Stubborn ran in the family. Their fathers both said that it came from their mothers’ side and since both women were Brandon’s through and through, no one had the guts to argue with them. The only saving grace between them was that they usually didn’t get mule eared at the same time. But there were times, and this was one of them, when their ability to keep one level head between them failed. It all started with a bet.
Upon spying the town of Rail’s End they had debated on whether or not to enter or to just keep going. Railroad towns were usually bad places and the last thing Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry needed right now was to run into any kind of trouble. They were tired, almost broke, sick of the trail and a little sick of each other. What they needed was a few days of quiet where they could rest and regain a little of the natural camaraderie that was usually shared between them.
What had started as an innocent conversation had escalated into a betting match, a silly, childish thing for two grown men to do. It had ended with the Kid betting that he could come up with more money in two days than Heyes could. Now, Heyes sat at a poker table in a loud, smoky room that passed as a saloon, with a watered down drink in one hand and a straight flush in the other. His concentration on his fellow players was keeping his mind off the fact that he did not know where the Kid was, nor what he was doing to win their silly wager.
He sat his drink down, leaned forward and added money to the pot, all the while watching the other three men who faced him. One was a miner, between forty and fifty, with dirty clothes, gnarled hands and a tendency to give a little cough when he had a good hand. The next one worked for the railroad. He was young and full of boast and brag but he had been steadily losing all night and Heyes knew he was about to blow. The third one was the one that knew what he was doing and Heyes was enjoying pitting his skill against what he considered a worthy adversary.
They were about the same age, but he wore the trappings of the gambling trade as if born to them. His suit was fine black cloth, his vest brocade; his shirt had lace at the cuffs. His face was lean and hard, but his eyes were a clear, watercolor blue and they gave absolutely nothing away. They had gone back and forth for the duration of their game, neither one winning or losing too much. They each recognized the same level of talent in the other and were each taking pleasure in the moment.
The miner frowned at the size of Heyes’ wager and folded. He downed the last of his whisky and moved back from the table.
“Too rich for me, boys. I work too hard for my money to lose it all at cards.” He rose and walked away.
Heyes looked over at the railroad man and waited patiently for him to decide what he was going to do. Eyes as placid as a lake met the angry ones of his opponent.
“You in or out?”
“Don’t rush me,” he grumbled, looking from his hand to the pot to his fellow players then back to his hand again.
“We can’t wait here all night,” the dandy said. “We’re here to play cards.”
“Don’t rush the man,” Heyes soothed. “We don’t have anything better to do. There’s not much to do in this little burg of yours.”
“It’s not my ‘little burg’,” the dandy said, smiling and showing a gold tooth. “I just came here for the fine dining and elegant entertainment.”
Heyes gave an appreciative chuckle before eyeing the railroad man again. It was obvious that things were about to get messy. Down to his last few dollars, the man was starting to sweat and was just about to push back, start shouting that he had been cheated and call one or both of them out. A look passed between the two players and just as the railroad man threw his cards down on the table and opened his mouth to start yelling a small gun appeared in the hand of the dandy and was pointed right at him.
“Now, Mr. Railroad Man,” he whispered as he leaned towards the startled man. “We don’t want any trouble out of you. You lost fair and square and it all boils down to the fact that…well…you’re just a lousy card player. Now, why don’t you take what you have left there and go on back to the hotel. No hard feelings.”
He was smiling, but his eyes were like chipped ice and Heyes was quite impressed with his calm demeanor and how quickly he had sized up the situation and had handled it.
To his immense relief, the railroad man slowly reached over, took his meager winnings and slid his chair back from the table, his eyes never leaving the small bore of the pistol.
With a quick bend of the elbow the derringer was whisked back inside the arm of the dandy’s coat as if nothing had ever happened. A small cough, a slow smile and the waters were calm again.
“I don’t think I have ever seen that done more smoothly,” Heyes complimented his opponent.
“Why, thank you, sir,” the dandy nodded his head slightly. He took a sip of the drink in front of him and smiled. “My name is Samuels. Zebulon Samuels.”
“Joshua Smith. Nice to meet you.” Heyes leaned back in his chair and returned the smile. There was a moment of silence.
“So, Mr. Samuels, do we finish this hand or not?”
“Well, Mr. Smith. It seems a shame to waste a perfectly good chance at that large pot in front of us. I say…let’s call and see.”
“Winner buys dinner?”
“Sounds like a good deal to me.”
Kid Curry leaned against the porch railing outside the mine offices at the other end of town, his heavy coat keeping the chill away, his steady blue eyes taking in the entire length of the street and all the occupants therein. He was already feeling foolish about the stupid bet but had decided that a few extra dollars wouldn’t hurt either one of them in the long run.
He also knew that the advertisement for a delivery job that was posted on the front window was too good to be true. There was definitely a catch when there was $1000.00 offered for driving a wagon up to the mine to take supplies. The sign said that interviews would begin at 6:00 and already there was a slowly gathering group who was easing up to the front of the building. Yes, there was definitely a catch and he was just curious enough to want to find out what it was.
Men of all shapes and sizes began to take up positions along either side of the sidewalk in front of the building. Young and old, tall and short, fat and skinny, they all milled around as if waiting for a show to start. Luckily, they didn’t have long to wait.
At six on the dot the door opened and a small, frail looking man of indeterminate age stepped out onto the porch. He seemed surprised by the group that had formed but adjusted his spectacles and cleared his throat.
“Gentlemen,” he acknowledged them all with a small bob of his head. “As you know, DMZ Mining has an opening for a delivery job. This requires a strong back, the ability to handle horses, the ability to drive a team, a certain proficiency with fire arms, as there must be a way for you to protect yourself and the mine property you will be charged with delivering and at least one reference from someone other than family…”
“Who ya tryin’ to hoodwink this week, Herman?” a loud voice shouted from the back of the crowd. There was a round of raucous laughter as everyone watched Herman’s face turn red and his carefully rehearsed speech come to a stuttering halt. “Every man here knows that the last four men you sent up that mountain didn’t make it back. Only a fool would take you up on your offer.” A chorus of yeahs and head nodding accompanied the heckler’s words.
Suddenly a young boy stepped to the front. He looked to be about sixteen, all knobby knees and elbows, wearing clothes a size too big that were patched and faded in more than one place. A hat that had seen better days was perched over his dirty face but the gleam in his eye set the naysayers back a little.
“I’ll take the job, sir,” he said, his voice husky. “I’m young but I’m strong and I’m real good with horses. I can do the job, sir. Just give me a chance.”
“Young man, I could not possibly hire you,” Herman responded, aghast at the thought of sending this young man to his doom. “You are not old enough, for one thing, and I doubt very seriously that you could provide a reference.”
“But, sir,” the boy pleaded. “I really need this job. I need the money.”
“No. Now move along.”
“I can vouch for the boy,” came a new voice from the crowd. Heads turned and men craned their necks to see who had spoken. Kid Curry knew the sound of desperation when he heard it. He also remembered the bitter taste of humiliation from wearing hand me downs and having nothing but air and lint in your pockets. He straightened and walked up to stand beside the boy.
“And just who might you be?” Herman asked, peering down at both of them from his perch on the steps.
“I’m Thaddeus Jones. I can handle horses, a gun and myself. Sheriff Lom Trevors will vouch for me and I can vouch for the boy.”
“I don’t take charity, mister,” the boy said, stepping away from his sudden benefactor. The Kid spared him a cool look then turned his attention back to Herman.
“You know Lom Trevors? Sheriff Lom Trevors from Porterville?”
“Yes. We’re old friends. I can send a wire to him right now.”
“Ah, Mr. Jones…could you come inside with me please? I think we need to talk.”
Puzzled by the little man’s sudden urge to speak to him the Kid laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder saying, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back,” before stepping inside the offices. Once he was ushered in, The Kid watched as Herman skittered about the room, pulling shades down, locking the door and lighting lamps against the sudden gloom. He then offered him a seat, which he declined.
“Mr. Jones…I’ve been expecting you,” the little man said as he sat down at his desk.
“I don’t see how that’s possible, Mr. Herman. I’ve never been to Rail’s End before in my life and I certainly didn’t have any reason to come here. Why don’t you tell me who you think I am and maybe we can get this job started.”
“You…your…you mean you aren’t from the government? You haven’t been sent here to help clean up the problems that DMZ Mining has been having with the locals?”
“Do I look like the law to you, Mr. Herman?” The incredulity in the Kid’s voice was enough to almost make Herman smile.
“But…I thought…when you said you were friends with Sheriff Trevors…”
“Yeah, friends. But I don’t work for him. And the last time I spoke to him he didn’t work for the government.” The Kid removed his hat and took the previously offered chair before continuing. “Now why don’t we start from the beginning…”
Heyes and Samuels made their way to one of the better eating establishments in town and had a fairly good meal. Conversation was easy and of no consequence as both men where not the type to give too much of themselves away to a total stranger. Samuels was laid back and easy going but Heyes noticed that they sat in a corner table where he could have a clear line of sight to the front door. It reminded him of his partner and gave him a small twinge.
“So, how long you been in Rail’s End?” Heyes asked, as a hearty steak was set before him. Samuels sat back and let the waitress set one in front of him before he answered.
