Trailing from one dusty town to another in pursuit of a criminal fugitive was a job for a bounty hunter with a good horse and a small arsenal. It was tough work for a slim boy of small build, few means and fewer possessions―tougher still when the boy wasn't a boy at all, but a girl.
It wasn't the walking. Marly was used to spending most of her day on her feet in the yard of the schoolhouse her aunt taught in, tending the kitchen garden, feeding the chickens, hanging the laundry or walking the mile to town for whatever errand Aunt Adele required.
It wasn't the weight of the oversized oilskin coat or the bedroll slung across her back. They were nothing to hefting a crate of books or a basket of surplus eggs and vegetables into town to trade for flour and sugar.
It was the solitude.
Once upon a time, Marly would have reveled in the opportunity to get away from her aunt's incessant homilies, the critical stares of her aunt's cronies and even the kinder yet oppressive expectations of her friends. Now she realized that the outside clamor would be preferable to her own self-critical reflections. The long walks as she travelled from one town to another, gave her too much time to dwell on the events that put her on this solitary trail.
"As ye sow, so shall ye reap," her Aunt Adele would say.
"No good turn goes unpunished," was more like it.
It had started with a trip to the Doc's house. The two Johnnys had been fighting again. The on-and-off best friends were trying out their fledgling boxing skills. Marly blocked a stray punch while grabbing hold of the smaller John Henry. John Thomas' wrist gave way.
Despite the pain, he was quite cheerful during the trek into town. Doc's chiding would be nothing compared to one of Miss Gumm's lectures, a fact he was quite comfortable sharing with Marly. She pointed out that her aunt wouldn't forget to punish him when he returned.
When they came in sight of the Doc's house and found Sheriff Langtree on the porch, Johnny's fear of trouble was so obvious, Marly almost laughed.
"I just sent a deputy to fetch you," the sheriff said by way of a greeting. "I brought Doc a wounded man. Victim of a hold-up. I think Doc could use your help. Rebecca's got her hands full and I've been ejected for being no help at all."
Marly gave him a quick smile and consigned John Thomas to the sheriff's care. Ever since she provided first-aid and brought John Henry's older brother Joe in―after he shot his toe off with his father's borrowed revolver―Marly had become the Doc's go-too person when he needed more help than his wife could provide.
"Just who we need," Doc said, looking up from his work. "Wash up, my girl. Take over for Becky so she can get back to Mrs. Applegate. She picked shopping day to go into labor. Silly first-timer mistake to make. "
"Babies come when babies come," said the childless Becky on her way out. "Except when they don't."
Marly spent the next hour assisting the removal of two slugs and the stitching of the wounds. This mostly consisted of handing implements to the doctor and the application of ether on a breathing cup when the patient started to rouse.
Doc saw to John Thomas. She cleaned up and held the basin for the man as the effects of the ether wore off and nausea settled in. She bathed his face with lavender water, known for its cleansing and calming powers.
When his hazel eyes cleared and he was fully conscious, his eyes lit with appreciation and genuine esteem.
"I must be dead," he croaked, his throat raw from the ether, "for you are certainly an angel."
Right, thought Marly, kicking a stone down the dusty road. Not an angel, but a naïve chit of a girl to be taken in by slick words and hazel eyes.
Maybe if she hadn't been taken in by Charlie Meese, neither would the townspeople of Cherryville, Kansas. She had opened the door to a trickster because he appealed to her latent vanity. That girl was left behind in Cherryville. The Marly Landers that was tracking Charlie and the money down was now a scruffy boy in oversized clothes and a droopy, weather-worn hat.
"DO NOT ARREST―STOP―FOLLOW TO EL PASO AND MONEY―STOP..."
Texas Ranger Jason―Jase―Strachan reread the telegram, then stuffed it into one the copious pockets of his duster. Jase wasn't surprised by the order. He was on the trail of a confidence man, who had made the mistake of cheating some very powerful people in Austen. However, arresting him now wouldn't recover the half million dollars he had embezzled.
Dog Flats wasn't much. A couple of houses, a general store and a saloon. Blink and he'd ride right by. Most people―and more importantly, the stage―did just that. That was one of the reasons Jase chose the town. The other walked through the door just as he settled into the back corner of the saloon with his second beer.
The boy couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen, yet he marched up to the barkeep, bold as brass, and demanded a job.
"Don't need anyone," said the grizzle-haired man behind the bar.
