Sloane didn’t ask for identification when she heard the knock at the door — she knew it was Pancho from the way he walked down the hall. Without looking up from the history book she was reading, she unlocked her room and let him in.
“Allie’s back from town!” he said cheerily as he rummaged in the bag he held. The outlaw’s life was one they both happily lived, but a bounty on your head DID make it a bit more complicated to head out to the grocer’s. When one of their “lower profile” members went for supplies, it became a big production. “She says she couldn’t find the books you were looking for, but she got your cheese … Why is your coat rack on the other side of the room?”
“People were tripping over it,” Sloane lied as she accepted the food. “Oh, this is cheddar! I asked her for gouda.”
Pancho looked confused. “Wait. How do you … why do you even care about what kind of cheese you get? You do not strike me as the sort to worry about what goes best with her rioja blanca.”
She shrugged, and flicked open a switchblade to carve off a piece. “I like cheese. I don’t see why it should be so perplexing to you.”
“Because YOU perplex me, Rubia!” he said, teasing. “You are unlike everyone else out there in Soddum and any other woman I’ve known. How you came to be here must be quite the story.”
* * *
Missouri’s Circle #4 Orphanage sat at the end of two long, desolate roads. One of them was gravel, forking off the highway that led to Lea’s Summit and winding its way around gurgling rivers and black, gnarled trees. The other split from a quiet life working at her father’s bookstore at about the same time his aorta split itself open and led through the home of every one of little Jessica Patchett’s aunts and uncles. That road was lined with words like “What’s wrong with her?” and “She’s dead inside. I don’t understand how Jacob ever loved that girl.” In 1864, they both ended at a large, gloomy manor house in the middle of nowhere, filled with bleary, weary children, overseen by fat and garish men and women with too much joy for their surroundings.
The orphanage master, a grotesque beast of a man, knelt down to her eye level in a leer. “You know why you’re here, little girl?” he asked, not even bothering with introductory pleasantries. “You’re here because nobody cares about you! That’s right. No brave young boys or beloved tomboyish girls here. Just leftovers that the world has forgotten to care about. But we haven’t forgotten you. Power is returning to the world … power that can make something useful even out of a little spit like you.”
She stared at his eyes, saying nothing.
“Oh, a defiant one,” he said, grinning. “I do so love the ones like you. Try and run! You’ll pray you make it back here before the bears eat you. There’s no way out. Nobody will save you.”
* * *
Exactly seventeen days later, he was in a mud puddle, rolling around on the ground in pain from the stick jutting from his eye. She was screaming as well; she had to, to make it sound like she was being terrorized, cover up his sound, and prevent any of his allies from coming to investigate. But her face was utterly calm as she watched his slowly leave him. She didn’t think he could get the stick out; she’d picked a nice and knobby one just barely wide enough to jam into his eye socket after she’d sharpened it. If he had the presence of mind to pull it STRAIGHT out, maybe he could have saved himself. But he kept yanking it at an angle with only one hand.
He tried to grab her with his other hand, but she always kept two steps in front of him as he howled and grasped at empty air. She brought two sticks, so she didn’t even have to be within arm’s reach to finish him off. Every time he recovered his balance, she whapped the branch in his eye, driving it further toward his brain. She couldn’t do it very hard, but she didn’t need to. Four or five little taps, and he was dead.
He’d given her the whole tour, gloating with every locked door about how wicked everyone on staff was, how impossible it was to escape. Showed her the pistol they kept by dry-firing it against her temple every time she tried to escape. It took her three days to come up with a plan. It took ten more to steal enough bullets, fail at escaping enough to get the pattern down, and make him confident enough to go in careless and alone. She was also sick for a few days with a cold, or else she’d have been out in two weeks even.
Why he terrorized children, she didn’t know, nor did she care. She was going to escape anyway, even if this place wasn’t run by freaks who yammered on about all the great things they were going to do in this new world now that “everything had been restored.”
Once the man — she never cared enough about him to recall his name — stopped breathing, she pulled the revolver out of the holster, removed the keys from his belt, and rifled through his pockets for money. The gun was never loaded; he loved using it to scare little children for some godforsaken reason, but he wasn’t about to let some snotnosed kid slip it away from him and shoot him when his back was turned. That was why she had to steal the three bullets from the tool shed. She loaded two of them, and the whirring click of the revolver’s cylinder was the most satisfying noise she had ever heard. The third, she kept between two of her fingers.
