Will Murfee stared across the gray-blue waters as the Yellowstone River clickety-clacked by and feasted his eyes on the grasslands rippling in the breeze in all their spring freshness, grass no cows had chomped on yet this season. He relished the sight of the white-barked aspen leafed out in its new finery, he counted more than a dozen variegated shades of green from the window of the train , green—a color absent from his existence for two years past, as anyone observing his loose-fitting fresh-from-the-rack suit of clothes or his close-clipped blonde hair would surmise.
What a difference six hours can make. A normal morning began, like the eight hundred that had preceded it, awakening to the din of the screw banging his swagger stick on the bars as he strode down the corridor; then shivering outside his cell in his well-worn drawers for roll call; then the march to the regimented two-minute shower, one squad at a time; stand under one of the nozzles and brace for the blast of cold water; out the other door; pull on the formless dish-water gray trousers and shirt and march to the mess hall for the usual tasteless, barely nourishing, gruel; formation call, and finally disperse to his steamy duty in the prison laundry. One more day, one more dollop of bitterness splashed on his soul, no chance at all that he was growing "penitent." Two more years to go.
"Murfee report to the Superintendent's office." Even if the call relieved him from his tedious work, it was a summons never to be welcomed, not when it routinely resulted in punishment for some petty infraction of incomprehensible rules the only purpose of which seemed to be to provide the autocrat of his confined world a pretext to inflict pain.
That this time was different was clear from the surly snarl on the Super's face while Murfee slouched before his desk in a sullen semblance of attention, showing as much hostility as he could without drawing down more punishment upon himself. This day, Murfee quickly learned, his petty tyrant was reluctantly relinquishing his hold on one of his playthings, but only after assuring Murfee "I'll keep your cell for you. Your kind is never gone for long."
Once he realized why the Super was unusually dyspeptic, Murfee relaxed and let him have his fun. As soon as he was dismissed, he tossed his prison grays on the discard pile to be reassigned to the next caged animal the "justice" system consigned to the Devil's Island that was Deer Lodge Penitentiary. From the quartermaster he obtained the requisite issuance of clothing, from a new pair of clean cotton drawers out to the gabardine trousers and brown twill jacket he now wore, choosing from the two sizes the prison offered: too large or too small. Finally, he signed the receipt for the ten dollars cash the law required each convict be provided on release, and was handed the train ticket. And here he was.
Why? There was reason to ask, to worry perhaps. His sentence still had three years to run. He had steadfastly snarled at lawmen, government men, attorneys from the Bureau of Indian Affairs all of whom offered him freedom. "Freedom" he snarled the word. There was no freedom worth the price he would have to pay to get them to turn the key. Some things a true man never did. He had not asked for reasons from the convict-clerk who handled the out-processing paperwork. Why risk a discovery that it was not bank robber Will Murfee, as they called him, but one-horse thief Bill Murray, due to be released? Let them find their mistake out later. Let them catch him if they could.
Meanwhile, the free air of Montana served as a tonic, its freshness unpolluted by the intangible stink confined men always exuded. Already the dullness that had oppressed his soul in Deer Lodge was giving way to the eagerness of resuming a man's life. And to the anticipation of something important about to happen. For whatever the reason for his release, it had not been a confusion between him and Bill Murray.
The engine chugged to a halt at a minuscule station house. The signpost said only Mile 349, a whistle stop on the mainline. Why here? Because a passenger was getting off at this backwater place Murfee had never heard of. Murfee rose to his feet as the train jostled to a stop and walked down the aisle.
They were supposed to give a man a ticket back to where he had been arrested. That would be Billings. But his passage had been paid only to Mile 349. Someone wanted him here. Someone who had bribed Murfee's passage out of his Purgatory. Someone with motive and wealth enough to make the underlings of the prison system jump to his will. What kind of someone remained to be seen. There were two options, only one of them good. A smarter man would have traded the ticket in for a horse and ridden in the opposite direction. But he owed his freedom to someone, and Murfee prided himself on always paying his debts.
The depot consisted of nothing more than a squat 10' x 10' waiting room, an empty room now, but he expected that. Across the rutted wagon road, a building tried to dignify itself as a hotel—he knew the kind—communal sleeping rooms and, in the rare event more than half a dozen sought accommodations, communal beds. And one or two rooms in the back that served the carnal needs of cowhands for miles around.
