Placerville, IN 1878
Wayne Jackson’s gun belt was fastened securely around his waist. He considered the weight of it, and patted the butt of his pistol with the heel of his hand. The feel of it resting low and substantial on his torso reassured him as he reclined against the railing of his front porch. His shock of unruly, chestnut hair was shoved roughly beneath a weathered wide-brimmed lawman’s hat, except for a few stray tendrils that jutted out indiscriminately from underneath, giving a rugged, wild air about him.
“Morning, Deputy Jackson!” Susan Crawfield called out to him from across the street. She had stopped in front of his house, tilting her head girlishly to reveal her long neck. “It is hotter than fish grease out here this morning, isn't it?” she cooed. She was smiling broadly, , batting her long eyelashes and fanning herself with a lacy fan which she produced and opened like a switchblade. She did a little twirl with her parasol.
“Morning ma’am,” he replied dismissively, tipping his hat.
“I aim to get inside and stay cool!” she continued with saccharine sweetness. She resumed fanning herself exaggeratedly. “Maybe fix a big pitcher of lemonade? You know you can come on by if you want a glass! You are always welcome!” She eyed him deliberately and plucked a curl from beneath her bonnet – twirling it on one of her fingers.
“That is a mighty fine offer, ma’am. I thank you kindly, but I aim to be busy with work today. Now, you go on and hurry along and get out of this heat.” he said – inclining his head toward the road. “Go on and cool yourself down and take a load off.”
Susan masked her obvious disappointment with a brightly forced smile before turning and flouncing off up the road. It was obvious to anyone with eyes that Susan had taken a liking to Wayne Jackson the minute she saw him. Wayne was not flattered. Women had always fawned and fallen over him, but he regarded them all with polite yet cool detachment. He simply did not have the interest or time to entertain Susan, or any other woman of her ilk. They were all pretty distractions, and a distraction was the last thing Wayne needed right now. Not when the important work of law enforcement required his undivided attention. He shook his head as if to shake even the thought of women from his brain. Yet, Susan had been right about one thing. It sure was hot outside today.
It was early, yet the air in the little town of Placerville hung searing and thick. Dust from the cracked earth of the town’s square rose up from beneath horses’ hooves. The boots of the passersby drew up billowing red powder clouds that hovered low and clung to clothes and skin. Wayne’s own skin was clammy and glistening, the smell of his damp clothes mingling with the scent of his aftershave and the sweet aroma of his cherry pipe tobacco. He sighed, and took a long, deep swig from his mug of thick, black coffee.
He shifted his body to lean against the front wall of the old home. At his back, the worn, white wood panels of the house creaked. They also stood in need of a good coat of paint. Overall, however, the old place still looked good. It was neat, but barren and sterile in its neatness. Yes, it definitely could benefit from a woman’s touch, he conceded. A good woman would hang a curtain or two, and keep a nice, clean quilt on the beds. In his mind’s eye, he could almost smell the aroma of the homemade pound cakes one such woman might bake, making the house smell warm, sweet, and inviting. A good woman could probably even make the house feel like a home again. Wayne shook his head once more, a little more forcefully this time. Now was not the time to weigh the benefits of consorting with womenfolk.
Wayne rose from where he had been reclining against the wall and reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. He wiped at his brow as the morning sun intensified, blazing angrily and drawing forth perspiration from his tanned skin in streaming rivulets. He allowed his gaze to wander amongst the townspeople as they flitted through the square going about their morning business. They were each consumed with their own families and their own livelihoods, blissfully oblivious to the peril they were in. He aimed to keep it that way.
Ordinarily, Placerville was a sleepy, humble kind of town where people never saw a need to latch their doors at night. Basic necessities could be had at Pegram’s General Store. If one found their wares lacking, you had only to take a quick jaunt to the neighboring town of Watsonville to gather any other remaining items. Wayne’s most recent trip to Watsonville had been most disconcerting. After securing his purchases and while saddling his horse in front of the saloon, he had heard talk of Bucky Brewster and his boys planning a visit to Placerville.
“I heard that he is heading to Placerville right this very minute!” a short, round man with spectacles had blurted out. He had a wary, worried look on his face. His eyes darted around him nervously.
“You think he’s fixing to rob the train?” another man asked. “The train depot runs just north of Placerville. Could be, he’s planning a heist!”
“A heist?!” scoffed a third man. “All I know is that if Bucky and his crew are headed to Placerville, the menfolk better arm themselves! Better arm the women and children too!” he laughed. At that, the men all chuckled nervously before turning their backs and leaving.
Wayne had attuned to the sharp hiss of their whispered conversation as they walked. Now, suddenly feeling weary, he rubbed at his jaw. Those men were definitely worried about the return of Bucky and his gang. Their faces had been drawn and tight as they had discussed his reemergence. Their eyes had surveyed their surroundings furtively as they spoke in hushed tones. It was as if they had thought Bucky could possibly hear them right where they stood.
Wayne did not blame them for being concerned. He, himself, was concerned. From the moment he had heard Bucky’s name spoken again after so long, he was disquieted. He pondered what Bucky and his crew could be up to with a sense of looming, imposing dread.
Wayne saddled his horse, Thunder, loaded his packages, and then mounted. He gave the horse’s neck a pat as they plodded their way back to Placerville. Wayne exhaled a long breath while he strained to anticipate whatever plans would bring Bucky back into his backyard. Surely, any scheme that necessitated that Bucky visit Placerville meant ill for the town and its inhabitants. Yet as Thunder trotted and Wayne thought, he could not conceive of any lawful business Bucky’s boys could have in Placerville. No. He was more than certain that mischief was afoot. To make matters worse, Bucky’s Boys were known far and wide for their treacherous exploits and their often murderous schemes. They wreaked havoc and caused mischief everywhere they went. They enjoyed a penchant for terrorizing townsfolk and destroying property. It seemed they had established themselves as vagrants, vandals, and tyrants out of wanton enjoyment. They held nothing sacred. They targeted society’s most vulnerable members. They enjoyed intimidating the elderly, victimizing young women and terrorizing children. No one was safe if Bucky and his crew were around.
