Die Hand Die Verletz
Disclaimer: The Mirisch corporation owns M7, not me.
"I don't understand it, Bill," Deputy Merrick scratched his head. "This is the third girl in as many weeks. Same pattern, Saturday nights, strangles them with something soft. What the hell is going on?"
Sheriff Bill Pearce looked at him gravely. "I'll tell you what's going on, Merrick," he said grimly. "We got ourselves a serial killer."
Merrick paled somewhat. "Where's he going next, Bill?"
Pearce looked at the map they had laid out on the walnut desk in the small jail. "I reckon he'll be headed toward Four Corners next, Merrick," he sighed.
"How you figure that, boss?"
Pearce pointed to the lines he'd already made on the map. "Each one is going in a straight line, twelve miles from the last point, ninety degrees from where he last killed the girl. He's trying for a perfect square. And that means," he said, drawing the last line to its destination point, "that Four Corners is his next and last stop."
"Why last, boss?" Merrick asked, confused.
"Cause we're gonna catch him," Pearce said. "And we're gonna kill him."
JD Dunne stepped out of the sheriff's office early that morning, while it was still dark, much earlier that he normally did, and breathed in the fresh desert air. "Wow," he murmured.
"What's that, JD?" asked Josiah Sanchez, walking toward him on the sidewalk.
JD's face reddened a little in embarrassment. "Oh, nothing, Josiah," he stammered. At Josiah's quizzical glance, he relented. "I just can't get over how nice it is out here in the morning, when it's still cool, and the mist hasn't burned off yet. Ain't nothing like back east." He paused. "Well, 'cept maybe in the mountains, of course."
He stopped suddenly, realizing that he was rambling. "Sorry, Josiah," he said. "Didn't mean to ramble, I was just--,"
"JD," Josiah interrupted patiently.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of, son." He paused. "Why, I've often had that feeling, waking up to a morning like this. It's the best feeling in the world," he continued softly, "to know that you can wake up to something so pure, something that God made. Makes me feel good to know that he remembered to make me too."
JD grinned. "That's exactly the way I feel, Josiah."
Josiah hid a smile at the kid's enthusiasm. "You just keep doing that, JD, and you'll be all right."
Neither of them spoke for a moment, just relishing the quiet air that still surrounded the town. "Have a seat, Josiah?" JD asked, indicating the bench next to him.
Josiah seemed to consider it for a moment. "I think I will." And he did. Together, they watched as the sun peaked over the dusty hills in the distance, looking between two buildings to see the blues and purples melt away into fiery red.
It wasn't much later that two sweat-lathered horses thundered into town, disrupting the peacefulness that JD and Josiah had hoped to enjoy. JD raised and eyebrow and Josiah sighed, watching as two saddle-weary riders dismounted in front of them.
The younger one, a man of about twenty-five, seemed anxious to rush forward, but the elder of the two, obviously the "leader", held him back with a few quiet words. Silently, he tied his horse, an unmarked bay to the hitching post and deftly loosened the girth strap to ease his breathing.
A moment later, the younger followed his example. JD and Josiah both gave the older man an admiring glance. JD, growing up around horses, knew that many riders didn't give their horses that small courtesy. He knew that it would help him blow a bit and he'd be ready to ride all the more quickly.
So when the men both stomped up the single step to the wooden sidewalk, both Josiah and JD rose to greet them. All four touched their hats to one another in respect. JD began. "What are you two fellas doing out here so early?"
"Well, sir, we're here to see the sheriff," the younger said.
"That'd be me. Sheriff JD Dunne. And you are?" he asked politely.
The younger man turned slightly red and looked as though he were about to burst out laughing, but a nudge from his companion silenced him. "No disrespect intended, sheriff, but aren't you a little young for the job?"
JD raised an eyebrow, but he wasn't offended. He got it often enough from the people in the town itself. "No, sir. Judge Travis appointed me sheriff six months ago. Now what seems to be the problem?"
The older man nodded, apparently satisfied with his answer. "My name's Bill Pearce, and I'm sheriff over in New Townsend, couple miles south of Bitter Creek. This here's my deputy, Don Merrick. We came here because we think there's gonna be a murder committed sometime in the next four days."
Josiah spoke up then. "I'm Josiah Sanchez, one of the hired peace keepers. Why don't we all go inside. I'm sure this isn't the sort of thing to discuss in public."
Pearce nodded. JD lead the way into the slightly cramped jail. "There aren't any chairs, I'm sorry to say. Standing room only."
Neither Pearce nor Merrick said a word, so Josiah spoke. "Back to the business at hand, gentlemen."
Pearce smiled grimly, his face taking on a somewhat haunted look in dimly lit area. JD found himself shuddering slightly, glad that no one could see him.
"For the past three weeks, a woman has been murdered on every Saturday night in Eagle Bend, Bitter Creek, and Salisbury. We've figured out the pattern. Here," he motioned to Merrick, who withdrew a small folded map from a pocket of his vest. Laying it down and unfolding it, they all saw clearly the lines drawn up.
"The killer is doing this in pattern, as you can see. I've determined that Four Corners is his next stop." JD leaned closer.
"Is there anything specific about the women he's killed, Sheriff Pearce?" he asked. "Their height, weight, physical features?"
Pearce shot him a somewhat surprised look. "Well, actually, they all had blond hair. But that's the only thing."
Josiah held up a hand. "Sheriff Pearce, there are five more men who also work as peace keepers here. Perhaps we should wake them up and discuss this with them. That'll save the trouble of having to repeat it later."
