Thursday, November 26, 2015

Chapter 300: All The Flowers of the Mountain

“How’s things, Miss Sullivan?” Mr. Monahan’s russet head popped into the doorway of the schoolhouse, startling Iris from the papers she was grading. He was early. She hadn’t expected to see him for another hour. And she knew that despite everything, she was happy to see him.

He ambled over to her, folding himself into a nearby chair, his troubled expression filling her with sudden foreboding. “I’m well, Mr Monahan,” she said, watching his face. “Is something wrong?”

He sighed heavily, unhappily, regret in his blue eyes. “Miss Sullivan...” he rubbed the back of his neck. “We have to talk, so we do.”

A sick, empty feeling opened up in her belly, and she suddenly felt embarrassed and unbearably self-conscious. “Oh?” Her attempt to sound light utterly failed, and the intensity of his eyes forced her gaze back down to the surface of the desk. “I imagine this is about...well...” She swallowed, her voice cracking.You know.” Well, this is lovely. I’m finally less nervous around him, and now I’m all in knots for an entirely different reason...

He drew in a deep breath, and held it. “Lass, I’m going to have to stop coming here for lessons,” he blurted, cringing as he said it, as though the words burned his throat on the way out. “I’m sorry. I’m going to have to continue me studies on me own.”

It was as surprising and painful as a punch in the ribcage. She froze, and it took every bit of her control to remain impassive. “Oh,” she managed. Betrayed hurt flared inside her as the sweet flush of color that had started to bloom in her life faded back into gray. It’s because of what I told him...because of what I’ve done. I’ve lied and stolen and he’s come halfway across the continent to avoid that. Of course he doesn’t want to involve himself with... “I understand,” she heard herself say, more ashamed of herself now than she’d ever been. 
He shook his head, a faint, sad smile playing about his lips. “No, lass, I don’t think you do...”

“I had hoped...” What, Iris? That he’s a criminal, so he wouldn’t mind that your face is on a poster? That he’d understand? Her eyes had started to burn. That maybe he’s kind enough, and sweet enough that... “Nothing.” She sighed, her breath trembling in her tightening throat. “I’m sorry. “Of course you don’t want anything to do with me after...”

“Jaysus, that’s what you think?”

She stared at him in confusion, the knot in her throat tightening, aching.

He shook his head. “Miss Sullivan, me days of lying to you are over, so they are. I’m enjoying our lessons, lass. I’m enjoying them too much, and me thoughts have gone past what’s proper.”

Her heart had started to pound in her ears as she watched the cinnamon sprinkling on his cheeks fade as his face reddened beneath them. Here he was, Lynch’s hired gunman, the Roach Guard thug from New York...sitting in a too-small chair and blushing like an adolescent boy caught staring too long.

He went on, his accent sweetening his words, making her breath catch. “None of what you told me changes anything, he said. You’re a proper lady. Too fine for the likes of me to be having thoughts about, so you are. And lass...I just don’t think I’ll have it in me to walk away with me dignity, if I don’t walk away now.”

She stared at him, the furious red blush deepening on his cheeks and turning his eyes into the bluest thing she had ever seen. “Oh,” she managed to stammer as heat radiated from the back of her neck. She could feel her own face heating up. “Oh,” she said again. “Uh...well...” Can he hear my heart pounding? How can he not hear my heart pounding? “Mr. Monahan, I don’t...know what to say, I...”

“You don’t have to say anything, Miss Sullivan, and I shouldn’t have said that to you, sure. But I swore to meself I was done with the lying. I’ll leave you be now, so...” He unfolded his long legs and got up.

“You don’t have to,” she blurted, almost knocking over her chair and standing up. “I don’t...I mean, I wish you...”

She looked up at him, his height making her feel tiny. She couldn’t believe that such a short time ago, she’d been afraid of him. “You don’t have to go, Mr. Monahan,” she said softly. There was a startled widening of his eyes, and he gave a questioning turn of his head. Leaning upwards, she stood on tiptoe and pulled his arm, making him bend. She brushed the faint, soft stubble on his jaw with her lips, then came down hard on her heels. Her face was on fire, her lips burning as if she’d been scorched. “I...really don’t mind if you...have thoughts about...” Her voice trailed off as she stared at his stunned face. I’ve crossed the line. First the embezzlement and now this. What must he think of...

