ance Logan stared at the iron-barred window until the black grillwork melded into one unfocused plain of dusty waves. The weather-beaten landscape beyond dissolved until a hail of gunfire pierced the hot morning silence. Instantly the bars refocused, and what lay beyond that prison—one man fallen, the other, his killer, already leaving a short-lived trail in the dust as he ambled off toward town. His pace was one Rance knew well, that of a man whose scores had been duly settled, his grievance or disagreement resolved here, not ten steps from Wichita’s jailhouse, where the sheriff perhaps just now roused from his midmorning nap.
Through the black iron bars, Rance watched the man walk the length of Wichita, then disappear into one of the saloons crouching along the main thoroughfare. A free man—his shoulders unstooped from guilt or regret, his limbs unfettered of chains, his neck not twitching at the mere thought of hemp crushing his windpipe. After all, law, order and what was considered cold-blooded murder in many cities meant little enough on most days in Wichita. For most men. Even Rance, when it had suited his purposes. At one time. He’d built a reputation and what some might consider a tidy fortune on it. But no longer.
He should have seen it coming.
Many a man had walked that same path back to town, had turned his back with the same casual shifting of his shoulders, perhaps because he knew that dusty grave could just as easily have been his. With an experienced detachment, Rance’s gaze swept over the fallen man, lingering on the boots jutting skyward.
A trickle of sweat went ignored as it weaved a grimy path from his temple into his heavy beard. He tasted crud on his teeth and dried blood on his cracked lips, felt the shackles biting into his wrists and ankles. The pounding in his head hadn’t quit since they’d thrown him in here late yesterday. He needed a whiskey, the same mellow stuff he’d left on the table at Buffalo Kate’s, beside his cards. He’d taken only one long pull, his eyes trained over the glass on the man lunging from the chair opposite. Every instinct had demanded that he draw then...precisely then. He’d never ignored instinct before.
Most men would have drawn long before that, at the first hint of an accusation that they had cheated. Most men would never have waited to be
by some self-impressed cattleman from some no-name town east of Wichita, a man who looked as if he handled his pistol as sloppily as he did his cards. Any man in Wichita who owned a gun and called himself a man would never have thought twice about wiping a condescending smirk from another man’s face, or an accusatory leer from his eye, with one pull of the trigger. No, those men wouldn’t have spared a glance for the locket Mr. Frank Wynne from Twilight, Kansas, tossed into the pile on the gaming table, except maybe for the few moments taken to judge its worth as a wager. After spilling across the pile of coins, the locket had bumped against Rance’s hand and fallen open. No,
men would never have glanced at that open locket, at the tiny photographs pressed inside, at those two faces. Yet Rance had.
Why had he?
Rance closed his eyes and allowed his head to fall back against the cool stone wall, feeling his throat constricting. Those faces. They’d seemed to reach out to him even as he narrowed his eyes upon Wynne, gulping down whiskeys and fondling anything in skirts that came within three feet of the table. Those faces belonged to Wynne. Shooting the man suddenly didn’t seem the thing to do.
And yet he had. Kill or be killed. He’d built a fortune on that sort of philosophy.
Wynne’s shot might have missed, had he gotten one off. Rance’s never missed. This one had been intended to merely graze Wynne’s shooting hand, deflecting his gun before he could even think about squeezing off a shot. But Wynne had done something extraordinary and cowardly, something Rance could never have anticipated. At the precise moment Rance’s finger tightened on the trigger, Frank Wynne had lunged directly into the line of fire. Rance’s bullet had sliced through Wynne’s dandified black frock coat and red brocade vest, plunged through his chest and out his back, before embedding itself in one of Buffalo Kate’s green-velvet-backed armchairs from San Francisco. Only then had Rance lowered his whiskey glass to the table. And then he’d found his fingers twisting in the gold chain and curling around that open locket. The woman stared up at him, her expression passionless yet somehow accusatory, her face pale and bleak, devoid of all hope, as if she had somehow known her husband would meet such an end.
At his hand.
He closed his eyes, and she loomed in his mind. The squirming stirred in his gut. Odd for a man who had killed before. Even odder for a man just hours from the hangman’s noose.
Most men he knew, even the worst of the lot, would be praying, seeking absolution for all their misdeeds. And then they’d plot their escape.
