“You should try less negativity.” – Ben Tsosie, October 6th 1879
As trail-companions went, Navajo Ben was mildly annoying and mostly useful, which ranked him head and shoulders above his twitchy trail-scout deputy and the drunken, snarl-brained sheriff, and put a severe crimp in Derek’s day when the man got himself shot in the face.
Five Indians—six, with the sniper—weren’t a lot, but they beat out two ex-army couyons, one Louisiana card sharp, and one stunned Navajo by a wide margin, and Derek was having some real annoyance that Carter Burwell had taken to his heels, because they could’ve used a sharp-shooter right about now.
Bastard, soft-bellied kid.
Garret unloosed his gun and Marcus took the brunt of the Indian leader’s attention, making themselves good targets to focus on, while Derek goaded Baron right up to the milling Indians and flung himself down off the horse. Ben was bleeding out into the desert dust, half his face slick with red, eyes wide and shocked. Derek didn’t have a whole lot of healing magic, but he had enough to grant a little vigour—a shot of adrenaline charged in a jack of hearts and whacked down onto Ben’s heaving chest.
Ben arched, gasping a deeper breath, and—
Mercifully didn’t die. He steadied. Stood. Glared clear-eyed at the Sioux who’d almost blasted his brains across the landscape, and wiped a hand across his forehead. Wounds melted closed behind the touch, like his skin was made of soft candle wax. Derek saw at least one of the Sioux braves swallow hard.
Then the leader flung himself onto Marcus’s horse, knocking the sheriff to the dirt, and tried to ride him down, and things got a mite confusing for a while. Garret dropped at least one brave with his .44; Derek took the head off a second with two thrown cards and another burst of magic; Ben cut an arrow through the third’s throat.
Pain seared, bright and stunning, as Derek caught an unlucky bullet just beside his naval; it knocked the wind out of him, and ruined both his shirt and his mood. Ben took a second hit, dropping to one knee as blood sprayed dark over the sand.
Garret was on the ground, having smartly unhorsed himself to present a smaller target. He dodged the pounding hooves of a brave’s horse, rolled to his feet, grabbed Ben by the arm and yanked them both down into the crevice, yelling at the Navajo to stay put and keep his head low. Marcus dropped the leader off his stolen horse with a neat shotgun blast. The final brave went down in a welter of magic and bullets.
Which left one sniper hidden somewhere among the rocks, popping rifle shots at them.
And Marcus got stupid.
“I’ve got this,” he said, with a fleeting, bruised grin, and swung his shotgun over his shoulder. Remounted and pointed his horse right at the sniper’s nest, kicking the bay into a gallop.
Garret swore and flung himself back out of the hole, leaping astride his own mount, and charged after the sheriff. Derek raised his eyes briefly to heaven and took a hitching breath, pressing a hand over the gut-wound spilling warmth down his right side.
“Get out of the hole,” he told Ben, teeth gritted. “They’re gonna need our help.”
He didn’t stick around to see whether the injured Navajo listened or not. He flung two more cards, jack and ten of spades, at the sniper—but it was a long shot, and neither connected. Baron danced under him as he swung back up into saddle and whipped the unsettled warmblood into a gallop behind Garret. Marcus unloaded both barrels of his shotgun and took return fire in the chest, losing his hat but staying horsed.
Then he jumped down.
Derek didn’t see the full picture of what happened next; the sniper’s sheltering rock blocked his view, and a galloping horse didn’t make the most stable platform to observe from. But he saw Marcus heft his shotgun, flipping it in his hands like he intended to use the stock as a club—
And then Marcus was staggering back, reeling away from the rock, pouring bright new blood all down the front of his dusty blue shirt. His legs folded beneath him, dropping him down bonelessly in the dirt, and Garret screamed. Cursed with frothing, murderous rage and reined his horse in, cracking off a shot that clipped the brave in his shoulder, but didn’t drop him. Derek flung another two cards, wasting his last breath of magic on a hit that went wide.
Coolly ignoring them, the Indian stepped forward and shot Marcus in the head.
In the frozen, breathless moment, Derek saw Marcus’s hand flex once, then still. Blood splattered the dirt in an uneven halo.
The Indian flung his arms back, crucified wide, and screamed a savage war cry. Challenged them both while Marcus lay unmoving at his feet, like a felled deer.
Garret’s next sound was inhuman, like something dragged up from the hot place far below, but his gun was empty. Derek was out of magic, energy, and patience—but he was closer, and he still had his gun. He unpocketed the derringer and unloaded a shot into the Indian’s chest, dropping the bastard in the dirt. Which left Marcus bleeding dry, Garret cursing a blue streak, and Derek’s fondness for California deserts reduced by a severe fucking lot.
He pretty much fell off his horse, catching his breath as pain snarled through his gut, and dropped down by the fallen sheriff. The damage was far beyond his skills, and he had no magic left; he clamped his hands over the worst-bleeding wounds, pressing down onto cloth that squished underneath his fingers. Ben rode up a half-minute later and knelt down with him, weaving fast-handed magic. In minutes, the bleeding slowed to a trickle, then stopped. Some of the wounds knitted closed. Marcus didn’t wake.
Behind him, Garret hissed a startled breath between his teeth.
Derek staggered to his feet, blood-slick to the wrists, bracing himself for whatever was about to bite them where it hurt.
And saw the riders in the distance. They were closing fast, horses kicking up dust. There was no time to do anything but bolt.
Garret loaded Marcus up onto horseback, sweeping Marcus’s dropped shotgun up in the next movement, and vaulted onto his own appaloosa stallion, dragging up Marcus’s hanging reins. Ben leapt astride his own painted mare. Derek staggered back up onto Baron, thankful the dappled grey had calmed a little. They fled back to the crevice the Indians had first slithered out of, not ten minutes previous, dismounting and dragging the horses down out of the view.
For the first time, luck was on their side. The second group passed by without stopping.
Derek took four rattling, cold-thumping heartbeats to press his forehead against Baron’s sweat-slick shoulder, inhaling the steadying scent of hard-working horse, then turned to look at the gasping party. Ben was healing himself, breath coming hard, still red-slick from temple to jaw. Garret was reloading his gun, attention split twitchily between the fading sound of hoofbeats and Marcus.
Derek looked down.
The sheriff was a tall man, built broad and heavy-boned, but laid flat on his back and blanched pale, drenched in blood, he looked just like any man who was too damn stupid to know the difference between brave and reckless.
Dying, in a nutshell.
Which cut their party down by another one, out in the middle of a desert with voodoo in the sand, strange visions at night, and Indians that carried guns. Surrounded by dead men who’d likely get back up and want to start chewing on them soon.
Derek started violently when Ben laid hands on him, almost reaching for his knife, then stilled when he realized what the Indian was about. Stinging warmth flooded through his belly as the bullet slid free, dropping to the black volcanic rock with a dull clink, and his flesh sealed back together. The feeling was wholly unsettling; Derek swallowed queasiness.
Ben pulled back, giving him a look that was no more friendly than the glare he’d given Derek when he’d explained that he needed to go out into the desert to make it right. But at least Derek could stand without pain knotting him in half.
The adrenaline was likely going to take a little longer to wear off.
He gave Ben a dry look. “Still think I’m being too negative?”