/ Language: English / Genre:love_history

Come the Spring

Julie Garwood


Julie Garwood - Rose 5 - Come the Spring

Come The Spring [067-011-5.0]

by: julie garwood

Synopsis:

Cole Clayborne has been tricked into accepting a badge and the title of

U.S. Marshal by Sheriff Marshall Ryan. He would refuse the badge if he

could, but the Blackwater Gang is up to no good and Cole feels

compelled to help. Sheriff Ryan has been chasing the gang for two

years--ever since they murdered his wife and daughter during a bank

robbery--and he needs Cole to help him solve the case. When the

Rockford Falls bank is robbed, only one witness is left alive.

Terrified by the ordeal, the lone survivor won't come forward to

testify; Cole and Daniels's only clue to her identity is a list that

includes the names of three women who conducted business at the bank

that afternoon. Is the eyewitness the beautiful, aristocratic Rebecca

James or the exquisitely lovely Grace Winthrop? Could it be the

seductive Jessica Summers? Somehow, Cole and Daniel have to keep the

three women safe while solving the bank robberies and tracking down the

killers. But the biggest danger of all may be the threat of losing

their hearts to one of the beautiful women.

Books by Julie Garwood Gentle Warrior Rebellious Desire Honor's

Splendour The Lion's Lady The Bride Guardian Angel The Gift The Prize

The Secret Castles Saving Grace Prince Charming For the Roses The

Wedding One Pink Rose One White Rose One Red Rose Come the Spring

Published by POCKET BOOKS , POCKET BOOKS NewYork London Toronto Sydney

Tokyo Singapore

For my daughter, Elizabeth, who has the mind of a

scientist, the heart of a saint, the determination of a champion, and

the twinkle of a true Irishman.

Oh, how you inspire me.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and

incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used

fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons,

living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

g POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. 1230 Avenue of the

Americas, New York, NY 10020

Copyright (C) 1997 by Julie Garwood All rights reserved, including the

right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form

whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the

Americas, New York, NY 10020

ISBN: 0-671-00333-X POCKET and colophon are registered trademarks of

Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed in the U.S.A.

Ac1cnowledgments A special thanks to the following: To Jo Ann for

keeping me accurate, focused, and on track . . . and for putting up

with me.

To my agent, Andrea Cirillo, and my editor, Linda Marrow, for believing

in my dreams . . . and for never saying the word "impossible." And,

to all the readers who fell in love with the Claybornes and encouraged

me to continue their story. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

@ For winters rains and ruins are over, And all the seasons of snows

and sins, The days dividing lover and lover, The light that loses, the

night that wins, And time remembered is grief forgotten, And frosts are

slain and flowers begotten, And in green underwood and cover Blossom by

blossom the spring begins.

From Atalanta in Calydon Algernon Charles Swinburne

But for the grace of God and an untied shoelace, she would have died

with the others that day. She walked into the bank at precisely two

forty-five in the afternoon to close her account, deliberately leaving the

task until the last possible minute because it made everything so final in

her mind. There would be no going back. All of her possessions had

been packed, and very soon now she would be leaving Rockford Falls,

Montana, forever.

Sherman MacCorkle, the bank president, would lock the doors in fifteen

minutes. The lobby was filled with other procrastinators like herself,

yet for all the customers, there were only two tellers working the

windows instead of the usual three. Emmeline MacCorkle, Sherman's

daughter, was apparently still at home recovering from the influenza

that had swept through the peaceful little town two weeks before.

Malcolm Watterson's line was shorter by three heads. He was a

notorious gossip, though, and would surely ask her questions she wasn't

prepared to answer.

Fortunately Franklin Carroll was working today, and she immediately

took her place in the back of his line. He was quick, methodical, and

never intruded into anyone's personal affairs. He was also a friend.

She had already told him good-bye after services last Sunday, but she

had the sudden inclination to do so again.

She hated waiting. Tapping her foot softly against the warped

floorboards, she took her gloves off, then put them back on again.

Each time she fidgeted, her purse, secured by a satin ribbon around her

wrist, swung back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum keeping

perfect time to the ticktock of the clock hanging on the wall behind

the tellers' windows.

The man in front of her took a step forward, but she stayed where she

was, hoping to put some distance between them so that she wouldn't have

to smell the sour sweat mixed with the pungent odor of fried sausage

emanating from his filthy clothes.

The man to her left in Malcolm's line smiled at her, letting her see

the two missing teeth in the center of his grin. To discourage

conversation, she gave him a quick nod and turned her gaze upward to

the water stains on the ceiling.

It was dank, musty, and horribly hot. She could feel the perspiration

gathering at the nape of her neck and tugged on the collar of her

starched blouse. Giving Franklin a sympathetic glance, she wondered

how any of the employees could work all day in such a dark, gloomy,

stifling tomb. She turned to the right and stared longingly at the

three closed windows. Sunlight streaked through the finger-smudged

glass, casting jagged splotches on the worn floorboards, and fragments

of dust particles hung suspended in the stagnant air. If she had to

wait much longer, she would incite Sherman MacCorkle's anger by

marching over to the windows and throwing all of them open. She gave

up the idea as soon as it entered her mind because the president would

only close them again and give her a stern lecture about bank

security.

Besides, she would lose her place in line.

It was finally her turn. Hurrying forward, she stumbled and bumped her

head against the glass of the teller's window. Her shoe had come

off.

She shoved her foot back inside and felt the tongue coil under her

toes. Behind the tellers, dour-faced Sherman MacCorkle's door was

open. He heard the commotion and looked up at her from his desk behind

a glass partition. She gave him a weak smile before turning her

attention to Franklin.

"My shoelace came untied, " she said in an attempt to explain her

clumsiness.

He nodded sympathetically. "Are you all ready to leave? " "Just

about, " she whispered so that Malcolm, the busybody, wouldn't poke his

nose into the conversation. He was already leaning toward Frank, and

she knew he was itching to hear the particulars.

"I'll miss you, " Franklin blurted out.

The confession brought a blush that stained his neck and cheeks.

Franklin's shyness was an endearing quality, and when the tall, deathly

thin man swallowed, his oversized Adam's apple bobbed noticeably. He

was at least twenty years her senior, yet he acted like a young boy

whenever he was near her.

"I'm going to miss you too, Franklin."

"Are you going to close your account now? " She nodded as she pushed

the folded papers through the arched, fist-sized opening. "I hope

everything's in order." He busied himself with the paperwork, checking

signatures and numbers, and then opened his cash drawer and began to

count out the money.

"Four hundred and two dollars is an awful lot of money to be carrying

around."

"Yes, I know it is, " she agreed. "I'll keep a close eye on it. Don't

worry." She removed her gloves while he stacked the bills, and when he

pushed the money through the opening, she stuffed it into her cloth

purse and pulled the strings tight.

Franklin cast his employer a furtive glance before leaning forward and

pressing his forehead against the glass. "Church won't be the same

without you sitting in the pew in front of Mother and me. I wish you

weren't leaving. Mother would eventually warm up to you.

I'm sure of it." She reached through the opening and impulsively

squeezed his hand. "In the short while that I have lived here, you

have become such a good friend. I won't ever forget your kindness to

me."

"Will you write? " "Yes, of course I will."

"Send your letters to the bank so Mother won't see them." She

smiled.

"Yes, I'll do that." A discreet cough told her she'd lingered too

long.

She picked up her gloves and purse and turned around, searching for a

spot out of the traffic where she could retie her shoelace. There was

an empty desk in the alcove beyond the swinging gate that separated the

customers from the employees. Lemont Morganstaff usually sat there,

but like Emmeline MacCorkle, he too was still recovering from the

epidemic.

She dragged her foot so she wouldn't step out of her shoe again as she

made her way across the lobby to the decrepit, scarred desk in front of

the windows. Franklin had confided that MacCorkle had purchased all

the furniture thirdhand from a printer's shop. His thrifty nature had

obviously compelled him to overlook the ink stains blotting the wood

and the protruding splinters lying in wait for an uncautious finger.

It was sinful the way MacCorkle treated his employees. She knew for a

fact that he didn't pay any of his loyal staff a fair wage, because

poor Franklin lived a very modest life and could barely afford to keep

his mother in the medicinal tonic she seemed to thrive on.

She had a notion to go into MacCorkle's brand-spankingnew office, with

its shiny mahogany desk and matching file cabinets, and tell him what a

cheapskate he was in hopes of shaming him into doing something about

the deplorable conditions he forced his staff to endure, and she surely

would have done just that if it hadn't been for the possibility that

MacCorkle would think Franklin had put her up to it. The president

knew they were friends. No, she didn't dare say a word, and so she

settled on giving MacCorkle a look of pure disgust instead.

It was a wasted effort, he was looking the other way. She promptly

turned her back to him and pulled out the desk chair. Dropping her

things down on the seat, she genuflected in as ladylike a fashion as

she could and pushed her petticoats out of her way. She adjusted the

tongue of her shoe, slipped her foot back inside, and quickly retied

the stiff shoelace.

The chore completed, she tried to stand up but stepped on her skirt

instead and was jerked back to the floor, landing with a thud. Her

purse and gloves spilled into her lap as the chair she'd bumped went

flying backward on its rollers. It slammed into the wall, rolled back,

and struck her shoulder. Embarrassed by her awkwardness, she peered

over the top of the desk to see if anyone had noticed.

There were three customers left at the tellers' windows, all of them

gaping in her direction. Franklin had only just finished filing her

documents in the file cabinet behind him when she fell. He slammed the

file drawer closed and started toward her with a worried frown on his

face, but she smiled and waved him back. She was just about to tell

him she was quite all right when the front door burst open with a

bang.

The clock chimed three o'clock. Seven men stormed inside and fanned

out across the lobby. No one could mistake their intentions. Dark

bandannas concealed the lower part of their faces, and their hats, worn

low on their brows, shaded their eyes. As each man moved forward, he

drew his gun. The last one to enter spun around to pull the shades and

bolt the door.

Every one in the bank froze except for Sherman MacCorkle, who rose up

in his chair, a startled cry of alarm issuing through his pinched

lips.

Then Franklin screamed in a highpitched soprano shriek that

reverberated through the eerie silence.

Like the others, she was too stunned to move. A wave of panic washed

through her, constricting every muscle. She desperately tried to grasp

control of her thoughts. Don't panic . . . don't panic . . . They

can't shoot us . . . They wouldn't dare shoot us. . . The noise of

gunfire. . . They want money, that's all . . . If everyone

cooperates, they won't hurt us. . . .

Her logic didn't help calm her racing heartbeat. They would take her

four hundred dollars. And that was unacceptable. She couldn't let

them have the money . . . wouldn't. But how could she stop them? She

took the wad of bills out of her purse and frantically searched for a

place to hide it. Think . . . think. . . . She leaned to the side

and looked up at Franklin. He was staring at the robbers, but he must

have felt her watching him for he tilted his head downward ever so

slightly. It dawned on her then that the gunmen didn't know she was

there. She hesitated for the barest of seconds, her gaze intent on

Franklin's pale face, and then silently squeezed herself into the

kneehole of the ancient desk. Quickly unbuttoning her blouse, she

shoved the money under her chemise and flattened her hands against her

chest.

Oh, God, oh, God . . . One of them was walking toward the desk. She

could hear his footsteps getting closer and closer. Her petticoats!

They were spread out like a white flag of surrender. She frantically

grabbed them and shoved them under her knees. Her heart pounded like a

drum now, and she was terrified that all of them could hear the

noise.

If they didn't spot her, they would leave her money alone.

A blur of snakeskin boots, spurs rattling, passed within inches. The

smell of peppermint trailed behind. The scent shocked herţchildren

smelled like peppermint, not criminals. Don't let him see me, she

prayed. Please, God, don't let him see me. She wanted to squeeze her

eyes shut and disappear. She heard the shades being pulled down,

sucking out the sunlight, and she was suddenly assaulted with the

claustrophobic feeling that she was in a casket and the man was pushing

the lid down on top of her.

Bare seconds had passed since they'd entered the bank. It would be

over soon, she told herself. Soon. They wanted only the money,

nothing more, and they would surely hurry to get out as quickly as

possible. Yes, of course they would. With every second that they

lingered, they increased the odds of being captured.

Could they see her through the cracks in the desk? The possibility was

too frightening. There was a half-inch split in the seam of the wood

all the way down the center panel, and she slowly shifted her position

until her knees were rubbing against the drawer above her head. The

air was thick, heavy. It made her want to gag. She took a shallow

breath through her mouth and tilted her head to the side so she could

see through the slit.

Across the room the three gray-faced customers stood motionless, their

backs pressed against the counter. One of the robbers stepped

forward.

