5. Chs 13 to 15

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Afternoon, Saturday 16th June 1883 West Hill

Heyes helped Kate down from the rig outside West Hill. He turned away slightly, lowering the brim of his derby, as the gaze of the stable hand, holding the horse swept over him. He was not recognised. Heyes silently thanked Kate, who was smiling, sparkling with small talk and generally diverting the man’s eyes most successfully.

Kate privately thought all credit belonged to that appalling hat. Waiting in the hotel lobby, she had thought it surprising a man arriving in Butte with nothing but his saddlebags, found room to carry a formal outfit. When she’d seen Heyes came back down the stairs – she was more surprised he bothered. Even her carefully trained manners had suffered a jolt.

“Good heavens!” she had exclaimed. “You look –” she searched, “– different!”

“That was kinda the point, Kate.”

Now waiting for a response to their knock, she glanced up anxiously.

“I hope I don’t let you down, Joshua.”

“You won’t,” he said, “Just want you bein’ kind, concerned, sympathetic and honest. I can’t see you havin’ a problem with that.”

Not noticing the compliment, she nodded earnestly, “Anything else?”

“If it comes up – you might wanna offer an opinion ’bout the treatment a woman oughta expect from a decent man who cares about her.” He smiled at her reassuringly, “Can’t see that bein’ a problem either, huh?”

“Oh no!” she agreed. She mused on her own thoughts for a moment and then added simply, “I AM lucky aren’t I?”

Heyes looked at the open, beautiful face beaming up at him so happily. She displayed not one ounce of self consciousness nor conceit; her dark eyes glowed with love. He understood why Kid had returned from Thursday’s sunlit, riverside stone-skimming, carrying a well hidden torch.

“I think you’re both lucky, Kate,” he said, truthfully, as the door opened.

She handed over her visiting card, “Mrs. Connor to see Mrs. Carleton,” she announced, stepping into the hallway.

“Please. Please wait,” said the maid, nervously.

She was Chinese, possibly a wife or daughter of one of the mine labourers. While liltingly charming, her delivery and accent did not suggest fluent English. Heyes wondered if Carleton had deliberately staffed his house with indoor servants offering little opportunity for his ‘wife’ to converse.

They waited in the hallway. The polished grandfather clock ticked. Heyes worked out which of the heavy doors led to the study and smiled at the memory of the previous night’s escapade. No sound reached them in that solidly built, oppressive house.

The maid returned, handing back Kate’s card, “Is – not at home.”

Heyes opened his mouth to argue. However, Kate, recognising a perfectly acceptable social formula, forestalled him. Taking a tiny silver pencil from her card case, she scribbled a brief note on the square of pasteboard.

“Please take that to Mrs. Carleton,” she smiled, ” – thank you.”

As the maid again disappeared, Heyes breathed, “What did you write?”

“As you suggested,” Kate answered, “I appealed to her as a mother.”

This time the return message was, “This way, please.”

They were shown into a spacious, ornately furnished sitting room. Far more luxurious, but with none of the charm of Kate’s house. The blinds were drawn against the sunshine, dimming the light. A richly dressed figure sat upon a chaise in the window alcove, her profile toward the door. A crib stood within reach.

The woman did not rise and barely turned her head as the door shut behind her visitors. Heyes’ keen eyes dropped to the hand gently rocking the cradle. Even across the length of the room, he could see it trembled.

The voice breaking the silence sounded high and anxious.

“You had something to tell me – concerning my son’s welfare?”

Kate hesitated unsure how to begin.

Heyes intercepted her, tone very direct.

“We kinda thought it might be better for his welfare, if the truth ’bout what happened back in Medora came out now. ‘Fore his mother ends up jailed as an accessory; or worse.”

The unfamiliar voice, as well as the words, jerked the woman’s head round toward them.

“Who’s this? I thought – I mean – isn’t Mr. Connor with you?”

Kate let out a gasp. The left side of the woman’s face looked almost as bad as Emerson’s. The eye puffed and half closed, amidst discoloured skin, angry bruises showing on temple and cheek.

Kate hurried forward, the purpose of the visit forgotten in her surge of warm concern.

“My husband? No indeed.” Kate reached the chaise and crouched to scan the injured face, worriedly, “Emerson still can’t stand unaided, let alone walk. Didn’t you know about the fire?”

The clear incomprehension he saw, told Heyes whatever else this woman knew – any moves Carleton had made against the Connors, were a blank to her.

“What happened to you?” Kate asked gently.

The woman turned away hurriedly, “It’s nothing! I – I walked into a door!”

“This door hit you Wednesday, huh?” said Heyes, “When it found you’d let two ladies from Boston in, askin’ questions.” He received a scared glance. His voice softened a shade, coaxing, “What happened in Medora, Ellen? He threaten you into playin’ along?”

“No! No,” she exclaimed to this last question. Then, realising her reaction had been close to an admission, she insisted, voice tight with fear, “I don’t know what you mean!” Her mind worked, narrowed eyes darting anxiously at him for a fraction of a second, “Whoever you are – you’ve made a mistake. My name’s Lydia, Lydia Carleton.”

“Lydia Hamilton-Carleton, huh?” he said. He approached, “Alright – since you went to the same school as Kate here – discuss old times!” Her eyes widened in fright. “Go on! Tell her the names of a coupla teachers. Let’s hear your favourite lesson.” He stopped far enough from the chaise to show no physical threat was intended, but voice direct and forceful, “What street was it on – Lydia?”

The deep, masculine tones roused the baby in the crib. He began to whimper.

“Joshua! Please don’t!” pleaded Kate. She tenderly picked up little Oliver and hushed him. The whimpering ceased. Sitting down on the chaise, Kate handed the baby to his mother, still leaving one finger in the clutch of a tiny hand.

Kate looked into the mother’s face. When she spoke, her voice was full of compassion.

