PG-13 Nothing explicit, nothing graphic.
SO EASY TO KILL
All she wanted me to do was kill six men.
She approached me after the Saturday show in Nicholls, Texas. Nice looking woman, getting close to 40 maybe -- small, dark hair, expensive clothes. I recognized her. She’d been in the audience for the Friday show and I was pretty sure she’d been in Bartlett for the shows the past weekend. Front row seats every time.
She came into my tent while I was taking off my Custer make-up. I hated that part of the show. We were supposed to be showin’ off our sharpshootin’, getting the locals to pay to shoot against us. That stupid Big Horn re-enactment didn’t show off nothin’ but the slaughter of men led to their deaths by an arrogant, glory seeking bastard.
She didn’t say anything - just handed me photograph. My stomach tightened when I saw the young man in it. My brother.
I hadn’t seen him in 12 years, not since he was 5 and I was 13, but I knew it was him. He looked just like my older sister - and like the picture of my mother in the family portrait I carried in my trunk. I’d favored my father, but Michael, he’d taken after my mother’s side of the family just like our sister.
I’d spent four years traveling all over the country with the Frederick Brothers Show. In every town from Boston to St. Louis, Billings to Laredo, I’d put ads in the papers, nailed up posters and handed out flyers. A man in New York had made a photograph of my family portrait and made me a hundred copies - cost me four month’s pay. The artist who drew our posters and advertising copy had done some sketches of what my brother might look like as he got older, based on masculine versions of my mother and sister. I’d offered a reward - the amount grew every year as I saved more money. But I’d never had a lead that amounted to anything.
“Where is he?”
I didn’t try to hide the eagerness in my voice. Her clothes told me she wasn’t likely to hold me up for more money than the reward I'd posted. Besides, I didn’t care if she did. That’s when she told me what she wanted.
Of course I protested. I was just a sharpshooter in a show. I shot at targets not people. I told her she could have the reward and everything else I had. I just wanted my brother -- and the man who took him. The man who’d killed my parents.
She didn’t care what I wanted. “I want the man who murdered my husband -- and the men who’ve been protecting him. You can get close enough to kill them. I’ll give you expenses and a bonus for each man. Then you get your brother.”
“I make enough money working this show. No one can pay me enough to kill someone.” I would have stalked out of the tent, but the photograph was in my hand. I had to know, so I heard her out.
“I’ve had my eye on this show for months, ever since I saw the poster about your brother. I recently liquidated some ranching and mining interests in the Territory. I hired detectives. They checked into your parents’ murder and your brother’s abduction. They found him two weeks ago. Last week I bought out the Frederick Brothers. You help me, you get your brother. You refuse you get nothing and you lose your job.”
“Why me? If you know that much about me, you know I ain’t no killer.”
“I’ve seen you shoot.” She stopped and looked me dead in the eye. “I know you’ve killed before.”
Her detectives had done a thorough job. I’d been in the house that day 12 years ago when those men rode up. I’d seen my mother throw herself in front of my father, taking the bullet meant for him. To no avail, because they’d gotten him with the next one. The leader of the gang ran to my mother as though she meant something to him while another of the men grabbed my brother. In the confusion no one saw me come out of the house with a shotgun. I used both barrels on the man who’d shot my parents. I’d expected to be the next one shot down, but the leader held up his hand to stop his men and told me, “I’d have killed him myself.”
He’d ridden off with my brother, leaving me to bury my parents. I’d gone to live with my sister and her new husband, but I never gave up looking for my brother. When I turned 18, I took a series of jobs that let me travel, always looking. My father had taught me to shoot when I was a kid. I’d improved on what he’d taught me, but I’d never been fond of killing, even animals. So at 21, I’d joined the Frederick Brothers Show where I could use my gun without anything dying. Now this woman wanted six men dead and thought I could do it.
I’d do almost anything to find my brother, but I couldn’t kill someone in cold blood. I tried to think of something else I could offer her.
She took a folded paper out of her bag and handed it to me. It was a wanted poster from Tascosa, Texas. Vin Tanner. $500. When I started to say I wasn’t a bounty hunter, she interrupted. “He’s wanted for the murder of my husband and they suspect him in a dozen others. You can start with him. You can’t be particular about killing a man wanted for murder.”
“I would be though – particular that is. He was a stranger and so was the man he was accused of killing. I suggested the obvious. ”If you know where he is, just have the law get him - or a bounty hunter.”
She sat down on my trunk, settling herself in like she owned the place. I supposed she did now. “It’s not just him. He’s got friends protecting him. Some of them helped him kill my husband and the others. They’re cutthroats paid off by the ranchers to protect them and run off the settlers in the Territory.”
“And you think ‘cause I’m good at putting holes in playin’ cards and knockin’ clay pigeons out of the air, I can go against six gunmen? That’s crazy.”
“I don’t expect you to go up against them all at once -- or in the open. I’ve seen your costume changes, the characters you play.” She looked me over appraisingly. “And I don’t care how you kill them.” Meaning, she didn’t care if I shot them in the back or put poison in their whiskey.
I decided to go along with her for a while, hoping she’d let something slip about my brother.
* * *
She’d given me a dime novel by Jock Steele. The Magnificent Seven. My story was that we wanted to stage a competition between these famous heroes and the sharpshooters in the show. Heroes! I’d met Jake Francis, a “hero” from another of Steele’s books. A two-bit, cowardly killer who abused women and shot old men to get notches on his gun. Heroes indeed.
She’d be heading the show in that direction. They’d be there in a month and she expected me to have taken care of her problem before they got there.
My first stop was at The Clarion. I figured the editor would know something about the men. Interesting thing, the editor was a woman and she had nothing but praise for them all. I was a little surprised ‘cause Mary Travis came across as the kind of woman who wouldn’t welcome gunslingers and corruption in the town where she was raising her son. But then she let slip her father-in-law was a federal judge. Well, I’d seen a lot of corrupt judges in my travels. Likely this woman had either been duped or paid off.
She did give me some useful information - about where I might find them and such. In her opinion it’d be unlikely all the seven would be interested in a shooting competition. She gave me the names of three who probably would: Standish, Wilmington and Dunne.
My “employer” had been generous with the expense money, probably because she knew it wasn’t money I was after. As the portly “Jack Coleman,” I took a room for the entire month at a boarding house recommended by Mrs. Travis. Later I would get a room at the hotel for the same time period in the name of itinerant drummer, Bernard Smith, a more slender but less talkative gentleman who would often be absent taking orders from the homesteaders and shopkeepers in the surrounding area.
My next stop was the saloon where Standish spent his time. In a town like this, they’d probably all end up there eventually. I figured to spend a good part of the first week in that saloon so I hoped the food was decent.
Turned out the quality was sporadic -- better than decent when the beautiful Inez was turning her hand at it, not so good when anyone else was in charge. That might be for the best. I had a healthy appetite but I could never eat enough to support the image of the overindulging Coleman. So I’d eat Inez’s cooking when I could - dragging out the meals so as to have an excuse to hang around. If anyone asked, I'd claim to be eating at the hotel or the café when she wasn’t around. But instead, I’d give my real stomach a rest.
I’d just finished my first hearty meal when a place opened up at the table where Ezra Standish was holding court. He didn’t pay much attention to me because I didn’t act like a big spender. I played cautiously. My expense money was ample but a foolish gambler could run through a goodly sum without much effort. My intent was to size up Standish, not to take his money or give him mine.
He was a good player, sometimes a little reckless, likely won more than he lost. But he had the guts to lose big, which meant he probably wasn’t going to retire on his winnings. He was a little taller than me, dressed like a dandy and spoke like a man of limited social standing trying to imitate someone with an extensive education. I had to admit, he did a damn good job of it. His green eyes were vigilant to the extent that I was concerned for my disguise. However, I soon realized he was concentrating only on the cards. He wouldn’t notice my stomach was fake unless I started pulling aces out of it.
