Authors: Tabor Evans
Longarm ate an early breakfast at the kitchen table. He did not want to show himself in the dining room lest he confuse the paying boarders, who did not have kitchenâor bedâprivileges.
It was still dark when he slipped out the back door and made his way back to the livery. Early as it was, the liveryman was awake and busy with his animals.
“You're ready to go? Give me a few minutes and I'll have you loaded for the trail,” the liveryman said. He smiled. “I wasn't expecting you quite so early. Sorry.”
“No need to apologize, Eugene,” Longarm told him. “My plansÂ .Â .Â .” He laughed, then said, “I don't have any plans, actually. Feels strange for a change.”
He checked the loading, but Eugene knew his business and did a more than competent job of getting Longarm's saddle and packs secured in place. Longarm just hoped he could get everything back the way it was supposed to be after he broke the packs down come evening.
That, however, would be hours and miles away from Silver Plume. And from Amanda.
Longarm smiled, thinking of her. And her girlhood friend LouAnne. They were quite a pair.
He wondered if he was going to have to stop somewhere this afternoon and take a nap. He damn sure had not gotten much sleep during the night.
“You're all set,” Eugene said just as the sky was beginning to grow pale toward the east.
The hostler had chosen a sturdy, brown mare for Longarm's mount and a fuzzy-eared burro to carry the packs. The saddle on the brown was wide and comfortable, unlike the army-style McClellan ball-buster Longarm usually rode.
He almost felt guilty about granting himself so much comfort. Almost. He was on vacation, wasn't he? He
a little time away to fish and loaf and relax.
He stepped up onto that very comfortable saddle and smiled. It felt good for a change.
“Thanks, Eugene. Don't look for me to be back for a couple, three weeks or so. I figure to be up in the high country enjoying life.”
“Wish I could go with you, Marshal.”
“Next time maybe you can,” Longarm said, not meaning it but wanting to be polite. He touched the brim of his Stetson and let the mare walk out of the barn, the burro following docilely behind on a cotton lead rope.
It was good to be on vacation, he thought.
A narrow switchback trail led north from Silver Plume, probably an old game trail widened and put into use by prospectors seeking the precious metals that made Colorado such an integral part of the nation's economy, and by the freighters and miners who came after them.
Longarm made his way slowly up the south slope of the mountain that loomed above Amanda's boardinghouse. He was in no hurry. After all, he was on vacation.
He passed only one other outfit, a short string of very large mules that were on their way down the same trail. Longarm tried to be sociable, but the muleskinner was in no humor for pleasantries. The man barely grunted an acknowledgment of Longarm's presence after Longarm politely pulled off on the side of the trail to allow the mules to pass. Then man and mules were gone, and Longarm was left with no company save his own animals and a hawk riding high overhead on some unseen air current.
Noontime found Longarm midway up the mountain. He paused for a cold lunch of hardtack and jerky and a swallow of tepid water from his canteen, then continued on hoping that the damn trout were worth all this.
Dusk came just as he crested the mountaintop. The view was fabulous, even by Colorado standards. Tall mountains and deep canyons surrounded him, and the cold, crisp air reached deep into his lungs. It seemed to please his soul as much as it did his body, and he dismounted to stand and admire.
If there were any church or cathedral as grand as this, he reckoned, he would be a regular attendee.
Standing and ogling was not accomplishing anything, though. He quickly stripped both horse and burro of the burdens they had carried all day long. He hobbled the animals and turned them loose to forage a meal for themselves while he added some rocks to a firepit that others before him had used up here.
He collected some reasonably dry deadwood and built a small fire. He poured enough water into his pot to make two cups of coffee, one for tonight and the other to be saved for morning, and gave the rest of his water to the animals.
Come morning he would need to find that fishing lake or mountain stream, if only to provide water for himself and the animals.
He mixed some dough with flour, lard, and salt and wrapped it around a stick that he used to roast the dough over the side of the fire while the coffee water was boiling.
“This is the life, eh?” he said aloud to the grazing horse and burro. Neither responded, so Longarm sat and shivered in the evening chill. He thought about getting up and digging his coat out of the packs, then decided that would be too much work. It was easier to sit in the flickering glow of the firelight and shiver.
Within minutes of finishing his meal, such as it was, he spread his bedroll and lay down to an overdue sleep. He was so tired he was almost glad that neither Amanda nor LouAnne was here with him.
