Blazing Rattles – Liliana Hart, Scott Silverii

Tuesday, February 14th Today was the day Hank Davidson’s life would change forever. He’d thought about it, worried about it, talked about it, considered it, and reconsidered it. Finally, he’d made the decision to propose to Agatha Harley. And he was almost sure he could do it without making a fool of himself. It had been almost three years since he’d moved to Rusty Gun, Texas. He’d spent his career as an FBI-trained serial-killer hunter, but his heart had no longer been in it, and he’d turned in his gun and badge for the lazy days of retirement. It had been Sheriff Reggie Coil, his long-time friend, who’d first invited Hank to Rusty Gun so he could disappear and get some much needed R&R. Never in a million years had the big city murder cop thought he’d become a permanent citizen of the sleepy, southern town. Much less fall in love there. Agatha was his perfect match. She’d once had dreams of solving high-profile criminal cases as a forensic anthropologist, but a stalker had changed the course of her life and sent her back to Rusty Gun. She’d persevered through more than he could imagine and still managed to become a successful author, writing about the very crimes she first dreamt of solving. Agatha enjoyed small town living and was content to spend her days reading, researching and writing about the career she no longer pursued. Hank had changed all of that when the two clashed while investigating their first cold case together. Their relationship was what some might call a slow simmer, but Hank was methodical in every aspect of his life.

It’s what made him one of the best homicide detectives in the world. It was what also caused him to wait months to propose while he planned everything down to the most minute detail. To say he planned it without help would be a lie. Preparations for solving a crime were a lot different from preparations for romance. He wasn’t afraid to admit his skills in romance were…lacking. He didn’t understand why people couldn’t just make a decision to get married and do it, but in his experience, women tended to disapprove of the cut and dried technique. And more importantly, he wanted to make it special for Agatha. For that, he’d had to get Agatha’s best friend, Heather Cartwright, involved. He and Heather had never seen eye to eye on anything, and she was one of Hank’s least favorite people on the planet, but they both loved Agatha and had her best interests at heart. Heather’s favorite pastime was marriage and divorce, so she knew a thing or two about romantic proposals.

She’d also accumulated a lot of wealth during her marriages, so she knew all the best places to stay and eat. Which is why Hank had booked adjoining suites at a luxury hotel on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, a private driver, and reservations for a seven course dinner for Valentine’s Day, where he’d eventually get down on one knee and pop the question. Just the thought had him breaking out in a sweat. Hank patted the ring box in his pocket that he’d been carrying around for several days. He was afraid to let it out of his sight. He’d driven to Austin and picked it out himself, finding a unique design that reminded him of Agatha—because she was definitely unique in every way. He knew his mind should be on the upcoming weekend getaway, but he couldn’t help but be distracted by the email he’d gotten from the FBI field office in Philadelphia—his old stomping ground. He needed to get his emotions under control before he saw Agatha. She was very intuitive, especially where he was concerned, and she’d know something was wrong. It was the only news that could have elicited this kind of response.

His past had come back to haunt him. The only case he’d worked that had ever gone unsolved. The Copper Cove Boys had robbed banks all over the East coast. They were brilliant in their execution, like a military operation. Then they upped the stakes and added murder to their list of crimes. Hank wasn’t proud to say that politics and red tape had gotten in the way of bringing justice to the victims. The FBI wanted to make sure the headlines focused on the robberies and not the murders. It brought better press and looked sexier in print. And the FBI outplayed their hand, setting up a sting that never came to fruition because the Copper Cove Boys got wind of it, took the fortune they’d amassed, and went underground. “And now they’re back,” Hank whispered.

And the FBI wanted him to help with the investigation. Even a year or so ago, he would have jumped at the chance to get back on board. His pride was at stake. It was the one case that got away from him, but his priorities had changed. There were other investigators who could lead the charge and bring the ruthless gang down. But not him. He was looking to the future. It was time to get engaged and start his life with Agatha. He’d been amazed how easily everyone had been able to deceive Agatha into taking the trip to San Antonio for the weekend. Coil’s recent suspension and reinstatement as sheriff had played into the scenario perfectly.

