1867 brought changes to Bellville Flats, Texas. The spur line from the main railroad was certainly the biggest thing to happen since Bellville Flats was founded, proclaimed the Bellville Gazette, Hank Watson, Editor and Publisher. The hiring of a new sheriff, Brian Pendrell, a small, red-haired Irishman, was of less historic importance, but perhaps of more immediate use in dealing with the cattle war that had been going on outside of town, and with the stagecoach robberies in the county. The death of Eugene Skinner, owner of the Horseshoe "S" Ranch, was the source of real interest to the town, however, since old Gene Skinner, a bluff, hearty man, quick with a whiskey at the saloon and equally quick with a rifle on the local rustlers, was a matter of local legend. Word was that his nephew was coming from out East to take over old Gene's spread.
The rail came into Bellville Flats on the first Saturday morning of August with the mail; a couple of Pinkertons accompanying a box destined for Bellville Flats Bank and Trust, Jim Murdock, President; and a tall, broad-shouldered man, obviously ex-military. Abel Cohen, business manager of the Horseshoe "S", an elderly, stooped man with the distinction, it was claimed, of being the only Jew with a fixed address outside of a real city in Texas, was there to meet him. "Major Skinner!" Cohen yelled over the steam whistle. "Over here!"
Over six feet of military officer, with an uncomfortably new-looking broad-brimmed Stetson hat, looked across and down before meeting up with Abe. The hat was an absolute necessity, however, covering receding dark hair and a potential expanse of sunburn. A pair of Ben Franklin frame glasses perched on his nose. "Old Abe Cohen," Skinner laughed, shaking hands with Cohen firmly. "It's been a long time."
"Too long, Major," Cohen sighed. "I know your uncle would have liked to see you again."
"Blame President Lincoln for that," Skinner told the old man as he picked up a trunk. "I wanted to resign my commission but they wouldn't take it once the war started." He, Cohen, and a young Black man began hoisting luggage onto a wagon with the ranch logo painted on the side.
"This is Philip," Cohen told him. Philip nodded and extended a hand to Skinner, who returned the offered hand with a tight grip. "Philip's one of our best drivers and he's good at breaking in horses. He's also a fine range cook, I hear, but the boys won't let my old bones out on the trail to find out." Philip laughed and climbed up into the driver's seat.
"You didn't bring your wife," Cohen observed.
"No, she's still back East with the house. We thought I'd better come out here first and see how things were before she started packing the place up. She's not exactly used to roughing it. What kind of shape is the house in?"
"Still very nice. We built an extension last year. Also a new bunkhouse for the men. Not as comfortable as back East, I'm afraid. If you have good carpet to bring, bring it. If you're fussy about bedding, have it shipped in. Most of the furnishings are about what you remember from before the war."
"Sharon will hate it. But that's nothing new."
"Problems, son?" Cohen asked.
"Aren't there always, Abe? Things haven't been the same since I got back from the war. I'm sorry Uncle Gene's dead, but it may be for the best for Sharon and me; I hope the change moving out here helps."
"Never can tell with women. Can't help you there, I'm afraid. It was hard enough to figure out my own wife Rebecca, may she rest in peace.
"Since you're taking over the ranch, you'll have to meet the sheriff, Pendrell, as soon as possible; he's the former sheriff out in Pinetree Bluff. Don't know why he left there. You might need him. There's been trouble with the Smoking "S" Ranch boys; they're your neighbors, if you remember. Since Widow Spender died two years ago, her sons have been running the place, and we've had to double the fence riders. I don't want to say they're part of the cattle rustling problem in these parts but it sure seems like it."
"Well, Abe, whatever it is, I figure we can handle it. If my worst problems are an unhappy woman and slippery neighbors, I'm still better off than some."
It had been at least a year before the war that Walt Skinner had last seen Bellville Flats. It seemed advisable to reacquaint himself with the town in which he was now forced to be one of the major citizens. After a visit to Bellville Flats Bank and Trust, at which he had a long, quiet meeting with Jim Murdock and emerged smoking one of Murdock's best cigars, Skinner decided that a drink at the closest saloon was in order. He vaguely remembered Scully's as being clean, pleasant enough, and the better class of the two main saloons in town. It was also the closer saloon to the Bank, which made it the winner, hands down. The hot, arid air in Bellville was enough to give anyone a thirst almost immediately.
He crossed the street to Scully's, which was nearly deserted this early in the day except for one table full of retired workers obsessed with a quiet poker game and for a young redheaded woman standing near the bar. She wore a ruffled green-and-black dress which, though perfectly modest in cut, certainly made her the most attractive feature of the room. The tiny redhead stared at him, nodded in satisfaction, and walked over. "I'm Kate Scully. Folks here mostly call me Miss Kate. You must be old Gene's nephew; you've been here before, a few years back, right?"
"Yes, ma'am. Major Walt Skinner." One of the retirees was humming a wildly off-key version of what might have been "Root Hog, or Die;" fortunately, his companions were failing to join in.
"You were here back before the war. Pa died a couple of years ago. My brothers are in the Navy, so I wound up with the place. You a Yank or a Reb?"
Skinner grinned. "Yankee, ma'am—uh, Miss Kate."
Kate Scully stuck out a hand and shook Skinner's with more strength than he had imagined likely. "Good man. Your neighbors—the Spenders—they're still Rebs clear through. You'll have plenty of trouble with them; everyone else in town does." She pointed to an empty table and chair near the bar. "That's your Uncle Gene's regular table and chair there. He and my pa were pretty good pals, so you just make yourself right at home there. It'll be good to see another Skinner in old Gene's chair. I served him a good many times the same way Pa used to before he died. Anything you ever need, Major—I mean it—you just let me know. Your uncle never let my pa down and I won't let any of old Gene's folk down." Skinner settled himself in his uncle's saloon chair and leaned back. The chair was sturdy and comfortable, the sort of thing his uncle had always loved. "What'll it be, Major? On the house."
"Thanks, Miss Kate; seems a bit early to do any serious drinking. How's your sarsaparilla?"
"Best in the state, Major. I make a mean lemonade too; a few of the local ladies come in for it, along with their menfolk. I run a clean house, just like Pa did, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. No lady in this town has to be embarrassed to come into my place during the day. You married?"
"Yep. She's back East finishing with the packing."
Miss Kate bustled over with a huge mug of sarsaparilla. "Be nice to have a lady at one of the ranches again. Hasn't been the same here since Widow Spender passed on."
"We'll see," Skinner sighed into the mug. "She's not happy about this, and she wasn't too happy before."
Miss Kate frowned. "I'd tell you to tell the saloon keep your troubles, but not in this case. You don't need your wife hearing that a big, handsome man like you has been pouring your heart out to a redheaded saloon girl before your wife got to town." She smiled again. "Abe Cohen's a good man. You're lucky to have him for a friend already. If you can't talk to Abe, you can't talk to anyone."
A short, redheaded, freckled man, clearly no relation to Kate Scully, strode into the saloon, gunbelt fastened. Another look was needed for Skinner to see the badge on his shirt. "What'll it be? The usual?"
"Thanks kindly, Miss Kate."
She jerked another mug of sarsaparilla. "There you go, Sheriff. Have a seat with the town's new leading citizen, Walt Skinner."
He took the mug from her and sat across from Skinner. "Howdy there, Major. Heard you were in town. I'm Brian Pendrell; used to be sheriff in Pinetree Bluff. You're neighbor to the Spenders, I hear; have you met them yet?"
"Haven't had the pleasure."
"Pleasure's a sort of loose term when it comes to Spenders," Pendrell said. "There's a cousin or two of theirs in Pinetree Bluff. Been some cattle rustling and a few stagecoach robberies out there. I don't like talking, but one Spender's a lot like another to me. If you take my drift."
Skinner nodded. "I've been hearing a good bit about my neighbors. Sounds like an interesting family."
Pendrell sprawled back in his chair. "Interesting. Now, there's a word can mean a lot of things." He nodded. "I like that word. I'll have to remember it. The Spenders are an interesting clan."
October came in hot, but the nights cooled quickly in Bellville Flats. Sharon Skinner wired to her husband that she would begin having goods shipped shortly and would be there before Christmas. Skinner told Abe Cohen one morning over the ranch breakfast that he couldn't tell if that was a good thing. He looked around; none of the ranch hands nearby appeared to have heard the confession. Several had already let slip that they were looking forward to meeting Mrs. Skinner; it had been several years since there had been a lady of the house, and Aunt Marian had been a very popular woman not only in town but among the younger ranch hands who needed a bit of mothering. Skinner and Cohen knew that the men were looking forward to another Marian, and that Sharon Skinner was no Marian by any stretch of the imagination.
As they were talking, Zeb Parsons, the ranch foreman, interrupted. One of the fence riders had found a hole in the fence, and a few of the younger cattle were believed to be missing. "They were all unbranded," Parsons sighed. "I'm damn sure that Jeff Spender and his brothers have them, but there's no way I can prove it for sure right now."
Skinner looked at Cohen. Learning the ropes of cattle ranching had been no easy task, but he understood leadership already, and he knew what a rebel raiding party was like. The same principles ought to apply. "Okay, Zeb," he decided. "Send some men out to look around outside the fence while someone else fixes it. Get me all the information you've got, and Abe and I will go into town and talk to the sheriff." Cohen nodded at Skinner and smiled. "And if you find any of Spender's boys with our cattle, shoot first and ask questions later."
Cohen slapped him on the back. "Walter Skinner, you're a fast learner. You should handle women this well."
"I can handle some women, Abe."
"Kate Scully doesn't count. And no one handles Dana Katherine Scully, she handles you. Just don't let that business get too far, my boy. Having a friend who's a lady is one thing, but having a lady friend is entirely different. One is excusable. The other requires more discretion than Bellville has to offer."
"I'm not seeing Kate Scully, and she's entirely too young for me, Abe. She's a nice girl, she runs a good place, and she has all the news in town saved up for me when I come into town. That's all."
"Just keep it there, Walt. Otherwise you'll have more problems with Sharon than you already do."
Cohen and Skinner rode into town a few hours later to look for Pendrell. They found him at the bank, talking to Murdock and a new employee at the bank, a younger man named Fox Mulder. "We're lucky to have Mulder with us," Murdock bragged. "He was in Washington with the Treasury Department. Bellville Flats may be small, but we've got the most up to date banking this territory can find, thanks to the railroad, and Mr. Mulder here is going to help us out with it."
"What the area needs is safe money," Pendrell pointed out. "There was another stagecoach robbery between here and Pinetree Bluff three days ago, and there was a train robbery three weeks ago. The Pinkertons are making a fortune accompanying major shipments."
"It's not my concern until the money gets to my bank," Murdock said. "And not one cent has been lost or ever will be lost from this bank, ever. Mr. Mulder's accounting is going to make sure of that. You and the marshals take care of the transportation problem, Pendrell; I'm protecting the money that's here."
"I need to talk to you, Sheriff," Skinner told Pendrell. "No secrets, gentlemen; shall we all take this over to Scully's?"
