Authors: Delynn Royer
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Romantic Comedy, #Western, #Historical Romance, #Westerns
When they reached the deserted back end of the tent, they heard muffled voices and could see shadows moving inside. These were Silas, Clell, Molly, and Lolly at work packing up the props.
The thought of Clell working side by side with Molly and Lolly brought a frown to Gwin's face. She'd seen Clell eyeing up the twin dance-hall girls. She'd also seen them eyeing him up.
Gwin knew that, by rights, this wasn't her business. Clell had already asked her to marry him, and she had refused. She'd even let him kiss her a few times, and each time, she had felt nothing. Gwin wasn't sure what she was supposed to feel when a man kissed her, but she was fairly certain she should feel
. Her own girlish dreams told her that much.
Wilson broke into her thoughts. "Now, who the heck do you suppose that is?"
Gwin looked up to see a man on horseback emerging into the circle of lantern light that surrounded the old circus tent. He was big, very big, that much was plain, but his broad-brimmed hat was pulled low over his forehead, discouraging any view of his face. He was well dressed, an expensive knee-length coat stretched over massive shoulders.
Gwin looked at Wilson. "We have to stay out of sight until he leaves."
Wilson nodded and, together, they stepped back into the shadows around the side of the tent. Gwin peeked around the corner just as the stranger dismounted. She still couldn't make out his face.
"What's he want?" A loud whisper. This was Arthur.
"Shhh!" Gwin pulled back around the corner and motioned for him to hush up.
"I'm gonna see what he wants!" Before Gwin could catch Arthur's sleeve, he scurried off to the back end of the tent. She knew he would sneak a peek through one of the loose flaps.
"Darn that kid."
"Don't worry," Wilson said. "He handles himself better than any kid I ever saw."
Well, that was right enough, she supposed. Gwin edged along the side of the tent, her ears pricked to catch the conversation that passed within.
"Are you Brother Christian?"
The man's voice was rumbling and deep, his tone flat. Gwin saw the length of Silas's shadow against the faded canvas, elongating and shortening, as he moved to face the stranger. "That I am. And you, sir, are?"
"Who I am doesn't matter. Is this your whole group?"
Clell spoke then, challenging. "I'm sorry, sir, but if you won't identify yourself and state your—"
Silence. No one outside of their troupe ever used Silas's real name.
Silas's tone was wary. "So, it's trouble you've come for."
"I've come to deliver a message to Silas Pierce."
"Well, deliver it and be on your— No! Wait!"
A deafening shot rang out. Gwin jerked back as Silas, blown clean off his feet, flew back against the side of the tent not four yards from where she stood. She gaped, horrified, as his form slumped to the ground.
Clell cried. The shotgun roared again.
There were screams as Molly and Lolly tried to escape. Then three more shots, each punctuated by the metallic scratch-click of the lever-action as it ejected spent shells. The screaming stopped.
Wilson's fingers dug into Gwin's elbow. He spun her around, whispering, "We gotta get outta here!"
"But we can't just leave them!"
"He's after everyone, you hear?
Gwin’s blood went cold. "Oh, my God ... where's Arthur?"
Inside the tent, the big man's voice boomed. "Hey, you! Kid! What are you doing there?"
Gwin raced for the rear of the tent. She spotted her little brother, frozen and still down on his knees, just as she heard the man inside the tent reloading.
She snagged the shoulder strap of Arthur's overalls, yanking him off balance. He reeled back, his arms flung out, his face white. He was unexpectedly heavy, and Gwin went down with him.
The gun roared, and a jagged hole blew open the side of the tent. Gwin rolled and pulled at Arthur, screaming, "Get up! Get up!"
Gwin felt strong hands hook under her arms, and she was suddenly on her feet, Arthur along with her. Wilson whirled them around to face the dark hills and shouted,
He didn't have to say it twice. Gwin moved. She ran like she'd never run before, pulling her little brother behind her. She looked back only once to see the gunman as he struggled to push through the tangled tent flap.
Wilson gasped and wheezed as he pounded along at their heels. Gwin remembered that he had once mentioned to her that his lungs had been damaged in that fire long ago. But what could she do?
