alexis morgan

 

The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 14)

Alexis Morgan
© 2017.

Sadie gave Elliot a fierce hug and a quick kiss. "Don't you worry about me. I'll be fine."

Her smile wasn't all it could be, but it was the best she could come up with under the circumstances. Just knowing that not only Elliott, but Mack and Jethro as well, were all about to walk into a dangerous situation at the saloon was enough to give her a fit of the vapors. That is, if she were the kind of woman given to such things.

Elliott cupped the side of her face with his palm. "I'll be back. I promise."

"I'll be waiting."

She also knew that if she and Elliott tried to build a life together, this wouldn't be the last time that she stayed behind while he rode into danger. So much more was riding on this moment than just ending the threat posed by Sylvester Putnam. It took a strong woman to love a man like Elliott Jones, and she very much wanted to have that strength.

Hence the smile.

Elliott pegged her companion with a hard look. "Billy, lock the door behind me and keep it that way unless it's either Mack, Jethro, or me knocking. Got that?"

The newest member of their small group nodded. "Yes, sir. No one will get past me."

Billy was in his mid-teens and looked younger than he was thanks to his lanky build and missing too many meals. Even so, he held that rifle with authority. She wondered if Jethro and Elliott had talked to him yet about their future plans for him. Becoming a Paladin would give Billy a sense of purpose and belonging that he currently lacked, but it would add one more name to her growing list of people she would have to worry about and pray for. Still, it wasn't her decision to make, and she knew they'd never rush him into anything before he was ready.

Elliott started toward the door to join Mack and Jethro outside, but he turned back at the last moment. "Try not to worry."

She wasn't going to lie to him. "I worry because I care. You're smart enough to know you can't have one without the other."

He stared down at her, his dark eyes gleaming with some pretty powerful emotions. "Fair enough, but that road runs in both directions. I can't do my job if I have to wonder if you're out of the line of fire."

"Which is why I'm going to pour myself a fresh cup of coffee, sit down at Mack's desk, and stay there until you get back." She made shooing motions with her hands. "Now go before Putnam manages to slip out of town. I want this to end today."

"Yes, ma'am." Elliott grinned and touched the brim of his hat and then headed out the door.

Her smile held up longer than she'd expected it to. As soon as Elliott was out of sight, her eyes blurred with tears. She blinked furiously to clear her vision and made good on her promise. After pouring two cups of coffee, she handed one to Billy and then sat down at the desk.

The boy took his sentry duty seriously, moving from window to window with his rifle always at the ready. The few survivors from the earlier gunfight were locked in the cells in the back of the jail, including Billy's stepfather. Earlier, on the long ride back to town, that disgusting man had started berating Billy for what he saw as the boy's betrayal. Mack had immediately stepped in and told the loudmouth to conserve his energy, that is, unless he wanted to die from his wound. Then Mack had offered the man a chilling smile and added that was something he could personally make sure happened if he didn't shut up.

For the most part, Billy had ignored his stepfather, but every so often he stared at the door that led to the cells in back with a worried expression on his young face. She could only guess what he was thinking.

"I promise that man won't hurt you anymore, Billy. Jethro and Elliott will make sure of that. Once things settle down here, they'll talk to you about what happens next."

His shoulders slumped. "Which is what? I can't read or write. All I'm good for is shoveling out stalls or riding herd on someone else's cattle."

She immediately jumped to her feet. "That's your stepfather talking, Billy. If you can't read or write, you can learn. I can teach you if that's what you want. And for the record, there's nothing shameful about earning an honest living."

Then she pointed toward the barrier between them and the prisoners. "Those men tried to take the easy road and see where it got them. Half of them are dead and the rest are going to prison or maybe even worse. Is that how you want to end up?"

For a moment, the boy looked his true age-young and scared. "No, ma'am, I don't."

Now wasn't the time for long lectures, and it wasn't her place to tell him what it meant to be a Paladin. Instead, she sat back down at the desk. "Good. You're already smarter than that bunch back there. Now, come play checkers with me. It will help pass the time, and I need the distraction."

Setting his rifle within easy reach, Billy pulled up a chair and helped her set up the board. "You're move, ma'am."

*****

The saloon was nothing special. Like so many others Elliott had spent time in, it reeked of unwashed bodies, spilt beer, and cheap perfume. Three of Mack's men covered the windows from the outside, ready to shoot anyone who drew on their boss. Once they were in place, Elliott and Jethro slipped in through the back while Mack strode through the front door with authority, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.

It was hard to let the lawman take center stage when it had been Elliott's woman who'd come under attack. He'd argued with Mack long and hard about the plan, but the sheriff had finally threatened to toss Elliott in a jail cell and leave him there until the confrontation was over. Evidently the man took his job as sheriff in town pretty damn seriously.

Once Elliott had promised not to show up with guns blazing, Mack had relented enough to temporarily deputize both him and Jethro. Their job was to keep any of the vermin they were hunting from escaping out the back.

Mack's voice rang out across the noisy room. "I'm looking for Sylvester Putnam."

Two men off to the right shifted to stand in front of the steps that led to the second floor. One had a rifle in his hand while the other rested his hand on the butt of the six-gun in his holster. "Seems Mr. Putnam is busy upstairs, Sheriff, if you catch my drift. We'd be glad to pass along any messages you might have."

Mack looked disgusted. "You want to play intermediary, fine. Go tell Mr. Putnam that I'm here to haul him off to jail to join what's left of the bunch he hired to kill Miss Benton. Before you do, though, drop those guns on the ground."

The man sneered. "And if we don't?"

