Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Read an Excerpt from Day of Reckoning by Mary Hagen

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1867: Bounty hunter Chet Johnson rides to Stand Alone, Kansas hunting outlaw Three Fingers George who brutally murdered his family. The outlaw has left, but the prostitutes hand him a child they say is his son by Angie who is dead. The baby resembles his deceased brother Luke. He cannot deny the child. Afraid to settle in one place, the prostitutes suggest he ask a woman at the edge of town to take care of the child.

Abandoned by her husband who lost her mining claim in a poker game to Three Fingers, Susan agrees to care for the child if she can join Chet in his search for Three Fingers to recover her mining claim.

As they search for the outlaw, Susan appreciates Chet's honesty and kindness, and Chet sympathizes with Susan's vulnerability. Will love overcome the fears both have and keep them together?

 

Chapter One

 

 

Chet Johnson rode past a wagon with a broken wheel and ragged canvas cover near the stream of Stand Alone. Another fool going west in deep trouble.

The settlement lay at the base of a low rocky ridge next to a small stream. Riding in, he counted six shacks along the margin of the shallow stream. None appeared inhabited except the blacksmith shop and livery stable, and they were closed for the day. On the main street, most of the buildings faced south.

A sorry looking building of sod and wood held a crudely painted sign, "Boarding House." It was open but no one was around. The general store with one unwashed window stood across the street from the Stand Alone Saloon. A man with a long beard and worn and wrinkled suit slept in a chair next to the open door of the saloon. The saloon's cracked red roof sprouted weeds, the unopened glass windows sagged to the right, as did the building.

Nothing had changed since his visit thirteen months earlier. Chet dismounted. Before he loosened the cinch straps on his riding horse and pack mare, he glanced right and left. The street was deserted. He looped the reins over the polished railing.

Chet sauntered inside the rambling two-storied building and leaned on the bar. A pine box filled with sawdust sat on the floor at each end of the counter. It was evident from the black stains on the floor few customers hit the makeshift cuspidors. Facing the cracked mirror behind the bar, he nodded to the man polishing glasses, studied the room, and watched the door.

Professor Clyde, as he called himself, acknowledged Chet with a nod of his head, and continued polishing a heavy glass with a rag that once had been white. A black cigar hung from the corner of his mouth. He sported a curled slick moustache and a cowlick brushed carefully down his forehead. His soiled striped apron covered black pants and clean shirt.

"Give me a shot of whiskey," Chet drawled.

"Two bits a shot." He slammed the drink on the bar and returned to polishing glasses.

Chet dug a coin from his pocket and rolled it along the scarred counter to the bartender.

"Well, look who's come to town," Vivian, the only whore on duty, yelled as she came down the stairs. "About time ya' got here."

"Yeah. Came from Montana. Headed for Texas," Chet said. He rotated his upper body to watch Vivian wobble toward him in high-heeled laced black shoes.

Vivian plopped her voluptuous body on a stool next to Chet, displaying well-formed breasts no one could miss. A flowery red robe draped over a corset and lace stockings. During working hours, she wore a pair of red pantaloons tied above her knees, yellow stockings, and a white shirt cut low. The yellow stocking reminded Chet of a chicken, and he called her Red Hen to himself but never to her face. If she took offense, she would likely as not shoot the balls right off a man.

"Where's Angie? Came out of my way to see that lady."

Vivian avoided looking at him. She grabbed a rag and wiped the counter with hard strokes, shook it out, and rubbed in the opposite direction. Her actions disturbed Chet and his body tensed. He glanced around the room. When he heard news he did not like he became uneasy, and he suspected he was about to get such news.

Vivian slapped the rag against the weathered counter. Her voice was flat. "She's dead."

"Dead. What happened?" Chet felt a pang of regret in his chest. If he had been the staying around kind, he would have taken a real interest in Angie. She had a laugh that was soft, nice teeth, and her body was warm and moist. He remained two months in the Kansas town after his last hunt just to sample her, the most time he had spent in one place for ten years or more. He sighed with regret.

"Bert," Vivian shrieked, "Chet Johnson's down here." Turning to him, she said, "Got a surprise for you." She grabbed the rag and wiped the counter again.

Chet knew Vivian was not her real name. She had a mass of red hair, probably dyed, and tired eyes. She was a bit over the hill and more than a little soiled.

Angie was a different sort. The first time he met her, he knew she was out of her element, and he felt sorry for her. Her situation was desperate when her family was killed in an Indian attack. No one on the wagon train wanted to take responsibility for her. She was extra baggage they could not afford, and so he could not fault her for her taking up the sporting life. Too many young girls were left orphaned with no one to look after them. She was just getting started in the business and he was her first customer. He did not recall she had any name but Angie.

"Angie get a proper burial?" Chet asked.

"Yep. Put her right next to Ellie's brat," Vivian said. "Couple cowboys made her a casket shaped like a violin case. You know she liked music."

He didn't know.