The campsite was far behind, their only light a three-quarter moon. Arthur pulled ahead of Gwin, picking up speed. She prayed that none of them would misstep into a gully.
Another gunshot, and Gwin's heart skittered, anticipating the horrific sensation of being hit, but it never came. The steady thud of Wilson's boots began to fade, but she could still hear him back there, wheezing as if his lungs were collapsing. It was only then she realized that very real tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Another shot and she heard Wilson go down with a strangled cry and a thump. Gwin stumbled, nearly crashing headlong to the ground, but her legs miraculously kept moving.
"Run, Arthur! Don't look back!"
And so, they ran, Arthur and Guinevere, children of God, panting and terrified, into the dark California night.
Pinkerton's National Detective Agency, Chicago, July 10, 1879
Cole rose from his seat and started pacing, working up a healthy case of nerves as he continued to cool his heels in the outer office of the assistant superintendant.
The secretary, Mrs. Avery, a grey-haired, slightly built widow with patient blue eyes, looked up from her desk with a sympathetic smile. "Would you like a glass of water while you're waiting, Mr. Shepherd?"
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
"I'm sorry he's taking so long."
Cole forced a smile. "It's not a problem. I'm fine."
Mrs. Avery smiled back—a sweet, understanding smile, one that nursed fevers in the night, wiped runny noses, and kissed skinned knees. It was a motherly smile that reminded young boys to wear their coats on cold autumn days, to comb their hair before leaving the house, and to carry an umbrella when it looked like rain.
This expression was not unfamiliar to Cole. When older women looked at him in just this way, he always vowed anew to grow a beard. Cole knew his youth had something to do with it, but he was sure his clean-shaven appearance only aggravated the problem.
He looked away from Mrs. Avery's soulful eyes and resumed pacing. His nervousness was not caused by the idea of meeting with his superior, Fritz Landis. He had known the man for over nine months, and if anyone was his mentor here at the Agency, it was Fritz. No, his nervousness was caused by what he hoped would be the subject of their meeting.
From the very first day he had crossed the threshold of the Chicago office, passing beneath that watchful Eye and the now-famous slogan "We Never Sleep," Cole, only two years out of college, had been an eager student of the trade. After all, hadn't it always been his fondest dream to join the elite Pinkerton's National Detective Agency?
Cole had worked doggedly this past nine months, shadowing older, more experienced operatives, learning their methods and practices. He had helped track thieves, some petty, some grand, and the week before last, he had even been in on the arrest of an international forger. And now his time had come.
Fritz had sent for him and Cole knew that this time there would be no senior operative to supervise his performance. From now on, Cole would be on his own.
The door to the office swung open. The Agency bookkeeper, a harried, wiry man with a balding pate, emerged, a thick sheaf of expense reports clutched to his chest.
Fritz Landis appeared in the doorway after him. Today, as always, he was nattily dressed, his grey frock coat unbuttoned, revealing the choker-collared white shirt that he always wore beneath. He addressed Cole. "Come in."
He held the door open as Cole passed into the utilitarian room, then closed it behind him and proceeded to his desk. "I hope you've had enough time to rest up since your last assignment."
Cole tried to smile as he settled his rangy frame into the chair that faced Fritz's desk, but the effort came off stiff. His stomach still felt a little queasy, the result of butterflies that had no business fluttering about the digestive tract of a full-fledged Pinkerton operative. "You have something for me?"
Fritz began rifling through a stack of paperwork. "Yes, I do. Now, where was that? Oh, yes, here it is. Take a look."
Fritz handed Cole a wrinkled handbill. Now dry and brittle, it looked as if it had weathered more than a few nights of soggy weather. Cole peered at the wording, still discernible despite the fact that the colors had faded and most of the inks had run together.
BROTHER CHRISTIAN'S SINBUSTING REVIVAL
Two nights only! The public is invited to witness the faith-healing prophet at work! Hear the Word of the Lord! Seek Redemption and Salvation!
Cole tapped the handbill with one finger. "Hey, I've heard of this fellow. Didn’t he claim to have healed some woman blinded in a stagecoach accident?"
