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"I'm real sorry, Miz Spencer, but I just can't let you see them Wanted circulars!" Sheriff Watson shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, carefully avoiding the accusing stare of the slender woman facing him across his cluttered desk. To be truthful, he hadn't been able to look her in the eye since the night of Riley Hanson's murder nearly four months ago, and for good reason: She and C. W. Rawlings were locked in a battle that was going to be the death of one of them, and Watson didn't want to be anywhere near the middle of it.
Unfortunately it was a location he couldn't seem to avoid. It was his responsibility to tell her about C. W.'s latest dirty trick and to bear the brunt of her anger once more. Lucky for Ben, Allyce Spencer was a true lady who kept a tight rein on her temper. It was one of the things that made her so damned difficult to dislike.
"Let me understand this, Sheriff," Lacey said patiently, the glittering sparkle in her powder-blue eyes the only indication of her displeasure. "Last week I was allowed to look through the Wanted posters. And the week before that, too."
"In fact, I've had access to the Wanted posters every week for the past three years, just as my husband did before he died, isn't that right?"
"But this week I can't see them."
"Would you care to explain why?"
Watson shifted again, his eyes downcast. "It's the new town council rule."
"You mean it's the new C. W. Rawlings rule!" Lacey slapped the edge of the desk with her kid gloves, immediately drawing Watson's attention. His head snapped up andLacey's demanding gaze captured him before he could escape. "All right, Ben, let's have a little honesty here. You may be nothing more than a mugwump, sitting carefully on the fence so you don't have to take one side or the other, but at least you've always been an honest mugwump. Rawlings is out to ruin me, and everyone in town knows it. If you don't have the guts to face Rawlings, at least have the good grace not to lie to me! Now" -- she lowered her silken voice to a soft, commanding purr -- "whose idea was this?"
Ben sighed heavily. Damn, but he did hate being in the middle like this. "The town council decided--"
"You mean C. W. Rawlings decided," Lacey insisted.
The sheriff looked at her meaningfully. "You know as well as I do, Miz Spencer, that C. W. is the town council. Whatever he says, they do."
"As do you," she pointed out sharply.
"It's my job, ma'am."
Lacey shrugged her shoulders dramatically. "I always thought a lawman's job was to protect the people."
Watson straightened and Lacey could almost see the hackles rising on his neck. "I keep order in Willow Springs, ma'am."
"Oh, really? And where are you every time Rawlings's men shoot out the windows of my office? And why haven't you found the vandals who stole the handle off my printing press last month? Or the ones who stole my entire stock of newsprint last week? And why is it that you happen to be conveniently occupied elsewhere whenever Rawlings's men harass me or Berta or Zach?"
"You don't have no proof who stole that fancy thingamabob of yours, or the paper, and you don't know who broke the windows, neither."
The sheriff's scraggly eyebrows went up in surprise as Lacey began laughing and turned slightly to sit against his desk. The laugh was a pretty sound, soft and throaty, but it also sounded incredibly weary. Watson's heart went out to the lovely young widow. C. W. had broken grown men, crushed their spirit and ground them into the dirt. Ben Watson was living proof of that. Yet this little slip of a woman seemed to bend like a willow, always snapping back, no matter how much pressure Rawlings put on her.
"Oh, Ben, that's funny, truly it is." She chuckled, regaining the sense of humor that had kept her going these past months. "I suppose you're going to tell me that ghost riders shoot out my windows every week and that the press bar and paper just got up and walked out all by themselves."
"No, ma'am, I ain't gonna tell you that, but what I am gonna say, you ain't gonna like to hear."
Lacey's delicate eyebrows arched in patient expectation, and Watson took heart. Maybe the widow Spencer was ready to listen to reason. Someone had to get through to her or she was going to get herself killed. "It's time you packed it in, Miz Spencer, and that's the long and short of it! Old C. W.'s got it in for you 'cause of all them stories you write about him and the rustlers--"
"Ranchers," Lacey interrupted sharply. "They're ranchers, Ben, and you know it. Their spreads aren't big, like Rawlings's, and they don't belong to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, but they're ranchers just the same. The land's theirs, bought and paid for, and the only cattle they 'steal' are their own -- the ones Rawlings's men have deliberately driven off and left straggling loose on open range."
