Took me two months to track her down. Would’ve gone faster, if she hadn’t stolen my damn horse.
Of course, that was what got her in the end. Horses are worth their weight in plat, these days. Hell, more than that. I’d gladly trade a king’s ransom in plat for another Goldy, although I wouldn’t mind if my next steed didn’t have quite the attitude problem. And maybe a little more loyalty, too.
But when I finally hauled my ass into the next little collection of broken-down shacks that someone decided to call a town, I asked around, and sure enough, they’d seen my horse.
“Wasn’t no girl on it, though,” coughed one geezer as he hunched further over the slushy excuse for beer in this town. “Man, looked like. Didn’t talk much, but that gun on his back did most of the talkin’ for him.”
I ignored this. I took a swig from my own mug, trying to ignore the screams of my taste buds as they died from the acid and ingredients I didn’t want to identify.
“But she – he – was on a horse, yeah?” I asked, just to confirm. “Gray mare, yellow spot on her face and down near the withers?”
“Gray, ayuh,” the man confirmed, letting out another hack that probably cut loose one of his lungs. “Went west. Told ‘im not to, gonna git that damn fine horse killed.”
My blood went cold. “Why?”
“Red Rocks Canyon, ayuh?” The geezer flicked his eyes at me, as if this ought to mean something.
After a second, seeing my confusion, he started dying – or laughing, I realized after a second. “Hah, you outsiders. Mutants in that place, carved tunnels all the way through it. Your friend’s gonna get ambushed, probably end up in their stewpots.”
Shit. I didn’t know if I feared more for Violet Eyes or for my horse that she’d stolen, but I didn’t want that to happen. “What’s the fastest way for me to catch her?” I demanded.
The man frowned. “My throat’s gettin’ a bit dry to think-”
No time for subtlety. I pulled my own gun, pressed it in against his side. “Maybe I oughtta empty out your stomach, too,” I hissed in his ear.
“Ah, easy! Jed, down the street a ways, has one of them mechanical cycles that he says still works, out in his barn-”
I left the bar before the bartender called my tab, down to go relieve this Jed of his vehicle.
Half an hour later, I grimaced as the damn thing rattled and roared between my legs. Wasn’t my first time on a motorcycle, but I never liked them much. Give me an animal any day, something that didn’t drink gas and didn’t move off of explosions right between my legs. Not the kind of thing a man wants to dwell on when hurtlin’ along at sixty miles an hour.
Still, the thing made good time, and the road out to Red Rocks Canyon wasn’t in too bad of a condition. I strained my eyes in the setting sunlight, and finally spotted her.
Of course, she heard me coming, too. No way to sneak up on a motorcycle. Another flaw with ’em.
I pulled in closer, trying not to bite my tongue off as the bike rattled off the road and over the rough dirt. “Get back!” I shouted. “We need to get outta the canyon!”
She, of course, pulled her gun, trying to keep me pinned down. Goldy, just as unfriendly towards motorcycles as I was, kept backing away, her ears flat, making it tough for Violet Eyes to keep me in her sights.
Finally, I cut the bike’s engine, kicking down the stand and hopping off of it. I pulled my own gun, pointing it right back up at Violet Eyes. “Listen to me!” I shouted.
She looked back – and then narrowed her eyes, her thighs tightening on Goldy’s sides. “You!” she yelled back. “What, you here to get revenge?”
“No, the Canyon! We need to move, the canyon’s full of-”
And then Goldy whinnied, high and scared, and we both shut our traps as we heard it.
Howling, coming from the canyon walls in front of us.
And then another howl, rising up from behind us.
Shit. We’re trapped.
The motorcycle wasn’t making it out of here. Sorry, Jed. He’d have to come retrieve it in the day. I bolted for Goldy, grabbing the saddle and pulling myself up behind a surprised Violet Eyes before she could react.
“Hey!” she burst out. “What are you-”
“Ride!” I ran over her voice, reaching past her to crack Goldy’s reins. “We need to go!”
Goldy, at least, knew her real master. She bolted, Violet Eyes cursing with some inventive comments that even made me feel a little of a blush.
“What the hell is going on?” she shouted back at me, as the wind streamed past us.
