ASJ Book Three Continued

Reproof of Chance Continued

Dinner was like being the center ring act in the circus. Dozens of people gawked and stared while others came over to talk to the heroes and the ‘poor girl’. Christina picked at her food and leaned on Curry and after about an hour of this Curry announced that she wasn’t feeling well so he was going to take her back to the room.When they were gone, Heyes expected the staring to stop, but now he noticed that some of it was focused on Shiloh.

“So what do you do around here?” Heyes asked, trying to make light conversation.

“I wait table and encourage men to buy to more drinks.”

The honesty of her answer struck him funny and when he smiled, she smiled and he noticed how really beautiful she was.

“I could lie to you,” she said, “but what would be the point? I’m sure you’re aware of how few jobs there are for women, let alone a woman like me.”

Ah. That statement confirmed what he’d been thinking about her. The exotic features, the unusual skin color – she was a mulatto. Negro mother and white father most likely, just like the mulatto who had worked for Silky when Heyes lived with him that one summer.

“Well, if you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?”

“I’ve never thought about it because I know it won’t happen.”

Heyes drank the last of his wine then set the glass aside. “Now you are lying to me. Everybody thinks about a better life. It’s only natural.”

She looked at him for a long minute, obviously debating with herself. “Don’t laugh, but I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I’d like to raise a new generation – one that isn’t so stuck in the old ways, the old beliefs.”

“You could do it. I heard that the schoolteacher here in town was one of the victims on the train. They need to replace her.”

“They’d close the school before they’d hire me. What about you, Joshua? What would you do with your life if you could choose?”

“Easy. First, I’d appoint you head of the school board. Then I’d play poker – morning, noon and night. Nothing but poker.”

“Well, I might be able to arrange that second part. We’ve got a poker table in the casino that’s always open. You want to play?”

“Absolutely. Not that I’m in a hurry to get away from you. I’ve enjoyed this very much.”

“I have, too but I do have to work tomorrow so I probably should head home.” Shiloh stood so Heyes got to his feet as well.

“May I walk you home?”

“No. I live just down the street. Let’s get you to a poker table and I’ll see you back here for breakfast.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

* * * *

Despite his claim that he could play all night, Heyes left the poker table at two in morning. When he returned to the room he found Curry sitting on the bed reading the Kid Schelleen book.

He wanted to say, I’m surprised you’re not in the other room sleeping with Christina, but what he did say was, “I’m surprised to find you up still.”

“Couldn’t sleep.” Curry held up the book. “Where’d this come from?”

“Jaime’s contribution to the cause. It’s amazing to me how he picks up on little details. I only mentioned those books to him once and the next volume appears in my saddlebag.” Heyes took off his hat and gunbelt.

“Did you have a nice evening?”

“Very nice.” Heyes unloaded his pockets and dumped a wad of cash on the nightstand.

“You played poker,” said Curry.

“Shiloh got me on a private big steaks game. Didn’t do to bad.”

Curry picked up the money and gave it a quick flip through. “I’d say you did better than that. What do you make of her?”

Heyes continued to undress, the events of the day finally wearing him down. “Shiloh? She’s intelligent, cynical, jaded.”

“Heyes in a dress?”

“I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, I guess she and I do share a few traits.” Stripped down to his long johns, Heyes circled the bed then climbed in on the other side. “What do you think of her?”

“I’m not sure. Christina said Shiloh asked a lot of questions when she was helping her dress.”

“Could have been morbid curiosity.”

“Yeah, that’s what Christina said, too, but something about her bothers me. Just promise me you’ll be careful.”

Heyes could hardly hide his surprise at Curry’s statement. “You know me,” was all he said. And then Curry did something even more surprising. He set the book aside, turned down the lamp then lay down to sleep on the bed.

Will wonders never cease? Heyes closed his eyes and was quickly pulled into a deep sleep.
* * * *

“The sheriff wants to see you. All three of you.”

That phrase still made Heyes’ heart skip a beat and probably would continue to do so for the rest of his life. “Tell him we’ll be along after breakfast.”

“Now,” said the deputy. “He don’t like to be kept waiting.”

Heyes exchanged silent signals with his two companions and they all returned an affirmative vote.

Leaving breakfast half finished, they followed the deputy out of the casino and down the street to the sheriff’s office. Once they were inside, the deputy was sent on his way, and they were asked to sit.

“I’m confused,” the sheriff said, one hip propped on the edge of his desk. “I got the passenger manifest from the railroad and I matched it to every victim I found on board. There were no extras.” He looked straight at Christina. “No female passenger unaccounted for. Nor a male passenger for that matter. How do you account for that?”

“Because I wasn’t a passenger,” Christina confessed. “The boys and I all got on the train after the massacre.”

“You lied to me. Why?”

“It was bait for the killers. My name is Christina Harkness and I’m a Federal agent. These two men are working for me and we have the authority to investigate this crime.”

The sheriff eyed her up and down, then did the same with Curry and Heyes. “Federal agents?”

“Yes sir. If you’ll just telegraph the Secret Service office in New York City, they’ll verify my credentials. And we didn’t take you into our confidence right away because we didn’t know what was going on so we thought it best to play it close until we were sure.”

“I’m the law in this town, Miss Harkness and I don’t like people going around me.”

“I understand and that was my mistake. I apologize. But we think we have a good shot at drawing out the killers. If they think I saw everything they’ll want to shut me up.”

“That’s a very dangerous ploy.”

Christina pointed to both Curry and Heyes. “I have confidence in my protectors, sheriff. They’re the very best.”

The sheriff went around to sit behind his desk chuckling all the way. “You want to hear something funny. When I first saw these two and heard their story about how they happened upon that train – I was sure they were Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry.”

“Imagine that,” said Heyes, his body tightening, a conditioned reflex.

“Imagine,” said Curry, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

“I saw Heyes and Curry once, a couple of years back. Didn’t know who they were until after but it always stuck with me. You two sure resemble them.”

“So we’ve been told,” said Heyes. “If that’s all, I’d like to get back to breakfast.”

“That’s not all. I walked through that train, just like you did. These people aren’t playing games. There was some serious anger in that crime and I can’t even begin to figure what would set something like that off.”

“There could be a clue in passenger list,” said Christina. “Would you mind if I took a look at it?”

The sheriff hesitated a moment, then fished around on his desk and came up with a sheet of paper. “Don’t know what you expect to find, just a list of names.”

She took it from him, looked it over as Heyes did the same. Then Heyes asked, “Sheriff, do you know all these people?”

“No, not even half of them. But like I said, I was able to match them all up by their identification papers, letters and other things I found on them. Why?”

“It’s possible that only one of these people was the target and the rest were just unlucky.”

“I did think of that. There was a wealthy timber man on board with several members of his staff. They seemed like a likely candidate. I wired the sheriff in their home town, all the towns the victims were from and until I start getting answers it’s just guessing.”

“That’s why our plan is probably still the best one. If we can scare these guys into thinking they’re about to be fingered they’ll have to make a move.” She gave him back the passenger list. “Check my credentials, sheriff and I promise we’ll keep you in the loop.”

“I’d appreciate it. I have enough bodies on my hands right now. I don’t need three more.”

* * * *

They spent the rest of the day adding cheese to the trap. Curry took Christina shopping and in each store she conveniently ‘remembered’ something new to add to her story. At one o’clock they returned to the Lucky Duck to join Heyes and Shiloh for lunch. They were nearly finished eating when a surprise visitor arrived – Jaime, a whole day early.

He rushed into the dining room and threw his arms around Christina, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.

“I’m so glad to see that you’re alright. After what I heard about what happened on the train – I couldn’t get here fast enough, dear sister.”

Heyes did the honors of introducing himself and the others, playing as if he and Jaime were total strangers.

“I just can’t thank you boys enough for what you’ve done. Caring for my sister this way.”

“It was nothing,” Curry said as he brought another chair over to the table.

“Why it certainly was something. Poor thing must have been in shock, could have died out there all alone if you hadn’t come by and found her.” Jaime wrapped his arm around Christina and pulled her close. “I never liked you traveling by yourself. It’s just not safe. Not safe at all.”

“I’m fine,” she said softly.

“You’re not fine. The sheriff told me that you that you were nearly comatose with the trauma of it all. But don’t worry. Tomorrow, you and I will be on the stage and on our way home or perhaps to Dr. Abernathy’s sanatorium for a good rest. Yes, I think that’s a much better idea.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m really feeling much better, my memory is coming back and I had hoped to stay on here awhile longer. I thought I might be able to help the sheriff find the men who did this. I keep remembering these little bits and pieces and I know I could help if I could just remember it all.”

“We’ll talk about it, sister but I’m going to have to do what I think is best. And what I think is best right now is for you to come up to your room and have a lie down. You’re very pale.”


The men all stood as Christina rose. Curry caught her hand, a silent question about whether or not he should follow. “I’ll see you later on,” she said. Then she let Jaime lead her from the room.

“He’s quite something,” Shiloh said once they were gone. “A touch on the flamboyant side?”

“More than a touch,” Heyes agreed. “But, I’m glad he’s here. I’m afraid that Christina’s heading for trouble.”

“Trouble?” Shiloh asked between bites of food.

“She’s remembering more and more about what happened and well, can you imagine what it’ll be like when she finally remembers it all. It’ll be like reliving that whole horrible incident all over again. I think her brother’s right, a sanatorium is the best place for her right now.”

“I think she needs to stay awhile longer,” said Curry. “She’s our only chance of finding out exactly what happened on that train.”

“True,” said Heyes then he stretched and groaned. “I am full. I need to go walk some of this off before I sit down at the poker table for the rest of the night.” He turned to Shiloh. “Join me?”

“Oh, I can’t. Mrs. Randolph was kind enough to let me lunch with you but I really need to get back to work.”

“Tonight then, after you get off your shift?”

“That won’t be until 2 in the morning. Think you can wait that long?”

“As long as I’m still winning, I can wait that long.” Heyes got up then tossed some money on the table. “Give our compliments to the chef.” He gave her a wide smile then headed out of the dining room with Curry on his heels.

* *

At ten that evening, Heyes and Curry were two hours into a game of poker at the Lucky Duck. Christina and Jaime were still there, too, playing the jackpot machines and the roulette wheel, all the while playing the larger game. Jaime was going for overly clingy so Christina countered by pushing him away. She stopped by the poker table twice and laid her hands on Curry’s shoulders. Jaime put an end to that with a few snappish words, suggesting that she was being a bit too brazen.

By 10:15, Curry had three quarters of his money, just as they had planned. Heyes had most of it, so it was no real loss.

“Not my night,” Curry said, nodding toward both Christina and the cards. “Guess I’ll be turning in broke and alone.” This got a healthy laugh from the men at the table. “Evening all.” He got up from his seat, took what little money he had left then headed out of the casino.

“Now that I’ve got all his money,” Heyes said. “Let’s see who else I can bankrupt.”

Play continued for another few minutes then was interrupted by raised voices. Christina and Jaime going at it loud and clear.

“This is what I get for worrying!” he shouted. “Nothing but concern for my dear sister and all I get is backtalk! All I’m trying to do is what’s best! ”

“Best for who?!” She shouted back. “I’m tired of being hovered over! And watched! By you and them and everyone in town! You have no idea what I went through! No idea what it was like on that train with the screams and the blood and. . . I just want to be left alone!” She ran for the door with everyone staring. Most expected Jaime to go after her but he didn’t. He stayed. Made a huge show of staying by buying a stack of chips at a blackjack table then settling down to play.

Heyes raised, won the pot, dealt the next hand – never missed a beat even though his mind wasn’t on the game. Not the poker game, anyway. It had all been very convincing from where he sat. Curry in his room, he and Jaime in the casino, Christina walking back to the hotel all alone. If they were going to try for her this had to be the night. And Curry would be on them since he wasn’t in the hotel as he’d announced. He was in the street under the cover of darkness waiting for Christina and hopefully the killers to pass him by.

