The Last Stand of Mary Good Crow

By Rachel Aaron

Chapter 1

 

June 1876.

Somewhere beneath the Montana Territory.

 

Mary Good Crow knew from the start they weren't going to pay her.

She couldn't say how she knew. The miners had looked as good as any when she'd agreed to be their guide: no liquor in their breath or notches on their guns. They hadn't even grumbled overmuch when she'd told them it'd be half up front. Those were all usually signs of a quality customer, but they hadn't been underground an hour before Mary started getting the crawlies, and the crawlies never lied.

The staring was what bothered her most. Being half Lakota in a place where people acted like that equaled being half rabid dog, Mary was fair used to getting the hairy eyeball. It was why she hid her face under a hat the size of Dakota and covered her body in an oilcloth poncho so huge she looked like a rag pile with feet. She claimed it was to keep off the drips, but really, Mary had never minded cave water. It was other people she wanted to make distance from, 'specially the men.

They weren't all bad sorts, of course. Most were friendly enough so long as she was careful to let them see her as only a talking hat riding on a pile of cloth. It was when the geniuses put two and two together and realized someone named Mary was likely to be smuggling lady bits under all those layers that things got ugly if they were gonna. Even then, though, she had her ways.

Guiding, for example. The crystal mines below Medicine Rocks, Montana were a wellspring of wealth, but only for those who could avoid the pitfalls. To actually get to crystal, miners often had to crawl through squeezes no bigger than a child's arm or find their way through darkness no light could penetrate. The mines held poison spiders and rock leeches and clouds of fetid air that could kill a man before he even knew he'd breathed wrong.

Most first timers would be dead in two days without someone to hold their hand, which was where Mary came in. She was one of the few living souls who knew how to get past the cave dangers to the crystal on the other side. It weren't much of a leg to stand on, but when your know-how was the only thing between a man and his death, even the worst ones tended to remember their manners.

That was how it typically went, anyway. But this latest batch of miners was slipping below Mary's rock-bottom expectations. The moment she'd caught the bearded one ogling her backside despite there being nothing he could possibly see through her poncho, coat, second coat, waist satchel, rope coil, and denim overalls that were thicker than bullhide, she'd known this would come to no good end.

She should've ditched them right then in hindsight, but a cave guide was only as good as the clients who survived to speak well of her, and she'd needed the money bad. Other than the staring, they hadn't actually tried anything, so Mary'd done as the nuns who'd raised her would've wanted and given them the benefit of the doubt. She just hoped her gut was wrong about the whole "not-paying" thing. Only one way to find out.

"Welp, here we are," she announced cheerfully, holding up her big kerosene lantern to show the miners the water weeping down the green-streaked cave wall that dead-ended the narrow tunnel she'd been leading them down for the last quarter hour. "One hundred feet of virgin rock not half a mile from where the Rinker Brothers struck it rich just two weeks ago. It's got fresh water, sweet air, and a straight path back to the Main Gallery so you can find your own way home when you're done. No other guide could've done you better, so I believe that settles our agreement. If you'd be so kind as to hand over the rest of my fee, I'll be out of your hair and let you boys get on with the business of gettin' rich."

She finished her usual speech by sticking out her hand palm up, fingers wiggling. But instead of dropping coins like he ought, the big miner scowled at the walls.

"I don't see no crystal."

"It's in there," Mary promised, scraping off some of the green slime to show him the glitters underneath. "This whole side's packed with formations. Listen." She tapped her lantern's metal edge against the biggest bit of shining flecks, making the whole wall ring as the crystal echoed the sound back in its beautiful, pure voice.

"See?" she said with a beaming smile. "A fortune, just like I said. All you gotta do is dig it out."

That might've been stretching the truth a little. There was plenty of crystal in the rock, just maybe not of the size and worth she was implying. They'd actually passed a richer vein on the way over, but that one had sung so beautifully, Mary couldn't bear to point it out. 'Specially not to these men with their crawly-causing stares. But she'd had to throw 'em something iffen she wanted her five dollars, so Mary had compromised. There were plenty enough small crystals here to keep them busy and make her not a liar, which was all Mary cared about. Now she just needed them to pay, but rather than digging into their pockets as they should've, the four miners fanned out across the narrow tunnel, blocking her into the dead end with their bodies.

"Looks like you do know what you're doing," the big one said, stroking his bristly beard in a way that set Mary's crawlies kickin'. "That's good for you, 'cause me and the boys been thinking. We mined plenty of gold back in Deadwood, but this is our first time digging crystal. You clearly know your way around the stuff, though, and these caves ain't safe for a lady alone, so why don't you stay with us? I'm sure we could come to a new arrangement."

"The old one suits me fine, thanks," Mary said, pulling her lamp back in so that the little flame was between her and them. "I don't mine crystal. I just find it, which is what you hired me to do. I appreciate your concern, but I assure you I'll be perfectly fine on my own as soon as you pay me what you're owin'."

"You can't be serious," the bearded miner tsked, crowding in closer. "Little thing like you and half Injun besides. We're at war with the redskins, you know."

"I'm aware," Mary said, taking another step back.

"Then why don't you stay?" he pressed, closing the distance she'd just made. "Boys and me could keep you safe, and you could keep us company."

"You could be our cave squaw," one of the other miners said excitedly, pushing in next to the bearded man. "Bet you're hiding something good under all them coats. Give us a gander!"

He lashed out to grab her, but Mary danced away across the slick rocks, sure-footed as a newt. "I don't think that's a good idea for any of us," she said, still trying to salvage the situation as she raised her lantern one last time. "Now I'm asking you fellas nicely to pay me what you promised. Gentlemen don't go back on their word, and y'all are gentlemen, ain't ya?"

"How gentle we are depends on you," the bearded one said, reaching for the pistol on his hip. "You keep quiet and don't bite, and we'll take real good care of--"

He cut off with a squawk as Mary lifted the glass of her lantern and blew out the little flame inside. The moment the light vanished, darkness fell like a hammer. Not night dark, cave dark, the sort of blackness that took the eyes of anything that lived in it too long.

All the miners shouted in panic when the blackness fell. The leader recovered first, swearing and lunging at the spot where Mary had been, but she was already gone. The moment the darkness covered her, she'd shot up the seep, scaling the wet stone and wiggling her body into a narrow crack she'd taken note of weeks before in preparation for this exact situation.

"You red-skinned whore!" the big miner bellowed, groping blindly at what he'd thought was a dead-end corner. "I'll skin you like a buffalo!"

