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A Promise Kept

© Alex de Kok, 2007

Like 'Mail Order Bride', this little tale has spent some time as an ebook, but the rights have now reverted to me. I'm more interested in being read by many than sold to a few, so I'm adding it to the stories here.




Chapter One

I guess gotta admit I ain't the best-looking galoot in these here parts, and I reckon to explain that I have to say that I get my looks from my Pa. Yeah, my Pa. The scar on my cheek comes from a broken bottle; the broken nose from a head butt when he came home drunk one night.

Again.

I was trying to stop him from hitting Ma, and I guess I managed that fine, 'cause he hit me instead, and not for the first time, nor the last. Ma died when I was thirteen. It was natural causes, nothing that Pa did. At least, not that time, it wasn't. Couple of years afore she died, Ma had gotten the notion into her head to teach me to cook, and I guess it's a good thing that she did, else me and Pa might have starved, because sure as eggs, Pa couldn't have cooked anything to save his life. No way.

Ma had taught me to read and write, too, using our family bible and a torn and dog-eared McGuffey's Reader. When she died, I got by doing odd jobs for folks around town, fetching and carrying for the trail herd cowhands and the like. I didn't starve, but it got darned close at times. I didn't steal, either, because Ma had brought me up honest, and I felt I owed it to her memory to stay that way. I don't think Pa had any such scruples, and I wondered sometimes--heck, I wondered often--what Ma had ever seen in him to make her stay.

When I was fifteen, Pa brought home a new wife, Mary. Only five years older than me, fresh and lovely as a spring morning, slender as a sapling, but with a woman's curves, with dark red hair, long and lustrous when she washed it and let it hang loose while she dried it and brushed it out, and huge green eyes, with long lashes. Looking back, I guess I probably started falling in love with her the first time I saw her. Too naive to show it, of course, and there was no way I was going to say anything foolish when Pa was around. No, siree. I kept any thoughts of Mary to myself. Pa could be a charmer when he wanted, but it didn't take very long for him to show his true colors, and one morning Mary was cooking breakfast with a cut lip and a bruise on her cheek. He came home drunk that night too and started on her again. I'd tried to intervene, but he was too big and mean for me then, and he'd beaten me senseless. Mary tended me, in her gentle way, but I'd had enough. Pa had left the next morning, before I was able to get out of bed, and I'd had to struggle to eat with my own split lip. I'd made my mind up; I'd had 'bout as much as I could stomach from him, Pa or no Pa. I hesitated for a long while, because I didn't want to leave Mary, but I knew that I had to go. Before either Pa killed me or I killed him. I waited until there was just me and Mary there.

"Mary, I've had enough. I'm sorry, truly sorry, but I gotta get out of here. I'm leaving."

She nodded sadly. "I thought you would, Jack. Fact, I thought you would have gone sooner. Can't say as I blame you, either."

"Come with me?" I didn't think she would, but I had to ask, because like I said, even then I was falling in love with her.

She smiled wryly, and shook her head. "You'll get by fine without me, Jack, but I'd get in your way if I came with you, and you'd start to resent me. No, you go, go far. I'll be all right." She gave me a faint smile. "I still owe your Pa for rescuing me."

Rescue, she called it. Taking her from drudgery with a father who hated her and two brothers who took their cues from him, into another life of drudgery with my Pa. If that was rescue, I'd misunderstood the meaning of the word. I took her hand, squeezing her fingers. I guess I was trying to show her, just with the touch of my hand, how determined I was to come back for her. There was a promise in my touch, a promise I had every intention of keeping.

"I'll get some money, and I'll come back for you. It'll take a while, Mary, but I'll be back. I promise."

She smiled again, a little wider, and this time the smile reached her lovely green eyes. "You do that, Jack. I'll be here." She looked away and laughed, short, bitter. "Where else would I go?" She squeezed my hand in hers. "Go far, Jack, get well away from your Pa, and don't tell no-one where you're a-goin'."

I gave her a wry grin. "I ain't got no idea myself, Mary, so how come you reckon I can tell someone?"

She almost laughed. "Mayhap that's for the best, Jack." She looked at me for a long moment. "I'll miss you, Jack Riley. You're somethin' in my life that's good and fine, but if you stay here you'll turn jus' like the rest of 'em, and I don't wish that for you. Go west, Jack, go west."

"I will come back, Mary. I swear, I will. I swear that on Mama's grave."

She looked at me, holding my eyes, and then she nodded. "You do that, Jack. Like I said, I'll be waitin'."

It didn't take me long to gather my few things together in a knapsack, and I was ready. Mary hugged me, and kissed my cheek.

"You take care of yourself, you hear? You be real careful, Jack Riley." She reached into the pocket of her apron, dropped some coins into my hand, and closed my fist over them. "That might help, Jack."

I looked. About eight dollars, and I knew good and well that Mary had little, if any, more for herself. I tried to give the money back to her, but she refused. She could be as stubborn as me when she tried. I guess I accepted the inevitable, and took it, gratefully as I only had about three dollars of my own. I hugged her, and ten minutes later waved to her as I turned the bend in the trail and out of her sight, out of her life. I swore an oath to myself as I walked. Whatever it took, however long it took, I would come back.

* * * * *



Chapter Two

I was surprised when I neared town, as there was three wagons there, ox-drawn and fully loaded. I guessed they were freighting west, and I wondered if they needed any hands. There was a spare-looking man, about thirty or so, lounging against one of the wagons, taking life easy. I walked over to him, and doffed my battered hat.

"You the boss here?"

He laughed. "No, jus' an em-ploy-ee." He said it like that, too, with the word strung out.

"Tell me where to find him?"

"Why?"

I shook my head. "My business," I said, real polite.

He laughed. "Okay, son. See over there? Fella 'bout six and a half feet tall, looks like a strong breeze would blow him over? That's him. Larne Eldersen. He's the boss."

"Thank you, sir. I'm obliged."

He nodded. "Good luck, but he ain't hirin'."

"I guess I'll find out for myself." I walked over to the man pointed out to me. He'd been talking to another man, I guessed one of the drivers or something, but as I approached the other man headed for the wagons. Eldersen turned to me as I came up.

"Mr. Eldersen?"

"That's me." He studied me. "Somethin' I can do for you?"

"You hirin'?"

He studied me again, then shook his head. "Sorry, son. I need a cook, but I ain't got no need for anyone else."

"I can cook."

His look was sharp, shrewd, a little surprised. "You? You can cook?"

I nodded. "My ma showed me how, the year afore she died. I cooked for me and Pa for a year or so, 'til he brought Mary home." I shrugged. "I still cooked once in a while, give Mary a break."

Eldersen studied me for a long, long moment then nodded. "Tell you what, son. You cook for me tonight, and again tomorrow morning, okay? I like what you do, I'll take you on as far as Oregon. I don't like it, I'll give you a dollar and wish you luck. What do you say?"

"I say yes, Mr. Eldersen. How many am I cookin' for?"

"Me, three drivers, a roustabout, and yourself. Six."

And that was how I found myself on the trail to Oregon. Eldersen had the basics, but I knew where to find some wild onion, and a few herbs that grew among the weeds, and I used every trick I could remember from Ma's careful instruction, and served the meal to the men near sundown. It was the spare-looking man, whose name turned out to be Tobe Hargan, who summed it up.

"Hire him, boss. Hire him now. This is ambrosia after that muck we been eatin'." I had no idea what ambrosia was, but it sounded good, so I started hoping. I looked around at the others, all lean, trail-hardened men, seeing them all nodding. I looked at Eldersen. He nodded, too.

"Tobe's right, son. This is the best food we've eaten for some time now. Seventy cents a day, until we get to Oregon. Mebbe a bonus, dependin' on how well this stuff sells when we git there. What say?"

"I guess, yes, Mr. Eldersen."

"You're hired. You tell me what you need, and I'll make sure we have it. Let me know what you use, and I'll keep the tally. Okay?"

"Sure, but I can read, write and do some figgerin' too, if you need me to."

He smiled. "Your ma teach you that, too?"

"Yes, sir, she did." He was surprised, I think, for there wasn't many a good man in those days had book-learning.

"Okay, seventy-five cents a day and I want to know everything you use."

"Yes, sir."

I'd like to say it was an exciting trip, but in honest truth it wasn't. It was hard, unrelenting work. I rode with Tobe Hargan, 'cept it was more walking alongside the wagon while the oxen plodded along. He intrigued me, Hargan, because he was always telling me things. I guess some of them was even true. And he quoted poetry, and Shakespeare. I had no idea who Shakespeare was, back then, and I got kinda embarrassed when I found out he'd been dead so long. I thought he must have been from Boston, or New York, someplace back east, but he was actually English. Hargan had a book with a couple of plays, and some sonnets. Of course, then, I had no idea what a sonnet was, but Hargan used to quote 'em from memory, and he made 'em sound real pretty.

Once we got into wild country, Hargan started wearing a handgun. I didn't have a gun, but we passed near some sodbusters and I used three of my dollars for an old Smith and Wesson pistol. I hankered after a prettier, nickel-plated pistol, but Hargan took me aside and told me some hard, cold truths about guns. Anyhow, I ended up paying less for the old Smith and Wesson than for the other pistol, and Hargan reckoned that the one I bought was the better of the two. It had a spare cylinder, and I kept them both loaded. I didn't wear the gun, just kept it handy. Never needed it, no one we needed to take a caution with came anywhere near us.

The food got a little monotonous, mainly 'cause I couldn't vary the ingredients, seeing as how there was nowhere to buy anything different, but Eldersen shot a deer and we had fresh venison for a change. I kept a look out for edible greens, and managed to keep the men content with what they was eating. Eventually, we got to Oregon, to the valley Eldersen was aiming for. The railroad was just creeping into the territory back then, and if we'd been any longer on the trail, our hardware wouldn't have sold as well as it did. But we got there first, and Eldersen paid me a thirty-dollar bonus on top of my pay. He also spread the word about my cooking, and I got a job with some loggers.

