THE RENEGADE LADY SHERIFF by bsoiree C-SRE 2005 Sequel to 'Fetchin' Cousin Minnie and 'Willy's Present.

Disclaimer: This story is fictional though some of the places are real. Physical descriptions of the characters may vaguely remind you of two others, but they aren't them. Certainly any similarity between anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental. All characters are the sole possession of the author and the story may not be reproduced, posted or sold without the author's consent.

Subtext: This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If you are underage or this type story is illegal where you live, don't read it.

Violence: It's a western--those were times of customary wildness and, yes, violence.

For the Lady who owns my heart. Hey, babe.




The Renegade Lady Sheriff

by bsoiree


Section II ~ Trouble at Wild Horse Creek


Chapter 7 ~ Dead Men Don't Die

Barden's Corner, foothills, California

A few days after Christmas, 1875

The faces of dead men clogged her thoughts when at last the wagon riders' reflections turned solitary as they neared town. But for Gaine time to think was a time of dread, for the hauntings could be relentless.

Over and over as always the unsought final events played in her mind, the last shot, the surprise, the fall, the dead men's stares. Each in his turn censuring, accusing till they eked out her spirit, leaving an abounding emptiness.

Yet she forced them away with the one talisman that dominated her life, Katie. She imagined herself burying her face in golden hair, feeling warm arms surround her, inhaling the fresh, clean scent, hearing the ready laughter, filling that haunted void with a life so precious it made Gaine shiver. And with those thoughts a feeling of peaceful strength settled over her.

In this time and place it was not uncommon to think that loving a woman and allowing her to love you was the ultimate weakness of a strong hand in an unyielding land. But Gaine had discovered otherwise. Too often the guise of strength was confused with the real thing. The solitary rider, strong of body and heart, facing all the dangers of the world stalwartly, bravely, and alone was a popular ideal, but was too often found lacking.

Countless brave hearts found the strength to survive the horrors of that horrid war between the states, wounded, captured, starved, frozen, beaten, by clinging to thoughts of their beloveds and the force that love gave them to hang on, to endure ever and ever just one more day. That was the greatest strength. Love. Katie was the source of Gaine's greatest strength. Wounded and near exhaustion, the Sheriff watched the hauntings as they faded from view, replaced by the solice and healing image of Katie's arms.

Knowing home could not be her destination yet, however, wearily Gaine turned the horses onto the bridge then crossed and turned again down the town street filled with wagons, mules, a barking dog, horses tied at the rails and alerted citizens. They ran to follow her, a small crowd already gathering on the boardwalk in front of the furniture store, all eyes on Gaine who, hiding her pain, skillfully was heading the wagon their way, directing the roguish team of Tennessee horses.

The wagon team had given Gaine considerable trouble the moment the young family climbed aboard at the cabin, particularly the outrigger horse. Not having been hooked up and driven for a spell, and perhaps not all that well trained to start with, the two frisky steeds jumped out then thundered forward, shaking the wagon furiously across the uneven ground, vigorously bouncing the lovingly wrapped body of Ernie in the bed of the wagon and forcing Gaine to not only use her bad shoulder in reining them in but in securing the children on the bench. She and Mary Jane had to make sure the three little ones were not bounced off.

The children had gripped the wooden seat as though they were used to such incidents. It was several heart-stopping moments until Gaine had the fiery steeds safely under control.

Though the young widow said nothing, how quickly Gaine had reacted and how thoroughly she had brought the team under control had surprised Mary Jane. Ernie had sold their older, experienced team for a much needed profit and had been working with the young horses ever since. Still, he rarely had complete control of them until he and the horses were thoroughly exhausted.

Mary Jane knew the stress the activity had put on the Sheriff's badly injured shoulder. Even more surprising was what little outward indication Gaine gave that it pained her other than the sweat she kept wiping from her brow.

It had been tiring throwing over the team's attempts at misbehaving: trying to run, throwing their heads, kicking each other, biting and every other form of misadventure they could conjure. Now, however, though still a touch skittish, they were working as a team should.

Skip Garby, an affable man with a skill at cabinet making, stood waiting in front of the cabinet maker's shop. Though very talented, Skip's furniture business seemed to perpetually stand on the brink of bankruptcy. People had so little in the way of funds to spend on furniture these days, even for well-made pieces such as his.

He wore a cheap blackcloth suit worn iron-slick. His black silk top hat sat on his head, for he had grabbed it off the shelf when he heard the whisperings of the townsfolk. If what they were saying was true, this would be a solemn occasion, one he was hired to administer. Over his suit he wore a leather apron and leggings, much like the blacksmith wore.

Gaine's eyes, dulled by pain, ran across the man as he stood waiting down the street. Ain't meny folks knows how ta make a box taht nuff ta turn water. Skip do.

Skip directed a smile at Gaine of so brief a duration that one might question whether it really occurred. He considered himself a lucky man. He had found himself in an enviable position financially since he officially served as the town coffin maker and County Coroner. Death seemed to hold steady regardless of the country's financial climate. And, frankly, Gaine had been good for business.

Not only was he able to steadily provide for his family in these trying times, but he was even able to pay a small assistant's fee. And his assistant, who happened to be his brother-in-law, was delighted to have the job.

“Here comes the Sheriff,” someone from the crowd called excitedly.

“See. I told you. She's got dead bodies again. See the horse in the back.” All eyes went to Prince who easily carried the tied bodies of the two outlaws wrapped in their own saddle blankets.

“What's that in the wagon? Is it another body?”

“Isn't that the Lorence's team. Isn't that their family?”

“Where's Ernie?”

Word had spread like wildfire that something momentous had occured and a powerful sensation had been produced in the community, hurriedly bringing out most everyone scurrying down the boardwalk to the arriving assemblage.

As they rode down the main street Mary Jane sat primly upright, her long, black wool cape wrapped around her, her back stiff as a rod, holding her youngest child on her lap. The other two small children sat in their Sunday go-to-meetin' clothes, swinging their feet on the bench between Gaine and Mary Jane.

“Will Daddy be here?” the oldest child, a boy of five, asked, scanning the crowd for his father's face.

“Daddy's gone to see the angels,” Mary Jane answered tiredly, casting a quick glance at her husband's wrapped body in the bed of the wagon.

“Can I go, too?” the small boy asked.

“Heaven's, no,” his mother answered, “not until you're very, very old.”

“I wish Daddy would come home,” the boy pouted.

