ASJ: For Those Who Tame Wild Horses Book 3

In the Reproof of Chance

Book Three of the For Those Who Tame Wild Horses Trilogy

In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men
Shakespeare – Troilus and Cressida

Christina was in the corridor waiting for Heyes when he stepped out of the washroom. “Have you seen the paper?”

“Good morning, Christina. How did I sleep? I slept fine, thank you, it’s nice of you to ask.”

“Oh please.” She rolled her eyes at him then stuffed the newspaper in his hand. “Jaime picked this up in Atasca last night, I didn’t get a chance to look at until this morning. A daring daylight bank robbery – crooks got away with $30,000 dollars.”

“Hardly worth the effort,” Heyes said, scanning the article she was referring to. “They took a hostage?’

“She was found dead three hours later. I want these two.”

“Who two?”

“Redman and Tucker – that’s who they think did it. They used to ride with the Devil’s Hole Gang, so don’t go telling me you don’t them.”

“I’m not. I’m just going to remind you of our deal. I don’t rat out the men I rode with.” Heyes stepped around her in order to head for the parlor car.

“They killed a woman. That negates the deal.”

He stopped came back to her. “They never killed anyone when they rode with me. And frankly, I don’t think either of them has the brains or the guts to pull off a daring, daylight bank robbery.” He glanced past her to see Curry coming out of the compartment. “And why do you always come to me with these requests? There’s two of us you know!” Heyes raised his hand to point at Curry but before he completed the move he was thrown forward into Christina who fell backwards and hit the floor.

“What the hell?” she cursed.

The sudden forward momentum was countered when the train car rocked back on its wheels. Throwing Curry into the opposite wall, while Christina and Heyes struggled to untangle their limbs.

“The train stopped,” Curry said, recognizing the motion.

“Don’t tell me we’re being robbed!” Christina said as she struggled to her feet.

“Wouldn’t that be funny,” was Heyes’ reply.

“Not really.” She ran to the door of the car but instead of crossing through the to the next she stepped down the metal staircase between the cars.

Heyes and Curry were behind her in an instant.

“What’s going on?” she called to Albert who had just swung down from the cab.

“Train on the tracks. Just sitting there.”

The three of them moved forward and to the right to get a clearer view of the track ahead as Jaime came out to join them. It was just as Albert said. Not two hundred yards in front of them was a four-car passenger train. Not moving. No smoke rising from the stack.

“What do you think?” Christina asked.

“I don’t like it,” Heyes replied. “That have to know we’re behind them but no one’s come out to talk, to explain.”

“Jaime, get some guns,” said Christina.

“How many?”

“Four,” was her pointed reply. Turning back to Heyes and Curry she said, “robbery in progress?”

“Can’t be. They’d have a lookout. At the very least a couple of horses for a get-away.”

“Maybe it’s just broke down,” Curry suggested. “So the engineer walked into town to get some help.”

“And the passengers? Did they walk, too?” Christina replied.

“No, something is definitely not right,” Heyes said softly. “I can feel it.”

Jaime returned then with two rifles in the crook of his arm and two gun belts.

“Give the boys the handguns. I imagine they’re better with them than we are.” Christina took one of the rifles, checked the load then waited while Curry and Heyes strapped on the belts. She didn’t miss how confident they looked with a weapon once again on the hip. And if she had any doubts about arming the two of them, they were quelled by a single look at Curry. He checked the load like an expert, tested the balance then twirled the gun into the holster. No wonder they were so successful as a team – with Curry behind her, Christina saw how easy it would be to rob a bank, a train, Fort Knox even.

“Front or the back?” Jaime asked, pulling her back to the problem at hand.

“I’ll take Curry and the front. You and Heyes take the back. And be careful. All of you.”

* * * *
They ducked down low to stay beneath the windows, Curry and Christina taking the lead and the long run up to the first passenger car. Heyes watched them, waiting for them to get in place before climbing up the metal stairs to the last car. Just in case. The train might not be as empty as it seemed and an ambush on the way to Brimstone played through in his mind.

Curry signaled that they were ready. Heyes motioned for Jaime to come up from the far side. They met at the door, gun in hand, Heyes pushed it open, stepped inside and was immediately struck sick.

The car smelled like a slaughterhouse, fresh blood and dead flesh. The stench crawled up his nose and into his lungs. He had to fight to keep from throwing up what little he had in his stomach and behind him he could hear Jaime losing the battle.

“Go back outside,” Heyes said, offering Jaime an escape from the carnage. “Keep an eye on the hills, make sure no one’s planning on swooping down on us now that we’re all in here.”

“You got it.”

Heyes moved down the aisle taking a quick tally of the damage. Five bodies. One was a woman. Most of the men dressed in suits – white shirts soaked through with blood. Four in their seats – one on the floor, head and an arm in the aisle so Heyes had to step over him. That one had a gun in his hand, clutched tight by the spasms of death. He’d been shot. The woman appeared to have been choked. He kept on moving, through the car and into the next.

The second car was just the same. No, worse. The air was thicker in here, pungent, overwhelming. Like that day back in Kansas. Heyes shut his eyes, took a shallow breath and pushed the thought away. Can’t go there. Not now.

Eight in here. Three were women, one was a young boy. Six of the eight had their hands tied. One man’s face was beaten to a pulp.

The brutality against the women was what drew his eye. They’d been savaged – clothes torn away – cuts and bruises on every inch of flesh. One woman in particular pulled him near. Heyes stooped down beside her, drawn to the familiarity of her face. He didn’t know her. But she was like the women he had known. Round cheeks, wide nose – not a woman you’d call pretty – but a woman you’d call strong and warm and caring. The ropes that held her had cut into her skin so deep…he could hardly imagine how hard she must have struggled. Tortured. Terrified. Knowing she was going to die and wishing it would happen soon. Just like his own mother and Curry’s mother – dying with prayers on their lips – asking God to help their children escape from the horror, from certain death.

He pressed his gloved hand over his mouth and nose, blocking the stench and holding back a moan. How long had it been? How many years and still it was like yesterday – kneeling beside the woman who had given birth to him, loved him, protected him and there was nothing he could do to bring her back.

A hand touched his shoulder. Heyes jerked away, got tangled in his own legs and landed on the floor in a cold, wet puddle. “Christ almighty, Kid!”

