Word Count 8,855
A WM Birthday story based on the Lancer episode Julie.
This story required careful observation of Wayne Maunder in action, and involved repeated viewings of this episode, and others. We didn’t mind. We offer it in appreciation of the work that WM did in bringing the character of Scott Lancer to life.
“CONVINCING SHERIFF CUTLER”
Finding the streets of Live Oak, California, teeming with people was not a common occurrence, but the annual Fourth of July social could be counted on to pull in all the nearby ranchers and farmers from miles around.
This fine summer morning, wagonloads of families and ranch hands had begun trickling in shortly after sunup. The bathhouse had filled with the more sober-minded men, in to polish off the latest accumulation of California grit. They’d go on to Elias’ barbershop for a good shave with a sharp razor, a hair trimming and a splash of that Hungary Water Elias claimed no woman could resist. Meanwhile, over at the saloon, the rowdier ranch hands had started their celebration early.
Round the hotel and on the front porch of Miz Dickey’s rooming house, young ladies, in town for the day, passed and paused, turning their colorful parasols over their shoulders and clutching up the flowery skirts of their best summer gowns to keep the hems out of the dust. Their mothers and grandmothers had gathered in the ladies’ parlor at the hotel or in Miz Dickey’s best sitting room, where they would be sipping lemonade sweetened with gossip.
When things were slow over at the café, Miz Dickey’s sister, Sadie, helped out at the rooming house, but today the café was already crowded with newly arrived farmers looking for something to tide them over till the picnic started.
The men from town were already at work under the trees along the creek, barbecuing sides of beef under the watchful eyes of some of the older ranchers. Others, like Elias, were fully occupied with the trade the visitors brought in. Their wives and daughters would be at home, making potato salad, icing cakes and baking biscuits.
An imaginative man could have pictured the coming feast as he strolled down the main thoroughfare. Sheriff’s Deputy Lemuel Sparks was not especially imaginative, although he was momentarily distracted by a sky blue parasol bobbing above a trim form, dressed all in white. He kept the young lady in sight for half a block or so, hoping for a glimpse of the face shaded by the parasol, but when the object of his interest disappeared up the hotel steps, Lem straightened and turned his watchful eyes back to the passing scene.
It was a big day for Live Oak, and Lem was there to make sure nothing spoiled it.
Thieves preyed on crowds like this one. Unruly tempers and too much alcohol could lead to violence. And you never knew when some more calculating criminal might try to take advantage of the holiday distractions for a more desperate act. With the thought, Lem’s hands went to his gun belt, unobtrusively adjusting his pistol’s weight for ease of reach.
Lem stopped a moment on the sidewalk in front of the barbershop. Elias and his man had customers lined up out front, some in the mismatched chairs Elias kept there, the less fortunate lounging about, waiting for a vacant chair and, eventually, a turn inside. Someone had set up a shell game to entertain the men — and pick up some pocket change. Lem thought he recognized the showman from the fair last fall.
A shell game was a game of chance like any of the ones that might be played in the saloon. And as with those, the “dealer” might try to tilt the odds in his favor. Lem watched his hands shift the walnut shells about on his one-legged table. If the man was playing tricks with the pip, Lem couldn’t detect it. He glanced up at the faces of the men watching the action. No dissatisfaction there. Lem had learned from Sheriff Cutler that you couldn’t trust a man’s face too much, but these men, he knew. If they thought they were being had, they wouldn’t make no secret of it.
He turned his eyes back to the game, wondering now where the pip really was and how you could lose sight of the right shell so easily. How long he stood and watched, he wasn’t sure, but he caught himself before anyone noticed. With some embarrassment, he wondered if his face had shown his honest bafflement.
Recalled to duty, he looked at the crowd of onlookers again. One of the faces now caught Lem’s interest. Not a local, still the man looked oddly familiar, although there wasn’t much to distinguish him. Burly, with a gristly stubble that would benefit from Elias’ attention, the man was pretty average in other respects. He could have done with a stop at the bathhouse before coming to Elias. While the other men had their eyes on the shell game, this one was looking through Elias’ window. Maybe a chair was about to be vacated. Or maybe he was waiting on a friend. . . .Even as Lem was thinking this, the man shrank back from the window.
In one instant, Elias’ big window shattered and a dark form hurtled through to land almost at Lem’s feet, stunned. The crowd on the sidewalk scattered, getting clear of trouble.
Lem was no fast-draw artist, but he had his pistol out before the second man came through the window. A tall, broad-shouldered man in fringed buckskins, he stepped through the window like it was a new door. This man, this man Lem recognized and his identity brought with it that of the other man who had looked in the window.
Lem firmed his grip on his Colt. The bounty hunter’s attention was all on the man who lay still at Lem’s feet and neither Lucas Thatcher nor his partner — what was that man’s name? — had noticed the deputy holding a gun on them. It had been five years since he saw them last, but Lem remembered.
“Get up, Ricketts. It’s a long way to Tucson.”
Tucson, Lem thought. Last time it was Denver.
“Now wait a minute.” That was Elias, scared and mad, too, speaking from the other side of the broken window. Flustered, his wispy hair unsettled, Elias clenched his fists in his white apron as he gaped for words to frame his shocked anger. They’d be good, hot ones when they came, Lem knew.
“Damnation, you fellas have broke my window and two bottles of bay rum. Do you know what that dad-blamed window glass cost? Don’t you move a step till we get this settled. Somebody owes me —“
“There’ll be plenty of money when we get this man to Tucson. We’ll send you a bank note from there,” Lucas said. He took another step toward the prone man.
“Hold it right there,” Lem put in, hoping his voice sounded firm like Sheriff Cutler’s. The sheriff had told him time and again that he needed to be more forceful in asserting his authority. It was the way to get control of a situation. << Sound like you’re in command and you will be.>> Now Lem wanted to stop Thatcher before he could get too close.
Thatcher looked up from his prey. Looked at Lem’s pistol, held rock steady with the forefinger on the trigger. Lucas Thatcher looked back at Lem’s face. He smiled, drew up to his full height, and took a long step closer.
Lem resisted the impulse to wave him back with the pistol — the kind of foolish move that gave a dangerous man an opportunity. “Don’t take another step,” Lem ordered, hoping his voice didn’t sound as ineffectual as Elias’ had, though he was uncomfortably aware that he had echoed the barber’s words.
Whether his words or his pistol would have stopped Thatcher, Lem would never know. Lucas Thatcher’s gaze slid from Lem to something behind him. A big grin split his face and the dark eyes gleamed with recognition. “Why howdy, Sheriff. Just the man we were looking for. Lucas Thatcher – and you remember my partner, Wade Hackett.”
As if the sheriff could have forgotten, Lem thought.
The big man had thrust out a hand for shaking. Cutler appeared not to see the outstretched hand and Lucas lowered it without changing his expression.
Before the bounty hunter could say more, Elias called attention back to himself. “Sheriff! Arrest these men! That feller there —” Elias jabbed the air with a shaking finger, but instead of finishing his sentence, he moved as if to step through his glassless window, as Lucas had done. Perhaps he realized it didn’t befit his dignity, for he drew himself up and took a couple of steps to the left to emerge from the door beside the gaping hole.
Though Lem had noticed Elias’ maneuvers, he was not sure that his boss had. Sheriff Cutler’s eyes were still on Lucas Thatcher. The man on the ground still hadn’t stirred.
“I told Mr. Barber here that we’d pay for the window, Sheriff — just as soon’s we collect on Ricketts. Now stay down, Ricketts, till I get ready for you.”
The groggy man on the ground had made no move to get up. He didn’t look likely to, either, without some help, so Lem figured Lucas was making one of his jokes.
“What brings you back to Live Oak, Mr. … Thatcher?”
Thatcher gestured at the man in the dirt. “Ed Ricketts. Wanted in Tucson for holding up a stage.”
Cutler’s expression didn’t change. “You have a wanted poster, too.” It wasn’t a question, Lem realized.
Thatcher’s grin widened. He fumbled inside his shirt for a worn and folded piece of paper, then passed it to the sheriff, whose face gave nothing away, so that even Lem didn’t know for sure how he felt about being confronted with the bounty hunters again, and another prisoner.
“This better be specific,” Cutler said.
The sheriff glanced at the creased sheet. Lem had crept close enough to see that there were only words, no drawing. Cutler handed the sheet back to the bounty hunter. “I need proof, Thatcher. Let’s take this to my office. Deputy, help the man up.”
Lem looked back down at the sprawling man, relieved to realize that he was not very large. Thatcher’s partner — Hackett, that was the name, wasn’t it? – dropped down from the planked sidewalk to help, but Lem had seized the man under the arms and hoisted him up before the bounty hunter could touch him. Prudently, Lem kept himself between the bounty hunter and his dazed prize. Ahead of him, Thatcher had matched his long strides to Cutler’s shorter ones. Lem could hear the bounty hunter’s emphatic voice explaining how long they had been following this one and how they knew they had the right man. That’s what he had claimed last time, too, Lem remembered. Lem had even believed him. If Sheriff Cutler hadn’t held out so long for proof … well, that young fella would have died on the way to Denver.
Getting a shoulder under the arm of Thatcher’s quarry and a grip on his belt, Lem struggled off down the street with him. The other bounty hunter kept pace beside him, like he was afraid Lem might drop the fella somewhere and lose him. By the time they reached the sheriff’s office, the sheriff and Thatcher had finished with words. They faced each other across the office, but turned when Lem staggered through the door with his charge. Without being told, Lem guided the man to the empty cell. . . it was the same cell they’d put that Lancer fella in, he realized. When he had turned the key on the new prisoner — to protect him or the public, Lem wasn’t sure which — he faced the sheriff.
Cutler was looking at Thatcher again. “We have a telegraph office now.”
The bounty hunter grinned. “That’s right handy,” he said. “This shouldn’t take us long then.”
Cutler grunted. He looked for Lem. “Send a wire to the sheriff’s office in Tucson, Sparks. Ask for all the details you can get about their stage robber, name of Ricketts.”
“I might have a few things to add,” Thatcher said. “I can prove to them that I’ve got the right man.”
“Right now, you just have to prove it to me,” Cutler said shortly “And if you have a message to send, it will be on your nickel.” He looked back at Lem. “Wait for the answer.” Lem nodded and headed quickly to the door. When things started happening, a deputy didn’t get much chance to catch his breath in Live Oak.
Lem was more than a little uncertain about what the sheriff meant for him to do. Cutler had made it clear that he didn’t want Thatcher adding on to his official message. Lem suspected that the sheriff might also want to know about any message Thatcher sent. Maybe that was why he wanted Lem to stay at the telegraph office instead of having young Jim run the reply over to the jail. Just in case, Lem would make a point of finding out about any messages Thatcher sent. The telegrapher was his cousin, Riley.
Thatcher hadn’t come right out the door with Lem, but he caught up to the deputy before he reached the telegraph office. “You got a lot of good folks in town today, haven’t you, Deputy? Where’s the party?”
“It’s the Fourth of July,” Lem said, wondering if the bounty hunter kept up with such things. Thatcher’s grin told him he did. “There’s a town social.”
Whether Thatcher would have asked for more details, he didn’t know. He had to step back from the door of the telegraph office as one of the local ranchers came out. Tipping his hat to the man in passing, Lem went to the desk inside. Thatcher stood over his shoulder as Lem filled in the message blank. Lem hesitated with the pencil in hand. The words cost money and he wasn’t good at packing a few of them with plenty of facts. He made several starts and did some scratching out before he was satisfied. Conscious of Thatcher’s attention the whole time, Lem took care and eyed his words over several times to make sure he had done the best he could.
When Lem had finished and handed the blank over to Riley, he was tempted to ask Thatcher if he had any complaints. Thatcher only nodded, then said, “You’re wasting your time. He’s the man.”
Lem couldn’t resist pointing out, “That’s what you said last time.”
Thatcher frowned, then shrugged. “The little lady fooled us, I admit it. But we ain’t fooled this time, Deputy.”
Lem looked around for a chair. He was still new to this telegraphing business — they didn’t have much call for it — and had no idea how long it took a message to go over those wires clear to Tucson. He had a hard time believing it would go anywhere at all. There were no chairs on this side of the counter, but the window ledge was a nice deep one and just the right height. He sank down on it, straightening his legs in front of him.
