The Last Warrant

Darrel Sparkman
Oct 25 · 55 min read
Steve-759550 / Pexels

Luke Rawlings is tired of chasing killers and wants to retire to his ranch and raise horses. If he can stay alive. But he is missing something. He finds her in Joplin Missouri.

By Darrel Sparkman

A column of smoke and the hope of a good meal led Marshal Luke Randall toward a flat-roofed building sitting on the prairie, with nothing around it but a pole corral and water trough. Drying racks set up next to the cabin told him it was a trading post, although the only thing locally he could think of to trap would be muskrats and maybe squirrels. One of the racks held coyote and fox pelts. Guess that’s why he wasn’t a trapper. He’d starve.

It was common for places like this to crop up every few miles in the Indian Nation or Oklahoma Territory. Folks were divided on what to call this part of the country.

He approached the store with a prisoner in tow and tied to the horse behind him. Lem Hawkins wasn’t a bad man, just not particular about ownership when he needed a horse. To give him credit he’d come along peaceful when found. Most would have fought it out, knowing a hanging was possible for stealing a horse. Naturally, Lem would try to escape given any chance and probably take Luke’s horse with him.

As they stopped, a couple of dusky men dragged a body from the ramshackle building made of mud and saplings. A cookfire burned inside but didn’t need a chimney. There were enough holes in the roof to let the smoke out. A piece of canvas sufficed for a door and wouldn’t last any longer than the building in the next windstorm.

“What’s happened here?” The Indians ignored his question, not unusual for the place and time. Whites weren’t well liked in the territory, especially those who wore a badge. The men looked Choctaw but wasn’t sure. Their long hair was braided and stuffed under flat crowned hats, both with a single feather. Other than that, they looked like any other cowpoke loitering around a store. Everyone dressed about the same anymore and the tribes mingled freely.

Finally, one of the men gave him a sour expression. “Taking out the trash.”

Luke dismounted with a grunt, hands at the small of his back trying to stretch the kinks out. He pointed at Lem. “You stay put. If I so much as hear your horse pass wind, I’ll come out shooting.”

Shaking his head, the horse-thief grinned and hooked a leg over the pommel of his saddle. “Go do your duty, Marshal. Bring me back a biscuit or something. I’m hungry.”

Inside the dim interior, another dead man lay on the floor with his pockets turned inside out. Luke leaned on a counter made of rough-cut planks laid across wooden crates. Looking closer, he decided to put his elbows some other place. Fresh pelts graced one end and they were leaking.

The same two men came in and grabbed the body, one man to a leg, and dragged it out the door — head thumping as it went across the threshold.

A bald, fat man holding a dirty apron came out of another room followed by a woman. Daylight wouldn’t be kind to either of them. He’d read a short piece awhile back, published in a paper from back East and written by a man named Poe. It was frightful. These characters leaped from his story.

Luke moved the front of his vest aside to show his badge and pinned the man with his gaze. “Are you the owner?”

Baldy gave a wary nod but offered nothing else.

Luke kept an eye on that back room. This wasn’t a place where you’d turn your back on anything. “So, you got a story to tell me?”

The bald man shrugged and grimaced at the effort. “Not much to tell. Man came in and robbed me. Got forty dollars in gold and took a bottle of good whiskey. Then he hot-footed out of here.”

Nodding and trying to see into all the dark corners, the comment struck him as odd. Which was worse? Losing the money or the whiskey? “If it’s so simple, how’d those unfortunate souls get dead?”

“Well, Johnny took a shine to Ella and wanted a quick visit with her to the back room. Those gents that died had already paid their money and objected.”

Glancing at her, the dim interior hid more than it revealed and what it did show wasn’t too likable. One end of the room had shelves with dried goods and those new air-tight cans, mostly peaches from the looks of them. A couple of tables with chairs graced the floor. He went to a table and sat down with a sigh. “You called the shooter Johnny. Do you know him?”

The motley pair moved toward the table and he wondered why they were so skittish. It was a tossup whether they’d stay or bolt from the room.

Baldy finally spoke. “Yeah, it was Johnny Ruskin. He’s been through here a time or two, always bragging it up how bad a man he is. Never expected him to rob us. I thought we were friends.”

Ella moved closer and her fragrance was not something to brag about. Her face was graced with spots and a big nose that eclipsed her other features. Limp, dark hair fell to her shoulders and the unwashed odor assailing his nose didn’t help her appearance.

“You going to get that money back, Deputy? Half that forty dollars was mine.”

Luke pulled a blank warrant from an inside pocket and smoothed it out on the table. He took a quick glance at the woman. “You charged twenty dollars?”

She shrugged. “They had money to spend and I was in a mood to take it. It’s what they call a seller’s market.”

Smoothing down the front of her low-cut dress showing a freckled chest, she gave him a pointed look. “You’re a good-looking young man, got some size on you too. I’m still in the mood and I might cut you a deal on that price.”

He glanced at her — good looking he was not. The scar under his right eye and crooked nose might pass for an interesting face at best. How crazy and hard up would he have to be to go down her road? He’d heard a man screaming once as a doctor gave him the cure for something picked up from a local soiled dove. He shook his head, not surprised at his sudden chill.

“Thanks for the offer but I’m going to pass on that.”

Finding the witness portion of the warrant, he pointed to the man. “What’s your name?”

Scuffing his moccasins on the dirt floor, Baldy finally glanced up. “Ed Pearce. Her name’s Ella.”

“You told me that already.” Luke sighed and looked at her. “Do you have a last name?”

“Yeah. Somewhere. I’m easy to find if you need me.” She rolled her eyes at the question, trying to adjust something under her dress and give him a show at the same time.

After looking at her, he wondered if he could wash his eyes. “Do either of you know the names of those poor departed souls your men took outside?”

The two conspirators glanced at each other before Ed gave a grudging answer. “Nope. Nothing in their pockets, either.”

“Well, that’s kind of odd, don’t you think?” Now he knew why they were nervous. Staring at them a moment, Luke shook his head. It didn’t take much imagination to know where all the earthly goods belonging to the dead men went. Guess it didn’t matter, too much. If he arrested everyone here, he’d be leading a parade around the country. He’d put it down as burial expenses. He wrote down Johnny Ruskin at the top of the paper followed by the murder of two unknown men.

“What’s this Ruskin look like?”

Ella sidled up to him. “He’s about your size, wears all black clothes — prettiest brown eyes you ever saw and real soft hands.”

“You got a description I could use in a saloon without getting the daylights beat out of me?”

“Well.” Her thought process looked painful. “He’s slick. A smooth talker, you know?”

Her gaze settled on him. “Not like you. I mean, you got those blue eyes, broad shoulders and square chin going for you but you’re hard looking — like you bit into something sour. Maybe you need to relax some. What about a free ride?”

“Ella….” The bald man’s head swiveled so fast he risked breaking his neck. “She didn’t mean that.”

If he’d stepped into someone’s rehearsal of a poor one-act play, it might have been funny. So far, it gave him a sour stomach. Folding the warrant, he stuffed it back into his pocket.

“I’ll see what I can do about your money, but don’t stay up nights worrying about it. I suspect you’ve already made a profit this day.”

He walked outside and stared into the distance. Decisions you make every day can form your future, or come back to bite your ass. Sometimes both. Sighing, he shrugged and turned to Lem.

“Give me your hands.”

With a surprised look, Lem leaned down and shoved his hands forward. Untying the man, Luke rummaged in his pocket and found two dollars. “Here. That’ll buy you a meal somewhere. Enjoy your freedom.”

“What’s going on? Why are you letting me go?” The man rubbed his wrists and didn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. He sat loose in the saddle as he took a drink from his canteen.

Luke shrugged, glad to be rid of him. “The murder of two men trumps horse stealing in my book. I need to travel fast and I can’t do that with you tied to my horse tail. It’s that simple.”

He gave the man a level look and continued. “You shouldn’t have taken that horse. You know better.”

Lem pulled the whittled, wooden stopper from his canteen and wet a bandana,wiping out the inside of his beat-up hat. Something had taken a bite out of the back of it, but with the way the day was going Luke was not going to ask.

Finally, he answered. “Yeah, I know it was wrong. First horse I ever stole.” He grinned. “But it’s a fine horse and I was in a damned big hurry.”

