6. Chs 16 to 18

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

10pm, Saturday 16th June 1883

Deke Simons waited patiently, concealed in the narrow passage to the side of Brady’s mercantile. He had been brooding over an untouched glass of whiskey when Lucille brought her suspicions to him. They had returned to the Dumas place in time to see ‘Thaddeus Jones’ leave the still deserted East wing, bidding a fond farewell to Breda. Deke racked his brain to remember everything he had ever heard about Kid Curry. He was almost convinced they were one and the same person. Almost. If so – he and his smart mouthed partner were worth $20,000. If not – well – getting even with Thaddeus Jones and Joshua Smith would still feel pretty good.

Simons was a man who could bide his time. He had shadowed ‘Jones’ at a safe distance and knew he was in the Connor house. The door was not visible from his hiding place, but ‘Jones’ could not return to the main streets of Butte without being seen.

About seven thirty, Deke had watched that sloe-eyed wife of Connor’s, wrapped in a shawl, walk smilingly up to Deputy Baker. They were too distant for any conversation to be heard, but as she disappeared back in the direction of the house, Baker had thrown aside the stick he had been whittling and strolled back into town. With a sneer, Simons guessed the Deputy had been informed Mr. Jones had kindly agreed to stay the night to protect the ladies; so if the lawman were needed elsewhere on a busy Saturday night – he need have no qualms about leaving. As far as the facts went – Deke was right. In his interpretation of Kate and Kid’s motivations, he judged by his own mean nature, so there – he was wrong.

As West Hill was in the opposite direction, he did not see Heyes set off in the gig shortly after Deputy Baker relinquished his post. A few miners, lodging on that side of town, passed, seeking Saturday night entertainment. Otherwise, little enlivened Simons’ wait. But he felt in his gut – ‘Jones’ would emerge that night.

A swift footed, skinny youth, face hot under the oversize cap pulled down over his hair ran past, coming from the town. He raised no interest in the watching gunslinger.

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

The front door slammed behind a breathless Meg. Before she could race up the stairs, the tail of her jacket was caught by Kid, striding out of the sitting room.

“I think they want some time alone, before Kate has to leave,” he explained.

She followed him back and threw herself into a chair.

Wheezing slightly, she gasped, “Are they being soppy? ‘Please be careful, Darling!’. ‘I will, Darling!’. ‘I couldn’t bear to lose you. I love you more with every day that passes!'” Receiving no answer, she asked, “Didn’t you think to leave the stove open?”

“NO!” Kid exclaimed. He glared at her. “Besides – what if they are? Can’t see anythin’ wrong with that!” He sat forward, hands clasped, “So – how d’you get on? Anybody recognise you? Did you give Carleton the note?”

“Nobody so much as glanced twice at me! An’ of course I did!” Meg grinned, “Followed the low down skunk – not too close, just like ya tol’ me – an’ he moseyed straight for the Dumas place.”

“Did anyone meet him at the station?” asked Kid.

“Uh huh,” she drawled, “Ornery lookin’ gun. Young buck – ’bout mah age – lookin’ real pleased with hisself – struttin’plumb like a cock o’ the walk rooster –”

“Meg!” protested Kid, “Why are you talkin’ like that?”

“Am I not capturing the idiom?”

“Not unless ‘idiom’ means ‘annoying’! Talk properly.”

“Sorry, just thought I’d try out my “western” on you first. A young man – my age maybe – met the train. I’ve not seen him in town before. He wore his gun tied very low – like you do, Thaddeus. Swaggered with his thumbs in his belt too – but he looked as if he was showing off.” She smiled at Kid, “It looks MUCH more natural when you do it!” Kid looked momentarily disconcerted at this. Meg went on, “He was fair haired, sunburnt, wearing a green shirt.”

Kid nodded, “Met him.”

“He, the young man I mean, accompanied Mr. Carleton.”

“Uh huh?” said Kid, “What about the signal?”

Meg nodded, “It’s exactly as you said. If I position myself on the corner of the street behind the post office, I can see the back of the upper floor of the Dumas place. When I saw Mr. Carleton was definitely headed in the right direction, I ran back round to my lookout position. There are two lamps lit in the far window. So Joshua is in!” She looked enquiringly at Kid, “How do you think he managed the locks on the back door of the East Wing, Thaddeus?”

Kid shrugged, then grinned, “Are you missin’ a butter knife?”

She beamed back, producing it from her breeches, “I don’t think so!” A German made soldier’s knife was pulled from the opposite side, “Took this too! It’s Emerson’s. Found it in the pocket when I took in the seams. It’s wonderful! Has two blades, screwdriver, can opener, something that just looks like a spike – don’t know what that’s for! A metal loopy thing you can attach to your belt. I’m going to ask him to buy me one for my birthday!”

“What the Sam Hill do you need that for? All we’re askin’ you to do is watch! If the lamps go out – you know Carleton’s not fallin’ for it – and we’re in bad trouble. You will NOT need a knife ’cause you DO NOT come and help – what do you NOT do?”

“I do not come and help!” sighed Meg.

“What DO you do?”

“I fetch the law,” parroted Meg, obediently, “But I only do that, if you’re in bad trouble – because the Sheriff will have to believe Carleton, not you and you and Joshua will probably end up in trouble – but at least Kate will be out and safe.”

“And –?” prompted Kid.

“I’m the backup. The backup does her job, does as she’s told and doesn’t alter the plan. If I DO alter the plan – I won’t be sitting down again this side of Christmas.” Meg looked at him quizzically, “You do realise, I’m not stupid enough to believe you could do that, without dying of embarrassment. You’re more prudish than Emerson! You can’t even look at shoulders, without coming over all puritanical!”

Kid glowered at her, “Don’t count on it! In my book – you’re dressed like a boy – can be flattened like a boy!”

She grinned and returned the knives to her pockets. Leaving her hands dug down, she sprawled her legs and scratched. It proved her point splendidly.

Kid turned away hastily, “Meg! That’s not – very ladylike!”