Mary was sure he had every intention of making good on that promise, but she wasn't worried they'd catch her. She'd never be foolish enough to let anyone drive her into an actual dead end, and situations like this were why she carried the big lantern. It burned a fortune in fuel, but the bright, steady flame meant that none of her clients bothered with lanterns of their own. That way, when things went south as they so often did, all Mary had to do was put out the light and poof! Guaranteed escape. While the miners cursed and fumbled for their tinderboxes, blind as newborn rabbits, she was free to move as she pleased, because unlike them, Mary had never needed light to see in this place. All she needed was the music.

The music was always there. Anyone could hear crystal when it was struck, but Mary was the only person she knew of who could hear it all the time. Even in places that had been mined out ages ago, pebbles and flecks were always left in the stone. They kept their voices small when light was near, but the moment darkness fell, they roared up like a river, filling the tunnels with music that never faltered.

Mary'd thought she was going mad the first time she heard it. To be fair, when she'd first come down here two winters ago, she might've been a little. But even in those dark days, the caves had bid her welcome, singing her to peaceful sleep for the first time in years.

From that night forward, the tunnels had been her dearest friend. With the cave music in her ears, Mary no longer needed eyes or light to find her way underground. All she had to do was listen, and the crystal told her where to go, painting its paths like a picture in the darkness of her mind. Even with the miners screaming bloody murder behind her, it was easy to follow the music flowing through the crack she'd crammed herself into, following it over the crystal-studded wall to another gap in the rocks a dozen feet behind where the men thought they'd had her cornered.

By this point, the miners had gotten their own lamps lit. Peeking out of her hiding place, Mary saw them huddled in the tiny pool of their lights with their shoulders hunched all the way up to their hats, staring helplessly at a darkness that must've looked endless from their perspective.

It would've been easy to end their story here. This section of the mines was forever having collapses, and thanks to the cave music, Mary knew the ceiling above her head was already weakened. One good whack with her hammer and they'd be buried back there forever. It was no more than they deserved given what they'd been planning, but Mary didn't reach for her tools. Not because she was saintly--Lord knew that wasn't it--but because bad things done in the caves always came back to bite you.

Their miserable lives weren't worth that kind of trouble. There were too many ghosts down here as it was. Four more who blamed her specifically would just make life that much harder, so Mary let them be, turning around on cat-quiet feet to start the trek back toward the Main Gallery Trail.

Toward but not to it. This part of the mines was the current favorite: far enough out that you still had a good chance at finding crystal but not so far out you risked finding something else. The popularity meant the main tunnels were a highway, and since Mary found people much more worrisome than anything else that lived down here, she always took care to go around. It meant a bit more walking, but the same poor mining practices that caused all the cave-ins meant the side tunnels in these parts were so chopped up, you could always find a way to sneak between them. 'Specially if the caves themselves were helping you along.

It was fun, too. After four days of guiding folks who seemed to forget which foot was which the moment they lost sight of the sun, moving at her own pace again felt like flying. Keeping to the side tunnels meant she had to pass close to active claims and the trigger-happy miners who worked them. But with no lantern and deer-skin boots that turned her footfalls to whispers, Mary was able to slip by most without them even realizing she was there.

The only ones who did raise their heads were the wild-eyed sorts who'd been down here way too long. Too much time with crystal did funny things to men's brains. Mary'd never had a problem herself, but she only guided and listened. She didn't touch crystal unless it was still in stone, and she never mined it. The men she guided never understood why Mary didn't just lead herself to fortune after fortune, but miners didn't see themselves as Mary saw. They didn't see the mad greed that crystal sparked in their eyes or the back-shot corpses left behind by claim jumpers she was constantly burying in her ongoing mission to make the dark tunnels a little less haunted.

Mary didn't know if it was the crystal's revenge for being chiseled or the fact that pretty colored stones were worth five times more than gold ounce for ounce, but she'd never seen a miner's story with a happy ending. Even the lucky ones who struck it big seemed to end up dead in the same ditch as the poor bastards who envied them.

Mary's life weren't no fairytale, but she was still alive after two years in the caves, which was more than she could say for the men she guided. She also had her living, the sturdiest of stone roofs over her head, and beautiful music anytime she wanted to listen. Now if her clients would just stop cheating her, there'd be nothing to complain about, at least not down here. Town was a whole 'nother matter, but that mess was still miles away. With only two sausages and a bit of biscuit left in her pockets, she'd have to surface soon. For now, though, Mary was busy enjoying the best part of her work: getting to be alone with the music, swimming like a fish through the glittering black.

It was so nice walking free again after days of being on guard that Mary didn't realize how quick she was moving until she ran face first into the Dark.

The Dark was most people's first true taste of the caves on account of how close it liked to stay to the entrance, and it was Mary's least favorite by far. Unlike the Slip or the Holes, which were easy to avoid if you knew what you were doing, there was no going around. There was also no predicting when you'd hit it, since it looked just like any other darkness from the outside and was given to roam. The moment you were in it, though, you knew, because any flame you were carrying would instantly put itself out.

No lights worked in the Dark. You could set yourself on fire, and the only way you'd know you were burning was from the pain. Nothing else--not the heat nor the smoke nor even the smell of burning flesh--would make it through, 'cause the Dark wasn't just a lack of light. It was a heaviness that hushed every sense, leaving you groping through tunnels that started winding like tangled yarn as soon as the light vanished.

Mary wasn't sure if the Dark caused the tunnels to twist or if the maze roamed along with the blackness, but it was the only bit of the caves she truly feared. Even the music was muted here, forcing her to slow down and put her hand on the wall to keep from getting lost. Those who didn't have the cave song to guide them had to hold on to a string some intrepid soul had strung up along the main path back when the Dark was first discovered. Stringing worked well enough when the line was intact, but since miners were no-account hoodlums who seemed to feed off screwing each other over, the string was cut more often than not. Sometimes, really evil people would deliberately run it down the wrong path, usually right off a cliff.

If Mary could've seen the ghosts down here, she was sure they'd've been packed cheek-to-jowl. Their constant moaning and muttering was so loud that even normal people could hear it despite the Dark's hushing, but Mary's main complaint was that they talked over the song, forcing her to stop again and again to make sure she was still following the hum that led to the surface. She was shuffling along in this slow fashion when her straining ears caught the distant sound of someone yelling for help.

The noise was so faint she thought it was another ghost at first. They liked to do that sometimes, luring you off the trail with distant pleas until you stepped off a cliff and joined them forever. These cries didn't sound like the dead to Mary, though. They were too hoarse, rasping and giving out midscream the way only a real live throat could do. It was hard to tell which direction the noise was coming from through the Dark's shushing, but that was definitely a living soul crying out there, and from the sorry state of his voice, he'd been doing so for a long, long time.

