The day was warm and sunny, a typical New Mexico June day where the hope of rain was still a month away. Instead of being in her office, cleaning and loading the new arrival of Winchester's Browning '86 that the Territorial Governor had purchased for her office, Iragene was standing in the church cemetery, reading the engraved headstone, Alejandro Ortiz Gallegos, 1860-1885. The beautiful young woman with long curling brown hair and striking blue eyes was oblivious to anyone or anything around her as she stood and looked down at the grave.
If someone had told Iragene a year ago that she would be alone without Alejandro, and he would be in the churchyard grave, she would have scoffed at the idea. Their relationship had been perfect, and the time they spent together had been so precious. She had lost that unique man during a gunfight to a sadistic family of rapacious land thieves, and now instead of a wedding ring, she wore a sheriff's badge.
After a year of mourning, Iragene realized that for the first time she was standing before the gravesite without crying and feeling the gut wrenching pain she had experienced at other visits. Instead of relief, however, she felt guilt. She became saddened at the loss of her betrothed and sadder still that his memory did not move her as it did. Time does have its way of healing.
Upon returning to the Sheriff's office, her deputy looked up. "You've been to the cemetery?" Cruz had been working for Alejandro when the land grab was attempted. Iragene killed one of them while Cruz killed the other. One of the last requests Alejandro had made to Cruz was to look out for Iragene should anything happen to him. Cruz remained faithful to Alejandro's request, and his own feelings toward Iragene kept him by her side.
"He's lying in the cold ground, and we're continuing to live. Doesn't that seem strange?"
"No, Senorita, that seems like life, and life has a way of coming to terms with death."
"I suppose you're right, Cruz, before Alejandro's death stabbed me like a knife. Today was different. I didn't cry, and the physical pain of his death was gone, but I felt a sense of great sadness replacing it."
Their thoughts were interrupted as one of the clerks for The Hotel slammed open the door to the sheriff office and hollered out, "Sheriff, I think you need to come, there's been a man murdered in the hotel. We got the man and the woman who done it, and the hotel's bartender is holding a gun on them."
"Do you know who the victim is?" she asked.
The clerk shook his head. "No, this is all I know."
"Cruz," Iragene said while putting on her holster and grabbing the two pairs of handcuffs they had just received along with the rifles, "why don't you stay here? The man is already subdued, so it should be easy to bring him in. Miller's cattle crew should be arriving in town soon, so we'd better have someone in the office in case there're some problems."
"You mean when, don't you, Sheriff?" and she smiled at him as she walked out the door.
Iragene walked up the elegant stairway of the town's hotel. In spite of its location in an out of the way New Mexico town, the hotel was quite luxurious because of its proximity to mines, timber, and cattle in the area. She followed the clerk, only to be joined by the hotel owner, Mr. McDonald. They exchanged greetings and then got down to business.
"Do you know anything about the victim or shooters?" Iragene inquired.
"Not really. The victim is a stranger who walked into the hotel room of a Clara McCarthy, and we don't know much about her except that she kept mostly to her room."
"And the man who allegedly murdered the stranger? Do you know anything about him?" McDonald looked at her. "What do you mean, allegedly? We found him standing over the body. When we asked who he was when he registered, he said he was the woman's brother, but no one believes that."
"Oh," she asked, "why do you say that?"
"Well, they don't look alike."
"Okay, we'll just see what this is all about, and the man isn't guilty until tried," she stated firmly, and they turned into the room.
Iragene and McDonald walked into the hotel room. A young brunette woman sat on the bed crying, not even looking up when they entered her room. Standing by the young woman was her supposed brother. The man had a gun pointed directly at his head by one of the hotel's bartender.
Whereas the young woman was dressed in expensive, fashionable clothes, the brother was dressed in dusty, ranching clothes, better suited for hard riding. But it wasn't the clothes that caught Iragene's eye, it was the man wearing them.
The man was everything Alejandro wasn't. Alejandro had had black hair and an air of aristocracy. His clothes, even when riding the range, were tailored and impeccable. He had had a soft brown skin like light caramel, and his face was miraculously clean-shaven, even during the most tumultuous times.
