The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 6)
Breakfast was a strained affair. All three men did justice to the meal she'd prepared and then thanked her for cooking. Elliott and his friend insisted on helping her with the dishes, leaving the sheriff waiting impatiently for them to quit dillydallying around and answer his questions. As she dried the last plate and set it back up on the shelf, Elliott poured himself a cup of fresh coffee and sat back down at the table.
As soon as she and Jethro joined them, Sheriff Robbins leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "Let me get this party started by telling you what I know to be true. That way you three don't waste any more of my time with a bunch of lies."
He gave each of them a long look. "Are we agreed?"
Her cheeks flamed hot as she nodded. For their part, Elliott and Jethro grinned at the lawman's frank statement as Elliott answered for them both. "Whatever you say, Sheriff."
"Fine. First of all, Mr. Jones, I'm guessing you don't actually have a brother and were, in fact, the one who died in the gunfight yesterday." He glanced at her. "And for the record, Miss Benton, I don't doubt for one minute that he was truly dead when you buried him. He just didn't stay that way. I'm also guessing he hasn't had time to explain to you what a Paladin is, but I'm sure he will as soon as we're done here."
Elliott set his cup down hard enough to splash hot coffee on his hand. "What the hell makes you think that?"
By that point, Sheriff Robbins was looking pretty smug. "This isn't the first time I've crossed paths with a man who possessed that particular talent. I was a deputy in a town over in Kansas when the bank was robbed. The sheriff asked for volunteers to form a posse, and we took off after the men that did it. When the gang split up, we did, too. Turns out the men I rode with were a bunch of Paladins who happened to be riding through town that day. When we cornered the robbers, one of the Paladins took a gunshot to the chest, a shot that was meant for me. I'd already taken one bullet."
He raised his hand to his left shoulder and rubbed it as if remembering the pain. "Half of the dead guy's friends took off after the outlaws who'd shot us. The rest set up camp and took care of me. By the next morning, the dead Paladin was breathing again. By the end of the day, he was walking and talking. Damnedest thing I've ever seen. When they asked me to keep that part secret, I promised I would. Hell, who would have believed me anyway? The day after that, the others returned with the outlaws they'd taken prisoner. After riding back to town, I bought them all several rounds of drinks. I never saw them again, but I never forgot them either."
He paused to sip his own coffee. "So, now that we've cleared that up, want to tell me again what happened yesterday and this morning?"
Both Jethro and Elliott looked as dumbfounded as Sadie felt. What were Paladins? And did the Mack mean to say that the two men were part of that group? Why hadn't Elliott told her what he was from the beginning? She was glad he was alive, but it would have been nice to know why he was willing to take the risk of staying behind when he was almost out of ammunition.
A horrifying thought flashed through her mind. "Elliott, it's bad enough that I left you out there alone and covered with rocks. But what if I had buried you for real? You would have suffocated. No way you'd have come back from that."
The image of him gasping for air as he tried to claw his way free from under six feet of dirt sent her running for the door. Outside, she lost the breakfast she'd just finished. She kept retching even after there was nothing left to come up. Suddenly, a cool cloth appeared and wiped her face clean while a strong arm encircled her waist and held her steady. When she was more under control, Elliott gently pulled her upright and then wrapped her in his arms. She burrowed into his warmth and strength as tears poured down her face.
His hand moved up and down her back with long, slow strokes. "I'm so sorry, Sadie. I swear I was going to tell you everything. There just wasn't time before the sheriff showed up. If I'd known what he was going to say, I would have stopped him until we could talk. Mack feels terrible, and so do we. He obviously knew Jethro and I were lying, but he thought you already knew some of the truth about me and what happened. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive them even if you can't forgive me."
At first all she could do was nod, but she finally found her voice. "There's nothing to forgive. You did promise to tell me everything after we got back to the house, and I realize there just wasn't time. But all of a sudden, all I could think about was you trying to dig yourself out of a real grave."
