Even her moccasins would not quiet her footsteps when the fall came. The fresh fallen leaves would turn to crackling eggshells when they died. The cold of winter would only bring more problems. Nighttime stalking would grow unbearably cold while the snow made the Rustboro gang's trail all the harder to track. The winter would require more provisions and more gear and she was accustomed to carrying as little as possible of both. She needed her revenge soon or risk hungering for it yet another year.
She weaved her way downward through the mountainside trees, sliding where she felt safe and using all four limbs to grip the trunks around her when she didn't. Other than the gentle rustling of her movements the only sound she made was the gentle click of her tomahawks against one another, and she pressed them to her body for silence when needed.
Dawning sunlight needled through the canopy, burning larger and larger holes to light her way as she neared the forest's edge. When she reached level ground she steadied her tomahawks with one hand while clearing the foliage from her path with the other. She crouched low into the bushes and eased toward the border between the woods and the open prairie beyond. There was a man ahead sitting in the open grass leaned against a rock. His ragged breaths gusted across the golden stalks. When the stalks parted she could see that he held his side in pain.
The Rustboros were not above a trap if they were above anything at all. She swung the strap of her bow around her head and nocked an arrow from her quill. She left the bow undrawn, but the arrow at the ready as she stalked forward as far below the grass as she could stay. There were no other sounds save for the man's labored breaths. The rising sun beyond the cliff's edge dispelled all shadows. Even still her head swiveled on her shoulders to either side waiting for something to pounce as she closed in on the man.
The man would have towered over the girl if he stood. All strength and intimidation was drained from his crumpled form, his hand cupped at his side with blood leaking through the cracks in his fingers, his gray stringy hair hanging over grizzled cheeks. The man tilted his head back against the rock so that his hat did nothing to keep the sun out, his eyes fixed as near on the sun as they could get without burning.
When the girl stood above the grass the man's eyes turned in their skull to meet her and he smiled. "Well I'll be damned," he said. "Thought I'd seen everything I was ever gonna see when a white girl comes amblin' up dressed head to toe like a native." Seeing that the girl was still wary and held her bow at the ready the man scoffed and turned his gaze back to the horizon. "Like I'm gonna hurt ya. Like I could if I wanted. I ain't heeled. They took everything." His next breath was deeper than the last and tears collected in his eyes. "Everything."
The girl placed her arrow back in its quiver and put the strap of her bow back around her head as she stepped forward. She unhooked a water skein from her belt on the side opposite the tomahawks. The man responded to her without looking at the skein. "Save that for yourself. I won't be needin' it where I'm goin'."
The girl bent down to look at the wound and the man did not fight her as she pried his hand away. "I can tend to the wound," she said, her voice smoky like a crackling fire. She saw a large knife sheathed at the man's ankle and drew it out slowly, saying "I can get the bullet out. Dress it up. Leave you with enough to make your way."
"Oh," the man said, "I'm makin' my way as it is. We're miles from the next town. Them men might a not shot me had they been closer to provisions elsewhere. Not that I gave 'em much." The man whimpered. "Just a cartload a whiskey an' a good horse. All I had in this world."
The girl turned her attention from the wound to the surroundings. She could see the tracks from the Rustboros' horses and where they encircled the cart. The wheels of the cart left deep grooves in the earth and the cart itself bent a path through the grass that travelled along the edge where the prairie met the cliffside. The only blood present was the bleeding man's and its trail told of his path from the stolen cart to the rock he leaned against. The girl stood up and leaned next to the man against the rock, watching the sunlight play along the blade in her hand. "I'll kill them for you," she said. "I was going to kill them for my parents, but I can kill them for you, too."
"That ain't necessary. Ain't no one should live for blood. I lived for whiskey, myself, and I lived a happy man. Made me happy to make other folks happy."
"You don't have any whiskey left. What would make you happy now?"
The man's lips quivered with his breath before his brows knit, more determined to look at the new day as ever. "I just want to take my mind off it. Have some distraction so I don't see the end comin'. Can you do that for me, young lady?"
The girl flicked her thumb along the blade and spoke barely above a whisper, her voice a smolder. "My second father called me Little Coyote. He fed me and taught me how to feed myself. He taught me a great many things, but I never killed a person before."
"Heh," the old man let out. "I ain't never died before. This second father the reason you dressed the way you is? He the reason you out here on your ownsome?"
Cartilage cracked as she drew the knife across his throat. The sun died in his eyes even as it grew new life in the horizon. Her hand shook yet her grip was tight as she drew the knife toward her, watching the blood consume his shirt and greet its kin beneath his hand. She tried to discern contentment from his drawn back lips, but his expression was as simple as a live thing turned dead.