Elliott spoke up from behind him. "You'll join the big pile of bodies we dropped off down at the undertaker earlier this morning. He's already got quite of few ahead of you, but I'm sure eventually he'll get a hole dug to throw your worthless carcasses in. Now drop the guns or die. It's your choice."

As the rifle and handguns hit the ground, Mack actually laughed. "Damn, Elliott, I'm going to have to remember that one. I like it."

While he signaled for one of his men to come take charge of Putnam's men, he glared at everyone else any the room. "Anyone else got a problem with me interrupting Sylvester?"

There was a lot of head shaking and a fair number of men skittering out the front door like a bunch of cockroaches when the sun comes up.

Mack was just starting up the stairs when Elliott heard a strange noise coming from out back. He jerked his head in that direction, telling Jethro without words where he was heading. As soon as he stuck his head out the door, shots rang out, kicking up dust right in front of him.

Cursing a blue streak, he ducked back inside. Judging from the angle, the shooter had to be on the roof of one of the buildings that backed up on the alley from the other side. He risked another quick peek and got off a couple of shots that had his opponent ducking back down for cover.

Jethro joined him at the door. "How many?"

"Near as I can tell, there's one on the roof over there. That doesn't mean there aren't more."

"So why is there someone guarding the back and not the front?"

"Good question. I'll let Mack know what's going on. See if you can keep the shooter pinned down for now."

Jethro nodded and took Elliott's place beside the door while he retreated back into the main room of the saloon. Mack was just getting ready to start up the steps. Elliott gave a low whistle to catch his attention. The lawman paused and waited for him.

"Heard some shooting. What's going on?"

"Putnam's got a guy with a rifle positioned on the back of the roof of the building one down from here. I'm guessing our friend Sylvester has figured out an escape route from the upper floor."

Mack shook his head. "I've never spent any time upstairs here, but the building next door is only one story tall and the roof is flat. If there's a window overlooking it from one of the rooms on the second floor, he might just be able to get out that way."

Elliott considered their options. He could see at least four doors on the second floor that might offer Putnam an escape route.

"I'm going next door."

"If he has managed to get out that way, try to take him alive-at least mostly. I want a chance at him myself." His smile was predatory. "For one thing, I've lost a lot of sleep because of him the past few days and don't much appreciate it."

Elliott figured his smile pretty much matched Mack's. "I'll try, but no promises. He tried to kill my woman. He needs to bleed just for that alone."

"Fair enough."

Mack drew his gun and started up the steps just as a few more shots rang out. From where they stood, it was impossible to see who was firing. It was past time to end this. Elliott ran for the front door and down the sidewalk to the next door. The sign out front said it was a law office. Maybe Mack would know if the attorney inside was an ally of Putnam's, but Elliott didn't care one way or the other.

He paused long enough to reload his gun and then opened the door. Two men were seated at desks. Both looked understandably worried considering the commotion going on next door.

Elliott gestured toward the door behind him. "You go out that way and don't come back until this is over."

The older man at the closest desk wisely stood up and started to leave while his younger associate protested, "But you can't tell us what to do."

Elliott held up his gun and then pointed to the star pinned to his vest. "These say I can. Now, go while you don't have any bullet holes ruining that fancy suit you're wearing."

They disappeared through the door in a scramble of pushing and shoving to see which one could get away from Elliott the fastest. Nice to know his scare tactics still worked.

A thump overhead caught his attention. This building might only be one story, but it clearly had an attic. And unless he missed his guess, it had an extra-large rat running around in it right now. There was a small, hinged opening in the ceiling in the back corner conveniently located over a tall cabinet. Right next to that was a door that led out the back. No doubt he'd stationed the shooter where he did to keep the alley clear so he could make his escape.

As he watched, someone overhead started to lift the hatch covering the hole. Elliott quickly ducked out of sight behind the closest desk and waited for his prey to appear. When he risked a quick peek at the ceiling a pair of legs were dangling over the cabinet. He really couldn't wait to see the look on Putnam's face when he realized that his bolt hole wasn't working out for him.

Right now, the other man was too busy trying to figure out a way down off the tall cabinet to notice he wasn't alone. When he finally did, he tried to climb right back up into the attic. Elliott put a stop to that by shooting the ceiling, sending a spray of splinters raining down on the man. It took some wild scrambling on Putnam's part to keep from tumbling right off his perch onto the floor below. He settled for glaring down at Elliott.

"You have no idea whom you're messing with, mister. Now clear out so I can get out of here."

His autocratic tone made Elliott's teeth ache. Well, the man was about to find out money and arrogance weren't going to work this time. "I know exactly who you are, Mr. Putnam. You're the man who made the mistake of trying to kill Sadie Benton. If you play it smart, you'll live long enough to stand trial for your crimes."

He aimed his gun right at Putnam's head. "Personally, I'd just as soon you do something stupid so I can save the town the cost of a trial and most likely a hanging. However, I promised Sheriff Robbins that I'd at least try to bring you in alive. Although to be honest, he did say you only had to be mostly alive. He doesn't take kindly to bastards like who trying to kill a woman any more than I do."

The man's florid complexion faded to a pasty white. "Why do you care what happens to her? She has no family or anything."

"I'd say that was none of your business, but maybe a man deserves to know why he's about to die. She's the woman I plan to marry." He cocked the gun. "So are you going die up there on that cabinet or take your chances in court?"

Putnam slowly climbed down off the cabinet. When he reached the floor, he sidled toward the back door. "How much would it take for you to forget you saw me today?"

A bullet in his leg was the only answer Elliott gave him.