Nadine Ross isn’t sure why, but she has a nagging feeling this job is going to be far more trouble than it’s worth.
Fifteen years, Nadine’s been in this business—that being the commonly uncertain, wildly dangerous, age-old trade of bounty-hunting and crook-wrangling. Overall, the years haven’t been terribly kind nor too cruel to her, just long and trying and tougher than the travel-worn leather of her riding boots.
But Nadine, she’s tough, too. In her line of work, she’s been shot, stabbed, tackled, and brawled more times than she can remember. She’s jumped off trains and fallen off horses in attempts to capture her quarry, wrestled men twice her size and won, gotten into one-on-one shoot-outs with deadly quick-draws and sometimes entire gangs. Anyone else might’ve hung up their holsters by now and gotten themselves a good, honest job mucking stables or tilling fields.
Not Nadine. Her father, once a masterful bounty hunter in his own right, was the one who'd brought her into the fold, letting her, at age fifteen, tag along on hunts of his less violent fares, taking great effort in showing her how to track, how to ride, and, most importantly, how to shoot.
Nadine learned quickly. Even at a young age, she was calm, open-minded, intelligent, and extremely focused. More than anything, she wanted her father, a busy man whose work kept him from home more often than not but to whom she held a deep, fierce admiration, to be proud of her. Soon, she found herself steered away from her initial, admittedly childish dreams of one day opening a horse ranch and starting a farm filled with all sorts of animals. Her father was a well-known, well-praised, respectable, self-made man, and with some hard work and dedication, she would be, too.
Then one day he got ambushed in Scarlett Meadows by a passing knot of drunken Lemoyne Raiders looking for a fight. Even the best-known bounty hunter from New Austin to the Ambarinos couldn’t survive half a dozen bullets to the back. Nadine was barely eighteen at the time. She’d hugged her weeping mother at the funeral, snugged her father’s prized double-action revolvers and Carcano rifle into her empty holsters, and, over the course of several long, winding, bloody weeks, methodically combed the entire state, hunting down each and every man armed with the shabby gray jacket of a Confederate and murderous agenda who dared called themselves a Raider.
She felt better, afterwards, knowing her father’s murder had been properly avenged, though her heart was still smarting from the sudden loss. The wound took time to heal, and by then it’d only seemed natural to take on the rest of her father’s work and begin bounty-hunting of her own. Aided by his experienced teachings and sound advice, she soon built herself a reputation for solid results, customer satisfaction, unwavering determination and pure grit, stepping the rest of the way into her father’s boots with a sort of grim finality.
Going in, she wanted everyone from Armadillo to Annesburg to know Nadine Ross didn’t lose bounties—she got the job done. Now in the year 1901, Nadine has over a hundred successful bounties under her belt and the scars and stories to prove it. Criminals, she knows, will do anything to escape the law. They’ll flee and fight like animals. She’s witnessed men, horses and coaches go over cliffs during wild mountain-trail chases. She’s had molotov cocktails thrown at her. Hell, one time, it was dynamite. Simply put, after fifteen years in the business, there isn’t much she hasn’t seen or done.
So, when Nadine’s gut tells her a particular job is going to be trouble, more often than not, she’s right.
Still, five hundred dollars is five hundred dollars, and with that kind of money, Nadine can relax and take lighter jobs for a while, and still have a bit left over to send home to her mother. Money means independence, means freedom. It means not letting some arrogant little upstart in a suit more expensive than her damn horse order her around like she’s some inept maid dusting the mantle.
She can’t wait—already, this Mr. Rafe Adler is wringing her very last nerve, and it hasn’t even been ten minutes since he called her into his office, located at a loud, boisterous, smoke-stacked factory smack in the heart of bustling Saint Denis.
“Let me make myself clear, Miss Ross,” says the coifed, oily-looking man seated loosely behind the immaculate, wide wooden desk that dwarfs all other furniture nearby. “What I say, goes. You see this?” For about the fifth time, he pokes his finger at the freshly-pressed paper laid out between them, as if perhaps he thinks Nadine is blind, deaf, or just plain stupid. “What does it say?”
Having dealt with all manner of clients in her line of work, Nadine has learned to keep supreme control of her temper, even when she is treated like an ingrate. She doesn’t even blink. Instead, she glances down at the paper, where Mr. Adler’s manicured finger taps again and again.
“Alive,” she reads, her voice even, and looks back up at Mr. Adler, who nods theatrically.
“That’s right. Alive. Not dead, not shot, not maimed or beat up—not nothing, understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Nadine replies in the same tone as before. Men like Mr. Adler, Nadine knows, don’t much like to hear anything other than yes, sir, or, right away, sir.
“You have one month,” Mr. Adler continues, opening a small wooden box on his desk and retrieving a fat cigar with a gold foil band. He pointedly does not offer her one. With the flash of a gleaming metal lighter, he inhales sharply and breathes out a cloud of expensive-smelling smoke. “I'm being generous, Miss Ross, but only because this one's known for her tricks. It'll take you some time to find her, I expect. Once you have her, I want her brought in immediately. You hear me? Immediately.”
Seated uncomfortably on a too-soft cushioned chair set in front of the desk, Nadine is silent, taking a quick moment to study the businessman across from her. His bespoke suit is pristine and his coiffure slicked back, not a hair out of place. He smells strongly of expensive cologne and practically oozes wealth from his very pores. He’s young, too, early thirties, probably only a year or two from her own age, which means his wealth is old money—a silver spoon, she has no doubt, was in his mouth the moment he was born.
If she has to guess, she might say this Rafe Adler fellow has never once had anything approaching a tussle with a drunken outlaw at a backwater saloon, nor stood in a single shoot-off against some mean, hard-eyed drifter looking to make an example out of him. He’s never had his arm broken in two places by a reckless bounty, running his thousand-pound horse headlong into him, so desperate to get away. Most certainly, he has never slept cold nights on the hard, rocky ground, shivering with fatigue until daylight, stomach cramping with hunger, lacking the funds even for a can of vegetables while trapped in the midst of a ceaseless, three-week long search for a wily, murderous bounty intent on earning a twisted reputation of killing gleefully for sport.
No—from where Nadine sits, she can see that Mr. Adler’s nails are perfectly clean, his palms smooth as a baby's, free of calluses. As a point, Nadine fiercely dislikes his kind—men who refused to get their hands dirty, metaphorically or otherwise, spoiled dumb with riches and power beyond their scope, used to relying on filthy, downtrodden people like her, so as not to stain their own nonexistent conscience and still get the job done.
But, then again, that’s exactly why she’s here, taking this bounty, isn’t it? Like she said before, Nadine Ross gets the job done. It doesn’t matter the outlaw, or the odds. Once she sets out to accomplish something, her mind clear and focused upon her goal, it’s as good as hers.
Mr. Adler knows it, too, judging from that smug, smarmy look on his face. He takes another pull on his cigar, the tip glowing bright for a moment. “Any questions?”
In answer, Nadine checks the bounty poster on the desk over a second time. On it, below the bold letters of WANTED, is a woman’s portrait, somewhat crudely taken, the print gone blurry and faded on the edges, though still enough to go by for Nadine’s keen eyes. She flicks over the shape of a smirking mouth, the bold line of a proud nose, dusky, weather-beaten skin, and long straight black hair kept back in a loose ponytail, covered only partially by a battered Rodeo hat sat at a jaunty angle.
The woman's expression, perhaps, captures Nadine’s attention more than anything else—wry, and somehow deeply amused, eyes bright and playful, as if she has been caught about to give a cheeky wink to the camera, as though she thought it funny to have her photograph taken for something so silly as a bounty reward. It’s almost like she’s daring someone to come catch her, or just to try.
Also for a second time, Nadine reads the words printed beneath the photo: ALIVE, it says, in bold black letters. While anyone else might think Mr. Adler for some reason cares about the well-being of his bounty, so intent he is on keeping her alive and unharmed, Nadine isn’t such a fool. Mr. Adler is a businessman, not a Sheriff, and this poster has noticeably been absent from any notice boards scattered throughout Saint Denis or beyond, meaning this is a private, personal job, given to her alone, which makes Nadine uncomfortable.
It’s painfully clear to her that the law has no part in this arrangement, though surely it should. In Nadine's opinion, criminals needed to be tried in court and sentenced appropriately by a judge once a case is made, though she sees now that Mr. Adler wants instead to dispense his own brand of personal justice, rather than depend on a cell, a prison, or a noose.
“Well?” says Mr. Adler gruffly.
Nadine nearly jumps, so caught up in her own head. Questions? She has plenty of questions—why so much for one woman, and, why do you want her caught so badly, as well as, where was she last seen, any known accomplices or associates? Perhaps most importantly is, what are you going to do to her when I bring her here?
But Nadine doesn’t ask any of them. It is above her paygrade. Her business is to bounty-hunt, no matter the circumstances of the bounty. So instead of voicing her growing doubts and easing the unsettled feeling beginning to grow in her stomach, she just folds the Wanted paper neatly into a square and tucks it into the pocket of her smartly-buttoned vest, just beside her father's brass pocketwatch.
“No, sir,” she says succinctly.
Mr. Adler seems pleased by her brevity, kicking up his gleaming, well-polished dress shoes onto his desk to fold casually at the ankles, the smoke from his cigar wreathing his head in pale grey streamers. “I’ve heard good things about you, Miss Ross,” he says with an air of finality, and—if Nadine’s not mistaken—underlying threat. “Don’t you disappoint me, now.”
Nadine doesn’t reply. She just stands, tips her hat politely, and walks out.
Once free of the looming, clangoring building, Nadine feels like she can breathe again. Stepping from the curb to the stone-paved Saint Denis street, she is greeted by the familiar sight of her horse, Sam, a brown dapple pinto Missouri Fox Trotter. Sam was a gift from her father on her 18th birthday, only three months or so before he died.
At first, looking at him had hurt, reminding her constantly of her father’s untimely murder and her own tragic loss. Now, Nadine can’t imagine any other horse at her side. Sam isn't the finest steed out there, nor the biggest or the fastest, but he's smart and sure-footed and mean when he needs to be. Nadine once saw him kick a man in the stomach for trying to get a look at her saddlebags, and then trample the fellow unconscious for good measure.
Sam snorts when he sees her and lifts his head, ears perked. On cue, Nadine gives him a sugar cube from her satchel. As he lips at her proffered hand, it’s as if she can hear her mother’s fond chiding—oh, but you spoil that horse, Nadine!—and she smiles to herself as she pats his well-brushed neck.
“There, now,” she murmurs, untying Sam’s reins from the hitching post and vaulting easily into the saddle. “Sorry about the wait, eh? I know you don’t like the city.” With a firm squeeze of her heels against his flanks—unlike a great many riders these days, Nadine refuses to use spurs, aghast at the notion of hurting her mount for something as frivolous as more speed—she clicks her tongue to get him moving. “Let’s get on, ja? We have a job to do.”
As if in agreement, Sam snorts loudly and together, they trot off into the thickly milling Saint Denis streets, quickly merging into the crowd, heading west.
Now, hear her out, but to be perfectly honest, Chloe Frazer doesn’t like to break the law, or at least not in the way some people might think.
Really, it’s just that the world is so bloody boring if you sell yourself short and follow the rules all the time. If Chloe did as her late mother used to say and behaved as she ought, playing the part of a good, modest lady, well, she’d probably be miserable, married to some stodgy, balding businessman with fourteen kids by now and bored out of her goddamn bloody skull, knitting her fingers to the bone on—on quilts or whatever, or just plain dead at the ripe old age of twenty-two from tuberculosis or some other nonsense.
Good thing Chloe Frazer, of course, never follows the status quo, nor listens to her mother, so at the shy side of forty, she’s still very much alive, thriving, childless, and happily unattached—thanks, mum!
She’s also—though not in her own words—a bit of a Wanted woman, the bad kind, but that’s neither here nor there. Chloe doesn’t consider herself a criminal, per say, despite what the Sheriffs of several towns in several states might think. In her opinion, she’s more of a… trouble-maker. Yeah, that’s it.
Contrary to popular belief, law-breaking isn’t something Chloe, say, goes out of her way to do—sure, if there’s a fancy wagon loaded with the goods of some big city company ready for shipment or a fine businessman’s personal carriage just sitting there in the road, lockbox unattended on the back, it’s a given she’ll sneak up and treat herself and then disappear before you can say how’s your father—long dead, thanks for asking, shot by bandits when she was just a kid, for all the fairness of the world—but it’s not like she’s got a hankering for it, either.
In the same vein, robbing folks at gunpoint, either by storefront, train or horseback, doesn’t give her a thrill, or a daredevil kick like it does so many others. Neither does senseless killing, an act Chloe avoids whenever she can, though she has no qualms shooting rival thieves out for blood or vengeful gang members convinced she’s infringed upon their supposed territory. Those kind of men, who would swing just as easily beside her upon the gallows if the law had anything to say about it, Chloe views with utter derision and contempt. She’s nothing like them.
How so? Well, most importantly, Chloe, unlike those brigands, has got morals. For starters, she doesn’t make a habit of sticking up poor honest town or country folk, demanding their few, well-earned dollars at gunpoint. Neither does she blow up stalls, stagecoaches or working wagons with sticks of dynamite, ruining someone’s business and livelihood for the chance of a measly 100$ in the safe and probably hurting or killing someone in the process. Those kinds of jobs are for rubes; amateurs.
Chloe? She robs banks, vaults, and, occasionally, cargo trains. See? There’s a difference.
The difference is she isn’t hurting the poor working man and the townspeople they’re connected to, she’s hurting the big man sitting fat and happy on top, living large on stacks of dirty money earned off the backs of countless, struggling honest men and women. Chloe’s after the ones who can afford to lose, yeah?
‘Course, messing with the big boys isn’t easy, nor without its risks. Chloe’s jobs are sparse. Lucrative. She works alone to keep her anonymity intact and as a result is relatively unknown, though in several states she’s earned a decent enough bounty as well as the moniker The Red Thief, thanks to her penchant of wearing a red hat. Chloe hates the name. The Red Bandit sounds so much better.
Still, lots of people wear red hats, and Chloe isn’t terribly afraid of getting caught any time soon, wearing hers. She has no gang affiliations, no known posse, no one to rat her out—just her and whatever horse she’s managed to wrangle at the time, legally or otherwise, and the open road and untold possibilities.
What a life, hey?
She also doesn’t go out of her way to start grudges with anyone, either, so one afternoon when she’s riding amiably along the well-worn road a day or so out of Emerald Ranch on the back of her newest horse—a spirited red roan Tennessee Walker, the filly fresh lifted from the Black Market Fence for a decent price and not a few favors—and hears someone in front of her bark in a strange accent, “Chloe Frazer?” she doesn’t respond straight away, just reigns her horse in casually and eases her hat up from her brow with frank curiosity, despite the hankering suspicion she maybe should have just ignored the callout and kept right on going like she hadn’t heard a thing.
Still, this might be interesting, and Chloe’s bored, anyways, so why not?
Blocking the road before her is a solid figure on horseback, dressed sharply but somewhat plainly in an unwrinkled white button-down shirt, black vest and a pair of dark trousers without a single patch on them, even at the knees. Black leather gloves, a dark grey Stalker hat and worn boots finish the look.
Perhaps most noticeable of the outfit is the waist, where a fine pair of etched revolvers are holstered in well-tended and polished leather trappings. The butt of a sniper rifle pokes from a saddlebag. The fellow’s horse is a bit on the scrawny side, though still somehow strong and healthy-looking, with a pale coat splotched with small dark markings and a dark mane. From the way his ears flick and the champ of his teeth at the bit in his mouth, he seems game enough for a race, if it comes to that.
In all, the stranger’s image is professional and arresting. The clothes and bearing are fancy, but not too fancy, with an air of gruffness that intrigues Chloe’s attention. Still, she isn’t fool enough to think this is just some stranger saying hello, what with civilization and the law miles away and nothing but the empty road between and behind them. That’s how folks get themselves shot.
“Who’s asking?” Chloe says warily, dropping one hand from the reins to hang by her side, closer to her pistol. Without bragging, she is one of the quickest draws in the states, and she knows it.
In answer, the fellow tips their own hat back, revealing a stern, lightly freckled face to the warm afternoon sun. It’s a woman, Chloe notices at once. A beautiful woman. A beautiful woman with brown skin, dark curls, broad shoulders and quite possibly the most intimidating expression Chloe’s ever seen, two fiercely glinting eyes fastening upon her with hawk-like intensity.
Instantly Chloe’s demeanor shifts to one far more friendly, her lips twitching into a wolfish smile. She can’t remember the last time she got to flirt with a pretty woman—on more than one occasion, her charms have defused situations destined for disaster, and perhaps she can add another to her list.
“Hi there, stranger,” she says, slouching slightly forward. “We met before?”
“No,” says the woman flatly. “Are you Chloe Frazer or not?”
“For you, darling?” Chloe laughs and winks. “Sure. Why not?”
Rather than flirt back, or blush or do anything at all receptive, the woman’s stern expression turns more toward sour. She rolls her eyes, then retrieves a folded paper from her pocket, rifling it open and glancing from the paper to Chloe several times. Then, as though satisfied with what she’s found, she refolds it and settles her hand on one of the revolvers at her hip.
Inwardly, Chloe tenses, hackles rising, though she keeps her smile loose and her eyes lazy, hand lightly curled around the butt of her own gun, the other keeping an easy grip on her reins.
“Mrs. Frazer—” the woman begins.
“Miss,” Chloe interrupts at once. It would be a shame if this lovely lady got the wrong idea straight away. Chloe is very much available, thank you.
“Miss Frazer,” corrects the woman, with all the emotion of a rock, “you’ll be coming with me now.”
She says nothing else—no why, or how, not even an or else, which is odd—and that’s when Chloe realizes this woman isn’t just some lady, looking for a drink or a fight or, regrettably not, a tumble in a hayloft, she’s a bloody bounty hunter. Shit. Who’s she gone and pissed off now?
Chloe’s old hat to clean getaways, so she doesn’t panic right off, or start shooting like a maniac. Calmly, she settles herself further back into her saddle and grips the reins a little tighter than before. Looks like it’s time to give this new horse a proper test ride. As far as her reputation goes, no one rides like The Red Thief—er, Bandit. She’s the best in the business—she’s escaped pursuing lawmen and angry gang members more times than she can count, even with an entire posse on her tail. This will be no different.
“Now, why would I do that?” she asks teasingly, all the while darting surreptitious glances at their surroundings, taking in all avenues of escape.
“Miss Frazer,” the woman says gravely. “If you’re thinking about running, I highly advise against it.”
“Thanks, love,” Chloe replies, and in a flash, unholsters her pistol before either of them can blink. “But I think I’ll take my chances, yeah?” With that, she aims and fires a single shot—not at the woman, but at a rock in the road, meaning to send it flying as a means of distraction. Naturally, she misses—Chloe may be one of the quickest draws in the west, but she is certainly far from being the most precise—and instead hits a foot or so more to the left, bullet snapping into the dirt just by the dappled horse’s front hoof, making him neigh and rear in fright and the woman shout and hold on so she won’t be spilled backwards, wrestling to control her steed.
