“B-big Jim, we got trouble.”
“Uh huh.” Since Willy Johnson was well known to exaggerate any given situation, Deputy Jim Wade continued browsing through the new stack of wanted posters lying on the desk. When he finished, he set the posters aside.
Looking up, he saw the young man slumped against the doorframe breathing heavily.
“What the hell?” Jim reached Willy in three long strides and pushed him in the nearest chair. “Sit tight while I get Doc.”
“I-I don’t need a doctor. I h-have to tell you s-something.”
Willy’s pronounced stuttering stopped Jim from heading out the door. He retraced his steps and gave Willy his full attention. “All right, I’m listening.”
“It’s s-so important that I r-ran all the way from the s-saloon to tell you.”
“Christ almighty, the Red Horse Saloon is halfway across town.”
“B-but the marshal nearly ran me over with his horse. I had to h-hurry.”
Jim made an effort to rein in his patience while Willy struggled to put his words together. The frazzled young man would just lose focus if he pushed and that was a chance Jim was not willing to take.
Whatever the situation, it involved his best friend and mentor, Marshal Buck Murdock. It was only by chance the older man had entered his life years ago. If he hadn’t, Jim’s existence would now be equal to a pile of piss and shit.
“I s-saw the marshal high-tail it out of t-town a-after some man.”
“Okay, did you get a look at the man Buck was chasing?”
“I-I was too far away. I went into the saloon and tried to get s-someone to listen to me, but they just laughed.”
“Forget them, Willy. I’ll listen to what you have to say.”
“You always listen to me, Big Jim.”
Jim rubbed the back of his neck. Ever since he caught two men poking fun at the simple way Willy spoke and banged their heads together, Willy insisted on calling him Big Jim. His stuttering was the result of a fall from his horse that nearly ended his life at the age of fifteen.
“Describe him for me.”
Willy smacked the arm of the chair. “Big Jim, you know how Buck looks.”
Jim tamped down the desire to shake the boy. “I mean the man Buck was chasing.”
“I told ya. I was too far away to see.”
Jim was already buckling on his gun belt. It may be nothing, but his gut instinct insisted he check it out.
“Which way were they headed?” Jim asked, grabbing his hat off a shelf above the wood stove.
“O-out of t-town. I remember s-something now, Big Jim.”
“What do you remember, Willy?”
“A b-black patch. The man Buck w-was after w-wore a black p-patch over o-one eye.”
The fine hairs on the back of Jim’s neck bristled.
Jim spotted two riderless horses up ahead. He immediately recognized Buck’s black stallion. Steering his horse off the beaten path, he reined in his mount and jumped to the ground. There were numerous boulders scattered across the various plateaus. A perfect hiding place to ambush an unsuspecting traveler.
Buck was behind one of the boulders along with outlaw Lance Watkins. All he had to do was find the right boulder.
Jim grabbed his flask and extra ammunition. He took two steps when a shot rang out, smattering the dirt and rock in front of him.
He broke into a run, zigzagging back and forth. Another shot split the air and he threw himself to the hard ground, knocking the air from his lungs. He clambered to his feet and forced himself to keep moving.
As soon as he reached a cluster of pine trees, he dropped to his belly.
“What the hell are you doin’ here?”
The familiar voice sounded like music to his ears. “That’s a fine howdy do, Buck.”
“Cut the wisecracks and git up here before Lance blows yer head clean off,” Buck hissed. “I’ll cover ya.”
While Buck fired shots aimlessly in the air, Jim crawled the rest of the way. Even though he was relieved to find his friend still alive, that didn’t stop him from shaking his head in dismay.
Buck saw and snapped, “Don’t start with the speeches, Jim. I’ve been lookin’ forward to this moment and you damn well know it. If sugar turns to shit, be sure you take care of Riley.”
Jim rolled his eyes.
“Don’t be giving me that peeved-off face. You know Riley means a lot to me.”
Jim waved a hand in protest. “Stop nagging at me. I just ran about fifty feet dodging bullets. Give me a chance to catch my breath, will ya?”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“Neither should you. If you’re so damn worried about Riley then you should’ve stayed put until a posse could be rounded up.” He sure had balls lecturing a man twenty years his senior.
