Carlton Lassiter was checking Lucinda’s girth when he heard the horses approaching. Outlaws.
Drawing his gun, he gave a soothing pat to his horse and slipped up and behind the wagon. Peering over a box of potatoes he watched the figures canter over the rise. As they came closer, he thought he recognized the big bay thoroughbred, but the others were unknown. Four horses, five men – two astride a frisky appaloosa. He checked his gun. Four bullets. Crap. He knew he should have reloaded after shooting that squirrel earlier.
The riders slowed on the approach and he breathed in, primed for action.
“Deputy Lassiter? You there?” shouted a voice.
“Who wants to know?” he called right back from his hiding place, slowly cocking his gun. He didn’t correct him yet – that he wasn’t exactly Deputy Lassiter anymore.
“It’s me, Drimmer.” The horses stopped and he heard leather creaking and feet smacking the soil as a couple of men swung from their saddles.
Carlton stepped into view, gun still cocked, but close to his wagon in case he needed to duck for cover. “Sheriff Drimmer?”
He squinted at the man, but, backlit by the morning sun, his features were shrouded.
The man that claimed to be Drimmer dismounted and took off his hat. Lassiter noticed how his hand never strayed far from his holster. He relaxed anyway as the Sheriff stepped into the shade: Drimmer’s round, pleasant face was instantly recognizable. He exuded the impression of being harmless as a puppy, and not for the first time he wondered how Drimmer got to Sheriff before him.
He tipped his hat, and Drimmer did the same.
“Old Lassiter!” he greeted, round eyes squinting with a smile. “How long has it been? Five months?” When he did not immediately answer, Drimmer’s eyes began searching his face. Whatever he saw there did not trouble him, because in a moment he was smiling again, dust-blown face crinkling at the corners. Smoothly, his gun hand stretched out for a handshake. Curious, Carlton stepped forward and took it.
“Six,” he replied.
“Well it’s good to see you! This is Amos, Seth.” Drimmer pointed out two large men wearing rawhide. Like many officers, they looked like military men, drafted in to keep the peace. “And this here’s Samson.” Wiry and pale, Samson looked barely older than 16. But what interested him was that he shared a saddle with a yet unidentified man. The man was shackled, blindfolded… gagged? The appaloosa carrying them both shifted restlessly.
Carlton nodded at the men. He didn’t need to introduce himself – Drimmer had done that for him. “What’re you wanting, Sheriff Drimmer? Last I looked this wasn’t your territory.”
“You always did cut the bullshit,” chuckled Drimmer. “Well, Frank sent us after you, said you might help our predicament. And thank the rains we found you so soon.”
Frank was Sonora’s Sheriff, his mentor and until yesterday morning, his boss. He nodded curtly. “What’s the trouble?”
Drimmer stepped close and lowered his voice. “I have to get this con to Santa Barbara for processing—Big Vick’s orders. The problem is that me and my men needed to be a hundred miles the other way yesterday. It’s a hard couple of days ride away even without a passenger. We were at a loss until Frank brought you up. There’s no better man I can think of. Congratulations on the badge, by the way, Deputy.”
“Sheriff Lassiter,” Sheriff Lassiter corrected.
“Sheriff Lassiter,” Drimmer agreed.
Carlton stilled the twitch in his fingers, resisting touching his new badge. Sheriff of Santa Barbara. Even now, days after the pony express left the message, he couldn’t get used to it. “You want me to transport him?”
“We can get to Santa Barbara in a few weeks, possibly, if we go north first. But if you don’t want to help out, that’s quite alright, but there’s no one I’d trust more than you for this.”
Going into a new station with a criminal in tow should certainly catch the imagination of the troops. He looked up at the bound man thoughtfully.
“I’ll do it,” he said slowly, trying to hide his eagerness.
“Good stuff,” Drimmer was saying, already rifling through his saddlebag. He handed him a rolled parchment. “This is the man’s papers, keys, and details of his crime, all set up to go.”
One of the military men, Hamish, or whatever, had dismounted and Carlton watched him grip the criminal’s arm. Between the two lawmen the criminal slid down to the ground. He was slender, shorter than Carlton, and seemed to buzz with a barely contained energy. Almost immediately, Samson dismounted and set about shackling the prisoner’s ankles together. He was forced upright and pushed towards him. The con stumbled and fell to his knees with a muffled cry.
