T’ou Chi Chow dropped the burlap sack from his shoulder, wincing as a stinging pain shot through his arm. He slid the knot apart and opened the bag, dumping its contents onto a small wooden desk. The haul wasn’t bad – a gold pocket watch, jewelry of a variety of metals, antique serving items, a little cash. What a man would be doing riding out of town with antique serving dishes at this late hour was beyond him, but he found himself thanking God for fools – especially wealthy ones.
He removed his duster gingerly and craned his neck to inspect the wound. The man’s driver had gotten off one shot before being subdued, but T’ou had managed to quickly dodge the bullet … most of it, anyway. It had torn through his shirt but only lightly grazed the skin. A thin trickle of blood ran from the shallow wound.
“Damn, I’m good,” he whispered to himself.
“You’re lucky,” a voice called back from the doorway.
T’ou jumped in surprise, although he recognized the unmistakable Latin tones. “Abuelita my dear!” he said, spinning on his heels to face the older woman. Her hands were already on the ample hips of her woven dress, and a scowl lined her dark features. He put on his most charismatic grin. “You do look lovely tonight!”
“Oh, wipe that smile of your face. You look like a fool.” She pointed to his shirt. “Now let me see to that.”
T’ou rolled his eyes, but he knew better than to argue. He unbuttoned his shirt and threw it to the floor. He took an apple from a wooden bowl on the desk and took a seat in his red velvet chair – a souvenir from a coach raid last summer. He lounged in the comfort of the cushions, swinging one leg over the wooden armrest.
“Good haul, tonight,” he said, wincing as Abuelita dabbed the wound with a wet rag. He bit into the apple, talking as he chewed. “A man riding around a town like this with that much money is asking for some comeuppance.”
“Perhaps,” she said, wrapping cloth around his arm. “But maybe next time he hits you.”
“Next time I won’t get hit.”
“So now the God of Bandits is immortal, eh?” She finished off the wrapping, and cinched the knot tight, smiling with satisfaction as it drew a groan. “You have your people to think about … not just your name. You will have a hard time feeding them when you are The Corpse of the God of Bandits.”
“Don’t start with that, again.”
Abuelita snorted. “And that?” She pointed pointed towards the corner of the room. There, on the top of a wooden barrel sat an ornate statue – a cross-legged silver Indian, adorned with a feathered headdress and a wild, unnerving grin. Two rubies glistened in its eye sockets, reflecting the candlelight into strange crimson hues.
“What of it?” T’ou replied, taking the last bite of his apple before tossing the core out an open window.
“Why is it still here?”
“I happen to like it. Besides, it’s worth is considerable.”
“Then melt it down … trade it … sell it. Be done with it. Terminado!” She waved her arms as if to push the Idol away. “It does not belong with us.”
“Afraid of angry spirits?” T’ou said with a grin.
The older woman shook her head. “You laugh at things you know nothing about. Your pride keeps it here. No, miho, I am not afraid of angry spirits.” She opened the door, sparing a quick look back. “I am afraid for you.”
As she closed the door behind her, T’ou Chi Chow slouched on his throne, bracing his head on his hand, his eyes heavy. He stared at the Idol for a moment, and the Indian jester stared back as he drifted off to sleep.
* * *
Stephen Seven-Eagles sat cross-legged in front of the fire, his face stern in the flicker of the flames. His warbonnet, an ornate crest of seven black-tipped eagle plumes nestled between a set of buffalo horns, a symbol of the unity that rested on his shoulders, sat on the dirt behind him.
“They do not understand.”
At the other end of the tent, Laughing Crow let out a giggle as she ground charcoal in a small bowl.
“What’s funny about this?” Stephen asked, his face unchanged.
“Your face … so serious,” she said whimsically. “Of course they do not understand. What do you expect?”
“I tried to be diplomatic.”
“Did you?” She stood slowly and walked towards him, one hand holding the mixing bowl, the other wrapped around a gnarled wooden cane.
Stephen’s scowl deepened as she dipped her finger in the bowl and bent to trace a line on his forehead. “What would you have me do … tell them the truth? This T’ou Chi Chow cares nothing for land he walks upon. The Idol’s just a hunk of silver to him.”
“He has his people to tend to, just as you do.” Her finger finished its arc, leaving a black crest upon Stephen’s brow, complementing the red hand already painted across his face. “Who are you to say what he cares for?”
Stephen stood, grabbing his warbonnet from the ground. The faintest hint of a smile crept onto his face as he donned the headdress. “Are you taking his side … old woman?”
Laughing Crow lifted her cane into the air. “You would do well to listen to this old woman. I’m not above turning you into a toad to save myself from your stubbornness.”
“You were one who spoke of the importance of the Idol. It –”
“I know, I know,” the old woman replied, waving Stephen off. “It still is! Just make sure it’s the statue you’re recovering … not your wounded pride. We have enough enemies here already without you making more.”