“Mutants!” I answered her, my eyes scanning the rapidly darkening surroundings. The sun was almost all the way below the horizon, and it would soon be dark.
Good for hunters. Bad for us.
Violet Eyes, at least, didn’t ask me what the mutants were. Instead, she just moved forward a little on the saddle, letting me fit on behind her as we rode. She heard the fear in my voice, felt it from my body – and maybe she knew enough about mutants to know that she didn’t want to end up in their cookpots.
See, mutants tend to go for flavor… which comes out best if the meal goes into the pot while still alive.
We rode, but then, in the darkness, I saw the glint of eyes, and I knew we hadn’t gone fast enough. Cursing, I raised my gun-
-but Violet Eyes fired first. In the flash from her long gun’s roar, I saw the mutant fall back, eyes blank as they tried to focus on the hole between them.
“Not bad,” I murmured, although the wind might have whipped the words away from her ear.
Onward, through the darkness. Mutants came out of the darkness on both sides, and we fired back. Not a word passed between us, but we felt each other’s rhythm, each covering as the other reloaded. Goldy panted, lather on her sides, but she never slowed, kept on galloping.
And then, suddenly, we were in the desert once again, the moon above us and the maze of the canyons behind us.
I turned, my gun reloaded and ready, but the mutants apparently weren’t willing to pursue further. The last couple turned and loped away, back to harvest their dead brethren. Violet Eyes raised her gun, but I gently pushed it down.
“Best to save the ammo,” I told her softly.
We dismounted, wiped down Goldy. I was gratified to see her touch was light, at least, on the horse. She might have stolen Goldy out from me, but at least she knew to take care of the animal.
I, meanwhile, cleaned my gun, field-stripping it and slotting it back together. I held out my hand for Violet Eyes’ gun, but she hesitated.
“Oh, come on, I just saved your damn life,” I snapped at her. “And my name’s James. Now, give it over.”
With a sigh, she surrendered the weapon. “Elizabeth,” she replied.
I had to stop and just look up at her. Damn fine name for a damn fine woman, I wanted to tell her. I wanted to just say it, again and again, commit her to memory.
Instead, I cleaned her gun, noted that she kept it well oiled and conditioned. Smart woman.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth of the violet eyes threw together a little fire, and I noted with approval how she kept it banked, hidden on three sides so that no one could spot it in the darkness. She pulled some food from Goldy’s saddlebags, warming it up.
We ate, silently, looking at each other. I had a million questions, but couldn’t ask a damn thing.
“James,” she finally said.
“Elizabeth.” Even the name sounded beautiful.
“Once,” she said distantly, her tone warning me not to talk about it. “Not any longer.”
Silence. “On a mission?” I asked finally, sensing that she had some purpose driving her.
A nod. “Life or death,” she whispered.
And that was it, really. We lay down to sleep, Goldy sitting so that we could curl up against her for warmth. Trick I’d taught her, a useful one out here in the desert.
Next to me, I felt Elizabeth move, ever so slightly. “James,” she whispered, her voice barely audible.
I considered the word. “Not right now,” I finally replied.
Nothing for a second. Then: “Good answer.”
And then she moved a little closer to me, sliding into my arms. I inhaled that scent of hers, fresh and clean despite everything, felt her body press against me, her lips just an inch away…
Well, there’s only so much a man can resist, you know?
I woke up the next morning shivering, though. For a moment, I didn’t move, didn’t open my eyes, just smiling as I inhaled that scent of her. Elizabeth. I remembered how she moved against me the night before, how I explored her body in the darkness, that little breathy moan that slipped out of her lips when she finally reached the point of no return-
And then I realized that I wasn’t leaning against Goldy any longer.
“God dammit!” I cursed, opening my eyes and sitting up.
Sure enough, the camp was deserted. No Goldy, no Elizabeth. No supplies, no ride.
She’d stoked the fire and left me breakfast, though. And hoof prints led away from the camp, easy enough for someone with some experience to track.
I thought back to our last conversation. A mission, she’d said.
Maybe she’d need help.
Part of me wondered what the hell was wrong with me as I finished eating, swept dirt over the coals, and set off after her. Was I crazy? In love, or some other insanity?
Nah, I insisted to myself. I just wanted my damn horse back.