Abilene

"There she is, boys. Straight ahead. Abilene."

Jordan Farley spoke with a voice as dry and dusty as the twelve miles of Kansas topsoil he and his Texas trail crew had eaten since five o'clock that August morning. He dragged off his broad-brimmed hat and wiped at the sweaty mud encrusted on his brow. The heavy dust coated every inch of him and his horse, from his faded blue bibfront shirt to his brows and trimmed mustache. It filled his ears, his nostrils, slid past his parched lips to form a permanent grit between his teeth. He felt sorry for his drag riders; he recalled those days at the rear of the herd all too well.

Jordan Farley's forty-fourth year had crept up on him on the trail surreptitously as a rattler on a kangaroo rat. None of his trail crew would have known it at all, except the cook, an old friend, had seen fit to make him a birthday cake their third week out of Fort Worth. The cook kept a shard of broken mirror in the chuck wagon, and Farley stole a glance in it before retiring to his bedroll the night of his birthday. The years had not been his friend. Wrinkles creased his face, cracked the sun-blackened skin alongside his sky blue eyes, dug washes alongside his mouth. And the dancing cook fire accentuated these signs of age. But he didn't care anymore. His beautiful Hannah and their two small children lay in the ground ten miles outside Fort Worth, victims of a range fire two years ago. His dreams and hopes had died with them, along with his will to participate in society.

"Think we'll git t' see the town t'night?" queried "Jingle" Braden, the tow-headed seventeen-year-old mounted beside him.

The skin around Farley's eyes creased as he glanced at the youth, who had never been up the trail. "I promised you you would, boy. But it'll wait till we've bedded down the cows." There weren't really any cows in the herd of two thousand steers, but in cowboy lingo "cows" covered all creatures bovine.

Fernando Guittierez, the swarthy, mustached rider on Farley's left, had rolled himself a quirley and touched a match to its twisted end. Smoke curled out between his lips, and he squinted past Farley and the acrid smoke at Jingle, a broad smile breaking through his thatch of black-whiskers. "You jus' might not like what you fin' there, amigo. The señoritas in this town, they are very wicked." He laughed and winked at Farley, who cast him a preoccupied glance.

Yet Jordan Farley only feigned this preoccupation. Fact was, those señoritas Fernando mocked filled his mind to overflowing. They had since . . . heck, he couldn't remember when. Days, anyway. But not for the same reasons his crew dreamed of them. No, to Jordan Farley those ladies of "questionable virtue" presented only a threat. A threat to the memory of his lovely Hannah. And a threat, also, to the boys who had come up the trail with him, loyal hands he had come to feel about almost like his own sons. He felt that way at the end of every drive. But of course they weren't his sons, and he couldn't hold them back. Three dusty months they had waited for their night on the town, and they had earned it. Earned what? The chance to throw away their money and their innocence.

A hundred yards back the way they had come rose a hideous moaning of sore, tired bovine voices accentuated by a rumble like distant, constant thunder. Farley turned and squinted over his shoulder. Through the pall of dust he could only clearly see the first forty or so Rocking Arrow steers, coming on in pairs, and his two point riders beside the lead steers. The two cowboys came on doggedly, their horses plodding, but the slump-shouldered, weary posture of the last several days had changed. Now they sat taller in the saddle, their shoulders squared, their necks craned to help them see the country ahead. He had told them they were close to the railhead. Tonight the whisky would flow, and so would the love-or some base semblance of it.

 

At Jordan Farley's orders, his punchers, except for the two unlucky souls who had drawn nightguard, gathered around the chuck wagon an hour before sundown. They shifted their attention back and forth anxiously between their trail boss and the not-so-distant ramble of buildings and stockyards called Abilene.

Farley didn't smile as he gave his last bit of advice and guidance to his boys. Anxiety drew his heart up too tightly in his chest for him to smile. In a few minutes, these trail-weary riders would descend on Abilene and be on their own. He wished he could somehow protect them.

"This town's full of wolves, boys, and don't you laugh at me. Ask Cholla, there, and Boots." He nodded toward two riders who had made this trip before. "Ask Fernando. Let your guard down and some ace will slip inside and take you for all you have. It ain't just the men, either. In fact, I'm more worried about the women. And I didn't say 'ladies.' There ain't any ladies in the side of town where you'll do your whoopin'.

