Clyde Daniels rushed ahead, swearing all the while, rifle in hand. He tried aiming it a few times, but at that range the horse thief was too far away to guarantee he wouldn't hit Sundown instead. Before long, both thief and horse were lost against the desert landscape.
Clyde turned and kicked the base of a cactus.
* * *
Back at the ranch, Clyde and Bob saddled up two of the other horses.
"Sendin' Joseph for help is a good start," Bob said, adjusting a blanket on his pinto's back, "but don't you think we should get the marshal?"
One of the dogs walked over and sniffed at Clyde's boots.
"Marshal won't do shit," he said. "So long as he's got his hairs twisted over 'em goddamn Comanche rumors, he won't put no focus on a horse thief."
"You sure it wasn't a Comanche stole it?"
Clyde looked at his brother and gestured around them. "Notice how nothin's on fire and ain't nobody scalped?"
Bob put a saddle over the blanket and cinched it. "Do Comanches burn homesteads?"
"Assume so. Injuns is Injuns."
Bob tightened his gunbelt. "You fixin' to bring the sonuvabitch back alive?"
Clyde untwisted the reins on his horse. He grabbed his rifle off the saddlebag.
"Up to him," he said, jacking a round into the chamber.
* * *
Joseph was back at the ranch a little before noon, and Clyde scowled when he saw who was with him.
"Pete Lawson?" he said, turning to Bob. "That stupid hay-head brought Pete Lawson for our posse?"
Pete Lawson was nearly seven feet tall, and the cuffs of his pants stopped above his ankles. His horse looked like a mule next to him. He wore a patched duster and carried an eight-gauge shotgun. His beard was black and thick, except for the scar that went from his chin up to his right eye.
"Heard 'bout ya daddy's horse, Clyde," he said, lumbering ahead of Joseph. "It ain't right. By God, it ain't right."
Clyde looked up at him. "Thank you, Pete."
He turned to Joseph. "Got a minute?"
Joseph was rolling a cigarette. He nodded at his brother and followed him into the stable while Bob stayed with Pete.
"If I sent you to town for a flute, would you bring back a hammer?" Clyde said.
Joseph licked his cigarette closed. "Don't sell no flutes in town."
"That ain't an answer."
Joseph shrugged. He took a match out of his pocket and flicked it to life against the bottom of his boot. Clyde watched him light the cigarette and take a long drag on it.
"'Spose I wouldn't," he said, smoke coming out of his nose.
"Then why," Clyde said, "would you go to town looking for shooters and come back with Pete Lawson?"
Joseph smoked some more of his cigarette. He turned and spat on the ground.
"Weren't nobody else to bring," Joseph said. "Just some old timers ain't fit to ride and Samuel Black, and you know he'd sooner cut off his toes than help any of us. It was Pete or nobody."
Clyde rapped his fingers against one of the stalls for a moment.
"Can he even shoot?"
Joseph finished his cigarette and shrugged. "Says he can. Never seen him do it, but he's got a, ah, imposing figure. Won't hurt none if some thief sees a giant like him riding up."
Clyde looked out of the stable. Pete had taken an apple out of his saddlebag and was biting into it.
"We needed bodies fast, brother," Joseph said. "Pete's sure a body."
Clyde nodded a couple times.
"He'll have to do," he said, grabbing the reins of his horse and leading him out of the stable.
* * *
The four men rode out into the desert side-by-side—from left to right, Bob, Clyde, Joseph, and Pete. Clyde stayed just a little ahead of the other men, though Pete's horse skittered back and forth so much that his place in the line varied. They reached the spot where Clyde had last seen Sundown and the thief, and Joseph dismounted. He got down on one knee and looked at the dirt.
"What ya doin'?" Pete said.
"Tracking," Clyde said, keeping his eyes on his brother. "Hush."
Pete looked at him but didn't say anything. Bob grinned and took a sip from his canteen.
"Bear west," Joseph said, and got back on his horse.
The group took off again, with Joseph leading this time. They stopped again and again over the afternoon, eventually making camp on a hilltop at dusk. Clyde and Joseph tended to the horses while Bob made a fire and cooked beans and biscuits, and the men ate together.
