This is a fan fiction story based on characters from
Eliza sat at Josiah Peale’s dining table polishing silver, listening to Robbie bounce a ball against the side of the house. She couldn’t help smiling. She so enjoyed her part-time job, for taking care of the little house reminded her of the days when she had her own house and farm. It was odd how the most mundane tasks took her out of herself and gave her a few moments of peace.
The peace was suddenly shattered by a gun blast. She jumped, the fork in her hand falling on the table with a clatter. Her first and only thought was Robbie. She was on her feet and out the door as another shot fired.
She leapt out the door and was further panicked by the fact that Robbie was not where she’d left him. She followed the sound of a third blast to the back of the house. Her breath expelled from her lungs. Robbie was fine, merely watching Newt Call shooting cans off the top of a fence.
She took a moment to compose herself and waved at Robbie to go into the house. When the boy left, she said, "I see your hand is much improved, Mr. Call."
He put down the gun and grudgingly conceded, "Some. Draw’s still not quick as it used to be."
"I suppose you’ll go back to bounty hunting now."
She couldn’t stop a feeling of overwhelming sadness from overtaking her. He must have seen something in her face, because he said, "Why do you care, anyways?"
She tried to smile. "I heard somewhere when you save someone’s life it makes you responsible for them until they die."
"No one’s responsible for me but me." He aimed the gun and shot another can off the fence.
* * * * * * *
Mosby clicked his watch closed and tucked it back into his pocket. He and Ned were standing outside the Ambrosia, having a smoke, a regular activity for them these days. He didn’t know why he kept looking at his watch—Lucinda had mentioned a day, and not a time, when the U.S. Marshal was due in Curtis Wells to arrest the guilty party in the mine fraud.
"You act like you’re waiting for someone, Clay"
He took a puff from his cigar and looked at Ned. Might as well tell the man what was going on. "I’m waitin’ on a U.S. Marshal. Seems someone’s been sellin’ phony shares in the mine. He’s due any time to make an arrest."
Ned’s eyebrows went up in surprise. There was a short pause before he spoke, wounded pride thick in his voice. "Why didn’t you tell me this before? Now that Malone is gone, you should have—"
Mosby put up his hand in a calming gesture. "It had nothin’ to do with trustin’ you, Ned. The fewer people who knew about it, the better."
"I see." Ned looked at him sharply. "So who—"
"I don’t know yet."
"This is a pickle, Clay, a pretty pickle for us and the mine."
"I don’t need you to tell me that."
"No, I suppose you don’t."
There was another contemplative silence. Finally, Ned said, "Well, my mama told me a watched pot never boils, Clay. I suggest we get some work done rather than wait here, making our nerves raw."
Mosby was about to agree when a cloud of dust, indicating horses, appeared down the street. He waited until the two horses and their riders became clear. Something shiny pinned on the vest of the first one glinted in the bright summer sun. He was leading, Mosby realized, a woman dressed in filthy buckskins, her hands tied behind her back. She was young, and as they came closer into view Mosby’s sharp eye detected that she might be pretty if she cleaned herself up and removed the deep scowl from her face. Wisps of hair, probably a coppery red when clean, showed under her sweat-stained hat.
The man had the strong features and definite air of authority that many lawmen seemed to have. He had a dark mustache just beginning to sprout strands of gray and a face deeply lined from time spent out in the punishing sun, rather than from age.
"You Clay Mosby?" the man asked as he brought the horses to a stop in front of the Ambrosia.
"That’s right. Are you—"
"Burton Ellis, U.S. Marshal." He dismounted. "This here’s a prisoner I’d best lock up tight in your jail."
Ned snickered. "She looks mighty dangerous."
Ellis favored Ned with a withering look. "She is, feller. Almost took a chunk outta my arm t’ other night when I made the mistake of givin’ her a fork to eat with."
The girl’s scowl gave way to a satisfied smile, as she clearly remembered the incident with pleasure. That made Ned snicker again, but Mosby noticed Ellis had enough self-confidence to tell that story without any fear that it would somehow make him seem unmanly.
"She’s Lurene Turner," said Ellis. "Part of the Cal Rivers gang. Don’t want to turn your back on that one, nosiree."
Mosby was not interested in the girl. He said, "About your business here—"
"Got to get her locked up first, Mr. Mosby. And I hope the sheriff is about."
"Oh, he’s about. Probably with his feet up on his desk, starin’ into space."
Ellis did not react to that. He merely pulled the girl violently off her horse, then yanked her along by the rope around her wrists. Mosby winced. In spite of her appearance and undisputed criminal bent, he hated seeing a female being treated so roughly. He and Ned followed them to the jail.
As predicted, Austin did indeed have his feet up on the desk. He lowered them as they walked in and stood up.
"What we got here?" he asked.
Ellis explained, then tossed the girl into the jail cell as if she were no more than a sack of potatoes.
"Well, now!" said Ellis, after the door was locked up. "To t’other business I got here."
For some reason, Ellis paused, as if for dramatic effect. Mosby silently cursed him. Just get on with it! Who was it, who tried to defraud the mine?
The man looked at Ned, then at Austin, then back again. "Now this truly pains me, gentlemen. They’s nothin’ in this world I hates more than a lawman gone bad—makes me sick to my stomach, truth be told."
"What’s he on about, Mosby?" asked Austin.
Ellis did not let him answer. "Here’s your culprit, Mr. Mosby. Here’s the man who defrauded people into buyin’ those shares."
He reached over and disarmed Austin with one quick movement. Then he grabbed him by the arms and had him locked in a steely grip.
Austin did not immediately look upset, merely confused. "What the hell is this all about?"
Mosby could not answer right away. Austin—Austin, the perpetrator of the crime? Of such an elaborate scheme to bilk people? He could feel his jaw drop from the shock.
Yet part of him wanted to believe it. Austin hated him, hated him enough to do anything that might hurt him. And was dumb enough to get caught.
"Well, I’ll be," he heard Ned mutter.
Austin still looked confused, though he now also tried to struggle out of Ellis’ grasp. "What shares? What’s this about?"
No one answered him. With the same quick movements he used to incarcerate Lurene Turner, Ellis tossed Austin into the neighboring cell and locked it tight.
"Mosby! You tryin’ to frame me again?" Austin thrust his hand out through the bars, but Mosby easily stayed out of his grasp. Mosby still said nothing, too astounded by this unexpected turn of events. The girl started yowling with laughter, apparently amused to be sharing a jail cell with the town sheriff.
"Hesh up!" yelled Ellis, banging the bars close to her face. He turned to Mosby and Ned. "Guess that’s that, gentlemen. I’ll get myself registered at the hotel and haul these two outta here bright and early tomorrow morning."
"You can’t do that!" Austin pressed himself close to the bars and looked at Mosby and Ned pleadingly. "This is all a mistake, don’t you see? I—"
Mosby had to wonder if it was a mistake, too, the more he thought about it. He turned to Ellis. "What evidence do you have against him, Marshal?"
"Eyewitnesses. Two folk up in Fort Benton swore out a statement that this feller sold ‘em some worthless mine shares," he said, banging the bars again.
Austin asked the question that immediately leapt to Mosby’s mind. "How you know for sure they mean me, if they ain’t identified me, face-to-face?"
"They seen this photograph of you in the newspaper," said Ellis, reaching into his shirt pocket. He extracted a newspaper clipping. He put it in front of them, and they could all see the picture of Austin just after the capture of the Stanton gang that had been published near and far.
Mosby looked at it, then looked at Austin, still not sure what to think. Austin caught the look and said, "You know it ain’t true. You know it! I can see it in your face."
Mosby turned away quickly. Without looking at him, he said, "If you’re innocent, I’m certain you’ll be able to prove it. But the Marshal has to do his duty and take you away for trial."
"That’s right, sonny boy," said Ellis. He reached through the bars and plucked the sheriff’s badge off Austin’s vest. "I hate to see someone tarnishing this." He pocketed the badge.
They left the jail, Austin’s protestations of innocence still ringing in Mosby’s ears. He had Ned take Ellis over to the hotel, while he went to the Ambrosia to think things over. As much as he wanted to get rid of Austin once and for all, this was the last thing he’d ever expected to happen.
It did not take long for him to decide that Austin may have become involved in such a scheme, but he didn’t think it up all by himself. It had Amanda’s stamp all over it. He headed out for the No. 10.
As he’d expected, Amanda had a few choice words for him after he made his accusation. She barely paused while dispensing shots of whisky up and down the bar as she dressed him down for even making such a suggestion.
"Do you really think I’d still be in this hell-hole if I had the money from a scheme like that, Clay?"
"I don’t know. Maybe. You’re that clever.’
She gave him an arch look. "Why, thank you. I guess."
"You know perfectly well Austin could never think up a scheme like that all by himself, and execute it besides. And you and he—"
"Me and him ain’t been nothin’ to each other for quite some time."
Mosby paused, thinking about that. It was true, they seemed to have fallen out a while back. Still—
"And anyways," she continued. "How could I finance an operation like that? It takes a lot of capital to get somethin’ like that rollin’."
"Know a lot about these scams, do ya?"
She shrugged her shoulders, unworried. "Well, yeah. I’ve learned a few in my time. Maybe I told Austin about them. Maybe that’s where he got the idea."
Mosby considered that possibility. It seemed plausible. He leaned in close to Amanda. "I hope for your sake that’s so. If I ever find out it was you—"
"It wasn’t. I ain’t that stupid, Clay."
