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ROUND ROBIN

 

 

FThe Strongest Link

 

 

The Strongest Link was written between November 2010 and May 2011 by 6 members of the Yahoo Lancer Writers group:
Chapters 1 and 2 by Suzanne
Chapter 3 by Donna (dbbrisbin)
Chapter 4 by Coop and Judi
Chapters 5 and 6 by Anna (Starry Diadem)
Chapter 7 and 8 by Shelley and Anna (Starry Diadem)
Chapter 9 by Anna (Starry Diadem)
Epilogue by Shelley

 

THE STRONGEST LINK
CHAPTER ONE
by Suzanne

Johnny shifted his butt. In another few hours it’d be completely numb but right now it still had enough sense to start complaining. 

He’d tried his usual practise of falling asleep but it niggled at him when he couldn’t cross his arms and settle back in his usual position. Not that any of this didn’t serve him right.

A bigger jolt than most had them all clutching at their hats. Like most stages, the driver’s only goal was to get where they were going fast. Only yesterday, Johnny would’ve had his sights set on that as well but right now, he wasn’t so sure.

He put his hat to rights and looked down at the band on his wrist. He could’ve sworn it was rubbing but Bukey was good at his trade all right – the sheriff knew how to clamp a pair of cuffs tight enough so they didn’t slip off and loose enough so they didn’t rub. Well, he guessed that was comforting.

All he could see through the window was the same scrub country they’d been travelling through most of the morning. By his reckoning they had another hour or so to go before they got to the first way station. He glanced to his left. All he could see was a hat covering a face but when Johnny stretched out his arm and lifted his left hand, the other hand attached to his followed easily enough. Come the next stop the two of them were going to have to talk.

A movement opposite caught his eye and he flicked a glance in that direction before he could stop himself. At least she didn’t pretend that she hadn’t been staring when his eyes found hers - but she had another think coming if she thought he was going to play the gentleman and look away first. After all *she’d* done, his staring her down was going to be the least of her worries. He had the satisfaction of seeing her cheeks turning red before she flounced her head to the side and started staring out the window as if there was something out there worth looking at. That quick swell of her breasts gave her away though.

What he’d really like to do is put her over his knee and paddle that pretty bottom of hers.

Hell, what a fix to be in. He told Scott not to stop in that town. He told Scott three, maybe four times not to stop in that town. He told Scott they’d be home in another three days if they stuck with the stage they’d been on – instead of four or five days if they hung around Malice cooling their heels.  But Scott was so steamed up there was little chance of him listening to reason, especially once he’d got out of the stage and set his feet on solid ground.

By the time Johnny jumped down after him, Scott had already checked the coast was clear - Johnny could see their fellow travellers moving off down the street - and was telling Flynn to untie their bags. Johnny grabbed at his arm. “Hey, Scott. You know, if we change seats on tomorrow’s stage ...”

And that was as far as he got before Scott put his hands on Johnny’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Johnny, if I spend so much as another minute with Mrs. Wallace and her three brats there’s no telling what I might do.”

“Ain’t like you to run scared.” Or him for that matter.

“I’ve had the good sense to run from many a woman, Johnny my boy.”

“Sure, I believe it – only I bet you did a bit of the chasing first.”

“Well, we all make mistakes.” Scott grinned and then set about straightening his jacket and that gave Johnny the chance to look at the town. It was awful quiet for a Saturday night. All the same, Johnny tugged his hat down that little bit further. “Mrs. Wallace on the other hand,” Scott added, “with her tumbleweed hair and brood of vipers, is *not* one of them.”

“I guess that mouth of hers would never stay still long enough to kiss in any case.”

He might have gone too far with that one; Scott looked like he was about to heave. “Johnny, if I hear another word from her about the saintly Mr. Wallace and her consumptive mother and her second cousin once removed and every other relative she’s bored us with ...”

“You.”

Scott’s brows went up. “What?”

“Bored *you* with.”

“Oh, that’s right - you were ‘sleeping’ over in your corner.”