"And another thing. Wild Bill Hickock's runnin' this town, and he's trigger-happy. He's quick to shoot, and I hope you'll all stay clear of him. There's plenty more like him, too. Gamblers, toughs, killers. I know you boys are proud of them shootin' irons, but here's my advice to you. If you ain't got it on, you can't pull it, and most men won't call you out unless you're heeled. I'd suggest you leave the guns here in the chuck wagon. Let's keep Wild Bill as calm as we can so one of you don't get shot."

The glances of the punchers flickered around at each other, each wondering if his partners would heed the advice. Finally, Cholla, Boots, and Fernando began to peel off their gun belts, and Farley cast them a grateful glance. When the younger crowd saw the seasoned hands shedding their weapons, most of them did, too. Only three kept them on, and these made a point of not meeting Farley's gaze.

"I think you're makin' a wise move, boys," nodded Farley at the others as he wiped his mustache with theƒƒ web of his hand. "Now back to the women of Abilene. You'll be in the red light district, and ladies don't go there. I wish you boys could just suddenly know about women. If you did, you probably wouldn't even go on into this town. But I remember bein' wild and wooly like you, and times ain't changed much. You've got your wild oats to sow. But just promise me this: you won't let the wool get pulled over your eyes. The women you'll meet are a hardened bunch. Some'll show it right out, so even you slick-ears'll have no doubt. But there's them that know better how to play the game, and they'll croon and make eyes and say pretty things. They'll do anything to make you think they want your heart, but it's only your wallet they want. Just don't be fooled. You'll end up with a broken heart, and I ain't playin' mama to you all the way back to Fort Worth, listenin' to you cry about love gone bad. You go have your drinks and enjoy your women, and waste all your hard-earned cash on gamblin'. You'll hate yourself later, but kids always gotta learn the hard way. Just remember two things: don't get yourself in any scrapes you can't get out of with talk. And don't fall in love in Abilene."

A general rush for the horses ensued when Farley gave the nod, and even though Jingle Braden reached his mount among the first, he only took the reins and didn't instantly fling himself into the saddle. Fernando Guittierez reined his buckskin around in a circle, smiling broadly at Jingle and waving his hat about in the air. "Come on, Jingle, let's hit the bathhouse. Amigo, you stink!"

Jingle gave a laugh and waved Fernando on, and the Mexican winked and let out a whoop, clamping his hat back on and charging after the departing riders. Farley glanced at Jingle as he walked over leading his horse.

"Would it be all right if I just hang around with you for a while, Mr. Farley? You know yer way around better'n the rest f f f of 'em." Even though Jingle had known Jordan Farley for three years, he still called him mister. It was the rare man Farley allowed to call him by his first name, and since Hannah there hadn't been one woman he had allowed that familiarity.

Farley nodded. "Sure, boy. I'd be happy to have you."

Jingle smiled broadly and swung into his saddle, waiting for Farley, who had to crawl into his. He wasn't a kid anymore. Then Farley turned and waved to the cook, and he and Jingle cantered off toward town.

 

By the time they left the bathhouse, the other hands had long since disappeared into the crowded streets of Abilene. Farley and Jingle both wore new duds, procured at one of the general stores that remained open until later in the evening when trail drive season rolled around. Of the ragged outfits they had worn into town, only their boots, hats, and vests remained, as a man didn't easily give those up. Especially the boots. No drover with any pride would buy a pair of boots not made special for his feet. That was below their standards. And all trail hands, unless some drastic accident had done their boots in on the trail, wore Texas boots.

As they walked down the street, Farley gazed toward the orderly side of town Abilene's citizens had put off limits to cowboys. Children played there, he guessed, and ladies in pretty dresses strolled the quiet streets beside their men. Farley knew he should be there, too, not over here where the wild ones caroused. He didn't like the style over here. Never had. Quality of life and life itself meant very little in the red light district, at least to a truly Christian man. And Farley didn't think this side of town even knew what the word "love" implied. But because of his occupation, the town's "decent" citizens had banished him to roam the bawdy streets and frequent the brothels, saloons, and gambling houses of the wild side of town. Truth be known, he'd have been over here on the wild side anyway, because he had to keep his boys in check and out of trouble. Even at trail's end, he couldn't relinquish the notion these boys were his own. But he still longed to be on the "proper" side of town, where the people were honorable, good, and clean, and where he could get a glimpse now and then of a child.