“I’m sorry. I said something but I don’t think you heard me.”

No, he hadn’t heard anything but the sound of his own sobbing in his head. A sound that no one else had ever heard, not even Kid. Back then, Heyes knew he had to be the strong one, so he allowed himself that one moment in time, then put it away so he could take care of his equally traumatized best friend.

Coming to his senses, he saw that his best friend was looking greener than a Kansas pasture in the spring. He was holding a bandana over his mouth and nose but it was thimble of water against a raging forest fire.

“All dead?” Heyes asked.

“Everyone,” said Christina. She was pale, blowing out breaths through her mouth, long and slow. “We checked them all. Seven bodies. Slaughtered.

“Same back there,” Heyes said, nodding behind him as he got to his feet. “I sent Jaime out – he couldn’t handle it.”

“I can’t handle it,” Kid said, his voice more of a raspy gasp.

“Why don’t you get out of here, too,” Heyes suggested.

“What about you?”

“I just want to look around some more.”

Curry wasn’t about to argue the point. He turned and went back the way he came, passing through the dividing door and off of the train.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Christina stopped, searched for the words. “The war. Not even then. What happened here? A robbery gone wrong?”

“A robbery?” Heyes snapped back. “They didn’t steal anything. Look at the women, they have rings and necklaces. This wasn’t a robbery. This was a massacre.”

“Indians?”

“I don’t think so.” Heyes shifted his stance; whatever he had sat in was soaking through his trousers pushing him even closer to the edge of being sick.

“Did you check all the bodies? Actually check them to see if they’re dead.”

“They’re dead!” Heyes shouted. “You can see they’re dead.”

“But we should make sure. What if one of them is hanging on? They could tell us what happened.” She set the rifle against the wall then leaned across the second seat. “How could a person do this and then just walk away?” She touched her hand to two faces – cold, felt for the beat of a heart. Nothing.

“Not a person,” Heyes countered, starting at the back of the car. “No one person could do this much damage in this small a space. And they weren’t all killed the same way, did you notice that? This one was cut. A couple in the back car were shot. And they’re not all tied up either. Only some of them.”

“Only the ones who didn’t die in the initial strike?”

“Could be.” He leaned across the seats to get a better look at one of the bodies. Another woman. Young, pretty. Redish hair like Mary Thompson who lived on the farm between his and Curry’s. He brushed her hair from her face, saw the red ribbon around her neck – the sharp edged line where her throat had been cut.

“Heyes?”

He shook away the thoughts, the feelings. It was like playing poker – block the emotion or lose the game. “They haven’t been gone long.”

“How can you tell?”

He bent over further, fished around on the floor then stood upright and showed her the stub end of a cigar. It was still smoldering. “How long you figure it takes a cigar to burn down all the way?”

Christina moved toward him. “And I imagine it would go out faster without someone drawing on it.” Her eyes lowered to his shirt. He looked down, saw that he was smeared with blood. “If it wasn’t money they wanted. Maybe they were after something else. Information.”

“Tortured,” Heyes said almost to himself.

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

“How nice we’re on the same page for once.” He held the cigar butt up in the air, watched the thin trail of smoke rise from the tip. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”

“Heyes, don’t start with me. Not here. Not now.”

“When then? Huh? When’s a good time? What do I have to do? Make an appointment with your secretary? See if you can squeeze me in?” He brought the cigar closer to his face, inhaled the sweet aroma. “You got plenty of time for Kid, I noticed that. Got him by the balls, literally, so he’ll do what ever you want.”

“That’s uncalled for.”

“If nobody calls for it by morning, it’s yours!” Heyes smacked his hand against the back of the seat. The tremor dislodged a body, sent it slumping to the floor. “I should be on the stage, see? I’m killing them. Laughing themselves to death.” He advanced on her and she moved back. “How much longer do you think I’m going to let you lead me around like some pony in a show?” He flicked the smoldering cigar butt past her face. “Huh? How long? Answer me!”

“I think you need some air.”

“I think you need–” He pulled his hand back to strike her. Saw her flinch, eyes going wide with surprise and just a bit of fear. He stopped himself. Gasped for air but there was none – the room was too full of blood and sweat and excrement. Get a grip. Get a grip. And he couldn’t. It just wasn’t there. He just couldn’t find it. This was wrong, wrong, wrong. Hell.

Heyes shoved Christina aside then ran down the aisle and out the door. When he hit the ground he kept on running up the hill and into the trees. It was cool here and smelled fresh. He dropped to the dirt, fell back against the trunk of a sturdy oak. His knees came up to his chest, hands scrubbing his face. He could see himself as if he were a spirit looking down from above and he looked like Curry, hiding in the corner, afraid he was losing his mind.

“Is this my punishment? I wasn’t compassionate enough so now I have to suffer through what he feels! Is that it? Huh?”

“What are you doing?”

Curry’s voice came out of nowhere. From up above maybe? No. That would mean he was dead, like his mother and father and sister and . . .

“Do you remember Mary Thompson?”

“Who used to live between us?” Curry sat down on the ground in front of Heyes, a deep frown etched on his face.

“Yeah. Her. I had the biggest crush on her.”

“I know. I remember,” Curry said, testing the waters with simple replies.

“I used to think about what it would be like to kiss her. To touch her red hair. She was older than me, what, maybe three, four years? I used to lay down by the river and imagine that she had come with me, for a picnic and then I’d tell her that I liked her and. . ” Heyes felt a smile reach his lips. “I’ll tell you a secret. I had this story in my head about her swimming in the river and she doesn’t know I’m there and so she’s undressed and I can see every inch of her when she steps out of the water. She’s beautiful. The drops glistening on her like morning dew and she sees me and pretends to be shocked, shy. But she’s neither one of those things and so she lets me make love to her.” Heyes lifted his gaze, saw Curry staring at him as if he’d gone mad. “I had it all wrong. The sex – how parts fit together and . . . and. . ” He started to run his sleeve under his nose, saw the blood, didn’t do it. “After I found my family. . . dead. . . I went back to the Thompson farm. Mary. . . aw, Kid, what they did to her. Because she was pretty and young and they did horrible things to her. And all I could do was cover her up with a horse blanket I found on the ground. I had to get back to you. I didn’t want you to face burying your family all alone.”

