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ROUND ROBIN

 

 

FThe Strongest Link
xxxChapter 2

 

 


CHAPTER
2 by Suzanne

Even if they'd been blinded by Mrs. Wallace, he and Scott would've still found the cafe; his feet just about left the boards as they followed the smell of fresh baked pie, hot from the oven, wafting along the sidewalk. Maybe Bukey's influence on this town wasn't so bad after all.

"This is it," Scott said as they came to a row of windows covered half way up with a lace curtain. Scott took off his hat as he reached for the knob on a white door.

Johnny followed a few steps behind. A look through the windows showed that plenty of other folk had trusted their noses as well; cowhands mostly, scrubbed and clean in their best bib and tucker. Maybe there was a dance on tonight? A man didn't usually spruce up in his best shirt and tie to get soaked on a Saturday night. There was no sign of anyone wearing a badge from this angle.

He'd followed Scott through the doorway just as the bell on the door started to tinkle – and every head at every table turned their way.

Johnny came alongside Scott. He shot him a quick sideways look and got one back. Johnny'd been given the once over plenty of times in saloons but he couldn't remember a time when he'd walked into a café and seen men grip their forks like they were spears and glare at him just for stepping through the door.

"Good evening." Scott gave the room a smile and a nod. Johnny gave them just a nod while he booted the door closed with a backwards kick. They got a few nods in return before the door slammed hard enough to make the bell tinkle again and without a word everybody turned back to their plates. "Welcome to the West," Scott said under his breath. "The only thing they didn't do was growl."

Johnny shrugged. Just so long as nobody bothered them he was a happy
man.

The only person who still seemed to take any special interest in them was a pasty little man with eyeglasses sitting at a table by himself. Johnny caught his eye just as he was about to take a spoonful of soup and the man jerked and slopped most of it down his shirt and tie. He used his napkin to dab at the slops like he was blotting ink.

When he turned around Scott had already hung his hat on the hatstand inside the door so he followed Scott's lead, then watched as Scott took his rig off and hung it next to a couple of others on another stand.

"Ahem."

Johnny looked around – and then down. It had been a long time since he'd faced a wooden spoon.

"Young man, we don't allow guns in the restaurant."

He didn't have to look around to know that every head had turned
their way again; the silence told him that.

The wooden spoon was in the hands of a grandma who had her hair pulled
back so tight her eyes just about slanted like a Chinese woman. She looked mean enough to whack him with that spoon, too.

He flicked a glance at the rest of the room. Sure enough, no one else in the cafe was wearing a gun.

Johnny hooked his thumbs on his belt. "Sheriff Bukey's orders, Ma'am?" This was the sort of set-up a man like Bukey would run. It was never a good idea to care more for food or drink or women for that matter, than it did for your own safety. Maybe they should just walk ...

"Hezekiah?" she snapped.

Scott cleared his throat. "Ah, Johnny ..."

"Gracious me, do I look like a woman who'd let a man busy himself in her affairs?" The hand holding the wooden spoon started to move.

Scott was nudging him now. "Johnny, don't you think ..."

"And Hezekiah of all people." And then she started to laugh – and he could see the skin around her eyes crinkling like water finding its way along a well-used river bed. But the pasty little man wasn't laughing and neither was anyone else in the room. Well, one or two gave nervous grins but there were a lot of feet shuffling under the tables.

"But I *do* insist on feeding my customers the best food in the county." She patted his arm and the next second she gave him a push towards the gun rack like he was a little kid that needed to be shown where the wash basin was.

"And don't forget the best coffee, Ma," someone shouted out and that started another half dozen calling out all the food `Ma' cooked so well.

"Now, now, boys." She waved the spoon at them all. "Hush I say. Get back to your supper. Oh, they do go on," she added, peering around Johnny to take in Scott as well.

"Well," Johnny rubbed the back of his neck, "I guess I'd better take my rig off, `cause I surely don't want to miss out on any of that fine food."

She patted his arm again. "Good boy. Now what can I get the two of you?" She peered at him and Scott, blinking a couple of times like she was trying to focus. "I know; I'll send Lulu out with a coffee for you both, just to get started."

"Thank you, ma'am," Scott smiled at her. "We'd appreciate that."

If she'd been taller Johnny had a feeling she might have patted his head before she walked away. He caught a few people still looking his way as he undid his gun belt. He could think of plenty of towns where he'd eat his dinner naked and it wouldn't bother him – but Malice wasn't one of them.

The room started to hum again with talk and the chinks of knives and
forks on dinner plates.

"What are you grinning at?" he muttered to Scott as he hung his rig.

Scott had a smirk on his face. "I don't think even the infamous Sheriff Bukey could wield a wooden spoon as deftly as that."


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

Johnny took a look around the cafe as he took a chair at one of the round tables. The place had a woman's touch; blue and white checked cloths and a mason jar holding four orange poppies sat on each table.

