Mistakes of the Past
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.
Gunshots rang out in the hot Jakkard afternoon. Too many gunshots. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The bank was only supposed to have three guards, and two of them were supposed to have been paid off already. The third should have surrendered almost immediately when he saw the gang burst in, guns loaded and bags ready. In and out in seven minutes flat, with no unnecessary noise or complications. It was supposed to be so easy.
Jackie DeCoeur cursed as she burst out of the bank’s front door, ducking under the bullets flying at her from both inside the bank and out. This had all the earmarks of an ambush. Somebody hadn’t done their job, and she suspected she knew who it was. Behind her, Dazie burst through the now-open doorway, blasting away at whatever shapes she could see. Together, they dove behind a large acridian trough, and with a massive shove of her equally massive shoulder, Dazie tipped the thing over, providing some sort of protection against the shooters across the street. The bank wall would have to do for protection from those still inside.
“Well?” Dazie demanded angrily.
“Don’t look at me,” Jackie yelled back, risking a glance over the trough. She ducked back down just in time to avoid a shot between the eyes. “I did my job.”
Dazie held up her bag, overflowing with coin. “I did mine! But no one told me I’d have to shoot my way through six hells to get it out of here! So whose gun misfired here?”
“I’ll give you one guess,” Jackie yelled over the roar of the guns. “Did you see one guard in there, or three?”
“Three?” Dazie exclaimed, shooting over her shoulder. “There were a dozen in there if there was one!”
“Exactly,” Jackie said. “And whose job was it to make sure there was only one?”
Dazie took a moment to glance over at her friend. “Jane?”
Jackie just nodded. “I told you, didn’t I? Ever since Reubin…”
“No time for that now,” Dazie warned, pointing back toward the bank. “We’ve got a job to do, remember?”
“Damn right,” the red-eyed woman said. “We have to get the others out. You want the bank or the street?”
“I’ll take the bank,” Dazie said. “But you’d better find us a better hiding place. This trough’s almost had it, and that wall’s not gonna be worth much in a minute.”
“I’ll handle it,” Jackie assured her. “On three?”
Dazie just nodded.
“Three!” Jackie yelled, and both of them jumped to their feet. Jackie wheeled toward the street, her gun blazing just as quickly as she could spot a target. Dazie turned her back to the shooters on the street, and instead blasted through the bank window, scattering glass everywhere and forcing the guards inside to dive for cover. Jackie kept one red eye on her targets as she glanced back over her shoulder. “Saris! Noraa! Gub! Move it! Now!”
A moment later, three shapes moved through the doorway. The first was Saris, a tall, whisper-thin man with an uneven beard and a wild eye. Behind him slithered Noraa, her dusty brown scales making her hard to see in the wind-blown sand. As she moved out of the way, Gub stumbled out. He was a clumsy noggle and a terrible shot, but he was crazy and loyal, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do. Also, nobody took a shot like Gub. Jackie, however, was hoping none of them would have to eat lead that day.
“Get to the alleys! Noraa and Saris, take this side. Dazie! Gub! Cross the street!”
“Where are you going?” Dazie asked before firing another shot into the bank, then dropping to a crouch.
“I’m staying here.”
“Jackie, you can’t…”
Another flurry of shots interrupted the minotaur as all five of the gang members dropped to the ground. “We don’t have time to argue,” Jackie said. “Leave the cover to me. I’ll get us out of here.”
“You’re the boss,” Dazie said.
“Not yet,” Jackie mumbled.
At the top of a steep hillock a short distance away, far enough to avoid detection but close enough to watch everything, a single centaur did just that, his long, black rifle in his hands, his sharp eyes barely blinking in the dust. While Jackie and the others moved through the desperate chaos below, he waited, still as a statue. He just needed a good shot. He never took a shot that wasn’t. That’s why Sage never missed.
* * *
It was a murky, starless night in a small town out in the Wastes. The town was quiet, and the streets were almost completely clear. Except, of course, for two figures, one kneeling on all four equine knees, one lying dead on his back. Sage’s weathered face gave no indication of his thoughts as he carefully examined the corpse. It was a human boy, and young, too. Sage was never much good at guessing human ages. Somewhere between eight and twelve, he figured, but ultimately, it didn’t matter. The Wastes wouldn’t think much of him, all things considered. Just another orphan whose face was forgotten by Jakkard.
But it wasn’t the boy’s face that Sage was studying. It was his hands. In the kid’s right hand, there was a tiny sliver of paper, torn off just above his thumb. Whatever it had been, the kid had held on to it like a vice, even after death. In his left hand, though, Sage found something even more disturbing. It was a single scale, plucked from a Rattler, or perhaps a Vash. There were few people in the Wastes who didn’t know what that meant.
“Pry,” Sage whispered to himself.
His years as a Ridder had well acquainted the centaur with the infamous killer known only as Pry. Every victim was killed cleanly and quickly, and every one was left with a single reptilian scale folded into the left hand. The Ridders had searched for Pry on several occasions, and Sage had joined in on more than one of the Rids. But they had never found anything. Not a single trace. All there ever was was a victim and a scale. There were no other clues, no tracks, and when the Rids ended, no justice.
Sage bit back a wave of resentment. There were few things in his life he had ever failed at, few things that had ever fallen beyond his reach. But he had never managed to rid the Wastes of Pry. It was one of his few regrets as a Ridder. Absently, Sage stroked the barrel of his rifle, his thumb gliding meaningfully over the single notch he had placed there, the reminder of his singular miss, his one mistake.
Suddenly, Sage sensed that he wasn’t alone. His honed tracking skills centered in on the other presence immediately, and his head snapped up. There, in the shadows of a nearby alley, he saw another child, another human boy, who fell into the same age range as the dead kid. The child froze as soon as Sage locked eyes with him, his young mouth hanging open in shock at the sight. But what interested Sage the most was the kid’s right hand, where he was holding a small piece of paper. The light was minimal, but Sage guessed it was the same as the victim had been holding.
As Sage drew himself up to his hooves, the kid panicked, turned around, and ran into the shadows of the streets. Sage narrowed his eyes. He wasn’t in the mood to run, but he sure as hells wasn’t in the mood to give up. With a slight groan at his sore muscles, Sage burst into a gallop after the young kid.
* * *
“How’s he doing back there?”
“How’s he doing? He’s dying, Jackie – that’s how he’s doing!”
Jackie DeCoeur turned around to face Dazie, whose brown eyes were wide with both anger and fear. In one hand, the big minotaur still held a pistol, cocked and ready, even though the retreating gang had put miles between themselves and the bullet-riddled bank, without any sign of pursuit. In her other hand, Dazie clutched a bloody scrap of cloth, which she had torn from the hem of her shirt, and which she had been pressing tightly against Gub’s chest in a desperate effort to stop the nog from bleeding out.
Jackie hadn’t seen Gub get shot. One moment, he’d been crouched across the street with Dazie, with a big, dopey grin on his face, and a gun in each hand, firing off wild shots with abandon. Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, both Saris and Noraa had been reloading at once – which was bad technique, Jackie had thought to herself, making a mental note to address the issue after the bullets had stopped flying. So she had momentarily turned her back on the nog and the minotaur to give the man and the rattler some covering fire. It had only taken her a second, but, when she glanced back at the other side of the street, Gub was lying on the ground, and Dazie had him by the boots, and was dragging him to safety.
Later, once she’d had a look, Jackie could tell from the shape of the hole in the nog’s chest that it was a ricochet which got him. Whatever the bullet had bounced off of had flattened it into a thin, blade-like scrap of lead. It had also taken enough speed off the slug so that it had lodged in the nog’s chest, instead of passing clean through.
The bullet was still in there, and it was killing him.
Somehow, someway, Jackie had gotten the crew off of that bloody street and out to the edge of town. There they’d met up with Sage, whose face had gone ashen when he’d seen Dazie and Jackie carrying Gub. Without saying a word, the centaur had knelt down on all fours, and motioned for them to place the wounded nog on his back. That was quite the gesture, Jackie knew – normally centaurs wouldn’t be caught dead with someone riding them. But Sage hadn’t uttered so much as a syllable of protest when the gang set off at the fastest trot they could manage in the direction of the nearest sawbones. He didn’t even complain when Gub, who was fading in and out of consciousness, grabbed hold of his beard for support, and clutched it in his bloodstained hands like an acridian’s reins.
Noraa was scouting up ahead, while Saris kept watch to the rear. Dazie, meanwhile, just kept holding the makeshift bandage tight against Gub’s chest, and whispering words of encouragement into the dying nog’s ear, all the while looking like she wanted to take off back in the direction of the bank, and to crush the skulls of every guard there with her bare hands.
Atop Sage’s back, Gub moaned.
“Can’t you go any faster?” Dazie snapped at the centaur. “He needs a doc right now, or he’s going to die!”
Sage didn’t respond. He just kept looking straight ahead, and Jackie could tell that the centaur was already walking as quickly as he could without jostling his bleeding passenger.
“I’m talking to you, dammit!” Dazie shouted up at Sage. Her nostrils flared wide, and she snorted a great snort. “Say something!”
“Dazie,” Jackie said, putting a hand on the big minotaur’s shoulder. But Dazie just brushed it away.
“I’m sick to death of this mysterious act,” the minotaur said, jamming her elbow into Sage’s flank. “If silence is so damn golden, then our friend here ought to jingle if I belt him one. Want to find out?”
Before the minotaur could do something stupid, Jackie stepped in front of her, stopping her dead in her tracks. Then Jackie DeCoeur reached up and grabbed hold of Dazie by both of her horns, pulling the towering minotaur’s head downward so that her big, brown eyes were level with Jackie’s red ones.
Jackie could see the look of shock on Dazie’s face. Under normal circumstances, anyone who did that to the big minotaur could have counted on being skewered. But Dazie just stared at her in stunned silence, breathing in and out through her muzzle in long, frightened gasps, which washed over Jackie’s face like a hot Jakkard breeze.
“I know that you’re worried about Gub,” Jackie said, fixing her partner in crime with an unblinking, red-eyed stare. “I’m worried about him, too, and I will move all seven heavens and all seven hells to get him to the sawbones in time. But, Dazie, right now? You. Are. Not. Helping.”
Dazie gave another great snort. “He’s my friend, Jackie.”
Jackie kept her grip on Dazie’s horns, kept staring into Dazie’s eyes. “I know,” she said. “He’s my friend, too.”
“I brought him in,” Dazie said. “He’s my responsibility.”
“I was in charge of this job,” Jackie said. “That makes him my responsibility. And I’m doing the absolute best that I can to live up to that right now. Just the same as you are. Just the same as Sage is, too.” Jackie nodded over her shoulder, in the direction of the horizon. “Now, there’s a sawbones just over that next ridge who ain’t half bad when he isn’t plastered. So, instead of giving Sage grief, and spoiling for a fight that won’t fix a thing, what I need you to do is to hold that bandage in place, and to keep talking to Gub. Keep him awake, and keep him with us. We’re going to need him conscious, if we’re going to save him.” Jackie exhaled deeply, and she gave her head a quick, sharp nod. “Can you do that for me?” Then she let go of Dazie’s horns.
Dazie exhaled, too, then nodded slowly in response.
“Yeah, Jackie,” she said. Then, quietly, she added: “I’m sorry.”
“You can save your apologies for later,” Jackie said, “when we’re all rip-roaring drunk, and Gub is bragging about how he got to ride Sage.”
And, with that, Dazie went back to tending to Gub, Sage resumed his careful trot, and they all crossed the final ridge as quickly as they could.
The sawbones lived in a grimy little house with crumbling stucco walls and more missing shingles than not. The sign swinging above the porch declared it to be the office of one Josiah T. Brandt – physician, surgeon, and vivisector – and proclaimed: “All Maladies Cured. All Work Done on Premises.”
Noraa was waiting anxiously on the porch as Jackie and the rest of the crew approached.
“He’s in there,” the rattler hissed, “but he won’t open up. Says he doesn’t want any trouble with the law.”
Jackie rapped her knuckles against the door.
“You don’t want any trouble with me, either,” the red-eyed woman said. “I can promise you that. So how about you let us in, before we let ourselves in?”
“Get gone,” replied a slurred voice from behind the door. “We’re closed.”
