Topic #21: Pictures
|Ain't Gonna Hang
|The Reward for Valour
||A Surprise for Lou
|The Truth Is...
“Name’s Ben Stone.” The newcomer said as he tipped his hat to the shopkeeper.
“Good to meet you. I’m Bill Tompkins, the proprietor. What can I do for you today?”
Ben handed over his list of items.
“So are you just passin’ through or…”
“No, no. I bought a farm just south of here.”
“Oh, you must mean old man Jenkins’ place. Sure got your work cut out for you.”
“Yeah. Uh, say, you wouldn’t happen to know Lou McCloud? Works for the Pony Express.”
Tompkins inwardly groaned. ‘What was it about those Express riders that made them so all-fired popular?’
He gave him directions to the way station on the edge of town and tallied up the bill.
Ben noticed the change in the store owner’s demeanor as soon as he mentioned the Pony Express. He quickly paid his bill and tucked his purchases under his left arm.
Tipping his hat, he said, “Much obliged, Mr. Tompkins.”, and set off to find Lou.
Lou was having a terrible day.
She woke up to discover it was that time for one of mother nature’s monthly visits. That alone was enough to put her on edge, but it didn’t stop there. She got a splinter in her hand slamming the outhouse door. Then as she was feeding the horses - a chore Cody was assigned, but had somehow talked himself out of - Lightning became spooked when she clumsily dropped the bucket of grain she was giving him and the horse turned and promptly bit her. Ornery horse! As she was backing out of his stall, she stepped in a pile of horse poop. Another chore Cody must have gotten out of - mucking out the stalls.
While she was helping Emma hang the washing, Lou accidentally dropped Emma’s best lace tablecloth right in the mud. As she was re-washing the delicate lace, a bumblebee kept buzzing her and finally stung her for her troubles. Later, she was nailing down a loose floorboard on Emma’s porch. Naturally she missed the nail and hammered one of her fingers instead.
‘Could this day get any worse?’ She mused.
Right at suppertime, the way station had a visitor.
Hearing the rickety wagon roll into the yard, Cody bolted out the door - sure the visitor was for him. After all, why would any of the other riders have a visitor when William F. Cody was around?
Disappointed that it was a man in the vehicle, Cody headed back into the bunkhouse.
As he sat back down to eat, all eyes were on him, questioning.
Unable to wait any longer, Jimmy demanded, “Well, who was out there Cody?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno. Some guy. Looks like a farmer.” His attention was soon diverted to Emma’s fluffy biscuits.
The rest of the riders quickly got up and went outside to greet the visitor.
Ben was just alighting from the wagon when the boys appeared on the porch.
“Howdy. My name’s Ben Stone. Is there a Lou McCloud here?” He asked.
Lou warily stepped forward. “I’m Lou McCloud.”
Ben stared at her as if seeing right through her disguise. Suddenly, he broke out into a smile. “I’ve got a surprise for you, uh, Lou. C’mon. Have a peek under the wagon tarp.”
Curiosity getting the better of everyone, they all walked toward the wagon.
Lou slowly lifted the edge of the tarp when she heard a familiar squeal of delight. Two little munchkins launched themselves from the wagon into her arms.
“Jeremiah, Teresa. How did you…what are you…”
“Lou, meet Jeremiah and Teresa Stone. I adopted them. And since they wanted to be close to their sis…uh, you, I bought a farm a few miles back outside of town.
“Did we surprise you, Louise…oh, I mean Lou?” Teresa asked.
“It’s okay sugar plum, they know my secret. And yes, I’m very surprised. Mr. Stone, I’d like to thank you for adopting my brother and sister and moving so close by. How can I ever repay you for your kindness?”
“No need. Having these two around are a sheer delight. I lost my wife and son in a fire a few years back. I finally discovered that starting over with a new family was just what I needed. Since I needed somewhere to start over, Sweetwater seemed just the place for Jeremiah and Teresa’s sakes. So here we are.”
Emma took that moment to invite Mr. Stone inside for supper.
With Jeremiah and Teresa sitting on either side of Lou, she wrapped her arms around their shoulders and sighed.
Thinking to herself, ‘Could the day get any better than this?’
I found the priest I spoke my mind
He entered the room, softly closing the door behind him and gently set his boots at the foot of the bed. The whisper of clothes was the only sound in the room, and he hoped that he wouldn’t wake Nicolette as he slid into bed. The thoughts that had hit him downstairs, as he went beyond the memories of learning he was going to be a father, were dark and bitter - and he wanted this night to put them back into the recesses of his mind.
He had never been happier than he was at the beginning of Nicolette’s pregnancy. Preparing for the arrival of Josephine had brought him a new level of serenity, peace in his life that he hadn’t had before. The idea of being a father thrilled him, to have a wife and a child who loved him more than anything made the shine of success pale in comparison.
Then came the fateful day when the investors in his show said they were concerned about declining attendance. The audiences needed something fresh, novel, never before done and told Cody in no uncertain terms that he better go out and find it or they would take their money out of his business. He was reluctant to leave his wife, but she assured him that she would be fine. Though Nicolette would be unable to join him on the trip, they were both confident that with five months before the arrival of the baby he would be home with plenty of time to spare.
He was, but not without major changes that brought far reaching consequences to them.
He traveled back West, searching for farm-fresh talent that would wow the Eastern spectators. From town to town he went, watching auditions, but not finding anything that sang to his soul. He knew if it didn’t thrill him, then it certainly wouldn’t dazzle his audience.
