A hot afternoon in Agua Dulce wasn't the time to be out on the street. Pretty much every living creature found something to sit under or duck into. Jack Butler knew that well enough, but as he walked up to the swinging door of the Diamond Rough saloon he shook his head. The noise level for the time of day was beyond his liking and he stepped along down the boarded sidewalk. An itch under his nose lifted his hand and as his fingers attempted to smooth the errant wiry hairs, his thoughts drifted toward another refuge.
The mustache that scratched his palm and tickled the underside of his nose drew him to the next business along Second Street. The barber was open nearly every day but Sunday, so he didn't have to look for the sign hanging in the window to know they were taking customers.
The door swung open easy enough with its glass panels shaking around as he closed it behind him. Jack pulled his hat from his head and used his fingers to loosen up the thick lengths that had been plastered to his skull by the well-worn hat. "Mornin' all," he nodded at the barber, "Henry."
Winking at his friend, Henry Bricker went back to whirling foam on the jaw of the man relaxing in his chair. "You come for a trim or some bleedin', Jack?"
Pulling up his posture, Jack tried to give his friend a dark look. "Don't I look well enough?"
The barber dropped the brush into the whisker cup at his side and sighed. "You look like you got one foot in the grave, Jack. How about you sit down and wait and I'll give your 'stache a good trim and make you look like a human again."
Jack leaned over and made a deposit in the spittoon before he found a chair to his liking. He sat down, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I wasn't plannin' on comin' in here. There's some kind of a celebration over at the Diamond."
Henry glared at the joining wall as he reached for the strop. "They've been at it all morning. Guzzlin' booze and makin' all manner of noise. If they take to shootin' I'm runnin' across the street to the Marshal's office."
Leaning to the side in his chair, Jack looked through the windows of the barber shop and across the way into the Marshal's office. Even with the curved imperfections of the glass, he could see the general look and build of the men inside and their various positions. "Looks like they're keepin' an eye out of their own accord."
Nodding at his friend's words, Henry began to sweep the blade down the man's froth-covered face. From his ear to his chin, the man now had a clean track down the side of his face. "Nice to know they're workin' for their money like the rest of us."
"Mmhmm." He kept his gaze on the street and saw young Paul Foster run the length of the packed dirt street and deliver a paper to his boss, the owner of the Weisser's Freight. The boy was known to talk a blue streak and it appeared today was no different as he seemed to let his mouth run away with his story. It was during one such run of syllables that his boss cuffed the boy on the side of his head. The child stumbled, but before Jack could get out of his seat, one of the men in the Marshal's office banged on the glass window of the office and gave Dick Weisser a pointed gesture of his hand. The boy backed up to the wall and rubbed at his head, messing up his hair at the side. Unwilling to challenge the deputy, Dick straightened his spine and stomped off down the street. The boy watched the older man go and repeated the telling gesture at his retreating back.
Relaxing into his chair, Jack tried to ignore the muffled twang of badly tuned piano keys and the rough swipe of Henry's blade over weather-worn skin. It was nearly enough to lull him to sleep. Nearly.
The sharp report of a handgun snapped his eyes open; the second pulled him to the edge of his seat, his hands reaching for the matched pair of pistols strapped in their holsters. "What the hell is that?"
Henry's customer was sitting up, his hand pressed to his cheek. There was a thin rivulet of blood slipping between his fingers. With a quick snatch, Henry had a clean cloth in his hand as he moved the man's hand out of the way. "Sounds like the Harris boys had one too many. Come on, Vincent; let me put this cloth on it." He set the towel on the shallow cut and sighed. "Jack, take a look outside and tell me if Marshal Sawyer's on his way."
Dropping his hat back onto his chair, Jack stood and moved to the door. The hard morning glare of light coming through the panes of the door made it hard for him to see. With a side look down toward the saloon, Jack swung the door open and stepped outside.