A few yards from the hotel was a small general store that likely overpriced customers for everything from tins of Arbuckle's Coffee, to work shirts any color a man wanted as long as it was blue, to sacks of Bull Durham. The one thing he most needed, it would have. A short-barreled Harrington and Richardson's pocket revolver. Two dollars by Sears and Roebuck mail order, but five dollars in the store. And maybe, just maybe, the best investment he had ever made. Beyond the store stood a livery stable with a corral out back where three horses stood hipshot and showing no more interest in him then he had in them.
The final building, a dingy room, a pinewood bar, tables scattered throughout the interior, a saloon that did so little business that it lacked even the reassuring stale beer smell. But one of its stained tables sat in a welcoming corner darkness. So it met his needs.
For now, the saloon was empty. Whoever had manipulated him to this desolate whistle stop craved privacy for what he planned and would not show himself until ready.
Murfee pounded a fist on the bar until a frazzled man scurried out from the back room, pulling up his suspenders as he came. "Whiskey," Murfee ordered. "I'll take a bottle and you can go back to your snoozing."
He paid for the bottle with his remaining cash, took it and two shot glasses over to the corner table and settled himself in the shadows, back to the wall, where he could eyeball anyone coming in, front or rear. As he felt the long-denied burn of the whiskey lubricating his throat, he began to calculate who would spend so much effort to get him here, and why, and more important, what he could do about it.
Even in prison he had heard of the change of the political party running things. The new cabal came in like they all do, proclaiming their commitment to root out corruption. He knew what that meant. They wanted to banish the thieves and grafters of the old party and make room for their own "reformers." Nothing ever changed, and a man who thought otherwise would swap one set of friends for two sets of enemies. Will Murfee would not play the fool. The lawyers, the investigators, who had insulted his honor by repeatedly pestering him at Deer Lodge, all wanted one thing and were willing to pay for it by springing him from the lockup. But he had kept his mouth sealed tighter than one of those new bank vaults. Was he here today as a reward for his lockjaw? Or had the man he worked for grown tired of worrying about whether he would crack.
A horse clomped down the road and stopped by the hitch rack out front. One horse only. Did that mean he wasn't expected to ride away from Mile 349? Had he made a fatal mistake in loyally following the bread crumb trail they had left for him when he could have disappeared any place a stolen horse could take him?
Murfee watched as the bat wings slammed open to reveal a man who believed that clothes made the man, dressed as he was in black shirt, black trousers, black plainsman's hat, even a black neckerchief, everything black except for the shiny polished gun-metal gray object that rode securely in his holster, Denny Stiles, the last man Murfee wanted to see, but the first man he had expected. Not a good beginning. The revolver in his lap had been a good investment.
"Enjoy your rest cure, Murfee?" the newcomer asked, his supercilious smile unchanged from the last time they met.
"You should try it sometime, Stiles. For a while, Montana would be a better place."
"I see spending time with your betters hasn't changed you none." Stiles swaggered across the empty saloon, his thumb suggestively brushing his holster with each step. Murfee noticed the keeper thong had been flicked off.
"I thought maybe they'd send a man to meet me," Murfee said. "'Pears I was wrong."
Stiles' fake smile was replaced by a snarl. "You always sniffed down your nose at the real men drawing our pay from the Crazy K. Like you was better. You stole other men's cows. You ran a scam on the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But you thought you was too good to dirty your hands at good manly gun work."
"Mr. Kershaw gave me my assignments, Stiles. Jobs that required a man with more than hair under his hat."
Murfee had always had a way of enraging Stiles. The gunman dropped the air of condescension as his face clouded over. "How about you and me just go for a walk, and then I report that no one got off the train."
Murfee let his hand fall below the table to the revolver resting on his lap. "You got a problem, Stiles. You can't see my back."
And so, his new life began where his old life left off, an angry confrontation with Mr. Kershaw's side-pocket gunman, the man who would kill him as soon as talk to him, and maybe wouldn't even need an order to do so.
"Empty that glass, Murfee. I want to be five hours on the trail by sundown."
"I only heard one horse, Stiles. Are you my new daddy, fixing to carry me on your lap all the way?" Or, . . . Murfee pondered the alternative. His small revolver would be little defense against the brutal professional killer, but it was all he had. Ostentatiously, Murfee used his left hand to lift the glass to his lips.
Stiles slammed a wad of bills on the table. "Buy yourself a nag and tack at the livery. Get some duds that won't reek up my trail camp with prison stink."