"Picked some wildflowers for her myself and piled a few rocks at her head." Vivian, tough as old cowhide, sniffed and dabbed her eyes with a rag. "What's taking you so long, Bert?"

"Coming, coming." Bert thumped down the stairs carrying a bundle in her arms, her loose-fitting Mother Hubbard hoisted above her ankles. She gave Chet a cracked smile and thrust the bundle toward him. "Yer bastard."

Chet choked on his whiskey, coughed, and wiped his forearm across his mouth. "My what?"

"Angie's babe, the one she died for. Said he was yours."

"Impossible," Chet said. "No way knowing it's mine. She could a slept with anyone."

"Got her with kid when you was last here. Kid's spittin' image of you. Yer brown eyes, round face, yer lop-sided smile, yer sandy looking hair," Vivian said.

Chet refused to take the bundle from Bert. Picking up his hat, he headed for the door.

"What you want us to do with this kid?" Bert planted her large body in front of Chet. "Before she passed on, we promised Angie we'd look after him 'til you showed up. Now yer here. This ain't no place for a baby."

"I'm in no position to take on a kid. I go where the outlaws take me. It's not my responsibility and if you got any kind of memory, you know I got a mission." He skirted around Bert. She circled in front of him and thrust the bundle at him, forcing him to catch the child before he hit the floor.

The baby gurgled, squealed with delight, and thrust a tiny hand from the blanket. Chet placed the child on the bar without looking at him, removed his hat, and ran his hand through his hair. Turning his back, he hitched up his pants, stuck his thumbs in his tight-fitting woolens, and headed for the door.

"I can't take care of a kid. Angie was a whore. Any cowboy visiting her could be the father. Outta' my way."

"Yer the pa," Vivian said, standing with folded arms. "Without someone to look after him, he ain't got much of a chance." She grabbed Chet's whiskey and gulped down the last of it, picked up the baby, and handed him to Chet, who had no choice but to take him.

"Allowed the ladies to keep the brat until you showed up against my wishes," the Professor said, "but he's got to go. Hard on business. If you don't want him, leave him at the end of town. Maybe someone'll pick him up, but get him out of here." He gave Chet a disgusted look, turned and straightened bottles on the shelf behind him.

Chet stood board straight, his arms bent at the elbows holding the bundle without moving. The child poked a small hand from the under the bundle. Chet glanced at the face, and the infant smiled. His breath caught in his chest. At that moment, he could have sworn he was looking at his baby brother Luke, who died before he was a year old. His mother called him her mistake. His heart sank into his stomach and he sucked in his breath. The kid even had his brother's slightly protruding ears. Luke was back. My God, the kid was his. He couldn't ignore the evidence. His hands turned to ice.

He could not think of settling in one place, not since he watched Three Fingers George and his gang destroy everyone and everything that meant anything to him. He still broke into a cold sweat when the memory surfaced.

Since that day, he searched for the man with the sole intent of ending the bastard's life. At Dodge, Chet heard about a man fitting George's description. Although Chet was on his way to Texas for the winter bounty hunting, he sidetracked to Stand Alone hoping to pick up the bastard's trail, maybe spend some time with Angie.

Chet nervously paced the room. He frowned, cursed his feelings of growing responsibility, and felt as helpless as the baby in his arm.

"And, how the hell you sure that kid's mine? Could be others that look like me," he protested half-heartedly.

"Angie swore she hadn't slept with anyone 'fore you and not after. Stayed in the second shack on the edge of town when she found out she was in that way. We helped her out. The kid's your responsibility," Vivian said. "Don't let the kid grow up an orphan. It ain't right." There was a note of sorrow in her voice.

The baby made several sounds that sounded like "gully, gully, gully" to Chet's ears. His tiny hand tried to grasp Chet's face, and he smiled. Chet's insides tied in a knot.

"What's his name?" Chet asked.

"We ain't given him a name," Bert said. Her voice sounded hoarse. "No need to git attached."

"Luke," Chet said. He looked around the dirty saloon and knew it was no place to raise a kid. The baby was his Luke had come back and needed him. His conscience would not let him shirk his duty to the child.

"How in the hell do I take care of him?" Chet glanced from one woman to the other. "Would one of you care for him if I paid you, found you a place to live. You wouldn't have to work here. I'd make sure I visited twice each year. Be a better life for you."

"You kiddin'? Can't trust us. We got business at night. When it ain't good, we pick up and move. Nope. Find yerself a milk cow. Got some bottles and nipples, diapers, a few garments, and the box he sleeps in. I'll get them," Vivian said. She brushed past Chet.

Chet looked down at the small bundle he held. The child was sure the spitting image of his brother Luke. Feelings of love, pride, and tenderness flooded through him. He glanced at Bert with such a pitiful, helpless look on his face, Bert laughed.

