Hettie, I’m thirsty.”
“We all are, Abby.”
“I’m really thirsty. And hungry.”
“I know.” Hettie pressed her cracked lips together. Her sister was pale as chalk except for her sunburned, feverish cheeks. The head covering she’d fashioned from one of Walker’s shirts hardly kept the sun off her. “Try to think of something else.”
Abby slumped in the saddle in front of her. Hot, dry air filled the momentary gap between their bodies, the sun searing the front of her dark, heavy dress. Beside them, their loyal, dust-covered mutt, Cymon, whined.
“Don’t talk so much,” the man they called Uncle grumbled ahead of them. “You’ll dry out your mouths.”
“It’s been nearly two weeks. We can’t keep up this pace.” Walker beat the red dust from his black hat. “We could’ve been at the Wall days ago. These detours will be the death of us. D’you hear me, Jeremiah?” The bounty hunter kicked his horse, Lilith, and she grudgingly caught up to Uncle. Jezebel, the gray-white mare the old man rode, snapped at Walker’s mount. She was irritable on the best of days, and the heat didn’t help her mood. Even Hettie’s mount, Blackie, who was a good three hands bigger, kept his distance from the old mare.
“We have to keep moving.” Uncle’s voice was like sand. “Between the Pinkertons and the army, anyone could pop a remote Zoom on us.”
“With all the circles you’ve run us ’round, plus the hide spells you’ve cast, I’d think that if they’d known our whereabouts, we’d be in manacles by now.”
“I’m thirsty,” Abby whimpered again.
Uncle slouched in his saddle. Hettie didn’t know how the old sorcerer could still be riding in his weakened condition. Two weeks ago, he’d been drained of his powers and nearly dead from lack of sleep and food. They’d barely escaped the Division of Sorcery’s army at Sonora station and had been on the run ever since.
“Uncle, we have to stop,” Hettie said. “Abby’s gonna get sick. The horses can’t take this much longer. Surely there’s a town—”
“No contact with other folks till we cross the border,” he snapped.
Walker huffed. “We need water and rest, JB. Being dead ain’t better than being caught.”
“That’s what you think,” the old sorcerer grumbled. He shaded his eyes and pointed. “There. We’ll ride to those boulders and make camp.”
It wasn’t long before Hettie’s relief crumbled to dust. The site was as desolate as the rest of the landscape. She’d hoped the outcropping hid a cool, deep pool surrounded by trees—Uncle had an uncanny ability for finding things. But all they saw was more rocks and dirt and dust, and barely any scrub for the horses. Her heart sank.
“Don’t be pulling that face.” Uncle dismounted and took several small pouches from his saddlebags. “Walker, I’m gonna need your help.”
The black-clad bounty hunter swung off Lilith. He helped Abby down off Blackie, lifting the ten-year-old easily from the saddle and setting her on her unsteady feet. He looked up at Hettie. “You need a hand down?”
She shook her head, though her thighs were raw as hamburger. She’d been wearing a maid’s dress when she’d escaped the army camp. And while she’d managed to sew a rough pair of trousers to make riding easier, the material chafed her skin.
She threw a leg over Blackie’s side and slid down. Her knees gave. Walker caught her against his chest and hoisted her to her feet. “Easy there.”
“I’m fine.” She pushed him off, unsettled by the unfamiliar emotions swirling through her as he surveyed her with piercing ice-blue eyes.
“I said, I need your help, Woodroffe,” Uncle repeated sharply. The bounty hunter tugged the brim of his hat down and went to attend the old man.
At the foot of the slope, Abby studied the tumble of rocks unblinkingly. Grit whispered over the stones, carried by the hot, dry breath of the wind. Hettie gave her sister a gentle shake. “Keep your wits about you, Abby. This place is probably crawling with scorpions and rattlers. Stay close, y’hear?”
Her sister blinked her violet eyes and sighed, then shuffled back toward where the men stood. Hettie got to work taking their meager supplies off the horses, bones aching. They needed food and water, but the desert wasn’t exactly a lush hunting ground. They’d have to settle for a good night’s sleep.
“There’s nothing to it, Woodroffe. You’ve got all of Javier Punta’s power—no need to be stingy with it.”