Riley looked up from reading Lem’s message. “Jim can bring you the answer when it comes in,” he said. “He’s out delivering a message now, but he’ll be back soon.”
“Sheriff said to wait,” Lem said.
Riley turned to Thatcher. “You want to send a telegram, Mister?”
Thatcher looked at Lem’s message, still in Riley’s hand. He smiled. “No thanks. I reckon that about covers it.” He had reached the door before he turned back to Lem on his windowsill perch. “Strangers welcome at this barbecue?”
“Nobody’s a stranger on the Fourth of July,” Lem said, honestly surprised at his asking. When Thatcher disappeared through the door, Lem could see beyond him a couple of young ladies, one with a blue parasol, the other with a big pink ribbon in her chestnut hair. Thatcher’s retreating form blocked them from view.
Lem sighed, then settled down more comfortably and tried to think about what would happen next. Could proof come in a telegram from Tucson? It had been hard to come by, last time, with Lucas Thatcher and that Scott Lancer. It had been up to Sheriff Cutler to try to find out where the truth lay. The truth had been like the white pip in that shell game he had watched a little while ago — hiding under one of the identical shells. And all Sheriff Cutler could do to get at it was to demand some proof. Then pick a shell . . . But the sheriff never had liked to watch a shell game, let alone play one.
Five years earlier:
“Now if you’ll just let us carry on with our business, Sheriff. . ..” Lucas said, like he just expected that Sheriff Cutler was ready to step aside and let him take the prisoner right then and there. The bounty hunter seemed pretty confident that he’d presented convincing evidence that the man sitting in the chair was in fact Jonas Barrett, Denver Bank Robber and Murderer.
That was one of the first things Lem Sparks had learned under Sheriff Cutler — that a peace officer spends most near all his time listening to people trying to persuade him of something. Everybody has a story – how this fella was guilty, how they were innocent themselves, how something happened or how it didn’t happen. But the Sheriff didn’t believe in stories, he wanted evidence, he wanted proof. Sheriff Cutler liked to have something he could hold in his hand, though he couldn’t always get it.
Well, Lucas Thatcher had shown him that “Wanted Poster”, and there was no question the prisoner fit the description, though like the Sheriff said, the poster alone didn’t prove that he was, didn’t prove that he wasn’t.
But added to that, the man hadn’t been too anxious to answer the Sheriff’s question about where he’d been a year ago. It was no surprise when he claimed he’d been “Back East”, and said he’d never been to Denver. And, of course, he’d also given another name than “Jonas Barrett,” just like Thatcher had said he would.
But the main thing was that the two bounty hunters had been following Jonas Barrett’s sister and said she’d been taking money to her brother. And instead of the billfold he’d pretended to be searching for, what the prisoner had tucked up inside his jacket was the envelope of money that Miss Julie Barrett had given him. It just didn’t make any sense that Miss Barrett would have handed it over to a total stranger. And now Sheriff Cutler was standing there, holding that envelope.
But John Cutler had always been a fair man. “I said I’d hear him out,” he told Thatcher. Then he turned to the prisoner and said, “Go ahead.”
“Now my name is Scott Lancer,” the prisoner insisted. “My brother and I are on a cattle-buying trip and we’re just passing through this town.”
“Where’s your brother now?” Sheriff Cutler asked quickly.
“Over at the stage depot.”
The Sheriff glanced at Lucas. The prisoner gestured angrily. “Well, go on—look!”
Sheriff Cutler turned to Lem Sparks, sitting quiet and unnoticed in the far corner.
“See if there’s anyone there.”
Just as the Deputy reached the door, Lucas Thatcher tossed a warning. “Better be careful there, lad, there was more’n one man in on that robbery.”
Lem pulled up short at that, and shot a questioning glance at the Sheriff, who merely nodded. Resolved that he would indeed ‘be careful,’ Sparks exited the jail and headed with a determined step towards the stage depot.
Arriving at the depot office, Deputy Sparks cautiously opened the door and stuck his head inside. He glanced around at the empty counter, the unoccupied bench near the window. No one. Which was not unusual for this time of day. The noon stage had left some time ago and there wasn’t another one due in for a couple of hours yet.
“Clyde? Hey, Clyde, you back there?” Lem called out, even though he knew full well that the depot clerk was mostly likely over at the saloon having his usual late lunch. The dusty afternoon sunlight streamed through the large paned window. A good-sized fly buzzed lazily near the ceiling, before dropping down onto the wooden counter.
“Guess there ain’t anybody here.”
The fly started crawling in a businesslike manner across the bare countertop.
Lem stepped back out onto the sidewalk and stood in front of the depot for a minute, considering. Much as he’d like to head on back to the jail, hear what else the man who called himself “Scott Lancer” had to say, he figured Sheriff Cutler would be a lot happier to hear that he’d done a bit more investigating. Deciding that if anyone knew if there were any other strangers in town, it would be Clyde ––or Joe the barkeep, both over at the saloon, Lem set off across the rutted main street.
He tipped his hat to old Miz McHatten in front of the General Store and then had to stop to answer her questions about how his folks were doing. Of course, then it was only polite to inquire about Mr. McHatten and his wife had plenty to say about how poorly he was, the gout was acting up and he had arthritis something awful and finally Lem had to tell the little gray-haired woman that he was on “official business.”
“Oh, land’s sakes, Lemuel, why didn’t you say so?! Now don’t you let me keep you,” she added, patting his arm with a maternal air. “You just go right along now.”
“Thank you, ma’am. And you be sure an’ say ‘hello’ to Mr. McHatten for me now.”
“I will do that, I surely will,” she assured him. “Do tell your mother I look forward to seeing her on Sunday . . . Deputy,” Mrs. McHatten added with a twinkle, as she tucked her market basket in close and set off briskly down the wooden boardwalk.
Deputy Sparks tipped his hat once more, adjusted his vest with the shiny star pinned prominently on his chest and continued on to the saloon. Passing through the batwing doors, he nodded at Joe over behind the bar and then looked around the dim interior for Clyde. The depot clerk was nowhere to be seen. The deputy recognized a couple of old timers, George and Jesse Sawyer, sitting at one table nursing their beers. There was a younger, dark-haired stranger alone at a table over against the far wall. About the usual amount of business for this time of day.
Lem looked at the dark-haired man again. Nope, he didn’t look familiar at all. He didn’t look like the prisoner’s brother, either, he thought with a sigh.
“Anyone here named Lancer?” he asked the room half-heartedly.
Joe stopped wiping at the polished surface of the bar to give Lem a puzzled look, then the barkeep joined the Sawyer brothers in turning towards the young stranger seated by the wall.
Of course, Lem found himself staring in the same direction as well, so that meant that every eye in the place, all eight of ‘em, was fastened on the man in the brightly colored shirt. But it was Lem who felt uncomfortable, shifting his weight uneasily from one foot to the other a few times before he decided he might as well go. Just as Lem’s left hand reached out for the batwing, the stranger finally broke the afternoon silence.
“I’m Lancer,” he said softly. Then added, “Deputy.”
Lem dropped his hand as if the saloon door was hot to the touch. Anyone would know he was a lawman, the badge pinned to his chest announced that plainly. But how did this newcomer know he wasn’t the sheriff? Lem brought his right hand up to his waist, and rested it on his gun belt. He even pushed his chest out a bit, before he took a few steps further into the saloon.
“So, uh, . . . . you got a brother?”
Like the first one, that question hung in the air awhile. The other three men, the bartender and the grizzled geezers waited avidly, as if they had some kind of wager riding on the answer.
“Yeah, I got a brother.”
“Well . . . he’s over at the jail. . . . I expect you’d better come along with me.”
The man who said his name was Lancer smiled down into his beer, shaking his dark head a little. He scraped his chair back against the plank floor and stood up.
“It against the law in this town ta ask a woman to a dance?” he asked, looking around the room.
No one answered, they all just watched as the man wearing the pink shirt and low-slung gun belt took his time finishing off his beer, then sauntered towards the door.
Lem stood aside to let him pass by, but instead the stranger stopped and grinned over at the old timers.
“There’s an art to it, ya know, to handlin’ a woman. My brother, he’s real experienced.”
Then he walked out of the saloon, leaving the old men staring wide-eyed after him. Reminding himself that he was on official business, Lem nodded gravely at Joe and the Sawyer brothers and then squared his shoulders and pushed through the batwings. Once back out on the boardwalk, he had to move quickly to catch up with the man he was supposed to be escorting to the jail.
There was a long silence as Sheriff John Cutler sat in his chair, studying the pieces of paper he held in his hands.
The dark haired young man from the saloon just stood calmly in front of the Sheriff, with his hands behind his back. Lucas Thatcher stood behind the Sheriff with his arms outstretched against the two support posts. Wade Hackett, the other bounty hunter, had made himself comfortable, sitting off to the side with his feet up on the spare desk.
“Well, what you’re sayin’ is he ain’t Jonas Barrett,” the Sheriff observed finally, gesturing with those papers towards the prisoner locked up in the cell. “But you got no way of provin’ it.”
John Cutler carefully folded up the papers and handed them back.
“All these prove is that you’re. . you’re supposed to be some fellow named Johnny Lancer and that’s got nothin’ to do with this.
Johnny Lancer accepted his papers. “He’s my brother, Sheriff, that’s all I can tell you. He is my brother.”
Even without seeing their faces, Lem could tell that neither the Sheriff and nor Lucas Thatcher was convinced.
But Johnny Lancer kept trying. He suggested that maybe they ought to send a wire to Denver and ask for more of a description of Jonas Barrett. But Sheriff Cutler explained that the telegraph wasn’t set to go through Live Oak until August.
Johnny Lancer didn’t act surprised to hear that. He didn’t offer to ride to the nearest telegraph office either. Lem noticed, since he figured if the Sheriff had thought it was something worth doing, then he, Lem, would be on his way to Loma.
Lucas Thatcher had had enough. “Sheriff, I’m really gettin’ impatient now!” he said loudly, glaring at Johnny Lancer. “I can’t tell you who that man is, but I can tell ya that he’s definitely involved.”
Thatcher put his arms down and walked around the stove, so he could look Sheriff Cutler in the face, trying to convince him.
“Now I don’t happen to have a wanted poster on ‘im, so that means that for right now he happens to be clear.”
Thatcher gave Johnny Lancer a look, then raised his voice up another notch and pointed at the prisoner. “But not him ! He is not clear! I have presented you with plenty of evidence for us to take him with us right now!”
But Johnny Lancer wasn’t ready to back down. He spoke right up in a calm, quiet voice. “Will you just hold on a minute?”
And Lucas Thatcher actually clamped his mouth shut, and stood, hands on his hips, waiting.
“You know Murdoch Lancer, owns a spread about a hundred miles south of here?”
John Cutler repeated the name, but Lem couldn’t tell if the Sheriff recognized it or not. Lem didn’t.
“Well, he’s my old man, and his too, and he’ll be back in a couple days and I think he’s gonna be able to take care of everything. He’ll prove who we are.”
Before Lem had time to even think about that, Lucas Thatcher was trying to make his case with the Sheriff. “You’re gonna believe that, right, Sheriff? The man stands there and lies to ya!”
It wasn’t like Sheriff Cutler to raise his voice that way, and Lucas Thatcher wasn’t going to win himself any points acting all disgusted.
“Well, I don’t wanna make any mistakes about this,” the Sheriff informed the bounty hunter in a calmer voice. Then he turned to Johnny Lancer.
“All right,” he said, as he got up out of his chair. “Two days.”
He pointed a finger at Lancer’s chest. “But if I don’t get some proof in two days, I’m gonna turn him over to them .”
Everyone in the jail could tell that the Sheriff meant what he said. Lem nodded his approval, not that anyone noticed. The two very unhappy bounty hunters walked out, then Johnny Lancer handed the Sheriff his gun and asked if he could talk to his brother. Lancer headed over to the cell and the Sheriff sat down at his desk.
“Yes, Sir, Sheriff?”
“You get all that?”
“Sure did, Sheriff . . . . Man’s got two days.”
“Not too much time when a man’s life is at stake.” The Sheriff had picked up his coffee cup and was cradling it with two hands, staring into it. Lem waited.
