Hettie couldn’t say what had woken her; her eyes had simply snapped open and she’d known something was amiss.
Sure enough, she found the rope had been chewed through, the frayed ends still wet. Dammit, Abby. This was the third time in two weeks. She yanked her coat over her thin nightgown, grabbed her boots and Winchester, and padded quickly down the stairs. Outside, she pushed her bare feet into the cold, hard leather and checked her rifle’s action, loading it quickly. Coyotes were often seen roaming the ranch, and there’d been rumors of a pack of wolves roving the hills. But out here, it was men Hettie feared most.
Silvery-blue light fringed the horizon like a cataract. She scrubbed the crust from her eyes and scanned the fields for any sign of her sister. Though she was nearly ten, Abby was small for her age and barely left footprints. Ma sometimes said she tread the world like a ghost. The long, dry grass bowed with a sigh beneath a sudden gust of wind, revealing a freshly trampled break in the fronds. Hettie headed in that direction.
She found Abby standing knee-high in the creek, her nightgown soaking up to her hips. Her glazed, unblinking violet eyes stared into the middle distance, mouth gaping open. She didn’t even register Hettie’s arrival.
Hettie slung the rifle across her back and sloshed into the icy-cold water. She gave her a gentle shake. “Abby, what are you doing?”
“Oh.” The little girl blinked sleepily up at her and smiled. “I was just talking to my friends.”
“What have we told you? You shouldn’t be wandering away from the house.” Hettie led her onto the creek bed, where she did her best to wring out her sopping nightgown.
“The water helps me hear them better,” Abby said simply.
Hettie reined in her annoyance. Abby’s “friends” always wanted to talk at the most inconvenient times. “Well, you’re going to have to say good-bye to them for now.”
She tilted her chin to the side, and her gaze clouded. “Okay. They say that’s fine.” She shivered. Hettie put her coat around her sister’s shoulders, rubbing her arms vigorously, then led her back toward the house.
Over the edge of the embankment, she heard the crunch of grass as a lean figure trudged along the path. Hettie unslung the Winchester in a flash and pointed it at the man’s heart.
He halted, staggering back. “Man alive, Hettie. What’re you doing out here?”
“Uncle.” The thumping of her heart eased as she lowered the rifle. “Abby got out of her harness again.”
The old man scratched his gray-white stubble, frowning. “You need to lock her in her room at night. Keep her from leaving.”
Hettie swept past him without responding, urging Abby on with one hand protectively at her back.
“It’s for her own safety,” he insisted, trailing them back to the house. “There’re protection spells all over the place she might accidentally stumble over and ruin. Magic ain’t cheap anymore, you know. And I ain’t responsible if she goes stepping into a fox trap.”
“That why you’re up so early, Uncle?” It was hardly a term of endearment, since they weren’t related, but Pa had insisted she call the old man that. She noted his rumpled clothes and bloodshot eyes. His breath reeked of whiskey.
He glared. “I’m up ’cuz your pa expects me to keep watch over things while you’re both in town. I’ll be makin’ sure this one doesn’t wander off, that’s for sure.”
Hettie kept her mouth shut. If he watched Abby as well as he watched the cattle, her sister would be halfway to China by the time he noticed.
The three of them clomped into the house. Her father was already awake and brewing coffee. “Mornin’, Jeremiah,” he greeted Uncle, then raised one dark eyebrow at his damp, half-dressed daughters.
“This something we need to tell your mother about?” he asked as they warmed up by the stove.
“We need stronger rope,” Hettie mumbled.
“And a latch on the door,” Uncle added.
John Alabama’s thick black mustache twitched. He smoothed Abby’s fine, white-blond hair off her wide brow and gave her a kiss. She didn’t react, engrossed by the fire licking up the wood in the stove. He sighed. Abby had been born like this—touched, Ma sometimes said—and while they all loved her, it pained Hettie to see how much effort it took Pa not to show his sadness and frustration. Her father poured coffee for himself and Uncle just as Grace Alabama swept into the kitchen, swathed in her heavy dressing gown.
