The Gunsmith #399: Death in the Family (Gunsmith, The)

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9780515155518: The Gunsmith #399: Death in the Family (Gunsmith, The)
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BYE-BYE, BABY
 
Clint Adams has always tried to do the right thing. But when he finds a toddler roaming a trail in Wyoming, he makes a choice that leads him down a path toward his toughest challenge yet—and possibly his last.
 
With the child in one hand and his gun near the other, Clint rides into a nearby town, where he finds a mysterious mayor, a sheriff who’s had one hard night too many, and a madam who’d be happy to start a home with the Gunsmith and his precious cargo. But a greedy rancher and his wife are curious about the child as well—and they’re ready to ensure he and Clint take a long dirt nap...
 
OVER 15 MILLION GUNSMITH BOOKS IN PRINT!

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About the Author:

J.R. Roberts is the author of the long-running Gunsmith western series, featuring the adventures of gunslinger Clint Adams.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

Clint Adams couldn’t believe his eyes.

He’d seen a lot of things in his life on the trail, but this was something new.

It started as just a glimpse of something moving in the Wyoming distance, something small. At first he thought it was a small animal, maybe a coyote. He intended to skirt around it, so as not to spook it, but the he realized his mistake. It wasn’t a coyote at all—or any kind of animal, for that matter.

It was a child.

As he got closer, he saw that it was a toddler, just walking along, occasionally tripping and almost falling, but holding its hands out and catching its balance at the last minute.

Closer still and he could see that it was a boy, and that he was still in a diaper. His chubby little legs were just pumping along, and when Clint could see his face, the boy wore a very determined expression.

Clint dismounted and approached the boy, who never looked up and never stopped walking. His arms, legs, and face were covered with dirt, so he must have been out there for a good while. Clint looked around, couldn’t see any houses or wagons in any direction. He wondered how far the boy had come, and what the heck he was doing out there.

Finally, Clint decided to stop him. He stepped in front of him and crouched down. As he approached, the boy finally looked up and saw Clint, but he didn’t stop walking even then until he walked into Clint’s hands.

“Hey, buddy,” Clint said. “How are ya doing?”

The boy frowned. Clint wasn’t good at guessing children’s ages, but the fact that he was still in a diaper had to make him under two.

Suddenly, looking into the boy’s eyes, he could see how tired the child was. And at that moment, the boy started to cry.

Clint stood, picking the child up and taking him with him. The tears made tracks in the dirt on his face.

“You must be starving and thirsty,” Clint said. Luckily, it was fall and the sun wasn’t beating down as relentlessly as it might have been.

“Come on,” Clint said, “let’s see if we’ve got anything for you to eat.”

He carried the child back to Eclipse. At the very least he could give the boy some water. He uncapped his canteen with his teeth, held it to the boy’s mouth, and the tot stopped crying long enough to drink greedily.

“That’s enough,” Clint said, taking the canteen away. “You don’t want to get sick.”

The boy started crying again, and Clint could smell the stench coming from the diaper.

“Good God,” he said, “you need to be cleaned and changed and fed, and that’s just not something I’m real good at, but we’re going to have to give it a go.”

It was early and there was still plenty of travel time, but he decided to camp right where he was and see what he could do to make the boy more comfortable.

“Well, Eclipse,” he said to the big Darley, “looks like you and me got some babysitting to do.”

Clint spread a blanket on the ground, then his bedroll, then put the boy down on it. He tore a shirt up into strips so he could use one part as a diaper and another to clean the boy with. First he wiped off the feces and urine, then tied a clean strip around him as a diaper. He used a third strip to wash the boy’s face, hands, arms, and legs.

After that, he looked through his saddlebags for something the boy could eat, but all he had was some beef jerky and a can of beans. The boy would not be able to chew the jerky, so Clint opened the can of beans and fed them to the boy cold, a bean at a time. The boy appreciated the food and kept opening his mouth for more.

“I wonder,” Clint said while he was feeding him, “can you talk at all at your age? Can you say any words?”

The boy was too busy eating to even try. Clint stopped feeding him before the boy was ready, gave him some water to wash it down. Too many beans might cause the boy to soil his makeshift diaper too soon. Clint was hoping he’d be able to find a house, a wagon, or a town the next day before he was forced to figure something out about a diaper again.

The boy complained for a while, wanting more to eat. Clint checked his bare feet, found a few cuts that he was able to clean, but they didn’t seem to be causing the boy too much discomfort. Most of it seemed to be from the fact that he was still hungry. Eventually, though, he was overcome by fatigue, and he fell asleep. Clint actually wrapped him in the blanket, so that when the night cooled a bit, the boy wouldn’t be too cold.

