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.
Heat Wave: 4 - On-screen and mildly explicit love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 2 - Not many
Genre: action / adventure, historical, romance, western
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
Settings: America, Mississippi River, ship / boat / cruise ship
Careers: criminal / outlaw, law enforcement
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 was anything but. His weedy appearance worked to his advantage more often than not.
Stringer glanced at him. He wasn’t used to having his orders questioned. But this was not a normal excursion, so he was giving his band of half a dozen men some leeway. They had traveled all the way from Texas, and most of them had never been somewhere this damn cold. Back home they were known as the Border Scouts, a name retained from ties to the sharpshooters and rogue bands of the now-defunct Confederate Army because of the fear it instilled in those who heard it. Here, they were nothing but another gang of men with guns. It had been a lot to ask of them to give up that esteem and comfort without telling them why they were here.
Stringer’s patience with their doubts was reaching an end, though. He was taller than most and wide along the shoulders. His deep voice was often enough to keep order amidst the ruffians who called him Cap, but his size and his piercing gaze helped to remind them just how cruel he could be when they got unruly. It wasn’t often he had to resort to actively keeping his men in line.
“You know about Fort Robinson and the Indians, don’t you Frank?” Stringer asked in a whisper.
Alvarado shook his head jerkily as he continued to watch the soldiers below. His teeth were chattering.
“Three years ago, there was this Cheyenne Chief named Dull Knife got captured near Fort Robinson and held there. He’d tried to escape with his band of Indians and been massacred, and that was the end of the Indian Wars in the Nebraska Territory.”
“How you know this, Cap?”
Stringer shrugged. He hadn’t known a lot about the Cheyenne or the Lakota Sioux at the time, and like most in the country, he hadn’t cared when he’d heard news about the mass death. But then he’d met John C. Baird in Denver a month ago, who’d told him quite a tale.
“They called Dull Knife an admirable outlaw, whatever that is,” Stringer continued. Alvarado gave him a confused frown.
“He hid tribal valuables in the clothes and ornaments of his people as they ran from the Federal troops through the Nebraska badlands. Even their guns got dismantled, hidden in blankets and parts of beads and jewelry.”
“I don’t know,” Stringer admitted. The Cheyenne had been poor, starving, and desperate by the time they’d reached the badlands. Most of the ceremonial trinkets and ancient baubles considered sacred by the elders weren’t of any interest to the soldiers who chased them. “Didn’t help them much when the cold caught up to them.”
Dull Knife, the ill-fated leader of the Cheyenne who’d tried to return to their ancient homeland, had been among the first to be buried, put in the ground atop the very ridge the soldiers now searched, his grave lost to the shifting winds of the badlands. And with it, the goods that had been buried with him to keep them safe.
“What’s that got to do with us?” Alvarado finally asked hesitantly.
“Well, Frank,” Stringer said with a small, cruel smile. “They say after he was buried, the Rosebud Creek started running with gold.”
“Gold?” Alvarado repeated with a dubious lift to his eyebrow.
Alvarado stared at him for a moment, then turned his pale eyes back to the dozens of soldiers laboring below them. “I don’t understand.”
“Me neither,” Stringer told him softly. “I don’t believe in magic or no Indian hogwash. All I know is that government man wants whatever these boys dig up, and he wants it bad. Our job is to get it for him.”
“If you say so, Cap.”
Stringer’s men were growing restless. He could occasionally hear the snort of a horse or the cough of a man as they waited behind the ridge amidst the cover of the ponderosa.
They might not be getting a river running with precious ore, and Stringer didn’t believe whatever the Cheyenne had buried with Dull Knife had the power to turn anything into gold. But what the government man meant to pay them for whatever the soldiers pulled out of the earth would be worth the wait.
“Mr. Baird, I trust your end of this issue has been taken care of?” the old man rasped.
“I’m afraid there were some complications,” Baird reported. “Stringer is well on his way, but Rose refused to work with us. He then escaped before we could dispatch him.”
“Yes, sir. Escaped.”
“Pure luck, I assure you, sir. An earthquake, in fact.”
“An act of God,” the old man said in his disconcerting voice. He raised his spotted hand to scratch at his eyebrow. The gold and jewels of the rings on his fingers reflected the light in odd patterns.
Baird fought not to be distracted by it. The silence fell heavy in the room. Dust motes floated by his head in the shaft of light let in by the frosted window. Baird waited for the old man to continue.
“Very well. Can his knowledge harm us? Harm our plan?”
“Certainly, if ever he were to find all the pieces.” Baird knew better than to hedge his answers. The truth and only the truth was the thing to give to his employer.
“He couldn’t possibly, sir.”
“You believe a man who would be so lucky as to stumble upon an earthquake when one is needed could not possibly have the good fortune to piece together this puzzle you have so artfully taken apart?”
Baird pressed his lips tightly together to hide his frustration. “Point well made, sir. What would you have me do?”
“It’s already in the works, sir.” Baird had hired two men to track Rose down and dispatch him. The last telegram he’d received had put them somewhere in Nebraska. Baird was confident Rose would find no earthquakes there.
“And Stringer?” the old man asked without acknowledging Baird’s forethought.
“He is quite capable. I have given him the bare bones of our orders and he assures me it will be done.”
The old man’s thin white hair flew in wisps around his head and his eyebrows seemed to weigh down the skin of his forehead, giving the impression he was constantly scowling. When he offered his snaggletooth grin, he appeared quite ghastly.
Baird smiled politely. He knew how this game was played. He’d begun his lengthy career as a Pinkerton agent during the War Between the States. He and others like him had acted as spies for the Union army, repeatedly going behind enemy lines to do the bidding of those with higher rank.