He eyed her again and decided to leave it at that—for now. He would wait for Lucinda to arrive and give her report. In the meantime, Austin, innocent or not, would be removed as sheriff, and since that had been accomplished without any effort on his part, he was loath to do anything to stop it.
* * * * * * *
Eliza was just finishing up at Josiah’s house when she heard a sound and turned around. She saw Josiah coming through the door, but the greeting on her lips died when she saw the state he was in. He walked in heavy-footed, his shoulders hunched, his brow furrowed with pain.
She put down the utensils she was using and stood up quickly, reaching out for him. "Why, Mr. Peale! Whatever is the matter?"
He sat at the table and sighed. "My son. He’s been arrested by a U.S. Marshal."
"Something about fraud. I don’t understand it. He was doing so well, getting along so fine—I thought, I thought he was finally settling into being a responsible young man, and now this—"
She patted his shoulder, feeling sorry for the man. He was so kind and good, one of the few truly decent people who lived in Curtis Wells. However, that his son was in jail did not in the least surprise her. There was something about him that reminded her of Des—a restlessness, a dissatisfaction with what he had, a need for more and more and more. She’d seen it in his eyes.
Naturally, she would never say these things to Josiah. And Austin did seem genuinely attached to his father, so much so that she had found it impossible to thoroughly dislike him. She tried to think of something encouraging to say.
"I’m sure it’s some sort of misunderstanding." Her tongue could barely make the words sound convincing.
"I hope you’re right." He put his hand over hers. "I’m glad you’re here."
"Shall I find Mr. Call? Perhaps he could sit with you."
"I would appreciate that. I would like to talk to Newt. Perhaps he could ask a few questions, find out what this is all about."
"I’ll look for him."
She set out to find him and sighed inwardly as she approached his favorite bench. At least she didn’t have to ferret him out of one of the saloons, but his life dedicated to lethargy made her furious.
He sat up when he saw her coming, nodding to acknowledge her presence. She sat next to him.
"Have you heard about what’s happened to your brother-in-law?" she asked.
"Is that all you have to say? Don’t you care?"
No response, just a brief shrug of the shoulders.
She sighed again. "Well, the least you can do is be with Mr. Peale. He’s very upset."
"Sorry to hear it."
"Honestly!" She stood up, but twirled to face him before she left. "You should be ashamed of yourself, Newt Call. Josiah Peale treats you like a son. And don’t give me any excuses that you can’t do anything about it because of your hand."
"Just ‘cause I can squeeze off a few shots don’t mean—"
"I see. I’m beginning to think those Stantons must have smashed your brain as well."
She stamped off.
* * * * * * *
Mosby was glad that Lucinda was not tardy in her promise to follow the U.S. Marshal’s arrival with her own. He was right there when the stage came rolling into town and personally assisted her when she disembarked.
She still had that same amused little smirk on her face, though she gave her report in a serious enough manner. It seemed that Ellis had contacted her, not the other way around, and that she had been in the early stages of her investigation when she heard the news that Austin was going to be arrested.
"So you have no proof it was Austin?" asked Mosby.
"As a matter of fact, I spoke to the same two people who identified him to Ellis. They were quite convincing, and I was about to continue on the trail when Ellis informed me of the impending arrest." She settled back in her chair a little. "What’s the matter, Clay? Don’t you believe he’s guilty?"
"I’m not sure," he admitted. "He hates me enough, that’s true. But he’s hardly the sort to pull off a complicated fraud like that—"
"He could have had help."
"Exactly what I was thinkin’."
"Have you a suspect?"
After a few seconds of hesitation, he gave Lucinda an edited version of his enmity with Amanda. He left out as much of the personal business between them as he could, but from the deepening of Lucinda’s smirk he could see she was filling in the details for herself.
"I take that to mean you want me to continue investigating."
"Austin is maintaining he’s completely innocent. If he can convince a jury, then I’m back where I started, and haven’t been cleared of the fraud."
Lucinda nodded. "Very well. It does seem to me the job is only partly finished. I do hate to leave things undone."
She left soon after. Mosby considered himself extremely lucky that she didn’t try to negotiate a higher fee.
* * * * * * *
Call, unable to avoid the disapproving stares of either Josiah or Mrs. Monahan for very long, finally went to see Austin. Naturally, Austin maintained that he was completely innocent of the charge.
Call was in a humor to believe what he said was true. For one thing, Austin’s hatred of Mosby seemed to have tapered off to mild disgust since he had reclaimed the sheriff’s badge and was no longer under his thumb. And like everyone else, Call could not imagine Austin devising or carrying out such an elaborate plan. He might have shot Mosby in the back and been done with it, but the use of such subtle devices seemed outside of Austin’s ken.
Yet there was little that could be done, at least for the moment, and he told Austin as much. Ellis was a respected lawman with a legal warrant for his arrest. He was also not one to stay hanging about in town very long. As soon as the next day dawned, he was ready to transport his two prisoners.
There was quite a crowd gathered in the street. Seeing a sheriff hauled off as a criminal was not an everyday occurrence, and many people were anxious for a bit of novelty in their lives. Call couldn’t help feeling bad when he saw Josiah, the vague look back in his eyes, standing off to the side watching his son being taken away. He spied Eliza looking out of a window from inside the Dove. One time she popped out the door to drag Robbie back inside the hotel to stop him from joining the crowd of gawkers.
Call surveyed the crowd some more and noted that both Mosby and Larkin were missing. Mosby, he was sure, was privately celebrating the downfall of Austin. As his eyes drifted over more faces, he started when he recognized Amanda. There was something about the look on her face—she seemed quite pleased with herself. He supposed that wasn’t too surprising. He never doubted for one moment that their "friendship" was doomed.
After the spectacle was over and the crowd dispersed, he headed back to his bench, but was accosted by Josiah.
"Well what?" He sank down on the bench.
"You’re going to find out what’s really going on here, aren’t you?"
Call groaned inwardly. He knew by now that Josiah would hound him until he did something. And now that he was living in his house, he had an obligation to him. Damn those Stantons! Before, he was obliged to no one, and could do as he pleased.
"I’ll ask some questions," he said, hoping that would send Josiah on his way.
"Soon." When that still did not seem to satisfy Josiah, he stood up and said, "Now."
He headed for the livery, cursing his bad luck.
* * * * * * *
In a lifetime of humiliations, Austin had never suffered a worse one than that scene as he was being dragged out of town as a wanted criminal. He was feeling mighty low, and barely noticed the time that had passed and the miles they had traveled when Ellis stopped, dismounted, then harshly pulled them off their horses.
"O.K., missy," he said to the girl. "I’m a-gonna untie that rope so you can eat and do whatever other business you got to do. And you behave yourself, hear?"
The girl said nothing as he untied the rope, just stood passively. She raised her eyes and looked at Austin in such a way that he briefly wondered what was up. He found out about ten seconds later.
As soon as Ellis turned away from her she moved quicker than a cat. Ellis’ gun was out of his holster and the gun had fired before either he or Austin knew what was happening.
Ellis looked at the girl, a comically surprised look on his face, a red stain rapidly spreading over his shirt. Then he fell to the ground.
Before Austin could say a word, the girl had twirled around to him, pointing the gun. He jumped, thinking she meant to kill him, too.
"O.K., sheriff," she said. "You and me, we’s gonna get a few things straight. Unless you wants to end up dyin’ from a bullet in your belly like this one here." She gestured at Ellis.
"N-no, ma’am. I sure don’t."
"Good. You and me, we’s gonna get along. I can feel it."
She lowered the gun and walked over to him. With a few quick movements she untied him with one hand.
"Go over there and turn him over," she said.
He obeyed. Though Ellis was very still, he could detect some shallow breathing. Looking up at her he said, "He’s still alive."
"That so?" While Austin still knelt by the man’s side she fired the gun again into Ellis’ chest. The noise and the shock blew him back on his ass. He looked at her. She stood over Ellis with a mildly interested look in her face, the gun still smoking in her hand. "Guess he ain’t breathin’ no more, huh?"
"Holy Jesus," Austin muttered under his breath. He scrambled to his feet.
"Hey, you ain’t finished yet with him," she said. "Go through his pockets. See how much money he’s got."
Austin bent over the body again and gingerly went through the pockets. He found about ten dollars and averted his eyes when he came across a worn picture of a woman and a little girl stuck in his billfold. His wife and daughter, he imagined. He shoved it quickly back into the dead man’s pocket.
The girl snorted with disgust when she saw the amount of money he handed to her. She kept her gun on him for a moment and then put it down. "Well, I guess people will think you done this, so I may as well trust you some."
The hair on the back of Austin’s neck stood up as the truth in the girl’s statement sunk in. The fraud charges were nothing. Now he would be wanted for the murder of a U.S. Marshal!
"Name’s Lurene," she said. "Lurene Turner. I’m with the Cal Rivers gang."
"Austin Peale," he managed to croak out.
"Well, Peale, we’d best be movin’ on. When he don’t arrive at where the circuit judge is at, they’ll be sendin’ people out to find us. We have to meet up with the gang, if we can."
"Ain’t most of them already in jail?"
"Yeah!" she spat out. "Some bastard bounty hunter named McInerney found Cal and Barton and took them in. The others are hidin’ out." She looked him over. "Better for me to be seen travelin’ with a man, I guess. You’ll do, I suppose."