Curry coughed, “I didn’t have to face it alone. You were always there to look out for me. Even when you weren’t standing by my side, you were still there.” He grabbed Heyes’ knee, gave it a shake. “It’s pretty awful, what we just saw in that train but this isn’t like you.”

“Maybe I just can’t hold it back anymore. You know how it is. The water keeps pounding on the dam, eventually it’s gonna give way.” Heyes got to his feet, felt the back of his pants with his hand. “I gotta change clothes. I gotta get out of this stuff.” He started to go down the hill but Kid jumped up and caught him.

“Heyes? Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” Heyes replied, his voice reaching that high register that it always hit when he was worried. “I really don’t know.” And that was the best he could do at the moment.

* * * *

They all took some time. Heyes, Curry, Christina and Jaime. They washed up, changed clothes and met back at the table in the parlor car to share a bottle of whiskey.

“Albert says the next station is about an hour from here. A town called Ashland.” Christina shook her head refusing the refill Curry tried to pour in her empty glass. “He’ll drive the train in there, Carlo will driver this one and then. . . what? Where do we start?”

“Start what?” Curry asked, then downed the last of his third whiskey.

“Start looking for the people who did this, of course.”

“Why us? Let the sheriff handle it,” Curry started to fill his glass again but Heyes stopped him with a firm but unobtrusive touch.

“I don’t think the sheriff of Ashland is prepared to handle something like this.”

“And we are?” Curry continued.

“We are.” This was Heyes. He took the whiskey bottle from in front of Curry then shoved in the cork and set it aside. “Because we have something the sheriff doesn’t have.”

“Brains and ingenuity?” asked Curry.

Heyes smiled. “Well, that too, but no. We have a witness.” He turned to Christina and smiled even wider – like a shark. “A lone survivor that we,” he motioned toward Curry and himself, “two, unfortunate drifters happened to find when we boarded the train – strictly with honest intentions, of course.”

“Which no one will believe. They’ll figure you two planned on a little heist and got more than you bargained for,” Christina said, following the idea. “They might even think you two had something to do with it.”

“Let ’em think it. It might work in our favor. If the killers have an ego, they’re not going to stand around and let us take credit for their work. And they may feel compelled to point out the error of our ways.”

“Oh great,” Curry moaned. “Targets.”

“Seems to me,” Jamie said, adding his two cents. “That Chris will be the target. If they think she can identify them they’ll go after her.”

“Exactly,” said Heyes, looking rather proud of himself. “But since she can’t actually identify them we’ll have to buy some time.”

“The trauma,” she said, “it’s so overwhelming that I’ve blacked out the whole incident. That way it can come back to me slowly.”

“I don’t like this,” Jaime said, firmer this time. “No offense meant, but I don’t like you going in with just the two of them.”

“You don’t trust us,” Heyes shot back. “You think we’re going to use this an opportunity to run out on you? We won’t. And for a couple of dozen different reasons, but mostly because I want see what kind of monsters could actually murder a whole train load of people.”

“Same kind of monsters,” said Curry, staring into his empty glass, “that murdered a whole town full of people in Kansas.”

Heyes reached out again, set his hand on Curry’s arm. “That’s another good reason. We couldn’t catch those guys. Let’s catch these guys.”

There was a moment of silence – each concerned with his own personal thoughts and worries. Then Jaime said, “You’ll have to drive the train. Can you manage that?”

“My uncle was a railroad man, he let me run the engine a couple of times,” said Heyes. “Albert can give me a quick refresher and I’ll be fine. And we’ll need two horses and gear. It has to look like we were just riding along and stumbled upon the train.”

“Yeah, I like it,” Christina repeated as she mulled the possibilities over in her mind. “News like that’s really gonna travel. If the killers are within two hundred miles of Ashland they’ll hear about it. Now.” She looked down at herself. “I’m going to need to look more like a victim.”

Heyes smiled at her. “I could choke you until you pass out.”

“I’d say yes, except I’m afraid you won’t be able to stop yourself when the time comes. I’ll put those bloody clothes back on, give them a couple tears – I was planning on burning that blouse anyway. And. . .” She stood up and came around the table to where Heyes was sitting. “I’m going to let you do something you’ve been wanting to do since the day you met me.”

“What’s that?” Heyes asked, rising to his feet.

“Hit me.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t show up without a scratch. Hit me.”

Curry got up as well. “He’s not going to hit you.”

“Well, if she really wants me to hit her. . .” Heyes pulled back his fist.

Christina closed her eyes and flinched. Waited. Nothing.

“I can’t do it,” said Heyes.

“Fine,” Christina opened her eyes, her body relaxed and that was when he did it. A right cross to the jaw, hard enough to send her sprawling back into Curry’s quick arms.

“You hit her!” Curry complained.

“She asked me to.”

“Yeah, but you enjoyed it!”

Heyes shrugged. “Maybe a little.” He took Christina’s hand, helped set her back on her feet.

“I didn’t say break my jaw – geez, for the brains of the operation you pack one hell of a wallop.” She tested her jaw, found that her lip was split. “Curry and I’ll get the horses ready. Heyes, why don’t you pack, just ask Jaime for anything you need. Oh, I should have some luggage, too, so I look like a real passenger.”

“I’ll handle it,” said Jaime, a frown still marking his face.

“Alright then. Let’s do this.” She headed for the door with Curry on her heels.

Heyes went in the opposite direction; down the corridor to the compartment he and Curry had been sharing. As he was pulling their clothes out of the drawers Jaime appeared with two sets of saddlebags. He dropped them on the bottom bunk then lingered on, obviously debating what he should or shouldn’t say.

“Hannibal. This is nothing personal. I like you, really. But you have to understand about Christina and me. Her and I, see, we’re both misfits. No one wanted to partner with her because she was a woman and no one wanted to partner with me because. . . well. . . because. . ” He looked at Heyes, gauging him, choosing his words so carefully. “Because I like frilly shirts. She’s my best friend in the whole world, Hannibal and I’m scared to death to send her into this thing without me to watch her back.”

“I understand. I’d feel exactly the same way if you and Kid were going and I had to stay here. But I promise you, I won’t let anything happen to her. And you know Kid’s going to protect her like she was the piece of Italian crystal. It’ll be all right and you can come into town, in a couple of days. Say you’re her brother and you just heard about what happened on the train. How’s that?”

“That’ll do. It’ll have to, I guess.” He turned to go but Heyes called him back.

