The Last Renegade
SHE HIRED HIM TO PROTECT HER TOWN
As the owner of the Pennyroyal Saloon and Hotel, Lorraine Berry is privy to almost everything that goes on in Bitter Springs, Wyoming—including the bloodshed plaguing its citizens. With all of the good men dying at the hands of a local rancher and his three sons, Raine hires a shootist to be the town’s protector. But her handsome new employee is more than a hired hand; he’s a man who keeps his guns close and his secrets closer.
BUT NOTHING COULD PROTECT HER HEART
After a chance encounter on a train, Kellen Coltrane travels to the Pennyroyal to carry out a dying man’s last wish. But once he meets the hotel’s fiery-haired proprietor, Coltrane finds himself assuming the role of the shootist’s accomplice and agrees to protect Bitter Springs. And as he learns more about Raine’s own tragedy, Coltrane can’t deny his growing desire for the courageous widow, or the urge to protect her from the threat that draws near…
Bitter Springs, Wyoming Territory
Lorraine Berry wondered about the man arriving today. Allowing her thoughts to drift into the great unknown of possibilities and unforeseen consequences was as close to daydreaming as she ever got. The work facing her was considerable, and she was too practical to stray from it for long. Besides, she had deliberated at length, sometimes out loud, and she had done it for weeks before she began the correspondence with the gun for hire.
It had been a risk writing to him, but at the time it seemed that not writing was the greater risk. It troubled her that she no longer had the same firm sense that she’d made the better choice. Of course, it could be that if she’d done nothing, she would still be plagued by niggling doubt, and then she would have lost the opportunity to hire him. In spite of the fact that she answered his notice, Raine could not imagine that a man with his specialized talent was ever without work for long. In fact, Raine had supplied more information about her circumstances than he revealed about his own. Somehow this made her feel more comfortable about the arrangement, as though he were choosing her, not the other way around, and that he could be better trusted because of it.
It was not until his last letter that she learned who he was, and then because she requested it. He never signed his previous correspondence, so it showed a certain amount of confidence in her when he finally shared his name.
Best regards, Nat Church.
Raine looked up from arranging bottles behind the mahogany bar and caught her reflection in the gilt-framed mirror. Her wry smile was mocking, which was exactly as it should be. Nat Church? She might have ended their arrangement if he had penned that at the outset.
It wasn’t that she believed it was his real name; it merely troubled her because it demonstrated a singular lack of imagination. Now if he had signed his name as Aaron Burr or John Wilkes Booth, that would have hinted at wit, however dark and ghoulish.
Raine’s self-mocking smile deepened as she addressed her reflection. “You are most assuredly twisted, Raine Berry.” She raised a hand to her hair. “Look at you. When exactly was it that the cat dragged you over the backyard fence?” One of her tortoiseshell combs had lost its moorings and was no longer serving the intended purpose of keeping her hair close to her head. When she was still a young girl and knew every sort of thing was possible, she held fast to the notion that her dreadful carroty curls could be tamed. As a woman full grown, she knew better and accepted as marginal consolation that sometime between four and twenty-four the color of her hair had darkened from carrot to copper.
Raine licked her fingers, smoothed back the strands trying to stand at attention, and anchored the comb so it was positioned on a symmetrical plane to its twin. In the event there was still more wrong in places she couldn’t easily see, she felt for the coil near the crown of her head and rearranged a few pins to keep it in place. When she was satisfied that she had done the best she could with what she had, she nodded once at the mirror so her reflection could confirm it.
Raine turned away from straightening the bottles and picked up a broom before the mirror became a bigger distraction than the impending arrival of Nat Church. She swept behind the bar and was starting to make a pass under the tables when Walter Mangold walked in from the storeroom at the back. She was glad he didn’t know how to tread lightly; otherwise his sudden appearance might have had her diving for cover.
Walt rested his large hands on his waist, his arms akimbo, and scolded Raine in a baritone so deep and dulcet that no sting could be attached to it. “Now, stop that, Mrs. Berry. Give me the broom. On no account should you be doing my work just because you can.”
Raine didn’t think about arguing. She held out the broom. Walt was her hardest worker, and what he lacked in quick-wittedness, he compensated for in size, strength, and steadiness. He was also loyal. While there was a certain amount of charm in his devotion to her, Raine also felt a responsibility to do right by him. There were plenty of people in town who looked out for Walt, but there were always a few who considered it a fine joke to make him the butt of one. Before she and Adam took over the Pennyroyal, Walt mostly worked for the Burdicks, and that family had a way of using a body that had nothing to do with useful. The passing recollection of the way they had treated Walt was enough to set Raine’s teeth on edge.
“Goodness, but you got yourself riled up about something,” Walt said. “There’s color creeping up your neck.”
