||Stan Keller held out his hand across the pile of goods, a friendly
gesture meant to signify that the deal was done, and everyone was satisfied.
Across from him, the leader of the Arapaho hunting party studied Keller for
a moment, then returned the gesture, holding out his own hand. They shook
on the deal, and then Keller unwound his lanky frame and stood up. He watched
as the five Arapaho also stood and backed off toward their horses.
Keller kept a smile on his face, and a hand very close to his gun. He might trade with these scum, pretend to be their friend, but he didn’t trust them at all. Hell, the only reason they were leaving this little trade alive was that he needed them for something more important. They didn’t know that, of course. Which was good, because if the Arapaho had any idea of what he was planning, they sure wouldn’t leave him alive either.
|His smile turned to a smirk as he watched the Arapaho
leaving, always keeping at least two of the men watching him. So, they didn’t
trust him either. It didn’t really matter of course. They had what
they had wanted - brand new US Army issue rifles, ammunition, and whiskey.
Quite a haul, in fact, for what they gave up. Keller almost laughed, imagining
the Arapaho believing they had pulled a fast deal on him.
The Indians had mounted their horses, and now they sped off into the hills. Anxious to try out the new rifles, Keller assumed - or maybe the whiskey. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. He knew the small band of Arapaho had been in the area for a while, hunting and fishing. The hunting in the area was good, and would probably be even better with the new rifles, so they would undoubtedly stay put for a while. And that was the whole idea.
He looked down at the pile of goods by his feet. Three old, single shot rifles that were battered and streaked with war paint. A couple of dozen genuine Arapaho arrows and an old, somewhat tattered war shield. On the face of it, the Indians had certainly gotten the better deal.
Of course, things were not always as they seemed. And now, with his trading partners out of sight, Keller did laugh out loud. Things were working out so well. In a few days, he and his business partners would be rich beyond belief - and the Arapaho would be dead, blamed for a heinous crime that would be committed. And all it had cost him was a few rifles that had been stolen anyway and some watered-down rotgut whiskey from his newest cover business.
Keller turned and waved into the trees. Almost immediately two of his men appeared, leading the horses. He’d partnered with Amos Feld and Luke Shellum for almost three years now. He didn’t trust them any more than he trusted the Arapaho, and he knew these men didn’t trust him either. But their business relationship had made all of them wealthy, and that was all they cared about.
The three men didn’t talk - they didn’t need to. The first part of the job was done, and had been accomplished without a hitch. They gathered up the goods left by the Arapaho, taking care to cover them well on the packhorse.
It wouldn’t be good for the people in Rock Creek to see what Keller had just traded for.
Teaspoon Hunter made his morning rounds of Rock Creek, nodding greetings to most, stopping to talk here and there, and just generally making his presence known. People liked to know that the local law was on the job. And all in all, everything seemed quiet and in order.
Except for the Wild Winds saloon.
Teaspoon stood in the street, regarding Rock Creek’s newest business establishment. Oh, the saloon itself had been there before, but the ownership was new. So were the name, and the gaudy sign, and all of the gambling equipment that had been brought in over the last few weeks. In turn, that brought in more customers, not all of them the types welcome in Rock Creek. More customers meant more noise and more mess, and that meant more complaints from the town’s citizens.
As he watched, a couple of the saloon girls came stumbling out of the front door, laughing about something. The tight, rather skimpy clothing they wore highlighted their cleavage, and Teaspoon found himself wondering if everything would have tumbled out if the girls had actually fallen. As it was, they weren’t leaving much to the imagination anyway, leaning over the railing in front of the saloon, already trolling for the day’s first customers.
Teaspoon looked down the street to where Polly’s saloon sat, quiet and serene. Even at night when the place filled up, there was something dignified about her place, and he didn’t think it was just his personal feelings for the owner that made him believe that. He could count the number of weekly complaints about something at Polly’s on one hand. Now the Wild Winds, on the other hand - he’d probably have more complaints on that place before lunch today.
Just then the saloon’s owner came out onto the sidewalk and Teaspoon studied him closely. Bob Billings was tall, thin and balding, he walked with a slight limp, and he seemed to have a perpetual scowl on his face. He’d only talked to the man a few times, but every instinct Teaspoon had told him there was something wrong with the picture. Billings wasn’t stupid, but he wasn’t the kind of man who accumulated enough money to buy and renovate a place like the Wild Winds. Not through legitimate means, anyway.
Teaspoon sighed. It wasn’t like he could act just on his instinct - he needed proof that something was wrong. And Billings, or whoever might be backing him, played it smart, staying right on the edge of being legal. They cooperated with the law just enough on the complaints to make it seem like they were trying to be helpful. It was frustrating, because he knew something stank at the Wild Winds.
Teaspoon looked up, aware that Billings was staring at him. He tipped his hat in greeting, and in return Billings just scowled more and then retreated back into the saloon.
He heard his name being called and looked around, spotting Jimmy and Buck coming toward him. He raised a hand in greeting and started in their direction.
“Teaspoon, Rachel said you wanted to see us,” Jimmy said as they met.
“Yup, got a couple of special runs I need you boys to make.”
“Where to?” Buck asked.
Teaspoon looked back over his shoulder at the Wild Winds as something seemed to reach out from there and send a chill up his spine. “I got the paperwork over to the Marshal’s office,” he answered, steering them that way. “Let’s go talk over there.”
Keller was struggling to hold in his own anger as he replied. “How should I know? It was supposed to be here,” he snarled. “You were there when it was planned, same as me.”
“Yeah, well, obviously Danworth changed his mind,” Luke pointed out. “What do we do now?”
Keller looked around, surveying the carnage. They’d stopped a private coach on its way from Denver on the main trail to St. Joseph, believing it would contain a considerable sum of gold being sent from Sheldon Danworth to seal a business deal. The coach now lay tipped on its side, the panels and seats ripped out in the attempt to find the gold.
Around the coach, trunks and boxes were strewn, all torn open, the contents shredded - and no gold anywhere. Farther out were the bodies. The driver and his assistant had died first. The three highwaymen had shot them from a distance with the new and very accurate army rifles. Then there were the passengers. Harold McHenry, one of the chief accountants for the Danworth banking and mining fortune, and his wife Ruth. Esther Howell, the personal assistant to the rich and mighty Danworths. And finally Rebecca Danworth, the old man’s daughter, supposedly sent east to escort the gold.
The men in the group had died easy, shot until they breathed their last. They would have just been in the way. The women hadn’t been so lucky. They died, but not fast or easy. Especially Rebecca. Keller had kept her alive the longest, punishing her for every sin, real or imagined, committed by her father. They raped her, beat her, raped her again. Her nude and battered body lay the farthest from the coach. She’d fought, and fought hard, tried to escape, but in the end they had caught her.
But as gratifying as it was to picture Sheldon Danworth’s face when he learned of his precious daughter’s fate, it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. There was supposed to be gold on the coach.
There was no gold.
Keller realized the other two men were waiting for an answer from him. One corner of his mouth lifted in something that might have resembled a smile had there been any humor in the movement at all. “We do exactly as planned,” he said finally. “Get one of those Arapaho rifles and a bunch of the arrows to stick around. When someone finds the coach, they’ll blame the Indians and go after them.” He shook his head, his sneer widening. “When old man Danworth hears what happened to his baby, he’ll probably wipe out the whole Arapaho nation - and any other damn Indian tribe that gets in his way.”
“But what about the gold?” Amos whined.
Keller’s arm shot out so quickly it was almost a blur, and he backhanded Feld across the jaw. “What about the gold?” he repeated. “Do you see any gold here?” When the other two men shook their heads he continued, “We take the jewelry and valuables. It’s not the gold we were expecting, but with little Miss Rebecca here, it’s not a bad haul. Then we head back to Rock Creek and lay low while old man Danworth wages war on the Indians.”
Keller looked off to the west, toward Denver, and suddenly he laughed out loud, filling the air with the evil sound. “And while he’s busy killing Indians, we’ll figure another plan to get the gold.”
He looked around, savoring the wide-open space. He was secretly glad Jimmy had chosen to take the northeastern route, leaving the southwestern run for him. The farther east you went, the more people and towns there were. That just meant more opportunity to get turned away or ridiculed because of his Kiowa blood. He would have taken either run, but he much preferred the less populated areas.
He grinned - Jimmy had probably chosen the eastern route for exactly the opposite reasons. The other rider liked to be around the action.
He stretched in the saddle then leaned over to pat the mare’s neck. “Just a little farther and we should find some nice streams,” he promised the horse. “Then we’ll take a little break.” He grinned again as the horse nodded her head, almost as if she understood.
Buck pushed his heels gently against the horse’s flanks, starting down the hill, then quickly reined her in again. Shading his eyes against the morning sun he studied the horizon in front of him. Dark puffs of smoke were rising into the air, darkening the sky.
There weren’t any towns out that way, and there was no way to tell from this distance what it might be that was burning. Well, there was really only one way to find out, so he urged the horse forward again, picking up the pace.
He turned to Feld and Shellum. “Let’s go,” he said, mounting his horse. “We’ll head up into the hills and take the long way around, just in case anyone is coming along the road.”
The other two men nodded in agreement and mounted up. “How long do you figure before someone finds them?” Amos asked.
Luke shrugged. “Could be any time. There are always people around the road.”
“Good reason to get out of here then,” Keller urged impatiently. “We don’t want to be here when someone comes along.” That would ruin all their perfect planning.
The other two looked around nervously, then started toward the hills, leading the laden wagon horses. Keller followed close behind, bringing up the rear. They picked their way carefully through the deep ruts left by some of the thousands of settlers’ wagons that had passed through on the way west. Luke’s horse stumbled slightly, but horse and rider were quickly righted and they kept going.
None of them noticed the single hoof cover that fell off and got left behind.
He dismounted, carefully tethering his nervous horse to a downed tree. The animal wasn’t any keener about the smells than he was, and the last thing he needed was for the horse to bolt and leave him stranded.
Kneeling beside the first body, he felt for a pulse or any sign of breathing. It wasn’t surprising that he didn’t find either - the man had several bullet wounds in his back, and an arrow sticking out of his side. He moved on to the next body, another man, older and very well dressed. Not that his expensive attire had made any difference. He was just as dead as the first man was.
Moving a little farther out Buck found another body, this time a young woman. He fought back more nausea at the sight of her torn clothes, the blood between her legs. He confirmed that she was dead, then carefully pulled her clothing back over her before moving on to the last body. It was another woman, older than the first one by at least fifteen years he’d guess. Her clothing had been ripped away as well, the evidence of violation clear. He covered her the best he could too, then walked toward the wagon.
There were a lot of footprints around, many of them covering each other. But within a couple of minutes Buck had identified the various tracks, and eliminated those belonging to the dead. That left him with four sets of human prints that he couldn’t identify - and one set he’d bet belonged to another woman. He could see signs of a scuffle with those prints, the short, deep prints indicating she had been struggling, and then those same boots being dragged. But the boots didn’t match either of the women he had found, so he was guessing the attackers must have taken the owner with them.
On the far side of the wagon he found what he was really looking for - horse tracks leading directly away from the scene. Two sets of hooves were very large, and he figured those would belong to the wagon horses, which were missing. There were three other sets, slightly blurred at the edges as though the hooves had been covered.
Something caught his eye and he moved up a few steps, then bent down to pick something up. It was a square of rawhide, with a piece of rope next to it. And sure enough, just past that there was one clear hoof print amongst the other tracks - and it belonged to a shod horse. It was very reminiscent of the tracks he had shown Kid months earlier when they had been trying to help a Sioux warrior named Curly.
He studied the closest tracks, then let his eyes wander out. Signs of the horses’ passage led almost due north. Buck looked up, staring off into the forested hills in that direction.
“What is it?” Keller asked, looking up from where he was sorting the jewelry they had stolen.