He was dressed in a black suit and white shirt, similar to the clothing

the bank president wore. Had he not been wearing a mask and holding a

gun, he would have looked like any other businessman.

He was terribly polite and soft-spoken.

"Gentlemen, there isn't any need to be frightened, " he began in a

voice that reeked with southern hospitality. "As long as you do as I

say, no one will get hurt. We happened to hear from a friend of ours

about a large government deposit for the army boys, and we thought we

might like to help ourselves to their pay. I'll grant you we aren't

being very gentlemanly, and I'm sure you're feeling mighty

inconvenienced. I'm real sorry about that. Mr. Bell, please put the

Closed sign in the window behind the shades." The leader gave the

order to the man on his right, who quickly did as he was told.

"That's fine, just fine, " the leader said. "Now, gentlemen, I would

like all of you to stack your hands on top of your heads and come on

out here into the lobby so I wonXt have to worry that one of you is

going to do anything foolish. Don't be shy, Mr. President. Come on

out of your office and join your friends and neighbors." She heard the

shuffle of feet as the men moved forward. The gate squeaked as it

opened.

"That was nice and orderly." The leader oozed the praise when his

command was promptly followed. "You did just fine, but I have one more

request to make. Will all of you please kneel down? Now, now, keep

your hands on your heads. You don't want me to worry, do you? Mr.

Bell would like to lay you out on the floor and tie you up, but I don't

think that will be necessary. No need to get your nice clothes

dirty.

Just squeeze yourselves together in a tight little circle. That's

fine, just fine, " he praised once again.

"The safe's open, sir, " one of the others called out.

"Go to it, son, " he called back.

The man in charge turned to the desk, and she saw his eyes clearly.

They were brown with golden streaks through them, like marbles, cold,

unfeeling. The man named Bell was coughing, and the leader turned away

from her to look at his accomplice.

"Why don't you lean against the railing and let the others take care of

filling up the bags. My friend's feeling poorly today, " he told the

captives.

"Maybe he's got the influenza, " Malcolm suggested in an

eager-to-please voice.

"I'm afraid you might be right, " the leader agreed. "It's a pity

because he so enjoys his work, but today he isn't up to entertaining

himself. Isn't that right, Mr. Bell? " "Yes, sir, " his cohort

said.

"Are you about finished, Mr. Robertson? " "We got it all, sir. "

"Don't forget the cash in the drawers, " he reminded him.

"We've got that too, sir.

"Looks like our business is almost finished here. Mr. Johnson, will

you please make sure the back door isn't going to give us any

trouble?

" "I've already seen to it, sir."

"It's time to finish up, then." She heard the others moving back into

the lobby, their heels clicking against the floorboards with the

precision of telegraph equipment. One of them was snickering.

The man in charge had turned away from her, but she could see the

others clearly now. All of them stood behind the circle of captives.

While she watched, they removed their bandannas and tucked them into

their pockets. The leader took a step forward, then put his gun away

so he could carefully fold his bandanna and put it in his vest

pocket.

He stood close enough for her to see his long fingers and his carefully

manicured nails.

Why had they removed their masks? Didn't they realize that Franklin

and the others would give the authorities their descriptions . . . Oh,

God, no . . . no . . . no . . .

"Is the back door open, Mr. Johnson? " "Yes, sir, it is."

"Well, then I expect it's time to leave. Whose turn is it? " he

asked.

"Mr. Bell hasn't taken a turn since that little girl. Remember,

sir?

" "I remember. Are you up to it today, Mr. Bell? " "Yes, sir, I

believe I am."

"Then get on with it, " he ordered as he drew his gun and cocked it.

"What are you going to do? " the president asked in a near shout.

"Hush now. I told you no one would get hurt, didn't I? " His voice

was horrifically soothing. MacCorkle was nodding when the man named

Bell fired his shot. The front of the president's head exploded.

The leader killed the man in front of him, jumping back when the blood

from the wound he'd inflicted spewed out.

Franklin cried, "But you promised . . .

The leader whirled toward him and shot him in the back the head.

Franklin's neck snapped.

"I lied."

The ceremony was unique. The guest of honor, Cole

Clayborne, slept through it and the celebration that followed. An hour

after most of the guests had departed, the effect of the unnatural

sleep was wearing off.

In a stupor, he floated somewhere between fantasy and reality. He felt

someone tugging on him, but he couldn't summon enough strength to open

his eyes and find out who was tormenting him. The noise was making his

head ache fiercely, and when he finally began to wake up, the first

sounds he heard were the clinking of glasses and loud, rambunctious

laughter.

Someone was speaking to him, or about him. He heard his name, yet he

found it impossible to concentrate long enough to understand what was

being said. His head felt as though there were little men inside,

standing between his eyes, pounding his skull with sharp hammers.

Was he hung over? The question intruded into his hazy thoughts. No,

he never got drunk when he was away from Rosehill, and even when he was

home, he rarely had more than an occasional beer in the heat of the

afternoon. He didn't like the aftereffects. Liquor, he'd learned the

hard way, dulled the senses and the reflexes, and with half the

gunslingers in the territory wanting to build their reputations by

killing him in a shoot-out, he wasn't about to drink anything more

dulling than water.

Someone was having a mighty fine time. He heard laughter again and

tried to turn his head toward the sound. Pain shot up from the base of

his neck, causing bile to rush to his throat. Ah, Lord, he felt like

hell.

"Looks like he's coming around, Josey. You'd best get on back home

before he starts growling and spewing. You're liable to get your

feelings hurt." Sheriff Tom Norton stared through the bars of the cell

while he addressed his wife of thirty years.

Josey Norton scurried away before Cole could get his eyes focused. It

took him a minute to realize where he was. He gritted his teeth as he

sat up on the narrow cot and swung his legs to the floor. His hands

gripped the mattress and his head dropped to his chest.

He studied the sheriff through bloodshot eyes. Norton was an older man

with weather-beaten skin, a potbelly, and melancholy eyes. He looked

like a harmless hound dog.

"Why am I in jail? " The question was issued in a sharp whisper.

The sheriff leaned against the bars, crossed one ankle over the other,

and smiled. "You broke the law, son."

"How? " "Disturbing the peace."

"What? " "No need to shout. I can see it pained you.

You've got a nice bump on the back of your head, and I don't suppose

yelling is gonna make you feel better. Don't you remember what

happened? " Cole shook his head and immediately regretted it. Pain

exploded behind his eyes.

"I remember being sick."

"Yes, you had the influenza. You were sick with fever for four days,

and my Josey nursed you back to health.

Today was your second day out of bed."

"When did I disturb the peace?

" "When you crossed the street, " he said cheerfully. "It was real

disturbing to me, the way you walked away while I was trying so hard to

convince you to stay in Middleton until the appointment came through.

I gave my word to someone real important that I would keep you here,

son, but you wouldn't cooperate."

"So you hit me over the head."

"Yes, I did, " he admitted. "I didn't see any other way. It wasn't

much of a hit though, just a little thump with the butt of my pistol on

the back of your head. No permanent damage was done, or you wouldn't

be sitting there growling at me.

Besides, I did you a favor." The sheriff's chipper voice was grating

on Cole's nerves. He glared at him and asked, "How do you figure

that?

" "There were two gunslingers waiting for you to get into the street.

Both of them were determined to make you drawţone at a time, of

course.

You were just getting over your sick spell, and even though you won't

admit it, I'd wager a week's pay you weren't well enough to take either

one of them on. The influenza hit you hard, son, and you're only just

now getting your color back. Yes sirree, I did you a favor."

"It's all coming back to me."

"Put it behind you, " he suggested." Cause it's water under the sink

now. The appointment came through, and we had us a nice ceremony right

here in the jail. It seemed kind of odd to file into your cell for a

big do, but the judge didn't mind and it worked out all right. Yes, it

did.

Too bad you had to sleep through the celebration, since you were the

honoree and all. My wife, Josey, made her special yellow cake with

sugar icing. She cut you a nice big piece and left it on the table

over there, " he added with a nod toward the opposite side of the

cell.

"You'd best eat it before the mice get to it.

Cole was becoming more frustrated by the second. Most of what the

sheriff was telling him didn't make any sense. "Answer my questions, "

he demanded. "You said that someone important wanted to keep me

here.

Who was it? " "Marshal Daniel Ryan, that's who. He should be along

any minute now to let you out."

"Ryan's here? That no-good, low-down, thievingţ" "Hold on now. There

ain't no need to carry on.

The marshal told me you've been bearing a grudge against him. He said

it had something to do with a compass and gold case he's been keeping

safe for you." Cole's head was rapidly clearing. "My mother was

bringing me the compass, and Ryan stole it from her. He doesn't have

any intention of giving it back. I'm going to have to take it from

him."

"I think you might be wrong about that, " Norton said with a chuckle.

It was futile to argue with him. Cole decided to save his wrath for

the man who was responsible for locking him up . . . Daniel Ryan. He

couldn't wait to get his hands on him.

"Are you going to let me out of here and give me my guns back? " "I'd

surely like to."

"But? " "But I can't, " the sheriff said. "Ryan's got the keys. I've

got to take some papers across town to the judge, so why don't you sit

tight and eat some cake? I shouldn't be gone long." The sheriff

turned to leave. "One more thing, " he drawled out.

"Congratulations, son. I'm sure you'll do your family proud."

"Wait!

" Cole called out. "Why are you congratulating me? " Norton didn't

answer him. He sauntered into the outer office, and a minute later

Cole heard the front door open and close. He shook his head in

confusion. He didn't know what the old man had been rambling on

about.

Why would he congratulate him?

He glanced around the stark cellţgray walls, gray bars, and gray

floor.

On a three-legged stand in the corner was a grayspeckled basin and a

water jug next to the piece of cake the sheriff's wife had left for

him. The only other adornment was the black spider crawling up the

painted stones of the wall. There was another one hanging from its web

in the barred windowsill high up by the ceiling.

Cole was over six feet tall, but in order to look out, he would have to

stand on a chair. There weren't any inside the cell. He could see a

fragment of the sky, though, and like his temporary home, it too was

gray.

The color fit his mood. He was in a no-win situation. He couldn't

very well shoot Norton, since his wife had nursed him back to health.

The sheriff had probably saved his life, as well, by knocking him out

before the gunslingers had challenged him. Cole remembered the

influenza had left him weak and shaky. He would have died in a

gunfight all right, but damn it all, did Norton have to hit him so

hard? His head still felt as if it had been split in two.

He reached up to rub the knot in the back of his neck, and his right

arm bumped against cold metal. He looked down, then froze when he

realized what he was staring at. A gold case dangled from a chain

someoneţRyan most likelyţhad clipped to the pocket of his leather

vest.

The son of a bitch had finally given him his treasure back. He gently

lifted the precious disk into the palm of his hand and stared at it a

long minute before opening it. The compass was made of brass, not

gold, but it was still finely crafted. The face was white, the letters

red, the dial black. He removed it from its case, smiling as he

watched the dial wobble back and forth before pointing north.

His Mama Rose was going to be pleased to know that he had finally

gotten the gift she'd purchased for him over a year ago. It was a

handsome treasure. He couldn't find a nick or a scratch anywhere.

Ryan had obviously taken good care of it, he grudgingly admitted. He

still wanted to shoot the bastard for keeping it so long, but he knew

he couldn't if he wanted to stay alive a little longerţkilling marshals

was frowned on in the territory, no matter what the reasonţand so Cole

decided to settle on punching him in the nose instead.

Carefully tucking the compass into his vest pocket, he glanced over at

the pitcher and decided to splash some water on his face. His gaze

settled on the piece of cake, and he focused on it while he tried to

sort fact from dream Why were they eating cake in his cell? The

question seemed too complicated to think about now. He stood up so he

could stretch his knotted muscles and was about to take off his vest

when his sleeve caught on something sharp. Pulling his arm free, he

glanced down to see what was jabbing him.

His hands dropped to his knees as he fell back on the cot and stared

down at his left shoulder in disbelief. He was stupefied It had to be

a jokeţbut someone had a real warped sense of humor. Then Sheriff

Norton's words came back to him. The appointment had come through .

.

. Yeah, that's what he'd said . . . And they celebrated . . . Cole

remembered Norton had said that too.

And Cole was the honoree . . .

'{Son of a bitch! " He roared the blasphemy at the silver star pinned

to his vest.

He was a U. S. marshal.

gy the time Sheriff Norton returned to the jail, Cole was seething

with anger. Fortunately, Norton had gotten the keys from Ryan. His

wife, Josey, was with him, and for that reason Cole kept his temper

under control. She carried a tray covered with a

blue-and-white-striped napkin, and as soon as the sheriff swung the

door open, she brought the food inside the cell.

Norton made the introductions. "You two haven't officially met, since

you were burning up with fever every time my Josey got near you.

