Authors: Jake Logan
The man grunted and turned. Slocum had winged him in the left arm. Then a hail of bullets kept Slocum under the bed and Marianne crouched down next to the wall. The gunman fanned off the rounds remaining in his pistol. The room filled with choking gun smoke.
Slocum heard a door slam and heavy footfalls out in the hall. He rolled back and got to his knees. The smoke vented from the room through the open window, but Slocum had no chance to stand. He was bowled over as Marianne hit him.
They struggled for a moment, then she reared up and recognized him.
“I saw that owlhoot climbing the drainpipe, then you poked your head out the window. Did I interrupt anything?”
“You idiot!” Marianne raged. “Of course you did. He was trying to rape me!”
“Then I'm glad I stopped him.”
“You didn't think I'd do that with Jack!”
Slocum took that to be her lover.
“Are you hurt?”
“No, thanks to you. But you're bleeding.” She touched his cheek.
“I need to go after him. I don't want to lose him in the dark.”
“Wait, don't,” she said, clinging to his arm. “He's a dangerous man.”
“He's going to be a dead man when I catch him.” Slocum saw the expression on her face. “You know him, don't you?”
“That's the man who burned down my house.”
“He has a scar on his cheek.”
“His name's Carstairs.”
“Have you told the sheriff?”
“There's not much he can do.” Marianne clung to him and began sobbing. Wetness from her tears spread on his shirt. “I've missed you so terribly all these years.”
He heard the sound of a horse galloping away into the night. That had to be Carstairs heading west. Slocum wanted to get on the trail right away, but Marianne held him too tight to easily leave. And the truth was, he'd rather have her arms around him than face down this Carstairs.
But that would come soon enough. Even if her lover Jack or the sheriff weren't up to it, he wasn't going to let Carstairs get away with his crimes.
“I can't ask you to fight my battles, John.” Marianne shuddered in his arms as they sat on the bed, thighs pressed together. The cold wind blowing through the shattered window might have caused part of her reaction, but Slocum knew better.
“It's my fight now,” he said. “This Carstairs owlhoot took a shot at me. I can't let him get by with that.”
“You should tell Sheriff Whitehill and let him chase him down. The two of us can swear out a warrant for him.”
“From the sound of it, Carstairs would be out of the cell and on the trail again before we could spit.”
“He's got powerful friends. He's foreman of a big mine out in Chloride Flats.”
Slocum knew what this meant. If Carstairs said the word, a dozen miners would come to town with blood in their eye. Whitehill wouldn't want that, even with Dangerous Dan Tucker to back him on any play. Keeping the peace in a boomtown like Silver City depended as much on placating the rowdy elements as it did on throwing them in jail. Only Carstairs had gone past hurrahing the town or getting drunk and beating up another saloon patron. Burning down a woman's house and then trying to rape her went far beyond simple misdemeanors.
“He was alone when he came in. He might not have let his men know what he was up to. They wouldn't cotton to raping a woman any more than I do.”
“I'm too confused to know what to think right now.”
“Ma, what happened? There was gunfire.”
Slocum released Marianne, guilty about holding her the way he had been with two young boys looking on.
“It's all right. Mr. Slocum saved me fromÂ .Â .Â . from being robbed of something very valuable.”
“Carstairs,” the taller boy said, almost spitting it out. Slocum sat a little straighter on the bed. Something about his voice reminded him of his brother, Robert.
When the boy stepped into the room and the lamplight caught his face, Slocum almost blurted something better kept penned up. The boy might sound like his brother but he was the spitting image ofÂ .Â .Â . John Slocum.
“John, this is my son, Randolph.”
“Randolph was my pa's name,” Slocum said, more to himself than to Marianne.
He looked sharply at her, but she pointedly refused to meet his gaze. Randolph had the same lank dark hair Slocum did, and if he could tell in the dim light, his green eyes matched perfectly.
“How old are you, Randolph?”
“John, don'tâ” Marianne was cut off by her son's reply.
“I'm almost thirteen. Will be in six months, at least. This here's my best friend, Billy.”
“I should introduce you properly,” Marianne said. “William McCarty, Randolph Lomax, this is my friend from Georgia, Mr. Slocum.”
Randolph fingered a knife he held behind his back, thinking Slocum didn't see it. From where he stood, the boy had his back to a mirror set into a dresser at the corner of the room that allowed Slocum to see everything. The other boy, Billy, might have a small pistol in his pocket. Slocum couldn't tell, but the heft and size of the lump was about right for a derringer. They were a dangerous pair, Randolph and Billy.
“Who shot out the window?” Billy asked.
