She knew that if she didn't play along she'd never find the girl.
"How much longer to your lair?" she asked, getting a kick to the knee and the consequential handful of dust into her mouth for her troubles.
The brother who administered the punishment, Marlin, was all twitchy, more so that his other villainous brothers. Middle son, Bennett understood, it's a hard job, and he was the one riding with a saw-off shotgun instead of a pistol. He was the one to break, then. The only one whose horse actually seemed to like.
Bennett glanced over her shoulder to the sun setting on the peaks. Lydia Weston had been gone, kidnapped by the Ward clan, some five hours ago. Which meant, they couldn't have her too far.
The three men went on to force Bennett back on her saddle and bind her hands. She tried her best impersonation of helpless and defeated. They made their way out of Matinas smoothly—despite its name (the place was founded by a hopeful Jesuit) the town was a ghost town this early in the morning.
"Why is it always brothers?" Bennett wondered out loud, taunting them. "Even in the stories I read as a kid, it was always bands of brothers who were the bad guys."
"You know how to read, Bennett?" the older brother, Denton, snarled, a tone of mock-friendliness.
Bennett made a grimace, forgetting her role for a moment. And my mother could read too, she thought. Just not in English. But that she better kept to herself, for she noticed a different kind of twitchiness in Denton. He was looking for any excuse. Bennett was not about to give him one.
Not until she had a gun within arm's reach.
"Why are we taking her with us? She's no use. Who's going to pay a ransom for . . . that?"
That was Rich. The charming kid brother. As handsome as the other two, twice as brutal, often unhinged. Miss Dahlia had barred him from her establishment, which was the beginning of the Brother's dislike for Bennett's hometown. That and the way Bennett enforced Dahlia's orders with a firm foot in Little Rich's rear.
Denton hadn't forgotten that picture, and had given his brother another beating for the family humiliation. Now he was throwing a judgemental look Rich's way—not because he minded the idea of Bennett dead, but because he resented anyone else taking such initiative.
"You can't go around killing sheriffs I suppose," Marlin cut through the tense moment.
"That's a sheriff?" Rich replied.
Bennett tensed up, and her mare blew a bit, mimicking her mood. She didn't balk, neither of them willing to blow their covers. Both knew that, if push came to shove, they could take on the Wards. Both Marlin and Rich were mediocre shots and Bennett knew she didn't have to worry about them; she'd be able to take them down without guns of her own. But Denton was another story.
There were other reasons why they wouldn't kill her. They wanted something clean. A ransom, no mess. That's why they chose Weston's daughter. The old man wouldn't put up resistance, he was as spineless as he looked.
"I hear you're moving east," Bennett commented, gaining speed on the younger brothers. Her hands might have been unbound but she still knew how to make a horse go where she wanted.
Denton side-eyed her for her approach.
"That's why you need the money," she added.
The older brother, wise, kept his peace.
"So what? Everybody knows that," Rich couldn't help but intervene, gaining a dirty look and a low growl from his big brother.
Silence fell as the sun reached its highest point—an uncomfortable itch on the back of Bennett's nape, where sweat pooled, that she couldn't scratch. She could tell her horse was getting nervous, she didn't like strangers and was an intelligent animal, probably knew something was up, and Bennett did her best to run her tied hands through her mane, to soothe her nerves.
So her theory was right: the Ward brothers needed quick, clean silver to move on to greener pastures. And for once the greener pastures thing was not just an expression folks used. The Ward brothers chasing that pinewood smell. They could have done a hit on a bank or a train, they had done those before. But they didn't want authorities involved, a trail that could follow them east. Even criminals want a clean slate when starting a new life. Mr Weston had the money to spare, and wouldn't risk the life of his only child for whatever meager ransom the unimaginative siblings had come up with.
And there were reasons why Bennett wouldn't face the brothers yet. She could have unarmed them, easily, right where she found them, but then there was a chance she would never find the girl. The brothers were vicious and proud, a bad combination in Bennett's eyes—who could tell they wouldn't be defeated and then let the girl rot in some barn. No, she couldn't risk that outcome. She had to play along. These men were miserable enough to believe it, and bigger guns had underestimated Bennett before today.
But she had to stop them, if they got the money they needed that was it, they were gone, before there could be a reckoning. Bennett wouldn't let the poor people of the east, unprepared for the Ward brothers, suffered the same terrors the county had seen at the hands of Denton and company.
Patience wasn't one of the virtues the ancient family gods had granted her all the way from China, but patience she would have to have now, so she kept her jaw in tension but her eyes blank, and she grabbed the saddle horn tightly, until her knuckles turned pale. And she waited.