The pasty little man had his handkerchief out now and was wiping his forehead, careful not to touch the few strands of hair that had been combed across his shiny head from somewhere near his left ear. He looked like a bank teller – or maybe a law clerk; one of those types who didn't get out in the sun much. Not much of a life.

"So, any sign of the virtuous Sheriff Bukey?" Scott asked as they sat down.

"I wouldn't go looking for him if I were you. He's only gotta get an earful of your flannel mouth and you'll be locked up as a card sharp. Or worse." He grinned at Scott.

"Not me brother. I'm the respectable one, remember."

"Respectable my ..."

His words trailed off when he saw Scott's frozen stare aimed somewhere past his shoulder. Dios. That could only mean one thing; Mrs. Wallace must be around here somewhere. How could he have missed all that tumbleweed hair?

He twisted in his seat and saw a few men standing and talking to someone but couldn't see who. Then when he looked around some more, he saw that just about everyone in the cafe was looking in the same direction – and then a few of them called out, "Evenin' Lulu ... you're lookin' really pretty tonight, Miss Lulu ... it's a real fine night for a walk, Lulu ... you made up your mind who you're takin' to the dance next Saturday night ... You want me to carry the tray for you, Miss Lulu …?"

He turned back to say something to Scott but he was staring like every other man. From his angle, all Johnny could see was the back of three men – until one of them stood aside.

So *that's* who Scott was staring at. Out in the street her hair had been eye-catching, but here in the cafe, tied at the back of her neck but with thick waves falling past her shoulders, the colour looked even richer – like those velvet drapes that hung from floor to ceiling in swank hotels.

Now more chairs were being scraped back. Pretty soon she had about ten men squeezed between her and the closest tables.

"And that explains our reception when we walked in here," Scott murmured.

"You want me to tell those cowboys that we're only staying here two nights – just so as they don't fork us to death in our beds?"

"Don't you know that competition is good for the soul?"

"Is that another saying from that Emerson fella?"

"No doubt if he'd been here and seen the fair Lulu he would have said it." Scott leaned forward. "Let me remind you, we *do* have two whole nights and a day to spend here while we're waiting for the stage."

Johnny poked the table to make his point. "Make that two nights and a day spent keeping outta trouble."

Finally, a man's voice cut through all the hubbub. "Come on, now, fellas. Let's give Miss Lulu a chance to talk. We don't wanna be crowding her none."

She gave a cowboy with blond stringy hair a big smile. "Why, thank you, Charlie. I know I can always depend on you for good sense."

While Charlie was puffing up like a mangy rooster her eyes somehow landed on their table. He and Scott were just about the only men of marrying age still sitting – except for the clerk and he had his face buried in a book. Scott bowed his head to her and Johnny noticed she wasn't in a hurry to look away, even with all the badgering that had started up around her again. "Aw, come on, Lulu … You promised, Lulu … I bought me a new suit …"

Scott earned himself a dimple of a smile before she looked away. No doubt a sample of what you'd get if you tasted some more. And that look in Scott's eye said he was definitely interested in sampling anything she had to offer.

Lulu had turned back to the fellas pressing around her now. "Billy Hansen, you know I told you all that I'd make my decision on Friday, so if anyone's interested in taking me, then you just make sure you're here Friday night if you want to have a chance."

"We will, Miss Lulu ... sure thing, Lulu ... I'm gonna get here just as soon as I can ..."

And then she was headed towards their table with the tray and the two mugs of coffee.

Scott scraped his chair back and Johnny did the same – only slower.

"Hello again," Scott said.

"Ma'am." Johnny nodded at her.

"Gentlemen, I believe these coffees are for your table. Do sit down. I hope you're not going to be silly like all the other men in this town."

Her smile didn't have the brass of a saloon gal's but he found himself thinking about kissing those lips all the same.

Scott made the introductions. It turned out her full name was Luella Chapman.

She could only spare a quick glance at Johnny before she turned both barrels of green eyes and long lashes on Scott.

"I heard you talking in the street this afternoon. You sound like you're a long ways from home."

"Morro Coya – via Boston that is."

"Boston? Oh, I've seen pictures."

"Oh, I bet it ain't that special. If you've seen one big smoky town, you've seen `em all. Ain't that right, Scott," Johnny said.

"Oh, but I've never seen any big town. Not even San Francisco." And she looked so downhearted that even Johnny would have swung her up on the back of his horse then and there if he hadn't been aiming to be busy keeping out of trouble the next couple of days.

"But I aim to go there some day. I don't care what my uncle says. Boston looks so very ... ooh, what word do I want?" She looked to Scott.

"Historic?"

She shook her head.

"Crowded," Johnny tried.

"No, that's not the word. The word I want is ..." She tapped her finger against her bottom lip and swished her skirts from side to side while her eyelashes fluttered towards the ceiling.

Johnny held his breath. Hopefully she'd never remember the word she
wanted.

"I know," she said, taking her finger away. "So-phist-i-cated."