If there was a bright side to this dismal situation, Wayne thought, it was that at least Bucky should be easy to spot. Bucky still sported that jagged, boomerang shaped scar across the left side of his face that Wayne’s father Butch had put there years ago. It was a parting gift that the late Butch Jackson had imparted to Bucky when they last crossed paths in the Placerville town square. That was back in the early part of Bucky’s reign of terror and destruction. Back then, Big Butch was sheriff of Placerville, and despite having earned a reputation as a skilled sharp shooter, he had resolved to live as a humble, peace loving man.
Wayne recalled the fateful day when Big Butch had seen Bucky leaned against a wall of Shifty’s Saloon. Bucky was busying himself packing his pipe with tobacco, and catcalling the good women of town with lewd and lascivious promises of a good time. A poster reading: “Wanted! Dead or Alive!” with Bucky’s face on it hung just behind Bucky stood, framing him ominously.
Big Butch was appalled. He was intolerant of vulgarity. Both men looked at the sign and then at each other, locking eyes. Big Butch decided to approach the subject cautiously, yet genially. He slowed his pace and extended his hands. He spoke in a low, amiable tone. He was not afraid of Bucky. He was, however, keenly aware of Bucky’s laundry list of misdeeds and corresponding warrants. He smiled, approaching slowly and deliberately.
“Come on, Bucky,” Big Butch said. “You had a good run, but it is time to face the music. The jig is up. I am placing you under arrest for any number of these warrants that you have collected – of which you are most undeniably aware.”
Bucky scoffed. His eyes narrowed. He smirked a vicious, one-sided smirk, snorted, and then spat beside Big Butch’s boot. He threw his head back and guffawed, wiping the remaining spittle with the back of his hand. He was cocky, grinning impishly at the older man and regarding him with a generally amused, yet impudent air. “I’m not going anywhere, old man! Least of all with the likes of you! I take it you call yourself hauling me in, huh? You and what army? If you think you are bad enough to take me on, you are mistaken! I always bet on myself! I always bet on Bucky!”
“Bet on Bucky!” his comrades slurred behind him enthusiastically, and perhaps drunkenly.
The townspeople began to gather – from a safe distance, naturally – to observe this exchange, with morbid curiosity.
“Big Butch aims to arrest Bucky!” they whispered amongst themselves, excitedly gesturing at each other and nodding in the pair’s direction. “Big Butch is going to take on Bucky Brewster! Man to man!”
Big Butch reached back and grabbed his handcuffs in his right hand. His pace quickened as he approached. Yet, as Butch attempted to cuff and apprehend Bucky, a struggled ensued. The men tousled and exchanged blows. Despite the age difference, it appeared the two men were evenly matched in vigor and strength. They rolled along the dusty earth, panting and heaving. Arms flailed in pugilistic chaos. The crowd moved in closer – men, women, and children vying to get a closer view of the struggle. Somewhere within the crowd a woman screamed.
Suddenly, a collective gasp echoed as Bucky seemingly produced a blade out of thin air and took to slashing it in the vicinity of Butch’s throat. Until that point, young Wayne had been watching tensions escalate from a distance. Now, however, he wondered if he ought to intervene. He moved toward them, pushing through the crowd and yelling. One of Bucky’s crew jeered at him and elbowed another man. “Look at that whipper-snapper trying to get in the mix. He thinks he is going to help his old man? Bucky will take down the whole lot of them!’
They laughed mockingly as Wayne pushed his way forward. Wayne made it to the front just as Bucky was on top of Big Butch, his arm lifted menacingly in the air, knife raised. Bucky’s eyes glittered maliciously as he prepared to drive the blade down across Big Butch’s throat.
Wayne ran forward and kicked Bucky in his side with the pointy toe of his boot. He used all of the might his spindle legs could deliver. He kicked again and again as Bucky cried out, “Ooof!” as his arm fell to the ground. Big Butch regained his position and attempted to divest Bucky of the blade. “Get back, Wayne!” Butch shouted, as he struggled with the younger man. “This is no place for children! This is a man’s fight!” Yet, young Wayne would not leave his father. He bent down and picked up a rock and hurled it at Bucky. It landed, catching him off guard and causing him to lose his balance. His grip on the knife lessened and with the force Big Butch was using to obtain it; it dislodged and carved a jagged line across Bucky’s face. Blood streamed down into the street, pooling with the dust of the square. Off to the side, Wayne heard the thunderous hooves and whinnying of horses. He looked up and saw that Bucky’s men had assembled with their horses and were galloping furiously toward the crowd.
“Everybody get back!” Big Butch yelled. Jumping up and grabbing a woman who stood gape-mouthed as a horse reared back on his hind legs, his rider shouting brutishly and waving his arms. “Come on Bucky! Let’s go!” The crew drove their horses into the crowd, forcing the townsfolk to scatter while others gathered the injured Bucky and hoisted him atop a horse.
Bucky moaned and clutched his blood-smeared face. Bucky’s men eyed the townspeople menacingly as they assisted Bucky in his get-away. Big Butch was occupied, clearing the children out of the path of danger. Wayne stood where he was, feet almost glued to his spot. He locked eyes on the wounded Bucky who lifted his mangled face and glared back. “I won’t forget this,” Bucky hissed at Wayne. “You’ll be sorry, and your old man is as good as dead!” They galloped away, dust rising in their wake as the horses’ hooves boomed across the terrain.
Wayne turned his attention back to his father, who dusted himself off and straightened up. “This was no place for children,” Butch repeated, eyeing his son severely. “I told you to leave and you should have listened. I had things under control!”
“But Pa!” Wayne moaned, despairingly. “They are getting away! If we leave now, we can catch them!”
Big Butch shook his head. “Nobody is chasing Bucky. That is for another man and another day,” his father had said, dabbing at a bloody place on his lip. “He won’t trouble us anymore.” Wayne hoped desperately that his father was right. He chewed his lip in thought.
