Shots had been fired in Black Limb, a town in the Dakota territory, a bank teller and a bystander wounded, the thief caught in the middle of the robbery, knocked down by, of all things, a woman sheriff with a badge worn on a most prominent chest, dark and beautiful eyes seemingly full of pity and something else the unsuccessful robber managed to draw from her, him the handsome dog, handsome robber George Crown brought to his dusty knees by a woman sheriff, a knock-out sheriff.
His laughter followed immediate thoughts of the bare necessities of her, holstered, belted, armed, and so possible to be the love of the ages for him … and him bound to be hanged in the offing, for two earlier murders, large reward large, posters wide-spread, search now over… at the hands of this woman.
He went meekly to jail, glad to be in close company with her, the best looking woman he had ever seen with all the imaginative assets found about women termed to be most beautiful. Smitten, he was, and well aware of it; he’d not have a care in the world about the remarks thrown at him, the odd looks he’d earned from the collection of townies, his holster empty, his wrists in stubborn knots at the command of a woman, and another rope due him, a longer rope, the final rope. The taunts from those daring, rugged folks, were earned taunts, though separated by decent spaces between the hurler and the catcher.
Several times, during the walk to jail, she caught him looking at her; several times he caught her looking at him; natural and long-held attractions exerting old forces in the face of a soon-to-be-paid destiny, the end of a taut rope.
Trade-offs, he thought, were in the air. Next to getting away with the bank’s loot, this was the next best thing, a walk into Paradise with a memory.
He asked her, in a devilish manner, what her name was, his eyes lit with interest, his smile working its advantages, all the edges he had mastered.
“Sheriff Loburn,” she said with a loud harrumph, her grip solid on the rope twist.
Hardly, he thought at first reaction. Then, “No,” he said, looking into those eyes again, “your first name. What your mother called you when she looked and first knew you were a girl.” The introduction was underway, a look in his eyes that said words without a voice, words she didn’t hear but lingered in his head … “and so goes the onslaught.”
“Placim,” she said, the smile widening across her face, mouth parted, lips stretched, entirely kissable even when working. The rope knot was twisted again, but he felt something new in the effort, perhaps lessening of knotted clamps.
Crown didn’t laugh, but said, “She had a reason for that, I’m sure, but I sure can’t dig it out, ‘less you let me in on it.” His smile was continuous, a toy he’d one time thought, but found pale in her presence.
Still feeling good, though he hadn’t even held her hand, “No, when she called you in for meals, what did she call you? Not Placim, I’ll bet.”
“Placey,” she said, smiling again, “she called me Placey.” She appeared warmer, comfortable, and he knew he’d struck a lucky vein, straight to her inner feelings. Mothers and daughter were rigidly different than fathers and sons; that had to be the way things were in the west, and he was willing to bet her mother was as beautiful as she was, this girl with a badge … and a pistol on her belt, which widened her hips and made her dangerous at any game or occupation. She added, “It’s an old family story and there’s not enough time to tell it.” Her word sounded final.
“How long you been sheriff?” His glance was quick, interested, his mouth slightly open the way a surprise might be greeted.
“Two years.” The smile was real, the intention still questionable.
“Ever take a prisoner to jail before, out here, loaded with crooks, robbers and rustlers?” He did not say “murderers,” did not use his wise-ass voice. That was for card games, blacksmiths, big gents in general stores, deputies off duty, wagon masters on trails he knew by heart, stable men, barkeeps, any working stiff he’d disregard in a minute.
But not this sheriff. Not this beauty of the west. Not his one great love come upon him like heaven had let its lightning loose for a direct hit deep inside his chest. His feet hurt. His hands. The back of his neck afire. The shame, the embarrassment of being brought to a jail cell trussed up like a grand loser, had disappeared. It was, he thought, an inevitable trade-off.
There had been a moment, slightly earlier, but after being locked in the cell, that he’d caught her looking at him from a strange angle, as if she had moved her desk to keep her eye on him … not so he wouldn’t escape, he believed, but because she found him pleasant to look at. Hell, lots of women’d done that, and she was a mortal woman, even as sheriff of Black Limb, Dakota territory.
“You’re my 17th prisoner in the two years,” she countered, seemingly loath to end the discussion, “and you’re the best looking of the lot, as you obviously know and aren’t saying but thinking a whole lot on it. Looks get you only as far as the lock on the cell door, if you’re thinking of sly approaches. I wasn’t born yesterday, but a couple of weeks before.”
