Authors: John Legg
Death in Helltown
© Copyright 2016 John Legg
48 Rock Creek Road.
Clinton, Montana 59825
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced by any means without the prior written consent of the publisher, other than brief quotes for reviews.
Table of Contents:
A Sample Chapter from Blood Trail by John Legg
About the Author
Harlan Bloodworth rose and slipped smoothly back out of the circle of firelight when he heard horses coming. He eased the .44 Remington out of the cross draw holster but did not cock it.
Three horsemen edged up to the small camp and stopped. “Hallo the camp,” one said.
“Howdy,” Bloodworth said from the shadows.
“Can we set by your fire and mayhap get some vittles?
“Got none to spare.”
“Some coffee at the least?” An annoyed tone had crept into the voice.
“Ain’t mighty neighborly,” the man said, voice now hard.
“Reckon not. But that’s the way things are.” He took stock of the speaker, the only one he could see somewhat clearly. He was a big man, though he was going to seed. He wore a battered, high-crowned, wide-brimmed hat. A city coat stretched across wide shoulders. His face was florid and fleshy.
“Now, I suggest you boys ride on,” Bloodworth said.
“I don’t believe we will.” The two other men began easing their horses to the speaker’s left and right, putting a little distance between them.
To Bloodworth, it meant they were not just innocent travelers. He cocked the Remington.
And he suddenly pitched forward onto his face as a bullet punched into his upper back. “Damn,” he muttered as pain radiated out from the bullet wound and blood seeped through his shirt from the exit wound. He was still conscious, but barely, as men gathered around him.
“See if he’s got any money on him,” the original speaker said.
Someone rolled Bloodworth over on his back and rifled through his pockets. “Just a few greenbacks and a bit of coins.”
“Look through the rest of his things.” The man dismounted, Bloodworth could hear, and was soon pouring himself coffee. “He was right about one thing, boys—there ain’t much in the way of vittles or coffee.” He slurped some of the latter, then said, “Give over the money, Dougie.”
“C’mon, boss, I found it.” Dougie’s voice sounded injured.
“Just give it over. He got a gun?”
“A Winchester in a saddle scabbard,” another man said. “And two pistols—a real nice Remington .44 and a belly gun. Looks like a cut-down Colt. Same caliber.”
“Hand ’em over.”
From where he lay, half-conscious, Bloodworth tried to focus on the man in the firelight. It was obvious he was the leader, and Bloodworth wanted to fix the man in his mind for later—if he lived, he would find the man.
“Hell of a fine piece,” the boss man said, looking over the Remington. “This ain’t no cowpuncher’s pistol. This here belongs to a man killer.”
“You want we should go and finished him off, boss?” one asked.
“Let him lie there and bleed to death. Ain’t worth wastin’ another bullet on him when the first one’ll do. And if not, the coyotes or wolves’ll get him. Saddle up his horse and let’s get goin’. We can be in Dodge before long.”
** ** ** **
Bloodworth woke, or at least he thought he did. He wasn’t sure. It didn’t seem at all real to him that a woman would be bending over him, speaking to him. He could not quite understand what she was saying. Then a man loomed into view, and the woman spoke to him. The next thing Bloodworth knew, he was being lifted by the man and was placed in the back of a small carriage. Then the blackness came over him again.
** ** ** ** **
Bloodworth swam up from unconsciousness slowly, but eventually became aware that he was in a soft bed in a comfortable room. He rotated his head gingerly. To his left was an overstuffed chair and behind it, on the wall covered with flocked wallpaper was a picture of a grassy meadow and a bright blue lake. Left of the picture was a door, closed now. Straight ahead of him was a bureau and next to it his pants hung on a hook. His boots were on the floor beneath them. To his right was a window framed by lacy curtains. Through it he could see blue sky. Near on his right was a chair that matched the other and next to the bed, against the wall was a small table on which sat a pitcher, basin and a towel.
“Reckon I’m gone over the divide,” he muttered, his voice hoarse. “Ain’t no other way I’d wake up in such a place.”
He tried to push himself up, ready to test his theory. But a moan involuntarily slipped out of his lips as pain tore through his shoulder, both front and back. Beads of sweat appeared unbidden on his forehead, and he sank back into the plush pillow. “Damn,” he mumbled, breathing heavily. “Reckon I ain’t in heaven, but it can’t be hell neither.”
The pain began to ease, and he let himself drift off to sleep. When he opened his eyes next, a woman’s voice said, “So you’re awake finally.”
He turned his head left. A woman rose from the chair. She was tall and would be considered handsome rather than beautiful. Bloodworth figured her to be about forty. She was well clad in an elegant gray dress with some kind of fancy needlework trim. Her hair—russet though touched with a flecking of gray, was done up in some sort of bun.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Like hell, to be blunt, ma’am,” Bloodworth croaked.
The woman smiled. She walked around the bed and poured some water from the pitcher into a glass. She held his head a little up from the pillow and allowed him to drink, then set his head back down.
“Better,” Bloodworth said.
“Good.” She set the glass on the table.
“How long have I been here?”
“A bit over a week.”
Bloodworth grunted. “How’d I get here?”
“My man put you in our buggy and we drove you here.”
“We were driving along and George saw your fire. We didn’t see a horse or anyone around, so we stopped. Then we spotted you lying there. When we realized you’d been shot, so brought you back to town here.”
“You needed help,” she said matter-of-factly.
“You always pick up wounded strays and bring them home?” Bloodworth was confused. She seemed like a fine lady, one with some wealth and, he assumed, position. And likely a prominent man for a husband.
She smiled. “Not every day. But on occasion. Well, this was the first time, really. But we could tell you had been shot in the back, which doesn’t sit well with me. Even if you deserved to be shot—and I have no idea whether that is true—your would-be assassin should have done so from the front.”
Bloodworth nodded, sending a jolt of pain through him, but he conquered it right off. “And what does your husband think of it?”
“I am a widow.”
“I’m sorry,” Bloodworth said haltingly. “I didn’t know. I just figured…”
“You couldn’t know, of course.”
“My apologies nonetheless.”
“Thank you, Mr. …?”