Taking Lem’s pistol and cartridge belt from his saddlebag, he handed them to him and smiled. “Next time don’t cozy up to a married woman. Husbands tend to frown on that. Besides, it was the judge’s horse and you stole it right in front of his window. If I catch you again and take you back, you’ll either hang or get shot — depends on whether the judge or husband gets to you first.”

The horse-thief grunted and then gave him a sober look. “She didn’t tell me she was married and between you and me? That was a well-travelled path to her door. Besides, you ain’t gonna see me again, Randall. Lots of country west of here.”

“Good. And just for conversation? I have a little horse ranch west of Springfield, over on the Missouri side. If I see you around there, I might jump to conclusions.”

Lem shook his head. “Changing my ways, Marshal. I’ve seen the light.”

“Make sure of that. Since the judge neglected to put a brand on his horse, you might get someone to write you out a bill of sale. It should be good anywhere west and north of Fort Smith and keep you out of trouble.”

“That’s good advice. Think I’ll take it.”

“See that you do.”

“And Marshal?” He held out his hand to shake. “You made a friend today. I appreciate what you’re doing for me.”

Luke shook his hand and gave him a wry smile. “I doubt we’re going to be friends. Just make sure you take advantage of my gift.”

As the horse thief left, Luke looked around one more time. This was a story that got played out a lot in Indian Territory. The only law was what the deputy marshals brought out of Fort Smith, Arkansas. It wasn’t well received. Nobody wanted the law around until they had a problem. As soon as the trouble was over the lawman was treated like a leper. Many a deputy never came back from trying to keep the peace.

He’d heard Ruskin’s name before and knew the man didn’t have any conscience that would keep him from being a ruthless killer. This was one more checkmark on a long list of things he’d done. It was time to put an end to that.

Making a circle around the sutlery, he found the trail of a lone rider heading northeast. Since the trail was fresh and he knew it wasn’t Lem’s, he pushed his horse hard. Big Cabin was west of them and he expected his quarry to head that way, but the trail took them away from that town.

Two days later Luke almost caught him in Galena, but the outlaw went out the back of a saloon as he came in the front. He learned the man had friends and considered the chase a game to be played. But the town constable in Galena was not Ruskin’s friend and told Luke the outlaw was partial to Joplin and their painted ladies. Added that piece of information to the general direction he was riding, his best bet in finding him was in the city ahead.

He’d been a lot of places, but never to Joplin, Missouri. He knew by reputation it would be hard to find the outlaw once he got there. Most wanted men ran to wide open spaces, hoping to lose anyone chasing them. This one headed for a city where the crowds could hide dangerous men lurking in the shadows. Things were not simple anymore.

In the distance, columns of smoke rose from the factories outside of Joplin. He’d heard the smelters never shut down and mining operations went all day and night. Of interest to him, neither did the saloons and gambling halls. It narrowed the search somewhat. Ruskin wouldn’t be found in church.

As they crossed Shoal Creek, he tightened the reins on his horse to keep his head up, so he wouldn’t drink the water. Typical of April, it had rained hard the night before. The runoff from the detriment and earthen heaps dominating the landscape turned the water dirty brown. The ugly water in the creek was belly deep on his horse, with a gravel and limestone bottom so it was a careful ride. Not that he wasn’t looking forward to a bath. A mud hole would be cleaner than the water they were crossing.

Still an hour’s ride to the main part of town, he passed through low, rolling hills dotted with tents and covered wagons used for homes by the miners — and there were a lot of them. Cook fires smoked from green firewood and were tended by wives or kept women while their men worked. Half-naked children played between the homes in the makeshift shanty town, and he couldn’t believe the filth. Some of the children stopped and gave him an empty-eyed stare as he rode by. It looked like a brutal existence and he wondered how the lure of any amount of money could make that kind of life worth the hardship.

The prairie was behind him, clean and open with air you could breathe. He almost stopped and turned back, a compulsion hard to resist and one he’d been thinking of a lot. He had enough money saved to stock his ranch with a few more horses. It was all there waiting for him. Why was he doing this?

The miners had a squalid existence and he realized he’d just answered his own question about them. He was doing the same thing except he was killing people and getting shot at. And for what? Money. It was time to end it.

Riding onto the main street was an eye opener. It was a good thing he rode a fair cutting horse. They dodged freight wagons, handcarts, and an occasional buggy, mounted and pushed by demented men hell bent on running over anything that got in their way on the narrow streets.

His city of choice was Kansas City, a spread-out cow town with room to breathe, if you discounted the smell of the stockyards. This town was… he shook his head. He didn’t know what this town was.

Standing at a water trough, making sure the horse didn’t drink too much, his mind started ticking off things to do. Once he had Ruskin locked up there would be decisions to make. Should he stay in service or go home? Could he give up the excitement of the chase? Last, but yearning to be first on the list? A bath and haircut.

Uneasiness plagued him as he gazed up and down the street, yearning for something he couldn’t pin down. The sun seemed dull and shadows looked deep, showing no detail. The end of his string was near. He knew that. What wasn’t clear was how it would play out. Ruskin might take care of the problem. His hand caressed the worn, walnut handle of his belly gun. That surprised him. He didn’t remember reaching for it.

Dropping his hand to his side, he chided himself. Getting lost in thought was a sure ticket to hell and Ruskin, or someone like him, would gladly send him there.

The imposing two-story brick building in front of him had bank stenciled in every window, along with Patrick Murphy, proprietor. It must take a lot of building to hold all that money from the mines. A small office next to the bank had a hand-painted sign that read Joplin City Marshal. As he walked toward that door a small, dapper looking man rose from a chair and stopped him.

“Friend, I wouldn’t go in there just now.”

The cussing and yelling inside the office rose and fell in cadence with the whining, high voice of a man berating someone with words becoming more inventive by the minute. Maybe he should take notes — some phrases were that good, if there was some way of scoring profanity.

The man standing in his way stuck out his hand. “James Donnelly.”

He looked the man over as they shook. Donnelly sported a black bowler hat pushed back on his head, a light-colored suit coat and checkered vest on a hot day, and shoes Luke could see his reflection in.

“Trouble inside?”

“You might say that. The town marshal doesn’t take disappointment well. I didn’t catch your name?” The man’s face was openly curious.

“Are we holding hands for some reason?” Startled, the man let go and stepped back.

“I’m Deputy Marshal Luke Randall.”

Donnelly nodded, rocking up on his toes and then back down again — a habit some short men had. “I thought so. You were in Kansas City once at the Cattleman’s — right after a shooting at the stockyards. So, what are you doing in our fair city?”

Ignoring the question, he wondered how Donnelly got his teeth so white. It didn’t look natural. “So, what’s going on inside?”

The man shrugged and smiled. “Oh, the marshal is pitching a fit because Wyatt left.”

He’d never heard of anyone else called by that first name. “Wyatt Earp?”

Up the street two wagons had locked wheels. Tired of lashing their mules, the drivers turned the whips on each other. A laughing throng of people were shouting encouragement to both men.

He turned back toward Donnelly. The last he knew, Wyatt was out in Kansas. He couldn’t be called a good man, just one you wanted on your side in a difficulty. They weren’t friends, but he was sorry he missed him. Those who wore a badge often traded information about people skirting the law.

He heard a bottle smash against a wall and more cussing. “Sounds like quite the tantrum. Guess it’s not a good time for a visit. Is there a good place to eat around here?”

“Couple of choices. You could go to Jack’s Palace, across the street. It’s famous world-wide for a lot of things, food among them. A much quieter choice would be Mrs. McBride’s boarding house just around the corner. She serves up a hearty meal.”

He didn’t have to think about it. This place was too noisy already, and his dusty clothes wouldn’t do for fine dining. “I’ll go for quiet.”

The man pointed the way and fell in step with him. “I’ll buy your lunch if I may. I’d like to interview you for the Herald. I’m a reporter.”

Luke stopped and gave him with a level gaze. “No.”

The rejection did not faze Donnelly. “If you’re in town on business, I know a lot of people. Perhaps I can help.”

Luke shrugged as he considered it, and then started walking. “It’s your money.”

They were seated in a quiet corner of the cafe by a young woman sporting a clean white apron. She had a natural rosy complexion, or she’d been cooking over the hot stove. Her dark blond hair was held back and tied with ribbon. He resisted the urge to stuff an errant curl of hair back behind her ear when she smiled at him. At least she looked clean. He had an aversion of taking food from anyone that looked as if they’d cooked with dynamite and got caught in the explosion. She interrupted as he started to ask for a menu.

“I have beef and potatoes on special today. Maybe some fresh biscuits to sop up the gravy.”

