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Phoenix, Arizona, Summer 1915
Except for the old codger huddled on the stool at the far end of the bar and the barkeep, who looked vaguely familiar, Gideon Yarbro had the Golden Horseshoe Saloon to himself, and he liked it that way. Just wanted to drink his beer in peace, wash some of the inevitable sooty grit from the long train ride from Chicago to Phoenix out of his gullet, and gear himself up to travel on to Stone Creek come morning.
His brothers, Rowdy and Wyatt, would be after him to stay on once he got home, settle down, pin on a badge like Rowdy had, or start a ranch, like Wyatt. Get himself married, too, probably, and sire a pack of kids. Both considerably older than Gideon, who was the baby of the family, the former outlaws had left the urge to wander far behind them, long ago. They were happy in their new lives, and for them the lure of the trail was a distant memory.
Not so for Gideon.
One of the things he loved best about his work was that it took him to places he'd never been before. This time, though, it was taking him home.
He sighed, reminded himself that Wyatt and Rowdy meant well. It was just that, being Yarbros, they tended to come on strong with their opinions, and they treated him like a kid brother-emphasis on "kid."
He was twenty-six, damn it. A man, not a boy.
Gideon reined his musings back in, corralled them in the right-now. Distractions could be lethal for someone in his line of work, and of course trouble tended to strike when a person was thinking about something other than the immediate situation.
Against the far wall, up to its clawed crystal feet in dirty sawdust and peanut shells, the piano gave a ghostly twang, as if one of the wires had snapped. Gideon spared enough of a grin for one corner of his mouth to quirk up, but the face he saw reflected in the streaked and dusty mirror behind the long bar barely registered the change. His dark blond hair was in need of barbering, he noticed, and he'd need a shave, too, if he didn't want a lot of hectoring from his sisters-in-law, Lark and Sarah, when he showed up in Stone Creek tomorrow.
Again, the piano sounded just the echo of a note, a sort of woeful vibration that trembled in the air for a few moments, along with the tinge of stale cigar smoke and sour beer.
"Damn place is haunted," the barkeep said, either to everybody in general or nobody in particular. He was a bulky type, balding, with a belly that strained at the buttons of his stained shirt and a marked tendency to sweat, and watching him wipe down glasses with a rag made Gideon wish beer came in bottles. "I swear it's that piano player that got himself shot in the back last year. Never had no trouble until ole Bill Jessup bit the dust."
Gideon didn't acknowledge the remark-he placed little or no stock in tales of spooks and specters-but he recalled the shooting well enough. Rowdy followed such things, being a lawman, and he'd mentioned the incident, in passing, in one of his letters. Mail from home-Stone Creek being the only place Gideon ever thought of in that particular context, and then not with any great degree of sentimentality-was infrequent, and since he moved around a lot in his profession, it generally took some time to catch up to him.
"You want another whiskey there, Horace?" the bar-keep asked the old man. He sounded nervous, like he didn't want to offer, but feared dire consequences if he failed to make the gesture. Not that the leprechaun represented any threat to the bartender; Gideon would bet the shriveled-up little old man wouldn't have weighed in at more than a hundred pounds if he'd been sopping wet and wearing granite shit-kickers.
And from the looks-and smell-of Horace, he'd gone past "enough" a long time ago, but he grunted, without looking up, and shoved his glass out to be filled again.
The barkeep poured the whiskey, standing back farther than seemed sensible and sweating harder. Gideon took all this in, not because he was interested, but because it was what he did. Working for the Pinkerton Agency after college, and then for Wells Fargo, he'd learned to pay attention to everything going on around him, even in the most ordinary circumstances.
He'd have bet that barkeep hadn't washed his hands in weeks, let alone taken a bath. Gideon frowned and studied his beer mug more closely, but except for a few smudges and a thumbprint or two, it looked passably clean. He wasn't back East anymore, he reminded himself, with another slight contortion of his face that might have been accepted as a smile in some quarters. Best get over being so fastidious.
He felt the slight shift in the air even before the doors to the street swung open, a sort of quiver, similar to the throb of the piano strings, but soundless.
Setting his beer mug down, he watched in the mirror as two men came in from the street, single file, both of them the size of grizzly bears raised up on their hind feet.