Raine wished she still had the broom so she could make a playful jab at him with it. Instead, she immediately raised a hand to the hollow of her throat. She didn’t know whether she really felt the heat or only imagined it, but she knew Walt was right about the color. She could school her fine features into an expressionless mask, but it usually served no purpose when her pale skin flushed pink with so little provocation.
“You think I’m riled now? Just stand there talking to me when you should be sweeping and I’ll show you riled.”
Walt grinned, flashing teeth almost as big as his fingernails, before he ducked his head and set to work.
Raine got out of his way. She started to pick up a rag to polish the brass rail at the bar, thought better of it, and retreated from the saloon in favor of the hotel’s dining room. Three overnight guests were already seated, the older married couple from Springfield at one table and the liquor salesman from Chicago at the other. Town regulars who enjoyed the company and coffee at the Pennyroyal occupied two more tables. Raine greeted everyone by name before she disappeared into the kitchen.
Mrs. Sterling promptly told her to get out.
“You’re going to get underfoot,” the cook said flatly. “You always do. And Emily will take her orders from you instead of me, and sure as God made little green apples, the next thing you know I’ll be burning Mr. Wheeler’s toast and scrambling Jack Clifton’s eggs instead of turning them over real easy like.” And in the event Raine had a conveniently forgetful memory, Mrs. Sterling reminded her, “It’s happened before.”
Raine stayed where she was just inside the door. To further placate her cook, she kept her palms flat against the raised oak panels. “I thought I might get my own breakfast,” she said. “I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday’s lunch.”
Mrs. Sterling evinced no sympathy. She used one corner of her apron to swipe at the beads of perspiration outlining her widow’s peak before she returned to flipping hotcakes on the griddle. “Whose fault is that? That’s what I would like to know.”
“It’s mine,” Raine said. She stepped aside to let Emily pass into the dining room with a pot of coffee and a platter of hotcakes. She tried to catch the girl’s eye, but under Mrs. Sterling’s more predatory one, Emily was having none of it. The fair-haired Emily slipped past Raine with otherworldly efficiency, like a wraith in a Gothic novel. Raine was left to inhale sharply as the cakes went by and hope the aroma clung to her nostrils until Mrs. Sterling invited her in.
“Did you say something, dear?” Mrs. Sterling asked. “Because I thought I heard you say something.”
Raine knew the cook had heard her perfectly well, but she answered just the same. “I said it is my fault.”
Mrs. Sterling nodded briskly. “Always good to have that out of the way. Now, why don’t you go up to your room, have a little bit of a lie-in, and I’ll send Emily up with a plate of everything once I attend to the guests and the regulars?”
“The regulars are also our guests,” Raine said.
“If you say so.”
Raine smiled. “I always do.” Mrs. Sterling had known Howard Wheeler and Jack Clifton since they worked beside her husband laying rails back in ’67. She knew the other regulars just about as well. If they were visitors in her own home, which they hadn’t been since Mr. Sterling was shot dead, then she would have called them guests. What she thought of them now, she’d told Raine, lacked Christian sentiment and did not bear repeating, so she was a better woman for just calling them regulars.
Raine watched Mrs. Sterling carefully tend to Mr. Clifton’s eggs. Her smile deepened. In spite of the unchristian sentiments the cook insisted she harbored, she never broke one of Jack Clifton’s eggs if she could help it and to Raine’s knowledge she had never tried to poison anyone.
“Why do you think I should have a little bit of a lie-in?”
“Do I need to say it?”
Mrs. Sterling stopped what she was doing long enough to remove her spectacles from their perch above her forehead and place them on the rather pronounced bridge of her nose. It was all for effect because she stared at Raine over the top of the gold-plated rims. “Those bags under your eyes are so big that Rabbit and Finn would refuse to carry them, and you know those two would rather throw themselves in front of a moving train than admit there’s something they can’t do. Is that plain enough for you?”
Raine blinked. “Yes,” she said when she found her voice. “It is.”
“Well, you had to make me go and say it.”
“Again, my fault. Perhaps the next time you’ll simply tell me that I look tired.”
“Mr. Sterling was always trying to put words in my mouth. It didn’t work for him. I don’t expect that it will work for you.”
Sighing, Raine gingerly pressed her fingertips to the underside of her eyes. The skin didn’t feel puffy, so the reference to bags was an exaggeration, but during her earlier conversation in front of the mirror, she’d glimpsed the same faint shadows that drew Mrs. Sterling’s notice.
“I was late going to bed. The saloon was crowded last night.”
“I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. You’re the owner, not the entertainment.”
“I was behind the bar all evening.”
“Pouring drinks with a smile and a kind word for everybody.”
“I like to think it reminds them they’re gentlemen, and it helps keep tables and chairs in place and the mirror in one piece.”
Mrs. Sterling pushed her spectacles back above her salt-and-pepper widow’s peak. She gave Raine a hard look, nothing feigned about it. “Were the Burdicks here?”
Raine shook her head. “No. No, they weren’t.”