“Milk gravy?” He’d had a bad experience with old gravy.

Her left eyebrow rose as she gave him a look that made him feel like a schoolboy caught pulling pigtails.

“It’s fresh, too.”

Anything was better than his own cooking. “What’s the special tomorrow?”

She pretended to think a moment and he liked the laughter in her eyes. “Potatoes and beef. Leftover biscuits.”

He inclined his head and smiled. “Add a pot of coffee and trot it out. That’s my kind of food.”

“And the same for me.” The reporter smiled at her but didn’t get one in return.

They were about finished with the meal when Donnelly started. “So, why do you like being a marshal? I’ve always been curious about that, given that longevity is not in your job description.” He smiled at the scowl he received. “Sorry, it’s what I do.” He sat up straight. “Wait. You’re not going to shoot me, are you? I’ve heard you don’t need much of an excuse.”

Luke sighed. He’d run into this before. Maybe the reporter would give his words a true accounting. “And where did you hear that, Donnelly? Look. People like to talk. You should know that. The more they talk, the more they embellish the story. It’s always easier to make up something than get it right. Truth is rarely exciting.”

The reporter wrote on his pad and then glanced up. “Point taken. I always try to get it right. So, what’s the punch line on that? How does that apply to you? If you’ll forgive me, embellished tales or not, you’re not known for being a gentle soul.”

Luke was distracted a moment as he sipped the black tar that passed for coffee at McBride’s, wondering if she’d been raised on a ranch cooking for cowhands. It was just how he liked it. He glanced back toward the kitchen. There were several things interesting about her.

Centering his attention on the reporter he gave the best answer he could. “Mister Donnelly? I don’t go into every situation expecting to shoot someone. Far from it. But you need to understand I’m not sent after people who are inclined to come peaceful or want to repent for their misdeeds. Most of them know I’m coming, or someone like me. Their choices are often made long before I get there. That gives them an advantage. While I’m wondering what someone is going to do, they have no indecision to slow them down.”

Donnelly’s pencil broke and he fished another from an inside pocket. “You’ve killed men, some brand you a killer with a badge. From talking to you that seems unlikely, but still…. How do you square that with a good conscience?”

Staring out a window, Luke ignored him a moment and then finally replied. “Oh, there’s no squaring it. Most deserve it. Hell, we all deserve it one time or another. I’m sure my time will come.”

He looked up as the woman filled their cups, leaving the fresh pot and picking up the empty. She had a chipped nail and one finger was scratched. What looked like a small burn on her wrist had healed into a red welt. He’d banged enough pots and pans around a cook stove to know the cause. This was a girl used to working.

Her voice was soft as her eyes. “Then why do it? There are other ways to make a living.” Her face turned more red. “Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear.”

She wouldn’t stop trains or start wars with her beauty, but she had an honest and straightforward manner to her. When she looked at him, he didn’t want to disappoint those eyes.

“Do you have a name?”

With a startled smile, she seemed puzzled a moment. “I’m surprised Donnelly hasn’t told you already. I’m Sarah McBride. This is my place. I own this little corner of the world.”

A thin gold band on her finger reflected the morning light and he hoped his disappointment didn’t show as he shook his head. “Your husband is a lucky man.”

Her gaze was curious for a moment and then he learned she was not a woman who cheated herself when she laughed. “Not much. He’s dead.”

Luke was drawn to her if for no other reason than her crooked smile and those clear blue eyes. “I’m sorry.” He nodded toward her hand. “Why the ring?”

With a chuckle she glanced at Donnelly. “It keeps the honest men at bay and the riff-raff from pestering me all the time… except reporters.”

Maybe she was older than he thought, and he hoped she didn’t take offense at his staring.

“And you?” She stood hipshot, balancing the large pot on one hip. “I don’t see a ring on your hand, and you’re old enough to have been chased. Are you promised? Looking? Running away from an angry wife?”

He was lost in her gaze, liking that she was not subtle. A man would always know where he stood with this woman.

She looked close to laughing again. “You seem tongue-tied. Do you have a name?” Waiting expectantly, she broke the awkward silence. “Well?”

He felt like he was blushing and couldn’t remember ever doing that. Starting to get up to introduce himself, he felt her hand grip his shoulder and push him back down.

“Please.” The hand lingered a moment.

“I’m Luke Randall. Deputy US Marshal out of Fort Smith.”

“Well, then. Pleased to meet you.” The corners of her mouth turned up. “So, the question?”

He grinned at her. “Which question? Am I promised? No. Running? No, again. Never had a wife to make angry. And I’m always looking.”

Holding her gaze he continued. “As for why I’m a marshal? I suppose the right reason to quit hasn’t come along.” He shook his head. “It’s hard to explain. There’s a marshal named Rawlings that said it best. Serving justice gets to be an addiction. It’s the rush of taking the next job, like taking opium or laudanum. It’s a love-hate relationship. And often deadly for both sides.”

“So, did this Rawlings ever quit?”

“Yeah, but it took the death of his wife to do it. It seems part of him died too. Last I heard he was riding around the country looking for a reason to live.”

“Well, I hope you find your anchor. Everyone needs that — that reason to go on.”

He was staring at her when Donnelly broke into the conversation again. “So, I’ll ask again. Why are you here?”

“I think you’ve asked enough questions.” He stood abruptly, startling the man.

Several laughing children ran by the window chased by a scruffy, barking dog. He smiled, remembering the squalor he’d seen coming into town. Maybe there were real families here, doing normal things. Not starving. That was something he always wanted. A family.

He glanced at Sarah as she squeezed his arm and nodded at him. He understood. It was a busy time for her, and he had things to do. She walked briskly toward the kitchen with his empty coffee pot.

He could hunt for the outlaw for days in this city. The best way to get Ruskin was for the outlaw to come to him. What better way than announce his presence using Donnelly as the town crier.

“Johnny Ruskin. I’ve a warrant for his arrest. He robbed a sutlery and killed a couple of men down in the Nation. Know him?”

The reporter looked up at him and squirmed in his seat. “Yeah, but not personally. I’ve heard he’s a real dandy and runs with a whore named Molly down on Virginia street.”

“I thought they were all named Molly.”

The reporter laughed. “There does seem to be a lot of them.”

As they started to leave Sarah came out of the kitchen and called to him. “You come back soon, ya hear?”

He waved to her, as they both stared at the other. “Count on it.”

Donnelly spoke as he looked back at her. “I’ve been trying to get her interested in me for months and not a peep out of her.” He glanced at Luke. “I think I hate you.”

Luke looked back and she still watched with a small smile. She was probably responsible for the added spring to his step.

They strolled back to Main Street, toward the town marshal’s office. Luke gestured toward the saloon. “So, tell me about Jack’s Palace. Is that the owner’s name?”

“No. I’m not sure if anyone knows who actually owns it — maybe several people. The main source of income in this town used to be lead. Now it’s zinc and the nickname for that is jack. Hence the name, I guess.”

Luke glanced at him. “You guess? So much for factual reporting.”

“Well, I do know the first floor is for our more genteel folks and their wives. You’d meet a lot of mine owners and bankers in there. It has a bar and nice restaurant. Vulgarity, coarseness and violence is not tolerated on the first floor.” He smiled. “Those rules are enforced by very large violent men with clubs. I think there’s a certain irony in that. Later, the men can migrate to the second floor. That’s the gambling hall. I think they have every device known to man that separates you from your money. However, the oldest device is on the third floor. That’s the brothel, mostly high class. By the time you make it out of there any money you have left will be gone.”

As if on cue they heard whistling and laughter from across the street. They looked at the balcony on the third floor of Jack’s. Several women leaned over the rail or stood close to it. Most were scantily dressed at best, others naked from the waist up — waving at passersby. One woman wore a huge, flowered hat under a pink parasol, and nothing else. He didn’t think sunburn was going to be a problem for her. The women looked inviting from a distance, but closer inspection might find them worn and empty. That they could show their wares in front of the town marshal’s office told a lot about how the town was run.

Several men were leading women off the street like they’d be tainted by seeing such a spectacle. In some cases, the women pulled the men away. It was amazing how they tried to wall themselves away from parts of the world they didn’t agree with. He wondered how Sarah would react to this. He’d lay a bet that she’d laugh.

Donnelly waved back to the women. “Oh, the broken flowers from the primrose path, sending forth their siren call. There’s some pretty ladies on that balcony.”

