Summary: A Big Valley/Black Saddle crossover story.
Word Count: 2655
“Look, Culhane, you take all the time you need up there in Santa Fe, you understand? And don’t worry if you can’t make it back by Saturday, Nora and me, well Nora probably won’t have no time for you and your two left feet at Saturday’s dance anyway.”
“Well now Marshal, you mean to tell me you’d shirk your duties on a busy Saturday night and leave this town unprotected? Why I do believe as citizens of Latigo we expect our U.S. Marshal to be on duty keeping us safe from the assorted scoundrels and scum that find their way here on a Saturday night. And anyway, I do believe Nora here has blocked out her dance card for me,” Clay Culhane retorted.
Nora Travers, the object of the two men’s heated discussion smiled and put an arm around each man’s waist. It was obvious she was used to their grumbling banter.
“Clay, you’d better climb up, I believe the stage is ready to pull out—-Marshal, I’m sure you have duties to attend to,” she added, smiling at both Clay Culhane and U.S. Marshal Gib Scott. “And I need to get back to the freight office. I’ll see both of you on Saturday.” With that Nora turned and headed back to the freight office that she owned and operated there in the small town of Latigo, NM.
As he swung his long legs into the coach Culhane nodded at the Marshal and called out as the stage pulled out of town. “See you Saturday Marshal.”
Marshal Scott headed back towards the jail shaking his head and smiling to himself. Scott had to admit for all their palaver, he and Culhane had more than a grudging respect for each other. An ex gunfighter from Marathon, Texas, Clay had turned his life around when his two brothers were killed in a shoot-out and had become a top notch attorney here in Latigo. Not that he would ever admit that to Culhane the Marshal chuckled to himself. No sense letting the kid get a big head.
The Marshal was jolted from his thoughts by a scream followed by a gunshot. He spun around and was horrified to see Nora stumble from the freight office, a six-gun hanging limply from her right hand. Scott was there in seconds. Glancing at her and seeing no obvious injuries he stepped carefully into the freight office. Lying on the floor, clutching at his side was Nora’s freight driver Zeke McGee.
“What the hell happened here McGee?” the Marshal demanded, pointing his revolver at the man.
“It was Mizz Travers, Marshal. She done it. Marshal, put down that gun. I need me a doctor – that woman, she shot me, I think it’s bad,” McGee groaned.
Scott knelt down over the man and peered at his wound. “You’ll live,” he voiced tersely. “Now you tell me what caused Nora to come to shoot you McGee.”
“It’s cause I caught her stealing from the U.S. Mail contract. It’s all there in the books”, he nodded up at the ledgers on the desk. “I suspected her for some time now, and this morning I caught her changing the books. She tried to deny it. Course I had to pull my gun and tell her I was taking her over to your office. The dang fool woman, grabbed for my gun and well, much as I’m embarrassed to admit, it she managed to shoot me with it. You’d better arrest her Marshal, I’m pressing charges for attempted murder,” Zeke spat. “Now get me that doctor, will ya?”
“No, that’s not true,” a quiet voice came from the corner. Both men looked over to see Nora standing in the doorway to the office, the gun still clutched in her hand, the barrel pointing at the floor. “He’s lying Gib. I caught Zeke changing my books this morning. When I questioned him he pulled his gun on me. I thought me meant to kill me, we struggled, the gun went off…,” her voice tapered off.
“Ain’t true Marshal, she’s lying. But, I guess I don’t expect you to believe me, not when everyone knows you’re sweet on Miss Nora here,” Zeke added coarsely.
“Shut up McGee,” the Marshal ordered. “I’ll get you that doctor, don’t you go no where. Nora, you come with me, and you better give me the gun,” he added, gently taking the gun from her hand.
“You believe me, don’t you Gib?” Nora asked looking at the Marshal with her wide-set blue eyes. Marshal Scott pulled Nora to his side and put his arm around her shoulder to comfort her. “Don’t worry, Nora, we’ll get to the bottom of this,” he told her as they left the freight office.
Hours later Nora and the Marshal were sitting in his office quietly talking. After talking to the doctor, and being assured that McGee would indeed pull through, Marshal Scott had spent the last two hours going over and over Nora’s story with her.
“Nora, I’m telling you, of course I believe you. But, it boils down to your word against his. We gotta get some proof of what your telling me – something that would prove McGee had been altering your books to funnel the money for the mail contract to himself” Gib explained.
