~~~Dio left China Row lugging a huge basket of potatoes and onions that she had obtained in a trade with one of Bu's nephews. The vegetables would go into the stew pot with some venison and a bit of flour for thickener, and that stew would soon be bubbling away on the little iron stove in the Saloon No. 10. The miners and bullwhackers who made up much of her clientele seemed to enjoy having something of substance to ingest along with the lager that Dio was getting from those nice German boys with the little brewery up in Gayville.
As she struggled with the basket past the undertaker's at the corner, the faint perfume of death wafted from its open doors. She stopped to rest a moment, and Eugene, the proprietor of the place, happened to come out just then.
"Mornin' Eugene," said Dio with a slight, tired smile.
"Mornin' Miz Dio," the undertaker replied in his predictably morose monotone. "Powerful big basket o' taters ya got there."
"Yessir, gotta make a new batch o' stew fer the boys."
"Say Miz Dio?"
"Would ye be so kind as to take a look at two fellers who got brought in last night? Got their throats cut, I'm afraid. But no one seems to know 'em. I'd be very much obliged if you'd see if you recognize 'em."
Dio nodded resignedly, and followed the undertaker into his shack. There, in two rough plank coffins were the men, their faces a pallid, pale gray...with ragged openings under their chins where their throats had been slashed. Dio peered at them for a moment and then shook her head.
"Sorry Eugene," she said. "Cain't help ye. Don't know these boys."
Eugene sighed. "Oh well, reckon they can set here a spell until maybe someone claims 'em. Be nice if someone would come along to pay fer a decent burial for em."
Dio nodded and went back out to retrieve her big basket of stew makings. As she lifted up the load, the handles biting into her hands, she started to get mildly irritated. By the time she got the basket back to the 10, she was downright fuming, thinking about the two men. She kept thinking about those ash-colored faces, wondering if there was someone somewhere missing them. Dio also wondered how long they'd have to lay in Eugene's grim little shack before someone saw to it that the decent thing was done. She slumped on her bed in the back room of the saloon, intending to rest for just a moment...
...and her mind drifted back to a hot summer day on a grassy ridge in western Kansas...
Dio was prone, using every bit of cover so the buffaloes wouldn't see her. She was doing a good job of it--they weren't going anywhere right now, just stupidly milling around the victim of her last shot, worrying over their wounded fellow as the big bull bled out into the hot, trampled grass. If they caught even a glimpse of her, or a tiny suggestion of her scent, well, shit, that would be it. She'd have to start stalking and crawling all over again. Nothing made them run like it did when they became aware of a human's presence. But for now, they were staying put.
Laying in the brittle grass, she felt a rivulet of sweat running down her forehead and her nose, making her glasses slip just a touch--there was hardly a breath of wind stirring along the ridge. She vaguely wondered why the dumb wooly bastards didn't somehow associate the sound of her shots with humans. But, oh well--the situation seemed to be offering her the promise of a good run of kills among the small herd.
She levered down the breech block of the massive Sharps .50 caliber rifle and slid another of the big .50/70 cartridges into the chamber. It was about 300 yards--nothing special--a normal shot for the buffalo hunting business, and she set to drawing a bead on a youngish-looking cow just to the right of the dying bull.
Suddenly she became acutely aware of some rustling noises in the weeds behind her. She silently rolled on her back and swung the muzzle of her Sharps towards the sound. A soft voice called gently but with some hint of urgency, "Señora Dio, it is only Miguel, do not be concerned. I beg your pardon for interrupting the business, but Señor Roberto--he is not well at all--he is much worse, in fact."
Goddammit, she thought irritably, if that miserable, worthless old cockchafer is gonna die, I wish he'd dammed well get on with it. At the same time she was pleased with Miguel for having had the good sense to not just come running up the slope shouting for her. More than likely, Bob had told him to go fetch her post haste. But instead of dashing up and scaring off the money-makers, Miguel, bless his heart, had taken the time to crawl up the ridge and to pass on the news of her partner's deteriorating condition without startling either Dio or the buffaloes. But then of course, doing so also might have gotten Miguel shot at, and an onrushing soft-lead fifty propelled by 70 grains of black powder isn't exactly something you can dodge or catch with your teeth.
"All right, Miguel," she whispered. "Lemme just make this one shot here and get one more for us to take t' the bank."
Dio rolled over again, and patiently prepared to line up the cow again. It had barely moved from its spot near the bull, who now seemed to have passed on, judging by the way his heavy, magnificent head had slumped forward. The hunter took a breath, let half out and then relaxed, aimed, paused a moment, and squeezed the trigger.
The Sharps roared like a small cannon, the sound shattering the hot stillness on the ridge. The cow dropped to her knees without a noise, and sank the rest of the way into that sitting position in which the buffaloes so often went to meet the Great Spirit.