“Why didn’t you wake me, John? I could’ve made you breakfast.”
“We’ve got biscuits and cheese for the road. We’ll be fine. Besides, I wanted to let you sleep.” He pecked his wife on the cheek and cut Hettie a look. She understood his directive. Ma’s health was delicate, so they kept as much out of her hands as possible. She quickly took her sister back to her room and got her changed out of her wet clothes before getting dressed herself.
“There are wolves in the fire,” Abby murmured, blinking slowly as she returned to her senses.
Hettie chucked her under the chin. “You don’t have to worry about them. Long as I’ve got my gun, you’re safe.” She brandished her Winchester rifle. “I’ll get those wolves for you. Bang, bang!”
Abby silently followed her back to the kitchen.
“The Robson boys’ shooting contest is today, isn’t it? You could go and watch with your friends. Wouldn’t you rather wear your church dress to town?” Grace asked hopefully.
Hettie looked down at her shirt and trousers—old, stained hand-me-downs from her brother, Paul. “It’ll just get dirty on the drive. Besides, I don’t want Pa looking like he has to protect a young miss on the road by himself.”
Her mother heaved a resigned sigh as Uncle slurped his coffee. “Yer seventeen now, girlie. If you don’t start worrying about your looks, you’ll never catch a husband.”
She ignored him. “Ma, can’t you convince Pa to enter the contest?”
Grace’s lips curved. “You say that as if I have any sway over your father’s wishes.”
“But it’s only a dollar to enter.”
“Money hardly worth gambling away,” John said. “We don’t have it to spare, you know that.”
“But you wouldn’t be gambling it away,” Hettie argued. “You’d win it back, and then some.”
“And the Robson boys would chisel themselves a handsome profit for doing nothing.” He shook his head. “Besides, where’s the fun for everyone else if I enter?”
“Not another word on it, Hettie. We earn our living honestly—with hard work.”
Hettie didn’t get why Pa was being so stubborn when they desperately needed the money—the talismans on the northern ridge had weakened, and the safety barrier surrounding the herd was at risk of collapsing. But when John Alabama said no, he meant no.
“Don’t mind your father, girlie.” Uncle Jeremiah leaned back in his chair. “He’s just got an overdeveloped sense of fairness.”
The wagon bounced along the rutted road, kicking up clouds of dust that whipped back into their faces. Hettie tipped the brim of her hat down, but Pa only squinted and drove on, ignoring the blast of grit. They kept their mouths shut and their eyes open, watching the distant rolling hills. They didn’t have anything worth taking—even Pa’s old mare, Jezebel, wasn’t worth rustling, despite being magicked—but outlaws were always a threat.
They clattered into town, and John dropped her off in front of the mercantile. “Meet me at the blacksmith’s when you’re done with your errands.”
“Yes, Pa.” She shouldered her Winchester and took off.
Newhaven was one of the few mining towns that had survived after the gold rush, mainly thanks to the pocket of magic in the region. Some places were just stronger than others, Pa had explained, though that seemed to be changing, too, if the surging price of spells and talismans was anything to go by. Uncle grumbled constantly how magic wasn’t “sticking” anymore, and complained whenever Pa asked him to shore up some of the spells around the farm. Hettie didn’t know much about magic, but she suspected Uncle was just being lazy.
A knot of children playing Blackthorn Rogues crowded the dusty thoroughfare. Hettie paused to watch as the boys and girls walked in a circle around a stick on the ground, chanting the rhyme:
Round and round the circle whirls
Red blood flows through boys and girls
Who so e’er the black thorn pricks
Is the one Diablo picks.
Young Jake Finney rushed to the stick and snatched it up. The other children scattered, shrieking. He wielded the stick like a wand of old, chasing the others around, tapping each in turn to make them a part of his “gang” until the group cornered the lone survivor, long-limbed Liam West. They tackled him viciously, and he cried out. Jake brought the switch down again and again. The beating didn’t let up. Lanky Liam had always been an easy target.
