These are the first 3 chapters of MAKE ME NO GRAVE by Hayley Stone. These pages are raw and not completely edited, and should not be distributed or shown elsewhere. Thanks so much for your support!

 

PART I
ASHER
Kansas, 1873

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Almena Guillory corkscrewed in the middle of the room, turning round and around and around, drawing out some stubborn thought. I asked her to sit down, please, weren’t no sense in her wearing herself out like this before we’d even reached the courthouse. She told me to go to hell.

“Already been, ma’am. Spent a summer once in Texas.”

I hoped the joke would cheer her. To tell the truth, I was troubled by the indignity of the scene. Guillory was the Grizzly—or was it gristly?—Queen of the West. That was what people took to calling her, anyway, but she didn’t look like any bear I ever saw. She wore the sun in her skin, arms just starting to freckle. Her brown hair was falling out of her high-crowned hat in stocky strands, and her lips were cracked hardpan. Every now and again, I noticed blood weeping from the crevices. Sort of wished I could do something for the lady. Criminal or no, I felt sorry for her.

“He’ll come for me, Marshal,” she said. It was the same tired refrain she’d been at for the past few hours. Since being holed up in this here little hotel room, she hadn’t said much. Cursed some. And continued insisting he was coming. Some lover, by my guess.

“I’m not sure who you mean,” I replied. “Ain’t nobody coming to free you, Miss Guillory.”

“When are we leaving?”

Thought about lying to her, but there was something in her glare—a flat awareness, you might say—made me reconsider. “First light tomorrow.”

I wasn’t blind to the way her gaze ricocheted off my leather. 

“That’s a fair idea,” I said pleasantly, “but I surely wouldn’t recommend it.” 

Both of my guns were holstered, the polished butts half-concealed by the flap of my coat. Seemed a mite unfriendly to have them out, and I didn’t see a need. However high she esteemed herself, we both knew I’d pull faster than anything she tried.

The Grizzly Queen sneered at me, lips pulling back in a feral smile. Pretty sure hers were the whitest teeth I’d ever seen on a wanted man. But then, Almena Guillory wasn’t no man, and try as I might, I couldn’t help noticing that, too.

She was still wearing the saloon dress I’d caught her in. Except now, she’d torn open the frilly collar, clawed off the buttons at her neckline, and stripped away her black gloves, exposing the flesh of her forearms and a long, jagged scar, possibly from a cattle fence. Supposing she was hot, I offered to open a window, but she only took it as permission to do it herself. She walked over, threw back the shutters, and stuck her head out, baptizing herself in the spinning coolness of the evening. I heard her gasp or maybe sigh. Her hands clutched the windowsill, and in the new stillness, she trembled. Shaking like a leaf.

And then came the words again—hushed, prayerful words. “He’ll come for me.” 

This time when she said them, I tried to imagine the man she meant to hear them. Some shadowy loner blown in from the Territories, most like, or maybe an ex-Confederate displaced from the war—tall, broad-shouldered, an able-bodied sort. Probably had a fine horse. But, and I’ll grant you this may’ve been a reflection on my poor imagination, I couldn’t invent a face to go with all my idle wondering. She wouldn’t give him up, and for some reason, not one person had yet to name the Grizzly Queen of the West’s consort. Man was a spook.

I leaned forward. “Mind if I ask you something?”

    “What?”

    “Why red?” It was the color of her lips and her dress. “I know you had a whole closetful of costumes you could’ve chosen from—I had a peek backstage. Yonder ladies were very… solicitous. What I mean is, and don’t get me wrong here, Miss Guillory, it’s not a bad color on you, but it ain’t exactly what you’d call subtle now.”

    Almena had been slouching against the windowsill, but now she straightened. She shook her head with a short, cruel laugh. “Don’t you know your religion? Isn’t your name disciple or something?”

    “Apostle,” I corrected. Even that wasn’t my real name, not the name I was born with, but when you go barreling through life, names have an odd way of attaching to you like stickers from a bramble bush. I wasn’t about to split hairs with her on the matter. “And depends on whose religion.”

    “Red is the color of Catholic martyrdom. When Mary, Queen of Scots went to her death, she wore red to protest the execution.”

    “You’re a Catholic then?”

    “Do I look like a Catholic to you?”

    “You look like a woman entitled to her beliefs, same as anyone else.”

    “I just like red,” she said. “That’s all.”

Maybe that was the God’s honest truth, but I couldn’t help thinking it was more symbolic than that. That wearing red was somehow proof of her faith to this man she was waiting for.

“Fancy the color blue myself,” I said to break the silence. “Mind if I ask you something else?”

She lapped at the fresh blood on her lips. “You’re awfully chatty for a marshal.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve been told that. Just this thing’s been niggling around my head since I started searching for you…”

“Hunting me.”