“Ain’t got nothing to do with magical frugality.” The younger man rubbed his grizzled jaw. “Raising water just ain’t in my repertoire.”
“Well, you’re the only one who can do it. I’m not strong enough, what with all the hide spells I’m juggling already.” He sniffed. “Besides, you were the one who wanted to stop. Unless you fancy catching us some snakes and drinking their blood for sustenance.”
Walker set his square jaw. “Fine.”
He laid his black duster on the ground. He sat cross-legged in the center and closed his eyes, breathing deeply. Uncle opened the small pouches he’d gathered and emptied small stones, dirt, and bits of bone and herbs in a circle around Walker. The bounty hunter chanted softly, the indistinct words blending together until it sounded like the shushing of a creek.
The dirt around Walker darkened. A smell like summer rain after a dry spell filled the air. His eyes remained closed as the wetness spread. Muddy water bubbled up around him. The pool widened until it was nearly big enough for two horses to stand in. With a final, definitive word, Walker slapped his hands down. He splashed into the pond, duster and all. He came up sputtering, standing about waist deep, throwing water out of his black hair. His hat floated atop, and he grabbed it, giving a little whoop as he emptied it over his head.
Uncle smirked. “Not bad for a beginner. Let that settle a bit before you take a drink. It’s pure and clean, just full of dirt.”
Despite his advice, Abby dove for the pool, soaking her arms and face. Hettie went to pull her out but couldn’t help dipping her hands in. The water was ice-cold and deliciously comfortable on her heated skin. She splashed herself and Abby, laughing as they cooled their sun fevers, then rinsed her mouth, uncaring of the grit it left behind.
“Why didn’t we do this before?” she asked, too relieved to be truly angry.
“And leave water holes like breadcrumbs for every Pinkerton agent and Division lackey to follow?” Uncle loosened the saddle around Jezebel. They rarely unsaddled the horses in case they needed to make a quick getaway, so he must be taking this break seriously. “It’s a risk to even have this one.”
“At least it’s hidden away. Might even look natural if anyone found it.” Walker scanned the horizon, then nodded to Hettie. “After we’ve filled our canteens and had a drink, you could take a bath.”
Hettie wiped her sleeve across her mouth. His shirt and trousers clung wetly to his skin, outlining a broad, deep chest and the muscles in his legs. His lips tilted up at one corner and he raised an eyebrow as he caught her stare. Heat flooded through her. She tore her eyes away.
Hettie gave a snort. “I’m not some highfalutin’ lady. I don’t need a bath.”
“I beg to differ.” He waved a hand in front of his nose and snickered. Hettie’s cheeks flamed. “Anyhow,” he went on, “I’m sure Abby would appreciate a good scrubbing.”
They made camp and filled their canteens, and everyone took a turn at a bath. Then the horses got to drink. Attracted by the smell of water, jackrabbits and raccoons appeared. Uncle bull’s-eyed two skinny coneys for dinner, and Walker shot a gray fox, which he skinned for the pretty pelt.
Hettie sighed, wishing she had her old Winchester. She’d once been her pa’s pride and joy with the rifle. She’d brought in plenty of game once upon a time.
At the thought, her hand filled with the heavy, solid weight of Diablo, primed and ready for the hunt. The cursed revolver hadn’t allowed her to handle another firearm since they’d bonded. It was a jealous weapon, and one too eager to prove itself. While it had never missed its target, it wasn’t exactly a precision instrument.
She slipped the gun back into her pocket with an admonishing thought aimed at the weapon. Even if she could use it to hunt, the Devil’s Revolver sent out a powerful magical signature that the Pinkerton Agency could detect. The Pinks wanted Diablo, and the Division of Sorcery wanted Abby for her uncanny indigo abilities. Unless Hettie wanted them swooping in on them via remote Zoom tunnel, she couldn’t use Diablo again.
“Time to take care of business,” she declared, and beckoned to Abby. “Let’s go before it gets dark.”
“Watch where you piss,” Uncle said. “And don’t go too far.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to reprimand Uncle for using such language around her impressionable sister, but she had other things to worry about.
“Hungry,” Abby said quietly.