When she shuddered, he tightened his hold on her. "That didn't happen, Sadie. Even if it had, it wouldn't have been your fault. You had no way of knowing that I'm not like most men. Obviously, there are others like me besides Jethro, and Mack was right about us being called Paladins. Not many people outside of our own kind and those who work with us know that, though."
He continued to rub her back as he talked, making her wonder which of them needed that bit of comfort more. After a brief pause, he started talking again. "I know this is going to sound crazy, but there are places in this world where a curtain of light is the only thing that separates it from another planet. It runs in areas where there are likely to be earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Southern Missouri is riddled with caves and a fair number of them have a stretch of that curtain running through them. Jethro and the others like me stand guard in those places to make sure the killers from that other world stay on their side of the barrier."
All right, that was crazy talk, pure and simple. When she raised her gaze to call him on it, she choked back what she'd been about to say. His stark expression made it clear that he'd meant every word he'd just said. "How is that possible?"
He only shrugged. "Nobody knows. As near as we can tell, it's been going on for a long, long time all over the world. There's something in our very bones that draws us to defend the barrier with everything we've got. We're bigger, stronger, and better suited for that kind of fighting than normal men. Not to mention if we do die, we stand a good chance to come back from it. You can see why we have to keep things secret."
"How about Jethro's wife? Does she know?"
For the first time since they'd ended up on the porch, Elliott smiled. "Patience learned about it the hard way. Those crazies from the other world managed to escape and attacked her home. Jethro managed to save her and then sent for reinforcements. I was the first to arrive. Before the others got there, we were surrounded. I got shot, but Jethro sent me and Patience out through a tunnel her father had dug under the house. I died before we got to town. By the time Patience reached the sheriff's office, the other Paladins were there. Stubborn woman that she is, she wouldn't remain in town and insisted on riding back to the farm with them. She and Jethro got married right after that."
Funny, but that story actually made her feel better. "So you Paladins make a habit of rescuing stubborn women?"
He pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. "It would seem so."
Feeling a bit daring, she asked one more question. "And do you always end up marrying the woman afterward?"
This time the kiss was considerably hotter. "A man can always hope."
The last thing Elliott wanted to do right then was face Jethro, who had stepped out on the porch about the time that last kiss had really heated up. Had he heard that last question Sadie had asked or, worse yet, Elliott's answer?
Regardless, they couldn't avoid dealing with the sheriff for much longer. He gave Sadie one last hug before asking, "Are you ready to go back inside?"
"No, but I suppose we have to sometime."
"That's my girl. Let's see what the sheriff has to say for himself, and then we'll make plans to end the threat to you once and for all."
As soon as they crossed the threshold, Sheriff Robbins lurched to his feet, his expression truly apologetic. "I'm so sorry, Miss Benton. I surely didn't mean to upset you that badly."
"It's not your fault, Sheriff. The past couple of days have been pretty overwhelming, and I guess it all hit me at once." She offered him a small smile, "And all things considered, there's no need for formality among friends. Please call me Sadie."
The sheriff sat back down, "My friends call me Mack."
Elliott didn't much like the look in the lawman's eyes as he smiled up at Sadie. The bastard better not be planning on getting too friendly with her. Yeah, she might be better off with a man who didn't come with all the problems connected with being a Paladin, and the man seemed to be a decent enough sort. It might be selfish of him, but he wasn't going to surrender without a fight when it came to her. She knew what he was and what he was capable of and hadn't run screaming.
If there was any chance he could make a life with her like the one Jethro had built with Patience, he wasn't going to let it slip through his fingers. He tugged his chair closer to hers and draped his arm around her shoulders, staking out his territory as clearly as if he'd held up a sign to that effect.
Mack frowned but then nodded. Message received.
With that settled, he got the conversation started. "Sadie, why don't you start off by telling us everything you know about the man who wanted to buy the mine you inherited? And then Mack can fill any details he knows. After we have all the cards on the table, we can make plans."
And once Elliott put a bullet in the bastard who set six killers on Sadie's trail, he could get started on convincing Sadie that having a Paladin in her life was a good thing.