Luke chuckled. “You’re quite the poet, but I think the term lady might be a stretch.”

“Well, for one I am a writer. As for the ladies? You’d be surprised, Mister Randall. You just might.”

It was quiet, so they went inside the marshal’s office. The man sitting behind the desk looked like a banker. His eyes slid from Luke to the reporter. “Who’s this?”

Before he could reply, Donnelly broke in. “LC, this is Deputy Marshal Luke Randall. You’ve probably heard of him. Luke, meet LC Hamilton.”

“A deputy marshal, you say? As a matter of fact, I have heard of you. You work down in the Nation. I’ve heard you’re one of Fort Smith’s hired killers who doesn’t give the law much thought.”

Luke stared at the man longer than was polite. “You’re entitled to your opinion. This is a courtesy stop Hamilton. I’m looking for a man in your town. Once I get him locked up and arrangements are made to take him to Fort Smith, I’ll be on my way.”

The man seemed to think a moment and then gave a fake politician’s smile that didn’t extend to his eyes. “I appreciate the thought and you can call me LC. I’ll help you if I can, but first there’s a job you have to do for me.”

Luke took off his hat, rubbed the sweatband a moment, then re-positioned it on his head. “I wasn’t aware you were in my chain of command, Hamilton. I don’t have to do anything for you.”

The man turned an interesting shade of red but brought it under control. “Here’s the thing. If you help me, I’ll help you. Otherwise, you may have a hard time operating in my town. That damned Earp left before he could do the job he was supposed to do.”

The reporter broke into the conversation with his pad and pencil ready. “Why’d he leave in such a hurry?”

“He got a telegram that Ed Masterson was killed up in Dodge. Left out of here in a big hurry. He has ties with that family — think they used to hunt buffalo together. You can bet there will be some lead flying over that.”

Luke turned away and the marshal’s voice stopped him. “Don’t rush off. I have the same deal for you. It should be easy for a man of your talents. There’s a gambler over at Jack’s that’s been swindling players. I need him arrested. His fine will be substantial, and you could share in that.”

He stared at the man a moment. The marshal sported a huge handlebar mustache, dark eyes peering at him from under a short-brimmed hat and a face gone soft with easy living. “So, take your men and arrest him. Several deputies with shotguns should get his attention.”

“We could. But I’m no gunfighter, and neither are my men. That’s not how we run this town. I figure a famous name like yours would keep him from trying anything crazy. You won’t scare him like Earp would, but I figure it’s worth a chance.”

Luke shook his head. “Your reluctance borders on cowardice. Who is this dangerous miscreant that has you buffaloed?” He insulted him on purpose, to see how he’d react. The scary thing was LC didn’t react at all.

“Otto Shilling.”

He nodded. “You’re right. Otto won’t be impressed with me, or anyone else. Whoever accused him of cheating is a liar. He’s good enough at cards, he doesn’t need to cheat. Wyatt would have known that, too.”

The marshal’s voice was mild. “You’re calling the mayor a liar.”

“Being a politician, I doubt he’ll be insulted any more than you were at being called a coward.” He thought a moment, not wanting to get into their political games. “Let’s call it misinformed. Whatever your game is, I won’t be part of it.”

Luke held up his hand as the man started to protest. “What I will do is go over and talk to him. He doesn’t stay long in one place. Maybe he’s ready to leave. If he does, that should solve your problem.” He tipped his hat to them. “I need to look the place over anyway. Good day, gentlemen.”

Taking his horse by the reins, he led him to the barn on the other side of the bank. The sign read Teasdale’s Livery and there were several buggies and horses tied in front. Leading the horse into the shaded entry, he was met by a bow-legged older man who looked better suited to riding than walking. A missing thumb on his left hand made Luke think the man was a retired cowhand. Many a rider lost a finger from a loose dally around their saddle horn when a thousand-pound cow-critter hit the other end of the rope.

“How about some feed and water, maybe a rubdown? I may need him back later this evening.”

The oldster nodded. “Oats are extra if you want some.”

He grinned at the man. “I’ll spring for it but don’t spoil him.”

“I’ll mix it with some molasses. He won’t ever want to leave. Not spending the night?”

Luke looked out at the street. “Don’t know yet. Not if I can help it.”

“That’ll be a dollar. In advance. For another dollar you can leave your money and anything else you hold dear in my safe while you’re out and about. It’s that kind of town.”

Luke gave him a look, wondering if he might have a point. “Don’t worry about that. I’m not planning on staying long.”

The hostler laughed as he led the horse away. “It doesn’t take long, Marshal. Not long at all. This is the fastest town you’ll ever see.”

“How’d you know I was a marshal?”

“Ya got the look. Seen it before.”

Weaving his way across the street and through the horse-drawn traffic, the reporter was obvious in following close behind. Luke started to say something when a commotion broke out farther down the street. The graded road had caved in leaving a hole at least ten feet deep with a rising plume of dust. He asked a man standing next to him what happened.

“Ah, just another tunnel caving in. Happens when we’ve had a heavy rain, like last night. They’ll fill it up soon.”

“That ever happen under a building?”

“It has.” The man grinned. “Gets mighty interesting when that happens. We’re waiting on the bank to cave in. It’ll be a real gold rush.”

Luke was surprised at how unconcerned everyone was. “You don’t think anyone was in the mine shaft?”

A man with a miner’s lamp attached to his leather cap turned to look at him. The candle was still burning against the reflector like he’d just come out of a dark hole. “Well, if there was it’s too late now. People are digging tunnels in too big a hurry around here. There’s no safety precautions in most of the mines.”

Entering Jack’s Palace, Luke paused a moment to let his eyes adjust to the interior. To his right was a dining area next to the windows. Several couples sat at cloth-covered tables. The men and women were dressed in their finest. A partition separated them from the bar on the left. Next to the bar a fancy, polished staircase made an entrance to the second floor. There were enough plants scattered about to give the place a jungle appearance.

When the bartender, resplendent in dark suit, bow tie and immaculate apron brought him a sarsaparilla, he turned to the reporter. “Why are you following me around?”

Ignoring his question Donnelly pointed at the bottle. “Why are you drinking that?”

He shrugged and made a face as he drank. “In my line of work, it pays not to drink whiskey. The last thing I need is shaky hands. Besides, it feeds my sweet tooth. So… the question?”

The man shrugged and gave his too-bright smile. “Got nothing else to do until tonight. LC is going to take me with him when he rousts the prostitutes. He just opens the doors and walks on in. That’s always a spectacle and worth the entertainment. Besides, I’ve a feeling you’re a news maker.”

“Is he arresting all the whores in town? Seems ambitious for the size of his jail.”

“Whore is such a distasteful word.” Donnelly laughed. “Besides, he only arrests those that can’t pay their fines. Twenty-five dollars a head, every single month. If there’s no payment, they have until the next day to get the money or go to jail. It’s all business and run quite fairly.”

Luke didn’t know what to think of a marshal that would jail women but not confront a gambler. He corrected his thinking. Of course, he knew. “Is all that worth his time and trouble?”

“Well, I don’t know who does the counting. But it’s been said we have more whores than New York City or San Francisco. That’s how the city runs. Fines and fees.”

He wondered if he should wait for Ruskin outside of town, where things were simple and held no distractions. Maybe if the outlaw was alone he’d be more likely to come peaceful. He’d seen men do crazy things because a crowd was watching, and they didn’t want to lose face. There were no easy answers.

“So, where will I find Otto?”

The reporter checked a watch, pulled from his vest by its gold chain. “You’re in luck. He usually comes down from the third floor to the gambling hall about this time.”

Luke left the empty bottle on the bar and went up the carpeted stairs. He was hoping he didn’t trade steady hands for a belly ache. The gambling hall didn’t have many players and already the smoke was a pungent layer trapped against to the ceiling. He couldn’t imagine what it’d be like later. The open windows had little effect on the room.

The gambler sat in a back corner, alone at a round table. He was huge and resembled an educated bear, with mutton chop whiskers and bowler hat set at a jaunty angle. His white shirt seemed immaculate with red garters holding up long sleeves that were buttoned tight to his wrist, so no hint could be made of hiding cards. A pair of reading glasses sat on the end of his nose. The enigma of the man was that Luke knew he had the quickest hands in the business with cards or a gun. His sharp mind made it a useless gesture to cheat — an advantage he didn’t need.

He pulled up a chair. “Hello, Otto.”

