Chapter 1: Prologue
Future Montana Territory, 1860
Bruce gazed out over the wide open lands, out to the mountain wall on the horizon, the timber-lands that would give them what they needed to rebuild, here in the free lands near the Missouri headwaters. He didn't want to think on what had brought him out to the country of prospectors and trappers, didn't want to remember...
Movement beside him turned into his little brother at his knee. People back there had called him insane for bringing a child this far out into Indian lands, this far from the life they were accustomed to; but his brother was all he had now that--
He pushed that thought away, and looked down at Dick. "What's the matter, chum?"
Dark blue eyes looked up at him, and strong arms wrapped close around his waist, holding on. "You looked sad."
Nearby, the older man that looked after them, who had absolutely refused to be left behind, saw to the horses. "I do think, Master Dick, that Master Bruce has weighty things on his mind, with all that needs to be done."
"I'm not sad, chum... just thinking. We can make this work, Dick... the surveyor we sent found a good piece of land for us." He looked over at Alfred with a slight smile of thanks, nodding. "Exactly. See?"
Dick didn't look at all convinced, but he was willing to let it slide. Alfred glanced at the mostly level ground, and started rolling up his sleeves. "Master Dick, we must remove all the rocks and sticks from between the stakes the surveyor left...our new home will be built right here."
Dick nodded, and set himself at gathering the rocks out of the area marked out, and after a few more moments, Bruce moved to do the same, shaking his head at Alfred's move to protest. "I have to be as willing as anyone else to work, Alfred, here. I'll need these people's respect, as much as loyalty... and I know what they see right now," he said, too low for any of the hands he'd hired both here and on the trip to hear. The reputation he'd made back East was worth little here, he'd learned on the long months on the trail.
Alfred regarded the young man he'd help raise from birth. He gave a slow, approving nod, and marked it as one more thing to remember to tell Miss Thompkins when they headed into the township again for more supplies.
That approval did more to warm Bruce than the hard work of clearing the often half-buried rocks and debris out of the site, but the three of them made short work of it. Digging down into the sod to clear it off was work back-breaking enough that he sent Dick to one of the hands to help clear where the bunkhouse would go, rather than have him strain himself trying.
It was going to take time, but for the new start Bruce wanted //needed//, it was more than worth it. If he hadn't had Alfred and Dick to care for, he might have done like some of the hands were planning and stayed there the night, but he would not keep them out in the Montana territory spring, not when the man that ran the general store had offered room for them. Mr. Lance had seemed more than pleased to have them arrive, as well.
"It's quite a ride back, Master Bruce...I'm sure we could make a fire adequate to the needs we have," Alfred counseled, willing to rough it. "The trail your man put down is clear, but neither Master Dick nor I are frail."
"Alfred, how do you always know what I'm thinking?" Bruce asked, shaking his head slightly, amused at that habit.
"That, Master Bruce, is a secret of my trade," the older man told him, with a wry twist of his lips.
"I don't want to go back to town, Bruce!" Dick chimed in from yards away where he was helping dig out a post for a rough corral. "I like it out here!"
"...Alright, chum. All right. Thing is, we didn't throw bedrolls up on the horses, so how will we stay out?"
"Master Bruce, I believe I've got it well in hand," Alfred told him, noting that Master Dick's enthusiasm for staying was likely to avoid being beaten at marbles by the young girl at the general store. Little Miss, as the younger Dinah Lance had been introduced to them, had a good knack for the game that Dick was sure he could win. He was pleased he had merely made the arrangements to have bedding, not having wished to publicly argue with the young man.
Bruce looked at Alfred sharply for a moment, then shook his head, amused and defeated. "Did you warn Mr. Lance we might not be back, after all?" he asked, though he was already certain of the answer.
"Certainly, I advised him of the prospect." Alfred looked at Bruce warmly. "This will be home, Master Bruce. I thought it might be wise to become well acquainted with it now."
"Thank you, Alfred. You're right, it will."
Dick grinned and went back to what he was doing, never noticing the considering look on the hand he was helping's face. But said hand had a mouth-full to chew on about this Eastern young man, now. Edward, or Eddie, as he was called, was a man with too many smarts and not enough connections, but starting over in the West as a hand on the soon-to-be Wayne Ranch suited him...for now. Especially if the former Industrial Prince could actually use both his muscles and brains to make it work.
Dinah looked to where her daughter was showing off the sweets to the younger Wayne. At twelve, the girl was only just really learning again to be a child. It had been a hard two years, ever since Jim Gordon had taken a posse out to roust that band of rustlers. Since the man of their lives had failed to come back breathing.
She sometimes wondered why she didn't pack back up, go east again, or on out west even further, to the cities that were cropping up out in California. Granted, the East had the war, but up where she was from was hardly touched by it, and she still had kin there.
Then she looked at her daughter, face already bearing the permanent wind-burn the cold up here brought, saw her breeches peeking out from under the skirts, and she knew why. Just as much as she had tasted freedom at Larry's side, an equal, so had her daughter grown up living and breathing that same freedom. Dinah Laurel would wither in the East, choked by ideas of proper behavior.
She turned aside to cough, noting again that pain that didn't seem to be there unless she exerted herself. She needed to get over to Doc Pritchard's...or maybe she'd talk to Leslie. Either way, she needed to get some more laudanum, for the days when she had to work hard on getting the supplies out. Dinah Laurel was still just half-grown. Pain or no pain, Dinah would be the one to do the hard work, though she did think about hiring on a boy to help out.
Dick finally decided on what little bit of sweet he wanted, and dug the change out of his pocket to give it to her. He thought about teasing her for a minute or two about the new skirt, even if it was pretty, but... she probably still had a plenty fine punch, and it wasn't like he could hit her back.
"You doing alright out there still?" Dinah Laurel asked Dick. She liked him well enough, even if he was a baby compared to her.
"We're doing fine," Dick nodded. "'Cept one of the hands took off for no reason Bruce can figure out..."
"Hmm." Dinah Laurel's eyes narrowed. "He'll wind up running into the Arapaho, no doubt."
"Probably right," Dick agreed, "That's what Alfred said, anyway. Then they shooed me off again, I don't know what else they were talking about. Bruce just said at least he'd bought the horse, or we'd have to go after him." Then he reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, awkward but remembering she'd lost her father, too, on one of those searches.
"Not much worse than a horse thief in these parts. Sheriff Gordon's a fair man, but only so much lawlessness in the hinterlands he'll tolerate." She managed to say it all without a quiver of her chin; she knew her daddy had had to do just what he did.
Dinah Laurel heard her mama cough again, and looked out to see Dick's hands had everything loaded. "You be safe out there, and come back in when they come back for the salt. It's nice to talk to you," the older girl said, knowing she had chores still.
"You too... does your ma need some help?"
"It's just a summer cough." Dinah Laurel smiled at him for his concern.
"All right... if you say so. But I've got nothing to do until Red's done all his trading and I can head back..."
The half-grown girl considered, and then nodded, letting the boy who was close in size to her help move the heavy things while he waited to go back out.
Southern town, 1865
He was tired, bone-tired in ways he hadn't been...since he could truthfully remember. Their army had finally been relieved of their commission through a treaty signed between commanders. The War was over...and he had a family to return to, if nothing else. Getting a means of survival would take some thinking, but for now, the Confederate veteran was just wanting to see his wife, see how big the boys had gotten.
He'd already heard, of course, that parts of their city had been burned in the War... but what Southern city could claim otherwise? Even knowing already, coming up onto the town, seeing the damage, blackened walls not yet pulled down... made him nudge his equally tired horse into a faster pace. He'd had no word... but then who would have sent it? He took another full breath only when he saw their own house still standing. Some damage, yes, but still standing. He swung off, feet hitting the ground hard and went for the door, calling out to his wife well before he reached said door. "Adeline!"
He had heard movement, the squeak of a board, a soft click of an older gun she'd somehow hung on to. At his voice, though, the attempt at quiet in the damaged house stopped, and two sets of thundering footsteps preceded the woman he'd called for. Two blonde boys, one a full head taller than the other, came pelting out, with the older one reaching to take the horse from him.
"Father!" Grant said, voice deepening. If the war'd gone one more year, he'd have been wearing the gray too.
"Grant," he said softly, hand reaching out to take his son's shoulder hard, the eye he still had drinking up the sight of his wife hungrily. "Wife." His younger son had wrapped close around his legs, but hadn't spoken, and he moved to drop to a knee, tipping his son's face up to look at him, "Joe, what is it?"
He heard Addie's sharp breath, but his gaze was only for his son as his little boy put his hand to his throat and shook his head, blue eyes sad.
"See to the horse, Grant," his wife cut in firmly. Grant did as he told, looking back once, protective over his little brother and mother. "Slade... Joe," her voice caught... his strong, proud wife's voice choked, "breathed too much of the smoke. Doctor Johnson said it seared, down into his lungs..."
Slade swallowed hard, then looked down at his son. "Been learning your letters?" he asked firmly, hand roaming over the boy's curls.
Joe nodded, his blue eyes losing some of their sadness, small hand sliding up to cup around the side of his face, mouth drawing into unhappy lines.
"Then I'll find you a small slate, to carry around. Help you talk." He pulled the boy in tight to his chest. "We'll get by." He then stood, looking at his wife again, so damned relieved that she had survived the war, and kept their boys alive.
"Yes. We will," his wife agreed, moving to him, her dark hair resting against his chest for a long moment. "Father's... there's nothing left."
Slade gave a moment's thought to the old man, trying hard not to be uncharitable and think he'd not have to listen to the man's complaints about an Army boy for a son-in-law. He then looked around the house, holding her tight to him. "I can't draw my veteran's benefits from before the state seceded...so I'm not worth much as a man of the house here. But...out west? There's land, and ways to start over, Addie. Places I can support you and give you the house you deserve."
His wife's hand tightened hard against his back in the way that meant she was considering behavior most unfit for a Southern lady for a long moment, before she looked full up into his face. "You'll not say that about yourself again," she said firmly, then nodded. "I don't want to stay here... But first, you rest up, and we plan this."
He called her angel. He had ever since she'd come here with her mother, refugees from the cholera epidemic and increasing lawlessness in Greece. They'd arrived in the Land of Promise, just in time to see the land torn in two...but after Diana had met and fallen in love with the handsome soldier, Steve Trevor.
They had corresponded through the war, with him telling her of the more humane things he had done to ease suffering where he found it.
Her mother gave them her blessing while Steve was serving in the Union forces. When Diana lost her soon after, it was the hope of Steve coming home so they could marry that kept her going. She concentrated on improving her English, learned just how unequal most men saw women as being, and chafed at it. Steve never talked to her like that, never treated her as less than himself.
They had married shortly after Steve was discharged from the Army, following the capture of Jefferson Davis. Diana watched closely, even as she enjoyed their bliss, for signs that Steve would be the same as other husbands. He never wavered, and when he got the chance of a lifetime with a land grant and the knowledge a wagon train was forming up soon, Steve sat her down and they talked it out.
Within the week, they were moving to meet the wagon train with all they thought they would need, and Steve patiently teaching Diana how to ride and shoot, so they would be safer in the rougher frontiers.
He wasn't going to let his angel down, and she could see it in every action he took with her at his side.
"Don't hurt yourself, girlie...that takes the fun out of it..."
"Careful, filly, that'll bite more than we will..."
Diana heard the words, but she could barely see for the anger and raw pain in her. Steve lay there, unmoving, blood soaking through the shirt she had just mended for him. She wished they'd never stopped in this city, that they had pushed on. Dimly, she knew they would never have picked the fight if she hadn't been with Steve, that it was her beauty that drew them. She knew the law would look aside, had seen it in the way the sheriff had been backed down by these...ruffians earlier.
The gun rang out twice, and the third man with them ran, something neither of his friends would do again. Steve might be dead, but she saw it as a just thing that his killers not live. The third man, who had only spoken, not pulled a trigger, was allowed to escape. Maybe he'd learn from it.
Diana walked away, head held high, to go back to her train-mates. None of them would say no to her staying with them. They'd seen just how hard she and Steve had been planning this, how much she had learned from all of them to survive out here. She'd been his angel. Now, he would be hers, and she'd see their dream through anyway, as she continued on out to the frontier.
Chapter 2: Chapter One
Acquiring a few more cast members, we start to see life in Montana.
Floyd Lawton thought himself a fair enough man. He ran with a decent ring of guys, most of the time, just looking to make a good bit of money, same as him. It got lonely running the ranges alone, and cattle rustling was a little too much work. So they roved, hiring on for short periods to chase would-be farmers out of range territory, getting reluctant Indians out of the way, or just about anything else that needed a steady eye and gun. It was how he came to be here, with his current partner, making a final lesson to Drake that his kind just weren't wanted.
Back in the eastern parts of the state, sure, the farmers were welcome enough, but this far west? The man had thrown up stakes between two ranches and one of the major water sources... and the son of a gun was stubborn--he also shouldn't have been wearing a six gun if he was no faster on the draw than that. The gun's echo was still fading when he heard a scream from behind the cabin and a short, dark streak came running out. The scream resolved into 'Dad!' about the time the kid reached the body.
Floyd's partner took aim, not intending to leave a witness, and got a stinging graze across the meaty part of his hand for the effort.
"No kids. I don't hire on against kids," 'Deadshot' Lawton told the other man. "We've done enough." He looked at the dark haired boy with a bad taste in his mouth, trying not to dwell in the past.
His temporary partner went to argue, claiming the kid had seen them too plain, gun already in hand from the argument with Drake and turning the boy's way. The kid was paying more attention to his father than the argument, trying to stop the blood from a wound they already knew was fatal, not even looking up at them. It didn't take even a second for Floyd to make a choice, dropping the man where he was.
"I said, no kids."
The sound of gunfire, then the faintest echo of a scream caught the attention of a man who was already regretting taking this trail back instead of the one he'd brought the herd down, but the promise of making it back to Montana Territory faster had pressed him into the choice. Without the herd, they could take the shorter, harder trails, after all, and every one of his men wanted to be home as badly as he did. He hadn't expected the first trouble they ran into to come this early, though... they hadn't even gotten out of Kansas completely, by the compass bearings. He tensed, listening... and another shot rang out.
"Mister Wayne?" His trail boss, Lucius--and it was good to be able to ride with him back East without looking over his shoulder for trouble--looked uneasy, but that scream had sounded like a woman, maybe a kid.
"Sounded like that came from on west, maybe north, didn't i..." he trailed off as he saw smoke starting to curl up, west and north just as he'd said, and not that far, but the trail wound behind a rise there.
"Send Bullock up to see?" Lucius asked, looking at the heavy-set rider he'd hired on the dubious recommendation of Jim Gordon.
Bruce nodded and called out, "Bullock. Go check out that smoke."
The heavy rider glared, as seemed to be his habit, but kicked the big horse he rode into a fast canter to go and look. He and his horse had come to an agreement sometime ago that a little speed now and then was necessary. This was one of those times, and he was able to get up to the place pretty quickly. Still, his eye was only able to settle on the smoke, not seeing the dust in the distance from the escaping horseman.
One man spilled on the ground on his face and side, further away from the burning house...//son of a bitch//, another man on his back with a kid, boy or girl he couldn't tell from here, crouched at his side... No one else he could see, and he was torn between going down to get the kid and riding far enough back to whistle the others up.
The child turned finally, aware the rider had stopped, and glared at the big man. "With 'em or not?" the kid shot out as a challenge, fully aware he might just die, but what else did he have? His ma was long gone, and now his dad.
"Not with anyone from this part of the country, kid," Bullock drawled, looking down at the boy. "Ride for the Wayne brand, out Montana way. That your pa, son?" That everyone called the W Lazy B the Bat spread wouldn't make any difference to this kid, not now at least.
"Yeah." The tone managed to be both grieving and scornful, as though it wasn't obvious.
"Where's your ma, then?" If there was a woman around, they'd need to see them both to the next town, with the place going up like it was, nothing of it was going to be saved.
"Gone." The flat tone was full of a child's anger that the world really wasn't a fair place to live.
"All right, kid. If there's a horse in that barn, get it out before that catches fire too. I'll be back in just a few. You just stay out of that house, nothin' in there worth your life." He didn't have a clue how to deal with this kid, but the bodies needed to be buried and damned if he was doing it on his own. He wheeled the big gelding around and with an apologetic pat, asked him to run.
The boy got up stiffly, making his way toward the barn to get his father's horse. He stumbled once, over a rock, and kicked at it, as if it could be blamed for everything that had just torn his life apart. He wasn't even sure why he was listening to the big man. Wasn't sure why the outlaw had shot down the other one instead of just letting him die with his pa.
Distance between the house and the hands mostly covered, Bullock sat back, slowing to a trot before he spooked them, and rode close enough to be easily heard. "Looks like a spat between a rancher and a damn homesteader. It's the house burning. The man's dead, one of the riders. Man left a boy, though. Seven, eight maybe? And that house needs put out 'fore it sets the whole country on fire."
Bruce listened, wondered just why he'd chosen this particular trail, because it was too hard to believe in merciful fates, and gave the order to move. They'd get the fire under control, and see what they could do about the boy. If the boy's wits weren't too scattered, they might even be able to get a drawing of the rider, to circulate among what lawmen there were up this way.
He rode up with the rest of his hands, the sight of that fire up in the roof and down the walls turning his stomach at the thought of it getting into that long grass... His eye was caught by the boy trying to hold onto a horse far too large for him as the blaze frightened it, and he let the boys go for the fire as he went for the boy. "Kid, bring that horse on away, before you lose it!" he called.
The boy heard the voice, gritting his teeth and urging the horse to follow him, dragging at its head. He pulled against the man's seeming confidence that he could do what was needed. It steeled his young arms, and let him show the old horse just who was really in charge, winning him away from the fire.
Bruce had been about half a minute from shaking out a loop of the lasso, but that the boy could handle the horse himself spoke well, and he dropped out of his saddle and dropped the reins to the ground, walking to him. "What's your name, son?"
"Tim..." The boy made himself leave off the second syllable his dad called him. "Tim Drake."
"Tim. I'm Bruce Wayne. Those are some of my hands, they'll get the fire out." //Whether or not anything can be saved...// He didn't bother to mention that. "Can you tell me what happened, Tim?"
"Two riders came, tossed some lanterns, dad went out, told me to get safe... some words, and then I heard a shot." Tim looked toward where his father lay in the dirt. "Guess one went to shoot me...should have...and the other shot at his hand. They argued a moment, then the one shot the other, and high-tailed it out of here." He looked the direction the other rider had gone.
Bruce's jaw set at those words, at the boy thinking he should have been-- He cut that thought off, and shook his head. "Do you think you can tell me what the one that took off looked like?"
"Dark hair. Big black mustache. No beard, but not clean cut either. Just a little shorter'n you."
"Anything else you noticed? The horse, maybe?" //You do not have the time to hunt this man, Wayne, even if Jim is trying to saddle you with the sheriff's job--that means even more that you have to get back home!//
Tim locked everything about the day down, focused in on the man, the horse, and in eerily precise tones, told Bruce every single detail that had been caught in his mind. It wasn't something he did every day, but staring at the same sights almost all his life made it a little easier to pull up what was different.
Bruce put all of that away in his own mind, soothing the restive stallion behind him with an easy pat, listening to the boy's recall. Once Tim was finished, he nodded. "That'll be a big help, Tim. Where's the nearest town, and how far away is it?" Depending on the answers he got, his ideas on what to do might change.
"Half a day's ride east. Know, 'cause Dad could leave before the dawn, and get back shortly after nightfall, in the summer."
//Too far, and the wrong direction, we came past there this morning...// "All right. What do you know about what's on west?" There was plentiful enough water on the trail that he wasn't, yet, worrying about making sure they could make it every day.
"Just ranches west and north of here," Tim told him, grimacing. "I'd say it was the Double L that hired them," he added.
"I'm not doubting you, but that's a hard charge to make stay... why that spread, and not the other?"
"Luthor's nastier than Adam, that's why," Tim told him seriously.
"All right. Do you have any family, Tim? Back east, or further west?"
The boy's face scrunched up as he thought about it. "I might...but I don't think so. Dad wrote someone, but not regular."
"All right, Tim. Is there anyone in that town your father or you are close to?" He didn't really want to take this boy a thousand miles from the home he'd had, but he wasn't about to leave him in strange and unfriendly hands, either.
"We're homesteaders," the boy told him, fully aware of the problems that had led to this day, to his father's death.
"All right, son. Are you up to a long ride, once we lay your father to rest?"
"Do what I have to," the boy replied with a shrug.
"We could just see you as far as the next town, son, but... like you said, it would probably be hard for you. If you can stand the ride, and you'll learn to handle cattle instead of that plow, you can come with me instead."
Tim eyed the man, looked at the hands still fighting hard to put the blaze out, and then at his father's body.
"Just exactly what do you intend me to do on your ranch?" the boy asked with a mind to protecting himself from further indignity. If he was just going to be relegated to the bunk house as labor, he might as well try to wheedle a widow in the next town for room and board.
"You're... seven, eight maybe? When my younger brother was your age, he was doing any of the jobs I was that he could handle. I'd expect the same from you. You may wind up doing a lot of work in the barn and helping anywhere else you're needed, but if you show a hand for it, you'll ride for me. It's hard work, but you're surely acquainted with that." //Of course, if Dick were here, he'd be handling this a whole lot better...but he's still too young for the drive.//
Tim considered, even as he replied sharply, "Eight," and did another sweep of the land with his eyes. He couldn't hold it, couldn't prove the claim. In less than a month, one of the ranches would swallow it up. "I'll go."
Dick had been out riding every day, expecting the hands, and Bruce, back for the last two. He had started to worry, but he knew his brother was a pretty well-liked man. It might just have been weather, or bad trails.... after all, it was their first drive down since the War had ended. The drives during the war years, they'd put herds together with the WG and sent every hand they could spare to make sure the herds actually made it to the rail yards without being savaged.
Knowing that wouldn't have happened this year didn't keep him from worrying, and thinking he still should have gone with Bruce. He might only be thirteen, but he'd been riding as hard as any of the men for the last year, and he should have been with his brother. He'd bought the argument that he needed to stay home with Alfred and keep an eye on things here for weeks, but when Alfie had started sending him into town--where Little Miss (and yes, he loved that he was taller than she was, now, and had a reason to call her that) would just fuss at him every time he came in--it had started to wear thin.
The nice thing about going into town, though, was that he could normally find an excuse to ride past Sheriff Gordon's, and see Babs if she was around. The old sheriff didn't seem to have a problem with it, as it helped cement the ties between them. Jim Gordon was getting to a point that sitting the saddle hurt and his aim had suffered some with his eyes failing. Dick was pretty sure he truly wanted to see Bruce take up those duties, and if Bruce's little brother was seeing his daughter... well, family bonds had been known to seal deals in the past. Not that he was thinking that way, but he'd heard Alfred say it one night.
While he was thinking, he'd missed the first movement around the bend... but his eyes caught it in the next moment and he leaned up over Robin's neck, asking him to run as the splash of white on Lucius's mare and the solid black of Bruce's stallion came clear enough for him to trust his eyes. Robin gave over to the run, always eager to stretch out his neck and legs for his rider.
He kept Robin running until he'd nearly reached them, then sat back to slow, waiting for Bruce... then noticed the young boy on the big horse riding beside Red, and the smile he'd been wearing went curious instead as he looked at his brother.
"Got a little surprise, chum," Bruce called out to his brother. He pulled up rein next to Dick. "Lucius, take the men on in. Tim... you stay here with me."
Lucius nodded and the hands rode on around. Dick grinned as he heard most of those hooves go into much faster gaits... the boys were glad to be home, it sounded like.
He leaned across the distance between he and his brother, rubbing with one hand at Black's neck as he reached for his brother's arm with the other, wrapping his hand close around his wrist. "Everything go all right?"
"Went fine, with the herd," Bruce nodded, then indicated the boy. "Dick, meet Tim Drake. He's going to be living with us now."
Dick cocked his head at the boy, letting go of Bruce's arm to nudge Robin around Black to come close enough to shake hands, dodging the stud's swinging head even as Bruce pulled his head back down. "Hi. Like Bruce said, I'm Dick."
Tim sized up the hand, the horse, and the boy for a long minute. He cocked his head to the side, considering every angle, but kept coming up against that unfeigned niceness being held out to him.
"Tim, like he said..." the child told him, taking the hand. He noted everything about the trappings of the horse to the well-mended work clothes, adding it to the file of things he'd already learned about all the hands.
Dick nodded, "You said he's going to stay, Bruce? That'll be nice, another boy around, even if you are younger than me..."
"Doesn't mean I can't work!" Tim told him with a fierce glare.
"Hey, that's not what I meant," Dick protested, shaking his head. "I just meant... heck, I don't know... Just it'll be nice to have someone around that isn't all grown up, or a girl!"
The boy then smiled, looking less fierce and barely his age as he looked at Dick. "Be nice to have anyone around, close to my age."
Dick grinned, nodding. "Know how that is," he agreed, then looked at Black's condition, and Tim's horse's, too, mischievous look going across his face as Robin pranced a little, feeling it in his rider.
Bruce snorted. "Got enough in him for the run." He looked at Tim. "Think you can stay astride? Just let him follow his head, and he'll keep you safe." Bruce had watched Tim have a few difficult moments as the terrain had come up out of Kansan flatlands, after all.
"Know how to ride," Tim said defensively, but his eyes twinkled. "Really can let him have his head?"
Dick grinned happily--he hadn't really been worried about Black, the big stud could go all day, but... He wheeled Robin around to head for home and just called out, "Ready?" While he'd been getting turned about, Tim had leaned in low and whispered to his horse, with Dick just barely catching the name 'Spirit'.
"Yeah," the boy said, before letting his steed go full out. Black was quick to pursue, with Bruce smiling at the foolishness he let his brother lead him into.
Dick laughed for joy at hearing the two sets of thundering hooves right behind him and rode for all he was worth, shifting with Robin as he needed--Black might win, but they were going to give him a ride for it.
Alfred had stepped out when he heard the noise of the hands riding up fast, looking for Masters Bruce and Dick. He'd worried a moment when he didn't see either of them, then he saw the... trio? on their way in at a dead run, Black and Robin nearly neck and neck with a third, unfamiliar horse with a small boy on it just barely behind them both. //Now, Master Bruce, what have you done?//
The small rider gave a loud whoop as the two experienced horses came to a stop, and let his own follow suit. He slipped out of the saddle pretty easily, going around to stroke Spirit's nose and start walking him down, ignoring the man up on the porch for now to just savor that brief burst of joy running that free had brought.
"Alfred," Bruce called, as he too slid down, entrusting Black to Dick's care. He crossed the distance, taking the steps easily, to grip the older man's arm. "Made it safe back."
"I do see that, Master Bruce... and apparently in high spirits as well," he did smile with relief at that they had all come home safe, this time. "And with a guest?"
Dick wanted that story, too, but Black and Robin needed cooled down and the tack taken care of. "Come on, Tim. Barn's back this way, we'll pick a stall for your... Spirit?"
Before they moved on, they did hear one bit from Bruce.
"He's no guest, Alfred...he's part of our family now."
1867, Montana Territory
They called her Widow Trevor, and it seemed to pack a little bit more respect into the way the men tipped their hats to her. Her story had traveled with her, how she'd avenged her fallen husband, and then continued on in the same train she'd begun on. A family on that train, a man with his wife and two children had backed down the few objectors, but their ways had parted shortly after hitting the Territory.
Now, she ran the only boarding house in the township, a respected woman, though some did point to her youth and beauty as a good argument to remarrying. More pious folks regarded her solemn devotion to her lawful husband a thing to be admired.
"Widow Trevor!" She turned to the voice calling her, and saw Rancher Wayne. He always seemed to make a point to come by and ask after her on his way back out to his ranch. Once or twice a winter, he had even stayed a night over, renting a room and then engaging in her conversation as befitting an intelligent man and woman for a few hours, rather than brave too thick a snow.
"Yes, Mister Wayne?" she answered.
"Thought I should tell you, that trick with the liniments worked..." He came to stand below the porch she was on, looking up at him. "That's a good bit of money you saved me, in the saving of that horse."
"Just passing on something I knew," she told him, smiling at him.
"I'll be sure to remember it, ma'am." He went his own way then, leaving the widow to chastise her own self for thinking he cut nearly as fine a figure of a man as her own Angel did.
