“Reset to...” Roids tapped up the map on his suit’s display and studied it. “Reset to grid 0357S, 08641W, and deep scan.”

“Grid reset,” the bike called back over the comlink. “Deep scanning. Negative life signs.”

Roids sighed and continued a grid by grid search for Laserface Williams. The outlaw was out here somewhere and Roids was determined to find him. He just wished it wasn’t so tedious. Unfortunately his hov - a brand new Dustdevil Model 5 - was big on scanning and power, but low on brains.

Roids’ hover bike was a beauty - the latest issue of Harting hov bikes - and the exclusive property of the Martian Territorial Rangers. It included the most detailed maps of Mars yet made and scanning equipment that would put even the military space ships to shame. Because the bike was only large enough to carry one ranger and a single passenger/prisoner, however, its artificial intelligence left much to be desired. Its brain was further restricted - lobotomized, as it were - because additional armaments, shielding, and storage and power compartments reduced available onbike space to almost nothing.

Roids continued his scanning for nearly an hour longer before losing all patience for the day.

“Geez, bike!” He’d only had the bike for a week and had yet to name it. “Isn’t there any way you can learn this scanning routine?”

“Please restate the question in terms I can understand, Marshal.”

“And don’t call me Marshal!” Roids ordered. “Just call me Roids.”

“Affirmative, Marshal. Please restate the question in terms I can understand, Marshal.”

“Bike, were you made stupid? Or have you been working at it?”

“I was made stupid, Marshal.”

Roids took no joy from a battle of wits against an unarmed opponent, so he gave up. “All right,” he moaned. “Laserface isn’t going anywhere. We’ll call it a day. I’m in the mood to either shoot something, eat something, or shoot and eat something. Whatcha got for me?”

“There are no surface life signs within a one hundred kilometer radius other than your own, Marshal. It is not recommended that you shoot and eat yourself.”

“Well, that’s better than recommending I do shoot and eat myself. How ‘bout underground? Isn’t the widow Elam’s ranch around here?”

“Affirmative. The Dan Elam ranch is located 85 kilometers southwest of here.”

Roids gathered the reins and swung a leg over the bike’s saddle. The bike’s antigravity field adjusted to the added mass, giving a slight buck. It would be a few more weeks before the bike finally learned how to compensate being mounted. Given the size of its brain, Roids wondered if it might not be years.

“All right, then, let’s head for the Elam ranch.” He held a hand out over his suit’s faceplate and gauged the sun’s height. “It’s about an hour until sunset, so I reckon we can make dinner. Let’s get!” He lightly kicked the sides of the bike and it took off quickly.

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Fifty kilometers to the north, cloaked by his hov bike’s stealth shield, Laserface Williams lay on a small, unnamed mountain and watched Cavanaugh head off. This was the moment he’d been waiting for. The Red Marshal had been after Laserface for two weeks now and the outlaw was frankly getting tired of it. He decided to take a chance at being the hunter instead of the hunted. He turned to his bike.

“Hey, what’s down in the direction the Marshal’s heading in?”

The beat-up but finely tuned bike purred for a moment, then replied.

“The only manmade artifact within one hundred and fifty kilometers is the Elam ranch, located in the Timonium Chasma on the northern rim of the Valles Marineris.”

The Elams. Laserface had swiped some cattle from the ranch a few months back. He and Hard Rock needed drinking money, so they’d taken only a half dozen of the fat Dexters. It was possible they hadn’t been missed yet. And it was even more possible because Elam was considered a useless cattleman, and not the hardest of workers. He did have a fine looking woman, he recalled. A brat, too, though Laserface wasn’t sure.

Laserface took a last look through his faceplate’s magnified view. Cavanaugh was in a hurry, so he was probably hoping to get there for dinner. Laserface got to his feet and broke down his scanner blind. He stowed it onto his bike and started it up. He’d give Cavanaugh a thirty minute head start, then get over to Elam ranch. If he was lucky, he’d catch Cavanaugh slow and sleepy after a home cooked meal. He grinned. If he was real lucky, he’d catch Elam’s woman in a visitin’ mood.

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Roids pulled the bike into a side canyon and gunned the engine. The floor was fairly rocky and there were boulders strewn everywhere, so he pulled back on the bike’s reigns and it increased power to the antigravity field. Roids and the bike lifted gracefully into the air until they were twenty meters above the canyon floor. He pointed it straight into the canyon and raced on.