Josey, this here is Marshal Cole Clayborne. He doesn't know about it

yet, but he's gonna be helping Marshal Ryan chase down that slippery

Blackwater gang of murderers terrorizing the territory. Cole . . .

You don't mind if I get familiar and call you by your first name, do

you? " "No, sir, I don't mind." The sheriff beamed with pleasure.

"That's mighty nice of you, considering the inconvenience you must be

feeling over getting yourself thumped on the head. Anyway, as I was

saying, this pretty lady blushing next to me is my wife, Josey. She

fretted over you something fierce while you were ill. Do you

remember?

" Cole had stood up as soon as Josey entered the cell. He moved

forward, nodded to her in greeting, and said, "Of course I remember.

Ma'am, I appreciate you coming by the hotel and looking after me while

I was so sick. I hope I wasn't too much trouble." Josey was a rather

plain-looking woman, with round shoulders and crooked teeth, but when

she smiled, she lit up the room. Folks tended to want to smile back,

and Cole was no exception. His smile was genuine, as was his

appreciation.

"A lot of people wouldn't have taken the trouble to nurse a stranger, "

he added.

"You weren't any trouble at all, " she replied. "You lost a little

weight, but my chicken ought to put the fat back on you. I brought

some from home."

"My Josey makes mighty fine fried chicken, " Norton interjected with a

nod toward the basket his wife carried.

"I felt I ought to do something to make up for my husband's

orneriness.

Thomas shouldn't have knocked you out the way he did, especially since

you were feeling so puny and all. Does your head pain you? " "No,

ma'am, " he lied.

She turned to her husband. "Those two no-good gunslingers are still

hanging around. I spotted both of them on my way here. One's

squatting north of our avenue and the other's due south. Are you going

to do something about it before this boy gets himself killed? " Norton

rubbed his jaw. "I expect Marshal Ryan will have a talk with them. "

"He doesn't seem the talking type, " Josey replied.

"Ma'am, those gunslingers want me, " Cole said. "I'll talk to them. "

"Son, they don't want to talk. They're itching to build their

reputations, and the only way they can do that is if one of them shoots

you in a draw. Just don't let them aggravate you into doing anything

foolish, " Norton said.

Josey nodded her agreement, then turned to her husband again. "Where

do you want me to lay out the plates? " "It's too stuffy to eat in

here, " Norton said. "Why don't you put it all out on my desk? " Cole

waited until Josey had gone into the outer room before speaking to the

sheriff again. "Where's Ryan? " "He'll be along soon. He was headed

here, but then he got called over to the telegraph office to pick up a

wire. I expect you're anxious to have a word with him." Cole

nodded.

He kept his temper under control by reminding himself that the sheriff

had only done Ryan's bidding. It was the marshal who'd ordered Norton

to keep Cole in town, and it was also the marshal who'd pinned the star

on his vest. Cole had in mind another place for the badge. He thought

he might like to pin it to the center of Ryan's forehead. The thought

so amused him, he smiled.

Josey had removed the papers from the desk and covered it with a

red-and-white tablecloth. There were two chipped china dinner plates,

white with blue butterflies painted on the rims, and two matching

coffee cups. In the center of the desk was a platter of fried chicken

sitting in a thick puddle of grease, along with bowls of boiled turnips

with their hairy roots, like gauze, still wrapped around them,

congealed gravy that resembled day-old biscuit dough, pickled beets,

and black-bottomed rolls.

It was the most unappealing meal Cole had ever seen. His stomach,

still tender from the influenza, lurched in reaction to the smell.

Since Josey had already left, Cole didn't have to be concerned that his

lack of appetite would offend her.

The sheriff took his seat behind the desk and motioned for Cole to pull

up another chair. After pouring coffee for both of them, he leaned

back and pointed to the spread. "I might as well warn you before you

get started. My wife means well, but she never quite got the knack for

cooking. She seems to think she's got to fry everything up in a kettle

of lard. I wouldn't touch that gravy if I were you. It's a killer. "

"I'm really not hungry, " Cole said.

The sheriff laughed. "You're gonna be a mighty fine marshal'cause

you're so diplomatic." Patting his distended belly, he added, "I've

gotten used to my Josey's cooking, but it's taken me close to thirty

years to do it. There was a time or two I thought she was trying to do

me in." Cole drank his coffee while Norton ate two large helpings of

food. When the older man was finished, he restacked the dishes inside

the basket, covered it with his soiled napkin, and stood up.

"I believe I'll mosey on down to Frieda's restaurant and get me a piece

of her pecan pie. You want to come along? " "No, thank you. I'll

wait here for Ryan." One thought led to another.

"What did you do with my guns? " "They're in the bottom drawer of my

desk. That's a right nice gunbelt you've got. It makes it easy to get

to your guns, doesn't it? I expect that's why Marshal Ryan wears

one.

" As soon as the sheriff was out the door, Cole got his gunbelt out and

put it on. All of the bullets for the two six-shooters had been

removed.

He scooped them up, filled the chambers of one gun, and was working on

the second when Norton came rushing back inside.

"I expect Marshal Ryan could use your help. Those two gunslingers are

waiting at both ends of my street, and he's strolling right smack

across the middle. He's gonna get himself killed." Cole shook his

head. "They want me, not Ryan, " he said as he slammed the loading

chamber into place and shoved the gun in his holster.

"But that's the problem, son. Ryan ain't gonna let them have you. If

one of them kills you, then you won't be able to help him get the

Blackwater gang, and he's said more than once he needs your special

kind of help." Cole didn't have the faintest idea what the sheriff was

talking about.

What special kind of help could he give? He guessed he was about to

find out, though. His suggestion that the sheriff remain inside was

met with resistance.

"Son, I can lend a hand. Granted, it's been a while since I've been in

a shoot-out, but I figure it's like drinking out of a cup.

Once you've learned how, you never forget. I used to be considered

quick with a pistol too." Cole shook his head. "Like I said, they

want me, but thanks for the offer." Norton rushed forward to open the

door for him, and before Cole stepped outside, he heard the older man

whisper, "Good luck to you." ţLuck didn't have anything to do with

it.

Years of hard living had prepared Cole for these annoying nuisances.

Cole took everything in at once. The gunslingers were waiting at

opposite ends of the dirt street but he didn't recognize either one of

them. Gunslingers all looked the same to himţGod, how many had there

been, chasing after the empty dream of being the fastest gun in the

West? Dressed alike in leather chaps, the two men shifted from foot to

foot, letting Cole see their eagerness. They weren't boys, which was

going to make killing them easier, Cole supposed. He had already

figured out exactly how he would do it. The plan called for him to hit

the dirtţbut damn, he really hated diving and rolling around in the

mud, especially today, since his stomach was acting so persnickety.

Still, he would do what he had to do in order to survive.

Marshal Ryan was the fly in his ointment, however. The lawman was

standing stock-still in the center of the street, and that would put

him right in the middle of the gunfire.

Cole was about to call out to him when Ryan motioned for him to come

forward. Keeping his hands down and loose at his sides so he wouldn't

spook the eager-to-die gunslingers, he stepped off the boardwalk and

headed for the marshal. His fingers itched to reach for his gun. He

didn't particularly want to shoot the lawman, just hit him on the back

of his head with the butt of a gun so Ryan would have an inkling of the

pain Cole had endured because of his order to keep him in town.

As he sauntered closer, the gunslingers, like rodents afraid of the

light of day but craving the prize between them, edged forward.

Cole decided to ignore them for the moment. He and Ryan were both safe

. . . until one of the gunslingers went for his gun. The challengers

were there to build their reputations, and the only way they could do

that would be to shoot it out in a draw with witnesses watching. Fair

and square. Otherwise, the kill didn't count.

Sheriff Norton peered through the crack of the doorway, watching. He

smiled at the sight before him, for it was something to behold, and

remember. The two marshals, both as big and mean-looking as Goliath,

were sizing each other up like contenders in a boxing ring. They made

a striking pair, just like Josey said. She'd been afraid of Daniel

Ryan when she'd first met him, and later on she'd had the very same

reaction when she met Cole Clayborne, though she did a decent job of

masking it.

The two marshals spooked her, she'd confessed, and Norton remembered

vividly her exact words when she'd tried to explain why she felt the

way she did. "It's in their eyes. They've both got that cold,

piercing stare, like icicles going right through a body. I get the

feeling they're looking into my head and know what I'm thinking before

I do." She also admitted that, in spite of her timidity, she couldn't

help but notice what handsome men they were . . . as long as they

didn't stare directly at her.

Cole shouted to Ryan, drawing the sheriff's full attention.

"Get the hell out of the street, Ryan. You're going to get killed. "

The marshal didn't budge. His eyes narrowed as Cole moved closer.

Cole stopped when he was a couple of feet away. He stared into Ryan's

eyes.

Ryan stared back. He was the first to break the silence. "Are you

thinking about shooting me? " There was a hint of laughter in his

voice Cole didn't particularly like. "The idea crossed my mind, but

I've got other things to worry about now. Unless you want to catch a

stray bullet, I suggest you move."

"Someone's going to die, but it isn't going to be me, " Ryan announced

in a lazy drawl.

"You think you can take both of them? " Cole asked with a nod toward

the gunslinger on his left, who was slowly creeping closer.

"I'll find out soon enough."

"They want me, not you."

"I'm just as fast, Cole."

"No, you're not." Ryan's smile took Cole by surprise, and he would

have asked Ryan why he was so amused if the gunslinger on his right

hadn't shouted at him.

"My name's Eagle, Clayborne, and I'm here to take you out. Turn and

face me, you lily-livered bastard. I'm gonna draw on you, damn your

hide." The competing gunslinger wasn't about to be left out. "My

name's Riley, Clayborne, and I'm the man who's going to kill you. "

The gunslingers Cole had encountered so far had all been stupid. This

pair, he decided, wasnwt the exception.

"I should probably do something about those two, " Ryan said.

"Like what? Are you thinking about arresting them? " "Maybe." His

casual attitude was irritating. "What kind of a marshal are you? " "A

damned good one." Cole clenched his jaw. "You're sure full of

yourself."

"I know my strengths. I know yours, too." Cole's patience was gone.

"Why don't you go on inside with the sheriff, and you can tell me all

about your strengths after I'm finished here."

"Are you telling me to get out of your way? " "Yeah, I am."

"I'm not going anywhere. Besides, I've got a plan, " he said with a

gesture toward one of the gunslingers.

"I've got a plan too, Cole replied.

"Mine's better."

"Is that right? " "Yes. On the count of three, we both drop to the

ground and let them kill each other." In spite of his dark mood, the

picture Ryan painted made Cole grin.

"That would be real nice if it worked, but neither one of them is close

enough to hit the other. Besides, I'd get my new shirt all dirty

dropping to the ground."

"What's your plan? " Ryan asked.

"Kill one, then dive, roll, and kill the other."

"Seems to me you're going to get that brand-new shirt dirty with your

plan too."

"Are you going to get out of my way or not? " "Lawmen stand together,

Cole.

That's a real important rule to remember."

"I'm not a lawman."

"Yes, you are. You should be sworn in, but that's only a formality."

"You've got a twisted sense of humor, Ryan.

You know that? I'm not going to be a marshal."

"You already are, " Ryan explained patiently.

"Why? " "I need your help."

"I think maybe you don't understand how I feel. I'm fighting the urge

to shoot you, you son of a bitch. You kept my compass for over a

year." Ryan wasn't at all intimidated by Cole's threat. "It took that

long for the appointment to come through.

" "What appointment? " "I couldn't just pin a badge on you, " Ryan

said. "The appointment came from Washington." Cole shook his head.

"They're moving in on us, " Ryan said. He rolled his eyes in Eagle's

direction. "Do you know either of them? " "No."

"I'll take the one at five o'clock." Cole started to turn, then

stopped. "Your five or mine? " "Mine, " Ryan answered.

They each turned to face an approaching gunfighter, then slowly stepped

backward, stopping when they were shoulder to shoulder.

"Don't shoot to kill."

"You gotta be joking." Ryan ignored the comment. He shouted to the

gunslingers to put their hands in the air and walk, slow and easy,

toward him, but Eagle and Riley stayed where they were with their right

hands hovering above their guns.

"If you miss Riley, his bullet is going to go through you and hit me, "

Cole said.

"I never miss."

"Arrogant bastard, " Cole whispered just as Eagle went for his gun.

Cole reacted with lightning speed. The gunfighter didn't even get his

weapon out of his holster before a bullet stabbed through the palm of

his hand.

Ryan fired at the same time. He shot the gun out of Riley's hand just

as he was bringing his weapon up. The bullet cut through his wrist.