The cook’s shoulders had drawn together, tension pulling them taut. Now they relaxed. She began to plate eggs, steak, and fried potatoes. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course I would.”
“Hmm. That’s because you know I’d hear about it.”
“I’d tell you because you deserve to know. The same as I do. And there are others, you know, besides us.”
Mrs. Sterling nodded. “I’m not afraid for myself. They did their worst by me already, taking my husband the way they did, but I can’t help fearing for you and the others.” She picked up Jack Clifton’s plate and gave it a little shake. “I don’t know what makes this man think he needs to stay around when he knows he could end up no better than my Benton.” She raised the plate she’d made for Howard Wheeler and thrust it in Raine’s direction. “And this man has about as much sense as a bag of hair or he would be on the next train to somewhere else.”
“That didn’t work for John Hood,” Raine said quietly. “The Burdicks found him.”
“I think it scares folks to say so out loud,” said Mrs. Sterling. She returned both plates to the tray and looked past Raine to the door. Her voice crackled with her rising agitation. “Where’s that girl gone to? Look in the dining room and see if she’s wiping up something she spilled or flirting with Mr.Weyman.”
Raine opened the door wide enough to catch Emily Ransom’s eye when the girl stopped giggling at something the whiskey drummer from Chicago had said. She crooked her finger and gently closed the door, then moved out of the way until Emily pushed through. Mrs. Sterling gave over the tray and shooed the girl out again.
“I say it out loud,” Raine said, picking up the thread of their conversation. “And Hank Thompson’s been gone almost a year and no one in Bitter Springs has heard from him. He had friends. There should have been a letter by now. One to his mother, at least.”
“That could mean anything. Maybe Agnes got one and isn’t saying. She could be trying to protect him.”
“You’ve known Agnes Thompson all your life. She can’t keep a secret. No one’s heard from him because he’s dead.”
Mrs. Sterling twisted her apron in her hands. “I don’t like this talk.”
The cook hesitated. The question was drawn from her reluctantly. “You really think Hank’s dead?”
Raine briefly closed her eyes. “I’m afraid so, yes.”
“If it’s true, it’s not your fault.”
“I appreciate you saying so, but I know differently.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mrs. Sterling repeated. The steel was back in her voice. “I think I’ve proven I know how to assign blame when it’s warranted. And it’s not, not about this. I don’t hold you responsible for my Benton’s death. He knew what he was about, and he wanted to do the right thing. He was proud to stand up, and I was proud of him for doing it. Still am proud. You diminish his courage by thinking you pressed him to do something against his will.”
Raine nodded, willing to be convinced for now because it was important to Mrs. Sterling. “Maybe that’s what Mr. Clifton and Mr. Wheeler are doing. Standing up.”
“They did that. Now they’re just standing around, and that’s plain foolish. It’s hard to be proud of fools.”
Raine understood that Mrs. Sterling was determined to have the last word. It was wiser to change the subject and hope for the best. She yawned as if she meant it. “I suppose I’ll have that bit of a lie-in after all.”
“There’s a girl.” She added some water to the pitcher of hotcake batter and gave it a stir. “Give me a minute and you can take a couple of these with you.”
Raine waited the requisite minute and a few additional ones so the cook could add an egg and a palm-sized serving of steak. Balancing her plate and a cup of hot coffee in one hand, she lifted her skirt with the other and took the stairs at the back of the hotel to reach her rooms on the third floor.
She had all the space she needed for herself on the uppermost floor of the Pennyroyal. Sometimes it was too much. She could find herself wandering from room to room, recalling that when Adam and Ellen were still with her, she had complained the apartment was too small for the three of them. It was a miserable memory, and she did her best to avoid tripping over it.
Raine used a forearm to clear a space for her breakfast on the writing table in her office. A couple of sheets of paper fluttered to the floor and she let them lie. Sitting down, she pulled out the fork she had squirreled away under her sleeve and cut into the hotcakes. Her stomach rumbled as she lifted two thick slices of molasses-soaked cakes. Just in time, she thought, and stuffed the double helping into her mouth.
She couldn’t eat everything Mrs. Sterling gave her, but she had a taste of all of it, and when she pushed out her belly, her stays pushed back. She turned her chair away from the desk and inched it toward the window. The Pennyroyal was the tallest building in Bitter Springs, taller even than the spire on Grace Church, and the view from Raine’s office took in the storefronts of half a dozen businesses on the opposite side of the street. Beyond that she could make out the rooftop of the parsonage, where Pastor Robbins and his family lived, Mrs. Garvin’s attic window, and if she tilted her head at just the right angle, she could see between the false fronts of the mercantile and the drugstore all the way to the privy in Mr. Webb’s backyard. It always made her smile to think that a self-important man like Mr. Webb traipsed to an outhouse when her hotel had all the latest amenities including hot and cold running water and porcelain pots in every bathing room, which meant her guests did not have to visit the privy. After Adam had installed the water tank and boiler, the hotel was booked for eight weeks with townspeople who paid to spend a night just to open a faucet and wash their hands and face with hot water. Some even took a bath. Mr. Webb was not among the guests. The Burdicks surely would have insisted that the banker stay away. They controlled the bank; therefore, the banker.