The man glanced at him, and then beyond his shoulder. He supposed his new shadow was lingering there.

“Well, if it ain’t Luke Randall — purveyor of the law.” He held out his hand to be shook with an old English greeting. “Well met, my friend.” The gambler’s gaze was curious and intense.

He acknowledged the greeting. “How are the cards treating you?”

The man shrugged, offering a thin smile. “Better than average, I’d say. It ain’t how they treat me but how I treat them. This a social call… or business? I don’t remember killing anybody you’d care about… at least, not lately.”

“A little of both. The esteemed marshal of this town wants me to arrest you for swindling the mayor. I told him the mayor was a liar and that you ran an honest game. Hamilton isn’t having a good day. He may have been upset when I left.”

Otto snorted. “The mayor? His left eye tics when he’s bluffing, and he bluffs a lot. The man has no feel for the cards.”

“Yeah, I figured it was something like that.” He shrugged and pinned the gambler with a steady gaze. “Still… it’s hard to buck the system in a town like this and the powers-that-be want you gone.”

He was startled when a small hand rested light on his shoulder, not hearing any footsteps approaching on the wooden floor added to the surprise. A high-pitched voice spoke next to his ear. “Otto, who’s your handsome friend?”

He glanced around seeing a short, young-looking girl next to him dressed in a floor-length green gown with white lace cuffs. Her brown eyes stared at him from a face surrounded by blond curls adorned with bright green ribbons. She might have just stepped from a Godey’s Lady’s book and looked like a child playing dress up.

His first thought escaped before he could rein it in. “How old are you?”

She smirked at him, shaking her curls. “Old enough, handsome. Why don’t you come upstairs so I can prove it? Unlike most, I have a private room. You can call me Lilly.”

It dawned on him why she looked odd. She wore no makeup and played up the little girl look. Most women working in a place like this tried to hide their face behind rouge and lipstick, like a comedy mask in a play. He wondered how the world had come to this point, once again yearning for the open trail and the big wide-open. He understood men, horses, and guns. Not women. And not this.

Standing, he swept his hat off and gave a small bow, playing a game to cover his embarrassment. The situation shouldn’t have bothered him, yet he recognized the attraction and felt guilty for it.

“Young lady, it breaks my heart seeing someone your age working here. But I’m sure mine is not the first heart you’ve stepped on. Let that be trophy enough for you. I’m not interested in what you’re offering.”

“Oh, you’re interested.” Her expression was older than her years. “Well, so be it. You will be sorry.” Pointing at the door they’d come through, she shrugged. “According to that paper nailed to the door, any girl over twelve years old must pay her fine every month or go to jail. By default, that makes me legal.” She looked him in the eye. “And I ain’t the youngest here.”

The girl reached into her bodice and pulled out a leather pouch. “Of course, I have a protector. I don’t have to suffer that embarrassment.” Tossing the bag to Otto, she spoke over her shoulder as she moved away. “Pay the good marshal when he comes sniffing around tonight, love. The last time I couldn’t get him out of my room. I need to rest a bit and please send up some lunch before anyone else visits.”

Her heels clicked on the wooden floor as she walked away with a bounce in her bustle, looking over her shoulder at them. Luke turned and stared at Otto. In that moment he realized the gambler was a scab that he’d just scratched off and found puss inside.

“Now you run whores?”

The man didn’t meet his eyes. “Just the one. Keeps me in poker money. I’ve had a run of bad luck.”

“A man with your skills doesn’t need luck.” Luke leaned toward him, realizing his experience with the man was all perception and not fact. Before, he’d seen what he expected to see. Now, like lighting a lamp and watching roaches run away, the gambler smelled of old clothes and rotten cigars, his eyes were wide and feverish. His immaculate shirt was dirty grey around the collar with spots of spilled drink on the front. He wondered if Otto was drinking something stronger than whiskey. On the way to putting his hands on the table, he took the thongs from his pistols.

“I never thought you’d sink this low. I’ve known you from KC, to Dodge and now here. You used to be a good man and ran a clean game. What changed? To my mind, if you’ll do this, cheating at cards isn’t a big stretch.”

He stared at the gambler a moment, surprised Otto didn’t protest his innocence. “Problem is… I already told the marshal you’d never do that. Now it seems the mayor may have been right.”

The gambler grunted, his eyes never leaving Luke’s face… hand close to his pistol. “No one comes to this city and leaves with their honor intact, not even you. No one. That’s just the way it is. The door you came through is still open for your exit. Take your righteous ass out of here.”

Luke gave him a cold smile, watching Otto’s hand on the pistol. “You have quick hands. But not quick enough. How about we go over to the marshal’s office and let him decide? There should be no trouble. Pay your fine and leave this town. Simple as that.”

Donnelly moved up to the table, flashing his smile. “Gentlemen. Please. This is getting out of hand.” He turned to Luke. “Look, there are hundreds of women plying their trade in this city. All have their protectors. Lilly is no different. It’s legal… sort of. You can’t run them all off.” He laughed. “Hell, the miners would lynch you for trying.”

“Oh, I know that.” Luke held the gambler’s gaze. “But I can run this one off. I told the marshal Otto Shilling was an honest gambler, not one to cheat. It appears he’s made me a liar and I can’t abide that.”

Someone laughed behind him, glasses clinked as drinks were poured. Business was picking up along with the noise level. His sigh was a long one. “Alright, Otto. You have a choice. I have a warrant to serve on another pillar of society hiding in this town. I’ll take care of that first. But you have a decision to make. If I find you here tomorrow, I’ll arrest you for whatever charges the town marshal can make up — I’m betting he can be real inventive. Or you can grab that pearl-handled pistol you’re tapping with your fingers and take your chances. What’ll it be?”

The gambler looked up with flat, dead eyes that spoke of locked rooms no one ever wanted to see. “I’ll think on it.”

Luke nodded. “See that you do.”

Standing outside, he spoke to the reporter. “Can you show me where Ruskin hangs out? I’ve decided not to wait.”

Donnelly nodded. “You don’t waste time, do you?”

He glanced behind into the gloomy interior of Jack’s Palace. His spine tingled, like when he was trailing someone and realized he was being hunted instead. “I want to get shut of this place. It’s coming nightfall and that’s when the cockroaches come out.”

“Then let’s go. Molly’s place is just down the street.”

There were so many people moving around the boardwalk, he almost missed them. Three men stood close together in the middle of the rutted street. How they kept from getting run over was a mystery. Two of the men carried shotguns. He wanted to ask the one in the middle if he was Johnny Ruskin, but the man was grinning like a banshee as his pistol came level.

Luke shoved the reporter to the side as a bullet stung his left arm, slamming through the building behind him and causing a shriek from someone inside. He pulled his belly gun and started shooting. People around him scattered trying to get through doors or out of the line of fire.

One of the men with a shotgun was down on one knee holding his belly. The second fired and unloaded his shotgun into a horse racing by. The squealing animal and cursing rider went down in the street slinging dirt and blood into the air. His shotgun empty, the man tried for his pistol as Luke put a bullet into him.

He was firing his second gun and didn’t remember switching. Another bullet punched a hole in the side of his vest as he pointed his gun at the last man.

“Drop it. I figure if you haven’t hit me yet, you’re not likely to.”

“Like hell.” The outlaw thumbed the hammer back on his pistol, but crumpled when Luke’s bullet took him in the chest. He tried to get up and then fell across the legs of one of the other men. Now they could add the smell of blood to all the other city stench.

After all the gunfire, Luke stood trying to catch his breath while re-loading his gun and waiting for the smoke to clear — a difficult task with a wounded arm. He knew people were talking but could hardly hear what was said. Blood dripped from his fingers onto the dusty sidewalk in cadence with a throbbing arm that burned like the fires of hell.

He looked at the reporter throwing up next to the building and called to him. “It’s never the same in real life, is it? Write about that and don’t glorify it. There was nothing heroic about this. People died today.” His gaze took in everyone around him. “And for what?”

No one spoke as he turned back to the reporter struggling to his feet. “I assume that was Ruskin?” Donnelly just stared at him, wiping his mouth on his sleeve as he nodded.

He felt someone grab him by his good arm and turned to find the hostler next to him. “Mister Teasdale, can you point me towards a doctor’s office?”

The man snorted. “I could, but he’d likely kill you. Let’s get you to down to Sarah’s.”

He looked up and could see her about a block away. Even from the distance he could see the worry on her face. Once they started her direction she disappeared toward her restaurant.

