The saloon was empty except for me and the bar dog, whose frown drooped lower and lower with every drink I ordered. Most of the men in the town had left for the war, but good old Cannonball stayed behind to look after his place. I was his biggest customer and the only woman he feared. Any fur trappers, lumberjacks, or lawmen passing through assumed I was playing dress-up and that both my revolvers were wooden. If I were challenged, though, any dumb drunk thinking they could take me learned very quickly how steel tasted. Cannonball hated this routine of me making a mess in his bar, but in my defense, any bloodstains on his floor were the fault of the man who underestimated me.
Tonight was dull, however, with me and him all alone in the spot. Before you start thinking there was some romance in the air, I assure you, I don't shine my shoes with that kind of polish if you know what I mean. I like a fine little lady, especially the wives of any of the men I killed. Cannonball was a man and one that understood immediately my distaste for his fellow species as soon as got friendly upon our first meeting. Back when we met, he made what he thought were lovely comments about my figure and face. That eventually led to, well, just notice how he's missing his two front teeth. That's all I'll say.
Now, no, the story you'll hear today isn't about Cannonball. Or his bloody bar. Or any of the girls whose husbands shed blood because of my aim and their bigmouth. I just like bringing those things up, that's how I am. A night like no other started with the doors flying open, a pet peeve of Cannonball, and me turning my head to see the man I'd have to take care of. No one disrespects my favorite bar dog. Unless you're me.
But to our dear surprise, it wasn't a man who made the noise and started walking up to us. It was a little lady, clearly not from anywhere close by. She was crying and I couldn't see her face with her hands covering it.
"Oh my, I give up. I'm finished, dear Lordy." She dropped her hands and revealed a face I'd never forget. Round, with sweaty strands of hair sticking to either end. She had red hair and blue eyes that came together like fire and water. Her lips, even while quivering, looked like the softest I've ever seen on anyone to pass through here. She had a black corset dress, the type I'd only seen in pictures of city life. I could tell that underneath it was a sure prize for the eyes. Cannonball noticed these features, too, but I shot him a look that told him she's mine. He understood and wiped his chin before finally responding to her.
"What is it, darlin'? Trouble in paradise?"
She sniffed and looked from him to me and lowered her head.
"I was going to get a gift from my man. He wrote me a letter and told me to dress pretty and wait by a watering hole. I was dropped off by my carriage this morning. I looked around all day, but I can't find any watering hole around here." She started crying louder again and I nodded towards the closest whiskey. Cannonball followed orders and brought out a glass with it and began pouring. I pulled out the stool next to mine and had her sit down. I put my arm around her shoulder and rubbed her arm.
"Listen, here, missy." I tried using a soft voice, which isn't really my thing. "The watering hole your man mentioned is what you're sitting in right now." She looked at me, just about as confused as a chicken out of its cage.
"This pigsty right here?" Tears kept forming in her eyes, surviving every blink.
"Yes, missy. That's Cannonball and he looks over everything here. Now, you look like nice folk, so I'm-a give it to you straight. Your husband ain't coming here. Sweets like you only get dropped off in this town to be forgotten about. He ain't coming back here."
She burst into a shower of tears and fell deeper into me as I massaged her back.
"I know, baby. I know. Here, take this. Lord knows you need it." I handed her the drink and she reluctantly brought it to her mouth. She only took a couple of sips before coughing out.
"Oh, my. I sure am sorry. I don't mean to make a mess on you or . . . you said you're name's Cannonball?" He nodded and she looked up to me. "And what's your name?"
"Shirly Cheyenne. Shy-Anne how's you say it."
"Cheyenne. Okay. Well, thank you for the drink, both of you. You sure seem like—" It was when she looked down to my hips and saw the guns when she started gasping and looking worried.
"I seem like what?" I gave her a smile that let her know I would never use these on her and I patted the small of her back. "I don't use these often. At least not on little ladies like you, sugar."
The stranger took a breath, drew back, and laughed. "My, oh my. I must've left my manners in the carriage. I'm Martha. Martha Miller."
