Chapter 1 –Have Cane will Travel

It was a fine March day in Colorado; unseasonably warm after a long winter full of bluster and fury.  The last snow still lay in patches here and there, fast disappearing in the soft and warm  (70F) degree air. Townsfolk bustled about, each using any excuse they could muster to be out in the sunshine. One particularly well put together white haired and mustachioed elder strutted along merrily.  His cane was a stylish and unnecessary accessory, and he cheerfully nodded and smiled greetings to those he met.  Any observer would notice that he was on excellent terms with life in general and the citizenry of Denver in particular.

Suddenly he paused and then purposefully strode forward. “Freeze, son. Don’t you move a muscle or I’ll fire,” he said sternly as he prodded a shorter and much younger man in the small of his back.  When the slickly dressed youngster complied, he added “Now lace your fingers behind your neck, turn to the wall and lean your forehead against it.” The order was punctuated with another prod.

“Hey, what gives? I aint doin’ nothing,’” the surprised not quite twenty something man replied while turning and lacing his fingers. The older man shuffled to stay at his back.

“What’s up Mort?” a paunchy and well tailored man asked from a pace beyond Mort Corey’s prisoner.  As he spoke he stepped aside to avoid any possible future through and through if the youngster got both spunky and stupid. He rolled his eyes, shaking his head, once he reached a spot out of the prisoner’s line of sight with an unobstructed view of the scene.

“I said against the wall,“ the elderly man repeated sternly while once again poking the younger man with his cane. “And don’t move or flex your arms. You’re all duded up and those sleeves are way too wide. You, almost certainly, have a Derringer rig in there, and you’re not shooting me with it.”  Then he added conversationally to the paunchy man, “Lex, he picked your pocket. Your wallet is in his coat.”

“I did no such thing….” the young man began as his neck flushed.

With a start, Alexander Trimble reached into his pocket and didn’t find his wallet. He snarled something inappropriate to mixed company and started towards the thief.

“Back off Lex and go get me a deputy. Now!” Corey barked, his commanding voice stopping the bankers’ advance. Then he planted a foot in the thief’s back side and roughly shoved him into the wall. A Derringer flew out of the man’s right sleeve, clattered to the ground and discharged. “ I said against the wall,” Corey repeated, once again prodding him hard.

To the old gents’s surprise, the youngster crumpled to the ground and clutched at his own leg, sobbing, “I’m shot. I’m shot.”

Lex Trimble disappeared to fetch the law and another voice chimed in. “Morning Mort. Use a hand?” Wendell Carver called out from his barber shop, shotgun in hand.

“That’d be helpful Wendell, thanks.” A minute later the well manicured ruddy faced barber stood over the sobbing thief with his Greener 10 gauge. “Your shotgun packs more punch than my cane,” Mort grinned, hefting the polished black walking stick and drawing a laugh from the spectators that had gathered. Then he picked up the discharged Derringer. “Hmm, an over and under,” he absently noted. Turning his attention back to the crying and unresisting pick pocket, he removed a cheap holstered faux colt and a knife.  All of the weapons were brand new, like the man’s hat, gunbelt and boots.  He sighed, took the man’s hat and removed another Derringer from it. “Youngster, you have been reading way too many Penny Dreadfuls,” he said amiably. In a few minutes, Deputy Wagner of the Denver Marshal’s office arrived and the latest ripple in Mort’s law enforcement life was over.

“Coffee Mort?” Deputy Town Marshal Johnny Wagner asked pouring them both a cup as Doc Dickinson drunkenly tended to the newly incarcerated pickpocket. It turned out that the bullet hadn’t hit the boy, but he had taken a sizable wood splinter that had been kicked up by the round. Mort watched the sloshed and semi-competent physician with hidden disdain, poured another cup, and took it to the doctor.

“Doc, how about having some coffee? You look a touch sleepy,” he said offering the cup.

The physician gave him a surly look, “Leave me be Corey. I’m fine,” then he turned back to his patient. A few minutes later he was packed up and gone.

Deputy Wagner grimaced after the man left, “Hope I never get shot.”

“Yeah,” Mort answered, “A doctor like him makes me glad I’m a retired lawman. Ten years ago we had Ned Bowman. He was a good man, always sober, and he patched up many injured men. I wouldn’t trust a mule to Dickinson.” 

“What about Candy? She’s due soon isn’t she?” the young man asked.  Candice Corey was Mort’s very  pregnant wife; young enough to be his granddaughter and a platinum  blonde beauty  that attracted every male eye whether she wanted them or not . “You’ll have to trust her to him when her time comes.”

Mort looked down at his coffee and then back up with a grim smile. “No I don’t, and I won’t. Did you notice that Dickinson was a touch put out with me?”

Wagner frowned and nodded, “Yeah. That’s not like him. He’s generally right friendly.”

Mort folded his arms and looked out the window, “I’m in his bad books. You see, I sent for another doc to come to Denver.  Doctor Nicholas is due in this week.”

The young man grinned showing crooked uneven teeth, “That is good news! How’d you arrange that?”

The old man shrugged and smiled, “I sent a message to an old friend in Galveston. It turns out that he had kin finishing medical training at Louisiana A&M.  From there it was easy; just a little organization, stage fare, and some persuasion from old Nick.”

“Old Nick?” the young lawman said cocking his head dubiously.

“Captain Nicholas, my old friend.”  Then he paused and turned to the deputy, “Toss me the keys Johnny.”

Wagner did so and Mort divested himself of his pistol. Leaving the hardware on the desk, he let himself into the prisoner’s cell, locked it back up, and tossed the keys back to Wagner. Then he turned to the prisoner, “One minute son. Let me look at that wound.”

Timidly, the pick pocket pulled up his pants leg, asking, “Why? The doc just finished with it.”

“Cause I don’t trust him, and you don’t want to walk on a stump.” The retired marshal unwrapped the bandage and looked it over. Then he cleaned his glasses, looked closer, and grunted. “Johnny, I need a candle and your knife.” He then he extracted another piece of wood, doused the wound with whiskey, and rebandaged the lot. Things were loud in the jail and only calmed down after he finished.  “Sorry son,” he said quietly, “but that needed to be done.”

Young Deputy Wagner let the elderly Corey out and resecured the cell. “Bad?”

Mort shrugged, “Not too. The piece Dickinson missed was shallow enough to see under the skin so I dug it out. Hope there isn’t any more in there and that it doesn’t putrefy.”

Wagner looked grim, “And I hope your new doc hurries up and gets here. Dickinson is a disaster waiting to happen.” Mort nodded in agreement and left the jail to continue with his interrupted constitutional.

 _____________________________________________________________________

Chapter 2 – All the World’s a Stage

Slim Sherman shrugged, “Heads,” he called as Jess tossed the coin. Slim generally called heads as he had once caught Jess using a two headed coin. No doubt, Jess still had that coin hid out somewhere.

The coin spun in the air, glinting in the Wyoming sunlight.  It landed and both men leaned over to see who was going to get away from the ranch for a while. “Tails,” Jess called out with a grin. “Reckon I’ll be riding with Mort’s new doc from here to Denver.” Slim shrugged disappointedly and jess quickly scooped up his coin. The Texan isilently congratulated himself, with an inward smirk, on his brand new two tailed coin.

“I guess so,” the big blonde answered, “I’ll make a list of supplies for you to pick up, stuff that we can’t get in Laramie.  That’ll save us a trip later,” Slim announced.

“Getting two birds is better than one.  Why do you think old Mort wants someone to guard this doc?” The cheery Texan added.

Slim shrugged, “I don’t know anything you don’t. His telegram just asked, as a favor, and said he had promised the doc’s grandfather that he’d see to protection.  With Candy pregnant, you know he doesn’t want to leave Denver and with Iwona pregnant, our Mort isn’t going to stir from Laramie.  So he asked us.”

Jess got up and started towards the bedroom, “Well, all I can say is that this has been a long winter. I’m tired of being cooped up here so getting to go somewhere is a real treat. I’ll have my stuff ready to go ‘cause I expect we’ll meet Dr. Nicholas this afternoon. ”

The Overland Stage came bouncing merrily down the road towards the ranch house, the sound of tone deficient singing voices shattering the tranquility of the Wyoming countryside.  The caterwauling drew both Slim and Jess from the barn, where they had been shoveling out such residue as horses always leave to their owner’s attentions.

“You know Jess, I think I’m glad that toss came up tails,” Slim said with a broad grin of amusement. “Looks like your trip to Denver will be a bit too musical for me.”

The Texan shook his head in dismay, “Maybe Doctor Nicholas will be on the next stage,” he answered, knowing that fate would never be that kind. The pair leaned their shovels against the wall of the barn and walked towards the stopping stage.

Dismounting, the driver stuck his head into the vehicle. “Sherman ranch. We’ll change horses and be outbound in 15 minutes. The necessary is over yonder,” he announced pointing to the outhouse. His announcement was greeted with a flood of children pouring out, followed by a thin woman with blonde and gray hair who herded the youngsters towards the outbuilding.

Jess walked over to the stage, arriving just in time to help out the last passenger. She was a short, young, compact, and darkly complected young woman with short hair so curly so as to instill madness in any hairdresser bold enough to approach it. She smiled her thanks to the Texan as he assisted her down. “Ma’am,” he said.

“Thank you, sir,” she answered in a drawl as distinctly Texan as his own.