He leaned down, his big hands setting lightly on her shoulders, as he paused there, waiting for her to pull away. And then he kissed her, his lips soft and pliant against hers. She leaned into him, against the broad plane of his chest, thrilling as his hands cradled her, gentle and powerful. There was a roaring in her ears, and the steady gallop of his heart against her breast made her lightheaded.

He broke the kiss with a hitching gasp, a dimple forming in his freckled cheek and a messy copper lock falling into his eyes. “Aye,” he said, his voice breathless. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a while now, so I have.”

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Chapter 299: Tell No Tales

Storm’s head jerked up as the acrid scent of smoke and gunpowder hit him, a panicked gasp of horror rising in his throat. He exchanged a wide-eyed look with Jesse, and nudged his horse forward at a faster gait. “Scarcliff...” he gasped, racing past the startled Captain. “Smoke...trouble ahead.”

He could hear guns being drawn behind him, as their motley, cobbled-together company picked up their pace to follow him. Something was burning, leather and hair and fabric. It was the smell of fighting and death. Frantic tendrils of fear were squeezing his heart, strangling his ability to stay calm and think clearly. Fiona...please...

The bleak landscape tumbled past him in a blur, browns and dull greens and iron reds. Since they’d left Bridger, Storm had been terrified that they wouldn’t find Fiona. Now he was terrified that they would.

The tiny camp had been tossed, what was left of the white canvas tent crumpled in the damp grass and smoldering. Surveying equipment lay scattered on the ground, the remains of a broken tripod teetering in the breeze like the leg of an animal carcass bloating in the sun.

Scarcliff rode up alongside him, looking around and holding his pistol at the ready. “Surveyors.”

Storm deflated, listening to his heart pounding in his ears and trying to calm down. “Obviously, they were attacked.” He slid from the saddle, looking around. He saw a man’s bare feet sticking ominously out from beneath the wadded, smoking tent and he hooked the toe of his boot into the canvas, tossing it back. The bloodstained body of a young man with a dark brown beard stared at him with sightless, dead eyes. “Why attack surveyors?”

“This one here needed killin’,” Jesse dismounted beside him, his lip curling in disgust.

“What?” Storm turned to look at him, startled.

“I’ve met this sumbitch,” Jesse murmured, his eyes flicking over to look at Still Water Woman, who had ridden up beside them. “He’d a’ put his hands on her if it wasn’t for...” He looked around. “There were three of them when we ran into them.”

Eagle Bone waved a hand from the edge of the encampment, calling out in Lakota. Storm nodded. “That’s two dead.”

“Keep your guard up,” Scarcliff was scanning the landscape around them. “We’re not far behind them.”

The tall grass rustled on the edge of the encampment, and they all turned, startled, at the sound of a weak, hoarse voice. “Help...”

A grizzled visage with a sandy-brown beard appeared in the brush. Blood streaked down his dust-crusted face, and he struggled to drag himself through the grass on his elbows before collapsing.

“If it wasn’t for him...” Jesse mumbled, starting forwards. Storm close behind.

The man rolled onto his side, letting out of deep, relieved breath. “Oh, thank God. Thank God you came along.” He let Jesse help him sit up, his eyes widening in recognition. “You again, eh?”

Collins was dismounting, pulling a water skin from his saddle and handing it to the man. “Who was it? What happened?”

“Much thanks, Lieutenant.” He took a long, thirsty gulp, rivulets of water running through his dusty beard. “Name’s Griffin. Those two dead are Bill Spires and Tolly Harper. We’re surveyors for Union Pacific.” He rubbed the side of his head and winced. “ I don’t know who it was attacked us. Some of ‘em were Indian, some of them were white. Robbed us blind. I could hear them going through our supplies while I pretended to be dead. Please tell me they didn’t take the damn maps.”

“Did they have a woman with them?” Storm blurted.

