About the book
It takes only a moment for destiny to shift...
Owner of the "Red Stallion", hotelier Zoe Ferguson lives an independent but lonely life. When a charming bounty hunter arrives at her hotel looking for a wanted serial killer, her quiet days are over.
On the trail of a notorious outlaw, Quinn Mortensen’s entire world changes when he comes across a beautiful hotelier. Little does he know, that behind that fair facade hides a secret past that just might be his undoing.
With Zoe's role in the hunt a complete mystery, a new revelation threatens to tear them apart, and Quinn must make a choice: hide the truth from Zoe or lose her forever.
The evening had rolled in, but the sky said otherwise. It looked like midnight when it was barely seven o'clock. A storm was moving into the area; a bad one by the looks of it.
Every fiber in his body was tense. His face was frozen in an involuntary grimace as rain pelted his skin like steely fists. The sting was like that of a razor against his flesh, but there was no easing his pace or seeking shelter from the elements. His quarry was close. He could feel it, and this time, he wasn’t going to escape.
Quinn Mortensen was a man on a mission, one that had taken five years of his life so far, but one he was determined to see to its conclusion. He had never lost a case and he wasn’t about to lose this one either. Victor Norton’s time was at hand.
Quinn leaned forward in the saddle, his Stetson pulled down low over his blue eyes to shield them from the rain. The way was barely visible ahead of him but he still needed to see it. He couldn't allow himself to walk into another of Victor's traps. The last man who did spent most of the next few weeks recovering from multiple gunshots. Quinn himself had barely escaped with a minor injury.
Victor ‘The Boar’ Norton was aptly named. He was bulky, with massive arms and legs. He was grizzled, hair covering most of his body just like his namesake. Not to mention his temperament. Like the animal, he was smart, kept to himself, and was more adept at hiding his tracks than any other criminal that Quinn had ever tracked before. He was also a loose cannon. Once riled, he went after the offender with everything in him and didn’t stop until someone was lying motionless. In this case, it had been three people.
Quinn's hands tightened on the reins as he thought of Mary Hutch. She was a fifty-five-year-old woman, who scrubbed floors for a living for Boston's wealthy. She spent her life on her knees cleaning up the messes of others while trying to raise her ten children on her own after their father was killed in an industrial accident.
Rupert, Louis, and Malcolm Hutch were her oldest. They were the ones who eased the burden of the mouths to feed. They were good men, so Quinn was told. They worked hard to help their mother. Rupert swept the streets. Louis worked as a hand in a mill and his brother Malcolm was foreman there. Together, they were keeping their family afloat, but no more.
Quinn’s teeth ground together as the sound of Mary’s pained wails still echoed in his mind. He could see her hunched over the corpses of her two youngest sons, while the oldest lay dead on the other side of town, all beaten to death by the same man.
What am I to do? My sons! What am I to do? He has taken my heart from me again!
Quinn’s jaw clenched tighter. Victor had to pay.
Quinn urged the horse faster toward the town of Shaniko, Oregon; a little place in Wasco County, where Victor was rumored to be hiding out. It was the first lead on him in over a month and Quinn was almost beside himself with frustration before the news reached him. There was no other case but this one. No bounty he wanted more. He owed Mary Hutch something. He owed her the justice no one else was willing to give. The justice she deserved.
Bounty was not the reason he left the Boston Police Department. Limits were. Victor was caught soon after he murdered the Hutch brothers. The headlines talked of little else for an entire week but how eight officers were needed to subdue one raging man. It was both shocking and embarrassing to the department.
Victor allowed himself to sit in a cell for two weeks before he devised his plan for escape. It was brilliant. He waited until the laundry day and faked illness. When the guards came in to check on him, he attacked. He easily overpowered the two men who, together, were less than his full size. He stole a police wagon and made his getaway. He got himself another charge for that and sat in a cell for several more days before Lola, a scrawny mite of a woman, scrounged up the money from somewhere to pay his bail. She lost every cent of it when he fled Boston.
Once back on the streets, Victor wasted no time in getting out of the city limits. He left Lola behind. Like a rat in the night, he made his way to Brockton in Plymouth County, where he laid low, biding his time or making his plans. Quinn’s bosses told him to let it go, they didn't have the manpower to pursue him further, nor the inclination. They said the family could leave it to the Pinkertons to find him, but they had never met Mary or her children. He had.
The Hutchs had nothing but a three-room shack on the poorest side of town. The males occupied one room, while Mary and her seven girls occupied another. The remaining room was the main room where everything took place. They had no money for the Pinkertons, and they deserved justice just as much as someone who could afford them. It was then that Quinn started tracking Victor on his own using the department’s resources. When he was caught, his actions didn’t go well with the top brass. He handed over his badge that very day and took up the title of bounty hunter, determined to get justice for Mary.