A warning light flashed so Roids slowed down. The canyon ended abruptly, but the floor had been cleared away and there was a large plastic melter dome covering the back thirty meters. Where the canyon wall began, a tunnel about five meters in diameter continued into the rock.

The dome was actually two plastic skins laid one on top of the other, with a liquefied epoxy between them. When exposed to the Martian atmosphere - as would happen if the dome were punctured, the epoxy flowed over the opening and hardened, forming a temporary patch. There was a newfangled metal just out on the market called aligned titanium, but no one could afford the transparent metal yet, so these plastic self sealing domes were everywhere.

This one showed the Elams to be hard up financially but friendly. The dome was cracked and patched in a dozen places, but the front air lock was glowing green, inviting anyone inside - at least into the airlock. Roids dropped his bike to the canyon floor and eased the three meter machine into the five meter airlock. The outside door closed shut and air began filling the chamber. Roids turned his attention to a fuzzy monitor floating against the wall to his right.

“Howdy,” he spoke into the monitor. He waited a moment, then the face of a young woman filled the screen. At first glance, Roids thought her to be seven or eight, but she smiled and he revised her age down a year or two.

“Hi!” she bubbled, causing Roids to knock off another half-year. “Welcome to the Elam ranch! May I ask who’s calling?”

“Sure can, ma’am,” he said, opening his face mask in the now pressurized air lock. The fresh atmosphere - manufactured from big processors located on the ranch - smelled great. “Name’s Cavanaugh. I’m the Territorial Ranger for these parts. I’m kinda sick of my cooking and was hoping for a home cooked meal.”

“Hang on.” He saw her turn her head and shout something, but then the mute kicked in. She didn’t blank the screen however, so he saw her talking to an older woman who entered the edge of the viewer’s scan. They talked back and forth for a moment, then the girl turned back toward him, smiling.

“Mom says you’re welcome in, Marshal. Let me open the lock.” She punched the buttons and Roids grinned. The girl needed to be more careful. Between the tones of the buttons she pushed, and her hand movements, Roids quickly figured the eight digit security code.

The air lock cycled and the inner door opened. Roids gave the girl a quick smile and nod, then moved his bike inside. He was in a tunnel less than fifty meters long. He passed through it quickly and entered another canyon. It was sealed and pressurized and had dozens of Dexter cattle grazing the canyon floor. The soil had been treated with bacteria and Terran nutrients so that it now supported life in the form of grass and a few wildflowers.

The ranch was five kilometers further in, located around a lazy bend in the canyon. Roids took the dirt trail at a leisurely pace, not wanting to spook the cattle. There seemed little danger of that; the Dexters were so fat, they probably struggled just to walk. Elam needed to put together a drive soon, or he’d get rustled clean.

Roids passed by a dilapidated water collector, nearly useless in its poor condition, and saw the ranch house off to his left. Too bad Elam was as useless as his water collector; the ranch had a good chance to make it with a little effort. Not his business, though, Roids thought, so he’d keep his opinions to himself. It was a shame, though.

It was even more of a shame a few minutes later, when he killed the bike and dismounted in front of the two story ranch home. The door opened and the girl who’d let him in came onto the stone porch to greet him. She had short brown hair, a pleasant face with a comely smile, and sunny, blue-green eyes. She was tall for her age, and built well for a life on the ranch. She wore a blue and white checked top and was dressed in a denim jumper that was popular among tenagers.

“Hi, Marshal!” she said cheerfully, a big smile on her face. “Welcome to the Elam Ranch. My name’s Becky Elam. Mom’s just putting on the beef, so dinner will be ready in twenty minutes!”

“Well, that sounds about right,” Roids drawled as he pulled out his visiting kit. “Reckon I’ve got time to clean up so you and your Ma don’t chase me out with a stick.”

Becky giggled and led him inside. While taking off his surface suit, he looked around casually. The ranch house, unlike the ranch itself, was in excellent condition and bespoke of hard work and attention to detail. Roids surmised that Mrs. Elam was not of the same stamp as her husband.