Her laugh, the throatiness of it, the comfort of the way vocals made her throat move, oscillate, expand, show lines of grace he had never noticed on a woman, had in fact never looked for such evidence of grace, suppleness, simple beauty without being posed.
“Naw, I wouldn’t even try to break out of your hold even if you had me good, tight, in the old fashioned real way.” He turned his back on her and sat on the bunk edge, then sat back, as if at home in his visitor’s room. A comfortable air sat about them despite iron bars, stone walls, the locked separation, he brought to thought.
Both of them were aware of it, approached it in their own way; he had sat away from her, and she had dallied in place in spite of his move, an interest on the move, a dead-set interest of jailer for prisoner, prisoner for jailer, man for woman, woman for man, even if odds had been tipped the slightest since his arrest … but tipped.
When she left the jail she said to her deputy, “Mac, I’m going to get supper. I’ll relieve you so you can go have dinner with Kassie. I’d guess she’s making a favorite of yours.” Leaving, she laughed loudly, as if she wanted to be heard around corners, in locked places, her voice loaded with noticeable charm, interest spiking the air.
The deputy loosed a smile. So did the prisoner.
An hour later she was back and sent the deputy home for the night. When she said, “I’ll see you in the morning, Mac, after breakfast … unless something comes up.”
She settled on the bunk in a corner of the office, boots under the cot, gun belt close at hand. The town outside grew into its customary quiet.
Sheriff Placey Loburn waited on night’s symphony, the same one that came just about every night on the job, from her very first night. Once in a while a yell reached the jail, from inside smothered walls like the saloon’s walls, or a horseman trotted down the dirt of the main road, hoof beats clumpy and soft on the earth sounding like the far end of a piano. Near secretive owl talk came from high, hidden places. A distant coyote claimed ownership of a piece of territory, another contested the ownership or answered the call unknown to some people, but understood by many. To top off midnight, moon’s golden glow flared in a widening break in clouds, and to deep thinkers a sort of hum thickened about the universe that Black Limb sat in, like the feet of a tall ladder positioned and locked in place, time in tune with the outer world.
She looked in at him, sleeping, a handsome sleeping murderer to be hung at the end of a quick and honest trial, witnesses already summoned from elsewhere to testify.
At least she thought he was sleeping, but he said, in a smooth voice, “You going to sit up all night watching me, Placey?”
The use of her mother’s nickname did not bother her, thinking it was part of his game of charm.
“Not if I can help it,” she replied in a tone slightly comfortable for the situation. “I have a bunk out here and we, the deputy and me, usually take turns when we have a prisoner on hand. It’s no big deal. Part of the job.”
Crown rolled over on the bunk, the simple blanket falling off to the cell floor. He didn’t retrieve the blanket, instead said in his calm voice, “There’s one thing I’d want you to know before it gets too late to say it.”
“Is it more of your good-looking pitch to women?” Her voice too had added a new quality to it, a softness she’d found in her throat as though for the first time, which brought a bit of self-surprise with it.
“No, I guess it’s too late for that now. I just want you to know you are for sure the best looking woman I’ve ever seen, the most beautiful. I really mean that.” Slowly he bent to pick up the blanket.
“You don’t let it go, do you?” she replied, her voice not yet regular.
“I’m not done,” he quickly replied. “I was going to say that if I had a final wish it would be to see all of you, every last bit of you, before I die. I swear, that’d be my final wish. Every bit of you, like in one of the pools along the river below town, or even up there on Hoag’s Hill on that little creek and pool under a huge tree green as grass and tall as a mountain.” The pause was understood, and he said in lamentable voice, “The wish of a dying man.”
“You mean you’re one of those peepers always peaking at women at their bath or swims? A peek-a-boo artist hiding in the bush?”
“Hell, no,” he said. “I mean if I came riding over one of those hills and saw you in one of those pools, I sure wouldn’t turn away and ride off. I’d ride right down to poolside and hold your clothes for you to get into before the weather grabbed you. I sure would. It would be one of the pleasures of my life.” His voice caught on the next words … “Like it would be the best sight in my life, the very best one of all, seeing you the way you’re meant to be seen by one man knocked for a loop by you and your beautiful looks.”
He rubbed the side of his head. They both laughed heartily at the image of his capture. His hand slapped down on his thigh and he flinched at the impact. “It’d be the best trade ever. I’d swear to that, too, right in the face of the Almighty if He let me.” Again he slapped his thigh and she let go a near-sigh that he could have jumped on. His eyes, in softest lamplight, found hers looking back at him.
“We best get to sleep, Placey, and get this damned night over with, but I’d trade it all for that look at you and I’d take it into eternity with me.” Onto his back he flopped and then rolled over.