"Well, that makes them rustlers, ma'am," Watson argued. "Accordin' to the new mustang law, any strays found on open range automatically belong to the WSGA. It's the law," he stressed, as though that made the ridiculous legislation palatable.
"It's an unjust law, and I plan to see that it's changed!"
"All by yourself? Jest like that?" Ben's gray hair, thinning on top, crackled as he ran both hands through it in frustration. "One little slip of a woman with no one to protect her but an old black printer's assistant and a German house-keeper who looks like she's ate too many prunes? The three of you are gonna fight the whole territory of Wyoming?"
"If we have to." Lacey smiled, unintimidated by the sheriff's assessment of her limited resources.
Watson stared at her in amazement. She was a purebred lady from the top of her loosely piled silken curls to the tips of the shiny black slippers that peeked out from beneath the skirt of her well-cut shirtwaist dress. A tailored jacket nipped in to define her tiny waist, but other than a simple cameo at her throat there was no adornment on her clothes. The outfit was simple by any standards, and yet one glance told a man that it was made of quality goods and that the soft, slender woman inside it was quality as well.
Her vivid blue eyes, twinkling with humor and intelligence, said a lot about her, too, but as far as Ben Watson was concerned, that was half her problem. It was pure trouble and nothin' but when a woman got educated and started thinkin' she had ideas. Why, a woman runnin' a newspaper! It was plumb crazy, that's what it was!
Of course the sheriff wasn't about to say that to the widow's face -- no, sir-ree. Instead, he shook his head and muttered, "And I guess you think you're gonna win this fight?"
"I'm going to try."
"You're gonna get killed is what you're gonna get, Miz Spencer."
"Are you forgetting who my father is, Ben? I don't think he'd take too kindly to burying his only child."
Watson shook his head sadly. "Washington's a far piece from here, and that pappy of yours ain't gonna be much help when C. W. decides he's had enough. I don't care how many newspapers your pa owns or how many important people he knows."
Lacey grinned, making her face take on a radiant light that set the aging sheriff's heart to pumping. "Why, Ben Watson, if I didn't know better, I'd say that you liked me."
"I do like you, Miz Spencer, and so do most of the other folks around here, but we ain't the same as you. C. W. owns half this town outright, and he's got mortgages on the other half. That means he owns the people, too. We're not rich like you, and we don't have important men in Washington lookin' out for us. Maybe you are right: Maybe C. W. is too scared of your pa to do you any harm, but that don't mean he can't hurt the rest of us. The truth of the matter is, we may like you, but we can't afford to help you."
His words sobered Lacey, and she regarded him earnestly. "I don't want anyone hurt because of me, Ben. You know that. But I'm not the problem. C. W. Rawlings and his kind -- they're what's hurting this town. Every time he burns out an honest rancher or kills a man like Riley Hanson, he comes one step closer to destroying Willow Springs."
Watson glanced away quickly, and Lacey knew she'd struck home. Riley's death was a dark cloud hanging over all their heads -- one no one was likely to forget. Willow Springs had weathered the storm of Will Hanson's arrival in town. The senator had demanded facts but gotten few honest answers. His anger had set off a flurry of activity in Washington and in Cheyenne, the territorial capital, but little had been accomplished. The U.S. marshal, Clinton Rikker, had been fired as a sacrificial lamb, but in the end, all the sound and fury Will created had signified nothing. The vigilance committee had ceased its activities through the month of July, but when things in Cheyenne calmed down, the vigilantes had started up again. They were now more cautious and less deadly in their actions, but they still made their presence and intentions felt through intimidation tactics, including property destruction.
Lacey was sure they had not heard the last from Senator Hanson. She had known him since she was a child, and he wasn't the sort of man to give up his quest for vengeance against those who had murdered his son and daughter-in-law. Yet nothing had been done, and not much had changed since Riley's death.
At times it seemed to Lacey that she was fighting alone. Her newspaper, the only weapon at her disposal, continually attacked the vigilance committee, the WSGA, and C. W. Rawlings. She kept the fight alive, despite C. W.'s attempts to run her out of town, but no matter what she did, she could not rally the citizens of Willow Springs, or this sheriff, around her.