“If he comes back,” Wayne thought aloud, “We’ll know him easily by his scar! You sure did give him a good one back there!” He grinned up at his father adoringly.
Big Butch smirked a quick smirk that faded almost instantaneously from his face, “That may be true, but we must never delight in harming another man. That would make us as bad as the criminals we try to catch.”
They walked on silently until they reached home. Wayne wondered if his father was right that they would never see Bucky again. He did not feel as sure as his father seemed. One thing that moment did teach him, however, was that he wanted to be a lawman just like his father, and that he would spend his days trying to live up to his legacy and make him proud.
The next day, Wayne looked up and caught his father looking at him levelly. “You’re growing into a man now,” he had said. The man’s eyes were soft and kind as he looked across at the ruddy-faced youth over the breakfast table and their bowls of porridge. “I won’t be sheriff forever, and one day, if you’re serious, you will take my place guarding the lives and livelihoods of these good folks. You have got to be stern. You have got to be brave. But you have also got to be good. No idle talk from you. That type of behavior does not suit. No tom-foolery, either. The people have got to learn that they can trust you, and that you will do anything to protect them. That is how you will win them over, and that is how you will earn their trust. You must be upright in your coming and going, but you must also be upright in your doing, thinking, and speaking. You have got to live it. You have got to walk the walk. You have to show them who you are.”
Mother had been standing off to the side. Smiling warmly and arranging some wildflowers with a ribbon. “He’s still a boy, Butch,” she had said, sighing. “He may want to grow up to be a man like you, but for now he is still a boy!”
Butch smiled at his wife and nodded before returning his gaze to his son. He had a questioning expression in his eyes.
Wayne had nodded back, his nod indicating that he had understood the charge he had been given. His father pushed back from the table, stood, walked over to him, and ruffled the boy’s hair with his hand. “You are a Jackson,” he recalled his father murmuring. “Jackson men protect. They provide, and they persevere. Nothing keeps us down. At least, not for long anyway!” He remembered then that his father had chuckled to himself softly at that moment while Wayne had stared determinedly down at his boots.
“I’ll do ya proud, Pa.” he had said, in a low and earnest voice. “Swear I will.”
Butch had smiled warmly at his son, who despite the towering six feet and two inches of his young adult height, had appeared to be all spindle legs, shaggy hair, and teeth. He had patted the boy’s back as they continued along together. “I know you will, son. I know you will.”
But as fate would have it, it was not two days later that Big Butch Jackson was found murdered in the street, a boomerang shaped scar carved into his face and a blade lodged in his back between his shoulders. He had not come home for dinner, and his family had been worried. Wayne had been standing on the porch hoping to be the first to see his father after work that night when another youth he had never seen before mounted his front step.
“Your old man’s dead,” the boy said coldly. “He’s over yonder. He’s dead and out there laying in the street on his face in front of the saloon. I can show you if you want. Somebody cut him up real good and killed him.”
“Who are you?!” Wayne shrieked back angrily. “Whoever you are, you’re a liar!” Wayne’s thoughts began to swirl into a hurricane of panic. His heartbeat began to quicken. “My daddy is the strongest man that has ever lived! You are a liar! He’s not dead!” Panic rose in his voice as Wayne endeavored to beat back the terror surging from within. “I don’t even know who you are!”
The other boy stared at him with icy regard. “The name is John MacCallan,” he had said importantly. “And I am going to be a law man one day. As a future law man, I figured I ought to be the one to tell you that your daddy is dead. It’s only right. That’s the type of thing lawmen do.”
Wayne said nothing. His head hurt. He glared at the boy irritably before changing course and straining desperately into the night, his eyes scanning the horizon for his father.
“He ain’t coming,” John repeated.
Wayne resumed sneering. He turned toward John and screamed into his face. “Get lost, you lying scumbag!” He reached down for something to throw at the boy. He found an ashtray and hurled it in John’s direction. John sidestepped it nimbly.
“Your daddy is dead. I keep telling you. Big Butch, right? I heard the menfolk talking about it. I figured no one had told you. I knew you were his boy, so I took it upon myself to come and tell you. That’s how good lawmen do.”
“Liar!” Wayne hissed again, lunging at John to strike him. John evaded the blow and looked back at Wayne piteously. “Don’t blame me your daddy got himself murdered letting Bucky Brewster get away! It’s his own fault!”
At that, John hopped off the porch and ran off into the darkness. Wayne did not chase him. He resumed scanning the street for his father, just as a group of men from the town began their slow approach to his house. Their downcast faces harbingers of the terrible news they came to bring. Big Butch Jackson was dead.
From then on, every time Wayne considered the manner of his father’s death his heart ached with the dual pangs of both grief and rage. He had not yet come to terms with how deftly and disrespectfully John MacCallan had finagled the horror of Butch’s passing into an opportunity for self-promotion. Yet as it stood now, John MacCallan was the sheriff of Placerville, and Wayne was his deputy. To add insult to injury, John had never liked Wayne and never missed an opportunity to let him know it. Wayne resolved not to get frustrated over his plight. He knew that one day his time would come. Until then, however, he would do his job. He would fulfill his duty to the town he had grown up in. He would uphold the duties he had sworn to execute, and he would keep the town safe, with or without John’s endorsement.
And now as a full grown man of twenty-six, hearing Bucky’s name spoken again in Watsonville made all of the terrible memories of Bucky, Big Butch, John MacCallan, and lighting bolt scars return to him at once…overwhelming, sickening, and raw.
Wayne had always felt that, affronted by his treatment in Placerville, Bucky had sought vengeance for his injury and bruised pride by murdering Big Butch in the street. He had never faced trial for it, though. Big Butch’s death had knocked the wind and courage out of all the neighboring menfolk.
No one dared even try to haul Bucky before the long arm of the law. He was untouchable. Plus, Wayne was certain that Bucky had allowed his hatred for Placerville, Wayne, and his father to grow every time he had glimpsed his disfigured reflection. He was only mildly surprised that Bucky would consider coming back.