“There’s someone down there,” Amos answered. He got to his feet and brushed off his pants. “He found the tracks and he’s looking right up here.”
Keller quickly got to his feet and snatched up the field glass from where Amos had dropped it. Lifting it to his eye, he peered down toward the burning wagon. And sure enough, there was a man crouching near the wagon - and he did eerily seem to be staring right up to where they were. Still, Keller wasn’t quite as prone to panic. “No way he can see us from that far away,” he stated firmly. “He ain’t got no field glass.”
“Yeah, I know that,” Amos admitted. “Just surprised me, that’s all.”
“He heading this way?” Luke asked.
Keller shook his head, still studying the stranger through the field glass. Finally he nodded. “Thought he looked familiar,” he said. “It’s that half-breed, rides for the Pony Express.”
Behind Keller’s back, Amos and Luke exchanged worried looks. “Word in town is that he’s a damn good tracker,” Luke pointed out.
“Maybe we should get out of here, sort the stuff later,” Amos added.
“He’s just looking,” Keller said calmly. He was confident in the quality of the deception they had laid. “If he’s any kind of tracker, he knows he’s outgunned. Should even be figuring he’s apt to run into a bigger Arapaho band at the end of the tracks.” He looked over his shoulder at the other two men. “If he goes to Rock Creek for the Marshal, we got no problem. We’ll be gone long before he gets back. And if he decides to come up here on his own - we kill him.”
He sneered and raised the field glass again.
He stood just behind the wagon, trying to ignore the smoke and the stench. He could recognize the painted symbols on the rifle as Arapaho, and the arrows matched. But the only trouble in the area recently had been from the Sioux after the whites broke yet another treaty. There hadn’t been any reported Arapaho trouble since they had moved to Rock Creek.
He stepped up, looking at the arrow in the first man. He crouched down, touching the shaft gently without moving it. There was something about . . .
A rustling noise behind him sent him spinning to face it, his gun now in his hand. There was some rock cover about thirty yards away, right near the bank of the creek he had crossed a short distance back. He stayed still for a moment, listening, watching, reaching with all his senses to detect any threat. It was silent though, and he told himself it could have just been the breeze in the long grass . . .
No, there it was again - and a low moan accompanying it. It could be a wounded animal, he knew. But then he thought about the unidentified tracks, the struggle, and he knew it could also be the missing owner of those boots. He moved forward cautiously.
As his view of the ground beyond the rocks became clear, he suddenly stopped at what he saw. Just a few feet away, practically right on the riverbank, there was a body - a human body. But as he watched the body moved slightly, and the low moan sounded again. Definitely human this time. He scanned the area again quickly, but still saw no sign of anyone else in the area. Gun still at the ready, he edged forward.
She was naked, her clothes completely torn away. There was so much blood mixed with mud covering her body that it was hard to tell where the injuries really were. His eyes fixed on her, he stumbled over a boot in his path. He picked it up and glanced quickly at the sole - it was a match for the unidentified tracks he’d seen back by the wagon.
He tossed the boot to one side and moved past, checking the riverbank in both directions for any sign of danger. There were lots of footprints and signs of a scuffle, but nothing leading into the river, or anyplace other than back toward the wagon. Finally convinced that the attackers had all left for the hills, he holstered his gun and went back to kneel by the woman.
He put his hand to her cheek, feeling the warmth of life still there. And then he was startled when her eyes fluttered open. The intensity of the fear in her eyes startled him even further. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said quickly. As she started to tremble he asked, “Can you understand me?”
She nodded slightly, and tried to say something, but all that came out was a raspy cough. “I’m going to get my canteen,” Buck said. He started to rise, but was stopped when a bloody hand reached out, weakly grasping his. “I’ll be right back,” he promised gently.
The fingers slipped from his hand and he stood up, then ran toward his horse. He grabbed the canteen and his bedroll then headed back behind the rocks and knelt down again. Cradling her shoulders gently with one arm, he lifted her head enough to hold the water to her lips until she turned her head away.
“Who . . .?” Her voice could barely handle the one word.
“My name is Buck Cross, ma’am. I’m a rider for the Pony Express. I was just on my way back to the Rock Creek station when I found your wagon.”
“Rock Cre . . .”
“Rock Creek,” he finished for her. “That’s the next town down the line.” He slipped the bedroll under her neck and gently lowered her head. “Is that where you were headed?”
This time she just nodded, not trying to speak.
Buck looked down at her again, acutely embarrassed by her lack of clothing now that she was awake. Still, trying to get clothing on her now before he could find and treat the wounds wouldn’t make sense. Stumbling a bit on his words he said, “Ma’am, I need to wash some of the blood off of you so I can find where you’re hurt. I promise I am not going to hurt you.”
Another nod, as tears started to flow down her cheeks.
He grabbed some of the torn clothing and went to the river, soaking the rags with water. Then, as gently as he could, he started the process of cleaning away blood and mud. He began with her face, wincing with her as he uncovered a large gash on the side of her head. It started bleeding profusely again and he stopped to tie a bandage around her head before proceeding.
He worked his way down her body, moving as quickly as he could. The morning sun had already climbed almost to the zenith, and he knew that between her injuries and riding double they wouldn’t make very good time. He figured his best option was to get the wounds cleaned and bandaged, find some clothing for the girl, and then get on the way to Rock Creek. She was bleeding from a lot of wounds, and some of them looked pretty bad. The faster he got her to a doctor, the better her chances would be.
She jerked again as he uncovered yet another wound. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, looking into her pain-filled eyes. “But I’m almost done, and then we’ll be on the way to Rock Creek.” He had no idea how she was going to tolerate the ride with all of the pain she was in already.
She nodded, then swallowed hard and closed her eyes as another wave of pain passed. When she looked up again she whispered, “Thank you for finding me.” The five words set her off coughing, her whole body shaking.
Buck lifted her shoulders, helping her breathe, until the spasms subsided. “Ma’am, it was just pure luck that I found you. I normally wouldn’t have been riding this close to the road.” When you’d been greeted with fear and loathing as often as he had, avoiding fellow travelers generally seemed to be the best way to go.
“But you did,” she whispered, raising her hand weakly to rest it on his.
He stopped for a moment, touched by the gesture. And he considered how he had surprised himself that morning by striking out toward the road. His deviation from his normal course had paid off this time. He didn’t know if the girl would make it to Rock Creek alive, but if she didn’t, she’d at least know someone who cared was with her when she died.
Buck finished washing away the worst of the bloody mess and wrapped a bandage around the last of the wounds that looked serious. It was a good thing he had a lot on his mind, he decided, otherwise he was sure he’d be sick at the sheer brutality of what had been done to the girl.
He tossed the last bloody rag away. “Can you tell me your name?”
“ . . . becca.” She coughed, swallowed a couple of times, then tried again. “Rebecca Danworth.”
He smiled, hoping it looked encouraging. “Rebecca, I’m going to find some clothes for you, then I’ll get you on my horse and we’ll be on the way.” She just nodded wearily, this time making no attempt to stop him as he moved off.
Keller turned toward his partners, anger fuming in his eyes. He glared at Amos directly. “You were the last one with her,” he snarled. “You said she was dead.”
“She is!” But something in Keller’s voice made Amos less sure in his answer.
“Well, if she’s dead, why is the Indian giving her water and cleaning her up?” Keller asked, his anger barely in check. “He didn’t give water to any of the other bodies.”
“Maybe he did see us,” Luke suggested nervously. “He’s trying to fool us.”
“And maybe idiot here didn’t really kill her,” Keller countered.
“I cut her like you said, Stan,” Amos answered, almost whining. He was supposed to be a partner in this business, but he knew well who was really in charge.
“Stan, she was so cut up, even if she’s alive now, there’s no way she’ll survive the trip to Rock Creek,” Luke said.
“Maybe,” Keller muttered, turning back toward the road and lifting the field glass. “Maybe she won’t. But she wasn’t supposed to have survived now either.”
Buck finally brought his horse over and, being as gentle as he could, he lifted Rebecca onto the saddle. He could see that she was bleeding again in several places, but there wasn’t much more he could do. He slung the canteen back over the pommel and replaced the bedroll behind the saddle, then swung up behind her.
His own clothing was getting stiff from the blood that had flowed onto him, but there wasn’t time to do anything about that now either. Unless Rebecca took a drastic turn for the worse, he figured his best plan was to just head for Rock Creek and not stop.
“She can’t really be alive,” Amos insisted.
“Well, then the Indian was doing a good job of faking it for her,” Keller replied sarcastically. “I could see her moving.”
Luke stood up and headed for his horse. “Well, I suppose we better go get him.”
Keller thought for a moment, then started to smile. “No, wait,” he said. “I think I got a better idea.”
“Stan, the Danworth girl can identify us,” Luke pointed out.
“If he gets her to town alive,” Keller agreed. “But even if he does, we can still make this work.”
Amos had perked up, very interested in anything that would get him off the hook for not making sure the girl was dead. “What’s your idea?”
“We get to town first and blame the Indian,” Keller answered simply.
Luke shook his head. “But the girl can identify us. How is blaming him going to help?”
Keller was grinning now as his plan formed, and it was not a pleasant sight. “The good folk of Rock Creek are pretty upset over the latest Indian trouble north of here, right?” He got a couple of nods in agreement so he continued. “Well, when they hear there’s more trouble to the west, and to beat all, someone who’s been living right with them was involved, things are apt to get mighty ugly.” He laughed out loud picturing the scene. “If that Marshal is busy tryin’ to protect his Indian friend, he won’t be out looking for us. And if he goes out looking, well, it might not take too much to get the folks in Rock Creek to take care of the Indian, and then Hunter has to deal with that when he gets back. Either way, it clears things out for us.”
“You really think the town will go after the Indian?” Amos asked.
“I heard tell a bunch of them almost lynched the blacksmith a little while back,” Luke said. “And he ain’t even Indian.”
“All it’s gonna take is the right motivation,” Keller added. “Amos, you take those wagon horses with the goods and swing around north of town like we planned,” he instructed. “Luke, you and me are gonna get to town before the Indian. When he shows up with a beaten, bloody white woman, we’ll get things rolling.”
“And what do we do about her?” Luke wanted to know.
Keller shrugged. “We wait ‘til the trouble gets started, then we kill her.”
Teaspoon looked up from the wanted posters he was sorting and cocked a wary eyebrow at the younger man, then reached over and pushed his boots off the desk. “Ain’t you got no manners?”
Jimmy just grinned. “I’ve been learning from the best lawman around!”
Teaspoon grunted, trying not to smile. “Any trouble on the run?”
“Nope, smooth as anything,” Jimmy answered. “Buck back yet?”
“Ain’t seen him yet.” Teaspoon would have expected the Kiowa rider to be back by now, but it wasn’t really late enough to be worried yet.
Just then Kid came into the office. “Hey, Jimmy. Welcome back!”
“Thanks, Kid. Hope you all managed to not get into too much trouble while I was gone.”
Kid grinned. “We managed just fine. No one got shot - and no one shot anyone else.”
Jimmy grinned back. He really didn’t think he went to the gun quite as much as some people thought he did, but he wouldn’t really feel like he was home if someone wasn’t kidding him about it. He’d learned to laugh with the jokes - most of the time, anyway. “Well for your information, I didn’t shoot anyone on this special run neither.”
Kid staggered backward, acting shocked. “Teaspoon, did you hear that?”
“I did,” the older man answered, getting in on the fun. “Good thing I was sittin’ down, ‘cause I don’t know if my old ticker could’ve stood that otherwise.”
“You are both just too funny,” Jimmy said sarcastically. But he was still grinning.
The sound of hoof beats drew their attention outside, and they watched as two men came riding in fast, stopping in front of Polly’s saloon. Although they were too far away to hear what was being said, the three men could see that a small crowd quickly gathered. And then they saw Polly pushing her way through the crowd, heading toward the marshal’s office.