Keeping their guns trained on their targets, the two marshals strode

forward. Ryan reached Riley first. He removed his weapons, ignoring

the man's squeals of agony, and prodded him toward Sheriff Norton's

jail.

Eagle was bellowing like a wounded boar. Much to Cole's frustration,

he wouldn't stand still, but danced around in a gyrating jig.

"You ruined my shooting hand, Clayborne. You ruined my shooting hand,

" he screeched.

"I heard you the first time, " Cole grumbled. "Stand still, damn it.

I'm taking your guns." Eagle wouldn't comply, and Cole quickly tired

of chasing him. He let out a sigh, grabbed hold of the gunslinger by

his collar, and slammed his fist into his jaw, knocking him

unconscious. He continued to hold him up until he'd removed his gun,

then let him drop to the ground.

Gripping the scruff of his neck, he dragged him to Norton.

The sheriff was beaming at the two marshals from the boardwalk. "Guess

I'll have to go get the doc to patch them two up, " he remarked.

"Guess so, " Cole replied.

The sheriff rushed back inside, snatched his keys off the desktop, and

hurried on to unlock two cells. A moment later, the gunfighters were

pushed inside.

There wasn't time for the sheriff's congratulations, for no sooner had

the cell door slammed shut than Ryan was called outside by the

telegraph clerk. When Cole joined him on the boardwalk, one look at

the marshal told Cole something bad had happened. He was surprised

when Ryan handed the wire to him.

Cole read the contents while Ryan gave the news to Sheriff Norton.

"There's been another robbery." His voice was flat.

Norton shook his head. "How many dead this time? " "Seven. will

"Where did it happen? " Norton asked.

"Rockford Falls."

"That ain't far from here. I can tell you how to get there."

"How far is it? " "About forty miles over some rough terrain."

"You might want to keep your eyes open in case any of them pass through

here again. I doubt they will, " Ryan added. "They've already hit

this bank. Cole, are you riding with me? " He shook his head and

handed the wire back to Ryan. "It's not my problem." Ryan said

nothing. Squinting against the sunlight, his eyes narrowed and his

brow wrinkled into a frown. Suddenly he grabbed hold of Cole's vest

and shoved him backward off his feet. Before Cole could recover and

retaliate his fingers were flexing into a fist Ryan stole his thunder

by apologizing.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. I let my temper get the upper

hand. Look, you're right. You didn't ask for any of this, and the

robberies aren't your problem. They're mine. I just thought . . .

hoped, anyway . . . that you would want to help. I won't accept your

resignation, though. You're going to have to ride to the regional

office and surrender your badge to the marshal there. Sheriff Norton

will give you the directions. I've got to get going to Rockford Falls

before the trail grows cold. No hard feelings? " he asked as he put

his hand out.

Cole shrugged and shook Ryan's hand. "No hard feelings." Ryan headed

for the stable at a run. Cole watched him leave and then followed the

sheriff inside the jail to find out where in tarnation the regional

office was located.

"If it isn't close-by, I'm sending the badge back, " he told the

sheriff.

Norton sat down heavily behind his desk and stacked his hands on top of

his papers. "I don't think Marshal Ryan will cotton to that idea.

Those badges are considered sacred, son. I wouldn't get him riled up

if I was you. He went to considerable trouble getting you appointed,

and it sure seems peculiar to me that he didn't want to argue with you

a little more. He gave up easy, didn't he? " "I don't know Ryan well

enough to judge, " he replied.

"You sure you want to give the badge up? " "I'm sure. I'm not cut out

to be a lawman."

"You thinking you ought to be a gunslinger? Some folks think there

ain't no difference at all between a marshal and a gunman."

"I'm just a rancher, nothing more."

"Then why are so many gunslingers coming after you? Like it or not,

you got yourself a reputation for being fast. Those boys ain't gonna

quit chasing after glory. It seems to me the only way you can change

your future is to hold on to that badge. Some gunslingers will think

twice before taking on a U. S. marshal."

"Some won't, " Cole argued. "Are you going to tell me where the

regional office is or not? " Norton ignored the question. "I'm gonna

tell the facts to you plain and simple is what I'm gonna do. Marshal

Ryan didn't nag you into doing the right thing, so I guess I ought to,

and you're gonna have to be polite and listen to me because I'm old

enough to be your father and age gives me the advantage. We got us a

terrible problem with this Blackwater gang running over our territory,

and since you happen to live inside the boundaries, I'd say it was your

problem too. Not too long ago our little bank got robbed and we lost

us some good friends. They were decent, law-abiding folks who just had

the bad luck of being inside the bank at the time. Every one of them

was killed like a dog. We had us a witness too. His name was Luke

MacFarland, but he didn't last long.

" "Sheriff, I'm sorry about what happened, but I don't" Norton cut him

off. "Luke got shot up when the robbery was going on, and he wasn't

even inside the bank at the time. He was just passing by on the

boardwalk, which was another piece of bad luck all right. Still, the

doc had him mending. He would have recovered the doc said so and he

did see a couple of faces through the crack in the shades of the

bank.

He would have made a good witness when those no-good bastards got

caught."

"What happened to him? " "Luke got his neck sliced like a bow tie,

that's what happened to him.

His wife got cut too. They were both sleeping in their bed, but I

think maybe one of them woke up. You should have seen that room,

son.

There was more blood than paint on those walls. I ain't never gonna

forget it.

Their little boys saw it too. The oldest, just ten last month,

found them. He ain't never gonna be the same." The story struck a

nerve deep inside Cole. He leaned against the side of the desk, his

gaze directed outside, as he thought about the children. What a hell

of a nightmare for a child to see. What would happen to that little

boy now) Or the other ones? Who would take care of them? How would

they survive? Would they be split up and shipped to various relatives,

or would they take to the streets, the way he had when he was a

youngster? Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Ryan on a black

horse riding at a gallop down the main street. He hoped the marshal

would catch the monsters who had made those children orphans. In one

night, their lives had been changed forever.

He turned back when the sheriff spoke again. "There was no call to

kill those two, no call at all. You know what Ryan said? " "No,

what's that? " Cole asked.

"That it was a miracle they didn't kill those little boys. If one of

them had come into the room while they were butchering, they would have

killed him for sure . . . the others too."

"What's going to happen to them? " "The boys? " The sheriff looked

bleak, disheartened. "My Josey and me offered to take them all, but

the relatives back east said they'd give them a home. I think they're

gonna farm them out between them. That doesn't seem right to me.

Brothers ought to stay together.

" Cole agreed with a pensive nod.

"I got my own opinion why they killed Luke's wife. Want to hear it? "

"Sure."

"I think they were sending folks a message." His voice dropped to a

whisper of confidentiality as he continued. "Word gets around fast,

and anyone who might see something or hear something in the future is

gonna think long and hard before stepping forward.

Witnesses don't survive.

That's the message."

"They're bound to make a mistake one of these days."

"Son, that's what everyone is hoping will happen. I'm praying it

happens soon, cause a lot of good people have died, and not just men,

but women and children too. Those men are gonna burn in hell for what

they've done."

"They've killed children? " "I heard about one little girl that got

killed. She was in the bank with her mama. Of course it could just be

speculation. I asked Ryan about it, but he got a real strange look in

his eyes and went out the door without answering me, so I don't know if

it's true or not. The marshal sure has his hands full, " he concluded

with a shake of his head.

"Are you thinking about heading back to your ranch? " "Right now I'm

headed for Texas to bring some steers back. The regional office better

be on the way orţ" Norton wouldn't let him finish. "I got a little

favor to ask you." He put his hand up to ward off any interruption and

hastily added, "I know I don't have the right, since I went and knocked

you over the head.

Still, I'm compelled to ask."

"What is it you want? " "Hold on to your badge until tomorrow before

you make up your mind.

It's already going on dusk, so you don't have to wait long. In the

morning, if you're still determined to give the badge back, then I'll

be happy to tell you the fastest way to get to the regional office.

With that fancy compass, you won't have any trouble finding it. Now,

don't shake your head at me. At least consider it, and while you're at

it, answer another question for me."

"What? " Cole asked with a bit more surliness than he intended.

"Why do you suppose Ryan went and shoved you the way he did before he

took off? " "Frustration, " Cole answered.

The sheriff grinned like a big cat sitting in a tub of cream. "You

wanted to hit him, didn't you? I saw you make a fist, andţyes, son, I

didţand I saw something else happening too, but never you mind about

that. You showed considerable restraint, " he added. "And Marshal

Ryan did apologizeţI heard it with my own earsţbut now I'm wondering to

myself if he was apologizing for shoving you or maybe something else

he'd done." Before Cole could ask him to explain what he was

chattering on about, the sheriff pushed the topic around to the badge

again.

"Will you stay on tonight? I'll treat you and Josey to supper at

Frieda's fancy restaurant, and if you ride out now, you won't get far

before dark hits. If I were you, I'd want to spend one more night

sleeping between clean sheets before I headed out on such a long

trip.

Come morning, I'll give you the directions you're wanting and you can

be on your way lickety-split. Course you'll probably want to go on

over to Rockford Falls first. It ain't too far away from here." Cole

raised an eyebrow. "Why would I want to go to Rockford Falls? "

Norton chuckled. "To get your compass back." The town of Rockford

Falls was reeling with shock. In the past two days, they had lost

eight of their finest citizens and one who wasn't quite so fine but who

mattered to all of them just the same.

Influenza was responsible for two deaths. The epidemic had been

gathering strength during the past week, striking down half the

population. The old and the young were hit hardest, Adelaide Westcott,

a spry seventy-eight-year-old spinster who still had all of her own

teeth and who never had a cranky word to say about anyone, and sweet

little eight-month-old Tobias Dollen, who had inherited his father's

big ears and his mother's smile, both died within an hour of one

another of what Doc Lawrence called complications.

The town mourned the loss, and those who could get out of bed attended

the funerals, while those who couldn't leave their chamber pots for

more than five-minute intervals prayed for their souls at home.

Adelaide and Tobias were buried on Wednesday morning in the cemetery

above Sleepy Creek Meadow. That afternoon, six men were brutally

murdered during a robbery at the bank. The seventh man to die and the

last to be noticed was Bowlegged Billie Buckshot, the town drunk, who,

it was speculated, was on his way from his dilapidated shack on the

outskirts of town to the Rockford Saloon to fetch his breakfast.

Billie was a creature of habit. He always started his day around three

or four in the afternoon, and he always cut through the alley between

the bank and the general store, thereby shortening his travel by two

full streets. Because he was found cradling his rusty gun in his arms,

it was assumed by Sheriff Sloan that he had had the misfortune to run

into the gang as they were pouring out of the bank's rear exit. It was

also assumed that the poor man never stood a chance.

Every one knew that until he had his first wake-up drink of the day,

his hands shook like an empty porch swing in a windstorm. Six hours

was a long time to go without whiskey when your body craved it the way

Billie's did. He wasn't shot like the others, though. A knife had

been used on him, and judging from the number of stab wounds on his

face and neck, whoever had done it had thoroughly enjoyed his work.

As luck would have it, no one heard the gunshots or saw the robbers

leaving the bank, perhaps because more than half the town was home in

bed. Folks who wanted to get out for some fresh air waited until the

sun was easing down to do so. Those few strolling down the boardwalk

certainly noticed Billie curled up like a mangy old dog in the alley,

but none of them gave him a second glance. It was a sight everyone was

used to seeing. They figured the town drunk had simply passed out

again.

Yet another precious hour passed that could have been used tracking the

killers. Heavy clouds moved in above the town and rumbles of thunder

were heard gathering in the distance. Emmeline MacCorkle, still weak

and gray-faced from influenza, was nagged by her mother to accompany

her to the bank to find out why Sherman MacCorkle thought he could be

late for supper. Sherman's wife was in a snit. She caused quite a

commotion banging on the front door of the bank, drawing curious

glances, and when it wasn't promptly answered, she dragged her daughter

around to the back door. Neither Emmeline nor her mother looked down

at the curled-up drunk. Their disdain evident, they kept their noses

in the air and stared straight ahead. Emmeline had to lift her skirt

to step over Billie's feet, which were sticking out from the filthy

tarp she thought he was using as a cover. She did so without giving

him so much as a fleeting glance. Once they had rounded the corner,

her mother unlatched her grip on her daughter's arm, flung the door

open, and marched inside shouting her husband's name. Emmeline meekly

followed.

Their blood-curdling screams were heard as far away as the cemetery,

and folks came running to find out what was happening. Those who saw

the grizzly tableau inside the lobby, before Sheriff Sloan could get

there and seal the doors, would never be the same. John Cletchem, the

photographer the sheriff summoned to take pictures for posterity,

became so sick at the eerie sight, that he had to keep running outside

to throw up in the street. Two of the victims, Franklin Carroll and

Malcolm Watterson, had been shot simultaneously and had fallen into

each other.

