When the men finally left, Dina came out of the outhouse where she had been hiding with Baby Jesse in her arms and went straight for Starling, Jesse's mare which was saddled up outside. One look inside the house had told her all she needed to know - Dina was a frontier girl, and she knew what a dead man looked like. Jesse had put up a hell of a fight, but this time it hadn't been enough. By nightfall, Maurice Black would be in the mayor's mansion, and he would make one of his thugs sheriff in Jesse's place. She knew how it worked; after all, Jesse had helped Big Tom do the same thing only a few short years before.
Dina put one arm around Baby Jesse in his sling across her chest, and used the other to hoist herself onto Starling's back. My, how time does fly, she thought to herself.
Maurice would have his boys watching the south road, towards the rest of the county. Maybe they'd let her go, and maybe they wouldn't. After all, couldn't have her around, letting Baby Jesse suckle on dreams of revenge. So she headed north, away from town, towards the hills.
The mines weren't being worked this time of year, but just to be safe Dina nudged Starling off the main trail and down into the dry riverbeds. Hopefully the banks would help hide Baby Jesse's crying, or at least make it harder for someone to tell where it was coming from.
The side-trail she was looking for was barely visible anymore; Dina was sure she would have missed it completely if not for the rusty barbed wire someone had strung across it, hooked to a post with a sign nailed to it: Danger. Dina hesitated; Baby Jesse stopped crying for a minute, and the air was quiet except for Starling's breathing and the sound of the hot wind across the sands. No hoofbeats, no gunshots. Maybe she didn't have to do this after all.
Then Baby Jesse took a breath and started to wail again, and Dina made up her mind, hitched up her skirt, and kicked the post hard as she could. The old, dry wood snapped after only two kicks, and she grabbed it with both hands, cursing and ignoring the splinters, and tugged until the barbed wire had been pulled aside and the path was clear. Climbing back onto Starling and picking up Baby Jesse, she rode on.
The path disappeared completely before long, and Dina could only make out where to go because there weren't any boulders there. Nobody in town in their right mind would come up here - everyone knew that there were spirits in the hills, which would strike you dead if you gave them half a chance. But Dina knew better: firstly, because if the spirits killed everyone, how would anyone be left to tell; but mostly because of Nana.
Nana, who had taken Dina in and raised her after her mother ran off, who told Dina stories about the place she was born, in a whole other world in one of the stars in the sky. Most everyone in town thought that Nana was touched, at best, and so Dina must be a bit touched herself for being raised by her; but Dina believed. After all, nobody could deny that Nana had been taller and thinner than almost anyone else - she said that it was because things weren't as heavy where she came from, whatever that meant - and when pressed, even the town elders admitted that they didn't know how old Nana really was; the honest ones admitted that she'd been around when they were boys, looking the same as she did on the day she finally died.
The trail crested the hill and vanished, and Dina dismounted, letting Starling nibble from the feed bag and unbuttoning her own blouse to let Baby Jesse nurse as she looked around. She didn't know what exactly she was looking for, but she recognized it when she finally saw it: nestled between two hills, almost hidden from view under a low outcropping of rock, was a dark patch with a few small bushes surely growing out of the earth; the ground around them was more soil brown than desert sand, and Dina thought she could make out extra flecks of green growing out of it. More confident now, she buttoned up her blouse and prepared to ride forward.
The outcropping was broader and deeper than it had looked from far away, and as she approached Dina could make out several different bushes and roots growing in the patch of soil around a small pool where a narrow little stream came down from the hills. Dina dismounted, leaving Baby Jesse safely on the saddle as she approached on her own. It looked more permanent than just a campsite; besides the small garden there were a couple of cougar pelts on the ground, one half-covering a collection of little clay bowls. Further away, just past where the overhang ended, Dina saw a small field of the dirt mounds of filled-in squat holes.
"Hey?" Dina yelled, and her voice echoed against the rocks and got Baby Jesse crying again. "Hey!"
No answer. She looked around, trying to find some tracks in the sand. "I know you're here somewhere!" she yelled again, less sure this time.
Baby Jesse kept crying, louder now. "I know you can hear me! I know what you are! You'd better come out here!" Desperately, Dina grabbed one of the clay bowls from under the pelt and threw it against the rock wall, shattering it. "There!" she hollered.
"Get out!" a voice rolled across the small canyon. Dina spun around, trying to see where it came from. "Get out!"
Dina caught her breath. "I won't!" she yelled back, louder over Baby Jesse's high wail. "So you better come down here and talk to me!"
"Get out!" again, and this time Dina was listening carefully. The tone was high, and the words were clipped in a strange accent. So it was true!
"I know what you are!" she crowed. "I ain't afraid of you!"
A thought occurred to her. She picked Baby Jesse up in her arms and walked back, past the overhang. Squinting against the midday white sky, she looked up, and could just make out dark shape crouched against the blinding hillside, looking down.
"Nana told me about you!" she yelled again. "You ain't no ghost!"
The figure unfolded, and moved down the hillside to the lip of the overhang. Dina squinted more, her eyes starting to brim with tears; the just before her eyes shut entirely, she could make out the figure as tall, with slender arms sticking out of a poncho.