Wayne returned his focus to the present and took another long swig from his mug. His face was hard to read on account of his eyes. A deep sadness appeared to be just behind the veil of inscrutable stoicism with which he cloaked himself to face the public. It generally took much of his strength and concentration to keep the sadness at bay. He was fighting it back, even now as he ran a hand roughly across the stubble of his beard. He forced his thoughts back onto the problem at hand – Bucky and his boys.
The thought of Bucky and his gang heading back to Placerville made something in Wayne’s belly stir. This stirring had nudged and prodded him throughout the previous night such that Wayne had tossed and turned, unable to sleep.
Frustrated, he had risen in disgust, and dressed hurriedly. He made his customary pot of thick, black coffee. He went out, and leaned against the front wall to think. He was deeply unsettled, yet he remained watchful. He trained his eyes on his flock of townspeople protectively. Though his insides were in turmoil, his visage did not belay his inner strife. To any passerby, he was just like any other ordinary man – people watching in the early morning hours and drinking coffee.
Yet in the distance, amidst the hustle and bustle of the morning rigamarole, Wayne’s ears pricked to something distressing. He stilled himself. Wayne was always attuned to his environment. Were that not true, the current object of his attention might have gone unnoticed. Yet, Wayne knew what he had to do and he could not hesitate. Having identified what had arrested his attention, he immediately dropped his coffee to the ground, and ran headlong into the direction of the screams.
No one tried to stop Wayne as he raced across the square. He pumped his long arms and legs like pistons as he ran. He did not know what, or whom, he was running to. All he knew was that if someone was screaming like that, they surely needed his help.
He had not heard another scream since he had started running, and hoped that he was not too late to aid whomever it was that he had heard. He needed to hear something else to at least know he was headed in the right direction.
With no more sound to follow, Wayne continued to run, keeping his eyes peeled for a different trail of breadcrumbs. He stopped running and surveyed his surroundings. He peeled his eyes and looked around to track. He looked for broken reeds, footprints, and anything else to show the direction he had to go.
He had just decided to make a left at the big tree when he heard another shout, followed by a thud, and what sounded like ripping fabric. He knew he was on the right path, but also that he was closer than he had suspected. He continued along, but quieter now, taking special care to avoid detection by whomever else might be out there. As he progressed, he tried to quiet down his breathing. He heard voices in the distance.
“Shut up, kid! Quit your sniveling!” a sinister male voice hissed.
The voice was familiar. Wayne trained his ear to listen, while stealthily creeping along the perimeter of the old, abandoned shanty the voice appeared to be coming from. He lay low and said nothing.
“I don’t see why we need this kid anyway,” another voice lamented. “I never much liked kids.”
Wayne heard a high pitched muffled whimper coming from inside the shack. Alone with just his pistol, he deemed it best to do some reconnaissance to determine how many actors he was dealing with before springing to action.
“How much money do you think we can get for him?” another voice chimed in. “What do you think, Bucky?”
Wayne let out an audible gasp at the mention of the name Bucky. Could it be Bucky Brewster?
“What was that?!” he heard a man call out. “Who is there?”
Thinking quickly, Wayne grabbed a rock and threw it on the roof of the shack. He aimed as opposite from where he was positioned as he could. He then crept quickly along the outside of the shack, staying low and beneath the windows to avoid detection. The rock thudded where it had landed.
“There is something out there!” one of the men yelled. “Y’all go investigate; I’ll stay here with the kid!”
Wayne stayed down and out of sight. He listened as the men filed out of the shack. He saw one, two, three, four men emerge. They looked around warily. They all had guns.
“What made that thudding sound?” one of them asked.
“Probably a squirrel, or something,” retorted another dismissively.
The men filed back in, still looking around cautiously. Wayne dared not breathe. There were five men in the shack, and from what he could tell this appeared to be some sort of kidnapping or hostage situation. It would have been nice to have had some back up, but in the time it would take to run back to town and apprise a posse of men of what was happening, the bandits might leave with the child or do worse. It appeared no help was coming.
Wayne ventured a peek through a window. The men were positioned in posts throughout the shanty. They encircled the child, a small blond-haired boy who was tied to a chair. His eyes were wild, and his face was streaked with tears. He was trembling violently.
“Who’s your daddy?” Bucky demanded of the child. He leaned down into his face and poked him sharply in the forehead with a finger. “Who is it that is going to get shot when they come down here looking for you?”
The boy said nothing, but continued sobbing openly in heaving shudders.
“Whose boy are you?!” Bucky urged, kicking the child’s chair over with his foot and toppling both it and the child tied to it to the floor.
“Louisa Holloway is my ma!” the boy wailed desperately. “It’s just us! Please don’t hurt my ma!” The boy tried to right himself from where he lay on his side, but exhausted and defeated, he gave up and lay there weeping.
“Mrs. Holloway…” Bucky murmured thoughtfully. He ran a hand through his greasy hair. “I wonder what she would be willing to do to get her son back” He leered at his comrades and they all laughed boisterously – elbowing each other and jeering. It was too much for Wayne to tolerate. He had to act now. He peered in the window again, and happened to see the boy looking back at him dismally from the floor.
Wayne put a finger to his lips to indicate that the boy should remain quiet. The child did a subtle head nod of acknowledgement. Wayne counted the men. They were still all inside the shack, talking and laughing, some were passing a bottle amongst themselves and drinking. Observing their present distraction, Wayne jerked his head towards the front door. He did this several times and pointed at the child. The child looked confused and seemed to come to the conclusion that Wayne wanted him to attempt to make a break for it and escape through the front door. The child began to kick his legs in an effort to scoot his chair across the floor.
Suddenly, Wayne heard a loud thud. He shrank back down to the ground and paused. “You think I’m just going to let you up and slide out the door?!” Bucky barked at the boy. He kicked the chair again sharply, and the boy’s body jolted.
“No sir,” the boy said in a trembling voice. “I need to go relieve myself. I need to go to the outhouse.”
