IT WAS JUST SUNSET when Alex started toward the stairs of the boardinghouse that, following her father's death, was now hers-despite the fact that he had left behind a new young wife, a woman named Linda Alex had yet to meet and couldn't say she thought much of.
She was shaking the dust of travel from her skirt before heading back up to her room, where clean clothes awaited after the long trip from the capital. She'd walked around the house, making note of the changes-some of them very strange-that had been made in her absence. Now she was looking forward to cleaning up and resting.
That was when she heard the shots.
Dozens of them, along with the sounds of horses' hooves, and the whooping and hollering that came along with the sudden rush of men into town.
"Oh, no!" Bert, the jack-of-all-trades her father had hired right after their arrival in Victory, Texas, came rushing into the entry hall and made his way to the front window. He peered carefully beyond the lace drapes, the color draining from his coffee-colored face. "It's...them," he said, shuddering.
"What's going on?" Alex demanded, turning. She felt a surge of fear streak through her, but she headed straight to the gun rack in the library. She had heard strange stories ever since her return, but she wasn't one to put stock in spooky tales, not when she had a gun in her hand.
Her father's Colt automatic was right where it had always been, and it was loaded. She might go down in a hail of bullets, but she wasn't going down without a fight.
Bert turned to stare at her, and she realized she'd never seen him afraid before. "Alex, leave that thing be. It won't help you any. These folks are-they're animals. We've got to get down in the basement and hide. Don't you see? There just ain't no point in fighting these days."
No point in fighting? That was ridiculous. Victory had a sheriff, a deputy, and a town banker, three shopkeepers and a stable master-all of whom had fought in the war or on the frontier and knew how to defend themselves. Not to mention the fact that the saloon had several bartenders and "song and dance" girls who were tough as nails.
Bert turned from the window to stare at her. "We've got to get into the basement. All of us. We've got to hide, and be real quiet. We'll be safe down there."
"I'm not hiding in the basement. This town has guts, and if we fight, others will, too."
Beulah, the cook, appeared, running from the kitchen. "Come on! We've got to go hide." She turned, calling for Tess and Jewell, the maids.
It was crazy, Alex thought, but all this panic was giving her chills.
Fighting her growing fear, Alex strode over and took Bert by the shoulders. "Stop it! We need to stand up and fight."
"No!" Bert shook off her hold and grabbed her in return. "Alex, you don't know these outlaws. It's the Beauville gang. I've seen what they done, back in Brigsby."
"What happened in Brigsby?"
"They murdered everyone and now the place is a ghost town. Now, you go down in the basement and-"
He never got to finish his sentence. The door to the boardinghouse burst open and revealed three outlaws standing on the front steps, guns drawn.
Alex's heart stuttered, then resumed beating as she told herself that they were just outlaws. Murderers shooting into the air and shouting to create fear and confusion, but men. Just men.
But it was three against one, because only she was armed.
Bert was a courageous man. Despite his fear, he stepped forward, ready to protect her. But the first of the outlaws, a tall man with a gaunt face and black eyes, laughed as, with a single swift blow, he sent Bert crashing against the wall. She heard the crack as his head hit the wood, then saw him slump unconscious to the floor.
"You must be the Alexandra Gordon I've heard so much about," the outlaw mocked, sweeping off his hat and bowing in greeting. The two behind him laughed, and one spat chewing tobacco on her newly swept hardwood floor. "Milo Roundtree, at your service," the first man said, then, "No, that's wrong. I believe you will be at my service."
"I don't think so." She lifted the Colt. "I know exactly how to use this."
A short man with scruffy, tangled blond hair laughed uproariously. "She'll be at our service? All right! She's a damn sight cleaner than them whores we're always stuck with."
"Didn't you hear me? I said I'll shoot you," Alex announced.
"No, you'll come with us," Milo said, and grinned. It was then she saw that two other men, who must have come in through the back door, had caught up with Tess and Jewell before they could reach the basement and were holding knives at the girls' throats.
Alex was filled with sudden terror, but somehow she managed to stay upright and keep her face as defiant as her words. "Let my friends go this instant, and I won't blow your brains out."