“Jaime. Your frilly shirts don’t bother me. I’d have no problem partnering with you at all.”

Jaime tipped his chin down, dropped his gaze to the floor, a wash of emotion moving quickly – there then gone. “I appreciate you saying that, Hannibal. I really, truly do. I’m counting on you now, to make sure all three of you stay safe.”

“I won’t let you down.”

Jaime left and Heyes went back to packing.

#   #  #

Heyes occupied the engine car alone and that was fine with him. Curry chose to ride the majority of the way on Southern Belle, leading what was supposed to be Heyes’ horse. Christina spent the time memorizing details of the crime. Names, how they were killed, the positions of the people. She’d need facts to start dolling out as her ‘memory’ returned. After a half hour she felt confident in her ability to talk about Mrs. Singer and her husband from Topeka and Gerald Victor of San Antonio, all three of whom had been shot to death right before her very eyes.

It was a grim task, made worse by the fact that the victims now had names, personalities. Going through their wallets and purses, she found photos of family, notes from friends, a rosary, a flask of whiskey, medications and small toys. Real people – lives snuffed out.

She lost all track of the time so she was surprised to feel the train come to a stop. She left the third car and walked to the front and found Heyes sitting on the floor of the engine car, his feet dangling over the side like a boy gone fishing.

“What did we stop for?”

“Ashland’s just ahead past that bend. Gotta wait for Kid to catch up.”

Christina glanced back along the tracks and saw just a speck of a figure in the far distance. Not hurrying, just moving at an easy, slow pace. She scooped up a handful of pebbles from the ground. Tossed one, tossed a second further than the first.

“Heyes? Has he talked to you about what happened to him in prison?”

“Give me one,” was his reply.

It took a moment for her to realize what he wanted, then she dropped three of the rocks into his palm, leaned down and picked up more.

“He’s told me bits and pieces, not everything.” Heyes tossed one of the rocks. It passed both of hers and landed in the grass. “Why?”

Christina threw a rock, really wound up and let it go and still it fell short of his. “Because I know what happened and I don’t see how he can keep functioning with all of that swirling around inside of him. He’s like a bottle of nitro – neat, compact, but one good bump and boom you’re singing hymns with a choir of angels.” She could feel him hesitate, feel his need to know and his deep desire not to.

“And how exactly did you come by your information?” Heyes threw another rock. It fell short.

“If that was a note of jealousy I detected, you can let it go. He didn’t tell me anything. Well, some vague references when I saw the marks on his back.” She glanced sideways at Heyes, noticed that he didn’t react. Wanted to react, but didn’t. “I had an informant in the prison. I didn’t trust Creighton not to ruin you two so I bought myself a snitch. I talked to him the morning I came to see you. I hadn’t planned on taking you out that day. I was going to make the offer, let you stew a little longer, put the fear of God in you, you know. But once I heard what he had to say, I knew I had to go forward or risk losing Kid and I knew that he was my only leverage over you. That without him, you wouldn’t have cared so much about getting out.”

Heyes threw the last rock – harder this time – so hard it hit a tree and bounced into the air. “What did he have to say? This informant of yours.”

It was her turn to hesitate, wondering now why she’d brought the whole thing up. “One thing he said, was that Kid was thinking about making a run for it. During the day, when he was working in the fields. He was seriously thinking about running.”

She felt Heyes staring at her but she kept looking forward and pitched another rock.

“He would have been shot,” Heyes said, his voice soft and near trembling. “They would have killed him.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s what he had in mind.”

“I know that’s what he had in mind. He threatened to do it the day we were brought in.”

Now she did turn. Heyes had changed his position, leaning back against the open doorway, one foot on the floor, knee bent, the other leg hanging over the edge.

“I guilted him into giving up the idea. Reminded him that I’d be all alone if anything happened to him. Forced him to endure just for me. I didn’t think about him.”

“You were thinking about him. These few weeks I’ve spent with the two of you, I can see that neither one of you would ever do anything to hurt the other even if it meant taking the bullet yourself.” Christina glanced back over her shoulder. Curry was close enough to actually make out that it was him. “Look, I feel responsible for this, too. If I had pulled you out of there the first day, I could have spared him.”

Heyes sighed. “If it’s any consolation, I’m not sure we would have taken the deal then. We still had hope. Hope that the governor might remember our amnesty. That Lom Trevors would spring us.” Heyes adjusted his position, spotted Curry coming closer still. “Christina? It was bad, wasn’t it? The kind of bad he’s never going to want to talk about, right?”

She nodded. “I still wish you would try, because I don’t think he can go back to being his old self again with all of this inside of him.”

“He can’t ever be his old self again,” said Heyes. “Because everything changes us and you can’t undo what’s been done.” He pushed up to his feet. “I’ll get the engine started. We’ll take it slow so you can tether the horses to the back car.” Then he disappeared inside the engine house, leaving her to greet Curry alone.

* * * *

Heyes heard the posse before he saw them – thundering hoof beats that set his heart to racing at nearly the same tempo. It was a conditioned response, one that was hard to shake off as he watched them approach the train, two lawmen in the lead.

“Here we go.”

Curry was sitting on the floor of the cab, Christina in his lap curled up like a rain-soaked kitten.

Heyes brought the train to a slow stop as the riders converged from both sides. The sheriff, expecting to see a familiar face driving the engine, instantly brought his rifle up and aimed it at Heyes.

“Want to tell me what’s going on here?”

“Dead,” Heyes said, forcing it out in a raspy, loud whisper. “Everybody in the whole train.”

“‘Cept her,” Curry added. “Can’t hardly talk, she’s so shook. You’ll see. Just take a look back there.”

The sheriff ordered one of his men to watch them, then he and several other members of the posse dismounted then climbed aboard the train.

“Damnedest thing I ever saw,” Heyes continued to play his part. “Some shot, some knifed. Don’t make no sense.”

Christina offered a little whimpering sound so Curry pulled her closer and stroked her hair.

“Can’t imagine what she went through,” he said. “Never in all my days.”

And then the sheriff was back looking as green as frog and still breathing through his mouth instead of his nose.

“What the hell happened? Who are you guys?”

“Joshua Smith, sir and my friend Thaddeus Jones. We were just passing through, looking for work. Saw the train stopped on the tracks and thought we might be able to help. We found her in the second car, down between the seats. In shock, I think. Can’t even tell us her name. I swear, sir. That’s the truth.”