She drank more whiskey, a couple of gulps this time, while we all sat there, freshly acquainted. Cannonball turned away from us and started shining his shotgun with his spit and a dirty necktie. Martha drank the rest of the glass and started to pour another. That's when I got my idea.
"Attagirl, sugar. You know, I've got myself an idea. Now that I think about it."
Cannonball stopped his cleaning, stood up, and turned back to face me. "Naw. No, Cheyenne. You're not goin' to do that."
"Do what?" Martha looked at us with what was becoming her signature helpless look.
"We're just talking, Cannonball."
"You're not getting her involved."
"Talking! That's all we're doing. Let me finish my point. Keep at it with that filthy piece."
Cannonball sat down again and returned to his gun, shaking his head. I looked back at Martha and gave another smile.
"I was thinking you could help me, sugar."
"Oh, of course. You two have been so kind to me and all."
"Alright, listen here." I stood up and sent a wad of phlegm flying into the spitton on the floor. "I've got a job to do. Lord knows you need a couple coins to get a place to stay, maybe some clothes. There's someone we have to take care of. His name is Mason Bronco."
"My, he sounds mighty dangerous."
"Not with me around. But, he sure ain't your average ten-cent man. Not like the yellow-bellies you might see here. Him and his crew stay not too far from here. They like to give Cannonball here a hard time. It's about time we get our revenge. Anway, Mason Bronco just made his jack on one of the most respected lawmen around here. So he's laying low for the time being. But, the other night, I heard from one of the drunks in his crew, one who likes to talk a lot, see? I heard that they have a lot of gold stored after robbing the mine near the mountain."
"They robbed a gold mine?" You could see the shivers go up Martha's back when she said that.
"Yes, sugar. A gold mine. That's where he killed the lawman." I handed my revolvers to Cannonball so he could clean them, too. Of course, after giving me a dirty look. "The point is that he's in hiding right now and his whole gang is vulnerable. They're not trynna see a fight, so we'll give 'em one. It'll be a surprise of sorts."
"My, Cheyenne. I don't like the sound of that. I don't like fighting. Not me. No, ma'am."
"You said 'my Cheyenne.' I like the sound of that." I smirked and I swear I caught her blushing. "Don't fret. You won't be fighting. You'd be wearing a costume of sorts. That's right, take another."
Martha finished her third glass of whiskey as she put on her thinking face. "A costume? Well, why?"
"Mason Bronco is a superstitious man. He ain't afraid of anything you might describe as mortal, see. Shooters, wolves, the heat. You name it, it don't scare him. The only thing that gets a rile out of him, even more than death, is death coming back to haunt him. You follow?"
"You mean like a ghost, Cheyenne?"
"You hear that, Cannonball? Ghost! I love how Eastern folk talk." I turned back to Martha and got more excited for the small journey we where about to take. "Yeah. Ghost. We call them spirits over here, and Mason Bronco takes them real serious. His worst thought would be that one wakes him up in the middle of sleeping. We'll go his camp while his men are sleeping and you'll lift his lammy, wake him up, give him a good scare. We'll put some white paint on you, some red too. Mess your hair up, then have a hog-killin' time."
"Okay. Are you, uh, good with those revolvers?"
Cannonball let out a laugh at that, knocking his head back.
"Lil Martha, I want you to look at that mantle right there. You see, next to the bull skull? That jar filled with spurs? Those belong to all the odd sticks that opened their mouths to Cheyenne the wrong way. A bunch a sorry namby-pambies."
Martha looked at the jar then to Cheyenne and put her hands together. "Okay, I'll do it. How do we go about such business?"
"You just follow me. Prairie Bridge is just about, say, three miles from here? We won't need the critters, will we?" I looked to Cannonball for conformation and he nodded. "Yeah, three miles. I'll fetch two water canteens and grab the paint. Wait here."
I hopped over the bar and searched through it's cupboards while they continued the conversation.
"Um, what are critters, Cannonball?"