"Aren't you the feisty beauty?" Milo said. "I think you'll be for me. Just for me."
"Not in this lifetime," she said.
"That's all right, too, little darling," he drawled. The words were not reassuring.
"I'll shoot you before I let you lay a hand on me," she said to Milo.
He merely nodded toward the ruffian who held Tess. The man brought his knife closer to her flesh, and a low moan escaped her.
Milo looked at her challengingly, and Alex lowered her gun.
Milo stepped forward and grabbed her, slamming her up against him. She was immediately aware that there was something very odd about the man. He felt...cold, his flesh where it touched her like icy stone. She struggled, trying to wrench her arm away, but she was certain she would wrench it from its socket before she would break the man's hold on her. She looked up and met his eyes, strange eyes, and pitch-black.
More shots, cries and taunting came from the street. Alex didn't even fight or scream as Milo dragged her out. Where would be the sense in it? she thought.
There were eight men in all, she saw once she was outside: three who had remained out on the street with the horses and were the source of the most recent ruckus, the two who had Jewell and Tess, and the three, including Milo, who had accosted her.
"Round 'em up!" chortled one of the men with the horses.
Jewell let out a terrified cry as she was sent flying out the door and into the arms of another man.
Where the hell was the sheriff?
Where were any of the men?
"Get them across the street, into the saloon. We've got some more business in town before we leave with our spoils," Milo said to the others.
They were herded into the saloon, where several of the song-and-dance girls were huddled together by the piano.
The only man in the room was Jigs, the piano player.
Milo let go of Alex at last, so he could go behind the bar and open the cash register. Several of his men joined him, breaking open bottles of alcohol and shouting raucously.
Suddenly they heard the sound of clicking spurs.
Someone was coming at last. Alex let herself breathe an almost silent sigh of relief.
The slatted saloon doors were thrown open, crashing back against the walls loudly enough to arrest the attention even of the men behind the bar.
For a moment he was framed there in silhouette, a tall man in a wide-brimmed hat, wearing a railroad duster and cowboy boots, a rifle carried easily at his side.
He hadn't come alone. Behind him stood another man, a shade shorter but otherwise a twin of the dark silhouette in appearance.
The first man stepped closer and nudged his hat up, revealing eyes that seemed to glow with a golden light. He looked around the room and sized up the situation.
His gaze lit upon Milo, who still had his hand in the till. He seemed to be amazed that anyone had had the nerve to enter the saloon. Alex saw his hand inching toward the gun holstered at his waist.
The newcomer with the golden eyes fixed his stare on Milo.
"I wouldn't do that," he said. "I really wouldn't do that."
Milo ignored him.
And suddenly, gunfire blazed.
IN SECONDS THE AIR filled with a fog of gunpowder so thick that it obscured the action. Finally the roar of bullets died, replaced by coughing, followed by...a hard thud.
The smoke began to clear, and Alex saw the man with the shaggy blond hair lying on the floor, dead, blood pooling around his head. The others-outlaws and hostages alike-slowly began to emerge from hiding places behind tables, chairs, the bar and the piano. The sight was surreal, the settling gun smoke wrapping everything in an air of otherworldliness.
Milo was still standing.
And so was the newcomer with the eerie golden eyes.
The two men stared at each other.
Neither one had moved, Alex realized. In the hail of bullets, neither one had moved.
And neither one had been touched.
Milo smiled slowly. "Well, well, what do we have here?"
"That's not really the question, is it?" the newcomer asked quietly. "The real question is, what are you doing here? And the answer is 'running'-because that's the only way you'll leave here alive."
Milo guffawed, but to Alex's surprise, there was something missing now. The absolute confidence the man had emitted before was gone. Even so, he stood dead still-apparently not in the least disturbed by the death of his friend-and continued to stare at the newcomer speculatively.
"I can take you down," Milo assured the man.
"Maybe, maybe not. You just don't know for certain, do you?"
"I can have my men slit the throats of a half-dozen women before you can move...friend," Milo countered smoothly.
"Can you?" the newcomer asked.
