by Margaret P.
With thanks to my betas, Terri Derr and Karen Fedderly. Wordcount: 6,953
Katie was going back to San Francisco.
Scott managed to ignore the fact until Johnny and Emily’s wedding, but it hit him hard a couple of days after the celebrations when Katie surprised him with a picnic lunch. Scott had risen at daybreak and worked solidly all morning, and he still had a busy afternoon ahead of him. Seeing Katie, riding astride towards him, an easy smile on her lips for all the vaqueros, and a more intimate one for him, filled his heart with joy and his other parts with something more primal—until Walt gave him a departing slap on the back. “Enjoy it while you can.”
Scott felt like he’d been sucker-punched.
“I’m sorry I haven’t spent any time with you since the wedding.” Undercover of her horse, he slipped his arms around Katie’s waist. The vaqueros were herding strays down from the hills into the valley below. With luck they were giving all their attention to their task and not to the boss taking a break with the attractive Miss Eliot.
Turning, she put her arms around his neck and played with his hair as she smiled up at him. “Someone has to do Johnny’s work while he’s away. Isn’t he lucky he has a big brother to pick up the slack?”
A high pitched whistle from one of the vaqueros broke the moment. They dropped their arms with embarrassed smiles, and Scott reached out to untie the picnic basket. The vaquero whistled again. A heifer emerged from some bushes further along the hillside and he herded it downhill.
Leading the way to an ancient oak tree a little way up the slope, Katie carried the rug and spread it out in the shade. Scott put the basket down, and she started to unpack the food while he stretched out on his side, resting on his elbow.
“I’m famished.” He helped himself to a beef and pickle sandwich even before Katie had finished putting everything out. Breakfast had been oatmeal and biscuits with the men in the bunkhouse in between meeting with Murdoch and Cipriano and organising the two crews he was in charge of that day. “Hmm, this is good.”
“I’ve learned the art of sandwich-making.” Katie smiled and began to peel him a hard-boiled egg. When finished, she leaned back against the tree, looking up into its spring canopy. The leaves were all green and gold, rustling in the light breeze. Pin pricks of sunshine cast patterns on her white cotton blouse and brown woollen split skirt. “I wish I could have seen Emily’s face when she saw what we did to the old hunting cabin.”
“What you did, you mean. It wouldn’t have been half as nice without your finishing touches.”
“I only provided better linen, potpourris and candles—you and Johnny did the hard work getting the bed in, and it was the idea itself that mattered most. Johnny really is quite romantic, isn’t he?”
“We Lancer men all have our moments.”
“Do you indeed?”
“We do—trust me.”
Katie blushed and broke eye contact. What had started as light-hearted repartee was fast becoming too meaningful. “I’m surprised Emily and Johnny don’t stay away longer.”
“Murdoch and I did suggest it, but Johnny’s too much of a rancher now. This is a busy time of year.”
“And besides, Emily couldn’t bear to leave her beloved horses for any length of time.”
Scott laughed, and Katie smiled again. Their fondness for Johnny and Emily was one of the more important things they shared. Scott was surprised how much it meant to him.
“I’m glad they’ll be back before I leave.”
“They were determined to be here. The whole family is escorting you to Morro Coyo to wave goodbye, you know?”
Well, that was the plan anyway.
Scott wanted Katie to know the people who lived on the ranch would be sorry to see her leave, and most of all, he wanted her to love and miss them. Then there’d be more chance of her coming back and maybe overlooking a few things.
Guns still bothered her; he’d have to be blind not to see it. They’d been out walking only the other evening when a rifle fired from the roof of the hacienda, and it wasn’t just the coyote approaching the corral that jumped and ran away. The animal dashed across a moonlit field back towards the hills. Katie forced a laugh and decided it was time to return to the house.
Scott tried to make light of it. “You see, guns have their uses here.”
“I know.” She had given him a tight smile and quickened her step. If only scaring wild animals was the only reason men carried guns in the San Joaquin. She didn’t need to say the words; Scott could hear them in her silence.
There were no fancy theatres or department stores near Lancer either; and none of the three local towns could boast much refined or educated society. She never complained, and she was enjoying her visit, but could she stand the lack of those things for long periods? Were the feelings they had for each other strong enough to make up for the sacrifices?