Farley and Jingle stopped at a gambling house to waste a few dollars "bucking the tiger" at the faro table. Then they lost a few hands of poker, spent a dollar on drinks, and moved on. Darkness had fallen across the town, and merriment rattled the windows of every saloon and gambling hall, but the Red Dog hummed more quietly than the rest. Farley and Jingle stopped in front of it and looked up and down the lamp-lit street at the carousers. With a shake of his head, Farley led the way inside the saloon, and they weaved their way to the bar.

A bartender in a greasy apron finished setting a jar of pickles on top of the bar and wiped his hands, then his huge handle-bar mustache with one of those big hands. He looked at Jingle, then Farley, and his eyes settled on the latter. "Howdy, stranger. What'll it be?"

"A root beer," said Farley. He figured to let Jingle make his own choices, but the new hand seemed more than happy to follow his lead, and he asked for the same. Mildly amused by the requests, the bartender plunked chunks of ice into two huge mugs and filled them to the brim with root beer. Farley threw two bits on the counter to pay for both. To Farley's surprise, they found an empty table at the back of the room and sat down to observe the crowd. Wide-eyed, Jingle watched and listened to the sounds of celebrating and said very little. By now, he realized Farley didn't really want to talk, anyway.

Jordan Farley raised his eyes just as she walked into the room.

Rouge didn't mar her cheeks, nor eye shadow darken her eyelids the way it did most of the women on this side of town. The hem of her light green calico gown hung lower than most-past her calves-and the bodice rode higher, revealing no cleavage line. She wore a simple locket at her throat-a gold heart.

Farley didn't mean to stare, but for some reason he did, and Jingle noticed it and glanced over at the woman, too. Farley gripped his drink in his hand and wondered what it was about this woman. What set her apart from the rest? She had to be a hard one, or she wouldn't work here, but something about her was different.

Strain had played a big part in her life; Farley had a habit of reading people, and this stood out like the smoking brass lamp hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room. Something about her mouth and eyes revealed this strain-a hardness yet a sadness, a weary, bedraggled stare.

As for physical appearance, the woman didn't shine in the crowd, but he wouldn't have called her homely. Out of the braids piled on top of her head, drab brown wisps curled down to hang limp against a neck lined with two even creases deepened by the yellow smear of the lamps. Her unpainted lips turned down slightly at the edges, but sometime in the past they had seen laughter, judging by the wrinkles outside them, and the lamplight belied a certain softness there. Though given to stockiness, little fat marred the woman's frame, and her hands, while not big, were not dainty, either. They had seen their share of work, and not much of it pouring drinks, Farley guessed. She was a quietly attractive woman, he admitted grudgingly. But he could never say more for her. In his estimation, she had condemned herself when she set foot inside the saloon.

When their eyes chanced to meet across the crowded room, Farley's involuntarily held. He didn't want her to see him looking, but something about her wouldn't let him look away. Her frank gaze appraised him, then rested on his eyes, and he caught a faint flicker of recognition. The look vanished, but she seemed to have made a decision about him. She stepped away from the back doorway and moved toward his table.

Farley watched her for a moment longer before his better senses took over, and then he looked away, squinting across the room through the tobacco smoke and taking a long sip of his root beer. Even the inexperienced Jingle Braden had caught something in Farley's glance, and he looked from the woman to his boss as she tentatively approached the table, jostled and pawed at now and then by the punchers she passed and deftly sidestepped.

She stopped before them, and her fingertips rested on the smooth pine slat tabletop. Though Farley had initiated her decision to approach the table, she looked at Jingle as she spoke. "Mind if I sit down? It looks like the only peaceful place in here."

Jingle glanced over at Farley, his face reddening, and shrugged nervously. "Why, uh. . . Sure, ma'am." He waved toward a chair. The woman looked over at Farley and stood watching him expectantly, making no move to take hold of the chair. Jingle glanced again at Farley, then cleared his throat. "Oh, sorry, ma'am." Jumping up, he grabbed the back of the chair and pulled it out for her.