Standing next to Jackie, Dazie gave a single, outraged snort. Then, drawing back one massive hoof, she kicked the door clean off its hinges.
“Now you’re open,” the minotaur boomed, before lifting Gub off of Sage’s back and carrying the incoherent nog inside through the splintered doorway.
For a moment, Jackie looked at Sage’s back, where the centaur’s mane was matted with dried blood.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said. “Dazie didn’t mean any of that, you know. She’s just upset, is all.”
Sage just nodded his head.
“I’ll have a talk with her later,” Jackie said. ”Set things straight.”
Sage just nodded again. His eyes wandered away from Jackie’s, and he looked over her shoulder, as though he had spotted something off in the distance.
“Thank you, Sage,” Jackie said.
Sage nodded one last time, before unslinging his rifle, and checking the chamber to see that it was loaded.
“You go inside,” he finally said. “Take care of Gub. I’ll keep watch out here, make sure no one followed us.”
Jackie nodded back.
“Thanks for watching our backs,” she said, before dashing into the office, where the sounds of a commotion were brewing.
Gub was laid out on the doctor’s table. His clothing was soaked through with blood, and his breathing was thin and shallow. His head lolled awkwardly to one side, and his eyes were glassy. Meanwhile, in a nearby corner, Dazie was holding a squirming red fox up in the air by his tail, and had her gun jammed into the fox’s ribs.
“Old Josiah T., here,” the minotaur growled, “has been sampling his own disinfectant, and he doesn’t seem to think he’s in any state to operate. I’m trying to convince him otherwise.”
Jackie motioned for Dazie to put the fox back down, which the minotaur grudgingly did.
“Doc, my friend here has a malady,” Jackie said, indicating towards the table, where Gub lay prone. “I expect you to cure it.”
Josiah T. Brandt – physician, surgeon, and vivisector – refused to meet Jackie DeCoeur’s gaze. His whiskers were shaking with fear as he fixed the lapels on his white coat, and his jaundiced eyes rolled a bit as he spoke.
“As I tried to explain to your rather pushy colleague,” the sawbones said, “my evenings are my own, and I have been making rather merry tonight.” Jackie could smell the shine on the fox’s breath, and she nearly flinched at the strength of it. “Consequently, I am in no condition to practice upon your unfortunate friend. As such, I’d kindly suggest that you take your custom elsewhere.”
“My friend isn’t going to make it to elsewhere,” Jackie said. “Show me your hands.”
When the sawbones made no move to comply, Dazie grabbed him by the wrists and hoisted his hands in the air. Jackie studied the fox’s fingers.
“You look steady enough to me, doc,” she said.
“Even still,” the fox slurred, as Dazie released his arms, “I’m on good terms with the law around these parts, and I have no desire to become otherwise.”
“I don’t think you understand me, doc,” Jackie DeCoeur said. Her voice dropped low, and she spoke slowly, taking care to enunciate each word as she fixed the cowering doctor with her blood-red eyes. “I’m not asking. I’m telling you to fix my friend.”
As Jackie stared at him, the fox’s pupils seemed to dilate, and the expression on his face turned even dopier than it had been already.
“I’d be glad to,” he said, “only, you see, there’s the question of my fee.”
Jackie DeCoeur grabbed a leather satchel out of Noraa’s arms, and, turning the satchel upside down, she poured its contents out. What little gold they had managed to steal from the bank before the robbery had gone wrong clattered to the floor. Some of the coins rolled away across the dirty, wooden floorboards. Others collected in a small pile at the doctor’s feet.
Then Jackie DeCoeur drew her pistol, which she leveled at the doctor’s heart.
“Fix him,” she said again, before drawing the hammer back.
The fox gulped once, then gave his head a drunken nod. Stepping over the golden mess scattered across the floor, he walked to the table, and bent down over Gub, placing one finger on the noggle’s neck. After a moment of silence, the sawbones laughed a thin laugh, then drew himself up straight.
“What so funny?” Jackie said, her revolver still trained on the chuckling fox.
“Madam, nothing I do can help your friend now.”
“Because he’s dead.”
Slowly, Jackie crossed the room to where Gub lay. The noggle’s chest was still, and his eyes were vacant.
“I’m sorry, Gub,” she said quietly. Placing her hand on the nog’s blood-streaked forehead, she drew his eyelids closed. “Nobody should have bought it today.”
From behind her, Jackie could hear Dazie’s wail of anguish, followed by the sound of wood splintering, and glass breaking. For a moment, she thought about trying to stop the minotaur from tearing the doctor’s office apart, before deciding to give Dazie a moment to grieve in her own way. Instead, Jackie turned to the nearby rattler, who had removed her broad-brimmed hat, and was holding it against her chest.
“Noraa,” she said, “you’d better go outside and get Sage. Tell him the bad news.”
Noraa gave Jackie a confused look.
“Sage isn’t outside,” she said.
Jackie DeCoeur frowned.
“If he isn’t outside,” she said, shaking her head in confusion, “then where is he?”
* * *
It was nearing twilight when Sage caught sight of the ranch. He had been walking for hours, and the Jakkard sun was no less forgiving than ever. The Rattler back in Fortune’s Folly had offered him a ride in his cart, but Sage had refused. For one thing, the cart would have been highly uncomfortable for a full grown centaur. For another, Sage had been doing his own walking through the Wastes for years, and he had never needed a ride before, not on any of the Rids he had taken. But most of all, Sage didn’t want anyone around who didn’t need to be. He had no idea what was going to happen when he saw Jackie. Or, more pertinently, when Jackie saw him.
The grounds of Red’s ranch stood out like an oasis in the desert. The choking sand and dust gave way to surprisingly healthy grass, gradually at first, but then fully, coating the area in such a rich and fertile carpeting that Sage found it impossible to believe. A grove of fruit trees stood off to one side, casting their shade on the grass below. Sage’s sharp ears could hear the low growls of baloths in the distance, and the higher chittering of acridians. Sage took a long moment to look around, his outward expression refusing to reflect the awe he felt at the sight.
The ranch was significantly larger than Sage had imagined from what little he had been able to glean in Fortune’s Folly. The bulk of the ranch was taken up by a low but sprawling structure that undoubtedly held the sleeping and eating quarters. The door to this ranch house was roughly centered, with a wide porch in front of it spanning most of the length of the structure. There were numerous other buildings scattered across the grounds, including a stable and a workshop, both of which were beginning to fall into the shadows of evening. All things considered, it was an impressive property.
Sage stopped walking when he saw the sign standing next to the wire fence. It read: “Red’s. All friends welcome. All others will be shot.” Sage stared at the sign for a long time, pondering which reception he was likely to get. As he remembered it, Jackie was talented and earnest in both welcomes and shootings. Sage’s rifle was loaded and ready, slung across his back as he always carried it. He could see lights flickering in a few of the windows, so he knew the ranch was occupied. The old centaur sighed, and started trotting toward the front door.
As his hooves struck the hard wood of the porch, Sage winced. Each step screamed out his presence as he approached the door. The sound of the chittering acridians died down completely, while the grazing baloths grew louder. Sage could hear the faint sound of voices from within, but he could not make out who they belonged to or what they were saying. The centaur approached the door, intending to knock, but the sound of his hooves was doing that for him, a point which was emphasized when the door flew open moments before he reached it.
As the door opened, Sage saw her on the other side, the same black hair, the same gold-capped teeth, and those same sharp, red eyes. She looked older than he remembered, though he must have, as well. She had her hand on a pistol hanging at her side, and her expression was serious, but there was something about her that was drastically different. At first, Sage couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but as a vague recognition crept over her face, he suddenly saw it. The smile that emerged a moment later confirmed it. It had been years since he had seen her, but he had never seen her so happy.
“Sage?” She asked, barely able to believe it. Sage noted coldly that she didn’t move her hand away from her gun. “Sage, is that you?”
The centaur nodded. “It’s been a long time, Jackie.”
The red-eyed woman stepped cautiously out of the ranch and onto the porch, squaring up to Sage as she did. Finally, after a long pause, she let her hand fall away from her pistol and, a moment later, she stepped forward and slapped the centaur on his left shoulder. “How the hells have you been? And how did you find me? And what are you doing here, anyway?”
Sage thought for a moment on which question to answer, and how. Eventually, he shrugged. “Long story. And I could use a drink.”
Jackie flashed her golden smile. “You bring the story, I’ll bring the drinks.”
* * *
Someone was knocking on her door.
Or, more accurately, someone was pounding on her door.
Jane Vaanderly looked up from the duplicate ledger she had been carefully fiddling, and she watched as the heavy wooden door to her office rattled against its hinges. Beneath her desk, she shifted her left foot slightly, so that it came to rest atop the pedal which was connected to the shotgun she had rigged from the ceiling and pointed towards the door.
The pounding on the door intensified.
“Dammit, Jane, open up,” came a familiar voice from the other side.
Jane opened the top drawer of her desk and slid the ledger inside, where it rested atop its genuine counterpart. Then she closed the drawer and locked it again. Only then did she move her right foot over the second pedal beneath her desk – the one which engaged or disengaged the lock on her office door – and pressed down.
The lock clicked. A second later, the door flew open, banging back hard against the wall. Standing there in the hallway stood Jackie DeCoeur. Her red eyes were blazing, and Jane saw something flash in the human woman’s hand.
Before Jane realized that her deputy was holding a whiskey bottle, and not a six-shooter, she almost stepped on the left pedal. She caught herself just in time.
“What do you want?” Jane asked.
“We’re having a little remembrance for Gub downstairs,” the red-eyed woman said, waiving the mostly-empty bottle in Jane’s direction. “Your absence has been noted.” Her words were slurred, and she swayed a little on her feet as she spoke.
Jane’s whiskers twitched in disgust. Drink was not one of her vices, and drunkenness among her crew was not something she would have tolerated under normal circumstances.
Beneath the desk, Jane eased her foot off the pedal wired to the shotgun.
“I didn’t realize attendance-taking was among your duties,” the fox said. She leaned back in her well-upholstered chair, and she crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“One of the crew gets dusted, and the boss doesn’t even come down to raise a glass in his memory?” Jackie shook her head. “It looks bad, Jane. It’s bad for morale. One lousy drink – is that so much?”
Jane harrumphed. “You look like you’ve had enough for the both of us.”
“No arguing that,” Jackie DeCoeur said, and she took a long swig from the bottle.
Jane sighed and stood up from her desk. Turning her back on the red-eyed woman, she walked across her office to the stand in front of one of the room’s few windows. The window was tall but narrow – too narrow even for a snake to pass through sideways – and had thick iron bars running across it from floor to ceiling. Jane had bars put on all the windows not long after she and her gang had set up shop inside the old stockyard on the outskirts of Verkell, and she had claimed the foreman’s office on the top floor as her own. It had taken weeks to scrub the smell of baloth out of the place, but Jane had coveted the building both for its location – it had good access to the railroads, it offered clear lines of sight in all directions, and it was situated in a part of the city where people were not inclined to ask too many questions – and for the extensive network of tunnels which its less-than-scrupulous owner had dug underground, so that he could bring gray-market livestock in and out without the excise men being any the wiser.
Jane had approached the fox who owned the place and had tried to buy him out with a substantial amount of gold. When he proved unwilling to deal, Jane bought him out with a small amount of lead instead.
That had proved a more effective negotiating tactic – and significantly cheaper, as well.
Now the old stockyard was the center of a full-fledged criminal empire.
My empire, Jane thought.
“Tell the crew I’ll be down shortly,” Jane said, still facing out the window. “Assuming any of them are sober enough to understand. Or care.”
“I’ll convey your message,” Jackie said.
Jane waited for Jackie to leave. But the red-eyed woman stayed put.
“Something else on your mind?” Jane asked, turning back around.
“Jane, we need to talk.”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing right now?”
Jackie gave her head a short, frustrated shake.
“Dammit, Jane, I mean a real talk.”
“Oh, you mean a real talk, then?” Jane walked back over to her desk, and sank back down into her chair. She picked up a gold letter opener, and tested its point against her paw. “You mean like the talks I see you having with Dazie, or Ecks, or Sage, whenever you think I’m not around?” Jane levelled the letter opener in Jackie’s direction. “Because, it seems like, when I walk into the room, suddenly you don’t have anything to say.” Jane shifted the letter opener to point at the bottle in her deputy’s hand. “Tell me, how many shots did it take to loosen that tongue of yours?”
