Published on Tuesday, April 13, 2010
An Interrupted Journey
By K.G. McAbee
Luke Zane drew back on the reins and peered ahead to where the trail began to dip down from the high country.
Something was wrong. He couldn't quite put a finger on it, but it was there. There was something about the look of things that he didn't much like. No, not so much the look, but the feel of things. Something, somewhere, just didn't add up. But he was derned if he could figure out what. Still, whatever it was made the short hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
He took a sniff of the brisk breeze; sagebrush and pine, water in the not-too-far distance, and maybe a hint of smoke from an old campfire.
The dusty trail stretched before him, winding downhill towards the flatlands and a small town he could just barely make out a hint of in the distance. Carterville, his destination; he'd been heading towards it for most of the last ten days, and it felt mighty good to see at long last.
Something wasn't right.
He slouched at his ease on the black horse, his rifle cradled in his arms. The horse, a big stallion, had belonged to a cayuse name of McCoy, but that was before Mr. McCoy had got himself a bullet hole just off center of the middle of his forehead. It had been a righteously deserved bullet hole, at least in the opinion of Zane and some few others.
But that had been a good many weeks back. Now Luke Zane rode the big stallion, his stocky pack horse Jessie on a long tether behind. Jessie's packs hadn't decreased much in size on the journey, mainly because she was mostly hauling small tight bags of gold nuggets and dust, along with some food and water. One man who was a good shot didn't need to carry much in the way of food for a trip like this. Luke was bringing more than six months' worth of gold to be assayed and turned into hard cash. And Luke had decided to come alone, even though some of his new acquaintances, miners, gold panners and such, had offered to tag along with him. Luke liked to travel light, travel fast and travel alone.
Except he was pretty sure he wasn't alone no more.
Luke's ice gray eyes peered under the brim of his Stetson. Nothing in sight that might give him this funny feeling. And town wasn't more than a few miles ahead, where he could get a hot meal, a slug of whiskey, and a soft bed while the assayer's office weighed up the gold he'd brought.
No use hanging around here all day. "Giddy up, Buck."
The big stallion -- he'd never known what McCoy had named the horse, so Zane just called him Buck -- started forward. Even the horse was more alert than usual. His ears lay back against his head and he kept glancing nervously from side to side. Behind, Jessie gave that funny little snort she had when she didn't like the smell of something but she came long smooth enough.
The trail led down the side of a right big cliff that rose high above as the horses descended. The cliff was close to sheer on his left, with an overhang near the top; Luke didn't expect any trouble from that direction. Nope, the trouble would come -- if trouble there was -- when he got away from the shelter of the cliff and started out across the flatland, thick with scrub pines and aspens, on the way to town.
He drew Buck up when they were almost at the bottom. That was the only dangerous time, when someone hidden in the bushes could jump him.
Man and horses sniffed the breeze.
So it - if there was an it - would happen on the ride into town then.
Luke descended to the flatland and examined the trail before him. It led in almost a straight shot towards a ragged cluster of trees that hid the town from him now; he could see a small stream that flowed in a gentle arc off to the right after it came free of the woods. The scent of water beckoned the thirsty horses; Jessie gave a whicker of desire and even the stolid Buck snorted.
The sun was directly overhead, but it was dark in amongst those trees.
Luke considered a moment, and then pulled Buck's reins to the right instead of urging him straight ahead. He'd water them both first, before the trees grew thick around them, then decide what might be the best route to take into Carterville. The trail that led straight through the trees... or mayhap some other way.
He reached the stream with no problem, right where it came out of the trees, and got down from Buck's broad back. He slid the rifle into the holster on his saddle and dropped down to get a belly full of cold water. Lord, but it tasted good!
Sally Joiner removed her bonnet and hung it on a convenient nail near the door. She nervously smoothed her gingham dress before she smiled at the storekeeper. "Mr. Gipson, thank you kindly for this opportunity. I won't let you down, I promise."
"Miss Sally, I knows you won't." Thaddeus Gipson, his belly only slightly less broad than his grin, reached behind him with a grunt to untie the strings of his heavy canvas apron. "I been needing someone to help with the inventory in this old warehouse for a coon's age. I just hope you don't mind me leaving you by your lonesome when I go home to eat my dinner? Believe me, ma'am, I am happy to have you here. And besides, ain't nobody as good at calculating as a schoolmarm, is there?"
Sally laughed. "Well, I do have a way with numbers, and that's a fact."