And so, in thirty minutes, Murfee was trailing behind Stiles on the road out of town, on a gray mare with an unfamiliar brand, dressed properly for the first time in two years with cowhand Levi's, a maroon flannel shirt, riding boots, his Texas origins proudly proclaimed by his cream-colored Stetson, and most important of all, bouncing against his thigh, a man-sized piece of equipment favored by cowhands, lawmen, and men of other lines of work from the banks of the Rio to the frosty north.
* * *
"Number 1074." The number on his shirt back had reduced him to nothing more than a fungible bit of human protoplasm denied the dignity of individuality. An inmate has two choices, go along and forget that you're a real flesh-and-blood man or resist, assert your own individuality, demand your dignity, and be crushed. Either way you emerge as a shell, a once-man devoid of spirit. Either way they win.
Murfee had tried to negotiate the narrow path between the depths of the abyss on one side and the jagged rock face on the other, but even that struggle changed him in ways he didn't yet understand.
"Bank robber" they had branded him.
It was a lie, of course. And they knew it was a lie, Sheriff, U. S. Marshal, prosecutor, judge, too, most likely. He had never even gone into Billings on that trip, never entered the bank, never in his life taken so much as a Double Eagle that he had not earned with his own sweat.
He'd been just a simple twenty-year-old cowhand when Mr. Kershaw awakened his ambitions to be more by tapping him as trail boss for the regular beef delivery to Wind River Indian Reservation. He fell quickly into a simple routine. Once delivery had been completed, he released the trail hands for their spree in Billings so no one could ever talk about the business dealings. Then he made the final dicker with Abel Rucker, the Indian Agent, a man too deliberately near-sighted to notice the intermixture of brands Murfee and the crew had gathered along the way, a man not as precise on the trail count as if he had been paying with his own money, a man never happy to waste government money on primitive savages, not when a friendly cattle dealer would work with him to shift some of that government money to his own pockets. It was a sweet deal that hurt nobody. Still Mr. Kershaw had impressed on him that no one must ever know—especially the government auditors and lawyers, all of whom were likely just working their own graft.
Like always, with the money from the sale in his saddlebags, he had circled the town, avoiding any risky human contact. Like always, he carried no paperwork, no receipts, nothing in writing which would show a trail count that contradicted the records of the Crazy K and would reveal that Mr. Kershaw was being paid for fifty percent more cattle than the Circle K books reflected with some of the excess left behind in the sticky fingers of Abel Rucker. It would have been easy for Murfee to dip into the pouch and skim off fifty dollars, one hundred dollars, even two hundred dollars and Mr. Kershaw would never suspect. But Will Murfee was an honest man; he'd never even considered stealing from his boss.
So, when the sheriff had booted him awake in his soogans and ordered him to turn out the contents of his saddlebags, he'd been surprised to find himself in a heap of trouble. "Big bad Billings bank robber snoozing away the morning," the sheriff had laughed at him.
"Never been in that bank," Murfee had asserted. But that only invited the inevitable question, the one he couldn't answer without talking about Mr. Kershaw's business. "Where this money come from," the sheriff demanded. What was he going to say? He had no paperwork, nothing but saddlebags full of money. He did the only thing a man could do; he lost his voice. Admit the truth and be charged with fraud—and serve half the sentence of a bank robber but spill things Mr. Kershaw didn't want talked about? Not and still call himself a man.
And so, the sheriff had jugged him in the Yellowstone County jail house, charged him with bank robbery, and set him on ice for a month until his trial. His silence protected the man he owed his loyalty to, and the Indian Agent as well. His silence kept them safe and free. But there was another way they could ensure their safety, even with him lodged in the Yellowstone County jail. The man he was riding behind on the trail would have been first to urge Mr. Kershaw to "take the simple solution." Every time the door to the cellblock had clinked open, especially at night, his heart had raced. An apparent jailbreak supported by friends on the outside would surprise no one. And since a wanted jailbreaker couldn't seek refuge with the Crazy K, he would disappear. Permanently.
Not until he reached the comparative safety of Deer Lodge had he begun to feel that he would live out his sentence.
Now here he was, jogging along an isolated trail behind Denny Stiles, wondering what the killer's orders really were.
* * *
After three days on the trail, after the sun yielded to the moon, after the cowhands had finished supper and withdrawn to their bunkhouse—had the slow start in the morning, the long noon break shown that Stiles manipulated their arrival so none of the cowhands would see him?—they rode up and dismounted behind the ranch house.
Randolph Kershaw did the honors himself, passing out the whiskey to Murfee, Stiles, and Bailey Crowe, his ranch foreman. When each man had his drink in hand, Kershaw raised his glass in toast toward Murfee. "To your freedom."