“I believe you. Nobody would do that then hang around. Can you bring this train into the station?”

“Yes, sir. That’s what I was doing. Figured it was the least we could do was get these people home, so they could have a decent burial.”

“Start her up then. I’m gonna ride on ahead and let ’em know what’s coming,” said the sheriff, then he turned to his deputy and said, “stay with them.” Then he was gone, galloping toward town with news that was going to rock the citizens of Ashland and likely every other town in the territory.

Heyes started up the engine and got the train moving once more.

* * * * *

It looked like the entire town was waiting on the train platform when they rolled into Ashland station. The air was filled with excited and anxious voices, like a human barnyard, and the sounds instantly grated on Curry’s nerves. He tightened his grip on Christina, slipped in a small kiss, then took a deep breath to steady himself. They’d done nothing wrong. They couldn’t be arrested. They weren’t wanted anymore. But he found no comfort in those thoughts. No comfort at all.

Heyes brought the train to a jerky stop and the crowd set upon them. Questions and questions, hands reaching to help them down. Christina played the frightened doe to the hilt, clinging to Curry, whimpering and sobbing as he explained about her being the only survivor.

Then a wretched cry pierced the air. A name. A curse. A family member who’d boarded the train and found their loved one in a pool of blood.

“We need a place to stay, to rest,” Heyes was saying as he forced a path through the excited throng. “Please, she hasn’t said a word about what happened. She needs to lie down.”

Curry felt a hand on his shoulder, guiding him left and around a bend and there was the hotel in front of him. As soon as they were inside he set Christina on her feet. The desk clerk went bug-eyed at the sight of her bloodied and torn clothing.

“It’s true then, about the train? Everyone killed?”

“Everyone but her,” Heyes said, emphasizing the point. “We need two rooms, adjoining. She’s afraid to be alone, I’m sure you can understand.”

“Of course. Of course.” The clerk grabbed two keys and handed them to Heyes, so shook he didn’t even ask him to sign the register. “She’s not from around here. I don’t recognize her. Who is she?”

“Don’t know,” Heyes replied. “Too shook up to talk. Could you send up some tea, maybe?”

“Yes, that should help and brandy. I’ll send brandy.”

Together they climbed the stairs, Heyes unlocked the first of the two doors and then they were free – for the moment.

Christina flopped down on to the bed and sighed. “I didn’t think about that.”

“What?” Heyes asked, going to the window to take in the view.

“I didn’t think about the fact that the train was headed here. That the victims may have lived here.”

“I’d say quite a few of them did.” Heyes turned away from the window. “And there’s another thing we didn’t think about. Where the train came from. The attack happened between there and here and now I’m wondering if we’re on the wrong end if we want to find the killers.”

“I don’t think it matters,” Curry said, body slumped, elbow propped on the dresser. “It’s going to get around that Christina saw the killers and they’ll come to us. I’m sure of it.” But he didn’t sound happy about it.

Christina was about to reassure him but the sound of approaching footsteps made her shut her mouth. A moment later there was a knock. She dropped down flat onto the bed, curled herself into a ball then Heyes answered the door.

There was a woman in hall – fiftyish, plump, her face flushed from the exertion of climbing the stairs. “I’m Mrs. Randolph, Sheriff Birney sent me, said I should check on the young lady, poor thing.” She bustled her way inside without waiting for an invitation. “You have no idea. No idea.” She plopped her chubby body down on the bed beside Christina then, with a mother’s hand, brushed the hair from her face. The bruise from where Heyes had hit her was swollen and purple. “Oh my, my, my. Is there water in that basin?” Mrs. Randolph asked. “I need a cold towel.”

Curry peered inside the china jug on the dresser and found that it was full of water. He hefted the heavy container and began to pour the contents into the washbasin.

“Let’s see what else is going on.” Mrs. Randolph touched the buttons at the front of Christina’s blouse.

Playing the part of the traumatized victim, Christina screamed, “No! Don’t touch me!”

Curry dropped the pitcher. It hit the edge of the basin, bounced off then smashed on the floor releasing what little water there was left inside. “Dammnit!” He folded his arms on the edge of the dresser, dropped his forehead to his arms and held there, chest rising and falling as if he’d just run six miles.

“We’re all a little jumpy,” Heyes explained for Mrs. Randolph’s benefit. He gave Curry a quick rub across the back then bent down to pick up the pieces of the broken jug. “I’ll get some more water.”

“No,” Curry said, straightening up. “I’ll do it.” He pushed past Heyes and was out the door before anyone could stop him.

“Lost our folks in the war,” Heyes said as he finished cleaning up the mess. “Seeing the bodies on the train like that. . .well. . . it brought back a lot of unpleasant memories.”

“Horrible,” said Mrs. Randolph. “You’re all so young to have faced so much tragedy.” She turned back to Christina. “I’d surely like to get her out of these awful clothes. Does she have anything to change into?”

“No ma’am. I’m sure she’s got a bag on the train but we didn’t stop to look. I’ve got a clean shirt she could wear if it’ll help.”

“Better than what she has on now. Why don’t you give it here to me, then leave us for a bit while I get her changed.”

Heyes picked up his saddlebags, unfastened the left side then pulled out a neatly folded tan shirt. Something else came out along with it – a thin book which was caught in the fold of the fabric. Kid Schelleen and the River Pirates. Jaime’s doing apparently. Heyes couldn’t help but smile, not his kind of reading but maybe it would be just the thing to keep Kid’s mind off his troubles for a while.

“Thank you for helping out,” Heyes said as he handed the woman his shirt. “It’ll be good when she gets her wits about her. She’ll be able to tell us what happened.”

“Or not. The mind works in mysterious ways. A shock like this could stay buried forever and I can’t say that it wouldn’t be best.”

“Well see,” said Heyes then, using the key the desk clerk had given him, he let himself into the adjoining room.

* * *

The wailing in the streets had risen to a nerve-grating pitch by the time Curry reached the hotel lobby. If you listened close you could pick out a few words – names of the dead, God, murdered, why. Why seemed to be the one that came through most often. A question he had asked himself so many times after the slaughter of his family. Why? There was no answer for him and there would be none for the people of Ashland either – because there could be no good reason for a slaughter like this.