Carlton’s eyes widened as he realized the state the man was in. As he’d noticed before, he was gagged and blindfolded. Now he could see both bindings were dirty, blood-flecked scraps of cloth. Drimmer barked out a cheery laugh.
“A little unconventional, I grant you, but trust me you’ll be itching to get it back on if it ever comes off! Watch him, he’s slippery. Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you in a few weeks. Really must be off – like I said, we needed to be somewhere by yesterday!”
They tipped hats and said their farewells quickly – quickly even for Carlton. Which soon left him alone with the man, suddenly wondering why he hadn’t asked more questions. Who was he? Was he dangerous? Why Santa Barbara?
Currently, he was slumped against his wagon, still on his knees. He could read the papers, but that felt like cheating. Instead, he took the opportunity to rake his eyes over the convict, trying to glean all he could. Slender, not a strongman; the way his plaid shirt and dusty leather jacket fell from his frame hinted at a toned physique, like that of someone who worked in the saddle a lot. His hands were cuffed behind his back and his feet were locked together with a foot of chain. Brown hair poked out from under his hat, and between his blindfold and gag protruded a slightly beaky nose, shimmering with sweat. Carlton weighed up his options and came to a decision.
He growled. “I’m Sheriff Lassiter, of Santa Barbara. Now, I don’t have time for any horseplay or buffoonery. You’ll do as I say, when I say – got it?”
The con shrugged and responded inarticulately through the gag. Lassiter frowned, unbalanced by the aloof action.
“Wait there,” Lassiter ordered. The man gave a grunt in what he guessed was an affirmation.
Moving quickly, he eased Lucinda into her halter, dragging her pink nose away from the ground. She initially resisted from his guiding touch, grabbing a few extra mouthfuls of grass. With some effort he finished coaxing the stubborn percheron into her harness. He went to his prisoner, who from the side almost looked amicable.
“I’m going to get you into the wagon now. Leg up,” he ordered, positioning the man in front of the step. The man wobbled, missing it. He made some noise, like he was talking. With a soft growl, Carlton took hold of the man’s thigh, feeling corded muscle through soft fabric, and guided it onto the step.
“Next leg,” he found himself saying, pushing slightly from where he gripped leather clad shoulders. The man leant forward with Carlton’s support, foot searching, and got onto the narrow plank that supported the driver’s seat. With some maneuvering, and slightly more manhandling than he was normally comfortable with, Carlton had him sitting shotgun. Finally, he got behind the reins and clicked his tongue. With a gentle start, Lucinda began to amble away from the clearing and towards the township of Santa Barbara.
Time had barely passed before his prisoner started to hum through the gag, surprisingly in key.
“Stop that,” he growled.
The man said something, muffled and inarticulate. He noticed the way the man’s leg jigged.
“Bored? Suck it up, bucko.”
“Oh. No,” he replied, well versed in mumbles and grunts. After all, not only did he have siblings, but he was a lawman to boot. “You gave up your rights when you decided to break the law.”
Four syllabic hums, which sounded an awful lot like, “But I didn’t.”
A pregnant pause descended and he flashed the con a glance. A frown pinched his forehead under the hat, and Carlton got the sense there laid a pout beneath that gag. Finally, the man let out a questioning noise.
With a sigh, Carlton turned his eyes to the sun, and corrected Lucinda’s direction. “Santa Barbara is about a day and a half away.” He frowned suddenly, a thought finally crossing his mind. “Two, if we have to stop for supplies.”
Hopefully, the guy ate like a mouse. He didn’t believe in starving his convicts, but he didn’t want to be shackled to this man for longer than was necessary. Speaking of shackles, his prisoner’s chains carried a rusting of blood, as though secured too tight, for too long. Drimmer and his men certainly did a job on them, and his gut clenched. Not for the first time, he wondered what the man had done. He itched to retrieve the paperwork, but he foolishly left it in the back, out of reach. He resolved to read it when they stopped for the night.
When the man started humming again a mile later, he didn’t have it in him to tell him to shut it.
Buzzards were circling the setting sun by the time Lucinda loped into a lush gully. He halted her, eyeing the area carefully. They were off the track, on stony ground. Good, they’d leave no tracks to intrigue a bandit. Above them, dense spindly woodland and rocky outcrops provided a perfect cover. Further down, a freshwater spring danced on pebbles beside a grassy clearing. Drink and feed for Lucinda. He allowed a small smile to grace his lips. Satisfied, he concluded only trouble likely to descend would be from his bound charge.