He thought Katie’s jury was still out, but—God help him—his had brought in a verdict. As he’d watched her carefully arrange the lazo around Emily’s shoulders during the wedding ceremony, his feelings had gone past the point of no return. He debated about speaking to her before she went back to her uncle’s house, but forcing a decision too soon might get him the wrong answer. It was too risky.
The manner of her farewell could help his cause, and he could judge when to take the plunge later when he visited her in San Francisco. Any time before September would do. If she said yes, he wouldn’t even mind if she went back to Boston with her family after her cousin’s wedding. If he and Katie were engaged, she would return.
Everything was arranged for her departure: a big family dinner the night before and a special farewell from the vaqueros and their families. All the members of his family would see her onto the stagecoach. It could work. People and family were what mattered most to Katie; everything else was incidental. If she loved him deeply enough and had those important elements in her life, they could work their way around anything else. Couldn’t they?
He was optimistic. It was just a matter of time, and her final week was going well—at least it was until Sunday. Then things began to go south.
Johnny and Emily were still incommunicado, but after church Murdoch, Teresa, Katie and Scott went to the Addisons’ for dinner. Out of the blue, Aggie invited Teresa to go with her to Sacramento. “I know it’s short notice, but please come with me. I’ll be bored to distraction otherwise. Buck will be wheeling and dealing with politicians and company shareholders. If you come I’ll have an excuse for a little shopping and socialising. We could go to the theatre every week, if you like.”
“Oh yes, you must, Teresa.” Katie sounded almost too enthusiastic. Scott couldn’t understand her eagerness when it would mean the friends would have less time together.
“But you’re only here for a few more days. I can visit Sacramento another time.”
“Nonsense. I’m not due to leave California until late September. We’ll see each other again before then—at Olivia’s wedding if nowhere else—and you’ll have a wonderful time with Aggie.”
“But you’re a bridesmaid. Your cousin will want all your attention.”
“I’ll be one of several bridesmaids, and I’ll make time for my friends; don’t you worry about that. Besides, I’m going to ask Aunt Anne if I can invite you to visit during the summer.” Katie put her coffee down and took Teresa’s hands. They smiled at each other as though sharing a secret. “I’ll be very angry with you if you don’t take this opportunity.”
Teresa blushed. Why? Scott was about to dig a little deeper when Aggie began pressing her case with advertisements in Peterson’s Magazine and the Sacramento Daily Union. Then the women started talking about dresses and hats.
Buck was up from his seat like a shot. “Come and see my new illustrated atlas, gentlemen.” He led Scott and Murdoch to the safety of the other end of the room. “Anything but hats.”
They laughed in agreement over cigars and glasses of scotch, and the trip to Sacramento was forgotten as they admired the map maker’s art. A very informative discussion about local land transfers and Buck’s hopes to extend his railway followed, and before long it was time for Scott and the others to head home.
There was not much of the day left by the time they got back to the hacienda. Cipriano was waiting for them. Rustlers had helped themselves to a few head grazing near government land. They’d been spotted driving the cattle over the unfenced boundary, but the vaqueros had been too far away to catch them. The foreman had the problem under control though; the rustlers would not be so lucky again. Neither Scott nor his father felt the need to ride out or make any other arrangements. They thanked Cipriano for his efforts and headed inside.
After a light supper, the family went their separate ways. Murdoch and Teresa had letters they wanted to write, and Scott took Katie for an evening stroll.
“There’s something magical about the ranch in moonlight.” He hugged her arm and took in the sounds: animals sleeping where they stood and laughter, slipping with the lamplight under the door of the bunkhouse. Katie nestled into him and they moved as one. From time to time, he brushed his head against hers, breathing in the hint of rosemary and enjoying the softness of her curls. “You don’t mind Teresa going to Sacramento before you leave?”
“Of course not.”
He looked down at her, and she smiled up at him, the sparkle in her eye hinting at a small secret. Four weeks had made a lot of difference. He couldn’t explain exactly how, but he found he was able to read her mood and motives most of the time. “Am I missing something about Teresa’s visit?”
“Possibly.” She snuggled a little closer and said no more.
“Well, are you going to tell me?”
“Are you sure you want to know?” Katie relaxed her hold and studied his face, her eyes reflecting starlight. “Jake Telford is working in Sacramento at the moment.”
“Oh, I see.” Scott diverted his gaze to the glistening path cut by moonlight across the south pasture. The corners of his mouth edged up into the smallest of smiles as he wondered if Murdoch realised Jake was part of the equation.