"I just hope you're not going to be too scared, out here all alone." Gipson shook his head. "It's quiet, and it's gonna be until the town grows and folks start building out this way."
She took the heavy apron from Mr. Gipson, slid the top loop over her head and wrapped the long strings around her own waist; she had to take several loops, since it was considerably narrower that the portly storekeeper's. "Don't you worry your head about me. I'll lock the door behind you and I am just as fine as needs be, sir."
"All righty then. Now don't you go doing any heavy lifting, you hear me? Leave them bags and boxes and such up on the high shelves alone, and just take note of all the stuff that's in easy reach," Gipson said as he stuffed his arms into his coat. "I won't be more'n a couple of hours or so, and anything hard to get to can wait until I come back. You know where I keeps the cashbox in case a customer does manage to find his way out here, though it ain't likely."
"Yes, sir! You have yourself a nice dinner, now."
"Oh, I always do! My Arabella is about the best cook in these parts. That's why I married her... but don't tell her I said so." Gipson winked one blue eye solemnly, jammed a hat on his head and headed to the front door. "I'm a'goin' to put this door on the latch, Miss Sally. You can get out but can't no one come in."
Sally Joiner waved as he pulled the door to behind him. She heard his buckboard squeak in protest as he hoisted himself aboard, even through the closed door. She took a deep whiff of the air in the sturdily built warehouse and tried to see how many things she could identify. Pickles. Tobacco. Bacon. A sharp scent that she thought might be gunpowder. Tea in wooden boxes lined one whole shelf behind the rough pine counter, and a pile of blue jeans was heaped almost to the ceiling on a table against the opposite wall. Rows of cans with colorful labels marched down high shelves.
In fact, the warehouse for Gipson's Emporium and Sundries was packed to the rafters with anything and everything a householder or farmer or rancher or cowboy could need or imagine. Sally was glad of the opportunity to help Mr. Gipson with the inventory, even only a couple of hours a day. As the only teacher at the local school, she stayed fairly busy, but helping out Mr. Gipson only made sense. Not only did he own the largest store in town, but he was also her landlord; she had a room of her own over the schoolhouse, which Gipson also owned. And seven of her twenty-three students were Mr. Gipson and his Arabella's children.
A knock at the door. "Miss Sally?"
She smiled and ran to the door, pulled it open and smiled. "Evening, Sheriff Rhodes. What are you doing out this way?"
The strongly built man with the silver star on his chest smiled down at the petite Sally, his eyes shining. "I just wandered out to make sure you're comfortable, out here all by yourself, is all." He blushed as he remembered his manners and quickly removed his Stetson. "Sorry, Miss Sally, ma'am. My mama taught me better than that. And how are you today? Them rascals down at the schoolhouse giving you any problems?"
"No sir, sheriff. Not after you called by that day and gave them all a talking to, they're not." Sally tucked a stray bit of hair, yellow as gold, firmly behind her ear. Funny, but it seemed like every time she saw Sheriff Rhodes, her hair started falling down.
"Why don't you come on in?" she asked brightly. "I can make us a cup of tea."
The sheriff followed her across the big room. "Yes'm, that would be right kindly in you. I'm in need of-"
But Sally didn't have a chance to get to the kettle on the stove in the back room.
At that very instant, the front door she'd just closed gave a violent bang as if someone had hit it hard with a hammer. The latch popped with an audible snap.
Sally and the sheriff turned as one.
A tall man dressed in dusty, travel-stained clothes was holding tight with one hand to the open door for support. And he needed it. Blood, brown and drying, splattered his face from a wound in his temple. His other arm hung useless and his shirt was dark with blood.
He turned loose of the door and staggered two steps, then fell flat on his face.
Sally took immediate command. "My goodness. Will you help me get that poor man in the back, please, sheriff? Won't do to have him in the doorway like that. A customer might come in and trip over him."
Sheriff Jeremiah Rhodes gave her an admiring look then headed for the man. He knelt down and put two fingers on the man's throat. "He's out, but his heart's beating. You're right, as always, Miss Sally." With a grunt of effort, Rhodes heaved the limp form up. The man was taller than the sheriff and it was all Rhodes could do to drag him towards the rear of the warehouse.
Sally ran ahead and opened a narrow door, which led to another big, cluttered storeroom. Just inside the door to the left was the round table near a woodstove, with a fire in it against the chill of the evening.