Stephen put his hand gently on her shoulder. “I will do my best to avoid that; you have my word.”
The old shaman smiled and gently nudged Stephen’s shin with one bent finger. “It’s never your word I worry about.”
* * *
T’ou Chi Chow jerked awake, his head falling from the cradle of his hand. He rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. His velvet chair was comfortable, but he needed some real sleep, in a real bed. He stood slowly, stretching his arms outward and cocking his neck to the side. As he took his first step, his eyes casually glanced across the corner of his little room and he froze in place. There, in the darkened corner, the barrel stood in its normal place, but the silver statue was nowhere to be seen.
With a grunt, T’ou threw on his duster and darted through the door and into the hallway. In the dead of night there was no one walking the halls of their two story shelter. He flew down the stairs and ran out the front door, flipping the cloth that covered the entrance into the air.
The night was silent around him, the only other sign of life a small fire near the side of the building. Behind it, Xui Yin Chen sat cross-legged, her eyes closed, open palms resting on her knees. Her long, silver hair shone brightly in the firelight. As T’ou approached, her eyes opened, and she nodded, as if already knowing what he was about to say. He motioned to the north, and she slid to her feet, silently running off behind the building. T’ou turned and faced south. Between them, they would find the culprit, and that person would regret ever setting foot in his domain.
* * *
Smiling Frog stopped for a moment against the wall of the sheriff’s office to catch his breath. God of Bandits, he thought to himself, shaking his head as he adjusted the sack on his shoulder. Arriving to find the legendary T’ou Chi Chow asleep in his chair and the Idol unguarded by an open window was the last thing he had expected when Sarah Meoquanee had sent him to scout the situation. The spirits seemed unusually kind today, and he wasn’t about to question it.
The damn thing was heavy though. With any luck he’d meet Sarah at the edge of town before —
He heard the sound of footsteps approaching from around the corner of the building. Silently he crouched low, moving with speed along the alleyway. If he could make it behind the buildings, he should be able to make it to the edge of town without being spotted.
From the corner of his eye he saw a shadow dart across the sky, shooting across the space between buildings overhead. A bat? he thought as he raced toward the edge of town. Or perhaps it was just the moonlight playing tricks. Perhaps —
As he rounded the corner, he felt a sharp blow land between his shoulders and abruptly found himself sprawled in the dirt, the sack lying on ground beside him. Raising his head from the ground, he searched for a sign of his attacker. His blurred vision slowly came into focus, revealing a silver-haired woman, her slim figure crouched low to the ground. As he picked himself up, she remained perfectly still, eyes never leaving his, like a snake coiled to strike.
She nodded toward the bag.
Smiling Frog brushed himself off and slid his war club free from its tie. “Woman, I have fought maze dragons the size of railcars. You pose no thr–”
Before he could finish, the silver-haired woman was airborne, flying toward him, one leg outstretched. He rolled to the side, feeling the wind of her kick brush the ends of his hair. As he rolled into a crouch, he spun to swing his club, hitting only air. He jumped to his feet, swinging his club through the air in short arc. The woman fluidly dodged each blow, her body twisting and flipping as the spiked club struck nothing. She landed once again in her crouched stance, a small smile on her lips. Finally, eyes wide with anger, Frog gripped the handle of the club with both hands and swung wildly in fury. The woman easily stepped to the side, and the metal spike embedded itself into the wooden wall behind her.
He tried to yank the club free, but it did not move from its place in the wall. He turned his head to see the woman’s mocking smirk once again, just before her foot shot like lightning through the air and connected with his temple, his vision going black from the blow.
* * *
Xui Yin paused for a moment to brush the dirt from her dress, shaking her head slightly at the sight of her attacker sprawled awkwardly on the ground. His weapon, a decorative wooden club with a large triangular spike near the top, was notched firmly into the wall next to her. She grabbed the leather-wrapped handle and yanked the club free, taking a moment to inspect the strangely light wood and ornate metal spike that jutted out beneath the wooden knot at the top. What a shame, she mused. If he had fought half as well as he carved, it might have been a challenge.
As her hand tightened around the top of the sack, she heard the sound of feet hitting the soft ground behind her. Spinning, she saw another Indian standing before her under the beams of moonlight. This time it was a woman, tall and slim, with stripes of dark paint lining her face beneath a horned headdress. A small metal axe gleamed at her side, and in her hands she held a long wooden staff, adorned with carvings that Xui Yin couldn’t make out in the dim light. She pointed the staff towards the bag.
“Leave it, and you can go.”
Xui Yin smiled. “Maybe it is you who should go … unless you want to end up like your friend.”
The other woman didn’t blink. “Last chance.”
Xui Yin dropped the bag to the ground. Lacing her fingers together, she turned her palms outward, knuckles cracking. She reached behind her back, sliding two wooden poles from her belt. She let one drop to her side and catch on the silver chain that held them together. “You should not have come alone.”
