Stone Cold
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TitleStone Cold

 Author:  Aimee DuPré

 Chapters:      Teaser, One, Two, Three, Four, Epilogue

 Comments: feedback is welcomed, either to the list or to my email address, aimeedupre@hotmail.com

Praise certainly encourages, but nothing helps us grow and improve like constructive criticism.

 Category:  new scenes, new story, new characters

 Rating:  PG -- This story contains mild cursing, some violence and subtle sexual innuendo.

 Pairing:  none (of original series’ characters)

 Spoilers: The story contains references to various Peacemakers Season One Episodes, as well as a few references to a kidnapping case Finch is working on in Denver and that Katie solves in Silver City while Stone is away – this is my forthcoming May Picture Challenge submission.  The working title is Legacy of the Gun.

 Archive: Yes, at http://www.fanfiction.net/, http://tv.groups.yahoo.com/group/peacemakersff/, and at author’s website, http://aimee-dupre.tripod.com/.  NOTE:  Author’s website includes pictures from the original series.

 Summary:   U.S. Marshal Jared Stone fights a terrible cold as he chases three Wells Fargo robbers through the wintry Colorado mountains, never suspecting a special guardian angel awaits him who might just teach him how – and why – to pray.

 Warnings:  This story contains some mild violence and veiled references to sex.

 Disclaimer: The characters in the story (with the exception of new characters created by Aimee DuPré) are the sole property of PeacemakersÔ, USA Networks, and in association with Michael R. Joyce Production. This is a work of fan fiction that intends no infringement on copyright or trademark.

 New Characters:  New characters created by Aimee DuPré include Johnny and Beth Ryan, and the robbers Bob and Jake, and are the sole property of Aimee DuPré, copyright October 18, 2006.

 

  Stone Cold

by Aimee DuPré

 Teaser

             It was near midnight in Silver City, Colorado, with frigid temperatures and snow flurries blowing.  It had been crimpy all day, but the saloon that Luci Prescott named The Velvet Cushion had just warmed up.

            Sitting behind his desk in the U. S. Marshal’s office and fumbling with a hodgepodge of papers, Jared Stone heard out-of-tune piano music over the coarse sound of men talking and laughing, and the occasional high-pitched giggle of one of their female companions.  If he listened closely, he thought he could even hear a tinkling sound as glasses of whiskey were poured.  The saloon was only three doors east from the jail where Stone was literally burning the midnight oil.

He sat in his office completing the mountains of paperwork that only served to hamper the disposition of justice.  He knew where he’d rather be, and it wasn’t over at the saloon.  He felt another sneeze coming on and he grabbed his handkerchief just in time.

Achoo!  RING! 

The wall telephone rang at the same time he sneezed, and Stone jumped, startled.

“I’ll nebber ged used to dat,” he said under his breath as he walked over to it.  “Whad?”

“Marshal Stone, please,” Finch’s clipped accent was unmistakable even through the static of the connection.

“Id is me,” Stone said, aggravated at how his voice sounded with his nose stopped up from his miserable cold.

“Marshal?  It doesn’t sound like you.”

“Where are you?” Stone yelled.

“No need to shout, Marshal.  I can hear you quite well.  This is Detective Larimer Finch, . . .”

“I know, Finch,” he wearily said.  His patience was wearing thin.  “Where in blue blazes are you?”

“Denver.”

There was silence until Stone asked, “You wand somedin’, Finch?”

“No.”

“Why’d you call?”

“To see what it is like to talk to someone in Silver City all the way from Denver.  The telephone connection makes you sound very hollow and nasalized, like you are talking from the bottom of a barrel while holding your nose closed.”

“You’re payin’ a fortune for dis call to hear whad I sound like on de telephone?”

“I am charging it off on my expense account as part of the Hawkins’ kidnapping case I am investigating.”

“Your expense accound?”

“Mayor Smith approved my trip.”

“Gread.  I don’d have an expense accound,” Stone grumped almost to himself.  Louder, “Why didn’d you call de morduary and dalk to Kadie?”

“I could not justify that as a legitimate business expense.  Besides, Katie and Amy go to bed around ten o’clock.”

“So do I.  Goodbye, Finch.”  As Stone started to hang up, he heard a loud noise that sounded like a muffled explosion.

“Wait!  Marshal Stone?” Finch called out.

“Whad?” Stone said, getting more irritable by the second as he wondered what that sound had been.

“Do you need me to bring you anything from Denver?”

“Patience.”

“My father always impressed upon me that it is far more beneficial to pray instead for tolerance.  After all, the Good Book says ‘tribulation worketh patience.’  That’s in Romans 5:3.  When you pray for patience, you are, in effect, praying for tribulation.”

“I don’d do much prayin’ anymore.”

“What, Marshal?  I could not hear you.”

“Nothin’, Finch.”

“I should be here in Denver another week.  I plan on arriving in Silver City on next Friday’s train.”

“Goodbye, Finch.”  Stone slammed the earpiece down on the prongs. 

Immediately, the phone rang and he jumped once again.

“Whad is id now, Finch?” Stone roughly yelled into the mouthpiece.

