Gunslinger Mick McKee can't recall, can he figure out what he's been up to before his gunslinger wife shoots him?

"TRAIL OF THE LONESOME STICKPIN"

A Mick and Casey McKee Mystery

by Camille LaGuire

 

When I woke up, I was lying flat on my back on the ceiling. At least I thought it was the ceiling, but the furniture in the room was on the ceiling with me, and that didn't hardly seem likely. It took a minute to get it into my swollen and throbbing head that I didn't have to worry about falling. I was on the floor. I had already fallen as far as I was going to, and maybe it was time to get up.

My right hand made it up off the floor and felt for my gun, and I realized the whole gun belt was gone. I had been disarmed. That woke me up. I raised my left hand to my head, and I realized that I'd also been dis-hatted...and dis-booted...and pretty darn near dis-shirted and de-pantsed, too. I had been unbuttoned, my clothes turned loose and ripped, and my pockets turned out.

I had a vague recollection of a pair of beautiful brown eyes, close to my face, and my hand in some soft blond hair. My wife had hazel eyes, and brown hair...and a pair of pearl handled Peacemakers, a Winchester and a bowie knife.

Yeah, I was in trouble. And yet I had a feeling of satisfaction, and that worried me even more ... as far as I could manage a thought as sophisticated as a worry.

I raised my hand to remove the dry bit of leather someone had shoved into my mouth, and discovered it was just my tongue. But my fingers tasted sweet. I looked at them, and saw purple goo — dry and coated with dust — staining my thumb.

Pie. Blueberry and black cherry pie.

I closed my eyes and nearly laughed. Wouldn't you know there would be a pie involved when I got myself into trouble. Pie and women are pretty much my idea of heaven. But the laugh never happened, because the presence of pie made me feel I must have got myself involved in some kind of orgy, and the lingering touch of satisfaction made me feel guilty as hell.

I turned my head and saw the pie on the floor a few feet away from me. It was untouched except for the one spot oozing purple where my thumb had broken the crust when I had gripped it too hard. I remembered a flash of that too: I had felt myself passing out and I didn't want to drop it. So I had set it down and rolled away as the drug took effect — and it was a drug, I was pretty sure. I didn't drink that much, for one thing, and for another, my head hurt on the inside, but not on the outside, so I didn't think anybody'd hit me.

The pie looked good, but I wasn't hungry, so I looked at the room. It appeared to be the front of an abandoned store. A counter, a crooked old bench with an oil lamp, a couple of chairs, my pie, and a ceiling that didn't want to stay put. I closed my eyes and I heard voices outside the door. I called out, although the sound came out more of a moan. The door busted open.

Casey, my wife and partner, stood in the door. She was a short woman, almost eighteen years old, but she looked younger, partly because she had, in the words of dime-novelists, "forsaken the costume of her sex" and dressed like a man. Little girl in pig-tails, big hat, big boots, big guns, and a pair of sharp and fancy spurs. Not a woman you want to find you half-naked and groggy with a half-memory of a pair of pretty ladies getting the best of you.... Yeah, it was a pair of pretty ladies. I started to blush.

I couldn't read the look on her face, mainly because she didn't want me to, but also because she didn't know what to think. She took a deep breath and pushed aside any expression but determination, and she took three big steps over to me. She took hold of my head and started examining my scalp.

"Ow!" I said, as her fingers dug in.

"You got a bump?"

"No," I said. I didn't think I could manage more words, so I didn't try. I heard a burst of laughter from the doorway.

"Well, hell!" said Deputy Tilly looking at me with no better expression than Casey had. "Looks like you had a good time!"

I turned to point at the uneaten pie to show how I had not had it so good, but just then Casey finished looking at my head, and decided it was whole and undamaged. She smacked me hard right above the ear, and then again harder, which hurt her hand, and we both yelled "ow" together.

"You lost the damn key!" she shouted, straight in my ear. I would have asked what key? but words were hard to come by and harder to say, and I was pretty sure I was supposed to know what key. I knew it was important, but not as important as Casey's impression of me at the moment.

I tried to swallow, but my mouth was too dry, and I raised my finger, pointed it at her, and made an extra effort.

"I...did...not...have...a good...time."

"What happened?" said the deputy.

"Not sure."

Actually, I'm not sure I really said that. The effort of a whole sentence had spent my ability with words and thought, and I think what I actually said was, "Weh."

They didn't say anything for a dozen throbs of my head, while they looked at me in disgust. I sat up and noticed that my boots were across the room. And my gun belt. I was pleased that they were still there.

"The pin is gone," said Casey.

The Pin. The diamond pin. Oh, yeah. The one we were guarding. The one locked in the hotel office in a lock box to which I held the key. Had held the key.

That key.

