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Early December, 1914
If the spark-throwing screech of iron-on-iron hadn't wrenched Clay McKettrick out of his uneasy sleep, the train's lurching stopwhich nearly pitched him onto the facing seatwould surely have done the trick.
Grumbling, Clay sat up straight and glowered out the window, shoving splayed fingers through his dark hair.
Blue River, Texas. His new home. And more, for as the new marshal, he'd be responsible for protecting the town and its residents.
Not that he could see much of it just then, with all that steam from the smokestack billowing between the train and the depot.
The view didn't particularly matter to him, anyhow, since he'd paid a brief visit to the town a few months back and seen what there was to seewhich hadn't been much, even in the sun-spangled, blue-sky days of summer. Now that winter was coming onClay's granddad, Angus, claimed it snowed dust and chiggers in that part of Texasthe rutted roads and weathered facades of the ramshackle buildings would no doubt be of bleak appearance.
With an inward sigh, Clay stood to retrieve his black, round-brimmed hat and worn duster from the wooden rack overhead. In the process, he allowed himself to ponder, yet again, all he'd left behind to come to this place at the hind end of beyond and carve out a life of his own making.
He'd left plenty.
A woman, to start with. And then there was his family, the sprawling McKettrick clan, including his ma and pa, Chloe and Jeb, his two older sisters and the thriving Triple M Ranch, with its plentitude of space and water and good grass.
A fragment of a Bible verse strayed across his brain. The cattle on a thousand hills
There were considerably fewer than a thousand hills on the Triple M, big as it was, but the cattle were legion.
To his granddad's way of thinking, those hills and the land they anchored might have been on loan from the Almighty, but everything elsecows, cousins, mineral deposits and timber includedbelonged to Angus Mc-Kettrick, his four sons and his daughter, Katie.
Clay shrugged into the long coat and put on his hat. His holster and pistol were stowed in his trunk in the baggage compartment, and his paint gelding, Outlaw, rode all alone in the car reserved for livestock.
The only other passenger on board, an angular woman with severe features and no noticeable inclination toward small talk, remained seated, with the biggest Bible Clay had ever seen resting open on her lap. She seemed poised to leap right into the pages at the first hint of sin and disappear into all those apocalyptic threats and grand promises. According to the conductor, a fitful little fellow bearing the pitted scars of a long-ago case of smallpox, the lady had come all the way from Cincinnati with the express purpose of saving the heathen.
Claybone-tired, homesick for the ranch and for his kinfolks, and wryly amused, all of a piecenodded a respectful farewell to the woman as he passed her seat, resisting the temptation to stop and inquire about the apparent shortage of heathens in Cincinnati.
Most likely, he decided, reaching the door, she'd already converted the bunch of them, and now she was out to wrestle the devil for the whole state of Texas. He wouldn't have given two cents for old scratch's chances.
A chill wind, laced with tiny flakes of snow, buffeted Clay as he stepped down onto the small platform, where all three members of the town council, each one stuffed into his Sunday best and half-strangled by a celluloid collar, waited to greet the new marshal.
Mayor Wilson Ponder spoke for the group. "Welcome to Blue River, Mr. McKettrick," the fat man boomed, a blustery old cuss with white muttonchop whiskers and piano-key teeth that seemed to operate independently of his gums.
Clay, still in his late twenties and among the youngest of the McKettrick cousins, wasn't accustomed to being addressed as "mister"around home, he answered to "hey, you"and he sort of liked the novelty of it. "Call me Clay," he said.
There were handshakes all around.
The conductor lugged Clay's trunk out of the baggage car and plunked it down on the platform, then busily consulted his pocket watch.
"Better unload that horse of yours," he told Clay, in the officious tone so often adopted by short men who didn't weigh a hundred pounds sopping wet, "if you don't want him going right on to Fort Worth. This train pulls out in five minutes."
Clay nodded, figuring Outlaw would be ready by now for fresh air and a chance to stretch his legs, since he'd been cooped up in a rolling box ever since Flagstaff.