So, he continued on until he’d been gone for over two months becoming depressed and once again turning to the bottle for solace. Pretty soon he wasn’t searching for performers, he was whiling away his days inside a bar. The people he met were colorful, but not in the way his investors had probably been hoping for when they told him to go searching.
That was when he met him. Wallance P. Odd, a former minister who had lost his Faith and whose days were spent like Cody’s. It was an unlikely relationship, but the two became drinking buddies. Wallance told how he’d once preached in St. Louis and had a congregation so large the people would stand in the aisle and outside the windows to listen to him preach. That’s when he began losing his way. He started caring more about what people thought of him than about the teachings of the Lord. He started to feel that the modest, perfectly adequate church wasn’t good enough for a man like him and began to suggest that the money donated by parishioners should go to building a new church, instead of helping those souls less fortunate than they were.
Then one day, after he’d purchased a new suit he felt was more comely and befitting a preacher of his prestige, he saw a sick man lying by the side of a building. He could see the way the people avoided him, wrinkled their nose before pressing their hands to their mouths, and he crossed the street so he could pretend he didn’t see the man, and therefore wouldn’t have to risk dirtying his new suit. That day he was ashamed of what he’d become. He had become no better than the priests in the parable of the Good Samaritan; interested only in helping those he deemed socially acceptable. Did the Lord make such judgments? No, He didn’t, and the preacher couldn’t believe that he had. He walked away from his life and wandered out West, intent on losing himself in the Lord once again, but he’d only found his way into a bottle.
Cody understood the man’s feeling of being confused and adrift, and he related how the savagery of war had left him lost, alone and in a bottle much like the former preacher. An odd sort of reverence descended over them when he told how a friend, a woman, had found him and helped him see that he was more than that. He had remembered his dreams, who he was, and found the strength and the courage to do more with his life. Wallance assumed Cody was talking about his wife, and he never corrected that error. The talk of Louise and the time they’d spent together that winter brought the memories raging back over him, and Cody turned further into the liquor.
It was when he began talking of going to find Louise, seeing if maybe there wasn’t a way they could try a life together, that the preacher realized Cody wasn’t talking about his wife. And when faced with a soul who needed guidance and help, Wallance Odd found his way. The liquor was replaced with coffee, and slowly, but surely, the older man helped Cody see the error in his thinking. He had a wife waiting for him, a child on the way, and those were the responsibilities, the blessings, the Lord had given him. Throwing those away for a possibility would be a mistake.
Alone one night in his room, Cody realized Wallance was right. He had been away from Nicolette for too long and no matter what happened with the show or their material possessions, what was most important was being the best husband and father that he could be. He was going home, he was going to deal with whatever crossed his way…and he was definitely going to remain in touch with Wallance P. Odd, who took over the ministry of that sleepy little town.
"I think you owe us an explanation!"
Teaspoon held up his hands in mock surrender. "Oh, alright, you've got me. I'm keeping your stage here in Sweetwater, jus' 'cause I like havin' you around, Mr. Conagher."
Color rose in Mr. Conagher's face, turning his already ruddy complexion into a color more reminiscent of a beet. "Are you... are you trying to insult me, Mr. Tea... Mr. Tea-"
"What?" The stark white of Conagher's collar seemed all too bright when seen against the violent red of his skin. "What did you say?"
"Spoon." Offered the lawman, "My name is Spoon... Teaspoon."
Conagher shook his head as his arms dropped down to his side. "Look, it really doesn't matter what your name is, you can't hold us here!"
"Oh yeah," challenged Teaspoon as he leaned closer to the other man, "I can... and I WILL!"
"Mister... Spoon," wheezed Conagher, "you don't seem to understand-"
"Oh no!" shouted Teaspoon. "What YOU don't seem to understand, Mister CONAGHER, is that I am the law here in this town. Yep,.. that's right... ME. There's none higher to appeal to while you're in Rock Creek, not that it would make a damn bit of difference if there was."
Conagher took a little step back, putting some space between them. "Really?" His voice held more than a bit of apprehension.
Setting his hands on his widening waist, Teaspoon nodded emphatically. "That's exactly right. You see, you're here on company business and I am an agent for the company as well. At least that's what my paycheck says, and so that means that in matters of security, I say what goes."
Taking one last gasp of air, Conagher tried to argue, "Now see here-"
"No, no," Teaspoon leaned forward and poked a finger into Conagher's chest. "YOU see here. This shipment is important to Russell, Majors and Waddell and I ain't gonna be the one that has to wire St. Jo to let them know that we let bandits make off with their precious cargo. So now, if you'd excuse me, I have to find rooms for you and the other folks from the coach."
A collective sigh rose up from the gathered crowd. The sun was riding low on the horizon and the trail near to impossible to see in the dark.
"Be prepared, folks," Teaspoon continued on, "I've sent out my best boys, lookin' for this bunch of bandits. If I know my boys, and I do," he added with a wink, "they'll have the bandits rounded up in no time, and you will be on your way, too."
Nodding, Conagher turned back to the coach to extract his bag. "Right about now," he grumbled, "I'd like to be on my way... out of town. Leave it to me to get stuck in this piddly-little town. Some back-water, inbred-"
"I'm only gonna say this once, so listen up, Mr. Conagher, I've been around this town for a good year or so, and the folks here have become like my family, so you can understand completely, when I say I'm not gonna put them in danger, just because you can't sit your well-tailored suit in chair for a few days and wait for my boys to put a lid on this powder-keg. Now, as I've made my point abundantly clear, I expect that you'll walk that fancy suit to the nearest Saloon and have yourself a drink before I lock you up for... for... "
"For?" Conagher's voice had precious little of its old caustic tone.