Hettie waded into the fray. “Break it up, young ’uns. Let ’im up.”
“But he’s the last of the Blackthorns!” Jake Finney cried. “He’s gotta be punished for betraying the gang!”
She snatched the stick from Jake’s hands. “Don’t make me break this over your thick skull, Jake. Let him up, I say.”
They helped their playmate up and shot off in all directions. Liam sent her a rueful look, clearly ungrateful for the interference.
See if I help you next time, she thought, tossing the stick away. She got a splinter for her troubles and sucked the bead of blood welling up on her thumb.
Farther up the main street, Hettie gave a wide berth to a knot of Mundane Movement followers handing out antisorcery flyers. Their leader, a clean-shaven man, held the pamphlet aloft, spittle flying from his mouth as he proselytized about the evils of magic. “Hell and darkness and fiery damnation await those who’d suffer a witch to live!” he screamed. His gimlet eyes connected with Hettie’s, and he glowered. “Sorcery is nothing but the devil’s work. Repent! When magic gives the negro power over the white man, it is an abomination against God and nature, and He will smite the vile demons who perform such wickedness!”
Shock and anger surged through Hettie. She struggled to respond, wanting to yell at him and tell him to keep his hate to himself. Pa was gifted, after all, and he was the kindest and most forgiving man on the good green earth.
“Bunch of zealots,” Henry Bale growled from the porch of the sorcerer’s salon. She glanced up at the young sorcerer who worked in the town’s magic workshop. Rumor was he was one of only a few Academy-trained gifted negroes in the whole county. The charms dangling from Henry’s neck caught the light as he spat in the dirt. “Don’t pay them any mind. They’ve conveniently forgotten magic’s in everything, from the meat they eat to the coffins they’ll be buried in. Might as well be trying to ban metal tools and air.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a mind to put a silence spell on them or something?” she said.
He grinned. “And waste good magic? They ain’t worth the effort.”
A fwoosh sound from within the magic workshop had Henry pushing off the banister. “God’s knees, Julius, I told you not to mess with that potion!” He hurried inside as a cloud of blue smoke wafted out the door. Hettie moved on.
A newspaper seller shouted out the day’s headlines, and she paused to listen. The Division of Sorcery was calling for able-bodied laborers and sorcerers to shore up the Wall on the Mexican border. The Duryea brothers were working with Mechaniks from England to make their new horseless carriage automobiles three times faster. A joint task force was being set up to hunt down members of the notorious Crowe gang. And four more children were reported missing in Wyoming and North Dakota.
The growing number of kidnappings disturbed Hettie, considering Abby’s habit for wandering. Locking her up was not an option, though; and while her rope and harness helped keep track of her, they needed a more permanent solution.
At the general store, Hettie handed Ma’s grocery list to the shopkeeper and browsed through the shop’s selection of sweets, ribbons, and talismans, none of which she could afford. It was fun to imagine having a charm for extra wakefulness, or an amulet to alert her of encroaching coyotes, but Pa had warned her that she couldn’t trust any talisman that hadn’t been made by him or someone else she knew. A pretty bauble wasn’t worth risking a geis, and too many mundanes had been taken in by rogue sorcerers.
She lingered over a catalog of exotic potions, magicked medicines guaranteed to cure all kinds of ailments. She turned to the page under Clarity of Mind she’d often pored over and traced her finger over a ribbon floating around the picture of the seductively curvy phial. The words Sound Mind, Memory, Spirit, Body and Faculty advertised its promises across its length.
“Thinking about ordering it this time?” Mr. Hooper asked cheerfully.
“I will if I win the contest today.” She glanced up. “Don’t tell Pa.”
He smiled. “Wouldn’t dream of it. I know you mean well for Abby.”
Abby and Ma, she thought. There was enough in that dose to bring her mother back to full health; and maybe Abby would finally stop having fits and trances. That would be fully worth disobeying Pa.