It was hard for Heyes to just sit there and keep playing. Knew it was hard for Jaime, too, but they had all agreed to the plan. Agreed that it was better to create opportunities where they could control them, rather than be caught by surprise in a situation they couldn’t control.

He would just keep playing. About a half hour should do, then he’d go up to the room and Jaime would leave last.

Heyes folded with cards that were good enough to keep. Curry could handle himself and so could Christina but that didn’t keep him from wondering and worrying.

Forget a half hour. He’d pack up in fifteen minutes.

* * * *

Christina walked slowly toward the hotel, eyes in front of her – too much of a pro to try and spot Curry. She knew he was out there, trusted him to watch her back. Still she flinched when two drunken cowboys tried to make time with her. She skirted them, head down, half expected them to grab her from behind. Nothing. Maybe this whole idea was going to be a bust. Maybe the killers were living it up in Mexico by now and couldn’t care less about her fingering them. Or could it be that they were smart enough to know that her whole story was a lie?

She reached the hotel, couldn’t find a legitimate reason to stall any longer so she went in and straight upstairs to her room. She unlocked the door, stepped in, then shrieked.

“Christ, Kid! What are you doing in here? You were supposed to be outside following me.”

Curry was seated in a rocking chair at the foot of the bed. He was smoking a cigar and had a glass of brandy in his hand. “I’m sure if you were in any danger, Heyes would come to your rescue.” He might have been joking except that there was no humor in his voice.

“What are you talking about? I trusted you to back me up and instead you’re sitting up here having a smoke and a drink.”

Curry stood, set the glass on the dresser then hit her across the face hard enough to send her crashing back into the wall. “You used me!”

It took a few seconds for Christina to get hold of her senses. She used the wall to right herself, ran her hand over her mouth and found blood. And then she looked at Curry. His eyes were the size of dinner plates, and they were cold and angry.

“What’s gotten into you?”

“Try what’s gotten into you? Oh wait, I know what’s gotten into you – Heyes! My buddy. My friend. How stupid do you think I am?” He made a grab for her but she ducked out of the way, tried to get around him but was trapped by the bulk of the bed. “Fucking each other. Laughing behind my back! Laughing at me!” He whirled, caught her, threw her down on the bed.

“Have you gone mad? There’s nothing between Heyes and I. Nothing!”

“Liar.” Curry smacked her again. She rolled with the punch so he took advantage of it, pinned her face down on the mattress, crushing her with his weight. “I trusted him. I trusted you! Night after night – what you put me through in that prison just to break me, so I’d be happy playing your trained monkey.” He pulled her arms behind her back then tied her wrists with a leather thong he had waiting in his pocket. “And all along I thought you cared. I thought you wanted to be with me, but it was him you wanted. Wasn’t it?”

Christina fought to keep her hands free but he had eighty pounds on her and muscles that wouldn’t quit. Trapped beneath him, she gasped for breath, her brain trying desperately to get a hold on what was happening.

“Jed. Please! Listen to me.”

“I’m done listening. Now it’s my turn to do the talking.” Curry tugged on the bandana he wore around his neck until it came loose in his hands. “I don’t take orders from you anymore.” He used the bandana to gag her, tying it tight behind her head. Done, he climbed off of her, grabbed her by her bound arms and pulled her to her feet. Dragging her along with him, he went into the adjoining room. Here he shoved her on to the bed then sat down in the straight chair a few feet away.

“All this time. All this time, I thought he was my friend. My only friend and now I find out that it’s not true,” he growled, teeth clenching down hard on the cigar. “I’ve seen the looks between you, heard the whispers.” Curry slipped his gun out of the holster, checked the bullets. “Thinks he’s smarter than me. Thinks he’s going to take you away from me!” He aimed at the door then pretended to fire. “Hannibal Heyes. My best friend! I say it’s time we ended this partnership.”

* * * * *

Heyes played out four more hands then left the table with a pocket full of cash. He caught Jaime’s eye as he passed, just to let him know they were on schedule, then found Shiloh picking up drinks at the bar.”We still on for tonight?”

She smiled at him and it made her lips look very kissable. “Two a.m.”

“I’ll be back at two.” He touched her hand; winked then headed out of the casino and into the cool, quiet night. Hurrying now, Heyes made his way down the street to the hotel took the stairs in twos then let himself into his room.

Nimble minded as he was, three things registered in the space of a few seconds. The first was Christina bound and gagged, sitting on the bed – in trouble. That thought led him to the second one, which was Curry. The bad guys would have had to get past him to get to her, so that didn’t sit well. And the third was the sensation of someone coming up behind him. Then his head exploded and he was flat out on the floor.

So much for a situation we can control. With the pain radiating through his head, Heyes pushed up to all fours. His assailant moved closer, grabbed him by the hair and pulled back. “You’re a lucky man, Heyes.” A harsh whisper in his ear. “I was going to blow a hole in you the second you stepped inside but I been sitting here thinking about what you two put me through and I decided payback was in order.”

What the hell? The voice sounded like Curry’s and yet somehow not. Heyes tried to focus, forcing back the pain in his head. He blinked a few times to wash away the spots in front of his eyes and finally the scene was clear enough.

Curry was standing over him, wearing his gun, cigar in his mouth, eyes wide like a big old hound dog.

“What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?”

Curry kicked him in the ribs, sent him on to his back with a new wave of pain. “I couldn’t figure it. How you got through without a scratch on you while they were torturing me night after night! But now I got it. It’s because you were in on it. You and her – plotting against me even then. My best friend. My partner!” Curry bent down to grab Heyes by the vest but he rolled and kicked, caught Curry in the shins throwing him off balance. Heyes got up, tackled him and then they were both on the floor. Curry had the advantage, height and weight, and more muscle plus Heyes was hampered by his need to be careful. He didn’t want to hurt him but Curry was leaving him with no choice. He got in one good punch of his own – a punch that should have knocked Curry senseless but he came right back – super human in his ability to endure.

“Kid! I didn’t do anything to you! You gotta stop this and listen to me.” Then Heyes’ breath was gone, forced out by another shot to the ribs. He was on his back gasping for air, his lungs filling up with the sweet smell of the cigar, which was now lying on the floor beside him.

“Listen to you! Listen to you! That’s all I’ve ever done in life was listen to YOU and look where it got me.”

Heyes ducked another punch, got around him. This whole thing was insane. And it was all her fault. Christina’s fault. They had made a promise to each other long ago that they would never let a woman come between them and here they were – all because of her. All because Kid couldn’t keep it in his pants. No discipline. No willpower. The weakest link always dragging them down.

“You can’t even begin to imagine that kind of pain, hung by your wrists, wounds wiped down with a kerosene soaked rag. Or maybe you can imagine it. You’re so smart. Maybe you did. Maybe you’re the one who thought up all those clever ideas they used to torture me.” Curry’s hand went to his gun.

Christina screamed, even gagged she was loud enough to get his attention.

“It’s her! She did this to you, Kid. Not me. She planned it all. She told them what to do in that prison.”

Curry whirled and went straight for her. “Is that true? Was it you?” She scrambled to get away but he was faster, caught her, pulled her on to her feet, her back to his chest. “It was both of you, I think.” His fingers wrapped around her throat, his head pressed against hers, lips caressing her cheek. “I wanted you. I still want you but that wasn’t enough. You had to have him. He always wins. Cards, coin toss, arguments – he always wins! But not this time.” Curry forced her to turn toward him, kissed her gagged mouth. “I just wanted to have something, someone. I just want someone to care about ME!”

Every time Kid shouted it cut through Heyes’ head like an auger, drilling deeper and deeper. His hands were shaking, heart racing. God damn it he was ready to pummel Kid to within an inch of his life.



What the hell? Heyes shook his head as if that might jar loose the thoughts that were in there. Why did he want to harm him? Why was Curry so set on doing harm himself? This wasn’t right. Wasn’t right.

“Kid. Don’t do this. Think!”

“I don’t want to think.” He threw Christina back on the bed, leaned over her and pulled the gag from her mouth. “Tell me that you’re sorry. Promise me you’ll never do it again.”

“I promise, Jed. I promise.”

Curry’s back was turned, too intent on Christina. A perfect opportunity if he moved slow and careful. Heyes came up behind him, wrapped his fingers around the butt of the gun in the holster. Curry felt it, brought his hand back, lightening quick. They both had a piece of it as it came out of the holster. It went off once – the bullet shattering the window. Heyes shoved his body forward hoping to throw Curry off balance but he was a like rock – solid and unmovable. Keeping hold of the gun with his right, he grabbed Curry’s wrist with his left then pulled back toward himself forcing him to twist. It was like arm wrestling; only in this case the loser was in big, big trouble. Heyes hooked his ankle around Curry’s, yanked and the both of them went sprawling across the floor. The gun slipped from the their grasp. Heyes made a dive for it but only succeeding in nudging it out of his reach. Curry’s knee came up, caught him in the ribs. This new wave of pain made the room spin and tilt and that was all the chance Curry needed to grab the gun. With the weapon clutched in his hand he rolled to sitting then scooted backwards until he hit the wall.

“Stop!” Curry leveled the gun at Heyes to cut off his advance. “Don’t you move. Not one inch.” Back to the wall, he pushed up to his feet.

Heyes was still on the floor, sitting on his heels. “Take it easy, Kid.”

“Easy? Easy?” He was shaking, had to grasp the gun in both hands to hold it steady. “Nothing’s easy, is it partner? Not for me. Everything I got, I got the hard way. Fighting the headmaster, fighting the law, fighting to stay clean and now you! Now you’re fighting me, too.”

“I’m not,” Heyes said, high pitched panic squeaking through in his voice. “I’m trying not too,” But even as he said the words he could feel the urge. The primal need to rip Curry to shreds for threatening him, for trespassing on his territory. He tried to push it down, tried to think past the emotions. “There’s something wrong with the both of us,” he said. “Something’s messing up our minds. You can’t let it take over.”

“It’s the cigar,” said Christina, not daring to move one inch from her spot on the bed. “Remember Heyes? Remember on the train? You found a cigar that was still burning. You held on to it and that was when you got angry. Remember? You wanted to hit me. There’s something in the smoke.” She glanced down at the floor, saw the cigar still smoldering at Curry’s feet. “Jed. Please.”

“Just shut up. You’re lying. You did this to me. You made me like this when you put me in that place!” He cocked the gun.

Heyes got to his feet, then backed away though it was a useless gesture. There was no way Curry could miss, not this close, not in this small space. He drew in a deep breath – mostly clean air this time from the broken open window. “She’s not lying, Kid. I was wrong before. About her wanting to hurt you. I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why we both feel this way but I think she might be right. It’s gotta be the cigar. You were smoking it, inhaling it like a drug. It’s screwing with your mind.”

“You’re trying to trick me. That’s always the way with you. Your con games and your fancy talk. Think I’m stupid.”

“No. No, Kid, I don’t. You’re the smartest guy I know. Street smart – the kind you don’t get from book learning.” Heyes took a step toward him, fighting his own anxious feelings every inch of the way. “Give me the gun, Kid. Then we talk.”

“I can’t trust you.”

“Yes you can,” Heyes said, fighting to keep his voice calm and level. “Haven’t I always taken care of you?” Closer now, eyes on Curry’s, resisting the urge to look down at the gun. “Do you think I’m going to abandon you now?”

“I don’t know.” Curry shifted, wiped his arm across his sweating brow, bring the barrel precariously close to his own head. “Tell me it’s not true, Heyes. Tell me you didn’t know.”

Heyes’ eyelid twitched with the effort it took to think clearly. “About what happened in prison,” he guessed not at all sure that he and Curry were talking about the same thing. “I didn’t know. I swear to you. There is nothing in this world that could make me want to hurt you like that.” And then he laughed at the irony of what he just said. “Except for that cigar over there. Crush it. Take control.”