This realization put Mary squarely in the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, approaching a man when she was alone was a proven bad idea. There was also still the chance this was a trap. Ghosts weren't the only dangers in this place. Ambushers, bandits, and everyone else who got their crystal with a gun instead of a pick also loved the Dark, and they could yell like living men just fine.

She was in no hurry to make herself prey for that lot, but on the other hand, there was an unspoken rule down here that whenever someone asked for help, you gave it. Mary was all too aware how easily it could be her screaming alone down here one day. She wouldn't want someone else deciding she was too much trouble to save if the situation were reversed, so she unclenched her hand and pulled off her glove, fumbling over the wall with her bare fingers until she found the sharp edge of a tiny bit of crystal.

Keeping one finger on the spot so as not to lose it, Mary dug her pocket knife out from under the folds of her poncho. Moving carefully to avoid cutting herself in the blindness, she flipped the blade open and tapped the metal tip against the grain of crystal, sending out a wave of fresh ringing to paint the cave around her. Even this clear sound was hard to hear through the Dark, but it gave her a feel for how many tunnels crisscrossed the main trail she'd been following and which ways they went. Straight down was the answer for most, but one fork sounded like it ran the same direction as the cries, so that was the one Mary tried first, tapping her knife against the wall as she walked to keep the crystal ringing.

It was slow, slow going. Most hazards in the caves were just that: hazards, dangers, pitfalls to be avoided. They could be quite deadly, but in the way of a storm or a wildfire; things that just were. Here again, though, the Dark was different. It had a malevolence about it, a weight it pressed down whenever you were doing something it didn't approve of, like not getting lost. It was pushing hard on Mary now, dampening the crystal's singing to something softer than a breath despite all her tapping.

She could've rung it louder, but Mary didn't want to give herself away in case this was a trap. Hard as the Dark pressed on those it didn't like, it was just as quick to help those it did. Even she could tap herself straight into a knife if she wasn't careful, so Mary took it slow, sliding her boots along the ground to make sure she didn't step off a cliff. But while she was now certain she was going the right direction, the cries for help weren't getting any louder.

That gave her a fright for sure. A few frantic moments of listening later, though, Mary realized she was overcomplicating matters. The screams weren't staying the same because the Dark was tricking her. They were getting quieter because the man doing the yelling was getting weaker.

In the end, she found him only by his breath. Her probing boots had just discovered the edge of a drop when she heard panting from below. There was no looking over to see what was doing it--this was still the Dark, after all--but it sounded like a hurt man. Physically hurt, not pangs-of-eternal-damnation hurt, which was a relief. Mary still wasn't entirely convinced she hadn't fallen for a ghostly trick. There'd be no saying for sure until she laid hands on him, though, so she screwed up her courage and got down on her stomach, crawling her hand over the cliff edge and down the muddy wall until her fingers landed on a head of soft, thick hair damp from the mist of the caves.

They both gasped in surprise when she touched him. Mary was snatching her hand back when the man's flew up to grab her wrist. "Who's there?" he croaked, his hoarse voice barely more than a wheeze after all that yelling. "Who are you?"

Mary freed herself with a scowl. The man was asking in French, which struck her as unusual. The only French talkers she'd met in this part of Montana were Canadian trappers looking to be somewhere else. Greed spoke all languages, though. Maybe this Frenchman had traded his beaver traps for a mining pick?

She puzzled over that for a second before deciding it didn't matter. Whatever tongue he spoke, it was obvious he needed her help. The pit he'd fallen into couldn't be too deep, since she'd touched him so easily, but he must not be able to climb out or he would've done so already. Mary's bet was a broken leg. Not much she could do about that, but she could help with his dry wheezing, grabbing the water skin off her pack to toss it down.

The Frenchman had no questions about that. The moment the water-filled pouch landed on him, he started sucking it down like this was his first drink in a year. For all his need, however, he didn't drain the whole thing, stopping himself just shy of the last few sips before passing the water back up.

"Merci beaucoup."

"You can have it all," Mary told him in the same language, pushing the nearly empty skin back. "I can get more."

The rapid gulping that had already restarted stopped with a surprised choke. "You speak French?"

French was Mary's first language. The nuns at the tiny mission where she'd been raised had allowed nothing else. She hadn't actually learned English until a few years ago, when she'd been forced to leave the Lakota and strike out on her own. But these were things Mary didn't like to talk about and none of his business besides.

"Where are you hurt?" she asked instead.

"It'd be easier to say where I'm not," he replied, sounding more like a man of good spirits now that he wasn't dying of thirst. "But my left leg's the worst. I think I snapped something when I fell into this thrice-damned pit."

Mary gave herself a pat on the back for guessing right. Too bad her prize was hauling a man who couldn't walk. An especially annoying turn considering it shouldn't've been necessary.

"How did you even get all the way over here?" she scolded him. "Why didn't you follow the string like everybody else?"

"Because I thought..." The man trailed off with a shamed sigh. "I thought I heard voices of people I'd lost, and I let hope make me stupid."

At least he knew it. "I'm going to tie a rope to haul you up," Mary said, pushing back to her feet. "You stay put."

"Staying put I can do," he assured her. "Thank you, my friend. I owe you my life. I promise you'll be handsomely rewarded when we get back to town."

Mary perked up at that. She hadn't been thinking so far ahead, but now that he mentioned it, a reward would be most welcome. She was already dreaming of the food she could buy--actual fresh, hot food!--as she untied the coil of rope from her pack and looped it around the nearest jut of rock, tossing the rest down the hole.

She only had to pull him a few feet, but it was a harder haul than it should've been, since the man couldn't use his legs to help. If he hadn't been so light from near starvation, Mary never would've gotten him out. Even after he made it up, though, he still couldn't stand on his own. Not only was his broken left leg unable to bear any weight, his right was strained and weak from all his efforts to escape before her arrival.

A pair of crutches would've solved the problem. Mary didn't have anything like that, though, so she made do with her shoulder, sliding herself under his blind-groping arms to haul him up. It was going great until her body came up flush against his, and the Frenchman jumped away as if burned.

"Merde!"

"What's wrong?" Mary asked in a panic. "Did I hurt you?"

"No, it's not--I'm not--you're a woman!"

Mary'd thought that would have been obvious from her voice. But the Dark did strange things to your senses, and the man had clearly been down here far too long. "Is that gonna be a problem?"

"Of course not! It's just..." His hoarse voice began to quiver. "Are you an angel?"