When the hour of the shooting contest arrived, Hettie headed for the tannery at the edge of town. More than half of Newhaven had gathered to watch. Men made their way into the fenced-off contest area where the Robson brothers collected entry fees. Groups of boys pooled their nickels and dimes to enter their best shot. Older men with scarred hands and lined faces scrutinized their opponents from the sidelines before throwing in their dollars.
That entry fee was Hettie’s only obstacle now. She spotted Will Samson hanging on the fringe of the crowd, long limbs dangling over the split-rail fence. She sidled up next to him and leaned against the fence post. “Rumor has it the prize is half the pot,” she said by way of greeting, giving him her most winsome smile.
He pushed his bangs out of his eyes. “Hello, Hettie. You in town with your pa?”
“He’s at your father’s now, getting a wheel repaired. You thinking of entering?” she asked casually.
He gave a bark of laughter. “You know I’m a terrible shot.”
“Thought maybe you’d enter just for fun. Maybe show off to a certain young lady?” She nodded toward golden-haired Sophie Favreau, a beacon of beauty and sophistication among the folks of Newhaven. Resting in the shade of a tree, she held court with a group of well-dressed young men and ladies from town. Sophie’s grandmother, Patrice Favreau, the Soothsayer of the South, had made the family wealthy with her ability to see the future. Sophie was only in Newhaven because of her father’s business interests in Montana—her status set her head and shoulders above everyone here.
Will jammed his hands in his pockets, and his cheeks bloomed with color. “I’m not making a fool of myself with them watching.”
“You know, if you front me the dollar for the entry fee, I could double your investment.”
“No way. They’d never let you in.”
“’Cuz.” He shuffled his feet. “You’re a girl.”
“All the more reason to let me try. They’ll take my money and think they’ll get a few laughs. But you and I both know I can tag a fox’s tail at two hundred yards.” She gave her most confident smile. “Spare me a dollar and I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Only if you win.”
“You forgetting who my pa is?”
“You’re not your father,” he huffed.
Someone in the crowd shouted, “Last call! All entrants, last call!”
Hettie clasped her hands together. If she had to resort to waterworks, she would. “Will, please. You know I can do it.” She waved toward Sophie and her entourage. “I bet you could buy Sophie a bunch of ribbons with the prize money. She loves ribbons.”
Will licked his lips, and Hettie sensed his imminent capitulation. “Fifty-fifty split.”
“Ten-ninety,” she countered.
“Thirty-seventy, and not a cent more. I’m doing all the hard work, after all.”
Yes! They shook on it, and she grabbed his money and hurried into the contestants’ arena.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming,” Tate, the elder of the Robson brothers, bellowed. “We’re going to start shortly, but I want to make the rules clear. First: magical charms, spells, talismans, potions, lotions, creams, unguents, or any other non-mundane aids are prohibited. We’ll ask that you strip off all jewelry and empty your pockets before entering the range.”
“Might as well ask us to strip down to our skivvies!” someone shouted, and the crowd laughed. It was only a half joke, though; some people actually sewed talismans into their clothes.
“All we ask for are your charms, though I’d suggest you remove any more … er … private items before you step up. Winston Bluefeather will ensure you’re being honest, and will safekeep your belongings.” He gestured to the man at his right, a sorcerer in a charcoal-gray Western suit. Eagle feathers and bright blue beads were woven into his hair. Hettie could almost feel the magic shimmering around him.
“This is a contest of pure human skill, ladies and gentlemen.” Tate pointed to seven cans balanced on the far fence that bordered the tannery. “Over yonder are the targets. Each contestant will be given three guns, each with four bullets. You must knock down as many as possible with the ammunition and weapons provided. More than five qualifies to win. In the event of a tie, the contestants will have a quick-draw sudden death shootout. The prize money is a tidy twenty-five dollars.”
Hettie inhaled sharply. Minus Will’s cut, that would be almost enough to get the potion for Abby. She could work off the rest for Mr. Hooper, or maybe pay him in game. He did love quail.
Tate’s brother, James, opened three gun cases with a flourish. The crowd murmured.
“What’s wrong?” Will asked at her side.