"Guess ya' might be finding yerself a settling man, yet," Bert said. "Ya' need a decent woman to help ya' out. At the east edge of town there's one left on her own. Nearly dead when she arrived out of nowhere. Vivian took food to her. Now she does our laundry, sells us milk and eggs, and we even offered her work with us. Turned us down flat. She don't talk much, though did hear her mention George. Don't know her connection to that bastard." Bert's ample hips flowed over the stool she sat on.

At the mention of George, Chet came to a stop, plopped down on a chair at the poker table, and propped the baby up in his lap. "Give Bert a shot," he snapped at the Professor. He banged two bits on the table and ran his hand through his hair.

"Three Fingers came in here, took up with Ellie, and when she asked for payment, he threw her around, and cut her up bad. She's still recovering."

"How long ago was he here?"

"Week ago."

"Was he with anyone?" George's dark, cruel face surfaced in Chet's thoughts.

"Yeah. Someone called Pete, a mean hombre, and Billie Parrot."

"Three Finger's kid brother. Parrot drifts with them. He's a bad one," Chet shifted the baby to one arm.

"Shot up my saloon, chased off my customers, laughed like it was a joke," the Professor said, his face white with anger.

"That man who called himself Three Fingers George had a way of hissing through his teeth," Vivian said as she came down the stairs carrying a small wooden crate. "He came in here, yelling and laughing, shooting off his iron. One shot came right through my floor, past the baby, and out the window. Upset my customer. He grabbed his pants, went out the window without paying."

"Place was filled with blue smoke. Put that hole in the m-m-mirror. Then, one of the cowboys hiding behind a card table got a s-s-shot off at Parrot," Bert stuttered, a habit she fell into when she became excited.

"Next thing, Parrot staggered out the door, hollering for Three Fingers and Pete. They came down the stairs shooting everywhere," Vivian said. She put the baby's crate on the table and ran her hands down her sides.

"Last we s-s saw of them, they was astride their hor-horses. George and Pete were on each side of Parrot holding him up," Bert said. "Hope the bas-bas-bastard died and went to hell."

The Professor banged a glass on the counter and pulled out a revolver. Looking over the end of his cigar, he said, "Any one of them come into my establishment again, they'll be dead before they're through the door."

Chet suspected the Professor's words were more a show of bravado than truth. "This George, was he tall, dark curly hair, thin-lipped?" Chet asked. The baby grabbed Chet's finger and stuck it in his mouth. Chet removed it and patted the baby's stomach without thinking.

Vivian grimaced. "Meanest looking mouth I've seen. Had dirty brown teeth."

Chet frowned. Kicking his feet wildly, the child freed them from the blanket and caught Chet on the chin. He looked at Chet and gurgled. Chet rubbed his jaw and pushed the foot under the cover.

"I can't keep this kid," Chet said. He cursed himself for riding into Stand Alone. If he didn't know about the baby, he wouldn't feel responsible, but he wanted Three Fingers and knew the man had been in the saloon.

"You ain't got much choice. Get your butt down to the wagon. Yer gonna need some milk for him."

"Can't expect me to change my life on account of her." Chet pulled his ear and headed for the door.

Vivian grabbed the baby and the wooden crate and the two women followed Chet onto the street. He paused, glanced left and right, studied the shacks, looked at the sky and said, "I'll pay for the kid's keep. You must know someone who'll take him on. I just can't take on this child."

The thought of settling down filled him with fear. To him, it meant putting himself in danger. Staying in one place left him open to attack and dying. Not until he put Three Fingers down could he find the will to settle and maybe not then either. He liked riding for bounty money, moving from one place to the next.

"There's that woman at the edge of town. She's got a milk cow," Vivian said. She put the crate on the ground and shifted the baby from her right hip to her left. He squealed.

"She seem like a decent sort?" Chet asked. He kicked the box with the toe of his boot before tightening the cinches on the horses.

"She's moody, not overly friendly, stays to herself. Hard to say, but seems so. Dependable with our laundry," Vivian said.

"Poor as a scrawny coyote at the end of winter," Bert added.

"You say she mentioned George?" Chet asked. Vivian forced Chet to take the crate and he tied the box on his pack animal. He sure did not want to entrust his son to someone who had a connection to the killer, but she might provide a lead.

"Go talk to her." Vivian said.

Mounting his horse, he turned to leave with Vivian still holding the child. She thrust the baby at him and Chet grabbed the child before he fell to the ground. He was surprised at the sorrow he saw in the eyes of the hard-featured woman as she released the baby.

"Take care of that kid. He don't deserve being left an orphan," Vivian said.

"Yeah." Chet could think of nothing else to say - no excuses, no more denials.

Filled with misgivings, doubt, and an odd ache in his heart, Chet headed his horse east past the sleeping man and the general store toward the wagon with the child propped in front of him. He could not give up his search for Three Fingers. If he was anywhere around, Chet would find him. The baby presented a problem he would have to solve before he continued his search. No doubt the child resembled his brother and was his. The baby gurgled and Chet sighed, a deep sigh of despair.

Now, what in hell do I do?

 

 

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