1. Ch1 – The Mouse’s Paw

CHAPTER ONE

A sudden flash of lightning illuminated two figures on the isolated station platform; brims pulled down, collars turned up against the lashing rain.

“If it wasn’t…” A crash of thunder drowned out the words of the slimmer man. He tried again. “If it wasn’t such a cliché on Halloween, Kid – I’d be tempted to say ‘It’s a dark’n’stormy night’.” A second flash displayed a would-be-cheerful dimpled smile, under a dripping, silver trimmed black hat.

The figure in the soaking wet sheepskin coat had been exuding waves of silent disgruntlement. His companion’s smile irritated him into adding words to complete the effect. “I don’t mind clichés Heyes,” he growled. “‘I told you so’ is a cliché and I’m plannin’ on using that one a few more times before the night’s out. I told you so Heyes! I told you that plan’d never work. NEVER! I TOLD you so.”

“Could’ve been worse, Kid.”

“How the Sam Hill could it’ve been worse? We’re penniless, not a horse between us, soaked to the skin and freezin’ our butts off in the middle of nowhere!”

“We could’ve been stranded somewhere the trains don’t run.”

Kid stared morosely into the ink black of the night. “We musta stood here for hours. I’m beginnin’ to think we ARE stranded somewhere the train don’t run.”

“You gotta have faith, Kid.”

Heyes too stared along the dark track. Unseen by his partner, a pair of tapered fingers crossed. His other hand fished beneath his coat and drew out a pocket watch. At another handy lightning flash, he remarked, “Close on midnight.”

Then, his brown eyes narrowed. A tiny speck of light was nosing through the night. Curving and cornering with the contours of the land, but definitely closer every moment.

“There you see!” Heyes tried not to make it a sigh of relief. “The train’s coming.”

Together they watched the approaching light. The storm was beginning to ease. The sound of the rain subsided. The night became almost calm. Almost silent. Still the light drew nearer. Something seemed – eerie. What?

“Heyes?” said Kid, tentatively. “Is it me, or is that train kinda – quiet?”

A pause. Heyes summoned up another cheerful smile. “The wind must be blowing the engine sound away from us, Kid,” he suggested, with more confidence than he felt.

Still watching. A final flash silhouetted the now close train against the bleak horizon.

“Heyes? Is it me – or is that the blackest train you ever saw?”

“Trick of the light, Kid,” said his partner firmly. He continued to stare, his smile becoming a shade fixed, then he shuddered.

“You cold?” enquired Kid.

“Nah, just someone walking over my grave.”

As his words lingered in the chill air, the ex-outlaws exchanged a glance.

Both were considering whether they had any reason NOT to board that train which the other would not scoff at.

—oooOOOooo—

“Oh you poor boys!”

“Come on in – don’t worry about crowding us! We’ll squeeze up and make room!”

“We don’t mind being crowded, do we ladies?”

“No! We’ll happily squeeze up against… I mean squeeze up FOR these young men!”

“Put your hats up on the rack to dry. Just push our boxes along!”

“Take those wet clothes… I mean coats off, right now!”

“Would you like something hot and steamy?”

“She means coffee. We have hot coffee.”

“Sweet buns…”

“They have – haven’t they?”

“No I mean, we’ve some buns left. They must be hungry.”

“You sit here, young man – plenty of room! Oooh – is that a gun on your leg or are you…?”

“Shush! Of course it’s a gun on his leg.”

“YOU – you must come sit next to me…”

“Oh look! He’s shy! That’s so cute!”

Deep brown eyes met blue. Once the train halted, Heyes and Curry had stepped into the nearest carriage. Seeing it seemingly full, they had begun to make civil noises about not wanting to disturb the ladies, not wanting to drip rain all over them…But, even Heyes’ silver tongue fell silent before the vociferous welcome and feminine fussing. Since the train had pulled away almost immediately, the partners were fixed in this carriage for the duration.