This man, on the other hand, had light brown hair and a complexion that was weathered by sun and wind. Though he was about the same age as Alejandro, this man's skin reflected many days and nights spent in the open with no hacienda to come home to at night. The stranger was ruggedly handsome and his body frame suggested not an ounce of fat but solid muscle. The stranger was so different from the man she had loved and yet she was drawn to him. The man was just under six feet tall and was built as solid as an oak. In contrast to his tanned skin, he had piercing blue eyes. He was everything a cowboy should be, right out of a dime novel. She had to make a conscious effort to pull her eyes away from him and examine the hotel room where the shooting had taken place.
When he looked at her, his blue eyes also lingered a few moments and unwittingly roamed up and down her body, and then he seemed to recall his situation. "So you're the sheriff?" he said gently, though uttered as a question it sounded like a statement. He had obviously been told that the sheriff of La Madera was a woman. "I want you to know, I killed the bastard in self defense. He was about to kill my sister, and when he recognized me, he decided to kill the both of us—he even said so."
"He's right, Sheriff, the young woman answered, "Brook's henchman came here to kill me, and when he saw Quinn, he said he might as well wipe out the entire family."
Iragene wanted to look at the man more. When she finally pulled her eyes away from him she tried to resume her professional stance. "First of all, who is the dead man and who is Brooks? Obviously you both seem to know both of them, and then you can tell me everything that led up to this scene."
The woman wiped her eyes with her handkerchief and replied, "I am Clara McCarthy, and Robert Fenton, that man," and she pointed, "is or was Brook Blackhurst's hired man. Brook was my fiancée until a month ago," she paused and a combination of fear and anger colored her young face. "I guess I better explain everything. I was engaged to be married to Brook Blackhurst. One day Brook sent me out to choose materials for new curtains and divans for our future home. I finished much earlier than Brook thought I would, but since his carriage was waiting for me, I came back to his home—though obviously he wasn't aware I was there.
"When I entered the house, I didn't see him, so I went into the library where I often went when Brook was busy. I was about to dose off while reading when I heard some yelling. The noise was coming from the rear of the house where Brook often conducted business. I entered his office, but he was too involved in arguing with his partner, Arthur Jury, to see me. I was too frightened by the menacing tone of Brook's voice to leave and hoped my presence would mollify the level of his anger, but Brook didn't seem to see me. He continued to yell at his partner, calling him an imbecilic fool who had to go or else he—Brook, would lose his chance at everything he had worked for. Arthur tried to defend himself, but Brook didn't seem to want to listen. Brook then signaled something to Fenton who took a gun out of his vest and shot Arthur three times." The young woman stopped briefly and realized she had been making fists since Iragene had entered the hotel room, and her hands were probably asleep. She tried to relax and continue.
"I screamed, and he turned and noticed me for the first time. His anger disappeared and his expression turned to shock. He got control of himself quickly and then bade me to come to him and let him hold me while he explained the necessity of having to kill Arthur. He said I needed to understand that he did it for me and for our future. Arthur had embezzled money from the company, our company he claimed.
"I guess he thought I would be in accord with his actions, but when he saw that I wasn't, he turned on me. He pushed me and threatened me about not going to the police. Fearful now of my own life, I promised him I wouldn't. I just needed time to myself. He then grabbed me and hit me in the stomach. I doubled over . . ." and here she stopped and cried out, "I couldn't believe the pain or the fact that the man I thought I knew and loved would do something like that to me. For some reason he let me go, but he said he would be by in the morning, and that I better be ready as he was moving our wedding date up to the very next day. I nodded, and he walked me to the carriage, saying again he would pick me up tomorrow early. I just looked at him and headed home. When I got back to my room, I knew I had to flee. I wrote Quinn a letter telling him what had happened and telling him where I would be. I knew he'd join me and help me work this out. I just hadn't expected Brook to find me so soon."
Iragene looked at the young woman who sounded sincere and truly traumatized, but one thing gnawed at her. "But why did you choose La Madera? How did you even hear about this place?"
The young woman smiled for the first time. "In the El Paso Daily Star newspaper, there was a story about your being the town's sheriff. The story focused on you and your arrest and killing of the horrible Titus brothers. Not knowing where to go, I just decided to come to La Madera."