She ordered him to mount up. It never occurred to him for one moment not to do exactly as she said.
* * * * * * *
Call doubted Mosby would be interested in helping out with anything that might clear Austin, so he didn’t even try that tack. Austin’s assertions that he was being framed seemed a possibility, and there was always the chance that Mosby himself had done the framing. Call suspected that Mosby had never forgiven Austin for blackmailing him into getting that sheriff’s badge back for him. He wondered if that slick lawyer of his had something to do with it, and remembered that he was originally from Miles City. Start in Miles City, he decided, and from there Fort Benton to see if he could find those two "witnesses."
So it was pure chance that he found Ellis by the road to Miles City. When he saw the body, abandoned exactly where it must have fallen when he’d been shot, Call couldn’t help feeling chagrined at this turn of events. Now Austin was in a whole different class of trouble, and he didn’t know if the investigation was even worth the bother.
He dismounted the Hell Bitch and studied the ground around Ellis. From the position of the body and the tracks, he surmised that it was the girl who had killed him, and not Austin. Not that it would make a heap of difference.
"Damn!" he yelled. He could just kill that Austin. Now he would have to try and find the stupid silly bastard, before half the bounty hunters in the territory found out that he and the girl were on the loose and went after them.
Grimacing from the pain in his hand, which was unused to handling the horse reins, he mounted up. He didn’t like leaving Ellis’ body there for the buzzards but the only chance Austin had to keep his sorry hide in one piece was to keep news of this under wraps for as long as possible. With an apologetic look at the body, he went on his way to find his brother-in-law.
* * * * * * *
Mosby could not help feeling good. In the space of a few days, he had seen two thorns removed from his side: Malone and Austin. Even though he couldn’t rid himself of the doubt that Austin was guilty of the fraud, he knew he merely had to install someone quickly as sheriff and Austin would be either in jail or back to his destined profession as the town drunk.
He smiled as he walked over to the hotel, but the smile died a little as he realized he was back to the same old question: who should he appoint as sheriff? He had to be careful to decide the matter before another election was called. Even so, with Call out of commission, there was no one who could be a threat to his making his own choice.
He almost stumbled as a rather amazing idea formed in his mind. How about Ned for the post? In spite of his protestations at being useless with a gun, he’d seen with his own eyes that he could handle himself in a fray as well as anyone, and certainly better than Austin.
The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He would speak to Ned about it.
He entered the hotel and asked for Mrs. Monahan. He frowned when the girl told him she was out back hanging up the wash. He simply did not understand that woman, and why she insisted on doing the most menial tasks herself.
He went through the kitchen and out the back door. All he could see at first was a sea of white linens waving gently in the hot summer breeze in rows. Some of the sheets in a middle row flew up and revealed her hanging up linens in the back row. He stepped through the forest of sheets and stopped. She didn’t see him right away so he stood there and watched.
Today, probably because of the heat, she had varied her usual mourning black by wearing a white blouse. Though plainly styled, it was trimmed with some very delicate lace, which softened her face. The gentle swell of her bosom had never been so apparent before, and she had also rolled up the sleeves, baring arms for the first time. Her hair was loosely tied to keep it off the nape of her neck, and her long, thick hair swept back and forth over her back as she worked.
He couldn’t help staring. Her movements were so graceful she almost made hanging up the wash look like a elegant dance.
She turned to pick up another sheet from a laundry basket, caught sight of him and started. Their eyes met, and hers clouded over. She turned quickly, digging her hand into her apron pocket and taking out a clothespin.
"We were supposed to go over the books this afternoon, Mrs. Monahan," he said.
She fastened the clothespin over the sheet on the line. "The time got away from me, I didn’t realize it was so late. I’ll be finished in just another moment or two."
Just as he was about to leave she stopped him by calling his name. He walked back toward her.
"I wanted to ask you about what happened to Austin Peale."
"What about it?"
She took another clothespin out of her pocket, but instead of turning to use it, she said, "Well—I know it’s none of my business, but I was wondering—if the Marshal taking him away was the end of it, or—"
"I didn’t realize you were such good friends with Austin."
"Why, I hardly know the man. But I’m very fond of his father, and he’s so upset—"
"He’ll have his day in court."
She cut her eyes away from him and said in a low voice, "That’s more than some people get."
The implied rebuke cut through him like a knife. He cleared his throat and said, "Would it make you feel better to know that I have a private investigator looking into the matter? I’m no more convinced of his guilt than anyone else, I assure you."
She looked up, clearly pleased. "Really? Mr. Peale will be very comforted to know this. With your investigator and Mr. Call looking for the truth—"
"Yes, he’s gone to look for the true perpetrator, too."
This news did not please him at all. Apparently, Call was recovered enough to go back to his old, interfering ways. He did not want him mixed up in the matter, nor did he want him to look heroic in her eyes if he managed to clear Austin’s name. Suddenly, the most important thing in the world was to see Austin cleared. As long as he could not return as sheriff, of course.
She suddenly smiled at him, the first genuine smile he could remember her ever giving him. "That’s so kind of you, truly, to go to that much bother for him."
This surprised and pleased him so much that he was encouraged to take a cautious step he’d been contemplating for some time. "Mrs. Monahan--"
She returned to pinning up the sheets. "Yes?"
"Mrs. Monahan, I’ve been wonderin’, now that we’ve known each other a while, if we could be less formal. Would be all right if I called you Eliza?"
She hesitated, then said, "Of course, you may address me by my given name, if you like. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t."
He smiled. "Good. You may call me Clay, of course."
"Oh, I couldn’t do that."
"It would hardly be proper. No one else who works for you calls you that."
"Why, that’s not so. Ned Larkin—"
"—is your associate and therefore on more—equal footing, I guess you could say."
He sighed. He told her he would meet her inside as soon as she was finished.
She’d done it again. Pointed out lines that must never be crossed. But he was not discouraged. It was as if she were drawing the lines for herself, as well as for him.
* * * * * * *
Austin and Lurene rode through the badlands and were soon close to the outskirts of Miles City. Suddenly, she pulled on her reins and pointed.
"Farmhouse. We’d best get ourselves cleaned up before we get to town."
"To town?" He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. "We’ll get caught for sure in town."
She gave him a look that was a mixture of contempt and pity. "Now, look. No one’s gonna find that body for a while. We got business to attend to in town. All we gotta do is look like a respectable, married couple, and no one will say boo to us."
He looked her over and smirked. Respectable. That was a laugh.
She seemed to read his mind. "Shoot, I’ll just get myself clean and put on a dress and look to all the world like Miss Nelly Nice, you’ll see."
They saw the farmer come out of the house. Lurene reached for Ellis’ gun, strapped around Austin’s waist. They’d argued about that, him pointing out that if she was wearing a gun and he wasn’t it would look mighty strange. She’d grudgingly agreed.
He slapped her hand away. "What’re you doin’? We don’t have to kill no one. That farmer’ll give us food and shelter, hell, he’ll probably give us the shirt off his back if we ask for it."
She pouted. "You better be right."
The farmer caught sight of them and came over. He was a tall man, looked about fifty years old but was probably closer to forty. "Howdy," he said.
"Howdy," replied Lurene. "We was wonderin’ if we could impose on you—"
"Got lost in the badlands," Austin said quickly, hoping it sounded plausible. "We’re out of provisions."
"Why, certainly, young man, young lady. We gets all kinds of travelers through here. Name’s Jim Kemp. My wife Annie’s got plenty of vittles on the stove."
Just as Austin had predicted, the Kemps were hospitable and friendly. Mrs. Kemp cluck-clucked over the state of Lurene’s clothes and had a bathtub fitted up for her out back in no time, and a dress picked out for her to wear from her own wardrobe.
Mr. Kemp provided a razor and hot water, so Austin cleaned up, too. When he was done, he heard Lurene splashing around and stepped outside. He watched her with a smirk on his face. Now that the layers of dirt were removed, she turned out to be quite a pretty thing, and she was a lot younger than he’d first assumed. Her dark red hair glinted in the sun and her skin was pearly white with a light scattering of freckles.
She saw him and scowled, throwing a wet rag she’d been using at him. "Git! And just remember one thing, Peale. I ain’t no whore. Leastways not anymore. Not since Cal brought me into the gang."
"Don’t you forget, darlin’, that I’m supposed to be your ever-lovin’ husband."
"Huh. That’ll be the day."
"Don’t call me Peale in front of the Kemps. That’s all I mean."
"You better. Cal would skin you alive if he found out you tried anything."
Old Cal’s in prison, he said to himself. But aloud he said, "I hear you." After a last look, he went back into the house.
* * * * * * *
Call soon realized Austin’s and the girl’s tracks were leading him straight to Miles City. He stopped at a farmhouse, and was told by the kindly couple who lived there that they’d just put up a nice young man and his wife. From the descriptions, it sounded as though it had been Austin and the Turner girl.
When he got to town, he was relieved to see no wanted posters up for them yet. He hung about a few saloons and kept to himself, drinking whisky and listening to the gossip.
He was at the third saloon, still not having heard a whisper about the death of Ellis. He had just made up his mind to retrieve the Hell Bitch from the livery and move on in search of his quarry when someone gave him a thunderous clap on the back.
He instinctively reached for his gun, but his draw just wasn’t what it used to be. He found himself staring into a familiar pair of ice-blue eyes.