Curry gasped for breath – in and out, in and out in time with the rapid rate of his heart. “Why do I feel like this?” He slipped down the wall until he was nearly sitting.

“It’s the smoke. I can feel it, too. Even now, I can feel the urges pecking at my brain. But you got the worst of it because you were smoking the cigar, you were sucking the drug straight into your body.” Heyes closed the gap, slowly stooped down in front of his friend.

Curry still had the gun resting against his forehead. His hand was shaking, his body tense.

“I’m going to take that gun, okay?” Heyes said softly. “Then we’re going to get you out in the fresh air and you’ll feel better. I promise.”

No response.

With hands that were used to handling nitro, Heyes gripped the gun, then carefully peeled Curry’s fingers off the hard steel. Just like blowing a safe. He held his breath, kept his eyes on the target. Take the gun. Carefully. Slowly. Heyes set the gun on the floor then gave it a hard push so it slid under the bed out of reach.

“Jesus Christ, Kid, you’re scaring me.” Heyes sat completely down on the floor then pulled Curry to him. He wrapped him in his arms as if he were a child and held on tight for the sake of both of them. Heyes rubbed his hand vigorously up and down Curry’s arm, trying to exude a confidence that he didn’t really feel. “It’s been one hell of a month, hasn’t it? Been pretty hard on you. But you gotta stay with me, Kid, cause. . . hell, I’m too old to break in a new partner.” He felt Curry laugh, or maybe he was crying – it would have felt the same. Heyes held on tighter. “You’re all I got, Kid. In this whole, lousy, messed up world – you’re all I got left.” And that was a truth that hurt more than he would ever admit to anyone, including himself. “Let’s get some air, huh?” Like an old man, Heyes rose to his feet. He stomped his boot on the smoldering cigar, extinguishing that threat, then went to free Christina.

“I thought we were all goners,” she said between gasping breaths. “I feel so jittery inside.”

“At least you’re not trying to kill me.” Heyes was still working the knots around her wrists when she shouted his name. His reaction time was slower than normal, so it took a moment for it to register. He whirled, expecting to see Curry coming after him again but instead saw him running for the door. “No! Don’t. . . ”

Heyes grabbed for him, caught him by the back of his vest. Curry whirled, pulled loose, threw both hands out in front of him and shoved Heyes in the shoulders – hard. He reeled backwards, hit the nightstand, tipping it over with the force of his fall.

The lamp on the table tipped to the left, hit the bed and in an instant the mattress was a flame.

Christina screamed. With her hands still tied behind her she scrambled backwards off the bed, misjudged the distance and fell hard.

Heyes pulled the blanket loose from the bed then used it to beat down the rapidly spreading fire. He knew Curry was gone, desperately wanted to follow but what could he do? What else could he do? He used it – used all of the anger and violence he had stored up inside of him to extinguish the fire and when it was done he felt tired and achy but better over all.

He went around the bed to where Christina was sitting on the floor. She was gasping, shaking, white as a sheet. “Hey, hey, what’s this?” He stooped down beside her and finished untying wrists.

“Fire,” she stuttered. “I’m so afraid of fire.”

Heyes almost laughed at the incongruity of it, then remembered the story she had told him their first night out. About her mother and brother being killed in a riverboat fire. About being there when the flames took hold. “I’d say you’ve got a good reason to be afraid.” Heyes wrapped his arms around her and was surprised to feel her glam on to him. He lowered his chin, his cheek to the top of her head. So soft and silky and he could smell her perfume even with all of the other odors in the room. The tough act was gone and in it’s place, a scared young woman. He held her closer, stroked her back, kissed the top of her head. She lifted her face to him and desire nearly overwhelmed him.

“What in the Sam Hill is going on around here?”

Heyes backed off instantly at the sound of Jaime’s voice.

“Kid just shot past me muttering some nonsense and the bed’s got a hole burned into it and, hell the window’s broken. Did you get the bad guys or what?”

Christina got to her feet, dragged her hand through her hair as Heyes did exactly the same thing. “Man, you know that stuff is powerful when it can make us want to kiss each other.”

“Kissing?” Jaime came all the way into the room. “Who’s kissing who, here?” He grabbed Christina’s hands then frowned at the rough, red rings around her wrists. “Will someone please start explaining before I lose my mind wondering.”

“You explain,” said Heyes. “I gotta find Kid.” Then he dashed out the door.

Christina looped her arm through Jaime’s then fell against him emotionally and physically exhausted. “Let’s go sit down in the other room and I’ll try to explain what just happened – if I can figure it out myself.

* *

Curry only had a few minutes head start – still he was nowhere to be seen when Heyes hit the street. It was late, light coming from only a partial moon and the scattering of lampposts up and down the main drag. Only one place open at this time of night, the Lucky Duck. Heyes figured it was as good a place as any to start. He ran to the casino, pushed his way inside as two men were coming out. A quick scan of the room told him that Kid wasn’t there and he wasn’t the only person missing. Heyes caught a passing waitress.

“Where’s Shiloh?”

“You just missed her. She left with that curly-haired cowboy. Isn’t he a friend of yours?”

“Yeah, Thaddeus. You saw him? What was he doing?”

“Doing? Carrying on – drunk as could be. I’ve seen ’em bad but usually it’s on their way out, not on their way in.”

“And what happened?” Heyes pushed, not happy with the speed of her answers.

“Happened? Shiloh talked to him for a bit and when he wouldn’t calm down she took him out here.”

“Out where? Where did she take him?”

“Just out. Out of the casino. Back to his hotel room, I guess.”

Guessed wrong, but Heyes didn’t say it. “Thanks and if you see Shiloh, tell her I’m looking for her. Joshua Smith. She’ll know. We were supposed to meet after her shift.”

The waitress’s lips curled into a smile. “Aw, well honey if she had a date with you, I’m sure she’ll be back to meet you. No woman would be dumb enough to blow you off.”

“Just tell her I was here. Okay?” He was about to leave but had another thought. “Where does Shiloh live?”

“Same place we all do. Mrs. Randolph’s boarding house, it backs up the Duck but there’s a fence so you gotta go around. Used to have all this trouble with the men getting drunk and trying to get into the house. . ”

But Heyes wasn’t listening, he was already gone.

* * * *

Heyes was on the porch of the boarding house when he heard a scream. He yanked open the door and followed the sound to the back of the house. A woman came flying at him and she screamed again when he caught her by the shoulders.

“What’s wrong?”

“In there,” was all she could manage.

Heyes pushed through the swinging door and into the kitchen. The chairs were on their sides, the table shoved out of place, a broken piece of crockery on the floor – and a body.

“Oh no.” Heyes dropped to his knees beside Shiloh’s lifeless form. There were handprints around her throat, her dress torn down the front. He set his ear on her chest and listened hard for the sound of a heartbeat. Nothing. He held his hand over her mouth – no breath at all. Dead. Strangled.

Heyes moaned, gathered her in his arms, pulled her to his chest. “No, no. This can’t be happening.”
Tears welled up in his eyes and slid down his face. Some of them for this pretty girl that he had wanted to kiss and hold, but most of it for Kid. There would be no reprieve this time. Not with a murder on his head. It wasn’t his fault, of course, just like those people on the train – he had been forced to kill – but Heyes knew it wouldn’t matter. If he’d been a shopkeeper or a rancher or a newspaper man – they might have listened to his story. Might have let him go. But Kid Curry was an outlaw. An outlaw that most people considered dangerous under the best of circumstances. A man who’d made his living, his reputation with a gun. And this town that had shunned Shiloh as a second-class citizen, would now be up in arms over her senseless murder.

Footsteps in the hall. A woman’s excited voice followed by the authoritative tone of the law. Heyes didn’t wait. He ran – out the back door, climbed up on a crate then hopped the fence. It wasn’t a clean getaway. He caught his coat on the wood going over, landed awkwardly on his leg and felt his ankle twist and grind. He ended up on his backside in the mud, the music and laughter of the Lucky Duck filling the air.

Train full of dead people. A young girl’s life snuffed out for nothing. A killer who could make innocent human beings turn on those they loved. The world was falling apart. He wanted to tell them all to shut up and go home – but he knew from experience that gambling and drinking and flirting was how the west got through the bad times, the hard times. Let them have their fun.

What was the line? Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow, we die.

* * * * * *

“Just the person I wanted to talk to.” The sheriff jogged down the street to meet up with Christina and Jaime as they left the hotel. “Where’s your friend? The blond one? What’s his name?”

Christina had to think a minute. “Jones, Thaddeus Jones. Why? What happened?”

“He murdered Shiloh from the Lucky Duck. Strangled her over at the boarding house.”

“That’s impossible,” she said, even though she knew it was very possible. “Why do you think it was him?”

“Because a dozen witnesses saw him go into the casino and heard them arguing.”

“About what?” Christina’s eyes darted past the sheriff, thinking it might be Heyes she saw coming down the sidewalk. It wasn’t.

“Well, no one could make much of it, but I can guess,” said the sheriff, his tone shifting enough to pull Christina’s attention right back to him. “I’m thinking she was going to blow his cover. Tell everybody that he was working for the law and that you weren’t on that train.”

Christina muttered six curses words in her head but bit her lip when Jaime gave her a warning squeeze on the arm. “And how would she have known that, Sheriff?”

The sheriff coughed, scuffed the ground with his boot heel. “Because I got a deputy with a big mouth. I had him send the telegram to New York, checking on you and today he told me that he sort of – slipped – and mentioned it to his girlfriend.”

Jaime actually laughed. “Could be why they tried to off the three of you tonight!”

“What?” Now it was the sheriff’s turn to be confused. “Somebody went after you?”

“Sort of,” Christina brushed it away. “So Shiloh was your deputy’s girlfriend?”

“No ma’am. Maggie May is his girlfriend, but the way I heard it, she saw Shiloh hanging around with your other partner, the dark-haired one and thought she should know that he was the law. Look, he didn’t tell me until just a few hours ago and I was going tell you about in the morning but now. . . with Shiloh dead. . . ”

“Fine, sheriff, but I don’t have any idea where Thaddeus is. He was playing poker last time I saw him.” She buckled a little as Jaime banged his knee into the back of hers. “I’m sure he’s innocent but I’ll bring him to you as soon as I find him.”

“Well, I intend to find him first and we’ll let a judge decide if he’s innocent or not.” Then the sheriff went on his way.

As soon as he was out of hearing distance, Christina turned to her partner. “What was that for?”

“Lying. Why didn’t you tell him about what happened?”

“Tell him that Kid was drugged and nearly killed me and his best friend? Are you kidding? That will erase any doubt that he killed Shiloh.”

“That’s true, but normally, I like to keep the local law on our side, since, well, you know, we’re supposed to be on the same side.”

“I hear you, but this one’s gotten kind of personal.” Christina tried to walk away on that but Jaime grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

“And that’s another thing I been meaning to talk to you about.”

“Spare me the lecture – at least for now. I know that there’s a very good chance that Kid killed that girl but it wasn’t his fault and I can’t just throw him to the wolves.”

Jamie sighed. Clearly he wanted to say something more on the subject.

“Let’s just find Kid and Heyes and get this all figured out, then we’ll talk.” She didn’t wait for his answer, just walked on heading in the direction of the Lucky Duck.

* * * *
Heyes came through the kitchen of the Lucky Duck, raised several eyebrows with his muddy condition, and just kept on going. When he reached the main room he saw two of the waitresses talking with Mrs. Randolph. Spreading the news – he could see it from the looks on their faces. Telling her that Shiloh was dead and Curry had killed her.

What a mess.

He lowered his gaze to the floor to hide his face, kept with the crowds and made it to the front door without being stopped. Once on the street, his plan was to head for the hotel but he nixed that when he saw the sheriff talking to Christina and Jaime out front. He backed into the shadows, watched them. Saw the sheriff stalk off, Jaime holding Christina back. What was that about? Then they were coming his way.