Come to that, Scott wasn’t sure how he felt about it. Teresa had seemed so young to him when he’d first arrived at Lancer. She’d told him to look upon her as a sister, and he’d found it surprisingly easy to do. Now he was having a hard time accepting that in a little over six months she’d be twenty-one, and more than one young man was looking in her direction. He supposed he should be grateful that she only looked back occasionally, but she’d been looking back at Jake Telford since Katie’s cousin’s wedding in February. That was rather longer than Scott found comfortable. Still, he liked Jake, and Aggie and Buck would take good care of her, so there really wasn’t any reason to protest the arrangement.
Teresa left with Aggie and Buck two days later, just after Johnny and Emily re-appeared. It was good to have his brother back—a bit odd when they rode in from their day’s work seeing him head away to the annexe where he and Emily had set up house—but Johnny was happier than Scott had ever seen him. He certainly wouldn’t complain about that.
The brothers still spent the best part of each evening together. Katie and Emily seemed eager to make the most of the few days they had left. They spent every day in each other’s company while Scott and Johnny were working. Murdoch drove them to all the local towns so Katie could say her goodbyes.
Scott suspected his father would miss Katie too. They had a mutual love of history, and even Scott couldn’t keep up with some of their conversations. Murdoch was educating her about the history of the area. There were several historical places they hadn’t had time to visit—another reason to come back.
Murdoch and Emily certainly intended to see Katie off on the noon stage in Morro Coyo, but when the day arrived Murdoch’s favourite quote sprang to mind —the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.
After breakfast, young Peter Hopkins arrived on the back of an old mule. His family owned one of the farms on what used to be Vallejo land near Lancer’s southeast boundary between Spanish Wells and Morro Coyo. “Pa thinks the foal’s breech. He don’t know how to save her, but he says the horse lady and Mr Lancer will know what to do. Please come.”
“Of course they’ll come, Peter. Here, drink this. Mrs Lancer just has to change out of her good clothes.” Serving him a glass of lemonade, Katie settled the boy down in the shade on a chair by the French doors.
“Thank you.” Emily squeezed Katie’s hand and hurried off to put on her old shirt and trousers.
“I’ll send one of the men with Emily, and ride over after we’ve seen you off.” Murdoch turned towards the bunkhouse, but Katie reached out and stopped him.
“You might be needed too, Murdoch.”
“Oh, yes please, Mr Lancer. Pa said to bring you both if I could. We’ve had Snowball since she was a foal. It’d break Ma’s heart if we lost her.”
“We can say our goodbyes here. I’ll still have Scott and Johnny to see me onto the stage.” Katie smiled up at Murdoch and gave him a reassuring hug.
“If you’re sure?” He headed towards the barn to saddle the horses while Johnny saw Peter off on his return journey.
“You didn’t have to do that.” Scott took Katie in his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder with a sigh. Holding her close, he kissed her head and stroked her hair. She’d miss Murdoch and Emily not being there, even if she wouldn’t admit it to anyone else.
Their final hugs and kisses were hurried but heartfelt, and within five minutes of Peter’s departure, Murdoch and Emily followed him. Katie watched them go, twisting the cameo ring on her finger and biting her bottom lip.
“Right, lead the way, milady. We’d best make a start bringing those trunks down.” Scott swept a bow, and Katie laughed, brushing a tear from her cheek. She’d be all right, and it made him feel warm inside to know he’d cheered her up.
She kept her brave face on until an hour later when five year old Rosita Mendes presented her with a bouquet of wildflowers.
Katie bent down to accept the posy, and the little girl burst into tears, flinging her arms around Katie’s neck. “Don’t go, Señorita Katie.”
The rest of the ranch children crowded around her to get their share of hugs and kisses while their parents watched from a respectful distance. Drying her eyes, Katie approached them too. “I’ll miss you all very much. Thank you for making me feel so welcome.”
At least that part of the plan went well. Everyone said how much they would miss her, and after an impromptu game of hopscotch, the children followed the buckboard as far as the Lancer arch. Katie waved back at the girls and boys until she lost sight of them.