Taking his leave from the welcoming committee with a touch to the brim of his hat and a promise to meet them later at the marshal's office, he crossed the small platform, descended the rough-hewn steps and walked through cinders and lingering wisps of steam to the open door of the livestock car. He lowered the heavy ramp himself and climbed into the dim, horse-scented enclosure.
Outlaw nickered a greeting, and Clay smiled and patted the horse's long neck before picking up his saddle and other gear and tossing the lot of it to the ground beside the tracks.
That done, he loosed the knot in Outlaw's halter rope and led the animal toward the ramp. Some horses balked at the unfamiliar, but not Outlaw. He and Clay had been sidekicks for more than a decade, and they trusted each other in all circumstances.
Outside, in the brisk, snow-dappled wind, having traversed the slanted iron plate with no difficulty, Outlaw blinked, adjusting his unusual blue eyes to the light of midafternoon. Clay meant to let the gelding stand unte-thered while he put the ramp back in place, but before he could turn around, a little girl hurried around the corner of the brick depot and took a competent hold on the lead rope.
She couldn't have been older than seven, and she was small even for that tender age. She wore a threadbare calico dress, a brown bonnet and a coat that, although clean, had seen many a better day. A blond sausage curl tumbled from inside the bonnet to gleam against her forehead, and she smiled with the confidence of a seasoned wrangler.
"My name is Miss Edrina Nolan," she announced importantly. "Are you the new marshal?"
Amused, Clay tugged at his hat brim to acknowledge her properly and replied, "I am. Name's Clay McKettrick."
Edrina put out her free hand. "How do you do, Mr. McKettrick?" she asked.
"I do just fine," he said, with a little smile. Growing up on the Triple M, he and all his cousins had been around horses all their lives, so the child's remarkable ease with a critter many times her size did not surprise him.
It was impressive, though.
"I'll hold your horse," she said. "You'd better help the railroad man with that ramp. He's liable to hurt himself if you don't."
Clay looked back over one shoulder and, sure enough, there was the banty rooster of a conductor, struggling to hoist that heavy slab of rust-speckled iron off the ground so the train could get under way again. He lent his assistance, figuring he'd just spared the man a hernia, if not a heart attack, and got a glare for his trouble, rather than thanks.
Since the fellow's opinion made no real never-mind to Clay either way, he simply turned back to the little girl, ready to reclaim his horse.
She was up on the horse's back, her faded skirts billowing around her, and with the snow-strained sunlight framing her, she looked like one of those cherub-children gracing the pages of calendars, Valentines and boxes of ready-made cookies.
"Whoa, now," he said, automatically taking hold of the lead rope. Given that he hadn't saddled Outlaw yet, he was somewhat mystified as to how she'd managed to mount up the way she had. Maybe she really was a cherub, with little stubby wings hidden under that thin black coat.
Up ahead, the engineer blew the whistle to signal imminent departure, and Outlaw started at the sound, though he didn't buck, thank the good Lord.
"Whoa," Clay repeated, very calmly but with a note of sternness. It was then that he spotted the stump on the other side of the horse and realized that Edrina must have scrambled up on that to reach Outlaw's back.
They all waitedman, horse and cherubuntil the train pulled out and the racket subsided somewhat.
Edrina smiled serenely down at him. "Mama says we'll all have to go to the poorhouse, now that you're here," she announced.
"Is that so?" Clay asked mildly, as he reached up, took the child by the waist and lifted her off the horse, setting her gently on her feet. Then he commenced to collecting Outlaw's blanket, saddle and bridle from where they'd landed when he tossed them out of the railroad car, and tacking up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the town-council contingent straggling off the platform.
Edrina nodded in reply to his rhetorical question, still smiling, and the curl resting on her forehead bobbed with the motion of her head. "My papa was the marshal a while back," she informed Clay matter-of-factly, "but then he died in the arms of a misguided woman in a room above the Bitter Gulch Saloon and left us high and dry."
Clay blinked, wondering if he'd mistaken Edrina Nolan for a child when she was actually a lot older. Say, forty.
