12,812
23.12.2018

When Jake walked into Maggie's, she set her fisted hands on her hips and looked him up and down with a sniff.

"Fine time to be strolling in, boyo." What she wanted was gossip, and she hoped to annoy it out of him. "Can't figure why a man would be paying good money for a bed and never sleep in it."

"I pay for your chicken and dumplings, too, but I ain't stupid enough to eat them." He started resignedly up the stairs, knowing she would follow.

"You don't seem to be suffering any from lack of food." With the audacity she'd been born with, she poked a finger in his ribs. "Must be getting meals someplace."

"Must be."

"Sarah a good cook, is she?"

Saying nothing, he pushed open the door to his room.

"Don't go pokering up on me, Jake, my boy."

Maggie swiped a dustcloth here and there. "It's too late. Every blessed soul in town saw the way you looked at her at the dance. Then there was the way you rode out of town after her when she socked you in the jaw." The dark, furious glint in his eyes had Maggie cackling. "That's more like it. Always said you could drop a man dead with a look as quick as with those guns of yours. No need to draw on me, though. I figure Sarah Conway's just what you need." "Do you?" Jake tossed his saddlebags on the bed. He considered starting to strip to get rid of her. But he'd tried that before, and it hadn't budged her an inch. "I reckon you want to tell me why before you leave me the hell alone."

"Like to see the back of me, would you?" She just laughed again and patted his cheek. "More than one man's considered it my best side."

He barely managed to control a grin. He was damned if he knew why the nosy old woman appealed to him. "Why don't you get yourself another husband, Maggie? Then you could nag him."

"You'd miss me."

"I reckon some dogs miss the fleas once they manage to scratch them off." Then he sat by the window, propping his back against one side and his boot against the other. "Somebody's got to bite at you. Might as well be me. I got something to say about you and Sarah Conway." Staring out the window, he frowned. "It won't be anything I haven't said to myself. Go away, Maggie." "Now listen to me, boy," she said in an abruptly serious tone. "There's some who've born to the pretty.

They slide out of their mothers and straight into silk

and satin. Then there's others who have to fight and claw and scratch for every good thing. We know something about that, you and me."

Still frowning, he looked back at her. With a nod, she continued. "Some go hungry, and some have their bellies full. The sweet Lord himself knows why he set things up that way, and no one else. But he didn't make the one man better than the other. It's men themselves who decide if they're going to be strong or weak-and that's the same as good or bad. Sometimes there's a woman who shoves them one way or the other. You take ahold of Sarah Conway, Jake. She'll shove you right enough."

"Could work the other way around," he murmured.

"A woman's easier to shove than a man."

Maggie's brows rose in two amused peaks. "Jake, my boy, you've got a lot to learn about women." It was the second time in so many days he'd been told that, Jake mused when Maggie clicked the door shut behind her. But it wasn't a woman he had to think about now.

It was gold. And it was murder.

He took Matt Conway's journal and started to read. Unlike Sarah, Jake didn't bother with the early pages. He scanned a few at the middle, where Matt had written of working the mine and of his hopes for a big strike. There were mentions of Sarah here and there, of Matt's regrets at leaving her behind, of his pride in the letters she wrote him. And always he wrote of his longing to send for her.

He had wanted to build her a home first, a real home, like the one he'd described to her. The mine

would do it, or so he had thought. Throughout the pages, his confidence never wavered.

Each time I enter, I feel it. Not just hope, but certainty. Today. Each time I'm sure it will be today. There is gold here, enough to give my Sarah the life of a princess-the life I had wanted so badly to give her mother. How alike they are. The miniature Sarah sent me for Christmas might be my own lost, lovely Ellen. Looking at it each night before I sleep makes me grieve for the little girl I left behind and ache for the young woman my daughter has become.

So there had been a painting, Jake mused. Questions might be answered once it was found. He skipped on, toward the end.

In my years of prospecting, I've learned that success is as elusive as any dream. A man may have a map and tools, he may have skill and persistence.

But there is one factor that cannot be bought, cannot be learned. Luck. Without it a man can dig and hammer for years with the vein he seeks always inches out of reach. As I have been. Sweet God, as I have been.

Was it the hand of chance that caused my own to slip, that had me sprawled in the dirt nursing my bruised and bloody fingers and cursing God as I learned to curse him so eloquently? And when I stumbled, half-blind with tears of frustration and pain, was it his hand that led me deeper into the tunnel, swinging my pick like a madman?