One of the deputies waved him back inside and Jack fought down a caustic comment and the bristling anger that reared up within him. He wasn't used to listening to a deputy that didn't even have the makings of a beard on his chin, but his indignation cost him a moment and a measure of his instinctive caution.
"Oh, hey!" Someone ran right into him from the direction of the saloon's front door.
Jack grabbed the man and set him back a step. "Watch where you're goin', boy!"
The young man looking up at him, his own hat clenched tight against his chest as though it were a shield of some sort, rather than a woolen derby. "They're shooting!"
Another couple of pops shook the young man from head to toe.
Shaking his head at the younger man, Jack grabbed him by his shoulder and shoved him through the door into the barber shop.
Henry looked over at the young man. "What's you got there, Jack?"
Instead of answering, he gestured for the young man to speak. "Well?"
Wetting his lips with a quick swipe of his tongue, the young man managed to explain. "I was going to the saloon for a drink."
"Well," Henry chuckled, "that is usually what you find in places like that." His own laughter was joined by his customer who was nearly done bleeding into the cloth.
The young man didn't take kindly to their jest. "I'm getting married today! I wanted to celebrate."
"Oh! That is cause for celebration." Henry nodded at a glass cupboard. "Look in there, Jack. I think I got some of that whiskey you brought me from St. Louis."
Jack complied and took the bottle from the cupboard. "It's from Ireland, Henry."
"Yes," answered his friend, "but you bought it in St. Louis. Complain about my word choice later and give the boy a drink. Looks like he needs it."
Snatching a whisker cup from the shelf, Jack looked inside it to make sure it was clean before he poured a measure of the whiskey into the cup. The young man took it and downed it whole. Jack pounded on his back through the coughing fit. "You sure you want to marry the woman if she makes you this nervous?"
Smacking his hand against his thigh, he turned his head. "I'm nervous 'cause someone shot at me!"
Jack took the cup away and set it down. "You get your share of that in towns this far west, son. You'd best get used to it or get out."
A loud hollow bell chime was heard and the young man clutched a hand over his heart. "Dear me, what was that noise?"
The look shared between Henry and Jack was clear. 'Poor, jumpy fellow.'
Henry answered him as he took another swipe at his customer's face. "The clock over the bank. Looks like it's noon."
"Noon? I'll be late!" When no one said anything the young man continued. "My fiancé is due in on the train at 12:15 and we're set to board the stage a few minutes later."
A volley of gunfire shook the windows and Henry's hand. "Damnit. Sorry, Vincent, maybe we'd better wait." He looked up at Jack. "Better settle in for the duration until the Marshal and his boys get this all sorted out."
Henry almost expected Jack to argue, but it was the boy that said something first. "No! I can't stay here. I have to meet my fiancé at the depot."
Jack couldn't believe he opened his mouth, let alone said something intelligible. "She'll wait for ya, son."
The man's anxiety seemed to bleed from his very pores as he leaned in toward Jack. "She's one of them mail order brides," he confessed, "I told her I'd meet her at the depot with this gray hat." He held it out so Jack could see it. He almost managed to smile at the pretentious woolen cap. "If I'm not there, she's gettin' right back on the train."
More gunfire. This time a resounding boom from a shotgun across the street. "Seems like Marshal Sawyer's boys are expecting a heap of trouble."
The younger man groaned like he'd been gut-shot. "At this rate I'll never get married."
Henry laughed outright. "What are you . . . twenty?"
"Twenty-two," the young man pointed out with a loud sigh, "half a life over."
"Well," Jack groused, "I'm in my forties, looks like I'm out of luck." Before the younger man tripped over himself to apologize, Jack let him off the hook. "Let's just worry about what's in front of us. You can still get there if you pay attention and move quick."
"Pay attention," he repeated, "and move quick." He repeated the words a second time and moved toward the door. "I think I can do that."
Jack rolled his eyes when the young man walked up to the door, yanked it open, and stepped outside.
