Undercover (by Stardust)

Summary:
Category:  Bordertown
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,800


It was early morning, mild and cool, but no rain. Marie noticed the Marshal’s horse tied to the hitchrail in from of her store, but didn’t really think about it as she unlocked the door to her general store. She and Sally Duffield entered, only to stop short at the sight of the Marshal taking money from the store register.

“Jack! What are you doing?” asked Marie. She didn’t think she had ever been so surprised at something friend did. Jack had never taken anything from the store. He had always paid for it or put it on his bill. Never had she ever imagined he would take money from her cash drawer.

“Marshal?” questioned Sally, just as surprised as Marie.

Jack Craddock almost looked embarrassed at having been caught with his hand in the till by Marie and Sally. With a sigh of exasperation, he causally drew the revolver at his waist and waved it at them. “Now, Marie, you and Sally just stay put and I won’ t have to shoot either of you.” Craddock’s gun was pointed more at the floor than at the two women.

“S-s-shoot us,” stuttered Sally in an exasperated way. The fact that the Marshal was raiding the register still hadn’t sunk in.

Marie could only stare in astonishment and disgust at the sight of her friend as he robbed her store. She didn’t know what to do or say. Silently she watched as Craddock stuffed the money into the pocket of his yellow slicker then ran out the door.

“Get back, he ordered curtly at several early morning customers crowding around the door, trying to see what was going on. The Marshal jerked loose the reins wrapped around the hitchrail and mounted his palomino. The horse pranced into the middle of the street, eager and ready to run.

Wearing a heavy black coat, the Canadian Mountie ran out from the office he and the Marshal shared. “Craddock! I can’t let you do this,” he yelled.

Craddock yelled back. “I won’t let you stop me, redbelly.” He raised his gun and fired. Clive Bennett stopped in mid-stride and crumpled to the ground.

“No!” screamed Marie as she ran to the Mountie, horrified at the sight of the blood showing on the lawman’s shirt, under his coat. How could this be happening she wondered? First Jack had robbed her, and now he had shot his friend Clive. Why, oh why was Jack doing this. It was all she could do to keep from screaming as she stared at first the unconscious Clive and then at the Marshal on his horse. What else could go wrong? How much worse could it get?

Craddock rammed his heals into the palomino’s sides causing the horse to leap into a full gallop, heading south out of Bordertown.

*****

As soon as the Craddock rode out of the town, the Mountie regained consciousness quickly. With Marie’s help, Bennett got to his feet, one hand clutching his side, and stumbled back into the office. He slumped down onto the wooden bench. He gritted his teeth against the pain. “The son-of-a-bitch actually shot me.”

Marie tugged at the Mountie’s shirt trying to reveal the wound. Bennett was wearing a checked flannel shirt rather than his red Mountie coat. It was soaked in blood, but he didn’t seem to be that badly hurt. At least if his cussing was any indication.

Some of the townspeople pushed into the room, all asking questions and making suggestions about what should be done.

The banker, Wendell MacWherter, was the loudest. “Corporal Bennett, you have to do something. You have to go after Craddock and arrest him. Bring him back to stand trial”

“Yeah,” agreed Zac Denny. “Craddock’s gone crazy; he should be caught, jailed, and tried for robbery. I always knew he wasn’t as civic minded as he seemed to be.”

Others echoed the saloonkeeper, some muttering about a lawman gone bad being the worse kind of outlaw. No one seemed too concerned about how bad Clive might be hurt.

Marie noticed the dejected boy standing beside her and Bennett. Turning to the crowd, she demanded, “Get out of here. Give me some room to take care of the Corporal.” Something about the lady doctor’s determined look and the sight of the again almost unconscious Mountie caused the crowd to disperse. All except the boy.

“Why did the Marshal do it?” he asked. “Why, Marie,”

“I do not know, Willie. Help me get Clive into his room and in bed.”

With the crowd gone, Clive was suddenly on his feet and stomping into his quarters next to the office. He stripped of his coat, and popped buttons off his shirt, as he ripped it off.

“He shot me. Craddock actually shot me. He wasn’t supposed to do that.” Bennett pulled open his undershirt and looked at the slight scrape across his ribs. It was more of a burn, and barely bleeding, certainly not enough to account for how bloody his shirt was.

Marie turned to Willie. “Willie, go to my home and get my bag.” The boy hesitated. “Please, Willie. Do as I ask and after I have taken care of Clive’s wound, we will discuss what has happened. And try to make some sense of it.” The last seemed to be directed more at the Mountie than at Willie. With a disheartened sigh, the boy did as instructed. Marie poured water into a basin, picked up a towel off the table and began to clean the wound while Clive was still standing.

“Ouch!”

“I’m sure it is painful, but not as much as it should be considering the blood on your shirt. Blood that smells like ketchup.” Marie dropped the towel back onto the table and stood, hands on her hips. “Now, Clive Bennett, I demand that you tell me what is going on. Why did Jack rob my store, and shoot you?”

Clive felt gingerly along the scrape, testing his ribs. They didn’t seem to be broken. “I don’t know, Marie. Why should I?”

Marie waved a hand in the air. “Clive, there is something wrong here. You are not telling me everything you know.”

Bennett didn’t say anything. The silence stretched between them. Finally he spoke. “Marie, please don’t ask any questions.”

Willie returned with the doctor’s bag, and Marie dabbed iodine on the bullet graze, then wrapped a piece of gauze around Clive’s middle. “There, you are fine.” Her touch had been none too gentle, causing Clive to winch and groan several times.

“Corporal Bennett, do you want a posse to go after the Marshal.” Dom Bartinili and Craddock had been good friends but the grim look on Dom’s face said that friendship was now finished.

Bennett groaned again, and sank onto his bed. He lay there breathing heavily, eyes half closed. “Yeah, Dom, I guess so. Have the men get ready and I’ll be out in a few minutes. I’m still feeling sort of weak. Give me time for a little rest. Then we’ll go after him.”

“Are you sure you’re up to it, Corporal?”

“I’ll make it. I have to catch him.”

“I’ll get your horse ready.”

“Thanks, Dom.”

When Dom left, Bennett looked up to see Marie and Willie staring at him. Willie held out his hand. On it was a silver star. “The Marshal left his badge on his desk. Does that mean he quit being the marshal?”

Clive looked at the floor. He wanted so badly to tell Marie and Willie the truth. But he couldn’t. Not yet anyway. “Yes, Willie, I guess it does.

Marie didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. Tears threatened to spill from her blue eyes. She grabbed her medical bag and ran from the room.

