Chapter 10
Following the Bloody Trail

Xiaohe (Arroyo), Jitian County, Shannanxi Province

Eliaza Seung nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of the bell ringing. Mama Ly hated the sound of bells and complained for three straight hours about how annoying it would be to fix a bell on the door to the inn, but Eliaza and her husband insisted on it. Out here, you didn't expect that many people, but after what the happened the other day, the young couple didn't want to be taken by surprise again.
The man who walked in the door had to be a Celestial. He was plainly dressed and showed no outward sign of rank, but he had an imposing presence. He carried himself too upright to be a common paisano and he didn't have the swagger of one of the Celestials' dogs from here below. If he was someone's pet dog, he was a different breed.
The man eyed her and for a moment Eliaza was afraid he could read her thoughts. There was no end to the stories of the strange things Celestials could do. However, if he was a Celestial and he could read her thoughts, he didn't burn her to a cinder with flames shooting out of his eyes or anything like that. He went over to the bar, sat down and signaled for her husband to pour him a shot.
Her husband placed the shot glass upside-down on the bar until the man put down a few coins. He then poured the shot, which the man promptly quaffed, then signaled for another. After downing the second shot, the man upturned the shot glass and spoke.
"You had some trouble here a few days ago."
Her husband snorted at this.
"Trouble doesn't even begin to describe it."
"Then describe it for me," the man replied.
"How much is it worth to you?" he husband asked.
No, stupid! Can't you see how dangerous this man is? Was he really so dense? This wasn't the sort of man you haggled with. Did all country boys have so little survival instinct?
The man glanced over to Eliaza, then asked her husband, "Is that your woman?"
"That's my wife," her husband said defensively.
"She will be something else if you do not tell me everything I wish to know, which is everything that you know."
The fact that the man did not growl or raise his voice or use any of the other common tricks to intimidate a person made him all the scarier. He made the threat so matter-of-factly, with no more emotion than he would order a plate of boiled peanuts to go with his drink. Of course her husband still didn't appreciate what a dangerous person this was.
"Who do you think--!?"
Eliaza quickly got out from behind the front desk and hurried over to the bar to cut him off, physically wedging herself between them while cutting into the conversation.
"We'll tell you whatever you want to know, sir," Eliaza said hastily. "I mean, as much as we know. It isn't much, I swear."
"Start with that," the man said.
"It was, what, almost three weeks ago these two come into town, dressed like they were from out west. The man called himself Juan Marques and was looking for work. Mama Ly put him to work chopping wood and stuff. He had a girl with him... Aili, Chen Aili. She didn't seem to know how to do much of anything. Mama had her washing dishes, scrubbing the floors. She broke so many plates..."
She could feel sweat beading on her forehead and trickling down her back. She was so scared but squeezed out every drop of courage she had to keep talking without stammering, going off on tangents or doing anything else that might annoy the man.
"Anyway, yeah, three days ago these two come in--I didn't even know they were women until later. They shot me and Marco with these darts. I couldn't move for I don't know how long. I think I may have blacked out a couple times.
"Marco got over it quicker than I did. I can remember him shaking me, trying to get me to come around. It was probably another hour until I could walk around like normal again. Had headaches from it for two days straight."
"These two women..." the man said. "Bounty hunters?"
Eliaza nodded.
"We think so, yes. As I was coming around, I could hear Mama screaming and crying her head off. Those two were lying there dead in the kitchen. There was blood everywhere." She reflexively retched a little at the memory but quickly tried to recompose herself. "Sorry. Just thinking about it makes me sick."
The man showed not the slightest hint of sympathy for her and asked his next question.
"What happened to Marques and Chen?"
"I didn't see anything because of the way I fell," Eliaza replied, "and I can't account for whatever happened when I was blacked out, but I was woken up by some shots. Then Mr. Marques came in. I could hear him arguing with Ms. Chen and then a little while later I heard them leave."
"But you did not see which way they went?"
The man looked to her husband and said, "You have made your wife do all the taking. What did you see?"
"I didn't see nothin'," her husband said.
Eliaza gripped his sleeve, a silent plea for him to cooperate. He looked at her, then back to the man and said, "I may have seen those two walk out. Thought it was the ones who shot us, but it seems Marques and the girl took their coats."
"What else did they take?" the man asked.
"I didn't exactly take inventory."
Worried that he was going to anger the man, Eliaza jumped into the conversation again.
"Mr. Marques raided the general store. Chopped off half of poor Mr. Dith's foot and shot Old Buny."
"Old... Buny?"
"Um, it's short for Bunyamin, I think. He's a farmer down the way. His wife said they heard a shot and he got his rife and went to check it out. It... it didn't work out so well for him..."
"And who is this Mr. Dith?"
"He owns the general store."
"The one across the street?"
"Yes, that's right."
Without another word, the man stood up and left. Still on edge, Eliaza even jumped a little at the sound of the door closing behind him.
"What are you so nervous about?" he husband asked annoyedly.
His annoyance only served to annoy her in turn. Thoroughly fed up with him, she said, "Sometimes you've got all the sense of a jackass, you know that?"