The woman's gaze held on Farley for a few moments, then fell away to Jingle. "Thank you. You're a gentleman." Her eyes flashed toward Farley as she said that, but she didn't look directly at him.

Jingle pushed the chair back in once the woman sat down. Clearing his throat again and glancing nervously at his root beer, he eased back onto his own seat, scooting the chair around as if he couldn't find the right position for it.

Farley's eyes crinkled as he watched the youth's discomfiture, and in spite of himself he looked over at the woman to catch her reaction. Her eyes stared between the two of them, though she seemed aware of the boy's discomfort. Her lips had turned up at the edges, like Farley's, and when her eyes swung into the older man's, a glow lit them vaguely, like the sheen of newly polished leather.

They were brown eyes. Not deep brown, but more golden brown, the irises surrounded by darker rings and flecked here and there with umber specks. They swam with curiosity, with friendliness. . . with loneliness. But without loose invitation, Farley decided. Just a warm welcome saying she would listen with rapt attention to anything he said. He found the feeling disturbing.

"My name's Martina Singleton. You can call me Martie." The soft words came flatly, as if answering a question, as Martie's eyes glided from Farley to Jingle and back. She massaged the jewel-lacking fingers of her left hand with her right ones, and looked down at them for several seconds before bringing her eyes back to meet Farley's. Farley didn't complete his part of the name exchange, just nodded. Martie tried but failed to hide the hurt in her eyes, and it shamed Farley inexplicably. But he didn't plan to ever meet this woman again. What need did she have of his name?

"I'm Jim Braden," Jingle broke the silence when Farley didn't seem willing to respond. "They call me Jingle, on account of my spurs. This is my trail boss, Mr. Jordan Farley. We just brought a herd up from Fort Worth, Texas."

Red-faced, he shot a look at Farley, as if for his approval, and Farley just nodded again, a mere dip of his chin. But secretly he was glad Jingle had spoken for him. It gave him an unforeseen, unexplained pleasure to have this woman hear his name spoken, and he tried to shake the sentiment away and stared off again at the bar crowd.

Although Jingle and the woman both had opened the way to be referred to on a first name basis, Farley had no intention of it. She knew his name. That was enough. If ever a woman called him by his first name again, it certainly wouldn't be a woman like this. People might hear and think him a man of loose morals, like she was.

Martie just nodded, looking at Farley as if expecting him to speak, then dropped her eyes again to her hands. Her lips parted as if to say something, but she remained silent, glancing over either shoulder as if seeking a way to excuse herself.

Farley avoided speaking to the saloon girl. Even though she seemed different than most of them, she was still a loose woman, or she wouldn't work here. As such he would rather not let himself be drawn into conversation with her, and he refused to spend any money on her. Let her go to another table to earn her keep. Hannah's spirit could be very near him now, and he wouldn't disgrace her memory by lowering himself to buy this woman a drink, although she almost certainly expected it of him.

Even as he thought this, Farley found his eyes on her again, wondering. She didn't fit in, not in this crowd. The lack of makeup, the modest dress, the quiet eyes and voice. Was she new? Untrained? Or just lazy? Was she just a low class hooker with a crib out back, or did her entertainment stop at conversation and a dance? He had met some of that brand, but they were few and far between.

The uncomfortable silence dragged on between the three of them until the strain wore on Jingle. He cleared his throat again as he set his root beer down and glanced cautiously at the woman, whose eyes at the moment studied Farley's face. "Been any excitement in town?"

Startled by the voice, even though only a small sound in the general din of the room, Martie pivoted her eyes to Jingle. She made sort of a shrug with her hands and face and drew in a breath, letting it out as a soft sigh. "Oh, just the normal. Wild Bill came in three nights ago and found some fellow in here who'd been talking bad about him, supposedly. He buffaloed him with his pistol and dragged him off to jail on some charge or other."

Farley looked boredly about the room while Jingle and Martie warmed up to each other and began to converse in earnest. But somehow his gaze kept turning back to this woman at the table before him. It wasn't her showiness that drew him, but her lack of it. He had to keep forcing his eyes away, trying to think of Hannah. But Hannah wanted to fade out of his memory like she never had before, and he found himself having to make a conscious effort to bring her back close to the surface.

