San Antonio, Texas
In his almost-four-year career with the agency, Cord Brennan could count on one hand the number of times he’d been called into Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal John Norville’s office. Could be good news. Could be bad. Norville’s poker face wasn’t giving Cord a hint either way.
Patience wasn’t one of Cord’s best virtues. He chafed from not knowing the purpose of this meeting, on a Sunday afternoon, no less. Norville would have his reasons for being tight-lipped. He always did, which likely helped make him one of the best damned marshals in the entire Western District. Hell, maybe in all of Texas.
None of that mattered right now, though. Cord had earned this day off. It’d been weeks since he’d had one, and his father needed him, besides. Cord didn’t like leaving him alone without his nurse for too long.
He sat forward on the edge of the leather settee, braced his elbows on his knees, and rolled the brim of his Stetson in his hands. A glance up at the clock on the wall revealed whoever was supposed to attend this meeting was late. Twenty-five minutes late. Twenty-five minutes Cord could spend at home instead of taking up space on this damned settee.
Norville gathered up the stack of papers he’d been studying and tapped the bottom edges lightly on the desk top.
“Relax, Cord. Sounds like he’s arrived,” he said, not looking up from his paper-tapping.
Cord’s attention sharpened. He didn’t ask who ‘he’ was. He’d find out soon, very soon, given the sound of footsteps on the other side of the door.
Sure enough, the door opened, and a young deputy tasked with secretarial duties poked his head in.
“Dr. Flexner is here, sir,” he said.
Norville set his papers, now neatly stacked, aside. “Bring him in.”
Still grasping the door knob, the deputy stepped back, allowing the visitor enough space to whisk through with a quick nod of appreciation. Slim, mid-thirties or so, sporting a bowler on his head and dressed in a dark suit and silk tie, he strode toward the chief officer and extended his hand.
“Forgive my tardiness, sir,” he said.
Norville rose and accepted the clasp with one of his own. “No difficulties getting here, I hope.”
“The train was a bit behind schedule. I felt it more important to wait for my medical supplies than to attend this meeting without them.”
The doctor spoke with a southern accent, and Cord’s curiosity stirred. An accent different than Texans’, more refined, scholarly, and what was he doing in a cow town like San Antonio, anyway?
Cord was tired of waiting to find out. He stood, drawing both men’s attention.
“My deputy, Cord Brennan, Doctor,” Norville said.
Flexner studied Cord as if he were a stud put up for auction. “He’s the one?”
“The best in my district.”
Cord clasped the physician’s hand, noting the slender fingers, the smooth skin, the clean fingernails. Clearly, the man didn’t do much work that required muscle, but his gaze was sharp, intelligent, and so assessing Cord wanted to crawl into his brain to know what he was thinking.
“Dr. Simon Flexner,” the man said, his thin lips softening, as if he approved of what he saw–and assessed. “I appreciate your time in coming here.” He pulled off the bowler, revealing oiled brown hair parted precisely in the middle; he set the hat on the corner of Norville’s desk. His gaze took them both in. “Shall we get started?”
Cord inclined his head. “Let’s.”
They settled into wooden-backed chairs positioned in front of the chief officer’s desk. Flexner leaned back, crossed one leg over the other, and laced those lily-white fingers together.
“Allow me to tell you a bit about myself, Deputy Brennan. My credentials, especially,” he said.
“I’d appreciate that,” Cord murmured. “My chief officer hasn’t enlightened me yet.”
Cord had to concede he sounded petulant. In spite of the time he’d wasted waiting for this man, it wouldn’t do much good to make a bad impression right out of the gate, especially in front of his superior officer. Clearly, both wanted something important from him. He reined in his annoyance.
“While I’m a physician, I’m also a scientist,” Flexner said, apparently unaffected by Cord’s impatience with him. “My interest lies in experimental pathology. My course of study and research has taken me from Kentucky, to Pennsylvania, and finally to New York, where I’ve joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.”
Considering Cord had been born and bred in Texas and didn’t get out of the state much, he had to admit to a little awe. Even he knew about the prestigious Rockefellers and all they’d done. “That so?”
“I’ve been privileged to work with the famed Karl Landsteiner from Austria.” He smiled. “Now, I don’t expect that name to mean much to you, Deputy Brennan, but Dr. Landsteiner is a man of great influence in the world of medicine.”