Baird had risen quickly. After the war, when the Secret Service department had been formed to help handle the workload of the US Marshals, Baird had been one of the first ones to be recruited. On the surface, the Secret Service were involved with suppressing the counterfeiting of paper money, which had become popular since the currency of the failed Confederacy so many people had hoarded lost its value. But their reach extended much further than that; though they still performed the duties that had been their beginning, now they were also tasked with protecting government officials at certain times, and more importantly, they still acted as spies for the government, on both native and foreign soil.
Baird did not like farming out jobs to untrustworthy and unpredictable outlaws. If they failed, it would be on his head.
“And the information you intended to harvest from Rose. Where do you intend to get it now?” the old man asked.
Baird had no good answer for that. Men who’d spent time peacefully with the tribes were few and far between. “I’m still seeking an answer to that, sir.”
“Very well. Inform me at once when you hear of any news.”
“Yes, sir,” Baird answered as he stood and tipped his head. “A good day to you, General.”
“John,” the general called after him as he turned to take his leave. “You may see fit to make certain your loose ends are tied. If Rose shows his face in New York, you had better not shows yours.”
Baird’s polite smile faltered only slightly. “Yes, General,” he said obediently, cursing under his breath as the heavy door shut behind him.
The creak of the wagon wheels and the clop of the horses’ hooves were the lone sounds that broke the late evening silence as Wash and Flynn traveled south to Junction City. Before setting out the previous evening, they had deputized an extra man they could trust to stay back in Lincoln and hold down the fort until one of the other marshals returned.
They expected to get into Junction City well before nightfall of their second day of trekking, but both men were veterans of plains travel, and knew how unpredictable it could be. They had given themselves plenty of leeway. The only problem with leeway was when you didn’t need it. Even with someone to keep you company on the trail, the silence could be oppressive at times.
“Know anything about these boys?” Flynn finally asked to break up the monotony.
Wash glanced over at him. He was guiding the cumbersome wagon over the deeply rutted trail with one hand as if it were easy. “Two of them are soldiers of some description,” he answered around the blade of grass between his teeth. When the dry-goods store had burned down, the town’s tobacco had gone with it. All the men who smoked for a fifty-mile radius had taken to chewing straw as a poor replacement until the new shipments came up the river. Wash claimed Lincoln had been witness to some very cranky town meetings in the meantime.
Flynn pondered telling Wash that he had bought more tobacco while up in Stillwater, but decided against it.
“Soldiers. Indian Wars? Or War Between the States?” he asked dubiously. Surely they weren’t still tracking down deserters and dissenters from the latter.
Wash shrugged and clucked his tongue at the plodding mule pulling the wagon. “I don’t think these gentlemen are deserters. I think they’re younger. Regular Army, Indian Wars and all that.”
“Huh. What’d they do?”
“Telegrams didn’t say.”
Flynn hummed. Not many soldiers got sent back for trial and hanging. The Army needed the numbers and the guns while fighting the Indians, so for the most part they didn’t care about their behavior. And if it was something truly heinous, they were usually taken care of on site, before the bureaucrats got hold of it. These boys must have done something particularly interesting to be sent to Fort Smith. Of course, the Ute and Cheyenne wars had ended almost two years ago, and things had been pretty quiet since. Flynn remembered how soldiers could find trouble during peacetime.
These two unfortunates might be examples to keep order.
Flynn never really gave much thought to what their prisoners had done. He took them where they were supposed to go and then went on with life. He claimed that it was hard to watch a man you’d conversed with hang from the gallows, which it was, but it was also easier to not give a damn about the outlaws they met.
Some of them deserved a noose. Some did not.
“The third is a shootist,” Wash continued. “You might’ve heard of him. Goes by the name of Dusty Rose.”
“No kidding?” Flynn said with long look over at Wash. “I have heard of him.”
“Everyone’s heard of him,” Wash said with a laugh. “He’s in all those damn dime novels they sell back East.”
“Dime novels,” Flynn scoffed. “They never get anything right.”
Those damn stories made more trouble for people than most anything. If you were unlucky enough to get your name in a dime novel, it was likely you’d have wet-behind-the-ears young guns coming after you from all sides, hoping to make themselves a name by getting the drop on you. Or worse, calling you out across a town square, thinking they were Wild Bill Hickok in Harper’s magazine. Flynn shook his head, glad that he and Wash both had managed to escape the fate of fame in their wilder youth.
Dusty Rose had not been so lucky.
Flynn hated dealing with rumor. He couldn’t help himself when it came to Dusty Rose, though, because the man kind of fascinated him. “They say he’s just as fast as Doc Holliday. I heard he dealt faro with Doc out in Colorado for a spell.”
Wash laughed softly. It was a low, growling sound that always made Flynn smile. “You curious?”
Flynn glanced back at him and slowed his horse, coming abreast of Wash as the man grinned at him.
Wash looped the reins of the wagon around the toe of his boot and reached into his jacket with his good hand. He extracted a dime novel and offered it to Flynn. “Picked it up at the general store before we left.”
Flynn rolled his eyes and snatched the flimsy story papers from him. Of course a new shipment of dime novels would come in before the tobacco. He pursed his lips, reading the title with a frown. “Best of the West Series: Dusty Rose, the Desert Flower.”
On the front was a sketch of what the publishers figured Rose looked like. Flynn had found that they were never as handsome or as dashing as the public thought. And they were rarely ever as skilled or heroic. Most were just two-bit horse thieves with catchy names and a knack for dramatics.
“Says he can shoot with either hand,” Wash told him as Flynn opened the book and scanned it with morbid curiosity. “Says he’s got a dog he trained to take keys out of a man’s belt, follows him everywhere he goes. Says he’s a bit of a dandy and that he don’t drink one lick. Never gambles, never swears, never goes a day without bathing. Can’t all be true if he was dealing faro with Doc Holliday. Not if he lived to see the first sunrise after.”