“Oh, about three weeks. I usually don’t stay in one place for very long but the way these miners play cards, well, I just couldn’t resist stayin’ around and fattening my purse for a little while longer.” He grinned as he took a bite and sighed. “Nothing like a good meal after a good round of poker. So, Smith, what’s your reason for being here?”
“Well, my partner and I decided that we needed to make some money as we were broker than the ten commandments when we rode in so I found a card game I could get into and he is out looking for something else. Thaddeus isn’t as good with cards as I am.”
“Unfortunately, unless your friend is willing to work in the mines or laying rail for the railroad there isn’t much around here that pays. Unless he’s dumb enough to take the weekly offer from DMZ Mining to deliver supplies up to the mine for $1,000.00. That, my friend, is a suicide mission and is best left alone.”
Heyes stomach clutched and he sat his fork down abruptly, his face losing a bit of its usual color, his smile slipping a little. Surely the Kid wouldn’t go for something like that?
Not even for $1,000.00. He would be smart enough to see that it was a set up. He had taught him better than that…hadn’t he?
“Yeah. For the last six weeks they have sent a wagon up there to deliver supplies and the payroll and every time the driver has been found shot to death along the road somewhere. Never the same place. Never the same gun. The town doesn’t have a sheriff and the townsfolk are too afraid to go up there and take a look, so every week the money gets better and the crowds gather to see who has a death wish. They did it this afternoon. If I hadn’t been involved with our little game I would have been down there myself, seeing what poor idiot would take such an offer.”
“Poor idiot,” Heyes laughed sickly under his breath. He had a pretty good idea what poor idiot that might have been.
The street was empty when The Kid left the mining office. He had the job even though he had been quite convincing to Mr. Herman that he was not a government agent. It would be dangerous, but with his ability to take care of himself he was fairly sure that they could make the two-day journey up the mountain and back without either one of them being killed. He settled his hat on his head as his gaze swept the street for any sign of the boy then sighed and began to make his way towards the stable. Someone there would more than likely be able to tell him something.
Stepping into the livery door he stood for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the half- light. The place appeared empty except for the horses though someone had lit the lamps. He walked slowly towards the back hoping to find the owner but was even more pleased when the boy came barreling around the corner and almost knocked him down.
“Whoa, there,” he said, taking the boy by the shoulders and steadying him. When the boy looked up and saw who it was he sneered and stepped back.
“Get your hands off me, mister. I ain’t got nothin’ ta say ta ya.”
The Kid lifted his hands up and took a couple of steps back himself. He would have smiled, but he didn’t think the young man would have appreciated it.
“I thought I told you to wait for me?”
“You ain’t my boss. I don’t gotta do what you say. Besides, you already stole that job from me. I reckon I ain’t got no more business with ya.” He wiped a dirty hand under his nose and smeared the sweat and dust even more.
“I didn’t steal the job from you. I got the job for both of us. That is if you’re still interested in it.” The boy blinked stunned green eyes at him and appeared to be speechless. “Well, are you? Interested, that is?”
He looked so suspicious and contrite at the same time that the Kid almost gave into the chuckles. This one was a firecracker, there was no doubt about it. Green as grass and as thorny as a bramble but he would be good company on the trail and deep down, he knew just how badly the boy needed the money.
“I need that money real bad, mister. You ain’t joshin’ me are ya? Cause if ya are I’ll have to cut ya.” From one grubby hand he produced a knife big enough to give the Kid a start. “Belongs to my pappy and I knows how ta use it. I can protect myself and don’t you forget it.”
With lightning speed the Kid reached out and removed the knife from his hand. The boy stumbled back and stared in shocked dismay as the Kid stepped towards him and hauled him up on his toes by his shirtfront. Eyes like an arctic lake bored into his terrified green ones.
“Never draw a weapon if you don’t intend use it, boy, and never, ever, pull one on me again.” He dropped him and moved towards the door, pausing at the threshold as he looked back. “I’m going to get me something to eat. If you want to come along and join me we can talk about our new job. If you don’t, be here at sunrise. I want to get an early start.”
The Kid walked across the street to the diner, never looking back to see if his new charge was following or not. The Arkansas Toothpick he had confiscated was in the pocket of his coat. He reached the porch and was pleased to hear footsteps rushing up behind him.
“Mr. Jones?” He turned at the familiar voice. “I reckon as we haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Bobby, sir. Bobby Lane.” He stuck out his hand, saw the condition of it, hastily wiped it on his pant leg then offered it again. The Kid took it and gave it a firm shake.
“The names Thaddeus and don’t call me sir. It makes me nervous.” That brought out a small smile. With a hearty slap on the back they entered the diner and had supper.
Heyes and his newfound friend played more poker after supper. They went to another house because they were both superstitious about winning again in the same place. This one had a little finer clientele and better liquor but Heyes had other things on his mind and did not play as well as he should have.
This bet was stupid. Two grown men…acting like children. He needed to go find the Kid and tell him that the bet was off. Oh, he’d take quite a bit of ribbing over it, but at least his partner and only living relative would not be off trying to get himself killed to win.
What had he been thinking? Baiting him that way. No one in the world knew better just how stubborn Jed Curry could be when he was pushed too hard. He would play out this round then he would go find the Kid and knuckle under.
The next few rounds he won and he was beginning to feel pretty cocky. He had just cleaned out the two men at his table and they had thrown up their hands and walked away when Zebulon abruptly sat down, his back to the room. Heyes looked up, a bit puzzled to see beads of sweat forming on the younger mans forehead.
“Deal,” he said, his voice nervous though he did not look over his shoulder.
“You in some kind of trouble?” Heyes asked as his nimble hands shuffled, cut and shuffled the cards again before he began to deal them out.
“Looks like.” The smile he gave Heyes was a weak one at best. Heyes’ dark gaze swept the room for any sign of trouble but saw nothing to make him suspicious.
“Anything I can do?” He was about to turn up his hand when Zebulon’s stopped him.
“I trust you, Smith. I’m putting something very important in your hands. Make this hand for everything. All you got against all I got.”
“Are you crazy? I don’t have anything. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on and I’ll see if I can help.”
“Don’t have time,” he growled. “You either help me or not, it’s your choice, but I got to know now.” The desperation in his face was what made the decision for Heyes. He had seen it before and would see it again, and every once in a while, he let it get to him.
“Okay,” he nodded. “But this better not be anything illegal, Samuels. I got my own troubles with the law and I don’t need anymore.”
“It ain’t the law. Believe me. So, you taking the bet? Everything I own against everything you own?”
“Yeah. Turn them over.”
They each took their hand and turned it over for the other to see. Samuels had two deuces. Heyes had three kings. With a huge sigh, Samuels reached into the inside of his coat pocket and pulled out a packet. He handed it to Heyes and stood up, downing the last of the whiskey Heyes has ordered.
“Take this and keep it safe. My room is in this establishment. Here’s the key.” He
dropped it on the table before turning to face the room. His eyes met the cold hard eyes of a stranger and for a moment they just stood there. Then Samuels gave Heyes a grin, vaulted over the rail and out the side door. Two men were in hot pursuit before anyone knew it. Heyes took that moment to get up from the table and step behind the curtains to wait out the excitement. He had no intention of facing the stranger, not until he had time to see what was so important to Samuels.
He slipped around the table and through the back, casually putting the packet in his vest pocket and holding his winnings close to his chest. The key said 308 so he climbed the stairs to the third floor and hoped he would find Samuels waiting for him. Room 308 was at the end of the hall and looked out over the street. He unlocked the door and stepped inside. The room was dark and quiet and the scent of something exotic hung in the air. As he turned to light a lamp a wild shriek split the night. He dropped his money and raised his hands in time to ward off a flying body with what appeared to be six inch nails that were, at this moment, trying to rip his face to shreds.
They met with a force that knocked them both to the floor. He rolled over once and pinned his opponent under him. In the light from the window he saw the twisted face of a beautiful oriental woman, her teeth bared as she growled and writhed trying to get free from his tight grasp.
“Calm down,” he said through gritted teeth, afraid he would hurt her, but more afraid of letting her go so she could hurt him. “Stop it. You’re only going to hurt yourself. I said
STOP IT!” He gave her a shake and his voice brooked no argument. She froze, her huge black eyes filled with hate and fear. They lay there for a few moments, their ragged breathing the only sound in the room.
“If I let you up will you promise not to come after me again?”
She glared at him for a few moments more then let out a defeated breath and nodded in the affirmative. He eased his grip and rolled away from her coming gracefully to his feet.
She came up on her knees and sank down on her heels, her hands on her thighs, her head down, her long black curtain of hair obscuring her face and she didn’t move while he caught the breath that she had scared out of him and lit a lamp.
“Who are you?” He sat down in the nearest chair and eyed her, still wary.
“I am Chan Liu Tse. My master will not be happy to find you here.”
“Your master? Who is your master?” He asked, but his gut was already telling him who her master was. He suddenly remembered the packet he carried in his vest pocket. He snatched it out and opened it to find a statement of ownership for one Chan Liu Tse and a transfer of sale to the bearer. That bearer happened to be him.
Heyes jumped to his feet and dropped the papers as if they were burning his fingers.
“No! I didn’t sign on for this. I don’t own you! I don’t own anybody!” He backed away from the now blank expression on Chan Liu Tse’s face and knew that he had been had.
“My master has given my possession to you?” she asked, her voice shaking only a bit.