He smiled and nodded in recognition. To his delight there was nobody else on board. Obviously he wouldn’t be riding in this stage full of yowling children. He turned to Slim and grinned, “Looks like the doc’s not here Pard. Guess I’ll just have to wait for the next stage.”

The small woman lifted a dark eyebrow, tilted her head, and eyed him in mild amusement, “Are you in need of a doctor?”

“No ma’am, just waiting for one to come through to Denver. I’m to escort him there,” he answered pleasantly. “Not that riding with a woman as pretty as you would be a chore,” he added hastily.

To Jess’ considerable surprise, the woman held her hand out to him, “Then you are in luck! I am Dr. Athena Nicholas so you will be traveling with me.  Are you Slim Sherman or Jess Harper? Uncle Mortimer sent word that one of those gentlemen would accompany me from here.”

Slim answered from where he was changing out the horses before the speechless and staring Jess could find his voice, “I’m Slim Sherman, Dr. Nicholas.  He is Jess.”

“Yeah, I’m Jess Harper,” the dark haired Texan finally managed. Then he blurted out, “I’ve never heard of a lady doctor before.”

“Obviously,” she looked at him sardonically then drily added, “Mr. Harper, I’m not a two headed calf…….”

“Uh, no ma’am. I best go get my bag,” he replied, heading away hastily.

The woman watched him go and shook her head. It appeared things wouldn’t be any different here than in Louisiana or Texas. Achieving a medical degree had only recently become possible for a woman.  Holding down a medical practice, it appeared, would be an equal challenge. She scowled and nodded to herself.  “So be it then,” she said quietly while silently reminding herself that “if great aunt Agapita could be a river pirate, I can be a physician.”

“Howdy ma’am, “ young Mike, Slim and Jess’ fosterling, called out in his changing voice as he opened the front door.  “Miss Daisy says she has coffee, corn bread, and pie, if you like.”

“You have plenty of time, Doctor, if you would like some,” Slim interjected as he moved the tired horses to the corral where the string of replacements waited patiently.”

“Thank you Mr. Sherman, I believe I will.  Though call me Tina. I am continuing to Denver so I doubt I will be doctoring you; we needn’t be formal,” she smiled at the very handsome blonde. “Or perhaps you will be riding as my escort as Mr. Harper appears to be…uncomfortable with my profession?” she added with a very warm, and slightly suggestive, smile. “It would be pleasant to get to know you on the way. Especially as the Wilsons will be departing in Laramie,” she added.

“Then you have to call me Slim, Tina,” he replied cheerfully. The woman smiled and entered the ranch house as Jess came out with his gear.

Jess and Slim talked as they finished changing out the horses. “Gonna be a long ride to Denver, Jess,” Slim smirked. “At least you’ll have plenty of music along the way.”

Jess cast his friend a jaundiced look, growling, “Yeah, no doubt they’ll start the ‘bottles of beer on the wall’ song as soon as we hit the road; then sing it on and on.”

“Hey you can join in,” Slim added knowing full well that Jess generally avoided singing. That comment earned him a grunt and a dark look. Slim pressed his advantage, “And a lady doctor! I bet she loves talking about books and science and stuff, since she has been to a university and all.” He was hoping to goad the Texan into saying, “If you think it’ll be that much fun why don’t you go?”

Jess winced. Educated women were difficult for him to talk to; book learning had largely escaped him growing up. “Yeah, rub it in Pard. I’m stuck for it,” he sighed.

Slim paused, this wasn’t going well. Finally he said, “I don’t think it’ll be so bad. How about I go instead? You stay here and take care of the ranch.”

The change from needling to sympathy startled Jess and he raised a suspicious eyebrow at his now all too innocent looking pard. It was then that the Wilson tribe came trooping back, two of the boys arguing with their mother that they still wanted to sing rather than to practice their math. Her response of, “William! I told you that if you did music on the leg coming here it would mean that you had to do math on the leg to Laramie. That’s the last school work you have before we get off and meet up with your father in town,” drew a broad smile from Jess.

“No thanks Pard. I’ll just suffer through,” he grinned.

 

The stage rocked along in the spring sunshine; full of quiet children diligently working. They were occasionally helped by their mother, who was to be the new school teacher, and the doctor who was ‘Miss Tina’ to everyone.  Eventually they reached Laramie where Jess and Doctor Nicholas switched coaches.

 The two travelers were joined by a smelly and rough looking man who said his name was Peter Dodd and then quit talking. Upon his taking his seat, Dr. Nicholas moved next to Jess, and as far away from Dodd, as she could get.

Peter Dodd surreptitiously studied his two traveling companions from under his hat. The man didn’t look like a doctor. He looked like a cowpoke. Still they’d been told, in Denver, that a doctor would be on board, and there had been a doctor’s bag, tagged “A. Nicholas,” put into the boot. Why he said his name was Harper, Dodd couldn’t figure. The girl was pretty enough though mighty tiny. Given how quick she flitted over next to the doctor, she was probably his wife…or maybe mistress? Could that be why he said his name was Harper? Had he picked the fluff up for some travel fun and didn’t want her to know his name?  Dodd grinned to himself. Now THAT was his kind of doctor!

Now he would have to wait for the boys to stop the stage and take both the doctor and his doxy. No doubt the boys would share her for a while. The doctor they would take to the hideout where he would deal with Mark and Woody’s wounds from the raid on the Tyson’s Knob bank. “Dang it Woody, pull through. If we lose you we’ll really be in a fix ‘cause you’re the brains of the outfit,” he thought fiercely. With a sigh he settled himself down for a nap because nothing was going to happen until after the stop in Virginia Dale. In moments he was snoring.

As Dodd slept, Jess struck up a quiet conversation with his companion, “So old Mort is your uncle?”

 The young woman nodded, “Great uncle actually. He married my great aunt Agapita. I stayed with her in New Orleans when I was in school.”

Jess frowned, “Old Mort’s a lawman to the bone. He can’t be married to her; he’s got a pregnant wife in Denver.”

 The woman shrugged, “I don’t know the whole story.  Apparently he and Aunt Aggie didn’t get along and they divorced. It is quite the family scandal.  But once you are a Nicholas, you are always a Nicholas, no matter what a piece of paper says. So he is my great uncle, though I have never seen him.”

Jess paused, some of Old Mort’s tales had mentioned a wife named Agapita. The old man loved telling tales and he had lived long and fast; enough to acquire tales enough for 3 or 4 life times. What had he said about her? Yes, she was the river pirate girl who was right handy with a knife.. .and that she had a temper that made her want to use it. “Mort has mentioned her,” he said, neglecting to add that his tales of her had not painted her with kindness.

Athena opened her clutch and flashed Jess a sealed envelope. “I have a letter from her to him. I suspect the contents are nigh combustible,” she smiled at the handsome Texan. “All of us Nicholas girls are rather passionate,” she added with a wink, and a tilted head, that made Jess uncomfortable and earned her a pursed look of consideration. She saw the look and returned a winning little smile, thinking “he really is quite handsome.”  The stage rolled onward and they shared warm companionable conversation.

 

The stage rolled into the night passing through both Virginia Dale and Tie Siding.  The tired driver was not particularly alert when two horsemen came charging up from the right side.  In a trice, they had pistols leveled at him from point blank range. Resistance never even occurred to him. He simply reined in the team.

Jess looked out the window at the commotion, pulled his gun, and was about to ventilate the two road agents when Dodd tried to buffalo him from behind. At the last moment, Jess heard the man and ducked. The blow only grazed his head.  The Texan then pivoted; trying to bring his gun into play, but Dodd grabbed him and shoved him forward against the wall of the coach.  Jess’ gun arm went through the coach window, up to his elbow, directly in front of one of the riders. Instinctively, the man slapped hard at it with his Peacemaker, catching the Texan across the back of the hand and sending Jess’ gun flying.   Red pain seared the limb and his hand went entirely numb.

Pulling his arm back inside, Jess went after Dodd one handed. The two men wrestled, kicked, clubbed, and cussed at each other while the ferocity of their fight violently rocked the coach from side to side. In the end, the struggling duo landed against the door and spilled out onto the road. Dodd landed on Jess’ back with an arm locked across the Texan’s throat.  Kick, roll, head butt, and thrash as he might, Jess couldn’t dislodge him and the larger man ruthlessly choked the Texan into unconsciousness. Dodd heaved himself up, wiping the blood from his leaking nose.

“You ok Pete?” one of the road agents asked. “You shoulda just shot him.”

“I’m ok, Micah. The doc here is a pretty good scrapper, and he has a really hard head, but I’m ok,” he answered cheerfully. A man with history of no holds barred pit fighting, he enjoyed a good brawl.  “ ’Sides, if we had killed him he wouldn’t be able to patch up Woody and Mark. That kinda defeats the purpose of coming and getting him.” 

“Yeah, I guess it would.”

Dodd nudged Jess with a toe. “He’ll be out for a bit,” he said then he searched the Texan for weapons.  A shot rang out from Micah’s pistol and a body thudded to the earth.  Dodd looked up and grimaced, “What’d you do that for?” The driver had not been offering any resistance.

“Easier.  Don’t need to leave no witnesses,” the grinning Peck answered. Dodd shook his head, the real answer was that, like pulling wings off flies, Micah Peck found killing fun.