It was my first winter up in the high country, and it sure was cold, but being in a mainly fixed camp--we followed the logging teams, and they wasn't moving too much during the winter--allowed me to vary the menu a little, and keep the men content. I got a bonus from that job, too. Being a cook out there in the wilderness was a lonely job, but the pay was better than some of the other jobs I could have done. I managed to save most of it, too, partly 'cause there was nowhere to spend it, but mostly 'cause I didn't take to alcohol, and I didn't get into any of the card games. And, of course, I ate for free.

* * * * *



Chapter Three

It was quiet for me that first winter, but I guess they cottoned to me for they hired me again the following year, which I could save again for my trip back to Mary, given as how there was nowhere to spend it. I also got some useful experience. There was one of the loggers, not all that much older than me, and he was a mean sonofabitch, I tell you true. Me and him, we didn't like each other, not one little bit, and he took exception to my cooking one day. I took exception to his excepting, and we got into a scuffle. I lost.

Licking my wounds later, getting the evening meal ready, I realized I wasn't alone. Paddy Gilroy was waiting for me to find the time to notice him. Now Paddy was built like me. Middling height, going on tall, broad shoulders, light and fast on his feet. He was a bit battered around the face, and I 'membered someone saying he'd been a fighter. Paddy grinned at me.

"You lost, Jack."

"Aye, Paddy, I did an' all."

"You want to know where you went wrong?"

"You offerin' to show me?" I said, surprised, and pleased.

"Aye, Jack, sure and I am that, iffen you want to learn." I looked at him, and he smiled. "Yer built like me, Jack, and I can show you how to fight like me. I never lost a fight 'til I was over forty, Jack, and when I did, I gave it up, but I can remember how."

"What will it cost me, Paddy?"

"Not a red cent, Jack. I don't like that Billy Esdon any more'n you do. I'd surely like to see him get what he's been askin' for, but he's always careful not to say anything to offend me. Heck, just his bein' in this lovely place offends me, but I cain't exac'ly say that, seein' as how he's the boss's nephew and I need the job." He grinned. "You, now, you're the best cook I've known up here. You knock Esdon on his back and most of the boys will cheer. Old man tries to fire you for that, he'll have him a riot on his hands."

I grinned back at Paddy. "When? How?"

"Boss man asked me to work with you, drive the wagon when you need supplies. Spring is comin', the thaw will make the roads, what they is of 'em, impassable for a while, so's I reckon we can fit in maybe an hour a day fer me to turn you into a fightin' man while we's waitin' fer the roads to open. You game?" I held out my hand and he took it. We grinned at each other. This was going to be fun.

It was a lot of fun. And it hurt, too, 'cause Paddy didn't hold back when he hit me. "No point in that," he'd said. "You need to know what bein' hit feels like!" He'd gotten hold of some padded sparring mitts and we used them, but it was still like being kicked by the south end of a northbound mule. But I was a fair bit younger, a little fitter, a little faster, and it wasn't too long before I knocked Paddy down. He grinned up at me, wiping the blood from his nose with the back of his glove.

"Soon, Jack, very soon."

It was about six weeks later, in fact. The mostly dry, breezy spring days had dried out the trails, the men were out in the woods again, and we moved the outfit to join them. I'd had the idea of a modified chuck wagon, like the trail herds used. Heck knows, I'd seen enough of 'em back home. I put the idea to the foreman, he took it to the boss, and I had my wagon. Once a base camp was established, the loggers would always build a cook shack, and I kept the wagon out back, once we had us a base.

I'd guess it was late May, or early June--I'd long since lost track of the days--when Billy Esdon made some remark about my cooking again.

"You don't have to eat it," I said. "More for the guys that like it. I don't hear them complainin'."

"Not to your face, they don't." His face twisted in a sneer.

I raised my voice, so that the dozen or so loggers in the cook shack could hear. "Hear that, boys. You been complainin' about my cookin' behind my back?"

The answer was prompt. "Of course we have, Jack. It's a man's place to bitch about the cook! You start worryin' when we stop comin' back for seconds." There was a general laugh, and Esdon flushed, scowling at me. I wasn't sure who'd spoken, but thought I recognized the voice as one of the Muller twins. The accent gave them away.

"See, Billy. They don't mean it." I held his eyes. "You goin' to eat it, or piss against the wind?" I kept my voice mild, but I left the mad in my eyes for him.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're a troublemaker, and a bully, and I think you need takin' down a peg."

"You do, huh?" He sneered. "What do you plan to do about it?"

I shrugged. "Teach you manners, maybe."

"Like you did last time? Why don't you just apologize now?"

"Why don't you?" My voice was still mild, but I was braced, ready.

He stared at me, his pig eyes mean. "After chow, little boy, I'm gonna take you apart." He reached for a plate, planning to fill it, I guess, and I hit him across the knuckles with the ladle I was holding. Hard.

"You insult my food, you don't eat. Apologize, I'll feed you. Otherwise, get lost."

"You know who I am?" he hissed, sucking' on his knuckles, wincing.

"Yeah, a mean bully trading on the fact you're the boss's nephew. Well, to blazes with you! Unless you apologize, and apologize now, you don't eat." I was still staring him down and the loggers in the queue behind him edged away, wary, but he swore violently and turned on his heel and left, shouldering the others aside. I let out the breath I didn't know I'd been holding and turned to the next guy in line. He gave me a shaky grin.

"You had me worried there, Jack! Didn't know whether to eat or run."

I gave him a wry grin. "I'd rather you ate, Tom. I hate food to be wasted."

His grin broadened. "In that case, can I have some of Billy's as well?"

There was general laughter, the tension easing, and I joined in, but I knew I was in for an interesting evening. Paddy came over later, when they was finished eatin', and took me aside.

"I've had a word with some of the boys, and they's gonna keep an eye on you, make sure neither Billy nor his cronies get the drop on you."

"Thanks, Paddy."

The expected confrontation came as I left the cook shack for my bunk.

"Hold it, you."

I turned to see Billy with Al Janneau and Mike Sullivan, unsavory no-gooders like Billy. They were all holding ax handles. "Time for your lesson." And they all started towards me, spreading out. There was the unmistakable sound of the hammers on a Greener going back, and a voice spoke from the darkness.

"You boys drop those handles iffen you don't want a gut full of buckshot."

Billy and the others stopped dead, staring into the dark. There was another click from the other side, and another voice spoke.

"You heard the man." A soft laugh. "We got you boys in a crossfire."

"You wouldn't dare," said Billy, but I could hear the uncertainty.

"Try us. I'll count to three, and if you're still holding those handles I'll shoot. One, two." That was as far as he got, the ax handles were on the ground before he had 'two' out.

"Another time, Jack Riley," said Billy, sneering.

I was mad. Three onto one? With ax handles? "No, Billy, now," I said, an' I wasn't tryin' to hide the anger. "Just you and me. I'm the one you have the beef against." I shrugged. "You gave me a lickin' last time. See if you can do it again."

"You sayin' you'll fight me?" he said, and I could hear the disbelief. "After last time?"

"Maybe I'll get lucky this time." I shrugged again. "Let's find out, eh? Unless you're yellow."

With a snarl, he rushed me, but this time I knew what I was doing. I sidestepped and tripped him as he went past. If it had been him tripping me, he would have kicked me when I was down--he had last time--but I wanted to think I was better'n that, so I let him be. He got to his feet and charged me, and I hit him. I hit him hard, but he didn't go down. Not that time, but I heard his rib crack.

I guess I took a few licks, because next day I had the bruises to show for it, but I didn't feel them at the time, and they was nothing compared to what Billy took. He outweighed me, maybe twenty pounds or so, but Paddy had taught me how to hit, and hit hard. I take no satisfaction in saying this, but I was young then, and I destroyed Esdon. I broke his nose, and four of his ribs, and I was only using my fists, but I'd taken a moment to slip on some thin leather gloves I had, that Paddy gave me, and my knuckles weren't split. Janneau and Sullivan had to half-carry the sobbing wreck of him away.

Paddy came over to me. "Nice work, Jack, very nice. Glad to see you ain't forgot the trainin' I gave you, but watch your back from now, Jack. Bullies like him don't forget."

"Thanks for the warning, Paddy, but I guess I'll get fired tomorrow."

He frowned. "I don't think the boys will cotton to that."

"Ask them not to do anything, Paddy. I was on the point of quittin' anyhow. I have to keep a promise I made, to a lady back home."

"I'll pass the word, Jack, sure." He grinned. "Lady, huh? Good lookin'?"

I smiled. "Beautiful, Paddy, beautiful." I wondered if the beauty I'd left behind would still be there, and I prayed that she would, that Pa hadn't destroyed her. In sleepless moments at night, her image would come to me and my promise would haunt me. Well, no longer, I was going back, back to ask her to come away with me. I was ready to keep my promise.

"Good luck, Jack."

The summons I was expecting came next morning, after I'd served breakfast, after the boys had gone into the woods for the day's work. Joe Nelson, the foreman, took me aside, looking worried.

"Old man Caslow wants to see you, Jack." He grimaced, hesitating.

"It's okay, Joe, I've been expectin' this."

He nodded. "As foreman, I shouldn't say this, but you did a long overdue job on Billy. It's a damned shame if Caslow fires you."

I shrugged. "I was on the point of quittin' anyway, Joe. The office?"

Joe nodded. "Yeah." He held his hand out. I shook it, and he nodded "Good luck, Jack."

"Thanks, Joe." I nodded, turned away, and made my way to Caslow's office, and knocked on the door.

"Come in." Caslow's familiar, harsh tone. He was behind his desk, Billy standing to the side. Billy glared at me, and I was hard put not to grin at the sight of his face.

