Word Count 53,720
Chapter One by Suzanne
Chapter Two by Suzanne
Chapter Three by d.b.brisbin
Chapter Four by Coop and Judi
Chapter Five by Starry Diadem
Chapter Six by Starry Diadem
Chapter Seven Shelley and Starry Diadem
Chapter Eight by Shelley and Starry Diadem
Chapter Nine by Starry Diadem
Epilogue by Shelley
CHAPTER ONE: Suzanne
Johnny shifted his butt. In another few hours it’d be completely numb but right now it still had enough sense to start complaining.
He’d tried his usual practice of falling asleep but it niggled at him when he couldn’t cross his arms and settle back in his usual position. Not that any of this didn’t serve him right.
A bigger jolt than most had them all clutching at their hats. Like most stages, the driver’s only goal was to get where they were going fast. Only yesterday, Johnny would’ve had his sights set on that as well but right now, he wasn’t so sure.
He put his hat to rights and looked down at the band on his wrist. He could’ve sworn it was rubbing but Bukey was good at his trade all right – the sheriff knew how to clamp a pair of cuffs tight enough so they didn’t slip off and loose enough so they didn’t rub. Well, he guessed that was comforting.
All he could see through the window was the same scrub country they’d been travelling through most of the morning. By his reckoning they had another hour or so to go before they got to the first way station. He glanced to his left. All he could see was a hat covering a face but when Johnny stretched out his arm and lifted his left hand, the other hand attached to his followed easily enough. Come the next stop the two of them were going to have to talk.
A movement opposite caught his eye and he flicked a glance in that direction before he could stop himself. At least she didn’t pretend that she hadn’t been staring when his eyes found hers – but she had another think coming if she thought he was going to play the gentleman and look away first. After all *she’d* done, his staring her down was going to be the least of her worries. He had the satisfaction of seeing her cheeks turning red before she flounced her head to the side and started staring out the window as if there was something out there worth looking at. That quick swell of her breasts gave her away though.
What he’d really like to do is put her over his knee and paddle that pretty bottom of hers.
Hell, what a fix to be in. He told Scott not to stop in that town. He told Scott three, maybe four times not to stop in that town. He told Scott they’d be home in another three days if they stuck with the stage they’d been on – instead of four or five days if they hung around Malice cooling their heels. But Scott was so steamed up there was little chance of him listening to reason, especially once he’d got out of the stage and set his feet on solid ground.
By the time Johnny jumped down after him, Scott had already checked the coast was clear – Johnny could see their fellow travelers moving off down the street – and was telling Flynn to untie their bags. Johnny grabbed at his arm. “Hey, Scott. You know, if we change seats on tomorrow’s stage …”
And that was as far as he got before Scott put his hands on Johnny’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Johnny, if I spend so much as another minute with Mrs. Wallace and her three brats there’s no telling what I might do.”
“Ain’t like you to run scared.” Or him for that matter.
“I’ve had the good sense to run from many a woman, Johnny my boy.”
“Sure, I believe it – only I bet you did a bit of the chasing first.”
“Well, we all make mistakes.” Scott grinned and then set about straightening his jacket and that gave Johnny the chance to look at the town. It was awful quiet for a Saturday night. All the same, Johnny tugged his hat down that little bit further. “Mrs. Wallace on the other hand,” Scott added, “with her tumbleweed hair and brood of vipers, is *not* one of them.”
“I guess that mouth of hers would never stay still long enough to kiss in any case.”
He might have gone too far with that one; Scott looked like he was about to heave. “Johnny, if I hear another word from her about the saintly Mr. Wallace and her consumptive mother and her second cousin once removed and every other relative she’s bored us with …”
Scott’s brows went up. “What?”
“Bored you with.”
“Oh, that’s right – you were ‘sleeping’ over in your corner.”
Johnny took his hat off and held it up against the sun to look down the other end of town. “Well it worked didn’t it. I told you to try it.” A little ways up the street a kid threw a stick but the mongrel at his feet just watched it land then yawned and rested his head back down on his paws.
“And I would’ve if Billy …”
“You mean Frank.” Where the hell was everyone in this town?
“No, I mean Billy.”
He looked back at Scott. “Wasn’t he the one with that bit of hair that sticks up at the front?”
“No, Billy’s the one with the new shoes with the shiny toes – the ones he kept polishing against my shins.”
Johnny put his hat back on. “Oh, I thought that was Frank.”
A movement just above him caught his eye and he turned in time to catch Scott’s bag as it was tossed down from up top.
Flynn didn’t look too happy – Johnny’s saddlebags were the next things he tossed down. Scott threw out a hand, catching them inches from the ground and barely missing the streak of tobacco juice that landed by his boot.
Flynn clambered down last, all dust and wiry strength but his back never quite went straight – like he was permanently sitting slouched up top holding the lines. “Don’t see why you two boys have to leave the stage at Malice. There ain’t nothin’ fer you to do in a town like this.”
Johnny thumbed a finger at Scott. “I tried to tell him that.” He shot a quick look down the other end of town but still couldn’t see anything to account for the prickling at the back of his neck. In fact, the town looked pretty darn good considering what he’d heard. It had a wide street that looked to be watered to keep down the dust, a decent sized saloon and more stores than he would’ve expected in a town out here. They even had a doctor and a dentist. Not that any of the stores were open this time of day.
“You can’t fool us,” Scott was saying to Flynn as he slung the saddle bags over his shoulder. “We both know you only want us on your stage so that you’ve got someone between you and Mrs. Wallace and those children of hers at the stage stop tomorrow night.”
Flynn grinned – wide enough to free some of the dust in his moustache. “Well that and the fact your brother’s kinda handy with a gun.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about those rumors of the Muldrow Gang – not with the armory you’re carrying.”
Flynn’s face twisted like he was in pain; either that or suspicious of smooth talking Easterners. “What in blazes’re you talkin’ about? The only weapons the Company lets me carry are my rifle and my sidearm.”
Scott nodded towards the empty stage. “But come morning you’ll have Mrs. Wallace – and I guarantee she could talk any one of those Muldrows into an early grave.”
Johnny sidled close to Flynn and kept his voice low. “Well, what do you think happened to Mr. Wallace?”
Flynn didn’t crack a smile; after all, he’d done that once today already. Instead he turned his back on the two of them and started tending the team, muttering a few choice words as he went about his job.
Scott caught Johnny’s eye and winked. Scott was looking pretty happy with himself as he stood there filling his lungs with air that wasn’t choked with dust. The sun was almost down and most of the sting had been taken out of it.
Johnny tossed Scott his bag – catching him neatly in the stomach before Scott grabbed it – then took back his saddlebags. “Yeah, well let’s make sure that *we* don’t come across Mrs. Wallace while we’re both staying in town.” Or anyone else for that matter.
“Ah, but in town we’ve got all these wide open spaces to escape that flapping mouth of hers.”
Johnny started walking across the street. A board on the other side read, ‘Melissa’s Finest Hotel.’ And for all he knew, possibly their only one, but who was counting. “I wonder how many bugs she’s swallowed over the years.”
When he got no answer he looked behind. Scott was lagging a bit, busy taking in the sights. He was still enough of a greenhorn out West to find a new town interesting. Malice was about the same size as Spanish Wells but – Johnny rubbed the back of his neck – it sure didn’t feel the same. This time of day on a Saturday night, Morro Coyo would be starting to hum but Malice had the feel of a town that was on the brink of being passed by. Maybe it was the lack of bustle in the street? Where the hell was everyone? All he could see was an elderly couple walking arm in arm near the general store and four horses hitched to the rail outside the saloon.
“I thought you said this place was a hole. It looks …” Scott stopped short. A girl just walked out of the alley across the way and started crossing the street. And not just any girl. Her hair was really something – the color of chestnut leaves in fall. It hung in thick waves down her back and the only thing that held it off her face was a sky blue ribbon. He’d seen hair like that before – on the girl in the painting Sam had over the bar in Green River. Only this girl was walking down the street with clothes on, instead of reclining on a bed without, and she was carrying a basket filled with some sort of baked goods.
Scott tipped his hat as she drew near. “Like a particularly pretty town to me,” he finished for her ears as well. “Miss, that basket looks particularly heavy. Perhaps I could be of service?”
She’d been walking with her eyes to the ground like she was determined to ignore them both but of a sudden she stopped short and spun around to look at Scott. For a second there Johnny thought she was going to say something but a blush colored her china white cheeks and then she turned and fled across to the other side.
Johnny watched her go. “I’ve warned you about scaring the deer off.”
“What makes you think I’ve scared her off?” Scott had that look in his eyes again, the one he got when he was calculating the odds. “And like I said, I don’t know what you have against this town, Johnny.”
“Yeah, well it’s easy to get carried away with a few flower pots outside the stores and a couple of licks of paint.”
“Not to mention someone having the foresight to sprinkle the main street to keep the dust down. I’m impressed. Come on, Johnny. Point me towards a bath, a drink, a meal and a bed. That’s all I want in life right now.”
But Johnny was only paying half a mind to what he was saying. A man carrying a rifle was crossing the street and headed their way. He walked quick enough but with the limp of a cowhand who’d been thrown once too often. Cowhands with bad legs were a dime a dozen but not ones with a badge pinned to their vest.
Johnny put out a hand to stop Scott. If the law wanted to talk to you it always paid to make it look like you were interested. “Hold up, Scott. Can I do something for you …” Up close the man’s hair was grizzled white but his eyes were almost black and keen and sharp like someone twenty years younger. Johnny’s eyes went to the badge. “Deputy?” So this wasn’t Bukey. He wasn’t sure right then if he should feel relieved or not.
The deputy gave them both a long, hard look. “Just letting you know that there’s no loitering in the street. You’re liable to be run down.”
Scott looked down the street and Johnny looked up it – then both looked at each other before turning back to the deputy.
“That’s very thoughtful of you to come out here and tell us that,” Scott said. He even managed to sound sincere.
Johnny slung his saddlebags onto his other shoulder. “Yeah, seeing as the street’s so crowded and all.”
The deputy grinned at them but his eyes had all the warmth of stone cold coals. “Nope, not thoughtful. Sheriff’s orders. Nobody’s allowed to loiter in the main street. Ain’t safe. Causes traffic problems. Among other things.” He didn’t grin that time.
“Sheriff’s orders, huh?” Johnny looked across to the other side. The jailhouse was a few doors up. And unless his eyes were playing tricks on him, the blue and white checked curtains in the window just moved.
“Well, we appreciate the warning anyway, Deputy,” Scott was saying. “Thank you. Come on, Johnny.”
Johnny pulled his eyes away from the jail then tipped his hat to the deputy. Scott was standing a few feet away waiting for him.
They made it safely to the sidewalk but it was a near thing – a bird flew down the main street about the same time.
“Always good to meet the local constabulary,” Scott murmured as they stepped up on the sidewalk and started heading towards the hotel. “What did you say the name of this town was again?”
“Then why is it everything’s called ‘Melissa’s’? So far I’ve seen signs for Melissa’s Finest Hotel, Melissa’s Feed and Grain, Melissa’s Temperance Society …”
“Every town should have one of those.”
“But nothing about Malice.”
Johnny shrugged. “How the hell should I know? I told you, I’ve never been here before.”
Scott opened the hotel door – someone had paid a pretty penny for the glass etching of a peacock – then looked back at Johnny. “Yeah, I remember you telling me that.”
“Good, ‘cause I was starting to think Mrs. Wallace had made you deaf as well as cranky.” Johnny grinned at him then scooted inside, leaving Scott holding the door.
“You hear anything?”
Johnny stopped sudsing and listened. The bathhouse walls were bare boards but there wasn’t any noise coming through them, just a few splinters of the last rays of the sun. He looked across at Scott in the other tub. “Just you splashing around in there.”
“Bliss, isn’t it.” Scott sunk down even further in the water. “So what’s wrong with this town, anyway? The people seem friendly, the town’s clean, hotel’s better than most, the bath water’s hot …”
Johnny went back to sudsing his chest.
“Johnny, you did mean it when you said you hadn’t had any trouble in Malice.”
“So, what is it about this town that you don’t like?”
“Never said I didn’t like the town, Scott.”
Scott’s brows went up. “You could’ve fooled me. From the time I suggested we change stages and stop here you did nothing but try and talk me out of it.” He looked across at Johnny. “Nearly worked, too.” He reached out a soapy arm and picked up one of the glasses of beer that sat on the table between them, then downed half of it in one go. “Fortunately, I’m made of sterner stuff.”
Scott took the glass away from his lips. “Who or what is a Hezekiah Bukey?”
“Last I heard he was sheriff of this town.”
“You know him?”
“Hezekiah Bukey is the reason this town runs like clockwork.”
“Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
“I guess that depends on the way he goes about it.”
“So you do know him?”
Johnny picked up the other glass. “Never met the man. Just heard enough to know it was the sort of town someone in my line of work should aim to steer clear of. And I managed to do that these last five years – until now.”
Scott’s face cleared. “Very sensible of you; which means there’s no reason for this Hezekiah Bukey to be aiming his sights at Johnny Lancer, law abiding rancher from Morro Coyo now, is there.” Scott drained the rest of his glass, then stood up, grabbing his towel on the way. “Come on, Johnny. We’ve soaked and scrubbed – time to eat.”
Johnny rested his arm on his knees and rolled the last of his beer around in the glass. What was it Wes had told him about Bukey? He’d heard Day Pardee curse Bukey a time or two and as far as he knew, Day always made a point of avoiding Malice – as did most people he knew who might have reason to avoid trouble with the law. When Johnny was checking the times of the next stage, the clerk at the depot made it sound as though Bukey’s word was worth more than gold in this town. He’d told Johnny the stage had to travel at a walking pace through town – Sheriff Bukey’s orders. Well, that made good sense. But the saloon closing at ten, even on a Saturday night and not serving liquor on Sundays, not even in the afternoon? All order of Sheriff Bukey. He wasn’t leaving the Temperance Society a whole lot to do. But Bukey was a hit with the ladies, the clerk said, for cleaning up the streets. But not in the way Johnny had thought. It was the clerk’s wife who made things clearer. “There’s no more ‘ahem’ from the horses,” she’d said. “Sheriff Bukey had the town council employ two men to shovel it up and take it out of town twice a day and bury it. That way the flies don’t bother us this time of year.”
Come to think of it, he hadn’t noticed any ‘ahem’ on the streets, either.
Scott stepped out, giving Johnny’s shoulder a slap before toweling himself dry. “And Murdoch’s not expecting us for at least another week. No reason why we can’t enjoy ourselves a little.”
No reason, huh. Johnny stared into his glass; only half aware of Scott whistling while he wrapped the towel around his waist then dried his hair.
Maybe Scott was right. Most rumors proved to be bigger than the men they were about. And to be fair, all he’d heard about Bukey was that he was a man to steer clear of if there was any trouble around. He ducked under, then wiped any traces of water and soap from his face with one hand while his other groped for his towel. And found nothing.
He opened his eyes. “Hey, Scott!”
Scott was grinning down at him – and holding out a damp towel.
Johnny stood up and snatched it from him. “Use your own damn towel to dry your hair next time.”
“Just hurry up. I made a few enquiries while you were down at the stage depot and I found out that our beauty with the basket works in the cafe where we’ll find the best food in town. With any luck …?”
Scott was looking hopeful all right.
There was just one thing that *did* bother Johnny – the clerk had told him why the town was nicknamed Malice.
CHAPTER TWO by Suzanne
Even if they’d been blinded by Mrs. Wallace, he and Scott would’ve still found the cafe; his feet just about left the boards as they followed the smell of fresh baked pie, hot from the oven, wafting along the sidewalk. Maybe Bukey’s influence on this town wasn’t so bad after all.
“This is it,” Scott said as they came to a row of windows covered half way up with a lace curtain. Scott took off his hat as he reached for the knob on a white door.
Johnny followed a few steps behind. A look through the windows showed that plenty of other folk had trusted their noses as well; cowhands mostly, scrubbed and clean in their best bib and tucker. Maybe there was a dance on tonight? A man didn’t usually spruce up in his best shirt and tie to get soaked on a Saturday night. There was no sign of anyone wearing a badge from this angle.
He’d followed Scott through the doorway just as the bell on the door started to tinkle – and every head at every table turned their way.
Johnny came alongside Scott. He shot him a quick sideways look and got one back. Johnny’d been given the once over plenty of times in saloons but he couldn’t remember a time when he’d walked into a café and seen men grip their forks like they were spears and glare at him just for stepping through the door.
“Good evening.” Scott gave the room a smile and a nod. Johnny gave them just a nod while he booted the door closed with a backwards kick. They got a few nods in return before the door slammed hard enough to make the bell tinkle again and without a word everybody turned back to their plates. “Welcome to the West,” Scott said under his breath. “The only thing they didn’t do was growl.”
Johnny shrugged. Just so long as nobody bothered them he was a happy
The only person who still seemed to take any special interest in them was a pasty little man with eyeglasses sitting at a table by himself. Johnny caught his eye just as he was about to take a spoonful of soup and the man jerked and slopped most of it down his shirt and tie. He used his napkin to dab at the slops like he was blotting ink.
When he turned around Scott had already hung his hat on the hat stand inside the door so he followed Scott’s lead, then watched as Scott took his rig off and hung it next to a couple of others on another stand.
Johnny looked around – and then down. It had been a long time since he’d faced a wooden spoon.
“Young man, we don’t allow guns in the restaurant.”
He didn’t have to look around to know that every head had turned
their way again; the silence told him that.
The wooden spoon was in the hands of a grandma who had her hair pulled
back so tight her eyes just about slanted like a Chinese woman. She looked mean enough to whack him with that spoon, too.
He flicked a glance at the rest of the room. Sure enough, no one else in the cafe was wearing a gun.
Johnny hooked his thumbs on his belt. “Sheriff Bukey’s orders, Ma’am?” This was the sort of set-up a man like Bukey would run. It was never a good idea to care more for food or drink or women for that matter, than it did for your own safety. Maybe they should just walk …
“Hezekiah?” she snapped.
Scott cleared his throat. “Ah, Johnny …”
“Gracious me, do I look like a woman who’d let a man busy himself in her affairs?” The hand holding the wooden spoon started to move.
Scott was nudging him now. “Johnny, don’t you think …”
“And Hezekiah of all people.” And then she started to laugh – and he could see the skin around her eyes crinkling like water finding its way along a well-used river bed. But the pasty little man wasn’t laughing and neither was anyone else in the room. Well, one or two gave nervous grins but there were a lot of feet shuffling under the tables.
“But I do insist on feeding my customers the best food in the county.” She patted his arm and the next second she gave him a push towards the gun rack like he was a little kid that needed to be shown where the wash basin was.
“And don’t forget the best coffee, Ma,” someone shouted out and that started another half dozen calling out all the food `Ma’ cooked so well.
“Now, now, boys.” She waved the spoon at them all. “Hush I say. Get back to your supper. Oh, they do go on,” she added, peering around Johnny to take in Scott as well.
“Well,” Johnny rubbed the back of his neck, “I guess I’d better take my rig off, `cause I surely don’t want to miss out on any of that fine food.”
She patted his arm again. “Good boy. Now what can I get the two of you?” She peered at him and Scott, blinking a couple of times like she was trying to focus. “I know; I’ll send Lulu out with a coffee for you both, just to get started.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Scott smiled at her. “We’d appreciate that.”
If she’d been taller Johnny had a feeling she might have patted his head before she walked away. He caught a few people still looking his way as he undid his gun belt. He could think of plenty of towns where he’d eat his dinner naked and it wouldn’t bother him – but Malice wasn’t one of them.
The room started to hum again with talk and the chinks of knives and
forks on dinner plates.
“What are you grinning at?” he muttered to Scott as he hung his rig.
Scott had a smirk on his face. “I don’t think even the infamous Sheriff Bukey could wield a wooden spoon as deftly as that.”
Johnny took a look around the cafe as he took a chair at one of the round tables. The place had a woman’s touch; blue and white checked cloths and a mason jar holding four orange poppies sat on each table.
The pasty little man had his handkerchief out now and was wiping his forehead, careful not to touch the few strands of hair that had been combed across his shiny head from somewhere near his left ear. He looked like a bank teller – or maybe a law clerk; one of those types who didn’t get out in the sun much. Not much of a life.
“So, any sign of the virtuous Sheriff Bukey?” Scott asked as they sat down.
“I wouldn’t go looking for him if I were you. He’s only gotta get an earful of your flannel mouth and you’ll be locked up as a card sharp. Or worse.” He grinned at Scott.
“Not me brother. I’m the respectable one, remember.”
“Respectable my …”
His words trailed off when he saw Scott’s frozen stare aimed somewhere past his shoulder. Dios. That could only mean one thing; Mrs. Wallace must be around here somewhere. How could he have missed all that tumbleweed hair?
He twisted in his seat and saw a few men standing and talking to someone but couldn’t see who. Then when he looked around some more, he saw that just about everyone in the cafe was looking in the same direction – and then a few of them called out, “Evenin’ Lulu … you’re lookin’ really pretty tonight, Miss Lulu … it’s a real fine night for a walk, Lulu … you made up your mind who you’re takin’ to the dance next Saturday night … You want me to carry the tray for you, Miss Lulu …?”
He turned back to say something to Scott but he was staring like every other man. From his angle, all Johnny could see was the back of three men – until one of them stood aside.
So that’s who Scott was staring at. Out in the street her hair had been eye-catching, but here in the cafe, tied at the back of her neck but with thick waves falling past her shoulders, the color looked even richer – like those velvet drapes that hung from floor to ceiling in swank hotels.
Now more chairs were being scraped back. Pretty soon she had about ten men squeezed between her and the closest tables.
“And that explains our reception when we walked in here,” Scott murmured.
“You want me to tell those cowboys that we’re only staying here two nights – just so as they don’t fork us to death in our beds?”
“Don’t you know that competition is good for the soul?”
“Is that another saying from that Emerson fella?”
“No doubt if he’d been here and seen the fair Lulu he would have said it.” Scott leaned forward. “Let me remind you, we *do* have two whole nights and a day to spend here while we’re waiting for the stage.”
Johnny poked the table to make his point. “Make that two nights and a day spent keeping outta trouble.”
Finally, a man’s voice cut through all the hubbub. “Come on, now, fellas. Let’s give Miss Lulu a chance to talk. We don’t wanna be crowding her none.”
She gave a cowboy with blond stringy hair a big smile. “Why, thank you, Charlie. I know I can always depend on you for good sense.”
While Charlie was puffing up like a mangy rooster her eyes somehow landed on their table. He and Scott were just about the only men of marrying age still sitting – except for the clerk and he had his face buried in a book. Scott bowed his head to her and Johnny noticed she wasn’t in a hurry to look away, even with all the badgering that had started up around her again. “Aw, come on, Lulu … You promised, Lulu … I bought me a new suit …”
Scott earned himself a dimple of a smile before she looked away. No doubt a sample of what you’d get if you tasted some more. And that look in Scott’s eye said he was definitely interested in sampling anything she had to offer.
Lulu had turned back to the fellas pressing around her now. “Billy Hansen, you know I told you all that I’d make my decision on Friday, so if anyone’s interested in taking me, then you just make sure you’re here Friday night if you want to have a chance.”
“We will, Miss Lulu … sure thing, Lulu … I’m gonna get here just as soon as I can …”
And then she was headed towards their table with the tray and the two mugs of coffee.
Scott scraped his chair back and Johnny did the same – only slower.
“Hello again,” Scott said.
“Ma’am.” Johnny nodded at her.
“Gentlemen, I believe these coffees are for your table. Do sit down. I hope you’re not going to be silly like all the other men in this town.”
Her smile didn’t have the brass of a saloon gal’s but he found himself thinking about kissing those lips all the same.
Scott made the introductions. It turned out her full name was Luella Chapman.
She could only spare a quick glance at Johnny before she turned both barrels of green eyes and long lashes on Scott.
“I heard you talking in the street this afternoon. You sound like you’re a long ways from home.”
“Morro Coya – via Boston that is.”
“Boston? Oh, I’ve seen pictures.”
“Oh, I bet it ain’t that special. If you’ve seen one big smoky town, you’ve seen `em all. Ain’t that right, Scott,” Johnny said.
“Oh, but I’ve never seen any big town. Not even San Francisco.” And she looked so downhearted that even Johnny would have swung her up on the back of his horse then and there if he hadn’t been aiming to be busy keeping out of trouble the next couple of days.
“But I aim to go there some day. I don’t care what my uncle says. Boston looks so very … ooh, what word do I want?” She looked to Scott.
She shook her head.
“Crowded,” Johnny tried.
“No, that’s not the word. The word I want is …” She tapped her finger against her bottom lip and swished her skirts from side to side while her eyelashes fluttered towards the ceiling.
Johnny held his breath. Hopefully she’d never remember the word she
“I know,” she said, taking her finger away. “So-phist-i-cated.”
She smiled at them both. Well, Johnny got a few slivers of her beam but most of it fell on Scott. Which was okay by him. He took his eyes off her lips and that china-white skin of hers and picked up his coffee. He was more than happy to stay in the shadows until they caught the stage out of here.
“An excellent choice of words,” Scott was telling her.
“Luella, hurry up child,” Grandma called from the kitchen door.
“Oh.” She pouted some, then said, “Gentlemen, may I take your order?”
“Is there anything you’d recommend?” Scott asked, meeting Johnny’s eyes as he spoke.
Hell, he hoped Scott wasn’t thinking what he thought he was thinking.
Her dimple showed itself even more this time. “Why don’t I choose for the both of you? I’m pretty good at knowing what men like.”
If she *had* been a saloon girl he would’ve known exactly what she meant by that but for all the fuss that was made over her, Lulu had an innocence about her that made dirty talk seem unlikely.
The both agreed and she swished off with her now empty tray back to the kitchen.
Scott picked up his coffee and toasted Johnny. “You know, I’m thinking it was an inspired idea of mine to stay in this town.”
Johnny had a look at the tables around them. Everyone was gripping their forks real tight and glaring at them again. He turned back to Scott and looked him in the eye. “I hope so, brother.”
Lulu was back in about ten minutes with their meals – chicken pot pie and a mound of mashed potatoes and both did justice to the smell he’d followed down the street. She was back in another ten minutes to check that their meal was fine, then back with a coffee pot and another cup a third time – and this time Johnny pulled up a seat for her and she stayed a lot longer.
“Grandma has a girl to do the washing up and cleaning,” Lulu told them, brushing the hair back from her right shoulder before pouring a coffee for each of them. For a second there he had a picture of her brushing her hair back from a bare shoulder. The white shirt she wore was buttoned up to the neck but it would take a sack to hide all that pretty shape underneath. And even in a sack she’d still probably have every man in California wanting her.
By now there were only a few people still eating – most of the cowhands had dragged their feet out the door when Ma had shooed them off because they were finished eating and only `taking up space.’ Johnny sat back and met the glares that came their way as each man left; then double-checked they’d left their forks behind on the table. When he wasn’t watching Lulu, that was. He let Scott do most of the talking. Murdoch had told him once that a pretty picture was best admired in silence – and Lulu was more like one of those `masterpieces’ his old man hankered to buy some day.
Lulu told them all about her plans for leaving Malice, even though her uncle wanted her to marry the son of some local rancher; he didn’t care which one.
She drew a long breath, then sighed a sigh sad enough to make an angel wail. “We don’t see too many strangers in this town. Not ones willing to stay at any rate.”
Johnny leaned forward. “You got any reason as to why that would be?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Her mouth turned down. “I guess because nothing ever happens in this town.”
“And what if something *did* happen? I’ve heard your sheriff…”
“Oh, blazes, I don’t want to talk about *this* town. I have to live in it every day, don’t I.” Her voice went up a notch like a kid’s but that flash in her eyes was all woman.
She turned to Scott. “Tell me about Boston – and where you live. Morro Coyo you said? Where’s that?” She shot the questions at him like she was trying to block out even a memory of her own town.
Scott was willing to oblige. He told her all about Boston but not too much about Lancer. He told her they owned a ranch with their father and when she asked how big it was, the side of his mouth turned up and he said, “Oh, big enough.”
She pouted some then turned to him. “Won’t you tell me about your ranch, Johnny?”
He grinned at her. “Me? Nope, I’m heading back to our room.”
Truth be told he could’ve sat and watched her all night but he knew when three was a crowd. So he faked a yawn, excused himself to the lovely Lulu, gave Scott a thump on the arm and told him not to stay up too late, then headed back to the hotel.
He guessed he could always dream.
Scott didn’t hear the stage leave the next morning. Waking up in a comfortable bed and knowing that Mrs. Wallace and her bratty children were presently being carried miles away made him feel that all was well with the world. Not even a pillow thrown at his head to wake him up had robbed his sense of wellbeing this morning. Of course, he couldn’t entirely put that down to the absence of Mrs. Wallace.
“Hey, get up. I’m hungry.” Johnny was standing over him, fully dressed, gun belt on. Johnny had pulled back the drapes and sunlight was already streaming through the lace curtaining behind them.
He grabbed the pillow and tossed it back. “At least give me a chance to wake up.”
Johnny stared down at him. “You don’t look like you got much sleep.”
“Enough for my needs, brother.”
Johnny’s brows went up. “I’m wondering what other needs you filled last night.”
Scott slid his way up the pillows. “*That* would be none of your business.”
“That Luella’s got the prettiest lips this side of the border.”
Johnny walked to the window and pulled back the lace. He looked down at the street while Scott got dressed.
“‘Course you were only interested in her mind,” Johnny said.
Scott looked at himself in the mirror. “Undoubtedly.”
Johnny came away from the window. He folded his arms and leaned against the bureau. “So where’d you two go when I left you?”
“Nowhere much. We just went for a walk around town.”
“You’re trying to tell me that you two just went walking all that time?”
Scott did up his gun belt. “We talked as well.” He grinned at Johnny. “Like you said, I’m interested in her mind.”
They were almost at the cafe when the screaming started, bursting through the sleepy, Sunday morning calm with all the force of a shotgun blast.
The sound came from somewhere ahead of them but there was no obvious disturbance in the main street.
Johnny drew his gun and started running towards the nearest alley.
Scott hesitated – but a woman screaming always demanded attention, no matter how many bad feelings he had over the matter. So he thrust the name `Hezekiah Bukey’ out of his mind and followed Johnny.
Half a dozen other men from various parts of the street joined them as did two dogs, snapping and barking at everyone’s heels as they ran.
Scott pushed his way past the small crowd that had already gathered when he got there – and was even more glad that he’d followed his instincts. Lulu was standing in the middle of the alley that ran alongside the café, gulping and sucking in breaths between her sobs. She was wearing the same sky blue jacket she’d been wearing yesterday so it looked like she’d been on her way to work. His heart went out to her and he would’ve gone forward but right then Ma came out the side door of the cafe and Lulu ran to her. So he turned his attention to other matters.
Johnny was squatted next to a figure lying face up on the ground. The fact that he’d holstered his gun told its own story but so too did the unnatural position of neck and limbs. The body was that of a man, somewhere in his thirties maybe, wearing the type of suit that was seen in Boston twenty years earlier. The few long strands of hair he had on his head had come away from their combed down position on his head and stuck out like wings over his left ear. His eyes were closed, his face the color of white marble and just above his collar, the dark brown imprint of a person’s hands were clearly visible. Scott’s eyes met Johnny’s. Shooting to kill was bad enough but the idea of being an arm’s length apart and squeezing a man’s last breath from him with your bare hands while his eyes bulged and his neck snapped? What kind of a man would do something like that?
Johnny put the back of his hand on the man’s wax-like cheek then said to Scott, “He’s been dead for some time. The body’s stone cold.” Johnny looked up at the crowd. “Anyone know this man?”