“‘Always to be found in dapper dress,’” Flynn read with distaste. “‘Never a gold button or silk kerchief out of place.’”
“‘Nary a damsel in distress or blushing maid can resist his smiling face,’” Wash recited, his voice shaking with laughter.
Flynn grunted and tossed the dime novel over his shoulder. It landed with a plop in the back of the empty wagon. Wash guffawed raucously, obviously having expected the reaction.
“I wouldn’t put too much stock in it,” Wash said after a while, still snickering. “Kid Antrim down in New Mexico was said to be a dandy too, and you’ve seen those tintypes of him. Ugly, dirty, little bastard.”
“Lots of things was said about Kid Antrim. He’s a damn hero now that he’s dead and not shooting folks left and right. They’ll never call him a hired killer like he really was.”
“What is it they’re calling him back East now? Billy the Kid?” Wash asked.
Flynn offered that a rude noise. “That’ll never stick.”
Wash shook his head, smiling as he pulled the mule to the right to avoid a rut that probably would have broken an axle. Flynn watched him as they plodded along, feeling the ache in his chest like he always did when he got a chance to sit back and watch his friend. It was a familiar ache, one that he had lived with since their early days in the Union Army.
“Dime novels never get it straight,” Flynn said when the ache became too much to deal with. “I heard that Rose favors the gentlemen over the ‘blushing maids,’ or whatever the hell they called ’em. Wouldn’t that shock the genteel society types?” he mused.
“I’ve heard that too,” Wash agreed. “Might shock the society types, but it ain’t uncommon out here. I do wonder how Rose gets by with it being so well-known.”
Flunn grunted distractedly.
“That bother you?”
Flynn glanced back at him in surprise and then shrugged uncomfortably. Something about Wash’s tone of voice told him that he may have offended him with the subject. “Man’s welcome to do what he likes, so long as it don’t hurt no one else. I thought Rose was all bluster,” he added, irritably shifting his body in the saddle, hoping to change the subject. “All tenderfoot hooey and big talk about how fast he was with iron. Finally turned real outlaw, did he?”
“Word is he killed a man,” Wash answered, giving a lopsided shrug. “Two men, actually.”
“Word is he’s killed lots of people,” Flynn countered. “I thought it was all bull.”
“Well, the dime novel stuff is bull. But the official reports ain’t too pretty. He’s been tried twice in New York, was absolved of guilt and let loose both times. Some say his family has big political pull, lots of money,” Wash said with another tug on the reins. “But he had to go west after the second trial to save his family’s name. Got into more trouble out here. He escaped from a sheriff in Arkansas somewheres, but after the fact it was proved he wasn’t even in town when the man he was accused of killing was shot, so they let him be.”
“Escaped, huh?” Flynn asked, frowning heavily.
“Seems to be pretty good at it. He’s been found innocent of four separate murder charges.” Wash grimaced as if the thought of someone getting away with murder caused him physical pain. “They were all self-defense incidents with witnesses and sworn statements and the like. But, rumor has it that in other cases he’s escaped from five different lawmen in three territories before ever being brought in front of a magistrate or judge.”
“Five,” Flynn repeated flatly.
Wash gave a jerk of his chin. “We’ll have our hands full.”
“Well, ain’t that just a treat. I ain’t ever hearing ‘easy one’ from you again, you damn liar,” Flynn muttered. “So, what makes this time any different? With the murder, I mean.”
Wash shrugged. “Nothing special about it, I don’t think. He shot two boys in the street, neither of them yet twenty, then he stuck around until the sheriff showed up, claimed the other men drew first. I guess he was counting on the self-defense thing again. Local magistrate ain’t gonna be around for another month and they’re worried about him escaping, so he’s being sent off to New Orleans for trial.”
“Huh.” Flynn glanced up at the darkening sky. “He stuck around.”
“That his real name, y’think? Rose?” Flynn asked after a long moment of nothing but the creaking wagon wheels and the clopping hooves. “Dusty sure as sin ain’t his given name.”
“Nah, it’s an alias,” Wash said with a small laugh. “I’m sure there’s another name on the papers.”
“Guess we’ll find out soon enough, huh?” Flynn said as the squat gray buildings of Junction City came into view over the horizon.
“Yep,” the old Junction City sheriff greeted drolly. He took the papers Wash handed him. “Yep, yep, yep.”
“Good to know we’re in the right place,” Wash responded, giving Flynn an amused glance and a wink.
Flynn rolled his eyes and then peered up and down the street warily. A smattering of people had gathered as they’d guided the wagon into town, recognizing them as lawmen and obviously aware of who they had come for. Flynn hadn’t quite appreciated the fuss this infamous prisoner might cause them as they took him toward the Mississippi. They would have to stay far away from the bigger towns along the route, where word might have already spread. It would make the trip longer, more expensive, and certainly more dangerous.
Flynn’s horse shook its head and snorted, sidestepping toward the water trough as Flynn and Wash strode up onto the wooden sidewalk. They followed the sheriff into the tiny jail. It was dark and cramped and dusty. A typical territorial sheriff’s jail, as far as Flynn’s vast experience went, built out of mud brick and luck.
He stood in the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb and holding Wash’s shotgun in the crook of his arm as Wash dealt with the warrants. Men like Dusty Rose had a lot of admirers and a lot of enemies, any of whom might like to catch him as he was being led from a cell in hand irons. It was Flynn’s and Wash’s job to make certain the prisoners got where they were going alive, preferably without much loss of limb. The government wanted them to still be breathing before they stretched their necks.