When the initial flurry died down, Heyes and Curry saw that what had initially seemed to be close on a dozen women of what is politely termed ‘a certain age’, or even more politely termed ‘in their prime’ were, in fact, only four. Both partners were now firmly wedged between two ladies. A handy folding tea-table had been set between them and both were being pressed to wrap themselves around sandwiches – “I’m sure you’d love a roll, Mister Jones.” – and cake – “Please take my cherry, Mister Jones.” – and hot coffee from a new-fangled thermos flask – “More sugar? Or are you,” coy giggle, “…Sweet enough, Mister Jones?”

The ex-outlaws exchanged another glance. There was nothing sinister here after all! Except…Nah, nothing. Why shouldn’t four ladies be taking a trip – at midnight – across the West? If they were sitting a shade close, hey! It was a small carriage. As for Kid’s feeling that three sets of eyes were fixed on his every move – hungry, gloating, watching, waiting – Nah! Motherly. That’s all the expressions were – motherly.

“Where are you ladies headed?” he asked, civilly.

“Oh! We’re here to collect…” began Blue-Ribbons. A guilty hand clapped across her mouth.

“We’re going to a handicrafts convention,” declared Flowered-Bonnet, firmly.

“What kind of handicrafts, ma’am?” enquired Heyes, turning on a touch of dimpled charm. To his chagrin, it had no effect. Kid remained the centre of attention.

“Mainly spinning,” said Lace-Trim-Blouse, smiling brightly at Kid. “Spinning and weaving the thread…”

“Spinning, sure,” interrupted Flowered-Bonnet, with another reproving frown. “But, all kinds of craft. Crochet, sewing…”

Blue-Ribbons held up a silk filled needle and pair of glinting scissors and also beamed at Kid. “We’re all REAL good with our hands, Mister Jones,” she chirped.

A giggle from Lace-Trim-Blouse. “I reckon when the convention see what we’ve brought, we’ll be the guests of honour!”

A delighted trill of feminine laughter from Blue-Ribbons.

“She means shawls,” put in Flowered-Bonnet with a slight shake of the head at her friends. “We’re taking shawls we made.”

Affirmative nods all round.

“Uh huh?” said Kid, torn between enjoyment and embarrassment at having two comely matrons pressing in on either side. Sheesh. Any closer and they’d be in his lap.

“Can I tempt you again with my plums, Mister Jones?” cooed Flowered-Bonnet, leaning forward.

Kid, reluctantly, refused a fourth slice of cake on the grounds that he was full up. He drained the last of his coffee and let his gaze drift to the one lady who was NOT staring at him with ravenous – no, no, ravenous was the wrong word, he corrected himself – rapt, that was it, rapt attention. The fourth lady – Sable-Furs – was sitting quietly beside Heyes in a shadowed corner. Only occasionally did her eyes flick a calculating, sideways glance at the dark-haired former leader of the Devil’s Hole Gang. For the first time Kid noticed she held a deck of cards in her hands. His brows drew together. Surely they had not been there before.

Heyes noticed his partner’s frown and looked down.

“You’re interested in my cards, Mister Smith?” asked the low voice of Sable-Furs.

“Sure, ma’am,” he smiled. “Perhaps you ladies would join my partner and I in a friendly game to pass the time?”

“These cards,” a pair of dark eyes met his, “…are not made for trivial games. These are the tarot and they reveal the future.” She began to deal, face up, onto the table. “The Tower, showing ruin or destruction…The Hanged Man…Judgement,” lightning flashed, turning the three friendly feminine faces in the carriage suddenly into weird, shadowed masks. “…Death.”

“Uh huh,” Heyes managed, in the sudden silence.

“You boys would love her to read the cards for you, wouldn’t you?” beamed Lace-Trim-Blouse, leaning forward and squeezing Kid’s hand affectionately.

“Sure,” agreed Heyes, always curious over anything new.