Agatha hadn’t thought a thing of it when Coil said he’d book the trip as a thank you to both of them for stepping up to the plate and taking over while he’d been out, and also for exposing all the corruption that had been going on during the election. Agatha had been thrilled for the chance to get away, and hadn’t asked too many questions. “This is exciting,” she said, looking out the window as their plane landed. “We’re both in need of a break and this is going to be perfect. I’m going to eat my way through pounds of chips and salsa.” Hank chuckled. The gleam in her eyes was like that of a kid in a candy store. “And when you get too full, I’ll roll you back to the hotel so you can fall into a carb coma.” “That’s one of the many reasons I love you,” she said, squeezing his hand. Hank let out a breath when he saw the driver waiting for them at the airport.

Everything was going according to plan. He owed Heather big time. Check-in went smoothly, and the concierge gave him a thumbs up out of Agatha’s view. Hank hoped that meant the champagne and chocolate covered strawberries were waiting in their room. Hank had lived life on a policeman’s budget, so he’d never stayed in a hotel like this one before. It was built like a fort, complete with stone battlements and cannons in the parapets. The décor was lush and expensive and old, and he saw from the placard on the wall that it had, in fact, been a real fort during the Mexican-American War. The man who’d checked them in was guiding them to their suite in the top tower. The suite had two bedrooms and two baths, but was connected by a common living area. The temptation had been enormous, but they’d both been careful to keep separate living quarters, at home and when they traveled.

He really hoped they had a short engagement. “Wow,” Agatha said, when their guide opened the door and let them in. “Gorgeous.” Hank barely noticed the open space or the balcony that looked out over the Riverwalk. The champagne and strawberries were laid out next to a bouquet of flowers, just as planned, but his throat was closing up and he started to feel the panic of what was to come. “You okay?” she asked, putting a hand on his arm. “Yeah, I’m just warm,” he said, and tipped the hotel employee before shutting the door behind him. “Is that a hot tub in the corner?” Agatha asked. Hank chuckled uncomfortably, but it came out more as a croak. “Everything is beautiful,” she said, smelling the bouquet of yellow roses.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said, his voice hoarse. The smile that spread across her face was worth every worry and all the hours of time spent planning for the weekend. “I love it,” she said, her eyes glistening with tears. It was then he realized how little time he spent trying to romance Agatha. He took her no-nonsense attitude and drive to get the job done for granted. She still had these hidden soft spots, and it was important for him to remember that. She threw herself into his arms and kissed him, surprising him with her enthusiasm. By the time she let go, they were both out of breath. “Wow,” she said again, blushing this time. “This really is special.

I’m so glad you attacked me on your lawn the first day we met.” He barked out a laugh in surprise. “You tripped over the sprinkler.” “Yes, after you blasted me with a garden hose.” “You were trespassing.” “There’s no such thing in a small town,” she said. “I was just being neighborly.” “Nosy,” he corrected. “Champagne?” “Of course,” she said. He poured her a glass and made her a plate with the strawberries.

“We have dinner reservations in a couple of hours. I suggest you take these, put some bubbles in the tub, and soak until you’re pruny. I’ll meet you back out here at eighteen-thirty.” Hank tried to nap, but he was too wired, so he turned on the TV. When that didn’t hold his attention he went ahead and showered and dressed in his dark gray suit and a pale purple shirt and tie the woman at the store helped him pick out. He’d left his champagne untouched, wanting a clear head, and he was pacing back and forth in their common area when he heard her door open. He turned to face her and the spit dried up in his mouth and his lungs stopped working. She wore a dress the color of crushed strawberries, and it skimmed her long, lean body in a way that made him want to keep her all to himself and not let any other man set eyes on her. The strappy black shoes had her standing slightly taller than him, but he didn’t mind. Agatha was simply a natural beauty, with eyes that changed between blue and green, dark lashes, and dark hair she’d been letting grow and let hang in loose curls around her shoulders.