The silver-lining to Murdoch and Emily’s absence was that Scott got to drive Katie into Morro Coyo on his own. The horses pulling the buckboard knew their way; they didn’t need much steering. And although Johnny rode Barranca alongside, he hung back a ways. Scott and Katie were free to talk to each other, and look and touch in small ways that filled his heart with hope for the future. He wasn’t sure how he could manage to visit her during the summer, but somehow he would get himself to San Francisco and soon.
When they reached town, Johnny whooped and rode past them. Scott dragged his eyes from Katie to look ahead and grinned. Well, how did his sister-in-law manage that?
“Emily!” Katie jumped down as soon as Scott reined the buckboard to a halt in the square. She flung her arms around her friend. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“It wasn’t as bad as we feared.” Emily led Tramp to the water trough. She let him take a few sips of water and then tied him to a hitching rail in the shade. “Snowball had a healthy colt. Murdoch has stayed to nurse her a little more, but I thought if I hurried I might be in time.” Her horse was sweating. She’d obviously just arrived and had ridden hard to make it.
While the girls chatted, Scott and Johnny began unloading Katie’s luggage, moving it around the corner to the stage stop. They stacked it on the boardwalk outside the new Wells Fargo office ready to transfer to the coach. A large wagon, filled mostly with lumber, was parked outside the telegraph office next door. A trunk waited by its open tailgate, but its owner was nowhere to be seen.
“Katie sure does have a lot of stuff.” Johnny stretched as he lowered his end of the last and largest trunk.
“An impressive amount of luggage is a mark of a true gentlewoman, brother.” Scott grinned. He didn’t mind a bit. He was rather fond of some of the outfits inside the heavy leather trunks, and lately, he’d allowed himself a few happy daydreams helping Katie out of them.
The stage soon clattered through such thoughts. It drove across the square and onto Main Street, pulling up in front of the stables, across from where they waited.
Exchanging resigned smiles, the four friends stepped down into the street from the boardwalk outside the stagecoach office. They paused at the rear of the lumber wagon as the stagecoach driver jumped down and opened the door to his passengers. A stable boy was already leading fresh horses out of the open livery door. The miller’s wife and a Franciscan monk from the mission alighted and departed quickly in different directions. Then a weedy gent in spectacles emerged, blinking in the sunlight. Clutching a bulging briefcase to his chest, he hesitated in the doorway before disembarking, looking up and down the street like a nervous rabbit.
“What’s up with him?” Scott had barely gotten the words out when all hell let loose; guns fired every which way, and they were in the middle of it. Townsfolk dived for cover. Doors and shutters slammed. The stagecoach driver leapt onto the box and whipped his frightened horses to a gallop, sending the man riding shotgun toppling backwards over the luggage rack.
Scott hit the ground at the rear of the wagon with Katie and Emily beneath him. He looked up to see Johnny shoot one gunman at the corner of the square and then take cover to return fire with several others.
Wheezing with fright, the unknown gentleman barged into Scott and the girls in his hurry to reach the shelter of the wagon. Collapsing against the tailgate, he hugged his briefcase as though his life depended on it—judging by the holes in the leather, perhaps it did.
Goodness knows where the stable boy went; the fresh horses were chasing the coach down the street. When Scott raised his head, he could see hooves and clouds of dust between the wheels of the wagon. The team of four at the front of the lumber wagon stomped and snorted, straining against the brake, threatening to follow. The extra weight of the timber was perhaps the only thing stopping them.
With a lull in the gunfire, Johnny glanced back from the outer corner of the wagon as he reloaded; his back hard and low to the open tailgate. “Is everyone all right?”
“I think so.” Having eased himself off the girls, Scott was helping them to sit, huddling them close into the corner made by the boardwalk and the wagon. Katie’s luggage formed a solid barricade between the edge of the boardwalk and the offices behind, and the wagon owner’s trunk added some welcome extra protection on the wagon side.
Both girls nodded, wide-eyed and shaking.
Another rifle bullet thudded into the sideboards. Johnny ducked and again the horses snorted and pawed the ground. “Whoa there.”
Drawing his gun, Scott turned to the suited gentleman cowering between him and Johnny. “Who are they?”
“How should I know?”
“Well, there’s no reason for them to be shooting at us, and those first shots seemed to be aimed at you.” Scott eyed the man’s briefcase. “Who are you?”
Looking left and right for a means of escape but finding none, the man puffed up like a bullfrog. “I’m Atticus P. Brewster of the United States Bureau of Internal Revenue.”
Shit. “You’re a tax collector?”