“Bloodworth. Harlan Bloodworth. And you?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am.”
“And I yours.” Edith smiled. “I know you must be wondering how you are faring. Well, Doctor Shelby says you’ll recover just fine, though it might take some time before you are truly back to your old self.”
“Good to hear,” Bloodworth said honestly.
“Do you think you could eat?”
“I might could a little.”
Edith nodded and left the room. She returned soon, followed by a broad-shouldered man and an attractive young woman carrying a tray on which sat a steaming bowl.
Much to Bloodworth’s chagrin, he had to be partially held up by the man—Edith’s servant, George; Bloodworth learned later that his last name was Smalley—while the maid, Hope, spooned rich, thick broth into his mouth. He didn’t eat much, but what he had felt good going down. And then he fell asleep again.
This time Hope was sitting there when he woke up. She smiled. “Are you hungry?”
“I’ll get something and be back directly.”
“Don’t bring George with you.”
Hope’s eyes widened, but there was a flicker of pleasure in them that surprised Bloodworth.
“I’ll manage to sit up by myself,” Bloodworth said firmly.
Hope nodded, seeming to understand. While she was gone, Bloodworth struggled to sit up, back against the bed’s headboard. It took tremendous effort, and left him white-faced and sweating. He was glad, though, that he was settled by the time Hope returned.
Afterward, Edith entered the room. “How are you feeling?”
“Are you up to a visit from the marshal?”
Bloodworth considered saying no, falling back on his weakness from his wound, but he knew he would have to face the lawman sooner or later, so he figured he might as well get it over with. “Reckon I can see him,” he finally allowed.
Edith left and moments later, a man wearing a tin star on his collarless, striped shirt entered the room. He was thin and not very tall, but he was wiry and had an air of confidence and fearlessness about him.
“I’m Marshal Redmon. You’re Harlan Bloodworth?”
Bloodworth raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
Redmon almost smiled. He learned back against the door. “What happened, Mr. Bloodworth?”
“I was settin’ by my fire a few miles outside of town, mindin’ my own business when some fellers come up and asked to join me. I didn’t have much to offer so told them to move on. Next thing I know, I’m back shot by somebody. That’s the last I remember till I woke up here.”
“So you never saw who shot you?”
“You know who it was come along and asked to share your fire?”
“Never saw ’em before.”
“Think you’d recognize ’em if you saw ’em again?” the Marshal asked.
Bloodworth hesitated, wondering how much he should say. He fully intended to hunt down the men who had done this to him. He didn’t want the law getting involved. “One of ‘em, maybe,” he finally said. “But I ain’t sure. It was mighty dark and my fire was small. We didn’t spend a lot of time chattin’.”
Redmon glared at him, and Bloodworth knew the Marshal was pretty certain that Bloodworth was lying, or at least not telling all the truth. “Well, if you do see any of ’em, I’d be obliged if you was to let me know. I’ll arrest ’em and make sure they stand trial. I don’t want no vigilantes in my town.”
“I’ll keep that to mind, Marshal.”
Redmon continued to stare at him for some seconds, then turned and left.
Bloodworth gained strength every day and was soon up and about, at first just taking a few turns around his room, and eventually around the outside of the house.
A month after he first woke in the Wickline home, he felt as well as he ever had. That night, as had become usual, Bloodworth was supping with Edith. After finishing the meal, they were having coffee. Bloodworth set his fine china cup down. “I believe I’ll be leavin’ here directly, Mrs. Wickline,” he said quietly.
She looked startled. “But why?”
“I can’t live off your largess forever, and I have no way to pay you back.”
“I have no need for you to pay me back, Mr. Bloodworth.”
“But I do.”
Edith nodded in understanding. “But what will you do?”
“Find work, wherever it might be.”
“You may work for me.”
“I don’t reckon that’ll suit me. I have no skills in anything that I would do for you.”
“Don’t be so certain, Mr. Bloodworth,” she said, she said, rather cryptically, Bloodworth thought.
“’Sides, I’d not want to displace George in your employ. He has been a faithful and deservin’ employee, from all that I’ve seen in the short time I’ve been here.”
“He has been that, indeed,” Edith said with a smile. “Have you any skills that will find you gainful work?”
Bloodworth smiled ruefully. “My skills are right limited, ma’am, relyin’ mainly on gun work.”
“A gunman?” Edith didn’t seem at all shocked.
“Bounty man, mostly. I never took to hirin’ my gun out.”
“Have you done so for a long time?” She seemed concerned.
“Since just after the war. Wasn’t much work that I could find.”
“Which side were you on?”
“Don’t really matter after all this time, now does it?” He stared at her.
Edith blinked, then shook her head. “No, I suppose it really doesn’t,” she allowed. She paused. “At risk of offending you, did you acquire your limp in the war—or later in your… profession?”
“The war,” he said after a few moments’ hesitation. “Took a ball in the lower leg. Broke the bone. The sawbones wanted to hack the damn leg off, but I was havin’ none of it.”
Edith waited, but there was no more forthcoming. “I’m sorry,” she finally said.
Bloodworth nodded. “I’ve make my peace with it, I reckon you could say.”
“Did you have no family to return to?” Her voice indicated true interest.
Bloodworth shrugged. “My older brother got the family farm after Pa died, and my…Well, let’s just say there wasn’t much reason for me to go back to…home. I wandered a bit, and then a friend who’d become a marshal asked me to come along while he hunted a couple of outlaws causin’ all manner of deviltry in Missouri. One of ’em shot my pal, so I shot him and his compatriot. My friend, being the marshal, wasn’t able to keep the bounty money, so I got it. I figured it wasn’t too bad a way to make some money. I’ve been doin’ it ever since.”
“An interesting history, but it will be hard to find your kind of work here in Dodge,” Edith said with a crooked smile.
“’Specially since I am at a loss for the tools of my trade.”
“Indeed. I can lend you a few dollars” — she held up her hand to prevent any protest — “which you can pay back at your convenience to equip yourself for your chosen work, should you be able to find any of it around here.”