Teaspoon grabbed his hat and went to the door. “Guess we better see what that’s all about.” Kid and Jimmy nodded in silent agreement and followed him outside.
They met Polly in the middle of the street. “Teaspoon, you better get over there,” she said, looking nervously back at the crowd. “Those men say there was another Indian attack, and some of these people are getting pretty angry.”
Teaspoon shook his head and kept walking. More people joined the crowd as he approached, and he pushed his way through to the front, followed closely by Jimmy and Kid. Everyone seemed to be hanging on the words of the two men who had just ridden in. Teaspoon knew he’d seen them in town before, but he didn’t know their names.
“It was horrible, horrible,” Keller was saying. He noted the Marshal’s arrival out of the corner of his eye and decided the time was right to add some more detail. “Them Indians, they were just wild, killing those poor white folk for no reason.”
“That’s right,” Luke agreed solemnly. “Just wild.” They’d worked on their story on the way into Rock Creek.
Amidst the angry murmuring of the crowd Teaspoon stepped up. “Maybe you better start over and tell me what’s going on,” he said.
“Sure, Marshal, glad to,” Keller said, smiling. He had a good story to tell. “Me and Luke here, we were just riding in toward town when we heard shooting. And being good citizens, of course we went to see if we could help.”
“Of course,” Teaspoon muttered. His instincts were warning him about these two men, just as with Billings earlier in the day.
“Well, we rode up and saw a whole war party attacking this wagon,” Luke said. He nodded earnestly as people reacted in fear.
“And where did you say this was?” Teaspoon asked.
“Out west of town along the main trail,” Keller answered. He shook his head sadly. “It was awful, Marshal. Them savages just killed the men, then burned the wagon.” He stopped, shaking his shoulders as if in terror. “An’ what they did to the women. They had their way, Marshal. It was terrible to see.”
“Where’d you see all this from?” Jimmy asked.
“We was up on a hill just south of the trail,” Luke answered. “We could see real good.”
“But you didn’t try to help,” Jimmy prompted.
“Too many of them savages,” Keller answered. “And it was just the two of us, with just pistols and no extra shot.” They’d carefully sent the rifles and extra ammunition with Amos so their story would be better.
“Could have at least tried to scare them off,” Jimmy insisted.
Something about the whole story wasn’t sitting right with Teaspoon, so he moved now to take control before Jimmy pushed things too far. “You get a good enough look to know which tribe did the attack?”
“Ain’t real sure,” Keller said carefully, trying to read this Marshal and see how he should answer. “Think it might have been Arapaho.” He felt a slight nudge from Luke and he turned his head slightly, noticing the Indian express rider coming into town with the Danworth girl. They’d timed this just about perfectly.
Buck saw the crowd outside of Polly’s and it made him curious. But his first priority was to get the girl into the doctor’s care. She’d fallen unconscious about a half-hour earlier, and between that and the additional bleeding, he was very concerned. So he kept his horse all the way to the other side of the street and kept going to the physician’s office.
“Strangest thing,” Keller was saying. “Most of them savages was dressed in loincloths and war paint. But one of them, seemed like the leader, was dressed in regular clothes, like a white man.”
“Hadn’t heard about any Arapaho problems in the area,” Kid noted quietly.
Teaspoon nodded. He’d been thinking that too, but he needed some more information before deciding what to do. “This man in the white clothes, you’re sure he was Indian?”
“Oh, yes sir, Marshal,” Luke answered, nodding vigorously. He reached into his saddlebags and pulled out the field glass. “We saw him real clear.”
“He almost looked familiar,” Keller mused, “like I’d seen him somewhere before.” He paused, making a point of looking down the street to where Buck was just dismounting. Letting his eyes go wide, Keller feigned shock and pointed. “There! There, across the street! That’s the man leading the attack!”
As the crowd turned angrily to look, Teaspoon pushed his way through so he could see - and he stopped dead in his tracks. Keller was pointing right at Buck, who was carrying someone into the doctor’s office.
“Now hold on,” Teaspoon said, raising his voice to be heard over the murmuring crowd. He looked quickly to make sure Jimmy and Kid had seen the same thing and were backing him up. “That there is Buck Cross, one of my Express riders. He is not involved in this.”
Keller shook his head sadly. “I understand how hard it is to believe someone you know would do a thing like this,” he said, trying to sound very sympathetic. “But we seen him real clear.”
The crowd surged forward and Teaspoon moved to stay in front. “Now everyone just hold it,” he demanded. “We’re gonna go talk to Buck, see what’s going on.”
“Nothing to talk about,” someone yelled.
“Always knew that Indian was no good,” another voice added.
“Shoulda scalped him a long time ago,” came from another voice.
As the angry voices rose around him and the crowd surged, Teaspoon pulled his gun and fired one shot into the air. It had the effect of silencing the crowd, at least momentarily. “I said, we’re gonna talk to Buck,” Teaspoon said. “Anyone tries somethin’ else, he’s gonna regret it.” Kid had drawn his gun to Teaspoon’s left, and on his right Hickok stood with his jacket pushed back, hands poised menacingly over his twin Colts.
Teaspoon turned just as the door to the doctor’s office opened and Buck emerged, looking for the source of the gunshot. The Marshal strode quickly in that direction before any of the crowd could move around him.
“What’s going on, Teaspoon? I heard a shot,” Buck said. His eyes roved over the crowd, noting the hatred in the eyes of the people there. And it seemed to be directed at him.
Teaspoon looked at his young friend, noting the blood covering his clothes. That wasn’t going to help Buck with the crowd any. But before he could say anything, Keller pushed forward, his finger pointing at Buck. “That’s the man, Marshal! He’s the one we saw attacking them people!”
Buck’s eyes went wide. “What are you talking about?” He ducked as something went flying toward his head, banging into the wall behind him. “Teaspoon?”
Teaspoon started to reply, then got distracted as Jimmy drew one gun in a blur of a motion, aiming at a man who had picked up another rock to throw. The man wisely dropped the rock, and then Teaspoon turned back to Buck. “These men,” he said, his distaste evident in his tone, “say there was an attack on the road outside of town. And they’re sayin’ you were part of it.”
Anger flared in Buck’s eyes. “That’s a lie!” He stared out at the hostile crowd, then looked back to Teaspoon. “There was a wagon attacked, Teaspoon. But the attack was already over when I got there. One woman survived, and I just brought her in. She’s hurt bad.”
“Sure, after you had your way with her!” someone yelled.
“Only way you could get a white woman, boy!”
Keller stepped up, trying not to grin. This was going better than he’d thought - this crowd was really angry. “We seen you, boy,” he said, poking his finger at Buck. “We seen what you did to them people, ‘specially that one woman. How could you do them things?” He shook his head sadly, obviously sickened by the tale he was telling.
“That’s a lie!” Buck said again, struggling to keep his anger in check. He knew the situation was dangerous enough already, not just for him, but also for Teaspoon, Jimmy, and Kid. “Why are you lying?”
“Wish we was,” Luke said. “Wish we’d never seen them things you did. How you had that girl’s clothes ripped off, an’ you was forcing yourself on her while she begged . . .”
Buck lunged toward the other man, his control gone. But Jimmy and Kid managed to grab him before he could reach Luke. “That ain’t gonna help,” Kid said quietly, holding Buck’s arm tightly until he felt the Kiowa rider relax a little.
The din from the crowd grew, and angry accusations were flying. As the crowd pushed in closer, Teaspoon stepped in front of Buck. “I think we should go discuss this in my office.”
Buck looked at him in shock. “Teaspoon, you can’t believe . . .”
Teaspoon turned, looking into Buck’s eyes. “Of course I don’t believe you did this,” he said firmly. “But we gotta get you off the street before something happens here.”
“It’s gonna be safer in the jail,” Jimmy said, moving up close on Buck’s right side. His eyes continued to rove over the crowd, and he hadn’t re-holstered the gun.
“Buck, he’s right,” Kid added, standing protectively on Buck’s left.
Buck took a deep breath, then he nodded. With the anger he felt right now, it was probably safer for the crowd if he got out of there. He was about ready to take some of them on with his bare hands.
Teaspoon led the way, walking quickly, as Jimmy and Kid protected Buck from behind. At one point during the short walk something flew up and hit Jimmy in the shoulder and he whirled, drawing his other gun and sending the crowd falling back a step or two. He walked the rest of the way looking backwards, both guns at the ready.
Reaching the jailhouse, Teaspoon pushed Buck and Kid in ahead of him, then stopped Jimmy at the door. “I want you to go back to the doc’s,” he said. “See how the girl’s doing, then come back and let me know. If she’s awake, she’s the best chance for ending this quick and peaceful.” He looked down at the guns still out in Hickok’s hands and added, “And Jimmy, try not to shoot anyone.”
Jimmy never took his eyes off the pulsing crowd. “That’s up to them,” he said coolly, just loud enough to be heard by the first couple of rows. “They behave, I won’t shoot.” Keeping his back to the buildings, he moved off toward the doctor’s office.
Teaspoon moved to go into the jail, only to find himself shoved from behind by some of the men as they tried to crowd into the jail too. Keller pushed his way to the front. “We want to know what you intend to do about this murderer, Marshal,” he demanded, glaring at Buck.
Buck glared right back, and the anger in his eyes caused Keller to take half a step back. Buck’s lips turned up slightly in something resembling a grin as he saw that. He leaned back against the desk, carefully keeping his hands away from his gun and knife. He was still angry, but he had that anger under control - for now.
Teaspoon stepped into the middle. He could still hear the angry murmuring coming from the growing crowd outside. He’d seen this type of thing before, way too often over the years, and he was damned if he was going to let the crowd take over in his town, and with his friend. “I’m going to investigate the crime, that’s what I’m gonna do,” he said, staring the other man in the eye. “And when I find out what happened and who did it, I’ll see he’s punished.”
“You already got who did it,” Keller said loudly, still playing to the crowd. “And we’d be glad to take care of him right now.”
The crowd noise rose in approval, and to one side Teaspoon could see Kid trying to keep Buck calm. “You like to talk so much,” Teaspoon said, his anger barely in control, “why don’t you start by telling me your name.”
“Stan Keller,” the other man replied. “Me and my partner been working a small claim out west of here. Just started about a month ago.”
“I’ve seen you in town before,” Teaspoon observed.
“Well, sure. We been in for supplies.”
“No, don’t think that’s where I seen you,” Teaspoon drawled, purposely going slow. “Think it might have been at the Wild Winds saloon, and you was lookin’ mighty familiar with the owner, what for bein’ new in town and all.”
Keller paused a moment before answering. He knew he needed to play this part carefully. It wouldn’t do for this marshal to go looking too close into the ownership of the saloon and find Keller’s name. “Can’t say as I really know the man, Marshal,” he said, trying to sound friendly. “But I do admit, I like a drink now and then, especially after a long day working the claim. It sure don’t hurt to be friendly with the owner of a bar.” He grinned to reinforce his friendliness.
Teaspoon just nodded, taking his own time. “You come into town today for the saloon, or something else?"
“Well, we needed to pick up a few things,” Keller answered. “And then a few drinks at the saloon before heading back.” He paused and looked down, shaking his head. “Guess I’ll need more than a few drinks to forget what I saw him do!” he finished, raising his voice again and pointing at Buck.
Buck stared at the angry faces and shook his head. “I didn’t do this,” he said evenly, looking from face to face; no one could meet his eyes. “But if I did, why would I bring the woman into town for help? If I was the one who attacked her, she could get me hung.”
“Not if she don’t wake up,” Keller replied quickly. “You know how bad she’s hurt - and you know she won’t make it. So it’s a real smart play, bringing her to town like that. Smarter’n I would have thought a Indian could be. Might make people think you were innocent - except that there’s two honest white men seen you do it!” He raised his voice carefully on that last part, gratified by the new round of protests from his audience.