A shot drilled into the side of the door and the young man leapt away, taking shelter behind a porch post. Even turned sideways, his stomach drawn in like he had donned a fashionable corset, the young man was going to make an excellent target for a stray bullet.
It was a decision made on the fly. A whim that Jack knew might cost him in more ways than one. "Looks like I'll have to come back for that trim, Henry." He took a few steps toward the door. "Save me a chair."
The older man nodded. "Will do, Jack. Keep an eye out for those Harris boys. They won't care why you're in their way."
A moment later, Jack was out the front door, grabbing the younger man by his collar.
"Jack, wait!" Henry grabbed something from Jack's chair and moved toward the doorway with unexpected speed. "Here—" With a flick of his wrist he flung the gunman's hat toward him.
It was an inch from Jack's hand when a bullet bit out a nick of the crown, changing the downward arc of the hat. Jack leaned out further to grab the trail-worn cap and push it down on his head. "Damnit."
Half carrying and half pushing, Jack got the young man across the road and up against the wall outside of the Marshal's office. With a resounding thud, they both took a breath and Jack hoped the brilliant light from the sun overhead would make it hard for one of the Harris boys to get a bead on them.
When the young man looked up at him with something akin to fear, Jack had to explain.
"If I leave you to be . . . you, I'm lookin' to attend your funeral rather than get you to the station so you can marry that woman you've got comin' in like a package in a freight wagon. So, if you want to get from here to . . . there, then you listen. And you move." He kept his gaze riveted on the younger man's eyes, trying to get his point across. "I'm old according to you, but I know what it'll take for us to survive the day, so let's get you moving."
As if to drive home the importance of Jack's edict, a bullet struck the wall behind the young man, near the nape of his neck. Half a second later, he was running.
Twenty feet down the sidewalk they stopped behind one of the deputies. He had a rifle to his shoulder and a six gun in a holster at his hip. He didn't spare them a glance. "I saw you comin' across the street." His voice had a distasteful edge to it. "I thought you had more sense, Butler."
Jack resisted the urge to swat the deputy on the backside like an errant child. He'd known the boy since he wore highpants. "That's Mr. Butler to you, Saul." He watched the deputy take a shot and take out a chunk of the wall to the right of a window. "A hair to the left, I think."
"I do my own shootin', Mister Butler." He'd hissed out the words, but sure enough he adjusted the sight of his rifle and fired. A yelp was heard a second after the window shattered and Saul nodded in satisfaction. "You best be movin' on if you've a mind to," he chuckled. "Just in case I only winged him, instead of drillin' him straight through."
"Keep your aim where I told ya and you'll be fine, son." Grabbing the bridegroom's collar with one hand and pulling a gun free of the holster with the other, Jack walked around the deputy and toward the corner of Second and Main.
Another crinkle of noise and Jack looked up to see a barrel poke out from a new hole in the saloon's windows. "Gun!"
Saul hissed when Jack took the first shot. "Get down!"
Using his shoulder, Jack pushed both of them into the mercantile at the corner.
The young man almost tripped into a cracker barrel, putting out a hand to keep his balance. Jack stepped back from the door and into the half shadows as he set his gun back in place.
A shout from the street drew their attention. "They're in the bank!"
Jack sighed. "Ah, drunk and greedy. This just keeps getting better and better."
The young man looked up at a clock on the wall. "We have to keep moving."
"We," Jack argued back, "need to keep breathing. Keep that in mind." He nodded with his head down the center aisle of the store. "That way."
They moved along, ducking behind shelves. When they passed by the cash register, Jack saw the wisp of hair that crowned the head of Mr. Porter who owned the store, visible above the level of the counter.
"Keep your head down, Porter. You might come out of this will all your hair."
Raising his eyes above the counter, the little man glared at Jack. "Keep your finger off the trigger, Butler. I don't want you to shoot my wares."
A quick volley of shots outside and a bullet slammed into one of the outside walls.