“Nope!” she agreed. “Works though! I did notice one woman looking at me, curiously. As soon as I started – adjusting myself – the way men do, she looked away, convinced I was just a ill-mannered youth! Besides,” Meg scratched again, “- these things itch!”

“I’m not surprised,” said Kid, “Look like they’re made o’ woven horsehair.”

“Horrid aren’t they? Did you notice how Kate had the scissors to them in two seconds flat? Before Emerson saw what she’d picked for me to wear! She hates them! He says they’re genuine heavy duty Harris tweed, from the Hebrides. He used to wear them out hill walking, with a group of his old college friends. I went once. It was REALLY stupid – an hour’s drive into the country side, just to traipse three hours, all the way to the top and sit looking at the view. AND they insisted on lighting a fire to brew coffee, without using matches, even though I’d brought some. AND they played silly quotation capping tag games – and were cross, when I beat them. Well, Emerson wasn’t. He doesn’t get all defensive, just because a woman is clever – and anyway, he’s fairly well read, so I don’t ALWAYS beat him.” Meg glanced at the clock. “Another ten minutes – then I’ll run back – before it’s time for you to set out.” She grinned, “I’ve been practising masculine belching too – to go with the uncouth scratching!”

She demonstrated. No reaction. She did it again, louder.

“You expectin’ me to clap or somethin’? You’re not funny!”

“Yes I am – Joshua thinks I’m a hoot!” She sprang up and looked at herself in the glass, “Did he think I looked fetching in this cap?”

“Disturbingly enticin’!” sniffed Kid.

She turned and looked at him suddenly shy, “Is that what he said, Thaddeus?”

“Yup! Mind – he reckons he looks good in that Derby!”

Looking in the glass again, Meg licked her finger and smoothed the arch of an eyebrow. She moistened her lips and tilting her head to one side, tried a pout.

“Meg!” protested Kid. “You do realise, the whole reason you’re dressed up is so you DON’T attract any attention from men headin’ to Venus Alley! Not to stand around flutterin’ your eyes an’ puckerin’ up like – like Mary Sue!”

She wheeled round, with a resigned shrug and threw herself back in a chair, “Do you think I should be carrying a gun, Thaddeus?”

“No!” he said bluntly.

“I wouldn’t fire it – just point it if anyone bothers me – run like crazy as soon as they back off.”

Kid looked at her. She did look believably like a boy. But, as Heyes had already noticed, she also looked very cute. Seeing her flushed after her run, eyes sparkling with excitement, Kid did not feel as comfortable as he had earlier she was immune from all the tastes wandering in the direction of Mercury Street.

Meg saw him wavering, her eyes fell to his holster.

“You don’t think I’m handin’ this over?” exploded Kid. He shifted in his seat, “Does Emerson even own a gun?”

She shook her head regretfully. Then she sat bolt upright.

“Yes!” she crowed, “Charles Porter gave him one as a leaving present! Said it didn’t seem right to head out to the Wild West without one. I remember – because he joked about it. He’s English and insists, whatever anyone over here says, the best guns in the world are made in Birmingham! And he gave Emerson an English gun and stuck a little union jack on the wrapping paper.”

“Know where it is?” asked Kid.

She screwed up her face, “I know the most obvious place.”

She sprang up and grabbing Kid’s hand dragged him along with her into the hall, then into a room at the back of the house. Kid looked around the study. He had noticed Heyes cast envious glances at the well-stocked bookcases in the sitting room and bedroom. He wondered what his partner would make of this – the wall was lined floor to ceiling.

“He read all these?” Kid breathed.

Meg, who was groping on a high shelf, looked round surprised, “Well a lot are reference works – but apart from that, I suppose so! There don’t seem that many to me – but I tend to think of my father’s study.”

She smiled rather wistfully at the memory, as she located the key she was searching for. Meg unlocked the desk and began to rifle through the drawers.

“Thaddeus,” she said unsurely.

“Yup?”

“I know Joshua is awfully clever – but do you actually think he’s right about Mr. Carleton?”

“In what way?” frowned Kid.

“That he’ll want to murder his wife – well not his wife, but the woman he’s living with.” Meg’s forehead puckered, “I mean, they had a baby together – so he must have – cared about her. Mustn’t he?”

“No,” said Kid bluntly, “If a man cares about a woman, he don’t tempt her into somethin’ she’s not happy with for his own selfish pleasure, an’ risk leavin’ her a belly load of trouble.” Kid met Meg’s eyes, “If a man meets someone he thinks he could come to care about – but isn’t free to – court her right; if he’s decent, he does his best not to hurt her. Might not even tell her – how special he thinks she is.”

Meg caught his meaning and dropped her eyes with a blush. She could not help catching her bottom lip between her teeth in a delighted smile, knowing Joshua thought her ‘special’.

Turning aside to hide this, she continued to search for the gun.

“Found it,” she said, “Still in its case!”

Kid came over and took it from her. Opening the box, he gave a pursed mouth nod of approval.

“Pocket revolver – Webley ‘British Bulldog’. Nice!”

“Not the best in the world, though?” asked Meg.

“No!” protested Kid, patriotically. Realising Meg was watching him stroke the barrel, he glanced up and grinned, “Not sayin’ it ain’t pretty close!”

He took the unopened box of bullets also laying in the drawer. As he loaded four of the five chambers, he said, “Goin’ to take you out back – show you how to look as if you know what you’re doing. If you convince me you can be trusted – I’ll let you take it.”

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

Twenty minutes later, Kid set off with Kate to work a combination of blackmail, bribery and corruption on Oliver Carleton.

“I heard Meg leave,” remarked Kate, as she pulled the hood of her evening cloak, carefully, over her high swept hair, “Why didn’t she come up to say good-bye?”

“She thought you might like a little privacy,” said Kid.

“MEG!” exclaimed Kate. She smiled at him, “You mean you did!”

As they set off, Kid saw the smile fade from her face and a little crease appear, between her brows.

He looked at her anxiously, “You OK?”

“Oh, yes! It’s nothing,” she sighed, “It’s just – we were discussing what we’ll do next.”