They were both still on their knees and appeared to be embracing, with

their heads drooping over each other's shoulder.

Daniel Ryan had a near riot on his hands when he rode into town at five

minutes past one the following afternoon. Because of a torrential

downpour, the journey had taken longer than expected. Sheriff Sloan

met him in front of the bank, gave him the details, and then unlocked

the door and followed him inside.

The bodies hadn't been removed from the lobby. If Ryan was sickened by

the sight before him, he didn't show it. He slowly walked around the

scene and stared down at the dead from every possible angle. There was

only one telltale sign that he was affected. His hands were in fists

at his sides.

In a strangled whisper, Sloan said, "I didn't know if I should let the

bodies be taken out or leave them alone for you to see. Did I do the

right thing? " Before Ryan could answer him, the sheriff continued.

"There was another body found in the alley next to the bank. His name

was Billie, and he was the town drunk. They used a knife on him, and

before I could tell the funeral men to leave him be, they carted him

off and put him in the ground. I had pictures taken of these poor men,

but Billie was already gone, so I didn't get any pictures of him. "

The stench was getting to him. Sloan held a handkerchief over his

mouth and nose to block the smell. He couldn't make himself look at

his friends, but stared at the ceiling instead. "I don't want the

families of these men to see . . . " Sloan couldn't go on. He gagged,

spun around, and clawed at the doorknob. Ryan had to turn it for

him.

The sheriff ran outside, doubled over in front of the crowd that had

gathered, and threw up in the street.

Returning to his inspection, Ryan squatted down next to one of the

bodies to get a closer look at a bullet he'd spotted half buried in the

floorboard. He could still hear Sloan's retching outside when the door

opened again, letting in another blessed whiff of fresh air. Cole came

striding inside. Ryan turned to him and waited for a reaction.

Cole wasn't prepared for what he saw. As though he'd just run headlong

into a stone wall, he staggered back and whispered, "Ah . . . Lord. "

"Are you going to run, or are you going to stay? " Ryan demanded.

Cole didn't answer. Ryan's eyes were blazing with fury now. "Take a

good look, Cole. Any of these men could have been one of your

brothers.

Tell me, how often do they go into a bank? Or your mother? Or your

sister? " he taunted in a voice that lashed out like a whip.

Cole shook his head and continued to stare at the two corpses on their

knees leaning into one another. He couldn't look away.

"Don't you dare tell me this isn't your problem, " Ryan said. "I've

made it your problem by getting you appointed marshal.

YO Like it or not, you aren't walking away from this. You're going to

help me catch the bastards." Cole didn't say a word. He was fighting

the urge to join the sheriff outside, yet at the same time he could eel

his anger fueling to a rage.

No one should have to die like this. No one.

He wouldn't allow himself to be sick. If he turned his back on these

men and ran outside, he would be committing a blasphemy. He couldn't

reason his reaction. He just knew it would be wrong for him to be

repulsed by them.

He shook his head as if to clear his thoughts, then slowly moved away

from the door and walked around the circle of dead. Ryan watched him

closely.

Another minute passed in silence, and then Cole said, "I don't know how

many of them were in here, but I'm pretty sure several men did the

shooting."

"How do you figure that? " Ryan asked.

"Powder burns and the angle of the bullets." He pointed to two of the

bodies and whispered, "The bullet came through the back of this man's

head, went out through his forehead and into the neck of the man facing

him. The same thing happened with those two. They were playing a

game, " he added. "Trying to kill two with one bullet. You already

figured that out, didn't you? " Ryan nodded. "Yes."

"The robbery was yesterday. Why v. ^eren't these bodies buried? "

"The sheriff thought he should leave them here for us to see. I have a

feeling he hasn't been a lawman long." Cole shook his head again.

"There's a funeral cart outside. These people need to be buried."

"Then order it done, " Ryan challenged.

Cole turned to go outside, but stopped with his hand on the doorknob.

"Whenever I'm away from the ranch, I work alone."

"You don't work alone any longer."

"I should warn you. I do things different . . .

Some of it won't be legal."

"I figured as much, " Ryan replied.

He followed Cole outside and stood by him on the boardwalk while Cole

ordered the crowd to back away so the funeral cart could be pulled

closer. The body collector, a moonfaced man with hunched shoulders,

stepped forward. Cole told him that he wanted the bodies covered with

sheets before they were carried out.

The reporter for the Rockford Falls newspaper objected to the order.

"We want to see them, " he shouted. "Why do they have to be covered

with sheets? " Cole wanted to punch the ghoulish curiosity seeker.

With effort, he resisted the impulse and said, "They wouldn't want to

be remembered this way." The reporter wouldn't let up. "They're dead,

" he shouted. "How do you know what they want? " A woman in the crowd

started crying. Cole looked at Ryan, waiting for him to answer, but

the marshal ignored him and kept his gaze directed on the men and women

in the street.

"Yes, they're dead, " Cole shouted back. "And now the law becomes

their voice. Get the damned sheets." Ryan nodded his agreement. He

pulled the compass out of his pocket and handed it to Cole. "You just

became a lawman." at took over an hour to remove the six bodies.

Because of the heat, rigor mortis had set in rapidly, and the owner of

the funeral parlor had a hell of a time getting the two men who had

died on their knees wrapped up and carried out.

The men who were assisting him whispered while they worked. Cole

wasn't certain if they kept their voices low out of respect for the

dead or if they were just plain spooked, but one of them started

gagging and had to run outside when the funeral director worried out

loud that if the families wanted to bury the men that day, he would

have to either build two special coffins to accommodate the bent knees,

or cut off their legs. One day's delay would ensure that the

troublesome rigor mortis would have worn off. And if he sealed the

coffins tight, no one would notice the smell.

The floor near the center of the lobby where the bodies had knelt was

black. Blood had seeped into the dry wood, and it was there to stay.

Not even lye would remove the stains.

Ryan questioned Sloan for a while before he searched through the

president's office and behind the tellers' counter.

He collected the papers, put them in a box he'd found, and carried them

over to an old, ink-stained desk in front of the windows. While Cole

roamed around the bank, trying to figure out exactly how, why, and when

it all happened, Ryan sat on the edge of the desk and began to read.

Sloan stood by the door, fidgeting.

Ryan finally noticed him. "Is something bothering you, Sheriff? " he

asked, without looking up from the document he was scanning.

"I was thinking I ought to get another posse together and go looking

for the gang again. We had to disband last night when it got so

dark.

The trail's going to get cold if I wait much longer."

"That's a good idea, " Ryan said. "Why don't you take charge and see

to it."

"I figure I should pick the men I want to ride with me, like I did

yesterday before you got here." Ryan shrugged. "You know these people

better than I do. I don't want to hear you did anything stupid though,

like stringing someone up because you think he might have been

involved. If you catch anyone, you bring him back here."

"I can't control an entire posse. Folks know what happened here.

Someone mightţ" Ryan cut him off. "You will control them, Sheriff. "

Sloan nodded. "I'll try."

"That isn't good enough. No one takes the law into his own hands. You

got that? If any of your friends thinks otherwise, you shoot the son

of a bitch." Ryan expected Sloan to leave, but he stayed where he

was.

His face turned bright red, and he shuffled from foot to foot as he

stared down at the floor.

"Was there something else? " Ryan asked.

"It seems to me . . . and a lot of folks in town . . . that I ought

to be in charge of this investigation." Ryan cast Cole a quick glance

to see how he was reacting to the sheriff's claim.

"How do you figure that? " Ryan asked.

"I'm the sheriff in Rockford Falls, so this is my jurisdiction, not

yours. Like I said before, I ought to be in charge and you two should

be taking orders from me."

"You think you could do a better job? " "I maybe could."

"You can't even look at the stains on the floor, " Ryan said. "What

makes you think you canţ" "It's my jurisdiction, " Sloan stubbornly

insisted.

Ryan's patience was all used up. "Marshal Clayborne and I are here by

special appointment, and I don't particularly care if you've got a

problem with that or not. Stay out of our way, " he ordered harshly.

"Now, go get your posse together." Cole listened to the exchange

without saying a word. He waited until the sheriff left, then crossed

the lobby to the windows and opened one.

A clean, sweet breeze, tinged with the scent of pines, brushed over his

arms and neck. He took several deep breaths to rid himself of the

metallic smell of blood inside the bank, and then turned around and

leaned against the ledge.

He stared at Ryan's back. "It rained hard last night and most of this

morning, " he remarked.

"Yeah, I know. I got soaked."

"There isn't going to be a trail this afternoon. It's been washed

away." Ryan glanced over his shoulder.

"I know that too. I just wanted to get rid of Sloan." Cole folded his

arms across his chest and leaned back. "The men who did this are long

gone." Ryan nodded. "Wires were sent to every lawman in the territory

yesterday. By now all the main roads are being watched.

There are also men at the train stations and the river. The bastards

will still get through the net, though. They're slick, real slick. "

He let the paper he'd been reading drop down to the desk and turned

around to face Cole.

"You know what I used to be worried about? " "What's that? " Ryan's

voice lowered. "That they'd stop and I wouldn't be able to catch

them.

" Cole shook his head. "They aren't going to stop." Nodding toward

the bloodstains, he added in a whisper, "They're having too much fun.

" "Yeah, I think you're right. They've developed a real taste for

killing."

"How many banks have they robbed? " "This makes almost a dozen."

"They've gotten away twelve times? " "They're either very lucky or

very smart."

"Where and when was the first robbery? " "It happened late spring two

years ago. They robbed a bank in TexasţBlackwater, Texas, to be

exact.

That's how they got their name.

" "The Blackwater gang, " Cole said.

"Yes, " Ryan said. "Anyway, they went in during the night with

kerosene and burned the building to the ground when they left. No one

saw anything."

"Was anyone killed? " "No, " Ryan answered. "Then, two weeks later,

they hit another bank in Hollister, Oklahoma. Once again, they went in

during the night, but they didn't use kerosene."

"Did they tear up the place? " Ryan shook his head. "They were nice

and tidy. They didn't touch anything but the money, and they didn't

leave any evidence behind."

"How do you know the two robberies were related? " "Gut feeling

mostly, " Ryan said. "There were a couple of similarities.

As I said before, they went in during the night, and in both cases,

government money had just been deposited for the army salaries at the

nearby forts."

"Where was the third bank? " "Pelton, Kansas, " Ryan answered. "They

changed the way they did things with that robbery.

They went in at closing time, just like they did here. There were

seven people inside. Two were killed. The shooting started when one

of the employees went for his gun. He died gripping it in his hand,

but he didn't get a shot off."

"So you did have witnesses? " "Yes, but they weren't helpful. They

said the men wore masks and that only one did all the talking. They

said he had a southern drawl."

"How many men did they say came into the bank? " "Seven."

"And they were after army payroll again? " "Yes." Cole filed the

information away.

Then he asked, "Where did they strike next? " "They went back to

Texas, " Ryan answered, "and robbed a bank in Dillon."

"That's your hometown, isn't it? " Ryan looked startled. Cole quickly

explained.

"I did a halfhearted search for you when you took the compass from my

mother."

"What else did you find out? " Cole shrugged. "Nothing much. Was

anyone killed in the robbery in Dillon? " he asked, switching the

topic back to the more pressing matter.

"Yes." His voice turned harsh, angry. "Too damned many." Cole

waited, but Ryan didn't give him any particulars. When Cole prodded

him for details, he became agitated.

"Look, it's all in the files. I've gone through them at least a

hundred times, but maybe when you read the reports, you'll find

something I missed. The bank in Dillon was the last one they hit that

year. They lay low in the fall and winter months, then start in again

in the spring and summer months. It's sporadic, yet consistent, " he

added. "Last year they moved north and became even more violent, and

this year, all three banks they've robbed have been in Montana

Territory."

"Probably because there are so many places to hide."

"Yes. I think so too. They've stayed away from the big cities."

"Sheriff Norton told me about the witness you had in Middleton." Ryan

nodded. "Luke MacFarland was his name. He happened to be walking past

the bank during the robbery. He told me he heard gunshots, but that he

was already looking in through the space between the window and the

shades because of something else he heard."

"What was that? " "Laughter." Cole wasn't shocked. "I told you they

enjoy their work.

It's going to get much worse unless you stop them."

"Unless we stop them, " Ryan corrected. "You're in this now."

"Yeah, I guess I am.

Did Luke tell you how the people inside died? Did they make them kneel

down? " "No, they were taken into the back room and killed there. The

kneeling . . . that's new. So is the knife." Ryan reached up and

began to rub the knot in the back of his neck.

"Damn, I'm tired." Cole could see how exhausted Ryan was. "You

shouldn't have slept outside in the rain. You're too old for it. "

Ryan smiled. "I'm only a year older than you are."

