Excerpt: Lucinda Ellis meets the Higgs Boys

She opened her carpetbag and dumped it onto the dirt, shaking loose every pocketwatch, coin, ring, necklace, money clip, eyeglass, and paper money she had collected from the passengers on the second car. The Higgs Boys scrambled to stomp their foot on the bills before the wind could carry them away. Wade Higgs crouched down to inspect a delicate ruby ring Lucinda had taken from her talkative seatmate.

“Ma’am, I mean no offense,” he said, mesmerized by the light flashing off the red stone. “But we’re called the Higgs Boys for a reason. We don’t usually, er, have the pleasure of doing business with matrons such as yourself.”

“Not unless you count that old whore you bedded down in Ludslow last week,” one of the boys interjected.

“Mr. Higgs,” Lucinda said, ignoring the chuckles of the men around her. “I don’t believe you’re looking at the situation holistically. You might not have worked with a woman before, but doubt you’ve ever picked this much treasure off a train car before, either. So my question for you is, don’t you think it might be worth including me in future endeavors?”

Wade rubbed his mouth as he stared at the ruby he still clutched between pinched fingers, as if the answer was in the jewel. Lucinda certainly thought it was — of all the things she had read about the Higgs Boys, they never if rarely held up the first-class passengers on the trains they robbed. Looking at the tiny group of five men, she had a sense it was a lack of manpower, rather than will.

“She’s right, Wade,” said the man who had been wearing the paisley kerchief. Job was his name, if Lucinda remembered the Wanted posters well enough. “There wasn’t much in that safe today, and there wasn’t much in the one last week, either. If we can take a walk down those first-class cars, could be more than enough to tide us over.”

“Yeah, so why don’t we just do that ourselves?” Asked the Higgs Boy who had referred to Wade Higgs’ recent conquest. “Why’s she got to do it?”

Lucinda was prepared for this question because she had asked it herself when planning her escape. “Because they don’t expect a lady passenger to be carrying an empty carpetbag with a plan to fill it,” she said. “Or a Colt with the ability to use it, for that matter.”

She removed the gun from the lining of the bag where she kept it, spinning it around a finger as she drew it, just like her father had taught her.

In a reflex, the four standing Higgs Boys drew their own revolvers, poised to shoot. Lucinda’s whole body clenched in anticipation, but her mind didn’t lose focus. She spun her Dragoon back to her side, placing it in the carpetbag and raising her arms up in surrender.

“I said ability, not intention,” she said. The Higgs boys still refused to lower their weapons. Lucinda tried to cover up her fearful trembling by shrugging and returning her gaze to Wade, who was now counting a stash of bills secured in a brass money clip.

“The way I see it, Wade Higgs, you’ve got two enemies: Time and men,” she continued. “If you have me ride that train every week as a passenger, I can case the car — determine who’s got the best goods while we’re on our way out of town and know exactly who to stick the gun at once you and the Boys board. I can make quick work of it while you crack the safe, and we can both disembark together to split the goods.”

“You may have a point,” Wade said, finishing the count and tossing the clip back in the dirt with the rest of the loot. “Must be the wisdom of your years.” The Boys laughed. Lucinda joined in this time.

“Speaking of which,” he continued. “If you forgive me saying so, aren’t you a little old to start a career in train robbing?”

Lucinda smirked and lowered her arms so she could unpin her hat. Through the veil she could see the four guns simultaneously lift higher, more threateningly, as their wielders tried to determine what she was going to do next.

Both hatpin and hairpin came out easily. Lucinda shook her head, a cloud of talcum powder catching on the wind as her dark locks freed themselves from their tight twists. Once her hair was loose, she chanced a glance at the four gunmen. Job’s mouth was agape, unlike his counterparts, who had all tried different methods of concealing their surprise to varying degrees of success. But Wade Higgs wasn’t coy.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he said, chuckling. “You’re a real pretty lady, you know.”

“So I’ve been told,” Lucinda said, cheeks warming. By her parents, yes, but never a man with the kind of smile and reputation bared by one Wade Higgs.

“What a waste of a pretty face,” Wade said. “And there’s no dress shops or sundry shops out in the woods where we camp. No real soap, either, come to think of it.”

“I think I’ll manage.”

Wade Higgs turned to his boys now.

“Well, gents? Oh for all that is green in God’s good wallet, put your guns down!”

All four guns were holstered immediately. As Job’s gun lowered, his voice rose.

“I don’t like it, Wade. We’ve got a good thing here. Inviting someone new — lady or not — is like adding too much salt to the soup. It’ll ruin it, and there’ll be no way of fixing it without throwing the whole thing out.”

“Was that a remark on dinner last night?” asked the broadest of the men. “I told you it was Elton who put the extra salt in the soup, not me.”

“And I said I didn’t know you’d already done that, Trent,” Elton, presumably, said, gripping the brown sack he had worn over his head on the train and shaking the burlap at his cousin.

“I take it the food could improve?” Lucinda asked Wade.

“Ma’am, you have no idea,” said Job. “We ate hearty last night, but we were up all night guzzling from the water skins.”

“And delayed this morning from pissing it all out,” said the final man who hadn’t spoken — the wiry, clean-shaven one with a scar cutting through the hair on the side of his head.

“I’m a decent cook,” Lucinda shrugged. “If you let me join your crew, I’ll make sure you never dine on salty soup again. Daddy always said I made the best venison stew this side of the Mississippi, with biscuits to match.”

“Biscuits?” Elton asked.

“Venison?” Job asked, subconsciously licking his lips.

“Whatever meat’s available, really,” Lucinda said. “Mushrooms, too, if meat isn’t an option.”