She smiled at them both. Well, Johnny got a few slivers of her beam but most of it fell on Scott. Which was okay by him. He took his eyes off her lips and that china-white skin of hers and picked up his coffee. He was more than happy to stay in the shadows until they caught the stage out of here.

"An excellent choice of words," Scott was telling her.

"Luella, hurry up child," Grandma called from the kitchen door.

"Oh." She pouted some, then said, "Gentlemen, may I take your order?"

"Is there anything you'd recommend?" Scott asked, meeting Johnny's eyes as he spoke.

Hell, he hoped Scott wasn't thinking what he thought he was thinking.

Her dimple showed itself even more this time. "Why don't I choose for the both of you? I'm pretty good at knowing what men like."

If she *had* been a saloon girl he would've known exactly what she meant by that but for all the fuss that was made over her, Lulu had an innocence about her that made dirty talk seem unlikely.

The both agreed and she swished off with her now empty tray back to the  kitchen.

Scott picked up his coffee and toasted Johnny. "You know, I'm thinking it was an inspired idea of mine to stay in this town."

Johnny had a look at the tables around them. Everyone was gripping their forks real tight and glaring at them again. He turned back to Scott and looked him in the eye. "I hope so, brother."


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Lulu was back in about ten minutes with their meals – chicken pot pie and a mound of mashed potatoes and both did justice to the smell he'd followed down the street. She was back in another ten minutes to check that their meal was fine, then back with a coffee pot and another cup a third time – and this time Johnny pulled up a seat for her and she stayed a lot longer.

"Grandma has a girl to do the washing up and cleaning," Lulu told them, brushing the hair back from her right shoulder before pouring a coffee for each of them. For a second there he had a picture of her brushing her hair back from a bare shoulder. The white shirt she wore was buttoned up to the neck but it would take a sack to hide all that pretty shape underneath. And even in a sack she'd still probably have every man in California wanting her.

By now there were only a few people still eating – most of the cowhands had dragged their feet out the door when Ma had shooed them off because they were finished eating and only `taking up space.' Johnny sat back and met the glares that came their way as each man left; then double-checked they'd left their forks behind on the table. When he wasn't watching Lulu, that was. He let Scott do most of the talking. Murdoch had told him once that a pretty picture was best admired in silence – and Lulu was more like one of those `masterpieces' his old man hankered to buy some day.

Lulu told them all about her plans for leaving Malice, even though her uncle wanted her to marry the son of some local rancher; he didn't care which one.

She drew a long breath, then sighed a sigh sad enough to make an angel wail. "We don't see too many strangers in this town. Not ones willing to stay at any rate."

Johnny leaned forward. "You got any reason as to why that would be?"

"Oh, I don't know." Her mouth turned down. "I guess because nothing ever happens in this town."

"And what if something *did* happen? I've heard your sheriff…"

"Oh, blazes, I don't want to talk about *this* town. I have to live in it every day, don't I." Her voice went up a notch like a kid's but that flash in her eyes was all woman.

She turned to Scott. "Tell me about Boston – and where you live. Morro Coyo you said? Where's that?" She shot the questions at him like she was trying to block out even a memory of her own town.

Scott was willing to oblige. He told her all about Boston but not too much about Lancer. He told her they owned a ranch with their father and when she asked how big it was, the side of his mouth turned up and he said, "Oh, big enough."

She pouted some then turned to him. "Won't you tell me about your ranch, Johnny?"

He grinned at her. "Me? Nope, I'm heading back to our room."

Truth be told he could've sat and watched her all night but he knew when three was a crowd. So he faked a yawn, excused himself to the lovely Lulu, gave Scott a thump on the arm and told him not to stay up too late, then headed back to the hotel.

He guessed he could always dream.


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Scott didn't hear the stage leave the next morning. Waking up in a comfortable bed and knowing that Mrs Wallace and her bratty children were presently being carried miles away made him feel that all was well with the world. Not even a pillow thrown at his head to wake him up had robbed his sense of wellbeing this morning. Of course, he couldn't entirely put that down to the absence of Mrs Wallace.

"Hey, get up. I'm hungry." Johnny was standing over him, fully dressed, gun belt on. Johnny had pulled back the drapes and sunlight was already streaming through the lace curtaining behind them.

He grabbed the pillow and tossed it back. "At least give me a chance to wake up."

Johnny stared down at him. "You don't look like you got much sleep."

"Enough for my needs, brother."

Johnny's brows went up. "I'm wondering what other needs you filled last night."

Scott slid his way up the pillows. "*That* would be none of your business."

"That Luella's got the prettiest lips this side of the border."

"Really?"

Johnny walked to the window and pulled back the lace. He looked down at the street while Scott got dressed.

"'Course you were only interested in her mind," Johnny said.

Scott looked at himself in the mirror. "Undoubtedly."

Johnny came away from the window. He folded his arms and leaned against the bureau. "So where'd you two go when I left you?"

"Nowhere much. We just went for a walk around town."