Cord tried his best to appear interested. The information would circle around to affect him. Eventually. “How so?”
“Blood and all its abilities. He has only recently discovered the human blood groups, which, I assure you, will be hugely instrumental in the success of transfusions.”
“Injecting one human’s blood into another’s in the hopes of improving a patient’s overall health.”
“I’m impressed.” Cord’s mouth quirked. “Just don’t know what all that has to do with me.”
Chief Officer Norville leaned forward. “It has everything to do with you.”
Cord’s attention fastened onto him. “How?”
“As anyone in experimental research is wont to do, the research is conducted on various living beings. From small animals, to larger ones, until finally… humans,” Flexner said.
Cord’s attention shot back to the physician, his heart tripping first in shock, then in dread, and finally in absolute defiance. “If you’re thinking you’re going to do your newfangled research on me, you can damn well forget that right now.”
“No, no. Not you,” Flexner hastened to say, his leg uncrossing.
“Let him finish, Cord,” the chief officer ordered.
Cord didn’t move, but his attention riveted onto the physician like ink on paper.
“We have advanced to the point of choosing humans who have, shall we say, limited life left,” Flexner said.
“In this case, prisoners within the justice system,” Norville added.
“Volunteers, of course.”
Cord’s gaze bounced between them. “Why would anyone volunteer?”
“To get better. When one is ill with little hope of survival left, one becomes willing to try anything. To be given more hope.” Flexner shrugged. “After all, what do they have to lose?”
Cord scowled. “Guarantees they’ll get better, for starters.
The doctor hesitated. “If something goes wrong, it could be problematic, yes.”
Cord glared at him.
“But completely ethical and mandated by President McKinley himself.” The chief officer reached for the top sheet of paper on his stack. “In addition, Governor Sayers has written with instructions to comply with Dr. Flexner’s research and to give him the help he needs.”
“Our president is an ardent supporter of medical research and has even expressed hope that one day Dr. Landsteiner might be lavished with the highest reward for his work,” Flexner said with a proud smile. “The Nobel Prize.”
Cord’s head swam. If the governor of Texas and the president of the United States were backing research this important, why was Flexner here? In San Antonio?
And then it hit him.
“Who’s the lucky prisoner?” he asked.
Norville pulled another paper from his stack. “William Hayes. Goes by ‘Slick-Shot’ Billy Hayes. He’s in the federal penitentiary in Houston, serving time for multiple counts of robbery and cattle rustling.”
The name didn’t ring a bell for Cord. “How much time does he have left?”
“He’s served nineteen of his twenty-five-year sentence. But he’s suffering from a blood disease, and barring a miracle, he’s not going to live long enough to receive medical help on the outside when his sentence is up.”
“You want me to bring him here? To San Antonio?” Cord asked.
“No. To Wallace, Kansas.”
Cord didn’t move. But his mind worked fast to figure the distance and the time he’d need to get the man there. Time that couldn’t be spent with his father.
“You see, Deputy, Hayes has a daughter there. She’s his only living relative,” Flexner said. “It’s my belief that her blood could help her father’s disease and ultimately save his life.”
“Her name is Harriett McQuade,” the chief officer added, glancing over yet another page of information. “Nineteen years old. Unmarried.”
“An outlaw’s daughter,” Cord murmured. “But different last name?”
“She was adopted by the bounty hunter who took her in after he brought about Slick-Shot’s arrest. Name’s Trace McQuade,” Norville said. “Hung up his gun belt afterward and runs a cattle ranch in Wallace now. The prison warden claims Slick-Shot hasn’t seen or spoken to his daughter since his arrest in 1881.”
Cord’s brow lifted. “So she doesn’t even know he’s sick.”
“No.” Flexner leaned forward. “I intend to inform her myself.”
“You want her blood for him.” Cord didn’t need to ask. He already knew the answer.
The physician nodded. “Yes.”
“And if she refuses?”
The thin lips pursed. “I hope our endeavor won’t be a waste of time. Of course, I’ll do everything I can to convince her to agree to the transfusion.”
Cord rubbed a hand over his face. That impatience he’d worked hard to bank spiked in his belly.
“Let me get this straight, Dr. Flexner,” he said. “You want me to escort you and a sick prisoner from Houston, Texas, all the way northward to Wallace, Kansas, and you want to just show up at this woman’s door, expecting her to cooperate?”