The men all groaned childishly and snickered. “I can’t let you go.” Bucky said, flatly. “You’ll try to get away and then I’ll have to kill you. If I kill you, I can’t get ransom money from your ma!”
The men all laughed. There was a pause. The child piped up once more. “You can send somebody with me to the outhouse. I saw an outhouse out back. Somebody can come with me to stand guard. That way I won’t soil my pants and upset my ma.”
Wayne smiled at the child’s quick thinking. He put his hand on his pistol and waited.
“All right, kid,” Bucky said with a smirk in his voice. “I guess we can’t have you stinking up the place. Alistair?
Bucky inclined his head to a grimy, sullen man with a wad of chewing tobacco tucked in his jaw. “Take the kid out back to the outhouse. If he tries anything funny, you know what to do.”
“Got it,” Alistair remarked gruffly, yanking the chair and the boy with it in one fluid movement. He then ripped the bindings off and freed the boy from the chair. He leaned down and seized the boy roughly by the shoulders, gripping tightly as the boy trembled. “No funny business,” he snarled. The child nodded and walked from the shack. Alistair followed behind him, gripping him by the shoulders as they walked.
Wayne watched as Alistair steered the boy out of the shack and down toward the outhouse. The boy looked from side to side wildly. Alistair’s eyes widened in alarm.
“You think you’re going to make a run for it, eh?” he sneered. “Go ahead and try it and see what I’ll do to you!”
They walked on a little further until they were at the outhouse. “Get in there, boy!” Alistair hissed, shoving the boy through the rickety door. His back was to Wayne. He did not hear Wayne’s feet padding up behind him, or his hand reaching into his holster to withdraw his pistol, but suddenly turned when Wayne was lunging toward him, arms poised to strike.
As Wayne charged at him, Alistair opened his mouth to shout. Wayne struck first, connecting the butt of his pistol to the side of Alistair’s face. Alistair opened his mouth again to cry out, but by then Wayne had pounced on him, silently applying pressure to his throat until his body relaxed. Then, as the boy’s eyes widened in alarm, Wayne grabbed him up and launched off into a run.
Wayne ran swiftly back from the shanty, the boy tucked under his arm like a sack of potatoes. He powered across the terrain, looking back occasionally to see whether Bucky and his crew were trailing him. He seemed to be in the clear, yet he continued running until he made it back to town. By now, the child was howling with terror. Bucky stopped running and set him down on the ground. He was panting from his exertion. Once he had recovered, he squatted down to the child’s eye level and spoke to him gently.
“What’s your name, son?” he asked.
“Billy. Billy Holloway,” the child said. He wiped his nose with his shirt tail.
“What were you doing with those men?” Wayne pressed.
“Nothin’! I skipped school today to go play by the creek and I saw them there cleaning their guns. One of them saw me, and grabbed me. They tied me up and said they were going to take me to their leader. Their leader’s name was Bucky.”
“Go on,” Wayne said. “What happened next?”
“Well, they made me come with them back to that shack. They told me they would kill me if I screamed, so I remained quiet. They brought me to Bucky who said that they might not be as stupid as they looked if they could get some money for me. They said they were going to keep me until somebody paid my ransom so they could get some money together. They said they needed money for something they were going to do.”
“Hmm,” murmured Wayne, considering. “What else?”
“That’s it, sir. They had me in the shack and I was not sure I’d ever get out. I was scared. But that’s when I saw you! And you came and got me and killed that man and brought me here!”
“I did not kill that man,” Wayne corrected. “I just put him to sleep. I’m a law man. Deputy Jackson is my name. I have sworn an oath to protect people and help them when they are in trouble – just like I did for you.”
The boy ran up to Wayne and threw his arms around his legs, hugging him tightly. “Thank you, Deputy Jackson! You are my hero! Thank you!”
“Enough of that, son,” Wayne remarked brusquely. He was smiling as he shook the boy from his leg and patted him on the top of his blond head. “That’s nothing I would not do for anybody. Now, tell me how I can get up with your ma.”
Wayne walked with his hand on the boy’s shoulder as he guided him through town to his house on Shoefly Lane. As they neared the house, the boy’s excited face adopted an air of worry.
“Deputy Jackson,” he began with a tremor in his voice. “When you see my ma, don’t tell her I was down at the creek, okay? She will be mad. You won’t tell, will you?”
Wayne chuckled. “I reckon she has a right to know since she’s your ma and all,” he said thoughtfully. “But I’d better not see or hear of you being at that creek during school time again or I’ll have half a mind to tie you to a chair myself!”
“Yes sir,” the boy said dolefully before extending a hand to point toward a slate colored clapboard house on the left. It was not too far from where Wayne lived, and he wondered why he had never seen the Holloways before.
“You ain’t lived here long, have you son?” Wayne questioned as they walked toward the front door.
“No sir,” the boy answered distractedly. “But there’s my house and there’s my ma!”
A woman opened the front door cautiously right as little Billy broke into a sprint towards home. She grinned and enveloped him in her arms.
“Where have you been?!” she barked. Wayne’s eyes widened. He had never heard a woman with a deep baritone voice like that. Especially not one as petite and matronly as this woman appeared to be. She looked from Billy to Wayne with a questioning expression. “It was getting late and I had a mind to come out and start looking for you. You haven’t been down to that creek again after I told you not to, have you?!”
She leaned down and peered at Billy suspiciously. He did not answer. Instead, he looked over to Deputy Jackson hopefully, who was standing a distance away observing the reunion.
Wayne stepped forward and tipped his hat. “Ma’am,” he said courteously. “Please let me introduce myself. I’m Deputy Wayne Jackson of the Placerville Sheriff’s Department. If I may, I’d like to come inside and speak with you about a matter involving your son.”
“A lawman?!” she boomed in a gravelly voice. “Billy?! What have you done?!”