“That depends,” Jackie said, moving so that she stood in front of Jane’s desk. “If you’re asking about tonight? Then I’d say about nine.” Jackie held the whiskey bottle up, and gave it a shake, setting what little liquid was left inside sloshing. “You know what? Let’s make it a nice, even ten. I like round numbers, and I don’t like leaving a thing half-done.”
Jackie put one booted foot up on the edge of Jane’s desk. Then, tilting her head back, she downed the last of the whiskey in one long gulp.
“But if you’re asking about earlier today? When we walked into that bank, and, instead of one guard, we found thirteen?” Jackie set the empty whiskey bottle down on Jane’s desk with a loud thud. “Then I’d have to say that I counted at least five dozen shots in my general direction. After that, I more or less stopped counting. One of them passed so close to my head, I could hear it whistling as it went by.” Jackie DeCoeur stuck two fingers in her mouth and blew, mimicking the sound of a speeding bullet. “And one of the shots that missed me just happened to hit Gub instead.”
Jane picked up the empty bottle, holding it gingerly between her thumb and foreclaw, and dropped it into a nearby wastebasket. Then she used the edge of her blotting pad to wipe the ring of whiskey off the dark, lacquered top of her expensive desk.
Looking up, she found her deputy’s blood-red eyes staring straight into hers. For as much as the human had been slurring her speech, and staggering on her feet, her eyes were focused, and clear. Jane began to wonder just how drunk Jackie really was, or wasn’t.
“If you have something to say to me,” Jane said through gritted teeth, “then say it.”
“We pulled a bad job today,” Jackie said. She kept staring at Jane, and Jane stared back. “It was a bad job, and we had no business pulling it. But we pulled it anyway, and a man got killed. One of your men. One of my friends.”
“And this is my fault, how?” Jane asked. “You were in charge. I wasn’t even there.”
“That’s my point!” Jackie slammed both fists down on top of the desk, and, in spite of herself, Jane flinched. “You weren’t even there! You’re so busy counting-up gold these days, you can’t even be bothered to ride out on jobs anymore. And the jobs you’ve been sending us on? They’re bad, Jane. They’re risky, and they’re reckless, and they haven’t been planned anything close to proper – and they’re getting your people killed. First Reubin, and now Gub, and now Sage’s gone, too!”
Jane felt her breath catch in her throat.
“What do you mean, Sage is gone?” she asked.
“I mean he’s gone, Jane,” Jackie said. “Gone. Vanished. Disappeared. And I can tell he’s not coming back. I know him too well. We both do.”
Jane had to clear her throat, to cover the nervousness in her voice. Jackie was still staring at her, but she looked away.
“Did he say anything about why he was leaving?” she asked.
Jackie shook her head.
“Not a word. He helped us get Gub to a doc, then he just rode off. And you know something? I don’t blame him. Because things have gone bad, Jane. Real bad. And the boss? She doesn’t seem to give a damn one way or the other.”
Jane’s expression shifted from one of anxiety to one of indignation. She leaned across the desk, so that her muzzle was just inches from the human’s face.
“I put you in charge of the day-to-day, so that I could focus on the bigger picture,” she growled at the red-eyed woman. “And, by the bigger picture, I mean making you, and me, and everyone else in this crew stonking rich.” Jane unlocked the desk drawer and retrieved the doctored ledger, which she slammed down in front of her deputy with an angry flourish. “Thanks to me, in just a few years, we won’t have to rob banks anymore – we’ll have enough gold to start our own bank. Provided, that is, you can pull the jobs I line up without making such a hash out of them!” Jane jabbed a clawed finger into Jackie’s chest. “You’re the one who hightailed it as soon as the bullets started flying, all to save some idiot nog who was never worth his share in the first place! Maybe you're the one who ought--”
Before Jane even knew what was happening, Jackie had grabbed her by the lapels of her satin jacket, and had yanked her violently forward, so that her feet left the ground, and the edge of her desk dug painfully into her ribs. Jackie's red eyes were suddenly sharp as razors, and the two women’s faces were so close that Jane could smell the whiskey on Jackie's breath as she spoke.
"If it was anyone other than you who'd said that," Jackie said, her voice a low, electric growl that seemed to charge the very air, like an afternoon storm, "you'd be bleeding out on the floor just now."
"Take your hands off me," Jane said, grabbing Jackie by the wrists. "This instant."
Jackie did not back down. If anything, she tightened her grip on Jane's clothing, and pulled her another inch or two across the desk.
"No one talks about my crew like that, Jane. Not even you."
"My crew, Jackie," Jane said, her voice suddenly cold and lethal. "Not your crew. Mine."
For a moment, Jane's words just hung between the two women, like a ten-ton baloth in the room. Then, just as suddenly as Jackie had grabbed her, the red-eyed woman let Jane go.
The silver-haired fox slid back across the desk, and she felt the floor beneath her feet again. As she hurriedly recomposed herself, she could see Jackie taking several slow, deep breaths.
"You're right, Jane," Jackie finally said. "We're your crew. Which means that Gub was your man. He worked for you. And, today, he died for you. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"He knew the risks," Jane said, straightening the lapels on her coat. “And so do you. Robbing banks is a dangerous business. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.” She pointed at the open exit.
“I know robbing banks is a dangerous business,” Jackie DeCoeur said. “But do you remember what you promised me, when I first signed up? You promised me we’d do things the right way.” Jackie’s voice was still hard, but the look on her face softened almost imperceptibly. “You promised me, and I believed you.”
Jane sighed, and she let her hands drop to her sides. Looking up at the ceiling, she closed her eyes for a moment.
“I know,” she said. “I know.”
“I want to go back to the way things were, Jane. Back before we started shooting all the guards, just because it was easier. Back before you started caring more about how big the score was than whether we could get everybody out in one piece.” Jackie sighed, too – a long, deep, liquor-laced sigh. “I want to go back to doing things the right way.”
Jane Vaanderly opened her eyes and looked back down at her deputy – at the woman she had once considered a protégé, and a friend.
“Do you remember where you were, when I found you?” she asked.
Jackie DeCoeur nodded. “I was doing sixteen months in the Verkell lockup.”
In spite of everything, Jane found herself smiling. “You were one of the most promising young bandits I’d ever heard of, and you were doing sixteen months in the Verkell lockup for knocking the teeth out of a preacher in front of his whole congregation.”
“Yeah, well, I was just minding my own business, trying to sleep off a hangover in the back pew, when he started thundering away.” For a moment, Jackie DeCoeur seemed lost in memory, and she couldn’t help but smile, too. “I didn’t much care for the poison he was preaching, either – all that stuff about how it’s wicked to mix with people who aren’t your own kind.” Jackie’s smile faded into a frown, and she balled one hand into a fist. “So I sat up and told him what he could do with his sermon. He called me a demon, and I popped him one, and good.” Jackie rubbed her knuckles, as though she had just thrown the punch, and her smile returned. “He took a swing at me, then – so much for turning the other cheek – so I let him have it. You should have heard him begging: ‘Angels, save me! Angels, strike her down! Angels, deliver me from this fiend!’” A wistful look crossed the red-eyed woman’s face, and she shook her head. “It was worth every day I spent in jail, just to see the look on his face when he realized that the angels weren’t coming to save him – that the angels didn’t care one thin damn whether or not I beat the stuffing out of him.”
“Which you did,” Jane said.
“Which I did,” Jackie said.
“And do you remember what I said, before I busted you out?”
“You asked me: ‘Do you want to be small-time, or do you want to be big-time?’”
“And what did you say to me?”
“I said: ‘Give me the chance to run with you, and, by the time we’re done, we’ll pile the money so high, they’ll call you the Queen of Verkell.’”
“And how did that work out?” Jane gestured around her office, throwing her arms wide to encompass all the fine furniture, the deep carpets, the stacked chests filled with ill-gotten gold.
“I’d say that you’ve become Queen Jane,” Jackie said. “Approximately, anyway.”
“And you haven’t done too badly for yourself, now,” Jane continued. “Have you?”
“So I think I’ve earned a little trust,” Jane said, her voice suddenly steely. “A little respect. Don’t you?”
“Yes,” Jackie said. “But, lately, things have been changing. You’ve been changing.”
“The whole world is changing!” Jane retorted, throwing her arms up in the air. “The world is changing, and we have to change with it! The Waste is opening up, and I have plans for it. Big plans. Plans that require money, and lots of it.” Jane stood up, and walked over to Jackie. She rested a paw on Jackie’s shoulder. “So how about you stay focused on stealing that money, and I’ll stay focused on what we’re going to do with it.”
Jackie DeCoeur looked skeptical.
“No more bad jobs, Jane. That has to change, too.”
Jane Vaanderly smiled at her deputy.
“Trust me,” she said. “Now that I know how you feel, things are going to change. I can promise you that.”
Jane met the red-eyed woman’s gaze, and she gave Jackie a firm pat on the back.
“You promise?” Jackie asked, still skeptical.
“Cross my heart,” Jane said, “and hope to die.”
Jackie DeCoeur was silent for a long moment. Too long, Jane thought.
Then she nodded her head.
“I’ll hold you to that.”
Jane returned to sitting behind her desk. “I’d expect nothing else,” she said.
Another moment passed in uncomfortable silence before Jackie DeCoeur turned and walked out the door.
“I’ll tell everyone you’re on your way down,” she said as she left.
“I’ll just be a minute,” Jane called out after her. “I have one more thing to take care of.”
As soon as the red-eyed woman was gone, Jane tapped the pedal beneath her desk, locking the door.
“You can come out,” she said.
From behind her, she heard the sound of a closet door opening and closing, followed by soft footsteps.
“Did you get a good look at her?” Jane asked, without turning around.
“Yes,” replied a hushed, sibilant voice. “I know her face, and I know her scent.”
“Good,” Jane said. Her jaw was set, and her voice had grown cold. “Don’t underestimate her. She’s fast, and she's smart. Too smart.”
Jane could feel the assassin’s breathing coming from close behind her ear. Very close. She opened her desk drawer and took out a small leather pouch. Its contents jingled as she held it up in one hand.
“Half now, half on completion,” she said.
An unseen hand took the bag from hers.
“Naturally,” the voice said.
“Have this note delivered to her,” Jane said. She extracted a folded sheet of paper from the desk, which the assassin also took. “This should lure her to the place we discussed.”
“What makes you think she will come?” the voice hissed.
“Because she still believes in trust,” Jane said. “That’s her weakness.”
Jane scowled. “I never believed in trust,” she said.
That remark drew a non-committal hiss.
“Will you be there to confirm the kill?”
Jane shook her head. “No,” she said. “It’s essential that I’m here when this goes down. It would look bad, otherwise.”
“How do you want it done, then?”
Jane shrugged. “That’s your business.”
“Two in the heart, then.”
“Make it three,” Jane said. “She has the devil’s own luck.”
“As you wish.”
“Be sure to give her my regards, before you do it. I want her to know.”
“As you wish.”
Jane Vaanderly pressed down on the pedal one more time. The door to her office swung open. She did not watch the assassin leave. Instead, she reached inside her desk drawer and extracted her real ledger, which she set down atop the cooked one, and opened it to the page which she had marked earlier that day.
In the liabilities column, she made a note of the fee paid to the assassin, and the further amount which would soon fall due, if all went as planned.
It was a small price to pay, Jane Vaanderly reckoned, to remove a much bigger liability once and for all.
* * *
The Red Wing Saloon in Fortune’s Folly was empty. This was no surprise, of course, because the entire town was empty. That’s how Jackie preferred it, and she had friends who helped her keep it that way. It wasn’t particularly difficult. Few people had wanted to live in this hole even when they thought the ground might yield up its treasures, and once that hope proved as dead as the Wastes, no one stuck around. Fortune’s Folly was a dead town, and no one but the dead were there.
Two of the dead were at the bar of the Red Wing, drinking some of the best liquor stocked behind it. Jackie DeCoeur had died relatively recently, or so all the papers had said. And she was more than happy about the arrangement. It turns out that far fewer people tried to kill a dead woman than a living one. Sage, it seemed, had died years ago. After that one ugly bank job, Sage had just walked away, and Jackie had never seen or heard from him again after that. Until this evening, when two dead bandits met up again.
