AARON tipped up the brim of his hat and squinted into the late-afternoon sun. He could just make out a mess of buildings huddled between a few rugged hills and the mountains. Around him the grasshoppers screamed in the heat and flung themselves into the air. He gave Dancer a nudge to follow the deep wheel ruts winding toward the little mining town, but he didn’t push her for any speed. The day was far too hot for that.
The shadows had stretched to near breaking, and he could see a thunderhead in the distance. He rode past a couple of pieces of scrap wood nailed together and shoved into the earth. Someone had carved the words “Eden Springs” into them.
There was nothing impressive about the town before him. Just one more dusty-shithole boomtown, which would dry up and blow away the second the surrounding hills stopped spitting out silver. He could only assume someone was being ironic when they named it. He paid it all little mind, as it could have been the same town he’d left a week earlier.
He walked Dancer up the main street, which was, surprisingly, cobbled, until he spotted a yellow star, roughly painted on the side of a building. A man was leaning by the door. His clothes were the same color as the dust in the air and the sun-cracked wood behind him. His body was still as whipcord thin as Aaron remembered.
“And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.”
Aaron grinned. “I’m long out of the war business, Connor, but it seems you’ve gotten yourself into the law business.”
Connor nodded. “Yes I have, and it’s damned good to see you.”
Aaron dismounted and tossed Dancer’s reins over the hitch rail. He had met Mathew Connor in Virginia about halfway through the war. He’d been scouting behind lines when he found a young Lieutenant Connor half dead with fever, huddled next to a bloated cavalry horse. His accent didn’t match his uniform, but he swore he was with the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Aaron had figured Connor would never survive the trip back over the line and was tempted to just leave him, but some better grace prevailed, and he carried Connor to the first Union camp he could find. Connor survived, much to everyone’s surprise, and their paths crossed several more times before the business was done.
He hadn’t even been completely surprised to get Connor’s telegram. The West seemed to be a good place for men like them, soldiers who no longer had a war, and law was as good a profession as any.
Connor shook his hand. “I have to say I was looking for you to put in an appearance about a week ago.”
“Had another job to finish up. Came as fast as I could; might have come faster if your message was a little less vague.”
“Had to pay by the letter. Come inside and I’ll try to clear things up for you.”
The office was mercifully cool, and dark, just like a hundred others spread across the territories. A couple of desks, wanted posters, and a few maps filled most of the space, with two iron cages taking up one corner.
“I’ve got a sick little band of brothers: Elijah, Ascah, and Caleb Buckley.” Connor slapped down three wanted posters. “They got sacked from the mine about six months back for being drunk, lazy, foul-tempered thieves. Instead of leaving town, they stole themselves some horses and started picking off prospectors in the area.”
Aaron leveled a look at Connor. “You dragged me halfway across the territory to deal with some horse thieves?” He was feeling more than a tad insulted.
“If they were just horse thieves, I’d leave you in peace.” Connor’s voice held an edge of defeat. “Few months back they got a taste for blood, started killing. They also started grabbing women, then children. The lucky ones are the ones they kill. The rest, well, we got a couple of wives that’ll never lie with their husbands again, and a few young’ins that are never going to grow up quite right.”
Aaron tasted bile. He’d learned at a young age that men were capable of the most savage acts of depravity, but that didn’t mean he had to accept it. “Well, now you’ve got my attention.”
“Thought I might.” Connor gestured to the map spread across the table. It showed the town, the mine, and the surrounding hills and mountains, with various small claims and homesteads penciled in. “They’re hiding up in those hills, and I need help, and that’s no exaggeration. This is a wild town to begin with, especially once the sun goes down, but I’ve just got the two deputies, Joseph and Visit. I was never much of a tracker—you know that—and Joseph and Visit were both Navy.” Aaron gave a snort. “Fact is I need to find these men before the lynch mob decides to come after me.”
“So you thought you’d call in a tracker.”