I was still playing poker with Standish when Dunne and Wilmington came in for supper. Dunne was a cocky youngster, smaller than me but with pretensions of being a seasoned gunslinger. At least that’s how I interpreted the fact that he was sporting two revolvers. Few men could use two guns to good effect in a gunfight. A lot of us in the show carried two guns because showing off was expected. Showing off could get a man killed in a real gunfight. I wondered at first if he was really one of the Seven or just some kind of mascot.
Wilmington was a tall, good-looking man with an affable smile. Unlike his smaller friend, his pretensions all involved women. There were only a few of them in the saloon, but he made the rounds and flirted with all of them. However, his focus was on Inez who seemed oblivious to his charm.
After the game broke up, Standish joined the other two. If I’d intended to actually set up a challenge between the Seven and the sharpshooters in the show, this would have been a good opportunity to get the ball rolling. But since that wasn’t my intent, I figured to just watch them for a while. I took a little walk outside to answer the call of nature in a public outhouse and then tried to walk my way up to enough of an appetite for another meal.
By the time I got back to the saloon, the three had been joined by Sanchez and Jackson. Both were tall men, perhaps of a height with Wilmington, but there was otherwise no resemblance. Sanchez was older than the rest. Dunne occasionally addressed him as “Preacher,” which was consistent with his label in the Steele novel where he was referred to as a defrocked priest. He wore both a gun and a knife, so whatever order he’d been a part of was not one that demanded pacifism. Either that, or his lack of pacifism had been the cause of his defrocking. Jackson was a Negro whose demeanor suggested that if any of these men didn’t seek out violent confrontation, it was him. According to Steele, he’d worked as a medic in the war. He wore a gun though and if he was one of the Seven, odds were that he could use it.
I got a plate of food and asked if I could join them -- I had a proposition. That’s when I laid out the idea of the competition. As soon as he realized there was money in it, Standish was in. Dunne was right behind him but for the glory, not the money. Wilmington didn’t jump in right away. But he was interested. Once I told him that our two biggest stars drew the attentions of scores of women, I could tell by his smile I had him too. The other two didn’t even have much curiosity.
I tossed the dime novel on the table and let them know there would be a substantial bonus if the entire “Magnificent Seven” competed against our best. They’d seen the novel before so that wasn’t a surprise, but it provided an excuse for the bonus and that would get Standish and Dunne working on the others. I sat back after that and watched the interaction. I really didn’t given a damn if they agreed to the match-up since it would never take place.
When it came time for dessert, Wilmington got up and helped Inez bring over plates of apple pie. I was amused when Dunne asked Inez which of them she’d bet on in a shooting competition. She looked at me. “Tell me señor, do women shoot in your show?” That got a hoot from Dunne. He wanted to know if she was planning to compete against him. She ignored him and continued to look my way. I told her that one of the show’s best shooters was a woman. She and Wilmington both looked interested at that revelation.
Inez smiled and looked around the table. “She is the one I will put my money on.” Wilmington leaned back in his chair and smiled. He indicated he might do the same –unless, of course, she was shooting against him.
I asked Inez which of the Seven she’d bet on in the various competitions. She looked around the table. “To draw his gun the fastest and shoot the straightest, that would be Señor Larabee.”
No one contradicted her.
”To shoot the long gun and always hit the target. That would be Señor Tanner.”
No one contradicted her there either. I found that interesting. At least three of these men seemed to be the competitive sort, proud of their shooting prowess and intent on impressing the beauteous Inez, yet they conceded those two titles to their absent comrades without protest.
But they did start squabbling over which of them was second best in each category and in what other categories each might be first. For that, they looked to me to describe all the various competitions. When Dunne claimed he might be the best shooting from horseback, all the others laughed. Wilmington leaned over and flicked Dunne’s hat off his head with one long finger. He reminded Dunne what had happened the first time he’d showed them that trick. The gist of the tale was that his horse had gone one way and he’d gone the other, ending up in a water trough.
I was going to ask the whereabouts of Larabee and Tanner once an opening arose that would allow me to do so without sounding unduly curious. However, Inez saved me the trouble by making the inquiry herself and they answered her readily enough. Larabee was out at his cabin and would be back in the morning. Tanner had ridden shotgun on a stage carrying the judge to a trial up north in Spooner where there were some interests who would just as soon he didn’t get there. He wouldn’t be back for at least eight days.
Well, that gave me a week to sit back and watch. And plan. I wouldn’t arouse suspicion because I’d let it be known I was going to stay around until the show worked its way over here. After all, as I told Standish, we might need that much time to convince the other four to participate so he could get his share of the bonus.
I spent an interesting day observing the interactions of the six men after Larabee returned the next morning. Five men, all strong and independent in his own way, but none appeared to question Larabee’s leadership -- at least in the absence of Tanner. According to my employer, it was Tanner who was at the center of this group and the one who needed to be eliminated first.
A week passed as I watched and listened. These men ran the town - I saw a couple of gunslingers who might have tried to take over intimidated by a show of force and a few drunks and disgruntled poker players shown the door. But generally the town was quiet during that week. Some of what I learned was from talking to the citizens or eavesdropping on their conversations. But mostly I watched the six go about their business. I didn’t need to see them in action to discover where they’d be vulnerable. During that week I decided who would be first and who last. The others would be dealt with as the opportunity arose.
Wilmington would be last. During the week, I watched him flirt with two dozen women, spend some serious time with five and go off to what appeared to be an intimate liaison with two. I knew exactly how I was going to take him down and for that, the others had to go before he did.
Tanner had to be first. From the way they watched each others’ backs, I could well believe no bounty hunter had been able to get Tanner while he was here. But he’d left and would be riding back from Spooner alone -- by his own choice. I’d heard Larabee tell Sanchez that sometimes Tanner needed to be alone in a place where sky met ground with nothing built on it. So much the better for me.
I had a good view from the hillside as the man in buckskins made his way down the winding trail into the valley. It was close to dark; likely he’d make camp soon. My rifle scope gave me a decent view of his face, Vin Tanner, the man on the wanted poster. Appeared no older than me, not out of his twenties anyway. First man I’d seen that young who looked like he’d seen as much of the wrong side of the world as I had.
As I observed him, he became aware of me. Not with the topside of his mind. He hadn’t seen or heard me. But in the animal part of a good tracker’s brain, he knew he was being watched. He wasn’t scanning the whole area either, he was looking right in my direction. Good instincts that one. When he reached around and grabbed a brass spyglass, I ducked down and stayed down until he’d passed. My horse was on the other side of the hill so there was no danger he’d be seen.
I waited half an hour before I fetched my horse and followed him down the trail. I was pretty sure where he’d camp. There was a place an hour ahead, easily defended and with water nearby. Man like that would be cautious.
* * *
I’d been right about the place. It was dark by the time I got close enough to spot the fire. I shouted, “Man coming into camp” just in case his feeling of being watched earlier translated into an itchy trigger finger now. He was alert as I rode in. He stood, rifle in hand, not looking unfriendly, just vigilant. He could see I wasn’t armed. My revolver was in my saddlebag. The rifle was in a case tied on the back of the saddle. Even if he guessed what it was, he'd know I couldn’t grab it easily.
I tried to sound casually friendly, like I would be to any stranger I met on the trail. “Mister, if you wouldn’t mind sharin’ your fire and some of that coffee, I bought some vegetables in the last town would go good with that rabbit. Nice old lady at the store threw in some oatmeal cookies with my order.”
He shrugged, then nodded. I fried up a mound of potatoes, carrots and onions with a little bacon. An hour later we were sitting back washing down the last of the cookies with the end of the coffee. We didn’t converse much. Didn’t seem to be his nature to be talkative. The rifle he carried was every bit as good as the German-made beauty I had. I didn’t ask to look at it but I recognized the model and the scope. In my adopted profession, guns were something I knew a lot about. Both of us had weapons well-suited for assassins -- or bounty hunting – if the bounty hunter didn’t want the bother of taking men in alive.