Murfee waited, then raised his own glass. "And to the man who gave it to me."
"It shouldn't have taken so long, Will," Kershaw said apologetically. "We had it arranged, but then our 'reformist President,'" the sarcasm in Kershaw's voice was unmistakable, "sent out a new territorial governor so you had to suffer until he could be taught Western ways."
"I'd have served it all, Mr. Kershaw. A true man don't never turn rat. I wouldn't—"
Kershaw waived a hand casually. "You got more character than a dozen of those prison guards put together. I've always trusted you." Kershaw passed over a thick envelope. "Your back pay. You never stopped working for me."
Only fifteen minutes, but so much different from what Murfee had expected. Sitting in the boss's office for the first time in his life, drinking his high-grade whiskey, Kershaw then pushing a stack of money into his hand, and Murfee understood he hadn't been snaked out of Deer Lodge just to go back into the bunkhouse as a standard dirt-and-sweat cowhand.
"You remember the Northern Operation that Giffords has been handling for me?"
"The horse business. Of course." A simple operation. Raise some horses, steal more, run them across the border into Canada and sell them to the Mounties. Steal horses there and bring them back to sell to ranchers in Montana.
"I have other work for Giffords, and I need someone with a strong hand to take his place. Someone dependable, smart, an honest man I can trust in everything. In all your time working for me, you never even dipped your fingers into the money pouch to skim off a Double Eagle."
Murfee's eyes flared at the job Kershaw was dangling before him, a big responsibility, a big step up to being an important man in northern Montana. The narrow trail of a simple cowhand's life had suddenly opened onto a broad avenue of responsibility and success beyond anything he had ever imagined possible. "Don't know horses near as well as I do cows, Mr. Kershaw," Murfee said. "But I'll work hard to learn."
"I know you will. But first I have another assignment that needs to be done, and, since you're here, I couldn't find a better man for it." Kershaw quickly laid out the problems with the Wind River operation since Murfee's arrest. "That agent, Rucker, turned crooked, said he didn't trust the new trail boss, and kept my money from last year's delivery 'on account,' he claimed. Before I could work that out, the damn politicians interfered and the Bureau of Indian Affairs tossed Rucker out on his well-padded ass. He's living in Billings now, and I want you to go to collect what he owes me."
"Glad to do it, Mr. Kershaw," Murfee said. He flashed a glance at Stiles "But why not . . . ?"
"Once I knew you were getting sprung, it made sense. He knows you're my man and I don't have to put anything in writing."
"If you move out tonight, you can get several hours start on the trail to Billings," Crowe pointed out. Murfee tossed off what remained of his whiskey and got to his feet.
"You understand, Will," Kershaw said confidentially, "Rucker is of no further use to our operation. He must not become an embarrassment." Kershaw got to his feet and reached out his hand to shake Murfee's. "Get it done and be back in two weeks. I need you in the Northern Operation."
Crowe walked Murfee to the back door and out to his horse. "'Not an embarrassment,' Mr. Kershaw said. You understand what you're to do."
For a thirty-and-found cowhand, spurs, riatas, branding irons and such are the tools of the trade, and what bounces against his thigh is mere ornament. But for a big promotion, Murfee understood a man had to show he could handle whatever came his way. "Mr. Kershaw don't never need to worry about me."
Back in the ranch office, Crowe commented, "you turned mighty generous, letting him have all that back pay."
Kershaw's face was stony. "Nothing more than a short-term loan." Across the room, Stiles had been silently watching Kershaw parlay with Murfee, his chair tilted back against the wall, a sardonic smile on his face. He acknowledged Kershaw's words with a short nod.
* * *
Abel Rucker was a fleshy man on the downhill side of fifty, his tailored business suit unable to conceal the middle-age swelling around his waist. The widow peaks and his graying hair had grown more pronounced in the two years since last they met. His troubles had aged him, Murfee reflected. He had to look twice to be sure the man approaching down Montana Street was Rucker.
"No words of welcome for your old business associate?" Murfee challenged. "No 'happy to see you'? But of course, if what Mr. Kershaw tells me, that would be a lie."
"Will!" Rucker's surprised recognition had a forced warmth to it. "You've grown. You're bigger—"
"Harder," Murfee interrupted, "that's what you mean. Prison refines a man's iron." He looked Rucker up and down. "And you're softer, fleshier, your hair's grayer. Must be you're worrying a lot."
"Didn't expect you'd be—"
"Out?" Murfee interrupted. "While you sweated your sheets every night wondering when I'd take a 'talking parole' and make room in Deer Lodge for them I could name."
