The Strangers gang rode out from camp, making their way slowly towards Shadow. There they would stay for a while, just on the outskirts near the great rocks, then they would head for the mountain.
The hat Rifle wore was still acting like a bandage for his bruised and bloodied head, thanks to the pistol whip from Fire. But his mouth hurt too, and unfortunately there was no bandage for his mouth. Not even any bandanas like Leonard had to cover up the pain. The only thing on his face was the large fish hook that bound his lips together. But the fish hook was getting harder and harder to see as the blood began to build up and cake around it.
Behind his fastened lips was half a tongue. The other half was back at camp, lying in the dirt near the opening of his tent which was still flapping. The other Strangers had taken their tents with them, but not Rifle. He left it, set up and empty.
With half a tongue and lips bound together with a hook it was hard for Rifle to speak, or to cry, or even to breath. So he said nothing. He kept his eyes forward…so far forward that they seemed to drift far out in front of his head, just above the nose of his horse. He looked this way and that, and thought about the fact that he would track this boy down, just as he had promised Leonard. He would track him all the way to the top of the mountain if he had to.
The Strangers rode on and on in silence until the morning turned to dusk. They were just silhouettes against the horizon. The coat of Leonard, who was the last in the line of Strangers, billowed forward with the South Dakota prairie wind and threw an abnormally long and inconsistent shadow across his gang.
Rifle noticed that it was getting on nighttime, and once again he thought about resting in his tent on his bedroll. He was tired, and could not help but to think of dreaming.
He thought about the fact that he had been dreaming more and more about the strange woman. Not the woman from the Ranch house—not the wife of the fat man. No, the woman he saw the other day. He wondered what she was like, for he did not get to talk to her. He wondered if her fingers were cold just like his own mother’s fingers were always cold because of the wind that came through the thin walls of their home in South Dakota, a long time ago.
But on that day, Leonard also knew that Rifle had seen the woman. He told Rifle to forget the woman, she was helpless. But Rifle could not forget her because she reminded him of his mother. And that night he laid on his bedroll in his tent and he dreamed of his mother. The next day he got up early and went out and looked around the camp and tried to find the woman again. But she was gone, Leonard said. Leonard was up early too, and had sent the woman away.
Rifle was very sad, and was angry with Leonard for sending the woman away, and not telling him and not letting him speak with her. When Rifle saw the woman, things made sense to him. Even Leonard and the Strangers and everything they did made some sense to him. But this…this sending the woman away, it made no sense at all, and Rifle was very disappointed and angry.
It was that morning, after he had told Rifle that he sent the woman away, when Leonard told him that he and Fire would ride to the ranch house and collect the man called Holland for Dakota Inc. Rifle was not looking forward to the ride because he would have a lot of time to be tempted to think about the woman he saw in camp.
He was tempted and gave into it.
The day went by and he rode on and on with Fire toward the Ranch house. He realized that the strange woman was gone for good, and he found himself greatly missing her, and his own mother.
And now, as the Strangers gang rode to Shadow, and after they would go to the mountain, Rifle was missing his mother some more, and remembering how cold her fingers were when he was a little boy. Cold from the cold wind of South Dakota.
All of the Strangers looked the same. All of the Strangers wore ironic deputy badges on their vests, which were covered in dirt and dust and tarnish. The people who had seen the Strangers gang and their badges did not know what the badges meant. Most of the Strangers were ex-lawmen, so that might have explained it. But then Rifle knew that one had been a Confederate soldier at the very beginning of the War and another a bounty hunter from Mexico, and Leonard’s history was an utter mystery to both Stranger and man, so who knew what the badges meant, really? Probably nothing. And knowing Leonard, that was the whole idea.
The Strangers all wore pale gray hats and identical long gray coats that were only ever taken off when they were bathing, which was usually in a cold river, or a stream, or under the rain. The Strangers did not like to be indoors, and they never went inside except for a short time, and never for the night. South Dakota was where they belonged, Leonard told them. And outside was South Dakota. There was too much individuality inside. People kept all the things they brought with them inside, he’d say. But when they came out into the frigid western wind, they were all the same, and they knew where they really were.
So their coats were their covering, Leonard told them. Gray, as the sky of South Dakota was gray. When it rained, or snowed, the coats got wet, and stayed wet as long as the sky was wet. When the coats dried, the sky was dry. Their long gray coats moved as the sky of South Dakota moved. When seen from a distance, the Strangers blended in neatly with the sky and the ground of South Dakota, having something of both of these things in the way they dressed and moved. They were not invisible, of course. The Strangers could be seen, if you looked carefully. But they looked like ghosts in rags when compared to other riders on the plains.