The swish of bustled muslin skirts skimming dirt floor brought his eyes slowly open. The ceiling came into focus, and he listened to a woman’s shrill voice echoing down the jailhouse hall. It took only a moment for him to recognize the voice. After all, he’d spent the past three years in her husband’s employ, supping nightly on her well-cooked meals.
Even then, instinct should have told him that taking the job would ultimately cost him his life.
“Mrs. Spotz, ma’am,” Sheriff Earl Gage sputtered, as if still shaking himself from sleepy stupor, his chair scraping back against the stone wall. Rance could well imagine Gage’s ruddying cheeks, the clumsy doffing of his hat, again and again, in a manner due the wife of the most powerful cattleman in all of Kansas. Texas, even, or so Cameron Spotz had pompously proclaimed himself. “Fine mornin’, ma’am.”
“Out of my way, Sheriff, or I shall swat you with my parasol.”
“Now, ma’am, that’s Rance Logan I’ve got penned up back there. Most dangerous gunman Kansas ever seen, ‘cept fer maybe Black Jack Bartlett hisself.”
“And well I know it,” Abigail Spotz railed. “That’s the very reason I’m here. I’ve been duly appointed by the Wichita Women’s Gardening Auxiliary to ascertain whether the black-hearted outlaw Rance Logan is appropriately restrained. The womenfolk of this town shan’t rest or safely walk the streets until I do so. Now move aside.”
Gage seemed to stifle a cough. “With all due respect, ma’am, your husband and I have made certain the womenfolk of this town get their good night’s rest—”
“I don’t give a hoot what my husband does, Sheriff. Then again, perhaps it would be prudent of me if I did so from now on. After all, was it not
husband who hired that...that...
to protect our ranch from those loathsome farmers and cattle rustlers? A common criminal, he is, born of this vast wasteland, and descended upon us all to reap the rewards of dishonest endeavor.”
“Er...why, yes, ma’am, I suppose he is that, now, ain’t he? But Rance Logan’s been known statewide, even up near Denver way, fer his expert shot. I heard rumor he run shotgun guard fer the Wells Fargo line’s gold shipments back east at one time. Even ‘fore that, weren’t no other gun to be had fer the price. Still ain’t, what with Black Jack up ‘n’ vanished like a scared coon. Nobody’d mess with Logan, I tell ya. I even heard tell he were one o’ them decorated Union soldiers. Hell, nobody’d blame yer husband fer hirin’ him, ma’am, ’specially with them rustlers and farmers up ‘n’ stealin’ all yer grazin’ land. Ye need a man like Logan te tend to them folks, ma’am.” The clang of spittle meeting with cuspidor filtered through the dusty hall. “Yep. But ain’t no tellin’ when them loner sorts’ll snap an’ just go off an’ murder an innocent man fer no good reason. Been givin’ ol’ Cameron a time of it, I hear, disobeyin’ an’ whatnot.”
Abigail Spotz sniffed. “That’s my husband’s business, Sheriff, not mine. Now, if you please, I believe there is a body lying just outside your front door here. Perhaps you’d best dispose of it before the crows do. I’ll be just a moment with Mr. Logan.”
Rance could almost hear Gage’s overlong nails scratching the hair on the back of his neck. “I don’ know, ma’am. Leavin’ Cameron Spotz’s wife in a jail with an outlaw like Logan...kinda makes me all nervous. Ma’am, yer husband would hang me hisself if somethin’ happened to ya.”
“I suppose he would have to now, wouldn’t he?” Abigail Spotz paused. “Suppose I just sit right here until you return from your tidying-up out there. Even Rance Logan wouldn’t be capable of harming me at this distance.”
Another clang echoed from the cuspidor. “All right now, ma’am, if ya promise te jest set down here.”
“Take your time, Sheriff, and do bury the poor man. It’s hotter than blazes today.”
Not two moments after the jailhouse door banged shut on its hinges, Abigail Spotz’s skirts rustled down the hall. She paused just as she reached Rance’s cell. Beneath the swaying fringe of her plumed hat, her dark eyes widened as they moved over him. “God, look at you,” she whispered.
“Morning, Mrs. Spotz.” Rance forced the words from his dust-clogged throat. “A fine day for a hanging.”
Abigail Spotz pressed a white-gloved hand to the lace at her throat and paled considerably, despite the flash in her eyes. “Even as we speak, my husband is securing the hemp to that twisted old tree on Boot Hill. They’ll be here for you within the hour.”