Raine felt herself begin to nod off. She would have a crick in her neck for days if she slept in the chair. That prompted her to leave its relative comfort for her bed. She didn’t disturb the coverlet but lay on top of it and plumped the pillows. When the coil at the back of her head pressed uncomfortably, she tore at the pins and unwound it. The combs followed.
There were so many things she still wanted to do before Nat Church arrived, and all of them would have to wait. She could have told Mrs. Sterling the truth: She didn’t deserve to sleep, and the shadows under her eyes were there because she knew it.
It was one of the consequences of hiring a killer.
Curiosity gave Kellen the only excuse he needed to decide against going to Salt Lake City and get off the train at Bitter Springs. At least he preferred to think it was curiosity. The alternative explanation was that he had been moved by impulse, and that would have been worrisome. It was his experience that giving in to impulse meant the odds were better than even that he would be face-to-face with trouble at the end of the day, maybe before supper.
He set his valise at his feet and unclenched his fingers while he waited for the porters to bring his trunks. The bag was heavier than he recalled, and it occurred to him that he should have stowed it in the baggage car or accepted Mr. Berg’s offer to carry it for him. It would have provided a moment’s welcome comedy to watch the diminutive conductor strain to lift the bag, let alone haul it off the train. Every mile traveled since Nat Church surrendered his last breath had been fraught with more tension than the mile before, and Mr. Berg’s desire to make sure no fault was attached to the railroad prompted him to take on the role of investigator, asking as many questions as came to him, and often asking them several different ways.
One thing Bitter Springs had to recommend it was that Mr. Berg wouldn’t be there.
The station platform was only as long as the building that housed the ticket office, baggage area, and restaurant. Kellen walked the length of it several times just to shake off the confinement of travel. Passengers who’d left the train with Kellen had either already gone with their waiting party or were being herded back to their coaches after a frenzied meal in the station eatery. The stop at Bitter Springs, like so many others along the route, was not made for the convenience of hungry travelers. They merely benefited every fifty miles or so because the massive iron engines had requirements of their own. Passengers had exactly as much time to eat as it took the railroad tenders to load the coal and fill the water tanks, which usually necessitated a stop just on either side of twenty minutes. Kellen had participated more than a few times in the ensuing rush to order, pay, and consume a meal in the allotted time. The station restaurants made certain their waitresses could take an order quickly and collect the money even faster than they took the order, but getting the meal to the table, if it made it all, took upwards of twelve minutes, leaving precious little time for consumption. On those occasions that his food arrived promptly, albeit somewhat less than hot, Kellen suspected he profited from a passenger on an earlier train who’d ordered, paid, and then had to leave before his meal arrived. He was philosophical about it, figuring that when he went hungry because the biscuit shooter took her sweet time bringing his meal, someone else would have the good fortune to receive the plate he hadn’t.
Kellen’s trunks arrived at the same time the last stragglers were boarding the train. Once the porters stepped back on board, Kellen was alone on the sheltered platform. He stood there for several minutes after the engine’s sharp whistle signaled her intention to leave. Even as the great wheels began to slowly roll forward, he remained where he was, observing the passengers at the windows observing him. He recognized Dr. Hitchens, who acknowledged him with gravely set features and a nod, the travelers in his coach who all went to the platform side to get a last glimpse of him but would not meet his eyes, and finally, the woman who had emerged victorious in the bonnet war. She cast him a glance that seemed excessively triumphant given the fact that the hat she was wearing no longer sported the black-tipped ostrich feather.
Kellen touched the brim of his hat as she passed, his smile narrow and cool. It had the effect of turning her head, this time away from him and in a manner that was not complimentary.
It wasn’t until the last car cleared the station that Kellen finally turned to face the station. There were no late departures from the train. It was what he wanted to know.
Kellen ignored the entrance to the restaurant and chose the door for tickets, schedules, and posting mail. The station agent was sitting on a stool behind the counter while he sorted letters from a mailbag that had been left in his possession. He didn’t pause or look up from his work when Kellen walked into the office.
“Someone expecting you, son?” the agent asked. “Seemed like you were waiting for someone.”
“Not waiting,” said Kellen. “Saying good-bye.”
“That so? Looked like you were waiting for someone.”
Kellen looked over his shoulder to take in the same view the station agent had. The window afforded the agent an unrestricted view of the platform depending on how far he was willing to stray from his stool. Kellen had the impression the man strayed plenty. He wasn’t aware of a station agent from Chicago to Sacramento who didn’t divert himself by watching his passengers when they weren’t looking.