“I wish Clay was here,” Nora stated. “He’d know what to do.”
Gib smiled slightly. “For once, Nora, I agree with you on that. I wish Culhane was here too. “Come on,” he stood up and reached down to pull Nora to her feet. “You need to eat something. Let me take you over to the café. You’ll feel better after I get some food into you.”
Nora let herself be led over to the town’s café, even though she was quite sure she wouldn’t be able to eat a bite.
Another chuckhole in the dirt road sent the stage lurching forward causing the dozing cowboy to fall heavily against his brother. Jarrod pushed Nick back towards his side of the coach. “Wake up Nick, the stage should be pulling into Latigo any minute now,’ Jarrod advised his brother.
“Latigo? I don’t remember nothing about a stopover in Latigo. I was hoping we’d get to El Paso tonight – I gotta lot to do to get ready for that auction” Nick added.
“Well, the horse auction isn’t until noon tomorrow, Brother Nick. What I think you were really hoping for was a chance to spend some time in, what was the place? Rosa’s Cantina?” Jarrod smiled chidingly at his younger brother who smiled and retorted.
“You gotta admit Jarrod, that Felina was a beauty, you can’t blame a fellow for wanting to see her again, can you?” His smile disappeared as he continued, “And what’s this Latigo, why’ere we stopping there?”
“Don’t you remember Nick? The driver said we change stages in Latigo – catch the stage for El Paso later tonight. We probably won’t be pulling into El Paso before early morning. Felina will just have to wait,” Jarrod smiled at his brother.
Nick was still grumbling as the stage pulled into town.
Across the street, Nora looked up from the table where she had been making a half-hearted attempt at some soup. When she saw the two men step down from the coach she jumped up from the table, nearly spilling the bowl of soup in her haste. “Thank goodness,” she whispered to herself and ran out the door. Marshal Scott followed her gaze out the window and was also relieved to see “Clay Culhane” standing next to the stage talking to another man. He got up and followed Nora outside.
“Clay, oh Clay, thank god you came back.” Nick looked up just in time to see the woman who had spoken these words throw her arms around him and begin crying. Nick looked down at the woman in confusion as Jarrod stared at them both.
Nick watched as the Marshal approached him and was even more dumbfounded when the Marshal added, “I have to admit, Culhane, I have no idea how you heard about this and got back here so fast, but I’m damned glad you did.”
Nick managed to untangle himself from the woman’s embrace and gently held her at arms length, looking from her to the Marshal. “I’m sorry,” Nick said. “There’s obviously been some kind of mistake.” Nick let go of the woman, and offered his hand to her in greeting. “My name is Nick Barkley – I think you’ve obviously confused me with someone else. Although, I admit to enjoying a greeting from such a pretty woman as you,” he added, smiling at Nora.
Nora, already in a state from the morning’s traumatic events, just stood, staring open mouthed at *Clay*. Gib on the other hand, was not amused by *Clay’s* antics.
“Clay, can’t you see this is no time for your foolish games?” the Marshal sternly admonished Nick. “With the trouble Nora is in, she needs you to behave like the attorney you are – not play some fool game pretending to be someone else. Now knock it off!”
Jarrod, who until this moment, had stood by, quietly taking in this strange scene unfolding before him, now spoke. “Marshal, I’m not sure who you think this man is, but I am Jarrod Barkley and I can guarantee that this gentleman standing next to me is my brother Nick Barkley.” Jarrod then smiled and continued, “And as for Nick being an attorney, well, surely no one has ever accused Nicholas here of …….
Jarrod wasn’t able to finish his sentence. The Marshal angrily cut Jarrod off, barking at both of them. “Look Clay, and whoever you are”, Scott glared angrily at Jarrod and then back at Nick. “Maybe you haven’t heard, but Nora here shot Zeke McGee this morning and he has accused her of stealing money from the mail contract. This is no time to be playing stupid games. Nora needs your help!”
The four of them stood there in the street. The Marshal glared at both Jarrod and Nick. Nora glanced from Gib to *Clay* her look both confused and hurt. Jarrod and Nick glanced from one to the other sharing totally confused looks.
To be continued………..