They came to a territory of mostly-empty farms, small properties, well past the fancier haciendas of the Cattlemen's Association members. The people here were on the edge of everything, of normal life, of law. They kept to themselves and they were often friendly with the natives from beyond the hills, which singled them out as strange folk, even to habitants of such an absurd place as Matinas. Bennett liked the people living on the edge, being partial to inhabiting the outside of decent society herself. Still this was familiar terrain to Bennett, but she had to admit the intelligence of Denton Ward's plan, hiding a hostage in one of these farms.
She supposed they were near their destination, because even in the icy silence between kidnappers and victim (between the hunted and the hunter, though the brothers didn't know yet), she could feel a rumble of excitement among the brothers, like the song of a hungry stomach.
It was Denton who broke the silence, as they were almost upon a little farm in the shadow of the hills.
"I'm going to enjoy taming that half-breed mare of yours, Sheriff, once we are gone," he told Bennett.
The woman made an effort not to snort. Not that Jian would ever let herself be tamed, or that Bennett would allow anyone to try to take her horse from her and survive. But letting that show on her face would make her look cocky, and the brothers would wonder if there was some ace up her sleeve they didn't know about.
No ace, just her fist.
Bennett felt the horse reluctant to make those last few feet before the fence, like she could understand the words. She couldn't, but she could make out the menacing meaning from the tone of Denton's voice. Once more Bennett buried the tip of her fingers in the mare's black mane. There weren't many animals like Jian in these parts, with her Appaloosa blood in the mix, and her mean, still-wild, want-no-rider-but-my-mistress attitude. Sometimes she didn't even feel like letting Bennett ride her and that was it, no riding that day.
Half-breed was a word Bennett had heard often, and not particularly directed at her horse, no doubt Denton had that in mind too, the implications none that Bennett wanted to dwell on but sadly familiar.
Something changed in the air when they crossed into the ranch's property. Bennett couldn't quite remember the name of the owners, but she was pretty sure she knew them by sight; and elderly couple who kept out of town, and survived on their land and trading with the Yuhaviatam or the Palonies when need be. There was a humble house and a tiny barn.
The brothers slowed the pace and a feeling of unease overcame Bennett; she knew, goddamnit, she knew, even before the acrid smell, even before the ugly dark brown stains on the floodboards, before the rot in the air, before the noise of flies, before Denton Ward's grim smirk, before seeing the two corpses with her own two eyes.
She had been right, they were two old hands, their clothes—now the color of dried blood—old fashioned, their hands full of well-earned wrinkles. Bennett bit down on her lip, hard. The woman was half perched over the man's body, looking like she was gunned down when she was trying to help her husband.
They got killed—no, they got murdered, right on the front porch of their own home.
The caked red looked painted, and the position of the corpses too, like a sinister tableau, and though Bennett had seen many deaths in her time this was different, useless and malicious and enough to turn both your stomach and turn your hands into fists. The bodies were tense, even in death, limbs twisted in a funny-looking grimace. It reminded Bennett of that time in the mountains when she found a dead squirrel on a boulder, a solemn procession of ants already on the task of making its little body into fur carcass; what was disturbing was the way the squirrel's tail was all stiff, like the animal had died in alarm.
But this was no nature intended, this was people and the hurt they did to other people, and it was a right mess, which is why she could tell Rich had done the deed.
At first Bennett thought this turn of events contradicted her theory of the Wards wanting a clean especape from the state, but then she realized nobody was going to miss (or want justice for) an old couple from the edgelands. Bennett knew this country didn't place much value on her life but at least people would notice if she wasn't there, people would ask (hell, Miss Dahlia would probably invest all her savings in getting revenge). If Bennett hadn't seen the two dead bodies today they could have been rotting for months before anyone passed by.
"You can't kill me but you can kill them, uh," Bennett hissed, an ugly sour taste filling her stomach and her mouth.
The brothers got off their horses and made her dismount as well, in plain view of the bloody spectacle. They meant to scare her.
"We figured people'd think Indians did it," Denton said, bone-chilling reasonable and calm. And he was right too, that's how people were. Why look any further when they had the natives to blame?
Which meant the Weston girl probably saw nothing of the killing, a good thing for a fourteen year old. But it also meant the Wards were more desperate than she had initially thought.
The brothers dragged her along pass the porch—Denton's fingers around her arm made her slightly nauseous.
"The barn?" she said, almost skeptical, but eager to conjure the eeriness away with her words. "Very original. All those dime tales served you right."
The brothers ignored her.
Bennett took instant stock of the situation as soon as they were inside, a cursory glance on the Weston girl, enough to check she hadn't been physically harmed, or attacked by the gang.