“Oh, Mister. . .” the desk clerk paused waiting for him to fill in the blank and Curry went blank. Totally blank. It had been more than a month since he’d called himself Thaddeus Jones, a name he thought he’d never use again once that prison door slammed shut.

“Jones. Thaddeus Jones. I’m a mite shaky. Broke the water pitcher in my room. I’ll pay for it, of course but I need some more water.”

“Don’t give it a thought. This whole affair has everyone rattled. I heard that our school teacher, Ellen Markham was on that train. Lovely girl, sharp as they come. Gone now. Wasted.”

Curry tried not to listen. He hadn’t planned on this – on hearing the dead spoken of this way. Real people with family and friends. Somehow that notion had slipped all of their minds. “The water, please?”

“Yes, yes,” said the clerk. “And the tea is probably done as well. Come this way.” He led Curry back to a kitchen area. A tall, thin, Mexican woman was preparing the tea tray – a pot, three cups and a small dish of sugar – such an elegant tea set that Curry was afraid to pick it up. He chose to carry the water pitcher and the bottle of brandy, leaving the desk clerk to handle the finery.

Back upstairs, Curry let himself into the room without knocking first and caught the tail end of Mrs. Randolph pulling the blankets up over Christina who didn’t appear to have moved an inch.

“I think I can take it from here,” Curry said to the woman, trying not to sound to pushy despite his desperate need to be alone with Christina. “We appreciate your help but what she needs now is some sleep.”

The woman rose from the bed, chunky hands clasped under her ample chest. “Try to get some tea in her with just a touch of that brandy. It’ll warm her up. Make the sleep come easier.”

“I will,” Curry said, then he opened the door in hopes it would rush them along. They got the message and a moment later both Mrs. Randolph and the desk clerk were gone. He shut the door behind them and locked it. “Where’s Heyes?”

“Next door,” she said, keeping her voice low in case of loiterers in the hall. Christina threw off the covers and scooted out of the bed. The shirt she was wearing came down over her hips but other than that she was bare, a fact that Curry didn’t miss. “This is going to be a lot harder than I thought it would be.” She went to the table to pour a cup of tea for herself. “Want some?”

“I definitely want some.” Curry unbuckled his gunbelt, hung it over a chair, then stepped up behind her. He slipped his hands over her shoulders then ran them down her arms. “Is this Heyes’ shirt?”

“Yes.”

“Looks better on you than it does on him.” He snaked his arms around her waist and pulled her to him – her back to his chest, head tucked beneath his chin.

Christina let herself relax into him, her long, thin fingers stroking his arms. “It smells good.”

“The tea?”

“The shirt. Smells like Heyes.”

He stiffened and she felt it. “You want me to take his shirt off and put your shirt on instead?” She rocked her body side to side in the confines of his embrace, creating sweet friction between her hips and his.

“I just want you to take this shirt off. Period.”

“But I don’t have anything else to wear.”

“I know.” He shifted slightly so he could nuzzle her neck, his face brushing the stiff collar of the shirt. “You’re gonna think I’m weird here but you’re right. The shirt does smell like Heyes.”

Christina turned in his arms so they were face to face. Tea forgotten she tipped her head upward and he obliged her with a kiss. Soft and tender, none of the anger she had felt that night in the boxcar. She circled her arms around his waist, closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensations he set off inside of her body. Like a sparkler – burning hot and brilliant, star-like, bouncing off her nerve endings and sending chills up her spine. His hands cupped her face now, holding her still while his tongue teased. She pressed herself to him, wanting to be closer than was possible with the boundaries of the human form. Standing like this there was a limit to the contact and limits didn’t interest her right now.

“Jed,” she moaned when his mouth moved to suck the tender skin of her throat. “I want more. I want to touch you, every part of you and I want to feel your hands on me, your lips on me. Everything and it won’t be enough.”

He caught her mouth again, the roughness of the first time rising up in him once more. His hand slipped between them, found her breast beneath the fabric of the shirt. She gasped when he pinched her already hardening nipples and that brought a smile to his lips.

“Too many clothes,” she said, barely able to speak with the breath pulled out of her as it was. She got her hands between them as well, undid the buttons of his shirt while he worked on hers. There was a Henley top beneath his first layer and nothing under hers. “You really need to rethink the way you dress,” she said, growling with frustration over yet another barrier to bare skin.

“Anticipation,” he whispered in her ear then pushed Heyes’ shirt off of her shoulders and on to the floor. She was naked now and he had never seen her this way. When they made love that night in the boxcar, he had worked around dress. And that night after dinner – despite what Heyes thought, it hadn’t gone as planned.

“What’s the matter?” Christina could see the change in him and her smile slipped into a frown. “Jed, don’t stop. Don’t think. Let me make you feel good.”

Feel good? Curry had forgotten what that was like. To really feel good – deep down inside. Safe and free and happy. He couldn’t remember happy. And then here was this lovely creature standing before him ready to give herself to him in every way. She was bone china pale, toned and trim; the muscles in her arms standing out in contrast to her small frame and softly rounded hips. Beautiful, except for the bruise on her face which reminded him of why they were there. He tried to brush it away but it was so hard to concentrate anymore.

“Chrissy, help me. Help me forget everything even if it’s just for a little while.”

“I can do that.” She took him by the hand and led him the short distance to the bed. He sat, then fell back, his feet still firmly planted on the floor. She climbed on top of him her knees straddling his waist and when she leaned forward the square nub of one breast brushed over his wet lips. With great balance and strength, she caught his wrists and pinned them to the bed beside his head. Then she leaned all her weight forward on her arms so his lips and tongue could tease one breast and then the other.

Curry played her for a bit, allowing her to be in charge but not for very long. “I thought you were supposed to be making me feel good, not the other way round.”

“You don’t like this?”

“It’s nice, but. . . ” He rolled to the left, knocking her over then expertly switched positions so he was straddling her – had her pinned to the bed. “That was a little too easy.”

“If it’s where you want to be, does it matter?”

Curry dropped down on top of her, nearly crushed her with his weight as he savaged her mouth. He felt her hands working the buttons of his trousers. He was already straining against the fabric and the fumbling of her fingers only excited him more. He rolled again, pulled one knee up and was surprised when she complained of a sudden pain.