But Flynn was of the opinion that if anyone intended to harm Dusty Rose in this particular town, they would have done so already. It would be plenty easy to stick your gun through the bars of the jail cell’s window and blow someone away. Lynch mobs were still nearly uncontrollable in these parts too. But, regardless of what his gut told him about the lack of danger, Flynn kept one eye on the street, just in case.
“Just the two of you sent to get ’em?” the sheriff asked as he eyed Wash’s sling with rheumy blue eyes that had probably once been sharp and hard.
“You expect them to give us trouble?” Wash asked, obviously not at all concerned with the implication that he wasn’t able to handle the job with his injured arm.
The sheriff shrugged and handed Wash back the leather packet that contained their papers. “See for yourself,” he invited with a gesture toward the cells in the back partition of the rickety building.
Wash slid the warrants into the waterproof pouch inside his duster and turned to incline his head at Flynn. Flynn gave one last look at the calm street outside and then glanced to the couple of sheriff’s deputies who were to keep guard for them. They nodded in unison, and Flynn turned to follow Wash into the back. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but soon Flynn could make out two small cells, along with their occupants.
Two men were sitting in one cell. One of them was wearing what was left of a tattered Army uniform and glaring up at them balefully. The other was wearing oilskin pants and a jacket that appeared to be homemade. His greasy hair fell over his face as he sat with his head bowed and his hands hanging between his knees. He didn’t look up at them.
Both men were unkempt, long hair and overgrown beards full of dirt and grit. Flynn had been dirty before, the trail always did that, but even he had to wrinkle his nose at the state and smell of the two men.
“How long they been here?” Wash asked with obvious distaste.
“Four days,” the sheriff answered from the doorway.
Four days wasn’t long enough for them to have achieved the level of filth they had managed, and Flynn glanced at the sheriff doubtfully.
“They was dragged behind a chuck wagon from the Fort. Don’t know how long they kept ’em over yon. Ain’t our job to delouse ’em,” the sheriff explained.
Flynn looked back at the two men. “Great.”
The last prisoner sat alone in the other cell, lounging against the plank wall with one foot pulled up onto the cot. A dream book—a packet of papers used to roll cigarettes—sat on his knee. He was rolling a thin, brown cheroot between long, graceful fingers. Flynn examined him as he licked the paper and folded it over with exceptional care.
He was younger than Flynn had expected for a gunman of his expansive reputation. Flynn was certain he hadn’t yet reached thirty. He appeared to be about as tall as Flynn and Wash both were, but he was all wiry muscle. It made him appear lanky and taller than he probably was. And, for once, the picture on the dime novel cover didn’t really give its subject due justice. He had sharp features: thin lips, an aristocratic nose, and high cheekbones. His black hair had been cropped shorter than was the style, the ends just barely curling over his ears, but because he had been denied any visits to the barber during his incarceration, it had grown slightly wild. His goatee and sideburns were unkempt as well, but he still managed to appear put-together. His black eyes were dancing with amusement as he observed them.
Wash walked over to the other cell and looked in at him. The sheriff had said he’d been in the jail here in Junction City for a little over a week, waiting for transport, but he was clean and calm. His clothing was rumpled, but that was only to be expected; he appeared to be wearing the same clothing in which he had been arrested. He’d either been traveling or having a night on the town. Or he was just a dandy, like the rumors claimed.
He wore a black shirt under a tailored vest that was the color of rye whiskey. A black silk ascot was tied neatly around his neck and tucked into his vest. In Flynn’s experience, neckwear was the first thing a prisoner would loosen and toss to the floor of his cell in frustration. The fact that it was still there meant Rose was a cool customer. His boots, Flynn noticed, weren’t even dusty. He hadn’t paced while in the cell. All in all, he cut a mighty fine picture for a man stuck behind bars.
“Dusty Rose?” Wash asked him in a low voice.
The man looked up at Wash with unreadable black eyes and slipped the cigarette he had been rolling into his mouth. The cigarette jumped between his lips when he spoke.
“I don’t really go by that name,” he answered in a soft, surprisingly deep voice as he reached into his breast pocket and extracted a match.
“You’re an Englishman,” Flynn blurted. Nothing he had ever heard or read about Dusty Rose had mentioned that.
“So it would seem,” the prisoner murmured as his eyes traveled to land on Flynn and examine him critically. He reached down and struck the match on the side of his boot, carefully lighting his cigarette and then waving the match out without ever looking away.
“What’s your real name?” Wash asked, obviously not as thrown by the revelation as Flynn had been. But then, Wash never seemed thrown by anything. Unless you counted that one horse.
The prisoner looked from Flynn to Wash again and lowered his foot to the floor as he leaned forward on the hard cot. “I was arrested under the name Rose,” he answered with something like amusement.
“Is that your real name?” Wash asked impatiently.
“Does it really matter, Marshal?”
“Are we sure this is the right man, Sheriff?” Wash demanded as he pushed away from the bars and turned to the sheriff.
“That there’s the man known as Dusty Rose back East, Marshal,” the sheriff answered with a confident nod. “His real name, as far as we know it, is Gabriel. Gabriel Rose.”
“Gabriel,” Flynn echoed.
“You didn’t think his Christian name was Dusty, did ya?” the sheriff asked in amusement.
“I can’t say I’ve ever given him that much thought,” Flynn grumbled with a restless shift of his weight, lying through his teeth.
The prisoner snorted. “Do you give anything much thought, Marshal?” He inhaled from his cigarette as he watched Flynn. He was sitting up straight now, one leg crossed genteelly over the other as he rested a forearm on his knee. He held his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger daintily, and when he exhaled, the smoke formed a perfect ring as it floated away from him.