"In here, sheriff. There's no place to lay him, I'm afraid. See if you can settle him in that chair, then I think it'll be best if you go for Doctor Hawkins. I'll see what I can do for the poor man while you're gone."
Jeremiah Rhodes shook his head and grinned at her. "Miss Sally, you surely are a wonder. Why, it's almost like you see wounded men every day of your life. I'll be as quick as I can." He was as good as his word. He turned and ran.
Sally put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the wreckage sprawled in the chair. "My goodness me," she said. "What sort of trouble have you got yourself into?"
She fetched some scissors and began cutting away his shirt.
Luke Zane heard someone groaning. He wished the varmint would shut up and let a man get some rest, but it didn't sound like that was gonna happen any time soon. He tried to open his eyes to see who was making all that consarned noise, but something pressed against them. Maybe his hat brim had slipped down...
"Take a drink of this," a voice commanded.
Finally, Luke thought. Maybe he'll shut up now.
Then he felt something hot against his lips. He smelled tea, tea with a good shot of whiskey in it. Never turn down a drink of whiskey, no matter what it's mixed with, boy, his daddy had always told him.
Luke took a sip. It was sweet and hot, and the raw whiskey burned his throat. He took a bigger drink. It tasted good and his head, which had been a mite confused, began to clear.
That durned groaner had quit his whinin' too. That was a relief.
Luke opened one eye. The other one didn't seem to want to cooperate any, but one would do in the present situation.
An angelic face framed in beautiful golden hair smiled down at him.
Well, that settled it.
He was dead. Stood to reason. Weren't no angels in the Territories that he'd ever heard of.
He felt a deep sense of satisfaction. His Aunt Viola had told him he had to mend his ways or he'd never make it to the Pearly Gates. She'd been wrong, the old besom-
The angel disappeared and was replaced at once by a red face surrounded in whiskers.
Dern. Maybe Aunt Viola'd had her a point after all.
"How you feelin', son?" The voice had to struggle through the filter of whiskers but came out still powerful. A wave of whiskey fumes hit Luke in the face. "Here, take you another drink of this here tea; it'll do you more good than anything I got in my bag and that's a fact. And don't you spill any more on Miss Sally's purty frock, hear me boy?" The face drew back but the voice, now lessened to a soft buzz, continued. "You'll do fine for now, with Miss Sally's kind help, and I got to go. Miz Jenkins' young'un ain't gonna wait to be born much longer." He picked up a large black bag from the floor and disappeared from Luke's view.
Luke, aiming to get that golden-haired angel back in sight, struggled to sit up. He hissed as a sharp pain shot through his head, followed by an only slightly less sharp one down his left arm.
Soft hands pushed him back. He could tell they were soft because he seemed to be missing his shirt. He looked around. A big tin bowl of bloody water sat on the table in front of him, with a pile of even bloodier rags beside it. He was pretty sure that some of the rags had started out being his shirt.
The owner of the soft hands appeared in his vision. "You've been shot in the shoulder and a bullet creased your head," said the woman he'd mistaken for an angel. Though, Luke thought, it was a natural mistake. She sure was a looker!
"Uh, yes ma'am; and how'd I get here?" Luke asked her.
"Well, sir," said an entirely new voice, "I'm Jeremiah Rhodes, sheriff in these parts, and we was hoping you'd be able to tell us that your own self."
"I dismounted, looked around and didn't hear or see a thing, so I took me a big drink of good water. And that's the last I remember," Luke finished his story. He felt a good deal better than he had when he first woke; even the pounding in his head had lessened.
"And your own weapons don't appear to have been fired lately either," said Sheriff Rhodes. "So you was bringing in some gold to the assayer's office, you say? Who knew about this little trip of yours?"
"The folks what sent me is all," Luke said. "I'm thinking they ain't involved in this."
"What are you hinting at?" The sheriff's face turned red. "This is a law-abidin' town, Mister Zane, and folks around here don't cotton much to being accused of things they didn't do."
"Well, now, someone took a couple of pot shots at me, for sure." Luke gazed around the big storeroom, his single usable eye - the other was covered with a bandage - wide in innocence. "And I don't see my horses or the gold or any more of my goldarned stuff, do you?"
Miss Sally poured tea from a fat white pot into china cups painted with roses, and sugared each cup generously, then tipped a squat bottle and poured into two of them. "Now, gentlemen, let's don't argue amongst ourselves, you hear now? Someone took a shot at Mr. Zane, and someone took his horses and gear too. That's the main thing we need to follow up on, don't you both agree?" She took a calm sip of tea.