“Next?”

“All Emerson’s savings were tied up in the press, racks and other equipment. Nothing is salvageable. Many of the advertising accounts pay in advance – it all has to be returned.”

“I can’t see anyone’d expect that – the fire wasn’t your fault,” objected Kid.

Kate cast him a glance, “Please don’t! You might tempt me into agreeing with you – and I don’t want him to know just how much I hate to leave. He feels bad enough already. Besides, it wouldn’t make any difference. With no revenue coming in, how will we live? Meg, bless her heart, has offered us the fees she has coming for her last six books – and I have a horrid feeling, we might need to take it, to pay the Doctor’s bill. Of course – I’ll pay her back on quarter day.” Seeing Kid frown, she explained, “My account is credited quarterly, with interest from money left in trust, by my mother.” Kate sighed again, “I shouldn’t complain, because we have that to fall back on, while Emerson is ill. But it’s not enough to let us stay long term. Even if it were – he’d never agree to live off it.”

Kid gave a little grin at this, “So – I’m not the only one with outta date, old fashioned ideas about a man bein’ able to support his wife?”

She smiled back, “Touché, Thaddeus!”

“What will you do?” he asked, concerned.

“Probably move to Helena, once Emerson recovers. He should find a job there easily enough. He’ll do as much freelance writing as he can in the evenings. I might find pupils to tutor in French and drawing. We’ll save – start again next year, or the year after.” She smiled, “Meg was worried she’d be packed off back to Boston labelled, ‘not wanted on voyage’. But we’ll always find room for her. Of course, we’ve told her she’ll have to wear rags, eat gruel and sleep in the cinders – like one of her own heroines!”

Kate stopped.

“Thaddeus, would you mind awfully. if I hung onto you? I’m not doing very well in these heels. I seem to have lost the knack for walking in them.”

“Sure,” said Kid, adding awkwardly, “I didn’t wanna grab hold of you, in case you thought I was – you know – startin’ the act a bit early.”

“I shall only think you’ve taken pity and don’t want to see me fall flat on my face for the second time in three days!”

She let him tuck her hand into his arm and smiled gratefully up.

Kid cleared his throat. Very tentatively he asked, “This – printin’ equipment – lost in the fire. What would it cost to replace? Because – Chris Lloyd has offered us a job guardin’…”

She forestalled him, “Good heavens, no! How kind you are! But, no!” She looked up at him earnestly, “Dear Thaddeus, I was only having a good grumble, to get it all off my chest! Please, please ignore me! Or tell me I’m a spoilt, rich girl, accustomed to being able to afford anything she wants. In that way, my stepmother did me a favour, by ensuring I couldn’t touch a penny of my capital! At least I’m not tempted to put my foot in it, by bleating ‘Let me buy you a new press, Darling’. Which is just as well – because I practically lost him once before, being completely tactless and stupid about money.”

“I can’t imagine you stupid, Kate. And whatever you did – I certainly can’t imagine Emerson bein’ anything other than crazy about you.”

She blushed rosily.

Changing the subject, she said, “Will you do something for me, Thaddeus?”

“Sure.”

“Let me know when we’re about ten minutes away. Then, I’m going to assume the character of a cruel-hearted Jezebel. I do much better having someone definite to imitate –” Kate explained, “- so I shall be mimicking my stepmother.”

Rather surprised at hearing a touch of venom in Kate’s usually kind tones, Kid asked, “Is she a –”

“Cruel-hearted Jezebel?” finished Kate, “It may be a cliché to claim a wicked stepmother – but yes. She disliked Meg the moment she found she was at college through a scholarship. Rubbed her nose in being poor. She was heartless when Meg’s father died. Meg had no one and nowhere to go. I invited her to stay – and my stepmother had her leave within a fortnight. I would have walked out too – but needed my allowance to pay Meg’s rent, until she found a job. One must be practical. And of course, my stepmother did her very best to ensure I never married Emerson.” Kate pursed her lips, “To be fair – she had spent most of the previous four years, manoeuvring me into the path of eligible, rich men; then exploding in fury, when I put them off, or turned them down. So, from her point of view, he was an awful disappointment.” Kate smiled up at Kid, with a wicked twinkle, “But the main point for tonight is – she’s a s.!”

Kid blinked, more at Kate’s hissing delivery, than the word.

Kate nodded, “She is gorgeous. Gorgeous. And amazingly good at manipulating men into doing her bidding. Whether she is actually adulterous – I wouldn’t like to say. Probably not. I suspect she enjoys abject begging and pleading, more than any warm-blooded, honest, sin! Unless Meg is right – and she is, in fact, part Praying Mantis!”

“Huh?”

“The females eat their mates. The male is so – enraptured – he carries on, even as his head and upper body is devoured!” Kate gnashed her teeth dramatically. Kid recoiled. Grinning, Kate went on, “I practised on Emerson. Mimicking her, I mean – not devouring his head! It sent a shiver down his spine. He told me it was as if she had walked into the room.”

“Erm, Kate,” ventured Kid.

“Yes?”

“At the risk of you turnin’ into some kinda – cougar or coyote – we’re less’n ten minutes away.”

Immediately she looked up at him. The usual warm friendliness had definitely deepened, to what could fairly be described as the beginnings of a ‘smoulder’.

Her tip-tilted smile played around her mouth, as she laid a soft hand on his shirtfront and pouted, “Oh Thaddeus, are you frightened I might bite?” Her lids lowered slowly, before flashing a glowing glance, through dusky lashes, “I promise – nothing beyond the most gentle – nip!”

Kid’s eyes widened. “You are – bein’ her – aren’t you?” he checked.

“Of course I am!”

A languorous look swept slowly over him, as they turned into Mercury Street.

“Surely a man like you can – appreciate me – like this, Thaddeus? That dull, oh-so-good girl we left behind just now – wasn’t she – a little too ‘vanilla’ for your taste?”

“Might want to tone it down, Kate,” cautioned Kid, “We want Carleton distracted enough to loosen up an’ talk. Not foamin’ at the mouth!”