A Colt Walker revolver is too big for a young girl to fire normally; she hefted it like a rifle, one hand steadying the barrel, one hand on the grip. But neither hand shook as she walked back to the dining room at the Circle #4 Orphanage and interrupted whatever they were doing with eight decks of playing cards. “Wake up that fathead who trims the hedges,” she ordered. “And then all of ya lock yerselves in the tool shed.”
One of them, a woman, snaggletoothed and hateful, who deserved a remembered name even less than the headmaster, laughed and said, “Nice try, little girl. What, did you give Myron the slip? Boys, time you show –”
Jessica flung the bullet at her face, quickly grabbing the barrel of the gun back. “Yer boss is dead, an’ I got two more bullets where that came from. I ain’t never fired this thing before, but if ya wanna catch me, yer gonna get close enough my aim don’t matter. And they look like they got a powerful kick to ‘em, so maybe this thing breaks my arm when I shoot it, and the second shot ain’t as good. So it’s gonna take three of ya to catch me. The first one dies, the second one gets crippled, the third one gets to kill me. Does anybody want me dead bad enough to die for it?”
They were in shock, being ordered at gunpoint by a twelve-year-old girl.
“That’s what I thought. Now wake up that fathead and get in the tool shed.”
Ten minutes later, she opened up the kids’ bunkrooms. She didn’t wait to be recognized or explain they were escaping. “Get yer pillowcases and empty the pantry. We’re burnin’ this place down.”
She wasn’t yet called Sloane, and it wasn’t rightly a gang. But it was her first taste of leadership.
* * *
They went west, avoiding major roads and thoroughfares. Jessica may have had a keen mind for how to assemble pieces of her murderous plan, but she was still a child and didn’t really know how the larger social world of grown-ups worked. She was dimly aware that crossing state lines was a good thing for those on the run from authorities and thought they should do that a couple of times. As far as she knew, the malign powers that ran horrible orphanages chased their escapees with a vengeance.
Kansas is flat, long, and seemingly endless when crossing it by train, so the plan to cross multiple states went out the window pretty quickly. At least there were plenty of wells and farms to take from along the way; had they been navigating forest all that way, they’d probably have died. It was after long, hungry months of walking that they finally found a church.
The nuns were pretty nice, giving away plenty of food to these kids who’d wandered across Kansas on their own. Apparently nice did it for them, because almost immediately they were talking about staying.
“This can be a home for you too, Jessica,” Sister Josephine would say. Well she’d had a home before, and look where that got her.
“If we stay, the sisters say they can help find families for us,” the kids kept chanting with the kind of optimism that’s best left with children. Jessica wasn’t a child anymore. So she told them, “Parents die. Then yer just alone again. Relyin’ on these homes, this charity, is nothin’ but empty hope. And I don’t need it.” So she just kept moving.
When she did join up with someone, it was a gang. The Sixth Avenue Gang, petty Topeka crooks who needed an inconspicuous lookout to tell them to beat it when the law came to break up their dice games. This was a relationship she understood; she performed a service for money and could leave whenever she liked. Nobody could keep her there, so she stayed.
She rose through the ranks by not caring a whit about rising through the ranks. She had a reputation for being calm and collected, unlike the violent and impulsive thugs who usually fell into that life. She was loyal in that she never saw the temptation of ratting to the law. They thought she wasn’t ambitious because, to them, ambition was a thing that resulted in idiotic and failed power-plays, not slowly gaining things you want and ensuring they can’t be taken away.
When Topeka got too hot, the gang moved west, chasing the lawless frontier. When the gang fell apart, she made sure everyone who helped her was repaid for their service, and she signed up with an outfit calling itself Sloane’s Gang. Her other compatriots wanted out of a life of crime, and she did her best to help them leave it, even if she didn’t understand why. They must know what’s better for them, more than she did. But a life within the law simply was not for her.
Sloane’s Gang was run, unsurprisingly, by Sloane, a giant of impulse and appetite, who clearly had made his path in life by virtue of the fact that everyone was too afraid to tell him to have any self-control. He drank, smoked, and caroused to excess. The gang got by on intimidation, and a mountain of a man with a rifle in each hand was quite intimidating. But it was clear he could not have built this outfit, nor was he running it. The Sloane Gang had outposts all over, and Sloane couldn’t have built a toy castle from alphabet blocks.