When they were parallel with him, Heyes whistled, drawing them both into the dark corner.

“You didn’t find him,” was the first thing Christina said when she joined him.

“What did the sheriff say?” Heyes shot back, figuring her question was pretty much rhetorical and didn’t need an answer.

“He said that Shiloh was murdered. That Kid did it. And he said that she knew we were the law. His deputy tripped up and mentioned it to one of the other casino girls.”

Heyes stuck his thumbnail in his mouth, bit down on it – eyes locked on some faraway place in the night sky. “She was strangled. I saw her.”

“We have to find Kid before the sheriff does. Where have you looked?”

Heyes ran his hand through his hair as he blew out a long breath. “Just the casino and the walk around to the boarding house. I found her body there and. . . .” What more could he say.

“You know him best, Hannibal,” Jaime said softly. “Where would he go if he wanted to hide?”

“But that’s the problem, see. He’s not thinking like himself. He’s all mixed up.”

“Then it’s even more likely that he’d seek out some place of comfort. Think, Hannibal. In the past, when he was upset or worried – where did he go?”

“He always came to me,” Heyes said simply.

“Except on this trip,” said Christina. “Remember that night you guys were playing poker. Kid went out to the boxcar to tend the horses. I think we should try the stables.”

“I think Heyes should try the stables,” said Jaime, and received a nasty glare from Christina in return. “I think you and I should go over to the boarding house and see what we can find out about Shiloh and the murder.”

Christina started to protest but this time Jaime stopped her in her tracks. “Let’s not forget that someone in this town has the power to turn good men into killers. Now I don’t want to say that it’s more important than finding Kid, but it’s damned important and I think it’s where we need to concentrate our efforts.”

“Agreed,” Heyes said quickly. “You two check out Shiloh’s place and I’ll find Kid.”

“And what are you going to do when you find him?” Christina asked.

“Cross that bridge when I get to it.” Heyes gave her a light clap on the shoulder, then did the same to Jaime adding a soft, “thanks” before heading out into the darkness alone.

* * * * *

The stables were locked up tight with a stout chain holding the doors shut. Unless Kid had turned magician he wasn’t in there. Frustrated and worried, Heyes continued down the street considering every possibility. If Kid was still under the influence he might have done something stupid, like break into an occupied home. But Heyes didn’t think so, didn’t want to think so. Kid was coming out of it when he ran from the hotel room. Out here with the fresh night air rushing through his lungs – he had to be shaking off the effects of that cigar. Had to be.

Heyes poked around behind a barn, found a lantern hanging on the wall so he helped himself. Wasn’t stealing, just borrowing. He lit the lamp, checked the barn. Nothing.

He thought back over the last few weeks – how often he had found Kid pressed into a corner as if he could be made invisible that way. This had to stop. He had to find a way to break through and bring his friend back to life. But how? How could Kid go on with Shiloh’s murder on his conscience? That was the thought that bothered him most of all. He remembered Kid threatening to get himself shot and that was at the prospect of spending twenty years in jail. What would he do knowing there was a noose waiting for him?

Bile rose up into Heyes’ throat. Kid wasn’t armed, unless he found a gun along the way somewhere. But there were other ways for a man to kill himself. Back when they were children, Kid liked to sit by the river and fish – that would seem an appropriate place to end it all. Lost and alone.


He had told Christina that Kid always came to him with his troubles but it wasn’t really true. When things were really bothering him he wanted to be alone. Kid would find a quiet spot, miles away from any sign of civilization and then he’d talk to his mother in heaven. Heyes knew because he’d followed him a couple of times. Never let on though. Let Kid keep it as a secret. As far as Heyes was concerned, Curry’s mother was under five feet of earth in the cold Kansas ground. But if Kid believe she was in heaven and it made him feel better to think so, who was he to take that away.

Alone. Empty.

A sign that said For Sale.

Heyes followed the long path back into the woods at the edge of town. There was a two-story house at the end of it, over-grown with weeds and with a broken front window. Another For Sale sign was nailed to the porch rail.

Alone and empty.

Heyes walked up the steps, tried the doorknob. Open. He let himself in.

The place was still furnished but everything was covered with a layer of dust. No one had been here in a long time. Correction. Heyes lowered his lamp to see the boot prints on the floor. He held his breath, not daring to hope. He moved left from the foyer and stepped into the living room and there was Kid, sitting in a rocking chair, arms folded over his chest, staring into the hollow of an unlit fireplace.

“Kid. I’ve been looking all over town for you.”

Curry didn’t move. Didn’t acknowledge his partner’s presence.

“Are you okay?” Heyes moved closer then set the lamp on a table by the chair. Now he could see that Curry’s arms weren’t really folded, they were cradling a lump of gray fur. A kitten. Heyes stooped down in front of Curry and still he avoided his gaze. There was a smear on the front of his white shirt. “Is that blood? Are you hurt?”

Curry shook his head. “I found her stuck in a hole in the wall. She was caught on a nail. Struggling to get loose. If she’d just held still I could have freed her but she didn’t know I was trying to help. I couldn’t save her but I didn’t want her die all alone.” Huge, fat teardrops rolled down his cheek and landed on the kitten’s back. “Oh, God Heyes, I killed that girl. Didn’t I?”

“You don’t know? You don’t remember?” Heyes dropped to his knees, clutched Curry’s folded arms with his hands. “Tell me what happened.”

“I’m not sure. I remember going into the casino. I grabbed Shiloh. I wanted her to admit what she’d done.”

“What was that?”

Curry lifted one arm, began to stroke the kitten’s soft fur. “She gave me the cigar. She even lit it to make sure I’d smoke it right then and there. Made a joke about it being a consolation prize because I lost so much at poker.”

“Then she did it to herself!” Heyes said in a harsh whisper. “If you killed her under the influence of that stuff then it’s justice.”

“No!” Curry lifted his arms and shook Heyes loose. “It doesn’t matter if she was guilty or not. I killed her with my bare hands. But look at the bright side, huh? I don’t have to worry about going back to prison, because they’re gonna hang me.”

“They’re not. You weren’t responsible for what happened.”

“No one will believe that. You know what we are. You know what people think of us. We could be clean for thirty years and people will still want us to pay for choices we made when we were young and desperate.” Curry worked his hand under the kitten’s tiny body, lifted her up to touch his lips to her head.

Now Heyes could see the full range of the animal’s wound and in seeing it he knew how much the poor thing had suffered. “Aw, Kid. Give her to me.”

Curry shook his head. “I just want to hold her a little longer.”

Heyes took a deep breath, calmed himself and so his voice. “She’s dead.”

“I know.” He brought the kitten’s cold body to his shoulder. Laid her down against him like a baby gone to sleep.

“Kid. You said you weren’t sure about what happened to Shiloh. Tell me the rest.”

“The rest? She kept trying to shush me. Said we she should talk someplace else. We went to her house. Came in through the back. Through the kitchen. She was trying to find out if I told you.” Curry’s voice slowed like he was having to work harder to remember it all. “I felt so tired all of a sudden and strange. And then I was on the floor.”

“On the floor?”

“I got hit in the head. I think.”

Heyes got to his feet, grabbed the lamp then brought it closer to the back of Curry’s head. He felt around, found a lump. Remembered the broken pottery on the kitchen floor.

“Is that what pushed you over the edge. Her hitting you?”

“But she couldn’t hit me. We were talking. I was looking at her.”

“Someone else hit you,” Heyes said, excited by this new idea. “There was someone else in the house?”

“I suppose. It’s all so fuzzy.” Curry sighed, stroked one finger down the kitten’s nose. “I almost shot you, didn’t I?”

“And I wanted to hurt you but we’re both fine. It’s over.”

“Christina? I hurt her, too.”

“She’s fine. Forget that for now. Concentrate on what happened to Shiloh.”

“I don’t remember!” Curry snapped. “She was just there. Laying on the floor. Cold. Dead. I could have done it. I don’t remember!” He turned his face toward the kitten again but Heyes blocked him with his hand.

“Stop it! Just stop it!” He grabbed the animal and pulled it away from Curry. “What’s the matter with you! Do you want to hang! Are you that desperate to die!” Heyes carried the dead animal out of the room then came back with a vengeance. “I have tried everything I know how to help you since this whole thing started. I was patient and reasonable when you hit me. I was calm and understanding when you said you wanted to kill yourself. I gave you room to breath. I left you alone when you asked me to. I gave you every opportunity to open up and tell me what the hell is wrong with you but that’s over. All over!” He shouted. “Calm, patient, understanding – it’s all out the window. What you get now is angry and frustrated, and impatient and scared!” Heyes threw his hands in the air, paced to the edge of the fireplace then back. “You’ve got me scared to death, Kid. Scared that you’re going to leave me to finish this rotten life alone. Scared that I’m never going to enjoy freedom with my best friend. Scared that I’m never gonna be Uncle Heyes who spoils your kids and has Sunday dinner with your family. God damnit! I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened, how things would have turned out if we’d gone right instead of left!”

“I understand,” Kid said softly with no real emotion at all.

Heyes went straight for him, got in his face, finger poking his chest. “I want my partner back! I want Kid Curry, the man who would take on a bully twice his size to rescue a lady in distress. The man who won’t teach a boy how to shoot because there’s always someone wanting to prove he’s faster. The Kid Curry who could sit in a chair, watching my back while I cracked a safe, knowing that there are twenty deadly vaqueros within hearing distance of what we’re doing, and still not even break a sweat.”

Curry pushed Heyes’ hand away, his lips tightened into a bow, his eyes narrowing – just like that time in the hotel when they were after McCreedy’s bust. “I want that too, Heyes. I just don’t know how to get there.”

“Start by fighting this thing! If someone else killed Shiloh then she wasn’t in this alone and that means we’re all still in danger. You’ve got to think! You must have heard something. Heard them talking.”

“I don’t know! It’s all mixed up. Christina and Shiloh and all these voices. . .”

“Women’s voices. Is that what you heard in the house? Another woman’s voice?”

Curry ran his sleeve across his eyes as he sighed. “My head hurts so much, it’s a wonder I can remember my own name.”

“Okay.” Heyes set his hand on his partner’s shoulder. “I’m pushing too hard. I’m sorry. It’s just that we were so close with Shiloh and now we’ve got nothing.” Heyes started to pace again. “It’s the timing that bothers me. You were only a few minutes ahead of me, yet you had time to walk all the way around to the boarding house, argue with Shiloh, get knocked out, recover and run for it before I got there.”

“Well, I didn’t go all the way around. We went out the back of the casino, it empties right into the boarding house backyard.”

“But there’s a fence.”

“There’s a gate,” said Curry. A plank that slips to the side to make a doorway.”

“I didn’t know that. The girl I talked to said you had to go all the way around. That must be how the killer followed you so quickly. Through the yard, in the backdoor, knocked you out, killed Shiloh for . . . I don’t know. . . because she messed up, I guess. Then back to the casino. A lot faster than the way I went.”

“Doesn’t help us. There had to be fifty people in the casino.”

“Yeah, but if you think it was a woman.”

“I didn’t say that. You said that.” Curry slumped backwards in the chair then scrubbed his hands over his face. “I need some sleep.”

“So do I,” Heyes admitted. “Maybe you better stay here. Until we can figure out who else was in that kitchen, the sheriff is going to want to arrest you.”

“Maybe we should let him.”

“Don’t start again,” Heyes whined.

“I’m not! It’s just. . . Heyes, are you sure I didn’t kill Shiloh?”

“I’m sure,” is what he said but there was no real conviction in his voice. “You be okay here by yourself tonight?”

Curry nodded.

“You want me to tell Christina where you are?”

“No. Just tell her I’m alright.”

“Okay.” Again Heyes laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Stay out of trouble, will ya?”