"Well, 'cause I can, Conagher, 'cause I can."
“Damn it, I told you to shut up,” Jimmy growled, glaring angrily at the man riding on his right.
The man just laughed. “Just tellin’ the truth, deputy,” he said. He sneered - a look made all the more hideous by the long, jagged scar that ran from his left temple and down across his cheek. “Ain’t no one gonna hang me.”
“The folks of Kenton Falls might have something different to say,” Buck pointed out. “You killed three people when you robbed the bank.”
The prisoner just laughed again. “Don’t mean they can hang me,” he challenged.
“I’m gonna string the rope up myself,” Jimmy muttered. It had been a long - VERY long - three days since Sam had deputized him and Buck and sent them off to escort one Lewis Garth to Kenton Falls. Garth chattered almost as much as Cody on a long ride, and almost all about one thing - that he wasn’t going to hang. At least Cody talked about different things.
They topped a small rise just then and saw a welcome sight. “There’s the town,” Buck said. And not a moment too soon. He prided himself on not being as quick to lose his temper as Jimmy could be - but three days of riding with Garth was really pushing his limits.
They headed toward the town, quickening the pace just a little now that the end was finally in sight. As they got closer the buildings became more distinct, and the town of Kenton Falls took shape. With the soft glow of the setting sun behind the town, it looked like a quiet, pleasant small hamlet, set against the backdrop of the foothills.
Just before they got to the town itself they reached a small fenced cemetery. At first it seemed to be deserted, but then a man stood up from behind one of the headstones near the back. He walked slowly toward the gate as the three riders neared, holding up his hand to get their attention.
Jimmy reined in his horse near the gate and tipped his hat. “Evening, sir,” he said. He studied the other man, always on alert for any danger. The stranger was fairly tall, probably about his own height. He was older, with graying hair hidden under a black hat. Neatly trimmed sideburns and moustache gave him the look of someone important, and his tailored black suit spoke of money and power. Nothing about him indicated a threat, though the man’s sharp eyes certainly didn’t seem to be missing anything. “My name is Jimmy Hickok, and that’s Buck Cross. We’re deputies out of Sweetwater.”
The stranger just nodded, his eyes now locked on the third rider. “Lewis Garth,” he said softly, though the words came out almost sounding like a curse.
“Marshal Cain caught him over near Blue Creek,” Buck said. “There was a wanted poster on Garth, so the Marshal sent us here with him.”
The other man nodded and then took a deep breath, standing up straighter. For the first time he really seemed to look at Jimmy and Buck. “I’m Matthew Hickson,” he said. “I own the general store here, and I’m the town’s mayor.” Then his eyes hardened and he glared at Garth. “My wife was one of those he killed when he robbed the bank here.”
Jimmy glanced quickly at Buck, and they both moved up closer to Garth. Nothing indicated Hickson had a gun, but they hadn’t brought the prisoner this far just to have him shot now. “I’m real sorry to hear that, Mr. Hickson,” he said.
“If you’ll just point us toward the jail, we’ll turn Garth over to the Sheriff,” Buck said. “I’m sure you’ll get your justice after the trial.”
Hickson continued to stare at Garth. “Just ride through town to the other end,” he said. “You’ll see the jail on the right at the edge of town.” Then he raised his hand and pointed at Garth. “I don’t know if it’ll be justice for killing my Mary or not, but you’ll hang for what you did.”
Garth’s answering laughter was cut short when Buck’s fist connected with his jaw.
Jimmy just stared for a moment - surprised that Buck had beaten him to that. “I think you’re right, Mr. Hickson,” he said. “Thanks for the help.” He reached for the reins of Garth’s horse and they continued into town.
“Boys, you did a real fine job,” Caleb Wells said. “The town’s gonna be real happy that this fella’s locked up and waiting for trial.” He shoved Garth toward the desk as he talked.
“I’m glad we could help, Sheriff,” Buck replied. “I’m just sorry people had to die here.”
Wells nodded sadly. “Been real rough here since it happened,” he admitted. “My wife’s sister was one of them what was killed.”
“We met Mr. Hickson on the way into town,” Jimmy said. “He said his wife was killed.” He couldn’t help but notice that the lawman looked like he’d barely slept for weeks - probably part of what the man meant by things being rough.
“Grace’s sister,” Wells answered. “We also lost Cliff Hagen and his son, Joey.” He paused, shaking his head. “The boy was only twelve.”
Jimmy glared over to where Garth sat, smirking, on the edge of the desk. “Told him on the way in I’ll be happy to string the rope up myself.”
“And I told you I ain’t gonna hang,” Garth replied confidently. He shifted a little, using his bound hands to slide back on the desk.
“We’ll just see about that,” Wells replied. He turned back to Buck and Jimmy. “You boys have had a long ride. Why don’t you head over to the hotel, get a room, maybe a hot bath if you want. My deputy should be here in about an hour, then I’ll meet you in the restaurant and buy you dinner.”
“Sounds good,” Jimmy said.
“You want help getting Garth locked up?” Buck asked.
“You go on,” Wells replied. “Everything’s under control here.” He opened the front door of the jail.
“We’ll see you in about an hour then,” Jimmy said. He grabbed his hat and followed Buck out of the door.
Wells closed the door and then turned back to Garth. He drew his gun as he reached for the keys to the cell. “Let’s go,” he said, waving the gun.
Garth grinned, then he slid off the desk. He took a few steps toward the back moving very slowly And he waited for the move he anticipated from the lawman.
Wells moved in closer, frustrated by the slow pace. “Move it!” he ordered. He reached out and put his hand against the prisoner’s shoulder.