And yet, even recalling what was important about it, I couldn't bring myself to care. What mattered was those brown eyes and that silky hair that did not belong to Casey...and the fact that I was half naked.

Stickpin illustration

When Casey and I got married — which we did almost instantly upon meeting each other, and before we even knew each other's real names — Casey had balked at the vows. Obey was out of the question, and the rest of it didn't make much sense, since we didn't hardly know each other. So she changed it and we vowed to watch each other's backs. But I had already taken the regular vow when she decided to change it, so I'd taken both vows.

I did love, honor and cherish her, and I was faithful to her. I just happen to be easily distracted by pretty things, especially when they are female, or when they involve pie. And when my eyeballs get to wandering, Casey can get mad, but she mostly gets mad because it forces her to acknowledge that the other vow had meant something, and she still wasn't sure she wanted to do that. Sometimes I was tempted to push the issue a little, just to get that acknowledgment, but the one thing Casey really trusted me for was not to hurt her feelings. It was bad enough doing it once in a while by accident, but I sure didn't want to do it on purpose.

Stickpin illustration

They got me on my feet, and gathered up my clothes, and got me tucked and buttoned. Putting my boots on my wobbly feet was too much trouble, so Casey carried them. Or maybe she was trying to punish me by making me walk barefoot over to the hotel.

We sat around a little table in the hotel office, me with a big cup of coffee in front of me while they discussed what to do. The pie was also in front of me and I stared at it wondering how it had led me into trouble, and as the coffee hit me, I began to remember.

I had gone off to get that pie...no, start earlier. Jewel robbery. A big diamond on a gold stick pin. It was valuable, but it was also of great sentimental value to the foreign fellow who owned it. So he offered a reward of two hundred dollars for its return. We, along with Deputy Tilly — who isn't the brightest guy, but steady and we worked okay with him — tracked the thief, caught him, and got back the pin, but we were in a town with no jail and no sheriff. So we locked the thief in a room in the hotel, and locked the diamond up in a little strong box in the hotel office, and we set to guarding it.

"Did he get away?" I asked, meaning the thief.

"No," said Casey. "It was his partners."

"What partners?"

Casey just glared at me, and I remembered us speculating that the thief must have had a fancy woman as a partner, because the foreign fellow had been embarrassed, and reluctant to say how the thief had got the pin away from him. And now it looked like the same thing had happened to me, only I couldn't remember enough to be embarrassed about it.

I was glad I was too groggy to talk much yet. Casey and Deputy Tilly ignored me, and talked about which way the ladies had most likely gone, and how to catch them. I set about trying to remember.

* * *

We were guarding the jewel. I was hungry, and so were they, and I said I'd go get something and bring it back. The deputy said we could take turns going to eat and checking on the prisoner, and I went first, and I had the key in my pocket.

Like in a lot of small western towns with more buildings and pride than people, the hotel wasn't much on service, and so I went to the chow house across the street for some steak and bread. And I bought a pie to take back. It was a crisp, sweet summer pie, fresh and warm, and filled with blueberry and black cherries.

I was walking back with it, whistling, when a lady appeared in my way. An older lady, but she looked good and if she'd tried she might have distracted me with her charms, but she didn't try. She pulled back the shawl that covered her gray hair--hair that was maybe too gray for the face, but I hadn't noticed--and smiled a supplicating but well-dimpled smile. She had a mole next to the dimple to be sure a fellow would notice it.

"Sir, I need some help," she said. "Would you mind? It'll only take a minute."

She pointed across the street to a storefront that was blank and stark in the twilight. The door was open and a younger woman stood in the doorway, with a broom in her hands and wearing the kind of apron that covered up her whole dress, sleeves and all. The younger woman had dimples too, and she didn't need a mole to draw attention to them.

"We're going to open a dressmaker's shop," said the older woman. "We've been working like the dickens to get this place cleaned up, but we're just two little ladies."

I went over to take a look at what they needed help with, and they led me inside. The place was nearly empty, with just a counter, chairs and a bench. The counter, which was tall and heavy, had been left half across the door that went into the back room. That was the problem. They needed somebody strong to move it, so I set down the pie and muscled the thing out of the way.

Then the older woman offered me some elderberry wine in a little cracked cup, and I turned it down because I had to stay up through the night. She seemed disappointed, and I felt ungentlemanly for not allowing her to thank me properly, so I jawed with her a little. That's when the younger woman came up to me, blushing and blinking, and she put her hand on my arm and told me how strong and kind I was.

Was that when it happened? Was that the big brown eyes and my hand on her blond hair? No, I shook my head at her. I pulled my arm away, and backed off. I remember smiling at her and telling her she was a temptation, but....

* * *

"I told them I was married," I announced, looking up. Casey gave me a look.

"Good for you," she said with false enthusiasm, and she punched me in the arm. Then she turned back to Tilly and continued to ignore me.