"How do you know my age? " "I know everything there is to know about

you." If Cole was surprised by the comment, he didn't let it show.

"Why didn't you protect your witness in Middleton? " "I sure as hell

tried to protect him. Honest to God I did, but another robbery was

reported over in Hartfield, and I left to check it out.

Marshal Davidson was put in charge of Luke MacFarland and his family.

" "Besides telling you that he heard laughter, what else did Luke

say?

" "He could only see two men through the seam. One of them took his

mask off, and Luke got a glimpse at his profile. He didn't think he

could point him out in a crowd, though. He did say he was tall,

lean.

" "Anything else? " "No."

"What was Marshal Davidson doing while his witness was being killed? "

"He'd already gotten hit. He's going to recover, but it will take a

long time. The doctor dug three bullets out of him."

"They wouldn't have left him unless they thought they'd killed him."

"Yes, that's what I think."

"Sheriff Norton told me how MacFarland and his wife were killed. A

knife was used on both of them. He thinks they murdered his wife to

send folks a message. He says you're going to have a hell of a time

getting anyone to admit he saw anything. Word travels fast in the

territory."

"Did Norton happen to tell you anything about his background? " "No,

he didn't.

Why do you ask? " "Just curious. Have you ever heard of a gunslinger

named the Laredo Kid? " "Sure, " Cole answered. "He was a legend when

I was growing up. Every one knew what a daredevil he was . . . crazy,

but fast with a gun. Real fast. He's probably dead by now. Did

Norton kill him? " Ryan smiled. "The Laredo Kid isn't dead. Fact is,

he became a sheriff."

"Norton is . . . ? " Cole was incredulous.

"I swear it's true."

"He should have been killed years ago. There's always someone faster

with a gun waiting to prove himself. He's lucky he's still alive."

"I agree, especially with that wife of his cooking for him. Did she

make you eat her fried chicken? It damn near killed me." Cole burst

out laughing. He was surprised how good it felt.

The tension in his gut eased up a little. "She tried, " he admitted.

"But I didn't touch it." Ryan also relaxed, until he looked at the

bloodstained floors again. It was a sobering sight.

"You've had time to look around. Tell me what you think happened. "

The laughter was gone from Cole's eyes when he answered.

"I'll tell you what I know didn't happen. None of them fought. There

aren't any signs of a struggle. Hell, they were as meek as sheep.

There are guns in all three cash drawers behind the windows, " he said

with a tilt of his head toward the tellers' stations. "They're loaded,

but they haven't been touched. Now, you tell me something, Ryan. Why

did you come after me? There are better men out there to wear this

badge."

"I wanted you."

"Why? " "It's complicated."

"That's an excuse, not an answer." Ryan sent the chair flying backward

when he stood up and leaned against the desk. Both men ignored the

crash that followed as the chair struck the wall, their gazes were

fixed on each other.

A long minute passed in silence before Ryan made up his mind. "All

right, I'll tell you why I chose you for the job. A long time ago I

started getting curious about you when I heard about the trouble you

ran into down near Abilene and how you handled it."

"I'm sure the story was exaggerated."

"No, it wasn't. I checked it out. You knew what they were going to do

to that woman, and youţ" "Like I said, " Cole interrupted, "the story

was exaggerated."

"You shot through her to get him." "I shot through her arm, that's

all. The bullet didn't touch bone. She only got a nick."

"But that same bullet killed him.

" "He needed to die." 'I can give you at least twenty other

examples.

" "I'm good with a gun. So what? " "You want the best reason of

all?

" "Yes."

"You think like they do."

"Like who? " "The bastards who came in here and killed all those

people."

"Son of a bitch! " Cole roared. "Do you think I could do something

like this? " Ryan diffused his anger. "No, I don't think you could do

something like this. I said you think like they do. You can get into

their minds, Cole.

I've tried, but I can't do it."

"You're nuts, Ryan."

"Maybe, but I need a man who won't hesitate and who doesn't mind

bending the law in certain situations. I also have to trust him, and I

trust you."

"How do you know you can trust me? " "All the stories you say didn't

happen. I rode with your mother on the train to Salt Lake, and she

told me all sorts of saintly things about you only a mother could

believe. Does she know how ruthless you can be? " Cole refused to

answer the question.

Ryan plunged ahead. "She thinks you're headed in the wrong

direction.

That's why she gave you the compass."

"The compass you kept for over a year." Ryan shrugged. She also told

me the compass was to remind you to stay on the right path. The way I

see it, I'm helping you do just that."

"I'm not ruthless."

"When the situation calls for it, you are. I also heard about

Springfield."

"Ah, hell."

"Are you going to help me or not? " Cole had already made his

decision. The sight of those bodies would stay in his mind for a long,

long time, and he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep at night unless he

helped find the men who had committed this atrocity. He simply

couldn't walk away.

"I want to get all of them, " he whispered. "I'll keep the badge, but

as soon as this is over, I'm giving it back."

"You might decide to stay on."

"Maybe, " was all he would allow. "Are there any special rules for

marshals? I never was one for rules, " he warned.

"Marshals are assigned to territories, but you and I are theexception

because we're on special duty. As for the rules, you don't need to

worry about them. It's all common-sense stuff anyway. Marshals can't

be tried for murder, you know." He told the lie with a straight

face.

Cole laughed. "That rule will come in handy." Ryan stood up and

rolled his shoulders to work the stiffness out. "Why don't you go

through this box while I go in the back and look through the drawers

again." Ryan had already headed toward the president's office when

Cole called out to him. "What am I looking for? " "The names of the

people who did their banking yesterday. Sloan told me that the

president insisted his tellers keep accurate records. They were

ordered to write down the name of every customer they helped."

"Once we make the list of the names, then what? " Cole asked.

"We talk to all of them because one might have noticed something out of

the ordinary."

"Has that ever happened before? " "No, but we still have to ask.

Those bastards are going to slip up one of these days.

Maybe one of them came into the bank earlier to look it over. "

"That's wishful thinking, Ryan."

"Yeah, I know, but we still have to go through the routine. We have to

cover all the possibilities. From the looks of all these stacks of

paper, there were quite a few customers yesterday. It's going to take

us the rest of the day to go through them." They divided the stacks

between them. Ryan went back into the president's office to work

there. Cole stayed out in the lobby. He searched through the top

drawer of the ink-stained desk for a notepad and pencil so that he

could make his list, found what he needed, and put them on the

desktop.

He was on his way to get the chair Ryan had kicked over when a glimpse

of blue on the floor under the desk's kneehole caught his attention.

"We're going to have to go through everything in here at least three

times, " Ryan warned. "Just in case we miss something the first and

second time around."

"We'll be here a week, " Cole shouted back as he bent down on one knee

and reached inside the kneehole. He pulled out a pale blue bag with a

blue-and-white satin string.

He opened it and looked inside. There wasn't anything there, just blue

satin lining. Cole stared at the thing for several seconds, then

called out, "Hey, Ryan, do you know who works at this desk? " "Yes, "

Ryan shouted back. He was seated at the president's desk, methodically

going through the contents in the top drawer. "I've got the name

written down in my notes."

"Do you remember if it is a man or a woman? " Something in Cole's

voice caught Ryan's attention. He glanced up, saw him down on one

knee, and called out, "A man sits there."

"Was he one of the men killed? " "No. He was home sick yesterday."

Cole stuck his head into the opening. "Well . . . well, " he

whispered.

"Did you find something? " Ryan shouted.

"Maybe, " Cole answered. "Then again, maybe not." He stood up and

turned to Ryan. "Do you happen to know how often this place gets

cleaned? " "That's the first question I asked Sloan, since we also

have to go through the trash. According to him, MacCorkle was obsessed

about keeping the place spotless. He had it cleaned every night and

inspected every nook and cranny in the morning. All the trash in the

bins is from yesterday's business."

"You're positive it was cleaned Tuesday night? " Ryan stopped what he

was doing and walked back to the lobby. He spotted the wad of blue

fabric in Cole's hand.

"Yeah, I'm sure. Why? What have you got? " "A possibility."

"A possibility of what? " Cole smiled. "A witness." hree women had

been inside the bank between the hours of one and three o'clock in the

afternoon on the day of the robbery. Cole and Ryan knew that was fact,

not speculation, because of Sherman MacCorkle's taskmaster rules. Just

as the sheriff had told Ryan, the president of the bank had demanded

that every transactionţeven change for a dollar billţbe recorded by

name on a piece of paper and filed in the cash drawer. If the figures

on the papers didn't balance with the money in the drawer, the teller

had to make up the difference. MacCorkle had also insisted that each

day's tallies be separated into the morning and afternoon hours. The

receipts for Wednesday morning's transactions were still on MacCorkle's

desk in three neat piles. There was also an open filing cabinet behind

MacCorkle's desk filled with documents, loan applications, mortgages,

and records of foreclosures. Every piece had a date on top.

God love Sherman MacCorkle for being such a stickler for details.

With all the interruptions, it took until evening to sort out all the

names. In all, twenty-nine men and women had come into the bank that

day. Eighteen had taken care of their business during the morning

hours, and none of them were women. The bank had been closed for lunch

from noon until one o'clock, and that afternoon, eleven people had come

inside, and of those eleven, three were women.

One of them had left her bag behind.

Ryan and Cole were cautious about the discovery and decided in hushed,

urgent voices to keep the possibility of a witness to themselves for

the time being.

"We could be jumping the gun on this, " Cole warned. "In fact, we

probably are."

"Yeah, but I got a feeling . . . " "Me too, " Cole whispered. "The

thing is. . . it could have been under the desk for weeks."

"We should talk to the couple who cleans the place right away. I've

got their names and address somewhere in my notes, " Ryan said as he

flipped through the pages of his notepad. "Here it is.

Mildred and Edward Stewart. They live over on Currant Street. Let's

go talk to them now. I want to get out of here for a few minutes and

get some fresh air."

"It's past nine, " Cole said. "They might be in bed." He was already

moving toward the front door as he reminded Ryan of the time. They

locked the door on their way out and walked over to the Stewarts'

cottage on the outskirts of town. The couple's daughter opened the

door for them and explained that her parents were working.

They cleaned the bank, the church, and the general store every night.

The marshals backtracked. They could see the lights inside the general

store. The shades were drawn, but Edward Stewart opened the door as

soon as Ryan knocked and told him who he was.

Mildred was down on her knees scrubbing the floor. The heavyset woman

got to her feet and wiped her hands on her apron when the marshals came

inside. Both she and her husband were olderţaround fifty or so, Cole

speculatedţ and from their haggard expressions and their stooped

shoulders, he knew they had had to work hard all of their lives.

Ryan made the introductions, and then said, "We know you're busy, but

we sure would appreciate it if you would answer a couple of

questions.

" "We'll be glad to help any way we can, " Edward said. "There's some

chairs behind the counter if you want to sit down. The floor should be

dry by now."

"It won't take that long, " Ryan said. "Did you and Mildred clean the

bank Tuesday night? " Edward nodded. "Yes, sir, we did. We clean it

every night but Sunday, and MacCorkle paid us every Monday morning."

"Do you think the new people running the place will keep us on? "

Mildred asked. "We do a good job and we don't charge much." They

could tell she was worried. She was wringing her apron in her hands

and frowning with concern.

"I'm sure they'll keep you on, " Ryan predicted. "When you clean the

bank, do you wash the floors or sweep them? " "I do both, " Mildred

answered. "First I give them a good sweeping, and then I get down on

my hands and knees and wash every inch of my floors.

I use vinegar and water, and when I'm done, the hardwood shines,

doesn't it Edward? " "Yes, it does, " he agreed.

"You don't move the furniture, do you? " Cole asked.

"I don't move the heavy pieces, but I move the chairs and the trash

tins. I get under the tellers' windows, under the desks, and behind

the file cabinets that aren't against the walls. We do a real thorough

job, " she insisted.

"MacCorkle always inspected our work. Sometimes he'd get down on his

knees and look into the corners just to make sure we didn't miss a

speck of dust or a cobweb, and if he found any, he deducted from our

pay. He was real finicky about his bank."

"He bought old, used-up furniture for the lobby and his loan officers,

but he told us, with enough elbow grease, we could make the wood shine

again. Some of those desks should have been thrown away years ago, but

MacCorkle wasn't one to waste anything, " Edward said.

"He had fancy new furniture put in his office, " Mildred interjected.

Cole spotted a basket of green apples on the counter. He took a coin

out of his pocket, tossed it on the counter, and then selected two. He

threw one to Ryan and took a bite out of the other.

"Ma'am, did the folks who came into the bank ever leave anything

behind? " "Sure they did, " Mildred answered. "I found a pretty

brooch once, and Edward found a wallet with six whole dollars inside.