 Athena Nicholas woke up when the fight in the coach broke out. She had huddled in a back corner and watched Jess go down in defeat, heard the lawbreakers talk afterward, and then saw them execute the unresisting driver.   Her mind raced and she bit her lower lip as she assessed the situation.  These reavers had hit the stage to abduct the doctor they knew was on board. Then they killed an unresisting man.  She gulped. If they found out that Jess wasn’t a doctor they would kill him too! Of course, they might just kill her since they thought Jess was Dr. Nicholas.  The wheels of her mind churned over two problems; how to protect them both, and to get word of who captured them out? But who were they?

Athena turned back to the window. She had names. Peter Dodd, Woody, Micah, and Mark. Nothing came to mind. Then one of the horsemen moved into the light of a coach lantern and she recognized him from a wanted poster (God bless Dr. Finley for his lecture on dealing with life in semi-lawless areas. His advice to keep current on wanted posters, in order to pick up reward money via the use of chloroform, was coming in handy); Micah Peck!  They had been captured by the Peck gang (also commonly known as thePeckers). In a flash, she had a hat pin and the letter to Mort Corey out. She pricked her finger and used the blood to write ‘Peck Gang’ upon the envelope, in Greek. Tales of Great Uncle Mort assured her that he could read Greek and that he would come for her despite any obstacles … if she could just get the letter out to him. She tucked the envelope up her sleeve as the stage door opened.

“Get out here, miss,” growled Micah Peck.

She gave the man a proud look, reared up to her full 4’ 8” and exited the coach. Nimbly she ducked a hand from Dodd and knelt by Jess, checking his pulse and breathing. He was out but didn’t appear unduly injured.  She took up his gun hand, the one that had been pistol slapped. It was bruised but otherwise sound, “Broken,” she announced, the sound of her Texan accent thick in the night. “I shall need Jess’ medical bag to splint it.“

“Stand away Miss Nicholas…. ” Dodd began.

She gave him an imperious look, “Mr. Dodd, my husband is injured. I will splint his hand. Please be so kind as to fetch his medical bag.  That way you can look in it and see that there is no gun there. It is the black one tagged A. Nicholas.” She paused then added, “I am his wife and a nurse.” She mentally crossed her fingers and hoped they bought the tales. It might keep them both alive and together.

A man snickered from up on horseback, “Yes ma’am.” He replied sarcastically, but he fetched the bag after searching through it and confiscating anything with a cutting edge save a pair of surgical scissors. “If his name is Jess, why does the bag have ‘A. Nicholas’ on it?” the man asked suspiciously as he handed it to her.

“And why did he say his name was ‘Harper’ back in town?” Dodd added.

“He doesn’t care for ‘Androcles’ so he uses his middle name of Jess,” she answered as she took the bag and dug out splints and bandages.  “As to going by Harper, we left Texas ahead of violent men whom want to ruin and kill him. Now stand aside, you are in my light,” she continued imperiously. The man stood aside.

As she worked, she continued acidly.  “Have you searched the driver’s body for weapons? I am going to compose it and say a prayer for him after I finish with Jess. I don’t care to be shot doing it.”

This time Dodd laughed, “I’ll get right on it ma’am.” He shook his head, this little firebrand was a character. “Miss Tina, have you ever cut a man in surgery?”

With careful disinterest, and an inward smile, she answered, “I have done so many times.  We came from a town near a very bad railroad grade with a curve in it. Many trains wrecked there and many times there wasn’t time enough for Jess to do all of the emergency surgeries,” she lied fluently.

“Micah, keep an eye on them,” Dodd ordered and then he went over and searched the dead driver. Son of a gun! The man had a concealed Derringer. If he hadn’t checked the girl might have found it.  He pocketed the tiny weapon and the man’s money. The second horseman came over to Dodd, “What we waiting for Pete? Let’s tie up the doc, shoot the gal, and get outta here,” he said quietly.

“Greg, the doc will be up in a couple of minutes and we’ll make better time if he is conscious rather than slung over a horse.  As for the girl, well the doc has a busted mitt. The doc will talk her through the surgery on Woody. We’re taking them both.” He paused then added more quietly, “Besides, do you want to kill a man’s wife and then trust him to do surgery on your brother? Don’t be stupid. We can always make’em dead.”

Greg pursed his lips and nodded, “Yeah, but I bet she slows us down.”

Peter Dodd shrugged indifferently, “Probably.”

In a trice, Tina finished splinting Jess’ unbroken hand and went over to the dead driver. She knelt over him, closed his staring eyes, and composed his body while using her own to shield her slipping the letter to Mort into his jacket pocket. Then she said a brief prayer for him, in Greek, so that the bandits wouldn’t understand the parts where she asked for divine vengeance, and eternal punishment, to be vested upon his murderers;  all in merciful Jesus’ name, of course. 

Returning to Jess, Tina sat down next to him while showing no sign of the relief she felt at his not stirring yet. She needed to inform him that, if he didn’t convince their abductors that he was the doctor, then they were dead. So she hauled him up against herself and took his hand in hers. Then she leaned her head against his, putting her cheek by his ear while eyeing the bandits in such a way as would have made a she bear guarding her cubs seem friendly.

As he started to twitch, she clasped his hand more tightly and murmured almost sub audibly, “Pretend to be out Jess. We are prisoners….” and she quickly explained their situation.  When she finished, he whispered, “Ok. Then he stirred.

“Take our money and go,“ the Texan said, as he roused. “Tina and I haven’t done you any harm.”

“Doctor, we got us some wounded friends and you and your nurse are coming with us to tend to them.  If they live, you live. If they die you die. Simple as that,” Peter Dodd informed him coldly.

Jess lowered his chin and gave the man a sullen look, “I’ll go with you. Let my wife stay here with the coach and continue on when they come back for it. You don’t need her.” Then he bumped his hand on the ground, let out a yelp, and cradled it. “What the devil happened to my hand?” he groused just as Tina had told him to.

One of the reavers snorted and Tina snuggled against him “My love, you broke it in the fight. You can’t do surgery until it heals. I have to go with you…..”  The conversation continued with Jess protesting, Tina arguing and eventually the bandits intervening by binding them and having them mount up. Tina on a horse they brought and Jess upon one of the stage horses. Then away they went into the dark Colorado night.

Chapter 3- Grave Tidings

Mort Corey the elder stood up from the grave of Juanita Corey (wife number 5). Until he had remarried he had visited her grave every day. With a young, and rather insecure, wife it was down to once a week.  He knew ‘Nita would understand; especially as he still brought her flowers. She loved flowers.

“Marshal Mort!” the high pitched voice of Helge Almstedt shrilled from about 40 yards away as he rumbled by. The undertaker turned the hearse into the cemetery, and heading towards boot hill, where two grave diggers waited by an open grave. The parson solemnly followed the hearse. “Gotta letter for ya!” the undertaker shrilly continued.

Old Mort looked up curiously with a devilish smile, “Was it delivered by the Ghostal service? Hey, is it postmarked with a halo or with a pitchfork?  You can keep it if is postmarked with a red pitchfork,” he called back. The parson shot him a sour look that bounced cleanly off the armour of  Mort’s good humor.

“Well, it’s in red but I didn’t see a pitchfork on it,” Almstedt called back, also getting a look from the Parson who was affronted by the pair shouting back and forth in a graveyard. “I think it has magic signs written in blood on it.”

That got the elderly man’s attention and he hustled over to the grave and awaited the deceased’s arrival .Then Mort pitched in to help lift the coffin off of the wagon and put it in the grave.  The parson said ‘a few appropriate words’ and the diggers started shoveling in the hole.

“Who’s your customer?” Mort asked.

“City of Denver,” Almstedt replied.

Mort nodded, that made it a pauper’s funeral. “Who is the guest of honor then? Do you even know?

“They called him Sleepy Tom.  He drove for the Overland stage. Nobody knows much about him. Got himself killed coming up from Laramie yesterday. They brought him, and the stage, in this morning.” The undertaker walked back to the hearse, picked up an envelope from the driver’s seat and brought it over to Mort. “This is addressed to Mort Corey, Denver and was in his pocket. Look at the symbols on the back. They look like mystic runes to me.”

Instantly the old marshal recognized his ex-wife’s writing on the front. Then Mort flipped the envelope over, and there, etched in bloody Greek letters were the words “Peck Gang.”   The retired marshal’s blood ran cold; he hadn’t used his Greek in years so the only ones who would remember that he could read it were the Nicholas clan…young Athena must have been on that stage. Agapita must have given her the letter to deliver to him, doubtless to save the penny postage.  She had always been cheap.

“Well, ya gonna open and read it or just stare at it?” the undertaker finally asked in exasperation.

“Neither,” Mort said pocketing it. “I’m going to deal with the ‘mystic runes.’ ” Then he strode purposefully down the hill, making no pretense of using his cane.

The old marshal mulled things over as his long legs ate up the distance and a thunderous mien cleared the boardwalk ahead of him. “Helge shouldn’t have found this letter. Marshal Buchanon should have found it. Then either opened it or brought it to me to open it. You find a letter with something written in blood on it, at a murder scene, and you don’t just let it wander off…unless you never bothered to search the body….because you already know who did it and are protecting them.” He paused in thought. Then he fiercely growled, “Blast it!” and savagely kicked an unoffending water trough.  

He continued onward. “I knew Buchanan was crooked, and I thought I saw some of that Peck scum nosing around town,” he thought. “But now what? I have to find the Pecks, I can’t involve local law enforcement, and I need to gather enough evidence to get rid of Buchanon.”

“Uh, Mort…are you ok?” Marvin Wengart, a local smith asked timidly as the old marshal steamed past like a doomed locomotive with an appointment with a particularly deadly curve.