“I’m no good with a Colt,” she whispered harshly.
Will’s gaze bounced between the revolver and her. “How’s that possible? Your pa has one just like it. What kind of rancher are you that you don’t use a six-shooter?”
“I said I’m no good with it, not that I can’t use it.” She wondered if the Robsons would let her use her own weapon. Not likely, since the wood stock of the Winchester had been magicked so it’d never warp. “I don’t get a lot of practice with Pa’s gun.”
Will wrung his hands, then patted her shoulder gingerly. “You can do it, Hettie. I believe in you.” It wasn’t a ringing endorsement, but Hettie was in too deep now to back out.
She joined the contestants. James asked, “You got your entry fee, son?”
She toyed with the idea of playing the charade through. She was forever being mistaken for a boy in Paul’s clothes. Instead, she pulled off her hat, letting the long, dark, thick braid tucked beneath slide past her shoulders like a heavy coil of rope. James flinched as if it were a dead snake.
“Don’t you know who that is?” Tate chuckled, joining them. “That’s John Alabama’s little girl.”
“Hettie?” James peered at her, sobering. “Good heavens, you look just like your brother, God rest his soul.”
“If she’s as good a shot as her pa, then we’ve got ourselves a real competition.” Tate ushered her into the lineup. “Pardon me, gentlemen, but as the expression goes, ladies first.”
“That’s all right, Tate. Give the fellas a sporting chance. I insist.” She wanted to see how everyone else handled the weapons.
He shrugged and let her take her place in the lineup next to Ling Tsang, who smiled down at her. He occasionally worked odd jobs on the ranch and tended the herd with Uncle. Pa couldn’t afford to have him around full-time, but whenever he needed help he’d hire Ling and even let him sleep in the barn when he didn’t have anywhere else to go. “Hello, Ling. Haven’t seen you around much.”
“Miss Hettie,” he greeted, tugging on the brim of his hat. Tall and lean, with high cheekbones and hair cut short and neat without the braided queue most of his countrymen wore, Ling was quite handsome, in Hettie’s opinion. “I’ve been busy on a couple of other ranches, but if your father ever needs me, I’ll come. I hope you don’t find it impertinent that I compete against you.”
Ling’s English and manners were better than most folks’. She wondered if that was the reason the other Chinese in town avoided him. She’d always thought he could do better in a big city, but he’d told her he “preferred the air and scenery” in Montana.
“Not at all. I look forward to whomping you and every other man here.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
She got a good look at the weapons as she passed the table. In the first case lay a double-barreled shotgun. It was the kind of thing a man would use to take down a bear, and complete overkill for this contest. Maybe that was the point, throwing the contestants off by thinking that power meant accuracy. Pa had made sure she’d learned that lesson second. The first was never to point a gun at a man unless you meant to kill him.
The second case held a Winchester repeater, a finely crafted rifle with gold inlay on the stock and a filigreed brass receiver. A less-seasoned marksman might have mistaken the dazzling showpiece for a well-used, well-cared-for weapon.
The Colt revolver in the last case was battered and dull. James loaded the .45 bullets efficiently, spun the wheel, and handed it to the first contestant, Francis Fawker from the livery. He walked to a spot marked by two sticks and spent a long time steadying his aim. He cocked the gun and pulled the trigger. The sound was more of a pop than a bang. He fired off all four shots but didn’t hit a thing.
He went for the fancy Winchester next. It looked out of place against Francis’s stained and patched shirt, but he held it snug against his shoulder and let loose four booming shots. He knocked down one can to some mild applause.
He hit nothing with the shotgun. Hettie could see it was going to be a struggle for her to use it—the kickback rocked the man on his heels.
The targets were reset while the next contestant stripped off his talismans. He knocked down two cans with the Winchester, but nothing else. Six contestants later, only one man had managed to knock down five of the seven cans.
Then Ling went up. He picked up the Winchester, weighed it, put it back. He picked up the revolver, spun the wheel, put it back.