After Sage had shown up suddenly and mysteriously at the ranch, Jackie took his suggestion about getting a drink to heart, and after a few quick words with Trotter, Jackie and Sage made their way back to Fortune’s Folly. The ride had been long, made all the more so by Sage’s almost complete silence. Riding next to him on her acridian, Jackie tried to get some information out of the big centaur, but his answers were short and noncommittal. Despite herself, Jackie smiled. Same old Sage. Jackie actually laughed to herself as she wondered what Dazie would say.
Sage was standing in front of the bar, with half a dozen drained shot glasses sitting in an increasingly uneven line in front of him. Jackie was sitting on a high stool right next to the large centaur, with a few more empty glasses in front of her than he had, in a chaotic grouping. Jackie was smiling widely and laughing earnestly at the memories they were sharing. Well, the memories she was sharing, anyway. Sage hadn’t spoken any more in the saloon than he had while the two were travelling, but Jackie DeCoeur was never one to let a lack of conversation interfere with a night of drinking.
At first, the large centaur had, at least, responded to the red-eyed woman. She would regale them both with a story they had both experienced, recounting in great detail their exploits when they had both been a part of Jane Vaanderly’s gang. Sage would nod, mutter something like, “I remember that,” and pour himself another shot. Jackie would glance his way, pour herself another two, and move on to the next story that popped into her head. She talked about the day Saris had joined the gang by tumbling drunkenly through the window at Jane’s place in Verkell. She joked about the time she, Dazie and Sage had all had to hide from the authorities in a single public outhouse. And her voice lowered just a bit when she recalled the day Gub was killed.
At this latest story, Sage seemed to stiffen, and he said nothing when Jackie finished her tale of that ugly, botched bank robbery. She drank another shot, and then looked over at the centaur. “That was the day you left, wasn’t it?”
Sage’s head snapped up at the question, and his jaw clenched, but he said nothing. Jackie stared for a moment, then nodded. “You didn’t know about Gub, did you?”
Sage swallowed, but still refused to speak. Finally, he shook his head.
Jackie nodded. “I didn’t think you did, or you’d have come drinking with us that night. I know you wouldn’t have let him go without a drink or two in his honor.”
The centaur was staring straight ahead, at the wall in front of them. Finally, the big man spoke, his voice gruff and broken. “I never knew. Gub could always take a shot. When I left that sawbones, I thought…”
He trailed off, and Jackie poured herself another shot. “Yeah, we all thought he’d pull through. He always did before that. Remember that Nog slum job? The guy shrugged off cannon shrapnel!” Jackie laughed to herself as she brought the glass up to her lips. “I do wish you had been there that night, though. From how I felt the next morning, it must have been a hell of a party we had for old Gub.”
Sage nodded. “I guess it’s never too late.” He reached over and grabbed the bottle, and poured the brown liquid into a new shot glass, and then a second, and then a third. Jackie cocked her eyebrows in approval as Sage set the bottle back down and picked up one of the shot glasses, holding it up in front of his face. “To Gub,” he said.
Jackie nodded once, conjuring a mental image of the crazy Nog from so many years ago. “To Gub!” She agreed, before they each drained their glasses.
As Sage set his glass down on the bar, slightly askew from the one before it, he lowered his head and closed his eyes tightly. Jackie looked over at her old friend, growing suddenly concerned. It had been years since she had seen him, true, but she had never seen him like this.
“You alright, Sage?”
For a long moment, the old centaur didn’t move. He seemed to be considering something, struggling with something, but Jackie couldn’t begin to guess at what. Slowly, Sage reached toward the bar and took the second of the shots he had poured for himself. He raised his head, downed the shot, slammed the glass down on the bar, and spoke, still staring straight ahead.
“Jackie, I missed you.”
At first, Jackie didn’t know how to respond, but the alcohol she had been enjoying all evening made the old centaur’s words much funnier than they otherwise might have been. After a brief moment of silence, Jackie started laughing.
“Never had you figured for the sentimental type.”
She continued to laugh for a few moments more before she glanced back at Sage. His expression was stern, even grave. And, for the first time since they had arrived at the Red Wing Saloon, he was looking directly at her.
“No, Jackie, you don’t understand. I missed you.”
* * *
Sage stood on the hill, silent and motionless as the oppressive Jakkard sun beat down on him. Sage barely noticed. His attention was divided unevenly between two things. The bulk of that attention was focused on the door of the bank far below, the bank that, just two and a half minutes ago, several other members of Jane Vaanderly’s gang had entered. Jackie DeCoeur had led them, and Sage had watched, just as he told them he would. Sage bit back a wave of resentment, at himself, at Jackie, at Jane, and at Jakkard. He did not know what was going to happen, but he had been given a pretty good idea. And he didn’t like it.
The second focus of Sage’s attention was on the rifle in his hands. Its weight was so familiar and so expected that it might as well have been a part of him. He knew its dimensions and its movements every bit as much as that of his two arms, his four legs, or his tail. He had owned the rifle for longer than he could remember. It was his constant, eternal companion. Its weight was part of his weight, its strength was part of his strength, and its sight was a part of his sight. He was holding the gun at his waist, just below his navel. Both he and his gun were ready.
Sage heard the shots before he saw anything, and the rifle immediately leapt up to chest level, although nothing but Sage’s gun and his arms moved along with it. The centaur didn’t even blink. A moment later, the door flew open, and Sage’s rifle aligned with his eyes instantly. He saw Jackie duck under the sloppy shots of the guards posted outside. Sage knew they were there. He had known for some time. Mercifully, he had no clean shot at them. If he had, they would have been difficult to explain later. Sage bit his lip. No matter what happened, he was not looking forward to “later.”
Before Sage could do anything, Dazie followed Jackie out of the bank. The minotaur always followed the red-eyed woman, which, of course, was part of the problem. Dazie was blasting away haphazardly at anything that moved, and Sage had to resist the urge to shake his head at her. With her typical sort of abandon, Dazie overturned a nearby trough, and she and Jackie crouched behind it, blocking the shots from the guards across the street and partially obscuring Sage’s view, as well. Slowly, Sage lowered his rifle to his chest again, and waited.
Time seemed to drag for the centaur. He barely dared to breathe as he waited. Ostensibly, his role on this job was to hang back and, if the guards gave chase, to put a bullet in whoever was causing the gang the most trouble. In truth, his job was very different, although it could be described almost identically, depending, of course, on who was doing the describing. But either way, Sage had to be perfect. He always was. In his entire life, he had never missed a shot. His rifle was a part of him. It was an extension of his arms and his eyes and his will. What he wanted shot, got shot. All he needed was an opportunity. All he needed was one, brief moment.
Suddenly, far below, Jackie and Dazie were moving, with the red-eyed woman firing across the street and the large minotaur blasting through the bank window. Sage lifted his rifle again, but he still did not have a shot he could take. Jackie shouted something, but the sound did not carry over the distance between them or above the blasting of Jakk guns. It was easy enough to guess what she had said, though, when Saris, Noraa and Gub emerged from the bank. Sage could see a brief exchange between the five of them, and then they began to disperse. Saris and Noraa moved along the side of the bank to the side street, and Dazie and Gub fled awkwardly across the street to another alley. Jackie, however, stayed where she was.
For just a moment, Sage’s muscles locked. Sage was no fool. He knew what Jackie was doing. He also knew how suicidal it was. Jackie was trying to draw the fire of the guards, trying to buy time for the others to get into a defensible position, or perhaps even escape. Jackie was risking her life for her crew. For Jane’s crew. For just half a second, Sage was nearly overcome. He almost closed his eyes against the weight of what he saw. For just a fraction of a moment, his rifle felt heavy in his hands, heavier than it had ever felt before. For the barest hint of an instant, Sage nearly chose to forget his duty. He nearly changed his mind.
But then, Jackie was moving, heading directly into the center of the road. Bullets started flying at her from every direction. Jackie, somehow, had produced a second gun, and, even though she was completely exposed, she took the time to line up her shots carefully as she fired simultaneously across the street and back into the bank. The guards, at least a dozen strong, answered back in kind, and the streets rang out with the sound of lead and chaos. Behind Jackie, the rest of the gang fired away. On the bank side, Saris was lying on the ground, firing like a madman, while Noraa curled above him, taking more measured shots. Across the street, Gub crouched and fired while Dazie towered above him, doubtlessly ringing the poor Nog’s ears with her gun. And all the while, Jackie stood in the center of the street, directly in everybody’s line of fire.
Everybody, especially Sage.
Sage stared as the red-eyed woman fired and fired, taking one small step backwards toward the rest of the gang as she did. He thought back to the conversation he had had with her just a week earlier, and the conversation he had had with Jane later that same night. Things were different in the gang these days. Worse. And everybody seemed to blame somebody else. But ever since Reubin, no voice had been harsher, more accusatory, and more dangerous, than that of Jackie DeCoeur. Sage hated it. He liked Jackie, personally. But ultimately, the crew came first. The gang had to do what was best for the whole. And Jane had made it perfectly clear what was best for everyone. Everyone except Jackie, of course.
Sage drew in a deep breath and held it. He could almost feel the rifle itself flex in anticipation. Jackie was still backing up, and the bullets were flying all around her. It was the devils’ own luck that she hadn’t already fallen. In Sage’s mind, an image of Jackie’s red eyes flashed. Most people couldn’t meet her gaze, and even Sage had to admit that they were unnerving. But this was no time to think about that. All Sage could think about now was what he had to do. And how he would live with himself after doing it. And then, almost before he realized it, Sage fired.
For an impossibly long moment, Sage stood there, his rifle still level with his eyes. He had yet to exhale. He had felt the rifle surge, saw the small, fiery burst from out its barrel, and heard the thunder as the bullet flew. But he could not believe, could not accept, what he saw. Jackie DeCoeur was still standing. She was still fighting, still shooting, still living. It was a surreal feeling. It was as if the world had slowed to an impossible crawl. Sage could almost see as his bullet had flown through the air, straight and true and deadly. It was as if his vision had followed the projectile all the way to its destination. It was as if Sage could see the strands of Jackie’s black hair pulled by the wind as his shot missed her by a margin so slim that that hair could scarcely have measured it.
After what seemed like a torturous eternity, Sage lowered his rifle, first to his chest, and then, a moment later, to his waist. The gun felt bizarrely heavy to him, as though its weight was somehow a stranger to him. Sage just stared, unblinking, at the carnage below. The bullets were still flying, Jackie was still retreating slowly, and in the back of his mind, Sage thought he noticed that something was wrong with Gub, but none of it seemed real. This was a dream, a dream that Sage prayed vainly to wake from. This couldn’t be happening.
He had missed. For the first time in his life, Sage had missed. He had tried to kill Jackie DeCoeur, one of his oldest and greatest friends. He had tried to kill her, and he had missed. How could he ever look her in those unnerving, haunting, honest red eyes again? How could he face her? How could he face Jane? How could he face himself? Sage didn’t know. He couldn’t know. Everything he was, everything he had been, had just been lost in a flash, and Sage didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what he could do. All of a sudden, Sage didn’t seem to know anything at all.
All he knew was that he missed Jackie DeCoeur.
* * *
The silence in the Red Wing Saloon was suffocating, and Sage and Jackie were feeling it wrap around their throats. Sage was, once again, staring straight ahead, unwilling or unable to look over at the red-eyed woman. Jackie, on the other hand, was staring a hole through the centaur. Her piercing gaze was focused solely on the side of his face as she breathed in and out heavily through her nose. Her jaw was clenched as she processed what Sage had said. They had been drinking for hours, but all of a sudden, they both felt very, very sober.
Both of the former bandits continue to stare, Jackie at Sage and Sage at the wall. They were choking in the silence, and something had to give. The old centaur tried to gulp for breath, and found it was not enough. He could feel the weight of Jackie’s eyes on him, almost as if her fury would set his white beard ablaze. A part of him wished it would, if only to end the torment of that silence. He could only just see her out of the corner of his eye, sitting motionlessly right next to him. He had seen others on the receiving end of Jackie’s focused stare before, but he had never had to endure it himself. Until now. Since leaving Jane Vaanderly’s gang, Sage had spent his life as a Ridder, passing swift and brutal judgment on the worst the Wastes had to offer. Now, sitting silently at a forsaken saloon in a dead town, Sage suddenly knew how they all must have felt.