*****

Hours later, as the shadows lengthened, and the sun began dipping to the west, the Corporal sagged in his saddle. He was tired, and his side burned and ached, as did his head. Thankfully, several would-be posse members had backed out when they found out there was no reward and not even pay for riding with the posse. But that was where the good luck stopped. Gabriel Couteau had ridden with them, and seemingly with no trouble, had found Craddock’s trail, even though Bennett had tried to lead them a different way. He had managed to slow the posse down by pretending that his wound was bothering him. Finally he had convinced them it was time to head back to Bordertown. Officially it was out of his jurisdiction, since he was a Canadian Mountie, and Craddock was still in Montana. Officially he couldn’t arrest the now ex-lawman unless Craddock crossed over into Canada. Officially it was a job for an American Marshal. Officially. He had used the word so many times that day he hated it. Officially it was his job. He and Craddock were both under orders. Now it had begun. Where would it end?

When the posse had turned back toward Bordertown, one man had remained behind. It was Couteau. The Mati had left the posse without a word to anyone, and unnoticed by the Corporal. He would track down Jack Craddock with or without Bennett’s approval.

*****

Seven days had passed. Jack Craddock was tired, hungry, dirty, disgusted, ready to throw in the towel and give up. In the past week, he had been to every town, wide-spot in the road, trading post, saloon or bar that he knew of within fifty miles of Bordertown, on both the American side and the Canadian side. Yesterday, at a stage station, he had heard that Dell Stoner had been seen at a trading post and saloon on Goose Creek. Goose Creek, he thought, more like goose chase.

He had ridden hard yesterday, last night, and this morning, and spent most of the last hour watching the big, barn-like store and saloon, through his binoculars. There were differently more people around, but he had seen no one he suspected might be part of the Stoner gang.

Jack scratched at his beard. He had purposely not shaved for about a week before he had left Bordertown and now his beard was getting fairly long. He had remembered to leave his favorite hat, the brown one with the silver conchos on it in Bordertown, and was wearing an old black one. With no badge to draw attention to himself, and now with the beard, and as dirty as he was, on one seemed to be noticing him. He was just another drifter.

Several days before robbing the store, he had left a black mare at old Toby Thunder’s place in anticipation of the need for her. In a round-about way, it was the first place he had gone to, when he ran from robbing the store, so he could trade his easily recognized palomino for the mare. He knew Toby wouldn’t ask any questions, or give any information, and would take care of the palomino until he returned for it.

Two men rode up to the saloon, tied their horses, and went inside. Craddock couldn’t make out their features in the evening dusk. Two more rode in. Then one man rode in by himself. Mounting the mare, Jack rode down to the trading post. Dismounting at the hitchrail, he tied his horse. Entering the saloon, he stepped to right of the doorway to let his eyes adjust to the large, dim room.

There were no windows, and only a couple of lamps were lit over the bar. The bar consisted of several wood planks laid on some barrels. In one corner were three, rough-cut tables accompanied by several chairs. The rest of the store was taken up with a few shelves of canned goods, a table piled with various pieces of men’s clothing, a few leather goods, sacks of beans, flour, sugar, coffee and piles and piles of fur pews.

Craddock moved to the bar. “Whiskey.”

The owner, a tall, thin man, had on a once-white apron, and his cloths were as dirty, if not worse than the ones Craddock wore. He slowly poured a swallow of bad liquor into a dirty, tin cup.

Picking up the cup, Craddock took a ship, or pretended to. “Got anything to eat?”

“Stew.”

“I’ll take some. And some coffee.”

Sauntering over to a table in a dark corner, Craddock made sure to put his back to the wall and face the rest of the room, especially the door. The bartender returned with a steaming bowl of stew, a cup, and a coffee pot. Thunking the bowl down, he poured the cup full of coffee.

“Anything else?”

“No,” answered Craddock, taking up the spoon from the bowl.

“Then that’ll be four bits.” The man stared at his customer.

Craddock shifted on the chair to where he could reach into his pants pocket and flipped two quarters onto the table. The bartender grabbed them and turned to go.

“Leave the coffee pot.”

Taking another look at the man, the bartender set the enamel pot on the table and left. Although the drifter looked tired and wore out, the bartender had seen the brief flash of fire in the man’s dark brown eyes. This wasn’t a man he wanted to tangle with.

As Craddock ate, he watched the others in the bar. Four men sat around another table playing a half-hearted game of poker. He decided none of them were real card players, nor did they look like the man he was after. They were just passing the evening.

Another man sat by himself near the bar, drinking a beer. Craddock noticed the man was watching him, as much as he was watching the other man. Jack decided this fellow fit the description he had been given. He was a big, muscular man; about six foot two, around two hundred pounds, light brown hair, and gray eyes. The Marshal guessed the man was about thirty years old, maybe thirty-five.

Jack finished the bowl of stew, refilled his coffee cup and leaned back in his chair. Now he watched the man openly. The man returned his stare. Deciding the time wouldn’t get any better, Jack spoke to him. “Howdy.”

“Do I know you?” asked the man.

“Don’t think so,” Jack answered. “But I think I might know who you are.”

“That so.”

Craddock picked up his coffee cup, walked to the other table, flipped a chair around and straddled it, arms crossed on the back of the chair. He took a swallow of the hot coffee. Finally he said, “I expect you might be Dell Stoner.”

A hard look crossed the man’s face, and Jack saw his hand drop to the butt of the pistol he wore. “You’re wrong, mister.”

“I hope not. I been lookin’ for Stoner for some time now.”

“Why so?” asked the other man.

“Well, I’d like to join up with him. Uh — work with him,” explained Jack. “Yeah, work with him.” He grinned at the man, raised an eyebrow and winked. “You know what I mean.”

“You got a name?” asked the man.

“Well, if you ain’t Stoner, — well —- I guess I done talked too much.” Craddock stood up and walked slowly toward the door. The short hairs prickled on the back of his neck. He couldn’t stop himself from looking back, so he grinned and winked again. Then went on out the door.

Even though the night air was cool, sweat broke out and dripped down his face, and between his shoulder blades. Craddock knew he had courted death tonight, and won. He wiped a sleeve across his forehead, untied the black mare, mounted and rode away from the saloon. He’d find a place away from here to camp for the night, but he doubted very much if he’d sleep.

*****

“Marie, you have to file charges against Marshal Craddock,” said Sally. “Only I guess he’s not the Marshal anymore, since he stole your money.”

Marie looked up from the ledger she was writing in and frowned. She repeated what she had told Sally several times already. “Jack did not steal the money. It is a loan.”