“Marshal, come quick.”  It was Chipper Dunn’s voice.  “Three men just robbed the Wells Fargo.”

 

# # #

 

Chapter One

Chipper Dunn had wisely decided to save time by using the telephone at the train depot to alert Stone to the robbery.  As soon as he hung up, he ran to the Wells Fargo office next door to the marshal’s office where he met Stone.  The front door was open.  It looked like a pry bar had been used on the door latch.  Stone drew his gun and took a quick glance inside. 

Debris from the explosion was everywhere, and the blast had knocked chairs over.  Papers and money was strewn all around the office.  Stone saw that the safe door had been blown off its hinges.  A few bags of money were still evident where the thieves had obviously been in a hurry.

 “Three men,” Chipper said.  “They must’ve got the mine payroll.  They took off to the north.”  Chipper then described the men and horses to the marshal.

“They could be headed to Ouray or beyond,” Stone said.

“Or,” Chipper interrupted, “they could be headed north to Montrose, then east to Gunnison.”

“What makes you think that?” Stone asked the young deputy.  That route was an unusual zigzag through the mountains instead of a straight shot to freedom.

“One of ‘em called out to the others ‘Gunnison, here we come!’”

“You were close enough to hear ‘em?”

“I was at the train depot when I heard the explosion,” Chipper explained.  “It wasn’t very loud.  I thought something happened at the Velvet Cushion, so I peeked around the corner of the building just in time to see them riding off, fast.”

“I’m goin’ back to my office to call the Wells Fargo superintendent to secure this building.  You stay here ‘til he arrives.  And don’t neither of you touch anything!”

“Yes, sir.  Finch would get mad.”

“Yeah,” Stone agreed, but he thought to himself that this was a case for good old-fashioned bad-guy chasing.  “Chipper, come to my office as soon as Wells Fargo secures the area.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

# # #

 

After making the telephone call, Stone grabbed the muddle of papers on his desk and stuffed them in a file cabinet.  He carefully studied the map he laid out on his desk.  First he got really close and squinted, then he backed away and widened his eyes.  Finally he relented and opened his middle desk drawer, taking out his glasses.  After he put them on, a smile crossed his lips.

“Ah ha,” he said.

            He was almost resigned to wear his reading glasses when he couldn’t hold what he wanted to see far enough away to read.  It was easier than getting longer arms.  He remembered the day Doc Gates had tested his eyes and told him, “You’ve gotta admit your own mortality.  No one can fight time and win.”  Stone still hated like hell to admit that he would ultimately lose that final battle.

Chipper came in and Stone told him, “Call both the sheriffs at Montrose and Gunnison to alert ‘em.  I’m gonna to cut ‘em off by goin’ over the mountains through Yellow Dog to Lake City, then north to Gunnison.  You stay here.”

Chipper’s face fell.  “Aw, Marshal,” he said, dejected.

“Look, I’m leavin’ you in charge of the investigation,” the older man told him, laying a hand on his shoulder.  “I know you can handle it, son.  Secure the area, collect the evidence.  Verify if the explosive they used was dynamite.  See if they left fingerprints or footprints when they broke in.  Since Finch is gone, you could ask Katie for forensic help.”

“Yes, sir,” Chipper conceded.  He was gradually learning that it was all right to ask a woman for help, especially one as intelligent and knowledgeable as Katie Owens.

Stone rushed up the stairs to his sleeping room and grabbed his saddlebags, already packed with essentials for a short trip.  The marshal had learned long ago to keep prepared for a swift chase -- or a fast getaway -- as the situation might call for.  Then he went on a dead run to Isaac’s stables and saddled his horse in record time.  He had no time to lose.

 

# # #

 

Two days later, Stone returned to Silver City leading two horses.  Once again, human endurance and determination had conquered a victory.

Two dead bank robbers were slung over their mounts, held in place by ropes tied to their hands and feet and fastened together underneath the horses’ bellies.  Male passersby removed their hats out of respect for the deceased, as ladies discreetly stared.  They knew Jared Stone had a sharp eye and a steady hand, fast with his gun but not quick to use it. 

            Stone slowly walked the horses to the back entrance of Owens Mortuary.  His cold had worsened and he had a bad cough, but he helped Katie by getting the bodies inside.  At least there were still some things requiring pure physical strength that a man could do better than a woman.

“Don’t recognize ‘em, Katie,” Stone told her.  “Guess you’ll have to bury ‘em and just use a rock marker since we don’t know their names.  The reward from Wells Fargo will pay for their burial.”

“That reward belongs to you, Marshal,” Katie reminded him.

“You should know by now, I hate for even a criminal to have a pauper’s burial, Katie”

The two men had the biggest part of the stolen money on them, enough for the mines to meet their payroll.

Chipper arrived at the mortuary and told him the robbers had been smart enough to use only a small quantity of dynamite on the safe hinges to blow it.  If they’d used much more, it would have totally blown up the safe and all the money inside.