Determined to make Ben see her point, Lacey continued, "Wyoming wants statehood. It needs statehood. But we're not going to get it until we prove that we're not a lawless band of renegades."
"But that's just it, don't you see!" Ben cried, thinking she'd painted herself into a corner. "You're the one that's hurting us by printing stories about vigilantes in your paper. And then you send copies to your pa and he prints the stories, too, and all them senators and congressmen sees it and vote us down!"
Lacey swallowed a rapid surge of anger and tried to remember that she was dealing with a man who had little or no education, whose perception of the world ended just a foot or so beyond his nose. If there was one thing she'd learned in the six years she'd lived in Willow Springs, it was never to discuss politics with a man who said "ain't" and drank his coffee from the saucer instead of the cup.
"You're wrong, Ben. The truth never hurt anyone except the guilty. Pretending a problem doesn't exist won't solve anything; it will just make things worse."
Her voice was so soft and sad that Watson realized it was pointless to argue any longer. "You're gonna get yourself killed, Miz Spencer."
"You have my word, Sheriff, that I'll do my best to avoid it." Her grin was contagious, and Watson heaved a long, hard sigh before his craggy face split into a responding smile, showing the wide gap where he'd lost a tooth while breaking up a saloon brawl a few years back. That was the last time Ben Watson had deliberately placed himself in the middle of a fight, and he wasn't about to jump into this one, not even for a pretty thing like Lacey Spencer.
She was right about one thing: He was a mugwump who sat on the fence safe from harm, and he planned to stay there. He had tried to talk her out of this crazy business of going against a man as powerful as C. W. Rawlings; there was nothing else one grizzled old sheriff could do to stop her. And at least now no one could say that he hadn't tried to help her. It wasn't his fault if the mule-brained woman wouldn't take his advice.
"Now, I don't suppose you're going to let me see those Wanted circulars, are you?" Lacey asked hopefully, knowing full well that Ben wasn't about to change his mind.
"Oh, well, I should have expected this." She sighed philosophically and stood. Opening the door, Lacey pulled it wide and turned back to Watson as she leaned against the edge. "It's a little thing, to be sure, but C. W. knew it would get my goat so he couldn't resist. He wasn't satisfied with scaring all the merchants into withdrawing their advertising from my newspaper and intimidating the towns-people to the point that they're afraid even to look at a copy of the Gazette. No, he had to see if he could keep me from finding any news to print, too."
A thought struck her and her stunning smile widened. "Well, Ben, I guess that means if there's no other news, there'll be that much more space for the long, long editorial I'm writing about the committee's most recent night raid on the ranchers of the co-op. I think C. W. will enjoy that, don't you?"
Her laugh rang out clear as a bell, a throaty, earthy sound that ended in a small sigh as she turned to leave. A shadow fell across the open doorway, though, and Lacey stopped short, then stepped back as a man's broad shoulders filled the entryway. At least Lacey thought it was a man. From the condition the newcomer was in, she couldn't be quite sure. He stood on two legs like a man, but for a moment Lacey thought someone had planted a mud statue outside the sheriff's office.
The statue was tall -- well over six feet -- and the effect of his height didn't diminish much when he took off his wide-brimmed hat the moment he realized he was in the presence of a woman. Where the hat had been, black hair curled damply, but below that an even strip of chalky white dust circled his head, covering the hair that curled around his ears and down to his collar in the back. The dust also concealed the middle of his face, where a pair of sharp golden eyes lent the only hint of color to the pasty coat of grime. The line where his bandanna had covered his nose and mouth revealed the makings of a dark beard, lightly sprinkled with gray.
With all that contrast, he reminded Lacey of an exotic zebra she'd seen in a circus show when she was a little girl. The thought widened her friendly smile, and in return, the stranger grinned back, his eyes twinkling as he realized how he must appear to her. The smile crinkled the corners of his odd eyes, and the outermost layer of caked dust cracked and fell off, revealing still another layer of grime beneath it.
"Ma'am." He nodded in greeting, bowing ever so slightly, but it was enough to set up a stir of dust that made Lacey stifle a cough.
"How do you do," she answered politely, captivated by the way his eyes held hers. "I take it you've had a long ride."
"No, ma'am," he corrected easily, his voice laced with a hint of a southern drawl. "I've had a long walk. My pinto and I had an unfriendly encounter with a rattler three days ago."