“Take off those damned boots! Or let me!” Christina wriggled out from under him, caught hold of his left boot and pulled with a force that nearly yanked him off the bed. She pulled off the other boot then zeroed in on his pants. “You’ve seen all of me. I want to see all of you.” She yanked again, pulling his trousers completely off and his long johns down to his knees in the process.

If there was any question about his interest in her, it was answered right then. Thick and hard and pulsating with a rush of blood. Curry convulsed when her mouth wrapped around him. A curse word escaped his lips and then a sound that was barely human. Christina adjusted her position and was able to take more and it was all he could do not to thrust upward as she came down over him. Curry’s eyes closed, his fingers knotted in the blanket beneath him. Her fingers were busier, tickling, teasing, weighing his weight in the palm of her hand. A whimpering sound reached his ears long before his brain registered that it was coming from his own throat.

Oh god, he had to move, had to pump – couldn’t lie still and take this another second. It was so painfully sweet. Her hand slipped further between his legs, touched him there – just barely and still he jolted away as if hit by lightening. He pushed her aside, then tried to cover it as if he was too close to the end and didn’t want to finish. But the look on her face said she knew the real reason and that was worse than anything she could have said or done. That look of pity, of sadness.

“Don’t say anything,” he pleaded softly. “Just let me. . ” There were no words. Curry kicked off his long john bottoms then yanked off his top and tossed it to the floor. “Bare skin.” But as he said it, he thought of the bruises, double the amount and twice as bad as the mark on her jaw. They were starting to fade but some would scar, some were so deep beneath the skin they’d be there forever.

He pulled his feet up on to the bed and sat cross-legged with his back to the footboard. “Come here.” He opened his arms to her inviting her to crawl into his lap. She came to him on her knees, then settled herself over his legs.

“I love you, Jed.” Her fingers went into his curls as her mouth found his again.

He let her work the kiss while he took hold of himself. With an arm around her back he hitched her forward and easily slipped up inside of her. Christina sighed with the feeling, sank down upon him, then rolled her hips forward so he was angled just right.

“Close enough?” Curry wanted to say more but his lungs were nearly empty of all air.

She dropped her head to his shoulder and moaned the single word ‘more’.

More. He leaned his shoulders back against the headboard and gave his hips room to rock. It was harder to thrust in this position but it felt so warm and delicious having her face so close to his, her breasts pressed against his chest.

“You’re so beautiful.” With trembling lips he kissed her once, twice, the third time being more of an exhausted brush by than an actual kiss.

It took a moment but she found his rhythm then complimented it with movements of her own. With the angle of her hips it seemed as if he might reach her ribs with his thrusts. Their mouths were busy, hands busy, bodies beginning to sweat in the cool room. He was close, so close to finishing inside of her but was determined to hold on – for himself – to prolong the sweet sensation but also for her. He knew about women, knew that their time was different, that it wasn’t as easy to reach that peak as it was for a man. But god, how he wanted her to – wanted her to feel the same exquisite joy that he was feeling. And then his body took away the choice. He tried to pull free of her but she held him still, able to control him with her position on his lap. Curry growled, long and loud and was suddenly struck by the image of Heyes sitting in the next room listening to all of this and he couldn’t have cared less.

#  #  #

Heyes wished for cotton to stuff in his ears but short of ripping strips off the curtains or the sheets there was nothing he could do about it.

Kid Schelleen and the River Pirates. He reread the first paragraph on page two four times before the words sank in.

Damn. He thought about knocking on the wall as a clue. And when they really got going he thought about just walking right in on them and complaining in person. He didn’t mind the idea of embarrassing Christina and Kid, hell, he’d probably just ask Heyes to join them. Kid had never been all that private when it came to sex. There had even been a number of times, mostly in their younger days, when they’d shared a room but never the same woman – a fantasy of Kid’s that Heyes had no intention of making a reality.

He reread the paragraph a fifth time. Impossible. He couldn’t not listen. The moaning, the breathing, the bed groaning. Then he heard what sounded like the growl of an angry bear. And then something else. Knocking. On the door.

Damn it.

“Joshua!” He yelled, aiming it at the closed door between the rooms.

The bed stopped squeaking.

“Someone’s at the door. Could you get it?”

Total silence from the other room. Heyes imagined them both quietly disengaging, searching for clothes tossed off in the rush of lust. Sure that they got his message, Heyes went to the hallway door and opened it.

There was a young woman on the other side – strikingly beautiful with exotic features and lightly tanned skin. She was carrying a bundle of clothing over her arm.

“Hello. Mrs. Randolph sent me up with some clothes for the young lady? She didn’t know her name.”

“Christina,” Heyes replied, then realized he’d over stepped. “That’s very kind of you, come on in.” He beckoned for her to step into the room then closed the door. “I’m Joshua Smith.”

“Shiloh,” she returned. “Christina is the girl who survived the train massacre?”

“Yes. She hasn’t spoken much, but she did finally tell us her name. She’s lying down in the other room. Resting. If you want to just leave the clothes I’ll make sure she gets them when she wakes up.”

Shiloh’s gaze slipped past Heyes. “She’s up.”

He looked over his shoulder and saw Christina in the doorway of the adjoining. Dressed in his shirt and her skirt. Bare feet, hair tosseled, color flushing her cheeks. Her eyes remained lowered, arms folded tightly over her chest. Timid and suspicious. Damn she was good. Like the walking dead, she wandered over to Shiloh, ran her hand over the dress she had slung over the woman’s arm.

“Did you know them?”

“It’s quite likely,” Shiloh replied. “I’ve heard rumors about who was on the train but no one seems to know for sure. Did you know anyone?”