“Yeah. You, too.”

*    *    *   *
Christina and Jaime spent nearly an hour going through Shiloh’s one room at the boarding house. They came up empty. Nothing at all pointed to her being involved in anything that had happened. Nothing that showed she was even capable of coming up with such a plan. No books, no notes, nothing but the trappings of an uneducated saloon girl.”Let’s hope Heyes had better luck finding Kid,” Christina said as they left the boarding house and walked back to the main street.

A crowd had begun to gather – not too big, but nervous, loud. One man seemed to be leading the way with talk about cold blooded killers being allowed to run loose. Word had spread about Shiloh’s death but that wasn’t what bothered this group. They had already made the leap from this killing to the deaths on the train and Curry was squarely in the center of both of those incidents.

“This is going to ugly very fast,” said Jaime. Then, when Christina didn’t respond, he followed her gaze.

There was a man standing on the sidewalk in front of the general store. Close enough to hear what was going on but not close enough to be involved. He was leaning against a lamppost so his face was illuminated in the night. Long and narrow, his cheeks were sucked in and his left eye drooped. It was as if that whole side of his face was sliding downward.

“That’s Avery Bryant,” said Christina.

“I think you’re right. I’ve only seen him a couple of times but there’s no mistaking that face.”

“One too many beatings to the head is what they say,” Christina moved to the left to get a better look, but kept herself concealed in the darkness. “I heard he was quite the handsome devil before the war.”

“Devil is right.”

A former leader in the Confederate government, Bryant was still fighting the north even though the war was long over and lost. He was suspected of more than a dozen crimes from plotting to overthrow the government to the murder of a senator and his family. Suspected, but there was never enough to pin him to the wall.

“And what do you suppose he’s doing here?” said Christina.

“Well, last time I heard about him, he was buying guns from the Mexicans.”

“Yeah, well maybe this trip he’s after a weapon that’s easier to carry.” She mimed smoking a cigar. “What do you think? Was the train just a little demonstration?”

“Oh, I don’t want think about that. Those cigars in the hands of a man like Avery? That’s a nightmare.”

“And that’s why I’m sure we just found out missing piece.”

* * * *

Curry continued to rock in the chair for a good while after Heyes was gone. He used the time to think – to remember – tried to stick with the good times but the bad kept coming through. Pretty amazing really, that they had survived. That they’d lived a nice life. It was nice, compared to most. They were healthy and strong and they had friends and often they’d had money.

Nice hotels and fresh food, baths and warm beds – luxurious to so many and yet they’d had more than their share.

Yeah, they’d made some bad moves – but Curry wasn’t sure that choosing to be outlaws was one of them. They were paying the price now but it certainly was fun while it lasted. And it was something he’d do again if he had it to do over.

Heyes was right. Time to get on with it. Time to build a new life.

Curry got up from the chair, grabbed the fireplace shovel then took it with him into the kitchen where he found a lantern and a small tablecloth. With a gentleness you wouldn’t expect from a gun fighter, Curry laid the kitten on the cloth, wrapped her up then carried her into the yard. He dropped to his knees on the cold damp ground then used the fireplace shovel to dig a small hole. When it was deep enough, he laid the bundle inside then shoveled the dirt on top to cover.

It was a quick job, a small job. Not like when he and Heyes had buried the dead that day in Kansas. Sitting on his heels, staring at the small mound of dirt he couldn’t help but think about how everything had changed on that day. Two, well-loved, carefree children suddenly left alone in a very cold and hateful world.

He let his head fall back and stared up at the half moon and sprinkling of stars. “I don’t expect you’d be proud of me, ma, but we only did what we had to and we’re trying to make up for that now. I know I’ve done some bad things but I’m gonna settle down. Make something of myself. Make you proud of me.” He sighed, waited, expected the tears to come but for once they didn’t. “And ma. If you see Mr. and Mrs. Heyes up there – you tell them that Hannibal’s taking real good care of me and I plan to do the same for him. None of you have to worry about us. We’re gonna be just fine.”

Then he bowed his head and whispered a prayer that he hadn’t spoken since childhood.

* * *

Heyes headed back to town, more pent up and frustrated than he was before he’d found Curry. It was like that old legend about the man in hell. For his crimes he was sentenced by the gods to push a huge boulder up to the top of a hill. All day long he would sweat and strain and push toward the top, but at night, when he rested, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom and everyday he would have to start again.

It was nighttime and the rock was rolling back, not just undoing everything he’d done but threatening to crush him as well.

Wanting to avoid the growing crowd on the main street, Heyes headed for the boarding house. Instead of going inside, he walked around to the back then checked the fence. Just as Kid had said, there was a loose plank which was set on a pivot. He pushed it aside and climbed through into the backyard of the Lucky Duck. He thought the place might be locked up tight, but he could see a light in a window and found the door was open. He entered through the kitchen, walked out into the dining room and on to the casino floor.

It was empty. Lights dimmed, doors bolted. The patrons gone leaving the staff to clean up for the night. He heard voices coming from the left. He followed, drawn by the sound of a sobbing woman.

“It’s my fault. I told Shiloh that he was a lawman. I shouldn’t have done it. I put her in danger.”

Ah, the deputy’s girlfriend, Maggie May. Heyes stepped into the open doorway of the office. Saw the girl sitting in a chair in front of the desk, her head in her hands, her body convulsing with sobs. Mrs. Randolph was standing over her, patting her on the shoulder as she reassured her that it wasn’t her fault at all. When she turned a bit, she caught Heyes out of the corner of her eye. She jumped, gasped.

“I didn’t know anyone else was in the building!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Mrs. Randolph set a chubby hand over her heart then took a deep breath. “My old heart can’t take too many more shocks today. You’re Joshua, aren’t you?” Then her face fell. “Oh my, you had a date with Shiloh. She was going to meet you after we closed. You know, don’t you? What happened to her?”

Heyes nodded as he came further into the room. “Yes, I know and I just wanted to assure you, both, that my friend Thaddeus had nothing to do with it.”

“But the sheriff,” said Maggie. “He said so.”

“I just talked to Thaddeus and he said he didn’t do it. Someone hit him over the head. Knocked him out, then killed Shiloh. And I think it happened because she had something to do with the murders on the train.”

He expected the girl to deny it but she didn’t. “I knew she was involved in something terrible, I just knew it. She was always so angry at the whole world. People didn’t treat her right, because of her color. She always said she’d find a way to make them pay.” She sniffed, looked directly at Heyes. “Are you really a lawman?”


“I told her so. I shouldn’t have but I didn’t want to see her hurt again.”

“It’s okay. Really. I liked her and I wish I could have gotten to know her better because I think she was a victim, too.”

Maggie May opened her mouth and then a whole new torrent of tears took over.

“Oh, there, there, sweetie.” Mrs. Randolph reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out a lace-edged handkerchief. A shard of pottery came out with it. It had been caught in the fold of the fabric and now it fell to the floor at her feet.

Heyes looked at the shard – felt it should mean something. Imagined it lying there with a dozen other shards from the same pot all around it. The kitchen of the boarding house. He forced a smile to his lips, lifted his gaze, saw Mrs. Randolph staring at him.

“I just wanted to say how sorry I was about what happened to Shiloh, so, good night.” He got as far as turning his back before she stopped him.

“Don’t go, Joshua.”

He closed his eyes, summed his calm. He knew what he’d be facing when he turned round and sure enough, there it was – Mrs. Randolph with a pistol in her hand. But she wasn’t aiming it at him. She had Maggie May in front of her and the barrel pointed at the girl’s head.

“If I had thought you were a bit more stupid, I would have let it go. But Shiloh told me that you were very bright. Very quick and I knew the moment that bit of pottery hit the floor that you’d put it together.”

“You hit Thaddeus with the crock. That’s the only way that piece could have ended up in your pocket. It fell in there when the pot shattered. Still, it’s a big leap from that tiny clue to figuring you for murder.”

“Maybe,” she said, “But I just can’t afford any more screw-ups. Shiloh made a big mistake when she gave your friend that cigar. It brought everything too close to home. The demonstration on the train was all we needed to seal our deal—”

“A buyer,” said Heyes, his mind searching for a way out even as he spoke.

“Yes. A very rich buyer. But when she heard that you were the law, she assumed you were using her and that was something Shiloh could never stand for. On the floor, Joshua. On your stomach, hands behind your back.”

“What say we talk about this?”

Mrs. Randolph pressed the gun tighter to Maggie’s head. The girl gasped, tightened, her eyes begging Heyes for help.

“Okay, okay. Just take it easy.” Slowly he got down on his knees, then all the way to his stomach. He expected to feel a slug ripping through him each step of the way but he made it to the floor unscathed. She’d have to kill him. Him and the girl. There was no other way out. And the best he could hope for right now was that Christina might come looking. A distraction would work – even a small one.

“Hands behind your back.”

He did as she asked, cringing at what was to come. Damn it, how many times in his life had he performed this routine. “You’re not going to get out this town without raising some suspicions with my partners. They already know Shiloh was involved and they know she wasn’t in it alone. If I disappear, they’re going to take this town apart.”

“Are you suggesting a deal?”

He could hear her moving, dragging the girl along.

“Why not? I’m not exactly the person you think I am.” He jumped when something landed on his back, rope. Then Maggie was kneeling beside him, shaking, scared. “Just do what she asks,” he said softly.

Maggie’s only reply was a sniff, then she was wrapping a cord around his wrists. Okay. Not a problem. Always was better with his mouth than his fists.

“I’m not exactly a lawman – I mean, I’m acting as one but I’m actually Hannibal Heyes and Thaddeus is Kid Curry.”

“The outlaws? Even if it were true, why would that matter to me?”

“Why it matters is – a – two reasons. One, since I’m not a law man, I have no moral conflicts over making a deal with a killer if it keeps me breathing. Second of all, I’m worth 10,000 if you turn me into the sheriff.” Heyes cringed as cold steel pressed into the back of his neck.

“I believe that reward is payable dead or alive?”

“Yeah, but the woman I was with is a government agent and I think she’d be kinda suspicious if I showed up with a bullet in my head.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t shoot you. Unless, I have to.” The gun was taken away. “And I don’t mean to seem greedy here, but $10,000 isn’t even close to what I’m going to be paid for a small box of funny cigars. Get up.” Then to Maggie she said, “help him.”

Heyes rolled to his shoulder then got his knees under him. With a tug from Maggie he was up on his feet and that was when he felt the pain in his ankle kick in. Nothing monumental, just a dull ache. Nothing to be concerned about since he was more than likely going to die within the next hour.

Mrs. Randolph herded them both out of the office and back to the kitchen. This room was loaded with possible weapons but he couldn’t hope to get to one tied as he was. Maggie was still free but she was too frightened to do anything but follow orders.

“Open that door,” said Mrs. Randolph. “Joshua, you go down first.”

Maggie opened the door then stood aside for Heyes to pass. There were stairs leading down to a cellar. It was pitch black so he couldn’t see any further than the fifth step.

“What’s the problem, Joshua?”

“I’m afraid of the dark.”

“Walk down or I push you down. Either way you’ll end up in the same place.”

Heyes sighed then started down the stairs. He made it past the fifth step and could see the cellar floor when he hit a loose tread. He stumbled, his aching ankle gave way and he started to fall. Instinct told him to grab for the railing – reality said he couldn’t. Heyes fell forward and sideways. He pulled into a tuck as his shoulders then hips bounced off the remaining steps and after what seemed like six rounds in a bare knuckle boxing ring he hit bottom.

“Oh my gosh, are you all right?” A figure dropped down beside him in the dark – Maggie.

Heyes tried to respond but there was no air left in his lungs. He opened his mouth, tried to fill them but nothing happened. Panic gripped him for a moment but he knew that was the worst thing he could do. Relax, let go, don’t fight it and the air will come. He closed his eyes just as Mrs. Randolph lit a lamp in the room. Slowly he tried for another breath and this time his lungs filled with musty, moldy air.

