According to Hoyle
By the close of 1882 in the American West, the line between heroes and villains is narrow. Total chaos is staved off only by the few who take the law at its word and risk their lives to uphold it. But in the West, the rules aren’t always played according to Hoyle.
US Marshals Eli Flynn and William Henry Washington—longtime friends and colleagues—are escorting two prisoners to New Orleans for trial when they discover there’s more than outlawry to the infamous shootist Dusty Rose and the enigmatic man known as Cage. As the two prisoners form an unlikely partnership, the marshals can’t help but look closer at their own.
When forces beyond the marshals’ control converge on the paddle wheeler they’ve hired to take them downriver, they must choose between two dangers: playing by the rules at any cost, or trusting the very men they are meant to bring to justice.
(This title is a revised and edited second edition, with minor new additions, of According to Hoyle, originally published elsewhere.)
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), coming out, disability / disfigurement, first love, first time, friends to lovers, illness / injury, mute / speech impaired, self-discovery / self-reflection
ACCORDING TO HOYLE: In accord with the prescribed rules or regulations.
Edmond Hoyle (1672–1769) was an English barrister and writer who authored several books on the rules and play of card games. His rule books soon became the authority on all things cards, and the phrase “according to Hoyle” entered the language due to the perceived absolute rightness of the rules Hoyle set forth. The phrase soon took on a more general meaning, referring to any situation in which someone wished to refer to the rules of a higher authority.
It is a similar statement to say we are doing something “by the book,” wherein this statement “the book” is often perceived to be the Bible. From the late eighteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century, the phrases “by the book” and “according to Hoyle” were both in common usage. They meant the same thing, only the former venerated the Bible as the highest authority, while the latter deferred to the whims of a deck of cards.
Three men gathered around a linen-covered table in the expansive dining room of the Windsor Hotel in Denver. The great clock on the mantel read well past midnight and candles were all that lit the room, throwing their faces into deep, flickering shadow.
Just two months prior to their meeting, Agent John C. Baird had been in New York, watching as the city’s elite unveiled the Pearl Street Power Station and the magic of electricity had lit up the city. He missed that civilized place, and he looked on overgrown mining and cow towns like Denver with disdain he could not and did not try to conceal. There were a few buildings in Denver that had electricity, but the Windsor Hotel was not yet numbered among them, no matter how elegantly appointed it was otherwise.
It didn’t matter how uncomfortable the trip was for him, though. He was here on orders, and everything being asked of him hinged on this meeting. It would be worth the trip to this trumped-up little silver town to make certain this mission was done properly.
The room was all but empty, save for a sparse number of diners and the hotel’s staff lingering to wait on them. One thing Baird found he did like about the western towns was that people knew how to mind their own affairs. They were in no danger of being disturbed.
“You were late,” Baird said to the man just settling into the seat to his right.
“This is a fancy place,” the newcomer said in a husky voice. He wore thin leather gloves, but they didn’t conceal the fact that one of the fingers on his left hand was missing. His range clothes were dusty, and his hat had left an impression in his black hair when he’d taken it off. It appeared to Baird that he’d just made the trip to Colorado from Texas on the back of a bison rather than in a rail car. The Texan nodded to the grand lobby and the doorman who still stood watching him in distaste. “They weren’t going to let me in.”
The man opposite Baird gave that a quiet snort. He was handsome and dressed as quite the dandy, in clear contrast to the large Texan. Wiry and of average height, he carried himself with an insolent ease that Baird found both annoying and striking. He certainly wouldn’t have been refused entrance to the Windsor Hotel, or any other hotel on the continent. They hadn’t let his scruffy little puppy in with him, though, and the beast sat by the window, devotedly watching its master through the speckled glass.
Baird would have sooner dealt with the dog than the shootist. His accent was that of an Englishman, and Baird had instantly decided he neither liked nor trusted the man. This was government business. An Englishman had no right to be involved. Baird’s orders were clear, though, and these were the two men he’d been told to contact. Before coming to his current position, Baird had been a Pinkerton agent, and a good one. He knew how to follow orders.