Chloe? She’s already gone. With expert flair, she digs her heels into her own mount and saws the reins—the filly neighs shrill and wild, rears up, spins ‘round, and leaps off into a thunderous gallop, bolting down the road like a flash of lightning.
For a full five minutes, Chloe dares to think she’s gotten away clean. Staying on the open road is risky but means more speed in an outright race, so she doesn’t leave it quite yet. Her new horse is as of yet untested with theatrics, and she doesn’t want to try anything too risky if she doesn’t have to. Checking again and again over her shoulder, she keeps the filly at a hard run, refusing to slow down for several miles.
On the sixth minute of her hasty flight, a shape forms on the road behind them, and Chloe swears. Her filly’s fast, but already beginning to tire—the woman’s horse has more endurance. After another mile, the space between them shrinks even further, and Chloe begins to feel that itch between her shoulderblades, the burgeoning fear that this bounty hunter might just save them both the trouble and shoot her in the back.
Time to get a little drastic.
Chloe saws the reins again and leaves the road, forcing the filly to head straight into the thick-brushed wilderness. Bushes slap her face and scratch her thighs. With precise control of the reins, she urges the filly to leap brooks, skirt boulders, and thread crowded tree trunks. She grazes one and hisses with a branch snags her arm, tearing her shirt and drawing blood, but doesn’t slow. When she glances behind her, she sees only trees whizzing by. Again, she’s lost her pursuer.
She keeps going, choosing directions at random, refusing to let the hunter even attempt to guess her course. After several miles of taking winding routes, crossing and recrossing her own tracks to add to the confusion, she at last slows, nearly as out of breath as her horse, who is unfortunately nearly blown. Seeing her lathered neck and sides, Chloe winces—that bloody Fence had lied; racing stock, her arse! At least now they can take their time getting back to the road, and—
Suddenly there’s an explosive neigh, and Chloe’s jaw drops as the hunter and horse burst out from behind a stand of nearby trees. Chloe swears and digs her heels in, the filly tiredly returning to a desperate gallop. How has she been followed so bloody quickly? It’s almost as if the damn woman correctly managed to track her confusing route, and all while her horse was still galloping headlong through the woods!
Jesus. Who is this woman again?
“Stop!” barks the woman, sounding terribly calm for all the breakneck speed they’re careening through these trees.
“You first!” Chloe cries back.
“Stop now or else!”
“Or else wha—herk! ”
A lasso comes out of nowhere, flashing over Chloe’s head and shoulders and snagging tight around her torso, clamping both her arms in place at her sides. Chloe has about two seconds to think, Well, this is going to bloody hurt, before she’s yanked right out of her saddle.
She hangs in the air for a long, protracted moment, flailing, the world around her seeming to blur and slow and her hat sailing off her head like some brilliantly red Cardinal, and then slams downwards, hitting the loamy forest floor so hard she bounces not once, but twice, shouting, “Oof!” before eventually rolling to a bone-jarring halt.
Her new horse, of course, doesn’t stop for anything, and keeps running as if suddenly struck by a second wind, disappearing through the trees and abandoning Chloe to her sad fate, coughing miserably on her sore stomach, face-down and gasping, nose planted in the moss.
Footsteps approach, and it’s all Chloe can do just to turn her head to the side, so she can breathe properly.
“You alive?” a voice from above says gruffly. Chloe just groans in reply—and then again, louder, when a boot rudely nudges her ribs.
“Think I broke my arse,” she gets out.
Somewhere above her, the woman sighs, then kneels and promptly, though at least not too roughly, rolls her onto her back and makes a quick check of her limbs, testing if any are broken. When none seem to be, she does not take pity on Chloe and miraculously let her go. Instead, she loosens the lasso and uses it to tie Chloe’s wrists and ankles together with what feel like the tightest, most well-tied knots ever invented. Chloe, head still spinning from her spill, wriggles experimentally against them, and can’t help but be impressed. This is no amateur.
With perhaps the most modest, professional courtesy Chloe’s ever experienced, the woman pats her down for weapons, removing the pistol from her hip and the throwing knives from both her boots, tossing them to the ground a short ways off. Chloe relents to the search—what other choice does she have?—and once the woman’s finished and stands to hover high above, rolls herself stiffly to one elbow.
“Alright, you got me,” she grouses. “Help me up, will you, love? I'll walk.”
“I don’t think so,” the woman replies, and takes Chloe firmly by the arm, hauls her into a sitting position with a Hey! and then—Chloe sucks in a sharp breath between her teeth—picks her up like she weighs absolutely nothing at all, settling her easily over the bulge of a hard, noticeably muscular shoulder.
The woman whistles for her horse, who snorts and approaches obediently, unlike a certain other cowardly steed Chloe knows. Bloody Fence!
“Say,” Chloe says, loose threads of pine needle-specked hair tickling her face and the blood rushing to her head from her awkward position dangling over the other woman’s back, the muscular shoulder driving into her stomach like a punch, squeezing the breath from her lungs in more ways than one. “Grab my hat for me, would you?”
“Quiet,” the woman replies, and in short order, Chloe finds herself thrown over the back of the horse not unlike a peeved, though gorgeous sack of potatoes.
“Come on!” Chloe whines. “It’s my favorite hat. I’ve had it forever. Please?”
The woman doesn’t answer, and Chloe slumps, dejected, tired, and sore. What a shit show of a day this was turning out to be. No horse, no guns, no hat. What’s next? No dignity? The light, tinkling sound of shifting belts and fasteners jingle in her ears for several minutes as the woman thoughtfully stows Chloe’s weapons away and then tightens up her saddlebags. As Chloe mentally runs through several different escape plans, each more ludicrous than the last, her footsteps fade for a moment, then return.
“Here,” says the woman gruffly. Chloe lifts her head slightly, surprised, and feels her hat squashed down over her mussed hair.
“Thanks, love!” she says brightly, delighted by the small act of kindness.
The other woman doesn’t reply, though as she mounts her horse, Chloe hears her mutter, almost under her breath, “Who wears a red hat?”
“So, where to?” Chloe asks.
The woman ignores her, appearing intent on trying to get her bearings and find their way back to the nearest road. Chloe pesters her a few more times before giving up, swamped by a sudden headache. Even she isn’t exactly sure how far their race has taken them into the wilderness, or even what state they’re in anymore. Surely they’re still in New Hanover, what with all the jagged mountains lining the northern horizon.
Sure enough, it isn’t long before the road reappears and the woman sets off at a slow but steady trot, eastwards, perhaps intending to give her horse a proper rest after such a run. Chloe learns the hard way that it’s better to stay limp and flop with the motion of the horse—resisting or tensing her muscles just makes every jarring step worse. She’s sore from her fall, too, but thankful she didn’t actually break anything, arse notwithstanding.
“Quiet now, are you?” the woman muses a few miles later, almost to herself.
“Not going to complain about being tied up by a beautiful woman,” Chloe replies cheekily, though she’s sure some of her natural charm is muffled, what with her face half-smooshed against the horse’s warm haunch flexing under her chin. “So. Got a name, stranger?”
The woman snorts, sounding a lot like her horse, and doesn’t answer, which is only slightly disappointing but expected. Then, to Chloe’s surprise, she mutters reluctantly, as if spurred by the need for manners, “Nadine. Nadine Ross.”
“Charmed,” Chloe replies at once, annoyed by the inability to shake Nadine’s hand or wink at her coquettishly. “I’m—”
“I know who you are,” Nadine says bluntly. “Now be quiet. It’s a long way to Saint Denis, and I’m not much for conversation.”
Saint Denis? Chloe thinks, and tries to remember if she’s pissed off anyone there recently, but draws up a blank. Not because she can’t think of anyone, but because there are far too many options. She’s been a busy girl lately.
“Can’t I sit up?” she complains after another gut-jarring mile, wiggling restlessly from her ungainly perch. “This is bloody uncomfortable.”
“Look, I’m sorry for running, but I’ll make it up to you. Untie me now and I’ll be perfectly behaved, honest.”
Nadine ignores her request, as well as the next several—to loosen the ropes, a canteen of water, and perhaps a look at that no-doubt gorgeous smile of hers—which are all perfectly reasonable but ultimately rejected. Annoyed, Chloe falls silent, sulking.
Several minutes later, she hears Nadine say in perhaps the warmest tone she’s heard yet, “You must be getting hungry after all that excitement. Don’t worry, we’ll stop soon and get you something to eat.”
Bewildered, Chloe is about to give a tentatively pleased response to that, touched by her thoughtfulness, when Nadine continues:
“Maybe a nice apple or two. I know you’re tired of all that hay, ja?”
Chloe actually has to take a moment not to guffaw aloud. Once she’s composed herself, she turns her head and asks with fake nonchalance, “Are you… talking to your horse right now?”
Rather than deny it, Nadine harrumphs. “Why not? He’s smarter than quite a few people I’ve met, and has better manners, too.” She glances back at Chloe with a mean little smirk. “And at least I’m not talking to a horse’s ass.”
Now Chloe does guffaw, loudly. “Oh my god. Oh, Christ. That was awful. Bloody awful. This is worse than being tied up.”
Far from offended, Nadine gives a short chuckle as well. Chloe is thinking maybe they’re having a moment, and she might be able to convince the other woman to untie her now, but of course it won't be so easy. She focuses on the horse instead, hoping to appeal to the woman by making friends with her mount.
“How ‘bout you, boy? What’s your say ‘bout all of this?”
As if in answer, the horse snorts, and the tail dangerously close to Chloe’s face lifts slightly.
“Oh, Christ,” Chloe says, momentarily horrified. “Please don’t do that while I’m back here.”
They don’t stop for two more hours. By that time, the sun’s hit the horizon, turning the sky a dark, bloody red, and Chloe is thoroughly sick of getting bounced about. Nadine takes her sweet-arsed time picking out a camping site, muttering to her horse about potential predators or would-be robbers before finally settling on a cozy spot by a quiet brook with plenty of cover in case of an ambush. Paranoid much?
Nadine leaves her on the horse while she sets up camp, gathering water and wood and making a fire, which is more than a little rude, though Chloe figures maybe she deserves it, what with the dangerous, breakneck chase she gave the other woman earlier. Still, her torso is sore by now, not to mention every other part of her body from that ugly spill she took. Tomorrow’s going to be fun.
Surprisingly, when Nadine does come to fetch her, she doesn’t just dump Chloe on the ground like other bounty hunters might after dealing with a troublesome quarry. Ever the gentlewoman, she puts her gloved hand on Chloe’s arm and actually asks her, “Ready?” and waits until Chloe gives a confused-sounding “...Yes?” before sliding her off the horse’s rump and over her shoulder again. Then she walks Chloe over to the fire and—somewhat gently—sets her down by the fire.
Chloe’s left sitting there, legs crossed and hat crooked, strangely bewildered by her mixed treatment, as Nadine sets about fetching dinner, fishing two vegetable cans from her saddlebags and setting them near the fire. In the time it takes for them to warm, she unsaddles her horse and brushes him down with obvious care before retrieving the aforementioned apples for him as well as an oat feedbag.
Returning to the fire, Nadine cuts the cans open with her knife and puts one in front of Chloe with a spoon. Chloe stares at it.
“You planning to feed me, then?” she challenges haughtily, as her hands are currently tied behind her back.
Nadine blinks, as though only then realizing her mistake. After a beat, she kneels behind her and swiftly undoes the rope at Chloe’s wrists. Taken aback—Jesus, she actually did it?—Chloe freezes in place, trapped between a sudden instinct to punch her and bolt, and the inability to register what just happened.
“Behave,” Nadine growls warningly. Chloe, relaxing from her tensed posture, merely arches a brow back at her and takes the offered can and spoon. She is hungry.
“Yes, ma’am,” she mumbles, and eats. It’s only partially warm and relatively tasteless, but Chloe’s not terribly picky anyways. Hell, Nadine might’ve not fed her at all, if she was so inclined. That she’s not only sharing her rations with her but also released Chloe’s hands so she can feed herself shows she has at least some measure of compassion and human dignity.
Dinner’s a stilted affair. Nadine eats mechanically and doesn’t stop watching Chloe for a second. Chloe finishes her can and does not throw it at her and dive for her guns. Maybe another time.
When it grows almost too dark to see, Nadine stands and says to Chloe, "Wrists."
Figures, thinks Chloe, and yawns, prepared to subject herself to a cold, uncomfortable night in captivity. She crosses her hands behind her back expectantly for the rope to be re-tied—but then Nadine does perhaps the best thing she could do, and forgoes her lasso for a pair of heavy, clinking metal shackles drawn from a saddlebag.
“Someone’s thorough,” Chloe laughs as she's cuffed up good and proper.
“I don’t take unnecessary risks,” Nadine says, making sure the shackles are secure before crossing to her side of the fire, stretching out on her bedroll and pulling her hat down over her face. “Get some sleep. We have a lot of traveling ahead of us.”
“Sure thing, love,” Chloe says, and spends the next fifteen minutes or so star-gazing while she patiently waits for Nadine to fall asleep.
At last, Nadine’s chest begins to rise and fall in a slow, steady rhythm, her body relaxing in slumber. As quietly as she can, Chloe rolls herself onto her back, works her wrists under her arse, then pulls her knees up to her chest so she can bring her arms down past her feet and then up in front of her, where they belong. Then she reaches under her hat, finds one of the several lockpicks threaded into her thick black hair, and gets to work on the shackles.
When Nadine wakes in the early hours of the following morning, a single ray of sunlight spearing beneath the brim of her hat to strike directly on her left eye, Chloe is gone from her spot on the other side of their little camp, where last Nadine had seen her the night before.
On top of that, both of her father’s revolvers are missing from their holsters on her hips, and her rifle is visibly no longer poking from her saddlebags, which are sitting in a pile on the ground nearby, beside the cold ashes of last night’s fire, and markedly not fastened as they should be on her browsing horse, who is similarly nowhere to be found.
That, far more than the guns ever could, hits Nadine hard, like a sucker-punch in a backroom brawl. Her revolvers and rifle are mementos of her father, and are indeed precious to her, not to mention necessary in her line of work—but her horse is her very livelihood, yet also so much more than that. He’s her companion. Her friend.
She remembers, faintly, when her father had first given him to her, how Sam had been a mean, half-wild thing, treated badly and neglected by his previous owners, untrusting of human contact. Despite her sympathy towards his upbringing, Nadine found she similarly couldn’t stand him, her knuckles and fingers bitten raw with her every attempt to befriend him, arse and back sore from all the times he spilled her from the saddle.
Still, she had persisted, determined not to abandon him as his previous owners had before. Eventually, through persistence, dedication, and time, they’d forged a powerful bond built on a solid foundation of mutual trust. Though Sam might be seen as just a horse or a dumb animal to any bystander, Nadine practically considered him a part of her family.
Sitting there in the empty campsite, guns, horse, and bounty gone, hearing nothing but the chirrup of birds, chatter of squirrels, and the rustle of leaves in the wind, Nadine feels the surge and crest of the initial wave of confusion as it swells and then ebbs, and with its fall comes a slow roil of pure rage. Nadine resists, wrestling tightly against it, knowing it will blind her, or cause her to make a stupid mistake when she needs a clear head most.
For many precious minutes, she sits by the cold coals of last night’s fire and waits until her blood is no longer boiling in her veins, hands clenched into fists so tight her gloves creak. She doesn’t like to be made a fool of. She likes even less to be robbed.
Chloe Frazer is not getting away so easily, she decides.
Eventually, she stands and goes through her things to see if anything else is missing. Chloe's taken her own pistol and knives back, but surprisingly, Nadine's billfold is still where she left it in one of the saddlebags. That Chloe took her weapons and horse but didn’t take her money seems odd, though Nadine supposes the infuriating woman was probably attempting to make some sort of stupid point by doing so. Damn her.
Nothing else appears to be missing from her things, though she does find the shackles which were last fastened on Chloe’s wrists, open and unlocked, in another saddlebag pocket, the key of which is still on its thread around Nadine’s neck, meaning Chloe picked the locks. Nadine is forced to admit that was rather clever before absolving not to let it happen again.
Refusing to rush off in a hasty panic, Nadine clears the campsite as she always does when she makes one, pouring water from her canteen—mercifully left behind for her, so at least she won’t die of thirst in the New Hanover summer heat—over the ashes to make sure there are no embers, eating cold jerky for breakfast and changing her shirt and waistcoat for a fresh pair, rolling the sleeves to the elbow and changing her belt for another with attached suspenders, as she’s about to be doing some walking, and it’s never fun to keep hitching your pants up every fourth step.
With that, she checks the time on her pocketwatch—a bit past 6AM, meaning Chloe has a decent headstart on her, if she managed to pick her lock late last night and then immediately fled afterwards. It's a question of whether Sam would allow Chloe to ride him—doubtful—though he could definitely be led if properly enticed. Still, Chloe is human, and would need food, water, and proper rest before long, all of which could be found in the nearest town. Nadine’s best bet, therefore, is to find civilization, and therefore find Chloe.
Squinting up at the sun, Nadine finds her bearings, then hefts her heavy saddlebags over her shoulder, turns west, and begins to walk toward Valentine, which, by her estimate, is more than twenty miles away. On foot, it’ll probably take her all day and night, but standing here in the woods isn’t doing her any good, or helping her get her horse back.
Back on the dusty main road, she finds herself grateful for her hat, the only thing keeping back the already blazing morning sun, beating down upon her.
Every so often, she sips from her canteen, or shifts her heavy burden to be lugged over her opposite shoulder. Sweat soaks her shirt before long, dampening the cloth at her chest and neck and at the small of her back. To distract herself, she imagines all the ways she’s going to tie up Chloe Frazer when next she finds the horrible woman.
After several hours, a passing traveler takes pity on her and brings up his horse-drawn wagon to match her slow but dogged pace westwards. Nadine, grown numb to horses and riders trotting by her all morning, ignoring her obvious plight, nearly jumps in surprise when a friendly voice calls down to her, “Where ya off to, stranger?”
Pausing only for a moment, Nadine keeps walking, glancing up at the older man under the brim of her hat warily. “Valentine.”
“Valentine?” parrots the man. “Well, c’mon then, hop in! Plenty of room fer ya, if’n ya want a ride!”
Nadine hesitates only for a moment, uncomfortable with such a show of kindness from a complete stranger. “Are you sure?”
“‘Course!” says the man jovially. “Ain’t no trouble! Already headin’ that way, anyways!”
Nadine sighs, slows, considers her options, and then accepts gratefully. The man calls his horses to a halt, allowing Nadine to climb up into the wagon bed and dump her saddlebags in the back before sitting with the fellow in the front. While the pace is only slightly faster than her own stride, it will be much less tiring. Her feet are terribly grateful for the reprieve.
Out of necessity, she demurs any trivial conversation, preferring instead to brood and smolder her darkening mood to a searing broil—her savior appears not to notice, perfectly content with talking his own head off about literally all manner of subjects, jumping from topic to topic, from the weather to the news of the city and bandit sightings without Nadine’s input in the least.