Anything that's left behind is put in the lost-and-found box in

MacCorkle's office. It's in the corner by the safe."

"Did you happen to find anything Tuesday night? " Both Mildred and

Edward shook their heads.

"Do you remember cleaning under the desks Tuesday? " Cole asked.

"Sure I remember, " Mildred said. "I clean under the desks every

night, but Sunday. Why are you asking? " "I was just curious, " Cole

lied.

"Even if we were tired, we cleaned every inch of the bank because

MacCorkle wouldn't pay us our full wage if we didn't."

"He was a hard man to work for, " Mildred whispered.

"You shouldn't be speaking ill of the dead, " Edward told his wife.

"I'm speaking the truth, " she argued.

"We'll let you get back to your job, " Ryan said. "Thanks for your

help." Edward moved forward to let them out the front door. "Do you

think you could get MacCorkle's wife to pay us for the two nights we

cleaned? " "I'll be happy to talk to her, but if she doesn't pay you,

I'll make sure the new manager does." s Edward shook his head. "If we

can be of any help catching those men who killed our friends, you let

us know, Marshal."

"I'll do that, " Ryan promised.

The marshals started down the boardwalk. "Now what do we do? " Cole

asked.

"Go back to the bank and box up all the papers from yesterday's

business. It won't take long."

"Do you think the restaurant's still open? " "No, it's too late. Your

apple's going to have to do for the moment. I wish we could go talk to

those three women now, but I don't know where they live."

"We can get the addresses from the sheriff as soon as he gets back with

his posse."

"Yes, " Ryan agreed.

They walked along in silence for several minutes, and then Cole said,

"At least we know the bag was left during the day of the robbery.

MacCorkle was a real sweetheart, wasn't he? " "You mean holding back

their wages if they didn't do a thorough job? " "Exactly, " Cole

said.

"Why would a woman leave her purse behind? " "She must have been in a

panic."

"If she was hiding in the kneehole, she saw the whole thing.

" "Maybe she saw the whole thing, " Ryan said. "We should talk to the

man who sits at the desk." He handed Cole the key to the front door of

the bank while he dug his notepad out again. After Cole had gone

inside and turned up the gas lamp, Ryan found what he was looking

for.

"His name's Lemont Morganstaff. We'll talk to him in the morning, " he

said. "He might know something about the bag."

"What's he gonna know? " Cole asked.

Ryan shrugged. "Probably nothing, but we have to ask him anyway. "

"And then what? " "If he doesn't know where the bag came from, we

still can't assume a woman was hiding in the kneehole. It could have

ended up there a hundred different ways. One of the three women could

have sat down at the desk to go through some papers. She might have

dropped it when she got up. Damn, I wish it wasn't so late."

"You're right. There could be a hundred different explanations. A

woman could have left it during the morning. She could have come

inside with a friend and been sitting at the desk while he did his

banking."

"Why would a woman carry around an empty purse? " "I don't know why

they carry them in the first place. Pockets are more efficient."

"We shouldn't get our hopes up. A woman might have dropped it, then

kicked it into the corner of the kneehole when she stood up. Does that

make sense to you? " Cole shook his head. "The women I know keep

track of their things."

"God, I hope she saw it."

"Now who's being ruthless?

If she did see the murders, she has to be scared out of her mind. The

last thing she's going to want to do is come forward."

"We'll protect her."

"She won't believe that, not if she heard what happened to Luke

MacFarland." Ryan began to pace around the lobby. In the shadows of

the gas lamps, the bloodstains resembled ghoulish outlines.

"We're going to try to follow procedure on this one. I don't want to

leave any stone unturned.

Exasperated, Cole said, "I've been a marshal one day. I don't know

what the procedures are."

"We interview the three women first, but we also question every man who

came in here yesterday."

"It seems like a waste of time to me, " Cole said.

"It's procedure." Cole leaned back against a desk and took another

bite of his apple.

"Fine, we'll do it your way. There were twenty-nine people inside the

bank. You talk to fifteen and I'll take the other fourteen."

"No, that isn't how it works. We interview them together, then compare

notes afterwards. I might miss something that you will pick up, " he

explained. "We'll talk to the women first, " he repeated. "Then the

others. And that's only the beginning. We need to talk to everyone

who happened to be on the street, near the street, or in one of the

buildings close to the bank. We alsoţ" Cole interrupted him. "In

other words, we talk to everyone."

"Just about, " Ryan replied. "As much as I hate to, we're going to

have to involve Sloan on this. I don't know these people. He does,

and people here might tell him things they won't tell us. I'll give

him the list of names as soon as he gets back. P} Ryan stopped pacing

and looked around the lobby. "I think we're finished here. I'll put

yesterday's papers in the safe just in case one of us wants to go

through them again. The bookkeepers from the bank in Gramby will be

here Sunday to examine MacCorkle's records, and when they're finished,

we'll know the exact amount stolen.

Let's meet back here at seven in the morning and have Sloan round up

the people we want to talk to."

"I don't think it's a good idea to question them here. We should use

the office at the jail." Ryan shook his head. "Jails make people

nervous."

"Seeing the bloodstains is going to make them more nervous."

"Yeah, you're right. We'll use the jail." After collecting the papers

and locking the safe, they left the bank.

"Have you checked into the hotel yet? " Ryan asked.

"No, I went directly to the bank. What about you? " "I didn't take

the time either. Are you still hungry? " "Yeah, I am, " Cole

answered. "Maybe the hotel will open the kitchen for us."

"They will, " Ryan assured him. "We're marshals. We'll make them."

Cole laughed. "I knew there had to be a couple of benefits to this

job." They walked in companionable silence down the middle of the

street, the only light supplied by a full moon.

"How much money do you think they got away with? " Cole asked.

"Like I said before, we won't know the exact amount until the examiners

go through the records. I do know from the receipt I found on

MacCorkle's desk that an army paymaster made a deposit that morning.

The amount was seventeen thousand eight hundred and some change. "

Cole whistled. "That's a lot of money. I'll bet the bastards knew

before MacCorkle did that the money was coming."

"I'm sure they did.

All they had to do was follow him."

"Why bother robbing the banks? " Cole asked. "Why not rob the

paymaster on his way to the fort with the cash? " "It's too dangerous

and unpredictable, that's why. The paymaster doesn't ride alone, and

the guards assigned to him are all crack shots.

Banks are easier if you know what you're doing, and the men we're up

against obviously do." The discussion ended when they reached the

hotel. The only rooms available were in the attic and were about the

size of clothes closets.

Cole's room faced the street. Ryan's room was directly across the

hall.

The beds were soft though, and with a little persuasion, the night

manager agreed to send up supper.

Neither Ryan nor Cole got much sleep that night. Cole kept thinking

about the grisly scene he'd walked into, and Ryan spent his time

thinking about the possible witness.

Sorning came all too quickly. As agreed, the marshals met at the bank,

where Sheriff Sloan was waiting to report that the posse hadn't had any

luck finding a trail. Ryan handed him the list of people he wanted to

report to the jail to be interviewed. The three women's names were at

the top.

The sheriff looked over the names and shook his head. "Some of these

folks are sick as dogs with influenza. It hits hard and fast, " he

warned. "And some of the others are getting ready to head out of

town.

I ran into Doc Lawrence at the restaurant, and he was up all night

tending to the Walsh family, and you've got John Walsh's name on the

list. Doc told me Frederick O'Malley is heading out of town with his

brood as soon as the general store opens and he can get some more

supplies."

"No one leaves Rockford Falls until Marshal Clayborne and I have talked

to them. That includes Frederick O'Malley."

"I can't make him stay."

"I can, " Ryan replied.

Sloan wanted to argue. "This seems like a waste of time to me. If

anyone saw anything, he would have spoken up by now."

"Marshal Ryan wants to follow procedure, " Cole explained.

Sloan was staring at the blue bag on the desk. "Where did that come

from? " Ryan answered. "It was on the floor under the desk."

"You think someone left it? " "That much is pretty obvious, " Cole

said.

"We're curious to know who it belongs to." A gleam came into Sloan's

eyes. "It had to have been left here on the day of the robbery because

the Stewarts, who clean the place every night, would have found it if

someone had left it the day before. They would have put it in the

lost-and-found box. They're honest people, " he thought to add. "You

don't think one of the robbers left it behind, do you? " "No, we don't

think that, " Cole said dryly.

"Which desk was it found under? " "Lemont Morganstaff's, " Ryan

answered. "We're going to talk to him right away. Do you know where

he lives? " "Sure I do. I know just about everybody in town. I'll

take you over to Lemont's as soon as you're ready. Are you going to

ask him about the bag? " "Yes, " Ryan answered.

Sloan's mind was whirling with possibilities. "Where exactly was the

bag found? Was it right by the chair or was it way under the desk? "

"It was in the kneehole, " Ryan answered. "In the corner." Sloan's

eyes widened. "You don't think that maybe someone was hiding under the

desk, do you? " "We haven't drawn any conclusions yet, " Cole told

him.

"But it's possible, isn't it? " "Yes, " Ryan agreed. "It's

possible.

The matter of the bag is confidential, Sheriff. I don't want you

telling anyone about it." Sloan dropped down to his knees. "You can

see through here . . . " "I want to get started, " Cole said

impatiently. "Show us where Lemont lives, and then start rounding up

the people on the list.

We'll use the jail to talk to them."

"I'll wait out front to take you to Lemont's, " Sloan said, bolting for

the door.

As soon as Sloan had stepped outside, Cole said, "It was a bad idea to

tell him where the bag was found." Ryan shrugged. "He's a lawman, and

he'll only get in our way if we don't feed him a little information now

and then. What harm can he do? " As it turned out, Sloan could do a

great deal of harm. Before the day was over, Ryan actually considered

locking the sheriff in his own jail.

Unfortunately, the law frowned on incarcerating a man just because he

was stupid.

In a town the size of Rockford Falls, everyone knew everyone else's

business, and carefully guarded secrets had a way of leaking out like

water through a sieve. The employee who worked at the desk where the

purse was found, Lemont Morganstaff, a prissy old-maid of a man, was

shown the cloth bag and duly questioned. The interview took place in

the claustrophobic parlor of Lemont's home. Dressed in a bright lime

green velvet robe and slippers, Lemont resembled a parrot. He sat in a

faded yellow velvet chair, rested his arms on the lace-covered arms,

and puckered his lips in thought for several minutes before declaring

that the purse couldn't have been found by his desk. He made it a

rule, he explained, never to let any of the customers, man or woman,

past the gate. However, since he hadn't been working on the day of the

robbery, he couldn't be certain the other employees had enforced his

rule.

Sheriff Sloan, who had insisted on being part of the interview, blurted

out the fact that the purse had been found in the kneehole of Lemont's

desk. "It couldn't have been kicked there, " he said, "because your

desk faces the lobby and that front panel goes all the way to the

floor.

Someone had to go around, past the gate, and get behind your desk.

I've had a little time to ponder on it, and I think that maybe there

was a woman hiding there during the robbery. I'd wager the marshals

think the same thing. Now, there were three women in the bankţtheir

names are on the list Marshal Ryan gave meţ and I'm going to go round

them up as soon as I'm finished here. I'm hoping the woman who saw the

murders is just too timid to come forward, but if she's deliberately

keeping the information to herself because she's scared, I'm going to

have to arrest her." Lemont covered his mouth with his lace

handkerchief and looked horrified. "You think a woman saw the

murders?

Oh, that poor dear, " he whispered.

Ryan quickly tried to repair the damage Sloan had done, while Cole

shoved the sheriff toward the front door.

"We don't believe any such thing, " he said. "The purse could have

gotten under the desk a hundred different ways. There could have been

a lot of women inside the bank, and any one of them could have sat at

your desk and accidentally dropped it." Lemont wasn't paying very much

attention to the marshal's explanation.

"It had to have been left on the day of the robbery, " he said

excitedly.

"The bank's cleaned every night by the Stewarts, and they always do a

thorough job. Still, you're right. A woman could have left the bag

sometime during the morning hours. If you look in the tellers'

drawers, you'll find a record of every customer who did any business

that day." Sloan elbowed his way back over to Lemont. "I got a

feeling the three women on my list were there in the afternoon. I got

their names right here. There was Jessica Summers, Grace Winthrop, and

Rebecca James. Do you know any of these, Lemont? " "As a matter of

fact I do. I know Rebecca James. I saw her just last night, but she

was feeling very poorly, and I fear she's caught the influenza. I sent

her home, of course.

"I met the dear woman last week, " he continued. "She stopped by to

tell me how glorious she thought my garden was. She appreciates

beauty, " he added. "I don't know the other two women, but then I keep

to myself. By the time I get home from the bank, there are only two

hours left before dark, and I spend every minute of it tending my

flowers."