Sheriff Rhodes had a dazzled look in his face. Luke felt a mite dazzled his own self. This Miss Sally was a pistol, that was for sure!
"Yes, ma'am," Rhodes said meekly. "I'll got out right this minute and--"
"And I'll go with you. As soon, that is, as Mr. Gipson gets back from his supper. I cannot leave his place unattended." She looked down at an elegant little timepiece that was pinned to the bosom of her shirtwaist. "I expect him any time this next half hour. He can watch Mr. Zane here while we go investigate this shooting."
"Miss Sally," the sheriff protested, "out in the wilds ain't no place for you."
"Don't say 'ain't', please, and what do you mean, sheriff? You'll be with me for protection, won't you?" She smiled up at him sweetly.
The sheriff's face went the exact shade of a brilliant sunset.
Lordy, but that man has sure got it bad, thought Luke, careful to keep any sort of expression off his face.
"Have mercy! Have we been attacked?" crowed a voice from the other room. "Miss Sally!"
Sally gasped. "The blood on the floor! Mr. Gipson will have a hissy fit. Let me get a mop right this minute!"
She trotted for the door.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gipson chose that exact moment to bustle through it from the other side. The two collided, and Sally was flung back... into the welcoming arms of the sheriff.
"I've got you, ma'am!" Rhodes set her upright.
Gipson had barely noticed the impact. "What in tarnation is going on here?" he asked, a worried look plastered on his ruddy face. "Are you all right, Miss Sally? Who is that man, and why are there two un-tethered horses right outside the front door?"
"Jessie," Luke said in satisfaction as he struggled to his feet. "That there is the smartest little old pony that I ever done seen."
It was Jessie herself, and Buck along with her, both of them drinking thirstily from the trough out front. Luke had made it out the door with only a little help from the sheriff, and he gave Jessie a pat. When he stroked Buck's muscular shoulder, his hand came away wet with blood, but the horse didn't seem to be wounded.
"Probably your blood. You must have been on horseback when you got shot." Rhodes checked the packs on both horses. "Your, uh, cargo seems to still be here too."
Luke did a quick check of Jessie's packs. It looked like none of the bags of gold had even been touched. "I reckon you're right, sheriff. I'm going to take this gold down to the assayer's office right now. I'll admit, I'm gonna be a mite nervous until it's off my hands."
"He'll be closed for the day." The sheriff pulled out his pocket watch. "Lord, it's past six o'clock! But you're right; you're in no condition to guard this much gold until the assayer opens up in the morning. Tell you what. I'll lock it up in the jailhouse, and you along with it."
"Wait a goldarned minute, sheriff," Zane said. "I ain't done nothing but get shot! Don't seem fair to have to spend the night in jail."
Miss Sally put a soft hand on his unhurt arm. "Now, Mr. Zane, don't you fret. The sheriff is the finest man in these parts. He's just looking out for your safety is all."
Luke didn't much like it, but he also didn't much see that he had any choice in the matter.
Thaddeus Gipson came bustling out of his warehouse. He had a shirt in his hand. "Seeing as how I can see you are good for it, here's you a new shirt to take the place of one Miss Sally had to cut off you. And you can use my buckboard to take him to jail, sheriff."
"I thank you kindly," Luke said. The sheriff helped him get one arm into the shirt and draped the other over his bandaged shoulder.
"It looks as if there's some varmint loose, Mr. Gipson; are you going be safe here on your own?" Sally asked, a concerned look on her pretty face.
Thaddeus Gipson patted her on the shoulder. "Don't you worry about me none. I don't intend to stay out here on my own until Rhodes here finds out who about has the itchy trigger finger. This is a law abiding town, and we ain't going to stand for nothing like this. I'll just climb into the back with Mr. Zane here, right after I lock up."
Luke leaned back against the side of the grocer's buckboard. It was near dark and looked like they was about a mile or so from town; he could see lights gleaming from windows already. They'd be at the outskirts directly. Jessie and Buck, on long tethers behind, looked as tired as he felt. He reached up and touched the bandage on his head, then patted the saddlebags beside him that held the gold he'd brought. It was all there, near as he could judge.
He just wished he could remember what had happened.
The gentle jolting must have made him doze a little. The next time he looked up, the sheriff was reining in the horses in front of a small building with bars in the windows.