“I do, too,” his mother answered softly, her eyes glazing instantly.

Mary Jane had talked little on the long ride into town. After the shaky start, the weathered road proved harder than Gaine had anticipated. The continual rattling and jolting of the unruly bumps, though they were in a spring wagon, and the constant demands of the horses took their toll on her injuries.

Getting the team to ford the swollen, rushing stream while being bombarded with rapidly moving debris had been another unbelievable tax on her shoulder injury. Gaine had given the team a moment to accustom themselves to the roar of the churning water then turned the reins over to Mary Jane and mounted the most churlish of the horses, the outrigger, before urging them forward into the morass of rock and high, swift water.

Mary Jane had gritted her teeth, held the reins and bundled her children around her. Fortunately, even midway the water came just below the high bed of the wagon and did not overlap inside. Maneuvering both the outrigger and shaft horse and keeping them steadily moving, the crossing had been accomplished in a fairly short time with no serious threat of capsizing, though the activity, while acting as a cold soaking to Gaine's swollen leg, had further stressed her shoulder.

“Outta drav them two outlaw hosses direct ta the hoosegow ‘n lock ‘em up ‘n throw ‘way the durned key,” Gaine had muttered with a scowl when she'd climbed back into the driver's seat, recovering the reins. Mary Jane had looked away, saying nothing. A silent tear had begun its route down her cheek but she swiftly brushed it away. Ernie had often made far worse comments regarding this very inexperienced team.

All the way to town Mary Jane had sat solemnly staring straight ahead or paying heed to her small children while Gaine stealthily managed the ribbons as she dried out. At one point the brunette had explained that she was leaving Alonzo to do the heavy jobs around the ranch until Mary Jane could decide what she wanted to do. He was a good hand, an excellent worker and deserved to be treated with respect, she advised.

Mary Jane said nothing.

Then the tall Sheriff cautiously suggested that the young widow might want to consider the prospect of hiring a ramrod and running the ranch herself just the way she and Ernie had planned to do. It would be harder, of course, but they had one monumental piece of property. And with the right foreman, Gaine was sure Mary Jane could be successful. She was a very resourceful woman and had the ability to create her own destiny, Gaine encouraged. She could run a ranch with the right help. Gaine would help her all she could and would be happy to suggest someone as straw boss if Mary Jane was at all interested.

Mary Jane said nothing.

After all, Gaine explained further, theirs was such a valuable parcel of land, a valley filled with the greatest of promise. It would be a tribute to Ernie to work it. Mary Jane shouldn't dismiss it lightly. It could end up being an excellent place to raise her children. She could pass on the management of it to her son or even her daughter when they were older. Eventually their grandchildren could run it. At least, it was something to ponder when she felt she could let herself look to the future. Which, Gaine had thought to herself, yer gonna haf ta do raht soon Ah fear.

Mary Jane had not commented or even looked at her. Gaine wasn't even sure she had heard.

People were running from the saloons and walking briskly from the stores, headed toward the wagon. The two young teenaged Harlap brothers raced up to help with Gaine's team as they neared the rail.

Bo, the oldest, acting the role of a daredevil, stepped in front and grabbed for the hitch rail while his brother, Benny, moved too quickly nearby, causing the outrigger horse to rear.

“Whoa! Settle thar!” Gaine called with annoyance, reining them in. “Hold off thar!” No one was sure if she was speaking to the horses or to the boys, but the young fellows hopped back as the crowd growled their disapproval of the boys' actions.

Getting the team back under control, Gaine scowled at the two, “Hep Missus Lorence down, Bennie. Go roun' now. Bo, come o'er har.”

“Yes, ma'am, Sheriff,” the boys chorused.

“Ya got a place ta stay har ta town?” Gaine asked Mary Jane softly, when the horses settled and Bennie had started lifting the children down, his place edged out by Mr. Blen, the cooper. “We'd be pleased ta haf ya all ta tha ranch, if'n ya'd lahk. It ain't ta town, Ah knows, but...”

“No, thank you, Gaine,” Mary Jane replied unemotionally, dulled brown eyes turning Gaine's way. “I thought we'd stay with Dalton's family.”

“Shore. But you'll lemme know if'n ya needs anathin'?”

“I will,” Mary Jane put a hand softly on Gaine's arm. “Thank you, Sheriff.”

“Ahl bring yer team ‘n wagon back tamorra, if'n tis all raht. Doan need ta pay ta leaf it ta the livery tanaht. Dalton ain't got much room fer extry hosses. Ahl haf mah hands look ta ‘em.”

“I appreciate that. Thank you.”

Gaine had respectfully repositioned and wedged Ernie's wrapped body into the middle of the wagon bed after crossing the stream. Now Skip and his assistant came out to move Ernie inside the shop.

Once on the ground Mary Jane fell into Dalton's arms when he came rushing out to meet her. He grabbed her portmanteau from the wagon bed and led her and the children back toward his harness shop, although Mary Jane kept looking back, complaining that she did not want to leave Ernie very long. She was informed that Skip would measure and start right away on the pine burial box, but the ladies would need to cover it, line it and provide a pillow for Ernie's head.

“You can use my old coat for the outside,” Dalton offered. “I've no use for it here.” Broadcloth coffin coverings sewn from old Prince Albert coats were not at all unusual. “I'll send my boy to get you some muslin from the mercantile.”

Mary Jane nodded, clamping down on her quivering lip. The other ladies would line the inside with muslin and she would lovingly sew a matching muslin pillow. With all the sewing, she would be too busy to do much thinking again this night.

Gaine handed the reins to Bo. “Hold the team steady, Bo. Gie ‘em short rein, now. All them folks done puts a hair ta them thar hoss's butter. “N theys raht rumbustious, them two scalawags. Kin ya do ut?” The boy nodded. “Gotta unload,” Gaine continued.

Bo couldn't believe it. The Sheriff was trusting him even after he'd done the wrong thing. And this was no easy team to handle, everybody saw that. He caught the disapproving looks of the nearby men who had determined that Bo was definitely unfit for the task. Yet, here he was holding the reins. His chest swelled, “Yes, ma'am, Sheriff. I kin do it.”

She gave a knowing glance to some of the men, assured they would get the situation quickly under control if need be. Then she gave the boys a quick glance. They weren't bad fellas, either of the brothers. They could be rascals, but theirs was mostly a case of over-exuberance, confused family expectations and unclear thinking. Gaine considered them basically honorable and trustworthy young fellows.