Kellen turned back in time to catch the agent’s eyes darting to the mail. Clearly the man was interested in him. “Is there something else you want to ask me . . .” He looked around, saw the nameplate affixed to the wall above the agent’s head, and added, “Mr. Collins?” Kellen saw that the direct question gave Mr. Jefferson Collins all of a moment’s hesitation, long enough for the agent’s considerably sized Adam’s apple to bob once in his throat.
“Wonderin’ if you was witness to the murder, that’s what I was fixin’ to ask. Probably would have gotten around to it by and by. Never seen much sense in rushin’ a conversation about dead folk.”
“What do you know about it?”
Mr. Collins gave up the pretense of sorting mail, pushed it aside, and folded his arms across his chest. He regarded Kellen frankly. “Only what came in over the wire. Precious little, but then the railroad plays its cards close. Probably same as you.”
“Me? What makes you think I play my cards close?”
“Nature of a gambler.”
One corner of Kellen’s mouth lifted slightly, the hallmark of a thin smile offered most grudgingly. “So it is.” He watched Mr. Collins nod once, faintly, and concluded the agent was satisfied with his answer. “I suppose they told you the man’s name.”
“Sure. There was a thought that maybe he lived in these parts, but there aren’t any Churches in town, nor any close outside of it. Strange that. Common enough name. You’d think we’d have one or two go by it. Got none.”
“That does seem odd.”
Mr. Collins nodded again. “Odd, too, that he’d be Nat Church. I guess just about everyone knows that name. Leastways I know it like it’s my own. Nat Church and the Best Gang. That’s a good one, maybe my favorite, though I sure did like Nat Church and the Shooting Contest. You read the novels?”
“He’s probably not the real Nat Church.”
“No,” Kellen said dryly. “Probably not.”
The station agent scratched the underside of his bearded chin thoughtfully. “Good thing. Hate to think of the real Nat Church comin’ to such an ignominious end. Doesn’t set right with me.”
“Embarrassing. Means embarrassing.”
“I’ll be darned.”
Mr. Collins stopped scratching and placed his hand flat on the countertop. “What can I do for you?”
“Recommend clean, comfortable lodgings.”
“That’s easy enough. You’ll want to see the Widder Berry. She operates a fine hotel.”
“I was wondering about private lodgings. A rooming house. I heard someone on the train mention Penny Royal. Does Mrs. Royal have rooms to let?”
Mr. Collins chuckled. “There’s no Mrs. Royal. No Miss Royal for that matter. You misunderstood what you heard . . . or overheard. It’s the Pennyroyal Saloon and Hotel. Widder Berry owns the place. You can’t do better.”
“I see. It’s a hotel and saloon?”
Kellen felt himself come under renewed scrutiny as the agent’s stare narrowed and several deep creases appeared between his eyebrows when he drew them together. “All right,” Kellen said. “That will be fine.”
“Didn’t think taking a room above a saloon would much trouble a gambling man.”
“Would you like to live where you work, Mr. Collins?”
The agent surveyed the small office, his attention lingering on those parts that adjoined the front of the restaurant. The clatter and chatter from next door were hardly muted by the wooden walls. “Point taken. You can try the Sedgwick place. George and Amelia take on boarders, but they’re partial to folks plannin’ on staying a while. You aimin’ to do that?”
Kellen ignored the question. “You said I couldn’t do better than the Pennyroyal. I’ll take you at your word. What about my trunks and bag?”
Mr. Collins used his index finger to motion Kellen aside, and then he leaned a little to the right to look past him. “That’s better. Could not recall if you had one bag or two.”
“One bag. Two trunks.”
“You must be travelin’ for a spell.”
“About my trunks,” said Kellen.
“Oh, my grandsons will help you with those.” Mr. Collins reached for a brass bell that had been pushed out of the way by the mailbag. He gave it a hearty shake, grinning widely enough to show a gold eyetooth when his visitor winced. “Once your ears stop ringing, you’ll realize it was all for the best.”
It took Kellen a moment to understand, but when he did, he had to agree with Mr. Collins. The bell’s harsh resonance had the effect of quieting the clamor in the restaurant. The silence did not last long, but neither did the noise return to the level of a cacophony.
“It’s worse when the passengers are in there. Next train’s not due . . .” He consulted his timepiece. “Not due for another three hours. Mostly freight and the immigrant cars.” He looked Kellen over again. “A man like you, well, you probably never rode with the immigrant cars.”
Kellen had. Not merely with them, but in them. He’d done it to satisfy his need to know firsthand. And once done, it was not something he would forget or, given a choice, repeat. “A man like me, Mr. Collins?”
“Two trunks and a bag. There are entire families in those cars that make do with less than you stowed under your seat. They wear most of what they own on their backs and smell like they never been properly introduced to lye soap.”