One long, loud, bumpy wagon ride and a sore bottom later, the thin smoke streams of Valentine’s two-dozen chimneys appear on the darkening horizon. It's full dark by the time they actually reach them, but, late or not, Nadine is pleased to have finally made it. Even if Chloe is not here, she has enough in her billfold for a room, supplies, and if absolutely necessary, a temporary horse with which to travel. She found Chloe rather easily the first time around—she will find her again.
At the Post Office, Nadine departs the wagon and bids her new friend farewell, surprised when he turns down her offer of a few dollars as payment for the ride. When she tries to insist, he just laughs kindly, saying, “You take care a’ yerself, now!” and then trundles off as easily as he appeared.
Repositioning her saddlebags back over her tired shoulders, Nadine heads into town. Now that she’s here, it’s suddenly more difficult to hold her temper in check, supreme control or not. Every line of her body is tense and trembling with anticipation. It feels as though her anger has been percolating inside of her all day, and now that she has arrived to what is hopefully her correct destination, it is ready to boil over.
The first place she visits is the Sheriff’s office, slamming the door open so hard the young Deputy sitting behind the desk visibly startles, marching up to the cells in the back to quickly peruse the riff-raff locked within, though a part of her knows Chloe is much too smart for that. Sure enough, there are only two men locked up at the moment, and no women. One fellow is curled up on his cot, snoring loudly without a care in the world, and the other sneers at Nadine through the bars of his cell, black-eyed and bruised up from a recent fight.
“Whatchu lookin’ at?” he snarls.
“Nothing,” Nadine replies coldly, and turns away.
“Can I help y—?” starts the Deputy, only just now rising from his desk after his initial jump at her arrival, but Nadine is already stalking out, intent upon her next location—the saloon, the only other place in all of Valentine she can imagine a known criminal to willingly frequent.
Stalking down the street, Nadine is halfway there when the rowdy sounds of a bawdy piano riff reaches her ears, muffled by drunken jeers and rabbling of the revelers within. It's only just fallen dark, and already, the drinks are being poured by the barrel. Girding herself to enter unarmed, Nadine takes two steps up to the porch and then stops dead at a familiar wicker at her elbow.
Tied to the hitching post just beside her is Sam. Nadine was so focused on the saloon she hadn’t even seen him. After a moment of numbed shock, Nadine quickly steps back down from the porch and approaches him, laying a hand on his warm neck. Sam snorts at her in instant recognition, nibbling at her sleeve for his usual sugar cube. He seems, for the most part, perfectly unharmed, his coat gleaming as usual and ears happily perked. Chloe Frazer might be a scoundrel and a thief, but she isn’t, at least, an animal abuser.
It only occurs to Nadine some time later that her horse, who normally would bite or kick anyone but her if they so much as approached him, had clearly allowed a complete stranger to not only saddle him but also ride him many miles into town.
Reunited with her friend, something that has been held tight and tense inside Nadine all day at last releases, and she takes a deep, calming breath and then exhales outwards.
Then, in the absence of that quivering tension comes the same smoldering rage she’s been banking since this morning, eager to fill the void, and rather than push it down again, as she has for years and years, Nadine lets it fill her, lets it seep through her limbs with a furious intensity and renewed vigor.
Taking a moment to refasten her saddlebags back onto Sam—while her horse’s saddle and tack are relatively untouched, Nadine's guns are still markedly absent from the immediate vicinity, which is concerning—and working her sore shoulders up and down as she does so, Nadine gives him a pat, tightens her belt, re-rolls her sleeves up all the way to her elbows, and then walks fearlessly into the bawdy saloon.
The moment she steps inside, the air seems to thicken. It doesn’t go still and quiet like some say saloons do when a stranger walks in, but she is definitely noticed, men elbowing each other and nodding her way and a few of the ladies of the night fluttering their eyelashes in hopes of attracting her attention.
Nadine ignores them all. She has only one thing on her mind at the moment. The saloon is packed and hazy with cigarette smoke, smelling strongly of liquor and close-pressed, sweaty bodies. In one corner, a man plays the piano, pounding out a jaunty tune. Some revelers dance drunkenly, though most lean on the bar or sit at tables, eating, talking, or gambling, the clomping sound of boots upstairs marking even more patrons making merry tonight.
The main room is cramped and small-windowed, and in the poor light of the lamps lining the walls Nadine has to squint in the gloom as her eyes dart from face to face. Some men stare back, sneering. Others ignore her. Nadine moves quickly—for a minute or two, she thinks maybe she’s mistaken, and Chloe’s already fled the town for parts unknown—
—but then she hears a husky, incredibly annoying laugh that can’t possibly belong to anyone else but the woman she’s after, and her eyes snap over to a table shoved in the far back corner of the room, catching sight of a familiar stupid red hat amidst a sea of brown and grey.
Chloe Frazer is sitting opposite two men, each of them holding a fan of cards in their hands. The tabletop is littered with betting chips and sticky splash marks of spilled alcohol. Chloe is glassy-eyed and loose, slamming shots of whiskey with a death wish from a bottle at her elbow. Her companions don’t look much better, sharing a second bottle between them, one man—a large fellow with a big beard and a round belly—slumped almost completely sideways and the other—gap-toothed, cigarette dangling off his lip, hat even uglier than Chloe’s squashed on his head—fighting just to keep his eyes open.
Making her way across the saloon floor, weaving through the boisterous, drunken crowd, Nadine stops when she reaches their table, then puts her gloved hand on the shoulder of the man to Chloe’s right.
“I need to speak to the lady,” she says, speaking low enough she won’t catch anyone else’s attention, but loud enough he’ll hear her over the bawdy piano music. She isn’t here to cause a scene.
Blinking drunkenly, the big fellow belatedly turns and frowns up at her, then looks over at Chloe, who is, for the moment, still drunkenly absorbed in her cards and rather oblivious to her immediate surroundings. Nadine realizes then her father’s revolvers are among the betting chips on the table, meaning Chloe was about to bet them away, or already had, and braces herself against another hot surge of furious irritation.
“Piss off,” growls the drunk. “‘Less you wanna fight, lady.”
Nadine tightens her grip on the man’s meaty shoulder until she feels something under her palm crunch slightly and give. At once, the man squeaks and goes still.
“I said, I need to speak to the lady,” Nadine repeats. “I’m not asking.”
The fellow, at last, seems to think better of picking a fight with her and quickly gives up his chair, shuffling away in pain. Nadine sits and takes up his cards. He has an awful hand, and she tosses them facedown on the table.
“Fold,” she says, and then squares Chloe up with the fiercest glare she can manage, which, at the moment, is truly something to speak of.
Rather than go pale, gulp, or piss herself from fear, Chloe merely blinks blearily at her, taking a moment to recognize who exactly is sitting at the table now. When it finally hits, she, of course, doesn’t even have the wherewithal to look sorry about a single thing she’s done, and smiles widely, as though overjoyed with her arrival.
“Y’made it, china,” she slurs happily. “I’ll tell ya, that’s a fine horse you’ve got, there. Prances like an Arabian if y’know how t’ work the reins, eh?”
It takes Nadine everything not to just… throttle her right there.
“Give me back my guns. And my rifle. Now.”
“Workin’ on it,” Chloe says, palm up in a soothing gesture. “I lost 'em at first… But I’m gonna win ‘em back, see? Look at this hand! Can’t beat it!” As though unable to help herself, she shows Nadine her cards. A Royal Flush. Nadine is less than impressed. There is no way Chloe achieved that legitimately.
“Hey, yer cheatin’!” the remaining man insists. Chloe sneers at him in offense.
“Oh, shut up. I don’t need t' cheat t' take your money, buddy!”
“Where’s my rifle?” Nadine insists, dragging Chloe’s attention back to her.
Chloe kicks the table trying to reach under her. “Right—ow!—right here. Don’t worry, wasn’t gonna bet it unless I lost this round, yeah? Here.”
And then she hands it right over, like she doesn’t expect Nadine to want to demolish her for everything she’s done and the trouble she’s caused.
Feeling a bit like a stick of dynamite with its wick pulled out, Nadine slings the gun over her back by the shoulder strap. “We’re leaving,” she says.
“But I’m winning!” Chloe whines.
“Now!” Nadine says, done with playing around, and stands and takes Chloe by the wrist. She may not have wanted to apprehend Chloe while smack in the midst of a crowded room filled with drunken hecklers, revel-rousers and possible criminals, but the choice has been taken from her, and—
Three cards drop from Chloe’s sleeve to the tabletop. Nadine goes still. Chloe similarly freezes, eyes wide, caught. The drunken man at their table stares at the fallen cards, blinks, and then suddenly shoots to his feet, bellowing for all the room to hear:
“Y’ARE CHEATIN’! Y’DAMN THIEF!”
For a moment, nobody moves. At once, all the attention in the entire saloon is upon the three of them—Nadine, standing, her hand still clamped around Chloe’s wrist, half-pulled out of her chair with a lazily-resigned but wry look pasted on her face, and the drunken man, swaying there on his feet, looking like a bull moments from a blind charge.
“Don’t—” Nadine starts, but it’s too late.
Eyes latched on Chloe, the man lurches forward and swings, roaring like a grizzly bear.
Nadine moves by instinct. She releases Chloe, lunges across the table and catches the man by the arm with both hands, slamming it down into the pile of chips between them, sending them flying. Not only does Rafe Adler want Chloe brought to him alive and unharmed, Nadine literally does not need to deal with a drunken brawl right now—
Rather than stop it, however, her sudden movement seems to set off the metaphorical dynamite planted throughout the room. For a beat, there is utter stillness, like the calm before the storm—
—and in the next, everyone is fighting; drinks are being thrown, tables are upended, chairs are smashed over backs or heads. It’s as if Nadine’s actions has given permission for a free-for-all, and the result is complete pandemonium.
Before Nadine can react, the big man from earlier reappears, still nursing an injured shoulder but seemingly ready for another round. Nadine has about two seconds to realize he means to fight her before putting her own fists up, forced to defend herself. The man hurls himself at her—
—and then staggers back when Chloe dashes into the way, surprisingly spry for someone so inebriated, laying the big guy out with a startling high kick.
“Cheater! Cheater!” the other man continues to yell, going for Chloe with a chair raised over his head. Chloe yelps, ducks—and Nadine trips him, allowing Chloe a chance to stomp him, right in the balls. The fellow heaves and curls up in agony on the floor.
There’s a split second where they look at each other—Nadine and Chloe, bounty hunter and bounty—and though no words are spoken, a sort of silent communication passes between the two of them. In the next instant, they are both moving, and it’s shocking how easy it is, Nadine realizes, to dodge and spin and punch in tandem with this woman she barely knows and does not trust at all, who she wanted to throttle only a few minutes ago, but who needs to escape this brawl just as much as she does.
She will deal with Chloe's crimes later. For now, they fight.
By now, the entire saloon is a wreck. Broken wood and glass litters the floor. The piano itself has been tipped over. Men wrestle and scrap and howl like animals. Nadine knows how fight, and aims her blows with precision, backed by the solid power of her well-honed limbs, knocking men out with only a few blows. Chloe is lighter with her hits, but faster and flashier, staggering her opponents with flurries and finesse.
Just when most of the ornery patrons seem to be dealt with, and Nadine is ready to suggest to Chloe they make a run for it—before some damn fool decides to pull his gun rather than duke it out with fists alone—the saloon doors slam open and the young Deputy followed by three other lawmen burst inside.
“What’s the ruckus all about!” shouts the Deputy—and then a drunk swings at him, and the fight is right back on. Feeling slightly better, now that the law has arrived, Nadine turns to look for Chloe—and grunts when a man falls into her so hard he bowls them both over. The man flounders and swings for her. Nadine ducks, punches him and scrambles to her feet, looking, searching—
But a part of her already knows—Chloe Frazer is gone once again.
The blast of a pistol in close quarters deafens just about everyone in the room—or, everyone still conscious—and with that, the brawl is at last over.
“Now, that’s enough of that!” shouts the Deputy in a shaky voice, gun still pointing toward the ceiling. Idiot will be lucky if he didn’t shoot some poor prostitute in the foot upstairs, or her john. Nadine grimaces, but puts her hands up just like all the others do as the Deputy and his men round up the lot of them to be taken outside. Chloe, she notes, is not among them, and Nadine feels at once like the biggest fool in the world. Sam neighs softly as she walks by, and she shushes him with a soothing motion. Hopefully, this will not take long to sort out.
While some patrons are allowed to limp their way home, a few of the more belligerent men are arrested and jailed for the night at the Sheriff’s office. To Nadine’s extreme chagrin, she is one of them, picked out by some of the men as the ‘instigator’ of the brawl. She tries to explain to the Deputy that she’s a bounty hunter working a job, but the red-cheeked boy just snarls at them all to Shaddap and get moving!
It’s all Nadine can do not to shoot the idiot right there, but if she did, the law would be after her, and she would never catch up with Chloe then.
And so she spends a restless night in a cold, fetid cell cramped full with half a dozen others, all of them reeking of spilled alcohol and nursing black eyes or broken noses or fat lips, the majority of the men huddled as far away from her on the bench as they can, watching her with obvious fear, not daring to bother her silent, furious brooding, hands gripped together tightly and glaring balefully at the opposite wall.
The next morning, the actual Sheriff at last arrives. He takes one look in the packed cell, spots Nadine, recognizes her from a previous job a year or so back, and curses his young Deputy out for jailing a known bounty hunter, no matter the circumstances. This satisfies Nadine not at all, and she claims her guns—rifle and revolvers, confiscated after the barfight—and stomps from the building in a silent rage, then stops in the middle of the road.
The hitching post outside of the saloon is empty. Sam, once again, is gone, and Nadine has lost her horse for a second time.
When Nadine finds Chloe Frazer again, it might not matter that Rafe Adler wants her alive and unharmed. Nadine just might pay him the damn five hundred dollars out of her own pocket just for a chance to kill the woman herself.
Chloe’s sitting pretty in the quiet, sleepy town of Strawberry when Nadine catches up with her a mere three days later. Chloe’s only mildly surprised by how quickly she’s been tracked again, and with seemingly little effort—it’s almost to be expected by now, as Nadine Ross is a pure professional, unlike the rest of those glory-chasing, money-hungry fools who’d ever attempted and failed to catch the notorious Red Bandit. Chloe was planning on bunkering down for at least the rest of the week before eventually heading north, skirting under the shadow of the mighty Ambarinos for a time, but, well, that’s sort of ruined now, so go figure.
In either case, Chloe is sipping whiskey at the small bar located inside the quaint Strawberry Inn, eyeing the gigantic stuffed grizzly bear posed ferociously in the corner when the entrance doors slam open and Nadine Ross herself stalks in. She looks, in a word, bloody pissed, and about two seconds from wringing someone’s neck, though Chloe can’t quite find it in herself to be too sorry to see her. A sight for sore eyes, Miss Ross is, even—or especially?—when her hair is mussed, face dark as a teeming thunderhead, jaw clenched like she’s been chewing rocks and clothes wrinkled, sweat-stained and streaked with dirt.
“China!” Chloe cries happily, lifting her glass like she’s giving a toast as Nadine marches straight toward her. “What a pleasant surprise! You must be beat! Sit down, have a drink with—erk!”
Nadine seizes her by the lapels of her modest button-down without preamble and drags her out of her chair and then right out the front door. Her grip is quite literally so strong Chloe is lifted completely off her feet once or twice, the tips of her boots dragging impotently through the dirt, scrabbling for purchase. The show of brute strength and the formidable, iron-like grip at her neck is at once incredibly attractive to Chloe, yet also alarming, as well as disconcertingly asphyxiating. She has to grab Nadine’s bare forearms and hang on for dear life to avoid being outright strangled, which is nice, too, the muscles under her palms twisting and shifting like bands of steel under warm silk.
It would probably be terribly inappropriate to moan as one is being man-handled (woman-handled?) through town like bloody luggage, right?
Not one person stops Nadine as she drags Chloe down the street like some disobedient sheep about to receive a hiding from a stern farmer. A few stare, one laughs, and absolutely no one asks if Chloe, say, needs any bloody help, which is only a little annoying. Strawberry, Chloe’s already gathered in her short time here, is a town where people mind their own business. Lucky her.
Muscled into a shaded alleyway between the Post Office and the smelly butcher’s stall, Nadine throws her against the nearest wall with wood-jarring force. Chloe loses her breath from the impact—and maybe something else entirely, but that’s neither here nor there—but keeps the wry smirk planted on her face, right where it belongs.
“Where’s my horse this time, Frazer?” Nadine demands at once, fists clenched at her sides.
Chloe’s grin grows, eyebrows raising teasingly. “Oh, him? I sold him to—”
Nadine socks Chloe square in the face. Chloe staggers from surprise more than anything else and falls sideways with a gasp, landing on her knees with a bloody nose and an aching jaw. She claps a hand to her face and squints up at the other woman through suddenly watering eyes.
“I was joking!” she snaps. “Jesus. Don’t hold back or anything.” Shit, that hurt. Nadine Ross can throw a mean punch—not that Chloe wasn't already aware, having witnessed her prowess during that lovely, heart-pumping brawl in Valentine. If she never gets on the wrong end of those fists again, she’ll be a happy woman. “He’s at the damn stable. I’m gonna be mad if you broke my nose, you know.”
“Be quiet,” says Nadine, though her tone is no longer as poisonous as before. When Chloe looks up, Nadine’s ferocious expression has dampened. She even looks a tiny bit sorry about the cheap punch, presumably now that she knows her horse is safe and sound, and not traded off to the glue factory. “Get up.”
“Give me a minute. Christ.” Chloe wipes her nose to make sure the bleeding’s stopped—it has, so it can’t be that bad, though she won’t be surprised if she has a black eye tomorrow—and then carefully stands, a little wobbly on her feet.
Nadine is watching her again. She looks a little more sorry than before. Perhaps she hadn’t intended to punch Chloe with all the force of a bone-shattering mule kick, but instead that of a small pony. “Sorry,” she mutters, and Chloe is sure then that the blow has affected her hearing, because never has she had someone punch her before and then apologize.
“It’s fine,” she says quickly, to cover her blanch. “No less than I deserve, hey?” Truly, Nadine Ross is a bit of a mystery to her. Just when Chloe thinks she’s got her number, she reels off into another direction entirely. She tries for a joke to loosen the tension spoiling the air between them. “There’s, uh, there's two of you now, right?”
“Ja,” Nadine pans, and doesn’t smile, though the troubled look in her eyes does seem to clear at the sad attempt at humor. She steps back, leaving room for Chloe to slip from the alleyway, motioning for her to lead the way. Noticing the etched revolvers that have found their way back to the holsters of their proper owner, not to mention the rifle slung over Nadine’s shoulder on its strap, Chloe decides not to try and make a run for it just yet—she really doesn’t want to get punched again, or shot, and besides, surely there will be ample opportunity for another attempt in the near future.
Nadine doesn’t follow Chloe to the street immediately, heading instead to the next building over, where a black American Standardbred waits patiently, lifting her sleek head when the bounty hunter approaches.
Chloe perks. “Did you get me a horse? Aw, china, you shouldn’t have.”
Nadine scoffs at the very idea, patting the mare idly on the neck. “She is going back to Valentine once I have Sam. The Sheriff loaned her to me after the… misunderstanding with his Deputy at the saloon.” Chloe stares blankly, not quite sure what that means. “I was arrested,” Nadine supplies with a pointed glare.