"Now you get your reward, you bastard," he hissed.

"You wanted to see me, boss?" I said to Caslow, ignoring Billy.

"To fire you." Billy sneered.

"Billy, shut your damn' fool mouth and get out!" said Caslow. "Out!" he yelled, as Billy hesitated, and Esdon scuttled out, glaring at me as he went. Caslow turned to me, face impassive.

"You did that?" he asked, nodding in the direction of the departing Billy. "The destruction job?" I'd expected anger, but his calm had taken me by surprise, like he didn't really care about Billy. I think there was surprise in him, too, 'cause like I said, Billy outweighed me by maybe twenty pounds.

"I guess," I said, shrugging.

The broad smile was a big surprise. "Long overdue and if you ever tell anyone I said that, I'll have you hunted down. Understand, Jack?" He glared at me.

"Yes, sir," I said, 'cept I was wondering just when, or if, I was ever going to start understanding folk like him. Fighting, too, not to show the relief I felt that he wasn't maybe going to have me arrested. I didn't doubt he had the power.

Caslow frowned. "I'm going to have to let you go, Jack. Not because I want to, I don't, but because I'm over a barrel. Much as Billy deserved a good licking, his mama is my major investor, and until I get the lumber sold I can't tell her the truth, or fire her fool son."

"It's okay, Mr. Caslow. I was near enough ready to quit anyway."

He reached into his drawer and took out an envelope. "Here's the money you got due. I've added a twenty dollar bonus. The boys ate better with you cooking than with any other cook I've hired."

"Ever thought of hirin' a woman to cook, Mr. Caslow? And mebbe a girl to help her? There's widows around would jump at the chance."

He stared at me for a moment then shook his head. "Never did, Jack. But now you've give me the idea, just maybe." He stood, and held out his hand. "Good luck, Jack."

"Thank you." I paused, having just spotted the calendar on the wall. "Mr. Caslow, what's today's date?"

He looked at me in surprise. "You don't know?"

I shrugged, with a rueful smile. "Not much cause to take notice, out here."

He laughed. "I guess not. Today is June fifth."

"Fifth?"

He nodded. "Fifth, Jack."

"Well, dang me. It was my eighteenth birthday yesterday!"

He laughed. "Youngest cook I ever had." He reached into his pocket and took out a gold eagle, flipped it so that I caught it. "Happy birthday for yesterday, Jack."

I laughed. "Thank you, sir. Um, Mr. Caslow?"

"Yes?"

"The railroad is through to town now, ain't it?"

He nodded. "Yes, it is. Somewhere to go?"

"I have to go back east a ways, yes. A promise to keep."

"Good luck, Jack. Watch out for Billy."

"I will, sir. I will." I went off to pack my things, feeling his eyes on my back as I left his office.

* * * * *



Chapter Four

The supply wagon was standing on the trail when I walked around the corner about an hour later. Paddy grinned down at me.

"Figured he'd let you go. Figured you could use a ride. Climb aboard, Jack." I swung my pack into the wagon and climbed to the seat next to Paddy.

"Thanks. I didn't relish the walk."

He clicked to the mules, released the brake, and we were off. "Got any plans, Jack?"

"Heading back east a ways. I have a promise to keep."

He nodded. "Catchin' the train?"

"I reckon."

"Don't run until day after tomorrow." He looked across at me. "Got somewhere to stay tonight and tomorrow?"

I shook my head. "No. Any suggestions?"

He nodded. "Yes, I do. Hannah Gilroy. My cousin's widow, lives just outside town. Takes the occasional roomer, but only by recommendation. I'll put in a word for you."

"Thanks, Paddy. Good of you."

"Call it a thank-you for Billy."

I laughed. "Thank you, Paddy, for the training."

"You were a good student, Jack. I could make you into a fighter."

"Not me, Paddy. Not my kind of life. I want somethin' a little more peaceful. Wife maybe. Then kids."

There was a silence for a while. I looked across at Paddy, but wherever he was, it wasn't with me.

He sighed. "I had those, Jack. Wife, twin girls. They died."

There was something in his voice that told me, 'don't ask', so I just squeezed his arm. He looked across, gave a wry smile then pointed forward.

"See the little cabin, just off the trail? Pigs and chickens in the yard?"

"Yeah?"

"Hannah's place. We'll be there in about a half hour." He looked across. "It's about a fifteen minute walk from there to the railroad depot."

I nodded. "Thanks, Paddy." He didn't say anything, just gave me a half-smile and nodded.

Hannah Gilroy was a surprise. Probably in her middle to late twenties, slender, a little careworn. Blond hair, blue eyes, and a shape that made me take a deep breath and pray that my body wouldn't embarrass me. She was lovely. I don't think she recognized the wagon at first, and she only came out onto the porch, staying close to the door.

"Wise woman," said Paddy softly, so that only I could hear, and then only just. "There'll be a Greener just inside the door. Hannah doesn't take chances any more." We were closer now, and I could see when she recognized Paddy by the sudden smile on her face. Almost solemn before, the smile lit her face and she came out into the yard to greet us.

"Patrick Gilroy, as I live and breathe. Sure, and it's been too long. It's good to see you again. Step down, coffee's hot."

"Good to see you, too, Hannah. Can't stay long, gotta be back up to the camp by tonight."

"You'll still have the time for a coffee, though?"

"Aye."

"Come on in, then." She turned to me then, looking me up and down. "Who's yer friend, Pat?"

"This is Jack Riley, Hannah."

I dragged my hat off, and managed to give the impression I hadn't really been staring at her, not really. "Ma'am."

"Yer a friend of Patrick's?"

"He is that, Hannah," said Paddy.

"Then the name's Hannah to you, Jack. Mrs. Gilroy to everyone else."

I nodded, and managed a smile. "Hannah."

"Come on inside, the both of you. Like I said, the coffee's hot." She led us through to the kitchen, and indicated a couple of chairs at a table. "Sit yourselves down."

The coffee was good. Hot, strong enough to float horseshoes. Or maybe dissolve them. Hannah added a drop of water to hers.

"Hannah, me darlin'," said Paddy. "Jack here is catchin' the train east, but it doesn't leave here until day after tomorrow. Can you put him up for a couple of nights?"

"Two nights, is it?"

"Yes, ma'am. Hannah."

"Cost ya a dollar."

"Yes, ma'am. Now?" I reached into my pocket, but she laughed and shook her head.

"Later will be fine."

"It's very good of you, Hannah."

"You'll be company at dinner, Jack Riley. It gets lonely with just pigs and chickens to talk to. Patrick says you're a good man, and if Patrick says it, you are."

"Yes, ma'am." When did Paddy say that, I wondered?

"Got me some news about Billy Esdon, Hannah," said Paddy, and her face went stiff.

"What about him?" I swear her voice was colder than ice in January.

"Picked on Jack here, beat him. I gave Jack some lessons in fighting, dirty as well as clean. Esdon picked on Jack again." Paddy shook his head, a smile lurking. "Esdon's mistake. Jack destroyed him. As cool a fight as I've ever seen." He laughed. "And clean, too. Jack didn't need the dirty tricks."

Hannah arched her brows then turned to me, her smile hesitant. "You destroyed him?"

I shrugged, embarrassed. "I beat him, yes, but he got the last laugh. He got me fired."

"Only because he's the boss's nephew!" said Paddy. "I don't think Old Man Caslow thinks a lot of Billy, truth be told." Paddy grinned. "Tell the truth, Jack. You were planning to quit, anyway."

I gave them a wry smile, shrugging. "I guess."

"If you beat Billy Esdon, Jack," said Hannah, her voice soft, warm. "I owe you."

I looked at her in surprise. "You owe me nothing."

She and Paddy exchanged looks, and Hannah nodded. Paddy turned to me. "Esdon tried to rape Hannah."

The instant rage I felt startled me. "If I'd known that I might have killed him," I said, understanding Paddy's comment about Hannah 'not takin' chances'. I thought I knew why, now.

Paddy shook his head. "Not you, Jack. You'll do enough to stop a man, but you won't kill." He paused. "Maybe in defense of a loved one, but not otherwise, I don't think."

"If he comes near me again, I might not be so controlled," I said.

Hannah smiled. "I'll settle for what you did, Jack. If you hurt him, I owe you."

I gave her a half smile. "I broke his nose, and four of his ribs," I said. "That do?"

She gave me a level look. "That will do very nicely." She stood. "Have you time for ham and eggs, Patrick?"

Paddy fished his big ol' pocket watch out, but shook his head. "Sorry, Hannah, no. I waited to give Jack a ride down, so I'm running a tad late. I'm going to have to get a hustle on to get the supplies and get back by dark."

Hannah nodded. "Stop by on your way back, and I'll have some sandwiches ready. You can eat on the move."

"Thanks, Hannah. I'll do that. Jack? Good luck, son."

"Thanks, Paddy. Give my regards to the others, will you? They was all gone when I left this mornin'."

"Will do, Jack. You take care now, you hear?"

"I'll do that. You take care of yourself, too."

I stood with Hannah on the porch, waving to Paddy as he drove away. I glanced down, smiling to myself. Yes, Greener beside the door. Hannah caught my eye as I looked up, and smiled. "A woman alone takes no chances, Jack."

"Wise."

"Come on, ham and eggs is waitin'."

She could cook, could Hannah Gilroy. I sat and watched her, no wasted motion. She caught the smile I was trying' to hide, and stopped, hands on hips. "What is it, Jack Riley? You've been nearly laughin' at me since I started on the cookin'."

I shook my head. "Sorry, Hannah. Um, did Paddy tell you what I did at the camp?"

She shook her head, busy cutting thick slices of ham and dropping them in the skillet. "No, he never did. So, tell me, what did you do?"

"I was the cook. This will be the first meal I ate that I didn't cook myself for over a year."