Cord’s lip curled. “Why would she?”
“He’s her father.”
“He’s a stranger,” Cord shot back.
“Deputy Brennan,” the chief officer snapped. “We’re not giving you a choice to escort. It’s an order.”
Cord gritted his teeth and swung his glance to Norville. “Sir. I’d prefer to decline. My father, heI can’t leave him alone for that long.”
Norville’s jaw didn’t budge.
Cord tried again. “It’d be easier for any of the other marshals to”
“How long before your term as deputy expires, Cord?” Norville demanded.
Cord didn’t move. Of all the things, of all the damned threats his superior officer could’ve made, that one cut the deepest.
“Less then two months, sir,” he said stiffly.
“Six weeks and five days, to be exact. You refuse to follow orders, and your term won’t be renewed. Period. In fact, refusal would be grounds for termination. You know that, don’t you?”
Cord didn’t respond. Norville knew he knew.
“Always figured you’d be the next one up for promotion around here,” the chief officer said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. “Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal, maybe. You’d be good at that. Might be you’d even have my job someday. Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Western District. You’d be good at that, too. Real good.”
Cord swallowed. Hard. The man knew how to hit where it’d hurt the most…
Cord loved being a U.S. Marshal. Loved enforcing the law. Loved the adrenaline that came from tracking a criminal and bringing him to justice.
But the days and weeks away from his father… hell, it was wearing on him. A promotion within the agency would keep him home most nights, give him regular hours, even give him a chance to find a wife and make a family, a need that most times was an insatiable ache.
Dr. Flexner, looking apologetic, cleared his throat. “If it’s any consolation, Deputy Brennan, there’s a financial stipend to consider.”
Norville pulled the last sheet of paper from the stack and slid it across the desk.
Cord’s gaze dropped; he read the amount and almost choked.
“As you can see, Mr. Rockefeller is most generous,” Dr. Flexner said quietly. “Our research is quite important to him.”
A heart-pounding, turn-your-skin-bumpy kind of stipend.
“The stipend will help ensure our work to perfect human blood transfusions will continue and…”
The doctor’s voice faded, and his words dissipated into the grim realization hammering inside Cord’s head. He had no choice. He couldn’t refuse with that kind of money. As much as he disliked doing it, he had to leave his father in the care of his nurse yet again, for too long, all in the hopes that the woman, this Harriett McQuade, wouldn’t refuse to cooperate and waste everyone’s time, but especially his own.
His thoughts cleared, and his gaze latched onto the ink pen the chief deputy held out to him. Cord stood, snatched the pen, and scrawled his name on the line waiting for his signature.
He tossed the writing instrument aside, straightened, and speared the physician with a hard look. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning,” he snapped. “Seven o’clock sharp. Don’t be late.”
Grim, he pushed his Stetson onto his head and strode out of the office.
* * *
Cord opened the door to the small apartment he shared with his father and headed inside. Seated at the table that took up most of the space in what passed for a kitchen, Tim Brennan looked up, finished his pour, then set the whiskey bottle down.
“Expected you back by now, son,” he said, the words more slurred than Cord liked to hear.
He drew closer and plucked the bottle off the table. “How bad is your leg bothering you?”
Knowing it had to be something fierce, he capped the vessel of Old Taylor. His father wouldn’t imbibe this time of day if he wasn’t hurting.
“Kept me up most of the night,” Pa muttered. “On fire all morning.”
He rarely complained; that he did so now twisted Cord’s gut.
“We need to find you a decent doctor,” he said, reaching toward a high shelf over the stove and setting the whiskey on top. “You can’t be drinking all day. Not going to heal that leg or help you walk any better when you do.”
Not that Mrs. Velma Dunnegan wouldn’t find a way to get the whiskey back down again. All Pa had to do was let the woman who was kind enough to be his nurse see him try to fetch it himself, and she’d scramble to do it for him before he fell and hurt himself for his trouble. Didn’t matter if she knew better than to give him liquor when he wanted it. She’d learned early on he had a mind of his own. Some things just weren’t worth fighting over.
“You know damn well doctors are quacks, everyone of ‘em.” Scowling, his father threw back a quick swallow of the amber liquid. “They don’t know how to fit a man with a decent prosthetic or make his pain go away. They just say they do so they can take your hard-earned money.”
Cord grunted in agreement. It’d been like that so far, for sure. “Got to be one around that knows what he’s doing.”