There it was, under my still-bleeding fingers.

Glinting dull against the dark rock. It ran like a river, back, back into the dark mouth of the mine, narrow, then widening. I know it cannot be, yet to me it seemed to shimmer and pulse like a living thing. Gold. At long last.

I am not ashamed that I sat on the dusty floor of the mine, my lamp between my knees, and wept.

He'd found it, Jake thought as he frowned over the words. It was no longer just a hunch, a feeling, but fact. Matt Conway had found his gold, and he'd died. Perhaps there would be an answer to why and how in the remaining pages.

Do men grow more foolish with age? Perhaps.

Perhaps. But then, whiskey makes fools of young and old. There need be no excuses. A man finds his heart's desire after years of sweat. To what does he turn? A woman, and a bottle. I found both at the Silver Star. It had been my intention to keep my discovery to myself for a little longer. Sarah's letter changed that. She's coming. My own little girl is already on her way to join me. There is no way to prepare her for what she will find. Thank God I will soon be able to give her all that I promised.

It wasn't my intent to tell Carlotta of the gold, or of Sarah's arrival. Whiskey and weakness. Undoubtedly I paid for my lack of discretion with a vicious head the next morning. And the visit from Samuel Carlson. Could it be coincidence that now, after all these years, he wants the mine? His offer was generous. Too generous for me to believe the purchase was to be made from sentiment on his part.

Perhaps my suspicions are unfounded. He took my refusal in good temper, leaving the offer open. Yet there was something, something in the way he held his brother and his man Donley to silence-like holding wild dogs on a leash. Tomorrow I will ride into town and tell Barker about my discovery. It may be wise to hire a few men to help me work the mine. The sooner it is begun, the sooner I can build my Sarah the house she believes is already waiting for her.

It was the last entry. Closing the book, Jake rose.

He had his answers.

"Miss Sarah, seeing as you're going into town and all…"

Sarah sighed as she adjusted her straw bonnet.

"Again, Lucius?"

He scratched his grizzled beard. "A man gets powerful thirsty doing all this work."

"Very well." She'd managed to cure him of his abhorrence of water. Easing him away from his passion for whiskey would take a bit more time.

"I'm obliged, Miss Sarah." He grinned at her. In the weeks he'd been working for her he'd discovered she had a soft heart-and a tough mind. "You check on that wood you ordered. I'll be right pleased to put that floor in for you when it gets here."

Easily said, she mused, when the wood was still hundreds of miles away. "You might finish building the pen Jake started. I intend to inquire about buying some piglets while I'm in town."

"Yes'm." He spit. He'd build the cursed pen, but he'd be damned if he'd tend pigs. "Miss Sarah, I'm getting a mite low on tobacco."

Whiskey and tobacco, Sarah thought, rolling her eyes heavenward. What would Mother Superior have said? "I'll see to it. You look in on Alice regularly, Lucius. See that she has a bit of that broth and rests." She heard him grumble about being a nursemaid and snagged her lip to keep it from curving. "I'll be back by three. I'm going to fix a very special meal tonight." She gave him a final glance. "You'll want to change your shirt." She cracked the reins and headed out before she allowed herself to laugh.

Life was glorious. Life was, she thought as she let the horses prance, magnificent. Perhaps she was rich, as Jake had said, but the gold no longer mattered. So many things that had seemed so important only-a short time before really meant nothing at all.

She was in love, beautifully, wildly, in love, and all the gold in the world couldn't buy what she was feeling. She would make him happy. It would take some time, some care and more than a little patience, but she would make Jake Redman see that together they could have everything two people could want. A home, children, roots, a lifetime.

What they had brought to each other had changed them both. She was not the same woman who had boarded the train in Philadelphia. How far she'd come, Sarah reflected as she scanned the distant buttes. Not just in miles. It was much more than miles. Only weeks before she'd been certain her happiness depended on having a new bonnet. She laughed as the hot wind tugged at the brim of the one she wore now. She had come to Lone Bluff with dreams of fine parties and china dishes. She hadn't found them. But she had found more, much more.

And she had changed him. She could see it in the way he looked at her, in the way he reached for her as he slept, just to hold her, to keep her close. Perhaps the words were difficult for him to say. She could wait.