“—but if you do mind, I can stuff my curiosity. It’s nothing what won’t keep.”

She rolled her eyes, but I guessed she was grateful for the distraction because she replied, “I can’t stop you from asking.”

I displayed the palms of my hands, as though I were holding both options up for her. “Just to clarify: is it grizzly, like the bear—or gristly, like a tough piece of meat?” 

I’d heard a lot of wild stories since moving out West, of men turning into beasts under moonlight and the dead lurching back to life, hungry for the living. Folks out here were tough, but they were also paranoid as all get-out. Sometimes for good reason. I’d experienced my fair share of strange happenings on the plains, including the time I’d heard the infamous call of the Indian death bird right before a shootout. This other time, I swear I saw the ghost of one of the Bloody Espinosas—Felipe, I think—walk up to a bar in Canon City, Colorado and order himself a drink. 

But nothing, not even these small instances of weirdness, approached the level of myth surrounding the Grizzly Queen of the West. They called her a witch. Said she couldn’t be killed. Said the last men who’d tried had ended up dead themselves, wearing the same wounds they had given her. The rational part of me wanted to explain away these tall tales as being nothing more than local superstition, but maybe there was something to them. For the first time, I didn’t have to rely on secondhand accounts. I had the woman herself right here to answer my questions.

Something softened in Almena’s face. Her hands stilled, nails hovering over the grain of the windowsill, their tips blunted from digging shallow graves out of the wood. 

“Grizzly. Like the bear. Why’s it matter?”

“Don’t.” I leaned back and stretched out, crossing my ankles in a show of casualness. “Unless you’re planning on turning into one.”

Almena looked partly amused. “You’re worried I’m going to turn into a bear?”

The way she said it, I knew that story at least was untrue. Probably the rest were, too. 

Feeling foolish, I quickly changed the subject. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to sit down, Miss Guillory? Rest a little? You’re starting to look a bit piqued.”

“No,” she said.

I sighed. “Only trying to make you more comfortable.” 

I followed the path her gaze took around the hotel room, eying the tired carpet, worn to the floorboards at places, and the wallpaper bowing away from the walls. 

“In a manner of speaking,” I amended with a small smile. Heck. Even the furniture looked to have seen better days. The bed was missing a post and had notches of wood taken out of the remaining three. Saying nothing of my chair’s bad leg.

For a split second, forgetting herself, Almena smiled back.

I decided to keep trying. “Can I get you something to eat? Something to drink?”

“Whiskey.”

“Not whiskey. Something else. Something not liquor.” 

She gestured vaguely, and when she thought I wasn’t looking, began sawing her teeth across her nails. Back and forth, back and forth, like a prisoner trying to file her way through an iron bar. I thought it best not to comment on.

I got up. “You know, why don’t I just have Dorothy bring up whatever she’s got leftover from dinner.”

“Yes,” Guillory said, but she wasn’t looking at me. “You do that.”

Instead of heading to the door, I went to the window first, checking for trouble. A few folks were out, taking advantage of the long evening. Some portly rider had stopped near the saloon, watering himself and his horse. A little farther on, a man with a shock of orange hair and his lady friend strolled down the boardwalk, passing through slits of rusty light between the store overhangs, talking low and glancing discreetly at one another. Two businessmen wearing ditto suits stood outside Robert’s General Supplies across the street, chewing the fat. I recalled seeing all of them when I rode in, except the rider, but he appeared halfway to Sunday with drink, all red in the face and sweating, so I judged him no great threat. It was clear he wasn’t here for Guillory. If he were, he was going about a jailbreak all wrong.

I turned from the window—and straight into Almena who had moved in, stealthy as a cat. In one slick movement, she thrust her hand inside my coat, groping for my Colt. 

At the same time, I drew my other piece, rolled the hammer back, and shoved it between her ribs. Her hand remained inside the flap of my coat, the hard line of her body edged against mine, her shoulder pressing into my collarbone. I was also well aware of the location of her leg wedged between mine, her knee dangerously close to my most precious bits. Worse still, I couldn’t be sure she didn’t have the gun cocked, her finger tight on the trigger, ready to put a hole in me.

I frowned, more at myself than her. “Probably shouldn’t have gotten so close.”

“Probably not,” she said. Her breath grazed my lips. “Back up.”

I took a step back but kept my gun kissing her side.

In a quiet, yet sturdy voice, I said, “You don’t really think he’s coming, do you?”

Her eyes shot to the window and back to me. I half expected to feel her gaze, given how many times I’d heard those eyes described as piercing over the past few months. But as I stood there, watching her watching me, they were just gray eyes. Could’ve belonged to anyone.

I tried to hold her gaze, but she kept pushing it to different areas of the room. Looking for a way out, or maybe another weapon. Judging her odds.

