The Devil’s Standoff
By midafternoon the following day, they were in sight of the Wall’s base. The monolith stretched over the landscape like a great black viper rippling over the sand. Hettie got a strange chill just looking at it.
“The shoring crews are farther west,” Walker said, scanning the length of the Wall with narrowed eyes. “No border patrols in sight.”
“Why are they shoring up the Wall?” Hettie asked.
“Magic needs bolstering now and again,” Uncle explained. “The bigger the spell, the more magic and maintenance it needs. Nothing lasts forever.”
“Yes, but why are we fixing it from this side if it was built to keep Americans out of Mexico?”
“Walls work both ways. The folks on the losing side of the war don’t like a big old monument reminding them of their failures, so they make up their own story, make it look like we’re the ones in charge. They send out men and crews and make it seem like we’re doing something important, like we’re the ones keeping invaders out.” Uncle spat on the red earth. “Men in Washington gotta justify their wages somehow.”
“Politics aside, there’s no way for us to get through,” Walker said. “The Division and the Pinkertons will probably be looking for us at the gates.”
“So how do we get through?”
“With help.” He picked up a stick and drew several runes on the ground, whispering an incantation. Then he broke the stick in half and tossed the pieces away.
A sound like a muffled crack of thunder rolled across the land. Walker lifted his nose in the air like a hound scenting its prey. “He’s coming.”
The wind picked up, whipping dust all around them. Abby cried out and shielded her eyes, and Cymon huddled close to her, growling a warning.
Hettie put herself between her family and the rust-colored dust devil skating toward them. Walker and Uncle held their ground, unafraid even as the wind tore at their clothes and sand scoured their exposed skin. The wind died abruptly, and the swirling sand settled. From the tiny cyclone a thin man emerged, his skin dark and leathery, his face young but lined. He wore only battered leather trousers and a small vest. His neck was hung with so many charms and talismans on leather thongs, they formed a kind of shield on his chest. His hair was a matted, tangled mess festooned with bits of leaves and twigs. His eyes, the strangest shade of sulfur-yellow, glinted with devilry.
“So, the prodigal son returns.” He said it with the precise enunciation of an Englishman, surprising Hettie. “I was beginning to wonder whether you’d ever come back, Woodroffe.” He raised his eyebrow at Uncle, who stood with one hand casually resting on the grip of his holstered sidearm. “You’ve grown your family, I see.” His roving eyes landed on Abby and widened. Hettie stepped in front of her sister, propping her hands on her hips and glaring.
“We need safe passage into Mexico,” Walker said.
“Heading home, hmm? You think your people will appreciate the new additions?” He gestured at the group.
Walker growled, “What’s your price, Coyote?”
The man scratched his head and paced in a tight circle. His movements went from smooth to jerky intermittently, as if a fisherman had his limbs on a line and was trying to lure trout as he reeled the bait in. “Last time, it was just you. This lot will cost you.”
“How much?” Walker repeated tightly.
The man Walker called Coyote picked at his nails. “Six months.”
“That’s highway robbery,” the bounty hunter growled.
“I don’t have the juice to carry all of you through safely. Half of that six will probably be sapped away just moving you through the Wall.”
“You know it’s not my juice to give. Six months is impossible.”
“Then how about him?” He tipped his chin toward Uncle. “Seems you’ve got plenty to go around.”
Walker’s jaw firmed. “He’s not paying.”
“Well, if not him, the little one will do.” He smiled, his teeth surprisingly large and white. “She’s bursting with juice. I can almost taste her from here.”
Hettie had Diablo pointed at Coyote’s head before her fury registered. The derelict sorcerer stumbled back with a yelp as though he’d been smacked. “Come anywhere near my sister and I’ll blow that tongue out the back of your skull.”
“Mother of— Walker, what have you unleashed?” He looked between the bounty hunter and Hettie, hands raised. “Who is she?”
“Someone who doesn’t like you.” Walker’s lips twitched. “I’d listen to her, Coyote. She’s got an itchy trigger finger.”
“It’s not her finger I’m worried about.” His gaze stayed locked on Diablo. “Three months of juice, Walker. And only because you’re a friend.”
“Two weeks, you soul-leech.”
“Twenty days, straight from you. That’s my final offer.”