"If you know what I am," the figure called, and Dina was sure it had a woman's voice now. "You know I could kill you right now. You and your baby."
Dina cradled Baby Jesse close, and took a breath. Well, this was it. "You could," she agreed. "But I reckon you ain't gonna. I reckon... I reckon, if you were keen on killing folk, why are you living out here in the desert by your lonesome?"
The figure on the hill said nothing.
"I ain't never told anyone what Nana told me about you," Dina went on. "But if you don't come down here and talk to me, I'm gonna go back into town and tell everyone, and you ain't gonna be able to be alone out here no more."
The figure still didn't move.
"Fine!" yelled Dina, turning on her heels sharply, making Baby Jesse start crying again. "I'm going!"
She reached the mare, who was patiently drinking from the little pool, before turning again; the figure was still standing there, looking down at her, doing nothing. She blinked her eyes shut tight, against the sun and the tears. "Please," she said at last, so softly that she worried the figure couldn't hear her "Please," she said again, louder. "They're going to kill my baby."
It felt rude to Dina to ride while the strange woman walked, so she walked alongside her, leading Starling by the bridle. The woman had packed up a few of her belongings - a clay bowl, some vegetables, a colorful little pouch that clinked when it moved - and put them in a pack she slung across her back. Dina looked her over, trying not to be obvious about it. She was tall and slender, like Nana had been, but her skin wasn't as fair, and was closer to the tan red of ordinary folk. Her dark hair was tied in a braid that hung all the way down her back. Her arms were slender, but looked like knotted ropes, with muscles visible just under the skin.
"Were you born up in the stars?" Dina asked at last, wanting to fill the silence.
The woman hesitated, then nodded. "I suppose so," she said.
"Nana was too," Dina said. "She said she came here in a bullet big enough for folks to ride in."
The woman nodded again.
"I'm glad its true," Dina went on. "What Nana told me. Do you think the star bullets will come here again?"
The woman shrugged. "Maybe, one day. But I don't think so."
"Because of the war up there, right? The one you were a soldier in," Dina pressed, and this time the woman didn't even move her head, and Dina fell silent.
The sun was already fat and low in the sky by the time they got close to town. Dina felt her bile rise: there was another horse tied to the post outside her house. Someone hadn't wasted any time moving in.
She rocked Baby Jesse gently and cooed to him, hoping he would stay quiet, wouldn't give them away. "That ain't my horse," she warned quietly. "There's a man in there."
"Two," the woman responded in a far-away voice.
Two sets of electric pulses; two nervous systems; two people inside the house. She couldn't help but know it any more than she could help hearing the wind. They both carried guns, small and steel and complex against the wood and iron of the house itself. More. She could feel the whole northern edge of the town, two hundred and nineteen human heartbeats. Old instincts she had fought so hard to suppress came back with frightening ease, and she had to stop herself. No.
Dina turned away from the house, looked at her sharply. "Are you going to kill them?
The woman met her gaze. "I'm not killing anyone unless I have to," she said simply.
"I thought you were gonna help me," Dina said.
"I am," the woman said with a sigh, not looking away.
"Fine," said Dina. "We'll see."
She drew herself up and strode towards the house, not looking back to make sure the woman was following her. Feeling suddenly reckless, she sped up, not caring as Baby Jesse started crying again, not caring how her hand stung as she shoved her front door open with all her might.
"Po-Rat," she said, breathing hard as she stood in the doorway. "I don't suppose I ought to be surprised. And I see you brought your little mouse with you."
The man called Po-Rat straightened up slowly from the bed, her and Jesse's bed, he had been laying on, and his stocky wife spun around from the stove in the corner.
"Well lookee here," Po-Rat said. "Jesse's rabid bitch came home at last, and her little runt with her. And I see you brought a friend, too," he added, and Dina saw the woman standing beside her. "But this is our home now, see," he went on, "So you'd best be on your way."
Leisurely, Po-Rat reached towards his belt, beginning to draw his gun, when his whole body suddenly jerked once, his head rolled forward, and he was still. His wife screamed, and Jesse saw her arm start to reach towards the back of her dress before she too collapsed with a dull thud on the floor.
No! It shouldn't have been so easy! Not after so long! She had barely even seen them both reach for their guns before instinct took over. Her attack fields flared to life, and their raw brains, unhardened nerves, were nowhere near a challenge. This wasn't combat, they weren't a threat, not really, she told herself desperately. It shouldn't have felt so good.
It took Dina a second to realize what had happened. She walked over to the wife, carefully nudged her with her boot before letting out a cry, half whoop and half sob.
She looked at the woman, who was staring blankly ahead. She opened her mouth to ask a question, and thought the better of it. "Thanks," she said instead.
"Get what you need," the woman said. "You can't stay here."
"I know that," said Dina.