Pearce hesitated a moment, but nodded. "All right. What say we meet back here in two hours? Will that be enough time?"
JD nodded. "Should be, except Ezra. Josiah, you wanna wake him up? I don't want to be on the receiving end of a .45 slug this morning."
Pearce snorted. "So he's not a morning person, this Ezra, I assume?"
Josiah grinned. "You assume correctly." He turned to JD. "I'll wake him, Nathan, and Vin. You get Chris and Buck."
JD nodded. "We'll see you in two hours."
As the two exited the jail, Merrick turned to his employer. "You sure we can trust 'em, boss?"
Pearce rolled his eyes. "Of course we can."
"You think they can understand the notes, Bill?"
Pearce narrowed his eyes. "I hope so, for all ours sakes."
It wasn't hard for JD to find Chris. In only a few moments, he was up and ready for action. Now came the problem of actually locating Buck. Chris grinned at him. "I bet I know where he is, JD." He pointed to a second story window in the saloon. "I saw him go up there with Bridgett last night."
JD gave him a pained look. Chris laughed at him. "I'll get him up. You go back to the jail and we'll join you in a few."
Silently, Chris crept up the stairs to Bridgett's room. With a devilish grin on his face, he took a deep breath, and hollered to the top of his lungs. "What the hell are you doing in there with my sister, you low-down scum?"
Inside the room, Buck groaned. "Not again." He jumped out of bed, hurriedly pulled his clothes on. Bridgett leapt up with him, shrieking. Buck succeeded in dressing himself mostly, and jumped toward the window.
At that moment, Chris kicked open the door. Buck's mouth dropped open, and Bridgett's eyes widened in shock. "Come on, Buck," Chris said smoothly. "We got work to do."
Buck finally closed his mouth. "I'll get you, Chris," he swore. "Just you wait."
Chris grinned and turned on his heel. A moment later, he was gone, thumping loudly down the wooden saloon steps.
Buck wordlessly followed him.
Josiah had gotten Nathan and Vin up without a problem, but then came Ezra. He shook his head, remembering that the earliest the gambler had ever woken up was at eleven in the morning. He checked his pocketwatch. "Nine o' three," he muttered. "Damn."
Tentatively, he knocked on the door to Ezra's room in the boardinghouse. No answer. He called softly. "Ezra, get up." Still no answer. Sighing, he turned the knob.
He took a step and a board under his feet creaked loudly. He froze as a muffled click penetrated the stillness. A southern voice, still husky with sleep, spoke up. "You, Mr. Sanchez, had better have an extraordinary reason to come waking me up at," he paused, checking his own watch by the bed, "nine o' seven."
Josiah grinned at the sarcasm and turned to face him. He was still in the clothes he'd been wearing the night before, a white shirt now wrinkled from having been slept in and pin striped black pants that he so often wore. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was mussed.
"Hangover, Ezra?" he asked innocently.
Ezra sighed and released the hammer slowly into its safety position. "You'd better be glad that was on the empty chamber, my friend," he groused, sitting up. He moaned, and put his head in his hands. "Ouch."
"Interesting night, I gather," Josiah said pleasantly.
"Could you please not yell? I can't see straight," he muttered.
"So? Get up, we've got work to do. Something about a murder taking place here on Saturday." He walked over to the door. "Be at the jail at ten o' clock." Then he was gone.
Ezra flopped back down onto the bed and pressed his face into a pillow. "Shoot."
By ten o' clock, they were all assembled. Only Buck and Ezra looked upset at the interruptions. JD glanced toward Pearce. "I guess you should start, sir."
Pearce nodded. "Since we've been introduced, there's no need for any further chit-chat. We've got a serious problem, one that needs to be solved rather quickly.
He pointed to the map. "As has been explained, Four Corners is his last stop. The only connection between the women is that they were blonds."
"Nothing else?" Ezra asked, somewhat confused. "And how do you know it's the same person? People copycat and there are such things as coicidences."
Everyone except Pearce shot him a look, but Pearce gave him a smile. "Mr. Standish is quite right. No, so far as we can tell, there's nothing to connect the women. And we know it's the same person because of these."
He motioned and Merrick came over, handing him three pieces of crisp, white paper. "These were all found at the crime scenes. There is something written on them, but it's either coded, or in another language. We were hoping someone here could decipher what they say."
Chris leaned over. "Die hand die verletz," he read. "I haven't got a clue. Anyone?"
All the men shrugged, but Ezra furrowed his brow, thinking hard. Chris cocked his head. "You wanna share whatever it is with the group, Ezra?" he asked.
Ezra bit his lip. "If I remember correctly, it means 'His is the hand that wounds.' It's Latin." He looked up to incredulous stares. "What?"
"You know Latin?" JD asked.
Ezra sighed. "Look, son, I went to boarding school. That's what we learned. That and French." He shuddered a little. "Never again."
Chris didn't press him. "That mean anything to you?" he asked Pearce.
Pearce shook his head. "Not a thing."
Ezra bit his lip again, struggling furiously to remember something. It was on the tip of his memory, but he couldn't quite grasp it. Chris noticed it again, but again, said nothing.
Nathan spoke up. "How were they killed?" he inquired.
Pearce looked at him. "They were all strangled, with something soft."
"Like a cotton cloth?" Vin suggested.
He shook his head. "No. Something softer. It seems almost as though it were silk that did it."
That did it. Ezra remembered. "Oh, God," he muttered.
Chris turned his attention to him without ever really moving. "What?"
"It's a serial killer, all right, and it is the same person. He will be coming here on Saturday, just as planned." Ezra sighed. "But he won't stop here. He'll continue to another part of the country."