“That means they’ve done this before, Chipper,” Stone explained.  “That’s why the sound was muffled and no one in the Velvet Cushion heard anything.  Check with Detective Finch in Denver and see if he can match their . . . what does Finch call that thing – the way a criminal does things?”

“M.O.,” Katie recalled.

“Oh, yeah,” Stone said.  “Modus somethin’.”

“Operandi,” Katie finished.

Stone gave her a nod and a big smile.  He remembered Finch’s explanation of the Latin phrase meaning mode of operation.  It was his new terminology to describe a criminal’s characteristic patterns and style of work, his method of operating.  Finch said that the M.O. could be used to find clues to the perpetrator’s state of mind.  Seemed to him like these particular criminals’ state of mind was to increase their wealth the easiest way possible.

Stone then briefly told Chipper what had happened.  The three robbers had split up just outside of Silver City.  One headed farther north, these other two breaking away to the east.  They had laid an ambush for the lawman. 

“But, Marshal,” Chipper interrupted.  “You’re such a good shot, you didn’t have any trouble, did you?”

            “Son, a good ambush will cure the best shot who ever lived.”

            “So this wasn’t a good ambush?” Chipper asked.

Stone gave him a wry grin.  He had held them off for a whole day and finally managed to sneak around their flank after dark and get the drop on them.  He’d had no choice but to kill them both.  Chipper and Katie both knew Stone would never have used deadly force unless absolutely necessary.

Katie was concerned for his worsening cold, but Stone pooh-poohed her.

“Marshal, pneumonia can come on quite suddenly, especially since you have had that cold for several days.  I do not like the sound of that cough, either.”

“Now, Katie, you’re beginnin’ to sound like Doc Gates.”

“Just maybe you should go to see Doc Gates,” she replied in a motherly tone of voice.

“Don’t have time.”  He knew he had to get back on the trail of the third robber, no matter how rotten he felt.

“Have you coughed up any sputum from your lungs?”

“Ah . . . no, Katie,” he lied. 

“Well, you watch out.  The mucus could be green or rusty colored and tinged with blood.  Have you had chills or run a fever?”

“’course not.” That wasn’t exactly a lie, but impatience to get back on the trail had worn a thin edge to his temper.  He’d been chilled to the bone the last two days while tracking in the frigid weather.  The next minute he’d sweated and been so hot he’d been tempted to take off his heavy woolen outer coat.  Fortunately, he seldom succumbed to temptation.

            “Katie,” he said as he gently grabbed her upper arms with both his hands and moved her aside so he could get through the doorway she was blocking.  “I know you’re just concerned about my health, but all this talk about the color of spit up is kinda turnin’ my stomach.  I’ve got to get after the last robber before this snowstorm hits.”

“No, I am not surprised at that,” she said.  “You are not the most patient man I have ever met.”

Knowing he was under the strain of difficult conditions, she called out after him, “Marshal, have you eaten?” 

But he didn’t hear.  He was trail worn, tired and grumpy, and sick from his winter cold.  He wanted more than anything to be back in town to stay, over in Isaac’s stables, brushing down his horse.

He took all three horses to the livery and got a fresh mount.  Stone’s patient care, skill, and watchful management of his horses, under the most trying circumstances, had always elicited Isaac’s admiration.  He knew his mounts would return tired but healthy.

            As a matter of fact, Finch had once told Isaac that the word “marshal” came from the old German words for “horse” and “servant” and originally meant “stable keeper.”  Finch was full of seemingly useless knowledge like that.

After picking up some trail supplies at the mercantile, Stone was soon headed out again in search of the third man.

 # # #

 

Chapter Two

 

            The darkening clouds promising snow finally cut loose with a vengeance.  Visibility quickly became poor.

            The blustery cold wind shocked Stone’s face as he rode.  He had felt the temperature drop since he’d left Silver City.  He urged his fresh mount into a trot and tried to follow the stagecoach road up the mountain.  The visibility was next to nothing, and the snow was blowing sideways.  He hunched his shoulders against the sharp wind.

            He had the stub of a cheroot clenched between his teeth.  The smoke was blowing behind him, but he coughed again.  He was thankful of how seldom he’d had a smoker’s cough.  It was this darned cold that he had.  He threw away the stub as he rubbed his chin and felt the stubble of a three-day beard.  His lips were peeling with the cold.  Although Chapstick was invented in the early 1880’s, he hadn’t thought to pack any in his supplies and was regretting it now, as he fought the urge to lick his chapped lips.  Wetting them would only make them worse.

He wrapped his woolen scarf around his neck to cover up his mouth and nose to try to keep some heat in, and he coughed again.  He was not going to look at what color he was coughing up.  Katie could discuss physical conditions with the calm composure of any male medical doctor.  Too bad she’d had to give up going to medical school and return to Silver City to take over her father’s mortuary.  He’d already discovered, with a certain sickening astonishment, that his stomach wasn’t near as strong as either hers or Finch’s.

Silver City – snow capital of Colorado.  Well, perhaps not quite, but it certainly wasn’t too much of an exaggeration.

He hadn’t eaten much in the last few days except beef jerky and boiled coffee in the mornings.  He could only afford a small fire.  He hadn’t been hungry, anyway.  He never could remember if it was feed a cold and starve a fever or the other way around.