“Stay,” he commanded.
His prisoner made a sound like a dog. He rolled his eyes.
“Good girl,” he praised, jumping down to rub at his horse’s ears. The air was turning cool now, and Lucinda’s hot breaths smoked. He deftly unharnessed her, secured the wagon wheels, and then unbridled her, removing oiled leather piece by piece until she was nothing but pure horse. With a light smack on her rear, she trotted eagerly off to the stream.
He kept his prisoner under a watchful eye while he set up a fire. As he did so, the man barely moved in his seat, occasionally turning his head one way or another. They’d camp on the stone, he decided, since the grass was apt to dew come morning now that winter was settling in. The supplies he’d scrounged would burn for maybe three hours; best light it when the real chill set in. Finally, he retrieved Drimmer’s parchment from his wagon.
He read it quickly. The first page was a brief description of the man – early twenties, brown hair, yadda yadda.
He turned to the next page. His eyebrows shot up. Murder—the man had shot Ernesto Chavez in his holding cell before he could be interrogated. He glanced over at his ward briefly, impressed. Ernesto Chavez was big time; Drimmer’s men had spent years trying to catch the outlaw and his gang of miscreants. And all for naught, since this man, Spencer, was found gun in hand, freshly fired, and kneeling in Chavez’s blood. There was just one more page—a sealed letter to Chief Vick, which he left alone.
He skim read the files again. Why would Spencer kill Chavez? Was he a business partner? Seeking revenge? He was halfway through a more thorough reading when a noise made jump. He put the papers safely away and drew his gun.
Only to find the prisoner – Spencer — writhing about in his seat. Holstering his gun, he went to the restless man, wary.
“What?” he snapped.
Spencer turned to him, following his voice, and made a noise suspiciously like a whimper.
“I’m going to get you down now. Think you can move?”
At the prisoner’s eager nod, he manhandled him off the carriage, grunting when he briefly found himself carrying the man’s whole weight. Spencer swayed on his feet and Carlton, feeling frustrated, guided him to sit in a sandy hollow in the stone campsite. He stared at the gag, wondering not for the first time what it was that the prisoner did to need to be silenced. Did he swear uncontrollably? Spit with an accuracy to make a llama jealous? Still, it would need to come off when he ate. He gave into curiosity, which felt a lot like disobeying orders. Drimmer and him were the same rank now. Get a grip.
“I’m going to take your gag off now. Be still. If you bite, by hell, I’ll bite you back.”
He took off the man’s hat and untied the knot with slow, cautious movements. This close, Spencer smelled sweet as fruit. Gently he pulled the gag away completely, frowning when red, raw skin clung to the cloth as he did so. The man didn’t speak, or spit, but simply opened his mouth. He was confused until he noticed a second, balled-up cloth inside. Wary of teeth, he pushed past cracked, bloodied lips and pulled out the offending material.
The man coughed: a dry, husky noise. Carlton reached his water pouch before it registered what he’d done. However, Spencer hadn’t moved from his spot in the sand.
“Open your mouth, it’s just water,” said Carlton, voice low.
He watched, somewhat fascinated as Spencer latched onto the pouch like a babe at a teat, swallowing convulsively. Some of the water leaked out the side of his mouth and Carlton swallowed, feeling hot. He pulled back the pouch and it to dampen his handkerchief. Clearing his throat, he began to drag the moistened cloth over the con’s lips, wiping away grit and dried blood. Spencer was breathing softly, his abused lips clinging to the touch. Carlton pulled back, glad the con could not see his reaction.
Spencer smiled. “Thank you,” he rasped. His voice still managed to be light and pleasant. “You are a tender, tender, yet slightly scary goddess.”
“When was the last time you drank?” he asked, refusing to feel guilty for not checking earlier.
“Two, maybe three days. It’s hard to tell, a lot’s happened. I think I even broke a nail.”
He blinked, and then rolled his eyes. “You expect me to believe Drimmer denied you water for all that time?”
“You know, you’re not what I expected.” Spencer sounded like he was going to say more, but coughed a bit instead.
He whipped his head around. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Uh—nothing. I don’t know, the way he talked about you. I thought you’d be more like them. Big fans of the firm hand of the law. Collectors of iron boots, iron maidens, ironing boards –”
He couldn’t help but puff up at that. “He talked about me?”