This time it was Buck who had to restrain Kid from punching the man out.
“Maybe you’d best just go have those drinks now,” Teaspoon suggested. He needed to get this man, and the crowd he attracted, out of the jailhouse so he could talk to Buck.
“Marshal, we’ll be glad to go have a drink,” Luke said, stepping up to stand by Keller. “But we gotta know that you’re not gonna just let the Indian go. I mean, we heard you and him was friends. Wouldn’t want you to let that get in the way of doing your job.”
Teaspoon’s eyes were burning with anger. “I know my job, and I don’t need scum like you tellin’ me how to do it,” he growled, moving forward. Even for those who didn’t know him the tone of his voice was frightening, and the other men fell back toward the door. “Now you all get out of my jail and let me do my job.”
As the men stumbled out into the street, Keller stopped at the door and turned back. “You do your job, Marshal,” he said. “But just you remember, we ain’t gonna let you whitewash the whole thing and let the Indian go. We’ll take care of him ourselves if need be.”
“Get out!” Teaspoon roared, pointing to the street. He took another step forward, gratified to see Keller slip out of the door without more argument. He was just about to slam the door when Jimmy slipped in.
“That is one ugly crowd,” Jimmy remarked as he stepped back to let Teaspoon close the door on the mob. He flinched at the withering glare Teaspoon threw his way, then continued, “Things could get real bad tonight, Teaspoon.”
The older man nodded wearily. “I know,” he said. “Unless you got some good news from Doc?”
Jimmy shook his head. “She’s still alive, but unconscious. Doc’s working on her, but he says he doesn’t know.” He turned toward Buck. “He did say to tell you that was a good job you did bandaging the wounds. It kept her alive this far.”
Buck just shook his head. “A lot of good that does if she doesn’t make it,” he said softly. “You might as well just let that bunch in for me.”
“That is not going to happen,” Teaspoon answered angrily. “Not in my town.” He paused, taking a deep breath. His voice was calmer when he continued. “Buck, why don’t you tell us what happened - everything you can think of.” This whole story from Keller and his partner stank to high heaven, but he needed something to go on to prove that.
Buck shrugged and went back to leaning against the desk. “I was on my way back here, still a couple of hours out of town, and I saw smoke, so I went to check it out. I found a burned out wagon. Looked like a private coach of some sort - and probably a pretty nice one before it burned.”
“Now was it still flaming when you got there, or just smoking?” Teaspoon asked, trying to fix the time of the attack.
“The flames were burned out,” Buck answered. “Just a lot of black smoke.”
“And just the one survivor?” Kid asked.
Buck nodded. “There was one body right with the wagon, and it was pretty burned. Then I found two other men, and two women. They were all dead. I had started looking for tracks when I heard something, and I went to check it out. I found Rebecca then, quite a ways from the wagon.”
“Rebecca? Don’t suppose she gave you a last name,” Teaspoon said.
“Danworth,” Buck replied. “She said they were traveling from near Denver.”
“Danworth,” Teaspoon repeated quietly. “Does seem to me I’ve heard that name, but can’t say as I recall when or where.”
“I didn’t recognize it,” Buck said. “But from the looks of that coach, and the clothing and stuff, I’d say they’ve got some money.”
“I’ll check with Howard Tuttle over to the bank,” Teaspoon said. “If this family is so wealthy, maybe he’ll know something.”
“Well, after I found Rebecca, I knew she was hurt pretty bad.” He stopped and looked down, shaking his head - and his discomfort was real. “It was real bad, Teaspoon. Whoever did it had ripped all her clothes off. She had blood and mud all over. I had to wash a lot of it off before I could even find out where she was hurt.”
“She was conscious then?”
“Yes. She was trying to talk, so I got my canteen. That’s when she told me her name, and I told her who I was, and that I’d try to help. Then I bandaged up her wounds as best I could, found some clothes for her, and brought her here.”
v “She say anything else that might help?” Jimmy asked.
Buck shook his head. “Everything I was doing to help was causing her pain. I tried to keep her talking on the ride in, to keep her concentrating on something, but she couldn’t talk much. And then a little ways outside of town she passed out altogether.”
“Buck, you said you were looking for tracks when you heard something and found the girl,” Kid said. “Did you find anything?”
“Three clear sets of tracks heading north into the hills,” Buck answered. “Plus two other sets from a couple of really large horses - I figure probably the wagon horses. They weren’t anywhere around that I could see.”
“Figures they’d take the wagon horses if there was stuff to carry off from the wagons,” Kid observed.
“Everything was ripped open,” Buck said. “Lots of boxes and trunks, everything tossed all over the place. Couldn’t tell you if they actually found anything.”
“Them two said they thought it was Arapaho. You agree?” Teaspoon asked.
“There were Arapaho arrows,” Buck answered. “And an old rifle with Arapaho war symbols on it.” He paused, then added, “But it wasn’t Arapaho who attacked.”
“You sure about that, Buck? You just said you found arrows,” Jimmy pointed out.
“I found the tracks,” Buck answered. “The horses’ hooves had been covered, but those horses were definitely shod. I even found one of the covers that had fallen off.”
“So it’s like those tracks you showed me when we were trying to help Curly,” Kid said.
“Exactly like that, Kid,” Buck agreed. He paused, picturing the scene in his mind. “There was something else too, Teaspoon. About the arrows. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to look, because that’s when I found Rebecca. The arrows didn’t kill any of those people, I’m sure of it. They weren’t in the right places.” He stopped, running his hands through his hair. “It’s hard to explain, but something about the arrows just wasn’t right.”
Teaspoon nodded, taking in all of what Buck had said, and forming his plan of action. “Kid, you go saddle a couple of horses. You an’ me are gonna go out and take a look at this wagon. Stop at the bunkhouse and send Lou and Cody over - an’ leave a note for Noah to get over here soon as he gets back from his run.”
“Right, Teaspoon,” Kid replied, heading out. He reached the door and turned back. “It’ll be all right, Buck.” The look he received from Buck in return did not show any real confidence in that.
Teaspoon reached into the drawer and pulled out a badge. “Hickok, raise your right hand.” Jimmy walked over and Teaspoon raised his hand, intending to swear Jimmy in, but then he stopped and just shook his head. “Oh, hell, you know - just say I do.”
“I do,” Jimmy said dutifully, taking the badge.
Buck took a step forward. “Teaspoon, I should go with . . .”
Teaspoon waved his hand, cutting the younger man off. He sighed, knowing this next part wasn’t going to go well - for either of them. “Buck, I know you want to go out with us. Lord knows, we could probably use your help. But that can’t happen, son. You have to stay here.”
Buck shook his head. “Teaspoon, you can’t believe I had anything to do with this.”
“Of course not!” Teaspoon walked over and put his hands on the younger man’s shoulders, looking him in the eye. “Buck, I know there’s no way you were involved. But there’s been a crime, and allegations made, and I have to investigate.”
“It makes me look guilty,” Buck said quietly. “The town already thinks I did it. I need to prove I didn’t.”
“Buck, it’s precisely because the town is up in arms that you have to stay. If I were to take you with us now, lots of people wouldn’t understand, and the mood they’re in, that could get ugly. I don’t want to see you shot, an’ I don’t want me or Kid shot neither.”
Buck turned away, sighing. If it was just his life, he’d argue some more, but he wouldn’t add to the risk Teaspoon and Kid might face. Not looking at either of the other two men in the room, he undid his gun belt then placed it and his knife on the desk. Trying to ignore the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach he walked into the cell and slammed the door behind him.
Teaspoon picked up the keys to lock the door, but found he couldn’t move. Jimmy finally walked over and took the keys, then went to the cell. He winced with Buck as the lock fell into place. “Teaspoon and Kid will find who did this, Buck,” Jimmy said. “‘Til then, this is the safest place for you.”
“It’s not safest for you, Jimmy,” Buck replied softly, turning to face his friend. “They’ll be coming, you know they will.”
“You let me worry about that,” Jimmy answered, pinning on the badge. “They can come, but they ain’t gonna get in.”
Buck just shook his head and slumped down on the cell’s lone bunk, his back to the other two men in the room.
Teaspoon gathered his jacket, a rifle, and some ammunition then walked over and stood just outside the cell. “I know it ain’t easy, Buck. You think I liked it when you and Jimmy left me locked up here and went after Randall?” He got a slight shrug from Buck, but no reply, so he continued. “Son, you’re the best tracker I seen in a long time, but I’ve tracked more’n a few men over the years too. Kid and I’ll find something, don’t you worry.”
“It’s not just that, Teaspoon,” Buck said. “This is putting all of you in danger over me.”
“You heard any of us complaining?” Jimmy asked.
“Maybe you should,” Buck answered.
Jimmy shook his head and started to reply, but just then the door opened as Kid returned, bringing Lou and Cody with him. Kid was dressed to travel, while Lou and Cody came fully armed.
Lou went right over to the cell and stood next to Teaspoon. “How are you doing, Buck?”
“I’ve been better.”
She reached through the bars to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Teaspoon, Kid told us what happened. Do you really think they’ll try to get to Buck?” She could feel his shoulder tense under her hand as she asked the question.
“They might,” Teaspoon admitted. “They was mighty riled up. So they’ll either go drink and settle down, or go drink and get more riled.”
“We can handle it,” Cody said confidently. He checked the load in his rifle, just in case.
“Don’t go lookin’ for no trouble,” Teaspoon warned as he started for the door. “Havin’ three of you here, all armed, should discourage them a little.”
“We left a note for Noah like you said,” Kid added. “He should be in soon.”
“Jimmy, when Noah gets here, you send him over to doc’s, have him watch the girl.”
“You’re thinking someone might try to get at her here in town, aren’t you?” Jimmy asked.
“Yup, stands to reason,” Teaspoon answered. “She knows who done this, and it weren’t Buck, so that’s gotta make someone nervous.”
“See, Buck, this will all work out,” Lou said, trying to sound positive. “She can clear you, soon as she wakes up.”
“If she wakes up,” Buck countered. Then he jumped as Lou hit his arm, hard.
“That’s when,” she insisted.
Buck just rubbed his sore arm and didn’t say anything else.
“Well, Kid, let’s get going,” Teaspoon said. “We’re gonna stop and see Tuttle over at the bank, see if he knows anything about the Danworths. Then we’ll get on out and check the wagon.”
“Ride safe,” Jimmy said as he opened the door for them.
“Always,” Kid answered. He started to smile, but one look at Buck sitting forlornly in the cell changed his mind.
Teaspoon was looking at the lonely rider in the cell himself. He knew exactly how Buck was feeling - but he also knew the young rider was safest where he was. “We’ll be back as soon as we can. And we’ll find who did this.” He turned to Hickok. “Jimmy, just keep him safe here. Don’t take the fight to them.”
Jimmy just nodded, then stood in the doorway, watching as the other two mounted up and rode toward the bank. Then he stepped back inside the jail, but he didn’t close the door just yet. He looked around the street, noting several men loitering in various doorways and alleys, all of them watching the jail. Most of them he recognized from the angry mob that had gathered earlier.
Now he stepped forward, stopping just outside the door to the Marshal’s office. From there he carefully and slowly looked toward each of the watchers, giving in to a small grin as all of them looked away from his gaze. If they wanted to watch the jail that was fine, but he wanted them to know they were being watched too.
Satisfied that he had made his point, Jimmy stepped back inside the building and closed the door.
“What do you mean it’s here?” Keller demanded. He slammed his mug onto the bar, sloshing beer over his hand.
“I was just comin’ in from taking care of the horses,” Amos answered. “I heard the Marshal talking to Tuttle over outside the bank. He said old man Danworth had been sending small amounts in over the last few weeks, on the regular stage and by courier. Rebecca was just coming in to meet the representative from Russell, Majors and Waddell to work out the details for the supply station.”