Clint built a fire, but ate some of the beans cold with beef jerky—leaving just a little that he’d be able to feed the boy in the morning—drank some water, then took the time to unsaddle Eclipse for the night. He let the animal feed on some brush, and tried to make himself comfortable against his saddle. He had given the boy his bedroll and blanket, so he folded his arms across his chest, hoping the night wouldn’t get too cold.

He had several theories about the boy. He’d wandered off from either a house or a wagon, possibly one that had been hit by outlaws or Indians. Clint didn’t know how far he’d walked, but it couldn’t have been that far, or his bare feet would have been in even worse shape. He felt fairly certain he’d find the answers in the morning.

He just hoped the boy would sleep through the night.

TWO

Clint woke up the next morning and realized the boy was standing by him, hitting him on the head with the flat of his hand.

“Okay, okay,” Clint said, “I’m up.”

He sat up and looked at the boy, who—amazingly—smiled at him.

“Do you have a name?”

The boy scrunched up his face.

“Can you say anything?” Clint asked.

“Mama,” the boy said.

“Well, that’s a start.”

This time Clint heated the remainder of the beans before feeding them to the boy. He had no coffee for himself, though, because they had not camped near water, and he didn’t want to use the water in his canteen, preferring to save it for the boy. So he ate the rest of the jerky for his own breakfast.

The fire had apparently kept the boy warm enough overnight, because he had not stirred once. Of course, that could have been because he was so exhausted.

The boy seemed to enjoy the warm beans and drank plenty of water.

“Okay,” Clint said, putting him back on the blanket, “wait there while I saddle up.”

By the time he finished saddling Eclipse, the boy had walked several yards, once again with that determined little march of his.

“Oh no,” Clint said, scooping him up, “not again. We’re going for a ride.”

He sniffed the boy’s bottom, was surprised to find that he hadn’t soiled himself again—yet.

He mounted Eclipse, holding the boy in one arm, then sat the boy just in front of him.

“We’re going to go and find your mama,” he said.

“Mama,” the boy said.

“Right.”

“Hi.”

“Right,” Clint said, “hi.”

He gigged Eclipse with his heels and they started off in an easterly direction.

*   *   *

Fairly quickly Clint came to a sign that said CHESTER, WYOMING, 3 MI.

He looked down at the top of the boy’s head.

“Could you have walked three miles?”

The boy grabbed a handful of Eclipse’s mane and pulled it.

“I don’t think so,” Clint said, “but let’s find out.”

He urged Eclipse on, toward Chester.

*   *   *

As Clint rode into the town of Chester with a baby in front of him, he drew curious looks from the people walking up and down the streets.

It was obviously an election year. VOTE FOR LENNON signs and placards were posted all up and down the main street, in the windows of shops and restaurants.

The only thing Clint didn’t see were signs stating who the other candidate was.

By the time he reached the sheriff’s office and dismounted, he had drawn a crowd.

“Anybody know who this little boy is?” he asked, holding the kid up.

Nobody answered, but somebody called out, “Who are you?”

He lowered the boy and said, “One answer at a time.”

He turned and stepped to the office door, opened it, and entered, still holding the boy in one arm—his left. He made sure his right hand—his gun hand—was free.

As he entered, a man looked up from his broom and stared at him. He looked like a drunk swamping out a saloon, his clothes and hair disheveled, but he was wearing a badge on his dirty shirt.

“Help ya?” he asked.

Clint thought this swamper had put the sheriff’s badge on because nobody had been around.

“I’m looking for the sheriff.”

“You found him.” The man stopped sweeping and leaned on the broom.

“You?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” He set the broom aside now, walked to the desk, and sat down. “I had a hard night. What can I do for you?”

Clint thought this man looked as if he’d had a hard life, not just a hard night.

“I found this child wandering around alone outside of town,” Clint said. “He was hungry, tired, and barefoot. Do you know him?”

The sheriff leaned forward and peered at the boy.

“Can’t say that I do,” the man said. “Why’d you bring him to Chester?”

“Because it was the first town I came to,” Clint said.

“Sorry,” the man said, “but I can’t help you. These kids all look alike to me.”

“So nobody in town came to you about a missing baby?” Clint asked.

“Nope,” the sheriff said. “Nobody.”

“Well,” Clint said, “can I leave him with you? I don’t—”

“Jesus, no!” the sheriff said, jumping to his feet. “I ain’t gonna take him. This is no place for a baby!”

“But he needs a bath, and he needs changing again,” Clint said, wrinkling his nose. The stench had started just outside of town. It was remarkable that the boy wasn’t bawling his head off. “I can’t keep him.”

“You found him,” the sheriff said. “You find somebody to take him.”

“Where would you suggest?”

The sheriff thought a moment, then said, “Try the cathouse.”