“That’s a mighty handsome offer, ma’am, and I may take you up on it. But I reckon I’ll see if there’s any call for my services.”
“As you wish. You’re welcome to stay here as long as need be.”
“Obliged, ma’am. Soon’s I gain some wages somewhere, I’ll find rooms at a boarding house.”
“You may continue to live in your room here, paying rent,” she said with a friendly grin. “Should you desire that.”
“Another thing for me to cogitate on. I’d not want to put you out, nor George or Hope.”
“They will not mind,” Edith said matter-of-factly.
“You know, Marshal Redmon might be in need of someone of your particular talents.”
“Might be something to consider, but I expect he’s got enough deputies. ’Sides,” he added with a lopsided grin, “I doubt Redmon’d be too kindly disposed to hirin’ the likes of me.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Bloodworth,” Edith said with a laugh. She was sure he would do well, having taken stock of him while he was recovering. Bloodworth was only of medium height but he had a broad back, powerful shoulders and big, callused hands. Though his face was wide and seemingly flat, some might think him rather handsome. She was sad that he wanted to leave.
** ** ** ** **
The next morning, wearing ill-fitting shirt and pants borrowed from George, Bloodworth went wandering the streets of Dodge, eyeing shops and businesses for some sign that help was wanted. He passed several places seeking employees, as he could not see himself as a store clerk or business helper.
Then he came to the Carleton Stage Company office. In the window was a neatly hand-lettered sign: “Shotgun rider wanted.”
Bloodworth went inside and was greeted by an older fellow, short and stout with a mostly bald pate and a thick mustache. “Welcome. You lookin’ for passage?”
“No, sir. I’m interested in the job posted in the window.”
The clerk peered at him through silver-rimmed glasses. “You have any experience, son?”
“Not directly, but I know how to handle weapons.”
“You’re not heeled.”
“Nope. ’Course, the law says you can’t go heeled in town.” He paused. “Don’t mean I won’t do so if I think it’s a matter of my well-bein’.”
The man grinned. He held out his hand. “Name’s Chester Lawson.”
Bloodworth shook. “Harlan Bloodworth.” He looked around. The place had a well-used look, though it was mostly dust free. The desk behind the knee-high railing was piled high with papers, and more were tacked up along the walls. Various trunks and other baggage lined the walls on either side of the door.
“You got much call for a shotgun rider on the stage here?”
“Not near as much as places near the gold fields, of course. Never had one before. But we carry U.S. mail, sometimes payrolls for large companies, and even the Army now and again. Plus there’s always some villains want to hold up a stage just to rob what valuables the passengers have.”
“The world is chock-full of villains.”
Lawson cocked an eyebrow at him. “Sounds like you know something about this,” he said, suspicious.
“Far too much,” Bloodworth said with resignation. “Brought more than my share of ‘em to heel.”
Lawson stood there thinking, appraising Bloodworth, then he nodded. “I don’t know anything about you, Mr. Bloodworth, but I figure I’m a pretty good judge of character, and you seem to me to be the right man for the job. When can you start?”
“Soon’s you need me.”
“Stage will be leavin’ for Clay Center first thing in the mornin’.”
“I’ll be here.”
“It’s a long trip. Takes about twenty-four hours to make the full run.”
“I can handle that, Mr. Lawson. You supply the shotgun?”
“Of course. A fine Remington.”
Lawson looked at him a bit quizzically, then shrugged. “I can give you a chit to take over to Pettibone’s hardware and mercantile. He’ll give you what you need. The company’ll pay.” He paused, then added, “I’m takin’ some risk on you, Mr. Bloodworth. Puttin’ my trust in you.”
“You’ll find that trust is not misplaced.”
“I hope so.” He went to the desk, pulled out a pen, dipped it in ink and scribbled on a piece of cheap paper. He handed it to Bloodworth. “That’s all you’ll need.”
“Obliged, Mr. Lawson.”
He nodded curtly. “Just be here in the mornin’.”
“I will.” Bloodworth turned and left. He strolled down the street until he found Pettibone’s and went inside. One side of the place was full of every sort of implement man could devise, from simple plows to complex reapers. The other side held all manner of dry goods, foodstuffs, and devices for use in the home. And several cases of guns.
“I’m Niles Pettibone,” said a tall, potbellied man dressed in a starchy white shirt with sleeves garters, and striped wool pants. “What can I do for you?”
Bloodworth handed him the slip of paper.
Pettibone read it and nodded. “Come, let me show you what we have.”
Half an hour later, Bloodworth walked out with a Remington 10-guage shotgun, a .44-caliber Schofield revolver, a box of shells for each, a slim-jim holster for the pistol, a new pair of pants and boots, a new shirt and new hat.
** ** ** ** **
“Name’s Gil Adcock,” the driver said as Bloodworth tossed the shotgun up onto the stagecoach’s floorboard and climbed up.
“Glad to have you with me.”
“Some. Just enough to make me appreciate someone ridin’ shotgun with me.”
Bloodworth nodded. He picked up the shotgun and rested it across his thighs. “Let’s hope my services ain’t needed.”
“Amen to that.” He snapped the reins on the six-horse team. “Giddyap, there, boys,” he shouted. “Let’s go.”
“I hope you got a good night’s sleep, Mr. Bloodworth,” Adcock said as they settled in for the ride.
“Why’s that? And call me Harlan.”
“Trip takes the better part of twenty-four hours. We stop near about every ten miles or so to change horses. ’Bout midway through, we’ll stop for an hour so we and the passengers can tie on the ol’ feedbag.”
“Sounds like a fun ride,” Bloodworth said dryly.
“You’ll get used to it—if you stay on.”
“Do we get any sleep?”
“Sure. When we get to Clay Center. Then we get the full day off. The next day, we head on back.”
“How long you been doin’ this?”
“Three years, maybe a bit longer.”
“Every other day?”
“Nah. I get a couple of days off back in Dodge. You might not be so lucky.”
“Seein’ as how you’re our only shotgun rider, ’least for now, you might be making the trip with Les Parkes, our other driver.”
Bloodworth shrugged. “Reckon that won’t put me out none, at least for a spell. Long’s I get paid for it.”