But Spencer didn’t seem to want to be specific. Instead, he asked, “If you promise not to shoot me, and I promise not to run away, would you let me have my hands locked around my front?”
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed the way you draw your gun. You would be amazing in a showdown,” answered Spencer, as if that cleared matters up.
“You’re blindfolded. How did you notice how I draw my gun?”
Spencer coughed. “Maybe I might possibly be needing to powder my nose right about now. Unless you want to help me with that?” Spencer’s blindfolded face twisted into a cocksure grin.
“Leak the lizard? Siphon the python? Answer the call of nature?”
He thought about it. So long as his feet remained shackled, there was no way the man could get away easily. “Be my guest,” he said, feeling generous.
Spencer thanked him, and segued onto a story involving a preacher, an Irishman and a bartender. He ignored him, keeping an eye on the flexible way the man folded in half, shimmying the chain under his feet. Finally, the bound hands rested triumphantly in the man’s lap.
“Why are you blindfolded?” he found himself asking as he heaved Spencer upright.
The man shrugged and stumbled forward a few paces. “Drimmer said I see, or saw, too much. Personally, I just think he was just jealous of my pretty eyes. I’ve been told they’re like an autumnal forest. But, to be fair, that bartender may have been talking about my hair. Equally spectacular, just less green.”
“You still have eyes, though, right?” Carlton wasn’t discounting some disfigurement. To his surprise, Spencer laughed, back still turned. Carlton averted his eyes to study the wood he collected earlier, listening for any suspicious sounds over the sounds of… Spencer “siphoning the python”.
“Very much so. Just two regular eyes, possibly brownish blue or grey in color, or hazel—I never could tell. Ooh!” he gasped. “Maybe you’ll know, Sheriff Lassiter.”
Carlton rolled his eyes at the obvious hint. He wasn’t going to remove the blindfold until Spencer earned it. Spencer turned back to him, shuffling forward with a stupid grin on his face. It might have been a nice grin once, but right now his lips were too cracked and bloodied, torn and red. Carlton sat him back down more roughly than he had intended.
“Now, you listen to me—“
“Oh please, Lassie,” interrupted Spencer. Carlton spluttered at the nickname. “If this is the part where you give me the ‘I will shoot you in the gut and leave you for the crows to pick your innards and possibly my loins’—though I don’t know why it has to be loins—‘if you even think of running away’, Amos already gave me the lowdown. Consider me a briefed bird. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll even shake on it.”
“Sheriff Lassiter,” he growled. “And you’ll excuse me if I’m not going to trust you. You move, I shoot. Get it?”
“Fair enough. I wouldn’t trust me if I were in your position. Then again--”
Carlton was beginning to see why the man had been gagged. And he needed to collect more water, some food from the wagon—and the sleeping mat too, now that he was thinking about it. There was only one bedding, and it would be a cold day in hell if he’d let a convict take it.
“Just say here, and keep the blindfold the hell on,” he said instead, letting enough steel into his voice that Spencer finally shut his trap.
Hours later, under a bright moon and beside a warm fire, the two men sat together, Lucinda grazing a little way off. Spencer did most of the talking, Carlton half listening with a few well-placed grunts. Spencer did not eat like a mouse—more like a man who thought he was at the finest banquet. If he continued like this, they’d need to stop for supplies sooner rather than later.
“You care, Sheriff Lassiter,” Spencer observed. “Would you care if I was innocent?”
“You’re not so it’s a moot point, prisoner.”
“How do you know?”
“Law’s the law.”
“Home is where the heart is. What? I thought we were spouting psalms.”
"Those aren't psalms."
"Maybe not in your book."
He tossed Spencer the last roast potato, missing slightly. Spencer stretched to catch it, uncannily accurate even blindfolded.
“Urgh,” cried Spencer suddenly, face screwed up in the firelight. “I can’t feel my legs.”
“You still have them,” he grumbled right back.
Spencer tentatively stretched his legs out, and then shouted in pain. “Muscle spasm!”
“Seriously?” he groused, aware of the whine in his voice.
“Protect and serve!” responded Spencer.
He sighed and gave in, knowing how debilitating spasms could be. Gingerly, he grabbed the curling leg, pulled it to his lap and dug his fingers into taut muscle. Spencer gave a pained whine of protest. Carlton looked up and met the prisoner’s eyes for the first time. Spencer was younger than he expected, his eyes boyish and clear and his hair wild. His brain started working again: at some point in his thrashings, the blindfold must have been torn off. He felt the leg under his hand, warm, still corded and twisted. He squeezed it, watching a wince dance across Spencer’s face. Under his ministrations he relaxed by degrees, and soon the leg straightened normally.