“Watch yer mouth. I can still take a belt to your backside.”
Ashamed for speaking out of turn, Jim sighed. “It would have taken about ten minutes at the most to get some men together.”
“That’s ten minutes way too many. I wasn’t gonna take the chance of losing that bastard. I told ya before. Leave Lance to me. This is my fight, Jim, not yours or anyone else’s.”
“You are one stubborn old coot, you know that?” Jim opened the flask and drank thirstily. He offered it to Buck but the old man shook his head.
Jim replaced the cap with a snap. “I gave you my word. I’ll see to the welfare of Riley Prescott if something dire was to happen to you. I just don’t understand why an eighteen-year-old needs a guardian in the first place. Seems stupid to me.”
Buck scowled. “How many times must I tell ya? Riley’s pa made a hell of a lot of money being a professional bounty hunter twenty-four seven. Sleepin’ on the ground night after night aggravated my rheumatism so I quit, but Rhys kept on goin’. In three years Riley will turn twenty-one. She’ll be a wealthy woman and that means the man she chooses to marry won’t have to work another day in his life. I don’t want her taken advantage of.”
“Well then, why don’t we figure a way out of this predicament alive so you can make sure that doesn’t happen?”
A loud pop reverberated. Both men crouched low, flinging their arms over their heads as bits of rock and dust exploded all around them. Once the air cleared, Jim bit out a curse.
“Holy shit, that was close. Goddammit, Buck, he’s got the advantage.”
The older man took a long swig from his canteen and dragged his mouth along the sleeve of his shirt. “I’m gonna kill that sonofabitch if it’s the last thing I do.”
“You made that quite clear on more than one occasion,” Jim snapped sarcastically. The observation was made more out of worry than anger. He didn’t want to lose a friend due to a vendetta. “First off, you’re not going to die. The devil ain’t ready for some competition yet.”
Now if he could only get himself to believe his own words he’d feel a hell of a lot better about the situation he found himself in. This day was not going to end well. He could feel it. Buck may have been one of the best bounty hunters this side of Texas before he became marshal of Harmony, but this time Jim feared Buck’s determination rode more on pure emotion instead of common sense.
“Hey, Murdock, you still alive down there?” A voice drifted down from a cluster of rocks high above them.
Both men flattened themselves further into the natural groove carved in the boulder.
Jim swore beneath his breath while Buck chuckled.
“Yeah, I’m still kickin’. Disappointed, are ya?”
“Nope. What about yer buddy? I could’ve killed him if I wanted to.”
Buck guffawed. “Yeah, right, you ain’t that good a shot.”
“I plugged that bounty hunter.”
Buck’s face turned a deep shade of red. “Yeah, right in the back. Yer nothin’ but a coward.”
“Yeah, well anyway, I thought I’d give ya a chance to make a run for it.”
“Ha, so you can shoot me in the back too? Nothin’ doin’.”
Jim remained silent as he listened to the conversation.
“It’s yer hide, not mine, Murdock. Ya don’t have a prayer of makin’ it out of here alive when my comrades get here.”
“Ya don’t have any comrades, Watkins. Ya want to know why? Cause yer a back-stabbin’ son of a bitch,” Buck shouted in return. “‘Sides, I ain’t scared to meet my maker. I’ll take what punishment comes to me, but I’ll make damn sure you’re standing there with me.”
Another bullet whizzed past their heads in response.
“Shit, Buck,” Jim hissed through his teeth. “We can’t just lie here and get picked off like a couple of buzzards. We have to make a move now.”
“Don’t go gettin’ yer dander up, Jim. He’s bluffin’. He ain’t waitin’ for nobody. He’s just gettin’ nervous.”
Jim felt like bouncing his head off the rock. “And how the hell do you know that?”
“Anyone stupid enough to show themselves in broad daylight,” Buck stabbed one stubby finger at his chest, “in my town where I’m the law ain’t dealing with a full deck. I’m tellin’ ya, Jim. He ain’t got the brains of a bird.”