Bo leaned back. “Whoa,” he said in his deepest, most serious voice although a couple of men had already moved to the front to control the team. Bo's brother joined him on the seat, both unable to brush wide smiles from their faces.

Gaine braced herself to hide her physical discomfort, used her sleeve to wipe the perspiration from her lip and forehead, and concentrated on walking back to Prince without limping. She had noticed the people intently zeroing in on her, and she stood as tall as she could because of it. The crowd edged closer, then stopped frozen in place. It was always the same, the dual attributes of fascination and fear--death, the Grim Reaper, always an unwelcome and seldom understood visitor in too many people's lives.

She roughly untied the lash ropes on the dead criminals. She pulled loose their stiff, wrapped bodies with her good arm, propelling them one at a time to the ground, letting them drop onto the street since the coffin maker was busy inside measuring Ernie for his coffin. Prince danced away from the disruption, eyeing her questioningly. She muttered a few gruff words to him. Prince eyed her, whinnied but calmed. The crowd paid rapt attention.

She had rubbed her leg all day as they rode, and the swelling was going down. Being submerged in the cold water of the creek during the crossing had actually been an aide to the swelling, washing the blood stains from her britches as well, leaving mucky dirt stains instead. Now her pants were dry, and she noticed she was more able to put weight on her leg again. At least it was in better shape.

But Gaine suspected she had reinjured her shoulder wound somewhat. It hurt like crazy and she could feel the heated liquid of fresh flow slowly oozing inside her shirt.

She grabbed an end to one saddle blanket then another and unceremoniously unrolled the bodies to the view of the mesmerized crowd, who drew back in surprise. Prince danced away from the bodies and the team at the rail rolled large eyes toward her, jerking at the hitch-rein and nervously moving their feet, causing the boy to once again call out, “Whoa. Easy there. Whoa,” and the men put a steadier hold to their grips.

The off horse jerked his head back, baring his teeth so that one of the men grabbed his cheek strap to settle him again and another moved near the hame string while Bo reined back.

Gaine heard the crowds' gasps upon realizing who these men were. Instantly whispering commenced regarding what exactly might have taken place. She glanced up and was surprised to see the judge's wife in the crowd.

She'd forgotten that the grey-haired, older woman had recently moved into the boardinghouse in town, preceding her husband's scheduled circuit visit. It was thought the couple would soon take up year round residence, giving Barden's Corner a permanent judge. Their town had been chosen of all those small towns visited by the Judge because it had the highest degree of civility and safety for his wife.

Curiosity registered on the older woman's face. She shot a look of interest at the tall, female Sheriff. So this was the woman who brought law and order to Barden's Corner. Her husband was quite fond of her.

Gaine nodded politely but maintained her outward coolness, a habitual tendency of hers. She liked the Judge and often found herself in full agreement with him in legal questions. He had always been supportive of her work, and she found him inclined to be fair, insofar as the laws themselves were fair. Surely his wife shared his opinions.

Ignoring the quizzical muttering of those assembled, Gaine stuck her head in the doorway, “Whar ya want them thar fellers, Skip?”

“Those the ones that killed Ernie? Two of them, I see.” Every cloud had its silver lining. Skip would reap the benefit of three fresh coffins, two bought and paid for from the town's coffers.

“Yep, that be them.”

“Oh, I remember ‘em, the dirty, rotten polecats! Just leave ‘em there. I'll get to them when I have Ernie taken care of. I have to get the box to his Missus right away so the ladies can finish it and lay him out proper. She wants the funeral tomorrow. I'm sure the neighbors are already baking up some food for the mourners.”

Gaine looked at the crowd. Perhaps there was baking being started somewhere. But she was sure the women folk in the crowd intended to see the dead killers first. “Yep. Uh, maybe t'ain't sa good ‘n idee ta leaf em out har,” Gaine frowned. “Folks gotta step o'er ‘em ‘n all. Judge's wafe bees ta town. She maht fahnd ut uncivilazed.”

“Yes, right, right, Sheriff. Throw them just inside the room by the window there, then,” he suggested. “I'll lay them out later. Folks'll wanna see what Ernie's filthy rotten killers look like.”

“Ah reckon they's seed these here fellas afore.” She looked at the two dead men then leaned over near the big man's stiffened face. Her voice was quiet, “Ah tole ya ut doan make me no never mahnd.”

But, of course, it did. Every killing did. Even though these men had burned powder first, started the blue whistlers flying when her back was turned and precipitated their own demise, even so, each dead man lived on in her memory. Shore wisht dead men ud stay dead.

Another sudden longing to hold Katie in her arms sprang to the fore, halting the brooding she always felt after she ended up rendering death warrants. She wanted nothing more than to be back at their ranch.

Vowing to herself to hurry, she grabbed an arm and grunted, starting to pull the smaller of the men along the boardwalk into the doorway. Weasel. For a small man, his dead weight was arduous. Her shoulder was throbbing, and with her leg injury, it was uncharacteristically difficult. She forced her face to remain neutral though a small nerve near her eye twitched beyond her control. She looked up at the gathering crowd, “Hows ‘bout some a ya strappin' fellers thar givin' a han' ‘n move Ernie's killers thar inta Skip's store? Ah gotta go jaw with'n tha Mayor.”

Suddenly a group of townsmen rushed forward and gingerly hauled the two bodies inside for her. They placed the stiff forms casually against a chest inside the window in a tableau where the two could easily be seen from outside. Then the volunteers' heads swiveled to where Ernie was being laid out on one of the carpentry benches. All ears searched that direction when the assistant lifted the front edge of Ernie's jacket and shirt. “There's a big hole in his chest, Skip. That's why this doesn't lie flat”

Within minutes, the town was abuzz with the fact that Ernie Lorence, friend to many, had been shot in the back at least once, leaving a gaping exit wound in the front of his chest. Reverent eyes focused on Gaine, who, acting as Sheriff had brought in the two who had done the dastardly deed. Men did not kill their townsfolk and get away with it. Not when their Sheriff was Gaine Sargos.

Both men were very recognizable--the professional gunslingers that had been in their little town two mornings before, threatening, strutting, terrifying the inhabitants. Once again Gaine had stopped the threat, revenged Ernie's loss. There wasn't a soul there that didn't want to run their eyes over the dead bodies of those moral and mental degenerates dead in the store window and see for themselves Gaine's method of ridding their town of this evil. And as for Ernie, most knew they'd be laying their eyes on his prostrate form soon enough when they paid their respects to his widow and family.