"Ah find ya thief, Clyde, ah'll hold 'im down in a river," Pete said. "Mash his face in the mud 'til he don't flail no more."
"Thanks, Pete," Clyde said, and took a bite of biscuit.
"Get a look at the thief?" Joseph said.
"Not great. Tall. Wore a black duster and a wide-brim hat. Looked to have red hair poking out."
Clyde shrugged. "Taller than me." He patted Pete on the shoulder. "Not so tall as this giant."
Pete chuckled. Joseph set his plate down and stood up, walking over to his horse and reaching into his saddlebag. He walked back over to Clyde and handed him a folded poster.
"This your thief?"
Clyde unfolded the poster and looked at it. His face tightened up.
"Shit," Joseph said. "It is, ain't it?"
Bob looked from Joseph to Clyde. "What?"
"Goddammit," Clyde said.
Pete looked around in a wide circle. "What?"
"Weren't no man took off with Sundown," Joseph said. "It was Dirty Debbie."
Bob squinted. "Who?"
"There's paper on her," Joseph said. "She runs with the Juan Rojas Gang. Talks real sweet, then backshoots you. Folks in El Paso is ready to see her swing."
Bob stared at Clyde.
"You let a gal make off with Pa's horse?"
"Didn't let no gal do nothing," Clyde said, glaring at him. "A goddamn horse thief caught me unawares. What do or don't waggle between her legs ain't making no difference."
"Shoot," Pete said. "Ah don't think ah could drown no woman."
Clyde tossed the poster aside. Joseph picked it up and folded it.
"Hey," Bob said. "We goin' up against the Juan Rojas Gang, this's a whole different thing. We don't got the manpower for it."
"We don't know who the thief is," Clyde said, "or whether they're meeting up with no gang."
"Ah couldn't drown no woman."
"Won't be no drownin'," Joseph said.
"Good, 'cause ah couldn't do it. Not to no woman."
"Enough chatter," Clyde said. "Let's get us some shuteye. We ride at dawn."
He laid down next to the fire. Bob and Joseph finished their food and followed suit.
But Pete stared at the fire, only speaking when the other three men were snoring and the horses had settled in against the night.
"Ah couldn't kill no woman."
* * *
They had coffee around a fresh fire and hit the trail while the sun was still coming up.
Clyde looked at Joseph.
"You figger she's making for Hutch Creek?"
"Don't know," Joseph said.
"Lot a' desert here," Clyde said. "Sure you can find her?"
They passed a thick patch of cacti. Short of scrub and the occasional critter, the desert landscape ahead of them was barren.
"Well, shit, Joseph. What fuckin' good are you?"
"Givin' it my best," Joseph said. "Didn't make no promises. You got somebody else to track her, I'll head home."
"Keep an eye out for Comanches," Bob said.
Clyde looked at him. "You got no cause to stress over any goddamn Comanches."
"That ain't fact," Bob said. "Marshal's been talkin' about Comanches for a month. Ever since he got that telegram from the Army."
"The marshal's dumber than a wet sack," Clyde said.
Joseph leaned back in his saddle and started rolling a cigarette.
"Dumb or not, the man can read a telegram," Bob said.
Clyde looked left and right, then back and forward.
"You see all that? It's a big pile a' nothing far as the eye goes. Any goddamn Comanches pop up, we'll see 'em. 'Til then, don't worry 'bout no red men."
Bob shook his head a few times. "They'll see us as easy as we'll see them."
Joseph held up his hand and the group stopped. He hopped off his horse and kneeled down, looking at the ground, cigarette clamped between his lips. After several moments, he nodded and got back on his horse.
"Bear south," he said through gritted teeth.
Clyde nodded to himself. "Hutch Creek is south."
Joseph nodded. Bob looked around. He pulled the Winchester off his saddlebag and rested it against the horn. The sun was high over the four men as they veered south, a posse out to find their needle in a haystack and right the wrong against the Daniels brothers' dearly-departed pa.
"Ah can't read."
"That's okay, Pete."
"Ah can whistle."
"Good for you, Pete."
* * *
It was late afternoon when they spotted the old church house. It sat alongside a steep hill and had several headstones next to, jutting into the desert like a flowerbed of death. Four horses were hitched out front.
"You see all that?" Bob said.
