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Breckenridge, Colorado Fall 1875
Cameron Gallimore hated hangings. He hated the gallows standing stark against the sky. He hated the way crowds gathered beneath it hours before. He hated the anticipation in their faces and the bottles of whiskey they passed from hand to hand. He especially hated hangings when he was the judge who'd condemned the man to die.
Drawing a dry, sharp breath of resignation, Cameron resettled the low-crowned Stetson on his head and stepped off the end of the boardwalk. The vacant lot near the edge of town where the gallows had been constructed was full of miners. As he waded in, the men closed ranks around him, clapping him on the back and offering congratulations.
Their approval rankled him. It wasn't as if he'd done anything to be proud of. It wasn't as if he'd earned the right to condemn a man by setting a fine example. He'd done his job. He'd done his job so well in the last four years, he'd sentenced eleven guilty men to the rope.
They'd hang the twelfth this afternoon.
Cam was pushing his way toward the base of the scaffold steps where he would stand to watch the sentence carried out when he caught sight of something he'd never seen at an execution before. Dead center and half a dozen yards back from the deck of the gallows a photographer had set up his camera.
The very idea that someone was going to immortalize Crazy Joe Calvert's execution stoked up a firestorm in Cam's chest. He came about in mid-stride and shouldered his way toward where the photographer stood all but hidden in the
folds of the camera's focusing cloth.
Dear God! Cam thought with a shudder. What kind of a man took pictures of a hanging?
No kind of a man, as it turned out.
Cam stopped dead when he saw there was a green twill skirt flowing from beneath the drape of the camera's dark-cloth. Scuffed black leather boots with high heels and embroidered shanks peeked from below the skirt's fashionably banded hem. The hand adjusting the knob on the side of the lens was small, delicately boned, stained black at the fingertips--and distinctly feminine.
Feeling unaccountably more aggrieved, Cameron stepped closer and smacked his own big palm down on the top of the square oaken box. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
The figure beneath the heavy fabric jerked back, popping from beneath it like a gopher bolting out of its burrow.
The photographer was a woman, all right--a small, sweetly rounded woman; all startled and smudged and glaring mutinously. She'd hung her bonnet over one of the camera's tripod legs, and the friction with the dark-cloth had mussed her hair. It stood out in curly, gingery-brown wisps and straggled in
corkscrews at her temples, cheeks, and nape. Her jaw angled gently above the
high, banded collar of her jacket, and her mouth was bowed and soft as a baby's. It was a far more open and arresting face than Cameron had been expecting.
"And just who are you, sir," she demanded, narrowing eyes of cool, luminous green, "that you've a right to ask me what I'm doing here?" Though the words were clearly belligerent, they were sweetened with the hint of Irish brogue.
Around the two of them a few miners turned from the contemplation of their whiskey bottles to something that might, for the moment at least, prove more diverting.
"I'm the man responsible for all of this, and I can't say I recall giving a photographer permission--"
The woman straightened from her shoe soles, which brought her delicate, upturned nose almost level with the center of Cameron's chest. "I don't suppose I really need your permission to take this picture, now do I?" she asked. "This is a public street. This is a public event . . ."
Cam wasn't sure what was strictly legal, nor did he mean to debate with her, but the question was on his lips before he could help himself. "What purpose could you possibly have for taking photographs of a hanging?"
There was neither apology nor compromise in her demeanor. "Selling photographs is how I earn my livelihood."
"And someone will be willing to pay you for--for a picture of this?" he asked, incredulous.
"Newspapers back east," she confirmed. "If I send them the particulars, they'll write a story and make an engraving from my photograph.
Sensationalism sells papers."
It was true enough. Newspapers these days would print anything.
All at once Cameron glimpsed the businesslike determination in the set of that jaw and the clear, hard practicality in those pale eyes. But then, it wasn't as if her reasons for wanting the photograph mattered to him. Even someone who'd stabbed his partner to death in front of witnesses deserved to
die with a modicum of dignity.
"Well, I'm afraid you'll have to find something else sensational to send them," he said and reached for her camera.
"Here, now!" she cried, catching at his sleeve. "What do you think you're doing?"
A few more men turned to stare at them.
Though she clung like a terrier, Gallimore managed to shake her off and collapse the tripod. "I won't have you taking pictures of one of my hangings."
"One of your hangings?" she echoed, her voice rising. "Just how exactly is this your hanging? Is it your neck they'll be stretching?"
Some of the miners around them snickered.
Cam ignored the men and shifted the weight of the camera against his shoulder. He lifted the legs of the tripod off the ground. The contraption was a good deal heavier than it looked.
"I'm Judge Cameron Gallimore," he told her. "I presided over Mr. Calvert's trial, and I'm responsible for seeing his sentence carried out."
"Then go on and see to your job, Your Honor," she told him pointedly. "Just unhand my camera so I can see to mine."
"Go ahead and let her take her picture," one of the miners encouraged him. "What harm can it do?"
"Aw, don't t-t-t-take her c-c-c-camera, Your Honor," another pleaded. "M-m-m-making photographs s-s-s-sure doesn't seem like a c-c-c-crime to m-m-m-me!"
There was a slurry of laughter.
Heat blossomed along Cam's jaw. He wasn't about to let a few drunken miners interfere with him doing his duty.
"All the little lady wants, Judge, is a picture of Crazy Joe swinging," someone else called out.
Images from the last four years suddenly washed over Cam--memories of stockinged feet dancing their final dance, of inert forms spinning slowly. Of the crisp blue sky and the stench of death. They were visions that stalked him as he drifted to sleep, visions that prodded him awake at night. They were the memories that lurked at the edge of his consciousness every moment of every day.
He was right to take this woman's camera, to do what he could to prevent her from planting those barbarous impressions in anyone else's mind. "I'm confiscating your camera," he advised her grimly and turned in the direction
of the sheriff's office.
"You can't do that!" she protested.
"I can do anything I damn well please on the day of a hanging."
The miners hooted as he stalked away. Above the sound of their derision Cam could hear her behind him, hurrying to catch up.
"Wait," she gasped, struggling to push her way through the thickening crowd. "Wait!"
He deliberately lengthened his strides.
She stumbled up beside him, breathless and panting. "Please let me have my camera back!"
"I'll see the sheriff takes good care of it."
"But I need to take that photograph!"
Cameron glanced down at her, recognizing something dark and desperate in her eyes. For an instant he hesitated. Then he imagined what he'd feel, being able to see the very moment of Joe Calvert's death frozen in time.
Chills chased down his back, and he hitched the camera higher on his shoulder. He caught the woman's elbow with his free hand.
She cheeped either in surprise or with the unintentionally hurtful strength of his grip. "What are you doing?"
"I'm taking you where you can keep an eye on the camera. You can have it back when the hanging's over."
"But that will be too late!" she snapped.
"Yes," he agreed and hurried her up the steps to the sheriff's office.