Farley was watching Martie when Jingle made one of his quiet-humored jokes. A spontaneous laugh tinkled in her throat like crystal, and like a splash of mountain morning sunlight her face lit up, driving from it any plainness Farley had seen. Her perfect teeth sparkled dully in the lamplight, and her nose wrinkled up at the bridge, but it was the warm brown of her eyes that tugged Farley into her soul. They met his at precisely that moment, and this time they held while her smile gradually-very gradually-faded away, leaving her lips slightly parted. But the smile faded away only from her lips. It remained in her eyes.

Farley, catching himself smiling at her, swung his eyes away and wiped brusquely at his mustache, drawing the upward curve of his lips back down. He looked up just in time to see a middle-aged, dark-haired man in a gray suit stop beside the table, glancing at them all, but last and longest at Martie.

"I see you're not drinking tonight, Martie. Maybe you need to mingle with the crowd a little more." His eyes held a subtle warning as they swung back to Farley, then once more rested on Martie.

Martie forced a smile, her face flushing as she looked from Jingle to Farley with faint supplication in her eyes. "Jim Braden, Jordan Farley, this is Mr. Brood. He owns the Red Dog. Well . . ." She looked again at Farley and Jingle as she placed the palms of her hands on the table top in preparation to push herself up but hoping someone would stop her. Farley swung his eyes away to the crowd, and Martie's fell with an almost audible crash.

"Wait."

Jingle's voice broke the tension as Martie rose halfway out of her chair. He looked for Farley to back him up, but when Farley just stared back the boy's face settled into new lines of resolve. "What'll you have to drink, Martie?"

Martie smiled and relaxed again into her chair, flicking her eyes up at Brood. They shone with moisture when Farley glanced at her. Jingle had saved her from the saloon crowd. "I'll have a sherry," she said. "With ice."

Brood looked grudgingly at Jingle, then at Farley. When Jingle started to rise, Brood motioned him back down. "Sit tight, son. I'll bring it out. It'll be thirty cents."

He held out his hand, in which Jingle deposited four bits. "The change is for the lady," the boy said haltingly. The businessman handed him an appraising glance and then waded off through the crowd toward the back of the bar.

After Brood had departed, the silence rang at the table for a full minute. Then Martie's sherry came back, and she held the glass between both hands and stared into its depths. At last, she raised her eyes, and Farley felt her stare and met it.

"You don't like me," Martie said. Her voice held no emotion, but sadness filled her eyes. "You don't remember me at all, do you?"

Farley stared at her, then shook his head. "Should I?"

"You helped me once, in San Antonio. I was in the train depot with no money. Someone had stolen my purse. You bought me train fare to Topeka. You had a woman with you then-your wife, I think. A beautiful blond woman. Very, very beautiful. And a little baby boy with the bluest eyes."

Farley felt like a fool, and he started to nod again. "Yes, I do remember you now. Sorry. I see a lot of faces."

Martie pursed her lips and dropped her eyes, shrugging. "Oh, don't fret about it. With a woman that pretty on your arm, I wouldn't expect you to notice a face like mine."

A sudden, uncharacteristic urge welled up inside Farley to tell her she was wrong. He was no mind reader, but she plainly needed a compliment right then. You're a very pretty woman. You just need to find yourself a new way of life. That was what he wanted to tell her, but he didn't want her to get the wrong idea. Once a saloon girl, always a saloon girl, and he had no interest in her beyond a passingly pleasant glance now and then.

Brushing off her self-deprecatory comment, Farley asked, "So what happened to Topeka? I thought your family was there?"

Martie sighed. "They're gone. The fever had taken them before I got home. Only graves were left."

On a whim, she took the heart-shaped locket from around her neck and clicked it open, revealing a photograph of a bearded man and his wife with two girls. "That's my mother and father," she revealed. "And my sister Elaine. The other girl is me."

Guilt washed over Farley as he looked politely at the picture, but he brushed it off. He wouldn't excuse his judgments of this woman. Even though Martie had lost her family and had nothing, there were other ways a woman could make a living. She could have found something better for herself than saloon work. Even as he thought this, he found himself staring at her picture. What would his daughter have looked like at that age?

"What about your wife and son? Are there other children now? Waiting for you in Fort Worth?" Martie asked.

Jingle dropped his eyes from Farley's face, looking down at his root beer. Farley drew a deep breath and glanced around the room, wiping at a crumb on the tabletop. He didn't meet Martie's eyes.