“Mr. Smith doesn’t mean to frighten you. He’s just trying to show that – we know. We know the real Lydia Hamilton died on the journey from Chicago. And it would be better if you admitted that – Ellen – because – ” she paused, laying her free hand on Ellen’s own, “– because we think you’re in danger.”

“Danger?” she repeated.

Heyes spoke up, his voice more measured now, persuasive.

“We know – but we can’t prove it. It’d take bringin’ someone out from back east to do that. Carleton’s no fool. He’s not goin’ to sit waitin’ for that to happen. Now he’s got –” he pointed at the white, swathed bundle in Ellen’s arms “– him; he don’t need you any more. Nothin’ but a risk. Reckon he plans on – eliminatin’ the risk.”

Ellen registered puzzlement, followed by a sudden shock of comprehension. For a few moments, a reluctant fear that Heyes was right twisted her face, then she squeezed her eyes closed as if shutting out unwelcome thoughts.

“No!” she protested, “He’d never do that!” She rose and returned the baby to his crib. Taking her seat, Ellen’s eyes met Kate’s, partly defiant, partly pleading, “He promised. He’s going to take good care of me!”

“I agree,” said Heyes, his implication clear, “I think he’s gonna take real good care of you!”

Her mouth set in a stubborn line.

“You’re wrong!” she shot at Heyes. “He loves me!”

“Looks like it!” his eyes dwelt on her swollen face.

Her voice firm, to convince herself, rather than her audience, she rushed on, “He does! As soon as the time’s right, we’re going to be – ” She clamped her hand to her mouth, to force back the admission she had so nearly made.

“You’re going to be married?” finished Heyes. The frightened eyes suggested this was a pretty good guess. “Didn’t the weddin’ eleven years ago take? Is that it?” She kept her hand clenched over her mouth, as he went on; his voice softer now, persuasive, “How much money do you think Carleton’s gonna want to squeeze outta the mine, before the time’s right, Ellen? And supposin’ you had anythin’ to offer him – since he’s kinda got a taste for wife killin’ – do you really think he’s good husband material?”

She shook her head frantically at this.

Turning to Kate and unclamping her mouth, she whispered, “It was an accident!” Again her face worked, desperate for Kate to believe her. Desperate to believe in her own words, “I’m SURE it was an accident!”

“His wife’s death?” asked Kate, very gently.

A blink for ‘yes’, rather than a nod.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” even more gently.

Ellen looked into the eyes of the only person to have shown her a little kindness in the last four lonely months. A large part of her did want to tell Kate.

Heyes could hardly catch the words, as she gulped, “I won’t turn him in! I love him.”

Kate thought for a moment, “Anything you disclose – we still can’t prove. It’d be our word, against yours.” She leant forward and went on, “Sometimes, when lawyers discuss a case – and want to say something that might other wise be actionable – they start with the phrase, ‘without prejudice’; then, it almost doesn’t count.” Kate gave a tiny squeeze to Ellen’s hand, “Is there anything you’d like to tell me – without prejudice?”

Again, the nod was almost imperceptible save for the blink of the swimming eyes.

“You’d all travelled as far as Medora. What happened?”

“We arrived after dark. The only guests at the hotel. We had the whole upper floor. Mrs. Carleton retired straight away. I folded her things, turned down the bed, then went to my own room. Mrs. Carleton used to take medicine – to help her sleep. The bottle I’d placed ready, must have been near empty. The fresh bottle was in the trunk – in my room.” Ellen fished a handkerchief from her belt and pressed it to her face, before continuing, “She came to fetch it. Surprised me. I was almost ready for bed. She saw – she saw –” Ellen gulped on a sob, unable to continue for a moment.

“She saw you were pregnant?” prompted Kate, softly, “Was that it?”

Ellen nodded, “I’d managed to hide it. Knew it couldn’t be for much longer – but – I had no money, nowhere to go.” She shuddered at the memory, “She was – beside herself. Because she guessed straight off –” again Ellen stopped.

“That it was her husband’s?” said Kate, very gently.

Ellen dropped her eyes.

Swallowing she said, “He – he used to tell me I was special; that I understood him. Not like her. And he wouldn’t stop –” She broke off, clenching and unclenching the damp handkerchief in her hand, before continuing, “When he found out I was – expecting – he was so angry! How could I do that to him? At first he wanted me to – to take care of it.”

Her eyes flew to Kate’s for a moment, “But he didn’t mean that!” Eyes lowered again, she went on, “He agreed I could stay – long as I made sure I left, before his wife found out!” She gulped on another sob, “Now I’d let him down again! I knew he’d be real mad.” Looking at Kate’s expression, she turned away, shamefaced, “You despise me, don’t you?”

“I don’t think you’re the one she’s despisin’!” said Heyes bluntly, “What happened?”

“Oliver came upstairs. She flew at him. Spitting mad. Hissing how she’d turned a blind eye all these years, but this was the last straw. Bringing his w-ing into her home. Said he’d never see another penny of her money. She’d get her lawyers to fix a separation. He was just trying to shut her up. I couldn’t bear to watch! The next thing – she was lying at the bottom of the stairs. Like a crumpled doll. Head bleeding. You could see it was real bad!”

Ellen closed her eyes as she said, “Oliver didn’t mean it to happen – it was an accident!” She went on, “He ran down after her. Of course the noise brought the owner out. Oliver shouted at him to send for a doctor. They carried her up. I could see him – thinking. He had her put in my room. Sent me into theirs.” She gulped, “Later, he said – if she didn’t make it – it was ridiculous to let her money go to a stranger. He’d be ruined. He wouldn’t be able to help – with the child. He said – he’d always loved me – but couldn’t afford to leave her. But, if I stood by him now – we could all be together – him, me and the baby. Wasn’t that what I wanted?”