Murdoch had said the land taxes were due this week. Scott had been too preoccupied with Katie’s leaving to think much about it. The tax collectors went from town to town setting up in saloons or eating houses, wherever they found convenient. “Are you carrying cash?”
They didn’t usually carry much money on them—too dangerous. They normally banked it at the end of each day, and then later armed guards would escort the funds to Sacramento.
Another bullet hit the dirt, and Johnny fired back. Atticus P. Brewster hugged his bag more tightly. “I’ve been travelling through the hill country since Monday—no bank. I joined the stage at the last swing station.”
“Since Monday? And you didn’t think to employ a guard?” Scott looked up at the sky. Give him strength. If the man had come up through the southeast he’d be carrying the taxes of the Mendozas and Carmichaels, as well as several smaller spreads.
“James Carmichael lent me a couple of his men as far as the swing station. I saw no need to waste government money on a guard when I was so close. No one could possibly know I’d be on this coach.”
No one except the men who delivered him onto it, the guy in charge of the swing station and anyone else about at the time. Everybody knew the tax collector was due here. Anyone paying particular attention might have discovered his route, and anyone at the swing station could have sent word when they saw him board. The bandits must have gotten the news too late to rob him on the road, so they lay in wait in Morro Coyo instead. Rob him before he could get to the bank—riskier, but except for the sheriff, most townsfolk weren’t known for their courage. Atticus P. Brewster was a fool. “How much?”
“That’s confidential.” Brewster stuck his chin out and adjusted his grip on the bag. It looked about two thirds full, and it clanked. If Scott wasn’t mistaken, there were gold and silver coins inside, the preferred currency of shootists and road agents, or so Johnny used to say. Made sense when bullets started to fly; Brewster’s precious wads of paper money almost certainly had a few holes in them now.
Shaking his head, Scott edged past the tax collector to where Johnny was keeping the gunmen at bay from the street-side corner of the wagon.
“Did you hear that? Any ideas?”
“There’s a man behind the parapet and one up there.” Johnny pointed his barrel toward the roof diagonally opposite, next to the livery, and then at the telegraph office roof immediately above the wagon horses. The bandits had hoped to get Brewster in the open as he crossed from the stage stop to the boardwalk. “But the angle’s wrong for that guy now. He’ll come down the side stairs. Watch the corner.”
Scott checked under the wagon. He could see the top of the boardwalk as it ran along the wall to the corner of the telegraph office and the alley.
“There are two between the ropemaker’s and the livery.” Johnny’s eyes darted to the girls. “Emily, stay down.” It was Johnny Madrid, the professional gunfighter, giving orders now. He leaned out and fired toward one of the gunmen in the street.
Emily crouched lower, a wild look passing across her face. Scott prayed Johnny hadn’t seen it. Whether she was more horrified at seeing Johnny Madrid in action or fearful for his safety, Scott couldn’t tell, but they needed Johnny the gunfighter now, not Johnny the husband and rancher. They couldn’t afford for his brother to second guess himself. Glancing under the wagon Scott saw boots step up onto the boardwalk. He bobbed up and fired, and the man skittered backwards.
He fired again to make sure the bandit got the message. Keep back, you bastard. Crouching down, he moved closer to Katie and Emily. Brewster was crowding them into the corner. “Don’t get up on the boardwalk. There’s a man with a clear line of sight from the alley next to the telegraph office. Stay where you are and you’ll be all right.”
Katie nodded and turned her eyes away. They settled on the dead man sprawled in the dust near the corner of the square. Scott gritted his teeth; he felt like he’d swallowed the tax collector’s gold. He could see her fear as she bit her bottom lip hard and held Emily close.
His sister-in-law was colourless and immobile. Her fingers gripped Katie’s arm, knuckles white, and she looked right past him.
Please God, Johnny, don’t turn around.
Scott dragged his mind back to the matter in hand. “Watch the boardwalk through the gap between the wagon wheels and the luggage. Tell me if he tries again.”
The street seemed deserted except for the gunmen and their five targets crouched behind the wagon. If the sheriff was in town, the bandits must have hobbled him, because Scott and Johnny were the only good guys shooting. Thank goodness the lumber wagon was a big one. Johnny reloaded. “I need to get the fella with the rifle.”
Scott eyed the rooftop. It would be difficult to do from this angle. Checking under the tailgate, he tried to locate the gunmen further down the street. “How?”