Griffin nodded, drawing a sleeve across his face, smearing the red clots across his brow. “Yeah. A redhead wearing an army coat. Had her hands tied.” He handed the canteen back to Collins and leaned heavily on Jesse’s arms. “Help me up, son.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Paddy's Not At Work Today

So, I've had an...interesting...week.

I don't know if you're aware, but we had a bad flood out here a couple weeks ago. It didn't really affect me where I live, thank goodness. I live on a high, sandy ridge, so I was safe. The only problem we really had was later, the water pressure in the pipes was so excessive that many people had their plumbing damaged. I have some old plumbing in the upstairs, and the valve on the shower cracked. I came home from music practice one night to find water dripping through the ceiling onto my kitchen floor.

Travel in town was iffy because a lot of roads were out. So I tried to cobble together a fix using spare parts from another valve I had lying around. No good, valve too far gone. And while I'm up there tinkering around in the attic messing with the upstairs plumbing, I forgot to cement one of the pipe elbows I'd put in.

Pipes capped off
Remember when I told you the pressure was excessive? I walked up to the street, turned on the water, and heard people screaming "turn it off! turn it off" from inside my house.

So, swearing and cringing, I turn it off and go back inside. Niagara falls was happening in my kitchen. Now we're down one valve, one pipe, one drowned light fixture. I have no choice but to cap the pipes until I can get to the hardware store at this point.

The next day, a big chunk of wet drywall collapsed all over my breakfast nook.

Fast forward to this Sunday, when I went up there to try to fix all the damage I'd managed to do to my home. My attic is a cramped mess, so I decide that before I pull up the plywood up there (I don't have a proper floor up there, just plywood on the joists) so I can see what's going on, I need to clean up a bit and toss some old stuff.

And that's when I fell through the freaking ceiling.

The kid, sitting on the sofa, heard a noise and looked up just in time to see the ceiling in the living room burst open and what she thought was pink cotton candy come exploding out.

Cotton candy for everyone!
I didn't fall all the way through, because I fell onto the main joist on my way down and for a few minutes, thought I had broken my damn leg. The husband kind of crammed some of the drywall back in place, but before that, it was hanging down over his favorite chair like the Sword of Damocles. Thank God he had gotten up when he did, because five minutes later, his chair was covered in broken drywall and Pink Panther insulation.

And to add insult to injury, the kid and husband had been folding clean laundry down below, and now much of it had to be re-laundered because it got covered with fiberglass particles.

All this tribulation and horseshit because of a leaky shower valve.

And now we got the holidays coming up and my kitchen and living room have destroyed ceilings and I have one single shower left in my house that works, and even that one leaks.

I thought I'd maybe have some time to bang out a post last night and today, but then a friend was in desperate, serious need of long road trip out of town for a couple hours to clear her head. So we got in my van and drove. And I promised the husband I would work on getting the shower up and running tomorrow. So I am really sorry about all this, but I'm gonna have to take a breather this week and fix some stuff before we end up having to shower in the backyard with a garden hose.

Sometimes your week doesn't pan out the way you think it will.

On the upside, my leg ain't broke.  

Here's a funny little lego video of the Irish song, Why Paddy's Not At Work Today.  

Paddy, I feel ya.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Chapter 298: Blood and Whiskey

Wash leaned back in the porch rocker, resting his head against the wooden backrest and hooking the balls of his bare feet over the porch rail. He gazed out over the quiet darkness of the yard, breathing in the scent of earth and water. A whippoorwill hooted somewhere down by the banks of the Green. He loved being out here, out in the big, empty West, away from the noise and the stink and the desperation he’d known before. He’d never go back. Not even kicking and screaming. He had never, not even for a moment, ever been homesick for the place he was from, the place that he had somehow managed to call home.

He had no yearning for the Five Points. It was the loss of the love he’d found there that had left the raw spot inside him. Wash figured that the loss of Dorcas would always be painful, and he’d made his peace with that. Part of him cherished that twinge of hurt, because it reminded him that love existed. And once, in another life, it had been his.