Alex never actually saw him move. There was simply a blur in the air, and then the golden-eyed man was behind Milo, holding a glittering bowie knife at the outlaw's throat. "Don't doubt me, friend. I know just how deep I have to slide this blade. Now, tell your men to release the women and step outside."
"Get that knife away from my neck first," Milo said.
"No. When your men are on their way to the door, then I let you go. And then you get the hell out of this town."
"Even with your handy-dandy sidekick over there," Milo said, indicating the older man who had entered behind the newcomer, "you're outnumbered."
"Doesn't matter. If you don't let those women go and get the hell out of here, I'll show you what two men can do."
"The girls will die."
"So will you."
Milo's eyes gleamed with a fury that seemed to glow red, but he was clearly aware of the blade at his throat. He growled a command.
His gang began releasing the women and heading for the door. "Not outside!" Milo bellowed. "Not until I'm with you."
If not for the deadliness of the situation, it might have been amusing to see the way they collided with one another in an effort to stop and turn around. Finally the tall newcomer removed the blade from Milo's throat and pushed him toward his comrades. "Get out now, and leave this town be," he said quietly.
At the door, Milo turned back. "No one tells me what to do."
"No one can stop a man bent on sheer stupidity," the newcomer returned. "But I'm warning you-stay the hell away from here-or else."
"I don't take kindly to threats, friend," Milo said.
But apparently he'd wanted only to get in the last word, because he turned and left, his gang of outlaws following quickly.
For a moment there was dead silence in the saloon. It was as if everyone were waiting, listening for hoofbeats, the assurance that the outlaws were really gone.
When the hoofbeats came, then died away, cacophony followed.
Girls left their hiding places, racing toward the stranger.
"Oh, my God, you saved our lives!" one cried. Alex thought she looked new to life as a scarlet woman. Her hair was naturally red, and she had an innocence about her.
"The Good Lord alone knows what might have happened," another crooned-this one older, harder, a tall brunette, attractive, but with calculating eyes. She didn't look mean, just worn down by life. Alex thought she'd met her a few years back. Sherry Lyn, her name was. Victory was a small town. "Decent" women didn't usually mix with saloon girls, but there was just no way out of the fact that you were going to meet at the general store.
"You can have anything in this place that you want, young man," said a third woman. Maybe she was the madam, Alex thought. She was of medium height, buxom and a bit stout. Her hair was hennaed, and she had the weary look that came from too many years of scraping along in life.
Ignoring the offer, the golden-eyed man said, "Ladies, listen to me. You've got to stay close for the time being. Lock your doors at night, put up a sign saying you're closed to the public, and don't go letting any strangers in."
His words were greeted by silence.
His older friend cleared his throat and nudged him, grinning.
"This is a...funhouse, Cody."
The brunette was the first to speak. She cleared her throat. "Honey, I don't know how to put this delicately, but...if we don't invite people in, this place ain't going to be in business long."
"I see," Cody said gravely. "Well, you're still going to have to be very careful. When you're not...entertaining, you need to lock your doors. And don't fall prey to anyone seeking entrance when they shouldn't be."
"And when would that be, sugar?" the buxom woman asked. "And by the way, I'm Dolly. I keep things running around here."
"Dolly," Cody said, "you have to keep an eye out for things that don't seem...quite normal, for men like that bunch that were in here just now. You have to fight them. All the men-and women-in this town need to learn to fight them." He paused, looking at the bright-eyed female faces staring at him as if he were a god who had come to earth. He shook his head, as if realizing that he wasn't being understood. "I'm Cody Fox, and this is my friend Brendan Vincent. We'll be sticking around for a while. We're going to try to find out what's going on here."
The sound of furniture being shoved across the floor startled everyone, and all eyes in the room were suddenly focused on the piano. It was just Jigs, who had risen from his hiding place at last.
Alex noted that Cody Fox already had a hand on his gun belt.
"You two some kind of lawmen?" Jigs asked. He epitomized the popular image of the perfect piano player with his fine suit, bow tie and misty-gray top hat that nicely complemented his ebony flesh. Tall and lean, he lent just the right touch of class to a place frequented by cardsharps, fast women, ranchers, cowboys and transients.