A few heads shook from side to side but no one spoke. They all just stood there staring. Scott recognized most of them from last night.
Johnny frowned up at them. “You sure you don’t know him? He was in the café last night reading a book.”
A few more shook their heads.
Ma, with an arm about Lulu’s waist, called from the doorway, “Well, what are you all doing just standing there? Did someone send for Hezekiah?”
“Lafe Watson done that already, Ma,” a voice called out.
Johnny stood up and wiped his hand down his jacket front. His eyes caught Scott’s and said quite clearly that this was none of their business and that they ought to leave.
He was right, of course. But the lovely Lulu was still sobbing and looking more and more like a lost kitten. He could hardly leave her like that.
“Come on, Scott.” Johnny looked towards the street. “The law can deal with this.”
Johnny’s fingers were twitching. Hezekiah Bukey had him on edge all right.
“You go.” He gave a slight nod of his head towards Lulu.
Johnny looked her way then back to Scott but his expression didn’t soften any. But then, his brother hadn’t spent a very pleasurable half hour the night before with Lulu.
In the end, Johnny shrugged. “It’s on your head, brother. I’m gonna find myself some breakfast.”
The crowd parted as Johnny pushed through but not one of them showed any inclination to leave. The odd thing was how silent they were. In his experience, something out of the usual tended to get people talking – even in the West where people were notoriously focused on keeping to themselves. But other than a few whispers, most of them just stood there looking at him. That’s what he got for standing out front.
Lulu had quietened down by now but she wouldn’t look at the body on the ground. “Perhaps you should take her inside?” he suggested to Ma.
“I was just thinking the very same thing myself. What she needs is a nice hot cup of tea with plenty of sugar. My mother always swore that tea could cure whatever ails a person.”
Lulu stumbled a little up the two steps but Ma didn’t need his help so he went forward to open the door for her, his eyes falling on some faint, childish scrawl near the handle. `Bukey stinks.’
As Ma and Lulu came alongside she said under her breath, “Hezekiah’s always at me to paint over it but to my mind, it does a man good to have to grow into his boots.”
Before he had a chance to reply she helped Lulu inside the cafe making soothing shushing sounds as she went.
He closed the door behind her and turned around. The alley ran the length of the café. He and Lulu had walked it last night. It came out at another alley that ran parallel to the main street and backed onto the rear of several houses. A pile of crates was stacked alongside the café walls but other than that, there was nothing in the alley other than the fine dirt that swirled into the air every time the morning breeze blew down the narrow corridor.
Scott took a few steps down the alley and turned around. At least eleven sets of eyes were following his every move. And not one of them looked friendly.
“Someone *did* send for the sheriff, didn’t they?” he asked, as much to break the silence as anything else.
“They sure did,” a voice said from the back. And then the crowd parted like the Red Sea and a man emerged to stand by the feet of the body. Scott’s eyes went straight to his vest. By some coincidence – hopefully it wasn’t an omen – a single ray of morning sun struck precisely where a silver badge was pinned.
“Sheriff Bukey?” he asked, walking forward.
“That’d be me.” Bukey ran his forefinger and thumb down either side of his already perfectly smooth moustache then leaned forward with a measured look as if he was checking his appearance in the gloss of two evenly polished boots. His next action was to pin Scott with a stare reminiscent of every teacher or officer he’d ever had the misfortune to cross. “And you would be?”
Scott met him eye to eye. “Scott Lancer, sir, of Morro Coyo.” The bristles on that moustache were thick enough to sweep a street.
“Never heard of the place.” The voice came out clear and deep but his lips hardly seemed to move under all that hair.
“I’m part-owner of a ranch in …”
The snap of Bukey’s fingers interrupted his words; and any cowboy would’ve been proud to make a whip crack as loud as that. “Meekins!”
The deputy who’d warned them about loitering in the street came forward to stand by Bukey. For a minute there Scott thought his bent body was going to snap to attention. “Yes, sir, Sheriff Bukey.”
“What’ve we got here, Deputy?”
Meekins examined the body. “A dead stranger, sir. No sign of any blood. Looks like his neck’s broke.”
Bukey turned to the crowd. “Anyone know this man?”
Virtually as one, everyone answered, `No, sir.”
“I noticed this man in the café last night when I was having supper,” Scott said.
Bukey looked across at the others. “Anyone else notice the dead stranger in the café last night?”
Most of the heads nodded this time and one of the dogs barked. Bukey
looked at it. “Well, I’ll take that as a yes, then.” A couple of men smiled and a few even laughed but it didn’t last long. There was an air of expectation about them all, as if they’d read the next chapter and knew what was about to happen.
Bukey nodded, stuck out his bottom lip, then turned back to Scott. “Show me your hands, son.”
It seemed on odd request but Scott didn’t have anything to hide so he held his hands out, palm up. And who in Boston would’ve thought there’d be any reason for pride in a callus or two?
It wasn’t until he heard the click that it really registered – Bukey had just slapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists. “What the …?”
“No malice behind this, son. But you’re new in town.”
His jaw dropped and he had a brief glimpse of grinning faces before Meekins prodded him in the back and forced him to walk out of the alley.
Scott paced – three steps up and three steps back. That was all the cell allowed.
Meekins hadn’t said a word as they’d walked to the jail, other than, “Get goin’.”
The whole situation was preposterous. `No malice,’ Sheriff Bukey had said. No malice in discriminating against someone purely on the basis that they were new in town? No, just call it small town bigotry and narrow mindedness.
He stopped pacing and went to the window. If he stood on his toes and gripped the sill he could just manage to see outside through the bars. At least the place didn’t stink. The blanket on the cot looked clean even if there was no pillow, but it would be darned cold in winter when the northerlies blew. Not that he had any intention of being in here that long.
Then again, time in jail was certainly not the worst option he was facing.
He squeezed his eyes shut. There was no doubt about it – Johnny was going to shoot him. He banged his forehead once on his fists then opened his eyes. The question was – where was Johnny now? Did he even know what had happened? He might still be peacefully enjoying his breakfast somewhere. Flashes of the incident with Julie and the bounty hunters had been flickering in his mind ever since Bukey had snapped those handcuffs on him; he’d been given a quick lesson that Johnny’s methods of solving problems weren’t necessarily going to match his own.
There was no sign of Johnny outside – or anyone for that matter; the cell looked out onto an alley that ran the side of the jail and no amount of twisting his head helped him see anything in the main street.
The jangle of metal made him turn around. Someone was unlocking the door to the cells. He took a breath then crossed to the wall of bars.
It was Sheriff Bukey – followed by Johnny.
“You see. Nothing for you to worry about. Mr. Lancer has been put in here for his own safety,” Bukey was saying.
Johnny looked at Scott, then nodded, before turning back to Bukey. “What I want to know is why my brother was locked up in the first place?”
“Mr. Lancer, we’re a small town. We pride ourselves on being a small town.”
“Yeah, well I’ve been in enough small towns to know what that means and I’ve heard about the way you do business, Bukey.”
“What *does* it mean?” Scott asked Johnny.
“It means that any stranger is fair game when it comes to finding someone to blame. Isn’t that right, Sheriff?”
Bukey barely looked at Johnny. Instead he flipped open the notebook he held in his hand then wet the tip of his pencil and held it poised over the page. “Perhaps your brother would like to tell me where he was last night?”
Scott kept his eyes on Bukey – but it was Lulu’s face he saw. In a small town like this, her reputation could be damaged beyond repair if it got out they’d been alone together. “My brother and I …”
“You don’t have to tell him anything, Scott.” Johnny faced Bukey. “He was with me. We had a room at the hotel.”
Bukey nodded and jotted something down. “That’s quite right, Mr. Lancer. I have that information from the desk clerk. I also have the information that the darker Mr. Lancer – that would be you,” he pointed his pencil at Johnny, “left the hotel for supper then returned at approximately nine o’clock and stayed in his room all night. Whereas the taller Mr. Lancer – you, sir – left the hotel at the same time as his brother but did not return until approximately ten forty-five.”
There was no doubt about it – Johnny’s eyes were signaling a warning.
“Is that correct, Mr. Lancer?”
He had the distinct impression that a yawning chasm was opening up right in front of him.
Um. “Yes. That’s correct.”
Bukey was squinting at Scott now. “And were you in the company of any person while you were absent from your room?”
Johnny had moved back so that he was standing behind Bukey and he wasn’t even trying to hide the warning in his eyes as he imperceptibly shook his head.
“Was I with anyone?” Scott repeated.
Johnny mouthed, `No.’
“Mr. Lancer, please answer the question.”
His hands were beginning to sweat. What good would it do to *not* mention Lulu when she gave him an alibi for the time he was away from his hotel room.
“A man can go for a walk can’t he sheriff,” Johnny said. “What business is it of anyone else’s?”
Bukey grinned – at least his mouth moved under the moustache. “Just so long as he doesn’t happen to strangle anybody while he’s taking a turn around town. It looks like your brother has no alibi for the time he left your room so I can only …”
“Lulu. I was with Lulu. I spent the time walking with her.”
Johnny scrunched his eyes shut.
“Miss Chapman? That would be Miss Luella Chapman?” Bukey’s words were silky smooth.
Admittedly she wasn’t the best alibi but she was better than no alibi at all. Surely Johnny could see that? But he’d dropped his head now and Scott couldn’t read his eyes.
“I’m glad you told us that, Mr. Lancer.” This was the first time he’d seen Bukey smile. The single gold tooth was a little distracting but it was the curve of satisfaction on his lips that had him worried.
And all of a sudden he had a very bad feeling – that Johnny and Bukey knew something that he didn’t know.
“Uncle, uncle, where are you?”
Scott closed his eyes and when he opened them again Johnny was looking at him with an I-told-you-so expression.
Lulu wasn’t crying any more – until she looked at Scott and then she started screaming. “He’s the one who did it! He’s the one I saw kill that man!”
“Okay, go over it all again for me.”
“Johnny, I’ve told Bukey all this ten times already when he made you wait outside.”
Johnny leaned against the brick wall facing Scott’s bars and folded his arms. “Then make it eleven.”
Scott dropped down on the cot and put his head in his hands. It was starting to throb. His stomach was starting to growl as well. It must be past midday by now and he hadn’t had a thing to eat all day. “Don’t they feed prisoners around here?”
Bukey had gone out, leaving Johnny to talk to Scott through the bars.
“I heard Bukey tell that deputy to get you some grub. And if it helps any, I remembered what Bukey does to keep his town clean.”
“I can guess. He locks up any stranger and throws away the key.”
“Worse than that, if what Day said was true. He has them stand trial before a proper judge and they’re *always* found guilty. So you’d better get talking so that I can get you out of this mess.”
Scott looked up. “It might’ve helped if you’d remembered this *before* we both ran in the alley.”
“Don’t worry; I spent the last half hour kicking myself over that very same thing.”
“Well, it’s not your fault, Johnny. I should have…”
“Oh, hush up and tell me what happened.”
He grinned at Johnny, then settled back against the bricks. “After you left the café Lulu and I talked some more, then she suggested we go for a walk together. I left by the front door and she met me a few minutes later in the alley. We followed that back laneway down as far as the livery stables. We got talking and one thing led to another. She’s a very persuasive young lady – not that I’d tell Bukey that.”
“So, just how far did she persuade you?”
Scott just looked at him but Johnny stared right back. “If you must know, we kissed, Johnny. Nothing more than that.”
Johnny pushed back his hat and lifted his brows. `Nothing more?”
“Well, a little more but nothing she’d need to tell her uncle or a jury for that matter. She’s not one of your `calico queens’.”
“So after you two `kissed’, you came back to the room?”
“Did you see anyone?”
“As I told Bukey, there were a few people around. Cowhands mostly The saloon had just closed.”
“And you saw Lulu go inside?”
“I walked her to her door and I saw her go inside.”
Johnny harrumphed. “Not as if she couldn’t turn around and go right back out again if she wanted to. So what did you do to make her so all-fired mad at you?”
Scott showed both hands. “As to that, I haven’t a clue.”
“I’m thinking you should have let yourself be `persuaded’ a bit further. Maybe she wanted more than just kissing?”
“What is it with women wanting to see you hung, anyway? Must be all that Boston charm of yours.”
Scott stood up and walked over to the bars. He was having a hard time holding onto his sense of humor. “I’m telling you, there’s no reason for her to be telling her uncle that I killed that man.”
“Well, you ought to tell Lulu that.”
Scott dropped his head against the bars and groaned. “All this is getting us nowhere.”
“Oh, you’ll be going somewhere all right.”
He lifted his head and looked at Johnny. “What is it you know that you’re not telling me?”
Johnny looked at him evasively then blew out a puff of air through his lips like he’d come to a decision. “Bukey intends to ship you to Sacramento.”
“He tells me the circuit judge won’t be through these parts for months and he won’t keep a dangerous criminal …”
“I’m a suspect,” Scott ground out.
Johnny shrugged. “Bukey’s word was `criminal’ – in his jail.”
For a second there the room began to spin and he gripped the bars that little bit tighter. He had to think this through. “Do you think I’ve got more chance of a fair trial in Sacramento? Surely any judge would see pretty quickly that Bukey doesn’t have any solid evidence.”
“Yep, nothing more solid than an eye witness.”
Scott groaned. “Thanks for the words of encouragement, brother.”
He started pacing again. “I just don’t understand her. Why would she come out and lie like that? What’s she got to gain?”
Johnny looked at him. “I guess she’s got her reasons, Scott. And we’ve got from here to Sacramento to work out what they are.”
“You mean she’ll be travelling with us?”
“So Bukey tells me.” Johnny shrugged his jacket on.
“If I could just get a few minutes alone with her, I’m sure I could sort all this out.”
“She’s up to something all right – but I can’t decide if she’s protecting someone or doing this for herself.”
Scott shook his head. “There’s no way Lulu strangled that man.”
Johnny pulled his hat down. “You got that right. But she’s a gal with ambition – and that type is always the most dangerous.”
The cot in the cell was rock hard and too short – not that Scott could sleep in any case. He’d bunched his jacket up to use as a pillow and had spent the long hours before dawn going over everything Lulu had said to him. They really *had* walked and talked before she insisted on showing him her favorite horse in the livery. She told him it belonged to a friend of hers. He’d been impressed with the animal – a Pinto of beautiful proportions. But Lulu’s proportions were quite remarkable as well and she wasn’t at all shy about showing them off. If it hadn’t been for her age, he would have been sorely tempted to explore all of them. But he was no out-of-control fluffy faced kid and he’d pulled back, admittedly with regret, when he’d judged they’d both gone as far as was wise.
She’d buttoned her jacket up while he’d put his shirt to rights. Johnny was right, she had the prettiest lips this side of the border and she certainly knew how to use them. The question was, did Sheriff Bukey have any idea how talented she was. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re a gentleman, aren’t you, just like almost every other man in this town. Either that or they’re too afraid of my uncle.” Every word throbbed with disappointment.
He put his hand under her chin. “Lulu, my love, it’s a wise woman who knows when to wait.”
“I don’t want to wait. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life!” The tears were running down her cheeks now. “I hate this town. I hate everything in it. I hate being told how to dress and how to talk and when to breathe. I’m choking here.”
He put his arms around her and drew her in close. “Someday you’ll meet the right man and fall in love and everything will feel different.”
“What if I’ve met him already?” Her voice was muffled against his jacket but he had the sense she meant what she said.
“Lulu, it takes time to know those things.”
She lifted her head. “Most everyone I know is afraid of my uncle,” she whispered in his ear, “But I bet you’re not afraid, though.” And then she began trailing kisses along his jaw and down his neck and if he hadn’t grabbed hold of the top of her arms and held her back no doubt they would have both ended up in the hay.
So he’d walked her home – a well-kept white house near the end of town with a picket fence and a rose garden. Someone had a green thumb. She’d told him her parents were dead and she lived with her uncle and grandma. `Ma’ he’d already met. Pity she hadn’t mentioned the fact that Sheriff Bukey was her other sole relative in town and her legal guardian.
Pity a score of things really, when it came to Lulu.
The sun was in the process of rising when Meekins escorted him to the stage depot – walking two steps behind with his shotgun aimed at Scott’s back. At least he wasn’t handcuffed this time – all the same, he received some unpleasant looks from the few people in town who were up this early. However, one of the town strays wagged its tail and did a few jumps and barks as they walked along the boardwalk. “Good to know someone in this town’s glad to see me,” Scott remarked to no-one in particular.
“Don’t kid yourself; he’s just happy to see you leavin’. And that dog ain’t from this town.”
Scott looked twice at the mutt. That bent ear gave him a rakish air. “Sheriff Bukey must be slipping. Surely a dangerous visitor like this should be locked up. He might be my accomplice. Perhaps he licked that man to death?”
“Ha, ha. Now ain’t you the funny one, Lancer.”
He earned a prod in the back for his lack of wit – and kept walking. The dog wagged its tail a couple more times then turned and ran off down the street. Come to think of it, he’d seen that dog hanging around the livery when he was in there with Lulu. Maybe he should have used the dog as his alibi. He couldn’t be any worse off than he was now.
With the usual precision of life out west, the stage was scheduled to leave `sometime’ after dawn.
The first person he saw waiting outside the depot was Johnny. He was leaning against a post with Scott’s bag at his feet and his own saddlebags slung over his shoulder. When he caught site of Scott he gave a casual salute with two fingers to his hat.
“Johnny,” Scott said, as he stepped up onto the porch.
Johnny gave him the once over then squinted at the horizon. A few rays were streaking down main street. “Bet you found it hard to leave that warm, soft bed they gave you over there.”
“It wasn’t easy. But the thought of leaving this town,” he half glanced back at Meekins, “proved to be too strong a temptation.”
Johnny grinned but it didn’t last long; Bukey was making his way along the boardwalk.
Darn. He’d left Johnny two jobs to do – wire Murdoch and talk to Lulu – and he was hoping he’d get a chance to find out if he’d been able to accomplish either of those tasks.
“Lancer, what are you doing here?” Bukey said to Johnny as he came abreast.
Johnny’s eyes flicked to Bukey’s face. “Waitin’.”
“For the stage?”
“Didn’t the clerk tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“There’s no room for another passenger on this stage.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Well ain’t that convenient.”
Bukey smoothed his moustache. “No malice intended, boy, but with the Muldrow gang causing trouble, the stage company isn’t taking any passengers up top. There’s another stage to Sacramento on Thursday.”
Johnny didn’t take his eyes off Bukey’s face. “That badge of yours must be an awful weight on your chest.”
Bukey stared back at Johnny with something that could have been a flicker of amusement. “Meekins, bring the prisoner over here.”
Scott was shoved forward towards Bukey. “Meekins.” A look passed between Bukey and his deputy. Scott wasn’t sure what it meant but Meekins stepped back and he didn’t look happy. Bukey meanwhile took out a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. Scott eyed them with misgiving. “Like I said, Lancer, there’s another stage to Sacramento on Thursday.”
“There is, is there. Well it’s *this* stage I’m interested in and I’ve already got my ticket.” He untucked the ticket from his belt and held it up under Bukey’s nose. “And I’m making it my personal business to see that my brother gets to Sacramento in one piece.”
Bukey’s moustache turned up either end which might have meant he was smiling – or grimacing. “I assure you, boy, I’ve never harmed a prisoner in my care.”
Johnny straightened this time. “A sheriff who’s willing to send a man for trial over a trumped up charge’d be willing to do just about anything in my book.”
“You think so, huh? Show me your left hand.”
Johnny stared at him without moving his hand. His eyes narrowed. “What game are you playing now, Bukey?”
“No game – but I think I can see a way out of our dilemma. If you’d be so good as to show me your left hand?”
It must have been the lack of sleep because it wasn’t until Johnny was bringing his hand up that Scott had a sense of déjà vu. “Johnny – no!”
Too late – the handcuff had been expertly snapped on Johnny’s wrist.
Johnny stared at Bukey. “What do you think you’re doin’?”
“We don’t have room on this trip for another passenger – but I could certainly use a deputy with your expertise. Like I said, the Muldrows boys are on the loose and causing trouble. I had a wire through this morning from the stage company. It seems they’re advising folks not to travel.” His eyes roved to Johnny’s right hip. “I’ve got an idea you might be pretty handy with that gun of yours and Meekins is needed here. Normally only one of us would travel but Lulu’s involvement in this case alters things slightly.”
Johnny’s face didn’t show anything but Scott could hear the suspicion in his voice. “Wouldn’t it make sense to wait in that case?”
The moustache didn’t twitch this time. “I don’t set my clock by the doings of riffraff.” Surprisingly, it was Johnny’s eyes that lit with a hint of amusement – or maybe it was understanding.
Right then the stage rolled around the corner and the rest of the passengers stepped out of the waiting room: two men and Lulu. He thought she might have been looking a little pale but maybe that was wishful thinking. She certainly wouldn’t look his way as she stood there clutching a beaded reticule in her gloved hands.
Bukey looked to Johnny. “So, are you willing, boy? I’m just as keen to get my prisoner to Sacramento in one piece as you are.”
“Johnny,” Scott said, trying to put as much meaning to the word as he could. “I’m not so sure about this.”
Johnny stared down at the post and kicked it a couple of times. When he looked up he was grinning. “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to wear a badge.”
Bukey nodded then put a hand out for Lulu to board the stage. “If the Muldrows are around you’ll find out soon enough. You an’ me’ll be the ones they’re aiming at,” he said over his shoulder. The thought didn’t seem to bother him in the least.
Lulu lifted her blue travelling dress and put her foot inside the stage. Her head jerked around when her uncle said that but he still couldn’t catch her eye before she’d entered all the way. Oh well, he’d have the entire trip to Sacramento to hopefully have a word with her.
When Scott looked back Johnny was holding out his left hand out towards him. “I guess it’s just as well you an’ me took a bath the day before yesterday.”
He looked Johnny full in the face as Bukey grabbed hold of Scott’s right wrist and snapped the cuff on. He’d feel a whole lot better about things if only one of them was cuffed.
“Just a word of caution, Lancer.” Bukey’s hand came down hard on Johnny’s shoulder. “If I think for a minute that my prisoner’s trying to escape, I won’t hesitate to shoot through you to get to him.”
Johnny looked at the hand on his shoulder then his eyes travelled to Bukey’s face. “I haven’t seen my badge yet.”
Bukey took his hand away then dug a silver badge from his pants pocket. He held it up for Johnny to see. “This badge makes you mine now – deputy.”
CHAPTER THREE by Donna (dbbrisbin)
Johnny smirked to himself as he watched Bukey take charge of their seating arrangements on the stage. Lulu was told to sit facing forward in the middle of the bench seat. Bukey had him get on next and sit facing rearward, and next to the window. Naturally, Scott had to follow and take the middle seat on his side, directly across from Lulu. He told one of the two men, the taller of the two, who looked more like a cowhand, to sit across from Johnny.
His face showed no emotion when the cowboy all but stumbled over Lulu’s hem, in the tiny space at her feet, slamming against the far side of the stage before he squeezed himself into the tiny corner.
The man’s eyes immediately went to his rig, creeping up to his badge, and then to his and Scott’s cuffed hands. He took a long look at Scott and then at him, but as soon as his eyes met Johnny’s, they darted away.
Bukey instructed the second man, wearing a dark suit, to sit next to Scott.
“I assure you sheriff, that I am capable of choosing my own seat. Besides, isn’t it your job to sit next to your prisoner?”
“Mister, you can sit where I tell you to, or you can just stay here and wait on the next stage.”
Johnny looked the man over as he stepped into the stage and nodded at him. He didn’t return the nod. Something didn’t seem right about the man, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
Bukey climbed in, closed the door. He settled himself and then reached his hand out of the window and slapped the side, calling out to the driver, “Let’s go.”
He tried to catch his brother’s eye, but Scott still couldn’t take his from Lulu. He snuggled down in the corner between the side of the stage and his brother, pulling his hat down low, hiding his eyes, preparing for the jolt of the stage taking off. When the stage moved away with all the speed of a loaded buckboard, he remembered Burkey’s law about traffic in town. Well for once, Bukey got it right.
She wouldn’t meet his eyes, and he refused to take his off her until she looked up. How could she do this to him? WHY would she do this to him?
It infuriated him to think of himself in this situation. If only he had listened to Johnny. He hadn’t wanted to get off the stage and stay in the town. There was a lot he still didn’t know about the boy, but one thing was for sure, his brother had keen instincts and when he protested something like staying in a town, he should have listened.
If he had, he could be getting off the stage in Morro Coyo this evening. He could be sitting down to a good meal and then relaxing in the great room with his family before going to sleep in his own bed. Instead, he was handcuffed to his brother, accused of a murder he didn’t commit, en route to a much larger town to be tried, and from all appearances, destined to be found guilty. Then, there was the least of his concerns, the fact that his cocky gunfighter brother, had been pinned a deputy by the sheriff, who was expecting serious trouble on the stage.
Why had Lulu named him as the killer when they both knew he wasn’t? Did she see another man after he dropped her off at her home? Maybe Johnny was right. He’d been right about everything so far. It was feasible that she would have another suitor lined up. What they had witnessed in the café was quite telling. She had every man in town, young and old, wrapped around her finger. Not to mention, Lulu was quite a kisser. She seemed a little too knowledgeable and a little too experienced in making a man crazy with desire. Thank GOD he had not allowed her to lure him any further. It would have been so easy.
Despite the lowered brim, Johnny’s eyes were vigilant. Something was not right about this situation, and it wasn’t just the set up with Scott and Bukey’s niece. The stage lines were advising people not to travel because of the dangers of some bandits, yet, here were two men, traveling anyway. Why was Bukey so hell bent on taking Scott to Sacramento right away, forcing his own niece to travel under dangerous circumstances? That just didn’t set make sense.
He hadn’t had a chance to get Lulu alone to talk with her. At least he’d gotten a telegraph off to the Ol’ Man to let him know that they were headed to Sacramento. Murdoch had contacts there.
Lulu sat there in her blue traveling suit, not looking at anyone, focused on a little bible she had pulled from her purse immediately after the stage moved off. Yep, she’d be needing salvation before this trip was over. What was her game? She had been real smooth in that café, but Scott had been gone a long time that night for them to be just talkin’. He knew his brother well enough to know he’d been doin’ more than talkin’, and that gal was just pullin’ the wool over her uncle’s eyes.
As for the passengers, well, the more he looked at them, the more his mind turned. Looking closer, the cowpoke didn’t look so pokey after all. He was a little too clean cut, with his handlebar mustache. It reminded him of an old friend down in Texas.
A long look at his rig told Johnny what he needed to know. The man wasn’t a gunhawk, but he was probably pretty handy with a gun. The rig was worn and plain, much like his own. It wasn’t as low as Johnny’s, but not as high as someone like Scott would wear, and tied down good and tight.
He couldn’t see too much of the other man but something seemed familiar and it unsettled him. A feeling he didn’t like. Did he know this man from his past? As for the Muldrows, well, that was just icing on the top of this ‘ahem’ cake.
The stage made its first stop two hours later for water and a team change, with no sign of the Muldrows, and no conversation exchanged between the six people inside the coach. It was hot and dry and everyone welcomed the break.
While Bukey escorted Lulu to the outhouse, the other two passengers accepted water from the way station manager’s wife and then parted in opposite directions; the cowpoke leaned against the corral and the other one, stepped under a tree.
Johnny and Scott made their way to the pump and took turns dowsing their heads under the fresh cool water. Johnny shook his hair out like a dog to shed the water, showering Scott, who couldn’t escape the rain of wet bullets. Frowning at his brother, Scott gave his one good toss and wiped the excess water from his face with the back of his left forearm.
They sat down under a nearby tree, each leaning back against it. Johnny could feel the eyes of the two men on him. This was gonna be a miserable trip. His gut was starting to talk to him. He pulled his brim low and resumed his vigil, looking for anything that would give him a clue as to as to the cause of his unease, or to the presence of any Muldrows.
“So did you talk to Lulu?” Scott whispered quietly.
“No, I didn’t. She wasn’t in the café this mornin’. Guess she was packin’ for the big trip. I did get the telegram sent to Murdoch. I’m hopin’ he’ll meet us in Sacramento and help us straighten this out.”
“You know Johnny, the more I think about it, the more I know she’s not so innocent.”
“Really, Scott? How’d you finally figure that one?” Johnny’s laugh was sarcastic.
“I know I said we just kissed, and we did. But, the way she kissed. She was very bold and kept trying to get me to take things further.”
“Yeah. Now you wanna tell me what really happened, huh?” Johnny laughed quietly.
“I’m telling you. We just kissed, but she wanted more, and, believe me brother, she was very convincing.”
“Please tell me you didn’t take the bait. I mean, we’re not headed to Sacramento for a shotgun weddin’ are we?”
“No, Johnny, no shotgun wedding. We really are going up for my alleged murder of the man in the alley.”
“Course maybe you shoulda bedded her. Maybe that’s why she said you killed him. I’ve met plenty of women that don’t take being told no very good.”
“Oh come on Johnny.”
“Well, what do you make of it Scott? I mean, we both saw the guy, alive in the café and then dead in the alley.”
“I have no idea what the hell is going on. It seems this is more your line of work.”
“Thanks, Boston, but no woman’s ever accused me of murdering somebody just for kissin’ her.”
“So little brother, just how do you figure this?”
Johnny was quiet for a moment.
“Well, if you really didn’t do anything to upset her, and I believe ya, then she’s gotta be coverin’ for somebody. The question is, who? I mean, she’s sayin’ you murdered a total stranger, and you’re sayin’ she’s your alibi. We know she isn’t strong enough to strangle a man, even a little mouse of one like our café man.
She must have gone somewhere or done somethin’ after you left her. Either that or she wasn’t supposed to be seen with you. Bukey hasn’t even told us the man’s name. You’re being accused of murderin’ somebody and you don’t even know his name! How’s that for starters?
All the men in that town sure do cow-tow to her. She knows she’s got every one of them wrapped around her finger. Hell, maybe she had him killed. It’s not just the set up either. I don’t like being a sitting duck in this stage coach.”
“You meant the robbers?”
“Not just that.”
“Well, go on brother.”
“Okay. First, I don’t understand why Bukey is pickin’ now to take you and Lulu up to Sacramento, what with all the trouble brewing with those bandits. He’s putting her at risk. I mean come on, Scott, the stage line is even telling people not to travel. Even then, we still got two other passengers. I don’t like the looks of them either.”
“Okay, so what’s wrong with our fellow travelers?”
“Well, for starters, the one across from me, well, he’s no professional, but I’ll bet if there’s shooting, you’ll find he’s good with a gun. As for the other one, he just bothers me and I can’t figure out why. I also want to know what the stage line is carrying, that all of a sudden, is so damn valuable that a gang like the Muldrows is lookin’ ta rob it.”
“You’ve heard of these Muldrows?”
“Yeah. I read something on them in Val’s office. They mostly rob trains, but if a stage has the right cargo, they aren’t above takin’ it.”
U. S. Marshall Sims Whitehall leaned against the corral fence, looking first at the horses, and then turned away. Supporting his back against the fencepost, he hung one heel on the bottom rail, and observed Bukey’s new deputy. He wondered if the sheriff knew the real identity of his deputy, or if it was an intentional move to make Johnny Madrid a lawman.
He found it humorous that Madrid was posing as a rancher, and even more so that he was trying to pass off the tall, lanky, blond as his brother. Well, if the Muldrow brothers showed up, it would be interesting to see how all this played out. If Madrid wasn’t part of the Muldrow gang plan, which didn’t really fit his modus operandi, he would be glad to have Madrid’s gun when the shooting started.
He knew it was Madrid. He’d seen him in three different gunfights. Even though he was nothing but a kid, he had been cold and hard, walking away from all of them with dead eyes, as if he were taking a stroll in the sun. He had left town after every one of them, so he’d never had a chance to speak with him.