Spencer looked away suddenly, a flush coloring his cheeks. Carlton looked down, and his eyes caught on a noticeable tenting in the kid’s trousers. He started.
“Sorry Lassitude,” Spencer said sheepishly, “You know what it’s like. You can be chopping wood then –” He snapped his fingers. “You’re popping some lumber.”
Carlton cleared his throat, unsure how to respond.
Spencer cocked his head. “Would you prefer if I said I was not a lumberjack?”
“Shut the hell up, Spencer,” he snapped, confused and angry.
He started clearing up, refilling his water pouches and unrolling the sleeping roll and blankets. His gun he placed in the wagon, trusting Lucinda to bring it to him if ambushed. Before sleeping, Carlton cuffed his and Spencer’s hands together and so passed a fitful night.
Carlton woke up to the sound of shrieking. Moving on reflex, he went to draw his gun, and froze. Of course. His holster was empty. Stomach sinking, he looked at the empty handcuff hanging from his own wrist, lock clearly picked. Before he could berate himself, an unshackled Spencer sauntered into view, hatless, shirtless and wet from head to toe.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled, channeling his confusion into anger.
“Freshening up!” Spencer laughed. “But your partner pushed me.”
Still frozen, Carlton looked over to see Lucinda primly tossing her mane. What—
“I solved it – relax!”
Carlton did not relax. His gun was dangling haphazardly in Spencer’s left hand. Lucinda! He flicked a glare at her but she only snorted derisively.
“That’s my gun.”
“Or don’t relax.” Spencer adjusted his grip so the pistol pointed at Carlton’s left knee.
“That won’t kill me,” he stupidly observed.
But Spencer did not adjust his aim. Instead, he grinned sunnily. “I didn’t want you to shoot me upon waking, Lassie Quickdraw. Or while I was explaining. It took me forever – well, hours – to figure out and I need you to listen.”
“Put the gun on the ground and walk away slowly. Last chance.”
Spencer laughed, as if Carlton had told a joke. Carlton frowned, silently praying to God.
“Three things,” Spencer began, and plonked easily down on the ground, about 6 feet away. His aim never wavered from his knee. “One – taking me to Santa Barbara made NO sense. Shooting me makes sense. Taking me to Santa Barbara for execution? I am part of the enforcement there! Kind of. Technically. In a Hamlet sense. You know Hamlet was part of the army? Explains a lot, what with the insanity and whole killing that old dude later. Not that I killed anyone. Or was in an army. This comparison is so lacking, Lassie – God I miss Gus.”
“You killed Chavez.”
“Aha!” crowed Spencer. “That’s point numero dos – I didn’t. Kill Chavez. I was framed.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Carlton soothed, hoping to get this madman to lower his guard. This, unfortunately, did not soothe Spencer.
“No – I really didn’t!”
“You were found gun in hand covered in blood,” he snapped, dropping the pretense.
“Yes. But that was so convenient. Which leads me to point two, subsection B. Why was the holding cell unmanned? Why did Drimmer say he heard me shoot? Answer? – he lied! He wanted me, or anyone, to find the body. The fact I picked up the gun was stupid dumb luck on his behalf.”
“So you expect me to believe that you were framed by Sheriff Drimmer.”
“You’ve got it in one!”
“That’s ridiculous Mr. Spencer.”
Spencer shuddered. “Please, Shawn, Spencer, or Sir Shawnalot. But allow me to continue. Subsection B, clause i: Why did Drimmer kill Chavez? Answer: because Chavez was wanting to spill the beans to Sheriff Frank.”
“Because they were what, old crime partners? You know I’m not believing this. Just… go and saddle up Lucinda, run away…” He paused, wondering for a moment why Spencer hadn’t already done this. Kid must be an idiot.
Spencer stared at him, joking expression gone. “How long has Drimmer been ‘chasing’ Chavez?”
Carlton swallowed. “Years?” Bit of a long time, come to think of it.
Spencer nodded. “I wondered that too, when he came to Santa Barbara. It stank. Stank like French cheese and biscuits.”
“You followed your nose to Sonora?”
“I could kiss you right now!” Spencer beamed at him and for a moment – just a moment – Carlton forgot they were enemies.