Jim chewed on Buck’s explanation. It made sense. If ex-bounty hunter Buck Murdock had been gunning for him, he’d make sure to stay as far away as possible. “You may be right, but taking off after him without someone covering your back doesn’t make you so swift in the head either.”
“Jim, the bastard rode into town as he pleased. For a minute there I thought I was dreamin’.” He paused to clear his throat. “I had to give chase. And don’t go pointin’ fingers. I ain’t the only one without sense otherwise I wouldn’t be enjoyin’ the pleasure of yer company right now.”
Jim snorted. “Pleasure, my ass. You made it clear plenty of times that you don’t want me involved. Good thing Willy told me what was going on. I had to follow you.”
“Willy? Ha, when did you start believin’ his cockamamie stories?”
“When the kid bursts into the office and nearly collapses on the floor I’d say that’s one clue.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Buck wagged his head. “You shoulda stayed put. This is my fight, Jim.”
“I understand that, but did it ever occur to you that Lance just might be telling the truth about those cohorts?”
“Like I said, this is my fight. I never wanted you involved.”
“Yeah, well, it’s too late now.”
“Hey, I thought I told you to check on those reports about cattle gettin’ picked off?”
“I took a few minutes to check out the new wanted posters. That’s when Willy showed up and don’t go changing the subject.”
“Jim, listen to me. I didn’t expect Lance to fall right into my lap. Now that I got him, I ain’t gonna let him get away.”
“Yeah, but who got who? He’s got the advantage with the higher ground.” Jim grew more worried about his friend’s emotional state. He had to get him away from here.
A low rumble of thunder echoed in the distance. A storm was brewing. “One of us should go back to town and get help.”
“Then that one would be you ‘cause I ain’t movin’.”
It wasn’t the answer Jim had hoped for, yet he wasn’t surprised.
The older man spat a brown stream of tobacco juice on the cracked dry ground. “I aim to bring Lance in and that’s that. If you wanna go back I can cover ya ‘til you git on yer horse and ride outta here.”
“Uh huh,” Jim replied sarcastically. “That’d leave you to confront that no good bastard on your own. Jesus, Buck. Get your head out of your ass, will ya? We’ve been holed up for nearly two hours. It’s hotter than hell and I’m sweating my balls off. It’d be better if I did the coverin’ and you rode out of here.”
Buck’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You sayin’ I ain’t good enough to keep Lance right where he is ‘til you get back?”
The old man couldn’t be more wrong and he damn well knew it. “Goddamn it, Murdock, you’re as stubborn as the day is long.”
Vengeance for his friend was definitely clouding Murdock’s thinking. A team of wild horses wouldn’t drag him out of here. Deep down in his gut Jim couldn’t blame him. He’d do the same if someone had shot his best friend in the back and left him for dead.
Jim took off his hat and swiped his forearm across his brow.
“I ain’t movin’, Jim. I aim to bring Lance in with or without you. It’s all my fault that Rhys got killed. That day he rode into town he asked me to go along with him and we’d split the bounty. The last bounty before he called it quits. I turned him down, now he’s dead. If I’d been there…”
“Don’t even go there. You had no possible way of knowing Rhys would get shot.” Jim blew out a breath.
He remembered meeting the professional bounty hunter when he stopped in Harmony on his way to Red Creek. Rhys Prescott was an enigma. Harsh lines etched in a face that was void of any emotion, but he couldn’t conceal the way his eyes lit whenever he spoke of Riley. The man clearly loved his daughter.
And speaking of said daughter… “Is there any reason why she hasn’t married yet? She too plain?”
“Ha, it wouldn’t matter if she was plain. That money tucked away in the bank would be enough to land a husband.” Buck’s grin reached his light brown eyes. “But to answer yer question, no, that little gal is far from plain. I saw how much she growed when I was at her pa’s funeral. She was fifteen at the time. With her long auburn hair, deep blue eyes, and temper to boot she reminded me so much of her mother.”
