I wake on the thin cot of a jail cell. It’s sometime between midnight and dawn, and the cell is deathly cold. A chill runs through my bones. I’m covered in sweat.
“Sit up, Cub.” The bullet catcher’s voice drifts from the adjacent cell and fills the entire space. “Sit up,” he says again. I pull myself up. My stomach lurches. I lean back against the bars and the coldness of the metal sends an electric shock through me. I’m crying, though I don’t remember why. The bullet catcher reaches through the bars and holds me. The chill evaporates in his arms. I’m suddenly warm, as though someone has thrown a blanket over me. “Breathe slow,” he says. “Take deep breaths.”
“I’m dying,” I croak.
“No, you’ve only had too much to drink.”
I do what he says. I breathe. Then I bend over the cot and throw up green snakebite and whatever it was I ate at the saloon. The bullet catcher holds me so I won’t fall off the cot. I heave for a while after that, though there is nothing left in my stomach. Then I lean back against the bars and close my eyes. The bullet catcher lets me go and wipes my mouth with his sleeve
“I’m sorry, Cub.”
In my stupor, I have no idea what he’s talking about. “For what?”
“For this,” he says. “For everything.”
I swallow. “Just don’t let me go.”
I wake, remembering little of the previous night. I’m covered in bruises from a fight that comes back to me in snatches. I remember shouting at someone at the bar, standing quickly, my chair toppling over. Then the street, lighted with the lamps burning behind windows. A lot of yelling. Hartright trying to put herself between me and whoever the other person was. The last thing I remember is Hartright getting thrown to the ground. I kicked whoever it was between the legs. But the bruises tell me that I lost the fight.
The bullet catcher watches me from the other cell, like he’s trying to coax me back to life with his gaze. And then I remember waking up in the cell in the middle of the night, and how he held me and spoke to me. And I realize, with surprise, that I’m not angry with him anymore. It turns out, when it comes down to it, forgiveness is easy. At least when you love someone. I forgive the bullet catcher, and it feels like shedding a tremendous weight.
“What do you mean you’re leaving?” Hartright stands in the library. She’d been distractedly thumbing through a book when I told her.
“I need to find Cass.”
“Who the hell’s that?”
“She’s a bullet catcher. I’m going to bring her here. We’re going to end the gunslingers’ control over the water. We’re going to bust out the bullet catcher, and we’re going to get the hell out of here.”
“Is that all?”
“I reckon you’re going to get yourself killed.”
“Maybe. So are you in?”
She snaps the book closed and puts it back on the shelf. “Don’t reckon I got anything better to do.”
The next day, Hartright and I play it perfectly. We lose my bodyguard in the crowds of people in the industrial area of town. Then we hire a buggy to take us from one end of the city to the next. We switch to another to take us back, except we jump out a few streets down, duck into an alley, and watch as Cloak’s gunslingers hustle after our empty buggy, completely fooled.
Then we rendezvous with our horses, which we’ve already saddled and readied with supplies, and we’re gone. Though it’s two days’ ride from Las Pistolas, the place where the bullet catcher’s coordinates lead to isn’t on any map in Nikko’s library. Hartright says she’s never been to that part of the desert before.
“I’ve heard stories,” she says. “It’s a wild part of the Southland. I’ve heard that there are beasts there never seen by anyone. I heard a sandstorm has raged there for as long as anyone can remember and makes that part of the desert totally impassable.”
I say, “It sounds like the perfect place to go if you don’t want to be found.”
What was supposed to be two days stretches into three and then four. It seems whenever the compass says we’re getting close, the needle starts spinning and we lose all direction. The wind is high and the sand freckles our skin and makes seeing hard. We wrap our faces to keep the stinging sand out of our eyes and mouths.
We walk our horses into the wind, using their bodies to shield us. “We should head back,” Hartright tells me. And she’s right. If we head back now we’ll have just enough food to get us back to Las Pistolas, and that’s if we don’t get lost like we are already. I...