“Er…” hesitated Kid, who hadn’t liked the sound of any of the options so far.

“The Sun – symbol of success and happiness,” purred Sable-Furs, still dealing, “…The Wheel of Fortune. The Lovers.”

“Sure,” agreed Kid. After all, it must all be nonsense. He wasn’t superstitious. Much.

Deft hands swept up the dealt cards and shuffled the deck. Slim fingers dealt a card onto the tiny folding table.

“The Knight of Swords. I see violence in your past. Gun fire – and money, much money. I hear loud explosions. I hear the sound of galloping hooves.”

The ex-outlaws exchanged a glance.

“Is that a fact?” managed Heyes, civilly, with his best ‘I’m humouring you’ innocent smile.

Another card was dealt. “The Fool on the edge of the Abyss. You share a quest the end of which is in doubt.” And another. “The Hierophant. Your fate depends on a man of high standing – but you fear he is a deceiver. You hold a secret, which must be kept at all costs… The secret concerns… concerns names…I see…I see …I see the letter ‘H’ connected with Mister Joshua Smith…”

“Is she close?” fluted Flowered-Bonnet.

“She is! She is! Look at their faces!” trilled Blue-Ribbons.

Indeed, both partners’ expressions had moved from ‘poker-faced’ into ‘frozen’.

Kid swallowed and looked intently at Sable-Furs. Did she know him or Heyes? Was she just toying with them? A pair of dark eyes rose slowly from the cards to meet his blue stare. The blond ex-outlaw felt cold fingers run over the nape of his neck and, icily, down his spine. The man who could outstare hardened gunfighters dropped his gaze.

“She’s good, isn’t she?” beamed Lace-Trim-Blouse, laying a warm hand over his suddenly cold one.

Against his better judgement Kid gave a gruff, “Uh huh.”

Heyes shifted in his seat. “Seems to me, ma’am, whether you’re right or wrong, it’s not exactly foretelling the future.”

A small, white hand swept up the cards and held them out. “If you would know the future, tap the deck three times.”

Silence.

“If you are afraid – why then, let your fate remain untold.”

Silence.

Sable-Furs’ eyes stayed lowered. But three eager, admiring gazes urged the partners on. Three sets of shining curls nodded encouragingly.

The men exchanged a mute conversation. ‘Was that a dare?’ ‘Reckon so.’

After all, if they DIDN’T tap the deck, what excuse could they possibly offer?

It STILL had to be nonsense. Just lucky guesses. Didn’t it?

The flicker of a questioning raised eyebrow from Heyes. A tiny answering nod from Kid. Two tanned hands reached out, together.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“The Hermit. The Lovers. The Queen of Coins…” Sable-Furs voice dropped still lower. “I see a cold place…”

—oooOOOooo—

THE MOUSE’S PAW

I see a cold place.

Smith and Jones shivered. Despite having cut plenty of wood to feed the pot-bellied stove, the abandoned cabin remained damp and draughty. A chill wind whipped around their ankles. Outside the storm flung yet another flurry of snow against the frail shutters. Both men pulled their coats a little tighter, blew on their fingers and fanned out the result of Jones’ deal.

“I’m in for…” The dark-eyed man frowned, considering. “I’m in for three matches.”

A sigh from across the table.

“I fold.”

“Fold! What the Sam Hill are you folding for? You’ve got three aces! I got nothing!”

Jones opened his mouth to ask how Smith could know the contents of his hand, remembered who Smith was, shut it again. He scowled. “I’m folding ‘cos I’m sick of playing for matches. In fact – I’m sick of pretty much everything. Sick of this cabin. Sick of waiting year after year for news that never comes. Sick of…” He sighed, deeply. “Sorry. Guess sitting quiet in the middle of a storm just gets a man to broodin’. I thought…I thought by now we might be – y’know – startin’ afresh.”

“Uh huh,” nodded Smith, sadly. He understood.