"Lawmen? No. Just concerned citizens," Cody replied.
Brendan Vincent said, "I had kin who lived out in Brigsby. There's not hide nor hair of them to be seen."
"Well," Dolly said dryly, making no mention of the state of things in Brigsby, "you're mighty welcome here. As you might have noticed, we've yet to see the sheriff or his deputy."
Cody was an extremely attractive man, Alex thought. He had a handsome face, if somewhat gaunt. His eyes were a golden hazel, and when he dusted his hat on his knee, she saw that he had rich wheat-colored hair. Tall and rugged, like many another cowboy, still he had something that was entirely unique. Alex found herself curious about him, and it was no wonder the working women in the saloon seemed about to have the vapors.
"Ma'am, to be quite honest, I think we're looking for a rooming house of some kind, a place where we can have a bit of peace and quiet, a place to think some of this out," Cody said politely.
"Then you want to be staying at Alex's place," Jigs said.
Alex hadn't realized that Jigs had even seen her, but now he stared at her, grinning. "Welcome home, missy," he said softly.
Everyone in the place was staring at her now, and she didn't like the sudden attention. She felt her cheeks grow warm and flushed, though she didn't know why. It must be the stranger, she told herself. Cody Fox.
He looked at her for a long moment. A very long moment. Then a hint of a smile touched his features and he tilted his hat in greeting. "How do you do, miss?"
She had the feeling she looked like a worn-out school marm. Most of the women in the saloon were showing a great deal of flesh and wearing vivid colors.
She was basically wearing travel dust.
"Fine, thank you-considering the circumstances. How do you do?" she replied courteously, feeling inexplicably awkward.
"You own a boardinghouse?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, unable to make further conversation, but then again, it had been a yes-or-no question.
"And might you have a couple of vacancies?" he asked politely.
She started to turn to Jewell to check, then remembered with sudden clarity and horror that Bert was lying unconscious-or worse-back at the boardinghouse. "Oh!" she gasped, and without replying, she raced out the door and across the street to the house. She rushed in, dropping to her knees by Bert's prone body.
She patted his cheeks and called his name, and after a moment he let out a groan and opened his eyes, staring up at her blankly.
"Bert?" she said anxiously.
He blinked, then started to speak, but his words froze in his throat, and he grabbed her arm in a surprisingly strong grasp. She turned to see that Cody Fox and Brendan Vincent had followed her.
"It's all right. They stopped the outlaws," Alex said soothingly.
"Stopped them?" Bert said, staring at the other men skeptically.
"They killed one of them and convinced the others to ride away," Alex said.
"The sheriff?" Bert asked.
"Nowhere to be seen," Alex admitted.
Cody hunkered down by Bert's side. "Looks like you took a hell of a wallop," he said, his eyes sympathetic. "Do you think you have any broken bones?"
Bert looked at him, still suspicious, but said, "I think I can get up."
Cody offered him an arm. Bert got to his feet slowly, wincing. He continued to study Cody, but he nodded in thanks as he said, "I'm all right."
"Still, you might want to sit for a spell," Cody suggested.
"The library," Alex suggested, leading them toward the comfortable overstuffed sofa in her father's-no, her-library.
She got Bert settled, then backed straight into Beulah, who had come in like a whirlwind, followed closely by Jewell and Tess, and Brendan Vincent.
"Oh, Bert, look at you!" Beulah said, taking his hand, along with a seat next to him.
"I'll get him a whiskey," Jewell decided.
"Maybe tea would be better," Tess suggested.
"Maybe we should put the whiskey in a cup of tea," Jewell countered.
"I'm sure that will be fine," Beulah said.
Jewell and Tess turned to leave the room, but not before sighing softly and looking with rapt eyes at Cody Fox. Alex looked at Bert, rolled her eyes and winked, then grew sober again. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Fine, just embarrassed that I couldn't protect my own household," Bert said. He looked past her to stare at Cody and Brendan. "How the hell did you get that man and his human refuse out of town?" he asked.
"Just threatened him the way he threatens everyone else. Milo wasn't about to lose his own life, and he knew I would take it," Cody said, then cleared his throat. "Brendan and I are looking for accommodations, if they're available?"