Chloe’s stunned. “You were arrested? Shit, china. If I’d thought—”
“Don’t,” Nadine interrupts sharply. The dangerous edge is back in her voice, her shoulders gone taut and tense once again. “You sold me out, and you know it."
Chloe scoffs. "Come on, man, that's now how I operate—"
"That's exactly how your type operates!" Nadine snaps back with vehemence. "You criminals are all the same—out for yourselves and no one else. So don’t you dare lie to me, that you’re any different.” Visibly upset, she snatches the mare’s reins and heads off toward the Strawberry Stables, clearly expecting Chloe to follow docilely along.
For her part, Chloe does so, though not without some lingering resentment, feeling confused and unsteady, but not all from the punch, silently pondering if she really would have done anything differently that evening in the saloon if she’d known Nadine would end up taking the fall for her, however short a drop it turned out to be—really, one night in jail’s never hurt anyone. Chloe knows that better than most. Still, it’d been years when last she thought of anyone but herself during one of her… escapades. It’s a strange sensation, to feel sorry, to regret, and one she’s not entirely sure she favors.
She’s still thinking about it as they reach the barn on the outskirts of town and step inside the wide double-doors. Inside, Chloe leads Nadine to the proper stall, where Sam is munching contentedly on a bucket of oats. When he sees Chloe, he wickers in recognition and sticks his pale nose over the stall door to bump her playfully on the shoulder. Chloe can’t help but laugh and give him a fond pat. Despite his confusing owner, he’s a good horse.
“Hey there, buddy. Look who’s here.”
She turns to Nadine, who is watching the friendly interaction between Chloe and her horse with an odd expression she can’t place. Not quite jealousy, or gratitude, but maybe its inbred second cousin. Sam spots his owner, snorts loudly, and neighs with excitement, neck stretching toward Nadine as he attempts to nibble her shirt, lipping furiously at her pockets.
“He okay?” Chloe asks, amused by the sight.
“He wants his sugar cubes,” Nadine says, her voice gone warm and soft once again. Over her horse. Right. Chloe has to admit it’s only sort of cute.
Sam’s tack and saddlebags are fetched in short order. Nadine seems resentfully grateful with how well Chloe’s treated her horse in her absence, something which Chloe decides not to be too smug about, just in case the other woman is still tempted to punch her again.
They leave the stable without fuss and return to town to bring the borrowed mare to the Strawberry Sheriff. The man seems a bit confused about the situation, but takes the horse and promises Nadine to get her back to her proper owner.
After tightening Sam’s saddle straps one final time, Nadine straightens, looks Chloe square in the eyes, and asks, “So, do I need to tie you up again, or are you going to behave now?”
Chloe guffaws. She can’t help it. The phrasing. Nadine’s blank expression doesn’t waver. Not even a blush rises to her cheeks at the unintended innuendo, mouth flat, eyes blank, like some disapproving headmistress meting out punishment to a snickering schoolgirl. Her face says, make a joke, I dare you.
Rather than risk another punch, Chloe swallows and raises her hands. “I’ll be good. Honest.”
Nadine scoffs at that. “Criminals aren’t honest.”
“No?” Chloe replies. This again? For some reason, she’s beginning to feel offended by these little digs. Having someone so blatantly look down on her is actually pretty irritating, now that she thinks about it. “Look, when I say I won’t cause anymore trouble, I mean it. I’m not lying.”
“Sure,” says Nadine, and actually has the gall to roll her eyes.
“You know what,” Chloe snaps, “tie me up, then. Come on. It’s not like I didn’t take wonderful care of your precious horse or anything while you were gone—”
“After you stole him!" Nadine snarls. "Twice!”
“—and then I had the decency not to go gallivanting off to god knows where and stopped in this tiny, boring-arsed town instead—”
“Oh, so you made it easy for me, then? Right. Because you wanted to be caught—”
That brings Chloe up a bit short. It’s a stupid accusation, but still. Did she want to be caught? Why hadn’t she kept moving? She could’ve easily disappeared anywhere else—Blackwater, or even all the way to New Austin. Instead, she’d stopped in a town not even fifty miles from Valentine. Surely she’d known Nadine would track her here without much trouble, and angrier than ever before, for all the headaches Chloe had caused her so far. And yet, knowing all this, Chloe had still waited. Why?
“That’s the stupidest thing—” she starts, trying to cover her own arse, but Nadine is still going:
“—betting my guns in a rigged poker game after stealing my horse, and then you just disappear and pretend you’ve done me a favor—”
“Tie my bloody hands,” Chloe says again, shoving her wrists forward, stubborn as a mule. “Since I’m so untrustworthy. Come on!”
“You know what—fine. Fine!” In a huff, Nadine fetches the lasso in her saddlebag to do just that. Chloe doesn’t back down or lower her proffered hands. It’s as if they’re playing some stupid game of chicken now, waiting to see who cracks first. Despite her apparent aggravation, Nadine doesn’t make the knots terribly tight, and winds the rope in a way that leaves Chloe at least some freedom of movement with her arms. She does not tie her feet. Small favors.
“There. Feel better?” Chloe asks sarcastically.
Nadine ignores her and pulls Sam over by the bridle. “Get on.”
Chloe blinks, surprised. “Oh, I can ride upright this time? You’re too kind, Miss Ross.”
“Shut up,” says Nadine, though without true malice.
Chloe does try to get in the saddle, but she can’t exactly climb right on with her wrists tied together the way they are, even though they’re in front of her this time. Her elbows are too close together, throwing off her balance, and she has to keep stepping down from the stirrup to catch herself. On the third attempt, Nadine finally takes pity on her, grumbling something about wasting too much time, and then takes Chloe by the waist and hoists her—hello there!—right up and into the saddle.
A bit dazed by all the man-handling she's endured today but not about to complain about it, Chloe blinks dopily down at her, suddenly in a much better mood. “Er. Thanks, love.”
Nadine just grunts and puts her own boot in the stirrup. “Scoot,” she says, and Chloe does her best to make some room so Nadine can sit in front of her. They just fit. Sam, at least, doesn’t seem too bothered by the added weight, pawing at the ground as if eager to get a move on.
Over her shoulder, Nadine says flatly, “If you try and run away with my horse again, I’ll shoot you.”
Chloe pauses, says, “Not the horse?”
Nadine looks back at her, aghast. “I would never shoot any horse.”
A quiet, rueful laugh leaves Chloe’s throat. Of course.
Over the next few days, as they travel eastwards across West Elizabeth, following the train tracks toward Riggs Station and the Dakota River beyond, a sort of strained camaraderie forms between them. It’s a bit of a given, Chloe supposes, when two people are stuck together for any length of time, traveling in the remote wilderness with no one to interact with than each other.
That’s not to say they go without hiccups. The first day is painfully awkward. For hours Chloe, arse growing more sore by the minute against the unworn back of the saddle, sits bored and sullen behind Nadine. They’re around the same height, thankfully, so Chloe isn’t left with a faceful of hat or hair, and quickly makes a habit of resting her chin on Nadine’s shoulder to take in the sights, a quirk the other woman tolerates with no small amount of grumbling.
For her part, Nadine, tight-arse she is, rides stiff as a bloody board, her every muscle tensed rigid, as though prepared at any moment for Chloe to grab her gun or simply disappear whenever they stop to eat or rest or just squat in the bushes for a wee. By evening, she’s a nervous wreck, eyes visibly bloodshot, hands developing a light tremor from the fatigue of constant alertness.
At last, unable to stand it any longer when Nadine drops the flint on her third attempt at getting the campfire started, Chloe snaps at her, “Will you relax?” and elbows her aside to do it herself. Even with her hands tied, it’s a simple enough task. Nadine doesn’t thank her, but Chloe can see the grudging gratitude in her haggard face as they eat a meager supper.
Later, when they go to sleep, Nadine removes the rope on Chloe’s wrists only to replace them with those damn shackles again. Having learned her lesson, however, she cuffs only one of Chloe’s wrist and then attaches the other to her own, and sleeps with Chloe’s tucked under her arm, so she will feel if Chloe moves even the slightest bit. It’s a bit over the top, but Chloe doesn’t complain about getting to cuddle up next to a big strong bounty hunter for the night. She’s spent far worse evenings in her day. The breeze coming off the Ambarinos is cold, anyways.
The next morning, Nadine looks surprised to find Chloe right where she left her, then faintly relieved. Some of the nervous energy seems to drain from her. She removes the shackles, and, after a quick breakfast, uses her lasso to re-tie Chloe’s wrists—who submits without complaint—and they hop back on Sam and head out.
Conversation is sparse and tentative that day, but at least it’s there. Chloe, desperate for something other than her own boredom to focus on, begins picking out landmarks or a random passerby on the road to remark about, prompting Nadine to give her own opinion on the matter, before riding on until Chloe finds something equally inane to mention and thus begin again.
On the third day, when Nadine again wakes to find Chloe curled up beside her, obedient as ever and practically mild as milk, she seems pleased, and their talk comes more freely, their natural banter shifting from their surroundings to other topics at random.
Nadine Ross, Chloe learns quickly, is a very smart, well-read woman, fluent in such topics as women’s and civil rights, wildlife conservation, and civics, and seems well versed in dozens of other subjects besides. Soon enough, she’s keeping up with Chloe’s natural wit as well, shooting back quips to match Chloe’s own. It’s a refreshing sort of challenge, trying to one up each other in sheer cleverness, and Chloe finds herself enjoying it far more than she probably should.
Perhaps most noticeably, Nadine—fearsome bounty hunter, saloon-brawler and ceaseless tracker—seems to delight when some animal or another bursts out of the brush at their approach and goes bounding off, leaving Chloe to ask, “What was that?” to which she’ll always answer, quite expertly, “California Valley coyote” or “Rocky Mountain cow elk” or “Cedar Waxwing.” Her mental compendium of the local species is beyond impressive, her relish in identifying them undeniably charming.
As they ride on, following the winding Dakota River and crossing it to Flatback Station, Chloe at times offers Nadine advice on which trails to take, and shortcuts that will avoid known ambush spots or busy traffic. Nadine listens for the most part, though they do still argue now and then, just not nearly so much as before. Chloe knows they aren’t friends, but they do seem to have come to at least something resembling an understanding. And why not? It’ll take them a couple weeks to get all the way back to Saint Denis, anyways, so they might as not spend the entire time at each other’s throats.
Before Chloe knows it, five whole days have gone by. It occurs to her she’s forgotten she’ll need to escape soon, which seems a terribly stupid thing to forget. Hell, she doesn’t even have a real plan anymore, which is even more frustrating. Something about Nadine has turned her soft—but, strangely, it’s not just her who seems to be slipping.
One morning, Nadine forgets to tie Chloe’s hands before they get back on the horse. Chloe literally has to walk up to her and shove her wrists under her nose, and even then, Nadine hesitates.
“Look, we don’t have t—” she tries.
“Tie them,” Chloe says, and Nadine hesitates again before obeying, though she doesn’t look happy about it. Which is stupid. She should look thrilled to tie up a so-called criminal. And anyways, Chloe gave Nadine her stupid bloody word back at Strawberry about not causing any more trouble and now the whole getting-tied-up thing is more about sticking it to her and proving a point than actually doing it for honesty’s sake alone.
Still, as much as Nadine’s damnable noble attitude drives Chloe batty, she can’t help but be attracted to that insipidly regal demeanor of hers, or that mean, hard line of her jaw and those dumb, rigid shoulders of hers. Ugh. Really, Chloe can’t stand her.
Nadine seems to echo the sentiment—while in the saddle, anytime Chloe so much as coughs wrong or shifts the slightest bit from her place behind her, trying to wake a sleeping arse-cheek or ease a sore hip, Nadine will go tense and jumpy, as though very uncomfortably aware of the woman at her back. When they wake in the mornings, forced to curl close with the shackles, her face is noticeably tense and drawn at their proximity. While Chloe would like to say it’s because she’s a bloody catch and even Nadine knows it, it’s probably because the other woman has had little to no human contact, like, ever. Which is sad, and should be remedied immediately. Chloe would do so if she weren’t afraid of earning herself another shiner—the first is only just healed, the faint remnants gone a light green and yellow below her left eye.
Something like a week into their journey across the states, Nadine’s steering Sam along Twin Stacks Pass in New Hanover just before twilight. Chloe thinks maybe this area is familiar to her but isn’t sure how or why, the steeply winding trail seeming to nudge a distant memory of hers. She hangs on tight to Nadine when the trail banks downward, Sam’s hooves skidding a bit on the descent, taking them around a blind corner formed from a tall, rocky precipice—
The second they make the turn, the nagging feeling in Chloe’s gut comes to fruition, and with a shrill neigh and a shower of rocks a man on horseback suddenly skids to a halt in front of them, blocking their way. Before Nadine can wheel Sam around, a gun is cocked and pointed straight at her chest. Immediately, Nadine lifts her hands into the air. Chloe similarly freezes. She’s not about to get the bounty woman shot on her behalf by doing something stupid.
“Don’t move,” barks the man, the lower part of his face covered with a dark kerchief. A battered black hat sits jauntily on his head. “This is a robbery! Hand over—”
“Hi, Nate,” Chloe says abruptly.
It’s silent for a moment. Nobody moves. Then, the man says, incredulously, “Chloe?”
Slowly, Chloe leans further into Nadine’s back, grinning over her shoulder. It is him. “Howdy. Been a while, mate. You look good. How’s business?” Pressed in front of her, Nadine has gone still as a stone. It doesn’t even feel like she’s breathing.
“Um,” says Nate, who has yet to aim his gun at something other than Nadine’s chest or lower his mask and is still visibly confused. “...Fine?”
“Great. Elena around?” Chloe asks.
Pulling his kerchief down to hang around his neck, Nate gestures vaguely behind him with his free hand. Chloe squints. Atop a nearby ridge, she catches sight of a glint from a rifle scope, and can just make out a kneeling shape in the growing dark. Chloe grins and waves with both her tied hands.
“Hi, sunshine!” she calls out.
After a moment, the shape waves back. "Hey, Chloe," a sweet, disembodied voice echoes down. The rifle glints again as it’s pointed away.
Nadine looks as though she is trying very hard not to let her mouth fall open. Her eyes remain locked on Nate’s gun, still pointed straight at her.
“Er, Nate,” Chloe says. “Would you mind…?”
Nate seems to realize he still has his gun out. “Oh, sorry.” He holsters it, looking sheepish, and Nadine seems at last to start breathing again. Nate rubs the back of his neck, asks, “You, uh… You good?”
“Oh, just fine,” Chloe says brightly.
Nate pointedly looks from Nadine to Chloe, making sure to rest his gaze purposefully on Chloe’s bound wrists and the remnants of her black eye. “You sure?”
“Yes, mate. All good. Listen, we’d stay and chat, but my friend here is on a tight schedule. Next time, yeah?”
“Uh,” says Nate. “Okay?”
“Thanks, mate,” says Chloe, as Nate knees his horse to the side, allowing them room to pass.
“Sure,” Nate says, still sounding uncertain. “See you around?”
“You got it. Tell Elena we still need to go for that drink,” Chloe says and gives Nadine’s foot a little nudge with her own. “C’mon, china.”
Nadine startles, hands clenched tight on her reins. She nods jerkily at Nate, who frowns at her, and then slowly guides Sam around him and down the ridge. By the time they reach the main road, it’s fully dark, but Nadine doesn’t stop, walking Sam at a placid trot along the wide thoroughfare.
“Who was that?” Nadine asks, a mile or so out.
Chloe grins, tickled by the encounter. “Old friend. Haven’t seen him in, what… Two years? Used to run jobs with him, way back in the day. Good chap. His wife’s a sweetheart. You’d like her, I bet.”
It’s silent for a while but for the steady clop of Sam’s hooves on the hard-packed dirt.
“Why didn’t you let him shoot me?” Nadine asks suddenly, her voice shaky and faint.
Chloe blinks, broken from her reminiscing. “I—” she starts, then falls silent. Come to bloody think of it, why didn’t she? If she’s being perfectly honest… It hadn’t even occurred to her. Nate—Nate would’ve done it, too, without question. He owed Chloe more than a few favors. “I—” she tries again, but can't seem to find the words.
Sitting rigid in front of her, Nadine waits for an answer, face turned away. Chloe would give anything to see her expression, just now.
Chloe struggles, then shrugs helplessly and goes with a pithy, “This—this is between you and me, love. Not him. That’s all. Gave you my word, didn’t I?”
Nadine turns her head slightly to peer back at Chloe from the corner of her eye. Their gazes meet and hold. She says nothing. Neither does Chloe, her mouth suddenly gone as dry as a bone for no reason.
At last, Nadine turns back to the road. She still looks rattled, as if she can’t quite believe a rotten criminal like Chloe Frazer could have anything approaching honor in her heart—for her own sake, Chloe can’t believe it either.
But hey, if that’s what it bloody takes to get Nadine to realize she's not the person she thinks she is, Chloe’s glad to prove her wrong.
“This is an awful picture of me,” Chloe says out of nowhere the very next evening.
Nadine looks up from where she’s stoking the campfire. She’d asked Chloe to fetch them some rations from the saddlebags, not go rifling through the rest of her things, but far be it for The Red Bandit—or whatever that ridiculous moniker was Chloe insisted she went by—to respect her wishes, and in Chloe’s hands is her Wanted poster, by now wrinkled and slightly faded from so much folding and unfolding.
“Put that back,” she says impatiently.
“No, really," Chloe insists, bringing it over, tossing Nadine a can of baked beans with her other hand, wrists untied for the evening, as of yet unshackled for bed. “Look at my hair. And—wait—” Her jaw drops. “Five hundred dollars?” Poster crumpling in her hands with an audible rip, she whirls on Nadine. “Five hundred dollars! Are you serious? I’ll turn my bloody self in! The Saint Denis police are really going to pay that much for me?”
“No—” says Nadine.
“Bollocks! It says it right here, what do you bloody mean, no—”
“The Saint Denis police didn’t make that poster,” Nadine finishes. “Rafe Adler did.”
At the name, the campground seems to go profoundly still, as if all the air has suddenly been sucked away. Chloe’s head jerks like she’s seen a rattlesnake underfoot. Her face, held utterly blank for a long, protracted moment, goes cold and hard in a way Nadine has never seen before, all her natural humor draining away until she doesn’t even look like Chloe anymore. “Rafe Adler?”
Nadine shifts uncomfortably on the log she’s rolled by the fire, elbows on her knees and hands laced loosely together, feeling suddenly nervous. “You… know him, then?”
Chloe’s upper lip curls into a disgusted sneer. “Oh, I know him. He’s that—that bloody oil tycoon, isn’t he? The one buying up all the land across the states with daddy’s money and milking it dry. You know how he does that—clears the land? By driving the natives off any way he can, most of them being pretty bloody illegal. He’s an awful man and an arsehole besides. Prick.” She spits to the side, visibly bristling with fury.