“Bet it was that son of a bitch Carstairs,” Randolph said.
“You go wash your mouth out with soap, Randolph Robert Lomax! You will
use such language in my presence.”
Slocum felt as if his guts had been turned inside out and then tied into knots. Randolph had been his pa's name and Robert was his brother. And how had the boy come to use his ma's maiden name?
“It's all right,” Slocum said, “because I'm thinking on what he's saying. We should get Whitehill on his trail.”
“We've been over this, John. He won't do it.”
“Naw,” Randolph said, “he's as scared of Carstairs as everyone else is in this town. Everyone except Jack. He ain't afraid of no man, including the likes of Lester Carstairs.”
“He's gonna marry Randolph's ma,” Billy piped up. The boy was slight and pale. His hands moved nervously, but something in his eyes spoke to Slocum. He sounded older than Randolph, although he looked to be the same age or even younger because of his size.
“She told me,” Slocum said. “When's Jack due back?”
“He's overdue by a couple days,” Billy said, again assuming the role of spokesman for the Lomax family. “That don't mean much. He's a prospector and a damned fine one, too. He promised me a job in a new mine.”
“When? When did he do that?” demanded Randolph. “He never said nuthin' 'bout a new mine. Heâ”
“Boys,” Marianne said sharply enough to silence their bickering. “I need to get some sleep. Why don't you show Mr. Slocum out?”
“Can't he figure it out on his own?” Randolph looked irritated.
“Your ma wants us to show some manners,” Billy said. “You don't want to go out through the lobby. Miz Gruhlkey is a stickler for propriety. You'd never answer enough of her questions to keep from her whackin' you with her broom, the old witch.”
“We can go through the cellar. ThenÂ .Â .Â .” Randolph and Billy put their heads together, plotting the sneakiest departure.
“You can trust them to get you out past Mrs. Gruhlkey, no matter how sharp her eyes are for such things.”
“What do you want to do about Carstairs?” Slocum asked.
“He won't dare try anything again.”
“I'll make sure of that.”
“John, please, don't get involved.”
He already was. Slocum let the boys lead him down a laundry chute to the cellar, then crawl out a narrow window into the alley where he had pulled down the drainpipe in his climb up to Marianne's window. The boys disappeared like ghosts, leaving him to stare at the window.
After a few minutes the light went out, but Slocum heard the sobbing for some time. He went to the building immediately behind the hotel, sank down, drew up his knees, and rested his forehead there. He slept fitfully until sunrise, but Carstairs never returned.
And with the rising sun warming his face, Slocum remembered what he had heard Carstairs saying in the room to Marianne.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
“This isn't something the sheriff'd take care of, Slocum,” Dangerous Dan Tucker said as he sipped a cup of coffee strong enough to clean the gunpowder out of a rifle barrel.
Slocum stared out the cafÃ© window into Silver City's main street. Commerce had begun early, and the bustling trade told him how much money there was to be made in a boomtown. The miners would mostly go bust, with a very few hitting it rich. Those who made the real money sold the miners picks and dynamite, wheelbarrows and overalls. Without flour for biscuits and oatmeal and beans, a prospector starved. Slocum had never seen one of them who'd take the time to hunt or forage. That stole away precious time better spent hunting for the elusive precious metal, whether it was gold or silver.
“Carstairs is that important?”
“Don't know the ins and outs yet of the town, but yeah, I'd say so from what I've heard,” Tucker admitted. “The Argent Mine is one of the biggest. Without its metal flowing into the banks, the saloons, and all the rest, Silver City would be a shadow of itself.”
“Where could that silver go, if not here?”
“Shakespeare's a day or two ride off. You been there with the sheriff?”
“Almost there,” Slocum said.
“The stagecoach route runs through Shakespeare. Put the silver on the stage and it goes to banks in Mesilla or El Paso.”
“I 'spect Whitehill is more worried about Carstairs turning his crew loose on the town.”
“That would be a consideration, too, Slocum.” Tucker drained the coffee. “If I was you, well, you can finish that thought all by your lonesome. Have never taken you for a dull boy.”
Slocum could figure out what the deputy meant with no trouble at all. Dan Tucker might wear a deputy's badge, but he was more outlaw than lawman at heart. He was saying Slocum should handle the problem with Carstairs rather than waiting for Whitehill to get around to it.
“How pissed will the sheriff be if he finds I've left town? He is still sitting on a body I was carting around in a block of ice.”
“About that, Slocum. You know Marianne Lomax real well, from the way you have been goin' on about her.”
“We both come from the same town in Georgia.”