Iragene blushed and stood there with her mouth open in surprise. She didn't even know about the story—oh, no, she was a celebrity. Finally she realized how unprofessional she probably looked to Quinn McCarthy and closed her mouth. Before gaining her composure and asking more questions, she briefly asked herself why she should even care what he thought about her.
"And you, Mr. McCarthy. How did you know your sister was here? Are you from El Paso too?" she turned to him, trying to sound cold and professional.
"No, Ma'am. I'm from the Texas panhandle area, one of the ranch managers for Charles Goodnight on the JA Ranch. I received a letter from my sister explaining what took place and where she would be. I showed the letter to the boss, Mr. Goodnight, and he said to get my bag packed and meet her here. I took the first stage out. I arrived and took the room next door. Somehow Blackhurst's man got wind of where she was and followed her here. He came to the room and knocked as if he were bringing dinner. I foolishly opened the door. He pulled out his gun and threatened to kill us both if we didn't leave the room with him and follow him out of town, promising not to hurt either of us. Hell, I mean, heck, sorry, ladies, we knew he was going to kill us as sure as he killed Jury. I guess he was a bit overconfident. I caught him off-guard and pushed the dinner tray into him.
"I then pulled my Colt and shot him, not even realizing that Clara had pulled her derringer and had shot him as well." He stopped and almost smiled. "I guess we think alike."
Iragene took out her handcuffs then put them away. "Let's go down to my office so that I can sort this out. I'd like that letter, Mr. McCarthy, if you still have it. I also want to send a telegram to El Paso, verifying the information you gave me, Miss McCarthy, as well as send a telegram to Mr. Goodnight, verifying you are who you say you are, Mr. McCarthy.
Iragene looked at both the siblings. They were not armed, and she felt she could handle the situation without the need of the bartender and McDonald. In addition, Dr. Stein would be there any minute to examine the body which now lay under a blanket on the floor.
She looked up, "Mr. McDonald, I think I can handle this. Please leave the guns you took from the suspects for the doctor," she looked toward the door, "and here comes Dr. Stein. Please send up some men to assist the doctor in carrying the body away in about fifteen minutes." The two men exited as the doctor entered. The brother and sister remained silent as the doctor came in and set down his bag. He ignored them and turned toward Iragene.
"Sheriff, what do we have here?" he asked, meeting her gaze.
She looked at the doctor, "Apparently we have a murder," she was able to respond and heard the young woman gasp, "possibly justifiable homicide. I need to know what you think may have happened here," and she continued to retell the story of the killing.
The room remained silent as the doctor examined the body. A few moments went by, and then the doctor looked up. "Two shots in the man. One from a high caliber gun like that Colt over there, and the other a shot from a small gun, possibly the derringer next to it. The larger caliber looks like it went right into the heart while the smaller bullet went into his eye. He probably died immediately from either shot, but I'll verify this later. Right now I need to get the body and those guns into my office."
Almost immediately there was a knock on the door and two hotel workers came in carrying a makeshift stretcher. They lifted the body and put it on it and headed for the door, leaving the dead man's gun on the floor by his body. Iragene and the brother and sister looked on soberly as the men took away the lifeless man.
"Thank you, Doctor. Let me know what you find out." She now turned her attention to the brother and sister. "Now, what am I to do with you two?" she replied rhetorically.
"Sheriff," Quinn asked pleadingly, "lock me up, but please don't put Clara into the jail. She doesn't deserve that treatment, especially after what she's been through this past month."
Clara cried out, "Please, Sheriff, don't put Quinn in jail. He's not guilty of murder—he was only defending me. I couldn't bear having him in jail on my account."
Iragene thought a moment. They sure seemed like loving siblings, but they could easily be lovers. Better to error on the side of caution. "Let's go next door, Miss McCarthy, I'll have your things moved later. You can stay in your brother's room, but right now, let's see if we can find that letter, the first admissible piece of evidence."
Quinn and Clara headed toward the door, Iragene safely behind them with her hand on her gun. Quinn noticed her caution and kept a short distance so as not to suggest fleeing or danger. They walked out the door, and Quinn asked if he could take the key out of his pocket. Iragene looked to his pocket to verify that he had only a key there, but her gaze drifted slightly over, and she saw how nicely he fit into his blue jeans. Embarrassed she looked up quickly and saw the slightest corner of his mouth curve up.