Skinner, Cohen, Pendrell, and the bankers crowded around Skinner's table at Scully's. Miss Kate bustled over in a blue gingham frock and an apron. "What can I get for you gentlemen?" Pendrell and Skinner ordered sarsaparilla; Cohen and Murdock beer, and Mulder a lemonade. To Murdock's protestation that Mulder could drink if the boss was drinking, Mulder nodded and replied mildly that he was partial to lemonade on a hot day like that one.
"Well, Major, what can I do for you?" Pendrell asked.
"I just wanted to let you know that Jim Hagerty, one of my riders, found my fence cut this morning. The cattle that got taken were unbranded, so there's not much I can do about identifying them. I had some riders look around—there's a few tracks in the direction of the Smoking "S", but not enough to prove anything for sure."
"Sounds like the Spender boys," Pendrell sighed. Murdock nodded.
Mulder peered over a pair of pince-nez glasses. "These Spenders—they're from the Smoking "S"?
"That's their ranch, yes," Cohen replied.
"They do very little banking with us—fortunately," Murdock explained to Mulder. "They take more of their business to Pinetree Bluff. They have cousins there, one of whom works at the bank."
"Swindles it, is more like it," Pendrell vented.
"That's right," Murdock noted. "You used to be out at Pinetree Bluff, didn't you?"
"And glad I'm gone," Pendrell answered without embellishment.
"Any more drinks, gentlemen?" Miss Kate asked. Settling the tab with Skinner, she whispered, "A few of the Spender boys come here sometimes. If they say anything, I'll let you know, Major. Like I say, your uncle did for my pa, so the least I can do is do back for you."
Skinner tipped his hat to her. "Thanks, Miss Kate."
"What was that?" Murdock asked.
"Oh, Miss Kate says that for every case of sarsaparilla I drink I'll get a free bottle at the rate I've been going." The men laughed before they disbanded, Pendrell promising to send a few men out to look over the area of the damaged fence, and Murdock asking Skinner and Cohen to lunch the next week to discuss Skinner's mining investments. Skinner agreed, shaking hands with Murdock and then Mulder. He looked over Mulder again, quickly, biting the inside of his lip. He had been fighting back a thought at the bank and at the saloon that was impossible to ignore in the bright October sunlight; the young man was absolutely beautiful, a full, lush head of brown hair crowning hazel eyes and decadently full lips, lips that reminded him both of Jessie Cudahy back when he was in school, and of a second lieutenant he'd seen shot and killed in front of him in Virginia, a young man he'd had with him the night before in his tent near the battlefield.
Worse, he was mildly certain that Murdock's touted accounting genius was peering equally hard at him over the gold pince-nez frames; though he tried to avoid looking directly at Mulder, he was certain he felt Mulder's eyes giving him the same scrutiny he had just given the younger man. No; dangerous to think of that, not with an irritable wife coming into town, a probable rumor about himself and Kate Scully if Abe's warning meant anything, and the likelihood of a cattle war coming. Some things were best left forgotten. He broke the handshake with Mulder feeling as he had once as a boy, when he had let go of an electric eel.
It was a puzzlement. He could swear that their home in Delaware had not been that large. Where were all of these shipments of furniture and household goods coming from? Surely Sharon hadn't taken up extra shopping just to be safe, had she? Anything was possible, Walt Skinner supposed. Sharon had never seen the ranch, had no idea exactly what to expect despite his and Abe's best efforts at description. She did seem to be taking the "bring carpet" injunction seriously; carpets were arriving that Walt didn't remember ever seeing in his life—not at his parents' house and not in his. She also seemed to be taking the bedding problem seriously, judging by the quantity of linens and bedding that was being uncrated.
Abe Cohen noticed that the sheer quantity of labeled "her" bedroom items and "his" bedroom items meant a two-bedroom household. His late Rebecca would have had none of that sort of nonsense, nor old Gene's wife, Marian. Well, Walt had said that there were problems. Walt wasn't the first man Abe had heard tell of post-war marriage problems. Thank the good Lord that he had been too old to serve and that Rebecca was long gone. The Major merely sighed and directed Sharon's items into the better of the two largest bedrooms.
Books. Sharon's books were arriving. That she had been a schoolteacher once was clear to anyone looking at the boxes. Sheet music, vocal and for piano, current European works, a stack of English-language classics. Current books—Stowe, Alcott, Dickens. Her collection of Mr. Poe's stories and poems, for which Walt had no stomach. Sharon thought them jewel-like; Walt found them morbid. There was enough death in the war, wasn't there? He needed to read no more of it as entertainment.
Clothing. Some of Walt's, much of which had no use here in Texas. Did Sharon have any idea of Texas weather, or of the lack of what she thought of as "Society"? She was going to be severely shocked when she arrived. Sharon's clothing. Trunks of it. How did a woman acquire so much clothing? Did she really wear all of it? What did they do with it? The clothing seemed to grow in size as each trunk was opened; Abe had hired a housekeeper, Mrs. Lucas, a young widow from town, to help with Sharon's things. Undoubtedly Sharon would want another woman at the ranch anyhow; it would be someone for her to talk to and to help her figure out her way through the maze that was Bellville Flats. Since Hattie Lucas was originally from back East herself, no doubt she would be able to understand whatever confusion Sharon had about adapting to local life. Skinner thanked Abe profusely. "It's my job," Abe shrugged. "Whatever I can do to keep this place running smoothly; that's my job. And this is one of my major hurdles right now."
Abe was aging. There was no doubt of that fact, either. He had worked with Uncle Eugene since old Gene had first built the ranch. It was legend, neither confirmed nor denied by Abe, that he had been an itinerant peddler who had come out to the ranch one day to sell his wares. Invited to stay overnight, and able to make himself useful the next day in dealing with a local merchant trying to fleece Uncle Eugene, so the story went, he had never left. Instead, he sent back to Chicago for his wife, Rebecca, and they had lived at the Horseshoe "S" ever since. Abe did the purchasing, paid the bills, saw that the help was paid, hired the household help, checked the cook's records, and managed the investments. He could easily have made himself rich at his work, but he had always been scrupulously honest and devoted to Uncle Gene and Aunt Marian. As a result, it had never occurred either to him or to any Skinner that Abe was not an actual member of the family. "Look, Abe," Skinner asked, "what can we do to take some of the work off of you? Sharon was a schoolteacher, she knows her arithmetic; do you want to teach Sharon how to do the books for the place? Or how to take care of paying the help? You're not up to working this hard any more."
"I'll be fine," Abe protested. "Get your wife here, get her settled in. If she wants to learn, then I'll teach her. Maybe it would do her good to have something to do out here, like handling some of the financial work. A woman could certainly do it. Widow Spender did her own records up at the Smoking "S" for years. If she doesn't want to do the work, we can train someone else. Don't you go worrying about it yet."
While waiting to see what packages Sharon had sent on the train this week, Skinner decided to cool off with a sarsaparilla at Scully's. He found Fox Mulder there nursing a lemonade, and waved him over to the sacred table of Uncle Eugene. "Say, Mr. Mulder, come on over here and tell me about the banking industry this week."
Mulder made his way across the saloon floor to join him, favoring Skinner with a dazzling smile. "Don't mind if I do, Major. How's the moving going?"
"Slower than I ever thought possible. And heavier. Much, much heavier. I can't believe the freight charges I'm paying for this move."
"Well, you're trying to transplant an entire house from Delaware to Texas, Major. Most folks who move out here take one wagonload and sell the rest off."
"Sharon Skinner doesn't believe in wagons. Or discomfort. Or packing light," Skinner added. "She's not exactly a frontierswoman, I'm afraid."
There was a ruckus outside, and several calls of "Get the Sheriff!" Skinner and Mulder set their drinks down to step outside into the fray. A stagecoach had pulled up, its driver exhausted and slightly wounded. "This man's hurt!" Skinner shouted. "Get Doc Loomis."
Pendrell emerged from the jail and ran down to the coach. "All right, everyone, back off. Major, you mind pushing that crowd back for me?" He addressed himself to the driver. "Okay, son, what happened?"
The driver raised his head and took several gulping breaths. "Five men on horseback. Shot at me, stopped the coach. Had a trunk bound for Pinetree Bluff Bank and a couple of guards. They took the guards and the money." He slumped back in his seat.
Doc Loomis, medical bag in hand, came down the block. Skinner pushed more crowd away for Loomis to get through to the driver. Meanwhile, Mulder approached Pendrell and murmured something to him. Pendrell nodded and opened the coach's door; both men climbed inside. Skinner could barely hear the discussion.
("See? They broke the trunk open. Loose bills everywhere.")
("Sloppy. Very sloppy. Whoa—Pendrell, this is interesting…")
("What's that, Mulder?")
("These bills that got loose. They're counterfeits.")
("What's my job, Pendrell?")
("Right. Sorry. What's your take on it?")
("Frankly, I think someone knew these were counterfeits and was trying to keep them from reaching the bank. Don't know why. Check the origin here—this might be an insurance game. I'm going to have to wire D.C. about these bills, though.")
("No problem, Mulder. Thanks for the help.")
Skinner wondered idly about the conversation. But then, Mulder was a banker, and he'd worked for the Treasury; surely that was more than enough reason for him to look at the currency left in the coach. And Pendrell seemed to be a good enough man for his job; if he wanted Mulder's help there, it wasn't Skinner's place to argue. He'd learned the meaning of being a good soldier years ago, and absurd speculations weren't part of the job. He realized vaguely that he was trying to pry into Mulder's life, and that he had no good reason, only his own personal interest, for doing so. He accepted Pendrell's and Doc Loomis' thanks for helping them with the coach. Mulder tapped his shoulder, and they returned to Scully's to finish their drinks. Mulder ordered another round and opened his frock coat with a sigh. "I think I may have to go back East for a couple of weeks," he sighed. "I'll be going to Washington. If there's anything I can do for you while I'm out there, tell me before I leave."
Skinner nodded thoughtfully. "You may just be able to do me the biggest favor anyone could. If you can do it for me, I'll certainly owe you." He described his thoughts on the subject as Mulder sipped at Miss Kate's lemonade and looked, somewhat abstractedly, back at Skinner.
Another ruckus outside—this time Benjamin Spender's voice, Miss Kate apprised them. From what Skinner could tell, Spender was claiming that the money taken from the Pinetree Bluff stagecoach was from the Smoking "S" Ranch. "Excuse me," Mulder said to Skinner. "I think someone from our bank needs to hear this." He strode outside with a sigh, nodding to Skinner.
"Busy boy," Miss Kate observed to Skinner. "Works hard. Murdock doesn't deserve him. Murdock's a decent banker and all that, but I don't know why a boy like that would want to settle for a small town bank out here. He had two years at Harvard—did you know that? Then he went to work for the Treasury. I'd love to know his story."
"I was just thinking about that outside," Skinner told her. "He was helping the Sheriff in the coach. Sounded like he knew what he was doing. He doesn't seem to have family in these parts—wonder why he's here."
