The reunion only lasts a moment. Then Nikko’s head cocks forward violently. He staggers and collapses. The bullet catcher rises behind him, his arm wrapped around his midsection, a rock in his hand. I’m too stunned to move. Nikko’s alive. And not only alive but here. Right here on the outskirts of this far-flung Southland town. This all feels like the sudden conclusion to a long-drawn-out family feud, my brother fighting with our father. And then I remember that the bullet catcher isn’t our father.
“You lied to me.” The words drift from my mouth like smoke. The bullet catcher doesn’t hear me. He picks up my brother’s gun. The moon comes out from behind the clouds, casting everything in silver light. The bullet catcher stands over Nikko, his eyes gleaming in the moonlight, dark and murderous. He pulls back the hammer with a terrible click. I grab his arm and yank it away from its target. The gun goes off, sending a bullet safely into the ground.
“You lied to me!”
The bullet catcher turns and looks me up and down, like he’s trying to remember my name. “Dammit, Cub,” he says. “You don’t know what he’s done.”
“I know he’s my brother. I know you lied. You told me a gunslinger killed him. Whatever he’s done, I forgive him.”
The bullet catcher grabs me by the front of my shirt. He pulls me close so I have to stand on my toes. His other hand grips the gun so tight his fingers are white and bloodless. “Tell that to Cass,” he barks. “Tell that to the handful of us left alive after he helped the gunslingers track us down.”
I have no words. At this moment, for the first time in a long time, I’m afraid of the bullet catcher. He holds my stare, but then all at once, the murder seems to leave him. He looks lost. He looks old. He lets me go and turns his back on me. He spits on the ground and tucks the gun into his waistband.
The wind whistles through the flowers. Music rattles from town. I look at Nikko in the moonlight. He is just how I remembered him, but with a new hardness to his features, stubble on his cheeks. He has that same desperate skinniness, those same dark eyes as when I last saw him. His shoulders are narrow, like mine. His face, with his high, prominent cheekbones and large, almond eyes, is pretty rather than handsome. His hair shines black in the moonlight. He wears the dark clothes of a gunslinger and a black glove on his right hand. I crouch on a knee and run my thumb over the roughness of his cheek, through the blood. He’s not a mirage. He’s alive. He’s right here.
Shouting comes from the direction of The Bruise. Orange torch flames add themselves to the green lamps of the town. The bullet catcher’s eyes sharpen.
“Fetch your horse,” he says.
“What about Nikko?”
“He comes with us.” He throws Nikko’s guns and bandoliers into the flowers. Nikko’s horse chews the grass, disinterested. The bullet catcher lifts Nikko and balances him on the back of the horse. Then he swings up into the saddle and lets out a whistle. The horse I stole comes to us like an old friend. “Later, we will argue. Now we ride.”
The lights of The Bruise fade into the distance and disappear behind the tall dunes, but we don’t slow down. Nor are we heading back to our mountain.
We’ve been galloping at full speed for maybe an hour. The moon has retreated again, and the night is black and starless. The bullet catcher slows and motions for me to move alongside him.
“Do you hear it?” he yells over the sound of our horses.
“Prick your ears!”
I tune out the sound of our horses, their hooves, their dry, tired breathing, the pulse of my horse’s heart through the saddle, and then I hear it, a distant sound growing louder: more horses.
“They’re gaining on us.”
“What will we do?”
“There is a place half an hour’s full gallop from here. An old hideout. It’s risky.”
“Is there nowhere else?”
“Only one road lies before us. We will see what happens.” He whips his reins and takes off like a bullet.
We weave through the dunes. Ahead, a tall plateau rises up from the desert. The ground levels out and turns hard-packed. It looks impassable, but the bullet catcher doesn’t slow; he digs his heels into the horse’s side, driving it harder. The sound of the gunslingers’ horses is loud in my ears, and when I look back over my shoulder, a line of specks, a deeper shade of black than night, bobs along the horizon.
When we’re nearly at the base of the plateau, a black wall rising out of a black night, the bullet catcher pulls his horse sharply and rides alongside the rock face. We ride against the wall and now I can hear the gunslingers’ voices,...