"Obviously the rattler won." For some reason, Lacey couldn't stop herself from grinning.
The stranger covered his heart with his dusty hat and lowered his eyes with mock modesty. "A temporary victory only, ma'am. My horse bolted and broke a leg, but the rattler made a mighty tasty evening meal."
Always suspicious of strangers, Sheriff Watson drew himself up a little straighter and cleared his throat to capture the newcomer's attention. "What brings you to Willow Springs, mister?"
"I just followed the river until I came to a road, and the road led here."
"We don't cotton to drifters just lazin' through," Ben warned.
"I'm not looking for trouble, Sheriff, just a bed, a meal, and a shot of whiskey." He looked swiftly at Lacey. "Just to clear the dust, ma'am," he intoned with an apologetic sincerity that was belied by the laughter in his eyes.
"I understand completely," she replied seriously. "For medicinal purposes only, I'm sure."
Their eyes caught and held again, and Lacey wished desperately that she had even an inkling of what this man looked like. Beneath all that dust and hair could have been a twisted gargoyle, for all she could tell, but something about his eyes intrigued her. They were warm and intelligent, brimming with humor. Physically he appeared to be a fine specimen, with broad shoulders, a lean waist, and powerful thighs, but of course she couldn't be sure of that until she saw him without the mantle of trail dust. After three days on the open road, he could be nothing more than a skeleton layered with forty pounds of dirt.
While Lacey speculated about the stranger, he was doing some evaluating of his own and quickly decided that Willow Springs might be even more appealing than it had looked from the rise where he'd gazed down on the small, widely spread maze of buildings, corrals, and outhouses. After three days of walking, sighting the town had been a relief, but being greeted so pleasantly by this uncomfortably lovely woman with her heart-stopping smile and clock-stopping figure was a blessing from heaven. He wasn't about to question his luck, which was due for a change. Lately it had been all bad.
Her azure eyes, crystal clear and twinkling with laughter, assessed him without judging him -- a trait he found most admirable. He detested people who jumped to conclusions, pigeonholing people according to their appearance or the way they spoke. But there was no judgment in this uncommonly pretty face. The lady's high cheekbones and sculpted jawline were pronounced, but they were softened by her rosy complexion. Her nose was a shade too thin, but full, imminently kissable lips made up for that defect; and her hair, pulled loosely away from her face and bound in a chignon at the back of her neck, was a rich, light honey brown that provided a perfect contrast to the vividness of her eyes.
In her slim-heeled high-button shoes, she stood a little above the level of his chin, which made her a bit tall for a woman, but her height was so perfectly proportioned with her figure that he could find no fault whatsoever. She was, quite simply, exquisite.
Lacey was completely aware of his assessing gaze, and though she was surprisingly pleased that he seemed to find her appearance satisfactory, she ignored the rush of pleasure that rose up in the pit of her stomach. "Are you headed anyplace in particular, Mr. . . ." Her voice trailed off as she waited for him to supply a name.
"The name's Morgan."
"Morgan something, or something Morgan?"
"Just Morgan, ma'am."
Lacey nodded thoughtfully. Having been brought up back east, it had taken her quite some time to understand the total lack of concern for names here in the West. Back east a man's name was everything -- his heritage and the foundation of his future. But here names were unimportant, particularly to men. A man was judged by what he was and what he stood for, not by the name he called himself. And Lacey also knew that many names were made up, for convenience. Or for protection.
There was an unwritten code in the West that respected a man's privacy, but Lacey's familiarity with that code did not deter her in this instance. She was a reporter, accustomed to sniffing out a good story and getting at the truth. A newcomer in town wasn't much to write about, but to a journalist as desperate for news as she was, anything was better than nothing. And Lacey was intrigued by the stranger. He looked like a dusty trail bum, but his speech betrayed a more than passing acquaintance with education.
Instead of allowing his pronouncement to pass, she fixed him with her most searching gaze. "Morgan. Well, that's simple, to the point, easy to remember. . and very difficult to trace." Her smile offset the directness of her comment. "Are you a man with something to hide, Morgan?"
His golden eyes instantly lost their humor, but Lacey found it impossible to identify the emotion that replaced it. His smile stayed in place, though. "Don't we all, Miss. . . ?"