"She means, like, horses. Except the drought's been a bit of a burden on our animals here, especially the ranch horses. Best not to use 'em."
"I see. How long have you owned this place?"
"Well, now." Cannonball wiped the sweat from his gray hair and tucked his top lip into his bottom one. "Since before the war. I took over from my cousin who's daddy built it a long time ago."
"Oh, I'm sure you hate the war. All of my friends back home really hate it. Any kind of fighting."
"Truth be told, the war's brought in people from all around. The Union, I mean, really, or any side." He set my revolvers on the wood inbetween them. "I'll serve anyone that walks through here who has a dollar and a desire to drink. Call me dirty."
"My, you must get a lot of bad folk coming in here."
"You know, mostly train robbers. But hey, looting of that sort is still a line of work, ain't it? And I'll pour for anybody as long as they can pay."
I popped back up after finding what we needed. I didn't take too kindly to how mesmermized Martha was by what she was hearing.
"Clean this mess up, Cannonball. You've got all this stuff here you don't need." I put the paint and canteens in my satchel, revolvers where they belonged, and took Martha by the hand and let her out without saying goodbye to Cannonball.
The sky was black, polka-dotted with bright stars. You could still see what was in front of you on account of the moon. It made Martha's face shine and her eyes light up. I couldn't pay much attention to that, however, for our mission had to be dealth with. We started walking away from Cannonball's and I spit down as a final farewell for the night.
* * *
I was surprised by how well Martha could keep up in that fancy dress she wore. It was a shame we'd have to cut it before seeing Mason Bronco. For the image of a spirit I'd need to really sell the picture. Paint and all. She seemed happy to be by my side. I've taken up my fair share of sidekicks in the past, but I've learned that the more people you bring along, the more targets you find on your back. I've never liked making a job more dangerous than it needed to be. That's why it's usually just me and a horse. Truth be told, I like using the weather as a partner in crime. Using my gun on a barrel of water to thirst a crew out. Works better than you think. Dry clouds and dustier ground is a combo not many are ready to fight in. Especially if one gets too comfortable. Out here, you can never get too comfortable.
I learned that water trick from the vaqueros a while back. Without knowing it, I saved one of their young ones from a dastardly man. This wicked robber that would set fire to a train after his gang looted it. That was his signature style, you could say. I just didn't want to see a little girl get hurt. Lord knows I've seen that plenty of times in my life. I wasn't worried about that tonight, though. Mason Bronco wasn't dumb enough to set a big ol' fire to anything, letting everyone know exactly where he was and who he stole from.
The vaqueros really taught me a lot now that I think about it, looking at the stars. They let me know there was a way you could look at the night sky and know where you're at and where you're going. I have yet to learn more about that, but Lord, talk about quick thinking. They also taught me about spirits and how serious of a matter they are. No fooling around when it came to them. Respect is the big thing, see? You can't go around making a big ol' joke about that sort of thing. Lotta people around these parts claim to have seen them. Pretty useful lessons if you ask me.
I lost my train of thought when I noticed that Martha had slowed down. I could tell she was looking to ask me something.
"My, Cheyenne. How did you know I was from the East, anyway? Instead of saying the Union, or another town in the west?" She hiccuped when she was through with her question. I looked at her and grabbed her hand, to not lose our pace in this God-forsaken desert.
"C'mon, we gotta keep walking. But, sugar, I've met a a lot of people. Over many-a years. You get used to telling who's from where. A lot of pretty women come from the east, I can tell you that much for sure." I looked over and you could see her blushing again, I swear to you.
"You know, Cheyenne, where's your husband? I mean, you haven't mentioned him once, I don't think."
"Sugar, there ain't no husband in the picture. No friendly man, no boy I've ever taken a liking to in that way. Just dirty, ol' Cannonball. And he's just good for drinks and a lame story now and then." I knew that, somehow, he could just sense that I was talking about him, even from a couple miles away.
"My, the way Cannonball was looking at me, I'd thought he would've wanted my hand in marriage."