“You know no one believes that, Marie.” Sally stopped stocking the shelves with canned goods and turned to her friend. “I just don’t know what to think. I always liked Jack, but I saw him take that money, he held a gun on you and me, and then he shot the Corporal. Now he’s been gone over a week and it doesn’t seem like the Corporal isn’t even trying to find him. Just keeps telling everybody it isn’t his job. It’s for the American authorities. It just isn’t like either one of them. I just don’t know what to think.”

Marie sighed and stood up. “I do not either, Sally.”

The door opened with a jangle of the bell, and Willie came into the store, and up to the counter. He took of his hat and turned it round and round in his hands. “Ah – Marie –ah.”

“Yes, Willie, what is it.”

“Ah – can I talk to you.

“Well, certainly.”

“Well – ah – it’s about the Marshal. I just can’t understand why he did what he did. I always liked him – and looked up to him, and now he’s gone and done all those bad things, and now he’s wanted by the law.”

All everyone seemed to want to do was talk about Jack, thought Marie. Personally she didn’t want to. She looked at the grim-faced, young man. She realized just how distraught he was. She wondered if Jack had though about the consequences of his actions before he had robbed her store. Had he thought of how she and Clive and the rest of the town would react? And especially, had he thought of how it would affect Willie? He was a hero to the boy.

She had tried not to let it bother her so much, because she suspected there was more to the whole situation than she knew about. She was sure that Clive Bennett knew more that he was telling. Marie untied her apron. Rolled down the sleeves of her white blouse, and smoothed the front of her navy blue shirt. “I think I will go talk to Clive. Maybe he has heard something. Would you like to come with me, Willie?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He jammed his hat on his head.

Sally went to help a customer who had just come in. “Well, if you find out anything, let me know.”

Marie and Willie hurried across the narrow street of the small town, stepping around several water puddles, and entered the office that had, until recently, been shared by the Corporal and the Marshal. Even with most of his things still there, the American half of the room seemed empty and deserted with Craddock gone. It seemed odd that Clive hadn’t removed Jacks things and requested another Marshal from Fort Benton.

“Clive—,” began Marie but cut off her question at the sight of Couteau pacing back and forth in the room, while Clive sat at his desk.

“Why do you not want to find Craddock?” Couteau asked. “He broke the law.” He waved a hand at the Mountie. “He shot you. I saw him.”

The Mountie shrugged his shoulders. “I’m all well now, Couteau. Don’t worry about it. He’s an American. You and I are Canadian. There’s nothing we can do. It’s a matter for the Montana authorities to handle.” He stood up and spoke to his other visitors. “Yes, Marie.”

The Mati throw up his hands in disgust and muttered an oath.

“I think I agree with Couteau,” said Marie. “I think you know more than you’re telling us.”

Willie and Couteau looked expectantly between Marie and Clive.

Clive felt like he was being overwhelmed by the three people waiting for his answer. “I can’t tell you anything else. It’s for the authorities to handle.”

“Can’t or won’t?” asked Marie.

Hands on hips, Willie spoke, “What’s the difference?”

The door opened again to admit Dom Bartinili who held the door for Sally.

“Who is watching the store?” asked Marie.

Sally answered brusquely. “The store can take care of its self for a few minutes. Dom and I have been talking and we want to know more about this problem with Jack Craddock.”

“That’s right,” said Dom. “The Marshal is my friend. He’s been a friend to all of us. The rest of the town may not care, but I do, and I think everyone here does, too. I think we need to find him and help him, if we can.”

“That’s right,” echoed Sally.

Marie crossed her arms. “Clive, we want answers.”

The Mountie sat on the edge of his desk. “All right, all right. Jack was supposed to have contacted me before now, anyway.” With his friends listening eagerly, he filled them in on the undercover assignment Jack had gone on.

*****

After getting more sleep than he had expected, Jack was up early and headed back toward the trading post. He never got there. A half-mile from the saloon, he was intercepted by the man he had talked to the evening before, the man that he thought was Stoner. As the big man nudged a bay horse across the road in front of him, Craddock went back into his role of outlaw.

He pulled up his mare. “Howdy, Stoner.”

“I like your style, mister. You ready to tell me who you are?” said Stoner.

The Marshal let a big smile cross his face. “Name’s Craddock,” he said. “Jack Craddock.”

Stoner sucked in his breath in surprise, and pulled his handgun, bringing it to bear on the marshal. For a moment Jack was sure he was going to start throwing lead. Slowly both men relaxed a might, Jack making sure to keep his hands in plain sight and away from his pistol.

“Marshal Jack Craddock?” asked Stoner.

“Used to be marshal. Not no more.” Jack dropped his head as if embarrassed. “Got caught with my hand in the money box at the general store.”

“Seems like I heard some ‘bout that,” said Stoner. He still kept his gun aimed at Craddock. “Shot some lawman, too, way I heard it.”

“Yeah, that damn Mountie. I took his guff to long as it was. I weren’t about to let him arrest me for them few dollars.”

“Rumor has it he wasn’t hit all that hard.”

“I aimed to kill him, but he moved just as I fired.” Jack ducked his head again. “He and that posse pushed me pretty hard for a few days. That’s one reason I want to join up with you, Stoner. Thought bein’ in your gang would be a good place to hide out. Reckon your makin’ a good bit on all them horses you been stealin’. Bound to be more than them few piddlin’ dollars I been able to sneak out of the different business in Bordertown.”

“You been doin’ that?”

“Ever since I got there,” bragged Craddock. “Bein’ Marshal, it was easy to find ever door or window that wasn’t locked, or could be jimmied open. They was easy pickin’s, and I never took it all at once. Just a few dollars here and there. No one ever caught on.”

“But you almost got caught that last time,” stated Stoner.

Craddock’s smile disappeared, and he didn’t say anything to defend himself for a few moments. “It won’t happen again.”

“All right, Craddock. I’m probably makin’ a mistake, but come on. Best you remember one thing, though —– you turn on me, —– you try to take me in, —– I’ll kill you. —– You understand.”

Jack nodded “I understand. “ ‘Sides, if I was to try to take you in, I’d wind up in jail, too.”

Stoner put his gun back in its holster, and both men turned their horses to head on down the road. “By the way, Craddock. Good thing you told me the truth. I thought I recognized you last night, too. You hadn’t a told the truth, well, you’d be dead by now.”

Jack suppressed a shudder and followed the horse thief, wondering again if he was getting himself into more than he could handle. He decided this undercover stuff wasn’t all it was cut out to be.