Blushing, Carlton wound back Spencer’s logic. “So in essence, you’re saying Drimmer and Chavez were ex partners, Drimmer murdered Chavez, and that… bringing you to Santa Barbara is a poor move because you’re enforcement there?”
“Exactly.” Spencer was nodding now, wet hair catching the morning sun. “I-“
“That makes no sense.”
“Because it doesn’t make sense! That’s why I was so confused. And then you were there, this unknown streak of handsome, and that brings me to point three. That’s what I solved. You’re an honest cop.”
“Wh- of course I am!”
“The old Santa Barbara Sheriff wasn’t. You’re rare, Lassie! Drimmer knew you and knew that about you.”
“He knew I would never be in his pocket,” Carlton breathed. “If he was crooked,” he amended.
“Point three: Sheriff Lassiter has the potential to be a bee in Drimmer’s lederhosen. I kept thinking it was all about me – usually, it is. Hence point one – why not kill me? But no, this time it’s about you.”
“Me.” He pinched the bridge of his nose.
“You, Honest Lassipants McLawman, are about to start as Sheriff for the biggest town around! What do you do if you’re bent and want business to remain as normal? I’ll tell you what you do. You take a convict to the new Sheriff, the Sheriff and the convict are overcome by outlaws, tragic accident all around. No new honest McSheriffpants and no big mouthed convict. Two birds, one stone.”
“Then why not kill us when we met?”
Spencer cocked his head, his eyes glazing over for a moment. They sharpened. “Samson wasn’t crooked.”
“The kid sharing my ride. Drimmer and his boys had to drop him off somewhere.”
“If that’s right then they’d be here any… moment…”
“It means you chose this place well last night. They couldn’t find our tracks, at least, until now.”
Then Spencer could hear the hoofbeats too. They were distant, sticks cracking underneath. Searching, looking. Spencer stood, tucking Carlton’s pistol in his waistband. He offered his hand and Carlton stared at it dubiously.
“How did you get out of the cuffs?”
Spencer shot him a lopsided grin and held up a sheriff badge by its pin. His sheriff badge. He wiggled the fingers of his hand.
“If this is all some elaborate ruse –” Spencer laughed. “I mean it!” Spencer gave him his gun. “You’re mad.”
Spencer winked at him. He stopped, hesitating for a moment, and leant in. Spencer’s lips felt dry and warm against his own. He licked at them, and felt a bonfire run up his spine as Spencer let his tongue in. Spencer’s jaw was rough and angular against his hand, the hair at the back of his neck soft and clean.
Spencer broke the kiss.
“I’ve died,” Carlton realized. “This is hell. You’re the devil – you’re going to tempt me-”
“Don’t be a superstitious scarecrow, Lassie,” Spencer scolded, cutting through his Catholic crisis. Carlton stared as he walked off and began rifling around in the back of the wagon. He pulled out a hammer and a crowbar. “I’m not good with violence – icky, gross, makes me faint – which one is less likely to kill?” He held both aloft.
Spencer poked around the wagon a bit more. “Don’t be silly, there’s no birds in here.”
Carlton checked his gun. Still four bullets. Sighing, he began reloading the empty chambers. “If… IF you’re right, then there’s three of them against one of us.”
“Maybe more. It’s possible they picked up some friends on the way here.”
“Now I’m reassured. Thank you Mr. Spencer.”
“I’d say you’re welcome, but I already told you to call me Sir Shawnalot. Now, here’s the plan.”
He listened. “That’s a stupid plan.”
Spencer considered this feedback. “Okay, new plan.”
Carlton huffed, considered the new plan, and set after Lucinda.
Drimmer and his men – if it were them – found Lucinda wandering peacefully on a rocky outcrop.
“Pretty horse,” said one of the men – Amos, Carlton identified. “They’ll be around here somewhere.”
Drimmer – oh crap, that was Drimmer’s big bay thoroughbred. Drimmer walked his horse towards Lucinda. Hidden, Carlton watched with bated breath, lining up the shot.
Spencer jumped down from a tree. “Howdy!”
Amos’ horse spooked at the sudden man, and Carlton watched bemusedly as Amos was thrown to the ground, just as Spencer predicted. The big man got his foot stuck in a stirrup, dragged a few paces while his horse calmed, and swore. Carlton kept his aim, satisfied that whoever he was, good or evil, would be unable to get up without taking his boot off first.
“This is a trap,” observed Drimmer, his round, pleasant face hard.