“I’m betting that’s why you’re so anxious,” I continued. My mouth tasted sandy, a familiar backwash of fear on my tongue. Anyone who’s had a gun on them and says they didn’t experience the same is either a liar or a fool. “You’re worried on account of him not being here already. On account of him not being here when you needed him in the first place.”

She shook my gun, rattling the barrel against my thigh. “What do you know about it?”

“I know what it’s like to be let down by someone you love. Someone you trusted.” I wished this was only theater. Some pretty offering of sympathy to settle her. But I suspected she’d see right through me if I tried anything of the sort. “Believe me, Miss Guillory, when I say, ‘I know,’ I’m being neither kind nor cunning.”

To my surprise, she smiled. Pressed in closer. Wasn’t grizzly bears came to mind then. I was thinking what any man wading through tall grass thinks. Snake. “You imagine just because we have something in common, that means I’m not going to shoot you?”

“I was hoping it might give you pause.”

She snorted. “Don’t try appealing to my better nature, Marshal. I don’t have one.”

I looked down. The sight of her slender hand disappearing into my coat remained an unsettling one. “Might be you’re right about that.”

“Move towards the door.”

“Can’t do that.”

“Then I believe this is what one refers to as an impasse.” She wasn’t looking at the window anymore.

“Let go of my gun, Almena.” It was more request than demand. “Please.”

By now, some marshals would’ve shot her dead. I knew half a dozen men—good solid lawmen—who would’ve put her down the moment her fingers brushed the fabric of their coats. But that wasn’t my way.

Sweat collected on her forehead, and she worried her bottom lip between her teeth. “I’d like to, Marshal, seeing as how you asked so nicely, but we both know if I let go of your gun, I’m a dead woman.”

“I won’t shoot you. You’ve got my word on that.”

“Even if I thought you were telling the truth, and I’ll grant, you seem like an honorable man…”

“Thank you.”

“That still leaves me at the mercy of the court as soon as we get to Abilene.” Her eyes were flat and tired. “They’re going to hang me, Marshal.”

“You’ll get a trial. A decent shake.”

“A decent shake,” she murmured. “How comforting.”

“You’ve committed a crime, Miss Guillory,” I reminded her.

“I’ve committed multiple crimes. That’s why they’re going to hang me.”

I sighed. “If you don’t release my gun, ma’am, I am gonna have to shoot you.”

She stiffened. “You do that, and you can be sure I’ll take you with me.”

“I didn’t say it’d be a pleasant experience.” My arm threatened to sag, fatigued from holding so damn still. “But this can’t go on for much longer, and I can’t just let you go. It’s my job to sit on you until we get to Abilene. Now, I could’ve done that anywhere—an outhouse, back of the grocer’s. I could’ve tied you to the post out there with the horses.”

She glared at me from underneath the cliff of her bangs. “Why didn’t you, then?”

“Because, despite your colorful moniker, I don’t think you’re an animal, Miss Guillory. I don’t think you should be treated like one neither.”

Her lips parted, but she didn’t speak. Small grooves appeared between her eyes, a sign of indecision, doubt.

“Just slide your hand back now, nice and slow…”

For a moment, I thought she might come to reason. Might trust me… but, no, there was someone out there she trusted more. The specter of rescue clung to her like a shadow.

“No. Regardless of what you believe, he is coming for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make it easier for him when he gets here. Now move.”

I took another step back, but this time I turned, yanking her arm with me. Throwing my weight at her, I pushed her back into the wall. I heard the terrible sound of a skull meeting wood, a gun going off, and then Almena cursing up a storm, swearing like a man who’s just lost his shirt at the poker table.

When it was over, my hand still gripped my piece, but hers were empty. She swung several times at my face, which surprised me a little. From her, I expected claws.

Leaning away, I managed to keep her pinned by one of her shoulders with my free hand. She was stronger than she looked, but I still had the advantage of height and better footing. I trained my gun on her but rested my finger outside the trigger guard. I glanced down briefly, wondering where the bullet landed. Whether either of us had been shot.

“Are you hurt?” I asked her. When she refused to speak, I pressed her shoulder and said more firmly, “I asked if you were hurt.”

Her chin jutted out, and I thought she was gonna spit at me. But she just shook her head and released fistfuls of my coat. I knew the following day would bring bruises where her fingers had briefly dug into my arms, but at least there’d still be a tomorrow, for both of us. That was something.

“I’m gonna have to tie you up now. You understand why.”

“I could’ve killed you just now,” she said. I had her tearing strips of linen off the bed at gunpoint. Dorothy wasn’t gonna be happy about it, but it wasn’t like I carried rope around with me. I was fully prepared to add it to my bill.

“You wouldn’t have been the first to try,” I said.