Hannah stared at me for a moment, and then laughed. "I'd better make sure it's good then."

"Hey, I wasn't that good!"

"Paddy told me they finally had a good cook up there, but he never told me the name." She paused, smiling at me, and I felt myself stiffen, just from the loveliness of her. "I guess he was talkin' about you?"

I shrugged. "Reckon so."

Whatever talents I have as a cook, they didn't match Hannah's. Ham and eggs is simple, in theory, but gettin' the ham cooked just so, and the eggs so that the yolk is just starting to set, and both together, that takes skill. Skill that seemed natural to Hannah, but skill that I was still working on. Finished, she slid a big plate-full in front of me, took a smaller one for herself, and we set to. Neither of us seemed to be one for talking' when we was eatin', so it was a silent meal, but it was a comfortable silence.

Finished, Hannah took the plates and put them on the bench.

"Coffee?"

"Please, Hannah, I'd love some."

Two coffees poured, she handed me one. "Bring it through to the parlor, Jack. It's more comfortable."

A little uncomfortable in my rough clothes, I followed her, but relaxed when I saw the homemade furniture. I gestured. "Your husband's work?"

She nodded. "Yes, Danny was a carpenter. A good man. I miss him."

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have mentioned him."

"No, that's alright, Jack. It's been nearly three years now. I managed to keep this place going, and selling bacon and ham, and a few eggs, well, I make enough to live on. No luxuries, but I get by." She smiled. "But what about you, Jack? Tell me about Jack Riley. I know where you got those bruises, that damned Billy Esdon, but that scar on your cheek? Your broken nose? Billy didn't do those."

I laughed, short, bitter. "My Pa."

"Your father? Surely not?" She looked upset.

I hadn't intended telling her much, but Hannah Gilroy was a good listener and I found myself talking to her about me, about how Ma had taught me to read and write, and to cook, how Pa had turned mean and brutal, about Ma dying. I found myself telling her about Mary, and my promise to go back for her, and how, finally, after near on two years, I was on my way. I told her about working my way to Oregon, about my work in the logging camps. I told her about how miserable I was when Billy Esdon beat the tar out of me; about how good Paddy had made me feel about myself. I told her about the satisfaction I got from whipping Esdon, and I told her that I hadn't got the pleasure I'd anticipated from beating him. Satisfaction, yes, for a job well done, but not pleasure.

Hannah nodded when I finished. "Patrick was right, Jack. You haven't got it in you to be mean and cruel. I think you can be hard, Jack, but not mean. And talkin' of Patrick, I'd better be away and make the sandwich I promised him, for he'll not be long in coming back."

"Can I help?"

She laughed. "No, Jack, you just sit yourself there and rest. I'll not be long gettin' Patrick's sandwich and then ye can give me a hand by feeding the pigs while I see if there are any eggs to collect."

"If you're sure?"

"Aye, that I am, Jack Riley. You just relax."

The next thing I knew it was almost dusk. I woke with a start, disoriented, finding myself sprawled on Hannah's couch, my boots off, a blanket over me. I groaned. Oh, no, I was going to help her with the pigs! I kicked my feet into my boots and went looking' for her. She was in the kitchen, flour on her hands, even some on her face, busy making what looked like apple pie. She smiled when she saw me.

"I think you were more tired than you realized, Jack Riley."

I shrugged, spreading my hands helplessly. "I'm sorry, Hannah, I was going to help you."

She shook her head, laughing. "No matter. 'Tis no more'n a five or ten minute job in any case.

"Has Paddy been?"

"Aye, and long gone, too. Do you like roast chicken, Jack?"

I nodded. "Yes, I do."

"Good. And potatoes, roasted in the fat?"

"Aye, those too."

"Well, get yourself washed, Jack, for it will be no more than ten minutes. Pump's out back, and ye'll find a tin bowl and a towel just inside the door."

It was full dark when we'd finished eating, an oil lamp lit to hold back the night. I insisted on helping with cleaning the pans and dishes, and we took our coffees into the parlor, Hannah beside me on the couch.

"We'll chat for a while, Jack, until our food's digested a little, but then it's me for my bed, for I've to be up early. Ye can sit for a while, if ye want."

I shook my head. "No, an early night won't hurt me, either. I always had to be first up at the camp, so as to get the breakfasts, so I'm used to early to bed, early to rise."

Hannah nodded. "I'll show ye to your room in a wee while. Tell me more about that trip to Oregon. How old were ye? Seventeen?"

"Only sixteen when I started."

"So how old are ye now?"

"Eighteen." I laughed. "Yesterday!"

"Yesterday was your birthday?"

I nodded. "Aye. I didn't even realize, until I asked Old Man Caslow what date it was. He gave me a gold eagle. I think Caslow's a good man, but I don't say the same about his nephew. I don't think Caslow likes Billy very much."

"Why does he keep him on, then?"

I shrugged, remembering I'd promised Caslow not to say anything. "Family."

Hannah nodded. "Aye, family. We choose our friends, but not our family."

We chatted for a while, easy with each other. Hannah Gilroy was easy to like, easy to chat with, easy to look at, too, and I had to will myself not to just moon over her like a lovesick calf. A beautiful woman, but not for the likes of me, I figured. I knew that, one day, I'd have a woman of my own, but heck, I was only eighteen. There was time, time enough, but it in any case it was Mary that was in my mind. I guess lusting after my step-mama wasn't right, and I tried to keep that from my mind. But I'd made a promise to her, and I was going to keep it.

Eventually, Hannah stood. "Come on, Jack, I'll show you your room."

The room was dominated by the bed, with its big bright comforter spread across it. Hannah gestured. "I sometimes have couples staying. They need the big bed. You'll have plenty of room, Jack."

Aye, I would, I thought, but I thought too that I'd rather have less space, and Hannah Gilroy beside me in it. "It's fine, Hannah. Thank you for letting me stay."

"You're welcome, Jack. I'll see you in the morning. Get up when you're ready, for I'll probably be out seeing to the pigs and chickens. Goodnight, Jack Riley."

"Goodnight, Hannah, and thank you again."

She smiled and went out, closing the door behind her. She'd left me a candle and I undressed quickly. I didn't want to take the chance that my clothes might dirty the bedding, so I stripped naked, gave myself a quick allover wash from the jug and bowl on the dresser, blew out the candle and slipped between the crisp, fresh sheets. I lay for a while, just staring into the darkness, trying to imagine what Hannah Gilroy might look like naked. She looked lovely clothed, and I didn't doubt for a moment that she'd be equally lovely naked, without a stitch of clothing, and that blond hair loose about her shoulders. It felt a little wrong, but my mind moved from Hannah to Mary, thinking of her naked, too, and the thought of them both was lovely to me. Aye, and exciting me, too.

Of course, such thoughts didn't help my pecker any, for it sure as heck wasn't going to stay soft. And it hadn't, for it was as hard as I'd ever felt it. Truth to tell, I felt hornier than I could ever remember, too. I took a gentle hold of my pecker and started to take myself off. I paused, thinking of Hannah's clean sheets. There was an old shirt in my pack, one I'd used for dirty jobs. Even washed, it was still a sorry excuse for a shirt, so I grabbed it, ripped off a sleeve, and held it ready to collect my seed. My hand went around my pecker again and I took myself off on the journey to climax.

A short journey. I was too excited, even seeing as how it had been only two days since I'd last done any pecker-bashing, and I groaned as I emptied my seed into the old shirt sleeve. I waited until the pulsing had ceased, wiped myself off, and settled myself for sleep, sleep which was a long time coming.

I don't know how long I'd been asleep when the nightmare came again. I'd had it once or twice before, and the image of Pa beatin' Mary senseless was something that haunted me, because when I thought about it in the cold light of day I knew that it could happen. It woke me, and at first I was confused, wondering where I was. Then I remembered. I think the other thing what woke me was a creak from the floor boards, and I watched, startled, as the door opened, and Hannah came in, her nightdress a dim white shape in the darkness.

"You awake, Jack?" she murmured softly.

"Yeah, I guess I am now. What is it? Is something wrong?"

She sat on the edge of the bed. "I couldn't sleep. You were moanin', an' I thought I'd better check on you."

"Sorry, Hannah, didn't mean to disturb you. I guess it was a nightmare. I've had it before."

"Something on your mind?"

I laughed, softly, but I wasn't going to lie. "Yes. Mary."

"Ah. Worried about her, are ye?"

"Aye, Hannah, I am. My Pa, he's a changed man since Ma died. Heck, before that. I thought, maybe, when he brought Mary home he'd change. He did, for a while, but then he started turnin' mean again. I've tried not to think about it, but I'm dreadin what I might find when I get back. I just pray that she's alive and well."

"You cain't do a thing about it until day after tomorrow, when the train runs, Jack." She laughed, softly. "And you on my mind." She took a deep breath. "Jack, remember I told you I owed you for Billy Esdon--"

"No! You owe me nothing for Billy Esdon. Nothing, you hear me? What I did to him was of his own making, in picking on me."

"Jack," she said, her voice still soft. "That's as maybe, but I feel that I owe you, and I was wondering what I could do about it. Then I had an idea. I saw you lookin' at me, and tryin' to hide it, an' I thank you for not starin', but Jack, I have to ask, do you like me?"

"Of course I do. What's not to like? You're beautiful, kind, and a damned good cook."

A soft laugh in the darkness. "Okay, you like me. You think I'm a desirable woman?"

I groaned. "Do you need to ask that? You only have to look in the mirror, woman."

There was a long pause, and when she spoke again I could barely hear her. "Do you want me, Jack? Do you want to make love to me? Do you want me in your bed?"

I groaned again, and all the want was in my voice when I spoke. "Oh, my god, yes! God forgive me, but I do. But, Hannah, I can't! Mary..." I hesitated, in an agony of indecision. Oh, Mary! Forgive me!