“Wind knocked out of me,” he said, his voice harsh and scratchy. Heyes struggled to sit and was hit by a sharp pain in his leg. Redirecting his attention he saw Maggie tying his ankles. Twisted, now felt like it might be broken, which could be a real problem if he got the chance to make an escape.

When Maggie was done with Heyes, Mrs. Randolph tied her wrists and ankles then left them side by side in the corner.

The cellar was like a laboratory. There were long tables and beakers and tubes. With her captives well secured, Mrs. Randolph sat down on a high stool and began to mix powders and liquids in a wide-mouth glass container.

“How did you happen to come across this formula,” Heyes asked, truly curious about this woman and her work.

“It was my late husband’s discovery. He was a doctor for the mentally ill. He was trying to find a medicine that would calm patients with violent tendencies – and in doing so created just the opposite.” She continued to combine and stir, then the beaker went over a flame to cook. “Actually, to be precise, it’s more of an uninhibitor.”

“Meaning we’re all violent by nature but society’s rules have taught us to keep it in.”

Mrs. Randolph looked his way and beamed. “You are bright. Yes, exactly. Men, in particular, having been the hunters, the protectors, have a general proclivity toward violence. The drug simply takes what’s already inside of us and pushes it to the front. A person’s basic fears become realized and well, then the paranoia sets in. There’s nothing more dangerous in this world than a paranoid man. Women tend to withdraw and hide in that scenario but men. . . they go after everything and anything.”

“Yeah, I had the pleasure.”

“That’s right, you did!” Again she turned his way. “I heard you nearly killed your best friend. It’s a shame it didn’t happen – the demonstration on the train was quite the selling point – but if I could show a man who’s killed his best friend – well, that would have been the crowning achievement.” She turned back to her work and this time became quite absorbed.

Heyes began to tug at his bonds. Keeping an eye on Mrs. Randolph so he could stop if she looked his way, he twisted and yanked and only succeeded in rubbing his wrists raw.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Maggie whispered, her voice choked with fear.

“No. My friends are looking for me. They’ll get here in time. I’m sure.” It felt good to say it, but Heyes wasn’t sure at all. Unless Curry had a sudden flash of memory, no one would look at the kindly old Mrs. Randolph as the culprit. No, they’d search just about everywhere else in town before looking here. Which meant he was really on his own and that was a very disheartening thought.

* * *

Kid Curry walked into town with no real plan in mind. Heyes was the planner. He was more of a “seat of pants” man. Take things as they come, one obstacle at a time. Since it wasn’t quite yet dawn, he figured the only obstacle in his path would be avoiding the sheriff who was out looking for him, he didn’t figure on finding a mob.

It looked like half the town was there – in the middle of the street, arguing, yelling, torches and lanterns being lit. Like a posse gathering to chase after the Devil’s Hole Gang. Too many years of running made his heart skip a beat at the sight and the sound. He thought about turning tail – what was that saying Heyes liked to quote – “he that fights and runs away may live to fight another day?” – good advice. Only it was too late. They spotted him.

Next Heyesism – when you’re surrounded – give up. Curry lifted his hands and did his best to look bewildered and innocent.

“Look, you fellas have this all wrong!”

But they weren’t about to listen. A barnyard of chatter hit him from all sides. You murdered that girl. You’re a killer. Tricked us all with that routine. Think we wouldn’t figure it out. Gonna blame it on her? The children loved Ellen and you took her life.

That was the one that sunk in. They weren’t talking about Shiloh. They didn’t seem to care about her murder. They were talking about the young teacher who’d been killed on the train, Ellen Markham.

“Now, wait a minute! I didn’t have anything to do with what happened on the train! Would I have been stupid enough to come here with the bodies if I was guilty!”

“Pretty smart, if you ask me.” Two cowboys grabbed him by the arms and began to drag him toward the rest of the crowd in the center of the street. “If you made a run for it we might have caught up to you but this way nobody suspects.”

“Why’d you do it?” Asked another. “For the money? Slaughter a whole train load of innocent people for the money?”

“No! I told you! I didn’t do that. I didn’t kill anyone!”

“You killed Shiloh!”

“No. I know it looks like I did. But I didn’t. I got hit on the head. Someone else killed her then left me to take the blame.”

That got a laugh from the crowd. Curry scanned the faces, looking for some help, looking for his friends. Where they hell were they? He was dragged down the street like when he fell into the river when he was a child. The current had pulled him down so quickly but Heyes had been there to save him then – where was he now?

Curry was shoved up against the back of a wagon. His hands were tied behind him. Then two men climbed into the bed of the wagon and pulled him up with them. He tried to fight them but even if he got away from them, there were thirty other people standing between him and freedom.

“Listen to me! You’re wrong. I haven’t done anything!” Ironic words, considering who he really was – but even the outlaw Kid Curry didn’t deserve to be treated like — this.

A noose dropped down in front of his eyes. Curry tipped his head back, saw that the wagon was parked under a balcony. The rope was tied to the railings and now the noose was going over his neck. He opened his mouth to speak, but there was no air. Heart racing, lungs paralyzed – this couldn’t be happening. This had to be a nightmare! After all he’d been through – to die for a crime he didn’t commit!

The rope tightened around his neck, scratchy and coarse against his skin. He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed – prayed that it would be over quick and that there really was a heaven after all.

* * * *

With Christina taking the first watch on Avery, Jaime headed back toward the center of town. He was hoping to find Heyes but what he did find made his stomach drop – Curry with a noose around his neck.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Justice,” one man shouted back. “He killed all those people on that train. Him and his partner.”

“No, he didn’t. He’s not a murderer! But you will be if you go through with this.”

The crowd shouted obscenities at him. Told the stranger to mind his own business.

Jaime pushed his way into the thick of the crowd. “I am an agent for the federal government and I demand that you stop this instantly or you’ll all be under arrest.”

A few of the mob members seemed to believe his threat, but not all of them. Not enough of them. He glanced up at Curry, saw him return the look – even from here, he could see the panic in the young man’s eyes.

“I’ll jail him right now,” said Jaime. “Keep him there until this is straightened out. That’s how it works. Not like this. Not with a lynching.” He was getting through, little by little. He scanned the crowd – saw Christina coming up from the outside, and Avery – if she had to identify herself as a federal agent, Avery would run and it would all be lost. “I’m going to get him down from there and anybody who wants to can come with me to the jail to make sure I lock him up tight.” With a slow, controlled breath, Jaime turned back to the wagon.

The crowd hushed and then one man’s voice could be heard loud and clear. “He killed my, Ellen! My baby girl!” The man swung into the driver’s seat of the wagon, grabbed the reigns then snapped them hard. The horses whined then bolted, knocking down two men who were in the way, and yanking out the only thing solid under Curry’s feet.

With nothing to stand on – he dropped. Six inches and the rope ran out of slack. The noose jerked up tight against his throat. The will to survive made him struggle. Hands twisting to escape their bonds, feet searching for something to step on to.

Jaime pulled his gun and aimed in one smooth move. Shot the rope a foot above Curry’s head. It was a good stout rope so it didn’t severe right away, but with Curry’s struggling weight at the end, the fibers peeled away in seconds and finally it snapped. Curry fell to the ground like a bundle of laundry tossed from a second story window. The pressure was gone but the noose was still tight around his neck so he was still gasping for air. Jaime ran to him, reached for him then felt the bullet slam into his shoulder.

The crowd went wild – screaming, yelling, more gunshots, then people were scattering in all directions.

“Jaime!” was what Christina said, but she ran to Curry first. She dropped to her knees in front of him, loosened the noose around his neck, then held him in her lap as he sucked in huge mouthfuls of air. “Jaime, are you all right?”

“Shot. Not bad. I’ll be okay.” He struggled up to sitting, found a handkerchief in his pocket then pressed it to his bloody shoulder. “How about you, Kid?”

Curry nodded, still too shaken to speak. Christina removed the noose then cut his wrists free. She ran her hand over his back calming him, calming her.

The crowd had dispersed, some were still hovering a yard or two away, but many had gone home to think about what they’d done – think about what had happened.

“Can’t lose Avery,” Jaime said, blood seeping through the cloth and over his fingers. “It’ll all be for nothing.”

“Will you be alright if I leave you?”

“I’ll take care of him,” said a small voice. She was a nobody. A young woman in a plain dress who had just watched her family and neighbors nearly kill two men. “There’re not bad people. We’re just all scared.”

Jaime smiled at her despite what had to be a painful wound. “We’re the good guys. I swear.”

Christina and the girl helped him to his feet, while Curry slowly stood and stretched.

“Jaime,” said Curry. “Thanks.”

“Haven’t lost a partner yet, wasn’t gonna start now.” Then he let the young woman lead him away.

“Where’s Heyes,” was Curry’s next question.

“I don’t know. He went looking for you hours ago.”

“He found me, said he was coming back here to tell you.”

“Well he never got here.” Gently, she touched her fingers to the deep red slash under his chin. “Just needed a some time to himself. With what happened with you and Shiloh?”

“I didn’t do it. Someone knocked me out, killed her and left me to take the blame.”

“If that’s true, then her accomplice is still in town. Damn. We have to get back to Avery.”


“Just come on and I’ll explain.”

* * * * *

Heyes hadn’t made much progress on his ropes by the time Mrs. Randolph finished her work. With deep trepidation, he watched her pack a dozen cigars carefully inside of a wood box. If she was finished, so was he. No more reason to keep him alive. For the third time in the last half hour he cursed himself for having told Curry to stay put. If they’d come to the casino together, she never would have gotten the drop on them – but that was old news. Nothing to be done about it now.

Mrs. Randolph got up from her stool, then slipped the box into the large front pocket of her skirt. “I am really sorry the two of you got involved,” she said, skirting the worktable and moving out of Heyes’ view. “I really hate killing people I know. It’s so much easier when it’s strangers.” She came into view again with a large can in her hands. She turned then tipped it so the liquid inside poured on to the floor.


She splashed some on the worktable and liberally over the papers where the formula was written down. Then she headed for the stairs leaving their corner of the room dry. “This way the smoke will get you before the flames do,” she explained. “I’m not a cruel woman, after all. Greedy, perhaps, but not cruel.” She walked up the stairs pouring the kerosene behind her as she went.

Maggie started to panic almost instantly – the image of what was about to happen, coupled with the sickly smell of the fumes had her in tears all over again.

“Calm down,” Heyes snapped at her, as soon as Mrs. Randolph was gone from the cellar. “If we’re going to get out of here you have to keep your head.”

“Out of here? How? She’s going to set the whole place on fire!”

“And she’s going to start it upstairs, which means we have time.” Heyes glanced around, saw a shelf full of jars – pickles and preserves. Now that there was no need to cover his actions, he moved quickly. Digging his heels into the floor he propelled himself backwards toward the shelf. When he was there he turned around so he could kick the shelf with his bound feet. It took two tries before several jars tumbled on to the floor. One landed in tact, but the second hit the first and shattered. “Come closer to me,” Heyes ordered Maggie, then carefully picked up the largest chunk of broken glass.

He moved and she moved and soon they were back to back. He switched the glass fragment to her bound hands. “Use that to cut my ropes.”

“I can’t see what I’m doing! I’ll cut you!”

“I’d rather bleed than burn. Do it. Now!” Then he coughed to expel the fumes that had crawled down his throat. “Don’t rush, but don’t hold back.” Heyes gasped as her first attempt hit flesh instead of rope. He adjusted his position and tried to cover the next gasp of pain with a cough. She’d back off if she thought she was hurting him, so he had to do what he could to keep it under wraps – even as he felt the blood dripping down his hands.