“Iânever mind. Got to go.” Tucker stood and started from the cafÃ© so fast Slocum thought somebody had lit his ass on fire. He had never seen Tucker so edgy.
The deputy stopped at the doorway but didn't turn as he said, “You might tell Marianne to go on by the jailhouse to talk to Whitehill. Not sure you want to be with her when she goes.”
“Wait, Dan.” But Slocum spoke to thin air. Tucker almost ran off, leaving Slocum to scratch his head, wondering what it all meant.
He finished his breakfast and was on his way out when he bumped into Marianne, looking radiant in the morning sun.
“I hoped to find you here, John. This is about the only restaurant in Silver City that doesn't poison its customers and then bury the bodies out back.”
“Good food. The deputy paid for my breakfast.”
“You're short on funds,” she said, nodding. He watched her pensive mood turn into something harder, more determined. “Come out to the house with me.”
“The one Carstairs burned?”
“I don't know if you can find anything that'll prove he was the culprit, but you know more about what to look for than I do, I'm sure.”
“Because I killed a judge?”
Marianne turned somber.
“Because you have experience far beyond that, unless I miss my guess. What I've had to do to stay alive and keep Randolph fed went down a different road.”
“What do you mean by that?”
She looked up at him, her bright blue eyes boring into his soul. Her auburn hair gleamed in the sun, and shadows cast on her cheekbones gave her a gaunt, haunted look.
“You know what I mean.”
And he did. Selling her body to keep food on the table didn't set well with him, but he had done things more criminal. Killing men was the least of it, though he had never hired out to murder anyone. That didn't hold down the number of corpses he'd put into early graves, but there were worse things than what Marianne had done.
“This man you're going to marry, Jack. Doesn't heâ”
“Don't talk about him, John. Texas Jack is a fine man, but he isn't above a swindle or two if it suits him. He loves me, and I love him.”
For a moment Slocum missed what she had said. Then it hit him like a ton of bricks falling on his head.
“Texas Jack Bedrich?”
“Why, yes, you've heard of him?”
Slocum stared at her, not sure what to say. Marianne started to say something more, then her eyes went wide and she covered her mouth with her hand. Shaking her head, she backed from him. The wildness in her expression came rushing out as she cried, “No, John, don't say it. Don't tell me something's happened to him!”
“He's dead,” Slocum said. More than once as an officer in the army and after, he had delivered such bad news to wives and lovers, mothers and children. As much as he wanted, there were not words to soften the blow. Easing into the news never worked. Quick, brutal, get it over with. That was for the best.
“You? You killed him?”
“No, but I brought his body in to the sheriff.”
“What happened?” She had gone pale, and her hands shook, but the steely determination he had seen in Marianne before held her together now.
“I don't know how he died. A bullet. But who killed him?” Slocum shook his head. “I was attacked by road agents and fought off an Apache war party. A man named Frank wasâ”
“Frank? He killed Jack?”
“Don't know that, but it's possible,” he said. No matter how much he, Whitehill, and Tucker hashed out everything that had happened on the trail, Bedrich's killer could never be determined that way alone. They needed more than palaver. They needed evidence.
“He and Jack had a falling-out months ago.”
“I don't think so. Frank fancied himself a ladies' man, but he hardly gave me a second look when he was with Jack. I heard him muttering about me being a whore and how he'd never sully his organ byâ”
“The sheriff thinks they broke off their partnership over a claim.”
“He and Jack had a decent strike. It produces enough for one man to get along, but not two. Jack talked about selling out his share, but then he stopped all mention of it because something else occupied his every thought.”
“Other than you?” Slocum asked.
This brought a tiny smile to her lips that faded quickly.
“He was a driven man, completely consumed by whatever interested him at any given time. Oh, he loved me, but he also loved other things.” Marianne smiled ruefully. “That's why I thought I'd found a real man. Finding silver was as important to him as I was.”
Slocum heard more in her words that wasn't stated. He hesitated to ask how Texas Jack and Randolph got along. Marianne doted on her son, but too often stepchildren were ignored when a woman remarried.
“Frank is somewhere in the area,” Slocum said. “He didn't wait for the sheriff to question him, but I can't figure how he had a chance to kill Bedrich. Carstairs, though, is another matter.”
“Carstairs,” she said. “I had almost forgotten about him.” She took a step toward the livery stable, then shifted and started in the other direction before turning and stumbling into Slocum. “I'm sorry. I'm so confused, so shocked.” She fixed him with her steady gaze. Tears had welled in her eyes. “The truth, John. Did you kill Jack?”
“No.” He didn't hesitate, he didn't waver. “But I'll find out who did.”