"Over his dead body." I had to scoff at that one.
"So, I don't mean to get in your business, but . . . you take a liking to women? I mean, is that . . . allowed in these parts? No man will come give you a whipping for thinking like that?"
"I'd like to see one try."
"Because I had a neighbor growing up, and she told me about those kinds of feelings. Like yours, I mean. One day I saw her dad chasing her around the street. She never brought those feelings up again after that. I always thought he found out, and if anyone found out that I thought like that from time to time . . . well, I would see the same fate."
I took a deep breath. This is the exact kind of situation that rattles my snake ends. I stopped in my tracks and put my hands on her shoulders.
"Martha Miller, you need to listen, right here, right now. Under no circumstance will any man be chasin' you, hurtin' you, or even lookin' at you the wrong way. As long as you stick with me. I bought these revolvers for that exact situation." I squeezed her shoulders, tilted my head, and brought her closer to walk on.
"I sure do like the sound of that. Sometimes I don't quite have a grip of my feelings. Like I don't really, truly know what I even like." She sighed and kicked a rock away. "Say, how much did you pay for those guns? They look awfully nice."
"Well, sugar. If I'm being honest," I coughed and gripped the revolver on my left-hand side, "I didn't exactly pay for these, see? Not in a shop, at least. I nibbled 'em from a robber. That's right, I stole from a crazy feller. He liked to set fires and all."
Martha took this information as we walked a little further until I started hearing the sound of water. I stopped walking, with my new companion following suit. I squinted at the horizon then gazed my eyes down and found our destination. An old bridge, worn-down, and the dusty spot where we'd find Mason Bronco and his gang.
"Right, right, sugar. Here we go." I dropped my satchel to the floor and took out the paint. "On your knees. We're gon' make you look real mean'looking."
Martha did just that and awaited her treatment. I opened the can of white paint first, scooped out a handful, and covered her face with it. One layer, then another until she was lookin' spooky. Then I took the red color and drew stripes and marks on her face, anything to frighten ol' Mason Bronco. I set that down and brought the white color up again. I emptied the whole tin onto Martha's hair, who, by the way, was being real patient about the whole thing. I made cuts in her dress to add to the image. My blade sliced through the fabric as she let out these gasps that made me distracted.
"Alright." I had Martha stand up and I looked at her up and down. "Know what? Roll around a little in this here mud. You know? It's dry, it's night. What am I saying? Get some dirt on ya, c'mon."
Martha threw some dirt on her now messy dress. We walked a little closer to the bridge and hid behind this big stone. I leaned her in and told her the game plan.
"Alright, sugar. You're goin' to go creep up to his spot, lift his blanket. When you take the lammy off, make sure to do it slow. Then, raise your arms and scream like no one's business. I'll be right there, with both my pieces out, shooting everywhere. You ain't gonna be in any type of danger at all, sugar, 'cause I'm gonna have both my eyes peeled lookin' at ya'll the whole time. This part here's mighty important; if at any momen' you feel sick in the stomach, you run and hide, I swear. It'll be fine and I'll just take 'em. You got all that?"
Martha eyed the bridge then looked me deep in the eyes and nodded. I grinned and turned her around to let her go. I crouched a little closer to get a good view of the place. Martha slowly trotted down to his camp. I counted only three bodies laying in cots around the fire. I aimed my gun at the area just in case. Both hands on my pieces, looking straight at my new partner.
She made her way to the fire, all quiet-like. Then, she disappeared , which made my heart drop a little. Maybe 'cause of the shadows, or how dark the bridge made the place, but I couldn't see her for a second. Then, you wouldn't believe the sight that took place. The fire shot at least another two yards up and I heard the most bone-chilling scream I've ever heard, lady-like but a sure terror, I'll tell you. It even gave me goosebumps.