Little Coyote never killed a person before and the elders were not there to tell her if this counted. She judged that it did and knew what she had to do, looking about the scene once more and estimating how old the tracks were that the Rustboro gang carved through the grasslands. She did the arithmetic in her head as she took the knife's sheath from the dead man's leg and strapped it to her own ankle, sliding the knife into its place. She found nothing else on the dead man, but decided to take his black hat, placing it on her own head before she set out to find water.
There was a stream not far from the prairie that ate its way down the canyons. She judged the grooves in the Rustboro trail to follow about perpendicular to the stream and followed both until she found the right spot. There was a clearing at the foot of the hill where the water gathered in a pool before continuing on its way. The clay of the earth was packed in tightly enough not to dirty the water, and Little Coyote found a spot where she could see her reflection in a puddle while she filled her skein in the pool. She drank thirstily as she stared back at herself from the puddle. Once her thirst was quenched and her skein was filled and her hands were washed she knew there was no putting it off any longer. She drew the knife that she took from the dead man.
Her hair was golden like her mother's, and she watched as the pieces of her mom fell to the clay below with each shear. All the while she watched herself, the puddle rippling with the wind and alternating the reflection between that of a teenage girl about to anoint herself a warrior and that of a child trapped beneath her mother's bleeding corpse.
Once the bulk of the hair was out of the way she held the blade at an angle along her scalp and shaved it back with care. The warrior in the puddle held a stony resolve and the child a trembling puzzlement. The child's eyes, blinking away blood and tears, asked a dozen questions. Would it ever be safe to leave the wagon? Would mother ever get up? Was father just outside? Were those the hoofbeats of the whooping demons coming back to finish her off?
Her head was now half bald and she stopped to whet the blade for a few moments as she thought back to the blood-soaked girl in the blood-soaked wagon. The growing hoofbeats were different from the gang that left her. With time she would learn to tell their difference, to hear how the clop of an unshod hoof had no ring to it. That child would learn so much.
A sprinkle started that distorted the reflection before altogether erasing it. The raindrops were soft and unburdensome, and Little Coyote did not need her reflection anyways. She finished scraping off the other half of her hair still crouched over the puddle, watching as the golden locks were gathered up in little streams and carried away to the canyon's pool. When she was finished she ran her hands over her scalp, the rain washing away the blood from the knicks here and there that she left.
For the next part, the last part, she put on the hat that she took from the old man and reached into the satchel that hung by her skein. She watched her fingers closely as they picked apart the pockets, leaving the yellowed mushrooms undisturbed in their own pocket and selecting instead a handful of berries. The red berries she crushed in the fingers of one hand and drew a line from between her eyes up to the top of her forehead. In her other hand she crushed the blueberries into a fine pulp that she smeared beneath each eye.
She held her hands out into the rain and let the water wash them clean. Newly anointed, she found her way back to the Rustboro trail and followed it through the rain sparkling in daylight.
The size of their cargo made the men's progress slow, and as the ground softened with mud the wheels of the cart were all the harder to pull. Now with more whiskey than they could drink in a week, the men were eager to make camp and enjoy their spoils. The eldest Rustboro would push them forward, but the younger two and the other men would outvote him when it came to it. Finally they'd find a spot up on a hill somewhere they felt safe, somewhere with a vantage to the landscape around and with only one way from which to expect oncomers.
They found such a spot on a piece of land jutting up in the sky, a steady climb up one side that lead to a dead drop off the other. The incline was so steady that the tracks that the horse pulling the cart left showed no great effort in getting the luggage up the cliffside, although Little Coyote could only inspect them so closely from the confines of the trees at the cliff's base. As ever, the eldest Rustboro set up men outside their camp, sitting on horses with their rifles at the ready, their eyes keen to the glitter of a golden badge while blind to the tanned hide of a practiced huntress.
With time now her ally, Little Coyote climbed a tree at the edge of the woods and set to tying the branches together. Every so often she would peek out to ensure the watchmen were not second guessing the wind that swayed the trees, and soon enough she had her hammock. She eased herself into the groove of the hammock and, finding that it would hold, settled into a restful sleep. That was the way of things in the year since she left the tribe. She followed the men, she caught up to the men, and she slept until she could do it again the next day. Their rhythms were her rhythms, their sweat her sweat. It had been that way for so long that Little Coyote found herself wondering, in the fog of a growing sleep, what she would do when they were gone. Before the men there was the tribe, and before the tribe her parents. There was little else and nothing before her parents.