I got out the copy of Hawthorne’s Seven Gables and pretended to read by the firelight. It was the only book other than dime novels they’d had for sale in the general store in the last town. I wasn’t much interested in it, but I wanted him to see it. Like I said, we didn’t talk much, but I did make sure to mention that I’d been napping up on the hill an hour back and had watched him make his way down into the valley. Better he shouldn’t fret about that feeling he’d had earlier. Just a man taking a nap and watching the road.
I turned in before he did. Figured it would make him rest easier. I was up before him too, before first light. Oh, he was awake, I could feel his eyes watching me as I built up the fire a little and left him with a pot of my coffee. Wanted to make it a friendly parting. He didn’t say anything as I saddled my horse and rode off.
A couple of hours down the trail, I dropped the Hawthorne where he’d be sure to see it. I didn’t stop to do it. His tracker’s eyes would have seen the stop. I just let it tumble as my horse loped along as though it had fallen out of my saddlebag. My Pa had been a tracker. He hadn't had time to teach me all the fine points but I knew some of the tricks. I went about a mile further down, then circled around. I barely had time to set myself up in a tree on the hill where I could get the best shot.
He stopped when he saw the book -- dismounted to pick it up just like I thought he would. I had him in my scope. Before he reached for the book, I fired. As soon as the bullet hit the target, I was off over the hill. It was a damn fine shot.
I rode hell for leather to the Crawson where I sold the horse I’d ridden, saddle and all, to the keeper of the saloon where I had a quick meal. I changed boots and gave my old ones to the first drunk who looked to be my size. I picked up the horse I’d left at the livery and headed out within the hour. I didn’t pull off the blond Custer wig and facial hair or change my clothes until I was five miles out of town. I traded horses at the next town and was back in Four Corners by the next morning.
The others were even easier.
A check of the saloon as I walked past showed Sanchez and Jackson just starting their midday meal with Standish. Dunne was sitting outside the Sheriff’s office talking to Wilmington - being teased by him from the looks of it. The one I was most cautious of - Larabee - I saw no sign of. So I decided to get to the church first. Larabee didn’t seem the type to spend time there unless he was with Sanchez on some other business.
Sanchez’s sleeping quarters, a small room off to the side of the church, were perfect for my purposes. Sanchez was certainly a contradiction. I’d seen him keeping up with the best of them when it came to polishing off whiskey, but his quarters were downright monastic. I had it all worked out in my head so it took me only a few minutes to set up. It was a good thing I hadn’t worn my portly gentleman disguise as I had to go out the single narrow window. The next time that door opened a shotgun blast would bring everyone running.
I’d decided to bide my time with Jackson and wait for a natural opening. It came sooner than I’d hoped -- before my shotgun was set off in the church putting everyone on guard. Two drunken cowhands got into a fight in an alley outside the saloon. One of them was left unconscious while the other went inside for some more drinking. I feigned concern and helped Jackson carry the man back to his clinic. I helped him as he bandaged the man’s ribs and tended a wound on his scalp. I pretended an acquaintance with the man as the result of a lengthy card game. I volunteered to get coffee and put the sleeping draught in it before bringing the tray into the clinic.
The drug worked quickly. Jackson gave some of the coffee to the injured man so they were both out when I brought in the sacks of debris I’d left in the alley -- enough fuel for a healthy fire. I put Jackson on the second bed and tied his hands and feet to the frame with bandaging material. I didn’t bother tying the injured man as he wasn’t the object of my plan, just a convenient means to carry it out. I’d designed a kerosene soaked rope fuse with a second for back-up, allowing plenty of time for escape, establishment of an alibi and disposal of another of my subjects. Despite my hurry, I hadn’t forgotten the matches -- nor the sign I hung on the door indicating Jackson was out tending to a farmer’s broken leg.
Despite being a lawman, Dunne didn’t seem to be the suspicious type. But then nothing seems to lull people into a sense of security like a man wearing a gentleman’s clothes and sporting a belly that suggests soft living. I carried a sack of warm sugar cookies I had bought from Mrs. Potter. I carried a container of cool milk and asked Dunne to lend me one of the cups he kept around for coffee. At first, I made no move to share. I was just a fat man eating a snack as I questioned him about what shooting event he considered his best. I thought at first I’d made a mistake in using that pretext -- the kid loved to show off. He claimed to be the fastest draw in town but for Larabee himself. He had to demonstrate quite a few times before he settled down enough to start eying the cookies.
I offered him a few. Once he’d eaten enough to get him eyeing the milk, I offered him the rest of the container. I waited until he’d chugged down at least a cup’s worth before I checked my watch and announced that I had business at The Clarion. I collected the sack of cookies and was starting out the door as he showed the first signs of reacting to my special additive.
I’d known there’d be a possibility someone would remember the portly Jack Coleman coming out of the clinic or the sheriff’s office so I’d moved most of my things over to the hotel that morning where the nondescript drummer, Bernard Smith, had a room. I returned there now while the hotel was busy and gratefully shed the fat gentleman’s identity. I emerged at dusk a much slimmer man and took a walk around town, passing the saloon periodically.
I waited until dark to take out Standish. He’d been hitting his flask heavily by the time I met up with him in the alley next to the saloon. I'd been careful to determine he really was drunk because I'd seen him exaggerate his incapacity in order to lull his competition into underestimating him. Tonight though, he'd gotten cleaned out by a youngster who looked no older than Dunne and it had him drowning his sorrows. A very drunk man answering the call of nature is a pretty easy target. He was on the ground without ever having seen me coming. The only hitch in my plan came when the canvas sack I used to immobilize him proved almost too tough for the dagger to pierce. Almost.
I took the back alleys to circle around to the hotel. Back in my room - Smith’s room - I looked at my options for blending in with the rough crowd in the saloon. It would have been nice to stay as I was without the body distorting paraphernalia but I couldn’t risk that. Sighing, I put some shoulder pads under a homespun shirt topped with a buckskin jacket, not unlike the one I’d seen on Tanner the day before. The heavy canvas pants added to the illusion of size. The lifts in the heavy boots added almost two inches to my height. I used my best beard, mustache and wig, the ones I’d painstakingly crafted from my own dark hair. The wig was a little worse for wear, but with the addition of a slouch hat, no one would notice.
I saw Larabee go into the saloon with Wilmington as I crossed the dark street. I watched them take a seat in the back as I ordered a meal. I was hungry but wasn’t optimistic about the food, knowing it would be close to inedible because Inez was nowhere to be seen. I carried my plate and a beer to a seat where I could hope to hear what Larabee and Wilmington were saying. I’d have chosen a seat just behind Larabee -- close but out of his sight. However, I’d learned from my prior stay that wherever he was, there wouldn’t be a seat behind him unless one of his friends was in it.
He and Wilmington were having an intense conversation, but they kept their voices too low for me to make out the words. My eyes stayed on my food while I kept the two within my peripheral vision. Much as I dawdled, the steak and potatoes were gone long before my need to be there had ended. I had to order a second charred meal and a third beer before the others started trickling in.
Once they did, the voices rose loud enough for me to overhear most of their conversation. My knowledge of the facts allowed me to fill in the gaps.
Tanner came in first and tossed the Hawthorne on the table in front of Larabee. The sound it made was loud enough to give me an excuse to look over in their direction. I smiled as I saw the bullet hole - dead center. Just as I’d thought. Damn fine shot from that distance. He didn’t sit down but slouched against the post nearest to Larabee. Between them, they could see everyone in the room.
Dunne and Jackson came in together. Dunne looked pale enough that Wilmington leaned over as he sat down. The kid brushed off his “you, okay kid” and it was Jackson who gave the reassurance that it had just been ipecac. Jackson tossed my little tin of matches along with the note on top of the book. He was also carrying the milk container and the note I’d left on Dunne’s desk. He set them next to the other items. He’d barely sat down when Sanchez took the seat next to him. He left the shotgun cracked open in front of Wilmington and tossed his note on the small pile. Inez got there before Standish, carrying a round of beers for them all and an extra for Standish who appeared behind her. He looked disgusted as he tossed down the canvas sack with the note still impaled on the knife. His pronouncement that they’d all been the victims of “a cruel jest” was greeted with various gestures of dismissal.