"How do you know?" Merrick asked from his vantage point in a corner.
"Because," Ezra answered grimly. "He's done the same thing in every state along the eastern seaboard and out to the Mississippi."
Buck shot a confused look to Ezra. "How do you know that?"
Ezra sighed. He didn't want to go into his family history, but he knew he didn't really have a choice. "My mother left me at a lot of relatives' houses when I was growing up. That included Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and many numerous other states. I'd hear about these murders occurring in square four patterns sometimes when I'd stay for a long enough time. And he does use some sort of silk cloth to strangle the women he kills."
"How do you know it's the same person?" Chris asked. "If what you say is true, he'd have to have been doing this for, what, twenty years?"
"Possibly longer. Anyway, how many people use 'Die hand die verletz' as a calling card?"
Chris nodded. "You're right." He turned to Pearce. "What about the women? Who were they? We may need to know everything. There's got to be something else to tie them together. There are easily four of five blond women in the town. We won't know who he'll strike unless we can tie them together."
Pearce nodded. "Okay. Merrick, get me the notes." Merrick reached into his pocket again and withdrew several more folded papers. He handed them to Pearce and resumed his place leaning near Vin against the back wall.
"Here we go. Martha Johnson, aged twenty-nine. Mother of two. Husband was the local mayor. She was president of the women's society in Bitter Creek. It's a big town, lotta people to cover. Then there's Emily Smith, aged thirty-two. Mother of three. Husband was dead. She ran the local mercantile store in Eagle Bend. Only one in town, I might add. People were real sorry to see her dead. Apparently, she was well liked. Finally, there's Evelyn Butler, aged thirty-one. No children. Husband ran out on her. She ran the local saloon in Salisbury. Didn't do anything, but she made good money operating the place." He finished and shrugged.
Chris looked at the men. "Okay, what do we know?"
"They were all married at some point," Nathan said.
"Okay, that's one. Next."
"They were all employed," Vin said, taking a stab.
Everyone was silent. "That's it, Chris," Buck said. Pearce nodded. "Okay, so who--?"
"No, it's not."
All eyes turned toward Ezra. "Well, you're just having a streak of good luck today, aren't you, Ezra?" Chris asked. "What is it now?" Truth be told, he was glad the gambler had thought of something else. It would give them more to go on.
"They were all in a position of power and influence over the community."
Pearce turned a gray-eyed gaze on him. "Explain."
"Martha Johnson. Her husband was the mayor, for goodness sake. She was president of the ladies' society. It was a big town, as you said, Sheriff Pearce. She had control over a lot of people in the town. The women through herself and everyone else through her husband."
JD nodded. "He's right. What about the other two?"
"Emily Smith. She ran the mercantile store. The ONLY one in the town. Where would people get their dry goods and supplies without her? She may not seem important at first glance, but she was a valuable member of a community."
Pearce nodded. "It's a little of a stretch, but that's good. And the third?"
"Evelyn Butler. She ran the local saloon. I don't have to tell you what a difference a saloon in town makes for business. And who's the only blond woman in town with that much influence over the townsfolk?"
Everyone caught the grim look in his eyes. "Mary," came the collective groan.
Chris clenched his fists at his sides. "She's got to be protected."
"There's one problem, Chris," Buck said uncomfortably. "You promised Judge Travis that you'd come with three of us to Sweetwater for that hanging on Friday."
Chris slammed his fist down in frustration. He's promised the judge two months ago that he'd be there to help keep order when Tom Williams was hanged for murder. "I know. But at least we'll have three here. Right?" he asked.
"Pardon, but who's Tom Williams?" Pearce asked.
JD spoke up. "He killed three people in an attempted bank robbery in Sweetwater a couple of months ago. The case couldn't go to trial there because too many people would have tried to kill him, so he was extradited to Fort Yuma. He asked to be buried in Sweetwater, so they decided to hang him there and not waste time trying to bring the body back."
Pearce nodded. "Ah, I see. Well, if you need help here, Merrick and I can stay. There's nothing too pressing back home."
Chris nodded in relief. "I'd appreciate that." He looked at the others.
"Who are you going to take, Chris?" Buck asked.
Chris thought. "Well, I'll need Buck, Josiah, and Vin, just because they've had more experience, but I want JD to stay here, you being sheriff and all. Nathan, I want you here, just in case. And Ezra, I think you could be of help tracking him down."
He said it with some semblance of respect evident in his voice. "It works out well this way."
Ezra blinked, surprised. "How do you know I'd be able to help, Mr. Larabee?" he asked.
Chris looked at him, steely blue eyes meeting bright green ones. "You've figured out who he'll go after. I'm trusting you to stay and make sure he won't hurt Mary." He put extra emphasis on "trusting", and Ezra nodded.
"Good," Chris said. "Buck, Josiah, Vin," he said, motioning toward the door. "We'll need to leave tonight to get there by Thursday morning."
They all nodded. JD turned to Pearce. "I'm sure glad you're staying to help out, sir," he said.
Pearce finally snorted. "Don't call me 'sir', JD. I much prefer Bill."
JD nodded. "Okay." He turned to Ezra and Nathan, who were still waiting near them. "I suppose we should meet in here again tomorrow morning to figure out what we're going to do."
Nathan nodded. "I'll start getting some supplies ready." At Ezra's glare, he added, "Just in case."
Ezra turned to JD. "I may as well look around, see if anyone's checked into the hotel or boardinghouse in the last couple of days."
JD nodded. "Good. I'll stick around here with Bill and Mr. Merrick for awhile longer."