“Where?” asked Spencer, overacting.
“No matter. Kill him. We’ll find Lassiter soon enough.”
“You’ll need to be back up north soon,” Spencer said, looking nonchalant despite having a pistol pointed at his head. “What makes you think you can find him without me?”
“I’ll take that chance.”
“Who will find our bodies?”
“Who cares if anyone does. The result is the same. No Lassiter.”
Spencer was right, then. With that confirmation, he whistled and took the shot.
On cue, Lucinda kicked a falling Drimmer in the stomach, Drimmer’s thoroughbred having thrown him off. Amos’ horse bolted again, dragging him away. And Seth – the man Carlton shot in the shoulder – dropped his pistol in order to clutch at his wound.
Shawn leapt to get the gun and trained it on Seth. From his pocket he produced the shackles for a winded Drimmer. Spencer fumbled slightly and Drimmer took the chance to move. But Carlton was quicker. He fired, getting him straight through the knee. Drimmer screamed, a furious sound, but Carlton didn’t care. He had to find Amos.
He whistled and Lucinda galloped to his side. He swung on her, bareback, clinging to her mane with one hand, pistol cocked in the other.
Amos was a big and heavy man, and Carlton can see he was slow moving with only one boot on. He still had his gun, though, and Carlton felt a bullet whiz past his head. Bang! Lucinda flinched, and snorted unhappily – her ears were pinned but she did not unseat him.
“Good girl,” he murmured, and trained his gun on Amos. Amos, who stumbled backwards, Lucinda bearing down on him. BANG! Amos dropped his gun, hand bloodied and useless.
“Hands up, scumbag,” Sheriff Lassiter ordered.
With a scowl, the crooked lawman raises his hands.
Carlton checked the ropes and shackles one last time while Spencer chatted amicably to Lucinda. Somehow, he was managing quite well to continue a conversation with a silent partner. With a click, he smiled at his prisoners. Three crooked lawmen. That’ll be an interesting way to greet his new station. Allowing a small smile to grace his lips, he swung into the seat and together they set off.
“So, guess you’re not a liar."
"Guess not," replied Spencer, over-articulating the T of not.
Then you really do work for the Santa Barbara station?”
Spencer hummed. “I’m your deputy.”
Carlton startled. Lucinda whinnied and he softened his reins. “You’re my what?”
“It should be Jules,” Spencer bemoaned, seemingly oblivious to Carlton’s poleaxed expression. “Unlike me, she actually does paperwork. But they disqualified her for a stupid reason.”
“She? Jules is a woman? Women can’t be lawmen.”
“One day, Lassie, one day. She’s a good seamstress, but a better cop. I’m running out of reasons to invite her into the station, if I’m honest. There’s only so many outbreaks of moths one can have, apparently.”
Still struggling with the idea of Spencer being his… deputy, he had rather lost the conversational thread. “What? Moths?”
“Moths eat clothes with their tiny horrible teeth. Jules fixes clothes. How else can she solve crimes, protect and serve, without moths?” Spencer shook his head. “At least she can come into the station, unlike Gus. We have to sneak him through the back, like some dirty little secret. Chief’s Mrs. is cool with him and Jules. Townsfolk less so.”
Gus. That sounded like a man’s name. “Why can’t Gus solve crimes?”
“I never said he couldn’t solve crimes. He solves like the best of us. In fact, I’m nearly useless without him. He’s black.”
Carlton shook his head slowly. He wasn’t sure what to say, only that his new position would be interesting, to say the least. Eventually, he settled on something broad. “The state of the world today.”
"Home without love is a strange place."
"Still not a psalm."
“Amen, partner,” agreed Spencer. Carlton felt something brush his free hand. He looked down and bit down on a grin. He opened his palm and slid Spencer’s fingers between his.
“So, Deputy Spencer,” he said, clearing his throat. “You, me, Gus and Jules? Anyone else I should know about?”
“Chief’s a pushover and his wife runs the show. Woody, our doctor, is probably insane. The old old sheriff was my dad. He’s retired now, officially, at least. The newer old sheriff was crooked.” Spencer squeezed his hand. “Oh! Buzz has a cat.”
“A cat.” Carlton considered this. He looked at Spencer, who grinned at him. He rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help smiling a bit too.
“It will be now, Sheriff Lassiter.”
They held hands until sunset, when Lucinda rolled them safely into Santa Barbara.