Flynn watched him with a frown and decided the best response at this point was no response at all.
“I’m Deputy Marshal William Henry Washington. You can call me Wash. And this is Deputy Marshal Eli Flynn. You can call him Sir,” Wash announced to the three men. “We’re going to be taking you to St. Louis.”
“Are you going to bathe them before we get under way?” Rose asked with an elegant wave of his fingers at his fellow prisoners. “Or shall I stock up on more tobacco and papers before we begin?”
“Hey, fuck you, Mary,” one of the other men snarled through the bars that divided them. His voice was heavy and sluggish, just like he looked.
Rose’s eyes slid to stare at the man. “I prefer my partners willing and able.”
The man in the buckskin, who had remained quiet, rolled his eyes and let his head bang against the plank behind him, as if he were used to this sort of exchange and was growing tired of it. His louder companion stood and took two steps toward Rose, but his progress was stopped by the chains that attached him to the bars of the cell. Rose raised his chin and, with a smirk, blew another smoke ring toward the man.
The sheriff picked up a carved wooden cane and banged it against the iron bars, shouting at the men like he would at animals in a cage.
“Well,” Wash said as he turned back to Flynn and nodded, taking his shotgun and sliding it into the crook of his arm. “Let’s get this dog and pony show on the road.”
The sheriff ordered a pair of his deputies to move the two soldiers to the wagon as a third stood guard over the crowd. No one in the town knew the two soldiers, though, and they merely looked on curiously. Wash took care of the warrants and paperwork as Flynn carefully set his shotgun against the wall and unlocked Rose’s cell. He stepped in with a pair of irons in his hand and nodded at the man.
“Stand up, please,” he requested. He had learned that being civil at the start of transports often made things easier. If the prisoner gave him trouble, then he would give him trouble right back. Until then, a please here and there didn’t hurt anything. He was probably one of only a few officers of the law who believed that.
Rose slowly stood and held out his hands, his eyes following Flynn unerringly. Flynn met them for a moment, trying to get a read on him.
Putting on irons was the most difficult task involved with arresting or escorting a prisoner. The heavy cuffs had to be unlocked with a key, placed onto a prisoner’s wrist and closed, then the key had to be inserted again to lock the two pieces of the cuff together. And that was just one hand. If the prisoner had a mind to escape, he would try it during this process.
Out on the street, the loud soldier shouted obscenities at the gathering crowd and a host of boos and hisses arose in response.
“That man certainly has a way with words,” Rose murmured with a smirk.
It was obvious even to Flynn’s ears that Gabriel Rose was an educated man. It wasn’t unusual for a shootist of any reputation to be intelligent; a man had to either have some smarts or be very lucky to survive long enough to make a name for himself. Flynn once more found himself comparing the prisoner to Doc Holliday, who was not only highly educated, but also possessed a streak of common sense; a rare quality amongst college-educated folks.
Flynn wondered if any of the rumors about Rose were true. He had the soft-spoken confidence of many of the upper-class society types Flynn had come into contact with over the years, but he lacked the pomp and bluster that so many of them had attained from overconfidence or entitlement. Flynn supposed being in jail and accused of murder would do that to anyone, though, no matter how good they were at escaping.
“You got any friends who might be looking to give us trouble?” Flynn asked him as he placed one of the iron loops over Rose’s left wrist and clapped it together. He put the key in and turned it, locking it. His eyes stayed on Rose, but the Englishman merely stared back at him, holding his hands out helpfully as Flynn secured the heavy iron handcuffs.
“I’ve got no friends, Marshal,” Rose answered. Flynn slid the second cuff over his other wrist, frowning at him. Then Rose gave him a slow, mischievous smirk. “I wouldn’t need friends if I were looking to escape.”
Flynn met Rose’s eyes as he locked the second iron in place with a small clinking sound. Rose’s smirk was still in place, but there was no joke in his eyes.
“Would you be so kind as to hand me my coat?” Rose asked him, his hands still held out in front of him obediently.
Flynn cocked his head, considering him, and then he took a careful step and picked up the thick silk frock coat that lay over the end of the cot. He kept his eyes on Rose as he patted it down, making certain nothing was hidden amidst the pockets, then he draped it over the iron between Rose’s wrists. He received a nod of thanks in return.
“My hat as well?” Rose requested just as Flynn started to back away.
Flynn glared at him. A marshal walked a fine line in these instances. You had to show some kindness and decency in order to get cooperation, but you couldn’t allow yourself to be walked all over.
“It’s a fine hat; I wouldn’t want to leave it behind,” Rose added with a look of sincerity.
Flynn narrowed his eyes, then reached carefully to the cot and took hold of the bowler hat. He inspected the inner rim, then set it on Rose’s head and stepped back to survey the result.
“Makes you look like a tenderfoot.”
“And who would want to draw down on some poor tenderfoot in the street, hmm?” Rose drawled.
Flynn raised an eyebrow, nodding in acknowledgment. It obviously hadn’t worked too well, though, if Rose had killed two men in a gunfight. He backed out of the cell and reached behind him to retrieve his shotgun, his eyes never leaving Rose. He cradled it in the crook of his arm and gestured with the barrel for Rose to come out of the cell.
Rose obeyed, smiling crookedly as he passed. Everything he did and said made it obvious that he was highly amused by the whole process, as if being considered a dangerous and capable man was something novel to him. Flynn didn’t think him a real threat, but he’d misjudged men before. He preferred to err on the side of caution and be thought a fool by his prisoners than be proved one and bleed.
By the time Flynn led Rose out onto the raised wooden walkway in front of the jail, the two soldiers were loaded and chained to the side slats of the wagon. A large duffel bag lay along with them.