“Deal.” Walker spat in his palm and held it out. Coyote did the same, then took one of the many leather thongs from around his neck and wrapped it around his dust-covered wrist. He clasped Walker’s hand tightly, chanting in a language Hettie didn’t recognize, looping the strip of material around the bounty hunter’s forearm.
“What’s going on?” Hettie asked Uncle.
“They struck a bargain. That Coyote’s borrowing magic from Walker.”
She frowned. “But . . . what keeps him from just taking all his magic?” Her hand twitched over the ghostly form of Diablo, readying to defend the bounty hunter.
“It doesn’t work that way. Borrowing magic requires consent on both sides.” He notched his chin toward the men. “They can exchange no more, no less than what they bargained for.”
The air shifted as if the wind had momentarily changed direction. Walker gave a grunt. Coyote breathed deep. His eyes dilated, and he threw his head back, mouth slightly open. Hettie could’ve sworn she saw him inhaling a wisp of bluish smoke. He held it and then released, shoulders sagging. His spine loosened, and he smiled as his eyes went back to normal.
“Ohhh.” He reached for Walker and made to embrace him, but the much taller, much broader man pushed him away and hastily untangled the thong from around his arm. Dark bags hung beneath Walker’s eyes. Coyote laughed. “Gonna be a shame to give up all that lovely juice. Such a delicacy . . . ”
“Just get us across the Wall,” the bounty hunter grumbled. “And do it before I let the girl shoot you.”
“Of course, of course, a bargain is a bargain.” He scooped the ropes of talismans off his neck and laid them on the ground. They weren’t individual necklaces, but one long rope looped multiple times around him. He arranged the hoops on the ground.
“Bigger,” Walker instructed. “The horses and the dog are coming with us.”
Coyote looked like he was about to protest, but glanced once more at Hettie and reworked the rope pattern. Soon he had a wide circle of leather on the ground.
“I’ve never encountered a mage gun like that,” he said without looking at her. “Metals have an odd effect on my spells. Unless you want to get stuck in the Wall and become a permanent part of the masonry, you ought to leave it behind.”
“She’s not leaving it behind for you to put your grubby hands on,” Walker snapped.
A lump formed in Hettie’s stomach. “Is that a risk? Can we get stuck?”
“Stuck?” Coyote’s yellow eyes flashed, and he bared his teeth in a rictus of a grin. “It’s worse than that. If anything disturbs the spell on either side of the tunnel, matter will resolve around you, in you, turning you slowly and excruciatingly into part of it. I know men who’ve screamed for days as they turned to stone. Sometimes the patrol captures people trying to cross the border and melds them into the Wall halfway, leaving their limbs sticking out, wiggling to warn away others.”
Abby squeaked. Coyote chuckled lowly. “That won’t happen, little one. Your uncle Coyote will not fail you.”
“Where’s the exit point?” Uncle asked. He’d been silent up to now, which was odd for him. He usually tried to take charge wherever possible.
“A day’s ride from Villa del Punta. You know, for the very low cost of three months, I could drop you right in the center of the village. I have an aperture hidden away there. Not even Raúl can find it.”
Walker glared at him, and Coyote laughed. “I’m kidding. I thought you would appreciate the joke.”
“So . . . is this like a Zoom tunnel?” Hettie asked.
“It’s nothing like the Zooms,” Coyote said, irritated. “Zooms can’t go through the Wall. This is a spell I made all by myself. It’s the only way to get through the Wall around here, unless you’d rather go through one of the gates.” He eyed them speculatively. “Which I very much doubt. Only the most desperate of fugitives summon the Coyote.”
“Are you sure this is safe?” Hettie asked Uncle quietly. She glanced at Abby, who’d been watching the strange man as intently as a jackrabbit sensing a nearby predator.
“As safe as walking through solid matter is for anyone, I reckon.” Jeremiah scratched his nose. “Is this a drop and swim?”
“Ah, you’ve done this before.” Coyote peered at him, then blinked. “Do I know you?”
“Doubt it.” He looked away and kicked his toe in the dust. “Well, what’re we waiting for?”
“Hettie, stay close to Abby, but don’t hold hands.” Walker pushed them together. “You’re going to jump in after me—Abby first, then Hettie, the horses and Cymon, and then JB. Whatever you do, keep moving. It’ll feel strange at first, but don’t stop, or you might get stuck.”
Abby stared at the loop, her gaze blank. Hettie tapped her shoulder, and her sister blinked slowly up at her. “Like swimming,” she said dreamily.