Another soft laugh, a little wry, and her voice was warm when she spoke again. "I hoped it was so, Jack, that you might want me, because I want you, too. I loved to feel Danny's hands on my body when we made love. I loved to feel his prick in my quim, Jack, and I wanted to feel yours there." She stood, and I wondered, but she bent to give me a quick, light kiss. "But I won't ask you to betray your Mary, Jack, it isn't right."

The next thing I knew she was gone, as quietly as she came, and I lay there in the darkness, cursing myself for a fool.

She was subdued when she made our breakfast next morning, avoiding my eye.

"Hannah? Is something wrong? Was it something I said, something I did?"

She looked at me then, and shook her head. "No, Jack, it's me. I made a fool of myself and embarrassed you. I'm sorry."

I took her hand, making her face me, and shook my head. "No, Hannah, it's me that's the fool, turnin' you down. It was me embarrassin' you, and I'm sorry for that. I wanted you." I chuckled. "I guess I still do, but I have to know about me and Mary, before I dare let myself think about anyone else."

"Of course you do, Jack. Of course you do." She smiled. "I'm pleased that one of us was strong. Now? Well, Jack Riley, now it's time for our breakfast. Then you can give me a hand with the pigs and the hens."

"Yes, ma'am!"

We were easier with each other after that, but Hannah was on my mind and I reckon I was on hers, but we said nothing, and the day was peaceful, and the night, undisturbed this time by nightmare. Or by Hannah, and I still don't know whether I was disappointed or relieved.

When it came time for me to leave, Hannah hugged me, and gave me a quick kiss on the lips.

"I'll miss you, Jack Riley. You're a fine young man." She looked away for a moment, and then back at me. "I think I would have enjoyed your touch, Jack. Don't misunderstand me, Jack. I like you, yes, I do." She gave me another quick kiss. "I think I proved that. But I don't love you. Women feel urges too, you know, and to have a man like you in my bed for a night or two, knowing I'd probably never see you again after you left, well, it would have been a little bittersweet, but it would have been good, I think. There's a man in town has asked me to marry him. A good man. He's asked me three times now, and when I see him again, this time I'm going to say yes, for you've reminded me of the pleasure I feel in a good man's touch. I'm glad you came to stay with me, Jack, very glad. And yes, I'll miss you, but you're going back to rescue your Mary, and I don't want you to feel obliged to me." She gave a soft laugh. "I think you would have been making love to your Mary as much as you were to me, if I'd come into your bed."

I nodded, a wry smile quirking my lips. "I think you're right, Hannah, Mary would have been on my mind, that's for sure." I pulled her to me and kissed her. "I won't feel obliged to you, Hannah. But will you let me be grateful?"

She laughed. "Aye, Jack. I can manage that."

"And tell this man, tell him, that if he hurts you, I'll do a Billy Esdon on him. Understand?"

Hannah laughed. "Yes, Jack. I understand." She kissed me. "I won't come to the depot with you, Jack. As far as anyone else knows, you're just Patrick's friend, who lodged with his cousin for a couple of nights."

"I understand, Hannah." I kissed her, and she clung to me for a moment, before gently pushing me away.

"Go with God, Jack Riley, and I hope, I trust, that your Mary is safe and waiting for you." She smiled, a little wry. "She'd better be worth it, Jack, for you're a fine young man."

"She is, Hannah, but maybe I'm not worthy of her."

"Because you almost bedded me?" I nodded, and she laughed. "Jack Riley, it takes a man with the strength of a saint to resist a naked woman slipping into bed with him and asking him to love her. Call it a lesson, Jack, a lesson to help you love your Mary. Go, and make Mary feel good, for I think you can."

I stared at her for a long moment then nodded. I knew the guilt over my temptation would linger, but please God, it would make me a better man, somehow, for Mary deserved the best. "Thank you, Hannah, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now, you take care, you hear?"

"I will, Jack. I will. Now, go! Else you'll miss your train."

And I went. I knew I'd never forget Hannah Gilroy, and I wished her well. But as she'd said, I was on my way to rescue my Mary. I'd left the gold eagle on the dresser with a note, a note that said. 'A wedding present, Hannah, a wedding present to you and your husband-to-be, with my grateful thanks', I hoped I'd be long gone before she found it.

* * * * *



Chapter Five

The train ride took three days, and even when I left the train, I still had nigh on to forty miles to go. I debated with myself as to the best way to travel, thinking about Mary, and spent some of my hard-earned dollars on a buckboard and a bay gelding. The only thing I'd ever driven until then was Paddy's wagon and my chuck-wagon, but it only took about ten miles before the bay and me settled into a good working relationship.

I knew the back trail to the cabin, and I pulled the buckboard off the trail, tied the bay, and moved through the trees until I could see the cabin. I studied it carefully for a while, puzzled, because I could see neither Pa nor Mary. Instead, it was strangers, a young couple, with a couple of kids. I knew there was only one way to find out what the situation was, and that was to ask, so I tooled the buckboard back onto the trail and drove to the cabin. The two kids, maybe four or five years old, were playing when I drew the bay to a halt.

"Hi, kids," I said. "Your folks about?" Movement caught my eye, and the woman came out onto the porch.

"Help you?" she said, careful, suspicious of strangers.

"Good day, ma'am," I said, doffing my hat. "Last time I was in these parts, this was the Riley place. Know where I can find them?"

Her face cleared. "In town. Mr. Riley took over the Last Chance saloon. They live there now. They sold us this place."

"Last Chance saloon? In town?" She nodded. "Obliged, ma'am. Good day to you." And I drove away, wondering. Pa? Taken over a saloon? Where in tarnation could that drunken brute of a father of mine find the money to take over a saloon? I knew the saloon, pretty much the first--or last, depending on which way you was travellin'--place in town. At least when I left, it was, but now it was in the middle of a row of small businesses. The only saloon in the row, I noticed. Could do with a coat of paint, too.

Inside, it was gloomy. Not enough lamps, maybe, and the windows needed cleaning, too. I recognized Mary immediately. Still as slender and lovely as I remembered, and I wondered how she managed it, married to the brute that was my father. And where was he, I wondered? Then I spotted him sitting at a table in the corner. Probably drinking the profits, I guessed.

Just the sight of her had brought back all of my half-remembered feelings and I knew that Hannah had been right. When I'd been thinking about making love to Hannah, it had been Mary on my mind. Just the sight of her told me that, without there bein' any doubt in my mind, the dark red hair in a roll at her nape, the green eyes downcast, so that I couldn't see them, but I remembered their loveliness.

Mary was tending bar, and I made my way over. There was no-one in earshot, and I took a moment just to look at her, my fists clenching in sudden anger just at the sight of the fresh bruise on her cheekbone. She misunderstood my action and flinched; but I unclenched my fist and she relaxed a little.

"What'll it be?" she said, careful, her eyes avoiding contact.

"Hello, Mary," I said, my tone soft. "I'm back."

Her gaze lifted and she stared at me for a long, long moment, then her eyes widened. "Jack?" she whispered. "Is it you?"

"As ever was, Mary. I told you I'd come back." I gave her a rueful smile. "I hadn't meant it to be quite so long, though."

"I didn't think you'd ever come back," she said. "I wouldn't have blamed you," she added, her voice warm, soft.

"Oh, Mary, Mary, I'm sad you should think so little of me. I said I'd be back, and here I am."

She half-smiled, dashing the back of her hand against the sudden misting in her eyes. "'Tis good to see you, Jack." Her smile became real. "I missed you, Jack."

"Are you ready to leave, then, Mary? Come away with me? Leave all this--this splendor--behind?"

Ever-practical, Mary. "Got enough money for the both of us, Jack Riley?"

I nodded. "Enough and to spare, Mary."

"Where are we goin'?"

"Anywhere you like."

"California?"

"We need to get to the railroad, sell my buckboard back to the man I bought it from, and buy our tickets, but we can be in California by Saturday."

"You tellin' me true?" She stared at me, hope beginning to show on her face.

I made a cross over my heart with my finger. "Tellin' you true, Mary." I could see the decision in her eyes the moment she made it. She discarded her apron, and came round the bar, taking my arm.

"Where in hell's name do you think you're goin'?" Pa's voice shouted from his corner.

"I'm leaving you, Jake," said Mary. "You've hit me once too often."

Pa looked me up and down. "With this son of a bitch?"

I grinned. "Yes, Pa, with me."

"Jack?" There was surprise, yes, and shock, too, in his voice. "Over my dead body, you bastard."

"I'm your son, remember. You tellin' me you and Ma wasn't married?" I kept my tone light, but I was poised, ready. With an inarticulate cry of rage, he charged. I'd been scared of him, fearing his fighting skill, but that was before Paddy showed me how. I stepped inside his wild swing, sank my fist in his belly, broke his nose with a head butt, just as he'd broken mine, and put my knee into his face to straighten him, then hit him with the best punch I could manage. He was out cold before he hit the floor and I swear he slid across the floor for six or seven feet before coming to a standstill.

I stared at his unconscious form for a long moment, trying to feel something, but there was nothing. And that, I guess, is what my Pa had become to me. Nothing. I looked around, at the few men in the saloon, but none of them looked as if he wanted to say, or do, anything to stop me. It might even have been approval I saw on one or two faces.

Mary had watched, impassive, but her eyes were bright as she took my arm. We turned toward the door and I stopped dead in my tracks. The star on the man's shirt kinda' gave away the fact that there was a sheriff between us and the door. I don't think he recognized me, not at first, but I sure as hell recognized him.

I nodded. "Alec. Goin' to arrest me?"

He frowned a little at my using his given name, but his tone was blunt when he spoke. "Tell me why I shouldn't?"

"Fair enough. Family dispute, Alec. Pa didn't want me takin' Mary away."

He was surprised. "Jack? Jack Riley?"