She drifted in and out of sleep for a while when the daylight faded. The hoots and hollers of the men on the hill would rock her awake, but she would remember that she was safe in her hammock of branches and suddenly the men might as well have been on Olympus for all they could bother her.
It was not until the hoots and the hollers stopped that she disallowed herself from drifting off. The night was silent, and that meant it was hers.
The watchmen were too far up the hill to reach from the treeline. She readied her bow and crouched as she stalked up the hill. The men were torch blind, their ward against wolves maintained at the cost of their night vision. There were two of them and they clustered together, sharing a cigar and talking in useless whispers.
One man puffed away at the cigar and it billowed into his face. The smoke rolled out from under the wide brim of his hat as he looked up, handing the cigar to his partner as his stinging eyes watched the treeline below. "You reckon we far off from somewheres we can sell the liquor?" he pondered.
His partner grunted, picking the tobacco from his teeth before puffing on the cigar. "Another day's ride. Two days tops. Don't figure the younger Rustboros will much want to part with the whiskey though." Some embers fell from the cigar as he puffed it and started to eat their way into the crotch of his pants. "Dadgummit," the man said, patting away at the embers with one hand while holding the reins and the cigar with the other. He fussed at the burns as he spoke. "'Course if we have that whiskey much longer Rustboro the elder is much likely to wring the necks of the youngers outta sheer irritation." He took two ponderous puffs of the cigar. "Say, are we still the Rustboro gang if—"
He looked up to find his partner wheezing and convulsing, the wooden shaft of an arrow jutting from his esophagus. The cigar fell to the grass below as the second man sprouted an arrow from his eye socket, his spine collapsing all at once and letting him drop from his horse.
Little Coyote pattered up through the grass toward the men. The man with the arrow in his throat wasn't dying fast enough, and was fumbling for his revolver even while he held his rifle stupidly in the other hand. The girl let another arrow go into his heart and the man was quiet at last, falling to the ground to join his partner.
The horses around the camp slept with bowed heads tied to the scant trees at the hilltop. The weathered tents brought their own musty smell to the environment to join that of the dying campfire and the burning whiskey in the air. Little Coyote stepped over an empty glass bottle carefully as she made her way toward the fire at the camp's center.
A man sat before the fire, but his shoulders rose and fell with the steadiness of a tide. Little Coyote distantly remembered her father calling snoring "sawing logs" and this man brought the expression to life. Her every movement became deliberate and grew only more so as she counted more logs sawing from each tent. She was like a ghost blending into the fog of the night, floating about the camp. Atop the dying fire, mere feet from the snoozing man, laid a grill with a cooking pot and a kettle. Leaned against the rocks that formed the perimeter of the campfire were bags of beans and oats. Little Coyote was careful with the mushrooms from her satchel, pouring water over her hands each time she handled them.
The fog was her comfort, her companion amidst the sleeping men who rested with their guns, each one ready to wake up at a moment's notice and raise the alarm. She already came too close with the watchman down the hill. The Rustboro gang numbered too many, and she was in no rush anyhow. The patient tree outlived the anxious hummingbird a thousand times over, her second father taught her.
By morning the girl was gone, but the fog remained. It was a morning mist that licked dew onto each blade of grass, and when the man sleeping by the campfire stirred he cursed the moisture that made his hands feel sticky. It was the eldest Rustboro who stirred him.
"You didn't fall asleep, did you McGaffey?" he asked, clapping a hand on the man's shoulder as McGaffey rubbed his fingers together.
"No, sir, of course not! Just restin' the ol' eyes a spell. No harm there."
Rustboro knelt down to grab the steaming kettle, pouring the brown liquid out into a tin cup. "You get my coffee ready on time you can rest your eyes all you want," Rustboro said. His face was as canyonous as their surroundings, the two prongs of a dusty brown and grey mustache hanging off his chin. He was already dressed, his duster guarding him from the morning mist and his guns clattering at his side as he stood up.
MCGaffey blinked at the burning fire several times, then blinked again when he noticed the bubbling pot. He leaned forward to sniff at it, poking at the boiling oatmeal with a wooden spoon. "I, uh, I got some oatmeal goin' here too, boss," McGaffey said.
"Someone say breakfast?" said a man poking his scrawny head from his tent. The rest of the man, just as scrawny, followed suit and he fixed his straw hat onto his head as he eyeballed the meal.
"Knew I smelt somethin'!" another man said, emerging from his tent.
Soon the whole camp was gathered around the fire, just short of a dozen men ladling the oatmeal into wooden bowls and splashing coffee into their cups. The oldest Rustboro stood outside the ring of men, inspecting the land over the cliff side as best he could through the fog.
