Harper loped up the clay mountainside with a bloody muzzle and wagging tail. Even under moonlight, the mutt avoided every cactus, burr and stinging insect.
Tess crept out onto a stony perch to see what harm her dog had done to the man. She dropped to her belly and placed her hands on the ledge. The sandy stone that had scalded her feet earlier, felt like a block of ice at night. She blew warm breath on her hands and peered over a sharp drop.
Thirty-or-so-feet down, the Accomplice lay wheezing. His rent throat produced puffs of steam with each attempted breath. He held his neck together, eyes bulging, body rolling side to side. Tess couldn’t spot the gleam of a weapon, not that he could use it well in his state anyhow. The Accomplice didn’t even bring a pack for food and drink.
Tess patted Harper’s shaggy, chocolate-brown head and tied her leash to a marooned hackberry tree, dry and leaning with exposed roots like tentacles. She doubled the rope to insure the mutt wouldn’t venture over the ledge and hang herself.
“Tess,” the Accomplice said. He followed with a fit of violent, wet coughing.
“Damn you, Wyatt.” Tess spoke coldly. She knelt beside him and pulled ringlets of bloody hair away from gruesome gouges on his neck. Trying to clean the wound made a worse mess. “Why did you follow me?”
“You...left me,” the Accomplice said. His voice caught in his throat.
“Same as you'd have done if you thought of it first.”
The Accomplice’s eyes closed.
Tess slapped him. “Pay attention.”
The Accomplice's eyes opened lethargically, looking sadder than before. “I wasn’t coming for the money Tess. It's not like that.”
Harper barked viciously and challenged her leash, as if to say, don't believe him! Don't trust him!
“What am I supposed to do now? If I help you, you might catch up with me later.”
The Accomplice—a nickname she gave Wyatt to keep their dealings impersonal—hyperventilated with that wet, sick sound. He didn't beg for his life or make bold promises. Tess wouldn't have cared if he did.
“My horse…” the Accomplice pointed toward the open desert where his horse had run off. “If you get me on my horse I'll ride for Fort Berwick and never look back to see where you've gone. You can keep your money.”
“Your horse won’t be coming within a mile of my dog,” Tess lectured, “The Mare’s gone.”
The Accomplice reached his hand up to her face. Tess flinched away at first, but then let him touch her, as she had the night before. His hand—covered with sand and sticky blood—felt feverishly hot.
Tess had the tips of her fingers on her boot-knife. One slick move from Wyatt and she'd do him in.
“You are a beauty,” he said.
“Now I know you're a liar.”
Tess thought about herself vainly. A thousand men had made a pass at her, but none on their deathbed. The Accomplice fought his eyelids to look at her. She saw his body relax and go slack. His ragged breathing continued to confirm he hadn't died.
From a slit in her boot she pulled free the knife—long enough to reach a man's heart but short enough to conceal easily. She raised it above his chest. She had no accomplice to do the nasty work this time.
Just then, his eyes flicked open. Tess flicked the blade into her sleeve. “I can make it,” he said, oblivious to the knife.
“Good.” Tess said. “Don't sleep on your back.”
He nodded, and then fell asleep lying on his back.
Tess considered leaving him this way. That would spare her the grisly task of plunging a blade into him.
She heard pattering hooves.
The Accomplice’s scrawny cream-colored mare galloped past her wounded master at full speed, wary of Harper who stood sentry on the hill and Tess, whom the horse did not know too well. After a successful first-lap, she looped around close once more, a tad slower this time.
Tess sprung forth and grabbed the reins, reeling the horse's head around and forcing her to trot in circles with her. While they spun, Tess slipped her boot into the stirrup. Tess swung herself onto the mare's back. She dug her knees into the mare's belly. “Whoa!” She said, tugging on the reins firmly.
The horse bucked, screamed and ran them into the desert. Tess massaged the horse’s neck and called her by name, “Snow...”
“Come on Snow,” she said and rubbed below the horse’s ears. Tess rubbed her fingers in a circular motion, an old trick she'd learned.
Snow eventually ran out of fight and slowed down. Tess convinced her to return to where Harper and the Accomplice waited. She didn’t have the stomach to finish the Accomplice off so from atop her horse, she dropped her half-empty canteen, a few strips of salted beef and some beans that he would have to eat raw. Not a kind meal for a man with a torn throat, she reflected. The salt will burn like sin, but that's not my problem, she told herself.
Tess struck out for Fort Berwick, a place the law couldn't reach her. With Harper trailing behind, Snow galloped doubly fast, making excellent time. The two beasts never grew accustomed to each other but Harper minded her manners enough not to bite.
Tess found herself thinking the Accomplice lying in the desert. She kind of liked his rings of blonde hair. She appreciated that he had taken care of the more dangerous and vulgar parts of their robbery and never once asked to see or hold her money. That made her feel guilty for how she'd treated him.
That was his mistake, Tess reminded. You've outfoxed a fox and don't you dare feel guilty about it…
# # #
Tess found Fort Berwick at dawn and wondered how the Accomplice had fared the night. She had enough money to bring a doctor to him, but the doctor she found was no professional. He knew how to clean and stitch a wound and he had a good supply of medicines. In Fort Berwick, that made him a doc.
The Doc's horse cantered twice the speed of Snow's gallop. Tess gave scrupulous directions and allowed him to go on ahead of her for the sake of reaching the Accomplice sooner.
“Fix him up and bring him back to find a real doctor,” Tess said before she gave him the money. “You do him wrong and I'll come looking for you,” she warned.
As soon as the doctor was out of sight, Tess turned around and left. She had no intention of seeing either of them ever again.
Tess returned to the Doc's house while he was away and looted everything she found. There was cash, medicine and fresh food. By the time the Doc realized Tess had robbed him, Wyatt would have the care he needed.