Then, Jackie moved. Hauntingly slowly, Jackie drew her gun from her hip holster and leaned against the bar, pointing the revolver directly at the old centaur. Sage didn’t move. He barely even blinked. Jackie leaned there for a long moment before she pushed the accumulated shot glasses out of the way with her arm, turned the gun around in her hand, and set it down, half way between herself and Sage. Still moving slowly and deliberately, Jackie withdrew her hand and continued to stare. Finally, Sage looked over at her. He found her eyes immediately, but couldn’t hold the gaze, as he glanced down at the gun resting on the bar. His eyes lingered on the revolver for a long moment before jumping back to Jackie and her unnerving red stare.
It was another long, torturous moment before she spoke, her voice barely above a whisper. "If you came here thinking you'd fix your mistake, well, now's your chance. I won't draw mine until you have yours. Fair's fair."
Sage exhaled without realizing he had been holding his breath. He looked down at the bar in front of him and took stock of his situation. He had one shot left. Slowly, carefully, Sage brought his hand to the bar, paused for a moment, and then reached for his target. As his fingers closed around the one remaining shot glass, he could feel Jackie’s eyes drop. Sage brought the glass to his mouth, drained the contents, and set the empty glass back down. Then, moving as slowly as he could manage, he reached for the gun. He could sense Jackie tense slightly, though far less than he did. He laid a single finger on it and spun it around so that the barrel faced him and the handle faced Jackie. Then he pushed it back across the bar toward her and pulled his hand away.
Then Sage spoke, his voice low and broken under the weight of his words. “My mistake wasn’t the miss. It was the shot.”
Jackie continued to stare at him for a long time before she finally turned away, looking down and to the side. “Why did you come here, Sage?”
Sage sighed. “Two reasons, Jackie. The first is that years ago, I did a wrong thing. I’ve been living with it ever since, and I deserve that and worse. Do you know what I became after leaving Jane’s gang?”
“I heard some things. Rumors, mostly. Something about a Ridder rifleman who never misses. Sounded familiar. I found it pretty hard to believe, though. Old ‘Lost Wage Sage’ fighting for the Law?”
Despite himself, Sage broke a tiny smile. He hadn’t been called that in years. “Yeah, I was a Ridder. Some of them said I was the best. All I wanted to do was give folk what they deserved.”
“You know, the Ridders came after me a time or two.”
Sage nodded. “I know.”
“I never saw you there,” Jackie said.
Sage shook his head. “I never took a Red Rid.”
“Is that what they call them?” Jackie asked with a slight laugh. “A bunch of fools with badges and guns try to put some lead in an honest criminal, and they call it a ‘Red Rid’?”
“The Red Rids had a certain reputation.”
“I wondered why they stopped coming after a while,” Jackie said. “I was worried it was something I said.”
“More the way you said it,” Sage said. “A lot of Ridders never came back from those Red Rids.”
Jackie glanced down at her gun, still on the bar. “So is that why you’re here?”
Sage shook his head again. “No. They knew their risks. I wouldn’t have tried to stop them.” He glanced over at Jackie, but only for a brief moment. “Just like I couldn’t fault them for going, because you knew your risks, too.”
“Can’t argue with you there,” Jackie said, then hesitated. “So come on, Sage. What is your reason? You were never one to waste words.”
Sage closed his eyes, then nodded. “I’ve spent years trying to give the worst folk of the Wastes what they deserve, to pass judgment on those who broke the law. But I never got what I deserved, Jackie.” He stopped, and turned to look directly into her blood-red eyes. “I’m here for my judgment.”
Jackie stared at him until he had to look away. She shook her head. “Your Judgment? Dammit, Sage, what in the hells do you want me to say to that? You tell me you tried to kill me, to shoot me in the back? Gub died that day, Sage! Gub died, you walked out, Jane tried to have me killed! You want me to tell you it’s alright? That all’s forgiven and you should stop by for dinner when it’s convenient?”
“I’m not asking for mercy, Jackie. That’s angels’ work, not mine or yours.” Sage paused, thinking back on his most recent Rid. The two lovers, Trevo and Kyla, holed up in a chapel in Rifle Valley. He had seen all too well that day what good the forgiveness of angels was. “Or not even angels, I suppose.”
“You’re telling me,” Jackie muttered, her mind flashing back to a simple, worn wooden sign that told its own lie about the mercy of angels. She shook her head harder. “So what, then? You came here so I could gun you down in cold blood?”
“If you want,” Sage said matter-of-factly. “Do what you will. I just needed you to know.”
Jackie picked up her gun and began idly running her thumb over it. “Maybe we oughta find a hill. Maybe I should stand at the top and you stand at the bottom, and I’ll shoot at you. How would that be?”
Sage nodded slowly. “You’re a good shot.”
“Not as good as you.”
“Do you think I would?” Jackie asked.
Jackie was silent for a moment. "Why do you think you missed?" she asked.
Sage was silent, too. "I don't know," he finally said.
Once again, Jackie stared. This was not how she had expected the night to go. A sudden thought occurred to the red-eyed woman. “What’s the second?”
Sage looked over at her. “The second?”
“The second reason you came here.”
Sage seemed to think for a moment, and then reached into the pouch at his side and removed something that he set down on the bar, right where Jackie had set her gun. The red-eyed woman went pale as she saw the flat, smooth reptilian scale. She could almost feel the wounds she had received all those years ago. Sage, mistaking her silence for confusion, tried to explain it.
“I found this in the hand of a kid back in Bear Mountain. In his other hand, the kid was still grasping a piece of one of your tickets.”
Despite herself, Jackie found that she couldn’t speak. Sage continued.
“There’s only one person in the Wastes that the Ridders have tried to hunt more than Red Jackie. Have you ever heard of an assassin simply called Pry?”
Jackie’s teeth were clenched tight as she forced an answer. “I’ve heard of him.”
* * *
Jackie DeCoeur stood beneath the thin shade offered by the battered tin awning of the old railrunner’s waystation. She was leaning back against the dust-caked wall of the little clapboard hut, with her arms crossed in front of her, and the flat brim of her black gambler’s hat pulled well down, as she waited to see who, if anyone, would come.
She stared down the length of the long, iron rails as they ran along the dry, cracked Waste in the direction of Verkell, only to fade away into the distant, dusty, undifferentiated horizon, where the parched red clay of the ground seemed to just dissolve into the hard Jakkard sky. The sun was high, and heavy, and it seemed to broil the Waste beneath it, so that the air above the hot iron rails shimmered and baked. Even behind her dark-tinted glasses, Jackie found herself squinting.
The tiny patch of shade beneath the waystation awning offered only the most meager protection from the noonday heat. The day was a real Jakkard scorcher, and hot sunlight seemed to reflect up from the searing ground with the same intensity as it beat down from the clear, crystal-capped sky overhead.
But Jackie DeCoeur didn’t much mind. The heat hardly ever bothered her. It was actually one of the things she liked about the Waste.
Jakkard was always testing you. Always.
In one hand, Jackie held the note which she’d found tucked into her saddlebag the day before. Its instructions were vague, and the writer’s hand had been deliberately disguised. But it could have come from only one person.
“Meet me at the post office, at noon. Come alone.” Then, in a hastily-added postscript: “I don’t know who else to trust.”
The post office was Jane and Jackie’s code for the old runner waystation. As the Waste had steadily begun to open, and Jane had begun to spot opportunities out beyond the borders of Verkell, she and Jackie had taken precautions before sending the crew out on jobs beyond the familiar confines of the city. Among other things, they had taken care to establish a series of message drops, rally points, and safe houses, each identified by a code known only to themselves.
The post office had been chosen for its remoteness, and its low profile. It lay on a disused spur of track between Verkell and Dayko. Rail traffic had never been heavy along that stretch, and it had fallen to next to nothing after the eastern line had been completed through Hickle Gully, shaving two full days off the journey, and bypassing the Marigold Pass. Now, slowly but surely, the Waste was reclaiming the abandoned spur. It was still safe to walk along the track, but, after just a few paces in any direction, the land itself became an enemy – implacable, and hungry.
The post office had been designated for one purpose, and one purpose only: It was a meeting place, to be used only in the event of an emergency.
Jackie glanced down at the shadow being cast by the tin awning, which had just barely started to lengthen. That meant it was past noon. Jane was late.
It was then that Jackie looked back up, and saw the black silhouette of an approaching figure on the horizon. At first, the figure’s outline was rendered blurry and indistinct by the combination of distance, and dust, and the dancing heat. But, as the silhouette’s owner drew closer, Jackie could see that it did not belong to Jane.
Instead, the man approaching the post office was a stranger. A vash, with rust-red scales, and a broad, black-banded tail, which swept the ground behind him as he walked, stirring up little dust devils in his wake, and wiping-away any footprints he might have left behind. He was wearing a broad-brimmed hat, and a black baloth-leather duster, with the collar pulled up so that it concealed most of his face. He wore boots with no spurs, and he carried a pistol on each hip, but he made no move to draw either as he drew near.
Jackie leaned forward, so that she was no longer resting against the side of the little hut. Then she stepped out of the shade and into the blazing sun. Standing directly atop the scorching-hot rails, she turned to face the new arrival.
“I take it, then, that Jane isn’t coming,” she said.
The vash shook his head.
Jackie DeCoeur sighed.
“You know the thing that gets to me?” she said, scraping a line in the dry red clay with the tip of her boot as she spoke, but never quite taking her eyes off the vash as she did. “Deep down, in my gut, I already knew that. I just didn’t want to believe it.”
The vash said nothing. He simply stared at Jackie, with yellow eyes which regarded her warily from beneath the shadow of his hat. From behind her dark glasses, Jackie stared back.
“Not that it matters much,” the red-eyed woman said, “but did Jane say why?”
“Yes,” the vash said. His voice was dry, and dusty from the trail, but he held the “s” as the end of that word, drawing it out into a long, sibilant hiss. “She said to tell you: No one steals from Jane Vaanderly.”
In spite of herself, Jackie DeCoeur laughed.
“Yes,” the vash hissed again. “Do you have any message for me to give to her?”
“Just one,” Jackie DeCoeur said. “But I’ll give it to her myself.”
Then, faster than a man could blink, her gun was in her hand, and her finger was on the trigger, and—
—Jackie felt as though someone had hit her across the back with a hammer. Her body lurched forward from the force of the impact, and she heard a loud ringing in her ears.
She looked down. There were three ragged holes in the front of her black serape, and the fabric was wet with blood. She hardly felt any pain. The pain must have been there, she knew, but she had always had a high tolerance for it. What she mostly felt was surprise.
She tried to reach up with one hand, to touch the trio of tightly-grouped holes in her chest. But her arm didn’t move. Her limbs, she realized numbly, weren’t taking any more requests.
From the corner of her eye, she saw the gun slip from her slackening fingers more than she felt it. She watched it fall, as if in slow motion. She heard it hit the dry ground with a dull, distant thud.
She opened her mouth to speak, but the only thing that came out was blood.
Then her knees buckled beneath her, and she fell forward, landing with her body draped awkwardly across the hot railroad tracks, and her face flat down in the dust.
She tried to move, but she couldn’t do more than twitch. She tried to say something, but she only choked on her own blood. There was so much of it. She could feel it soaking through her clothes, soaking into the parched, thirsty Waste beneath her. She could taste it in her mouth, could smell it in her nose – warm, and salty, and ferric.
She could feel it filling her lungs, and she knew that she was drowning.
As Jackie DeCoeur lay on the red, dusty ground, wheezing through the three new holes in her lungs, she could feel the world falling away from her. And, at the same time, she could hear a voice rising up from the depths of her memory, from a dark, forbidden, walled-off time in her life. The time before she had become the Red-Eyed Woman. The time when she had just been a red-eyed girl.
“Angels of mercy,” the voice said, “we beseech you: deliver her.”
Jackie DeCoeur would have laughed, if she hadn’t been drowning in her own blood.
Even with her face flat down in the dirt, and her life slipping away from her, she could hear the sound of footsteps approaching. They sounded strange, and distant, but she could still recognize them for what they were. Then she could tell that someone was standing over her body, because her skin suddenly felt just a little bit cooler beneath the shadow that her looming assassin cast.