Johnny took his hat off and held it up against the sun to look down the other end of town. “Well it worked didn’t it. I told you to try it.” A little ways up the street a kid threw a stick but the mongrel at his feet just watched it land then yawned and rested his head back down on his paws.

“And I would’ve if Billy ...”

“You mean Frank.” Where the hell was everyone in this town?

“No, I mean Billy.”

He looked back at Scott. “Wasn’t he the one with that bit of hair that sticks up at the front?”

“No, Billy’s the one with the new shoes with the shiny toes – the ones he kept polishing against my shins.”

Johnny put his hat back on. “Oh, I thought that was Frank.”

A movement just above him caught his eye and he turned in time to catch Scott’s bag as it was tossed down from up top.

Flynn didn’t look too happy - Johnny’s saddlebags were the next things he tossed down. Scott threw out a hand, catching them inches from the ground and barely missing the streak of tobacco juice that landed by his boot.

Flynn clambered down last, all dust and wiry strength but his back never quite went straight – like he was permanently sitting slouched up top holding the lines. “Don’t see why you two boys have to leave the stage at Malice. There ain’t nothin’ fer you to do in a town like this.”

Johnny thumbed a finger at Scott. “I tried to tell him that.” He shot a quick look down the other end of town but still couldn’t see anything to account for the prickling at the back of his neck. In fact, the town looked pretty darn good considering what he’d heard.  It had a wide street that looked to be watered to keep down the dust, a decent sized saloon and more stores than he would’ve expected in a town out here. They even had a doctor *and* a dentist. Not that any of the stores were open this time of day.

“You can’t fool us,” Scott was saying to Flynn as he slung the saddle bags over his shoulder. “We both know you only want us on your stage so that you’ve got someone between you and Mrs. Wallace and those children of hers at the stage stop tomorrow night.”

Flynn grinned – wide enough to free some of the dust in his moustache. “Well that and the fact your brother’s kinda handy with a gun.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about those rumours of the Muldrow Gang – not with the armoury you’re carrying.”

Flynn’s face twisted like he was in pain; either that or suspicious of smooth talking Easterners. “What in blazes’re you talkin’ about? The only weapons the Company lets me carry are my rifle and my sidearm.”

Scott nodded towards the empty stage. “But come morning you’ll have Mrs. Wallace – and I guarantee she could talk any one of those Muldrows into an early grave.”

Johnny sidled close to Flynn and kept his voice low. “Well, what do you think happened to Mr. Wallace?”

Flynn didn’t crack a smile; after all, he’d done that once today already. Instead he turned his back on the two of them and started tending the team, muttering a few choice words as he went about his job.

Scott caught Johnny’s eye and winked. Scott was looking pretty happy with himself as he stood there filling his lungs with air that wasn’t choked with dust. The sun was almost down and most of the sting had been taken out of it.

Johnny tossed Scott his bag – catching him neatly in the stomach before Scott grabbed it – then took back his saddlebags. “Yeah, well let’s make sure that we don’t come across Mrs. Wallace while we’re both staying in town.” Or anyone else for that matter.

“Ah, but in town we’ve got all these wide open spaces to escape that flapping mouth of hers.”

Johnny started walking across the street.  A board on the other side read, ‘Melissa’s Finest Hotel.’ And for all he knew, possibly their only one, but who was counting. “I wonder how many bugs she’s swallowed over the years.”

When he got no answer he looked behind.  Scott was lagging a bit, busy taking in the sights.  He was still enough of a greenhorn out West to find a new town interesting. Malice was about the same size as Spanish Wells but – Johnny rubbed the back of his neck – it sure didn’t feel the same. This time of day on a Saturday night, Morro Coyo would be starting to hum but Malice had the feel of a town that was on the brink of being passed by. Maybe it was the lack of bustle in the street? Where the hell was everyone? All he could see was an elderly couple walking arm in arm near the general store and four horses hitched to the rail outside the saloon.

“I thought you said this place was a hole. It looks ...” Scott stopped short. A girl just walked out of the alley across the way and started crossing the street. And not just any girl. Her hair was really something - the colour of chestnut leaves in fall. It hung in thick waves down her back and the only thing that held it off her face was a sky blue ribbon. He’d seen hair like that before – on the girl in the painting Sam had over the bar in Green River. Only this girl was walking down the street with clothes on, instead of reclining on a bed without, and she was carrying a basket filled with some sort of baked goods. 