Fatigue ached in his bones but there was no resting, not when he was so close, the closest he had been in five years. The delays in tracking Victor had hampered Quinn’s pursuit of him. It had taken Quinn months to get a fresh trail once he reached Brockton. The local police were willing to help, but they weren’t going to exert more time or energy than pointing him in the right direction. Victor had done nothing while in their county and he was therefore not their problem.
Since then, Quinn had zigged-zagged his way across the country; Massachusetts to New York, from there to Kentucky and on to Tennessee. He spent a year circling around the outskirts of Missouri before Victor finally led him to Nebraska, Wyoming, back to Colorado, Kansas and then back the same way to Wyoming. Quinn had seen more of the world than he had ever imagined.
The fugitive had just left Idaho behind him. A pleasant place, but one he was happy to leave if it meant finally bringing Victor back to Boston. His stomach no longer protested at being deprived of food. It had been days since Quinn last ate, but determination kept him focused. The body was an easy thing to master once you had sufficient motivation, and Quinn had that and then some.
His long legs kicked at the horse's side. The stallion was giving him its all, but it wasn't enough. Quinn needed to reach Shaniko before Victor got wind of his arrival and left the area. He had not come all this way, wearied himself to exhaustion, just to see the man slip through his fingers once more. This time was the last time. He was going to get his man.
A light flashed for a moment and then disappeared from view. Was it a lamp or a star in the distance? He couldn’t quite tell. Quinn squinted to see better. Several seconds went by before it appeared again. It bobbed to-and-fro in the raging wind. It was definitely a light. Shaniko was near.
The muscles in his back tightened and his stomach became taut as he leaned further still and gave the horse another sound kick in the flanks to set its legs ablaze. They would be in Shaniko soon and his journey would finally be at an end. Victor was claimed to be held up in a house on the west side of town. Quinn would keep to the outskirts and surprise him.
Shaniko was a town marked by lone ranches and few houses. Quinn could see the outlines of mountains in the background as lightning lit up the sky. It was a flat territory with few places to hide, which was good. He didn’t want Victor laying a trap for him. There was hardly vegetation there. Quinn spotted some sagebrush and bunchgrass, with the odd juniper, but hardly anything else.
He wondered why Victor would choose to come here of all places, seeing as there wasn't much potential for him to hide out undetected. He had to have people there who would help him. Adrenaline rushed through Quinn’s veins at the thought. It was likely that Victor had some help in Shaniko, which meant that taking him down might have just become more difficult. Quinn didn’t care. It didn’t matter who Victor had on his side, he was going to bring him to justice one way or another, and anyone who stood in his way would find the same fate.
The hours rushed by and soon it was midnight. His horse was completely worn out. He had pushed him hard and he was cracking under the pressure. Quinn hated to do it but he had to creep up on Victor.
Every delay set him further on edge. The rain was still pouring down all around him. The earth had visibly softened and as the lightning continued to fork across the sky, Quinn could see where pools had begun to form on the plain before him.
He was tired. He could feel it now with the reduced pace. The desire to rest was tugging at him like a child on its mother's skirts, pleading for attention. He was trying to swat it away, but the desire to listen was more powerful. He could feel himself wanting to give in.
The voice was sudden and a shock to Quinn’s senses. He looked around him in confusion, pulling his shotgun from beside the saddle and drawing it to his eye, ready to fire, as he searched for where the voice came from. He turned in every direction as the horse continued on its course. His nerves were raw. The slightest hint of an attack and he was ready. It took Quinn several seconds to realize the voice was from his own head. Even then, he didn’t lower his weapon, just to be sure.
Finally, when he was positive it had been his own thoughts urging him, Quinn lowered his shotgun. He didn't put it back in its holster but instead laid it over his arm as he continued on his journey. It was probably best there.
The horse was breathing heavily when they finally reached their destination. Quinn knew he had broken the beast, and he was sorry for that, but his job was important and nothing was going to stand in his way. He would see it to a good farm somewhere where its life could be easier, but in the meantime, he needed him.
He stopped the horse far enough from the house so that the sound of his snorts could not be heard. Quinn watched the small house from a distance, studying it for movement. There was a single window on that side of the building and bright yellow light was filtering through the panes. It was an easy vantage point into the house. It also made it easy for anyone to see out. Quinn kept watching.
He was unflinching as he watched. He needed proof that Victor was there before he went in, and there was no movement. It would defeat the purpose if he went in and found the place empty, and in the process let Victor know he had closed in on him. No. Quinn needed to be sure the man was there first.