He waited while the Sheriff fished his handkerchief out of his pocket, then used it to protect his hand when he lifted the coffee pot off of the stove behind him. He waited while the Sheriff poured himself another cup of steaming hot coffee. Lem didn’t know for sure what he was waiting for, but he knew there was more. He knew Sheriff Cutler well enough for that.
“When I walked in on ‘em, over at the depot, the prisoner was lying on the floor, out cold. Hackett had a gun to his head.”
Lem nodded. After all, the prisoner was accused of robbing a bank, murdering a guard . . .
“Now I didn’t see “Dead or Alive” on that Wanted poster. Did you?”
Even though he could tell the Sheriff didn’t actually expect him to answer, Lem did anyway. “No, I didn’t Sheriff.” Which was the truth.
Well, Lem hadn’t actually been able to see the poster Sheriff Cutler had been holding in his hand, but he’d heard the Sheriff read it out loud, and he sure hadn’t said “Dead or Alive.”
“You think they were really gonna just kill ‘im? I mean, what about the bounty money?”
“Oh, well, they’d probably have had some convincing story for the people up in Denver, how Barrett was trying to escape and they had to put a bullet in him.”
There was an edge to the Sheriff’s voice, and knowing that John Cutler didn’t hold a high opinion of bounty hunters in general prompted Lem to put in his own two cents, and make a negative remark about them. But he saw his mistake almost before the words were out of his mouth. The Sheriff looked up at him with a closed off expression like he’d just been caught thinking out loud and wasn’t about to do any more of it.
“Well, now , Lemuel, they’ve got a job to do, same as we have.”
“ Now why don’t you go take a look at the wanted posters, see if you can find any on those other men involved in that robbery. And then you and I’ll go talk to Clyde over at the depot. And Fred down at the livery. If this Miss Julie Barrett was really here in town, one or the both of them would’ve had to have seen her, coming or going.” There was a pause, and then the Sheriff added, “Those two too.” He indicated the two men talking quietly between the bars of the cell. “We’ll find out when they came in, and if there was anyone else with ‘em.”
Lem had hardly gotten the big stack of posters out of the drawer of the spare desk when the dark haired man with the brightly colored shirt and the low-slung gun belt, collected his weapon and headed towards the door.
“I’ll be back, Sheriff.”
Sheriff Cutler gave him a look. “No need, unless you have the proof.”
Johnny Lancer, who even Lem had noticed didn’t look like a rancher any more than he looked like the prisoner’s brother, left without saying anything more. Lem settled in at the desk with the stack of posters and Sheriff Cutler stood up very slowly and walked over towards the cell.
The prisoner rose, holding onto the bars with both hands as the Sheriff approached.
The man gripped the bars of the cell the way that Lem had seen other new prisoners do, as if he might pull the bars up and set them aside at any minute. Lem quietly shifted his chair in the corner so that he could continue to look at the wanted posters while keeping an eye, as well as an ear, on the conversation about to begin.
“Look, Sheriff, my name is Scott Lancer. I’ve never robbed a bank. And I’ve never been to Denver.”
Sheriff Cutler nodded, but didn’t offer a response, just posed a question.
“So . . . where’s he off to?”
“After the girl, Miss . . . Barrett. He’ll bring her back so she can straighten this out. She’ll tell you I’m not her brother.”
“That would be proof,” Cutler acknowledged.
“He also said he might go after . . . Jonas.” The challenge in those words was unmistakable.
“If he finds him, that would be proof.”
“If he makes it back.”
The tension in the prisoner’s voice brought Lem’s head up.
The Sheriff moved over to the pot-bellied stove without saying anything.
Lem turned back to the posters. He had stopped at one bearing a description of someone wanted for a killing in the Nevada territory. He found it hard to concentrate, curious to know what else the prisoner might say and how the sheriff would handle it. It took him a moment to realize that the Nevada poster had nothing to do with this case. He set it aside and reached for the next as Sheriff Cutler poured himself yet another cup of coffee.
“This -” the prisoner released the bars to gesture at the cell that surrounded him “is unnecessary.”
“Could be,” Cutler acknowledged. “But maybe not. I have to know for sure.”
The prisoner twisted away impatiently, but before Cutler spoke again, he seemed to have put a rein on himself. He stood still, hands at his side now, the bars throwing shadows across his face.
“So he’s your brother.”
The prisoner sounded matter-of –fact, but Lem had his doubts. They sure didn’t look or sound anything alike.
Cutler sipped his coffee, savoring it silently for a moment. “That’s a bold plan of your brother’s, goin’ after Jonas. A young man’s plan.”
The prisoner only looked at him.
“An older man would be more cautious. He’d go after the sure thing, instead of chasing after danger and risking failure.”
“A sure thing?” The prisoner frowned.
“Your daddy,” Cutler said. “Might get here sooner, if your brother went to meet him and hurry him along.”
The prisoner must not have thought of that, Lem decided. Or there was no father.
“What’s your daddy’s name?”
“What brought you here?”
“Just passing through, Sheriff.”
“And you say you’re ranchers?”
“South of here. Near Morro Coyo.”
Lem had forgotten his posters, fascinated by the volley of questions and answers. The sheriff paused a little to frame each question, then asked it in his slow, careful voice. John Cutler’s tone didn’t give away any more than his face did, though Lem thought he heard something in the way he said “your brother” that showed the sheriff, too, had some doubts about the likelihood of that relationship.
There had been plenty of times that he’d heard the sheriff do this, asking questions. But usually he was trying to figure out who started a saloon fight, not identify a big city bank robber and murderer.
The way the sheriff told it, if you wanted proof, you never just flat out asked what you wanted to know. First you asked questions you already knew the answers to. You even asked things that didn’t matter, or unexpected things, so long as you got the prisoner talking. Not that this one had opened up much. Sheriff Cutler pitched a question, the
prisoner tossed an answer right back.
“So you were at your daddy’s ranch when this robbery took place?”
“A year ago? I told you, I was back East.”
“In Boston. I was raised there.”
“That right? That brother of yours, he from Boston, too?”
“No. Johnny grew up out here. We’re half brothers.
“How old is he?”
“I – I’m not sure. Twenty-one. Maybe twenty-two.”
What kind of man didn’t know how old his own brother was, Lem wondered. It was the first time the prisoner had faltered, and over such a simple thing. Even if they were only half brothers, he ought to know. Lem’s next thought was that it would have been easy enough to lie about it.
The prisoner’s voice broke into Lem’s musings, finally filling one of those silences that Sheriff Cutler left him.
“I didn’t know I had a brother until I came out here six months ago– to meet my father.”
Sheriff Cutler didn’t raise so much as an eyebrow at that. Not a gambling man, Lem didn’t even like the shell games vendors sometimes set up in the streets — but his boss would be a cool hand running one. That stony face of his never gave nothing away. The prisoner had his arms crossed over his chest and his head bowed. “It’s complicated, Sheriff.”
“You say you’re new here, but you had a pistol strapped around your hips.”
“A man seems to need a sidearm in these parts. I know how to use it.”
“That’s big talk, son — for an Easterner. You ever kill a man?”
The prisoner took his time answering that one. He had his shoulder to the bars now, leaning against them, still not looking directly at the sheriff. “I was in the War.”
Sheriff Cutler made a business of tossing the dregs of his coffee in the stove fire before asking, “Infantry?”
“Cavalry,” the prisoner replied.
Lem watched the two men size each other up for a long moment. Finally the sheriff turned away. “So you grew up back East. You’ve never been to Denver.”
“Not even on the train out,” the man said with a touch of sarcasm.
“But you can’t prove it.”
“No, Sheriff, I can’t prove it. Not today. Not to your satisfaction. So maybe I’ll have to tell my story to the judge in Denver.”
Cutler had almost reached the door, but he stopped and turned at that. “You don’t convince me you’re not Jonas Barrett, I’ll have to let those bounty hunters take you. If you’ve really never been to Denver before, then don’t count on seeing it now, not if you leave here with them.”
Then the sheriff shot a look at Lem that made the deputy squirm. “Let’s go, Deputy.”
Lem knew that tone of voice. He jumped up, glad to leave the wanted posters for a more active pursuit of the truth. He grabbed his hat, but stopped to look at the office and the prisoner before following the sheriff out, to make sure everything was secure.
The man still stood by the bars. One arm rested on the crossbar. One hand dangled out between the bars. Lem had seen that before, too, when he had assisted a U.S. Marshal in delivering a man to the prison in Yuma. The long-timers there had done that — hung around the bars, to get something out into the free air, a hand, a toe, a whole arm, sometimes, reaching into the corridor or, at a window, reaching for the light.
Out on the sidewalk, Sheriff Cutler waited impatiently for Lem to close the door.
“While you talk to Clyde,” he said, “I’m going to look in at Boney’s stable. He’s closer to the stage office. I’ll meet you at Fred’s.”
Lem nodded. The sheriff had a point. Most folks who lived hereabouts or came through regularly used Fred’s livery stable because his rates were cheaper. But Mr. Boney was closer to the depot and stabled his animals better than Fred did. If there really was a Murdoch Lancer and he really was a big rancher, he’d likely have preferred Mr. Boney to look after his mount.
Lem trailed after the sheriff, thinking this would be the second time today that he’d set out looking for Clyde. No doubt about where he was this time, though. There he stood on the sidewalk, arguing with Mr. Dyer about a big wooden box that rested on the planks between them. Clyde stood in front of the depot door, clearly determined not to let that box come through.
“Eb Dyer, you know that’s too big and too heavy for the stage. You know what the regulations are good as I do. You gonna have to get a drayman to take it to Sacramento and put it on the train there.”
“It’s just one box, Clyde.”
“Sorry, Eb, but this can’t go.”
Eb wasn’t any too happy about that, thrashing his hat against h is thigh, but he didn’t kick up too much of a fuss. Lemuel figured he’d just hoped to catch Clyde napping.
“You need me, Deputy?” Clyde asked when Lem stepped up onto the plank walk.
Lem nodded. “I’d like to have a word with you, if you’re through here.”
Clyde sort of shrugged at Eb like he was sorry he couldn’t help him right then, and Lem followed him into the depot, figuring Clyde owed him one.
“What can I do for you, Deputy Sparks?” Clyde asked when he had shut the door on Eb Dyer.
“Tell me about the folks that left on the stage this morning.”
Clyde’s eyes lit up with interest and Lem braced himself. It was purely a challenge to get more information than he let slip when he had to question folks in town. He’d known most all of ’em since he was a boy, and it was just natural to tell them why he was asking, but the sheriff had told him that his job was to get information, not spread gossip.
“Now, Clyde, don’t go asking me why. Just tell me who took the stage this morning.”
Clyde was all seriousness as he recalled that Mrs. Ramsey had gone to see her sister in Cathy’s Valley and that Mr. Fisher, the lawyer, had business in Sacramento.
Lem interrupted his litany. “Any strangers?”
“Strangers?” Clyde took his time considering, though Lem was sure he could answer him straight off.
“There was a stranger, Lem. A big fella, white-headed.”
“He come alone?”
“What’s he done, Lem? Something dreadful? He sure was big.”
“I don’t know as he’s done anything at all, Clyde. Sounds like he was just a loner passing through.”
“Who said he was alone? I didn’t say he was alone.” Clyde turned and went behind the counter, getting his cash box and ticket book ready for the next stage. “He had two young fellas with him, matter of fact. No, he wasn’t alone.”
“Friends of his, I reckon?”
“I can’t rightly say, but maybe not exactly. They were kind of an odd group, now you ask.”
And this was worse, Lem thought. Now that Clyde knew Lem was interested, he was sure there was something suspicious about them and that would color everything he said.
“The other two was a good deal younger and one of ’em – why, Deputy, he looked like a gun hawk. Had this bright pink shirt and silver things running down his britches, with a big ol’ gun slung real low.”
So that much of the story was true. Johnny Lancer at least had been here with an older man. Who might have been his father.
“What about the other one?”
Clyde squinched up his eyes, like he was trying to see the other one from here. “He was a bit taller, fair-headed. He had a gun on his hips, too, now that I think of it.”
And that sounded like the prisoner. “Were they family, you reckon?”
Clyde’s eyebrows went up. “Family? Oh, I shouldn’t think so,” he said darkly. “Didn’t look a thing alike. The gunslinger, now he was a dangerous-looking hombre, slouching on my counter and acting like he owned the place. The other young man, he was so polished looking and polite. Those are the ones you gotta look out for, you know. Sly. Yeah, he looked plumb sly. Then the old man, he was a head taller than either of ’em, at least, with great big hands. He was the one in charge.”