“I know.” They rounded the base of the hill out of sight of the two men. Not that they would be watching them as they went about their unmentionable business. Still, Hettie couldn’t risk them seeing this.
She took out the boot knife Uncle had given her and flicked it across the tip of her right index finger. The razor-sharp thorn in Diablo’s trigger had left a permanent prick there that never seemed to heal, so it wouldn’t be so noticeable. She squeezed her finger until blood welled up. Abby licked her lips.
“Don’t bite me this time.” She held her hand out.
Abby latched, sucking at the open wound noisily as if she were slurping summer peas out of their pods. Hettie watched her with a mix of revulsion and fascination as Abby’s violet eyes darkened, the pupils growing until her irises were entirely black. The suction on her finger grew, and Hettie clenched her jaw.
“That’s enough, Abby.” She pulled her hand away. Abby gave a plaintive whine.
“But I’m still hungry.” She sat in the dirt, petulant. Her eyes cleared, returning to their violet color. She looked less haggard now, more alert.
“I know, but I’m only a little person.” She smoothed the flyaway hairs haloing her sister’s sweet face. Looking at her, no one would have ever expected Abby had been brought back from the dead.
Hettie had bargained with the devil to resurrect her sister, and he’d said there’d be a price to pay. It wasn’t until about four days later that she realized Abby hadn’t come back quite right. Her sister had been wilting beneath the harsh sun, but she’d thought she was simply worn out from hard riding. They’d finally stopped to rest, but in the dead of night Hettie had woken up to find Abby chewing on her own scabbed knee, licking the blood seeping from the abrasion. When Hettie had tried to stop her, Abby had latched onto her trigger finger and started desperately sucking.
She remembered the shock, the fear, and then the calm that came with understanding. Abby had been drinking blood to sustain her powers when she’d been “training” with the warlock Zavi. Now it was keeping her alive, or at least mostly cognizant. Like a baby suckling, Abby needed this. Her sister got better instantly, so Hettie had let her drink until the color returned to her cheeks.
She hadn’t told Uncle or Walker about the resurrection or the blood drinking. They were already wary of Abby’s mysterious indigo powers, and she didn’t need them throwing the word vampire around. The dark times before the war when the last American coven had been killed was not a period of history people liked talking about.
Abby had not turned, Hettie was certain. She hadn’t displayed any of the other symptoms—sunlight didn’t affect her, and she still had a reflection. No, Abby was something different. What, Hettie didn’t know.
The sun set. Uncle volunteered to take the first watch. Walker had raised a magical barrier around their camp, but Jeremiah didn’t like to take chances. “You all rest.” He propped himself against a boulder and scanned the horizon. The spell would only alert them to danger once it reached the perimeter of the enchantment area, after all, and Uncle preferred a broader outlook.
Hettie didn’t argue. All this riding had stiffened every muscle, and sleeping out in the open, always alert for danger, had made her tense and ragged. Still, she could never quite reach a state of deep, dreamless sleep. The cloying darkness closed in on her too quickly when she tried to drift off. She lay on her roll and drew Abby closer. Across the low-burning fire, Walker leaned against his saddle, cleaning his gun and watching her from beneath the brim of his hat.
Her thoughts drifted, her eyes heavy.
The nightmare began.
She was back in hell with no escape. First came the suffocating curtain of darkness, then the wringing out of her muscles until they felt as though they’d snap. Next came the burning lashes to her whole body, followed by the icy spears lancing through her flesh.
The physical torment was replaced by thirst and hunger, the emptiness and hopelessness of living. The land spread out before her, a dusty red windblown hellscape. Her parents stood staring into an empty well. Sand poured from their mouths as their faces cracked and crumbled before their heads toppled into the hole. From their ashes, Abby emerged. She looked up at Hettie with pitch-black eyes and stepped off the edge.
She bolted straight up. Jezebel was nudging her, the horse’s eyes so wide the whites showed.
Abby was missing.
“Walker!” Hettie shouted, and the bounty hunter was instantly on his feet, sidearm drawn. “Abby’s gone!”
“She can’t have gone far. Where’s JB?” He scanned the landscape. Night had settled around them, inky-black, with only a pale half moon and the faint orange glow of the campfire to push back the dark. Jeremiah was nowhere to be seen.