“Maybe…” A faint flush showed on Jones’ cheeks. “Maybe even settling down with a good woman.”

“Or, even better, a real wicked woman,” joshed Smith.

Jones tried to answer his friend’s smile, but…

Silence.

Suddenly, something sounded above the keening of the storm. A desperate hammering outside.

A glance was exchanged. Both partners drew their guns. Jones levelled his colt steadily at the door. Striding swiftly, Smith drew back the rough bolt barring the entrance.

A snow smothered figure stumbled inside, falling to its knees. A pair of frantic dark eyes looked up from between locks of black hair.

“Preacher!” exclaimed Jones, holstering his gun and joining Smith in helping their frozen friend to his feet.

—oooOOOooo—

“It wasn’t the whiskey did for me. Not this time…” Preacher’s eyes stared into the orange glow of the stove. “It was…” He shuddered. “It was the curse of the mouse’s paw!”

“Mouse’s paw?” repeated Smith.

“Uh huh. I won it in a poker game from an old soldier who claimed it granted three wishes to each of its owners.”

“You never fell for that, Preacher?”

“Sure did. Mind – I ain’t claiming I was exactly sober at the time. But…” The knuckles of the thin hand clutching the tin mug of hot coffee shone white. “I reckon if you’d heard him, you fellas woulda believed him too. Told me this paw had a spell put on it by some Indian Shaman. A very holy man.” The pain filled eyes rose from the fire. Flames danced in the inky depths. “He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.”

Silence.

“The old soldier told me the comrade from who HE got the paw, on his third and final wish, wished for death.”

Slowly, Preacher drew a white handkerchief from inside his dark coat. Laying it on the table, he unfolded the linen layers. There, inside, was a miniature, shrivelled, clawed foot.

Silence again. Preacher’s eyes stayed riveted on the paw.

Smith cleared his throat. “Did you wish?” he said. “I mean – did it work?”

A gulp. Then, as if against his better judgement, Preacher nodded.

A long pause. Then, whip-quick, he reached out and tossed the paw into the flames.

With a cry of surprise and, quicker still, Smith caught up a spoon and rescued it. “If that thing really grants wishes, it must be worth a fortune!”

“Don’t be a fool!” begged Preacher. “Pitch the paw onto the fire!”

The partners exchanged a glance. A silent question from Smith. A ‘not sure’ shrug from Jones, who was frowning at the minute piece of withered flesh.

“If you wish,” pleaded their old friend, “…At least promise you’ll think first and only wish for something reasonable.”

Smith frowned at the paw nestled in his palm. He met preacher’s eyes and nodded, slowly. He strode over to his partner. “We both know my mouth sometimes runs away with me,” he told the blond haired man. “So, I think you should hold this.”

Jones repressed a shudder as he took the tiny, clawed object. He wrapped it safely in his own handkerchief and stowed it away in an inner pocket of his jacket.

—oooOOOooo—

Some Weeks Later

Jones, seated in the small café, pushed his stew around the plate. He was missing his partner, but couldn’t deny when they were down to their last dollar and Lom told them of two jobs paying hard cash, it made sense to split up and take them. But, waiting for Smith to show up, wasn’t what was REALLY eating him. THAT – that was Em. Or – rather what had happened the day before he met Em.

It’d been his birthday. Not just A birthday; one of the real mean fellas with a zero on the end. Jones had been unable to shake off the feeling that the years were slipping by. That his life would NEVER change. He and Smith would keep on running, keep on hiding until…

And, he’d never…

He’d…

Jones felt dumb even thinking back over it. He’d got drunk. Not celebrating drunk. Gloomy, brooding, maudlin – stinking – drunk. He’d glowered at the working girls as if it were their fault. Because, they were all the feminine company he’d ever have and, in the depths of his despair, he saw more clearly than usual that, beneath the painted smiles, the only people these girls despised more than themselves were the customers. Men like him.