They all parted, neither Ezra nor Nathan looking back, and no one watched them leave. Except for a pair of cold brown eyes that gazed hungrily from a window across the street.
Ezra walked up to John, the local hotel clerk. "Morning, John," he said pleasantly, using his first name.
John looked up and grinned. "Have fun last night, Ezra?" he asked slyly.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Just what was in that concoction your wife made, my friend?" he asked.
John laughed. "Vodka," he announced proudly.
Ezra snorted. "Might've known." He shook his head. "Anyway, John, I was hoping you could assist me in a certain task which may determine the outcome in a case of life and death?"
John looked up, his face suddenly serious. "Gosh, Ezra, you serious?" At Ezra's grim nod, he jerked his head up and down emphatically. "Sure I'll help. What do you need?"
Ezra motioned to the roster that held the list of guests. "How many people have come into town after Saturday?"
John checked the book. "Well, it's Tuesday, so that'd cover Sunday to now." He flipped back in the book a bit. "Here we go. Man or woman?" he asked.
"Well, one checked in on Sunday afternoon by the name of James Phelps. And two came in yesterday on the stage. One's a Mr. Burt Lawson and the other's Donald MacLeod."
Ezra pondered the information. "Do you have the list of boardinghouse occupants coming in from that time?"
John nodded. "Mrs. Green sent them over today." He looked. "Nope. None since last Friday."
Ezra nodded in relief. "That helps." He looked at the book. "What are the numbers the men are staying in?"
"Phelps is in 106, Lawson's in 104, and MacLeod's in 101. That help?"
"One more thing," he began. "Any of them married?"
John looked. "Yep, MacLeod is. His wife's here. That mean something?"
Ezra nodded. "It just narrowed the search. Thanks."
John watched him leave. "What's he up to?" he murmured.
That evening, Ezra, Nathan, and JD were standing by the livery, waiting as the others mounted up to leave for Sweetwater.
Chris rode over to JD. "You catch the sonofabitch, and you don't shoot him. I personally want to see him hang." JD nodded.
To Nathan, he said, "I wouldn't ask you to stay, but--,"
Nathan cut him off. "I know, Chris. Don't worry."
Chris gave him a grateful smile. Then he looked at Ezra who merely gazed back. "I'm expecting you to make sure that absolutely no harm comes to her, understand." Ezra looked at his eyes. The blue swam with an emotion, worry he realized.
"I'll keep an eye on her," he promised quietly.
Chris nodded. He turned back to the others. Buck's gray gelding was chomping at the bit, quite literally, anxious to get moving. He took one quick last look at the town, his eyes lingering momentarily on a shop with a swinging sign above it reading "Clarion". Abruptly, he tore his gaze away. "Let's ride!"
The men asked no questions. Together, the four of them took off toward Sweetwater, each of them harboring their own separate worries.
JD turned to Ezra before they were out of sight. "What did you find out?"
Ezra started walking toward the saloon. "I need a drink."
JD lifted his eyes at him, but he and Nathan both followed. Once inside, they took their usual table in the back. Ezra ordered a bottle of whisky and they all poured shots and drank them. JD waited for Ezra to start, but the hustler poured another shot and threw his head back, gulping the hard whiskey back.
"Ezra," Nathan said patiently. "Tell."
Ezra sat the glass down. "Three men checked into the hotel between now and last Saturday."
"Three!" JD groaned. "That's just too many to check."
Ezra shook his head. "Only two of them are suspects."
Nathan glanced at him. "Why?"
"Whoever the murderer is, he doesn't like women. He tolerates them, but I highly doubt he'd marry one. Even if they weren't in a position of power. He sees them as a threat to himself. One of the men, MacLeod, is married and has his wife with him. The other two are the ones we need to watch."
JD leaned forward. "Who are they?"
"James Phelps and Burt Lawson. No one checked into the boardinghouse since then. It's just them."
"Okay," JD said, "What are we gonna do about it?"
Ezra poured another shot. "I don't know."
The next morning, Wednesday, dawned as the previous day had. Pearce, Merrick, Ezra, JD, and Nathan all met in the jail just as dawn broke through the morning cloud cover. JD looked a little surprised that Ezra was there, but he didn't push it.
"Morning, gentlemen," Ezra said quietly as he came in. He was last, but he thought it an incredible achievement that he had actually woken up in time to be present.
The men all nodded to him. JD stood up from his chair behind the desk. "What are we going to do to catch him?"
"First, we must inform Mrs. Travis that her life is in danger," Ezra said smoothly.
Pearce spoke up. "Do you think that would be wise?" he asked. "No offense to the lady, but many women don't take kindly to be told that their lives are in danger."
JD shook his head. "Mrs. Travis would want to know."
Nathan looked at Ezra. "You tell her."
He jerked his head up, his green eyes a little brighter than normal. "Why me?" he asked.
"You scared?" JD asked.
"Of Mrs. Travis, yes I am a bit apprehensive as to what her reaction will be."
JD shrugged. "So?"
Ezra shook his head. It wasn't even worth arguing over.
Merrick spoke up. "Are you sure she's the only one who could be a target?" he asked, glaring pointedly at Ezra.
Ezra returned his gaze with calm look of his own. "Absolutely."
"I mean, how are we supposed to know which of the men is going to go and strangle the lady with a silk scarf anyway?" Merrick said.
"That's enough," Pearce snapped.
Ezra looked at him a moment longer. "I'll do it now."
He hesitated as he drew up to the newspaper. Removing his hat, he stepped into the dimly lit room. "Mrs. Travis?" he called cautiously.