"My experience," Miss Kate pronounced, "is broken hearts. I'll bet you anything." She drew a sarsaparilla for herself and sat down with Skinner. "When a man like that comes out here for no good reason, there's somebody back home he's getting away from, Walt. He's just not ready to talk about it. I figure he'll tell one of us one of these days."
"One of us?" Skinner repeated dumbly. "I thought you were the repository for all that kind of information in town."
Miss Kate shook her head. "Usually am. I'm betting he'll wind up telling you, though."
"Major Walt Skinner, are you a damn fool or are you a damn fool?" She crossed her arms and stared upward at Skinner intently. Skinner found himself flushing.
"Kate Scully, you're a dangerous woman."
Sharon Skinner stepped off the train at Bellville Flats nearly four weeks later with her arm firmly clamped to her escort, Fox Mulder of Bellville Flats Bank and Trust. Since the Horseshoe "S" Ranch was one of the Bank's biggest accounts, it was of no surprise to anyone that Mrs. Skinner should be ushered to town by one of the bank officers. "Well, Mrs. Skinner, welcome to Bellville Flats."
Sharon looked around. "I don't know about the Bellville part, but I certainly see where the "flat" came from. How far are we from civilization, Mr. Mulder?"
"Would that be Dallas, ma'am, or Boston?"
She laughed. "I like you, Mr. Mulder. I hope Walter does, because as far as I'm concerned, you're welcome at our house any time you like. After all, you still have to finish convincing me that Mr. Hawthorne's writings are better than Mr. Poe's. Thank God there's at least one other person out here who reads books."
"Mrs. Skinner," Mulder stated grandly, escorting her to the Horseshoe "S" wagon, "we shall have to form a library committee for the town. You, me, Reverend Harris, the school teachers…what do you say?"
Sharon took her husband's arm as he helped her into the wagon. "Let me settle in first, Mr. Mulder! But thank you for suggesting it. Can you come for dinner tonight? Please? Walter, Mr. Mulder is a perfect gentleman. Thank you for sending him for me."
"It was nothing, ma'am; after all, I did have to go out to Washington anyway. I certainly enjoyed your company on the way back here. We'll see you later, Major." Mulder shook hands with Skinner, smiling very gently and nodding at him. Most of what he'd been told by Skinner before meeting Sharon had proven to be absolutely true. Mulder had spent the bulk of the journey alternately being clung to by Sharon and being forced to listen to her disquisition on Southern weather and diseases. Thank God no one had seen one of her displays of her worse nature when she had left the train, or Walter Skinner wouldn't have shown his face in town for a few weeks.
"Only one doctor in town?" Sharon Skinner fussed. "And what if he doesn't understand my condition? Doctor Baker understood perfectly. Will this man be able to make my prescriptions, or will I have to have them sent?"
"I don't know, dear," Skinner replied. "Abe might know that better than anyone." Abel Cohen nodded and made notes. Hattie Lucas sorted through packing cases.
"Dressmakers. Where are they, again?"
"Pinetree Bluff, ma'am," Mrs. Lucas told her. "Next town over."
"What churches do we have? I know you told me…"
"Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist," Abe replied.
"Oh, God, Walter. I don't suppose you've been to any of them? Methodist will have to do. No Episcopal churches? This is an absolute wasteland."
"I told you, Sharon," Skinner sighed. "Everyone told you. You've known all of this for months."
"Yes, of course, but I didn't really understand. Not until I saw the town. Mr. Mulder seems to be the only civilized person in the area. Where are my smelling salts?"
Mrs. Lucas handed them to Sharon. "Here you are, ma'am."
Sharon took a deep whiff of her smelling salts. "My nerves…At least there's good help here. You're an angel, Hattie."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"And Abel. I don't know how I'd survive here without you. I know I've only been here two weeks, but it's just so overwhelming."
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Skinner." Abe nodded to her and left the room.
"Speaking of Abe, Sharon…" Skinner discussed with Sharon what he and Abe had previously discussed. Sharon had been a fine teacher before they had married, and had excelled in arithmetic; perhaps it would steady her nerves a bit to spend a few hours a week learning the ranch books from Abe. Sharon considered the notion, and thought that perhaps some occupation might do her good. It would be quiet work, away from the crowd of ranch hands, and, after all, she was so uncomfortable in a crowd. With a shortage of books in the area, by her estimation, the intellectual occupation could only be an improvement. Too much work, too many people too often, for her to consider trying to start a debating society—and after all, who in town would really be interested? She agreed to begin looking at the ranch business with Abe in another few weeks, when she might be a bit more settled in on the premises.
Christmas was coming to Bellville Flats, as it was to all of Texas. Christmas is different in Texas, as is everything else. Many of the ranches celebrated with toys, games, and decorations that relatives back East would have stared at in wonder; the influence of Indians and Mexicans was heavy in many parts of that great country. Other ranches approximated the glories of a northeastern Christmas without the northeastern weather, and, in heavily German regions such as San Antonio, Mexico met Munich in a blaze of festivity. Sharon Skinner had determined that she must make the best of her position as lady of the ranch, and held two parties; one for the ranch family, and one for town. She choked down the ranch party, doing her best to deal with the ranch hands and staff, although her husband clearly thrived on handing out presents to the children of the several married workers. The Major might not be old Gene, they agreed, but he'd do; his wife, however…well, Miss Marian, as she'd been known…Miss Marian was long gone, after all. Miss Sharon, now…well, Miss Marian certainly was gone.
The Christmas party for Sharon's own guests went more smoothly. Hank Watson of the Gazette, his wife, the Murdocks, Fox Mulder, the Reverend Harris and his wife, the owners of two of the adjoining ranches, the Sheriff, and a few other people, for a total of sixteen guests. To the total amazement of Skinner and several others, Sharon had actually invited Miss Kate. It had taken weeks for Sharon to satisfy herself that Kate Scully was respectable, but her regular presence at Reverend Harris's sermons and Sharon's own family background in the navy seemed to pacify her in that matter. Besides, it was difficult not to invite the person responsible for furnishing all of your drink. Miss Kate arrived escorted by one of her brothers, who managed to show up in uniform.
Several guests exchanged presents with each other or their hosts, although none seemed happier than Sharon Skinner herself, who was handed a parcel from Fox Mulder that was brightly wrapped in paper from Goodspeed's Book Shop in Boston. "Mr. Hawthorne's books, Mr. Mulder. You did remember!"
"And," Mulder said, turning, "a present for you, Major, from the same place. Poetry about the war, by one of the war writers." Skinner opened the wrappings to find a copy of a small book called "Leaves of Grass." Mulder pointed to the book. "There were a few pieces I thought might particularly interest you, Major."
"Thank you, Mr. Mulder. I hadn't expected this. It ought to be some interesting reading."
"I'm sure it will be, Major."
Several drinks later, Mulder found himself alone on the ranch house porch smoking a cigar of Murdock's. Murdock had been free with his Havanas the entire evening. Mulder gave a sudden start, realizing that there was a presence behind him. "It's only me," Skinner informed him. Now, that had been interesting. Two years at Harvard before the Treasury, perhaps, but what he'd just seen was close to a soldier's reaction to being surprised; Skinner had almost suspected he'd seen a hand move for a gun that certainly wasn't there.
Mulder turned around to face Skinner. "I'm sorry, Major. I'm afraid I was a bit lost in thought."
"It seems to be the season for reflection, Mr. Mulder. Any thoughts worth another cigar?"
"That's doubtful, Major, unless it's to reassure you that I'm not flirting with your wife."
"I've never thought you were, Mr. Mulder. As I warned you before you escorted her out here, she will either attach herself like a leech or ignore your existence. She tends to ignore mine, and I prefer it, unfortunately, when she does. You may have seen why."
"Yes, I'm afraid I have, Major. Having been the victim of a leech attack on the train. But you did warn me."
"By the way, Mr. Mulder, thank you for the Whitman. I notice it's an autograph copy. Did you know I met him during the war?"
"No, I didn't."
"He was travelling through Washington while my men were stationed there. A very interesting gentleman."
"Yes, I found him to be extremely absorbing. I met him in a tavern one night after work; I got to know him a bit."
"I wondered." Skinner stepped forward slightly and slid a hand onto Mulder's shoulder. He stared. "Am I right?"
Mulder nodded quietly and laid his Havana aside, moving an arm to Skinner's waist. "I believe so." Skinner drew him closer and bent his head down slightly, meeting Mulder's lips. Mulder's lips parted under the pressure from Skinner's mouth as Skinner's tongue began exploring the new territory presented to it. Skinner could taste the Havana, the brandy Miss Kate had managed to produce for the gentlemen for after dinner, the dark fruit cake that Cook had miraculously been able to present for dessert, and, beneath all of those, something else, something which must be uniquely Mulder alone. He felt Mulder breaking the kiss, felt Mulder's free hand, long and slender like its owner, pushing firmly at his starched shirt front.
"What is it?"
"Major—Walt—no. Not now; not here. Not on your porch with your own wife two rooms away. I—I don't feel right about it."
Skinner moved his hand up to cup Mulder's face. "I—no, you're right. I—I'm sorry."
Mulder looked back into Skinner's dark eyes sadly. "Don't be," he whispered. "We'll work it out one day." He planted a very gentle kiss against Skinner's cheek. "We both want this. It's just not the right time." Very slowly, he freed himself from their embrace. "We should go back inside. The ladies are waiting, I'm sure."
The new year of 1868 came in quietly in Bellville Flats. At midnight, the three churches rang their bells together in a series of peals. At dawn, most of the town was at services at one of the three churches. By noon, most of the families of Bellville Flats had gathered for festive dinners marking the new year. At dusk, a few of the Faulkner boys from the Curly "Q" Ranch down the road set off a fireworks display for the town to celebrate.
By the morning of January 2, 1868, Abel Cohen, business manager of the Horseshoe "S" since before Texas had first become a state back in '45, was dead in his sleep. Zeb, the ranch foreman, had found him when he went to wake old Abe for breakfast. Skinner sent for Doc Loomis and Reverend Harris, wondering vaguely what you did about burying a Jew in Bellville Flats, but secure in the knowledge that he could get Reverend Harris to supply some kind of answer if anyone could. Sharon took to her bed with her smelling salts, a fit of the vapors, and one of her Christmas books. She had proven capable of handling the books she had been shown by Abe, but there was so much more to the ranch business that she was sure she didn't know, and how was she expected to handle all of this now?
Mrs. Lucas shook Skinner's arm as he waited, looking out the window, holding a mug of coffee. "Major, sir, it's Mrs. Skinner."
"Yes, Mrs. Lucas? How is she?"
"Do you think the doctor will have something he can give her, sir? She's having hysterics now, sir; I'm afraid the smelling salts aren't enough. And tea won't do."
"She may have a packet of sleeping powders in with her medicines, Mrs. Lucas. If she doesn't, I'm sure that Doc Loomis has something to put her to sleep for a bit."