Opening the can with her knife, Nadine is quiet. She had known Rafe was in the business of oil, but not anything more, and it’s a struggle to keep her expression blank. Hearing such accusations, though, she finds she believes it at once. He seemed the type, back when she first met him; someone willing and twisted enough to do literally anything for money.
“What’d he say I do, anyways?” Chloe asks, kicking at a nearby rock.
Nadine shrugs, wary of stirring Chloe’s ire any further. “He didn’t tell me.”
Chloe scoffs. “‘Course he didn’t, that bloody son of a—” Cutting off, she actually steps away to pace the treeline for a few moments and collect herself, something Nadine finds concerning. She focuses instead on their meal as best she can, emptying the can into her frypan and setting it on some bright red coals to heat.
When Chloe returns, slumping down to sit cross-legged on Nadine’s laid out bedroll, her face is back to a teeming cold fury.
“I robbed one of his trains,” she says quietly, without prompting.
So, Nadine thinks, that’s it. To be fair, it isn’t the worst crime she’s ever heard of. Many successful businessmen chose to move their assets by train, as it was safer than carriages or wagons, and a single train could carry thousands in gold bars and printed bills. Chloe—or, The Red Bandit—must not have been able to pass up such a worthwhile payday. She might not have even known whose train she was robbing when she did it, either.
Not sure of how to reply, Nadine says nothing, stirring occasionally at the bubbling pan with a carved wooden spoon so it won’t burn.
“Don’t you want to know?” Chloe asks over the sound of the crackling flames, several minutes later, when Nadine has served them both their meager supper on her tin plates.
“Know what?” Nadine asks, chewing a hot spoonful and swallowing dryly.
“Why I robbed it?”
Nadine frowns, confused. What kind of a rhetorical question is that? “You robbed it to steal the money on board, like all robbers do. Why else?”
But Chloe just laughs bitterly, then falls oddly silent, glowering at the plate on her knee, her food growing cold and congealed in the brisk night air.
“What’d you do with it, anyways?” Nadine asks tentatively, after taking another bite of her own meal and discovering her appetite has dwindled in the past few minutes.
“With what?” says Chloe, voice hollow.
“The money.” Nadine pauses, an idea forming. Yes, that has to be it. “Did you hide it somewhere? Is that why Rafe wants you alive?”
But Chloe just stares at her, uncomprehending. Frustrated, Nadine turns to face her properly.
“From the train. The money from the train.”
“Oh,” says Chloe. “You have no idea, do you? Jesus.” Sitting back, she shakes her head and covers her face with a long-suffering sigh, breath raspy with sudden exhaustion. Nadine feels terribly lost until Chloe says in a soft, sad voice, “There was no money on the train, Nadine.”
Stiffening, Nadine gently sets her plate out of the way, afraid she might spill it. “No?” she says. “Then… Then what—”
Speaking over her, Chloe goes on: “There wasn’t gold, or cash, or jewelry, or bearer bonds. But I’ll tell you what was on that train—sacred relics, stolen from the natives.”
Nadine doesn’t know what to say, her head suddenly spinning. What? Relics? What on earth could Rafe possibly want with those?
As though reading her mind, Chloe answers her. “Items like those—priceless artefacts like peace pipes, headdresses, you name it—are considered exotic antiquities to other countries, see. They sell well at Black Market auctions in places like England and France. Rafe does it as a side racket. Makes himself a pretty penny, too. His father doesn’t know about it. Don't think he'd be too happy if he heard what his son's up to. And if the U.S. Government found out, I'm sure they'd have something to say about it, too.”
“Then, what—” Nadine starts hesitantly. “What did you want with it?”
“What do you think?” Chloe snaps, as if unable to help it, her defensive outrage mounting with every word. “Have you been up there, in the hills? Have you seen the Reservation, how those poor natives are living, how we’ve treated them? We’ve destroyed them, Nadine. We’ve broken them completely. And Rafe—” Chloe bares her teeth. “Rafe’s just grinding them into the dirt. Do you know how many tribes his oil business has uprooted? How many families he’s torn apart?”
Nadine is quiet, faintly horrified. She’d always known how terribly the natives were treated, but had never witnessed it first hand. The two spoonfuls of dinner she managed to get down sit like lead in her stomach.
“They’re dying,” Chloe goes on. “Slowly but surely. First we took their land so they couldn’t farm, then we took their guns so they can’t hunt. They’re sick and starving. They need food and clothes and medicine and horses. They need a bloody chance, and I—I suppose I wanted to give them one.”
It dawns, then, the admission Chloe’s words are handing her. “You stole the artefacts,” Nadine says, “to return them to the natives. That’s why Rafe put the bounty on you.”
“Robbing that bloody train was the best thing I ever did,” Chloe says with the utmost conviction, her voice steady and true, “and I’d do it again in a second.” She pauses, then, slightly out of breath for her passion. “Rafe Adler is the worst kind of man and I robbed that train because I knew it was his, and I knew what was on it, and those things—those things are not his to sell.”
Nadine is speechless. She can’t look away from Chloe’s face, filled with the a grim sort of determination and the righteous vindication of her actions. There isn’t an ounce of regret in her eyes, and for that, Nadine cannot fault her.
But then that expression once again turns cold and chilling, and Nadine can’t help but shudder as it draws to a bead and focuses upon her, Chloe hitting her with a furious glare unlike any she’s seen before, almost like a split shot bullet.
“So, there you have it,” she says bitterly, balling up the Wanted poster still clutched in her hand and tossing it into the fire. “I am a thief. I am a liar, and a robber, and a cheat. But at least I know the difference between right and wrong. I get it. You’re a bounty hunter, Nadine, and me? I’m just another job to you. You turn me in, fine. But just make sure you do it knowing what kind of man you’re doing it for. And what kind of person that makes you.”
Nadine says nothing. There are no words with which to reply to such a statement.
For a long time, Nadine sits there by the fire, feeling as though she’s been shot. A hollow ache radiates through her chest. Even after Chloe curls up on the bedroll and falls fitfully asleep, notably unshackled for the first time in days, Nadine sits and stares at the dwindling flames, and thinks about all the life lessons her late father had ever taught her about being honorable, and just, and true. She feels sick and uncertain and afraid. She feels a sham, a disappointment, a traitor to her own morals.
By the time the red glow of dawn begins to creep across the eastern horizon, Nadine hasn’t slept a wink, and has moved only to put a pot of coffee on the re-lit fire for breakfast.
A short while later, Chloe sniffs and gradually sits up, her face bleary from poor sleep and her hair mussed from her tossing and turning. Nadine hands her a topped-off metal cup and then retrieves her own, and they share the coffee in silence, sipping slowly as the world wakes around them.
“Where did you put them?” Nadine asks quietly, when her cup is nearly empty.
Chloe flinches and pretends it’s from the heat of the coffee. She swallows, glances at Nadine from the corner of her eye. “What d’you mean?” she asks, playing dumb.
Nadine shakes her head, drains the rest of her cup, and sets it on the ground in front of her. “The artefacts,” she says.
Chloe doesn’t answer, just takes another slow sip.
“Rafe wants you alive,” Nadine says. “He must’ve said it three times to me that you be brought to him unharmed. It’s because he needs you to tell him where you’ve hidden them, isn’t that right?”
In answer, Chloe just glares at her through lowered lids suspiciously, as if wondering why she would ever tell her that.
“Tell me where they are,” Nadine presses again.
“Why?” Chloe snaps. “So you can bring them back to Rafe?”
“No,” Nadine says, and sits up upright, her head held high and shoulders squared. “So we can bring them back to where they belong. To the natives.”
Chloe stares. She almost spills her coffee, she’s so stunned. “Why would you help me?” she asks after a moment.
With all the honesty she can convey that resides within her heart, Nadine says, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Chloe is silent, clearly waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. Nadine knows what she’s thinking—nobody says drivel like that and means it. Not anymore. At the very least she doesn’t laugh.
When Nadine remains similarly silent, holding Chloe’s gaze steadily and openly, the other woman at last guffaws. “Oh my god. You’re bloody serious, aren’t you?”
“Oh, Jesus. Do— D’you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into, love?”
Nadine shrugs. She doesn’t, but still, she wants to help. “Not really.”
Now Chloe does laugh, but it’s not cruel or demoralizing, it’s light and warm and maybe even a little impressed. It fills Nadine with a sense that this was the correct choice to make.
“So,” she says urgently. “Where are they?”
“Well, uh,” says Chloe, making a face, as if to say, Can’t believe I’m telling you this but what the hell. “That’s sort of the tricky part. See, after the train, I was being chased, so I hid them in a drop-spot the Black Market Fences use for smuggling, right? I was sure they’d be fine, but—well… A couple weeks ago, just a bit before you caught me, my sources told me it got, er, raided.”
“Did someone take them?” Nadine asks, bristling. Already, she feels a part of this, ready to fetch them back whatever the cost. “Where?”
Chloe gulps audibly and rushes out, “They’re in Fort Wallace.”
Nadine stares. Chloe stares back with a half-wince. A blue jay brays.
“Fort Wallace,” Nadine says blankly. “The Fort Wallace.”
“Frazer. We are not going to Fort Wallace and asking for your stolen things back.”
“‘Course not,” Chloe says, and grins. “We’re going to sneak in.”
Something in Nadine’s brain sizzles and dies at the very idea. At once, she’s on her feet, pacing relentlessly, instantly panicked yet unwilling to go back on her word so soon, trapped in a brutal spiral of anxiety. “What? No. I— This is—this is ridiculous. I— Frazer—”
Chloe stands, then, and grabs her. Neither of them are wearing their gloves—Nadine can feel the calluses on the other woman’s hands, earned from a hard life of quick-shooting and horse-riding, and the glowing warmth of her skin against her own. It grounds her, and she goes still, trying her best to stop her quick, frantic breaths.
“China, listen,” Chloe says carefully, her voice low and soothing and calm. “If you do this, and make this right with me, after it’s done, I will go with you to Rafe. I’ll let you turn me in and collect those five hundred dollars, no hard feelings. Promise.”
“But—” Nadine tries, her mind suddenly filled with images of all the awful things Rafe might do to Chloe in retaliation for this.
“No,” Chloe interrupts. “Whatever happens—he lets me go, he throws me in jail, he bloody well kills me—I can live with that, understand? So long as this gets done first. I used to think it's not my fight, when I would see what was happening with the natives. But this time, I can't walk away. I'm tired of walking away." There are tears in Chloe Frazer's eyes. "So, you see? I can't let Rafe sell those artefacts."
Nadine struggles with herself, wrestling with her roiling conscience, and gives in. “No. No, we can't,” she whispers.
An enormous smile blooms across Chloe’s face. It’s the most beautiful thing Nadine’s ever seen, and something about it makes her heart, already racing with fear and excitement, stutter and quicken even more. “Thank you," she breathes, then seems to collect herself with a sniff and a blink. "So, then. Crazy plan. Ridiculous odds. What d’you say?” Stepping back, she proffers her hand to shake. “Partners? Er, temporarily?”
Nadine allows herself only one more moment of doubt—a bounty hunter and a bounty, teaming up together? What are the odds?—before she takes that hand and pumps it, once. “Partners.”
Chloe’s face softens, her hand clenching tightly to Nadine’s, who can practically feel the open gratitude warming the air between them, as well as some other, as of yet nameless emotion, almost like—
The dying fire gives one last, loud pop, and as one, they jump and step back, releasing their handshake.
“So,” Nadine asks nervously, hands on her hips. “What now?”
Chloe grins again, like some caged predator just freed and eager for a good hunt, and fetches her ugly red hat, twirling it in the air before placing it on her head. “I know a guy.”
All Nadine can do is nod and—dare she say it—trust her.
Chloe’s contact, Nadine discovers several days later, after a tenuous journey into the deep woods of the Ambarino Grizzlies East, turns out to be an ornery older man named Victor Sullivan with a thick mustache and a paunch that leans toward retirement. Nadine has her doubts until they’re riding up to his remote cabin in the late afternoon, built among the trees just by the shore of Moonstone Pond, when the front door crashes open and a burly fellow with a cigar clenched at the corner of his mouth steps out, holding a tight bead on the two of them with a pump-action shotgun. Just from his stance, Nadine can tell he knows perfectly well how to use it, and jerks Sam to a skidding halt.
“Better have a good goddamn reason to be interrupting my cigar,” growls the man.
“Why, that’s no way to treat visitors, Sully,” Chloe calls out, and almost at once, Victor lowers the gun in pleased surprise.
“Chloe Frazer, as I live and breathe.” Propping the butt of the shotgun against his hip, he looks between Chloe and Nadine, then raises his eyebrows in intrigue. “What sort of trouble have you gotten yourself into now, sweetheart?”
Chloe just laughs.
After some introductions that are only slightly awkward for Nadine, Victor instructs them to ride around back to his modest stable to unsaddle and brush down Sam, where Nadine meets his two horses—Hog Wild, an enormous light grey Shire, and Cutter, a deep-chested blonde chestnut Belgian. They’re beautiful creatures—Chloe has to come back into the stable and pull Nadine out from her study of them, complaining about being hungry.
Victor ushers them inside his cabin and, despite Chloe’s initial dig about manners, not only feeds them a hearty meal of rabbit and vegetable stew but also allows them unfettered access to his private stock of ammunition and supplies. Nadine, after stepping into his root cellar and finding it filled almost to the brim with nearly every manner of bullet, firearm and ranged weapon so far invented in the states, considers herself seriously impressed.
Their stocks replenished, Nadine makes herself comfortable by the fireplace while Chloe speaks at length to her old friend, sparing no details of their intentions. A man of experience, Victor doesn’t even blink when Chloe voices the ridiculous amalgamation of words, We need to get into Fort Wallace. Instead, he just listens and smokes until Chloe comes at last to a breathless stop.
For a long beat, the cabin is silent, the air tense. Then Victor finishes his cigar, stubs out the butt in an ashtray, and says only two words: “I’m in.”
It’s a whirlwind after that. Nadine can barely keep up as Chloe and Victor furiously construct a detailed plan of entry. By Chloe’s estimation, the artefacts have already been sitting in the fort for several weeks. While Nadine finds this potentially worrying, Chloe is convinced she disguised them well enough as normal black market fare and is confident they will have remained untouched in their original crate, claiming soldiers commonly sit on illegal goods for months before turning it over to officials for court cases upon request, if it ever comes to that. If not, the goods are eventually destroyed or sorted and redistributed back across the states. While that means they won’t necessarily have to rush to get this job done, they all agree it’s still best to hurry.
That very night, Victor takes his horse and disappears for a time, leaving Chloe and Nadine to try and get some well-needed rest in preparation for the busyness ahead, though Nadine finds herself lying fitfully awake in the guest room, and Chloe audibly tosses and turns on Victor’s borrowed bed in the next room over. Sometime past midnight Chloe finally gets up, stomps into Nadine's room, and throws herself down to sleep beside her on the bed. Nadine doesn’t complain--she’s grown used to having the other woman so close at night, and with her familiar warmth and weight at her side, falls at last to sleep.
Victor returns by noon the following day from wherever he’d absconded to, looking incredibly pleased with himself, and gifts them with what will perhaps be the most important part of their harebrained scheme: two genuine U.S. Army uniforms.
Nadine puts hers on with reluctance, still halfway unable to believe she’s actually doing this. The suit fits well enough against her lean, sturdy frame, and with her thick hair tightly bound and tucked up into her cap, and her muscular arms and broad shoulders straining against the sleeves of her military coat, she could almost pass as a man, though if anyone were to give her a second glance, she’s sure she’d be found out.
Chloe, with her slighter, more feminine build, still manages a well enough image, though her belt has to be notched extra tight and her coat loosened so her breasts don’t give her away. She ties her hair like Nadine’s, covers it with a cap, and then gives Nadine a sloppy salute.
“Pleasure to serve with you, sir!” she announces in her best approximation of a man’s voice. It’s awful, and Nadine can’t help a genuine, though slightly frantic laugh in reply.
The hours blur after that. Nadine is in a haze of anticipation and fear when they leave Victor’s cabin the next morning and begin to make their way west through the Cumberland Forest, and then north, towards the fort, reaching it by nightfall the next day. Just the sight of the large wooden behemoth of walls, ramparts, and bare open ground for a hundred yards all around is daunting. Nadine’s knees feel weak just looking at it, even through a pair of chipped binoculars.
Rather than take their time to prepare and wait for the following evening to make their move, Chloe huffs out a sharp breath, shrugs, and says:
“Screw it. You ready, china?”
At first, Nadine is too terrified to respond. It’s too fast, she’s not ready. Then it occurs to her that what they’re about to attempt isn’t some sloppy, smash-and-grab, desperado shoot-out sure to get her killed. It’s a goddamn heist, planned almost to the tee, and it will only maybe get her killed.
“Ja,” she says, and swallows hard against a suddenly dry throat.
Victor sets himself up on the ridge by Bacchus Station with Sam and the other horses, ready for a quick getaway once they emerge with the artefacts. He hugs Chloe, claps Nadine on the shoulder, and says only, “Good luck, girls.”
In the dark, Nadine and Chloe position themselves on opposite sides of the road leading up to the fort. Victor’s sources claimed a U.S. Army wagon arrived every day at noon and every night at midnight on the dot with supplies for the men and a few fresh soldiers to trade off with the ones inside. To even get near the fort without being shot, they’ll need to hitch a ride on the wagon without being spotted jumping on.
Nearly an hour later, Nadine—her heart pounding the entire time and a cold sweat running down her crouched body, fallen into a sort of trance of frazzled anticipation—hears the distant sounds of an approaching wagon and tenses. Across the way, Chloe signals for her to be ready. The wagon comes into sight, driven by two bored-looking U.S. Army soldiers.
The second the wagon passes their hiding spots, they move. Fearing her muscles have frozen into place, Nadine is relieved when her legs don’t fall out from under her, dashing toward the back of the wagon, crouched low. Chloe reaches it in the same instant, and they hop on and slip inside the canvas-covered bed.
Inside are two more soldiers. Both are asleep, which is miraculous in itself. Nadine had been entirely prepared to knock them both out to quiet the inevitable alarm—they have not brought guns, deeming them too loud. Besides, if all goes well, they will not need them. Quickly, she and Chloe arrange themselves into casual sitting positions, arms crossed, heads down and caps low to hide their faces.
The wagon reaches the front of the fort, men calling to one another in greeting. The light of a lantern bobs as a soldier circles the wagon to inspect the cargo, then glances inside the bed—his eyes skirting past Chloe, Nadine and the two sleeping men with no apparent concern—before shouting, “All good!” The sound of the front gates grumbling open fills the wagon.
Nadine’s heart is about to burst from her chest. They’re doing this. They’re really doing this. A hand touches her wrist, and she nearly jumps, but it’s just Chloe, smiling brilliantly at her.
“Easy, china,” she says. “Doing good so far. Now’s the fun part, yeah?”
Nadine manages a shaky half-smile in return. Jesus.
The wagon enters the fort and heads towards the north end, where the barracks are located. Now the trick is getting off the wagon before it’s searched and someone takes too close of a look at their faces.
Chloe, watching through a gap in the canvas, body tensed against the jostling wagon, whispers, “Now!”
