Wild to the Bone
The brown-eyed girl said, “You certainly are a large man, aren’t you, Mr. Haskell?”
“Please call me Bear, miss.”
“I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”
The whiskey drummer sitting beside the girl snorted a laugh.
“Whatever tickles your fancy, miss,” Haskell said as the stagecoach jostled him and the girl and the two drummers this way and that, feathers of dust slipping through the Concord’s deer-hide window shades.
From outside rose the frequent gunlike pops of the jehu’s blacksnake being cracked over the backs of the six-hitch team pulling the stage through the shelving rimrocks and rolling hills of western Colorado Territory.
Sitting straight across from the girl, facing forward, Bear was trying his damnedest to keep his eyes off her shirtwaist, which was cut low enough that the small gold locket she wore around her neck jostled at the peak of her deep, creamy cleavage in the most beguiling fashion imaginable. Being on duty, his rifle in his hands, his senses pricked for trouble, Bear Haskell did not need a hard-on.
“Are you really a Pinkerton agent?” she asked.
Haskell smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Bullshit.” This from the drummer in a yellow-checked suit complete with matching shabby bowler hat sitting to his left, facing the drummer in the green-checked suit sitting beside the girl. “He ain’t no Pinkerton. He’s just tellin’ you that to impress you, miss.”
Yellow-check, whose knees shone through the badly worn and tattered broadcloth, plucked a hide-wrapped traveling flask from his shirt pocket and popped the cork, giving Haskell a sneer up and down.
His green-clad partner did the same and, curling his nostrils, said, “Sure as hell . . . uh, pardon me, miss. This man here’s a brigand if I ever seen one. Best not speak to him. You ever see a Pinkerton his size?”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Pinkerton of any size,” remarked the girl, also running her flickering, skeptical eyes up and down Haskell’s six-foot-five-inch, two-hundred-forty-pound frame decked out in a black vest over an open-necked blue chambray shirt and gray tweed trousers, the cuffs of which were tucked down into high black boots trimmed with red stitching.
Six inches of a brass-capped, bone-handled bowie knife poked up from the right boot’s well, the blade nestling in an inside sheath. The big man’s slouch hat was tilted back off his broad, leathery forehead.
“You do appear rather . . .” She wrinkled her pretty brows as though searching for the right word. “Unshaven.” Her eyes bored into the black tangle of beard covering the lower half of Haskell’s face, beneath a large wedge-shaped nose and a pair of warm blue eyes, which contrasted with a physique seemingly hewn from solid oak. His large sun-browned hands were scarred from many battles.
“True,” Haskell said, raking a big hand through the beard of topic, “Mr. Allan Pinkerton does prefer that his agents keep their fur in trim, but he gives me a little leeway in that regard. Bear Haskell with a trimmed beard resembles a shoat with a pink ribbon knotted around its ears. Just don’t fit—if’n you get my drift, uh, Miss . . .”
“Cybill,” the girl said, allowing a frown to lift her bee-stung pink lips and causing javelins of light to sparkle in her eyes. “Cybill Downing.”
“Ah, of the locally famous Harcourt Downing . . . ?”
“Yes, that’s right. My father is Harcourt Downing. I’m headed back to the ranch after spending a couple of years back east.” Miss Downing turned her mouth corners down as she canted her head to peer out through the crack between the buffeting shade and the window frame at the drab, rocky, sage-stippled landscape rolling past the lurching coach.
“Where back east, if I may ask, Miss Downing?”
“Troy, New York. At the Emma Willard Academy for Girls, a private academic institution whose goal it is to prepare young ladies for the big, broad world beyond marriage and family, focusing on mathematics, art, and culture as much as on, oh, I don’t know, making ourselves prettily wrapped and well-behaved little packages for sophisticated men of family wealth.”
She arched her brows at the big man across from her.
“A finishing school, Emma Willard is not.”
“Ah, I see,” Haskell said, leaning to his right and pulling the shade away from the window, casting his cautious gaze to the rolling hills where owlhoots could very well be on the lurk. “You don’t got your sights on marryin’ up real soon, then, but on becoming a working girl. A professional gal.”
“Yes, I certainly do, Mr. Haskell.” Again, Miss Downing pulled her mouth corners down. “Or . . . at least, I did.”
Satisfied that no one was stalking the stage and the sixty-thousand dollars in scrip and specie housed in the lockbox atop the roof—which Haskell had been assigned to guard from Sundance near the Continental Divide down to Montrose on Colorado Territory’s Western Slope—he released the shade and sat back on the hard bench seat covered in a thin layer of cowhide.
“Oh, it’s a long story,” the girl said with a doleful sigh, letting the back of her head rest against the carriage’s front wooden wall, dropping her gaze down over her well-filled shirtwaist to the floor. “Suffice it to say I’ll be remaining at the ranch for a good long time, most likely never to see anything east of the Mississippi ever again for as long as I live.”
For a few seconds, Haskell thought Miss Downing was going to cry. But not letting herself slip past a faint sheen in her eyes, she seemed to satisfy herself with a mere pout, gazing down in pampered girlish heartbreak at the floor.
Haskell was a little too distracted by his current assignment to sympathize with the girl’s apparent mental misery—even if he was of a mind to sympathize with one so young and pretty and hailing from one of the most moneyed ranching families in all of Colorado.