Hank loved that she was comfortable with who she was, and her confidence drew every eye to her when she was in a crowd. “Wow,” Hank stumbled over what to say. Her smile lit the room. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m ready when you are.” Their driver took them to the historic district to what looked like a renovated old hacienda turned restaurant. It was simple and elegant, and there were several welldressed couples being let out at the front doors for the special Valentine’s dinner. Despite the number of couples, the tables weren’t crammed in so they were all sitting on top of each other. They were led to a corner table near the fireplace that was secluded and romantic. “I’m impressed,” Agatha said.

“You’ve pulled out all the stops.” Hank just smiled, reminding himself to thank Heather again. He was even able to sit with his back to the wall so he could observe the entire room. Police habits never died. Wine would be served with each course, and they got lost in conversation like they normally did. But the proposal was all he could think about. When should he do it? After the appetizer? During dessert? He didn’t think he could wait, so he slipped his hand into his coat pocket and grabbed the ring box. He shifted his weight to slide from the chair smoothly onto one knee, and he sucked in a deep breath just before the restaurant erupted in applause. Across the room was another man who’d just stolen Hank’s thunder and proposed to the shocked woman sitting across from him. Hank tightened his fist in frustration and let go of the ring box so it stayed in his pocket.

He’d wait until the next course. He’d felt more relaxed after the appetizer and first wine course, so he cleared his throat and decided to try again. He reached for the box just as the restaurant erupted in applause yet again. He growled aloud this time, causing Agatha to look at him with concern. It happened again after the salad course. And again after the main course. Dessert was going to be his turn, come hell or high water, and he looked around the restaurant ferociously daring anyone to contradict him. “Agatha,” Hank said, stopping their conversation abruptly. He grasped the ring box and scooted his chair back so it scraped across the wooden floor. And he moved to get down on one knee just as there was a collective gasp through the restaurant.

He scanned the restaurant, looking for his nemesis, and his gaze locked on his target. The man and his new fiancée looked like they’d already had too much to drink. “Hank, are you all right?” Agatha asked, her attention caught between him and the happy couple. He was so focused on his plans being interrupted that it barely registered when his enemy shook the champagne bottle before he tried to open it. Hank saw the sommelier rush toward the man, trying to head him off before he drenched everyone around him in champagne. But it was too late. Hank heard the resounding pop of the cork that seemed more like a gunshot in the closed-in space, and then he felt nothing but pain as the cork found its target right in the center of his forehead. He slid from his chair, the world spinning, and then there was nothing but black. CHAPTER TWO “Hank? You okay, partner?” Hank heard the voice, but it sounded muffled, as if he were underwater. It wasn’t Agatha’s voice.

Maybe a waiter or an EMT? But how did they know his name? That champagne cork must’ve knocked him out cold. “Hank, you need me to get Doc Sutherland?” the voice asked. “Doc Sutherland?” Hank answered, his voice hoarse. “Who’s that? Just a champagne cork. I’ll be fine.” “Champagne cork?” the man asked, confused. “You got kicked in the head by old Bessie. You know she’s mean as the devil.” Hank rubbed his forehead, and felt the knot the size of a golf ball. His head was pounding, and his vision blurry.

“Bessie?” Hank asked, confused. “How many fingers I got up?” asked the man. It hurt to look at anything, so Hank closed his eyes and focused on breathing. “Who are you?” he asked. “It’s worse than we thought,” said a different man. “He don’t even know who we are.” Hank tried to open his eyes again, and realized only the right one would open. The left was swollen shut. And why was the sun glaring in his good eye? It was nighttime. “Hey, Springer.