Or maybe it wasn’t because of the shadow at all, she thought. Maybe that was just something that happened, when you died.
Either way, it hardly mattered.
She felt a clawed hand pry open her fingers, and remove the note from Jane which was still clenched tight in her fist. Then she felt the claws press something into her palm – something flat, and smooth, and warm to the touch – before closing her fingers back around it.
Then she felt hands grab her by the ankles, lift her legs into the air, and start to drag her prone, bleeding body away from the railroad tracks, and out into the barren, hungry Waste.
The last thing she remembered was trying to grab hold of the iron rail with her hand, to hang on in a last act of stubborn defiance. But there was no strength in her fingers, and her palm was slick with blood. She felt her grip give way, and then she didn’t feel anything at all.
* * *
There was no sound in the Red Wing Saloon. The silence was thick as blood seeping into a punctured lung, and Sage and Jackie were drowning in it. The mistakes of the past were pulling and pressing them down with the weight of unfinished business. Jackie was staring at the reptilian scale on the bar, breathing deeply and slowly through her nose as she focused on nothing else. Sage just kept looking at the side of her face, wondering where she would choose to direct her rage. Finally, the old centaur sighed and lowered his head.
“I didn’t know he had come for you.”
Jackie only nodded.
After a long pause, Sage continued. “I think he’s coming for you again.”
The red-eyed woman looked over to Sage. “What makes you think that?”
Sage was surprised by the question, and it showed in his face, a rare occurrence for the centaur. “The kid I found back in Bear Mountain. He was holding a tiny piece of one of your tickets. Pry has the rest of it. He must be coming this way.”
Jackie narrowed her eyes at Sage. “You never said Pry had that ticket.”
“I didn’t think I had to,” the centaur admitted. “I thought you would have heard already from that kid who arrived at your ranch today.”
Jackie’s head snapped up. “What kid?”
Now Sage was truly confused. “What do you mean, ‘what kid?’ The one your Rattler friend brought to your ranch today. They must have shown up a good hour before I did.”
Jackie tensed visibly. “No one came to the ranch today except for you.”
Sage shook his head. “That’s impossible. I wouldn’t have been able to find you if not for that kid. I found him in Bear Mountain. He was a friend of the victim, and he had a ticket, too. It’s how I got here. The kid and I came on the train together. He vouched for me with your Nog friend, the station master, and again with the Rattler driver. He and the snake took off ahead of me. I didn’t pass them, so they must have…”
“I’m telling you,” Jackie interrupted, “Sharps hasn’t been by the ranch in days, and I sure as hells would know if another kid had showed up.”
The two stared at one another for a long moment, before Sage looked away. His Ridder instincts, honed superbly over his years since leaving Jane’s gang, were flaring to life now. When the centaur spoke, his voice was low. “Then Pry is already here.”
Jackie seemed to pale slightly. “You think he jumped Sharps and the kid you came in with?”
Sage shrugged. “If they didn’t arrive, and they didn’t come back…”
Jackie stared at him for a few short moments, but then started moving. In one fluid motion, she grabbed her gun and leapt off the barstool, running for the door without another look at Sage. By the time Sage had recovered and followed her out the Red Wing Saloon door, Jackie had already untied her acridian’s reins and was climbing into the saddle. She took half a second to glance in Sage’s direction and toss her head, indicating for him to follow, before kicking her mount into the insect-equivalent of a gallop in the direction of the ranch.
They rode as hard as they could for as long as they could, and for a while, Sage was able to keep up. But he was not a young man, and while the weight of his conversation with Jackie had sobered him up a bit, he still had a few too many shots in him. Eventually, Jackie started pulling away from the centaur, her acridian fresh and watered and still young. As Jackie rode, she tried, and failed, to avoid thinking about what might be happening at the ranch. She had no doubt about Sharps and his loyalty, but the ranch would be hard to miss, and if Pry had jumped him, his direction alone would have told the assassin where to go. Jackie thought of all those years ago at the post office, and then she thought of the ranch, and the kids, and Trotter…
Jackie spurred her acridian on faster, and let Sage fall even further behind.
But the ride from Fortune’s Folly to Red’s Ranch was a long one, and even Waste-born acridians couldn’t go full speed forever. As Jackie's mount started to tire, and its six-legged strides began to slow, she tried to rein-in her own racing mind, and she forced herself to take stock of what she was doing.
She was charging blindly into danger. She was reacting, instead of acting. And that was a mistake.
It was the same mistake she'd made years earlier – back when she had been younger, and brasher, and had led her crew blindly into a bank that was practically bursting at the seams with guards. That had been Jane’s fault, too – Jane had set her up, after all. But Jackie had trusted Jane, and she had let herself be set up. She hadn't bothered to reconnoiter the bank on the day of the job. Partly because Jane had given her assurances, but also because she had felt like she didn't need to. She had assumed that, even if something went wrong, she would be able to shoot her way out of it.
Jackie had been sloppy. She'd been reckless. And she'd gotten a man killed.
Thinking about it made the red-eyed woman stop and shake her head. She had no interest in pulling bank jobs anymore. It was a game she was happy to be out of. But just thinking about that ugly job made her realize the difference in herself, between the red-eyed woman who had gone to work for Jane, and the Red-Eyed Woman she'd since become. If she had to pull that same job today, things would go differently. None of them would have stepped foot in that bank. The perimeter would have been secure, or they would have walked away, like they should have. She wouldn't have walked in blind. She would have acted, instead of reacted.
Jackie had never been afraid to take a risk. But she was old enough to know the difference between a necessary risk and a needless one. And, while she had no qualms about placing herself in harm's way, she would do it with eyes wide open, and she would set the terms.
Jackie DeCoeur was still a dangerous woman. But she no longer wanted to be dangerous to herself or to those she cared about.
Reluctantly, Jackie slowed her acridian to a walk, and waited for Sage to catch up.
Eventually, Jackie and Sage arrived back at the ranch, and Jackie, taking her own advice, scouted the perimeter, directing Sage to do the same. He complied. Everything seemed normal, except for one glaring exception. There was a light coming from the kitchen. It was still the dead of night, so everyone should have been asleep, but the light blazed out like a beacon in the dark. Jackie frowned as she dismounted her acridian and tied the reins to the signpost. She glanced over at Sage, nodded once, and drew her gun. Then, moving as quickly as she could, she rushed toward the kitchen door, tossed it open, and burst inside, pistol ready.
On the other side of the door, she found Trotter, apparently applying some sort of bandage to the head of the rattler, Sharps. Both of them jumped as Jackie entered, but calmed down when they recognized the red-eyed woman.
“Oh, am I glad to see you!” Trotter exclaimed.
Jackie said nothing, but instead moved forward to embrace the white-haired fox, kissing him greedily before he could continue. When she finally pulled away, Trotter looked up.
“I guess the feeling’s mutual?”
Jackie allowed herself a brief smile, but it faded as she looked over at Sharps. “Are you okay? What happened?”
“My head’s still ringing,” Sharps said with his pronounced “s”, “but I’ll live. I swear, Jackie, I don’t know what happened. I was just bringing this child in for the ranch, and suddenly, something hit me, knocked me flat. Whatever it was, it packs a meaner punch than that one you gave me outside of Brax’s.”
Jackie nodded. “The kid?”
Sharps hung his head. “Gone. He took him.”
“That Vash,” Sharps said. “I never seen him before, but he’s the one what was there when I came to. He told me to tell you ‘it’s time to finish your business,’ whatever that means.”
Jackie exhaled, and glanced over at Trotter, a worried look on his vulpine face. “I know what he means. Is he coming for me, then?”
Sharps shook his head, which seemed to hurt him. “Said he’d wait for you.”
Jackie nodded. “Where?”
Sharps glanced up at Trotter, then back at Jackie. “The old mining site.”
Jackie almost laughed. She should have known. That abandoned mine was nothing but places to hide.
“What are you going to do, Jackie?” Trotter asked, anxiety in his voice.
“What can I do?” she asked him. “If I don’t go, he’ll kill that kid. And every kid that tries to come to Red’s Ranch after him.”
“Who is this guy?” Sharps asked. “I thought you settled all your scores.”
“There are always more scores in the Waste,” Jackie said, shaking her head. After a long pause, she answered his question. “They call him Pry.”
Silence came flooding into the room as if through a bullet hole. Few in the Wastes hadn’t heard of the most notorious assassin Jakkard had ever seen. Both Trotter and Sharps struggled to find words, but Jackie answered their question before they could ask it.
“Remember when I said Jane Vaanderly had three bullets put into me at a fairly high speed? Well, it was Pry who put ‘em there. I guess he found out he never finished the job.”
“That centaur!” Sharps suddenly said. “I bet he’s got something to do with this!” He looked over at Jackie. “When I took off to bring the kid along, there was this centaur nosing around. The kid said he was a friend, but I bet he’s up to no good!”
Trotter looked at the snake, and then back to Jackie. “The one you left with earlier? Jackie, what the hell is going on?”
Just then, Sage stepped into the kitchen, and both Trotter and Sharps started to react, until Jackie held up her hands. “Calm down, both of you. Sage came here to warn me. He’s an old…” she stopped short, then rephrased. “He and I used to ride together, years ago. I suppose formal introductions are in order. Trotter, Sharps, this is Sage. Sage, this is Sharps, a good friend. And this is Trotter,” a sly smile crossed her face, “my dance instructor.”
Sage shot a sideways glance at Jackie. “Wouldn’t have had you figured for much of a dancer,” he said.
“I’m full of surprises,” Jackie said.
“So I’ve learned,” Sage said. Then he nodded a greeting at the concussed rattler and the concerned fox, both of whom returned the gesture – an act which drew a painful wince from the snake.
“Right,” Jackie said, turning to face Sage. “We don’t have a lot of time if we want to make it to the mine by sunrise, which I would very much like to do.” She could feel her jaw draw tight, and her red eyes flashed. “Wouldn’t be polite to keep our vash friend waiting, after all.”
“Wouldn’t be smart to give him any more time to prepare, either,” Sage said.
“I’m coming with you,” Sharps said. The rattler picked up his gun belt, which lay on the floor next to him, and struggled to strap it back on.
“You’re in no condition to fight,” Jackie said.
“Yes, I am,” the rattler said. His fingers were still fumbling with the belt buckle. “I’m the one who let my guard down and got bushwhacked, and now you tell me that the cuss who did it is the same one who perforated you?” Sharps shook his head, which seemed to make his eyes roll. “If you think that I’m going to let that stand, then you’ve got another think coming.”
Jackie moved to where the rattler was leaning against the wall, stepping over his coiled tail so that her head was just inches away from his. Gently, she placed a hand beneath his scaly chin, and she angled his head slightly downward, so that his eyes met hers.
“Look me in the eyes,” she said, “and tell me that you can shoot right now.”
Sharps tried to hold her red-eyed gaze, but he couldn’t. After a second, he looked away.
“I’m the one who brings the kids here,” he said quietly. “I’m the one who let you down.”
Jackie sighed and shook her head. “You didn’t let me down,” she said. “Like I told you, Pry got the drop on me once, so I don’t see how I could be angry at you.”
“I’m supposed to protect the kids, Jackie. That’s my job.”
“I know,” Jackie said. “So do it. I don’t need you with me right now. I need you here, with Trotter.” She glanced at the fox, who nodded his support. “I need the two of you to lock this place down tighter than a fox’s purse strings.” Her expression turned dark. “I’m pretty sure that Pry’s after me, and only me, but I wouldn’t put anything past him, and I’m done taking chances. If he tries to sneak in here while I’m gone, then you know what to do.”
“We know the drill,” Sharps said.
“Then run it,” Jackie said. Reaching down, she helped the rattler to finally get his gun belt fastened.
“Nobody is getting in here tonight,” Sharps said. “Nobody. You have my word for that.” The rattler nodded grimly, and this time he did not wince. Gingerly, he replaced his broad-brimmed hat atop his bandaged head. Then he slithered out of the room.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Trotter said, gesturing in the direction of the departing rattler. “Make sure he knows which end of the gun he’s holding.”
“Thanks,” Jackie said. “I knew you would.”