"I was good," I insisted.

"You lost the damn key," she growled without looking at me.

"You were good and naked," added Tilly.

I shut up. They were right about that. But I hadn't let the lady touch more than my arm. I'd told her I was married and smiled and she kept coming, and then the older woman--her mother, they said--intervened. She reminded her daughter that the west was full of strong men, and there was no need to steal somebody's husband. And she'd put a hand on my chest defensively and an arm around me while she said it. That was when she took the key from my pocket. I hadn't noticed then, but I was sure of it now. A moment later she had hold of her daughter's hands and was sending her on an errand. And I turned to go too, but she stopped me.

"If you won't take wine, I bet you could use some coffee!"

She turned with a swish of skirts and dashed through the door I had just cleared for her. I followed her to the little room in back, which had a stove in it, but not much else, and she poured me some coffee in that same little cracked cup.

I took it, and I drank it. It had not seemed like a stupid thing to do at the time, and still doesn't. She talked about her hopes for the dress shop, which I thought were probably high for such a little town without much prospects. There weren't many women around, and what women there were didn't often buy dresses — but maybe that's because there hadn't been a dress shop. You never knew.

And she did not bat her eyelashes at me once. I did not take off my clothes, and she didn't try to either. And it seemed to me they must have already got the key from me by then anyway, and the daughter had gone to get the pin....

* * *

I frowned into my coffee, and then looked up at Casey and Tilly.

"Wait a minute," I said. "You two were supposed...." They both turned to glare at me, and I decided I had best not make any accusations. I started again, soft. "How'd they get the diamond?"

They both pulled back and sunk a little in their chairs. Tilly took a sudden deep interest in his own coffee.

"We didn't know she had the key," snapped Casey, her face going red.

"Oh," I said, but I waited and kept looking at them. Tilly kept still, so Casey let out a slow and exasperated breath.

"She said she'd lost some gloves and the hotel guy told her he'd put them in the office, and she had Tilly all distracted looking for them," said Casey. Tilly looked up from his coffee to scowl at her. His face was getting a little red too.

"You were watching her."

"I was watching her," she acknowledged, though she kept on at me as if he hadn't said anything. "But he was poking around the cabinet right there by the lock box, and the woman kept hanging on right beside him, and they both blocked my view. So I told her to step back, and she turned and started talking to me, only she had her hands behind her, so I took hold of her and pulled her away. But the box was still locked."

"And since we didn't know she had the key," said Tilly, "we thought it was okay if the box wasn't busted into."

"No we didn't," said Casey. She narrowed her eyes at me. "Seeing as we didn't have the key, we couldn't take a look inside to be sure."

Tilly filled in the rest; they waited for me to come back and when I didn't, they got suspicious and busted open the box, and found it empty. That's when they rushed out and started looking for that lady and looking for me. They heard about two ladies who left on the stage, and how those ladies had been seen around an empty store around the corner, and that was how they found me.

"And you," said Tilly, narrowing his eyes and turning it back on me. "Those ladies smiled at you, and you just tore off your clothes and handed them that key."

"I was still wearing them when I passed out," I said. I was sure of that. I rubbed my head and took a long drink of the coffee. Tilly sneered.

"And you're such a good lookin' fella, they tore your clothes right off."

"They were looking for the key," cut in Casey. "You saw how his pockets were turned out."

"No, they already had the key," I said, with more honesty than sense. "They must have been putting it back."

Tilly started laughing, and Casey looked hard at me, and then at him. Tilly shook his head.

"I know it's hard to admit in front of your girl...."

"My wife," I said.

"Okay, your wife, which makes it harder yet. Those ladies had you going, and you were so eager, you tore your own clothes off. But you passed out before you got your pants off."

"His pockets were turned out," said Casey, stubbornly.

"Okay, they did look for the key," said Tilly, "but they didn't tear his clothes off to get it. He did that himself."

"They already had the key," I said again. "They were putting it back...."

"Then why'd they tear your clothes off?" said Tilly.

I took a breath. I didn't have an answer, and furrowing my brow hurt my head. Casey pushed the coffee cup toward me, and turned back to Tilly.

"They were looking for the seventeen dollars he had in his pocket," she said. Tilly shook his head in disgust.

"They didn't have to tear his clothes off for that," he said. "Damn fool thinks with his di...private parts."

"He was thinking with his stomach," said Casey firmly. She pointed to the pie. I appreciated her faith in me, although I wasn't sure it was real faith. If she wouldn't admit to having cause for jealousy, then she wouldn't have to let anybody know how she felt.

"I was fully dressed when I passed out," I repeated. "I remember that. I remember realizing I was going to pass out, and I had to put the pie down safe before I fell...."

"See?" said Casey to Tilly, and then she shoved her shoulder at me to let me know she was still ignoring me.