Philip brought Doc Loomis and Reverend Harris back with him in the wagon. "I'll see Mrs. Skinner," Loomis pronounced. "Nothing I can do for Abe now; might as well see the living first." Skinner and Harris discussed the burial problem over coffee while Loomis looked over his patient. Harris recalled cousins in Dallas that Abel had mentioned several times in his presence; surely the best thing was to find their names in Abel's neatly organized files and turn their relative over to them. Harris offered to telegraph when he returned to town if Skinner found the information. A brief examination of Abe's personal papers found the details. As Skinner finished copying it for Harris, Loomis returned downstairs. "She's not well," Loomis told Skinner. "I know that's no news. Mrs. Lucas said it pretty well when she said 'vapors'. I gave her some medicine but I'm coming in tomorrow. I'm worrying that she's just decided to have a collapse."
"That's all I need," Skinner groaned.
"What will you do for a manager?" Loomis asked.
"Damn if I know. Sharon was going to take over for Abe, but she can't do it with this happening. I guess I'll split the work between me and Zeb until I can find someone. You know anybody, Loomis?"
"Happen I might."
"Let me do a little checking for you, Major. Let me do a little checking, hmm?"
That evening, as Skinner and Zeb ate dinner and talked business, and as Mrs. Lucas tried feeding Sharon Skinner some beef broth and toast, there was the sound of a horse coming up to the house. Fearing a fence rider bringing news of rustlers sighted, Zeb went out to meet the horse and rider. He came back in a few minutes later with company, looking greatly relieved. "Major? It's Mr. Mulder, from the Bank."
Skinner invited Mulder to join them at the table. "Mr. Murdock's condolences about Abe, Major—and mine as well. I never knew a man to be so organized. What some of the businesses back East could have done with his head for figures," Mulder sighed. "Anyhow, Doc Loomis mentioned to us that you might be in a bad way without a business manager. Mr. Murdock and I figure you're just about the best client we've got, so we'd like to help out if we can."
"That's mighty kind of you all," Zeb told him, "but what we really need is a new business manager."
Mulder looked grave, then nodded. "Figure a part-timer could carry most of it for a bit? Say two days a week?"
Skinner chewed his lip, thinking. "Well, old Abe was really more than the business manager. He was sort of the business manager, secretary, butler, head philosopher, and general factotum all rolled into one. I don't think we can replace all of that in one person. Strictly to handle the business, I suppose two days a week would do for right now."
"Fine," Mulder told him, making a note on the back of an envelope. "So, what day would you like me to start on the paperwork?"
"Mr. Murdock's orders, Major. It's in our interest at the bank to see that the Horseshoe "S" finances are in order. I've been directed to fill in as your business manager part-time until you can get the matter worked out properly. Is that a problem?"
"No…no. Not at all. I'm just…well, I have to admit I'm a bit surprised."
Mulder grinned, a quirky, lopsided grin that made Skinner smile back. "I know, Major. We don't do it this way back East, do we? I have news for you. We aren't back East. Bellville Flats, Texas does things its own way and I figure we'd better get used to it." They laughed. Zeb excused himself to check on the ranch hands. Mulder looked around casually, saw the room otherwise empty. He reached over and took Skinner's hand. "Are we going to have a problem?"
Skinner looked at Mulder, shut his eyes tightly, and shook his head in a negative. "No…we'll be okay." He clasped his free hand on top of Mulder's. "I don't know what's going on with Sharon. She's taken to bed today and looks every bit like she plans to stay there as long as she can. Her aunt decided to become an invalid at her age, and I'm afraid Sharon's following suit." A brief squeeze of Mulder's hand. "I—well, it's going to be rough, you being here, and nothing to do about it."
Mulder leaned across the table and kissed Skinner quickly. "I know. But at least I'm here."
By the end of March, a definite routine had been established again at the ranch. Mulder came to the ranch on Tuesdays and stayed, leaving for town on Wednesday after dinner. Although he had settled into the office in Abe's apartment firmly enough, he made little move to settle into Abe's quarters otherwise, though he slept in Abe's bedroom when staying over at the ranch. It was ignored that Skinner had plainly begun no search to find another business manager; even Murdock seemed perfectly resigned to his bank officer's split duties. Doc Loomis visited every Monday and Thursday to check on Sharon. Mrs. Harris called on Fridays for Sharon, with her husband in tow if Sharon had been unable to attend church any time during the prior week. Sharon was, for the most part, confined to bed. Her appetite was poor, and Mrs. Lucas frequently found herself cooking special items for Sharon, who seemed to be constitutionally unable to eat anything which had been cooked to be shared with others. Cook made a weekly threat to quit from dealing with the situation, and Mrs. Lucas weekly threatened to leave if a nurse weren't hired.
For their part, Mulder and Skinner had settled into a relationship fluctuating between resignation and anticipation. There had developed a tacit agreement not to push the boundaries of their relationship further; nonetheless, they still found themselves together, dealing with the occasional brush of hands against each other, and the less frequent, though certainly no less fervid, brushing of lips when they were certain of being alone. And there had been more than one occasion when Sharon's fits of "temperament" had found Skinner with his head across Mulder's lap, Mulder's strong, elegant fingers working out the knots at Skinner's temples and in his neck which Sharon had created.
"It's a beautiful evening," Skinner said to Mulder on an early Spring Tuesday after dinner. "Feel like a bit of a ride?" Mulder agreeing to the early evening exercise, and Cook having decided that they would need a pot of coffee and some spice cake when they returned, Skinner called for Philip to help saddle up two of the riding horses. "There's a shortcut to the Pinetree Trail from beyond the pasture over that way. Brings you out by Vernon's Creek. Ever see it?" Upon Mulder's assurance that he had never seen the Pinetree Trail at Vernon's Creek, Skinner hoisted himself onto his horse and motioned for Mulder to follow him.
A bit over half an hour's riding brought them beyond the Horseshoe "S" gates and near a stream with a fair amount of growth around it. Several large rocks caused part of the stream to run to the side and to form a small puddle, not nearly large enough to be dignified as a pond, with clear water in it. The horses were already acquainted with this watering hole, as they made their way directly for it upon realizing their location. "Vernon's Creek," Skinner informed Mulder, dismounting. "Every young boy in these parts has tried to fish here, probably since—you hear that?"
Mulder turned his head, then nodded. They moved the horses behind one of the pines and waited. Shortly thereafter, four men came galloping down the trail together in the general direction of the Horseshoe "S" and the Smoking "S", all carrying rifles. One of the horses had two bank bags tied to its saddle, and a second had one bag. "Damn," Skinner muttered; "it looks like another stagecoach robbery."
Mulder elbowed him. "Shh." Neither the silencing nor their crouching by one of the rocks seemed to matter; the last of the riders, apparently noticing the gang's being observed, pulled a gun and fired in the general direction of their rock. Before Skinner had time to react, Mulder had a military-issue Colt in his hand and was firing over the rock at the shooter. "Winged him, anyway," Mulder observed, "and I don't think they'll be coming back this way. I didn't recognize anyone, but we better head to town and tell Pendrell. And we'd better tell Doc Loomis to look out for someone with a bullet in the shoulder."
Skinner brought the horses around and took a good look at Mulder. "I wasn't sure you carried a weapon."
"Doesn't always pay to be obvious."
Skinner continued to stare. "That was a nice piece of shooting, Fox. I don't think I fought with more than a couple of men who could have made that shot from there. Where'd you learn to shoot like that?"
Mulder looked slightly embarrassed as he mounted his horse. "Oh. That. Well, the Treasury does a little bit more than just counting money, you know. I used to guard currency deliveries to the banks. My partner and I used to do the train runs between Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia."
Skinner nodded to Mulder as he led the way to Bellville Flats. "I follow you. My men had to do some rail line guarding around Washington heading into West Virginia. It was more work than we figured on."
"It was work, all right. Walt, do you think those boys were heading up to Spender's place?"
"Wouldn't be surprised. We'll see what Pendrell says."
Riders had just brought the news of the robbery to Pendrell when Mulder and Skinner reached town with their news. Pendrell chewed his lip. "Could be one of Spender's boys; could be a cousin. Problem is, you saw which way they were heading but you didn't see where they actually went. Best I can do is go out there and ask if they saw anyone passing that way. I can suspect 'em all I want but I've got to actually catch 'em. Don't reckon either of you recognized any of 'em?"
"Mulder didn't," Skinner replied, "and it wasn't good enough light for me to get a look. My eyes aren't what they were a few years ago."
"See, there's the problem. A solid identification would be the best thing we could have, and we just don't have one. But I'll keep an eye out for any wounded birds at Spender's place."
A series of Tuesday night rides followed as the evenings grew longer, rides which Skinner looked forward to in much the same way that he had once anticipated calling on a younger Sharon Hathaway at her schoolhouse in the carriage he had bought just for taking her out. The other rides lacked the adventure of the first ride out to Vernon's Creek, but that was certainly all to the good. Early in June, however, Skinner and Mulder found themselves out riding on what had appeared to be an absolutely glorious night despite Zeb's protestation at dinner that his old broken ankle told him for certain that a bad storm was coming in from the west. "You two fools can go out riding. Any sane man who listened to my ankle would get a fire stoked now and get ready for Noah's Ark to pick him up if he goes outside for too long. I'm gonna get me an early start on bed, maybe write a letter to my aunt."
"You do that, Zeb," Skinner agreed placidly. Philip was waiting with Skinner's and Mulder's horses saddled already, but demanding a promise from them that they would go for cover if they saw lightning. "Zeb talked to you, too?" Skinner sighed. Philip smiled, telling Skinner that he'd never known Zeb's leg to call the weather wrong. Skinner and Mulder rode off, laughing with each other about the old wives' tales to be found on the ranch. The laughing stopped when the western sky suddenly began looking like midnight had struck early, and several loud claps of thunder arrived even though the lightning could not be seen.
"It's moving in damn fast," Skinner groused. "We'll never make it back to the house before that hits here." He took a quick look over the property he could see. "Let's head for the hay barn over there," he said, pointing to his left. "Best thing to do's going to be to get inside fast and wait the thing out." They rode down a trail to the barn and let themselves in. Skinner looked around, found a hanging lantern well away from the hay bales, and lit it, then pulling the doors shut. Within five minutes, the wind had picked up fiercely, easy to feel through some of the chinks in the walls of the barn, and rain began pouring in the very torrents Zeb had predicted. "Blast that Zeb. Blast his ankle, too." He leaned against a stack of baled hay, Mulder joining him against it, watching the lightning through the wide chinks near the barn doors. Rain, and what now sounded like hail, beat loudly at the roof of the storage barn. Skinner reached over, then pulling Mulder up against his chest, spooned, his arms around Mulder's waist. "These sudden lightning storms are something."
"I've never seen one like this before."
"There was one I saw out here back before the war. A huge one. Started fires all over the area. Knocked down a tree near the house, had to have been growing there for a hundred years. One bolt's all it takes, then everything changes." He was speaking into Mulder's thick brown hair, behind his ear. "Like when I met you. I love you; you know that."