She was about to go to him, then, but he came to her first. With a few fleet strides and a little jump, Trotter leapt up into her arms, and, for a moment, she just held him there, his body pressed tightly against hers. Neither of them spoke. She could hear him breathing, could feel the beating of his heart as he clung to her, and, for a moment, she was reminded of everything that she cared about, everything she had vowed to protect.
Everything that she had to lose.
She didn’t have long to reflect on that, though, because just then Trotter kissed her. It was a deep, long kiss, which she returned.
After an all-too-short moment, Jackie lowered the fox back down to the ground.
“What did I do to earn that?” she asked.
“I know that you have to go,” Trotter said, taking her hand in his. He looked up at her, and their eyes met. “That was me thanking you in advance for coming back.”
Jackie DeCoeur smiled, flashing her gold teeth. Trotter smiled back, and she caught a little flash of his canines.
His eyes lingered on hers for one final moment, before he trotted off in the same direction Sharps had gone.
From behind her, Jackie could hear Sage clear his throat. She turned around to see the centaur staring discretely up at the ceiling.
“What do you want me to do?” Sage asked.
The smile vanished from Jackie DeCoeur’s face.
“I want you to get yourself ready,” she said. “Because you’re coming with me.”
Sage unslung his rifle from his shoulder, and he made a brief, practiced show of checking it.
“I’m ready,” he said.
Jackie watched the ease with which the centaur held the long gun in his hands, and, for a second, she felt as though she were reliving a memory from her past. Sage had changed, she knew. The years had changed him. The Waste had changed him. But he still carried his rifle exactly like she remembered.
“Why do you think Pry came back for me?” she asked him. “Why now, after all these years?”
Sage just shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t know,” he said. “Does it matter?”
“No,” Jackie said. “It doesn’t.”
She drew her own revolver from its holster and looked down at it, feeling its familiar weight in her hand.
“You know, for a while there,” she said, “I started to feel like this part of my life was over.” She gave her head a little shake. “You know something else? I think I even started to believe it, too.”
Sage nodded. “We can’t escape our pasts,” he said.
Jackie had to laugh at that.
“Don’t I know it,” she said. “I mean, I’ve been dead twice, and I still can’t seem to shake mine.”
There, in the dimly-lit parlor, Jackie flipped out the cylinder of her revolver and checked to see that five of the six chambers held bullets, before snapping the cylinder back into place and lowering the hammer onto the empty chamber. She slid the gun back into her holster. Then she looked back up at Sage, and their eyes met.
“We can’t change the past,” she said. “We can’t fix it, and we can’t outrun it. So I guess we’re just going to have to live with it. Both of us.”
Sage was silent. But he did not look away.
“I still want to put things right,” he finally said.
“Then help me finish this,” Jackie said. “Help me finish something which I ought to have finished a long time ago. Help me close the chapter on this part of my past, before anyone else gets hurt on my account.”
For a moment, Sage seemed to hesitate. He ran a hand through his white beard.
“If you really want me to come with you,” he said, “then I’ll come. But, if you’d rather that I wasn’t there? Well, I’d understand that, too.”
Jackie shot him a sharp look.
“Since that time you shot at me and missed,” she said, “you ever miss another shot?”
Sage ran a finger across the single notch on his rifle.
“No,” he said.
“Then I want you with me,” she said.
Sage smiled faintly at her.
“I’ve got your back,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “Now, let’s ride. We’ve got an assassin to kill.”
* * *
Jackie DeCoeur was a better-than-average shot with a rifle. With a shotgun in her hands, she was passable; fortunately, when it came to shotguns, passable was usually good enough.
She carried two knives. One was a thin, razor-edged blade with a tacky grip that she kept up her right sleeve, so that she could have it in her hand with the flip of a wrist. The second was a short throwing knife with no handle that she kept tucked inside her right boot. She could hit a bull’s eye with it from clear across a crowded room.
If it came to fighting with her bare hands, then Jackie was something less than a graceful pugilist. But she hit hard, and she fought dirty, and those two things went a long way. She knew how to land a punch, and how to take one. And she knew how to kick a man so that he wouldn’t get back up again.
Jackie DeCoeur was a dangerous woman.
But she was most dangerous with a revolver in her hand, like the one she held as she coaxed her acridian up the final ridge before the abandoned luxite mine just outside of Fortune’s Folly. That particular revolver was a good one – one of a batch which Presto had made for her, to her preferred specifications. Most bandits favored the simplicity of a double-action gun, but Jackie liked to shoot single-action. She liked the shorter, lighter pull of the trigger, liked that she could control the weapon’s speed. She kept the hammer on an empty chamber when she was riding, because there was no sense in taking chances. Besides, she could do more damage with five bullets than most shootists could do with six. She could draw and get her first shot off faster than a man could blink. Firing single-handed, she was fast. Firing double-handed, she was faster.
She was accurate, too. Hearts and heads, always. That was a principle of hers, and she had the skill to put it into practice.
One day, years and years back, she’d been showing off for Trotter. They’d snuck up onto the roof of the Verkell Grand Metropolitan Hotel, and he’d been flipping two-bit coins into the air, and calling heads or tails as they spun, and she’d been shooting whichever side he called – just grazing them, though, so that her bullet carved a groove into the metal, rather than punching a hole clean through.
After her fourth or fifth shot, Trotter had asked her, with a look of disbelief on his face: “How do you do it?”
“It’s easy,” she’d said to him. “I aim.”
He had thought she was being facetious. “You’re pulling my tail,” he’d said. But she’d shaken her head.
“When bullets are flying, and blood’s pounding in your ears, and your heart’s in your throat, you’d be amazed how many people forget to aim,” she said. “It happens, even to real Waste-hardened bandits. They just pull the trigger as fast as they can. But pulling the trigger doesn’t do you a lick of good unless your gun’s pointed at the thing you want to shoot. So I always remember to aim.”
Trotter had seemed to accept that, and she’d gone back to shooting the faces off of coins.
Jackie had owned a lot of revolvers in the years since then, and, as a rule, she was unsentimental about them. Some were nicer than others, to be sure – the pair of rune-covered fireshooters that Fisco Vane had given to her came to mind. But, at the end of the day, guns were just guns. They were the tools of her chosen trade, not companions or keepsakes.
If a gun shot straight, that was good enough for her.
As the Jakkard sun began to rise behind Jackie, staining the sky with blood and casting long, ghost-like shadows along the dry and dusty ground, the abandoned mine in the valley below her started to come into view. The black openings of old, exhausted mineshafts dotted the red face of the exposed rock. Beneath the dim, long-shadowed light from the rising sun, they looked like gaping mouths to her, leering up at her with rusted-out minecarts in place of rotten teeth. A handful of skeletal towers – the remains of crystal storage silos, which had lost most of their corrugated iron panels to the wind and the Waste – loomed over the mine like giant tombstones. A single long, low wooden building lay at the center of the mine, going silently but steadily to pieces after years of neglect. There did not seem to be a single pane of unbroken glass left in any of the office’s myriad windows, and its heavy tin roof sagged in the middle, giving Jackie the impression that – at any moment – the whole structure might just give up its last and collapse in on itself with a final, exhausted death rattle.
Most of the building’s paint had long since been weathered away, carried away by the Waste as dust in the wind. But, just above the entrance, it was possible to make out peeling gold letters that had once proclaimed the site to be the headquarters of the Fortune Mining Company, Limited.
Limited indeed, Jackie thought, as she surveyed the ghostly scene below.
From over her shoulder, she could hear Sage’s hooffalls as he drew to a stop several lengths behind her.
“You think you ought to get down?” he asked. “In case he’s watching for you?”
“Not much point,” Jackie said. “He knows I’m coming. You, on the other hand, he might not expect.”
“That’s why I stopped where I did,” Sage said, and Jackie didn’t have to turn around to know that there was a weary smile on his face.
“There ought to be plenty of cover for you on those hills to the north,” Jackie said, without gesturing at the scrubby ridges she meant. “From over there, you ought to have a good view of everything.”
“Anyplace in particular you want me to be?”
“Someplace where I can’t see you,” Jackie said, “but where you can see me.”
“Don’t go inside the building,” Sage said. “Or into the mine. I can’t cover you if you do.”
“I know,” Jackie said.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to make him show himself. And then I’m going to kill him.”
“If I have a shot, you want me to take it?”
“Only if it’s like we discussed,” Jackie said. “We have to make sure that the kid is safe, first.”
“You’re taking a hell of a chance, you know? Just walking in there like this.”
Jackie nodded her head. “I know,” she said. “But I’ve gotten lucky before.”
From behind her, she heard Sage scrape a hoof across the ground.
“Luck’s got nothing to do with it,” he said. “You know that as well as I do.”
As she climbed down from the saddle, Jackie didn’t turn around to look at Sage. But she still smiled.
“I know that,” she said. “But not everyone else does.”
Then, carefully, Jackie started picking her way down the ridge towards the shadow-shrouded mine below.
As she walked, she held her gun loosely in her hand, and she moved with a practiced, casual ease that projected an aura of confidence and bravado, but she never for a second took her eyes off the silent, still building in front of her. She listened intently, and she was alert for any sign of movement – even the flicker of a shadow, or the flutter of a coat, or the glint of a pistol in the angled morning light. But she heard nothing aside from the muted shuffle of her own footsteps, and she saw nothing beyond the occasional tumbleweed rolling between the wind-blasted ruins.
It was a great spot for an ambush. It was the sort of place, Jackie thought grimly, that she would have chosen herself.
Pry was in there. She knew it. She could sense his presence in the very stillness of the landscape, as though the Waste itself were too scared of him to move.
The last time she had met the assassin, he had shot and killed her.
Her mouth set into a wry smile, and she felt her fingers tighten their grip around the revolver.
He would have to do better than that, if he wanted to survive their second meeting.
Jackie DeCoeur made her share of mistakes. That was a fact she was not too proud to admit. But she seldom made the same mistake twice.
She was close enough now to the sagging office building to see that the weathered wooden door had been propped open, and that a note had been tacked to the doorframe with a wide-bladed knife. The sun-bleached steps moaned and sagged beneath her boots as she climbed up to inspect the note, but they held her weight.
Jackie pulled the piece of paper free, leaving the knife sticking in the wood.
“Come inside,” she read, mouthing each word silently to herself. “We have unfinished business.”
For a moment, she stood there on the threshold, Sage’s admonition fresh in her ears. But refusing Pry’s invitation was a luxury she didn’t have – not so long as the vash still had one of her kids with him. So Jackie crumpled the note into a little ball and dropped it on the ground, grinding it into the wooden deck with the heel of one of her boots. Then she stepped inside.
The interior of the office was dark and dusty. Enough light filtered in through the walls of broken windows that Jackie could see the outlines of the room clearly, but she slipped off her dark glasses for good measure, and stood still for a moment while she waited for her eyes to adjust. A thin layer of fine, red dirt covered the surfaces of broad, leather-topped desks and spindle-backed chairs. Jackie ran a finger across the dry, cracked leather of the nearest desktop, drawing a letter “J” in the rust-red dust. She could tell that the material had once been expensive – baloth hide, hand-buffed and dyed green. The crystal had dried up so fast and so completely that the Fortune Mining Company, Limited, hadn’t even sold off its furniture in an effort to stay afloat. The miners had just closed-up shop and cut their losses. Anything they couldn’t carry out with them had been left behind.
Piles of yellowing paper lay stacked in one corner. Jackie walked over, and picked up a sheet from the top of one of the teetering stacks. It was an investment prospectus, advertising shares in the mining company. “The sky’s the limit!” it exclaimed in large, excited type. “Don’t miss out on the bonanza! Buy now!”
On the wall next to the piles of prospectuses, another sheet of paper had been tacked up with another, fierce-looking knife. Jackie read it silently as well.
“Director’s office,” it said. “Final door on your right.”
In front of her, a long, low-ceilinged hallway stretched off into the distance. From where she stood, Jackie could just make out that the final door on the right had been left slightly ajar.
“Don’t you think this sort of game is beneath us?” she called out down the dusty hallway. But, if Pry was there, he didn’t attempt to argue with her.
So Jackie shrugged her shoulders, and she walked down the hall. All the while, she waited for a door to swing open on either side of her, to hear the sound of a pistol being cocked from behind. But, other than the sound of her own heels clicking against the wooden floor as she walked, the darkness all around her was ghostly quiet.