“You give me cover, and I cross.” Johnny pointed towards a hay cart diagonally to his right. The livery was set back from the neighbouring building creating a kind of forecourt opposite them where the stage stopped and the team of horses could be changed easily. The bandit with the rifle was on the roof of the other building. He had clear sight into the stage stop and the street between it and the Wells Fargo Office, while a parapet wall along the front of the building screened him from harm. If Johnny could reach the hay cart outside this building, it would protect him from the gunman on the roof and maybe from the other men on that side of the street, but to get there he’d have to make himself a target from all directions.
“There are too many of them.” Scott couldn’t keep the alarm out of his voice. “The street is too wide.” That’s why, if Johnny hadn’t started firing back so quickly, the plot to get Brewster in the open between the stage stop and the boardwalk could have worked.
Johnny ducked his head and smiled as he clicked the cylinder into place. “Keep ‘em busy, brother.”
Before Scott could answer, Johnny jumped up and fired at a man trying to move closer on the far side of the street. Scott got a glimpse of a hat before the man yelped and disappeared from sight.
Then Johnny balled into him, arms over his head, as a succession of bullets blasted from the parapet and further down the street, splintering wood on the sideboards. Lead ricocheted off the axle and the steel rim of the wheel, peppering the dirt. One bullet went high, clipping Katie’s hatbox, sending it toppling backwards onto the boardwalk. It was followed by two more from the corner of the telegraph office, but the angle was still wrong, and they were wasted in the dirt well clear of their targets.
When the shooting stopped, Johnny unravelled and shunted back, letting Scott go forward into his position. Now Scott could see clearly where the bandits were, but they all had good cover. He fired as a man with a red bandana dived closer from a rainwater barrel to a horse trough. Where was the sheriff when you needed him?
Scott turned in time to see Johnny remove a Deringer from the back of his belt. He offered it first to Brewster, but the tax collector looked at the pistol like it would bite off his hand. Shaking his head, he clung more vigorously than ever to his bag. Johnny raised an eyebrow and pushed the small gun along the ground to Emily instead. “Here. Use it if you…”
Instantly, she came back to life and reached out for the gun. “I’m okay.”
Where was that sheriff? Scott had never wanted to see the law more badly. He felt for his brother, but if they didn’t do something the bandits would find a way to pick Scott and Johnny off, and Scott didn’t want to think about what else might take their interest after they got to Brewster and the money. It sure as hell didn’t look like any of the good citizens of Morro Coyo were going to unbolt their doors and help.
A look passed between Johnny and Emily, and then Johnny clapped Scott on the shoulder. “Cover me.”
Johnny made a dash for the hay cart.
Scott started shooting, but lead still bit dirt a hair’s breadth from Johnny’s heels.
Johnny zigzagged, dived and rolled, taking out the man behind the trough on his way. Damn, he was good. Torn between fear and admiration, Scott shoved fresh bullets into the cylinder.
Firing his last bullet, Johnny slammed into the side of the cart and began doing the same.
The bandit by the telegraph office stepped clear, taking aim, but Scott saw the movement and pulled his trigger first.
Falling forward, the robber released a bullet into the dust, right in front of the wagon horses.
The wagon lurched backwards.
“Watch out!” Scott shoved Brewster clear, onto his hands and knees, and lunged for the girls. A length of timber sliding from the top of the pile rammed the wagon owner’s trunk. The trunk hit Scott’s shoulder and thudded to the ground as the girls, still crouching, jumped out of danger.
Rubbing his bruised arm, Scott swivelled around, pushed the trunk out of the way and examined the wagon. When the horses reared their tether broke. Peering under the wagon bed, he could see broken chain trailing in the dirt. The ratchet must have slipped a notch or two but the brake shoes were still firm to the wheels. The blinkered horses were well-trained, thank God; they didn’t bolt. They whinnied and stomped, but the wagon had shuddered to a halt.
He breathed out and slumped back against the open tailgate. “Is everyone okay?”
“There are bandits shooting at us. Of course I’m not okay.” Brewster duck-walked backwards, bumping into Emily without apology. “I’m covered in dust thanks to you, sir, and I’ve got a cramp.”
“Well, stand up then.” Blasted idiot! Scott glared at Brewster. “Save us some trouble.” He twisted around to return fire with the man on the roof.