Clyde shot an earnest, confiding look at Lem. “He was the leader.”
“You hear ’em talk about anything while they were here?” Maybe they had mentioned the ranch, if there was one.
But Clyde was shaking his head. “Just the usual, when he’d be back. He bought a return ticket. Told ’em to wait here.”
Well, that was something. “Did you get the name?”
“I just sell them tickets, Deputy.” He paused a moment, then leaned across the counter to whisper, “What have they done, Lem?”
“Nothing I know for certain,” Lem said, turning and heading for the door before he could be tempted to say more.
He didn’t want to tempt Clyde to say more, either, now that the man’s imagination had got to working on his memory.
Cutler met him in the street. “Anything?” he asked.
Lem considered his response. “They did come to the depot with an older man. Clyde thought he was their boss.”
Cutler looked at him closely then. “Oh? What made him think so?”
Sheepishly, Lem admitted, “He didn’t exactly say. Should I go back and ask him?”
Cutler shook his head. “I think Clyde told you all he knows.”
And maybe a little more besides, Lem thought.
From Mr. Boney, Sheriff Cutler had learned that a stranger fitting the description of “Johnny Lancer” had stabled three horses, but no one at Boney’s had seen the other two men. And no one had even caught a glimpse of a young woman who might be Miss Julie Barrett.
Their next destination was the livery, where they found Fred busy vigorously hammering at a horseshoe. The stableman’s face was flushed with the effort and wisps of hair fluttered up and down above the rest of the fringe encircling his head. He looked up as they entered, and slowly set the hammer down, but oddly, didn’t offer up much by way of greeting.
Sheriff Cutler stopped a few steps inside the door and stood with his hands in his pockets, looking around the stable.
Fred rubbed his own hands on the front of his leather apron. “Somethin’ I can do fer ya, Sheriff?”
“Well, I didn’t see your rig outside Fred,” the Sheriff observed slowly. “You hire it out?”
“Person that hired it, now it wouldn’t have been a young lady by any chance?”
Fred didn’t seem real anxious to answer that question. Finally, the liveryman nodded his head, then quickly turned his attention to the bellows and started working them.
“I’m going to need a name,” the Sheriff announced, loud enough to be heard over the racket Fred was making.
“She must’ve signed for the horse and carriage?” he asked, once it was quiet again.
“Yeah, she signed, . . . . name of Miss Julie Barrett.”
Sheriff Cutler gave Lem a look. This was what was known as “confirmation”.
Turning his full attention on Fred once more, Cutler slowly drew his hands out of his pockets, resting one on his hip, while the other resettled his hat on his head. The silence lengthened and the dust-filled air sparkled in the bands of sunlight slanting through the square window high over their heads. Fred didn’t let the dust motes dance too long before he broke the silence.
“She headed down the South road, it’d be over an hour ago now.”
Sheriff Cutler folded his arms across his chest. “She leave a deposit?”
“Sure, sure, she had the cash. . . . didn’t say when she’d be back.”
Fred sure seemed spooked about something. His eyes kept darting around, first at the forge, then at the horse shoe in front of him, then over at the big livery doors standing open wide.
Sheriff Cutler looked down at the ground for a moment and Lem figured Fred really wasn’t going to like the next question. “You got something else you want to tell me?”
Fred sighed. “I was gonna come right over, soon’s I finished up here, Sheriff. Fact is, she asked me ta wait a full hour after she’d gone. Wanted me ta give this money to somebody she said was over in your jail.” The liveryman reached into his shirt pocket and fished out a good-sized wad of bills.
“She say who he is?” Cutler asked as he walked over to accept the cash.
Fred had to think about that one. “No. All she said was that he’s a young fella. But she sure didn’t look the type ta have friends in jail—an’ I told her that.”
Cutler studied the money in his hand for a moment before looking up at Fred. “No billfold.” It was a flat statement, Lem took it as an aside to himself, but Fred was as quick to respond as if he’d come in contact with piece of hot metal.
“No, no, no billfold, just that there folding money. Like I said, Sheriff, I was gonna bring it on over to you in about, in about, say, ten minutes. Oh, and she asked me to give a message to that fella in the jail—”
“What kind of message?”
His hasty flow of words interrupted, Fred faltered now, seemingly struggling to recall exactly what it was the young woman had said. “She said ta tell ‘im that. . . that she was sorry and. . . hoped he’d forgive ‘er.” He shook his head. “Didn’t say what for.”
“I’ll be sure and give him the message,” Cutler said, depositing the cash in his own shirt pocket as he turned away. Lem let the Sheriff move past him towards the door, then gave Fred a nod and made to follow, when the liveryman spoke again.
“There was a fella in here askin’ questions about Miss Barrett,” he said to the Sheriff’s retreating back.
Cutler paused, half turning to look over his shoulder. “Dark haired man, wearin’ a pink shirt?”
“Yeah, that’d be the one.”
“You tell ‘im where she was headed?”
“Well, yeah, guess I did.”
Cutler nodded and headed through the double doors. Lem followed. Behind them, he could hear Fred hammering away at the horseshoe once more.
Once outside, Lem hurried to catch up. “Guess those bounty hunters were right, when they said she was bringing her brother some money.”
The Sheriff stopped in his tracks. “He already had an envelope full of money, now why would she give him more?”
“I don’t know, Sheriff.”
“Doesn’t make much sense, Lemuel. We don’t know why she left and why she wanted an hour’s head start to get away from here.”
“Maybe . . . maybe she just doesn’t want to be helping him any more, Sheriff. Has to be hard on a young woman, having a wanted man for a brother. Still, she’d be sorry ‘bout leavin’ him. ”
Lem waited patiently under Sheriff Cutler’s scrutiny, and was relieved when his mentor finally nodded. “That could be.” Then more softly, “That could be it.”
Cutler stared straight ahead, then started off in the direction of the jail.
“So where were you last night, Lemuel?”
Lem stopped on the wooden sidewalk outside of Elias’ shop, brought up short by the insistent tone of the barber’s question. The truth was, he’d spent a quiet evening at home with the folks, losing to Dad two out of three at checkers. Not that he was anxious to share that information.
“It was my night off—”
“Well, you missed all the excitement– that bank robber tried to escape!”
“That’s right, Deputy,” Elias said, shaking his head emphatically and setting his wispy hair in motion. “He broke out of jail. Good thing those bounty hunters were in town ta help the Sheriff catch ‘im.”
“You say the bounty hunters helped Sheriff Cutler?”
“Yup. Heard the whole story from Mr. Thatcher himself this mornin’. Beats me why John is keepin’ such a dangerous man here in town, stead of packin’ him off to Denver.”
Even though he’d been wondering pretty much the same thing, criticism of Sheriff Cutler never set well with Lem, and he didn’t appreciate hearing any from Elias now.
“Sheriff gave the prisoner two days to prove who he is. I don’t suppose Mr. Thatcher mentioned that the Sheriff ain’t convinced he’s the one they’re lookin’ for.”
Elias placed one hand on each of his apron-covered hips and gave Lem a look. “He tried to escape. That oughta be proof of somethin’.”
Well, the man had a point, not that Lem was inclined to admit it. Instead he just told Elias he’d talk to him later and hurried on towards the jail.
When he got inside, the first thing he saw was Sheriff Cutler seated at his desk, holding a mug of coffee in both hands. It seemed as if he’d been staring at the empty desktop, but he looked up when Lem entered and offered his usual “Mornin’, Lemuel.”
“Mornin’, Sheriff,” Lem replied, his eyes moving to the cell, finding the spaces between the bars. The prisoner was still in there, sitting on the cot with his knees bent and his back against the wall. He had a book in one hand and another one of those white coffee mugs in the other. The prisoner looked up and nodded politely. Lem quickly turned his attention back to the Sheriff.
“Is, ah, everything . . . is everything all right, Sheriff?”
Cutler pinned Lem with a look, and took his time answering. “I guess you heard we had some commotion.”
The Sheriff shoved the chair back from the desk and stood up, pushing his hat back on his head as he turned to look towards the cell. “Seems our guest here got loose. But he didn’t do it by himself. Somebody helped him.”
Cutler stood with his hands on his hips, and beyond the Sheriff, behind the iron bars, Lem could see that the prisoner had closed the book, still keeping one finger inside the pages to hold his place. He’d been sitting with his head bowed, but he looked up when the Sheriff said somebody had helped him.
It was the Sheriff who broke it off, turning away from the cell.
“Who d’ya think—”
“I’m not sure, Lemuel. Coulda been his brother. Might’ve been those bounty hunters. You and me, we’re just gonna have to keep an eye out.”
“Sure will, Sheriff.”
There was another long pause, while Lem considered that the bounty hunters wouldn’t have been helping the prisoner exactly, more trying to steal him. But Elias had said they’d helped Sheriff Cutler . . .
“Think you could maybe head over to Sadie’s, pick us up some breakfast?”
“Sure thing, Sheriff.” It was a bit late for breakfast, but maybe the Sheriff hadn’t wanted to leave the jail. “Be right back.”
Over at Sadie’s diner, all the talk was about the night before and the dangerous big city criminal now being held in the Live Oak jail. The few folks lingering over their coffee knew Lem hadn’t been on duty, so they didn’t ask him about the escape attempt, but they had plenty of questions about the prisoner.
“What’s he like, Lem, big n’ mean lookin’?”
Lem started shifting uncomfortably. It was going to take Sadie a few minutes to cook up the food, so he was stuck here with everyone looking at him. “No, Hal, he ain’t that big, kinda tall, but not big.”
Mr. Winston from the bank was sitting at the table with Hal Hawkins. “Fortunately, none of us has ever actually encountered a bank robber and murderer, Lemuel, so we’re curious as to what such a man might be like.”
“Well, Mr. Winston, the man we got locked up sounds pretty smart, he’s real . . . polished, kinda sly maybe, but he’s real polite. But he says he’s somebody else and Sheriff Cutler isn’t convinced he’s the bank robber—-”
The banker interrupted. “But he tried to escape, didn’t he?”
Mr. Hawkins saved Lem from having to answer. “Now Howard, whether he did it or not, he’s sure not goin’ to want to take a ride all the way to Denver with a couple a bounty hunters.”
“No, I suppose not.” Howard Winston turned his attention back to Lem. “Deputy, you don’t think the Sheriff is going to let this man go?”
Lem shook his head. “No Sir, Mr. Winston, I can guarantee you Sheriff Cutler isn’t going to do anything like that. Not without some kind of hard proof that he’s who he says he is.”
“That’s good to hear.” The dapper banker finished off his coffee and wiped his mouth carefully with his napkin before setting it aside and rising to his feet. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, gentleman, I must be getting to the bank.”
Just then Sadie came out to the counter with two breakfasts on a tray and called Lem over. “You tell John ‘good mornin” for me and tell ‘im not to be a stranger,” she said as she held the door open for Lem. Carefully holding the heavy tray out in front of him, Lem waited for a hay-filled wagon to pass by and then headed back across the dusty street.
Scott Lancer closed the cover of the book and set it aside. It had been one of three volumes that the Sheriff had had on hand, none of which had seemed especially appealing. He’d reluctantly selected the Hawthorne, even though he’d read it before. At least it had helped the day pass by. And it had been a long day.
He’d spent much of it replaying his encounter with Julie Barrett and berating himself. He’d been so intent upon showing up his brother by obtaining a date for a church dance that he’d been utterly taken in by Miss Barrett’s very abrupt change in attitude. She’d gone from acting like a starched collar to . . . well, to behaving much like the real Miss Colefax. And Scott had been so foolishly pleased with his apparent success in charming her, that he’d failed to wonder when the young woman was suddenly not only willing to spend the afternoon with a stranger, but also eager to bestow a kiss upon him— as well as an envelope full of money.
The last thing he remembered, prior to coming around in a chair in the Sheriff’s office, was accepting the envelope and assuring her that he would “treasure it” until her return. He groaned inwardly as he recalled the words.
That envelope—not to mention the tell-tale lip rouge—had been part of the evidence against him. Frustrated as Scott felt, he could understand why the Sheriff had locked him up.