Jack tilted his head toward the window. "I think you should worry about them instead of me." He saw his companion sifting through a stack of silk handkerchiefs embroidered with flowers. Hissing his displeasure he brushed his hand against the back of the boy's head, almost dislodging his fine woolen hat. When he scrambled to settle it back down, Jack gave the boy a shove. "Shop later . . . after you're married."
A foolish blush crept over his cheeks. "Yes, of course . . . so sor— Oh!"
They were moving again, this time out the opposite door from where they'd entered. Jack didn't bother to offer a farewell to the mercantile's owner. Neither one of them would have believed it.
A step outside of the store had them both squinting into the afternoon sun, and the heat that rolled over them like a wildfire could only owe a small part to the time of day. Their feet sliding on the stone and dirt beneath them, Jack had to tug the boy back before he flew into the scorching heat of the forge.
Holding his hands up to block his face, the wayward bridegroom nearly fell on his backside with the sudden change in direction. "Where—"
"Get down." Jack pushed the younger man down behind a waist-high stack of cut wood. He echoed the movement, crouching down behind the wood and stumbling to his knees.
A scoff of sound drew Jack's attention to the table slab near the front of the forge. "Never thought I'd see Jack Butler crawlin' in the dirt."
Relief rushed life-like color back into his face as he sputtered out a few colorful epithets at his old friend. "You keep runnin' your mouth like that, Chauncey, and I'll—"
The nearly-friendly banter stopped short as a bullet rang off the side of the anvil and sank itself in the wood pile. Jack quickly did a pat down of his chest and legs a second before another bullet whizzed through the crowded smithy and rang off the forge's smokestack.
"Damn it all to hell!" Chauncey got up on his knees in the dirt and flung a horseshoe in the direction of the stray bullet. "You better watch where you're throwin' them hunks of iron, you lazy—"
Another bullet sailed overhead and rattled some of the chains he had hanging on a rack, sending Chauncey down to the dirt, flat on his belly.
"Well," Jack chuckled as he got his feet under him, "that went over as well as could be expected."
"I'll remember your smart ass comments the next time your horse throws a shoe."
Dragging the boy up on his feet behind the wood, Jack bit off a curse. "Don't take your temper out on my horse, Chauncey. She never did you no harm."
"Fine, but I'll," Chauncey sat down with his back to the block as a bullet sailed over his head, intending to wait out the rest of the trouble, "but I'll . . . charge you double. Just see if I don't!"
Jack gave the boy a reassuring smile; he could see how the fear was getting to the younger man. "He'll forget about it, he always does." The boy nodded, but Jack knew he wasn't really listening. Still, he took the opportunity to push the boy to the other side of the smithy behind a standing rack of tools. Holding the man in place, Jack peered around the edge of the rack and saw a familiar flash of red ruffles on the balcony of Rose's Social Club. Wetting his lips, he whistled a little melody and heard an immediate answer.
"Jack?" He saw a fluttering curtain in a window from his half-crouch. "Where are you?"
"Havin' some tea with Chauncey."
Her laughter was immediate and a little surprised. "That sounds lovely. You boys threaten each other yet?"
"We'll talk about that later, love. Until then, think you can find me a way to get across the street to the freight yard?" He waited for the answer, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. Jack felt the wet swipe of his sweat-soaked woolen hat along his little finger. His comfortable seat in the barber shop seemed so far away at that very moment.
A commotion from the direction of the Club turned his head. He was a hairsbreadth away from standing up when he heard Red's voice again. "You tell Thom Harris that if his boys shoot up my fancy upholstery in the downstairs parlor, I'm never lettin' any of them step foot inside again!" The muffled quality of her voice changed, clearing up a moment later. "Jack? You best stay put for a bit. The Harris boys are comin' down my side of the street and the Marshal and his deputies are makin' their way down t'other."
"Yes," mumbled the hapless bridegroom beside him as he sagged down in relief, "I don't want to be anywhere near those guns."