“I thought I’d call in the best damn tracker the Union ever had, who still owes me for that night at Fisher’s Hill.”
Aaron ran his eyes over the map. The hills were rugged, but the area wasn’t so large as to be unmanageable.
Suddenly a throat cleared behind him. Connor looked up from the map and rolled his eyes. Aaron turned around. There was a man standing in the doorway. He had black hair pulled back tight with a bit of leather, sharp black eyes, angular features, and was at least a half a head shorter than Aaron. There was also something intimidating about him, almost menacing. His clothing was dark, severe, immaculate, and obviously meant for a wealthy city back East, not a mining town in the middle of the territories. In his hand was a fine walking stick, topped with a pewter eagle. The man opened his mouth to speak.
“Wait,” Connor cut in. “Just wait a second, Professor. Before you start your daily harassment, I’d like you to meet Aaron Byrne—tracker, sharpshooter, scout—and I have called him in especially to deal with the current situation. Aaron, this is our local schoolteacher, Professor Jonah Mann.”
Aaron watched as he was looked over and silently judged. With an Irish father and a half-Chinese mother, Aaron had gotten used to being judged, but never in his life had he felt so scrutinized with just a quick flick of one pair of dark eyes. He had an urge to stand up straighter. He seemed to pass the initial judgment, however, and the professor gave him a nod. “Mr. Byrne.” He had a clipped English accent that was as startling as the clothes he wore.
Aaron nodded back. “Professor Mann.”
“The good professor here has been making it a point to come by daily to question me on our progress.”
The professor bristled and his hand tightened around the walking stick. “Sheriff, if you feel I am harassing you, I can assure you it is only my little civic-minded attempt to remind you that those things violate children.” There was a cold hiss in that utterance, the likes of which Aaron had never heard from any other schoolteacher of his acquaintance. “We are long past the point where those creatures should have been put down like any other rabid animal.”
“I couldn’t agree more, which is why we will be heading into the hills at first light to take a serious run at the Buckleys. And this time, I promise you, Professor, we will get them. Hell, I’ll let you string ’em up personally.”
“Do not for one moment believe I will not take you up on that offer.”
“I know you will.”
The professor turned and looked Aaron over again. “And do you feel you are capable to the task, Mr. Byrne?”
It was Aaron’s turn to bristle. He had more than a bit of a reputation, and it was rare he encountered someone in the business who hadn’t at least heard rumors of him. “I can find a general’s stolen horse in the middle of Texas, and that’s not a boast, it’s a fact.”
The professor gave a nod like he’d just given the right answer on an exam. “Good.”
Aaron looked over to Connor. They hadn’t actually made any plans yet. “So we’ll start fresh in the morning?”
“Your horse looked like she could use a rest.”
Aaron couldn’t argue the point. “That she could.”
Connor looked around. “Do you mind bedding down here for the night? It’s either here or Miss Eva’s place, and you won’t get a lot of rest there.”
Aaron eyed up the cell and knew he’d slept in far worse places.
“I have a spare cot at the schoolhouse.”
Aaron looked over at the professor, who seemed to have been appeased for the moment. The professor looked back, and this time his look seemed to be one less of judgment and more of appraisal. Aaron tilted his head and did a little appraising in return.
“There is also a small stable for your horse, and I can provide a warm meal,” the professor added.
Aaron looked over at Connor, who gave a slight shrug. “That’s right gracious of you, Professor.”
The professor gave a small nod. “Least I can do. And I will leave you gentlemen to it.” And with another quick nod, Professor Jonah Mann left.
“That’s your schoolteacher?” Aaron had to ask in case he’d heard wrong. Just the clothes the man wore said wealth (most likely old wealth) at that.
Connor covered his eyes. “It’s a long story and I’ll be damned if I know half of it. Just smile and nod when he starts talking.”
“I’ll try to remember that.” Aaron looked back down at the map. “Now, let’s get tomorrow worked out.”