“Wade,” said the clean-shaven man. “I think we’d be fools to pass up at least this woman cooking us dinner tonight, don’t you? Because there’s no way I’m having one more spoonful of that salty slop Trent forced down our gullets last night.”

Trent looked ready to grab his gun, but stopped short when Wade barked, “Fine.”

He walked up close to Lucinda, so close that his coffee-tinged breath heated her face. She stood up straighter. He wasn’t much taller than her — maybe a few inches — and on the uneven ground, their eyes were level with each other. Wade shifted to the side a little so he’d be taller than her again.

“You’ll cook dinner starting tonight,” he said. “We usually take a week or two between robberies. See if you can last that long—”

He paused, and Lucinda realized he didn’t know her name.

“Lucinda,” she said. “Lucinda Ellis.”

“Wade Higgs,” he said. “That there is my brother Job, and the big fella is my brother Trent. The redhead is our cousin Elton Walters, and the baby faced bast— I mean, man — is Jimmy Clearwater, but we just call him The Squirrel on account of how fast he climbs trees.”

The Squirrel gave a mock salute.

“Well, don’t just stand there, boys,” Wade said with a sigh. “Let’s put this loot back in the bag and get back to camp. Lucinda here is going to cook us dinner.” He raised his eyebrows at her before turning on a heel and walking deeper into the forest.

Maybe the old adage her mother had spouted was true, after all: It certainly seemed like the way into mens’ train robbery gang was through their stomachs.

Vignette: “Promise me”

“Promise me just one thing,” she said over the crunch of Pringles between his teeth. She waited for the swallow, the contemplation over eating another.

Then she took advantage of the way his heart was facing her as he reached for the tube to strike it with her arrow:

“When you’re done with me, please tell me in no uncertain terms.”

Blink, and you would have missed the micro-hesitation of the chip en route to his mouth as he was forced to consume her words first.

“Why do you think I’d be done with you?” He asked, popping the Pringle in his mouth and letting it rest there. He waited for it to get soggy, except her request had left his mouth dry. How did she know that he knew he couldn’t let go, long after his hands had given out? It was like the cliff side of her had formed itself like handcuffs around his wrists, refusing to yield no matter how hard he tried to wrench free.

#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 7: “Split-lip Gossamer”

Blood dotted my shoes as the blond girl flung the brunette girl down on the ground. The red bandana tied around the brunette’s upper arm meant this was what she wanted.

Across the makeshift ring stood Louisa, her face red with exertion and blood. She caught my eye and smiled, wincing as the cut in her lip opened wide and trickled crimson. The glossy pink lipstick she usually war was long gone, sweated all over the floor. The blood was a better color on her, she once commented.

Louisa and I met during our Survey of Celtic Mythology class two semesters earlier. We worked on a massive project together, which I guess in her mind made us friends. I was ambivalent, just trying to keep my head above water during that 18-credit-hour semester and thankful that she did most of the work without complaint. Then again, I was so scattered that she was probably happy to ensure we got a good grade, extra work be damned.

The next time I saw her after the holidays, she wore the same coat, carried the same bag and walked like she was strutting to music only she could hear. But something was off: Her face was pink from the subzero weather, but a California-shaped bruise darkened the side. Try as she might with makeup, it was clear as day.

I didn’t ask her about it because she walked too fast past me, clearly disinterested in talking. From the shy smile she gave me in recognition as she tugged her hair to hide the bruise, I guessed she was embarrassed. So was I.

The semester before had ended on a less-than-festive note. She had gotten drunk at a Christmas party, found me there and decided it was time to give me a kiss under the mistletoe. I wasn’t sober, either, and she wasn’t unattractive. I had no idea that she had a boyfriend. Not just a boyfriend; she was dating the Hulk.

I didn’t actually see him hit her, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had happened. There wasn’t much I could do — the party was at his house and all — but something about the way he steered her away, taking her arm like it was the strap of a book bag, gave me the creeps. The least he could have done was take a swing at me instead.

That’s why as I walked past her a month later, it wasn’t outlandish to think the California-shaped bruise looked suspiciously like massive knuckle marks chained together.

A few weeks later, she was sitting in the library. California was gone, but there was a tear in her lip and she had a brace around her wrist. I wanted to ask her what had happened, but she left too quickly.

The next week I saw her again. Her lip was half-healed, and she had upgraded from a brace to an ace bandage. Opportunity hit when she stopped to dig her phone out of her bag. I tapped her on the shoulder, and she winced, as if I had punched her.

Louisa looked up, phone in hand. Her knuckles were raw and red.

“Oh, hello,” she said. “How are you?”

“Fine,” I said. “Haven’t seen you around in a while. What happened?” I nodded to her knuckles. She smiled the sarcastic smile that she had all of last semester when I had a question she could answer glibly.

“Would you believe me if I said it’s from Fight Club?” she asked.

“No,” I said, not smiling. “What really happened?”

“I got in a fight,” she replied, shrugging. “Battle wounds, you know.”

“He’s still beating you, isn’t he?” I started. I didn’t want the conversation to go this route so soon after our reunion, but I saw no choice. My sister had been in an abusive relationship, and I didn’t want to see any other woman just shrug and sarcastically smile it away.

“I dumped him ages ago,” Louisa laughed. “He hit me for the last time. Even told the police. They didn’t do much, of course, but his parents pulled him out of school and put him in rehab. I don’t intend to find out if it worked or not.”

My eyes squinted against the veil of her smile, trying to see through the split-lip gossamer to see if she was telling the truth.

“Fight club, huh?” I asked, deciding to play along with the joke. “Isn’t the first rule of Fight Club not to talk about Fight Club?”

“Not ours,” she said. “If we didn’t talk about it, we wouldn’t have a club.”

Thanks to Chuck Palahniuk for the inspiration.