Rucker shook his head nervously. "Not you, Murfee. Never had no doubts. But now you're—"
"Back working for Mr. Kershaw, Rucker. You remember him. Your good partner." Murfee's raspy voice had all the harshness of his message. "The man you owe money to."
Rucker tried to look somewhere other than Murfee's eyes. He clutched for something to say. "Don't look good to be seen together, could cause trouble," he said. "You come to my house. You hide out there until our business is done." Neither man thought what trouble that could cause.
Dinner was potluck, some extra potatoes cut up in the beef stew, a couple more onions and carrots, and smaller pieces of peach pie all around. But his compliments for the first real wholesome appetizing meal he had eaten in more than two years were genuine.
The conversation was less genuine. Rucker tried to keep bringing up safe subjects, talk about the weather, talk about railroads, politics was a bit tricky, but all Murfee had to do to keep conversation going was to punctuate Rucker's angry denunciations of the current crowd of corrupt politicians—the ones who had fired him—with an occasional sympathetic grunt that let Rucker continue his inconsequential blathering of no interest to Murfee.
Something else did interest him. He tried to categorize her. Three years younger than him. Square of face, nose a little off-line, wearing none of the color-from-a-bottle to animate her face, brownish hair stringy and uncombed. Not a woman to notice in a crowd, or even across a dinner table. There was nothing special about her. So why did his eyes incessantly stray from his dinner plate and always in the same direction? And increasingly, to his surprise, they locked with hers.
Rucker's direct question about how the cattle ranges were running forced him back into the conversation.
Finally, dinner came to an end and Rucker took him to the front room where he poured a generous glass of brandy in the forlorn hope that hospitality would divert Murfee from his mission. Murfee listened wordlessly to Rucker's lame protestations that he planned to pay the money, poured himself a second brandy and listened more to Rucker's assurances that all he needed was more time, and, finally brought Rucker's yammering to an end.
"Money's owed. Money will be paid." And with those uncompromising words, Murfee left Rucker to solve his own problem.
* * *
Uncharacteristically, Murfee lounged in bed long past sun-up until he was certain Rucker had left for the Northern Pacific division office where he handled the books. His ultimatum to Rucker had been clear. Giving the thief an opportunity for more lying promises would accomplish nothing.
She poured him a cup of steaming Arbuckle's when he came downstairs and quickly broke eggs on the skillet, serving him the first three-egg omelet he'd had in years. This morning she looked different. Her hair was combed, that was the first thing he noticed, long flowing locks down to her shoulders. Her freshly ironed deep blue skirt with a contrasting lemon-yellow blouse showed a vital energy which her father's old work shirt had concealed.
As he ate his eggs, it dawned on him that, incomprehensible as it seemed, her change in appearance was for his benefit, He knew there were men whose vitality drew women to them, at least if the boasts of his cellmate had a grain of truth to it. But not him. They were big men, physical in appearance, their stance promising a woman the power she wanted. Or they were hard men, men with the musky scent of danger in their taut coiled bodies, men like Stiles with a face confident in their own power.
But a dinky little dirt-and-sweat cowhand like him, barely average in height, the prison-issued suit that he wore in town turning him into a lumpy blob of a man, his dusky brown hair not yet long enough to tempt a woman's fingers, his face guarded and uncertain of his status as he began his career move from range ranny to a man of substance. Just a common working man trying to do his job. Nothing special. Nothing to draw the interest of a cultivated woman with radiant energy like Janet Rucker.
And yet, as she reached to take his finished plate, her hand brushed his and he felt a tingle run up his arm. For some reason he did not fully understand, he tensed his arm, hardening his muscles, even as he knew how inane trying to impress her was. She had felt better, harder muscles than his. She must have. Then their eyes met and he found it hard to look away.
His voice was unusually husky as he forced himself to say, "Thank you for your courtesy, Miss Rucker."
"Can't you call me Janet?"
With what he was, with what he was going to do . . . For the first time in his life, the cost of the decisions he had made weighed heavily. He rose to leave.
"I wish I had the right, Miss Rucker. A man like me—"
"I give you permission," she told him. Maybe it was natural that as she stepped to pick up the plate, she moved in close to him. Maybe her head tilted back just because she was shorter than he. And maybe he wasn't thinking either as he inclined his head forward where her lips could reach up and brush against his. Just a little brushing, but his breath caught. His lips pushed back, not with a matching gentleness, but with a hunger he didn't know he had.