"None of the women on the list have lived in Rockford Falls long, "

Sloan said. "Are you sure you've never met Jessica Summers or Grace

Winthrop? " "I might have, but if I did, neither one of them made much

of an impression." Cole grabbed hold of Sloan's arm and pushed him out

the doorway. Ryan kept his attention on Lemont.

"The sheriff spoke out of turn, " he began. "His conclusions aren't

based on fact."

"Perhaps a stranger left the pocketbook behind, " Lemont said. "There

are so many of them in town this time of year.

They come to see the falls and trample all over the glorious flowers

growing wild on the hills outside of town. Some of the men and women

are quite audacious, Marshal. Why, just two weeks ago one of them

vandalized my garden and picked all of my tulips. I've asked and asked

Sheriff Sloan to do something about it, but now that you're here,

perhaps you can apprehend the culprits. I'll press charges, " he

added. "I don't care if it was the work of a child or not. The

hooligans belong in jail." Cole returned to the parlor in time to hear

Lemont's remarks. "It seems you're more concerned about your garden

thanţ" Lemont interrupted him. "Than the people who died in the

bank?

You're right, Marshal, I am. Flowers, you see, are more precious to

me. They serve only one purpose. To be pretty, and I like pretty

things."

"Let's go, " Cole told Ryan. "We've taken enough of Lemont's time."

The two men headed for the door. "I don't want to hear that you've

told anyone about our talk, " Ryan ordered, "or you'll end up in

jail."

Lemont immediately gave his word to keep quiet. He found it impossible

to keep his promise, however. He received a visitor an hour later and

simply had to relate every word of the conversation he'd had with the

marshals. He also told his housekeeper, Ernestine Hopper, who just

happened to have a mouth the size of the stuffed bass mounted on the

sheriflf's office wall. A rather dull-witted woman, she also led a

rather dull life, and news such as this couldn't be kept to herself.

She told everyone she knew that there was a possibility of a witness to

the murders, and after retelling the story four or five times, she

stopped using the word "possibility" and made it fact. By the time the

rumor circled around to Ryan and Cole, the story had blossomed into

front-page news in the Rockford Falls Gazette. Convinced the story was

the hottest news to hit town, the reporter had talked the owner into

printing an evening edition. It was the first time in the history of

Rockford Falls that folks were treated to two newspapers in one day,

and needless to say, the special edition caused quite a stir.

Van wanted to kill someone. Cole suggested he start with the sheriff

and then head on over to Morganstaff's house and shoot him and his

damned flowers too. The men, furious and frustrated, discussed the

problem of dealing with Sloan on their way to Melton's restaurant that

evening. They still hadn't talked to the three women. Jessica Summers

and Grace Winthrop had gone to do an errand and weren't expected back

at the boardinghouse until suppertime. Rebecca James was staying at

the hotel, but was too ill to receive visitors. Hopefully she would be

well enough to talk to the marshals tomorrow.

Ryan and Cole had already talked to eighteen of those who had been in

the bank, and thus far, the investigation had proven to be a waste of

time, for they hadn't gleaned one morsel from any of them. No one had

seen or heard anything unusual.

Although darkness was fast approaching, their day wasn't over yet.

After they had their supper, the two of them Were going back to the

boardinghouse to talk to Jessica and Grace.

The few men and women strolling down the street gave the marshals a

wide berth, and as soon as the two men sat down inside the restaurant,

most of the other diners got up and left.

"Does this bother you? " Ryan asked Cole, nodding toward the doorway

where three men were comically tripping over one another in their hurry

to leave.

"No, " Cole answered. "I'm used to it. Every time I'd ride into a new

town, for some reason folks automatically jumped to the conclusion that

I was a gunslinger."

"You were a gunslinger, " Ryan reminded him.

Cole wasn't in the mood to argue with him. He moved back so that the

owner could place the bowls of rabbit stew and a basket of hot bread on

the table.

"If you two don't mind hurrying, I'd like to get you fed and out of

here so my business will pick up." Cole tried to hold on to his

patience. The woman was old, tired-looking, and thin as a stick of

straw. He politely asked for coffee. She impolitely demanded to know

if he planned to linger while he drank it.

"Ma'am, neither Marshal Ryan nor I killed the seven men who were just

buried, and we'd both appreciate it if you'd stop treating us like we

did."

"Why haven't you caught any of the men who killed them? That's what

folks are wondering." 'We're trying, " Ryan said, his voice weary.

"I know you've been talking to the folks who were in the bank the day

of the murders." Cole nodded. "Word gets around fast, doesn't it? "

he remarked to Ryan.

He turned back to the woman. "None of your friends and neighbors saw

anything. They didn't see them ride into town or out. They didn't

hear any gunshots either, " he added.

She gave the marshals a sympathetic look. "Oh, some of them probably

heard the shots. They were maybe too scared to do anything about it.

You boys are tired, aren't you? My name's Loreen, " she added. "And

I'll go fetch your coffee now." She returned a minute later, poured

two cups, and put the coffeepot down on the table between the men.

"The way I see it, some folks would tell you if they'd seen or heard

anything, but most probably wouldn't. We all know what happens to

people who talk. The Blackwater gang comes back to get them. Every

one knows that's how they do things. In all my days I've never heard

of men who are so pure evil. I read a while back that they robbed a

bank in Texas and killed a woman and her little girl. The baby wasn't

even three years old."

"She was four, " Ryan said.

Loreen's head snapped up. "Then it's true." His voice was soft,

chilling. "Yes, it's true."

"Dear God, why would they want to hurt such an innocent little lamb?

She couldn't have told anything. She was too little. }^ Cole's

appetite vanished. They were dealing with monsters, and all he wanted

to think about was catching them.

Loreen put her bony hand on her hip and shook her head. "I know you're

trying to do your best. You boys take all the time you need. Business

is suffering anyway because of the influenza spreading through town.

Even the strangers who come to gawk at the falls are getting sickţat

least most of them are, according to the doc. He says the sickness

isn't contagious, but I say it is. Have you talked to that poor woman

who saw the murders? " Lost in their own thoughts, the marshals were

jarred by her question.

Cole asked her to repeat it.

"I asked you if you talked to the poor woman who saw the murders, " she

said. "I heard you suspect that one of the three women who were in the

bank during the afternoon saw everything while it was happening. If

she isn't too scared, she might tell you what she saw, and if she is

too scared, well then, maybe you could persuade her to talk. I'm not

trying to tell you how to run your investigation, " she hastily

added.

"But since you suspect . . . " "We don't suspect anyone, " Cole

interjected.

Lorene didn't pay any attention to his comment. "It has to be true

because I read about it in the paper. We had us a special edition this

afternoon. Sheriff Sloan was interviewed by the reporter, and he told

him that he got under the desk himself and looked, and sure enough, he

could see the lobby through the cracks in the wood. He said a woman

was hiding there, all right."

"Ma'am, the sheriff didn't get under the desk, " Cole argued.

"It says in the paper that he did, " she countered. "You know, I could

have been in that bank while the robbery was going on. I usually make

my deposits about that time of day, but lately, enough cash hasn't come

in for me to go every day. No one feels like eating when they're sick,

" she explained. "Still, I can't understand why you would put all

three of those poor ladies in jail. Why, I heard the sheriff dragged

one of them out of her sickbed, and the other two had just sat down for

their supper. I think you should have asked them your questions at the

boardinghouse. That's what I think. Jail isn't a proper place for

ladies. No sir, it doesn't seem right to me the way you're treating

them as though they're common-trash criminals. Aren't you boys going

to eat your supper? Where are you going? " As soon as the word "jail"

had been mentioned, Cole and Ryan had jumped to the same conclusion.

Sloan was responsible for another fiasco.

heir guess proved to be right. They ran back to the jail, cursing

under their breath most of the way, and found that the sheriff had

indeed locked all three women in one of his cells.

The idiot was actually proud of what he had done. His chest was puffed

up like a rooster's as he strutted around the office giving his

explanation.

"I had to do it, " he began. "I asked all of them which one was in the

bank during the holdup, and none of them would own up to it, so I put

them in a cell to think it over. I'm predicting there's going to be a

Iynching mob out front in no time at all, because people have heard by

now that we have a witness who won't step forward, and folks saw me

bring them in." Ryan was so furious with the sheriff his hand

instinctively went to the butt of his gun. He forced himself to stop

before he did anything he would regret. Cole's hand went to Sloan's

throat. He didn't stop. He was trying to choke some sense into the

lawman when he heard what sounded like a baby laughing.

Incredulous, he roared, "Are you out of your mind? You locked a baby

in jail? " Ryan was rigid with anger. He sat behind the desk glaring

at the sheriff.

"Cole, quit choking him so he can explain. I want to hear what he has

to say for himself. He's going to tell me why he would lock three

women and a baby in jail." The second Cole let go, the sheriff started

stammering. "I didn't know what else to do with the little boy. He

wanted to stay with his mama, and he wouldrft listen to reason. He

threw himself down on the floor and had himself a real tantrum. He

isn't a baby, Marshal. He's got to be a year and a half, maybe even

two. He's still wearing nappies, but he can talk, so he can't be a

baby. Babies don't talk, " he added authoritatively.

The muscle in Ryan's jaw twitched from clenching his teeth together.

"Where are the keys to the cells? " he demanded.

"You aren't going to let them out, are you? " "Hell yes, I am, " Ryan

snapped. "Now, tell me where the keys are." 'fThey're hanging on the

peg behind you, " Sloan answered, his attitude insolent. "I did what

had to be done." Ryan ignored the comment. "Is there a back door in

here? " "Yes. It's at the end of the hallway. Why? " Ryan tossed

Cole the ring of keys. "Here's what you're going to do, Sheriff.

Marshal Clayborne will let the ladies out of the cell. You're going to

wait for them outside the back door, and when they come out, you will

escort them home."

"You're also going to apologize to them, " Cole interjected. "And you

damned well better sound like you mean it." Sloan took another step

back from Cole. "But I locked them up, " he protested. "If I

apologize, they'll think I don't know what I'm doing.

" Cole let out a weary sigh. "No, they'll think you're just plain

stupid.

Now, get going." Tight-lipped and red-faced, the sheriff stomped his

way to the back exit. Cole opened the door that connected the cells to

the main office, ducked under the overhead frame, and started down the

long, narrow corridor. The walls were damp from rain that had seeped

in through the roof, and the air smelled like wet leaves. He suddenly

came to a quick stop. For a second he imagined he was looking at a

priceless painting framed by cold gray stone walls inside an old

museum. Three of the prettiest women he'd ever seen were sitting side

by side on the narrow cot. Shoulders back, heads held high, they were

perfectly still, as though an artist had ordered them to pose that way

for their portrait.

Cole was completely unprepared for this vision. They were young . .

.

they were incredibly beautiful . . . and they were seething with

anger.

The woman closest to him sat demurely with her hands folded in her

lap.

Her long black hair fell in soft ringlets to her shoulders, framing a

porcelain complexion and clear green eyes that peered up at him through

thick dark lashes. There was definitely a regal bearing about the

woman, an aristocratic refinement that suggested a wealthy

upbringing.

She wore a pink walking dress with pearl buttons, but the lace collar

adorning her delicate neck was frayed around the edges. On the seat

next to her lay a wide-brimmed straw hat with pink ribbons, and resting

on the brim was a pair of bright white gloves.

She had put on a hat to come to jail, Cole surmised with an inward

smile. Only a woman of gentle breeding would do such a thing. Her

gaze was direct, curious, and not at all uppity, and he sensed a

gentleness in her that could withstand any circumstance.

Seated next to her was the most exquisite beauty Cole had ever seen.

She was a bold contrast in her richly textured sapphire blue dress.

Her features were flawlessţalabaster skin, full red lips, patrician

nose, and blue eyes. Her chin tilted up in a haughty gesture of

contempt. Her golden hair was pulled back in a severe bun, which would

have detracted from any other woman's appearance, but only enhanced

hers. Such perfection would take most men's breath away. She knew the

effect she was having on him too. She gave him an impatient look that

suggested he stop gaping at her and get on with it. Obviously used to

turning heads, she had developed a bored, unapproachable demeanor.

The last of the three was seductive. Her cinnamon-colored hair was

also pulled back, but several wayward tendrils had worked loose and

fell gently to the sides of her oval face. Her frown blended the spray

of freckles across her nose, and her piercing, dark almond-shaped eyes

bored through him. She wore a faded lavender dress with the sleeves

rolled to her elbows, indicating that she had been interrupted from a

chore to be brought to jail. Her stare was unsettling, and he detected

beneath the smoldering glare a burning passion that wouldn't be