Mulder, still in Skinner's arms, turned to face Skinner. "I know." Skinner could feel the younger man's erection pressing against his own as Mulder wrapped his arms around Skinner's shoulders and leaned up against him to kiss Skinner deeply. Skinner felt himself close to drowning in the sensation, briefly forgetting where he was, what was happening. This was right; this was what he had needed, what he and Sharon had lost even before the war had started. The lightning outside, Mulder's body warm against his—it had been years since Skinner had felt this alive outside of a battlefield.
Skinner disengaged himself from Mulder's kiss long enough to suck down air, and then looked straight at his lover. "Look, Fox…quit the bank. I can pay you twice anything Jim Murdock's paying you. I want you to come on here as my manager. I want you to move up here with me."
"I—I—give me a few days, Walt. I need to think on it—I'll have to figure out how to tell Murdock."
"The hell you will. I'll talk to Murdock. His bank wants my business, you're coming with me."
"What about Sharon? Look what she's been putting you through. It'll just be that much harder on us if she finds out about this."
Skinner ran his hands possessively over Mulder's back and along the curve of his ass. "I know…Believe me, I know. But…please, Fox…I need you here with me. Please tell me you'll do it."
Mulder looked up at Skinner, hazel eyes unfocused. "I will, Walt, I will. Just give me time to get things together. I want to be here with you, too." He laid his head against Skinner's chest, close enough for Skinner to feel Mulder's breath through the fabric of his shirt. "I just don't want either of us to get hurt by what could happen."
Skinner moved a hand to tilt Mulder's face towards his own. "Let me tell you something Uncle Gene taught me about ranching. If a man sees something he wants, then by God he's got to go after it. Once he's got it, then it's his job to hang on to it. You're mine, Fox; you got that? That means nothing's going to happen, because it's my job not to let it." He shifted his weight against the hay bales as Mulder relaxed against him again.
The storm was over by the time they woke.
Doc Loomis and Reverend Harris had several long talks between themselves. Sharon Skinner was showing signs of heat fatigue from the summer temperatures—no surprise, after all, for a woman in her condition. What her condition was, on the other hand, was a matter of some conjecture by Loomis. "There's not a damn thing wrong with that woman—pardon my language, Reverend—that she hasn't given herself. She's used to being coddled by fancy doctors who tell you you're too weak to get out of bed and prescribe dainty food and expensive philters that ain't more than bicarbonate of soda in a fancy packet with a little flavor to make you think you're getting something. She doesn't want to be here, she doesn't want to pitch in to help her husband, and for whatever kind of reason she's got, she doesn't seem to want to be around her husband in the first place. That beats me to hell, Reverend; the Major seems to be a good man to me, but you never know about women, do you?"
"So, Doc, what would you suggest?"
"Telling her she's fine won't do a bit of good. She's got herself convinced she's sick because those doctors told her she could be. She doesn't want to be here anyway. The Major can afford to send her to White Sulphur Springs or Berkeley Springs for a few months; I ought to suggest she needs a rest cure at the waters. You never know what a few months at a spa will do to improve someone's mind. Besides, they're back East. Where she just might decide to stay once she gets back. Now, I'll bet anything that that would cure her really quick. Too bad Salt Sulphur Springs shut down during the war; mind cases were their specialty, I used to hear tell."
The day Fox Mulder began moving his belongings up to the ranch, aided by the industrious Philip, Sharon Skinner met him in the parlor for the first time in months. She was sipping on a glass of lemonade and fanning herself vigorously. "I hear from Walt that you're moving in, Mr. Mulder. I'm so glad to hear it. I had Mrs. Lucas help me down here so I could welcome you a little more formally to the place, and Abe's old apartment, and all. I only wish I could enjoy your company a little longer, but it looks like I'll be doing some travelling."
Mulder assumed his most charming manner, taking Sharon's hand as he spoke to her. "Dear Mrs. Skinner, are you really well enough to be travelling around yet?"
"Well, you know, Mr. Mulder, it's no secret that I wasn't sure at first how good a doctor our Doctor Loomis was. But he's really very clever. He's arranging for me to spend a few months at White Sulphur Springs, in West Virginia. He thinks the waters may help my condition. So bright of him; it's a wonder my doctor at home never thought of it. My sister should be able to meet me in Saint Louis and take me with her from there. And of course, I'll have your books of Mr. Hawthorne's to contemplate while I'm there. The doctor absolutely forbids me to read Poe. He says it's not good for my mood. I don't agree, of course, about that, but I'll go along with it, I suppose."
"Pleased to hear it, Mrs. Skinner." He bowed politely and accepted a glass of lemonade from Mrs. Lucas.
"And if you need any help getting settled in, just check with Mrs. Lucas or with Philip. Mrs. Lucas, can you help me to a chair in the shade? I swear, once I get back East I plan to stay there. This Texas territory has absolutely broken my health."
Mulder spent a few hours arranging his belongings in Abe Cohen's old apartment on the first floor of the house. The office already had some of his things in it; now he was finally occupying the rest of Abe's space, a small bedroom and a sitting room. Skinner looked into the apartment shortly before dinner, thinking to find Mulder there. He glanced around the small apartment. When Abe had been here, the furnishings had been equally sparse, though quite different. Abe had kept with him the bits and pieces of a pioneer life, even a few items from the covered wagon he'd come West in. Skinner remembered the two small books Abe always had by the bed—prayerbooks, he'd said; they were printed in Hebrew, which looked like nothing else Skinner had ever seen. And an old black and white fringed shawl, which Abe's cousins had made sure to take. Abe always prayed in it, he'd claimed, and Reverend Harris told him that they were burying Abe in it.
Mulder's sparseness struck him as that of the man who has brought little with him and hopes to acquire little more; strange, for a man gone into banking. Three portraits in small frames. Two of women—apparently of his mother and a very young sister, and a more recent portrait of a young man with dark hair and piercing eyes. In a corner of it was scrawled, "To Fox, from Alex." Miss Kate's comment came to mind, and Skinner put it down, embarrassed at his intrusion. A few books—a copy of Whitman, "The House of the Seven Gables," a volume of Dickens. Something wrapped, from Goodspeed's Book Shop, in the other room, apparently sent by Mulder's mother.
A small paperweight of Venetian glass and a brass letter opener were the only desk ornaments Mulder had brought; a small collection of shells and a Harvard flag were in the bedroom. Skinner heard a footfall and turned. "I'm sorry, Fox; I came in to see if you'd gotten settled in, and I'm still here poking around." He spread his hands apologetically.
Mulder smiled. "No secrets in here; I don't mind.." He walked over to Skinner, folded himself around Skinner's larger chest, and kissed him deeply. Skinner slid a hand to Mulder's shirt and began unfastening buttons as he planted a trail of kisses down Mulder's neck. Almost involuntarily, in reaction to Skinner's teasing of his neck, Mulder began grinding himself against Skinner's thigh. Skinner reached down and began to trace the outline of Mulder's erection through the heavy fabric of his pants. He felt Mulder shudder in the embrace, then relax against him, looking crestfallen. "Damn, Walt…I know you don't stand on dressing for dinner…but I think I'm going to have to change." He grinned in vague embarrassment at his lover.
"No problem," Skinner chuckled. "Seems to me, though, that the person responsible deserves to help clean things up, and I think there's water in that bedroom pitcher. Need a hand?"
"You'd better not, Walt Skinner, or I don't think either of us is going to make it to dinner."
Mulder was in the ranch office, hunched over a stack of papers from old Gene's mining investments and some railroad stock, trying to sort out their value, when there came a knock at the open door. It was Zeb Parsons. "C'mon in, Zeb, have a sit."
"Thanks. Don't mind if I do." Zeb came in, a strand of barbed wire in his hand. He took the chair nearest Mulder and the desk. "Looks like we need more barbed wire. I don't like this type much; I was wondering if we can order some other kind. Should I get prices when I go into town?"
"Yes, please," Mulder told him. "That would be a big help. How soon can you do it?"
"Next Monday, I reckon. That work?"
"Fine." Mulder scribbled a few notes on a sheet of foolscap. "Let me know when you're going in. I might need to have some papers run down to the bank."
"Sure." Zeb paused, took a deep breath. "Look, Mulder."
"I want to ask you something."
"Sure." Another sheet of foolscap began to be covered in financial information. "What can I do for you?"
"You left a good job at the bank to come up here to the ranch."
"That's not a question, but yes, I did."
"You're a young man, single, good education, there's money to be made down there. Why isolate yourself up here? Some pretty nice places to live down in town. Wear fancy clothes, meet women. What are you doing out here instead?"
"The Major offered me the job, and I took it. I like it up here."
"Mulder, if he's paying you enough for you to quit a bank to handle his business for him, he's paying you for more than business. What's going on?"
"The Major and I are friends, Zeb, and beyond that I don't figure it's anyone's business, you get me?"
"I've been here for twenty years, boy and man, and I've been foreman here since before the War. I figure I've got a right to worry about what makes this ranch tick. I've spent plenty of time in bunkhouses; I know how things get. The Major asked you to move up here right after that night you two spent down at the barn. I'm not stupid, Mulder."
"Beg your pardon, Zeb?" Mulder stared at Zeb over his glasses.
"Texas is a rough place to make a living. More'n one's done it on their back instead of on their feet. Guess whatever you're giving the Major's worth more to him than it was to Murdock. 'Course, the Murdocks don't have the problems the Major's had being married."
Mulder laid his pen down and turned to face Zeb squarely. "You're skating on damn thin ice."
"Don't get me wrong here, Mulder. I'm just saying what I see happening. The Major is old Gene's boy, and I'd give my right arm to keep him—and this ranch—in one piece. Anything that hurts him hurts me and my men. Now, you've been doin' the books just fine, but you're moving in awful sudden by my thinking when there's no need for it, right after that night I just mentioned. So I have to wonder, you know, what else you think you'll be doing up here, and if I need to keep an eye out for it.
"Now, to me, it's the Major's business, not mine, if the Major thinks he's found some kind of lame excuse to move his wife's replacement in up here, as long as nothing bothers him or this ranch. Long as everything's running proper I'll work with you as much as I have to, just like I have been. Got no grudge against you for finding a way to make out around here; that's all anyone can do in these parts. Just watch your step, that's all. Because I'm going to be watching you myself."
"That a threat, Zeb?"
"Nope. It's a promise. Like I say, anything I think's going on 'tween you and the Major I don't care too much for, but it's not my business as long as you're keeping your nose clean. It is my business if you pull anything that's going to hurt this ranch or its owner. That's all I have to say about it. Now, good day to you, and I'll get you those prices on the wire."
The rail schedule had been disrupted by damage to the tracks several miles east of Pinetree Bluff when Sharon Skinner was due to leave for Saint Louis some weeks later. Unwilling to alter her schedule at The Greenbrier, as she was relying on the hot springs there to ease her condition before the cold weather hit, she determined to take the stagecoach east for a few days until she reached the first available functioning railroad station. Since Jim Murdock had money going east on the coach himself, he arranged for one of his men to escort Sharon as far as he could as well as watch the money for the bank.