“What’s this?” Flynn demanded of the sheriff’s deputies. They all stared at him.
“Those are my belongings, Marshal,” Rose answered in that soft, cultured voice that Flynn was beginning to find both annoying and unsettling.
Flynn turned to question the sheriff and found the old man standing a few steps away and looking at him blankly.
“Man ain’t been found guilty yet, Marshal,” the sheriff informed him. “If they clear him of these charges down in New Orleans, he’ll be needing his things to go on his way.”
Flynn stared at the man, nonplussed and vaguely annoyed by the presumption. “If you think he’s so damn innocent, then—”
“I think,” Rose interrupted before Flynn could go any further, “this is the good sheriff’s way of saying, ‘Y’all don’t come back now, y’hear?’” he drawled with a suddenly affected southern gentleman’s accent, then he looked up and down the main street idly and placed his cigarette back in his mouth.
“Shut up,” Flynn ordered angrily as he shoved Rose off the sidewalk toward the wagon.
Flynn walked his horse just behind the wagon as Wash handled the mule with his good hand. He watched the three prisoners, trying to place them each into a familiar peg hole.
The loud soldier, a large man named George Hudson, was little more than a big, dumb animal. He had a shock of thin white-blond hair that fell lank over his forehead, and a scraggly beard, stained brown with tobacco juice and grime. He seemed dirtier than his companion did, but Flynn got the feeling that it had less to do with his recent treatment at the hands of the Army and the law and more to do with a natural grubbiness some men seemed to have. He had narrow pig eyes and cruel, thin lips, and he hunched as if he was always preparing to lunge and attack.
The other soldier went by the sole name of Cage, though he had not introduced himself as such. He hadn’t introduced himself as anything. He hadn’t, in fact, said a single word. He was smaller than his fellow soldier, but still a larger man than either Flynn or Wash. Tall and powerfully built, sporting several days of facial growth and long brown hair, which was now tied back at his neck with a leather cord because Wash hadn’t liked not being able to see his eyes. He would perhaps have been a handsome man in different circumstances, and seemed more bothered by his filthy state than Hudson did. It was becoming more apparent that, though they were being transported together, the two soldiers were not companions in any other sense of the word.
Rose drew much of Flynn’s attention, simply because he found the man so peculiar. A true square peg. The Englishman sat leaning against the side slats of the swaying wagon with his back straight and his long legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles as he rested his restrained hands in his lap. He seemed oddly at ease. His eyes had not yet left Hudson, and the big man glared back at him with a hatred Flynn didn’t really understand. They hadn’t been jailed together long enough to have grown to hate each other, he thought, but Flynn supposed some men were quicker to that difficult and dangerous emotion than others.
The wagon wheels protested as Wash pulled the mule up short and slowed to a stop. Flynn clucked his tongue at his horse and urged him to trot up to the front of the wagon.
“Want to bed down for the night?” Wash suggested as the dying light tried to stretch across the flat land. “Got the creek right here.”
Flynn turned in his saddle, peering into the distance as he tried to remember how far the next small town was. He didn’t often make the trip from Junction City to St. Louis, and he’d never made it while attempting to avoid the larger settlements. He wasn’t too proud to admit that he was out of his element.
“Next town’s another half day’s ride, Marshal,” Rose said, as if reading his mind.
Flynn turned to glare at the man. “Shut up.” The words had become his standard response to anything Rose said. The man’s cultured voice just grated him.
Rose chuckled darkly and rolled another cigarette. He had been lighting them almost nonstop the entire trip, trying to ward off the smell of the other two prisoners. He didn’t smoke them much, though, just let the smoke waft around his face, which Flynn thought a phenomenal waste of quality tobacco. His chains clanked as his hands moved, and it was an odd thing to see his long fingers deftly making the papers with his wrists bound together. His eyes danced as he ran his tongue along the paper.
Hudson sneered at him, and Cage merely shook his head and looked away with a heavy sigh. The silent man was obviously just as tired of the sniping and bickering as Flynn was.
Flynn dismounted as Wash stood and wound the reins around the wagon brake. They set up the camp methodically, hobbling the horses and mules and building a fire from the store of wood they’d brought with them for the trip, trying to have everything set before the cold of night truly fell upon them. Wash started the coffee brewing and unpacked the grease paper packet of bacon as Flynn rummaged through his saddlebags, looking for the tin mugs and plates.
“We could help, marshals,” Rose offered almost tauntingly as he sat with his back to them, blowing smoke up at the emerging stars. “We promise we won’t run,” he practically sang.
“Why don’t you just shut your damn bazoo, huh?” Hudson sneered at him. “I’m gettin’ tired of hearing you talk.”
“I’m getting tired of watching you breathe, but you don’t see me doing anything about it,” Rose shot back. “Yet.”
“Shut up!” Wash and Flynn shouted in unison.
There was silence as Flynn stoked the fire and, when he glanced back over at the prisoners, Rose was once again chuckling as the big soldier sat and glared at him. The other man, Cage, was still silent. He was eyeing them warily, as if he expected them to begin fighting any moment.
“What’s your name?” Rose asked him as he brought his cigarette to his lips. His chain clanked when he moved and Flynn studied him again in annoyance.
Cage sighed softly and then glanced at Hudson with obvious chagrin.
Hudson answered for him grudgingly. “Folks calls him Cage.” He didn’t indicate whether that really was the man’s name or if it was just what people called him.
“Cage,” Rose repeated as he lounged in the back of the wagon. “You can call me Gabe, if you like.” It wasn’t exactly a friendly offer, more like Rose was testing the waters.
Cage looked at him warily, seeming to sense the challenge, and then merely nodded in acknowledgment.