Their horses were as sullen and quiet as the Strangers were, and pale, every one of them. Spiritless animals, they were. They could move quickly, but never seemed to hurry. When they ran, their hooves moved lightly across the dirt, and did not make much noise or kick up much dust. They were vapid when moving at any significant speed, formless pale blurs beneath the Strangers. Just fog.
The infrequent descriptions of the Strangers gang in the papers or telegrams always seemed more suited to geography or weather than to men. This was a good thing for the Strangers. It kept potential pursuers—outlaws, the army, federal marshals or other lawmen—chasing rocks and clouds half the time instead of the gang.
Leonard led the Strangers with his one good eye, an eye that bled a little constantly from the hairline cut that ran from the bottom right corner to the upper left. It was a cut that never healed. Were it not for the blood, one could not see this cut unless they were very close to it, and the only man that had ever gotten that close to Leonard’s eye was the man who slashed it.
Rifle looked up and saw the mountain in the distance. To the right, about two miles from where the Strangers were, was the town of Shadow. About three miles to the north was the ranch house where they had taken the fat man, Holland. To the left of the Strangers, about a hundred yards away, were the large rocks. Leonard told the Strangers to halt. He told them to set up camp and to prepare dinner. Rifle wasn’t hungry of course, but he was tired and ready to sleep and ready to dream about the woman.
Leonard told them they would stay there for a little while. Then they would move towards the mountain, and Van Carlo’s good boy.
This journey, Rifle knew, all started with the meeting with Dakota Inc., several months ago. That had been the first time the Strangers were at the large rocks outside of Shadow, because Leonard had learned that the outlaw Company was hiring gangs to work for them.
Leonard greatly hated outlaws. Many times he would take their money, then trick them and kill them. He used them as tools, but they were not his tools like the Strangers were his tools. He hated them. They were simply fuel to be burned up as the Strangers moved around South Dakota.
The thing Leonard was most interested in was finding Van Carlo. The Strangers would go from town to town, working occasionally with outlaw groups to make some money, tricking them, killing them, and looking for Van Carlo. Leonard had sent Rifle and Fire to Shadow for a time, to negotiate a little deal with Dakota Inc., and to look around the town.
Dakota Inc. found Leonard in the way that it was whispered to them by a Stranger. The Stranger was Fire, and he spent some time in Shadow milling around, very easily blending in and looking like someone people knew, and like someone who had lived there for years. Fire was very good at this sort of thing.
He heard that Dakota Inc. was in need of gangs for hire, and he was the one who suggested Leonard and his Strangers gang. Dakota Inc. felt that they knew this gang, and somehow had gotten it into their minds that they had heard some good things about them. The Strangers worked clean, like the wind, and never left a trail.
But hired guns were a risky business, and Dakota Inc. understood this. They were an expensive commodity that had no real loyalty. Not even to money, and that was the problem. Hired guns could kill anyone they chose, regardless of the money. And sometimes they did. And if they were good, then they worked clean, and got away with it. But Dakota Inc. also knew that hired guns were tools that, like any dangerous tool, had to be used every so often, whether you wanted to or not. A saw might fall and cut your hand, but you still pulled it out of the shed when you needed it.
Fire told Dakota Inc. to send a man with a yellow mustache and yellow hair to a certain place outside of Shadow near some rocks. When the man arrived, he was to waive a white handkerchief around his head. Then the man was to remove his hat and put a black hood over his face with two holes cut out for the eyes. Then he would put his hat back on, over the hood.
After this, three Strangers would approach him, and the man with the yellow mustache was to draw his gun and point it at the Strangers. Then he would lead the Strangers at gunpoint to Shadow and to the place where they would meet with Dakota Inc. The man with the yellow mustache was not to speak at all during the ride to Shadow or during the meeting, and was not to remove his hood until Leonard and his Strangers had left his sight.
“Why use the Strangers?” Leonard said. “We know you. You’ve shot men in the streets of Shadow before, for everyone to see.”
Rocky Mote, the head of Dakota Inc. smiled and lit a cigar. He’d gotten over his initial shock of seeing the man, Leonard. If he was a man, that is, Rocky thought. There was something unnerving about the Stranger, and he found it difficult to be completely at ease around him. He was there, standing in the middle of the relatively barren Dakota Inc. office, but there was an emptiness about him…a literal emptiness. As if you could walk through him if you wanted to. But not in a ghostly way. It was not like he was some sort of apparition. It was like he wasn’t there at all. Like you were talking to the wall, or to the air, and the wall and the air were talking back. Rocky found himself dying to look behind the gray coat of the Stranger. He honestly did not know what he’d find. He half expected nothing at all.
“True,” Rocky said. “And also true is that you know us. This is the very reason why we hire men like you now. The marshals and the Pinkertons have been sniffing closer lately. So it appears that you aren’t the only ones who know us. Even the army is never far away these days.”
Leonard nodded sympathetically.