"Spencer. Allyce Smithfield Spencer. And it's Mrs.," she added pleasantly, then wondered why she'd bothered. Having been a widow for three years, that title had little meaning. It wasn't until she saw the obvious disappointment register on Morgan's face that she realized exactly why she'd mentioned it. She'd wanted to know if this unkempt stranger found her attractive enough to regret her apparently married state. How odd! In all the time since David Spencer's death, Lacey had not felt a glimmer of interest in another man. It was startling to realize that she was coming close to flirting with a complete stranger -- and one she probably wouldn't recognize if she saw him again without his layer of trail dirt.
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Spencer."
"That's quite all right."
Their mutually assessing gazes locked, and Lacey knew he was wondering just what sort of person she was. Though her attitude had remained consistently congenial, even friendly, her frank questions were out of character for the proper, well-bred lady she appeared to be. Ladies were shy, demure, and mindful of their place. They did not ask bold, direct questions, as she had.
Watson, unable to fathom the exchange taking place at his office door, cleared his throat uncomfortably. "You got business here, mister, or are you just passin' the time of day?"
With difficulty, Morgan shifted his gaze from the lovely Mrs. Spencer to the much less eye-appealing sheriff. "My first stop once I reached town was at the livery stable, where I stored my gear. A Mr. Applewhite was gracious enough to inform me that I would be required to check my guns with Sheriff Watson. Is that you?"
"That's right. We don't allow no firearms on the street."
Lacey issued an unladylike snort of derision, which Watson ignored. But the sound did not escape Morgan. He looked down at her, only to find himself staring at a lovely but deceptively innocent smile. What on earth was she trying to tell him?
Watson's voice drew him back. "You check your six-shooter and that fancy repeater with me."
"And when do I get them back?"
"When you leave town."
"Or as soon as you find a place to stay," Lacey piped up, taking a perverse delight in contradicting the sheriff. "You are staying in Willow Springs for a while, aren't you, Morgan?"
He turned his best smile on her. "For a while. At least long enough to replace my horse. I found out the hard way that walking doesn't agree with me."
"Well, I wish you luck, sir. Though you really shouldn't need it. Lew Dasat should be able to provide you with a mount to your liking at a fair price. His ranch is part of the co-op just north of town. I think you'll find he's an honest horse trader."
"Thank you for the advice."
"Oh, don't thank me." Lacey laughed. "Giving advice is one of the things I do best."
"She just has a mite o' trouble takin' it," the sheriff snapped, eyeing her meaningfully.
Morgan watched the exchange with interest, wondering what advice this fascinating woman had ignored.
Lacey merely smiled benignly at the sheriff. "Good day, Ben." She turned to Morgan as he stepped into the room to allow her access to the exit. "Morgan, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you enjoy your stay in Willow Springs."
"Thank you, Mrs. Spencer." He nodded politely as she brushed past him.
At the door a thought struck her and Lacey turned back. "By the way, Sheriff, I should warn you that I'll be receiving a large shipment on the one-fifteen train from Cheyenne this Friday."
"Oh?" Ben's craggy eyebrows shot up in curiosity.
"Yes." Lacey's velvety voice was laced with mild sarcasm. "I'm sure you'll want to find an excuse to be out of town that afternoon. If C. W. decides to meet that train, you won't want to find yourself having to come to my rescue."
The cutting edge in her voice irritated Watson. "Are you askin' for an escort from the station, Miz Spencer?"
She shrugged and held Ben's gaze with a hard look. "There's bound to be trouble. It's merely a matter of whether or not you want to be in on the fun as it transpires. . . or after it's over."
Her voice was deceptively innocent, but her dare was so obvious that even Morgan, who knew nothing of what they were talking about, realized she was taunting the sheriff.
Watson was the first to glance away, obviously uncomfortable with her veiled accusation that he was afraid of trouble. He replied gruffly, "I'll be there, ma'am."
"I'll believe that when I see it," Lacey countered politely.
The sheriff's head shot up, and he pinned Lacey with a sudden flash of anger from which, Morgan noted, Mrs. Spencer did not flinch. "Are you sayin' I'm a coward?"