Another hour passed in silent vigil but Quinn would not be defeated. The horse, he suspected, was happy for the break. He hoped he enjoyed it. Quinn was tired, hungry, and saddle sore, none of which was going to ease anytime soon. It was all right. He was used to it. A shadow moved by the window and Quinn’s breath stuck in his lungs. Someone was in the house.
He slid from his saddle, ignoring the pain of the action as he did so. He checked the two guns at his hips and then the shotgun in his hands. It was a Sharps Model 1874 Creedmore. Its long barrel glistened in the lightning. It was a single barrel, but more accurate than most rifles out there. You didn't want to get close to Victor if you could help it. The further away the better and this gun was noted for its long-distance accuracy. It was why Quinn bought it. Otherwise, he still had his faithful Winchester. He took them both.
He tied his horse to the nearest boulder he could find and made sure it was secure. He didn't need the old boy running off on him now. Quinn then reached for his gun's scabbard and slipped the Winchester onto his back. He kept the Creedmore at hand.
His heart had begun to pick up pace as he strode toward the house. He could hear nothing but howling wind and the intermittent claps of thunder. It was as if the angels themselves were applauding the fact that he was finally about to get his man. Quinn wouldn’t accept any congratulations unless it came from Mary Hutch.
His heart was drumming in his ears as he closed in on the property. He heard a string of expletives from within as glass shattered. He stopped in his tracks. It was Victor. He knew that voice anywhere. Quinn fought the urge to grin. I hope whatever it is cut you.
He crept up to the window, ensuring he stayed beyond the reach of the light from within. He flattened his back against the house and continued to listen. He breathed several deep breaths before peeking into the room quickly and returning to his spot. Quinn’s eyes took in the room at a glance. Victor was there. He was in the room, distracted by a broken lamp. Now was his chance.
Quinn ducked beneath the window and crept to the front of the house. He stood by the door and waited several seconds for his hands to steady. He’d waited a long time for this. He could hardly believe that the time had finally come.
He didn’t wait a second longer than it took his hands to still. He grabbed the handle of the door and swung it open in one fluid motion as he stepped inside. He raised the gun at the same time that Victor came up with his side pistol. The man was always ready. They stared at each other with guns raised.
"Mortensen," Victor growled in his bear-like voice.
“Victor,” Quinn answered as both guns cocked.
“How’d yah find me?” the burly man asked, as he pulled his other sidearm from its holster. His eyes never left Quinn.
“I’ve gotten pretty good at tracking you over the years,” Quinn answered. “I just followed the stench.”
Victor laughed snidely.
Quinn’s jaw clenched. “It’s over, Victor. You’re going back to Boston to face your crimes.”
The outlaw looked at him with the coldest, deadest eyes Quinn had ever seen, as a low, menacing warning was issued. “I don’t think so.”
It was three in the morning but the saloon was busier than ever. A caravan was passing through town and with it came a ton of whistles that needed to be wet, something that made the establishment’s proprietor, Zoe Ferguson, smile with delight. The Red Stallion Hotel and Saloon was her pride, the result of hard work and long hours, and now she was reaping the rewards of it.
At twenty-six she was a self-made woman. She had come to Oregon and the town of Shaniko on her own. The rush of men to the region with hopes of making it rich in gold was what supported her in those early days. She was twenty-years-old with nothing but a few dollars, a small bag of clothes and her cooking utensils. She added to that a dream and tenacity.
She started cooking hot meals for the miners and set up a small outdoor restaurant. She parked the small wagon she had borrowed for the day near the mine. She then set out a table and a few chairs and rang the dinner bell. That first day twenty men came to dine at her makeshift mess hall, each paying a dollar for their meal. It wasn't long before others came to join them. Soon, she had nearly fifty men coming to fill their bellies on a daily basis. A frugal woman, with a mind for business—something she learned from her former employers—it wasn't long before she was able to buy the broken-down restaurant in town and turn it into what it was today.
“Miss Zoe, can I get another one?” Lance, the local deputy sheriff, and a frequent visitor to The Red Stallion called as he raised his empty glass. He was a tall man, sturdily built, who liked his face neatly shaven and his whiskey on the rocks. He was single, had never been married, though he had proposed to her more than once when he was drunk. Most of the men in the saloon had.
Zoe was a favorite amongst the men in town mostly, she suspected, because of all the ladies in the small town of Shaniko, she was the one with the most mystery. Men liked to solve puzzles. It didn’t hurt that she had one of the best figures in town, either, and that wasn’t just her opinion.
She smiled at Lance and the large space between his front teeth as he grinned back at her. “I’ll get Liza right on it,” she answered with a smile that belied the nervous twisting in her stomach.
“Why can't you do it?” Lance asked as he reached out to take hold of her hand. Clearly, the whiskey was going to his head, but she allowed him to take her hand.