She looked up at Kate, “And – I knew it was wrong – but that WAS what I wanted. I didn’t believe it would happen. At first, the doctor thought she might pull through. But the next day – Oliver was with her – she took a sudden turn for the worse. She just – passed away.”

“Convenient!” said Heyes, sceptically. He crouched down on his heels to bring his face level with hers, “He’s just using you – you know that!”

She shook her head stubbornly.

“Haven’t you been listenin’ to yourself?” he urged. “The man’s rotten clean through. Get out while you still can.”

Kate leaned forward too, “He’s right, Ellen. It’s obvious Mr. Carleton’s treatment of you was – heartless. He’s a callous, selfish man, willing to dispose of anyone who stands in his way, or might expose him. The sooner you give him up, the safer you’ll be! Do you really want to risk leaving your baby without a mother? Leaving him to be brought up by a cold-hearted killer?”

Ellen raised her hands as if to push away the truth.

“No!” she insisted. “You’re wrong!”

Heyes sighed frustrated. His dark eyes held hers.

“Suppose you heard it from his own mouth?” he suggested, “Would that convince you?”

-oooOOOooo-

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Kid was about to turn off Butte’s main streets and head toward the district generally referred to as ‘the line’ when a familiar figure, entering the livery, caught his eye. Following, Kid quietly watched Joe strapping his loaded saddlebags, to a sturdy bay gelding. He stepped forward. Joe wheeled round, startled. His eyes widened nervously, at the sight of Kid. He felt the same aura of danger, that had checked his boss from continuing with further threats in the Connor house, on Wednesday.

“Goin’ somewhere?” Kid asked abruptly.

“Yup,” ill at ease, but not cowed, “I decided to move on. Ain’t a problem is it?”

“Depends,” said Kid levelly. “Not so long as you’re not in such an all-fired hurry you can’t spare a few – friendly – words first.”

Joe turned aside. Taking a rolled blanket slung over one shoulder, he began to fasten it behind the saddlebags.

“Words ’bout what?” he asked.

“That fire Thursday night,” said Kid, “I wondered if you’d heard talk about how it mighta got started – an’ why?”

Joe did not look round. He busied himself checking and tightening his girth.

“Had nuthin’ to do with that!” he stated firmly.

“I believe you,” said Kid truthfully, “But it’s not what I asked.”

There was a silence.

Kid broke it, “Where’s your partner?”

Joe met his eyes fair and square, “I ain’t got no partner!” he stated firmly, “And since Thursday – ain’t got no job neither. I quit. S’why I’m movin’ on.” He drew a deep breath, “A man hires out his gun – he can’t always afford to pick and choose the jobs – but let’s just say this time – I felt kinda particular.”

“Uh huh?” said Kid, “This fella who’s not your partner – Caleb – he particular too?”

Joe looked away, again adjusting the saddle, “Dunno,” he shot Kid a glance, “I doubt it!”

“If I wanted to talk – where’d I find him?”

“Dunno,” said Joe again.

“Just to talk – I’m not plannin’ any – any payback. I just don’t want any more -accidents for the Connors. Guess I feel kinda particular ’bout that too.”

Joe searched Kid’s face.

Satisfied with what he saw, he said, “You might try the Silver Dollar – south end o’ the line. He mostly drinks there. Tends to start early Saturday.”

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

The Silver Dollar had no pretensions. It sold cheap liquor, to men who wanted to get drunk fast. This early in the afternoon, patrons were still sparse, though every hour saw the place gradually fill, anticipating a hard drinking weekend. Coming in from the bright sunshine, Kid’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim, smoke filled interior. He scanned the joint.

In a quiet corner, bottle on table, desultory card game in progress, sat Caleb. He had three companions. Kid recognised two as having also been amongst Carleton’s hired guns at the payroll distribution. The youngest was a stranger; green shirt, tied down gun, cocky expression. Caleb’s back was toward the door. It was the arrested expression of the man opposite, that caused him to turn. Fear swept across his face, as he saw the man quick enough to disarm Deke Simons, approaching.

Kid stopped, two foot from the table.

“I wanted a word,” he said, eyes never leaving Caleb’s face.

“We’re busy,” said the brash youngster, showing off in front of the older men, “– make an appointment!”

This did not get the laugh he’d expected.

He received a long cold look, but all Kid said was, “I won’t take long.”

“What got said ’bout you an’ Kate Connor, Thursday -” whined Caleb, “– weren’t me. Wuz all Deke. He’d been told to get –” he stopped, just sober enough to realise whiskey had already loosened his tongue too much.

“Been told to get rid of Connor? One way or another?” finished Kid, “See – I’m glad you brought that up –’cause it’s one of the things I thought we could talk about.”

The youngster reacted to this topic. He rose from his seat fired by youthful bravado, liquor and the fact that, being new in town, he had not been present to see Kid in action at the mine offices.

“I told ya,” he swaggered. “We’re busy. Don’t feel like talkin”bout nuthin!” His hand hovered over his holster. His confidence suggested, despite his youth, this was far from his first confrontation. “Think it’s time you left. Git!” he threatened. The young man tried to stare the ex-outlaw down.

Kid stood calmly waiting, hand relaxed by his side.

Reaching, the youngster displayed whip-quick reflexes and long practice. Still, he had scarcely cleared leather, before he faced the six-gun which leapt into the hand of Kid Curry.

“An’ like I told you,” said Kid, keeping his voice even, “– won’t take long.” His eyes indicated the chair, “Why not just sit an’ listen – civil like?”

The youngster sat, gulping.

Kid twirled his gun, dropping it smoothly back into his holster. His eyes swept across the four men.

“Where were we?”

“Why’re you talkin’ to us?” asked the oldest man. His neighbour stammered slightly, as he added, “Has Connor come round? He been – sayin’ stuff –’bout what happened?”

Kid kept the anger out of his face at the thought of three heavies beating on an unarmed man, leaving him for dead in a fire set to hide evidence of the attack.