Funny thing, he still looked just like a kid, but before he had slunk under that hat, Whitehall had seen his eyes. They were different, more alive.
Of course, no one had spoken on the stage so far, so if he wanted any information, then he figured he would eventually have to say something. He was surprised that Bukey hadn’t interrogated him or the other passenger. They had two more stops before Sacramento, so he had time to wait just a bit longer for someone else to break the ice. He needed to identify that other passenger too. Something seemed off about him, but he couldn’t quite put his mark on what it was. As he reached up and fingered his mustache, he heard the stage driver yell for them to board.
If things went as he thought they might, his report would be laden with entertaining details.
If he lived to write it.
Pinkerton Detective Dennis James observed his fellow passengers. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Johnny Madrid with a badge pinned on him. There was no doubt. He’d spent enough time chasing him around the border towns, always a few steps behind him. He’d heard another agent finally located him, and that Madrid had gone back to live with his father. Guess, he’d missed a few details, because the “little prince” was there on the same stage with him wearing a very shiny badge.
Well, if Madrid was a deputy, it would be a good thing, because they’d need a good gun if the Muldrow gang decided to rob the stage. Trying to stop the leaks in the stage company had been quite an investigation. He couldn’t decide if his assignment to ride on the stage was a sign of confidence in his abilities or a sign that he was on his supervisor’s bad side.
No one was supposed to know about the actual contents of the small box contained in the strongbox, except a few key people, so it would be interesting to see if a robbery occurred and whether or not the Muldrows went straight for the box. Either way, having Madrid on his side was encouraging, but puzzling.
He’d been horrified to learn that the client shipping the small box had been killed last night, and in such a brutal way. How did that tie in to the Muldrow brothers, or did it? He had seen the client place his small package inside the stage line’s big strongbox first thing yesterday morning. The strongbox went immediately into the stage line’s big safe until time to load it onto the coach.
The fact that he’d heard that the client had been strangled, well, that seemed too personal a crime to not be related to the recent stage robberies. But how? Who would have known?
He needed to find out who that other passenger was too. He was wearing a pretty decent rig to be just a cowhand. Hopefully, he wasn’t part of the robbery plan. In view of things, he’d have to start some conversation on this next leg to get a bearing.
The call to board the stage interrupted his thoughts.
No one had spoken as of yet, but Lulu was looking at him. Nope, he wasn’t the gentleman Scott was, and he stared right at her, up and down, as if he were thinking about her naked. Her cheeks flushed and she looked down at her bible again. Johnny snorted to himself.
Gazing back out of the window, Johnny broke the ice.
“Sheriff, I reckon that trouble you were expectin’ is here. Looks like we’re bein’ followed.”
Bukey leaned forward to turn, while Johnny never moved from his slouched position against the stage window.
“Don’t look, now. We gotta make a plan.”
The words were no more out of his mouth when the first shot came, but from up ahead of them. Suddenly the stage lurched forward and began bouncing up and down and side-to-side, as the team were ‘yahhed’ into a dead run, almost jerking Lulu into the floor. Bukey had grabbed her arm to keep her from falling.
“You’d best go on and get down on the floor.” Johnny said, hoping she’d look at him again. She didn’t. Instead, she looked at Bukey, who nodded.
Lulu slid from the seat and down into the floor, where she was forced to press against Scott’s long legs. With her skirt flowing around his feet and ankles, no one could see that she had wrapped her hand around his ankle. She knew he could feel it. She still refused to look at him.
The next shot splintered the wooden back wall of the coach’s interior, just above Scott’s head. He and everyone in the coach ducked. He came face to face with Lulu for just a second before she turned her head and scrunched down.
Johnny had his gun out, as did all three of the other men. The fact that the man in the suit pulled out a long barreled Smith and Wesson surprised the other three. Another shot hit the side of the coach under Johnny’s window. His face and eyes darkened as he fired back.
Now shots were coming from both sides of the coach and all four men began firing back. They heard the sounds of the shotgun from the guard on top of the stage exploding above them. The coach made a left hand turn and went airborne on one side for a few seconds, slamming down and throwing Scott into the floor on top of Lulu, and almost taking Johnny with him.
Without looking back, and still firing back, Johnny yelled, “Get up, Scott, you’re throwin’ my aim off.”
Bukey fired and then yelled, “I see the way station just ahead, when the stage pulls up, we need to try and make a break for it.”
The driver drove the stage right up into the yard of the station, but the fence didn’t allow them to get any closer to the door. As soon as it stopped, the driver and the shotgun jumped down. A man inside the way station was firing at the bandits.
Bukey immediately opened the door, grabbed Lulu and made a run for the building, with the driver and guard surrounding them and trying to cover them. Whitehall and James looked at each other and at Johnny and Scott.
“You two go next, we’ll go last.” Whitehall ordered.
Scott nodded and Johnny looked doubtful, but allowed Scott to drag him out. He turned and continued to fire. The other two jumped out and began laying down some suppressing fire. It seemed that they might make it into the building, when they heard Lulu scream. Just as Johnny caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, Scott fell, pulling him down onto the ground.
Lulu stood there screaming while Whitehall and James ran to assist Johnny and Scott as the driver and his guard tried to return for Bukey, who lay on the ground.
Johnny saw a horse and rider had jumped the small split rail fence, landing almost in the middle of them, and with one swooping motion, he pulled Lulu onto the back of his horse and took off.
Three riders made their way to the coach, pulled the strongbox off the top and dropped it off the side of the stage. There was the sound of clanging metal before one of the men dismounted, shot the lock off, and removed its contents.
Moments later, the only sound was that of fading hoof beats.
Johnny untangled himself from Scott and the two of them staggered to their feet and made their way over to Bukey. The driver, the guard, the way station manager and his wife came out to help Bukey.
He was barely conscious and clearly in a lot of pain from the bullet wound in his side. Johnny knelt awkwardly down beside him and felt inside his vest for the key to the handcuffs.
As he was unlocking the cuffs, Bukey put his hand on Johnny’s arm and panted, “Gotta go after Lulu, please.”
“We gotta get you seen to first, then, we’ll go after her.”
The cuffs unlocked, Johnny pulled his hand free and handed Scott the key. Rubbing his wrist, he watched as they picked up Bukey and carried him inside. He turned and started over towards the stage, but Whitehall and James were coming back towards him.
“They get whatever was in the strongbox?”
“Yep.” Whitehall answered, “Let’s get inside and figure out what we’re gonna do about all this.”
Johnny turned and looked at Scott with raised eyebrows.
Scott shrugged his shoulders at Johnny. They both turned and followed the other two men inside the station.
With Bukey treated and settled in the back room. The six men sat at the long table inside the station, with a bottle in the center between them, that they passed around. The way station manager’s wife prepared dinner for them while they talked.
Whitehall took the lead. “First off, I think we need to introduce ourselves. I’m U. S. Marshall Sims Whitehall.”
“Detective Dennis James, Pinkerton Agency.”
Johnny stared as Scott introduced himself, “I’m Scott Lancer and this is my brother Johnny,” before he could finish, the other two answered for him, “Madrid.”
Scott turned to look at his brother.
Johnny leaned back, narrowed his eyes at the two men, and huffed. “That’d be Deputy Madrid to you two.”
He waited just long enough to see the unease in their eyes, Scott’s reaction to it all, and then he smiled.
“Lancer. My brother’s name is Johnny Lancer.” Scott finished flatly.
“Well now, I know what was botherin’ me about you.” Johnny looked at the Pink. “I had Pinks following me all over Mexico for awhile. I didn’t know why, ‘til one came and pulled me out of a bad situation.”
“The firing squad.” It was more of a statement than a question as it left James’ lips. Whitehall looked fascinated. Scott looked shocked. It was the first he’d heard anything about a firing squad. Murdoch had indicated Johnny had been in a bad situation, but a firing squad? After they got out of this predicament, he was going to have a chat with his little brother.
“That would be it.”
“I thought you went home to your father’s ranch in California?”
“It didn’t work out? I mean, well, if you don’t mind me asking, how’d you become a deputy?”
“Bukey there,” Johnny nodded toward the backroom where Bukey lay, “has my brother Scott here locked up on some trumped up murder charge, and took advantage of my wantin’ to escort him to be sure he got there. That’s enough about me. How’s it a Pink and a U. S. Marshall ended up together on a stage like this?”
James and Whitehall looked at each other. James, after ensuring that he wasn’t being overheard by the way station manager or his wife, explained, his reason for being on the stage. When he was finished, he looked to Whitehall, who only said, “this matter is of interest to the government and that’s all I can say.”
Scott rolled his eyes and Johnny snorted. “Well that just figures. So what are you all gonna do about the girl?”
“Well, deputy, it looks like you and I might have to rescue her.” Whitehall looked him in the eye.
“Rescue her? Are you kidding? She’s the person who accused my brother of killing the man in the alley.”
“Mr. Baldwin.” The Pink stated.
“Mr. Baldwin?” Scott’s head jerked towards the Pink. “How do you know his name?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, however, I can assure you, I don’t believe for a minute that you killed him.”
“If you have information that will clear me of these charges, I demand that you divulge it.” Scott raised his voice.
Johnny stared at the Pink, making him uncomfortable, “I think you’d better answer my brother.”
“Just a minute here, Mr. Lancer,” Whitehall intervened by leaning slightly in between the two.
“I, like Detective James here, cannot share my true reason for being here, but let me say, that it is very clear to us, that you did not kill Mr. Baldwin. That is why we have not made an issue out of your being uncuffed, or guarded by your own brother.”
“Well now that we’re clear on that, what do you two plan on doing about the girl?” Johnny leaned back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest.
“Like I said Mr. Lancer, I think we may need to go and rescue her from those outlaws before anything bad happens to her.”
“Anything bad?” Johnny asked. “Didn’t you notice she stopped screaming, that she held her arms out waiting to be picked up? Didn’t you see the way she grabbed onto that bastard’s waist and cozied up to him? She was waitin’ on him.”
CHAPTER FOUR by Coop and Judi
“Oh come on Johnny, you can’t be sure of that. Are you really saying that you think Lulu was in on this whole thing? That she would willingly allow them to shoot her own uncle?”
It had been two hours since their sudden arrival at the way station. Whitehall and James were still deep in conversation at the table where Johnny and Scott had left them after they excused themselves. They were now trying to figure out exactly what they had unwittingly gotten themselves into. Scott, for his part, was having a hard time believing that the sheriff’s niece could have had anything to do with the events that had recently transpired, despite his being the prime suspect for a recently committed murder.
“I’m only saying what I saw, Scott.” Johnny absently fiddled with his .45 as he surreptitiously watched the two men at the table who, from their body language, seemed to be in the throes of a heated disagreement. “She didn’t look like she was struggling too much from where I was standing. And have you forgotten that it was Lulu who framed you for killing Baldwin? I’d say she’s in it up to her eyeballs.”
Despite the compelling evidence, Scott was still in denial. He found it hard to believe that someone as young as Lulu could be that malicious, to deliberately frame a man for murder. She had as good as sentenced him to hang and then run off with the men responsible for shooting her own uncle. He just didn’t want to believe that she could be capable of such duplicity.
“I just don’t buy it, Johnny. There’s got to be more to it than that. I simply can’t believe that someone like Lulu would….”
“Look Scott, you’re not the first to be taken by a pretty face, and you won’t be the last. I’ve seen plenty like Lulu before. They rely on their feminine wiles to get what they want. Trust me. She ain’t no innocent. I thought you’d have realized that the other night.”
Scott watched as Johnny rechecked his weapon, spinning the barrel with an aggressive vigor. He wondered if Johnny spoke from painful experience. There was clearly a story there and one he intended to explore at a later date. But now wasn’t the time. Still, Johnny did have a point. It had taken all of Scott’s willpower to prevent Lulu from taking things much further than he thought proper given their very recent acquaintance. Johnny was right. Lulu was certainly no innocent when it came to men. But still, to be capable of being party to cold-blooded murder…well that was something else entirely.
“All right, just supposing there isn’t an innocent explanation for her behavior. Are you suggesting that Bukey could be in on it too? After all, she is his niece, and from all you’ve said about him, I doubt she could pull the wool over his eyes.”
“No brother, I ain’t suggestin’ that at all.”
“Then just what are you suggesting?” Scott questioned testily, becoming frustrated at Johnny’s tendency to respond to a question without really giving any clear answer at all.
“Well, for one thing, he’s got a bullet in him that’s got him flat on his back. And for another, well, men like Bukey don’t go rogue,” Johnny stated matter-of-factly.
“Wait a minute – I thought you couldn’t stand the man…” Scott was cut short by Johnny placing a cautionary hand on his arm. Scott spun round to see what had caught his brother’s attention. James had risen from the table and was walking towards them.
“Mr. Madrid…sorry, Deputy Madrid,” he corrected himself with an arrogant smirk. “Whitehall and I have been discussing how best to proceed. We need to go after the Muldrows as soon as possible. Can I assume that, as the representative of law in this territory, we can count on your cooperation?”
“You’re askin’ the wrong man,” drawled Johnny. “Bukey’s the one wearing the sheriff’s badge…he’s the one you should be talkin’ to.”
“Well, I don’t think he’ll be going anywhere with a bullet in him, do you?” replied James curtly. “We think it would be better if he were to remain here. He’ll only slow us down. But we would appreciate your gun.” As an afterthought he turned towards Scott, realizing that the two men came as a package. “And perhaps that of your brother? The longer we wait, the further away they get. And then there is the girl…no telling what the Muldrows might do to her.”
“He’s right about that, Johnny,” reiterated Scott. “We can’t leave Lulu to those men…not if there’s any doubt about her being involved in all this.” Much as he hated to endorse anything that Whitehall and James might say, it didn’t sit well with Scott to leave Lulu to a fate that he really didn’t want to have to contemplate.
“I’ll think about it.” Johnny turned away and started to walk towards the door, but his progress was arrested as his brother grabbed his arm.
“Johnny, what’s there to think about?” Scott was having a hard time understanding Johnny’s cold indifference towards the sheriff’s niece.
“Well, don’t think about it too long,” James called after him. “I’ve seen what men like the Muldrows can do to pretty young girls like that…and they don’t stay pretty for long.” He turned away, the hint of a smile playing at his lips belying the sincerity of his words.
Johnny turned and watched as James headed back over towards Whitehall. The Marshall looked up expectantly. Johnny couldn’t hear what James told his colleague, but the frown he wore was enough to tell him that he was frustrated. They were sure itching to get going, and Johnny doubted whether concerns for Lulu’s safety had anything to do with it.
“Johnny, I don’t understand what there is to think about,” Scott persisted as he released his grip on his brother’s arm. “James is right. If Lulu was taken against her will, then there’s no telling what the Muldrows will do. Can we really afford to take the chance? Think about it….”
“If it was the Muldrows,” Johnny murmured, his eyes still firmly fixed on the two men deep in conversation at the table.
“What do you mean?” Scott’s eyes narrowed in concentration as he considered the implications of his brother’s comment.
“Well, you ever seen `em before, Scott? The Muldrows? I dunno what they look like, and neither would Whitehall and James. Hardly anyone knows what they look like — that’s what’s made `em so hard to catch. The only one who might be able to identify them would be Bukey, and with all that shootin’ going on out there don’t you think its just a little bit suspicious that he was the only one who got hit?”
All the while he was talking, Johnny kept his eyes firmly on the two men, and it hadn’t escaped Scott’s notice that Johnny’s right hand was hovering over his recently reholstered weapon.
“Now wait a minute, Johnny. You’re not suggesting what I think you are?”
“Well, when we got out of the coach and ran towards the way station, Whitehall and James stayed behind, supposedly to give us cover while we got into the station. So we had our backs to them. And Bukey was back shot. No way to tell who shot him.”
“What, you think they’re involved? That one of them shot Bukey? C’mon Johnny, Bukey was running for his life the same as the rest of us. It stands to reason he’d get hit in the back. That doesn’t mean that it was Whitehall or James who did it.”
“Maybe. All I know is this don’t smell right. We had nothing on that stage that the Muldrow’s would be interested in. We weren’t carrying money or nothing like that, and they don’t normally leave enough people alive to tell the tale once they’ve robbed them blind. The driver and the shotgun were sitting ducks up there and yet they never got hit…and that’s the Muldrows’ trademark. Take out the driver and the shotgun first, and the rest is easy pickin’s. I may never have seen them myself, but I know enough about `em to be sure it wasn’t the Muldrow’s who hit us…. But Whitehall and James sure want us to believe it was, and the one man who would know for sure it wasn’t the Muldrow’s got a bullet. It all seems too convenient somehow. Besides, Whitehall and James were too ready to believe in your innocence….”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence brother,” Scott sniffed, perturbed.
Johnny gave a wry smile. “Well, think about it, Scott. How come they’re so sure you didn’t do it? Unless they know who did…?”
“Well, it all seems a rather far-fetched setup to me,” asserted Scott. “If they are rogue, why go through such an elaborate charade? Why ask for our help?” Scott’s head was spinning with the implications of all this.
“I dunno, but I have my suspicions.”
“Care to share them with me, brother?”
“Later, Scott. I wanna talk to Bukey first. Get his take on all this.”
“You think that’s such a good idea?” Despite sharing his brother’s uneasy feeling about the Pinkerton and the Marshall, he didn’t want to give them any reason to turn on him and Johnny.
“Right now Scott, aside from you, he’s the only one I trust. And yes, before you say it, I can’t believe I’m saying that either…. Stay here and keep an eye on James and Whitehall. See what else you can find out from them.”
“Well precisely how am I supposed to do that? They haven’t exactly been very forthcoming with information so far,” groused Scott.
“Well hell, you’re the one with the fancy education, Boston.” Johnny grinned as he headed towards the room where Bukey was being tended. “You’ll think of something.”
As Johnny made his way to the private quarters at the back of the way station, the manager’s wife, Mrs. Caldwell, was just leaving the room, a bloodied bowl of water and cloths in her hands.
“Ma’am,” Johnny dipped his head towards her. “How’s he doin?'”
“Ornery!” she sniffed. “Got my work cut out keeping him in that bed. But if doesn’t stay put, he’ll rip those stitches I just put in him.”
“Bullet out, ma’am?” Johnny was keen to see the bullet that had come out of the sheriff to see if it could have been fired from either weapon hanging at the hips of Whitehall or James.
Mrs. Caldwell shook her head. “Wasn’t one to take out. He was only creased, but it still did some damage. Cracked a couple of ribs and left a real gouge. Is real painful lookin’, but he won’t take no laudanum. Might give us all some peace if he did,” she groused.
Johnny nodded, disappointed. Still, no bullet meant that Bukey wasn’t as badly hurt as they had all first thought. And he could understand Bukey’s reluctance to take the drug. He likely wanted to stay clear headed, and Johnny didn’t blame him for that. Especially if Bukey shared his own concerns.
“Thank you, ma’am. I really appreciate all you’ve done for the sheriff. All right if I go see him?”
“Sure. Be my guess. Mebbe you can make him see sense.”
As he entered the room, Johnny could see Bukey in the throes of trying to get out of bed. He had heavy bandaging around his midriff, his face pale with beads of sweat gathering across his forehead.
“You think that’s a good idea?” Johnny leaned casually against the doorjamb as he regarded the sheriff.
“Well, I ain’t achievin’ anythin’ lyin’ here. Where’s Lulu? What’s goin’ on out there? That damned woman wouldn’t tell me anything.” Bukey grimaced as he set his feet on the ground, his hands gripping the mattress as he prepared to get himself upright.
Johnny watched as Bukey grabbed for the clean shirt Mrs. Caldwell had grudgingly supplied the sheriff, courtesy of her husband’s wardrobe. He made no attempt to assist the lawman as he struggled to shrug his way into the shirt, instead deciding to test the water while the sheriff’s defenses were down.
“Muldrows took her…”
Bukey looked up sharply. “Muldrows? What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“Those men that held up the stage. And shot you,” Johnny added deliberately. “They took her with `em.”
“You know as well as I do those weren’t the Muldrows. Not their style… ” Bukey snapped as he struggled to his feet, putting his hand out to steady himself on the nightstand, his other arm clasped tightly to his injured side.
Yeah, I know. That’s about what I figured…”
“So why’d you say it was them? Spit it out, I ain’t in no mood for games,” Bukey blustered, grimacing against the pain as he buckled his gun belt.
“Look Bukey, whoever they were, I hate to break it to you, but it looked like Lulu went willingly. James and Whitehall think she was in on the whole thing. And if she was…”
“Then so was I…?” interrupted Bukey irritably as he struggled to fasten the remaining buttons on his shirt. “And I suppose you share that opinion. Mighta known…”
“Take it easy, Bukey. I know you’re clean.”
“Oh you do? And how do you know that, Deputy?” Bukey sniped sarcastically.
Johnny shook his head derisively. “Well, I can sure see why she said you were ornery,” he muttered. “`Cuz people like you don’t go rogue. You may be the most unbending, stubborn mule-headed son of a bitch there ever was, but you ain’t dirty. Hell, there’s a reason any self-respecting person who’s ever crossed the line would wanna avoid crossing your path and that includes the Muldrow’s. Was why I told that fool brother of mine I didn’t wanna stop in Malice in the first place.”
He shook his head again, all the more determined not to let Scott ever forget the fact that he had warned him that stopping in Malice wasn’t the best idea he had ever had.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” groused Bukey. “Where is your brother by the way? Why isn’t he still cuffed to you?”
“Oh c’mon Bukey, you still think he’s guilty after all this?”
“That’s for a judge to decide.”
“What, you’re still planning on taking Scott to Sacramento? After all that’s happened? You can’t be serious.”
“I’m deadly serious. Unless, of course, you can convince me of his innocence.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” Johnny ran his hand through his hair in frustration. This wasn’t going at all how he had planned.
“Help me get my niece back and find out what the hell James and Whitehall are up to. Because one thing I know, they are not who or what they say they are. And they know I know it. I figure that’s why I got this gouge in my side.”
Johnny considered for a moment, his hand hovering over his .45, his eyes fixed firmly on a stain in the middle of the floorboards, before looking up at the self-satisfied smirk on the sheriff’s face. “That’s blackmail,” he stated simply.
“Yes, I believe it is,” Bukey asserted. “But right now the only way for you to prove to me that your brother is innocent is to get my niece back and try and figure out what Whitehall and James are up to. So, do we have deal?” Despite his obvious discomfort, Bukey’s expression resembled the cat that’d caught the canary.
Johnny had been out-maneuvered, and he knew it. Hell, he’d definitely make sure Scott never forgot that he’d been against the unplanned stop in Malice. If they got out of this in one piece that was.
He sighed. “Sure Bukey. It’s a deal.”
Scott was having as equally frustrating a time as his brother, although he felt that he had ended up with the worst end of the deal. He had ventured over to Whitehall and James, who were still deep in conversation as they sat at the table, partaking of the strong coffee provided for them by Caldwell. The station manager was now out tending to the horses and readying a new team assisted by the stage driver, Crawley. Mackenzie, the shotgun rider, was outside keeping guard, ensuring no one approached the way station unnoticed.
As Scott approached, the two men suddenly went silent, and it didn’t escape Scott’s notice that they both stiffened.
“Mr. Lancer,” Whitehall acknowledged him. “Something we can do for you?”
“Well, yes, actually. I was wondering why we are still alive. I thought perhaps one or both of you could enlighten me. I can’t say I’m an expert on the subject, but the reputation of the Muldrow gang does seem to precede them. My understanding is that they seldom leave any witnesses. Yet all they took, as far as I can tell, is some mysterious package that, reputedly, was responsible for getting a man killed. For whose murder, incidentally, I happen to be the prime suspect.” Scott spoke quietly, careful to keep any hint of accusation from his voice.
“We already told your brother, Mr. Lancer. We know you weren’t responsible. That’s why you are currently able to move around at your leisure.” Although James kept his tone polite, Scott could detect a definite warning edge to his words. But Scott Lancer wasn’t a man to be easily deterred.
“Yes, and believe me, I’m grateful. My brother and I are close, but I was finding being cuffed to him a little too close for comfort. However, grateful as I am to be able to move around at my liberty, I would still like to know what makes you so sure of my innocence?” Scott pulled up a chair and sat at the table. He noted with satisfaction that the interruption and his failure to take the hint and go away seemed to irk both men, particularly Whitehall.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer, but we are not at liberty to divulge that information at this time,” responded Whitehall, coolly.
Scott regarded Whitehall and noted that the man quickly looked away, unable to maintain eye contact. It seemed that Johnny’s lack of trust with regards to both men had some merit. Scott decided to push a little harder.
“Well, I can’t see why not. It seems you just asked my brother and me for our assistance. Call me picky, but I do like to know what I’m risking being killed for before I go charging blindly into something.” He picked up the coffee pot from the middle of the table and poured himself a cup.
“I’m sorry Mr. Lancer, but that information’s classified,” asserted Whitehall dismissively.
“Aha, I see. So this is government business?” Scott took a sip of the tepid brew, all the while taking note of the non-verbal signals being emitted by both men that confirmed to him that all was definitely not what it seemed.
“I didn’t say that,” Whitehall snapped, a little too quickly.
“Well, you see, I have a military background, sir, and I know that when something is deemed to be classified, it is generally something that pertains to National Security. I also know that if something is being transported through a certain territory, the lawman of said territory is generally informed. Yet Sheriff Bukey seemed to have no idea who either of you gentlemen is?”
Scott had hit a nerve there. Whitehall didn’t utter a word, but the whites of his knuckles as he clenched his fist told Scott all he needed to know. He was getting rattled. James seemed to sense it too.
“There are certain things, Mr. Lancer, that go beyond a sheriff’s jurisdiction. We can’t afford to trust anyone. I’m sure as a military man you can understand that?” Whitehall’s tone was patronizing as he attempted to re-establish control of the conversation.
“Yet, now a man is dead, you have lost the item he died for and now seem to need my brother’s and my help. But with the sheriff incapacitated and your endorsement of my innocence, there really is no reason for us to stay around. Wouldn’t you agree?” Scott leaned back casually in the chair and regarded both men closely as he threw down the verbal gauntlet.
“Your point?” Whitehall had obviously become unnerved now. It was evident that he was the more volatile of the two men and clearly didn’t like to be challenged.
“Well, the fact of the matter is,” continued Scott coolly, “that Johnny and I could ride out of here any time we like, but you need our help. And to get it, you are going to have to be a little more forthcoming with information. That’s my point.” He lifted his mug and took another sip. As he did so, Scott noted with satisfaction the surreptitious glance that passed between the two men. It was a dangerous move, more than hinting to them that he suspected they weren’t all they appeared to be; it could easily consign him to the same fate that had been intended for Bukey. Still, for some reason Whitehall and James appeared to need their help even if it did appear, as far as Whitehall was concerned at least, grudgingly.
“That’s right, Mr. Lancer. You could indeed ride out of here, but you would be a fugitive from justice,” replied James. “While Mr. Whitehall and I are confident that you had nothing to do with Mr. Baldwin’s death, officially we don’t exist, and therefore cannot testify on your or anyone else’s behalf. Therefore, unless we manage to locate the good sheriff’s niece, whom I understand is the only other person who can prove your innocence, then I am afraid you will be a fugitive from justice with, I would imagine, a considerable price on your head. So yes, by all means ride out of here, but I am sure it won’t be long before the bounty hunters will be on your trail, and they don’t much care if they take you in dead or alive. Now, do you see our point?”
The smug expression on the Pinkerton’s face said it all. He had Scott there and they both knew it.
“Seeing as you put it that way…Gentlemen.” Scott smiled and acknowledged both men as he rose from the table, not wanting to give them any satisfaction, even if they all knew well and good that they had out-maneuvered him. He just hoped Johnny had had better luck with Bukey.
As soon as he had his back to them, he grimaced, bitterly regretting his ill-advised decision to stop overnight in Malice. Somehow, if they got out of this, he felt sure that Johnny wouldn’t let him forget it. As he walked towards the door leading out to the front of the way station, Johnny emerged from his audience with Bukey, and from his expression and stooped stance, he hadn’t been any more successful with Bukey than Scott had been with Whitehall and James. And there was something else. Scott was incredulous when he saw what Johnny was holding up in his hands.
“You have to be kidding me,” spluttered Scott. “Tell me you’re not serious.”
“Deadly serious, Mr. Lancer,” came a gruff voice as Bukey emerged, somewhat unsteadily from behind his brother. “Deputy, restrain the prisoner.”
CHAPTER FIVE by Starry Diadem
Mrs. Caldwell had passed through the main room when Johnny had gone into the back to see Bukey — on her way to the well, she had said, to clean the bloodied cloths she’d used in her doctorin’ and she hoped the gentlemen had all they needed? She had returned just before Johnny came back with Bukey, refreshed the coffee for them and was now over by the stove, stirring the stewpot. She started at Bukey’s words, the stew-pot lid rattling as her hand jerked, and turned to stare at Scott. Maybe in the furor of the attack and her haste to help Bukey, she hadn’t noticed that Scott had stumbled into the way station with bullets singing around his ears and a set of Adams cuffs swinging from his right wrist.
He gave her his very best reassuring smile. It didn’t seem to be very effective.
She dropped the pot lid back into place and clenched one hand in her apron; the other held the spoon tight, so tight that her fingers were white. Only a glance at the sheriff and the two men at the table seemed to reassure her that she wasn’t unprotected. She put down the spoon with quiet precision, lining it up against the side of the stove, and edged towards the back door.
Johnny glanced at her and it was damned annoying to see that Johnny’s smile seemed to have more impact when it came to calming frightened women. Maybe it was the deputy’s badge that did it. “It’s all right, Ma’am.”
“I— I need to speak to Mister Caldwell.”
“You go right ahead, Ma’am.” Johnny went and opened the door for her. She gave him a scared, grateful smile and scuttled out. He waited until she’d gone before shaking the handcuffs, making them rattle. “We don’t have much choice, brother. You’d best hold out your hands.”
Bukey looked satisfied and the two other lawmen were smirking. The most Scott could say about Johnny was that he looked like he was sorry, but Scott wasn’t certain just how genuine that was. There was a glint in his little brother’s eyes that made Scott itch to fetch him a clip around the ears. There were many times when Scott was sorry about what little he or anyone knew about Johnny’s unhappy, poverty-stricken childhood, times that he was heart-sorry that Johnny had been abandoned at such a young age and left to raise himself down in the border towns. But he wasn’t always sorry for the same reason. Right then he was sorry that Johnny’s upbringing had left some neglected areas in his education. Teaching him some manners and not to mock his elders and betters would be pretty high on Scott’s list of things to do when they got out of this mess; it’d fill that educational gap and it comforted Scott. It was something to look forward to.
Bukey was white-faced, his mouth shut tight until the lips were thinned and bloodless, a sheen of sweat on his temples. He put out a hand to steady himself against the door frame. “No malice, son, but you’re still under arrest for murder. Your brother didn’t have no call to let you out of the cuffs in the first place.”
Scott stared. “Are you serious? Your dam—” He caught Johnny’s warning headshake and managed to stop himself. Whatever he felt about Lulu, there was no point in antagonizing her uncle more than he was already by cursing the girl aloud. It wasn’t right anyway. His grandfather had brought him up to be a better gentleman than that. Scott took a deep breath, letting the moment’s respite calm him. His grandfather never let anything agitate him when faced with difficult situations. Admittedly, Harlan’s ‘difficult situation’ was more likely to involve a defaulting debtor than an accusation of murder, but Scott had long admired his grandfather’s imperturbable, gentlemanly demeanor and done his best to cultivate it for himself. He called on all he’d learned from Harlan’s example, and kept his tone calm and measured. “Sheriff Bukey, you arrested me on the flimsiest of evidence… no, you arrested me on no evidence whatsoever except the word of a young lady who may be your niece but who was, for whatever reason, not telling the truth. You have to know that.”