“Fine Marvin. Just fine,” he growled absently without really noticing the man’s presence.   Marvin let him pass without further comment.  Mort continued on, thinking, “A Peck must have been wounded in the Tyson’s Knob hold up. That’s why they grabbed a doctor and I bet that Buchanon knew that they were going to do it. I bet he TOLD them a doctor was coming in on the Laramie stage….” His thoughts dissolved into blistering emotion. “Simmer down!” He grumbled to himself, “By God how I despise a bent lawman.”

Morts cogitations continued. “So I have to find where the Peck bunch are holding up and rescue Athena, and maybe Slim or Jess  since neither turned up as a corpse. First things first, off to the stage office to find out where that coach was found. Then home to tell Candy…” he slowed and grimaced. “That will not go well…….”

…. and it didn’t. Oh, the young woman hadn’t ranted and raved. Nor had she gone into howling hysteria.  She had just teared up, kissed him good bye, and fled to their bedroom: in terror of his never returning and for her place in the world. Candice McCain Corey (Corey wife #6) was a sweet, loving, kind beauty, but she was not a courageous one.  Mort saddled up his mount, an ugly as sin and built like a bank safe, red roan gelding named Brick. What Brick lacked in beauty he made up for in a smooth ride, strength, and endurance.  Man and mount set out.  

Hours later, the nattily dressed elder sat in soggy frustration upon his ugly long eared roan and reviewed the situation, “Finding the site of the robbery had been easy enough, and searching it had told me that there had been two horsemen and a man in the coach.” He paused, rubbed his scratched up hand and leg then he continued musing.  That blasted pricker bush told me that it was Jess, not Slim, that had been escorting Athena when I retrieved his gun from being hung up in it. Scruff marks and blood showed that Jess hadn’t gone down easily. Fortunately there wasn’t much blood, nor a corpse, so there’s a good chance that Jess isn’t hurt too badly. At first, following the five horses towards Tie Siding hadn’t been too hard until I just couldn’t find their tracks anymore nor find where they left the road.”  He audibly sighed and grumbled to his disinterested mount, “I bet I would have seen it 10 years ago. ‘Course nobody would find those tracks now, since that thunderstorm blew through. It’s amazing how much water can come down in a quarter of an hour.”

Mort’s face hardened in determination. “Time to visit the Wyatts.,” he decided. During the Colorado war, the Wyatt family was famed for “throwing a wide lasso” and had participated in diverse shady activities. However, they had never been a problem for Denver while Mort was marshal there. Indeed, Mort and Zeke Wyatt came to an arrangement whereby the Wyatts caused no trouble in Mort’s jurisdiction and Mort didn’t get any wild hairs to come and bother them.  In the end, lawman and lawbreaker had become, if not friends, then cordially uncomfortable allies. 

Their arrangement had been brokered by Juanita Delgadillo (later Corey wife #5) a woman whom Zeke had once proposed to. Juanita had run a business, in the now deserted boom town of Bonanza, which more reputable ladies never forgave her for. The two men hadn’t spoken since Juanita’s funeral, not because of animosity, but because there just hadn’t been a reason.

Brick made short work of the five miles to the old Wyatt ranch; a spread now bordered by half a dozen other Wyatt ranches. Those spreads were all owned by Zeke’s sons and sons-in-law. The sun was setting as Mort rode up. Half a dozen buggies were present and at least a dozen children were visibly skylarking about.  The smell of fried chicken and fresh baked bread filled the air and women were bustling about at tables set up outside. It appeared the Wyatts were celebrating something.  Two men came out of the main house, bearing rifles, and headed towards Mort. Some things never changed.

“Howdy Zeke, “ Mort called out  as he pulled up and tethered Brick to the corral.

The hard faced grey haired man lazily rested his Winchester atop his shoulder and spoke, “Mort, it’s been a while. What brings you out here?” The other man eyed Mort solidly, though not hostilely.

“Yes it has.” Mort paused and then asked, “Zeke, is that Colby?” Colby Wyatt had been a rowdy and gangly teenager the last time Mort had seen him. He was a solid man now.

“Yup, celebrating the arrival of his first.  Ezekiel Maguire Wyatt. He married Molly Maguire two years back. They have a place to the west of us,” the happy grandpa announced.

Mort grinned and offered the younger man his hand. Colby smiled, a little embarrassed, and shook it happily. Then he asked in a deep basso voice, “What do you want marshal? It’s a bad day for trouble.”

Mort shook his head, “When is there a good day for trouble? I have trouble but I don’t think you do…’cept maybe learning how to do diapers.” He turned to his old associate. “Zeke, you know that I’m not a marshal anymore.”

Zeke’s eyes smiled amusement even if the rest of his face was neutral, “True. I also know you can’t resist trouble and doing law work goes bone deep in ya. Oh, and good work with that scum Josh McKay and his bunch. He’s not missed.” Then he added, “I hear you married his widder. Hear tell she’s a looker.”

Mort gave an embarrassed nod. “She’s the loveliest woman in Colorado. I guess Candy decided I was a step up from him. I’m still not quite sure how we wound up getting hitched.”

This time Zeke laughed, nodded to Colby who nodded to Mort and then ambled back to the main house. As he approached,  a woman called out, accompanied by the sound of much male laughter,  for him to change little Ezekiel’s’s diaper.

Zeke continued, “Sometimes it works out that way. So what are you doing here Mort? We haven’t worked together in a coon’s age. I had reckoned that was over with. Heck, we haven’t seen each other since Juanita’s funeral. “He paused for a fraction of a moment, “That reminds me. Just a minute,” and with that Zeke went back into the house and reappeared with two glasses and a dusty bottle of whiskey. “Wanted to do this after the funeral but you were hip deep in respectable folk.”  With that he filled the two glasses with the dark liquid and picked up one. Mort noted that the bottle’s label indicated that the whiskey was 15 years old. “To Juanita Delgadillo Corey! May she rest in peace while waiting our joining her.”

“Juanita,” Mort said choking a little, while picking up the glass. They clinked drinks and drank them down; smooth fire raced down their throats.

They were quiet a moment, “Did you know that her name wasn’t always Delgadillo? Or Juanita for that matter,” Wyatt asked quietly.

“No, but it doesn’t surprise me. She asked me if I wanted to know her history but I told her I didn’t care, so she never spoke of it.”

“She came up from a place called Hadleyville, down in the New Mexico territory.  She had run afoul of ruffians there while using the name of ‘Helen Ramirez’. Decided it was time to make a new start elsewhere,” Wyatt explained.

Mort picked up the bottle and filled both glasses again, “Then, by God, to Helen Ramirez!” They clinked glasses again and put away the bottle.

The two men were quiet for a moment, and then Wyatt cleared a tight throat and asked, “So what brings you here?”

Mort took a deep breath, and began. “The Peck gang ambushed the stage from Laramie and made off with my grand niece, and a friend escorting her. If I wasn’t so blasted near sighted I’d spotted where they left the road.” He paused, “I need word of where they might be hiding.”

Zeke scowled attentively, “How much money are they asking for?”

Mort shook his head, “They aren’t. They took Athena because she’s a doctor. Near as I can figure one of them took a bullet in the Tyson’s Knob hold up.”

Zekes expression had been frozen as he had listened but it changed when his eyebrows flew up into his hairline upon hearing that Mort’s niece was a doctor, “Holy cow Mort! A gal doc? Not sure what I would have done about my hernia, years back, if Ned Bowman had been a Nellie.”

Mort snorted, “You’d have done the same thing. Just blushed a lot. Think about it a sec. Would you rather have a gal or a guy messing with your manly parts?”

That brought Zeke up short. The man flushed, opening his mouth angrily. Then he closed it again. Finally he burst out laughing, managing to say, “Point taken. But it’s not the same thing.”

Mort shook his head wryly, “That was my reaction too, when her grandpa asked me the same question. Anyway Zeke, do you know anything that can help me? You’ve always heard things that I haven’t.”

Zeke Wyatt folded his arms across his rifle butt and stood tapping his foot and looking out over the horizon. “Pecks are a bad bunch, Mort,” he turned, “a really bad bunch.  Viscous and their word’s as worthless as a confederate dollar. They had a hide out near Betty’s spread,” Betty was Zeke’s middle daughter. “ Last summer somebody burned’em out after they refused to move on. Can’t say who,” he finished looking up innocently. “Unfortunately, since then I don’t know where they’ve got to or I’d be happy to tell you.”

Mort snorted, this was fairly typical Wyatt behavior. Zeke might be, mostly, reputable now but old habits died hard and he had little inclination to include local law in solving his problems. He was quite surprised when the man continued, “But I know somebody who can. He’s chained up in the root celler.”

Mort’s eyes widened in surprise, “Zeke, you aren’t supposed to have prisoners…”

“It was that or the boys would have shot him. We caught him cheating at poker, this afternoon.” Zeke pulled out his wallet and pulled a paper note from it. “Take a gander at this,” he said handing it to Mort.  The finely printed banknote said, ‘Gold Certificate, Bank of Tyson’s Knob, Good for $50 in gold redeemable upon demand.’ “You talk to him and he’ll say he won it at poker..and he might have.  But one way or another, I bet he got it from a Peck ‘cause he aint no miner himself.”

Mort smiled and nodded with interest, “What was he doing here? Brought in as a guest?”

Zeke nodded, “Yeah, he’s cousin to one of the boy’s wives. Doesn’t look like he’s eaten well lately yet he had whiskey and several of those. Bet he just got’em. Let’s go talk to him.”