“Then you’re correct. I have better than a passing acquaintance with soap.” And one sharp memory of having his mouth washed out with it. Kellen let that memory slip away as his attention was drawn to the door by swift, multiple footsteps approaching. The door shuddered in response to the runners’ barreling into it. There was a brief scuffle, an angry exchange of words, and then the brass bell brought it all to a halt.
Kellen was still grimacing and tugging on his right earlobe when the door finally opened, and Mr. Collins’s errant grandsons simultaneously squeezed past the threshold. They all but spilled into the room and, far from making an apology for it, continued to jab each other with pointed elbows, each nudge a little harder than the last. The boys, both of them towheads with matching cowlicks, were far younger than Kellen had supposed them to be when the agent informed him they would be taking care of his baggage. The boys didn’t appear to be twins, but that was only because one of them was half a head taller than the other. Except for the disparity in their stature, there was little enough difference to distinguish them.
“These are my grandsons,” Collins said. It was almost a sigh. “Stand up straight, boys. Mind your manners. Stop jabbing.”
Kellen watched the boys come to attention as if they’d heard a whip crack, but Collins hadn’t raised his voice in the least. Kellen cast a glance back to see if the agent was threatening his grandsons with the brass bell, but no, he had already returned to the stool, his long expression more indicative of martyrdom than menace.
“Introduce yourselves, boys,” Collins told them.
The taller of the pair, and in Kellen’s estimation the elder by a year, maybe two, stepped forward first. “Cabot Theodore Collins. Folks call me Rabbit on account of me being fast as one.”
Before Kellen could respond to this overture, the boy who was not Rabbit inched forward until he was sharp elbow to sharp elbow with his brother. “I’m Carpenter Addison Collins, but everyone but my granny calls me Finn on account of I like it better than Carpenter.”
“Well, yes,” Kellen said carefully, and wondered why he hadn’t thought to choose a better name for himself when he was eight. “Finn. Of course.”
Finn said, “Carp-enter. Fish have fins. See?”
“Yes, I do. Clever.”
Jefferson Collins eyed his grandsons. “This gentleman wants to go to the Pennyroyal. You two think you can manage?”
The boys began to dance in place before Collins finished. “Is all that yours, mister?” Rabbit asked, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the trunks.
Finn turned around to look where his brother was pointing. “Sure. We can put all that on the wagon. Won’t be a bit of bother.”
“Then get to it,” Collins said, and the boys were out the door with significantly less commotion than when they entered. “They’ll bring the buckboard around, back it up to the platform, and drag the trunks over to the bed. Won’t take them but a few minutes. And in case you’re wondering why they’re so eager, it’s because they like to visit with the widder.”
“Good to know. I thought they sized me up as someone who would give them money for their trouble.”
“Could be they did, but it won’t hurt them to learn different.” Collins picked up several envelopes and neatly squared them off, tapping one corner against the countertop. “You never did tell me your name,” he said casually.
“You never did ask.”
Collins chuckled. “You know what? I don’t think I will. Nothing wrong with speculating on it until the boys get back from the hotel.”
“You think they’ll wheedle it out of me?”
The station agent spoke quite sincerely. “Wheedle? You count yourself fortunate if they don’t set your hair on fire.”
Bitter Springs had a wide main street typical of cattle towns that were serviced by the railroad. Corrals near the station accommodated the herd until the cows were driven single file onto the waiting cattle cars. Except for a half-dozen horses milling around close to the livery, the corrals were empty.
In contrast, the thoroughfare and the wooden walkways on either side of it were crowded. From his cushioned perch on the buckboard, Kellen observed that the station agent’s grandsons knew everyone in town, or at least everyone that was out and about. In spite of a clear azure sky and a sun suspended overhead like a crystal ball, there was a chill in the air. It began to settle deeply in Kellen’s bones almost as soon as he left the station. He sat between Rabbit and Finn with the collar of his leather duster turned up and the brim of his black Stetson turned down. For their part, the boys didn’t seem to notice the sharp bite of the wind and frequently pulled down their scarves to call out an enthusiastic greeting to a passerby. Their cheeks were positively apple red with windburn and excitement, and Kellen thought the latter’s influence might be the greater one.
Rabbit held the reins loosely, letting the dappled mare meander at a pace a three-legged mule could outrun, while Finn, often in the middle of his commentary about the town and its inhabitants, repeated his request to be allowed to have his turn.
Kellen turned his attention from the brotherly bickering by making mental notes as the buckboard passed one establishment after another. He learned that Mr. Ransom operated the livery and what he didn’t know about horses wasn’t worth knowing. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson owned the mercantile for dry goods and every kind of whatnot, including things Finn wasn’t sure there was a use for. The land office was where Mr. Harry Sample and his cousin, Mr. Charles Sample, worked. Mrs. Garvin and her daughters, Millicent and Marianna, fashioned clothes and hats for the ladies and sometimes shirts for men as long as the shirts were for fancy occasions and not for range riding. The kind of clothes that a man needed for long days in the saddle and nights on the ground could be bought at Ted Rush’s hardware along with tools for every particular job. Mr. Burnside was the town druggist, but his wife worked behind the soda fountain and made cherry phosphates for two pennies, or one if that’s all you had and you asked her real nice.