*****

Couteau had watched the rustlers’ camp for two days. It hadn’t been hard to find, once he had set his mine to it. He set his mind to figure out where Craddock might be and remembered a few words he had overheard once when the lawmen were talking about finding Dell Stoner, but neither Bennett nor Craddock had asked him to find the camp for them. He had wondered a bit about that. He shook his head slightly in wonder at the ways of the white men. They always seemed to do things the hard way.

The half Indian, half French scout moved closer to the edge of rock he was laying on. His leather cloths blended into the dirt and trees, making him almost invisible. From the ledge he could look straight down into the camp. There was a lookout posted, but he never seemed to look up this way. Couteau had seen six different men in the camp, Jack Craddock being one of them. That meant there were five of the horse thieves, and there were two women, also. One seemed to be a young girl, about eighteen or nineteen. The other was probably in her late twenties. Couteau hadn’t yet figured out where they fit into the gang.

Wanting to get closer, the scout slipped off the rock ledge and disappeared into the thick underbrush. This was the type of work he enjoyed. At a young age Couteau had realized that the old Indian way of life was over, and that of the mountain men and trappers would soon be over, as well. So he had learned to live like a white man, but he still wanted adventure in his life. He had found he could have it, and use his Indian skills by scouting and helping lawmen hunt down outlaws and criminals. He liked best to work for Corporal Bennett.

*****

Whittling on a stick, Jack Craddock sat on a stump used for chopping firewood. He was watching everything around him. The cabin, ten feet or so to his left. The large corral full of horses to his right, with more horses scattered out along the creek that meandered down the small valley. The rock ledge, rising a good fifty feet above the corral and over looking the canyon the hideout was in. He had thought he had seen the glint of something shiny up on the cliff. Maybe, maybe not.

A woman came out of the cabin, hips swinging provocatively; she walked past him to the creek, and bent to fill the two buckets she carried. She was tall, with blond hair, a blond that didn’t look natural. No blouse covered the sleeveless chemise she had on, and a ragged skirt revealed a lot of leg, as well as her dusty, bare feet. Coming back with the two dripping buckets she stopped and set them down near Craddock. “A gentleman would help a lady with these heavy buckets,” she hinted.

Jack took a quick look around, and shrugged. “Don’t see none. No gentleman, nor any,” he hesitated, “ladies.” He went back to his whittling. There was some advantage to playing outlaw, he thought and a smile played at the corners of his mouth.

The woman spit out several swear words, took up the buckets and returned to the cabin. It wasn’t the first time the ex-lawman had ignored her since he had arrived with Stoner several days before. She wondered what it took to make him look at a woman.

Jack had made it a point to stay away from the two women in the camp. He had no idea there would be women at the hideout. It was quickly obvious that this one, Cora, was Stoner’s woman and the other, Molly, was Stoner’s sister. Then one of the thieves had made it quite plain that Molly was his girl. Tom Blake had informed Jack that if he so much as looked cross-eyed at either woman that he’d get his face smashed in just before he got his throat cut.

The last thing Craddock wanted was to get involved with Cora or Molly, especially if it included getting his face smashed or throat cut. All he wanted was to capture Stoner and his gang. If the women were part of it, well — they would have to go to jail, too. But right now, he had to find some way to contact Bennett.

Something flashed in his eyes again. Casually Craddock dropped the stick he had been whittling on, closed his knife and slid it into its sheath. He stood, put his hands on the small of his back and stretched. He ambled slowly over to the corral. On the way, he took a look up on the cliff. He saw the glint again, and for a half a second, he saw a man. Couteau? If it was Couteau, he hoped Bennett was with him.

At the corral, he propped his booted foot on the bottom rung. He nodded at Watts and Paddy, two of the other men, who where brushing a couple of horses. Jack pulled out an old, red bandana, removed his hat, wiped at the sweat on his forehead, then at the sweat on the inside of the hat. He waved the hat a couple of times to air it out, then replaced it on his head. “Hot, ain’t it?” he commented to the two outlaws.

Paddy leaned against the fence and watched the Marshal. “Sure is.” He was an older man, small and wiry, with almost white hair. He always seemed to be rolling and lighting a cigarette. He did it now. “Gon’na rain tho’. Kin feel it in ma bones.”

“You might be right,” said Jack. “Especially considerin’ them clouds to the north.”

Paddy looked north. “Yeah, it is cloudin’ up. Been better if it had waited ‘nother few days. I like a good hard rain after we pull a job. Helps wash out tracks, an’ discourages posses.”

Craddock chuckled. “It sure does,” he agreed. Paddy had been the friendliest of the five horse thieves. Watts had seldom said anything, just glaring at every one and working with the horses most of the time. Kenner, the last of the five, a half breed, seemed to be a mean and vicious killer. Right now he was on watch.

Two horses cantered up to the corral. Molly pulled up her pinto, dismounted and began unsaddling. She didn’t look happy. Tom Blake sat on the other horse for a moment, then spoke. “Watts, you go relieve Kenner. Tell him I want to see him.”

Watts grunted an answer, handed the brush he had been using to Paddy, and began saddling a horse.

“Somethin’ the matter, Tom?” asked Paddy, as he took the reins of Molly’s pinto, removed the bridle and turned it loose.

“Nothin’,” Blake replied angrily as he stomped to the cabin.

Paddy tried again. “What is it, Molly girl?”

“Just that Tom is still steamed because Dell don’t want to go on another raid yet.” Molly tapped a quirt against her boot. She wore pants and a flannel shirt that only accented her feminine features. Her long, dark brown hair was braided and covered by her hat. She pointed the short whip at Craddock. “And he don’t like him bein’ here, either.” She followed Blake to the house.

Still leaning against the fence, arms folded, Craddock had watched the exchange without saying anything or showing he cared one way or another. He had already realized that Molly, Blake, and Kenner didn’t like him. Paddy and Watts didn’t seem to care. He wasn’t sure how Cora felt.

Paddy slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry none ‘bout the girl, Jack. She don’t never take to any of the new men right off, an’ you should a seen the fit she throwed when Stoner brought Cora here. Was a sight to behold.” The older man giggled at the thought, then gathered up Molly’s saddle from where she had dropped it and lugged it to a small lean-to where gear was stored.

The Marshal’s black mare pushed her nose against his arm, looking for a treat. He petted her a moment. It wasn’t Molly he was worried about. It was Blake. The man was violent, and cruel. He seemed ready to explode at a moments notice. Craddock didn’t want to be the one to set him off. Not yet anyway. He took a look up the side of the cliff, but didn’t see anything.