He grabbed the shotgun. His smile broadened as he leveled it at the fence. A few people clucked and whistled to spook him—they hadn’t done so for any of the other contestants. When that shotgun roared, two cans fell at once, silencing everyone. He aimed half an inch to the right and fired again. Another two cans fell. He did it twice more, leaving only one can standing.
“He’s a dirty cheater!” the large man with dark hair and beady eyes who’d knocked down five cans shouted. “I didn’t even hear those shots hit!”
Tate turned to Winston. “Bluefeather, do you concur?”
“No magic here,” the sorcerer said.
“What about all that mystic Eastern junk, huh? He could be using ether magic on us!”
Ling spun around, shotgun pointed at the ground. “I don’t need magic to win this contest. But if you think I’m cheating, I’ll bow out right now and we can settle this like real men.”
“Whoa, partner, there’s no need for that.” Tate steered him back toward the targets. “This is just a friendly competition. C’mon. Why don’t you finish this? Show them what you’re made of.”
Ling gazed around, absorbing the suspicion cast his way. “The sparkle of the challenge has dulled.” He stalked out, leaving awkward silence in his wake.
Hettie watched him go, feeling sore for Ling. He would’ve won—it was hardly fair that a bunch of jealous blowhards could drive him off. She glared at the knot of accusers, whose narrowed eyes followed Ling out.
“You’re up next, Miss Alabama,” James said. “Your talismans?”
She removed the protective necklace her parents had paid quite a lot for, feeling naked without it. She’d been gifted the charm when her menses had come and had been warned never to remove it, especially around men, but rules were rules, and she didn’t want to be caught out and humiliated in front of the crowd by refusing to take it off. Chin high, she dropped it into Winston’s bowl, along with the meager contents of her pockets, and handed her own rifle over.
The sorcerer muttered a spell and waved his hand over the vessel, then gave her a probing look, as if he were seeking something at the bottom of a pond. A strange feeling rippled through her. He nodded silently at Tate, who gestured for her to proceed.
“You think that tomboy’ll hit anything?” She heard someone snicker.
“With that face, she’s more likely to scare the cans off the fence.” The laughter from the sidelines wormed its way between Hettie’s ears. She’d heard it all before. She’d inherited none of her mother’s delicate looks. She had her father’s broad, strong nose, though it seemed to be permanently upturned like a bat’s. Her cheeks were freckled and puffy, and her dull brown eyes were too close together. Not that looks mattered when it came to breaking horses or herding cattle. Part of her wished she could show those townies just how good a shot she was and take off the tips of their ears, but that dandified lot wasn’t worth wasting bullets on.
She inspected each gun as Ling had. “Do I have to use all the shots in each gun at once?”
“No rules about that. You fire these guns however you want.”
She picked up the shotgun first. “What’s this loaded with?”
She squinted at the targets. “Those cans filled with something?”
Tate’s lips twisted into a grim smile. “You’ve been the only one to ask. Yes, in fact, they’re each half full of sand. It’s just to keep them from blowing off the fence, you understand. You’ve seen them fall, so you know it’s still a fair contest.”
Perhaps he thought it was fair, but it changed the game significantly.
Hettie judged the distance to the fence at about fifty yards and sucked in a lip. Shotguns weren’t great at distance, since the pellets scattered. But at the line, she could see how Ling had knocked down two sand-filled cans at once three times in a row: the graying split rail had fresh gouges in the wood. Ling had aimed for the railing to shake those cans off.
Hettie tucked the butt of the gun snugly into her shoulder. Ignoring the catcalls from the sidelines, she focused on the same spot Ling had.
She exhaled as she squeezed the trigger and let her body absorb the recoil, rocking back on her wide stance. The first two cans jumped off the rail.
She handed the shotgun back, noting the silence that had fallen. “Winchester, please.”
A befuddled look on his face, James passed her the rifle. She had a feel for the shotgun now; she needed to know what the others were like so she wouldn’t waste her bullets. She aimed for the can at the far right end. The first shot missed. The second made the can hop but not fall. Sand poured from the bullet hole, glinting gold in the sunlight.