The Sheriff and his deputy had been in and out during the day, one of them always present, so he’d never been entirely alone. There’d been no sign of Lucas Thatcher or his partner, but there had been a steady stream of townsfolk stopping in. Scott had had to duck behind the book to hide a smile when an older woman the Deputy had addressed as “Miz McHatten” had demanded to know, sotto voce, “So is that him, Lemuel? Is that why you were out on official business yesterday?”
Not that it was at all funny to be set up by a pretty young woman and then mistaken for a bank robber and murderer, although Scott could think of plenty of people who might be amused to hear the story—assuming that he lived to tell about it. The Sheriff had made it pretty clear that he wouldn’t, not if he set out for Colorado in the company of the two bounty hunters.
Which had almost happened last night. Scott wondered if the Sheriff would have come after them. If Cutler had been convinced that the bounty hunters had staged the so-called escape, he hadn’t let on, though it had been almost laughable when Thatcher had tried to suggest that Johnny had unlocked the cell door.
Just where the Hell was Johnny?
He should have caught up with the girl early yesterday afternoon, unless she’d somehow given him the slip. But Scott had more faith in his brother than that. Johnny would have stopped to ask around—someone would have noticed an attractive young woman heading out of town, and pointed him in the right direction. Julie Barrett hadn’t had that much of a head start; all Johnny had to do was find her and bring her straight back to the jail, where she’d have to admit the truth.
But he hadn’t shown up yet. Which probably meant that instead of doing what he’d been asked to do, Johnny had gone ahead with his own plan to go after Jonas Barrett. Leaving Scott to spend a night behind bars—and almost ending up on the road to Denver.
The Deputy—Sparks—had brought in a pretty decent breakfast. And Scott had been optimistic that he’d be out of jail by lunchtime, once his brother returned with both Barretts in tow. However, mid-day had long since come and gone, and there was still no sign of Johnny.
In between the lines of Hawthorne, he’d been worrying about his brother, the soft turn of each page marking the passing of time and reminding him that Johnny was overdue.
There might be a simple explanation—a wrong turn taken, a horse coming up lame. Still, Scott couldn’t help remembering Thatcher saying there had been more than one man involved in the robbery. Johnny could have run into any kind of trouble, been distracted by the girl, surprised by Barrett, simply outnumbered. Those were the stories he found himself creating in his head, each plot like something out of a lurid dime novel.
He was unable to do anything else. Mounting concern pushed Scott to his feet, propelled him against his will to stand in front of the bars, gripping them with both hands. That grasp was achingly familiar. Scott had so far simply refused to react to being so confined. It wasn’t like before, nothing like it in fact. This was just a small town jail, clean enough, with regular meals. His growing sense of helplessness was merely the result of the forced wait for Johnny, the time spent trying not to worry about his brother. Scott consciously released his hold on the bars and slid his hands through them instead, willfully allowing them to dangle outside the cell, loose and relaxed. The Sheriff had given them two days. Johnny knew that. He’d be back.
In the meantime, Scott was resigned to the fact that he’d probably be spending another night in this cell. It was quiet at least, another difference.
He’d still been standing there when they’d heard the pounding of horses’ hooves and the rumble of wheels. The Sheriff had barely glanced up from his ever-present mug of coffee, but the Deputy had gone to the door. When he’d opened it, the noise had already gone past, but Scott could see dust still hanging in the air of the main street.
“Stage’s in,” the Deputy had announced. He looked over at Scott, and then he’d added a bit more. “The one comin’ down from up north.”
Sheriff Cutler hadn’t commented, but Scott had, addressing the back of the man’s head. “It’s too soon for my father to be returning. He won’t be back until tomorrow—at the earliest.”
“Southbound stage comes in this time everyday.” The taciturn Sheriff set his coffee cup on the desk and swung around in his chair. “And those two days are up at two o’clock tomorrow.”
Scott met Cutler’s gaze, willing the dismay out of his eyes, trying hard to prevent his mouth from quirking in disbelief. He wasn’t sure that he’d been successful; it seemed he was out of practice. The Sheriff had looked away first, reaching once more for that white mug and then instructing the Deputy to go get himself some supper. Cutler had followed Sparks outside, Scott had heard them talking for some time on the boardwalk in front of the jail. Unable to make out the words, unwilling to be caught trying, he’d retreated to the bunk, where he lay with his eyes closed, listening to other voices passing by.
Two days. Clearly, Sheriff Cutler was a man of his word. He’d said “two days,” and he was sticking to it. Even after the “escape attempt.” Then again, even if the Sheriff had seen through Thatcher’s story, the bounty hunter’s guilt wouldn’t actually be proof of Scott’s innocence. And that’s what Cutler wanted, Proof. Scott admired the Sheriff’s insistence upon it, even while feeling frustrated by his own inability to convince the man that he wasn’t a bank robber, or a murderer. It was a classic case of mistaken identity, another cliché of bad fiction.
Scott sighed, his fingers drumming restlessly on the cover of the book. Certainly, it would have been easy enough for the Sheriff to simply release him to the bounty hunters and have done with it. There wasn’t any Law at all in the towns closest to Lancer and the few Western lawmen Scott had encountered had failed to impress him: that Sheriff in Blood Rock, Murdoch’s friend Barker. So perhaps his one piece of good fortune in this whole episode was to have found himself in the custody of Sheriff John Cutler. But it appeared that his good fortune was due to run out precisely at two p.m., tomorrow. Unless, of course, Johnny returned— with the Proof—to rescue him in the nick of time.
“You keep a sharp eye out tonight, Deputy.”
That was as close as the sheriff had come to mentioning last night’s escape attempt – if that was what it was. Then he’d lifted his hat off the rack and slipped out into the warm summer night.
Watching him disappear into the darker reaches of the street, heading for what Lem hoped would be a quiet night’s sleep, Lem figured he knew what the sheriff meant. He meant, don’t trust nobody. Keep your eye on the prisoner because he may have broke out of that cell last night. And don’t turn your back on them bounty hunters, because it may have been the other way around. If they took the prisoner out of jail, what wouldn’t they do next? True, the sheriff didn’t act like he was especially worried, but he was a tough man.
Lem straightened and turned away from the open doorway. He wouldn’t leave this jail tonight, for any reason. They weren’t used to dealing with desperadoes around here. The casual drunks, pickpockets and horse thieves that occasionally occupied their cells could be safely left if he or the sheriff were called away.
But not this man.
Lem cocked his head in the prisoner’s direction. He sat hunched over a plate, prodding at the green beans with his fork. Not like he didn’t like them, more thoughtful like, like he’d forgot he was supposed to eat them. With only the profile to go by, Lem didn’t see much to help him guess what was on the man’s mind. A firm jaw, a straight nose, a high cheekbone. No strong feelings clenching the jaw, no deep concentration to wrinkle the high forehead. But if he’d been a betting man, Lem would have bet he was worrying at something all the same.
Another jailbreak attempt, maybe? Well, if he needed concentration for that, Lem would make sure that he didn’t get it.
“You done fork dancin’ with them beans? If y’are, I’ll get that tray out of there.”
Now, that might have been a risky move. Retrieving that tray would probably be the most dangerous thing he would do tonight. Lemuel puzzled how to accomplish it without lowering his guard or getting to close to the prisoner.
“I’m done,” the man said, looking up at Lem for the first time since the sheriff had gone.
Lem rose and pulled his gun even before he reached for the keys on the post.
“Just set it down on the floor, right against the door.”
The prisoner stood, reminding Lem, unintentionally maybe, that he was taller, fitter and probably stronger than Lem. Maybe faster, too, though the deputy considered himself speedy.
“Now, step back,” Lem commanded.
The tall man backed up slowly. He even raised his hands for good measure. Lem hadn’t told him to do that. Of course, maybe he was being extra helpful in the hope of catching Lem off guard.
It wasn’t until Lem looked down at the tray at his feet that he realized how foolish he had been. That tray could have stayed right in the cell till morning, when the sheriff came in and he went out to get the prisoner’s breakfast. But now it sat there on the floor, and there was no way Lem could get it without giving the prisoner a chance at him. He could try nudging it through the door with his booted feet, but to do that he would have to move closer to the prisoner and turn his back to him. That wouldn’t be any better than stooping down to pick it up, giving the prisoner a good chance to jump him. Though maybe he could pick it up faster that way? A quick glance at the prisoner showed him an expressionless face and a relaxed body, not tensed to spring. Just to make sure, Lem waggled his gun at him.
He looked at the tray again, considering the best course of action. There was that blasted teacup. If he broke Sadie’s teacup she would have his ears. The fine china cup had come to California in a boat that had sailed around the Horn. It stood out from the thick white plate like the aristocrat of crockery that it was. He had warned her that anything might happen to it. They had had drunks who’d broken all the dishes handed through the cell door. But she had just smiled sweetly and shook her head, saying she knew that he would take good care of it — and wouldn’t it be something to serve tea in that cup and tell the ladies that a famous bank robber and murderer, a wanted man with a price on his head, had once drunk out of it, too?
With a nervous look back at the prisoner, Lem stooped quickly and rose with the tray between his hands, his pistol still in the right hand, too. Almost in the same motion, he took a big step backward. That was a mistake. Like one of them magicians pulling a tablecloth out from under a pile of dishes, he almost pulled the tray out from under the prisoner’s meal. Only the dishes didn’t stand still. The delicate cup tilted over the edge, turning its flower painted bottom at Lem as it flipped over the lip of the tray.
“No!” Lem lunged for the cup with both hands, sending the tray and the plate – and his gun – clattering to the floor. He grabbed air. Missed it!
But the cup didn’t drop. Another pair of hands had caught it. And Lem was almost nose to buttonhole with the prisoner.
The man held out the cup to him. He didn’t say anything, but the brightness in the man’s eyes told Lem how ridiculous he’d made himself. Before Lem could speak, the other man had backed up, clear to the wall, and raised his hands again.
Exasperated, Lem snatched up his gun and grabbed the tray in the same hand and backed out of the cell door. He propped the tray against the bars and holstered his gun so he could turn the key in the lock. Then he set the cup down on the sheriff’s desk and placed the tray beside it. He grabbed up the wastebasket and went back to the cell to clean up what he could of the mess by reaching through the bars. Inside the cell, the prisoner knelt down, too, and grabbed up the broken bits that Lem couldn’t reach, passing them through the bars to Lem.
Chagrined, Lem couldn’t help thinking it was a good thing that the man had mostly cleaned his plate or he’d have a bigger mess to clean up. A few remaining green beans had scattered wetness on the cell floor. When he had dried his hands on the cloth they kept for dusting, he passed the rag through the bars to the prisoner.
Feeling as clumsy as a schoolboy, Lem then turned his back on the man and went back to the desk, where he sat and pretended to study the wanted posters that had come in the morning mail. When his embarrassment had faded, he was able to think more clearly about what had happened.
If the prisoner had set his mind set on a jailbreak, he sure missed his chance just now. The simple fact was that when he could have gone for Lem’s gun, the man had gone for Sadie’s china teacup instead. Wasn’t no time for him to think about it, to calculate. That had been his instinct. Instead of saving himself, the man had saved that fool china.
A soft noise from the cell drew the deputy’s eyes back to the man, Barrett or Lancer, whoever he really was. He was sitting on the bench with that same book he’d been looking at all day in his hands. But he wasn’t reading now, just holding the book with the cover closed.
“I thought you done read that straight through.” It was the first time that Lem had ventured a bit of conversation with this one, though he chatted freely enough with the other men who had occupied that cell.
“Your library is a bit limited,” the prisoner said mildly, raising his head to look at Lem.
“We don’t get much call for books,” Lem admitted.
A faint smile of acknowledgement twisted the man’s lips. His gaze had returned to the still closed book. He must be about sick of it by now, Lem thought, reasoning that spending a whole day with one book would be about like being shut up in a closet with Elias the barber gossiping away at you for hours on end, refusing to hear a word you said of disagreement.
The same, long wakeful night stretched ahead of them both. Most prisoners would have been sleeping by now, but this man seemed to have a restless mind that wouldn’t let him lay still.
“You play checkers?” Lem asked. They had a board in the office. On a slow day, the sheriff might play a game or two with him, and it wasn’t rare for Lem to while away an hour or two over the checkerboard with whoever happened to be locked up.
“I do,” the prisoner said, looking up.