Baird gave the Texan a critical eye. “Fine,” Baird said. He wasn’t in any mood to deal further with the issue of tardiness. He leaned back in his chair, posture loose and face relaxed, though one hand was on the concealed gun under the table.
The Englishman wasn’t impressed. “I’d prefer it if we expedited this meeting.”
“If we what?” the Texan asked.
“Expedite. Hurry it along. Make it faster.”
“If you mean faster, just say faster.”
“Gentlemen,” Baird said with a sigh. Both men quieted and turned to him expectantly. Baird inclined his chin and gave them a smile. He looked first at the Englishman and then at the Texan. “You are the men known respectively as Dusty Rose and Bat Stringer, correct?”
Neither man flinched, though Baird had just spoken the names of two notorious gunmen. If either was surprised or concerned at the other’s presence, they didn’t show it.
“And if we aren’t who you say?” the Englishman asked. He kept one hand on the table as a show of respect. The other was, no doubt, in his lap wrapped around a revolver just like Baird’s.
“If you aren’t who I say, then just who might you be?” Baird asked as he slowly moved the gun in his own lap until it was pointing at the man. It was a misconception that it was easier to kill out West, that no one blinked an eye at murder. The crime was still considered heinous, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The law, however, didn’t reach too far out here. And Baird didn’t mind committing a heinous act or three.
Dusty Rose passively returned Baird’s stare. The Texan grunted at them both, as if to show he was still unimpressed.
Baird turned an eye on him. He wasn’t merely an outlaw and a gunman with a reputation. He was one with something to prove, and that made him even more dangerous.
Baird didn’t know much about Bat Stringer other than he hadn’t been the first choice for this job. Baird’s contacts were supposed to have tracked down Bat’s second-in-command, a man known as Whistling Jack Kale. Like Stringer, he’d come to the attention of Baird’s superiors after their gang had disappeared from inside a bank under the noses of the very authorities there to capture them.
Kale, however, was rumored to be the brains of the operation. But he was still in the wind, possibly dead. Which was why Bat Stringer was here now instead of him. If they’d wanted a man like Kale for the job, they were almost as well served with his boss. He was said to be a smart man, if not exactly a mastermind, and a fast draw. And if he really had killed Whistling Jack Kale, his best friend, then he was just ruthless enough to serve Baird’s purposes.
Dusty Rose sighed softly and glanced away. The Englishman also had a reputation for escaping from the hands of the law. He was famous for his skill at card games, but he was better known as a gunman than a gambler. Clever and charming, he rarely drew the gun he was said to be so adept at handling. He’d also spent a good deal of time with the native tribes, and Baird’s sources implied that Rose had picked up certain knowledge that would be vital to this mission.
“I’ll get right to the point, gentlemen,” Baird finally said. “You don’t need to know who I am or who I’m working for. I won’t tolerate any questions about either subject.”
Stringer sat watching him much like a housecat would stalk a canary in a cage, his dark eyes intelligent and patient. Rose, however, was still looking off to the side, shaking his head as if disgusted with himself simply for being there. Baird’s lips twitched into a smile. To lure him to this meeting, he’d made the shootist an offer he couldn’t easily refuse. The man had enough trouble with the law, he didn’t need any more. And Baird had made it clear that he’d make plenty of trouble if Rose didn’t play the game.
Baird waited until it was apparent that neither man would respond before he continued. “At this very moment, there are soldiers working nearby, searching for an Indian artifact.”
“Artifact,” Stringer repeated with a frown.
Rose sat forward. “It’s a trinket, Mr. Stringer. With some sort of inherent value to it, be it regarding history or mankind.”
“I know what the damn word means.”
Baird rubbed his eyes. He cleared his throat pointedly and both men once again turned back to him. “This artifact, if found, could be very important.”
“To?” Rose asked. “Not you.”
“What is it?” Stringer asked.
“That is none of your concern, Mr. Stringer.”