Inez made two trips back to the table with food for them all. For once Wilmington didn’t try to curry favor by getting up to help her. A glance told me what they’d been served looked a good deal better than the meal and a half I’d choked down. She must have done the cooking for the Seven even though it was probably her night off. They surprised me by asking her to sit with them. Apparently, they were smart enough to realize that her observations of the customers could be useful. I strongly doubted they would be, but I appreciated their good judgment in including her. I had to smile as she ignored the chair Wilmington grabbed from my table and held out. She pulled up her own chair and sat between Dunne and Jackson. That only confirmed what I’d noted during the prior week. Wilmington had a notable success with the fairer sex, but his prowess had yet to snare him the lovely Inez.
They showed the five notes to Inez who read the first one aloud. “You were so easy to kill.” She looked at all the other notes and saw what I knew because I’d written them. They were identical, except that each one had the name of a different man in small block letters at the top.
It took them an hour of eating, drinking, arguing and discussing to come to the conclusion they had no conclusion. But they knew what I wanted them to know. Someone could have killed them but deliberately held back. A bullet that hit a book instead of a man, a shotgun aimed to fire eight feet in the air, a pile of flammable material, a tin of matches and bindings tied so loosely they didn't bind at all, milk laced with ipecac instead of something deadly, a drunk knocked over in an alley, left in a canvas sack with a knife inserted only far enough to pin a note to the canvas. Standish took the most ribbing about the carelessness that had resulted in his “death.” He responded with a protest about a sheriff who could be bribed with milk and cookies and was so foolish as to drink poison.
Tanner, Jackson and Dunne had seen the person they assumed was the perpetrator. That left them assuming there were at least two wrongdoers - the portly Jack Coleman and the slim, bearded man Tanner had met on the trail. Standish let it be known the man who overpowered him was a very tall, muscular fellow, which might have led them to believe there was a third person had Larabee not looked so scornful at this attempt to save face.
Tanner had followed my tracks from the book to where I’d laid in wait and then in to Crawson. He shook his head in disgust when he told them he’d tracked my boots from the livery to the boardwalk outside a saloon. But when he’d picked them up again, he’d ended up bumping into a drunk in the alley behind the dry goods store. I was rather proud of myself for that little trick. I didn’t imagine Vin Tanner often lost a man he was tracking.
Of course, the question arose as to why Larabee and Wilmington hadn’t been targeted. I had to see their responses and risked a direct look their way. A ghost of a smile crossed Larabee’s face as he suggested perhaps he wasn’t so easy to kill.
Inez had another answer,
but she looked at Wilmington when she said it, “Perhaps Señor Buck,
he was saving the easiest for last.” Funny thing, both assessments
were right, at least they would have been had I intended to target Larabee.
Mesquite wasn’t much of a town but it had a boarding house where I could get a bath and change into some better clothes. Wilmington was the last one. Now I could look like myself -- myself cleaned up and dressed to the teeth.
I took the morning stage to Four Corners. As I disembarked, I scanned the streets like a stranger in a strange place. He was across the street talking to Mary Travis outside the newspaper office. I headed in that direction as though seeking information. Halfway across the street I made a point of catching my toe in a hole and taking an apparently nasty fall which I was careful to cushion with my carpetbag.
Those long legs carried him to my side in a moment. With his left hand on my elbow and his right arm around my waist, he hoisted me to my feet. Keeping his arm firmly about my waist, he bent to scoop up my carpet bag. When I faked a twisted ankle with my first step, he scooped me up in his arms and carried me to the boardwalk. He set me down on a bench in front of The Clarion and proceeded to remove the shoe from my “injured” foot.
I’d never seen a man so deft at dealing with the complexities of a lady’s high button shoe. The buttons were so tiny and the new leather so stiff, I couldn’t imagine them being easily manipulated by his big hands. But he had it loosened and off my foot in an instant. I could only imagine he was just as deft with the hooks and buttons that puzzled most men in dealing with a bed partner’s undergarments.
He smiled up at me as he massaged my foot and lamented the condition of the streets in his town. Reckoned how it was a damn shame they weren’t fit for man nor beast much less a lovely lady like myself. He had a way of calling me “darlin’” that bespoke respect, not undue intimacy, yet sent a little tingle down my spine. I wondered how Inez resisted him.
I smiled in response to the flirtation I heard in that silky voice but pretended to flinch as his ministrations reached my ankle. He was quick with his reassurance. He feared I was injured and insisted he take me to see his friend Nathan who was the closest thing the town had to a doctor. Better than most of them he assured me. His voice fairly oozed concern for whatever pain I was suffering.
I played right into his game. “Oh dear, I do hope he’s close by. I’m afraid I couldn’t walk very far.” My lip trembled as I presented the perfect picture of a friendless lady in an unfamiliar town.
In response, Wilmington grinned and rose to his feet. Sweeping his hat off his head in a broad cavalier gesture, he hastened to reassure me that as one of the men appointed to keep the peace in town, it was his sworn duty to see that a lady such as myself didn’t suffer as the result of the sorry condition of the main street. He lifted me up while proclaiming that my delicate feet would never touch the ground on the way to the clinic. Although I’m relatively slender, I’m tall for a woman, but he had no problem carrying me up the stairs, chatting in his reassuring way the whole time.
As Jackson examined my ankle, he gave no sign I looked familiar. I could see he was pretty sure I wasn’t injured. But since I kept protesting I’d be fine and it was Wilmington who kept insisting I needed medical care, it wasn’t me whose motives he found suspicious. Finally he told me to stay off my feet for the rest of the day and I’d be fine. I caught the look he gave Wilmington. He knew his friend would have his own ideas in that regard.
An hour later I was ensconced in a room above the saloon. Wilmington had insisted that although normally a room in such close proximity to so many rough men would be unthinkable for a lady such as myself, it was a necessary measure due to my delicate condition. He’d be able to keep an eye on me there, bring me food and hot water, whatever I needed.
When I assured him I had bathed only that morning, he brought me a pitcher of warm water to wash off the residue of the dusty stage ride. He tipped his hat and promised to return at 3 with dinner -- leaving me time to rest from my “ordeal.”
As promised, he came knocking at my door an hour later with a lavish meal for two that he set up on a little table by the window. He’d changed his clothes and his hair was damp. As he assisted me from the bed to the table, his arm around my shoulders, I caught the clean smell of a man who’d just bathed. The smell of soap and the leather of his vest, was laced ever so enticingly with a bare scent of the saloon below -- cigar smoke and whiskey mostly.
As we sat across the table from one another and ate the meal he’d provided, he talked to me in that lovely whispery voice. Although I was only looking for my chance to do what I’d come for, I found myself being drawn under his spell. He had a way of talking that could fool a girl into thinking he was a devoted suitor courting a woman he’d been waiting for all his life.
After half an hour of listening to his sweet voice and having his big, gentle hand occasionally resting lightly on mine, I was thinking that tomorrow morning would be plenty of time to finish off my plan.
After an hour, I found myself answering his questions about my life just a little too honestly. In the back of my mind I knew he must be exaggerating his interest as part of his seduction ritual, but the rest of my mind responded to it. I even showed him the picture of my brother given to me by the woman who’d hired me to kill them, although I didn’t tell him where I’d gotten it. I even told him what I’d previously shared only with my sister – the passages in my mother’s journal that spoke of the man who’d taken my brother.
She’d met him at a party when she’d visited her sister in New Orleans. She’d been afraid of the improper attentions he’d paid to her - he knew she was married. However, he had no way to know she was pregnant and she’d had no reason to tell him something so intimate. But it would have saved her life, and my father’s, if she had. The man deluded himself into believing she shared his interest -- convinced himself she would have gone off with him but for unwelcome bondage of her marriage vows. The short of it was he raped her and five years later when he tracked her to our home in Texas, he believed my brother was his child. Her journal didn’t disclose his name because my mother was afraid if my father saw the journal, he’d get himself killed trying to bring the man to justice. But she wrote it down so my brother would never have a doubt as to the identity of his father.