A thought had been wearing on Gaine's mind and her mood darkened as she crossed the dirt street and carefully made her way, trying hard not to limp, down the boardwalk toward the Mayor's office. Though bone tired, she put everything into this effort as she passed people hurrying to the display she'd left.

“Sheriff!” a voice from the crowd called. She looked up. A middle-aged man badly in need of a shave, wearing a dark rumpled sack suit, was hurrying down the boardwalk toward her. Scraggly hair hung to his shoulders from under a dark hat which was darkened further with layers of accumulated dust and sweat. His string tie was half undone, his grey shirt daubed with grease spots.

If'n it ain't ar sawbones , Gaine thought, noticing the redness of the man's nose. Wonder if'n he bees sober. Prob'ly a'hopin' fer a job. “Doc,” she exclaimed, “Ya be's ta late, Ahm a'feared. They's all passed.”

“Yes, yes, I heard,” he wrinkled his brow and edged her toward the nearby water trough to not be overheard. Whiskey laced his breath, but the man's movements were steady. “I'll need to be doing a post mortem.”

“Ah done shot ‘em both. Theys be dead a gunshot wounds. Ain't ta hard ta figure.”

“Of course. It's my job, however.”

Fer which yer paid. Ah gits ya.

His eyes twinkled with delight, “They were those notorious gunslingers, correct? The ones from back east that threatened the town?” Gaine observed him carefully, deciding Doc had only had time to gather up a talkin' load of dynamite, interrupted as he was before his sights doubled up on him.

“That bees correct.”

He smiled with pleasure, “Then may I get your permission?” He stood proudly, rocking back on his heels. Gaine blinked. Doc waited impatiently then added, “My collection...”

“Oh, yer....” she recollected Doc's grisly collection of gunslinger's trigger fingers that he illustriously had pickled and kept on a shelf in his office, each in its own large jar of alcohol, neatly labeled with the outlaw's name, approximate number he'd killed, who had killed him-most being gunned down by Gaine-and date of death printed neatly on the label. She'd always found it particularly gruesome. “Uh...Ah ramembers.”

“Were know, left handed?”

“Left...? Without wanting it to, the rememberance of the gunfight instantly played back again in her head, removing all thoughts of his macabre request, “Uh..the tall feller,” she remembered so clearly, “that buzzard could whip his rafle ta t'either shoulder ta a heartbeat, ex-pandin' his range. But he done favored tha raht. The shorter feller,” she saw Weasel's enjoyment at firing at her before he was hit, “that feller al'ays fahred from tha raht.”

“Aahhh. Very good. Then I have your permission?”

“Ain't mahn ta give, Doc....”

“A dead gunslinger can't very well complain, now can he?” Doc chuckled merrily. He looked around at the crowd that was staring as they rushed past, “Shucks, they'll all want to see my collection later. When they're labeled and all.” He added for clarity, “In the interest of science, you understand.”

“Lordy, Doc, Ah ain't none ta shure ‘bout the interests a science.”

“Look at them,” Doc sniffed. “Half of these people would dearly love to string those gunslingers up and fill their dead bodies with lead just for their own shooting practice. Think how glorified it would make them feel!”

Gaine shrunk inwardly from that suggestion. Crimony, yer lahkly raht.

“Are you concerned about..... what people think?” he asked in dismay. “I've known you a long time, Gaine. You've never let public opinion make your decisions before.” He fingered the lapel of her jacket and raised a brow. She got his point. No, she didn't dress like other women. “Besides, it's not like it would be done out of pure cussedness. It's for a good cause. Like I said, it's in the interest of science.”

The man drew himself up to his greatest stature.

Pickled gunslinger's fingers in the interest of science? Or was it making a profit from morbid interest, for he always requested a small fee from the curious? “Ask Skip, Doc. He done bees tha Coroner...” Pained blue eyes looked into his. He hadn't gone to any school. His experience had not even been from chance but from necessity, working beside his father, an old country doctor who spent half his time bleeding people and the other half filling himself and his companions with drink. His son had followed in his footsteps, adding this collection to expand his own notoriety.

“The Mayor gave his permission in the past,” Doc noted, for a fee, “but since this didn't take place here in town, I thought it best to ask you. What's your opinion?”

“Mah ‘pinion?” Gaine was tired and wanted to continue on her way. The men were both dead, may they rot in hell as far as she was concerned. “Ah doan rahtly care none one way er tuther.“

“Good. Then it's settled.”

“Whal, ya'd best check with'n Ole Skip.”

Doc ignored that comment. “Thank you, Sheriff,” Doc grinned and began to move away then stopped. “Uh, you shot them through the heart?”

“Batween tha ahs.” And that, of course, meant she had been facing her opponents. She had not shot them in the back, like the liver-bellied cowards had done to Ernie.

“Of course, Sheriff. I'm sure you won't mind, then, if I dig out the bullets, if they're there.”

Gaine stood silent at this suggestion. Digging around in dead men's bodies was all more than she wanted to even think about.

“They'll wanna see the leavin's,” Doc exclaimed, his arm sweeping to include the crowd. “But don't worry, I'll be discreet. I won't leave a big mess. I've done this many times before. Folks will barely notice.”

Gaine blinked a few times. “Ya been a'minin' fer lead afore in them what passed? Lordy.” But she was tired and finally decided, what did she care after all? The men were already dead. Still, desecrating bodies left a bad taste in her mouth.

Doc meerly smiled, “You have a preference which man I start with?”

Gaine shook her head. “Check with'n Skip afore ya does anathin'. Ah ‘spect gittin' a little workin' room'll leaf him a'prancin' with'n his tail up.” Long's he gits paid ta make all thar coffins. “He's a trahn ta git a box ready fer Ernie. Mary Jane wants tha fun'ral tamorra.”

“Tomorrow! That's mighty early! I'd best hurry.”

Gaine backed away. “That's whut Skip done said,” she said softly as he hurried away. Her hand went automatically to her sore shoulder as she watched him head back for his wagon on the run. One thing she knew for sure. There was no way in hell she was telling Doc about her injuries. Too many of his gun shot patients died.

A young man who'd pressed his way to just outside the furniture store window now broke free of the crowd and raced down the middle of the street and onto the boardwalk to Gaine's side as she moved with great concentration toward the Mayor's office.

“Sorry I'm late getting here, Sheriff,” he wheezed, coming up beside her. “I ran from the jail to see everything as soon as I heard.”