She tore another long strip, looking down at her hands. “That wasn’t me trying.”

Could’ve fooled me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

The hunt and capture of Guillory had robbed me of nearly two nights of sleep, and I was feeling tipsy moving into the bright morning. Dorothy brought me a plate of eggs over toast, and stayed with me while I ate, distracting me with some light talk about a problem she’d been having with the young couple I saw walking yesterday.

“I don’t mean to be a gossip,” Dorothy said, which is what she always said right before sharing some local bit of hearsay. “And I don’t mean to be crude, but they’re just so… loud.”

“Newlyweds, I’m guessing?” I asked absently, regarding my breakfast like a rattlesnake. My stomach was in knots. Not since my first time catching a wanted fella near St. Louis had I felt this uneasy. Unlike Almena, he hadn’t been willing to come peaceably. I’d had to put him down outside a tailor’s shop; the storefront had blue shutters and a sign missing its vowels. Funny I still remembered that.

“Naturally,” Dorothy said, rolling her eyes. They were a pretty shade of blue that contrasted nicely with her brown skin. Shame most folk didn’t spare her a second glance, often more interested in her younger sister, Sara, who enjoyed singing for customers at the saloon down the street. It was their loss, far as I was concerned. Dorothy kept a fine house, and she took care of me every time I came through.

“Something wrong with my cooking?” Dorothy asked after another minute of watching me shuffle food around my plate. At her offended look, I stuffed some yolk into my mouth, but chewed slowly and swallowed with difficulty.

“This business with the lady fugitive’s got you all twisted up, ain’t it?”

“Something like that.” 

I watched sunlight paint the sky through a window at the end of the hall. It filled in the space around some harmless gray clouds. By all accounts, it was gonna be a beautiful day.

Dorothy touched my elbow, encouraging me to keep eating. I gave up on the eggs and attempted the toast. “You think she’s innocent?” Dorothy asked.

“No, don’t imagine she is.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

I set my slice of toast down in a bed of crumbs, still only partially-eaten. The egg yolks stared up at me like a pair of rheumy eyes, one bleeding into the other. I was fighting a losing battle. Nothing was gonna stay down ‘til Guillory was safely delivered to the courthouse in Abilene. Maybe not even then. She was the closest thing to a celebrity in these parts, after all. The marshal’s office in St. Louis could end up asking me to ferry her there instead if they felt the district court wasn’t gonna do its job. They loved their hangings in Missouri.

“Probably nothing,” I said, offering a smile. “Just too much time in my head’s all. Anyway, think you could bring Miss Guillory something to eat?”

She pinched her lips together. “What’s a criminal like to eat for breakfast?”

“Eggs’d be fine, some more toast—and juice, if you have it.”

Dorothy shuffled off, but the cold stone of nausea in my belly persisted. 

A short time after that, Sheriff Jedediah Strickland and his boys rode in.

#

Marshals are encouraged to work with local law enforcement, but my neck crawled seeing the sheriff and his men arrive, and so early in the morning. Boded ill. Among the men Jed brought with him, one or two proved good with his hands. Soon after arriving, the men purchased wood and nails from the general store. I saw the writing on the walls even before the men got to work digging a small trench and putting up the post. They were building a poor man’s version of the hangman’s scaffold. There were too few trees in the area, and of those, none with branches strong enough to support a man—or, in this case, a woman. Sheriff wasn’t about to let that stop him. He was determined to see Almena Guillory swing.

I stood outside the hotel, barring the entrance, my coat tucked behind my leather in a subtle threat. Jed wanted to move Almena from the hotel room into a small windowless shed behind the grocer’s that smelled like rotting wood and salted meat, but I put a stop to that.

“Don’t be such a soft touch, son,” Jed said with a mouth full of apple. Sun provided plenty to see by, but it also drove deep shadows into the caverns of his old face. As long as I’d known him, coming up on a few years now, Jed had always been a fair, reasonable sort. I couldn’t say what it was, but something about Guillory turned him mean. “It’s just for a few hours. I’m sure she’s stayed in worse accommodations.”

I removed my hat, tousling my dark blond hair. “My issue ain’t just with the shed, Jed, but while we're on the subject, I don’t see why you wanna put her in there.”

Jed pried off another chunk of apple with his two front teeth. Little pieces of meat sprayed from his mouth when he spoke, others fell into his black, thistly beard. “She’s a notorious outlaw. Where else would we put her?”

“What’s wrong with the room in the hotel?”

“The windows, for one.”

“She’s not gonna jump.”

Jed shrugged. “Seen it happen before. Best we not take any chances.” He grabbed my shoulder and shook it gently. The action reminded me of my father. I clenched my jaw, averting my gaze. “Relax, son. You did good tracking her down. Your job’s over now. Time to let justice run its course.”