His arms closed around her and pulled her to him. His breath was coming in ragged gulps now. Minutes passed and he felt a clean surge of desire that was as unfamiliar to him as it was compelling.
Suddenly, perhaps at the last moment he could, he pushed her back and turned aside. Without another word, he walked out the door, frightened at himself and at some feeling within him he did not understand. He tried to push the encounter from his mind as he walked down Sheridan Street.
* * *
Rucker looked up in alarm as Murfee entered his office. On his feet in an instant, he crossed the small room and closed the door securely. "Told you to wait for me at the house. Keep our business private."
"It's better this way, Mr. Rucker, believe me," Murfee declared with no word of explanation. "You know that little side canyon ten miles down river?" When Rucker nodded, Murfee continued. "I'll be waiting for you there." His face took on an uncompromisingly grim aspect. "Don't keep me waiting long."
"Tomorrow. Two days max."
"Two days, then. On the third day, I come looking for you. It won't be pleasant."
* * *
The two days passed slowly for Murfee, squatting in his dry camp under the sheer rock wall of the canyon. Murfee's mind roiled as he contemplated Mr. Kershaw's final instructions. Just a cowhand and trail boss, Murfee's pistol experience amounted to no more than flesh-wounding some defenseless tin cans. Why not ask Stiles? Murfee had wanted to demand. But he knew the answer. Loyal, always dependable in the simple tasks he had been given, but now he was in line for a major promotion and naturally Mr. Kershaw needed him to prove he could handle whatever the Northern Operation might require, that he had loyalty to the brand, that he would fight for the brand; even, he forced himself to say it, even the ultimate test of loyalty, that he would kill for the brand.
And who was Rucker, anyway? A thief, first from the government, and now from Mr. Kershaw. What right did he have to interfere with a man's future? Murfee thought of Rucker trying to make conversation at dinner, lamely talking about things that made no difference to anyone, a small, weak failure of a man who no one would miss. Unbidden, Murfee's mind shifted to the dinner at Rucker's house, to the morning, to Janet Rucker, to the electric feeling when their lips touched. "She ain't part of this," he growled to himself. He owed his freedom to Mr. Kershaw, and everything good comes with a price.
Why couldn't it have been Stiles? he asked again. Rucker knew Murfee, and not Stiles, that's what Mr. Kershaw would say. But that wasn't the real reason. Stiles was nothing beyond what he carried in his holster, not someone to trust with the Northern Operation or even with the saddlebag full of money Murfee was here to collect. Not a man who needed to be given a chance to prove his loyalty to Mr. Kershaw, to earn the job that would make him an important man and him only twenty-four. Compared to an ambitious man on the upswing of his life, what was Rucker? Just a used-up petty thief no one cared about.
No one at all, he insisted, trying to blank out the image that flashed into his mind, to force himself to forget Janet Rucker standing before him in the crisp lemon-yellow blouse, to forget the gentleness of her voice as she spoke his name, to forget their shared desire as he clasped her in his arms, as their lips met.
The Northern Operation, he tried to insist. It's just a little thing you're to do, he reminded himself. Or do you want to show Mr. Kershaw that Denny Stiles is more of a man than you are? Over a runty little excuse like Abel Rucker? He scoffed. Just remember the prison laundry where you'd be sweating today, think about the freedom you owe to Mr. Kershaw, you being a man who always pays his debts. Rucker was nothing to him, nothing at all. Just someone who stole from his partner, wasn't that what he had done by keeping Mr. Kershaw's money, who no one would miss. No one except . . .
And around the circuit his mind churned in an endless loop.
* * *
Finally, Rucker arrived and Murfee could focus on business.
"Bring me Mr. Kershaw's money, did you?" Murfee demanded.
Rucker squatted and passed over a pouch. "It's all there. You can count it."
"Of course, I can," Murfee growled. "Mr. Kershaw would braid my guts for a new bridle if I rode back a dollar short." Methodically, carefully, he counted the assortment of hundreds, twenties, even singles. "Would have been nice if you'd made them all hundred-dollar bills," Murfee groused. But finally, he was satisfied. Only one duty remained. He looked at Rucker.
The Ex-Indian Agent sagged despondently against the canyon wall. "I wish I had never met you, never done business with Kershaw." He looked down at the ground as he continued. "I had to steal that money. You know I'm going to jail."