“Because I have other business to take care of. You aren't my only customer, you know,” she teased as she gently pulled her hand away and carried on about her business.
“I’m yer best customer,” he called after her.
Zoe shook her head and laughed lightly as Liza approached her. “Give the deputy three more shots, but water them down by thirds,” she instructed seriously. Lance had a place in town and getting drunk wasn’t becoming of a lawman. It was his one failing. He loved his job and his drink a little too much for her tastes.
“Yes, Zoe,” the blonde replied as she looked past her. “He's really putting them back tonight ain't he?”
Zoe nodded as she looked at Lance compassionately. “It’s the anniversary of his sister’s death,” she stated. “He always gets this way on this day.” She turned back to Liza. “Make sure and do what I tell you. Watered down by thirds.” She gave the woman a pointed look.
“By thirds,” Liza repeated before she turned to the bar to get Lance his drink. Zoe watched her, and made sure Liza did what she was instructed, before taking a stroll around the room.
The Red Stallion Hotel and Saloon was the only one of its kind in Shaniko. There was a small boarding house down the road, but that was mostly tailored to the mail-order brides that the new marriage board was bringing in by the coach-load. Zoe couldn't imagine being one of them, coming to a strange place to be dependent on some man they had never met. It just didn't make sense to her and Zoe tried to do what was sensible.
The hotel took up the entire top level of the two-story building. The bottom floor was the saloon, fully equipped with a bar on one side of the room and a small platform on the other, where a piano was set up. Most nights Hank Flanders played to entertain the guests, but on special occasions, Tilly Swan would sing. She was a petite woman with a nightingale's voice. When she was singing there wasn't a seat or an empty glass to be found in the house.
The main floor was covered with round tables, each with at least four chairs around it. Made it easy for a hand of poker that way, and everyone in town liked poker, except for Reverend Dean. He didn’t like much. On the top level, the stairs forked left and right, each side leading to five bedrooms, one of which was always occupied—Zoe’s. It was the one at the end of the hall on the right, the one with the best view. She was heading in the opposite direction that night.
Anxiety knotted her stomach as she did one more turn around the room, though she never looked it. A smile was permanently painted on her delicate features hiding all of her true feelings inside. Once she was sure everyone was having a good time and wouldn’t notice her, she ducked into the kitchen.
“I need a basin of hot water for upstairs,” she instructed the cook. It had been a while since Zoe had prepared a meal herself in the saloon. Now she had two cooks who made her recipes to her specifications.
“Yes, ma'am,” Weyland Tanner answered as he wiped his hands in his apron and went over to the stove. He took the pot that was at the ready with hot water and poured some into one of the large basins from under the sink. “Do ya want me to bring it up for ya?”
“No,” Zoe replied shortly. “I can handle this myself. Customer’s really testy about people,” she explained. Weyland nodded and went back to work. Carl, the other cook, didn’t even look up. He was the kind of man who minded his own business, even when it was going on right in front of him. She liked that about him. In many ways, he was just like her.
Zoe protected her hands with a dishcloth as she took the basin out. She gave the room a cursory glance to make sure no one was watching. They weren't. She headed upstairs.
Her heart was beating hard in her chest as she turned left at the top of the stair and approached the second last door. She stood outside it for a moment as she took several cleansing breaths to calm herself.
“It’s me,” she said just loud enough for Victor to hear her over the thunder and lightning.
Years had passed since she last saw him, but every once in a while, he entered her mind and she wondered what had become of him. Six years was a long time. Still, when he had arrived half an hour before, wounded and demanding her help, she had to oblige. Zoe hoped the storm would pass soon so he would leave.
A second later Zoe heard movement on the other side of the door before it opened a crack, and a large dark eye peered out at her. The door then swung open briefly to allow her in before it was immediately closed behind her.
Zoe walked over to the small table in the corner and set the basin down. “I brought the hot water,” she stated as she turned to the large man who was standing behind her. His shirt was bloody down the left arm, as was the front. She looked at him pitifully.
“What?” he growled.
“Just look at you. How did you do this to yourself?” she asked as she stepped closer to inspect the wound. His left arm was hanging limply at his side. Blood was dripping from the tips of his fingers. She sighed as she took his hand in hers. “Let’s patch you up. Sit in the chair.”
Victor did as he was told. He always did what she told him. He took a seat beside the table as Zoe brought the lamp closer. She pulled open the drawer and removed the needles she’d hidden there earlier. She took one out and looked at the point. They were brand new and had never been used. She regretted this was the way they were going to be christened.
“Are you sure you don’t want some whiskey or some bourbon? This is gonna hurt.”
Victor shook his head. “Just do it.”