“Hunter knows who she is,” Billings said, leaning over the bar. “That’s not good, Stan.”
“I know it ain’t good,” Keller answered angrily. He noted a few people looking their way so he lowered his voice before continuing. “The girl must have been awake enough to tell the Indian who she was.”
“Maybe we should just clear out,” Luke suggested. “We got enough from those bank jobs we pulled on the way from Denver to last a while.”
“Just ‘lasting’ ain’t good enough,” Keller replied. “Not when there’s gold in the bank here. And especially when it’s Danworth gold. He owes us.”
Billings cleared his throat nervously. “Stan, you know we couldn’t have delivered on that contract we tried to sell Danworth to deliver supplies for his mining operations.”
“Well, I know that, and you know that. But Danworth didn’t, and he was ready to put up a big gold payment - until you two got drunk and shot off your mouths in front of his foreman.” Keller glared at Amos and Luke. “And the way he run us out, that weren’t right.”
“But Stan,” Amos started cautiously. “That girl could get us hung, so how we gonna deal with her and get the gold out of the bank. ‘Specially when Hunter knows something’s going on?”
“Yeah, you could see in his eyes, he’s real suspicious of us,” Luke agreed.
“Well, he may be suspicious, but he ain’t gonna be able to prove anything,” Keller said. He looked around the saloon, noting small groups of men still muttering together. “It ain’t gonna take much to get these men up in arms again over the Indian, and Hunter isn’t even in town.”
“That Hickok fella’s got a pretty mean reputation, Stan,” Billings pointed out. “You said Hunter left him in charge.”
“He’s a kid,” Keller said, dismissing the argument. “He may be fast on the draw, but he ain’t an experienced lawman. If he’s busy protecting that Indian friend of his, that leaves the bank, and the girl, wide open for us.” He drained his beer and set the mug down, looking around the saloon again. “Bob, you get all the girls down here and get them selling whiskey. We’re gonna get these men good and drunk and angry.
For the moment, it was quiet outside too. The angry mob had dispersed, but for how long was anyone’s guess. Jimmy knew he had seen most of them head for the Wild Winds.
Footsteps just outside the jail got everyone’s attention and they all watched the door, relieved to see Noah appear. He slid in the door and shut it again, looking around the jail. “I got Kid’s note,” he said. “And Rachel told me some of what’s going on too.” He walked over toward the cell. “How are you doing, Buck?”
Buck shrugged. “Been better, I guess.”
“We’re real glad you’re back, Noah,” Jimmy said. “Rachel told you about the girl Buck brought in?” When Noah nodded, Jimmy continued, “I want you to go over to Doc’s, just be there and watch things. And let us know the minute she wakes up.”
“You’re figuring whoever really did this will try to get at her,” Noah said.
“Stands to reason,” Cody answered. “Don’t think they figured on her bein’ alive now.”
“You should have seen that crowd, Noah,” Lou said softly. “They were really angry. So you be careful over there.”
Noah had walked over to the gun rack and now he checked the sighting on a rifle before grabbing a handful of bullets for the gun. Pointing to the rifle, his pistol, and the whip hanging from his belt he grinned and answered, “Lou, ‘careful’ is my middle name. And I’ve seen those types of crowds before.”
“If it stays quiet I’ll send someone over to stand watch with you,” Jimmy said. “But that crowd was just aching to get after Buck, and once they get drunk . . . well, I figure they might be back.”
“Don’t worry,” Noah assured him. “I’ll take good care of the girl.”
“Rebecca,” Buck said softly. He half-turned to look at Noah. “Her name is Rebecca.”
Noah nodded. “Rebecca,” he repeated. “I won’t let anything happen to her, Buck.” He walked over to the cell and stuck his hand through, watching as Buck hesitated a moment, then reached out and grasped the hand in his own.
“I know you won’t, Noah,” Buck said. “I just don’t know if it’s going to matter, the way she was hurt.”
“She’s going to be fine, Buck,” Lou said firmly. She hoped she sounded more certain than she actually was.
Buck just nodded silently and let go of Noah’s hand. Noah started for the door, then stopped and turned back. Reaching into his vest pocket he pulled out a letter and walked back to the cell. “I almost forgot, Buck. This came for you.”
Buck took the proffered letter and looked at the handwriting, then swallowed hard and leaned back, closing his eyes. He wasn’t sure he could deal with this tonight too.
The others stood watching, but after a minute or so it was clear that Buck didn’t intend to share the letter, or the author’s identity, with any of them just then. Noah nodded to the others then took his leave, heading toward the doctor’s office. Jimmy stood just outside the door for a moment, double-checking the location of the watchers, then he stepped back inside, closing the door. He pulled the shades over the windows and turned down the lamp by the door, making them less of a clear target in the growing darkness.
Lou turned down the wick on the lamp on the desk, then took the lamp over to the cell. “Kind of dark in there,” she said, holding the lamp up to the bars. “You gonna read that?”
For a moment there was silence, then Buck finally reached for the lamp. “Thanks, Lou,” he said, as he placed the lamp on the floor by the cot. Still he made no move to open the letter, instead just sitting with the envelope in his hands, his long fingers running along the edges.
Together they sat in silence as the autumn sun slid below the western horizon and night fell on Rock Creek.
Finally, they rounded a bend in the river and topped a small rise - and there it was. They rode slowly down toward the burned-out hulk of the wagon, stopping just outside the perimeter of where the bodies lay. With the horses securely tethered they moved in closer.
Even if Buck hadn’t already reported no life signs, they wouldn’t have bothered to check now. The bodies bore all the obvious signs of death - pale color, bloating, rigidity. Scavengers had already been at work on at least one of the bodies. The stench from the burned body was still strong enough to send both of them reaching for bandanas to cover their faces.
“Kid, you check the other side of the wagon,” Teaspoon instructed. “I’m going down by the river where Buck said he found the Danworth girl.”
Kid just nodded, fighting too hard against gagging to say anything. He moved to the other side of the wagon, glad to be upwind of the scene for a while. He moved slowly, studying the ground carefully, looking for the things Buck had pointed out on other occasions when they had been out looking for someone, or something. And within a few minutes he found the tracks Buck had spoken of, heading almost due north away from the trail. The full moon gave enough light to see the blurred prints of the hooves. Next to one of the deep ruts he found the square of rawhide that Buck had mentioned, and just beyond there was that one clear - shod - hoof print leading away.
Kid jumped at Teaspoon’s voice; he hadn’t heard the other man approach. “These are the tracks Buck talked about,” he answered. “And I found this.” He held out the rawhide.
Teaspoon took the material and looked down at the tracks. “They were sure trying to hide something, all right.”
“Did you find anything down by the river?” Kid asked.
“Lots of blood,” Teaspoon answered. “And the rags Buck said he used to clean the wounds.” He paused, then added, “Lots of signs of a struggle, but I don’t see any footprints going anywhere except back up here toward the wagon. I’d say they all rode away together.” He, too, looked away toward the north, into the hills.
“I saw all the arrows. Do you think maybe some Arapaho are riding shod horses?”
Teaspoon shook his head. “Imagine that’s possible, but I don’t think so. Remember what Buck said about something not being right about the arrows?” Kid nodded, so Teaspoon continued, “I think I see what he meant.” He led the way over to one of the bodies and motioned for Kid to take a closer look. “This is an Arapaho arrow, all right - but look at the arrowhead. It’s barely breaking the skin. With the pressure on those bows, a normal shot would bury the shaft in the body a couple of inches. But they’re all like this.”
“You’re saying these arrows weren’t fired from a bow.”
“Yup, that’s what I’m saying.”
Kid looked around at the bodies. “So the arrows were put in after the attack?”
“That’s the way it appears to me,” Teaspoon agreed.
“Which means it wasn’t really Arapaho that attacked.”
“Not very likely.”
“Then Buck was right. It’s just like with Curly - someone wanted to make it look like the Indians did this.”
“Been enough real Indian troubles recently to have people real edgy. Wouldn’t take much to get them really riled.”
Kid shook his head. “Part of it makes sense, Teaspoon. But why blame Buck specifically? I mean, he didn’t actually see who did this, and if those men have spent time in Rock Creek they’d have to know we’d defend him.”
“Well, I got a couple of theories on that,” Teaspoon answered. “First, maybe they weren’t sure whether Buck saw them or not.” He paused, looking around the area again. “You remember where them two said they was when they seen the attack?”
“Sure, they were on a hill south . . .” Kid stopped, looking around himself. “The river is south of the main trail,” he said. “The hills are north.” He looked off into the distance, beyond the river, and shook his head. “Even with a field glass, those hills to the south are too far away.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Teaspoon said. “So one theory is they really were south of here, with no real good cover, and they think Buck might have seen them.”
“But if they really wanted to keep attention off themselves, why not wait until they knew if Buck reported anything definite to you?” Kid countered.
“Good question,” Teaspoon answered. “Maybe it’s as simple as Keller and his partner ain’t as smart as they think. Or . . . maybe they’re smarter than we thought.”
“How would they be smarter?”
“They got us divided. Two of us out here, Noah guarding the girl, leaves only three to guard the jailhouse - and watch the rest of the town. Plus, they got us distracted, worried about Buck. And if they’ve been paying attention at all, they’ll know they got our best tracker locked up.”
Kid started toward where Katy was tethered. “We have to get back to town.” All he could think about was that mob, and Lou . . .
“Now hold on, Kid!” Teaspoon walked over to the younger man. “I know how you feel, and I’d like to get back myself. But we got a job to do out here, and we just have to trust the ones in town to do their jobs.”
Kid hesitated. He understood Teaspoon’s reasoning, but he couldn’t help thinking of Lou back with that angry crowd. Of course, they were at least a couple of hours away from helping anyway, even at best speed. “What are we going to do?”
“Well, I was thinking we could move the bodies in under the wagon,” Teaspoon answered. “Give them a little protection from scavengers ‘til we can get out here and bury them proper. Then we see how far we can follow that trail in the moonlight.” He paused, studying the wrecked trunk by his feet.
“What is it, Teaspoon?”
“I got another theory, Kid,” the older man answered slowly. “Look here how everything’s been torn out and opened up. Keller and whoever was with him, they weren’t just out to find people to rape and kill. They were looking for something specific.”
Both men looked around in silence for a moment, then Kid turned back to Teaspoon. “The gold,” he said. “The gold from the Danworth girl’s father, that the bank manager told us about.”
Teaspoon nodded, the connections all starting to come together for him. “Maybe they didn’t know Danworth had been slipping the gold in a little bit at a time,” he mused. “Might have believed the daughter was bringing it all.”
“It makes sense,” Kid agreed. “That would explain why they tore everything apart.” He paused, then asked, “Teaspoon, if they’re after the gold, shouldn’t we get back to town?”
It took Teaspoon a moment to answer - he was considering that course of action himself. But in the end his earlier arguments won out. “We got no proof of any of this, Kid. We’d best get on the trail and see if we can find some.” He looked off in the direction of Rock Creek, then back at Kid. “Let’s just hope Tuttle didn’t mention the gold to anyone else.”
Rachel walked quickly down the street, mindful of the unfriendly eyes watching her every move. But she kept her eyes straight ahead, not looking at the men watching her, and headed right for the jailhouse. She pushed the door open - and stopped short at the business end of one of Jimmy's guns.
“Sorry, Rachel,” he said, holstering the gun. He took her arm and pulled her all the way inside the office, then looked out the door into the dark streets. “I didn’t know it was you.”
Rachel nodded, grateful to feel her heart still beating after the scare. “You’re really expecting trouble, aren’t you?”
“They’ve been watching ever since we came in here,” Jimmy answered.
“A couple of them out back, too,” Cody added.
Rachel nodded, then lifted the pot she was carrying. “Well, I brought dinner for you.” She walked over to the cell and added, “I made your favorite stew, Buck.”
“I’m not really hungry, Rachel,” Buck said quietly.