Losing her had nearly destroyed him. Looking back, he marveled that he’d survived that heartbreak, that here he was, still breathing. He had nearly died that night, knifed and left to bleed out on the dirty cobblestones of Cross Street. He remembered that the pain had barely registered in his brain. His most haunting memory of that night was the wrenching fear for Dorcas, and how utterly unable he’d been to get up and find her in the chaos of the fighting and the fire and the gunshots. His bleeding, dying body had failed him, and all he could do was lie there as his vision faded and night and cold overwhelmed him. In his anguish, he had welcomed the darkness, and remembered with crystalline clarity how heartsick and cheated he’d felt when he opened his eyes and realized he wasn’t dead.

He slid the silver flask from the pocket of his unbuttoned shirt and uncapped it. He took a sip, feeling the welcome burn of whiskey through his chest and nose.

What they’d had, he and Dorcas, had been the best thing in his life. And that would never change. He’d always have it, that little drop of fresh blood seeping from the patched crack in his heart, reminding him that love and pain and life are knotted together so tight they can’t be picked apart. It was alright. Life goes on.

He crossed his ankles on the rail, rocking the chair slowly in the darkness, thinking about the conversation he’d had with Miss Sullivan. He’d been utterly stunned by the things she’d said, completely unprepared to learn that she’d committed a crime and had to slip away before she had gotten caught. That she’d lost a beau, and had to make some hard choices to make sure people she loved were cared for and safe. But mostly, the thing that had him gobsmacked the most, was the fact that they actually had more in common than he would have ever dared to guess.

Aye, life goes on, sure. But it can’t be going in the direction it’s going, he thought. I can’t be thinking about me teacher this way. He pulled his legs off the porch rail and set his bare feet solidly on the porch floor. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his head hang down. She sidles up next to me, the way she does, looking over me shoulder, and all I can focus on is the sweet rustle of her petticoats and the smell of her hair. I look into my book and all I can see are her eyes. And they are full of secrets, so they sodding are. He sighed, shaking his head. And magic.

Her dark eyes had been so bright, so warm in the lamplight as she confessed to him what she had been hiding. She had always been so guarded, so chilly before, but her trusting honesty had completely undone him. His rusted, creaking heart had ticked like a new gold pocket watch. You can’t keep doing this, Jargie Fecking Washington. This isna going to end with anything but a goodbye and a need for more whiskey, and you sodding well know it. Embezzlement or no, she’s a proper lady, so she is. With money and schooling. And you...He took another bracing pull from the flask, giving it a little shake to see how much whiskey remained. You’re a gormless sodding thug from a cesspit filled with blood and shite. Best walk away while you still can, me boyo. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. While you still have some shred of your dignity. The last thing she needs is the likes of you playing the heartsick schoolboy.

He considered how he would continue his lessons. He had no intention of letting Louise down. But sitting alone with Miss Sullivan in the evening was becoming more than he could bear. And after tonight...I just can't take it anymore. He figured he could use what he had already learned and continue his lessons alone. Maybe Saint or Tommy or one of the lads could help if I have a question. I’d rather attempt that then throw out the whole attempt. And sweet Rosie would never forgive me, sure, if I didn’t at least try.

There was a chill in the air that hadn't been there before. Wash pulled his unbuttoned shirt over his chest and folded his arms in front of him. He had known when he’d first started his lessons with Miss Sullivan that ending them was something that was going to have to happen eventually. He hadn't really thought about the idea that it might be himself who was the one to end them.

I’m going to have to tell her, so I am. That next lesson will have to be me last.

His heart was bleeding again, He tipped up the flask, and drained it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Chapter 297: Strange Bedfellows

“Jesse...” Storm pulled Yellow Sky back a bit, letting him fall back to the rear of their formation. The sun was going down, the deep blues and mauves of the sky streaked with sooty smears and shadows. He fell into step beside Comanche and took in the sight
of his crewmate, clad in bloodied native dress, and flanked by a pair of fierce-eyed Lakota. He had to remind himself that yes, this was Jesse Joe Hanson, the Pony Express rider he shared quarters with, who liked peppermint candy and poker and getting into fistfights.

Jesse looked up, his gaze sharp and blue, clearly reading the look of amazed confusion that was surely on Storm’s face. “I reckon I got some explaining to do, eh?”

