John Locke looked out the window of his hotel room and saw his friend, Marshal Dale Cooper, standing in the street -- alone. Cooper hesitated in front of his office, took a deep breath, adjusted his gun belt, and then stepped into the street.
"This is not going to happen," Locke said.
He turned, grabbed his gun belt from the bedpost, and left the room, still strapping it on. He wanted to get down to the street before Cooper could get very far.
As he came out the front door, almost at a run, he saw his friend walking down the street with a purposeful stride.
He hit the street running and caught up to his friend, who turned to look at him as Locke grabbed his arm. His jaw was set, and his eyes were steely. He looked grim.
"John," Cooper said. "What are you doing here?"
"Same thing you are."
"I'm wearin' a badge," Cooper said. "I have to be here. It's my job. You don't."
"I'm not letting you do this alone, Coop," Locke said. "It's as simple as that."
Cooper stared at his friend, then took a deputy's badge from his pocket and held it out.
"No," Locke said, holding up his hand. "Let's just do it."
Cooper put the badge away and shook his head. "I'm gettin' too old for this, John."
"You're not even fifty yet."
"Forty-eight seem a good age to die to you?"
"I'm forty-one, Dale," Locke said, "and that doesn't seem a good age to die."
"At the other end of this street are going to be five cowboys," Cooper said. "They're all going to be wearing guns. Do you know what that means?"
"Yes," Locke said. "It means they're cowboys wearing guns when they're more used to holding a lariat. It means that when we reach them, they will officially be outnumbered."
Cooper thought that over, then nodded and said, "That's one way of looking at it."
Locke slapped the lawman on the back and said, "That's the only way to look at it, my friend."
• • •
Turnback Creek, Montana
As John Locke rode into the mining town of Turnback Creek, Montana, he realized it had been more than ten years since he had last seen Dale Cooper. That debacle in Ellsworth with the cowboys. It had cost Cooper his job as marshal, and after that, Locke had pretty much lost track of his friend. If he'd taken to wearing a badge somewhere else, Locke had never heard about it. Then, out of the blue, last week Locke received a telegram in Las Vegas, New Mexico, from Cooper, asking him to meet him in Turnback Creek. Their friendship was such that, even after all the years of silence, Locke left immediately.
The town looked fairly typical -- ramshackle buildings, badly rutted streets filled with water after several days of unrelenting rain. It was falling now, the rain, in a misty drizzle. Locke's shirt and jeans were soaked, his leather vest wet. He wanted some dry clothes and a hot meal even before he tried to find Dale Cooper.
The telegram had been cryptic, just a line asking Locke to meet him. Didn't say where he was staying or where to find him. But locating Cooper was going to have to wait until he got situated and dry.
He came to a hotel before he came to a livery, so he stopped to get a room.
"Do you know a man named Cooper?" he asked the clerk as he signed the register. "Dale Cooper?"
"Dale Cooper?" the young man repeated thoughtfully. "Can't say I do, sir."
Before returning the register book to the clerk, Locke checked the last few pages to see if Cooper had checked in and the clerk simply had forgotten the name. Not only had he not, but no one had.
"Room five," the clerk said. "Top of the stairs and turn right. Do you have a bag?"
"I'm going to take my horse to the livery stable," Locke said, accepting the key. "I'll look at the room when I come back. No, no bag. I'll just have my saddlebags."
Locke turned to leave, then turned back.
"Not a very busy time here, is it?"
"It never is, sir," the clerk said. "All we have is the mine, and most of the miners live elsewhere. Right now, there's only two other people staying in the hotel."
"Okay," Locke said. "Now, if you'll just tell me where the livery stable is, I'd be obliged."
Following the clerk's directions, Locke rode to the livery stable and left his horse in the care of an old man he suspected got along better with horses than with men. He got little more than a grunt from the man but felt confident leaving his animal with him.
He walked back to the hotel, carrying his rifle and saddlebags, looking the town over along the way. It was quiet and probably would stay that way until the miners got off work and started hitting the saloons.
"Get your horse taken care of all right?" the clerk asked as he reentered the hotel.
"Just fine," Locke said.
"That's room five."
Locke showed the clerk the key. "I remember."
He went up the stairs, found his room, and let himself in. He locked the door behind him, tossed the saddlebags onto the bed, and leaned the rifle against the wall. The room was small but remarkably clean for a mining-town hotel. He'd stayed in much worse places in better towns.