All that talking helped to wake me up at last, and I drew a long draft of that coffee, and I stared at the pie. I'd been drugged, so I had been pretty stupid soon after drinking the coffee the older woman had given me. But I did have my clothes on when I passed out, so what about my hand in that silky blond hair? That hair that glinted...?

I swallowed and bit my lip, and felt suddenly more alert. I thought back to it again. I had moved the little counter, I had drunk the coffee, I had listened to the woman's dreams. They already had the key at that point. And then the younger woman came back, looking flushed and excited, and I thought maybe she'd found another beau, and I smiled at her. She had something in her hand, and she wouldn't have known I had drunk that drugged coffee.

"They were putting the key back," I said. Casey and Tilly continued to ignore me, although Casey tilted her head. I thought a second longer before going on. I remembered the girl's hair, and her funny smile, and how she'd come up too close, and I'd got suspicious.

"I stiff-armed her," I said. "I was good, and I wasn't thinking with my stomach either."

They stopped and looked at me, and I stood up. I realized I hadn't thought through it. What had happened next?

"She tried to put the key back, and I pushed her away, but then.... Then I saw she was up to something and I grabbed her arm to hold on and see what was in her hand, only then I saw the glint in her hair and I pulled her close, and I saw the pin in her hair. She had it tucked in so you couldn't hardly see it, and I grabbed that pin out of her hair." That's when the eyes were close to my face. That's when my hand had touched her hair.

"And then you passed out," said Tilly.

"Yeah," I said, and I held up a finger and tried to capture what had happened next. "Yeah, but...."

"But what?" said Tilly.

"He did something with it," said Casey. "That's why they stripped him down to the skin. They were looking for the pin."

"And they found it," said Tilly.

"No," I said. "They stripped me down to nearly nothing because they couldn't find it. Don't you see? I did something with it, and they couldn't find it, and they got desperate."

"What did you do?" said Casey.

I wasn't sure. I took a deep breath and looked at the finger I was pointing at Tilly with, and I then stuck out the thumb. They were both purple. Casey and I both looked at the pie together, the pie with the purple wound in the crust.

I stuck my fingers in and felt for something harder than a blueberry or cherry. And there it was. I pulled it out, and it now looked more like an amethyst than a diamond, but I thought that it would probably clean up okay.

I grinned at them, and held it up. Casey reached up and pulled off my bandana — so she wouldn't soil her own — and then took the sticky and dripping diamond pin.

"So I didn't lose it," I said. "You did, but I didn't."

"You lost seventeen dollars," said Casey, shortly. She wrapped up the pin, and stuck it in her breast pocket and buttoned the pocket, which made her look a little lop-sided.

"We're gonna get two hundred for the pin," I began.

"We were gonna get it before."

"And I didn't flirt with her."

"Who said you did?"

Casey turned her shoulder to me and picked up her coffee.

"Well, he did, for one," I said, pointing at Tilly.

"And I told him you were thinking with your stomach, didn't I?"

She turned back toward me, and I saw her face was a little flushed, which told me she'd been worried. Just a little. And she was maybe embarrassed for having doubts about me, but that was okay. She didn't have to ignore me any more, and it was safe for me to grin. I was tempted to push it, and maybe make her admit she'd been worried, but then maybe she'd make me admit I'd been worried and I didn't want to start that. So I pushed on safer territory.

"My stomach saved that pin," I said. "Which is more than I can say for you two."

She paused over her cup, and then shrugged.

"You got the pin back," she acknowledged. Then she drank down the coffee, and looked at me again. We stared at each other for a moment. "And as soon as you're up to it, you're getting that seventeen dollars back too."

"Yes, ma'am," I said. I grinned at her. "We can do it now, if you want."

"Like hell," she said.

"Sure," I said. "I'm ready to go. I'd like another look at that gal's pretty brown eyes...OW!"

She had punched me in the arm, hard. I grabbed her elbow and leaned in for a kiss. I expected a duck, or another punch, but she let me and even kissed back a little, right there in front of Tilly. I don't know if it was the kiss, the coffee, or just the relief, but I was feeling darn good, if I didn't make any sudden moves. Tilly shook his head, and he reached over to pull the pie closer to himself.

"Quit kidding around," he said. "You both know you're taking that diamond back tomorrow."

"After we get the money back from those ladies tonight," said Casey. "Then we'll take the diamond back."

"They're long gone...."

"And I'm long hungry." She pulled the pie back with one hand and pulled out her knife with the other, and proceeded to cut it up. She took a sloppy handful and started eating it. I took a piece too, even though I wasn't really quite up to being hungry. I paused to look at it. I didn't see any plums in it, but I stuck in a thumb — and a finger — and pulled out a cherry and thought what a good boy am I.

The End

Murder and Blueberry Pie