*****

The dark clouds dropped lower until it seemed they surrounded the hideout, and rain dripped from them, as evening closed in. Five men and two women, in one small, three-room cabin, made for close quarters, and tension filled the room thick as the clouds outside. Stoner and Cora shared one bedroom and Molly claimed the other. The big front room had bunks for the men on one end, and a cooking area on the other, with a table in the middle. Cora finished washing the dishes, while Paddy sat at the table playing a game of solitaire, with Craddock watching. Blake, Stoner and Molly held a whispered conversation in a corner. Only a word or two reached the Marshal’s ear. Not enough to make since.

A gust of wind swept the room when Kenner opened the door. As he entered, he shook rain off his slicker and hat, then hung them on a hook, causing a puddle to form on the floor.

“Hey,” said Cora pointing at the puddle. “Why didn’t you hang them wet thing out on the porch? What do you think this is, a barn? Don’t expect me to clean that up”

Kenner ignored the woman, went to the stove, warmed his hands briefly, then poured a cup of coffee. He got a whiskey bottle off a shelf and added some to the cup.

Cora slapped a wet rag down on the cabinet, then did the same as Kenner, poured coffee and whiskey into a tin cup and plopped down into an old rocking chair. As she rocked it creaked.

“Horses all right?” as Paddy, as he rolled and lit a cigarette.

“Uh huh, just wet,” answered Kenner.

Cora continued to rock the creaking chair. It wasn’t but a few minutes before Blake commanded gruffly. “Stop that, Cora. That noise is gettin’ on my nerves.”

“I like it,” said Cora, and rocked harder.

It took all the Marshal’s practice not to do or say anything. After a week of being here and putting up with Stoner and his gang, it was all he would do to keep from saying ‘adios’ and riding out. The next time someone asked him to go in undercover to catch a law breaker, he was sure he’d just turn in his badge.

Paddy shuffled the cards and laid out another hand. “Boss, you make a decision on what we’re gon’na do, yet?”

Before replying Stoner sat down at the table. He motioned for Blake and Molly to do the same. “Yeah, we’re gon’na take what we got and go north and sell ‘em.”

Blake pounded a fist on the table. “No, damn it. I say we make one more raid. That Metzler fella’s got some damn good horses and I want some of them.”

“Dell, I have to agree with Tom,” said Molly, to her brother. “If we’re going to hit Metzler, we need to do it now, before he sells any stock. He’s got a lot right now.”

Stoner frowned at her. “Paddy, how do you say?” he asked.

The older man laid a three of clubs on a four of hearts. “Me. I’m gettin’ tired of this game. Like to lay up in a town for the winter, if I can get enough money. Maybe with a nice, cuddly women.” He looked up at the half-breed, before returning to his cards. “Your vote, Kenner.” He dropped his smoke on the floor and stubbed it out with his boot, then rolled another.

“I go with Blake.” Kenner hadn’t hesitated, and no one was surprised by his answer. He never seemed to care about the money. His enjoyment was the actual stealing, of the horses. The thrill of getting away with something that belonged to someone else, and was against the law. Craddock had decided that was the way Blake and Molly felt, too.

Cora stood and sundered to the table, hanging an arm around Stoner’s shoulder. “Since Molly got a vote, I should have one, too.”

Molly smiled a big, fake grin. “Sure Cora, why not. You can have a vote; it just won’t count.”

Kenner and Blake laughed, and Cora’s face turned red. “For what my opinion might be worth, Dell, honey, I say we take what we got and get out of this crummy hole. Like Paddy, I think stayin’ in a town this winter would be a lot better than here.” She tightened her grip on Stoner, but nodded at Craddock, who still hadn’t said anything. “How ‘bout our ex-lawman friend, here, and Watts?”

Blake spoke up “Watts is with me. I already asked him. If Craddock sides with you, Dell, we’ll be tied up. Four to four. What then?”

Molly had another question. “Dell, if we don’t go for Metzler’s and just sell what we got, does Craddock get a share of the cut? I say no. He didn’t help us get none of this bunch of horses.”

“Molly’s right,” agreed Blake, and the others agreed with him.

“Well,” said Craddock, breaking his long silence, “I have to admit I ain’t got no right to what you already got. So I got to vote with Blake. I’ve seen Metzler’s stock, and I like their looks.” He paused to sip at his coffee. “Should be easy, too. He don’t seem to watch ‘em real close, either.” Jack was glad things had come to a head and was working this way. If the Stoner gang came to a decision on when they’d make the raid, and if that had been Couteau, and if he could get word back to Bennett. If, if, if. Way too many if’s.

“Then it’s settled.” Blake stood up. “We leave day after tomorrow. Hit Metzler’s spread the next day. Oh, and that chestnut stallion of his, is mine. Is that understood?” He looked around the room, but no one objected.

Stoner poured whiskey in his cup and downed it. “Paddy, I want you to stay and help Cora keep an eye out here. Craddock, time you stood watch. Go relieve Watts. Kenner I want you and Watts to leave tomorrow and scout out Metzler’s ranch.” He poured another drink, and gulped down the swallow of fiery liquor. “Now I’m goin’ to bed. Come on, Cora.”

“Sure, honey, what ever you say.” She winked at Craddock, then followed Stoner into the bedroom.

Out loud Jack groaned an objection to going out in the rain, but to himself he sighed in relief. He hadn’t known if he would take the heat and tension in the cabin much longer. He realized his luck was holding. He had only been sent on watch once before, and that had been with Paddy. Maybe Stoner was beginning to trust him more. Maybe this would give him a chance to find Couteau. He opened the door onto the pouch, causing the wind to whirl though the cabin again. Shutting the door, he grabbed his slicker from a hook and stepped out into the rain.

Jack had barely relieved the man called Watts when a voice whispered behind him, and Couteau appeared out of the rain and fog. Craddock wasn’t surprised that the halfbreed had been able to find him. In fact he was very glad and quickly told him what the Stoner gang was planning. As quickly and quietly as he had appeared Couteau was gone. He would take Craddock’s message back to Corporal Bennett.

*****

Slipping a bridle onto his bay horse, Clive led him out of the stall. He dropped a blanket and then his saddle onto the back of the animal. He swiftly pulled the cinch tight and fastened it. Then tied a bedroll and saddlebags behind the cantle. “Are you sure Craddock said the raid was for tomorrow?”

“Yes, that is what he said. At the Metzler ranch. Tomorrow.” Couteau already had a fresh horse saddled for himself. Now he mounted.

Dressed in riding cloths and carrying her medical bag, Marie ran into the barn. “Couteau, please saddle my horse, too.”