“I told you…I don’t own you. Here.” He reached down and picked up the paper, shoving it at her, though she did not move a muscle. “Take it. If you have it it means you are the bearer and are free. I don’t know why he would do something like this but I am going to find him and when I do I ‘m going to beat the answers out of him.”
“My master is not dead?” Hope and tears that did not fall filled her eyes. She raised them to him and stopped his pacing for a moment.
“No. He was very much alive the last time I saw him. I don’t guarantee that he will be after I find him, though. Get up off the floor,” he barked gruffly, reaching down to take her arm and lift her to her feet. “I am NOT your master. You don’t have to bow to me.”
“But these papers say you are, sir. I am sorry, master, I do not know your name.”
“It’s Joshua Smith and don’t call me master.” He frowned down at her for a moment. “What do I call you?” he said in a more gentle tone, noticing how badly she was trembling.
“My master shortened my name to Lucy. It was easier for him to say.”
“Well, Lucy. It looks like we are stuck for a little while until I can get this figured out. And I promise you, I will get it figured out. Even if it’s over Zebulon Samuels’ dead body.”
The Kid sat across from Bobby Lane, sipping a third cup of coffee and watching him finish off a second helping of apple pie. He hadn’t eaten much in the way of dinner. Had spent most of his time moving it around his plate with his fork but at the mention of dessert his eyes had lit up and the Kid just couldn’t say no. This one was a puzzle and he was going to take his own sweet time figuring it out.
“So, you figurin’ on leavin’ the pattern on that plate?”
The boy looked up from scraping his fork across it for the last little bit of apple and blushed. He quickly set it away from himself and grinned.
“Pretty good pie. Don’t get much of that where I come from.”
“Just where is that?”
“Oh, here and there. No place really.” The evasive answer made the Kid smile.
“So…why do you need $500.00 so bad you’d risk getting shot to get it?” The expression on the boy’s face was priceless.
“You’re gonna split the money with me?” Awestruck, he just looked at the Kid in disbelief. “Fifty/fifty?” The Kid took another swallow of his drink then set it down to turn it in his hands.
“What did you think I was going to do?” His face was earnest, his voice low and serious. The boy sat back and eyed him for a moment before answering him.
“I figured you’d pay me what you thought was fair. Maybe fifty dollars. Or a hundred if I was real useful.”
“You don’t think much of folks, do you, son?”
“Ain’t never had no reason to. People are basically dishonest. Oh, they say they aren’t, but they are.”
“That’s a pretty cynical outlook for a boy.”
“I don’t know what that means, Mr. Jones, but I ain’t a boy.” He puffed out his chest and sat taller in his chair, squaring his narrow shoulders as much as he could. “I can look after myself and I don’t take nothin’ from nobody.”
“I meant no offense,” the Kid apologized. “I meant for someone your age, that’s a pretty hard way to look at life.”
“Life ain’t no bed of roses. It’s mostly thorns.” Bobby shrugged and stood up. “I reckon as I’d better turn in. I’ll be sleepin’ at the stables tonight so I can keep watch over the wagon.”
The Kid rose as well and dropped the payment for their meal on the table before reaching for his hat.
“I’ll be there too.” At the boy’s look of disappointment he laid a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I trust you Bobby or I wouldn’t be riding with you, but I want to get up and out of here before the sun comes up and I don’t want anybody knowing about it. I’ve got to go get my things from the hotel, then I’ve got a meeting with Mr. Herman to get what he needs carried up there, then I’ll be over to the stables. I expect you to be packed and ready.”
“I will, sir. You can count on me.”
“I know I can. Now head on over there. I’ll be along.” He watched him go and fleetingly thought of his partner, who was probably at this very moment drawing to a royal flush and thinking that he would be the winner of this little bet. He smiled and headed off into the night. We’ll just see about that.
Playing cards would have been a wonderful thing to have been doing, but Hannibal Heyes was pacing the floor of room 308 and deciding that he had been conned. Lucy sat on the edge of a chair, her eyes downcast in respect and waited for him to speak. Instead, he grumbled to himself, mad that he had been sucked into something that could get him and the girl into serious trouble or quite possibly killed.
“How long have you been with Samuels?” He paused and waited for her response.
“Almost half a year. He won me from my previous master in a poker game.”
“How fitting,” he said under his breath. She raised her eyes to him in question but said nothing else. “Do you know what kind of trouble he’s in? Who those men were that were chasing him?”
“There were men chasing him?” She swallowed hard and fisted one small hand in distress.
“Yes. Men I’ve never seen before, but I know their type.”
“You did not try to help him?” Her tone was even but the accusation was there. It ruffled his feathers a bit.
“I didn’t know he was in trouble until he made me make this stupid bet. Now I own all of his worldly possessions, including you.” He flopped down on the bed and ran his hands through his hair.
“I know of no one who would want to hurt him,” she said softly. “But we do move around quite a lot and we never stay in one place for very long. He plays cards and I…I do for him whatever needs to be done.”
“What exactly does that mean?” he asked suspiciously. “Whatever needs to be done?”
She raised her chin and straightened her spine before answering him.
“I cook for him. I wash for him. I tend to him if he is hurt. I can be ready to go in only a few minutes. He has always treated me with respect. He does not beat me or make me…I mean he doesn’t force me to…” she could no longer meet his gaze and so dropped her eyes as she folded her hands in her lap. “We are not intimate.”
“Yes, well,” he said, gruffly clearing his throat. “You don’t have to worry about any of that on my account. I do my own laundry and tend to my own wounds. As for the other, well, you can relax. I’ve never taken a woman against her will in my life and I don’t intend to start with you.” His keen gaze raked over her and on a hunch he stood, went to her, and gently putting a finger under her chin, lifted her face to see it. “And I suspect that it would be against your will, wouldn’t it?”
“You are my master. I must do whatever is your wish.” Her gaze was steady and unreadable in the half-light, but he could feel her beginning to tremble and it touched something deep inside of him.
“You need never worry that I would force myself on you Lucy. I…” but the rest of his sentence was cut off as booted feet pounded down the hall and stopped at their door. He quickly grabbed her and pressed her against the wall behind him. Someone rattled the knob then gave the door a slap at finding it locked.
“Just kick it in.”
“No. We kick it in, we draw attention to ourselves and the boss don’t want that. Let’s go downstairs and roust the key out of the manager.”
They listened as the would-be intruders retreated down the hall. Heyes turned and pulled Lucy into the center of the room.
“Get your things together. We’ve got to get out of here. Get Zeb’s things too. We don’t want any evidence that he was ever here.”
Lucy quickly shoved what few things she had hung up or laid out into a couple of valises and handed them to Heyes. He stepped to the door, listened for a moment, then eased it open. To his immense relief the hallway was empty.
“Come on. Down the back stairs. My hotel is a few doors down. We can decide what we need to do there.”
They took the back stairs and easily slipped into the cool night.
Just before the rooster crowed the next morning Kid Curry and Bobby Lane set off up the mountain road to the DMZ Mine. It would take almost all day to get the heavily loaded wagon up the trail and to their destination. A night spent up there and a quick return on the morrow would find both of them in the money.
He had met with Herman and had the payroll and the mail in the saddlebags underneath the seat. He had also picked up provisions for both of them and a few extra things that they might enjoy. Bobby was curled up in a blanket behind the seat and the Kid really couldn’t blame him. If he could sleep in a moving wagon more power to him.
The sun crested over the horizon and as always made him think. He was not a profound man, but sunrise brought out the philosophical part of him and he thought deeply about new chances and new beginnings and the powers that brought such things into his life. He wondered how late Heyes was sleeping and thought again that he should have left his partner a note explaining what he was up to. But Heyes would have only tried to talk him out of it and he was not going to let Bobby down.
Bobby. Such a tough little person. He had recognized the look. The desperation in his eyes. The caution that came from getting kicked when you were down by the very people who should have been taking care of you. Living in an orphanage had put that look in his eyes too. He did not know for sure if Bobby was an orphan, but he knew that life had been hard on the boy. If he and Heyes hadn’t had each other maybe that look would have still been there in their eyes as well.
Those keen eyes began to look for dangerous spots as the light became brighter. For now they were on a smooth flat road that would begin to climb shortly. There were no places for an ambush and he was fairly sure that they were ahead of whoever would be coming to try and stop them. His Colt felt snug and secure against his thigh and he carried a rifle in the scabbard by the brake.
“Hey,” a sleepy voice said from over his shoulder. He glanced back to see the flushed face of his companion from under his decidedly worse for wear hat.
“Ya want I should drive for a while? Seein’ as how I slept late on ya.” He climbed over the seat and sat down beside the Kid, hunching against the still cool morning.
“Yeah. I could use a break. Besides, I brought stuff for breakfast and I’m getting hungry.” The Kid handed the reins over and turned to fish out one of the sacks he had brought along.
“You brought somethin’ to eat for breakfast?”
“Sure. A man needs to keep food in his belly. Makes you sharper.” He handed the boy a cold biscuit, which he pounced on and began to eat with relish. With half of it gone and the other half in his mouth he stopped and blushed at the look the Kid was giving him.
“No need to choke yourself. We got plenty more. I stopped by the hotel kitchen on my way to the stables last night and talked the cook into letting me have some extra food for the trip.” The Kid smiled at the memory of just how he had managed to sweet talk the cook into helping him.