It was the moment Garth had been waiting for. He spun quickly, thrusting his hands out. The letter opened he had found on the desk flashed for just a moment before he buried the blade into the lawman’s gut. As the blood poured onto his hands, he lowered Wells to the floor. “I told you I ain’t gonna hang,” he whispered. Then he grinned evilly as he watched the lawman’s lips moving in a silent plea.
He twisted the blade one more time, and then he reached for the knife on the Sheriff’s belt. The sharp blade made quick work of the ropes binding his hands. He grabbed the pistol that Wells had dropped. He was just heading toward the back door when the front door opened.
“Caleb, I brought you fresh coffee . . .” Grace Wells never finished her sentence. She saw her husband lying on the floor in a pool of blood and she dropped the pot as she rushed to his side. “Oh, Caleb!”
Grace looked up as she heard the sound. She found a pistol pointed right at her head - and behind the gun, the grinning face of the man who had killed her sister.
Feeling much better after washing off the three days of grime from being on the trail, Jimmy and Buck headed for the hotel restaurant. There were only a few people in the room, and they didn’t see Wells yet. “Guess we can sit down and at least start with some coffee while we wait,” Jimmy suggested.
“Sounds good,” Buck agreed. The concoction Jimmy had brewed on the trail bore little resemblance to what he considered real coffee.
They were barely seated at a table when they saw Matthew Hickson walk into the room.
Hickson stepped into the restaurant, removing his hat. He nodded to a man at the first table. “Doc.” Then he looked around, stopping when he saw the two deputies from Sweetwater. He headed toward their table. “Gentlemen.”
“Mr. Hickson.” Buck indicated an empty chair at the table. “Will you join us?”
“Sheriff Wells said he’d be over to buy dinner,” Jimmy said.
“Caleb’s a good man,” Hickson said as he sat down. “He took it real hard, those murders happening in his town.” He paused, sighing. “Kenton Falls is a real quiet town. Real peaceful. Things like that just aren’t supposed to happen here.”
“They’re not supposed to happen anywhere,” Buck said softly.
“His wife, Grace, she’s your sister-in-law?” Jimmy asked.
Hickson nodded. “Mary and Grace, they were always real close. They took coffee together nearly every day. If one of them was sick, the other was there to take care of her. Now it’s just Grace.”
The three men sat in silence for a moment, considering that. Jimmy opened his mouth to say something - but just at that moment the quiet was broken by frantic cries for help coming from out in the street.
Buck and Jimmy were on their feet immediately. They ran toward the door, drawing their guns as they went. Hickson followed close behind.
They crouched as they left the hotel, searching for any danger. The darkness made it hard to be sure of everything around them. But all they saw was an older, heavyset man running toward them from the direction of the jail.
“It’s Giff Logan,” Hickson said. “He’s Caleb’s deputy.”
Jimmy stepped out into the street, still looking around. He started toward the deputy, aware that Buck was right behind him. “What’s happening?” he demanded.
Logan stopped, trying to catch his breath. “It’s Caleb,” he finally said between gasps. “He’s been stabbed. He’s alive, but it’s bad”
Jimmy was already running toward the jail before Logan finished speaking. “Do you have a doctor?” Buck asked, turning to Hickson.
“He was in the restaurant,” the mayor answered. “I’ll get him.”
Buck nodded, then he grabbed Logan by the arm. “Let’s go,” he said, heading toward the jail.
The scene inside the jail was gruesome. There was a large puddle of blood under where Wells lay. Jimmy was kneeling by his side when the other two men got there. “Hickson’s getting the doctor,” Buck reported.
“Good,” Jimmy answered. He reached into the blood and picked up the letter opener. “Garth must have gotten this when he was sitting on the desk.” He slammed the blade back to the floor. “Damn, we should have stayed ‘til he was locked up.”
“We can’t change that now,” Buck pointed out as he studied something on the floor. He looked toward the back door and then pointed down. “There are two sets of footprints heading out. Looks like they stepped in the blood.”
Logan was looking at something on the floor himself. “Grace,” he said softly. He picked up the coffee pot and held it out. “Grace usually brought coffee over in the evening.”
“One set of footprints is much smaller than the other,” Buck confirmed.
“Damn!” Jimmy stood up and moved away as Hickson came in, followed by another man with a black bag. As the doctor knelt over the wounded lawman, Jimmy walked over to Buck. “So Garth is loose, and he’s got a hostage.”
“Looks that way,” Buck agreed. He took the lantern that was hanging by the back door and lit it, then he stepped out the door. Holding the lamp low to the ground he studied the soil.
Jimmy stepped out behind his friend, gun at the ready. It made him a little nervous to be out there in the dark with a killer on the loose and a lit lantern nearby. Of course, it wasn’t very likely Garth had stuck around, waiting to be found. “Anything?”
“Looks like they went that way,” Buck said, pointing east.
“The livery’s that way,” Hickson said quietly as he stepped out behind them.
“Figures he’d be looking for horses,” Jimmy agreed.
Hickson cleared his throat nervously. “Do you . . . do you think Grace is still alive?”
Buck looked back over his shoulder at Jimmy, and they both hesitated before answering. “He might figure he’ll be safer with a hostage,” Buck suggested. Unless he thought she was slowing him down . . .
“Let’s go see if any horses are missing,” Jimmy said. “That might tell us something.”
The three men started out, walking behind the buildings along the main street. Buck kept the lantern out and led the way, but the shadows made it hard to see anything on the ground.