Bukey just shook his head.
“If Miss Chapman saw me throttle that man, then I’m at a loss to understand why she didn’t raise the alarm immediately. What reason could she possibly have that would make her wait until next morning, when the man was stone cold dead, before screaming that she’d found a body? Baldwin had been dead for hours. She had all those hours to wake you to tell you of the death. In the circumstances, do you seriously think I had anything to do with it?”
Bukey wiped his mouth with his free hand. He flinched at Scott’s words but all he said was: “I thought you didn’t know him.”
“I didn’t. I still don’t. Our friends here knew him.” Scott indicated Whitehall and James. “Though they won’t say much about him. I know no more than the man’s name.”
Whitehall looked away, refusing to meet Scott’s gaze. He was tense and stiff, his fingers tapping a nervous pattern on the red-checked tablecloth. James gave them a small smile. Bukey glanced at them, and shrugged.
“You know who these men are, I suppose, Sheriff?”
“I know who they say they are.” Bukey didn’t sound interested. He pushed himself away from the door and took a couple of unsteady steps into the room. “Deputy, I told you to secure the prisoner.”
Johnny turned to the sheriff. “Bukey—”
“We have a deal, remember? Or are you welshing on it?”
“No.” Johnny’s voice was soft, and so gentle that the hackles at the back of Scott’s neck rose. “I never welsh, Bukey.” He crossed the room to Scott. “Sorry, brother. He just won’t listen to reason.”
Scott sighed and held out his right hand. “Murdoch will have Jarrod Barkley waiting in Sacramento to sort this out. I had hoped that you would see the need to avoid that unpleasantness, Sheriff.” He felt a sharp stab of misgiving and said, in a lower tone, “He will have Jarrod waiting, right? You really did telegraph Murdoch, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I told you. He’ll be fit to be tied, but for once he can’t blame me for it. I ain’t the one in trouble and I ain’t the one who wanted to stay over in Malice.”
Well, it didn’t look like Johnny was going to let that go of that particular grievance any time soon. He was like a dog worrying at a bone. Scott sighed. Johnny snapped the cuff around Scott’s wrist, pushing closed the curved bar to make it a close fit, and turned the key in the lock. But he didn’t put the other cuff around his own wrist. Instead he gestured for Scott to raise his other hand.
“Sorry, Scott. I’m going to need to be free.” And now Johnny really did look sorry. He fitted the other cuff and tucked the key into the pocket of his calzoneras. It was outlined against the soft leather, tantalizingly close.
“Handcuff him to yourself.” Bukey had made it as far as the table where Whitehall and James still sat. He half-sat, half-fell into a chair.
“Nope.” Before Bukey could start, Johnny turned to face the three of them and smiled. Scott knew that smile. It made him feel better, but both Whitehall and James looked nervous and even Bukey sat back. That made Scott feel a lot better. “You want me out there tracking the Muldrows—or those chiselers who’re making themselves out to be the Muldrows—then I sure as hell can’t do it with Scott hanging off my arm like a saloon gal hangin’ off a man’s wallet. You want Lulu back, Bukey, we’ll do this my way. If not, then, sure, I’ll chain myself up to Scott and we’ll just get back on that stage to Sacramento and let Barkley and the judge cut up shines with you six ways ’till Sunday for railroadin’ us like this. And if you think we can’t do that, you shouldn’t have picked the Lancers to mess with. Your call, lawman.”
He and Bukey stared at each other; Johnny still smiling honey-sweet, Bukey looking sicker by the second. But the man wasn’t intimidated, not that Scott could see. It would be interesting to know if Bukey knew who Johnny was. Who Johnny used to be.
After a moment, Bukey gave a single, sharp nod of the head and turned away to look into the fire.
“Well, looks like you remembered we ain’t in Malice no more.” Johnny let the smile fade.
Scott had to duck his head to hide a grin at the way that all three lawmen relaxed, thanking God that Johnny was there with him in all this mess. Johnny may not have Harlan Garrett’s smooth society manners, but he was beautifully intimidating when he wanted to be.
Scott eased his wrists inside the cuffs. Johnny had made them a snug fit, but not too tight. “What now?”
“Yes, I’d be interested in the answer to that question, Sheriff. What do you have planned?” Whitehall stopped his finger tapping and straightened in his chair.
Johnny jerked a nod towards Bukey. “He wants to go after the girl.”
“I don’t believe Lulu went willing.” Bukey shut his mouth hard on the words, as if he were biting them out.
“Bukey, it does look like she went off with the men who shot at us and—” Johnny glanced at Whitehall and James “—who shot you. And they robbed the damned stage before they went, too. I’m not so sure that she wants to be rescued.”
James nodded. “I’m sorry to say, Sheriff, that she didn’t put up much of a fight from what I could see. She let the feller pull her up on that big paint of his and she didn’t so much as squeak.”
Bukey was stubborn as a mule. “I don’t think she went willing.”
Scott looked up. He’d been too busy being shot at to take a great deal of notice of the horse, but thinking back, the Pinkerton was right. He had a brief vision of Lulu lifting up her arms as the big, handsome black and white horse galloped towards her. “Good Lord, it was a paint. Damn it!”
Bukey looked up. “What?”
“When I was… when I was talking to Lulu the night of the murder, she showed me a horse in the livery that she liked. A big paint. She said it belonged to a friend of hers.”
Bukey’s stare was flat and hostile. “I don’t believe it.”
Scott considered that, and nodded. “Your privilege. You’re wrong, but I don’t have to argue with you. I know what I saw in that livery stable.” That sounded suspiciously like a snort and a quiet *I bet I do, too* from Johnny, but when Scott turned around to glare, Johnny was looking at the ceiling like he’d never seen one before and was wondering what it was. It was an unusual thing for Scott to find Johnny on the high moral ground when it came to the ladies. He didn’t care for the experience, ‘specially since Johnny was getting so much satisfaction out of it. “What’s more, I’ve already pointed out the inconsistency in what Lulu says and what Lulu does. You can’t deny that there are discrepancies, Sheriff.”
Maybe not, but from the flat stare and the tight jaw, Bukey wasn’t about to admit to it. “We can’t leave her behind.”
“No.” Scott had to concede that. He looked at Johnny and shrugged. “We can’t. Of course, we can’t. And of course we’ll help get her back.”
Bukey looked like it would break something to be grateful. He did the short, sharp nod again.
James, though, couldn’t resist a dig. “Very gentlemanly.”
Scott wouldn’t be goaded. “Yes. I always am. Even in livery stables.”
Johnny’s hand dropped onto Scott’s shoulder. His hand was warm and the slight squeeze reminded Scott he wasn’t alone in all this. “You changed your tune about that girl.”
“Even I can see the light.” Scott sighed, and scrubbed at his face with his cuffed hands. His eyes were gritty and sore. “Your way of not giving too much credit might save on disappointment, Johnny, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the best in people.”
“Polly Foley.” Johnny looked at the ceiling again and ticked the names off on his fingers. ” Moira McGloin. Glory. Zee …”
“I have lists of my own, little brother, but the names are different. You may care to remember that.”
That earned him a broad grin. He managed a faint smile in return. Johnny squeezed his shoulder again before stepping away.
“Well, I’m goin’ to see what the stage folks are up to and see about some horses.” Johnny’s spurs jingled as he walked to the door.
Whitehall and James exchanged glances, both looking startled, as if taken by surprise. James nodded and Whitehall jumped up. “I’ll come with you.”
“If you want.” Johnny flung open the door and was gone, Whitehall hurrying after him.
Scott let his shoulders slump and blew out a breath, looking down at his cuffed hands. It had been a long night in Bukey’s inhospitable cells. He hadn’t slept much. Everything that had happened had gone round and round in his head until he was dizzy with it. He walked over to the table and sat, uninvited. Bukey had gone back to staring into the fire and took no notice of Scott. He was sitting hunched over a little, favoring his wounded side, one hand resting on the bandages. The Pinkerton ignored him.
He ignored them both right back. Dear Lord, it was a mess. Murdoch was likely to burst a blood vessel over it all, even though Jarrod Berkley would make short work of Lulu’s testimony if Bukey were stupid enough to continue to press the case. He glanced at the Sheriff. A stubborn man, if ever he met one. He disliked people who were so convinced of their own rightness that no other point of view was possible. It wasn’t… intelligent. That was the word. It wasn’t an intelligent way to live, narrow and bigoted and closing yourself off to other possibilities.
As for Whitehall and James… well the Good Lord was the only one who knew what was going on there. Scott had no idea. And he didn’t get the feeling that they’d be telling him their life stories and confiding their secrets any time soon.
He sighed, scrubbed at his face again, and let himself slump in the chair in a manner that would have called his grandfather’s strictures down upon his head. Good Lord. His grandfather. What would Harlan say if he ever found out that Scott Garrett Lancer, Gentleman, of Boston, Mass., had been arrested for the murder of a mysterious little man with greasy, combed-over hair and an outdated suit? Not to mention that the man was being followed (watched? investigated?) by a lawman who appeared to be working for the government, and a Pinkerton agent. Or that Scott had been accused by the prettiest little filly in Malice’s livery stable. A vision of his grandfather’s outraged expression at this imbroglio made his mouth twitch up into a reluctant smile.
Well, he had to get some amusement out of all this, somehow. It may as well be at his grandfather’s expense.
There were a couple of folded newspapers on the corner of the table. It was a difficult maneuver with his hands cuffed together, but he managed to unfold one of them and flatten it out onto the table in front of him. Neither Bukey nor James offered any help, but James nodded when he saw what Scott was doing and reached for a newspaper for himself. After one indifferent glance, Bukey continued to ignore them both. Scott returned the favor.
As a distraction from fruitless wondering and over-thinking, a week-old edition of the Sacramento Daily Record-Union was as good as it got. Scott focused on the front page and tried to forget his troubles in wondering about the circumstances in which someone would need to exchange a sewing machine for a horse. That story would be one worth hearing, a tale likely to be as interesting as his own. He could only hope it would be easier to resolve.
It was past noon now and the sun was westering. The air had a chill to it that hadn’t been there in the morning: over to the west, huge black thunderheads were gathering over the mountains and scudding in their direction, and the skies were darkening. Rain was on the way. It wouldn’t be long either. The wind was bitter, laced with cold mountain air and the smell of wet grass and leaves. Johnny shivered inside his short charro jacket.
The stage driver, Crawley, was keen to get under way and wasn’t being backward in letting everyone within hearing know that, in his opinion, they’d been held up long enough over fool sheriffs who didn’t know no better than to let their-selves get shot. He and Caldwell had backed all four fresh horses into place against the stage’s whippletree and were doing the final checks on the traces. McKenzie stood to one side, a rifle at the ready, alert. His eyes were never still, scanning from hill to trees to scrubland and back again. His gaze flickered over Johnny and Whitehall.
Crawley grunted when he saw them. “You folks ready to go?”
“Dunno that we are.” Johnny ran a hand down the neck of the big grey nearside lead and rested it on a powerful shoulder. The horse’s warm skin twitched under his palm and the gelding turned its long face to look at Johnny with gentle brown eyes. It was a nice looking animal. “Bukey’s dead set on going after his niece.”
Crawley spat, a long stream of brown tobacco juice arcing into the grass. “Looked to me like the girl was lookin’ to be took.”
Johnny wasn’t about to argue with that on his own account. “Bukey don’t agree. Can’t blame the man, I guess. She’s his kin.”
“We all has kin that shame us, I reckon.” Crawley reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a lump of chewing tobacco, biting off a fresh piece. His teeth were stained yellowy-brown. “My wife’s cousin votes Democrat. I don’t much like owning up to being related, even through being wed.”
Damn it, but were all stage drivers the same? Johnny’d never met one yet that didn’t like jawin’ for most of the day and never had anything to say worth the listening to. He turned to Caldwell. “We’re going to need horses if we’re going to catch them up.”
Caldwell pulled the last buckle tight on the offside lead’s breeching, looking at them over the horse’s broad back. He looked astonished. “Without a posse? Against the Muldrows?”
Johnny snorted. “I didn’t say it was a smart move. Horses?”
Crawley had stood staring for a minute. Now he cackled, like it was the biggest joke he knew, and let loose another stream of tobacco juice.
Caldwell rubbed at the back of his neck. “I’ve got a dozen horses, Deputy, but only my old Elk’s schooled to a riding saddle and I don’t ride him too often. The rest – well, even if I had the tack for ’em, they ain’t used to carrying a man. I don’t run a livery here, you know. They’re for pullin’ the stage.”
“¡Mierda!” Johnny and Whitehall exchanged looks.
Whitehall scowled. “We should have thought of that. A draught animal sure won’t be a sweet ride.”
“Yeah. I’d give anything to have Barranca here.” Johnny turned back to Caldwell. “How many can you tack up?”
Caldwell was looking troubled now, real troubled. “I don’t want to get on the bad side of Sheriff Bukey—”
Johnny snorted at that.
“—but the best I can do for you is two riding saddles. You can borrow Elk.” He looked over to the horse corral and the dozen or so horses milling about in it and pursed his lips as he considered. He had the look of a man who knew his horses. “And I reckon that blue roan’s the next most likely to let you put a saddle on him. I know he’s been ridden afore, but he won’t be no easy ride.”
“Damn.” Whitehall took his hat off and slapped it against his leg. “Damn, damn and damn.”
Caldwell nodded. “Amen, stranger. You’d be best off going with the stage. Next stop’s Colusa. It ain’t much of a town but you’ll be able to get horses there.”
“Suits me.” Johnny glanced at Whitehall. “How about it?”
Whitehall jammed his hat back on and hunched one shoulder. “How far is it?”
“Usually just around three hours from here, I reckon, depending on the road. The horses are fresh but that worries me.” Crawley jerked a thumb towards the clouds just as the sun disappeared behind them and the wind picked up. “That’s not more’n half an hour off and looks like it might settle in for the day. If it comes down hard, the road’ll be hard goin’ and slow us some.”
Whitehall shook his head. “I can’t allow them to get that far ahead of us. We have to get after them now and get… and get the girl back in one piece. If we go to Colusa for horses, we’ll lose most of the day before we can get back here and pick up their trail. We’ve already lost a couple of hours. I don’t want to be eight or more hours behind them.”
“The rain’ll wash out their tracks, anyway, if it comes down heavy.” Johnny gave the grey’s neck one more rub and turned to look at Whitehall. “You want the girl or the Muldrows?”
Whitehall’s gaze was steady. “It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. And maybe not.” Johnny considered for a minute of two, and then nodded. “All right. It’s your call, Marshal. Yours and Bukey’s. Caldwell, can you saddle up the two horses for us?”
The way-station manager nodded, and jog-trotted off the corral and stables.
Crawley aimed another long arc of tobacco juice into the long grass, near Whitehall’s feet this time. “You’re plumb chuckle-headed, goin’ after those murderin’ owlhoots, but it ain’t no concern of mine or the Company’s if the passengers don’t have the horse-sense to stay on the stage where it’s safest. You want me to ask the sheriff of Colusa to send out a posse to collect your fool carcasses back from the buzzards?”
“Naw, you old coot. Just give me our traps.” Johnny gave the old man an unfriendly look. He was getting pretty damn tired of dodging tobacco juice.
Crawley harrumphed and grumbled some, but handed down everyone’s bags. “It’ll lighten the stage, anyhow. We’ll make better time.”
“Uh-huh.” Johnny took a look inside the stage. Scott’s hat was on the floor along with Lulu’s Bible. He picked up both and added them to the pile of grips and saddlebags.
Crawley handed Whitehall a couple of rifles in their long leather sheaths. Johnny grimaced. It was a pity he didn’t have his rifle with him, but Murdoch had decreed that respectable ranchers going on a bull-buying business trip did not go armed to the teeth as if they were expecting to battle Commancheros every inch of the way. He’d made Johnny put his rifle back in the gun rack before they left the hacienda; the spare Colt in his saddlebags slipped through only because Johnny hadn’t told him about it. Likely Murdoch hadn’t factored in Scott’s insistence on going to Malice and getting them all tangled up with US Marshals, Pinks and the Muldrows. Johnny would enjoy pointing that… what would Scott call it? Oh yes. He’d enjoy pointing out that lack of foresight to the old man when they got home.
Whitehall spoke up. “If there is a sheriff in Colusa, tell him what happened here. Tell him US Marshal Sims Whitehall would be glad of his assistance, if he can gather some men and follow after us.”
“I’ll tell him. Don’t know what good it’ll do.” Crawley waved his arm over his head at Caldwell, and called McKenzie back to the stage, pulling himself up into the driver’s box. The coach rocked on its thoroughbraces. “Well, good luck, boys. You’ll need it.”
He clucked to the horses and snapped the long reins along their backs. The stage lurched forward as the horses leant into their traces and broke into a trot.
Johnny jumped back to get out of the way as the stage rumbled past. He was tempted to take the driver’s hat off with a well-aimed bullet, but instead turned to Whitehall. “He could be right about getting more men and horses. Two of us ain’t much of a posse.”
“You’re worth a dozen guns, Madrid, surely.” Whitehall’s lip lifted in a sneer.
Johnny smiled. He’d spent a lot of years making the smile perfect. It was near on as useful a weapon as the gun on his hip. Whitehall flushed and looked away. Satisfied, Johnny pushed his own Stetson back to hang by its stampede strings and put on Scott’s hat. He pushed Lulu’s Bible under the flap of his saddlebags, slung the bags over his shoulder and picked up the fancy portmanteau Scott had brought all the way from Boston the year before. He picked up the battered old valise that belonged to Bukey with his other hand.
He waited while Whitehall collected the rest of the bags and the two rifles. “You and me, then? Bukey ain’t fit to ride, no matter how much he wants to. And I’d rather not have the Pink along.”
“You have something against Pinkertons?”
“They ain’t so good at their work that I’d want to trail around with them. Takes them a helluva long time to finish some jobs, and even then, they only do it in the nick of time. Naw, we’ll leave Mister Pinkerton Agent James right here. He can sit and hold hands with Bukey.” Johnny nodded at the gun on Whitehall’s hip. “You any good with that?”
“I can use it. Not up to your standard, of course.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow, and smiled. “No one is, Whitehall.”
Whitehall chuffed out a laugh, picked up bags and rifles, and led the way to main building.
Caldwell jog-trotted back over to them as they stepped onto the porch. He had one horse saddled and ready at the corral and the second up against the snubbing post. “Hey! Hey, Deputy!”
“I could get used to being called that.” Johnny turned and waited.
Caldwell shifted his weight from foot to foot. He held his hat in sweaty hands, rotating it by the brim. “Look, I was just wonderin’… Missus Caldwell is feeling a mite nervy, specially after all that shooting, and to tell you the truth, Deputy, she’s worse’n a cat in a roomful of rockers when it comes to taking a fright at somethin. She’s skeered of goin’ back into there while that there criminal’s on the loose. He ain’t one of them Muldrows, is he? You got him secured right and tight?”
Behind Johnny, Whitehall chuffed out another of those laughs, and this time Johnny was all for joining him. It was a real shame that Scott wasn’t there to hear it. Real solemn, like being in church, Johnny nodded. “No, he ain’t a Muldrow. We got it covered, Caldwell. Your good wife is safe.”
Caldwell looked relieved. “I’ll tell her. ‘Preciate the information, Deputy.” He toed the dust, still embarrassed. “I figured Sheriff Bukey would have it all under control.”
“Yeah. He sure has. He’s real good at his work, it seems. I don’t know how the hell anyone stands for it.”
Caldwell blinked. “He’s a good man.”
“Sure. Sure he is.”
“And Missus Caldwell knows that, but you know how women get, ‘specially when there’s shootin’.”
“Oh yeah, I got me a little experience there.” Johnny hefted Scott’s bag in his hands. “She up to comin’ in and getting the marshal and me some of that good-smellin’ stew fixed up, real quick?”
“I could eat,” said Whitehall. “Good idea to grab a bite before we go.”
“I’ll see to it.” Caldwell hurried away calling on his wife. “Effie! Effie!”
“You really don’t have much time for Bukey, do you, Madrid?”
“He’s made no bones about setting my brother up for a hangin’ based on nothing at all. I don’t like the way he runs that town. Living there has to be like suffocatin’ to death, real slow.”
Whitehall grinned. “Ah well, that’s all to do with Melissa.”
“Melissa? She the one who owns the town? At least, her name’s on near-on every building on Main Street.”
The marshal nodded. “She owns most of Malice, yes. She wants a nice, clean, quiet town to live in and makes sure that Bukey delivers it. He’s been doing what Melissa tells him since the day he was hatched.” His grin widened. “She’s old Ma Bukey, Madrid. The girl’s grandmother, at the café. Bukey’s mother.”
“The hell she is!” Johnny matched him, grin for grin. “That explains a lot. That town was kept cleaner than an old maid’s parlor. It’s a wonder that jail didn’t have lace curtains.”
“He keeps the town clean on his Mammy’s orders. You and your brother fell foul of that.”
“Scott sure did.” Johnny let the grin die and looked the man in the eye. “I’ve a strong notion that you and the Pink know a helluva lot more about what’s going on here than you’re willing to let on, and not just about that dead man back in Malice, but I ain’t about to let Scott take the blame for any of it. Mark that, Whitehall, because if I find out that you and James are behind it or you try to railroad Scott, there is nowhere you can run to. ¿Entendido?”
Whitehall was white about the mouth with anger, but he nodded.
“Bueno. Make sure the Pink knows.” Johnny shouldered open the door and walked in, leaving Whitehall on the porch staring after him.
Chapter 6 by Starry Diadem
Scott looked pleased to see Johnny when he walked into the room. James and Bukey didn’t seem as happy.
“Was that the stage leaving?” demanded Bukey. He was looking worse. Little trickles of sweat beaded on the side of his face and his cheeks were flushed. No way could the man ride.
“Crawley wouldn’t wait no longer. Didn’t see any point in making him hang around. He’ll get a message to the sheriff in Colusa.”
Bukey nodded. “Walt Carlin. He’s a good man.”
“Seems like all the law around here are good men.” Johnny dropped Scott’s bag in a corner, and, with a flourish, placed Scott’s hat on his brother’s head, tilting down over his eyes. Scott laughed, raised his cuffed hands and pushed his hat right to the back of his head. He looked like a kid.
Johnny brought his saddlebag to the table to open it. The Bible tumbled out from under the flap.
James grinned that oily grin of his as he got to his feet to respond to Whitehall’s beckoning him out onto the porch. “Getting religion, Madrid?”
“It’s Lulu’s.” Johnny barely glanced at it before pushing it to one side. He took his spare gun from the saddlebag and two boxes of bullets, waiting until the door closed behind the Pinkerton before speaking. “Bukey, we got a problem here about horses. Caldwell only has two saddles and only one saddle horse. He’s putting the other saddle on one of the stage horses for me, but that doesn’t give us much to go after the Muldrows with.”
Out on the porch, James’s voice rose. Johnny couldn’t hear what was being said, but anything that annoyed the Pink was good enough for him.
“Only two horses.” Bukey shook his head. “That’s not enough.”
“Damn right, but it’s all we got. It’ll be me and Whitehall going after the girl, Bukey. You wait here for the Colusa sheriff.”
“No! I’m going after Lulu.”
“Nope, you ain’t.” Johnny pushed a box of bullets into each jacket pocket. He’d have to rig a lanyard to carry the second gun, but he had enough leather string to do that. “I doubt you’d make it walking to the door. Leave it to me. I’ll find her.”
Bukey opened his mouth but Johnny wouldn’t let him finish.
“You aren’t up to it, man. I’ll bring her back.”
“Why would you do that? Her testimony’ll do for your brother!”
“I don’t reckon it will, and neither do you.” Johnny glanced at Scott, sitting quiet and composed at the end of the table. “Like Scott said, any fool can see her testimony wouldn’t hang a dog. Our lawyer’ll tear it to shreds in court. She’ll maybe get the look at Sacramento that she’s been hankering after, but well, you know what the law has to say about lyin’ under oath, Bukey. Might be while before Lulu gets back to Malice.” He watched the sheriff flinch but felt no pity for the man. “I figure for all your faults, you’re pretty straight. I reckon you’ll do what’s right, in the end.”
Scott nodded at him, real grave. “I do hope you’re right, brother.”
Bukey sat shaking his head back and forth and back and forth, like it was on strings and he couldn’t stop it. It reminded Johnny of the porcelain Chinaman in Aggie Conway’s parlor and the way its head nodded when a man took a notion to tap it while waitin’ on the fancy suppers that Murdoch made him go to. He’d confided to Scott once that it was the most entertainment he got out of socializing with the other ranch owners. For some reason, Scott had thought that was funny.
Johnny let the sheriff alone and crossed to the hearth. There were two long guns — a Winchester ’66 and a Sharps carbine — and a shotgun resting on pegs in the wall above the mantel. He took a minute to work the handcuff key from his pocket before taking the guns to the table.
Scott nodded towards the door. “Is the lack of horses behind the argument between our two friends out there?”
“They’re likely arguing about who comes along and who stays behind. I don’t know that I trust either of them, but I’d say the marshal is the better man when it comes to using a shooting iron, and I’d rather it was him going than the Pink. If it is the Muldrows out there, I’m going to need him along.”
“I don’t like this, Johnny.”
“I ain’t dancing for joy about the way things are panning out, myself.”
“Two going up against the Muldrows… those are poor odds. This is risky.”
“Yeah. Risky to go after them and maybe risky stayin’ here, too.” Johnny looked at Bukey and shrugged. Bukey stared back with dull eyes, not seeming to notice that he was being talked about. “The good Sheriff has us well and truly treed on this one, Scott. But I reckon he’ll drop this whole thing if I can get Lulu back and that’s better than you stuck in jail in Sacramento for weeks until Barkley and Murdoch can sort it out in court.”
“I’d rather be in jail than have something happen to you.”
Johnny grinned. “I’ll be fine. I’ve dealt with worse’n the Muldrows, and I can take care of myself.”
“Still,” said Scott, frowning. “I worry.”
“Hey.” Johnny leaned forward and pulled Scott into a rough hug, knocking his hat off and tousling his hair. He slipped the handcuff key into Scott’s jacket pocket, the left one farthest away from Bukey so the sheriff wouldn’t see him doing it. He patted the pocket to make sure Scott realized. “Stop worrying, big brother.”
Scott stared, eyes widening. “It’s my job.” He glanced down at the cuffs and back again, and the side of his mouth curved up. He stooped to get his hat and when he straightened, he’d gone all solemn again. But his eyes showed his gratitude.
Johnny took another quick look at Bukey, but the sheriff had gone back to staring into the fire and didn’t seem to have noticed anything. He didn’t even look up as the Caldwells came in through the back door. Mrs. Caldwell answered Johnny’s smile with a blush and a nod, and headed for the stove. She wouldn’t look at Scott.
Johnny turned back to the guns and checked them over. They were clean and loaded, ready for use. “Caldwell, you’d best roust out all the bullets you’ve got for these. I’ll take one of the rifles with me if you have a boot for that saddle of yours.”
Caldwell nodded and scooted into the back room, coming back with a couple of boxes of rifle bullets and a big box of shotgun cartridges. He had an old handgun with him too, well oiled and in good order. Johnny nodded approval; well-cared-for guns were always a good thing to see. He put the Yellow Boy on the floor beside his chair ready to take with him and fingered a box of bullets. He’d have to tuck it inside his jacket alongside his spare gun on its lanyard; he was running out of pockets.
When Whitehall and James came in a moment behind the Caldwells, they must have come to an agreement: although James looked black, he’d quit arguing. Whitehall dropped the bags and nodded at Johnny. Neither of them looked like they were cheerful about the way things were panning out, but while James looked smarmy and like he was trying to hide it, Whitehall just looked huffy as a teased rattler.
“We’d best leave as soon as we get something to eat.” Johnny knotted leather pigging strings together as he spoke, looping the cord through the trigger guard on his spare Colt. He grinned at the paper spread in front of Scott. That figured. Scott and Murdoch were always talking about news and politics and sometimes, when Johnny was too tired to protest, he let them tell him about it. He nudged Scott to get his attention and nodded at the newspaper. “Anything interestin’ in the news?”
Scott looked a mite surprised at being asked, but obliged. “Well, in Stockton a horse kicked his back legs so high over the dashboard of a buggy driven by a doctor, that he fell and it took two hours for him to be extricated from the ruins. The horse won’t be pulling buggies for a while. It doesn’t say anything about the doctor, but I don’t suppose he’d fit into the harness.”
“Wheat exports out of San Francisco are doing well.”
“That’s real comfortin’.”
The Pink chuckled and rolled his eyes. Whitehall looked glum.
“The Prussians are apparently making another attempt to settle colonists in East Africa, but running into opposition from Great Britain, whose colonies in Kenya and Tanganyika are extensive. Great Britain is threatening to send troops to protect their interests there. Both sides are rattling their sabers. Loudly.”
“Didn’t you tell me once that Africa is clear across the world? Well, if it comes to a shooting war, it’s a long ways off.”
Scott grinned. “It is indeed. There’s a British delegation in Washington, it seems, but that’s all very mysterious as no-one will say why they’re here. Oh, and they have the Canadians with them. All very intriguing.”
James shook his head, still grinning. Whitehall settled back into his chair. He started tapping his fingers on the table top. His shoulders and neck were so tight, that Johnny could see the muscle under his ear twitch, where the pulse was.
“You might be more interested in this little item here—” Scott tapped a finger on the paper. “Ben Thompson was challenged by two men to a gunfight in Abilene.”
“Now that’s more like news. I heard he got outa prison a couple of years ago, but he’s been pretty quiet for a time. Abilene, huh? Did he win?” Johnny thanked Mrs. Caldwell with a smile when she put a plate of steaming stew in front of him, with a big hunk of fresh bread on the rim. It smelled good. She blushed at him again and handed an identical plate to Whitehall. She hurried back to the stove.
“One dead in the street, the other not expected to survive. It says here that Thompson is a now respected saloon owner.”
Johnny snorted. “Ben ain’t a respected anything at all. He’s as loco as Wes Hardin.” He grinned at Whitehall, who was moodily spooning up stew and scowling at his plate. “You should never believe what you read in those papers, Scott. That right, Marshal? Pink?”
Whitehall just glared. James grinned, but his eyes were cold.
Johnny grinned back and tucked into his stew. It was real tasty.
The blue roan took some settling down. Caldwell might have been right and it had been ridden before, if Johnny was any judge of horses, the gelding hadn’t been ridden for a long time. He spent the first ten minutes after mounting it, letting it crow hop its surprise and indignation out of its system. He and the roan bounced twice around the way-station yard before the horse settled down enough to take commands and even then Johnny was forever checking its desire to shake him off and run. The gelding wasn’t a comfortable ride either: it was broad backed and hard-mouthed, and not trained to the neck rein, so that whenever Johnny changed direction he had to haul its fool head around and use his spurs to make it get the message. But even the roan was better than riding the old bay buzzard-bait that Whitehall was given. Caldwell hadn’t been joking when he’d said Elk was old. The bay was speckled with white hairs, and looked like a slow amble was the most it could manage.
It surprised him that Elk managed a brisk pace when they got going and seemed able to keep it up. They rode single file: Johnny in front, tracking, while Whitehall watched his back and kept an eye out for signs of ambush farther ahead. The trail was easy enough to track at first – the Muldrows, if it was them, weren’t fussed about being followed – but within a few minutes the rain started, and Johnny had to lean low along the roan’s neck to see the trail at all.
