Authors: William W. Johnstone
The bullet hit the holstered derringer under the crown, and rammed the sneaky gun with venomous force into Creeds' hand. The man yelped, let the top hat drop, and shook his stinging fingers.
“I seen that tinhorn trick for the first time twenty years ago. It didn't fool me then and didn't fool me now.” Grim old Luther Ironside, the Dromore
, walked from the corner of the schoolhouse behind a smoking Colt. “You heard Mr. O'Brien, Creeds. Now git off his damned property.”
Creeds was livid, raging beyond anger. The gunman's face twisted into a demonic mask of hate as he stepped along the ragged edge of insanity. He was enraged enough to draw.
“Try it, Creeds.” Ironside's voice was low and dangerous. “See what happens.” Snow flurried around him and his gray hair tossed in the wind. He looked like an Old Testament prophet come to justice.
Creeds was game, but he backed off like a snail into its shell when he saw Ironside adopt the classic gunfighter pose, right arm extended, the revolver steady in his fist, left foot forming a T behind the heel of the right, deciding he didn't want any part of the tall old man. Not that day. “Mister, I'll be back and I'll kill you.”
Ironside nodded. “Yeah, you do that, sonny. But wait until them fingers o' your'n have straightened out some. A blowed-up sneaky gun stings like the dickens.”
Creeds swung back to Trixie. “Last chance.”
The girl shook her head, turned on her heel, and rushed back into the schoolhouse.
“I'm going, O'Brien,” Creeds said. “But I'll be back and I'll bring down the fires of hell on this place.”
Shawn picked up the man's hat and handed it to him. “You'll need that. Keep your head warm.”
The gunman cursed, then swung his horse away and was soon swallowed by cartwheeling snow, winter darkness, and distance. His threat hung in the air and made the morning foul.
“We should've killed that feller, Shawn,” Ironside said. “I figger I taught you better than that.”
“I thought about it. But it didn't seem to call for a shooting.”
“Damn it, he had a sneaky gun,”
“Yes, he did at that. Why didn't you kill him, Luther?”
Ironside was silent for a moment, but couldn't find an answer. Finally, he said, “Well, your brother Jacob would've gunned him right off.”
“No probably. Jake would've gunned him fer sure.”
“Yes . . . he . . . would . . .”
Ironside snorted like an angry bull. “Hell, Shawn, you're not listening to me.”
“I'm thinking, Luther.”
“Thinking, huh? Well study on thisâif you've got the drop on a man never let him take his hat off. I teached you that a long time ago.”
Shawn smiled. “I guess I must've slept through that lesson.”
“I guess you did, an' it near got your fool head blowed off.”
“But you were around to save me, Luther, as always.”
“Damn right I was, as always.”
Shawn quickly stepped close to the old man, taking him by surprise, then laid a smacking kiss on Ironside's unshaven cheek. “You're my hero, Luther.” He grinned.
Ironside rubbed his cheek as though he'd just been stung by a hornet. “Damn it, boy, don't ever do that again.”
Shawn laughed and walked toward the schoolhouse.
Ironside watched him until he opened the door and stepped inside. Only then did Ironside smile. God knows, he'd tanned their hides often enough doing it, but he'd taught his O'Brien boys right. No doubt about that.
When Shawn stepped into the school, the black eyes of a dozen kids turned to him. All were the children of the Dromore vaqueros, and their education was one of his father's pet projects.
His spurs chiming in the sudden hush, Shawn walked to the front of the class. He smiled at the teacher he knew only as Julia. “We have to talk.”
The woman nodded, realizing that the morning's events had changed everything. She turned to her class. “Children, the snow is getting heavier. I'm letting school out early today.”
The kids had learned enough English to understand the gist of that. They cheered before stampeding out the door in a wild tangle, perhaps fearful that Miss Julia might change her mind.
After the children left, Julia said, “I guess I've got some explaining to do.”