1869, Montana Territory
Dinah was getting tired of this near weekly confrontation. A bare two months, and she already missed her mama's will backing her up. How in all the shades of hell this land could offer, was a nineteen year old girl going to make good on the legacy begun by two stubborn people like her parents? She did not care if Mister Werner kept on running his store at the other end of town. He seemed to have enough business from the miners and the more westerly ranchers, ones that hadn't been willing to trust when her mama got sick. She was solidly entrenched with the more Eastern side of things, the ones that had been there longer, and had enough on the plus side of her ledgers to not worry about selling out.
"You're a strong girl, and I know the things that your mama hammered out with Gordon, then Sheriff Wayne, and the bank, but...." That was when she put her foot down, noting that the man who tended to do business for the WG Ranch was approaching. She didn't see him often, but he was a difficult man to forget.
"But nothing, Mister Werner. This is my store, as it was my mama's, and my papa's." The steel was showing in the blue-eyed woman who barely met the man's shoulder. "I'm staying open, and I have no mind to sell or partner with anyone." Her words, the stubborn set to her jaw, were enough to let the man know he'd get nowhere today, and he started to pull out more threatening means.
"B'lieve the lady said 'no'. Moreover, I believe the lady has been sayin' 'no'..." The man from WG Ranch stepped up on the porch to the store, near enough to Werner to make the man flinch inwardly.
"Don't believe it's any of your business, sir." Werner's accent, European of some kind, thickened a bit.
"Beg to differ. The lady runs a good business, you... well." The bigger man let his posture and shrug of the shoulders say it all. He'd heard a man or two complain that the goods bought there were watered or mixed with either flour or salt, depending.
"This is between me and the lady." Werner did not think it was wise, but he couldn't appear to be a coward either.
The large one-eyed man gave a low snort of amusement and disdain. "Mister, it's about to be between you and everyone that appreciates the lady's work, if you don't leave her be. Or, it could just be between you and I, if you want to put it there..." He didn't really move, but the sidearms he was carrying seemed a little more prominent.
"I think, Mister Werner, you might want to just go on home," Dinah said. "No need for things to get ugly."
The big man watched as the other store owner finally huffed off, marking him as potential trouble down the road. Of course, in his side work, everyone in a law abiding town was potential trouble. "Miss. Are you all right?"
"I am now." She smiled at him and let him enter the store front, knowing he'd be wanting to make a supply purchase. "Mister Wilson, yes?"
"Yes, Miss Lance," he replied, with a touch of a smile for the fact she'd remembered his name from other trips in. This town was a little farther from Wintergreen's spread, but the prices were often better. "I am sorry that things nearly got unpleasant in your shop."
"Well, seein' as how you kept them cool and level, maybe I'll be a bit more minded to letting you drive a bargain." Blue eyes sparkled irrepressibly, even as she saw the weathered-in lines of pain around his eyes and mouth again.
"Well thank you, miss," he told her, with a touch of a sardonic air. He started selecting what Wintergreen had sent him for, listening to her talk about the merits of this over that on some of it. She knew her goods, kept her prices fair, and didn't seem to care where a man had come from, as long as he talked to her like a human being. She wound up driving a damn hard bargain with him, as she always did, but threw on a few luxury items he never would have purchased as a way of thanking him for his intercession.
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
More cast join us in a swift interlude
Dinah took her time walking her horse back in from a ride. She'd grown up in the area, and knew just where to stay to avoid mishaps with the local Indians or the possible rustlers. She often went out toward the Wayne spread to supplement the pot for her food; losing her mama hadn't really changed the habit, though it meant fewer trips out.
She knew she should have gotten back a little earlier; Doc Pritchard would probably be a busy-body and wonder why she was stabling her nag so late. Still, it had felt good to close the store at noon and ride out to see what she could get.
She was getting closer to the town, and could tell there'd been a mass of riders through here earlier...ones who hadn't really minded riding off the well-worn trail. A sound, just off the side of the trail, caught her ear, making her wonder just what had been going on.
The noise repeated, a low, softly broken moan from one of the dips off the trail. She couldn't ignore it, but she also had to be careful. A thorough scan of the horizon, a check of the pistol she carried, and then she let her nag go toward the noise.
"Easy, Birdie...nice and slow," she said confidently, her voice pitched to warn whoever it was that she was coming, as well as show she had no fear of her surroundings.
The sound of her voice drew a slightly louder whimper and a small rustle of the long grass, but no coherent replies. She gave another solid look to her surroundings once she got close tot he noise, then slid off Birdie's back, investigating on foot.
Half hidden in the brush, a buckskin-tan shape moved. Her sharp eyes picked it out as a foot, and there was the other...too large for a child's foot, and in moccasins, but the skin above the shoe didn't have the darker tone of an Indian's skin.
"Don't know who you are, but if you're hurt, I'll help you," she called, giving another wary look around. "Just to warn you, though...you won't live to yelp if you try anything funny." That drew a louder noise, and a twist of the feet and legs, but no real response. "Birdie, you be still," Dinah called back, before shifting the brush enough to get to the hurt person. "Be still, 'fore you hurt yourself more."
Once she moved enough of the brush, she found a young man beaten black-and blue over the dark tan covering far more skin than she should have been seeing. What little clothing was there said Indian, but the long hair was almost as bright red as her best friend's, and the hurt, confused eyes that looked up at her for just a moment as he struggled to move, whimpered and then went unconscious, were bright green.
"How'd the tribes pick up an Irish boy?" she muttered, before setting her teeth and putting her strength into getting him up. She was going to have a devil of a time getting him on Birdie unless she could coax the nag into laying, but there was never a question in her mind of leaving him behind.
Doc Pritchard shook his head at Little Miss Dinah...couldn't help but still call her that, despite her mama being gone... and made a noise.
"He's just a half-grown boy," Dinah retorted to that noise.
"And you're a young lady leaving all on your own...you've got no father, no uncles, nothing to protect you. That dark hide of his says he's lived with them a long time. Might only know their ways! You're not going to be safe with him in your home."
"I found him, he's hurt, and I'm not letting some fear of a maybe keep me from doing as I know is right!" She set her jaw, and Doc Pritchard knew he would not be able to reason with her.
"I'll miss you terribly when that boy murders you in your sleep," he growled at her. "But he should come around on his own. I've done what I can."
"Thank you, Doc. Tell Miss Marie to come pick out some fancy cloth, would you?" Dinah saw the still grumbling doctor out. "And ask Mister Jim to come by...seems I remember a story from when I was little, might settle just how the tribes got themselves an Irish."
"I'll do that! Maybe Jim can talk sense into your head."
Jim sighed as he took his hat off, and looked toward his daughter. "You be careful if you go over to the store, Barbara."
The redhead looked at her father expectantly, even as Dick Grayson tore his attention from Sarah's snack for him. She always worried about her father when he headed back into town. Ever since he had persuaded Bruce into taking over the sheriff's job, his arthritis seemed to be steadily wearing him down further.
"Trouble over at Miss Lance's?" Barbara asked.
"Might be, eventually. She's taken in a boy, one who's been raised by the local tribe. Something...probably the tribe itself, beat him and left him for dead off the main track into town."
"What in the world possessed Dinah to help an Indian boy?" Sarah demanded.
"He's not one...but he's browned almost that dark. From his red hair, and his age, I think he might be the Harper kid we didn't find, twelve years back or so. The house that burned down..." Jim shook his head. "Might be born white, but he's far from civilized."
"Well, Dinah's got a good head on her shoulder. Busy as she stays, the boy'll either run off or she'll put him out once he's well," Sarah said, before firmly turning talk away from half-savage boys, even though it left Dick with a burning curiosity.
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
Slade's reputation in town takes a blow
Dinah shook her head and laughed, softly, at the fact Roy was wearing his trousers...and no shirt.
"Boy-o...you have got to wear the shirt I laid out for you today. I don't mind you running around half-naked, but I've got the banker coming today," she pointed out.
"Too hot to wear so much," Roy complained back to her, shaking his head.
"Please. Just when I have to have important people by. I need a loan to be able to make the repairs from that last storm, Boy-o." She picked up the shirt and held it out to him.
He grumbled under his breath, and green eyes glared at her, but he pulled the shirt on.
"Thank you. Mister Lord is a hard man to get money from, and he is one of the ones that disapproves of me letting you live here," she reminded him. She then ruffled his hair as she passed by him. "Not that I will ever let such things push you away."
Roy ducked his head, and followed her down to see what needed to be done. He wasn't sure yet that he understood why the stubborn little woman had decided to take him in, but there seemed to be no arguing it. Not after she'd brought him back from how badly hurt he had been.
She showed him what merchandise needed to be moved because of leaks, and started cleaning again. She absolutely hated going into the bank's shadow to fix up her place, but with Werner's store...she had to be sure her place was firm and clean and dry.
Roy set himself to moving things, wondering what made her face so tight. "What's wrong?" he finally asked.
She shook her head at him. "Nothing, Boy-o. Just worrying over if Mister Lord will give me the loan, and if I can find enough hands that won't mind working for a woman to fix the roof and that one porch support."
Roy frowned a little more, wishing he knew how to do the things she needed done on this building. He was good with his hands, but this was completely different than the things he was used to.
"You've got good eyes, so make sure to check the ceiling for leak spots wherever you move the meal to," she said, pushing herself back into work mode. She'd make this work; she was not about to lose her mother's and father's last legacy for her.
Roy nodded and settled to doing that, keeping his ears open to the outside so he could warn her before the banker arrived.
Roy took one look at the approach of Slade's horse, and growled to himself. He did not really care for the man's presence in the store, or the home above it. He went to get his bow and quiver, as well as the rifle Dinah had been teaching him, to go hunt, rather than put up with the man that made Dinah seem far too much a woman in Roy's eyes.
Maybe Dick would appreciate the company, and Roy did have permission to hunt out toward the sheriff's lands.
Dinah, on the other hand, smiled warmly and squeezed both of Slade's hands. "It's been a while." He could not help but see the strain around her eyes, though, as she was still trying to calm down from the day she had had.
"Sorry, Miss Lance, but it's a busy time of year," he smiled wryly, holding her hands in his. "It's good to see you. Are you all right?"
"Nothing for you to worry over, Mister Wilson." She shook her head. "Just been an exasperating day with Mister Lord...I swear the man's name goes to his head, poor thing."
"Trouble with the bank?" His eye set hard even as he went to walk back into the store with her.
"Needing a loan...storm tore up a good part of my roof, and the one column at the end of the porch," she admitted. "I run credit chits for most everyone, and too few pay them off with anything other than goods until after the drives," she added. "But that roof can't wait 'til after the drives."
"I could do the work for you, you get the materials," Slade offered in an easy manner. She stared at him a long hard moment, thinking he'd been in the sun longer than Roy had most days. "Wouldn't take that long."
"You'd willingly work for a woman?"
Slade looked at her blankly. "You need the work done, and you don't need to be climbing around on that roof in skirts, though I'm sure you're stubborn enough to handle the hammer."
She laughed softly. "We'll discuss that after we get your list looked at, Mister Wilson."
"All right, then," he said, and went in to do just that, letting her know what he, and the ranch, needed.
Dinah settled in to handle business, both for his pick-up, and for her labor needs. Having a definite worker with a concrete price set for his help, might help her win the loan easier.
Slade drove his usual bargain with her on the supplies for the ranch, but when it came to helping her with the roof, he shrugged a shoulder. "You need the help."
"Mister Wilson, how can you expect me to accept that? I will not be obligated to anyone," she scolded.
Slade shook his head, chuckling softly. "It's nothing I wouldn't do for any of my friends, Miss Lance."
"I run a business, Mister Wilson. I have to account for such things, so you will name a pay, or I will find myself a Chinese laborer."
Slade studied the little spitfire in front of him for a moment, shaking his head. "You would, and come near letting them cheat you, rather than let a friend help you, wouldn't you? Stubborn woman. Fine." He considered, doing some fast math in his head, and named her what one of his hands would have made for the same.
She considered the offer, and thought over how long it would take to finish the job. "That plus the meals and enough to cover your room at the widow's, while you finish the roof."
Slade gave her another long look, then nodded. "All right. If you insist."
"I do." Dinah looked triumphant.
Slade shook his head at her, amused, and something struck him. "..Addie would have liked you, I think."
Dinah took that compliment, and squeezed his hand once, before moving on to getting items together for him.
Tim had taken to riding into town when Dick did, which was often when Dick wanted to go see that Indian boy of Miss Lance's.
That did not mean he stayed, especially once Miss Lance had cut Roy loose from work. He often wound up at Widow Trevor's, for a meal, and to see who was passing through town.
He had reason, though, to be glad he was in the kitchen when he ate, normally, as he saw a man he recognized entirely too well sitting at a table.
Floyd 'Deadshot' Lawton. Sure, he had his hair slicked back and he was cleaned up. But Tim could not forget the killer of his father well enough to be unsure.
He fled out the back of the kitchen and straight over to the jail, to tell Bruce.
"Bruce!" he called as he entered, hoping the sheriff was in.
His guardian, more like a big brother than anything, looked his way, frowning at the intent expression on Tim's face.
"Come with me, quiet-like, to the Widow's."
They entered the same way Tim had gotten out, with Tim telling Bruce along the way of who was in the eating area. Bruce looked out cautiously, and frowned, because the man Tim had described was not on any of the wanted prints he'd seen coming up out of the Marshall's office. He'd have to ask Kent when the man wandered back through this area.
The frown deepened when Lawton called out to another man entering, and was greeted knowledgeably in turn. As the man in question was the foreman for the WG Ranch, and the man that spent entirely too much time in Miss Dinah's company on his trading trips, Bruce felt a tingle of alarm. He believed Tim whole-heartedly, but knew a boy wasn't likely to be taken seriously by most judges. He needed something concrete on Lawton, and from the way the two men were conversing out there, Bruce was wondering if he needed to check with Kent about Wilson as well.
It just wouldn't do to let Miss Dinah come to harm because of her soft-heart after all.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
We meet the marshal and a few Mormons. OT3 for the win within the era.
Sheriff Wayne had more than enough on his plate this year. He had spoken to Marshal Kent on his recent pass through their town, asking him to keep an eye open for any wanted notices concerning Lawton or Wilson, and had been promised a telegraph would be sent if Kent found anything. With that and the random troubles that the range had, he certainly had not needed to be told there was a problem brewing over at the rail-head, as a new to the area farmer waited with his wagon and wives for supplies.
While a new farmer wouldn't usually have been that much trouble, it was the wives part that was the source of the problem--and it could be a serious one. While most of the townsfolk were fairly lenient in understanding that all sorts of people came west and tended to live and let live, abiding those followers of Brigham Young was not something to be simply expected. The Saints' seemed to have all kinds of different morals, and most of his folk weren't fond of that. The sheriff went outside and actually hopped up on his horse to make the trip as the rail head was down at the other end of town, and he didn't care to have a lynching happen before he could get there.
As he rode up, he saw a very stubborn-jawed redhead holding the bow of the oxen, with a small woman whose blonde hair was so pale it might as well have been white, and a more exotic looking woman with dark hair covered by a green shawl up in the wagon. Around them were about fifteen of the men and older boys, while some womenfolk looked on from a safer distance, whispering amongst themselves. It didn't look like things had gotten too bad yet...
"Sheriff Wayne, it just won't do to have these rabble-rousers moving into our town," Werner called up to the mounted lawman the moment he saw him.
//If we didn't let rabble-rousers in town, you would have been run out ten years ago.// True as it was, Bruce kept that thought firmly out of his face and voice. "I'll handle this, Werner. We're a lawful town, and not one that lets vigilantism run wild."
The stubborn looking man didn't relax a bit at seeing the sheriff dismount near his wagon, bristling up instead. "We've got every right--"
"I'm not saying you don't, young man," Bruce cut him off quickly. "But I thought I'd pass on a friendly warning that Mormons aren't well-looked on in this area. We've already got supply wagons running regular, and the rail line, so we don't use your people's freight trails. If you're looking to homestead, you'd be better suited to turn south again and head on out toward Bannack or Virginia City."
"We're wanting to be up here, up north," the man said with a strong voice, intent on getting his way despite the trouble it could bring.
"Over my dead--"
Bruce held his hand up in the general direction of the speaker, cutting him off as well, while considering how to handle this. "North, hmm?" He stroked at his chin for just a moment. "Not necessarily in the town, though, correct?"
"Want to farm my own land, provide for my family," the redhead told him, a little unsettled by the lawman's calm. "Don't want no town place anyway."
"There's an old farmstead, most of a day's ride north, that's been lost to its family. You'd need to do repairs on it, but with the cold coming on soon, repair's quicker than building," Bruce reasoned. "You want to settle away from your people, then we'll give you a shot to make us change our minds on your ways."
He could hear the muttering of the townsfolk, but this was an honest compromise, and once they thought, they'd know it. The old Harper homestead wouldn't just be a haven for rustlers or Indians looking to hit the nearby supply trails if there was a family there, and Wayne would have a man that was grateful to him for being open-minded enough to give him a shake. Or that was the intent, if the young man would just take him up on it.
Otherwise, there might be a real danger of a lynching in the near future.
The man looked up briefly at the two women, mostly at the pale one, and his gaze drifted low for a long moment. Bruce felt his breath hold; a man only looked that way for one reason, and he truly hoped he could rein in the rougher part of his people if he was correct. The blonde smiled just a little, and only at her husband, while the darker woman shrugged a shoulder just slightly.
"We'll take it, Sheriff..."
"Wayne. Be glad to show you the way out, after we stop at the town hall to register your land deed, Mister..."
"We can let your ladies rest up at the Widow's while we do business then, Gardner."
Slade's eye wandered darkly over the horizon and the column of riders he could see there, single-file to keep knowledge of their numbers secret. He was half-wishing they'd already struck fires to draw the column's attention. They would probably have come in to raid, and he was sure of his gang's ability to make short work of the damned Indians, but with the sun so low and behind the column, he knew only their sharpest eyed scout stood a chance of seeing them at this distance.
"Jesse," he snapped, and his right hand came up fast, looking entirely too small and whip-thin next to the big man.
"Double up the watches."
"Got it, Boss." The small-bodied cowpoke started to head off, but Slade's hand caught at a shoulder.
"Keep that kerchief up when we hit town, Jesse... been through there enough, some might notice."
"Of course, Boss," the hand said with a jaunty smile, before going to arrange the watches with Mikey.
Slade turned his attention back out to where the Indians were moving along. They were all too familiar in their line, demons of his nightmares. Maybe once his planned business was done, they'd be lucky enough to catch up to the band, do a little judicious thinning of the raiding tribes.
Then maybe, just maybe, he'd be able to sleep one night without the spectre of his slaughtered family haunting the edges of his dreamscape.
The fire hadn't been part of the original plan, but it had heightened the urgency of the town's panic. People were still scrambling back and forth, prompted by well placed shots that kept them from approaching the bank. Heavy bags of money were thrown hastily over the horses' backs, riders scrambling up into saddles.
//Easy hit.// The leader of the gang made a circling motion and gave the signal to go, not even sparing a glance at the dead body half in the doorway of the bank. His riders fell in as ordered, and they rode like hell out into the wilds again.
It was so much easier, pulling off heists, than driving cattle for days on end, or so the gang seemed to feel.
Two women looked on from a front porch as the rider came into town, both deftly shelling peas for the dinner meal as they watched. The rider, his hair so black that it was defying the dust trying to lighten it, his back ramrod straight in the saddle, with the long rifle in its saddle holster was a familiar sight, though not a common one. The older of the two women sighed happily as she saw him, looking over at the younger woman slyly.
"Long cool drink of cold water, ain't he?" she asked, and laughed softly at the blush rising to her younger friend's cheeks. Some days, it was far too simple to tease her.
"I don't know, Ma, I think we've got a better drink in our own town," the raven-haired widow said, shaking her head a little as she watched him.
"One lawman or another, Diana; could be a recipe for heartbreak," the older woman told her gently, but she was privately hopeful that Diana would put aside her black clothes for their sheriff one day soon. Ma Hunkel liked the young woman, and thought it too much a pity that she'd lost her love so young. Right as it was for her to mourn, there came a time when a body had to learn how to live again.
"I didn't say a word about fancying Sheriff Wayne or Marshal Kent in quite that way," Diana scolded even as the color in her cheeks brightened more.
In addition, Ma saw her eyes rove across to the small jail to watch the greeting between the lawmen, and the figure the Marshal cut as he swung down from the saddle.
Bruce reached out and clasped Clark's hand warmly before they both went inside the small jail building to talk. Currently, the only occupant of the cell was the town drunk, Arthur Brown. Bruce really wished the man would find some dignity to help out his young wife and that daughter of theirs, but he wanted a lot of unreachable things at times. So far that seemed to be one of them.
"What brings you up here?" he asked, after he'd poured the man a mug of coffee. "You were through not that long ago."
Clark shook his head, face set in grim lines. "Following up on your question about that man Lawton. He's dirty as a rat, that's for certain, but every town I talked to says they don't want him brought in. Apparently, he's got a reputation for escape, and then for finding revenge on the town that caught him," he added.
"Then I'll have to find a judge that will listen to a half-grown boy, because Tim saw the man at his father's body."
"Even you said he didn't see the actual shot," Clark warned him. Bruce growled in frustration at that reminder.
"Point... Lawton'd just say the other outlaw shot him, and Lawton killing him to let Tim live would say a lot to back that to any judge. Then we'd have the same trouble." Bruce considered. "And what about Wilson?"
"Other than being a Rebel soldier?" Clark asked mildly, though his jaw set. He was a firm abolitionist, and held little warmth for the Confederates filling up parts of his territory.
"I knew that already. Still wears the gray," Bruce said with patience, waiting for something useful.
"Works out of WG ranch, as you knew, as the old man's trail boss. Crew seems to be hand picked by him, and they don't always winter at the ranch." Clark's blue eyes showed a hint of suspicion at that. "Nothing solid, but there have been small raids on the trails they use for their drive... normally after drive season."
Bruce considered that for a long moment. "He doesn't winter here, though he's the only one from the WG we ever see in town nowadays. What little I've been able to prise out of Miss Dinah is that he's a widower and he knew Old Man Wintergreen before the War between the States."
Clark tipped his head at Bruce. "Thought you should know; Lovell had its bank hit, down Wyoming way. It's right on the usual route," he said. "And I made a point of checking in at WG Ranch as I came by... his hands weren't in."
Bruce took a deep breath. "If I hadn't seen him talking to Lawton, I might let it go..."
"I wouldn't. You give Lord a warning, and make sure Miss Dinah isn't being fooled."
"I'll try to get that across," Bruce said wryly, thinking of the spitfire mercantile owner, and how unlikely she was to listen to anyone about anything. Though Dick did say the Harper boy was straightening up pretty quick, he had to admit.
Chapter 6: Chapter Five
A little more insight in the concerns over Slade Wilson
Bruce decided it would be best to go not as the sheriff but as a friend to talk to Dinah, and was glad he had done so. If he'd worn his working hat, he got the feeling he might have been thrown out of her place, given that she was in the middle of venting to the empty store about Werner spreading lies about her flour being low quality and her goods being worse. He carefully kept the amusement at the image of the itty bitty woman physically pushing him out into the street in the back of his head and off his face as he let her run on.
"I'm sure there's no one in town that believes it," he began when she finally took a breath, her eyes snapping with the temper she was in.
"It's not the town I care about believing him!" She snapped back at him. "It's the new settlers, the ones I need if I'm to turn a profit!" She glanced up away from him as Roy came in, sweat and dust streaked to his bare chest. "You get cleaned up before we have to eat, Boy-o!" Bruce looked up too, and saw the wild-boy nod.
"Yes, Dinah," he said with an irrepressible grin. He'd had too good a day, running the hills with Dick Grayson and hunting the way he should be to let anything get him down, especially not Dick's brother.
When Bruce looked back at Dinah, he saw her mouth and eyes had a softer look to them; few in town approved of the boy continuing to live with an unmarried, orphaned half-grown woman, but Bruce had to admit Roy brought a new sense of... feminine to the young woman. Not in the way of men and women, but more motherly somehow.
"Alright, Sheriff Wayne, you didn't come to hear me rant about my competition... though I might have to dig up money for a lawyer and introduce our judge to the Eastern concept of slander and libel." Dinah settled on her high stool behind the counter, indicating the other one for him.
Bruce settled in, carefully weighing his words as he thought about the potential explosion sitting across from him. "Miss Dinah, I'm not here today with my badge for a reason. What I'm saying, I'm saying as your friend first."
He had her complete attention, as she sat up in her chair. "I know where Roy is at all times, Mister Wayne."
"It's not about the boy. He's a good kid; Dick's vouched for him." Bruce shook his head. "It's about Wilson, and the danger he might be."
Dinah went very still, her eyes sparking at him, but she'd known him since she was a little girl, and it was enough to make her listen, and slip towards using his first name. "What is it, Bruce? I know you well enough to know you're not just up on the horse about his past again."
"I've been rather tolerant of the Confederates coming in," he said mildly. "So no. I got worried for your sake a bit back, because Tim came to me and showed me the man he swears shot his father. And sitting there with a known gunslinger was your Mister Wilson. So I made some queries with Kent."
"If we went after everyone because of their associations, Bruce, we'd all be in jail," Dinah replied after a moment, much as she wondered why. "But what did you find out?"
"The route the WG Ranch uses has had a few problems since Slade Wilson took up running the old man's herds. Several towns reporting thefts and lawless trouble." Bruce leaned in, wanting her to understand how serious this was. "Lovell is on that route. Their bank was hit, and a fire set, not a month back. Kent was through, and he checked... Wilson's bunch were not at the homestead."
Dinah shook her head. "I know they're not; it's the middle of drive season, Bruce."
The West was slowly starting to settle down, but she knew very well there were more than enough people that thought the quick and easy way to money was better than the honest one. She didn't want to believe it of him, not after everything he'd done for her and the way he always treated her... But she'd seen his eye go flat and set in memory, and she wasn't foolish enough to deny how fast his hands were. "I know you're worried about me, and I thank you. But I think you're reaching a little, there. Unless you're going to tell me no-one's ridden from Hole-in-the-Wall in the last two months?"
Bruce frowned at her, as much for her calling him down on the chances of it being any group in the area as her refusal to listen. "Dinah, you only have the man's word for who and what he is. There are more than enough matches between the towns complaining about an organized band and where the WG Ranch hands have ridden to be justifiably worried."
"All any man or woman has out here is how they act and what they say, Bruce, and you know it."
The sheriff did not like her stubborn take on this. "Keep in mind, Miss Dinah, that the man was talking to Floyd 'Deadshot' Lawton, a man thought to be involved in at least ten murders in the nearby territories. That says about as much as any words coming out of his mouth."
That put her back on her heels a little, but she just nodded once. "You could have started with just who it was," she told him, her eyes exasperated. "I will keep it in mind, Bruce, believe me."
"That's all I can ask of you." He stood up, picking his hat up to leave. "I'll see if I can't persuade Werner to be a little less vocal about running you down...but I think the townsfolk might put it to him more bluntly. They like you."
"I do try and make sure people do," Dinah agreed, smiling up at him. "Thank you, Mister Wayne."
He made his way out of the mercantile, wishing yet again that she understood just how dangerous her being single and pretty were. He'd make a point to keep a better eye on the comings and goings at this end of town. If Wilson was in league with the other known gunslingers and bandits, he'd show his true colors soon enough.
Riding beside him as they crossed the creek and got up into the willows that made up their border with their closest neighbor's spread, Jesse yanked the kerchief down and looked up at him. "Mind if I ride on ahead, boss?"
Slade shook his head, looking down at his youngest hand. "No, g'wan. You just be out of that bathhouse before we get on in."
The redheaded spitfire blinked up at him, laughing, "Would I make y'all wait, Boss?"
"If you thought I'd let you get away with it!" Slade told the hand with a laugh before Jesse sped off on the horse to give word the hands were back and let Wintergreen be sure enough food was prepared. The old man would be waiting eagerly to hear how the drive had gone, and bitterly complaining about the gout that kept him from riding with them these days.
Off on his other side, he caught the aborted move as Mikey looked after the swiftly disappearing form, and shook his head. There was some trouble they just didn't need. Mikey shrugged it off, trying not to look too interested one way or the other.
He wasn't the only one that had noticed the move, and a loud yell came from the chuck wagon, "Oh, don't y'all even think about runnin' off an' leavin' me, or th' only meal that won' be burned next drive is Boss's!"