Scott tipped his hat as she drew near. “Like a particularly pretty town to me,” he finished for her ears as well. “Miss, that basket looks particularly heavy. Perhaps I could be of service?”

She’d been walking with her eyes to the ground like she was determined to ignore them both but of a sudden she stopped short and spun around to look at Scott. For a second there Johnny thought she was going to say something but a blush coloured her china white cheeks and then she turned and fled across to the other side.

Johnny watched her go. “I’ve warned you about scaring the deer off.”

“What makes you think I’ve scared her off?” Scott had that look in his eyes again, the one he got when he was calculating the odds. “And like I said, I don’t know what you have against this town, Johnny.”

“Yeah, well it’s easy to get carried away with a few flower pots outside the stores and a couple of licks of paint.”

“Not to mention someone having the foresight to sprinkle the main street to keep the dust down. I’m impressed. Come on, Johnny. Point me towards a bath, a drink, a meal and a bed. That’s all I want in life right now.”

But Johnny was only paying half a mind to what he was saying. A man carrying a rifle was crossing the street and headed their way. He walked quick enough but with the limp of a cowhand who’d been thrown once too often. Cowhands with bad legs were a dime a dozen but not ones with a badge pinned to their vest.

Johnny put out a hand to stop Scott. If the law wanted to talk to you it always paid to make it look like you were interested. “Hold up, Scott. Can I do something for you ...” Up close the man’s hair was grizzled white but his eyes were almost black and keen and sharp like someone twenty years younger. Johnny’s eyes went to the badge. “Deputy?” So this wasn’t Bukey. He wasn’t sure right then if he should feel relieved or not.

The deputy gave them both a long, hard look. “Just letting you know that there’s no loitering in the street. You’re liable to be run down.”

Scott looked down the street and Johnny looked up it – then both looked at each other before turning back to the deputy.

“That’s very thoughtful of you to come out here and tell us that,” Scott said. He even managed to sound sincere.

Johnny slung his saddlebags onto his other shoulder. “Yeah, seeing as the street’s so crowded and all.”

The deputy grinned at them but his eyes had all the warmth of stone cold coals. “Nope, not thoughtful. Sheriff’s orders. Nobody’s allowed to loiter in the main street. Ain’t safe. Causes traffic problems. Among other things.” He didn’t grin that time.

“Sheriff’s orders, huh?” Johnny looked across to the other side. The jailhouse was a few doors up. And unless his eyes were playing tricks on him, the blue and white checked curtains in the window just moved.

“Well, we appreciate the warning anyway, Deputy,” Scott was saying. “Thank you. Come on, Johnny.”

Johnny pulled his eyes away from the jail then tipped his hat to the deputy. Scott was standing a few feet away waiting for him.

They made it safely to the sidewalk but it was a near thing – a bird flew down the main street about the same time.

“Always good to meet the local constabulary,” Scott murmured as they stepped up on the sidewalk and started heading towards the hotel. “What did you say the name of this town was again?”

“Malice.”

“Then why is it everything’s called ‘Melissa’s’? So far I’ve seen signs for Melissa’s Finest Hotel, Melissa’s Feed and Grain, Melissa’s Temperance Society ...”

“Every town should have one of those.”

“But nothing about Malice.”

Johnny shrugged. “How the hell should I know? I told you, I’ve never been here before.”

Scott opened the hotel door – someone had paid a pretty penny for the glass etching of a peacock – then looked back at Johnny. “Yeah, I remember you telling me that.”

“Good, ‘cause I was starting to think Mrs. Wallace had made you deaf as well as cranky.” Johnny grinned at him then scooted inside, leaving Scott holding the door.

^+^+^+^+^+^+^+^

“You hear anything?”

Johnny stopped sudsing and listened. The bathhouse walls were bare boards but there wasn’t any noise coming through them, just a few splinters of the last rays of the sun. He looked across at Scott in the other tub. “Just you splashing around in there.”