"I had a daughter since I met you in San Antone. They're all dead now, too. Range fire."

"Oh, I'm so sorry." Martie made a move with her hand as if to place it over Farley's, then as quickly withdrew it. She looked down and rolled her sherry glass between the palms of her hands, watching the ice sparkle with lamplight as it danced on tiny waves in her glass. Then she looked back up, meeting Farley's dully gazing eyes. "I never meant to bring up that kind of hurt. Please forgive me."

Farley shrugged. "I'm sorry, too. We both lost loved ones."

He looked away, clenching his jaw and swallowing a lump in his throat. Moisture drained into his eyes, but he blinked it away, aware of Martie's eyes on him. He saw her reach across the table again, hesitantly, then felt her soft hand close over the top of his with a gentle squeeze. It was warm. Incredibly warm. His instant reaction was to jerk his away, but for some reason he didn't. For some reason he left his hand in the center of the table, feeling Martie's warmth course through his veins.

Then he looked over at her, and their eyes locked and held.

A string of shots suddenly crackled from somewhere down the street, and Farley's heart jumped inside him as he retracted his hand. It wasn't uncommon to hear shooting in the streets of Abilene, but every time Farley heard it he wondered if it didn't involve his boys. He still had a responsibility toward them, at least till they left this town.

Most of the shooting in cattle towns was out of pure drunken celebration, not violence. But this time a cry rose up in the street and carried down past the Red Dog Saloon, and as word flew Farley learned a Mexican drover had been gunned down. With his heart in his throat, he excused himself and left the saloon, headed toward the edge of the red light district, where the shooting was supposed to have taken place. Jingle followed him, almost running to keep up, and they left Martie standing on the porch, watching anxiously after them. They hadn't gone more than a hundred yards when she stepped away from the saloon doors, drawing a light blue knit shawl about her shoulders, and hurried after them.

When they reached the invisible dividing line between the "good" side of town and the "bad," Farley had to fight his way through a throng of drunk, yelling cowboys, saloon girls, gamblers, and buffalo hunters. A man with long hair, an aquiline nose, and two ivory handled Colt Navies thrust behind a flowing red sash stood at the edge of the crowd, holding them at bay with a sawed-off shotgun.

Farley had seen Wild Bill Hickock before, but he would have known him from his description anyway. He glanced past him where several people knelt beside a man prone on the ground.

"Marshal," Farley accosted Hickock, walking close in spite of the shotgun's threat. "I'm Jordan Farley, trail boss for the Rocking Arrow ranch, out of Fort Worth. They tell me a Mexican drover was shot down. Can I see him and make sure he's not one of mine?"

Hickock jerked his head toward the fallen man. "Go ahead. Make it quick and then return to the other side of this line."

Farley nodded thanks, and then he and Jingle almost ran to those who knelt beside the victim. Farley shouldered his way in just as a man in a black three-piece suit stood up away from the body. He heard someone say the word "dead" just as his eyes fell upon the lifeless face of Fernando Guittierez.

As quickly as he recognized Guittierez, Farley turned away and pushed Jingle back. "It's Fernando, kid. He's gone."

Farley walked back to Hickock, who had just been joined by a group of deputy marshals, all armed with shotguns or rifles. When Hickock looked at him questioningly, he said, "Marshal, that's my man. What happened?"

"A mix-up between cowboys and some buffalo hunters. If those are your boys, maybe you'd better come with me. They headed into the wrong side of town to hunt down the man that did the shooting. Maybe you'll have more luck talking them into putting down their guns than I would."

Farley concurred then turned to Jingle. "You stay here, Jingle. Just stay put. Damn, I told those boys to leave the guns!"

Even as he spoke, his eyes fell upon one of the hands who had insisted on retaining his pistol. Now his holster was empty. Another one of the holdouts stood beside him, and his holster held no weapon, either. Confused, Farley looked from their holsters to their faces.

"Who's over there? Where's your guns?"

"It's Boots and Cholla," said one of them. "They made us give 'em our guns."

Farley swore. "All right," he yelled at them. "Get any of the hands you c'n find an' get back to the herd. All of you!"

"You coming, mister?" Farley heard Hickock's voice above the din.