Wilmington listened and even asked the right questions as though he was making plans to help me in my quest. This was a man who knew the right things to say.
Dark was falling by the time we had to admit the meal was over. Had to admit it because as much as he was concentrating on being charming, Wilmington also had a healthy appetite and had polished off everything I hadn’t managed to consume myself. He lit the lamp on the table and stacked the dishes on a tray, preparing to take his leave of me. At least so it seemed. He asked me if I needed anything. Perhaps he could bring me something to read or would I like him to set up a game of checkers or backgammon. When I declined, he helped me back to the bed, placing the pillows so I could recline against them. He told me he’d come back in an hour or so to check on me. Then he leaned over to place a kiss on my cheek.
When he actually turned to leave with no pressure on me to accept further attentions, I realized I had no interest in prolonging this seduction. I’d met many men in the course of my travels and although I’d bedded very few, that was due more to the quality of the suitors than any great virtue on my part. I had no intention of turning down this handsome, charming, sweet-smelling rogue, so why wait an hour until he returned to “check on me.”
I took hold of his left hand in both of mine and drew him back to the bed. He sat down next to me without a word but his dark blue eyes captured mine and I couldn’t look away. My right hand reached out to stroke his face: the strong cheekbones, the mustache that framed his affable smile, the expressive brows that sat guard over his twinkling eyes with the friendly lines at the corners.
He took my hand from his face and kissed my palm, then my wrist. Before he could work his way further, my left hand was at the back of his neck drawing his mouth to mine. He made no resistance and in fact started an assault with his tongue that enticed me to respond with equal vigor. He tasted sweet from the spice cake and wine with which we’d ended dinner. In a moment, I had both hands tangled in his wavy black hair as I drew him down until he had no choice but to stretch out on the bed half on top of me. Once I’d made my intentions clear there was no need to encourage him overtly, though I sensed he would have respected the slightest reluctance on my part to increase the intimacy of our contact.
His mouth left mine as he trailed exploratory kisses around my face and neck. He seemed to know precisely when he hit that special spot on the side of my neck that sent heat all the way to my belly and beyond. He returned to that spot over and over again as he explored my entire body with his mouth. He unfastened clothes as his need to taste the skin beneath overtook him. I’d been right -- the alacrity with which he removed my shoe earlier that day had been a demonstration of the ease with which he could deal with any of the garments men so often found daunting. He was not at all clumsy with the tiny hooks and buttons
I was naked to the waist almost before I knew how he’d accomplished it, but he so well knew what to do with a woman in a state of undress that I had no complaints. He was clever with both his hands and his mouth in a way intended to please me as much as himself. My body was soon ready for much more, but to give him credit, he seemed more intent on maintaining the intensity of my ardor than in rushing to take advantage of it. I decided it would be only fair to determine if my actor’s practice with a variety of men’s clothing would serve me well here.
I pushed him away from me but smiled in a way that let him know I didn’t want him to go far. He rolled onto his back and clasped his hands behind his head. He flashed his charming smile as I made quick work of the buttons on his vest and then his shirt. I pushed open the garments and ran my hands over his chest. He was as muscular as I’d assumed from watching him move around clothed. Touching his bare skin not only confirmed his fitness but exposed the marks of a man who’d seen combat. I traced a thin scar that ran almost the entire width of his upper chest.
I raised my head and looked into his eyes. “Some woman’s father or husband take after you with a whip?”
He grinned and conceded there’d been a few occasions when he’d barely escaped a good whipping or a shotgun blast. But that mark had come from a crazy cavalry officer wielding a saber. I bade him tell me the story but he was evasive. Just said his friend JD had run out of ammunition as the former confederate tried to run him down. He’d just gotten in the way himself - nothing heroic about it.
“You just happened to get in the way? Looks more like you decided to trade your life for his and almost succeeded. He must be quite a friend.”
He protested that it wasn’t like that at all. He’d only known JD for a few days back then. He said when I met JD, I’d realize that a blow that hit his own chest would have lopped the poor kid’s head clean off.
Of course, he didn’t know I’d already seen Dunne. I had to admit to myself a saber cut that high on Wilmington’s chest would have had Dunne’s shaggy head rolling on the ground like a spent cannonball. But it could have killed Wilmington too and I’d bet Dunne knew it. No wonder he took Wilmington’s teasing so well.
I ran my finger over some other scars that appeared to have come from the same source. But according to him, they were the result of an entirely different confrontation. I had to wonder why in a part of the world where men seemed to live by the gun, opponents with sabers kept searching him out.
As all his scars seemed to have a story, I insisted on removing his shirt and vest to continue my inspection. I found the smooth skin over the fine musculature of his arms quite pleasant to touch - with my lips as well as my hands. However, the thorough examination of his upper body I was more than willing to conduct failed to yield any evidence of bullet wounds save for one that had nicked his arm.
“You appear to have avoided enemies bearing firearms in favor of those armed with sabers.”
He assured me this was not the case. However, having been blessed with such long legs, bullets aimed for another man’s torso tended to hit him in a lower part of his anatomy. At my expression of anxiety over what I thought he was suggesting, he quickly assured me that he meant lower than that. I insisted on checking.
I pulled his boots off first. Then I set out to utilize my recent experience with the buttons on men’s trousers and long johns to good advantage. Once I had rid him of those garments it was clear that if he had suffered any serious injuries, they had indeed been lower than that. In fact, his body was quite impressive in its readiness to show me he was fully functional. I must have made some kind of expression of dismay that the working of my fingers at the buttons in that particular place had pushed him too far. He hastened to assure me that while he was certainly ready, he was most definitely not in a hurry.
Then he gathered me up in his arms and proceeded to spend several hours showing me just how unhurried he could be.
* * *
I woke before first light with his arms around me, my naked back snugged up against his chest, one of his long legs flung across mine. I remembered my reason for luring him to be alone with me and gently wriggled free of his embrace. He didn’t fully waken but he kissed my bare shoulder and mumbled something that sounded like “don’t go darlin’.” He seemed to be back asleep before I’d fully disentangled myself. I used the chamber pot behind the screen in the far corner of the room then washed my face and hands in some of the water he’d brought me earlier. I washed my mouth out too, getting rid of that early morning fuzz made worse by a little too much wine the night before. I checked to make sure he was still sleeping, and pulled the hunting knife out of my carpetbag. I ran my finger down the blade. I’d spent considerable time getting that blade just right. As I crawled back into bed, I tucked the knife within easy reach under my pillow.
The motion of the bed must have disturbed him or perhaps the call of nature roused him. In any event, he also made a trip behind the screen. I heard water from the pitcher being poured in the basin and the sounds of washing. I curled away from him, feigning sleep as he crawled back into bed. But when he wrapped himself around me, I jumped a little in response to his hands and cheek still cold from the wash water. I first giggled, then turned to face him. My plans would certainly keep for another hour or so.
The “or so” had come and gone before we were both spent from the pleasures of his lovemaking. The man had stamina, patience and the ability to draw those qualities out of me. It would have been nice to fall asleep in his arms again, but I couldn’t delay any longer. It was past dawn and I knew from my observations these men could get called away on the town’s business at any time.
His head was nestled against my breasts as I carefully reached for the knife. I took a handful of his thick hair and pulled his head back, baring his throat to my blade. His body instinctively stiffened as it touched his throat. He came fully awake as I hissed in his ear, “You were so easy to kill.”
His hand was locked around my wrist so quickly I wondered if I could have taken him had I intended to. Holding my wrist in a grip so strong it never occurred to me to try to pull away, he held the knife away from his throat and pushed me over on my back. He kept me pinned to the bed with the length of his body pressing mine into the feather mattress. He immobilized both my wrists with his left hand while he took the knife. I could see his anger change to perplexity as he ran a thumb down the blade. He quickly realized it was so dull, I would have had trouble cutting through butter. It had taken me quite a while to render that good knife so harmless. I’d never intended to cut him but I’d wanted him to know I hadn’t even risked an accident.