They reached the back of the livery, and everything seemed quiet - maybe too quiet. Leaving the lantern by the corner of the building, Buck moved around toward the front door while Jimmy headed toward the back. Hickson hesitated a moment, then followed Buck.
The back door was ajar as Jimmy got closer. He reached out with his gun and used the barrel to open the door all of the way while he stayed back. But everything was still quiet so he slowly stepped inside.
The first thing he noticed was that someone seemed to have pulled most of the tack from the pegs on the wall and dumped it on the floor.
The second thing he noticed was that the stall where he had left his horse only a little more than an hour earlier was empty. “Damn!”
“Jimmy, you all right?” Buck asked.
“My horse is gone!” He took a deep breath and then asked, “Anything up there?”
“Got one man unconscious,” Buck replied.
“It’s Carl Burke,” Hickson supplied. “He’s the owner here.”
“I’m gonna get the light,” Jimmy said. He stepped out the back door and grabbed the lantern. By the time he got back inside, Hickson had found another lantern and gotten it lit.
“There was a horse in this stall next to my horse,” Buck said. “It’s empty now.”
“So unless someone came to get his horse and left town kind of late in the day, Garth took two horses,” Jimmy said. Though it really bothered him that the man had taken his horse.
“That means Grace might still be alive then,” Hickson concluded.
“She was at least alive when they left here,” Buck replied.
“Did she do much riding?” Jimmy asked.
“No, very little,” Hickson answered. “Is that important?”
“It’ll slow him down a little,” Buck said. “I can track him, but not in the dark.”
“We can leave at first light,” Jimmy said. “That gives Garth quite a head start. So anything that slows him down is good.”
“How many deputies do you have here?” Buck asked.
“Just Logan,” Hickson answered. “Kenton Falls is a quiet town,” he explained. “That’s usually more than enough. But if you want men for a posse, I’m sure I can find some.”
“We don’t need a big posse to go after one man,” Jimmy said.
“I’d just like a couple of men around the livery tonight,” Buck added. “We need to keep as many people away as possible, make it easier to find the tracks in the morning.”
“I’ll talk to Logan,” Hickson said. “There will be men posted within the hour.”
“That’s good,” Jimmy said. He pointed at the unconscious man on the floor. “Let’s get this man over to the doc’s, then we’ll get some food and some sleep. It’s gonna be a long day tomorrow.”
The sun was barely peaking over the horizon when Buck and Jimmy made their way down the stairs at the hotel. The smell of fresh coffee wafted enticingly from the restaurant and they headed that way - only to stop in the doorway in surprise.
Matthew Hickson sat at one of the tables, a pot of coffee and three cups in front of him. He looked up as the shadows crossed the doorway. “Good morning Jimmy, Buck. Please, join me for some coffee before we head out.”
“We?” Jimmy asked.
“I’m your posse,” Hickson replied. “I’ve arranged for another horse for you, and supplies for several days are waiting outside the livery.” He poured two more cups of coffee.
“Well, thank you for that,” Buck said. “But you don’t have to go along.” He did note that the previous day’s black suit had been replaced by work pants and shirt and a heavy jacket.
“Oh, but I do,” Hickson answered. “You see, the people of Kenton Falls elected me to see that the town runs smoothly. In the last couple of months we’ve had a bank robbery, murders, the attempted murder of the Sheriff, a kidnapping, stolen horses.” He paused, watching his shaking hand. “This town is my responsibility,” he continued quietly. “I have to go with you.”
Jimmy reached for his cup of coffee. “I guess maybe you do,” he said. “It’ll be our pleasure to ride with you, Mayor Hickson.”
The going was slow. Much of the way was rocky, and Buck struggled to keep them on the right trail. But they did stay on the trail, and by the second day there were signs that they were getting closer. Better yet, there were still two horses ahead of them, and no indication that one was suddenly carrying a lighter load, and that left them optimistic that Grace Wells was still alive.
It was nearly sunset on the second day when things changed quickly.
Buck had gone ahead on foot to scout part of a narrow canyon. Jimmy was watching the sun sink lower, and wondering if they should just make camp where they were, when suddenly Buck reappeared from the wooded slope of the canyon wall.
“I found them,” he said quickly as Jimmy and Hickson gathered close. “Probably less than half a mile inside the canyon.”
“Is Grace all right?” Hickson asked.
“Appears to be,” Buck answered. “It looked like she was tied to a tree.”
Jimmy had his gun out, checking the cylinder. “Well, you’ve been there, Buck. What’s the best plan?”
Buck knelt down and grabbed a stick. He quickly sketched out the area. “The canyon is real narrow at first, then it opens out a little, about here,” he said, pointing at his drawing. “There’s a ledge that runs along the wall, about halfway up. I think I can get around behind Garth, and get Grace out of the way. Then it’s up to Garth how he wants to play it.”
Jimmy nodded. As far as plans for going up against killers went . . . well, it was at least better than just rushing in headlong. “Matthew, why don’t you stay here with the horses,” he suggested.
“No,” Hickson shook his head emphatically. “I’m not staying behind.”
“It’s not real likely Garth is going to come without a fight,” Buck said.
Jimmy pointed at the gun the mayor wore - in a holster that looked very new. “You ready to use that if you have to?”
Hickson took a deep breath before answering. “Yes,” he said, as confidently as he could. “For Grace, and for Kenton Falls.”
“Well, you stay with me - behind me,” Jimmy said. “We wait for Buck to get Grace out of the way, and then we’ll let him know we’re here.”
Leaving the horses behind, Buck led the way into the canyon. They moved slowly in the deepening darkness, stepping carefully to make as little noise as possible. Finally, Buck stopped and pointed up. “There’s the ledge,” he whispered. “I’m going up there, try and work around behind Garth’s camp. If you just keep following this tree line, you’ll get there.”