“Fine,” she answered with a huff. “Don’t say I didn’t want you to.”
She ripped his shirt from wrist to shoulder to expose the wound. She wrinkled her face at the large hole that was in his arm. She looked at Victor—it was clear to her that this was no trapping accident as he’d claimed. Someone had shot him, but she knew better than to ask. Victor wasn’t a man who liked to answer questions and he liked it even less when people asked them.
She turned to the basin and the cloth she had brought up. She dipped the end of it into the water and then began to clean the wound as best she could. She took the needle she had inspected and threaded it. She dipped it and the thread in the hot water, sliding it through to make sure the thread was hot. She looked at Victor hesitantly.
“Do it,” he ordered.
Zoe bit her bottom lip and stuck the needle in his arm just below the opening of the wound. She grimaced as she felt the slow tug of the thread through his skin. Victor didn’t flinch.
Twenty-two times she had to thread the needle through his flesh, and each time she felt it inside of her, while Victor never uttered a word. She couldn’t believe how stoic he remained. It was almost as if he felt nothing.
“There,” she said after she knotted the last stitch and cut the thread. She put the needle aside and looked at her blood-stained fingers. She swallowed hard as Victor looked at his arm.
“You did a good job,” he said, as she turned to the basin to wash her hands.
“Thank you,” Zoe replied nonchalantly. “How long are you gonna need to stay?” The room was occupied but she wasn't making anything from it, and this was her business, not her house, and Victor wasn't exactly her friend.
“Just tonight,” Victor answered. “I’ll be on my way before dawn.”
She looked at him questioningly. “What’re you into?”
His dark eyes rose to her face. “Nothing you need worry about,” he answered.
“You can’t just show up here whenever you like,” she sighed. “You’re puttin’ me in a position. I have the deputy sheriff downstairs, and it’s clear to me whatever you’ve gotten yourself into is something he’d be really interested in knowing and I want no part of it. You understand?”
Victor got to his feet immediately, his hulking form dwarfing hers as he stood up. Zoe took a step back.
“It’s nothing yah have to worry about,” he said in a low tone. “Forget I was here.”
Zoe swallowed down her discomfort. Though she knew Victor would never hurt her, the mere size of the man was enough to make anyone nervous.
“Clean this up,” she instructed him as she moved to leave. “Toss the water out the window or else people will ask questions. I’ll come for the basin once downstairs clears out.”
Victor stopped her before she reached the door. He grabbed her arm gently and stood behind her. His voice was a whisper in her ear. “Don't forget, Zoe. You owe me.”
She turned her head so she could see the side of his hairy face. “I know,” she answered gently. “You helped me once, and every debt must be repaid. I’ll do my part.” She looked down at where Victor held her arm. He released her and she continued to the door.
Once outside, she released the breath she’d been holding and closed her eyes as she tried to calm herself. She had work to do. She put her smile back in place, and pulled her auburn hair over her shoulder, before going back downstairs.
Six years ago, when Zoe was new to Shaniko, she found herself in trouble. Her efforts to feed the miners and build her business had resulted in a few of them becoming on friendly terms, as was expected. Unfortunately for her, a few of them thought her business’ profits were the perfect supplement to their own pockets. They were new to town and saw more profit in robbing her than in panning for gold.
She was alone, closing up for the day, when they appeared. There were four of them. They demanded the money, which she was not about to give up. She had worked too hard for it. Still, she was not entirely sure how she was going to get out of her predicament.
They overpowered her after a struggle. Zoe was able to make the nose and mouth of one man bleed, with the help of a skillet, before she was tackled by another. She scratched and clawed at them the entire time they held her down. It was soon clear they wanted more than just money. The look in their eyes was something Zoe would never forget. She was praying with all her might for God to save her, when Victor showed up.
He had become a regular to her restaurant whenever he was in the area. He ate there nearly every day and they had come to an understanding, a strange sort of friendship. She respected him and he did the same in return. She had never been so happy to see him, charging in like a bull to her rescue. He had heard their plans and lingered to keep an eye on her. It was then that she made a vow that whatever he needed, she would do, to repay him for what he had done. It was only now that he had called in her debt.
“Zoe, a man over there needs a room,” Liza informed her the moment she reached the floor. The blonde pointed to the end of the bar where a man in a large Stetson sat drinking.
“Thank you,” Zoe replied as she walked toward the man. “Hello there, stranger,” she greeted him with a smile. “Liza tells me you need a room. How many nights you’re thinkin’ of?”
“Three to start,” he stated. “How much will that be?” he asked without looking up.
“Two dollars," Zoe answered. She looked him over carefully, especially the two guns that hung from his belt.
He put the money on the bar top without a question and looked up. “Where is it?”