"You're trying to tell me that you two just went walking all that time?"

Scott did up his gunbelt. "We talked as well." He grinned at Johnny. "Like you said, I'm interested in her mind."


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They were almost at the cafe when the screaming started, bursting through the sleepy, Sunday morning calm with all the force of a shotgun blast.

The sound came from somewhere ahead of them but there was no obvious disturbance in the main street.

Johnny drew his gun and started running towards the nearest alley.

Scott hesitated – but a woman screaming always demanded attention, no matter how many bad feelings he had over the matter. So he thrust the name `Hezekiah Bukey' out of his mind and followed Johnny.

Half a dozen other men from various parts of the street joined them as did two dogs, snapping and barking at everyone's heels as they ran.

Scott pushed his way past the small crowd that had already gathered when he got there – and was even more glad that he'd followed his instincts. Lulu was standing in the middle of the alley that ran alongside the café, gulping and sucking in breaths between her sobs. She was wearing the same sky blue jacket she'd been wearing yesterday so it looked like she'd been on her way to work. His heart went out to her and he would've gone forward but right then Ma came out the side door of the cafe and Lulu ran to her. So he turned his attention to other matters.

Johnny was squatted next to a figure lying face up on the ground. The fact that he'd holstered his gun told its own story but so too did the unnatural position of neck and limbs. The body was that of a man, somewhere in his thirties maybe, wearing the type of suit that was seen in Boston twenty years earlier. The few long strands of hair he had on his head had come away from their combed down position on his head and stuck out like wings over his left ear. His eyes were closed, his face the colour of white marble and just above his collar, the dark brown imprint of a person's hands were clearly visible. Scott's eyes met Johnny's. Shooting to kill was bad enough but the idea of being an arm's length apart and squeezing a man's last breath from him with your bare hands while his eyes bulged and his neck snapped? What kind of a man would do something like that?

Johnny put the back of his hand on the man's wax-like cheek then said to Scott, "He's been dead for some time. The body's stone cold." Johnny looked up at the crowd. "Anyone know this man?"

A few heads shook from side to side but no one spoke. They all just stood there staring. Scott recognised most of them from last night.

Johnny frowned up at them. "You sure you don't know him? He wasin the café last night reading a book."

A few more shook their heads.

Ma, with an arm about Lulu's waist, called from the doorway, "Well, what are you all doing just standing there? Did someone send for Hezekiah?"

"Lafe Watson done that already, Ma," a voice called out.

Johnny stood up and wiped his hand down his jacket front. His eyes caught Scott's and said quite clearly that this was none of their business and that they ought to leave.

He was right, of course. But the lovely Lulu was still sobbing and looking more and more like a lost kitten. He could hardly leave her like that.

"Come on, Scott." Johnny looked towards the street. "The law can deal with this."

Johnny's fingers were twitching. Hezekiah Bukey had him on edge all right.

"You go." He gave a slight nod of his head towards Lulu.

Johnny looked her way then back to Scott but his expression didn't soften any. But then, his brother hadn't spent a very pleasurable half hour the night before with Lulu.

In the end, Johnny shrugged. "It's on your head, brother. I'm gonna find myself some breakfast."

The crowd parted as Johnny pushed through but not one of them showed any inclination to leave. The odd thing was how silent they were. In his experience, something out of the usual tended to get people talking – even in the West where people were notoriously focussed on keeping to themselves. But other than a few whispers, most of them just stood there looking at him. That's what he got for standing out front.

Lulu had quietened down by now but she wouldn't look at the body on the ground. "Perhaps you should take her inside?" he suggested to Ma.

"I was just thinking the very same thing myself. What she needs is a nice hot cup of tea with plenty of sugar. My mother always swore that tea could cure whatever ails a person."

Lulu stumbled a little up the two steps but Ma didn't need his help so he went forward to open the door for her, his eyes falling on some faint, childish scrawl near the handle. `Bukey stinks.'

As Ma and Lulu came alongside she said under her breath, "Hezekiah's always at me to paint over it but to my mind, it does a man good to have to grow into his boots."

Before he had a chance to reply she helped Lulu inside the cafe making soothing shushing sounds as she went.

He closed the door behind her and turned around. The alley ran the length of the café. He and Lulu had walked it last night. It came out at another alley that ran parallel to the main street and backed onto the rear of several houses. A pile of crates was stacked alongside the café walls but other than that, there was nothing in the alley other than the fine dirt that swirled into the air every time the morning breeze blew down the narrow corridor.

Scott took a few steps down the alley and turned around. At least eleven sets of eyes were following his every move. And not one of them looked friendly.

"Someone *did* send for the sheriff, didn't they?" he asked, as much to break the silence as anything else.

"They sure did," a voice said from the back. And then the crowd parted like the Red Sea and a man emerged to stand by the feet of the body. Scott's eyes went straight to his vest. By some coincidence – hopefully it wasn't an omen – a single ray of morning sun struck precisely where a silver badge was pinned.