It was Phineas, the young man who wanted desperately to serve as Deputy Sheriff for their town, an ambition blessed by his Ma, who's brother was Sheriff Wilson of Sierrasotta County. A gangly, rawboned kid, he was a fair shot who hadn't yet grown into his hat or the broadshoulders that were a Tucker family trait. Yet it was said the cooper's daughter had already set her cap for him. Gaine was trying to help him get an awareness of what his dream entailed.

“Ya seen em?” Gaine asked.

“Yes. I recognized them. They're the two you ran out of town.”


“The Judge's wife is in town.”

“Ah seed ‘er.”

Phineas stopped. His eyes widened. Gaine continued walking. “You're hurt,” his eyes went to the faint stains left on her sewn trouser leg.

Gaine shot a look over her shoulder at the young fellow. “Ain't nuthin.” Phineas hurried to catch up to her again. She stopped.

“Listen, Phineas. Come ta think on ut, Ah needs ya to rahd ta Big Creek ‘n tell yer Uncle thut Ernie war shot ta tha back ta Jumpin' Antelope Valley bah them two interlopers, bushwhacked ‘n buried ta a shalla grave. His hoss done still bees missin', but theys done had his rafle.”

“Ernie's horse was taken?”

“Yep. Fahn bit a' hoss flesh. T'war a claybank stallion, ‘bout fifteen hands. Bill knows tha brand. Hoss war plated ‘n slippers, smooth ‘cept fer a nick ta tha raht front.”

“Not caulked?”

“No. Tell him ta watch fer tha nick. Uh, never mahnd, he'll know ta.”

“All right.” He nodded.

“Them two maht a sold that thar hoss, or he maht be a'runnin' with'n tha mustangs thereabouts. Ah din't have tahm ta track ‘im. Bill'll hafta send some fellers out. Mah guess bees tha mustangs'd head o'er ta Curtain Canyon if'n that's whar he be.” The wild herd she and her father'd gone after years earlier had done just that. She assumed they still did. “His family'd shore ‘preciate knowin' whar Ernie's hoss be.”

“Uh, you want me to ride to Uncle Bill's right now?” He looked back at the town excitement and his shoulders sank. “Right this minute?” And miss all these doin's?

“If'n ya kin. Tis gotta be done.” She glanced up at the sky. The sun was well into its race across the sky. “Kin ya do ut?” She started walking again.

The boy thrust his head up, displaying the vigor and exhuberance his family was noted for. “Certainly. Of course. If that's what you need done, Sheriff, I'm your man to do it.”

“Thank ye, Phineas. Mrs. Lorence ‘n her fam'ly'd shore ‘preciate ut.”

They walked silently for a minute. “What happened out there?” the boy asked, wondering if she would actually tell him anything. She wasn't one to parade her actions.

She saw his disappointment in being asked to leave and made a quick decision. “Theys war well heeled ‘n come a'smokin' me ‘n Alonzo. Danged if'n theys din't end with'n lead poisonin' fer thar trouble.”

“They shot at Alonzo, too?”

On other days she might have smiled. This boy could be such an innocent, but he needed to learn quickly if he hoped to survive his chosen pursuit. Today, however, she did not feel like smiling. “As ex-spected. Outlaws done had us both pinned. Both a us wuthout ar rafles. Alonzo done raht good fahrin' back with'n his pistol.”

“He shot one of them?”

“Shot TA ‘em. Shootin' ahrns doan match rafles none. Drawed theys fahr, howsomever.”

“But he killed one of them?”

Her voice dropped in volume, “Ah fears Ah war tha one done blowed theys lamps out whan tha tahm done come. ‘N twarn't no case a slow, neither. Gotta al'ays figure trouble's gonna come a'harefooted. N' them fellers t'war raht fast ta tha draw. Here bees a lesson merits yer attention, Phineas: War a case a keepin' count.”

Phineas noted how tired she sounded as she spoke. He was thrilled she was telling him what had happened. His mother would relish this inside information. He rolled her last sentence in his mind. “Oh. I, uh, I don't think I understand. What do you mean by ‘keeping count'?”

“Ah counted theys shots. Ya needs ta do that, Phineas, when ya's under fahr. Know e'er weapon ya kin, how meny shots ut kin dis-spence ‘n keep count. Shore done let me step raht out afore tha last feller whan he war reloadin'.”

“You stepped right out in front of him?” Phineas' eyes widened. He wondered if anyone else knew that, or was he the first to know?

“Reckon he warn't more'n a raht powerful tabaccy spit away. But, he din't ‘spect ut.” Her hand went to her holster. But he done ruint mah sixshooter afore he done gived up tha ghost, damn him all ta hell's fahr ‘n back.

“Stars, Sheriff, you could have touched him?” The thought left Phineas breathless.

“Ah kin spit further'n Ah kin reach. Important thang be, whan ya cain't dodge a faht, ya gotta gie yerself ever ad-vantage'n make do.” Her look was intense, “Er dah.” Her eyes pinned him in place. He nodded in solemn understanding.

There was nothing more exciting than working with this talented woman. Phineas' hands unconsciously settled over the two tied down guns on his hips. He marveled at her skill then smiled widely, filling out his shirt in pride at being told things others would be athirst to know. “I'll remember that, Sheriff.” Seeing she was done speaking, he tipped his hat. “I'll head out now.”

“Ah hopes ya doan never hafta ‘member ut,” she muttered softly. But the boy was already in the street, running to his horse to ride to let his kin know he was heading out of town. She considered him a boy even though he was almost the age she had been when she'd first served as Sheriff.

She glanced down the direction toward Ma Tucker's spread. Her children, whatever their ages, found those steel grey eyes of their Ma harder to explain to than any outside conflict life could throw at them. It was a foregone conclusion that she would be told what Phineas planned to do before he did it.

Suddenly Gaine's eyes went to the pharmacist's wife hurrying down the boardwalk in Gaine's direction. “Mrs. Ledderbridge?” Gaine called.

“Sheriff,” she replied stopping before Gaine. Gaine turned the woman toward the rail where the horses were tied.

“Uh, Ah wonder if'n Ah maht ask ye a favor...”

“Certainly, Sheriff.” Her husband ran the pharmacy counter inside the mercantile. Gaine spoke softly to the woman, who with serious expression nodded. “Yes, yes, of course. I understand. Where...?”

“Be shore ta check with'n Dan'l's wafe, but not Dan'l. Ahl be a'headin' bah wagon down t'ward the mercantile ‘n ‘bout haf hour er so.”