Rachel put the pot down and proceeded to rummage through Teaspoon’s collection of plates and flatware - most of which had been accumulated from the waystation supplies at one time or another. “Well, you need to try and eat anyway. You’ve got to keep your strength up.”
“The condemned man’s last meal, before they drag me to the noose?” He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, and when Rachel jerked back as though he had physically hit her, he felt even worse. Buck shook his head slowly and stood up. “Rachel, I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, Buck.” She stepped up to the bars and took his hand, using her other hand to brush the hair away from his face. The pain and sadness in his eyes about broke her heart.
Buck tried his best to smile. “It does smell real good, Rachel. I’d love some stew, please.” Actually, his stomach was so tied in knots, he didn’t think he could keep a bite down, but he made up his mind to try.
Rachel returned the smile, squeezed his hand tight, then reached for a plate and started to dish up the stew. “It’ll be all right, Buck,” she said, forcing confidence into her voice. “Teaspoon and Kid will find something.”
Buck just nodded and accepted the plate. It wouldn’t do any good to bring up the sounds of unrest coming from the Wild Winds - shouting, broken glass. There might not be time for the other two men to get back and report anything they found. He sat down on the cot and lifted the fork to his mouth, willing himself not to gag.
Rachel dished up stew for the others then turned back to Buck. “Is there anything else you need, Buck?”
Actually, there was . . . “Is it safe enough out there for you to go to the station and then back here?”
“Of course it is,” she answered confidently. “What do you want?”
Buck looked down at the caked-on blood covering his clothing. “I could really use a change of clothes, Rachel. I gave my extra shirt to Rebecca, but everything else should be in the trunk.”
“Bring one of my shirts,” Jimmy offered.
Rachel smiled and nodded. “I’m taking the rest of the stew over to Noah, then I’ll go get the clothes,” she said. “I’ll be back shortly.”
Jimmy walked her to the door and opened it, looking out himself before stepping aside to let her out. “Just be careful, Rachel.”
“They’re not after me, Jimmy,” she answered quietly. She considered mentioning the pistol hidden under her shawl, but decided to keep it a secret for now. “I’ll be fine.”
Jimmy stood in the doorway anyway and watched until she reached the door of the doctor’s office. Then he stepped back inside and closed the door. He picked up his plate and tried to eat, but he wasn’t really hungry either. Looking over to the cell, he figured Buck had maybe managed to eat three or four bites of the stew. On the other hand, Cody was wiping his plate clean with his finger by the back door. Jimmy just had to shake his head - it was hard to find anything to interfere with Cody’s appetite.
Lou had finished about half the stew on her plate and she was busily moving the rest of it around when she heard Buck say her name softly. “What is it, Buck?”
“I need you to do me a favor.”
“Of course, Buck.” She noticed he had put down the plate and had picked up the mysterious letter again. He’d read it now, but hadn’t shared anything about the author or the contents.
Buck looked at the letter in his hands. It contained the news he’d been waiting for for a long time now, but the timing of its arrival could have been better. He was almost sure of what he needed to do, but it felt uncomfortable. Still, under the circumstances . . . “I need you to get Tompkins to come over here.”
“Tompkins?” Lou wasn’t sure she had heard correctly.
“Buck, ain’t we got enough trouble without him?” Cody asked.
“He’s not exactly my favorite person either, Cody,” Buck answered. “But it’s important.”
“Then I’ll get him here,” Lou said as she stood up.
“Don’t tell him it’s for me,” Buck said. He looked around at the three questioning faces of his friends. “You’ll all hear what’s going on. I just don’t want to do it twice.”
Lou grabbed her jacket and headed for the door. “He’s practically here,” she promised.
No good filthy Indian. His kind ain’t never no good. Can’t believe they let him live with white folks. Shoulda run him out of town a long time ago. We can take care of that tonight. I got a long rope. Stinkin’ Indian, messing with a white girl. Gotta teach that boy a lesson, and his Indian-loving friends too . . .
Keller sat back, sipping his beer. The anger surrounding him in the Wild Winds was growing nicely. The whiskey was flowing, the girls were being extra friendly, and every once in a while he or one of his partners would fan the flames a little, maybe dropping another little "detail" about the attack on the wagon, or maybe just cursing “savages” in general.
He knew there were three people guarding the jailhouse, and one guarding the girl. They would be an impediment to his plans, but not really that much to worry about. Four guns against an angry town . . .
A sudden pounding on the door sent him reaching for the rifle he kept under the counter. Now why would they be bothering him? He thought about ignoring the knocking, but the pounding was heavy and persistent, so he decided that probably wouldn’t do any good. He checked the gun to make sure it was loaded then walked slowly toward the door, using the barrel to push the curtains to one side - surprised to see one of the Express riders standing there.
He pulled open the door and growled, “What the hell do you want? You coulda broken the door, pounding like that.”
“Sorry, Mr. Tompkins,” Lou answered, hoping she sounded sincere. For the life of her she couldn’t imagine why Buck would want to talk to this man, especially tonight. But, she had made a promise. “We just need you to come over to the jailhouse, won’t take long.”
They both jumped as the sound of more breaking glass came from the direction of the Wild Winds. "Look,” Tompkins said, “I know what’s going on with that Indian friend of yours. As much as I’ve never cared much for him, I don’t reckon he did what they’re saying. But I ain’t the law, and I don’t want to get involved.”
Lou took a deep breath before answering. It was the “good” people who wouldn’t get involved that led to the dangerous situations like what they were facing tonight. She just kept reminding herself how important it had been to Buck to get Tompkins there. “That’s not why I’m here,” she answered. “Please, it’s real important - and it won’t take long.” She figured that last part was most likely true, because the thought of Buck and Tompkins having a long chat seemed pretty unlikely.
Tompkins stared at his visitor, wondering what in the world was going on. It didn’t seem like he was going to get an answer here. “It’s that Hickok kid, isn’t it? He’s hoping I’ll use my influence to settle things down.”
Lou tried one more time. “Please, Mr. Tompkins. We’re not asking you to get involved in what’s happening here. But it’s real important that you come with me now.”
Tompkins stood and glared for a moment, but it didn’t seem to faze the rider in front of him at all. Finally, with a big sigh, he put the gun down and reached for his jacket. “All right," he said, as he walked out and turned to lock the door behind him. “But I am not getting involved in a fight, and this had better be damned good.”
Buck opened his mouth to say that he might not be needing any more clean clothing after the townspeople got finished that night, but he bit back the words. He’d already hurt Rachel with his harsh words earlier, and he didn’t want to do it again. Instead he took the items from her with a simple, “Thank you, Rachel.” She had brought his other pair of everyday pants, clean long johns, and one of Jimmy’s shirts.
He had to break through some caked-on blood to get a few of the buttons open on his shirt, and one leg of his pants was absolutely stiff with blood, making it hard to get the clothing off. But he was soon down to his long johns - and then he stopped. Stripping down in front of Jimmy and Cody was one thing; they’d spent many hot afternoons cooling off naked in the swimming hole. Rachel wasn’t part of the swimming group though, and with Lou and maybe Tompkins coming back any time . . .
Jimmy saw Buck’s hesitation, and suddenly his friend’s predicament was very clear. He grinned and shook his head, wondering why he hadn’t thought of it before. “Cody, anything happening out back?”
Cody shook his head. “Still got our two friends watching the place, but they’re not moving.”
“Come up and watch the front,” Jimmy said. He grabbed the keys from the desk and went into the cell, pulling the blanket from the cot. He stretched the fabric out and stood with his back to Rachel and the door, forming a makeshift wall. “Better?”
“Yeah,” Buck answered. “Thanks.” He stripped off the last of his bloody clothing and reached for the pile of clean clothes. He was just pulling on the clean long johns when Cody announced that Lou was back.
Tompkins walked into the jail behind Lou and looked around, then announced in a loud voice, “I don’t know what you want me here for. I’m a busy man, and I got better things to do than play games with you Express riders.”
Buck finished pulling on the clean pants and he stepped around the blanket. “I needed to talk to you, Mr. Tompkins,” he said, pulling the clean undershirt over his head.
Tompkins glared. “Look, we’ve had our differences, Cross,” he said angrily. “Now I don’t figure you did what they’re saying, but that don’t mean we have anything to talk about. If there ain’t nothin’ else, I’m leaving.”
“Mr. Tompkins, please, just a couple of minutes,” Buck said. He reached for the mysterious letter and added, “It’s important.”
Tompkins looked around the room, realizing he wouldn’t find any allies in any of the other four people there. “All right, two minutes. And it better be good.” He crossed his arms, tapping his foot impatiently.
Buck held up the letter, took a deep breath, and decided to just say it. “This is from Jenny.”
Tompkins stopped his foot in mid-tap and dropped his arms. “My Jenny?”
Buck nodded. “Your daughter.”
Tompkins’ confusion showed on his face. “Jenny wrote to you?”
“She’s been writing to me since she left Sweetwater,” Buck answered. “She writes on Sundays, after church, almost every week.”
Jimmy had stepped out of the cell and now he re-locked the door then slid a chair over toward Tompkins. The storekeeper didn’t seem too steady on his feet at the moment.
Tompkins slid gratefully into the chair, still somewhat shocked. He’d had one letter from Sally’s sister saying that Jenny had arrived safely, and then nothing. “Is she . . . is she all right?”
“Yes, she’s fine,” Buck answered. He hesitated before continuing. He’d had the impression before that Jenny had not been writing to her father, at least not with any regularity, and the look on the other man’s face seemed to confirm that. It was going to be interesting to see what kind of reaction his next bit of news got. “She’s coming here to visit next month.”
That got Tompkins’ attention and he looked up. “Jenny is coming here?”
Buck nodded. “I don’t think I was supposed to tell you. But with things the way they are, I might not be around when she gets here. So I wanted you to know.”
The news had come as something of a shock to the others in the room as well, but Lou recovered first. “Buck, nothing is going to happen to you tonight,” she said firmly. “You’ll be here when Jenny arrives.”
“You can’t guarantee that, Lou,” Buck answered quietly. “And if that mob does come for me, the best thing you can do is just get out of the way. I don’t want to die knowing I was responsible for any of your deaths too.” He turned back to Tompkins before anyone could argue and held the letter through the cell bars. “You can read the letter, if you’d like. And then I imagine my two minutes are up.”
Tompkins took the letter with a trembling hand. He sat there just looking at it, not making any move to either open it or leave.
He’d seen those angry mobs up close before. Once the fear and anger started to build up, the tiniest spark could set them off.
“Any change, Doc?” He hadn’t been out of the room for very long, but things could change quickly when people were injured.
Lem Freeman shook his head. “Not really, though she does seem to be sweating less. That may mean the fever is breaking.” He wrung the cold water out of some rags and pressed them against his patient, cooling her fever-wracked body.
“You still don’t know if she’ll make it.”
“No, I don’t. I’m sorry, Noah, I’ve done all I can.”
“I know, Doc. It’s just, if she could wake up, we might save a lot of trouble.”
“You’re worried about your friend.”
“Buck could never do anything like this,” Noah responded firmly. “But he’s half Kiowa, so people ‘round here aren’t even going to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“I don’t know him nearly as well as you do, of course,” Freeman said. “But he’s always seemed like a very nice young man. Just a couple of weeks ago he came along just after I’d gotten my buckboard stuck in a muddy rut on the way out to the Cofers’ place. Burt had sent word in that Sally was in labor. Buck took me out there on his horse, then he went back and fixed my wagon. Had it waiting for me by the time the baby came - wouldn’t take any money for his work, either.”
“No, he wouldn’t be apt to,” Noah agreed.
“You and Mr. Hickok obviously believe the girl’s in danger here.”
“What I know is that Buck didn’t do this, so that means there are some dangerous people out there. And we don’t know who they are, or what they want.”