"Sheriff Bukey?" he asked, walking forward.

"That'd be me." Bukey ran his forefinger and thumb down either side of his already perfectly smooth moustache then leaned forward with a measured look as if he was checking his appearance in the gloss of two evenly polished boots. His next action was to pin Scott with a stare reminiscent of every teacher or officer he'd ever had the misfortune to cross. "And you would be?"

Scott met him eye to eye. "Scott Lancer, sir, of Morro Coyo." The bristles on that moustache were thick enough to sweep a street.

"Never heard of the place." The voice came out clear and deep but his lips hardly seemed to move under all that hair.

"I'm part-owner of a ranch in …"

The snap of Bukey's fingers interrupted his words; and any cowboy would've been proud to make a whip crack as loud as that. "Meekins!"

The deputy who'd warned them about loitering in the street came forward to stand by Bukey. For a minute there Scott thought his bent body was going to snap to attention. "Yes, sir, Sheriff Bukey."

"What've we got here, Deputy?"

Meekins examined the body. "A dead stranger, sir. No sign of any blood. Looks like his neck's broke."

Bukey turned to the crowd. "Anyone know this man?"

Virtually as one, everyone answered, `No, sir."

"I noticed this man in the café last night when I was having supper," Scott said.

Bukey looked across at the others. "Anyone else notice the dead stranger in the café last night?"

Most of the heads nodded this time and one of the dogs barked. Bukey
looked at it. "Well, I'll take that as a yes, then." A couple of men smiled and a few even laughed but it didn't last long. There was an air of expectation about them all, as if they'd read the next chapter and knew what was about to happen.

Bukey nodded, stuck out his bottom lip, then turned back to Scott. "Show me your hands, son."

It seemed on odd request but Scott didn't have anything to hide so he held his hands out, palm up. And who in Boston would've thought there'd be any reason for pride in a callus or two?

It wasn't until he heard the click that it really registered – Bukey had just slapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists. "What the …?"

"No malice behind this, son. But you're new in town."

His jaw dropped and he had a brief glimpse of grinning faces before Meekins prodded him in the back and forced him to walk out of the alley.


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Scott paced – three steps up and three steps back. That was all the cell allowed.

Meekins hadn't said a word as they'd walked to the jail, other than, "Get goin'."

The whole situation was preposterous. `No malice,' Sheriff Bukey had said. No malice in discriminating against someone purely on the basis that they were new in town? No, just call it small town bigotry and narrow mindedness.

He stopped pacing and went to the window. If he stood on his toes and gripped the sill he could just manage to see outside through the bars. At least the place didn't stink. The blanket on the cot looked clean even if there was no pillow, but it would be darned cold in winter when the northerlies blew. Not that he had any intention of being in here that long.

Then again, time in jail was certainly not the worst option he was facing.

He squeezed his eyes shut. There was no doubt about it – Johnny was going to shoot him. He banged his forehead once on his fists then opened his eyes. The question was – where was Johnny now? Did he even know what had happened? He might still be peacefully enjoying his breakfast somewhere. Flashes of the incident with Julie and the bounty hunters had been flickering in his mind ever since Bukey had snapped those handcuffs on him; he'd been given a quick lesson that Johnny's methods of solving problems weren't necessarily going to match his own.

There was no sign of Johnny outside – or anyone for that matter; the cell looked out onto an alley that ran the side of the jail and no amount of twisting his head helped him see anything in the main street.

The jangle of metal made him turn around. Someone was unlocking the door to the cells. He took a breath then crossed to the wall of bars.

It was Sheriff Bukey – followed by Johnny.

"You see. Nothing for you to worry about. Mr Lancer has been put in here for his own safety," Bukey was saying.

Johnny looked at Scott, then nodded, before turning back to Bukey. "What I want to know is why my brother was locked up in the first place?"

"Mr Lancer, we're a small town. We pride ourselves on being a small town."

"Yeah, well I've been in enough small towns to know what that means and I've heard about the way you do business, Bukey."

"What *does* it mean?" Scott asked Johnny.

"It means that any stranger is fair game when it comes to finding someone to blame. Isn't that right, Sheriff?"

Bukey barely looked at Johnny. Instead he flipped open the notebook he held in his hand then wet the tip of his pencil and held it poised over the page. "Perhaps your brother would like to tell me where he was last night?"

Scott kept his eyes on Bukey – but it was Lulu's face he saw. In a small town like this, her reputation could be damaged beyond repair if it got out they'd been alone together. "My brother and I ..."

"You don't have to tell him anything, Scott." Johnny faced Bukey. "He was with me. We had a room at the hotel."

Bukey nodded and jotted something down. "That's quite right, Mr Lancer. I have that information from the desk clerk. I also have the information that the darker Mr Lancer – that would be you," he pointed his pencil at Johnny, "left the hotel for supper then returned at approximately nine o'clock and stayed in his room all night. Whereas the taller Mr Lancer – you, sir – left the hotel at the same time as his brother but did not return until approximately ten forty-five."