“Wasn’t aware you’d summoned a judge and pulled together a jury,” I said, meeting his eyes again. My face felt hard and stiff. “You hiding state’s witnesses in that thatch?”

Jed tossed the apple to the ground, kicking it away. He wiped his hands off on the front of his vest, spat out the side of his mouth. “You’re a good man, Apostle. Decent. But that’s your problem. Decent men don’t know when to be hard—too busy being decent, you see? But a righteous man…. A righteous man knows there’s a time and place to get biblical if you take my meaning.”

“I take it fine. Don’t mean I agree with it.”

Jed smiled tightly, and stared up at the cloudless sky, letting out a breath. I noticed more lines in his face I’d never seen before. “Maybe not, but you’ll respect my decision. Won’t you, Apostle?” 

He looked straight at me. Again, I flashed back to my father jostling me by the shoulders, the whiskey on his breath beating me over, his eyes bright and wild, him repeating, you’ll respect me, so help me God, you will respect me while my mother cried somewhere in the next room.

“No,” I said, concentrating on a spot near the porch overtaken by yellow weeds, and then at the teardrop stain of tobacco on Jed’s boot. For some reason, it was hard for me to look at him directly. My fingers flexed at my sides, releasing a fist. “I can’t in good conscience say I will respect it, Jed. Or you, if you try hanging that woman. I said it before, this ain’t how we do things.”

Jed frowned. “You know why they call her the Grizzly Queen, don’t you?”

“Jed…”

“No, you’re gonna hear this. You think she deserves a trial. You think she’s owed it. You think I’m just after—what? Frontier justice?“ His voice closed on my ear, low, controlled, but angrier than I’d ever heard him. “If you knew half of what she’s done, you wouldn’t be here judging me. You’d be out there holding a hammer, too. She’s not some innocent girl accused of shoplifting from a goddamn lady’s boutique. Almena Guillory is a murderer. Her and her ilk rob trains and mail coaches; they’ve held up saloons, rustled cattle, stolen horses. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s responsible for shooting the goddamn President hisself!” 

Jed had gotten himself all worked up. Only thing for it was to let him rant, burn himself out.

“Before she moved out here, you know what they called her? Back in the South? Killin’ Al Guillory. They say she dressed like a man during the war just so she could see some action. Make no mistake, son. Killing’s in her blood. Given half the chance, she’d cut you down and wouldn’t bat an eye.”

In the moment he stopped to take a breath, I thought back to a different conversation.

I could’ve killed you just now.

You wouldn’t have been the first to try.

That wasn’t me trying.

“I don’t know about that.” I rubbed my jaw where Almena had managed to land one good hit earlier. “Sometimes people surprise you if you let ‘em.”

“And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they shoot you in the back and stand there watching as you bleed out in the dust.”

His words inspired a sudden epiphany. I looked at him critically. “Is this personal, Jed? Did she do something to you? Guillory?”

“After tomorrow, it won’t matter what she’s done,” the sheriff answered stiffly. “She’ll be done. And then we’ll go after her man, and the rest of her gang.”

“Sounds like you’re looking to rack up quite the body count.”

“If you were interested in the business of saving souls, Marshal, you should have become a preacher.”

#

There was no more hammering, sawing. No one at work. The sheriff’s boys were done fiddling with the structure, or near to it. Already people stood around on the boardwalk, and in the street, passing curious glances at one another.

Dorothy caught me on the landing of the stairs, going up while she was coming down.

“What’s a matter?” she asked.

“Trouble. You mind I check out a bit early?”

She shook her head, short hair bobbing around her cheeks. “Course not. Do what you gotta.”

I thanked her and continued to Almena’s room. Once there, I knocked on the door with the toe of my boot. “Miss Guillory?”

“What do you want now, Marshal?”

“I’m coming in. Back away from the door, please. Try anything, I won’t be responsible for what happens. Clear?” 

I listened a moment, heard her steps retreat, and went in.

“Look, Marshal,” Almena said. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, wagging her foot. When she stretched, I noticed stains decorating the spots beneath her arms. She’d popped more buttons near her chest, no doubt her answer to the hot, sweaty darkness of the room, and her hat lay discarded in the corner by the piss pot. “Unless you fancy letting me go, better you leave me be. I’ve nothing more to say—”

“Some men downstairs. They’re planning on hanging you.” I grabbed up my pack, same one had all my basics—stale biscuits, bag of coffee beans, tinder, couple pieces of string because you never knew when you’d need some good string—then adjusted my belt. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use my guns today, but I always had to prepare for that chance.

She blanched, then tried to cover it. “You sound surprised.”

“Disappointed, more like.”

A cough or maybe a laugh. “It’d save you some time and effort, though, wouldn’t it?”