No, Gideon corrected himself silently, these yahoos would dwarfthe average grizzly. Despite the heat-he'd left his own suit coat at the train station, with his bags- they wore the long canvas coats common to gunslingers as well as ordinary ranchers, and both of them carried sidearms, the butts of long-barreled pistols jutting out of the waistbands of their dark woolen pants. Their gazes tracked and found the old man, sliced over to Gideon, sharp as honed knives, then swung back and bored into their target again.
"Monty," one of them ground out, presumably greeting the barkeep. They'd paused just inside the doors, which were still swinging on their rusted hinges.
Monty gulped audibly, set down the bottle he'd poured the old coot's drink out of, and took a couple of steps backward. Came up hard against the shelf behind him, with its rows of bottles and glasses. The front of his shirt, damp before, was nearly saturated now, he was perspiring so heavily.
"I only give ole Horace more whiskey 'cause he asked me to," Monty spouted, as if he'd been challenged on the matter, working up a grimace of a smile that wouldn't stay put on his face.
Entertained, Gideon suppressed a smile, along with the sigh that came along behind it. When he got to Stone Creek and started his new job-the one he'd lied to Rowdy and Wyatt about in his last letter-such amusements as this one would be few and far between.
He was in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon, he reminded himself, to have a beer, not watch a melodrama-or to participate in one. Still, the fine hairs were standing up on the nape of his neck, and the sixth sense he'd developed working as a detective was in fine form.
"You'd better go on back to the storeroom or the office and check on whatever needs checking on," the taller of the two men told the barkeep. His voice had a thick, stuffy sound, as if at some point he'd had his head held under water for too long, or hadn't gotten enough air in the first few minutes after he was born.
It was hard to imagine him as a baby, Gideon thought, amused.
His mama must have been a big woman-or else she'd have split wide-open giving birth to the likes of him.
Monty was only too glad to check on whatever needed checking on-he gave Gideon a look, part warning and part pity, and skedaddled.
Gideon felt no need to reach for the Colt .45 riding low on his left hip, but he did take some comfort in its presence. Straightening, he rolled his shirtsleeves down and fastened the cuffs; and though he knew he appeared to be mainly concerned with emptying his mug, he had a full mirror-reflected view of the room through his eyelashes.
One of the men cleared his throat, though the pair still hadn't moved from their post just over the threshold. "Ma says supper's gonna be ready early tonight," he announced, not exactly cautious in relaying this news, but definitely tentative. "She wants to be at the church on time for the pie social."
So she had survived childbirth, Gideon thought. Either that or the woman in question was a stepmother. Out West, a lot of men ran through a whole slew of wives, wearing them out with hard work and childbearing and all the rest of it.
Gideon's own mother had perished giving birth to him.
The old man grunted once more, that being his primary means of communication, apparently, but didn't turn around or speak an intelligible word. He just drained his glass, made a satisfied sound as the firewater went down and reached for the bottle poor old Monty had left behind on the bar when he fled.
At last, the giants moved again, as one, like Siamese twins with no visible attachment. Strange for sure, that was Gideon's involuntary assessment.
There were times when he'd rather just ignore goings-on, and this was one of them, but it wasn't in his nature. He pondered everything, weighed and considered and sorted.
The taller fellow snagged Gideon's gaze in the saloon mirror. "We don't want no trouble now, friend," he said. "We've come to take Dad home for supper, that's all, so we'd be obliged if you didn't mix in."
Gideon gave a disinterested nod, waited to see if the old whiskey-swiller would raise an objection to what he'd no doubt regard as a premature departure.
There wasn't much to him, for all that his sons were big as trees.
Like as not, he'd go along peaceable. Then Gideon would finish his beer, leave payment on the bar, and go on about his business-checking in to the hotel across the street, having some of his gear brought over from the train depot, getting himself shaved and sheared and bathed. He'd stop by the post office, too, in case some mail had straggled in since the last time he'd passed through Phoenix.
The brothers positioned themselves on either side of the bar stool, set their feet as if they meant to put down roots right through the sawdust and the plank floor beneath, exchanged wary glances, and simultaneously cleared their throats.