Until that moment, Murfee had not fully understood Kershaw's concern and the need for the harsh order he had given. Suddenly he saw his own role in the Northern Operation vanish. This pitiful little man would hold nothing back. The warden's prophecy would be fulfilled. If Rucker ever talked, Murfee would quickly return to Deer Lodge, starting on a new sentence, this time for the Indian Agency fraud. Murfee wondered whether he could cut off Rucker's testimony there? Could he do his job? Could he protect Kershaw?
His duty was clear. The risk of Rucker giving evidence against Mr. Kershaw had to stop here. It was his responsibility, and only his. Without further thought Murfee eased his revolver from his holster. "You'll never go to jail, Mr. Rucker," Murfee declared. "I won't allow it."
Rucker blanched as Murfee's intent became clear. "You wouldn't . . . " Murfee looked in disgust at the shaking little man. Rucker's quivering voice dropped to barely more than a whisper, something Murfee tried not to hear. "What will happen to Janet?"
"A man makes choices, Rucker." Murfee thumb-cocked. "You made yours. I made mine. Simple as that." Except something in his mind nagged at him, something he couldn't understand. Something he couldn't push away. Something that wasn't simple. He fought to get control of his shaking hand, to blot out images that fought for his attention in an overwhelming kaleidoscope of confusion. Suddenly, overwhelmed by the swirling images, his mind closed down, blanked out. Instinct, muscle reflex, not thought, took over. The canyon echoed with the sound of three quick shots.
* * *
Murfee ignored the black-clad gunman just emerging from the barn as he wrapped his reins around the hitching post and tromped up the stairs to the ranch house, Mr. Kershaw's money in his saddlebags. Stiles followed him and soon the two of them, Crowe, and Kershaw were seated in the ranch office.
"You'll want to count it, Mr. Kershaw," Murfee said.
"No need, Will," Kershaw replied. "If I didn't trust you on a simple thing like settling things with Rucker, I'd never have put you in charge of the Northern Operation." Kershaw raised the glass of whiskey in toast. "Getting you out of Deer Lodge was the best return on investment I ever had," he said. "You'll see I'm grateful."
"It's me that owes you, Mr. Kershaw. And you can count on me to pay my debt."
"Rucker?" Stiles prompted. "Will we be reading about him in the Billings Gazette?"
Murfee didn't want to talk about that cloudy morning of his life. "Montana buzzards don't talk a lot, but he'll never trouble you again."
Stiles scoffed. "Will Murfee, Montana's imitation John Wesley Hardin. Never figured you had the grit to thump a man."
Kershaw seemed oblivious to the bad blood between his two hired hands and picked up an envelope from his desk. "Here's a letter from me to Giffords telling him to turn things over to you."
Murfee took the envelope. The letter was unsealed, the flap simply folded inside the envelope, a sign of the trust Mr. Kershaw had in him. "I'll pull out now, and get half a day's travel done before sundown."
"Denny here will catch up to you. He and Giffords have some errands to do on the way back."
The three men listened to Murfee's footsteps as he walked down the hall, and waited wordlessly until the front door had closed behind him. Then Kershaw turned to Crowe. "He do everything we needed him for?"
"Done it all, apple pie order, and not a way it can ever be traced back to you. Only one loose end left."
Kershaw turned to Stiles and nodded. "Go ahead as planned."
* * *
The Montana day was warm and fine, a late spring afternoon, the glorious interregnum between the icy northern winds of a High Plains winter and the parched sweltering summer to come. The yellow paintbrush, the blue-eyed Mary, the lousewort, and the shining penstemon had erupted in their profusion of color. The joyous birdsong matched the music in Murfee's heart.
Less than a month ago, he'd have been grimy and sweaty from his work in the laundry. Now he had attained a status that outreached his highest ambitions. Running the Northern Operation of Mr. Kershaw, getting paid a percentage of the profits almost made him a partner of Mr. Kershaw. And him only 24 years old. Not even the snide yakking of Kershaw's vest-pocket gunman riding along side, could dampen his high spirits. He had everything a man could ever want.
The nagging yearning began as a dim shadow in the recesses of his sun-lit brain, something he had never considered, something that had no place in a simple cowhand's life. The thought tried to edge out of the shadows, and he ignored it. It pushed forward more urgently and he shouldered it aside. Finally, he looked at it foursquare and faced up to it: "you ain't part of my life. You never will be. Now scat." For the rest of the day, that seemed to work.
But as he and Stiles broke camp after their breakfast of flapjacks and Arbuckle's, the unwelcome distraction kept coming back to him. In the morning freshness of the sage, he could smell her clean aroma. In the gentleness of the breeze, he could feel her soft touch. As they passed a burbling brook, he could hear her laughter. Resolutely he insisted to himself that he had chosen his life, he had crossed that bridge, and he couldn't cross it back. It seemed to help. The man he was going to be—the man rewarded by living up to Mr. Kershaw's expectations—he now knew, was not the man he was, he doubted it was the man he could make himself into. But like he told Rucker, he had made his choice.