Clyde nodded. He pointed to the left.
"Make for them rocks. We'll take a better look."
They rode for the rocks, Pete bringing up the rear. The four men dismounted and climbed up onto the boulder. Joseph took a spyglass out of his satchel and trained it on the church.
"Them horses ain't Sundown," he said after a moment.
Clyde swore. Pete aimed his shotgun at the church and carefully pulled the hammers back.
"What in the hell you doin', Pete?" Bob said.
"Ah'm keepin' ready case there's trouble."
"That's an eight-gauge," Bob said. "The church is three-hundred yards away."
Pete nodded several times.
"Hold up," Joseph said. "Somebody's movin' about."
The men lay flat. Pete kept his shotgun aimed at the church.
"Bob," Joseph said, "take a look at this."
Bob scooted over and Joseph handed him the spyglass.
"Little to your left, Bob. There it is. Who does that look like?"
Bob frowned as he focused the spyglass. He took a moment.
Then: "Leapin' lizards!"
He set the spyglass down and turned to Joseph.
"That's Graham O'Grady."
Joseph nodded. "What I thought."
Clyde looked at his brothers.
"Who's Graham O'Grady?"
"Member of the Juan Rojas Gang," Bob said. "Wanted for murder in California and Mexico. He gunned down four men in San Francisco, all of 'em heeled. Man's trouble."
"Hey," Pete said. "We's four men."
"Hell do we care about any goddamn members of any goddamn gang?" Clyde said. "We're here for Sundown. They don't got 'im, we move on. Didn't trek all the way out here for no bounty hunting."
Bob shook his head and handed the spyglass back to Joseph.
"You thick? Dirty Debbie made off with Sundown." He pointed at the church. "She's a member of that-there gang. So's O'Grady. If he's here, she'll be about."
"We don't know Dirty Debbie's the thief," Clyde said.
"Christ Almighty, Clyde. What snake crawled in your bunk? You described her. You saw the poster. Sure as shootin' it was Dirty Debbie. Question is, the hell we supposed to do now?"
"Can't kill no woman," Pete said.
"You so sure it was her," Clyde said, "then we go down and make 'em talk."
Bob laughed. "Make 'em talk? You some sorta dime-novel hero I ain't never heard of? Graham O'Grady killed four men like he were spittin' chew. Ain't none of us all that special with a gun, save for Joseph, and it don't change that I count four horses outside that church. O'Grady ain't alone."
Joseph didn't say anything. He was using the spyglass again. Pete looked at his eight-gauge.
"Ah got a gun."
Clyde scowled. "So what you want to do, Bob? Head on back with our tails between our legs and a horse short?"
"Goddammit, I ain't sayin' that. Be nice not to catch no lead, though."
"Hush up," Joseph said. "They got company."
Clyde turned away from Bob and looked down. Coming along from the south at an even pace was a rider. The horse was black.
"Goddamn," Clyde said. "Is that Sundown?"
Joseph didn't say anything. He kept his spyglass trained on the horse.
Then: "Yup. That's Sundown."
"Goddamn," Clyde said.
Bob swallowed hard. Pete turned to Clyde.
"Sundown's ya daddy's horse."
Joseph set down the spyglass and looked at Clyde.
"How you want to do this, brother?"
Clyde stared at the church for a while.
"All them Juan Rojas fellers got dead-or-alive bounties?"
"They do," Joseph said.
"Smart bet's head back to town," Bob said. "Get us a proper group. Outnumber 'em somethin' fierce."
"We go back to town, there's a good bet they'll have all skedaddled 'fore we're back," Clyde said.
"I could find 'em again," Joseph said, "or go back myself and then find you."
"Could be Comanches," Bob said. "Don't pay to travel that far yourself."
"Comanches is Injuns," Pete said.
Clyde rubbed his hands together.
"We take care a' this now," he said. "Tonight. No going back. All 'em gang members can catch lead."
"This is foolish," Bob said. "You're bein' a hard-headed fool."
Clyde turned to him.
"Then go back. Ain't nobody makin' you stay."
Bob scowled. He spat on the boulder.
"Like I'm gonna let my brothers go into this without me."
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"'Sides, I don't wanna run up against no Comanches alone."