"In here!" came a muffled voice from the back. A moment later, she appeared, holding several tin boxes in her hands.
"Let me help you with those," he said immediately, when he saw her struggling a bit under the weight.
"Thank you, Mr. Standish," she sighed, brushing a stray hair from out of her face. "Is something wrong?"
"Matter of fact, there is, ma'am," he said. "You may wish to sit while I relate the story."
She gave him a confused look, but did as asked, sitting on a straight backed wooden chair against the window. "What is it?"
"Mrs. Travis," he began nervously. He stopped. Oh, what the hell. "Mrs. Travis, we believe that someone may make an attempt on your life this Saturday night?"
She didn't gasp, for which he admired her, but she paled visibly. "Why?" she asked, her voice a little shaky.
He shifted his weight a little, restless. "It's not you personally, the man, a serial killer actually, has been doing this to women of influence in several towns the past few weeks." He saw no point in adding what the man had already done; it would only server to scare her more.
"So what should I do?" she asked after a moment.
He shook his head. "It would be best to get you someplace safe for the time being until we deduce what's going to happen."
"Do you have any suspects?"
He tugged a little at the sleeve of his green jacket. "Two, presently."
"Can't you arrest them or something?"
He shook his head. "You know as well as I d that it can't be done without evidence to back up the charge." He sighed. "I'm sorry, but for the time being, it's the best we can do just to keep you out of the way."
She nodded. "Well, you go find someplace to put me and come for me later. Until then, I'll just stay here."
He was tempted to argue, but he knew it would do no good. "All right." He didn't bother to say goodbye, but backed out of the store into the street.
A few strides brought him across the street and a few more landed him in the jail. "Was it any specific place that the women died?" he asked Pearce.
He shook his head. "It looks like he stalked them until they were alone, then took his chance."
JD spoke up. "What if we just stay with Mrs. Travis the whole time? That way he can't do anything."
Ezra shook his head. "He's done it this way for twenty some years, JD. I doubt he'll stop now just because of our interference. No," he said, "He'll still go for her. We'll just have to be ready for him."
"Where are we going to put Mrs. Travis?" Nathan asked. "She can't be left there by herself."
The five men stared at each other, no one quite knowing what to do. JD spoke up hesitantly. "There's her old house," he ventured.
Ezra and Nathan looked at each other. They all knew that she wouldn't want to go back there at any cost. Too many painful memories. "I don't see as though we have any choice," Pearce said quietly, not knowing what had happened to her.
Ezra nodded. "I'll go get her and take her out there. You all had better go fix it up so that two people can stay in it for the time being."
"Two?" JD asked.
"Mrs. Travis and another one of us three." He glanced to Pearce. "No offense, sheriff, but I highly doubt Mrs. Travis would take to strangers in her home."
Pearce nodded. "Right you are. But why not all three of you?"
"Oh, two of us will go. One to stay inside to guard her and one to keep watch outside. But we need a third here to conduct the investigations of the two suspects with you and Mr. Merrick. That'll be you, JD."
"Why can't I help protect her?" he asked, miffed.
Ezra sighed. "You're the only one with the actual authority to arrest someone out here should the need arise. And I'm not just referring to the two said individuals."
Slowly, JD nodded. "I see your point, Ezra," he said.
Nathan looked at him. "I'll ride over there now and try to fix the place up a bit. You just come out with her in a couple of hours."
Ezra nodded. He turned back to JD. "JD, one of the three of you should ride to Eagle Bend and see if any of the two men were registered at their rooming facilities during the week the second woman was killed. Otherwise," he added, "All you can do is watch them until one is ready to make his move."
Merrick spoke up. "I can do that. My horse is fast enough to get there in a few hours. I can be back tomorrow morning with the information."
Pearce nodded. "I'll ask around a bit more, see if any of them's done something suspicious. JD, you watch them close."
JD nodded. "Sure, Bill. Ezra, I'll see you later then."
Ezra touched his hat and walked out of the jail, nervously flicking his eyes around the dusty street.
Ezra stopped by the Clarion later that day, about three o'clock, to pick Mary up. She was ready, holding a carpetbag with a change of clothes and some personal items. "I understand that I'm to be staying at my old home," she said tightly as he helped her into the wagon.
He swallowed. "There was nowhere else," he said simply.
She nodded and scooted over the far right so he could take his seat. He tossed her bag into the bag with his and Nathan's and clucked to the horse. Chaucer was tied to the back, in case he was needed for a trip back to town.
The ride over was silent, and Ezra didn't try to break it. He left Mary to her own thoughts while he pondered how he and Nathan were going to keep her alive until Sunday.
When at last they pulled into the yard under the stand of small oaks near the house, the sun was setting over the horizon. Ezra paused a moment to watch as the first stars popped out overhead and the sun faded into blending hues of purple and blue. Quickly, though, he shook himself of the thoughts that had plagued him for the past hours and pulled the horses to a stop.
Nathan emerged from the small house and waved. Ezra raised a hand in greeting and turned to Mary. "You go on up with Nathan. I'm going to stable the horses." He jumped from the wagon before she could reply and held out his hand to her. Silently, she took it and he helped her down from her perch.
She looked at him with infinite sadness welling up in her blue eyes, but she turned away and strode quietly towards Nathan who was waiting patiently by the front door. Ezra unhitched the two cart horses and walked them both into the barn.
"Mr. Jackson, could I interest you in some supper?" Mary asked a little while later. Ezra was still tending to the monumental needs of four tired horses, so she was on her own to start conversation.