He’d stumbled back to his cheap room. How many shabby, soulless rooms had he seen over the years? How many more would he have to endure? Through the fog of alcohol in his brain, he had stared at his saddlebags, thinking about wishes. About the mouse’s paw.

Then, he had taken it out and…

Maybe.

He had been so drunk that the next morning he wasn’t real sure it had happened.

The paw had been out on the dresser, but…

Had he wished for ‘the love of a good woman’? Had the tiny piece of flesh glowed hot in his palm?

Nah! Even if he really HAD been drunk enough to wish, that last bit was just cheap whiskey and imagination.

But, the very next morning he had met Em; waitressing here in this café. It’d been…A wry smile twisted Jones’ sun-kissed cheeks. It’d been ‘love at first sight’. If she was to be believed – and he DID believe her, he trusted every word that girl said – it had been just the same for her.

It wasn’t the paw! He wasn’t dumb enough to think that! After all, a lot of the glooming over ‘never finding love’ had been nothing but birthday blues. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t had his share of flings over the years. Nothing like this though; THIS was the real thing.

It was dumb. It was wrong. It couldn’t last. He’d have no choice but to hurt her. He’d hate himself when he had to leave. And, even though it’d tear him apart, he would HAVE to leave. But, despite all that, it WAS the real thing. Jones couldn’t help sheer joy bubbling up inside as Em smiled over. This last week had been the happiest of his entire life.

—oooOOOooo—

“Thaddeus,” murmured Em, her voice muffled, as she was too dang happy to lift her mouth away from where it was nuzzled into his chest, “Have I told you recently – I love you?”

“It’s been a few minutes,” said Jones.

The edge of bleakness in his voice brought her head up.

That had been a mistake. Probably the most wonderful mistake he’d ever made, but still, a mistake. Jones hadn’t planned it. Sheesh, no! He’d told himself no way would he take advantage of Em. She meant far too much to him. He’d be hurting her bad enough without risking…

It’d just – happened.

They loved each other so much, SO much, it’d just…

He squeezed his eyes shut. It’d been Em’s first time. He was a rat.

She must think…

But, he hadn’t told any lies. He DID love her. He adored this girl.

“You don’t…” There was a waver in her voice. He heard a gulp. He squinted down at the piquant little face that meant more to him than all the world. Her bottom lip just gave one wobble before she set it. “You don’t think less of me now, do you Thaddeus? I know I …I shouldn’t have…I just…”

“Hey!” He caught her up in a hug that made her squeak, turned her back onto the pillow and kissed her. “I could never think less of you. NEVER! Whatever happens, Em, you gotta believe I love you. I LOVE you. But…”

His kiss had brought her smile back. A teasing hand ran up his spine to tousle the curls at the nape of his neck. “But?” she prompted.

“You know when we first met? I said I’d only be here for a week or so…”

“Uh huh? But…I was thinking, Mister Fraser is hiring…it may not be quite the work you want, but – it’d be a start … and, his foreman kinda has a soft spot for me…NOT like that! He’s past fifty! More – more like an uncle…’Cos we both sing in the choir and, when he bust his wrist I used to take round his favourite stew and a dish of pie…’cos …”

“Em. I can’t stay. I just – can’t. And, you hafta believe – if I could – I would. I’d take any dang job going to stay here and marry you and spend the rest of my life with you, if I could. I can’t. I…” Jones’ voice broke. This time the gulp was from him. His face turned away and one tanned hand moved from its nesting place on Em’s back to rub at his suddenly brighter blue eyes.

Em gazed at the man she loved. Loved AND trusted. Seeing the tears he tried so hard to hide quashed any doubt that he had simply turned on the sweet talk to – to ‘have his wicked way with her’. He loved her. She knew that. But… Em was no fool. A certain air of danger hung around Thaddeus Jones. She saw his wariness of strangers. She saw how he watched the roads into this small town. She had guessed there might be – trouble – in his past, though she had shied away from dwelling on what that might be.