“Thanks, Mr. Jones.” Bobby swallowed the chunk of biscuit and swiped the crumbs from his face.
“The names Thaddeus,” the Kid corrected him again. “Don’t need to stand on formalities when your partners.” He took a big bite of his own breakfast and wished for a hot cup of coffee.
“Thaddeus.” With a grin, Bobby turned his full attention back to the horses and enjoyed the feeling of a full stomach first thing in the morning. They opened a canteen and washed everything down and then the Kid handed him an apple.
“Apples! You got apples!” The look on the boy’s face was enough to make the Kid laugh.
“Think you’d never had one before the way you’re carrying on.” He polished the rich red surface on his shirt sleeve and enjoyed the first juicy bite of his own and watched as the boy deftly switched the reins into his left hand and took the one he offered and began to devour it.
“Thanks,” he managed, though his mouth was full.
“Anytime.” He gave the boy a slap on the back and settled back to watch the road.
Heyes and Lucy had made it to his room without incident. She was silent and obedient and scared. The first two didn’t bother him that much, but he was sorry she was scared and angry that he could do nothing about it. He had ordered up dinner for them both but she had barely touched anything. He could see how tired she was but at his suggestion that she go to bed she had assured him that the chair would do for her. Angrily he had finally ordered her to stretch out on the bed and when her head hit the pillow she had dropped into sleep like a stone in water.
He had locked the door and pulled the chair over to the window and had sat there all night, watching the street and dozing, trying to formulate a plan that would find Samuels and would reunite Lucy with her real master. If only the Kid were here to watch his back. He was going to have to start asking around and when he did that, no doubt the men who had come after them last night would be on his doorstep. What could Samuels have done to have these men on his trail?
Cheating at cards was the most apparent option, but he had played against Samuels and he was too good a card player to have to cheat. Of course, there were men who were sore losers and just couldn’t let bygones be bygones. But what Heyes has seen in Samuels’ eyes when he played that last hand was desperation and that didn’t come from someone who had cheated someone at cards. No. Something else was the root of this problem and he would just have to figure it out before the Kid found out that he owned someone.
As dawn turned the sky a glorious shade of pink he looked over at Lucy. How in the world could anyone say they owned another person? Lost in slumber she looked like a child but he knew better. She was a woman full grown and a beautiful woman at that. There was no telling what kind of life she had lived being owned by first one man and then another. It gave him a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach to think about it.
She stirred and opened her large, round black eyes. He watched the confusion come and go and then the realization that what she had hoped was a dream was not. She sat up and stretched, running a hand through her waist length black hair and drawing it over one shoulder.
“Good morning,” he said huskily. “Did you sleep alright?”
“Yes,” she answered, dropping her eyes. “I am sorry you did not have a good nights sleep, master. It is still early. You can still get some rest if you wish.”
“No,” he stretched as well and stood up. “I’m awake and I need some breakfast. I’m going to go down and order us something to eat then I’m going to start looking for Samuels.”
“But what about those men from last night? Won’t they be after you if they find you are looking for him?”
“I would imagine,” he agreed as he slipped into his vest. “But I don’t know of any other way to solve our little problem. I’ll be back. Lock the door behind me.”
After breakfast he began his search but it was to no avail. Everyone had seen him around but no one knew him. By lunchtime, though, he had a tail and he was very careful that he didn’t lead him back to Lucy. He took a table in front of the window in the most popular diner in town and waited for company. By the time his coffee was served and his order placed, he was interrupted by a hulk of a man in bad fitting suit that came up to the table and cleared his throat loudly.
“Mr. Smith?” he asked in a deep voice.
“Yes,” he smiled pleasantly up at the man.
“My boss would like the pleasure of your company for lunch. Come with me.”
“I’m sorry, I am not in the habit of dining with strangers. I will have to decline the invitation.” Heyes went back to his coffee and gazing out the front window. A ham-like hand grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet, knocking the chair over and causing him to spill the hot liquid across the table.
“I asked nice,” the hulk said as if that were a perfect explanation for his man handling him now.
“Not nice enough,” Heyes said, his voice as deadly as the gun he held in his hand that was now pointed at the belly of his assailant. The big man released Heyes’ arm and put both of his hands up, taking a step backwards.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” an unfamiliar voice stopped them both. Heyes’ eyes swept over the man speaking then back to the larger man. “Sikes, go back to the table. I’ll handle things from here.” Sikes stood down and backed away. Heyes relaxed his stance and shot a dark look at the stranger.
“Please forgive my employee, Mr. Smith. He sometimes takes my orders literally.”
The man was about forty with dark hair, black eyes and a suit the same color. He looks like an undertaker, Heyes idly thought as he calmly holstered his gun. “My name is Harry Dalton. May I sit down?”
“Since my coffee is all over the table, Mr. Dalton, I suggest you say whatever it is you need to so I can move to a drier location and have my lunch.”
“My apologies. Please. Come and join me at my table. It is the least I can do.”
Heyes acted as if he were pondering the idea for a moment, then shrugged and picked up his hat.
They moved to a nicer table in the corner, away from the regular traffic and were served fresh cups of coffee before they had even had a chance to get comfortable. Dalton ordered two of the blue-plate specials then settled back and smiled, crossing his long legs gracefully.
“Now,” he began, his voice smooth as silk. “What brings you to our lovely little town, Mr. Smith?”
“Oh, just passing through. Wanted a bed and a hot bath, so I made myself at home for a few days.”
“Your not a miner or with the railroad? How odd.” He smiled that reptilian smile again. “Most men around here work for one or the other.”
“And which one do you work for, Mr. Dalton?” Heyes leaned forward and sipped his coffee, his eyes taking in everything. Dalton surprised him by giving a short bark of a laugh before answering him.
“Why, Mr. Smith, you are new to Rail’s End. My partners and I own the biggest mine in these parts and we have a rather large percentage of the railroad as well. You no doubt have heard of DMZ Mining? Well, I’m the D.”
Heyes sat back and let the waitress serve them their lunch of roast beef and vegetables before answering his host.
“DMZ Mining? Aren’t you the ones who offer the big money for taking a wagon- load of supplies up to the mine? Seems to me I’ve heard how dangerous it is. You have much trouble with outlaws around here?”
“From time to time, Mr. Smith. You know how it is. Anytime there is commerce the likes of which we have here in Rail’s End there is a certain, shall we say, criminal element that shows up. I guess it is just the cost of doing business.”
“You might have better luck if you had a sheriff,” Heyes dryly remarked between bites.
“Well, we’ve not had much luck with the law around here. My partners and I have sort of taken up the slack and we take care of things should they get out of hand.” Dalton took his coffee cup and sipped it slowly. “Take for instance, last night.”
“Was there trouble in town last night?” Heyes’ expression gave nothing away.
“Yes. A man who I have been informed is a friend of yours was causing trouble at the card tables.”
“Really? What kind of trouble was this fellow causing and what is his name? I’ve only been in town a day and I don’t know anybody by name. Except you, that is.”
“So you deny knowing Zachary Stevens, Mr. Smith?”
Heyes placed his fork down, picked up his coffee and smiled. “Mr. Dalton, I can assure you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I know of no one by that name.”
Dalton sat up with a snap, his black eyes sharp. “You mean you didn’t spend last night playing cards and having dinner with anyone?”
“I didn’t say that,” Heyes countered. “I said I have never met anyone named Zachary Stevens. I played cards and dined with a very congenial fellow named Zebulon Samuels.”
“Zeb…you mean that man is using more than one name?”
“So it would appear. I understand that the criminal element is famous for doing that.”
“He’s rumored to be traveling with a young woman. A Chinese woman. Do you know anything about that, Mr. Smith?”
“We didn’t speak of personal things, Mr. Dalton. But tell me, what has our mutual friend done that would get him in trouble with you?”
Dalton digested this information, ignoring Heyes’ question completely as he reached for his hat, stood up and dropped enough coin on the table to pay for their meal.
“I thank you for the information, Mr. Smith, and should you hear from your friend I would advise you to get in touch with me immediately. It would be in everyone’s best interest.” The threat in his voice was unmistakable but Heyes merely kept his seat and fingered the hastily handed card with Mr. Dalton’s office address on it. This was getting very intriguing.
The horses began to labor as they made their way up the steep incline. They had been going for the better part of six hours so the Kid decided that it was time to stop, have some lunch and let them rest a little. There had been no sign of anyone coming or going up the mine road and he didn’t know whether that made him feel better or worse. Bobby had handled the team like a real professional with a calm steady hand and he was impressed by the boy’s stamina. He seemed never to run out of energy or enthusiasm but he wasn’t much of a talker. This combination was wonderful as far as the Kid was concerned.
“Time for a break,” he said, startling Bobby, who nevertheless reined up as easy as you please.
“Is there trouble? Did you see something?” He craned his neck around expecting to see men with guns behind every tree.
“No, son. There’s no trouble. Its just time to let everyone have a rest. Besides, I’m hungry, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. I reckon I could eat somethin’. We’ve been makin’ good time though.” The boy tied the reins off and jumped down to the ground as nimble as a cat. “We gonna start a fire?”
“No. I don’t want to take any chances that someone will see the smoke. Why don’t you get the food out while I go have a look around?” The Kid checked his gun and slid it back into the holster before looking up into the unreadable eyes of his new partner. “Nothing to be alarmed about. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay. I…just don’t care much for six-guns is all.”