He might be glad to get out of that closet and away from that author who had twisted his ear all day, maybe.
Lem wrenched out the bottom desk drawer — it always stuck —and pulled out the folded board. It took a little rummaging to locate the box of playing pieces, but at least they hadn’t spilled out in the drawer again. He rarely beat the sheriff, but he had seldom lost to whoever he had faced through the bars.
Leaving the board and pieces on the desk, he lugged a stool over to the cell. Lem unfolded the board across it, set the box of game pieces on the board, then went back for a chair for himself.
When he returned, he found the prisoner sitting on the end of his cot, knees close to the bars and hands reaching through them, already sorting the pieces. “Red or black?” he said, raising an eyebrow at Lem.
“Black.” The sheriff’s habitual preference, it was Lem’s choice when he played anyone else.
A simple game that progressed quickly and didn’t demand too much concentration — unless Lem was playing the sheriff– checkers also allowed for easy conversation. Or, it did, when Lem could find his tongue. It wasn’t easy to make small talk with a man when you didn’t know whether he spent his time herding cows or robbing and shooting folks. He thought over what the prisoner had said about himself. “What’s Boston like anyways?”
The prisoner looked up from the board. “Assuming I’ve been there?”
As they mulled over their respective moves, the man told him about Faneuil Hall and Back Bay, about winter and snow, about ship’s masts in the harbor like a thicket of lodge pole pines and the tang of the salt sea in the air.
But soon enough, his opponent turned the conversational table on him. “You been in law enforcement long?”
“Long enough,” Lem said, hearing the defensive note in his own voice, remembering the scattered green beans and broken plate.
“Your sheriff, he seems like a reasonable man.”
“Fair and honest,” Lem said firmly. He groped in his mind for something else to talk about, to keep the conversation in his hands. “Where’d you say that ranch of yours is?”
His opponent looked up at him, one eyebrow raised. “Morro Coyo,” he said. “The answer won’t change, no matter how many times you ask it, Deputy. It happens to be the truth.”
Then he reached through the bars to jump one of Lem’s “men” on the checkerboard.
“King me,” he said.
After that it seemed like checkers wasn’t such an easy game after all. Not that the prisoner played a cutthroat game like old Elias did, but more with a lazy ease that told Lem he wasn’t having to ponder his moves. More like the sheriff.
Hoping to gain an edge by sidetracking his opponent, Lem ventured another question, asking about the War. It was a subject he never tired hearing of anyway. He soon learned all about how the Rebels had set up defenses around Vicksburg, and how the Yanks dealt with them — but nothing about the man doing the talking. Hadn’t been much personal in the conversation about Boston either, he realized. It was about as public as that Faneuil Hall. But when the man talked about the Boston winter, Lem had felt the gritty bits of ice that had worked their way under his collar when he went hunting with his dad in the Sierras years ago.
They were into their third game when a sound behind him brought Lem out of his chair in time to see the office door swing wide and Lucas Thatcher fill its frame. Cautiously, Lem brought his hand to the butt of his pistol.
But Thatcher wasn’t even looking at him. “You still here?” he said to the prisoner.
The prisoner had risen to his feet and stood close to the bars. “You here to take me for another outing?” The words were softly spoken.
Thatcher smiled. “Oh, we’ll have an outing soon enough,” he said. Then he turned to Lem, as if just noticing him. “Why, Deputy, I’m glad to see you’re here keeping an eye on Jonas. You’re a brave man, Deputy. Sheriff tell ya what happened here last night? ‘Bout the prisoner almost escaping?”
Uncertain how to respond, Lem gave a short nod.
“Good. That’s good. Then you know what you’re up against.” He wiped his hand over his face and scowled down at the checkerboard for a moment before casting a considering look at Lem.
“You know, Deputy, a part of that reward money will be yours. Yessir, you and the sheriff will get ten percent of that $2,500 on his head.” He pointed at the man watching in the cell, then looked at Lem as if he expected a comment. When Lem said nothing, Thatcher shook his head. “Of course, I can’t get you your share till I can get this dangerous prisoner back to Denver.”
Suspecting a question in those words, Lem knew he had only one answer. “Sheriff Cutler says the man has two days, Mr. Thatcher.”
Thatcher’s face split into a wide grin.
Maybe he hadn’t expected anything else? But that grin made Lem nervous. He reminded himself that Lucas Thatcher was a dangerous man.
Lem guessed he had to be, to do what he did for a living.
“I’ve got a job for you, Deputy.”
<<I have a job ,>> Lem thought anxiously.
“Look through them wanted posters of yours. See if you got a ‘Johnny’ that fits the description of Jonas’ ‘brother.’”
Lem just shook his head, suddenly more annoyed with Thatcher than perturbed by him. “You got any idea how many men they are named ‘John’ in trouble? Just in the state of California?”
“Look, Deputy, I need your help.” Lucas didn’t sound so cheerful now. “This is costing me money, all because that sheriff of yours can’t see what’s plain as July daylight. Seems you two owe me a little help here. Let’s see …”
“You’ve got no business with my brother,” the prisoner spoke from behind Lem. His voice was low and husky now, but Lem felt the menace in it.
Thatcher turned to face the man in the cell, looking at him across Lem’s shoulder. “Afraid I’ll find something, Jonas?”
“I’m not Jonas Barrett. The name’s Lancer. Scott Lancer. And no, I’m not afraid you’ll find something. I’m afraid you’ll believe you have.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Lem edged out from between the two men, silently thankful that there were bars to separate them and wishing he had the sheriff’s commanding presence. He had a feeling he was going to need it in a few minutes.
“It means that you’re a dangerous man, Lucas Thatcher.”
“You bet I am. You just remember that when we set out for Denver.”
The man behind the bars went on as if Thatcher hadn’t spoken. “A man who can never see more than one possibility is a very dangerous man.”
Thatcher drew back in disgust. “C’mon! She was kissing you, Jonas. She gave you that little packet of money she’d carried all this way for you.”
“So she did. Doesn’t it seem the least bit odd to you that she met her ‘brother,’ who is wanted by the law, in such a public place?”
“Wasn’t nobody there, but us, was they?”
“The very people she would most have feared. If Jonas had been there.”
Thatcher snorted. “He was.”
“How would you know? Have you ever actually laid eyes on her brother? You’ve been following the woman all this time. You wouldn’t know —“
“I know,” Thatcher said, coming close to the bars. “I know she gave you that money, all she had in the world. And left. I don’t reckon she’d a done that if you weren’t her brother. I know you fit the description on that wanted poster. I know you look like a dandy and your ‘brother’ looks like trouble from the border country. You two ever actually lay eyes on each other before you partnered up for the robbery? Cuz it looks to me like he’s done lit out on you now.”
Lem had twisted his head in time to see the prisoner frown at that. The man looked like he had more he wanted to say, but he didn’t say it.
“Time’s running out on you, Jonas,” Thatcher said quietly. “I can wait. It’ll be a long trip to Denver. I hope you make it.”
Then he nodded at Lem. “I could use your help, Deputy. But seein’ as how you don’t offer it, would there be any objection to my partner coming in to have a look at your posters.”
Lem found his voice. “No objection, Mr. Thatcher.”
“Thank you kindly.”
The bounty hunter was turning to go when he glanced down at the checkerboard again. With a swift movement of his hand he plucked up one of Lem’s pieces and jumped across the board, raking the prisoner’s ‘men,’ kings and all, aside as he jumped them one by one in a move Lem would never have seen.
He watched the bounty hunter sweep out of the office and knew there would be no more checkers tonight. Behind him, the man in the cell had settled down on the cot, and Lem was curiously reluctant to look at him. In his head, he kept hearing the difference in the way he had said “my brother” and “the woman.”
Scott stretched out on the cot, resigned to another sleepless night behind bars. Throughout the afternoon and evening, he’d been half-anticipating Johnny’s arrival; in fact, Scott had expected to see his brother when the door to the jail opened to admit Lucas Thatcher.
Where the Hell was Johnny?
He’d be back. He’d said he would be.
“No need, unless you have the proof.” That’s what the Sheriff had told Johnny. Jonas would be “proof.” But so would Julie Barrett—she could provide testimony, at any rate.
He could still arrive any time, Scott reminded himself; Johnny would have no qualms about riding through the night. But with each passing hour, Scott became more certain that something had gone wrong. It was purely a guessing game as to what, but it would be a cruel coincidence if Barranca had pulled up lame or lost a shoe. Odds were that the girl hadn’t been able to give Johnny the slip. No, at this point, Scott would put good money on Johnny having followed through on his stated intention to go after Jonas. That seemed a pretty safe bet. Which meant that whatever had gone wrong had involved the fugitive bank robber. And possibly his partner.
With that thought, Scott was on his feet again, moving about the cell, trying to work off some of the frustration that came over him in waves, every time he allowed himself to think about Johnny being in endangered while trying to help him. Scott didn’t care that the deputy was eying him, but he did care that pacing about the small space only served to make him feel all the more trapped and helpless. And he did care that Sparks had moved over to the desk that held the stack of wanted posters.
That was a new worry. Best not to show it. Scott returned to the cot, sat down and slowly, deliberately, removed his boots before casually stretching out again. And then he considered the things that he didn’t know about his brother. He wasn’t sure how old Johnny was, couldn’t at the moment recall his exact date of birth, although they’d celebrated it, belatedly, not long after they’d arrived at the ranch.
And he couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t a wanted poster somewhere with a description of Johnny Madrid. Not that Johnny acted like a wanted man—he hadn’t avoided going anywhere, didn’t act like he had anything to hide. But Scott understood that the low-slung gun belt was the easily recognized trademark of a professional gunman. Certainly the sheriff and his deputy had made note of that, and so had the bounty hunters. It couldn’t have added much credibility to their claim to be ranchers.
He couldn’t exactly fault the Sheriff if he didn’t believe that he and Johnny were brothers, or that they’d only recently met. It wasn’t an easy story to believe. Scott wondered if Cutler would recognize the name Johnny Madrid. From what Scott did know about his brother, if Johnny was wanted anywhere, it would be in Mexico. Still, he wished the deputy would stay away from those posters.
At least the Sheriff hadn’t accepted the poster on Jonas Barrett as evidence of Scott’s identity. He’d made it very clear before Johnny left that they had only two days to come up with proof otherwise. But as far as Scott could recall, Cutler hadn’t specified exactly when that time would run out. Now he had, and the deadline was steadily approaching. Johnny might think he had til sundown, or even until the next daylight.
But Scott knew that he didn’t have until evening. And since it was, after all, his own fault that he’d gotten into this mess, it would be fitting if he had to get himself out. He didn’t have proof, not the kind the Sheriff was looking for. However, Cutler did seem to be a reasonable man. “Fair and honest,” according to his deputy. If Johnny didn’t show up by noon, Scott was going to have to find out just exactly how reasonable the man might be.
Lucas Thatcher didn’t come back and there’d been no sign of his partner either. No excitement at all in town that night, and nothing to disturb a man’s sleep, other than a mouse scurrying across the floor in the wee hours of the morning.
Lem heard it, from his cot. The door to the cell he was sleeping in was wide open, and he’d kept the keys with him, just in case. When he’d turned over and shifted around to find a more comfortable position, he took a look at Scott Lancer in the adjoining cell. Lancer didn’t glance in Lem’s direction, but it seemed like maybe he was awake, too, lying on his back staring up at the ceiling.
Sheriff Cutler showed up early, bringing some food for the prisoner, and Lem headed home. He had breakfast with the folks, then Ma had some things she needed help doing around the house, so Lem moved some furniture and toted some boxes out to the shed. He wasn’t on duty again til later in the afternoon, but once Ma had gotten a good start
on readying up the spare room for the long awaited visit from Aunt Mae, Lem went back into town.
He picked up a few things at the mercantile and would have liked to have watched the old timers playing checkers, but in the end he didn’t linger. All everybody wanted to talk about was the dangerous criminal being held over at the jail and why Sheriff Cutler didn’t just turn him over to the bounty hunters. Lem carefully explained that there was a question about the man’s identity and that Sheriff Cutler had given him until mid afternoon to prove who he was.
“You think he’s the man, don’t cha Lem?” Luke Sawyer had asked.
“Well . . . there ain’t no proof one way or t’other.”
They’d had more questions, but Lem let them think he had to be getting back to the jail, so they’d let him go.