“My hem is caught.”
Scott looked over. Katie had managed to stay far enough away from the wheel to avoid injury, but her skirt was stuck fast beneath it. That wouldn’t be a problem if the wagon stayed still, but if it moved again…
Emily scrambled around and tried to free her. “I can’t get it out.” Scott glanced towards Johnny. He was still by the cart. Was there time for Scott to help Katie? He turned, but she waved him away.
“No. Help Johnny. I’ll do this.” She took hold of the bottom of her skirt and yanked; the cloth tore, but she was free.
Scott gave his attention back to his brother, looking for a signal. Johnny was hunkered down, leaning against the axle of the hay cart, rubbing his middle, and blinking into the sky. Damn. He wasn’t fully fit. Could he keep going? Scott checked Katie, Emily and the unhelpful Mr Brewster. They were safe if they stayed put. He took a quick look around the corner—nothing moved.
Johnny caught Scott’s eye, straightened and looked ready to run again. He edged around the far end of the cart and disappeared from view. There were narrow stairs built into the adobe wall of the building. Johnny was going up.
Scott fired at the gunman on the roof, trying to keep him occupied. Where was the other man? Please God neither would spot Johnny climbing the staircase. The guy on the roof could blow him away in a second with that rifle. Scott fired again and glanced back at the girls. Emily couldn’t see what he could see, thank goodness, but he knew what she was imagining from the look on her face.
He smiled with more confidence than he felt. “Johnny knows what he’s doing. He’ll be all right.”
“The corner.” Scott jumped up and sent a bullet towards the alley before Katie got the words fully out. The missing bandit must have crossed the street somehow.
The gunman on the roof signalled his friend by the telegraph office and moved towards the staircase; his hat and back were just visible as he ran low behind the parapet. Then, for a split second, Johnny appeared on the stairs-side of the roof, and the bandit stood upright in full view, rifle pointed. They couldn’t have been more than three yards apart.
Before Scott could do anything, the two guns fired.
“No!” Emily and Katie cried out together.
Scott looked back. Katie had hold of Emily’s arm and was struggling to stop her rushing forward, Deringer in hand.
“Stay down!” He turned his eyes back to the parapet, searching. The bandit was still standing; his rifle was still aimed. Johnny? Coldness spread inside as Scott raised his gun. Feeling like the soldier he never wanted to be again, he began to press the trigger, and…
The bandit’s arms dropped. The rifle slipped from his grasp, and he staggered sideways. He collided with the lowest section of the parapet, buckled and plummeted to the ground.
Scott lowered his gun, unfired. Where was Johnny?
Before Scott could do more than ask himself the question, boots battered the boardwalk. Jumping up, he saw the last bandit disappear amongst saddle horses tied to a hitching rail three shops down. The man mounted a brown horse and spurred it to a gallop.
A rifle fired from the roof opposite.
The rider jerked, but kept on going. Scott couldn’t have cared less. All that mattered was that it was Johnny standing upright above the parapet wall, breaking open the rifle.
“Johnny’s all right.” Scott slumped back and grinned. “It’s over. The last one got away.”
He looked towards the girls sitting together in the dirt, shaded by Katie’s luggage. Emily’s grip relaxed on the Deringer, and she bowed her head. Katie took the pistol gently from her hand and laid it down on the edge of the boardwalk.
Getting up, Scott ignored the blustering tax collector and went to offer Katie his hand. His stomach churned; he hoped like hell she’d take it. Why did this have to happen when her visit had gone so well?
Katie shuffled free of Emily. Pressing one hand against the wagon, she placed her other in Scott’s palm and let him pull her to standing, but he couldn’t catch her eye. She turned immediately to Emily, and between them they brought her to her feet too.
The look on Emily’s face was unsettling, but that was for Johnny to deal with. Scott could see him leaning against the corner of the adobe building opposite, slightly bent over with his arm across his belly. Johnny had seemed almost his old self these last few weeks, but diving and rolling on the ground to avoid bullets probably didn’t use the same muscles as ranch work. As soon as Emily spotted him, she made a beeline in his direction.
“I thought there was a lawman in Morro Coyo?” Atticus P. Brewster prodded Scott in his bruised shoulder. Brushing the dust off his frock coat, the taxman glared about as doors and shutters began to open, and townsfolk slowly emerged onto the road and boardwalks.