“I figured you for a smart man. You keep it that way.” With a fatherly pat on the shoulder the Kid disappeared into the foliage. By the time he returned Bobby had laid out the food and had managed to find a stream nearby where he could fill the buckets and water the horses. He was waiting patiently beside the wagon, hunched into his oversized coat, his hat pulled down over his eyes.
“You asleep?” the Kid called out a smile in his voice until he saw the business end of a shotgun pointed at him. He stopped and watched as Bobby came scrambling to his feet, careful not to trip over the barrel.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jones,” he stammered, his eyes wide with fright. “I know you told he never to draw on ya again. I didn’t mean anything by it. Honest. But ya startled me and I wasn’t sure if’n it was you.”
“No need to get upset Bobby. You did the right thing, being on alert an all. I’m glad to be ridin’ with a partner who’s as sharp as you are. Now…can we put the hardware away and eat? I’m starvin’.”
Bobby leaned the gun against the wagon wheel and looked one more time to be sure the Kid wasn’t really mad at him before he scrambled up on the open tailgate and handed him a sandwich. He had been delighted to find plenty of sandwiches and some cornbread in the sack along with more apples and some soft apple cider in a pail. It was a veritable feast for him and he was beginning to like the accommodations. It had been a long time since he had eaten so well.
The Kid climbed up on the other side of the wagon and began to eat as he watched his charge pounce on the food as if it were his last meal. He remembered how it felt to be beyond hungry, when your stomach was so empty that water made it cramp. He also remembered how many times he and Heyes had vowed that they would never be that hungry ever again and, truth be known, they had not since they had been about Bobby’s age. If nothing else came out of this little adventure at least the boy would have a few days of good food and then some money to keep the wolf away.
“So, Thaddeus,” Bobby began as he wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “How much longer until we get up to the camp? I can’t believe we ain’t had no trouble so far. I heared all the stories the folks in town been saying about how many folks has come up here and not come back.”
“I figure we’ve got about four more hours until we get there. It shouldn’t be dark yet even.” The Kid took a dipper full of the cider and washed the cornbread down. “Why don’t you tell me some of the stories you’ve heard. It might help me decide what our best plan should be.”
Bobby’s narrow shoulders squared with pride at being so important. He leaned back against the side of the wagon and re-situated his hat before continuing.
“Well, best I recall, they been sending folks up here for a long time but about three months ago the trouble started. Rumor is the mine is about to play out and the folks that own DMZ are pretty scairt about it. Anyway, the last four or five times they’s sent anybody up here they didn’t make it back. They says that they were ambushed and killed by bandits but since there ain’t no law in town, there ain’t been any real investigatin’. For all folks know, it could all be some kind of a racket, but folks like to believe the worst most times, so I guess they like the stories of them fellers getting killed.”
“So, you think that those men weren’t really killed?”
“I don’t know,” the boy shrugged, “but I never did see no bodies. Wouldn’t they have brought the bodies into town for a decent burial?”
“You’d think so, Bobby.” The Kid looked out at nothing in particular while he pondered this new twist. Maybe the boy had a point. Something hadn’t felt right about this job from the beginning and maybe now he was beginning to see the light. He jumped down and brushed the crumbs off his shirt.
“Unload the wagon, Bobby. We’re gonna set up a little ambush of our own.”
“Wha…?” Bobby said as he scrambled off the tailgate.
“You heard me. Come on. I figure we don’t have much time.”
Heyes lost his tail and made it back to his hotel in record time. He needed to ask Lucy some serious questions. As he came up the back stairs he heard a crash and saw that the door to his room had been broken open. He dashed through the portal and found Lucy on the floor struggling with a large brute of a man. Without a sound he drew his gun and placed it’s cool barrel against the back of the man’s neck.
“Hold it right there,” he said through clinched teeth. The man froze, which allowed Lucy to wiggle out from under him and scramble across the floor to the corner.
“I don’t know who you are, but you better have a good explanation for this.” He cocked the hammer and the man started to sweat. “You see, this makes the second time today I’ve had to pull my gun and, well, it just makes me irritable when I have to do that.” He eased the pressure enough for the man to turn around and come up on his knees with his hands raised. It gave Heyes a lot of satisfaction to see the red claw marks along his cheek.
“Who do you work for and what are you doing in my room?” Eyes flat and black with unexpressed rage matched the deadly barrel of the gun pointed at him and the man began a stuttering explanation.
“I…I work for…Harry Dalton. He…he said…he’d pay $50.00 to any man who could find the girl that was traveling with the man he’s after. I…I was at the casino last night and…I saw you and him talking before the trouble started. I…I just…wanted…” he swallowed and stopped.
“Yeah, I know exactly what you wanted. You figured that the money was good but maybe having a little fun with her before you turned her over wouldn’t be so bad.”
“I…honest, mister…I didn’t mean no harm. She’s a Chinese anyway.” He put a trembling hand over the burning scratch on his cheek. “Beside…she got me pretty good.”
Heyes snarled, his black eyes flashing as he hauled the man to his feet and shook him like a rag doll. The man let out a startled shriek and raised his hands to defend himself.
“I ought to beat you within an inch of your life for what you’ve done. No man has the right to take a woman against her will. Any woman.” He suddenly released the man as if he were afraid of contamination. Without his support he sank to his knees again. “You get out of here,” he ground out. “I had better not ever see you again.”
The man staggered to his feet, snatched his hat from the floor and bolted from the room. Heyes stood for a long moment trying to collect himself. Lucy moved from her place and crept towards him, laying a tentative hand on his arm while she held the shredded pieces of her blouse together with the other. His black eyes rested upon her and were calm.
“Are you alright? Did he hurt you?”
“No, master. You arrived in time. Thank you.” She bowed her head as she began to tremble.
“Sit down,” he said, taking her arms and leading her to the bed. She sank down and was grateful for the comfort when he pulled the spread up around her. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Yes. I am unharmed.”
“I’m going to go down and get us another room. You stay here.” When she nodded he made his way downstairs and vented some of his vicious temper on the hotel manager, who gave them another room and swore that no one would know the number or location. With that taken care of Heyes made another stop.
He came through the office door of DMZ Mining like an avenging angel, startling the small mouse of a man who was the secretary and marched straight through the swinging gate to the office door that had Dalton’s name painted on it. Not bothering to knock he flung it open and surprised the three men seated in the room.
Dalton came to his feet immediately while the other two men simply remained where they were. The M and the Z, Heyes was sure of it, but it was Dalton he had business with.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Smith, but you can’t come barging in here! This is a private office!”
“Your men didn’t seem to think my room was private when they came looking for me.”
“They weren’t looking for you, Mr. Smith, they were looking for the girl and if you had been honest with me at lunch the regrettable actions of Johnson would not have happened. As it is, no harm was really done.” He recoiled from the blaze that fired in Heyes eyes and the menacing step he took towards him.
“No harm done…” he paused, his teeth gritted. “The girl knows nothing.”
“I’ll make that decision at a later time, Smith. Right now we have bigger problems. We have just heard that our supply wagon did not make it to the mine this afternoon.”
“Another ambush?” At Heyes’ remark Dalton sent him a questioning look.
“What would you know about it, Smith?”
“Just what I’ve heard around town.”
“You wouldn’t know this Thaddeus Jones or Bobby Lane that DMZ hired to take the supplies up there now would you?”
Heyes’ heart sank at the confirmation that it was indeed his partner who had taken the job but nothing showed in his face as he looked the three men over. “I have no business with DMZ Mining in any way, shape or form and that’s the way I want to keep it. You stay away from me AND the girl or someone is going to get hurt.”
He turned and left before any of them could say a word. Hurrying back to his room his quick mind was racing over a plan. He knew that the Kid would not be as easily fooled as the other men that had been hired to transport the money, but he also knew that without help, even his partner could be in serious trouble. Lucy was cleaned up and dressed in new clothes when he came in. He removed his hat and took her hands and led her to the small sofa by the window.
“Lucy, I know you told me that you don’t know what your previous master does for a living but I need to know what you do know about him. It’s a matter of life and death now and I need your help.” She pulled her hands from his and folded them in her lap, lowering her head so that she did not have to meet his intense gaze.
“I know very little, master. He won me from a very bad man in San Francisco and instead of selling me to someone else he kept me with him. We have traveled together for some time now. All along the railroad line. We stay in hotels for a few days and then we move on.”
“Does he have a routine? Does he make all his money by gambling?”
“We always check into the hotel first. Then he goes to the telegraph office.” She raised her black eyes to his. “I do not know who he sends messages to or who he gets them from. He always has them delivered to him.”
“Where are his bags? I know you packed all of your things when you came with me.”
“They are here, master.” She rose and went to the wardrobe coming back with the two valises and putting them on the floor at his feet.
Heyes picked them up and set them on the bed, carefully undoing the latches and opening them up. Clothes neatly pressed and packed were strapped inside. He began to pull them out until he could see the lining. There was nothing there. No false bottom or secret compartment that he could find. Everything was as it should be and then his sensitive fingers found a small groove at the end of the case. With an easy touch he gently pulled at it and it opened to reveal papers and, to his astonishment, a badge that said U.S. Treasury Dept.