Once out on the boardwalk, Lem had considered stopping in to see Elias, and get a trim, but he kept on going when he saw the bank manager, Mr. Winston, sitting in Elias’ chair. He knew what they’d want to talk about.
So he kept on walking and found himself headed toward the jail. The Sheriff was standing outside, leaning against one of the posts and holding his mug of coffee.
“You’re back early, Lemuel.”
“Yes sir, well, no sir, actually– I’m headin’ over to Sadie’s for lunch.”
“Kinda early yet.”
“Sure is, but Ma put me to work this morning, guess it stirred up an appetite. Thought I might bring something over for the prisoner when I get done, an’ you could maybe step out for a bit yourself.”
Cutler took a sip of his coffee, then lowered the mug to study its contents.
“T’other day, Miz Sadie said to tell you not to be a stranger.”
The Sheriff drained what was left of his coffee. “You go along. Bring `im back whatever she’s got extra.”
As it turned out, Sadie was feeling poorly and hadn’t come in to work that morning so her cousin Sara Beth had been left in charge. Sara Beth was a real nice lady, and a decent cook too, but she wasn’t used to running the place and got kind of flustered when Lem asked for a plate of “extras” for the prisoner over at the jail.
When Lem got back to the office, Sheriff Cutler was brewing a fresh pot of coffee and Scott Lancer was sitting on the cot in his cell, just watching him. Lancer slowly got up and moved closer to the bars when Lem announced that he’d brought him some lunch.
The Sheriff reached out and lifted up the pie plate Sara Beth had used for a cover and raised an eyebrow at Lem when he saw what was underneath.
“Sadie ain’t in today, Sheriff.”
Cutler let the pie plate drop back into place. And the two of them approached the cell, Lem carrying what he expected would be Scott Lancer’s last meal in Live Oak — one way or another.
“Want some beans, Son?”
The Sheriff wasn’t in the habit of calling prisoners “Son”; for a moment Lem almost forgot he was holding the plate. Then he caught himself and offered it up. Scott Lancer stretched one arm through the bars and lifted the cover just like Sheriff Cutler had done, but he barely seemed to look at Sara Beth’s beans.
“No, thank you.”
“It ain’t much, I know.”
Lem wasn’t sure just what he was supposed to do with those rejected beans, and was about to offer them to the Sheriff when Cutler gestured for him to take them away. Well, there was no point in letting good food go to waste, and Sara Beth’s beans were good.
Better than they looked anyway. Lem headed towards the poster-strewn desk over in the corner. Once he’d settled into the chair, he could see that the Sheriff had started towards his own desk, but Scott Lancer hadn’t gone back to his cot; instead, the man was still
standing, leaning on the bars and studying John Cutler. Another moment passed and then he started to speak in that mild voice of his.
“Sheriff . . .”
“You’ve got about three hours left.”
Lem stopped his fork in midair at that, the idea that it was Sheriff Cutler who had three hours left. The Sheriff had turned to face the cell when the prisoner’d spoken, but now he looked away.
“Yeah, I know.”
When the Sheriff stepped around the post to get to his desk, he had his back turned towards both the prisoner and Lem. Figuring that was it, Lem went back to work on the beans.
“Let’s hope your brother’s got the proof.”
“What if he hasn’t, Sheriff? What if he can’t find that girl? Or what if he finds her and he can’t get back in time? You know as well as I do that if you turn me over to them, I’m nevah gonna get to Denver alive.”
John Cutler had been sipping at his coffee, not showing any sign at all that he’d been listening to what Lancer had to say, but of course he had. The Sheriff turned to face the cell and Lem quietly set his fork down and waited.
“You askin’ for more time?”
“Time isn’t going to do me any good, because it’s only gonna force them into trying to kill me again. Next time . . . I might not be so lucky.”
The prisoner glanced down for a moment, before lifting his head and looking the Sheriff in the eyes.
“No, what I’m asking is—-“
“You want me to let you go.”
Scott Lancer didn’t seem surprised by the Sheriff’s words, but Lem was. Not surprised that the Sheriff had guessed what the man was asking, but that Cutler didn’t seem insulted by the idea. But that didn’t mean anything, Lancer might as well save his breath because there was no way in the world that Sheriff John Cutler was going to let a prisoner just walk out of jail. But Scott Lancer kept on talking.
“And I know it’s not an easy decision to make. All I’ve got to give you is my word that I’m who I say I am and that I’ll be back later and prove it.”
“I don’t know, you’re askin’ a lot . . . give your brother another hour. . . if he ain’t come back by then . . .
The pause could only have lasted for a moment, but it seemed like an eternity to Lem, tucked away in his corner with a plate of cold beans in front of him. He was aware of the prisoner shifting his arms on the cross bar of the cell, as he too waited in anticipation of what the Sheriff might say.
John Cutler carefully set his coffee mug down on the stove before he finished his statement. “You can go.”
Then the Sheriff turned to face Scott Lancer, pointing his finger at the prisoner.
“You’d better be telling the truth — you’ll have me trackin’ ya along with them two.”
The Sheriff’s tone was angry. Lem had no doubt that if it came to it, Cutler would make good on his threat. Through the bars, Lem could see Lancer’s serious expression; he didn’t smile or look relieved, just nodded solemnly at John Cutler.
In a way, Lem was grateful too; he hadn’t exactly been looking forward to handing “Scott Lancer” — as he’d come to think of him — over to the two bounty hunters. He just didn’t seem like a murdering bank robber.
There’d been plenty of men who’d stood behind those bars and belligerently announced “You’ve got the wrong man.” Others had insisted — some drunkenly — that they “didn’t do it.” Not a single one had ever stood there and offered his word, and acted as if it meant something.
Not one had ever simply asked to be set free.
And, if Lem hadn’t heard it for himself, there was no person on earth who could have convinced him that Sheriff John Cutler would ever agree to release a man without hard proof. Time and time again, the Sheriff had stressed how important it was to be certain, that a lawman based his decisions on the evidence.
Just then, Cutler turned and their eyes met across the room. The Sheriff had maybe forgotten that Lem was in the office, but his angry expression didn’t change. Lem looked away first, hoping that his stunned uncertainty didn’t show.
“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
Lem heard Cutler’s footsteps stride past; he didn’t look up again until the door closed with a loud thump behind the Sheriff.
Well, even if the Sheriff wasn’t happy about the decision he’d just made, Lem respected John Cutler and trusted his judgment. In fact, as far as Lem was concerned, the Sheriff’s good opinion of a man just might be “proof” enough.
The man in question was still standing there leaning against the bars, staring at the door with something of a sympathetic expression on his face. When Scott Lancer finally glanced in his direction, Lem was fiercely determined to hold the man’s gaze.
It was Lancer who dropped his eyes — but then he looked right back up at Lem again not half a moment later.
“He won’t regret it, Deputy,” Scott Lancer said softly, before he turned and slowly walked back towards the cot.
It wasn’t proof. And yet, Lem felt oddly reassured, all the same.
“She’ll clear him.”
The words echoed in Lem’s head as he stepped out into the street to look for the bounty hunters. Any other time, one or the other of them would have been in plain sight – hanging over the saloon door, lounging on the sidewalk. But when Lem peered up and down the street, neither was to be seen.
She would clear him, the man had said. Lem stepped down from the plank sidewalk to the dusty street. The saloon was the likeliest place for the bounty hunters to be. Heck, he would have figured they’d be at the jail soon as that Johnny Lancer, if that was who he was, had showed up.
Lem shook his head. The man back there, shouting and shaking that girl, sure hadn’t looked like the cool, amused gunslinger he’d met in the saloon two days ago.
But Scott Lancer had looked hopeful, even confident, when they came in, getting to his feet and looking at the young lady with expectation written all over his face. It hadn’t taken long for him to realize that that brother of his hadn’t brought anything hopeful with him.
Only now did he realize how truly he had come to believe that the man in the jail was not Jonas Barrett. Sheriff Cutler wouldn’t have agreed to let him go unless he’d thought the same.
His head swimming with the thoughts that chased each other through it, Lem found himself on the sidewalk outside the saloon doors. He pushed open the swinging doors just enough to have a clear view inside. No Lucas Thatcher. That Wade fella wasn’t in there either. Maybe they were at the livery making arrangements for their departure. Thatcher had counted on taking the prisoner today, one way or another.
Not even Thatcher would have expected the other man to come back and drive a nail in the prisoner’s coffin. Maybe they really were partners in crime and maybe that Johnny fella had cut a deal with the prisoner’s sister? But it sure hadn’t looked like that. She seemed kind of fragile and scared when the gunslinger brought her in, but then she had sounded plumb defiant when she finally said yes, yes, that was Jonas in that cell.
Was she proof? Did they have to take her word for it? It just hadn’t looked right. If the prisoner was her brother, she could have set him free right then and there by sayin’ he wasn’t. Though Sheriff Cutler would surely have asked her some questions, like why she gave him that packet of money.
Lem’s hurried walking had almost brought him to the stable, and he knew he had the right place this time, because he could hear Lucas Thatcher’s ringing voice, griping about his bill.
Lem stopped in the wide doorway. “Mr. Thatcher?”
The bounty hunter wheeled to face him and Lem could see in his eyes that he knew why Lem was there. “Sheriff says to come to the jail now.” Lem thought he would choke on the words, but Thatcher didn’t seem to notice anything. Didn’t say nothing either. He was all business now. He only gave Lem a slap on the shoulder as he passed him on the way out.
Out in the street, Thatcher turned around to shout at his partner. “Get that wagon hitched up, now. Bring it on down to the jailhouse.”
His long steps took him quickly toward the jail. Lem followed much more slowly. He kept seeing the prisoner’s face, his surprise and disbelief, when the woman claimed him as her brother.
How could that brother of his have brought her there like that? He said himself that he’d killed her brother. How could he think she would save his brother’s life if he had killed hers?
Lem shook his head. Either Jonas Barrett had a sister who had just betrayed him or Scott Lancer had a fool for a brother.
“I can’t, Scott, don’t you understand that, I can’t!”
Scott gripped the bars in frustration, clenching his jaw and staring down at the cell floor. Johnny had sounded so . . . distraught was the only word that came to mind. “I can’t” had been his brother’s response each time Scott had told him to go find Miss Barrett and convince her to tell the truth.
But he had to. The alternatives were Scott setting out for Denver in custody as an accused killer — or making a run for it, with only Johnny’s gun against two lawmen, two bounty hunters and whichever of the townsfolk might choose to join in. The odds wouldn’t be very good. And they’d be fugitives on the run — if they somehow managed
to make it past the town limits. Which was probably about as far as he’d get in the company of Lucas Thatcher and his partner anyway.
Surely the Sheriff could see that the girl was lying . . . but obviously not. Cutler had believed Julie Barrett and not Johnny. He’d sent his deputy to fetch the bounty hunters. Then the Sheriff himself had stepped outside, preferring to risk leaving the two of them alone in the jail rather than listen to anything more that Scott might have to say.
The Sheriff, Scott realized, must now think he was Jonas. That he’d been lying all along.
Scott started pacing the small, enclosed space. The town wasn’t very big, it wouldn’t take Sparks long to locate Thatcher and his partner. Then the three of them would be leaving straight away for Denver — an hour early, he thought bitterly.
Why couldn’t Johnny have been an hour later? Why the Hell couldn’t he have simply stayed away? One more hour, and Scott would have been a free man. Sheriff Cutler had agreed to that, and the Sheriff was a man of his word.
If Scott had had something to throw, he would have. If Johnny had only listened, if he hadn’t gone after Jonas, but simply brought back the girl . . .
Scott realized too late that he should never have let Johnny handle it, that he should have stepped up to the bars and spoken to Julie Barrett directly. Forced her to look him in the eyes and see if she would still condemn him to face the consequences of her brother’s crimes. Which, perhaps she could have done, out of a desire to avenge Jonas’ death at his own brother’s hands.
His brother, who had just walked out of the jail, carrying those saddlebags in his hands. Hopefully to look for Julie, despite his emphatic assertions that he couldn’t even attempt to change the woman’s mind.
Scott took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He thought carefully about what he did know about Johnny. He felt certain that no matter what he’d just said, Johnny would still try. After all, there was nothing to lose.