After a mile or two, he straightened up and twisted in the saddle, shivering as the cold rain slithered down the back of his neck. “Still heading west and a little south. There’s nothing much over there that I can recall until you hit all the little towns near Clear Lake, over the mountains.”
“They might swing south before the mountains and bypass Sacramento.”
“They might just head anyplace at all. It’s rough country and there’s a thousand places they could hole up. There’s no point in guessing. All we can do is follow ’em, even if they’ve got a couple of hours on us now. I’ve got tracks here for eight horses. One of ’em’s carrying double.”
Whitehall nodded. “The girl’s still with them, then. I saw five or maybe six when they hit the stage, but there could have been more hanging back.” He shrugged. “I might have been wrong. It’s hard to get an accurate count when you’re being shot at.”
“And the Lord knows that’s true.”
“As a man of your experience can testify.”
“I’ve been shot at a time or two,” conceded Johnny. “Trouble is, Whitehall, there’s no way of knowing how many more might be waitin’ someplace up ahead, either. I never heard so much about the Muldrows down our way that I could say for certain how many of them there are.”
The marshal blew out a noisy breath. “Me neither. Anything up to a dozen, I’d guess, from the newspaper reports.”
“Well, that’s real reassurin’. If it’s them. Bukey thought it weren’t.”
“I don’t see how he’d know, one way or the other.”
“Maybe Melissa told him.”
Whitehall laughed. Johnny grinned and leaned back down over the roan’s neck, using knees and reins to keep the jittery horse under control. He shifted in his saddle, cursing the ache beginning in his legs and backside. The damn nag had a back as broad as a bull’s and a damned hard gait. He might have been better off taking Old Elk after all and letting Whitehall’s ass be the one to suffer.
They rode out of the rain shower and into an unexpected blaze of sunshine as the sun broke through the clouds. That helped with the tracking. The trail held steady for five miles, straight through country of mixed woods and scrubland, climbing into the foothills of the coastal range. The sun disappeared again, leaving a cold drizzle behind it.
“Whoa…” Johnny pulled up the roan.
They were in a small clearing on rising ground, surrounded by black oak trees and the odd Douglas fir. There was no one there now, but three piles of horseshit showed where several horses had been picketed over at the far side. The rest of the clearing was strewn with packaging and papers, all damp with rain.
There was no sign that whoever had been here was still close by. As they sat, listening, Johnny could hear a bird farther on in woods. No one around, then. He swung down from the roan, remembering only just in time that it wasn’t Barranca and he couldn’t leave the gelding ground tied, and looped the reins over a branch. He poked at the piles of shit with a long stick.
“They’ve not been gone long. They were here at least a couple of hours, though. That one’s crusted over but this pile’s still soft enough for the rain to mix in with it. They’ve been gone maybe a half-hour. Less.”
Whitehall pulled a face and dismounted to join him. All the packages had been ripped open. Shreds of damp newspaper blew in the breeze. Johnny toed a couple of boxes, still with their torn brown paper and string. Whatever the packages had held was gone.
“Well, I guess this all that’s left of what they took from the stage strong box.” Johnny poked his stick at the newspaper. He frowned. “Why would anyone put newspaper into the strong box?”
Whitehall was scurrying around the clearing, gathering as much packaging as he could. “Protecting something delicate, maybe?”
“I wouldn’t be trusting anything delicate to the likes of Crawley. Chances are he’d spit all over it.”
Whitehall snerked out that funny little laugh of his. He squatted on his heels, looking through the parcels and papers. Johnny watched him out of the corner of his eye. The marshal couldn’t hide things for shit. When he found the package he was looking for he froze for a second or two, frowning. He might as well have shouted out loud.
“That’s the one you wanted, huh?”
Whitehall started and looked at him. He stood up, folding the brown paper and pushing it into his vest pocket. A bit of newspaper floated free. He looked mad and puzzled too, like something didn’t make any sense. “None of your business, Madrid.”
“No, it ain’t, unless that’s why the Muldrows came after us.” Johnny walked back and unhitched the roan. For a moment he rested his hands on the saddle and watched Whitehall over the roan’s back.
Whitehall kicked at the ground, scuffing it with his boot toe. He looked for all the world like a bull pawin’ at the ground before charging. He couldn’t scowl any harder if he tried for a week.
Johnny nodded. “Is it?”
“Is it what you and the Pink, and maybe the Muldrows too, are lookin’ for? That wrapping paper you pushed in your pocket looked like the one with the newspaper in it. What’s that all about?”
Whitehall’s mouth worked and his hands clenched and unclenched into fists. After a minute, the marshal took a deep breath and let his shoulders relax. “I’m not telling you, Madrid. It has nothing to do with you.”
“It better not have.” Johnny got back onto the roan and rode out its fidgets. “If we’re goin’ to find that girl, we’d better make tracks.”
Whitehall gave the ground one final kick, and hauled himself up onto Old Elk. Johnny followed the tracks out of the clearing, the marshal a few yards behind him, as before.
Five minutes later he beckoned Whitehall up to join him. “They’ve turned back on themselves. They’re moving east again.” He frowned, trying to see in his mind’s eye how the countryside mapped out. “They’re heading back to the road and they’re moving real fast, too. See there, how the tracks are? They’ve picked up into a fast trot, like they’re in a real hurry. They made their minds up do something.”
“Can you track them if we move faster?”
“They’re leavin’ a trail even a Pink could follow. Or you.” Johnny glanced up, grimacing as the clouds closed over the sun again and rain spattered down onto his face. “There’s enough of them that I should be able to keep tracking even through this. They’re heading pretty straight and leavin’ a clear trail.”
Whitehall nodded. “Then let’s go.”
Johnny spurred the roan. The tracks led straight on: eight horses, moving from fast trot to a lope for a few hundred yards then back to a trot again, then lope and trot, lope and trot. A horse could go for hours that way. Whoever this was, Muldrows or not, they wanted to get where they were going in a real hurry.
The roan seemed glad to lengthen its stride some and stretch out, and eased into a lope whenever he asked it. Its gait was smoother, too. Whitehall was cursing behind him and yelling at Old Elk to get a move on, but he managed to keep up. They covered a lot of ground pretty fast despite their horses. The trail held steady, visible even though the rain was heavier and the light fading under the overcast clouds. It was settling in to be a miserable afternoon. Another hour or so of this and the trail would be washed out, even if there was light enough to follow it.
Johnny heard a horse’s squealing before they reached the road, and pushed the roan into a full out gallop, weaving a way through the oak and scrubby low bushes; water and mud spattering up beneath the roan’s hooves. The stage was in the middle of the narrow roadway with one horse down and trapped in tangled reins and harness, squealing and kicking. The others were still in the traces, trembling and sweating, and dancing to get out of the way of the downed horse’s hooves. McKenzie was lying a few yards off, sprawled on his back in the dust with one arm flung out. Crawley wouldn’t be chewin’ tobacco and worrying about his shameful kin any more. He was huddled in the box, the reins slack in his hands, chin tucked and head hanging. He looked like he might be asleep. But the whole of the front of his checked shirt was wet and red.
“¡Mierda!” Johnny threw himself from the roan, remembering to hold onto the reins, and put one foot onto the wheel hub as leverage to get high enough to reach up. Crawley slid sideways when Johnny touched him, body limp and boneless. Blood dripped into the box. “Dead.”
Whitehall had gone to McKenzie. “This one, too. He has a shoulder wound that might have knocked him from the box, but didn’t kill him. His neck’s broken. From the fall, most likely.”
“They’ve not been gone long. I didn’t hear any shooting, though. You?”
Whitehall shook his head. “No. No, I didn’t hear it.” He brought McKenzie’s outstretched arm in over his chest and patted it.
Johnny dropped back to the ground and looked the stage over. Both front and back boots had been wrenched open and were empty. Neither would have held much anyway, since they’d taken all their bags off the stage back at the way station; mail, maybe, to be taken from town to town. The doors of each boot had been jimmied open with something; the back one was almost off its hinges. He glanced into the stage and whistled, beckoning Whitehall up to join him. The marshal came up on the other side and they stared at each other across a coach where all the seats had been ripped up with a knife.
“Well, now.” Johnny reached in and pulled on a long strip of leather. It came away, showing the torn up padding underneath. “They’re sure looking hard for something. Whatever they want wasn’t in the strong box, then.”
Whitehall touched his vest pocket where the folded packaging was. “It doesn’t look like it.” He swallowed hard and met Johnny’s gaze. “I still have nothing to say, Madrid.”
“Your choice.” Johnny shrugged. He wiped rain from his face with his sleeve. “But you’d better have something to say to Crawley’s wife and kids.”
Whitehall flushed a dull red.
Johnny left that to fester. He pulled the knife from his boot and offered it. ” I guess the horses bolted when the shooting started and that one went down when Crawley was shot. Cut the horses free. I’ll pick up the trail.”
He looped his reins over the wheel and did a quick circuit around the stage, marking where the tracks went. It only took a moment. As soon as he was sure, he ran back to the stage. The downed horse was struggling up when he got back, guided by Whitehall pulling on the cut leather harness straps. It limped off to join the others huddled at the side of the road under the overhanging trees, favoring its right hind leg. At least Whitehall hadn’t had to shoot it.
Johnny yanked the roan’s reins free of the wheel and swarmed up into the saddle. He pulled the borrowed rifle from the saddle boot. “They’re heading back north to the way station. Whatever they’re looking for, lawman, they think it’s there. We gotta get back.”
The roan liked to gallop. It took off like greased lightning, stretching out its neck and lengthening its stride. Behind them, Whitehall yelled and swore and struggled to follow. Johnny took no notice. He gave the roan its head, and lit the hell out of there.
Scott wasn’t easy about letting Johnny go off after the Muldrows with just the marshal, but there wasn’t a lot he could do about it. It was obvious that Johnny and Bukey had come to some agreement that would see him freed if Lulu were returned; and in truth, irrespective of the outcome for himself, Lulu was very young and shouldn’t—couldn’t—be left to the mercy of the Muldrows or anyone masquerading as the Muldrows. Someone had to go after her, and he couldn’t think of anyone better than Johnny to do it. He just didn’t like Johnny going off without someone Scott trusted to watch his back… . No, that wasn’t the whole truth. He just didn’t like Johnny going off without Scott there to watch his back.
Rain was splashing on the windows when Mrs. Caldwell served up stew to the rest of them, after Johnny and Whitehall left. James ate heartily and Bukey picked at his, but at least the sheriff looked the better for it. Scott found it both embarrassing and awkward having to lift both hands up to his mouth with the spoon, but Bukey flat out refused to unlock the handcuffs with the spare key on his watch chain. There wasn’t one ounce of give in the man; not one. Even when he had to know he was wrong.
When the meal was over, Mrs. Caldwell bullied Bukey back into the other room to check on his wound and bullied her husband out to do his chores. Caldwell showed an unmistakable reluctance to go out into the increasingly unpleasant weather. Scott couldn’t blame him for that but he had to admire Mrs. Caldwell’s management techniques. She didn’t raise her voice, but Caldwell built up the fire against the sudden chill the rain had brought with it, and did as he was told.
Scott pushed his plate to one side and regarded James. “Have you and Whitehall been working together long?”
James regarded Scott right back, a slight smile twisting his mouth. He reached into his vest pocket and took out a small package wrapped in a plain silk handkerchief. He moved with deliberation, carefully unfolding the silk and extracting a thin ivory toothpick. He used it to excavate a fragment of beef, all the while holding Scott’s gaze. Scott stared back. He’d be damned if he were the first one to blink.
James moved onto the next tooth. “We don’t work together. I don’t know Whitehall.”
“Really? You two seemed thick as thieves.”
James made an amused hmphing noise. “That’s an unfortunate analogy, Lancer. I’m not the one with the cuffs on.”
Scott hmphed right back, with the exact same amused intonation. “And here was I, thinking you were sincere about believing me to be innocent.”
“I’m sure you are, Lancer.” James chewed on the toothpick for a minute or two. “I wasn’t working with Whitehall, but let’s just say that we found that we had certain interests in common. We are both after the same thing. We were just coming at it from different directions.”
Scott nodded. “I see. Whitehall implied very strongly that he was working for the government.”
James tilted back his chair. “I believe that he is, yes. “
“And he implied that it was secret and that the security of our nation was involved.”
“I believe that he did, yes.”
“But you aren’t?”
“I work for Allan Pinkerton, Lancer.” James wiped the toothpick on the tablecloth and re-wrapped it in its handkerchief. “Sometimes we work with the government, sometimes it’s for a private individual. As I say, my line of enquiry and Marshal Whitehall’s coincided and we’ve joined forces. That’s all.”
“And you aren’t prepared to say what all this is about?”
James wasn’t doing a very good job at looking regretful, although Scott gave him points for making the attempt at all. “No. I’m sorry, Lancer, but the Agency prides itself on the confidentiality we offer our clients.” He paused, scratching at one ear and frowning. “Look, I’ll say this much. We’re looking for something relatively small and very valuable. It’s something that Robert Baldwin died for, but that he shouldn’t have had in the first place. A great deal rides on us getting it back.”
“No.” Scott shook his head. “No, that is not particularly enlightening.”
“And the Muldrows want it as well, this small, valuable thing that Baldwin shouldn’t have had. Did he steal it?”
“He appropriated it from its rightful owners, who want it back.”
“Did they hire the Muldrows to get it? Why would they think it was in the stage strong box?”
“That’s all you get, Lancer. No more.” James held up his hands as if warding Scott off and, still genial and grinning, reached for the newspaper he’d been reading earlier.
“Do you trust Whitehall?”
James shook open the Record-Union and glanced at him over the top. “Why? Do you?”
“I don’t think I trust either of you,” said Scott, and James laughed and raised the paper as a barrier between them. Scott had a childish impulse to punch the paper and James’s smug face with it, but refrained, his grandfather’s outraged *Scotty!* ringing in his memory.
He glanced at the window. The rain ran steadily down the glass, and he spared a thought for Johnny out there, wet and miserable. Johnny hated days like this, Scott knew, and got nostalgic for the warm south of his childhood. And that reminded him… he reached to pat the key that Johnny had tucked into his pocket. No one had noticed it, his little metal ace in the hole. It reassured him.
Lulu’s Bible was at his elbow. It was an odd thing for the girl to be carrying. He flipped it open. It was an old book, one of the American Bible Society editions of at least thirty years ago; a little battered and worn, with *R.H.B* inked onto the front page. Some previous owner, probably, before it found its way into Lulu’s hands; her mother, perhaps, given the initials. It had a thick parchment dust-cover fitted and folded around it, the corners neatly mitered and edges glued to the inside boards. Lulu had decorated the dustcover with *Holy Bible*, written in ornate lettering and red ink. Teresa’s was just like it, back home, right down to the decorated dust cover.
He wasn’t in the mood for Bible reading. He put it respectfully to one side and returned to the newspaper he’d read to Johnny and tried to forget his anxiety for his little brother in advertisements for second-hand pianos, stolen pacing ponies and Doctor Wood’s Liver Regulator. The last was particularly engrossing. Scott didn’t think he had a disordered liver, but another ten minutes in the company of Bukey and James and he felt that he was quite likely to develop one.
The afternoon dragged.
Somewhere out there, Johnny was trailing a group of men who were reputed to stop at nothing, and all he had to help him was a supposed US marshal on some secretive mission of his own. As distractions from anxiety, liver pills and a note that hog cholera was practically extinct were no longer working. Scott spent a lot of the time staring moodily out of the window and watching the rain.
Bukey was looking better, more alert and less feverish. He sat on one side of the hearth chatting quietly to Caldwell, but his hands, constantly clenching and unclenching, betrayed his state of mind. Scott could readily believe that Bukey was anxious for Lulu’s safety and fretting that he’d had to allow Johnny and Whitehall to go to her rescue. Mrs. Caldwell sat on the other side, knitting and rocking, while James had moved onto the second newspaper, twitching it out of Scott’s unresisting hands and, in the uncertain light in the room as the weather closed in, tilting it towards the fire to catch as much light as he could.
It was a quiet, almost domestic scene; unremarkable and ordinary.
The shot came through the window in a shower of broken glass, to slam into the wall above the mantel. The bullet ploughed into the smoothed logs with a dull crump, scattering wood chips in all directions.
For a second there was silence. Then Mrs. Caldwell screamed, her knitting flying as she sprang to her feet.
“No!” Scott surged forward and knocked her down again, rolling her into a corner of the room. “Stay down. And stop that!” He held her hands down as she slapped and kicked at him. “Please. I’m not going to hurt you. Stay down!”
She drew in a breath that was more like a sob and went limp. He released her and moved away. James was crouched down by the window, his pistol in his hand, trying to see over the sill. Bukey was on the floor, keeping his head down and working his way over to join James. Caldwell had thrown himself to one side to reach for the Sharps carbine and was now crawling to the window on the other side of the room. The silence in the room was tense, broken only by Mrs. Caldwell’s hitching breaths as she battled for calm.
“See anything?” Bukey had made it to the window, and hunkered down near James, holding his side. His breathing was as fast as Mrs. Caldwell’s, and the sweat sheen was visible on his forehead and temples. He wiped his face with his free hand.
“Nothing. It must have come from the trees.”
“Just one shot?” wondered Bukey, and even as he spoke, a fusillade of them burst through the window to spatter into the way-station walls. Everyone ducked down, the bullets whining over their heads. Wood chips flew like snow flurries.
“Lie still, Effie! Lie still!” Caldwell sounded as terrified as his wife. “Stay down.”
The woman sobbed. A frightened plea to the Lord was all that Scott could make out.
He rolled into the corner where his bag was and forced it open. His gun lay on the top of his spare clothes, the gun belt coiled around the holster.
“Put that down!” Bukey said, voice sharp.
Scott spared him a glance. “Don’t be a fool. You’ll need my gun.”
It needed a little bit of work to get his left hand into his pocket but he managed it, transferring the key to his right. It all went quiet again, the shooting dying away as he struggled to get the cuffs undone.
“Still can’t see anyone.” James slid his back up the wall beside the window and stood, careful to keep out of sight of the shooters. “Has to be the Muldrows.”
Scott had his left hand free. It was more awkward to get at the right keyhole using his left hand. Bukey’s attention was back on the shooters, for which he was grateful. “We’ll need more ammunition. There’ll be boxes in Johnny’s saddlebag.”
“He took them with him.” Bukey didn’t turn his head.
“He took two of them with him. There’ll be more.” Scott finally managed to get the key turned. Hands free, he tossed the manacles to one side. They bounced off the wall near Bukey’s feet.
The sheriff turned and glared, half-raising his pistol.
Scott grinned and held up the key. “No malice, Bukey.”
Bukey scowled and hesitated. Scott ignored him and buckled on his gun belt as fast as he could do it, checking that his gun was loaded. He reached for Johnny’s saddlebags to find the extra ammunition.
The shout came from the woods across the clearing to the south. “Hello the house! We have you surrounded and I don’t give a damn how many of you get out of here alive, you hear? You got something I want in there, and I’ve got something you want out here. I’ll kill her if you don’t trade.”
Somewhere out in the woods, Lulu screamed.
Chapter 7 by Shelley and Starry Diadem
The roan stretched out and ran. It set a breakneck and reckless pace that suited its rider’s mood exactly. But the footing was increasingly slick and deep. After the horse almost went to his knees, even Johnny realized that getting himself killed trying to get back a minute sooner wouldn’t help anything. He sat back and brought the roan down to a saner pace.
Looking over his shoulder, he could see Whitehall about a quarter of a mile behind, struggling to catch up. He pulled up and sat waiting for him. The rain had let up to a steady drizzle and the air had turned chilly. Johnny reached up to wipe his face and shifted against the soggy leather of the saddle. The rain had found it’s way down his collar and had soaked through the front of his shirt until his leather jacket and pants, instead of protecting him from the elements had turned cold and clammy. The horse wasn’t any happier, pulling against the bit and tossing its head restlessly, wanting to be gone. Another look showed Whitehall had almost caught up. Johnny released the reins and the roan took off but this time Johnny held it to a slow canter.
Johnny heard the squelch of approaching hoof beats. A minute later Elk’s head inched up to his knee, ears flat back and an angry look in its eye. He could feel Whitehall’s eyes on him but he didn’t bother to look, he just let the roan out another notch. They pushed on with as much speed as Whitehall could squeeze out of his mount.
They were nearing the hill that curved around the south side of the way station when Johnny pulled the roan to a halt and signaled Whitehall to do the same.
“What are you stopping for, Madrid? We’re almost there.”
Johnny didn’t answer, just sat, a look of concentration on his face.
Whitehall was about to repeat his question when he heard a series of muffled pops filter through the soggy air.
“Damn!” Johnny put his heels to the roan and left Whitehall in a shower of airborne mud.
Madrid led the way, he brought them up through a stand of wood growing against the south flank of the hill. They slowed and made their way quietly through the trees before dismounting and tying off the horses. Keeping under cover, they slipped through the brush and up the hillside. They could hear a raised voice, someone shouting, but they couldn’t make out what was said. They hurried a bit more. Just before they got to the crest, Johnny tipped his hat off to hang down his back. At a glance from Madrid, Whitehall took his off too. They crawled forward to the top of the hill and peered over.
The light, what there was of it, was beginning to fade but from their vantage point they could see the way station laid out below them. They could also see six of the outlaw gang. And they could see Lulu.
The outlaws were positioned in a wide gully that ran from the trees down toward the way station and then swung around to run parallel to the corral fence. It gave them good cover along a wide front, facing the building.
Lulu was standing next to a tall man. She was wearing a buckskin jacket that was much too large for her and the man had a hand around her wrist, holding her securely.
The man shifted his grip to her shoulder and leaned down to say something to her. She threw back her head and screamed.
Whitehall tensed up but Madrid put a hand on his arm. “Wait.”
The marshal glanced over and then he turned back to the scene below them.
Lulu lifted her head and looked up at the outlaw. He said something, she nodded… and then she laughed. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. Even from this distance they could see that she wasn’t what you’d call an unwilling participant.
“Well I’ll be damned.” Whitehall whispered.
“More than likely, and so will she. Now quiet. See if you can spot the other two. There’s at least eight of `em.”
Beneath them, the leader peeled Lulu off his chest. He gestured back toward the trees and gave her a swat on the ass when she turned to go. As she walked away he nodded toward one of his men to follow her.
As soon as she was clear Whitehall drew his pistol and brought it forward. Just as he was about to cock the hammer his hand was seized in an iron grip. He could feel his bones grinding into the metal of the gun.
“I said to wait.” Johnny twisted the Colt out of Whitehall’s grip. “Get back down there.” He gestured back the way they’d come.
They slid backwards a few feet and then Whitehall turned. He found himself staring into a pair of very angry eyes.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Whitehall hissed.
“You listen to me, mister. This entire trip has been a nightmare, ever since Scott and I climbed off that coach in Malice. I don’t intend that it should get any worse. I don’t know what your part in this mess is, but you do anything else stupid, anything that puts my brother in any more danger, and I swear, you’re the first one I take out. Got it?”
Whitehall drew in a deep breath through his nose. “Now listen here, Madrid, I’m a U.S. Marshal and—”
“I don’t give a damn if you’re the president of the United States, you’re playin’ my game now and you’re gonna do what I say. No more, no less.”
“That document that they’re looking for is my responsibility—”
“That man down there is my family. You either agree to follow orders. . .” Johnny still held the Marshal’s gun and it had angled around until it was pointing more or less in Whitehall’s direction, “or you don’t go any further. Understood?” The gun never wavered.
Whitehall swallowed. A drop of rain ran down and quivered on the end of his nose, hanging there for a long moment until he nodded sharply. “All right, but you haven’t heard the end of this.”
Johnny stared at him for a long beat. “You do what you gotta do, marshal, just remember what I said.” He handed over the gun and then turned and crawled back to the top of the hill. He settled down on his belly and peered out from behind the cover of a dripping, scraggly bush. Whitehall followed.
“I’ve still only seen six of them. Have you seen any more?” Johnny rested his chin on his fist.
Whitehall shook his head.
“Damn. Well, the first thing we’ve got to do is get that girl.”
“Why? She looks like she’s right where she wants to be.”
“I don’t care what she wants, she’s the key to my brother’s freedom. She’s going back, whether she likes it or not.” Johnny took another quick look “Come on.”
Just as they started to slide back down there was a flurry of gunfire and a few answering shots from inside the way station. The last was the sharp bark of a carbine and was followed by a cry of pain from one of the outlaws.
Johnny threw the marshal an unexpected grin. “That’s my brother.”
The marshal looked back toward the station. “How can you tell?” He turned back but Johnny was halfway down the hill.
Johnny reset his hat. “Don’t,” he said when he saw Whitehall trying to brush off the mud and leaves that were plastered to the front of his shirt. “Leave it. It’ll make you harder to see.” Johnny bent down and grabbed a handful of mud and rubbed it onto his pink shirt where it showed through the front of his jacket. “How long have you been out west?” he asked.
“I started my career with the Marshals Service out here, Texas, New Mexico Territory. The last few years I’ve been working mostly back east.” Whitehall looked down with regret at the mess that used to be his clean white shirt, not quite sure what to do with his hands. “I’ve been specializing in cases involving political or diplomatic issues. I usually work around Washington and New York City.”
“That explains a lot,” Johnny muttered. “Come on.”
“Now wait a minute…”
“And be quiet!”
“Listen, Madrid, I am not a greenhorn. I was chasing outlaws before you picked up your first gun.”
Johnny turned and gave him a long look, and then shook his head. “Nope, you’re not that old,” he said and then walked off into the woods.
The marshal frowned, trying to work out what that meant, but he also followed, and he was quiet.
They circled around and came up through the trees from the south. With the light fading, the wood had turned ghostly. A mist was rising from the sodden leaf litter and the loudest sound was the drip and spatter of raindrops filtering down from the canopy. Johnny slid silently from one piece of cover to the other. Whitehall watched and tried not to trip over the roots and vines that reached out to grab at his feet.
The marshal took his eyes off Johnny to negotiate a particularly nasty patch of brambles. When he looked up Madrid was gone. He was peering into the gloom when a hand laid hold of his shoulder and he almost yelled. He had a feeling that that would have been one of those stupid things that Madrid had warned him about.
“Come over this way,” a voice whispered in his ear. “And be quiet, they’re only up here about twenty feet.”
He followed Johnny forward through the thinning trees. They crouched down behind a fallen tree. Displaced roots reached toward the sky, frozen in horrified supplication at their exposed position.
“You’ll be able to keep an eye on `em from here.”
Whitehall could see Lulu sheltering under a tarp strung between two trees to form a makeshift lean-to. Johnny nodded to the right and the marshal made out the indistinct form of the man that the outlaw chief had sent to guard the girl.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna get Lulu. You cover me, but don’t shoot unless you have to, and if you have to, try to do the job in one shot. If we’re lucky they might think it’s one of their own shooting at the station.”
Whitehall took another quick look at the situation and shook his head. “But what about…” He turned and looked over his shoulder. He was alone.
The damp chill, the cloying mist and the syncopated drip of the rain through the leaves played on the marshal’s nerves as he waited. Nothing happened. How long was he supposed to wait?
He was watching the guard when he saw the man jerk upright, stiffen and then crumple slowly, all without a whisper of sound. As the outlaw hit the ground, Madrid crouched down and retrieved his knife. He wiped it on the guard’s coat. Johnny grabbed the man under the arms and dragged him some ways back into the bush. He reemerged in a minute and glanced over toward Whitehall’s position. Even in the half light, Whitehall could see that the gunman’s face was set and remote and the chill in his eyes made the rain running down the back of the marshal’s neck feel warm by comparison.
Whitehall took a deep breath and watched Johnny walk up to the lean-to. He could see Lulu. She had a tiny fire going and was crouched down brewing a pot of coffee. She didn’t even look when Johnny walked up.
“It’s not ready yet, Bob. I told you I’d call you.” She glanced up and then jumped to her feet and backed away from the fire. “What are you doing here?”
Johnny smiled and stepped toward her. “Nice to see you too, ma’am. I’m here to take you back to your uncle.”
She shook her head and drew in a deep breath. Before she could scream, Madrid’s fist connected with her chin. Her head snapped back and she dropped like a stone. Johnny caught her before she hit the ground. He ripped a piece of cloth from her petticoat and tied her hands and then tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of grain.
“Here, you take her.” Whitehall had walked out to join him. “If she so much as wiggles, hit her again.”
Whitehall grabbed the girl as she was shoved at him. “Where are we going?”
“Around to the barn. There’s enough cover over there to make it into the station.”
The marshal cradled Lulu in his arms but after about twenty feet, his back started to feel the strain and he decided that Madrid had the right idea. He shifted her unceremoniously over his shoulder and followed Johnny into the growing gloom.
Night was falling fast and the visibility fell with each foot they covered. They had veered back into the woods but Madrid seemed to know exactly where he was going. Whitehall followed in his wake. Lulu never twitched.
The woods gave way to tall scrub as they moved around to the north. Whitehall struggled with the weight of the girl. Once he stepped in a hole in the uneven ground and almost dropped her but a steadying hand and a whispered command to be silent restored his balance. His back was starting to speak to him rather strongly when suddenly Madrid stopped.
“There’s the barn.”
Whitehall shifted the girl’s weight and squinted through the gloom. He could see a vague dark blob off to the left but as far as he could tell it could have been anything from a beached whale to a herd of elephants. However, he’d take Madrid’s word that it was indeed the barn. He hoped so. His knees were starting to quiver, and the rain was coming down harder.
“Try to keep as low as you can. Getting from here to the barn is the trickiest part of this trip. There’s not much cover but hopefully they’ll be watching for someone trying to get out, not someone trying to get in.” Madrid adjusted his hat. “Wait for my signal,” he said and then took off across the open space. He stopped by a bush along the fence line and waved the marshal on.
Whitehall took a deep breath, put a hand on Lulu’s ass to shift her to a more secure position, and started across the field. A couple minutes later he was crouched down next to Madrid, behind the bush. He dropped Lulu off his shoulder and she landed with a squishy plop in the wet dirt.
Madrid grinned at him. He could see the man’s teeth flash in the darkness.
He rolled his shoulder and rubbed at the joint. “She’s heavier than she looks, you know.”
Madrid just grinned again. “Can you make it?”
“Of course. Just give me a minute.” Whitehall swore he heard the gunman snort.
Their next dash took them up against the wall of the barn.
“Wait here,” Madrid breathed. “And be quiet.”
Whitehall took a breath to say something but once again he found himself alone. He waited in the darkness and as he waited the rain came on again, beating against the silence of the night and rattling against the roof of the barn. He hunched down into his jacket and swore to himself that he’s never come west of the Mississippi River again, no matter how much the assignment might help his career.
He crouched against the barn wall, actually relishing the extra protection that Lulu’s skirts gave him from the pounding rain. He was slowly sinking deeper into his own misery when a soft call produced a fresh rush of adrenalin. He could just make out Madrid motioning for him to come into the barn.
Trading the all out assault of rain, wind and cold for the warm, dusty embrace of the barn was a shock to the system. It was peaceful inside, peaceful, but not quiet. The rain beating against the roof made stealth a moot issue.
“Move,” Madrid almost shouted. “You’ll have a better chance of making it to the station unseen if you get going before this rain lets up.”
Whitehall adjusted his load and walked down the center aisle of the barn. “I would have thought they would have posted a guard in here.”
“They did.” Madrid glanced over at a pile of loose bedding.
A man lay curled up in the straw. He would have looked simply asleep if it were not for the strange angle of his neck.
Whitehall swallowed heavily and picked up his pace.