“Son, you have to be living on borrowed time. Three men at once? You gotta be crazy.”

“It’s not like I had much choice.” Luke was hunched over and tried to straighten but felt a burning on his side. When he pulled his hand away it had blood on it. He guessed the bullet punching a hole in his vest was closer than he thought.

When they got to McBride’s, the place was cleared of customers. In less than a minute he found himself in a back room, shucked from his leather vest and sitting on a chair having his shirt ripped off.

“Hey, that was pretty new.”

Sarah wadded the bloody rags and remnants of his shirt and tossed them into a corner, along with his hat. “And which year was that?”

Before he could answer she turned to the hostler. “Whitey, there are some bandages on the shelf in the kitchen. Bring that and a bottle of whiskey.”

He studied her face as she looked at the wound in his side where the bullet grazed a rib. It hurt more than the hole in his upper arm. When Whitey came back with the supplies, Luke was still flinching from her poking and prodding.

His voice was tight with pain. “Mister Teasdale? Would you mind stepping outside?”

The man gave him a curious look. “Why would I do that?”

Luke eyed the whiskey bottle. “I don’t want another man to see me cry.”

“Nope. I get to stay and hold you down.” Grinning, he added. “I’ll tell folks all the screeching and hollering was a catamount we found out back.”

She shook her head, filling a tin cup with whiskey. “Will you two stop it.” After taking a gulp from the cup, she looked him in the eye with a smile and tossed the contents on the wound.

***

They were still in the storeroom next to the kitchen as he sat with Sarah drinking coffee. Whitey had gone for his saddlebags and a new shirt.

“So, I guess I’m staying the night?”

She nodded, sipping coffee and looking out the window. “The scratch across your ribs is more painful that serious. But if you start that arm bleeding again, you could be in trouble.”

“And you’ll enjoy throwing more whiskey on me?”

Her lips curled at the corners. “It’s a good thing you fainted. I had to run a whiskey-soaked rag through the hole in your arm. It’ll keep the infection down.”

“How’d you learn to doctor?”

“Mostly from my mother. We lived on a ranch. The men were always getting hurt from one thing or another — snake bite to broken bones, and lost fingers. Whitey used to work for us.”

He flinched, surprised as Whitey dropped his saddlebags on the floor by the stairs — his hearing was starting to concern him.

The hostler grinned at him. “Never saw a grown man faint like that. Thought you’d died.”

“It was a nap. I was tired.”

She interrupted before they could go any farther with their banter. “Whitey. Why don’t you go on home? I’ll take it from here.”

He frowned and hesitated a moment. “You sure about that, Sarah? He can sleep at the stable, or I can bunk him at my place.”

Her eyes were full of speculation. “I’m very sure, Whitey. My virtue is safe for now. If not, I’ll throw whiskey on him. It’ll drop him in his tracks.”

“That’s a waste of good whiskey.” The old man turned away. “And I wasn’t worried about your virtue.” His laugh carried to them as he closed the front door.

She stood and held her hand out to him. “Let’s get you situated upstairs. I used to have boarders, but it proved too much trouble. I barely keep up with the café. Anyway, I have rooms to spare.”

“You work too hard, Sarah.”

“And how do you know that?” Her gaze held his for a moment. “What do you think, cowboy? Want to take me away from all this?”

She shook her head. “I don’t have a lot of choices. I must make a living and cooking is something I can do. One thing is sure. You’ll never find me leaning over that balcony at Jack’s.”

His hand moved up and tucked the errant wisp of hair over her ear. “You’re a beautiful woman. Why aren’t you married?”

“Too many questions, boy. You’re starting to remind me of Donnelly.”

As they walked toward the stairs, she held his good arm against her and they leaned against each other. “I can walk, you know. Not that I’m complaining.”

“Oh, I know you can. You’re a strong man.” She chuckled. “Well, mostly.”

He stopped again. “I need of a bath and haircut. Is there a place close? I can walk there easy as upstairs.”

Pushing him forward her voice was soft. “I’d agree on the bath. There’s a tub in your room. I’ll heat water and have some boys bring it up for you.” She chuckled. “They’re always close by because I pay them with cookies.”

“I like cookies.”

She gave him a long look. “I bet you do.” Then her voice became stern. “If you get soap in those wounds they might get infected.”

He sighed. “There’s always whiskey.”

***

Lurching from sleep a couple of hours later, his thoughts were of swimming in cold limestone spring water. He faced a window turning dark with twilight, soon to be gone. Sitting in the cold water and tub, it took him a moment of staring at the unfamiliar room to remember.

Three boys had trooped in carrying buckets of hot water from the kitchen. After a couple of trips the tub was filled so he locked the door, undressed, and sank into the water with a grateful sigh. Wounds be damned. He needed this. His muscles relaxed, and he leaned his head back….

“I have never — ”

He bolted upright in the tub, spilling water over the side, before sinking back down.

“ — seen anyone sleep like you.”

“Sarah? What the hell?”

Her laugh was musical, and he wanted to turn and look.

“Just stay where you are, boy. Your clothes are on the bed with a couple of towels. Oh, and I cut your hair so you need to wash that too — if you can find the soap — I didn’t go looking for it. And there’s a straight razor there with the towels. Don’t cut your throat.”

“You cut my…? How’d you…? Sarah….” He almost drowned when she laughed and pushed his head under water.

Later, squeaky clean after shaving and a bath, he was dressed and standing at the window. The room faced the street. Outside, a man walked by on stilts lighting lamps along the boardwalk. He’d never seen that before. Kids were throwing rocks and sticks in his way trying to trip him, but the man just laughed at them. When Luke pulled the shade and turned from the window Sarah was sitting on the lone chair in the room.

“I distinctly remember locking that door.”

She waved a key at him. “Really? I didn’t notice.” Gesturing toward the bed, her voice was soft in the quiet room. “Please sit and tell me about Luke Randall.”

He looked at her a moment and had a sudden vision of her at the ranch, meeting him on the front porch, kissing him hello — kids running about. Her blond hair was still tied in back and he figured she didn’t have much time for primping during the day. Everything about her looked sensible, from her worn and sturdy shoes, simple no-frills dress and steady blue eyes gazing at him. He was thinking she should have blinked by now, but that relentless gaze bore into him. The intensity changed his mind about things. He ran his hand through his hair. There wasn’t much time for courting, hell they’d just met today — it seemed a lifetime ago. And he wanted out of this town in the worst way. But she was here and he didn’t want to leave without her.

When he tried to speak, he had to clear his throat. “Thank you for everything.”

She gave a little head shake and looked startled a moment. It broke her concentration. “What…?”

It was easy to smile at her now, the spell was broken. For a moment he’d felt like a mouse in front of a fox. “Thanks for the loan of the razor. For the bath and haircut, taking care of my wounds. Giving me a place to stay. You didn’t have to do any of that with me being a stranger.”

Her eyes seemed to get bigger. “Stranger? I never felt you were a stranger since the first time I saw you.” She gave a little head shake, like she was trying to clear her mind. “I still need to wrap those wounds and put honey on them this time to keep infection away. For the rest of it? Think nothing of it. I enjoyed… uh….” She giggled. “I was glad to do it.”

He grinned at her, watching a flush cover her face that matched the one adornment on her dress — an embroidered pink rose.

“My story? I’ve been a marshal for over ten years. That’s a long time in this line of work. There’s age on me that doesn’t show… the things I’ve seen — I haven’t always been a good man.” He stared at the floor. “You should understand that.”

“I didn’t see much evidence of age while I cut your hair, and none of us can be good all the time. Sometimes we don’t want to be.” She chuckled at his discomfort. “So, you’ve been around awhile. I’d call that maturity.”

With a curious look she continued. “Do you like being a lawman? I mean… today was — three men? I don’t know how you survived that. When I heard the gunfire….”

He wished his hat was close, or something. His hands needed a prop to cover his nervousness. “Those men worked against themselves by standing close together — got in each other’s way and were in too big a hurry to kill me. And I was lucky.”

“Lucky? You had a host of angels guarding you this day.”

Luke shrugged, watching her small foot pat the floor. Was this going too slow for her? “Probably dark angels. But like I said earlier. It’s a job until I find something better.”

She nodded. “Something better. You said that before. What would that be? Any prospects on that?”

“Some. I’ve got a little horse ranch west of Springfield. Bought it from a man going to California to look for gold. I told him he was leaving the best thing he’d ever have and the man laughed at me. It’s a place that needs a lot of work. A couple of Kickapoo riders are tending it for me when I’m not there. Good men with families.” He caught her gaze. “It’s lonely.”