"As ever was, Alec."

"You're takin' Mary away?"

"He is, Alec. And I'm more than willin' to go with him," said Mary.

"So it's not kidnapping, or anything bad?" said Alec. "Nothing I need to worry about as a duly appointed officer of the law, Mary being an adult and all?"

I think he was trying not to smile, particularly as I could hear someone being sick behind me, and no prizes for guessing who.

"That's the way of it, Alec. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all."

He stepped aside. "Look after her, Jack."

"I will, Alec. My life on it."

"I'd leave town, I was you, Jack. Your pa's a mean cuss."

"I know, Alec, I know."

Outside, I turned to Mary. "Clothes? Coat? Anythin' you want to take with you?"

She nodded. "I'll get my coat, it's about the only decent thing I have."

"What about your other things?"

She gave me a wry smile. "What other things, Jack? I have this dress I'm wearin', a pair of shoes, and two pairs of stockings, and that's about it."

"Grab anything you want, or need, and I'll buy you fresh stuff when we get to the railroad." I grinned. "There's more choice there than there is here."

She looked at me, and then stepped across and hugged me, hugged me hard, taking me by surprise, but I hugged her back, feeling good. She broke away, a smile in her eyes, a light there that hadn't been present when I stepped into the saloon.

"Wait here, Jack, I'll only be a moment."

"No, Mary, I'm not lettin' you out of my sight again, not until we're safe away from here."

She nodded, seeing the resolve in my eyes. "This way." She led me around back of the saloon, and up an outside stairway. There was a door at the top of the stairs, unlocked, and she ducked through. There was a battered dresser, a narrow truckle bed, and some hooks on the walls. She grabbed a coat, stockings, a tattered shawl, and a blanket, threw the shawl across her shoulders, wrapped the blanket around the other things, and turned to me. A hesitant smile appeared on her face. "What is it, Jack?"

"I don't see any of Pa's stuff."

"Your pa sleeps downstairs. I wouldn't let him touch me after you left, Jack." She gave me a wry look. "Most of the time he was in no fit state in any case. Cost me a few bruises, but worth it." She gestured. "Let's go, Jack."

That was the last I ever saw of Pa and his Last Chance saloon. We grabbed a few supplies at the store to supplement what I had, and well before sunset we were leaving the town behind us. I drove until the sun was touching the hilltops and looked for somewhere to camp. A stream crossing the trail promised water, and I turned the buckboard off the trail, into a clearing among pines about a hundred yards from the trail. I unhitched and picketed the bay, got a fire going, and finally turned to Mary, who had just been sitting on the grass watching me. I smiled at her.

"The menu is a little boring, madam, I'm sorry to say. I can offer you bacon and beans, or bacon without beans, or beans without bacon. Anything else will have to wait until we reach the railroad." To my alarm, Mary burst into tears. I hurried across to her, kneeling beside her. I reached out to touch her, hesitant, and she turned, flinging herself into my arms, sobbing fit to bust.

"What is it, Mary?" I said softly. "I got you away, you're free." I felt her squeeze me, and figured best thing I could do was just hold her, and wait. I didn't have to wait long, as her sobs eased and she sat up, dashing her tears away with the back of her hand. She gave me a wan smile.

"Better now?" I said, and she nodded. "What is it, Mary? Something wrong?"

She shook her head. "No, Jack, nothing is wrong. Anything but, in fact. It was just the realization that the last time anyone did anything for me, anything nice, it was you. And that was over two years ago!"

"I can see I'm going to have to make up for lost time." I grinned at her. "Hungry?"

A startled look appeared on her face. "Starvin'!"

After her comment, there was no way I was going to have her cook for me. She sat with the shawl around her shoulders, watching me while I sliced some bacon into the skillet I'd brought, and hung a pot of beans from a pole across two forked sticks, over the fire. Cooked, I dug out the two tin plates, and served us a portion each. Mary looked at hers, and laughed.

"Tryin' to build me up, Jack?"

I shrugged. "Maybe. There's not a lot of meat on you, Mary."

"You like big girls?" She seemed genuinely interested, and I grinned.

"No, Mary, it's not that, I just prefer not to see the bones stickin' through everywhere." I passed her a fork, and we got dug in. It was nigh full dark now, and when we'd finished I dug out my bedroll, and passed it to her. "You use that for tonight, Mary. I'll use the tarpaulin, and I'll borrow your blanket, if I may."

She looked at me for a long moment. "Jack, that purely doesn't make sense. Gets a tad cool out here at night, right?"

"Aye, it does."

"We put the tarpaulin down, put my blanket on top, pull your bedroll over the two of us, we sleep cozy. Make sense?"

I nodded. "It does. You'll be okay like that?"

She held my eye. "Yes, Jack. You, I trust."

I managed not to let the bulge in my jeans touch her, breathing a sigh of relief when we turned over and she snuggled in behind me. I wanted her, I'd realized that as soon as I saw her again, in the saloon, but there was no way I was going to rush into anything. She was too important to me to take a chance of spoiling things, and it wasn't a quick coupling I wanted, but something better, something to last.

Of course, a man's body can betray him, and when I woke next morning we'd turned over in the night, I was snug behind her, my arm around her, and my pecker trying to bore a hole in my long johns, my jeans and probably Mary's dress as well. That was my first problem. Second was where my hand had gotten itself, because I had Mary's breast cupped in it, and there was no way I was getting free without my waking her, 'cause her hand was covering mine.

Not for the first time since I'd known her, she surprised me. She pushed back briefly against me, squeezed my hand over her breast, and then wriggled over until she was facing me, our faces only inches apart. She smiled, shy, sweet, lovely, warmth in her regard.

"Mornin', Jack."

"Mornin', Mary."

"Sleep well?"

"I guess. You?"

"First time I slept on the ground in a long time, Jack, but once I'd gotten off to sleep, yes, I did."

"Good. Only one night of this, I think. We should be in town by afternoon. Probably too late for the train, so we'll get us a couple of rooms for the night, catch the mornin' train. That's iffen there's a westbound! Never thought to check before comin' to fetch you."

She smiled again, and stretched across to kiss my nose. She held my eyes when she spoke. "One room, Jack, one bed, that's all we need, you and me. I ain't felt so safe for a long time as I did sharing this bed of ours, out here, under the stars."

I gave her a wry smile. "Sharing a bed with my step-mama."

She smiled, shaking her head. "No, Jack, your pa and me, we was never married. We just told you that, 'cause I didn't want you thinkin' bad of me."

I stared at her for a long, long, moment then smiled. There had been an anxious look deep in her eyes, one she'd tried to hide, but it faded as I leaned forward to kiss her, quick, light. More kisses would come later. "I could never think bad of you, Mary. I love you."

"And I love you, Jack," she said, sending a jolt of pure joy through me. She shook her head, a rueful expression on her face. "I ain't even certain how or why. I jus' know, that when you came into that saloon, and I realized who the big man with the broken nose was, well, I just felt good, happy, really happy, that you was back in my life. I said goodbye to a boy two years ago, but it was a man who come into that saloon looking for me, to keep his promise. You're the only man who ever looked out for me, Jack, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart."

She made a face. "I never loved your pa. I was grateful, and I tried to be good to him, but he drove that away with his meanness." She sat up, tousled and lovely in the early morning sunshine. "Get a fire goin', Jack, we'll have some coffee and hit the road. We got those crackers and jerky. 'T'aint great, but we can eat as we go. Sooner we get to town, sooner we get us a room, sooner we share a bed." She held my eyes. "You're five years younger'n me, Jack, but I don't care a damn. You're more man than anyone I ever seen, and I want to share your bed, and your life." She stopped dead, looked across at me, and flushed. "Guess I'm takin' things fer granted, ain't I?" she said, suddenly hesitant.

I laughed, and shook my head. "No, Mary, you're just makin' my dreams come true, an' a lot quicker'n I ever thought. I kinda hoped that, one day, maybe, you might love me a little, and I was gonna be good to you, to make it happen. I'm only sorry it took me so long to come back for you."

She shook her head, smiling. "You did come back, soon as you could, and that's what matters to me." She paused. "I know I said California, but if there's anywheres else you'd rather be?"

I shrugged. "California's as good as anywhere else, I reckon. Maybe Oregon, it's pretty there. Don' think as Pa'll be followin' us, anyways." I shrugged. "If he does, well, he better look out."

"My hero!" Mary laughed. "You certainly put him out. Did you see the look on Alec Grant's face, when he realized who you was?"

"Yeah, I figured he was tryin' not to laugh." I reached out and squeezed her fingers. "Let's us get movin', Mary."

It was a long day, but a happy one. We made better time than I had figured, and we reached town probably mid-afternoon, a good long while shy of sunset. I dickered with the livery for the buckboard and the bay. I took a loss on it, but not near as bad as I feared, only a few dollars. I guess they was glad to have it available again. There were a couple of hotels in town, but we asked around and called at a little cottage on the edge of town, where I'd been told we might get some lodgings. There was a spry ol' lady living there, and she took a shine to us straight away.

Upshot was, she let us have a little cabin she had, maybe a hundred feet back of her cottage. Only had two rooms, a kitchen with a table and two chairs, and a bedroom with a big ol' brass bed. We'd taken us time to get Mary a few things, and I let her get washed and changed while I got the stove going. She came out, dressed in her new nightdress, hair tied back, her face scrubbed clean.

"All yours, Jack. You get ready, and I'll get us some coffee."

"Sure thing, sweetheart." She smiled when she heard that, but I had ideas, ideas that maybe didn't include any coffee. I stripped off my clothes and washed quickly, but thorough--I wanted to be clean for Mary--and lay on the bed, naked. Thoughts of Mary and me already had me excited, and it didn't take more'n a moment or so before my pecker was hard and ready, and I lay back.