Her words pricked me. She thought that little of my integrity? 

“No, ma’am. Didn’t go through all the trouble tracking you down and capturing you alive just to let a bunch of locals string you up. Now come on, we’re leaving.” I headed for the door, then stopped and turned back when I didn’t hear her move. “I bear you no ill will, Miss Guillory.”

“You bear me no ill will? Is that supposed to be humorous?”

“No time for this.” I retraced my steps and snatched her off the bed, half-dragging her toward the door. I’d never handled a woman so roughly in my life—minus my first meeting with Guillory when again, she’d forced my hand—and I lamented having to do so now, but she gave me no choice.

“You’re worrying for nothing,” she said as we booked it down the hall. Noticed she had no trouble keeping up for someone claiming to be unconvinced of the danger. “I’m not going to swing. Not today, anyway.”

“Almena. Your lover ain’t coming. You’ve got to make peace with that.”

“You keep your fictions, Marshal, and I’ll keep mine.”

Dorothy was downstairs, and she wasn’t alone. Sheriff and his boys were with her. I pulled Almena behind me, leaving her a few steps back, and met Jed on the ground floor. My stomach lurched, what little breakfast I’d had threatening to come back up on me. This wasn’t gonna be any kind of pleasant.

“Jed.”

“Apostle.” His eyes shot to Almena, full of loathing. He snorted. “Not so tough now, are we, sweetheart?”

“How’s your son, Sheriff?” She appeared to suddenly remember something. “Oh, wait.”

The sheriff jerked forward with a snarl, ramming my shoulder. I barely managed to keep him from climbing the stairs.

Bitch!” he snarled. 

Almena just stood there wearing an eerie smile that didn’t reach her eyes. 

“You see? What did I tell you? She’s a godless piece of northern trash.” His beard glistened with spit.

“Come off it, Jed. You’re provoking her.” Though I did wonder what Almena meant by her words. In all the time I’d known him, Jed never mentioned having a son, though judging by what had just passed between Almena and him, I gathered there was good reason for that.

“Enough of this.” Jed motioned to his boys. “Take her.”

“Now wait just a minute—”

Two of the sheriff’s men bull-rushed me. My head smashed into the wall, loosening my thoughts like dust. I considered drawing down on the men, but Dorothy was standing right there, along with that couple from before. The young missus looked right terrified, especially when her gaze caught on Almena. I wasn’t about to risk anyone innocent getting shot, and I didn’t like my odds against such a large coalition of vigilantes either. My guns stayed put.

Ignoring my protests, the remaining two deputies barreled past, clomping up the stairs in their noisy clodhoppers, tracking grime all over Dorothy’s nice carpet. Guillory resisted, but they got hold of her linen binds, dragged her down, and thrust her outside. She blinked rapidly in the sudden light like an old hermit, recoiling from open sky. Before her eyes had a chance to adjust, the sheriff’s deputies started pushing her toward the road.

She smelled like urine passing by, which I hadn’t noticed before in my haste. My frown deepened. What had she been thinking? If the lady needed privacy to relieve herself during the night, all she had to do was ask. But, no. Instead, she’d pissed herself. I swear, the woman was stubborn as sin.

Still, that remained for a judge to decide.

“Easy, boys,” Jed said, heading out after Almena. “That there’s a federal. Don’t want to leave any permanent damage.”

A moment later the men released me, running to catch the spectacle. All save for one sorry bastard who decided to teach me a lesson. His bony knuckle slammed into my gut, folding me over. Air fled my lungs, causing me to wheeze for a few seconds. I didn’t see the fiend leave, but when I stood back up, he was gone. 

No one stopping me from pursuing, I lit out the door after them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

Almena’s red gown looked gaudy in the sunlight, glittering and cheap. Matching tears reached up both thighs that I didn’t remember being there before.

Despite Dorothy’s kind and unexpected offer to lend Almena something more appropriate to wear—“no lady, saint or sinner, should swing with her undercarriage flapping in the breeze!”—Jed made Almena keep the dress on. He said it suited her, and his men laughed, describing her in words not worth repeating. I was embarrassed, both by their language and the intention behind it; these weren’t true deputies of the United States government. They were boys giggling at the sight of bare skin. But they were also angry, maybe a little afraid, too, and that made them dangerous.

“Sheriff!” I quickly caught up with the group. Guillory glanced back at me, but I couldn’t read her expression. One of the deputies shoved her forward, and she turned back toward the sun. “Sheriff, I’m asking you to reconsider.”

Despite my effort to intercept him, Jed didn’t slow. “I’m not having this conversation with you again, Apostle.”

Where most of the sheriff’s deputies appeared giddy, bumping into one another as they trailed behind Guillory, Jed’s face was drawn, his brown eyes empty. Having forgone his duster in the heat, the sheriff held the front of his suspenders with tense knuckles, as if he were pulling himself forward. I hoped he was having second thoughts.