There was no doubt about it – Johnny's eyes were signalling a warning.

"Is that correct, Mr Lancer?"

He had the distinct impression that a yawning chasm was opening up right in front of him.

"Mr Lancer?"

Um. "Yes. That's correct."

Bukey was squinting at Scott now. "And were you in the company of any person while you were absent from your room?"

Johnny had moved back so that he was standing behind Bukey and he wasn't even trying to hide the warning in his eyes as he imperceptibly shook his head.

"Was I with anyone?" Scott repeated.

Johnny mouthed, `No.'

"Mr Lancer, please answer the question."

His hands were beginning to sweat. What good would it do to *not* mention Lulu when she gave him an alibi for the time he was away from his hotel room.

"A man can go for a walk can't he sheriff," Johnny said. "What business is it of anyone else's?"

Bukey grinned – at least his mouth moved under the moustache. "Just so long as he doesn't happen to strangle anybody while he's taking a turn around town. It looks like your brother has no alibi for the time he left your room so I can only …"

"Lulu. I was with Lulu. I spent the time walking with her."

Johnny scrunched his eyes shut.

"Miss Chapman? That would be Miss Luella Chapman?" Bukey's words were silky smooth.

Admittedly she wasn't the best alibi but she was better than no alibi at all. Surely Johnny could see that? But he'd dropped his head now and Scott couldn't read his eyes.

"I'm glad you told us that, Mr Lancer." This was the first time he'd seen Bukey smile. The single gold tooth was a little distracting but it was the curve of satisfaction on his lips that had him worried.

And all of a sudden he had a very bad feeling – that Johnny and Bukey knew something that he didn't know.

"Uncle, uncle, where are you?"

Scott closed his eyes and when he opened them again Johnny was looking at him with an I-told-you-so expression.

Lulu wasn't crying any more – until she looked at Scott and then she started screaming. "He's the one who did it! He's the one I saw kill that man!"


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"Okay, go over it all again for me."

"Johnny, I've told Bukey all this ten times already when he made you wait outside."

Johnny leaned against the brick wall facing Scott's bars and folded his arms. "Then make it eleven."

Scott dropped down on the cot and put his head in his hands. It was starting to throb. His stomach was starting to growl as well. It must be past midday by now and he hadn't had a thing to eat all day. "Don't they feed prisoners around here?"

Bukey had gone out, leaving Johnny to talk to Scott through the bars.

"I heard Bukey tell that deputy to get you some grub. And if it helps any, I remembered what Bukey does to keep his town clean."

"I can guess. He locks up any stranger and throws away the key."

"Worse than that, if what Day said was true. He has them stand trial before a proper judge and they're *always* found guilty. So you'd better get talking so that I can get you out of this mess."

Scott looked up. "It might've helped if you'd remembered this *before* we both ran in the alley."

"Don't worry; I spent the last half hour kicking myself over that very same thing."

"Well, it's not your fault, Johnny. I should have…"

"Oh, hush up and tell me what happened."

He grinned at Johnny, then settled back against the bricks. "After you left the café Lulu and I talked some more, then she suggested we go for a walk together. I left by the front door and she met me a few minutes later in the alley. We followed that back laneway down as far as the livery stables. We got talking and one thing led to another. She's a very persuasive young lady – not that I'd tell Bukey that."

"So, just how far did she persuade you?"

Scott just looked at him but Johnny stared right back. "If you must know, we kissed, Johnny. Nothing more than that."

Johnny pushed back his hat and lifted his brows. `Nothing more?"

"Well, a little more but nothing she'd need to tell her uncle or a jury for that matter. She's not one of your `calico queens'."

"So after you two `kissed', you came back to the room?"

"That's right."

"Did you see anyone?"

"As I told Bukey, there were a few people around. Cowhands mostly The saloon had just closed."

"And you saw Lulu go inside?"

"I walked her to her door and I saw her go inside."

Johnny harrumphed. "Not as if she couldn't turn around and go right back out again if she wanted to. So what did you do to make her so all-fired mad at you?"

Scott showed both hands. "As to that, I haven't a clue."

"I'm thinking you should have let yourself be `persuaded' a bit further. Maybe she wanted more than just kissing?"

"Very funny."

"What is it with women wanting to see you hung, anyway? Must be all that Boston charm of yours."

Scott stood up and walked over to the bars. He was having a hard time holding onto his sense of humour. "I'm telling you, there's no reason for her to be telling her uncle that I killed that man."

"Well, you ought to tell Lulu that."

Scott dropped his head against the bars and groaned. "All this is getting us nowhere."

"Oh, you'll be going somewhere all right."

He lifted his head and looked at Johnny. "What is it you know that you're not telling me?"

Johnny looked at him evasively then blew out a puff of air through his lips like he'd come to a decision. "Bukey intends to ship you to Sacramento."

"Sacramento!"

