Once Upon a Time in the West #2


   For most folks, a knock on their hotel room door meant little. For Annabeth, it could mean anything.

   She drew her gun. Ellsworth was known as the rowdiest of rowdy cattle towns. Full of so many saloons, gambling halls, and whorehouses that most nights the sound of the music, the laughter, the gunshots was deafening.

   “Who is it?”

   A spate of indecipherable Spanish erupted, and Annabeth opened the door to a Mexican washerwoman. Figuring Lassiter Morant, the leader of the Morant Gang, had sent her to collect the filthy clothes he’d discarded in their room before donning clean ones and heading downstairs to play poker, Annabeth holstered her weapon and began to collect them.

   The door closed. “Ethan’s in trouble.”

   Every bit of cloth tumbled to the ground as Annabeth’s hands went numb. Slowly, she turned. Even though she hadn’t seen Fedya since they’d left Castle Thunder Prison, she couldn’t believe she’d missed that too-blue gaze.

   “Are you crazy?” she asked.

   “Are you?” Fedya waved a long-fingered hand, the movement causing his high-necked, black lace shirtwaist to swirl around breasts that appeared completely real. “This is not who you are, moi drug.”

   The Russian words clashed with . . . everything—this room, his skirt, her life.

   “It’s who I am right now. You, of all people, should understand that.” She’d seen Fedya perform in prison. The way he could become someone else was uncanny. But she hadn’t realized until this moment how very, very good at it he was. She eyed his face. Was he wearing makeup? He had to be, though she couldn’t see any.

   “How the hell did you find me?”

   The Morant Gang moved quickly from place to place. Lass never told anyone where they were going, just led them wherever that might be. He also made certain their faces were covered and that when any killing occurred in public, he wasn’t the one doing it.

They rode into a town like thunder, stole as fast as lightning, and left behind the remnants of a hellish storm before disappearing into their secret hideout, leaving anyone in pursuit scratching their heads and eating dust.

   “How do you think I found you?” Fedya asked.

   Annabeth’s sigh was as sad as her life. “Mikey.”

   “Mikhail,” he corrected.

   “How is he?”

   “The same.”

   “Is he here?” If she could just borrow him for a day or two, she wouldn’t have to—

   “No. He’s . . .” Fedya glanced out the window and frowned. “You need to get to Freedom as fast as you can. Ethan is . . .” A shadow flickered over his exquisite face. “He will die if you do not do something.”

   She followed his gaze, but all she saw was dust settling over the town of Ellsworth. When she looked back, Fedya was gone. She didn’t bother to follow. Instead, she stood there, ignoring the music and the laughter from the saloon below, the shouts from outside.    She was tempted to ignore Fedya, except . . .

   There’d been something in his eyes that frightened her. He was not the type of man to exert himself for anyone except, perhaps, Mikey.

   “Mikhail,” she murmured.

   That he’d gone to the trouble of finding her meant there was trouble. Big trouble. In Freedom.

   She retrieved Ethan’s old hat from the bed where she’d tossed it. The thing was filthy, sweat-stained; she needed a new one. But she hadn’t been able to make herself throw it away. She gathered her hair and stuffed it beneath the crown.

   A curse since childhood, that bright red hair. The freckles, too, though both had faded with age. Nevertheless, they marked her, made her memorable in ways and places she would rather not be.

   Like here.

   Certainly Ellsworth was large enough, busy enough, wild enough that the Morant Gang would go unnoticed if they didn’t shoot up the place. What law there was—and there had been some pretty fancy lawman who’d tried to tame Ellsworth—was too busy to take a second look at Lass or any of his followers as long as they did only what they’d come here to do. Drink. Gamble. Whore. And hopefully bathe. While Lassiter’s men were dangerous, they weren’t stupid. If they caused trouble, he killed them himself.

   Annabeth descended the staircase, keeping her hat pulled low. She weaved her way to Lass’s table. As usual, he was winning.

   His chestnut hair had been freshly washed and shone like silk in the dim light. She’d consider him a handsome man if she didn’t know that beneath the good looks lay a whole lot of crazy. She should leave and never come back, but she knew better. She was his woman, and Lass protected his property with a swift and certain violence.

   He allowed her to ride with them because she was useful—both in private and in public. She did what she was told, and she didn’t whine about it. Annabeth knew better. She also knew better than to turn up pregnant. There were ways to prevent such a thing if a woman listened to others, if she learned about herbs and cleansers, if she paid attention to the rhythms of her own body. Annabeth was no fool. If she couldn’t be what Lass needed, she would be dead.

   She hadn’t been scared of much in her life, but she was scared of Lass. He owned one book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Annabeth didn’t know where he’d gotten it. He was not the kind of man to own a book; he wasn’t the kind of man who could read. But he had read about Alice.

   He’d dubbed his hideout Wonderland, and the place was nearly as hard to find as the original. Perhaps because he let no one know its location whom he didn’t trust completely. She wasn’t among the lucky few. She thought the hideout was in Kansas, but where was anyone’s guess.