* * * *

“I should be out looking for Heyes.” Curry paced the length of the dim alleyway, right hand resting, once again, on the gun that was in his holster. It felt good to have it back, made him feel more like Kid Curry and less like prisoner 42857. Now if only Christina would get out of his way, everything would be back to normal.

“Heyes can take care of himself. Avery is our one and only concern right now.”

They’d been standing in the alley watching the hotel entrance for a half hour. Dawn was approaching but the light was just barely breaking through the dark and misty sky. Avery came out of the hotel twice in that time. He leaned on the porch rail, smoked a cigar – which scared the hell out of both of them the first time he did it, then went back inside when the cigar was gone.

A normal cigar. No funny side effects.

“Heyes has got to be in trouble or he would have been back by now. He could be dead and we’re standing around here watching a guy who may have nothing at all to do with this.”

“If Heyes is dead, then it doesn’t matter how we spend our time, does it? And if he’s not, you don’t have a clue as to where to look for him. I’m telling you that Avery is the missing link. He’s going to lead us to who ever is behind all of this and that’s the only way we’re going to find Heyes.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“Then I’ll—” Christina stopped speaking.

Avery had come out on to the porch again. Obviously whom ever he was expecting was late. This time he didn’t smoke. He just stood there looking up and down the street. In another twenty minutes it would be light enough to reveal their positions then they’d have to make a decision on what to do. It never happened because ten minutes later a rider galloped into town. He was a young man, maybe twenty-two years old, nattily dressed in the east coast style. He stopped in front of the hotel, dismounted, then tethered his horse on the rail. He and Avery talked for a few moments and it wasn’t good. Arms flailed, voices raised, but not enough to hear what they were saying.

“Somebody’s not happy,” said Curry. His hand went to the butt of his gun again and this time it didn’t feel so right. He was moving too quick. That wasn’t his style. Even faced off with another gun fighter, his hand would stay near his belt buckle until just the right moment. Now here he was reaching for his gun at the slightest hint of trouble. He forced himself to let go, then ran his hand gently over his bruised throat. “I can’t do this. I gotta look for Heyes.” Then he dashed off without giving her a chance to stop him.

He ran off quickly, knowing she wouldn’t dare follow. He knew he was jeopardizing everything by popping out of the dark alley within view of the men they were watching. Knew and didn’t care. It didn’t matter – playing detective had nearly gotten them all killed and now Heyes was in trouble and that was all that mattered.

With no real plan in mind, Curry headed down the main street toward the Lucky Duck. Saloons were always the best place to start when you were looking for information. Copious amounts of alcohol and lonely, bored women. Curry knew how to work both of them to get what he wanted. Half way down the street, though, he saw Mrs. Randolph hurrying in his direction. He quickly sidestepped, ducking into an alcove in front of the general store. With the attempted lynching still fresh in his mind, he wasn’t anxious to run into Shiloh’s friend and former employer.

She hurried past him, glancing over a shoulder a couple of times, but never looking in his direction. The third time she looked back, Curry followed her gaze and saw the smoke just beginning to billow out of roof of the Lucky Duck. Startled, he nearly called out to the woman, but then he realized that she knew full well that her business was burning and she obviously didn’t care.

And that scared Curry more than anything he’d seen in the last few days.

“Heyes,” he barely breathed the name as the panic welled up inside of him. There was nothing to prove it, nothing even suggesting that Heyes was in that building – but he knew it. Knew it like he knew his own name. He dashed across the street just the flames shot through the front of the casino.

* * * *

The pain was close to unbearable, still Heyes held his tongue. He twisted and stretched, feeling the ropes give way little by little and then finally the resistance was gone and they snapped apart. With numb fingers, he grabbed another piece of glass then cut Maggie’s bonds then cut the rope around his ankles. Before he was finished the room was filled with thick black smoke.

“Get out of here. Now!” He gave Maggie a shove, felt her move away from him then heard her heels clacking on the wooden stairs. From the sound of her coughing, he could tell that she was moving quickly. Done. Good. Now to get himself out of there. Standing was out of the question, between the rising smoke and the pain in his ankle, Heyes decided it was best to stay flat on the floor. Crawling on his belly he made his way to the stairs. His miscalculated the distance, smacked his raw and bloody wrist on the bottom tread. He gasped from the shock, sucked in – but there was no air. Hot acrid ash filled his nose and throat. Bad down here – but worse up there. The fire was up there. But so was the only way out. Crawling on his hands and knees, Heyes climbed the wooden staircase. Every inch was an effort. His lungs burning, brain starved for oxygen.

Keep going. Don’t give up now. Not now. Made it through the desert. You can make it through this. Two more steps. Three more after that. He could hear the flames, the creak of the timbers as the load bearing walls were consumed.

The doorway. He made it to the doorway. Out now. Into the kitchen.

The fire was raging in here – like a blacksmith’s pit. Like the fires of hell. And there he was, doomed to push that rock up the hill for all eternity.

It was too much. Heyes collapsed on to the floor unable to move. Unable to breath. Unable to think except to hope that Kid would somehow make it through without him.

* * *
Something came stumbling toward him in the smoky darkness. A figure. A girl. She bounced off a roulette table, tripped, then fell into his arms.

“Is there anyone else in here?” Curry asked as he dragged her back the way he had come. “Answer me. Are you alone?”

She shook her head. Sucked in a breath, got nothing. “Your friend,” she managed.

“Where? Where is he?”

“Cellar. Kitchen.” And that was all he needed. He got her close enough so she could see the open door then he ran back the way he had come. The majority of the fire was at the back of the house, but even up here he could smell the kerosene mixed with smoke. A deliberate fire. An attempt at murder.

Curry held his handkerchief over his mouth and nose to filter the smoke. Knew he should crawl to avoid the worst air but that would be too slow. He couldn’t afford to be slow.

“Heyes!” He pressed on, weaving around the casino equipment, bumping into tables and chairs that he couldn’t see in the near dark and then it was light – bright – glowing. The kitchen was being consumed by flames that shot all the way to the ceiling. It was disorienting, like a heat mirage in the desert so he wasn’t sure that he saw what he thought he saw – a figure rise up momentarily, then drop. “Heyes!”

Curry hit the floor, crawled the last few feet to where his partner was lying. Racking coughs convulsed and twisted his body. Alive. At least he was alive. “We gotta get out of here.” The effort of those few words set Curry to coughing as well but he didn’t stop. He pulled Heyes up to his feet, then hoisted him up over his shoulder. The kitchen door was closest, but they’d have to pass through a wall of fire to get there. He decided to go back the way he had come.

Exhausted and breathless, Curry backtracked through the casino. It was darker now, thicker. And the ominous creak of collapsing timber threatened to stop him at every turn.

A crash from behind him. Then pop, pop, pop – bottles exploding. He felt a sharp sting in the face and then the bite of an ember on the back of his neck. Then more debris was raining down upon him. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was that Heyes had gone quiet. No gasps of pain. No coughing. Silent.

Curry wanted to speak to him. To tell him to hang on but he didn’t have enough air to keep moving let alone speak. So he thought it. Loud and in his head.

From me to you, Heyes. Don’t you give up. I’m going to get you out of here, partner. And that’s what we’re going be again, partners. Just don’t leave me. Just don’t.

And then there were voices. Shouts. People outside. Close enough to hear. Then he was wet and cool – doused with water from a bucket and then another. Someone tried to take Heyes from him but he wouldn’t let go. He did let them lead the way, the last few feet out into the street and then he collapsed taking Heyes with him.

Curry’s lungs were on fire. He tried to suck in a breath but there was still too much smoke. Then he was being pulled by the arms, dragged away and lifted into the back of a wagon.

No. No. Not again. “I didn’t kill her. Don’t do this.”

“Stop. Jed. It’s me. Christina. Just breath slow. Easy.”

The wagon was moving, taking them away from the thick air and to a place where it was smoke tinged but breathable.

“Heyes,” was the first word that came out of his mouth.

“He’s right here. He’ll be okay when he gets some clean air.”

Curry didn’t believe it. He opened his eyes, tried to focus and felt the grit grinding beneath his eyelids. Christina was on her knees, actioning Heyes arms up and down as you did when someone drowned. After a half minute of silence, Heyes suddenly came to life, gasping as if someone had just driven a knife into his gut. He coughed, nearly wretched, allowed Christina to help him roll to his side to help clear the last of the crap from his lungs.

“Kid?” he said, finding his voice. “You ran into a burning building to save me? That’s pretty stupid.”

“Even stupider than that cause I wasn’t even sure you were in there.”

Heyes jerked up to sitting, “Mrs. Randolph!”

“We know,” Christina said, urging him to lie back down. “We got her and her partners. They’re in jail and I’ll get back to them when I’m done with you two.”

The wagon came to a halt, then more hands reached in and helped them climb out of the back. Supported under the shoulders, Heyes and Curry were led into the house and into an examining room. Curry had an instant flashback to the appendicitis episode. What had Heyes said, ‘it’s been a hell of month’? Felt more like a year.

The doctor, a balding man in his fifties, told them to put Heyes on the examining table. Christina turned a straight chair around backwards then had Curry sit straddling it.

“Why am I sitting like this?”

“So I can fix you up,” said Christina. Then she stepped around in front of him, a perplexed look on her face. “Your shirt was on fire when you came out of the building. Did you know that?”

Curry shook his head. “Nope.”

“It’s the adrenaline,” said the doctor. “Nature’s way of keeping you going until the danger has passed, blocks the pain. As soon as it wears off, he’ll feel it.”

“I can’t wait.” Curry folded his arms across the back of the chair then dropped his head down.

The doctor took off Heyes shirt then cleaned up and bandaged the wounds on his wrists. While he worked, he told Christina what she needed to tend to Curry’s burns. She gathered up a clean cloth and a bottle of special water and scissors. She used the scissors to cut his shirt up the back. It was worse than she had imagined, with a layer of burned skin now mixed with the just healed lash marks.

Amazing – what a human being could endure.

Curry jumped when Heyes cried out. The effect of his boot being removed from his broken and swollen ankle. It was Curry’s turn next. Christina laid the clean cloth across his back then poured the sterile water over the cloth. It felt like a million tiny teeth biting into his skin and that was the first clue to how bad he was going to feel in an hour.

“Well, company,” said a familiar voice.

Curry glanced over his shoulder and saw Jaime in the doorway. He had a sling on his arm, but other than that he appeared mighty chipper.

“What happened to you?” Heyes asked, pressing up to his elbows as the doctor wrapped his ankle.

“I got shot cause I saved Kid here from being hanged. What happened to you?”

“Hanged?” Heyes’ pitch scaled higher. “What’s he talking about hanged?”

“For murder. Shiloh and everybody on the train,” Curry said, then moaned when Christina hit a particularly raw patch of skin. “Lynch mob grabbed me. They had a noose around my neck before I knew what was happening.”

“Let me guess,” said Heyes. “And you saw the floor plan of Miss Daisy’s Exotic Palace pass before your eyes.”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny.” Curry turned toward Heyes, then pulled off the tattered remains of his shirt. He pointed to the soft skin under his chin. “See that?”

“Geez, Kid. I didn’t think. . . I didn’t realize it went that far.”

“The teacher who was killed on the train, her father took off in the wagon I was standing on. I dropped. Luckily I wasn’t high enough to snap my neck. Jaime shot the rope clean through, then someone shot him, probably aiming for me.”

Heyes turned his focus to Jaime, “Thanks,” he said sincerely.

“You saved my partner’s life last night so I figured I should save yours.”

“Wait.” This from Curry. “Heyes saved Christina’s life? Where was I?”

“In a world all your own,” she said, giving him an intentionally hard jab. “I’ve had enough of this conversation. I think we all need to get patched up and rested up and then we’re out of here. This town is bad luck.”

“Look who’s complaining,” said Heyes. “Here we all look like we just came off the front lines and she doesn’t have a scratch on her.”