“Fine. I'll come out to the street and meet you there. City account?”

“Oh no, ma'am. Mahn. ‘N Ah thanks ye kahndly.”

“Of course, Sheriff,” she smiled. The woman turned to head back the way she had come.

Not far away on the boardwalk were three men, the Mayor, Westminster, and Eli Hornbar, all stretching their necks to see the happenings without moving from outside the land office building.

Whal, if'n this here three ain't jest lahk a batch a long-necked honkers. S he knew the two, but Gaine couldn't help wondering about the stranger Hornbar. Was he a trouble-seekin' man? She'd seen him when he'd first scouted their town months ago and had no firm impression one way or the other.

Dauntlessly she approached them, working to not appear gimpy on her bad leg. Tahm ta trah'n git a-holt a tha jerk lahn ta this here sitjeation.

His gold watch chain glittered in the sunlight as the Mayor's ample belly pushed against his dark-suited vest. He looked much like a brandy barrel in a three piece suit. His polished shoes peeped under his trouser bottoms as the man pompously pressed both glove-covered hands to lean forward on his silver-handled walking stick, doing his best to see down the street around her. His multiple chins lopped over his exaggerated high-wing collar as his small beady eyes glared out above a beard that could take to a little trimming.

Ar Mayor shore bees disposed ta good eatin'.

Then she noticed that Westminster had been letting his mustache grow, had darkened and waxed it, giving it more of a sinister look. Beefin' up his manhood, most lahk. Particularly, she grinned inwardly, after she'd threatened his life before townsfolk in the cafe days before. Westminster's hair was neatly parted, and, except for his mustache and burnsides, his ruddy skin showed a slight shadow where he had cleanly shaved that morning.

That man bees uz slick uz a gold hill mudslide.

Above the men on the false fronted building next to the sign announcing it was the Mayor's Copper Hills Land Office, Real Estate and County Record Office hung a new sign stating “Valley Cattle and Land Company, Upstairs.” An arrow pointed to the long outside stairway on the side of the building.

Theys sharin' tha buildin'? she wondered. Be theys throwin' in tagather o-fficially? Int'restin'. This Hornbar feller, he done smells a trouble. Be he payin' rent ta tha county? Ahl ask Etta. She watched the man as his descending gaze slowly traveled admiringly along her body, head to foot. Yep, Ah needs ta take this here fella's meddle raht off, she decided. He was certainly taking hers.

He was half a head shorter than she. An immaculate man, his light, three piece broadcloth suit and white starched shirt appeared freshly pressed with nary a speck of dust. His equally pristine light colored western hat was perched atop a head of short, tidily cut brown hair. His mustache was trimmed short allowing his bronzed skin access to attention, his brown eyes attentive and keen. On his feet were expensive hand tooled boots. A handsome enough man, his aspect was that of a prosperous rancher--one who rode but never dirtied his hands.

The man wore no observable gun but he could be concealing an ace in the hole. And while she had a lead chucker in her holster, it didn't matter if there were beans in its wheel or not, it was ruined. Course, he didn't know that.

She walked directly to the stranger. “Thar be's a rumor ...” Gaine paused. Accusations were dangerous dalliances, “thut says ya done hired them killers done shot Ernie Lorence.” She studied his reaction carefully. “Ah shorely hope t'ain't so,” she added quickly.

“Wha...! How dare you!” the Mayor's chins jiggled and his face instantly turned red as he vehemently shot up off his walking stick, raising the item straight up menacingly in one white-gloved hand. Gaine barely hiked a brow but Eli Hornbar quickly raised a hand to stop his companion's objection.

“Hold on, Maximillius.” Surprisingly unconcerned with her accusation, Eli quietly noted her gun then was taken by the steel in Gaine's eyes. “May I say you have the most beautiful blue eyes,” he remarked politely.

Intrastin' reaction. “Ah mentions ut,” she continued unphased, “cause whan Ah fahnds who t'war in-volved, Ahl have ‘em afore the Judge faster ‘n a feller kin spit.” She smiled grimly, “N' whan tis so datermined, Ahl gladly taughten tha noose ‘n kick them slats out mah own self so's justice'll shore nuff be done.”

Eli Hornbar's turn to raise a brow. “Aren't you afraid of becoming unmarriageable with such actions, Miss Gaine? A shame for such a young beauty like yourself.”

Now she was annoyed. “Ah bees tha Sheriff ta these here parts,” she said icily. “A family man war kilt'n Ah ain't done lookin' inta who done hahred them killers. Ah ain't plannin' ta be no belle a tha ball. So's ye kin call me ‘Sheriff.'”

“Wrapped up in your importance?” the Mayor snarled.

Lawdog, Westminster scowled. Lawbitch more like. He considered snickering, but Gaine shot him a glance that instantly dispelled any such thoughts.

“No offense, ma'am, but the name I've heard mentioned for you I believe is ‘Renegade Sheriff,'” Eli flashed a flirtacious smile. “A name surely given in good cheer and kind regard, emphasizing the spirited, nimble, endearing qualities of the word.”

“Ahm shore.”

“Kindly allow me to insist the word ‘Lady' must be affixed.” He swept his hat off and bowed deeply from the waist. “Miss Renegade Lady Sheriff, let me introduce myself. I am Eli Hornbar of the Valley Cattle and Land Company. So happy to make your acquaintance.”

“Ah ain't hankerin' fer no double eagle tahtles. Sheriff ul do.”

Seeing no amusement in her features, he replaced his hat and eyed her badge. “Perhaps then I should say ‘please don't shoot, Sheriff,'” he mocked teasingly. “You've misjudged me. Not only am I an unarmed man, I am completely innocent.”

Gazing into eyes she instinctively distrusted, she suspected innocence of any kind might be a perfect stranger to this man. If she knew anything about men, it was that someone like this was unquestioningly carrying a hidden Arkansas toothpick or a hide-out gun or both. This kind of man never went unarmed.

“Ah've heared about ye...” she replied stoneyfaced.

“And we're very pleased to have him in town,” the Mayor finished for her, giving his friend a wide smile and small bow. “Unfortunately our sheriff is unskilled in welcoming strangers to town.”

“Some strangers ain't welcome ta town,” Gaine replied.

“Only those with bad intentions,” the Mayor shot back angrily.”