Shawn nodded. “Trixie Lee to Miss Julia Davenport is quite a leap. It confuses a man.”
“Julia Davenport is my real name. I was Trixie Lee when I worked in Zebulon Moss's saloon in Santa Fe. He gave me that name and I've always hated it.”
“All right. Tell me about it,” Shawn said, his chin set.
But Julia saw no accusation or judgment in his eyes. Rather she saw a reined patience, a man waiting for what was to come. She wiped off the chalked blackboard with a yellow duster, giving herself time to collect her thoughts and leaving circular white smears that matched the color of her face.
Shawn came from a direction she didn't expect. “Did Moss give you the scar on your face?”
Julia turned then shook her head. “No, no, he didn't.”
Shawn waited. The only sound in the room was the whisper of the north wind around the eaves and, far off, the voices of the children.
“My mother did that with a carving knife,” Julia explained. “It was part of a carving set that had been a wedding present to her and Pa.”
“She went crazy. Mad, I guess you'd say. Pa failed at everything he'd tried in life, including the poems he wrote that nobody ever published. Farming on the Kansas plains was his last chance to make good. Have you ever been in Kansas?”
Shawn shook his head.
“It's a flat, lonely place, grass as far as the eye can see and not a tree in sight. Well, Ma stuck it out for five yearsâfive years of drought, prairie fire, torrential rains, blizzards, whirlwinds, locusts, rattlesnakes, and gray wolves, to say nothing of horse thieves and begging, destitute Indians.” Julia smiled. “What is it they say? âIn God we trusted, in Kansas we busted.' That's how it was with us, and with our poverty came not only hunger but the death of hope.”
“When you talk about Kansas, you shut your eyes,” Shawn said.
“I'm seeing it again, just like it was, so lonely and bleak.”
“And it finally drove your ma mad?”
“Yes. I guess it was the loneliness that drove her mad, that and the constant prairie wind. The wind blows day and night and it never stops, not for a moment. Then one day, she went outside the cabin and screamed and screamed and we thought her screams would never end. Finally Pa took her inside and she was quiet for a few days. I mean she didn't speak or eat; she just stared and stared at nothing. Then, on the Sabbath, after Pa had read from the Bible, Ma got the carving knife and stabbed my little sister Bethany through the heart. She slashed at me and gave me the scar on my face, then she cut her own throat.”
Julia blinked, seeing pictures she didn't want to see. “There was blood everywhere. The cabin was full of blood, red, scarlet blood on the floor, on the walls, all over Pa, all over me. Then Pa roared as though he was in pain and he held Ma and my sister to him for a day and a night and then another day. We buried the bodies away from the house, but shallow because the ground was hard with frost. The coyotes came and took them and we never found anything of Ma or Bethany again.”
“I'm sorry,” Shawn said, knowing how inadequate that sounded.
Julia took a breath and continued. “After that we moved to Dodge, where Pa thought he might prosper in the dry goods business, but he died of nothing more serious than a summer cold within a year.”
Shawn stepped to a side window and looked outside. Sky and earth were the same shade of dark purple and snow cartwheeled through the sullen day, driven by a wind cold as a stepmother's breath. Julia had lit the oil lamp on her desk, but its dull orange glow did little to banish the gloom shadowing the schoolhouse.
“So you were left alone in the world,” Shawn said. “You were just a child, I guess.”
“I lived as best I could for a while, then I jumped a deadheading freight to Wichita. I couldn't find a job so I worked the line for the next three years for a four-hundred-pound gal I knew only as Big Bertha. That's where Zeb Moss found me. I'd just reached my seventeenth birthday.”
“And he gave you a new name,” Shawn said.
“And a job. He paid Bertha two hundred dollars for me and made me a hostess in his saloon in Santa Fe. He said with my scarred face I'd have freak value to customers who valued such things.”
“So after a while you ran away and came here?”