Now that she had found him, nothing and no one would keep her from being with him.

She saw the rider coming, and for an instant her smile bloomed. But it wasn't Jake. Sarah watched Jim Carlson slow his horse to a trot as he crossed the road in front of her. She intended to ride by with a brief nod of greeting, but he blocked her way.

"Morning, ma'am." He shifted in his saddle to lean toward her. The stink of whiskey colored his words. "All alone?"

"Good morning, Mr. Carlson. I'm on my way to town, and I'm afraid I'm a bit pressed for time." "That so?" It was going to be easier than he'd thought. He wouldn't have to go through Lucius to get to her. "Now that's a shame, since I was just riding out to see you."

"Oh?" She didn't care for the look in his eyes, and the smell of whiskey on his breath didn't seem harmless, as it did with Lucius. "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Carlson?"

"There sure is." Slowly, his eyes on hers, he drew his gun. "Step on out of the wagon."

"You must be mad." She'd frozen at the first sight of the barrel, but now, instinctively, her fingers inched toward her rifle.

"I wouldn't touch that rifle, ma'am. It'd be a shame for me to put a hole in that pretty white hand of yours. Now, I said get out of the wagon."

"Jake will kill you if you touch me."

He'd already thought that one through. That was the reason he was altering Carlotta's plan to suit himself. He wasn't going to kill Sarah here and now, unless she did something stupid. "Oh, I got plans for Redman, honey, don't you worry. You just step out of that wagon before I have to put a bullet in your horses." She didn't doubt he would, or that he would shoot her in the back should she try to run. Trapped, she stepped down and stood stiffly beside the wagon. "God Almighty, you got looks, Sarah. That's why Sam took to you." With his gun still in his hand, Jim slid out of the saddle. "You got those fine lady looks like our mama did. You saw her picture at the house. Sam, he's mighty fond of pictures." He grinned again. When he reached out to touch Sarah's face, she hissed and jerked it aside. "But you, you got some fire. Mama was just crazy. Plumb crazy." He stepped forward so that his body pushed hers against the side of the wagon. "Sam told you she was delicate, didn't he?

That's the word he uses. Crazy was what she was, so that the old man would lock her up sometimes for days. One day when he opened up the door he found her hanging dead with a pretty pink silk scarf around her neck."

Horror leaped into her eyes and warred with fear.

"Let me go. If Samuel finds out what you've done, he'll-"

"You think I run scared of Sam?" Laughing, Jim forced Sarah's face back to his. "Maybe you figure he's smoother than me, got more brains. But we're blood." His fingers bit into her skin. "Don't forget it. You ever let him get this close, let him do what he wanted? Or did you save yourself for that breed?" She slapped him with all the force of her fear and rage. Then she was clawing at him, blindly, with some mad hope of getting to his horse. She felt the barrel of the gun press into the soft underside of her jaw and heard the click of the hammer.

"Try that again and I'll leave what's left of you here for the buzzards, gold or no gold. Your pa tried to get away, too." The stunned look in her eyes pleased him, gave him the edge he wanted. "You think on what happened to him and take care." He was breathing quickly, his finger trembling on the trigger. He'd lied when he'd said he wasn't scared of his brother. If it hadn't been for the rage Sam would heap on him, Jim would have sent a bullet into her. "Now you're going to do just like I say, and you'll stay alive a while longer."

"Interesting reading." Barker squinted down at Matt's journal while he fanned the hot, still air around his face with his hat. "Matt had a fine way of putting words on paper."

"Fine or not, it's plain enough." Jake fidgeted at the window, annoyed with himself for coming to the law with something he could, and should, have handled himself. Sarah's doing, he thought. He hadn't even felt the shove.

"It's plain that Matt thought he'd found gold."

"He'd found it. Lucius dug through to where Matt was working. It's there, just the way Matt wrote." Thoughtful, Barker closed the book and leaned back in his chair. "Poor old Matt. Finally makes the big strike, then gets caught in a cave-in."

"He was. dead before those beams gave way."

Taking his time, Barker pushed a cozy plug of tobacco in his cheek. "Well, now, maybe you think so, and maybe I'm doing some pondering on it, but this here journal isn't proof. It's not going to be easy to ride out to the Carlson ranch and talk to Sam about murder with no more than a book in my hand. Now hold on," he added when Jake snatched the book from the desk. "I didn't say I wasn't going out, I just said it wasn't going to be easy." Still fanning himself with his hat, he sat back in his chair. He wanted to think it through, and think it through carefully. The Carlson family had a long reach. He was more concerned about that than about the quick temper and gun of young Jim.