“My intentions are highly honorable, I assure you. Now, I hope you won't find me too presumptuous,” Eli had not taken his eyes off Gaine, “but I have heard some things about you, too...Sheriff...things that, I confess, distress me. Perhaps you can explain them to me.” He smiled confidently, “For instance, I've heard that when considering justice, you're mighty quick to put the touch of death on anyone standing against you.”

You be standin' ag'in me? Ah reckon ya t'is. Gaine glowered and raised a brow as the Mayor bobbed his head in agreement with Hornbar, then clamped her teeth as a twinge of pain shot from both her shoulder and leg. She'd been here too long, but long enough to discover that this Hornbar fellow was a dangerous man. She did not need to have the undercurrent of town feeling stirred against her, and she figured he surely intended to do that.

“In fact, I heard you shot a number of men just a few months back,” he continued. “Killed them outright. I suppose this could have saved the town the expense of a trial, if that's what folks here find important. The question is, is that what justice is all about?”

Gaine's eyes narrowed. “You un outlaw,” she asked calmly. “Withun this har great distress ya got'n yer hankerin' fer justice?”

“Of course I'm not an outlaw.” Thunder, this woman was as impertinent as the mayor had said she'd be! Yet he couldn't deny the thrill he'd felt at her challenge, at the way she refused to be cowed. She made his heart pound, something few women had ever done. My God, this beauty's got fire in her!

“Whal,...Elah...Ah din't shoot furst none a them tahmes. But Ah makes it mah business ta be a'shootin' last, so's a word a warnin' fer ya, doan be a breakin' none a' our laws har ta Barden's Corner.”

“But to kill every one before they have the benefit of a trial. If I understand correctly, Sheriff Wilson and his posse captured the outlaws they were chasing. Their captives went before a judge.”

“Theys near had ta send Sheriff Wilson's hat ‘n gun ta a wida, n' he still bees homebound with'n them wounds a his.” Ah cain't balieve this feller! A few days ta town ‘n he thanks he be roddin' tha spread. “N them captifs ya speaks uv had a loop shook out fer thar hangin' nohow.”

“Yes, after trial. Following the law of the land, not the law of the gun.” Eli looked around tightlipped, finding self-righteous nods of agreement from the other two.

“Ah ain't uv no mahnd ta turn tail frum no outlaws. ‘N Ah bees per-plexed regardin' yer cavalier atteetood regardin' law-breakin',” she tilted her head and added thoughtfully, “lest ya got some reason ta want ar town unpertected.”

Eli Hornbar flinched ever so slightly, a motion she noticed, before he shifted his gaze down the street. What was his reason for being here? She did not trust this man one little bit. He ran a land company, a large one apparently, and the Lorence's valley was prime land. But was he guilty of hiring Ernie's killers?

“Gaine!” the Mayor grumbled. “Enough of this! Don't you dare accuse Mr. Hornbar of....”

Of course the Mayor also ran a small land company. He ain't got tha sense God gived a goose, but he ain't got tha sand neither.

“It's all right, Maximillius,” Hornbar brought his eyes back to hers, “She's doing her duty, checking out rumors. Isn't that right, little lady? I'm afraid I don't know this Ernie fellow you say was killed, and I have no idea why anyone would try to put the blame on me. I'm simply a businessman, new to the area.”

“And should be welcomed by ALL the citizenry,” the Mayor warned, “Including you, Gaine.”

“Actually, I believe in law and order every bit as much as you do, Sheriff,” Eli interposed. “Why, I'd help you hang any killers myself, if that's what needs doing. In fact, if you want men for a posse, I'll be happy to have some of my associates ride with you when they get back to town.”

Nuther cold day ta hell whan Ah'd let yer men rahd with'n me. ”Ah ain't never figured ya ta be no lone hand. Yer associates ta Big Creek?” she asked boldly. ”Ah looked fer ‘em t'uther mornin' ‘n t'war baginnin' ta think theys war avoidin' me.”

The question surprised him. He had no idea she was even aware of his riders. He was completely mesmerized by the fighting tallow of this woman. He would have to take her a little more seriously. “Uh, avoiding you? No. You'll probably meet them. They're down in the big valley at the moment.”

“A'doin' whut, if'n Ah maht ask?”

“No you may not! It's none of your business,” the Mayor shot.

“Actually,” Eli chuckled, “they're cowhands, riding for the company.”

“Drahvin' a herd ta low grass er ta Arazoonee?” Had outta be ta low grass a'ready bah mid-winter.

“Neither at the moment.” He gave no more information.

“Hurry, folks,” someone yelled from the street, “there's outlaws down there.”

The Mayor leaned his neck out toward the street, looking down at the crowd. “Are we to understand you brought in more than the body of the citizen you said had been killed?”

“Ah did ketch them thut done ut.”

“You caught them?” the Mayor asked, surprised. His eyes peered down the street to the crowd. “You brought in the perpetrators? Who's watching them?”

“Whal, theys doan take ta much mindin'.“ She watched Mr. Hornbar study her in fascinated curiosity. She could feel his admiration and it chafed. Ya ain't got no idee how far off'n tha mark ya be with'n me.


“Who did you kill this time?” the Mayor groused accusingly, still gaping down the street. She ignorned him as Eli Hornbar once again ran evaluative eyes over her body.

Gaine spun her head the Mayor's way when he grabbed her left arm, sending a searing blaze of white-hot pain through her shoulder and down her arm. Her stomach clenched and she fought to keep blackness from overwhelming her. Her hands went clammy and she forced her stomach back down when it threatened to repel its contents.

She yanked free of his grasp. “Doan touch me!” she growled.

The Mayor glared at her, “Did YOU kill someone, Gaine? I'm asking officially as Mayor,” he became even more indignant, “I demand to know,” his tone and demands were something she would never normally tolerate if she weren't trying to disguise her unbearable pain.

Eli noted the distress she couldn't hide. “Surely you can understand the Mayor's concern for keeping that kind of...enthusiasm...under control,” he inserted in false earnestness.

Black spots swam before her eyes. She quietly sucked in a breath, worked for composure and managed to mutter, “Ah does mah job.”

With no one to stop him, the Mayor decided to run with his thoughts, “We won't have mindless killing from you any more than we'll have it from ruffians or murderers! Ask the Judge. He'll agree there's been too much death by your hand.”

Whut?! The Judge had never questioned her judgment. Her physical distress made it difficult to give the thought her full attention, however.

“It's your job to ARREST criminals and bring them in for trial...” the Mayor continued. “As Mayor I must insist...”