            Colder, frigid winds now bit into him as the snow began accumulating.  The wind swirled the snow like white dust devils.  It was definitely going to drift taller than a man’s head height.

            His horse’s gait was silenced by the deep snow.  Only its labored breathing broke the stillness of the icy morning.  The road was nearly impassable.  As the sun rose, the stunning beauty of the mountains was indescribable, yet the destructive power of the ice and snow was undeniable.

            A sense of dread had dogged him ever since he had ridden out of Silver City.  His ever-observant blue eyes scanned from the horizon to the tree tops nearest him as he thoughtfully rubbed the whiskers on his chin.

            He slid from his saddle to check the trail only to quickly grab his horse’s mane to steady himself and get his balance.  He knew he had not ridden long enough that he needed to get his sea legs again.  He had the feeling of being off-balance that new cavalry recruits often experienced when they rode for a long time and then dismounted to walk.  Right now, he felt as though he was at the wrong end of a three-day drunk.

            “My stupid cold,” he grumbled to himself, and another coughing fit hit him. 

“Yes, Katie,” he thought.  “I’m spittin’ up green.”  Then he added a mild epithet. 

Deep new snow had made his progress exceedingly slow and difficult.  He weakly pulled himself back on his horse.  The glaring sheen of the sunshine on the white surface was trying his eyes.  He could only pray he would not become snow blind.

No signs of buildings were visible in all the snowy waste. He could see large hillocks of snow, but no place to shelter himself and his horse.  Ice on the tree limbs glistened like crystal against the crisp blue morning.  The heavy snowfall and sparkling layer of ice weighed down the pine branches nearly to the breaking point.  Stone knew he had to get to safety and protection.  He and his animal would never last another night in the cold.

            He suddenly felt very short of breath, so he took a deep breath that hurt his chest as though he’d been stabbed with a knife.  He tried to breathe shallower from then on.  It was as if he was unaccustomed to the high altitude.  He hadn’t felt that way for years.

He was nevertheless unconsciously alert for signs of men – smoke from a campfire or fireplace, or even the smell of sweat or horses. 

Finally, as noon approached, he stumbled upon a cabin, directly ahead.  He realized he had come upon the small cabin, smoke rolling from its chimney, without warning.  He couldn’t smell the smoke with his stopped up nose.   If he hadn’t been so sick, he never would have come up on the cabin that way.  He knew better.

Slowly his horse made its way to the log building.  When the animal came to a stop, he half slid, half fell out of his saddle and dropped down into the deep snowdrift at the cabin door.  The wind howled as the blizzard continued.

Jared Stone had lost his wrestling match with the white-faced enemy.

 # # #

 

Chapter Three

            The woman had trouble getting the cabin door opened past the drifted snow and the man who had literally fallen on her doorstep.  The man was covered with snow and shivering uncontrollably.  A scruffy growth of beard was on his chin and cheeks.

She wrapped a blanket around his shoulders.  He appeared completely worn out, nearly frozen to death, and his legs would barely support his weight.  It took all her strength to steady him.  She half dragged him inside, guiding him to her bed.  He fell onto it sideways, and she had a time getting him straightened out on it. 

            She pulled off his buffalo hide gloves and looked at his fingers.  They were stiff and very cold, but not frostbitten.  Next she struggled getting his boots off, rolled off his socks, and checked his toes.  They were red with the cold but didn’t look frostbitten, either.  There would have been white patches.

            He gave a moan and coughed, and she looked at his face.  He was drenched in sweat from a fever, but he was having teeth-chattering chills, too.  Sun-squint wrinkles framed his sparkling blue eyes, marking him as an outdoorsman. 

“Why, you’ve got the bluest eyes!” she exclaimed.  He blushed, smiled faintly and gave a small “humph” sound from low in his chest.

His hair was the color of winter wheat, and he had a facial expression of worldly-wise melancholy.  Even with a blondish brown beard starting, he was extraordinarily good looking.  She wasn’t prepared for just how handsome this man was.  She froze in shock for the first few moments her face was near him, staring at him like the village idiot.  He seemed the type to be genuinely baffled that he might be considered handsome.

She continued taking off his wet clothes, so cold they were frozen stiff.  His overcoat came off first, then his jacket.  She was shocked once again when she saw his U. S. Marshal’s badge.  She unpinned it from his jacket and put it in her dress pocket.  She unbuckled his gun belt and hung it over the bedpost at the foot of the bed.

She was having trouble keeping her eyes off him.  She hated for him to think she was staring, but the attraction was so great that she could not help herself.  It was as if she needed to memorize his every feature until she could close her eyes and see him.

Continuing to undress him down to his long johns, she respectfully averted her eyes at the proper time and covered him with quilts and blankets.  His fast breathing changed to a slow, albeit shallow, intake.  He seemed to be resting fairly comfortably, but she knew she had to get him warm and fast.  She began the exhausting task of hauling and boiling water for a hot bath.