Baby Jesse's cradle was still at the foot of the bed, and Dina put him down in it as she went about gathering her things. The house's one room was a mess; Po-Rat and his wife had dumped out the drawers and chests, looking for money probably. Working quickly, she picked a few dresses and shifts off the floor and tossed them onto the bed. Her sewing kit was still on the mantle, and she took that too. Finally, she found some cured meat wrapped in paper, added it to the pile, and tied the corners of the blanket together to make a quick sack which she hefted to make sure it held.
After hesitating, she pushed Po-Rat's body back up and unhooked the purse from his belt. She started to fish out his gun too, but the woman stopped her with a sharp "Don't!"
"Why not?" Dina asked.
"I don't want to hurt you by mistake," she said.
The woman agreed to take Po-Rat's horse, and Dina was back to riding Starling. She had wanted to go straight through town, daring Maurice and his boys to get in their way, let them just try, but the woman insisted on going the long way 'round, and twice forced them to leave the trail and hide behind the dunes, waiting silently as they could until men on horses Dina hadn't even heard coming rode past.
"You really don't want to hurt nobody, do you?" she asked.
"I don't," the woman nodded.
"Shame, seeing as you've got a knack for it," Dina joked and immediately regretted it.
"They're looking for us, aren't they?" Dina asked later, after the second group of riders had passed.
"I don't know," the woman said. "Probably. Yes."
"How'd you know they were coming?"
The woman sighed. "Do you know what a resonance entanglement field is?" she asked. Dina shook her head. "How about implants?"
"Nana told me about that," Dina said. "That's having machines in your body, right?"
The woman nodded.
"Is that how you- ?" she started to ask, then stopped.
The woman nodded again.
She could sense it all. Riders had come to the house, found the bodies and left in a hurry, heading to a big building deeper in the town, probably the tavern. More riders had left, spreading the news. The patterns assembled themselves: zones divided up, patrols sent out. She had to admit, they knew what they were doing. Alone, she would have left the horse, moved on foot into the steeper hills to the west and bypassed their pursuit, but she couldn't expect the girl to follow, especially not with the baby. So, it would mean another confrontation. She wished part of her wasn't looking forward to it.
"Do you know who's in command?" the woman asked her as they got closer to the main road.
"You mean who's the boss?" Dina asked. "That's Maurice, now that he's killed Big Tom and my Jesse. How come?"
"He'll be here soon," she said.
Sure enough, Dina could make out a posse waiting at the crossroads south of town, and pretty soon it galloping towards them. The woman reined in her horse, and Dina did the same. In a moment they were surrounded by maybe a dozen horses, their riders fingering drawn pistols and shotguns as they looked back and forth between Dina and the woman, and Maurice Black, now wearing the thick gold mayor's chain around his neck.
"You'd best get out of my way, Maurice," Dina said defiantly. "Or I'll do to you what I done to your rat."
Maurice's men looked nervous, but Maurice just sneered. "I ain't gonna swallow any of your poison, Miss Dina," he said. "Not yours or the other witch."
Dina shot a glance at the woman beside her, who was giving Maurice an expressionless gaze. Slung across her chest, Baby Jesse started crying.
"I always knew you were no good," Maurice went on. "Raised by a witch, so she's probably a witch herself, that's what I always said. And now you've gone and proved it."
She fought hard to resist. They're hostile, they're armed, they're undefended, said something deep in her mind. Why are they still alive?
"Now, listen close," Maurice said. "You ain't getting out of here. But if you put your baby on the ground so's he don't get hurt, I'll see he gets raised right."
She could see with her own eyes the circle shifting, the back half moving out of the way so they wouldn't be hit by friendly fire. She had to do something. She concentrated, fighting against her instinct, the automatic targeting system, whatever you wanted to call it, trying to focus only on the leader; drop him, the rest will back off, no need to kill them all.
Dina gave a cocky toss of her head.. "You go to hell, Maurice Black," she said, and clicked her horse forward.
The shot broke her concentration, and she felt her fields roar to life again, uncontrolled, and for a split second she was overwhelmed by the feedback - it had been too long not to feel this way, victory, eleven enemy dead at once, it was better than water on a hot day, better than the best food her mother had ever made her, better than love, better than sex, better than! - and it was gone, and she had to grab onto the horse to keep from falling off.
The girl was slumped forward in her saddle, radiating nothing but residual body heat.
She felt a second wave of nausea wash over her; she had hesitated, tried to avoid doing what she knew she had to do - and this was the result.
She took stock of her surroundings as she slid off the horse. Nobody within visual range, but another group of riders was heading towards them, and would be there soon. She had to move fast.
From the other horse, the baby started crying again. Carefully, her fingers quickly getting sticky with blood, she undid the sling from around the girl's neck. She picked up the baby, holding it the way she had seen the girl do, wiping the blood from its face with a corner of her poncho.
"Shhh," she found herself saying, uselessly. "We have to go."
She climbed back on her horse, steadying the baby in her lap as she knotted the sling around her own neck and shoulder.
South, the girl had told her, towards the rest of the county, but there was nobody ahead as far as she could sense. With one hand cradling the baby, she clicked the reins, and her horse trotted forward.
"Mounted patrol inbound from the north-east," she whispered to the baby, clicking the reins again. "ETA two hundred seventy seconds. Think we can out-ride them? I think we can."