Mary'd been called a lot of things in her twenty years, but that was a new one. "Did the fall break your head as well as your leg?" she asked, laughing at him.

"My head is fine," the man insisted. "And I think it's a fair question. You appeared from nowhere when I thought I was dead, not even making a sound. You pulled me out of that horrible pit, spoke to me in my mother tongue with your beautiful voice." He sighed. "You are either an angel of mercy or a cruel phantom of the crystal madness. I know which I prefer."

Mary chuckled again. Poor man. He must be crystal addled indeed if she was an angel. Still, "If you want to think I'm heaven-sent, I ain't gonna stop you," she said, sliding her arm back under his shoulder. "It's a fair sight better than what I get called most times."

"You are most certainly my angel," he said, leaning more heavily on her now that he'd been allowed. "What is your name, mademoiselle?"

Mary pursed her lips. It was the natural question, but giving her name to a man she'd met in the Dark felt like too big a risk. "What's yours?" she asked instead.

"Lieutenant Jean-Jacques Lucas of the tenth U.S. Cavalry," he answered proudly.

Now it was Mary's turn to jump away, shoving the poor man back so hard she nearly sent him down the hole again. Of all the people she could've pulled out of that pit, she had to go and rescue a cavalry officer. A hero in the war America was fighting right now against people who looked just like her!

What was a soldier like him even doing in the caves? They were supposed to be up top with their horses and forts, not down here with the riffraff. This was Mary's safe place, darn it! She got harassed enough by his sort above ground. It weren't right she had to put up with it below as well, and there'd certainly be no getting any reward now. She'd be lucky if this Lieutenant Lucas didn't shoot her the moment the Dark wasn't hiding her half-Lakota face.

At least she'd been smart enough not to tell him her name. As soon as they got to the edge of the Dark where it was safer, Mary would dump him and run. The Dark liked to hover near the cave entrance, which meant they were probably only a few miles from town. The tunnel out was always super busy, too, so he'd probably sit only a few minutes before someone else came along to scoop him up.

Plan made, Mary wedged her shoulder more tightly under the lieutenant's and started hobbling them back toward the main trail quick as she could. The rapid pace forced the soldier to lean nearly all of his weight on her, a fact he seemed ashamed about, but Mary was too worried over her own skin to mind his pride. At least he was a polite burden. Despite being forced to cling to her like a baby squirrel, the lieutenant's hands never strayed anywhere they shouldn't, and he tried hard not to slow her down by hopping forward best he could on his still-working foot.

Mary was sure he wouldn't be putting himself through so much trouble if he knew he was leaning on a "filthy Injun," but it was nice to be treated with care for once. A bit too nice, maybe, for when they made it to the spot where the unnatural Dark gave way to normal underground blackness, she found it surprisingly hard to let him go. He might've only been doing it 'cause he had to, but that didn't change that the lieutenant's arm around her shoulder was the first kindly touch Mary'd had from another person in years.

Feeling like a proper sad sack, she forced herself to let go, dropping poor Lucas a little too hard in the process. His gasp of pain when he landed stabbed her conscience, but she'd dawdled too long already. The Dark seemed to get bigger every time she went through, but it must've really stretched itself this time. They were almost back at the start of the caves now, which put them in range of the cavalry patrols that guarded the entrance.

If one of those squads caught Mary with a downed officer, they'd shoot her dead before Lucas could speak in her defense, assuming he even remembered who she was. He already seemed more confused now that she'd set him down, his breathing speeding up in distress as she untangled herself from his grip.

"Where are you going?" he asked fearfully.

"Away" had been Mary's intent, but it didn't seem right to abandon him in this state. "I'm going to get you help," she said instead, pressing him into a hollow just off the path so that no one would step on him by accident. "Wait here."

He clearly didn't want to wait anywhere. He actually tried crawling after her. But while they were no longer in the Dark, there was still no light, which meant he was still blind as a cave fish. For Mary, though, the music was back clear and bright, giving her a good view of the exhausted lieutenant's shape as he flopped back on his face with a thump.

"For the love of--"

Mary hurried back over, picking the addled man up and returning him to the hollow with an angry huff. "Stay put this time," she ordered. "If you try to follow me, you'll just get lost again. Sit here and wait while I get you a rescue."

He tried to argue, but his words were too jumbled to make sense anymore. Being left alone in the dark again, even normal dark like this, seemed to be more than he could take. Mary might've been in a hurry, but she wasn't made of stone, so she sat with him a while, holding his hand until he passed back into something like sleep. When she was sure he wasn't going to hurt himself chasing after her again, she slipped her fingers out of his and sneaked away, following the cave music up the slope toward the mine entrance.

The path became more dirt than stone as she got nearer the surface. The Dark really had dumped them far up this time, so much so that Mary didn't realize how close she was to the checkpoint until she nearly walked right into it.

She skidded to a stop just in time, darting down one of the many dead-end tunnels prospectors had blasted into the soft sandstone of the Front Caves during the early days of the crystal boom. Plenty of miners saw her--the entrance was where everyone bottlenecked before spreading out to their individual claims--but hiding from the tax table was a perfectly normal activity, so no one paid Mary any mind. She was wondering how to tell the troop of blue-coated soldiers searching miners' bags for hidden crystal about Lucas without getting arrested when she spotted a rare friendly face.

"Oliver!"

Coming up the tunnel from the town side was an old man scarcely taller than herself and carrying even more gear. All that weight had made him stoop so low his long beard dragged on the ground. He straightened when he heard her call his name, though, and his wrinkled face broke into a big toothless smile.

"Mary, Mary, Never-Contrary!" he called in delight, his tied-on cook pots rattling a merry chorus as he scurried over to join her in her hiding tunnel. "Looking to skirt the law? I can fake an attack of the chest pains if you need a distraction."

"That's mighty kind," Mary said, truly touched by the offer. "But no. I'm actually in need of the opposite. There's a cavalry officer up near the front edge of the Dark who's in a bad way. Someone needs to tell the others about him 'fore he dies, but me being me... you know..."

Oliver raised his calloused hands. "Say no more, dearie. I spy the picture you're painting. But why're you stoopin' to help a cavalry boy? Did he blow his bugle at you when you passed? Threaten to cut off your pigtails with his saber?"

He reached out to give one of Mary's thick braids a good-natured tug, but she shook her head. "He called for help."

Oliver's joking face grew dour. He'd been working these caves even longer than Mary, and while his mind wasn't what it once was, he knew what that meant same as she.

"Guess I'd best go 'n fetch him, then," he said, gripping the straps lashing his clanking backpack to his wiry body. "How far's the Dark today?"