Gaine exhaled a deep breath, “Save them calluses pattin' yer back fer e-lection tahm,” she murmured. Gaine's vision began clearing as the pain settled back to a leaden, burning torment. “Ernie war shot ta the back ‘n, t'is shore Ah done raturned fahr ta them what done ut.”

“Them? More than one?” Westminster asked. He turned his gaze toward the furniture store. “Maybe they aren't dead,” he added hopefully. Her gun skills worried him, especially since she had threatened him only days before. “I just saw Doc rush down there with his wagon.”

Gaine snorted. “Whal, let's jist say the two ain't woke up, ‘n theys done quit a'snorin'.”

She shifted her weight off her bad leg and swallowed the overwhelming ache still radiating in her shoulder.

She knew they'd seen her reaction when her arm was grabbed and attempted to downplay it. “They's nicked me, them two, Ahl give ‘em that. But they t'ain't ne'er gonna draw them hoglegs no more, so's folks here ain't a'gonna need ta be a'frettin' o'er thar kinda devilry.”

“Wait a minute,” the Mayor's eyes narrowed. Gaine could see the wheels turning behind his small, beady eyes and that always meant trouble. He put one hand atop the other on his stick and pursed his lips, thinking, “Did you say it was Ernie Lorence who was killed?”

Gaine did not reply. She knew where he was going with this. Inwardly she sighed. Her shoulder throbbed and she was getting so very tired. She needed to head home.

“The Lorences don't live in our county,” he stated. “What were you doing in a different county?”

“Ah done checked on ‘im as'n a favor ta assist Sheriff Wilson.” She looked directly at Eli Hornbar as she grimaced in pain. “He ain't yet able ta do the whole job he be's hahred ta do. Ain't much ‘just' ‘n ‘justice' fer his county, t'is thar?”

“You had Sheriff Wilson's permission?” the Mayor demanded.

“He war notified.”

“No! No! I suspicioned as much! You can't just go into other counties and start killing people. That's not what you're being paid to do.”

Cold blue eyes focused on the Mayor. “Ah kin if'n theys fahr ta me first, er if'n tha problem done started here ta town. Then thar killin' tis a sorry tag end ta earlier en-counters.” Gaine knew there might be some murkiness, legally, on that point, but she had no doubt the townspeople would go along with what happened.

“Who was it you killed exactly?” Westminster asked, managing a sneer. “Or do you even know?” How he detested this woman!

Her face grim, Gaine focused her glare on the man. Ya ain't gonna be content with a'makin' one miscalkeylation ta tha cafe, er ya? Her voice became deadly calm, “If'n yer a'funnin', er ya got yer spurs tangled thar accidental-lahk, fess up now.” She let her right hand carelessly move near her six shooter when he bumbled a quick reply, his voice all innocence.

“I was just asking, Gaine. I didn't mean anything. No need to take offense. I didn't mean any. And, I'm unarmed after all.” One hand flew to his heart.

She shifted her holster slightly as though that were her original purpose. Then watch yer tone, ya flannel-mouthed, flop-earred hound, she thought. Ya done been warned.


She glanced at the other two then back at Westminster. “Ah seed yer tree-tha-Sheriff-.45 war gone. Ragardin' yer inquiry, t'war Mr. Ardmore n' Mr. Cookerson done got death's runnin' ahrn pressed ta they's foreheads. Ya'all know ‘em?”

She noted a paleness sweep Mr. Hornbar's face, but he recovered instantly. Ya knows ‘em, doancha ya wily sahdwahnder. From their faces she was quite sure they all remembered the outlaws. But then it was a sure bet the whole town did, so that was not proof of anything.

“I doubt you killed both men,” the Mayer said triumphantly. “I just saw Doc take one of them away. The town will soon hear the whole truth from the victim's mouth, I'm sure. You'd better hope the injured man doesn't implicate you in any wrongdoing.”

“Doc gits paid ta do post mortems,” she replied tiredly.

“Yes, and Skip gets paid to build coffins, all from town funds,” the Mayor grumbled, thinking. “Only this time it isn't our town's responsibility, is it? You shouldn't have been working outside Barden County. You have no jurisdiction there. And no one here wants to pay your salary along with the others to have you patrol other counties. In fact, it's entirely possible that you could be held to answer on charges of attempted murder in a foreign county if one of the victims does survive.”

Gaine snorted. “We's kin call usn's a Coroner's Jury raht now, Mayor, if'n ya've got a mind ta. Doan make me no nevermind. If'n someuns ends up ‘n trouble, shore ain't gonna be me.” Yippin pack a prairie lawyers, she grumbled to herself.

Gaine turned and made a supreme effort to walk back to the wagon without limping.

“By Jove!” Eli Hornbar said under his breath with reverence as they watched her leave, “What a majestically imposing woman! Do you realize that beauty went up against two of the fastest, most skilled gunslingers in the world, men with more than a hundred killings between them if one's to believe the prattle, and she walked away with slightly more than a limp! Good Lord! She's a catamount. She has the lives of one for sure! I think I'm in love.”

The other two men stared at him in disbelief. “She's a damned renegade woman who doesn't know her place!” Westminster corrected bitterly, “She doesn't even deserve to be Sheriff. She's a blasted female who speaks her mind without a thought of fear or concern for her betters.” He glanced at his uncle, the Mayor, “And here I thought those men would show her the error of her ways. That's what they claimed the other morning on the boardwalk, said she'd crawl with humility. I was looking forward to that.”

“Only one I saw come close to crawling was a close relative of mine,” the Mayor smirked. Westminster scowled and looked away.

“The important thing, seems to me,” Eli Hornbar whispered, his eyes following Gaine, “is that she's a factor not easily reckoned with in this town. But I think she may have been hurt more than she wants us to know. I saw pain in her eyes when you grabbed her arm. She went quite pale.”

“Well,” the Mayor said slyly, “we should detain her then, prolong her discomfort. Perhaps she's right. Maybe a Coroner's Jury should be throw doubt on her actions for a change, especially with those who think she's so blasted wonderful. The townsfolk pay her salary to work here, not in Sierrasotta County.” He tapped his fingertips on his lips. “Yes, let them look at her in a different light. In these hard times no one wants to pay for what they don't have to. Why not send the whole mess over to Big Creek? Why should our town coffers be diluted by coffins and postmordems, and, of course, her salary?”

“Good idea,” Westminster agreed. “I'll help round up the Town Council.”

* * *

Continued in Chapter 8

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