Adcock laughed, then said, “Here, hold the reins for a bit.”
Bloodworth’s eyes widened in surprise, but did so. Adcock pulled out plug of tobacco and jackknife from his shirt pocket, sliced off a hunk with the knife and stuck the wad in his mouth. He folded the knife back up and put it and the tobacco back in the pocket. “Thankee, kindly,” he said taking back the reins.
It was a little difficult keeping awake after ten or twelve hours, but the jolting of the stage helped. As did the somewhat frequent stops and Adcock’s frequent chattering. And after the first few trips it got a little easier.
“Don’t seem like much for a couple weeks’ work,” Bloodworth as he took a golden eagle and five silver dollars from Chester Lawton, the stage agent.
“Better’n many a man gets,” Lawton responded, looking a little offended.
“Reckon that’s a fact.” He wasn’t appeased much. While there were times he was mighty short on cash, he was used to larger paydays when he brought in outlaws. And that money usually lasted him a good long while. Still, though, this was better than having no spending cash at all.
“You’ll be back day after tomorrow for the regular run?” Lawson suddenly sounded a little worried.
“Reckon I will, boss.” It felt strange for him to say that; Bloodworth had not called anyone boss in many a year. He stuffed the coins into his shirt pocket, rested the shotgun on one shoulder, trigger guard facing the sky, and headed out.
He stopped just outside, savoring the early summer’s warmth. Then he marched off, heading up Front Street. He turned on Cheyenne Street and halfway down it, climbed the three stairs to the porch of Edith Wickline’s house. He hesitated a few heartbeats, then knocked on the door.
Moments later Hope opened the door. She smiled warmly. “Welcome, Mr. Bloodworth.”
“Good afternoon, Hope. Is Mrs. Wickline to home?”
“She is. Please, come in.” She stepped back allowing him to enter. “Why don’t you wait in the sitting room while I go fetch her.”
Bloodworth thought he detected a touch of coldness in her voice, but he mentally shrugged it off. “Thank you.” He went into the room off to the left and set his shotgun up against the wall just inside the door. He walked over to the window and looked out over the side garden, bursting now with a colorful array of prairie phlox, Indian paintbrush, ox-eye daisies, rose-pink, black-eyed susans, sunflowers and even dandelions.
He turned as Edith said, “Welcome, Mr. Bloodworth,” she said with a warm smile.
“Good day,” he responded, returning her smile.
“To what do we owe your visit?”
“I brought in some wages and thought I’d stop by and make a small payment on what-all I owe you.”
“As I told you before, Mr. Bloodworth, you owe me nothing.”
“I know that. But it’s a matter of — I reckon you could call it honor, with me. I always pay back what’s due. It don’t sit well with me to be in anyone’s debt.”
“You’re a stubborn man, Harlan Bloodworth,” Edith said with a small laugh.
“Reckon I’ve been called that before.” He grinned. “And a whole lot worse.”
Edith let out a throaty laugh. “I suppose that’s the truth, seeing as how hard-headed you can be.”
“Been this way a long time. Reckon it’s too late for me to change my ways now.”
“I expect not. But that’s not such a bad thing.” She paused, then said, “Where are my manners. Please, sit, Mr. Bloodworth. Do…”
“Harlan, please,” he said as he eased himself into a plush armchair.
“Of course. Would you like some coffee, Harlan?”
“That’d be welcome. After the slop I’ve had to drink at those stage stops and inns, Hope’s coffee will be a blessin’.”
Edith nodded. She picked up a small bell from the low table between Bloodworth’s chair and a matching one, and rang it. Moments later, Hope entered the room. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Coffee for us, please.”
Edith sat. “So how is your work?”
“Mighty dull. Nothin’ but lookin’ out over all this flat land hereabouts and listenin’ to Gil Adcock flap his gums at me.” He grinned. “’Course, that’s a heap better than runnin’ into a passel of robbers.”
“I would certainly think so.” She hesitated. “Do you…No, it’s not right to ask.”
Bloodworth shrugged. “Go ahead and ask. Ain’t much I’d be afraid to answer.”
After a few more moments’ hesitation, she said, “Does it bother you to have to kill a man?”
Bloodworth thought that over for a while, then nodded slowly. “It does, yes. It’s never an easy thing takin’ a man’s life. Even a bad man’s. But sometimes it’s got to be done. The men I’ve killed, they’ve done some mighty awful things—robbed, raped, killed all manner of folk, includin’ women and children. They were deservin’ of the weight of justice, but sometimes they resist facin’ it.”
“And that’s where you—or others like you—come in?” She sounded more interested than accusatory.
“Yes’m. Most lawmen are overburdened with their duties, so men like me take on some of the duties they can’t perform.”
“It almost sounds like you enjoy it.”
“No, Edith, I most certainly do not enjoy it. Leastways not the killin’. Administerin’ justice, though, even at the point of a gun, that I do enjoy.”
“I…” Edith stopped when Hope entered the room with a tray on which was a coffeepot, silver sugar bowl and milk pitcher, two china cups, saucers, and spoons.
Hope put down the tray, and Edith said, “Thank you, Hope.”
“Will that be all, ma’am?” Again, Bloodworth thought he could hear a touch of coldness in the voice.
Edith and Bloodworth were silent as she poured coffee, spooned in some sugar and a dollop of milk.
Edith took a sip, then placed her cup on the saucer on the table. “Were you ever scared, Harlan?”
“Frequently.” He shrugged. “It comes with the job, I suppose you could say. You just deal with it.”
“It would seem to be a handicap.”
“You learn to control it, instead of lettin’ it control you. If you can do that, you’ll have a good chance of doin’ the job well—which means bringin’ in the men you’re after. And,” he added with a small smile, “stayin’ alive while doin’ it.”
“That would be important, yes.” She paused, then asked, “How many men have you killed, Harlan?”
Bloodworth’s smile dropped like a stone. “That, Mrs. Wickline, is one of the few questions I will not answer,” Bloodworth said coldly.
“Ah, yes, that is understandable. I beg your pardon.”