Buck paused to light a cigar. “Nah, she ain’t homely at all. A bit wild and hotheaded but she’s young. After we got back to the ranch she took off into the house and came out wearin’ one of her grandpa’s shirts tucked into a pair of pants and waving a gun. She high-tailed it to the barn and saddled up her horse. She was ready to go after the man who shot her pa.” He laughed and slapped his knee. “By golly, I thought fer sure her gran would pass out with the vapors. Her grandpa threatened to hogtie her if she didn’t come out of that fit and apologize.”
“Wild and hotheaded, eh? Sounds like she lacked some good old-fashioned discipline. Rhys should’ve retired long before and tended to her upbringing.”
“Remember the last time he was here?”
“He told me how much he regretted not spendin’ time with Riley. He vowed that this bounty was the last. His ma and pa done spoiled her rotten after her ma died, especially her grandpa. Rhys appreciated his parents for taking care of her, but they were gettin’ on up in age. He wanted to be a proper father to her, Jim, but he never got the chance.”
Both men grew quiet. After a while, Jim said, “Why don’t I circle around this cluster of rocks and see if I can get the jump on him?”
“Nothin’ doin’. I ain’t gonna have ya risk yer life for somethin’ that needs doin’ by me. I’m gonna kill that bastard. I owe it to my best friend. I want Lance to see who’s sendin’ him straight to hell. Rhys was like a brother to me and that animal up there shot him in cold blood. He was too chicken to meet Rhys face to face. He took the coward’s way out and I aim to see that he pays.”
“You’re not bringing him in for trial?”
“Nope. In my line of work I met plenty of men who deserved killin’, but did the honorable thing and brought them in. Lance ain’t gonna be one of them. He can be taken in dead or alive. For once in my miserable life I’m goin’ for dead.”
“Don’t you want to see him hang?”
“Shit, yeah, if I knew it’d be done quick like, but that ain’t the ways things go. It’d probably take weeks, maybe even months before a circuit judge got here. I’ve waited too long for this.” He wagged his head. “I ain’t takin’ no chances. Me and Rhys did a lot of jobs together. He saved my ass more times than I can count and when he needed me the most I let him down.” A pained expression crossed his withered face. “I never told anyone this, but the both of us was in love with Riley’s mother. Regina was her name. She had hair the color of a sunset and the bluest eyes you ever did see. She was a church-goin’ woman, can you believe it? Me and Rhys, two bounty hunters, cold-blooded killers when the situation warranted, vyin’ for the attention of a God-fearin’ woman.”
“But in the end Rhys won her heart. It hurt like hell to see her with him so I wished them the best and snuck out right after the ‘I do’s.’ About a year later I got word that she died several days after givin’ birth to Riley. I went back to Red Creek with my tail between my legs. I couldn’t believe how gaunt Rhys got. He looked as if he’d aged a hundred years from the last time I saw him. We drowned our sorrows and shared regrets. That day we both promised each other that if one of us died before the other we’d take care of the family. Rhys and Riley were the closest to a family I had. I ain’t got no blood relations. Riley went on to live with her grandparents so I wasn’t needed at that time.”
“Yep, until now.”
“You mentioned something about a fire.”
Buck nodded. “I didn’t get the chance to tell ya. Jacobs, Rhys’ attorney, sent me a wire. The poor girl lost her grandparents and her home. She’s all alone. That’s why I’m relyin’ on you to be there for her if I can’t.”
Jim felt a headache coming on.
“Buck, I can understand you taking in Riley if she was just a child, but she’s old enough to be on her own. I mean, why take her away from the only place she’s ever known?”
“I told ya. I gave up chasin’ outlaws long before Rhys. He collected a hell of a lot more bounties. Some were in the thousands. He pushed himself and it had to do a lot with Regina dyin’. He took bounties one after another, never stoppin’ to rest. Now all that cash belongs to Riley. It’d be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Men will pursue her just to get their hands on all that cash. I have to protect her from all that.”
“You still can, Buck.”
“You don’t understand, Jim. It broke me when Riley cried and cried because she couldn’t go with me and find her pa’s killer. Her face soakin’ wet with tears still haunts me to this day. I promised her I’d find Lance and…”
Suddenly, Buck stopped talking and whipped out his gun. “Get down!”