“No, Marie. You’re not going,” said the Mountie. “It could be dangerous.”

“That is exactly why I am going. If someone gets hurt, I want to be there so I can take care of them. I don not like it that Jack is out there pretending to be a horse thief, so he can catch the real horse thieves. As you said, it is dangerous.”

Clive stood facing the doctor, one hand on the saddle. Now he spoke in a low, earnest voice to her. “Marie, it is very dangerous. And that’s why I don’t want you to go. If your there, and I’m having to think about you, too, I can’t do my job as well and neither can Jack or Couteau. If you’re here, I don’t have to worry about you. Please, Marie, stay here.” He put his left foot in the stirrup and swung his right leg over to settle himself into the saddle.

Couteau’s horse sidestepped with impatience. “Stay here, Doctor. No one is going to be hurt. Unless it is one of the Stoner gang.” He let out the reins and the horse left the barn.

Clive and Marie stared at each other a moment. Neither wanted to back down. “Stay here, Marie. Please,” he repeated his plea.

Her shoulders sagged, but she tried to smile, knowing Clive was right. “Very well, Clive. I will stay. But do be careful, and bring Jack back with you.”

“I will,” promised the Mountie, as he followed Couteau.

Doctor Dumont watched her friends ride out of town, saying a silent prayer that they would return without being harmed. Sometimes she hated the fact that both Clive and Jack had such dangerous jobs, but she promised herself she would never let them know how much it frightened her.

*****

Jack lay in the jumbled pile of rocks between Dell Stoner and Tom Blake. Molly lay next to Blake. They had been there for several hours, through the chill of the night, waiting for the barest light of dawn to make their move on the Metzler ranch. Waiting for the time when men slept the most soundly, and they would be able to see just enough to be sure of what they were doing. They wanted to be able to take the best horses with the least risk, and Blake was determined to have Metzler’s stallion, and they knew the stallion was in the barn.

“It’s time,” whispered Molly, as the slightest tinge of red lay on the eastern horizon.

“All right,” said Stoner. “You and Tom go down this hill, on the right. Craddock and I will ease down through that pasture. Watts and Kenner will meet us at the barn.”

Molly and Blake mounted their horses and disappeared. Craddock followed Stoner through a small stand of trees, their mounts at a slow walk. A group of horses in the pasture woke up, and moved restlessly at their approach. Stoner detoured around them causing the animals to start moving toward the corral.

Jack was uneasy, watching, listening, waiting, expecting the Mountie and Metzler’s crew to appear at any moment. He had never stolen a horse in his life and didn’t want to now, but knew he had to go along with Stoner’s gang, if Couteau hadn’t been able to get word to Bennett. He knew Clive would not have been able to get any reinforcements from Fort Benton or Fort McCloud, as the army and Mountie posts were too far. But the Mountie might have come on his own to try and stop the raid.

Taking time to herd in the stock in the field made them the last to reach the corrals and barn. Kenner was opening gates, while Watts and Molly eased the horses out into the open. Blake came out of the barn leading a big, chestnut stallion. Skittish at what was going on the stallion trumpeted a challenge, and pulling hard on his lead rope, causing Blake to jerk on the rope and swear at the horse.

“Halt!” yelled Corporal Bennett. “Put your hands up.” He stood at the corner of the barn, gun drawn. Couteau, Metzler, and several others appeared at various places around the ranch yard and near the bunkhouse.

“Give it up, Stoner,” said Craddock in a loud voice, as he drew his revolver, pointing it at the outlaw leader.

“You son-of-a-bitch,” yelled Watts, grabbing for his own weapon and firing at the lawman. Metzler and his men shot back. The outlaw fell from his horse.

Loose animals were everywhere, whinneying and plunging in fright and running in all directions. Gunshots filled the air. As one mare went down, Metzler began yelling, “Hold your fire. You’ll hit the horses.”

Stoner stared in dismay at the Marshal. “I trusted you.” He reached for his gun and Craddock fired. Stoner jerked, then spurred his horse into the plunging, scattering herd. Two more shots rang out and then a semblance of quiet returned to the ranch.

Watts lay sprawled on his back, still breathing, but unconscious. Kenner leaned against a corral fence, right pants leg stained with blood, while Bennett fastened handcuffs to his wrists. Couteau had ridden after Stoner and Blake, who had managed to take Metzler’s stallion, even though the raid had been stopped. Metzler directed his men, sending most after the scattered herd of horses, while one took care of the injured mare. Her wound wasn’t as bad as they had first thought.

Craddock dismounted and was bending over another fallen outlaw. As the Marshal turned the rustler over, Metzler and Bennett joined him. “It’s a woman,” Metzler hissed through his teeth at the sight of Molly’s long hair and shapely curves.

Her eyes flickered, opened, and she whimpered in pain. Her hand clutched at her side, blood leaking through her fingers to drip onto the ground. Her lips moved as she tried to talk, but the men couldn’t make out the words. Mrs. Metzler had come from the house and at her direction the Marshal slipped an arm under Molly’s shoulders and knees, carried her into the house, where he laid her on a bed.

“Ma’am, can you take care of her, ‘till Doctor Dumont can get here?” he asked.

“Certainly, Marshal,” answered Letty Metzler. “Do you know her name?”

“Molly Stoner. She’s Dell Stoner’s sister.”

“Well,” said the older woman. “What is the world comin’ to, that young women turn to stealing’ horses. But whatever she’s done, she needs my help right now, and she’ll get it.”

Through clenched teeth Molly whispered. “Don’t want your help, you ole’ witch.”

Letty was unfazed my Molly’s words. “Don’t matter whether you want it or not, girl. You’ll get it anyway.” She turned to leave the room. “I’ll get some hot water and bandages.” She was a rancher’s wife and used to all kinds of emergencies.

“I don’t need anyone’s help,” said Molly.

“Yeah, you do.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jack took her hand and tired to comfort her. She tried to pull away, put was to week. “Molly, someone rode for the Doctor. She’ll be here soon. You just keep hangin’ on.”

“You set us up. Why would you or anyone here want to help me now?” She moaned and cried softy against the torment of her wound.

“Yeah, I set you up. It was my job. You shouldn’t have stole them horses in the first place. But I didn’t mean for you to get shot.”

Clive appeared at the door. “Craddock, we should go. Couteau went after Stoner, and the other man. We can’t afford to miss a chance to catch them.”

“They’ll get away, you know. You won’t catch them,” said Molly with certainty.