He was surprised to find her standing in front of him, moving in close. He was getting that intense stare again and couldn’t take his eyes from her lips.

“And why aren’t you?” Her voice was so soft he strained to hear. “There, I mean. You could have been killed today. Why risk that? Shouldn’t you be tending your ranch?”

“You really mean why am I a marshal.” He took a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh. “I can’t explain it any better than I did this morning.”

Her hand was on his shoulder, lightly caressing his arm. He was sure she could feel goosebumps rippling his skin.

“And you’ve never married?”

When he shook his head, she continued. “You’re a man with a ranch that needs a wife and children to make it whole. You’re neglecting that. The same thing you told the previous owner applies to you, don’t you think?”

He didn’t know blushing was contagious, but he’d caught it from somewhere. “I don’t understand women. Never met any I’d want to keep around. In my line of work you don’t meet a lot of good people.”

“You’re looking at it wrong. You only have to understand one woman.”

His hands somehow found themselves circling her waist. “I’m not a good man, Sarah. I can see where this is going. Not that I mind, but you can do a lot better than me.”

“You said that before, but I don’t agree. I’ve been told by someone I trust that you’re a good man — honest to a fault and dependable. I like what I see.”

“Now who told you that?”

“Whitey. He seems to know a lot about you.”

He pondered that a moment, sure he’d never met the man before today. “How do you know him?”

“Well, like I said he used to work for us.” She sat on his leg, arm around his waist. “I was just sixteen when Jimmy McBride came riding up to our farm. I knew it all back then, oh Lordy how I knew it all. When you’re young and in instant love you don’t listen to anybody, especially your parents. The first judge we could find married us.

It was unfortunate my new husband was a fiddle-foot and gambler, always looking for the next big score — for both of us. There always seemed to be money for hotels and train rides. A couple of years ago we wound up here in Joplin. He was sitting in a poker game at Jack’s when he tried a bottom deal. The man he was playing against shot him in the belly.”

He reached up to snag a tear before it coursed down her cheek and she gave him a grateful look.

“It took him a week to die. It was the worst time of my life. I was alone in a rough town with men offering to take care of me, even before he died — there was no doubt what they wanted. I didn’t have money. The other gambler took his winnings and LC took the rest for fines and fees. I needed a friend and Whitey helped. He made sure I had things — even set me up to buy this restaurant so I’d have a job. Where he got the money I have no idea. Well, I suspect he got it from my parents. I was ashamed to ask for their help. Without him I might have ended up working at Jack’s.”

She looked at him with that unblinking gaze. “So, you can see I’m not a squeaky-clean candidate for the nunnery and I’ve an impulsive streak. I’ve got my own bumps in the road. But something I’ve always wanted was a home. Roots. Are you a roots kind of man? Am I being too forward?”

“I can live with it.” He pulled her against his chest. “So, you’re experienced. Seasoned.”

Her chuckle was a soft breath against him. “Not really. Just god-awful determined not to quit — to not give up.”

“Not every woman would have the grit to do that. It’s a good thing that you found the strength to go on. A lot of women would have taken the easy way out by working at Jack’s or someplace like that. I’ve seen it too many times when girls are desperate. I’m proud you’re the woman you are. You should be too.”

She stared at him as he brushed her lips lightly with his fingers and then settled his mouth on hers. Her lips parted with a sigh. She’d chewed some mint leaves and he hoped his breath was as fresh — knew it wasn’t. After a few moments he let his hands drift down her curves and she acquiesced for a time giving him soft moans of approval. Then she pulled away.

“I said seasoned, not easy.” She squirmed in his lap. “Maybe you need to jump in that cold bath water again.”

He took a deep breath and tightened his grip on her. “Look. You’ve nothing holding you here except this café. Why don’t you come with me when I leave? I don’t think you’d regret it. If things don’t work out, I’ll get you started somewhere else. You deserve a good life, Sarah.”

“So do you.” She stared at him a moment before she stood. “We’ve got some talking to do, so don’t run off tomorrow. This is sudden and I need to think. Whitey wants me settled somewhere so he can go rambling again.”

“Do it for you, not Whitey.”

After she bandaged his arm and ribs, she leaned forward and kissed him again. “I can’t seem to get enough of that.” With a schoolgirl’s giggle, she went out the door.

He gazed at the closed door a moment knowing he’d just been cut out of the herd, hog-tied, and roped down. The branding would come later and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that. The biggest mystery was why he couldn’t get the smile off his face.

***

Breakfast the next morning was a crowded affair. He came down in his new shirt and mended vest into a maelstrom of activity. Standing for a moment not seeing any open tables, he felt a tug at his arm. An older woman with white hair and flushed face led him to a table by the back door.

As he pulled out a chair, Sarah came bustling in and kissed him on the cheek. “Big breakfast?”

He thought of what the morning might bring. “I’d better not. Some of your coffee would be good.”

She stood staring at him and he wondered how she got to know him so well in a short amount of time. Her head was slowly shaking but her gaze never left his. “No. Please, no.”

Luke nodded. “I’m sorry. I’ve one more thing to do. I’ll try to avoid it, you’ve my word on that. But I might not be able to.”

Stepping closer to avoid all the noise and clatter, her eyes belied her calm voice. “You’re my man whether you want me or not. I decided that last night. Do what you must and do it well, but dammit — stay alive. You hear me?” Her hand clutched his arm. “I didn’t give you much chance to talk last night but I have to know. Will you have me as your woman?”

He held his gaze steady on hers. Her eyes filled with tears when he didn’t speak right away. “I’m tired, Sarah.” When she started to speak he held up his hand. “I’m tired of being alone and hunting people that want to kill me. I’m tired of waiting for that one bullet that ends it all. More than anything, I want to wake up with a good woman and take her to bed every night. Is that plain enough for you? I want you to come with me when I leave — the long courtship can come later.”

Her sigh was so long he was afraid she’d never take a breath. “If that wasn’t a proposal, it was damned close enough. My answer is yes. I’ll make sure you’ll never regret it.”

She didn’t leave his side until he finished his coffee and left. A glance over his shoulder found her still staring at him with her hand over her mouth, the other clutching her belly.

When he walked into the marshal’s office, Hamilton was behind his desk pouring a glass of whiskey.

“Kind of early for that, isn’t it? Rough night?”

The man stared at him with red eyes. “It could have been better. What can I do for you, Randall?”

He plucked the badge from his pocket and dropped it on the desk. “If you’ll wire the office in Fort Smith, they might give you a reward for Johnny Ruskin. Tell them I said to do it. You can also tell them I quit. You’ll have to take care of your own damned problems.”

The marshal picked up the badge, fingering it a moment. “I always have, one way or another.”

Neither cared much for the other and that was fine with Luke. When he walked out the door, he felt weight lifting off his shoulders. His mind was on seeing Sarah and having a large lunch when a voice brought him to a halt.

Otto Shilling was standing on the boardwalk with his pistol leveled at Luke.

“I thought it over, Randall. I’m staying in town.”

Nausea came and went in the blink of an eye along with a sudden chill — he could not win this one. He was going to take lead. Like all good gamblers, Otto wasn’t taking any chances.

“I turned in my badge, Otto. I don’t care if you stay or go. It’s none of my concern. Not anymore.”

The gambler waved his gun side to side. “It doesn’t work that way. You called me out. People heard you.”

“Since when do you care about what people think?” He saw Donnelly writing furiously on his note pad, partly hidden in the gathering crowd. “It wouldn’t be that a certain reporter put you up to this? Talked you into it? Another gunfight he can write about? It wouldn’t be the first time the news reporters made a problem worse just so they could write about it.”

Otto’s eyes flickered a moment and then he smiled and shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. You’ll be dead anyway.”

Luke had heard of men beating a drawn gun but didn’t believe it. He was fast. It was a gift no amount of practice can make better. But no one was that fast and Otto’s gun was coming level again.

“Is she your daughter?”

Those dead eyes blinked in confusion.

“That baby girl you pimp over at Jack’s. She’s still a child and should be in school. Is she your daughter?”

The gambler was stunned and looked embarrassed, quickly glancing at people around them. Public opinion mattered. You can’t make a living if none of the suckers come to your table.

“Are you crazy? No, she’s not — ”

Luke drew, the gunshot loud in the still morning air.

