A Touch of Camelot

By: Delynn Royer

Prologue





Abilene, Kansas. June, 1871.



"Ladies and gents! Are you bothered by the rheumatism? Consumption? Night sweats? Cold feet? Are you haunted by headaches? Back pains? A sick and nervous stomach? I have in my hand the answer to your prayers!"

The gentleman on the makeshift stage was dressed all in white. His dark hair was swept back into a pompadour. He stood in relief against the side of a tall wagon, upon which was painted in bright red calligraphic letters: Professor Throckmorton's Restorative Cordial and Blood Renovator.

Cole Shepherd might have been only sixteen and from a backwater Kansas town nobody had ever heard of, but he sure wasn't stupid. He'd already pegged the "professor" as a fast-talking charlatan. Still, the fellow was a consummate showman, and until a few minutes ago, even Cole hadn't been able to tear his eyes from the stage.

Now, though, his attention was reserved for an adolescent boy who stood no more than three yards away in the crowd. Like so many of the avid listeners around them, the boy appeared to be watching the pitchman onstage, but only seconds before ...

Cole would have given just about anything to get those last thirty seconds back. After all, it might have been one of the most important moments in his life, but it had happened so fast, Cole wasn't sure he could trust his own eyes.

The kid stood motionless, his hands tucked idly into the pockets of an oversized duster, his expression rapt. A dark blue engineer's cap sat low on his head, hiding the color of his hair, but Cole judged his height and weight and guessed him to be a scrawny thirteen.

"... and so it is only by the grace of God and Professor Throckmorton's Restorative Cordial and Blood Renovator that my own lovely wife, Emmaline, stands glowing and healthy before you today!"

Cole looked back to the stage. The professor wasn't lying about one thing anyhow. The lovely Emmaline Throckmorton was certainly that and more. Her complexion was pale and flawless, her eyes were emerald green, and her hair was the color of a flaming summer sunset.

Earlier, she had charmed the crowd with a singing voice as sweet as that of the legendary Jenny Lind. Then she had amazed them all with a daring exhibition of pistol marksmanship, neatly flicking the ashes from a burning cigar Throckmorton held clenched between his teeth at the opposite end of the stage.

Now, as Mrs. Throckmorton smiled prettily at the crowd, Cole looked back to the kid only to realize that he'd vanished. Cole scanned the crowd anxiously. He couldn’t have gotten far. Where in the dickens had he gone?

Cole felt a light tap on his hip and looked down to see a small boy in knickerbockers, not more than four or five years of age. "It's free," the child said solemnly, offering up a pamphlet.

Cole snatched the pamphlet, noting that its front featured a lithograph of the professor and his miracle elixir. It was just as he shoved it into his shirt pocket that he caught sight of that telltale engineer's cap peeking in and out of the throng near the back.

Cole pushed by a matronly woman and a few cowboys, determined not to lose sight of the boy again. When the kid reached the back of the gathering, Cole paused, breath bated. His heart began to pound as he watched the kid sidle along the outside of the crowd, mingling in and out of its fringes in an aimless manner Cole knew wasn't aimless at all.

Then it happened again.

The kid stumbled against a well-dressed gentleman. Smooth as silk, slick as sin, the kid's hand dipped in and out of the man's side coat pocket. A flash of gold was there and then gone, vanished into the kid's own pocket.

The man who’d been fleeced glared at the boy, who touched his hat humbly and backed away. This time there was no room for doubt. Cole had just witnessed a bona fide pickpocket in the act!

Cole's sense of justice was inflamed. His appetite for adventure was kindled. He felt his muscles tense and his heart gear up for double duty.

Back in his home town of Beaver Creek, Cole's father, a general merchant by trade, was also that small settlement's only peace officer. It was rare, though, that he was ever called upon to draw his gun. Except for an occasional saloon brawl, sleepy Beaver Creek was probably the most God-fearing, crime-free settlement west of the Mississippi.

This suited most of the town’s residents just fine, but for Cole, who, when not working or pursuing his studies, could be found with his nose buried in the latest issue of the Police Gazette, this dull state of affairs proved a radical disappointment. This was because, for as long as he could remember, Cole had wanted nothing more than to become a Pinkerton detective.

"… and I could recount dozens, no, hundreds, ladies and gents, hundreds, of equally astounding testimonials, but seeing is believing!"

The pickpocket looked to his right to be sure he hadn't been observed, then to his left, and it was in that moment his gaze clashed with Cole's. An understanding struck between them. The boy knew he'd been discovered, but to Cole’s grudging admiration, he didn't panic. He merely turned and began to stroll away.