“Not for a couple years. I became Zeb's kept woman and he never let me out of his sight. Then I read an advertisement in the newspaper about a teaching job and answered it. I made my break from Zeb when Colonel O'Brien wrote, telling me the job was mine.”
“You sent references to the colonel,” Shawn said. “Pa said you were obviously a genteel young lady of good breeding and that you'd worked as a tutor back East.”
Julia smiled slightly. “Say what's on your mind, Shawn. Tell me I'm not a genteel young lady at all. I'm just a cheap whore and now my pimp wants me back.”
Julia Davenport's words stung Shawn O'Brien like wasps, yet he had to push her and discover why the colonel could make such a mistake. “Your references were impeccable. You sent three letters of recommendation from good Boston families that fooled even Pa, and he's not a man easily hoodwinked.”
Julia looked like a woman in pain. “The letters were forged by a Caddo Indian by the name of Billy One Wing. He's got only one arm, but he's the best counterfeiter in the business. He gets a lot of work from Zeb, and I gave him mine. I trusted Billy because he doesn't like white men and knows when to keep his mouth shut.”
Shawn nodded. “He must be good to have fooled the colonel.”
“Billy One Wing could fool anybody.” Julia took her cloak from the peg on the wall and threw it around her shoulders. She doused the oil lamp, then said, “Well, shall we go see the colonel?”
“You're a good teacher, Julia. Everybody agrees on that.”
“My ma taught me to read and cipher. The rest I know comes from books.”
“I'll talk to the colonel first,” Shawn said. “Prepare the way.”
“What difference does it make? You know he'll fire me and throw me out of Dromore.”
“If he does, what will you do?”
“I don't know. Run somewhere else, I guess. Just keep on running until Zeb Moss tires of chasing me.”
Shawn thought for a moment, and then said, “Everything blew up this morning, Julia. Under different circumstances I would've said nothing to the colonel about your past, but suddenly you're a danger to Dromore. You heard Silas Creeds. He means to do us harm if he can.”
“I understand, Shawn. You must do what you have to do. I'll survive.”
“I'll talk to him,” Shawn offered again. “When we go back to the house, just go to your room and wait.”
“For whatever the colonel decides.”
“Is he down on whores?”
“He's down on anything or anyone that's a threat to Dromore.”
“And that includes me?”
“Yes. I'm afraid it does,”
Julia nodded. “Then I'll do as you say.”
She and Shawn walked to the door, but Julia stopped and looked up at the tall O'Brien brother. “Knowing what you've learned about me, could you love a woman like me, Shawn?”
Shawn smiled. “What kind of question is that to ask a man?”
“It's simple enough. Could you love a woman like me?”
“I don't know.”
“Is it the scar? In your eyes am I the troll that lives under the bridge?”
“No, you're a beautiful woman, Julia. I think that scar adds to your attractiveness, not detracts from it.”
Julia absorbed that. “The reason I asked is I want a man to love me one day.”
“One day a man will, depend on it.”
“But not you?”
“I've still got growing to do, Julia. Maybe a few years from now I could, but not right now.”
“An honest answer.”
“It's how I feel.”
“Will you give me your arm when we walk to the house?”
“I'd be honored,” Shawn said.
“So she's a whore,” Luther Ironside said to the others gathered in the parlor of Dromore. “Damn me, but I knew it all along. I can just tell, you understand?”
Colonel Shamus O'Brien winced. “Luther, you think every woman is a whore until she proves otherwise, usually to your disappointment.”
“Shawn, how seriously do you take Silas Creeds' threats?” Samuel, Shawn's oldest brother, looked at him in earnest.
“He's a killer, Sam,” Shawn said. “I take anything he says seriously and so should you.”
“Damn, I should've plugged him when I had the chance,” Ironside whined.
“If it's not him, it will be somebody else,” Shawn said. “Zebulon Moss wants his woman back and he'll kill to get her.”
“Why?” Samuel asked. “I mean, she's a pretty woman, even with the scar an' all, but if what I've heard about Moss is correct, he's rich enough to get any woman he wants.”