She put the rifle down. “Revolver.”
James handed it to her. The thing was heavy and felt alien in her hands. A rifle was an extension of her body—she could put her weight behind it. But the Colt .45 handgun with its overlong barrel felt awkward in her small-seeming hands. She knew the recoil would strain her wrists.
She wrapped both hands around the grip and sighted down the barrel. She aimed for one of the middle of the five remaining cans.
Sending up a prayer, she squeezed the trigger.
Blam! The revolver threw her locked hands up so high she nearly punched herself. The crowd hooted in laughter. “Give up, girlie!” someone shouted.
“Winchester,” she gritted, handing the revolver back. This contest wasn’t done yet.
She knocked down the far left can with the Winchester’s remaining two bullets. But even with three shells in the shotgun, she only knocked down one more can. That left three cans and three bullets in the revolver.
She picked up the revolver again. The grip felt too big, the balance all wrong.
“You gonna shoot or what?” someone yelled. “Hurry up already!”
She breathed deep, squaring her shoulders and hips, letting the jeers fade. The rustle of the leaves shushed. The air stilled.
She squeezed the trigger. Down came the first can. She shifted her aim, squeezed again. Down went the second.
One bullet. One can.
She narrowed her eyes until the space around the can was fuzzy and pulled the trigger.
The can remained stubbornly on the fence.
A roar of disappointment spilled into her head.
“That was fantastic!” Will exclaimed. “No one’ll beat that score.”
She glowered at the lone can on the rail. The thing must be nailed to the fence.
Two men remained in the lineup. Old George Sanders didn’t hit a single target, but the stranger who stepped up last made the short hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
He was tall and broad and dressed almost entirely in black, his white shirt a sharp contrast against his funereal garb. Seeing all those heavy layers of black—including a heavy black duster—glistening in the June heat made Hettie sweat.
He glanced at her from beneath the shadowed brim of his hat. His startling blue gaze sent a stinging dart of cold fire through her.
“Your charms,” Tate prompted, breaking his unblinking stare.
The stranger slowly extracted a number of stones and bits of rope and hair from various pockets and turned. “There’s still more,” Winston prompted, and the man in black stopped.
“Not sure if you want to hold what I’ve got,” he murmured, his lips hitching up at one corner.
“Rules are rules.” Tate grinned toothily.
The stranger looked around him slowly, his gaze almost palpable as it swept the crowd. Hettie felt it brush over her, and her skin broke out in goose pimples.
“Think you’ll be able to handle this, Chief?” The stranger shucked his duster and slung it over the sorcerer’s shoulders. Winston stumbled as if the coat weighed half a ton. Maybe it did, in magical terms.
The stranger rolled his shoulders. The stained white cuffs of his shirt peeked from beneath the well-worn black suit. He strolled up to the table and dragged his blunt fingertips across the three gun cases, his expression thoughtful.
“What do you think his deal is?” Will whispered in awe. “You think he’s a Kukulos warlock?”
Hettie doubted it. Kukulos warlocks used blood magic—they didn’t need to wear heavy mantle coats with all kinds of charms and talismans sewn into them. Their conduit was blood, which meant the smallest open wound was enough to deploy a spell. If the stranger were using magic, though, Winston would catch him.
She was about to explain her theory when the man snatched up all three weapons, tucking the Colt in the front of his pants. He slung the shotgun across his back and started toward the markers, but long before he reached them he brought the Winchester up and started firing, still walking.
He emptied the rifle in rapid succession and knocked down three cans, tossed the weapon carelessly aside, and brought up the shotgun. Down went two more cans. He was still walking toward the markers when he lifted the Colt and squeezed the trigger. The sixth can dove off the rail as if it had been scared away. He narrowed his eyes as his next two shots missed and his feet halted at the marker.
Hettie chewed her lip. The stranger tilted his head, and his eye caught hers.
He raised the gun and fired his last bullet straight into the sky.
The stunned silence erupted in a confused babble, but Hettie hardly heard it. The stranger was smiling at her.