Rose brought his cigarette to his lips and inhaled, holding the cigarette from underneath with his thumb and forefinger. He struck Flynn as completely relaxed as he sized Cage up.
Flynn didn’t think he had ever seen a prisoner quite as unperturbed as Rose seemed to be. It made him almost nervous, wondering why Rose wasn’t worried about his plight. If they found him guilty, he’d hang.
“You’ve not got much to say, hmm?” Rose commented to Cage between exhalations of fragrant blue smoke. He had given the man plenty of time to respond.
Cage met his eyes evenly and simply shook his head.
“Do you have an issue with me as well?” Rose asked.
“’Course he does,” Hudson barked. “Anyone with any sense got a problem with you, Mary.”
Rose’s head turned as if he was looking Hudson over. Flynn couldn’t see his expression, but he stood and waited tensely, wondering if it was about to get ugly. To Flynn’s relief, Rose looked back to Cage without committing any violent acts.
“You let him speak for you?” Rose’s tone was darker than it had been before. There was a lingering hint of curiosity in it, however, as if he was still willing to give the man a chance.
Cage shook his head again and then lowered it, pursing his lips. His eyes, though, were on Rose. He struck Flynn as a man who was used to being pulled into fights he didn’t want. He still hadn’t uttered a word.
Rose leaned forward, his irons clanking again as he moved. “Are you deaf and dumb?” he asked suddenly, his tone no longer threatening.
Flynn watched in fascination as Cage shook his head again and pointed to his ear, then covered his mouth with his hand.
“He ain’t deaf,” Hudson supplied with a huff.
“You’re dumb, but you can hear,” Rose translated, apparently more for himself than anyone listening to their conversation.
“And you were a soldier?” Rose asked doubtfully.
Cage brought his hands up again to place one hand at his forehead, as if he was shielding his eyes from the sun and looking into the distance.
“You were a scout,” Rose said with a certain degree of pride in his ability to decipher the man’s gestures.
Cage nodded again, with a hint of excitement to it this time. It was the most activity and emotion Flynn had seen from Cage since they had picked them up. He obviously wasn’t used to men conversing with him at length. Anyone who wouldn’t or couldn’t speak their mind was practically invisible out here. Some men liked it that way, and for the most part people rarely pushed if you didn’t answer the first question. Flynn found it interesting that Rose had given the man the time of day. Flynn certainly hadn’t.
“What did you do as a scout for the Army?” Rose asked. “Tracking and the like?”
Cage nodded and rolled his finger through the air as if there was more.
“He could understand the Injun hand signals,” Hudson said grudgingly. “Talk to ’em.”
Rose glanced at him and then back at Cage thoughtfully. “That’s fascinating,” he commented. “Most Army men just kill the Indians they encounter. Consider them savages.”
Cage stared at him, obviously not willing to comment on that.
Flynn met Wash’s eyes across the growing fire. He didn’t know if they should allow this to continue, but Wash shrugged as if he saw no harm in it. Flynn didn’t see much harm in allowing them their idle chitchat either, and so he kept quiet. Until they started threatening each other again or devising ways to escape, whatever they talked about was irrelevant to Flynn.
Rose continued to question him. “How did you alert your superiors when you were scouting?”
Cage turned his head to the side and gave a low whistle in answer.
“Can you make your letters?”
Cage nodded and mimicked writing with his hand in the air, the irons on his wrists clanking just like Rose’s had done.
“I suppose you have to if you can’t communicate any other way,” Rose mused. “When those around you can’t read, what do you do?”
Cage glanced at Hudson carefully and then back at Rose, shrugging. He lifted his hands then set them back in his lap. Rose nodded as if he’d understood. Flynn wasn’t sure he himself had, but then he wasn’t really trying to.
“What did you do to land yourself in this wagon?”
Flynn cocked his head at them. That was a question a man just didn’t ask another in this country. Especially if you were sitting in hand irons on your way to trial. It was part of the unspoken code of the West. Don’t ask questions you wouldn’t want to answer yourself. Rose didn’t have any care for the laws of the country, and he didn’t seem to adhere to those unspoken rules either, which was probably why he’d been run out of every town he came to.
But Flynn was curious despite himself. The papers on the two soldiers hadn’t included much information about their crimes. He could see the bad in Hudson just looking at him, and it was anyone’s guess what he’d done to get sent to the gallows. But Cage didn’t strike Flynn as the type to be on the wrong side of the law. He was quiet and unassuming, and he didn’t appear to want to cause any trouble. Flynn wondered what he’d done to be heading for a probable noose back East.
Cage was licking his lips and frowning, but he didn’t seem offended by the question like Flynn had expected him to be. He seemed to be considering how to answer in a way that would be understood.
“Dumb shit,” Hudson said with a harsh, ugly laugh. “They catched him burnin’ the Army’s blankets.”
“Is that right?” Rose drawled without ever taking his eyes off Cage.
The scout nodded curtly and diverted his eyes again, peering off over Rose’s shoulder.
“Why?” Rose questioned after a moment. Cage looked back at him sharply, as if he hadn’t expected Rose or anyone else to care about the reason.
“He writ it on a paper, but no one at the fort gave a care,” Hudson told them. He was beginning to warm to the job of translating for them. Flynn thought he simply enjoyed recounting someone else’s misfortunes. Hudson sniffed at the aroma of the bacon frying over the fire, and Flynn narrowed his eyes, spitefully hoping the man would give them reason to deny him dinner.