She heard a familiar barking. “That’s Cymon.”
Walker raised a hand and muttered an incantation. A sphere of white light filled his palms. He threw it high into the air, and it hung at the apex of the arc, casting an eerie blue-white light upon the land.
Hettie choked down a scream.
Abby floated in the watering hole, face up, whispering. At the edge of the pool, Cymon snarled and snapped at the blanket of snakes writhing across the ground. Hisses, slithers, and rattles filled the air, punctuated with the plop-plop-splash of those sinuous lengths sliding into the water.
Hettie dashed toward the pond, Diablo in hand. She aimed at the leading edge of the snakes and squeezed the trigger.
Her heart expanded as pure, green energy flowed from the barrel and spilled over the ground, cutting a swath through the living carpet of serpents. The stench of burned flesh mixed with sulfur filled her nostrils.
Whimpering, Cymon backed into the water as the snakes closed in. Hettie fired again, slicing through the reptiles with the revolver’s stream of power. The snakes kept coming, wriggling toward her sister.
A rattler lunged for Cymon.
She dropped into her time bubble, the place where Diablo made the world slow like syrup, where the space between heartbeats stretched out like taffy. One look at the situation and she knew she’d never kill all those snakes and get her sister and Cymon out in one go.
Or could she? She’d once walked through a whole cave in this suspended time.
We need to save Abby and Cymon, she told Diablo. She thought she felt an acknowledgment, an almost bored mm-hmm, but maybe it was her own imagination.
Carefully, she pushed against the bubble of space she occupied, her own movements unaffected by the molasses around her. Time for her seemed normal—everything around her, though, was frozen or barely moving, like some kind of tableau.
She went to Cymon first: a small whipsnake had bitten him, not poisonous, but definitely not harmless. She drew her boot knife and sliced its head off with a downward slash. The body dropped to the ground and writhed at normal speed within her bubble.
The surface of the pond rippled with serpents. She waded in through the swath she’d cut with Diablo. The cold slide of scales against her arm had her flinching away just in time. The snake dropped into her time bubble, its momentary confusion enough to allow Hettie to grab it and fling it across the sand.
She reached Abby. Her violet eyes were blank. Her lips moved in a slow, wordless susurration.
Hettie grabbed her arms and pulled, as if she were pulling a newborn calf from its mother. The moment they touched, they splashed down into the pond and normal time. Abby’s moan warped into a scream, and she flailed.
“Abby, wake up!” Hettie hauled her sister toward the edge of the pool. The snakes rallied, their numbers seemingly doubled, almost as if they were boiling up out of the sand, closing the gap in the ring of serpents contracting around them.
A fat, striped snake had wound its body around her sister’s neck and chest. Abby gasped as she tried to pull the creature off. Hettie grabbed the boa’s head, but as she went for her knife, a small black snake curled around her wrist and sank its teeth into her flesh.
Searing pain burned through her, but the creature slipped off and plopped into the water in a splash of muddy sand. A curious anger, as if this bite were a personal offense, sharpened Hettie’s focus. She ripped the boa off Abby, blasted a new path through the snakes, and pulled her sister to the edge of the pool.
The air vibrated with Walker’s sonorous incantation. She glanced up in time to see him raise his hands, glowing with bright gold light, before he spoke his final word.
A ring of fire appeared on the earth around the pond, engulfing the snakes. The curling, twisting bodies crumbled into sand.
Uncle hurried toward them, gun drawn. He shot several rattlers on his way to them. “They’re not real—they’re golems,” he shouted as he scooped up Abby and Hettie. He half carried, half dragged them back toward the camp. Walker stayed rooted, hands raised until the three of them were out of range. With another shout, the flames spread into a wide ring, flaring into an inferno that lit the night sky and engulfed the tiny white sphere.
The heat and light and hissing and rattling fizzled out with the suddenness of a dissipating summer storm. Hettie lay on her back, breathing hard as if her lungs were shrinking. She could no longer feel her hand. A violent shaking overtook her, and her brow was hot and slick with sweat.
“Walker!” Uncle’s shout seemed to come from a great distance. Hettie fought, but her eyelids each weighed a hundred pounds, and they drooped and dragged her down, down, down …