"Got a question for you, Jake. Why'd you bring me that journal instead of riding on out and putting a hole in the Carlson brothers?"

Jake skimmed his eyes over Barker's comfortable paunch. "My deep and abiding respect for the law." After a bark of laughter, the sheriff spit a stream of tobacco juice into the spittoon. "I once knew a woman-before Mrs. Barker-who lied as smooth as that. Couldn't help but admire her." With a sigh, he perched his hat on his head. "Whatever your reason, you brought it, so I'm duty-bound to do something about it. Got to tell you, nothing's more tiring than duty." He reached unenthusiastically for his gunbelt as the door burst open.

"Sheriff." Nancy stood, darting glances over her shoulder and tugging restlessly at the shoulder of her hastily donned dress. "I got to talk to you."

"You'll just have to hold on to it till I get back. One of them cowboys got a little too enthusiastic over at the Silver Star, I ain't getting worked up about it." "You'd better listen." Nancy stood firm in front of the door. "I'm only doing this 'cause of Alice." She glanced at Jake then. "Carlotta'd strip my skin if she found out I come, but I figured Miss Conway done right by Alice, I ought to do right by her."

"Quit babbling. If you're hell-bent on talking, say it."

"It's Carlotta." Nancy kept her voice low, as if it might carry back to the Silver Star. "She's been feeling real mean since yesterday."

"Carlotta was born feeling mean," Barker muttered. Then he waved to Nancy to continue.' 'All right, finish it out."

"Last night she took Jim Carlson up. She don't usually let men stay overnight in her room, but he was still there this morning. My room's next to hers, and I heard them talking."

Jake took her arm to draw her farther into the room.

"Why don't you tell me what you heard?"

"She was talking about how Jim and Donley killed Matt Conway, and how he was supposed to take care of Matt's girl." She yelped when Jake's fingers bit into her arm. "I didn't have no part in it. I'm telling you what I heard 'cause she took Alice in after Carlotta near killed her."

"Looks like I'd better have a talk with Carlotta," Barker mused, straightening his hat.

"No, you can't." Fear for her own skin had her yanking free of Jake. "She'll kill me. That's the God's truth. Anyways, it's too late for that."

"Why?" Jake caught her again before she could dash out the door.

She'd gone this far, Nancy thought, dragging the back of her hand over her mouth. She might as well finish. "Carlotta said Jim was to scare Miss Conway good, hurt her. Then, when he had the deed to the mine, he was to kill her. He rode out an hour ago, and I couldn't get away till now."

Jake was already through the door and halfway to his horse when Barker caught up with him. "Will and me'll be right behind you."

There had been times when killing had come easily to Jake, so easily that after it was done he'd felt nothing.

This time would be different. He knew it, felt it, as he sped down the road toward Sarah's house. If Jim Carlson was ahead of him and he got within range, he would kill him without question. It would be easy.

And it would be a pleasure.

He heard the horses behind him, but he didn't look back.

His own mount seemed to sense the urgency and lengthened his strides until his powerful legs were a blur and the dust was a yellow wall behind them. When Jake saw the wagon, the cold rage dropped into his gut and turned into a hot, bubbling fear. He vaulted from the saddle beside the two horses, which stood slack-hipped and drowsy.

Surprisingly agile, Barker slipped down beside him. "Take it easy." He began to place a hand on Jake's shoulder, but then he thought better of it. "If he took her off somewhere, we'll track him." He held up a hand before any of the men with him could speak. Along with Will were three men from town, including John Cody, who still wore his store apron. "We take care of our own here, Jake. We'll get her back." In silence, Jake bent down to pick up the cameo lying facedown in the road. Its slender pin was snapped. There were a few pale blue threads clinging to the broken point. The signs told him she'd struggled, and the picture of her frightened and fighting clawed at him. The signs also told him where she was being taken. With the broach in his pocket, he jumped into the saddle and rode hard for the Carlson ranch.

Her hands were bound together and tied to the saddle horn. If it had been possible, she would have jumped to the ground. Though there was nowhere to run, at least she would have had the satisfaction of making him sweat.