"Why, thank you, Miz Travis," he replied warmly. "I'd like that."
She smiled tiredly and looked the cabinets. "I assume that you've already stocked the kitchen," she said, not expecting a no.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied. Ezra said that I may as well come out early and get the place livable."
She opened the cabinet doors one by one, taking a few things here and there and setting them near the stove. Once finished, she observed her choices. "I suspect that for supper tonight we will be dining on smoked ham, green beans, and cornbread."
Nathan grinned, eyes lighting up. He hadn't eaten since breakfast that morning and he was famished.
She noticed it and smiled back. "I suppose I'm correct in guessing that neither you nor Mr. Standish has been eating well the past few days?"
"You'd suppose correctly," came the soft southern drawl from the doorway. Ezra stepped inside, looking quiet and drawn. His normally tanned face had taken a slightly sunken appearance, one which she hadn't noticed on her way over.
"Ezra!" she exclaimed. "You don't look well at all. Sit down," she commanded. He was too tired to argue, so he did as she told.
Nathan gave him a worried look. "You slept at all since we heard about this?"
Mary overheard and shook her head. "There's no reason for you to go getting sick on account of me. I won't have it. Here," she said, handing them each a piece of cold bread. "This should tide you over until I can fix something more appropriate."
Ezra looked at the bread disdainfully, but he ate it only out of pure hunger. Mary continued around the kitchen, huffing at all the dirt that had accumulated over the past year. Ezra and Nathan shared a quiet smile.
JD had found both men earlier that day and had been watching them separately for the past four hours. He was tired, his back hurt, and most importantly, he was bored out of his mind. He sighed. Neither man had done anything important.
Phelps had come out of his room only to go to the mercantile and buy some candy from Mrs. Potter. He had seemed pleasant enough, chatting with her amicably the whole time. Lawson had emerged for lunch at the restaurant, alone, but he had ordered only a steak and potatoes. JD was sick and tired of the job.
He sighed, wishing that Merrick would hurry back. It was the only way they could be absolutely sure of who they needed to look at.
He thought about it. He'd place his bets on Phelps, if anyone. In all the dime novels he had read, the least likely suspect was usually the killer. "I know it's him," he muttered, closing his eyes as he leaned against the side of the jail on the bench. "I'd betcha anything it was him."
Pretty soon, he was fast asleep.
That evening, it was decided that Nathan would stay outside first and Ezra would take his place at one am. When dark fell at seven, Nathan walked outside with a shotgun and several extra rounds. Mary looked at him. "Be careful," she whispered. He nodded and walked out, closing the door tightly behind him.
Mary turned around, hugging herself and rubbing her arms. "Are you cold?" Ezra asked, a little concerned.
"No," she said. She walked around for a moment until she came to an overstuffed chair in the living room. She sat down in it and sighed. "It's just so strange, being back here. I'm scared of what's going to happen."
Ezra looked at her, but he could offer no real comfort, that they both knew, so he didn't even try. Instead, he knelt beside the chair and took her left hand in his. "I know it's terrifying, Mary," he said, using her first name.
She looked at him in surprise. He rarely ever called anyone by their first name, only when he was being truly serious. He noticed the glance.
"Truth be told, I'm frightened as well." He paused. "I'm scared for you, Nathan, and myself. He's a professional killer. He'll try to come no matter what."
Mary nodded. "I want to know everything you know about him." She saw him hesitate. "Because I couldn't sit here not knowing who or what is trying to kill me."
He sighed, releasing her hand and standing up. Quietly, he walked to a chair across from her and sat down, hands steepled in front of his face, elbows on knees. He said nothing for several moments, then began, very quietly, to speak.
"He's been killing like this for at least twenty years."
Mary closed her eyes. "Why hasn't he been caught then?" she asked.
"He moves too quickly. They didn't figure his pattern before it was too late, and by then, he'd moved on. Right before, during, and after the war, communications were very bad. Women were left on their own, unprotected. He took advantage of it."
"Because you're in a position of power and influence. I don't know why, but he sees it as a threat to himself. He may be insane, not understanding what he's doing, but the point is, he will try to come after you." Ezra finished and looked up at her, watching her face very carefully.
She nodded slowly, absorbing what he said. "What if you succeed in protecting me, but he isn't caught. What then?"
"I honestly have no idea."
The next two days were uneventful in the lives of all concerned. Merrick returned, telling them that both men had stayed in Eagle Bend that second week. It had dashed everyone's hopes of a quick arrest, but no one was to be outdone. JD still watched the people, and Pearce still questioned people discreetly about the two men.
Ezra and Nathan both took turns watching Mary. Receiving only six hours of sleep a night wasn't easy, and it was murder on a man like Ezra. He woke up on Saturday morning with dark circles under his eyes. He had taken the first watch the night before, and he hadn't slept well when he finally went to sleep in the house.
They had taken to sleeping on the floor near Mary's bedroom. She left the door open, in case something were to happen prematurely, and they were all on edge, having nothing to do.
So it was with great reluctance that Ezra got up that morning. He took a look at himself in the hall mirror and winced. His face was covered in short stubble and his eyes were dark and bloodshot. He groaned as he yawned, hearing his jaw pop in protest.
Mary looked up from where she was making breakfast in the kitchen. "You look awful, Ezra," she said.
"I'm sure," he muttered, wincing as he sat down stiffly in a chair at the table. "Three days on the floor is not good for one's back."
Nathan popped in just then, setting the loaded shotgun down by the door. "All quiet still," he said, looking just as tired as Ezra felt.