“We haven’t found him yet, have we?”
“Might be we need to make another trip to Houston to find a new orthopedist. We could try Dallas again. Or Fort Worth. And I’ll take you to Sulphur Springs as soon as I can. The waters there made you feel better last time.”
With another grimace, Pa shifted in his chair; grasping his thigh, he lifted the stump that remained of his leg and eased it onto the adjoining chair. He blew out a breath from his effort.
“I’ve given up, son. Being a cripple is going to be my fate in this life, it seems. Worse, it’s going to keep me being a burden to you.”
Though Cord had seen him do the same thing many times before, knowing how much it hurt to move the leg left Cord’s belly burning with sympathy. Hearing the defeat in his father’s voice burned even deeper.
It’d been two years since Pa got kicked in the knee by a cow having a hard time birthing out on the range; he’d no sooner pulled her calf when it happened, and they both landed in a tumble in the dirt.
The kick had broken bones and tore up skin. After gangrene set in, the surgeon was forced to amputate. Losing a good portion of his leg forced Pa to give up the small ranch he loved. Shortly thereafter, he lost the woman he loved even more. Cord’s mother had been afflicted with an ailment the doctors didn’t know how to diagnose, let alone treat, and to say the whole thing had been a nightmare was an understatement.
“Don’t like hearing you talk that way, Pa.” Cord pulled out a chair and straddled it. “You’re not a burden to me. You never have been.”
Pa gulped down the last of the liquor and set the glass down with a loud thud. He didn’t need to respond; Cord knew the despair that had taken hold in his father’s bones and wouldn’t let go. Anyone could see it, but no one felt it like Cord did.
“I’m not giving up hope,” he added in a low voice. “Neither should you.”
“Not many choices left for us, son.”
“As a matter of fact, there are.”
His father’s gaze latched onto his. Though reddened, his eyes were shrewd, penetrating, and for a fleeting moment, Cord would swear he caught a flash of hope.
“This have something to do with that meeting Marshal Norville called you in for?” Pa asked finally.
“Go on. I’m listening.”
After Cord explained the purpose of Dr. Simon Flexner’s undertaking and the time away it entailed, but especially the stipend Cord would earn once the job was done, his father frowned and leaned back with a grunt.
“All this means you’re leaving me with the widow lady again,” he grumbled.
Seemed his father chose to ignore the one bright spot in the entire mission. The money that could make both their lives better.
“Mrs. Dunnegan keeps this place clean and you well-fed,” Cord said. “She takes good care of you, Pa. If I have to leave you, there’s no one better I can leave you with.”
His father’s gaze lifted to the latched door across the room. On the other side was Mrs. Dunnegan’s living quarters; despite the small size, their apartment afforded valuable privacy for both of them, but kept her close by to help him throughout the day.
It’d been good fortune she needed to supplement her income after her husband’s death several years ago and had a couple of rooms at the back of her house to rent out. That she had some nursing abilities and the patience of a saint was a bonus. Besides, Cord would swear she’d turned sweet on the cantankerous Tim Brennan. It was there, in the times she looked at him. Worried for him more.
“She pesters me when I want to be left alone,” Pa said.
“Yeah, well, most likely you have it coming,” Cord said agreeably. “Her pestering just means she’s watching out for you.”
“Take me with you, Cord.” His father leaned forward, his expression intense. “I can sit on a train, same as you can. I’ll stay in a hotel once we get to Wallace. When you’re done, we’ll get back on the train and c’mon home.”
Cord shook his head slowly. “You know I can’t do that, Pa.”
“I won’t get in the way. You won’t even know I’m there. I swear it.”
The plea in his voice was nearly Cord’s undoing. His father had to know Cord would give him the world on a silver platter if he could. Now just wasn’t one of those times, but it still took a heap of willpower to hang on tight to his resolve.
“I’m escorting a prisoner from the federal penitentiary. He’s going to bear watching every minute, and there’s regulations, besides. I can’t be distracted-you might get hurt-” He halted, jaw clenched. “No, Pa. You have to stay here.”
Knowing he would argue the point until they both ran out of air, Cord stood and strode toward the wheelchair they kept next to the bed. Barely glancing at the wooden prosthetic his father refused to wear, Cord steered the contrivance closer.
“Got a few hours of daylight left,” he said. “Let’s see if the fish are biting, shall we?”