They sipped coffee for a bit, quiet, not needing to speak. Finally, though, Edith said, “My offer still stands, Harlan.”
“What offer is that?”
“For you to stay here. In the room you had. And you may pay me for it, should you feel the need. I will charge a reasonable rate.”
A small smile tugged at Bloodworth’s lips. “I’m sure you will.”
“There could be…how shall I say this?…some additional benefits to such an arrangement.”
“Well, Hope’s cooking, for one. And her coffee.”
“Those would be fine inducements, I expect.” She paused. “And then there’s me.”
“Beg pardon?” Bloodworth thought he knew what she meant, but he wanted to be sure.
“I am a benefit, Harlan,” she said without embarrassment, keeping her gaze level on him. “And, I would think, a desirable one.”
“That you would be, Edith.”
For a moment she seemed a bit concerned. “My age would be no barrier? I am, as you might know, several years your senior.”
“No, ma’am, your age—which is not nearly all that great—would be no barrier. However…”
Bloodworth hesitated, then said, “As before, I’d not like to displace George.”
Edith stiffened. “George is simply an employee, no more than that,” Edith said, her voice icy. “Now I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.”
Mortified at having made such a blunder, Bloodworth rose, wondering whether he should apologize. But he realized right off that Edith was in no mood to hear one. He simply nodded. He placed the golden eagle on the table next to the coffee service, grabbed his shotgun and left, feeling Edith’s hot, angry gaze on his back, even as he was halfway to Front Street.
** ** ** ** **
Bloodworth returned to the stage depot office and left the shotgun; he had no use for it, really, at least now. Not knowing where to go, he decided on a visit to Helltown, the area south of the railroad tracks. Its name was well deserved, seeing as saloons, gambling halls and prostitutes were plentiful. And it was populated mostly by Texans, men who liked to whoop it up and raise hell. Bloodworth had spent considerable time in such areas of other towns and, while he was not particularly partial to them, they served their purpose at times. And right now, Bloodworth figured this was one of those times.
He walked into the first saloon he found, a place called the Pecos. At this time of day—well, late afternoon—it was relatively sedate, with only a dozen or so men in the place. Bloodworth strode up to the bar
The bartender, a tall, portly man with short dark hair parted in the middle, strolled up. “What can I get you?” he asked in a world-weary voice.
“Beer, if you got it. And if it’s cold.”
“We got it iced up. You want whiskey to go with it?”
“Maybe later.” Bloodworth laid a silver dollar on the bar top.
The bartender reached for the money, but Bloodworth clapped a hand over it. “The beer first,” he said quietly. “And change.”
“Change?” the man asked, feigning ignorance.
“If you’re chargin’ a dollar for a beer, I think I’ll just mosey on over to the Trinity across the street.”
“Beer’s a dime,” the barkeep said sourly.
“No reason to be surly, friend,” Bloodworth said evenly. “I just might be a regular here.”
“Ain’t likely.” He turned and left, returning moments later with a tall mug of beer.
“You got more foam on there than beer, friend.”
“Best you’re gonna get.” He slapped a pile of coins on the bar and scooped up the silver dollar.
Bloodworth turned and rested his back against the bar. He sipped his beer, watching over the saloon. Two faro games were going against the opposite wall. He tried to keep his mind off the insult he had given Edith Wickline, but he had little success. She had been considerably kind to him, and all he had done was to offend her in the most impudent manner. It was made all the worse by the fact that she had made an offer most men would have been thankful for. He would, he told himself, have to make this right. Trouble was, he didn’t know how to go about it.
A sweet voice broke him from his reverie: “Lonely, darlin’?”
“Not so much,” he said, turning to face her. She was short and thin with a doll-like face and ginger-colored hair in long ringlets.
“At least buy a girl a drink.”
“Reckon I can do that.”
Moments later she had a shot of whiskey, which Bloodworth figured was considerably watered down. “You sure you ain’t interested?” she asked as she sipped.
“Don’t you like me?”
“You’re a fine lookin’ woman. I just got other things on my mind. ’Sides, I’m a bit short on cash.”
The woman stared up at him for a bit, then nodded. “You change your mind, you come see me, y’hear?”
“I will certainly do that.”
When Bloodworth collected his next pay, he steeled himself and strolled over to Edith Wickline’s house. He hesitated, surprised at his reluctance — he preferred to call it that rather than nervousness, which was actually more accurate. Then he shook it off and knocked.
Hope answered, expressions of surprise and pleasure dancing across her face in moments.
Bloodworth smiled. “Howdy, Hope. Is Miz Wickline available?”
“I’m…I’m…Well, I’m not sure she’s in for you,” she said not too apologetically.
“I suspected there was a chance of that. I’d be obliged if you was to check with her.”
Now it was Hope’s turn to hesitate. Finally she smiled. “Come in. You can wait in the foyer here.”
Bloodworth nodded and stepped inside, and Hope closed the door behind him. “Please stay here, Mr. Bloodworth,” she said, voice betraying some nervousness.
“If I don’t?” He managed a grin, trying to let her know he was joshing.
Hope did not see the humor in it. She hung her head. “If Miz Wickline does not wish to see you, and you are somewhere in the house besides here, I may lose my position.” She sounded fearful, though Bloodworth thought he could hear a bit of defiance in her voice.
“I meant nothin’ by it, Hope. I was just foolin’ with you.” He lifted her head with a forefinger under her chin. “I will in no way endanger your position here. Don’t you worry none about that.”
Relieved, Hope said, “Thank you, Mr. Bloodworth. I’ll be back in a moment.” She was true to her word. “Miz Wickline will see you, Mr. Bloodworth,” She looked around conspiratorially, then whispered, “She’s still most displeased with you.”
Bloodworth smiled softly. “I reckoned that would be the case,” he responded in like kind. “Thank you.”
Hope let him to the sitting room, where Edith Wickline waited, sitting stiffly in one of the plush chairs.
“Miz Wickline,” he said quietly.
“Mr. Bloodworth.” There was little pleasure in it.
“I ain’t quite sure…”
“Please sit, Mr. Bloodworth.” The tone had not changed.