"Get on home," the old man croaked, thereby proving he possessed a vocabulary after all, however limited, though he didn't look at either one of them. All his attention seemed to be fixed on the bottom of that whiskey glass, Gideon observed, as if there was some kind of scene being played out there. "Tell your ma I'll be along when I'm damn good and ready, and not before."
"She said we'd better not come home without you if we know what's good for us," the smaller brother said gravely. "And you know we've got to mind, lest Ma lose her temper."
With that, and another glance at each other, the brothers closed in and took hold of the old man's arms.
And that was when all hell broke loose.
Dear old Dad turned into a human buzz saw, all jagged edges, ripping into the air itself, and practically throwing off blue sparks. He kicked and twisted and punched, spitting out oaths and cusswords that even Gideon, raised in the back of a saloon in Flagstaff, had never heard.
The brothers had all they could do to contain their pa, and the three of them tangled all the way across the saloon floor to the doors, a blur of fists and flying coat-tails and swearwords that sizzled like water flung onto a hot griddle.
Gideon pushed back from the bar, walked to the swinging doors, stopped their wild swaying with both hands. Watched over the top as old Horace's sons flung him into the back of a buckboard by his suspenders, like a bale of hay by the twine. One of them scrambled up to take the reins, while the other climbed into the wagon-bed to hold the old man down with both hands.
And that took some doing, all by itself.
"Are they gone?" Monty asked tentatively, from somewhere behind Gideon.
Gideon turned, saw the bartender back at his post, but poised to hit the floor or make another dash for safety if Dad and the boys chanced to return.
"On their way home to supper," Gideon said. "Looks like Ma will be right on time for the pie social."
With that, he plucked a coin from the pocket of his tailored vest, walked over to the bar and laid it down.
"I don't believe I caught your name," Monty said, after swiping the coin off the bar with one paw.
"I don't believe I gave it," Gideon replied.
Monty narrowed his eyes, and recognition dawned, though Gideon had hoped it wouldn't. His kinfolk were well-known in Phoenix, since it was only about a day's ride from Stone Creek, and Rowdy, along with his best friend, Sam O'Ballivan, often had business there. As a boy, Gideon had accompanied them once or twice.
"You're that Yarbro kid, aren't you? The marshal's little brother. I used to work in one of the saloons up there in Stone Creek, and I recollect that you took a bullet at a dance one night, trying to catch hold of some fool that rode a horse right into the Cattlemen's Meeting Hall."
As always, the word kid made Gideon bristle, way down deep where it didn't show, and being over six feet tall, he didn't consider himself anybody's "little" anything, but he was feeling charitable after the beer, and somewhat resigned, so he let the comment pass.
"Yep," he said simply, turning to leave.
"That Chink sawbones fixed you up," Monty prattled on. Maybe it was nerves, considering the scuffle just past, but he'd sure turned talkative. "Wouldn't have given spit for your chances, but he pulled you through with his needles and poultices."
That Chink. The term stuck under Gideon's hide like a cactus needle.
"He saved my life," Gideon said stiffly, "and the life of somebody I cared about." Lydia Fairmont had been the other patient, he recalled, eight years old and one of Lark's students. Rowdy's wife had been the school-marm up at Stone Creek back then, and had taken the neglected child under her wing. Where was Lydia now? Maybe Lark would know. "And his name was Hon Sing."
Monty hastened after him, came all the way to the sidewalk. "I didn't mean no disrespect, Mr. Yarbro," he prattled. "I truly did not set out to offend."
Hon Sing, along with his wife, Mai Lei, had gone back to China, after inheriting the old Porter house and eventually selling it at a high profit, once copper was discovered in the foothills rimming the still-small town.
And that copper mine was the reason Gideon had been sent to Stone Creek. There was a strike brewing, and his job was to see that it didn't happen.
He made no response to the bartender's apology, beyond a cursory nod. Turning his mind to other things, he crossed the street, wending his way between horses and buggies and slow-moving wagons headed in opposite directions. The Desert Oasis Hotel offered some attractive amenities, including hot and cold running water, a decent restaurant and its own barbershop.
The lobby was opulent by Western standards, with carpets on the floors, leather sofas and copious potted palms.