"No, Ben," she returned softly, a note of sadness lacing her voice. "I'm saying that one of these days someone in this town is going to have to stand up to C. W. Rawlings, and I don't think that someone will be you. Good day, Sheriff. Morgan." She nodded briefly at both men and disappeared. The crisp clack of her heels on the boardwalk punctuated the silence until at last only her accusation echoed in the small office.
Feeling a little sorry for the sheriff, Morgan held his tongue and waited to see how the man would recover from Mrs. Spencer's accusation of cowardice.
Watson seemed to be lost in his own thoughts; it was several seconds before he remembered the stranger standing just inside his doorway. "You gonna hand over them guns or not, mister? I ain't got all day."
Reluctantly Morgan relinquished his Winchester .44-.40, then unstrapped the holster that housed his .44 Peacemaker. He watched as the sheriff tagged the rifle and placed it in a barred gun case behind the desk.
Watson pocketed the key and turned, accepting the holstered .44. Out of professional curiosity, he slipped the Peacemaker out of the leather holster and tested the balance in his beefy hand. The weight was perfect -- the kind of perfection that was expensive. You could tell a lot about a man by the guns he carried, and Watson frowned, not liking what he learned from his brief inspection of the handgun. He eyed Morgan suspiciously. "You a gunslinger, mister?"
"Why would you think that?"
"Cause this here fancy Colt's got a pretty fine hair trigger. You could get the drop on a lot more'n rattlers with this thing."
Morgan shrugged indifferently. "There are all kinds of snakes in this world, Sheriff. I'm just a man who knows how to be prepared for any of them."
Watson harrumphed loudly, not liking the answer and liking this stranger even less. Willow Springs had enough problems without another no-account gunslinger stirring up even more trouble. An unpleasant thought struck him, and his frown deepened. "You know C. W. Rawlings?"
Morgan kept his expression unchanged. "Should I?"
Ben stared at him, wishing he could read what was going on behind those weird gold eyes. Morgan's gaze did not waver, and finally it was the sheriff who glanced away. Hell, it wasn't any of his business if old C. W. had gone and brought in another hired gun. He just hoped that if he had, the deal they'd struck didn't have anything to do with Allyce Spencer. The woman had a sharp tongue and a pretty cockeyed notion of a woman's place in this world, but she didn't deserve to be on the wrong side of a cold-blooded killer.
"I guess we'll know soon enough," he grumbled, sitting down to tag the Colt before placing it in a drawer in the cabinet to the right of his desk. He quickly filled out a receipt and tossed it on the desk. "I'll be keepin' an eye on you, Mr. Morgan, or whatever your name is."
"I appreciate that, Sheriff." Morgan grinned. "I'll be back for my hardware as soon as I find a place to stay."
"You gonna be here long?"
Morgan shrugged and went to the door. "As long as it takes, I guess."
The door closed, and Watson watched as Morgan moved past the barred window and disappeared down the street.
In his prime, Ben Watson had been a good lawman; he'd cleaned up towns rougher than Willow Springs had ever dreamed of being. And what had made him good at his job was knowing trouble when he saw it. The prospect of trouble -- real trouble -- caused the pit of Ben's stomach to churn like cream turning into butter.
Over the years a lot of things had deserted him -- a little pride here, a dollop of self-respect there, and as Allyce Spencer had implied, even a goodly amount of courage. One thing he hadn't lost, though, was his instinct for trouble, and right now, Ben's stomach was churning real fast. Mr. One-Name Morgan spelled trouble with a capital T.
Rising slowly, Watson picked up his empty cup and poured it full of mud-black coffee from the pot kept hot on the low-burning wood stove across the room. Thoughtfully he moved back to his desk and from a deep drawer brought out a stack of Wanted circulars. Sipping his coffee, he began sifting through the posters one by one.
For some inexplicable reason he was suddenly reminded of the grim warning Mrs. Spencer had issued four months ago about a storm brewing. Though the sky was clear and the sun shining brightly, Ben could have sworn he heard the rattle of thunder in the distance.
Yes, sirree, Mr. One-Name Morgan was gonna be trouble. Just what kind Ben decided he'd better find out. Quick.
When a storm was coming, a man had to know which way the wind was blowing if he expected to survive.
Copyright © 1991 by Constance Bennett