She looked understandably terrified. And confused, once she saw Bennett cross the door, dragged in by the men. They had never exchanged a word—Mr Weston wouldn't have allowed it—but she clearly knew who Bennett was.
"Hands behind her back," Denton lost no time, instructed his brother. "And Marlin, tight. This one's a snake."
"Snake?" Bennett repeated. "Come on, Ward, you can do better than that. You have, in the past."
Marlin placed the rope around her wrists and she squirmed and hitched her breath and let them think she was uncomfortable. She made a little noise like she was surprised by how tight the bound was. They bought it. Villains really are that easy, she thought. Of course they'd be a bit more careful is she was a white man.
"We're going to ask in town if someone wants to pay ransom for you," Denton explained. "But don't go holding your breath."
They were leaving to meet Lydia's father, no doubt. And being able to tell him that Matinas's "sheriff" was out of the picture might be a good bargaining method. Without hopes of a third party intervention the big man would cough up the silver faster.
But she noticed the three of them ready to leave.
"You're not leaving us a guard?" Bennett protested. That would make her job significantly easier but she had to keep playing her part. "Not even the useless little brother? I'm offended."
Rich kicked the side of her knee in reply. It was a weak attempt, but Bennett stumbled sideways against the stone wall, hurling a disdain-dripping look at the man.
"So you can fight me," she said, in a low private voice. "So as long as I'm tied, right?"
She could smell the hesitation filling the air in the barn. The Ward brothers had no other associates, they did everything between them. They need each other for backup today.
"You must be scared of Mr Weston's hired guns," Bennett concluded, and out loud, keeping up her taunts.
"What was that? Who's afraid?"
This, predictably, riled Rich up again and she wondered if she was going to get another kick in the shin. Her words put Denton in a bind. Leaving a guard here would be admitting he thought the sheriff posed a real danger—and what hot blooded white cowboy would ever admit to such a thing? But likewise leaving the women alone would imply he was indeed worried on the matter of numbers as he went to speak to Mr Weston of the ransom.
In the end he'd rather underestimate Bennett than the town's richest man. His loss. He gagged both her and Lydia, more out of a desire to assert her power over them than caution, in case they'd shout and alert some passer by. There would be no passer bys.
The little barn was mostly empty, a few bales of hay in a corner, and it looked like it hadn't housed animals in years. Bennett noticed a shoeing hammer on a hook, that Denton promptly took with him, because he wasn't a fool like his brothers. Bennett let him be a fool in thinking the hammer was part of her plan and thus thwarted by Denton's quickness. He even smirked at her, self-satisfied. Lord was she going to slap that smile out of his face.
Once they were alone the Weston girl still did not speak, waiting for permission.
Bennett thought a demonstration was in order.
The so-called "tight" bound of rope around her wrists, right, that was first. She angled her shoulders just right, and her able (some would say naughty) fingers did the rest. The rope fell with a noise like a killed viper on a summer field.
The girl gasped through her gag. Bennett did away with the cloth in her mouth and rushed to Lydia's side to do the same for her.
"How-?" was the first word that came out of her mouth, once freed.
But she stopped herself. And stepped back, regarding Bennett with a glance not just of curiosity, but caution as well.
"Is it true you are a sheriff?" the girl asked, lifting her chin in the hopes of some reassuring authority.
"Ain't no law around these parts and all the better for it," Bennett told her, a tad too honestly. "But someone has to take care of the people, and the tin star don't look half bad on me."
The declaration seemed to upset Lydia more than anything else, and she broke into a soft, low sobbing.
"Don't cry," she gently coaxed the girl. "In a couple of hours you'll be back in Matinas, eating one of Miss Dahlia's salt pork dinners."
And I'll be needing something stiff to drink, she added only to herself, feeling a pool of cold sweat drying on the back of her neck.
Lydia blinked at the mention of the name.
"My father says I shouldn't talk to Miss Dahlia, that she's not really a—"
"Well, if it was just to help your father I wouldn't be here," Bennett declared, gritted teeth. It was credit to her nobility, she thought, that she was willing to risk her neck to save the life of someone of that bigot's bloodline.
The girl shivered. Bennett patted her wrist as she finished untying her, deciding to be gentler; it wasn't exactly the girl's fault to have been born into a family of corrupt rich people. She could still be taught out of their bad habits. And the idea of big man Weston owing something to her was delectable in itself.
"We'll both be eating salt pork soon, but you have to do exactly as I tell you," she told Lydia.