“How do you know, Sam?” Patrick, Shawn's brother, asked.
“You mean about Moss?”
“Yeah. How do you know he's rich?”
“He owns half of Santa Fe. I heard that the last time I was up that way, and there are some who reckon ol' Zeb got his start in the bank robbing profession. Of course they don't say it out loud. Silas Creeds is just one of the thugs he hired to keep his business interests running smoothly.”
“You mean his saloons?” Shamus asked.
“Saloons, opium, prostitution, the protection racket, you name it. Zeb's got a dirty finger in a lot of pies.”
“Enough about Moss,” Shawn said. “We're supposed to be talking about Julia Davenport.”
“Hell, get rid of her, I say,” Ironside said. “We don't want a whore teaching our kids. God knows what she'll tell them.”
“Luther,” Shamus said, “may I remind you that when you served in my regiment in the war you ran a few rackets of your own, including, but not limited to, selling rotgut whiskey to the new recruits and acquiring fancy women for their officers. And if memory serves me correctly, you and the quartermaster regularly traded coffee and flour to the Rebs for cigars, chewing tobacco, and Confederate scrip and made a tidy profit doing it.”
Ironside opened his mouth to speak, but the colonel held up a silencing hand. “As for teaching, you taught my sons about whoring, drinking, cussing, gun fighting, and riding fast horses. Readings from Holy Scripture were notably absent from your curriculum, as was righteous instruction on the path to eternal redemption.”
Satisfied that he'd stated his case in an exemplary fashion, Shamus sat back in his wheelchair. “Now, Luther, no more about who should teach who, please. You are hardly qualified to have any opinions on the matter.”
Patrick grinned. “I bet you're sorry you spoke, Luther.”
Ironside growled something under his breath and Shamus said, “What? What was that?”
“Nothing,” Ironside said. “I didn't give my opinion on nothing.”
“And I should hope not,” Shamus said. “The very idea.”
“Do you gentlemen mind if I say something?” Samuel's wife Lorena interrupted.
“Please do,” Shamus said, scowling at Ironside. “It will be a pleasant change to hear someone talk common sense for a change.”
“We hired a teacher, not a past,” Lorena pointed out. “As it happens, Julia is an excellent teacher and the children love her. What more can we ask of her?”
“Hear, hear,” Patrick said.
“I don't think it's for men, including you, Luther, to sit in judgment on her. It was men who used and abused Julia in the past and if you send her packing, you'll be continuing that abuse, all of you.”
“Hear, hear,” Patrick said again.
Shamus looked at him. “Patrick, don't say that again.” To Lorena he said, “There is a possibility that she couldâ”
“Probability,” Shawn interrupted.
“Bring danger to Dromore. How do you address that, Lorena?”
“Colonel, you've never shied away from danger before.”
“True, but Miss Davenport is not kin. She's a stranger to us. But she's an employee of this ranch and deserves a fair hearing. She's our schoolteacher and an important part of Dromore, no doubt about that.” Shamus turned to his sons. “Patrick, Samuel, and Shawn, your opinions, please.”
“What about me?” Ironside said.
“You've already made your feelings known, Luther,” Shamus said.
“But I've changed my mind, Colonel. What Lorena said about us being no better than the men who abused her in the past kinda rang true with me.”
“A most singular change of mind indeed, Luther,” Lorena said. “But of the greatest moment.” She looked around the study. “Well, what do the brothers O'Brien think?”
Shawn cast his vote. “I'm for keeping her right here at Dromore.”
“I agree.” Patrick nodded.
“That sets fine with me,” Samuel agreed.
“Colonel?” Lorena looked to her father-in-law.
“I'll think on this and give you my answer in the morning,” Shamus said. “I will pray to Our Lady of Good Counsel and beg her advice on this matter.”
“Good. She's a woman.” Lorena smiled.
“And the virgin mother of God,” Shamus said.