“You have got a good boy, ma’am. He hasn’t caused me not one lick of trouble. There is, however, a matter that I’d like to speak with you about. Billy did not do anything wrong and he is unharmed, but he was involved in a skirmish just on the outskirts of town. If we could just step inside...” Wayne moved toward the door purposefully, but halted to allow the woman to show him in. “Ma’am?” he said, waiting by the door.
The woman’s eyes were wide and she stared at Wayne and her son in astonishment before attempting to gather herself. “Where are my manners?!” she lowed. “I am Louisa. Louisa Holloway. Billy is my only boy. Come inside.” She set down the broom she had been holding and wiped her hands on her apron. “Right this way, Deputy,” she directed. “And get inside, Billy. Go on and get cleaned up.”
As Billy darted inside the house, the woman gestured for Wayne to sit in a nearby chair. She was a slight woman, but appeared strong and healthy. He marveled at the sound of her voice. Her voice belonged to a 350-pound burly cattle hand. Not this forty-ish woman with silver gray hair and an apron around her slim waist.
“Now what is this all about?” she asked, sitting down opposite Wayne.
She watched his face as he explained to her how he came to rescue Billy from the bandits at the shack. Her lined face grew tight, and her angular jaw trembled, but she did not utter a word. She allowed him to finish before commenting or asking questions. When he was finished, she lowered her head into her hands and shook her head.
“So, you didn’t catch them,” she said. “They don’t even know what happened to Billy, most likely.” She stated. Wayne could not tell whether this was a question or a statement. He nodded solemnly.
“So they may come back,” she said flatly.
Wayne shut his eyes. He would not make the same mistake his father had made. His father had underestimated Bucky’s vengeance when he assumed Bucky would stay out of Placerville. Wayne no longer put anything past Bucky and his crew.
“I see no reason why young Billy was targeted,” he said thoughtfully. “I can’t imagine that they would come back looking for him or seeking you out.” He chewed his lip. “But at the same time, I am familiar with these bandits. I don’t put anything past them. It is possible that they may come after him. I won’t lie to you, ma’am. They just might.”
At that, Mrs. Holloway rose from her seat and began wringing her hands. She started pacing back and forth. She appeared to withdraw into herself as she strode. Her footsteps were quick across the clean, swept floor. Her brow was furrowed in concentration.
“You are familiar with these men,” she stated. “You aren’t sure why they targeted Billy, but you can’t say that they won’t try to come back for him. Is that correct?”
Wayne admired the direct and succinct nature of her thought process. “That is correct,” he said simply. He continued to watch Mrs. Holloway, who continued her pacing. Her face was now contorted into a pained expression, her eyes looked wet and solemn.
“I guess there is only one thing to be done, then,” she said matter-of-factly. “I will have to arrange for Billy to be gone should they come back around looking for him. I’ve got to send my boy away.”
Wayne’s eyebrows raised in shock. Mrs. Holloway was a no-nonsense woman. He imagined how hard it must be for a lone woman on the frontier to send away her only boy to keep him safe from bandits. He could see the pain in her eyes and the hurt registering across her face. Still, he could not help but admire the resolve and steeliness that drove a mother to make such a decision. Mrs. Holloway was a brave, fine woman. Billy was lucky to have a mother like her.
As he watched her, he noticed a tremor in her shoulders that began to spread across her whole body. Gradually, her resolve weakened and she began to cry openly. He went to her and offered his handkerchief.
“Ma’am,” he said, thrusting the cloth into her hand as she wept. “You’re doing a good thing. I can’t say I blame you one bit for doing what you feel is right to keep the boy safe.”
Mrs. Holloway nodded her head a little sadly and looked up at him with red, wet eyes. “Thank you for saying that,” she said, blowing her nose into his handkerchief. “I’ll get you a new handkerchief. Sorry about that,” she said apologetically.
“Never mind the handkerchief, you can keep it,” Wayne said, kindly. “But what will you do with the boy?”
Mrs. Holloway had ceased her pacing and was now looking wistfully out of a window. She picked up a framed picture off the back of a small table in the corner. “This here is my brother,” she said, gesturing towards the photograph. “He has done well for himself. He is a rancher in Montana.”
Wayne said nothing. He looked at Mrs. Holloway’s small, trembling hand holding the photograph. He wondered if it would fall to the floor and break.
“His name is Howard,” she continued. “Billy’s middle name is Howard. His first name is for his father. His middle name is for my brother.”
Wayne nodded. He looked down at his pocket watch. It occurred to him that he had not checked in with Sheriff MacCallan at the office today. He was sure he’d hear an earful about that later. He sighed before returning his attention to the heartbroken woman.
“Where is Billy’s father?” he asked.
“Gone,” Mrs. Holloway murmured. “Billy is all that I have got. If I can’t keep him safe with me, I’ll keep him safe the best way I know how. With family. I’ll send him to Howard in Montana. Until all this trouble has blown over. I know Howard will take care of him like one of his own!” she started to cry again and blew her nose into his handkerchief. “You agree that’s the best thing to do, don’t you, Deputy?”
Wayne smiled at the woman kindly. He was still in awe of how her deep, gravelly voice stood in stark opposition to her meek and slight visage. His expression was soft and empathetic. “I will never short change a woman’s intuition, ma’am,” he said in a low voice. “If you have determined that sending the boy to your brother is the best course of action, then who am I to second guess it? I agree with you, and I aim to do everything in my power to help you. In fact, I am ordering you to tell me how I can help.”
“Very well,” Mrs. Holloway said, firming up her resolve. “I will do just that. I’ll definitely aim to keep in touch.” She paused in reflection for a moment before straightening her posture and wiping her hands again on her apron. She tried to command her face into a brighter, albeit forced, expression. “You’re welcome to stay for dinner if you’d like, Deputy,” she offered pleasantly. “You’re more than welcome.”
Wayne let his gaze trail to the window where he saw the sun setting on the horizon. Somehow the entire day had gotten away from him. He felt tired and sore from all the running, and a tad hungry too. He was sure he smelled like a horse. Mrs. Holloway was probably too kind and polite to let on about the smell of his man sweat and dusty boots. He shook his head slowly. “Thank you kindly ma’am, but I’d best be on my way.”