Surprise marking his face, Otto backed up a step, blood leaking over his vest. But he was a bull of a man with no quit in him. Luke kept thumbing the hammer and firing until the man finally fell into the dusty street.

Gunshots were still echoing between the buildings when Lilly came out of the crowd and stared at Luke a moment. Rolling the gambler’s body over onto his back, she reached into a pocket and pulled out a fist full of money. She looked at him again with a raised brow.

He shook his head and waved her over to him. Some of the money was bloody and she wiped it on her dress. “Looks like you’ve got a stake.”

“No more than I worked for. The bastard took most of it.” She was busy stuffing money into a hidden pocket of her dress.

Considering her hard eyes, he wondered if there was anything to save. “You have a chance if you’ll take it. Use some of that money and hop the KATY railroad up to Kansas City. Anyone can tell you where to find Pastor Bennett. He runs a church and rescue mission for those who want it. Tell him I sent you and he’ll take care of you. Hell, he’d do it anyway, but he’s a friend and I like to let him know I’m alive on occasion.” He wondered if he’d gotten past that hard protective shell she put around herself.

“Why should I do that?” She patted her pocket. “I have enough money to last a while.”

He felt lightheaded and wondered if the bandage on his wounded arm broke loose. The pain was worse when he tried to move it. “Look around you, girl. Think about what you’re doing. Is this how you want things to be? It may seem an exciting life, but you can do better.”

She looked at the blood dripping from his hand. “Same might be said for you, Marshal.”

She went back into the building and he hoped she’d grab her belongings and go right out the back door — didn’t have much faith in it.

When Hamilton finally ventured out of his office, Luke handed him the warrant on Johnny. “Here, I forgot to give you this. Tell the mayor he can thank me some other time.”

He turned and was surprised when he staggered into an awning post, seeing a familiar face. “Did all the noise wake you from your nap, Whitey?”

“Nope. Old as I am, I’m afraid to sleep — I might not wake up.”

“Well, sorry for the commotion. I didn’t want it that way.” He glanced over his shoulder at Otto’s body surrounded by people. Why weren’t all those people at work?

“I’m damned lucky to be alive. Or, just damned. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.” He looked away a moment and then back at Whitey. “I never thought I could beat him. He had a pat hand.”

The old man snorted. “Way I saw it, luck didn’t have much to do with it. He was a poor shot and you weren’t. Besides, this ain’t nothing. Killing someone doesn’t mean anything around here. People don’t care about that. It happens every day. Now, if you’d robbed the bank, they’d boil you in oil and hang your body up for all to see while the crows pecked your eyes out. Or put you in jail for a hundred years. Messing with the flow of money is the only real crime around here.”

The hostler pointed at Luke’s shoulder. “Is that new? You’re bleeding bad from that shoulder. We better get you to….”

Luke felt someone grab his arm as he looked around the crowd again. “Where’s Sarah? I thought she was here.” He wondered how the boardwalk got so close to his face. Whitey was bent over him, shaking his head, and then the image faded away.

***

Luke woke to a dull ache in his shoulder. He was being jostled and rolled on a pallet of blankets and his groan was cut off by a gasp when another bump came. He knew he was in a wagon because one of the wheels needed grease and if there was supposed to be springs underneath, someone had stolen them. He opened his eyes to see out the back of the buckboard, but the end gate was up. All he could see was blue sky, dotted with puff-ball clouds.

Propping himself up on his elbows he could see better, although his shoulder didn’t like it much. Two horses were tied behind the wagon. Sitting on a high seat, Whitey grinned at him from another wagon piled high with furniture and boxes, following behind the horses.

A sharp whistle hurt his ears and his wagon stopped. He was attacked by a kissing and crying female as she checked his bandages.

“What’s going on, Sarah? Where are we?”

She helped him sit all the way up and Whitey grinned at him, hanging over the back of the wagon’s end gate.

He shook his head and was pleased it didn’t hurt. “So, talk to me.”

“Well, after you fainted — ” She was startled when he interrupted.

“I never faint.”

Smiling, she shook her head. “Anyway, after you proposed to me — ”

He reached for her. “I don’t remember that.”

Whitey laughed at that one. “You did, Boss. I’m a witness.”

Sarah was speaking again. “And then after we chased that little trollop away. She came back and wanted to go through your pockets — said you owed her money.”

He glanced at her. “You don’t believe that for a minute. Besides, Lilly’s going to turn her life around.”

That produced a very unladylike snort. “Oh, please.”

Her hand was caressing his face. He could get used to it. “So why are you trying to bounce me to death in this wagon?”

She glanced at Whitey. “Well, we waited a week for you to mend some.”

“I’ve been out a week?”

The hostler’s voice was serious. “You fainted a long time.”

“Did not.”

Watching him, she continued. “Anyway, once your fever broke we decided to go ranching.”

He stared at Whitey a moment. “Why is he here?”

She shrugged. “I needed help and you need a foreman. It’s been a busy week with selling the boarding house, his livery and all.”

“What do you mean all? There’s more?”

Her expression sobered but didn’t waver. “We got married. I’m not going to shack up with some out-of-work marshal living in sin.”

“We — ”

Whitey’s smile was so wide he was showing where he’d lost a couple of teeth, way back inside. “Yep. I witnessed it after we signed it for you. The parson was most understanding. We told him how you were setting everything up before you got ambushed. When we got through with the paperwork, I never seen a man laugh like that.”

A deep breath settled his nerves — mostly. “Well, now. It seems I got a lot accomplished while I was resting.”

Shaking his head, Whitey chuckled. “You fainted again.”

“Did not.”

He looked at Sarah and her eyes were soft and pleading. She looked about ready to cry before he drew her in close with a whisper.

“I accept.” He thought a moment. “Say, did we have a honeymoon during this week that I can’t remember?”

Her face went from pink to red. “No. We did not. And if you don’t behave yourself it won’t be anytime soon.”

“Good. I’m thinking I’d want to remember that.” Glancing at the grinning man hanging on the tail gate of the wagon he spoke in a stage whisper. “So, in addition to a new wife I’ve got a foreman now?”

She nodded, a wary look in her eyes. “You do.”

“Well, I already have two riders. I figure any foreman worth his salt will have to do the plowing. We’ve got crops to put in. I want to raise corn for silage.”

“Now, wait just a minute — ”

He gave the man a stern look. At least, the best he could manage. “You’ve been grinning at me since I woke up. Where are those pearly whites now? Huh?”

She kissed Luke again and smiled through tears. “I need to quit doing this or we’ll never find a camp site. I’ll let you two hash this out.”

Whitey dropped from sight and then clambered back onto his wagon. They had to yell at each other over the noise of the two wagons. “Ain’t nothing to hash out. I ain’t plowing.”

Luke tried to ease his position, leaning against the front of the wagon. “You expect to eat?”

He heard a big sigh from his wife. “This may have been a mistake — “

###

Historical Notes on Joplin, Missouri:

Jack’s is loosely patterned after the House of Lords whose orgies at New Years were known worldwide. The exact time this establishment opened is hazy at best, as was the ownership.

In April 1878 Wyatt Earp was in Joplin looking for train robbers when he heard of Ed Masterson’s death in Dodge City and left immediately. Ed and Bat Masterson were buffalo hunters before taking up the law.

The Marshal of Joplin in 1878 was L. Cass (LC) Hamilton. Common street walkers were confined to 3rd street so they didn’t interfere with the bordellos in the finer houses.

Molly Tate ran a bawdy house on Broadway. Lillie Wiggins place was on Virginia Ave.

Lead was discovered before the Civil War, but in 1870 it was Zinc (Jack) that made people rich. It was used in paint and as an alloy to galvanize metal and copper.

The newspaper at the time in Joplin was the Daily Herald. Their reporter was James Donnally.

And yes, old mine tunnels still cave in today after heavy rains. They’re call sink holes now.

Source: Joplin News Herald, Joplin Globe and Joplin Ordinances.

Fictitious

Short Story Fiction by Published Authors. We Make Stuff Up.

Fictitious

Fictitious is a publication featuring short story fiction (and a few non-fiction articles) by published authors. For the most part, we make stuff up. But there are always exceptions.

Darrel Sparkman

Written by

Award Winning: Frontier, Western, Contemporary and TEOTWAWKI

Fictitious

Fictitious is a publication featuring short story fiction (and a few non-fiction articles) by published authors. For the most part, we make stuff up. But there are always exceptions.