They crossed the barn and came to the opposite door. Madrid leaned in close in order to be heard. “If you go from here to the well and then over to the woodpile, you’ll have good cover most of the way. The way it’s coming down, I doubt anybody will be looking too hard anyway. When you get over there, go and beat on that back window that opens into the mens’ bunk room. It sits back against that little angle of the lean to. I don’t think anyone can see you from the other side of the station, and there’s no cover straight out back, so they won’t have a man there. Wait for `em to come check you out. If you just try to break in, they’ll probably fill you full of lead and ask questions later. Got it?”
“I’ll cover you from here.”
“Wait a minute, you’re not coming back with us?”
Madrid shook his head. “Nope. I can’t do much good from in there. Thought I’d stay out here and do a little hunting.”
Johnny knelt by the barn door, his gun drawn as he watched Whitehall make his way across the yard in the pouring rain. By the time the marshal reached the back of the house, he was no more than a blur of shadow against the deeper shadow of the building. After a few minutes Johnny saw a sliver of light wash briefly into the darkness, a flurry of movement and then nothing. The marshal had made it and was safe inside for now.
Johnny nodded and stood. He holstered his gun and walked back into the barn where he threw some straw down to cover the dead outlaw. Dusting off his hands he started toward the back of the building but he paused.
Whitehall had said something about documents. Johnny turned back and knelt by the body, he pushed back the straw and began to go through the man’s pockets. There was nothing, or at least nothing that he didn’t expect to find – tobacco, coins, a small notebook. He kept the notebook to look through later and replaced the straw. He hadn’t expected to find anything worthwhile, but it didn’t hurt to look.
Standing, he walked the length of the barn to the back door where he stopped, staring out into the darkness and thinking. There had been a guard here in the barn. As he’d told Whitehall, he didn’t think there would be anyone straight out back because of the lack of cover. He tried to picture the layout on the other side of the station. There was an outcrop of tumbled rock and brush on a small rise. He’d be willing to bet there was another watcher in those rocks, and if he were right, that would make eight. He hoped there weren’t more.
He considered his options. It was risky to go around the back of the station but if the rain held and he went wide, he should be able to make it unseen. And besides, his time was running out. Sooner or later they would check on the girl and then they’d know something was wrong. He’d lose the element of surprise.
He took another long look. If there was anything out there to see, it was well hidden. Drawing a deep breath, he pulled his hat down. A faraway flash of lightning lit up the storm clouds and thunder grated and rolled as he slipped out into the night.
Whitehall was panting by the time he reached the back of the way station house. Rain trickled down his face and seeped in under his collar. His clothes were cold and damp, sticking to him where he wished they wouldn’t. Who in hell started that damned lie about California being warm and sunny? Despite the cold, he was sweating with the effort needed to carry the girl to safety and his shoulders ached. Damn, but he was getting old. He’d thought he was in better shape than this, too.
Lulu was more and more difficult to hold on to. She’d been a dead weight still when Madrid had beckoned him into the barn, and that had been hard enough to handle. But by the time he left Madrid and headed for the way station, the girl was starting to stir. She kept moaning in his left ear, and every breath she drew in was grunted out with a horrible, wet snort that sounded more like a piglet than the demure young niece of a local sheriff. The Lord alone knew what she was snorting and dribbling down the back of his jacket.
Thankfully, Madrid packed one helluva punch and the girl was still out of it. Whenever she wriggled it was weak and feeble, but it was enough to make his footing, already unsteady on the uneven wet ground, falter while he jiggled her around a bit to resettle her weight. The second time she moved, he tightened the grip his left hand had around her legs and brought his right up to slap hard at her backside.
A damned shame that the sodden petticoats deadened the blow. Giving this little minx a long-overdue spanking would be a pleasure, as well as a duty. It wasn’t often that the two coincided so well.
Lulu moaned again, but at least she stopped wriggling. He staggered the last few steps and fetched up in the angle of the main building and its lean-to, sheltered at last from the worst of the rain and more confident that he’d not be spotted by any of the Muldrow gang. Madrid had been right about that, damn him.
The problem, of course, was Lulu. She was stirring again, the wriggles stronger. e jammed her into the angle of the two buildings and leaned into her, letting the walls take the strain while all he had to do was hold her up. He banged on the window with his free hand.
Maybe they couldn’t hear him over the rain and the shooting from the other side of the house. He leaned a little harder on Lulu, chewing on his lip. She squeaked and kicked her feet, but she couldn’t do him much damage. A hand beat on his back, but she soon drifted off again. Wouldn’t be long, though. It would have been a good thing if Madrid had hit her a bit harder, if it kept the chit quiet for longer.
After another few minutes wait, colder and wetter and more weary than anything he’d gone through in a while, he drew his gun. Waiting until there was a break in the gunfire, he smashed the window with it.
Leaning forward he bellowed into the room. “Bukey! James! Can you hear me? Lancer!”
Farther inside the building, he heard a startled voice – whose he couldn’t tell. The door to the main room was pushed open, but whoever was on the other side stayed to one side, out of sight. Whitehall could see the barrel of a pistol.
“Bukey! Lancer! For God’s sake, come and open this damned window!”
“Marshal Whitehall?” Scott Lancer sounded astonished.
Whitehall bit back any number of smart-aleck responses to that. Who in hell was Lancer expecting? “Get this window open. I’ve got the girl.”
Lancer had lost the handcuffs again, he noticed. Bukey must have been persuaded to release him. Lancer called to Bukey for help and trotted across to the window, holstering his gun. Bukey dashed in behind him, eager.
“Lulu! Is she hurt? Is she all right? Did they touch her—?”
Whitehall grunted. “She’ll be fine. Get that damned window open.”
Between them, Lancer and Bukey flung up the sash while Whitehall leaned against Lulu and the wall and Lulu’s squeaks grew louder.
“Hand her over,” said Lancer, holding out his hands to take the girl.
Whitehall straightened with a grunt, taking Lulu’s full weight again. He managed to roll her on his shoulder to turn her the right way up and get her feet pointed to the window. “Take her feet and pull. I’ll guide her through.”
Under other circumstances, a man might have enjoyed having to manhandle a pretty girl; at least he would if she were up for it and looking for fun in return. Lulu wasn’t. She was soaking wet and muddy and still snorting. Now that he came to look at her as Lancer and Bukey pulled her carefully in, he could see that she was bloody and snotty around the nose and mouth. Her head rolled to one side as he guided through her shoulders and he glimpsed her eyes, glassy and unfocused, come momentarily aware before they closed again. She was waking up, most definitely. She’d got herself into a real mess. A man could almost feel sorry for the silly child.
So Whitehall took extra care when it came to supporting her upper body and kept his hands well away from where they shouldn’t go. Virtue would be its own reward, he was sure.
“Careful! Careful!” Bukey fussed. He wouldn’t take it well, what Lulu had done, that was certain. Whitehall didn’t like Bukey’s kind of lawman, but so far everything pointed to the man being straight up. If it wasn’t for the link to Baldwin, he’d be willing to say the man was out of the picture. As it was… well, they’d see.
As soon as Lancer and Bukey had her, Whitehall clambered in through the window. Bukey was white-faced and wavering, one hand on his side as he tried to take Lulu from Lancer’s grasp.
“Don’t be a fool,” said Lancer, waving Bukey off. He bent his knees and lifted Lulu up into his arms, straightening up with a repressed grunt.
Whitehall grinned a little. “She’s no light-weight,” he warned. He straightened more slowly himself, putting a hand to the small of his back and stretched to get the kinks out. He wasn’t sorry that it was Lancer staggering across the room carrying Lulu, with Bukey fussing beside him. It paid Madrid back a bit, to let his brother do the heavy work now.
They handed Lulu over to Mrs. Caldwell. Lancer laid Lulu on the floor in one corner, out of the line of fire from the windows. Bukey stayed beside the girl. Poor Mrs. Caldwell looked like she needed a restorative herself, but having Lulu to look after seemed to put new heart into her. Right before Whitehall’s eyes, Mrs. Caldwell stopped wringing her hands and moaning, and bustled about looking for hartshorn and vinegar. She had to crawl to reach the medicine cabinet, keeping her head down, and she didn’t look cheerful exactly, but it was clear she relished having something to do to take her mind off what was happening to her home.
James turned from one of the windows. He had his Winchester in his hands. He looked furious. “Whitehall, what in hell is going on?”
“In a minute.” Whitehall waved a hand back to the men’s sleeping room. “Madrid was right. The Muldrows aren’t out back where it’s open clear to the Canadian border, feels like. There’s not enough cover out there for a mouse. But that doesn’t mean they won’t take the risk and try to sneak someone back there now it’s dark, and with that storm making it worse… then we’d be for it. Caldwell, take that shotgun of yours back there and keep watch, okay? Keep the door open so we can stay in touch.”
Caldwell nodded and picked up the shotgun. The bores on the twin barrels looked like a couple of cannon.
“Don’t shoot Madrid, though, if he comes in that way,” said Whitehall as the man went towards the inner door. He glanced at Lancer, and let his mouth twist into a grin. “I think I’d like to do that myself.”
“Where is Johnny?” demanded Lancer, just as James turned back to the window and traded shots with someone outside in the trees.
Whitehall jerked a head towards the outside, and took out his gun to reload it. “Out there. He figured he’d be more use taking out the Muldrows than getting cooped up in here.”
Lancer’s mouth dropped open. “You just left Johnny out there? On his own, against that gang? With no help? What in hell were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that someone had to get that stupid girl out of danger. I was thinking that it was his way of fighting, not mine, and I was getting in the way. I was thinking that I had my own gun waved in my face with a warning about what would happen if I argued with him.” Whitehall let the grin he was giving Madrid’s outraged brother widen. “And I was thinking that he didn’t need my help anyway, Lancer. Madrid’s waging his own war out there, no holds barred. He’s winnowing his way through the Muldrows like he’s the Flail of the Lord.”
Lancer drew in a shaky breath that was half a laugh. “Oh yes. That sounds just like my little brother. He does think he’s invincible.”
“He killed two of them on our way in.” Whitehall put his gun back in the holster. “I guess if you asked them, they might agree.”
“Whitehall!” James sounded like he was grinding his teeth together. He ducked to one side as another fusillade of shots peppered the log wall.
“You’d better save your bullets, James. All you’re hitting are trees. We’ll sit tight, let Madrid take out as many as he can and we’ll wait for the rest to come down here to come to us.” Whitehall glanced at the Sharps carbine lying on the table. “Were you using the Sharps, Lancer? Madrid was sure you got one.”
There was a sharp tang of ammonia on the air. Whitehall turned towards the coughing, choking protests from Lulu to see Mrs. Caldwell holding the girl’s head with one hand while she waved a small brown bottle under her nose with the other. Lulu choked again, but she struggled to sit up, pushing away both Mrs. Caldwell’s hand and her uncle. She looked one helluva sight, with a bloody mouth and nose and tears tracking their way through the mess. If she turned heads right now, it wouldn’t be for the reasons they’d turned in the past.
“There.” Mrs. Caldwell sat back on her heels, looking satisfied. She patted Lulu’s shoulder. “I’ll get something to clean you up with.” She crawled away to the sink in corner.
“Oh!” said Lulu, in a shocked tone. She raised both hands to her face to cover her mouth. “Oh.”
“Did they hurt her?” Lancer gave her a pitying glance. He wasn’t talking about the damage they could see, and Whitehall saw Bukey’s shoulders tense up.
“They didn’t touch her.”
Bukey turned his head. He looked like he was sickening for something. “We heard her scream.”
“We saw it, me and Madrid. Out there in the woods.” Whitehall let his gaze rest on Lulu until the girl looked at him over her hands. Her eyes were wide and frightened. “She did what the leader asked. She screamed right on cue.” He paused. “And then she kissed him.”
There as a short silence, broken only by more shots that every single person in the room didn’t even seem to hear. They stared, instead, from Whitehall to Lulu. Even with her hands in the way, Whitehall could see the girl’s chin was trembling. Her eyes filled with tears. She shook her head.
“No,” said Bukey. “No.” But he didn’t sound convinced.
Lulu’s hands dropped away. “I— I don’t know—” She spoke thickly, like her mouth pained her. She had a peculiar expression on her face and she raised her hand again to poke at her mouth. “Oh,” she said, again, and wailed like a child.
“They hit her! They hit her…”
“The hell they did. She yelled out like a good little girl, and then she laughed. She laughed, Bukey, and whoever it is out there bossing that gang around had to peel her off him. She knows him.” Whitehall shrugged slightly. “I’d say she knows him very well, Sheriff.”
Lancer had a sense of humor, Whitehall would give him that much; his tone was acidly innocent. “In the biblical sense, I suppose.”
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
“Well,” said Lancer, straight faced. “Well, this does shine a different light on things, doesn’t it?”
“Then who hit her?” Bukey struggled to his feet. “What in hell’s goin’ on?”
“Oh Madrid hit her. She didn’t want to come with us.”
“Johnny?” Lancer raised an eyebrow. “Johnny hit her?”
Lulu wailed louder.
“Madrid?” Bukey looked kind of gutshot.
“Hell’s teeth, man!” James spun around from where he was still keeping watch at the window. He was almost stamping his foot in temper. “Are you the only man in the room who doesn’t realize that your so-called deputy is Johnny Madrid? Why in hell do you think we’ve been calling him Madrid?”
“He’s Johnny Lancer,” said Lancer, tone cold.
“Lancer or Madrid, it’s all the same.” Whitehall shrugged. “He’s still out there being a dangerous sonofabitch.”
“Johnny’s usually a sucker for a damsel in distress.” Lancer didn’t protest at this description. He eyed Lulu. “He has the softest heart… she must have really got him angry.”
“One yell and we’d have been dead. She saw us and opened her mouth to yell.” Whitehall regarded Lulu’s sobbing and shrugged again. “Madrid closed it for her.”
Bukey was muttering and his hand was on his gun. He was looking at Scott Lancer like he wished Lancer was Madrid.
“Boke my toofth,” said Lulu, choking down sobs. Mrs. Caldwell had returned with a wet towel and was dabbing at the mess on Lulu’s face. She snatched the towel away and did her own dabbing. She was crying again. She winced as she dabbed and said, more clearly. “He broke it!”
“He hits hard.” Lancer didn’t look very sympathetic.
Bukey was almost beside himself. “I’ll kill the bastard!”
Whitehall lost patience. She’s working with them, Bukey. She doesn’t care that they put a bullet in your side—” Whitehall ignored Lulu’s protesting squeaks, talking right over them. “She doesn’t care that they killed Crawley and the stagecoach guard and ripped the coach apart or that they’re shooting the hell out this station and they’ll kill every one of us to get to—” He broke off abruptly.
“Yes. To get to what?” Lancer ignored Bukey’s posturing, focused on Whitehall.
“They don’t have it? But they took everything from the stage strong box.” James took a step into the room, intent on Whitehall. “I saw Baldwin put a package there the day he was murdered.”
Whitehall shook his head. God, he was tired and he’d kill for a cup of coffee. The shooting outside had lessened to the odd shot. He glanced through into the men’s sleeping room. “Caldwell! All quiet back there?”
Whitehall pulled the wet brown packaging from his inside pocket and handed it to James. “A decoy. It wasn’t there.”
James turned the packaging over in his hands. A fragment of newspaper drifted to the floor. “I see.” James’ tone was peculiarly quiet and all the anger had drained out of it.
Whitehall looked around. Lulu was glaring at him above that dabbing towel, her eyes filled with malice. Bukey looked stunned. Mrs. Caldwell was watching Lulu, her mouth drawn tight with disapproval.
Lancer, though, hadn’t missed what he said and was watching him with steady eyes. “What was that about the stage?”
“We tracked the Muldrows. They swung back to the road, and hit the stage. The guard and driver are both dead and they tore the coach to matchsticks.”
Lulu gasped. “No! No, Ed wouldn’t! He wouldn’t! He didn’t shoot you, Uncle Hezekiah! He didn’t.”
Bukey shuffled away, slow and bent, like an old man who’d lost his walking cane. “Someone shot me.”
“It wasn’t Ed! He wouldn’t kill the stagecoach men. He wouldn’t.”
Whitehall snorted. Conniving little witch. Couldn’t trust a word she said. “You mean you didn’t sit there and watch them do it?”
Lulu sat up straight, the towel dropping away. “No!”
“Either way, you’re in trouble.” Whitehall blew out a sigh. “And so are we. The sheriff at the next stop—Colusa, is it? Well, he’ll probably bring a posse back up the trail when the stage doesn’t show, but not until tomorrow, would be my guess. Gonna be a long night.”
“Hush, girl.” Bukey sat down at the table. He took no notice of Lulu’s whine and flounce, or of the danger at being in the middle of the room.
James scowled. “They think it’s here? That one of us has it?”
“Looks like.” Whitehall gestured to the window. “Lancer, would you keep watch? James and I need to search the luggage. I’ll look in yours and Madrid’s first.”
Lancer gave him a long, level look. He returned it, until Lancer shook his head and turned away to walk to the window. “Go right ahead,” said Lancer, scooping up the carbine on his way. “You won’t find anything in my bags and all that’ll be in Johnny’s will be bullets and a spare shirt. You might share the bullets out with the rest of us, by the way.” There was another burst of shots from the Muldrows and Lancer cocked his head, as if listening. “It looks like we’ll need them.”
The flashes of lightning came more frequently, and each one nailed him to the flat landscape like a bug on a pin. It left him feeling itchy and exposed. The long slog through the mud and the rain had been miserable, but he’d finally made it to the far side of the station. Now he was approaching the outcropping that had been his goal.
He came at it from the back side, away from the station, slipping in to rest for a moment in the lea of the first of the big boulders. He tucked his hands under his armpits to warm them while he considered his next move.
How to find his quarry in this mess of loose stones, looming rocks and brush. The tricky part would be seeing the sentry before he was seen. Now the weather worked against him but there was nothing to do but push ahead. He did, warily.
He left the boulder he had been sheltering behind and moved cautiously, further into the maze of brush and stone, being careful where he put his feet and pausing occasionally to listen to the night. He was just skirting the edge of a truly massive slab of granite when he stopped, muscles tense and nerves singing. He scanned the darkness, listening hard as he tried to identify whatever it was that had put him on alert. A gust of wind eddied around the wall of rock and his head lifted. Smoke. Tobacco smoke. The man he was hunting was here and he wasn’t being very careful. Johnny grinned and moved forward until he could look around the huge stone.
At first he could see nothing through the driving rain but shadows, and then a spark of red glowed briefly and pinpointed the sentry’s location.
The man was backed into a shallow cranny where two slabs of stone leaned drunkenly together. In front of him was probably the only clear spot in the whole mess of rocks and brush. It funneled out from the niche about ten feet and then dropped to a rock-strewn slope. The whole thing looked straight down on the stage station. It was a good spot for the watcher. It was a bad spot for Johnny. The only way to approach it was from the front and there was no concealment, only the cover of darkness.
Johnny paused, watching the sentry and considering his options. He could use his gun but he’d prefer not to. Even after he took this one out, the odds would still be four or five to one. He’d rather keep his presence quiet for as long as he could.
The outlaw coughed and the butt of his cigarette drew a scarlet arc through the night as he tossed it away. The man coughed again. He shifted restlessly and drew his coat tighter around himself.
Johnny adjusted his grip on his knife and waited.
Thunder grumbled and the rain came down harder. The man in the crevice swore softly and turned his back to the weather. A match flared and the smell of sulfur and tobacco bloomed in the darkness.
Johnny moved, smooth and silent, pressed close to the stone wall, and then, less than ten feet to the left of his target, he froze.
The lookout had turned back around and was settling his shoulders against the cold stone. He took a drag on his quirley and scanned the area in front of him. Johnny waited, hardly daring to breath, hoping for another opportunity to close the distance.
The wind freshened and hurled a spate of rain at the standing stones. The guard turned his head away from the onslaught just as a bolt of lightning split the sky. It banished the darkness and wiped out the shadows. Hunter and hunted found themselves staring straight at one another.
The sentry dropped his cigarette. “What the hell!”
Johnny nodded. “Howdy.”
The thunder boomed almost directly overhead and the sentinel grabbed for his gun. There was a flicker of movement by the rocks and the man jerked, his fingers barely closing on the grip of his gun as he looked down at the slim knife quivering in the center of his chest. His eyes sought the shadow who’d appeared out of nowhere and he started to say something but instead he slid sideways to the ground.
Johnny pulled the sentry’s gun and tossed it away. He knelt by the dying outlaw. He took hold of the man’s wrist as the outlaw reached for the knife. “Don’t,” he said softly.
“Who?” the guard whispered.
“Don’t matter now.” The rain fell like tears and Johnny held the man’s gaze as he drew one more rattling breath and then was still.
Johnny sighed and reached out to close the eyes that stared unblinking into the falling rain. He once again searched for documents and found nothing. Finally he retrieved his knife and turned to the south, heading for the stage road and the remnants of the Muldrow gang.
Chapter 8 by Shelley and Starry Diadem
Pony Jack Herrick lobbed another shot at the station, then tucked the rifle under his arm and pulled his sodden jacket closer around himself. This was turning into one hell of a long night and he didn’t see any reason for it. The lights were out in the building and there was nothing to shoot at. Hell, it would be sheer luck if any of them managed to hit the front wall of the place, much less anyone inside it. Far as he could see they weren’t doin’ anything but wasting ammunition and maybe catchin’ the croup standin’ out here in the cold and rain. The folks pinned down inside sure had the better end of this deal.
He’d tucked his hands up under his arms and was yearning after someplace warm and dry when a heavy hand on his shoulder caused him to jump about a foot and spin around.
“Damn it, Ed,” he said. “You ought to know better than to sneak up on a man like that.”
The hand shoved him back against the muddy bank. “I wouldn’t have caught you off guard if you’d been paying attention. You are being paid to stay alert. See that you do so.”
Pony Jack considered decking the man but to tell the truth, he was a little afraid of him. Still, he couldn’t quite hide his belligerence. “Oh, I’ve been paying attention all right. I’m on a first name basis with every fuckin’ raindrop out here.” Pony swiped his hand down his face. “How long we gonna give ‘em before we end this mess? I’m gonna freeze solid standin’ here like this.”
The taller man glared at him and then reconsidered when a shiver ran through his own body. “You might have a point, Pony. Why don’t you go back to where Bill’s holding the girl? See if there’s any coffee. Bring the pot and some cups up here.”
A smile broke across Pony’s face. “You don’t have to ask me twice. That’s the best idea I’ve heard tonight.” He started forward but stopped. “Then we gonna go get ‘em?”
There was no arguing with that tone of voice.
“Tell the boys down the line to hold their fire. We’ll let our quarry relax, maybe even go to sleep. Then we’ll go in and dig them out.
The man grinned and Pony shivered.
“Now go on, get that coffee. I want everyone wide awake.”
The ground was uneven and in between the intermittent flashes of lightning the night was black as pitch. Every once in a while the rain would ease a little and then the wind would kick up and throw another wall of water at him. Johnny shivered and stumbled. He muttered a string of Spanish under his breath that should have warmed the air for a mile in every direction, but didn’t.
The longer he walked the more eager he was to meet the rest of the outlaws. He was just plain miserable and downright mean and he was feeling generous. He was looking forward to sharing some of those sentiments with the Muldrows. Planning how to do it kept his mind off his torment as he slogged through the darkness.
He was tired and so involved with his thoughts that he almost walked right over the edge of the shallow bank that lined the road on the north side. He dropped to his knees and froze as he tried to make out where he was in relation to the stage stop. There hadn’t been any gunfire for a while now and he waited for a flash of lightning to help him get his bearings. When it came he caught a glimpse of the hill that he and Whitehall had climbed when they came back from the wrecked stage. He blew out a sigh of relief. He was just about where he’d hoped to be.
He waited for the next flash to illuminate the night and then, taking advantage of the few seconds it would take for his opponents’ eyes to readjust to the darkness, he jumped down the low bank, sprinted across the road and slid down the higher bank on the far side. He crouched in some scrub bushes and waited to see if he’d made it across unnoticed.
“Boss. Boss!” Pony Jack came pelting back, shouting at the top of his lungs. Great gouts of water and mud sprayed out from his boots as he ran. He slipped and almost fell but righted himself in time to come to a breathless halt in front of the tall man who ran the outfit. He drew in a breath to report but he was backhanded across the face before he could say a word.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, you damn fool? Didn’t I tell you that I wanted to keep things quiet down here for a while? What is so urgent that you had to come flying back here like the mindless imbecile you are?”
Pony’s lips tightened and his fists clenched but he reminded himself of the payoff for this job and of the fact that his boss could outdraw him any day of the week and twice on Sunday. He pulled in a deep breath and tried to calm down.
Ed watched Pony’s struggle and sneered when he saw him let go of his anger. “I asked you a question, Herrick.”
“Well,” Pony drawled, “I don’t suppose there is anything that important, except maybe that your girl ain’t there any more.”
“What do you mean she’s not there?”
Pony raised an eyebrow. “I mean your little lady ain’t where you put her. She’s gone. Bill too. The lean-to’s flappin’ in the breeze but the fire’s gone out and there’s nobody around at all.” Pony paused for a moment. “I just sort of figured you might want to know about that. Could be I was wrong.”
Ed glared at him and turned away, a frown furrowing his brow. He had just turned back to ask a question when a rapid cluster of gunfire cracked out across the night.
“Damn,” Johnny swore. He heard shouting from the outlaws’ position. They’d probably discovered the girl was gone or maybe sent someone to check on the man in the barn. Either way, any advantage he had was about to disappear. He started to move, taking less care than he would have liked, trading stealth for speed.
Once again lightning flashed and lit the landscape with shadowless brilliance, but this time Johnny was looking in the wrong direction. He heard a grunt of surprise behind him and threw himself violently to the left, spinning to bring his gun to bear. He felt something pluck at his shirt as he slid sideways in the mud, firing twice as he went to his knees. The outlaw fired again but this time the bullet plowed into the sodden ground between them as the man folded up and keeled over to land face down in the mud.
Johnny rolled to his feet and sprinted toward the nearest cover. He could hear the outlaws shouting to one another somewhere off to his left.
“Harry?” A voice shouted, “You OK? Harry?”
“Yeah,” Johnny called back and moved toward their position as rapidly as he could without giving himself away. If he was right there should only be three left and he wanted to get to them before they had time to pull themselves together.
The storm had let up a bit but now it came back redoubled. The drops were large and heavy and fell with enough force to sting. They bit into the skin and bounced back up off the ground or the standing water. Even with his hat pulled down to shelter his eyes, Johnny could hardly see more than a few feet ahead and the only thing he could hear was the drumming of the rain.
The voice called out another question but this time Johnny didn’t answer and the outlaws fell silent.
Johnny had continued to advance but now he stopped. That last voice had sounded from not too far ahead of him. In these conditions he was just as likely to stumble right over them and the odds were still three to one.
He listened intently for a moment. He thought there might have been a voice coming from a bit in front of him and a little to the right but he wasn’t sure. He looked around him, and then he picked up a three-foot section of dead wood and moved over to crouch behind a spindly tree. It wasn’t much good as cover but it was the best around.
He took a deep breath and then shouted out, “OK, boys, close in on ‘em,” and lobbed the branch into a stand of brush ten or twelve feet to his south. The reaction was immediate. A half a dozen rounds tore into the bush where the branch had landed. Johnny put three shots into the space where he’d seen a muzzle flash and a scream ripped through the night in answer.
He ducked to his left, toward the bank and fired from that position and then ran back to the north, watching all the time for the flash of answering fire. The water was four or five inches deep at this point and made the going even harder.
He holstered his Colt as he ran and grabbed the backup he’d hung from the lanyard around his neck. He fired just a bit to the right of the spot where he’d seen the last muzzle flash. There was no answer to his shot this time. He was moving again when they opened up on him. He felt a tearing jolt of pain and he was falling. He kept firing as he fell.
There were three or four shots, a pause and then a flurry of gunfire. The people in the station could vaguely hear some shouting. Scott and the Pinkerton rushed to the windows. Whitehall was already there.
“Do you see anything?” Bukey asked.
Whitehall was pressed flat against the wall, trying to see out the window without exposing himself to incoming fire. “No.” He leaned around the window frame for another quick look. “I don’t think they’re firing at the station.”
Scott closed his eyes. “Johnny,” he whispered.
There was another flurry of shots, a short pause, more gunfire and then silence. Everyone held their breath, listening.
Scott leaned around the window. “Johnny?” he shouted. There was no answer. He shouted again.
“Are you crazy, Lancer?” Whitehall grabbed his arm and yanked him back from the opening. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Scott shook him off violently. “Leave me alone,” he hissed and leaned around the window frame again. “Johnny?” He waited. “Johnny, answer me!”
Whitehall shook his head, a disappointed and unhappy look on his face. He started to reach toward Scott again when a voice reached out through the rain and gloom.
“Scott, that you?”
Scott Lancer’s face lit up with a huge smile. “Who else do you think it would be?” he shouted. “Damn it, Johnny, are you all right?”
“Hell no, I’m not all right. Now will you quit shoutin’ at me and get your ass out here and give me a hand.”
“I’ll be right there.” Scott’s smile never slipped an inch, as he went to retrieve his coat and hat.
Whitehall gave him a strange look. “You look awfully happy for a man whose brother just said he was hurt.”
Scott grinned. “I heard him. He said he needs help. That means he’s fine. He’s probably more angry than injured. Now if he’d said he was fine, well, then we’d be in a world of trouble.” Scott slipped into his coat and pulled his hat down over his brow. “Come on, lets go drag him back in here.” He flashed Whitehall a smile and slipped out the door.
Whitehall grabbed his own coat and shook his head. “They’re crazy,” he muttered. “Both of them. Just plain nuts.”
The storm was moving away toward the Sierras, leaving a wet night behind it. The sky was gray with clouds roiling east and the air felt thick and mean. It tasted sharp at the back of Scott’s throat. The wind, blowing fiercely, plucked cold fingers at his jacket collar. He jammed his hat a little harder onto his head and fastened up his coat before the next gust. He wished he’d brought his gloves too, even if Johnny would likely laugh at him.
When the lightning flashed in the distance, Scott counted off the seconds until the thunder reached him, just as his grandfather had taught him. “Three miles. The storm is three miles off now. It’s moving fast with that wind behind it.”
Whitehall grunted. “Three miles or thirty, it’s still spitting down with rain, Lancer.” The marshal scowled up at the heavens. “And it’s damned cold.”
“Well, standing here isn’t going to make us any warmer. Come on.” Scott slipped and slid his way across the muddy yard to the corral fence, wishing that Whitehall would be a little more generous about shining the lantern his way. He stopped at the fence and peered into the darkness. “Johnny!”
To the north, Scott thought, and over to his left; somewhere near where the road climbed the hill. Whitehall sighed out something that sounded suspiciously like *Of course Madrid went up the damned hill* and followed Scott as he worked his way over to the where Johnny’s voice had sounded.
“Keep yelling, Johnny, so Whitehall and I can orient ourselves.”
Johnny couldn’t be far ahead of them now, up the slope and in the trees. “Dunno about back east, Boston, but a man’d likely end up bein’ cottonwood blossom for that out here.”
Cottonwood blossom? There were times when Johnny spoke a completely different language.
Beside him, Whitehall snorted, and shone the lantern down at the rough ground to light their way. The light bounced off puddles and running water. “That boy has a clever mouth. He’ll be the one that gets lynched, dragging me out here in this looking for him. Dammit, I’ll hold the rope myself.”
Ah. So that was what it meant. And for once Scott could get one over on Johnny by not having to ask for a translation. “Yes, yes. You’re very funny. Just keep talking so we can find you.”
“Well, I ain’t the talkative kind. I ain’t like Jelly, yapping away all day and night about nothin’ at all.”