"Now if that ain’t a piss-poor draw—I learned you better than that, boy!"
He put his gun back in the holster and gave his old friend a curt nod. "Good to see you, Red."
"Good to see you, you son of a bitch!" Red McInerney grinned at him. He looked exactly as he had since the last time Call had seen him. His unusual height alone would always make him stand out in a crowd, but the long, flowing locks of carroty red hair and pale blue eyes made him even more conspicuous. "Let me buy you a drink."
"I was just on my way—"
"Hell, least you can do is let me buy you one drink, boy!"
He remembered that few people ever said no to Red, and as he was one of the best bounty hunters in the territory, Call didn’t want to let on that he was in pursuit of two people who were very soon to have a large price on their heads. Acting as though he had all the time in the world, he nodded.
Red signaled the bartender. "Damn, how long’s it been, Call?"
"Two years. Maybe more."
"Heard a lot of good things about you, boy. Guess I learned you good!"
Call reached for his whisky glass with his left hand. Red noticed and said, "What happened to your hand?"
"Didn’t you hear? About the Stantons?"
"Ah, now I recollect. Hell, I heard all kinds of things, like they chopped off your head with an ax. Not that I believed it. You could walk through a wall of fire, boy, and not one flame would touch you."
"This one did."
"Bad luck, bad luck. Ah, but you’ll be back to your old ways, boy. You’re like me, nothin’ can keep you down for long."
It was impossible to get away from him. Red commenced to relive every moment of their acquaintance and tell everyone around them the details of his apprenticeship.
To a bored cowboy Red said, "Boy was a pretty good shot when I found him, but I learned him to be brilliant. Brilliant! Better’n me, even." He turned to Call. "Damn shame about your hand, boy."
He calculated that if Red was as unchanged as he thought he was, it would take him about four hours to pass out from ingesting too much whisky. So he relaxed, drank, encouraged Red to drink, and listened to him reminisce.
He had to wait him out. Austin’s life depended on it.
* * * * * * *
Mosby and Ned stood with UnBob in the undertaking shop, looking at the battered corpse. The buzzards had already commenced doing a pretty horrific job on Ellis. Even UnBob, who was normally unfazed around the dead, swallowed hard a time or two.
"Cover him up," said Mosby, turning away.
Only Ned seemed undisturbed by the sight. "Well! That’s that, I guess. Adios, Sheriff Peale."
Mosby was never so angry with Ned. He looked at UnBob and could see the man was shocked by his callousness. "This is not somethin’ to celebrate, Ned."
"Why not? Peale’s as good as got a hangman’s rope around his neck—"
"Shut up," he growled, then grabbed him and pushed him out the door.
"What’s the matter, Clay?"
All the doubts about Ned came flooding back in a torrential wave. He managed to choke out, "It doesn’t look good to gloat too much at the downfall of an enemy, you should know that."
"It’s just between you and me, Clay—"
Ned laughed. "Aw, he’s just a dummy."
Mosby paused a moment. He wasn’t about to explain UnBob’s unique status in the town, which should have been obvious to Ned by now. Nor did he point out that UnBob would undoubtedly repeat what he’d heard to people like Cleese and Josiah, who knew perfectly well that he was too literal-minded to lie or exaggerate.
"Just shut up about it. I don’t want to hear another word about this."
He left Ned standing there, looking bewildered. Damn, damn, damn! Just when he’d made up his mind that Austin was innocent, and hoped to please Eliza Monahan by being the one to clear him. Now that opportunity was ruined.
He headed out to Josiah’s house, knowing Eliza was likely to be there, as it was her day to work for him. He found them both in the house. Since Austin’s arrest, Josiah had once again abandoned the printing press.
Eliza had been shelling peas into a bowl. She stood up and wiped her hands with a towel. Josiah, who’d been reading, stood up, too. He must have looked as grim as he felt, because she became upset at the sight of him.
"Something’s happened! Robbie—"
"No, Mrs. Monahan. It’s about Austin."
Josiah immediately looked terrified. "He’s not dead? Tell me he’s not."
"Not as far as I know. But the Marshal’s body has been found. I’m afraid he was shot to death. Austin’s and the girl’s whereabouts are unknown."
The terrible, obvious implication struck both people at once. Eliza gasped. Josiah groaned and clutched at his chest, then began to fall over. Both Eliza and Mosby reached for him and prevented him from hitting the floor.
"My son, my son," Josiah said, groaning. "They’ll hang my son. And this time no one will save him."
They managed to sit him down on the settee. Eliza loosened his collar, then fetched him a glass of water. She held it up to his lips. He drank a bit, then fainted.
"I’ll get the doctor," said Mosby.
"All right. I’ll stay with him." She reached over and smoothed Josiah’s hair. "Poor man. If only something could be done—"
"I’ll send a posse out, with instructions to bring them back alive."
"But what if news of this gets out—beyond Curtis Wells?"
Then Austin is as good as dead, thought Mosby. "I won’t let that happen," he said.
She asked, "How long was the Marshal dead?"
"He was found very close to town. At least three days, I’d say."
"It’s probably already too late, isn’t it? Unless Mr. Call has found them."
Another pinprick of irritation went through him, that his name should be brought up again. He said stiffly, "Yes. We’d better hope for that. I’ll be right back with Cleese."
* * * * * * *
Lurene had been good at her word and managed to make herself look for all the world like a farmer’s wife. In Mrs. Kemp’s blue calico and straw bonnet, her arm linked through Austin’s, she blended into the crowd quite nicely.
"We gotta stop at the bank," she whispered to him as they walked down the street.
"I got money in there. If we’s gonna be fugitives, we need a better stake than ten measly dollars."
"All right," he said reluctantly. He was itching to get away, to get lost in the wilderness. There were too many people in Miles City, and if word got out about Ellis, they were as good as caught. "But after that, we head out of town."
They walked over to the banking house, just another young couple on their way to get money for farming supplies.
There was no one in the bank but the teller and the bank manager, so they walked right up to the teller’s window. The teller smiled. "What can I do for you this morning, ma’am?" he said to Lurene.
She gave him a sweet smile back. "You can give me all the money in your safe."
The teller continued smiling, obviously thinking the young lady was making some sort of joke.
Austin felt a shiver of foreboding. "Lurene—"
She poked him in the stomach with her elbow, then raised her hand, holding Ellis’ gun cocked and ready to take the teller’s head off.
She said, "This ain’t no joke. Get the money, or you’re dead."
The clerk nervously looked over at the bank manager, who’d jumped to his feet when he’d heard Austin’s coughing and sputtering. She quickly turned to him and pointed the gun in his direction. "You just stay right where you are, or you and him are dead."
All three men stared at the rock-steady way she held the gun. "Do what she says, Anders," said the bank manager, visibly trembling.
The teller obeyed, and less that two minutes later he handed Lurene a bag full of notes. She forced the bank manager to get behind the teller’s gate and took his key from his pocket, then locked them in. She then turned and pointed the gun at Austin, who was still doubled-over. "You jackass. Jackass! I oughta shoot you dead."
Austin waited for the sound of the gun firing, but instead he saw her turn and run for the door. When she got there she waited and said, "Well? What you waitin’ for, jackass?"
With a sound of disgust she came over to where he was standing and grasped his arm, pulling him towards the door.
"When we get outside, you just walk casual-like, hear?"
"Then we go for the horses. But we don’t ride fast until we leave town. Understand?"
He nodded again.
"I don’t know why I didn’t shoot you," she grumbled. "Sayin’ my name in front of those fellas—was you born stupid?"
The next ten minutes where the most terrifying of Austin’s life. He thought for sure that an alarm would go up, and that an angry mob with lynching on its mind would grab hold of them. But it didn’t happen. They made it to where the horses were hitched, mounted, and were riding out of town without one person trying to stop them.
When they reached the outskirts of town, Lurene kicked her horse into a gallop, leaving Austin to eat her dust. He did the same, and tried furiously to keep up with her.
* * * * * * *
"Hey, boy, wake up!"
Call groaned and turned over. He slowly, very slowly, opened his eyes. His head felt like there were one hundred hammers smashing against his skull.
He sat up gingerly and saw that he’d been lying on some straw in the livery. He started, upset with himself. Not that he hadn’t woken up from a drunken binge in a livery at least a dozen times before, but there was some reason he shouldn’t have this time. What was it?
"Come on, boy, we gots to get ourselves over to the sheriff’s office. Job to do."
Little by little he remembered the night that had just passed. He’d tried to get Red drunk enough to pass out and had only succeeded in doing it to himself.
His eyes grew wide as he remembered why he shouldn’t have done that. Austin—he had to find Austin. Before Red found out—
"Wooo-eeeh!" yelled Red. Call winced as the hammers started pounding again. "We’s gonna get us a big bounty, Call! Five hundred, at least!"
He wiped his hand over his face in an effort to make it feel less stiff. "What—what’re you talkin’ about, Red?"
"Couple of prisoners bein’ transported to trial murdered a U.S. Marshal. Then these two went and—get this, Call—they robbed the bank here in Miles City!"
That brought Call one hundred percent back to reality. What the hell was Austin thinking of, doing something like that?
"They haven’t been caught yet?" he asked.
"Hell, no. Well, come on, boy, let’s head out after ‘em, before someone else gets the bounty."
Call tried to spring up from the straw, but only managed to stagger to his feet slowly. He promptly vomited.
