The morning breeze woke up Lola from her deep slumber. She was feeling incongruously safe and well-rested. When she turned to see what the gunslinger was up to, she wasn’t surprised to see him with his back to her, staring into the distance.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice coming out as a croak. She wasn’t used to so much dust.
“We will be in trouble soon,” he said nonchalantly, handing her a water skin to drink from.
“Where is Uncle Ro?”
“Still sleeping,” he said nodding towards the bundled form. Hunter had wanted to wake him but when he saw the red sky, he thought better of it. Let the old man catch up on his sleep. If he were awake, all he’d do was blither about the impending danger. Hunter had no use for that.
“How do you know we are in trouble?” asked Lola, shading her eyes to stare at the place she assumed Hunter had been staring at. She didn’t see a thing. She doubted even Hunter could see anything. Maybe it was just his pessimism that was talking.
Hunter pointed at the sky. “It’s red. Trouble has always followed a red morning.”
Lola snorted. “I didn’t know you were superstitious.”
“Not superstition kid. When you live with nature, you learn to read the signs. And as a reward, nature warns you when trouble is headed your way.”
Lola cocked her head to one side and studied the gunslinger. Even though she tried hard not to dwell on the past, when he spoke this way, devoid of humanity, she couldn’t help but remember how Uncle Ro and she had come in contact with him.
After Uncle Ro had saved her from the smouldering remains of the Verd Farmstead, they had run to Lowso and the Beaumorts in search of a safe haven. They were welcomed but advised to leave the next dawn as quietly as possible. Lola had gotten over the shock quicker than her uncle who couldn’t believe that the Beaumorts wouldn’t lift a finger to save their own grandchild.
The Beaumorts, as a last act of kindness, had given Romeo an address and a name with sincere wishes that they’d find some form of protection from the Eastwoods. As it turned out, that act of kindness cost them their lives but Lola and Romeo hadn’t known it at the time. In fact Romeo still refused to believe his parents were dead. He refused to believe he was living this nightmare simply because Romilla had snubbed the affections of Lincoln Eastwood.
Once Romeo had stopped shaking from utter fear and belief that he and his niece would die, he had been able to think. He had chopped off all of Lola’s hair, dressed her in clothes too big for her, stolen two horses and left just before dawn to the address his mother had pressed into his palms.
When they reached the town where they were to find Frizbee, they had found Hunter instead who had calmly informed them that Frizbee had departed for the sacred land of the dead. It was Lola who had taken charge of the situation. Her uncle had simply slumped in his place, now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were doomed.
Since Hunter had killed her only protection, Lola had declared it only fair that Hunter take up the job that Frizbee would have undertaken. Hunter had growled something incoherent and stormed off. Lola had ran behind him and tugged at his hand at the right time. Neither Lola nor Hunter had anticipated her strength and he had found himself on the ground, saved from a bullet that had been aimed at his heart. After that it had been easy to get Hunter to cooperate.
“If we are in trouble,” she finally asked, “why haven’t we left?”
Hunter shrugged. There was no guarantee that going forward would be safer than staying put. Besides, he hoped he would have more luck palavering with their new attackers than he had with Bossman, Twitchy and company. He didn’t believe in luck but he did believe in signs – and trouble didn’t always have to be bad.
“What if it is Eastwood?” Lola spit the name, like it was a dirty word.
“He won’t join the fray so soon. Lincoln has no balls. His father…now he was a different man; lived on principle. Lincoln is a mother…” Hunter turned sharply at the sound of movement. His gun was in his hand and he was in front of Lola even before he had turned fully.
“It’s only me,” said Romeo quivering, raising his hands as if in surrender. “You know the Eastwoods?”
The gunslinger left his fighting stance, stowing away his gun. He had told Romeo many times not to make sudden moves around him. The old man didn’t seem to understand just how close Hunter had been to pressing the trigger.
“I know of them. I have had dealings with Old Jack.”
Before Romeo could ask more questions, a squeak left Lola that distracted the two men. She moved closer to Hunter, gripping his wrist. “I can see them now,” she whispered.
There was a moving cloud of dust to the east and it was rapidly approaching them. When they were close enough to see but far enough to be out of ear-shot, Lola felt Hunter stiffen. Was that good or bad she couldn’t say. She could see about seven men on horses, all of them wearing black with coloured kerchiefs around their mouths. She could only see their eyes and they were cold and calculating. Had she not become so used to Hunter, she would have recognized the seven to be gunslingers.
“Remember no sudden moves and let me do the talking,” whispered Hunter just as they were surrounded by dust and the seven men and horses.
“Hile,” said Hunter once the seven had made a tight circle around them.
Lola was shocked to hear the respect and wariness in Hunter’s voice. She looked at the seven again, trying to see what he could obviously see. That’s when she saw the holsters and the guns. Hunter had the same. An involuntary smile lit up her face. They would be safe now. Surely gunslingers wouldn’t attack a fellow gunslinger?
One of the seven climbed off his horse. He was two inches shorter than Hunter but he looked twice as menacing. The man looked Hunter up and down and then moved on to scrutinize Lola and Romeo.
Hunter saw the recognition flicker in the man’s eyes as they rested on Lola. “They are with me,” he said territorially, pulling Lola closer to his side as if he could protect her better that way.
The man lifted his chin and Hunter felt a sudden crack at the back of his neck and he was on the ground. He lost consciousness before his body hit the ground and long before Lola started screaming.