“Sheriff’s in here. Tied up.” For a second after he shouted, Doc Mort stood in the doorway of the jailhouse at the far end of the street. Then he disappeared inside, followed by two or three other good citizens. Well, that was a blessing at least. The sheriff could take care of the bodies and the wounded, if there were any. Scott turned back to talk to Katie.
“I need you to guard me, sir.” Brewster blocked his path. Katie was being helped to a seat in the shade by the Wells Fargo office clerk.
“I’m busy.” Scott tried to side step him.
“I insist, sir—in the name of the United States government.”
“I need to see to the lady first. The sheriff will be here soon. If you’ll excuse me.”
But the tax collector pushed in front of him again. “I demand you accompany me to the bank now. There could be more bandits.”
Highly unlikely, but escorting the buffoon looked like the quickest way to get rid of him.
“We’ll take care of Miss Eliot, Mr Lancer.” The stagecoach office manager picked up Katie’s hatbox and put it back on top of her other luggage as his clerk brought her a glass of water. With a weak smile, Katie gave Scott a nod.
“Come on then. Let’s make it quick.” He grabbed Brewster’s arm and propelled him towards the bank, two doors along from the jailhouse.
“Unhand me, sir.” The pompous little twit was never satisfied. Scott let go. The man straightened his hat and scampered alongside as Scott strode down the street. “Don’t you need to have your gun out and ready, just in case.”
“The only bandit still alive is long gone. Hurry up.”
The stagecoach passed them on the way, trailing the fresh string. It was going back to the stage stop outside the livery. Someone must have told the driver the excitement was over. Blast, this idiot. Scott wanted to be with Katie. He wanted to make sure she was all right—and not just physically. He could see she wasn’t hurt, but she was pale and shaky like she’d been after the cougar attack. She’d never been comfortable around guns, and to see Johnny and him fighting like that. Who knew what she was thinking? The solid weight in the pit of his stomach was getting bigger and heavier. He was afraid he did know, and none of it was good. He needed to talk to her before she left, to make sure she understood. This sort of situation never happened. They’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, an isolated incident. A violent robbery was just as likely to happen in Boston…Now he really was clutching at straws.
“There, I’ve delivered you and your money safely to the bank. Next time, don’t put everyone else in danger by being so stupid.” Scott turned on his heels without waiting for a reply.
He got half way back to the stagecoach when the sheriff collared him. “I need a statement from you, Lancer.”
“Not now, sheriff. I’ll come and see you later.”
No, already? Scott could see the driver picking up the reins while the stagecoach manager assisted a middle-aged woman to board. Johnny and Emily were standing with Katie by the door. The man riding shotgun climbed over the luggage rail onto the seat next to the driver—now where had he been when they needed him? The stagecoach manager began urging Katie to get in.
“Wait!” Scott ran. Dodging past the stable boy, tightening the last buckle on the traces, he panted up to her.
“There’s no more time, Scott.” She took his hands and kissed his cheek. The stagecoach manager coughed at her shoulder as he checked his watch. “I’ve got to go.”
“But are you all right?” Dear God, was that the best he could do? He helped her as she climbed up into the coach. The stagecoach manager snapped the door shut as soon as she was inside. Squeezing past Scott, he knocked on the side twice to let the driver know everyone was aboard. “I mean…”
“Don’t worry, Scott. I’ll be fine. I wish…” Katie’s lips smiled through the window, but her eyes were swimming. “I’ll write when I get to San Francisco.”
The driver cracked his whip, and the team of fresh horses pulled the stagecoach away.
1. A ‘split skirt’ is a more time-appropriate name for culottes. These began to be used by women for riding in the mid-nineteenth century, presumably as a more feminine version of trousers.
2. A lazo is a wedding cord, usually quite delicate, but in Johnny and Emily’s case it was a working rope of twisted hemp with vines and flowers as decoration. Katie took care to arrange it around Emily’s shoulders so it didn’t mess up her hair. See Wedding, by Doc, 2015.
3. A swing station is a small stage station where the team was changed. It usually consisted of little more than a small cabin and barn or corral, and was usually manned by just a few stock-tenders. Stages stopped at Swing Stations for about ten minutes before moving on.
4. If you have forgotten how Johnny was injured some time before this story, please see The Only Way to Have a Friend Is to be One, by me and Doc, No.4 in the Eliot Series.
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