A pop exploded followed by a deafening roar. Jim hit the ground. Shit. Bullets whizzed above his head, the acrid stench of smoke burning his nostrils.
“What the fuck?” Dust billowed everywhere. He couldn’t see two feet in front of him. “Buck, say something, for Christ’s sake.”
Jim reached out blindly. His hand connected with a boot. It got eerily quiet. When the dust began to settle he was able to make out Buck’s body lying still on the ground.
“Damn, Buck, you okay?”
“I don’t think so,” he coughed. Blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. “Don’t ever turn your back on a killer, son. Check and make sure he’s dead.”
“Do it now!”
Jim muttered, “Christ almighty.” He scrambled to his feet and went over to where Lance lay flat on his back with his eyes opened wide. The dark hole in the center of his forehead had come as a surprise. “Yeah, he’s dead. You saved my life, old man.” Jim ran a shaky hand through his hair. “Hell and damnation. I didn’t hear him behind us.”
Buck’s voice came out much weaker than before. “I thought I taught you better than that, boy.”
Jim rushed over to Buck and saw an excessive amount of blood seeping through his shirt. Desperate to pinpoint the wound in order to stop the flow, he tore the material apart. He sucked in his breath. The wound was close to his heart.
Jim whipped off his own shirt and wadded it into a ball. He pressed it against the jagged hole and held it there. Sweat dripped down his face, but he didn’t move.
“I ain’t gonna make it, Jim.”
“Shut up with that kind of talk. I’ll get you back to town. Ed’ll fix you up then I’ll find MaBelle. She’ll rip you a new one. In no time you’ll be up and about bitching about something.” Jim took the cap off Buck’s canteen. “Drink some water first then you can rest while I get the horses.”
Buck pushed the canteen away. “I don’t have time. Listen to me, Jim. I need you to swear that you’ll do right by Riley. Keep her safe.”
“I said I would, now stop talking and save your strength. You’ll need it when Riley gets here. Can you stand?” He tried to get Buck to sit up, but his face twisted in agony.
“Leave me be. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” With remarkable strength he fisted the front of Jim’s shirt and pulled him close until they were eye to eye. “You remember, right, ‘bout what I told you? About the promise I made to Rhys?”
“Yes,” Jim replied then grit his teeth in frustration.
“Make sure no one takes advantage of Riley.”
Jim wanted to tilt back his head and howl at the unfairness of it all. Buck was a good man. He didn’t deserve such an end. “Are you sure you want me? I don’t know anything about female stuff. Maybe Ernest would be better. He’s married and has a daughter.”
“No. Yer like a son to me and there ain’t no one else I trust more.” Buck grew agitated and struggled to sit up.
A firm hand landed on Buck’s shoulder. “Sit yourself down before you bleed all over the place.”
Desperation filled Buck’s eyes. “I can’t rest in peace until you give me your word one more time.”
“Buck, I signed the fucking agreement.”
“I know, but I got to feelin’ a bit guilty for houndin’ you the way I did so I got what’s called a clause added. See, you can back out of this if Riley doesn’t want a guardian and believe me she’ll throw a tantrum the likes you never saw before. She’s too trusting and now I’m regrettin’ doin’ it. Tell me you won’t back out no matter what. Promise me that the man she chooses to marry truly loves her and not just her money.”
“You do realize that Riley will have to stay at the hotel. I don’t have a home of my own.”
“The marshal’s cottage is sittin’ empty.”
“I’m not the marshal.”
Jim hung his head. This was it. He had to accept the inevitable. Buck was dying and he couldn’t do a thing to stop it.
But there was always hope.
“All right, Buck, you win. I’m giving you my word. I won’t back out no matter what, now shut the hell up and save your strength while I get your horse, eh?”
Between the shooting and the yelling he prayed that the horses hadn’t run off. In his haste to get Buck on his horse and back to town Jim skidded down the incline, cursing when he fell on his ass but relieved when he saw that the horses hadn’t strayed.
He guided the black stallion over the rocky terrain to where he’d left Buck only minutes before.
Jim’s heart seized in his chest.
Buck was dead.