The man didn’t react other than to cock his head and maintain eye contact. It was unnerving. Baird almost preferred Rose’s sarcasm and insolence to being the object of such silent study.
“If the Army’s already searching for this trinket, why do you need us?” Rose asked, poorly trying to conceal his interest under a hint of nonchalance.
Baird stared at him.
“Because you’re not Army,” Rose concluded with a slow nod. He looked away again and sighed heavily, as if just realizing how much trouble he might be in if he didn’t feel like cooperating. Good. That was how Baird wanted him: scared and backed into a corner.
“The Army is a redundant, stupid beast,” Baird said after a moment. “This item cannot be trusted in their hands. It must be taken from them and safeguarded properly. But as you have probably gathered, we cannot have one government agency blatantly stealing from another, and it’s best to keep this away from any official avenues.”
Rose laughed out loud. He shook his head at Stringer, seeking an ally, but Stringer wasn’t laughing. Upon seeing that, Rose cleared his throat and schooled his features into a more serious expression. Baird wasn’t amused by his antics.
“You want us to steal this artifact from the Army for you,” Stringer said. “So your hands stay clean.”
“That’s precisely right.”
“You want the two of us to attack a battalion of soldiers in the middle of Nebraska, steal an Indian artifact from them in the middle of Indian Territory, and ride off into the sunset without anyone the wiser?” Rose’s voice was flat and sarcastic. He leaned forward and put a finger on the table. “Are you insane, or are you just as stupid as you look?”
Baird’s shoulders stiffened. “I assure you I am neither,” He realized belatedly, as Rose’s lips curved into a smile, the trap in the words. His cheeks flushed. He gritted his teeth. “The plan is more complex than that.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“What is the plan?” Stringer asked. He did not appear amused by Rose or impressed with what Baird was saying.
“You will be informed of the details when we come to an agreement on your services.”
“On that note, why are my services even required here?” Rose asked. “I am no thief, nor am I a soldier of any description.”
“So you say. But you have spent time with the natives.”
“I believe you have specific information from them about this artifact, whether you are aware of it or not.”
“Is that so?” Rose asked, completely unperturbed by the extent of Baird’s knowledge about his activities.
“That is so. Your particular services would be required after the initial acquirement of the artifact.”
“You will be informed of those details when the time comes,” Baird answered. “And you have a reputation.”
“Yes. For playing cards.”
“Playing cards,” Stringer repeated, incredulous. He stared at Rose, and Rose returned it warily, as if trying to gauge the threat from the big man. “If you’re a gambler, then I’m a seamstress.”
Rose scratched at his chin as he contemplated Stringer, then pointed one elegant finger at the man and narrowed his eyes. “Do you darn socks?”
Baird rubbed at the spot between his eyes, feeling an ache in his head coming on. “Gentlemen,” he said before the conversation could digress further.
Rose looked back at him sharply, all trace of sarcasm or humor gone. “I believe I made it quite clear in my initial answer to your man a fortnight ago that I am not for hire.” His black eyes seemed to glint in the candlelight as he leaned back in his chair and mirrored Baird’s stance. “You can threaten me all you please, Mr. Baird, promise you’ll make my life hell. It won’t change the fact that theft is not my area of expertise and I do not intend to help you rob the Army or the natives.”
Baird was no fool. He knew what sort of men he was dealing with. He sat unflinching, returning the intense gaze. “We plan to pay you in solid gold, Mr. Rose. Surely that must pique your interest?”
“No. You know what gold is good for? Weighing you down when you try to run. I have enough trouble on my own. I don’t need to go begging it from the Army, the natives, or whatever agency of the government you may be representing. My curiosity into such matters can only lead me so far before my better instincts prevail.” He sat forward and put a finger to the tip of his nose. “You smell of trouble I neither want nor need, Mr. Baird.”
Baird raised one eyebrow and turned to look at Stringer, who sat watching them silently. “And you?”
“Well, I don’t often need to run, so gold being heavy don’t bother me. But I’ll need to hear your plans before I give my answer.”
