Southwest Kansas, May 1879
The lone rider was half a day east of Dodge when he saw the covered wagon. It was bumping along the flat prairie north of the road, pulled by two mules and driven by two men. The rider reined in and watched them approach.
At first he figured they were buffalo hunters—they had that look—but the wagon didn’t move as if it was loaded with hides. Besides, most of the herds were gone by now, except maybe up north. And he’d already noticed the change in the posture of the two men on the wagon seat, when they got close enough to see the sheriff’s star on his vest.
“Mornin’,” he said. “Where you boys headed?”
They didn’t reply, and that was when he heard the weak voice, from inside the wagon:
“Help. Help me . . .”
All three men froze, and then reached for their guns. Seconds later the two men on the wagon were dead, one crumpled on the seat and the other lying on the ground beside a front wheel. Ears ringing and his smoking revolver still aimed and ready, the sheriff swung down out of the saddle, checked both bodies, moved to the back of the wagon, and pulled open the flap. The scent almost made his eyes water. Even without pelts, nothing else in the world smelled like a buffalo wagon.
This one wasn’t completely empty. Huddled in a corner was a young blond woman with a bloody, purple lump above her ear. She wore a torn blue dress and was bound hand and foot but no longer gagged; a dirty rag hung loose around her neck.
Within minutes she was freed and out of the wagon and sitting dazedly on the grass in the noonday shade of a cottonwood tree ten yards away. Her rescuer sat crosslegged in front of her. Worriedly he watched her drink from his canteen. The head wound didn’t look good.
Her name, he’d found, was Brooney Walker, from Wichita. She’d been visiting her uncle Arnold, near Great Bend, she said, and had walked the quarter-mile alone to the family cemetery to see her aunt Maude’s grave when the two men appeared out of nowhere and hit her on the head. On the way here she’d heard them arguing about where to sell her to get the most profit.
The sheriff made no comment about that, or about the fact that her kidnappers wouldn’t be selling her or anyone else, now. He did inform her, though, that he would take her to the doc in Dodge City, which was only fifteen miles west.
“I do feel a little woozy,” she said. “I’m much obliged.” She turned, her cheeks pale as a gravestone, and looked at the two bodies on and beside the wagon. “For everything.”
“Glad I could help.” He stayed quiet a moment, watching her. “Did you say your name’s Brooney?”
She smiled a little, and pulled the shirt he’d taken from his saddlebags tighter around her shoulders. “I know—it’s a funny name.”
“I just wondered if I heard right. You sure ain’t a brunette.”
“No, but I’m a Brunhilda.” The smile lingered, then became a frown. “Pore Uncle Arnie. He’s prob’ly worried sick.”
“We’ll get word to him, from Dodge,” the sheriff said.
She blinked and focused on him. “Wyatt Earp lives in Dodge, don’t he? His brothers, too.”
“Just him and James. Morgan’s in Montana, I think, and Virgil’s in Arizona. Why?”
“Lord, I would so like to meet Wyatt,” she said, staring dreamily into the distance. “A Legend of the West, that’s what he is. Him and Doc Holliday too. I been readin’ about ’em.”
“I’ll introduce you to both of them. Here, drink some more water.”
She took another swallow, handed the canteen back, and gave him a serious look. “When you meet famous people,” she said wisely, “you gotta act dignified. No cussing, for one thing.”
“Oh hell no,” she said. “Gotta dress right, too. And smell good. First impressions, you know.”
“I’ll remember that. Come on, let’s get you to town.”
He helped her stand, and she studied him with heavy-lidded eyes. “Who are you, mister? What sent you to save me?” She paused, swaying a bit. “Are you an angel?”
“I’m the sheriff in Dodge. Ford County. I was on my way to a trial, in Stafford.”
“Oh. I guess I sidetracked you a little.”
“They can do without me. Steady, now—”
“What’s your name?” she asked.
She seemed to give that some thought. “I’ll just call you Sheriff,” she said.
And fell asleep in his arms.
Brooney Walker awoke to see a bearded, middle-aged man staring down at her. His face and eyes were friendly, and so was his voice. “Good evening, young lady,” he said.
She looked around. She was in bed in a dimly-lit room, and her head hurt. The outside world, she saw through an open window, was dark. “How’d I get here?”
He smiled. “In a mule-drawn buffalo wagon with two dead varmints inside it and a horse tied behind it.”
Memories flooded in, and she felt herself smile. “The sheriff.” She touched her new bandage, and had a sudden thought. Her eyes went wide. “Are you Doc Holliday?”
He chuckled. “Different kind of doc. There’s nothing wrong with your teeth.” He motioned toward the window. “I expect Holliday’s over at the Long Branch right now. Or the Alhambra.”
“You think he’s with Wyatt Earp?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I was told your name’s Brooney. How do you feel?”
“Better.” She stayed quiet a moment, then said, “Any chance I could meet ’em?”
“Who, Earp and Doc? Don’t see why not.”
“Bartholomew said he’d introduce me.”
The doctor frowned. “Who?”
“The sheriff,” she said. “Ain’t that his name?”
“I honestly don’t know. We call him Bat.”
She thought that over. “Now, that,” she said, “is a funny name.”
John M. Floyd’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s mystery magazines, The Strand Magazine, Mississippi Noir, The Saturday Evening Post, and three editions of The Best American Mystery Stories. John is also an Edgar finalist, a four-time Derringer Award winner, a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the author of nine books.