She slipped onto her bunk and before sleep came the stuff of images and created dreams swam into her thoughts and she found herself in heavenly arms, saw the huge tree in a swath of moonlight, the image of the golden moon shifting with a slight breeze across the face of the pool, his eyes never leaving her face until, in one last wishful thought, they travelled all over her, stem to stern, top to bottom. The images could not be shaken off as she fell into a deep sleep.
What awakened her from that deep pit, she muscled up only one idea, that it was him and him alone doing the waking. About her person she felt those dreamy eyes poring over her with their absolute power, their curiosity, their inevitable pleasure; she saw the smile cross his face. Distantly, ghostly, wild mates of the wilderness on the top of some mountain proclaimed their rights to union. Her body was almost talking to her, excitement in its unsaid words, deep breaths accompanying her excitement.
Night, caught in a patch of lamp glow, gathering a new silence with it, came to her. She heard him breathing softy from the cell, brought parts of him to herself, began to breathe differently, so differently that it brought her wide awake.
The lamp glow was soft as a new heifer, a new colt with huge beseeching eyes. All of it took hold of her, with no restraint from her good senses, and she rose from the cot as quietly as she could, made sure her boots were under the cot, stood up beside the cot without a single creak, and started to undress.
Her shirt and denim pants, including the belt, were folded atop the cot, her private under-things placed lastly and lightly on top of the pile. Upon her she felt the lightest glow of the lamp almost as if it touched her with a soft hand, the warmth a sense of grace with it, the flickering of a small flame touching her also as she stepped forward, from behind the wall separating her from the cell section, into the middle of the jail.
The dim light accompanied her, its touch full of a pink residue, a sense of practicality desperately trying to be known, and losing the battle. She even felt beautiful in his presence; could feel it though she rarely brought herself in sight of any mirroring surface. She felt golden, or half pink and half golden, out of touch of herself, at a distance, this person being someone other than herself, a hidden part perhaps making a move in her life never made before, not ever in any of her senses.
She felt beautiful. She forgot all the words ever heard from elsewhere, from any and all men, and now heard only his words repeating in her mind, coming again and again to her in the small bath of light as though she was stepping away from a river pool and into his direct sight, her clothes in his hand, him tossing them away. Significant warmth flooded her, flooded her senses, flooded her person in that simplest of flames. Her mind leaped for justifications, rationalities, personifications so extreme she was not sure she recognized them.
When, from his cell, from his cot of sleep, he said, “I was right from the first word, your being the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” she froze in place, his eyes not devouring her but paying some kind of tribute to beauty and what it carries about with it as innocent as a babe. She might have reached for a gun that wasn’t there at her waist. She might not have. He still looked at her with the dark eyes of charm, of no surprise, of no hellish intention, the innocence of a baby came again. It carried her back to her cot, out of his sight, no panic in her movements, and no claims or innuendoes in his voice, the lamp glow still a small arc of pink and gold, for a moment a halo of purity, no guile visible in his motion as he stood beside the bunk, in the cell, on the other side of the bars.
The owl, from a high and hidden perch in town, stretched night with its call, but all was silent beyond that perch. Crown, standing yet, said nothing more, and the sheriff, fully dressed, rolled in her cot towards the outer wall of the jail, in pursuit of a dream and not a criminal soon to hang for his deeds.
Sleep, as swift as medicine, like a totem from the far past, clutched her away to solid and desperate sleep.
When she woke, lazily, tauntingly, from her deepest dreams in years, she felt a strangeness move past her as stealthy and as real as a mountain lion on the prowl, a shadow among shadows, a presence among presences, a dim lamp in a huge cave, mayhap the candle of a soul. Something devastatingly mysterious, out-of-this-world-ish. She swore an inordinate being, perhaps a specter, a ghost from the unknown beyond, was moving about in the jail, clinking iron, breathing air near her, and dreamt a face and a pair of eyes were looking down on her. From that bed of dreams she leaped, saw the cell door wide open, the cot empty, her prisoner, her dream, gone into the night.
She wondered, with sudden realization, what this day would bring to her after this night, momentarily saw a pool in a mountain stream flooded by moonlight, came to her sudden senses as her deputy stood, mouth wide open, eyes at alarm, in the doorway of the jail, his pistol in hand.
Beyond him was the owl of a single hoot, the thick but empty darkness of the jail and, eventually, a wide silence bound to stay with her longer than she’d warrant.
Black Limb, a town in the Dakota territory, was still asleep.