“Not far as I know,” said Kid, “You mighta heard Carleton offered me a job Tuesday?”

“Uh huh,” said Caleb cautiously, “Deke said you turned it down.”

“The thing is,” went on Kid, “– I didn’t realise at the time just how – well paid – the work he had in mind might be. Specially now, since his current staff seem to be – failin’ in their duties.” Caleb winced at this. “I’ve been havin’ what you might call – second thoughts,” went on Kid, “– wondered where I might find him?”

Caleb searched Kid’s face. The cold blue eyes stared back, impassive. Caleb swallowed.

“No secret – he’s gone to Anaconda.”

“Wondered if you’d heard, when he’s comin’ back,” said Kid evenly, “Seein’ as you mighta been in touch. Havin’ had kinda disappointin’ news to report.”

The oldest man shifted in his seat, “Say we knew – why’d we tell ya?”

Kid let his hand hover an inch closer to his holster.

“I might find a reason,” he said. “Want me to try?”

Caleb did not find it hard to believe this threatening presence could be hired as a killer.

“Comin’ back this evenin’,” he gulped, “He’s arrivin”bout half eight.”

“An’ if I wanted to meet him?” continued Kid.

“Used to mostly meet with Deke at the Dumas place,” said Caleb, “He keeps a suite there – kinda private.”

Kid acknowledged this with a slight nod.

Caleb recovered a little composure as he felt the danger recede.

“Suppose you mean to take over Deke’s place?” he asked, torn between ingratiation and resentment. The young gunslinger threw Kid a furious glance, hearing this. Caleb went on, “I suppose you heard he wuz fired after lettin’ your partner best him?”

Kid filed this information away.

“Let’s just say – I’d like to discuss – possibilities,” he said, as he turned and exited the saloon.

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

Entering the Dumas place, Kid reflected, his partner’s instincts were pretty good; guessing to look for somewhere on the fancy side in tracking down the lair in which Carleton briefed sneering henchmen. The décor might not match the oriental splendour, sketched by Meg’s imagination; nevertheless, glancing round, at huge mirrors in gilded frames, cut glass chandeliers winking overhead, provocative European artwork adorning the walls and general air of no expense spared, Kid was glad he still had the best part of $400 remaining, from Tuesday’s payoff. He suspected neither information – nor anything else in this place – came cheap.

A stunning brunette glided up to him.

“Hi, feelin’ lonely for a little company?” A delicate finger ran up the length of his arm, “Can any of us ladies help – some way?”

Glancing round, Kid saw several enticing smiles and pouts directed at him; each from a woman, in her own way, as fancy as the surroundings. He moved a little further into the room and involuntarily returned the smile of a particularly enchanting redhead, glancing back at him over a smooth white shoulder, eyes twinkling between mischievously narrowed lashes.

Recalling his errand he said, with none of his usual smoothness in similar encounters.

“Uh …See the thing is…”

He stopped. Heyes’ instruction to ‘improvise’ didn’t seem to be getting him any closer to the request, ‘could I have a good look round Oliver Carleton’s suite – preferably on my own.’ Moreover, the surroundings were distracting him from concentrating on coming up with a plausible line.

Suddenly he felt a light touch on his shoulder from behind and felt his ear tickled by someone leaning in close to breathe softly, “Hi Jed. Long time, no see!”

A delighted grin split Kid’s face at hearing the familiar voice.

“Breda,” he exclaimed, turning round and catching her in a hug that lifted her off her feet. He kissed her affectionately then, moving his lips to her ear, breathed in return, “It’s Thaddeus, honey! Thaddeus Jones!”

“Sure Thaddeus, whatever you say!” she returned.

Kid looked at the warm amber eyes, with the feline slant to the edges and the good-natured smile beaming up at him. He felt this was his first piece of unquestionably good luck since arriving in Butte.

“Haven’t seen you for years!” he exclaimed, “I thought you moved down to Texas?”

“Like the snow – I drifted – north!” she purred. “How about moving somewhere more private to – discuss old times.”

“Sure,” he smiled, “– you can fill me in on what this place has to offer.”

As they moved toward the stairs, out of earshot, Kid hissed in an undertone, “Seriously Breda, I need your help.”

“You know me, Thaddeus – Thaddeus Jones,” she cooed, “I’m the helpful kind.”

“I wanna know all about this place. Just need to talk.”

Her hand upon the handle of her room, she smiled, “Then let’s get comfortable and – talk. We’ll see what – come’s up.”

Throwing him a wicked gleam she asked, “Have you still got a thing for smoking cigars in your bath? Because I think I have a few Cuban Havanas just waiting for the right occasion.”

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

Amongst the women watching the couple leave, Kid had not taken special note of one sharp eyed blonde. If he had seen the sly, calculating expression settling over that pretty, but shrewd face, as she watched him walk away, it would have given him pause.

Lucille twisted a golden curl between her fingers, considering what she had just seen. She was generally understood in the line to be, “Deke Simon’s” girl and enjoyed the distinction of being favoured by the fastest gun in town.

Thaddeus Jones had been pointed out to her, as the one who had disarmed Deke on Tuesday, even before his smart mouthed partner beat her man unconscious. She bore him a grudge for that; for Thursday’s events in the saloon; and for rescuing Emerson Connor – all of which had lost Deke his lucrative post, as Carleton’s right hand man.

Lucille, sidling close to Kid upon recognising her enemy, had not caught whether the name murmured in his ear by his old friend was ‘Jez’ or ‘Jake’…or ‘Jed’. But she thought she could guess. Not many men would be capable of outdrawing Deke. But Lucille, used to listening to her lover’s recitals, knew the names of most likely contenders.

Breda was never one to hold back during sessions of ‘girl talk’. All the Dumas ladies heard, at some time, how Breda had known the famous outlaw, Kid Curry. Known him well, real well. Well enough to satisfy all the curious – feminine – questions about which rumours were true.