"Barely any distance," Mary promised. "And he said there's a reward out for his rescue. Bet'cha it weren't just air neither. The cavalry's too short on officers to lose one to the caves. They'll probably fork out big for him."

"Don't know 'bout that," Oliver said, scratching his beard. "Cavalry's stretched thin in every direction these days, 'specially when it comes to coin. But an officer oughta be good for a drink at least." He smiled again. "Thanks for the tip, Mary-lamb! I owe ya one."

She gave him a salute and sent him on his way, watching his huge pack bob like a turtle shell as he boldly approached the tax table and started yelling about a downed officer just like she'd asked. The soldiers looked at him sideways at first--as well they should, given he'd just scuttled in past them not a minute previous. But Oliver never was one for quitting once he had a good holler going. No matter how many times they told him to get lost, he kept at it until the soldiers caved and called for a brace of men to follow him into the mines and see what the fuss was.

Oliver flashed her a winner's grin as he marched past with his escort. Mary pressed her hands together in thanks and started taking off her own pack, untying all the worn-in knots that kept her supplies together in preparation for the tax table.

It was a lot of undoing for someone who carried no crystal, but Mary'd learned that having everything already open and ready greatly cut down on the amount of trouble she got from the soldiers. Doing this wouldn't get rid of all of it, but she had no other way out of the mines she was willing to take. Wearying as it was to deal with soldiers, they at least had to pretend to be law-abiding. The smugglers' tunnels had no such compunctions and a much quicker trigger.

Fortunately, the cavalry tasked with collecting taxes today were too busy making fun of Oliver to pay her much mind. They still dumped her bag out on the ground and kicked her things through the dirt, but it was a halfhearted, lazy sort of harassment. There were none of the usual demands that she crawl on the ground or show them an Injun dance.

Not that Mary knew any of the Lakota's dances. After the nuns told her she was too old to stay, Mary had gone to the tribes, thinking there at last she'd be where she belonged. But she'd scarcely lived four full seasons with the Lakota 'fore they'd told her to leave. She'd never known why. They welcomed other half-breeds with open arms. No matter how good Mary'd tried to be, though--learning their language, following their traditions, doing whatever work she was asked--it hadn't been enough.

It was still a sore subject, but there weren't no time for moping. Another glut of miners was already making trouble at the table behind her, so Mary picked her things out of the dust and put them back in her pack, settling her hat down low over her eyes again as she climbed the last few feet to the exit to go remind herself what the sky looked like.

Big and clear was the answer. Coming out of the tunnels was always a bit like waking up from a dream. Mary hadn't even realized it was morning until she saw the bright sun rising over the curve of the huge Montana sky. She gave herself a moment to breathe in the fresh warm air before hurrying through the wooden gate that marked the end of the crystal mines and the start of the boomtown that fed off them.

She swore the settlement at Medicine Rocks got bigger every time she came back, but this morning had to be the craziest yet. Coming out of the mines should've put her at the end of Main Street, but Mary couldn't even see the road through the crowds of miners, cart drivers, gunhands, and cowboys cramming themselves into every nook and cranny. They were even standing on the porch of the Wet Whistle whorehouse, a place no one stepped unless they had money or a death wish.

Keen to see what could make so many folks take leave of their senses, Mary darted away from the mine gate and squeezed over to the copse of pines that sheltered the town's public water pump. It was a sad, dusty little grove, but she knew from experience that the biggest sapling could hold her weight. She shimmied up it quick as lightning, peeling off her gloves to dig her cave-hardened fingers into the scaly bark as she pulled herself above the field of hats to see what the commotion was.

Her guess was yet more soldiers coming to cram themselves into the already stuffed wooden fortress at the top of the hill. But while a lot of armed, uniformed men were coming down the road, they weren't dressed in cavalry blue. Their coats were brown, and they were riding in tight formation around the biggest, nicest, fanciest carriage Mary had ever seen. Dang thing looked like a snuffbox on wheels, a veritable painted palace bouncing down the rutted dirt of Medicine Rocks' Main Street straight at her.



Chapter 2

 

June 20, 1876.

Medicine Rocks, Montana Territory.

An ungodly hour of the morning.

 

Not fifty feet up the crowded road from the caves' entrance, in the basement of the enormous split-log whorehouse known as the Wet Whistle, a building strategically positioned to be the first thing miners saw when they emerged back into daylight with crystal burning a hole in their horny pockets, a gunhand called Tyrel Reiner sat on a three-legged stool, contemplating a corpse.

It was a fresh one. Nobody Rel knew personally, which was a relief. Not that knowing the poor bastard would've changed anything. The job was what it was, but Rel always found the work went easier when the bloodless face didn't come with a name already attached.

Eager to get this over with, Rel pushed off the stool and tromped across the board floor to the old pickle barrel currently serving as their liquor case. Inside were a dozen pristine bottles of rotgut packed in straw. The whiskey came from a farmer in Colorado who didn't paste labels or ask questions. The booze gleamed like honey in the orange light of the kerosene lantern hanging off the floorboards of the bar above, but the taste was closer to turpentine. Good thing, then, that taste wasn't the point. Neither was the buzz this morning. The only reason Rel needed the whiskey was because strong spirits were the only thing potent enough to make what came next possible.

Shaking like an old ether addict, Rel stepped over the corpse to unlock the iron railway safe bricked into the basement cell's stone wall. Inside were the usuals: gold, guns, a two-gallon jug of laudanum shipped up from El Paso at great expense. But these were merely distractions from the real treasure in the back: a glass-stoppered apothecary jar filled with carefully folded paper sachets.

Stomach clenching in anticipation, Rel grabbed the bottle, shook one out, and placed the folded paper on the stool next to the whiskey bottle. Next came the tin cup, which was hung on a hook by the safe for just such occasions. Working carefully so as not to spill a drop, Rel poured the whiskey. When the cup was as full as it could go without spilling, Rel unfolded the paper sachet and tipped the contents in, trying not to look as the shimmering powder hit the booze and sank straight to the bottom like the rock it was.

You shouldn't do this, warned the crystal-embellished pistol strapped to Rel's hip. You just took one yesterday.

"Shut your trap, old man," Rel grumbled, picking up the tin cup. "No one asked your opinion."

Facts are not opinions, the gun replied pertly. Even crushed to powder, crystal is crystal. What you're drinking is basically pulverized glass suspended in a solution of grain alcohol. I shouldn't have to explain why that's a bad idea, especially when the last dose you drank is still working a bloody path through your intestines.