"I just got back to town this afternoon, so to tell you the truth, I don't know," Alex said, and looked at Beulah, still at Bert's side. "Do we have any vacancies?"
Beulah let out a very unladylike snort, staring at her as if she had gone daft. "Do we have any vacancies? Child-we have nothing but vacancies. No one is coming out this way to stay anymore. No bankers, no railroad men. No new whores desperate to try out the place."
Alex smoothed her hand down her skirt. "Well then, gentlemen, you're certainly welcome to stay."
"It will be right nice to have you here," Beulah added with considerably more enthusiasm. "Breakfast is from seven to eight, and supper is served precisely at seven. If you're here, you eat. If you're not here, we assume you've made other arrangements. I'll just see to your rooms. If you'll excuse me?" She rose and started for the door, then suddenly stopped, a look of horror on her face.
"Levy!" she said. "Oh, dear, where is Levy? I haven't seen him since all this began."
Alex closed her eyes and groaned, hating herself. She'd forgotten the stable hand, as well.
"I'll check the basement," Bert said, rising carefully.
"I'll run upstairs," Beulah said.
"I'll take the stable," Alex said.
As soon as Beulah and Bert were out of the room, Cody Fox caught Alex's arm. Like Milo, he had a grip of steel, though he wasn't using it to hurt her. Still, she stared at him in indignation at being stopped so summarily.
"We're missing a member of the household. Please let go of me so I can go look for him."
"What does he look like? We can help," he told her.
"He's our stable hand, medium height, curly brown hair, thin face, dark brown eyes," Alex said, pulling her arm free.
"I'll head out to the street, see if the outlaws shot anyone we haven't discovered yet," Brendan Vincent said.
"I'll go out back to the stable with you," Cody said. "I think they're all long gone, but just in case..."
Alex ignored him and raced down the hall to the back door. The town had stables and a livery, but they had their own small stable out back, along with a smokehouse.
As she burst outside, the laying chickens began to squawk.
"Levy!" she cried, sprinting past the flustered birds.
Cody Fox ran by her toward the stables.
The outer doors were open and he headed inside without pausing. Alex followed quickly, still calling for the stable hand.
The stalls were to the left; Beau was in the first-kicking at the wall, which was uncharacteristic for the normally phlegmatic draft horse mix that pulled the work wagon. Cheyenne, Alex's palomino, neighed excitedly, pacing the small confines of his stall, and even Harvey, Bert's usually placid gelding, was putting up a ruckus.
"Levy?" Alex cried again.
She felt hay particles falling on her head and looked up to the loft.
And there was Levy. She could just see his face as he peeked down at them.
"Oh, thank God," she breathed, and started for the ladder. Once again Cody Fox grabbed her arm. "Wait."
"Wait? Why?" she demanded, but he was already heading swiftly up to the loft.
Alex followed. "Levy, are you all right?"
When she reached the loft, Cody Fox was already standing over Levy, offering him a hand to help him to his feet.
"Were you attacked?" Cody demanded. "Did those men hurt you...in any way?" he persisted intently.
"No, no, no," Levy said, rising and shaking his head emphatically. He looked at Alex with shame. "I knew they were here. I should have...I should have come out, but I came up here, up in the hay, and I just hid. The horses were going crazy. I...well, we've all heard about what happened over to Brigsby." He took Alex's hand. "Miss Alex, I am so sorry. I don't know what I was thinking."
"You were behaving sensibly and nothing more," she said firmly. "There was nothing you could have done except maybe get yourself killed. I'm just grateful that you're alive and well."
Despite her words, Levy hung his head. She reached out, lifting his chin. Levy was a real asset. He was strong, despite his slim physique, and intelligent; he loved books. The horses responded to his gentle ways, and when he was done with his work, he was a charming conversationalist. As a child, he'd come from Eastern Europe with his parents, who had been running from persecution, and now he was an integral part of the mix of ethnicities that made up Victory.
"I was a coward," he said softly.
"No," Cody said firmly, "you behaved rationally. You would have been able to go for help if Milo and his men had gone on a killing spree. One more body wouldn't have done anyone any good."
