Pete and Joe sat around Dorothy’s kitchen table in the back of the Ranchers’ Saloon. Pete’s hands shook as he raised a mug of coffee to his lips. Dorothy stood by the table, too restless to sit. Pete listened to Joe as yet again he related the events of the day.
“So you got the money back?” she asked.
Pete didn’t answer. At last, Joe shook his head. “Afraid not. One of the jiggers got away. Saw his tracks heading cross-country. He was long gone by the time the shooting finished. Might even have been gone before the shooting started.”
“And he had all the money from the bank?”
There was silence around the table.
“This is the end,” Pete said wearily.
“What d’you mean?” she asked.
“Dell. He’ll definitely get rid of us now.”
“What?” she said, surprise evident in her voice. “Banks get robbed all the time and marshals don’t lose their jobs over it. Surely he can’t fire you just for this.”
Pete didn’t reply. He couldn’t be sure what he might say. He left it to Joe to tell her about the meeting they’d had with the mayor this morning.
“So what if he fires you?” Dorothy said defiantly after Joe finished.
“So what?” A little fire returned to Pete’s voice. “What about our plans?” he asked, the cadence of his voice rising. “What about the homestead we were going to buy? What about the life we planned? We can’t do all that if I lose my job. It’s just not possible.”
The sound of boots on the wooden floor of the kitchen interrupted him.
Paul Henry, one of the lawmen who worked with Pete and Joe, entered.
“Sorry to disturb you, Ma’am,” Paul said, nodding toward Dorothy. “But the mayor wants to see you fellers,” he said, looking at Pete and Joe.
“Thanks, Paul,” Pete said.
Paul hastily withdrew.
“This is it,” Pete said. He rose slowly and picked his hat up from the table. “We’d better–” The words died in his throat as he felt the sharp sting of a slap across his cheek. He staggered back a step, stunned by the sudden blow. He hadn’t seen it coming: Dorothy had lashed out like a rattlesnake.
“I’ll…” Joe stammered as he made for the door.
“You stay right there, Joe Flaherty,” Dorothy shouted, “unless you want some as well.”
“No, Ma’am, I mean, yes, Ma’am. I mean…” He collapsed into his chair.
Dorothy stood, her cheeks flushed. “I don’t know what’s happening to you today, Pete Baker, but I do know for sure that the man I married wouldn’t give up so easily.”
Pete opened his mouth to reply but her glare quieted him in no uncertain terms. “I’m here in the saloon, minding little Tom and helping my father. What would you say if I told you I was giving it all up just because some drunk made my life difficult? You wouldn’t let me, that’s what, because you know I love it here. Heck, even when we do move out to our farm, I’ll be back here helping out. I know you love being the marshal here, Pete, and if Mayor Dell is going to take that away from you, then he will. But you’re certainly not going to roll over to have your belly kicked. You’re not going to say ‘thank you very much’ when he takes the badge from your shirt. I know a good wife would tell her husband to do whatever he feels is right, that if he wanted to leave his job that she’d support him, no matter what. Well, that’s a load of bull! If you go in there and fight for what you love doing, then I’ll support you, if not…”
She left the sentence unfinished.
Pete exhaled slowly. He realized he’d been holding his breath. Dorothy’s words hung in the air like smoke after a gunshot. He stared up at her. He didn’t feel embarrassment at being castigated in front of Joe; all he could feel was love for the beautiful woman before him, the mother of his child. She was right, of course, like she always was; even when she wasn’t. Something had happened to him out on the plain, he’d felt his own mortality like never before. Discovered that he had more to lose than he ever realized. Baby Tom’s arrival had changed something within him which he only realized today. And the extra responsibility weighed on his shoulders.
That phrase rang around his head. That’s what he was scared of losing. Scared of leaving little Tom without a father; scared of not having those years ahead with his son that he hoped to enjoy.
But he couldn’t hide from reality. For the present, at least, he was still the marshal of Baxter Springs, and he had to act like it. He had to fight for his job and for his own self-respect, if not for any other reason. So he could hold his head high when he came back to his wife and child and call himself the head of his family.
He rose from his seat without saying a word and pulled Dorothy close to him.
She resisted for a moment but when she felt the force of his kiss, she relaxed gladly.
* * * *
Once more they sat in Dell’s office. This time, however, there was someone else in the room: Evan Taylor, standing over Dell.
“What happened this morning?” Dell asked. He smiled as a hungry cat might at a lame mouse.
“You know well what happened, Mayor,” Pete replied. “The money was stolen from the bank and I all but got blasted to kingdom come for trying to get it back. But for Joe, here, I’d be worm food by now.”
“I understand your anger, Marshal, and I thank you for your efforts, but you didn’t get the money back, did you? Any of it? Not one cent?”