A contented smile spread over Lucille’s face. If she were right, Deke was going to be real grateful. If she were right – they were both going to be rich.

-oooOOOooo-

CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

Kid returned to the Connor house by early evening. A satisfied, not to say smug, smile wreathed his face. He silently challenged Heyes to find any fault with the way he had played his part.

Before he had a chance to knock, his partner leaned out of the upstairs window.

“We’ve been waitin’ for you!” he called down, “What took so long? I was beginnin’ to worry the odalisques had you locked in the secret underground chamber. Thinkin’ of sendin’ Meg along to crack the locks and get you out! Before you suffered a fate worse than death.” Seeing Kid glower, he grinned, “C’mon up Thaddeus.”

Entering the bedroom, he found Heyes and Emerson.

“It’s just us men,” said Heyes. “So the plottin’ and scheming lacks a certain – vivid, imaginative – flavour.”

“‘Mrs. Carleton’,” started Emerson, “I mean, Ellen Fraser,” he corrected himself, “– won’t give up her –”

“Paramour,” supplied Heyes.

“Her – lover,” said Emerson, with a faint flush, “Not unless she hears his indifference to her from his own lips.” He drew breath, “Heaven knows why! Kate was horrified at the treatment the woman had sustained. The man must be a brute!”

Kid looked questioningly at Heyes to see if this were fair, or just Emerson’s spotless morality talking.

“He seduced her,” said Heyes baldly, “And that’s givin’ it a kinder name than it deserves. Blamed her when she got pregnant. Was goin’ to have her thrown out without lifting a finger to help. He let her watch him knock his wife down the stairs. Now he’s hitting her.” He sighed, “An’ she’s still foolin’ herself he cares about her. Still hoping to play happy families.”

Kid curled his lip in genuine disgust. He might not share an entire ethical code with Kate’s husband, but there was nothing on that list they were likely to disagree about.

“So we’re movin’ on to Plan B,” said Heyes, “Where we let Ellen hear the skunk plot to get rid of her.”

“Have we got a plan B?” asked Kid.

“Didn’t you hear me ask Meg and Emerson here, to do some thinkin’?” grinned Heyes, “We have plans B through Z!”

“And Alpha to Omega,” smiled back Emerson. “Plus most of the Cyrillic, Arabic and Hebrew alphabets; not to mention the Cherokee syllabary!” He continued earnestly, careful not to claim credit not his, “Of course – it was practically all Meg. I’m afraid she was under orders to let me sleep most of the afternoon. I just joined in at the end.”

“You’re lookin’ better for it,” said Kid kindly, “– a bit less – green.”

“I FEEL a bit less green,” smiled Emerson, “- Almost – mustard yellow.”

“Whatever,” dismissed Heyes, “We’ve edited Meg’s epic Plan B down to somethin’ that might just work.” He mused for a moment, “Well to somethin’ that isn’t bound to fail.”

Emerson looked concerned, “Of course everything rather depends on what you found out. I thought it wasn’t fair to assume you could discover everything you’d been sent for. It seemed a very hard task to me. But Joshua – he said we could rely on you. He said you never let him down – ever!”

Kid glanced at his partner, pleased despite himself. Heyes gave him a slightly sheepish look in return.

“Well,” said Heyes, gruffly, “Did you find out what I wanted to know?”

Kid shook his head slowly, keeping his face solemn, “Pffffttt!” he ventured, filling the syllable with apologetic disappointment.

“Please don’t feel bad,” urged Emerson, seriously, “You did your best. No one can ever ask more than that.”

Heyes eyed his partner closely, “You found out everything!” he stated, “- And more!” Kid could not contain it any longer. The smug grin once again spread across his face. He nodded.

“You know who beat on Emerson here?” asked Heyes.

“Talked to all three of ’em!” said Kid.

“Three!” exclaimed Emerson, “That seems a bit wasteful. I’m not exactly –” he searched, “– Kid Curry!” He thought for a second, “Still – it does make me feel a bit less – wet!”

“You know when Carleton’s due back?” continued Heyes.

“Yup – he’ll be getting off a train in a little over two hours from now,” nodded Kid.

“You know where he goes?”

Kid smiled, “He has the East wing of the Dumas place for private use. Only one corridor leads in from the main entrance. There’s one back exit – heavily locked. Suite’s on the ground floor. Has a coupla bedrooms above. He keeps it for himself and – special friends he might want a favour from.”

Heyes beamed, “And you know how we can listen in to what’s happenin’ in this private suite?”

Kid tried to resume the apologetic, disappointed face, but could not sustain it.

Grinning again, he said, “I ran into an old friend at the Dumas. You remember Breda? First met her after – ” he stopped himself, ” – we first met her in Denver.”

Heyes grinned in return, “So – it wasn’t all hard work this afternoon?”

Kid flashed him a glance.

In an undertone he said, “I always did like a real deep tub!” In his normal voice he continued, “She showed me somethin’ about the East wing. A trick her Ma picked up listenin’ in to Johnny Reb when he raided their farm durin’ the war. See, the Dumas place has the same kinda heatin’ as here.” Kid sprang up, “Let me show you!” Striding over to the bulbous stove in the corner, he opened the polished iron door. He rushed from the room. Emerson and

Heyes heard his boots taking the stairs two at a time.

A second later, his voice came, echoing slightly, but very clear, from the belly of the stove, “Can you hear me? Even though the bedroom door and sitting room door are closed and I’m not raisin’ my voice – can you hear me?”

Returning footsteps thudded up the stairs. A delighted Kid burst back into the room. He grinned at his partner. “See!” he exclaimed. “The pipes all join up.”

Heyes mouth fell open.

“Wilksburg! It works like a – stethoscope,” he breathed.