"He tells me the circuit judge won't be through these parts for months and he won't keep a dangerous criminal ..."

"I'm a suspect," Scott ground out.

Johnny shrugged. "Bukey's word was `criminal' – in his jail."

For a second there the room began to spin and he gripped the bars that little bit tighter. He had to think this through. "Do you think I've got more chance of a fair trial in Sacramento? Surely any judge would see pretty quickly that Bukey doesn't have any solid evidence."

"Yep, nothing more solid than an eye witness."

Scott groaned. "Thanks for the words of encouragement, brother."

He started pacing again. "I just don't understand her. Why would she come out and lie like that? What's she got to gain?"

Johnny looked at him. "I guess she's got her reasons, Scott. And we've got from here to Sacramento to work out what they are."

"You mean she'll be travelling with us?"

"So Bukey tells me." Johnny shrugged his jacket on.

"If I could just get a few minutes alone with her, I'm sure I could sort all this out."

"She's up to something all right – but I can't decide if she's protecting someone or doing this for herself."

Scott shook his head. "There's no way Lulu strangled that man."

Johnny pulled his hat down. "You got that right. But she's a gal with ambition – and that type is always the most dangerous."


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

The cot in the cell was rock hard and too short – not that Scott could sleep in any case. He'd bunched his jacket up to use as a pillow and had spent the long hours before dawn going over everything Lulu had said to him. They really *had* walked and talked before she insisted on showing him her favourite horse in the livery. She told him it belonged to a friend of hers. He'd been impressed with the animal – a Pinto of beautiful proportions. But Lulu's proportions were quite remarkable as well and she wasn't at all shy about showing them off. If it hadn't been for her age, he would have been sorely tempted to explore all of them. But he was no out-of-control fluffy faced kid and he'd pulled back, admittedly with regret, when he'd judged they'd both gone as far as was wise.

She'd buttoned her jacket up while he'd put his shirt to rights. Johnny was right, she had the prettiest lips this side of the border and she certainly knew how to use them. The question was, did Sheriff Bukey have any idea how talented she was. "I suppose you're going to tell me you're a gentleman, aren't you, just like almost every other man in this town. Either that or they're too afraid of my uncle." Every word throbbed with disappointment.

He put his hand under her chin. "Lulu, my love, it's a wise woman who knows when to wait."

"I don't want to wait. I feel like I've been waiting my whole life!" The tears were running down her cheeks now. "I hate this town. I hate everything in it. I hate being told how to dress and how to talk and when to breathe. I'm choking here."

He put his arms around her and drew her in close. "Someday you'll meet the right man and fall in love and everything will feel different."

"What if I've met him already?" Her voice was muffled against his jacket but he had the sense she meant what she said.

"Lulu, it takes time to know those things."

She lifted her head. "Most everyone I know is afraid of my uncle," she whispered in his ear, "But I bet you're not afraid, though." And then she began trailing kisses along his jaw and down his neck and if he hadn't grabbed hold of the top of her arms and held her back no doubt they would have both ended up in the hay.

So he'd walked her home – a well-kept white house near the end of town with a picket fence and a rose garden. Someone had a green thumb. She'd told him her parents were dead and she lived with her uncle and grandma. `Ma' he'd already met. Pity she hadn't mentioned the fact that Sheriff Bukey was her other sole relative in town and her legal guardian.

Pity a score of things really, when it came to Lulu.


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

The sun was in the process of rising when Meekins escorted him to the stage depot – walking two steps behind with his shotgun aimed at Scott's back. At least he wasn't handcuffed this time – all the same, he received some unpleasant looks from the few people in town who were up this early. However, one of the town strays wagged its tail and did a few jumps and barks as they walked along the boardwalk. "Good to know someone in this town's glad to see me," Scott remarked to no-one in particular.

"Don't kid yourself; he's just happy to see you leavin'. And that dog ain't from this town."

Scott looked twice at the mutt. That bent ear gave him a rakish air. "Sheriff Bukey must be slipping. Surely a dangerous visitor like this should be locked up. He might be my accomplice. Perhaps he licked that man to death?"

"Ha, ha. Now ain't you the funny one, Lancer."

He earned a prod in the back for his lack of wit – and kept walking. The dog wagged its tail a couple more times then turned and ran off down the street. Come to think of it, he'd seen that dog hanging around the livery when he was in there with Lulu. Maybe he should have used the dog as his alibi. He couldn't be any worse off than he was now.

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

With the usual precision of life out west, the stage was scheduled to leave `sometime' after dawn.

The first person he saw waiting outside the depot was Johnny. He was leaning against a post with Scott's bag at his feet and his own saddlebags slung over his shoulder. When he caught site of Scott he gave a casual salute with two fingers to his hat.

"Johnny," Scott said, as he stepped up onto the porch.

Johnny gave him the once over then squinted at the horizon. A few rays were streaking down main street. "Bet you found it hard to leave that warm, soft bed they gave you over there."