Watching Kate’s hips sway rhythmically up the steps of the Dumas place, in front of him, he added under his breath, “Might wanna consider whether I’m gonna be much use havin’ to bite the cushions to keep from screamin’, too! Sometimes, Heyes…”

-oooOOOooo-

Less than three minutes later, Lucille heard a stone rattle against her window, on the West side of the building. Opening the sash, she watched her barred lover first hoist himself onto the low roof of the back storeroom, then helped him inside.

-oooOOOooo-

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

As soon as the heavy at the entrance saw Kid come in, he twitched aside a curtain and signalled. Caleb Williams sat in the concealed alcove. His weapon was already drawn, as he, nervously, beckoned Curry forward.

“An’ – she’s with me!” said Kid firmly, as Kate pushed back her satin hood and hooked her arm through his.

Caleb looked her up and down. Kid kept his expression neutral. The likelihood that Thaddeus Jones would not keep his appointment alone had been considered, but she was not the expected second party. Clearly seeing no reason to consider her an extra threat, he unlocked the door within the alcove and allowed both Kate and Kid to pass through.

Nodding at an apartment across a lushly carpeted foyer, from which stairs curved up to the first floor, he drawled, “Wait in there.”

He closed the alcove door behind them. They heard the heavy lock being turned on the other side.

Kid shot a glance at Kate, but said nothing. He felt in his gut – they could be overheard. He moved to enter the room indicated.

Kate forestalled him, “Ladies first,” she smiled, still allowing her eyes to linger flirtatiously.

It took a second and Kate was through the door, before he understood. Worried Carleton, or his hired gun, might shoot Kid on sight, she meant to stay in front as a human shield.

In the event her caution was unnecessary. The lavishly furnished room was empty. A covert glance at the polished stove showed it stood – just the smallest fraction – open. Kate unfastened the clasp of her cloak. She cast an expectant pout over her shoulder at Kid. Starting, he stepped forward to take it from her and folded it across an overstuffed chaise lounge. Kate moved first to the looking glass to adjust the gauze around her décolleté. Then stepping back, she surveyed the artwork displayed on either side. Kid felt his cheeks grow warm. Not so much at the paintings’ subjects, but at seeing her study them.

“Ingres – from the look of the curves,” remarked Kate, “Someone’s made a very competent job of copying his style!” She spun round, “But why would you want to look at a picture, when I’m here, Thaddeus?”

She reached an arm round his neck and kissed him on the lips. For a moment, he was too stunned to react. Then, involuntarily, he responded. His hands clasped her waist, though whether to pull her closer, or hold her away – he was not sure.

He felt her mouth move to his ear, “I do apologise,” she murmured, in a matter of fact tone, so close her breath warmed his skin, “but I saw a shadow move in a gap at the edge of the frame. We are being watched!”

“I never wanna look at anythin’ else when you’re around,” he replied, out loud for the hidden observer, “Can’t keep my eyes off you. You’re – you’re lovely!” Kid flushed at the end. He had meant to say ‘beautiful’. Lovely was the word he associated with the real Kate; since in his mind it encompassed the way she thought, spoke, smiled and behaved. A hollow ‘beautiful’ would have matched fake Kate, much better.

Thankfully, he saw just a shadow of the genuine article, in a tiny twitch of a sceptical brow, above the smoky, seductive eyes. Real Kate, was innocently pleased to see Thaddeus Jones, finally join the role-play; he was in no danger of her believing a word of it. Having her immune to his charms, might be an unaccustomed dent to his vanity, but Kid – to quote his partner, “Reckoned it beat all hell outta the alternative.” He did not think he could take the disillusion. What is more – Meg had never really come up with a satisfactory line with which pure-hearted Kid Curry could believably reject glorious, enticing Fatima. Real, mixed-up Kid had little confidence he was any better at composing an off-the-cuff script to display ‘firm manly resolve’. Recognising he could throw Kate on the chaise and kiss her from now till morning, without raising either her suspicion, or her pulse by so much as a beat, Kid forced himself to relax. He had successfully helped scam Winford Fletcher and Horace Wingate – he could do the same to a skunk like Oliver Carleton! Of course, considered Kid prudently, as his own heartbeat returned to normal – he would pass on the chaise.

There was a sound from the direction of the door, in the far corner of the room. Again, before he could stop her, Kate moved in front of Kid, to block any line of fire. The door opened. The young hired gun Kid had outdrawn earlier that day, at the Silver Dollar, strode through, weapon already drawn and levelled. His complete lack of surprise at seeing Kate, confirmed well enough – they had been watched. He glowered, resentfully, at the ex-outlaw. Kid responded with an indifferent shrug.

Oliver Carleton entered the room. His hireling made a show of covering him, moving closer to Kid and narrowing his scowl to demonstrate focussing on a target.

Kid met Carleton’s gaze.

Flicking his eyes toward the gunslinger, he said, “Am I supposed to be impressed? You wanna see me outdraw him for the second time today – or do you wanna hear what we’ve come to say?”

The smile on Carleton’s face watching the younger man’s chagrined expression, showed he had already heard that Kid had outpaced his second supposed fast-draw in a week. Stepping over, he selected a cigar from a box on the desk.

Clipping the end, he replied, “I might have already heard what you’ve come to say. What I haven’t heard is – why you brought her -” his eyes lingered over Kate, appreciatively, “– not that I can’t see the attraction of having Mrs. Connor’s company any time. And, why I should believe in this – change of heart – over the possibility of working for me?” His eyes snapped to Kid’s face, “Thought that smart mouthed partner of yours objected to my offer?”

Kate sidled up to Carleton. Taking the El Rey del Mundo from his fingers, she placed it, daintily, between her own lips and lifted the ornate Döbereiner lighter, standing next to the box. Lighting it leisurely and taking one unhurried inhalation, she placed the cigar back in Carleton’s mouth. Holding his eyes – she extinguished the flame, with a long, slow blow. A tendril of blue-grey smoke curled from her lips. She allowed the tip of her pink tongue to be seen, savouring the moist spot, where the wrapping leaf had rested.