Rance felt his teeth bare in a feral smile, an inept testament to the rage igniting within him. “And how is your husband, ma’am?”
“Don’t call me that, Rance. No matter what my husband might have done to you, you know I was no part of it.”
“He bought the jury, Abigail. He bought Gage and every last witness he could find to see me thrown into this jail. The judge had no choice but to hang me. I’m inclined to believe,
that your husband wants me dead.”
Abigail closed her eyes as if weighing her decision, then spun about and yanked a brass key ring from a hook upon the wall. Rance watched her trembling hands attempting to shove key after key into the cell padlock. “You disobeyed him, Rance.” A strangled cry escaped her when the keys fell to the dirt floor with a clang. She sank to her knees and plunged her pristine white-gloved hands into the dust to retrieve the ring.
Rance studied her bent head, the streaks of gray generously marring the deep chestnut hue. Her shoulders were narrow, slightly stooped, growing more stooped with each day she endured beneath Cameron Spotz’s hand.
You disobeyed him.
“You’re right.” Rance felt his lips twisting snidely. “I refused to murder innocent farmers who had rightfully settled on grazing land,
land. That’s a sorry excuse for framing a man for cold-blooded murder and seeing him hanged.”
“Not for Cameron it isn’t. You were his paid gun. Cameron sees no farther than that. And he intended to make you pay for disobeying.” A rare youthful smile spread across her features when at last one key swung the cell door wide. She took three steps, then skidded in the dust, eyes blinking, suddenly refusing to meet his. She looked almost young somehow, as if her covert mission here had wiped clean all traces of the bitterness that had seemed so much a part of her. Gone were the deep lines at the corners of her mouth, the shadows beneath her eyes, the telltale strain in her neck. Abigail Spotz must have been a beauty when Cameron enslaved her as his wife twenty years before.
“Try the small key on the shackles,” Rance said hoarsely, his throat working against the bile burning in his throat.
As notorious, as ruthless and cold-blooded as they come. A man known only for his prowess with a gun. A man with a past both murky and riddled with speculation, a past he refused to acknowledge or refute, and thus a man feared by many, perhaps too many, who would suffer little remorse at lining their pockets to see him hanged. An odd distinction indeed for a man in a town like Wichita, which teemed with every sort of unsavory character. A town that the powerful Cameron Spotz all but owned. He’d proven it today.
“There’s more to it,” he said. “There has to be.”
“Don’t think on it,” Abigail said quickly, stepping a pace back when his shackles fell cleanly to the floor. Her gaze traveled a fidgety path to his as he flexed the stiffness from his arms and hands. “Y-your horse is picketed about a quarter mile back of the jail. He gave me a time of it, but we managed.” She slipped one hand into her folded silk-and-lace parasol and withdrew a shiny black six-gun that shook in her small hand. “I found this among your things.”
Rance wrapped his fingers around the weapon, feeling the solitary comfort only heavy cold steel could provide him. He shoved the pistol into his waistband. “I could kill him, you know. You’ve given me the means, Abigail, and I’ve got more than ample reason. For what he’s done to me, to those innocent farmers, to you— I could do it, Abigail. You’d be free of him.”
As if intent upon ignoring him, she rummaged in the folds of the parasol. “Here.” She shoved a worn wide-brimmed black hat at him. “Take this. You’ll need it under the hot sun. Oh...and this.”
The leather pouch she produced weighed heavily in his palm, the coins inside tinkling softly. A small fortune, no doubt. “Abigail, I don’t need your money.”
Again, she stuck her head into the parasol, ignoring the pouch in his outstretched hand. “You might want to shave that long beard of yours and cut your hair. You look like some sort of half-breed. Besides, Cameron will make certain your wanted posters are spread thick from here to New York and San Francisco. Oh, and change your name.”
“Abigail, listen, dammit.”
“Stop.” She held up a trembling hand, her eyes, so knowing, so wistful, suddenly shining. “Please...for heaven’s sake don’t get all gallant on me, Rance Logan. I—I don’t believe I could bear it. You see, some part of me, a very big, very shameful part of me, has been desperately wishing since the moment you stepped foot on our ranch that I was fifteen years younger...and that you were the sort to dally with other men’s wives. If you were, if I were, I believe I would go with you, even if you didn’t ask me.”