            She threw another log on the fire, then got her flat iron off the still-warm cook stove.  She wrapped it in a thin towel, placing it near his feet under the covers.  That should help until she could get the bath water warmed.

            In between boiling and carrying, she uncovered his arms and legs from under the quilts and tried to rub circulation back into them.  She had a chance to get a good look at him.  He stared back at her with a strange intensity that made her blush with nervousness. She was embarrassed at her mousy brown hair that fell in a cascade down her back and her patched brown dress that had seen better days.

            Reaching up to a rope near the ceiling, she pulled an Indian blanket hanging on the rope to divide the bedroom from the living area.

“You get undressed the rest of the way,” she told him, “and then get out here in this hot tub of water.  We gotta get you warmed up.  You can wear my man’s underthings and wrap that quilt around yourself so you can get to the tub with your dignity intact.” 

She said all of this in a no-nonsense tone of voice.  He realized a man lived there with her, and he surely didn’t want to cause her any problems with him, but she obviously was not a woman to be argued with, and he was too sick anyway to do much arguing.

When he came around the Indian blanket, the quilt wrapped around as she’d told him, he looked so deeply into her eyes that she felt she was immersed in him.  It was very disconcerting and gave her the awkward feeling of being an available young girl once again.

            The soft glow of the firelight illuminated his strikingly fine-looking features, and she felt her heart flutter.  He agilely slipped into the round tub of bath water without splashing a drop over the side or getting the quilt wet or showing anything indecent.

When his freezing body had been warmed by the bath and he looked to have returned to a nice, healthy ruddiness, she gave him some of her husband’s clothes to wear while she hanged his clothing by the fire to dry. 

After he dressed, he got up to leave and had a coughing fit that made his chest rattle.  It must have hurt terribly from his worried expression.  She gently pushed him back into the bed, and he was far too weary to resist. 

“You’ll stay here tonight.  You’re in no shape to do any more traveling.”

“Your husband won’t take to that too well, will he?” Stone asked, his voice hoarse and barely a low whisper.

            “He’s the most even-tempered man I ever met.  He’s mad and mean all the time, so you always know what to expect,” she said with a tender smile.  “He’s a man you really don’t want to annoy, but I do pretty good at handling him.  He’ll be all right.”

Their gazes met and locked.  She knew her face was on the plain side, but she had a cheerful personality and she’d been told that her whole expression brightened when she smiled or laughed.  There hadn’t been much to laugh at recently, but she managed to give him a quick, reassuring smile.

She covered him over with quilts and went away.  Soon she returned with a steaming hot cup of broth.  She knew it was rich and tasty, and she smiled again as he tried not to gulp it all down at once.  It would warm his throat and chest, and finally he must have felt warm enough to drop off into a deep sleep, totally exhausted from his ordeal in the blizzard.

He slept some, but she didn’t know how long because she had slept most of the night away in the chair.  When he opened his eyes, she was sitting on the chair that she pulled next to the bed, closely watching him.

            “You’re all sweaty from a fever,” she said as she mopped at his head with a cool wet rag.  “By the way, my name’s Beth Ryan,” she said.

            “Jared Stone,” he croaked before his voice gave out.

            “Now that you’re awake, I’ll bring you some more broth.”

            He slowly rose up on his elbows to a sitting position, and she fluffed a feather pillow behind his back for support.  After he had sipped some from the cup she held for him, she saw him look at his gun belt hanging over the bedpost at his feet.  Then he whispered, “My horse?”

            “Out in the lean-to.  He’ll be fine.  I unsaddled him, brushed him and fed him for you.  I could tell you take good care of him.  He got a name?”

            Stone shook his head in the negative.

            “I always heard,” she chattered on, “that you should never name something you might have to eat.”  She gave him a big smile, but then a worried look came to her face.  She reached out her hand to touch his forehead.

            “You’re still running that fever.  Your eyes are all glassy looking.  I’ll bet they’re real pretty blue when you’re feeling good,” she added with a grin, and she noticed his face turn a bit more flushed than it had been.  So he was a bit on the bashful, shy side.  She liked that.

“Here,” she told him.  “You drink more soup and I’ll be back with some willow bark.”

            She soon returned with a cup of tea and a spoonful of a white substance.  “Take this sugar first.”

            She put the spoon to his full and dreadfully chapped lips, and he swallowed it down, reminding her ever so much of a baby bird.  She almost laughed aloud at the thought, but then he grimaced and made a face as if it tasted nasty.

            “Three drops of turpentine,” she explained.  “It’ll cure you right up.”

            She watched him drink the bitter willow bark tea without a complaint, and then sat the cup on the table.

“Here’s your saddle bags, Mr. Stone,” she said as she handed him the leather cases.

            He quickly looked through his pack.  Pipe, tobacco, jerky, extra ammo, and a set of leg shackles and handcuffs.

            “I hope nothing is missing, Marshal,” she commented, trying to embarrass him and succeeding.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably.  “How’d you know I’m a lawman?”

She handed him his tin star.  “Took it off your shirt.  You might want to keep this hid for a while.  My man don’t take well to lawmen.”

Stone put it in his saddle bags and asked, “Where is your man, Mrs. Ryan?”