That got a few hoots and hollers from the crew, with a general consensus of 'who'd be able to tell' from most of them finally aimed at Scoops. Slade allowed himself a smile at that, and joined in.
"We'll take the threat serious when you learn that every meal does not need beans in it," he called back.
"Tell me what else travels in big 'nough quantities to feed all of us walking appetites--or hire a couple more people that can actually hit what they aim at--an' I'll see about somethin' that don' need beans, Boss!"
"I'll practice my aim, alright!" Jason Todd, second youngest and newest to the band, called, pistol clearing leather with the same flash of speed that had drawn his attention in the first place as he mimed shooting at the chuck wagon's hanging pots. "Not my fault it smelled you a mile off!"
Scoops snatched a hunk of wood from the firebox and hauled it back, ready to knock the hotheaded young brat right off his roan if he made good on that. "You're still the one that couldn't bring it down, Todd. Mind who's got the lockbox, for you go shootin' at my pans, you yayhoo!" Scoops threatened.
"Shoot the box, maybe I can help myself," the young man blustered
"Not if you want to keep breathin', Todd," Mikey shot right back across the way, turning his gelding towards the brewing scuffle.
Slade decided riding on ahead was probably a good idea; he'd let them scuffle it out now, before they got in sight of the house if they wanted to. He kicked up a canter, letting the boys finish the ride at their pace, to go on up and report the success of the drive to his old friend.
Barbara smiled and waved before going inside her daddy's house, leaving Roy irked, again, that she'd spent the entire lunch taking Dick's attention and teasing him when he still wasn't sure how to tease back without being called a savage.
"You marryin' her?" Roy asked as they cleared the property marker, headed out for fresh hunting.
"Don't rightly know," Dick replied, shaking his head. "Know Mr. Gordon wouldn't mind any, and Bruce wouldn't either, but... everything I've got's tied up in the brand."
Roy shrugged at that, hearing part of what Dick wasn't saying, and spoke to that. "Still time." He looked at the horizon, trying to shoo the images of the girl he'd wanted out of his head. That had gotten him beaten and left for dead, so what use were women, of any stripe?
"Aye, that," Dick agreed, seeing the complete mask drop over his friend's face---and he leaned over enough to lay a hand on his knee. "You all right?"
Roy looked at the hand, then up at the face of his only real friend in town. "Girl got me in trouble. Not sure I much care to deal with them again."
"I've got good ears, if you want to talk," Dick offered, wondering what was laying back there behind those green eyes.
"Not much to say. Grew up with the tribe. Was one of them... or thought I was. Until it came time to pick a girl. Didn't know I wasn't allowed. And the girls... they must not have either." He remembered the teasing, the touches where they really shouldn't, the special favors they did, like bringing him new water skins and such.
Dick shook his head and moved his hand to wrap around Roy's wrist for a moment, solidly comforting. "Not allow--oh. Damn. That's why they left you where Little Miss'd find you. Well nah, they'd have grown up right with you, wouldn't they?"
Roy grinned at the name for Dinah... He knew she hated it and never used it himself, but hearing Dick say it made him feel better. "S'pose so." He looked off into the distance again. "Just as well. Hate to think I'd ever have met you in a raid."
Robin froze on his hocks at the way Dick stiffened in the saddle, throwing his head against the tension on his reins, and Dick's other hand tightened on Roy's wrist. "I hate it, too. That... would have really sucked. We have a pretty good reputation for not losing." The Bat brand had handled plenty of raiders and plenty of Indians over the years, usually with far more losses on the attacking side than theirs.
Roy freed his other hand to clasp the hand around his wrist, not really needing the reins all that much right now anyway. He didn't have words, but he was sure Dick understood the unspoken ones.
Dick always understood him, after all.
Chapter 7: Chapter Six
The Mercantile suffers to make a point against Dinah
Slade knew from the moment he reached her that Dinah's mood was off. As he pulled up with his supply list, she met him with a curt nod and took the list off his hands.
"Been a spell," she finally said as he hitched the gelding to the rail along the front of the store.
He knew it had, because of certain things with his help. Then, once that was ironed out, Wintergreen had caught a chest cold that made Slade need to do more around the ranch had kept him away longer.
"Been a bit busy," he commented back, wondering just why it bothered him that she was acting upset. It wasn't like she was anything more than a friend, after all. "Where's the boy?"
"Out hunting. With the sheriff's brother, no doubt."
//The hell is wrong with her that she's so tense...// "Business been good? Any more trouble out of Werner?"
"Nothing I can't handle, Mister Wilson." She headed inside the store to start allocating supplies, and he followed, wanting to scratch his head at her frostiness. He'd felt winter winds with more warmth than she was showing, and that said something in Montana. He decided the best thing he could do for now was be professional, get his things, and get out. No little bit of a woman was worth the headache of trying to figure out her mind, after all.
The dicker over his goods, at least, was every bit as fair as he had grown accustomed to from her. Whatever had her so cold was not affecting her business sense. He debated whether to get a meal at the Widow's, or just roll back out as he was loading everything up, holding his usual comments in check when she helped him on that part. Another rancher came up just as the wagon was all but tied down, and she excused herself from him with a curt nod.
Slade fingered the gift he had brought for her in his pocket, then decided it really couldn't hurt things. Women were odd critters, and he really didn't want to be cheated by Kord and Carter in the town closer to the WG Ranch. Making sure she was occupied with the other rancher, he slipped back up to her cash box and left the gift there.
Dinah finished getting things straightened out after having had two large orders like that in the same day. She almost wished she hadn't told Roy 'the day'd be slow, sure, go on and find us something fresh'. She could've used his help getting everything back into place. She walked back to the cash box, which hadn't been touched, to finish off Jason Bard's order. That young man was still trying to get his first profitable drive, but he hadn't been at it long. Dinah felt he'd likely make good on his word, though. Old Man Gordon liked him well enough.
As she reached the counter, she noted a small knick knack sitting right on top of the box, and paused before picking it up. The small little bird had been carved carefully from ash, with details on the feathers and beak that made Dinah think it was just waiting to come to life in her hand. How much time it must have taken to carve, with that missing eye...
"Slade Wilson, if you're an outlaw, I'm an Indian squaw," she murmured, forgetting all the different raids that Bruce and Kent were trying to pin to the man's band.
"We've got a deal, then?"
"Quick ride through town, the bank's on the north side of the street, head out by the Eastern road, and hit that one store."
"Make sure it's East, or you'll find the law all over you."
"Just make sure the money's good."
She heard the gunshots ringing in the daylight with a dread in her heart, but got her daddy's shotgun from its place under the cashbox, just in case. A quick look to be sure it was properly loaded //"Never take for granted a weapon is the way you left it, Little Miss. Might mean your death."// and she considered calling to Roy. Then she caught a bare glance of him slinking to a vantage point and knew better than call attention to him. He'd be just fine as he was.
The church bell started ringing for the fire brigade, and Dinah's throat went tight. The town was too dry right now, and a fire could mean a lot of deaths. She'd have to be ready to help Doc Pritchard when it was done, but for now, she kept her shotgun ready and went to peer out the edge of her storefront window.
The shots were coming closer, and Dinah worried for the little school where Sister Helena taught. That nun, though, she figured was more than smart enough to have the babies down on the floor at the first sound, or ushered out the back of the building. For a Catholic and an Italian, the sister was a good, brave woman.
She saw them coming rough shod down the road then, a gang of about six, all riding the most common looking dun horses, neckerchiefs up over their faces, hats pulled low, and guns blazing in some of the hands not holding reins, just for the hell of it and to scare people, aimed too high to do much damage to anyone or anything. She could have sworn the tallest among them was laughing fiercely at the carnage and chaos.
Other hands held torches. Dinah saw they were going to sweep right past her store, heading out of town, and the only ones returning fire were the ones like herself that kept their guns on hand. Where was the Sheriff-- the thought flashed away as fast as she had it, knowing this was the day he had gone to check up on the Mormons, since the younger woman had given birth recently. Of all the bad luck...
And then she couldn't think about as her window vantage point was targeted, and the heavy glass broke in three places, the shards falling and breaking more. The small woman instantly retaliated with a shot into the thick of the horses, aiming for the riders' gut level. Over the crash of hooves she thought she heard someone cry out. She didn't have time to be thankful as two torches were flung inside the store, and threatened her livelihood by landing among the bolts of cloth and near the furs.
"Roy!" She screamed, and the boy was right beside her, trying to use the heavy burlap to smother the flames in the cloth while Dinah snatched the brand by the furs and threw it back into the street with all her might. The smoke coming up was thick and awful, as gobs of pitch had spattered off the torch as it fell, making the fire start to spread faster than two people could possibly beat it back.
"Get out, Dinah!" Roy shouted, but the little woman refused to listen, grabbing at the nearest bag of flour.
"Help me!" He saw what she was after, and pulled his knife slitting the package. Between the two of them they got it dumped over the biggest section of the fire, and kept spreading more flour to smother what they could, returning to burlap when the bigger sections had been beaten down.
"It's done," Roy finally told her, having to catch her and hold her from beating at the blackened goods dusted with scorched flour. "It's done," he repeated as he pulled her away. She looked at the mess, looked at her valuable window all over the floor, and bit her lip, wanting so much to just scream.
Sheriff Wayne listened to all the accounts, selected some of the men from around town--including Roy Harper just to make Dinah stay home when she was all set to ride posse; and took up the trail.
Finding a body with a skittish horse in a lather delayed them, though, as they checked to see who it was. Bruce frowned, recognizing the thin man as one that had come west with him... Eddie something or other.
"That's the hand that left you after that second winter proved so tough, isn't it?" Lord called from the other side of the body, working on gentling the horse down.
Bruce nodded his agreement, and shook his head. "Think he's still alive, but he won't want to be." They could all see the dark stains around his midsection. "Maybe Doc can hold him to life long enough to get some answers."
"Hope so. Miss Dinah owes me a bit in loans," Lord said nonchalantly. "Be a shame if her place folds for the damage done."
Roy all but lunged off his horse to go after the man, and was only kept in check by Dick sidling his horse into the way.
"No," Dick said quickly. "Get back up on Birdie, and you know his words don't mean a thing. Little Miss won't fold up."
The words coming out of Roy's mouth, low and singsong, were not English, but Maxwell Lord got the strong impression he had better never say another thing around the savage where Dinah Lance was concerned.
Bruce moved to get the body up onto the horse, careful as he could be about lashing him over the saddle, and headed back to town to try and get whatever he could out of the man who'd once worked for him.
Bruce sat with Diana late the next night, Jim Gordon beside him, with Barbara providing a chaperon of sorts for the meeting between the woman and the men.
"I'm almost certain her store was targeted, despite not getting anything out of Nygma." Bruce said in a low tone, looking at Diana worriedly. He'd remembered the strange name on the ride back. "Only it and the bank took any real damage. The rest of the shots and tossed brands were random."
"And you want me to try and get this across to her, because she does business with Slade Wilson?" Diana asked, seeing how fine a line this might be.
"Maybe a woman's touch will get it through the stubborn Irish in her." Jim shook his head a bit. "Larry and his wife raised her to know her mind a bit too well."
"I'll see what I can do," Diana promised.
Chapter 8: Chapter Seven
Slade and Dinah have a wedge between them in their friendship after the attack.
Diana made her way down to the general store with a solid list of things she needed for the boarding house. Secondary to her trip was a need to get an invitations to share dinner with Dinah, at either place, so they could talk.
Dinah looked up from her work at trying to clean and salvage as much as she could, and came away from it to meet her. She was wearing thin cotton gloves over salves on her hands, as she'd had a few blisters from fighting the fire. "Good morning, Mrs. Trevor. What can I do for you today?"
"I have a list...wanted to get it in ahead of the bunkhouses," Diana said with a small smile. "I know you're cleaning up, but it doesn't need to be delivered today."
"All right." Dinah smiled back at her. "If you'll just let me see, I can figure out if I lost anything and will need to put you on the head of the list for it once the next train comes in..." Dinah reached out to get hold of the list. Diana handed it over quite willingly, and most of it was in the store still. Flour was going to be harder to come by, but that could wait for a time and had been marked that way.
"I hope you didn't lose too much."
"I'm still trying to tally all of it, but it's not nearly as bad as it would have been if we hadn't gone through so much of the flour... I still don't know how I thought so quick, but I'm grateful," she sighed quietly. "Looks like I can do almost all of this. Good. And I can get most of this packed up by evening, at least..."
"No rush," Diana told her. "In fact, all things considered, I was going to offer you a chance to give me a light discount, since I have to wait for the flour, by coming out and eating with me tonight. You can bring your boy."
"Don't you think you have that a little backwards, Widow? I'm the one already putting you at an inconvenience..."
"Not backwards at all, if you can add a small order of those little lace cookies that you had last winter to my order at a smaller charge." Diana smiled, showing where she wanted the discount. The thin, crisp cookies were light as air and tasty.
"In exchange for one of your meals? I'll call that a done deal," Dinah smiled back at her.
"Then I'll see you tonight...it should be quiet by the time you come over." Diana nodded at that.
"Yes, ma'am. We'll be over with this after I close the store, and thank you." Dinah flashed a wider smile at the older woman before she turned to start packaging the order up.
Diana left, and felt that maybe she'd be able to get to the root of it all. She remembered the Wilsons on her ride out west, and the support she'd received from Slade Wilson's wife. It was at odds with the way the man was being portrayed now, yet Diana knew first hand how strongly grief could change a person.
Roy opted himself out of the dinner; he didn't like being stared at by some of the frequent boarders there. He promised he had an invitation already from Dick, and skied out on his horse for the evening.
Dinah shook her head, amused more than a little, and let him go his own way. She'd had the Widow's order packaged most of the afternoon, and it wasn't that much trouble to get it loaded and taken over in the barrow to her. Her fingers still gripped fine, and that salve the Doc had given her seemed to be helping. She was glad to see that the Widow had been right, and there was no-one else in her front parlor when she walked in. "I'm here," she called quietly. "Where do you want everything?"
"I told you that there wasn't any need to hurry," Diana said. "Where's your boy?" She walked with Dinah, to guide her around to the back door.
"He claimed he had an invitation out to the W Lazy B -- again," Dinah smiled wryly, shaking her head a little. "Packing this gave me breaks from trying to clean -- I was actually glad to have the work."
"Alright." Diana helped unload, showing where things went. "He's pretty good friends with the sheriff's younger brother, isn't he?"
"Great friends," Dinah agreed with a smile, shaking her head a little. "They act more like brothers than some sets of them I've seen -- though not than Dick and the Sheriff are," she admitted as she helped set things away.
"The sheriff thinks he's come a long way since you took him in. A few in town are starting to see it." Diana reached to put the higher things away.
Dinah smiled, well pleased with that. "He's a good boy, and he didn't ask to be raised by the Indians. He is doing better about behaving decently, though -- Dick's been a huge help, there."
Diana made a noise of agreement. "Is that it?" she asked when they had it all in.
"Everything but what we'll have to wait for the train on," Dinah nodded.
"Then let's go eat." Diana led her to the small space in the kitchen she used for when she didn't have to be the hostess.
"You have such a hand with food, ma'am," Dinah said appreciatively, "I don't know how you do it all the time."
"There's no way I could handle a general store, either, so we are even on that." Diana served them both and sat with her, waiting to give her guest a moment to say grace. "All those ruffians you have to deal with on a regular basis."
Dinah said a quick grace, then flashed a smile up at Diana. "Oh, most of them aren't so bad -- once they realize I'm as sharp as they are."
That got a small laugh from the widow. "Still, don't you ever worry? I've seen how rough some of them look at people...especially women. And you're all by yourself, with a half-grown boy."
"I'd have to be crazy not to worry sometimes, Diana." Alone, she was willing to use the other woman's given name. "But it's not going to do me any good to give myself vapors over it, when I'd be far worse off back East from everything I've ever heard. Besides, I have more friends than not in town..."
Diana sighed softly. "But like this trouble...your store got hit on purpose, it looks like."
"That's what the sheriff said, and from what I saw, I have to agree with him. Just me and the bank..."
"That looks personal to me, Dinah. Someone that's been coming to town and knew you'd be vulnerable." Diana tried to find the right way to edge her words in, just to get Dinah to see her danger.
"And what do you expect me to do about that, ma'am? I'm not going to let anyone drive me out of here. This's my home, my store, and all I have left of my ma and pa."
Diana took a deep breath. "Ever thought of taking on a partner? Or hiring someone to help you out, someone a little sturdier than Roy? Or maybe it wouldn't hurt to refer some of your rougher clients to Werner's."
"He cheats people," Dinah said darkly. "And no. Not in that order, obviously."
"The Sheriff thinks it might be someone that is a regular. Does anyone come to mind for you?"
"Anyone that has it in for me? Honestly, Werner comes closest to that, but I don't think he'd ever do that..."
Diana frowned. "I don't know him well enough." She reached over and took one of Dinah's hands, squeezing gently. "If you ever need to talk to someone, discreetly, about those men...any of them...just let me know."
Dinah smiled quickly at her. "Thank you, Diana."
Diana returned to focusing on her own meal, not quite seeing the right way to mention Slade in specific detail, and not willing to upset the young woman by harping on it, if Sheriff Wayne had already touched on it.
Dinah took another few bites, then looked up at her. "What are you worrying at, Diana?"
"I just hope you're not being blinded by that tender heart, Dinah, to a possible danger. You've been so warm and friendly since I met you, but there are people who might abuse that. Especially men that have no women of their own, or might have lost them to the wild lands here."
Dinah's eyes sparked, but she bit back the flare of annoyance. Diana didn't mean her any insult by her words, she was just concerned. But the shape of that concern... Her mouth tightened as she looked at Diana. "Anyone that had designs on me would find out I'm not as easy a target as I might look like."
The older woman let out a sigh of relief. "Good. Because you're very special to a lot of people in this town. And we do worry."
"Thank you, Diana," she smiled, leaning over to pat her hand for a moment.
Diana gathered up the dishes, and took them to soak. "Care for a cup of tea? Or would you like me to have Sanderson walk you on back? It's dark and you've the barrow."
"I'd be happy to have a cup, thank you."
Diana saw to making two cups, then walked to the porch with Dinah to chat about other town things, at least mostly reassured that no wolf in sheep's clothing was going to get the better of the young woman.
Jesse came riding up at a clip, eyes roving for Slade. When the big man was in sight, the horse picked up pace even more in response to its rider's urging.
Slade turned in his saddle, recognizing horse and rider with a mild jolt -- Jesse shouldn't have been back from the family's farm on the edge of the WG spread for another couple of days. He turned the big gelding to meet his hand at a canter. "Jesse? What's wrong? Your ma having trouble?"
"Not ma. That town you trade at, though. Ma had news." Jesse was almost as breathless as the horse. That worried him. Jesse was steady as a six-gun, even if a horrible shot.
"The J gang, or I miss my guess, rode through it." Jesse took a swig of water from a canteen. "The mercantile was hit."
Slade looked sideways, letting the profanity run through his mind for a while, biting down on the stab of... nerves... at the thought of her store being hit. "Those sons of -- damn, but they give everyone a bad name. Hit... anyone hurt?"
"Ma couldn't tell me that. The deputies that were scouting didn't say no more than one of the gang got killed."
Slade growled quietly. "Good riddance, but it'll only make that lunatic more likely to hit them again." He'd made sure to keep his people far from the hideouts that gang favored since the second time he'd been near their leader. Why anyone rode with that one, he couldn't say -- other than the profit. Not knowing if she was alright tugged at him, and the gelding shifted under him uneasily.
Jesse sniffed the air. "Boss, you sure Big Boss has all the medicines he needs for winter?" the hand asked ingeniously.
Slade thought about that for a moment, and his eye went amused. "That's a good question." He reached out, squeezing one slim shoulder
for a moment in thanks he wouldn't say, and nudged the gelding into a canter for the main house.
Wintergreen was in, as usual. As he heard Slade enter, the old man rose slowly. "Bit stiff, today. All's well with the men?"
"All's well. What about you, my friend?"
"Nearly over this bout, I believe. Should be fit for work soon enough." Wintergreen poured his ranch boss a cup of hot coffee.
Slade took the cup, but as good as it smelled he didn't take a drink, unease over Miss Lance's safety riding hard in the back of his mind, not that he'd admit to it. Not after how damn prickly she'd been the entire last time he was there... but he was still concerned. Jesse'd given him an excuse to get back, if he could just check on those medicines without upsetting Wintergreen's pride. "With the cold coming on before too long, I'm not sure Scoops' leg's going to take to it, this year, though. He's been limping ever since I got back."
"He does have a right hard time mounting a horse these days." One thing about the ex-soldier, he never held frailties against anyone but himself. "Has he checked in with a doctor about it?"
"Nothing they can do, doc in Lawrence said, except dose him with laudanum."
"Do we have enough? For him and any other breaks the winter brings?" Wintergreen questioned, more to himself as he started toward the medicinal chest near the kitchen.
"That's what I was thinking, once you asked. Not sure where my mind was when we made up the list." He shook his head at himself, but wasn't about to look the good fortune of a reason to ride back to town in the mouth too close.
"Hmm. Come take a look. Jot down a new list, and see if you can get what we need. Don't forget Jesse's mother. Are you certain she can't be persuaded to move here to the house? I personally would assure her safety."
"You and I both would, but that stubborn woman will move when the Almighty tells her to personally and not a second before. Or so Jesse says." Slade moved to look over the medicine cabinet. How they'd had medicines for the animals down, and not their own... it was almost enough to put an amused smile on his face as they checked it over.
Wintergreen added a few things, then shut and locked the medicinal chest. "Since you will be riding for more supplies, could you check and see if they've gotten proper tea in?"
"You and your tea," Slade snorted, shaking his head. "Yes, I will." Nothing on that list was going to need the wagon he'd driven in last time. Good. He'd make three times the time on the gelding.
"One of the few pleasures a man my age may still enjoy," the other man said with unruffled dignity...and a gleam that belied the words, given Slade knew he kept one of the other widow women in a town the other way quite comfortable.
"I'll believe that..." he let the sarcasm show through as he folded the list and tucked it into a pocket, then headed out the door. "See you before long," he said over a shoulder before he shut the door, and crossed to vault back into the saddle. "Mikey!" he called as he rode past the bunkhouse.
Mikey came out quickly, probably already briefed by Jesse. "Yes, Boss?"
"Keep an eye on things. I'll be back when I can -- send Todd up north, see what he can hear about this mess."
"Jay's a good set of ears." Mikey nodded. "Big Boss?" He knew the older rancher was hurting a lot lately, and they all tried to make things easier on him."
"He's swearing he'll be back at work before long," Slade said, the expression on his face a clear warning of 'keep an eye on him, too.'
Mikey nodded, then tossed Slade his own canteens. "Just filled."
Slade nodded, slung them into place, and turned the gelding west at a fast clip.
Roy was in the front of the store, just off the porch as he was beating one of Dinah's rugs for her over the hitching post, when he saw the dust on the main approach. He squinted, then growled as his eyes made out the rich blue of a familiar kerchief, and the mass that could only be one man.
Slade's eyes searched the town, looking for damage. Burned patches all the way out, a few new bullet-holes... but the worst of the damage in this half of town only came clear when he pulled up near the Sioux boy and could see the broken plate-glass of the shop half-covered with thin board -- looked like shipping material, mostly. He swung down to hitch the gelding, and made himself nod at the boy. "Harper."
"Wilson." The boy didn't leave as was his usual habit when Slade came to town. "Miss Dinah!" he called in a voice that was firmly settled now.
The small woman came out on the porch, a light drown there at seeing Slade. "You're not usually back in so soon." She hated the suspicion in her own voice.
"Realized we'd forgotten a few things... and I heard you'd had trouble." Slade looked at the expression on her face, the frown still there, and promised himself this was the last damn time he'd ride this way. More changeable than the weather and every bit as unfriendly.
"Did you?" She looked at Roy firmly. "Enough on that rug, my Boy-o. I think I saw Dick ride in, so go on and find him. Mister Wilson?" she asked politely, wanting him to come inside.
He came up onto the porch, then crossed on into the building, his eye finding the lingering traces of damage in replaced boards and others scrubbed almost bone-white... and he looked at her, searching for injury just as much as he'd looked the building over. She was healthy on first sight, until he noted fine cotton gloves protecting her well-salved fingers as they healed from light burns.
"Some are going to wag tongues, if they saw you or recognize your horse."
"About what, that I rode back in too quick?" Slade tipped his head a little, playing it off as casual even as a hot flare of anger licked up that she'd been hurt.
"That you rode in so soon after the trouble. Marshall Kent's kicked up quite a stir against you." She hated that her own voice questioned if they had reason for it.
"One of these days, that --Yankee is going to run his mouth a little too hard," Slade managed, barely, to keep the curse that usually preceded that word off his lips in the lady's presence... barely. "But then, I suppose that's one of the advantages of the badge, fairly free license to do just that..." His gaze snapped down to her face as he realized the waver in her voice, the darkness in her eyes, and heat lashed up his spine.
Dinah finally smiled on that complaint and took his big hand in both hers. "Yes, badges do have a way." She hated letting everyone get to her, but contrary to what others thought, she did know how precarious her position could be.
"Careful with your hands, Miss Lance," Slade said quietly, looking down at her gloves. "What's he been saying this time?"
She regarded him for a long minute before leading him over to the stools. She took one, pushing her own glass of lemonade to him. "You ride, with a gang."
It took him a few moments to process the insult behind her words, his hand lightly curved around the glass as his eye went dark. "I'm no damned -- pardon, ma'am -- thief."
She nodded then, as if he had confirmed something very important. "But you do hire your crew out."
That managed to draw a quiet snort from him. "Not for what I'd say Kent's accusing me of, at least."
"Sentiment in town was of the opinion my store was targeted." She shrugged it off. "It would be something, for a ruffian to make a friend of me, then cause me so much trouble, and then reappear as a consoling friend?" She snorted in complete dismissal of the theory.
"With how little other damage I saw riding in? The sentiment in town might be right on that," Slade told her, his mouth tight at the rest of what she'd said. Only the patent disbelief in her voice and her eyes kept him from getting up and walking about out at the words. Instead, he reached out and laid the fingers of her free hand along the point of her shoulder. "Miss Dinah," he wanted her attention for this, because he wasn't going to say it again. " I'm no thief. Not money, branded cattle, or horses."
She looked up into his single eye, reading the lines of his face, then scanning out, knowing the tricks of a shifty man from her papa's coaching. She then smiled, and it had the full warmth she usually gave him over their checkerboard games. "I was having a mighty hard time believing you could be, Mister Wilson, given what I'd seen as a friendship between us."
There... that was better. Much better to see that light in her face and eyes, all the warmth he hadn't seen recently. "Nice to hear you had faith in me... You're a good woman, Miss Lance, and a friend. Did you like the little bird?"
Her features softened, becoming far more womanly in the way she looked, softer light in her eyes than he was used to seeing. "Yes... Did you do it all yourself?"
"All but a little bit of the detail work.. I can't always see things quite right." He shrugged a shoulder a little ruefully, admitting to the loss. Once he'd gotten the body carved to his satisfaction, the wings and features shaped in, Wintergreen had put some time into helping him finish it off without damaging the work he'd already done.
Without even thinking, she reached out, touching the side of his face where the patch was. "I understand."
He pressed his cheek into her touch, then nodded slowly. "Mostly my work, though. Thought it might suit you."
"I love it. Put it up on my mantle upstairs in my room." She blushed a little, moving shyly back from him.
He nodded, pleased that she'd taken the gift and enjoyed it, kept it where she could see it. Didn't seem like she had many people that would bring her things. He half wished he'd seen her face, then, but... maybe this way had been better. "Good."
She was distracted then by a customer on the porch, though she waved him to stay and finish off the drink she'd poured him, pointing at the checkerboard with a quick smile for later.
"I paid for results," an unhappy voice complained in dark tones, sitting on a horse in nothing but the faint, clouded starlight. "Girl is still holding strong in a perfectly good store."
"Shot out of that building killed a fine hand, too. You didn't pay me to lose one of mine." The other rider's voice was frustrated. "Little much with his riddles, but they always made me laugh."
There was a long pause. "Shouldn't have underestimated her, I suppose. Pay'd go up, you go back. Shock her into being smarter or..." His tone took a more sinister bent.
"Well... make me an offer. I could probably see our way clear to that..."