He’d recognized my words and demanded to know whether this was a joke or if I was mixed up with the men who’d threatened his friends. The last thing he expected was for me to tell him I was those men. Then I told him why.
I'd left him for last because his particular vulnerability required I reveal my true identity. Or so I’d told myself. But I realized there was more. He was the one I’d wanted to reveal everything to, the one to be my champion with the others. I had realized in watching him, not just with the women who succumbed to his charm, but with the particular woman who didn’t, that Buck was a man who knew how to treat women.
I told him about the woman who’d hired me. I’d already told him about my brother so he understood the hold she had over me. He couldn’t figure what kind of game I was playing. If that woman wanted them all dead, what good would it do just to put them on their guard?
I had to make sense of it to him. Once he agreed to help me, he’d convince the others. The man had a persuasive way about him. I suspected it worked better on women then men, but these men were his friends, likely to trust him.
“I wanted your help. I figured if I told you I’d been hired to kill you all, no one would believe it unless you had reason to know I could have done it. Or you might have thought I was leading you into a trap because I couldn’t kill you myself”
“She showed me the wanted poster on Tanner. Claimed he’d killed her husband and a lot of others. Said some of you were in it with him and the others were protecting him. So there was part of me that thought maybe I’d come here and find you all were a bunch of murdering thugs. Maybe even men I could kill. I want my brother that bad.”
He asked why this woman had given me the Steele novel if she wanted me to believe they were all murderers since the book made them all out to be heroes. A mite exaggerated of course, but nothing that would make them out to be deserving of killing.
“She knew from her detectives that for me that book was just be more proof you were all worth killing. One of Steele’s first novels was about Jake Francis, Jake Francis, Hero of San Gill. Jake Francis came to one of our shows all set to win against our best shootist. They didn’t like his attitude. He was nothing but a bully and a braggart. So they paired him against me, knowing it would shame him to be beaten by a woman. I did beat him. That night he went out to prove his manhood by goading an old drunk into a gunfight. Then he came after me. Snuck into my tent out on the show grounds. Tried to force himself on me. If two of the roust-abouts hadn’t been returning from town and heard me fighting him off, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Buck looked me in the eye as he stroked my cheek and asked if I’d expected him and his friends to be like that. He had a comforting way about him, Buck did. I found myself leaning against him, resting my head on his bare shoulder as I told him the rest of my story.
“Stupid thing was, I read that damn book about you seven and I wanted to believe it. Not that I did. But I sure wanted to. Even so, when I got here, I was expecting to find seven stone cold killers who kept a whole town in fear with their guns. But after I’d been here for a week, I knew everything she’d told me was a lie.”
He asked me facetiously if it was because they were so beloved by one and all.
“Well, I gathered you all have a few enemies in these parts. But I didn’t hear any complaints about corruption against you or that judge who hired you. People generally seem to think there’s less killing goes on here with you around. Or maybe just more of the right people being killed. But I guess what really convinced me, was watching you all together-- and watching Larabee alone.”
He interrupted when I mentioned Chris. Wondered if I’d been smart enough to be afraid of him.
“That’s just it. She didn’t want me to kill Larabee, claimed Tanner was the leader of the Seven. Tried to keep a low profile because he was wanted. She said Larabee was the only one not guilty of anything but Tanner had saved his life so he felt obligated to work for him. Getting the rest of you would not only avenge her husband, it would allow Larabee to get on with his life. She wanted him kept alive as bad as she wanted the rest of you dead. Said if I killed him, I’d get nothing, even if I killed the rest of you. She claimed she didn’t want the blood of an innocent man on her hands, but I knew it was more than that.”
I’d felt Buck’s body stiffen when I started explaining the woman hadn’t wanted Larabee killed. His voice was intense when he demanded a description of the woman and anything else I knew about her.
I described her, then I told him about the papers I’d gone through in her room. “She was using the name Sarah Adams when I met her, but the title to the show was signed over to Ella Gaines Larabee. I figured she must be . . . .”
He didn’t let me get another word out, just ordered me to get dressed. He searched out our clothes from the places we’d so carelessly tossed them the night before and didn’t bother to disguise his impatience when he finished dressing before I did. Helped me do up some of my hooks and buttons. I found he wasn’t nearly as good at fastening as he had been at unfastening.
He dragged me down the stairs, neither of us bothering to pretend I had a bad ankle. Halfway down, he stopped momentarily and ordered me not to refer to the woman as Sarah. That had been the name of Chris’s wife. The woman who’d hired me had hired someone else to murder his wife and son four years earlier.
The only one of the seven in the saloon was Jackson who told Buck that Chris was at the livery with Vin, getting ready to ride out to check on a complaint about some cattlemen pulling down fences. Buck thrust me into a chair at Jackson’s table and told him to keep an eye on me like I was a disobedient dog who wouldn’t stay put when ordered. Jackson was kind enough to get me some breakfast and pretend Buck had meant for him to protect me, not to keep me corralled.
Buck was back in a few short minutes with everyone but Standish. He sent Dunne upstairs to bring him down. Standish followed a minute or two behind Dunne, looking like a man rousted out of bed and none too happy about it. But when he saw the look on Larabee’s face any complaints died unvoiced on his lips.
Larabee waited until Standish was in earshot before announcing that according to Buck, “this little girl" had been hired to kill them all.
I stood up, maybe to show them I wasn’t so little, taller than Dunne anyway. Then I leaned toward Larabee, my arms braced on the table. “Could have done it too. Guess I’ve showed you that much.”
He didn’t blink. He waved me back in my chair. In five minutes he had gotten everything I knew about the woman who’d hired me. He wanted to know why I’d decided she was lying. That was the question I hadn’t finished answering for Buck. I told him what I’d heard around town. But more important was what I’d observed about them.
“She told me Tanner led this pack of killer dogs. You were just riding with them because Tanner saved your life and you felt obligated. But I saw two important things. You weren’t going along with these men, you led them. Course, Tanner wasn’t here. Could have been he was the leader, but in his absence you were and none of them questioned it. Then there was Jackson."
“Now, I know killers can be personable. Any one of you others, even the kid there,” I nodded toward Dunne, “could have been a callous mercenary. But not Jackson. I was looking for the weaknesses in all of you. His biggest weakness is the inability to hide his basic decency. All of you might be good men. In fact, I’m pretty sure you are. But Jackson there, he can’t hide it. Anyone trying to tell me he was a ruthless killer and you were an innocent along for the ride – well they surely had that backwards.” They all smiled a little at that, even Larabee.
The only other thing Larabee asked was if I could ride. I told him one of my stunts in the show was to shoot targets at a full gallop. Yeah, I could ride.
* * *
Buck, Nathan and Josiah were the only ones not still angry about how I’d gone about recruiting them to help me. But how was I to know I could have traded Ella’s whereabouts for their help without having to prove I wasn’t leading them into a trap? Wasn’t like she’d told me the truth about anything. I overheard Buck trying to smooth things over with Larabee, but he wasn’t having it. Even though I hadn’t played my game with him, his anger maybe ran deeper because in his mind I’d put his friends in danger. He accused Buck of going easy on me ‘cause of the night we’d spent together. Buck didn’t have any answer so maybe it was true.
I wanted to talk to Larabee about what was going to happen when he came face to face with Ella. I expected he was planning to kill her. I sure understood that, but I needed some assurances. No way he was going to talk to me about that or anything else though. From what I’d seen of the Seven together, it was Vin or Buck who’d know best what he’d do. But Vin might see talking to me as a betrayal as long as Larabee was still angry and Buck had already been accused of allowing my gender to befuddle his thinking. So when we stopped to water the horses, I took Josiah aside. I apologized again for my trick and shared my concerns about how Larabee would react to Ella. Josiah tried to put me at ease, assuring me he’d examined the way I’d carefully rigged the shotgun so it couldn’t have hit anyone. I confirmed his guess that I’d loaded it with rock salt, not buckshot as a further precaution. He had me believing that although defrocked he might be, he still believed in forgiveness. He thought it likely the only tricks that had really bothered Chris were the ones involving the firearms. Those he’d probably seen as dangerous. He suggested that we talk to Chris and Vin together. If Vin could give him the same assurances Josiah could, it was likely it would thaw him out. He also had an idea of how I could approach Dunne. I had my own idea about how to mollify Ezra.