He went to the window and looked down at the street. As he removed his wet shirt, he wondered where Dale Cooper was or if he was even in town yet -- and what had he been doing for the past ten years?
He decided that his jeans weren't all that wet after all, especially since he was going to go back out into the drizzle. He took a clean shirt from his saddlebags and put it on, then used the wet one to wipe down his vest before donning that again as well. The black, flat-brimmed hat he wore was no worse the wear for the rain. He would have to clean his gun, though, when he came back to the room for the evening. For now, he removed it from his holster and wiped it down, too, with the shirt. He savored for a moment the way his fingers fit into the specially made grooves in the handle, then holstered it again, made sure it sat just right.
Before leaving the room, he utilized the wet, already dirty shirt for one last task, to wipe down his rifle, which he left behind as he went in search of a nice, hot meal.
Once again, it was directions from the clerk that got him where he wanted to go. It was a small café several blocks from the hotel, and as he approached, he could smell the cooking odors. Keeping to the boardwalk, he was able to avoid getting too wet again, which ensured that he'd be reasonably comfortable when he sat down to his meal.
He entered the café, which was small but had a homey feel to it. There was only one other table taken at the moment, by a man and a woman who didn't give him a second look.
"Can I help you?" a waiter asked.
"You can if that's coffee I smell."
"It is," the man said, "and good coffee, too."
"Then I'll take a table, a cup, and a thick steak."
"Sit anywhere you like, sir," the waiter said. "I'll fetch it for you right away."
Locke sat away from the middle-aged couple and away from the front window. In a few moments, the waiter returned with not only a cup but a pot of coffee to go with it.
"You look like you been riding a while," he said, "so I brung you a whole pot."
"Thanks," Locke said.
He poured himself a cup of coffee and stole a glance at the couple. They seemed intent on their meal and weren't talking to each other. The man looked to be in his early fifties, but the woman was younger than he'd first thought when he'd pegged them as a middle-aged couple. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, a handsome woman with pale skin and long dark hair worn behind her head in a bun.
When the waiter came out with a steak dinner, Locke lost interest in the couple and applied himself to the hunk of beef and the steaming vegetables. He hadn't eaten this well in quite a while, and he became thoroughly engrossed in the meal. He was finishing up when the couple called for their check, paid it, and stood up to leave. He was surprised when the woman stopped and spoke to him as they passed his table. The man stopped with her, stood just behind her right shoulder.
"I haven't seen a man eat quite that fast in a long time," she said, gracing him with a smile that transformed her from merely handsome to quite beautiful.
"It's been a while since I had a meal this good, ma'am," he said. "I hope my eating habits didn't offend you."
"Molly..." the man with her said.
"Wait for me outside, George," she said.
The man looked as if he wanted to say something else, but he abruptly turned and left. Locke wondered if they were married or if the man merely worked for her. Either situation could have explained the couple's apparent relationship.
"I wasn't offended at all," she said, continuing from where they'd left off. Locke wondered what he'd done to invite this attention. As attractive as she was, there was still some food on his plate that he wanted to get to before it cooled off.
"In fact, it's nice to meet a man with an appetite, and manners," she said. "Do you mind if I sit a moment?"
Surprised again, he said, "Go ahead."
"Thank you." She sat opposite him. He could see the man waiting impatiently right outside the door.
"Have you just arrived in town?"
"Well, I'm over at the Shillstone Mining office," she said. "You look like a man who might be looking for work. I need a man who's confident and knows what he's doing with a gun."
"What makes you think I'm that man?"
"Just a hunch." She leaned her elbows on the table and set her chin in her palm. "I usually go with my hunches."
"Well, I'm not looking for work, ma'am," Locke said, "but I'll keep that in mind."
"You do that, Mr...."
"Locke," he said. "John Locke."
Her face froze for a moment, but then she smiled and said, "A pleasure to have met you, Mr. Locke."
As she went out the door and he returned to his food, the waiter came over with a fresh pot of coffee.
"That was Molly Shillstone," he said.
Locke looked up at the waiter.
"So I gathered."
"Owns the biggest mine hereabouts," the waiter said.
"You can leave the coffee," Locke said, not wanting any more interruptions, "and bring me some more vegetables."
"You want another hunk of beef with those vegetables?" the man asked. "Got it hot and ready."
Locke thought only a moment and said, "Hell, why not?"
Copyright © 2004 by Robert J. Randisi