Emerson nodded, amazed, “I would never have thought of that. The connecting pipes carry the sound – even amplify it! It just requires the stove doors to be open – even just a fraction – at each end.”

“Not a problem at the height of summer!” crowed Kid.

“Thaddeus,” admired Heyes, “- that was better than even I expected!”

It was Kid’s turn to look a little sheepish. “So,” he went on. “What’s plan B?”

“It kinda involves us persuadin’ Carleton to come clean about what he has in store for Ellen,” said Heyes, “Usin’ all our powers of persuasion and offerin’ him something he might want as bait.”

“Uh huh?” said Kid, assuming the ‘us’ meant him and Heyes, “What’s the bait?”

“Well – I thought part of it could be you, Thaddeus,” said Emerson diffidently, “Hal told me Carleton tried to hire you – and you turned him down. He wouldn’t have liked that. Not one bit. If you are really faster than Deke Simons – ” he blinked for a moment unsure. Turning to Heyes, he asked, “Did I phrase that correctly?”

“Uh huh,” confirmed Heyes.

“If you are really faster than Deke Simons,” continued Emerson, “Carleton will be chaffing at the thought you are in Butte and not under his control. If you were to – pretend to reconsider his offer – he’d be so keen to believe it was true, he might fall for it. That, in turn, might get him to open up to you.” Emerson peered at Kid anxiously, from the one eye still fully open. “I haven’t offended you, have I?” he asked, “By supposing you might be willing to practice a deception – in a good cause?”

The ex-outlaws exchanged a glance.

“You haven’t offended him,” smiled Heyes.

“In fact,” said Kid, “- it’s kinda a case of ‘great minds think alike’. I planted pretty much the same idea on Caleb.” At Emerson’s look of enquiry, he went on, “One of the fellas who tried to kill you. He was at the saloon with Simons.” A thought, which had been nagging Kid since his return, suddenly came to the fore. “Where are the girls?” he asked, “Did they decide to see sense and leave everythin’ to us?”

Heyes cleared his throat and did not answer this second question.

“They’re in Meg’s room,” he said blandly. “Meg is helpin’ Kate change into something – more attractive.”

Kid blinked. He thought Kate had looked pretty attractive in her outfit at lunchtime.

“Heaven knows what!” chimed in Emerson, “But from the overhead banging and scraping we heard earlier, I think they’ve been rooting around in the attic. There are trunks up there Kate hasn’t opened, since we moved to Montana.”

Just as it began to dawn on Kid what the significance of Kate getting dressed up might be, the door burst open. A delighted Meg bounced in.

“TAH DAH!” she cried with a dramatic sweep of her hand, as she ushered her friend into the room.

Heyes wondered if Kid would like a little help picking his jaw back up off the floorboards. To be fair, his partner had some excuse. Heyes had been prepared for what he might see – and even he had to admit this transformed Kate was nothing short of stunning. She turned heads in modestly cut muslin and calico dresses, softly draped to conceal her contours. Here in full evening dress, she was enough to take a man’s breath away. Her bodice appeared moulded to her still slim waist and shapely hips. The skirt flared out to froth in foamy waves around her feet. The dress appeared held up by magic. It certainly could not be supported by the frail gossamer net, beaded with tiny diamante drops, slipping from the lovely curve of each creamy shoulder.

Kate smiled at each of them with perfect friendliness, awaiting a response.

Kid found his tongue. “You are NOT goin’ anywhere wearin’ THAT!” he exclaimed.

Kate’s face fell.

“Oh,” she said, disappointed, “Don’t you like it? Meg and I both thought it looked quite stylish.”

“What’s wrong with it?” challenged Meg, “It still fits! She hasn’t really changed shape at all yet, we just laced it a tiny bit looser over the hips.” Glowering at Kid she said, “I think Kate looks really pretty, Thaddeus!”

Kate stepped in front of her husband and did a little twirl, “What do you think, Darling? How do I look?”

“Lovely,” he said.

“Do you remember the last time I wore this dress?” sighed Kate, moving to the looking glass and smiling wistfully at her reflection. Emerson started slightly at this unexpected, supplementary question. Fortunately, Kate went on, “Remember the Chinese lanterns hanging in the trees? And the sound of the waves lapping on the shore? They played a Viennese waltze – Strauss – and as we whirled round and round in the moonlight, you said you wanted to hold me in your arms forever.” She was still at the glass, adjusting a curl.

Emerson shot a covert glance at Heyes who thought he saw the hint of a wink.

“It doesn’t sound much like me,” he demurred, “Are you mixing me up with someone else?”

She whirled round, “It was on our honeymoon, Darling!” she exclaimed. She frowned at his blank expression, “You do remember our honeymoon?”

“Rhode Island?” he ventured.

“NO! It was –” Kate suddenly relaxed, “You’re teasing me!”

“Thought it was my turn,” he smiled back, reaching out for her hand.

Kid, impatient with this interplay, moved forward to emphasise his point.

“Tell her,” he insisted, “she isn’t havin’ any part of this! And she isn’t wearin’ THAT!”

Meg interrupted before Emerson could reply, “Of course Kate has a part in this, Thaddeus!”

“She did so well persuadin’ the fake wife to talk,” admired Heyes, “– she’s gonna try and work the same magic on the villain.”

“She’ll be dangling an alternative piece of bait, in front of Carleton!” explained Meg, “In case your willingness to hire out as a cold blooded killer isn’t temptation enough.”

“She’s danglin’ nothin’!” insisted Kid.

“You haven’t heard what it is yet!” protested Meg.

Emerson went on, “I’m not really comfortable with it either, but I must admit Meg has thought of a good point. You see, Thaddeus, her idea is based on the fact that a majority of murders are carried out not by strangers, but by someone close to the victim. Most commonly of all – by a spouse.”

“So?” fumed Kid, lost.