The rooms resembled each other, but here the similarities stopped. Whereas Clara's room smelled faintly of lavender, Quinn's room smelled of leather. Though he had been there only a short time, his boots and saddlebags dominated the room. Iragene liked the smell. He was neat yet comfortable in his room. He walked directly over to the saddlebags and looked to Iragene for permission. She nodded, and the man put his hand into the bag.
"Wait a minute," he said, exasperation showing in his voice. He looked again into the pocket of his saddlebag. "Damn it! he exclaimed—this time with no apologies, "It's empty!"
Clara ran to the bag and gasped, "Surely you must have it somewhere," she cried out, but saw the expression on his face. Iragene saw it too, but she couldn't free someone merely because his expression looked sincere. She had unfortunately met a lot of con men and grifters in her short term as sheriff--enough to know that deceit for some was an art that could be mastered.
"Let's go to the next step. I'll need to send out some telegrams regarding Mr. Jury's death, your boss's accord with the letter from Clara, and his granting you permission to go. I just wish you had some type of identification that stated that you are who you say you are. Clara, what do you have that can confirm your identification and possible your story about Jury's murder?"
Clara had brought her reticule with her. She now emptied it out on the bed. In it was the order form/bill for the drapes and furniture. It was made out to Clara McCarthy but to be paid by the office of Brook Blackhurst. Iragene read the receipt and then said, "Clara, you could have stolen this reticule. What else do you have?"
By now Quinn was looking at the pile on his bed and laughed, "Clara, what don't you have in your bag?" The humor and banter were familiar to siblings, but also young lovers. "I have a receipt for my rent from Mrs. Cindy Brown, a receipt for the hotel, a piece of the ticket from the stage from El Paso to La Madera, a notebook with my appointments, a book of poesy, and my handkerchiefs."
Iragene reached over to the notebook that had the initials CMM. She picked it up and then looked at Clara, "May I?" Clara nodded, and Iragene opened the notebook. In it were appointments and reminders that dated back to January of that year. The last entry was the time schedule of the stagecoach leaving El Paso and arriving in La Madera. The handwriting was consistent.
"Clara, will you please copy the last line of the notebook onto the page across from it?" Clara picked up a pencil and rewrote the information. The handwriting matched. Relief covered all three of their faces. Looking down, Iragene spotted a slight bulge in the bag. "Hmmm, I think there's one last piece of something in the reticule. Will you pull it out, please?" Clara pulled out the clipping from a newspaper. The article was about Iragene and her killing of the Titus brothers. The article failed to mention that Cruz played a major role in the execution of the deadly gang of monstrous brothers who went around taking great joy terrorizing communities. She was about to explain what really happened then figured this wasn't about her but about these two.
"Well, you seem to be who you say you are, Clara, now we need to see if Quinn is really your brother. Are your parents still around?"
"No," they said simultaneously, and then the brother answered, "no living relatives in the country. Our parents are dead, and the rest of the family is back in Ireland—and not many at that."
"Quinn," she said, this time not calling him Mr. McCarthy, "please go through your things and see if you have anything at all that could verify who you say you are." She looked at the alleged siblings, "You know you look nothing alike."
"Different fathers," they answered almost together and then laughed. Iragene almost did too, but caught herself. She was getting too familiar and comfortable with these two who had allegedly just committed a murder.
"Clara, I'll be sending up some maids to pack up your things and move you in here. Quinn, I want you to pack a small bag of essentials. I'm sorry, but I'm taking you in to the jail." Clara gasped.
"Please, please, Sheriff. Don't take him in. He doesn't deserve that treatment. He was only defending me," Clara cried out.
"Clara," and he looked firmly at Clara, "this isn't a medieval torture cell, I'm sure I'll be just fine. In fact I'll get some reading done." He pulled out a clean shirt, some personals, and a book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. Iragene looked at the title and smiled, "I might have to arrest you again for disturbing the peace with your laughter, Mr. McCarthy." She caught herself, but she felt so relaxed around him, she had difficulty not teasing him.