“Eastern hypocrites,” Rocky continued, “grumbling about cleaning up the west. They send the Indians into dry gulches with nothing but diseased infected blankets. Yankee factories with facades like shouting skulls grind their lifeless workers into meat cakes. And yet they come out here to clean us up? Six hundred thousand dead from the War heaped up with legs and arms twisted like circus freaks, and they’ve come to teach us ethics?”
Leonard nodded again. He approached the desk where Rocky was sitting and grunted. On the desk was a ledger, with rows and columns of numbers and dollar signs scratched all up and down it.
“Eastern morality is simply the turning of pages,” Leonard said, leafing through the pages of the ledger, “one after the other, on and on.” He kept turning pages until he found a blank one, then he stopped and put his finger in the middle of it. “It’s just business. Same as everything. Everything but the Strangers.”
Rocky reached up and snapped the ledger closed. Leonard deftly and smoothly removed his hand before the book could catch his fingers.
With a growl, Rocky quickly put the ledger in one of the desk’s drawers.
“We do not want any connection to Holland Credence. None at all,” he said, giving Leonard a stern look. Then he sighed and leaned back in his chair. He looked slightly despondent. “The days of the men behind these desks going out and shooting a man dead in the streets are over. Now, we stay behind the desks as much as we can. It’s better for business.”
The Dakota Inc. boss lifted his left leg onto the knee of his right and removed his boot. Grimacing, he rubbed his foot gingerly. His feet always hurt these days. He wore nice boots, but they were too tight. But he liked it that way. It reminded him of the dangers of being too comfortable.
“Your feet hurt,” Leonard noted.
“Yes. I should put something else on, but these boots were expensive.”
“But you’d be more comfortable in something else,” Leonard said.
Rocky looked angry. “I will decide my own comfort. No one does it for me in South Dakota.”
Leonard’s eye began to bleed a little heavier; the bandannas went in and out of his mouth a little quicker.
“I see you prefer sitting to standing because standing makes your feet hurt,” Leonard said. “It would seem that the ground of South Dakota has much to say about your comfort, Mr. Mote, originally of Oklahoma.”
Rocky looked at the Stranger with the one eye, and decided that he did not like him one bit.
“What are we talking about here?” he said, not hiding his annoyance. “Boots? Posture preferences of an old man? This reminds me of the days of fighting the Mexicans. I understood just enough of their babble for it to be maddening. So let’s cut it. I’m paying you, remember. I was told by one of your Strangers to not ask you questions and to let you do what you do. I expect the same from you, bandit.”
The depression in the bandanna that was Leonard’s mouth changed into the shape of a smile. The eye bled even heavier.
“Bandit? I’m the masked bandit? Oh yes, now I understand,” he nodded, “but you. You’ve been killing with your face uncovered and your head bald for years, and have never seen the gallows.” He pointed a finger at Rocky. “Not because you could not be connected, but because you had power around here. If you cannot do it yourself now, then what power do you have left? What authority? The President can come to South Dakota and kill the Indians in the broad daylight. But what can you do?”
Rocky snickered. “Money is power. Murder is not. Murder is something that money allows you to do. It’s just another expensive commodity that most cannot afford. Who cares how it’s done? Who cares who the tool is?” Rocky stood, and pointed a finger back at Leonard. “But you need to understand something, Stranger. The President is like you. You’re a pauper, just like he is.”
“And we will take your money,” Leonard said, dropping his hand and stepping back. “But this deal marks the end of your organization. Hiring out this sort of thing is a gamble of long odds. Just ask Van Carlo.”
At the mention of the gambler’s name, Rocky’s head snapped up. He stared at leader of the Strangers with a clenched jaw. Then he relaxed, and breathed out slowly.
“You never mind, him,” he said. He lifted a satchel of money and dropped it on the desk with a leathery thud. “Just do it.” Then he tipped his hat tersely, and walked quickly out of the room.
Leonard tipped his own hat and nodded at the man’s back.
“Now there is a man whose own mother would no longer recognize,” he said a few moments later. “She would say, ‘What has happened to my darling boy from Oklahoma? He seems so different.’”
The man with the yellow mustache was still in the office, wearing the black hood. He stood near a window, uncertain as to what to do.
“Take off your hood,” Leonard said to him.
“But I was told…”
“How dare you,” Leonard said angrily. “Show your face.” He pulled a long rifle from somewhere behind his coat and, with one arm only, aimed it at the man’s chest.
There was fear in the eyes inside the holes. When the man removed the hood, the fear was still there.
“Where are you from?” Leonard asked.
“New York,” the man replied, trying to hide the fear in his voice.
Leonard lowered his rifle. “Don’t ever cover your face again. You are no longer Leonard. Now, it’s just me again.”
Then, all three Strangers left with the money.