Luke didn't like it. He'd spent some time in jail before, but he never had gone willingly. A chill went over him, and not just because of the cool evening air. But he didn't see that he rightly had much choice.
The sheriff stopped the buckboard in front of the jail. Rhodes scrambled down first, and then the wagon appeared to be in the midst of an earthquake as Mr. Gipson got out of the back and struggled into the seat beside Sally. He picked up the reins and said over his shoulder, "I'll take your horses over to the livery stable, then drop Miss Sally off on my way home, Mr. Zane."
"Much obliged," said Luke gruffly.
"At first light, I'll retrace your trail, Zane, and see what I can find out," Rhodes said as he helped Luke out of the wagon.
"I'll be going with you," Luke said.
"Mayhap you will, and mayhap you won't," said the sheriff as he led Luke into the jail.
The next morning, a wonderful smell woke Luke. Bacon. Coffee. And could that be the odor of fresh biscuits? He opened one eye.
Miss Sally was outside his cell-unlocked, and the door wide open, which was a new experience for him-and was taking napkins off a tray.
"Now don't you argue with me, Jeremiah Rhodes," she was saying. "I'm going to see what's out there. Mr. Gipson lent me his buckboard. We don't want Mr. Zane to be in the saddle while he's wounded, do we?"
Luke hid a grin at the expression on the sheriff's face. It was a mixture of stubbornness, disagreement and helplessness. Yessir, the sheriff sure had it bad.
The breakfast, good as it was, didn't take long to clear away and Luke soon found himself in the buckboard, with both his revolvers and his rifle and sitting right beside Miss Sally Joiner, who held the reins competently in her slender hands. Sheriff Rhodes was on a big roan gelding beside them.
"Now, iffen we run into trouble, I want you to turn this buckboard around and light out for town straightaway, you hear me?" he said as they rode away from the jail.
Miss Sally did not reply. Instead, she winked at Luke and said, "I feel as safe as houses, sheriff, indeed I do. You're armed and so is Mister Zane here."
They reached Gipson's warehouse right at full daybreak and headed towards the stand of stunted trees about a half a mile on the other side.
"I see some blood here and there, and the marks of a couple of horses" said Rhodes.
"He did bleed quite a bit, didn't he?" asked Sally.
Yessir indeedy, Luke thought in admiration. She is quite a pistol!
The trees ended and Luke could see the very spot where he'd stopped to drink and water his horses. He could recall clearly the big boulder that the stream lapped on one side. Yesterday there'd been nothing to see.
Today, though, there was a plenty.
Two dark shapes stretched out beside the gently flowing water. A buzzard gave a complaining squawk and took to the air as they approached.
Rhodes slid down from his horse in one fluid motion and knelt beside the first figure. He turned the unresisting body over. "This here is Lester Floyd, and I'm guessing that's gonna be his brother Jake. I've had my suspicions about these two for a while, and the whole rest of the Floyd boys. Trouble is the middle name of that whole dern family." He got to his feet and dusted off his hands, then looked up at the buckboard. "Mr. Zane, I'm sorry about this. Cartersville is a good town, but there's rotten apples in most every barrel."
"Appears to me that these boys must have shot Mr. Zane and then had a falling out, sheriff," said Sally Joiner. "And then Mr. Zane here managed to get back on his horse and ride away without any recollection of it. Look there. They've both still got their guns in their hands."
Indeed, each stiff hand held a revolver.
"Yes'm, it's pretty clear what must have happened, all righty. They thought they'd got them something, then commenced to argue over it. I know them Floyds all got tempers, and their pappy is the worst of the lot. I'm thinking you'd best steer clear of them while you're in town, Mr. Zane."
"And it will be a while before you can travel," Sally added. "There's only the boarding house and that won't be safe. Perhaps Mr. Gipson will put you up for a week or two. His place is right beside the schoolhouse."
Luke Zane saw the look on Jeremiah Rhodes' face. Didn't appear that the sheriff much like the idea of him hanging around town. Or maybe just around Miss Sally. This could turn out to be an interesting little stay. He took a deep breath, then reached up and gently poked the bandage around his head. "Reckon I'll have to see what can be arranged at that."
K.G. McAbee has had more than a dozen books and nearly seventy short stories published. Her work has won a variety of awards, including the Dorothy Parker Award of Excellence from Reviewers International, first place in the Writers' Journal Fiction Contest, the Independent E-Book Award for Best Reference Book, and the Dream Realm Award for Best YA Fantasy; she is also a Derringer Award finalist in mystery.