Jimmy nodded in agreement. He stood next to the canyon wall and cupped his hands, boosting Buck up to the ledge. Then he turned and led Hickson toward the camp.
Finally, after about another half hour of slow movement, he smelled the smoke. Pointing to his nose, he waited until Hickson indicated that he smelled it too. Then he dropped to his belly and inched forward. Behind him, he could hear the other man doing the same. And he had to give the mayor credit - the man might not have had much posse experience, but he was a quick study.
A few minutes later, the camp came into view. Jimmy crawled forward as far as he dared and still stay under cover. He could see the camp clearly. As Buck had indicated, Grace Wells appeared to be alive, but she was tied up. Garth moved around the clearing, tending a small fire and checking the leg of one of the horses.
At least it wasn’t his horse that appeared to be injured, Jimmy noted.
He looked over as Hickson crawled up next to him. “Now we wait,” he whispered. As much as he hated waiting, he had to agree with Buck’s assessment. Garth was too far from their cover for a clean shot, especially in the dark. And he was much too close to Grace Wells.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait long. At first, Jimmy thought he was just seeing a shadow. But then the shadow moved slowly but purposefully toward where Grace was bound.
Buck moved silently from tree to tree, staying in the deepest shadows. Finally, he was directly behind Grace. He moved forward, waiting until Garth turned his attention back to what he was cooking over the small fire. Then he crept forward the last few feet and slipped his hand around the tree, covering her mouth before she knew anyone was there. “Mrs. Wells,” he whispered quickly. “I’m here to get you out. Just nod if you understand.”
Grace felt herself shaking from fear, and it almost seemed as though her heart would burst from as fast as it was beating. But the man behind her knew her name - and it was only a matter of time before Garth made good on his threat to kill her. She nodded her head, and a moment later the hand was removed from her mouth. As she struggled to calm her breathing, she heard the soft sound of a knife cutting through the ropes that bound her.
The ropes fell free and Buck pulled the knife away. For a moment he gauged the distance to where Garth sat, wondering if he could get a clean throw off. But the angle was wrong, so in the end he sheathed the knife and slid up to Grace’s side. “There are more men out there waiting,” he whispered. “We need to get you out of the way.” When Grace nodded, he added, “Just move very slowly. We don’t want Garth to notice.” He started to slide back carefully into the deeper cover of the trees.
Grace took a deep breath, keeping her eyes on Garth. Then she started to slide around the tree where she had been tied.
Jimmy found he was holding his breath as he watched Grace slowly disappear from sight. Just another minute or so and she’d be safe . . .
Hickson saw the movement too. He started forward - only to feel Jimmy’s hand grab his shoulder. Reluctantly, he settled back to wait.
Garth reached out with a stick to stir up the fire a bit. It was just a small fire, but he didn’t dare make it any larger. There was undoubtedly a posse on his trail. The terrain he’d covered should have hidden most of his tracks, but he needed to put a little more distance between him and Kenton Falls before he’d feel safe. Between one of the horses picking up a stone, and the woman slowing him down in general, he hadn’t covered as much ground as he had hoped. He should probably just kill the woman. He looked over his shoulder toward where he had tied her up . . .
Garth jumped to his feet, drawing his gun. She was gone - and that just wasn’t possible. He knew she had been tied securely, and she simply didn’t have the skill to get away . . . at least not on her own.
Someone else was here . . .
He fired off two shots into the trees behind where Grace had been tied. Then he turned to the fire and started to kick dirt onto the flames to get rid of the light.
Hickson heard the shots, and this time no one was going to stop him. All he could think about was his dead wife, and keeping Grace safe. He jumped up and ran forward, fumbling to try and get his gun out.
Jimmy grabbed for the mayor, but came up empty. Well, Garth knew they were here now! He got to his feet and started forward, trying to keep to the cover of the trees as much as he could.
Garth saw the movement, and he raised his gun. He grinned to himself when he saw the older man coming toward him, his gun not even drawn yet. If this was the best the people of Kenton Falls could send, it might still be fun. He raised his gun and fired.
The bullet caught Hickson in the left shoulder. He jerked back from the pain, stumbling to one side. He tried to keep going, but the shock was too much and he started to fall.
Jimmy had almost caught up to Hickson when the shot rang out. He could see the mayor was hit, and he watched as the other man stumbled. But then Hickson seemed to recover, even as Jimmy got closer. All of a sudden though, the mayor started to fall - and he landed right on Jimmy, knocking his gun away.
Garth saw the two men - and then no more. And no shots came from that direction either. He started that way, his gun at the ready. As he got a little closer, he recognized one of the deputies who had brought him from Sweetwater. That probably meant the other one was around too - and it was the Indian, which probably explained how they had followed his trail. Still, he was probably busy keeping the woman quiet.
The deputy was pinned under the older man - and his gun had fallen a few feet away. Garth grinned at the sight. He walked forward, cocking the pistol as he went. “Seems you’re in a little trouble, Deputy.”
Jimmy just glared at the outlaw. He needed to buy some time, and hope that Buck got Grace to safety quickly - and then came back fast. “Killing me ain’t gonna solve anything,” he said. “Everyone in Kenton Falls knows by now it was you stabbed their Sheriff. The law ain’t gonna stop chasing you.” He eased Hickson’s body off of him, relieved to see that the other man seemed to be coming around.