Everything Jake had said was true-about the gold, about her father's death. Sarah had no doubt that the man responsible for it all was sitting behind her. At first she thought he was taking her into the hills, or to the desert, where he could kill her and leave her body hidden. But she saw, with some confusion, the graceful lines of the Carlson ranch house in the shallow valley below.

It was a peaceful scene, lovely despite the waves of radiant heat rising up from the ground. She heard a dog bark. As they approached, Samuel burst out of the house, hatless and pale, to stare at his brother. "What in God's name have you done?"

Jim loosened the rope around the saddle horn, then lifted Sarah to the ground. "Brought you a present." "Sarah, my dear." His mouth grim, Carlson tugged at her bonds. "I'm speechless. There's no way I could ever…" He let his words trail off and began to massage the raw skin of her wrists. "He must be drunk.

Stable that horse, damn you," he shouted at Jim. "Then come inside. You've a great deal to answer for."

It stunned her, left her limp, when Jim merely shrugged and led his horse away. It must be a joke, a bizarre joke, she thought, bringing her trembling hands to her lips. But it wasn't. She knew it was much too deadly to be a joke.

"Samuel-"

"My dear, I don't know what to say." He slipped a supporting arm around her waist. "I can't begin to apologize for my brother's outrageous behavior. Are you hurt? Dear Lord, your dress is torn." He had her by the shoulders then, and the look in his eyes froze her blood. "Did he touch you, molest you?"

She managed to shake her head, once, then twice.

Then the words came. "Samuel, he killed my father. It was for the gold. There's gold in the mine. He must have found out and he-he murdered my father."

She was breathless now, her hands clinging to his trim black vest. He only stared at her, stared until she wanted to scream. "Samuel, you must believe me."

"You're overwrought," he said stiffly. "And no wonder. Come in out of the heat."

"But he-"

"You needn't worry about Jim." He led her inside the thick adobe walls. "He won't bother you again. You have my word. I want you to wait in my office." His voice was quiet, soothing, as he led her past his mother's portrait and into a room. "Try to relax. I'll take care of everything."

"Samuel, please be careful. He might-he could hurt you."

"No." He patted her hand as he eased her into a chair. "He'll do exactly what I tell him."

When the door shut, she covered her face with her hands. For a moment she let the hysteria she'd fought off take control. He'd intended to kill her. She was certain of it, from the way he'd looked at her, the way he'd smiled at her. Why in God's name had he brought her here, where she would be protected by Samuel?

Protected. After letting out a shaky breath, she waited until her heartbeat leveled and the need to scream passed. She was safe now. But it wasn't over.

She closed her eyes briefly. It was far from over. It was madness. Jim Carlson was as mad as his poor mother had been, but instead of killing himself he had killed her father. She wanted to weep, to let the new, aching grief come. But she couldn't. She couldn't weep, and she couldn't sit.

Rising, she began to pace. The room was small but beautifully furnished. There were delicate porcelain figurines and a painting in fragile pastels. It reflected Samuel's elegant taste and eye for beauty. How un-alike the brothers were, she thought.

Cain and Abel.

With a hand on her heart, she rushed to the door. She could never have borne the guilt if one brother killed another over her.

But the door was locked. For a moment she thought it was only her nerves making her fumble. After a deep breath she tried the knob again. It resisted.

Whirling around, she stared at the room. Locked in? But why? For her own protection? Samuel must have thought she would be safer behind a locked door until he came back for her.

And if it was Jim who came back with the key? Her heart thudding in her throat, she began a frantic search for a weapon.

She pulled out desk drawers, pushing ruthlessly through papers. If not a pistol, she thought, then a knife, even a letter opener. She would not be defenseless.

Not again. She tugged open the middle drawer, and the brass pulls knocked against the glossy mahogany. Her hand froze when she saw the miniature. Her miniature.

Like a sleepwalker, she reached for it, staring blindly.

It was the self-portrait that she had painted the year before, the one she had shipped to her father for Christmas. The one, Sarah realized as her fingers closed over it, that he had shown with pride to his friends in town. The one that had been missing from his possessions. Missing because it had been taken by his murderer.

When the key turned in the lock, she didn't bother to close the drawer or to hide what she held in her hand. Instead, she rose and faced him.

"It was you," she murmured as Samuel Carlson closed and locked the door behind him. "You killed my father."