“As I said, you and I will discuss the finer points of the plan and the vast sums of money you’ll be receiving later. And since Mr. Rose doesn’t appear interested, I’ll consider your offer for employment accepted right after you’ve taken care of the Desert Flower here.”
Rose pushed his chair back and lunged to his feet. Stringer did the same, reaching for the gun concealed under his arm. He didn’t draw it, though, perhaps still considering Baird’s offer. China crashed at a table on the far side of the room as the handful of late diners dove for cover. Several of the other patrons screamed or shouted.
“Gun!” one of the waiters called out.
Baird sat back, a small smile on his face. There were people all over the country who’d pay good money to see a showdown like this. And he had a front row seat.
Rose hesitated, not drawing his weapon for some reason Baird couldn’t fathom. Perhaps he thought he could still convince Stringer not to take Baird’s deal. Stringer, though, seemed to make up his mind and slid his gun from its holster with practiced ease.
Suddenly, the floor beneath them began to roll and shudder. The candles shivered and some of them blew out as a terrible rattling and creaking shook the very foundations of the hotel.
Baird gripped the table in front of him, gaping up at the chandeliers and the plaster molds on the ceiling as they began to flake and fall around them.
“Earthquake!” someone shouted, this newer, more unusual threat overriding that of the guns.
Baird looked back at the two combatants and stood when he saw Rose had disappeared. A large piece of plaster landed in the middle of their table, and Baird ducked away from it. Stringer had hit his knees and was covering his head, oblivious to anything but the danger of the falling debris. They both dove for the table and huddled under it.
Several minutes later, the trembling finally stopped. Baird climbed to his feet. His eyes searched around the dining room, and he gritted his teeth.
“Damn the man.”
“You want to go after him?” Stringer asked unenthusiastically as he holstered his gun.
Baird shook his head. “He can’t hurt us.”
“You mean he can’t hurt you.”
Baird eyed him sharply. “If you want to go running through the rubble of Denver to find him, then be my guest. Just be aware he’s expecting you now. He won’t be quite so easy to kill.”
Stringer’s full lips curved into a wicked, frightening smile. “Another time, then.”
Baird shivered despite himself. At least he knew he had the right man for the job. The information he’d needed from Rose could be acquired in other ways. Harder ways.
Deputy US Marshal Eli Flynn’s boots echoed on the wooden sidewalk as he trudged the last few steps of his trip. He hardly recognized this section of the town; most of the structures had been rebuilt after the fire burnt them all to the ground. When he’d left, this area had been merely foundations and frames. Or rubble.
Lincoln, Nebraska, had grown in leaps and bounds the last several years, trying to become what the residents expected from the capital of a newly formed state. The buildings rose two and sometimes three stories, making the streets feel closed in and dark. Flynn didn’t like it. But the Marshal Office remained on the outskirts of town, where the breeze could still reach him and the sun still shone down to warm the cold mornings.
He stopped at the shining new window to the dry-goods store, intending to straighten up a little, to at least seem respectable when he went in. But one look told him it was no use. He was dirty and haggard, and his normally well-manicured goatee was bordering on the wrong side of woolly. But an hour at the bathhouse would fix all that right up too.
He turned away and headed for the Marshal Office. He had to check in before he could even think about trying to remedy any of it, though. It wasn’t as if being dirty and tired were unusual west of the Mississippi. Nor was it unexpected after a trip like the one he had taken.
He stopped at the door to the new Marshal Office and wiped his face with his kerchief, took his hat off and swiped at his forehead and eyes, then stuffed the bit of red material back into the pocket beneath his frock coat. He squared his sore shoulders and took a deep breath before strolling into the building that still smelled of fresh pine.
A bell hanging above the door dinged as he walked in. He glanced up at it curiously. The tiny brass bell was just as new as the rest of the construction. A bell there made sense, though. A marshal should have a way of knowing when someone walked in.