The bargaining was on, then, as the man with the money bartered hard for what he wanted.
Chapter 9: Chapter Eight
Dinah is in danger.
Roy was lying against his saddle in the shade as his horse wandered free with Dick's, both of them up inspecting the herd before the weather started turning for the worse. Near as he could tell, the W Lazy B was going to see a fine increase in its herds come spring, so long as no rustlers happened on the cattle before branding and culls. They'd taken a little while to give the horses time to breathe and graze, and lay and talk.
"Any further leads on who hit Dinah's place? She swears up and down it weren't Wilson," Roy said. "Much as I hate to say it, she might be right."
Dick shook his head, shifting to lay back on his own saddle a little more. "No... Bruce hasn't heard anything, and you rode out with us, you know how they scattered. I... know she believes him, you've said, and I don't know how much of what Clark says is because he's Yankee and Mr. Wilson isn't, how much of it's just because he doesn't like him, or what..." Dick paused, then continued his thought, knowing Roy was no friend to Wilson in the least. "But he was with Lawton, and that... that doesn't sit well with me, not with what Tim says..."
"Plenty folks probably wind up with people not knowing their history," Roy argued, despite the fact he hated Wilson's coming around. His own thoughts around Dinah were...difficult, and complicated, but they didn't have room for a man that might whisk her away. "And then other folks judge them. Like how they might talk about a boy who stays around a half-wild boy raised by Indians." Roy had heard a few negative comments on Dick continuing to associate with him, after all.
Dick bared his teeth, reaching across to wrap his fingers around Roy's hand for a moment. "And they'd be wrong. Alright, alright, I take the point, Roy." He sighed, shaking his head. "And no-one ever heard of Nygma riding on the WG, so there's that against the idea, too. Bruce wired to some of the other towns, asking if they'd seen him, but if he's heard back yet, I don't know it."
"Right." Roy nodded. "Figured I should check, for Dinah's sake. She's bein' all business as usual since the train brought the supplies in, and dickering with the local bunkhouse crowd again. Don't really think she's not thinkin' on things, but she makes a fine show of pretend." He brought his hat down over his eyes some more. "That snake Werner came over to extend his condolences. Man makes my stomach twist up and the ground spin from how sick I think he is. Like a mad cat of some kind."
"I know you don't like him... I don't, either. He doesn't set me off the way he does you, but... there's something just not right in him. Do you me want to ride into town with you and go ask him? He might have gotten a wire back when he headed in this morning..."
Roy considered, then shook his head. "Nah, need to collect the post instead, soon as I get back, then be on hand to load up the afternoon supplies, or she'll be doin' it herself," Roy said, grinning at the stubbornness of his guardian. "Might see if he'll tell me after the store's closed up for the night, but 'less'n it's real urgent, it'll wait."
"...of course she will, and her hands still not healed," Dick said, shaking his head. "Yeah... alright. And if it is, Dinah'll know before you get home, anyway."
"They're not so bad. Itching a bit, but she's keeping the salve on them. Doc was happy with them when he came yesterday." Roy then laughed. "Because she'd 'forgotten' to come see him the day before."
"I can't imagine her forgetting something like going to see the doc..." Dick said, snorting his amusement and shaking his head. Little Miss had always done darn near anything to avoid having to see the doctor for as long as they'd been in the territory.
"Can't imagine." Roy shifted up, something in the feel of the ground making him curious, and he scanned with eyes and ears. The cattle were starting to herd up tighter, so they had noticed it too, and Roy turned his eyes skyward. A few wisps of clouds were there, but were they starting to move quicker? "Weather's turning. Best be gettin' back."
"Yeah... you're right. Let's go," Dick agreed, and pushed to his feet to whistle for Robin. Roy rose and lifted his saddle, moving toward Birdie who whinnied a bit but accepted the saddle again. He was soon up and holding the reins, sniffing at the wind to decide if it was early snow or late rain. When he settled back, he still wasn't certain, but a chill walked along his spine that whichever it would be was nothing but a harbinger of something worse on the way.
"What is it?" Dick asked, seeing Roy shiver from the corner of his eye and turning towards him from up on Robin.
"Something wicked's coming too," Roy said softly. "Feel it in the air." He turned Birdie toward the faint trail they'd made coming up here. "Think I'll skip the post and go right on to Miss Dinah," he added.
"All right," Dick said, having long since learned better than to distrust Roy's instincts, following him down the trail. "Doesn't sound like a bad idea.... I don't want to get caught in town; think I'll ride for the house once I've got a decent line on it..."
"Best thought you could have," Roy told his best friend. "Because I'm not sure what it is." He just knew he hated the feeling of impending doom, and wished his instincts could tell him what for.
That sound in Roy's voice made Dick's skin crawl -- and he had to run his hand over Robin's flank, gentle and easy, to calm her back down, leaning forward to talk her out of her reaction to his tension.
The boys headed in, parting when they had to, and each tried not to worry too hard about the other.
Beatriz rode the mule in through town, ignoring those who gave her scathing looks, and nodding politely to those who would meet her eyes. She had business, supplies to gather, but first she needed to address the incident she'd heard had happened. Doc Pritchard had come to visit and check on Tora and the baby, delivering the news to them in the same visit. As grumpy and stiff as the Doc could be, at least he took his oath to preserving life seriously, and he couldn't seem to work without gossiping about things in town.
She kept riding until she reached the sheriff's office, half wishing the trail she took came in through the east end, so she could have seen for herself how the Mercantile was. Miss Lance was a kindly woman, who had never once treated them with anything but courtesy. But, if what they knew could be of help to keeping Miss Lance safe, she meant to make certain the Sheriff knew it before she did her shopping.
Bruce heard the sound of hooves outside his door and pushed to his feet, looking out the window. Seeing a mule, and the green dress and shawl Gardner's darker wife -- and that thought still startled him some -- most often worse brought him straight out the door, afraid there had been trouble. "Mrs. Gardner?"
"Sheriff," she said with that hint of an accent that wasn't quite anything American. "You've had trouble here in town, haven't you? So the doctor said when he came to look over our little one," she told him as she slipped off the calm beast and steadied against the sensation of being on firm ground again.
"Good afternoon, and yes, we have," he agreed, surprised by the question, and letting it show in his voice, before he asked, "Are the babe and mother well?"
"Strong and healthy, the both of them, and our husband still a fool for both," Beatriz said indulgently. "Now, as to this issue you have had. Much as most of you people... and I exclude you, Sheriff... have issues with us, others of my faith have fallen prey more and more to the lawless ones, because none will come to listen to our side," she said, a hint of heat in her voice for that sin.
Bruce smiled, just a little, at the indulgent happiness -- children were enough of a rarity that any were worth smiling for -- before her words made him grow serious. He had heard of more than a few cases like that, and they made him more than angry. "...I've heard as much," he allowed, nodding once, sharply. "And your people's... protectors... are stretched too thin," he said, not wanting to bring up a name that so often rode alongside trouble. "I take it something you heard touched on a part of those troubles? Would you like to come inside and sit? Or there's the bench out here, if you'd rather..."
"Out here will do." She didn't want to cause Tora any trouble by being deemed immoral by being alone with a man not her husband. She took a seat on the bench, then shook her head. "The doctor said the man killed was Nygma. I've heard the name before. Heard it in conjunction with a man who does nothing but hurt everyone he crosses paths with."
Bruce moved to lean on the porch railing opposite her, making sure there was distance between them, and listened, blinking as she finished. "I've barely found a word of what Nygma had done since we threw him off the ranch. Whatever you know, ma'am, I'll be more than glad to hear."
Beatriz began to speak to him, but stopped as a rider came up swiftly on a high-strung horse, letting the Sheriff tend to the man who desperately wanted his attention.
The mercantile was quiet, as the morning stretched out. There was rain in the air, or Dinah missed her guess, so she was moving the items she'd normally have on display on the porch back inside for the weather. She felt it was likely time to leave it, as the snows would be coming along anytime now. She'd come out to get the last of the merchandise, when she noticed three ranch hands coming toward the store, and paused to straighten her skirts and put on a bright smile. She eyed each of them at a distance; not a one looked familiar to her, but with it being close to the bunking-in weather, she supposed some of the local ranch hands might be out and about to stretch their legs before getting snowed in, not just the usual foremen and trail bosses she usually dealt with. Roy should be coming in soon; he usually did make it back in before the weather hit, a knack she appreciated. Two dropped off their mounts, letting the reins drag.
"Morning, gentlemen. Anything I can do to help you this fine day?" she asked as they came up on the steps.
"Figurin' you can indeed, by being a nice little lady and coming along with us peacefully," the one at the more at the front said, his sidearms entirely too visible and his hands near them.
Dinah's eyes went narrow, as she realized that Doc Pritchard wasn't in, his wife would be over at Miss Thompkins, and it was doubtful the Sister would hear her in time to get anyone rousted fast enough. That didn't mean she was just going to give up, though, and she broke toward the door of the mercantile, praying she was fast enough to get to her daddy's shotgun.
The man to the rear of the speaker was moving even as she did though, and they collided at the door, with him roughly shoving her into the solid wood of the door post hard enough to knock her forehead into it. Dinah staggered, resisting when the man got his arm up around her, an oily rag coming up over her mouth and nose. She could not shake him off, and when she inhaled, the vapors started working almost immediately. Soon the ruffian had an arm full of dead weight to bring to his horse, and the speaker was smiling.
"Boss'll be happy," he said as they hurriedly took back to their horses.
"Don't forget the cloth..." the one who had never dismounted reminded, and the speaker reached into his pocket, dropping out a rich blue neckerchief.
"Wouldn't pay to forget to leave the clue," he replied, before they all hied out as fast as they could, considering it a fine bit of work with a storm to cover their tracks already brewing.
"Sheriff.... Sister Helena sent me.... some of the children said some men ...." The rider panted hard, trying to get it out. "Some men went up on the mercantile, and they took Miss Dinah! I ran over to check, and all, but she's not there, or that boy of hers!"
Beatriz covered her mouth in horror. "That poor girl!"
Bruce tensed, hands tightening into fists for a moment, looking towards the other end of town where Dinah's mercantile was, teeth setting in the inside of his lip. It wasn't like her not to scream, to fight -- how had they gotten her out of the store silently? "I don't know where the boy is," he said, shaking his head, "but when he's not with her he's usually out with my brother. No matter either way; we've got to see if we can find that trail. Mrs. Gardner, can you make whatever you had to say real quick, so's I can get moving?"
"You're looking for a gang that calls themselves the J-Gang, if I remember right! Nygma rode with them," she said. "Godspeed to your search, and I'll send Guy to back any search soon as I get back to the stead." Beatriz rose and went toward her mule to make that ride home as quick as she could, setting her shawl to cover her hair and face with the coming rain. Normally, she would have waited it out at the Widow's, but a woman's life was at stake.
"That'd explain Birdie not in the stable," the man who had come said in answer to Roy's whereabouts. "Want me to head over to Jones' Saloon and pick up anyone there? This storm's going to break any minute, Sheriff," he added.
"Yes, and wipe out any trace we might pick up, blast it," Bruce said, sharp and furious, as Mrs. Gardner's words sparked realizations in his mind. The J-gang. That name he knew, though mostly for the secrecy they operated under, the way that they had avoided any recognition except as that group. They were known to leave bodies in their wake, more than most rustling gangs, and the idea of Dinah in their hands, trail wiped out by a storm, made his blood run cold. "Go, while I saddle Black, I'll meet you at the mercantile -- no-one go in until I get there."
He didn't wait for an answer, just spun on his heel and bolted back through the building to where Black waited. The news-bringer hurried on over to the saloon, hoping to find some of the hands from the closer ranches, to do just as the Sheriff needed him to. This was going to take a fast posse, but thankfully they stood a chance, with the child having witnessed it and them getting a solid start now.
The first, fat drops of stinging-cold rain struck as the men arrived to find the Sheriff going over the scene with a hawk's eye. He had seen the blue kerchief dropped into the dust, becoming sodden as the rain began, but wasn't certain it hadn't been placed there, or that possibly Little Miss hadn't dropped it herself. After all, Wilson wasn't known to ride with the J-Gang, and didn't strike Bruce as the kind of man who would hire someone else to do his work. He did believe Beatriz Gardner on that score.
The thunder of hooves came just before the strike of lightning in the distance made Bruce frown about the chances of this posse's success. He had several good men, but the weather was going to obliterate all but the deepest tracks. He looked, though, to see who was riding up from out of town, and saw Roy riding in on Birdie.
"Did you pass anyone on the trails?" Bruce called, on the off-chance he had passed the gang. "Any sign at all?"
"No," Roy answered, still several horse-lengths out when he reined up. "What happened?" he demanded, heart hammering with fear, seeing all those men around what had become home.
The air rumbled in the aftermath of another distant strike from the skies, and Bruce waited for it to clear. "Someone's taken Miss Lance," he told the boy.
Roy's face blanched a little, but kidnapping meant she was probably alive, at least for now. "I will track. Your posse?" he asked, Birdie swishing her tail and prancing in reaction to just how controlled her rider was trying to be on top of his fear.
"Yes. And we'll follow you. That nag fresh enough?"
"Didn't ride hard until I could see so many of you around the store," Roy told him harshly. He was chastising himself, wishing he had rode back at a clip. He might have saved her.
"You lead, then... and Roy? They probably would have killed you, and maybe her, if you had been here to make trouble. What sign I could see before the rain started was three horses, all carrying riders from the tracks." Bruce didn't want the boy feeding on guilt the whole trip to finding Dinah.
"Maybe... maybe not." Roy whipped Birdie around, keen eyes scanning for any sign of a trail before the rain eliminated it, and the men fell in behind Bruce to follow.
Dinah roused, hearing the voices outside the tent she was in. She was tied, hand and foot, with a gag in her mouth, but she'd been left to see everything. Her ears distinguished Arapaho words interspersed in trading English, and her heart sank. This tribe was not known for lenience toward the whites of the area, given the skirmishes over land and water rights, along with the push to do away with the native culture. The American voice talking back was brisk, tinged with almost manic energy, and the high, shrill laughter she heard as the two voices ceased was enough to raise every nerve.
Then the light in the space she was in, which was framed by a low slung tent, increased. She glanced toward the opening to see the speaker from her store.
"Awake, are you? Not going to do you much good. Boss wants you alive for now, but we're staying with friends until the posse after you gets tired of following traces." He smiled with dark malevolence. "Our friends, though, might talk Boss into changing his mind, since we didn't get them quite as many rifles as we originally promised. So you might want to stay real still, real quiet, and not call their attention down on you."
Dinah glared, the only retort she had at present, and hoped for a miracle.
Roy's glare was as fierce as the one of the woman who had taken him in, as he faced off with Bruce. "We have to keep looking!" The manhunt had been unsuccessful even once the rain eased off, and the men had begun to be nervous that perhaps the kidnapping had been a set-up to clear men from the town so the bank could be hit again, or worse.
Bruce shook his head, letting his lips thin down. "Roy... we can't. We've got nearly every man in town out here, which means the town's open to anything. If it's the J-Gang, as Mrs. Gardner thought... I can't keep everyone out here. I'm not going to ask you to come back with us, and you can ask who else will stay with you, but I have to get back to town -- and take most of the men with me. I'll send someone to ask Dick to come trail you, but that's all I can do."
Roy's mouth set in a thin line, but then he nodded. "No. I don't want him to get hurt, if this gets bad. And you're right. Take them all home. I know where to find help." Dinah would never want the town at risk for her sake, and the way they had ridden had put them closer to the WG than any other ranch in the area. Roy'd have help, even if he didn't really like the man.
"Are you sure?" Bruce asked, studying his face. Dick would be years forgiving him if Roy got hurt and he could have been there... but he didn't want Dick hurt, either. The idea of leaving Roy alone didn't set well, but most of the men that were with him... weren't huge admirers of the young man, either. That might be why he didn't want any of them to stay, and then again, it might just be that he was worried for the town, too.
Roy turned Birdie to point the direction he needed to go. "I'm certain." He then nudged her forward, letting her take a slow walk for now, away from the men who needed to go home, and hopefully toward the right choice for this hunt.
"Godspeed, Roy," Bruce called to his back, before he turned Black, and the posse, back towards the town. He hated leaving Roy, and hated more that he couldn't stay to help his long-time friend... but the welfare of the town had to come first.
Chapter 10: Chapter Nine
Rescue in progress!
"Rider coming!" The call came in, relayed from hand to hand as they prepared the guide lines from bunk house to the main house, over to the stables, the well, and other points that would be needed but not visible once the snows came down. When it reached Slade and Wintergreen by the house, they could squint and see the dust cloud of a hard rider making his way in.
Slade glanced at his old friend for a moment, then headed for the stable to saddle up and ride out to meet the incoming stranger. All of his hands were right where they were supposed to be, so this had to mean trouble. "Mikey, saddle up, follow me," he called as he moved. It didn't take long to get the saddle on and be up, or long to get moving. Once he was on the way, it also didn't take long to know just who that was coming his way... and he tightened his legs and asked his horse to run, because if Harper was riding his way, there had to be something badly wrong.
Birdie faltered as Roy's determination was broken for a moment by him taking in the riders coming his way, and he eased up to let the nag walk it off. Their horses would be fresh. He did not, however, slide off; she would resist being mounted straight away, as hard an exercise as she had seen this day. "Easy... sssssaaaa... easy," he soothed, patting her damp neck. "Rest soon, if they have a spare mount for me, Birdie." He looked up as the riders got in close enough to see, recognizing the one with Slade as one of his main hands that often helped get the load from the store.
"Harper?" Slade called, seeing the lather on the horse with a sharp, worried glance. That wasn't just from a ride from town, not unless he'd galloped the entire way, and he had more sense than that. "What's happened?"
"Dinah's been taken! Sheriff had to turn back the posse, rain came on us and lost the trail before we even had it!" Roy called back. "Hunted most of the day, but... they worried the gang would use the distraction." Roy sat bolt upright in the saddle, denying any fatigue he might have felt from the hunt. "Sheriff said the Mormon woman fingered the J Gang."
Mikey hissed in worry and shock at that; the J Gang was a nasty one.
Slade just nodded once, closing his eye. "That's who Jesse was guessing had hit the store -- one of the reasons I rode back so quick. Then, of course, I found out half the town was thinking I'd had something to do with it and lost the train of thought. It's not like them to double back on the same place this quick, though... Unless they just wanted vengeance for the one of theirs that was killed..." He turned that thought over in his head, trying to decide if that might be reason enough for that crazy gang-leader to have turned to kidnapping.
"You'll help me find her though?" Roy asked, voice edged with all the fear he held for his benefactress. "I'll look alone if I have to," he added hastily, bold and brazen rather than be thought a coward for seeking assistance.
"Oh, shut it, Harper. Yes, I'm going to help you hunt for her," Slade said, his voice sharp. "I know you'd do it either way, you don't need to try and impress me. But that's no gang for anyone to ride against alone. Mikey. Go get a fresh horse for Harper and pick... three others. I'd rather not have this come to a shootout, but if it does, I want the odds a little more even."
"You got it, boss," Mikey agreed, waiting for Roy to dismount before taking Birdie's reins and then wheeling his gelding to head back for the stable. Birdie followed along complacently, sure that there had to be grain and a rub-down coming for all her efforts.
Roy waited, easing his muscles as best he could, Dinah's rifle slung on his back, while he held the shotgun in hand while they waited for the return of the riders. He looked up at Wilson, and realized there was bad blood there, that needed to be lanced. "I did think ill of you. I was wrong," he admitted. "She had faith, and I tried, like others, to destroy that."
Slade blinked, surprised at the admission and the apology he could hear behind it, and he took a long, slow breath. "...water under the bridge, Harper, all right? We've got more important things to worry about right now than our butting heads."
Roy nodded, then took a very small sip from his canteen. He was hungry too, but that could be ignored. "I had to skirt an encampment of the Arapaho in coming here. I saw a few places in the low hills that might serve as hiding places too. I do not think they could have circled back while we were out looking, but... time passes."
Slade's mouth tightened down to a single, thin line, before he nodded, taking that in. "We'll have to try and move around them... if we can," he amended darkly. Yet again, he wasn't going to have time to launch the fight he wanted, but the idea of the Arapaho being in the area while Dinah was a prisoner of one of the worst gangs in the area made his blood run cold. The J Gang traded to the Indians, sometimes, the gossip ran. "I saw a band riding a few days back, wonder if it's the same one. Not that it matters... unless they're working together." Those Arapaho that had come up into Montana were the ones who had rejected all the treaties, and held the Sand Creek Massacre as their chief point of grievance against the white settlers.
Roy's blood ran cold. He nodded though. "I'd be able to check tracks at night... moon enough for that, and not get caught. Shod ponies leave deeper tracks." He did not want to think on his Dinah in the hands of a tribe that was not even friendly to the one that had raised him.
"Harper, I know that," Slade said, telling himself it was just the stress making the young man run his mouth more than he needed to. "It's getting on towards dark," he went on. "How far back was the band you came past?"
"Not too far... that's when I opened Birdie up to a run. After we were clear, because they made my skin crawl." He looked toward the stables, seeing four riders with a fifth horse trailing. "Could make it to a decent wash close to it before full dark, maybe."
"We'll make it. My boys are used to riding late. Wash might be running half-full, but it'll be better than not having cover...."
Roy nodded, growing silent again, and then made the acquaintance of the horse that had been brought to him before mounting and putting both guns where he could get to them easily enough. He accepted a fresh canteen from one of the young men, nodding politely. Mikey had brought Jay, who for all the jokes about him could be a dead-shot when he wanted to, and was absolutely best at quiet sneaking, plus two of the others that were good with their guns.
"Told Jesse, who'll brief Big Boss," Mikey told Slade. "The rest know to keep working on the guides."
"Good, Mikey. Jay, boys, we're likely riding into Arapaho trouble, not just the J gang," Slade said. "Harper, get us headed back that way, and tell us everything while we ride."
Roy settled in, getting them headed back the way they needed to go, then started telling what he had learned from Bruce on coming back to the mercantile. He spared nothing of who had been in the posse, as Wilson would probably prefer to know which men had stepped up to the plate, their search methods, and then how they had turned back and left him to ride for other help. He added what he had seen along the way, so that they all knew what was coming. "Sheriff determined three sets of tracks... and I caught sign of three different horse-tracks before the rain obliterated it all. I'd know them again if I saw them. Shoes on one were loose, another had a funny chip in it, and the third was the one riding deep."
All of them knew what that meant, and Slade just nodded. "Nice of them to be distinctive... at least you'll be able to know fairly quick. Jay -- "
"Yeah, boss. Indian ponies aren't shod, and a chip and loose shoes are easy to spot. I'll scout from whichever end Harper doesn't take."
Roy sized up the other and saw a young man right about his own age, or Dick's. Harder life than Dick's for sure, but he looked able. All that needed to happen now was getting in place near the Arapaho encampment. Between the two young men, they'd figure out if their quarry was inside. If not, then they'd turn their search out further with the dawn.
The man had left the tent, which gave Dinah a little more ability to maneuver. They had made a serious mistake letting her hands be tied in front of her. All she needed to do was wiggle enough to get her hands to the small Barlow tucked carefully into a pocket of her trousers under the skirt. She sucked in a breath, and was glad of her habit of tying the stupid skirt loosely. Her ears stayed pricked for anyone coming this way, sharpened by the lack of any kind of light coming into the tent now. If she could get the knife and pry the larger blade open, she'd see about the rope around her ankles, and then weigh her options. She had to get this done by dawn, and kept praying to the Almighty that He'd smile down on her long enough to keep both her captors and their partners away from the tent she had been dumped in. It was cold, making her more aware that she had to work quickly, or her hands would set to shaking too much to be of any use.
One way or another, she was getting herself free, though.
Jason moved slowly, using the dark of the night to creep along carefully and check for the tracks. He had no intention of being target practice for the Arapaho. He knew that if Boss had been able to bring the whole gang, this little camp would be facing a very rough night, but as it was, they were just going to check for the woman, and if she wasn't in the camp, move along at dawn. If she was.... Well, Boss would figure that part out. Like the rest of the hands, he knew the reason they traded up at that town was for the feisty frontier girl that Boss had decided he liked. Jason thought she was gutsy too, holding her own against cattlemen and miners and the like with no man to answer to. She gave fair price, too, both selling and buying.
He passed along with an eye to tracks, seeing only the ponies used by the Indians, at least so far. A couple were shod, but not with the distinctive imprints Harper had mentioned. Probably, Jason thought, they were horses stolen off the cavalry or travelers or just rustled off the settlers somehow. He didn't have any more faith in the tribes than his boss did, given that his own folks had come to bad ends with them. Then again, maybe if his dad hadn't tried to cheat them, it might have worked out alright.
When he'd checked as near as he dared and found nothing, he turned back to the camp Boss had made, to learn if Harper had seen better luck.
Roy, on his end of things, had resorted to nearly creeping along the ground, eyes out, hunting. He was getting desperate; if Dinah wasn't in this camp, they'd lost the tracking to the night. If she was... every minute she was there was one more minute she might wind up being made an example to why the white people should leave the Nations in peace. It wasn't that much longer before even he would have to admit there wasn't enough light to see tracks clearly enough.
His ears were alert, tuned to the camp mostly, wanting to be warned if this was going to turn ugly, and hopeful of catching the hint of a woman's voice speaking in clear English. So far, while he had not heard anything of people coming out of the camp, he also had not caught any wisp of Dinah's voice. He was about to turn back, when his eye noted a broken hoof print, half-walked over, that had the strange chip in it. Hope surged strongly, but he cooled it down, looking, casting about for a confirming mark. He knew Wilson didn't have enough here to risk an attack without being certain... and then he saw a whole print, the chip mark in the correct place.
Swiftly, silently, he moved away from the camp, back toward the wash, back toward Dinah's salvation. She had to be in the camp, if one of the horses was here. If not... that horse's rider would know where she was.
Slade had settled on the nearest flank of the wash to the camp, keeping his ears turned towards it and the ground between them, hand on his gray's neck where the big horse rested on the ground next to him, keeping him steadied with the easy touch -- and even with as keen as his ears were, Harper was bare body-lengths away before he heard him. He pitched his voice low and quiet instead of a carrying whisper. "Anything?"
"Partial and a whole print of the chipped shoe," Roy said, voice vibrating with anticipation and fear alike. "Came back from there; the partial said some of their own scouts rode in after the shod horses."
"...all right. Jay didn't see anything on his end, so if the one set were all you saw, they're still in the camp with them...." Slade said with every faith in his young rider's skill. "Any sense of how many? Three of the gang at least..."
Roy flicked his mind over what he knew of the Arapaho, of the size of the camp. "Not a wintering camp. I'd say men, very few women, no children. Possibly a late hunting camp, but... more likely raiding party. So at least twenty or so, and whichever women didn't have ties in the main camp."
"Too temporary to be anything but," Slade agreed, and those odds didn't set well. Twenty of some of the most rebellious of the Indians, at least three hardened outlaws, probably several Arapaho women -- and Dinah in the midst of it -- against the six of them. He didn't exactly mind killing either kind, but... it set hard on him to do the U.S. Cavalry's job for them.
Mikey had moved close enough to listen once Slade started talking. "They sleep by night, same as us. Sentries can be marked, taken down with lariats around the neck to keep from making too much noise."
Roy nodded, seeing the thought. "Tents don't give away people in their camps; finding the visitors or captives won't be so easy."
"True," Slade nodded, "but not near as hard to see where bodies don't come from if there's enough noise..."
"We make our way around the camp, raise a ruckus, and one of us is ready to move where they don't?" Mikey asked, to be certain he knew what was being thought.
"Need something to panic them," Roy mused, looking back to the camp.
"Alcohol burns well..." Slade murmured, turning his gaze across the camp to Jason. Though it couldn't be seen in the dim light, he found something appropriate in using the same weapons that had been turned against Dinah's mercantile against the people holding her.
Mikey snorted. "Know he's got it on him somewhere, and I've got a rag for the neck. Even have some matches." He grinned, looking forward to this daring rescue attempt. Sure, he might get killed, or they might lose a man, but living wasn't living without some risk.
"The fewer of them we actually shoot, the less likely they'll ride on us," Roy said. "Just make some noise... unless we see a white man inside there?"