One thing was certain, when he stepped through that door in the custody of the bounty hunters, Scott knew he had to be ready for anything. That was the other thing he knew about Johnny. His brother never did seem to care about the odds.
“Something’s coming in, Deputy. Might be from Tucson.”
The words drew Lem from his reverie. Riley was being mighty formal in his new job, calling his cousin Lem “Deputy.” Of course, he’d never had official business with Lem before.
Lem rose from the window ledge, stretched, then walked across to the counter. He watched as Riley translated the sounds into letters. Lem knew for a fact that not many telegrams came in during a day. People didn’t pay these prices unless it was something right important. And Riley hadn’t been here long. So he could understand Riley putting on airs, like he was now. Conscious of Lem’s scrutiny, his cousin had hunched over, blocking Lem’s view of what he wrote. Maybe he was just afraid that Lem would see him make a mistake.
Well, Lem knew that feeling. He turned away from the counter and walked back to the window. Instead of sitting down again, he stood looking out at the busy street. He could see the stage depot from here.
After thinking about that Scott Lancer so much, Lem remembered now the last time he had seen the man.
When Lucas Thatcher and Wade Hackett had taken him out to the wagon, Lancer’s brother had made a desperate attempt to get him free, and Scott Lancer had run. The Sheriff said later that Johnny Lancer had acted like a desperado, sure enough, but at least that time, Lem thought, he had acted a sight more like a brother. It was no good, though, here in town with somebody to see every step they took and trained lawmen and angry bounty hunters hot on their heels.
The Sheriff might have looked at the whole thing, with gunfire right out there in the streets, as a sign that the Lancer brothers really were bank robbers, if it hadn’t been for that girl. She had found them in the alley, where they’d caught up with the Lancers. She had said she’d lied the first time, that Scott Lancer was not Jonas . . .
Lem looked over his shoulder. Riley was still scratching out the words he heard over the wire. Long telegram. Lem turned back to the window.
There wasn’t no way, of course, that Sheriff Cutler would have taken those words alone as proof, after she had already said the opposite. But she’d explained how she had fooled Scott Lancer and made a date for the dance with him because she had seen the bounty hunters watching her. Told how she had planted the money meant for her brother on Scott Lancer and taken his billfold. A brief, stern interview with Fred had confirmed her story of what she’d done with the billfold. Finally, she’d told Lucas Thatcher that Jonas Barrett, her brother, was dead.
So the bounty hunter had lost his bounty and Scott Lancer was a free man. The Sheriff hadn’t even put him back in the cell after Julie Barrett said he wasn’t her brother, so the Sheriff only had to tell him he was free.
Lucas Thatcher had slapped his hat on his head and stormed out of the office with Hackett following, complaining about the wasted time and out-of-pocket expenses. Lem wondered if they would have counted the death of an innocent man as much of a loss.
The sheriff had handed Scott Lancer his gunbelt and the young man had put it on, not slung low like his brother’s though. Before taking up his hat, Lancer had looked at the sheriff and thrust out his hand. “Thanks,” he said, and they all, except the brother, knew that he was thanking the sheriff for a lot more than a courtesy.
The sheriff had taken Lancer’s hand in a firm grip. Lem could still feel the pride he’d secretly sensed at that moment. The Sheriff had been right about their former prisoner. And so had Lem.
But that wasn’t the last he’d seen of Scott Lancer. Lem had been standing right out there on the sidewalk, hearing about the plans to put the telegraph office on this site, when Clyde had hurried across from the depot and sidled up to Lem. That gang that Lem had been asking about was outside the depot right now, he had whispered.
Lem had turned away from the group of businessmen on the sidewalk to look at the three men across the street — the Lancers. Clyde had been right, that Murdoch Lancer was a big man.
“Y’all need help to bring in that gang,” Clyde had murmured. “Want me to go fetch the Sheriff while you keep an eye on `em?”
Clyde had just been itchin’ to be part of a big drama, long as it was a safe part. But Lem had respected that offer to help all the same. He had only shook his head. “They’re leavin’, Clyde. They ain’t done nothing wrong.”
That had sure took the wind out of Clyde’s bedsheet. “You sure, Lem?”
Clyde had looked back toward the Lancers, frowning. Reluctant to give up his picture of them as a gang of criminals.
Lem had watched them, too, until they disappeared toward Boney’s Livery. He tried to see the family in them, but Clyde was right about that, too. They didn’t look or act much like kin, and it wasn’t just the difference in the way they were dressed and carried themselves. But they did look right comfortable with each other. Watching Scott Lancer walk away with his family, Lem wished he’d thought to ask the man one or two other things as well.
“Here you go, Deputy,” Riley said.
Lem turned to see Riley holding an envelope out to him. He’d stuck the telegram inside.
“It’s addressed to the Sheriff,” he said pointedly.
“I kinda expected that,” Lem said, taking it from him. He wouldn’t let Riley’s fussiness bother him. “Thank you.”
Out in the street, Lucas Thatcher caught up with Lem. Not so interested in the Fourth of July barbecue after all, it seemed.
“C’mon, Deputy, what did they say?”
“I ain’t read it yet,” Lem told him.
Thatcher gaped at him. “Well, let’s read it now,” he urged.
“It’s addressed to the Sheriff,” Lem said, annoyed to find himself echoing Riley.
Lucas didn’t give up until they’d reached the sheriff’s office.
“You got your answer, Sheriff,” the bounty hunter announced before Lem could say a word.
The prisoner, Ricketts, was already on his feet. He shook the bars of the cell, and shouted, “You’ve got the wrong man, Sheriff! A telegram don’t prove nothin’! I ain’t done nothing wrong. You can’t hand me over to them. You gotta believe me, Sheriff! This is all a terrible mistake.” His voice rose with every word.
Lem met the Sheriff’s eye as he handed over the telegram. Last time around had sure been different.
“This is Ed Ricketts, Sheriff, just like I said. I’m bettin’ that telegram says the same thing.”
The Sheriff didn’t say anything, just tore open the envelope to get at the telegram. He read quietly a moment, looking up once at the prisoner before reading on.
“There’s been a terrible mistake here, Sheriff,” the prisoner protested. “You ain’t gonna believe scum like them bounty hunters, are you? Making a living by hunting down innocent men and gettin’ ’em in trouble? Just look at them! You gonna believe them?”
Sheriff Cutler turned to Thatcher. “It appears that you have the right man this time, Thatcher,” he said.
Thatcher grinned and rubbed his hands together. “Told ya. Now, let us take him off your hands, Sheriff.”
“That won’t be necessary. A U.S. marshal is coming to get him.”
Thatcher bridled at that, but Lem felt relieved.
Before Thatcher could launch into the heated words Lem expected from him, Sheriff Cutler went on. “You’ll get your reward money when he gets here. In the meantime, there is a celebration going on in town. I suggest you gentlemen enjoy it.”
Nothing the man could say to that, and no need to try any jail break either. Thatcher wouldn’t get his money if the prisoner was missing when the marshal got here. Lem couldn’t help but notice that Thatcher didn’t mention anything about a share of the bounty this time. But that wasn’t his to decide either.
After the bounty hunters had left, the Sheriff reminded the prisoner he’d have his say back in Tucson and the man lapsed into a sulky silence. With a gesture of his head, the Sheriff indicated that Lem should step outside with him.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Lem asked, “You think he really is Ed Ricketts?”
Cutler nodded. “I questioned him while you were gone. He can’t tell the same story twice, keeps changing the details. I don’t expect much trouble out of him, but we’ll have to stand watches till the marshal gets here.”
Lem nodded. Like before, only not like before neither. “I don’t expect he’ll require any books,” Lem said.
A brief smile twisted the Sheriff’s lips. Then his eyes focused on some activity down the street. “Bad timing, with this crowd in town. We’ll have to put in some extra hours today and this evening. Keep an eye on that man with the shell game. Might be some trouble there.”
The Sheriff stepped back inside the office and Lem descended to the street, dodging a wagonload of farm folks late for the barbecue.
Unusually for the Fourth of July, they’d had no complaints of pickpockets or anything else to speak of. But there usually was trouble with a game of chance, sooner or later.
He could tell where the man was, down the street there, even without seeing him. The crowd knotted together outside the saloon had that focused, watchful look common to men occupied with a game of chance.
Lem worked his way to the outer edge of the enthralled group, trying to find a spot where he could watch for a few minutes without attracting notice. A glance around told him that this was a different crowd from the watchers he had seen earlier. Which was no surprise. Didn’t take many losses to cure a fella of his interest in this.
But watching the man demonstrate his skills, Lem was soon caught up in it himself. The game hadn’t started yet — the man was just making the shells appear and disappear in his hands to hook them in, assuring them that his hand was quicker than their eyes. When he judged the crowd to be suitably impressed, he pointed to the pip exposed on the scarlet silk that covered the top of his three-legged folding table.
The shell game artist then went into his spiel. Lem had heard it all before. He watched as the gnarled half of a walnut shell was clapped over the pip, then slid across the silk to the center of the table. The gamesman then lifted one of the other two shells, held it up for all to see that nothing was hidden within it, and set it down with a flourish beside the first.
When all three were lined up on the smooth silk, the showman tapped the center shell with a well-manicured finger, as if to remind them of what they already knew, that the pip lay beneath it. Then, with his fingertips, he whisked the shells around each other on his little stand.
Watching the shells pass and repass each other, Lem remembered his earlier thoughts about the truth and Scott Lancer. How Lucas Thatcher, Julie Barrett and Lancer himself had each told a story and only one of them had contained the whole truth, like only one of them shells there covered the pip.
As he watched the shells twist and turn about each other, he remembered how Thatcher had lined up his evidence and insisted on it over and over, sort of like that shell — at least, Lem thought it was the same one — that kept pushing right up to the front of the table, just teasing somebody to pick it when the game ended. Then that girl, she was out of the picture until right at the end, when she made her big emotional announcement. She was like that shell that seemed to slide along behind the other two, until it stopped at last, the man’s fingertips leaving it slowly.
And Scott Lancer, why he had been the unlikeliest “shell” of all for holding the truth, at first. He had argued with the bounty hunter, but his words didn’t bear much weight when he sat there with that girl’s lip rouge on his face and her money in his pocket. His
peculiar family story shouldn’t have helped him one bit either, being so unbelievable. Lem decided that he was like that third shell, that kind of bumped along, seeming to have trouble keeping up with the other two.
Lem smiled at his own foolishness. What was the chance he had kept them three shells straight when they looked almost identical? But there was something about that shell on the left, there really was. Lem wasn’t a bettin’ man, but if he had been, he would have put a nickel on the shell on the left.
Banker Winston’s young son, Adam, tall and skinny, had watched the game as intently as Lem. Folks said his body had done outgrown his smarts, and that it’d be a year or two before the rest of him caught up. Lem reckoned that was true when the lanky 16-year-old offered up a nickel on the chance that he knew where the pip was hid.
Lem eased up closer to watch him make his choice — the obvious shell, the one front and center, that Lem had mentally labeled Lucas Thatcher. When the magician picked up the shell, there was nothing under it. The boy shook his head and swore, and some of the men in the crowd teased him about how sore his banker pa would be when he found out his son had thrown away hard money on a game of chance.
Lem was close enough now to reach out and pluck up that other shell, the one on the left.
“Care to take a chance, Deputy? New game will start in a minute.”
Behind him, Lem could hear two or three voices demanding, still politely, to see where the pip was hid. From the gamesman’s easy confidence, Lem was sure it was still on the table — sometimes they weren’t. The man would show them after he had led them on a bit, but Lem didn’t need to see. He was pretty sure he knew.
“Deputy? Take a chance for a nickel?”
Lem shook his head. “No thanks, Mister.” << I already have. And the stakes were higher than anyone can afford. >> Oh, it was Sheriff Cutler’s gamble, but in his heart, Lem had made it, too. In the end, it hadn’t much mattered, with the girl owning up to the truth after all. And looking back on it now, that Scott Lancer seemed like a sure thing.
But at the time . . .
Without waiting for more, Lem touched the brim of his hat to the gamesman and turned away. He nodded to the men in the crowd, as he passed back through them. The man with the game knew they were keeping an eye on him now, he’d be cautious, if not fair. And if he wasn’t they’d hear about it.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t too late to stop by the barbecue. Maybe Sara Beth would still be there. Or that girl with the parasol.
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