"Sit, both of you," Mary said, setting down two plates of fried eggs, bacon, and grits. "You both need food."
Nathan dug in hungrily, but Ezra only picked at his, stirring the grits around on the plate before leaning disinterestedly back in his chair with a sigh. He ran a hand through his hair, noticing with a grimace that it refused to fall into its normal place.
They both looked at him, worried. He ran a hand across his face. "I'm going outside," he announced, pushing back from the table. He didn't bother grabbing his green jacket or vest, just walked out by himself.
Mary and Nathan glanced at each other. "Should one of us go after him?" she asked.
Nathan shook his head. "No, ma'am, I can't leave you alone and you can't go by yourself. We'll just have to leave him be."
Mary nodded, but she still glanced out the window and gazed at his retreating back as he walked toward the stables.
It was a couple of hours later when Ezra finally returned. He opened the door as quietly as he could, relieved that it didn't squeak. He poked his head around the corner into the living room and saw both Nathan and Mary sitting quietly.
Nathan was in the chair he had sat in the other night, reading a leather bound book. From a distance, Ezra thought it was a medical journal. He smiled inwardly and turned his attention to Mary. She was knitting. From the shape of it, it looked to be a toboggan. "For Billy," he thought.
They both looked up when he walked in. They both noted that he was clean shaven and that a little color had returned to his cheeks. But the same shadow stayed on his face that had haunted him since the whole situation had begun.
"What's wrong, Ezra?" Mary asked.
"Nothing." He wasn't about to confide in them. Well, possibly Mary, but not Nathan. It wasn't as though he didn't trust him, he just didn't feel comfortable sharing his problem with him. He'd rather confide in a woman. It had been his experience that they were the ONLY people that listened.
Nathan seemed to understand. "Miz Travis, I'm going to check around the property a bit. I'll be back soon." He reached for his hat and shotgun, and was gone.
Ezra walked hesitantly over to the vacated chair. He sat down quietly and picked up the book Nathan had been engrossed in. "Hmm. Medicine. What do you know?" He had meant it to sound joking, but it came out flat and despairing.
Mary finally put down the knitting. "Tell me the truth, Ezra," she said. "What is bothering you?"
He looked down at his hands, refusing to meet her eyes. "It's silly, really."
"I'm sure it's not," she said. "Whatever it is, I won't laugh. I promise."
His mouth tightened a moment. "This is the first time that we seven have been together that Chris has trusted me with something in his absence."
She looked at him, confused. "I should think you'd be happier than this about it," she said guardedly, unsure of what to say.
"I should, but I'm not." He nodded. "The reason being that this is the fist time anyone has ever trusted me to do something right and I'm scared of messing up."
She cocked her head. "Why should you be afraid of that?"
He sighed, running a hand through his now combed hair. "Because ever since I was a small child, it was instilled in me that I was no good and that I would never be any good. It's difficult to accept a responsibility like this one in good faith."
He still wouldn't raise his eyes to meet her. Instead, she rose from her chair and took the three steps needed to get to him. This time, it was she who knelt by him and took his hand in hers. "I trust you, Ezra," she said quietly.
He looked at her then, eyes bright. She thought that it was possibly tears, but he blinked and the light was gone. Instead he gave her a completely serious look and said, quietly simply, "Thank you."
She smiled, standing. "Then quit brooding and let's go outside. I can't stand it in here another minute." At his dubious look, she said. "You and Nathan are both out there and besides, he never hit until night."
He nodded. Then he smiled. "Let's go."
Night fell too quickly. All three of them were inside now, tension heavy in the air. No one made a sound, and they kept the lamp as low as possibly. Ezra sat in clear view of the front door and the main window, Remington revolver in hand. Nathan had taken up residence near the bedroom area, shotgun in hand. Mary sat quietly in her chair, which had been pushed against a wall.
The silence was only broken occasionally by a lone coyote howling or by the customary night owl. Ezra refused to jump at these ordinary sounds, as did Nathan, but they both noticed Mary flick her eyes toward the door when it happened. Ezra didn't blame her one bit.
He looked at his pocketwatch: one am. It would happen soon. He wished he'd asked JD to come, but he figured that he would in the event one of the men left the town. Sighing, he forced himself to relax, keeping his attention on the window and door. And on Mary.
It happened with no warning, no sound. Just a sudden smashing of glass, the light ' blowing out in the draft, and a startled yelp from Nathan. There was a thump, then nothing.
"Mary!" he hissed. She was at his side in an instant, clinging in fear to him. He held her, backing up to a wall. There was no way to tell how badly Nathan was hurt, or if he was even alive. They'd just have to wait.
He knew there was someone in the house, that much was for certain. He knew it like he knew he was breathing. He heard a soft scrape to his left, and he fired. The flash from the gun ignited the room for one split second, and he saw him.
It wasn't clear enough to get an impression on who he was, though. Just a fleeting glimpse, enough to let him see that he had rolled behind one of the chairs. There was no movement.
He felt Mary shudder against him. He knew she was terrified. He was scared too. Not being able to see-that was his one great fear. Ezra's eye were wide open, trying vainly to see who it was. His ears again caught a noise, but it was on the floor to his right. He knew it was Nathan.
He didn't dare ask him how he was. He was alive, that was all he cared about. He just prayed that Nathan would stop moving so he could hear what was going on. And Nathan did just that.
Ezra let out the breath he'd been holding. He heard complete silence. The revolver was cocked and aimed at the chair, and when next he heard the noise, he shot. A shriek of pain was his answer, and he smiled grimly, glad to know that the bastard was down.