The sounds of the bustling street outside reached through the walls of the Marshal Office: horses’ hooves clopping along the packed-dirt street, ladies’ boots clacking against the raised walkways, men calling greetings to one another in the early-morning cold. It was a comfortable, familiar scene. One that Flynn had missed.
The office, however, was anything but familiar. Flynn looked around at the bright, whitewashed walls and the pristine pine floors. The old office had been sparse and dreary, with scuffed floors, no windows, and very little light. He and Wash had seen fit to fix that when they’d rebuilt. The cells, rather than being all in one room like before, were out of sight in the back of the structure.
Flynn removed his hat and held it at his side, not wanting to knock the dust off his clothing in the clean room.
“Flynn?” The voice boomed from the rear of the building.
Flynn peered into the dim, his eyesight still ruined from the bright morning sun outside.
Deputy US Marshal William Henry Washington, or Wash to friends and strangers alike, emerged from the back of the office, into the light, and surveyed Flynn with sharp, clear green eyes. His sandy hair was shorter than it had been the last time Flynn had seen him. His beard and mustache were gone, with only the sideburns near his ears still present. And for the first time in Flynn couldn’t remember how long, Wash wasn’t wearing his guns.
“You look like hell,” Wash observed with a grin.
“Stillwater to Lincoln is a long trip.” Flynn shook the hand Wash offered.
“But it’s easier on the return.”
Flynn smiled weakly and nodded. Transporting prisoners was never a simple task. Stillwater was one of the better transits because nearly every stop offered a decent place to lock someone up or otherwise restrain them with a minimum of fuss. Other locales weren’t so convenient, like when you had to tie your prisoner to a telegraph pole just to get a decent hour or two of sleep. The solo return, of course, was always less stressing.
“Sense of humor is still top notch, I notice,” Wash said. He turned away and headed for the desk against the far wall. He picked up a small yellow piece of paper and waved it in the air. “I’ve got another one for you.”
Flynn narrowed his eyes at the telegram with a sinking sensation in his gut.
“They’re waiting to be picked up in Junction City,” Wash continued as he glanced at Flynn, looking over Flynn’s tired face and slumping shoulders. “You ready for another one? I might can give this to someone else . . . Actually, I can’t give it to no one else ’cause no one else is around, but I can offer and pretend I care that you’re about to yell.”
Flynn merely glared at him.
“It’s an easy one,” Wash offered in a voice that was probably meant to be enticing.
“The last ‘easy’ one you gave me tried to kill me,” Flynn reminded him. “Twice.”
“They’re outlaws, Flynn. By and large, that’s what they do.” Wash walked around the desk and held the telegraphed message out to him with a whistle.
“Is this one going to the gallows?” Flynn sighed as he reached for the paper. Prisoners going to their execution always gave the US Marshals escorting them one hell of a hard time. They were fighting for their lives, after all, and more lawmen were killed while transporting prisoners than any other activity they performed. Neither Flynn nor Wash had ever had a prisoner escape on them, though. Not one that they hadn’t recovered almost immediately, anyway. Or shot dead during their escape attempt.
“No gallows. There are three in the group you’re picking up,” Wash told Flynn. “Two are heading to Fort Smith, some sort of military to-do, but you’re only taking them as far as St. Louis to meet up with the Army escort. The last is going to trial in New Orleans. You’ll have to—”
“Three?” Flynn blurted. “This is an easy one? Goddamn, Wash!”
“Taking the Lord’s name in vain, Flynn.” Wash smirked. “I’m shocked. What would the lady folk say?”
“You ain’t no damn lady. And I can’t escort three men by myself. Who’s going with me to ride herd?”
“You want someone to go with you?” Wash feigned surprise.
Flynn smacked his hat against his jeans and sent a puff of dust swirling into the clean office.
Wash just chuckled and held up his hand. “I’m going with you as far as St. Louis,” he said, still laughing. “Then I’m to head to Natchez to convene with the governor, and I’ll meet up with you again in New Orleans for the return home.”
Wash shrugged and nodded. Flynn’s attention strayed to the crisp linen sling that hung over Wash’s shoulder, supporting his left arm, and then back to the man’s eyes in question.