"I can wait tables, wash dishes, cook, clean. I'm a hard worker and you don't have to pay me. All I want is room and board for the night."
Jase waited. The bartender stared down at the boy. The boy smiled back at the man.
"You can start by clearing tables. Put yer stuff at the back."
For three days, Jase had watched the same scene play out, afternoon or early evening. Arriving in town, the boy would talk himself into a job sweeping floors, washing dishes, mucking barns―all for supper, a packed lunch and a roof for the night. Then, at sunrise, he was on the road, walking or hitching a ride to the next town. Town by town, he advanced across Texas. The kid was patient and determined.
It wasn't just the boy's tenacity that caught Jase's notice. The kid was making his own inquiries as he travelled. He was asking after the same man Jase was tracking.
"You a Yank, boy?"
Jase's attention snapped to one of the part-of-the-furniture patrons that saloons like this attracted. The man looked like he hadn't moved from his table in years. Evidently, he still had some life in him because he had a vice grip on the boy's wrist.
"Leave the kid alone, Hayes," called another old geezer at the next table.
"I asked you a question." Hayes pulled the boy in close, breathing whiskey into his face. "Are you a Yankee?"
"Just say no," another patron advised.
"I'm from Kansas."
A hush fell over the room and Jase edged forward in his seat, ready to intervene if necessary.
"And my folks were from Massachusetts, not Missouri, so I guess that makes me a Yank."
"She-it," sighed the old geezer.
"A Yankee killed my boy," Hayes snapped.
"A Reb killed my father," the boy replied. "Another raped and killed my mother. Would have killed me too, if his sergeant hadn't found him and shot him first."
Hayes dropped the boy's wrist.
Jase sat back. Crisis averted.
"Bring me another bottle," said a subdued Hayes.
The boy stared at the man for several heartbeats, then turned toward the kitchen, not the bar. A few minutes later, he returned with a cup of coffee and a plate of cold beef and bread.
"Before you throw that plate in my face," the boy said, "let me just point out that I'm paying for this meal with my work and you would be grievously insulting my hospitality."
Hayes gave the boy a dismissive wave. For a long time, he stared at the plate as if the food might jump up and bite him. Finally, he took a sip of coffee. Then his appetite kicked in and he started picking at the plate.
Jase took his empty beer glass up to the bar for a refill and had a few words with the bartender.
Minutes later, the boy was sent over to his table. He was a scruffy lad in faded, dust-laden jeans that were a size too big and a work shirt that would have fit a man twice his size. He had hung his ground-scraping duster on a hook at the back with his bedroll―the only luggage he seemed to have. But he was still wearing his hat, which was an indeterminate brown and shapeless except for the turned up brim at the front. For all that, his face and neck were clean and his long red hair was neatly braided, Indian-style, down his back.
"You want me for something, mister?"
"I'd like to buy you a good meal. I thought steak and potatoes. If there's something else you would prefer―"
"I eat in the kitchen, sir."
"You just gave away your supper," Jase said in a dry tone. "I've arranged it with your boss. I'm taking care of your dinner and accommodations so you have the rest of the night off. You would be grievously insulting my hospitality to refuse."
The boy's mouth twitched. He didn't sit or leave. Head tipped slightly to one side, he gave Jase a speculative stare.
"You've been following me. Why?"
"Hardly following you. I generally make town several hours ahead of you. Why are you following me, Marly Landers?"
The boy's eyes narrowed. "What's your business, mister?"
Jase pulled his jacket aside to reveal a tin star. "I'm a Texas Ranger."
The kid was unimpressed.
Jase broke the stare-down and leaned back, running his fingers through his shaggy, sandy-brown hair.
"I reckon," he drawled, "that if I was to make inquiries in Kansas, I might just turn up something on you, Marly Landers. If I made inquiries."
Landers shrugged and sat.
Through dinner, they parried each other's questions. Landers admitted that he was headed in the general direction of El Paso.
"Personal business," the boy said. "Of no interest to a Texas Ranger."
"I'm probably gonna end up in El Paso," Jase admitted. But he didn't share the nature of his business. "What do you say to travelling together? I supply a horse and tack. You agree to work for me 'til we get to El Paso."
The boy was reluctant, so he added, "It's either that or I hog-tie you and carry you across my saddle."
The kid grinned and rocked back on his chair. "Okay. You'll have to teach me how to ride."
Jase held out a hand. "Deal."
Over the next week or so, it will become available at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, iBooks, Sony eReader Store, Diesel and more.