Mort smiled, ”Sounds good. What’s his name?”

Zeke headed off towards the house with Mort following at his side, “Judge Barnaby Cade.”

Mort stopped, shook his head, lost his smile, and grumbled quietly, “Hells bells. The Judge and I go way back, and not in a good way. I’ve never had much use for the double dealing reprobate.”

The eldest Wyatt shrugged, “Nor I, but he looks to be the only game in town. Gotta play the hand you’re dealt, old son.” Mort gave a sour nod in reply.

As they walked past the house, a plump and graying brunette wearing a flour bespattered apron leapt out and flung her arms around Mort. Her head came just up to his neck. “Mort! Welcome! I’m a gramma again. Stay for dinner.” Mort laughed, “All right Ruby, but Zeke and I have to talk to the Judge first…”

Zeke’s buxom and plump wife grinned up at him, one wall eye looking off to the left but the other merrily taking him in. “Make it a promise, or I won’t let you go.”

“I promise. Besides, I wouldn’t miss out on your fried chicken… ever,” he said and the matron released him, playfully swatted his rear, and then she ducked back into her kitchen.

“Root cellar is over here Mort,” Zeke said motioning the way.

“Right with you Zeke. Ruby is looking well.”

The pair went through the cellar door, walked down some steps and found themselves facing a dirty and disheveled older man manacled to a ring bolt. Mort gave his host the eye and Zeke just shrugged. “Put the Ring bolt in years ago to tie the dogs up if we had a tornado. The manacles I just picked up somewhere over the years. You never know what is gonna come in handy.” Mort rolled his eyes, not believing the explanations for a moment.

“Well if it isn’t Marshal Corey,” Cade grumbled out in his gravelly basso voice, “Marshal, arrest that man for falsely imprisoning me.”

Mort folded his arms and looked at him neutrally, “Howdy Judge.  I’m no more a lawman than you’re a magistrate. Besides, you’ve been cheating at poker.”

“I didn’t neither,” the Judge said piously with his eyes going wide. “We just had us a little misunderstanding…” and so the conversation went with the Judge being unabashed, unashamed, and unadmitting  of any wrong doing. Eventually, the talk came around to the gold certificates, how the Judge got them in a poker game but hadn’t had time yet to get over to Tyson’s Knob to turn them in. From there the talk turned to the Pecks and some three way negotiations began.  In return for helping Mort locate the Pecks, and assisting in freeing the doctor, the Judge would be allowed to leave the Wyatts and keep any bounties on Pecks that managed to get themselves killed. Plus, he and Mort would split any reward money for recovering the funds from the bank robbery.  Considering that the Wyatts refused to return any of his poker losses to him, the flat broke scoundrel was looking mighty smug.

“Now just take these here manacles off’n me and I’ll settle in for the evening,” Judge Cade finally said, lifting up his wrists as Mort turned to exit the cellar.

Ezekiel Wyatt simply looked at him and shook his head, “No, I don’t think so. This way we won’t have to keep watch on you to keep you out of mischief.”

The Judge gave him a hurt scowl, “That’s no way to treat kinfolk Zeke.  Now your lack of trust has hurt my feelings.”

Zeke Wyatt shrugged, “You’re no blood of mine and I’ve never trusted a man with a hole card that matches one of mine.” Then he left in Mort’s wake.

As he left, the Judge called after him, “Family just don’t mean what it once did.” Once he was alone again, the dirty old man pulled a bottle out of his boot and curled up for the night.

Conversely, Mort spent a comfortable night. After a huge country dinner, followed by hours of socializing, talking, and dancing with the Wyatts, he retired to a hidden bedroom in the barn. Not surprisingly, nobody was willing to explain WHY the barn had such a room. They simply shrugged and smiled.

The five riders were waved in by the sentry standing watch at the ruined gate.  The palisade around the old trading post was wobbly but standing; a state mirrored by all of the buildings inside. In the weed wracked interior yard, two men were grimly filling a fresh grave amongst the ancient ones that bore tombstones with names like Lafarge and Belaire.  At the nearby well, a shabbily dressed woman drew water.

Dodd rode straight to the grave, “Woody?” he asked apprehensively.

The shorter digger shook his head grimly, “Mark. He never woke up. Woody is still hanging on but he’s in a bad way.”

Dodd grimly turned to Jess, “Time for you to go to work, doc.” He dismounted and led his and Jess’ horses to the main building. Tina and the other two gunmen followed. Dodd secured the mounts to a hitching post, then said, “Ok Miss Tina, doc, go on and dismount.” Athena did so nimbly. Jess also dismounted, remembering to swear when his bound hands touched the horse.

A brief look of surprised flashed across Dodd’s face when Jess dismounted. He had expected to need to help him, “Doc, you know your way around horses. For that matter, so does Mrs. Nicholas.  He turned to the woman,  “Ma’am did you ever race horses?”

Tina looked up, startled. She had tried to look awkward while riding but had apparently not fooled the bandit. “That is ridiculous Mr. Dodd. No lady attends horse races; much less participates. Whyever do you ask?”  she quickly answered with a look of absolute innocence. In point of fact, her brothers had suckered many a mark into betting on horses she would later ride against.

“Ma’am, you just looked awfully comfortable on Spook. That an you bein’ so tiny she might as well be runnin’ riderless if you were on her,” he said in a dry tone.

Jess interceded gravelly, “I thought you said I had work inside. Let’s get to it.”

 Dodd nodded, grabbed the medical bag and the trio headed through the door. The interior of the old trading post was as decrepit as the outside.  Filth and detritus from long use, and disuse, were strewn amongst bedrolls.  The only nod to sanitation was that the cooking was obviously done in one area where there was an ancient stove.  “Through that door Doc,” the outlaw said as he nodded towards an interior door.

Jess went through, into a small room with a real bed made up with sheets and linens that appeared to have not been changed since the war.  Two narrow cross shaped windows, slits no more than four inches wide, lit the room. Dodd looked around quickly and picked up a pistol and belt hanging off of the bed frame then turned to Jess and said, “Go to it Doc. He dies, you two die.” Then he stepped back into the main room, hauled a chair to the doorway and sat down to watch his prisoners work.

Not sure what to do, Jess moved towards the unconscious man as did Athena.  The cowboy touched him and picked up his arm as if to check for a pulse. He’d seen Doc McFarland do that before, “He’s got a fever.  Pulse is pretty good though,” he announced.

Athena Nicholas looked on with amused approval, then she put on a fierce face and heatedly announced, “This place is a pig sty!  The linens are filthy! No wonder he is fevered.  He is probably infected because of the filth. We need boiling hot water and lots of it.  Alcohol of any sort. Fresh linens if you have any. If not these must be washed….”

Dodd looked at her, taken aback. Before he could answer her, Jess stepped in. “Yes, that was probably why the other man died. Filth getting into the wounds. We need to clean this place up before we do anything else.”

“Not to mention sterilizing the surgical gear before you cut out the bullet, dearest,” she added.

Three Pecks came up behind Dodd, “What’s all this?” the eldest one demanded.  “Ya got whiskey in there already, been given it to Woody for the pain. As for linens, what’s the point? He’s just gonna bleed all over them anyhow when you cut him.”

Jess scowled and opened his mouth but Athena cut him off, fearful of what might come out of it. “Dear, let us strip both the bed and the patient, then you can examine the wound…” her voice deepened and became louder, “while these men see to getting us what we need. Boiling water and lots of it! Do you want that man to die? Get us what we need! Now!” Trumpets had nothing on Athena Nicholas. Of course trumpets lacked both Athena’s bouncy bustline and flashing eyes; useful attributes when dealing with men.

Her results were mixed.  The eldest looked confused, while the one in back hared off calling for someone named Molly to boil a passel of water. The smallest man’s eyes blazed and he came straight through the doorway at the scolding woman, growling, “Aint no woman talks to me that way…” only to be grabbed by his belt and lifted bodily off the floor by Dodd. The smelly man used just one arm and wore a bored expression.

“Easy there Rube, the lady is trying to save your brother,” Dodd said drily. Then he turned and tossed the small man back through the door way, adding, “Don’t you be hitting the person that’s gonna cut on Woody.”

“What?” The eldest Peck asked surprised.

Dodd shrugged, “Micah busted the Doc’s mitt, Pops. Miss Tina, fortunately, is his nurse and has done surgery before. She’ll cut, with Doc guiding her, and Woody will be fine. Not like we got much choice.”

Jess and Dr. Nicholas gingerly lifted the wounded outlaw from the bed and stripped it, tossing the linens out the door way.  Athena rolled her eyes at Jess when he used his hat to hide the man’s private parts from her view.  “Nothing I haven’t seen before Jess, as you well know.”

Jess flushed scarlet, opened his mouth to answer and shut it with a snap. He was supposed to be her husband. Then he answered, “I just don’t like you seeing another man’s tackle is all.”

She waved her index finger at him with a small smile, “Play doctor now. Talk fishing later.” Then she turned back to Dodd who sat watching them, with a smirk, from his chair.

The outlaw cut her off before she spoke. “Your hot water is on the way and Molly will have his clothes washed along with the linens,” he said with wary amusement. Then he handed her a pair of clean sheets.  It would be difficult to call them fresh since they had probably been folded and stored before she attended medical school.