Rising to leave, Wayne took his wide-brimmed hat off his knee and raised it to his head. “I’ll be going,” he said, turning towards the door.
“Wait!” Mrs. Holloway exclaimed, putting a hand up to halt his exit. “Words are not enough to thank you for saving my boy!” Tears streamed down her face again, and she let them trickle down unabashedly. “He’s all I have, and I would be lost without him. You rescued him, and I will be eternally grateful. Are you married, Deputy?”
Wayne chuckled, and looked down at his shoes shyly. “No ma’am,” he said smilingly. “Why? Are you plotting to introduce me to some nice young lady?”
Mrs. Holloway smiled. “Never mind that!” she grinned at him, revealing a gold tooth. “If you don’t have a wife at home making you any meals, you are welcome to come by here any time and have some good home cooking! My apple pie won the blue ribbon at the Bakersville County Fair last year! You’ve always got a place at my table! You are family now, and from this point on you’ll be dear to my heart like one of my own sons!” She retreated to the stove, grabbed a piece of side meat, shoved it into a biscuit and came back hurriedly – thrusting it into his hand. His fingers curled around the warm bread gratefully.
Somewhere deep down, Wayne recognized that he was slightly disappointed that Mrs. Holloway had not indicated a desire to set him up with a nice, young lady. It stunned him to admit that she was different from the Susan Crawfields that typically expressed interest in him. She was steady and strong, and he hoped that by extension any young lady to whom she had introduced him would also be steady and strong. Something different from the usual “distractions.”
Mrs. Holloway had started to cry again, and Wayne patted her gently on her back. “There, there, Mrs. Holloway,” he said.
“NO! Call me Louisa! We have been through too much in such a short time for such formality!”
“All righty then, Louisa,” Wayne said pleasantly. “Thank you. Your kindness means more to me than you know.” As she walked him to the door, he paused at the threshold.
“But how will you get the boy to Montana?” he asked, concerned. “Naturally, you’ll want to accomplish this as soon as possible. I don’t know how long Bucky and his crew will be around and we wouldn’t want to get too comfortable and take unnecessary risks.”
Mrs. Holloway grimaced, looking around at her modest surroundings. “I’m not a rich woman,” she said sadly. “I get by all right, but I just need a little time to write to my brother, or think up a way to scrounge up some money.” She sighed. “I’ve been living off my inheritance until I could find work as a seamstress or something.” Her eyes became wet again. “Times have just been so hard.”
“Don’t say another word,” Wayne said. “I think I know a way.”
* * *
Wayne woke the next morning to the sound of someone knocking at his door. He rubbed his eyes and stretched.
“Hold your horses!” he groaned as he dragged himself from his bed. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and the sun was just barely peeking over the horizon.
Scowling, and with his pistol in hand, he threw open the door.
“Well!” cried an unfamiliar female voice. “There’s a fine how-do-you-do, for you!”
Wayne’s eyes widened as he took in the unknown, young woman peering at him uncertainly through his threshold. He set his pistol down hastily and gave her a sheepish look.
“I’m sorry to frighten you ma’am. It’s just that I wasn’t expecting anyone to come by this early.” He looked around and confirmed that the young lady was alone. He had no idea who she was, or why she had come. In her hands, she held a bundle wrapped in parchment and secured in twine. He eyed her quizzically.
“Can I do something for you, ma’am? Can I help you with something? Did somebody send you to fetch me?” He had to remind himself to inquire as to the nature of her visit. It was not a social call, no matter how much he may have wished it had been. There was no denying this young woman’s beauty, and a quick scan of her hand showed her ring finger to be unadorned. He suddenly felt hopeful and chided himself for it.
“Well, aren’t you chivalrous?” she remarked pleasantly. She smiled at him, and he smiled back. Her cheeks looked flushed, and her hair was dark and shiny. She had pulled it back into a braid, and twirled it into a knot. He wondered what her hair would look like loose and cascading at day’s end when she was done with the work of the day, and went home and brushed it out. Maybe she let it fall like a waterfall while she played piano, or walked around her house – barefoot and relaxed, with cascading curls trailing down her shoulders like a curtain blowing and twisting in the breeze. He examined her face then, determining that she also had lovely eyes. She looked at him through clear, bright, round eyes framed by long, black lashes that beckoned to him entrancingly. He was hopelessly and utterly transfixed. Five whole seconds had passed before he had realized that she had been raising her eyebrows at him expectantly and he had been gawking at her like a love-struck schoolboy.
“Uh,” he said stupidly. What was wrong with him? He ran his hand across his face roughly.
“Still waking up, I see!” she said brightly. “That’s quite all right. I did disturb your rest, I’m sure! I am Mia. Mia Brown. And like I was saying, I was sent by Mrs. Louisa Holloway.”
Wayne sobered up quickly at the mention of Mrs. Holloway. His eyes widened in alarm. “Is everything all right with Billy?” he asked, his face etched with concern.
“Quite all right!” remarked Mia. “Mrs. Holloway told me that you live alone and that you are like a son to her. She said she wanted you to have this, and asked if I would deliver it since I pass this way for work.”
She lifted up the little bundle of parchment and twine, and Wayne received it from her – feeling that the bundle’s contents were soft and warm.
“Not like I opened it or anything,” Mia began smiling mischievously, “But I’d imagine that it’s some warm cornbread and side meat for your breakfast.”
“I would never accuse you of tampering with a parcel out for delivery,” Wayne smirked. “Surely, a fine young lady like yourself would not even consider such a thing!” He grinned at her and winked.
“Surely not!” she said with a mischievous grin.
They held eyes a moment longer before Mia looked down, blushing. “Well, let me get along to work then,” she said. “It was nice meeting you, Deputy Jackson.”
“Call me Wayne!” he called out, a little too enthusiastically.
“All right, Wayne then!” she smiled, waving shyly as she walked away. “Maybe we will run into each other again, sometime.”