"May I walk Quinn to the jail, Sheriff?" Clara asked.
"No, I think you should stay here. I'll have my second deputy posted at your door for safety. You can come and go within the hotel, but I do not want you to step foot out of it. I'll have the name on your room deleted. How about Daniel Green?"
Clara looked at her, unable to hold back the tears and then turned to Quinn. "I'm so sorry I got you into this," she sobbed, "Quinn, forgive me."
The tall man looked gently at his sibling and touched her cheek. "There's nothing to forgive, Clara. I'm sure we'll be able to work this out with the help of the sheriff," and he turned away to walk down the stairs into the lobby and then onto the street with Iragene.
When they arrived at the jail, Iragene gave Cruz a list of things to do. I need to get back to the scene of the murder one more time. She looked around and saw her second deputy, Finn Cunningham, wasn't there.
"He should be back in a short time. He's out with the Miller crew. Apparently the payroll didn't come in yet, and they're stomping mad. They're finishing up some last minute chores with the cattle, but we should have a large party here tonight."
"Oh, great," Iragene said sarcastically. When he returns, send him over to Daniel Green's room at the hotel. Let him know that Daniel Green is a woman. I want him to know that he is to shadow the woman everywhere—for her safety--and expect anything. In the meantime, please lock up our prisoner—he is to get the royal suite privileges. I also have a list of telegrams to send," and she gracefully walked out the door, not looking back at the two men watching her until she was out of sight.
"So, what does the sheriff mean by royal suite privileges?" Quinn asked Cruz.
"You get to use the private privy in the back and not the pot in your cell." Cruz answered trying to keep a straight face. He knew prisoners were always a bit put out having to do their job in a cell exposed to a woman sheriff. This man must be special.
A little while later, Iragene was in the telegraph office sending out telegrams to Goodnight, Clara's landlady, and the El Paso sheriff—anyone who could support their story. In Goodnight's telegram, she also asked for a brief description of McCarthy and some background information. The telegrams cost a small fortune, but a man and woman's life hung on their return information.
She then walked over to Dr. Stein's office. She knocked and then entered. Stein had studied medicine and forensics in Europe. America was just opening its eyes to the possibilities of solving crime, using science. How La Madera ever lucked out in hiring this brilliant doctor, Iragene could not imagine, but the doctor was closed lipped about his past, and one thing Iragene learned was if the door to someone's past was closed, it wasn't to be opened without permission.
When Iragene opened the door, she saw a body laid out on the table with strange cuts and bowls holding stranger still body parts. "Ugh," she said, "I'm glad this is your job rather than mine." She looked closer at one bowl and saw a brain.
"Doctor, why do you need to cut him up so much? You saw the two holes, why the extensive excavation on the rest of his body parts?"
The handsome doctor looked up. He had blood on his hands. "Iragene, I have to be honest. When I complete an autopsy, I learn how this man lived and what afflictions he had. In addition, I learn about the human body in general. Do you know that some people have survived being shot in the head? I have to ask myself why."
"I suppose you're gathering clues to solve a mystery just as I do," she surmised.
"Yes," he responded enthusiastically, "good analogy. Look at his liver. The man was a heavy drinker. His liver was badly damaged, perhaps by alcohol. Look at the scar tissue throughout his liver. And his eyes were yellowed where they should be white. This man had cirrhosis of the liver. He probably had a limited time to live."
"Interesting information, but that doesn't help solve murders."
"No, not this time," he replied patiently, "but it will help me save lives in the future."
Iragene stood around for another fifteen minutes, just looking at the body parts that had been inside the man. Finally she asked if any new light had been shed on the murder.
"The bullet through his eye was fatal, but even if it hadn't been, the Colt would have killed him instantly. It literally blew his heart apart. Luckily for this man, he probably felt little pain. As for the guns that you confiscated, they were indeed the guns that killed this man." He turned toward Iragene, and said in an animated tone, "Once again the autopsy allows one 'to see for oneself.' A fascinating experience of learning," and he turned toward her. "Iragene, there's something I want to ask you." She looked at the young man, concern clouding her face. Damn, this sounded too serious!