Fritz raised an eyebrow. "What do you think?"
Cole tossed the handbill down on Fritz's desk. "I think it's all a lot of hogwash."
"I happen to agree with you, but a lot of people believe in this stuff. Brother Christian was raking in a bundle."
"A flimflam man?"
"A flimflam man by the name of Silas Pierce. He's gone by a lot of other names, too." Fritz pulled a file from the desk. He flipped it open, reached into his coat pocket for his spectacles, and set them on his nose. "Ah, yes, Silas Pierce, alias Wilbur Jacks, horse trader; alias Franklin Singleton, lightning rod salesman; alias Grenville Charlesworth, English earl; alias Malcolm Throckmorton, snake oil salesman."
The name sounded familiar, but nothing else jogged loose in his memory. He shrugged it off. It might come to him later.
Fritz closed the file with a sigh. "There are probably more, of course, that's just the few we have on record."
"The man has had a long and varied career," Cole commented.
"A career that ended abruptly a few weeks ago outside of San Francisco."
Cole sat forward. "What happened?"
"It was following one of his tent revivals. He was shot point-blank with a Winchester shotgun. Not a pretty sight."
Cole nodded slowly. "I guess someone didn't like what he was peddling this time."
"Unfortunately, that's not all. Four other members of his group were murdered just as brutally. A long-time companion named Clell Martin, another named John Wilson, and two sisters identified as Molly and Lolly Mehegan from Dodge City."
"Damn." Cole felt a little sick. "Two women?"
Fritz removed his spectacles and set them aside. "A ghastly crime by all accounts."
"Money, we assume. That night's offering was missing."
"It's hard to understand, isn't it? Killing all those people for money?"
"Brutality of that sort is never understandable, but it exists nonetheless." Fritz leaned forward, both palms now flat on his desk top. "But we're getting away from the subject, and that is your assignment."
"There were two eyewitnesses to the murders. Pierce's eleven-year-old son, Arthur, and his daughter, a young lady named ..." Fritz reached for the file again, flipping it open to squint at its contents. "Let's see, that was a young lady named ... Ginny? No, that's not it. Gwen." He muttered as he patted his coat pocket for his spectacles. "Now, where in blue blazes did I put those—?"
"Gwen? As in, short for Gwendolyn?" Cole prompted, eager to get on with it.
Fritz grunted and gave up on his misplaced eyeglasses. "I assume so."
"Do they have any suspects in custody?"
"Yes, they have one who was set for trial, but Miss Pierce and her brother fled California the day before they were to testify. The district attorney has succeeded in having the trial postponed, but they can't wait forever. Since Miss Pierce and her brother defied a court order to appear, it looks like they have no intention of returning voluntarily. That's where the Agency comes in."
"Are we to locate them?"
"No longer necessary. Kansas is your home state, isn't it? Do you know of a small town called Caldwell?"
Cole thought for a moment. "A little cow town right along the southern border?"
"That's the one. Miss Pierce and her brother have been detained by the town constable, and he's eager to claim the reward that's been offered for recovering them. At any rate, your assignment is to escort them to San Francisco without, uh, misplacing them along the way."
"What? Wait a minute, Fritz. I thought this was going to be a real assignment. This sounds more like babysitting."
Fritz laughed. "Don't underestimate your charges, Cole. A week ago, they were picked up for horse-stealing by the authorities in Garden City only to slip away from them before we could get an operative down there."
"That doesn't say much for the authorities in Garden City, does it?"
"Just remember, Cole, Gwendolyn and Arthur were raised at the knee of one of the slickest confidence artists in the Midwest. They've learned to survive by their wits, and so far they've done a pretty darn good job of it."
"Okay, but there's one thing I don't understand."
"I assume we've confirmed all this with the San Francisco authorities and there's a subpoena for their appearance."
"Right." Fritz clasped his hands over his ample middle.
"It doesn't make sense that these two wouldn't want to testify. Their father was murdered in cold blood. The others were presumably friends. You'd think they'd want to see this killer brought to justice."