“I’d like that very much!” Wayne called out after her as she departed. “Very much indeed,” he whispered softly to himself as she went.
Mia was smiling as she came into work. She went about her daily tasks practically floating as she conversed with the hotel guests – handing out keys, towels, and whatever other necessities they required. She hummed to herself as she went to the kitchen to fetch Mrs. Tolliver’s shopping list of items she needed for the pantry. Her noticeable cheer and radiance persisted even as she gathered the eggs to cook that morning for breakfast.
There was something about the man she had met on her errand for Mrs. Holloway. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it exactly, but he seemed sweet and wholesome. Those were certainly good Christian qualities, she admitted. It would be nice to have a friend in this town. Mia had not been in Placerville long enough to have met many people. She had been here long enough to find work, and a place to stay – with the help of her aunt of course. Sometimes Mia did not feel like much of an adult. She was only twenty-three years old. But after her parents had been killed in a stagecoach accident three short months ago, it became tragically apparent to Mia that she was not a child anymore and was expected to take care of herself.
Working at the hotel was not bad. Mia discovered that she liked earning a wage and making her own decisions. Although life was easier at home with her parents when they took care of her and provided for her needs, even amongst the tragedy of their demise she found a spark of joy in knowing that she could keep herself and their hard work would not go in vain.
“Mia, you’re our best employee and you’ve only been here for a few weeks!” Mrs. Hertford marveled. Mrs. Hertford was the wife of the hotel proprietor. Mia smiled at her appreciatively. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Hertford. I’m just thankful you gave me the opportunity.”
“We’d have been fools not to!” Mrs. Hertford exclaimed, patting Mia on the back. “But you need to go home and get a good night’s rest. I don’t like the thought of you walking alone after dark. You’d better leave now so you can make it home while there is still light out. You are a single woman after all, and anything could happen.”
Mia nodded obediently before untying and folding her apron.
“Before you go, grab a slice of cake from the kitchen! Mabel is trying out a recipe for the Brewster wedding. The bride asked for a hummingbird cake. Mable had never made one, but she got a recipe out of one of the ladies magazines in the general store.”
Mia grinned, and skipped into the kitchen. Slicing a piece of cake and wrapping it in parchment. She grabbed her things and gave Mrs. Hertford a quick peck on the cheek.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Mrs. Hertford. Enjoy your rest!”
Mrs. Hertford blushed. “I do declare, if I’d ever had a daughter, I pray she would have been just like you! Now hurry home, you hear me?!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mia said smiling, the large wooden door swinging shut behind her, causing the little bell at the top of it to tinkle as she went.
She stepped off the hotel’s porch onto the street. The sun was setting, casting pink, orange, and yellow shades across the sky. She was dazzled. Looking around her, it seemed like she was in the center of the most glorious watercolor painting to ever exist. How had she not noticed this beauty before? She stood still, looking about her like one who was lost and confused in a big city.
Mia snapped back to reality as she felt eyes staring at her inquisitively. A large man in a sheriff’s uniform looked at her intensely through penetrating green eyes. His hair was blond like a child’s, so blond it almost looked white. His jawline was angular. His eyes lacked the softness of that other lawman she’d met that morning. She would have mistaken this man for an outlaw if he hadn’t had on a sheriff’s uniform. He had a tough, ruthless look about him. She gasped.
The man dismounted his horse deftly and tipped his hat to her. Her brown eyes widened, noticeably taken aback.
“I didn't mean to startle you, miss. You looked lost and it is getting late, that’s all.”
The man advanced on her swiftly, never breaking eye contact. His jade green eyes were as mesmerizing as a snake’s. “I’m John MacCallan,” he said reaching down, grabbing her hand, and raising it to his lips in one fluid movement. “Sheriff John MacCallan.”
He held her hand a moment longer in his rough hand, tilting his head as he faced her. She snatched her hand away and blushed.
“Look at you, turning red as a beet!”
John smirked in amusement as his eyes remained locked on Mia’s. She said nothing.
The sun continued to set, painting the sky with orange, yellow, and pink splashed on slate and navy hues. It was getting late. Mia looked back toward the hotel nervously and considered how much further she still had to walk before reaching home.
“Here I am using all my best fancy manners on you, and you haven’t even told me your name,” John murmured softly. He walked around her, like a predator stalking its next kill. “I’d bet a pretty lady like you would have a pretty name. I bet your name is Rose.”
“It’s Mia,” she answered automatically. “Mia Brown.”
“Mia Brown,” John repeated, biting his lower lip as he stared at her. She looked up into his face as his green eyes roamed over her slowly, starting from the crown of her head to the soles of her boots.
“I’d like to get to know you better, Miss Mia Brown,” he said. His words were slow and deliberate. She could not shake the feeling that this is how a gazelle might feel while being stalked by a large cat.
“I did not notice a ring, so I am presuming there is no Mr. Brown,” he eyed her inquisitively. “Unless he is a poor man who cannot afford to maintain you properly. That is also a possibility since I see that you work at the hotel.”
He waited, watching Mia in amusement as color surged into her cheeks.
“There is a fair coming soon. Let me know where I can call on you. You can come with me. I’ll even buy you a candy apple and win you a prize to sweeten the deal.”
Mia looked up into John’s unsmiling face before averting her gaze quickly.
“My, look at the time!” Mia blurted.
John smirked as he tilted his head in amusement. His eyes narrowed penetratingly.
“May I call on you, Mia?” he asked softly. His green eyes shone bright and piercing in the half light of dusk. He stepped closer to her. She could feel the heat radiating from his torso.
“No!” she exclaimed inelegantly, her body stiffening. She realized her blurting mistake, then tried to correct herself with a softer tone. “No, and I have to be going before anyone gets worried. But thank you, and goodbye Sheriff MacCallan.” She turned, immediately launching into an uneasy walk towards home. John MacCallan did not follow her. Instead, he mounted his horse and watched her disappear into the night, his lips drawn into a tight line and his jaw clenched.
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