Storm gave a snort, nodding. “You could say that, yeah. What the hell happened to you?” He was acutely aware of Eagle Bone and Still Water Woman, who were sizing him up, looking him over with unfriendly eyes. He was relieved that neither of them appeared to be reaching for weapons. Here you are, the half-breed Crow riding with a military attachment, the Voice of Caution whispered in his ear. Pretty safe bet that they despise you. You don’t have a lot of allies here, Lights the Storm. Even Mr. Lynch had you by the throat not long ago.

“That trip we took to see what Lily’s deed was about went bad,” Jesse said. “Went real bad. Ain’t nobody dead. But we got pretty tore up, and I ended up lost and almost dead of cold.” He nodded towards his companions. “Their little sister, Runs Laughing, found me and they took care of me. Saved my life.”

Storm took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Jesse was damn lucky. But then, he always seems to be. I hope Fiona is as lucky. The thought of her threatened to crumple him and he swallowed it, willing it to stay quiet, knowing it could cripple him if he let it.  He nodded at the dirty bandage peeking out from the blood-crusted collar of the buckskin shirt Jesse wore. “You alright now?”

“Yeah.” He rubbed his shoulder where he’d been injured. “This happened during the raid. Tell me again why the hell we’re riding with these sunsabitches.”

“Because we’re going to need them to get Fiona back. I don’t care who I have to ride with at this point.” He meant it. I’ll ride alongside anything. Demons, skinwalkers. Monsters. Even Collins.

“They’re the reason we have to go after her in the first place.”

Storm sidled up closer and lowered his voice, nodding at Collins. “He’s the reason we have to go after her.” He switched to Lakota, eyeing the scowling brave and the woman. “Don’t trust that one. Crazy and dangerous.”

Eagle Bone’s scowl deepened. “Why is he here, then?”

“I think because Scarcliff wants to keep an eye on him” Storm said. “You don’t want him where you can’t see him. He'll stick a knife in your back.”

“Like a Crow dog,” Eagle Bone smirked.

Storm kept his face passive. “So why didn’t you head home before now?” he said in English, ignoring the insult. “Why are you still out here?”

Jesse’s eyes went instantly to Still Water Woman’s face, and lingered there as he spoke. “Railroad wants their land. They need someone who reads...and I owe them that, at least.”

Storm narrowed his eyes, watching the look of adoration on his friend’s face.The Lakota woman was beautiful, but that wasn’t what crystallized in his mind as the significant detail. He saw her looking back at him, how the entire story unfolded clearly in her eyes. She loves him. And I see how he’s looking at her. He nodded to himself, posing a question he knew was pointless even as he asked it. “Are you planning on coming back?”

Jesse jerked his gaze back around to Storm’s face, almost startled. “Well...yeah,” he said. “Eventually. When all this mess is over. I mean, I have to, right?”

No, Storm thought. You don’t. And you probably won’t.

“What happened to you, Storm?”


Jesse gestured at his throat. “Looks like know.”

Storm’s eyes went wide, his hand going to his neck. Marde. Lynch. Instant heat flooded his face. “I...uh...” He sighed. “Lynch is not happy with me right now.”

“The Old Man did that?” Jesse’s eyes bugged. “What?”

“Ssssh!" Storm instantly glanced at Lynch's back, as the man rode silently ahead. "Keep your voice down! Yes, he did, I’m damn lucky that’s all he did."

“The hell did you do?”

Storm paused. Probably not gonna get out of this one alive. He and I might die together today. He exhaled heavily, relinquishing his tight hold on his secret. “The one thing he told us he’d kill us if we did.”

Jesse gave him a blank look, his brows furrowing across his peeling forehead. Storm saw the moment the thoughts in his head fell into place and shocked understanding settled across his features.

“Shit. Fire,” Jesse breathed.  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Chapter 296: Sleeper

1st Lieutenant Geoffrey Collins had absolutely no doubt in his mind that if Lynch and his scout, Peltier, had not ridden up ahead as they approached the Sioux village, the lot of them would likely be dead. The Sioux would have taken one look at the blue coats he and Scarcliff and the handful of men they’d brought along were wearing, and would have filled them with so many arrows that the porcupines would have felt inadequate at seeing their corpses. Or worse, Collins himself might have been recognized as having led the attack and instantly targeted.