Hard to argue with that, since it did indeed feel like a thousand tiny knives were going to work on Rel's insides. Normally there'd be a day at least between doses, but this trick only worked when the body was fresh, and the bastard on the floor hadn't been polite enough to wait.

Suit yourself, the gun grumbled as Rel lifted the cup. Just remember: neither of us will get what we want if you die from internal bleeding in a brothel basement.

Rel replied with a rude gesture and tipped the tin cup back hard, draining the contents in one gulp.

As always, the whiskey hit first, burning its way down like sour cinders. This was a good distraction from the crystal, which hurt a lot more. Even with the alcohol to wash it through, every pulverized grain felt like swallowing a broken bottle. The pain of its passing brought tears to Rel's eyes, but that was just a preamble to the real sucker punch of shooting crystal: the sound.

It went off like a cannon, blasting the breath straight out of Rel's chest. It wasn't a real noise--at least, not one that a person who wasn't flying on crystal could hear--but it boxed Rel's ears all the same, making them bleed rivulets as the gunhand dropped to the bloodstained floor.

I told you this was a bad idea.

"Shut. Up." Rel panted, heaving for breath as the violent eruption of noise shook through every inch of flesh. Like always, it felt like it would never end. Like always, though, it did, leaving Rel soundless and shaking, staring at the dead man, who no longer looked so dead.

Nothing on the surface had changed. The corpse was still a corpse without breath or pulse or twitch of life. But deep within the waxy flesh, something was quickening. It shimmered in the body like a heat mirage, rising in pulses that kept time with the waves of nausea pulsing through Rel's abused guts. Finally, after what had to be fifty cycles of this bullshit, the shimmering condensed into the see-through image of a man. A very confused man who immediately started to panic.

"Where am I?" he demanded, looking around the prisonlike basement cell with wild, glowing eyes. "What happened?"

"You died," Rel informed him, removing the bottle of whiskey to plop back down on the stool.

"I did not!" the ghost cried, indignant. "I think I'd know if I was dead. I'm just drunk is all."

"You were drunk," Rel corrected. "Drunk enough to try forcing yourself onto a lady you didn't pay for, which is how you earned that badge on your chest."

The ghost looked down at the red-black stain coating his shirtfront, and his already bloodless face went paler. "Merciful heavens."

"I don't think that's where you're going," Rel said. "Gentlemen like you typically travel the other direction. But you had the poor judgment to die in the Wet Whistle Saloon, which means you ain't going nowhere until you pay your bill."

"Are you shittin' me?" the ghost demanded, fear changing to fury. "I'm goddamn dead, and you want me to pay my bar tab?"

"You'll be paying a lot more than that," Rel promised. "Miss Shandy, the lady you paid the ultimate price for trying to force your attentions on last night, is one of our top-shelf items. The only reason she deigned to look at your ugly face is because you were flashing crystal like lightning. Since you're a miner, we assumed that means you struck a good claim. A claim you won't be needing any longer."

"Like hell I won't!" the ghost snarled, flashing his teeth, which were already sharpening with the malice of the dead. "I don't care how demised I am. I ain't giving up my crystal to no one! 'Specially not to some humphouse gunhand for a whore I didn't even get!"

"That ain't no way to talk," Rel tsked, pulling the crystal gun from its holster. "But it's never too late to learn manners. Is it, Daddy?"

The gun heaved a disgusted sigh but obeyed, rising from Rel's fingers as if lifted by an unseen hand until its bone-inlaid barrel was pointed straight at the ghost's face.

The dead man jumped away. "What in tarnation is that?"

"A gun," Rel said, unnecessarily. "But as I'm sure you've noticed, this ain't no ordinary firearm. This gun can shoot anything, even you. You think you're safe because you're already going to hell? Hell ain't shit compared to what I'll do if you don't spit out the precise location of where you got that crystal."

"Y-You can't do that!" the ghost cried with a furious sputter. "This is robbery!"

"It's a choice," Rel corrected, staring the ghost in the eyes as the pistol hovered closer to the dead man's face. "Way I see it, you can take your chances with St. Peter, or you can take 'em with me. Peter's a saint, so he might still show mercy. I, on the other hand, will absolutely shoot your soul to confetti and let your broken pieces drift across these Great Plains for all eternity, so I suggest you start talking."

"All right, all right," the ghost said, putting up his see-through hands. "I'll tell you, Christ. Just make that devil gun put itself down!"

Rel flicked a finger, and the pistol returned itself to its holster, grumbling all the while. Nothing loud enough for the ghost to hear, though, so Rel was free to pretend it wasn't happening.

"Tell me where you found the crystal."

The ghost was already opening his mouth to point out how impossible that was when Rel walked back over to the safe to pull out a carefully folded map. Not one of the normal useless paper maps that went out of date five minutes after they were drawn since the caves changed themselves like showgirls whenever no one was looking. This was a square of fine leather embroidered with shimmering crystal thread. Each stitch was no bigger than a pinhead, but they twitched in the leather like hairs in living skin, creating a map that breathed and shifted as easily as the caves themselves. It bled, too, if you pricked it. A fact Rel sincerely wished to unlearn.

"What the hell is that?" the ghost demanded, horrified.

"Something bigger than you," Rel replied, touching the map as little as possible as it unfurled. "Now show me where the crystal is."

The ghost did as he was bid. It took him several minutes to figure out how the moving embroidery lined up with the dark paths underground, but eventually, his glowing finger pointed at a fork near the map's end. Not the end of the caves. Those went on forever for all anyone knew, but this map only showed the currently explored territory. How it knew all the tunnels and kept up with their turnings, Rel had no idea, but it was a lucky break the dead bastard's claim was inside its reach. If they'd had to go off the map, things would have been a lot more work.

"I can't believe that thing is real," the ghost grumbled. "What's a treasure like that doing in a cheap whorehouse?"

"We ain't cheap, and that ain't your concern," Rel said, making a mark at the indicated spot with a bit of charcoal before folding the twitching leather up again. Damn creepy thing growled like a bear at being put away again, so Rel shoved it into the safe as quick as quick could, slamming the door on it before it decided to do worse.

"There," Rel huffed, turning back to the dead man now that they both weren't in danger of becoming ghosts. "You gotta claim deed for that strike?"

"Nah," the ghost said. "I jumped it. Original owner's down a hole somewhere in the Dark. Didn't think to get the deed off him before I kicked him in. Bad planning in hindsight, but the tax table's easy to con if you hide your crap good enough. I also thought I'd only be doing a few weeks 'fore I got rich enough to ditch this shit pit. Just my luck I'd get shot."