Bloodworth set his hat on the table and, taking into account his pistols, he sat gingerly in the chair across the small table from her. “I’m obliged that you agreed to see me, Miz Edith.” He cleared his throat. “I ain’t good at speaking’ to ladies, ’specially fine ladies like you, so you’ll pardon me if I ain’t so eloquent. Words ain’t my way, as you might figure. I’m used to dealin’ with hard cases with fist and gun.”
Edith’s rather stony visage did not seem to change. But it did not deter Bloodworth. “I must admit, ma’am, that I am mortified at what occurred when last we met. Not so much, I reckon, as what occurred, but what a fool I made of myself. Things I said were offensive to you.”
“They were that,” Edith murmured.
“Thing is, Miz Edith, is that I meant no offense. You had made an offer, if saying it as such is not offensive to you, that any man—well, any man who had any sense—including me would take as something extraordinarily special. It was, but seein’ as how I replied, I’m one of the few men lackin’ sense and so turnin’ that offer into something hurtful and insultin’.”
He paused, and took a deep breath, watching Edith. She seemed to have softened ever so little, perhaps to a degree above freezing.
“I don’t know what I can say to wash away that insult and hurtfulness. I reckon there’s really nothin’ I can do. I had meant to do right by your employee, and you because of that. Seems I made a heap of a mess at it. All I can say, Miz Edith, is that you have my most strong apology.”
Bloodworth reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a gold coin, leaned forward and laid it on the table. “It ain’t much, but I hope it comes close to squarin’ us for my room and board.”
“That is not necessary, Mr. Bloodworth.” The stone façade of Edith’s face crumbled a bit. “I’ve told you that.”
“And I’ve told you I feel honor bound to repay what I can.” Her only response was a slight nod. He rose. “Well, Miz Edith, I’ve had my say, so I’ll be on my way. I don’t reckon my apology will mitigate what I’ve done, but know that it comes honestly. And know, too, that I won’t come callin’ on you no more so as not to bother you. I am grateful for all you did for me. It weren’t for you, my bones’d be bleachin’ out yonder south of town.”
He picked up his hat but stopped before he clapped it on when Edith said, “Sit back down, Mr. Bloodworth.”
When he did, Edith rang her small bell. Hope entered. “Yes’m?”
“Coffee for us, Hope. And some of that cobbler for Mr. Bloodworth.”
“I don’t…” He shut up when Edith gave him a flinty stare, but she seemed to relax a little. “I do not know if I shall accept your apology, Mr. Bloodworth, but I will say that I appreciate your having made it.”
“And if it will ease your mind any, it was quite elegant.” A small smile touched her lips. “Especially for a man of your particular…talents.”
Hope entered the room with a tray that she placed on the table. “Anything else, ma’am?”
“That will be sufficient, Hope.” Edith poured coffee for Bloodworth and herself. She spooned some sugar and a bit of milk into her visitor’s cup.
Again, the small smile. “Is your work still lacking in adventure?”
Bloodworth shoveled a bite of cobbler into his mouth and chewed. When he swallowed. “It is.”
“Do you wish for adventure?”
Bloodworth ate a little as pondered that. “I reckon I am, at least some. Adventures aren’t always good. But I reckon it’s better’n dyin’ of boredom.” He laughed. “Of course, dyin’ from tryin’ to run some bad men to ground wouldn’t be much of a pleasure neither.”
“You have done well thus far.”
“Until the night you found me,” he said sourly.
“Yet you are still here among us.”
“Reckon I am.” He finished off the cobbler and placed the empty plate on the tray. “Well, I reckon I ought to be going.” He rose once again and reached for his hat. “May I come callin’ again?”
“It would not.”
** ** ** ** **
Bloodworth knocked on Edith Wickline’s door. Hope grinned when she opened it. She looked him up and down, from his slicked back hair under a new beaver felt hat to his starched shirt to his clean denim pants and his polished boots.
“What?” he said, uncomfortable.
“You are looking quite dashing this evening, Mr. Bloodworth,” she said with a giggle. But he thought he detected something else in her eye, though he could not quite figure it out.
“Thank you,” he grumbled. “Now please go tell Miz Wickline I’m here.”
Minutes later, Edith walked into the parlor. “Harlan,” she said, with what seemed to Bloodworth to be some pleasure.
“Edith,” he said cautiously.
“Sit, Harlan.” When he did, she said, “Would you like something to drink?” She smiled just a bit. “Something with somewhat more of a kick than coffee?”
Bloodworth grinned. “That would be a far sight better’n coffee.”
Bloodworth figured Edith must have been expecting this, for when she rang the bell, Hope arrived with a bottle of brandy and two glasses.
“I hope brandy will be all right.”
“Reckon so. Never had it as I can recall, but I’ve heard tell it’s right tasty.”
Edith filled their glasses and handed him one. “It should be drunk slowly, unlike redeye.” She smiled to take any possible sting out of the remark.
Bloodworth did as he was told. “Damn fine,” he acknowledged.
They sipped in silence for a bit, before Edith said, “If I was to make a suggestion — offer, you might say — as I did some weeks ago, would I expect to be insulted?”
“No, ma’am. What you should expect is a humble acceptance, with considerable gratitude.”
She rose, walked to his chair and kissed him long and hard. She stepped back and held out her hand. He took it and stood, then let her lead him to her room. It was far more commodious than the one he had occupied during his recuperation, and far more finely furnished. Not that he paid much mind. Edith turned and moved up so she was pressed against him. She tilted her head up. Bloodworth needed no vocal introduction. He smothered her mouth with his.
Edith finally pulled away and smiled. She gently touched his face. “Time for you to shed those pistols.”
“I’ll be back in moments.” She smiled and nodded to the privacy screen in one corner. She flowed more than walked there.
Bloodworth quickly shucked his guns and garments, then slid beneath the starched, fresh-smelling sheets on the fancy carved wood bed. After what seemed a long time, Edith slipped out from behind the curtain. Bloodworth drew in a breath. “Damn, but ain’t you something,” he breathed.
“You think so?” she asked, a touch of uncertainty in her voice.