Finally, she reached the door that led to what a faded brass nameplate identified as the director’s office. A piece of paper had been tacked to the door, in her host’s typical, overly-dramatic fashion. But this time, it wasn’t a note addressed to her.
It was a copy of her obituary.
Jackie’s eyes glanced across the familiar headline: “‘Red’ Jackie DeCoeur, Bandit Turned Rail Magnate, Dead.” Beneath the headline, her picture had been circled, and a note had been appended in red ink, written in a different hand than the one that had left the instructions for her.
“She’s not dead,” someone had written in sharp, angular letters. Then, below that, the writer had added: “Find her. Kill her.”
“We can’t outrun our pasts,” Jackie said quietly to herself. Then, revolver in hand, she swung the door open.
There was no one inside. The director’s office was completely bare, except for a battered wooden roll-top desk, which lay in the exact center of the room. Behind the desk, the rear wall of the building had been pried away, leaving a gaping hole wide enough that Jackie could have walked through it with both arms outstretched, and still have had room to spare. Morning light flooded into the room through the opening, and Jackie could see fresh scars along the edges of the wood, where nails had left their marks as they’d been recently removed.
The roll-top desk was empty, except for a final note, written in the same hand that had left the earlier commands for her.
“Put your guns in the desk,” it said, “and close the top. Then step outside with your hands up. Do it, or the boy dies. Don’t try anything funny. I’m watching you.”
Jackie shifted the revolver in her hand so that she held it with just her thumb and forefinger. Then, after holding it up in the air for a second, so that anyone who was watching could see what she was doing, she placed it inside the roll-top. After repeating the same demonstration with her second revolver, she slid the top closed, and stepped away from the desk. Then, raising both hands up in the air, she stepped through the recently-opened hole in the wall, and took a dozen or so steps out into the Waste beyond.
“This hardly seems sporting,” she called out, her voice echoing around the ghost mine. “Last time we met, you had the courage to face me down. I’d hate to think that you’ve gone yellow in your old age.”
“Ordinarily, I prefer to do things differently,” hissed a low, sibilant voice which seemed to come straight from the depths of Jackie’s past. “But you are hardly ordinary, are you?”
About two dozen paces in front of her, Jackie saw movement from inside one of the old crystal silos. A door at the base of the structure slid open, and a familiar figure appeared. It was a vash, stub-nosed and red-scaled, with yellow eyes that stared Jackie down from beneath the brim of a broad hat.
In one hand, the vash held a pistol. In the other hand, he held a boy. The child’s wrists were bound and he was gagged, and his forehead was caked with dried blood. The vash’s gun was nestled against the side of the boy’s head, just above one ear. The boy’s eyes were wide with fear and panic, but he stood stone-still, as if he didn’t dare to move. Jackie could see that, clasped in one hand, he held a single, red scale.
He couldn’t have been much older than twelve, Jackie thought to herself, and she felt her blood boil.
“It has been a long time, Miss DeCoeur,” the vash hissed at her.
“That it has,” Jackie said, keeping her voice purposefully level. “Mind if I put my hands down? This is hardly dignified.”
“I would prefer if you didn’t.”
Jackie shrugged her shoulders as best she could. “You’re calling the shots,” she said.
The vash nodded his head at that. His black-banded tail swept across the ground behind him in long, languid arcs.
“I was worried you might not come,” the vash said. “I was worried that I might not get a second chance at you.” Behind the turned-up collar of his black duster, Jackie could see the vash’s mouth draw up into a toothy smile. “Yes,” he said, drawing out the “s” into a long, sibilant hiss. “You made quite the impression on me, you know?”
“I suppose I ought to be flattered,” Jackie said. “But I confess to feeling something else entirely.”
“You’re the only mark I ever failed to kill.”
Jackie shrugged. “I’d hate to make you feel any less special, but there are a lot of people in the Waste who could say the same thing to me – crooks and lawmen both.” For a moment, Jackie’s face turned thoughtful. “Actually, truth be told, most of them couldn’t say it anymore, seeing as I’ve killed just about all of them. Except you, I suppose.”
“Yes,” the vash hissed again. “I am your unfinished business, just as you are mine. You have no idea how much it pleased me, to be given a second contract on you. A chance to clean the one blemish from my record, before I hang up my guns.”
“Can I give you some friendly advice? This time, ask your friend to aim a little higher, and a little more to the right,” Jackie said, indicating behind her with a nod of her head. “Because, last time, he missed my heart.”
The vash shook his head. “This time,” he said, “I think we’ll try something a little more direct.”
Jackie could barely hear the second assassin moving behind her – blazes, but he was quiet, whoever he was. Any uncertainty about where he was, though, was resolved when she felt the barrel of a gun press up against the back of her head.
“Hold on one second,” Jackie said. She nodded in the direction of the boy, who the vash was still pointing his pistol at. “First, let the kid go. You got what you came here for. His part in this is done.”
“Not quite,” the vash said, tapping a claw against the red scale which the boy held clutched in his hands. “See, he has a present for you.”
Then the viashino lowered his gun, and he gave the terrified boy a rough shove in the back.
“Why don’t you give that to Miss DeCoeur?” the vash ordered the boy, gesturing towards Jackie with his gun.
The boy took one nervous step in Jackie’s direction, then another. As he walked, he kept glancing over his shoulder at the vash, who watched his progress with a cold, yellow-eyed stare. Once the terrified boy finally drew within a few paces of Jackie, he held his bound hands up to her, offering her the single red scale.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Jackie DeCoeur said. “I’ve already got one.”
Then Jackie did the most dangerous thing she could do. She stood absolutely, perfectly still, and she winked.
From the crest of a distant ridge, Jackie saw the muzzle flash from Sage’s rifle. A second later, she heard the shot, like a distant crack of thunder. The bullet passed so close to her head that she could feel it brush her hair as it went past. She heard it hit the assassin standing directly behind her, felt blood splash across the back of her neck, felt the tip of the gun fall away from the back of her head.
Still not moving a muscle, Jackie listened to the second assassin’s body hit the ground behind her, and she watched the smile drain away from the vash’s face.
“See, you made quite the impression on me, too, Pry,” Jackie said, her voice suddenly low and hard. “That’s why, this time, I brought a friend of my own.”
As he realized what Jackie meant, blind panic seemed to seize the viashino, and he whirled around to face the direction which Sage’s shot had come from.
That was when a second flash appeared along the ridgeline, followed a moment later by a second distant crack.
The viashino’s whole body shuddered, and he sank to his knees. Then he toppled over forward, and he fell, landing face-down in the red dirt.
Jackie didn’t waste time checking either body. Instead, she rushed over to the terrified-looking boy, who lay crouched on the ground. He was trembling with fear as Jackie knelt down beside him, saying, “It’s alright, you’re safe now.” Sliding the knife out from her sleeve, she cut the boy’s wrists free, and she pulled the gag out from his mouth. Then Jackie brushed the boy’s hair out of the way, so that she could get a look at his head. A deep cut ran the length of his hairline, where he’d been cold-cocked earlier. The wound hadn’t been cleaned properly, and it oozed fresh blood as she probed it with the tip of her finger, but it would heal.
Jackie expected the boy to wince as she examined his wound, but, instead, the boy’s face grew stoic, and he looked up at her with concern in his eyes.
“Are you Red?” he asked.
“That’s me,” Jackie said.
“He took my ticket.” The boy pointed a nervous finger in the direction of the dead vash.
Jackie smiled so wide that she flashed her gold teeth.
“That’s okay,” she said. “You made it.”
Looking up, Jackie could see Sage galloping down the ridge towards them, his hooves kicking up great clouds of dust behind him. Jackie helped the boy onto his feet, and she was tying a makeshift bandage around his head when Sage slowed to a stop next to the dead vash’s body.
“You alright?” the centaur asked, panting heavily as he worked to catch his breath.
Jackie nodded. “I’m fine,” she said. “We’re both fine.”
“I told you not to go inside the building,” Sage said. His tone was more confused than scolding.
“I know,” Jackie said. “But I had to play along. I had to let him think that he was in charge, at least until I could create an opening.”
“You gave up your guns,” Sage said, nudging the dead viashino’s limp ankle with one hoof. “What if I hadn’t been able to cover you?”
“You’re a good shot,” Jackie said, with a shrug of her shoulders, as though that was all that needed to be said.
Sage was silent for a long, long moment.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Likewise,” Jackie said. Turning around, she moved to stand over the dead body of a rattler – the second of the two assassins who went jointly by the name of Pry. The rattler was small for a snake, Jackie thought, with grayish-green scales and a broad, pale snout. He still held a pistol gripped tight in his hand, just as he had when Sage had put a bullet square between his eyes.
The rattler hadn’t even had the chance to look surprised.
“If I may say so,” Jackie said, nudging the dead rattler with her booted foot, then nodding at Sage, “that was one of the very best shots I’ve seen in my life. Maybe the best, even.”
Sage swung his rifle off of his shoulder, and compulsively ran a finger across the one notch in its otherwise smooth barrel.
“Thanks,” he said. “But how did you know there were two of them? We sent more rids after Pry than I can count, and I never heard of anything like that before.”
Jackie winced, and she reached a hand beneath her black serape to rub at the trio of scars where three bullets had once exited her chest, just a little below her heart.
“Stood to reason,” she said. “I was staring the vash down when I got shot, and I got shot from behind.” The red-eyed woman shrugged. “So he was either one hell of a slinger, or he had a partner that I never knew was behind me. Given those two choices, it seemed prudent to be ready for a second shooter.”
Jackie DeCoeur reached into her pocket, then, and she pulled out a single red scale – the one which she’d found clutched in her left hand when she’d woken up alone in the Waste, all those years ago. She’d kept the scale ever since. It had been a useful reminder.
Jackie turned her hand over, and she dropped the scale onto the dead rattler’s body. “Our business is finished,” she said.
Sage, who was still standing next to the dead vash, fished a red scale of his own out from his pocket – the one he’d taken from the dead orphan’s hand, back in Bear Mountain – and he tossed it down atop the viashino’s body. Finally, the bruised and bloodied boy, who was still clutching his red scale in his hands, threw his scale down onto the ground with a theatrical flourish. Glancing up at Jackie, as if for approval, he tried to mimic her resolute expression. As Jackie watched his clumsy attempt at pantomime, though, a gold-toothed grin crept across her face.
“You and me are going to do just fine together,” she said, and, taking off her black gambler’s hat, she placed it atop the boy’s head. The hat was far too big for him, and it covered his face practically down to his nose.
“Fine, nothing. He’s a bona-fide hero,” Sage said, as he cantered over to where Jackie and the boy stood. Then, reaching down, the centaur scooped up the now-smiling boy, and placed him on his back.
“Come on,” he said. “We’d better get you two heroes back to the ranch, before everyone starts to worry.”
“Oh, you’re a lucky one,” Jackie said to the boy, who grinned down her. “It’s not just anybody gets to ride Sage, here.” And she gave Sage a pat on his broad, equine flank.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Sage said.
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Jackie said.
And the three of them started off back in the direction of the ranch.
After an initial burst of excitement, the exhausted boy’s eyelids drooped, and he drifted off into what Jackie suspected was a long-overdue sleep. They stopped for a moment while Sage transferred the boy to Jackie, who sat him in front of her, and put a hand on his shoulder to keep him from sliding off her acridian. Then the centaur and the red-eyed woman, a pair of old bandits from Verkell, descended into a quiet, contemplative silence as they made their way across the dry, blasted Waste.
After an hour or so of riding, Sage broke the silence.
“I think I finally understand something now,” he said.
Jackie cocked her head to one side. “How’s that?”
“All those years ago,” Sage said quietly, looking ahead of him as he spoke, “when Jane told me to kill you, I asked her, why? She told me that it was because you were dangerous.” Sage ran a hand through his long beard. “I asked her, dangerous how? And I’ve never forgotten what she said to me. She said: ‘Red Eyes is dangerous because people will follow her.’”
After a long second, Jackie nodded her head.
“Guess she was right,” she said.
“Guess she was,” Sage said.
“Thanks for making me dangerous today,” Jackie DeCoeur said.
“Anytime,” Sage said, as they rode into the sunrise. “Anytime.”
Sage and Pry are original characters created by RavenoftheBlack for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.