He turned to face the marshal. "I'm ready."

"Not quite," said Hickock, scanning him. He held the sawed-off shotgun out to him. "You might need this."

Yeah, to protect myself against you, Farley thought wryly.

"What about you?" he queried. Hickock was now the only one with no longarm.

The lawman just gave Farley a hard look, touching a finger to the butt of his right pistol. "I think I can handle myself."

They started off down the dusty street, Farley cursing the water wagon that had fallen down on the job. He'd had enough dust for the last three months; he didn't need it in town, too.

"All right, boys!" Hickock's authoritative voice carried down the street. "We're coming to take you in, so you'd best throw down your guns and come scratching the sky."

No one answered, so the marshal split his men up, sending them down sidestreets. Farley stayed by Hickock as he continued down the main street, but now and then he drifted off to check other areas. He kept watching Hickock. The man was tensed like spring steel, his hands empty but poised very near his gun butts. He was a showy one, all right. And he must be as fast as they said, to have given up the assurance of the shotgun. Either that, or he was just a fool.

When at last they heard shooting, it came from back toward the red light district, and they turned and made their way toward the sound at a fast walk.

A man appeared around the corner of a house, holding a pistol down against the side of his leg. In the fleeting second it took to recognize Cholla Varden, Farley saw the twin Colt .36's coming free in Hickock's hands. He yelled out.

"No!"

Farley recognized his own voice as he tried to tell Hickock this was one of his men. He didn't hear the shot from Hickock's gun, but he felt an insistent pressure against his right side and felt himself jerked sideways. He looked at Hickock, who by this time had recognized him and stared, his lips clamped tight.

Numbly, Farley walked past Hickock toward Cholla Varden, still holding the shotgun Wild Bill had pressed on him. Blood streamed down the side of his vest, but he didn't even seem to notice it as he saw Boots Henry round the corner, his hands held high in the air.

Cholla dropped his pistol to the ground and raised his own hands, staring from Farley's wound to Hickock. By the look on his and Boots' faces, they knew the lawman held their lives in his hands. The deputies rushed past Farley, taking Boots and Cholla ungently in hand and leading them away. One of them brushed against Farley as he passed, and Farley's knees folded, sending him to his side at the corner of the house.

Hickock looked around him as the crowd gathered, Jingle at its forefront. Three well-dressed women, presumably upstanding ladies of Abilene, stood nearby, staring in horror at the bloody scene, their hands to their mouths. Neither they nor their husbands, nor any of the citizens of that side of town offered aid as Jingle knelt helplessly beside his boss. A couple of cowboys who didn't even ride for the Rocking Arrow stepped in to lend assistance, but none of them knew what to do, and their hands were rough, in spite of their good intentions.

Jingle, almost in tears, looked up pleadingly at Hickock. "Why'd you shoot him, Marshal?"

"When I turned around he looked like he was trying to shoot me. He shouldn't have yelled," Hickock said brusquely. "He was carryin' a gun," he growled to excuse his actions.

The crowd had parted moments before, and Martina Singleton stood staring at Wild Bill Hickock. "Yes, he was carrying a gun," she said. "Your gun."

She walked over and knelt down in the blood beside Jordan Farley, prizing the shotgun from his grasp and throwing it in the dust at Hickock's feet. Without a word, the marshal bent over and picked up the shotgun, then stalked off after his deputies.

Martie turned and started to unbutton Farley's vest, then his shirt. He looked up at her and smiled into her warm eyes, feeling weak, partly from loss of blood, and partly from feeling those hands undress him, then knead around his wound.

He opened his mouth to speak, but Martie put the backs of her fingers to his lips to silence him. "You can talk later, Mr. Farley."

He smiled weakly, watching her gentle face as she removed his bandanna and pressed it against his wound, stanching the flow of blood.

"You're going to be all right after some rest, Mr. Farley. I'll have them carry you to my cottage. I'll sleep on the divan," she added, her face coloring.

Farley looked up at her, then smiled lopsidedly. She smiled back, and it lit her face up like an angel's, which he guessed she was. His guardian angel. He was suddenly glad to have to recuperate here in Abilene. It would give him a chance to see more of this girl. To figure her out. To thank her.

He raised his head weakly and looked into her eyes. "You can call me Jordan," he whispered.