How about you go get the doc? Looks like Hank is the one who got hammered this time.” “You got it,” Springer said. “James?” Hank asked, recognizing the voice. “Hey, you remember me,” James said. “That’s good.” “What are you doing here? Where’s Aggie?” Hank felt hands on his shoulders, trying to lift him to a sitting position, and he thought he might be sick to his stomach. “I work here,” James said. “At the restaurant?” Hank asked, confused. “Restaurant?” James chuckled. “What’s a restaurant? This is the livery stable.

” “Stable?” Hank scowled. “Like a barn? With horses?” “That’s right.” “So that’s what I smell,” Hank said, gagging. “I thought it was the French cheese.” “Only thing French in this town is Marie Cavelier, and I don’t think that’s cheese she’s selling in those upstairs rooms. What you’re smellin’ is good old-fashioned horse manure. Got your hand right in it.” Hank moved his hand as far away from his nose as he could, determined not to look at the offending limb. “Where’s Aggie?” Hank asked. James pursed his lips.

“You mean Miss Harley?” Hank nodded. “She’s over at the newspaper office,” James said. “Why?” “I need to call her. Where’s my cell?” “Bessie must have knocked something loose. Why would you have a cell with you? The cells are over at the jail.” “Phone,” Hank correcting, his head pounding even more. “Give me my phone so I can call her.” “Hank, I don’t know what in the Sam Hill you’re talking about,” James said. “You’re talking crazy. I think you better lay back down until Doc can get here.

” Hank had had enough of this prank. Maybe the guys rushed down to San Antonio when they heard he was in the hospital, but it was time to get some facts and fresh air, preferably the latter first. Hank’s vision was blurred, and he’d had enough concussions in his lifetime to know he had a doozy. Flies buzzed around his head, and he swiped at them with his clean hand. “Someone tell me what’s going on,” he said, anger making his voice louder than normal. Something he instantly regretted. “You took a hard blow to the head,” James said. “You’ve been out cold for some time.” “The cork hit me,” he insisted. “Bessie got a good lick in,” James said.

“You know how ornery she can be. Mean as the devil.” “Is Bessie a cork?” he asked, confused James stared at him for a few seconds, clearly unsure how to proceed. “Bessie’s a horse, ya daft man. You ride one every day.” Hank felt like his brains were scrambled eggs. “You mean I ride a HOG every day,” he said, thinking of his motorcycle. James roared with laughter, sending spikes of pain through Hank’s head. “If that don’t beat all. You’d be the talk of the town riding through on a pig.

” “Not a pig,” Hank growled. “A HOG. A Harley Davidson motorcycle. My HOG.” “Boss, you ain’t got no hog. Jed Blue is the only pig man in these parts. You’re crazy as a loon.” Hank decided it best to change the direction of the conversation. They weren’t getting anywhere, and he still didn’t have a clue what was going on. “Where am I?” “You’re on Main Street,” James said, speaking slowly.

“In the livery stable. You’ve been here a million times.” How in the world had he gone from proposing marriage to Agatha to laying in horse manure in a time that was clearly meant to look like the old west? Maybe it was all a horrible dream. Or maybe everyone had gotten together to play an elaborate prank on him. “When did y’all get to San Antonio?” Hank asked. “When you sent for us,” James said. “And when was that?” “About two years ago. You sent me a telegram and asked me to come work for you.” “A telegram?” Hank’s voice trembled. “Yep,” James beamed with pride.

“Is this a dream?” “Seems like a nightmare, boss, but who knows, you might enjoy laying in the middle of all this manure. I’d prefer to get up if it’s all the same to you.” Hank hesitated, but knew he needed to ask a very important question. “What day is it?” “February fourteenth.” “And the year?” he asked. “Eighteen seventy-four.” Hank collapsed back onto the dusty ground, his head swimming and his breath coming in short gasps. “Hey, Marshal Davidson. You okay?” asked an unfamiliar voice. Had he passed out? He didn’t have time to think before his head was dunked under water.

