Bandera County, Texas
Something was wrong with this town.
Wescott Rawlins slung his saddle over his shoulder and dragged his weary, blistered feet out of the livery. His horse had gotten the fool notion to throw a shoe, and he’d walked the crockhead for 10 miles to keep his appointment with the sheriff. Never in his 24 years had Wes been so happy to see a cluster of oakwood storefronts encroaching on the open range.
The town of Elodea, however, wasn’t so happy to see him.
The blacksmith had been especially unfriendly, acting like a rained-on rooster when Wes had asked for directions to Sheriff Boudreau’s homestead. The livery man had paled at the sight of Wes’s matched pair of .45s and, claiming he had no horses for hire, had slammed the door in Wes’s face.
Having his nose nearly smashed in by a tack room door wasn’t the worst part, though. The worst part was watching Elodea’s womenfolk hurry past him as if he’d sprouted horns and a tail. True, he was caked with dust from his Stetson to his Justin boots, but he knew he held a certain appeal for the ladies. Years ago, as a gawky youth, he’d learned to compensate for his freckle-dusted nose and his auburn hair with flirtatious charm. However, his most winning smiles were proving wastes of time on Elodea’s fairest, and his friendliest “Howdy’s” were being answered by hunched shoulders and fleeing bonnets.
Yep. Something was damned wrong with this town.
“Mister! Hey, mister, wait up. You dropped something,” an eager young boy called, causing Wes to halt outside the doors of Sultan’s Dance Hall.
A slender boy with opossum-colored hair ran into the center of the road, where sunbeams glanced like shooting stars off a battered piece of tin. Swooping for the object, the boy gaped, his eyes growing round with excitement. “It’s a badge. A Ranger’s badge!”
Wes half smiled. Now there was the kind of welcome he’d grown used to during the past six years.
“Where’d you get it, mister?”
Wes’s vanity deflated a notch. “Austin, as I recollect,” he said dryly.
“You mean you’re a Ranger?” The boy caught his breath. “A real Ranger?”
Gray eyes doubtful, the boy watched Wes retrieved the badge and tuck it carefully into the inner pocket of his vest.
“Well, if you’re a real Ranger,” the boy said, “how come you’re toting that old hunk of tin instead of a shiny new star?”
Shoving back his hat, Wes considered how to answer his young skeptic. Ten months earlier, his “hunk of tin” had deflected a bullet that should have been his ticket to the boneyard. Call him sentimental or just plain superstitious, but he didn’t have the heart to trade in the scratches, dents, and faulty clasp for something showier. Of course, a young Ranger worshiper wasn’t likely to understand how his hero could choose sentiment over glamour. Wes ought to know. He himself had worshipped a Ranger in his youth.
“What’s your name, son?” he asked solemnly.
“Well, Danny, a shiny new badge could reflect the sun and warn off a road agent when I’m tracking him through the hills. Understand?”
Danny’s brow furrowed, but he nodded. Wes sensed he’d just scored a point for the underdog, a sport that had always tickled him. Fishing in his pocket, he indulged Danny with a nickel.
“Much obliged for your help, Mr. Dukker.”
The boy’s eyes bugged out, but whether at the liberty head or the title of respect was hard to say.
Nodding goodbye, Wes pushed past the dance hall’s swinging doors. To his surprise, Danny followed him inside, trotting at his heels like a faithful coonhound. Wes thought it strange that a boy who was maybe eight or nine years old could brazen his way up to the counter without the barkeep batting an eye. Why wasn’t Danny at the local schoolhouse?
Come to think of it, why weren’t the half-dozen other boys he’d seen leapfrogging down Main Street poring over their readers?
(Continued on page 2)