Zoe turned and took a key from the rack behind her. She looked for Liza but the girl was busy tending to other patrons. “Bernadette,” she called to the brunette. She was a single mother who worked serving drinks to support her small son.
“Yes, Zoe?” she answered as she approached.
“Take…I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name,” she stated as she turned to the stranger.
“Mortensen,” the man answered shortly.
She smiled. “Could you take Mr. Mortensen to his room?”
“Sure thing, Zoe,” Bernadette answered. “Follow me.”
Zoe watched as Bernadette led the man up the stairs and to the left. She put him in the only available room, the one next-door to Victor’s. She hoped he kept his promise and was gone before the sun was up. She didn’t like the feeling in her stomach at having him there. He was in trouble and whatever it was, she didn’t want it winding up at her door.
Suddenly, the sound of shots rang out and Zoe’s heart erupted in her chest as she looked around nervously. Several people ducked, eager to get out of harm’s way. However, there was no gunman and the sounds continued. Everyone in the room was looking around. Was it coming from the street? Those closest to the windows didn’t react as if there was something to see outside. What was happening?
Zoe stepped out from behind the bar and began to follow the sound that was disturbing her customers. It led her to the piano, and behind it, she found Timothy, Bernadette's seven-year-old son, with a handful of firecrackers.
“Timothy,” she chided as she grabbed the child by his arm and yanked him to his feet. She snatched the firecrackers from his hand. “What're you doin' with these?” she asked sharply.
“Playing,” the boy replied timidly. He hung his head. “Sorry, Miss Zoe.”
“Not as sorry as you're gonna be when your mother gets hold of you,” Zoe answered. No sooner were the words released from her lips than Bernadette reappeared.
“Timothy?” she called when she arrived at the scene. “What have you done? I'm so sorry, Miss Zoe,” she apologized.
“It’s fine. Just take him back to bed. This is no place for a child,” she instructed.
“Yes, ma’am,” Bernadette answered. She took Timothy by the ear and led him into the back. “Now what did I tell you ‘bout playin’ out here?” she scolded as she led the boy away.
Zoe returned to the bar, but on her way, her eyes rose to the upstairs hall where Victor was hiding. The sooner he left, the better, then her nerves could be at rest.
Quinn jumped awake in a dimly lit room. His hand immediately reached up and grasped at the starburst wound just below his left shoulder. His breathing was ragged and sweat dripped from his brow. Strands of black hair stuck to his face and neck. He looked around him.
Light was coming in through the window. It had to be around nine or maybe later, but it wasn’t quite noon. Quinn rose from the bed and walked barefoot over to the small table by the window. His long black hair fell across his face. Shaniko was busy, carts were rolling through the streets and people were walking on the sidewalk; people who may have seen Victor.
The sun fell upon Quinn, warming his skin. He looked down at the spot where his hand still remained. He could still remember the day he had gotten that wound. The day he’d learned just how deadly Victor Norton could be. He’d been lucky. If the bullet had been a few inches lower, he’d be sleeping in a grave somewhere in Wyoming. Thankfully, God was on his side.
Immediately, he thought of last night. Quinn could still see it in his mind. He stood facing Victor, both ready for a fight. Then an errant fork of lighting struck near the cabin, erupting the room in blinding light. They both fired and Quinn dove aside. He heard the bullet whistle past his ear as he fell, and Victor roared in pain. He knew then that he’d struck him. However, the man was quick. A crash of glass followed and Quinn peeked around the corner of the box he hid behind, to find Victor was gone. His only satisfaction was that Victor now had a wound. Hopefully, it would slow him down.
Quinn dipped his hands in the basin that sat on the table. The water was cold but he didn’t care, he cupped it and poured it over his neck. The temperature made his skin prickle but he continued. First, his neck, before he used the cloth the waitress had left behind to wash the cold liquid over his torso and under his arms. He had work to get to and he had no time to waste.
It wasn’t much later that he was locking the door to his room and heading out. The saloon was different in the light of day. The room was empty save the bartender and a single barmaid that he didn’t recognize from the night before. He went to the man who had served him. His name was Barber.
“Can I help you?” the man asked, as he dried the inside of a glass beer mug.
“I’m looking for the proprietor,” Quinn said frankly. “Where is he?”
“She, isn’t here right now,” Barber answered.
“She?” Quinn repeated. A woman was responsible for running this place?
“You met her last night, don’t you remember?” Barber elaborated as he continued drying mugs.
Quinn rifled through his thoughts, trying to decipher who the woman might be. Then he saw her in his mind. She was tall, slender with dark red hair that looked almost brown, and had delicate features. Her eyes were hazel and she had dimples in her cheeks when she smiled. “The woman who gave me the room key?” he questioned.