“HEYES!” Christina went straight to him, caught his face in her hands then kissed him smack on the lips. “You went above and beyond and I’m glad you’re all right.” Then she went to Jaime. “All those idiots in the agency who refuse to work with you. . . they don’t know what they’re missing. You’re tops.” She hugged him carefully and kissed him on the cheek.

And finally to Curry. She stepped around in front of the chair the stooped to his level. “You know, for a pretty boy, you’re awfully tough.” Then she mussed his curls with her fingers.

“That’s it? No hug? No kiss?”

“I’m saving it up for tonight,” she whispered in his ear.

Curry sat up straight, stretched and felt his skin resist the move. “Maybe you should make that tomorrow night, just to be safe.”

* * *

Kid Curry stretched out on the bed, eyes locked on the vision before him. Christina, sitting at the vanity, brushing her hair with long, slow strokes. It reminded him of. . . a smile crossed his lips. After the worst month of his life, he’d had the best week ever. Four days at the mineral spa in Hot Springs. Four days of therapeutic baths, gourmet food, lively entertainment and Christina in his bed. Life was definitely good.

“Let me do that,” he said as he rolled off the bed.

“Do what?”

“Brush your hair.”

She looked at him in the mirror, eyes squinting, suspicious. “Whatever for?”

“Because I want to.” He took the fat brush from her hand then stroked it down her hair with his free hand following. Like corn silk, smooth and soft and the feel of it on his skin sent a tingle of excitement through his body. He stroked the brush downward again, then slipped up the curls on the end and lifted to bare her neck. He touched his lips there and there and there.

“Don’t,” she protested. “We don’t have time for that. You still need to get dressed.”

Curry looked down at himself. He had his pants on and a white shirt, untucked. “I am dressed.”

“You’re wearing clothes. You’re not dressed. There’s a difference. Now get going or we’re going to be late.”

“I don’t care if we’re late,” he said, continuing his path along her neck and down to her shoulder.

“I care. We’re meeting a friend of mine for dinner. Now come on.” Christina stood, took the brush from his hands then hooked her arms around his back. She tucked his shirt into his pants then began moving around to the front to do the same.

“Keep that up and we’ll miss dinner altogether.” Curry leaned forward, caught her for a kiss but when she didn’t respond he leaned back and gazed into her eyes. “What’s the matter? You’ve been kind of dreary all day today.”

“Things on my mind. Come on. Get dressed. I’ll meet you in the lobby.” She started to go but he caught her hand and pulled her back.

“Christina. What’s the matter?”

“We’ll talk about it later. Let’s just enjoy tonight.”

* *
They met up in the foyer of the restaurant. The three men dressed to the nines in suits, fancy vests and hats. Heyes had taken up using a silver-headed walking stick to keep the pressure off his mending ankle, but other than that it was impossible to see the wear. They were nothing if not resilient. Christina was the belle of the ball, dressed in a form fitting forest green gown, she turned the head of everyone in the restaurant. The men eyed her shape while the women grew as green as her gown seeing her in the company of three such handsome escorts.

The maitre de led them to the back of the restaurant, to an adjoining room where a man was standing guard.

“What’s this?” Heyes asked.

“A surprise,” said Jaime, then he greeted the doorman with a hearty handshake. “Good to see you, Tom.”

“You, too, Mr. Bauer, Miss Harkness. He’s inside.” The man opened the door and bid them all to enter.

Heyes and Curry exchanged curious glances, glances that increased to outright stares when they saw the man. A large fellow, fifty, sixtyish, with a bushy black beard, rounded cheeks, a cigar in one hand, a drink in the other.

“Is that who I think that is?” Curry whispered.

“I don’t know. I’ve only ever seen photographs, but he sure looks like the photographs I’ve seen.”

Christina dived right into the older man’s arms. He hugged her warmly and they traded compliments. Then he moved on to Jaime.

“Bauer! Taking good care of her, I see.” He grabbed Jaime’s hand and gave it a brisk shake. “Still think you dress funny, but you’re a damn fine agent. Proud to have you on board.”

“I do my best, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“And these must be those two reprobates who created all that havoc in these parts over the last few years.” He stepped right up to the boys. Towered over them not so much in actual size but in stature. “Never would have thought it to look at them. Card sharps maybe, but train robbers? Never would have thought it.”

“Sir, may I introduce,” said Christina. “Hannibal Heyes and Jedediah Kid Curry. Boys, former president Ulysses Grant.”

Heyes was the first to find his voice. “An honor, Mr. President. A real honor to meet you.” He offered his hand and was jolted by the fierceness in the return grip.

“Heard quite a bit about you two. Colorful past. Makes my biography look boring.” Grant moved on to Curry, gripped his hand and shook. “Can’t wait to hear more and none of this going straight stuff. I want to hear about the glory days.” He waved for them to be seated. Heyes and Curry sat to his left, Christina and Jaime to his right.

Almost instantly, waiters appeared with food and drink and soon they were all happily involved in conversation. Heyes in particular seemed to find his niche, chatting easily with the former statesman as if they’d been friends for years. Curry filled in comments when asked, but mostly let Heyes do the talking. It was his style and in addition, he was distracted by Christina’s increasingly sullen mood.

When the dinner dishes were cleared and dessert was served, Grant turned to Christina and said, “Well, time to get down to business.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out to envelopes, which he handed to her. “I think you should do the honors.”

With what looked like reluctance, she took the envelopes from him, glanced at them, then laid them face down on the table in front of her. “As you both know, Randolph was attempting to sell her deadly cigars to Avery, a man who has made repeated attempts to over throw the government. The interesting piece to the puzzle though was a second man who met with both Avery and Randolph in Ashland that night. It turns out he’s the son of one of President Cleveland’s advisors. He was in a position to bring those cigars into the White House and distribute them to the President and his staff.”

“You’re kidding,” said Curry.

“Nope, apparently the boy had some grudge against his father and Avery took advantage of that fact. When he connected with Randolph it all just fit together. The perfect plan to assassinate not only the President but potentially a good many of his staff members as well.”

“So you see, boys,” said Grant. “You didn’t just help catch a murderer. You stopped what would have likely been a successful attempt on the President’s life and for that, Cleveland thanks you. Since he couldn’t be here to thank you personally, I offered to deliver his well wishes.” Then he nodded to Christina.

She flipped the envelopes over. Heyes was written on the face of one, Curry on the other. She handed them each their own envelope.

“Presidential pardons. Complete and total absolution from your former crimes as a thank you for putting your life on the line for your country.”

They both accepted their envelopes, handling them as if they were rare and breakable artifacts.

“And since we couldn’t just send you into the world with nothing but the clothes on your back, you’ll find a check for 10,000 dollars in each envelope. Seemed like an appropriate amount.”

Heyes was the first to open his. He ripped off the flap, then reverently pulled out the paper. All very official looking with signatures and the presidential seal. “I don’t know what to say.”

Jaime said, “try, thank you, Mr. President.”

“Thank you, Mr. President.”

“You earned it. I heard you both came pretty close to meeting the big man upstairs.”

“A little too close,” Heyes admitted.

“But you got it done and I’m proud of the lot of you,” said Grant. “Now that’s enough of this nonsense. Let’s play poker! The rumor is, Heyes, you’re a hard man to beat. So how about it?”

Heyes took the check out of the envelope then waved it like a flag. “I’ve got a $10,000 stake. I’m in.”

“Not me,” said Christina. “Bring Tom in as your fifth. I need to get some air.” She got up from her seat and the men rose as well. “Mr. President, I’ll see you before you leave?”

“I’ll be pulling out tomorrow morning. We’ll have breakfast.”

“Fine. Good night then.”

As she headed for the door, the men took their seats, all but Curry. “I’ll be right back.” Then he followed her out the door.

* *

Christina was quick; she made it out of the restaurant and into the street before Curry caught up to her. Or was it that he slowed purposely, not wanting to confront her in a room full of people? She walked half way back to the hotel, then she slowed, waited for him to catch up.

“I don’t understand,” was the first thing he said when he took her in his arms. “We should be celebrating. Why are you so upset? Is this what’s been bothering you all day?”

“Yes.” She brushed the backs of her fingers over his cheek, then tucked a stray curl of hair behind his ear.

“Why? This is good news. I’m a free man. For the first time in my whole life, I can do whatever I want.”

“And that’s why I’m cutting you loose.”

Curry tightened his grip on her and just the simple nearness made his heart skip a beat. “Cutting me loose? What do you mean?”

“You’re free. The deal is over. You don’t need to work for me anymore.”

He felt her pull back a little, but he remained firm, holding her to him, eyes trying to lock on hers when she avoided his. “Maybe I want to still work for you. Maybe now I can work WITH you. How about that?”

“No!” Christina pulled hard and he let go. “You don’t understand. This whole thing was a bad idea. Okay, maybe not from the start but once. . ” She dropped her chin to her chest, kicked at the ground. “I screwed up. That first night, in the boxcar. I couldn’t think straight after that. I couldn’t do my job right and it nearly got all of us killed.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is true. And the worst of it is what I did to Jaime. My partner and I put him second, maybe even third. I was so busy looking out for you and Heyes, I stopped looking out for him and he got shot because of it.”

Curry said nothing for a moment, just stood there letting her words sink in. He could smell her perfume and that alone aroused him, brought back images of their nights spent together. He’d been with a lot of women in his life, but never one that carried a gun. “Jaime’s more important to you than I am?”

Now she looked up and right at him. No hesitation. “Yes. Good lovers are easy to come by, Jed. But good partners are damned hard to find. I would think that you, of all people, could understand that.”

He did understand and that made it hurt all the more. He was guilty of the same sin. He’d pushed Heyes out of his life in return for the small comfort of a woman.

“You and Heyes, you both deserve so much more than this. You deserve a house and a wife and children – a normal life. And Heyes, he’d be happy watching you live happy. I didn’t get that at first but it came to me a few days ago. He’s spent his entire life reaching for the stars, only to give them to you.” She cupped his chin with her hand; kissed him softly, let it go on a little longer then forced herself to pull away. “Good-bye, Jed.”

“Good-bye? Wait.” Curry caught her by the hand, squeezed her fingers. “You’re coming back to the hotel. Aren’t you?”

“No. I had the clerk pack my things while we were at dinner. I’m going to the train.”

“The train? Why? Please, Christina, just one more night.”

She shook her head, no longer trusting her voice. Her lips moved, whispered something he couldn’t hear, maybe I love you, maybe good-bye. Then he stood there watching her walk away. A lump in his throat, a warm wetness pooling at corners of his eyes. The temptation to chase after her was almost too great. Almost, except that he knew she was right. Knew that he owed Heyes so much more than he’d ever be able to pay back. And now that they had what they’d worked so hard for. . . Curry had never given their freedom very much thought. He’d always been skeptical, never believing that it would happen. But now that it was true – what were they going to do? And were they still going to do it together?

Curry ran his sleeve over his damp eyes then walked back to the restaurant, slow at first then picked up speed. When he entered the private dining room, Heyes caught his eye and in Curry’s face Heyes saw everything.

There were cards and chips on the table, all piled neatly beside half-empty brandy snifters and ashtrays with cigars.

“They were going to start the game,” said Heyes, “but I told them I’d rather wait for you.”

“I’m glad you did.” Curry took the chair Christina had vacated so he was sitting across from Heyes. “How much you think we can take him for?”

Heyes gave President Grant the once over. “Self-assured, cocky, likes to live dangerously. At least another 5,000 maybe seven.”

“You’re dreaming,” said Grant. “You’ll be lucky to hang on to half of what you’ve got. I never lose, gentleman.”

Heyes’ eyes lit up. “Is that so, sir? Well, maybe you’d care to make a little side wager. What do you think the odds are of my making five pat hands out of 25 cards dealt randomly from the deck . . .”

The End.

So that’s it. What do you think? Would you like to see more of the boys as government agents? Let me know and maybe I’ll make it so.

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