“I don’t think you’re thinking clearly.” I spoke quietly so Jed’s boys wouldn’t hear. I didn’t wanna humiliate the man, though I wasn’t above it either if that’s what it took.

Jed turned to me suddenly, placing a hand on my chest. The deputies halted to stare at us. With a sharp, impatient gesture, Jed motioned for them to keep walking.

“What’s gotten into you? You sweet on this woman, son? That it? Think she might show you a little friendly gratitude if you keep her from swinging?”

“Hell, Jed. You should know me better than that.”

He got into my face, cheek twitching beneath one eye. “And you should know better than to question my judgment. Stay out of my way, Apostle. I mean it. Don’t push against this.”

He turned his back on me, walked away.

Jedediah!” I called to him.

When he turned back, his shoulders slumped. I knew how I must look: coat pushed back, guns exposed to the glare of day.

Ahead of us, the deputies fought Almena to get her into position. Judging by the way one of them was lying on the ground holding himself, seemed she’d managed to get a leg up. A few of the others were laughing at him, and jeering her. Town folk continued to hang back near the stores, pretending occupation with something else.

I watched the sheriff, steady. “I’m not asking now. I’m telling you how it’s gonna be. Call off your boys.”

“And if I refuse? What then? You planning on shooting me?”

“This has gone plenty far, Jed. You put the fear of God into her. What more do you want?”

“I want her dead. Thought I’d made that pretty clear.”

I started towards him, real slow, the soles of my boots crunching grit. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

Although I tried to keep my focus on Jed, the activities of his deputies forced me to extend my attention to the area around me. My eyes kept veering to Almena, her red dress standing out against the white sky like a battlefield pennon. They’d secured her arms behind her, rebinding her wrists, but with actual rope this time. Same kind of rope the sheriff’s men were now tossing over the horizontal crossbeam.

And just like that, the scaffold became a proper gallows. 

Someone I didn’t recognize as a deputy—probably an employee of the general store—rolled a barrel up to the foot of the structure. So that was how they were gonna do it. Crude, but it’d get the job done.

“That’s close enough.” Jed held out one hand, his other settling around the grip of his revolver.

“Hey, sheriff!” one of his boys shouted, oblivious to the growing quarrel. “You want that we should string her up now?”

“There’s some things a man can’t come back from, Jed,” I warned.

“I thought people could change,” he mocked.

“Sheriff!” The deputy again.

“Goes both ways,” I said.

“I don’t expect you to understand, Apostle,” Jed said, “but you’re right. I do know you. I know you won’t pull on me, not so long as you value your badge. A judge’ll understand letting Guillory die a whole lot more than he’ll understand you shooting a fellow lawman.”

Incredibly, he let his hand fall away from his piece and turned to face the gallows. Almena watched us, leaning away from the man who had his hands on her, the rope creeping into her neck. Faith drained from her eyes. She knows he’s not coming.

“Sheriff!” I jogged forward. Tried to stop him.

Tried.

Jed cupped his mouth with his now-free hands, hollering back to his man: 

String her up!”

Guillory refused to be hefted onto the barrel and headbutted the luckless deputy who tried to force the issue. Another man came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her belly. His hand brushed her bare thigh. The man reeled away suddenly, as though he’d been smacked in the head. He windmilled before falling backwards, landing hard in the dirt. Almena spat on him.

The remaining men pulled their firearms. Sheriff included.

“Marshal’s service!” I shouted, finally drawing in the same fluid motion I’d used dozens of times before. I gained some looks, a few curious, others disgusted and impatient. Jed’s mouth went slack inside the cave of his beard. Almena glanced over at me with a feeling I’d never seen before in her scornful eyes: relief. She must’ve guessed I was all she was gonna get as far as allies went.

“Let’s everybody be calm about this. Lower your weapons and step away from Guillory. She’s under the protection of the United States government. You touch her, and you’re in breach of federal law.”

“You don’t want to do this, son.” Jed stepped toward me. I pointed my piece at him, and it was like an invisible string between us pulled tight, stopping him cold.

“You’re right about that,” I agreed sadly. “But you’re not giving me a choice.”

Jed’s frown was so deep, I worried the rest of his face might fall into it. “You’d choose this criminal, this whore, over your own brothers-in-arms?”

“It ain’t like that, and you know it. You’re breaking the law, Jed.”

She broke the law!” he spat, pointing at Almena. “Her! I’m the one trying to set things right!”

“By lynching an unarmed woman?”

Jed raked his beard with an agitated hand. “You still can’t see it, can you? A woman—she ain’t no woman. She’s a devil, Apostle. And you’re playing right into her hands. What’s to say she won’t escape before you get her to Abilene? What’s to stop her from killing again?”

