MASTERING THE MARSHAL
Copyright © 2014 Marie-Nicole Ryan
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. Publication
Kenton Valley, Texas Hill Country, April 1890
Billy Rasmussen burst into Selma’s shop, skidding to a stop in front of the counter.
“Miss Nelson. Miss Nelson! The marshal just rode into town.”
“Billy Rasmussen, how many times do I have to remind you to close the door when you come in here?” Not that the child had any business in her dry-goods-and-sewing-notions store. Probably it was the jar of peppermint candies she kept on the counter he craved. More than probably. And refusing his bright blue eyes and dimpled cheeks simply wasn’t an option. A dusty cap covered his copper curls as he danced back and forth from one foot to the other. She moved swiftly to shut the door. Dust from deeply rutted Main Street blew in with the irrepressible youngster.
“He’s heading over to the sheriff’s office now. That Barnes feller is going to hang for sure.”
“You don’t know any such thing. There hasn’t been a trial yet.” Most likely the boy was right, though. She shuddered at the thought of a hanging. “Why aren’t you in school?” She took a cloth and wiped a rime of dust from the counter and from the top of the candy jar.
“It’s recess.” He gaze darted toward the sweets.
“Is that so?” she asked, tamping down her inclination to smile. “And why aren’t you playing hide-and-seek with your friends instead of poking your little nose into grown folks’ business?”
“They’re stupid. All they wanna do is play kid games. Not me.” He pointed to his chest. “I’m gonna be a lawman like Sheriff Tate or that marshal what just rode into town.”
“Who just rode into town,” she corrected, then set about straightening the packages containing needles and pins until they were aligned just so. Billy’s little mouth turned downward and his narrow shoulders sagged as she delayed giving him his treat. He glanced toward the door, so she gave in. “I don’t suppose you’d like a piece of peppermint this fine morning?”
The boy’s eyes lit with anticipation as he nodded. “Yes, ma’am, I surely would.” He held out his somewhat grimy hand, and she dropped the sweet into his open palm. “Thanks, Miss Nelson.” He popped the mint into his mouth.
“Now, go on. I don’t want your teacher coming down here looking for you.”
With a gleeful grin, he nodded, dashed outside, and ran down the street. Her brief interlude with Billy was a game they played almost daily. Poor child. Reckon he’d had few enough treats in his young life. His father was a part-time drunk, but the boy had a hardworking and loving mother. Somehow the woman managed to keep Billy and his four younger brothers from starvation’s door by taking in washing and ironing. The boy’s buoyant spirit was a miracle, and Selma had no doubt he’d make something of himself. Maybe he really would be a lawman.
If the marshal had arrived, then the judge wouldn’t be far behind. The trial would take place soon. The killer of the sheriff’s first wife and unborn child would face a court’s justice, swift and true. The residents of Kenton Valley had long memories.
The incident had taken place right after Selma came to town. She’d been terrified when the gang of bank robbers shot Sheriff Tate’s young wife. What kind of town had she chosen to live in anyway? The unfortunate woman lingered several days and then died along with her baby. The entire town mourned and demanded justice. When two years later the sheriff found love and married again, Selma had been more than pleased. She’d even helped make his new wife’s wedding dress. Starling Tate was now eight months along and Selma’s best friend.
She glanced down at the timepiece on her bodice. Matter of fact, she was due at the sheriff’s spread right now. Past due.
US Marshal Sam Dunaway tied his horse to the hitching post in front of the sheriff’s office and surveyed the small town of Kenton Valley. Typical of most small Texas towns, it had a church, a general store, dry goods, and two saloons. Down at the far end of the street was a school, where he heard the excited shouts of children playing some game or other.
He brushed the fine yellow dust from his oilskin duster and was ready to step onto the walk when a scrawny, redheaded boy ran up.
“Marshal! Are ya a-going to hang that feller what shot the sheriff’s missus?”
He gave the boy his sternest expression. “Not without a trial first.”
“He’s guilty. Ever’body says so. I wanna see him swing.”
So young and so bloodthirsty. Sam shook his head. “I suspect your mama will keep you home that day. If you were mine, I would.”