Still, he wasn’t entirely sure that riding up to the railroad base camp, where he was sure to find Hezekiah Stone, was any less dangerous to him. If Stone decided to turn over on him...if he decided to tell Scarcliff what was really going on...he might well find himself court-martialed...or worse...before he’d had a chance to carry out his plan.

He felt a bead of nervous sweat roll down his spine and flexed his shoulders, feeling his suddenly too-warm coat become tight and constricting. If Stone talks...and he may, if he thinks it will benefit’s going to be my word against his. If he’s got the woman, though, he’ll want to not make a fuss. He’s not going to do anything to get himself shot out of hand.

A bird tittered in a nearby cottonwood, and the sound startled him, making him flinch. I’m too on edge, he thought, realizing he’d unconsciously reached for his sidearm. He glanced around the camp as they approached, relieved that he didn’t see Stone.

A smaller man bent over a basin, peering into a tiny, cracked mirror as he shaved. At their approach,the man jerked upright, hastily toweling shaving soap from his face. He relaxed into a relieved slouch when he focused on their blue army coats, but Collins could see the startled confusion in his eyes as his eyes roved over the old man in the expensive suit, the two Sioux in native dress, the buckskin-clad squaw man, and the Crow in the point-blanket coat that accompanied them.

The man’s half-shaven face was a mask of questions. His dark eyebrows hitched up over his high forehead, and he tossed his towel across a broken cottonwood branch.

Scarcliff nodded at him. “Union Pacific railroad?”

“Y...yes. Harlan Anders.” Anders hastily pulled a flapping suspender over his shoulder and approached Scarcliff’s horse. “What’s going on?”

Captain Alexander Scarcliff. We’re looking for Hezekiah Stone.”

Ander’s brow furrowed into an anxious knot. “Oh. He’s...he’s not here.” He roached a nervous hand through his hair. “I haven’t seen him for a couple days. What’s...I mean...” He looked over at Hanson and recognition washed over his face, “You’re from His Horses’ camp.”

“Yeah,” Hanson nodded. “I’m the one told him your offer was horseshit.”

Scarcliff glanced over and caught Collin’s gaze. “We need to talk to Stone about the raid on the Sioux village,” he said.  

“What?” Anders’s face went instantly pale. “Raid? Are you...?” He dug his fingers into his eyes. “Oh, no. No, no...” He looked up, a stricken expression on his face. “What’s he done? What’s happened?”

“He lied to us,” Collins said, seizing the opportunity to divert as much of the blame for this as possible without incriminating himself. I have to make Scarcliff believe this was all on Stone. Stone’s not coming back here...he’s out there with his men. Collin’s shifted in his saddle, adjusting the brim of his hat against the glare of the sun. Probably going to be a lot of lead flying around when we do find them.  Probably not all of us are going to make it back...

He licked his lips, trying to hear the conversation over the buzz of his own thoughts. Our good captain here, for instance, most definitely won’t. Neither will Peltier. They both have to go. Damn it, when did this get so complicated?I'll probably have to take them all down. They know too much at this point.

It was supposed to be an easy enough thing. Wiping out a village of hostiles and staving off a supposedly imminent attack on the fort, especially while Scarcliff was off barking at shadows, would have made him look like a hero. And it would have made Scarcliff look like a fool. Collins leaving Scarcliff alone to deal with the attack on the homestead without reinforcements was supposed to get rid of the Captain, and leave Collins in charge of Bridger. Stone would have gotten his payment from the railroad for clearing the land, and no one would have been the wiser.

And now, Collins thought, gritting his teeth, now it’s all ballsed up to hell. And if Stone turns over on me, it’s all over.

There’s going to be a lot of casualties today, he thought grimly, narrowing his eyes at the collection of enlisted men he’d specifically picked for this mission. I’m going to have to make sure of it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Chapter 295: Criminal Element

Note: In case you missed the post (it happened on a day I don't normally post) Riders & Kickers is now available as in ebook and also as a trade paperback. There is never-before-published material inside, so I hope you check it out!   