We both looked over at Larabee. He was leaning against his saddle, staring off into the distance while his horse drank his fill. We waited until Vin joined him then walked over. Larabee gave me an unreadable look – unreadable but for the fact that it surely wasn’t a welcoming one. Josiah quietly explained his view of the harmlessness of the shotgun set up. Larabee just nodded.
I didn’t figure there was any use in talking around something with Larabee so I came right to the point. Told him how I understood him being bothered by how I’d gone about trying to get their help, but I’d been careful not to hurt anyone, just like Josiah had explained. I’d gotten the idea for using the ipecac from a story I’d heard in town about Buck and Ezra using it on a cowboy who’d fed Buck’s horse laudanum. Standish had been more likely to have hurt himself in a drunken fall than from what I did to him. I’d used the same sleeping powder on Nathan that he’d used for others -- admittedly he used it for more benevolent reasons.
"And Tanner was never at risk. People pay to watch me shoot. It was a good shot; he wasn’t in danger."
Josiah had been right. The guns were the sticking point with Larabee. He accused me of showing off. I’d put Vin’s life on the line just to prove what a good shot I was.
I looked over at Tanner. He hadn’t said a word and didn’t look inclined to. "Listen, I used the book because it was a small target. So I was showing off. But I could have done it by shooting his hat off or something else that would have made his life dependent on me shooting true. Or I could have waited and shot the book out of his hand after he picked it up. Hitting the book dead center was a damn good shot. But the way I did it, missing him didn’t take much skill."
Larabee looked up at Tanner. Tanner considered for a moment, then nodded. That was that. Without a word between them, I was forgiven. Then I asked for his word that he’d give me time to get the information out of Ella about my brother before he did whatever he had to do with or to her. He wouldn’t promise anything, but he did say he’d do his best to see that I got what I wanted.
I was able to make amends with Standish in the town where we spent the night. We ate dinner in the burg’s only saloon. Standish got up a little trick shot competition against a man who claimed to be the town’s finest marksman. Once Ezra proved himself the superior shooter, the bets dried up. Then Ezra suckered the crowd into betting he couldn’t teach “that ruffian’s paramour” – pointing to me as I sat wantonly in Buck’s lap – to do one of the trick shots the marksman had failed at. After feigning a few clumsy attempts and letting Ezra whisper a "secret instruction" in my ear, I shot the heart right out of an ace of hearts while looking at it through a mirror. He won a bundle and I didn’t demand a cut. Instant forgiveness.
Dunne was easy after that. I bought him a beer and used the combination of honesty and womanly charm Josiah had said would bring the kid around, especially now that the others weren’t angry with me. What went the furthest toward healing his wounded pride was my assurance that he was almost certainly better at reading people than my success in tricking him suggested. I reminded him that I hadn’t intended him any hurt. If I had, he surely would have read it in my eyes and my demeanor and caught me out before I inflicted any damage. He brightened at that and immediately went off to share that theory with Vin, who, I was happy to hear, assured JD he’d never doubted it for a minute.
When Dunne went off to watch Ezra at the poker table, I sat down next to Vin. He seemed to know I wanted to talk about Ella and for a moment I thought he was going to refuse. Then he leaned his chair against the wall and gave me a look I interpreted as an invitation.
“I ain’t gonna ask you to tell me anything personal about your friend.”
He nodded, as though in agreement, but what he really meant was, he wouldn’t have told me anything personal anyway. He asked how come I was asking him and not Buck. I told him I figured Buck might give me more words, but when it came to telling Larabee’s secrets, he wasn’t going to go deeper than Vin. But I wasn’t sure Larabee would believe that, given Buck’s weakness for women in general. I didn’t want to get him into trouble. Vin gave me a real grin at that, so I felt easier asking my questions.
“This woman you call Ella was using the name Sarah Adams when I met her. Buck said never to mention that name to Chris because those were the names of the wife and son she’d had murdered. If that’s true, how come she ain’t dead or in prison?”
Vin clenched and unclenched his fist as it rested on the table between us. Then he told me how they hadn’t known at first that Ella Gaines was the one who’d hired the men who’d murdered Chris’s family. They just knew her as a woman from Chris’s past. By the time they’d figured it out, they were under fire from a gang she’d paid to kill the six of them. Chris had a shot at her as she escaped but had hesitated long enough that he took a bullet himself and lost his opportunity. Vin had tried to take her down but hadn’t had his long gun and missed his chance too. He’d spent days trying to track her but she’d disappeared.
I figured there was a lot more to it than Vin was telling but I doubted I’d get much of it. “She bought the show using the name Ella Gaines Larabee and she wanted me to kill everyone but Chris. That have something to do with why she had his family killed?"
Vin nodded, but didn’t offer any explanation so I asked him the meat of what I needed to know. “You and Larabee both missed a chance to shoot her down once. You gonna kill her this time?”
Vin shrugged. He didn’t know if either of them could kill anyone in cold blood. He reckoned Chris’d be just as satisfied if she hanged.
“You ever known a woman to hang in the Territory? You got enough evidence to know for sure she would?”
Vin’s eyes told me he wasn’t even close to sure.
* * *
She was eager to listen to my claim of having killed the six men but she was angry with me for returning to the show. I’d been instructed to stay in Four Corners to keep my eye on Larabee. With his friends gone, he might take off and be hard to find.
"If I’d stayed, Larabee would have killed me. I picked off the others one at a time, Tanner first, like you advised. But Larabee was close when I killed Wilmington. He picked up my track. I tried to lead him away from the show but he stayed right on my heels. I had to come here. You’ve got to get him off my back. I saw the papers in your room. I know you’re related to him in some way. You use the same name."
"Chris is here?" She couldn’t contain her eagerness. I’d seen the look in Larabee’s eyes. She should have been afraid.
"I did what you wanted. Just tell me where my brother is and get me away from Larabee."
"Where is he?"
"Can’t be more than an hour behind me, if that. Give me what you promised and enough money to get me out of here."
I had a gun tucked in my belt in back, covered by my jacket. I’d force the information out of her if I had to. She got up and started looking through an armoire. I thought she was looking for what I’d come for, but she pulled out two dresses, walked over to a full-length mirror and alternated holding them in front of her. There was a man headed this way who wanted nothing more than to put a bullet through her heart and she was deciding what dress to greet him in.
I walked over and blocked her view of the mirror. "Just give me what you owe me and I’ll get out of your way." She barely seemed to hear me. She draped the two dresses over a screen and went to her dressing table where she started arranging her hair.
I yanked her to her feet and shook her. "Tell me. Tell where to find him. You can keep your blood money. You can keep this damn job. Just tell me."
She tried to shake me off like I was child demanding attention of a busy mother, but I was too strong for her. Only when she realized she couldn’t get loose did she focus her attention fully on me. I repeated my demand. "Tell me where to find my brother. Then keep Larabee busy long enough for me to get away."
"There’s some money in a strong box under the bed. Take what you want and leave. I have no idea where your brother is. Probably dead."
I pulled the photograph out of my pocket and shoved it in her face. “You said this was taken recently.”
"It was, but he’s not your brother. What chance was there I’d find some kid snatched 12 years ago? You’ve been looking 4 years without any luck. I just sent my men out to find someone who looked enough like he could be your brother that you’d be convinced. You wanted to believe so badly it wasn’t all that hard."
She was lying. Or she was wrong. "Maybe you thought it was just someone who looked like my brother. But you found him. I know this is my brother. Tell me where this photograph was taken."