With a sigh he sat down and began to leaf through items there, hoping they would tell him what he needed to know. The few terse memos laid it out pretty much for him. The Government was concerned about the trouble DMZ Mining was suddenly having and the loss of so much commerce. They were worried that if the mine went under the railroad would have to move the line so they had set him up as a gambler who worked the mining and railroad towns until he had enough of a reputation to slip into Rail’s End without anyone getting suspicious.
But something had gone wrong. Somehow, Dalton had found out about him and put him on the run. And where did Lucy fit in? Why would an agent take in a civilian who obviously was not aware of what he was doing? He looked over at her and knew instantly why. The man had fallen in love with her and did not know how to keep job and life separate. Luckily, not something he had ever had to deal with.
Lucy moved to stand beside him and fingered the badge gently.
“He is the law? My master is the law?”
“Yes, Lucy. He is. And I think I have an idea where he might be headed. Come on. Get dressed in something you can ride in. We’ve got to get up to the mine before anybody gets hurt.”
The Kid and Bobby had emptied all the money and mail out of the wagon then left it and the horses at the foot of the hill so anybody coming up the road would be sure to see them. In a small cave that the Kid had found on his look around the two of them made camp. It was a strategic place where they could hide and also see the trail in both directions without being seen and the Kid was convinced that they were being hunted. It was only a matter of time before they had company.
As the sun began to set the temperature began to drop. Grudgingly he let Bobby start a small fire with dry wood to keep the smoke to a bare minimum and to keep the boy from freezing to death. It was going to be a cold and miserable night up on that hillside but he didn’t seem to mind it.
With a nice hot cup of coffee in his hands, a direct benefit of the fire, the Kid sat back and watched the dying of the day. Bobby scrounged around and found a couple of sandwiches for dinner then sat as close to the fire as he could while eating it, his green eyes mesmerized by the flames.
“You done much sleeping on the trail?” The Kid asked quietly.
“Nah. I ain’t been on the trail for long.”
“You said you needed the money real bad. You got a place to go when we get through with this job?”
“Yeah. I got a home,” the boy said, just a little defensive. “My Pa and me…we got a place not far from Rail’s End. It ain’t much, but it’s all we got.”
“It’s good to have a home. I haven’t had one in a really long time. I envy you that.”
Bobby looked over at him to see if he was making fun of him, but the calm blue gaze that met his was steady and just a little sad. He was amazed that anyone would envy him for any reason.
“You envy me? Ha! That’s a good one. Ain’t nobody in their right mind would envy me.”
“Well, I envy you your home, though I don’t think it’s a very happy one.”
“What do ya mean by that?”
“Your clothes. The way you scramble for food. The fact that you would take such a dangerous job and there was no one to try to stop you. I have an idea that you and your Pa are not very close.”
“You just mind your own business,” Bobby said defensively, stricken at how easily readable he was to this man.
“I’m not trying to insult you, boy. I’m just making an observation or two. You learn to size up a man when you partner with him. It keeps you both alive.”
“I guess so. I ain’t never had a partner before.” The Kid watched as the boy stood up and pulled his coat around himself more tightly.
“Well, I have. And if I had been better at being a partner we’d be together right now, maybe sharing a hot meal and a game of chance instead of up here freezing on the side of a mountain with ambushers after me.”
Bobby ran a dirty hand under his nose and glared at the Kid for a moment and he realized that he had hurt the boy’s feelings.
“By tomorrow you’ll be shed of me and you can go back to your real partner. I’m going for a walk.”
The Kid shook his head and cursed himself for being a fool again. Bobby didn’t deserve being treated like that and what had he been thinking? He wasn’t thinking and that was the problem. All he wanted was to be back with his own partner and out of this mess even if he did have to apologize. It would be worth the ‘I told you so’s’ just to have Heyes here to run things by and help.
He got up and refilled his coffee cup then winced at the strong bitter taste of it. He was lousy at making coffee and he knew it. He was being a lousy partner to Bobby as well and that had to stop right now. Heyes or no Heyes, he had made a commitment to this boy and he was going to make sure that they both made it out of this alive AND well paid.
A noise from the direction that Bobby had taken caused him to turn and stare as the boy staggered into camp under the arm of a man. He dropped his drink and drew his weapon then watched as the man sank to his knees in the firelight and collapsed in the dirt at his feet.
“I found him down by the stream,” Bobby puffed, out of breath and flushed from his exertions. “He’s been shot but I don’t think it’s real bad.”
“Let’s get him inside out of the cold.”
Together they lifted the stranger and drug him into their make shift shelter. The man moaned in pain as the Kid gently began to peel back his blood-soaked vest and shirt to reveal a long gash along his ribs. Nasty, but not fatal.
“Bobby, I need for you to go heat some water and bring me the linens from the basket of food we carried up here. Then I need for you to bring me one of the blankets…” The Kid looked around and found the boy was already unfolding one of their blankets and in the process of handing it to him.
“Good work. Let’s get him cleaned up.” Bobby nodded and went to get the water and the bandages. They worked side by side and soon had the man patched up as best they could and wrapped in the blanket for warmth. He opened pale blue eyes and smiled his thanks, revealing a gold tooth, as Bobby handed him a cup of water.
“I’m much obliged, gentlemen. My name is Zebulon Samuels.”
“Thaddeus Jones. Bobby Lane. What are you doing out here alone?” the Kid asked and he sipped at another cup of coffee.
“I had a run-in with some folks in town. We didn’t see eye to eye on a card game.” He grimaced as he took another drink then settled back again. “What are you two doing out here so far from town?”
“We work for…” Bobby began then paused when the Kid laid a hand on his shoulder.
“We’re up here delivering supplies for some friends,” the Kid said. “We got a late start and decided to hold up here for the night.”
“Well, for whatever reason you’re here, I’m very grateful.”
“You rest for a while. We’ll be just outside.”
When the Kid and Bobby were alone Bobby looked up from under his hat and frowned.
“Why didn’t ya want ta tell him who we work for?”
“Because the man is in trouble and I don’t want him knowing our business.” The Kid sighed. “We don’t know that he’s not working for the men who have been robbing the wagons. He could be setting us up right now.”
“Oh.” Bobby took a moment to digest this, his green eyes going from the sleeping man to the serious face of his partner. “I guess I didn’t think of that. I…” but he never finished because the Kid had him by the arm and was dragging him towards the fire. “Hey!”
“You’ve got blood on the collar of your coat,” the Kid said, beginning to unbutton the tattered shield the boy was never without. “Are you hurt?”
“No! I…stop that! It’s not my blood…it’s his! Quit it!” He began to struggle but he was no match for the man. In an instant his coat was open and the Kid’s hand was turning his head and pushing away his shirt collar so that he could see for himself. What he saw stopped him cold. Under the oversized coat and tattered flannel shirt was the lace-edged strap of a white chemise.
Without a sound the Kid released him and took a step back. The confusion on his face would have been comical had the situation not been so dire. In one quick move he reached up and snatched the hat from Bobby’s head then watched as long dark brown hair spilled down in a wild tumble of curls.
“You’re a girl,” the Kid murmured, still not believing the evidence before him.
Anger and betrayal flashed in his eyes before he turned away and walked to the edge of camp. Bobby straightened her clothing then reached down and picked up her hat. She took a deep breath and went to him.
“I didn’t mean to lie to you, Thaddeus,” she began, her voice wobbly then firming as she continued. “I needed the money and there was nothing else I could do.” At his cold silence she continued. “ I can’t dance and I won’t sell myself. I’m too young to work the tables. I just needed a stake to get me and my Pa away from here and back home to St. Louis. We got family there.”
“And you didn’t think it was important enough to tell me all this?”
“If’n I had told you I was a girl you woulda never let me come,” she said truthfully. “I figured we could do this job and you’d never have to know the truth.” He turned on her, his eyes sparking blue flame and she stepped back in self-defense.
“You figured? You figured!” he yelled, his face flushing. “You mean you actually took the time to think about how you were going to make a fool out of me? How you were going to lie to someone who just wanted to help you?”
“You wouldn’t have let me come!” she yelled back. “I’m sorry I lied to you but I’d do it over again if I had the chance.”
“You’d do it…if you had a chance…” he balled his hands into fists and tried valiantly to resist the urge to hit something. “Well, you don’t get another chance. You go in there and get your things. I’m going to get the wagon and we’re going back to town. Right now! Tonight.”
“No!” she exclaimed, stomping one foot in frustration. “If we go back without doing what they said we won’t get paid. I’ve got to have that money.”
“You can’t spend it if you’re dead!” he shouted. “And that’s a very real possibility at this moment.”
“I’m not going,” she said, slapping her hat back on her head and crossing her arms in defiance. “You go on. Leave me and him up here…alone…for the night, but I’m not going back.”
“You’ll do what I tell you to,” he said, advancing on her until she had to crane her neck back to meet his thunderous face.
“You ain’t the boss of me. I already told you that once.” Toe to toe they stood there in the cooling night, neither one about to give ground.
“I’m afraid I must agree with the lady,” Samuels said from the entrance of the cave as he stood swaying slightly, his blanket wrapped around him like a cape.
“I’m not planning on leaving you up here alone,” the Kid snapped, “but I am planning on getting us off this mountain before anyone else shows up.”
“That’s what I’m counting on, Mr. Jones. You see, I’m an agent for the U.S. Treasury Dept. and I’m here to catch the men who have been stealing from the DMZ mines and prove once and for all if it’s bandits or if it’s the owners of the mine themselves.”