“So –” triumphed Meg, “Kate is going to offer Carleton something we know he wants. She’s going to offer to kill her husband – then get out of town!”

Kid stared in complete disbelief from her to Kate.

Kate nodded, “You see it would be simple for me, Thaddeus, because I’m with him night and day. I could easily drug him; smother him; deliberately infect the gash. Then I just act heartbroken that he took a sudden turn for the worse.”

Kid shook his head as if to clear it.

“NO!” he said. Staring at Emerson he said, “Never mind ‘not bein’ comfortable’! Aren’t you going to stop this?” Seeing a look of enquiry, he added forcefully, “Order Kate, order ’em BOTH, to stay outta this. It’s not safe!”

Meg stared at Kid outraged. Even Kate favoured him with a thoughtful look.

“Nobody orders ME to do anything!” Meg exclaimed.

Kid exhaled impatiently at this, “Well make your wife stay out! Just tell her. She promised to obey you didn’t she?”

“Certainly not,” replied Emerson, adding mildly, “Neither of us would dream of going through a marriage ceremony using the word ‘obey’.”

“I only make promises I intend to keep, even when not standing at an alter,” said Kate quietly, “And I could never obey anyone against my better judgment.” She gave Kid a very straight look, “Or don’t you believe I have the ability to think and make decisions for myself the way men do?”

Kid opened his mouth to reply and shut it again in frustration. He met Kate’s eyes. Heyes watched something he rarely saw. He watched someone refuse to be stared down by his partner. Kid did not drop his own eyes, but his shoulders slumped, as a reluctant answer was forced out of him.

“Yes. But I can’t bear to think of you – either of you – getting hurt. Surely it’s not wrong to want to – well – to want to protect women?”

“Well, I don’t think we’re going argue with the last statement,” agreed Emerson. “Kate,” he went on, “– I know you’d never shy away from discomfort or danger; but am I allowed to make requests?”

She smiled, “YOU can even issue commands. Of course – first I need to hear them.”

Emerson grinned back, “Right then, chattel! Chief of my possessions! Command number one – try not to let someone creep up behind and crack your head open.” Emerson switched to a serious tone, ” – because I suspect YOU haven’t a skull like a rhinoceros. And if I lost you –,” he stopped and looked at her soberly. She blushed and dropped her eyes. He went on with a catch in his voice, “If I lost you – there’d be no one to edit me down to half a page. Have pity on my suffering readers!”

She smiled up at him, “I won’t let anyone crack my head open.” The smile became teasing, “Who do you think I am – you?”

Emerson winced as this drew a laugh from him.

“Command number two – under NO circumstances is any future plan to involve stealing, carrying or using ANY kind of explosive! Ever!”

“Good one!” approved Heyes.

Kate kissed her husband’s hand, “I hear and obey, masterful one.”

“One last command?” he asked.

“Oh – I think, like wishes, I grant in threes,” agreed Kate, “What is your bidding, lord?”

“Will you always – ALWAYS stay close to a backup? And I don’t mean Montana Meg – Mistress of Machination and Mystery!”

With a smile, she stood up and went over to Kid. Clasping one of his hands in hers, she looked up and asked, “Thaddeus, will you please be my backup?”

Kid glanced over to her husband, for his reaction.

“I know I’d have nothing to worry about, with you looking out for Kate -” he said simply, meeting Kid’s eyes squarely, “- Meg says you’re the best there is!”

“Sure,” Kid shrugged awkwardly.

“Thank you,” said Kate. She beamed at him happily and added, “When I was a little girl, I always used to think how wonderful it would be to have a big, protective, older brother. Now it’s as if I finally have one – ” her glance took in Heyes, warmly, “– no, even better, two!” She gave his hand a friendly squeeze before returning to her seat.

Emerson coughed, “I think you should fill Thaddeus in on what he’s saying ‘yes’ to, before he commits himself, Joshua,” he said to Heyes, “Because I imagine he’ll object!” He thought for a moment, “I don’t like it, myself! But I think it’s the best way of having Thaddeus stay close to Kate.”

“Perhaps it’s not fair to suggest it?” worried Kate.

“What aren’t I goin’ to like?” Kid growled at his partner, “I already don’t like ANY of it!”

“To begin with,” said Heyes, “You don’t want Kate to meet Carleton alone do you?”

“NO!” said Kid. That was an easy question as far as it went.

“I can’t go with her,” explained Heyes, “I’ve nothing to offer Carleton. Besides, I’ll be getting Ellen Fraser into position – she’s met me, not you.” Persuasively, Heyes added, “We need a reason for you and Kate to approach Carleton together. Something to link the two offers. In a way, that’s why Kate’s all dressed up. It’s partly just window dressing – to help Kate work the best distraction technique she can. Because – after all – we do know Carleton is – lecherous.”

“You’re right!” glowered Kid, “I don’t like it!”

“He hasn’t finished yet!” protested Meg, “Kate is also trying to look – believably seductive – for her role as a villainess. You see – we want to give her an extra motive for offering to murder Emerson.” She stopped, “Do you remember last night – when I was thinking up ideas?”

“Uh huh,” said Kid warily.

“Do you remember the idea about, how on seeing Kate’s matchless beauty, Mr. Carleton was struck by an insurmountable ardour and planned to murder her husband, as the first step in assuaging a guilty, but irresistible, passion?”

“That’s not true? He isn’t – isn’t pesterin’ you is he?” Kid asked Kate.

“No! no!” dismissed Meg. A thought struck her, “He isn’t is he?”

“No,” said Kate, “He’s one of those horrid men, who think women like fulsome compliments and – being stared at. But I hardly ever see him, to speak to.”

“It’s a shame in a way,” mused Meg, “– because if he was obsessed with you – he’d be easy to manipulate.”

Kate looked rather doubtful about this, but said nothing.