He sputtered and tried to breathe, and he was dunked once more. “He’s comin’ around,” James said. “Looks mad as a hornet.” Whoever’d had him by the scruff of the neck let go, and Hank went face first into the trough. He came up gasping, his head still throbbing, and hair dripping in his face. He rinsed his hands off while he was down there, and took a moment to gather his thoughts. He finally pushed himself up and scanned the faces around him, familiar, but unfamiliar. “Welcome back,” said the old man. His bi-focal specs rested at the very tip of a slender, red nose, and Hank could only guess this was the Doc. “You all right, son?” “No, I don’t think I am,” Hank said.

His left eye was finally starting to open, and he looked at his surroundings. His mind couldn’t reconcile what his eyes saw, but he was a trained investigator who dealt in fact. The facts, as he could process them, were that nothing made sense. He was wearing a denim shirt and a brown leather vest, and his pants were also denim, but were cut differently than anything he’d seen before. His boots were dusty, and he wore spurs. He ran his hand over the leather of his vest, and he rested his fingers on the silver star pinned there. He was a marshal. “When did I become a marshal?” He asked. The men all looked at each other, but it was Springer who answered. “You was hired as marshal about two years ago.

That’s when you sent them telegrams for me and James to come and help you straighten out this lawless town.” Hank’s mind began to clear, and he tried to stitch together the facts as he knew them. He knew that on Valentine’s Day he’d taken a blow to the head from a champagne bottle’s cork while proposing to Agatha. He knew he’d woken up in the year 1874 and though the players were the same, things were very different. He clearly had some type of head trauma, and panicking would only make things worse. The logical thing to do was to play out the scenario until his brain could catch up with reality. “I’m fine,” Hank said. “Just a little addled.” The men nodded and Springer held out a well-crafted leather gun belt that held two pistols and a cartridge belt filled with bullets that crossed over his chest. “You might want this, Boss.

” “Right,” Hank said, strapping on the belt with shaking hands. There was a sudden commotion from behind and what sounded like a thundering herd heading in their direction. The ground shook, and dust exploded with every stamp of hooves. Hank stared in wide-eyed surprise. It looked so real. “Take cover,” James yelled. Wood exploded off the hitching post and several shards struck Hank in the neck and face. The smell of blood and the warmth as it trickled down his cheek and the scruff of his beard shot him into action. He dropped to the ground and rolled behind the trough for cover, pulling his weapon from the holster as if it were second nature. Bullets were flying everywhere, and selfpreservation mode kicked in and he returned fire.

The Colt .44 packed a punch. “Someone get Doc inside,” Hank yelled, thinking the old man was a sitting duck. “Got ‘em,” Springer yelled. “I’m taking the high ground,” James called out. “I’ll cover you.” The bandits stopped at the end of Main Street. Hank didn’t see if any of them were thrown from their steeds, but he doubted that they were expecting such an immediate response to their charge. “Who are they?” Hank asked. “That’s the Copper Cove Boys,” Springer whispered.

Hank froze. Even in an alternate reality the Copper Cove Boys haunted him. “I don’t see Dillon McIrish,” Hank said, speaking of the gang’s leader. “Ranger Coil is transporting McIrish to the military outpost around Austin for safekeeping until his trial.” Another round of gunfire erupted, but the gang had split up so they could surround their targets. Hank realized that he was the target. He was a marshal after all. He heard the sound of a rifle firing overhead as James laid down cover for them to return fire. Hank ripped two shots back in the direction of where the bullets were coming. He fired more into the sky than at anyone.

He wasn’t sure where there were innocent bystanders. They were in the middle of town after all. “James,” Hank said. “Yeah, boss?” “On the count of three I want you to lay down cover fire to the south and east. We need to get somewhere with better protection. We’ll end up trapped here if we stay.” “Okay, but we got bad news,” James said. “Worse than being surrounded by a band of outlaws?” Hank asked. “Dillon McIrish is leading the pack.” Hank’s heart stopped in his chest.

“Yeah, that is worse

.

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