The Indian woman glared at Xui Yin, eyes narrowing. “I am never alone.”
She swung her staff upward in a fluid arc, driving it down into the dirt. The ground beside her began to crack, dust and dirt swirling upwards in two small dervishes. The funnels of air and earth began to take shape, spreading into the form of two figures, each outlined in a faint blue glow. Their ghostly hues outlined two muscular bodies, each with ornate headdresses of their own. Each held a smoke colored axe in one hand.
Xui Yin spun her nunchucks through the air, one wooden bar coming to rest under her arm. She smiled and crouched into a wide stance as the three attackers advanced.
* * *
T’ou sprinted down the side alley to where he had heard the clanging of weapons only moments ago. As he rounded the corner, his heart skipped a beat as he saw Xui Yin slouched by the wooden building. He let out a sigh of relief when he saw her struggling to her feet, offering his arm to help her. She gripped his hand and pulled herself up, keeping her head down.
T’ou put a finger under her chin and lifted her head, a surge of anger running through him as he saw her black eye and gashed temple.
“This ends now,” he said, drawing his sidearm. Xiu Yin nodded, picking her nunchucks off the ground. She bounded down the sidestreet, and T’ou followed.
* * *
“You’re a damn fool … do you know that?” Sarah Meoquanee walked slowly, Smiling Frog’s arm draped over her shoulder. He was barely conscious, but at least he could limp along with support. A stunning black bruise covered his left eye. Across her other shoulder, the sack was slung, heavy enough on its own without the extra weight of foolish scouts.
“You have said so many times,” he managed, trying to keep pace. “What is it Stephen always says? ‘We must seize opportunity when it presents itself’?”
They had reached the outskirts of town, so far unnoticed. Most of the town slept in the waning hours of night, but it would take only one misplaced drunk to ruin everything.
“Instead you seized a boot to your face … and deserved it. You were only supposed to find the Idol was and report back.”
“Why? So Stephen could ride in with a war party and tear down the Chinaman’s camp to get it back? I saved us all a fight we don’t need.”
Sarah readjusted his arm and quickened her pace. “Maybe so. Keep up … we are almost clear.”
As they crossed the last line of buildings, a small hill rose before them. A few more steps and they would be in the clear. As the pair crested the hill, they were met with the sound of two guns cocking. T’ou Chi Chow stood at the hill’s top, his pistols trained on them. Beside him, the silver-haired woman stood, staring daggers. One of her eyes was black, and thin trails of blood ran from a cut on her cheek.
“Didn’t your mother ever teach you it was wrong to steal?” T’ou said, his voice retaining a playful air, despite the anger that Sarah could sense seething underneath. With one gun, he motioned to the bag on her shoulder. With a sigh, she swung it forward and let it thud to the ground between them.
“We are only taking back what is ours,” Sarah said, her stare defiant. “You have no claim to the Idol.”
“I stole it first,” T’ou said mockingly, walking toward the bag. He undid the knot and slipped it down over the silver statue. The ugly little Indian stared back at him, ruby eyes glistening in the moonlight. He ran his hand over the grinning face. “Besides, I’m starting to grow fond of the little fella.”
As he closed the bag, an arrow whizzed by him from behind, hitting the dirt near his feet. He turned to see several men on horseback emerge from behind the rocks. There were five in total, all wearing dark face paint that obscured their features and most with bows drawn and arrows nocked. T’ou shook his head and sighed as he saw the lead horse come into view. Stephen Seven-Eagles stared down from beneath an ornate, feathered headdress, his eyes narrow, his features stern. He swung one leg over his horse and hopped off his mount, walking slowly to stand face to face with T’ou.
“It’s a woman, T’ou,” Stephen said calmly. “Which you’d know if you had any idea just what it is you stole.”
“I’m sorry,” T’ou said, gripping the collar of his duster, and trying to maintain the high ground in the conversation if not in the fight. “If I had known you were dressing up, I would have worn something nicer.”
Stephen nodded to the two closest horsemen, who quickly slid from their mounts and walked toward the Idol. One knotted the bag shut, while the other helped the wounded scout onto a horse. Stephen slid a large knife from the sheath in his belt, holding the blade in front of Tou’s eyes. The bandit ignored the blade, his eyes firmly fixed on Stephen’s.
“If you mean to kill me, be done with it.”
“Remember this day, bandit,” Stephen said, resting the silver edge on T’ou’s duster. “Remember that we only took what was ours. Next time, I may take more.” With that, the chief sheathed the blade and jumped onto his horse. In moments, they were gone, leaving only the sound of crickets on the hilltop.
T’ou grinned and put his hands in his coat pockets as he turned back down the hill.
“Why are you smiling?” Xiu Lin asked, as she walked to his side. “They took the statue.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m glad to be rid of it,” he replied. He brought his hand from his pocket and opened it, revealing two bright rubies. He rolled them in his palm. “I just hope they won’t miss these too much.”