Alex found herself grateful for his support, and Levy looked a little less as if he wanted to jump out of the loft.
"Be that as it may, Alexandra, I won't be letting you down again," Levy said grimly.
"Well, thank God we're all fine and the danger is gone," Alex said, smiling.
Neither man offered a smile in return.
"Shall we get down from the hayloft?" she suggested brightly, determined not to dwell on what might have been.
Beulah was waiting outside the back door when they headed up to the house.
She swatted Levy with a dishrag. "You had us scared half to death, Levy!" she said, but then she hugged him. Finally she drew away and looked into his eyes. Something in her expression told Alexandra that the cook was satisfied with what she saw there. "All's well tonight," Beulah said softly.
They had barely entered the house when Brendan Vincent burst through the front door. "You better come, Cody," he said.
"What's happened?" Alex asked.
"Bit of a problem down the road, that's all," Brendan said.
He looked like such a civilized man, she thought, with gentle eyes, yet he was riding with Cody Fox, and Fox handled weapons like a man accustomed to battle. Not that he seemed particularly violent. He just moved with lightning speed and had a strength that was like steel.
"What problem?" she asked.
"There's a fellow...well, the outlaws got him," Brendan said.
"We've got to see who it is," Alex said. "Doc Williamson must be around somewhere," she added, and started for the door.
Brendan looked at Cody and blocked her way.
"There's no reason for you to be seeing this, miss," he said.
"Don't be ridiculous. I might be able to help. I've seen my share of war injuries. I'm not in the least delicate."
Behind her, Cody Fox cleared his throat. "I'm a medical doctor with a Harvard degree. If he needs help, I'll be there to do what I can."
Alex wasn't about to be stopped. "I'm going with you," she said stubbornly.
She saw Brendan look at Cody, waiting for his approval before moving. She wondered what was so powerful about the younger man that Brendan deferred so readily to his authority.
"Whatever you wish," Cody said impatiently. "The situation is undoubtedly dire, so we need to hurry."
With Brendan in the lead, they headed along the wood-plank sidewalk that had been built beside the main street to let people avoid the mud and muck of the broad dirt road. When they reached the end of the walk, they headed out into the street and across to the building that housed the combination dentist and barber shop.
A crowd had gathered there, but no one had approached the man lying facedown on the ground.
"Coming through," Brendan announced.
The crowd backed away, white-faced and tight-lipped.
"Why isn't someone helping him?" Alex asked, looking around the crowd. She saw people she recognized, who quickly lowered their eyes.
Cody hunkered down by the man, turning him over. Alex felt a quickening in her heart, followed by relief when she realized she didn't know the man. He was about forty, and he wasn't going to need a doctor. He had a huge bloodstain on his shirt, and his eyes were open and unseeing.
"Is he from around here?" Cody asked, looking around.
"I don't know him," Alex said.
A man stepped forward. One she did know. Jim Green, the local mortician and photographer.
"He's not one of ours," Jim said. He was a kindly old fellow with silvery hair and matching old-fashioned muttonchops. "He must have come in with the outlaws."
"Who shot him?" Cody asked.
Another man cleared his throat. Ace Henley, who ran the livery. "I was up in my loft, and I got in a few shots when they were whooping and hollering and blowing holes in the sky."
Cody studied him and nodded. "That's good. That's what we're going to need-a plan to get everyone into a position from which to fight, for next time they come in like they did."
"What'll we do with him?" Brendan asked, nodding toward the corpse.
Strange question, Alex thought. He was a dead man. Bury him. Even an outlaw had to be buried. What the hell else were they going to do with him?
"The usual," Cody said, rising, dusting his hands on his jeans.
"It's getting dark," Brendan commented.
"So it is. I'll get him over to the mortuary. Fellows, you got a place we can bury him?" Cody asked, looking from person to person in the crowd. "Might as well get him in the ground tonight."
"There's no preacher tonight," Jim said. "Though I don't rightly know if a preacher would say the words over...such a...one."