There was a quick knock on the door and she came in with the coffee for me, smiling, her new robe over her nightdress. She stopped short at the sight of my erection, flushing, but a strange expression passed over her face, one I could only describe as a cross between lust and hunger, a longing. She put the coffee cup down, tearing her gaze away from me and turned as if to go.

"Mary, no," I said. "Please stay."

She turned, the flush still on her face, trying not to look at my erection.

"I..." she began.

"Mary," I said, holding her eyes with mine. "Make love to me."

She shook her head, her mouth working, soundless, but I felt certain that it was a reflex action, because we'd both known when we took the cabin that there was only going to be one conclusion, that we would share the bed, that we would make love.

"Make love to me, Mary," I said, but gently now, "we both want it."

"I can't." Her face was wretched, torn with indecision.

"Yes, you can." I reached out and tugged at the sash of her robe. "You're not my stepmother, you're my Mary, the woman I love."

She shook her head in remembered pain, then looked up at me. "I never let him touch me again after you left."

I nodded, holding my hand out to her. "You told me already, but I'm not him, Mary, I'm me. I'm Jack Riley, not Jacob Riley." I smiled, trying to put the love I had for her into my eyes. "So make love to me, Mary, my love." I tugged at the sash of her robe, pulling her to the bedside. She came, unresisting, with a sigh of acceptance, her robe falling open as she moved to kneel astride my thighs.

She shrugged the robe off and discarded it, reaching out a trembling hand to touch me, and I hissed in a gasp of pleasure as I felt her small hand close around my hardness. There was an absorbed look on her face as she felt me, and then she shuffled forward, lifting the hem of her nightdress and taking gentle hold of my prick, angling it up, feeding it to her pussy. I caught a glimpse of pubic hair, dark as her head, before the hem dropped again as she lowered herself onto me, her pussy surprisingly slick with her juices, and I was startled and pleased at how ready she was, a moan escaping her lips as she took my rigidity within her.

"Show me your breasts," I said, holding her eyes with mine.

She flushed again but there was no hesitation as she reached to move the hem of her nightdress up, crossing her arms to strip it off over her head, discarding it beside her robe. She was slender, my Mary, too slender, and a flash of anger went through me at the fading bruise on her ribs, but a look of pleasure was growing on her face as she rode me. Her breasts were full, the nipples thick and hard with her own want. I reached up to cup the soft weight of her, my thumbs brushing over her hard nubs. She shuddered for a moment, pausing, but began to move again, to rise and fall on my aching hardness, her juices flowing freely, the squish of her movement loud in our ears.

I flexed my prick within her and she faltered briefly before continuing her ride, rising, falling...

"Soon," I said, her movements getting me nearer and nearer.

"Me, too," she gasped as she moved. "Very soon now."

I thrust up into her as she came down, moving my hand so that my fingers traced her labia before brushing lightly against her clitoris, trying to give her pleasure as I took my own. Mary's belly convulsed and her quim clamped down on me as she came, a plaintive mew of pleasure escaping from her lips, my hips moving urgently as I came in my turn and she collapsed across me as we stilled, my prick twitching in post-coital spasms. At last she turned her head and kissed me lightly on the cheek.

"Thank you, Jack," she whispered, "for everything, but perhaps most of all for making me feel needed again, wanted, loved, something I haven't felt since my mama died."

"'Tis I who should be thanking you, my Mary." I paused, realizing something, and I laughed.

"What is it, Jack?" She raised her head, smiling into my eyes.

"Well, if you and Pa were never married, I don't even know your name."

She giggled, and a corner of my mind wondered how many times she'd giggled while I'd been away, when she had last managed that. "Rourke," she said. "Mary Alice Elizabeth Rourke."

I smiled at her, and hugged her. "Hello, Mary Alice Elizabeth Rourke. I'm John Patrick Fitzpatrick Riley, and I'm very pleased to know you." I held her eyes. "Will you marry me?"

There was a long, long, moment as she stared at me, and tears welled up in her eyes, but her smile when it came was radiant. "Yes, Jack. Oh, yes!" She dashed the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "When?" She was hesitant, and I hastened to reassure her, my reward in her look of love when I spoke.

"Is tomorrow too soon?"

* * * * *



Chapter Six

The next few days blur in my memory sometimes, but those memories are good, very good. The next morning, after a night of love, of laughter, yes, and of tears, we'd broken our fast, and then made our way to the old lady's cottage. I think she'd seen us coming, and opened the door immediately to my knock.

"Yes, Mister Riley? Is there something I can do for you?"

"Yes, ma'am, Miz Adams, there is. Mary and me, we want to get married, today if possible, and we was wonderin' iffen you could tell us who we should go see?"

"You told me you were already married, young man," said Mrs Adams, sternly, but with a twinkle in her eye.

"Yes, ma'am, sorry ma'am."

"Come on in, the two of you, and let's talk about this."

Upshot of it was, Mrs Adams got her coat and took us into town, and to the little house behind the church, where she threw open the door and marched in.

"Charles? Are you home? Emma?"

A young woman came through from the kitchen, holding a baby in her arms, followed by a man in the dark suit of a man of the cloth.

"Mama, how lovely to see you. You don't call here nearly often enough!" The young woman kissed Mrs. Adams' cheek, and turned to us, curious, expectant.

"Emma, Charles, this here's Jack Riley and Mary--never did get your name, did I, dear?"

Mary blushed. "Rourke, Mary Rourke."

"Mister Riley, Miz Rourke. Is there something we can do for you?" said the man, a gentle smile on his face.

"We want to get married. We asked Miz Adams, and she brought us here."

"Very right and proper, too. I'm the Reverend Charles Adams. This is my wife, Emma, and the baby is Nathaniel, after my late father. As I think you have already realized, Mrs. Adams is my mother. Sit down, both of you and let's get this sorted out. Emma, darling, a cup of something?"

"Of course, dear. Come on, Mama, you can look after Nathaniel for a minute or two."

With a bright smile from both of them they left us alone with the Reverend. He turned to us. "Now, I'm sorry, but obviously I have to ask you some questions. Are either of you already married?"

It took a while, but we made it clear to the Reverend that neither of us had been married before, we did not need to seek approval from anyone, and we knew of no reason whatsoever why we should not marry. Long story short, not long after two o'clock that very afternoon Mary became Mrs. Riley, in a solemn little ceremony attended by Mrs. Adams, Emma and Nathaniel, who slept throughout, and some friends of Mrs. Adams, 'who just loved weddings', and were happy to act as witnesses and congregation both.

We spent our wedding night in Mrs. Adams little cabin, happy, loving, exhausting each other with the intensity of our lovemaking. I teased Mary as we lay recovering, cozy under the comforter, her naked body pressed against mine.

"Why the rush, sweetheart? We have our whole life ahead."

"Because I want your child," said Mary. I have to say, that shut me up for a time, while I kissed her.

"Boy or girl?" I said, as we came up for breath.

She smiled happily, and winked at me. "Both!"

"Well, let me rest for a little while, then I'll be happy to help you make your wish come true."

"Am I greedy?" said Mary, kissing my nose.

I grinned at her. "Yes, love, but no more'n I am."

"Where are we going, Jack? What will we do?"

"Where do you want to go? You said California."

"That was because it was the furthest I could think of away from Jacob, but wherever you want to go is fine by me, just so's we're together."

"I've been thinking. Before I came for you, I was working in Oregon, and I grew to love the country there. I was thinkin', thinkin' that maybe you an' me could open a little store, maybe with somewhere for folks to eat, because I enjoy cookin'. Somewhere that the railroad goes, and iffen we can find a place where maybe a main road crosses the railroad, 'cause that way we get both lots of people, as that's where the towns tend to be."

"If that's what you want, Jack, that's what we do."

"I think we could make a success of it. Mister Eldersen is still shippin' into the territory, 'cept he uses the railroad now. I think I might persuade him to extend me credit to get goin'. I want somewhere safe for you and our kids."

"Ah, yes, the children." She reached down, stroking me, smiling into my eyes as my pecker hardened to her soft touch. "Help me make a baby, Mister?"

"Yes, ma'am!"

* * * * *



Chapter Seven

The journey West was pleasant. We were together, we were in love, and we had a future, a future together. We got a little frustrated at times on the train, as we wanted to be making love, but we'd decided to travel as cheaply as possible to save money, so being able to sit was about all we could afford.

We finally reached our destination and ten days after I'd left, we stepped off the train at the same place I'd got on to go and fetch Mary. She looked around, smiling.

"This is where we're going to live?"

"That was the plan, yes. We can move on iffen you don't care for it."

"We stay. This place has a nice feel to it. I think we can be happy here."

I picked up our bags. Not heavy, as neither of us owned much in the way of clothing. I nodded at the building across the street from the depot. "The hotel over there looks clean, so I reckon we'll get us a room for a few nights while we look around, see where we might make a start."

"As long as the bed's clean," said Mary and we made our way across.

There was a windowed door in the lobby, with a bell beside it, so I rang the bell and a face appeared at the window, quickly opening it.

"Yes, folks? Can I help you?" The speaker was a pleasant middle-aged woman.

"I'd like a room for my wife an' me."

The woman nodded. "We got rooms. How long for?"

I shrugged. "Don't really know, ma'am. We're looking to settle here, maybe start a little store, maybe a restaurant. A couple of nights, to start with. Is that in order?"

The woman nodded, but at my mention of store and restaurant, her interest had sharpened. She was thoughtful as she pushed her register towards us so's we could sign.

"Mister? Ma'am? Where was you plannin' to eat?"

"I don't really know. Any recommendations?"

"We do occasional meals for visitors here." She smiled. "Iffen we like them. Got a couple of drummers stayin' an' they eat at the saloon. Three families as well, but they have friends in town and eat there. If you and your wife would like to eat with my husband and me, you're welcome."