"Yeah," Slade said, though it took a moment. "You're right. We don't need to have a whole band on our heels the entire way home -- not interested in losing my hands that way. Keep the shots to the air, boys. Mikey, go get the flask off Jay, throw it south and keep your eyes open. Harper... you'll see more of the camp than I can, take center. I'll take that north end."
"On it, Boss," Mikey said, going to get the flask and make sure all the boys knew just what they needed to do. Roy nodded once, settling the rifle where he could get at it quick enough, but the shotgun, and its noise making, the one he'd start off with.
Slade caught hold of him, looking to the others, pitching his voice quiet. "They get to their ponies, boys, just break and ride, lose them in the dark if you can. We'll meet up at the range house closest to us."
All of them were up and mounted and ready to ride, keeping it quiet as they stalked in as close as they could before Mikey threw the flask, testing the wind and going a bit west of south so the wind would take it up a bit. As soon as it flared, the rest of them started making war noises, firing their weapons, and generally making enough racket to make the camp think the Cavalry was outside their tents.
The sudden flare of the lit rag was freeing, and Slade tipped his head back just enough to let the high, wild cry of his Army rip from his throat, challenge to the war whoops that would soon be coming -- and if he had any luck at all, it would tell Dinah she had friends to hand as he touched spurs to the gray, asking him to scream as well as he tore the ground in long, fast arcs. He kept his head turned to the camp, firing into the air -- horrible waste of ammunition, but they were too damn few to risk being chased, especially not knowing what state Dinah was in...
It was hard to keep track in the chaos, but a sudden commotion that didn't look like men bolting for ponies or grabbing weapons caught his gaze -- and that tiny form struggling with a larger one against the firelight couldn't be anyone but Dinah. //Trust her to get herself loose!// He laid the reins over and tightened his legs around the gray, asking him to charge.
Dinah was not going to let the man who'd come for her pick her up. She could hear that crazier voice from earlier, the one that had already been in camp from all she had heard during the day, telling his boys to mount up and cut loose. That wild rebel yell gave her more than enough incentive to fight the attempt to escape the camp under attack; it had to be Slade. He was the only Southerner she even really knew in the area. She still had her Barlow in her tied hands, hating that it had taken so long to free her ankles and she hadn't wanted to risk the time of cutting the wrist rope. The man trying to haul her off her feet pulled an arm back, to cold cock her into submission, and she lunged, hands tight on the blade even as her ears caught the hard hoof-beats of a galloping horse. Her opponent gasped, the small blade cutting through cloth and flesh both, shoved into soft guts with the desperate strength of a frontier-woman who wanted her freedom.
Slade saw her problem fall backwards and drew down to make the fall permanent, cracking off one more shot before he dropped the linked reins around the pommel and holstered the pistol, guided the gray with his legs, trusting her to get as close as she could for him to --
Grab. He hauled up on both of her shoulders, feeling her throwing herself up, almost enough to over-balance them and he turned the gray away even before he had her solidly in the saddle in front of him, the big horse all too willing to run from the shrieking noise in the camp, and Slade folded down over her to make as much a smaller target as he could, using the arm around her back to pick the reins up again. "Hi," he said, "hang on."
"I will," she promised, legs tightening around the horse and hunching in as best she could, trying to keep calm, like he would need, like the horse deserved. She wasn't thinking about the wet, slick feel on her hands where the knife had met flesh. The man had deserved it, after all.
Mikey saw the gray break out of camp and whistled for the gang to pull away, cursing that he hadn't taught the boy... and then he saw Roy going with the horse's lead, because that horse certainly understood that whistle. Roy understood, and leaned in on his mount once he saw the hands peeling away.
Shots followed them out of the camp, lead singing close, but Something was on their side this time, and the gray saw the narrow end of the wash coming in time to gather himself and jump hard, landing with a disapproving whistle at the impact of two bodies' weight, but he gathered himself and kept running. Behind him, one after another, his boys, and Harper, came out of the wash and they all ran for home.
Scoops was the man on watch, despite his leg. As long as he stayed in the saddle, everything was fine enough, or up on the driving board of the wagon. It was just getting up or down that put a hitch in things. Still, with the way Mikey and Boss had hied out, there was no one other than Jesse he'd trust to be riding watch right now. Wintergreen had made noises about doing it himself, so Jesse had undertaken to keep the old man busy with other matters.
It was near dawn, but in the false light he saw six horses coming in, one laden double... he breathed out a sigh of deep relief, and then sharpened back up to keep eyes out past them. They weren't riding hard, so it ought to be alright -- but ought got people killed, and he wasn't interested in any of his dying. Mikey was the first of the line, riding ahead of Boss, who was the one with the load. Jason and the boy from town seemed to be tailing, and had tailed back enough that they were mindful of followers too.
Dinah hadn't complained once on the hard ride, getting set on the horse once they had some notion that the pursuit wasn't right on them. She'd even demurred stopping to get the rope off her wrist and then worked on it herself with her knife, more to keep her thoughts from eating themselves. Why'd she been taken? What had they wanted? Who was setting people against her, when all she'd ever done was live as a free woman of means?
"Almost to the house," Slade said, dipping enough to be close to her ear and keep his voice soft. "You said you weren't hurt, but you've got to be tired... more tired, or more hungry?"
"Just want some water for my throat, and to clean up a bit," she managed to tell him. She looked forward toward the spread of the WG, seeing a rider peering back. "Think they'll send people come light?" she asked, to be more aware of what might come down.
"Those won't be a problem," Slade said, before he just shook his head, turning to look back over his shoulder as though he would see anything. "We didn't have the time to try to hide the trail, but my boys tried to keep their shots to white folk, so... it'll depend on if they more want to chase us, or want to chase those as brought us down on them...."
"And what about those men?" Dinah asked softly. She wasn't afraid, she told herself. She'd get back to home, and she'd see about getting a Colt to carry, but she wasn't afraid.
"They're already in a fairly bad light," Slade said softly, "and they've lost men. Add that to the message I'm going to send -- namely, that the J Gang were willing to trade a white woman to the Arapaho -- and there'll be fewer that'll side to them, and more as will turn on them."
She closed her eyes briefly. The J Gang. She'd remember that, learn the names and faces from the Marshall or the Sheriff, so she'd know them on sight. She wasn't going to get caught off guard again. "Well, serves them right," she made herself quip.
"I think so," Slade agreed, letting his arm on the rein tighten against her body. That was at least part false confidence, but it meant she was holding together, and that he was glad of.
She accepted that strong arm on her for the comfort it was, falling back into silence. She had never, in all that she could think of, done a thing to come to mind for a gang to be raiding. Someone had set them on her, and that meant inspecting the motives of those few people that had ever had cause to have grievance with her.
It wasn't hard to tell that that was all she had to say, and Slade just angled his tired gray straight for the front porch, sitting back and reining in just at the steps. He swung down, putting his hands up for her once he had his feet on the ground. She let him help her down, looking up skittishly when the door opened, to see an older man coming out, one she remembered from her younger years.
"Mister Wintergreen," she said politely, trying not to appear too unsteady... or reluctant for Slade to let go of her.
"I do wish I could say it's good to see how fine you've grown up, Miss Lance, but under the circumstances, what say we get you inside and dispense with pleasantries?" the old Englishman said gently.
Slade kept hold of her for another moment, making sure she was steady on her feet, and then let go, giving her over to Wintergreen's care -- he would have her settled in no time. "Be right back, Dinah, with Roy," he told her, moving to get the gray's reins and go to the stable to give him the water and feed he well deserved after this night.
"Roy..." Dinah turned to look out, noting the other men had gone to the stable, and sure enough she could see him swinging down... and having to be steadied by Mikey. She felt bad for him; he'd probably been at the trail since she was taken.
"Now, Miss Lance, you heard Slade. Inside with you, and the boy will come soon enough," Wintergreen said sternly. She turned back to him and nodded slowly. She then ascended the steps, fatigue pulling on her.
"I need some water, sir, to clean up a bit." She clenched her hands, aware she hadn't quite scrubbed them raw with the rope she had cut away.
"Of course, dear." He guided her to a wash basin, sacrificing his tea water to warm it up for her.
Slade made it to the barn, and heard Mikey coaxing Roy to put an arm around his shoulders, and there would be a bunk for him. Roy paused to see Slade, eyes going at least semi-alert.
"She okay?" Roy asked, worry for Dinah overriding two-days' worth of fatigue.
"Needs some sleep, food, and time to really put it behind her," Slade said. "But she's not injured."
"Right." Roy nodded, tired enough to take his word for it.
"Come on, kid. I've got you," Mikey said, helping him over to the bunkhouse. Jason took care of Roy's horse, while one of the others took over Mikey's. A third looked at the gray, then his boss.
"You're as beat as he is," the hand told Slade. "Go on back up to the house; the gray likes me well enough."
Slade studied his hand's face for a moment, then nodded and turned around to go on up into the main house, getting up the stairs and inside and listening for Wintergreen's voice. In the kitchen, where the hot water was, of course. Dinah was scrubbing at her hands and arms. She had fished the Barlow out of her pocket, setting it aside to be cleaned, but in the course of turning to dry her hands she forgot that. It said something for either feeling safe or being exhausted that the knife stayed there beside the wash basin as she looked wearily to the staircase.
"Get her on up to a bed, Slade," Wintergreen said softly. "You can put her in mine, or you use mine, either way."
Slade nodded and moved to her side, wrapping his arm around her back to guide her to the stairs, glancing down at her face as she studied them. She looked too tired to climb, and he shook his head slightly. "Hold on, Dinah," he said as he shifted his weight and his grip, bringing her up into his arms again. "I'll get you upstairs."
"Slade!" She protested, but without the same weight she normally would. "Oh..." The feel of his strong arms brought a layer of comfort she wasn't expecting, and she laid her head on his shoulder, snuggling closely so that she wouldn't overbalance him. The scent of him under her nose, the feel of him... and she was rapidly falling to sleep just like that.
Slade gave his reactions to the feisty young woman curling close in his arms a hard, swift kick, and just got them both up the stairs, leaning against his door to push it open and walking towards the bed, easing her down onto her feet again, holding her close until she could get her balance back. "I'll get you a shirt, and send Jesse to ride over to get you some clothes that might fit better from their Ma." //If she doesn't have a skirt hiding here somewhere she usually wears to go see her Ma...//
"Hmm? Oh, yes." She smiled faintly at him, then accepted the shirt he gave her, bringing it up in front of her in both hands, inhaling the sharply masculine scent of it. "Slade..." She moved a little, hand coming out to touch his wrist, then sliding down to his hand and taking it. "Thank you...." She wanted to say more, wanted to make him see that his coming had been more than just saving her from a cruel fate, but she didn't have the words.
Slade wrapped his hand around hers, holding her slight, hard-muscled hand in his, looking down at her, and he just nodded slowly, bringing his other hand up to cup behind her shoulder. "Nothing else I coulda done, Dinah..."
She nodded, slowly. "Still... it was you." Maybe... maybe that would say it all. She turned then, stepping closer to the bed, before her overwrought emotions spilled out in front of him. With her back to him, she started undoing the buttons of her own shirt to get out of it, trusting in him to leave her be in privacy.
"Sleep yourself out," Slade said before he went out the door, shutting it fully behind him, and went to the head of the stairs to call his old friend's name softly.
Wintergreen came to the foot of the stairs, peering up. "Yes, Slade?"
"Can you send Jesse over to her ma's after clothes for Dinah, if she doesn't have anything that'll suit here?"
"Of course." Wintergreen nodded. "Get your sleep, Slade. I can set all the tasks today."
"Yes boss," Slade said, teasing as he smiled at him, and turned around to go take over his old friend's bed for a few hours. And not think about the entirely too pretty little woman curled up in his bed.
Chapter 11: Chapter Ten
Aftermath of the rescue.
Dinah woke to the sound of the triangle being rung for lunch, and had to lay there a long moment just trying to decide where she was and what had passed. On sitting up, she saw that someone had slipped a bundle of clothes into the room, including her now cleaned Barlow knife on top of them. She had to shake her head at herself for sleeping through it, but then she had no reason to be jumpy in any house that was home to Slade Wilson, now did she?
She rose, loathe to part with his shirt, but blushing at herself over it. She was soon into the clothes left for her, tying the skirt a bit tighter than it was cut for to make up for her small size. The breeches beneath it had her misty-eyed; of course Wintergreen would remember that she was given to such antics. Her knife slipped into one of the pockets, and her boots were soon tied on properly, making her set to face the world again. She opened the door and faced the stairs, using the one rail along the wall to navigate them as she realized how faint she really was.
Slade lifted his head, hearing movement on the stairs, and got to his feet to come and see if Dinah was going to make it down them, looking up at her. "...all right, Dinah?"
"Of course," she said, stubbornly setting her jaw and using that rail to assist her down. She then smiled at him. "Thank you for the clothes...wherever they came from."
"You're welcome. One of our hands's mother's lives out on the edge of the place, she had them going begging," Slade said, unwilling to lie to Dinah but no more willing to give up Jesse's secret. Dinah made it down to the floor, and then looked to the door, judging just how steady she was, as far as reaching the door went.
"Slade?" she said softer, not wanting to let her pride cost her everything, including the worse embarrassment of tripping. "I wouldn't mind a bit of steadying to get to the food I can smell."
Slade moved close to her, putting his hand out to let her either put her hand on it or settle herself inside his arm, he much didn't care either way. "Of course." She gave him a soft smile of gratitude as she put her hand on his, then moved close enough to link her arm around his for the added support. She didn't much care to seem improper, but she also didn't feel strong enough on nothing to eat in too long to risk otherwise.
"I'll have to see to Roy, make sure he's fine," she mentioned softly, worrying for the boy she had adopted into her heart.
"He's all right, he's been up for a meal and to check on that mare of yours," Slade said, "so you come on and eat, then see if he's awake again?"
"Oh Birdie...poor dear. She's getting a bit old to be having adventures out here," Dinah said, letting Slade guide her. "But if Roy's sleeping, that gives me time to barter for what I need for us to get out of Mister Wintergreen's hair." She sighed in mock exasperation. "Probably wind up giving you half the spring supplies at cost," she teased him lightly, showing her spirit was in full control of herself, despite her harrowing experience.
Slade chuckled, shaking his head as he pulled out a chair at the table for her with his free hand, "I'm not inclined to push it that hard. One of us can ride back with you, pick up a couple of things and bring the horses back... I don't trust what's between the two of you and home, any more than I can put a rope around the wind." Dinah took the seat, grateful for it, as her stomach cramped viciously at the smell of food so close. She reminded herself to add a prayer of thanks for never having truly had to go hungry a day in her life before this.
"I wouldn't want to inconvenience your men. I'm certain Roy brought both guns, and we're fair shots," Dinah demurred, picking up the plate and reaching for the food nearest her. She did not let her mind rove over the possibility of Slade escorting her back at all. Not one bit, because it just wasn't lady-like to think that way.
"He did," Slade agreed, "and I'm sure you both are -- saw that he was, and I did hear the rest of the gossip about that day at your place... still only two of you, and I don't know what started that raving lunatic off on you, so I can't tell if it will be done now that you're loose, or if that he'll do nothing but hunt you for losing more of his men..." Dinah looked down at her plate, remembering that man with his thin, gaunt look and eyes that had burned into her, as if wanting to know she was afraid for her life. She did not relish any of that adventure at all, but Slade's words started her brain thinking over it all.
"Someone did set him on me, and I can't really think who'd dislike me that much as to invite a bunch of lunatics after our town."
"But you've been thinking on it, at least some... talk to me, maybe I can help," Slade offered, " -- but do it after you've eaten."
She nodded up at him, then applied herself to doing just that. She was hungry, but sensible enough to eat in small bites, working her way around the food slowly so as not to be sick. She had a long ride back to town, and it was only fair that they head out that day, rather than be underfoot to the rancher any more when he had winter preparation to finish.
Slade waited for her to finish, watching her work her way around the plate smart and neat and careful, and went back to making his mental list of things that still needed done.
"Did you get enough sleep?" she finally thought to ask him. "You looked about as tired as I felt when we made it in." She finished up the last of her plate by raking the biscuit through the remnants of the beans, nibbling on it as she looked at him.
"I got about as much as I ever do," Slade said, "don't worry, I haven't been awake long."
"Now who said I was worrying?" she asked him, a little bit of a twinkle in her eyes. "I just wanted to be certain you were sharp enough to be dickering with at all."
He laughed for her words, smiling at the bright edge of the twinkle in her eye. That was good to see, that was nothing but good to see, she was holding together, coming back to herself, and he shrugged a shoulder. "Pretty sure I am."
"Well, Mister Wilson, since I can see you're going to be stubborn about this whole me needing an escort, and you want to talk to me about my ideas on this whole mess, I think you'll have to do the job yourself," Dinah said, bold as brass. It solved her problem of needing to go home quickly, even if it did inconvenience the ranch a bit. She couldn't help that, and rationalized that Slade was the best man for knowing what needed to be picked up at her store anyway. She really, really wasn't going to be shamed of being practical. No matter how much effort it was taking to not blush a little for being quite this forward. After all, Roy was more than enough of a chaperone.
Slade stared at her for just a moment... and then he just smiled, slow and easy and lazy, and nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
She pinked up at that tone, for the way it cut through her, into a place that just wasn't familiar to her, making her a touch breathless. She wound up looking away from him, shy and nervous, because oh the way his voice made her feel!
Slade watched the color come up on her cheeks, the way she looked away from him to hide it, and tried to remind himself again that grown woman or not, she wasn't all that old, and he ought to have better sense... Tried, and failed, this time -- again, he admitted to himself. "Be glad to," he went on, to give her something to focus on.
She turned back to him then, a note of something more than just gratitude in her voice. "Thank you, Slade. I do appreciate it deeply." She pushed back from the table, then, to see about carrying her dish over to be washed, wrapping his presence up in her mind with the feeling of safety.
"You're welcome, Dinah," Slade said back, standing up, reaching for the plate. "I'll take care of that."
"Now, I think I can wash one little plate." She smiled at him over it. "Unless you'd rather I go get my Boy-o from among your men?" she asked sweetly, knowing good and well that she was pretty enough to turn heads and be a distraction.
Slade watched that smile, listened to her words... and had to admit she had a point. "..all right, all right. I'll go get Harper, and we'll handle the horses."
"Thought I'd get my way on that one," she replied, full of mischief int he way she said it. It was far closer to normal for her, than knowing that he was affecting her as a man could make a woman react.
"...Don't you normally?" Slade asked, sighing at her, resigned and amused, and went to go out the door. It was good to hear her sounding like herself, it really was, even if it meant she was winning points off of him left and right.
She just laughed, and saw to cleaning up her plate...and that led into tidying a bit for the two bachelors that lived here, because she just couldn't help herself.
Roy was awake, though looking a little like he possibly should have tried for more sleep when Slade came into the bunkhouse. He was being kept company by Jason's snores, as the hand had night watch later. Roy looked up at Slade, and just stood quietly, gathering his saddle and guns to follow the older man back out.
Once the door swung shut again, Slade looked at him. "She's up, and she seems like she's holding on just fine. I'm going to ride back with the two of you and bring the horse back. Are you going to ride the mare, or is she?"
"Birdy's hers, so if I can have the loan of another, it would be best," Roy told him. "We tried me riding Birdie once, and her on one of Doc's; Birdie threw me." He grinned at the memory; there was nothing wrong in his mind with a horse that loyal to a specific rider. And Birdie did let him ride most of the time.
Slade nodded. "Birdie's in the stable with my gray; I'll go rope another up out of the corral for you. First stall has the spare saddles, find one that'll suit the two of them," he said as he stepped just far enough into the stable to lift down a lariat and head that way.
Roy nodded, and went to get the horses ready; Birdie was perfectly happy to get ready for going home, with that horse-smart sense of 'we'd better be going home'. She nickered and inspected his shirt, since he so rarely had one on, just to check if there were treats, making him smile and love on her a little. He was able to slip a halter on the gray, but left saddling to Slade, not knowing the horse's particular tricks well enough to risk it. By the time Slade was back, he was waiting outside with both horses, and Slade's saddle and bridle on the hitching post waiting to go.
Slade nodded at him, handing over the lasso to let Roy saddle up the other horse while he dealt with the gray, kneeing him in the ribs to remind him to let out that belly-full of air, hands moving easily. Roy was just as glad he hadn't messed with that saddling, and saw to his own. Of course, this horse decided to be difficult about the bridle, but Roy had a few tricks of his own, and soon had a ridable horse. He turned from the task in time to see Dinah coming up and dropped the reins long enough to move to her, catching her in a hug that let him know, for certain, that she was okay.
"Easy, boy-o... those are my ribs you're trying to crack," she teased him, but her eyes tracked full over him, making sure of his well-being.
"I wouldn't," he protested, almost instantly, but he let his grip ease, some. "So glad you're okay," he said, much softer, against her ear.
She nodded, then kissed his cheek. "I was working on it," she told him. "Now, let's get on home, before Dick disobeys whomever told him not to ride after you," she said, moving over to Birdie, stroking her neck, before mounting the horse with a sensible leg over.
"Bruce," Roy said, letting her go to flip the reins back over the gelding's head and swing on himself.
Dinah let Birdie get her prancing self into place off to the good side of Slade's vision so Roy went forward, taking lead; she had a feeling that the foreman would be happier if he could see them both than if one rode on his bad side. "I told Wintergreen thank you for the hospitality before coming up, so we can ride," she said, having hitched a couple of canteens over her saddle-horn once Roy quit hugging her. "He requested some tea for payment, so we'll just have to see what I have," she said in a light enough voice.
"Trust Wintergreen" Slade said with a soft chuckle, amused and agreeing.
"So, we've got a bit of a ride, and I'm assuming we'll be avoiding any of the Natives as we go, given last night's incident." Dinah began. "So, let's talk about who doesn't like me enough to go about hiring a band of roughnecks to try and chase me down."
Roy growled, but decided he'd just be a listener for now.
Slade had been thinking on that, too, but he didn't want to leap in with the first, suspicious answer that came to mind. He'd learned long ago to put your best answer in the middle of the conversation. "Mmm... I can't think of any of the women in town that could dislike you that much, or have any reason to.... You?"
Dinah snorted. "Other than some that think their husbands ought to keep their eyes up a bit, but that's scarcely my fault. I tend to agree with them. Besides, most of them, even the ones that scowl at me in Church, think I've got guts to keep my store, with no man around but my Boy-o there, and him recent to me."
Roy couldn't help but straighten a bit in his saddle, to hear her call him a 'man' like that.
Slade nodded, "It didn't really seem like a woman's style of response, anyway. All right, that's out. Any fool been louder than they ought about not liking your prices?"
Dinah thought about it. "Had one or two miners this past season that didn't like what I'm charging for the saltpeter, sayin' I'm over charging, but I know good and well how much more I spent to get it in at all this year." She tried very hard to make her prices fair. "Course, it was a couple of the ones that always wind up paying in dust rather than cash."
"Mmm... maybe," Slade said, but that didn't sound right. Yes, all kinds came chasing gold, and it made plenty of people just plain crazy, but...
"I doubt it though. Miners...some of them argue just to keep having someone to talk with," Dinah reasoned on through. "Which leaves me just two possible people, and one of them I'm willing to let off the hook; not his fault he's got cents in his veins instead of sense in his head. Plus his bank got hit too."
Slade nodded, intrigued to see that they'd been thinking on such close lines. "I'd been thinking about Werner, too, but given that I nearly shot the man a few months back, I figured as I might be a little biased against him... He wanted your store awfully bad -- has he kept pushing, since that day?"
Dinah shook her head. "Bad-mouthing me in his store to his clientele, pointing out that me holding a store on the edge of town is so dangerous for a bit of a girl, keeping tempers up over me taking Roy in when it was the only durned right thing to do!" Her temper came up a bit, letting that mild curse slip out. "But mostly he avoids me directly. Did hear he offered to buy my lien from Lord, but Lord's not that unscrupulous; he knows I pay my loans back as swift as I can."
"Running around the edges, trying to push you without bringing things to a head... Nasty tricks."
Dinah sighed. "Slade, I've got no proof, nothing to connect him. I can't even positively detail much about my abductors, other than to tell Sheriff Wayne which one's dead, and hope he's got drawings on the other two. I heard a man that might have been their leader, but I didn't see him."
"It sounds like the kind of thing that sort of a snake would do, though, even if it's nothing you can take to a court. Helps to have a better idea where your enemy is, no matter if you can prove it... but he'll slip up, if it is him. And I can't think of anyone else it would be, either."
"I'll keep closer to the store, this winter," Roy said, joining the conversation. "And Dick will help me listen more."
"We still need any fresh meat we can pull in, Roy," Dinah said in exasperation. "But I might talk to Blake about buying one of his hounds."
"Wayne'll have drawings by this point," Slade said, "Roy mentioned they'd placed the gang after you as the J Gang, and I heard more than enough to confirm it from my own people."
Dinah shivered. "Heard bad things about them. And the laughter I heard when I was in that tent was a lot like the laughter from the man on the horse that day of the fire," she told him. "Still, the weather turns to the worst soon enough, and no one will be moving much. Between that and a dog for the porch, I think we'll get by fine."
Roy wasn't so certain, but then he wouldn't have much chance to go hunting once the weather did turn, so maybe it would work out.
"True enough," Slade said softly. He wasn't sure of it, either, but there wasn't really that much else to say. He had a few plans of his own to set in motion, too, that might help her some.
"So, we go home, talk to the Sheriff, and the Marshall if he makes it through before the snows come, and wait." Dinah's chin firmed, as she settled on Birdie a little more firmly, getting a nicker of reassurance from the horse's perspective. That caused her to lean in and stroke Birdie's neck, smiling to her mare.
"Never my favorite thing," Slade said, "but I think it's all you can do, right now."
They settled in to the ride, companionable quiet among them for now, though eventually Dinah would probably strike up a conversation with Slade, and Roy would go back to trying to pretend he didn't hear the flirting between them.
Dinah, being the stubborn thing she was, went straight for her home and store, which meant Roy rode on in to see if the Sheriff was in town to let him know they'd made it back. Dinah saw that her store had been unmolested, not a thing out of place, and then came back out to go put Birdie up in Doc Pritchard's stable. "Slade, surely you're not riding back today? I'll pay for your horse and a room at the Widow's," she offered, trying to not think on that she did have a room in her own place for him.
"I wasn't planning on it," Slade drawled, glancing up at the sun already hanging low in the sky, "but no you won't, 'less you'll take it off the supply costs."
"Hardly, when you've loaned me use of a second horse, have to take that horse back, and generally gave up two...three days worth of working," Dinah pointed out. "Fair trade, Wilson, or else." Her voice was warm and amused, but the steel was in it.
"Lance," Slade said back, his eye narrowing for a moment, "what I decide to do with my time isn't your responsibility, you infernally stubborn woman. You're worth it. Now give over."
She planted her hands on her hips, opening her mouth to speak, but Doc's wife came out then.
"You won't be owing her, or her you, Mister Wilson," Mrs. Pritchard called. "You brought the girl back; you can board your horse here any time at all." The woman came over to hug the girl she'd watched grow up into a fine woman, assuring herself that Dinah was safe and sound.
"Now you didn't have to go and do that," Dinah fussed, but she hugged the older woman hard.
"Thank you, ma'am," Slade said, tipping his hat at her. He was more grateful for the end of the argument than anything else -- it wasn't as though it really cost much to put the horses up, but he was just about sick and blessed tired of that stubborn little spitfire of a woman refusing to let him help her without some kind of paying him back. "I 'preciate that. Though Harper's the one as came to get me."
Mrs. Pritchard narrowed her lips, then let out a small sigh. "You've been right all along about him, then, Little Miss."
"Of course." Dinah would take that victory. "Now, I think I want to be in my own home, making my own food, so I can have a solid dinner," she announced, raising a hand to forestall an offer from the doctor's wife. "No ma'am. I really do just want my own walls around me." She looked at Slade. "My cooking's not as fancy as the Widow's, but seein' as how my Boy-o went to get the Sheriff, care to stay and keep me company while I do cook and he's out?"
"Be glad to," Slade agreed, smiling at Mrs. Pritchard for a moment, "soon as we've put the horses up." He headed that way, then, finding a stall for his gelding and stripping the saddle and blanket off and rub at the worst of the sweat-marks with a handful of straw. He tossed the gear up over the half-wall, along with the bridle, before he came out to meet her again.
