Randall was just getting to the good part of his campfire tale when T’ou Chi Chow heard someone coming and silenced him. Within moments, several horsemen came to the edge of the fire’s light.

Their leader, an Indian man whose face looked to have seen about forty years, but whose eyes had seen far more, did not appear to have joined them to make merry.

The Bandit King stood and bowed theatrically, motioning his companions to stay seated. “Why, if it isn’t Chief Seven-Eagles! To what do I owe the pleasure? I’m sure we can find food to share if you’ve come to join us.”

Stephen Seven-Eagles cut right to the chase. “You stole something. Something valuable.”

“It’s possible,” Chow shot back, “I steal a lot of things. You’ll have to be more specific.”

“A silver statue from a collection that recently passed through town.” Stephen took a deep breath. “We would like to negotiate for its return.”

Chow laughed, and giggles echoed around the bonfire. “That disgusting, grinning idol? The fake that was being shown off as the genuine article?” He shook his head. “Steve, buddy –”

“My name is Stephen.”

“… Stephen. I thought you had better taste. What would you need such a display of wealth and general obscenity like that for?”

* * *

“Apparently, he never finished the purification rite,” Stephen says. “Made the idols, but choked on a piece of bread before he could complete the alignment, if you can believe it. Now this collector took all his works, with no idea what they were for. The Gomorra Valley may not be in the same state as Texcoco, but Crow thinks this piece here … the silver one, the idol of Taz… Tzala…”

“Tlazolteotl,” Mazatl says without looking up from his maps. “It’s really not that hard, guys.”

Everyone thinks it, but only Laughing Crow blurts out, “Yes it is!”

* * *

Stephen let his shoulders drop. “We want the idol returned to its rightful owner. It certainly isn’t yours and I can’t imagine you need it for anything. I’m willing to trade for it.”

“Does anybody ‘need’ to show off that they got more money than sense?” asked T’ou, like he was some kind of Socratic teacher. “Don’t act like this is some authentic cultural relic you’re preserving. It was made five years ago at most — with modern tools, by modern men, for modern money. I certainly won’t bargain with it, if that’s what you want. That would be letting it win.”

“I am not here to argue with you,” said Stephen. “I’m just here to ask for you to return what you stole. You won’t be turned in; I don’t even want you to say you’re sorry. I have no interest in making enemies. If it’s of no value to you anyway, then I would just ask you to return it.”

If T’ou saw a sign he should have backed down, he ignored it. “You know what I’m not interested in? People telling me what to do.” He cracked his knuckles. “You know, I’m suddenly feeling kind of attached to the thing. Perhaps we’ll keep it around after all.”

* * *

Xui Yin digs through the raid’s spoils, looking for her cut. She makes a retching noise as she finds the silver treasure in the packing straw. “That is the single most disgusting thing I have seen in a while, and I’ve seen Hamshanks picking his nose with both hands.”

“Thank you SO much for bringing that image back, by the way,” Chow replies.

“Who collects something like this?” Xui Yin says. “I mean, it’s one thing to flaunt your wealth by hoarding other people’s treasures. That’s evil, but at least I get it. This thing, though … this needed to stay lost.”

* * *

“You don’t want to keep it around,” said Steven, his patience wearing thin. “You said it yourself. It’s grotesque. It’s ugly. We’d be doing you a favor by taking it off your hands.”

“Take it off our hands? I thought you wanted us to give it back to the owner!” snapped Xui Yin from the other side of the bonfire.

“We’ll ensure it returns to its rightful owner,” retorted Stephen, “and we have a stronger claim to it than you.”

“What’s this really about?” Chow asked. “There were other, more authentic pieces in that collection that you don’t care about. That set of black knives looked centuries old. You hard up for cash, need the silver? Because if wealth is your problem, then you ought to be helping us, not pestering us. Or is pestering us the entire point? I know you’ve been keeping tabs on my people. I kinda doubt that your project of mapping the valley really requires you to follow our friends around every time they go out for a walk.”

“If you want to make friends with actual hellspawn and the wailing dead, that’s your business,” said Stephen. “But I will do what’s necessary to make sure my people are safe. If you want me to trust your ‘friends’, perhaps show me that I can first trust you … by giving us the idol.”

“You know, those hellspawn and wailing dead are very nice people once you get to know them,” said Chow, though the obscene gesture thrown up by an icy blue-white hand behind him seemed to contradict that statement. “But, you’re right. I don’t have any more of a claim to that object than you do. Just give me one good reason why you need it, and it’s yours.”

* * *

“That sheriff seems like a pious, agreeable sort,” says Richard Faulkner. “I mean, he’s a man of God and you commune with the spirits, but that’s not so big a difference given what the alternatives are. I bet he’d be glad to help, and having the law enforcement on your side would be a huge asset.”

“Ugh… Maybe?” Stephen ponders. “Unfortunately, Gomorra has a history with some of our people already, and they found themselves no end of trouble. We’re here to do a lot more than they were. I don’t know how receptive he’d be. And even if he was…”

Stephen runs his fingers through his hair and sighs. “Right now, we’re the only people who know what kind of danger this place truly represents. If we solicit help from the law to do our work… that means pulling back the curtain on our mission. The fact we even have a mission could lead to others meddling. We have enough enemies already.”

“So, as long as everyone thinks the new settlement is only that, they don’t know you’re trying to save the world.” said Richard. “You know, it’s kind of sad how much sense that makes, because you would think saving the world would be a bit more popular than it is.”

* * *

“The idol doesn’t have to be as old as that pretentious windbag claims it is to hold value for its people. Even if it is just some modern artist’s view of their traditions, isn’t it still worth seeing?” said Stephen, almost like he believed it.

Almost. “That is complete nonsense,” said Chow in disbelief. “You tried to buy me off, then you begged, and then you lied to me. If you can’t even be honest about why you want it, all that tells me is that I definitely don’t want to give it to you. The only thing we like less than being told what to do is is being lied to.”

“I offered to compensate you, and then when it became clear you didn’t want it, I tried to appeal to your sense of charity. I tried to treat you as a man of reason. And if that is how you want to respond,” said Stephen, slumping as if defeated, “then that’s your mistake to make. I will wait until the end of the week for you to deliver it to us. If you haven’t, we’ll take it by other means.”

* * *

“What is that place, Abuelita? Soddum?” asks Chow, gesturing toward the village on the horizon. “I was kind of under the impression it was destroyed.”

“No, Soddum is still a ways off from this village,” replies the old Spanish woman. “That place is new. An  Indian chieftain found some unclaimed land here after the Storm and decided to lay claim upon it for his tribe. I have met some of their representatives in town and they’re very serious about their people’s future here. The leader is a man by the name of Stephen Seven-Eagles. Buen hombre. He says those watching the town are the Eagle Wardens, but always laughs like he knows how más dramático it sounds.”

“Huh. Well, good for them,” says Chow. “I can’t imagine we’ll be in each other’s hair any more than Sloane or Morgan might.” He grins. “Bet you it’s only a matter of time before Gomorra’s depravity earns us some new allies.”

* * *

“We’ll put on our Sunday best for you,” said Chow. “Hope you enjoy it as much as we will.”