Red laughed affectionately as he watched him retch into the straw. "Boy, this brings me back to when I first knew you. Hardly knew how to piss in a pot then. Thought you’d have learned to hold your liquor better by now."
"Me, too," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He began to feel better. He had to. Otherwise he’d be bringing Austin back to his father in a box.
They walked over to the sheriff’s office. Call did not want to let on that he knew Austin, or his relationship to him, so he did not stop Red from going there to get a description of the two outlaws.
They found the sheriff and one of his deputies questioning the bank manager and his teller. Call knew them, of course. The sheriff’s name was Flynn, the deputy a young fellow named Timson.
"I’m telling you, sheriff, that man was the meanest hombre I’ve ever seen in my whole life!" said the teller.
The sheriff was writing some notes on a piece of paper. "Can’t you be more specific? I can’t put ‘mean looking hombre’ on the wanted posters for a description."
"Oh. Well, he’s taller than most men. Had brown hair and eyes and, I’m tellin’ you sheriff, they were the coldest killer’s eyes I’ve ever seen."
"That’s true," said the bank manager. "Anyone could tell he was a cold-blooded killer just by looking at him."
"According to the wire, he was only charged with fraud," said Timson, who held the wire in his hand. "Kinda strange. Those type ain’t usually violent." He handed the wire to the sheriff, who still did not look at it.
"He must have been the exception," said the teller. "I mean, the man murdered a U.S. Marshal, didn’t he?"
Flynn, a strong-featured man in his forties, looked up and caught sight of Call and Red standing by the door. He smirked and said, "You bounty hunters sure have a scent for blood, I’ll give you that. Well, looks like we’re all gonna get a crack at a rich bounty."
Red and Call approached the sheriff’s desk. Flynn looked at the wire and said, "We’re lookin’ for a man and woman—"
"Woman!" exclaimed Red.
"Oh, she just stood there while the man robbed the bank," said the teller. "She didn’t do or say anything."
"I doubt she’s just his helpless captive," said Flynn. "She rides with the Rivers gang. Her name’s Lurene Turner. The man we want—" He stopped reading. Then he blinked. "Am I readin’ this right? Does this say Austin Peale? Ain’t he the sheriff of Curtis Wells?"
Red, Flynn and Timson all stared at Call, each knowing full well that’s where he was from. All he said was, "Yeah."
Flynn gave the teller and bank manager a sideways glance. "And this is the meanest hombre you’ve ever seen in your life?"
"Absolutely, sheriff," said the teller.
Flynn and Timson turned to each other and broke into laughter. The bank manager and teller both turned pale, looking at each other nervously.
"What’s the joke, Sheriff Flynn?" asked Red. Then he looked thoughtful for a moment and said, "Sheriff of Curtis Wells—ain’t that the pretty boy with no more sense than a goose?"
"That’s the one!" said Flynn, slapping his knee.
"I had me a run-in with him once up by the Canadian border. Tried to take a couple of my prisoners away from me. Didn’t have no trouble handlin’ the likes of him! Hell, my ma was meaner‘n him!"
As the three men laughed at the joke, Call reflected that it was obvious the girl had been the one to hold up the bank. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise him at all if Austin was her virtual prisoner. She sounded like a clever little twist. She had to know that Austin would be blamed for everything she did. Nothing on earth would get the banker and his teller to admit they’d been robbed and terrorized by a young girl. Austin would swing for her crimes.
"We’ll have him back here and in your jail in no time, ain’t that right, Call?" Red gave Call a whack on the back, almost knocking him over.
Call reached up and massaged his shoulder. He was beginning to remember why he stopped riding with Red.
* * * * * * *
Mosby kept his word to Eliza and Josiah and immediately dispatched a posse with strict instructions to bring Austin and the Turner girl back alive. He also gave orders that Ellis’ death was to be kept under wraps until the prisoners were behind bars.
So he was outraged when less than twenty-four hours later he received a wire from Sheriff Flynn in Miles City thanking him for the information on the two fugitives. One of his own men, seeing an opportunity to capture a huge bounty put up by the authorities, must have disobeyed him.
He fumed about it to Zeke, who had stayed behind to man the now-empty sheriff’s office. "I’m tellin’ you, Zeke. The minute they get back here, we’re going to ferret out the turncoat and he’ll share a cell with Austin."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Mosby." Zeke looked worried, as if he was being accused of something.
Ned came into the sheriff’s office. Mosby silently handed him Flynn’s wire.
Ned grinned. "Effective, wasn’t it, my sending that wire? Every bounty hunter in the territory will be after them now."
Mosby felt himself turn red. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Zeke stiffen with fear. "Zeke, get out," he said.
"Yes, sir!" He left quickly.
"What’s the matter, Clay?" asked Ned.
He didn’t hit him. No, there was something about Ned that made him refrain from using physical violence. He merely asked, "Exactly when did you get it into your head to disobey my orders?"
"That no one notify the authorities about Ellis’ death." Then he remembered that Ned had not been present when he gave his men the instructions, and Ned was asserting that fact now. He also started stammering out an apology.
Mosby put up his hand to stop him. "All right. But that doesn’t excuse what you did. Never take action without clearin’ it with me first, you hear?"
"I—I’m sorry, Clay. I was under the impression you wanted to be rid of Peale."
"I was rid of him! There’s no point in buryin’ the man."
"His father is a very respected citizen of this town."
"That crazy old coot?"
"That crazy old coot, as you call him, has quite a lot of influence around here. That’s why I appointed him mayor and that’s why I don’t want it said that I had anythin’ to do with his son bein’ shot dead by bounty hunters."
"I don’t understand something—I’d heard you almost had Austin hanged once—"
Mosby was not surprised that the story had gotten to Ned—it had been on the tongues of the citizenry for quite some time after it happened—but that he would show so little tact by bringing it up now caused even more cracks in his quickly crumbling trust. "That was a different matter entirely."
"I don’t see how."
"That’s not important now! Just don’t ever take any action usin’ my name again. Have I made myself clear?"
Mosby strode out of the office, anxious to see both Josiah and Eliza before news of this became general knowledge. He had to explain that he was not to blame, that Ned had acted without orders.
He knew in his gut that Ned should go, but if he got rid of him, who would he have as an ally? Nobody. So he was determined to correct these little flaws in his character, or else kill the man trying.
* * * * * * *
Austin and Lurene rode and rode, taking only a few breaks along the way. He had no idea where they were going and she was not volunteering the information.
He had to admire her, though. She knew all sorts of little tricks to throw people off their trail, and never seemed to get tired. He thought he would die from exhaustion when she finally stopped. They were in a heavily wooded area.
"O.K., Peale. We can walk it from here."
They dismounted and led their horses through the woods. The deeper they went, the thicker the woods became. Finally, Austin saw a small clearing with a cabin.
"I hope the boys are here," she said. "Better give me the gun, just in case."
After he did so he realized for the first time that he’d outlived his usefulness to her. He became very nervous, though he tried to hide it.
She let out a low series of whistles. After a bit, the door opened slowly and a man holding a shotgun peeped out. The door immediately closed again.
"What the—" said Austin.
"Don’t worry none. They’ll be right out."
The door flew open and three men came out. "Hey, Lurene!" shouted one of them. "We’s thought you was in jail, like Cal."
"I almost was." She grinned and approached them. Austin remained standing where he was, his eyes never leaving the shotgun. When she noticed he was not following her she turned around and said to him, "Well, come on, jackass. You gonna stay outside all night?"
He meekly followed her to the door, but one of the men, who was a filthy bearded cuss dressed only in tattered long johns protested. "Hey, we don’t know him."
"Don’t worry about him, Cody. He’s my fellow fugitive."
"I don’t like this," said another. He was a short, blond man with an overpowering scent of cheap tobacco about him. He was also the one carrying the shotgun. He approached Austin and put it right up against his nose. "Don’t I know you, fella? I’m thinkin’ maybe you’s a lawman."
"Yeah, he was," said Lurene. "Used to be the sheriff of Curtis Wells."
"Are you out of your mind, gel!" said the third one, a dark-haired, middle-aged man. "You brought a lawman here?"
"A fugitive lawman. He was the other prisoner with me."
"Yeah, all the same, I think we should kill him," said Cody.
Lurene shrugged. "Suit yourself. Got anythin’ to eat around here?"
The one with the shotgun raised it. Austin shouted, "Now hold on! Ain’t no cause to kill me. I’m a wanted man, just like the rest of you. Maybe—maybe I could join the gang."
Lurene threw back her head and laughed. "What should we call you—the Jackass Kid?"
Cody scratched his face thoughtfully. "Hey, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. With Cal and the rest of the boys in jail, ain’t too many of us left. We could use some new blood. What do you think, Evan?"
The blond man put the shotgun down. "I reckon we might give the man a try."
"Well, like I said, suit yourself, fellas," said Lurene. "But he ain’t gonna be much use to us."
"He was a lawman, weren’t he? He must be able to do somethin’!" said Evan.
"Can’t prove it by me," she said.
The dark-haired man walked over to Austin and stuck out his hand. "Name’s Fred Corman. This here’s my brother Evan and our cousin Cody."
"How-do," said Austin, taking the offered hand and shaking it. Every bone in his body ached from released tension. He knew he’d escaped death by a hair.
"Come inside. You and the gel must be tired and hungry. When you’s rested up, we’ll make some plans."