Nick and Jarrod had joined Nora and the Marshal at his office. Everyone was exhausted. Their discussion had gone on for hours. At first Gib and Nora were completely unwilling to believe that *Clay* had not completely taken leave of his senses and was apparently willing to carry this practical joke of his to almost any length. Finally though, certain discrepancies started to become apparent. They did admit that this *Nick* certainly was dressed differently than they had ever seen Clay. As far as both of them knew, Clay did not own a black vest or gloves. This man’s gun was different and Nora did admit it looked as though *Clay* had even put on a few pounds. And Jarrod had documents showing that they were who they said they were. And certainly Clay had no reason to carry on such a hoax when it was apparent how distressed Nora was. While it seemed too unreal to be true – it appeared that their Clay Culhane had a double and he had shown up right here in Latigo.
Nora shook her head, “You must think me a complete fool Mr. Barkley, throwing myself at you that way. But I promise you, the resemblance between you and Clay is uncanny, the two of you could be twins.”
Jarrod laughed. “Well miss, I surely hope not. One of Nick is as much as this world is ready to handle I assure you.”
Nick scowled at his brother and rolled his eyes, ignoring his comment for the moment. He turned to Nora and addressed her. “Miss Travers, my brother Jarrod here, well he may think he’s a comedian, but luckily for us he normally sticks to lawyering. He’s as good a lawyer as they come, I’m sure he can help you out of the fix your in. Me on the other hand, well I’m just a cowboy on his way to a horse auction. But I’m sure Jarrod here would be pleased to stay on as your attorney if you’d let him” Nick finished up.
Jarrod looked over at Nick, “You going somewhere Nick?” he asked.
“You know I’ve got that horse auction in El Paso tomorrow, Jarrod. And to tell you the truth, all these people thinking I’m someone else, well it makes me damned, er sorry maam, danged uneasy, everyone staring at me this way. Makes me feel like I’m crawling around in someone else’s skin. Nope I believe I’ll just go on to El Paso tonight, you can catch up with me in a few days Jarrod. I’m sure you’ll have this cleared up in no time,” Nick concluded.
“Nora certainly could use your help Mr. Barkley,” Marshal Scott looked at Jarrod. “McGee is causing a real fuss, complaining that I should have Nora behind bars for attempted murder. Now I know that guys no good, but I just can’t prove it. I’d sure be grateful if you’d stay and see what you could do for her.”
In the end, Jarrod of course agreed to stay in Latigo and Nick caught the evening stage to El Paso. Nick thought all this talk about him having a double was just too strange and he would be glad to get this town behind him.
While Jarrod didn’t clear matters up overnight, it only took him a few days to come up with enough proof that Zeke McGee had not only been skimming funds from the mail contract but from most of the other freight contracts as well. When confronted with the evidence, McGee was forced to admit his acts and with some “prodding” from the Marshal finally admitted Nora had shot him after he had pulled a gun on her.
Gib and Nora invited Jarrod to join them for a celebratory dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. The three discussed the case and Jarrod listened while Nora thanked him once again for all he had done. They were just finishing up desert when Jarrod looked up to see Nick stride into the room and walk towards their table.
“Nick my boy”, Jarrod stood and embraced his brother. “I thought I was meeting you later tonight in El Paso? And, say, I see you bought a new outfit, something to impress Felina with perhaps?” Jarrod was startled when *Nick* pulled away from him and looked directly at Gib and Nora.
“You all been hitting the sauce?” he asked. Who is this and who in the hell is Nick?!” Clay asked his friends. Clay seemed totally nonplussed when his friends burst out laughing and the man who had just greeted him stood slack-jawed, at an apparent loss for words.
“You see Mr. Barkley?” Now you understand why we were so sure your brother was Clay here?” the Marshal grinned at Jarrod. Jarrod could only mutely nod, as he stared at this *stranger*, his mouth still gaping open, in shock and disbelief.
Jarrod barely heard the announcement as the driver announced the stagecoach for El Paso would be leaving momentarily. Gib and Nora walked him to the stage, Jarrod still shaking his head as he stared at Clay Culhane, who followed along still demanding to know what in the world was going on.
As Jarrod climbed aboard, he reached out and touched Culhane’s arm, shaking his head in disbelief. Nora reached up and took Jarrod’s hand and once again thanked him for his legal assistance. As the stage pulled out of town, Gib and Nora turned to Clay who was still demanding an explanation from his two friends. They just smiled and shook their heads. This one would take some explaining.