“I won’t let that happen.”

“You’d stop her?”

“Already have.”

Movement continued in my periphery; one of the men tied a cloth around Almena’s mouth to prevent her from spitting on them again. Another adjusted the noose around her neck, tightening it. She made a vain effort to kick one of them and missed. Her shoe went flying to the dirt.

“Are you boys stubborn or just plain stupid?” I asked the deputies, pulling my second gun in the time it took them to blink. The white ivory handles glinted in the sun. “I said step away. Go on now.”

Only two, the youngest members of the posse by the looks of it, obeyed. The rest held their positions, heads cranking back and forth between us, waiting for confirmation from the sheriff.

The crowd stirred behind me with growing restlessness. Some of the men disappeared, which worried me. I suspected they were going to fetch their guns.

“You told me yourself. She was caught resisting arrest,” the sheriff said.

“To be fair, I wasn’t being too gentle neither,” I replied, continuing to split my attention between Jed and his boys. I didn’t know how, but they’d gotten her up on that damn barrel. I guess I had the answer to my earlier question. Just stupid then.

“Be a shame if she tried anything else.”

“Last warning. Tell your boys to stand down.”

Men!” Jed barked without looking behind him, without seeing the baleful outline of the L-shaped hangman’s scaffold against the empty Kansas countryside. He hesitated, the man I’d never known to be anything but decisive. The man I expected to be better than whatever personal vendetta curdled in his heart. I considered myself a fair judge of character, but in that moment, I knew I’d judged Jedediah Strickland wrong.

You know what needs doing!” he roared.

My first bullet punched through the foot of the man who attempted to kick over the barrel, penetrating flesh and wood with a meaty sound. My second caught his compatriot in the neck as he started to pull Almena off the barrel by her legs. His dark blood sprayed across the front of her dress. She stood on her tiptoes, half-dancing, eyes wide with panic, desperately trying to keep her balancing act.

A more enterprising deputy returned fire, taking out a few hapless weeds at my feet. Rather than stepping back, I moved forward, advancing slowly but surely, firing several more shots. The remaining men dove for cover behind the wooden scaffolding. Unfortunately, one of the youngsters made the unfortunate decision to crouch behind Almena’s barrel. Kid was starting to tip it over, intentionally or otherwise.

“Hold your fire!” Jed was shouting. Least, I think that’s what he was saying. I kept losing his voice amidst the loud percussion of gunfire, but he had his hands out, gesturing wildly to his men. “Hold your fire, goddammit!

I watched the boy behind the barrel—and I watched Almena, leaning at a sharp angle, her situation growing more precarious. With the rope choking her, I worried she’d black out before I could cut her down. I needed to make a quick end of this, but I couldn’t see a way to do that that didn’t result in more bloodshed.

Making matters worse, the crowd of onlookers was growing in number behind me, men drawn by the sound of gunfire. They held Sharps rifles across their chest, and one woman even whipped out what looked like a Derringer—but no one seemed to know who to aim at. The rest of the ladies had wisely scattered, most ducking inside whatever storefront they’d been standing outside of, alleviating some of my concern for civilian casualties.

About that time—while I was yelling for the bystanders to get back inside, and Jed was screaming for his men to stop shooting—Almena slipped. Or the boy upset the barrel. Either way, she was swinging, the noose pulled up to her chin. Her body rotated like a fish on the end of a line as she panicked, fighting to get air.

Well, shit.

The drop had been gradual enough, hadn’t broken her neck, but that was a small mercy while she continued to dangle there, suffocating. The surviving deputies fumbled bullets into empty chambers, and I took the opportunity to move closer, firing an occasional warning shot whenever one of them peeked out from cover. I had only two more rounds before I’d have to reload, so I tried to fire sparingly.

Almena’s lips were moving, but I was still too far away to hear what she was saying. I brought my gun up, intending to shoot through the rope.

Pulled the trigger.

And was promptly laid flat by someone else’s bullet.

The world pounded and receded away from me in witless agony from a point close to my stomach. I couldn’t breathe, never mind move, though my hands still twitched uselessly for my gun somewhere nearby, fingers clawing at the hot dirt. The taste of copper burned my mouth.

Jed hovered over me, a dark silhouette bleeding into the pale sky. All I could make out was his bushy black beard which shook when he spoke. “I’m sorry, son.” A prolonged sigh as he removed his hat, knelt down next to me. “Dammit. You just couldn’t let it lie, could you?”

When I opened my mouth, tried to speak, blood drooled from the corner of my lips.

“Guillory,” I choked. I needed to know if she was all right. Seemed a waste to die for nothing.

Jed went real quiet, and looked and looked away from me, standing back up with a grunt of effort.

“You missed,” he said.