The Kid and Bobby stared at him for a moment in total disbelief.
“I’m sorry to interrupt but you weren’t keeping your voices down and when I heard that you were wanting to leave, well, I figured that I needed to put my two cents worth in.”
“You work for the Government? You’re the guy that Herman was looking for?”
“Yes. I do work for the Government but I wasn’t aware that anybody was looking for me.” He came forward and sat down, afraid his legs weren’t going to hold him up much longer.
“So we’re up here risking our lives on a mission for the U.S. Treasury Dept. without any help?”
“Well, I was sent to infiltrate the organization BEFORE anybody else got hurt. I’m sorry you both got caught up in this, Mr. Jones, but it looks like we are all in it together now.”
“You may be in it, Agent Samuels, but the two of us are out of it. I don’t intend to get myself or this young woman killed over a wagonload of mail and payroll.”
“You don’t have a say anymore, Mr. Jones,” Samuels warned as he tried to come to his feet.
“Oh yes I do. She’s no more than a girl and you can’t hardly stand. Who do you think’s going to win in a fight?” The Kid turned and fixed them both with a frosty glare.
“Now, I’m going to get the wagon and I suggest you both get ready for a night ride back to town.” With that, he turned and stalked away.
Heyes and Lucy found a map of the mine road in Samuels’ things that pinpointed the areas where the wagons had been attacked and also highlighted the best places for an ambush and to hide out. Armed with that and two fast horses they sped off into the night both praying that they would find them and that they would be in time.
A large full moon helped to light the trail as they rode along at a fairly even gait. Heyes kept going over and over it in his mind. The stupid argument that had started this entire thing…how sorry he was that he had let it get this far…and how mad he was going to be if the Kid had gotten himself hurt or killed on account of something so stupid as money. He wouldn’t even care if he had to apologize to him if it meant that when he found him he would find him in one piece. At this point, nothing was as important as having his partner back with him. Nothing.
Lost in his reverie he almost didn’t hear the sound of horses hooves pounding along the road behind them. With a quick jerk he reined up and waited for Lucy to do the same. It was obvious by the look on her face that she had heard them too. Motioning for quiet, he led them into the thick underbrush just off the trail and in silence they waited.
In only a moment a band of about ten men came galloping around the bend. The leader raised his hand and they came to a halt, their horses lathered and breathing hard in the cool night air.
“I told you there wasn’t anybody ahead of us,” one said.
“You might be right, Lanning, but everyone keep an eye out. I’m sure I saw a couple of riders on the trail and I don’t want any surprises. Isn’t that right, Mr. Dalton?”
Dalton reined up a beautiful white stallion that danced around in frustration at being held back.
“You men just follow my instructions and find that wagon. I’ll pay extra for whoever kills the man and the boy. Now let’s ride!” With a wave of his hand they all started forward.
“Didn’t the map show a short cut up to that cave?” Heyes asked.
“Yes, master. It should be over the next rise.”
“Then let’s find it.”
The Kid struck off down the hillside in the dark all the while mumbling to himself and cursing himself for all kinds of a fool. Bobby was a girl! A girl! And he had not even seen it. This entire job had been a set-up. They probably wouldn’t see a dime of the money they were owed and they might just get killed in the process. To top it all off he had a wounded U.S. Treasury Agent who no doubt would be very interested to know that he had at bounty on his head.
“What kind of an idiot takes a job like this in the first place, I’d like to know,” he muttered as stumbled through the underbrush towards the waiting horses. “A dang fool, that’s who. Can’t even blame Heyes for this one. Oh no. I got myself into this all on my own. He’d have a few choice things to say if he were here.”
“Like...why are you out here stomping around in the dark talking to yourself?” a familiar voice said from the shadows. The Kid spun and drew with lightning speed and then watched as Hannibal Heyes stepped into the moonlight, his hands raised, his grin wide and white in the gloom.
“Heyes?” he stuttered, not believing his eyes. He took a step forward, then holstered his weapon and grabbed his partner in a huge bear hug. “Heyes!” he shouted. “Boy, am I glad to see you! How did you find me? How did you get here?”
“It’s a long story, Kid, but for now, you need to know that I’m not alone and that we have company coming along behind us and they don’t want to have a friendly chat.” Heyes stepped back and whistled softly. In a moment a young woman emerged from the bushes holding the reins of both of their horses.
“Thaddeus…this is Lucy.”
“Ma’am,” the Kid tipped his hat respectfully. He looked to his partner who only shrugged and gave him a cocky grin.
“It’s a long story. Where have you made camp?”
“Up on the hillside. There is a shallow cave up there with a great view of the road. Come on. I’ll take you there.”
They entered camp and found Bobby and Zebulon huddled close to the fire. Bobby jumped up and grabbed for her shotgun when she saw the strangers.
“Calm down,” the Kid soothed, his hands raised. “I’ve brought friends.”
“Master,” Lucy gasped and grabbed Heyes’ arm when she saw her previous owner in the firelight. Heyes looked to the man and an ironic grin turned up the corners of his mouth.
“Master?” the Kid questioned.
“Go,” Heyes said gently and watched as she quickly went to Samuels’ side.
“I’m really going to have to hear this long story,” the Kid said, smiling too as they watched the tender reunion.
Zebulon had risen to his feet intent on facing his adversary and convincing him to stay but one look at Lucy sent every rational thought out of his head. He stared at her as if she were a figment of his imagination then opened his arms and welcomed her into his embrace.
“Lucy…Lucy. How can you be here? I don’t believe it.” He raised her face to his and kissed her, tasting her tears of joy.
“My new master brought me here. I was in too much danger to stay in town.”
“Your new master? Too much danger…” he tucked her against his good side and looked over at Heyes. “She was in too much danger to leave her in town so you brought her up here with you?” At Heyes’ unapologetic shrug he continued. “I see that I picked the wrong man to look after her.”
“Oh no,” Lucy protested. “He has been very good to me. He saved me from Dalton’s men and was a perfect gentleman.”
“Dalton’s men came after her?”
“Yes, Samuels, or whatever your real name is. They knew you were traveling with a woman and when you disappeared they came looking for her. They obviously know you’re an agent.” Heyes stood his ground, not really sure if he wanted to let his temper loose or not. “Didn’t you think about the fact that even if you didn’t tell her anything or let her know who you really are or what you were doing that if they caught her they would hurt her? She’s just a Chinese to these men. They have no conscience where she is concerned.”
“Why do you think I gave her to you? I knew they were going to kill me but I had to make sure that she was taken care of. That was the only thing I could think of on such short notice.” He looked down into her round black eyes. “Please forgive me. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Here,” Heyes said, taking the ownership papers for her from his coat pocket and throwing them at their feet. “I don’t own people. You do whatever you want with them.”
He turned and met the cool gaze of Bobby Lane, who had been watching all of the drama unfold without making a sound.
“And who might you be?” Heyes asked, startled to find a young woman in the middle of all this. His look went from Bobby, to the Kid, then back to Bobby again.
“I’m Bobby Lane,” she said, sticking her hand out. “I’m Thaddeus’ partner.”
“Oh, you are, are you?” Heyes shook hands with her and smiled. “Well, Thaddeus, it looks like we both have long stories to tell. I’m Joshua Smith. I’m usually Thaddeus’ partner. Nice to meet you.”
“So you’re the one he was wishin’ was here instead of me.” At Heyes’ raised eyebrow she took her hand back and stepped away. The Kid sighed and shrugged giving his partner one of those ‘I’ll explain later’ looks.
By the fire, Lucy helped Samuels to sit down and quickly opened his shirt to see how badly he was hurt for herself. He shied away from her gentle probing taking a hissing breath as he did so.
“What happened?” she questioned softly.
“I ran into a guy I had arrested in Yuma about a year ago,” Samuels began. “He’s working for Dalton now. They came after me and I didn’t have time to get you somewhere safe. They winged me. I took a liking to Smith over there and knew he would keep you safe until I could come get you.”
“He was very angry at first, but you were right about him. He helped me and was an honorable man.”
“I’m sorry Lucy. I shouldn’t have put you in the middle of this. But…I have feelings for you.” He looked deep into her black eyes. “Deep feelings for you and I got a little confused about you and my job. It won’t happen again.”
“You are my master again,” she whispered, tucking her head against his shoulder. “I am content with that.”
Heyes and the Kid stepped to the point to have a moment of quiet and to survey the situation. Both were extremely glad to have the other one back.
“So, you want to tell me how you got all tangled up in this mess?” the Kid asked.
“Me? You’re the one on a suicide mission. And what were you thinking bringing a girl up here? She can’t be more than sixteen.”
“Heyes. I thought she was a boy. I did!” he protested when Heyes gave him a disbelieving look. “She was dressed up like a boy and she needed the money. She kinda reminded me of us after we left the home. Young and stupid and hungry.”
“Say no more,” Heyes lifted a hand. “One minute I was playing poker with a very sharp player and the next thing I know I’ve got ownership papers on Lucy and the owner of the DMZ Mining Company breathing down my neck.”
“Ownership papers? Did you say ownership papers?”
“Yeah. Ownership papers. And I was not very happy about it. We found his badge and orders in a secret compartment of his suitcase, put two and two together and came up here to see if we could get to you before Dalton did.”