Rose glanced at Hudson in apparent irritation, then back at Cage, who was digging under his filthy oilskin jacket. Flynn could no longer help his curiosity, and he edged closer, leaning over the side of the wagon to watch. Cage finally produced a folded piece of paper and handed it to Rose. Rose reached out and took it with difficulty, their chained hands barely able to reach and make the exchange. Flynn read the charcoal scrawl over the man’s shoulder as he held the paper up.
blankits was making peepel sik
Rose turned his head to find Flynn behind him.
“Ever heard of such a thing, Marshal? Burning blankets to keep them from making people sick? Sure sounds like a hanging offense to me,” he observed in a wry, almost bitter voice as he frowned at Cage. He folded the paper carefully and handed it to Flynn.
Flynn took the paper and looked up at Cage, scowling. He had heard rumors from old soldiers, stories about their grandfathers handing out blankets rife with disease to the Indian tribes back East during the early years of the country. He had never really given it much thought. That was far in the past, and these days the Army just rounded up the Indians and shot them. They didn’t hand out blankets to them.
“Who were they making sick?” Flynn questioned.
Cage laced his fingers together nervously and glanced at Hudson, who sat beside him, oblivious. He then looked back at Flynn and nodded his head sideways at the soldier.
The revelation gave Flynn a sudden sinking feeling. “He’s sick?”
Cage shook his head and closed his eyes in apparent frustration.
“I believe he means the soldiers in general, Marshal,” Rose drawled as he leaned back against the side of the wagon.
That got Cage’s attention again and he nodded, pointing at Rose.
“Where’d you come from, Fort Riley?” Flynn asked. Cage nodded. “I ain’t heard nothing about soldiers being sick or dying up there.”
Cage sighed soundlessly and then gestured to Hudson again.
“The hell I will!” Hudson bellowed. “I answered enough questions already; I ain’t your damn puppet!” The bigger man shoved at Cage’s shoulder.
Cage’s hands moved with the speed of a rattlesnake, wrapping the chain of his irons around Hudson’s wrist and capturing him neatly before the man could assault him. He then yanked him closer and jammed his elbow into Hudson’s nose in retaliation.
“That’s enough!” Wash shouted from behind Flynn. He stood and glared at them from the flickering light of the fire.
But Flynn made no move to stop them. As far as he was concerned, Cage had the right to defend himself. Flynn watched impassively as Hudson put his hands to his face and held his nose.
Cage snorted at him and shoved him further away. He looked back to Rose and covered his mouth with his hands, making a coughing sound to explain.
“Consumption?” Rose guessed, completely ignoring the tussle and the blood pouring from Hudson’s nose.
Cage shook his head and put his hand to his forehead, then fanned himself like a lady might do when she overheated.
“Fever,” Flynn murmured, ignoring the blood as well. Cage nodded, pointing at him. “Go on.”
Cage put his hands to his throat and mimicked having trouble swallowing, then spread his hands out to indicate his throat bulging.
“Diphtheria,” Rose said suddenly, and Cage nodded eagerly.
“Wash,” Flynn called as he turned away from the wagon and squinted past the light made by the little fire.
Wash was watching him with interest. “I’m listening.”
“You broke my damn nose, you savage!” Hudson hollered nasally.
Rose merely chuckled at him in response as Cage shrugged.
“Shut up!” Flynn ordered. “Don’t touch him again, and he won’t break things on you!”
“You dumb bastard!” Hudson howled.
Rose slouched and kicked the man in the thigh.
“What does it say on Cage’s warrant?” Flynn asked Wash, ignoring the bickering prisoners and turning away.
Wash set down the frying pan and reached into his jacket as he stood up again, leafing through the leather packet until he found the right paper. He read it with difficulty in the firelight, then answered in a disgusted voice. “Destruction of government property, undermining morale, disobeying direct orders. For that, they’re trying him? He’s looking at a hanging if they find him guilty.”
“Don’t that beat all,” Flynn huffed as he handed Wash the note Cage had written and turned to the fire.
Wash remained where he had been, and Flynn glanced at him. He was watching Cage with a thoughtful frown. The man sat in the wagon with his head bowed again. Rose had managed to get all the way on his back and was pushing his boot heel against Hudson’s neck, slowly choking the life out of the man, who flailed and gripped at his leg. Wash bent and picked up a rock, then chucked it at Rose and hit him on the side of the head.
“Knock it off!” he shouted in the commanding voice that always made Flynn shiver with delight.
Rose rolled to his side and cursed as he held his head, and Hudson gasped as he was able to get his breath once more. Cage merely sat watching them both expressionlessly.
“That ain’t right, Flynn,” Wash murmured as he stood examining Cage.
“Your aim’s still pretty good.”
Wash gave him a dirty look and shook his head. “I mean about Cage. Ain’t right to hang him for trying to save lives.”
“It’s the law, Wash,” Flynn reminded gently. The conversation he’d had with Wash several days ago was still clear in his mind. He glanced at Wash carefully. He agreed with Wash on this particular point; sometimes the law was just wrong. Life wasn’t always black or white; there were gray areas that needed a human eye to distinguish the lines. The law didn’t see those gray areas. But their job was to uphold it as it was written, not decide which ones to follow and who got to follow which ones, no matter how often Flynn thought maybe they should just let justice have its own way with some people.
Flynn had always been a stickler for the rules and regulations, even back in the Union army. He played life according to Hoyle, and that was how he liked it. Wash, on the other hand, was a firm believer in seeing both sides of a story and finding the truth behind them.
Sometimes the two weren’t good bedfellows, the law and the truth.
“Law don’t always make it right,” Wash murmured as he slid the warrants back into his jacket.
Flynn prepared dinner in silence. He didn’t know what to say, and so like any smart man, he kept his mouth shut.
Or, check your local library.
Word Count: 87,700
Page Count: 322
Cover By: Simoné
Release Date: 12/27/2014
Release Date: 12/29/2014