Biting back a sharp comment, Jack worried about his sanity as he took the time to explain. "If we let them get past us, they'll be between us and the stage. So we either move or give up on your wedding right now."
That got the boy on his feet and nearly headshot when one of the Harris boys fired wide to cut off the deputies. Still, Jack could only offer a silent prayer as he all but carried the thinner man south. Passing Chauncey's wide-eyed expression, Jack ferried the boy into Madame Shen's Laundry.
Even with the deputies drawing fire behind them, a few bullets winged kitty-corner across the street and nailed themselves into the wooden door, swinging it closed behind them.
Madam Shen looked up from her abacus and narrowed her eyes at Jack. "You bring your money?"
Jack managed what could be considered a charming smile. "I'm not here for my laundry, Madame Shen. I'm here because—"
"Then go away." She smoothed her hands down the black gown she wore, the movement drawing some interest to the glint of metal on her fingers. "No time to waste on a man who does not pay."
Gritting his back teeth together, he looked at the boy. "You got some money?"
He blinked up at the gunman for a moment before he nodded. "Some."
"How much?" Jack swiveled his head around to the older woman. "How much do I owe you?"
A couple of clicks on the wooden beads of her abacus and she looked up at the mismatched pair. "Four bits if you pay now."
The boy was already reaching into his coat pocket. He withdrew a small purse that looked more like a tobacco pouch. Fishing around with his fingers, he withdrew a half-dollar coin and put it in the hands of the woman.
She gave him a good once over and decided not to bite the coin. The boy must have had an air about him that didn't remind her of Jack. Dropping it into a box beneath the counter she produced a paper-wrapped bundle and set it before her on the counter. "Your shirts."
A loud spate of gunfire drew Jack's attention to the door. "I would appreciate it, my dear, if you would hold onto it for a bit. I have to get the young man to the stage."
She looked at the clock, ticking away on the wall. "You have three minutes to make the stage."
The younger man gaped at the sudden tick of the second hand. "Two!"
Another round of bullets peppered the wall of the laundry, earning the miscreants a rather colorful string of syllables from Madame Shen. "You," she turned her dark eyes on the gunfighter, "go out that door." She pointed a work-worn finger toward the back door of the laundry. "You gonna be late." She shook her head. "Like always."
This time it was the boy preceding the gunman out the door. He was lucky enough to duck behind the fluttering of a bed sheet before anyone saw him.
Jack was right behind him, checking the position of the sun. The glare wasn't in a position to do them any good, but it wouldn't hurt them either. The hot push of light wouldn't cast their shadows on the clothing, giving away their position. The only part of them that would be visible would be the tops of their heads and their feet that extended beyond the hems of the linens and garments on the line.
Swiping his hat off his head, Jack did the same for the boy, stuffing the once crisp hat into his hands. When the younger man looked at the crumpled woolen chapeau with despair Jack scoffed at him. "Better it than you, son."
With a quick peek around a freshly washed pair of split drawers, Jack could see the Harris boys slowly backing up into the maze of crates and cartons in the yard of the freight company. Advancing on them was Marshal Sawyer with two of his deputies. A glance back at the walk before the smithy told him that one of the deputies was down, his hands clutched over his middle.
"Damnit to Hell." Jack reached to his side and the butt of one of his trademark pistols nearly jumped up into his hand. "This isn't just some drunks lettin' off steam no more," he grumbled under his breath as he pulled back the hammer until he heard the whisper of a click that said he had a bullet ready to go.
A bullet singed a hole in someone's shirt and Jack was grateful his were wrapped up inside, waiting for him. Leaning to the side of the ruined garment he drilled a hole through the crown of a hat and earned a sharp rebuke and a threat from the man wearing it. "You folks settle down," Jack bellowed back at him. "All I'm tryin' to do is cross the street! You boys keep takin' shots in my direction, it's gonna give me an excuse to wade in there and plug y'all up until they lay you in the ground. So leave off!"