The man rolled into the moonlight so that Ezra could see his shadow. "Get the light," he said quietly to Mary. She scurried away, reaching for the lamp, and he approached the man.
The light flared up brightly, and Ezra took a good look at the man. He was dressed in black, and lying on his back, hand clasped to his stomach. Ezra knew the man wouldn't live, not where the bullet had pierced.
His eyes drifted to the man's face, and what he saw didn't surprise him. It was Burt Lawson. In his hand trailed a long silk scarf. Ezra watched as his eyes rolled up in his head and his breathing slowed and finally stopped.
Turning, he walked back over to Nathan, who was holding his lower left calf. Mary was kneeling beside him and had already cut away the pant leg. Blood was running, but he could tell it was only a grazing wound. "You okay?" Nathan asked Ezra.
He nodded. "It was Lawson. He's dead." A sudden thought occurred to him. "Where's JD?"
At that moment, thundering hooves were heard outside the cabin. Ezra ran to the broken window and looked out. JD, Pearce, and Merrick were dismounting quickly and running toward the house. He holstered his gun and opened the door. They flew in quickly and took in the surroundings. JD's mouth dropped open when he saw Lawson lying dead on the floor.
"Gee, I had Phelps pegged for it," he said, surprised.
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Where were you?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, but Phelps left before Lawson did. We followed him and caught up to him. Turns out, he was just going to saloon. That's when we saw Lawson was gone. We came as fast as we could."
Pearce nodded. "Merrick saw him running off on his horse, so we ran to the livery for ours. Someone had cut the reins, so we had to rind new bridles before we could get here. That's why we're so late." He coughed. "But I see you had things well under control here. Good job."
Ezra glanced at Lawson, still clutching the silk scarf tightly in his hand. Suddenly, something clicked into place for him. He turned to Merrick. "How did you know it was a silk SCARF?" he questioned.
Merrick gave him a confused look. "What're you talking about?"
"The other day, when you were belittling me in the jail, you said that the killer used a silk scarf. It could have been a silk anything. How did you know?"
Merrick's eyes darted nervously from Pearce to Ezra. Pearce's eyes lit up. "Yeah, Merrick, what's that all about?"
"Look, Bill, I didn't do nothing!" he exclaimed, backing up toward the door.
Ezra glared at him. "I bet you cut the reins on the horses, didn't you? Were you in league with Lawson all the time? Was it for money, were you blackmailing him?"
Merrick's eyes settled on Ezra. Ezra drew his gun. "Sit down." Wordlessly, Merrick complied, sitting in a kitchen chair. "Now, tell."
"I saw him kill a girl in Louisiana once. I thought I could blackmail him into it."
"Why'd you let him keep killing?" JD asked incredulously.
Merrick glared. "More he did it, more money I got. If he was dead or in prison, what could he pay me?"
Ezra nodded to himself, then without warning, backhanded him across the jaw with the butt of his gun. Merrick cried out and fell to the floor, clutching at his face, but Ezra pointed the gun at him. "Listen very closely, Mr. Merrick," he said, leaning toward the young man with his gun turned the other way now. "I'm going to get the book thrown at you and see that you hang for aiding and abetting a known criminal."
Merrick shot eyes full of fear up at him. "No! I can't hang!"
Pearce picked him up off the floor. "Let's go." He shoved him outside. JD followed. He tied Merrick's hands together and helped Pearce shove him onto the horse. Silently, they rode away back to Four Corners.
Ezra turned to Nathan. "Can you come back?" he asked.
Nathan nodded. "Soon as I get my leg bandaged. Then you can hitch up them horses and we'll head on back too."
While Mary helped bandage his leg, Ezra hitched up the horses. He decided to leave Nathan's horse, Jenner. He could always come back for him tomorrow. He pulled the horses out into the yard and waited. A moment later, Nathan walked out, supported only a little by Mary. He helped them both onto the wagon, mounted Chaucer, and they left.
On Sunday, the others arrived back, tired, but none the worse for wear. Ezra was only a little surprised to see Judge Travis riding with them. "Probably expecting that the murderer was brought in," he thought wryly as he walked out of the jail to meet them.
Chris didn't pretend not to notice his haggard appearance, but he shot him a look and stayed quiet for the time being. Ezra explained the situation to the judge and allowed him into the jail. The others followed, talking excitedly amongst themselves.
Chris stopped by him. "So you caught him?"
Ezra shook his head. "I killed him. That's Merrick in there. He was blackmailing Lawson."
Chris looked at him in approval. "Good job." He said nothing more, just tipped his hat and followed the others into the jail.
"Much obliged," Ezra called softly behind him. Then he walked across the street to the Clarion. He hadn't talked to Mary since the incident the previous evening, and he wanted to make sure she was all right."
"Mrs. Travis?" he called quietly as he strode into the small office.
"Hold on!" came her voice from the back. She walked out, carrying the same metal boxes he'd seen her carry when he'd first told her about the danger.
"Here, let me help you," he said, taking most of them. He grinned. "This is familiar."
She smiled back. "Just don't tell me there's going to be another attempt on my life."
He shook his head. "No, ma'am. Just checking to make sure you're none the worse for wear after last evenings excitement."
She paused and looked up at him, her blue eyes clear of worry. "I'm fine, Mr. Standish," she said politely.
He raised an eyebrow and she grinned. "Thank you," she continued.
"No, Mrs. Travis," he said, cocking his head and looking at her. "Thank you." He paused. "What say we go over the jail and find Mr. Larabee?"
"Lead the way," she said, taking his arm. Grinning, they exited the building into the afternoon sunshine.
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