“I can draw a gun with one hand,” Wash assured him quietly, suddenly serious as he sat on the edge of the desk.
“You can’t restrain a prisoner with one hand,” Flynn argued. “You can’t chain and unchain them with one hand. You can’t expect them to see you as a serious authority figure or anything of a threat with one hand.” He waved his hat at Wash’s shoulder. “They’ll be trying to escape left and right.”
“Then I’ll be sure to let them know,” Wash responded with his customary calm, “that since I can’t chain them or restrain them peaceably, I’ll just have to shoot them if they cause problems. Will that satisfy you?”
Flynn pursed his lips and blew air heavily through his nose. He didn’t want to insult Wash or hurt him, but he also didn’t want to be stampeded by a herd of escaping prisoners. “Can you use it at all yet?” he asked, already regretting his criticism. It was bad enough being injured. It was worse seeing that people didn’t have much confidence in you, especially for a man like Wash, who had always been so capable.
Wash flexed his fingers against his chest. He tapped his silver badge and smiled crookedly. That was more movement than he had been up to when Flynn had left for Stillwater Prison three weeks ago. But Flynn struggled to keep even a hint of sadness out of his expression as he watched. Would his friend ever get the full use of the arm back?
Wash obviously read him like an open book. He flicked his wrist, producing a derringer attached to a gambler’s gauntlet out of the end of the sling.
Flynn blinked in surprise, his body instinctively twitching to reach for his own Colt. He laughed and offered Wash a fond shake of his head.
“You crazy bastard.You’re going to get yourself shot.”
“Hell, I already done that,” Wash said. “And you might find me taking exception to such talk.” He turned away, going to the potbelly stove in the far corner and retrieving a tin tray of food that had been warming nearby.
Flynn remained where he was. They’d spent plenty of years together, battled Confederates and Indians together, and become US Marshals together when they’d run out of wars to fight. But since Wash had been forced to take over the Lincoln Marshal Office a year ago due to the untimely death of their superior, Flynn had seen little of him other than the occasional drink or their nightly dinner at the saloon, and that just wasn’t the same. It would be welcome, actually, to be able to travel with Wash again and spend some time with him.
“When do we leave?” he asked as Wash retreated into the row of cells with the tray of food.
“After supper. Best you get a bath and some rest,” Wash answered over his shoulder.
Flynn hummed. He had slept on the train from Stillwater, and though the thought of a nice soak was highly appealing, he didn’t feel like leaving just yet. Escorting prisoners was a lonely task. They weren’t much for conversation, and neither was Flynn when criminals and horses were the only things around to talk to.
“When’d they get this finished?” he asked, following Wash back into the darker recesses of the office.
“Last week,” Wash answered. “The design we laid out worked perfect.”
And one of the newly minted cells was already occupied.
“Who’s this?” Flynn asked with a wave of his hat at the man who lay curled on the hard cot within.
“What, you don’t recognize Larry Fitz?”
Flynn’s lips parted in shock. The man’s clothes were thin and tattered, and he was covered in caked mud and blood. His hair was stringy and his face was sunken. Flynn had seen a man dragged by a horse who had looked something like Larry did now. “What happened to him?”
Wash’s answer was grim. “He got caught.”
Flynn glanced at Wash and saw the familiar hard set of his jaw and the glint in his green eyes. The expression told Flynn that the man inside the cell was lucky to be alive. Larry Fitz, who lay bruised and battered and barely recognizable, was essentially a harmless drunkard. Or he had been, until the night two months ago when he’d gone on a bender and decided to set fire to the Feed and Seed, the building that had shared a wall with the old Marshal Office.
Wash had been inside the jail that night, and he had nearly lost his life trying to release the prisoners from their cells as the building burned down around them. His hands still bore scars from the burns he’d received from the heated metal of the bars as he’d opened the doors. The fire had leaped from the building that housed the General Store and Feed and Seed and the jail beside it, to the buildings on either side of them: the stables and the saloon.