“Mr. Jones prefers to listen to his new partner. Maybe he finds her mouth – much, much –” she flickered a smile up at Carleton, ” – smarter?”

Having spent over forty years on this earth, this was not enough to have Oliver Carleton ‘biting the cushions’. He had, however, found Kate – diverting. As for the younger man. He was not far past twenty-two and had honed his gun-skills in environments suffering a definite shortage of ladies. By the time the plump, moist cigar left her pouting lips, she had captured his undivided attention. His eyes had ceased to flick back and forth from her to Kid and the barrel of his weapon wavered off target, in a slackening grip.

As Kate finished her final word ‘smarter’, Curry’s gun leapt into his hand. The two men’s eyes swivelled to him, the youngster torn how to react.

Kid said calmly, “Bang!”

A beat.

“So,” he went on, “– you’ve been reminded why you were so keen to make me an offer. An’ you’ve seen – if I’d come here to kill you – I could!” He twirled his gun back into his holster with a flourish.

The hired gunslinger raised his gun again, then lowered it uncertainly – looking foolish.

Kid smiled at Carleton, “Can we quit dancin’ around now and talk?”

“So, talk!” said Carleton.

“In private,” breathed Kate, her eyes flicking to the youngster, “Firstly, because what you have here, is a boy trying to do a man’s job. Secondly, because we have a proposal –” she looked up at Carleton, “And I’m sure he’d find it – very dull! Lastly, because I have so much reminiscing to do.”

“Reminiscing?” repeated Carleton, warily.

“Reminiscing about Boston,” explained Kate. She sat down and arranged her skirts prettily. Glancing up, she smiled, “Remembering all the girls I knew, growing up on Beacon Hill.” She paused, “And all those I didn’t.” Carleton caught her meaning. “Unless of course,” queried Kate, wide-eyed with assumed innocence, ” – you think your staff WOULD find that interesting after all?” She paused, “How rude of me – I forgot to ask, how is – Mrs. Carleton?”

He stared at her, torn between anger and reluctant admiration. Taking a weapon for himself from the desk, he strode over to the door leading to the foyer. He wrenched it open.

“Get out!” he ordered the young gunslinger. Seeing him about to protest, he snapped, “All the way out!” He waited until the man signalled to exit back to the main part of the house and the lock turned behind him, before slamming closed the door of the apartment and throwing himself into a seat opposite Kate. “You had – a proposal?” he prompted.

“I propose -” began Kate, “– that you repeat your offer for the Butte Weekly Herald – making the purchase price a nice round $10,000. But this time Mr. Carleton – I suggest you approach the more,” she smiled, “– commercially minded of the two owners.”

“What does ‘I can’t be bought’ Connor have to say about that?” he asked bluntly.

Kate shook her head sadly, “Dear Emerson,” she breathed, flashing a significant glance through artistically lowered lashes, “Those injuries he sustained in the fire are such a worry. Something tells me – he won’t recover. He’ll never get to read the background which came in on the Hamiltons.” With a turn to Kid, she added, with exaggerated feminine helplessness, “Each time I measure out laudanum to dull his pain – my hand shakes with the responsibility, doesn’t it Thaddeus?”

“Like a leaf,” confirmed Kid.

“Uh huh?” said Carleton, processing this. He narrowed his eyes and glanced from Kid to Kate suspiciously, “Look Mrs. Connor – you and I have never been exactly well acquainted. But I’d always assumed you shared your husband’s opinions on – ”

“Morals? Probity? Politics?” suggested Kate, as he paused, “Oh, Mr. Carleton, I find my husband’s opinions admirable. Admirable! Of course, my family objected most strongly to his politics, his profession, his lack of fortune. But he was so different to all the men they considered suitable! You know how silly young girls can be – defying their family, kissing goodbye to their expectations – all for love. It seems so romantic – ” she paused, then added with a meaning glance, ” – at the time.”

Oliver Carleton considered this. He remembered the stubborn pleasure Lydia had taken in ignoring her brother’s objections to their marriage. She had, of course, regretted her decision.

“How well I remember our first winter here,” sighed Kate, smiling wistfully up at Carleton, “Long evenings transcribing shorthand notes for political articles. Taking minutes at union meetings. The fun of tapping in row after row of letter sets in that chilly office. Learning how to manage on a budget. And dear Emerson – so serious, so committed – ” Kate flicked another speaking glance at Carleton, “– So inexperienced about – life.”

Carleton gave a short laugh.

Allowing his eyes to wander over her body, he said, “I always thought a woman like you, was wasted on him!”

“Same here,” declared Kid. He allowed a smug look to settle on his features.

Kate gave a little self-deprecating shrug and flashed them both a glowing glance.

She went on, “When – ” Kate stopped herself, hand prettily covering her mouth, “Of course – I mean if. IF Emerson dies, I will naturally be too stricken with grief to remain here. Thaddeus thinks I would appreciate somewhere quiet and retired – to recover.”

“That’s right,” chimed in Curry.

“We thought perhaps – San Francisco?” pouted Kate, tilting her head on one side to elicit a reaction from Carleton.

“Long journey,” he remarked warily, waiting for more.

“That’s what I thought,” smiled Kate, “You see, Thaddeus, Mr. Carleton agrees! If we started new lives in San Francisco, I doubt we would EVER return to Butte.” She leaned forward and laid a soft hand over Carlton’s. Gazing into his eyes, she said, “Do you know what I think? I don’t believe we’d even remember Butte, or anything that happened here.” She turned, “Don’t you agree, Thaddeus?”

“Never was one for dwellin’ on what’s past,” concurred Kid.

Carleton puffed on his cigar, looking meditatively at Kate.

“I think, Mrs. Connor, if you became the sole remaining owner of what’s left of the Butte Weekly Herald – I’d be willing to purchase it for $10,000.”

Kate smiled a ‘thank you’, but said bluntly, “No. It’s cash up front.”

This mercenary attitude seemed to finally convince Carleton of the genuine nature of the offer being made.