“Maybe so,” Garth agreed. “But if I get rid of you and your friend here, that buys me some time. Shouldn’t be hard to track down the woman. She with your Indian friend?” He hadn’t really expected an answer, and he didn’t get one. “After I’m done, I just keep going north into the wild, lay low for a bit. No law gonna find me there.” He paused again, leaning closer with an evil grin on his face. “An’ it’s gonna make me feel real good to put a bullet in you.”
“You’d best think about this, Garth,” Jimmy warned. He thought he saw movement over by his horse. Hopefully he wasn’t imagining things, and that really was Buck. “You kill me, that’s killin’ a lawman. That don’t sit well with other lawmen. They’ll track you down.”
Garth just laughed. “Nothin’ you’ll have to worry about,” he said. He stood up and aimed the gun at Jimmy. “You just should have listened, Deputy. “I told you I ain’t gonna hang.”
Jimmy just stared at the gun as it came up. And then there were two shots - and he was still alive.
Buck watched as Garth toppled to the ground, then he stepped out into the clearing. With his right arm he kept Grace protected just behind him. His left hand kept his gun at the ready. “Jimmy, you all right?”
Jimmy got to his feet and helped Hickson up. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered. He took a couple of steps forward, looking at Garth’s still body. “Nice shooting.”
Before Buck could answer, Grace pulled away from him and ran forward. “Oh, Matthew, you’re hurt!”
Hickson struggled to stand up straight. “I’ll be fine, Grace,” he said, hoping he sounded convincing. He’d never been shot before - and his shoulder hurt like hell. “How are you? Did Garth hurt you?”
Grace looked down at the outlaw’s body. “I’m fine, Matthew. He mostly just scared me.” She looked back at Hickson. “Matthew, he stabbed Caleb. Is he . . .?”
“He was hurt bad, Grace,” Hickson answered. “But he was alive when we left town to find you.”
Grace let out a small sob, putting her hand to her mouth. Then she took Hickson by the arm. “Well, you let me look at that shoulder, Matthew. I don’t want to lose either of you.”
As Grace led Hickson off, Buck looked at Garth’s body, and then turned back to Jimmy. “Not exactly the way Sam described the job when he sent us off.”
Jimmy grinned as he leaned over to pick up his gun. “No, not exactly,” he agreed. “I’m just glad you got back when you did.”
Buck grinned himself. “Well, I didn’t want to ride all the way back to Sweetwater alone - or explain why to Emma.”
Jimmy’s grin widened and he nodded. “She scares me sometimes too,” he admitted.
“Looks like your horse is fine,” Buck said. “If Hickson isn’t hurt too bad, we should be able to get back to Kenton Falls by tomorrow night, and then we can head home.” He pointed down at Garth. “You wanna take him back to town to be buried?”
Jimmy shook his head. “He don’t deserve to be buried with decent folk,” he said. “We’ll stick him in a shallow hole here.” He reached out with his foot and pushed the dead outlaw onto his back. “Guess he was right about one thing at least.”
“What’s that?” Buck asked.
“Well, he ain’t gonna hang.”
A/N: This takes place before the episode ‘Ghosts’
Nicholas Taggert still couldn’t believe his luck at spotting her. He
had been standing at the window, looking out over the wretched town of Sweetwater
deciding how to proceed, when a spark of gold had caught his eye. Watching
as the sunlight caressed the woman’s hair, it didn’t matter that he only
saw her from the back because he knew who it was.
* * *
“Go on, Jimmy!” Buck hissed, prodding a long finger into my back.
I turned to scowl in the general direction of my friends, levelling a particularly nasty stare at Buck. Friends, bah! Co-workers, maybe. But friends? Friends wouldn’t force me to… they wouldn’t make me…
“I changed my mind!”
“There ain’t no changing minds, Hickok,” Cody said oh-so-reasonably. “You lost the toss, fair and square.”
Cody was lucky that I had promised to be on my best behaviour in town, because at that moment I wanted nothing more than to punch his lights out. It was only the sure-fire knowledge that Rachel would have my hide that saved his. Not that her verbal whuppings were as bad as Emma’s, but I wasn’t about to eat cowslop for the next three days just ‘cause Cody don’t know how to keep his mouth shut.
“Look, Cody,” I drew myself up, putting on my most menacing look, the one that I use on desperate criminals, grandstanding gunslingers, and people who try to cut in line at the candy counter. Little brats oughtta be spending their money on something better than liquorice all-sorts anyway. “I ain’t asking him, and that’s that.”
Cody glanced knowingly at Buck and Ike before sidling a little closer. I tried to step back, but he draped his arm around my shoulder, ignoring the contemptuous look that I slid his way. He dipped his head, and I found myself unconsciously leaning forward to hear what he had to say.
“But Jimmy,” Cody said softly, “it’s for Lou.”
“I ain’t doing it.”
“You don’t want to disappoint her now, do ya, Jimmy?” Buck put in.
“That’s right,” Cody said. “She’ll get all pouty.”
Now that was just a low blow. Everybody knows that Lou don’t get pouty when she don’t get her way. She gets vicious. Meaner than a prairie dog in a briar patch.
Still, the thought of her with turned down lips, looking up at me through lashes wet with tears… Well, it don’t matter that it’d never happen. It’s just the fact that I can picture it happening. And I get kind of nauseous, like that time I ate one of Teaspoon’s strawberry jam biscuits. Except I don’t think yakking in the bushes is gonna help this time.
“Oh, dangit! All right. But I swear to God, you tell anybody about this and I will personally tie your insides into pretty little bows!”
Cody turned up his nose. “That’s a disgusting image, Hickok.”
“You just remember it, and keep your fool mouth shut.” I threw out my menacing look again, and added a shoulder roll for good measure.