“You’re slightly less bristly in the chin area, too. And you’re taller.” Scott pushed his way through some brushwood and there was Johnny, sitting on a fallen tree trunk and holding his gun negligently in one hand. Scott scrambled over to him. “All right?”
“Hell, no.” Johnny waved his gun at a tall, fair-haired man lying on the wet ground, groaning and holding his head with bloody hands. “I fell over that damn fool in the dark and did something to my ankle. I can’t walk on it.”
Whitehall snorted out a gruff sort of laugh and went over to the man on the ground, shining the light on him. Scott was hard put to it not to laugh himself. He looked Johnny over in the backwash from the lantern. His little brother had always been something of a peacock, but he was a very bedraggled peacock right then; his bright clothes were wet and muddy, his hat brim was bent out of shape and he had dirt on his face.
Just for second, Scott let himself relax and blew out a little breath. There didn’t seem to be much wrong. “You mean to tell me that all it takes to bring the great Johnny Madrid down is to let him fall over his own feet? You disappoint me, little brother.”
What he could see of Johnny’s expression under the dirt didn’t look too impressed with him, either. “I didn’t kill that chingada madre over there because I figured I can find a way to make him tell us what in hell this is all about. I could shoot you instead, Boston, if you like.”
“If you have a good explanation for Murdoch about why he’s a son short, you go right ahead.”
“He was two sons short for a helluva long time.”
“True, but he does seem to want to keep us now that he’s got us.”
Johnny just snorted.
There was blood on Johnny’s left sleeve as well. Scott touched it and raised an eyebrow, hoping Johnny could see his expression in the gloom.
“De nada. A scrape.” Johnny’s smile gleamed white and he nodded when Scott put a hand on his shoulder.
Scott tightened his grip for a brief second in pure thankfulness. There was no need to say anything more. Johnny knew. With a sigh, he got down on his knees in the mud and tried to see what was wrong with Johnny’s ankle.
Whitehall had rolled the dazed man onto his back and was checking his pockets. He straightened, shaking his head. “Damn.”
Johnny tensed as Scott probed at the ankle. “I checked most of the others. I didn’t find any papers.”
Whitehall swung around to face him. “How did you know I was looking for papers?”
Johnny shrugged. “You said something about it earlier. Only papers I found were the makings for quirleys. But this belonged to the hombre in the barn.” He handed Whitehall a little notebook.
“Not what I’m looking for.” But Whitehall tipped it towards the lantern’s light and flicked through it. “Some notes for a letter to a girl back in Tennessee, I think. That’s all.” He made to throw the notebook away, hesitated, then pushed it into a pocket. “Someone’ll need to tell her, I guess. She might like this.”
“I didn’t get the chance to check all of them. There’s one behind that bush yonder, and another about twenty feet up the hill.”
“I don’t think they’ll have it.” Whitehall toed the groaning man with his boot. “This’s the leader, right?”
“Muldrow, I guess. He’s the one Lulu was kissing.” Johnny took a sharp, hissing breath. “¡Mierda, Scott! That hurt.”
“If he doesn’t have it, I can’t see him letting any of the hired help keep it. It’s too important. Are any of the rest still breathing, Madrid?”
Whitehall gave a dry chuckle. “Told you, Lancer. The Flail of the Lord.”
“That’s my baby brother.” Scott looked up at Johnny. “I daren’t take your boot off out here because we’ll never get it back on again, but I’m pretty sure that you haven’t broken anything. Could you walk if you leaned on me on the way back?”
“Hop, maybe,” said Johnny, doubtful.
“You can make it. At least, so you keep telling me in like situations. What about Muldrow, Marshal?”
“He’s almost with us. Did you hit him too, Madrid?”
“Winged him a mite. Not much, though. And then gave him a little love tap with this when he was down.” Johnny hefted his gun.
“You’ve been hitting a lot of people tonight. Bukey’s after your hide, by the by. Lulu’s spitting teeth everywhere.” Whitehall bent swiftly and tied Muldrow’s own bandanna around the seeping wound in the man’s left arm. Muldrow groaned.
“She lost a bit of one tooth.” Scott pulled Johnny up and waited while Johnny got his left arm around Scott’s shoulder to balance. He curved his right hand around Johnny’s waist. “Maybe two. She looks a sight, though.”
Johnny chuffed out a laugh. “I ain’t sorry about that, Scott.”
“Neither am I. I think my grandfather would say that California has been very bad for my manners, but she deserved it. How’s Muldrow coming along, Marshal?”
Whitehall gave the man another nudge with his boot. He was rewarded by a burst of something that sounded quietly vituperative. Scott frowned. That hadn’t sounded like English, but he hadn’t caught enough of it to be sure what it was.
“Up,” commanded Whitehall, taking a step or two backwards to give Muldrow room and yet keep himself out of reach. He had his Colt in one hand, ready. “Put your hands on your head and start walking down towards the way station. One wrong move and I’ll get Madrid here to put a bullet through your knee. It won’t kill you, but you’ll probably lose your leg.”
Johnny raised his gun. “In this light, I’ll probably have to go for both knees to make sure. You’d best be real careful about what moves you make, Muldrow. I ain’t very pleased with you at present, and I don’t need much excuse to get riled.”
The way-station was blessedly warm, just like the place the padres all promised Johnny would go to one day. The Pink had flung open the door at Whitehall’s hail, and stood to one side as they came in. Limping in, leaning on Scott and following Muldrow and Whitehall, Johnny saw something flicker across James’s expression. It made him look again. He’d expected surprise, but that had looked a lot like anger. James gave him a half-shrug and now he looked rueful. Maybe the man was just resentful at being left behind all the time.
Everyone stared as they came in. Caldwell came running from the other room, answering his wife’s call.
The Pink pointed to Muldrow. “What the hell happened?”
He didn’t get the chance to say more. Lulu leaped up from where she and Mrs. Caldwell were huddled together in a corner, pushing the older woman to one side in her haste.
“Ed! Oh, Ed!”
Mierda, but she was a sight. Old Boston was right about that. Her chin was purpling and the whole of the bottom of her face was puffing right up. There was blood all over the front of her dress. Some women when they cried just sat there and let the tears flow. They didn’t get red-faced and they didn’t snort out sobs; they just looked helpless and real pretty and their eyes glittered. Mama had cried like that, and it could break a man’s heart. But Lulu’s eyes were red and swollen, her face was streaked with blood and snot, and she kept wiping pink-stained drool from the corner of her mouth. With that big fat lip and chin and puffed-out cheeks, she looked like a chipmunk caught up in a Saturday night saloon fight.
She hurled herself onto Muldrow. Johnny allowed that Muldrow maybe still wasn’t himself—he’d been shot and hit over the head and lost all his hired guns, and Johnny reckoned that most men would be put out by that—but what he did was downright ungentlemanly. A man who’d found a rattler nesting in the bush where he’d just dropped his pants couldn’t have jumped back as quick and nimble. He pushed the girl off with both hands and took a couple of steps backward.
“Lulu!” Bukey was looking grayer by the minute. He looked beat and when he raised his hands to his face, they were shaking. Johnny was almost sorry for him.
“No.” Muldrow shook his head at her, his mouth twisting. “No.”
“Oh,” said Lulu. She sat down plump into a chair. “Oh.” Her chipmunk chin trembled and she started wailin’ again. No one took any notice, except maybe Muldrow and he just looked sick.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” growled James. “If love’s young dream is quite over, will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” He turned to Whitehall. “Marshal?”
“Madrid got the rest of the Muldrows.”
James’s jaw dropped. “All of them?”
Johnny, hopping to the nearest chair, glanced over his shoulder. “Nope. Scott got one with the carbine, I reckon. Found him up the hill with a hole in his chest.” He half-fell into the chair. His ankle was throbbing like all hell. “I just got the rest.”
James stared. Whitehall laughed and offered a kind of salute, although he hadn’t taken his gun or his gaze off Muldrow.
Mrs. Caldwell took a very deep breath. Her hands were clenched together just under her heart. “It’s over? It’s really over?”
“That it is, Ma’am.” Whitehall spoke kindly. “Everything’s going to be all right now.”
The woman shuddered. She turned away, reaching blindly for her husband. “Owen…”
“Now, now, Effie.” Caldwell looked real awkward patting her hair like that. Now there was a man better used to patting his horses.
Whitehall put down the lantern he’d been carrying in the hand that wasn’t holding a rock-steady Colt. “I reckon that all we have to do now is sit tight and wait for the sheriff at Colusa to backtrack up the trail looking for the stage.”
Of all the fool notions! Every time the man was beginning to earn a bit of respect, he said something that showed he’d been livin’ pretty back East for years. Johnny managed not to roll his eyes. “No, that ain’t going to work. It’s likely that he’ll think to come this far north, but it ain’t certain. He might turn back when he finds the coach. We should bring in the horses, the Muldrows’ as well as ours, and someone can ride down tomorrow to get the sheriff.”
Johnny hissed as Scott lifted his foot up onto another chair and started tugging on his boot.
“Johnny sprained his ankle, Ma’am. Could you get me some cold water and something to bind it with?” Scott gave Mrs. Caldwell his best Eastern dandy smile. Funny how some women fell for that. The Lulu kind of woman, usually, but it worked on Mrs. Caldwell, too. She sort of simpered and let go of her husband. Looked like she’d got over her nerves about Scott bein’ a dangerous owlhoot, anyways.
She gave a little nod. “I’ll fetch some more lamps.” She bustled off.
The Pink scowled. “Good idea, Madrid.” It sounded like it hurt him to grind that out.
Whitehall sighed. “It is, damn the man. I’ll go out and get the horses in minute, as soon as we secure Muldrow here. Where are your cuffs, Bukey?”
Bukey looked up. He’d been staring down at his hands clasped lightly together and resting on the table top. He wouldn’t look at Lulu, sobbing in the chair beside him. He looked dully at Whitehall, then at Muldrow. “That ain’t Ed Muldrow.”
Johnny leaned forward, forgetting that Scott was still easing off his right boot. “No?”
“No.” Bukey’s voice was stronger, more certain. He sat up straighter. “It ain’t.”
Muldrow just stared at him. He had a funny little smile on his face.
“Of courth it ith.” Lulu talked real thick, and she glared at Johnny like it was all his fault. “Of courth it’th Ed.” She made a sort of angry sounding choke and took more care, talking more slowly. “I’ve known him for weeks.”
Bukey turned to look at her then. It didn’t seem that he liked what he saw.
“Biblically, we fear,” said Scott, softly, to Johnny. Johnny sniggered. Wasn’t like Scott hadn’t been hoping for a little knowledge there himself, back in Malice.
After a minute Bukey looked away from her. “I read all the wanted notices I get sent, Mister. Ed Muldrow’s five foot six and dark as… ” he joined Lulu in glaring at Johnny. Johnny grinned back at them. “… as Madrid there. Whoever this man is, he isn’t Ed Muldrow.”
Well, no, he couldn’t be, then. Not unless Ed Muldrow had suddenly grown six inches and turned as yellow-headed as Scott, that was for sure.
“Well, now,” said Johnny. He oofed out a breath as Scott finally got the boot free.
“Sorry, brother.” Scott glanced at the man who’d been calling himself Muldrow. “I take it that no-one has any idea who he is? Well, even if he isn’t Ed Muldrow, he still needs to be in handcuffs. They’re over by the window where I left them.”
Everyone else was staring. But even surprised, it looked like Whitehall knew enough to keep his gun trained on Muldrow. Well, on whoever it was goin’ around using Ed Muldrow’s bad name.
Damn, but that Lulu was mush-headed. Her forehead wrinkled up the way Teresa’s did when she was tryin’ to cook somethin’ a man could eat instead of want to feed it to the hogs. “But he told me he was Ed Muldrow.”
“He was lying, Lulu.” Scott’s mouth was liftin’ up at one side. It did that when he was tryin’ not to laugh. “That’s something you should appreciate, given how well you lie yourself.”
Johnny reckoned that Lulu’s pout and the flounce would look better on a girl who didn’t have a face looking like John Heenan’s after a prize fight. Still, it wasn’t him she was pouting at.
“Ed? Tell them, Ed.”
The man… ¡Mierda! Until he had a name of his own, Johnny would still call him Muldrow. Muldrow smirked. “You lapped it up, my dear. Don’t tell me that you didn’t. You loved the thought of…. what was it you said? Ah yes. You loved being sparked by someone dashing and dangerous, remember?” He smiled at her and Bukey. “So romantic. And so susceptible.”
Lulu stared. Her face went bright red, then the red drained away. She wasn’t the first girl to be taken in by a man like Muldrow, but she was havin’ a real rude awakening.
“Oh dear.” Scott’s mouth twitched. “Poor girl.”
“Yeah, like you mean that.” Johnny watched Muldrow. There was something different. The man wasn’t talking the same, not the way he had before. He sounded more like Scott did, all educated and such, and he didn’t sound like he was from anywhere out here in the west. Muldrow was tensed up, too, and waiting for something. Johnny’s spare gun was in reach on the table; he curled his hand around the butt.
Lulu jumped up and looked around at them all, her eyes wild. Bukey turned his back on her again. James looked real amused, his mouth crinkled up into a big grin and his shoulders shaking. The Caldwells both ignored Lulu, although Mrs. Caldwell sniffed in her direction, real loud. Whitehall watched Muldrow; the marshal knew his job, anyway.
Lulu’s bosom heaved. Johnny watched it with interest. He’d heard tell of that sort of thing in those novels Scott read, of course, but it was quite something to see Lulu do it. She had a lot there to heave, and a man ought to give it proper consideration. He regretted that he could only give it what attention he could spare from watching Muldrow. Her hands clenched and unclenched, and all the red came rushing back into her face. She took a couple of quick short steps to reach Muldrow and drew back her arm, her hand splayed out flat, a thin whining coming from between her teeth.
And all hell broke loose.
Muldrow surged forward to grab her and twist her around in front of him, while Bukey roared and James yelled and hurled himself towards the table to grab at one of the long guns lying there. Lulu, bless her for being even more mush-headed than Johnny had reckoned, struggled in Muldrow’s grip when any sensible gal would have just fainted. Muldrow half-picked her up and slammed her against the table, sending it over and everything on it flying, before pulling her close up against his chest. Mrs. Caldwell screamed. Whitehall, taken by surprise by the suddenness of it, had his gun wavering as he tried to get a clear shot. Maybe the man didn’t know his job well enough, at that.
Scott dropped Johnny’s foot, making Johnny bite back a yell. But he had his gun ready and the hammer was already back. He put one bullet into the chimney breast, sending it so close between Muldrow’s head and Lulu’s that both of them must have felt the bullet part their hair. Lulu shrieked and everyone froze.
“The next one’s aimed right at your head, Muldrow.” Johnny spoke real quiet into the sudden stillness. “Let the girl go.”
“You want to take the risk of hitting her?” Muldrow was panting, but calm. He had his face close up to Lulu’s, trying to make the shot harder.
Johnny smiled. “I ain’t aiming at her.”
Muldrow blinked, uncertain for the first time.
“Don’t move, Lulu,” said Scott, real gentle. “Johnny won’t miss, but you mustn’t move.”
“It’ll be a mite messy.” Johnny started to press the trigger. “Headshots always are.”
For a moment he and Muldrow stared at each other. Johnny let his smile widen. Muldrow’s shoulders slumped and he shoved Lulu away, holding up his hands, muttering something that sounded like Hell, but not quite. Lulu stumbled a few steps, fetching up near Bukey; an instant’s hesitation, and the sheriff pulled her towards him. Lulu wailed and turned into her uncle’s arms, sobbing. Looked like blood was thicker, after all.
Whitehall jumped forward and jammed his Colt right up against Muldrow’s chest. “Get me those damn shackles!”
“Well done, little brother,” said Scott, and went to obey. He cuffed Muldrow’s hands, looking real happy that someone else was wearing the manacles for a change.
Johnny made a point of slowly releasing the trigger and easing the hammer down.
“Good God,” said Scott, scrubbing at his face. He looked tired. “The next time I suggest we stop off in a town, remind me of this, will you?”
“The hell I will. I’ll just shoot you.”
Scott laughed, sounding shaky. “I’ll see to your foot in a minute, Johnny.” He went to help James right the table.
The Pink looked furious and waved Scott off when he went to pick up the long guns. “I’ll do it. You see to Madrid.”
Bukey dragged a couple of chairs to the table and pushed Lulu into one, not unkindly. Mrs. Caldwell came past her to put a bowl of water and some bandages onto the table and was moved enough to pat Lulu on the shoulder when her hands were free. The girl looked dreadful and even Johnny felt sorry for her. Whitehall and James ignored her. James picked up rifles and Whitehall leaned against the fireplace, looking like he’d fall asleep where he stood.
“Here.” Scott’s voice was still gentle when he spoke to the girl. He handed over her Bible. The cover was torn loose and hanging. “I’m sorry, but it looks like it got trampled in that little fracas. The cover’s torn, but I don’t think it’s really damaged.”
Lulu sniffed and took it from him. Her mouth was trembling. She looked at the Bible and frowned. “It’s not mine.”
“It’s the one you had in the stage. You left it behind when you… well, you left it behind.”
Lulu sniffed louder. The look she gave Muldrow was more poisonous than a copperhead. He shrugged a shoulder at her, poker-faced.
“I know I had it with me,” she said, cross. “But it isn’t mine. It was his.”
“He don’t look like the Bible-thumpin’ type to me.” Johnny sighed as Mrs. Caldwell wrapped his ankle in a cold, wet cloth. That felt damn good. “Thank you, Ma’am. That’s helpin’ just fine.”
Mrs. Caldwell smiled at him and dipped the cloth back into the cold water.
“Not his. The man’s. The dead man’s.” She dropped the Bible onto the table and pushed it away. “I picked it up when I found him.” She frowned. “I don’t know why.”
“Huh,” said Scott, softly. He picked up the Bible and looked at it more closely.
Whitehall moved so jerkily that Johnny almost reached for his gun. James was standing very still, staring at Lulu. Muldrow’s jaw had dropped open.
“That was Baldwin’s Bible?” Whitehall crossed the room in two giant strides. He snatched the Bible out of Scott’s hands. “This was Baldwin’s? Dear God.” He stared down at it like he expected it to bite him. “It was Baldwin’s.”
“That’s what I said.” Lulu managed to flounce in her chair.
Muldrow shouted something that Johnny didn’t understand at all. It wasn’t English, not at first. When Muldrow did switch to English, Johnny got the idea that the man wasn’t exactly pleased with his sweetheart. “You damned fool!” He pushed to his feet. “You mean you had it all the time? You stupid, stupid girl!”
“Hey!” protested Bukey.
Lulu shrank back, her mouth trembling again.
Scott moved to stand behind Johnny’s chair. “That was German,” he said, frowning. “I’m sure that was German.”
Whitehall stopped Muldrow with a heavy hand to the shoulder that pressed him back down into the chair. It was the arm that Johnny’s bullet had creased and Muldrow paled and grunted with pain. “You stay put. And shut the hell up or I’ll do it for you.”
“Is it?” James had stayed on the other side of the table, but he leaned forward, real eager. “Hell, Whitehall! Is it?”
Johnny caught a glimpse as Whitehall carefully turned the torn piece of the Bible’s thick paper cover. The inside of the paper was covered in writing, the sort that Scott had once told Johnny was called law hand.
“Yes. Yes, it’s the memorandum.” Whitehall looked dazed. “It was here all the time. Right under our damned noses.”
Muldrow said something bad again in that other language.
“Are you sure?” James asked.
“I’m sure. It’s here.” Whitehall’s tense shoulders relaxed. He blew out a loud breath and laughed. “It’s here.”
“Excellent. That’s very, very satisfactory.” James lifted the scattergun from the table and took a couple of steps backwards. He pointed the shotgun towards them, its wide barrels looking like the mouths of cannon. “I think I’ll take care of that, Marshal. Right now.”
Chapter 9 by Starry Diadem
Johnny broke the shocked silence. “¡Mierda!”
It was like some scene from a play, where the villain stepped into centre stage with a swirl of his cloak and the flash-bang of pyrotechnics, and all the other players were stupefied and astonished, frozen in place.
Scott could only stare, but Bukey didn’t even look up, too engrossed in his own troubles. Caldwell mumbled something, probably profane. Whitehall’s mouth dropped open while the fake Muldrow looked briefly startled and then started to smile. Both Lulu and Mrs. Caldwell took a deep breath and screamed. Mrs. Caldwell was by far the loudest. Lulu clutched Bukey and every one of her sharp, fast breaths was a squeak.
The cavernous bores of the shotgun barrels were trained on Johnny. “If you move so much as an eyelash, Madrid, I’d take a great deal of pleasure in blowing your head off.”
“¡Hijo de la chingada!”
“Johnny.” Scott swallowed against the nausea rising in his throat. He couldn’t keep the appeal from voicing itself. “Johnny.”
Once Johnny had sat in a wagon in Spanish Wells with a shotgun over his knees, telling Scott that this was the gun that separated the men from the boys. A pistol, he’d said, was more of a hit or miss sort of gun, the sort that gives a man the hope that maybe he has a chance against it. No one in their right mind thought that about a scattergun.
Please God, let Johnny remember that lesson now.
The thoughts tumbled through his head like flotsam on the crest of a flood.
Scott turned his head to see Johnny more clearly. Mrs. Caldwell sat beside him, very still, her eyes enormous in a face from which all the color had ebbed. She didn’t seem to have drawn a breath since her scream. The wet bandage in her hand dripped water, leaving little dark spots in the dust on the floorboards. Scott watched a drop form on the edge, followed it with his eyes. It glinted in the lamplight as it fell.
Johnny wouldn’t put her at risk. Scott knew that. Whatever he might have done if she had been farther away and out of range was something else, but while Mrs. Caldwell sat beside him, he’d not make any sort of move that would mean that she got caught up in the shooting. Another curse, soft-voiced this time and the more venomous for it, and Johnny pushed the gun he’d had resting on the table away from him. He kept both hands in plain sight.
“Good boy, Madrid.” James’s voice was so quiet that Scott had to strain to hear over the clamor inside his head. “Very wise.”
The relief was so great that it made Scott ache deep in muscle and bone, as if he had a bad fever. He wanted to do something, anything, that would relieve the strain: move, drum his feet on the floor or his fists on the tabletop; anything that would make the ache less intense. Holding still was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
Mrs. Caldwell drew in a noisy, whimpering breath. Without taking his gaze off James, Johnny reached out a hand and rested it on her arm. She started, dropping the wet cloth.
“Easy,” he said, in the same tone he might use to soothe a restless horse.
The poor woman whined out something that might have been the Lord’s name, and hid her face in her hands. Scott’s grandfather had a close friend who’d developed palsy after an apoplectic stroke. Mrs. Caldwell shook the same way as old William Chaffee did, every inch of her trembling.
“You bastard.” Whitehall shook his head as if to clear it. “Damn.”
James didn’t take the scattergun off Johnny, but he did glance away to look at the rest of them. He smiled. “Yes, it’s embarrassing, isn’t it, to have been so wrong. Now then, we have a situation here that I need to deal with.” His gaze flickered from face to face. “Lancer, collect everyone’s guns and take them over to that corner—” He took one hand off the shotgun barrel and waved it towards the far corner of the room. “One wrong move and I really will blow Madrid to hell where he belongs. Got it?”
Scott swallowed, nodded, and found that he could move.
“Take Madrid’s gun first. Both the pistols and—” and here James laughed “—and we all know that a gunhawk wouldn’t be without his hideaway gun. Get that too, Lancer.”
“He disposed of several of my men without shooting them, I think,” said Muldrow. “He must have a knife.”
“Of course he must.” James was so genial that Scott could almost feel the words grating against his skin. “And his knife, Lancer. Get everything, or–” He hefted the shotgun and smiled again.
When Scott got moving, it was easier than he’d thought it was going to be. It helped, too. Cleared his head. He took a couple of deep breaths, letting it calm him. Long ago, when he was young and foolish, he’d learned to don a kind of armor, a calm demeanor forged when in command of a troop in Sheridan’s regiment. Back then the men had looked to him for hope and guidance and it would have been fatal to show what he really felt. The armor settled comfortingly over his shoulders like the arm of an old friend. This was war, too, after all.
There wasn’t so much as a quiver in his hands as he reached for the pistol that Johnny had left on the tabletop. Lieutenant Lancer was in command of himself again.
Johnny let Scott take his gun belt and his hideaway gun without a protest, and reached down into the boot sheath to get his knife, never once taking his gaze off James. The knife had only been roughly cleaned. There was drying blood where the haft met the blade. Scott touched Johnny’s shoulder and for a second he looked into eyes so filled with fury that he blinked. Then the cold eyes saw him—him, not James and the shotgun—and Johnny’s mouth curved into a faint smile.
Johnny was ready. They both were. Whatever chance they got, they each knew the other would take it and each was ready to charge in behind and help. Scott made the merest nod in return. It was enough. He turned away to collect the rest of the guns.
Whatever chance they got. If they got one.
Whitehall’s mouth was turned down so hard that it must hurt, but Scott thought he’d be able to rely on Whitehall to act when they did. Bukey seemed dazed and compliant, his arms around Lulu’s shoulders. Scott couldn’t see the girl’s face, but she was quivering against her uncle’s chest, still taking those little squealing breaths. Maybe too much had rocked the cocksure sheriff’s world that day because Bukey was out of his depth now, and useless. There’d be no help there. Caldwell handed over his gun, not once looking Scott in the eye, but watching his wife instead. He looked anxious and afraid, and he was just too much of an unknown for Scott to be sure of him. He and Johnny and Whitehall then. That was all he could depend on.
“Good,” said James, when everyone was disarmed and the guns piled up where he’d wanted them. “Good. Now then, Marshal, please undo the Graf’s handcuffs. We don’t want to cause a diplomatic incident, do we?”
“What?” Whitehall stared.
Scott frowned. Graf? That was German, he was sure. Definitely German. He cast back and a memory surfaced of Harvard, hot and airless under a summer sun. He could almost hear the drone of the flies and the pinched, disapproving voice of his professor, that staunch anti-royalist, explaining the different decadent European nobilities.
Count… that was what it meant. A count, or something like that.
“Release the gentleman formerly known as Ed Muldrow.” James’s bantering tone hardened. “The handcuffs, Marshal.”
Muldrow was grinning broadly. “My thanks, Herr James. I hoped you wouldn’t wait too long to make your move.”
Whitehall turned to James and glared. “Well, I guess that explains why they didn’t press home their attack. I should tell you to rot in hell, you treacherous bastard.”
“You don’t have any choice, Whitehall. Not with the ladies here.” Johnny had barely stirred. His left hand still rested on Mrs. Caldwell’s arm; his cold stare was for James. He didn’t so much as glance at Whitehall as he spoke. He was smiling a little as he and James stared each other down.
“Hell, Madrid, I know that!” Whitehall put down the Bible with obvious reluctance. He patted the cover, shaking his head, before pulling the handcuff key from his vest pocket. His expression was sour. He fumbled with the cuffs for a moment, then Muldrow was free and the marshal stepped back. James gestured with the shotgun until Whitehall moved to stand beside Caldwell, away from Muldrow.
Whitehall probably played a lousy game of poker. His face showed everything.
Muldrow stood up. He rubbed his hands to get the blood flow back, and Scott knew how that felt. Even a few minutes in handcuffs that pressed on nerve and sinew left the hands numbed.
Lulu raised her blotched and swollen face from her uncle’s shoulder. “Oh, Ed!”
Muldrow looked her over, frowning. He shook a finger at her in admonishment. “My dear, even ladies of my own class do not call me that. Little peasant girls should know better and if they don’t know better, they’ll be taught.”
She stared at him, her chin wobbling.
Despite his anger, Scott felt a surge of pity for her. “Graf. That’s German for count, right?”
Muldrow smiled. “Close enough. Graf Edel Gottfried Von Hessen-Cassel Ansbacher most decidedly not at your service.” He spoke without the trace of a European accent, sounding just like any well-bred Bostonian of the kind that Scott had known all his life; suave and educated. He made Scott a queer insincere little bow. “You may address me as Hochgeboren.”
That was what… Highborn? Scott shook his head. “I don’t think so. Ansbacher, was it? That’ll do.”
Johnny glanced at him. “That was one helluva a mouthful.”
“Says the man with the long Spanish name,” murmured Scott.
James chuckled softly. “We Americans don’t bow the neck, do we, Lancer?”
“No.” Scott looked the man in the eye. “Not to him, and not to you.”
“Ah.” James’s smile broadened. He hefted the shotgun. “All men are created equal, I guess, but this makes some men more equal than others.”
Scott looked at the vast mouths of those yawning barrels and it took everything he had to lift his head and join Johnny in staring the rogue Pinkerton down.
“You’ll learn to respect your betters.” Muldrow—no, Ansbacher. That was his name, and they should call him by his right name. Ansbacher picked up the Bible, despite Whitehall’s instinctive gesture of denial. The German merely laughed and Whitehall glowered. Ansbacher examined the cover, his fingers deft and careful.
“How badly damaged is it?” demanded James.
“Torn but perfectly legible. Baldwin glued the edges to the inside boards. He seems to have been very careful not to glue the text.” Ansbacher nodded, and put down the book. “It will do perfectly. We must get it east quickly, though, and into the hands of those who can do the most good with it. In the meantime, I need a gun.” He walked over to the pile of guns and pulled out Johnny’s gun belt. He reloaded the Colt in a leisurely way; playing to the gallery, Scott thought, and knowing he was being watched. He smirked at Johnny while he did it.
Johnny spared Ansbacher a glance. For all that most of his attention seemed to be on the shotgun in James’s hands, Scott thought that there was probably little in the room that escaped his little brother. Johnny would be weighing every action, every word and nuance, waiting for his chance.
“You know—” Ansbacher broke off, glanced at James and raised a questioning eyebrow. “Madrid? Johnny Madrid? The gunfighter?”
“The one and only.”
“Huh.” Ansbacher shrugged that off. He buckled on the gun belt and holstered the Colt, stooping to pick up Johnny’s derringer. He hefted it in his hand and nodded. “Well, Madrid, you and I have a little quarrel to settle. The men you killed were…” Ansbacher shrugged again, dismissive. “They were inconsequential. Fraulein Lulu, however, was a pleasant diversion. You’ve spoiled my pleasure there. It will be some time before she’ll be worth using to while away a lonely hour.”
He was crossing the room as he spoke. He pushed past Mrs. Caldwell without a glance, pulling the poor woman’s chair back out of his way and ignoring her faint cry of distress, just as he was ignoring Lulu’s incoherent protests behind him. Scott lurched over to Mrs. Caldwell, grabbing at the chair to stop it from falling over altogether.
Ansbacher stood over Johnny, smiling. “I dislike peasants at the best of times. When you get in my way, I kick you out of it. Remember that.”
He struck without warning. Johnny reacted with his usual speed. He was already pushing himself away from the man, falling as the German’s hand lashed down, but he couldn’t escape the blow entirely. Ansbacher’s hand struck him with an audible dull crack and Johnny and his chair both went flying.
“Johnny!” Shotgun forgotten, Scott leaped forward, scrambling to reach his brother, his shout echoed by Whitehall’s yell and Lulu’s screams. Behind him Mrs. Caldwell whimpered.
“Johnny!” Scott grabbed at him, turned the limp body towards him. There was blood everywhere, pouring down the left side of Johnny’s face. As he knelt there, desperately feeling for a pulse, Scott could smell its thick, warm saltiness, the unmistakable metallic tang that took him back to too many battlefields in his past. He sagged with relief. Johnny’s pulse was strong, if fast.
A laugh from Ansbacher had him turning his head to look. The German tossed the bloody derringer into his left hand and shook his right in the air to take the sting out of his fingers.