Birdie had been settled in just as easy as pie, given that the mare was the most complacent creature for Dinah, and eager to be home. Dinah smiled and led her rescuer on inside, while Mrs. Pritchard returned home, thoughtful over whether she was seeing things or not, given subtle signs that Little Miss was softening to the big man.
Roy reached the sheriff's just as Bruce was getting up on the black's back to head on home. "Sheriff!"
Bruce turned in the saddle, his eyes raking over Harper's face... //Dinah's alive,// hit him in an instant, well before he knew which signs in the young man's face he was reading. "You found her. Is she all right?"
Roy nodded. "Insisted on stopping at the store. Wants you to bring the wanted posters... not tonight, but soon as you're up to it," Roy answered. "Wilson's still with her," he added, with a faint flick of his eyes, but not quite the usual scowl.
Bruce blinked, surprised for a moment... but then, it made some sense. They'd been riding that direction, and it wasn't exactly a secret that the big ex-soldier had taken a shine to Dinah a while back. That Roy wasn't scowling was the more surprising part -- then again, he'd obviously gone to get him, there wasn't a lot of sense in scowling about it having worked. "Wants to see if she can recognize anyone? I can do that in the morning, soon as I make it in."
"Appreciate it, Sheriff." Roy turned the horse back toward the other end of town, before dancing him back around. "Tell Dick I might not be out there any time soon," he added.
"I will... and that's probably a good thing. I'm not sure this is over," Bruce said, nodding to him. That just meant he was going to have his brother underfoot in town more, if Roy wasn't going to be free to ride out.
Roy nodded and then headed back home to stable the borrowed horse at Pritchard's. His head was already turning over if Blake had a litter handy, or, preferably, one left over from the last litter.
Dinah had just gotten up to clear the dishes away from dinner when the faint sound of a cantering horse made it through the walls, reining up just off the porch, and a bare moment later, the sound of boot-heels on the porch planks hit louder, almost covered by "Roy?!"
She had to smile; that hadn't taken as long as it could have. She smiled as Roy looked to her briefly for permission to go on, which she nodded to him for. The redhead hurried on down, eager to see his best friend.
"Dick..." he called, coming out onto the porch.
"Roy," Dick said, soft and quiet as strong arms wrapped hard around his shoulders and waist, hauling him in tight, "you're okay."
"Of course," Roy said, returning that hug with none of the awkwardness he had possessed in the early days of his recovery whenever someone got that close. "Dinah is too. She was already getting herself loose when we found her," he said, indicating the rockers on the end of the porch. "Sit?"
"Yeah, sounds good," Dick sad after a few moments, slowly letting go to walk over to the rockers and drag one closer to the other, the moonlight coming down more than enough to see by.
"Don't 'of course' at me, man, Bruce was worried -- and dammit, what were you thinking telling him to keep me off your trail?"
Roy shrugged. "You didn't need to be out there trailing me. We were too far out for you to catch up before I got to the WG." Roy settled in his rocker, letting the feel of the cool night seep in.
Dick sucked a breath in... and then let it out slow, just reaching over for Roy's shoulder and squeezing once, though he left his hand there, just resting lightly on him. Worried was too mild a word for how he'd felt, knowing Roy was out there in that storm and then alone after that gang, but it was about right for how Bruce had felt.
Roy reached up and patted that hand. "Made it to the WG, and Wilson put together a handful of men right away. Then we rode back, looking for traces that she might have been taken in among a small raider band," he said.
"That all makes sense..." Dick said, nodding, settling back a little to listen. Roy took his time, detailing the tracking, and how he took one side while Jason took the other. He lit up a little more, detailing how they had managed to spook the camp and keep it all chaotic during the rescue.
"Wilson rode for where he heard the noise... they told me on the ride back that she was already cutting herself loose when we made our ruckus."
"That Barlow," Dick said, corner of his mouth turning up in a smile at the thought of how often he'd seen that knife flicked out for something some people would have thought she shouldn't ought to be doing. "And that's just like her."
Roy nodded. "I was dead in the saddle by the time we made it back to the WG," he admitted. "She wasn't much better, mind you. So we slept there, and she got him to be the one to ride back with us, since we had to borrow a horse anyhow."
"You'd have needed it, after how long you were out there... She did? It wasn't Wilson insisting?"
Roy laughed. "He'd insisted that someone was coming back with us. Between the tribe and the gang itself, he wasn't taking chances of us getting jumped on the way. But the way they talked coming back, she asked him to be the one," Roy said, keeping his voice neutral. Wilson had earned that much from him at least.
"I have to say I agree with him," Dick said. The two of them would still have been worn from being kidnapped and from the posse, respectively, and no matter how sharp he knew both their eyes were, he was glad they hadn't been alone.
"Going to talk to Mister Blake, see if he's got a hound we can buy, teach it to keep watch for her," the redhead said. He kept his teeth shut on their thoughts about Werner, not wanting to start any speculation right away. "Your brother's supposed to bring over the wanteds for her to finger the three that took her."
"He said so," Dick agreed, nodding, "about the posters, anyway. A dog would probably be a real good idea, since they've come back too many times already..."
Roy nodded. "I think we've got enough meat for the winter, but she's insisting I keep on hunting a bit more as the weather allows, so I'd feel better about the dog being here," he admitted.
"...yeah," Dick agreed. "Bruce said you weren't going to be able to come out... just means I'll have to come into town when things are clear, doesn't it?"
Roy cocked his head to look at his best friend a long moment. "I think I'd like that." Outside of Dinah, there was no one else that Roy felt so easy in his skin around.
Dick smiled at him, nodding, and let himself set the chair to rocking just a little, now that he knew what had happened and was sure everyone was all right. It was easy to fall into quiet together, but Roy did look at his friend in concern.
"Staying at the Widow's? Don't want to keep you too late if you were going to ride back is why I ask."
"Figured I would," Dick said, shrugging one shoulder a little.
"Alright. Wilson should be heading that way eventually," Roy said, this time with a roll of his eyes for the man's continuing presence after dinner.
"Too late to eat over there already," Dick observed, then glanced up as if he could see the lights in the second floor through the porch roof.
"Ate with us, playing checkers with her now, I'd guess," Roy said with a slow sigh. There was worry there, but less of the outright hostility at the way Slade took some of Dinah's time every time he was in town.
Dick tipped his head a little, thinking that over, before he decided that Roy getting past that hostility was probably a real good thing, and he needed. "Almost feel sorry for him, but it sounds like he brought it on himself.... She'll beat the pants off him."
Roy had to grin at that. "Likely." He then settled back, easy in his friend's company, putting what he could behind him.
Dinah made her way into the boarding house, carrying a few things she had just gotten in that the widow had asked for before. She smiled kindly to the few folks inside, making her way back toward the kitchen, betting that the woman would still be back there overseeing, and helping, with breakfast clean-up.
Diana heard the hinge and turned from the sink, smiling with relief at seeing Dinah standing there. Yes, the word had gone through town fast as the shock from the telegram would go through joined hands that Dinah was back safely... but it was one thing to hear, and another to see, and she looked well and unharmed. Which was no small relief to Diana, as having another independent woman in this town had been a frequent relief to her, and besides that, Dinah had been a favorite for a few years, even before her mother had passed on.
"Dinah," she said, soft and relieved, and moved to dry her hands so that she could take hers. "It's good to see you. Go ahead and set everything on the table there," she said, tipping her head towards the one she meant with the towel still in her hands, before she came the rest of the way to her side, reaching out.
Dinah settled the parcels there, then reached out, taking both hands, before leaning in and offering her cheeks in the more European manner Diana sometimes still had. "It's a fine sight to see you too, Diana," she said sincerely. "It's been one mess of a week." It didn't trouble her a bit to downgrade her misadventure to nothing more than a mess, as she wasn't going to dwell on it more than necessary to get to the bottom of it all.
"I think that puts it mildly," Dinah said as she leaned enough to kiss her cheeks, hands tightening on Dinah's fingers, "but what is the saying here? 'All's well that ends well'?"
Dinah laughed merrily at that. "It is." She then hugged the older woman impulsively. "No worse for wear over the fright, and my boy-o's taking measures to make the mercantile a bit more safe."
"I'm glad to hear it," Diana said, then smiled a little. "We should probably go on out into the parlor instead of stand here in Cook's way," she said, shifting her weight to move in that direction.
Dinah nodded, and went that direction, glad enough to take the time to visit this morning, since Roy was minding the shop and trying to teach the hound what was theirs. "I didn't miss any juicy gossip being away, did I?" Dinah teased.
"Noo... but I do think you came back with some, given who roomed here last night..." Diana said, raising a brow just a little, both playful and curious.
Dinah flushed, her cheeks burning with a touch of embarrassment, and there was a strong hint of shyness where this subject was concerned, which was different. She'd handled teasing over Wilson in the past, but evidently the past few days had seen something in it change.
"He insisted someone escort us back, and..." Dinah tried to say, but it came out with a stronger emotion than playful ire at the man for taking up a protective role.
"And?" Diana asked softly, shifting closer to her. She was still somewhat concerned over this entire situation, but Mrs. Gardner's words had taken all suspicion away from Wilson as far as Dinah was concerned. Diana had spent quite some time trying to remember why he looked familiar, after her first conversation with Dinah had ended so poorly, and finally she had remembered the family that had backed her on the trail. How Wilson had become a ranch foreman, when he had been intent on a place of his own, she didn't know -- but remembering the way that he and his wife had backed her had done a great deal to soothe Diana's nerves.
Dinah looked down at her skirt, fiddling with the hem of her blouse, as she thought about it. "Diana, I can't even hardly think about him without my world going sideways."
Diana's eyes went soft, and she stretched her hand back out to wrap her fingers around Dinah's. She knew that look, and she knew that tone of voice -- and there were few enough other women in this town that could be there for her. "...sets your heart to fluttering?"
Dinah smiled, nodding, voice lost for the moment. "Didn't much want to give back his shirt, and seeing him off just made me remember the bad weather is due to set in." She sighed. "Ahh well, makes the spring happier?"
It was pretty to see Dinah shy and wanting, even if she might have preferred someone else for her, Dinah thought, then wondered. //His shirt? Well, of course your clothes would have been ruined...//
She laughed, low and soft and gentle, and squeezed her fingers again. "So it will, so it will... and do you have any idea how he feels?"
Dinah hesitated, then met Diana's eyes. "I want to say he cares, but how much of that is me wanting, and him doing?" she asked. "How do you know? How can I know? I know he loves his wife; he speaks of her sometimes, and that's right and proper, even if she is gone on." Dinah bit at her lip, worrying the dry skin at the edge. "I don't want to be forward, and I don't think he will be, and I just..." She gestured in frustration. She then brightened and looked far less unhappy. "He made me this beautiful little songbird, carved it himself."
Oh, that was a familiar question, Diana thought, watching Dinah's worrying motions and all of her uncertainty... and then that bright, delighted pleasure broke across her face and Diana smiled. "It can be hard to tell," she agreed, squeezing her fingertips again. She turned her head away, just a little, as she smiled, remembering her angel. "Sometimes being a little forward is the only way to know for sure... especially with a man who's reserved -- but it's hard to know when the right moment is," she admitted, looking back at Dinah. "Did he? That would have to have been difficult, given his eye..."
Dinah nodded. "He did, though he did ask Mister Wintergreen to finish some of the detail." She tilted her head to the side a bit. "Wouldn't that say something, Diana? That he let a friend know he was making something for a girl?" She desperately wanted some advice on how to handle this, not knowing a thing about courting for herself. It was made more complicated by the fact she was very much a town-girl, and he was a ranch hand, on a ranch a good half-day's ride away.
"I think so," Diana said after a moment, "he's a proud man, after all."
Dinah nodded. "Mindful of my own, though," she told the widow, quietly. "Didn't fuss over me trying to make my own way free like the Sheriff might've."
"Oh?" Diana asked, interested, sitting more towards her.
Dinah smiled, then shook her head. "If anyone thought I'd stay there in that tent and wait to be rescued..." She then laughed. "Had my knife. Set about getting loose, and then all of a sudden there was a ruckus. Slade..." Her smile faltered, and she took a deep breath in. "He came up as one of the men was aiming to stop me, and I wasn't having anything to do with the idea."
"Dinah," Diana said, laughing along with her, "no-one that knows you at all would think you'd wait for anyone to come rescue you, and you shouldn't -- but I'm glad they got there when they did, I have to say." Dinah's smile faltered, though, and Diana's breath stuttered for a moment at those words -- and more at the look in her eyes, and she just tightened her hand, waiting to see what else Dinah would say.
"Never thought when Daddy gave me that knife it would ever ..." Dinah shook her head to clear the sensations of memory away. "I don't regret it, and Slade...made sure. But, it's not the same as my gun, and even that one time was a bit to make me upset. What did I ever do to make a person want to hurt me so badly?"
Diana moved, sliding her hand from Dinah's fingers to her far shoulder, wrapping her arm tight around her. "..I don't know, Dinah, I really don't... You've never been anything but good to anyone."
Dinah clung to that contact for a long moment, visibly fighting it down from her memories, and then nodded slowly. "I've got my own ideas on all this. We'll just wait it out, though." She got a very determined set to her jaw on the heels of those words.
Diana held her close for another moment before she sat back slightly, looking at that stubborn set of her jaw. "I've got no doubt of that -- I've never seen you back down from anything, and whoever is behind this needs to be stopped."
Dinah nodded. "Slade and I talked it out, and Roy is in agreement. Just a matter of setting the noose for him to put his head in," she told her friend, with a light in her eyes that said she knew exactly who was responsible, even if she had not accused him to the Sheriff.
Diana nodded, petting her hand over Dinah's back for a moment. "The sooner, the better," was her firm opinion on the matter. "Let me know if there's any way I can help."
"I will." Dinah then smiled brightly. "Is there anything else you need from the store?"
"You be sure to let me know, then," Dinah said. "But I ought to get on back over. Won't be much more weather anyone wants to come trade in, after all."
"Alright. Thank you for bringing all that over -- and letting me see that you're safely home," Diana told her, standing up again. "I have work I should be doing, as well."
Dinah nodded, hugged her briefly, and then made her own way back to the mercantile so she could be busy. That helped keep her mind off her problem, and off the man she missed.
The owner of the town's other mercantile was just turning around the corner of his building when he felt an itch of being watched, the peculiar sensation induced by both an unclean conscience and the nature of the observer. He looked to the side, and by the door into his business's cellar where he stored perishables there was a tall, lanky man whose pale features were set in an almost permanent sneer of a smile. Only today, that smile looked anything but pleasant, and the glint in the eyes above it made Werner's back creep with a knowledge that perhaps he'd chosen the wrong firebrand.
"Told you not to meet me here," Werner said in an angry tone, hoping to shake sense into the ruffian through projecting a stronger facade.
"As if I care what you said." The man glared as Werner came even with him. "Girl cost me another. Crane was... talented."
"Why in all hell didn't you just deal with her?" Werner hissed softly, glad no one else was about as he spoke of this.
The taller man lunged, one hand wrapping around Werner's shirt front near the collar, lifting him up and staring into his eyes with calculating malevolence. "Pray, good merchant, I don't take the cost of two new hands out of your skin, and leave you with a smile beneath your chin! She cost me, and now I intend to settle it permanently!" He flung Werner into the dirt, dusted off his coat, as if there were specks of lint on it, and continued in a quite calm tone. "I'll just be borrowing your cellar here for a bit today."
Werner, frightened by the madness in the killer's eyes, mutely nodded, and watched the lanky man disappear into the doors.
He didn't even think of pinning the doors shut and going for the law, not when the man knew far too much of his own dealings and for fear of his own life.
Wintergreen had put in a good bit of working with his boys during Slade's absence before an approaching weather front forced him to retreat inside and work on the books instead, his hands being more forgiving than the lingering effects of serving in Her Majesty's services above the border in the Canadian hinterlands.
He paused, hearing the clatter of hooves out near the stable, and smiled. So his young friend was back, and he could hardly wait to see just how that had gone for Slade. After all, it wasn't every day that a man who'd lost one love got the chance to save another, and that chance of having been on time was certain to be preying at the subconscious of his foreman.
Slade took both horses into the stable and put them both into stalls, going in with his gray to strip the saddle and bridle off and rub him down. He heard footsteps, and Jesse was at the other stall. "Welcome home, boss. Everything go easy?"
"Just fine," Slade agreed, glad enough to let Jesse take care of the other horse. "Here?"
"Got most of the work done. Big Boss pitched in until around lunch today," Jesse said, keeping the tone very neutral. "Mikey kept his eyes out." There was a strong agreement by the regular hands, those who stayed on through winter, that Big Boss had a habit of overdoing it.
"...sounds like a good day, then," Slade said, stepping out of the stall to go get a coffee-can of grain for his gray after one last rub of the big horse's ears. The gray nickered after him, then gave a grateful sounding snort when the offering was brought back.
Jesse finished with the other horse, also treating the beast to some grain, nodding. "Should be an easy winter, with the supplies we've laid in, and the guide lines strung this time." Last winter had hit before they'd gotten the ropes up between buildings, making for some bad moments.
"Don't go and curse us, Jesse," Slade said, shaking his head as he headed for the barn door, saddlebag swung up over his shoulder.
Jesse grinned, and watched the boss go, before heading back to the gang, to let them know Slade seemed as relaxed as he could be, which was good for them all. Sometimes he came back from those trips to the mercantile wrapped up in a temper, and with the rescue the other day, anything could have happened.
Slade left the saddlebag on the kitchen counter and stopped to wash the dust off his face and arms, wincing a little at the cold of the water, before he went to find Wintergreen. The elder man was in the room he'd built to catch as much light as possible, the ledgers open in front of him. He placed the pen in its cup, though, and shifted back from the desk to regard Slade evenly upon entry.
"Did all go well upon returning the girl and her boy?"
"Easy enough ride back," Slade nodded, coming over to settle into a nearby chair, "and everyone seemed glad to have her back safe. We talked a good bit, on the way, and we're all fairly sure it's Werner behind the mess. Harper went to get a dog for the store, so they've got a little more warning of any more trouble."
Wintergreen grunted an acknowledgment that he thought the idea of a dog was a good one. "Allow me to make an educated guess? She's not intending on telling Wayne of who it is, because of lack of proof? Or I miss my guess on just how her father raised her."
"You're not missing a thing," Slade said, smiling at his old friend. "She's not going to tell him, not unless something happens that gives her proof."
Wintergreen sighed. "Well, she's aware of the threat, and very much a child of this frontier," was all he had to say on that matter. He focused on Slade a bit more closely. "How are you thinking about all of this?"
Slade shook his his head, leaning back and closing his eye. "...I don't know, old friend. I..."
The older man settled comfortably, scooping up his tea cup to sip at the cooled liquid, waiting for his friend to speak.
Slade hissed breath out. "I'm worried about her, even with the boy and a new dog right there, her problem is in town and I have no idea how the rest of that gang is going to react to that they've lost two men now, and I'm all the way over here..."
"Ahh yes, so you are." Wintergreen permitted himself a small smile. "Quite a ride, and then there's even knowing just what might be happening. Soon, won't be many riders on the trail between us and them."
"...you just had to remind me?" Slade asked, opening his eye to look across at him, sighing. "I know."
Wintergreen permitted himself a very small smile. "Funny thing is, there's not that much needs doing on a ranch by the winter time. I'm still a good enough shot if the trouble spills back this way from your part in her return, though I doubt it will. And Michael is an adept hand at managing the lighter load."
Slade blinked at him, staring for a moment, before he shook his head slightly. "You know how I feel about towns, even one that small... and even reasonable as the Widow is..."
Wintergreen leaned forward, face growing serious. "How long are you going to avoid the fact that girl has wormed into your heart?" he asked bluntly. "You don't have to stay there long, but long enough to see that things are settled, so you're not fretting over her. How in all the manners of fate do you think you can court her from here after all?"
"I'm not avoiding it," Slade protested, "I already know it too well, old friend. She's..." it took long moments before he could figure out the words that he wanted to use, "deeper in than I ever meant to let anyone else get."
Wintergreen sighed softly. "Felt the same after Abigail, my friend. And there are days I have regretted that I shut myself away after her," he told Slade. "I'd quite rather see you happier than I've come along, my friend." He shook his head. "I would most despise the idea that she be scared by well-meaning ninnies into accepting a suit that's not to her heart's content because of all this. She's a woman, which implies a bit of nonsense; is she as certain of your interest as you are?"
"She's not the kind to let anyone talk her out of something," Slade agreed with that part of Wintergreen's words immediately. The rest... he sighed. "I don't know, Wintergreen. She doesn't seem like it, most times, but... I don't think I've been that subtle, either?"
Wintergreen had to laugh a bit at that. "You and subtle were never well-acquainted, my friend. But, she's also been a woman of her own means and working during the years most girls would have been larking. So she might not quite know she stands a chance with you." The older man flicked his eyes to the wedding band that his friend still wore in memory of his wife.
"...you might have a point there," Slade said thoughtfully, thinking about how long Dinah had been running or near-running that store on her own, all the hours it took -- and about how few young people for her to have run with there even were in that town of mostly-adults. "You truly might."
"So, will you take a portion of your pay and go stay in town long enough to convince her of your wishes?" Wintergreen asked. "While looking after your best interests in regards to her troubles?"
"Got a couple of things I want to finish here," Slade said, "but then, yeah... I'll go put myself up at the Widow's for a bit."
"That is the most sensible you've been in weeks," Wintergreen teased him. "And I am glad to hear it, my friend."
Slade wanted to protest that surely he hadn't been that bad, he'd been managing not to think about Dinah at all a good bit, the last few weeks... but Wintergreen knew him better than he knew himself, most of the time. He settled for just sighing and shaking his head slightly, staying leaned back against the chair.
Wintergreen picked up his pen again, leaning forward to his work on the desk, though his ears stayed on Slade, in case the man chose to talk. Otherwise, they would just have an easy quiet between them, as usual.
Chapter 12: Chapter Eleven
Slade comes to town with a woman on his mind.
Dinah had invited the sheriff to come eat with her before heading up to his own place that afternoon, mostly so they could talk and just catch up. She wanted him to quit fretting so strongly over the fact no one had seen the J-Gang since the attack on her the previous week, at least not from any of the local telegraphy. The Marshall was supposed to be swinging up this way shortly, if the cool, dry weather held, and Bruce would put his head together with the man, to see if there was a chance of flushing them out before spring.
"So how is everything between Dick and Barbara going?" Dinah asked, once the dishes were in the basin for her to scrub clean. Roy decided that sounded like a good chore then, and went on into the kitchen to handle it. It wasn't that he didn't like Barbara Gordon; he just plain didn't like having to share the time of either Dinah or Dick, and Barbara Gordon took time with both of them.
"Seem to be fine," Bruce said, shifting one shoulder in a slight shrug. "He hasn't said anything else, anyway..."
"Good." Dinah smiled, shaking her head. "And how are you and the widow?" she prodded, teasing and sweet-toned. "I was too busy talking about me the other day to ask her."
Bruce stared at her, startled enough that the edges of a flush came up on his cheekbones despite himself. He'd had a finer control of his expressions once, but he was many years distant from the East Coast high society's mad whirl, and he was pleased enough about it. "She's a fine woman, and a good friend," he managed to say steadily, despite the touch of heat on his cheeks. Dinah had to grin even brighter for his flush, and reached across to pat his hand.
"Surely she is, and fine of you to notice. I wonder..." Her words trailed off as she thought she heard something scrape against the porch, her senses still sharper than she liked for anything out of the ordinary. "Roy, is the dog still down below?" she called softly, telling herself that was it.
"Yes, Di," he said. "I'll take him the bones, you don't mind." He appeared in the doorway with a pan for the hound.
"That's fine, Boy-o," she said, settling back into her skin.
"What is it, Dinah?" Bruce asked, seeing the tension in her face, turning his own ears out to listen.
The sound did not come again, and all Dinah noted was that noise of Roy going down into the shop to take care of the dog on the porch. Dinah shook her head at Bruce, and then shrugged her slim shoulders. "I thought I heard something against the porch, but I haven't really gotten used to the hound yet."
Bruce didn't let himself frown, but he worried for Dinah's state of mind if she was that uneasy... but then again, she'd always had sharp ears and a sharp mind, and there might be something wrong. He couldn't hear anything out of place yet, but...
"Stop it, Bruce," Dinah said softly. "I am a touch skittish still, but between Speedy and Roy, I've got plenty of protection in this house." She laughed a little. "Did we say how we finally named the dog? Roy had him out, working him a little, and a hare popped up. Roy said the dog took off so fast that he was nothing but a blur."
"You didn't say, but that sounds about right," Bruce said, smiling at her and making himself relax. "I wouldn't say skittish, Dinah. Wary, yes."
"I'll get back to normal in due time," Dinah promised him. She took a deep breath. "I know I was lucky, too. So I'm not taking chances." She got up to get them some more tea, seeing his glass and her own were nearing empty.
This time it was Bruce who caught the sound drifting up, what sounded like a thump but muffled, like something had fallen on the porch or just inside the shopfront.
"Dinah," he breathed, reaching down to slip both spurs off his boots, "get your pistol, but don't come down." Damn that every pine board house ever built creaked, he thought. He knew where most of the worst spots were in this house and store from long practice, and he could lighten his step considerably, but if Roy'd just been knocked unconscious the boy could be used against him, he thought even as he was moving across the floor towards the back stairs, quick as his long strides would take him.
Dinah didn't say a word, just going to get her momma's pistol from where it rested, cursing that she was in the habit of leaving the shotgun downstairs, and Roy kept the rifle down there with Birdie's tackle as well. She moved light enough and had long been in the habit of avoiding the squeaking boards, so that her motion went relatively unnoticeable.
The very thing that Bruce had cursed might have been the thing to help him, because Roy would never have stepped on that one spot where the leak in the previous roof of the porch had worn at the wood below, making it creak distinctly different than the rest of the boards. The native-raised boy was too adept at being quiet to not have mapped out the worst sounds, which gave Bruce a location to track as he came down the stairs. That sound was almost enough to make the lawman go ahead and draw, but no... not just yet. He kept himself against the wall as he came down the stairs, hand resting nothing like lazy against the butt of the Colt at his hip.
The silhouette of a lanky man cut across the evening dimness of the mercantile from the door that Roy had gone out. The person's shape was none that could have been familiar to a sheriff that knew each and every settler in his small community. Tall and thin, face hidden in the shadow for a long moment, and then the head turned, revealing a sharp, long-nosed profile.
And that was familiar, well-known from the Wanted posters he and Dinah had been looking through the last week, and Bruce snapped out a sharp "Hold it!"
The figure turned and raised his hand, gun already in it, firing a shot off toward the voice without even really aiming. A sinister laugh came with the shot. "Oh the night promises rich entertainment for me!" the man said. "Come for a bird and net the law too?"
Bruce had already moved even as he snapped, off the stairs and behind a column, but the attempt on his own life -- and the obvious assault on Roy, given that the boy hadn't near to shrieked the roof off -- made him nearly wish to end this quickly. The sadistic joker that ran the J-Gang more than deserved being shot down like the dog he'd best not have hurt, but Bruce would rather have the judge set him to swinging and give the whole area the peace of a public hanging than just drill him and have done. He knew this store like the back of his hand, the other man didn't, and he wasn't four feet from the horseshoes. He moved again, two long strides to catch up three, another step to swap one into his better throwing hand, and he sent the heavy shoe spinning hard across the room at head-level, a second one following in the next moment, aimed a good bit lower.
The man was surprisingly agile, avoiding the first one, but the second one caught him in the thigh as he moved, severely impacting his mobility. "Oh that smarts!" the gang's leader said, firing a shot in Bruce's general direction again. "Shall we keep to this dance of bullets and steel, or will you be so kind as to leave me to my appointment with the pretty little thing upstairs?" The lanky man moved to get the table of furs and leathers for sale between them as cover.
Dinah would forgive him the damage to her goods if he had to shoot through them, Bruce told himself as the joker dodged behind the table. He wasn't fully covered, and that just might give him an opening... "You picked the wrong town," Bruce growled as he sent the last of the horseshoes he'd picked up sailing with his full strength and speed this time, straight at the skinny man's throat.
"I...urk..." The sound of whatever boastful noise was strangled as the horseshoe flew true and perfect into his throat. The gun he'd been holding clattered to the floor as the gang leader reached for his injury, choking, and falling away from the concealing table.