Cody rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, we’re all intimidated and stuff. Now quit your posturing and get your butt in there!”
* * *
The store was dank and dirty and smelled like old cheese.
I shuffled around, eyes anxiously searching the shelves. I knew what I needed wasn’t going to be on display. Hell, there was no way some little rink-a-dink general store was gonna have what I needed any way you looked at it. But I kept up a desperate hope, lifting and replacing items on the shelves and doing my best to ignore the leering faces of the boys watching me through the window. If just one of them snickered -- just one -- all promises of good behaviour would go out the window, I swear to God.
“Can I help you, boy?”
So, the store was dank and dirty. But it was the shopkeeper that smelled like old cheese.
“No… just lookin’.”
What was I saying?
The storekeeper nodded and turned away. I glanced toward the window, catching the boys exchanging incredulous stares. Buck gestured wildly and poked Cody in the ribs. Cody shook his head so fast that his hair probably gave him whiplash. All the while Ike frantically signed while no-one paid him the slightest bit of attention.
Apparently no decision was made, because after a minute they went back to staring through the window. Watching them haggle and argue like fishwives had given me strength. Wusses! Not a one of them had the bravery that I had. The valour. The nerves of steel! The sheer unadulterated courage! I was James Butler Hickok, and nothing was going to stop me from doing my duty, even in the face of fear, danger, and ancient shopkeepers!
I strode steadfastly to the register, slapping my palm on the worn wooden countertop. “Excuse me, sir,” I said in my finest and most pompous voice, “but it appears I do need some help after all.”
* * *
The sun was just setting as I walked confidently out of the store, head held high and brown-paper-wrapped package clutched tightly under my arm. I was barely off the boardwalk before the boys appeared, laughing excitedly.
“Well, did you get it?” Cody was almost jumping up and down in his exuberance. The child.
“I got it,” I said imperiously.
Cody and Buck exchanged goofy grins. Ike made some swirly motion with his hands, probably his way of saying that he was over the moon too. I never did bother to learn much of that Indian sign. Didn’t seem to be much point when somebody would always translate for me anyway.
I continued walking, pushing past my friends. There was a brief moment when I was free, breathing the cool night air, hearing only the slither of dust across my boots, before the boys were jumping around me.
“Well, what the heck are you waiting for, Hickok, an invitation? Let’s see it!”
I smiled. “I don’t think so.”
Cody boggled at me. “What?”
My smile got wider. “You heard me, Cody.”
Cody glowered at me. I think I was supposed to be scared, but it was just pretty darned comical. Then he made a grab for the package, but I anticipated that move and dangled it out of his reach. He looked to Buck, but Buck only looked perplexed. He didn’t expect this. Now Ike… Ike looked angry. But I was counting on Buck to keep Ike on a short leash. Like he always did.
I walked backwards for a few minutes, just enjoying the sight of Cody lying face-first in the dust. Somebody was gonna get a right tongue-lashing from Rachel when he got home. But it wasn’t going to be me. Nope, I had a big night planned.
Just me and Lou.
"Can I help you with something?"
Jimmy shook the cobwebs from his head and lifted his gaze. The shopkeeper met his glance and didn't turn away.
Unexpected tears threatened to well up inside of his chest. "I'm fine..."
"Sure... sure, you are." The shopkeeper's hands smoothed out some invisible wrinkle in a ready-made shirt.
"That's what I said." Setting the bottle of perfume back on the counter, Jimmy moved a step away and shoved his hands into his pockets.
The shop keeper went silently about his business, straightening up the store, his eyes roaming the room... everywhere except for the corner that Jimmy occupied. Age-lined hands moved with sure gestures as he straightened the mess left behind by a score of customers.
Jimmy watched the older man's hands with a desperate curiosity. Better to watch them than spare a moment to ponder the dark corners of his mind. Watching those hands with their thickening knuckles, the worn nails on his finger tips, Jimmy could set his mind to imagining this man's life.... this man's memories... and hide his own away.
"So, you're in town again-"
A twinge of caution shook his shoulders. "What do you mean, again?"
The dying light of the day settled over the man's shoulders. "I've seen you in town before. A day or two here, a day or two there. You don't seem to be anywhere longer'n that."
"It's my job." Jimmy fiddled with something on the table, hoping to draw attention away from the sharp tone of his voice. He'd said more in the tone of his reply than he'd wanted to reveal.
"Like I said, sure."
"You sound like Teaspoon."
The older man raised a brow at the words. "Really, now, and who is this Teaspoon fellow?"
"It doesn't matter. I've... I've got to go..." Jimmy's feet dragged along the floorboards as he moved toward the door.
His boots bumped against each other as his feet froze before the door. Slowly, Jimmy turned around, wondering what he'd find. The shopkeeper looked up at him over his shoulder. The fading light of the early evening made it hard to Jimmy to see much more than the highlights of his face. "I didn't take anything."
"I didn't say you did, son. I was just curious."
Shrugging, Jimmy grudgingly gave into his own curiosity. "Then what?"
Holding up the bottle of perfume Jimmy had held in his hands just moments before, the older man's knowing gaze seemed to hold the rider in place. "Who was she? The woman that wore this perfume..."
He nodded, acknowledging the truth of the man's words. "A woman like no other. She made the world brighter for everyone around her... sometimes, in the spring,.... she'd smell just like that." Jimmy nodded at the bottle. "Lilacs."
"Lilacs." With a whisper of a sigh, the older man set the bottle back on the counter and turned away, fading into the lengthening shadows of the store. "I knew a woman like that, too."