There was a bathhouse and laundry owned by the Taylors, and a barbershop next door where you could get yourself nicked proper by Mr. Stillwell’s apprentice if you didn’t know enough to ask for Mr. Stillwell. Mr. Webb managed the Cattlemen’s Trust Bank, although there was no sense to the name, Finn said, because his grandfather told him that cattlemen didn’t really trust banks and spent their money as fast as they earned it on cards and dancing girls.
“There aren’t any dancing girls in Bitter Springs,” Finn said. “Leastways not the kind that kick their legs so high in the air you can see . . .” He leaned forward, looked around Kellen for his brother, and asked, “What do you call it?”
“France,” Rabbit said. “They kick their legs so high you can see France.”
Finn nodded. He looked up at Kellen. “You ever seen France?”
Kellen sighed feelingly. “Not in a long while.”
“I almost saw it once,” said Finn.
“You did not,” said Rabbit. He shot Kellen a wise-beyond-his-years glance. “He did not.”
“Did,” Finn insisted. “Nat Church and the Frisco Fancy. Remember that?”
Surprised, Kellen interrupted. “You read that novel?”
Rabbit answered. “He didn’t. Pap read it to us. Finn mostly stared at the dancing girl on the cover.”
“So did you,” said Finn. He puckered his lips and made kissing sounds. “You said you were going to marry her.”
“Not her. Someone as pretty as her, though.”
“Ain’t no one as pretty as her.” Finn nudged Kellen and offered a confidential aside. “If Pap held the book up just right, I could about see up her underskirts all the way to France.”
Kellen nodded. “She did have a kick like a mule.”
“That’s what Nat Church said, too. I remember because Pap had a laugh about it. You know that story, mister?”
“There’s more of them, but Granny, well, she won’t let Pap read them to us anymore. She says they’re . . .” Frowning, he leaned forward again to look around Kellen and catch his brother’s eye. “What is it that Granny says they are?”
“She doesn’t say that. What’s the other word?”
Rabbit sighed. “Gruesome.”
Finn sat back, satisfied. “Gruesome. I expect that’s because there’s blood and knife fights and shooting and such.”
“I expect you’re right,” said Kellen.
“You shoot many people, mister?”
Rabbit’s head jerked around and he glared at his brother. “We said we weren’t going to ask him.”
“You said. I didn’t. I want to know. What about it, mister? How many people have you shot?”
Kellen could see the hotel on the right up ahead, but at the wagon’s current speed, it might be as long as ten minutes before they reached it. They had just passed the marshal’s office and jailhouse, and neither boy mentioned it as a point of interest, further proof their attention was solely focused on him. The station agent’s grandsons were living up to their advance notice, and Kellen made the decision to surrender. “The name’s Coltrane. Kellen Coltrane.”
Rabbit took the reins in one fist and held out an open hand. “Good to meet you, Mr. Coltrane.”
Finn asked, “You related to the Coltranes from Denver? Mister and Missus stay here when they’re taking the train to Sacramento. They probably stop other places because Missus has the rheumatism, but they talk about here like it’s the best. Mostly that’s true. So, you kin to them?”
“I’m not, no.”
“They’re real nice. Don’t think they ever shot anyone.”
“How about that.”
Finn’s bright blue eyes narrowed on Kellen’s profile. “You’re not sayin’, is that it?”
“I’m not sayin’.”
“We saw the guns,” Finn said.
Rabbit groaned at his brother’s confession, but Kellen gave no sign that he’d heard anything at all.
Finn went on. “Are you figurin’ on endin’ trouble in Bitter Springs or causin’ it? It could be that there’s folks here that would hire you and your guns. Unless you already signed on with the Burdicks. That’d just be a shame. A real shame.”
Rabbit flung an arm past Kellen’s chest and shoved Finn’s shoulder. “Will you shut up?”
“What? He doesn’t shoot kids. You don’t, do you?”
Kellen set his jaw and kept his eyes on the hotel. He spoke softly between clenched teeth. “I’ve never been tempted before.”
“See?” Finn said to his brother. Then the full import of what Kellen said came home to roost, and he pressed his lips tightly together.
Rabbit felt compelled to explain. “It was an accident about the guns,” he said. “The bag was heavier than I thought so Finn was helping out. We grabbed the opposite handles at the same time and the bag opened. The Colts were there, right on top. Guess you wanted it that way so you could get at them quick. I figure you for a detective with the railroad, but Granny says Finn’s got a lurid imagination, and he figures you for a shootist.”
It was an earnestly delivered explanation. Kellen nodded once, accepting it as close to the truth as he was likely to hear. “Your grandfather figures me for a gambling man.”