* * * * * * *
Since news of Austin’s escape had become known, Eliza spent the few spare moments she had every day at Josiah Peale’s house. The man probably didn’t eat a crumb of food except the meals she brought him, and he spent most of the day in bed, sleeping.
He was asleep at the moment and she was heating up some broth for him when Clay Mosby knocked on the door and peered in.
"Mrs. Monahan, may I come in?"
She put down the spoon in her hand and couldn’t help eyeing him coolly. She had never known anyone with so much nerve. He had lied to her face about trying to find Austin before the authorities or bounty hunters could kill him.
He must have read her mind. He said, "Mrs. Monahan, I have a feelin’ you’ve heard somethin’ that’s not true."
"And what is that?"
"That I informed the Miles City sheriff about Ellis’ murder."
"You had nothing to do with that, I suppose."
"No. I’m afraid—well, to be honest, in a sense I share some of the blame. I told the men I sent to find Austin to keep quiet about it, but I neglected to tell Ned Larkin, and he got it into his head to contact Sheriff Flynn without consultin’ me first."
She was really disgusted with him now. That he should push off responsibility onto one of his underlings—but she said nothing. She couldn’t criticize him without endangering Robbie’s security.
"You don’t believe me," he said.
Still she said nothing, feeling as though she would explode if she didn’t tell him what she really thought. She picked up a towel and bent down, opening the oven and taking out some bread she’d been warming for Josiah’s meal.
As she turned to put the bread pan on the table, he touched her arm and said, "Eliza, please listen to me—"
She banged the pan down on the table. Even though she had told him he could call her Eliza, hearing herself addressed that way after he’d lied to her was too much. She shook his hand off of her and said, "I don’t know why I asked you to help him. It didn’t do me any good to plead to you before, why should you have listened to me now?"
When she saw his face hardening a sick feeling of fear gathered in her stomach. Now she’d done it, now she’d gone too far
"You don’t have such a harsh opinion of Newt Call, though, do you?" he said.
She blinked. How did he get dragged into this discussion? She picked up the bread knife and began slicing the bread, trying to control herself, trying to keep quiet, but it was no use. She said, "I’ll say this for Mr. Call. If he doesn’t want to help you, he’ll just say so to your face. Not say one thing and do another behind your back."
"Yes, we all know Newt Call is a shimmering example of the flower of manhood."
"Whatever he is, he is not a liar."
"Neither am I."
He said this with such conviction that she felt a glimmer of doubt. No, no, she told herself. She would not be fooled. He was the sort to think he could patch over everything with charm.
Josiah staggered into the room. He squinted at them. "Mosby. What are you doing here?"
Eliza took his arm and sat him down on the settee. "Mr. Mosby says he never contacted the sheriff in Miles City."
"I’m afraid my associate took it upon himself to do that, Josiah. I’m as upset as you are over this."
"I’m glad to hear it." Josiah let out a mournful sigh. "What difference does it make, really? Even if he’s brought back alive, he’ll be hanged, won’t he?"
Eliza wished she could tell him that Austin would be saved by some miracle, but she could not. Her childhood belief in miracles and happy endings had been stamped out of her long ago. She knew Austin Peale would be killed by a lawman’s bullet or end his life under a hangman’s rope. There was no hope in this situation, none.
"I’d like to see him again," said Josiah. "I’d like to see my son one more time."
"You will," said Mosby. "And not only that, I’ll do everything I can to get him acquitted."
Josiah’s eyes lit up at this statement. Mosby turned to leave, and Eliza followed him out the door. She called his name.
"I want to apologize for what I said earlier."
He turned. In the early twilight she could see him looking triumphant, as if he’d won an important battle. It irked her that he thought she was so easily swayed.
"I mean, there are certain things that should have remained unsaid."
That wiped the smile off his face. "You still don’t believe me. You don’t believe what I said to Josiah."
"Of course not! I’m not a child, I can see the situation for what it is and so can you. To give that poor man hope when there is none is cruel."
"Austin will be back here alive even if I have to get him myself. I will make certain he is acquitted of all crimes."
"Really? And will you turn water into wine while you’re at it?"
He laughed. "I’d do that too, if I thought it would make an impression on you. Good evenin’, Mrs. Monahan."
He tipped his hat and headed back to town. Eliza stood there, watching him, trying to figure him out and his motives. It was no use—he was unreadable. She went back into the house, because Josiah would need her. Someone would have to pick up the pieces when all the man’s dreams were pulled down around him.
* * * * * * *
Call and Red soon found out that the Turner girl was a genius at throwing people off her trail. They were fooled for a while and wasted time following her false signs—but not for long. Red was a brilliant tracker and had taught Call everything he knew.
Call was getting weary of being in Red’s company. In those early days after Hannah’s death, he’d looked up to him and had eagerly soaked up all his knowledge. No one had been more efficient or merciless at capturing outlaws. Feeling that desire for revenge against all desperadoes fresh in his mouth, he had reveled in and mimicked that at the time. But now Red’s ebullient manner and his assumption that Call was still the green young man who had looked up to him was irritating him. He was also worried; he knew Austin would receive no leniency from this man.
When they bunked down for the night, it flitted through his mind to abandon him and take his horse, to slow him down. But he knew Red too well. He would find a way, somehow, to get to Austin first. The man had too many tricks up his sleeve. Nothing short of killing him would stop him. Call was afraid it would come to that, in the end.
As he watched the glowing embers in the campfire, he cursed Austin and his bad luck again. He was hardly worth the trouble. Still, he couldn’t help thinking how hard it would be to witness Josiah’s final descent into madness if his son was killed. He also couldn’t help anticipating Eliza Monahan’s delight when he brought Austin back. Most of all, he thought about how much it would infuriate Mosby, who’d likely thought he’d seen the last of Austin.
When he fell asleep he had a smile on his face.
* * * * * * *
Austin found life with the gang a lot more pleasurable than he had anticipated.
True, the three men smelled like wet polecats, and their hideout was hardly comfortable. The most aggravating thing was that Lurene kept to herself, and if any of the men got out of line, threatened them with Cal Rivers’ anger if they tried to lay a finger on her.
Austin saw that the three others took that threat very seriously. "Mean cuss, that Cal is," confided Evan while he sorted the stolen bank money into piles. "Even if he’s in prison, he’d find a way to cut your heart out if she told him."
Lurene came over to him and looked at the piles. "You just make sure Cal’s and my pile is the biggest, hear?"
Austin counted only four piles. "What about me?"
"What about you, jackass?"
"I was there when you robbed the bank."
She yelped with laughter. "Yeah, and thanks to you it almost went to hell."
"Now, Lurene," said Fred. "I think he deserves a little somethin’."
"Oh, all right." She peeled a couple of bills off of each pile and slammed them down in front of him on the table.
From that moment on, it was as if he were a true member of the gang. They involved him in all the planning, including a rather ridiculous one to break Rivers out of jail. It was soon apparent that Rivers’ reputation as the brains of the outfit had not been exaggerated. Collectively, they had less smarts than UnBob Finch. Except for Lurene, but they never listened to her, hooting her ideas down because she was a woman.
About two days after he and Lurene arrived at the hideout, he found Cody staring at a bit of newspaper, his mouth seeming to form words as he read.
"Havin’ some kind of trouble?" he asked.
"Naw. I just seen my name here—see? Cody Grant. I can read that. I was just wonderin’ what the rest of it said."
"I’ll read it to you."
"You can read?"
The others picked their heads up and stared at him. He said, "Sure, of course. Can’t any of you?"
"Shoot!" said Lurene. "Who needs book learnin’?"
"Cal’s pretty good at readin’ them books," said Evan. "He was readin’ all the time. And he’s the smartest man I know."
"There’s smart and then there’s smart," said Lurene. She jerked her thumb at Austin. "I wouldn’t be callin’ him no genius, if I was you."
"I don’t know, gel," said Fred. "I knows I’ve been kinda made leader here ‘cause I’m oldest, but I never been leader of nothin’ before. Maybe Peale here would like to be our leader—until Cal gets back, of course."
"Are you out of your ever-lovin’ mind?" cried Lurene. "Y’all are stupid for sure if you make him our leader!"
Fred ignored her, and the other two men were agreeing with him. "Well?" said Fred. "You wanna, or no?"
It was the proudest moment of Austin’s life. He tried not to show it though. "I’d be honored, fellas," he said humbly.
"I don’t believe this," groused Lurene.
"Oh, you hesh up, gel, and leave this to the men-folk to decide."
"We are doomed. Doomed!" she screamed, slamming out the door.
"That’s why I don’t like gels ridin’ with us," said Fred. "Get too emotional all the time."
Austin said nothing, just sat there feeling all puffed-up and triumphant. If only all those who looked down on him in Curtis Wells could see him at this moment. Appointed leader of one of the most feared gangs in the territory! His luck had turned, he was sure of it.
* * * * * * *
Mosby summoned Ned to his office. He was still very irked with him, but decided to give him a chance to redeem himself.
"If Austin Peale is brought back here—when he is brought back—I want you to defend him," said Mosby as he poured them each a whisky.
For once, Ned had nothing to say. The easy grin was completely erased from his face.
"Did you not understand what I said?" asked Mosby.
Ned’s face suddenly cleared, and the grin was back. "Oh, I getcha, Clay. You want me to throw the case, to ensure his conviction."