"Someone should go check on Larry and Westin," he mentioned over his shoulder.
"Ah, hell, I don't think there's enough to go around," one man said, grabbing the cooking pot itself with some rags and using the wooden spoon as his personal utensil. "Least not for them. Can't we wait? Ain't you want some for your own self, boss?"
"Eli says oats is for horses. Says you be just as likely to find him chewin' on oats as hay," said one man digging his fingers into his bowl and licking them. Twice the girth of any of the other men, he was one of the younger Rustboro brothers. The other, the scrawny one with the straw hat, spoke up next.
"Hell, if hay was all we had to soak up the drunk from last night I'd take it."
The men laughed at that, some of them nursing their heads at the reminder of their hangover. Eli Rustboro looked them over with a scowl. "You're all a bunch of drunks. There won't be such debauchery another night in a row, I'll say that right now." He turned his gaze to survey the other way down the hill, trying to find his watchmen through the fog.
"Ah, you ain't no fun," said the fat Rustboro.
"Better be we can sell off the remainder and buy twice what we had in the first place," said the scrawny Rustboro. He sucked his teeth and stood up, watching the concern grow on Eli's face. "Oh, Eli, would you settle down a damn minute? The boys have earned a peaceful breakfast. Ain't no dang . . . danger . . . " His sentence trailed off and he began to sway in place. "Hey, I'm not feelin' too—"
Vomit spilled out of his mouth before he could finish his sentence. Bowls and spoons clattered from some of the men's hands and still others fell forward. A cacophony of vomiting erupted from the campgrounds as the men all started grabbing their stomachs and dropping to their knees and lurching forward.
All except Eli Rustboro. Startled, he looked around at each of them. "How much did you all drink last night? I'd think you could hold your liquor a little . . . by God, get yourselves together!" Eli's voice strained as he knelt down to pat his scrawny brother's back, the bones in the brother's back popping as he heaved forward again. Spirals of blood spun into the vomit, his eyes bulging from his head. Eli stood up, all of his men now down. "What in the hell . . . who made that oatmeal? McGaffey! McGaffey!"
McGaffey was clawing at his neck rolling in the dirt, a pink froth at the corners of his lips. Now wild-eyed, Eli drew both his pistols and cast his gaze in every direction around him.
His fat brother managed to stand up, clutching at his side. "There was somethin' in that oatmeal, Eli. We got any medicine? Can we get to a doctor, Eli?"
"Damnit, get your gun out! We're not going to make it to a doctor if someone has the notion to—"
There was a thunk and the fat brother fell forward, an axe in the back of his head. Now visible from behind the fallen brother was Little Coyote, shrouded in mist and holding her remaining tomahawk.
Rustboro's hands pounced upwards, but the remaining tomahawk landed in his left shoulder so that he could only fire with his right. His shot took the girl down and she cried out in pain, clutching her own shoulder. Rustboro walked toward her, gritting his teeth and pulling the tomahawk from his side. He stepped over his brother and aimed his revolver at the writhing girl.
"What?" he demanded. "What in the hell did I do to you, exactly?" The girl turned from nursing her shoulder to stare up at the man, rage burning through the blue markings on her eyes. Rustboro motioned to all the fallen men around the camp with his gun before returning it to her. "These were my brothers! My kin!"
The girl's voice trembled. "I . . . had kin."
Rustboro's eyes narrowed. He knelt down over the girl and tipped his hat back. "And what? I bet I shot them fair and square and they weren't a fast enough gun to stop me. That's fair and square. That's the man's way. But you poison my oatmeal? You mongrel little bitch." He leveled the gun at her glare, the end of the pistol inches from the red mark on her forehead.
His hand began to tremble. In shock, he stared at it as his fingers went limp and the gun fell from his hand. The girl stood up as Rustboro spilled backwards. He clutched at his heart, blowing out deep breaths that made his mustache bounce.
Little Coyote's voice burned. "I didn't just poison the oatmeal."
She drew the knife from the sheath on her ankle. Rustboro's mouth gaped open but only a strained squeal came out. She stabbed, and she stabbed, and she stabbed. When it was over he was tatters, and she was covered in blood, and the mist cleared away to reveal the new day around her.
She grabbed what supplies she found and cleaned off what she could. She dressed her wound and spit on the body of Eli Rustboro one last time before climbing into the horse cart between the cases of whiskey. She ushered the horse on and wondered what she would do next for only a moment. The life of blood was behind her, and the life of whiskey ahead.