The horses had all been saved, which was a stroke of luck considering their value in a town like Lincoln, but the buildings had burned down like the dry kindling they were, and with them went the livelihood of some of the town’s most prominent citizens. The biggest tragedy had been the deaths of three guests renting the rooms above the saloon who hadn’t been able to get out in time. The damage to the town and to its reputation hadn’t made anyone particularly happy.
The prisoners Wash had risked his life to save had promptly tried to escape as the townsfolk dealt with the spreading fire. That was how Wash’s arm wound up in the sling. A bullet from a stolen gun had taken him cleanly through the shoulder as he’d tried to retake the prisoners without violence. Of course, after being shot, violence had not been one of Wash’s concerns and the escaped prisoners hadn’t made it very far.
The doc was certain he would make a nearly full recovery. Flynn, however, was certain that the doc spent too much time in the saloon, and so he worried for Wash and his arm.
The two prisoners who had attempted to escape that night now occupied permanent spots up in the shady little grove of headstones the local residents had naïvely named God’s Acre, thinking an acre would be enough to hold the dead in a town west of the Mississippi.
Fitz, the man who’d caused the whole damn mess, had gone to ground as soon as he had sobered up and realized what he’d done, and he’d been in hiding ever since. Until now, apparently.
“Who found him?” Flynn asked softly.
“Cyrus Beeson, over on the flats,” Wash answered. “It’s a damn miracle they didn’t kill him ’fore I got to him. Just happenstance I was anywhere near when they dragged him in. They were heading for a hanging tree, making a damn mess of it.”
“Shame you got to him at all,” Flynn muttered.
“Law don’t work that way, Flynn.”
“It does out here.”
“It ain’t supposed to.” Wash slid his key into the lock and turned it slowly. The man inside didn’t move as the hinges groaned. Wash knelt and placed the tray of food on the floor.
“Maybe it should,” Flynn argued quietly. “It’d make our lives a lot easier.”
Wash eased his way back out of the cell and retrieved his key, locking it and watching to see if Larry would move. When it didn’t appear that he would, Wash pursed his lips and turned to Flynn.
“Life’s not easy to come by. I don’t mind mine being hard, and I don’t take it lightly when I’m forced to take one. You shouldn’t neither.”
“I ain’t the one deciding to waste my life by stepping outside the law.”
Wash brushed by him and headed back out into the front office. Flynn followed him.
“Even outlaws got their stories, Eli,” Wash told him.
“And they can tell ’em to the Devil when they see him,” Flynn insisted.
Wash sighed as he sat himself in front of the stove and propped his booted feet on the bench in front of him. “Go get yourself a bath, Marshal Flynn,” he suggested with a resigned smile, obviously recognizing the argument as just as hopeless as it had been the last time. “I’ve ridden horses that smelled better’n you.”
A bitter wind whipped through the cottonwoods along the Rosebud Creek. Snow flurries rode the gusts, falling erratically amidst the soldiers from nearby Fort Robinson who labored in the cold. Their breaths were visible in the frosty air even from the ridges that rose above the river. The soldiers were being pushed hard, picking through the rocks that lined the river and piling them carefully into large crates. Some of the rocks contained what appeared to be skeletons; outlines of bones that looked like animals no one had ever seen, trapped inside rocks with no explanation for how they’d gotten there. The soldiers tossed some of these rocks into stenciled crates along with the rest.
Another band of soldiers worked atop one of the high hills above the river, searching the ground for something long buried and digging random holes to find and recover it.
Bartholomew Stringer knelt amidst the scrub ponderosa pine atop the edge of a low butte, his dark eyes narrowed under the brim of his hat. His second-in-command hunched beside him, the man’s reedy shoulders bent against the brisk wind that howled down from the Black Hills to the north, into and across the badlands.
“You sure ’bout all this, Cap?” Frank Alvarado muttered as they watched. He was thin and twitchy. His stringy blond hair hung lank around his narrow face, and his deep-set eyes were a pale blue that made him seem weak and sickly. He wa