"Well done, Señora."
Dio stood and smiled slightly at Miguel.
"Muchas gracias, mi amigo. I would be much obliged if'n ye'd go get Luis and collect those last couple o' hides there"
She and Miguel strolled back down the slope she had so carefully belly-crawled up over an hour before, and hiked over the next slight rise where Laughing Wolf patiently waited with the horses. Miguel took his horse and nodded to the Indian.
"I will find Luis as you ask and bring the wagon to get those hides, Señora."
As the young man rode off, Dio made signs to Laughing Wolf that she would go back to camp. The tall Indian signed an inquiry as to how many buffaloes had been shot. Dio shrugged and held up two fingers. Laughing Wolf shrugged in return and silently handed the reins of Dio's horse to her. The Indian turned to follow Miguel, while Dio rode off back in the direction of their camp.
When she arrived, Bob was weakly cursing at Miguel's sister Maria and Bright Water, Laughing Wolf's wife. They were busying themselves with camp chores and were clearly ignoring the old man's insults and complaints.
Dio swung off her horse and casually took her time unsaddling the animal and setting him out to graze, hobbled to a picket line.
Bob feebly called out, "Woman! you worthless piece o' secessionist white trash! Don't you go saunterin' about, a payin' me no never-mind! These stinkin' lazy whores have been actin' like they's deaf, and I been waitin'..."
She cut him off, "Bob, shut the hell up, you whiny old drink-addled sorry sonofabitch. I was trying t' to keep makin' this party some cash t' live off of, and I don't..."
She abruptly broke off when she looked at him.
Damn, he did look a lot worse.
Miguel was right. The decaying mess who had been their front man--the one who did the deals in a world that would not have willingly done honest business with a hunting team made up of a middle-aged woman, some Arikaras and a couple of young Mexicans--was obviously on death's doorstep. He had always looked like shit, but as Papaw would say, now he sure as hell looked like week-old shit after the herd had all took turns trampin' over it.
Bob, seated on a trade blanket, propped against a barrel in the shade of one of the hide wagons, was once again cursing her, the other women, Miguel and Luis, and the uncaring world in general, in between coughing dark blood into a dirty cloth.
The party had already discussed what to do when this point arrived as they all knew it would. The business arrangement that had held them all together was at an end. Without the well-known "Buffalo Bob" Harrison as their front man, they could not do business. No one else but the team knew Bob hadn't shot a buffalo in years. But his contacts, his reputation, and his standing in the community of buffalo hunters--as well as his race and gender--had made him a vital part of the team. But the time had come. They would trade or sell this last batch of hides for what they could get, and go their separate ways.
Dio realized that the two other women of the team, Maria and Bright Water, weren't doing normal camp chores. Against a background of Bob's insults and curses--something they had all put up with since first forming the team--they were breaking camp, packing up the last of the hides that had been staked out to dry.
The two women looked up from their work at Dio. She looked at them and nodded. The team had discussed drawing straws for the final duty, but in the end, Dio said she would take care of it. She sighed, and without a word, walked over to where Bob was coughing and cursing.
Miguel, Laughing Wolf and Luis were still a short ways from the camp, bringing in the other hide wagon and the skins from the last animals Dio had just killed, when they heard a single shot from the direction they were heading, and then silence. They continued riding at the same leisurely pace, unconcerned, knowing what they would find. When the men arrived at the campsite, the gear was already packed, the hides bundled, and the women were mounted or seated in their places on the main wagon. For the first time in memory, the air around the team was quiet, the usual barrage of oaths and insults was blissfully absent.
Miguel looked at the solitary, frail figure laying on a blanket in the midst of the trampled grass that marked their last campsite together. Luis crossed himself, while Laughing Wolf sat staring impassively for a moment...and then spat on the ground.
"Señora Dio?" Luis asked somewhat tentatively. He was the youngest of the team.
"Should not perhaps we bury Señor Roberto?"
Dio answered in a quiet hard voice, "Hon, I figger the coyotes would just dig him up agin anyhow. And he left plenty o' carcasses, both man and beast, out unburied on the grasslands. One more don't matter."
And then she spat on the ground, in the same manner as Laughing Wolf.
The team turned east, and headed out. None of them looked back at the small, lonely shape on the blanket.
...Someone came into the saloon, and at the sound of the door opening, Dio was shaken out of her thoughts...
She stood up to go see what she could do for the customer. As she was leaving the back room, she noticed a large empty tin she had been saving for some reason or other. She picked it up and took it into the main room of the saloon.
"Howdy Dio," said Old Bill. "What's the can for?"
Dio placed the tin on the bar. "Eugene's got a couple o' unknowns back at his place...gonna take up a collection an' make sure those boys get put to rest in a decent manner 'fore too much time passes."