“Well, however you came to be here, I’m grateful. I don’t think Bobby and I could have fought off Dalton’s hired guns all by ourselves.”
“Yeah. There’s ten of them. Lucy and I overheard them on their way up here. There is extra money in it for whoever kills you and the boy.”
“That makes our odds fifty/fifty, Heyes. I like those a lot better.”
“Me too. Let’s go see what we can do to surprise them.”
Five pair of eyes watched as the group came barreling around the curve. The men all reined up when they spotted the wagon and immediately began to take cover. They all knew of the cave up on the hillside and that from the point up there you could see the road from both directions. They had used it themselves many times.
Dalton kept his seat and on the huge white horse and was a perfect target. He removed his hat and crossed his hands on the pommel of his saddle.
“Hello up there?” he called out, looking straight at them even though they knew he could not really see them. “Mr. Jones. Are you there?”
The Kid moved from the group so as not to give their position away before he shouted his answer.
“I’m here. Who are you?”
“I’m Harry Dalton. I’m one of the owners of the DMZ Mining Company that is paying you to deliver the payroll and the supplies. Are you hurt? Do you need help? We were informed that you didn’t make it up to the mine and were concerned. “
“I appreciate your being worried and all, Mr. Dalton, but we’re fine up here. There’s no need to bring a posse with you.”
“Why don’t you and your companion come on down, Mr. Jones. I hate having to shout.”
“Sure. Give us a minute.” That was the signal for both sides.
Heyes slipped quietly away into the shadowy darkness while Samuels and Lucy took up the defense of the cargo in the cave.
Bobby came to the Kid and gave him a cocky grin from under her hat.
“You ready?” he asked as he looked down at her.
“I reckon. Let’s get it over with.”
“Bobby,” the Kid paused, his hand on her shoulder. “One thing before we go down there.” She rolled her eyes and tried not to groan.
“I know. Stay beside you and don’t do anything stupid. I heard you the first time.”
“No. What I wanted to say was that I’d ride with you any time and you make a fine
partner…even if you are a girl.” He gave her nose a tweak and together they started down the hillside.
They came into the moonlight with their hands up as if they were surrendering to them. Dalton couldn’t believe his good luck when he saw that they were unarmed. Desperate for money and stupid in the bargain. How wonderful.
In the blackness, one by one, Heyes took out the men laying in wait. They didn’t expect there to be anyone else but the Kid and Bobby and that was their first big mistake. By the time his partner was at the bottom of the hill, Heyes has four men out of commission.
Dalton smiled evilly at the two of them. Lambs to the slaughter.
“Gentlemen. Where is my money? You don’t have it with you?”
“It’s up there,” the Kid answered, lowering his hands while Bobby did the same. “We hid it so it would be safe.”
“I thank you for your diligence, Mr. Jones, but I want my property now.” Dalton pulled his pistol out and aimed it directly at them.
“And if I don’t hand it over?”
“Well…you and your little friend are dead either way, Mr. Jones. I was just hoping it would be easier for me and my men.” He pulled back the hammer and the smile left his face.
In an instant the Kid reached into the back of Bobby’s pants, brought forth his gun, pushed Bobby to the ground and dropped and rolled, all the while firing at the men who had come from out of nowhere. Two went down immediately and suddenly the Kid had the reins of Dalton’s stallion and the business end of the barrel pointing right at him. Dalton dropped his weapon and raised his hands, surrendering at once.
Up on the hillside Samuels and Lucy waited patiently for the men to come. They separated themselves from the night and suddenly were there in the opening to the cave, guns drawn. Samuels took a breath and pulled both hammers back on the shotgun that was Bobby’s prized possession. Both men paused.
“I don’t want to have to kill you boys, but I will,” he said. “Drop the guns and put your hands up or there won’t be enough left of you for your mothers to identify.” There was silence for a moment then the sound of three guns hitting the dirt.
“Lucy. Go tie them up.” She scrambled forth and did exactly what she was told.
The next morning the town of Rail’s End was treated to a spectacle the likes of which they had never seen. Just before noon a wagon came rumbling into the city limits with a bed full of men tied up and one of them was one of the towns leading citizens. They were taken to the storehouse and locked up as there was no jail and it was the only place in town that was used to house prisoners.
Zebulon Samuels explained his position to the townspeople and to Mr. Herbert who was flustered beyond words that his employer had been proven to be the one robbing the company. Heyes and the Kid took Bobby and Lucy to the hotel and got them rooms and a decent meal before doing the same for themselves.
They gathered together the next morning for breakfast, a totally different group from the one that had come to town just a few days ago. Heyes and the Kid both wore their white shirts and were pleased to join both of the ladies, even though the entire town was scandalized over a Chinese woman being permitted to eat at the table like a regular person. Bobby had bathed and dressed in a threadbare, but serviceable, calico dress and had braided her long hair into a single plait which she wore in a crown upon her head.
Samuels announced to the table that he had heard from his superiors and that they were well pleased with the job he had done and that a promotion was forthcoming. There were toasts all around and then he turned serious.
“Thaddeus. Bobby. I regret to tell you that all the assets from DMZ Mining have been frozen until the investigation has been finished. I’m sorry to tell you both this, but I’m afraid that they won’t be able to pay you for your work. I really do apologize to both of you.”
Bobby paled slightly and sat her fork down, her appetite completely gone. The Kid took her hand and gave it a sympathetic squeeze. He had suspected this might happen and now he was at a loss as to how to help her. “We’ll think of something,” he said softly. She took a deep breath and raised her slightly damp eyes to the others, putting on her best smile.
“Pa and me will be okay. You don’t have to worry about us.” She rose then, drawing the men to their feet, and left the room.
“You can’t tell me that there is nothing you can do about this,” the Kid said, his voice low and deadly. “That girl risked her life for enough money to get herself and her father back to St. Louis. I’d think that would be worth something to you.”
“I’m looking into it, Mr. Jones. Please give me some time.”
“She doesn’t have time.” Disgusted with the whole thing the Kid threw his napkin down and quit the room as well.
“Your partner is very volatile,” Samuels said, clearing his throat as he and Heyes both sat back down.
“Only when it’s important. Calm as a summer breeze most of the time. But when you try to hurt someone he cares about…well…let’s just say it usually isn’t pretty by the time he’s done.”
Upstairs the Kid was packing his things and mulling over what could be done to help Bobby and her father. It infuriated him that they weren’t going to see any of the money and it had nothing to do with the stupid bet with his partner.
Heyes entered quietly and began to gather his belongings as well. They were getting a little too much admiration here and they couldn’t take the chance that someone would recognize them. They had planned to leave today anyway.
“It ain’t right, Heyes. It just ain’t right,” the Kid railed, his blue eyes miserable.
“I know Kid. But sometimes you can do everything right and still not win. I guess this is one of those times.”
They checked out of the hotel and said a quick farewell to Lucy before heading off to the livery. Bobby had not answered the knock on her door and the Kid guessed that it was for the best. What could he say to her anyway?
Horses saddled and gear stowed they walked out into the street and were met by a grinning Samuels coming up the sidewalk. He looked like a man who had hit the jackpot with his wide grin that made his gold tooth flash.
“Gentlemen, I’m glad I caught you both. I have good news.”
“And what might that be?” Heyes asked, knowing his partner would not bend.
“Well, it seems that there was a reward put up by the bank when the first robbery happened. It was for $1,000.00 and it has nothing whatsoever to do with DMZ Mining. Do you know what that means? Whoever caught the thieves gets the money.” He looked back and forth between them. “That means you and Bobby, Mr. Jones. The money is waiting for you at the bank.”
The Kid stood for a moment in silence as if saying a prayer of thanks then calmly mounted up and re-seated his hat.
“You give my share to Bobby. Tell her she earned it and that it ought to be enough to get her and her Pa out of here.”
“But…Jones…half of it is yours. You don’t want your half?”
Heyes grinned and climbed into his saddle. “You heard the man, Samuels. Do what he wants. You stay out of trouble and keep Lucy safe.”
With a wave they both spurred their horses and rode out of town, leaving Samuels standing in the middle of the street in a cloud of dust.
Down the trail a ways they reined up and let their horses rest. They didn’t have any idea where they were going, but they were going together and it felt right.
“So,” Heyes said, the twinkle in his eye making the Kid cautious. “How much money you got, partner?”
The Kid fixed him with a baleful glare and frowned. “Heyes. You know I ain’t got any money. I was almost broke when I made the bet and I gave all my money to Bobby.”
“That’s what I thought,” Heyes mused, pulling his hat low over his eyes.
“So. How much money you got?”
“Oh, about five hundred dollars. I won it playing poker with Samuels.”
“FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS! Whew! Well, I guess that means you win the bet.”
“No it don’t, Kid.” At the Kid’s quizzical look Heyes reached in his pocket and pulled out the money, carefully counting out two hundred and fifty dollars.
“Heyes. What are you doing?”
“I’m giving my partner half of what I got,” Heyes said as he handed the money over to him. “That’s what partners do. They share what they got. Now I have half and you have half and we’re even.”
“But Heyes. I lost the bet.”
“Kid. I don’t want to hear another word about a bet. Ever.” He grinned and gave a hearty laugh. “Let’s go on down the road. I got a hankerin’ to sleep in a real bed tonight.”
They rode off down the trail like always. Together.