U.S. Marshal Robert “Dent” Hernandez signed the voucher and slid it back across the desk to the sheriff. “That’ll do it.” Two down … how many more to go?
Sheriff Ben Hayes leaned back in his chair and regarded Dent with that familiar, pitying expression. “Son, aren’t you tired?”
Dent held his breath to keep from sighing. Ben, with his barrel-chest and graying hair, was a good man, but he was too eager to share his thirty-years of lawman wisdom. “No, sir.” Dent swiped his hat up off the desk. “Bringin’ ‘em in is my job.”
“You know that’s not what I’m talkin about. Your pa wouldn’t want you throwing your life away on his account.”
Dent dropped his hat on his head. “If the men I arrest don’t have a chance to kill somebody else’s pa, that’s not a waste.” He touched the brim in good-bye. “I’m gonna go get some lunch. I’ll head out with the prisoners after.”
He stepped out on the now-sun-washed main street of Evergreen and flinched at the mud. Six straight days of autumn rains had turned the normally dusty street into a quagmire. Off to his left, four men, covered head to toe in the muck, sweated and cursed the mess as they worked to pry their wagon loose. Mules strained and tugged. The sucking sound from the wheels drowned out the noise from the rest of the mud-weary traffic.
“Dent,” Ben stepped up beside him, “you don’t take a day off. You don’t rest. You swing through town once in a blue moon, and then you’re gone again. You got roots in this town and they’re dying.”
“That would be a tragedy.”
“You could attend a dance every now and then.” Ben wiggled his eyebrows. “Git your arms around a pretty girl. Bid on a sweet apple pie.”
Dent didn’t care to reply. He continued watching the men mired in the mud. Most excitement this town has seen in a decade.
“That hate’s gonna eat you up, son. One day you’ll wake up fat, old, and alone–like me–and wonder what it was all for.”
That last part surprised Dent. “You’re a good lawman, Ben. You don’t think it’s been worth it? Think about who you’ve helped put in jail.”
Ben sighed and swiped his hand over his face. “You’re missing my point. You can do your job, and have a life, too. I know that now. I didn’t when your pa and I were young.”
The fire that burned in Dent’s belly didn’t agree. One day he would get the final clue. One day he would arrest the men who had shot his father. He could wait. He could be patient. He could not, however, waste time attending dances and sampling pies. “I thank you for your advice, Ben. You know I respect your opinion.”
Ben laid a hand on Dent’s shoulder, a breeze stirring his faded brown hair. “Say the word, and you can be my deputy any time.”
He bit back a derisive snort. Evergreen, a nice, quiet town, was just the place for a middle-aged lawman tired of chasing criminals. Nearing thirty, Dent was not middle-aged or tired. “Well, I thank you for the offer. And I will consider it.”
“Yeah, sure you will.” Ben squeezed his shoulder and went back inside.
At the depot, Dent tugged at the shackles on his prisoners, hands then feet, then stepped back to stand beside Ben. The two lawmen appraised the offenders. “Happy” Jack Briscomb—short, stocky, face bruised from tripping over Dent’s fist—scowled like he was anything but happy. His comrade, Needles Jones, a slender, dark-haired fella with one wayward eye, glared at them as he defiantly clanked the shackles at his wrists.
Ben tagged Dent in the ribs. “Watch him,” he motioned to Needles. “He’s got a bad temper … Why he’s in trouble in the first place.”
“Will do.” Dent walked around behind the men and gave them a nudge. “All right, boys, here comes the train.” The two shuffled over to the edge of the platform. The deafening chug-chug-chug drowned out any further conversation as they waited for the crawling iron horse to enter the station. Amidst the hiss and steam and an ear-splitting whistle, the Cheyenne to Lander slowed and halted.
The conductor jumped down and set the step in place for the passengers. One by one, dusty cowboys, slick salesmen in cheap suits, and harried mothers battling defiant toddlers, emerged from the train. Some embraced their loved ones. Others disappeared into the swirl of bodies. Dent’s gaze darted all around, looking for trouble, intent on preventing his charges from getting any stupid ideas. Trouble could always come anytime, anywhere, from fellas like these. He doubted whether the folks of Evergreen could take the shock.
When a lull in the debarking hit, he shook Hayes’s hand. “I’ll try to stay longer my next time through.”
“I’ll hold you to it.”
Dent pushed his prisoners forward, but had to wait again as a green cotton dress flitted down the steps. “Pardon us, ma’am,” he said, pulling Happy and Needles back by their collars.
He couldn’t help but notice the dress was filled nicely with a pretty, young gal, wearing silver-rimmed glasses. Thick, wavy, auburn hair, held partially in a barrette, hung at her shoulders, wispy curls framed a sweet, but intelligent, face.
Her eyes, a sparkling, mesmerizing blue, passed over the men then suddenly widened with stark terror. In a blur of motion, Needles reached back and grabbed Dent’s gun. Dent felt the revolver slipping from his holster, and grabbed for it. His grip was awkward at best, obstructed by his prisoner’s chains and handcuffs.
Needles jerked the gun free, spun, and fired. The young lady and the women nearby screamed, men gasped. Folks scrambled for cover. Somehow, the shot missed Dent, and Needles, reacting as fast as a riled snake, draped his shackled arms over the terrified woman. Dent moved to lunge. The outlaw clutched the woman tighter and stepped back with her, shaking his head. He raised the revolver and cocked the hammer.
Dent clenched his jaw and stilled.
The young lady paled to the pallor of chalk dust, and appeared to quit breathing.
“You ain’t hanging me, lawdog.” Needles splayed one hand over the girl’s midsection. His filthy fingers caressed her ribs. “Now git me a horse or I’m gonna drop her.”
A deep, black, slithering hate rose up in Dent as he evaluated the outlaw. A greasy creature, he was just the sort who would shoot a woman. He was here now because he’d snapped and shot a blacksmith in Topeka. Unpredictable with that temper of his.
“Hey, hey, hey.” Happy threw his shackled hands in the air and took two steps away from the fracas. “I don’t want no part of this, Marshal. I ain’t in on it.” He swiveled to Needles. “You don’t know what you’ve done. You don’t know who he is.”
Grinning, Needles pushed the barrel of the gun into the cleft between the woman’s breasts, eliciting a whimper from her. “Ask me if I care. Git me a horse, Marshal. I’ll leave the lady and ride out. No harm done.”
The woman’s eyes spoke volumes. Save me, please, she implored silently. He noted absently that her peril should affect him. But all he cared about was how the next few seconds were going to play out.
He flicked his wrist, and the Derringer slid into his hand. His arm shot out like a lightning bolt and he squeezed the trigger. Needle’s head jerked with the report of the gun. Blood and brain matter exploded out the back of his head. The lady screamed, her eyes rolled back in her head, and both she and the outlaw hit the ground.
“Dent,” Ben’s labored, breathless voice came from behind.
Keeping his gun pointed at Needles, Dent glanced back, then looked again. Blood gushed from Ben’s chest. His gaze bored into Dent as he reached out. “Sorry, son … I wish I’d …” Ben’s knees buckled.
Dent rushed to him, heedless of Needles or the woman. “No, Ben,” he caught his friend as he pitched forward. No, not Ben …