“I do, ma’am. You are a fine figure of a woman. Best I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
Her smile softened her face and let her beauty fully show through. She yanked the sheet down to the foot of the bed, exposing him. “You’re a mighty fine specimen yourself.” Then, with a laugh, she climbed on top of him and planted her mouth on his.
He rolled, holding her, until he was on top. His mouth, lips and tongue began making journeys along her long, lean form, touching here, kissing there, gently nipping inches farther on. He stroked her flawless body from her shining brunette hair to her dainty toes.
Soon Edith was steadily moaning, shifting her body to derive the most pleasure of every one of Bloodworth’s moves. Then he was inside her, and both groaned with pleasure ending in an explosion of ecstasy.
Then they were lying together, entwined in each other’s bodies, trying to regain their breath. Eventually, Edith touched the wound where the bullet had exited Bloodworth’s body. “Does that hurt, Harlan?”
“No. No more than the others.”
“Others?” She looked at him in alarm, then touched his right shoulder. “There?” He nodded, and she looked down the length of his body as if seeing it for the first time, and touched a puckered scar on his left thigh. “Here, too?”
“Yes. And the scars along my ribs here, one from a bullet, one from a knife. And, of course, the leg that left me with the limp.”
“That must have been bad.”
“It was. Like I said, the sawbones wanted to take it off. I was still alert enough that I objected. The doc tried to insist. Up till I put my pistol to his forehead and told him that if he started sawin’ away, I was going to put him out of my misery. He gave up the idea of takin’ my leg. He sewed up what he could, then put a splint on me. I hobbled out and took myself to a pal’s house to get better.”
“You have had an adventuresome life.” Her hand stroked down from his midsection. “Let’s see if we can add another adventure.”
** ** ** ** **
Hope seemed rather put out when she served Bloodworth and Edith breakfast in the morning. Both were still naked, though they had the sheet pulled up to cover themselves.
After eating, Bloodworth got up and began dressing.
“The offer for you to stay here still stands, Harlan,” Edith said. She sounded almost wistful.
“I reckon it would be unseemly. I’d not want to tarnish your reputation.”
“My reputation was tarnished long since, Harlan. It can bear a bit more of a beating.”
He grinned. “So you’d like me to end up in a tussle every day defendin’ your honor?”
“Oh, hell, Harlan, that’s damn foolish.”
“Reckon it is, Edith. But I ain’t lookin’ for a wife.”
“Nor I a husband.”
“I didn’t mean that badly, Edith. Tell true, I like keepin’ my own company often as not.”
“That can get mighty lonely.”
“Yep, it can when it’s too long of a time. But if you don’t mind me callin’ on you now and again, I won’t be lonely very long.”
“And you want to be with other women?” Edith asked stiffly.
“I won’t say that it won’t ever happen, but the truth is, Edith, I like bein’ on my own. I’ve been forced into it for so long that I’ve come to enjoy it.”
Edith looked somewhat appeased. “You ever been married, Harlan?”
He hesitated, a touch of pain flickering across his face. “Yes.” It was said flatly.
“No,” Bloodworth said tightly. “She was shot down during the war.”
Bloodworth shrugged. “It was a long time ago.” He turned to leave.
“Come back soon, Harlan.”
He looked back and smiled. “That will not be a chore, ma’am.” Then he was gone.
Bloodworth spent a considerable amount of time with Edith when he was in Dodge. Once she had gotten over her insult, she was warm and affectionate. She made no demands of him, other than he pleasure her when they were alone in the bedroom. He was thankful for the former and quite willing to provide the latter.
He was quite surprised when one evening, as he was preparing to leave, she announced that she would be taking the stage in the morning. He looked at her, his eyes raised.
“I have business in Clay Center. I’ll be there for several days.” She smiled. “Long enough so that I’ll be taking the stage back when you make on your next run up that way.”
“I shall be honored to have you as a passenger,” he said gallantly. “And I promise to protect you well and willingly.”
“I’m sure you will.”
** ** ** ** **
Bloodworth wandered over to the Pecos saloon, down in Helltown, after leaving Edith’s. When he walked in, he stopped short. He eyes narrowed when he saw a big man at the bar. “I’ll be damned,” he muttered.
He limped up and, without hesitation, kicked the man behind the left knee.
The man sagged and grabbed hold of the bar to keep from falling. “What the hell?” he muttered.
“I expect you got something belongs to me,” Bloodworth growled.
The man gingerly turned to face Bloodworth, who whacked him hard on the forehead with his pistol. An instant later, he swiveled, and jammed the muzzle of his revolver into a man’s face, just at the philtrum. With his left hand holding the very wobbly big man by the throat, he smiled without humor. “I don’t know who you are, boy…” His eyes flickered to his left a little. “But if your two pards over there move any closer, I will blow a hole through you that you could drive a herd of your stinkin’ cattle through.”
The two other men who had begun inching up from the faro table stopped. Each moved a hand toward his pistol.
“You can jerk those hoglegs, boys, but your amigo here will find his head splattered across the floor. And the two of you will be dead before you clear leather.”
“You ain’t that good,” one of them said, arrogance dripping from his voice.
“You want to bet your life on that, boy?”
“Damn right.” The man went for his gun. Without hesitation, Bloodworth fired, tearing a large, jagged hole in the man’s face and a larger one in the back of his head. Bloodworth spun and fired again. The ball punched through the other, smirking outlaw’s teeth. He fell, a brief look of surprise on his face.
His companion, swiftly let go of his pistol grip and held up both hands in supplication.
“Ease that pistol out and toss it — lightly — over in this direction. Then go sit back at the faro table, back to me. You do as you’re told and you just might make it through the evening.”
The man did so.
Bloodworth turned back to the big man. “Well, ‘Boss,’” he said with a note of sarcasm, “as I said, you have something of mine, and I’ll be obliged to have it — well both of them — back.” He slid his pistol into the holster.
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?” The outlaw was beginning to recover his senses a bit, though his eyes still wouldn’t focus all that well.
“This.” He jerked his old revolver from the sagging holster at the man’s hip.
The man’s eyes widened in shock. “You!” he gasped.