Becky showed him to a bathroom and the Marshal quickly cleaned up. Running his fingers through his hair to put it in some semblance of order, he ized his kit closed and walked back into the great room that comprised the majority of the ranch’s first floor.

The large room had a good sized table for eating and several floor cushions for lying about. There were a couple of couches as well and a large roll top desk in the corner where puterverse access was possible. One entire wall was holographic capable and was presently showing a stunning view of Mount Olympus. Just as he walked in, Becky switched it over to a starlit Martian night scene of the Marineris. She turned at his step and gave him a big smile. He noticed she combed out her thick hair until it gleamed and had put on a silver necklace. He smiled back at her and walked across the room to his surface suit. He dropped the kit next to it and reached for his gunbelt.

“I hope you don’t mind, Marshal,” a woman’s voice said from behind him, “but I prefer you not wear your gun in our home.”

Roids turned and looked into the most stunning eyes he’d ever seen. Blue-green like her daughter’s, Mrs. Elam’s eyes also showed a steel not seen in many. She was of average height - though shorter than her daughter - and had a strong body that nonetheless easily displayed her femininity. A more mature version of her daughter, refined, friendly, yet no nonsense, Roids concluded again what he had before; Mrs. Elam was of a different breed than her husband. Whatever shortcomings he otherwise had, though, Elam had excellent taste in women.

Roids grinned sheepishly and unslung his gunbelt.

“Sorry, Mrs. Elam.” He hooked the gun back onto the rack. “Old habits. I ain’t exactly seen the nicest people in my work, so it pays to be cautious.”

“Quite understandable,” she replied, instantly forgiving him. She carried a large kettle of stew and set it on the table. “But unless you plan on arresting either Rebecca or I before dinner, you won’t need the gun. And please, call me Vickie.”

“Yes’m,” he gave a quick contrite nod and sat down at the table. “You can call me Roids.”

“No, Marshal,” Becky spoke up, “That’s my dad’s chair. You can sit here.” She indicated the chair next to her. He grinned and sat down beside the girl. Mrs. Elam seated herself and they began eating.

It was quiet for several minutes while they ate, Roids focused completely on his meal; the first off a plate in several weeks. Becky kept staring at him, her eyes bright and intense, making Roids the slightest bit uncomfortable. He’d never been much around women and their ways, and tenage girls were worse. He cleared his throat.

“Good eats, Mrs. Elam,” he said, feeling the need to move to more familiar ground. “You’re a mighty fine cook.”

“Thank you, Marshal,” she replied, “but I’m afraid I can’t take credit. Nora, our cook, prepares the meals. I’m not too fond of cooking. I do enjoy baking, however, and the pie we’ll be having shortly is mine.”

Roids didn’t really know the difference between cooking and baking, so he made no comment. He shoved in another forkful of beef and indicated Elam’s empty chair.

“Don’t mean to pry, ma’am, but where’s your husband?”

“Marshal, that certainly does sound like prying. But to answer your question, Mr. Elam is out in the south canyons, working out of the line cabin with two of our hands. We want to make a drive soon and he’s doing a final count.”

Roids nodded. That made perfect sense. It was past time for a drive, and it could be quite a job combing the canyons and cutting out the best beef. Depending on the size of the ranch and the number of canyons it claimed, a round up could take weeks to complete. Mrs. Elam’s response was perfectly logical and completely believable.

But she was lying. Roids didn’t know where Elam was, but he’d been gone long enough that others were already referring to her as the widow Elam. Maybe she held out hope where none was possible. Or maybe it gave her comfort to believe in the unbelievable. More than likely Elam had run off and joined a freighter crew, or fallen under a cow and gotten stepped on, or came out second best in a gun fight. There were dozens of ways to die or disappear on the Martian frontier. A bone-headed, lazy man like Elam could fall victim to three or four of them. Probably at a same time.

They finished dinner and Roids went to the far corner of the room to stretch out. The couch there didn’t offer the best view of the holowall, but it did give ideal positioning to watch the door.

The tediousness of the past weeks’ searching, the well-settled hot meal in his stomach, the extremely soft couch with its form fitting cushions, and the soft singing coming from the kitchen as Mrs. Elam and Becky cleaned up all merged together to form an irresistible blanket of comfort over Roids and he felt his eyes quietly closing. His last thought before drifting off was that he should bring his gun closer. But it was just too far away, and while his mind tingled slightly in annoyance, the rest of his lanky body failed to react and sleep came to the Red Marshal.