"Quite the contrary." He shoved a whisky glass in front of Ned. "I expect you to get him acquitted of all charges."
"I already explained that to you."
"Still and all—"
"Never mind. I just want you to do it."
Still looking confused, Ned took a quick sip of whisky. "It’s going to be difficult. He killed a U.S. Marshal, after all."
"Then we’ll bribe every judge and potential juror in the territory, if we have to."
"Why are you going to all this trouble for the man?"
"Ned, I don’t think you fully understand our workin’ relationship here. I tell you what to do, and you do it. You don’t take it upon yourself to make decisions, and you certainly don’t question my orders."
There was an oppressive silence, and Mosby thought he saw a glint of rebellion in Ned’s eyes. So he pressed further.
"I have to admit, my confidence in you has been shaken in the past days. I’ve been rethinkin’ our association."
That caught Ned’s attention, who obviously had not considered himself in any danger. "But, Clay—"
"You can redeem yourself in my eyes if you accomplish this for me." He reached into his pocket and withdrew the sheriff’s badge. "And if you are successful, I will reward you with this."
He put it on the table. Ned stared at it, his eyes widening.
"You want me to be sheriff?" he asked.
"If I feel you’ve earned it, yes. But you must gain Austin Peale’s freedom first."
Mosby could see a myriad of emotions cross Ned’s face—surprise, delight? Something else, he didn’t know what.
"I don’t know what to say," said Ned.
"You’re not to say anything. You’re just to do it. When you do, you become sheriff—and the second most powerful man in this town."
The grin was back in full force. "It’s as good as done."
Mosby smiled back. "That’s what I like to hear. Have another drink."
He poured them each another whisky.
* * * * * * *
By the time Call and Red found the hideout the gang had already moved on. Red fumed and cursed.
Call searched around the ramshackle cabin. He bent down and looked inside the stove, where there were some embers still glowing. "They can’t be far off. Fire’s not completely out and stove’s still warm."
He looked around him. If they had found the gang, there likely would have been a shootout, and Austin would have probably been injured or killed. He decided it was time to come clean with Red.
"Let’s mount up, boy, and get ‘em."
"Before we go—"
"Time’s a wastin’." Red opened the door.
"I know—but that Peale fella—I never told you this, but he’s kin to me."
Red turned. "You’re jokin’."
"He’s my brother-in-law. I mean to bring him back alive."
Red scowled. "Now ain’t this a fine time to tell me! There may not be a way to bring him in alive, you know that."
"Just the same, I’m goin’ to. And you ain’t gonna get in my way."
Red slammed the door closed. "Now, look, you little pup—"
"When you gonna realize I ain’t like you no more, Red!
Call was surprised to hear himself say that, but he knew it was true. The feeling that had been building up in him over the past few days finally broke through the surface. He could no longer kill indiscriminately, as Red could, whether the target was Austin or a total stranger. He knew even if he could shoot as well as before, he had lost his taste for the whole damn way of life.
This revelation made his knees shake. He felt as if he was about to spin off the world.
"Of course you ain’t like me no more," said Red. "You’re just broken-down saddle trash now, ain’t ya? No good to me or you."
His fist flew through the air and caught Call right under the chin. Red may have been older, but he was taller and outweighed him by quite a bit, and managed to send him sailing half-way across the room. Call crashed into a chair and flipped over it. He lay on the floor, tangled in the chair legs.
Red stood over him and aimed his gun. "Don’t make me kill you, boy. I’d hate to do it, but you know I will."
"I know it," croaked Call. He didn’t move.
Red continued standing over him. "Damn shame, boy. You were one of the great ones, like me. Destined to be a legend. Now you’re nothin’."
He put his gun away, then bent over and roughly grabbed him, bringing him to his feet. "You ain’t nothin’ without me now, anyways. With that hand—it was just a kindness bringin’ you along."
Call’s head was still ringing from the blow. "I reckon it was."
"I’m gonna tie you up and leave you here. That oughta do it. But first—"
Red hit him again, with a force strong enough to knock him out. He quickly lost consciousness. But not before he thought of Hannah, and how he had failed her once more by not being able to save her brother.
As he blacked out, two tears fell down his face.
* * * * * * *
Austin’s first order as leader of the gang was to move them all out of the hideout and head for Canada. He figured Ellis’ body had been found for sure by now and every bounty hunter and lawman in the territory was likely coming after them.
Lurene pouted, but agreed that he was probably right and said she didn’t want her and the other boys caught in the crossfire when the law descended on Austin.
She rode with him, the other three men staying a respectful distance behind. "Why didn’t I shoot you in Miles City? Why?"
"You know somethin’, Lurene?" said Austin. "I’m gettin’ awful tired of that mouth of yours. Maybe me and the other boys will just leave you here."
She glared at him. "You just try it, jackass. When Cal finds out you done that to me, he’ll—"
"Cal’s in jail and is goin’ to be there for a long, long time. You’d best face that fact. And face the fact that the rest of the fellas ain’t gonna want to follow a leader who ain’t here."
"You’re gonna be sorry you spoke to me that way." She spurred her horse and rode ahead of him. She soon put a great deal of distance between them.
Fred rode up close to Austin. "Gels is too emotional, Peale. We oughta find a place to leave her. She’s just more trouble than she’s worth."
"I think you’re right, Fred."
Fred looked proud that he’d come up with something the new leader approved of. Austin couldn’t help grinning inside, reveling in his new-found power. He would be the greatest gang leader in Montana history. He and his boys would be legends in their own time. They would hold up banks all over the place, and live a life devoted to pleasure. Women, gambling, whisky, buying anything that struck their fancy. Their exploits would be written up in newspapers far and wide, and they would be both feared and respected. They—
A shot suddenly rang out. Austin looked quickly to the side and saw Fred crumple and fall from his horse.
Two more shots. Another look behind him showed him that Cody was slumped forward in his saddle, a red stain spreading over his shoulder. Evan had abandoned the road and taken off through a field. The gunman was going after him, his gun pointed and ready.
Realizing it was a lone gunman, Austin knew his only chance was to take off in the opposite direction, which he did.
He heard Lurene behind him yelling, "Peale! Peale! This way!"
He was too scared to stop. Besides, he took her recent threat to him seriously. She’d obviously been put out by him being made leader and might decide to help the bounty hunter capture him, then throw herself on his mercy as a helpless, victimized female.
He sensed her coming closer and urged his horse on faster, but she managed to catch up with him and grabbed his reins, pulling them with a hard yank.
"What you doin’?" he screamed. "Didn’t you see what happened back there?"
"Jackass," she hissed. "You’re headin’ straight for a cliff. Keep goin’ this way, and he’ll corner you for sure."
He looked up and saw that what she said was true. He felt his heart race and a sickening lump of fear deep in his gut. Hell, if she hadn’t stopped him he just might have ridden off the cliff and into oblivion.
"Come on, or do you want that bounty hunter to get ya?"
She took off again. This time he followed her.
* * * * * * *
Amanda was furious to find Ned in her tent, and immediately commenced bawling him out.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to risk this no more, Ned?"
"Simmer down, sweet pea. We’ve got some talking to do."
"Talkin’? You sure that’s all you came here for? ‘Cause if it ain’t—"
Something about the expression on his face made her stop. She had never seen him look so serious. "What is it, Ned?"
"Why’d you tell me Mosby hated Austin Peale, and would be glad when he was charged with the fraud?"
"’Cause it’s true."
"I got news for you. He just told me—hell, ordered me—to defend him against the charges and get him acquitted."
"That ain’t a funny joke, Ned."
"It’s no joke."
She shook her head. "I just can’t believe he’d want to do that for Austin. Did he give you a reason?"
"Some guff about his father being a respected citizen of town."
She snorted out a laugh. "That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard."
"I’m worried, sweet pea. I think this whole situation is about to blow up in our faces. Maybe this is some kind of test—"
"He said he was rethinking our association. Why, unless he suspected something?"
She shook her head, thinking. This was a most unexpected turn of events. She had never been more confident about a con before than the way she had set up Austin. The murder of Ellis had been an unbelievable stroke of luck, she knowing that nothing and no one would be able to save Austin’s sorry hide, and he would likely hang without anyone bothering to investigate the fraud further. She and Ned would have been in the clear and rid of Austin forever. That Mosby should suddenly take it into his head to get Austin acquitted was incredible. It made no sense whatsoever.
"Look, Ned. If he knew you was really workin’ with me instead of him, we’d both know it by now and be runnin’ for our lives. You know somethin’? I don’t think this is really a problem. Any lawman or bounty hunter worth his salt will find Austin and probably gun him down on sight."
"Hmm. Well, there’s another thing I need to mention—" Ned started to laugh, looking more like himself. "You know how Mosby plans to reward me if I get him acquitted?"
"A big fee, I hope."
"No. He’s going to make me sheriff."
Ned roared. "Won’t that be something? Me? The sheriff?"
Amanda felt another twinge of foreboding. Though she could appreciate the irony of the situation, she still wondered if Ned was playing two ends against the middle.
"I wouldn’t count on it, if I were you," she said. "The chances of Austin survivin’ the next few days is mighty slim."
"Maybe so. But Mosby’ll still need a sheriff. And if I can get back into his good graces—"
"Why ain’t you in his good graces, anyways?"
"I told you—I don’t know."