“Guess Carleton thinks his love life’s been complicated enough without adding extra twists!” said Heyes. “No,” he looked at his partner firmly, “– it’s not Carleton Kate’ll be sharing a guilty passion with.”

Kid frowned. The frown turned to dismay and a hastily withdrawn embarrassed glance at the Connors.

“I told you he wouldn’t like it!” said Kate.

“It can’t be worse than deceiving him you’d hire out as a killer, Thaddeus!” put in Meg.

“You offer him a dual package,” persuaded Heyes, “Her husband, his wife; me too if he wants; and then he pays the pair of you to disappear. Two hearts that beat as one! He’s a skunk – he’d do it himself. An’ we know he thinks people can be bought.”

Meg joined in, “I’m sure you could pretend to find Kate attractive, if you put your mind to it! If you REALLY hate that dress, we can change it!” She thought for a moment, “OR,” she offered generously, “I’ll go with Kate. We’ll offer ourselves to him, like pair of Lucrezia Borgias! We can both carry guns strapped in our garters!”

“NO!” said Heyes, Curry and Emerson in unison.

“Alright,” pursued Meg, turning to Kid, “Here’s an alternative. Kate and I swap roles. That’s if you would feel less awkward feigning overwhelming passion for an unmarried woman. I offer to murder Emerson and to fake a heartbroken suicide for Kate. You can wipe out Ellen and Joshua.” Her eyes began to sparkle, “I’ll do my very best enticing act to convince Mr. Carleton I’m a heartless hussy! We’ll plan to take his money and disappear to Monte Carlo. There you can drink champagne out of my slipper every night and I’ll breathe huskily, ‘kiss me, my fool’ as I sprawl wantonly on a tiger skin rug. After a while, I’ll taunt you – flirting shamelessly with louche Italian aristocrats. Maddened, brow stormy with jealously, you will throw down the gauntlet and meet on the field of honour. I will watch your skill, entranced, as you feint and parry, finally pinking these would-be Don Juans with your swift rapier. Then you bear me helplessly away in your arms, swooning in anticipation of untold ecstasy.”

“Or – we can stick to plan B,” dismissed Heyes.

“After hearin’ that – I think I could be persuaded on plan B,” agreed Kid.

Meg looked a little offended, “Don’t you believe I can manage ‘enticing’?”

Heyes grinned at her.

“Enticing wouldn’t begin to cover what I think you can manage, Meg!” he said, meeting her eyes, “But I’m not sure Carleton’s goin’ to have either the time or the taste to appreciate you the way – we – do!” He was rewarded with a swift blush from the suddenly tongue tied Meg. “Let’s just say Kate appeals to a wider audience,” finished Heyes.

Kate put her hands on her hips and turned with a mock pout to her husband.

“Darling, I think my appeal was just dismissed as commonplace!”

Heyes cocked an eyebrow at her.

“We know you for bein’ clever as a barrel of monkeys; mimickin’ a poor, honest payroll guard to his face; stealin’ nitro without turning a hair; and fluttering ladies’ hearts by drawin’ semi naked men striding outta lakes! It’s just – tonight – we’re not expectin’ Carleton to find the same things appealing we all do!”

“Taken all in all – she wasn’t a bad catch, was she?” said Emerson.

Kate blushed rosily at this. Then she started up as part of Heyes’ speech registered.

“Tonight!”

“Yup,” said Heyes. “Thaddeus heard he’s comin’ back.”

“I can’t be ready tonight,” she gulped, “I only tried the dress on to make sure it still fits. I’m not Meg! I can’t do ‘enticing’ or ‘adulterous’ off the cuff! I thought I’d have tomorrow to – come up with a few lines! Practice my sashay!”

“You’ll be fine,” reassured Heyes.

“You don’t need to rehearse,” agreed Emerson warmly, “I find you perfectly enticing already!”

“Of course you do!” huffed Kate, “I’ve had nearly a year’s practice enticing you! It’s flirting shamelessly with anyone else that’s the problem!”

“It’s only Thaddeus!” exclaimed Meg, “He won’t care! I’m sure! Smoulder your eyes. Give him little sideways smiles. Lick spilt wine slowly off each finger – the way you did at your leaving party when you were – merry – and kept trying to make Emerson blush. Before you both disappeared for ‘a breath of fresh air’.”

“Meg!” protested Emerson, demonstrating the aforementioned blush.

“I was NOT drunk!” exclaimed Kate in unison.

“I didn’t SAY drunk!” grinned Meg.

“I was merely – excited at starting a new life in Montana. And – exhilarated – by the dancing!”

“Not by the best part of two bottles of chilled champagne then?” teased Meg.

“Emerson! Was I drunk?” Kate demanded.

“You were – as always – delightful,” he said tactfully, “Not exactly on key, nor indeed word perfect, when you treated all my friends to that impromptu rendition of ‘Clementine’ – but delightful, nonetheless.”

“See!” said Heyes. “We don’t even want you to sing, or lick up spilt champagne, or sprawl on a tiger skin! A little gentle smouldering will be more than enough. Thaddeus’ll just conjure up images of Fatima the glorious blonde whenever he looks at you. That alright with you, partner?”

Kid glowered, but made no further objection.

“So,” said Meg. “What else did Thaddeus discover? Have we enough to work with Joshua?”

“Think so,” considered Heyes, “Need him to fill us in on the layout.”

She clasped her hands, “May I ‘conceal me what I am’? Please.”

“We’ll see,” he smiled.

“Huh?” said Kid.

“We have to agree on details and timing,” said Heyes, with an echo of his old outlaw leader tones, “But first,” he met his partner’s eyes and glanced at the stove, “Do you wanna show Meg an’ Kate your new trick?”

Kid could not help grinning once again, as he saw two girlish faces smiling eagerly at him, waiting to be impressed. Once again, the room echoed to boots thudding down the stairs.

—oooOOOooo—

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