Freeman turned back to his patient, placing the back of his hand against her cheek. Her skin did feel cooler, at least marginally. “If we can get this fever to break, I think she has a chance.”
“Then tell me what I can do to help,” Noah said, moving over beside the older man. “Because her chance might be Buck’s only chance too.”
Tompkins finally cleared his throat nervously. “This says she’s actually coming to see me,” he said, looking into the cell.
Buck nodded. “That’s right. She wants to try and work things out with you.”
Tompkins nodded in return. “Says here, you talked her into it.” He stopped, shaking his head. “After the way I’ve treated you, why would you do that?”
“Family is important,” Buck said quietly. He swung his feet onto the floor, running his hand through his hair as he considered his words. “I’ll never know the man who fathered me. My mother is dead. Her husband, the man who raised me, is dead. When Red Bear turned me out of the Kiowa camp I knew that, for all practical purposes, my brother was dead to me. Ike and I were as close as brothers for years, but now he’s dead.”
“You have us,” Lou said. She reached through the bars and put her hand on his leg.
“I know, Lou, and that’s real important. But it’s not quite the same.” He squeezed her hand for comfort. “Think about it. What would you give to have your mother here? Wouldn’t you like to have your brother and sister with you?”
She swallowed hard and just nodded.
Buck got up and stood near Tompkins. “I know you don’t like me, and you hate Indians,” he said softly. “But Jenny’s your daughter. She didn’t do anything wrong.”
Tompkins sat silently for a moment, trying to keep his hands from shaking. “Jenny says something here about you being willing to die for her.”
Buck took a step back, a puzzled look on his face. “Didn’t Jenny tell you what happened with Running Bear and Black Wolf?”
Tompkins shook his head. “I . . . I wasn’t ready to hear it.” He looked up. “I think I’m ready now.”
Buck looked around the room, then back to Tompkins. “You should hear it from Jenny,” he said.
Tompkins finally stood up. “No, I’d like to hear it now.” He paused, struggling with the next word. “Please.”
Buck sighed and sat down again, holding his head in his hands. As if it wasn’t bad enough he was the target of a lynch mob . . .
Rachel got up and walked over to the cell. “Buck, maybe it would help both of you if you tell Mr. Tompkins what happened,” she suggested.
Buck sighed and stared at the ceiling. The pattern of cracks in the plaster was really quite interesting . . . “I went to tell Jenny that her mother had gone back to the Lakota,” he finally said. “Jenny decided to go too, and I went with her. We found the Thurstons on the way, and Jenny recognized Black Wolf’s arrows. When we got to Running Bear’s camp, the Chief was furious that his word had been broken by Black Wolf. But Black Wolf still insisted that Jenny was his, so I challenged him. I said she had come to me for protection. Under Lakota law, we had to fight.”
“A fight to the death,” Cody added. He’d heard the story before, but was still hanging on each word Buck said. He loved a good tale.
“It was supposed to be,” Buck agreed. “We fought, and I finally got him pinned. I had my knife, but he was defeated, and I hesitated.” He paused, shaking his head. “Running Bear stopped the fight then, and awarded Jenny to me. But I said she was free to choose for herself. She was getting ready to leave when Black Wolf got a gun.”
“It was this Black Wolf who shot Sally?” Tompkins asked, brushing a tear from his cheek. He really should have listened to Jen when she tried to tell him about this.
“He was trying to shoot Jenny,” Buck answered. He closed his eyes, picturing the scene as clearly as if he was living it again. “Everything happened so fast. Sally ran out to protect Jenny. I had taken my gun off for the fight, so I only had my knife. I threw it, but I was off balance and throwing with my right hand. I only hit Black Wolf in the shoulder, and he still managed to fire. That’s how Sally got shot.” He stopped, waiting for the explosion he anticipated from Tompkins, blaming him for being too slow.
The storekeeper was silent for a moment, then he surprised them all with his next words. “That’s just what Sally would do,” he said quietly. “Give her own life for her child.”
“I’m sorry,” Buck said, almost whispering. “I really thought you knew.”
Tompkins shook his head. “I was too stubborn,” he said finally. “I insisted that Jenny forget about those seven years, and never talk about it. I imagine that’s a big part of the reason she left.”
“She needed to talk,” Buck answered. He knew Jen had said her father didn’t want to hear about her years with the Lakota, but he hadn’t realized that included her mother’s death.
“She talked to you.”
Tompkins was quiet for a moment, and the silence seemed huge. Finally he said softly, “I was a fool.” He looked around at the others and added, “I don’t imagine that comes as a surprise to any of you.”
Fortunately, even Cody managed to keep from making any comments.
“You have another chance now, Mr. Tompkins,” Rachel said.
“But you need to let her talk,” Buck added. “Jen needs to talk to you about what happened. She’s made a good life in St. Louis, but those seven years will always be a part of her.”
The sound of more smashing glass brought them all alert to the present trouble again. Jimmy opened the front door and stepped out, looking all around, then came back in. “I don’t see anything,” he said. “But it sounded like that came from by the hotel.”
“They’ve had plenty of time to drink,” Cody observed. “Probably starting to feel real brave.”
Buck took a deep breath and turned to Lou. “Lou, the rest of Jenny’s letters are in my trunk. When this is over, if you could give . . .”
“When this is over, you can get the letters yourself,” she replied angrily, cutting him off.
Buck just sighed and leaned back against the wall. He hated feeling so helpless.
Well, he was here to take care of that.
He pushed through the swinging doors and walked to the bar, slapping a coin down. “Whiskey!” As he waited for the drink to be poured he looked around at the people in the saloon. He heard the glass being set on the bar behind him so he reached for his drink and took a sip. “Reckon you folks are gettin’ ready for the hanging later tonight.”
There was a murmuring from the people at the tables, but Polly stepped in quickly. “There’s not going to be a hanging,” she said, her voice even and firm. “And there’ll be no talk of any such thing in my saloon.”
Amos grinned at her and took another sip of whiskey. She was a fine looking woman. “Now, ma’am, I realize this kind of talk might be upsetting to a lady. But we got us a murdering Indian locked up in that jail, and us white folks aren’t safe while him and his kind are around. Best we take care of things right away.” He leaned in close to Polly and added, “I’m sure you done heard what terrible things he did to them women.”
Polly fought the urge to gag from the man’s breath. Pushing him back she replied, “I’m well aware of what’s being said. I’m also well aware that Buck didn’t do any of this, and that we should let the law take its course.”
Amos laughed. “The law? The marshal’s a friend of that murderin’ savage. Ain’t gonna be no law taking care of this.”
Mace Wilkins stepped around from behind the bar. He was the bartender, but standing a little over six feet tall and solidly built, he served other roles for Polly too. Right now, he intended to enforce the peace. “Maybe you should leave, mister.”
Amos lifted his glass. “Now, I bought my drink all legal, and I intend to finish it.” He flashed a smile in Polly’s direction. “Ma’am, don’t you worry your pretty little head over your safety. Me an’ the boys over to the other saloon, we’re gonna take care . . .” He stopped abruptly as Polly’s derringer flashed, and he found the business end pressed against his throat.
“Don’t you worry about my head,” she said, her voice quiet but dangerous. “I’m a lawman’s daughter, and I’ve seen my share of scum like you.” She cocked the tiny pistol. The bullets certainly weren’t large, but at this distance it wouldn’t matter - she could see in the man’s frightened eyes that he knew that too. “Now you listen to me. There’s law in this town, and there’s not going to be any hanging tonight. You get out of my place, and you go tell your ‘boys’ over at the Wild Winds what I said.”
Amos backed up slowly, nodding as he got away from the muzzle of the gun. He kept going toward the door, relaxing a little as he got out of range of the derringer’s accuracy. With a bravado he didn’t quite feel (since his knees were still shaking), he swallowed the rest of the whiskey in his glass and tossed the empty glass onto the nearest table. “We’ll see what happens tonight,” he said, pointing back at the woman who had threatened him. “You’d best just stay off the street, or somethin’ might happen to you too!”
Amos slammed the swinging doors open, stalking out into the street. He kept going around the corner, then stopped and leaned against the wall, trying to get control over the shakes.
That hadn’t gone quite the way Keller had explained the plan.
It looked like there was only one rider leading the wagon horses now though. He hadn’t seen where the other two broke off. But as long as they had one clear trail to follow, he hoped they’d be able to find some answers.
She thought about the object of this crowd’s ire and had to shake her head. Buck had spent more time helping her fix up the saloon than any of the other riders. They’d spent long hours talking as they worked - she only wished others in the town would take the time to talk to him, because then they’d know their anger was focused in the wrong place.
And Buck hadn’t drunk nearly his share of free sarsaparilla for all the work he’d done.
“All right, folks, the bar’s closed,” she announced, even though the establishment would normally have been open two hours longer. But she had things to do, and she didn’t want to leave Mace alone if trouble revisited the saloon. She ignored the various protests and spoke over the din. “You all take my advice now. You either go over to the jail and help the deputy keep order, or you go home and stay out of the trouble that’s brewing.” To reinforce her point, she started gathering up glasses from the tables.
As people started to file out, Polly went to the bar and dropped an armload of glasses in front of her bartender. “Mace, think you can close up here by yourself?”
“Sure thing, Polly,” he answered. “What are you going to be doing?”
But Polly was already heading into the storeroom, and she didn’t answer.
“Bunch of them just went home for their guns,” Billings reported softly, leaning in so that only his partners could hear him. “I think they’re just about ready to go.”
“I agree,” Keller said, smiling. This was going to be the perfect diversion. “Now, everyone knows the plan?”
“Yeah, we wait for the crowd to head for the jail, then you, me, and Billings go to the bank,” Luke said. “Amos goes for the girl.”
“Try to take care of the girl better than you took care of recruiting people from the other saloon,” Keller said sarcastically.
Amos scowled and swallowed nervously. He hadn’t told the others about how Polly held him at gunpoint, but he had had to report his failure in getting anyone else to join the lynch mob. “It was just a few old men in there,” he said, trying to make it a good story. “They wouldn’t of been worth anything in a fight no how.”
Keller just nodded, not voicing his skepticism. “Just see you actually get her dead this time,” he said, then turned to Billings. “Let’s pour another round while we wait for those guns. I think we’re real close.”
He’d actually been planning to work all night, trying to catch up on the backlog of work awaiting him. The harvest was fast approaching, and the local farmers were finding lots of repairs needed to plows and wagon wheels in preparation.
But the tense situation in town had changed his mind about working any later. He’d been hearing the angry sounds from the Wild Winds all night, and just a few minutes ago quite a few men had stumbled out of the saloon, some of them mumbling about getting their guns. That had been the call to action he had been waiting for - and dreading.
He shivered, remembering the time not all that long ago when the people of Rock Creek had almost lynched him. He’d have hoped they would have learned about the dangers of mob action after almost hanging an innocent man, but obviously that wasn’t the case.
Janos turned his attention back to the dying embers, wishing there was as easy a way to extinguish the fire of anger in the townspeople too.
Jimmy opened the door to admit the visitor. He stopped to look around briefly, somewhat puzzled to see that a couple of the watchers had disappeared. He could hope that meant the men had given up and gone home - but the continued ruckus from the Wild Winds made him fear there was more going on.
Rachel stepped forward to help Polly with the heavy basket she was carrying. “Polly, what are you doing here?”
“Well, I got to thinking you all might be getting a little thirsty,” she said. She pulled the cloth off the top of the basket to reveal bottles of sarsaparilla. She took out one bottle and opened it, then walked over to the cell and handed it through the bars. “How are you doing, Buck?” She was a little surprised to see Tompkins sitting there, but she decided not to ask.
He wondered briefly how the people who kept asking him that really expected him to answer. Oh, just great - love waiting around to be hung by a vigilante mob. On the other hand, he knew the people asking actually cared about him, and that made him feel good. “I’m fine, Polly,” he said, taking the bottle. His stomach still didn’t feel like eating or drinking anything was a good idea at all. “Thank you.”