She looked at the girl closely, and smiled to reassure her. She didn't look like her father at all, or maybe that was the impression, because the old man had none of the kindness in Lydia's eyes. And that pretty round face. Bennett had heard her father complain about her plumpness. What a fool of a man, she thought again, thinking of Miss Dahlia's soft edges, wishing this whole kidnapping mess was all over and she could be back home.
She went over the plan again in her head.
"Have you ever played make believe with your friends?" she asked the kid, loosening her ropes just enough. "Pretend something that wasn't happening was happening? Cause I'm going to need you to do that now."
Miss Lydia was so perfectly naive and weak-looking that Bennett knew her plan would be a success.
And she wasn't dumb, Lydia wasn't, she understood what Bennett was trying, she didn't have to explain it all twice. It was an hour or so later that they heard the sound of distant hooves and put the plan in motion.
"This will be tight, but it has to look good," Bennett told her as she slipped the rag into her mouth and pulled on the knot. Lydia squirmed but didn't complain. Bennett touched her shoulder and spoke in the tone she had often heard Dahlia use on nervous horses. "Good girl."
The girl nodded, trying hard to be brave.
The steps toward the barn were heavier than before; the brothers must have gotten part of the reward already.
There was that general sense of joy when they opened the door to the barn, like they had just struck gold like back in '49.
Bennett was already kicking the floor with her heels and grunting alarmingly through the cloth of her gag, gesturing with her neck so the brothers would look at the figure lying on the ground besides her.
None of the brothers dared approach the child.
"What happened?" Denton asked.
Bennett let out a frustrated noise, wordless, pretending to fight against her ropes, until he nodded to Marlin to remove the gag.
"She passed out," she said to her understandably-suspicious audience. "You tied the gag too tight. She's a kid, not one of your horses."
They looked confused at those words—yes, even Denton looked like he was making room in his mind for the conceit that he might not know much about this. Obviously they weren't used to being around young girls, and the idea that these strange specimens might be more prone to axifysiation than their male counterparts was, at least, a possibility to their ignorant brains.
Still they didn't move, and Marlin and Rich were looking at Denton for a sign, for permission.
He was never going to give it, Bennett knew.
It was up to her to convince them.
"What? You think we have been plotting or something?" she said. "You think a lady girl like her would listen to someone like me, never mind obey my orders."
The risky move tugged at the men's inherent disdain for everything Bennett was, themselves unable to imagine fellow humans giving credit her words as they hardly considered Bennett to belong to the human category at all.
She kept making eye contact with Marlin, something that escaped Denton and his preparations, even though she wasn't being exactly subtle.
"Hell with it, Den, I'm not going to let a child die on me," the middle brother declared, to preempt his older sibling's protest. Surely the fact that this was a rich child and they were unlikely to get the rest of the money if she died a factor in his worry for the Weston girl.
Bennett didn't move at first, letting the man ungag Lydia and check if her faintness was for real. She trusted Lydia, she would give her enough time, and wouldn't be bullied by a couple of villains (Rich had, tentatively, almost unconsciously, stepped towards the girl as well, wanting to know what was going on) poking her face with their fingers and shaking her by the shoulders to see if she would wake. Denton kept one eye on the scene, and one eye on Bennett. That was all right with her, let him think he was so smart for not letting his guard down.
The "sheriff" faked concern for the girl in a tilt of the head, but in reality she was waiting for the perfect angle, the perfect opening. When it came she put on an almost bored expression, going from complete stillness to feline in the blink of an eye. Or less, because Denton wasn't blinking, yet he didn't see when she turned her body towards his younger brothers, once she saw they both had a knee on the floor.
She went first for Marlin, being closer to her and the intended main target, she grabbed his right arm and pulled backwards, hard, just at the right angle, until she heard a wet cracking sound. She took his Colt and pushed him to the ground, rolling his body against Little Rich's legs, so he would trip.
This last thing gave her just enough time to turn and take care of big brother over there.
Denton, true to his reputation, was quick, one of the quickest she's seen of late, it was almost exciting, but once there was a revolver in Bennett's hand there was little he could do about it.
A sound of metal against metal.
Drops of blood from Denton's hand falling over the thin layer of hay on the floor.
Marlin tried to get up but realized that doing so would aggravate the pain in his shoulder, as he would have to shake his younger brother off first.
Rich was the slowest to react, just like he had been the day Bennett kicked him out of the saloon. He was probably still trying to figure out how the woman had unbound her hands. Bennett—gun cocked on Denton the whole time, she only needed the corner of her eye for that—pulled him forward towards her body and just as he landed on the floor before her, she jumped and put her whole weight on the narrowest bit of the ankle.