He imagined the satisfying feeling of his knuckles connecting with Dell’s fatty mouth, permanently knocking the sneer from his face. Dell didn’t care that Pete had nearly lost everything that morning. He fought to contain his anger. “We never had a chance of recovering that money,” he said. “And the men we killed would never have seen any of it either. Whoever was behind this job wasn’t going to share the cash. The others were just tools to be used to get what he wanted and then to be thrown away when he was finished with them. It just happened that we saved him from doing the worst of the dirty work.”
Perversely, Pete had a grudging respect for the outlaw. He wasn’t beholden to anybody, had taken what he wanted and gotten away scot-free. Not like him, an upstanding citizen dependent on the whims of a mayor who made him feel physically nauseous with distaste.
“We’ll get the money back, or at least catch the thieves,” Pete said suddenly. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Joe’s head turn, his eyes open wide, questioning. Pete kept staring at the mayor.
Dell’s face also registered surprise but he quickly hid it with the same insincere smile. “Will you, now?” he asked archly. “I take it, then, that you must have some idea who committed the crime, is that correct? Or maybe you know where they’re hiding out?”
Pete just shook his head. “Not a clue.”
Dell stared at him for a full ten seconds before bursting into laughter. “You hear that, Evan?” he asked Taylor. “Our marshal can smell stolen money. Sniff it out like a dog.”
Taylor just grunted. He hadn’t moved from his position beside Dell’s chair. He was like a silent sentry surveying all that was going on.
“You want to fire us, Dell,” Pete said, his voice even, but with a hard edge. He was going to fight, as Dorothy had implored him. He was going to turn this to his advantage, somehow. He just hoped he was going the right way about it. “But I’m going to make you another offer.”
“You’re going to make me an offer?” Dell said incredulously. “I’m not sure you’re in any position to do such a thing. Do you know what damage a bank robbery will do to this town? The bank may pull out altogether. I expect someone from their headquarters in Leavenworth today to come here and discuss the matter, and I’m not sure the outcome will be good for Baxter Springs.”
“That may be true, but what if me and Joe succeeded in finding that money or bringing in the robber? I’m pretty sure that would please the fellers from Leavenworth. And it would be a warning to anybody else planning to rob a bank here that they wouldn’t get away with it.”
“I’m sure it would,” Dell replied, “but, as I said earlier, how is that going to happen? We seem to be going round and round in circles here, Pete, without you making any sense.”
“Pay me and Joe our wages for the next two months; give us that time to find the money.” Pete saw that Dell was about to object, so he raised his hand. “Hear me out, Mayor, give me a moment.” Dell nodded, his eyes screwed up, wary. “Make Taylor the marshal while we’re chasing the money. I know that’s what you want to do anyway and this will give you the ideal opportunity. You can see if he’s the right man for the job. If Joe and I don’t succeed, then we’ll go quietly, without a fight. And when the feller from Leavenworth calls, you can tell him you even have the marshal and his deputy on the job. He’ll like the sound of that, and it might even buy you some time. That’s my offer, Mayor.” Pete sat back in his chair and folded his arms.
Silence filled the room. All eyes were now turned expectantly toward Dell. He looked up at Taylor, as if seeking a sign from the big man.
Taylor shrugged his shoulders. “Seems fine by me,” he mumbled. “Way I see it, I become marshal and these jokers will be out of here after two months. It’s a no-lose deal.”
Dell looked across at Pete. “You’ve got a deal.”
As they walked away from the town hall, Joe said, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do I, Joe. So do I…”
* * * *
Weston woke early, the dawn just breaking over the prairie as he slid out from under his blanket. He was in the ruined remains of an old homestead that he presumed was burned during the war. Owner probably lying in a grave somewhere, his family too, like his own parents. He’d tried long enough to forget about what happened to them. These matters didn’t concern him now, however. He saw the ruins as to escape detection. He couldn’t care less what happened to the previous inhabitants, despite the similarities to the fate of his own family. Until now, he’d banished all thoughts of that time from his memory; it was as if it never happened. All he could think of now was how to avoid capture.
He thought of the previous day’s debacle. He’d been lucky to escape. It was the closest he’d ever been to getting caught. It was fitting that this was his last job. It was as if fate was giving him a warning. He had the money beside him, close to his body. It was everything. It was his future, everything that he’d planned. He rose to his feet and breathed in the morning air. It was important to keep moving. They were more than likely after him, searching for his tracks. He’d been careful, though. Left no evidence; well, as far as he could tell. There were no loose ends. Nothing to trip him up.
He tied the grain sacks either side of the saddle, making sure they were closed tight. There was no breakfast; food wasn’t important to him this morning. He had things to do and, all going well, everything would be sorted by the end of the day. No, everything would definitely be in place by the end of the day. It must be. The rest of his life was about to begin. He mounted up, the early morning sun beginning to wash the land with its soft light. He rode briskly away. Time to put his money to work.
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