By the time Athena had sheeted the bed, hot water had arrived and she and Jess set to cleaning and examining their patient. They kept a running talk going, Tina asking leading questions while using minute nods and head shakes to give Jess the right answers. The man had taken a bullet to the chest and buckshot to one leg. To Jess’ surprise, the leg wounds concerned her the most. The gang had crudely dug out the shot, but it was badly inflamed. Tina figured they missed some and/or it was infected. She needed to go in and clean it out again. As for the chest wound, she figured that if that was going to kill him it already would have. It could wait. Dodd listened in and reported their findings to the rest of the gang.

“Jess, I had best see to sterilizing the surgical gear if you want to keep an eye on Woody here,”  the woman half announced and semi-asked.

“Yes, Tina. I’ll shout for you if I need a hand,” he answered waving his splinted paw at her.

Tina headed towards the door with the medical bag, but Dodd got up and stopped her in the doorway. A horrendous stench of old tobacco and rancid sweat assaulted her senses. Pulling her to the side, he put his head down next to hers and spoke very quietly, “Miss Tina, whatever you do, don’t go outside. You stay within sight of me.”

The Greek Texan girl reared up again, “Mr. Dodd, if I have to…”

He cut her off brusquely, “Girl, you listen up and you listen good. Aside from Woody, the Pecks are viscous blood thirsty pigs. Like as not, you’ll get beat up and raped if you step out of my sight. You may even be killed. You let them do that to you and you won’t be worth a darn to my friend. So stay where I can look after you.”

A shiver went down Athena’s spine, but she didn’t let it show. She simply pursed her lips, nodded, and touched his bicep in a gesture of gratitude. Then she went and sterilized the gear while Peter Dodd split his attention between herself and Jess.  While readying the surgical tools, and cleaning herself up, Athena spotted three of the Peck men eyeing her with a hunger unrelated to food. She finished as quickly as she could and headed back to perform the surgery, forcing herself to walk with dignity and sedation. “Never show fear in to predators,” she reasoned.

 

Chapter 4 – Scheme Work

The next morning, a nattily dressed Mort sat his stout ugly long eared Roan, while the unshaven Judge in his shabby frock coat rode upon an elegant looking bay. They set out early after Ruby fed them fit to bursting.

“Where are we heading Cade?” Mort had asked as they mounted.

“An old trading post called Frenchie’s Fort,” the old reprobate answered. “I won that money from them in Thanatos Springs, but they were just passing through. One of’em mentioned that old trading post when they thought they was alone. If one of them is hurt, I figure that’s where they’ll be.” He looked at the old lawman and his eyes narrowed in suspicion, “I see a little cream under your whiskers. You know Frenchie’s fort?”

Mort’s flash of a smile disappeared as quickly as it came. If they were at the old trading post then that was a real stroke of luck. Not that he was going to tell the Judge of the hole card fate looked to have dealt him.“Oh, I was there a time or two, years ago, back when it was active. I was just picturing you with your ear pressed against the thin wall of a cheap brothel.”

The Judge eyed him in grumpy silence while digging out one of several bottles of rotgut he had in his gear. He opened it, took a long pull, then resealed it before speaking again. “You know, you law abiding folks have dirty minds.”    

Mort looked at him wryly, “Yup, and I’m just glad you’re here to help me with this.  I expect it’ll put more than a few pennies into your empty wallet.”

The Judge gave him a cold eyed and empty smile, “That’s why I’m here marshal.  That and I don’t much like the Pecks.”  He paused a moment, then he added, “A friend of mine rode with them once, and they’re bad men.”

Mort just nodded silently, while thinking, “Judge, you don’t even know what a friend is.”

For two days the old men travelled.  At night, Old Mort slept lightly whereas the Judge drank himself stupid…  and then was grumpy upon getting up in the morning. They made good time and eventually topped a rise overlooking the decrepit trading post. There they tethered their horses, safely out of sight. Mort produced a brass telescope, inscribed Octavius, which they used to spy upon the buildings.  By evening they had spotted both Micah and Greg Peck and figured that they were probably in the right place.

“Don’t think there’s more than six or seven of’em and the Pecks aren’t all that smart. Let’s pull a few out with a campfire, get rid of them, then go in sneaky like,” the Judge suggested.

“No, they’ll be alert when we try to go in- especially if there is gunfire. We have to secure their prisoners first. If we sneak in we might be able to get out without their being the wiser, then ride double and escape,” Mort countered. “It won’t be too hard to get in through that drunken palisade.”

The Judge scowled, if they succeeded there wouldn’t be any bounties collected. If they failed they would be dead. “Bad plan, as the moon is pretty bright tonight,” he said, then added “It’ll only work if they’re fools.”

Silently Mort agreed, but said “Well, you said they aren’t over bright.”

The Judge shrugged, “Alright, if that’s what you want to do. But we had best get some sleep. I’ll take first watch.”

“Alright,” Mort said settling under his blanket with his pistol ready, cocked, in hand, and out of sight. He pretended to drowse off, but watched the other man through slitted eyes. He knew that the Judge would do one of two things. The man would either try to kill him in his sleep or slink off to meet with the Pecks.  If he did the latter, it would be to either sell him out, or to lead some back here to be slaughtered. The old Marshal was betting on the latter. It was in keeping with the man’s character; a mixture of treacherous boldness and greed. In less than an hour, the Judge cat footed off with his shot gun.

Mort moved his bedroll to a different spot in the camp and used odds and ends of the Judge’s gear (plus his own hat) to make it look like he was still sleeping.  “That’ll give you a better chance, if you actually are setting them up, rather than me, you old reptile,” Mort said softly. When the Judge got back here he had no doubt that a fight would break out. A fight that would provide just the diversion he would need. He was grinning as he saddled both horses, imagining the sneaky old lizard’s face when he got back here with a passel of Pecks.

Stiffly the old marshal remounted Brick and was gone. He made time to a cave about an eighth of a mile from the old trading post. In that cave was the exit of Pierre LaFarge’s escape tunnel. He’d helped the man repair it back in the 40’s. His fourth wife, Inayat, had been a friend of the LaFarge family and had nagged him into that chore. The tunnel led to a securable storeroom in the main building.

Mort carefully led the mounts in, tethering them to a rock outcropping out of sight from the entrance. Then he picked up a candle lantern, still hidden in a spot he knew from 30 plus years previous, lit it and was on his way. Soon he was on his hands and knees, candle in hand and his 12 gauge slung across his back, laboriously crawling to the Lafarge trading post. The elderly man went with as much speed as he could muster, wanting to be in position when the Judge started shooting it out with angry Pecks.

______________________________________________________________________________

Athena Nicholas snuggled close up to Jess as they leaned against their patient’s bed, laying her head on his shoulder while they faced away from the door. Then she whispered, “You’re doing well Jess, just keep following my lead. We’ve been here two days and they don’t suspect a thing.”

Jess grumbled, then he whispered back, “Mind explaining that germ thing again? You’re sure there’s little bugs that small that cause people to get sick?”

The doctor went over the germ theory of disease for the third time. Jess really needed to understand the basics of it if he was going to keep pretending he was a doctor; something vital to his continued survival. She smiled, she really didn’t mind repeating herself.  Cuddling up to the man, so that she could explain the subject to him without any of the bandits hearing, was very pleasant. She smiled wofishly, yes the man was eminently snugglable and she constantly had to fight off a wicked temptation to nibble on that cute ear.  It would be even more fun if he wasn’t being such a cursed gentleman. 

After she ran through her germ lecture again, Jess stood up, stretched, and turned to Dodd. “Hey Dodd, how about shutting the door and giving us some quiet. We need to sleep, and more importantly, the patient needs quiet too. He needs rest to build up more strength before we perform a chest surgery.”

Peter Dodd was looking frazzled himself.  He thought for a minute, then he nodded. “We can do that. This door has a steel bolt on it, odd for an interior door, but it does. So I can shut and lock it. But remember, when I open it in the morning I’ll be set to shoot, and covered from behind, so don’t try anything.”

“Thank you Peter,” Athena Nicholas immediately said. “We will behave.”

Dodd paused for a minute, nodded, “You’re welcome Miss Tina. Just remember, you two will live only as long as Woody does.” He paused and continued in a very quiet voice, “And I won’t have any say in that. My influence with this family ends if Woody dies.” Then he shut the door and they heard the bolt strike home.

Jess and the doctor both sighed, then looked at each other and smiled. It was good to be away from their captors for a bit. Quietly the cowboy asked, “Tina, how is he really doing?”

The woman pressed her lips together grimly, “That leg was infected. We’ve cleaned it as best we can and got the shot they missed out of it. That is good. I do not know if it will be enough, though. His pulse is rapid and he has a fever. The chest wound is less of a problem. I think he took a ricochet that creased and broke his 4th rib then went sideways through the sternum and finally came to rest just under the skin.”

Jess nodded and spoke quietly, “I thought I saw you cut him a little while Dodd wasn’t looking.  You don’t want them to know you’ve pulled that bullet. Now we’re going to clean that wound, aren’t we?”

Athena grinned up at him, “Mr. Harper, you are smarter than the average bear! Yes, we are. And as long as this vermin lives, and they still think he still needs chest surgery, we are safe.”

Jess wrinkled his lips, then shook his head. “Safer, yes. Safe no. You won’t be safe until we get you out of here. Let’s get that wound cleaned out and then we’ll start working on getting out of here.”

“How shall we do that Jess? Dodd isn’t stupid and he will inspect the room in the morning.”

“I don’t know, but we had better find a way.”