A bullet flew, it was thrown in another direction, but it drew his attention for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack saw a flutter of color at the edge of the freight yard and drew a bead on the figure. He lifted the barrel when he realized who it was hiding near the corral.
Little Paul, his hands over his ears, crouched down behind one of the large posts.
Pursing his dry lips, Jack whistled at the child.
Shocked, Paul looked up and pulled his hands an inch away from his ears. He watched as Jack tried to use his hands to explain what he wanted. With a curious tilt to his head, Paul pondered the gestures and then pointed up at the metal closure of the gate.
Jack, all the way across the street, fighting to keep someone's nightshirt from tangling with his mustache, saw the gesture and nodded with satisfaction. Holding out his hand he gave his companion a pointed a look.
'What?' the bridegroom mouthed at him.
'Coin!' mouthed the weary gunman. 'Now.'
Rolling his eyes, he took another half-dollar coin from his purse and dropped it into Jack's hand.
Ignoring the grumbles from the man beside him, Jack used his left hand to lob the coin into Paul's grasp. The boy looked down at the coin and nearly forgot to breathe. Dropping it into his pocket he stood up, the thick corral post blocking him from the arrhythmic pattern of gunplay. With a mock salute and grin, he unlatched the gate and let the weight of it swing the arm open.
The earlier spat with his boss made it easy to convince the child to help out. The coin had only been a tip of sorts for the quick service. The sturdy oxen that pulled some of the freight wagons had already been stirred up from the gunfire; the arrival whistles of the train were enough to send them running.
Ignoring the rapturous gush of the younger man's voice, Jack grabbed him by the collar of his store bought suit and propelled him forward. They took a few steps together before the young man noticed the oncoming cloud of dirt and hooves.
"Dear God! You're not . . . we're not . . . you can't be serio— wait!"
"Move and keep moving, I'll direct, you just keep moving forward!" Jack shouted the words over the thundering riot of oxen and a single donkey that picked its own way through the larger beasts.
The slap of a shoulder and the bump of a belly here and there made them struggle to keep on their feet, but the sound of gunfire was mercifully drowned out beyond the moving wall of livestock. At one point, the bridegroom tried to turn around, but Jack forced him onward and suddenly there were wooden planks beneath their feet. A signpost over their heads proclaimed 'STAGE DEPOT.'
Practically tripping over his dust-caked shoes, the young man ran the rest of the way, leaving Jack to follow him, shaking his head as he went. Behind him, the Marshal shouted out a few choice words at the drunken outlaws who were apparently holed up in the livery stable.
The joke, Jack supposed, was that there was only one way in and out of the place. Old man Stemple who had built the thing upon his arrival in Agua Dulce had been too cheap to put in a second door. So the Harris boys were going to learn the hard way that drunk really was stupid.
Now, perched on the edge of the platform outside the stage office, Jack watched his young charge tentatively approach a young woman.
She was dressed in a traveling suit that gave the appearance that it had been taken in a few times, its seams crooked and bunched. Her hair was falling down in the back, a bent wire pin poking out from the curl it was supposed to conceal.
And when she turned to look at her would-be bridegroom, Jack could see a sheen of perspiration on her skin from the tight quarters of the train car and the baking sun of their little town. For a moment, he wondered if the boy would change his mind instead of saddling himself with a woman.
Then she smiled.
It was the kind of smile that crinkles a woman's face in all the right places, and sets her eyes to dancing with light. She smiled and Jack dropped his pistol back into its holster and pulled the back of his hand over his cheeks to brush away the sweat on his skin.
Later, if someone were to question his red eyes, he would brush it off as nothing more than the dust from the angry livestock.
But as the eager young bridegroom took her hand and drew her over to meet, "the man that got me here through a hail of gunfire," Jack couldn't help but blink back a few tears.
He always did cry at weddings.