“Said same one,” Barber replied. “Her name is Miss Zoe Ferguson and she owns this ‘ere hotel and saloon. And who might you be, stranger? I didn’t quite get yer name last night.”
“Mortensen,” Quinn answered. “Quinn Mortensen.”
“Well, Mr. Mortensen, since Miss Zoe isn’t’ ‘ere, what can I do for you?”
Quinn stepped towards one of the barstools and took a seat. “You can give me some information.”
“It depends on what kind of information you be lookin’ fer,” Barber replied.
“I need to know if you’ve seen this man?” Quinn asked as he pulled a picture of Victor Norton from his breast pocket and slid it across the bar. Barber took it and looked it over closely.
“Can’t say that I have,” the bartender answered as he pushed the picture back across the bar top.
“What about Miss Zoe, maybe she saw him?” Quinn questioned.
Barber chuckled. “Now I can’t answer that,” he said. “But anythin’s possible. Miss Zoe knows a lotta people in town and out. There’s a chance she might know the man.”
Quinn’s brow pinched together. “How is it that Miss Zoe came to own this place?” he asked. “It’s not something you usually see.”
Barber laughed again. “Yer not from ’round ‘ere, are yuh?”
“No. I’m from Boston,” Quinn replied.
“That explains it,” the bartender continued. “Back there, women may not hold much sway, but 'round ‘ere, they can do a lot more. Men come to places like this hoping to strike it rich and make a name for themselves, but they still need someone to clean their clothes, sew their socks, and make pies. Women who come ‘ere and understand that, can make themselves quite wealthy. Miss Zoe understood it when she came to Shaniko six years ago. She started a small meal business that grew into this. Now she’s the most influential woman in town.”
Quinn nodded his head at the tale. “Then she’s just the person I need to see. Thanks for the information,” he said as he slid a few coins across the table. “For your trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Barber called after him.
Quinn lowered his hat over his head as he stepped outside. The sun was far too bright and his eyes still stung from lack of sleep. It was something he should’ve been used to, but it always took some adjusting to when he got those few hours of rest.
The first place that caught his eye was the public bathhouse right next door to The Red Stallion. He smirked. “Perfect place to have it,” he said to himself. The public baths were a popular feature out west, where most couldn’t afford to have indoor plumbing. “C. Cleaver’s Tonsorial and Bathhouse,” Quinn read aloud. “Fifty cents for first water, twenty-five cents for used water, and twenty cents for soap and a towel.”
Quinn continued down the street as he familiarized himself with his surroundings. It was the first thing any good bounty hunter did. He assessed his situation. He needed to know all the ways in and out of town, and the best places to hide. If Victor was still nearby, he was going to find him. He couldn't have gone far; Quinn knew he'd hit him at the house. The sound of Victor’s pain and the blood Quinn found after his escape into the storm confirmed it. However, Quinn had no idea how severe the injury was. He hoped it was enough to slow the man down for a while. Quinn couldn’t help but hope that it was enough to stop him permanently, but Victor had a way of escaping his punishments.
The town was built around two main streets. On one side was The Red Stallion, the bathhouse, the bank, the general store, and the boarding house at the end. On the other side, was the station, which doubled as the post and telegraph office, next to that was the trading post and then the sheriff’s office. At the very outskirts of town, right before the plain, was the church, a single-story building with one tall steeple. The houses were mostly on the second street, circling the first as if it were a heart.
Quinn removed his hat and ran a large hand through his shoulder-length hair. It was uneven and mostly unkempt. It had been far too long since he had sat in a barber’s chair. He did all his grooming himself, mostly on the road without the use of a mirror. He did his best and it didn’t matter to him who liked it or not. He set his hat back on his head.
All of the buildings in town were made of sturdy wood and more than half were two-stories tall, with only a few single-story buildings in-between. The streets were ingeniously designed to provide a place to walk for pedestrians, with paths built up in the mud between buildings to ensure that those walking stayed out of the muck.
“They could use some of these back home,” Quinn commented. It then struck him that Boston might already have the same thing, after all, it had been a long time since he had been home.
The thought of home brought a sudden and unexpected sadness to Quinn’s heart. Five years ago, he left the only home he’d known in pursuit of a man who had stolen the very heart of a woman by taking her sons.
However, he left his own mother, to pursue his cause and since then she’d heard little of him. It wasn’t easy staying in contact while on the road. The life of a bounty hunter was predominantly a lonely one. Quinn spent most of his nights sleeping under the stars on the hard earth or in the saddle. There was no time to write home and tell his mother and father where he was.
Though he was sure they would worry, he hoped they trusted him enough to know that he would do everything to stay safe. One day, he would go home. He hoped soon. However, he didn’t want to go home unless he had some good news to share; news that would make a weary mother happy to hear for the sake of her sons. He needed to get back to work.