So the two set to work, cleaning the entrance wound, the site where the bullet was extracted, and the channel between. It took a while, and they pulled out several bone splinters, but in the end it was done. Then they settled down to rest, staying warm under smelly old woollen blankets.

 

For hours the old trading post lay quiet. Then a door slammed, people stirred, and the sound of voices woke up the prisoners. This went on for quite a while with voices periodically rising and then quieting. Once the sick room door opened,  Dodd checked on them and asked after Woody. Then he resecured their prison. 

The pair exchanged curious glances, then moved to the door and put their ears against it. An argument was in progress, and though no words could be made out, there was a new voice that was fundamentally different from Dodd or the Pecks. “Dad blast it,” Jess muttered. Athena looked at him curiously and he grimaced, “I know that voice. It’s a man named Cade. He knows me and if he tells the Pecks who I am, we’re sunk.”

A cold look came over her comely features, “Perhaps they will shoot him before that. They do not seem to be on good terms. Tell me of this man.”

Jess gave a sigh and told her what a back stabbing, conniving snake the Judge was concluding, “What’s worse is that he got into this place without gunfire. So we’ll just have to wait and see what the morning brings.” Then he took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “We’ll be alright, go back to sleep.”

            Athena gave him a small, equally reassuring, smile, nodded, and turned back to her rest. Her hand was tingling pleasantly where he had squeezed it, and she decided that if they both got out of this alive, then she would keep him. What the man lacked in social graces he more than made up for in courage and, well, beauty and grace. He’d be irresistible in a new sack suit, oiled down hair, and a proper cravat and bow tie. “Social graces can be learned and teaching him will be fun,” she murmured sleepily to herself.

“Follow me then, “ Barnaby Cade finally said. “The Marshal is camped up on that rise.”

He set out, having been forced to leave his scattergun at the trading post. Micah Peck strode at his side and two others were behind him.  The wily old man smiled into the darkness. It had gone awfully well. His appearance at the gate, where he had used rocks to wake up the drowsing Peck sentry, had upset all of them. They had brought him straight in, lightened of his shotgun, to see Papa Paulus Peck. 

Once he got to Paulus, he spun a tale of how Marshal Corey had found their lair, while looking for a missing doctor, and how he was watching them and how the old lawman had forcibly deputized him and made him come along. Subsequently, he had recognized his old poker friend Thomas and had snuck off, on his watch, to warn them, figuring that they would be grateful enough to reward him with a couple of sawbucks. Finally, he added that Corey was of two minds on what to do next; to either sneak in and shoot them as they slept or to head out in the morning, to Virginia Dale. There he could gather up a posse. 

 “Pa,” Micah Peck had said, “Corey aint Marshal no more. We own Buchanon and he’s Denver law.”

“Shut up Micah, I knows it,” Paulus Peck answered. “But everyone still calls that old fool ‘marshal’, and they even gave him his old badge as a keep sake. Heck, he still goes haring around making trouble. Dang it, he even killed Josh McKay, and took out his whole gol darned gang last year.”

The Judge nodded, filing away the fact that the Pecks owned Buchanon as something that might be profitable to know. “Micah,” he said trying to look old and wise, “You don’t EVER tell a crazy man with a gun that he’s crazy. It Corey wanted to deputize me, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d just slip off quiet like come nightfall. But night found me here and I didn’t want the lot of you killed in your sleep.  You never know what a crazy man will do.”

With that the family had set to arguing. They finally settled on sending Micah, Thomas, and the runt of the litter, Reuben,  along with the Judge to shoot Corey as he slept. It was pretty much what the wiley scoundrel thought they would do. When Paulus told his boys to bring him back to Frenchies Fort, after burying Corey, he caught the look the old wolf gave them, and knew that two bodies were supposed to go into that grave. That, too, was expected.

So off went the foursome and soon they were at the base of the rise where Corey’s camp was.  The Judge motioned them all in close and spoke softly. “Now boys, be real quiet. Crazy people are mighty twitchy and Corey has hearing like a fox.

The littlest Peck snorted. “Course we’ll be quiet. We aint stupid,” he said.

The Judge tapped the runt’s chest with a forefinger.  “Quiet now Shorty. You do as I say and this will work out fine.”

Nobody saw the small mans flush in the darkness, but they surely heard his fist hit the judge in the mouth. “Don’t never call me Shorty you old….”

Thomas grabbed his angry brother by the scruff of his neck, “Ease back Reuben. You ok Judge?”

The Judge had spun with the blow and had ended up sprawled upon Micah, “Dang but he’s got a short temper.  Yeah, I’m fine. Boy, that temper will get you killed someday. Excuse me Micah,” he added as he straightened up, pocketing the colt that he had smoothly slipped out of the man’s left holster. Micah wore a two gun rig and the Judge knew the he only used the left gun as a backup.

Silent as wraiths, the men moved up the slope. The Judge spotted the camp and immediately saw that Mort’s bedroll had moved.  He circled the camp to figure out where the man was. “For sure and for certain,” he thought, “Corey isn’t in that bed roll now.  That roll is both a signal and a target.” When Cade stepped in horse droppings, and no horses were present, he knew that Mort Corey was gone, taking the horses, and that he was on his own. “You can’t never trust law abiding folks,” he grumbled silently while pointing the camp out to his companions. The three Pecks opened fire on the bedroll. The Judge ducked behind a tree and opened fire on the Pecks taking Micah and Thomas down with bullets in their backs.   Reuben dove into cover and the Judge changed positions. Thus the two began a deadly game of hide and seek in the moonlit Colorado night.

Gun fire sounded in the distance then a startled Jess said, “What the….”as he rolled off of the now moving stone he was laying on.

“Howdy, Jess,” Mort grunted.  “Help me with this thing, it’s heavy, and I have no leverage.”

“Jess?” Dr. Nicholas queeried, sitting bolt upright.

“Pa, that you?” the man on the bed contributed weakly.

“Tina!” Jess growled quietly. “Silence him!”

The woman leaped up and yanked the man’s pillow out from under his head and then slammed it down over his face while silently cursing the fates for choosing just this moment to wake him up. Then she made a one handed grab for the chloroform bottle, and rag, and put the outlaw back under. Professor Finley would have tsked at her anesthetic technique but would have had to acknowledge that she did get the job done.

 By the time Athena was finished, a fourth person was standing in the room though the door had not opened. “Dr. Nicholas, are you here?” the silhouette asked.

“I am here, Uncle Mort,” she answered quietly while smiling into the darkness.

There was a pause, “How the devil did you know it was me?” the silhouette finally asked.

She followed the sound of his voice and gave him an enormous hug. “Who else could do such a thing? Appearing in the middle of the night, alone, in a bandit fort? Just before they find out Jess isn’t who they think he is. Grandpa and Aunt Agapita have told me tales.”

Mort laughed quietly, “Don’t believe a word they said. Ok folks, it is time to leave. Out through the tunnel, and right quick.” Out the trio went, replacing the stone as they exited, to perplex pursuit.

They crawled by the light of Mort’s, now re-lit, candle lantern. It wasn’t long before they were in the cave.  Leading the mounts out, Mort said, “Jess, here is your gun.  Athena, can you shoot?”

            “Uncle, I’m a city girl. The best I can do is pull a trigger. Call that shooting if you like,” she answered honestly.

            “You and Candy both, “he answered ruefully. “Where are the Marochka’s of this world when you need them?”  Normally, he wouldn’t have voiced the thought but it had been a long day and he was tired. Marochka Vasa (Corey wife number 2 and the fiercest of the lot) had drilled revolutionaries.

            Athena Nicholas bridled but remained silent. She had heard tales of THAT hussy from Aunt Agapita. The woman had no redeeming features. Her pique was interrupted by the sound of more gunfire.  High pitched shrieking cut through the night.

“Judge won,” Mort said with grim satisfaction. While he disliked the man, he preferred him over the Pecks. Besides, his treachery had been useful. Jess cocked an eyebrow at him and Mort clarified, “His voice isn’t that high.” A final pair of shots came and the shrieking abruptly ended. “Let’s go pick him up.”

“You’re working with Judge Cade?” Jess asked incredulously.

Old Mort looked at him wryly, “Much as anyone can. It’s a lot like working with a big alligator. You just understand his nature and allow for it. Course, if you let a gator loose in a man’s occupied bath water, you can surely count on it being a fine distraction.” Athena giggled at the comparison.  Mort then added, “Sometimes you just have to take whatever help you can get.”

Jess shook his head, “Fine, let’s go collect the Judge.”

“And make camp. I’m beat,” Mort said smiling. “We’ll finish up with the Pecks tomorrow.”

Jess paused, “Alright. But we had better be careful.  It’s just the two of us and there are quite a few of them. And we still have to get Tina to Denver.”

“And the Judge Jess. And the Judge. Don’t forget him,” Mort admonished cheerily.

“Boy I’d like to. I had enough of him dealing with Choctaw Johnson’s gang. I still have dreams about it,” the Texan groused. Then he added, “Is the Judge for us or against us?”

“Yes.”

Jess nodded and gave the man a half smile, “Yeah, that’s about what I thought. The Judge is all about the Judge.

Tina and Jess mounted upon Brick while Mort took the Judge’s gelding and led them back to where he had been camping. There they found the Judge packing up his gear.  “Howdy Judge, I see you came through all right,” Mort cheerily called out as they approached. Surprising the other man could have ended badly.

“Well, at least you brought my horse back you thief,” the Judge announced sulkily.