That bothered her, too. She didn’t believe him and wanted to know what he was doing behind her back. But all she said was, "Clay has a way of turnin’ on people, does it all the time. Guess it’s your turn now."
"If you’re right and he doesn’t suspect my association with you, I can smooth the problem over. Can’t you just picture all we can get away with if I’m in the sheriff’s office?"
"Yeah. It’d be great."
"So why don’t you smile?"
She grimaced a little. He leaned close to her.
"Now, how about a kiss?" He puckered his lips.
"Get out of here!"
She shoved him through the opening of her tent.
* * * * * * *
Call slowly came to. It took a few moments to rid his head of the cobwebs. He tried to move, but soon realized that both his hands and legs were tied to the chair he was sitting in.
It was still light out, so he knew he hadn’t been unconscious for long. Perhaps there was a chance to stop Red. He tried to struggle his way out of his bonds, and was making a little progress with the ones on his wrists when he heard a horse whinny.
His heart leapt with hope. Perhaps Red had left the Hell Bitch behind. He thought it possible; taking the mare with him would only slow him down in his pursuit of the gang. Then he heard the voices of several men.
"Hey, Jeb!" he heard someone say. "Ain’t that Call’s horse, the Hell Bitch?"
"I think so."
Voices became a murmur. Call realized the men must be some of Mosby’s crew, and his heart sank again. Damn that Mosby—couldn’t he have just left Austin to his fate without trying to bring about his end himself? Vicious bastard. He waited for them to come through the door and braced himself for another conk on the head.
The door flew open and six of Mosby’s men stood before him.
"I told you, Jeb. Told you it was Call," said a fellow Call knew as Chase.
"We better untie him," said Jeb.
"Hold it!" said another. "Better not. Mosby’ll be mad if Call kills Peale."
"He ain’t gonna kill him, peabrain," said Chase. "Not his own brother-in-law."
If they had been speaking a foreign language, Call wouldn’t have found the conversation more incomprehensible.
Jeb stood in front of him. "Now look, Call. You understand somethin’. We gotta bring Austin in alive. Those are Mosby’s strict orders."
"M-Mosby wants him back alive?"
"That’s right. You agree to that, we’ll let you come with us. Truth be told, you’re a better tracker than Chase."
"Hey, now, just a minute—" protested Chase.
"He found this place before you, didn’t he?"
Call decided he would try to figure this all out later—the clock was ticking on Austin and he had to get to him, quick. "Like you said, I’m his brother-in-law. Ain’t about to kill my own kin."
Jeb fell to one knee and began to untie him.
* * * * * * *
Austin and Lurene finally stopped. They dismounted their horses and walked up to a ridge, looking down the valley they’d just come through.
"Damn!" yelled Lurene. "I see that bastard bounty hunter. He’s been close behind us the whole way."
She sat down on a small boulder and removed her pistol from its holster. She cocked it.
"What you doin’?" he asked.
"What does it look like, jackass—I’m gonna kill him before he kills us."
He sat next to her. "You’ll never hit him from here."
"I know that. I’ll wait till he gets closer."
Austin never felt so weary in his life, and he didn’t want the killing of a bounty hunter on his head, too. "Lurene—maybe we should just surrender."
"Are you out of your mind?"
"Look. He’ll have to get awful close for you to get a shot at him with that thing—"
"Don’t worry, I won’t miss."
"Then we go to Canada, like we planned. If you don’t want to go with me, all right by me."
Austin considered. He knew even if Lurene killed this bounty hunter, there were others following behind him. On the other hand, to surrender almost certainly meant facing the gallows.
He decided it would be better to go out in a blaze of glory. He took out Ellis’ pistol and tried to set the bounty hunter in his sights.
"That’s better, jackass," said Lurene.
* * * * * * *
Mosby must have found his boys the fastest horses in Curtis Wells. Between them and the Hell Bitch, they made up an enormous amount of time.
They found the three dead gang members scattered in a field, but there was no sign of Austin or the girl. Call insisted that they not even pause, and urged the Hell Bitch to go even faster. Time, he was running out of time—
He could tell from the tracks that Red was in hot pursuit of Austin and the girl. When he finally caught sight of Red, he told the six others to whip around a ridge he saw up ahead.
"I think Austin and the girl are probably up there, somewheres. We gotta cut them off. I’ll take care of McInerney."
"You sure, Call?" Jeb’s eyes flickered to his hand.
"I’m sure. Just get Austin and the girl, don’t mind me. Whatever happens, take them back to Curtis Wells safely."
Jeb nodded and led the others away.
Call sped off after Red.
He soon caught up with him and shouted out his name. The man turned, the look of surprise on his face almost comical. He pulled his horse’s reins and stopped. Call did the same. The horses breathed hard from the long, hard ride.
Red looked more amused than angry. "Haw! Haw! Guess I underestimated you, boy."
"Guess you did."
"Now, why don’t you be a good fella and run along, Call?"
"Can’t do that, Red."
"No, I reckon not." Red looked him over. "I gotta kill you to get you off my tail, don’t I?"
"You can try."
"Oh, I’ll do better than try." Red whipped his gun out of his holster and cocked it. "Move on Call, now. Git!"
Call just stayed where he was and didn’t move. Red squeezed out a shot into the ground near the Hell Bitch’s hooves.
He blessed her steady nature, she barely flinched. He stayed as motionless as she.
Red cocked the pistol again. He aimed it straight at Call’s heart.
The next few seconds seemed to last an eternity to Call. Finally, Red lowered his arm.
"Goddamn you," said Red with a sigh. "You know I can’t kill you, don’t you, boy?"
"I was sort of countin’ on it."
"Haw! Haw! Can’t imagine a world without you, that’s a fact." He put his gun back in its holster.
"I just want to bring in Austin alive. That’s all I ask," said Call. "You’re welcome to any bounty."
"Oh, all right. This’ll just about destroy my reputation, you realize that?"
"Or make it."
"Austin Peale ain’t worth wastin’ a bullet on. He’s hardly a dangerous desperado. The girl probably did everything he’s accused of."
"How do you know that?"
"I got a good idea. I know him pretty well, after all."
"Yeah, well, if he tries to shoot me, I’ll shoot back."
"If he tries to shoot you, I’ll shoot him myself." In the arm or the leg, he thought.
He explained about the posse as they rode closer to the ridge. Just as he was finished telling him, shots began to ring out.
They both slid off their horses and hit the ground, crawling behind a rock as shots continued to ring out. "I told you, Call. I told you he’ll try to kill us."
"Posse’ll get ‘em before they can. Austin’s not too good a shot. Don’t know about the girl."
"Hell, ain’t no girl in the world can get the best of Red McInerney." Just as these words came out of his mouth, he yelped with pain and fell back.
"Red? You O.K.?"
Red touched his left arm, blood coming away with his hand. He stared at it. "She got me. The little bitch got me!"
Call tried very hard not to laugh.
* * * * * * *
Austin grabbed Lurene’s arm. "Stop!"
"Let go of me, you son of a bitch!" She tried to wrest away from him, but he kept his grip tight.
"That’s Call down there, my brother-in-law. Ain’t gonna let you kill him."
"Jesus and Mary, how did I ever get stuck with a jackass like you! I shoulda let you go over that cliff. I should—"
A voice behind them said, "Hold it right where you are, missy."
They both turned around and saw six men holding shotguns.
Austin dropped his gun. With a steady flow of curses coming out of her mouth, so did Lurene.
* * * * * * *
Eliza was returning from the general store carrying a basket of purchases when she saw the posse return to town. Her face lit up with joy when she spotted Call riding at the head of the pack, and Austin and the girl among them.
The posse rode straight to the front of the Ambrosia, where Ned Larkin and Mosby were standing, having their usual afternoon cigars. Eliza crossed the way so she could greet Call.
"Oh, Mr. Call," she said in a breathless voice. "You will have made your father-in-law so happy."
"Yes, Mr. Call," said Mosby, his voice fairly dripping in sarcasm. "I see you’re back to your old ways at last."
"I ain’t bounty huntin’ no more, Mosby. Just helpin’ out a friend—friends." He looked at Eliza when he said this, and she felt herself blush.
"Speakin’ of friends," he said, looking at the amazingly tall red-haired man next to him who had one arm in a crude sling. "Most of the credit goes to Red McInerney. And the bounty, too."
"And my men?" asked Mosby.
"Couldn’t have done it without ‘em," Call said in a grudging voice. "They deserve a reward, too."
"Oh, they’ll get one, I assure you," said Mosby.
Two of Mosby’s men took Austin and the girl off their horses and led them to the jail.
"I will find Mr. Peale and tell him the good news," said Eliza.
"If you don’t mind," said Call, dismounting from his horse. "I’d like to do that myself."
"Of course," she said, smiling. "Thank you, Mr. Call. Thank you so much."
He nodded, then followed the rest to the jail. She glanced at Mosby, who had a look on his face of such profound displeasure she assumed that for all his talk, he was not the least bit happy that Austin had been brought in alive.
She frowned at him and turned away, making her way back to the hotel.
* * * * * * *
Mosby could not believe how badly it had all turned out. Oh, yes, Austin was back safe and sound, but Call had gotten all the credit, at least in Eliza Monahan’s eyes. And from that look she’d just thrown him, it was obvious that her estimation of him had sunk even lower.
He turned to Ned. "You get him acquitted, understand? I don’t care what you have to do."
"I will, Clay."
They went back into the Ambrosia.
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