“I’m comin’,” Jack said to the Mountie. “Molly, I am sorry you got hurt. You keep hangin’ on, you hear.” The girl clutched at the hand that still held hers, and then was still. Craddock sighed deeply and laid her hand gently onto the bed, then wiped his own hand across his face as if to make the scene before him go away. He hadn’t really liked Molly Stoner, but he hadn’t meant for her to end up this way.

Letty Metzler returned and set a basin of water on a small table by the bed. She spoke in a soft, voice with a touch of sorrow in it. “Well, I don’t believe I can help her after all,” She placed a hand on the Jack’s shoulder. “She’s gone, Marshal. You need to finish your job. The Corporal is waiting for you. I’ll take care of things here.”

With a last look of regret at Molly’s now peaceful face, the lawman left the room.

*****

Stoner slumped in the saddle of the running horse, finally pulling it to a halt. Tom Blake reined in, too, still fighting to control Metzler’s stallion. “Come on, Dell,” he said impatiently.

Stoner removed his bandana stuffing it into his shirt, trying to plug his wound. “Where’s Molly and Kenner.”

“Craddock and them others got Watts and Kenner.”

“But what about Molly?” Stoner was worried about his sister.

“I ain’t sure, but she’ll catch up soon.”

Stoner turned his horse to stare back the way they had come. “We can’t leave her back there.”

“Come on, Stoner. She got away. She knows how to keep hid.”

“Yeah, maybe she did. She’ll meet us back at the hideout.” He hoped it was true. He couldn’t bear to think of Molly in a jail somewhere or, worse, hung for horse stealing.

Blake was getting more irritated at Stoner. “Craddock knows where it is. We can’t go

back there. Molly will know that. She’ll meet us on down the trail somewhere.”

“We have to. Have to warn Cora and Paddy. Don’t look like you cared as much for Molly as you said. You don’t care ‘bout nobody but yourself, do you, Blake? You do want you want, I’m goin’ to the hideout and wait for Molly. I ain’t sure I can make it much farther, anyway.” Stoner kicked his horse into a lope.

Blake didn’t follow. With the stallion in tow, he headed west. What did he care about Molly, or Stoner? He had his skin and this damn stallion.

*****

Paddy gazed across the Montana landscape. He wiped his sweaty palms down his leather pants leg, then pulled a pouch of tobacco, and a paper out of his vest pocket. He rolled a cigarette and lit it. Something wasn’t right, he could feel it. Returning to the cabin, he stuffed his few positions in a burlap bag, and rolled his bedroll.

Cora eyed him suspiciously. “Where you goin’?” she asked.

“Leavin’,” answered Paddy shortly.

“You can’t leave. We got a wait for Dell.”

“Women, I can leave anytime I damn well please. ‘Sides somethin’s wrong.”

Cora placed one hand on her hip. “Well, now, just how do you know that?”

Paddy put some jerky, coffee and a coffee pot, some left over biscuits, and a few other supplies in another bag. “Gut feelin’. An’ I learned long time ago never to ignore my gut feelin’s. I’m takin’ my share of them nags, an’ leavin’.” He picked up the bedroll. “You can come with me or wait here for Stoner. Don’t make no never mind to me.” The old rustler went out the door, and got his saddle from the shed. He saddled his riding horse, then used a rope to tie a dozen of the stolen animals together, nose to tail. He turned the rest loose, so they could graze in the canyon. They wouldn’t go far before Stoner got back, if he came back.

Cora came up behind him. “Would you saddle a horse for me, too?” she asked. She had changed into a man’s shirt and pants and a pair of boots. She carried a small satchel with her cloths in it, an armload of blankets, and a flour sack of food.

“Right smart move,” said Paddy, as he caught up another horse for her to ride. “If Stoner an’ the others get back here, they’ll round up this bunch an’ head on fer Canada, like we talked ‘bout. Place I know of where we ken sell ‘em. No questions asked.”

Within minutes, they rode out of the canyon and headed north.

*****

From a thick stand of oak and brush, Couteau watched Blake make his way through the trees, along a narrow trail. The outlaw had no idea the Mati had managed to get ahead of him. When Couteau suddenly rode out onto the path, Blake pulled up sharply and grabbed for his gun.

“Uh un un! Do not make me shoot you,” Couteau pointed his rifle at the horse thief. “Drop your pistol. You are under arrest.”

Unable to see anyway out of the situation, Tom Blake did as told and dropped his gun. Couteau tied Blake’s hands to his saddle horn, checking to be sure the rope was good and tight. Taking his time, the Mati calmed the stallion, making sure he was unharmed.

He grinned at his prisoner, “I think that rancher Metzler will pay a reward for your capture, as well as for the horse.”

Remounting his own horse Couteau took up the reins of Blake’s animal and the lead rope of the stallion. They would take the trip back slowly. He didn’t want any harm to come to the big chestnut. As for Blake, well he didn’t think the rustler would try to escape. He couldn’t the way he was tied up. Besides he had been easy to catch once. Couteau knew he could do it again, if need be.

*****

Gritting his teeth Dell Stoner rode into the hideout. Paddy had not been at the lookout post and no one was in sight near the corrals or cabin. The stock was spread out through the small meadows of the canyon. He cussed at Paddy. The old man should have had the horses held in the pens ready to be driven on to Canada. Something was wrong.

“Paddy. Cora.” There was no answer.

Stoner almost fell from his horse, then staggered into the cabin. It was empty and quiet, as if it had been abandoned for a long time. “Cora. Where are you?”

He checked the bedrooms finding no one. Then Stoner noticed Cora’s dresses were missing from the pegs they had hung on. Most of the bedding was gone. Back in the main room he found no sign of Paddy’s things, either. As he realized the two had deserted him, he slumped onto a bunk, head down, shoulder throbbing unmercifully.

When he could he started a small fire, heated water and made some coffee. There was a pan with some left-over stew in it. He ate it, regardless of how old it was, it was food, and right now he needed to get his strength back. Somehow Paddy had known the raid had gone wrong. He had left taking Cora with him. Stoner would go on as soon as he could. He knew where to find them. He hoped Molly was all right.

*****

The marshal and the Mountie sneaked through the brush, trees, and boulders toward the hideout. They hadn’t found anyone posted on lookout, but horses were everywhere. It didn’t make since. If Stoner and Blake had made it back and left with Paddy and Cora, why hadn’t they taken the stolen animals with them? If they were still here, where were they? Hiding in a jumble of large rocks, and pine trees, the lawmen were close enough to see a very tired horse tired to the pouch rail at the cabin.

“That’s Stoner’s horse. Somethin’ ain’t right,” whispered Craddock.

