It was certainly an odd sight to see: a black-habited nun, bound and gagged, sitting in a most undignified fashion on the dirty, straw-covered stable floor; and Ben, standing over her, calmly puffing on a cigar. Suzie glared up at me and Jimmy as we entered. No longer was there any hint of the feigned sweetness of Sister Anne in her eyes; it had been replaced with the hard, glittering blackness of Shanghai Suzie. I gave her a quick nod, then turned to Ben.
"Looks as though things went smoothly enough."
"Smooth enough," agreed Ben, "although her holiness near got a bullet in me before I was able to save her from committing such a mortal sin." He handed me my gun. I took it, wishing that there were a place to holster it in my habit.
"Now we'd best be getting out of here double time," said Ben.
"Why, what's going on?" asked Jimmy eying the disgruntled figure of Suzie on the ground.
"Tell you while we ride," said Ben. "We might be needing another horse. Find one you like and it's yours," he told Jimmy.
While Jimmy went to take a look at the three other undersized horses in the stable, I set about readying El Fuego to ride. As I finished saddling her up, though, I suddenly noticed something was wrong. A hard, cold lump of realization slid sickeningly into my stomach: that horrible feeling of knowing you've missed something obvious and crucial. I turned around.
"Ben. . ." I said, my insides knotting.
But it was too late. Ben was standing there, arms raised over his head. Behind him stood the messenger I had roughed up earlier, pressing the barrel of his revolver to Ben's neck.
"Drop your weapons," he ordered. Ben reluctantly let his gun fall to the floor, though he held on to his cigar, which continued to issue a thin stream of smoke into the man's eyes. The man swatted it irritably out of Ben's hand.
"That means you too," said the man, glaring at me.
"I thought you needed us alive," I said.
"One of you will do," said the man, narrowing his eyes at me. I noticed there was a trickle of blood running down his face from his head where I had slammed the bucket down onto it. It made him look slightly deranged. I dropped my gun.
The man grinned.
"Now the sheriff's boy. Come on out or your friend dies."
I could see Jimmy hiding in a stall across from me. I gave my head a small jerk to tell him to come out. He cautiously emerged from behind the wall to stand beside me, arms raised.
"Now isn't this a sweet turn of fate," the man gloated.
Ben glared at me, twitching his lips. His missing cigar seemed to be annoying him nearly as much as the gun pressed to the back of his neck. I furtively began inching my foot across the straw toward my gun. What I'd do when I reached it, I didn't know, but I did know I wanted it in easy access.
There was a muffled squeak from the floor and we all turned to look at Suzie, who was struggling to say something through her gag.
"You," said the man, nodding sharply to me, "untie her."
I moved forward to do as he instructed. I undid her gag slowly, thinking hard. If only my gun weren't still back across the room, I could have used Suzie as a hostage of my own.
Suzie spat the loosened gag out of her mouth.
"What was that you were saying, Sister?" asked the man.
"Fire!" cried Suzie, widened eyes staring past him.
So many things happened in the next second that I couldn't quite keep track. But what I figured afterwards was this: While the man glanced back to look at the fire Ben's cigar had started in the straw, Ben took full advantage of the distraction to twist away from the man's grip and promptly knock him to the floor; I took one look at the scene and launched myself into the nearest stall for cover; and I guess Jimmy probably did the same since he was gone by the time I peeped my head out again. Somewhere in the scuffle, a shot went off, but it must have missed its target because I could see a smoking hole blasted out of the wall across from me.
A moment later, Ben had rolled over into the same stall I had taken refuge in. We both looked at each other and seemed to realize at the same time that we would soon be staring down that man's gun once more, this time trapped and defenseless in a horse stall. Together, we scrambled over the partition into Dagger's stall, both of us clumsy in our cumbersome habits. Another shot went off and I felt the bullet graze my shoulder with a slash of white-hot pain which sent me toppling down from the wall with a cry. Dagger, spooked somewhat by the gunshots, the fire, and the two men disguised as nuns climbing into his stall, nearly stomped on my head and I had to scurry to the corner to avoid being kicked.
Ben tried to calm his horse while I took a quick peek over the stall door. The man was heading toward us, gun in hand. Behind him, orange flames were licking up the wall and spreading with alarming speed across the straw floor. I jerked my head back before another bullet could come my way and turned to Ben.
"I give it ten seconds till he opens this door," I said.
Ben had found a dung shovel and was brandishing it at the door. I plucked the selfsame water bucket I'd used as a weapon earlier and pressed myself to the wall, ready to strike.
The door burst open. Before Ben or I had a chance to act, a gunshot cracked through the air.
I was instantly relieved to find I wasn't dead, or even at all injured. Before I could check to see if Ben was all right, though, the body of our attacker fell face down at our feet. Ben and I both peered out of the door to see Jimmy standing there with my pistol in hand, the flickering firelight casting a rosy glow to his otherwise very pale face.
"'Bout time," grunted Ben, dropping his shovel. I thrust my bucket back over the dead man's head and stepped out of the stall.
The fire was now greedily devouring the exceedingly-flammable stable. A tower of hay stacked by the back had ignited and become a huge pillar of flame that was now lapping at the ceiling with its fiery tongues. A ceiling, I noted, which was made of wood.
Then I noticed something else: Suzie was still tied up on the floor, and the fire was racing toward her like a dog to its master — a huge, deadly, flaming dog. As much as I wanted to leave her to her fate for her betrayal, I knew that there were questions we had that only she could answer. That, and even I wasn't so heartless as to let a nun die in that fashion, no matter what said nun might have done to me.
"Grab the horses!" I called to Ben over the hissing and spitting of the flames. Then I darted down the stable to where Suzie lay. Suzie was attempting to slither away from the flames, her wide eyes reflecting their crimson light, but she was severely restricted by the ropes that bound her.
It ought to have been an easy thing to lift up the terrified nun and carry her back to where El Fuego stood waiting. But just as I stooped to pick her up, the teetering column of burning hay bales collapsed, nearly incinerating the two of us. When I finally could squint through the smoke and ash, I saw that our way to the stable door was now rather inconveniently blocked by a roaring wall of fire. Maybe I would have been able to jump over the flames under normal circumstances, but not with a baggy cotton habit on, and not with a nun on my back. I cast about wildly and my eyes quickly found the only other escape route: a small, square window set about ten feet up the wall. The chances of me being able to get up there, never mind with Shanghai Suzie, were pretty slim.
But then, like a ray of sunshine on the bleakest of days, there was Ben, using a pitchfork to toss the flaming bales out of the way, slowly carving a hole through the fire. As soon as a path was clear, I dashed through, wincing as the embers scorched the soles of my bare feet. I kept on running, Ben right behind, until I reached the horses. Then I struggled up onto El Fuego's back (a difficult thing to do while wearing a habit), and pulled Suzie up in front of me.
We galloped hard out of the stable and across the dusty patio. Jimmy dismounted for just long enough to open the gate for us, and then we were off, riding out into the night.