The two men exchanged a meaningful look, as if acknowledging a shared but unspoken truth. Alex wondered uneasily what was going on and whether it had anything to do with the strange state of affairs she'd found at the boardinghouse when she arrived that afternoon. Garlands of garlic decorating the windows and wardrobes, and an abundance of crosses hung in every room. Just what was going on here?
"He was a man, a man who had a soul at some time," Cody said. "We can say some words, and when a preacher comes, he can say those words all over again. Now, let's get him out of the street before night comes on."
"Right," Jim said, and cleared his throat. "It's all over town how you two saved the place, mister. We're right grateful." He doffed his broad-brimmed hat in Cody's direction and nodded to Brendan. "I'm Jim Green, mortician and photographer, at your service. We're mighty glad to have you."
"Thank you," Cody told him. "Anyone seen the sheriff yet?"
"Him and the deputy went off just about an hour or so ago-there was talk of some cattle rustling out at Calico Jack's. That would be John Snow's trading post," Ace clarified.
John Snow-on-Leaf, now known simply as John Snow, was part white, part Mexican, part Apache and all entrepreneur, Alex thought. He and his current wife and twenty of his children-a brood whose color went from sable to snow-managed the trading post where the tribes and white folk alike came and went.
Cody nodded, glancing at Brendan Vincent. "All right, anybody sees the sheriff, tell him I'd like to meet him come the morning. Now, let's deal with the dead."
He reached down and grabbed the dead man under his armpits as Brendan went for the man's ankles.
"Lead on, Mr. Green," Brendan said.
"Right this way," Jim said.
The crowd broke apart and began to disperse, everyone looking uneasily at the sky, as if they were desperate to be off the streets before dark.
Alex stood there, watching the townspeople and frowning.
Strange-no, bizarre-the way people were behaving.
As if he sensed she was still standing there, Cody paused and turned back. "Go home, Miss Gordon. Please."
Then he started walking away again, the weight of the dead man suspended between him and Brendan Vincent. Either one of them might have thrown the body over a shoulder and carried it easily.
They didn't seem to want to touch the blood.
Spooked by the intensity of his insistence that she go home, but too stubborn to just run away without knowing what was going on, she decided to pretend to obey his directive. She walked away and stepped up on the sidewalk, then paused and looked around.
No one was left on the street. It was as if the town were deserted. When she saw Fox and Vincent follow Green into his place of business, she stepped back off the sidewalk and walked swiftly and as silently as she could in their wake.
The door to Jim Green's photography studio and mortuary was closed by the time she got there, but the curtains were still open at the windows, and kerosene lamps were lit within.
The front room held the photography studio; the mortuary was in the rear. Someone had neglected to shut the door between the two, so she stood to one side of the big front window and peered in.
The men had carried the body through to the back and placed it on a long oak slab-a rudimentary embalming table. Green's instruments were laid out on a small cart nearby. Since the war, she knew, the art of embalming was in demand.
There were a lot of dead boys making the long journey home.
She continued to stare through the window, carefully trying to shield herself from the men within.
They were examining the body and talking, but she could only catch snatches of the conversation.
"I don't think so. I really don't think so," she heard Cody say.
"We have to think about safety," Jim said.
"He's right, Cody-better safe than sorry," Vincent added.
Cody studied the corpse, turning it, touching the throat and studying it, as if he might find a pulse.
Doctor? Educated at Harvard? A farm boy could see there was a massive shotgun hole in the man's chest.
"Better safe than sorry," Cody agreed.
Jim Green handed him a long knife with an edge so sharp it glittered like diamonds in the lamplight.
Cody took the knife.
She nearly gasped aloud as she saw him position himself-then sever the corpse's jugular.
She clamped a hand over her mouth and leaned against the wall, stunned. Then she turned back to the window again, thinking that her eyes must have deceived her.
Now only Jim Green was standing over the corpse. Or rather, the pieces of the corpse.
There wasn't all that much blood, but then, the man had already bled out all over the street; a shotgun blast could do that to a fellow.
But now...Now the dead man's head had been severed cleanly from his body. The face was turned toward her, the eyes staring out at her.
Caught in the glow of the lamplight, they seemed to be alive.
They seemed to be staring straight into her soul.