As one, they duck out, hopping off the wagon and landing lightly in a dark corner stacked with sandbags. Surrounding them are the massive interior walls of the fort itself, made up of hundreds of upright greatwood logs, thrust deep into the ground.
Partially astounded they haven’t already been caught, Nadine catches her breath, then quickly stands and joins Chloe, who grabs a nearby lantern in an attempt to appear on duty. They cut quick glances around and behind—no one’s spotted them leaving the wagon, and if they’re careful, they will be assumed as part of the usual detail, though they’ll still need to be quick with their business.
“Alright,” Chloe says, tone fast and low. “We’re looking for the supply room. I’m thinking it’ll be toward the west, where it’s more fortified. All their confiscated goods have to be kept in one place for travel, so—hey, you alright?”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Nadine whispers back, half-terrified, half-giddy. She’s never done anything like this before. As if to curb her panic, she reminds herself it isn’t for a bounty, or a payday. It’s not even for herself, really. It’s for a people who have faced untold adversity and suffering—this, truly, is the least they can do for them, and from that, she takes strength.
“I know, right?” grins Chloe, like a maniac. “Let’s go.” With that, they head off, walking casually as possible, trying to pretend as if they belong. Soldiers lining the ramparts pay them no heed, talking amongst themselves or smoking. In the sputtering lights of the oil lanterns scattered around the fort walls, Nadine hopes they won’t be seen too closely or approached by some new recruit looking to make friends.
The yard itself, she takes note, is messy with all manner of boxes and crates and other detritus, though it is clearly an Army fort, the ramparts lined with men on guard and bristling visibly with weapons, racks for rifles stationed every dozen feet or so. There's even a cannon on wheels, parked in a corner of the yard, and a crate of rounds beside it. Nadine's heart palpates at the sight, imaging what it might be like for that to be used against them, should an alarm go up for intruders. She will have to do everything she can to make sure that doesn't happen.
The late hour means less men than usual are up and about, making it only slightly difficult for the two of them to sneak their way into the inner passages of the fort. Several times they have to pause and wait in the shadows, covering the light from their lantern, for soldiers to pass nearby. Eventually they reach a door shut tight with a heavy padlock.
“Keep an eye out, won’t you, love?” says Chloe, and then crouches by the lock, producing no less than three different lockpicking tools from her hair. Nadine understands at once how Chloe picked her shackles that very first night they’d met and shakes her head wryly, then dutifully keeps watch as Chloe tinkers away, cursing quietly every now and again.
At last, with a dull shunk, the lock falls open.
“Bingo,” says Chloe, and they step in.
The squat-roofed room is small and cramped but entirely filled with packed cargo—wrapped crates, locked chests, twine wrapped packages and fastened bags stacked and piled all the way to the low ceiling. Nadine isn’t sure what to look for, but Chloe moves fast from section to section with keen eyes, using the meager light from their stolen lantern to work by.
Nadine is growing more nervous by the second—they’ve been here not even fifteen minutes, and already it feels a lifetime—when Chloe suddenly says, “Here,” and hauls free a canvas wrapped bundle the size and shape of a small crate, tied closed with intricate knotwork. Probably, Chloe had done it on purpose so she could use it to identify later. Smart.
“Time to leave,” Nadine says, hushed.
Closing and re-locking the door behind them, they're forced to take another route out when several loudly-talking soldiers suddenly enter the other end of the hall. Trying not to panic and bolt, Nadine steers Chloe ‘round and hustles her down several confusing turns until they emerge back into the open grounds at the fort’s center.
Miraculously, nothing seems amiss so far. Their plan to exit the fort is far more crude than the one for getting in—literally, their plan is to climb over the back wall and drop down to the other side, though in order to get away entirely cleanly, they will need to cause a distraction first, or otherwise be shot in the back before taking two steps in the open ground between the fort and the treeline.
Going on Victor’s intel, they find the lowest point of the fort's back wall—the northeastern section, where several logs have sunk a foot or so deeper into the ground than the rest—and pile a few stray boxes for some extra height, checking over their shoulders every few seconds to make sure they haven't been spotted.
“You first,” Nadine says after climbing up, and cups her hands, ready to lift Chloe and her precious bundle over to safety.
“We still need a diversion,” Chloe protests and tries to hand over the bundle. “I can’t leave that to you, china. No offense, but you’re an amateur. Take this and go. I’ll catch up.”
Rather than go along with it, Nadine stubbornly remains where she is. “No. You’re getting out of here with your artefacts, now. It’s what you came here for. I’ll cause the diversion.”
“What—no, Nadine, that’s not the plan!” Chloe hisses.
“You can’t climb this wall without help,” Nadine hisses back. “I can.”
“I’ll have you know I”m a perfectly good climber—”
“Would you just shut up and listen—”
“Don’t you start being bloody noble now—”
“Don’t argue with me, Chloe—”
They glare at one another for a several long, drawn out seconds, both entirely aware they are wasting valuable time with their senseless arguing. At last, Chloe, struggling visibly, huffs and gives in.
“Fine, but hurry. Don’t be a hero.”
“Run as soon as it’s safe. I’m right behind you,” Nadine urges. Chloe steps into her hands, and in the moment before Nadine hefts her, their faces hover dangerously close. For a blink that lasts almost a millennia, their eyes meet and hold. Chloe’s mouth opens—she seems about to say something—
But then Nadine tenses her muscles and hauls her upwards with a great surge of strength. Holding the bundle awkwardly under one arm, Chloe grabs the top of the wall with the other, scrambling the rest of the way over and disappearing from sight, landing loudly on the other side with an audible “Oof!”
At once, Nadine is alone inside a heavily armed fort filled with trained U.S. Army soldiers. Sweating heavily inside her stuffy uniform, limbs racing with a mixture of terror and adrenaline, she stands frozen for the space of two breaths before forcing herself to move.
Her mind hums and darts at random. A diversion. She needs a diversion so Chloe can run. How—?
Suddenly she catches sight of an unattended stack of munitions crates up on a landing by the ramparts, and a stupidly simple idea forms. Quickly, she crosses the yard, keeping her head down. No one stops her, though one soldier does give her a strange look as she passes by. Nadine pauses only to snag an unattended lighter from a nearby table littered with poker cards. She finds the stairs easily enough and takes them up to the landing. Men guarding the ramparts stride by, oblivious. Glancing about, she sees no one watching. She’ll need to be quick with this next part—
Kneeling down, Nadine snaps open the lighter, allowing the tip of the flame to lick the corner of one of the crates. The dry cedar catches almost immediately. Nadine hastily stands, catches a second crate aflame, and steps back. Ammunition will erupt in a fire, though not nearly as spectacularly as some might imagine—bullets won’t go flying, and no one should be terribly hurt, but at the very least, it will make lots of noise.
Quickly, she turns and starts back down the stairs to the yard, and several heartbeats later, bullets begin to pop dully, the racket growing louder and louder as more ammunition catches from the heat of the crate’s growing blaze.
At the muffled but insistent popping sounds, almost like firecrackers, men shout in alarm and come running to investigate. The windows of the barracks light up as soldiers wake at the commotion. Horses picketed outside neigh nervously. Nadine picks up her pace down the stairs, eyes fastened on the wall Chloe disappeared behind—
—and with a sudden, sickening crunch, one of the wooden steps under her boots breaks, and she pitches sideways, tumbling a good six feet straight down to land with a skull-jarring thud flat on her back on the open dirt yard below.
A passing soldier comes to her aid. “You okay?” he asks, already halfway panicked by all the noise. “What’s going on?”
The air is filled with the pop and snap of bursting bullets. Nadine is rattled from the fall, the breath knocked out of her. She can’t speak.
“Here,” says the soldier, and tries to help her up—and that’s when Nadine’s cap slips off, and the man looks directly in her face, and Nadine knows she’s made.
“I—” she tries.
“Shit!” says the soldier, and drops her. “Who the hell—? Hey, over here!” he cries to the others. Those who aren’t tending to the growing blaze creeping up the fort’s inner wall come running to help.
In almost no time at all, Nadine, facing down more than a dozen gun barrels, is stripped of her stolen coat and her hands shackled behind her back.
“Ma’am,” shouts a soldier over the hail of impotent gunfire, perhaps a Captain going by the marks on his uniform, “I don’t rightly know who you are or what you’re doing here, but by the power of the United States government, you’re under arrest.”
Nadine says nothing as she’s dragged away. For the second time in less than a month, she has been caught good and well, again with Chloe nowhere in sight, only this time, Nadine prays to god the other woman does the smart thing and leaves her for dead.
It’s a funny, unpleasant thing, what Chloe’s stomach does when she makes it back to their pre-decided meeting point by Bacchus Station and Nadine isn’t there waiting for her—sort of a sharp, twisting flop that sends cold nausea radiating through her guts, seeping into her limbs in a surge so strong her knees actually go weak for a moment or two.
She’d even taken the long way back, only scrambling away from the relative safety of the towering fort walls once she heard the first few crackles of what sounded like a burning munitions crate just starting to go off—smart girl, china. Crouched low, she’d covered the bare, rocky ground between the fort and the treeline as quickly as she could, trusting that Nadine would be only a few minutes behind her, then turned north and skirted the perilous cliffs leading dizzyingly down to the Dakota River for extra cover. It was a longer route than just sprinting straight back to where Sully was posted up with the horses, but Chloe, carrying their precious cargo in both hands almost like one might cradle an infant, was perfectly content with playing it safe, just this once.
Needless to say, she fully expected to find both Sully and Nadine waiting for her on the ridge, already on horseback and impatient to leave, perhaps bantering a bit to hide their frayed nerves but otherwise settling well into their newly forged camaraderie—so one could imagine Chloe’s utter dismay when she popped out of the trees and saw only her old friend restlessly pacing a hole in his boots and smoking one of his last cigars to the stub, and Nadine Ross absolutely nowhere in sight.
Chloe supposes that’s what she bloody gets for assuming.
Jogging over to Sully, panting for breath and clutching the bundle to her heaving chest, Chloe skids up short. “Where’s Nadine?” she demands at once.
“Jesus!” Sully almost jumps at the sudden sight of her, muttering something about gonna give me a goddamn heart attack one of these days, then snaps, “No goddamn idea. She hasn’t come out yet.”
Now instead of her stomach, it’s Chloe’s heart doing funny, unpleasant things—sort of a tightly clamping squeeze, right behind her ribcage, the sharply pulling pressure hurting worse than a gunshot, as if a pair of unseen hands are trying to push all the air out of her lungs at once. “What do you mean, she hasn’t—?”
Sully takes one last nervous draw of his cigar and crushes the glowing stub under his boot. “I mean she’s not out! Meaning she’s still goddamn in there!”
Together, they turn back to face the distantly glowing Fort Wallace, which has since filled the quiet night air with the rising commotion of a rudely awakened platoon of U.S. Army soldiers as well as the now weakening pop and snap of still exploding ammunition. While the fort hasn’t yet descended into utter chaos, the red-and-orange-tinted fire attempting to mount the southwest side is sure doing its best to get it there.
“Shit,” Chloe whispers, horrified at the notion of Nadine still inside. What the hell happened? Had she been spotted, or injured, or worse—?
“Listen, Chloe,” says Sully, using that tone of voice Chloe’s never liked, the one that always gave her the cold hard truth, even—or especially—when she didn’t want to hear it, like some stern father figure who thought he knew best. “We should just cut our losses and get out of here. No sense getting ourselves shot in the goddamn back over some bounty hunter. You got what you came for. Let’s ride.”
Stunned stupid, Chloe finds she can’t respond for a good few seconds, speechless with disbelief and fighting down a sudden, fleeting urge to slap Sully for even saying something so ludicrous to her—but then again, why shouldn’t he suggest it? A year ago, she would’ve ridden off into the night without a second thought. Hell, a month ago, she might’ve done the same with only the slightest hitch in her conscience.
But now—now things are different. That’s the old Chloe. She’s changed since then. Grown. Just the idea of abandoning Nadine sickens her to death, and—
—and besides, the only bloody reason Nadine is here now, stuck in that stupid bloody fort, is because of Chloe. Chloe got her into this. Nadine came for her, to help her. They shook on it. They’re—they’re bloody partners!
Temporarily, but still. Semantics and all that.
“I—” she rasps out, struggling with herself, “I can’t just leave her, Sully!”
“Well, you might just have to,” says Sully, his cold words punctuated by a renewed rally of furious crackling from another exploding munitions crate.
Have to? Chloe thinks, and sets her jaw with all the mulish determination she’s ever had when it comes to getting a job done. Chloe Frazer doesn’t bloody have to do anything!
“Take this,” Chloe snaps, and thrusts the bundle of artefacts into Sully’s arms. “Stay here. Do not leave.”
“You’re really gonna go back in there? For her? Chloe, you’re insane!” Sully cries, sounding almost disappointed in her. Chloe fastidiously ignores him, approaching Sam and rummaging in his saddlebags for one of Nadine’s etched revolvers—while she’s not the best shot out there, it’s still better than nothing—and her lasso. Sam snorts and noses her shoulder, ears laid back, as if in worry.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” Chloe whispers to him. “I’m not gonna leave her.” Twining the rope around her arm and shoving the revolver into her belt, she calls over her shoulder to Sully, “Give me twenty minutes, old man!”
“Chloe!” Sully shouts at her back.
She stops, whirls. “Listen, Sully, you’re not gonna change my—!”
“I know I’m not,” says Sully, looking stressed and very unhappy but also grudgingly accepting. “But here. I’m thinking you might need this.” Reaching into his own saddlebags, he tosses her a small parcel wrapped in twine.
Chloe catches it, realizes what it is, and nearly drops it; three half-size sticks of dynamite, each about the length and width of her finger. “Victor Sullivan! Did you really just throw dynamite at me!?”
Sully husks out a laugh and tips his hat at her. “Get a goddamn move on, sweetheart. I’m already at nineteen minutes and counting!”
Chloe has no choice then but to smile ruefully to herself, turn around, and, like the complete idiot with a death wish she is, head back toward the looming military fort she only just escaped from.
It takes some finesse and lots of ducking and crawling to get back to the fort walls without being spotted in the open ground, but Chloe doesn’t call herself an expert for shits and giggles. Plus, the munitions crates are still bursting, though petering out by the time Chloe reaches her destination. With the lasso, she throws and snags one of the upper logs, then scales the fort wall without too much trouble and drops down the other side to land, cat-like, right on her arse with a wince.
By sheer luck alone, nobody sees her. The soldiers are apparently far too busy hauling buckets of water out to douse the flames hungrily licking up the side of the fort—that’s what you bloody get, building from cedar—and saving what supplies they can that are not already on fire. Twice Chloe has to tug her cap down and stride stiffly past a group of bustling soldiers, holding her breath the entire time, all while trying to keep an eye out for a private with nicely filled out sleeves and an especially fantastic arse.
Several minutes later, she’s circled the whole damn yard twice, half-panicked that she hasn’t caught sight of Nadine yet, disguised or not, before her ears perk at the tail end of a rushed conversation between two soldiers.
“—don’t know where she came from, but the Lieutenant’s heading back here now, and he’ll know what to do with her. We put her down in the cells—”
Chloe doesn’t need to hear more. She’s already gone.
She’s studied Sully’s Black Market supplied layouts of Fort Wallace back and forth, upside down and sideways, and knows exactly where the holding cells are. Unlike the rest of the fort, made up of gigantic timber logs, the holding cells are dug straight into the ground beneath them, through cut rock and dark, rich earth. Without trouble she finds the trap door leading down, makes sure no one’s watching, and ducks in.
Down some creaking wooden steps and through a leary-looking dirt tunnel braced here and there with cedar struts, she reaches a low-torchlit hallway flanked by a row of thick wooden doors with small, barred windows to peer through. At once, Chloe guesses Nadine’s in the one with a soldier standing guard in front of it, and walks straight up to him.
The soldier perks when he sees Chloe. “You here to relieve me?” he asks. “She’s behaving. Captain says—”
He sees her face then, and realizes she isn’t a fellow soldier come to swap shifts, but before he can shout, Chloe’s on him. He’s fast and strong, but she’s faster, has more grit, and far more to lose. Wary of using a gun in such close quarters, she instead grapples until she can worm her elbow ‘round his throat, then hangs on tight, bearing down with all her weight to choke him out.
He struggles for a bit, then goes limp. Chloe drags him into an empty cell and then runs back to the one he was guarding, standing on her tiptoes to peer inside the barred window.
By the meager light of flickering torchfire, Chloe sees a damp dirt floor and a single bench, and on the bench is one Nadine Ross, looking the worse for wear but entirely alive and whole. Stripped of her stolen jacket and cap, her sleeveless undershirt is streaked with dirt and ash, her bare, muscled arms gleaming with sweat. Her hair, loosened from its tight knot at the top of her head, hangs full and loose over her brow and neck. She sits slumped, face lost in shadow, like some brooding convict set to mount the steps to the gallows.
“Psst!” Chloe hisses through the barred window. “Nadine!”
Nadine looks up sharply, her stunned expression limned in glowing red. She doesn’t look surprised to see Chloe—she looks utterly shocked. Flabbergasted. Astounded. Appalled.
It hits, then, and suddenly it’s all Chloe can do not to stagger back from the door in pain—
Nadine didn’t expect Chloe to come back for her.
Swallowing down her sudden sense of tender self-worth—honestly, she sort of she deserved that one—with her usual amount of charming bravado, Chloe jokes, “Gee, china, thought you’d be a bit happier to see me.”
Nadine rises from the bench and approaches the door, but not to thank her or laugh at her funny joke or maybe even grab her through the window and kiss her. Instead, she seizes the bars in her hands and snarls, “Chloe, you idiot! Why didn’t you just leave me!”
Chloe feels a bit like a ship with all the wind sucked out of its sails. “Sorry, what?”
“Now we’ll both die here! You should've—”
“Should’ve what? Left you?” Chloe snaps back. “Well I did that once already, love, and sorry to say but it didn’t take. Now are we going to keep arguing like a couple idiots, or are we going to get you out of here?”
That, at least, seems to break Nadine free from her self-sacrificing tirade. “I…” she says, looking unsure and heart-breakingly vulnerable. “I didn’t…”
“Oh, please, china, where’s your faith?” Chloe grins, trying to play the heavy moment off. It doesn’t really work, though, and she finds herself suddenly emotional as well, throat tight and chest aching. Doesn’t help when, after taking a visible breath, Nadine reaches through the window and lays her hand over Chloe’s.
“Thank you,” she says, and there goes Chloe’s heart, doing that strange thing again, only this time, it’s not nearly so unpleasant as before. Only a few seconds later, Nadine’s expression, gone soft and sappy and warm, hardens with the supreme focus Chloe now knows is typical of the ferociously capable bounty hunter. “Do you have a plan?”
“Uh,” Chloe stutters. “Yeah. Sure. Give me a tick, and I’ll—shit.” Looking down, she only then realizes the door is triple-bolted, and with locks that are sure to give her picks trouble. Working each one open will take time, time they don’t have. “Not to worry,” she says brightly, mentally thanking Sully for his fortuitousness. “I brought backup. Might want to, er, get clear of the door, yeah?”
“Oh, Christ,” says Nadine, catching a glimpse of the dynamite in Chloe’s hand and quickly moving back for cover, pushing her bench over and crouching behind it.