Luck had nothing to do with him being a sack of stupid, but Rel saw nothing more to be gained from kicking a man who was about to be six feet down.

"That'll do, then."

The ghost's face lit up. "You're letting me go?"

More like Rel lacked the stomach to keep him. The effects of the crystal shot were already fading, leaving only nausea in their wake. No need for the ghost to know that, though.

"Ain't got no right to hold you now that your debt's been settled," Rel said instead. "Move along to wherever you're going, and if you get another chance at life, try to do better next time."

That's rich coming from you, the pistol said, but the ghost seemed comforted. He was already closing his eyes, his transparent face glowing with the reflection of whatever it was the dead saw once Rel released them. Heaven's light or Perdition's flames, there was no telling. Rel was just glad it was over, rising from the stool with an exhausted sigh as the ghost faded from this world.

His bloody corpse was still on the floor, but that was someone else's problem. All Rel had left to do was hand the marked map over and fall into bed, preferably until the next sunrise. Alas, no such luck, because when Rel turned to unlock the heavy door that kept the drunks and other undesirables out of the Wet Whistle's real business, a great tall beanpole of a man was already leaning against it.

"Christ!" Rel shouted, jumping back a good two feet. The man chuckled at the sight, which only made Rel madder. "What the hell's wrong with you? You know I'm to be left alone when I'm working!"

"Tyrel, Tyrel," the other man tsked, pushing up his hat to reveal the charming smile Rel had never been stupid enough to trust. "Is that any way to talk to your superior?"

He said that like it was a joke, but there was never anything funny when Apache Jake was around.

That weren't his real name, of course. No one in this mad murder-parlor of a flesh house went by their Christian names, Rel included. But Apache's nom du crime was especially ridiculous, 'cause he weren't Apache at all. He was Black. Not even one of those Cherokee half-breeds but a perfectly normal Negro, which was why he'd named himself thus. According to Jake, no one was afraid of a runaway slave, but he'd yet to meet the man--Black, white, or Indian--who wasn't scared shitless of the Apache.

That weren't just posturing either. Even when it happened in broad daylight, no one ever heard or saw Apache shoot. The men he faced just sprouted bullet holes and leaked out while he kept smiling and smiling. He was like the map locked in the safe: another of the Wet Whistle's terrifying oddities. Most folks likely counted Rel among that group as well, though, so what was there to say?

Plenty.

"I meant no offense, sir," Rel said, talking over the pistol so it wouldn't get any ideas. "Though I'd appreciate if you didn't scare the life out of me. We got enough bodies buried out back as it is."

"Always room for one more," Apache said, peering over Rel's shoulder at the dead miner on the floor. "And speaking of, did you get that lump of meat to talk?"

"The meat wasn't the one talking, but I got it. Location's marked, map's back in the safe, and the soul's moved on."

"Nice work," Jake said, patting Rel's short-cropped mahogany hair like a puppy's. "Especially with the soul. Always nice to know we won't be getting any more haunted than I'm sure we already are."

He had no idea.

"I'll send one of my boys to take care of the mess," Apache continued. "And I'll get a crew down to our new crystal mine. Dirty work, mining, but it takes a lot of crystal to keep up with the way you guzzle it down."

Rel shrugged. "You were the one who ordered me to make him talk."

"And what good work you did," Jake said, wrapping a long arm 'round Rel's shoulders. "Such good work, in fact, that I've got another job for you."

"I can't," Rel said, ducking out of his hold. "I just took a shot. If you don't give me a few days off to heal, all I'll be good for is upchucking blood."

"This ain't crystal-taking work," Apache promised, circling his arm back around Rel like a clamp. "Have you seen what's going on outside?"

Rel snorted. "How could I? I've been in a windowless cell threatening the dead since you woke me up 'fore dawn."

"Then this should be enlightening," the gunman replied, guiding Rel up the narrow ladder-stair to the large saloon on the building's ground floor. A room that, oddly, was no brighter than the cellar below.

Rel blinked in surprise. This far into summer, the sun should've been well up the sky by now, yet the saloon looked dark as midnight. It had to be morning, though, because the drunks were all asleep, passed out on their stools or under the card tables. Yet there was no sun coming in through the pine shutters they used in place of panes, since not even the Wet Whistle could afford glass on windows that had idiots getting tossed through 'em every night.

Rel was worried this unnatural darkness was due to some house-ripping, sky-darkening storm that occasionally pounded the plains without warning, but the truth turned out to be much simpler and much stranger. When Apache walked them over to the saloon's swinging door, Rel saw that the windows were dark because a crowd of people was standing in front of them--and everywhere else.

All of Main Street was packed butt to gut. Miners, townsfolk, wagon drivers, laborers, everyone was out gawking at something Rel couldn't see on account of the mob. Even the whores upstairs were awake and leaning out their windows in their nightdresses, shading their tired eyes to catch a glimpse of whatever had so captured the town's undivided interest.

"What's going on?"

"The only thing that unites this town," Jake replied with a grin. "Money. Seems old Sam Price's next of kin has finally shown up to collect their inheritance."

The gun in Rel's holster jumped at that. Sam? the weapon asked desperately. Sam's family is here?

"What next of kin?" Rel said at the same time, grateful as ever that no one else could hear the old piece of junk. "Sam Price didn't have any children, and he'd burn his money before he left a cent to the rest of his relations."

"That's precisely what I brought you up here to ask about," Jake said, squeezing harder. "You're a friend of the Price family, ain't you?"

"Something like that," Rel muttered. "But that was a long time ago."

"More time just means a dearer reunion." Jake assured, dragging Rel behind him as he stepped outside, scattering the crowd packing the saloon's porch like pigeons as he did. "Whoever's come out here, they're at least as rich as old Sam was. Just look at that carriage!"

It was quite the piece of work. Rel couldn't fathom how they'd gotten something that huge down the rutted wagon tracks that crisscrossed the plains, though from the look of its wheels, it hadn't been without consequence. The top was still piled with fancy luggage trunks, though, meaning whoever was inside intended to stay a spell. Still.

"What's this got to do with me?"

"You're our in," Apache said, smiling down oh so pleasantly. "You're the only person in this town rarefied enough to claim a personal connection to the Prices. Whoever's in that carriage, they likely know you. I want you to lean on that connection. Be a friendly face in this harsh new world. Get 'em comfortable and trusting so they believe you when you tell 'em it's in their very best interest to sell us everything Sam left them for cheap."

Not much left these days could make Rel balk, but that came close. "Why the hell would I do that?"