Bruce went over the set of shelves with a silent apology to Dinah for the clattering cans and ran the short distance between them, kicking the dropped pistol back towards the porch door hard as he could, and he dropped to a knee with his own Colt reversed in his hand, driving the butt into the choking outlaw's temple with all the force he felt safe using. The joker was out cold without another sound, before Bruce heard the step on the upper stairs that told him Dinah had decided enough waiting was enough.
"It's all right, Dinah," he called to her, "come check on Roy!"
"Moving that way." Dinah made the rest of the stairs swiftly, skipping the ones she could, and went across to where the door was ajar, finding Roy laid out in the shadow of the boarded window beside it. She turned him to his back, and winced as her fingers found sticky wetness at his forehead in searching him over. He seemed to be breathing fine, though. "Clobbered him on the skull... I'll need Doc to look him over. Do you need help?" She was calm and collected, despite this latest attack on her and her own. Panic would never help a thing.
"Boy needs to learn to watch that head of his," Bruce said, shaking his head slightly. "What've you got in the way of scrap pieces of rope?"
Dinah moved from Roy's side, going to where she kept supplies for lashing packages to wagons and mules. She found some good, strong cording that would hold to any amount of twisting and pulling and brought it over, finally looking at the cause of the whole ruckus. She shivered a little, to see the man who led such a ruthless gang laid out in her store. "Here. I'm going to go get the Doc." She did rest a hand on Bruce's shoulder for a moment, squeezing in gratitude.
Bruce shifted into her hand, and then started checking the man for knives, lock-picks, and anything else he could use to get out of the bindings, or the jail as soon as he'd hauled him down there. He found several of both, and tucked them into his own pockets, stripping off the man's gun-belt before he bound him wrist and ankle. Once he was sure that even if he came around, he wasn't going anywhere, he hauled him up across a shoulder and headed out to his horse -- and the Black stomped and bared snapping teeth before he allowed the burden to be thrown up over the saddle.
Dinah had ducked on out as soon as Bruce got to business, which meant that the Doc was coming just in time to see the horse being irritable at him. "Going to need a jail watch, Sheriff?" Doc Pritchard asked. "I'm sure Jones still has a few men around this evening. Surely some of them be good enough for making certain he stays put...and townsmen don't get froggy."
Wouldn't mind it a bit," Bruce agreed, "not least because his gang may well be hanging around outside town, too."
Doc nodded, then looked at Dinah behind him. "You and your boy will stay in my house tonight, Little Miss, no arguing!"
"I said none," Doc warned her. "Might not like the boy much, but you're in danger, and they won't expect you both to not be in the store."
"He's right, Dinah," Bruce said, untying the lead that had been holding the Black to head down towards the jail. "Doc, once you're sure Roy and their pup are all right, I hit this outlaw pretty hard. Might need to come check him over..."
"Once I've gone by Jones' to pick up a posse for you," Doc promised him. "I'll be right along." He turned to go on into the house, while Dinah went and found the dog, half afraid of what she'd find even if she hadn't really gotten that attached to the hound. She'd encouraged him to bond to Roy, despite the fact he was meant to protect her. Between Doc and Dinah, they got both patients to the house, as Speedy seemed to have some swelling around his head, and barely whined at being lifted up by his mistress. It promised to be a busy night, but still gave Dinah far too much time to brood and decide her next step in this madness.
Dinah didn't always make it to church with Roy in tow. Some Sundays, he was too recalcitrant, and others he couldn't find his shirt, or his shoes, but this week, she'd had a gleam in her eyes when she asked if he was coming. And Roy was smart enough to know that in light of the events on Friday, with the town still tense over the J-Gang and their leader, that Dinah was plotting. Which, he added in his head, meant he needed to be very near for when it all went up like a stick of dynamite.
The redhead noted who was present, as in most of the town, and decided staying near Dinah was better than going over to sit with Dick, because Barbara was right beside him with her father and step-mother. He really needed to figure out how to be a better friend to the girl, because she was important to both Dinah and Dick, but Roy hadn't figured out common ground with her. He'd barely gotten settled in, though, when Werner walked in with Lord, and every hair on the back of Roy's neck stood up. He tensed, only to feel Dinah's hand fall on his wrist. He looked at her, and the smile on her lips, the light in her eyes made him know that he better pay close attention, or else he was going to miss a very interesting piece of this dangerous game threatening his guardian.
His sole consolation in knowing things were going to boil over was a slight, petty satisfaction that Wilson would just have to hear about it later, instead of seeing it.
"Oh, Mister Werner, I'd like to talk with you about your interest in my mercantile," Dinah called in a lilting high tone before the church crowds had even thought about breaking up out front of the church. Many heads turned that way, as everyone in town knew the man had been after her to cede her store over for the last year.
"Why, Miss Lance, I'd be more than pleased to take you somewhere to speak of such business matters, even if it is a Sunday and the Lord frowns on working on the Sabbath," Werner told her, trying not to shift nervously at the sudden interest in speaking. He was walking on nails as it was, with his hired gun cooling heels in Wayne's jail.
"Oh, this is no work at all, Mister Werner, and it is an invitation to you to take a bit more rest, actually," Dinah replied in a manner that could have frozen water, despite the polite smile she wore. "The store is not for sale. It never will be. And that which cannot be bought? Certainly will not be won through terrorizing me or mine. Just, Mister Werner, in case any ideas of the such, with all my recent travails, had entered your poor mind," she informed him, meeting his eyes with a bold, firm conviction and those slim shoulders of hers thrown back. "I sure would pity the foolish man who ever attempted to set such things in motion, after all. Especially anyone who wasn't as much a native of this town as I am. It might just go poorly for him."
Bruce had moved towards the two the moment that he heard Dinah's tones ring out high and challenging, and her words, just shy of outright informing the other merchant that she thought he was behind all of her troubles, made him look swiftly for Jim. He had, so far, had no luck in getting his prisoner to confirm or deny anything -- to his very great frustration. Thankfully, he wasn't going to have to say anything to get him for both Roy and the try at himself. What Dinah thought she was doing... well, she was lucky she was a woman.
Jim caught his eye, nodded faintly, and then moved to where he'd have a better, clear shot at helping if things got out of hand. He wanted to shake his head at the Little Miss for her choice of confrontation methods, but what else did he expect from Larry's little girl? His best friend had once talked a raiding party out of burning down that mercantile, after all.
Werner felt the sweat break out on his forehead, and cursed inwardly. She had no proof, and she was only a woman. No matter what that gang had told her while she was in their custody, it would never stand in a proper court! Of course, proper and court was not what it had been in Europe, and Adrian Chase was known to be a stern judge for the towns up this way. "Why, Miss Lance, I am but a businessman."
"Then you prove it by keeping your nose away from my end of town, and we'll each see who turns profit next season, mind you, Mister Werner," she said, the tone quite frigid, but the smile never faltering. "After all, it's a wide territory, and our town is booming. Surely everyone here is witness to the fact that there is no need for us to have bad blood between us, wouldn't you say?" She did not let him drop his eyes from hers, despite the difference in their statures, wanting it very clear to him that she was not going to tolerate any more threats without answering in kind.
Doc Pritchard moved around the outside of the throng, and raised his voice, throwing in behind her. "I'd say you're quite right, Miss Lance."
Bruce kept his hands loose and easy, watching Werner -- there was sweat running down either temple, just a little, and he would bet that the brim of his hat was soaked... that was a sign of a guilty man, as was the way his calves and shoulders kept tensing. Unless he could convince that outlaw, or one of the gang, to talk, there might never be anything to tie Werner to the attacks on Dinah, but now he knew.
They'd see how this went from here, as long as it stayed peaceful for now. There were more than a few folks that would decide 'Little Miss' knew what she was talking about, and avoid Werner's store from here on out. If things went poorly enough for him, he'd leave. That might have to be good enough. Jim was apparently thinking along the same lines, as he moved to keep Werner from being able to have a clear way to run, but his hand was nowhere near his belt right now, despite the pistol he wore.
"So we shall," Werner finally answered her, aware that half the town or more was watching, listening, and they'd talk. Granted, he sold to many miners who had less ties in town, but he could feel his profits turning. The way Lord was appraising him now quailed his his mercenary heart; if the banker was unwilling to back his further expansions, he would see nothing gained here at the dirt end of nowhere.
"You have a mighty fine day, Mister Werner," Dinah said, before turning and steeping so that Roy quickly came up and offered his arm for her, escorting her in her pretty blue dress back to their home, with just one murderous glare at the man she'd just publicly flayed.
Slade had thrown his saddle and pack over his gray by lantern-light on Monday morning, and the big gelding had get-along to spare, as long as he had time to rest later. Slade intended him to, and he came up over the last of the hills well before the sun was hanging at full height, the gray loping along easy under his weight. He glanced along the last half-mile or so of country between him and the first of the houses, and his eye narrowed. That was the Sheriff's younger brother out between him and the town. Now why...
Dick, like many younger brothers, had made up the volunteer effort to keep watch out for the J-Gang, and had been helping to provide guards at the jail itself, since they were awaiting Marshall Kent to transport Roy's attacker for trial.
In keeping lookout, he noted the incoming rider, and frowned, then focused until he could make out the familiar horse, with its rider and that signature blue kerchief to keep the dust away. Roy wasn't going to be happy, but Dick allowed himself to feel some concern. Had the gang gone after the WG for their hand in the rescue? He spurred Robin a bit, going out to met the rider.
Slade watched as the other rider neared him, and drew up within easy speaking distance.
"Morning," Dick said easily, tension melting out at that easy greeting. "Had half-expected you were bringing bad news, since we hadn't seen sign of that gang coming here yet." Robin pulled up in response to his rider, prancing a little in place with Dick's pent-up energy.
"...any particular reason you'd think they would be?" Slade asked, his eye narrowing again, but at least Dick had relaxed instead of drawing tighter. "No, no bad news I know of..."
Dick gave a melodramatic sigh, then grinned. "Plenty of reason. We've got Jack Napier...at least that's the only name we can find on him...locked up in our jail!" he declared proudly. "My brother took him down clean, but we're sure the J-Gang's going to try and get him back."
"...no wonder you're out here," Slade said, taking a slow breath. "You're all probably right. For some reason, that bunch is loyal."
"Jim Gordon's hoping they've decided that going up against Little Miss might be too costly," Dick said with a bit of a laugh in his voice. "But, look at me and my manners." He heeled Robin on around. "It's about time for me to head in for a meal anyway; mind company?"
//'Little Miss'?// Slade wondered at the nickname, tucking it away to ask her about later. "They haven't had much luck when they've come after her," he agreed, then shrugged a shoulder. "Wouldn't mind at all."
Dick nodded pleasantly. "Guess it was Friday night we got him. Bruce was over at the Mercantile, before he was to head home, sharing a meal with her and Roy when it happened."
"Yeah?" Slade asked, even as the gray's head tossed and a front foot struck out at the tension he could suddenly feel from his rider.
Dick nodded, ignoring the horse's antics in favor of telling the story. "They wound up thinking a noise she'd heard was the dog moping on the porch. Turned out that joker had managed somehow to sneak up on the dog... Doc said the bone on the porch might have had something to do with it... and club him down. When Roy came to feed Speedy... that's the dog... he got himself laid out too." Dick shook his head, looking heavenward for a wish that Roy would be more aware of his own safety since he was good at it for other people most of the time. "Well, him hitting the boards got my brother downstairs to fix matters. He told Dinah to stay put with her pistol upstairs, not that she listened much past Bruce getting the man down." Dick grinned and smoothed Robin's neck a bit in joy and pride. "Used the horseshoes, flinging them just like rocks for skipping!"
//Against that lunatic?// Slade shook his head slightly, unsure if he was more impressed or appalled. He'd have just shot the man sooner than tried to subdue him. "That's something... your brother's going to have quite the reputation if y'all hang on to him all the way to a trial..."
"We're going to! Bad thing for that joker that we're going into cold weather, so a few more of us are able to ride lookout and hold vigil at the jail!" He had all the faith in the world that justice would prevail in this case. "'Course then she had to go and stir things up worse yesterday at church." Dick sighed long and loud. "All but called Werner out in front of the whole town!" Robin pranced a bit at the high spirits; Dick had been impressed by the sheer steel in Dinah's spine over that whole thing, no matter how dangerous Jim and Bruce said it had been of her.
"...what?" Slade asked, his voice low and sharp with worry.
The younger man laughed with admiration. "Oh she didn't outright accuse him of hiring the J-Gang, but she left it pretty clear to all of us that she thought he might have. And warned him off any more of that nonsense," Dick told Slade. "All nice and polite and smiling the whole time. This just two days after that man tried to get into her home! And not a whole week after coming home from being abducted!"
"...I knew I shoulda headed back here sooner," Slade murmured, unsure if he more wished that he'd been there to try and convince her not to, or just wished he'd been there to see it. Alright, no, he did know. He wished he'd been there to see it.
Dick cocked his head that way, then gave a sly smile. "She's something else. Bruce and Mister Gordon were all frustrated with her, but think it will dry up some of Werner's business and just make him move on. They don't think he's got enough stomach for direct reprisal, and with us holding Napier...he's cooked if Napier starts talking."
"He didn't have enough stomach to face me, when I didn't like how he was speakin' to Dinah," Slade said, slow and thoughtful. "Think I agree with the Sheriff, he doesn't."
"You're right," he said after a breath, "she's definitely something else."
The younger man kept the smile at that particular tone locked down. He didn't know Wilson directly all that well, but for all Roy's griping about him, Dick could tell Roy had come to respect the man, and so Dick extended that courtesy too. "They made her stay with Doc that first night, but she refused to hear of anyone else's offer after that and went right on back home."
"...I'm impressed they convinced her that first night," Slade said, shaking his head a little. "Stubborn as she is."
Dick snorted. "Roy did have a head injury, and so did the hound. I think that was the only reason they won."
Slade chuckled, low, and nodded his agreement. "...that would explain it, she wouldn't have wanted to leave them."
Robin nickered a bit, expressing Dick's amusement at the whole situation. "We'll get this all tidied up soon enough, though, and she can go back to just being herself. Funny, how folks used to go on about her independence like it was a bad thing, but here lately she's something of a hero for being so strong. People are funny."
"Dick," Slade said after a moment, "you just said a mouthful. People sure are."
Dick quieted then, thinking, wondering just why Slade had come back to town. He thought about asking outright, but Alfred had long since taught him that such curiosity was not fit manners. So he just rode in, wondering if Roy'd feel up to taking evening watch at the jail with him.
Dinah was sweeping off the porch, thinking about just what else she needed to make certain was done on the building itself before it got too cold to do much of anything. She wasn't minding much else but the list in her head, when Speedy pushed up to his feet and gave one bark, the announcement that someone was coming up. She turned, looking at the street, shading her eyes with her hand. When she noted Dick on Robin, she had a half smile, but then she truly noted the second rider.
Slade Wilson was a fairly strong-built man, nice and tall with broad shoulders to match. Sitting astride the gray just emphasized everything she loved about the way he was made, bringing the faintest of blushes to her cheeks for thinking about futures that might not even be in his head at all.
For his part, the big rancher was already looking her way, and he reined the gray in in front of the store, turning his head. "Catch you around, Dick," he told the boy riding beside him, then he turned his attention back to Dinah, looking at the faint flush of her cheeks with a smile of his own. "Morning, Dinah."
"Speedy, stay," she told the hound that was starting to walk toward the edge of the porch. Blake's dogs were always good; the dog knew basic commands and obeyed, though he remained stiffly aware of Slade's presence. "Now I just have to be wondering what in all the hills we might have forgotten in all the supply runs you've made this year that you'd be back so soon," Dinah said, more to cover her nerves at being so affected by him than anything else, yet it was full of her bold sassiness anyway. She came down off the porch onto the street, right up to where he was with the gray.
Slade laughed, shaking his head as he shifted his weight enough to show the pack behind him. "Didn't forget a thing, this time. Wintergreen got tired of having me underfoot when we had the ranch buttoned up nice and tight already."
Dinah caught the full impact of his words, and tipped her head up to smile shyly at him. "And you decided that passing time here might be worth your attention?" she asked him, knowing her throat shouldn't be so dry and wondering why her pulse was quite that loud.
"Sure nowhere else I wanted to be," Slade said, looking down at that shy -- too shy, for her, bold as brass lady that she was -- tip of her head and her smile, feeling sweat prickle against his palms inside his gloves, "long as I'm welcome..."
"More than," Dinah promised him, quick and firm and sure of herself in that moment. "Mrs. Pritchard's already said you stable your gray here for all time," Dinah reminded. "Which just leaves the matter of you and a room, now doesn't it?" She wished for a moment that she could let her spare room to him, but oh the town would be up in arms over that! "I'm certain the Widow will dicker a fair price, and if you take your meals with me and Roy...."
She took his breath away, just a little, at how quick and certain her words were, and he didn't try and tell himself she meant anything but that she thought he was welcome, and that was really all that mattered to him. "Fairly sure as she will," Slade agreed, nodding, and then he smiled just a little more. "That's a generous offer, Dinah, but you won't hear me say 'no' to it. Thank you."
She felt the whole world spinning down into this tiny space on the street, in front of her store, her home, with this man, and knew that she was as certainly lost as she had ever feared over this thing called love. The best part of it was that she didn't mind so much. He had come, and there could only really be one reason why. "I'm looking forward to many meals shared," she told him, before stepping back so he could see to his horse and gear.
He leaned down, catching her hand before she could take more than a step back, looking down at her. "Be back shortly, Dinah," he said, "want to go offer the sheriff a hand keeping his catch until the trial."
"I'm sure he'd appreciate that," she told him, squeezing his hand. "Slade... I'm very glad to see you."
"...I'm glad of it," Slade said, tightening his hand back on hers, still careful with her slim fingers as he nodded slowly. "Think as I'd have been riding on if you weren't... and I wouldn't've cared for it."
She drew in a deep breath, then looked down just a bit, a quiet little smile on her lips. "Go on now, Slade. I've got work, and you've got talking."
He straightened back up, slowly letting go of her hand, and lifted his other hand to the brim of his hat for a moment before he took the gray's reins and shifted his weight to send the big horse on down to the jail.
Bruce was sitting outside the jail; the prisoner had gone into one of his disturbing laughing spells, leaving him a little off-temper to sit in there. He had a man sitting on the backside of the jail as well, so he wasn't too worried. However, for just a moment as he saw Slade Wilson riding in, he wondered if maybe Tim's suspicions, and Kent's, were right. He forced all that aside; it was too elaborate a ploy to play villain and hero just to win a woman's favor, and it was unbecoming of Bruce to think so unfairly.
Slade drew up in front of him and dropped off the gray's back, flipping the reins up past his ears to ground-tie him for the few minutes he was going to be. "Sheriff," he said, nodding up into the shadows of the porch. "Your brother said you'd had some luck ending this mess over the weekend... You need another hand keeping eyes out for the rest of his gang?"
Bruce sized the man up, really taking in the look of him. It would be nice to have someone who wasn't half worrying about his own homestead the whole time. "I'm certainly not going to say no, Mr. Wilson. We're not certain they're in the area, but Kent's not shown up yet to take the prisoner off our hands and I don't want him being broken out."
"No, that's the last thing anyone needs," Slade agreed, shaking his head at the very thought. "When do you need me?"
Bruce gave some thought to it; Wilson would be looking to have lodging, and probably slept light being a foreman like he was. "Make you a deal. Take on the night watch, and you can have use of that cot inside. I know Wintergreen; he'd only hire the best he could get, so I'm pretty certain you'd be able to hear anything going wrong even if you were sleeping."
"...that's a mighty fine offer, and I'll take it," Slade agreed. That would keep a little more cash in his pockets, which was something he'd never turn aside.
"Soon as Kent takes the man off our hands, I'm probably going to be looking for a few volunteers to accompany him," Bruce hinted. "Normally able to pay two dollars a day for that kind of duty."
"Taking him to Bozeman?" Slade asked, though he already knew he was going to say yes. That would be some of the easiest money he'd ever made, and he wanted to make certain Dinah didn't have any more trouble like this. "I've got time on my hands, and no reason not to..." Barring, of course, that that cussed Yankee Marshall made him want to haul off and punch him about every time he opened his mouth.
Bruce moved toward him, holding out a hand to shake on it. "Welcome to town, Wilson, and thank you."
Slade shook, letting his mouth curve in a smile. "Thanks, Sheriff. Wish I'd made it to the service yesterday, but then, a man can't have everything. See you around dark?"
Bruce had to smile ruefully and shook his head at that. "That girl..." He sighed gustily, then got a little more serious look to his eye as he met Slade's gaze fully. "She's quite well-thought of by most of town, Wilson. Even if she's unconventional. All your help with this recent mess is appreciated, and it's set more people favorably toward you." Bruce would not see Dinah hurt, not when he felt like she was something nearly kin after having a business relationship with her and her mother so long. "I'm trusting you to be mindful of how precarious her reputation is, though, being so independent."
Slade took a breath, refusing let his mouth thin and his eye narrow until he'd thought for a moment. Dinah did always speak fondly of Wayne, he obviously cared for her, and she needed someone that did. He took another breath, and nodded once. "She's a fine young woman, and I wouldn't see her hurt because of me."
"Good." Bruce would let it go at that, and just keep a watchful eye on things. "Around dark, then." He moved to go back inside, to check on the prisoner, satisfied with the extra help.
Chapter 13: Chapter Twelve
All of it gets wrapped up.
The skies were dark with no moon and the stars overcast by wisps of the clouds hinting at foul weather on the way. The town slept peacefully, the outriders pulled back in as temperatures were dipping by night into dangerously biting cold. The night was not empty, though, as a man checked his timepiece by the glow of his cigar, half the hired hands mounted behind him. Matt Hagen had long since considered himself the number two man, and Crane getting himself killed might just prove that to Boss, once they got him out. Jones, on the other end of the town, with the other half of the gang, wasn't smart enough for a man as keen as Mistah J was. They'd ride into town as quiet as Injuns, slipping between shadows, and hit the jail with all they had before riding Scot-free.
That was the plan. All he needed was for his watch to hit the right time, and they'd move in, just like Jones at the other side.
The night was quiet, and cold enough that Slade was inside the jail instead of outside. He hated losing the ability to hear outside, but given the choice between gloves too heavy to handle the trigger with and a few less seconds warning, Slade was more inclined to trust his instincts and keep his hands unbound. It was cool even inside, the jail's walls not thick enough to block out the cold, and the potbellied stove didn't give warmth enough to heat the entire jail, even small as it was. So he moved from edge to edge of the room, keeping warm with the motion.
His prisoner seemed unaffected by the entire mess, though he'd complained loudly enough about the cold before bundling up in the blankets and beginning to snore in a buzz-saw voice. Slade found that noise one more annoyance, but made himself filter it out just as he would the lowing of cattle on long night watches. He had to be alert, because the hit, if it was coming, had to come soon; marshal Kent rarely delayed his travels for long, and he'd know he was needed from Wayne's telegrams to the other towns.
Outside, beyond his hearing or sight if he'd looked out the window, the gang was proving him right, slipping through town with care so their horses' hooves didn't strike too hard. One of the boys, barely shaving, was sent along the back side of the row, aiming to come up alongside the corner of the cell within the jail, stick of dynamite and a sparker ready to sit it alight. On the front side, Jones had another stick, and was already smoking his own tobacco for a ready light.
The wind gusted, sharp enough to push through the tar-paper and the chinking, in around the window's glass... and it brought tobacco smoke with it. Just a trace, but enough to turn Slade towards the window before it broke, the shattering of the glass almost buried in the wind -- and the hissing acrid pop of a lit fuse on a stick of dynamite. Slade snapped forward, grabbing the stick before it hit the floorboards and flinging it back out the open window, intending it to land in the middle of the street. His other hand palmed his Colt, even as he raised his voice in a wild, undulating cry -- it would carry further and louder than any scream.
"Damn!" came the curse from outside on the front of the building; the plan called for the front to make the noise so the boy on the backside could do his thing. He was moving fast, using his knife to scuff out the ground enough to hold the stick up and right under the corner of the building.
Inside, the prisoner came awake with a muttered imprecation, and then snapped to full alertness with a cackle that raised the hair on some of the men coming to rescue him. "That's it, boys! Pour on the trouble!"
Over at the Widow's, none too far from the jail, Slade's wild yell was having an effect, waking the rest of the hands that had come in off nearby ranches to help the Sheriff. Lanterns flared, and men scrabbled for gun-belts and boots. The dynamite exploding, free and clear of anyone of the raiders, unfortunately, added impetus.
Slade turned, realizing that with dynamite one place it would be another, and he moved fast, getting the key in his hand and into the lock of the cell door despite them, and then was into the cell. If he were trying to break a man out, and had dynamite, that's what he'd do. But it would be a lot harder to spring an unconscious body. However, the man was anticipating it the minute Slade touched the door, and he surged to his feet to try and wrestle that gun away and make a break for it. He had height, and that strength that came with being caged, seeking freedom as he jumped the foreman from the WG.
Gunshots from the street indicated at least one man had made it out, but too many of the shots were close to the jail and not coming from the Widow's at this point.
Slade flipped the gun around in his hand, using the butt as a weapon in one hand as he closed in with the rangy outlaw. He didn't have attention for the rest of the world, not with the maddened snake striking at him, though the gunshots did penetrate, somewhat.
"Shouldn't have thrown your lot in with this miserable town, Wilson. What are you going to do when that pretty little girl finds out you ride the trails for more than herding?" the outlaw baited, avoiding a strike. "I've heard of your work. Got a mad on against the tribes."
Outside, the gunfire intensified, even as at one corner of the building, a fuse was lit, limiting the time Slade had to subdue the man within.
"Reasons for it," Slade said as he lashed out with a kick, aiming for a kneecap, dodging the fist that followed the outlaw's words. He wasn't about to confirm to the outlaw that he wasn't here for the town, he was here for her -- he didn't need that any more exposed than it already was. "And you give the rest of us a bad name. Reason enough to help them."
The outlaw was dodgy and flexible, skipping out of range of the kick, though he didn't quite get clear of the next swipe his way. He was moving when it landed, and wound up spinning toward the back wall of the jail. "Ooh, that stings. Wonder how much it will sting for you when we blaze the whole town, including that store..."
Slade kept the snarl back, just moving to get hold of him and fling him away from that wall -- when the corner shook. He flung his arm up over his eyes as the reek of dynamite and broken brick rode the air, just for a moment, then looked to see the results.
There was a hole in the wall, just large enough to scrape through for his own size, but apparently the placement had blown too much masonry inward, and his adversary was most certainly no longer going to amble out of the jail, as a solid chunk had caught the outlaw in the head, knocking him to the ground, though whether he was dead or alive would take more checking than Slade had as the dynamite user was at the hole.
"Mistah J... oh hell!" The young hand went for his gun, but he had a knack for explosives and setting fires, not gun-slinging
Slade flipped the gun in his own hand -- and the boy's painfully slow draw gave him just enough time to snap out, "Don't!" It was the only warning he was going to give, hammer already thumbed back and his finger on the trigger.
Garfield Lynns had taken too much grief for being the slow 'kid' and that deprecating, in his own ears, warning sounded like one more piece of ridicule, making him bring his gun up for the shot, wanting to prove himself and get their boss out of this jail.
Slade shot, aiming just a touch right of center. It'd probably still kill him, he knew. The younger man fell back away from the hole, and the sound of gunfire came in from that side as well. The men from the Widow had managed to flank the building and found the other half of the gang, with more men turning out in response to the shooting. This wasn't a peaceful town that would roll over into lawlessness. They meant to keep their own safe, and send a clear message that wrongdoers would get justice, either by bullet or rope.
Slade kept the gun in his hand as he kicked the chunk of masonry away from 'Mistah J's' body, leaning down enough to haul him up with one hand and move him back onto the bunk, before he stood at an angle from the hole in the wall, just waiting. He certainly had opportunity to work his recognition and quick trigger, as two more members tried to get to their boss. The war in the streets, though, was making itself felt, and the gang started looking to save their own necks, rather than be caught and made to suffer the same fate as their boss.
Slade stayed where he was through the sounds of the changing situation, looking darkly at the small pile of bodies in the dim light from the lantern spilling across the jail. That was an image he could have done without, echo of older sights, but he just kept his eye out -- and his ears on the body on the bunk -- as he waited for the fight to end.