“Cover your ears, love,” Chloe warns, trying to pick the smallest stick she can so she doesn’t end up killing the both of them and blowing up half the fort besides, finally choosing one and shoving the other two back into her shirt. Using a nearby torch, she lights the fuse and then attaches the stick to the door, the hissing sound of the running wick making the hair on the back of her neck stand up, as it always does. Once it’s affixed, she runs like hell back up the passage ‘til she thinks she’s clear, shoves her fingers in her ears, and holds her breath.
The explosion, thankfully, is somewhat muffled by all the dirt around them—a shuddering, hollow sort of FWUMP—though it still sends a bone-buzzing rattle up the soles of Chloe’s feet to the top of her skull. The air compresses and then expands almost like a physical slap. Coughing against a sudden deluge of dust and smoke, Chloe hopes to god something is still exploding upstairs, otherwise they’re about to be very busy.
Back at the cells, the explosion has knocked in not only Nadine’s doorway, but two others, and half the walls besides. The wood of the door is pulverized and scorched. For a moment, Chloe’s terrified she’s gone and killed her friend, but then, with an eruption of coughing and sneezing, Nadine emerges, kicking her way free from a pile of debris in the corner, looking rattled and half-deaf but definitely still alive.
They both stagger toward each other, hands outstretched, and practically fall into a clumsy embrace that’s more to keep their balance than anything else, but it’s still a sweet gesture all the same.
“You all right?” Chloe gasps.
“How the hell are we still alive?” Nadine replies.
“Raw talent. And a little bit of luck.” Laughing lightly, Chloe holds on for an extra moment or two, though she knows they haven’t the time, trying to take some strength from the other woman’s solid form. “Messy but effective, am I right?”
They part. Nadine still looks dizzy, her hair thick with ash. “Ja.”
“Now, what d’you say we get outta here?” Chloe asks with a wry grin.
To her delight, Nadine grins shakily back, and Chloe can’t help an excited little thrill at the rare sight.
By now the smoke has cleared somewhat in the half-crumbled hallway—really, how did that dynamite not just collapse the whole tunnel down on top of them?—but they both still cough and choke, making their way to the stairs up. From the sounds emanating from the trap door above, the fort is still very much on fire, though as she climbs the stairs on shaky legs, Nadine’s hand guiding her along on her upper back, Chloe’s not dumb enough to think—
Half a dozen soldiers heading straight toward them with pistols in hand stop in mid-sprint. Caught on the last stair, Chloe freezes. Nadine’s hand on her back clenches in alarm. Chloe doesn’t even have time to say, Shit. All she has time for is pure instinct.
Fastest draw in the west, she likes to brag to anyone listening, and she proves it now, hand snapping down to her belt to grasp the butt of Nadine’s fancy revolver, pull it free, swing the barrel up, and hip-fire one—
Six shots, the percussive bang bang bang bang bang bang bursting in her ears so fast it’s like one continuous noise, the bullets hitting each of the soldiers gathered in front of them in shoulder, arm, leg, foot, hand, and knee, killing none but incapacitating the lot, albeit temporarily.
“Holy shit, Frazer,” says Nadine breathlessly as the group of men go down as one, groaning and clutching at their wounds.
“Er,” says Chloe, then twirls the gun on her forefinger and puts her free hand on her hip. “Was there ever any doubt?” Nadine certainly doesn’t need to know she’d been aiming at literally none of the places she actually ended up hitting. She’s the fastest draw in the west, not the most precise.
Before she can say anything else, like offer to do some other hat trick, or ask for some sort of prize, a bullet whizzes by her head so close she yelps and ducks on instinct. Three more soldiers have noticed their arrival and are heading their way. Chloe scrambles to reload, but already they’re—
Like a rampaging grizzly bear knocking over straw dolls, Nadine Ross charges forward and falls upon the men with a fury, armed with nothing but her bare hands, boot-clad feet, and those superb, densely built muscles of hers.
The three soldiers, even with guns in their hands, don’t stand a chance. The first takes a left hook straight to the face before he can even get his pistol up—Chloe can hear his nose break from where she’s standing, his body going limp as a puppet with cut strings. The second fellow gets a spinning back-kick to the side of the head with all the force of a felled hundred-foot tree while the third, standing frozen with rifle in hand and mouth hanging open at the sight of his fellow soldiers dropping like flies, gets a vicious uppercut that clacks his teeth together so hard Chloe’s sure half of them crack on impact.
Truly, it’s a sight to behold, Nadine Ross in motion—she brawls like she did back in that saloon in Valentine, only this time with complete abandon and no effort to hold herself back, her blows brutal yet incredibly precise.
Chloe sort of forgets everything else for a bit, hypnotized by the scene. Then she remembers they’re in Fort bloody Wallace, which is currently on fire and milling with dozens of soldiers who are running about like ants with their nest disturbed, and, as she heard earlier, more men on the way. They need to leave, and sooner rather than later!
“Look out, Frazer!” Nadine shouts, and Chloe glances up to catch sight of several soldiers on the ramparts turning around and aiming rifles down at them. Diving behind an abandoned stack of crates, she winces at the initial blast of gunfire, then hefts her reloaded revolver and gives them the what for back.
Soon enough it’s her, Nadine and the soldiers, each hunkering down in a corner of the fort and taking potshots at each other whenever they can. The odds could definitely be worse, but thankfully half the soldiers are still trying to deal with the flames, which have yet to be gotten under control.
“What’s the plan, Frazer?” Nadine yells over to her.
As she always does under extreme duress, Chloe hatches a brilliantly stupid idea.
“Cover me!” she shouts to Nadine, who’s been forced to take shelter behind an empty wagon and is using a fallen soldier’s pistol to harass the men on the ramparts. Head down, she sprints to the fort wall behind them, a sheer fifteen feet of solid wood logs—for now. While the fort’s massive front gate is currently barred and locked tight, Chloe's not opposed to creating her own sort of exit.
Taking the remaining two sticks of dynamite, Chloe makes to attach them to the wall—
—and then shouts and falls back as a sizzling knot of fire erupts in her left arm. Dropping the dynamite and crying out in pain, she stumbles back to her crates, clapping a hand over the wound. Warm blood runs through her fingers at once, soaking her sleeve. She’s been hit, the fiery pinch of a bullet lodged deep into her bicep.
“Shit!” she snarls.
Across the yard, Nadine’s expression is a mixture of fury and concern. Chloe again tries to leave her crates but is kept in place by a hail of gunfire. The soldiers on the ramparts have seemingly decided to focus on her, pinning her well and good. She squints, trying to see in the poor lighting of the yard, but can’t tell where she’s dropped the sticks of dynamite. Dammit!
“Hold them off, I have an idea!” shouts Nadine suddenly, leaving Chloe to frantically—and clumsily—reload her revolver with one hand and give sloppy cover fire. Nadine bolts from behind her wagon and sprints over to—
—the wheeled Army cannon? What on earth—
The men, not noticing what Nadine is up to yet, continue to focus on Chloe, who ducks and blind fires when she can. Nadine seems to know the mechanics of operating such a weapon, and as Chloe takes potshots and winces over her now-basically useless left arm, loads and packs a round with swift, professional ease. Then she sets her muscular shoulder against one of the wheels, digs her feet into the ground, and heaves. With a deep grinding sound, the cannon slowly begins to pivot until its mouth is aimed at the far fort wall—right where Chloe had intended to put the dynamite.
It’s like she read her mind.
“Hey, stop her!” shouts one of the soldiers, just then spotting Nadine. The rest of the men swivel, rifles at the ready—
“Duck!” cries Nadine, and then pulls something—
Amidst soldiers shouting orders and guns going off almost at random, Chloe throws herself belly-first on the ground with hands over her head. Barely a second later, the tremendous blast of a thunderous explosion rocks the fort and reverberates through the ground like an earthquake. The fort wall spews outward in a blaze of fire as the cannon round ignites the fallen dynamite, shattering logs into matchsticks, the solid timber splitting like rotten fruit.
The world goes dull and blurry for a bit. Chloe’s seeing double. There are small wooden splinters piercing her side and back, stinging fiercely. She can’t get up. Across the yard, a fuzzy shape staggers to their feet—it’s Nadine, visibly rattled. She casts about, as if searching for something—
And spots Chloe, stumbling immediately toward her. The men on the ramparts are on their arses, dazed and bewildered by the force of the blast. Chloe knows the feeling.
Again, she tries to stand but can’t. Nadine reaches her and grabs her by the collar, hauling her to her feet.
“We need to run!” she shouts, just as the first soldier gathers his wits and starts shooting again.
Chloe tries, she really does. It’s just that her head is full of wool and her knees have gone all wobbly. Nadine makes a sound of frustration, then suddenly heaves Chloe into her arms and takes off, sprinting for the jagged opening in the fort wall. All Chloe can do is hang on for dear life.
“Stop them!” shouts a soldier, and bullets ping and whine through the air at their backs as Nadine charges blindly on. Chloe hears a quiet thud, and feels Nadine grunt and jerk, and knows at once she’s been shot. Still, the other woman doesn’t falter, and runs even faster than before.
They breach the wall, Nadine leaping through the gap and dodging flaming chunks of wood decorating the ground in a radius of nearly fifty feet, and sprints toward the treeline, soldiers shooting all the while. It’s suicide to run across open ground, and Chloe knows in another instant, one or both of them will be shot, this time for good, and—
Suddenly a figure on horseback bursts out from the darkness beyond the fort. It’s Sully, galloping toward them for all he’s worth, Sam and Cutter’s reins in his hand. Chloe’s heart lifts, but before he can reach them, a bullet snaps by her ear and Cutter abruptly shrieks in pain, struck in the haunch. Nadine cries out in horror as the horse thrashes free of Sully’s grasp and bolts off into the night. Sam neighs in fear but bolts in the other direction—straight towards Nadine.
The second her horse reaches them, Nadine shoves Chloe up and into the saddle. Grabbing the horn so she won’t fall off, Chloe shakes her head to rid herself of the last of her wooziness, then flings out her hand and catches Nadine by the wrist, yanking her up behind her with her uninjured arm.
“Meet back at the Station after you lose ‘em!” Sully shouts, and gives his heels to Hog Wild, who surges forward in a mighty heave. A few soldiers try for a shot at him but miss.
With a horrible groaning sound, the front gates of the still-burning fort begin to swing open. A swarm of angry soldiers pour forth, some running for the horses, others already aiming their rifles.
“Ready to see why I’m the best in the business?” Chloe shouts to Nadine over her shoulder.
“Oh, Jesus,” is all Nadine says in a breathless gasp, her hands clamping tight on Chloe’s sides.
“C’mon, boy,” Chloe says to Sam, who is trembling with his eagerness to run. “Let’s see what you can do! Yah!”
At the first touch of her heels, Sam flies. It’s bloody magical—even with just one good hand on the reins, Chloe feels as if she is in ultimate control, like she and the horse have become one being, in perfect understanding of one another. Sam responds at once to every subtle nudge of her thighs and feet, a squeeze of her knees and the barest brush of her heels steering him around fallen timber and broken rock as they dodge back and forth across the empty ground surrounding the fort, bound for the safety of the far treeline.
The soldiers don’t even stand a chance.
They plunge into the trees and don’t slow for anything. By the light of the moon, Chloe and Sam leap brooks, skirt trees, and soar. In only a matter of minutes, the clamor of the chasing soldiers is lost behind them. Chloe waits until she’s put on at least another few miles between them and their pursuers before at last relaxing and allowing herself a moment to relish her victory.
It is, bar none, the most brilliant getaway she’s ever had.
Suddenly she realizes that behind her, Nadine is slumping forward a bit more heavily than she should, and slows Sam, his sides heaving, over to a quiet spot behind a stand of trees.
“Nadine, love, you alright?” she asks worriedly, trying to twist around in the saddle.
Relief floods her veins when Nadine grunts against her shoulder, the side of her face resting on the back of Chloe’s neck. “I need a damn drink.”
Stopping only long enough to hastily tend their wounds with bourbon and bandages—Chloe has the bullet in her arm popped out with an alcohol-wetted knife, an act she never wishes to repeat ever again, while Nadine gets away with a through-and-through, just below her right collarbone, which bleeds freely but isn’t life-threatening—and ditching their Army uniforms for their regular fare, they remount and head slowly north.
After making extra sure they haven’t been followed by any especially tenacious soldiers—that’s a no, the men no doubt quickly retreating to try and salvage whatever of the half-demolished fort they could—they rendezvous as agreed at Bacchus Station.
Sully, thankfully, is already there waiting for them, out of breath and nursing a nasty graze to the shoulder. Chloe’s beyond thankful he didn’t listen to her and stay put on the ridge. He risked his life tonight for the cause, and for her. She’ll never forget that.
“The next time you call me old man,” he jokes, rustling about in the undergrowth before emerging with the well-hidden bundle of native artefacts, “you remember tonight.”
“I sure will,” Chloe says, and gives him a hug so tight it makes him groan, “Ow! My back!”
Stepping up beside her, Nadine gives Sully a far more modest handshake in thanks, though by the whiteness of their knuckles, Chloe can practically feel the gratitude radiating from their numbed fingers.
As the moon sinks and the dark of night gradually begins to lighten toward the east, Sully bids them a fond farewell. While he'd offered for them to come and rest for a time back at his cabin, Chloe—and Nadine—are eager to see this thing through.
The ride up to the Wapiti Indian Reservation takes less than a day. By mid-afternoon, they reach the border. Exhausted and half-dead from their beyond-crazy night, Chloe still feels strangely nervous, riding up the narrow trail to the entrance.
Nadine brings Sam up short of the cabins and teepees scattered across the hillside, helping Chloe down and handing her the bundle with reverence, choosing to wait politely on the outskirts, knowing the natives are wary of strangers.
However, once the gathered group of curious onlookers see what Chloe is carrying, and it’s handed respectfully off to an elder, who witnesses what is hidden inside, he at once insists both women join them in for an impromptu feast and celebration.
That night, she and Nadine are treated as honored guests. Chloe is thanked so often she almost gets sick of it (not really). Nadine shakes so many hands her arm will probably be sore in the morning. They are plied with good, hearty food and their wounds treated with soothing natural remedies. Around the campfire, the elders sing and the youths dance in time with pounding drums while the children laugh and play on the fringes.
Chloe can’t stop smiling. Her chest feels full and tight, like it’s about to burst. Sitting beside her at the fire, Nadine is the same, visibly overcome with emotion, enraptured by the wailing song of an almost-forgotten but utterly tenacious people, reunited with the precious relics of their past and future.
Tired, sore, but happier than she’s probably ever been, Chloe leans over, her cheek brushing Nadine’s shoulder. In a tone filled with wonder, she says, “We just did a thing.”
Nadine turns her head and grins back beautifully. “We did.”
A week or so later, in the early morning hours just past the northern border of Bayou Nwa, Nadine reins Sam in on a lonely stretch of wet, soggy road leading south toward the city of Saint Denis, the hot, moist swamp air rich with the sounds of croaking bullfrogs, quacking ducks and buzzing flies, and canters him to a full stop on a patch of dark green grass ringed by bullrushes and bits of sage.
They stayed on the Reservation only for one night and a day, not wanting to impose on the generous hospitality of the natives and eager to get moving—they had a long way to go, and a promise to keep. Nadine’s saddlebags were plush with gifts she was unable to refuse from their kind hosts—among them, softly beaten buckskin, a tri-colored beaded necklace, and a jar of fresh golden honey. Never has she received such honest, heartfelt thanks; no amount of gold or bounty purse can compare.
“Need a rest, china?” Chloe asks from her seat in the saddle behind her, groaning and stretching her wrists up and over her head exaggeratedly—her hands noticeably untied, as they have been for days now, ever since they made their truce and became temporary partners—wincing a bit as she pulls at her barely healed arm, which they make sure to check and treat every night, as they do with Nadine’s, the bullet wound just below her collarbone only recently scabbed over with scar tissue and still tender to the touch. “Not much longer now, yeah?”
So far, Chloe has kept her word, the one she gave several nights before their perilous misadventure in Fort Wallace. If Nadine helped her retrieved the precious parcel of stolen native artefacts, Chloe said, she would willingly accompany her back to Saint Denis to face Rafe Adler’s judgement; who, Nadine knows with great certainty, will be more than pleased to finally have the elusive woman he’s been searching so desperately for at last within his clutches.
“Get down,” is all Nadine says, her voice slightly hoarse, tone short.
Chloe obeys, sliding out of the saddle to land with a thump, one dark eyebrow raised. The bandage on her arm is mostly just for show now, but Nadine still does not like to look at it. She remembers that hectic night in the fort well, the uncontrollable feeling that had overcome her upon seeing the other woman hurt. Which is why now she must do this, no matter what happens next.
Swinging her leg over Sam’s arched neck, she joins Chloe on the ground. Her thighs are sore from too much riding. Her back aches from the saddle. Almost non-stop, they’ve ridden here, and her tired, battered body is eager to complain, but she ignores it, ignores everything but this—the two of them, and the short stretch of grass between them.
Chloe, standing across from her, looks up, concerned. “Everything okay?” she asks. Her expression, so unassuming and open and filled with baseless trust, makes Nadine’s treacherous heart ache in her chest. Even after all their time together, Chloe is still such a mystery to her. How can she ever look that way at someone who has spent the last week bringing her to her doom?
It takes three attempts before she can speak. When she does, her voice is breathy but somehow firm, hardened in the fires of an unshakeable conviction.
“I’m going to turn around, now,” she says carefully, “and count to ten. And when I get to ten, you’d better be gone.”
For a moment, Chloe does not react. She merely blinks and says nothing, her mouth hanging open, lips slightly parted and her smokey eyes gone blank, like she doesn’t quite understand what Nadine is doing. Nadine doesn’t halfway know herself.
Chloe raises her hand, then, as if to take that ridiculous red hat off her head, but instead tips it slightly back and thumbs her brow in obvious confusion. “Sorry—what?”
Nadine swallows thickly. “Don’t make me repeat myself,” she begs.
“You’re—” Chloe starts, as if trying to reason with her, “You’re letting me go? Just like that? Nadine, I— After everything—?”
“Yes, after everything,” Nadine says. “How could I not?”
“Nadine,” Chloe says beseechingly. “What are you doing?”
“What’s right,” Nadine replies. “Like you did.”
Now Chloe seems almost angry with her, angry that Nadine is giving her a chance to run, a chance at freedom. “Now look, I promised you that if you helped me, I’d do this for you—and, and what? Now you’re going to just turn me into a bloody liar? You kept your part of the deal, now let me keep mine—!”
“I clear you of your debt—” Nadine tries.
Chloe’s voice raises until she’s shouting over her. “You can’t just wave your hand and make this disappear like none of it ever mattered—!”
And now Nadine’s shouting too, their words piling on top of each, barely legible. “Of course it mattered, that’s why I’m—!”
“—always have to be the hero, don’t you, Ross, well maybe you shou—!"
“—don’t know why you won’t just let me d—!”
“—you’re a bad bloody bounty hunter if you’re just going to let your fare walk aw—!”