A man named Jonah Essex was his left hand, his advisor, the man making the real plans. By the age of twenty-four, she was Sloane’s right hand. The other members of the gang thought she was a trophy, and had she been anyone else, that might have offended her. But had she been someone to take offense, she’d never have gotten to that position to begin with. She honestly didn’t understand why that kind of notoriety mattered so much to them, but she didn’t understand why a lot of things did. She was clear-headed and collected, planning the way out of every bad situation they found themselves in. She handled tactics, Essex handled strategy, and Sloane shot people with astonishing accuracy. It worked for her, and if it stopped working, she’d make it work again.
It was after they had robbed the stagecoach office at Liver Creek that she became aware it would no longer work.
Essex came to her that night. “Jessica,” he whispered. “I got bad news. It’s about Sloane.”
“What’d he do this time?”
“Nothing yet … It’s what he’s going to do,” said Essex. “I looked through our haul. He didn’t just take valuables … he’s got records. He’s making a paper trail on us.” Jonah looked around, like someone might be watching. “I think he’s planning to turn on the Gang. Trade us to the hangman to stop ‘em from measurin’ his own neck.”
“That would be a terrible idea,” she said.
“It’s the holster,” he continued, as if spilling a dire secret. “I think it’s changed him. IT is the source of Sloane’s power, but … no. It’s gone to his head. He was too weak.”
“A magic holster?” She arched an eyebrow. She had seen magic before — Essex was not shy about his ‘card tricks’ around the camp — so it wasn’t a possibility she immediately rejected. “The holster give you power, but it takes you over, too?”
“No, no, no,” Essex said, shaking his palms. “Nothing like that. The holster cannot control you. But it’s filled with power, more’n enough to share if you’re strong enough to be worthy of it.”
“I suppose it makes sense,” she said, drawing the pieces together. “Probably the only way anyone’d ever be able to swing those rifles around the way he does.”
“Yes, yes!” Jonah said. “But he is weak enough that the power is too much for him. Listen, he isn’t the first Sloane, Jessica. He took it from the last, and he led us to ruin. But you … I see it. You are strong. You have what it takes. You could take it, you could be Sloane, and lead us.”
“You rotten little snake,” slurred Sloane’s voice from the doorway. “You had enough of me, huh? You feeding that line to the girl now?” He hefted his rifle. “I oughta blow that lyin’ tongue out the back of your face. I shoulda KNOWN you was trouble.”
Jessica looked unperturbed. “Is it true?” she asked.
“Th’ hell do you care?” he slurred. “I ain’t seen you care about anything anyhow. You just stare with those dead eyes, an’ let people do whatever. So what if I killed the last Sloane? Ain’t the first or the last either of us has killed. Why do you care?”
“I don’t have a problem with killers,” she said. “I have a problem with traitors. Those folks trust you. If you’re going –” and then she was on him.
The rifles Sloane used were enormous and dangerous, but they were long and could only be fired with the arm fully extended, restricting his aim at close targets. That was why Sloane was always at his side, to cover that range. That was why threatening her with a rifle was a bad idea. Jessica has never betrayed anyone, but she believed in having a plan to kill everyone she ever met.
She’d given him a chance to deny the charges, and he showed no interest. So she was done with him. She could not tackle him or throw him back; he was much too large. But she could get close enough that he couldn’t aim, and she couldn’t miss. Two rounds from her Walker to the chest, and he was done, just like that. The other gang members came out of their hiding places to see the commotion, and Essex waved them to wait. “Take the belt,” he said. “You are Sloane now.”
He said it with a mystic reverence that caused him to ignore the fact she had already put it halfway on. She felt no different, which she supposed was a good sign. She tried to holster her gun and frowned. “Hm. The Walker is too big for this.” She shrugged, looked at the gun she’d won her freedom with, and handed it to Jonah. “I’ll need to get a new one.”
* * *
Pancho stared as Sloane shrugged again. “Everyone’s got a story, Pancho. Don’t see why mine should matter. I am who I am, and I am where I am. Does how I got here change anything?”
As Sloane walked away to shelve her history book, Pancho stared very carefully at her hands and her calculated steps. “Si, Rubia,” he said. “Take it from someone who’s traveled. Where you are, it’s just one place. How you got there is all the places you’ve been before, and all that happened. The road makes you far more than the home it leads to.”
Sloane looked up, decided it wasn’t worth her while to debate it, and put the book away.