“Thaddeus,” she said, quietly. “If we had a little stake…I mean enough to …” she hesitated, in case her guess made him angry, “Enough to get us south of the border and buy us a little place – would you marry me then?”

“Like a shot!” exclaimed Jones, without thinking. He drew in his breath and thought for a second. He never, NEVER wanted to lie to Em. If they had a stake like that, his partner Smith would come too! The two people he loved most in the world would be safe while he waited for… “Like a shot,” he repeated, kissing her hair. “But, we don’t.”

“We might,” she said, slowly. Suddenly, she pulled away, swung out of bed and began to pull on her clothes. “I – I have to go.”

He sat up. “Wha…?”

Small, work-roughened fingers stopped his question. “I’ll tell you if it works!” A pair of lips replaced the fingers, kissed him and…she was gone.

—oooOOOooo—

Jones stared at the stained paper covering the wall. Smith would arrive any day now. They had to move on. That was their life. But…could he bear to leave Em?

Pain twisted at his heart. He had wished for love – and his wish had been granted with a vengeance.

He thought about the mouse’s paw. Of course, it was nonsense. The wishing and then meeting Em was nothing but coincidence. But…

Preacher had warned about wishing for money. About wishing for anything – unreasonable. Suppose he made sure to wish only for – reasonable? Nothing greedy. Since it didn’t work anyhow, what harm could that do? It left one wish for his partner. Though – since it was all dumb, that didn’t matter.

Jones’ eyes squeezed shut. Em’s smile danced behind his lids. His breath came hard and fast. Without further delay he was out of bed, tearing at the buckles of his saddlebags. The paw was in his hand. He wished… Careful, careful… Keep it reasonable!

“I wish Em and me had a stake. Just enough to set us up, south of the border, to wait safely for the Governor’s verdict, however long that takes.”

His palm burned. Or…The sensation was gone so quickly that, once again, Jones could not rule out ‘imagination’.

Footsteps racing up the bare hotel stairs, a tap at the door, Em, flushed with excitement, something clutched in her hands, burst in.

“Thaddeus, Thaddeus! We have a stake! It worked. Not QUITE how I meant – it’s kinda sad in a way. But WE can head south and be together!”

“A stake?” he repeated, confused.

“Uh huh! Ten thousand dollars…”

Jones’ eyes settled on the black object in her hands. He reached out and, without a pause in her speech; she answered the unspoken request by handing it over.

“You see, I never told you, ‘cos – why would I? – But when I was still a girl I was a passenger on a train that got stopped by outlaws…”

Jones stared at the black object in his hands. His fingers tenderly ran over the bright silver trimmings.

“…It was the Plummer gang. And, this morning – I KNEW I recognised him! And, I’d read the poster. $10,000!”

One of the silver studs was not so bright. Jones touched the still wet splatter. He pressed the damp patch inside the battered hat.

“…I wouldn’t have said anything to the Sheriff if we hadn’t needed the money so bad. … It’s kind of mean, but… we HAVE to be together…”

He drew his fingers out of the hat. Stared at the scarlet stain.

“I know it SAID ‘Dead or Alive’, but, I never thought they’d shoot him. I thought he’d just get locked up. I wish…I wish it hadn’t happened this way…I’ve never seen a man killed before…I picked up the hat ‘cos…” she gulped, “It’d just been left lying in the dust and…”

She tailed off as she met the stricken gaze of those blue eyes. Jones’ whole body had stiffened.

“Han! Han!” It was almost a whisper, but aching with pain. Jones reached out for a tiny object on the table. “I wish I was with you, Han!”

Em’s mouth opened, but her throat was too tight to let out the scream of terror as her first and only true love collapsed, lifeless, to the floor.

—oooOOOooo— —oooOOOooo— —oooOOOooo—

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