“—and you’re a shitty thief, returning stolen property to their owners—!”
“It’s five hundred dollars, Nadine,” Chloe bellows, “don’t you lie and tell me you don’t bloody need the money—!”
“Five hundred dollars is nothing if you have to be the one paying for it in the end!” Nadine bellows back.
Around them, the swamp has gone deathly silent, as if all the wildlife in the area has been scared away by their screaming. Now Nadine hears only her own harsh breathing, coming fast and labored, and the quick, hollow thump of her heart, racing in her chest. Across from her, Chloe’s expression is unreadable, not because it’s blank, but because there are simply far too many to parse.
“I’m going to count, now,” says Nadine, and before Chloe can protest, turns her back and loops her thumbs into her belt so her hands won’t fidget or tremble. She closes her eyes and steadies her breathing. A faint breeze whirls past, smelling strongly of the swamp and faintly of the smog of the city beyond. A bullfrog croaks once, as if to check if the coast is clear.
In a calm, clear voice, she begins. “One.”
Still, there is nothing. Chloe hasn’t moved yet.
Nadine begins to sweat. What is that damn woman doing? She should be running the other way by now!
She hears it then—a shift in the grass. A step being taken. Finally.
Nadine’s ears tingle. She hears another footstep, but something’s wrong; Chloe is walking in the wrong direction. She’s walking toward Nadine, not away.
Chloe has crossed the short space between them now. Nadine is trembling, her back prickling with goosebumps. She does not stop. She does not open her eyes. Chloe, you little fool, she thinks.
She doesn’t get to finish the number. Instead, a hand clamps on her arm and whirls her around. Her eyes snap open in shock just in time to see a furious-looking Chloe Frazer, standing only inches away, chest to chest and glaring fiercely at her—
—and in the next moment, two gloved hands seize the sides of her face and yank her forward, and then she is being very thoroughly kissed.
Nadine freezes, the rest of the syllable disappearing down her throat with a soft little “erk” sound. Chloe’s lips are warm and slightly chapped, but wonderfully soft. They stroke and suck gently at her own, undeterred by her slack, open mouth, sending her brain into hysterics. Her hands lift from her belt of their own accord, hovering uncertainly over Chloe’s ribs. She has no idea what to do. It’s been a long time since she’s been kissed—forever, maybe—and for a moment, she’s terrified she won’t remember how.
Before she can decide what to do, Chloe pulls back from the kiss, their lips making a gentle smack of separation, and snarls, “Are you going to bloody kiss me already, you idiot, or do I have to do everything myself?”
Nadine kisses her, then. She grabs Chloe by the nape of the neck and kisses her so hard, surging forward with such passion she knocks that stupid hat right off Chloe’s head and sends them both stumbling a few steps backwards, right into poor Sam, who snorts in annoyance and trots off a ways to nibble on a less occupied patch of grass.
They only pull away from one another when they’re both gasping for breath, lips sore and aching from all the abuse. Chloe’s face is flushed dark red from lack of air. Nadine is sure hers is the same. Her heart feels like it wants to beat out of her chest. Chloe’s shaking the slightest bit in her arms. Nadine holds her, hugs her tight, halfway delirious that she can, that this is allowed. In return, Chloe threads her arms around her waist and grasps back with all she has, until they’re both just as breathless as before and dizzy with each other’s closeness.
“Well,” Chloe mumbles into her shirt, once they’ve caught their breath and Nadine is starting to panic with a rising sense of embarrassed self-consciousness. “That was nice.”
“It was,” she agrees quietly, and feels Chloe sigh and nuzzle her neck. She turns her head until they’re nose to nose.
This time, the kiss is slow and patient, drawn out and almost painful for all its longing. There is an intensity to it, a honed purpose. When Nadine pulls away, Chloe makes a bereft little moan in the back of her throat that makes her toes clench in her boots. Jesus, this woman. Will she ever not drive Nadine crazy?
The sudden thunder of an approaching rider jerks them out of their reverie, heads snapping toward the road, having forgotten where, exactly, they are sharing this epiphany of emotion. The passerby—a man atop a flashy Tennessee Walker—gallops on without even noticing them, but the moment, for all its power and tenderness, has definitely been ruined.
Shy now, they step apart. Chloe tucks her hands into her pockets as if needing something to do with them. Nadine focuses on not looking too much a fool, taking deep breaths to try and slow her rapid pulse.
“Nadine, look,” Chloe says at last, her tone urgent but sincere. “No hard feelings. If you want to collect my bounty, I’m all for it. Rafe can do his worst. I’m like a cat, love—nine lives and everything. Though, maybe by now it’s probably three or four, but—”
“No,” Nadine says. “I wouldn’t do it for a thousand dollars. Or ten thousand. I don’t care. Rafe won’t be happy, once he finds out his artefacts are gone. But you don’t deserve to be the one who takes the fall for it.”
Chloe sighs and shakes her head, but affectionately now, smiling up at her through lowered lids, making Nadine squirm. Then her expression darkens, and she looks down and away, seeming suddenly terribly young and vulnerable. “Maybe I do, though.”
Nadine is momentarily taken aback. “Chloe—”
“I’m not a good person,” Chloe says. “I’m a bit of a shit, actually.”
Nadine thinks about that, and shrugs. “I mean, ja. You stole my guns. And my horse. Twice.”
Chloe’s mouth quirks into a smug little smirk. “I did, didn’t I?”
“Ja. So you are a bit of a shit. But that doesn’t make you a bad guy.”
Now Chloe arches a brow at her teasingly. “And how are you so sure about that, Miss Ross?”
“Well, Sam likes you.”
Chloe laughs, and Nadine can’t help but laugh with her. It feels good, like it clears the air of uncertainty hovering around them, cementing her decision as the right one to make.
Laughter petering off into silence, the two of them stare quietly at one another, as if similarly lost over what to do next.
“Thank you, Nadine,” says Chloe suddenly. “For everything.”
“Ja.” Nadine looks away, then back, meeting Chloe’s warm gaze and holding it. “Ja,” she says again, a little stronger.
Chloe looks thoughtful. She kneels, scoops up her dropped hat. “Rafe’s not just going to let you do this, you know.”
Nadine figures. “I know.” Still, she doesn’t care. While she won’t necessarily be signing her own death warrant, letting Chloe go, it’ll be a close thing. Rafe Adler is a man clearly used to getting his way. No doubt he has the power to end Nadine’s career or render her destitute if she fails to produce the promised results. Nadine finds, however, she’s eager to disappoint him regardless.
“And? Do you have a plan to deal with him?” Chloe presses.
“Actually, I do,” says Nadine. She’s been brooding it over these past few days, sitting up late into the nights to scour and think. “But I’ll need a hand. Know any desperados with halfway decent aim who can help?”
Now Chloe’s smile is big and broad and wicked. “Y’know, I just might.”
They spend the night outside the city and head in the following morning. Saint Denis is big and bustling as ever, and after so long in the countryside Nadine dislikes it immediately. At the Post Office, she sends a telegram to Rafe, letting him know she’s ready to meet. Within an hour, he sends back a time and a place for that afternoon, at one of his many family-owned oil refineries on the edge of town.
Nadine arrives on the grounds early, as she always tends to when it comes to her professional encounters. Rafe isn’t there yet, though several of his workers linger in and around the building, working on machinery or carrying important-looking cargo here and there. Hitching Sam up nearby, she waits patiently in the yard outside, hat lowered to block the sun from her eyes, thumbs looped in her belt so her nerves will not show.
Fifteen minutes later, a fancy carriage trundles up, and out steps Rafe Adler, suited and coifed to perfection. Closely behind him emerge two large men in cheaper suits, with broad shoulders, thick necks, and brutish hands. Thugs, if Nadine’s ever seen one. At the sight, she tenses automatically and then forces herself to relax. She needs to remain calm—otherwise, this will all be for nothing.
“Well?” says Rafe impatiently, already sounding seconds away from losing his temper. Looking closer, Nadine realizes Rafe is perhaps not as put together as she first thought—while his suit is finely made as ever, it's badly wrinkled, the grease in his hair not so much from pomade but neglect of washing, his dress shoes scuffed and in need of a polish. As he stalks forward to snarl in her face, his breath reeks of expensive alcohol, and Nadine wonders if perhaps the awful man might be growing more and more worried about the possibility of his little side hobby being found out. “Where is she?”
“Where’s who?” says Nadine amiably. Rafe gives her a look like he wants to tear her head off, his barely restrained temper fraying before her very eyes.
“Chloe Frazer, you goddamn moron!" he erupts, then visibly composes himself and continues in a strained tone, "You said in the telegram that you had her, now where—?”
“I didn’t say I had her,” Nadine interrupts in the same even tone as before. “I said I wanted to meet. And I do. You and I have some business to discuss, Mr. Adler.”
Rafe takes a deep, shaky breath, closes his eyes briefly, and then steps so close Nadine can see the broken capillaries in his bloodshot eyes, caused by little sleep, constant anxiety and far too much drink. “Let me warn you, Miss Ross, you are very close to being shot right now.”
“Am I?” muses Nadine, tipping her head slightly to one side. “On what grounds, may I ask?”
“Insubordination,” Rafe snaps. Nadine almost laughs. How had she ever been intimidated by this man? Seeing him now, she realizes he's nothing but a scared little bully, trying to throw his weight around and ready to throw a tantrum the moment he does not get his way.
"Sorry to say, Mr. Adler, but insubordination is only punishable if I am working for you." Nadine meets the shorter man's infuriated gaze without blinking, her stony expression held coolly blank and aloof. “And you see, after some thought on my part, I've come to a decision. I’m afraid I’m going to have to turn down your bounty.” She can hear Rafe’s teeth grind at that one.
"I hope you enjoyed your job, Miss Ross," Rafe hisses acidly. "Because that will make destroying your career all the sweeter for me. You won't ever work in the states again, once I'm through with you."
Nadine allows herself a tiny smirk. "Is that so?"
Her maintained demeanor of indifference seems to drive Rafe even further into his broiling rage, his neck growing red at the collar. “Did you ever even find her?” he spits out. "Or did you just waste my goddamn time from the start?"
“Oh, I found her,” Nadine says casually, making sure to keep her stance loose, shoulders relaxed. Rafe's entire body seems to contract at those words, as if he can't quite believe it. “We had ourselves a nice conversation, Miss Frazer and I. She made some very interesting accusations about you, and what exactly was on that train of yours that got robbed.”
At those measured words, Rafe visibly pales. Nadine can see in his eyes the moment he comes to the full realization that she is entirely aware all of his dirty little secrets, and holds the power to destroy him and his reputation in her unassuming hands.
“Where are they?” he hisses.
Nadine smiles faintly to herself, thinking of the worn, tearful faces of the Wapiti elders, reunited with the lost pieces of their culture. “Far away from you.”
Something seems to detonate within Rafe, an explosion without sound or force. His body crumples for a split second, and he catches himself from swaying forward with a wobbly leg. He forces himself back upright, baring his teeth like a panicked animal. “It doesn’t matter," he says quickly, beginning to sound faintly desperate. "I’ll just get more.”
“No, actually, you won’t,” says Nadine coldly.
Rafe goes still but for the narrowing of his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I’d advise you get your affairs in order, Mr. Adler," Nadine says with no little relish. She has prepared for this moment all day, and the rush of adrenaline and vindication it brings her is borderline euphoric. "This morning I wrote and posted a letter to your father, as well as the mayor of Saint Denis, who was a good friend of my late father, making them fully aware of your illegal dealings and the accusations leveled against you. As I'm sure you're aware, your extracurricular activities are in violation of several governmental treaties. The police have also been notified and—” she pauses now to casually check her pocketwatch “—are probably already on their way here now. If you know what’s good for you, which I doubt, you’ll stay here and wait patiently for your comeuppance.”
“You… You…” seethes Rafe, his white face now red as a beet. He looks ready to burst, to rip his hair out, to quite literally kill someone. Nadine tenses. What happens next will determine how this ends—badly, or very badly.
Drawing upon some unseen power, Rafe seems to collect himself from the bare edge of hysteria. Taking a deep, rallying breath, he spins and stalks away from Nadine, positioning himself between his two lurking thugs, then straightens his jacket and slicks his hair back with one hand. “Tell me, Miss Ross, do you think you've won? I warn you it won't be so easy. Whose word is there to speak against mine? Chloe Frazer's?" He laughs bitterly. "Chloe Frazer is a nothing but a thief and a liar. Nothing she says will ever be believed by anyone with half a brain."
"Probably not," Nadine says in agreement. "But the word of a well-known, respectable bounty hunter like myself just might." Not to mention, the simple fact that she is Leroy Ross's daughter alone puts weight behind her words. Her father was a good man, with a great many friends in high places. Nadine is not above calling in some favors.
Rafe's expression turns eerily calm. He smiles. "Ah, so that's it," he says softly, almost sadly. "Very clever, Miss Ross. I don't suppose there's anything I can offer you that might change your mind, is there?"
At this point, Nadine wouldn't pick up a quarter if Rafe dropped it in the street. "Sorry to disappoint."
"I see," says Rafe with clear regret. "Tell me, Miss Ross, are you truly prepared to testify your claims against me in a court of law?"
“I am," Nadine confirms grimly.
Rather than quail at the prospect, Rafe's smile widens, and he nods at her, as though satisfied. “Good. That’s all I needed to hear.” With that, he turns and says to both of his brutish goons, “Shoot her," and Nadine's heart staggers in her chest.
At once, the man on Rafe's left reaches down for a gun in his waistcoat. Before he even has the barrel free, Nadine’s hand is on her own revolver, ready to draw—
The distant blast of a rifle hits their ears, followed by the snapping whiz of a bullet cracking through the air a split second later. With a spark-showering, high-pitched spang! of impact, the gun goes spinning right out of the big man’s hand to land harmlessly a dozen feet away. Gasping in alarm, the other thug, similarly reaching for a weapon, flinches at the sound of a second blast—and a breath later, with a pop like a firecracker, his hat goes flying off his head, a bullet-hole shot neatly through the crown. Terrified to be shot by the unknown sniper, the thugs fall into half-crouches with hands upraised, unwilling to risk their lives any further.
Nadine is left facing down a scared bully with no one left for him to prop himself up on. She can see his knees shaking from here. That he would stoop so low as to attempt to murder her in broad daylight, with dozens of witnesses around them, to avoid having her testimony given in court, is appalling but expected of a man of his nature. Even now she can see his company workers, ducked and hiding behind whatever they can find the moment the first rifle report went off, watching the scene unfolding before them with wide, frightened eyes.
Rafe bares his teeth at her again, like some rabid, mangy little animal about to leap for her throat. “Clever, Miss Ross. But if you'd hoped to intimidate me, you're mistaken. You won’t kill me. Not here. Not like this. You’d be locked up for the rest of your life.”
“No, I won’t kill you,” says Nadine lightly. “The court will take care of that for me, when you're found guilty and locked away with those same hard, crooked men you look so down upon. Do the smart thing, Mr. Adler. Face the consequences of your actions. But know that, here and now, if you draw a gun on me again, I’ll shoot you dead, right where you stand.”
With that, she tips her hat and does perhaps the most dangerous thing she could, and turns her back on him.
Her every instinct cries out against it. The sensation is not unlike the thrill of a hunt, only realizing halfway through that the predator has been at your unprotected flank the entire time. Nadine knows it is a risk, something she has avoided nearly all her life. This one may be the biggest she's ever taken, but it's worth it, because she is betting it all—her career and livelihood, her very life—on the assumption and steadfast belief that Rafe Adler does not like to lose, even if his cards are terrible.
Sure enough, after only three steps she hears the faint rustle of cloth and the soft click of a drawn weapon behind her, and spins around to find Rafe with a snub-nosed revolver in hand, pulled from some hidden pocket. The idiot truly had been unable to allow her to walk away. A bitter, egotistical fool to the end. Already, the barrel is coming up, taking aim at her chest—
In a flash, Nadine’s own left hand dives down to her father's etched revolver, snapping it up and out from its holster from sheer reflex alone, taking aim of her own—
The blast of gunfire echoes across the open yard like heat thunder. Nothing moves.
Then, as if in slow motion, Rafe Adler tumbles to the ground, a bullet hole drilled neatly between his eyes, already gone dull.
Releasing a slow, drawn out breath, Nadine lowers her smoking gun and looks about, at the small, scattered crowd of workers they’ve gathered, watching in a sort of hypnotized awe.
“You all saw it,” she says calmly but loudly. “I defended myself, at threat of my own life.”
At first, nobody speaks. Then, one of the workers steps forward.
“Y-you did, ma’am,” he says earnestly. “That’s the God’s honest truth, and I’ll tell it to any who ask, I swear it.”
“Me, too!” says another.
“Good riddance!” hollers a third.
Several others nod in agreement, even one of the thugs still frozen on bended knee, and with that, Nadine is satisfied. If the police try to harass her for what she's done today, so be it, but her conscience is clear. She hasn’t killed many in her line of work, but this one, she won’t feel too sorry about. Holstering her gun, she walks at a measured pace to her horse, unhitching him without hurry before vaulting into the saddle in one fluid motion.
“Let’s go, Sam,” she says, and trots him out of the yard and away from that awful city.
Chloe catches up a mile out, riding a new horse Nadine hasn’t seen before and has no idea how she obtained—a dappled black Thoroughbred by the look of it. Her father’s Carcano rifle is slung across her chest.
“Good shooting,” Nadine says, impressed despite herself. “I said halfway decent. Were you trying to show off, hitting those men like you did?”
“Yes,” says Chloe sheepishly. “That’s exactly where I was aiming.”
“Right,” laughs Nadine, not believing it for a minute but still partially in awe of the other woman's good fortune.
Chloe frowns, mock-offended. “Hey, I know what I’m doing!”
Nadine’s eyes flick up to Chloe’s blindingly red hat, cocked at a jaunty angle but looking no worse for wear, even after all their recent adventuring. “I still say you’re going to get yourself shot in a real gunfight one day with that stupid thing on your head.”
“You’d better be around to save me, then,” Chloe teases. They chuckle and ride for an easy mile or two, just enjoying each other’s company and the wide open country sprawled around them.
“So, where to next, partner?” Chloe asks after they’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm, side by side on the road.
“We are still not officially partners,” Nadine replies at once, though her grumbling is good-natured by now. Still, the idea of a law-abiding—for the most part—bounty hunter teaming up with a—admittedly pretty awful—thief and career criminal is rather ludicrous. How will they even operate as a team? Will Nadine have to learn how to break the rules, or will Chloe have to clean up her act? At this point, Nadine can't say, but it will certainly be interesting to find out.
Chloe, of course, ignores her. “I’m thinking the Ambarinos," she goes on with mounting excitement, and starts digging in her shirt with one hand. "I have this treasure map, see, that’s going to lead us straight to some forgotten gold, once we solve this riddle. Look here. I’ve already figured out the first part, and—hey, where you going, china? Oh, you want to race, do you?”
Nadine laughs and digs her heels in, urging Sam into a thundering run. Whooping, Chloe gives chase, until they’re flying down the road together, neck and neck, thrilled by the speed and each other, heading towards parts unknown, and whatever awaited them in that nameless destination.