Philip drove the Skinners to town in order for Sharon to catch the stagecoach. She had dug out her favorite crepe travelling dress for the occasion, a sure sign that she was feeling somewhat better already. Diana Horner, Mrs. Lucas' sister, had agreed to meet Sharon at the stage and to travel as far as Saint Louis with her as Sharon's nurse. Doc Loomis had already supplied Mrs. Horner with plenty of medications—"bicarbonate powders and sugar pills," as he put it to Reverend Harris—that Sharon knew she was likely to need on the trip. Skinner and Murdock saw Sharon, Mrs. Horner, Murdock's assistant, and Murdock's strongboxes off safely, and Skinner and Murdock retired to Scully's for a drink.
When they walked into the nearly empty saloon, they found Miss Kate pulling on a riding cape and looking for a horse. She was clutching a piece of paper in her hand. "Walt! Jim Murdock! Thank God you boys are here! I was afraid you might have headed back to the ranch, Walt."
"What's the matter, Miss Kate?" Murdock asked.
"What's the matter, Jim Murdock? You just listen! Did you see those two boys that left here about five minutes ago? They're two of Spender's boys from the Smoking "S". They're drunk as lords, too. While I was serving them they started talking. They're planning to rob the stagecoach with the bank deposit bound for New Orleans, Jim Murdock, and Walt Skinner, that's the stage your wife just left on! Not only that," she said, pushing her hands against both men as if to hold them in place, "but that stagecoach robber Mulder shot? The one nobody recognized? They were talking about how things hadn't been the same since Jeff Spender took a bullet in the shoulder. Now, you know Jeffrey Spender never shows his face in this town; no wonder you and Mulder didn't recognize him, Walt. You've neither of you met him. Looks like the Widow Spender's oldest was out there riding himself."
Murdock wiped his face with his handkerchief. "Miss Kate, you get the Sheriff. I'm going to telegraph the federal marshal. Walt, you know which trail the stage is taking? Head back to the ranch, get some of your men, and see if you can ride out after it. I don't need to tell you to bring Mulder, do I?"
"Nope, Jim; I've seen him shoot." Skinner ran to the wagon and ordered Philip back to the ranch.
Skinner, Philip, Mulder, Zeb, and a few of the ranch hands took the trail past Vernon's Creek to start following the stagecoach trail. Mulder and Zeb rode slightly ahead of the rest of the crew. "Spender's boys were here a while ago," Mulder cursed. "Look at those marks. Looks like the dust's been settled for a good while. The boys in town didn't come back up this way; if they're part of it, they must have met up with the others from another direction."
Skinner dismounted and surveyed the area quickly by foot. "Nothing left here, either. And they may take the money in to Pinetree Bluff rather than come back this way; they've done it before. Philip, Damon, you ride back to the ranch and get a few more men to stake out the creek here in case they come back this way; the rest of you, let's get moving."
The stagecoach trail to Pinetree Bluff is anything but scenic. After Skinner's men had taken the Vernon's Creek shortcut to where it entered the stagecoach route, there was nothing but dust and low rock along the trail, little but grass and cattle to the sides and ahead of them. Pindar and the other writers of bucolics had never seen Texas, could never have pictured cattle ranching. There was pasture, but pastoral hardly describes the view. To love Texas, one must love vastness, appreciate flatness, and come to terms with emptiness. Although in theory it was possible to see for miles, the road ahead could not be seen for much more than a mile ahead. The trail had just started to elevate slightly, towards the alleged height that gave the formation called Pinetree Bluff its name, when three young riders, on two horses heading west, met up with them. The boys were pale, clearly frightened.
"Hey there, what's this?" Zeb shouted at them. "Where are you boys from?"
"I'm Josiah Gates, Sir," the oldest replied. "These are my brothers, Zach and Adam. We're from the Pinetree "G" a few miles down."
"I'm Walt Skinner from the Horseshoe "S" back towards Bellville," Skinner told them. "You boys look like you're in a mighty big rush."
"We—we are, Sir," Josiah told Skinner. "We were fence riding for our pa, you see, and our fences run along the trail? And—well, we think the stagecoach was robbed, Sir, and we were hoping we could find some adults out this way."
"We've been looking for the stage," Mulder said politely. "How far down is it?"
"About five miles, Sir," Adam piped up. "Do you want to follow us?"
"I don't want to go!" Zach wailed. "I'm afraid."
Mulder swung Zach, the youngest Gates boy, off of his brother Adam's horse and onto his own. "Nothing to be afraid of, Zach," he told the boy. "We're just going to go down there and take a look. Nobody's going to hurt you. Josiah, maybe one of you should take us down there and one of you should go for your pa."
Josiah nodded. "I'll tell pa. Adam, you take those folks down the trail. Zach, you just hold on to that horse and keep your eyes shut."
Zeb and Skinner began shouldering rifles even before they could see the coach. Mulder had refused a rifle but was wearing a gunbelt that Skinner didn't recognize; he wondered if it was a leftover from Mulder's days at the Treasury. The other riders trailed them, weapons ready in case Spender's men were still in the area.
"I see it," Mulder called back, after looking past Adam a bit later. He put a hand on Zach and rode down ahead of the rest of the posse and dismounted, looking around at the chaos.
Skinner and Zeb followed quickly, the others a bit further behind. As Skinner came down towards the wreckage, Mulder ran up to keep him back. "Walt, I wouldn't."
"What is it?"
"Walt, I said, you don't want to."
"Fox Mulder, you…"
"All right, Walt, but I told you."
Skinner rode down and dismounted. Mulder walked over slowly and dropped a hand on Skinner's shoulder, crouching down near him. "Nothing you can do, Walt. Those bastards shot all four of them." To Skinner's surprise, Mulder pulled a small notepad from a pocket and was making notes. "Zeb," Mulder said, "it's pretty clear those boys went into Pinetree Bluff or somewhere nearby. You may as well send Gavin back to tell Philip and the boys to quit waiting at the creek. And—look, Zeb, watch Walt, will you? When Josiah gets here with his pa, see if they'll take Walt in for a bit. Adam, take your brother; here you go. I've got to go. I'll be back shortly."
Skinner looked up in horror. "Fox—where do you think you're going?"
"Into Pinetree Bluff. I'm going to have to send some telegrams right now."
Mulder reached into a pocket, pulling out a small leather wallet. "I was hoping I wouldn't have to…and this is a horrible time…" he said, placing his other hand on Skinner's arm and flipping the wallet open to show a badge. "Fox Mulder, United States Secret Service. The President sent me out here to work on these stagecoach robberies. That's why Murdock told you specifically to get me. He and the Sheriff both knew. I'm sorry, Walt. Give me a few hours; I'll be back for you."
Reverend Ezekiel Harris was an underestimated soul, and he greatly preferred it that way. The less people thought of him, the more he was able to observe of them, and he was actually a fairly astute observer of human nature—so Doc Loomis had always noted. Loomis was unsurprised when Harris came to him after Sharon Skinner's funeral for debriefing on behavioral notes on their joint parishioners and patients. "Notice anything strange?" Harris asked Loomis.
"At the funeral? No, not really. Zeke Harris, what's on your mind?"
"Walt Skinner. Never came to church at all before Sharon came to town. Came all the time when she was going. Now, neither of those is a surprise. And when Sharon Skinner took to her bed, the Major came maybe once, twice a month with Fox Mulder, even before Mulder moved in up at the ranch. So why on earth are they sitting on opposite sides of Zeb Parsons at Sharon's funeral? They look like they're not speaking to each other at all. You don't think that's odd?"
"Okay, Zeke, you're right," Loomis told him over a glass of Miss Kate's lemonade. "What makes you think you need to do anything about it?"
"Well, I always pay a call after the funeral; I'd like to know what I'm walking into when I go up there. And it bothers me when such good friends have a falling out at a time like this."
Miss Kate wiped down the table and cleared away an empty mug. "Well, all I'll say is the Major thinks Mulder lied to him, and he's hurt about it."
"Kate Scully, are you spreading idle gossip again?"
"I don't spread gossip, Parson. It's a bar keep's job to watch and listen as much as it is yours, and you know it. And you know if you ask the Major about it he won't talk about it."
Harris shook his head. "Well, I'll keep that in mind. Maybe I'll call on Fox Mulder too while I'm up there. Sounds like they both might need to talk."
Harris rode up to the Horseshoe "S" an hour later to pay his respects to the Major and to do his usual effort at consoling the bereaved after the day's events. After an uneventful and quite regular visit with the bereaved, he stepped aside to check in at Mulder's quarters. Mulder was in gartered shirtsleeves, much as he would have been back at Murdock's offices, working on the ranch ledgers. "Hello, Agent Mulder. I see you're still hard at work."
"Someone's got to keep track of the business here, Reverend," Mulder told him, placing down his pen and leaning back as he indicated a seat for Harris to his side. "That's what the Major hired me for, after all, and I haven't heard I've been replaced. Since I can't continue on the case as directed with my cover gone, and I haven't been reassigned yet, I might as well keep up with the paperwork for this place unless the Major tells me otherwise."
"I hate to interfere, Agent Mulder, so forgive me, but I noticed that there seems to be some kind of tension with you and the Major. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"A pastoral visit, Reverend? I wasn't expecting that. Well, the Major's a bit upset, I reckon, that Murdock knew why I was in town, and Pendrell knew why I was here, but he had no idea. He thought he was getting an employee fair and square, so I suppose he's got reason to feel cheated." Mulder reached back to the desk and began toying with the pen he had been using.
"That's a good reason to be annoyed, I suppose, but to be that angry? He seemed to be upset about something besides Mrs. Skinner when I talked to him just now, too, and I feel that it has something to do with this. Now, I've been listening to people's troubles for a good number of years, son, and I find it's what people don't tell me, more than what they do tell me, that has to do with their problems. What haven't I been told yet, son?"
Still holding the pen, Mulder stared down at his feet. There was a slight, but perceptible, quiver to his lower lip. Harris watched, said nothing, then nodded to no one in particular. "Should have known. How long, son?"
"Since Christmas." The pen dangled in his fingers, at the side of the chair.
"Feeling guilty since she died?"
"No…not that…nothing like that actually happened; we've just…" He trailed off. "I think…since he knows he didn't know the truth about my work, he thinks that I haven't meant anything else I've said to him, either…and I don't know how to get him to listen to me, considering he's barely speaking to me…"
"Son, neither of you has done anything wrong. You had a job to do, and you've done a damn fine job of it, far as this town can see. But he's been through a lot, and I've never met a Skinner that wasn't stubborn as a mule and twice as set in their ways as one when they want to be. The only way to deal with old Gene when he was like that was to practically hit the man over the head to get through to him."
"This isn't quite the lecture I expected from you, Reverend."