"It wasn't easy. But the thought of leaving this town," he half glanced back at Meekins, "proved to be too strong a temptation."

Johnny grinned but it didn't last long; Bukey was making his way along the boardwalk.

Darn. He'd left Johnny two jobs to do – wire Murdoch and talk to Lulu – and he was hoping he'd get a chance to find out if he'd been able to accomplish either of those tasks.

"Lancer, what are you doing here?" Bukey said to Johnny as he came abreast.

Johnny's eyes flicked to Bukey's face. "Waitin'."

"For the stage?"

"That's right."

"Didn't the clerk tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"There's no room for another passenger on this stage."

Johnny's eyes narrowed. "Well ain't that convenient."

Bukey smoothed his moustache. "No malice intended, boy, but with the Muldrow gang causing trouble, the stage company isn't taking any passengers up top. There's another stage to Sacramento on Thursday."

Johnny didn't take his eyes off Bukey's face. "That badge of yours must be an awful weight on your chest."

Bukey stared back at Johnny with something that could have been a flicker of amusement. "Meekins, bring the prisoner over here."

Scott was shoved forward towards Bukey. "Meekins." A look passed between Bukey and his deputy. Scott wasn't sure what it meant but Meekins stepped back and he didn't look happy. Bukey meanwhile took out a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. Scott eyed them with misgiving. "Like I said, Lancer, there's another stage to Sacramento on Thursday."

"There is, is there. Well it's *this* stage I'm interested in and I've already got my ticket." He untucked the ticket from his belt and held it up under Bukey's nose. "And I'm making it my personal business to see that my brother gets to Sacramento in one piece."

Bukey's moustache turned up either end which might have meant he was smiling – or grimacing. "I assure you, boy, I've never harmed a prisoner in my care."

Johnny straightened this time. "A sheriff who's willing to send a man for trial over a trumped up charge'd be willing to do just about anything in my book."

"You think so, huh? Show me your left hand."

Johnny stared at him without moving his hand. His eyes narrowed. "What game are you playing now, Bukey?"

"No game – but I think I can see a way out of our dilemma. If you'd be so good as to show me your left hand?"

It must have been the lack of sleep because it wasn't until Johnny was bringing his hand up that Scott had a sense of déjà vu. "Johnny – no!"

Too late – the handcuff had been expertly snapped on Johnny's wrist.

Johnny stared at Bukey. "What do you think you're doin'?"

"We don't have room on this trip for another passenger – but I could certainly use a deputy with your expertise. Like I said, the Muldrows boys are on the loose and causing trouble. I had a wire through this morning from the stage company. It seems they're advising folks not to travel." His eyes roved to Johnny's right hip. "I've got an idea you might be pretty handy with that gun of yours and Meekins is needed here. Normally only one of us would travel but Lulu's involvement in this case alters things slightly."

Johnny's face didn't show anything but Scott could hear the suspicion in his voice. "Wouldn't it make sense to wait in that case?"

The moustache didn't twitch this time. "I don't set my clock by the doings of riffraff." Surprisingly, it was Johnny's eyes that lit with a hint of amusement – or maybe it was understanding.

Right then the stage rolled around the corner and the rest of the passengers stepped out of the waiting room: two men and Lulu. He thought she might have been looking a little pale but maybe that was wishful thinking. She certainly wouldn't look his way as she stood there clutching a beaded reticule in her gloved hands.

Bukey looked to Johnny. "So, are you willing, boy? I'm just as keen to get my prisoner to Sacramento in one piece as you are."

"Johnny," Scott said, trying to put as much meaning to the word as he could. "I'm not so sure about this."

Johnny stared down at the post and kicked it a couple of times. When he looked up he was grinning. "I've always wondered what it would feel like to wear a badge."

Bukey nodded then put a hand out for Lulu to board the stage. "If the Muldrows are around you'll find out soon enough. You an' me'll be the ones they're aiming at," he said over his shoulder. The thought didn't seem to bother him in the least.

Lulu lifted her blue travelling dress and put her foot inside the stage. Her head jerked around when her uncle said that but he still couldn't catch her eye before she'd entered all the way. Oh well, he'd have the entire trip to Sacramento to hopefully have a word with her.

When Scott looked back Johnny was holding out his left hand out towards him. "I guess it's just as well you an' me took a bath the day before yesterday."

He looked Johnny full in the face as Bukey grabbed hold of Scott's right wrist and snapped the cuff on. He'd feel a whole lot better about things if only one of them was cuffed.

"Just a word of caution, Lancer." Bukey's hand came down hard on Johnny's shoulder. "If I think for a minute that my prisoner's trying to escape, I won't hesitate to shoot through you to get to him."

Johnny looked at the hand on his shoulder then his eyes travelled to Bukey's face. "I haven't seen my badge yet."

Bukey took his hand away then dug a silver badge from his pants pocket. He held it up for Johnny to see.   "This badge makes you mine now – deputy."

To Chapter 3

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