“What theÂ .Â .Â .Â !”
Longarm came upright off his bedroll, on his feet with his .45 in hand before he consciously realized that he was awake.
Someone was trying to steal his horse. The moon was not yet up, so it must have been early in the night, but by the dim light of a crisply cold Milky Way he could see a pale figure trying to get the hobbles off the animal.
Longarm did not hesitate. Horse stealing was still a hanging offense in Colorado, and he had always thought that 255 grains of .45-caliber lead were the equivalent of a hangman's noose.
He took careful aim, so as to avoid hitting his own animal, and triggered off a shot.
The thief crumpled to the rocky ground, hit somewhere in the back.
Longarm rushed forward, ready to fire again if the son of a bitch offered to shoot back. He knelt beside the would-be thief.
And cursed aloud.
The person who was trying to steal his horse was a woman. He knew that for certain sure because she was wearing a flimsy sort of nightgown and had hair down to her butt.
She might have been pretty or homely, he had no idea. There was not enough light for him to see her that well. But one thing he was sure of was that his bullet had found its mark. She was bleeding, although not heavily.
He leaned close and thought he could hear ragged, rasping breathing that would suggest he had hit her through a lung.
People can survive a punctured lung. Sometimes. They might also simply lie down and die instead. If she didÂ .Â .Â . Longarm would have no regrets. The woman had been trying to steal his horse. The shooting was justified. He had no doubt that a jury would see it that way.
On the other hand, he did not want this woman to die. He would save her if he could.
He picked her upâshe seemed to weigh next to nothingâand carried her to his bedroll and placed her on it. Then he fumbled around for the wood he had laid ready for morning and rekindled his fire, building it up high so he could get a better look at her and her wound.
Even with the firelight it took him some time to figure out the maze of buttons and ribbons that held her nightdress together in the front, and more time to work it off of her without causing more pain than was absolutely necessary.
It helped that she had passed out. Shock, he assumed. Whatever the reason, she was as limp as a rag doll under his hands.
He stripped the clothes from her, noting in passing that she had a better than merely decent figure and was passingly good to look at. Or would have been if she had not just been shot. As it was.Â .Â .Â .
The bleeding was light. He took a look at the wound as best he could in the uncertain light. His bullet had struck to the side of her spine and penetrated a lung, just as he had suspected. It might well have hit bone. He could not tell that for sure, but at least if it did, there were no sharp splinters of bone that pierced the heart. He was positive of that because she continued to breathe.
He placed her on her stomach and wiped away what blood he could. The wound continued to bubble, and her breathing had become labored, so he fashioned a pad from a handkerchief and strapped it in place with strips of cloth torn from a shirtânot one of his favorites, but he hated to lose it nonetheless.
The woman remained out cold through all of his ministrations, which he counted as a blessing. At least that way he was able to do what needed to be done without her wriggling and fussing.
He made no attempt to remove the bullet. That was a job best left to a sawbones, who would have the proper probes to accomplish such a task.
He did need to get her down off this mountain, though, and to a doctor. Either that or shoot her again to finish the job and be done with it.
Longarm did not seriously consider any such thing, of course, but he was more than mildly peeved that his vacation had to be put on hold while he took this female horse thief down to civilization.
Get her down there and the sooner the better.
He cached his packs on top of the mountain to come back for later rather than haul them back down and then up again once he had safely delivered the woman to a doctor; then he picked her up and draped her over the saddle of the brown while he climbed up behind and lifted her into his lapâit was a good thing this civilian saddle was so wide and comfortableâand with the burro trailing behind, he set off down the switchback trail.
It was the middle of the next morning by the time he finally got back down to Silver Plume. The going had been slow because he did not know either the trail or the horse and did not want to wander astray. There were places where stepping off the trail could result in a fall to one's death.
The woman had wakened several hours before daybreak and tried to get away from him, so in addition to worrying about the horse and the trail he also had to be concerned with carrying her more or less against her will. Not that she had strength enough to seriously resist him, but she moved around enough to be annoying.
He had no idea where to take her in Silver Plume, so he headed back to familiar territory with Amanda Carricker.
He dismounted at the back of her boardinghouse and carried the woman, naked except for the strip of bandages around her chest, up to the back door. It was not locked, so he went on into the kitchen.
“Mandy! Come help me here. I gotÂ .Â .Â . I got problems,” he called loudly.