“If you’re dishing out the laudanum,” he pointed with his cigar at Curry, “- what do you want him for?” He gave another bark of laughter, “Apart from the obvious?”

Kid lowered his eyes to hide a flare of anger at this remark. When he raised them, he was again poker faced.

“Thaddeus also has a proposal for you, Mr. Carleton,” said Kate smoothly, “Or perhaps I should say – a wager. He thinks you would be interested in betting with him on a certain – eventuality.”

“What – eventuality – would that be, Jones?” asked Carleton, “Or do you still not speak for yourself?”

“I’m kinda – taciturn, Mr. Carleton,” smiled Kid, “Tend to leave talkin’ to my commercially minded partner, here.”

Again, Carleton surveyed Kate, ruminatively.

He blew a slow smoke ring, “I think that may be a wise choice. So, Mrs. Connor, what is the nature of this – wager?”

“Thaddeus would like to wager, you will be a widower within 24 hours of your next departure for Anaconda. And that nothing will connect you with your –” Kate smiled, “- your ‘wife’s’ – sad demise.”

Oliver Carleton looked at Kid, then back at Kate.

“What makes you think I’d be interested in a long shot bet like that?” he asked carefully.

Kid grinned, “Women’s intuition.”

Kate threw him a knowing glance.

To Carleton, she said, “My intuition tells me, if an old acquaintance from Boston or Chicago visits – you’d like to be in a position to accept condolences. The alternative might be – unfortunate.”

Another smoke ring rose into the air. Kate stood and walked over to admire her reflection in the looking glass. This also brought her closer to the stove. She smiled at the reflection of Oliver Carleton watching her, but waited out the silence.

“What’s the wager?” Carleton finally asked.

“$10,000,” responded Kate, “Up front.”

“That a favourite sum with you?”

“I never haggle,” she twined a curl of hair around her finger and threw him a glance over one shoulder, “- it’s so – unfeminine!”

Carleton looked at Kid, “Has he got $10,000 to lose?”

Kid let his blue eyes take on the hard, icy quality the mine owner had reacted to earlier in the week.

“I don’t intend to lose!” he stated baldly.

Carleton cleared his throat, “There would be – conditions – requirements. In case one of the family lawyers insists on attending any inquest.”

“I know,” said Kid, “The face will be – a mess.”

The mine owner reached for the box on the desk. Flipping it open he offered it to Curry.

“Care for a cigar – to seal our – wager?”

Kid smiled and flicked his eyes to Kate.

“You gonna light one for me too?” he asked.

Carleton stood up. He laid his gun down on the desk.

“While she’s doing that –” he nodded at the door, in the far corner of the room, “– you’ll find champagne through there. Why don’t you open up a bottle, Jones. We’ll raise a toast,” he smiled meaningfully at Kate, “– to our respective spouses’ – good health!”

“Is it chilled?” checked Kate, pouting.

“I have ice delivered daily. I know ladies appreciate – attention to detail.”

Kid hesitated, but Kate motioned him with her eyes to comply, as she clipped the end from the second cigar.

As his hand turned the handle, she forestalled him, “Oh Thaddeus,” she called.

“Uh huh?”

“Remember, the sound of a champagne cork being eased from the bottle should remind one of a slow, lingering kiss,” she demonstrated, “Never a sudden pop – that lacks – finesse!”

She opened her mouth, slightly tilted up her chin and gracefully closed her lips around the cigar.

“Wouldn’t wanna be without that,” agreed Kid.

He left the room, but did not close the door. Carleton joined Kate, who was now lighting the cigar.

Standing close he breathed, “Just so we understand each other. You’re only using him until the job’s done – right?”

She removed the cigar, with an elegant twist of her wrist.

“Mr. Jones?” exhaled Kate, meeting his eyes in the glass, “How can you suggest such a thing? He means – more than I can say!”

“Not more than you can say,” he replied, evenly, “- Try!”

Kate’s smile widened in appreciation.

“Well, in the event of any accident, I would naturally expect the winnings from any recent wagers he had placed.”

He nodded.

She made a moue, suggestive of serious consideration

“And any future man in my life, would need to be not only – diverting – as Thaddeus, but to have additional qualities. Qualities that grow and mature over time. Assets a woman can truly – rely on.”

From behind, Carleton pressed against Kate, slipping a hand around her waist to pull her tight.

“Does anyone spring to mind?” he said.

She took a second pull on the cigar, turned her head and let a trickle of smoke drift into his eyes.

“Why, Mr. Carleton,” she protested, “– are you not expecting to be prostrate with grief?”

“I’m not expecting to be prostrate with anything!” He pressed closer, “Quite the opposite.” Touching her hand, he sneered, “Call that a ring? A woman like you ought to be decked out in diamonds – not that piece of junk.”

For a moment Kate lowered her lashes. She guessed many, many long evenings of extra work had been done to pay for that ring. More importantly, she had never doubted her shimmering moonstone, banded in rose gold, had been chosen with care and with a fervent hope that she would love it.

Swallowing down her anger, she objected teasingly, “But, would I – and my diamonds – disappear on a journey? Or would we suffer some – mishap -whilst you were away at the smelting works?”

“You’re not comparing yourself to Lydia, too conceited to realise the only thing a man could want her for was the money? Or –” he laughed, “- to that whining fool out at West Hill, always crying and bleating ‘you do love me, don’t you?’.”

“Did you ever?” she asked quietly.

“No. She was just – available. Dull – but available. Now you,” he let his hand run back down, to her waist, “- I don’t believe you’d ever be dull!”

They heard the sound of returning footsteps. Carleton stepped back. Kid came back in, bottle in one hand, three glasses clutched in the other.

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

In the room directly above Carleton’s apartment, Heyes looked at the stricken woman beside him. He gently moved her away from the stove and closed it, before her smothered tears threatened to become audible.

“Heard enough?” he asked quietly, “Ready to go to the law?”

For a moment she hesitated, letting go of the last shreds of hope. Then she nodded. Heyes listened a moment longer to the conversation below. Kid and Kate appeared to be winding it up, readying to leave. Nothing suggested lingering suspicion on Carleton’s part.