“You want me to take him to a whorehouse?”

“Well,” the sheriff said, “there’s women there. One of them should know how to take care of a child.”

Clint stared at the man for a moment, then asked, “What’s your name, Sheriff?”

“Murphy,” the man said. “Tom Murphy. Why?”

“Because, Tom Murphy,” Clint said, “you might just be a genius.”

THREE

Clint found out from the sheriff where the whorehouse was, and stepped out of the sheriff’s office to find most of the crowd still there.

“Whose baby is that?” a woman shouted.

“Who are you?” a man called out.

“Where did you get the baby?”

Clint mounted Eclipse, turned him, and forced his way through the crowd.

“If you want your questions answered,” he called out, “go talk to the sheriff!”

He rode off up the street, following the sheriff’s directions to the whorehouse.

*   *   *

Maddy’s Cathouse was just on the edge of town, almost over the boundary line. In fact, the sheriff told him it was once out of town, until the boundaries were changed so the town could tax the place.

He reined in Eclipse in front of the building and dismounted, still holding the baby in his left arm.

“Okay, kid,” he said to the baby, “let’s see if we can find someplace to leave you.”

He went up the steps and knocked on the heavy oak door. Unlike most whorehouses he’d been to, the door was not answered by a scantily clad woman, but by a fully dressed man. He was tall, broad-shouldered, clean-shaven, in his late twenties. His clothes were clean, looked new, and he wasn’t wearing a gun.

“Help ya?” he asked.

“Yes,” Clint said, “I’d like to speak to the lady of the house.”

“You kiddin’?” he asked. “There’s lots of girls in this house, but no ladies.”

“Then I’ll take the madam.”

“What’s with the kid?”

“I found him.”

“Where?”

“That’s what I want to talk to the madam about.”

“You think it’s hers?” he asked Clint. “Or one of the girls here?”

“I don’t know whose it is,” Clint said, “but I need to leave it someplace until I find out.”

“And you wanna leave it here?” the man asked. “You know what kind of place this is?”

“I do,” Clint said. “That’s why I asked to see the madam.”

The man shook his head. “She ain’t gonna wanna—”

“How about you let her decide for herself?” Clint said, cutting him off.

“Yeah, okay,” the man said finally, “wait here.”

*   *   *

“Come in,” Lily Carter called.

Andy Cardwell opened the door and entered his boss’s office.

“What is it?” she asked.

“There’s a man at the door asking for you.”

“Is that unusual?” she asked. “There’s always men at the door.”

“Well . . .”

“Well what?” She was in her mid-forties, still looked good enough to be working, if she wanted to. But she was also a hard woman, always in charge. Cardwell was her security, and warmed her bed when she wanted it.

“Well . . . he has a baby with him.”

“What? A man wants to bring a baby in here?”

“I guess so.”

“Why?”

“He says he found it,” Cardwell said with a shrug. “He needs someplace to leave it while he finds out where it belongs. Or maybe he thinks it belongs to one of the girls.”

Lily frowned. “None of my girls has been pregnant.”

“Okay,” Cardwell said, “I’ll tell him.”

“No, wait,” Lily said. “He asked for me by name?”

“Nope.”

“Then what?”

“He asked for the lady of the house.”

“The lady of the house?”

“Yeah.”

She pushed her chair back and got up.

“Leave him to me.”

*   *   *

When the door opened, Clint saw a handsome woman in her forties, with long dark hair and pale skin.

“Jesus Christ,” she said, looking at the boy. She also sniffed the air. “He stinks.”

“I know,” Clint said, “and I don’t have any more shirts to use as diapers.”

“Bring him inside, for Chrissake,” she said, backing away from the door.

“Thank you.”

Clint entered and at that moment three girls came out of the main sitting room, where they greeted their customers.

“Oh, a baby,” one of them cooed.

“He’s so cute,” another said.

“And dirty,” the third said.

“Girls,” Lily said, “go and find me something to clean him with, and to put him in after he’s clean.”

“Towels!” one girl said.

“Pillowcases!” another said.

“And water,” Lily said. “Bring them to my room.” She looked at Clint. “You follow me.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Clint said, and followed her down a hallway to a room at the back of the house.

FOUR

Clint gave the baby up to the women and watched. If he’d had any doubts about a group of whores caring for a baby, they were quickly dispelled.

Lily took control. The other girls brought water and cloth. Lily washed the baby, who seemed to enjoy the attention. He cooed and laughed as she bathed him, and then she fashioned a diaper from a towel. Next she swathed him in a white sheet, which she cut to fit around him better. She also cut a hole in it, and dropped it over his head, and then sat him up. As she dried his hair, all the girls gathered around him, laughing.

“What’s his name?...

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