Both Amanda and LouAnne came in response. The boarders would all be out working at whatever jobs they held, so the women were presumably doing whatever it was that women did in daytime. Both, he noted, were fully dressed and their hair was properly in place, so they had not been screwing. He would not have wanted to interrupt that. Join them perhaps, but not interrupt.
“Custis? What are youÂ .Â .Â . Oh, my.” Amanda rushed to himâto the injured woman, reallyâand gave the woman a critical inspection. “She's been shot, Custis.”
“Yeah, I know. I'm the one that shot her.”
“But whyÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
“I woke up an' she was tryin' to steal my horse. I shot before I saw it was a woman. Probably wouldn't have made no difference anyhow. I wasn't gonna let her steal the horse.”
“Where did this happen?”
“Up top o' that mountain there,” he said, inclining his head toward the back of the house.
“That must have been hours ago,” Amanda said. “Since she has lived this long after you shot her, she probably will survive. Do you know why she was trying to steal your horse?”
“Nope. It's enough to know she was trying to do it. I don't have to know exactly why.”
“Carry her into the bedroom there, Custis. LouAnne, do you know where the doctor lives?”
“No, of course not,” her tall friend said.
“Then you are in charge of making her comfortable until I get back with the doctor,” Amanda said crisply, taking charge of the situation. “And you, Custis, sit and wait. The local law may want to have a word with you about this.”
Longarm nodded and carried the unknown woman into Amanda's bedroom. He placed her down on top of the coverlet and stood back while LouAnne assumed control of things there, first bringing a sheet to cover her nakednessânot that Longarm had been aroused to begin with by the sight of a naked, wounded, and possibly dying womanâthen fetching a basin of water to begin sponging away the dried blood on her back.
The bullet hole, when it was exposed, continued to bubble and pulse with the rhythm of her breathing. Longarm considered that to be a good sign. Especially the part about her breathing.
LouAnne had the woman lying facedown on the broad bed, cleaned up but still out cold after the shock of the gunshot.
Amanda returned after ten or fifteen minutes, a young doctor and his bag of potions and medical gadgets in tow.
“All three of you clear out now,” the doctor ordered. “Let me see what we have here.”
Longarm turned to go immediately; Amanda and LouAnne were less willing to leave. But then after all, it was their bedroom the unknown woman was inhabiting at the moment.
Longarm went out back to tend to the horse and the burro. Then he came back and slipped inside the bedroom, trying to be silent and unnoticed. By then the doctor was almost done with his examination. He cleaned the bullet hole and applied a plaster to seal it off. The woman immediately began to breathe more easily now that air was no longer leaking through Longarm's makeshift attempt at a seal.
The doctor also put proper bandaging over the plaster and turned the woman onto her back.
He dug a bottle of laudanum out of his bag and set it on the nightstand. “For pain,” he said. “When she wakes upÂ .Â .Â . if she wakes upÂ .Â .Â . she will be in great pain. Give her a few drops of this as needed. All right?”
Amanda and LouAnne both took the instruction seriously. They nodded as one.
“And what are you doing here?” the doctor demanded of Longarm. “I thought I sent you out already. Are you the husband?”
“Doctor, I don't even know who the hell she is. I'm the one that shot her.”
“Did you have a good reason?”
“I thought so at the time.”
“Good, because I intend to report this to the law.”
“Doc, he is the law. Custis here is a deputy United States marshal,” Amanda told him.
“He can tell that to the law too. Now, if you will excuse me, I have patients to see.” He snapped his bag closed, picked it up, and marched out.
“What will you do now, Custis?” Amanda asked.
“I'd like to hang around a bit and see does she pull through. There's some questions I'd like to ask her. Like for instance what was she doing up on top of that mountain in her nightdress and no sign of a camp or proper clothes. And where was she going with my horse. She wasn't stealing it for money, I wouldn't think. She was wanting to go someplace, and my bullet stopped her from it.”
He reached for a cheroot and a match. Once he had the cigar properly alight, he added, “Like I said. I got questions. I figure the answers might be kinda interesting.”
“LouAnne, take Custis out into the kitchen and get him some coffee. I'll take over here,” Amanda said.
“I could use a bite o' food too. Haven't eaten yet today and I'm kinda hungry.”
LouAnne took him by the arm and led him toward the kitchen. “We have some cold pork and nice, crusty bread. Perhaps some coffee too. Would that be all right?”