            “Weather’s let up some,” she told him.  “He’ll be coming this way soon.  You just rest easy for a while.”

He glanced over at her to find her staring at him, looking deeply into his eyes, and he asked her, “The reason he don’t take to lawmen wouldn’t happen to be ‘cause he’s on the wrong side of the law, now would it, Mrs. Ryan?” 

“Sometimes, Mr. Stone, a decision that takes only a moment can produce a lifetime of regret.  Once you cross the line, the second time you come to it, it’s a lot easier to cross.”

“I always heard,” Stone agreed, “that tellin’ the first lie is the hardest.  The rest come easy.”

“That is so true.  Once I thought I’d just go someplace and start a new life.  But then I realized I’d still be the same person I am.  I thought that maybe when I got to the new place that the new people would like me better -- but only until they got to know me.  Then I’d be right back where I started.  I thought maybe the new people would be more understanding, but then I remembered -- people are people, no matter where you go.”

She paused and looked off into the flickering warmth of the fireplace.  She put a couple more logs on the fire so his clothes would keep drying.

“You got any family?” he asked.

“No one’s left around here.  After my parents died, my brothers and sisters and their families moved off.  I lost track of them years ago.  I never was able to have children of my own.”  She stopped and swallowed hard.  “I know, Mr. Stone, that should-haves and might-have-beens are just time wasters.”

            Stone agreed.  “What lies behind us isn’t nearly as important as what lies in front of us.  I’ve got a friend -- name of Larimer Finch -- who’s always sayin’ stuff like that.  You ever pray and ask the good Lord what to do?”

He met and held her stare, and her breath caught in her throat.  He surprised her by his question, and he seemed truly concerned.  He really hadn’t struck her as an overly religious person, but she was glad he asked her about prayer.  It meant he believed in the God who looked after His children down on the earth.  For some reason, that comforted her, knowing that he knew about God.

 “I guess everybody prays,” she finally said.  “Everybody just don’t admit to it.”

She could feel waves of compassion radiate from him.  There was obviously a strong attraction between the two.

He gently whispered, “I guess sometimes wishes are really prayers.” 

He stared into her eyes, and she could feel her emotions tugging at her.  If she could only reach inside her cold heart and stir the embers so long dead.  Her eyes were on him, waiting, hopeful, pleading.  Would it be so difficult for a man like him to love her, to cherish her as he had no other? 

She allowed a fleeting smile to cross her lips, but he hardened his expression again.  He could surely see the disappointment on her face as she intently watched him.  She caught her breath in a deep sigh, and then her expression, too, closed up as tight as shutters against cold wintry blasts.  She dropped her eyes, her hopes dashed.  She knew he’d never let on what they had almost felt for each other, and neither would she.

She stood up and had just pulled the Indian blanket to give him some privacy when unexpectedly the cabin door slammed open and a man came in, bringing a flurry of snowflakes with him.  He noisily stomped his feet.

            Her face was a mixture of emotion when she saw him – a combination of surprise and fear.

“Johnny!” she cried. 

 # # # 

Chapter Four

             “I holed up in an old miner shack and waited till the blizzard stopped before I tried to make it home,” Johnny Ryan told his wife as he pulled off his woolen coat and threw it on the floor.

            “Everything went to hell and back after we hit the Wells Fargo office,” he continued.  “The only law in miles happened to be right next door.  We made our getaway and split up.  Bob and Jake got pinned down.  I guess the law got ‘em.  They had most of the money.  This is all I got away with,” he said as he slapped a white sack down on the table.  It had WELLS FARGO written on the side.  “It’s enough for me and you to make a fresh start in Texas.”

            He abruptly stopped, staring behind her at the garments laid out to dry in front of the roaring fireplace.

            “What the hell!” he exclaimed.

            “Now don’t you go off half cocked, Johnny,” she soothed him while walking over to the Indian blanket.  She smoothly pulled it back and, unbeknownst to her husband, gave Stone a warning look and held her finger up to her mouth, a sign to be silent.

            “This stranger here is Mr. Sto . . .,” she quickly stopped, catching herself before she told Johnny his real name.  “Stover,” she finished, lamely, turning to face her man.  “He got caught out in the snow storm earlier.  He just made it to the cabin.  He was ‘bout froze to death.  I had to do something.”

            Johnny pulled his gun and pointed it at Jared’s midsection.  His eyes widened at the sight of his own clothing on the man lying in his bed.

            “I gave him your clothes to wear until his dry,” she explained.  “He’s sick.  He’s nearly got pneumonia.”

            Jared hadn’t meant to, but his racking cough and the rattle it made deep in his chest came at a most opportune time.  Johnny relaxed a little, but he still held his gun on the prone man. 

            “What’s your business in these mountains, mister?”

            Jared used his elbow to weakly push himself upright.  He opened his mouth to speak, but the woman interrupted.

            “He said he’s a miner, but I think he’s on the dodge from the law.  He’s runnin’ a fever and too sick to do much talking.”