   He cast her a quick “what in hell are you doing here?” glance from eyes so dark, they seemed endless. She leaned close. “Gonna scout a few towns nearby.”

   Lass frowned, and she nearly held her breath, afraid he’d say no. Then what would she do? She managed to breathe in and out so her heart wouldn’t thunder. He would hear; he would know, and then he would pounce.

   “Five?” He tossed two cards toward the dealer.

   He wasn’t asking how many towns but how many days until he would meet her at the arroyo—the point where Lass blindfolded the untrustworthy before he led them to Wonderland. Folks left the same way—if they left at all.

   “Better make it seven.”

   He glanced at her again. Again, she kept on breathing. She waited for him to ask how long it took to scout a few banks, ask a few questions about the stage or the train, listen to folks discuss the soon-to-arrive army, railroad, or coal-mining payroll. But he lifted his two new cards, saw he’d drawn a double belly buster, and she became a lot less interesting than the straight he now held in his hand. Annabeth headed for the door before his attention returned to her.

   She wouldn’t need seven days to do what she planned to do, but she’d take a little time away. She had to sometimes, or she would go mad as that damn Hatter.

   Before dawn tinted the sky, Annabeth guided her horse down a street she’d sworn never to go down again. At this time of night, none of the townsfolk were about.

   Annabeth dismounted. When the wind blew in from the prairie and whistled along the street, she was thankful she’d worn men’s trousers rather than her split riding skirt. The yards of material would have billowed, perhaps spooked the horse.

   In some towns, she might be jailed for dressing as a man. Hopefully the recent escapades of the legendary bounty hunter Cat O’Banyon, who was rumored to be a woman beneath the men’s clothing, had put a stop to such threats. Annabeth doubted any lawman would have the grit to put Cat behind bars.

   There’d been a lot of rumors about Cat of late. She’d been seen in Abilene, then in St. Louis. She’d been killed in Indian Territory. Then she’d just plain disappeared.

   Annabeth paused outside the livery. Sometimes she wished she could disappear herself. Instead, Annabeth tossed a coin to the boy who’d been sleeping inside the stable door, handed him the reins, and moved on.

   At the head of an alley that ran between the structures on Main Street and those to the north, she made her first mistake. She should have gone to the saloon and asked questions. Small town, someone would know something about the doctor. She would discover what had made Fedya behave so strangely and deal with it. How bad could things be?

   Ethan might once have been a spy, but that was long ago and far away. Whatever problem there might be could be solved simply and quietly. He need never even know she was there. But he was so close, and it had been so long. What could it hurt to take a peek?

   Thoughts like that always got her into trouble.

   She palmed her daddy’s Navy Colt. Most of Freedom was asleep; she was certain of it. But she’d been certain of a few things in the past that had turned out to be lies. Which had taught her to trust no one, believe nothing. And draw her weapon for any old reason at all.

   She glanced through a back window, saw only darkness. She pressed her ear to the wood, heard nothing but crickets singing to the night. Turning the knob, she nearly stumbled inside when the thing swung wide. Why was she surprised? A good doctor never locked his door.

   As she slipped quietly through the first floor, her gaze wandered over the medicine cabinet filled with colorful bottles—brown for cod liver, blue for laudanum, green for tincture of ginger—the exam table, several chairs, a desk. Everything appeared exactly the same, though hardly anything was.

   Annabeth faced the staircase. She could slink and skulk a while longer, or she could do what she’d come to do. Tightening her grip on the gun, Annabeth began to climb.

   She reached the landing and glanced through the open doorway. Moonlight filtered across the empty bed. She swallowed, the sound crackling through a pulsing silence broken only by those damnable crickets. Why were they so loud?

   Her gaze went to the window—nothing but a gaping hole where glass had once been. Her heart, which had already been beating far too fast, beat faster. What had happened here?

   She backed out of the room, glanced toward the next, tensed. He wasn’t in there. There was no reason for her to be. Nevertheless, Annabeth headed in that direction.

   The first door had been open; the second was closed. She stood for several seconds, staring at the knob, unable to make herself reach for it.

   It’s only a room, she told herself. Probably empty. Gathering dust. The doctor’s not even here. He’s gone to help some poor soul. Or maybe just gone.

   But she didn’t believe it. She wasn’t that lucky.

   Annabeth ignored the tremble of her fingers as they wrapped around the knob and pushed.

   The moon cast an eerie light across the man slouched against the far wall. His black hair tumbled over his brow, curled around his neck. Several days’ beard darkened his jaw, making his olive skin appear pale.

   Long legs stretched in her direction; the bottoms of his bare feet were filthy. He smelled like a saloon the morning after any night. But her husband was still one of the handsomest men Annabeth had ever seen.

   She retreated a step and saw the crib in the corner. She tried to snatch back her pained gasp and failed.

   His eyes opened, caught the gleam of the moon and shone silver.