“That’s right, me. You and your boys try to kill a man and steal his possessions, you ought to make sure you finish the job. Now where’s my belly gun?”
“I ain’t got it,” he said, trying to sneer. “I sold it.”
Bloodworth sighed. “You saw what I did to your two companions there. I’ll have no reluctance sendin’ you across the divide to join ’em. Now hand over that piece.”
From behind, Bloodworth head, “That’s enough.” Bloodworth spun, dragging the man he knew only as Boss around so he was in front of him. Bloodworth’s forearm rested on the outlaw’s shoulder, pistol facing outward — at Marshal Redmon.
“Put that pistol down and come along with me peaceable.”
“Marshal,” Bloodworth said tightly, “you got no business here. So I’d be obliged if you went back to your side of town and leave me to my business.”
“I don’t truck with killin’ as a man’s business. I knew right off you were a hard case and that there’d be killin’ at your hands sooner or later.”
“I got reason. This one here for sure, and those two dead on the floor I think are the scum who ambushed me, stole what little I had with me and left me for dead. I just wanted my property back. Those two on the floor made a play to kill me. I just took them down first.”
“He’s lyin’,” ‘Boss’ said, voice quivering with fear and hope.
“Marshal, this pistol I’m pointin’ at you is mine, the one he took when he and his boys shot me in the back and left me to die. He’s got my belly gun somewhere on him, I expect.”
“I don’t know what the hell he’s talkin’ about.” ‘Boss’ started to pull away, but Bloodworth kicked his leg out from under him. Bloodworth sank to one knee to keep the outlaw in front of him as a shield. “You move again, and I’ll splatted your brains on the floor. If you got any.”
“Then the marshal’ll get you.”
“That is far from certain, boy. But it won’t matter none to you. You’ll’ve gone under before that.”
“How do you know it’s your gun?” Redmon asked.
“It’s a .44-caliber Remington. That might be common, but this one’s got a bone grip with my initials in the grips — one on each side.”
“Your belly gun?”
“A cut down Colt .44. Nothin’ special about it, other than I’m used to it and I like it.”
Redmon stood there for some moments, pistol still pointed toward Bloodworth and ‘Boss.’ The Marshal nodded, more to himself than to the two men in front of him, and slid his gun away. “You got his other gun, fat man, you best give it over to him.”
“But I don’t …”
“I ain’t gonna protect you, boy,” Redmon snapped. It was plain that he did not like killing in his town, even if it was on the wrong side of the tracks. But he seemed astute enough to know that there could be more, and he hoped to head it off. But if not, he would live with it in this case. For now. “What the hell is your name, anyway?”
“Carter. Elmo Carter.”
“Well, Mr. Carter, if you don’t hand over that piece, I won’t stand in Mr. Bloodworth’s way should he decide to put a bullet into your fat ass.” He surveyed the room, making sure no one else wanted to cause trouble.
Carter hesitated about two seconds, then said, sweating, “I need to reach around behind my back to fetch it out.”
Bloodworth took a step back, and placed the muzzle of the Remington at the nape of Carter’s neck. “Easy does it, friend.”
With great care, Carter pulled out the short-barreled weapon. Bloodworth took it in his left hand, gave it a cursory look to make sure it was his. He jammed it into the back of his belt, and uncocked the Remington. He nodded at Redmon.
“Mr. Carter, I suggest you get yourself out of my town. And take any of your friends with you. I don’t want to see you in Dodge again.” He turned his glance on Bloodworth. “I’d be obliged if you was to stop at my office sometime tomorrow.”
“Got a stage run tomorrow.”
“Then soon’s you get back,” he growled. He stepped aside and let Carter and his one living companion scurry past and out the door. Moments later, two horses could be heard riding fast southward.
Redmon nodded, the looked at the bartender. “I’ll send someone over directly to haul these dead men out of here, Micah.” He spun on his heel and left.
Bloodworth strolled over to the bar and smiled tightly at the barkeep. “I’ll have me a shot of whiskey there, Micah.” When it was served by a nervous bartender, he downed it slowly, in several sips. With a last look around to make sure no one wanted to do him harm, he moseyed out and headed toward his boarding house.
** ** ** ** **
As the sun was rising around six o’clock or so the next morning, Bloodworth helped Edith Wickline up into the stage, then carried Edith’s luggage to the back, where Adcock was loading the boot. “Mind you take care of that bag,” Bloodworth warned. “Tie it down proper but not too tight or have something heavy lyin’ on it to where it will rumple up Miz Wickline’s clothing and such.”
“I know what the hell I’m doing, dammit,” Adcock grumbled.
Edith smiled through the stage window at Bloodworth.
Bloodworth returned it. “I hope your journey will be an easy one.”
“So do I,” Edith said with another smile. “But I’ve been on these wretched vehicles many a time, and they are never comfortable. Alas, they are the only way to get to Clay Center from here, and so I must bear with it. I must say, I will be coated with dust by the time we arrive. I thank you for taking care of my bag. It will be a pleasure to don a clean dress once I’m there.”
Adcock had clambered down and had heard the last. “I’ll do what I can to make the journey as comfortable as I can for you, Miz Wickline. And all the rest of you folk, of course.” He looked at Bloodworth. “You ready?” He grinned widely. “Or would you want to delay our trip so’s you can chat with the lady here?”
“Well, given my druthers,” he said with a wide smile, “I’d as soon talk to Miz Wickline as well as that cute young lady on the other side of the carriage there.” He winked at Edith to let her know he meant nothing by it.
“Come on, boy-o, just grab your shotgun and get up there. We got miles to make.”
“Heck, we could’ve left yesterday and still be late getting’ to Clay Center the way you drive. My grandma drivin’ an ox team pullin’ an old Conestoga would make better time on the trail than you do.”
“Pshaw. Get up there.”
The two men climbed up onto the box. “You ready?” Adcock asked.
Bloodworth checked his shotgun to make sure it was loaded, the nodded.
Adcock released the brake and snapped the reins on the horses’ backs. “Let’s go, boys,” he shouted. “Come on, move it.” The stage lurched off and within minutes it had settled into to as smooth a pace as could be expected.