She gave a short, nasty laugh. "I could find out from the man I bought the photograph from but it wouldn’t do you any good. The man in that picture might be able to pass for 17 but he’s a 22-year-old deputy sheriff in Austin, son of two schoolteachers. Looks just like his father. If he looks like family, maybe he’s your cousin or something."
"You’re a lying bitch. I don’t know why you’re holding out on me but you are. This is my brother."
She nodded toward the bed. "Check the strongbox. They usually offered families a special deal so they wouldn’t look suspicious taking pictures of the young men. Take a look."
I let her go. She went back to her dressing table while I dragged out the strong box. It hadn’t been there when I’d searched the room before. It was locked but the key had been carelessly left on top. She hadn’t been lying about the money; there must have been a few thousand. I dumped the box out impatiently, finding envelopes under the money. The first dozen contained photographs of boys alone and in groups. The boys were all blond, looking to be within a year of 17 and bearing some vague resemblance to the drawing I’d been passing out for the past three years. I finally found another picture of the boy she’d claimed was my brother. He was standing behind a man and a woman seated on straight-back chairs, his hands on the woman’s shoulders. He was a younger version of the man. But for their ages, they were virtually identical. The man had to be his father.
I wanted to cry, but first I was going to kill her. I pulled the gun out of my waistband and leveled it in her direction. She wasn’t even paying attention to me. She was sitting there holding necklaces to her throat, choosing the jewelry to wear when she met the man who was going to execute her. But he wasn’t going to get the chance because I was going to shoot her first. She’d used my hunger to find my brother to persuade me to murder six innocent men. All to isolate a man who hated her. God help me, if I’d been just a shade weaker, I would have done what she’d asked.
I held the gun steady, pointed in her direction. I wanted to pull the trigger. But I hadn’t been lying when I told her I couldn’t kill in cold blood. I stood there with the gun in my hand, willing myself to fire.
I walked over to the window intending to draw the shade. Maybe if I couldn’t see her eyes in the mirror, I could do it. I glanced outside as I reached for the cord and saw a man in a black duster on the boardwalk, leaning against a post. In the shadows behind him, a man was sitting in one of the chairs lined up against the wall. His face was deep in shadow but I recognized the long legs propped up on a box in front of the chair. They’d been wrapped around me only the night before.
I couldn’t see any of the others, but I knew they were out there. I lowered my gun. I had no right to take this from Chris. She’d torn his heart out -- it was his revenge to take if that’s what he wanted. I looked at the woman who’d chosen to use the name Sarah Adams after the innocents she’d murdered, who’d signed documents Ella Gaines Larabee in a pretense of possessing a man whose soul screamed for her death. She’d finished putting on the gown and jewelry she’d chosen and was taking one last look at her hair.
I said softly. "He’s out there waiting."
She ignored the gun in my hand and pushed me aside to look.
She spoke his name so loudly, he heard it from across the street. But she rushed to the door and failed to see the way he straightened, the way his eyes narrowed, the way his hand drifted to his gun. He looked ready, but I wondered. I remembered what Vin told me about the last time he’d her in his sights. He couldn’t pull the trigger. Would it be any easier to kill an unarmed woman now? And if he did, how would he justify it to the law? But if he didn’t kill her, was there enough hard evidence to convince a jury to hang her?
I rushed out of the room and caught her as she reached the bottom of the staircase. She struggled against me until I told her in a harsh whisper. "I didn’t kill them. I didn’t kill any of them; they’re out there. They won’t let you have him. They’re jealous. You go out that door, they’ll kill you."
"He’ll protect me."
"He’ll try, but he can’t stop six men. You know he won’t shoot them. That’s why you hired me. But I know how you can get to him."
She quieted for a minute, but I could see suspicion in her eyes. She was crazy but she wasn’t stupid. "You give me all the money in your strongbox and all the jewelry in that case up there and I’ll help you. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to pay me." Now she was listening.
I handed her my gun. "Use me as a shield until you’re close enough to Chris that they don’t dare shoot. They won’t risk shooting me."
I went out the hotel door just in front of her. She had her arm around my waist and the gun pointed at my chest. She called out to him. "Chris, send the others away. They’ll try to keep us apart. I know that’s not what you want. Send them away so we can talk."
I saw Buck stand up behind Chris, still in shadow but I’d have bet my life his gun was drawn. Nathan was up on the roof two buildings down with a rifle. I turned my head slightly and saw someone out of the corner of my eye, probably Vin, on the roof behind us. All the possible scenarios rushed through my head. She had her finger on the trigger. If I pushed her away, she’d likely fire as she went down. She might hit Buck or Chris or one of them I couldn’t see. Vin could take her out from behind, but he was probably as reluctant as I’d been to take this away from Chris.
She walked us down the hotel steps and into the street. If she got much closer to Chris and Buck, Vin would have to shoot or risk getting them caught in the line of fire. I steeled myself and put my hand over hers on the gun. I forced her hand down before I squeezed. As the gun went off, I fell, giving Chris a clear shot at her. He took it. He took six of them.
The sixth bullet had barely left Chris’s gun before Buck was at my side. He started to grab my revolver out of Ella’s hand, but I stopped him. "Leave it for the sheriff. They see plenty of dead men. A dead woman needs an explanation." He looked at me quizzically but left it. Then he saw the blood. He picked me up and yelled for Nathan as he carried me up to a room in the hotel.
The bullet had skidded across my right thigh and ended up nicking my left foot. Nathan had just finished bandaging me up when the sheriff came into my room to get my story. Buck tried to tell him I was in pain; he’d send for him after I’d rested. I insisted I was okay.
"Buck, could you get me some tea while I talk to the sheriff?" When Buck made it clear he wasn’t leaving, Nathan went off to get the tea, which I hadn’t really wanted. I just hadn’t wanted Buck to hear what I had to say to the law. Now I had no choice.
"She owns the show that’s set up outside town. She called me up to her room supposedly to discuss my act. I’m Alice Midnight you know - like on the poster for the show. Of course Midnight is just my show name. Anyway, she asked to see my gun and of course I handed it to her. She was my new boss after all. Then she offered me $2000 to kill Mr. Wilmington here. The money’s still upstairs in a strongbox by the bed if you want to look."
The sheriff wanted to know why.
"I’m not real clear on that Sheriff. Apparently Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Larabee were here to arrest her. She thought if I killed Mr. Wilmington, she could get away."
The sheriff looked a little skeptical. "Why didn’t she hire a man to kill him?"
"Well sheriff, I know I don’t look like much now, but I clean up pretty good." I looked up at him trying to look more feminine and alluring than I felt at that moment. "Ella was apparently familiar with Mr. Wilmington, or at least she knew his reputation. When he’s in the company of a woman, his brains tend to drop below his belt. She figured I could get closer to him with a gun than a man could."
The poor man was embarrassed at my crudity - the sheriff, not Buck. Buck was trying to contain his laughter. "She was angry when I turned her down. Then she saw Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington from her window. I refused to shoot them so she took me hostage. I tried to get away; she shot me. If Mr. Larabee hadn’t shot her, she’d have shot me again, probably killed me."
After the sheriff left, Vin came in with the tea, then went to stand by the window. Buck knelt beside me, his eyes level with mine, for once the little boy grin gone from his face. He wanted the real story. He knew damn well I hadn’t handed that crazy bitch my loaded gun just because she’d asked for it. I’d gone up there knowing what she was. I was bigger, younger and stronger. No way I’d let her overpower me. So how the hell had I ended up out on the street with a deranged woman holding a gun to my chest. I grinned as I reached over and laid my hand against his cheek.
"If the gun hadn’t been loaded, how would I have been able to work things so I’d need a strong man to share my bed and wait on me hand and foot while I recover?"
It was Vin who understood. He'd had his back to us, but he’d been listening to Buck coax me to explain. We heard Nathan and Chris talking as they climbed the stairs. Just before they reached my door, Vin turned and said quietly to Buck, "She did it for Chris. Gave Ella a gun. Gave her a hostage. She made that woman so easy to kill."
Letting him speak directly violated the challenge
parameters, but Vin demanded the last line.
(Buck was busy.) Midnight
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