"I used to be a military chaplain, son. I don't surprise too easily. Besides, you two have been joined at the hip for months, when I think about it, so it's not exactly news now I hear it. The lecture you expected wouldn't exactly do too much good, all things considered. The lecture I am going to give you, though, is this. Sometimes the only way Walt Skinner knows what's good for him is to have sense beat into his head. That's not pastoral advice. That's from knowing him when he used to come out here as a young man. That's the only way you're going to get his attention right now, son. Good luck with it."
Skinner had just retired after dinner to change into more comfortable wear for sitting in the ranch main bedroom in order to write a few letters back East and to commiserate with himself quietly over a bourbon. It was a hell of a thing to realize that you'd gone and sworn undying love to someone who told you the same thing while wondering what time they were catching the next train East. Why the hell had Fox Mulder had to go lie to him like that these past months? And sad though it was that Sharon had died, to finally be free to deal with how he had been feeling about the man, only to find out that he'd been out making love behind the haystacks with someone who wasn't who he'd said he was and who knew—knew for a damn fact—that he'd be leaving town anytime…well, if you're going to make an ass of yourself, you may as well go all the way.
He poked at the fire in the bedroom fireplace idly, then turned to his writing. Who was knocking at the door now? Zeb had better not have had a report from a rider; Skinner wasn't up to it. "Come in." He turned and looked; no, it wasn't Zeb. It was Mulder, the object of his afflictions at the moment. Damn. "What do you want?"
Fox Mulder in a mood apparently as foul as Skinner's was a sight to behold; even so, the man was unfortunately beautiful. "What do I want? What do I want, Walt Skinner?" He strode over and jammed an index finger against Skinner's dressing gown. "The same damn thing I've wanted since I came to this town, damn it. You. What did you think I wanted? And here you are, God damn it, and your wife finally out of your way, and what do I get? A man who suddenly won't say two words to me because I didn't tell him about my job. Stupidest thing I ever heard—except for one stupider thing. Me. The idea I'd still want anybody who could be that damn stupid is even more ridiculous, but here I am anyway." Taking advantage of Skinner's surprise, he grabbed the larger man by the shoulders and kissed him firmly.
To Mulder's own surprise, Skinner responded immediately and with equal fervor, bruising Mulder's lips with his own as he wrapped an arm around the younger man. His other hand was engrossing itself in fumbling with the buttons on Mulder's shirt, while Mulder began unknotting the sash of Skinner's robe. Suddenly, Mulder found himself in the air briefly, as Skinner hoisted him up just long enough to heave him onto the bed. "Walt Skinner, how dare you try carrying me off?" he laughed as he finished shedding his shirt. Skinner silenced Mulder with another deep kiss as he returned to the task of undressing his lover.
Mulder was a revelation to Skinner, a man normally acquainted with quick encounters and relatively inexperienced partners from among the men with whom he'd served. Mulder was, he should have realized from their too-brief encounters of the past months, incredibly oral, covering Skinner's body with damp trails of kisses and bites, nibbling and sucking at Skinner's fingers, and returning up to kiss Skinner into something like drunkenness. He was still luxuriating in this realm of blissful incoherence at Mulder's loveplay when Mulder's lips reached his ear, nibbling, licking, and then whispering, "I want you in me." A simple, emphatic demand. Had Sharon ever wanted him this way? That Rhode Island boy from the 115th ? It didn't matter…nothing on earth mattered right now besides this man who was in bed with him.
And God, Mulder was tight, and hot, and moaning under him with an abandoned pleasure that meant that nothing else on earth had ever felt this way, and that it was all Skinner's doing. Skinner continued thrusting at Mulder's urging, finally reaching down to find Mulder's erection. He had barely begun pumping it when Mulder came, hot spurts lashing at both of them. Skinner's own release followed quickly, as he sank, exhausted, against Mulder. "All right," Skinner chuckled, burying his head against Mulder's shoulder, "I've been a damn fool. You got that? You can quote me." He reached over, turned Mulder's head towards him, and kissed Mulder once more. "You still love me?"
Mulder adjusted himself to curl along Skinner's side. "Don't know why I should, but I do anyway. How about you?"
"Damn it, Fox Mulder, if you don't know by now, you really are stupider than I am. Tell me one thing, though."
"Who is Alex?"
Silence as Mulder drew the quilt over both of them. "Oh. You saw the picture."
"I want to find out if I'm making a fool of myself over a man who's still got someone else back East, Fox."
"Don't worry. You aren't."
"What do you mean?"
Mulder wormed up against Skinner again, as if he were freezing. "When I used to do the currency deliveries…Alex was my partner."
"You were lovers." A statement, neither question nor accusation.
"So what happened?"
"You're an Army man, Walt. It was '63. What normally happened to Rebel spies?" More silence. Skinner slid an arm around Mulder and pulled him against Skinner's chest. " All right, Walt. I'll get rid of his picture."
Noise. No, shouting, and stomping on the stairs. Zeb's voice, Mrs. Lucas' voice, and…Miss Kate's? It had to be the middle of the night, Skinner cursed; what was this racket, and why tonight? Mulder stirred beside him, plainly also awakened by the chaos. "I don't care if you can't find Mulder, Zeb; I still have to get the Major anyway."
"Miss Kate, it's three in the morning!"
"And the Sheriff's awake, and so am I, and he sent me out here, Zeb! Clear out of my way!" Female footsteps grew louder, and there came a thunderous rap on the bedroom door. "Walt Skinner! You in there? Wake up!"
"I am awake, Miss Kate. What …" It was too late; there she was, door flung shut again behind her, holding a candle.
"Look, you two lovebirds, get your asses out of the sack. The Sheriff sent me to tell you that Jeff Spender's boys are rustling up at the Curly "Q" and Blaine Faulkner and his boys need help now."
"Much obliged, Miss Kate—now, if you'll kindly hand me my dressing gown from over there—thanks—and get out of here so we can get dressed?" She nodded and backed out of the room. "And tell Zeb to get Philip, Jim Hagerty, and a few of the other boys together on your way out!"
Skinner led a party of six from the Horseshoe "S" out to the Curly "Q". Mulder and Zeb had ridden ahead to try catching up to Pendrell's crew of riders. When Skinner reached the Curly "Q" gates, he could already hear gunshots. Zeb rode over to him. "Major, sir, Mulder and the Sheriff have Jeff and Ben Spender cornered in the north barn, but they can't get them. What do you want everyone to do?"
Skinner looked around. "Philip, Damon, you take the boys up to the Faulkners to help them with the rest of the problem. Zeb, you and I are heading up to that barn." He spurred his horse towards the barn, where two deputies and a few of the Faulkners stood outside. Zeb followed. Dismounting, he checked both of his service revolvers once more as one of the deputies outlined the situation as best he could figure it. Jeff Spender and his younger brother were apparently on one side of a wall of hay bales; Mulder and Pendrell were on the other. Ben Spender had been shot in the leg, but the Spenders were threatening to torch the hay bales if Mulder and Pendrell came closer. Skinner walked around the barn briefly, hearing another few shots exchanged and shuddering to himself at the possibilities that could occur inside. He came back around and flagged Blaine Faulkner. "Blaine, those upper doors on the side. You have a loft?"
"Those doors open from the outside?"
"I guess they could get pried open."
"Without making too much noise?"
"But nothing, Faulkner. Get a ladder over here now." Faulkner's brothers ran for a ladder that was propped against another wall. Zeb climbed up and, with a crowbar, worked open the loft doors. He climbed back down, told Skinner what he'd seen of the layout, and wished him luck. Faulkner handed Skinner a dark lantern, slapped him on the shoulder, and backed off. Cowards, Skinner cursed to himself. No wonder it was taking Texas longer to get back into the Union than any other state; they certainly didn't seem any too capable of doing things the simple way in these parts.
After making his way up the ladder and into the loft, Skinner opened the lantern just a hair, just enough to move around in the loft without tripping. He crouched down and wormed his way slowly near the edge, trying to get a view of the entire lower level if he could. Mulder and Pendrell were on one side of the hay stacks; the Spender brothers were on the other. The one down on the floor with the white strips of shirt tied around his leg must be Ben Spender; the one holding a lit torch must be Jeff. Even in the poor light, Jeff Spender was one ugly devil.
Mulder was flattening himself against the other side of the haystacks, gun in his hand. "Come on, Spender; you may as well give yourself up. Torching that hay will just get you killed, and you're just dragging the inevitable out longer. Come out now and we'll help you cut a deal with the Marshall's Office."
"Sorry, Revenuer, but that won't do. You know that. There's too much money at stake for that."
"You just wasted your last chance, Spender." Mulder fired a shot around the stacks while Pendrell fired over them. Looking down, Skinner could see Jeff Spender moving into a corner where neither Mulder nor Pendrell could see him and taking aim. He fired. Mulder clutched at his upper arm. "Damn. Get over here, Pendrell."
Skinner drew his own gun and looked down again. If he aimed carefully, it might just be possible…he hadn't tried a shot like this since he'd had two men cornered below him on that hill in Maryland. The distance here was worse, but the angle was better. Steadying his aim with his left hand, he squinted down at Spender's corner and fired.
"Where'd that come from?" Pendrell shouted.
"Up here," Skinner called. "Spender's down, but I can't see what's going on."
A gun was thrown out towards Mulder and Pendrell from behind the hay bales. "I'm coming out," Spender spat. "Ben's in no shape to move." Pendrell finished tying his neckerchief around Mulder's arm and picked up Spender's gun.
"Thanks, Major," Pendrell called. "Mind covering us from up there while we bring these boys out?" Mulder cuffed Spender, who was bleeding from his thigh, while Pendrell went around to check on Spender's brother. Spender's dragging out the standoff had hurt no one but Ben Spender, who was nearly unconscious.
Pendrell and Mulder brought out the Spender brothers and handed them over to three of Pendrell's deputies. "Get someone to rustle up Doc Loomis," Pendrell ordered. "Both Spenders need him—looks like you could do with him too, Mulder."
"Tomorrow," Mulder told him. "They need him more than I do; this was a clean shot through. If I can get this cleaned and bandaged, I'll see him later. You need to get them treated and get Jeff Spender locked up. The Marshall and I can pick him up tomorrow afternoon."
"Thanks for making it out here, Agent Mulder. Don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't come here to back me up."
"I just plugged Ben Spender, that's all. You better thank the Major for making it possible for us both to get out of there with the Spenders." He slumped against his horse. Zeb Parsons came up from behind and caught him.
"If you're not going to Doc Loomis," Zeb told him solemnly, "I'm getting you back to the ranch and looking at that arm now. I've done my share of patching up bullet wounds myself." Holding Mulder up with one arm, he grabbed the reins of Mulder's horse in his free hand and walked them all over to Philip. "I'm taking Agent Mulder back with me," Zeb told Philip. "Get this boy back to the stables." He handed the reins to Philip and led Mulder off.
"Ouch, Zeb!" Mulder grumbled as Zeb poked at his wound back at the bunkhouse, where Zeb kept a stash of medical supplies. "Careful with that."