"I see," he said, after clearing his throat. "That's unfortunate. That your papa passed on, I mean." Clay had known the details of his predecessor's death, having been regaled with the story the first time he set foot in Blue River, but it took him aback that Edrina knew it, too.
She folded her arms and watched critically as he threw on Outlaw's beat-up saddle and put the cinch through the buckle. "Can you shoot a gun and everything?" she wanted to know.
Clay spared her a sidelong glance and a nod. Why wasn't this child in school? Did her mother know she was running loose like a wild Indian and leaping onto the backs of other people's horses when they weren't looking?
And where the heck had a kid her age learned to ride like that?
"Good," Edrina said, with a relieved sigh, her little arms still folded. "Because Papa couldn't be trusted with a firearm. Once, when he was cleaning a pistol, meaning to go out and hunt rabbits for stew, it went off by accident and made a big hole in the floor. Mama put a chair over itshe said it was so my sister, Harriet, and I wouldn't fall in and wind up under the house, with all the cobwebs and the mice, but I know it was really because she was embarrassed for anybody to see what Papa had done. Even Harriet has more sense than to fall in a hole, for heaven's sake, and she's only five."
Clay suppressed a smile, tugged at the saddle to make sure it would hold his weight, put a foot into the stirrup and swung up. Adjusted his hat in a gesture of farewell. "I'll be seeing you, chatterbox," he said kindly.
"What about your trunk?" Edrina wanted to know. "Are you just going to leave it behind, on the platform?"
"I mean to come back for it later in the day," Clay explained, wondering why he felt compelled to clarify the matter at all. "This horse and I, we've been on that train for a goodly while, and right now, we need to stretch our muscles a bit."
"I could show you where our house is," Edrina persisted, scampering along beside Outlaw when Clay urged the horse into a walk. "Well, I guess it's your house now."
"Maybe you ought to run along home," Clay said. "Your mama's probably worried about you."
"No," Edrina said. "Mama has no call to worry. She thinks I'm in school."
Clay bit back another grin.
They'd climbed the grassy embankment leading to the street curving past the depot and on into Blue River by then. The members of the town's governing body waddled just ahead, single file, along a plank sidewalk like a trio of black ducks wearing top hats.
"And why aren't you in school?" Clay inquired affably, adjusting his hat again, and squaring his shoulders against the nippy breeze and the swirling specks of snow, each one sharp-edged as a razor.
She shivered slightly, but that was the only sign that she'd paid any notice at all to the state of the weather. While Miss Edrina Nolan pondered her reply, Clay maneuvered the horse to her other side, hoping to block the bitter wind at least a little.
"I already know everything they have to teach at that school," Edrina said at last, in a tone of unshakable conviction. "And then some."
Clay chuckled under his breath, though he refrained from comment. It wasn't as if anybody were asking his opinion.
The first ragtag shreds of Blue River were no more impressive than he recalled them to bea livery on one side of the road, and an abandoned saloon on the other. Waisthigh grass, most of it dead, surrounded the latter; craggy shards of filthy glass edged its one narrow window, and the sign above the door dangled by a lone, rusty nail.
Last Hope: Saloon and Games of Chance, it read in painted letters nearly worn away by time and weather.
"You shouldn't be out in this weather," Clay told Edrina, who was still hiking along beside him and Outlaw, eschewing the broken plank sidewalk for the road. "Too cold."
"I like it," she said. "The cold is very bracing, don't you think? Makes a body feel wide-awake."
The town's buildings, though unpainted, began to look a little better as they progressed. Smoke curled from twisted chimneys and doors were closed up tight.
There were few people on the streets, Clay noticed, though he glimpsed curious faces at various windows as they went by.
He raised his collar against the rising wind, figuring he'd had all the "bracing" he needed, thank you very much, and he was sure enough "wide-awake" now that he was off the train and back in the saddle.
He was hungry, too, and he wanted a bath and barbering.
And ten to twelve hours of sleep, lying prone instead of sitting upright in a hard seat.