Quinn wandered the streets of Shaniko purposefully. There were five possible exits that were well-travelled; the two main ends of the main street, then there was a path between the trading post and the general store that led to a narrow, stony path. The other two were on the other side of town, one beside the bathhouse and the other before the sheriff’s office. Their paths were broader, and the easiest way of fleeing, but they were also the most obvious. Victor would never use them. He would be too easily seen. No, he would choose one of the others for his escape. Quinn would follow those paths first, once he had established that Victor was no longer in the town of itself.
A head of blonde hair darted in front of him and Quinn recognized it immediately. It was the girl from the saloon, the waitress who had directed him to Miss Zoe. Perhaps she knew where she was. Quinn followed her, hoping to catch up.
The young woman moved so quickly. Her legs were short but her strides were quick. It was almost as if she was racing somewhere. He wondered if she was, and if so, where was she heading to? Where was she coming from?
Quinn stuck close to the buildings as he followed the woman. He needed to know where she was going and if by chance it had anything to do with Victor. The man had people in town, Quinn was sure of it—perhaps this woman was one of them—she certainly was his type. Victor had a penchant for diminutive women who weren't very pretty but weren't homely, either.
Victor Norton liked his women just in-between; pretty enough for him to look at but not so pretty they thought too much of themselves. They were easier to manipulate that way. He treated them like queens and allowed their insecurities to do the rest. By the time he was done with them, they'd do anything he wanted. Quinn had seen it too many times in the past five years. It no longer surprised him.
He followed the woman for several minutes, but it didn’t take long to deduce that she wasn’t on some secret mission on Victor Norton’s behalf. She rushed to the general store where she purchased some ribbons, buttons, candy, and a hammer. Then she went on to the post office to pick up her mail before turning back toward the boarding house.
She’s one of those mail-order brides? Quinn wondered as he followed her. She was greeted by the matron of the place, a stout woman in her early fifties, with salt and pepper hair and a fondness for buns in her hair, by the two that marked either side of her head.
“No, she definitely can’t be working with Victor,” Quinn said to himself as he turned away from the boarding house. Victor would never allow himself to be involved with a woman who had so many rules to live by. Quinn had encountered a number of those types of houses in his travels. There were very clear rules which dictated the actions of the women, and curfews were set in place. This one may have been more lax to allow the young woman to work to the hours she had, but he was sure there were rules that kept her movements limited otherwise. The merchandise's purity had to be ensured.
Quinn hated mail-order brides. He found the entire thing degrading, but he was in the minority. The movement of women across the plains to the west was a lucrative business that many were engaging in. The entire process had evolved from a single letter in a newspaper, to companies with overseas contracts, who were bringing women in from as far afield as England and Ireland, to find them suitable mates in the west.
He continued his search for the elusive Miss Zoe. It was really beginning to look as if she might be the only person in town who might have some information that could help him. Everyone he met either avoided him or didn’t know who Victor was, and Quinn was good at detecting a lie, and he found none. The people of Shaniko seemed as oblivious to the fact that a serial killer was amongst them as they were about what weather to expect the next day.
Then he saw her.
Miss Zoe was stepping out of the boarding house with a basket in her arms. She was smiling brightly, the dimples in her cheeks sinking in so deeply that one could lose a coin in them. She was talking to the blonde woman as she departed and it was clear that their conversation amused them. He hated to interrupt but he was going to. He was sure that whatever they were speaking of was hardly as important as catching a killer.
Quinn strode quickly towards them, his boots squelching in the soft muddy streets as he crossed to the other side. He darted between oncoming carriages in the process, sidestepping mules on their way with deliveries in the wagons they drew. He thanked God that Shaniko wasn’t nearly as busy as Boston, or he’d have a much harder time of crossing the street.
He never took his eyes off of the woman. He wasn’t about to lose her. Her back was to him as he approached—the other woman had disappeared inside—but before Miss Zoe could turn around he grabbed her by the arm. She turned and snatched it away with an incredulous look.
“Mr. Mortensen, what’s the meaning of this?” she demanded as she stepped back.
“I’m sorry to approach you like this, Miss Zoe,” he said as he removed his hat and held it over his chest as he looked at her. He continued, “I need your help.”
She looked at him skeptically and Quinn could see the caution and the questions in her hazel eyes even before she spoke. “What help can I be to you? I hardly know you.”
Quinn looked at her directly. “Maybe the greatest help I've had in the past five years, if you can answer my question.”
“What question is that?” Miss Zoe replied as she folded her arms protectively over her chest and continued to look at him curiously.
“Do you know Victor Norton?”
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