Rachel handed out bottles to the others, and once again only Cody seemed enthusiastic. “Thanks, Polly! I was gettin’ really thirsty.” His drink was empty in a few gulps.
“That was real nice of you, Polly,” Rachel said, sipping her own drink. “But how’d you get away from the saloon?”
“We closed early tonight,” Polly answered. “I told everyone to go home and stay out of trouble.”
“Let’s hope they listen,” Jimmy muttered. Another of the watchers had disappeared, and it was making him nervous. He didn’t want to scare anyone, but he needed to know about the ones out back. “Cody, your guys still out there?”
“Only one,” Cody replied. “Just saw the other head around behind the livery.”
Something was definitely up, and one look around the room at all the faces told Jimmy that they all knew it. He was considering the next move when the sound of gunfire erupted from the direction of the Wild Winds.
“That’s it,” Jimmy said. “I’m going over there.”
“Jimmy, no,” Lou protested. “It’s too dangerous. Make them come to us. We can hold out here, and in a few hours it’ll be light. Maybe Teaspoon and Kid will be back.”
“I’m with Lou,” Cody said. “We shouldn’t divide up any more than we are.”
“You could just open the cell door,” Buck suggested quietly. “They only want me. The rest of you will be safe.”
“That ain’t gonna happen, Buck,” Jimmy answered quickly, shaking his head.
A million arguments raced through Buck’s head, and he tried to find the one that might work, and save his friends from the danger he was putting them in. “Jimmy,” he said, trying to sound calm. “What about this? Cody said there’s only one man left out back. Let me try and make it out that way. If I make it, then Cody or Lou can come, and they’ll know where I go. That way, when this settles down, if there’s a trial they can come get me.”
“That ain’t the way it works, Buck,” Jimmy replied. He snuck another peek out at the street. Now all of the watchers had disappeared.
“I’d never hurt Cody or Lou,” Buck continued, as more shots sounded outside. “You have to know that, Jimmy. And I would come back.”
Jimmy left the open door and took a few long strides toward the cell, ending up face to face with Buck. “Buck, I know you wouldn’t hurt any of us. And I know you’d come back for a trial, even if it meant getting hung by a court instead of by a mob.” He paused, shaking his head. “That ain’t the point. The point is, these people have to learn that there’s law here, and they gotta follow it.”
“I don’t want to die knowing I caused any of your deaths,” Buck said softly.
“If we die, you ain’t the cause,” Lou said, checking her gun.
“Jimmy’s right,” Cody added. “They gotta learn.”
More shots rang out and Jimmy turned toward the door. “I’m going over there,” he said. “Just to talk.” He was checking the loads in his guns as he spoke.
Lou and Cody exchanged nervous glances. “Jimmy, that only leaves us two guns to defend the jail,” Lou pointed out.
Jimmy holstered his pistols and walked over to the desk. He picked up the gun belt and knife laying there and then walked back to the cell, handing the items through the bars to Buck. “Now you still got three guns even if I go,” he said. He turned back to Buck and added, “If they get past me, you take as many of them out as you can.”
Buck just nodded and took the gun and knife. He couldn’t have spoken past the huge knot in his throat.
Jimmy turned back away from the cell. “Rachel, Polly, you should . . .”
“Stay right here,” Polly finished. She reached into the basket again and pulled out a gun. “This was my daddy’s pistol, and it’s held off a few mobs in its time. I don’t claim to be as good as him, but I can handle myself. So you got four guns here.”
“Five,” Rachel said, producing the gun from under her shawl. “That was a good speech about respecting the law, Jimmy.”
Jimmy was shaking his head. “Rachel . . .”
“I’m staying, Jimmy,” she said, her tone indicating no negotiating. “You’ve got five guns here.”
They all looked toward the door, which Jimmy had left ajar. Janos walked in, his old rifle cradled in one arm. He nodded a greeting then looked toward Buck. “When they try to hang me, you rode with Marshal Hunter to stop them. Now I return favor.”
Buck just looked around the room, shaking his head. “You are all crazy.”
“Probably,” Jimmy agreed readily. “Just like you were crazy when you helped stop them from hanging me back in Sweetwater, after Sarah Gainey and her husband framed me for murder. And of course it was perfectly sane for you to ride through a town of bullets to get me out when Muncie was robbing banks, pretending to be me.”
“You didn’t hesitate to go out tracking a known killer like Jarrod Randall after he attacked me,” Polly said. Then she smiled and added, “Besides, anything happens to you, who else is going to go up on the roof of my place and fix things?”
“We’ve been through a lot, Buck,” Cody said. “Can’t think of a time you let us down in a gun fight.” He paused and grinned. “Hell, you even saved me from the revenge of the spirits.”
That even brought a small smile to Buck’s worried face as he recalled the elaborate “ceremony” he’d put Cody through after the other rider took the contents of his medicine pouch. It had been a good learning experience for both of them.
“You’ve always been there when I needed help too, like tracking Roger after he left Daisy with us,” Rachel added. “And whenever Teaspoon needs help.”
“And you’d ride out with Sam before that,” Lou pointed out. “Any time any of us needed help, you were there - even when we didn’t always trust you at first.” She looked around the room, then shrugged and smiled. “Face it, Buck. You’re stuck with us.”
Another round of gunshots sounded, and Jimmy turned toward the door. Cody stepped up beside him and said, “I still don’t think you should go, Jimmy, but Teaspoon left you in charge, so you do what you think is best. With six guns here, we’ll be fine.”
Jimmy started to answer, but was interrupted when another voice said, “Seven.”
Tompkins had sat silently for the last few minutes, listening and thinking. Now he knew what he had to do. He stood up and pointed to the gun rack behind the desk. “Give me one of those rifles, Hickok. Then you’ve got seven guns here.” He turned and handed Jenny’s letter through the bars back to Buck. “I want this chance with my daughter,” he said quietly. “If you die and she found out I did nothing, I won’t get that chance.”
Jimmy pulled a rifle from the rack and took it to Tompkins, along with a handful of ammunition. Then he went to the door.
Rachel reached out to grab his arm. “Jimmy, this is so dangerous. Are you sure?”
He gently removed her hand from his arm. “I need to know what’s going on, Rachel. What we’re facing. I only want to talk to them. Anything else happens, I won’t be the one who starts it.” Left unsaid was the fact that if anything else did start, he damn well would do his best to finish it.
Jimmy walked out the door, toward the maelstrom in the Wild Winds.
At least they had moved out of the trees, and in the light of the full moon the tracks were easier to see. He motioned for Kid to move forward and then he set off again, following the tracks.
Keller drained the last of his beer and put the mug down. He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and grinned. “All they need is one more little push,” he observed.
Luke nodded, grinning himself. “Yeah, they’re ready, Stan.”
Two more shots brought down more dust. “This place is going to need some fixing up,” Keller commented.
Billings leaned over the bar. “Once we have that gold and clear out of this town, it’s someone else’s problem.”
“Very true,” Keller agreed. He turned to the fourth man in the little group at the end of the bar. “Amos, you get over to the doc’s place. Once you hear the crowd out on the street, you take care of the girl.”
“Right,” Amos said. He finished his own beer in a big gulp and headed for the back door.
Billings watched him go, a deep scowl on his face. “You sure he can actually get the job done this time?”
“Doesn’t really matter,” Keller answered, smiling. “Soon as we get this crowd going, we’ll sneak out to the bank. With the explosives we’ve got, we’ll be in and out of the vault in no time. And the ‘law’ will be too busy with the crowd to bother us. Once we have the gold, we take off. If Amos makes it, fine. If he doesn’t . . . well, that’s fine too.”
“We can’t leave him behind,” Luke argued.
“Why not?” Keller countered. “He’s always been the weakest link.”
“But if he doesn’t kill the girl, and she identifies him . . .”
“Then he takes the fall,” Keller answered simply. “Don’t you see how perfect this is? We get the gold, and this crowd creates enough confusion to give us a good head start. If Amos gets caught, we only got a three-way split instead of four.” He paused, then laughed out loud. “Hell, it doesn’t even matter any more if the Indian dies or not. All that matters is that this crowd is going to try.”
Keller leaned in to explain his plan for getting the angry crowd out of the bar and onto the streets of Rock Creek. But all of a sudden a hush fell over the bar and he looked over his shoulder to see the doors swinging, and a lone figure standing tall by the entrance.
Jimmy stood just inside the doors to the saloon, surveying the room and the crowd. The place had gotten quiet since he walked in - maybe too quiet. He saw a lot of men he recognized, and quite a few he didn’t. Most of them had guns, either strapped to their hips or sitting on the tables near them. And most of them looked very drunk.
He stepped forward, careful to keep his hands away from his guns - but still close enough so he could have a gun in his hand within the blink of an eye. He kept his eyes roving over the room as he spoke. “Some of you know me, and some of you don’t,” he said. “I’m Deputy Marshal James Hickok, and I’m ordering this place closed, and all of you to go home.”
“Now, I don’t think you can do that, deputy,” Keller said, swaggering forward. “This here is a private establishment.”
“I can do anything I see fit to ensure peace in this town,” Jimmy answered, automatically sizing the other man up.
“What’s going to bring peace here is to see that Indian hanged for what he did to them poor white folks,” Keller answered, raising his voice to make sure everyone in the bar heard him. He was pleased to hear the murmurs of discontent start up again around him.
“I believe you’re talking about my friend,” Jimmy answered, forcing his temper in check. He kept reminding himself he was here to talk. “He’s in jail because of what you accused him of. That’s what the law says to do, ‘til we find out who really did it.” He stared Keller in the eye, not speaking again until the other man flinched. Letting one side of his mouth turn up in a small smile, Jimmy continued, “The law is taking care of everything, so there’s no need for any ‘help’ from anyone here. Everyone can go home.”
Luke stepped forward, shaking his head. “We seen who attacked that wagon,” he said.
“Oh, I’m sure you do know who did it,” Jimmy agreed, his voice dangerously low. “And we both know it wasn’t Buck.” He looked around the room, daring anyone to meet his gaze. “All of you who live here, you know it wasn’t Buck who did this. For all the times you people have knocked him down, he’s done nothing but help you.”
Jimmy walked toward the nearest tables, picking one person out of the crowd. “Albert, you know Buck wouldn’t do this. Hell, he was willing to take on that gunfighter, Randall, just to protect your brother. ‘Til Marty ran out wavin’ a gun.” He turned to the next table. “And you, Jarvis. What the hell are you doing here? When we first came to town, you wouldn’t even serve Buck or Noah in your restaurant. But from what I hear, you’d be dead if it hadn’t been for them.” Both men turned away, unable to look at him.
He continued his search of the room, picking out guilty faces. “Horace, you remember them rustlers who made off with half your stock? Who tracked them, got your cattle back? And all of you! When you got nervous hearin’ that Elias Mills was in the area, who do you think tracked him to his camp so Teaspoon could arrest him?” Jimmy fought back the wave of guilt he still felt over Mills’ hanging - but this wasn’t the time to deal with that.
He stopped at the next table and leaned down, face to face with an older man sitting there. “Earl, I seen your wagon outside loaded with produce for market tomorrow. Ain’t that the wagon that tipped over on you a month or so back? And wasn’t it Buck who found you, got you out and took you to Doc’s?” He slammed his fist on the table, startling everyone sitting there. “How the hell can you believe that same man would do somethin’ like this?”
Earl suddenly found something very interesting to stare at on the floor. He shook his head slowly, feeling his face flushing with embarrassment. “Well, I don’t . . .”
“What’s that, Earl? You don’t believe Buck did this?” Jimmy pushed back from the table, making no attempt to hide his disgust. “Then what are you doing here with these scum who want to go hang someone - someone you know is a good man!”
“All o’ you better think real hard here.”