"Because you work for us," Apache replied jovially. "Ain't no one else 'round here got enough crystal to keep you fed."

"That ain't why I'm here, and you know it," Rel snarled, fighting to get out of Apache's snakelike embrace. "I hate that damn crystal, and I ain't doing this. I was hired for shooting and ghost talking, not betrayal."

"Who are you betraying?" Jake crooned, locking Rel tighter. "This is a mission of mercy. Think about it: this town's been talking for months about how Old Sam found something on his last crazy rich man excursion to the caves. Everyone with a brain knows it's nothing but miner talk. Buried treasure, that sorta nonsense. But folks here are honed in keen on the idea, and--"

"And they think Price's heir will know how to find it."

"Now you're catching on," Apache said cheerfully. "This town's chock-full of no-account killers who'll happily shoot the toes off a rich easterner for a chance at the sort of crystal Sam Price used to bring in. That's why you're gonna do this for us, 'cause unlike the rest of these animals, we're civilized folk. We're willing to pay good money--"

"I thought you said you wanted it cheap?"

"Any amount's better than getting tortured until you spill a secret that ain't even real," Jake argued. "Which is precisely what's gonna happen to the body in that carriage if they don't take our deal first. Look at it that way, and you're practically saving their life."

Rel let out a defeated sigh. "What exactly do you want?"

"A buyout," Apache said. "Shouldn't be a tough sell. Price Mining's fallen hard since its glory days. I don't see the point myself, but the boss wants everything Sam Price touched in her pocket."

Rel's head snapped up. "The boss ordered this?"

"This job's her baby," Apache said, smiling wider. "She and Old Sam had their philosophical disagreements, but I can't think of anyone more suited to honor his legacy. She's certainly a damn sight better than some know-nothing silver spoon who thinks rolling in here with a carriage the size of Texas is gonna impress anybody, and it ain't as if we're asking you to work for free. Get this deal for us, and I promise you'll be well rewarded."

"How well?" Rel asked suspiciously. "'Cause I've heard that promise before. The whole reason I signed onto this flea circus was because your boss promised she could get me the name of the man who killed my kin, but it's been four months now, and I ain't got shit."

"Ah yes," Apache said. "Your noble quest for justice."

"Don't you dare mock them," Rel snarled, ripping out of Apache's hold at last. "My family was gunned down in cold blood. Your boss promised to find me the no-balls bastard who did it if I did as she said. Now I've kept my end. I've guarded your whores, shot handsy miners, and shaken down every ghost you've ever brought me, but the only thing you've coughed up in return is a lot of hot air and excuses. I'm about at my limit already, so why the hell should I go out on this limb for you and screw over the people who put a roof over my family's heads when my father couldn't be bothered just so your boss can finally get one over on a man who's been dead for six months?"

"That is a most unfair accusation," Apache said, removing his hat and pressing it over his heart. "You asked us to find the villain who killed your daddy--"

"I don't give a shit about that bastard."

"All right," the gunman said, backing up. "You asked us to find the man who killed your mother and baby brother without giving us anything to work with. No description, no name, not even what kind of gun he used to do the shooting. All you could tell us was that it happened on Christmas Day at a cabin in the Dakota Badlands. That ain't a lot to work with."

"I know," Rel growled. "I came to you because I couldn't do it, but you said you could."

"And we will keep that promise," Apache said. "But you gotta do your part. The boss has a lot on her plate at the moment, things far more pressing than avenging folks who aren't getting any deader. I know you're on fire for this, but we at the top gotta think about the bigger picture, of which you are but a small portion. However." Jake leaned in close. "That pecking order can change. You get us Sam's legacy no muss, no fuss, your stock with the Wet Whistle's gonna go up, up, up. And those who go up move to the head of the line. You see what I'm saying?"

He's playing you again, the pistol warned. Those are just rewrites of the lines he fed you when you signed up for this racket. Don't be the idiot who falls for the same trick twice.

Rel hadn't fallen for them the first time. Now same as then, though, there didn't seem to be any other choice. Rel had already tried and failed everything else, but the Wet Whistle had reach no other could boast. There wasn't a bit of criminality involving crystal they didn't hear about, and crystal was what had brought that gunman to the Reiners' tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere.

And my research, the gun added. He only took a few ounces of the crystal I was experimenting on, but he stole an entire bookcase worth of my notes. That's the real loss here. Crystal comes and goes, but the papers he stole from me were priceless. Knowledge collected by generations of Reiners over centuries--

To hell with his notes. Rel had seen the old man's body, how he'd locked himself in his workshop with his precious research while a stranger had shot his wife and teenage son to rags. That sort of butchery took time, but the old bastard hadn't even poked his head out to cry stop. He'd just cowered in there with his crystal and his papers, and what had it accomplished? As soon as the murderer got done slaughtering innocent victims, he'd kicked down the workshop door and shot Rel's father anyway. In Rel's opinion, killing the coward Bernard Reiner was the only thing that damn criminal had done right.

That's a lot of opinions for someone who wasn't even there, the gun said coldly. You want to talk about cowards who abandoned their kin? Look in a mirror.

"Shut up," Rel snarled, turning back to Apache, who'd been watching the internal struggle with great amusement. "All I gotta do is convince Price's heir to sell, right?"

"That's it," Jake promised. "Just a little bit of sweet-talking. You don't even have to lie."

It would take a boatload of lies to convince someone who'd come all the way out here from Boston expecting a mogul's inheritance that they should sell everything to a whorehouse for a loss instead, but Rel didn't care anymore. The Price family might've taken the Reiners in, but they'd never let them forget it was charity. They'd always been a load of stuck-up, selfish prigs who saw everyone who wasn't a millionaire as mentally and morally deficient. They deserved to be swindled and sent home with a pittance, and if doing so saved them from being tortured by the locals over the location of a treasure that didn't even exist, then that was the Reiners' debt paid.

"All right," Rel said. "I'll do it."

"I knew you would," Apache said with a wink. "This is top priority, so take all the time you need. Just mind you don't take too long. I myself am the soul of patience, but the boss is eager to have this matter finished, and you know how she can get. I'd hate to be picking up pieces of you off the street."

"If you're gonna rush this, we might as well not bother," Rel said, starting down the stairs. "You want Sam Price's legacy on a platter? Get out of my hair and let me work."

"Have it your way," Jake said, putting up his hands. "But don't say I didn't warn you."

"Yeah, yeah," Rel muttered, walking across the street toward the huge empty shadow of the Price Mining building, the crowd parting like the Red Sea all around for fear of bumping elbows with the Wet Whistle's monsters.


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