            Jared took the cue to fall back on the bed.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing much acting.  Johnny holstered his gun, then removed his gun belt and put it on the table near Jared’s saddlebags.

            “Looks too sick to do any fightin’ any way,” he agreed.  “Come here.”

            Beth went to him, and he gave her a quick embrace.

            “How’s my lady?”

“Fine, Johnny.”

“Well, you get your things packed.  Blizzard’s over.  Supplies are low.  We’ll leave tomorrow morning.  Once we get to Texas, I’ll buy you the prettiest dress in town and we’ll go have the biggest steak you ever seen.”

            “We can’t both ride your horse out of this snow, Johnny.”

            “Nah.  We’ll take his horse.”

            Beth stole a quick look at the ailing lawman.  “He’d have no way to get out of these mountains.  He’s too sick to leave alone right now.  I need to tend to him.”

            Johnny pushed her away.

            “Now look here, woman.  Don’t you go to dotin’ on some sickly stranger like he’s a lost pup.  Fix me some food while I go put my horse in the lean-to.”

 

# # #

 

            They finished their meal, and Beth took a cup of liquid to Stone.  He was still weak and his breathing was shallow, but it seemed his fever had broken.

            “Get up, mister,” Johnny harshly said.  “Outta my bed.  I’m sleepin’ with my wife.”

            “Where’s he gonna sleep, Johnny?”

            “He can sleep on the floorboards with his saddlebags for a pillow.  Or outside in the lean-to with the horses for all I care.”

            Johnny snatched the saddlebags off of the table to throw them on the floor.  Something rattled inside, metal against metal, and he opened the flap.  His eyes got wide when he saw what was in there.  He pulled out a pair of shackles and dangled them in front of him.  He dropped them to the floor and again reached inside.

            “Thought your name was Stover?” Johnny said. 

            Without replying, Jared just stared at him with icy blue eyes.

            “It’s Stone, ain’t it?  Marshal Stone from Silver City,” he said as he pulled out the marshal’s tin star.

            “Johnny, just let him be.  He’s too sick to do anything.”

            “He’s already heard too much, as it is,” Johnny told her.  “Time’s are changin’, Beth.  It ain’t like it used to be.  Now the law can telephone ahead of a bank robber.”  He turned to Stone.  “What about Bob and Jake?” he asked the lawman.

            Stone answered slowly, “Took ‘em both back to Silver City.”  He exuded an air of confidence he did not feel.

            “Alive?” Johnny asked, and Stone looked him straight in the eye but did not reply.

Stone was unsure if the woman would help him or help her man. She was in between a rock and a hard place, that was for sure, but she still knew what the right thing to do was.

The two men watched each other closely.  Johnny suddenly grinned savagely, and his eyes reflected no emotion.  It was a frightening look.

“Marshal, I don’t really care if you killed ‘em, but you ain’t takin’ me in.  Get up outta that bed.”

Stone moved faster than any of them had thought possible.  He was on the man in an instant, and his fist solidly connected with Johnny’s jaw and sent him sprawling on the floor.  Johnny’s gun was holstered and on the table, but he made a wild grab for it as he went down.  He managed to catch hold of the belt.  Then, still lying on the floor, he pulled the gun out of the holster and aimed at the lawman.

            “I’ll drop you where you stand,” he told Stone. 

Johnny Ryan had Stone dead in his sights as he stood up.  Now Stone did not look him in the eyes but focused on his hands and the center of his body.  The gun was cocked, Johnny’s finger on the trigger. 

Stone took a step backwards and held his breath, staring down into the dark hole of the barrel.  He saw Johnny’s arm muscle tense and his index finger twitch, and he knew there was nothing he could do to stop the bullet.  He imagined the fiery explosion of lethal lead coming towards his head. 

Jared Stone stared directly into the other man’s eyes, no amount of fear evident on his chiseled features, although his heart pounded furiously.

            Stone saw a flash of brown out of the corner of his eye.  Simultaneously he drop rolled across the floor with surprising agility as the shadowy shape slammed into Johnny, toppling him. 

The pistol went off wildly, and Stone wasted no time scurrying on his hands and knees for his own gun on the bedpost.  As he turned his back, he heard another shot and Beth screamed. 

Stone grabbed his gun, did a somersaulting roll and came up on his knees, gun pointed directly at the outlaw who was just then taking aim at him.  Stone pulled the trigger on his peacemaker, and Johnny was knocked backwards by the blast to his chest.  He was dead before he hit the ground.

Stone got up and went to Beth Ryan, who was lying face down.  She was still breathing raggedly, and he knelt and turned her over.  She was bleeding profusely, gut shot by her own husband.  He laid her head on his lap and gently stroked her hair out of her face.

            Weakly, she told him, “Nothing . . . turned out . . . the way I thought . . . it would.”

            “Don’t speak, Beth,” he said.  “Save your strength.”

            “I wish . . .,” her voice was no more than a whisper.  “I wish I coulda met a man like you when I was young.  I guess it’s too late to pray.” 

            A shiver ran through her body.

            “I’m cold,” she whispered, and he embraced her and held her close.

She took one last jagged breath and died in his arms.

