that I stopped hyperventilating.
Surprised, I glanced over my shoulder at the thick cloud of dust that my departure stirred. Guilt tightened my stomach. I left the men who helped me, even though I was nothing more than a stranger to them. I thought about George’s childish gaze before I left the building and felt a pang of guilt.
My hands pulled on the reins as I glanced back at the town. They could have left me for dead in that old bank, but they didn’t.
I cursed in exasperation and jumped down from the saddle. I tied my new mount to a sturdy tree, loaded my pistol, and walked back to the town.
It seemed to be the home of ghosts and tumbleweeds at first glance. A passerby would have never known that a violent gang hid in one building and a band of townsmen sat on watch in the other. Another battle was about to take place over nothing important. A part of me wished that the fools would just yield their money to the bandits so everyone could be on their way, but I understood their resolve. It was their home and they had already lost so much of it.
I kept my finger on the trigger, knowing it was unlikely for one of them to jump out of nowhere at me, but still half expecting it.
I stepped off the street and travelled behind the buildings toward the bandits’ refuge. I glanced down the alley at the bank’s front window. I thought I saw the surgeon’s head shake back and forth at my brash stupidity. I could hardly believe that I returned to the scene either, but there I was. The people in the torn up bank were the closest things I had to friends and they were worth fighting for.
I took a deep breath and focused my attention on the task at hand. The inability to stay focused on anything for a prolonged amount of time had always been a weakness of mine. It was a strange revelation to occur to me as I placed myself in a life-threatening situation once again. Flirting with death had become my way of life, for better or for worse.
I waved to make my presence known to my allies across the street, locating George’s youthful profile through the window as he watched me. The doctor stood next to him. My stomach fluttered at the sight of them waving back and I smiled. I was not without friends as I stepped toward the lions’ den.
As I stepped around to the back of the bandits’ stronghold and found a partially open door, I hoped that the surgeon meant it when he said that they would have my back. My heart knocked my ribs like a caged animal, and for a moment, I thought that it was going to drop into my stomach.
I slowly opened the back door of the building.
I crept through the dark room and wondered if my thundering heartbeat would make my presence known. I peered into the next room. Three shadowy figures sat on the floor beneath the single window. Light streamed in through the broken glass, highlighting their painfully young faces.
One of them leaned against the wall, while the other two crouched below the pane chewing on jerky. I stared at them in morbid fascination until movement from outside startled all of us.
George and the surgeon ran across the road toward the building. Their pounding footsteps broke the silence. I lowered my body to the floor, fighting through my nausea to focus on what needed to be done.
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