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Becky looked into the great room from the kitchen and saw that he’d fallen asleep. Her heart raced as she watched him. He was so handsome! He didn’t have the hard bitten looks of other Marshals she’d seen. Instead, he looked fresh faced and almost innocent. His blond hair was thick and slightly curly, matching perfectly with his blue eyes and lean cheeks. He was taller than normal, but not heavy set. Rather, it seemed he was made of all muscle; sleek and with an almost animal-like grace in his movements... Her cheeks flushed slightly at the accompanying thought.

She looked again at him. It seemed impossible to believe this was the same man who the other Marshals spoke of with such respect; who’s deeds were already drifting toward legend. He was so peaceful and vulnerable lying there.

“He’s asleep, Mom,” she said quietly over her shoulder.

“Then let him sleep, Becky. I must admit,” she said with a small sigh. “With your father having disappeared months ago, it’s a true relief to have the Marshal here.”

“Do you think Dad will ever be back?” Becky asked the question every now and then, when she felt her mother would be willing to answer. So far, she hadn’t answered.

“Becky, I know what the others said about him. And maybe Dan - your father - wasn’t the hardest of workers. Nor the smartest. But he loved us with all his heart. If he could come back he would.” Vickie looked out the slightly open door at the now soundly sleeping Cavanaugh and felt an inner strength she didn’t know she had. Was it the Marshal? Sharing his strength with her? Regardless, she felt a quiet certainty was over her, and with it an ability to deal with what was, not with what could be.

“Becky,” she said softly, “I don’t think we’ll ever see your father again. I think it’s time I start accepting that.”

Becky nodded. It was painful to hear her mother say it, but also healing. Becky had given up weeks ago, somehow knowing he’d never leave them but would also never return. She looked again at the tall man sleeping on their couch and felt a bonding with her mother that maybe this rough and tumble Marshal had a reason for being here.

“Come on,” her mother said, “I’ll finish the dishes and you turn down the guest bed. I don’t know if he planned on staying, but we’d best be ready in case he does.”

“I hope he does,” Becky replied.

Vickie didn’t answer, but she hoped so, too.

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Laserface edged up the east wall of the canyon and hitched a glance around the rock face to study the Elam ranch house. Five kilometers behind him, the airlock dome was a slagged piece of plastic; ripped open then fused shut by his bike’s laser. The heavy use of the laser shut his bike down for a twenty hour repower cycle but it was worth it. He’d cut through so quickly, he’d overloaded the alarm circuits and had entered undetected. The airlock was now useless for entry or exit, but still contained the atmosphere. Knowing it could set off perimeter triggers, he shed the pitch black and green surface suit and continued on, carrying only his gun and gunbelt.

Laserface checked his slug gun. Bagging Cavanaugh would get Laserface a reputation unmatched anywhere on Mars, but this needed to be approached with extreme caution. There was no such thing as a second chance against Cavanaugh’s deadly aim.

Holding the twelve shot slug gun tightly, Laserface approached the house, moving for the back wall. The ranch house was made of native Martian rock, but unlike many others, was not cut into the rock, instead standing free.

There were windows around the house, but the rear wall was solid; probably a holowall on the inside. The far side of the rear wall, however, did have a window, and Laserface made for that. Kneeling down, pressed tight against the wall, he again took a quick look.

His heart almost exploded when he saw someone was in the room, standing not one meter away from him. Fortunately, she had her back to him as she turned down the bed. At first he thought it was the widow, but then saw it was the brat. Had been the brat, he corrected himself. She’d grown up some. His sallow face took on a disgusting leer. Any caution remaining about taking on Cavanaugh was burned away. He holstered his gun and moved away from the window.

Careful not to be spotted, Laserface spent the next ten minutes working his way around the home, locating each person. There were only four inside the house: Cavanaugh, the widow and her daughter, and a servant. Laserface decided to wait until the servant left, then make his move.

He didn’t have long to wait. There was a motion near the side air lock and the servant stepped out. She cycled the door closed and walked across the narrow canyon toward a small gathering of buildings, which Laserface had already determined to be the barn, bunkhouse and a small cottage. The woman walked the three hundred meters to the cottage and entered. A light shone out the window and he heard the cottage door seal shut for the night. The bunkhouse was still dark, meaning the widow either didn’t have any hands or they were out on the range.