Christina took the dress, clutched it to her body like a teddy bear as she wandered over and sat on the bed. “The Singers were from Kansas,” she said, her voice coming out like a carnival medium in a ghostly trance. “I talked to them. They were nice people and then he shot them both,” the soft cadence rose to nasal whine. “I saw him shoot them both.” She clutched at herself, chest heaving as real tears began to fall down her face. “I thought he was going to kill me, too. I had to be quiet. So quiet and not move but Mrs. Singer, she was on top of me, down in front of the seats. I could feel her – her blood and I couldn’t move, I was so afraid. So afraid. There was nothing I could do but hold still, hold my breath, hope they wouldn’t notice me, hope they. . . ”

Heyes stopped listening. He ran his fingers through his hair, pushing his bangs back away from his face. The image was so clear in his head, as if it had happened yesterday. Just like she said, holding still, afraid to move, afraid to breath. The marauders who had killed their families laughing and drinking, enjoying themselves around a campfire just yards away. Part of him wanted to run right into them – knowing he’d die but figuring he’d take a couple of them with him anyway. And at least he’d be with his family in heaven and not down here in this hell on earth. But he couldn’t because of Jed. He was still Jed, then. Wasn’t Kid yet. Hadn’t developed that cold gunslinger persona – that was still a few years away. Then one of them got up and came toward them, looking for a private corner to relieve himself most likely and there was no chance to move or run. Jed was so scared he started gasping for breath, the tears he had shed earlier in the day coming back in full force. Heyes tried to calm him, but as the man came closer, he couldn’t speak out loud anymore. So when it looked like Jed was going to bolt, Heyes had no choice but to pin him to the ground and hold him there, his hand clamped tightly over the younger boy’s mouth.

“Lie still,” he had whispered into his friend’s ear. “Don’t move. Don’t make a sound or he’ll find us and kill us. Do you understand?” He hadn’t wanted to be harsh but their lives depended on him at that moment. And so he held on tight and prayed, wishing he could do more in the way of comfort and reassurance. His hand was soon wet with Jed’s tears, his arms aching from the tension of holding the boy still. Forever. It went on forever and in his head the words kept repeating. Please don’t let him find us. Please don’t let us die. Please, God, please. God, please.

A hand touched his shoulder. He bit back a gasp, whirled; saw Kid looking at him as if he’d gone nuts. Like before, outside the train. He shoved his hair back again, ran his sleeve over his face. “Worst thing any of us have ever seen.”

“I imagine so.”

Heyes turned back around. Shiloh was sitting on the bed, her arm around Christina’s shoulders.

Christina was still going full bore, sobbing softly, shaking.

“Why don’t I help you get into these new clothes,” Shiloh said. “Then I’ll take you all over to the Lucky Duck. It’s a casino but it’s the best food in town. Mrs. Randolph runs the place and I work there. I know it’s been a difficult day, but you really should eat.”

“That would be very nice,” said Heyes, his own voice still trembling a bit.

Shiloh got to her feet and pulled Christina up with her. Together they walked into the second bedroom then closed the door to the men.

Speaking softly Curry said, “boy that was something.” Then sat on the bed with his back to the headboard.

“Christina’s floor show or the first act?”

Curry sighed. “Look, I know you don’t like Christina, but I do.”

“Yeah, that’s obvious.”

“Jesus, Heyes! You don’t like it when I’m miserable and you don’t like it when I’m happy. What do you want from me?”

“I want you to keep your voice down for one.” Heyes sighed, shoved Curry’s legs out of the way then sat on the bed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just jealous.”

“Ah ha!”

“Ssssh!”

Curry cringed, waited – nothing from the other room. “Ah ha,” he whispered. “I knew it.”

“You did?’

“No, I didn’t. I had no idea why you were acting so cranky. And if you really liked her, you sure had me fooled because I thought you hated her.”

“I don’t hate her and I don’t like her, either.”

Curry’s eyes narrowed. “Then what are you jealous about?”

God, this was going to sound stupid. Heyes took a deep breath. “I’m jealous because you’ve been spending a lot of time with her and. . . not with me.” He waited, watched Curry’s eyes and then as he expected, his friend since childhood began to laugh.

“Heyes, that’s the nicest thing anybody ever said to me.”

“No it isn’t, it’s stupid but I can’t help it. I miss ‘us’. You know what I mean?”

“I do know what you mean, Heyes. But you shouldn’t blame Christina. It’s not her fault I’ve been ducking you. It’s my fault. I miss ‘us’ too, but everything’s changed and I don’t know what to do about that.”

“You could start by talking to me.”

Curry pulled his knees up then found a particularly fascinating spot on his jeans. “It’s not that easy.”

“I don’t know why. You’ve always been able to talk to me about anything.”

“Most things,” Curry corrected. “I just don’t even know if it would make a difference. We’re never going to go back to the way we were.”

“That may be true. But if we’re going to head down a new road, I’d still like to do it together. It’s a funny thing but I’ve gotten kind of attached to you after all these years.” He expected Kid to smile but he kept concentrating on the spot on the leg of his jeans.

“Heyes, what are we going to do? With the rest of our lives, I mean. We’re not really good at anything except robbing banks and running cons, playing poker.”

“We could manage a casino. Remember when we did that for Mary Cunningham? I thought it worked out rather well.”

“Stay in one place, you mean. Actually settle down?”

Settle down. It was a scary thought for a man who had spent most of his life wandering from one place to another. “Yeah, maybe.”

Curry stretched his legs out as he sighed. “Do you ever think about getting married and having a family?”

Heyes paused, then said, “I think about you getting married and having a family. You’re good with children.”

“You’d be good with kids, too.”

“I’d be good with YOUR kids. You know, Uncle Heyes who spoils them rotten.”

Curry laughed but quickly sobered. “I think about it a lot, Heyes. The older I get, the more I think about it – having a son and a daughter. Teaching them ride and play and I’d teach them that song you’re always singing.” His eyes lit up with the image in his mind but again the light dimmed in a matter of seconds. “Having a family is one of those things never talked to you about because you’d say it was impossible, ridiculous for a wanted outlaw like Kid Curry to even think about bringing children into this world.”

And that sobered Heyes. “I’m sorry about that, Kid. I guess I am a little quick to shoot down your ideas sometimes but it’s never out of mean spiritness, it’s always because I care and I don’t want to see you hurt.”

Curry was about to reply but stopped when the adjoining door opened and the girls returned. Christina was wearing a plain but pretty blue dress with a scooped neck.

“Not too bad, huh?” said Shiloh. “Mrs. Randolph has a great eye for sizes. Comes from dressing all of her casino girls, I think.”

Heyes had stood the moment they entered and now Curry was scrambling off the bed and on to his feet.

“I think she looks lovely.” He offered Christina his arm. Shyly she took it then let him lead her to the door.

Heyes offered his arm to Shiloh. “Would you do me the honor of filling out this foursome? I do hate an unbalanced table.”

“I’d like that.” She accepted his arm and together they left the room.

Continue to Part Two of Book Three

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