The prisoner was alive, though he was going to be addled from the blow, no doubt. Slowly, the shots ceased, and voices rang out, getting everyone to update their condition out loud. The gang members were inspected for signs of life before an all clear was given that the Widow and other women folk could come lend a hand to the wounded. The gang members that had survived were trussed up harshly, but it wasn't much past the all-clear that Wayne came toward the porch, having stayed in town since he did have a prisoner.
"Wilson?" he called, wisely by his lights, to see if the man was hale.
"Fine, Wayne," Slade called back, having stepped out of the cell and back into the main room. "Come on in."
The sheriff did so, spotting the unconscious prisoner inside the cell. Then he set to inspecting the damage to the wall and the window, unhappy at it, before he turned his eyes to Wilson. "You did fine work, keeping him in here. We owe you."
Slade shook his head, not about to stand for that. "Needed done," he disagreed, shrugging just a little. "Told you I'd help you see him hang. He took a good chunk of the cell to the head," he added. "Still breathing, though."
Bruce filed away that dismissal, and put a note in his mind that he'd better start softening Jim up about Slade Wilson, because the man seemed on the up and up, a fact Bruce ascribed as much to his interest in Dinah as to just being the man he was. "Good. A few of the ones in the street will make it, while some... wish the men had had more light to shoot by for the next few hours. Doc's been sent for, but it will be our people before them, of course. We've a good nurse too, and I sent Dick to fetch her from the other end of town." He gave Slade a look over. "Not hurt, are you? Got a scratch there from the mortar, looks like," he said, pointing to Slade's cheek where a chip had managed to catch him in the explosion.
Slade reached up, the sting suddenly demanding his attention, and shook his head. "Not so as you'd notice, except this," he said with another shrug. "The one that set the dynamite might have a chance, too. Where're you putting them?"
"It's a toss between the stables at Pritchard's or forcing them all out to one of the ranches nearby, unless Dinah or Werner were to let us use their cellar space. Much as I'd love to put a cat among the pigeons by getting Werner to cooperate, I'm worried just what that might entail, and don't want to be under any obligation if the man isn't as guilty as he looks." Bruce scratched at his head. "The two mercantiles, though, have the largest space, outside of the stables."
"They do," Slade agreed, "and might be that they have to take them. I'll take the boy to the stables for now, if he's still breathing, and go see what would have to be moved to put them under Dinah's store."
Bruce nodded, and went on into the cell to put irons on the prisoner; rope wasn't going to be enough, not after this. He set about getting more light in the jail, listening as the Widow calmly took charge out int he street to organize aid for the townsfolk, while setting a solid guard around the outlaws. She was such a stable presence, capable and smart, as well as fearless. He was proud to call her friend, for all those reasons.
Slade reached under the others to get the boy's body. He did still have a pulse, but when Slade touched his shoulder he felt the amount of blood there, and he felt little hope of his survival. He lifted him anyway, and headed towards the stable by the burning lights.
The lights of the mercantile were full on, upstairs and down, with just the barest hint of an extra shadow on the roof from the angle Slade could see. He got in line with one of the windows' sight-lines, and then there was motion inside, as Dinah came out, pistol tucked in the waist of the breeches she had on beneath a long but open dressing gown. The top she wore with the outlandish ensemble was clearly for sleeping in, but she was alert and grateful to see him.
"Speedy, stay," Dinah called even as she got to the door. "Who's that -- no, never-mind.. blood? Yours, or... no, it's his, isn't it?" she rattled, as she came down from the porch in a hurry.
"It's his," Slade agreed. "Sheriff said to take him up to the stable for now. You'd have heard the explosions. One got the cell-wall of the jail, in the corner."
Her lips thinned, then she nodded. "Doc took off that way soon as the noise started." She walked with him, going to open doors, and take a look at how best to handle a patient. She cleared the table that was to one side, throwing a riding blanket down on it for Slade to lay his burden down on.
Slade laid the boy down, careful as he could be, and cut the shirt away, intending to use it to at least put pressure on the wound, trying very, very intently not to think about the breeches showing under Dinah's dressing gown, and the fine, firm shape of the legs they displayed. "Find me something to tie this with 'til doc's freed up?" he asked, cutting the shirt again to turn it into a pad.
Dinah nodded, and got the vet kit off the hook it was kept on, bringing it over with all its myriad supplies. "I hear out East, animals and people get separate doctors," she commented, her hands quickly producing the hemp cord. She didn't ask why Slade was trying to save the young man who was obviously an outlaw in his badly kept clothes and ragged hair. If he was moved to compassion, she would aid him. It wasn't like she didn't know people weren't all they looked to be. "How bad was it; sounded a bit like the year the Frenchmen got into a bad scrape with their trading partners and got chased all the way to us."
"One of them threw a stick of dynamite in at me -- I threw it back," Slade said, his voice wry. "Then I knew they'd try the back wall, and went to make sure we kept hold of him. We scrapped a minute, before a piece of the wall coming in did me a favor and hit him square in the skull. This one had set it," he added as he wrapped the makeshift dressing tight as he could, front and back. "...I've seen slower hands with pistols, but not often."
"Not rightly pleased he even thought about it, nor do I like this whole business of playing with overcharged fireworks," Dinah told him saucily, eyes darting over him in the light of the lantern left by the doc on his hasty departure with his own horse and bag. "Sounds quieted down now, but the first boom was what sent Roy onto the roof with the rifle, and me to the till's stand with my pistol." That was possibly the most defensible point of the mercantile, though she'd have been wiser to stay up above and barricade her door... unless they'd set fire on leaving the town.
"My ears are still ringing a little," Slade said for agreement with her about the dynamite, though it warmed him again to hear that saucily protective edge in her voice. "Good places for the both of you," he said to that last, nodding. "They picked the right night for their side of things," he had to mutter as he finished tying it off, "Roy wouldn't have been able to see much."
"I know," she admitted. "Chill says snow, not rain, probably by tomorrow evening." She hated the whimsical first snows of the season deepening toward winter. "Do they need more hands in? I could send him on," she murmured, her hand straying to his once he got the boy's wound tied down.
Slade brushed the blood off on his jeans before he took her hand lightly. "They've got enough hands... but nowhere to put the ones they took alive, not with the jail blown open." He looked down at her, knowing she was more than smart enough to come to the next question on her own.
Dinah thought about that; the ringleader couldn't have escaped; Slade would have been on his heels and not worrying over an outlaw bleeding to death. That meant the issue at hand was...her cellar. She frowned slightly, because that would be a tinderbox, but she also didn't trust Werner as far as she could spit. "I'll get Roy to moving goods from there up to the store, and move our food over into Mrs. Pritchard's root cellar." She squeezed his fingers slightly, and moved to leave, the dressing gown swirling a little to show off those legs.
"I'll help you with that, Dinah," Slade said softly, not letting go of her hand as he followed her. "I'm no doctor, and he's not going anywhere. Some of them might, if we don't get somewhere to put them."
"Can't have that," she said firmly. "I think I'd better send Roy at dawn for Gardner's cart and beasts. If they've got enough prisoners for my cellar, it will take that to get them on over to Bozeman when the marshal shows to take charge. I'm sure Bea will convince her husband of the need, and we can find a driver for it, since he's got both the women and a baby." That meant letting Roy off the heavy work, and letting him get some sleep instead. "Sound right?"
"He's the closest with the kind of wagon it will take," Slade agreed, wishing this had happened even a few weeks earlier, when the train would have been an option to transport them. This was going to be ugly work. "Sounds like a sound plan."
Dinah sighed softly, missing her daddy, who had told her stories of when their town had been more lawless, and he and Uncle Jim had been cleaning it up. She knew a lot from that, but she wished again he was still here. "Let's get Roy off to bed, then, and you and I will see to moving what needs moved."
Slade nodded, squeezing her fingers again before he let go as they went up the steps to her porch. She stayed closer to him than absolutely necessary as they went up.
"Use the guest room window to get to Roy, tell him the plans, while I see to getting properly dressed, Slade?" she requested as they got inside the store itself, where Speedy did growl once, before subsiding because the scent was allowed.
"Yes, Dinah," Slade agreed, walking beside her up the stairs before he headed to that window. She needed proper skirts and a blouse on before anyone else saw her, he knew, much as he would regret losing the sight of her still half sleep-mussed and in those breeches besides. He pushed the window open, cold slapping him in the face, and lifted his voice. "Roy."
"Wilson." The boy had tight discipline to have not left his position the entire time, even with them out and moving. He kept his eye, and ears, even now to the street, listening as distant voices filtered back this way.
"Sheriff thinks we've got them all. Dinah plans to send you to Gardner's in the morning to hire his cart and beasts, so come in, get yourself some sleep." Slade relayed the messages. "We're going to be moving everything from the cellar upstairs, to have room to put the ones we took with the jail blown," he added, explaining why things were going to be some loud downstairs. Roy rolled with one more scout look, then made his way quietly back inside, showing the cold in his nose and cheeks, though he did have a pair of mittens that he'd slit to allow his finger and thumb both out.
"Don't let her move nothing too rough; hands aren't that thickened yet," Roy said in trust of Slade's ability to take care of the woman, heading toward his room.
"I know," Slade agreed, nodding at his back as he headed down the stairs.
Dinah hurried to slip free of her night clothes, and into a proper blouse, twisting her hair up and back with an expert hand. She considered leaving her skirt off in view of the heavy lifting, but she wasn't about to give any outlaw the pleasure, and found one that moved freely enough for stock work. However, she did find the belt she'd had made for her pistol, and slid it on over the skirts, to keep the sidearm available. When she made it down below, she was very much a frontierswoman in all ways to see.
Slade was in the store when she came down, waiting for her -- it was her property, and he wasn't sure where she would want things. Seeing her with the gun on her hip and her hair bound, steady and confident, make him wish, intently, that they had somewhat less work to do.
"Alright. So my cellar is locked, but Mrs. Pritchard rarely locks hers. We'll shift any merchandise up here, in between my counters of goods, and My food I'll move over to hers, once I let her know I'm going to be in there. I think I'm about to be glad I had a leaner year on trades than usual, as I don't have quite as much as I might have had going into winter," she told him. "Mostly the heavier things that I don't like to keep up here, or whatever I have in abundance." She led him out the back to the storage cellar, and thanked the cool air for what was to come. "We'll see how much space we need to move things out of, and get anything useful out of there in a hurry." She kept good blades, axes, and the like down there too. Those were some of her most useful trading items with the local tribes.
Slade nodded his agreement, glancing over the goods in the light of the lantern he held. "I think we're going to want more light," he said thoughtfully.
Dinah frowned, then remembered the pitch torches she stocked for miners. They didn't use them down in the depths, but often left them lit at the mouth in case they came up after dark obscured the entrance. That was preferable to using up her oil, and she could get more from the Canadian traders when they came through this way. She moved over to where she thought she had stored them, then jury-rigged mounts for them after opening both doors of the cellar wide. "This do?" she asked as she got them both lit.
Slade blinked against the brighter light for a moment, then nodded. "Should do just fine," he agreed, before hanging the lantern on a hook along the other wall. After that, it was just a matter of putting his shoulder and hands to the work.
Dinah was right there beside him, slender body trained to strength many women would find improper, at least in more civilized cities. She helped him shift the things one person ought not, and carried the smaller bundles to get them out of his way. Soon enough, the cellar was ready to be used as a jail, and Dinah sighed softly. "You go on up inside, Slade. I'll ride up and tell the Sheriff we've got space," she said.
Slade studied her face for a moment before he nodded his acceptance. "All right, Dinah. I... think I could use a wash and some sleep, honestly." She nodded, then moved quickly to him, taking both his hands, and popping up to kiss the unbloodied side of his cheek, under his good eye. She hastily moved back, but surely no one could blame her for rewarding a man that had taken such risks without even belonging to their town?
"Basin's in my room, and I keep a pitcher of water near the stove in there. You might as well sleep on in there; largest bed, and I'll likely be helping feed people that turned out, or the ones we caught," she said as swiftly as she could to cover up her nerves.
The kiss had caught him by surprise, but it made him smile at her even before her words struck his sense of the amusing. "Mm... fair enough," he said, his tone thoughtful, "as you had mine not that long ago..."
She turned faintly pink in the light of the lantern from his words, before stubbing out the pitch torches, and going to bury their ends in the water pail under the corner of the building, rather than risk a fire. She was not thinking such scandalous thoughts of how it would feel to share a bed with him, no matter what. No, she just wasn't going to! She had a horse to get, and a message to take, and a dozen other duties, she was sure.
Slade smiled to himself at her flush before he followed her up the stairs and went on to find the water and the basin and clean what was left of the blood away. He tossed the water out when he was done, and after that, went back to her bedroom, stripping down to undershirt and long underwear to slide between her sheets. The bed, long since hers once she'd decided she was actually the owner of the home, smelled clean, smelled of her more specifically, and was very comfortable. He rolled once, settling onto his stomach, arms tucked under the pillow and crossed below his forehead, telling himself to sleep despite the light growing in the window... and he was out in moments.
Marshal Kent had received word two towns over that he was needed, and set out toward Wayne's town. Unfortunately, a weather front had pushed him to take shelter with one of the ranchers out that way, delaying him longer than he had expected. When he finally did sight town, he let out a breath for the relief that the J-Gang had not apparently retaliated, or at least not that he could see from the distance.
It took riding in much closer for him to see that he'd been wrong, at least in part. The unmistakable thrown earth of dynamite exploding in the street was in front of the jail as a clue that something had happened after all, and no smoke came from the jail's chimney.
He had to ride near to the porch, to see a sign scrawled on a slate, informing the town that the Sheriff, if in town, would be found at the Mercantile on the end of town until weather permitted them to rebuild. That made him curious, so Kent circled the row of buildings, and saw that the back wall was certainly damaged. The few folks out and about nodded politely at him, but no one seemed worse for wear or completely scared, which left him scratching his head as he continued on down toward the Lance place.
Bruce saw him coming, out the window, and stepped out onto the porch, walking to the edge of the railing. "Good to see you, Clark."
"Bruce." The marshal cocked his head. "I saw the jail," he said, not sure what he needed to ask when Bruce looked fine, and the town seemed calm.
Bruce's mouth twisted unhappily, but he nodded. "Hard to miss. They tried getting him back. They lost. We've several men for you to take along, now -- yes, I know how hard that's going to be. Hired you a cart and the beasts for it, and some help." He paused for a moment, then decided that sometimes Clark just needed to have blunt facts laid out for him. "Wilson was in the jail that night -- only reason it's not in more pieces, and more reason that that lunatic didn't escape. He's part of the help I hired."
Clark Kent was a man of firm principles. The South was wrong, and that was all there had been to the war. But he wasn't so unfair that he couldn't take an account like that and revise his opinions of an individual. "I suppose that's for the better. At least we'll get one gang broken off our trails," he said, not quite willing to lay all the evils of the territory at the feet of the J-Gang.
"We will, at that. Had a few die in the gunfight that we matched to some Wanted posters after," Bruce said, nodding in return. "The prisoners we did take are all down in the cellar here -- only place I could think of that was solid enough and big enough."
Clark nodded. "Explains having shop here, instead of at the Widow's," Clark reasoned. "Well, if we have a cart and men, no reason not to roll at dawn tomorrow."
"Yup. And I can't see one," Bruce nodded. "Probably ought to, even."
"Miss Lance boarding the guards overnight? I'll take a turn, of course." Clark was keen on personal responsibility, especially his own.
"She is," Bruce said, thoughtful for a moment... but it was probably best if Clark and Wilson made certain they could deal with each other with reason for at least Wilson to be on his best behavior close by, he decided. "Laid some furs down to make the boards an easier rest, even."
"She's a kindly girl," Clark noted absently, as he was eying the layout of the street and alley, making certain he knew the approaches this way, though it was doubtful more trouble would come. "We'll get the cart pulled in on this side of the building, keep the beasts in Pritchard's stable, if he'll allow, and then set up the transfer first sign of light in the sky." Clark wanted this affair finished. He then looked at Bruce. "Any of them talking much? Still not sure why they raided this far north."
Bruce's mouth tightened, his head shaking. He might have had a chance to find out, if he'd been able to separate the leader from the rest of the men, but they were cowed by him, and he... Bruce hated to admit it, but the laughing maniac's refusals to say a single useful word, while filling his ears with prattle, had worn him nearly down to his last nerve.
"Damn. Well, still. We have them. Several witnesses to some of their depredations. Caught in the act of attacking your jail. Too bad your postal office doesn't abut the jail; could have added charges on a federal level." Clark shrugged his shoulders in a 'what can you do' expression. "I'll see them to Bozeman, and Judge Chase will see to the rest."
Bruce smiled wryly, his eyes amused as he added to the litany. "He also whacked Harper in the skull, coming after Dinah, and tried to shoot me. "
"The attack against the boy might not be much help, mind you; some few know his background. But Miss Lance is a respected businesswoman, as her parents were, and Larry Lance's name still has weight. That threat will go far in the charges. Not to mention attacking a lawman who is also a respected rancher in these parts." Clark looked satisfied; justice would prevail!
Bruce had to admit Clark had a point about Roy, said it in the shift of his shoulder and the nod, but he shared Clark's satisfaction on the rest of it. He was going to be glad to be rid of them, he had to admit, but between Clark and Wilson, he was fairly sure nothing would give them more trouble than they could handle on the way to Bozeman.
"If you've got things under control for the moment, I'm going to go get me a meal at the Widow's, then return," Clark told Bruce, respectful to the local lawman.
"I've got it," Bruce said, flicking Clark an easy smile, standing down on the familiar thread of tension at Clark and the Widow being close -- they were all friends, and anything else was not worth thinking of.
Clark nodded, then rode back in to the center of town, headed for Diana Trevor's place, and a decent meal.
Slade finished looping the last of the chains through the rig they had bolted into the cart frame the day before, throwing the hasp on the lock and stepping back, out of the way to turn and head for the stable to saddle his gray, moving easily in the dawn light. Dinah had been up well before dawn, fixing breakfast for the three of them that had slept the night over. She ought to be back in the store, starting on opening up for the day, but he hoped, as he stepped into the warmer air of the stable, that she wasn't.
Luck was on his side, as she had only just finished going over the cold weather gear she could offer the posse moving the prisoners. She'd even donated the slept on furs to keep their sorry hides warmer despite the harm their leader had intended for her. She had a firm sense of justice, but it included trial and due process when possible. She'd wanted to send Roy, but both Bruce and Slade had insisted in their own way that she needed to keep him on hand, just in case any stragglers from the gang got ideas of revenge.
Having done what she could for them, she had begun to go back inside, but Slade's motion caught her eye, and she turned her stride for the stable instead. She wanted to be able to say farewell, away from the eyes of the men assisting Marshal Kent, where the feelings between them couldn't cause them any embarrassment.
Slade heard the door slide behind him, and turned once he'd slipped the bridle over the gray's ears, smiling at seeing her standing there. "Dinah," he said softly, leaving his horse to move to her. She smiled at him, edge of worry around her eyes. It was hard to do this, to know she loved this man and see him go off on a lawman's expedition. But she was a woman of her environment, and she'd never say a word against his choices, not when she'd have gone with him if she could.
"Just wanted to make sure you'd be fine on the ride," she said softly to hide what she wanted to say in truth.
"I'll be fine," he answered, reaching out to catch her hands in his gently, "and once we're done with the ride, and the judge has them, this mess will be over..."
"Yes, it will be." It made her a little sad. With her safely out of danger, Slade would surely go home to his ranch, and then it would be spring before she saw him again. Still, she could not let him see that, as she rubbed her thumb over his fingers. "Just be safe out there, Slade." She hadn't quite meant to say that, but it was part of what she felt.
"Do my best," Slade said, and dared stepping closer, dipping his head to brush his lips light against hers. "Found someone to come back to, after all..."
Her heart thudded in her chest, as much from the light kiss that she pursed her lips into and returned as for his words. She pushed just that touch closer she needed to truly feel his strength, immodest as it made her seem, to continue the kiss. Slade slipped one of his hands from hers, very gently, and slid it around her back to hold her for a moment as she pressed close and kissed him back, the beat of his heart speeding as though he were young again.
When they parted from the kiss, Dinah's eyes were closed, and she didn't feel any chill in the air now. As she did look back at him, it was with a deeper calmness than she had possessed before coming in behind him.
"I'll see you when you ride back," she said softly.
"Yes," Slade agreed, slowly letting go of her to throw the saddle on the gray and start to lead lead him out. "You will." She stepped back out of the way, letting him leave first so she could get her pulse back to normal before she walked out there and over to her store.
With the weather having held for the return trip, Slade had cut off from the group returning the now empty wagon to go and check on the ranch. Wintergreen had proven to be in a good mood, teasing him about the girl and had she already turned into a nag? Mikey had things well in hand, and the bunkhouse was its usual rowdy mess. Mikey was missing Jesse, but Jesse had a momma to see to through the winter.
Knowing all was well at home, Slade then turned his horse back toward the town that held that spunky little woman who had stolen his heart even after he padlocked it down. He spent that ride, cold as it was, because the winter decided when he was halfway between locations to take a drop for the worse, thinking on just how he wanted to proceed. After the storm and part of a day's ride he caught up to the wagon's tracks in the snow. He was trailing them by a day or so, he knew from the sign, and he wasn't likely to make that distance up any time soon, not even with the trail broken open by the wagon. It did make for easier going, though, and he was grateful for it. The gray certainly preferred it, plodding along much less recalcitrantly.
Dinah tried, very hard, to keep her disappointment to herself when the men pulled in at Doc Pritchard's to separate. Roy was to take the wagon and beast back to Gardner's place, but not this day, not with them tired from breaking trail already. Doc Pritchard had feed, and they needed the rest. No matter how often Dinah counted heads, her pale-haired giant of a foreman was not going to mysteriously reappear, and she needed to be hospitable, offering all of them cider if they wanted it before going to their own homes.
So she started the cider heating and then wrapped herself up to go out the door, stepping out onto the porch to call out, seeing the marshal still in his saddle. "Marshal Kent?"
The marshal nodded to her. "Wilson turned off to go to the WG, since the weather, at that point, looked to hold clear enough for him to catch him later. Apparently, he's still got business here in town once he's done there," he told her.
"Thank you for the word," Dinah managed to say steadily, despite feeling her heart in her throat and knowing that had to look like there were candles lit behind her eyes. "Came out to say I had cider on to heat for any of you that want it, though."
"I'm certain we could all use it, Miss Lance," Kent answered her calmly. Seeing Bruce and the Widow could wait long enough to be hospitable with the woman here. He needed to tell her how the judge had seemed anyhow.
She nodded, smiling at him, "Then I'll see you in a few minutes, marshal," she said as she turned to go back inside and see to the cider. He opted to go ahead and settle his horse with Pritchard then. The men that had gone along were happy for the cider offer, though one or two declined, eager to get along to their wives. Kent noted they were the ones that were more recently married, with something approaching amusement by their eagerness.
Dinah welcomed them in as they reached the porch, pulling the door open, and then handed around mugs to them. Her heart was still singing over 'still got business here in town' that meant Slade would at the very least be coming back soon, and it made her move easy and bright, smiling as though it was a much warmer, much brighter day.
Marshal Kent had stayed overnight, but he really had to be getting back to his rounds, so he could get home before the snows set in too deep. However, as he headed toward Pritchard's to get his horse, he saw Wilson making his way in, and that reminded him of a moral debt setting on his own shoulders. He didn't really notice that Miss Lance had come up on her porch; that was part and parcel with this end of town, given that she was in one of the first buildings on this end of things.
Slade was watching around him, but not particularly intently. He hadn't enjoyed the ride in the pre-dawn moonlight, particularly, but he hadn't been really sleeping in the rough camp he'd made, either, so he'd figured he might as well get on into town early. He did spot the marshal coming his way, and he straightened up in the saddle, shifting his weight to watch the other big man coming his way.
"Wilson, glad I caught you coming in," Kent began, just as Dinah started to come off her porch, the motion catching Slade's eye. "Need to tell you something."
Riding the trail with the man had inclined Slade a little more favorably to him. He could handle himself, he knew the country well, and he didn't seem to feel the need to fill every moment with noise. He had sharp eyes, and a decently quick hand, as well. Slade had still managed to keep distance between them. He could admit to the man having some good qualities without feeling any need to be closer than that to him. There was motion behind Kent, and his eye tracked it, instead. Dinah, coming off her porch and closer, her breath steaming in the cold and her cheeks bright. Coming his way, and Kent picked now to want to have a set-to?
"What is it?" he asked, adding, "Kent" a moment later to gentle the words a little.
"I'm thinking I've done you a bit of an injustice this past year," Kent admitted. "You might have worn the gray, but you're a decent man, Wilson. I couldn't see that beyond my beliefs."
Dinah paused, listening, wishing Marshal Kent hadn't had to put that bit about Slade's side of the war in there, but at least Kent was trying.
Slade took a slow, steady breath, and looked across at the Marshall. "I'll take the apology," he said, nodding at him once, the motion sharp. Kent could take his moralizing and bury it in what was left of Atlanta, for all Slade gave a damn, but he'd take getting the man off his back for the moment. "And hope the experience learns ya somethin'."
"Slade Wilson!" Dinah had to live in this town, and she needed a good rapport with the law and common folk alike. Which meant he needed to be in good graces, if she was to have any peace with their future. "While I am certain the marshal regrets being so shortsighted as to bring up what needs buried in the past where it belongs concerning the war, you could be a shade more polite in the acceptance of his apology," she said in the same kind of tone that Adeline had used to both defend and scold him among her more refined kin. Kent, for his part, looked flustered at the reprimand aimed his way, and he looked toward Slade.
"I take your meaning well enough, Wilson," he said, forgiving those words. "And... we're all new men out here."
Slade's shoulder tightened, flinching for a moment from just how strongly she reminded him of Addie, when normally she didn't much at all. A flicker of thought said one more time that he ought to turn around and get gone out of her life, but he wasn't about to run scared from this. Besides which, he just plain wasn't going to do that to her. She was too much of a woman to disappoint that way, and he managed to bring a half-smile to his lips for the marshal "... you're right about that, Marshall," he said, his voice warmer, "everyone is. You'd do to ride with."
"I'll keep that in mind, we have any more trouble out this way," Kent said sincerely, then he tipped his hat back at Dinah before riding on.
Dinah was well-satisfied by that, and continued on down to come to Slade, heavier skirts swirling around her ankles and cheeks showing the chill of the air, but her eyes were shining for him. She hardly knew what to say to him right now, and wasn't certain she'd be heard over how loud her own heart sounded in her ears.
Slade swung down, tossing the reins forward, and he couldn't stop looking at Dinah with her eyes shining that bright, her cheeks pink with the cold and her smile bright as her eyes. Kent had surprised him away from what he'd been intending, but he could go on back to it, now. Might be as he was rushing things some... but then again, he'd as much as said it before he rode out. "Mornin', Dinah," he said softly, "got a question for you."
"Oh?" she asked, stopping just within his reach if he cared to take her hand. "I'm all ears for it then." She loved the look of him, all tall and broad, and just that bit older that gave him a weathered, experienced look. The patch never threw her sense of being pleased; it added something to him, a reminder he'd seen his own share of the bad side of life.
He did reach out, taking her hand in his, looking down at her. "Know as we'd have a good bit to work out, an' Ah'm willin' to... but Ah also know Ah'm tired a' havin' you not know what Ah think." He dropped on the last word, knee in the snow to look up at her. "Marry me?"
Dinah felt thunderstruck by the way her entire world slipped out from under feet as the man she was head over heels for skipped right past the social calls and such to the thing she had been dreaming of. Her heart was definitely imitating a rabbit, and she stared at him for a long moment before she could make herself speak.
"Slade, marrying you would make me the happiest woman in the Territory," she told him, happily, but seriousness behind her glad words. She meant it with every fiber of her being, even if she had no idea how she'd handle her life here being married to a rancher's foreman. All that could be worked out in due time. Right now... she wanted this.
Slade smiled at her, relief breaking all of the tension that had had a hold in him, and he straightened back to his feet, wrapping his other hand around hers, keeping it held between his palms. "...already did make me the happiest man, just saying yes," he told her quietly. She stepped a little closer, then grew mindful of the street they were on. She sighed ever so softly.
"Why don't we see to making your horse warmer in the stable, and getting that gear off him?" she suggested, wanting to be away from prying eyes to steal a kiss.
"Sounds a fine plan," Slade agreed, and picked the gray’s reins up to bring him along. She didn't let go of his hand, and the smile she wore would be a long time coming off her lips.