I heard Mason Bronco's deep yells then, at that was my cue. As I ran up, shooting at the cots, I saw two men running like no one's business away from the camp. Must've been the gang abandoning their leader, thank the Lord. I got closer and saw Martha with her arms raised, still screaming. Her hair looked mighty white, and, boy, what a presence she was. I don't know how she did it, but she must've grew another foot or two and looked twice as big as when I saw her. I don't know how she was making this look so darn real. That's when I started yelling out.
"Okay, that's good! You're mine, now, Mason Bronco!" I started shooting at the cot near Martha. But, I swear to you, in the blink of an eye, Martha was gone. So was her screaming. That big ol' space she took up was now gone and the fire was small again. I whirled around to make sure it was just me and Mason Bronco. Martha must've ran off. Now that she did her part, it was my turn. I saw Mason Bronco stand up and go for his shotgun. I fired at it, making it bounce back. That sure got his attention. He jumped back and put his hand to his hip. Now we were having a blast.
"I know that ain't Shirley Cheyenne, is it? I would've been dead by now if it was her." Mason Bronco laughed, making his stained mustache go up-and-down. His dirty vest and shirt must've got a little burnt from the fire. His legs, in black pants, weren't shaking, which was rare for my usual opponents.
"It sure is me, Mason Bronco. Say your final words." I took a step forward. I looked down to his spurs and knew they'd be a neat addition to my collection. "C'mon, let's hear 'em."
"You know, what? I'll let your boy Cannonball live if you let me go. How 'bout it?"
"We both know that's one, big, bullriding lie, there."
He swung his hip as if to hide his own weapon, probably a revolver like mine. I thought of Martha and of how thankful I was for having her start the party. That's when the ugly mug I was facing opening his dry mouth for the last time.
"Ha! For a living I make a killing, Shirly Cheyenne. I'll shoot a child, his mother, then his father. In that order."
"The only thing you're killing, Mason Bronco, is any bug on the ground when I shoot you down."
He moved his arm fast as whipped his pistol out, but I ducked and shot like no tomorrow. I heard a loud thud and once the dust settled, I saw his body laying, unmoving, the reflection of the fire dancing on him.
"There." I blew the tip of my revolvers and put them back. I ran over to his cot. I knew the selfish dog would keep all his coins with him. As I scooped all of his money into my satchel, I thought about the war. He would've been one sorry sight on either side. We had our own war, here, though. And I had yet to lose. Once I took his spurs, I looked around for Martha. I couldn't see her. My heart started beating, but I kept my cool. I could just go climb that big stone we hid behind. Get on top of that and find her.
All the money making noises in my bag made we feel happy, I won't lie to you. I got to the stone, but saw that I wouldn't even have to climb it.
"Sugar! There you are!" She was sitting, leaning against the thing. I'll tell you, I felt real relieved to see her there in one piece. "Let me sit right beside ya. Lord, you did real well back there."
She looked at me and gave me a scared look. Probably just rookie shudders. Lord knows I got 'em my first job.
"From now on, sugar, how 'bout we be in cahoots together? How's that sound?" I looked at her, then leaned back like she did and closed my eyes.
"My, Cheyenne. Cahoots. I'd like that." I could hear her gulp from where I was sitting. "But what do you mean that I did real well?"
"I mean, you scared him real good. I don't know how you made yourself big like that, but darn." I chuckled out loud. "That was real good, sugar."
"But Cheyenne," Martha snuggled up righ next to me and turned her voice into a whisper. "I was here the whole time. After I started walking towards the fire, I turned right around and hid again. Only, you were gone. And I heard that awful, awful screaming. That's when I saw that large figure by the fire. The fire, tall as a person. I told you to be careful when you kept walking towards it, but you didn't hear me."
I opened my eyes. Now she was scarin' me for real. "Sugar, that wasn't you? Is that what you're tellin' me?"
"Cheyenne, the Lord knows that wasn't me. That must've been the real thing we saw. I never saw a real spirit before, oh my." She squeezed my arm and simply asked, "cahoots?"
With my goosebumps shaking my body and my eyes wide, I kissed her forehead then answered.
"Yes, sugar. Cahoots."