Mort just grinned, “Now, I just took him out for some exercise and here he is right as rain. You alright or did the Pecks manage to put a bullet into you?”

The Judge snorted, “Not likely. Go take a look at’em you side winder. I’ll want an affey davey from you. Where’d you find those two? I’d figure you had them shadowing us ‘cept they don’t have their own horses.” He paused for a minute, “Don’t tell me. They’re the Doctor and his wife.” The Judge swore sulfurously and then added, “You used me as a diversion. You law abiding folks are too LOW to be sidewinders.”

Jess chuckled in the darkness, “Howdy Judge, it’s been a while.”

Again the Judge started, “Harper? Now you’re gonna tell me you’re here to help a friend; just like last time.”

Jess’ smile broadened. Aggravating the Judge was an unexpected pleasure. “As a matter of fact, I am. I was riding guard on Doctor Nicholas. Judge Cade, this is Dr. Athena Nicholas.”

“A pleasure Judge Cade,” Athena formally intoned in her warm contralto. “Let me attend to any injuries you have,” she added.

The Judge just shut his eyes, inhaled slowly, and then exhaled.  “No missy, I’m fine.  Wouldn’t have you look at it if I wasn’t. A female doctor….” He grumbled, took his gear back out and sulked under a tree. Drinking soon became snoring.

Mort watched the exchange, grinning from ear to ear. “Watch the old devil Jess. I need to rest. I’ll spell you later so that you can sleep….”

Athena interrupted him, “Do not be silly Uncle. I shall stay up and watch him. I’ll sleep while you,  Jess, and he clean out the Peck scum. You both need to rest.”

Mort stopped his protest in mid-breath and shivered. In the girl’s voice and mannerisms, he could hear Agapita the pirate girl speaking. Tina would be a fine, even deadly, guard on the Judge. “Alright Athena. Good night.”

Jess and Mort slept until dawn woke them. They found the Judge still snoring and Athena happily cleaning the dirt from her outer garments. Of course, this meant she was dressed only in her undergarments.  Mort snorted, unsurprised, while Jess was rather flummoxed. Athena gave the appearance of being unconcerned, but Mort knew enough of her great aunt to know that she was pleased with Jess sneaking peaks at her partially covered curves.

Mort got up and ate some cold breakfast along with some fresh brewed coffee.  The others soon joined him and they made plans.

Jess was the first to speak, “Mort, there are at least six of them, able bodied, plus Woody Peck laid up. It’s open country around the fort, so approaching it during the day is dumb. We should wait for darkness and hit them before the moon comes up.”

“Suits me, “ offered the Judge.

Mort looked at them both and nodded, “Me as well. But I don’t think they’ll let us. I think they’ll bolt. All they know is that Jess and Athena are gone, that you’re running around out here, that the three men who went with you never came back, and that their hideout’s location is known.  Old Paulus is only brave when he has the upper hand. He’ll be out of there by noon. We either take them coming out, track them and probably get ambushed before nightfall, or let them go.”

Tina shook her head, “I don’t think so. If they ride out now, their wounded man will die. They should wait several days.”

The Judge shook his head, “Corey is right. Paulus is too much of a coward. We only have one rifle, so hitting them as they come out will get us cut to pieces.”

Jess folded his arms with a thoughtful expression, “Or we can get ahead of them and wait.”

The Judge raised one eyebrow at him and then nodded with a smile, “You might be right. Jess, but we’d have to guess which way they’ll head.”

Mort shrugged, tilting his head and eyeing the Judge, “I’ve no idea where they’d run. Do you, Jess?”

“No I don’t, “the Texan said gravelly then he smiled, “But we have the biggest scoundrel in Colorado with us.  Where will they go Judge?”

The Judge’s eyes glinted hard and merry, “Why Harper, it’s good to be appreciated. I can name half a dozen places they won’t go ‘cause they know that I know about’em. But they don’t know that I know about their using the abandoned ferry at Garret’s Landing, so I’m betting they’ll head there.  We’ll need to circle around them to set a trap.”

Mort pursed his lips and was about to ask how he knew, then muttered something about thin walled bordellos and shook his head.  Jess simply figured that the Judge rode with them at one time or another. Both men were correct.

“Then let us do that,” Athena Nicholas announced. “I do not wish to let them kill more folk. It is past time to stop them.”

So, riding double, they set off immediately. They went about 6 miles going past several good ambush points in an effort to lull their prey into carelessness, or maybe let them tire their horses out if they bolted from the post in an extended run.

It was in the late afternoon when four Pecks came loping up the wooded trail. The four horsemen were keeping a better watch to the rear than to the sides or front, obviously fearing pursuit.  Then the Judge stepped out from behind a large oak tree 50 feet to their front and bellowing, “Stand and deliver! He had Mort’s 12 gauge shotgun leveled at them.  Simultaneously, Jess and Mort popped up from behind rocks at their sides, pistols cocked and aimed.

Mort gave the Judge a sidelong glance and called out, “Halt Pecks! You are under arrest. Flee or fight, and you’re dead men.”

The men pulled up and the two rear most slapped leather causing Mort and Jess to fire knocking both off of their mounts and pacifying their resistance before they could shoot. The Judge blasted the lead rider off of his horse. Paulus Peck, horse rearing in fright at the Judge’s blast, tried to control his horse and inherited the Judge’s other barrel.  It was over.

“Stand and deliver, Judge?” Jess asked as he covered the last Peck.

Judge Cade smiled and shrugged, “I kinda forgot myself.”

“Yeah,” Mort said as he approached the prisoner and made him dismount. “Old habits die hard. You didn’t have to shoot that last one.”

The Judge shrugged smiling coldly. “He was trying to escape.”

“And this way we won’t have to watch over him heading back to town,” the retired marshal thought sourly.

“We are short some bandits,” Athena Nicholas observed while coming out of the brush to check over the men. One was badly wounded, and three were dead. “Woody Peck is not here nor is Peter Dodd. Neither is Molly.”

“Where are they Pecker?” the Judge demanded of the survivor, ever mindful of the bounties on both men. “Peckers” had been a nickname given to the gang many years previously.

Cowed, the wounded man Jess had shot shrugged and answered, “Back at the fort. Woody couldn’t travel, Molly would slow us down, and Dodd wouldn’t leave them.”

The group returned to the trading post. That night, Jess and the Judge went in to gather up the stray Peck gang members and only found Molly. Apparently Dodd packed Woody Peck up and the pair had vamoosed.  Come first light, Jess looked for the men’s tracks and found nothing.

The following day, everybody set off for Virginia Dale.  They arrived there without incident and turned Molly and the survivor over, along with the remaining monies from the bank robbery, to Federal Marshal Dubois. They also told Dubois about their suspicions about Denver Marshal Buchanon; suspicions supported by the captive Peck.

Epilogue

Dr. Athena Nicholas sipped her tea in the Corey family parlor. “Candy, you are healthy and are doing well,” she said to Mort’s extremely pregnant wife. The woman sat smilingly holding her husband’s hand.

“Thank you Doctor,” she beamed back at her. The pregnant woman had severely stressed over Mort’s being gone, scarcely eating at all, and now that he was back she didn’t want to let him out of her sight; mostly staying within touching distance. The old marshal didn’t seem to mind, generally draping an arm about her narrow shoulders.

Jess watched the pair. Old Mort was one of his favorite people and Candy Corey was a sweet beauty. He approved of them as a couple. So much so, that he had already taken issue with two loud mouths for saying that dirty old men had no business sniffing around beautiful women. That dust up had landed all three in jail with Jess only staying briefly; local law enforcement, meaning acting Marshal Wagner, had taken a liking to him. Buchanon had fled. Someone had telegraphed a warning to him from Virginia Dale and he was long gone before he could be arrested. Jess suspected that Buchanon now owed Judge Cade a favor.

When Candy went to the kitchen, Tina Nicholas asked with quiet curiosity, “Uncle, what did Aunt Agapita say in her letter?”

“That is private between her and me,” he placidly replied. In point of fact, once he knew it wasn’t needed for evidence, he burned the missive unopened.  He knew it would either be filled with vitriol or that it would be utterly sweet and reasonable.  If the latter, no doubt it would then lead to havoc and chaos. He reasoned that a quiet sedate man, like himself, needed neither. His response drew an archly annoyed look from the young woman, to which he blandly smiled. Impasse; subject closed.

            A minute later, Mort excused himself to ‘visit the necessary.’ Tina Nicholas then turned to Jess. “Well Jess,” she drawled in her Texan accent. “You finally got me here, safe and sound.”

            Jess laughed, “With a lot of help, Doc. I have to say, though, it’s good to get away from the ranch.”

            Athena archly smiled at him, “Why not stay away? Here in Denver? Or do you not like the company?  It was good enough to play doctor with, was it not?”

            Jess saw her eyes turn sultry…and rather predatory.  He was feeling both uneasy, and excited, when old Mort stepped back into the room, from where he had been eavesdropping from the hallway. Things had gone as he had expected them to; he well remembered pirate girl Agapita. “Athena is very much like her great aunt, though likely less mercenary,” he thought. Then he mentally added, “Shoot, Jesse James is less mercenary than Agapita.”

            The old man smiled at the pair, sitting back down. “Jess, RUN,” he said as he turned towards the woman and manfully braced himself for the resulting storm.

The End

(Author note: Readers interested in Judge Barnaby Cade are directed to the excellent Laramie episode “The Law Breakers”).



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