“But what?” asked Bennett. “I’d like to know how many we’re up against before we go busting in there.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

They waited and watched for a long hour. Smoke drifted up from the stovepipe and with it the smell of fresh coffee. The sun showed it was mid-afternoon but it got dark early in the canyon. If they were to make a move, they had to do it soon.

Jack rubbed his eyes and blinked. He was tired and wore to a frazzle. “Clive, I ain’t had no sleep in so long, I ‘bout forgot what it is, and a cup of that coffee sure would taste good. I say we get this over with, how ‘bout you?”

“All right, it’s your call,” agreed Bennett.

“Stoner!” yelled Craddock. “You in there.” he waited for an answer. “Stoner!”

A rifle barrel appeared on the windowsill. “Yeah, Craddock, I hear you.”

“Come on out, Stoner. You and anyone else in there.”

Stoner didn’t answer. Jack tried again. “Stoner, give it up. Cora’s in there. You want her to get hurt, too.”

Stoner peaked out the window. He was tired. His arm felt like it was on fire. He wondered what the Marshal meant about Cora getting hurt, too. He had been hit, and he had seen Watts go down, but who else. Surely not his sister, not Molly.

“Ain’t nobody here but me, lawman. I sent Cora and Paddy on ahead. Can’t say where Blake and Molly got off to. You best go after them. They still got the stallion. You get sloppy and I get a chance, I’ll blow your head off. Thought we might be friends once, Craddock. But not now.” Stoner hoped the lawmen wanted the stolen animals worse than they wanted him. He watched as the sun dropped lower and lower. A cool wind kicked up, swirling the dust in front of the cabin. Maybe he would have a chance to escape when it got dark.

“Think he’s telling the truth? That he’s the only one here?” asked Clive.

Jack shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.”

“Stoner, time to end this,” called the Corporal. “We got Kenner, and Watts. The girl is dead. You will be soon without some medical attention. Throw out your weapon and come out.”

“No,” whispered Stoner. “No, not Molly.” He may as well have killed her himself. He should have made her quit and go back east a long time ago, but Molly had refused. She had enjoyed the thrill of living the outlaw life more than he had.

“Cover me,” said Craddock. “I’m goin’ in.” He sprinted to tree, then to a boulder, another large, old fir tree, and then there was no more cover between him and the cabin. As he watched, the door opened slowly.

“Is that true, Craddock? Is Molly dead?”

“Yeah, Stoner. She’s dead.”

“Who killed her, Craddock? Was it you?”

“Can’t say who’s bullet it was, but it wasn’t mine. I only fired that one time. At you, Stoner. You’re hurt. Give it up.”

The lawmen and the outlaw waited, wondering who would give up first. Just as Jack was convinced a shoot-out was inevitable, Stoner gave in. “All right. You win,” he called out, and tossed out first, a pistol, and then a rifle. “I’m comin’ out.”

“Do it slow, with your hands up,” said Craddock.

With his right hand shoulder high and the left hanging limply at his side, Stoner took one step out the door. Then another, and then down the porch steps. Gun drawn, Jack stepped out from behind the fir tree and Clive came out of the nest of boulders. Seeing the bad shape the outlaw was in, Jack relaxed slightly, replacing his Colt 45 in its holster, and pulled his handcuffs from his pants pocket. He knew Bennett was covering him. He reached for Stoner’s right wrist and the outlaw drew back and hit the Marshal on his jaw with a hard fist.

His head buzzing, Jack went down on one knee, but came back up swinging his own fist and connected with Stoner’s belly. The man doubled over and Jack hit him again, causing the horse thief to go all the way to the ground.

“Stay down,” growled the Marshal, but Stoner rolled in the dirt and came to his feet, his hand going behind his back and pulling another pistol, where it had been hid from sight. Stoner fired, as did Bennett. The outlaw’s shot kicked up dirt at Jack’s feet, but Clive’s bullet found its mark. Dell Stoner, like Molly wouldn’t steal any more horses.

*****

With a fresh shave, haircut and bath, Marshal Jack Craddock sat behind his desk, chair tipped back, feet propped up on the desk. A chunk of dried mud fell off the sole of one boot onto a stack of wanted posters. It was good to be back in Bordertown. He had Kenner, Watts and Blake locked in a cell in the back. They would stand trial, and go to jail. Blake was still making threats about what he would do to all lawmen when he escaped. Metzler had given Couteau a substantial reward for returning the stallion. He and Bennett had sent notices to various law offices about Paddy and Cora. Something would turn up. Letty Metzler had insisted on seeing to it that Dell and Molly Stoner were given decent burials on the ranch where they had made their last raid. He felt that he had finished his undercover assignment to everyone’s satisfaction, including his own. But he sure didn’t want to have to go undercover ever again.

As Bennett and Marie entered the office together. Jack’s feet fit the floor and he stood up. “Evenin’, Marie, Clive.”

“Thought you might like to join us for supper over at the saloon,” said Clive. “As long as you promise not to start shooting at me,” he teased.

“Honest, Clive,” Jack hesitated, “I didn’t mean to shoot you. You know it’s all your fault. You moved just as I fired.”

Clive had to harass the Marshal just a little bit more. “Admit it, Craddock; you’re just a bad shot.”

“I can shoot better than you any day, Clive.” Jack would never let the Mountie know how embarrassed he was, that he had accidentally hit his friend, especially when Clive had come to his rescue when he had been with the Stoner gang. He still couldn’t figure out exactly how he had managed to hit his friend.

“That is enough from both of you,” said Marie, knowing they could go on badgering each other forever. “I am hungry. Will you join us, Jack.”?

Are you sure you want me to?” He still wasn’t clear how Marie felt about his robbing her store, to make it seem like he had turned outlaw.

“Why certainly, Jack. I would like you to come with us.”

“Marie, I want to apologize again for robbin’ your store. I’m – I’m real sorry.”

“You and Clive could have told me. I would have understood.”

Jack turned to Clive. “Yeah, Clive, why didn’t you tell her?”

“Me?” said the Mountie, pointing a finger at himself. “You said not to. You said it needed to look as real as possible.”

“Well, it certainly did. I was differently convinced, as was the whole town.” She turned to leave the office and then turned back. “By the way, Jack, you owe me forty-two dollars.” She held out her hand.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jack jerked open a desk draw, reached under some papers and took out a long leather wallet. He was only more than glad to get rid of the money he had taken that fateful morning. He extracted several bills and laid them in Marie’s hand, then he offered her his arm and the three friends stepped out of the office. Supper was waiting.

***The End***

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