"Sorry, Mulder, but this is going to hurt no matter what I do."
"And you're bound to enjoy doing it," Mulder grimaced.
"Not really. Hmm, it didn't bleed too badly; the Sheriff tied that thing good and tight. Figure I owe you an apology, anyway. Never spoke to a government man the way I did to you when you came up here."
"Well, you weren't supposed to know what I was doing." Mulder pulled his shirt off entirely and threw it into a corner. "That was part of the whole point. Not that it wound up making much difference."
"I understand that. But I figured you for some cute little tenderfoot trying to sleep his way into my boss's money. And I told you so. That's darn embarrassing." Zeb dabbed at the wound with something that stank worse than a dead skunk. "Hold still. This'll clean it better than anything. It's my own formula."
"I was afraid of that."
"Doc Loomis says none of my men have died yet from me using this on wounds." Zeb dabbed again. "Course, you should see what it does for pneumonia."
"You can DRINK this stuff?" Mulder looked decidedly green at the concept.
"Nope, but you soak a cloth and wrap it around your back and chest. You get a cold, you let me know and I'll give you some. Anyway, I figured I'd better apologize for telling you off and sort of suggesting that you weren't really here to do the books. Of course, come to think of it, you really weren't here to do the books anyway. You've done a good job with them, by the way. Better than I'd have done trying to help the Major. I know cattle, not numbers. You're no Abe Cohen, but then I don't suppose anyone is. So, what do you do now?"
"Well, they'll have me on leave for a while with this arm being banged up. After that, I don't know. They've got a right to order me back to Washington, or they might send me on to Denver or San Francisco to work with security at the Mint. Or over to the assay office in Boise if they hate me."
"Guess there's no chance of your staying on around here, then."
"Next few months, yeah. After Spring arrives, pretty unlikely, unless something drastic changes."
"Too bad. Reckon we'll all miss you."
"Well, I wouldn't worry too much just yet, Zeb. And—ouch!"
When Skinner returned from the Curly "Q" some time later, he found Mulder in bed in Mulder's room on the first floor, oil lamp lit, drowsing over one of his books. Skinner sat down on the edge of the bed and planted a kiss on Mulder's forehead, drawing him back into consciousness. "How are you feeling?"
"Hurts like hell, but no damage done. I've had worse."
Skinner ran his hand down Mulder's chest. "What are you doing down here?"
"Considering that Zeb decided I'm his pet invalid and had to walk me everywhere, I didn't think it was a good idea to ask him to tuck me into your bed. And considering what time it'll be before either of us is ready to get up tomorrow, we probably ought to keep to our own rooms or we'll get walked in on by someone besides Kate Scully. I'm not going to be the best company for a day or so anyway, with this." Mulder shrugged his left shoulder, displaying the bandages.
Smiling ruefully, Skinner kissed Mulder again, this time on the lips, firmly. "This is not my idea of how to conduct a first night with someone. I'm sorry."
Mulder's grin was more cheerful. "Well, you know we'll never forget it."
Word came the next day, in the form of Doc himself, that Mulder wouldn't be escorting Jeff Spender to the Marshall's men. "He still needs a few days, maybe a week," Loomis pronounced. "Nice shot the Major made there. Spender'll be a while healing. Now, his brother…well, Ben's not going to make it, as far as I can see. Too much blood lost, and he's fighting one bad infection. Speaking of which, Agent Mulder, let's see that arm of yours." He sat on the edge of Mulder's bed, near where Skinner had sat the night before. "Nice job—Zeb's work?" Mulder nodded. "Ah, then you've met Zeb's secret potion."
Mulder grimaced. "I've met wild boar that smelled better than that stuff of his."
"Whatever the hell it is," Loomis told him, "it seems to work. Don't complain. Zeb does just about as good a job as I could do on something like this. Shouldn't be much more than a small scar or so when it's done healing."
"What do you mean, Jeff Spender's broke out of jail?" Hank Watson of the Gazette gulped.
"Just what I said," Miss Kate informed him, waving the tip of her parasol under his chin. "Some of the damn Spender clan from Pinetree Bluff decided to visit their little cousin in the prison and take him for a nice visit. Without permission. The Sheriff and some of his boys are out there after them, but you know it won't do a damn bit of good."
The shouting between Miss Kate and Watson in front of his office caught the attention of a number of passers-by. Within the hour, it was common knowledge that Spender was on the loose. A rider took the message out to the Horseshoe "S".
"No good going after him," Mulder told Skinner. "He won't be going back to the ranch; that's the first place anyone would look for him, and besides, it's not where the Spenders stashed most of the loot. If Pendrell and his boys can't catch up to the Spenders, we sure won't, not with this time lag. They'll have him out of the area so fast your head will spin. I'll go telegraph the Marshall."
"I'll go into town with you," Skinner offered. "Might as well find out just what's going on."
By the time Mulder and Skinner arrived in town, just what had gone on was all too plain. Doc Loomis was bent over Pendrell, who had been carried back by one of his deputies. "He's alive, but he's not in too good shape," Loomis pronounced. "One of the Spenders shot Pendrell's horse out from under him, and when Pendrell fell, his leg got caught under his horse. Smashed up pretty bad. He'll walk, but not any time soon. And I'm not in the mood to discuss the man's ribs."
Jim Murdock caught Hank Watson by his necktie. "You hear that, Hank? Now, as I recall, some folks 'round here elected you Mayor some time back, not that it means you've ever done a damn thing besides pontificate in that two-cent rag of yours that you call a newspaper. Point is, Hank, if Pendrell's down for the count, this town needs another sheriff, fast. And it's your job to do something about it, just like you brought in Pendrell. So you come up with something, damn it, or we're gonna be patrolled by the U.S. Marshall's boys instead of our own men."
"Why, Jim Murdock," Hank spluttered. "So kind of a civic minded citizen like you to volunteer to head up our search committee. Thank you very kindly." He disengaged Murdock's hand from his tie, dusted off his waistcoat, and marched with exaggerated dignity back into the offices of the Gazette.
"Oh, yeah, Hank?" Murdock muttered. "You want to be that way about it, you just wait. We're gonna have some real justice in this town if I have anything to do with it." And, like Mulder, Murdock made his way to the telegraph office, important messages suddenly having to be sent.
Walt Skinner woke to the sound of his ranch hands' breakfast bell. A few thin shafts of light were beginning to peer through the curtains of the bedroom. He yawned, looked around, and considered. No, he could afford to stay in bed a bit longer for once. A glance at the mop of brown hair pillowed against him confirmed the sentiment. This was hardly the time to contemplate going anywhere, not with a warm, naked, drowsy Fox Mulder curled up with him. He bent his head absent-mindedly to kiss the hair that was falling across his shoulder and neck. There was a contented burrowing against him.
"Mmmm. Feels nice." That seemed to be the limit of Mulder's conversational ability this morning, but, after the previous night's proceedings, talk was hardly required. Having Fox Mulder in his bed, as he had thee past few nights, was something far too easy to grow accustomed to. Thinking about the coming Spring, and the likelihood of Mulder's reassignment to another territory, was something Skinner wanted to delay as long as possible. He'd long ago learned to acknowledge that life was unfair, but the thought of giving this up still galled him.
"Love you too, Walt." Mulder slid an arm behind Skinner's back, and the other down to reach the growing erection between Skinner's thighs. As he tilted his head up to meet Skinner's face for a kiss, there came several sharp raps at the bedroom door. Skinner said a silent prayer of thanks that he had remembered to lock it that night.
"Major," Zeb called. "I hate to disturb you, but it's Mr. Murdock and Mr. Watson. I believe they're also looking for Agent Mulder. He's not down in his quarters. I thought you might know where he is."
"Don't trouble yourself, Zeb. I'll be down in a few minutes. And I think I can take care of finding Agent Mulder."
"Thanks, Major. I'll go down and tell them." Heavy footsteps clumped back down the staircase.
Skinner kissed Mulder quickly on the cheek. "I reckon that's our wakeup call. Wonder what the hell Murdock wants at this hour."
"Don't know," Mulder said, pulling himself up and looking around for his clothing of the night before, "but I better start sleeping downstairs if this keeps up."
"I was thinking," Skinner told him as they pulled clothing on. "Maybe you'd like Sharon's room. It's comfortable enough, for a fact, and since you're not exactly the hired help any more, there's no need for you to be in Abe's old room. And it's only next door, not downstairs."
"I'll think about it," Mulder promised, kissing Skinner lightly on the neck. "Now let's go check on the breakfast guests."
Murdock was sipping at a mug of coffee when Skinner and Mulder entered the kitchen; Hank Watson was engaged in a healthy plate of toast and bacon. It was probably his second breakfast of the day, Skinner reflected; the man was an enormous eater. "Morning, Jim; morning, Mr. Watson," Skinner greeted them. Zeb handed Skinner and Mulder their own mugs of coffee.
"Morning, Walt; morning, Agent Mulder," Murdock replied cheerfully. "I just got some good news last night, and I wanted to let Agent Mulder know right away. I sent a few telegrams a bit over a week ago, back when the sheriff got hurt. And I just got word, as I say, last night. Agent Mulder, the Treasury Department is willing to let you have an indefinite leave of duty from the Secret Service if you're willing to come on as acting sheriff of Bellville Flats. I have the telegram from your supervisor right here. If you're willing to take the job, I know that most of us would be happy to have you stay on here. Right, Hank?"
Watson grunted into his plate.
"I said, right, Hank?"
"Eh? Oh, yeah, Jim. Right." Watson returned to his bacon.
"So," Murdock said, reaching into his pocket, "this is yours, if you want it, Agent Mulder." He opened his hand, displaying Pendrell's badge. "Sheriff Pendrell says he can't think of anyone who could do a better job for the town. He'd like you to take over for him as much as the rest of us would."
Mulder looked at the badge in Murdock's hand. "Me? Sheriff? I don't know…I'd never have thought about it…"
Zeb looked over at him. "Reckon there's people who'd like you to stay around here, Agent Mulder. You ought to think about it." He nodded his head slightly in Skinner's direction.
"Pendrell really thinks I can do it."
"No doubt about it, Agent Mulder. He's very respectful of your work." Murdock looked straight at him. "I wouldn't be here asking you myself if I didn't think you were the man for it."
Mulder sipped at his coffee. "Could you give me a few minutes, gentlemen? Walt, I'd like to talk to you for a minute." He led Skinner into the ranch office and shut the door. "It's up to you, Walt. Speaking of my staying in Sharon's room, are you ready to have the sheriff living in your house?"
"Oh, I think I can handle it." Skinner smiled at him. "Just as long as you're going to stay."
"Twist my arm." Mulder grabbed Skinner's shoulders and kissed him.
"I love you, Fox; you know that?"
"That's *Sheriff* Fox, Walt."
"It sounds better than Br'er Fox, I have to admit. Well, my dear Sheriff Fox, let's get back out there and try that badge on for size." Skinner caught Mulder by the elbow and opened the door.