Rabbit made a dismissive motion while holding the reins. The mare sidled to the left. “He doesn’t know about the Colts. Besides, Pap thinks everyone’s a gambler, but that’s because our father is. That’d be Pap’s son. On the road to ruin, Granny says.”
“Your father doesn’t live in Bitter Springs?”
“Used to. Now he rides the Union Pacific. And plays cards with men who have more money than sense.”
Kellen supposed that Rabbit was repeating something he heard regularly from one or both of his grandparents.
“Maybe you met our pa,” Finn said. “Thomas Jefferson Collins.”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
Finn’s shoulders sagged. “Didn’t think so.”
“I don’t play cards with professional gamblers. It’s unlikely that our paths would cross.”
“Oh.” Kellen heard the boy’s disappointment. He laid one hand on Finn’s knee and placed the other over Rabbit’s doubled-up fists. He tugged the reins to the right and gave Finn’s knee a squeeze.
They traveled the last one hundred yards to the Pennyroyal in silence.
Walter Mangold leaned his broom against the porch rail the moment the buckboard stopped in front of the hotel.
The springy buckboards were sagging under the weight of the trunks. “Both these trunks yours, sir?” he asked the stranger in the front.
Finn spoke up first. “And the bag. Better not forget the bag.”
“Right,” said Walt. “Why don’t you and Rabbit take one end of a trunk while I take the other? Pass me the reins, Rabbit. I’ll tether Ginny.”
“I got it,” Rabbit said, jumping down.
Once Finn was over the seat, Kellen stood. “I’ll take my bag.” He jumped lightly off the wagon and onto the porch steps at the same Rabbit climbed up to help his brother. Kellen took the valise from the boys, making a fist around both handles to make certain it wouldn’t open, and swung it against his thigh. He was prepared for the heaviness of the bag as he hadn’t been when he carried it off the train. The extra weight of it was now explained.
Nat Church. Kellen remembered seeing Church bent over in his seat, riffling through his own valise. If he had gotten there a few moments earlier, he might have caught the older man in the act of transferring the guns. It made Kellen wonder what else Church had redistributed. There had been nothing in the former marshal’s bag to identify him as a citizen of anywhere, and the single photograph of a handsome woman they all assumed was Church’s dead wife was a standard studio portrait. The gold lettering in the right-hand corner that might have told them the name of the studio had faded to illegibility. When the doctor suggested that Mr. Church should carry the photograph to his grave, the conductor agreed. The rest of Church’s belongings became the property of the railroad.
Except for those things Nat Church had not wanted the railroad to have.
While Walt, Rabbit, and Finn saw to the off-loading of his trunks, Kellen went inside.
He set the valise at his feet before he tapped the bell at the registration desk. He looked around while he waited for someone to appear. Above the walnut wainscoting, the walls were painted butter yellow. There was a bench just below the stairs for the weary traveler, and an area rug fashioned with the colors of every burnt shade of a high plains sunset covered most of the polished hardwood floor. Sunlight from the windows at his back dappled the walls and rug and . . .
And set the woman’s hair on fire.
Blinking would have been too obvious. Instead, Kellen’s wintry, blue-gray eyes narrowed a fraction as he took in the curling flames leaping and dancing away from the woman’s scalp. Some might call that color copper, but Kellen Coltrane thought that understated the brilliance of the blaze and didn’t explain why he had been struck dumb. It wasn’t until she stepped from sunlight into relative shadow that he remembered why he was standing at the front desk of the Pennyroyal.
“I’m looking for the Widow Berry.”
“Are you? About what?”
Kellen arched an eyebrow. He couldn’t decide if she was being protective of the widow or if caution was in her nature. More than caution, he thought. Suspicion.
“About a room, for one thing,” said Kellen. He spoke more firmly when he added, “And business.”
She stepped closer, close enough for him to catch the fragrance of lavender. Her dress was plain, severely cut, and crisply pressed. He imagined her flicking lavender water over the dull green fabric before she set an iron to it and thinking herself daring for having done so.
Kellen watched her put out a hand, not to take his, but more tentatively than that, in the way a person does when there’s a need to confirm that something is real. Her slender fingers hovered just above his elbow for several long moments then fell away. She didn’t step back as he’d expected her to. Rather, she subjected his face to the kind of scrutiny that a wife was apt to employ when she expected to catch her husband in a lie. He stood for it because there was no harm in doing so, and just as important, it amused him.
The commotion at the entrance as the boys and Walt carried in the first trunk did not distract her from her study.
“Which room, Mrs. Berry?” Rabbit asked.
“Mr. Coltrane needs the biggest one you have,” said Finn.
“Two trunks and a bag,” Walt said. “Room six would probably be best.”
“You’re not Mr. Church,” Raine said.
“You’re the Widow Berry,” said Kellen.
Finn nudged Rabbit when the three adults began talking at the same time. “When people get to talking like that, I’m always wishing I had Pap’s bell.”
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