 

# # #

 

            Snow blanketed the mountains.

U. S. Marshal Jared Stone allowed his horse to slowly pick his own way through the snowdrifts.  He turned in the saddle and looked back over his shoulder, looking past the horse he was leading with the dead body of Johnny Ryan draped over it.  He had to bring him in, dead or alive, to answer for the Wells Fargo robbery. 

No, Jared looked back at the long rock pile beside the cabin.  He’d fashioned a crude cross out of some shelving he’d found on the outside wall of the cabin and scratched her name on it with his knife.  It was the best he could do for her right now.

            The ground would be frozen until spring.  He’d be sure to come back and give her a proper burial then.

Jared had said a few words over her grave, what he could remember from his childhood and as a young adult attending mass.  Romans 6:23, for the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Job 1:21, . . . naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. 

And finally, John 11:25-26, . . . I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. . . .

            As he had knelt beside her makeshift grave, the mountains rose majestically all around him, dusted with white, silent snow.  He recalled an old saying, “buried in the mountains, closer to heaven,” as he recited the Twenty-Third Psalm.  Those had been his grandmother’s favorite verses, and he had learned them as a small child and, much to his surprise, had never forgotten them. 

He had also said a prayer as he covered her lifeless body with the stones to protect her from the wild foragers.  It was the first prayer he’d said in a long time – well, as Beth had said, that he’d admit to saying -- but he knew it was too late to do any praying for the dead.  It was more a prayer of thanks to God, who seemed to be looking out for him, Lord only knew why.  You just never know where you’re going to find a guardian angel.  Maybe that old saying was true:  the Lord looks out for fools, drunks, and Marshal Jared Stone.

And it was a prayer that when it came his time to die, there’d be somebody around willing to dig his grave and cover him over with stones. Maybe even carve his name on a wooden cross over his head.  

He patted the saddlebag behind him that held the rest of the Wells Fargo payroll money, and he turned and urged the horses on towards the warmth and comfort of Silver City.

            The lawman shivered, but not from the bitterness of the winter. 

To Stone, death was a cold thought. 

Stone cold. 

# # #

 

Epilogue

Finch had just arrived on the train, and later that same day, in the Velvet Cushion, he tried to fill Stone in on the resolution of the kidnapping case he had been working on in Denver and how Katie, from Silver City, had single-handedly solved the mystery, but Stone’s mind was a thousand miles away.  When he did speak, he was grumpy and crotchety.

“Goodness,” Finch said.  “Aren’t we grouchy?  Get up on the wrong side of bed this morning?”

“Never been to bed,” Stone growled.

Larimer immediately thought the worst.  “You are getting a little old to be carousing at Luci’s all night, are you not?”

“Been bringin’ a thief to justice.  Been on the trail all night,” he explained.

“Oh,” Finch said, suddenly regretting his harsh sarcasm.  “Sorry.  Any luck?”

“Some.”

Now that he’d upset Stone, Larimer Finch knew he wouldn’t share anything with him unless he pulled it out of him. 

“Marshal, has anything of interest occurred besides the Wells Fargo robbery?  Katie and Chipper filled me in on that.  Looks like you handled everything by the book.” 

That was Finch’s equivalent of a compliment.

            Stone said nothing; he just looked down into his drink, pensive and introspective.

            “Katie said you had a bad cold.  She was quite worried about you, rather like a mother hen, if I do say so.”

            “Cold’s better,” Stone said, taking a sip of his dark drink.

            “She had been fearful of pneumonia,” Finch continued, then asked, “What is that concoction you’re drinking anyway, Marshal?”

            “Cola syrup,” he answered.

            Luci interrupted.  “It soothes your stomach.  You just mix it with water, Mr. Finch, for a tried and true remedy for indigestion or heartburn.”

“Or heartache,” Stone mumbled under his breath.  He left his half finished drink on the bar and slowly made his way to the doors of the saloon to go out into the streets of Silver City.

He stopped and looked back at Finch.

“You remember how I told you on the telephone that I didn’t do much prayin’ any more?”

“Yes, Marshal.”
            “Well, I started up again.”  Stone swiftly turned on his boot heels and left.

            “What’s got into him, I wonder?”  Finch asked and turned to look at Luci behind the bar.

            Luci gave him a half grin.  “There are certain limits on what Jared Stone lets others know about him.  He seldom gratifies any curiosity of his past life.”

            “He is silent about much of his present life, too, or so it appears,” Finch added.

            “Yeah,” Luci agreed.  “Sometimes he hints at things but usually he keeps quiet.  Jared does a great imitation of a brick wall when it comes to his emotions.”

“Occasionally cracks in the mortar show through,” Finch said.

“Every once in a while,” Luci agreed.  “I reckon it’s just his way of coping with the job.  Believe it or not, he isn’t completely stone cold.”  She winked at Finch and then laughed at her pun.  “Get it, Mr. Finch?  Stone cold?”

“Yes, m’am, I get it,” Finch said with a grave look at the doorway and the disappearing lawman.  “I can only wonder what got into the marshal to make him start praying again.”

 

 The End 

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