“Alright,” said Heyes, “Let’s get you outta here. We’ll meet up with Meg, Miss Spencer and she can go with you to the Sheriff – he’ll arrange some kind of protection. Need to slip out the back way, nice an’ quiet.”

She nodded again and made an effort to pull herself together, gulping down a final sob. He smiled at her encouragingly, as if to say, ‘well done’.

Heyes opened the door cautiously peering out. Music drifted from the main reception rooms. Voices and laughter could be heard from a variety of directions, but the way seemed clear. He led Ellen down the stairs at the end of the passage. At the bottom, as they headed for the door to the back of the East wing, a lightening fast hand reached from the dark alcove beneath the stairway.

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

MEANWHILE… on a Butte back street.

As the signal continued to flicker ‘no problem’, Meg was finding her role as backup a little restricted. She had moved her location slightly, as a couple of other adolescent youths were hanging around the same quiet back street. Knowing well enough that the best place to put any one pin, so it won’t be noticed, is in a pin cushion; Meg had strolled over to slouch near the other youths, wasting time on Saturday night. She knew one of the lads as Ned Kingsley from the post office, but as far she could tell, he did not find her face familiar. Meg grinned to herself. On her one meeting with him, she could have climbed on the counter and tap-danced; Ned still would not have dragged his eyes away from Kate, long enough to look at her properly.

Meg had not heard the topic under discussion between Ned and his companion. As the argument had reached the, ‘Lay you odds it is!’, ‘Bet it ain’t!’, ‘T’is!’, ‘Nah!’, ‘Bet it is!’, ‘Nah!’, – stage; she supposed it would remain a mystery.

The unknown youth wandered off, back in the direction of the main street. Ned glanced at the stranger leaning on the hitching post. Meg glowered back with what she hoped was suitably adolescent sulkiness. Taking out a pocket knife, Ned began to repeatedly throw it into and retrieve it from, a patch of grass. She watched this for a minute or two. Then she took out her own knife and began to whittle – fake – initials into the post.

Ned wandered over, “Whatcha doin’?”

“Nuthin'” grunted Meg, remembering to lower the pitch of her voice a tone.

Ned kicked up a little dirt with his boot.

He tried again, “Wanna stick knife?”

“Nope.”

She carried on whittling a flourishing ‘S.K.’ into the wood.

“Ain’t seen a knife like that before,” remarked Ned, trying not to sound interested.

Meg sniffed.

Deciding she had displayed enough lack of social grace to pass for sixteen, she unbent a little.

“Wanna see?” She handed it over, “Got two blades, an’ other tools that might be useful.”

Ned tested the edge of the serrated blade.

Sucking a drop of blood from his thumb, he passed it back, impressed.

“Suppose it’s OK!”

He kicked up a little more dust.

“You heard the rumour goin’ round?” he asked.

“Heard nuthin'”

“You know Deke Simons ain’t workin’ for Mr. Carleton no more?” went on Ned.

“That’s old!” dismissed Meg, spitting into the dirt.

“That ain’t it!” protested Ned, “Carleton’s hired a new gunslinger – arrived in town today. Supposed to be even faster than Simons! Well – Ben , who just left, says he knows who it is!”

“Uh huh,” said Meg. Seeing the smug look on the now silent Ned’s face, she urged, “Go on!”

He grinned, pleased.

“Ben helps in the store opposite the Silver Dollar – he saw this new fast-draw, meetin’ up with Caleb Williams an’ some of Carleton’s other gunslingers. AND Ben’s sister – she works in the laundry, which does the washin’ for the Dumas place. SHE heard one of the delivery men tell his girl – who works next to her – that he’d heard Lucille – that’s one of the Dumas girls – talkin’ ’bout –” Ned stopped himself and decided to prolong the suspense, “- heard her usin’ a certain name. Name of a REAL famous gunslinger. So Ben thinks – he knows who it is Carleton’s hired.”

He stopped.

“Uh huh?” grunted Meg, “Who?”

Ned swelled himself up to deliver the impressive name.

“Kid Curry!”

“KID CURRY!” squeaked Meg, completely forgetting to lower her voice, or drawl her speech, “That is appalling! Thaddeus might be a match for Deke Simons – but Jedediah Curry is, reportedly, the fastest and most accurate shot ever seen! He must be – he has evaded capture for nine years! Good heavens! If Kid Curry has been retained by Mr. Carleton – and I suppose it is not impossible, since Mr. Carleton is excessively wealthy – he may be inside the Dumas place right now. I have to warn them!”

Ned gaped at this sudden, perfectly enunciated fluency, delivered in decidedly feminine tones. Surely he had heard that voice before. He bent down, to peer more closely at the face under the low brimmed cap.

“Miss – Miss Spender?” he queried, “Is that you?”

“It’s Spencer!” corrected Meg. She dropped her voice, “An’ no it ain’t!”

“You shouldn’t be out alone after dark, ma-am.”

“Well –” argued Meg, dropping her pretence, “– neither should you!” Sternly, she added, “I’m sure your father doesn’t know you are out, in the middle of the night. Does he?”

“You ain’t gonna tell on me, ma-am? I ain’t doin’ nothin’! I just climb outta my room sometimes – to meet Ben.”

“To do nothing,” finished Meg, with a smile. She believed him. Looking back, when she and Kate had shimmied down conveniently placed trees to break their curfew – they had spent their stolen evenings fairly innocently, doing not much. The escape was pretty much the point. She returned to the original topic, “Do you really think Mr. Carleton can have hired Kid Curry?”

“Dunno,” shrugged Ned, “Ben thinks so – but that don’t prove nuthin'”

“I saw a gunslinger meet Mr. Carleton, at the station,” remembered Meg, “Sunburnt face. Strutting walk. Green shirt.”

“That’s him!” confirmed Ned. “I mean, ma-am –” he clarified, “– that’s definitely the man who’s been hired. I don’t know if it’s Curry.”