I glanced at Mary and she nodded, smiling, and turned to the woman. "We'd like that."

"Right. Here's your key. Room five, top of the stairs and turn right. It's at the back, overlooking the river, so you won't get the street noise. I'll bring some hot water up in a few minutes so's you can freshen up. Then come on down and ring the bell, and we'll have us a meal together." She glanced at the register. "Mister Riley." She smiled. "My name's Helen Clancy, my husband's Mick."

"Jack Riley," I said. "My wife, Mary."

"Pleased to know you," she said. "You folks go on up, an' I'll bring that hot water directly."

The room was clean, the bed big, covered by a bright patchwork comforter. Mary sat on it and bounced herself a couple of times. She grinned at me. "Nice and comfortable, Jack. And no squeaks!"

I laughed. Comfortable as the bed in Mrs. Adams' cabin had been, it squeaked, so that our lovemaking usually had a rather loud accompaniment, which had once or twice left us almost helpless with laughter.

"Later, my love. We'll get ourselves cleaned up and then go eat with Mr. and Mrs. Clancy. I have a feeling me mentionin' store and restaurant give her some ideas, an' I'd kinda like to know what."

The Clancys didn't say anything while we was eatin', but when we'd finished the meal, simple, but nicely cooked and satisfyin', the Clancys let us know what they had in mind. We were in their parlor, at their invitation. I got the definite idea that most casual meal guests didn't get to see the parlor.

"Mr. Riley?"

"Yes, Mr. Clancy?"

"Helen tells me you were lookin' to start a store 'round here, an' maybe a restaurant? That so?"

"It is. Ma taught me to cook, an' I cooked for a freighter comin' West two years ago."

"You must have been awful young," said Helen Clancy.

I grinned. "Sixteen, ma'am. And after that, I worked for Caslow Lumber as cook for the loggin' crew, savin' my money to go back for Mary, like I promised. We was wed back home, an' we come out here to start fresh, without the bad memories. The railroad and the main trail cross here, and I thought maybe a store, an' somewhere for folks to eat, was maybe a good idea."

"Got any start money, son?" said Clancy.

"Some, not a lot. Start small, work hard was the idea. We's young, Mary an' me, but there ain't neither of us scared of hard work."

"That's the right thinkin', son." Clancy paused. "When you come in, did you notice the buildin' next to the hotel?"

"Can't say as I did."

"It's empty. We own it, bought it when it came up for sale after the previous owner decided he could get rich quicker in the goldfields of California than he could 'round here. We was lookin' to let it to someone as a store, but it's too big for some folk. You mentionin' restaurant put an idea in Helen's mind. There's room in there for maybe eight dining tables, an' maybe a couple of benches for men in workin' clothes, an' still plenty room for shelvin' for the store you're aimin' to start.

"Here, we ain't really got the room for a proper dinin' room. What we thought was, we put a door between the hotel and the place next door, an' you do the meals for the hotel guests. You get the passin' trade for meals as well, and you'll have your store. What do you say?"

"Let me see iffen I got this right. A door between the hotel an' next door. Mary and me, we start the restaurant, an' besides that, we cook the meals for the hotel guests. And we start our store there as well. Have I got that right?"

Clancy nodded. "That's exactly right. Like I say, what do you think? The buildin' is goin' to waste at the moment, 'cause we ain't had time to do more'n get the hotel trade built up. The railroad depot bein' just across the street helps, helps a lot, because we're the first place folks see when they get off the train. Iffen there's somewhere to eat, an' somewhere for folk to buy a few things they need, I think it can only be good for both of us."

I sat back, thinking. It looked like a good deal, the more I thought about it. I looked across at Mary, eyebrows raised, and she nodded.

"Yes," she said.

"One thing, Mr. Clancy. Livin' accomodations?"

He grinned, wry. "Sorry; should have mentioned that. There's a little two room cabin back of the store. We own that, too. You could live there."

I took a deep breath. "Mr. Clancy, I think we got us the makings of a deal!" I grinned. "And the name's Jack," I said, sticking my hand out.

"Michael. Mick to you. There's a lot to do, but I think tomorrow is soon enough to think about it. You folk get yourselves a good night's sleep. Your wife looks like she's fallin' asleep now. Guess it's been the travellin'. Come and have breakfast with me and Helen and we'll have us a dicker."

"We'll do that. I got some ideas, an' sleepin' on them will let me get them straight. We'll bid you goodnight, and see in the mornin'."

In room five, after we'd cleaned ourselves up and climbed into bed, I leaned on my elbow and looked down at Mary, warm, naked, curled against me.

"Tired, sweetheart?"

She grinned. "A little, but not so much that I'm gonna let you go to sleep without you lovin' me."

"Good," I said, and reached for her.

Our lovemaking was hot, loving, a giving of each of us to the other, with a feeling of arrival, of being where we were meant to be.

Mick Clancy let us have the store rent-free, for a year, to see whether the four of us could work well together. We could, and we did. I borrowed a buggy and went to see Mr. Caslow, and dickered with him for some lumber to make the store fixings, and I dickered with Mr. Eldersen for some supplies to start off our store. Both of them bein' men who knew me, I got a good bargain, because there was trust between us.

Mary and me scrubbed that store from floor to ceiling. Mick Clancy an' me put a door between the store and the hotel, and I set my kitchen up just the way I wanted. We got the tables and chairs from a failed saloon, and cleaned them up. With clean tablecloths, nobody could see the beer stains and cigar burns.

I borrowed the buggy again, helped Mary in, took a deep breath, and went to see Hannah Gilroy about getting some ham and eggs for the restaurant. Except she wasn't Gilroy no more, but Shaughnessy. She'd wasted no more time getting wed than Mary and me had, once she'd made her mind up. I took to Brendan Shaughnessy straight away. Hannah? She came straight to me and hugged me, and then turned to Mary.

"He said you were lovely," she said. "He didn't have the poetry to do you justice. You're beautiful, girl, not just lovely." She held her arms out and Mary didn't hesitate, and the two of them hugged each other, tears streaming down both faces. Brendan and me looked at each other and shrugged. Women! What man could ever truly understand them?

* * * * *



Epilogue

That's pretty much the end of my tale, 'cept for a couple of things. John Edmund Riley was born nine months to the day after Mary and me was wed, named for his Pa, me, and Mary's Grandpa on her mama's side. Fifteen months later, his sister, Emma Mary Helen Hannah Riley was born, and those names was Mary's choices, not mine, Emma for my Ma, and Mary for hers, but I didn't argue. We're doing well. Mick and Helen's hotel has been enlarged. Twice. And what was once our store and restaurant is now purely for eating. We opened a bigger store on the other side of the street, half a block from the depot, where we could unload stuff straight from a railroad car. I still cook occasionally, because I enjoy it, but most of the cooking in the restaurant is done by a young Frenchman and his wife who came to me looking for employment. There's no way I can cook as well as Gaston Dupree, but he tells me I'm good. For an Irish-American.

One other little thing remains to be told. I was going home from the telegraph office after confirming an order for dry goods, and passing one of the saloons, when a figure lurched out behind me. First I knew was the familiar, unwelcome voice.

"Riley! Jack Riley, you bastard. Turn round, I knows it's you."

I turned, and there he was, Billy Esdon, disheveled, red-eyed, a little the worse for wear. He stood, swaying a little, glaring at me, fumbling a pistol from inside his coat and pointing it at me.

"Hello, Billy," I said, calm as I could manage.

"It's all your fault, you bastard. You're to blame!" His voice was loud, a touch of hysteria there.

"What's my fault, Billy?" I said, tryin' to stay calm, but I didn't feel calm, not with that gun pointed at me. Drunk as he was, at six feet range he wasn't going to miss.

"Everything," he screamed. "After you left, Uncle Will fired me, and Mama threw me out."

"Why'd she do that, Billy?" I could guess.

"What does it matter?" he said, almost calmly. "It's all your fault, and I'm going to kill you."

I tensed, and moved to get closer to him.

"Stop there," he screamed, and I froze. He seemed to steady, staring me in the eye, and the pistol moved to point at my head. His thumb drew back the hammer and I braced myself, ready to dive. Or to die.

The gunshot was deafening and I had a moment of terrified confusion, wondering why I hadn't felt anything, but then I realized a hole had appeared in Billy's forehead. There was an expression of acute surprise on his face and then he crumpled. I whirled around.

Ten feet away was Tom Johnson, our town marshal, a smoking pistol in his hand, which he lowered, holstering the pistol. He came to stand beside me and we looked down at Billy's body, as people appeared from everywhere and came to gape at us.

"Know him, Jack? Billy? Met him before?"

I nodded. "When I worked for Caslow Lumber, as a cook, a while back, before I went back East to get married."

"Have trouble with him before?"

I nodded again. "Aye, Tom." I sighed. "Billy and me, we have a history." I glanced at the marshal. "Did you have to kill him?"

"Better this way, Jack. He was wanted for rape and murder. After Caslow fired him, he went mad." Tom nodded towards home. "Get yourself off home to Mary and the children, Jack. Nothing for you to do here."

"I will, Tom, I will." I gave him a wry smile. "Thanks for saving my life."

He smiled, his own smile wry, a little sad. "Just doin' my job, Jack, same as you."

Mary was doing some mending when I got home, raising her lips to mine when I bent to kiss her.

"Did I hear a gunshot, Jack?"

"You did, sweetheart. Tom Johnson caught up with someone who was wanted for rape and murder. The law won."

She nodded, unconcerned. "Just as it should be."

"Children in bed?"

"And sound asleep." She looked up me and smiled, wide, inviting. "Early night tonight?" she said, radiating innocence.

"Yes!"

* * * * *

That's the end, folks, for those of you that made it this far! If you enjoyed it, I'd love to hear from you. If you didn't enjoy it, I'd still love to hear from you, as constructive criticism can only help me improve

Alex



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