He worked his way around to the front door. Like most homes that had two or more entrances, only one had an airlock. In the case of catastrophic decompression of the canyon, unlocked doors would seal shut. Since the side door had the airlock, the front door did not. He stepped quietly up to the porch and took one last look toward the window. It was quite dark outside now, so he was safe from being spotted.

Roids was still asleep on the couch. The widow was in the kitchen and the brat was setting the table for dessert. Now was the moment. Drawing the gun, Laserface laid a hand on the door access panel. He took a deep breath, then shoved.

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Roids was dreaming of his bike. It was spinning out of control into a bottomless canyon while he stood on the rim and watched. It smashed into the canyon wall and started burning, squealing and screeching as the metal buckled and tore. The small piece of his mind that never slept took great joy in watching and hoped he’d remember this dream when he woke up.

WAKE UP!

There was a screech like a girl coming from the bike and Roids’ instincts kicked in. He started from his sleep, his hand dropping for his gun.

“Don’t move, Marshal!” came a sharp order.

It was Laserface. He was standing in the open doorway, holding his gun on Roids. Laserface had always been an ugly hombre, and the two seared scars on his face - one along his right eye and mouth, the other punctured through his cheeks - hadn’t improved matters any. But now, flush with victory, he was positively hideous. His eyes were bright with excitement and victory, and his mouth had a sneer that didn’t bode well for Roids.

Slowly, so as not to invite a slug in the head, Roids sat up, gathering his feet under him. Laserface’s eyes went sharp and his hand tightened. Roids expected to hear the gun go off, but then saw the outlaw’s gaze flicker down to Roids’ waist. The sneer returned and grew.

“Haw! Caught you without your gun, I did!” He laughed viscously. “That changes things some, Marshal! I was goin’ to kill you right out, but now I figure I can have some fun with you.” He moved the gun off him and Roids tensed, ready to move. But he relaxed again when it settled on Becky, who stood frozen in terror, still holding the dessert plates she was laying out.

“Way I see it, Cavanaugh, you might be willing to take your chances with me even if you ain’t got a gun.”

“Got that right, Laserface,” Cavanaugh said quietly. “I’m already dead.”

“Uh-huh. So you ain’t got nuthin’ to lose. This way, though,” he raised his arm out and pointed the gun at Becky’s head. “This way, you make the wrong move and the little girl here pays.”

“I reckon I’ll mind my actions, Laserface,” Cavanaugh replied. “So you here for me?”

“Yeah, at first. Only now I think you’re only the first part of tonight’s party. I see it going two parts tonight.” He gave a wicked grin. “Maybe three.”

He turned toward the kitchen, but still kept an eye on Cavanaugh. “Hey! Widow! Get out here now! Or your little girl here catches a couple hot ones through the head!”

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Vickie’s heart jumped. She’d heard every sound and word since Laserface’s entrance. She’d quickly thought through her options, but couldn’t come up with any. Escaping through the airlock door would save her but doom her daughter and the marshal. And while Dan had left her a four shot gun in the kitchen, she knew she didn’t have the skill to burst through the door and shoot Laserface before he took someone with him. Desperately, she looked around for something. An idea came suddenly. The criminal was too wound up, too ready. Something to put him off his guard then, and give Roids a chance to act. (Had she just thought of him by his first name?) Hurriedly, she placed the pistol into her one apron pocket. Into another she placed a spice jar. She then lifted the pie and walked to the door. He wouldn’t wait much longer, so she pushed the door open with her foot and entered the great room.

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There was a soft movement in the kitchen and Vickie came out, holding an apple pie. She looked right at Laserface and gave him a pleasant smile.

“I’m so glad you’re in time for dessert, Mister...”

Roids glanced at Vickie quickly, then over at Laserface. The outlaw looked slightly confused and more than a little suspicious. Why on Mars would she be acting like this? he was no doubt thinking.

“Williams,” he replied curtly.

“Mister Williams,” she finished. “I was about to serve the Marshal some fresh baked apple pie. Would you care for some as well?” Vickie laid the pie down and picked up a cutting knife.