She heard the crack of bones breaking under her, Rich's face turned tilted up in pain and surprise. She had left scars on all three brothers now. And why should they be surprised?
"You can open your eyes now, Lydia," she said, loud.
The girl stirred, like she was truly waking up. Without prompting she went to Bennett, hiding behind her back. Bennett knew her shoulders weren't the biggest, but she hoped they gave the girl some security.
Denton shook his head, he had been right all along not to trust the ruse. Bennett got closer and cocked the revolver, in case the tall man was getting any ideas.
"I'm smarter than you, faster than you, and I play dirtier," she reminded him.
Then she whipped the back of the Colt across Denton's face, drawing blood and unconsciousness, keeping the promise she'd made to herself.
The man fell with a loud thud on the wooden planks. His brothers' eyes, all four, widened at the same time, and Bennett could tell they had never seen their big brother take a defeat before. Marlin whimpered a bit, not just from the beating he himself had received, sounding like a scared rodent all alone in the dark. Bennett went on to gather the bag full of Mr Weston's money and two guns on the floor, including Denton's handsome Russian caliber, which she very much intended to keep.
"He's going to be out for a while," Bennett said, pointing at the oldest Ward brother but looking at the other two. "You're going to get started digging those graves for the Miltons now. I'll come back tomorrow and if you haven't given them proper burial you'll run out of east to escape to before I get you. Understood?"
Rich was still doubled over in pain and unable to register what was going on, but Marlin nodded, massaging his dislocated shoulder.
"Don't worry, I'll leave one horse," Bennett added.
She ungagged Lydia and ushered her out of the barn and the girl—good girl—didn't even look back.
But Bennett lingered, and remembering Rich Ward's behavior in Dahlia's salon months ago, she broke the other ankle. To make sure it'd be a while yet, until he could stand cocky and proud.
She did look back, and Denton's eyes spelled it for her: he was going to seek revenge.
Let him try, Bennett thought. This had been fun.
As she walked out of the building she could hear Rich beginning to scream in pain again, and the noise of some admonishment by his oldest brother, but she couldn't quite make out the words.
The air felt all new and crisp, blessed-like, just like after a thunderstorm, the kind she and Dahlia liked to watch go by from their room above the saloon, in their breeches, and with a big cup of coffee between them.
Bennett paused a moment there, to take a good gulp of that air. It didn't feel quite like a victory—she kept thinking about the murdered couple on the front steps—and justice was still a long ways away. But she had done what she had set out to do today, get the girl out, and alive, and that was not nothing.
Lydia stood by her side as she uncinched the saddle on the two stallions—leaving Marlin's gelding, slower, more of a buggy animal than a hot horse, anyway, behind—and got them to run away. Bennett wouldn't say the animals had much love for their masters, the way Denton and Rich liked to use the whip.
"I gather you can't ride," she said to Lydia.
The girl blushed a bit, and shook her head. Even though she was young, she knew she should have learned by now. Not entirely her fault, as her political-minded Pa did not approve of women riding on their own. Lydia's mother had passed from this world without ever touching a saddle with her own hands.
"We should fix that one of these days," Bennett said, kindly.
She could tell the teenager liked the idea. Not one to be imparting life lessons, Bennett refrained for telling Lydia girls should be rebellious, that was their duty.
"I'll take you with me," she said, taking Jian's saddle off as well, since it was too small for two people, and passing it to Lydia. "Hold this for a moment."
She mounted first and, once Lydia has given her the saddle to carry, she helped the girl up. Lydia only hesitated a bit, looking at the mare's big dark eyes. People used to say they looked a bit alike in this, Bennett and her steed. But it was her mother who gave Jian her name when she was just a foal. "Why did you give her a Chinese name?" Bennett asked her mother. Seemed like a strange choice for a horse. Bennett's mother looked very intently into her eyes and caressed Bennett's hair and said "So you'll know she's yours, and whenever you look at her, you'll remember you're mine."
It was only a little hesitation, and Lydia and the horse seemed to arrive at some understanding. She grabbed Bennett's hand and rode right in front of her.
"You know? I wouldn't half mind that salt pork dinner now, Sheriff Bennett," Lydia said. "I wouldn't."
Bennett laughed softly and squeezed her playfully as encouragement. It had been a trying day for the poor girl.
"Yeah? But let's not tell your father."
She felt Lydia nod against the back of her neck.
"Let's not," she repeated, sounding excited, like only a teenager would be, at having a secret from her parents.
The girls settled against Bennett, and Bennett settled on the saddle and soon they were out of the edgelands, away from the smell of villains and stale blood. They couldn't see Matinas yet, but they knew it was there, home, just within reach, behind that big horizon.