“Smarts a bit, I’ll bet.” The Pinkerton didn’t sound too concerned.
“Not as much as his head.” Ansbacher pocketed the derringer. “A useful little gun.”
Ansbacher must have held it against his palm, buffaloed Johnny with it. Scott touched Johnny’s hair with gentle fingers, feeling the torn flesh underneath. There was a nasty gash under there, but never had Scott been so glad that his little brother had such thick hair and fast reflexes. It could have been worse.
It might still be worse.
Scott grabbed the cloth that Mrs. Caldwell had dropped a few minutes earlier, wadding it up and pressing it against the side of Johnny’s head.
He heard Whitehall from what seemed a great distance. “I’m going to help him.”
There was a lot of amusement in James’s voice. “You go right ahead, Marshal. But don’t forget who’s holding the scattergun, here.”
“Uhh….” Johnny was dazed and disoriented, gasping for breath. He groaned when Scott pressed the cloth harder to try and stop the bleeding.
People used their eyes for more than just seeing out. They let others see in as well, and Johnny’s eyes were more expressive than most. But the blue eyes staring up at Scott now were empty of life. They were vague and dazed and the Johnny who lived behind them couldn’t be seen.
Johnny blinked a couple of times, then frowned. He looked like he was trying hard to work something out, something he couldn’t quite grasp.
“Lie still, Johnny. Lie still.”
“Uuuhhnnn.” Johnny took a deeper, more controlled breath. “Uuuhhnnn.”
Whitehall bent over Scott’s shoulder. “How bad is it, Lancer?”
“I can’t tell.”
Johnny’s hand wavered in the air for a moment, the fingers opening and closing as he groped at nothing, and then closed around Scott’s wrist. His breathing evened out. The vacant eyes closed for an instant. When they opened again, they showed more awareness, more of the real Johnny looking out of them, his gaze sharper and more focused. He knew Scott. He looked less… less lost.
“Ow,” he said.
“Maybe not so bad.” Relief hit him, so profound that Scott felt sick. He swallowed it all back, dropping his head to rest it for a second against Johnny’s, heedless of the blood still seeping from under the wadded up cloth. The fingers on his wrist squeezed. There was life in Johnny’s eyes now and a surprising strength in his fingers.
“Dammit, Johnny.” Scott sat back on his heels. He swallowed again, hard.
“He has a hard head.” Whitehall sounded as amused as a man could be in the circumstances. He dropped a hand onto Scott’s shoulder. “Looks like he’s back with us.”
“Yes. Maybe. He’s pretty dazed.”
“Let’s get him up.” Whitehall got to Johnny’s other side and helped lift. “Careful. He’ll probably throw up.”
Johnny’s legs didn’t seem to be working, even without the sprained ankle getting in the way. Between them, Scott and Whitehall hauled him up and back into the chair, luckily without Johnny throwing up on anyone despite the unhealthy gray color under his tan. Caldwell came to help, and stayed with his wife. She gripped the man’s hand so tightly that she had to be crushing his fingers, but he made no complaint other than a “Don’t worry, Effie.”
When Scott could looked about him again, he and Johnny were the focus of every gaze. Everyone was watching; two in malicious amusement, some in a kind of bemusement, some in terror. Mrs. Caldwell wrung her hands until her fingers must have ached. Lulu’s hands were over her ruined mouth; they weren’t enough to hold back her sobs.
“Not so cocky now, are we, Madrid?” James smiled, then his expression changed to one of brief regret. “I wish I’d been to one to do it. I never could understand why Murdoch Lancer went to the bother of getting you back. I hated it when it was my turn to trail around Mexico looking for you.”
Johnny had to squint against the blood in his eyes, but the glare he sent James held death in it, death and a promise.
Mrs. Caldwell had brought a pile of bandages to bind Johnny’s foot. Scott snagged one of them with his free hand—the other was still holding the bloody pad to Johnny’s head. He could just reach to dip it into the bowl of water left, forgotten, on the table. He stood close beside Johnny, giving him something to lean against to stop him from sliding out of the chair again. “All right?”
Johnny had his right hand on the back of his neck, rubbing at it. “Fine.”
Scott squeezed the excess water out of the cloth, one handed. Of course Johnny was fine. He was always fine. “Headache?”
Johnny’s mouth quirked up, and Scott wondered if anything could ever keep his little brother down. “No thanks, Boston. I already have one.”
Scott managed a grin and put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny’s gaze met his, serious and dark, before flickering back to James. Scott grimaced his understanding. If it came to it, then, he was to leave James to Johnny.
Ansbacher had the Bible in his hands again. He sat at the other end of the long table to where Johnny stared at James, and focused his gaze on Lulu. “You, girl. Come here. Now.”
He didn’t raise his voice, but the threat was so palpable that Bukey stirred out of the stupor that had held him still for the last ten minutes. “Hey!”
Ansbacher glanced at him and away again as if an empty space sat in Bukey’s chair. “Lulu.”
She got up, pushing away Bukey’s restraining hand. He watched her go, frowning.
“Bring your chair.”
She didn’t seem able to stop the soft whimpering noise she was making deep in her throat as she obeyed, pulling the chair along with her. She sat where Ansbacher told her, when he told her. She looked so frightened and woebegone that Scott felt sorry for her and he could hear Johnny breathing out curses under his breath. She wasn’t even the ghost of the fiery, spoiled little girl of Malice.
Ansbacher put a lamp near her and gave her a small penknife. “Cut the cover free from this.” He put the Bible in front of her. “Tear even so much as an inch of it, and you’ll be sorry. Do you understand?”
She nodded, her eyes so wide and blank that she might have been sleepwalking. She bent her head and started slitting along the glued edge of the parchment. She worked slowly and all the time she lowered her head little by little, raising her shoulders and curving her back as if she were trying to curl in on herself and disappear.
“Good girl,” said Ansbacher, and patted her on the head the way a man would pat a dog.
Scott felt a jolt of real pity, despite her lies and her betrayal. He could understand the fear that was almost paralyzing her. Ansbacher was merciless. Scott didn’t for a moment think that the German would leave anyone alive to bear witness to what was going on. He couldn’t see any way out of this for any of them. He just couldn’t see it.
He swallowed down a sigh, folded the damp bandage into a clean pad and pressed it against Johnny’s blood-matted hair, letting the first bloody cloth drop to the floor. He reached for another to tie the pad into place and to his surprise he found it put into his hand by Mrs. Caldwell. Her mouth tried to turn up in a watery, tremulous little smile. It was a failure, but she held the pad in place with trembling fingers.
Between them, they bound up Johnny’s head while Johnny stared at James. Johnny had that cold half-smile on his face that always worried Scott. It was curious that Johnny didn’t turn the smile and the stare onto the man who had hit him, but it was definitely James that had all of Johnny Madrid’s attention.
“What’s this all about?” Scott tied the bandage in a knot and nodded his thanks to Mrs. Caldwell. He looked from James to Whitehall, following Johnny’s example and ignoring Ansbacher. He wasn’t certain that Ansbacher was entirely sane; he was certain that the man was pitiless, cruel and very, very dangerous.
James shrugged. He smiled at Whitehall. “Well, Marshal? Do we share?”
Whitehall really should never play poker. His lips tightened so much they almost disappeared, making his mouth a hard line, and Scott could see the vein in his temple jump. Like Lulu, he was raising his shoulders, only his were tense with anger. After a minute he made the effort to relax and half-turned to look at Scott. “You mentioned it earlier, Lancer, when you were reading that newspaper to your brother.”
“Yes, you did.” Whitehall took a deep breath, and straightened up. “There’s a delegation in Washington from Great Britain to discuss a new treaty. Ten, twelve years ago there was a dispute up in the northwest over the border between us and the Dominion of Canada—”
“The Pig War? Good God, is that still rumbling on?”
Johnny turned his head to stare at Scott. “The what?”
“We almost went to war with the British over a dead pig, Johnny. And yes, we gringos are crazy.”
“The pig was just an excuse to argue over where the border was.” Whitehall cut back in before Johnny could reply. “It didn’t come to shooting.”
Johnny shook his head and turned back to needling James with his slight smile and the cold stare. He still rubbed at the back of his neck, his long fingers massaging the skin. The headache must be worse.
Scott snorted. “The way I remember it being reported, the pig was the only casualty. There was just a lot of posturing and sword brandishing going on. Sabers were rattling all over the northwest frontier.”
Whitehall nodded. “Nothing much happened, but things got pretty tense. Our forces and the British have sat on the San Juan Islands up there ever since. Then came the war, our war, and we had other things to worry about. The British sent money and supplies to the Rebs, though.”
“Did they now.”
“They did. Until now, we’ve never got around to sorting things out about the border, then the British approached us late last year. President Grant’s keen to settle this, but said that he’d only consider it if the British also agreed to talk about the support they gave to the Confederacy. They said yes.”
“Very statesmanlike. So what’s the problem?”
“Robert Baldwin was a junior clerk in Hamilton Fish’s office, only so low down I don’t think Fish even knew his name before this. That memorandum—” Whitehall nodded towards Lulu and her painstaking labor over the Bible cover “—was stolen by Baldwin. He intended to sell it to the highest bidder. I was sent by Fish to find him. And it.”
“Allan Pinkerton still does occasional work for the Government.” James relaxed a little, rolling his shoulders, but the shotgun barrel didn’t shift from Johnny. “The President and Fish asked him to look into Baldwin’s disappearance. Allan sent me.”
“And a lot of good that’s done anyone.” Scott turned back to Whitehall. “But who’d buy it? What’s in the memorandum that is so controversial that men are killed for it?”
“Not everyone in Washington and London—or in the Canadian Dominion—wants a treaty signed. There are still men in London who call us rebels and colonists and they’re itching to teach us a lesson, to return us to rule by the queen. They’d be able to stir up a lot of trouble if they knew what the British delegation has agreed to in the way of reparations. The British government wants to announce it in their own way to manage the unrest. If its done prematurely, there’ll be an outcry and possibly the government will fall, and we’ll have to work with men who are a lot more hostile to Washington. The Canadians are mad about the border anyway.” Whitehall spread out his hands in a gesture of obvious dismay. “This is tricky, Lancer. If this isn’t managed right, we could be looking at a war over more than a pig and that memorandum is key to it all.”
“Right.” Scott glanced at Lulu. She was almost finished. “And you, Ansbacher? What’s your interest in this affair?”
“A war between you and the British would suit us very well. It would suit us very well indeed. It will distract the British from other areas where we want to develop our interests; leave us free to expand.” Ansbacher smiled. “I am merely encouraging things along.”
Scott chuffed out a reluctant laugh as he remembered another snippet from the newspaper. “Africa. The Prussians are looking at colonizing Africa.”
Ansbacher inclined his head. “You’re a very well informed rebel colonist.”
“The Prussians want the memorandum.” Whitehall gave Ansbacher a glare, but his shoulders drooped and the glare didn’t have a lot of power to it. He looked tired. “He just didn’t want to pay Baldwin for it. He’s likely the one who had him killed.”
James smiled. “Of course we killed Baldwin. You were a convenient scapegoat for that, Lancer.” He looked at Bukey, and added in a thoughtful tone, “Although I’m not so sure about Bukey’s reasons for pinning it on you.”
The sheriff looked back at him, dull-faced and silent.
Lulu was smoothing out the memorandum, trying to flatten it out where it had been folded around the Bible. “It’s done, Eh—” She swallowed down the name before quite sounding out the D “It’s done.”
“Let me see.” Ansbacher took the memorandum from her and looked at it while she watched his face with painful apprehension. Scott was reminded of nothing so much as a small animal expecting to be kicked. “I need a better light. Stand up, Lulu, and hold the lamp for me. Hold it just there… good. That’s very good, my dear. Perhaps I will take you with me when I go.”
“Do you have to treat the girl like that?” demanded Scott. “She’s not your slave.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.” Ansbacher smirked and bent his head over the memorandum, tilting it towards the light. “Well, well. They’ve agreed to arbitration about possible reparation… up to a maximum of twenty million dollars, eh? That will cause a little stir. I hope Victoria can afford it.”
Lulu stood beside him, holding the lamp in her outstretched hand. Her arm was shaking with the strain. She looked down at the back of his head, frowning, and lifted the lamp a little higher.
He didn’t bother to look up at her. “Come in closer. And hold that lamp still, girl.”
“Yes, Eh—” and once again Lulu swallowed down that D before it sounded. “Yes.”
She took one step forward and smashed the lamp down onto the back of Ansbacher’s head.
He fell forward with a surprised grunt, face down on the table. She raised the lamp and hit him again. The reservoir broke, spilling kerosene over the table. She dropped the lamp onto it all.
“Lulu!” Scott surged towards her just as the kerosene went up with a whoosh that was loud as a thunderclap. He cannoned into her, knocking her off her feet and rolling her into the relative safety of the corner near the stove. There was a terrible scream from behind him.
Ansbacher had leaped up, his clothes and hair alight. He stumbled backwards, his arms thrashing about, brushing at the flames around his head and neck. The memorandum floated away to land on the table. Flames licked at it. Everyone was on their feet now, yelling and running, leaping away from the blaze. James yelled and raised the shotgun. Bukey scrambled over to grab Lulu; Caldwell was pulling his screaming wife towards the door of the back room.
“Hell!” Scott jumped up and ran to Ansbacher, getting out of his jacket as he went. “Water! Get water! Whitehall!”
He threw his jacket over Ansbacher’s head to smother the flames, trying not to feel the heat scorch his skin. The German screamed and screamed, writhing away from him. Scott could only trip the man and follow him down to the floor, keeping the smoldering jacket in tight, choking off the air the flames needed.
The shotgun boomed.
Somewhere, someone was making a very strange keening noise. It wasn’t Ansbacher, who was rigid and still now, only sobbing on each hard, fast breath. It was a terrible noise, even worse than Ansbacher’s screams; a high-pitched wailing that didn’t sound human.
Scott couldn’t see. There was smoke wreathing all around him and he couldn’t see. His eyes blurred and watered. He couldn’t see Johnny anywhere. All he could see was the weave of his jacket and all he could smell was burnt flesh and hair. He couldn’t damn well see. He couldn’t—
Behind him there was the noise of the water pump, followed by the hiss of steam as someone doused the fire on the table.
Scott turned his head. He looked for Johnny through the smoke; desperate, his heart beating like drum and his chest aching. He couldn’t see, damn it all to hell! He still couldn’t see— “Here! Water here!”
And then Whitehall was stooping over him, a bucket in his hand. He poured the water straight over the jacket, soaking it through, dousing whatever fire was left. The water was cool on Scott’s scorched arms. Ansbacher’s body jerked but he stopped even the sobbing, his breathing rasping in his throat. He coughed, a harsh dry sound. Scott rolled the German to one side to get at the derringer in his pocket and tossed it to one side, out of reach. He pulled Ansbacher’s—Johnny’s—gun for himself.
The eerie shriek went on and on.
Scott dropped his jacket and scrambled to his feet, rubbing at his eyes to clear them. “Johnny!”
There hadn’t been all that much kerosene in the lamp, really, but it had been enough. The table was alight, filling the room with smoke and steam. Whitehall was working the pump again, his strong arms working the lever up and down with a speed that Scott could barely credit. The front of his shirt and vest were wet. Caldwell ran back with blankets to soak in water to smother the flames. Lulu was hysterical, fighting against Bukey’s hold, her fists thumping at his arms and shoulders. And Johnny…
Johnny was levering himself up off the floor, cursing up a storm.
Scott choked out his name, half a word and mostly a sob of such thankfulness that his eyes filled with tears. He stumbled towards him. Johnny was reassuringly solid as Scott pulled him up; maybe not that steady on his feet, but alive and returning the pressure of Scott’s hands with a strong grip of his own.
And Johnny was reassuringly Johnnyish. With Scott’s help, he got both hands onto the back of a chair for support, keeping his weight off his foot. “I’m fine, Boston. Get that damned fire out!”
Mrs. Caldwell screamed, so piercingly loud and shrill that Scott started. She was sheet white. She screamed again, as if whatever had shocked her was the worst thing in a day that had been nothing but terror. She was looking beyond Scott, to something behind him.
James? Hell! He’d forgotten about James. Scott spun around, everything tensing up again.
James stood still as a stock, his hands clasped to his face and the shotgun on the floor at his feet. It must have discharged a barrel when it hit the floor. It was a miracle that no one had been hit.
There was something wrong with James’s face. Something was sticking up between his fingers, something slender and black. He was the one making the dreadful keening noise, the inhuman whining.
There was another loud hiss as the last of the flames was doused and the room filled with steam. It made it more difficult to see, even if Scott’s eyes hadn’t still been stinging and watering from the smoke that was wreathing around the ceiling beams. It was hard to see what was wrong with James.
James’s hands fell away. Whatever it was that had been sticking up between his fingers stayed in place, jutting out of his left eye. A trickle of blood ran down his cheek and dripped off his chin. His mouth and his right eye were wide open. The whining faltered, hitched on a breath and became a bubbling gurgle that turned Scott’s stomach.
Scott couldn’t move.
Whitehall spoke quietly. He might have been praying. “Dear Lord.”
James took a step, his legs stiff and straight so that he lurched towards them. He flung out his arms. His right eye stared at them, his mouth worked. They all stared back, and even Lulu was silent. The only noise in the room was Ansbacher’s harsh breathing and the gurgling in James’s mouth.
James took one more step. Then another. There was no third. He raised his hands to his face again, rocked back on his heels and dropped like a stone.
Everything was very still.
Johnny broke the silence.
“Darn.” His right hand rubbed at his neck again. He looked sheepish. “I was aiming for his throat.”
It took Dennis James an hour to die.
He had never really been conscious, not since Johnny’s tiny throwing knife had sliced into his eye and pierced through to his brain. It was a miracle that he lived as long as he did. He slipped away into a death that was more merciful than anyone felt he deserved.
Not even Scott had known about the knife, barely six inches long and thin as a stiletto, that Johnny kept in a sheath sewn into his jacket collar. “Never saw any need to mention it,” was all Johnny would say about it, once he’d retrieved it from James’s body. The knife was wickedly thin and sharp. He cleaned it with steady hands, sitting around the fire with Scott, Whitehall and Bukey.
The charred table had been dragged outside into the yard and all the doors and windows had been set open to air the room out. Scott wasn’t sure which was worse: the smell of smoke or the cold, damp night air. Huddling over the fire was the only sensible thing to do even if not all the company was congenial.
Lulu was sleeping in the Caldwell’s bedroom, under Mrs. Caldwell’s watchful care. Whitehall had conceded that he was giving serious thought to what would happen to her, but by rights she should stand in the courtroom alongside Ansbacher. Ansbacher himself was back in manacles, handcuffed to one of the bunks in the men’s sleeping room, with Caldwell watching him. His face and neck were burned and much of his hair was gone. But he was lucky. His jacket had protected his back and arms and, thanks to Scott’s swift action, the burns weren’t as deep as they might have been. Mrs. Caldwell had smothered his skin with cooling salve. Scott had some of the same salve on his own scorched hands and arms, soothing the sting.
“He’ll live to stand trial,” said Whitehall. He was glum and dispirited. “Not that I have much left in the way of evidence.”
Whitehall had said earlier that the memorandum was ash. So many men had died for a pile of wet grey sludge, all that was left of it after fire and water. There was something biblical about that, but Scott couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. He was remiss as a scholar of the Good Book, obviously.
“Better than Ansbacher gettin’ hold of that paper, I guess.” Johnny smoothed an oil-soaked rag over his pistol with a gentle, sure touch that was almost loving.
Whitehall grunted. “Anything’s better than war, Madrid.”
“I suppose that we’re safe there, since there’s no memorandum for our enemies to use?” Scott frowned at Whitehall’s nod, remembering the hiss of steam behind him. “Did you put the first bucket of water onto that damned memorandum and not on me and Ansbacher?”
Whitehall didn’t look one whit ashamed. “My job was to bring Baldwin and the memorandum back to Washington. I was hoping for at least one of them and of the two, I’d rather it had been the paper. Much good it did me.” He went back to being morose.
Scott harrumphed and let it go. He looked sleepily at the flames, keeping one eye on Johnny. That his little brother had a huge headache was obvious to anyone who knew him. Johnny’s color was still grayish and his eyes narrowed against the light, he had one hell of a black eye, and every now and again he had to wipe the clammy sweat from his forehead. But so far he’d refused to go to bed.
He was, of course, fine. Whitehall had grinned when he heard that.
Scott stirred. “One thing I don’t understand, Marshal. Baldwin. What brought Baldwin all the way out here with that memorandum? Surely he was better off trying to hide somewhere east until he sold it?”
Whitehall hunched one shoulder. “We think he was arranging to meet some Canadian contacts travelling down from the northwest border. But most of all, well, where do you go when you want to feel safe, Lancer?”
“Home, I guess.”
“Exactly. Baldwin came home. Didn’t he, Sheriff?”
Bukey shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He was another one who should be in bed. He looked as gray and washed out as Johnny did, but he was sticking close to Whitehall, his terror for Lulu obvious and, Scott said quietly to Johnny, rather pathetic. He was doing all he could to ingratiate himself.
Johnny looked up. “Malice? He was from Malice?”
“Long before it was called Malice, there was a mining settlement there.” Whitehall looked at Bukey. “Baldwin was born there.”
Bukey said, with obvious reluctance, “He was my father’s step-brother. Pa always said he was no good, that everywhere he went he caused trouble. Ma recognized him in that alley. She’d thought he looked familiar, but she wasn’t certain, not ’til then. We figured that whatever it was all about, Lulu was best out of it ‘specially since she found the body.” He looked at Scott, and then away again, quickly. “So we aimed to get you and her to Sacramento, Lancer, to get her out of whatever trouble Rob Baldwin brought with him.”
“That’s why you railroaded me? To have an excuse to get Lulu out of town?”
“There was no malice intended in it, son.”
“And no need for it! You could have just put the damn girl on the stage for Sacramento, sent her on a visit.”
“We did it for the best.”
Scott could only laugh. “And how well that turned out.”
“I wouldn’t have let it go to trial.” Bukey was squirming. “I wouldn’t have let it go that far.”
Scott wouldn’t hit a wounded man, but that was all that was stopping him. He weighted his tone with all the contempt he could muster. “You know, Bukey, I don’t know if I believe you about that.”
Bukey flushed a dull brick red. He looked to Whitehall for support, but the marshal turned away. After a moment, the sheriff got up and left, mumbling something about Lulu.
“Is he in trouble, Whitehall?” Johnny rolled the bottle of gun oil into a clean rag and tucked it into his saddlebags.
“He’s not exactly goin’ to win any lawman of the year awards.” Whitehall grimaced. “Mind you, after this mess, neither am I. But I don’t reckon he’s in trouble unless—” he glanced at Scott “—unless you want to press charges? Wrongful arrest, maybe.”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t see the point. He’s in trouble enough and I’m not that vindictive.”
Johnny gave his opinion of that with a snort. “And Lulu?”
Whitehall stood up, and stretched. “Hitting the German over the head is all that’s standing between her and arrest right now. A treason charge maybe wouldn’t stick, and maybe all she’s guilty of is being stupid over the wrong man. I can’t get over her going off with the man who shot her kin, though. I’m going to sleep on it. I’ll make a decision about her in the morning.” He paused and turned back to them. “President Grant will be grateful for what you two did today. I’ll make sure he gets a full report. ‘Night.”
He disappeared into the men’s sleeping room, closing the door behind him softly.
Johnny made a noise that sounded like Pfft.
Scott raised an eyebrow at him.
“Well, I didn’t vote for the feller. I don’t care for him to be beholden.”
Scott laughed. Trust Johnny. He leaned back in the hard wooden chair, aching all over and so tired his eyes kept closing on him. He should go to bed himself. He’d be the one riding south the next day to look for the sheriff from Colusa and he needed some sleep. “I’m sorry for that girl.”
“I ain’t. She’d have seen you hang, Scott, and that I can’t forgive.”
Johnny’s partisanship brought a warm glow. Scott smiled at him. “Will you ever forgive me for insisting we stop off in Malice despite everything you said to the contrary?”
There was a short silence.
“I’ll always forgive you, Scott.” Johnny leaned over and poked him in the ribs so hard that Scott yelped and almost fell out of the chair. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll ever forget. You owe me, Scott Lancer, and I aim to collect.” He smiled, that devilish smile that had Scott’s heart sinking. “And hell, do I aim to collect.”
Scott sighed. He was sure of it.
Epilogue by Shelley
The grandfather clock struck nine. Murdoch and Teresa had already gone off to bed but Scott sat on the sofa, reading his way through a stack of the latest newspapers from Stockton, Sacramento and San Francisco.
The fireplace in the great room held a roaring fire and Johnny sat in front of it, his wrapped and bandaged ankle up on an ottoman and a tall glass of hot lemonade, liberally laced with whiskey, in his hand. He had his chair pulled up as close to the fire as he could get without actually singeing his toes. If he got any closer, Scott figured he’d spontaneously combust.
Scott smiled as he listened to his brother snuffle and cough. He glanced up to see him burrow deeper into the chair and take a big slug of the warm drink. He looked awful. His eyes were dull and bloodshot; his nose was red and sore looking. The shaved patch on the side of his head, decorated with neat little stitches, was the crowning glory. And he sneezed. Regularly, and with great violence.
Johnny had a terrible cold.
All that running around in the wet and chill had taken a toll on the “flail of the Lord”. Scott snickered to himself and then almost choked when another explosive sneeze erupted into the night. He figured it would cost more than his life was worth if he teased his brother even one more time, so he buried himself even deeper in the newspaper and didn’t say a word. He could feel Johnny glaring at him, just waiting. Scott pulled the paper up higher and did his best to concentrate on what he was reading.
One of the subheadings on an inside page caught his eye and a minute later he started to chuckle. The chuckle grew to an all out laugh.
“I warned you,” Johnny snarled. “I told you, just one more word and…”
Scott lowered the paper and grinned across at him. “Now, Johnny, would I laugh at you when you’re feeling so bad?”
Johnny made a move to get out of his chair.
“No, really, it isn’t that.” Scott held up a hand. He glanced down and chuckled again. “I found something in the Sacramento paper. You have to listen to this.”
Johnny glared but settled back in his chair.
Scott began to read. “Bank Robbers Strike Again. Last week the infamous Muldrow Gang struck again. Seven outlaws pulled off a daring daytime robbery. The Citizens Bank of Melissa was held up and over $34,000 dollars was taken. One of the bank tellers and a deputy sheriff were injured by gunfire as the robbers left town in a hail of bullets.”
“What?” Johnny sat up straight, almost spilling his drink. “The Muldrows? You’re kidding!”
“No, according to this article, they cleaned out the bank and shot up the town on the way out.”
“So while Bukey was out gallivanting across the country, trying to pin a fake murder charge on you, the Muldrows hit Malice?” He snorted. “Hell, I was starting to think those owlhoots were just something Bukey made up to scare the locals.”
“Poetic justice,” murmured Scott.
Johnny took another sip of his whiskey. “Well, Whitehall talked the judge into not pressing charges against Lulu. Bukey’ll be glad of that.”
Scott lowered the paper again. “I meant to tell you. I was talking to one of the stage drivers this morning in Green River. He came through Malice a couple of days ago and said that the whole thing is the talk of the town. Lulu’s been released into her grandmother’s custody. It seems that the old lady is livid with our Lulu and vowed that the girl wouldn’t be able to cross the street unsupervised until she’s 40 years old, or married and someone else’s problem.”
Johnny shook his head. “Doesn’t seem fair, considering what she tried to do to you.”
“Oh, I think she has enough problems to keep her humble. According to the driver the word on the street is that the little lady is… in the family way. I think her reign as a small town belle is just about over. She’s going to have a lot of time to consider the error of her ways.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “One good thing, maybe those broken teeth won’t bother her so much, seeing as how she won’t have so many cowboys to impress. I’ll bet Bukey is about three shades of purple.”
“Yup. You know, I feel bad for the townspeople but I can’t say it bothers me to see Bukey embarrassed.” Scott looked back to his paper. “And sometimes, brother, there is justice in the world. It seems that the robbery isn’t the end of it. It also says here that the local citizens are up in arms about the sheriff’s failure to protect them and a recall movement is underway.”
Johnny looked up at him, a long slow smile blooming on his face. “How about that? Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.” He raised his glass in a toast . . .and sneezed.
The afternoon sun was sinking over the Potomac basin, glinting off the Capitol dome in the distance. A short, overweight man in an expensive suit rose from the stone bench where he had been sitting and stepped forward to peer up and down the path that wandered along the riverfront. It was an action that he had repeated every five or six minutes for the last half hour. The result was the same this time as it had been all of the others,–nothing. There was no one visible in either direction. He scowled and wondered how long he was expected to wait. His hand went absently to the upper left side of his suit coat and brushed over the bulge that marked his interior coat pocket. Reassured, he sighed and turned back to the bench only to jerk back and squeak like a frightened mouse.
Where there had been only the empty bench, there now stood a tall man in a carefully tailored gray suit. Purcell hadn’t heard him approach. The man smiled, apparently amused by his companion’s distress.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, Purcell. I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
Something about the man’s demeanor made Simon Purcell suddenly aware of how remote this location actually was. While he definitely didn’t want to be seen at this meeting, he suddenly found his isolation a bit frightening.
“I believe you’ve been waiting for this.” The tall man took an envelope out of his pocket and handed it over.
Purcell pulled his jacket back into order and straightened to his full height in an attempt to regain his composure. He tore open the envelope and pulled out a water-stained and charred piece of paper with closely spaced handwriting on one side and raggedly cut edges.
He perused the document for a moment and then thrust it back at the other man. “The information is too late. The treaty has already been signed. You can’t actually expect me to pay you for this.”
The tall man’s eyes narrowed and his voice became softer and infinitely more menacing. “I did the job you contracted for. Refusing to pay at this point would not be a wise move. Not wise at all. “
Purcell took a step back and swallowed heavily. “Um, yes, well. . . but what about the German that you hired. Does he know my identity?”
“Him? I didn’t hire him. I don’t know who he was working for. Fortunately for us he wasn’t nearly as good as he thought he was.” He paused for a moment and a small smile flickered across his face. “He wasn’t as good, and the local talent in California was really quite impressive.”
The older man raised a brow and frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The gentleman in gray shook his head. “Never mind. Let’s just say I learned a thing or two on this trip. But, as for our Prussian friend, you needn’t worry about him. It seems an accident befell him and he never made it back to federal custody. Unfortunate, of course, but probably for the best.” He shrugged and pulled open the lapel of his jacket to remove a cigarette case from his inside pocket. It may have been purely chance that his movement gave Purcell an excellent view of the lethal looking weapon that hung from a shoulder holster under his arm. Then again it may not have been accidental at all. The rotund little man turned a shade paler and produced a handkerchief to wipe his brow.
The big man smiled to himself and lit his cigarette. “Now, about the payment….”
Purcell started to say something but his companion’s eyes cut into him and he trembled. “Um, yes.” Purcell reached into his coat and froze when the man’s hand darted under his own jacket.
“Carefully,” the man whispered. “Very carefully.”
Purcell’s eyes widened impossibly and he nodded. He pulled his own jacket open and using just two fingers he drew out a thick white envelope and handed it over.
The gentleman smiled and accepted the packet.
“Aren’t you going to count it?” Purcell asked.
“I don’t think that’s necessary.” He glanced at the nervous little man. “Is it? And should there be any… mistake, I know where to find you.”
Purcell swallowed heavily.
“If you need my services again, feel free to contact me. I do regret the unpleasantness that’s marred our meeting today, but I assure you,” U.S. Marshal Sims Whitehall paused and smiled, “there was no malice intended.”
November 2010 – May 2011
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