“Put the knife down,” he ordered. “Now!”

“Nonsense, Mr. Williams,” Vickie said cheerfully and proceeded to cut the pie into generous slabs. “I’m not about to try anything while you hold a gun on my daughter. Besides,” she laid the knife aside. “I’m all finished. Now,” she reached for the spatula and gave him a teasing smile. “Shall I ask for permission to use this? Or do you think you can take the risk?”

“Lady, you got guts, I’ll give you that.” His eyes flickered down at the pie, then up to her. “All right. Sure, we’ll have a piece all cozy like. Then fun time begins. You.” He motioned at Becky. “Gimme that plate.”

Becky had lost much of her terror and was becoming angry. “Get it yourself, you Terran sewer rat!”

He laughed and swung the gun to Vickie.

“Girlie, what works on Roids over there works on you, too,” he chuckled. “You want your momma to die just because you was too snooty to give me a piece of pie?”

“Do as he says, Becky. It’ll be fine.” She held out the plate to Becky, who took it and gave it to Laserface. He scooped the piece off the plate.

“I don’t reckon it’ll be all right, lady. But at least this here prolong’s things a bit. Thanks for the pie.” He opened his mouth.

“Wait, Mr. Williams.” Vickie reached into her apron pocket and pulled out the cinnamon spice jar.

Her motion was so smooth and quick that Laserface didn’t have time to react. The gun had no sooner started to come up than he saw there was no danger. He watched her as she opened the jar and poured a small quantity into her hand.

“Would you like a pinch of cinnamon with your pie?” she asked, holding out her hand and taking a cautious step forward. She was now arm’s length away.

“No, thanks. I like it like this.” He took a big bite.

“Then how about a pinch of...” she reached into her other pocket.

His eyes dropped down to her moving hand. She pulled out the pistol and Laserface’s eyes went wide. He started to bring his gun up and she blew the cinnamon in her open hand into his eyes. He growled and fell back, clawing at his eyes, which were burning as the spice soaked up the moisture.

“Aaaahhh!” He screamed again, then opened his stinging eyes. “You’re dead, lady!” He brought the gun up, then saw her hands were empty.

“I reckon not,” came a cold, quiet voice from behind him. Roids! She’d thrown the gun to him while he was blinded!

Laserface swung around, but also to one side. His rough hand jerked out and seized Becky by the hair, yanking her in front of himself as a shield.

“Drop the gun!” he yelled, looking in Roids’ direction, his eyes still streaming and blurred. “Drop it or I’ll kill her!” He crouched further behind the terrified girl, only his head and gun - pointed at her right temple - still visible.

“If I drop it, you’ll kill her anyway,” Roids said evenly. His gaze flickered toward Vickie. “Ma’am, you suppose this gun’s good?”

“Marshal,” Vickie said in a soft voice, tears in her eyes, “My husband wasn’t much to the rest of you, but he loved his wife and daughter with all his heart. And it was he who gave me that gun.”

“She’s dead!” Laserface screamed, his hand tightening. “She’s dead an’ you killed her!”

“Good enough for me,” Roids said to Vickie, and pulled the trigger.

Laserface’s head snapped back as the slug hit him high in the head, and he stood up. With a sob, Becky threw herself down. There were three more shots, rolling like thunder, and they took Laserface in the neck and chest. The four shots perforated the outlaw’s crumpling body, forming a straight line from eyes to heart. The riddled corpse fell back against the table, then slumped to the floor.

Taking no chances, Roids walked to his suit and drew his own gun, then walked to the outlaw’s body. He kicked it lightly, but there was no reaction. There never was. Laserface had been right in one thing: with Roids there was never a second chance. He picked up the now empty four shot pistol and handed it to Vickie.

“Guess I owe Elam an apology. He was a good man. Least ways, he did right by you.”

“Yes, he was a good man, Marshal. He was a very good man.”

Roids looked down at the outlaw and cracked a grin.

“Can’t say for sure, ma’am,” Roids said with a dry tone, “but you mighta used more cinnamon than Laserface preferred.”

“Oh, come now, Marshal,” she said, giving a mischievous smile, holding Becky in her arms and comforting her. “It was only a pinch.”

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Pinch of Cinnamon

Copyright ©1998 by Peter Prellwitz All Rights Reserved.