“Bliss, isn’t it.” Scott sunk down even further in the water. “So what’s wrong with this town, anyway? The people seem friendly, the town’s clean, hotel’s better than most, the bath water’s hot ...”

Johnny went back to sudsing his chest.

“Johnny, you *did* mean it when you said you hadn’t had any trouble in Malice.”

“Yep.”

“So, what is it about this town that you don’t like?”

“Never said I didn’t like the town, Scott.”

Scott’s brows went up. “You could’ve fooled me. From the time I suggested we change stages and stop here you did nothing but try and talk me out of it.” He looked across at Johnny. “Nearly worked, too.” He reached out a soapy arm and picked up one of the glasses of beer that sat on the table between them, then downed half of it in one go. “Fortunately, I’m made of sterner stuff.”

“Hezekiah Bukey.”

Scott took the glass away from his lips. “Who or what is a Hezekiah Bukey?”

“Last I heard he was sheriff of this town.”

“You know him?”

“Hezekiah Bukey is the reason this town runs like clockwork.” 

“Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

“I guess that depends on the way he goes about it.”

“So you do know him?”

Johnny picked up the other glass. “Never met the man. Just heard enough to know it was the sort of town someone in my line of work should aim to steer clear of. And I managed to do that these last five years - until now.”

Scott’s face cleared. “Very sensible of you; which means there’s no reason for this Hezekiah Bukey to be aiming his sights at Johnny Lancer, law abiding rancher from Morro Coyo now, is there.”

Scott drained the rest of his glass, then stood up, grabbing his towel on the way. “Come on, Johnny. We’ve soaked and scrubbed – time to eat.”

Johnny rested his arm on his knees and rolled the last of his beer around in the glass. What was it Wes had told him about Bukey? He’d heard Day Pardee curse Bukey a time or two and as far as he knew, Day always made a point of avoiding Malice – as did most people he knew who might have reason to avoid trouble with the law. When Johnny was checking the times of the next stage, the clerk at the depot made it sound as though Bukey’s word was worth more than gold in this town. He’d told Johnny the stage had to travel at a walking pace through town – Sheriff Bukey’s orders. Well, that made good sense. But the saloon closing at ten, even on a Saturday night and not serving liquor on Sundays, not even in the afternoon? All order of Sheriff Bukey. He wasn’t leaving the Temperance Society a whole lot to do. But Bukey was a hit with the ladies, the clerk said, for cleaning up the streets. But not in the way Johnny had thought. It was the clerk’s wife who made things clearer. “There’s no more ‘ahem’ from the horses,” she’d said. “Sheriff Bukey had the town council employ two men to shovel it up and take it out of town twice a day and bury it. That way the flies don’t bother us this time of year.” 

Come to think of it, he hadn’t noticed any ‘ahem’ on the streets, either.

Scott stepped out, giving Johnny’s shoulder a slap before towelling himself dry. “And Murdoch’s not expecting us for at least another week. No reason why we can’t enjoy ourselves a little.”

No reason, huh. Johnny stared into his glass; only half aware of Scott whistling while he wrapped the towel around his waist then dried his hair.

Maybe Scott was right.  Most rumours proved to be bigger than the men they were about. And to be fair, all he’d heard about Bukey was that he was a man to steer clear of if there was any trouble around. He ducked under, then wiped any traces of water and soap from his face with one hand while his other groped for his towel. And found nothing.

He opened his eyes. “Hey, Scott!”

Scott was grinning down at him – and holding out a damp towel.

Johnny stood up and snatched it from him. “Use your own damn towel to dry your hair next time.” 

“Just hurry up. I made a few enquiries while you were down at the stage depot and I found out that our beauty with the basket works in the cafe where we’ll find the best food in town. With any luck ...?”

Scott was looking hopeful all right.

There was just one thing that did bother Johnny – the clerk had told him why the town was nicknamed Malice. 

 

To Chapter 2

Want to comment on this chapter? Email Suzanne
Want to comment on the story as a whole? Email Starry Diadem, who will pass your comments on to all the authors.