The stage trail between Gunnison and Montrose had been haunted of late by owlhoots, and the payroll for the Montrose Mining Company, the latest installment of which was nestled in the strongbox chained to the roof over Bear’s head, had been stolen three times over the past year, all when the strongbox was carrying an extra-heavy load, as though the robbers knew when the mine company was due to pay out bonuses to its supervisors.
The embarrassing and near-crippling robberies had made the Wells Fargo Company angry enough to hire Pinkerton agents to begin guarding it. They’d insisted on Allan Pinkerton’s best man west of the Mississippi. So Bear Haskell had landed the job, though he didn’t much care for guarding much of anything—especially when he had to guard it in a Concord stagecoach built for much smaller men than he.
Usually, such jobs consisted mostly of sitting on one’s ass, anyway, and Haskell—an ex-Union veteran of the War Between the States and, later, buffalo hunter, deputy sheriff, and stock detective—detested sitting on his ass. Unless he was sitting on his ass in a saloon, of course, with a scantily clad parlor girl on his knee and a glass of Sam Clay bourbon on the table before him.
Now, however, he was sitting on his ass, with his knees practically in his face, and casting another cautious glance out the window on his side of the coach, to see if any of the rocks or cedar shrubs peppering this stretch of the Rockies had suddenly become stage robbers since the last time he’d looked.
“You sure are purty, Miss Downing,” said one of the drummers.
Haskell wasn’t sure which one had made the remark, and he didn’t hear what the girl said in response, because just then, he spied a figure on horseback sitting atop a low mesa just ahead and off the right side of the trail. As he scowled against the high-altitude light, the rider, whose silhouette was about all that Bear could see, backed his horse away from the edge of the mesa. Haskell caught another, brief glimpse of horse and rider as the man turned the horse and dropped down the mesa’s far side and out of sight.
Cold fingers of apprehension raked themselves across the back of his neck.
Holding his rifle in his left hand, Bear pulled the shade farther back from the window with his right hand and poked his head out, casting his wary gaze up along the trail past the carriage’s yellow-spoked front wheel and the lunging six-horse team. He looked behind and saw nothing back there except the curving, floury-white trail itself sheathed in mountain sage and piñon pines.
Just then, the girl gave a shrill cry.
Haskell pulled his head back inside the stage to see the drummer in the green-checked suit engulfing Miss Downing in his arms and closing his open mouth over hers. The salesman was driving the girl back against the seat and removing one of his arms from around her shoulders to shove that hand down her shirtwaist.
The girl was squirming and hammering his shoulders with her clenched fists, but the drummer had her in an iron grip as he was apparently trying to ram his tongue not only between her lips but all the way down her throat. The other drummer was laughing and stomping his feet and pointing with his flask, yelling, “Give it to her, Lyle! Go ahead and give it to that uppity little filly right there on the seat, and then pass the bitch to me!”
What Haskell was witnessing in the coach in broad daylight was damn near the most brazen display of male depravity he’d ever seen. He blinked twice to make sure he was really seeing what his eyes were sending to his brain.
“Just what in the fuck do you think you’re doin’, amigo?”
Haskell had started to raise the Winchester Yellowboy, but suddenly, he was staring at a double-barreled, over-and-under derringer extended in the right hand of the drummer sitting beside him. “Whatever the fuck he pleases, amigo!”
The man showed crooked teeth as he stretched his lips back and giggled girlishly. He held the derringer level with Bear’s left eye. The other drummer pulled his mouth off of the girl’s and turned toward Haskell, holding Miss Downing taut against him.
The drummer attacking the girl gave Bear an arrogant grin while the other one with the gun continued to giggle delightedly, and all at once, Haskell realized that neither was a drummer, despite what they’d said when they’d all boarded the stage in Gunnison.
They were no more whiskey peddlers than Bear sold silver tea services to little old gray-headed ladies.
Miss Downing struggled against the arm of the man in the green-checked suit and complained, “Unhand me, you brigand!”
But the brigand kept his arm wrapped tightly around her shoulders, so that she could do nothing more than wiggle. He’d removed his hand from her shirtwaist, but now, as he began turning his head toward hers once more, he jerked her skirts up her legs until Haskell could see one of her garter belts. “Kill the damn fool,” he said dryly to his comrade with the over-and-under derringer, just before he planted another big, wet kiss on the poor child’s soft, pink lips.
Haskell might have fallen for part of the ruse—these two were in the gang that the man on the mesa was also part of, likely placed here to dispose of Haskell himself before the others could strike the stage along the trail—but once bitten, twice shy. Just as Bear saw the man’s index finger begin to squeeze the little popper’s eyelash trigger, he jerked up his left arm, ramming the top of that wrist against the man’s fist.
The little popper belched fire and sent the .36-caliber chunk of lead careening so close that Bear could feel the hot wind of its passing before it plunked through the coach’s wooden panel, just right of the door. He lunged toward his would-be assassin and smashed his fist against the man’s jaw so hard he could hear the bone break.
Haskell grabbed the man’s gun hand in his own, and now, lunging closer to the gent, he hammered his right fist against the man’s face twice more before the man screamed and fell back against the door on the coach’s opposite side.
Grimacing and spitting blood, he bounded toward Haskell, who planted his boot against the man’s belly and shoved.
The “drummer” bellowed as the door broke open. Haskell didn’t see him hit the ground, but beneath the clattering of the stage wheels, he heard a dull thump.
“Look out!” Miss Downing screamed.
Haskell whipped his head to the right. The other owlhoot was squinting down the four-inch barrel of a cocked Merwin & Hulbert pocket pistol aimed at Haskell’s head.