"Comanches is Injuns," Pete said.
"We give it 'til dark," Clyde said, fingering his Winchester, "and we'll hit 'em without no warning."
Joseph nodded. He leaned back onto his rear. There was a rifle strapped to his back and a six-shooter on either side of his gun belt.
"It's a plan," he said, and began rolling another cigarette.
* * *
Night came, and the four men approached the church on foot. Candles were lit inside, illuminating the windows. Clyde and Joseph carried Winchesters, Bob held a silver six-shooter, and Pete wielded the eight-gauge shotgun.
A dark-skinned man stood outside the church, smoking a cigarette. Joseph held up his hand for the group to stop. He handed his rifle to Clyde and pulled a buck knife off his belt. He creeped up behind the man and, without so much as an extra breath, grabbed him by his left shoulder as he cut his throat. The man collapsed, and the rest of the group moved up.
"Okie dokie," Joseph said. "Pete, you stay put here. Me and Bob and Clyde'll storm the place. Once we clear—"
He was interrupted by Graham O'Grady walking out of the church, who took one look at the situation and reached for his gun without a word. Joseph lunged forward, sinking his knife into the crook's stomach just as he drew his revolver and fired a shot off.
There was immediate shouting from inside the church. The horses whinnied and strained against the hitching post. Bob swore and threw himself to one side of the doorway, leaning around and firing a few shots inside.
"Christ alive, you got 'im." Clyde leaned over and reached for Joseph's hand. "C'mon, let's—"
He stopped talking. Joseph's face was pale and a large bloodstain was forming on his shirt.
"Oh, hell," Clyde said. "Oh, hell."
Joseph swallowed a few times.
"G'on. Can't do nothin' 'til they're set."
Clyde stared at his brother for just a moment before turning to Pete.
"Stay with him. Don't let nothin' happen."
Pete looked at Joseph. "He's shot."
Clyde didn't say anything. Bullets were flying out of the church now. He rushed to the other side of the doorway and tossed Joseph's rifle to Bob.
"Not so far as I can tell," Bob said. He holstered his six-shooter and checked the Winchester's chamber. "This is a right mess."
"Don't see how you figger that," Bob said, firing a round into the church and jacking another one into the chamber.
"Give me some cover," Clyde said.
Bob did, shooting into the church again. Clyde lunged in, throwing himself behind one of the pews. Two men were visible by the altar, and even in the dim light they looked identical. The top of Clyde's pew exploded in chunks of wood as they shot at him. Bob leaned in again and shot one of them in the chest, putting him on his back. Another shape rose in the dark from a far pew, shooting back at Bob. He rolled back to cover, and Clyde shot the other man at the altar between his eyes. The other shooter moved to the left, and in the light of a nearby candle her red hair shined.
Clyde dropped down and jacked another round into the chamber. Bob leaned into the doorway as Dirty Debbie fanned the hammer of her gun, and two bullets caught Bob in the side, spinning him around with a yelp as he stumbled to the ground. Clyde shot at Dirty Debbie and missed, and dropped flat as she shot at him several times. He put another round in the chamber and leaned up as she turned and ran for the nearest window, throwing herself into it and smashing through the glass.
Clyde rushed back to Bob.
"How bad is it?"
Bob winced. "Ain't awful, I don't think. Go. Get her."
Clyde stood. Pete was leaning over Joseph and shaking his head. Out of the corner of his eye, Clyde saw movement by the horses. He turned to find Dirty Debbie grabbing at Sundown's reins.
Clyde fired at Dirty Debbie and the shot went wide. She turned, revolver raised, and Clyde threw his Winchester, hitting Dirty Debbie in the chest and making her drop her gun. He charged forward and punched her in the jaw. She stepped back and got her fists up, parrying his second swing and hitting him in the nose. The two of them struck back and forth as Sundown reared up and whinnied, and after a moment they were grabbing each others' throats and squeezing.
"Ah'll help ya, Clyde! Ah'm comin'!"
Clyde caught half a glance of Pete rushing up with his eight-gauge aimed. The left barrel's shot took off the tops of Dirty Debbie and Clyde's heads, while the right barrel's shot hit Sundown square in the flank, putting the enormous horse on its side and ending its whinnying.