He was on the trail to a successful life, better than he had ever expected. That had to be enough. He realized now, when it was too late, that it would always be a hollow life.
The morning of the third day found the men in their camp on a seldom used trail toward the Missouri River and the Citadel Rock crossing. Murfee shivered in his Long Johns as he crawled from his soogans and reached for his trousers. The brisk northern breeze coming down the pass portended a late snow that was already dusting Smoky Butte as it loomed over their campsite. Breakfast was a hasty cup of Arbuckle's as the men broke camp intending to be on the trail before flakes began to fall. Murfee booted out the embers of the fire while Stiles saddled his horse. When Murfee had finished rolling up his bedroll he slung it over his left shoulder and hefted his saddle in his right hand. "Be ready to go in a minute, Stiles," he said.
"Guess not," the gunman replied.
Murfee turned to see Stiles smirking as he stood, legs spread apart in gunfighter's stance. His meaning was unmistakable, but . . .
"We come far enough that even if circling buzzards attract someone before the varmints are done scavenging your meat, you won't get traced back to Mr. Kershaw."
Murfee let saddle and bedroll fall. He tried to make sense of what Stiles was threatening. "I done my job for Mr. Kershaw. He's got no beef with me."
Stiles laughed scornfully in Murfee's face. "You simple cow-dogger. You really think a big man like Mr. Kershaw would trust his whole Northern Operations to a dinky little three-for-a-nickel jailbird like you?"
"The day I got out Mr. Kershaw said—"
"You been a puppet dancing on his string since you got on the train at Deer Lodge, all the way to doing the Rucker errand that he got you sprung for, and now to the end of your story here in the Montana Badlands."
"You're enjoying this." Murfee accused. But words didn't matter. He knew that. Stiles hadn't drawn his revolver yet, but that just added another second or two to his life. Stiles was a professional. He knew his job. A man is a fool thinking he can draw to an inside straight.
Stiles knew that too. Part of the pleasure in his life was lording it over little pipsqueaks like the one he was about to put down and laughing at them sniggling in their helplessness. So when Murfee showed unexpected spunk and made a desperate reach for his revolver, Stiles was surprised. Only for a second though, not enough for Murfee's fumbling draw to outrace him. But perhaps it rushed him, because his first shot only plowed a furrow in Murfee arm. His second shot came almost at the same time as Murfee's first, but by then Stiles was falling backwards. Murfee shot again, knocking Stiles' leg out from under him.
Murfee looked down at the wounded killer. "Denny Stiles, pistolero," Murfee said. "You got one thing right about me. I never killed a man." He thumb-cocked. "And I'm not killing one now."
Stiles' shirt blossomed crimson as his heart exploded.
In five minutes, Murfee had washed and wrapped the wound in his arm. Then it was time to worry. No place in Montana would ever be safe. Kershaw's tentacles reached into Wyoming as well. And what could he do in Colorado or Arizona? Start over as a three-for-a-nickel cow hand? His life there would be just as hollow as running Kershaw's smuggling operation would have been.
His mind floated back to that morning with Janet Rucker, the morning that had tempted him with what his life could have been, that had shattered his self-assuredness without him even knowing it. And then to that dusty dry canyon and the morning Rucker had turned over Mr. Kershaw's money, and to the final moments when an unconscious reflex had overridden the turmoil of his mind.
When the rock shards rained down on Rucker, it was hard to know who had been more surprised. "I just put my life in your hands, Rucker," Murfee grunted out to the quaking man. "If Mr. Kershaw ever gets a whiff you're still alive, he'll send Denny Stiles after me so quick even a New Yorker couldn't catch up. And when he's done with me, Stiles will be looking for you, your daughter too. Maybe I just made the biggest mistake of my life. You play this right or we're both dead."
His instructions to Rucker were uncompromising: stay away from Billings, horseback himself to Dakota Territory and ride the Northern Pacific someplace east where he would never be tracked. Back to Duluth, Rucker had said. Then Murfee's life could continue on the trail to the sunny uplands Mr. Kershaw had set before him.
But now his life was shattered. There was no place in all of cattle country he would be safe. Maybe, just maybe he could start a new life in a town where no one knew him.
Almost no one.
He swung to his saddle and headed east.