Iris was glad it was too dark on the boarding house porch for Mr. Monahan to see her face. She knew it was red, heat flushing in her cheeks and causing her collar to stick to the back of her neck. She didn’t know if her was discomfiture was from the fact that he was sitting on the porch rail holding a wanted poster with her picture on it, or from the fact that she now knew about the lean ripples of muscles across his belly, and how they crested like a wave over his hip before curving beneath the waist of his trousers. She drew the back of her hand across her brow, desperately trying to settle her jangled nerves. 
I cannot believe he just lifted up his shirt like that and... His scar had lanced like jagged bolt of lightning under the curve of his rib. She blinked, forcing away the memory. The man just told me was a criminal in a gang...and now he knows I’m not much better. It could be over for me...and what I am preoccupied with She cleared her throat, focusing on the hazy shadows of his face. “Now you know,” she said, slowly letting out a breath between her lips. “I’m not judging you, Mr. Monahan. I hardly have that right.”

“It’s alright, lass,” he muttered, keeping his voice low. “You canna blame me for being a bit banjaxed.”

“I owe you an explanation,” she said, rocking forward in the chair, leaning close to him. “I’m sorry I was so...I’m just...not very good at this. I never would have imagined things would go this far.”

He shook his head. “You owe me nothing, Miss Sullivan. I’ve been lying to you from the start, so I have.”

“So have I,” She shook her head, feeling her eyes. burn. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t...” she huffed, she chest clenching with a bitter laugh that was more of a sob. “I wasn’t cut out to be a thief, or a liar.” She dabbed her eyes with her sleeve, the words rolling out of her in a gush. It was terrible and wonderful to be able to finally talk about it.  “I never meant to be like this. Things just got out of control and I didn’t know what to do.”

“Lass,” Mr. Monahan drew in a deep breath, the shadow of his rangy shoulders rising and then falling. “I didn’t set out to be an ignorant, gun toting criminal, either. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of sodding choices.” He reached into the breast pocket on his shirt, pulled out a crisp handkerchief, and handed it to her.

She dabbed at her eyes with the linen square, the scent of laundry soap and leather and gunpowder filling her senses. “I didn’t come out here looking for work,” she mumbled. “I was an accountant in Saint Joseph. I worked for the coach line.” She sighed, a great, shuddering gust of regret rattling through her. “A man was courting me. He was a fine man.” She nodded, looking up at Mr. Monahan, and giving him a tight smile. “He had children. I grew very fond of them.”

Mr. Monahan was looking at her intently, letting her talk. She could see him nod, shifting to a more comfortable position on the porch rail. I can’t believe I actually thought, even briefly, that this man might actually be thinking of calling the law on me. And I will never forgive myself for thinking of him as an outlaw when it’s me with my face on a poster. “My beau died in an accident.”

“Aw, lass, I’m sorry, so I am.”

She nodded, pressing on. “Thank you. His family was back east, in Virginia. There was no money...and so...” She’d never spoken of it, never told another soul what she’d done. Somehow, speaking it aloud made it too real, too terrible. “I...uh...I...embezzled some money...I had to buy the children safe passage. It...” She pressed the handkerchief to her lips, steadying herself. “It was the most important thing to me, that the children were safe and looked after. Jeremiah had a married sister, she wanted the children to come live with her. I didn’t know what else to do.”

The gunman slouching on the porch rail cocked his head, and there was an almost incredulous tone in his voice. “Miss Sullivan...” he said. “Are you telling me stole money from California and Pike’s Peak and you’re hiding out here? In Green River?”

“Yes! I didn’t know what else to do. I knew the coach line because I worked for the company. That’s...well, that’s how I knew you didn’t.”

“Green River, as in ‘Green River that Contains a California and Pike’s Peak Coach Station’?” She could tell he was grinning, in spite of everything. “That Green River?”

She laughed, her voice coming out in a sobbing hiccup. “I told you I wasn’t very good at being a criminal.”

“Jaysus, lass!” He scratched his unshaven chin, shaking his head. “You’ve got some sand, so you do.”