* * *

The man walked into the general store. The weary-looking woman behind the counter greeted him, saying, "Welcome, stranger. Is there anything in particular you're looking for?"
"I am looking for Mr. Dith," the man replied.
"Mr. Dith is in no state to be receiving callers," the woman said. "If it's anything to do with the store, I can help you."
"What can you tell me about the man who put Mr. Dith in no state to receive callers?"
"He called himself Marques," she replied. "He was an outsider, started working at the inn a few weeks ago. I only saw him once or twice before that day. He came in here bleeding from the stomach with a bottle in one hand and a machete in the other. He demanded catgut and a needle. I ran up to my room.
"A little while later, my husband--Mr. Dith, I mean--told me Mr. Marques had passed out and called our son to go see what happened at the inn."
Her lip started to quiver and her hands shook when she spoke about Marques' appearance in the store, but at this point she was one the verge of tears and whatever reserve she had quickly crumbled.
Breaking into sobs, she said, "I, I didn't see it myself, but when he came back... when he came back..."
She broke down completely, but the man was unmoved as stone. He stood there silently and waited for her to rein in her crying. Perhaps because he made no move to indulge her, she was quicker regain her composure.
"I'm sorry," she said, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. "It's just so terrible... I was cleaning up our boy and trying to comfort him when I heard a shot. Mr. Dith had a shotgun to protect the store--you know, just in case... He says he shot Mr. Marques, but I don't know.
"I heard my husband--Mr. Dith--scream and then the sound of the store getting ransacked. I hid with our boy in the bedroom. I was so scared... There were more gunshots and shouting and then it went quiet.
"A while later I finally got the courage to go downstairs. I thought Mr. Dith was dead, but when I calmed down, I saw he was still breathing. I went to get help and that's when I saw Mr. Bunyamin lying dead in the middle of the road. I went to Mr. Vang to get his horsecart and we took Mr. Dith to the doctor in Lago."
The man was not particularly interested in what happened to Mr. Dith and interrupted her, asking, "What did Marques take from the store?"
Thrown a little off by the interruption, she brushed back a loose shock of her hair, stammering, "I, I don't know everything he took. He made such a mess of things... I know we're missing a rifle--he broke the lock on the cabinet--and some bullets too. He took some non-perishables and some clothes, I think. Maybe more..."
Deciding there was no more useful information he could extract from her, the man turned and left.
"Wait," the woman said. "Aren't you going to buy something at least?"
The man ignored her and exited the store. His business here was concluded. The secondary target was now armed and had at least some provisions for the road, but he was also wounded, however lightly it may be. It was an unexpected turn for him to spend so much time in a place like this. Was he simply being complacent or was he trying to throw his pursuers off the trail? He might be cleverer than the man originally gave him credit for, but his cleverness would only get him so far and his luck would eventually run out.