The boy shifted from one foot to the other. “Dang it. Hey, I’m gonna be a lawman when I grow up.”
“That’s mighty fine, kid. Say, what’s your name?”
The kid puffed out his chest. “William Robert Rasmussen, but folks call me Billy.”
“Well, Billy, being a lawman is a tough job. Need to be smart—”
“And fast with a gun.” The kid did an imaginary quick draw.
“Being smart’s more important.” Sam hunkered down to the boy’s level. “How come you aren’t in school?”
Billy screwed his face into a frown. “School’s stupid.”
“Not so. If you want to be a lawman, you gotta go to school. That’s all there is to it.”
“Really?” His eyes widened in surprise.
“Really. Now go on. Git.”
Shaking his head, Sam stood and watched until he was sure the boy had reached the end of the street. Damnation. What was it with kids today? In a hell of a hurry to grow up, when these were the best times of their lives.
He opened the door to the sheriff’s office and nodded. “Sheriff Cordero Tate?”
The sheriff nodded. “Cord’ll do.” The sheriff was tall and broad shouldered and showed no signs of his prior tragedy. He rose and offered his hand.
Sam took it. “I’d like to see the prisoner and how he’s housed.”
Tate stood and opened the door leading off the main room. It led to the cellblock, containing two cells. Only one was occupied. Barnes was stretched out, apparently asleep on the bunk—as if in a few days he wouldn’t be sleeping forever.
Sam turned and walked back to the outer office. “Appears you have a sturdy enough jail. Any chance the rest of his gang might try and break him out?”
“I’ve got two trustworthy deputies. Besides”—the sheriff shook his head—“the gang’s leader was killed last summer. The rest of ’em splintered after that. ’Course, you never know. Catching Barnes here was more of an accident than anything. He couldn’t resist visiting his sick mama. Thought he might show up, so we took turns keeping an eye on the Barnes homestead.”
“Smart thinking. If I’m not mistaken, you’re the one who killed their leader, Tyler?” Not to mention the sheriff’s new wife was half sister to the ringleader. Wonder that didn’t complicate matters.
“That’s right.” Tate sat, gesturing for Sam to pull up a chair.
A man of few words. Good. Removing his Stetson, Sam hooked the toe of his boot around a chair leg, dragged it over and straddled it. Now they could get down to the business of the trial. “I need a place to hold the trial. Any suggestions?”
“Haven’t had much call for trials till now. There’s the school or the church or the saloon.”
“Good. I’ll check ’em out. Prefer a neutral ground over the saloon. Any chance we’ll find twelve sober men come trial time?”
Tate shrugged. “If you’d rather move the trial to a bigger town, it won’t hurt my feelings none.”
Sam shook his head. “I’m here to see he gets one. Don’t care if it’s fair or not. That’s up to the judge, not me.” He stood and settled the Stetson on his head. “I’ll head over to the church, then to the school. Let you know which one I decide.”
The sheriff nodded. “Any word on when the judge will arrive?”
“Few days. He’s presiding over a trial in Llano.” He headed to the door, then stopped. “The livery?”
“Livery stables are behind the boarding house at the north end of town. Miz Foley oughta be able to fix you up while you’re here.” Tate jerked his head in the direction of the cells. “She provides meals for the prisoner, and she’s a damn fine cook.”
Sam touched the brim of his hat, nodding his appreciation.
Outside, he untied and mounted his horse, then headed north, passing the general store and dry goods. He glimpsed the tall, slender figure of a woman standing in the window of the dry goods store, a sudden apparition that had him twisting around in his saddle to get a better look. But his horse had other ideas and kept heading north.
Damn. She looked familiar, so familiar his heart sped up and his mouth went dry as sand. Just the memory of their loving stiffened his prick. But it couldn’t be Celine. His wife had burned to death in a boardinghouse fire almost three years ago.
When the news of her death had finally reached him, he’d still been too angry to grieve. She never would’ve died if she’d stayed home where she belonged instead of running off with his life savings. Served the bitch right—that was what he’d thought at the time.
But now… If this woman really was Celine and not someone who was her spitting image, what he wouldn’t give to bed his wife one last time before he locked up her low-down, thieving ass.