Meg recalled the wanted posters she had read, earlier in the week.

“He was fair haired,” she said, “– and I think blue eyed. He’d have been close to five foot eleven.” She puckered her brow, “He didn’t look old enough to be Kid Curry, who now must be twenty eight, maybe twenty nine. But it’s not always easy to tell a man’s age! After all, Kid Curry does have ‘boyish features’.” Meg stopped and frowned, “Or did I make that up?” She looked earnestly at Ned, “I have overlain so much ridiculous, romantic detail onto my fictional outlaws, I can’t remember whether the original background material actually mentioned him looking ‘boyish’?”

Ned, who had no idea that Meg wrote, let alone the subject of her latest work, did not follow all this. But he caught the gist of her question.

“He might look ‘boyish’,” he ventured, “After all – if he’s as old as all that, pushin’ thirty – why else call him ‘Kid’!”

Meg nodded. She continued to frown.

Ned looked at her. He had no idea why she was here, wearing – he hesitated, even in his own thoughts over the word used in conjunction with a girl – pants. But, carefully tutored in polite behaviour to ladies, he WAS sure of his next step.

“Let me walk you home, ma-am,” he offered.

“HOME!” protested Meg, “I can’t go home! I must warn Joshua and Thaddeus that Mr. Carleton may have Kid Curry laying in wait at the Dumas place. They have to hurry up and get Kate out of there!”

“Kate!” exclaimed Ned, horrified. “You don’t mean that –” he dropped his voice reverently, “– Mrs. Connor, has been taken into that place?”

Meg’s mind was working. If there was a problem – she had given her word of honour she would not interfere – but go for the law.

But.

According to the signal in the window – there was no problem. Not yet. Given an ‘OK’ signal, her orders were not to panic and NOT to tell the law anything about tonight’s plan. Because ideally, the involvement of Joshua and Thaddeus, would be kept quiet. She and Kate would escort Ellen Fraser to make the confession that would see Oliver Carleton arrested. Her change of heart would be credited to female solidarity: Ellen’s discovery of the attack on Kate’s husband; Kate and Meg’s suspicions of Ellen’s true identity and intuitive fear of Carleton’s intentions. Messrs. Smith and Jones would stay modestly in the background, not drawing the Sheriff’s attention. They would face no awkward questions about discoveries in the safe at West Hill, nor about Thaddeus’ extreme desirability, when posing as a gunslinger for hire.

Was there a way, Meg wondered, she could keep her word to go for the law, WITHOUT alerting the Sheriff that Joshua, Thaddeus and Kate were scheming to have Oliver Carleton solicit murder. AND – to obey her instinct to get a warning to her friends, that an unexpected complication – in the shape of the real Kid Curry – had been added to the plot. Gazing back at chivalrous, young Ned Kingsley, she thought there might be.

“Mr. Kingsley,” she began, entreatingly. Ned drew himself up a little. “Mr. Kingsley,” went on Meg, “– you wouldn’t want Mrs. Connor in any danger would you?”

“NO!” he exclaimed, “– I should go get her outta there!” He scowled and beat one curled fist into his other hand, “When I get holda them two skunks that dragged her there…Knew they couldn’t be trusted…Him kissin’ her hand like that!….Pretendin’ to be so friendly… That snake in the grass!”

“No, no, no!” protested Meg, “Mrs. Connor went to the Dumas of her own free will. For reasons which – ” she took a breath, then decided any explanation would be far too complicated, “– for reasons which I cannot divulge! BUT –” she stared, sternly, at Ned, “– I can assure you, her motives are of the purest and most honourable nature! Her relations with Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones are – spotless!”

“I’d never believe a word against –” again the reverent dip of the voice, “– Mrs. Connor,” he said.

Meg decided she had neither the time, nor the persuasiveness, to also sign up Ned Kingsley as an enthusiastic admirer of Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones. Probably, he would consider any man with whom Kate exchanged a civil word a potential – snake in the grass.

“I hafta go bring her out!” repeated Ned.

“NO!” snapped Meg. Forcing herself to return to entreating, soft tones, she went on, “What I want you to do, please, is go to the Sheriff’s office. Tell him, you’ve been informed that notorious outlaw, Kid Curry, is inside the Dumas. He’s been recognised. The Sheriff has to find and apprehend a young, blond, red-faced gunman in a green shirt. DON’T mention Kate, – Mrs Connor – at all. Nor the others.” Ned looked doubtful. “- Because,” continued Meg smoothly, “– it would be bound to cause talk! You wouldn’t want to be responsible for men – bandying her name – would you?”

“NO!” exclaimed Ned. He began to mutter, again pounding a fist into his cupped palm, “– Jus’ let me hear anyone bandy her name! Jus’ let anyone so much as MENTION her name – I’ll know what to do!”

Meg dipped her head, so the cap’s brim concealed a roll of her eyes.

“Will you do that, Mr. Kingsley?” she asked, with an appealing look, “Meanwhile, I’ll run and try to warn Thaddeus. With luck, he’ll have concluded his – business – by now; and they can be leaving before you return with the law!.”

“Wouldn’t it be better for you to go the law, ma-am?” he argued, “‘Cause – you really shouldn’t go down Mercury Street. I’ll go find Mrs. Connor.”

“No!” said Meg, “I’ll scoot round by the back streets anyway and I know exactly where they are! Joshua is so well organised! He had Thaddeus draw us the most detailed layout of the East wing and of the surrounding alleys. So, please, PLEASE, Mr. Kingsley,” she pleaded, ” – DO promise to do as I ask. Go and tell the Sheriff, he needs to check out the Dumas place – to discover and arrest Kid Curry.”

“Well….” hesitated Ned, brought up not to refuse ladies’ requests for help.

“Oh thank you! I KNEW I could rely on you!” exclaimed Meg, quickly. She reached up and kissed his cheek, “I’ll tell Kate how absolutely WONDERFUL you were!”

With that, she forestalled further argument, by turning on her heel and sprinting off at top speed. Ned gaped after the retreating figure. Realising he had no chance, whatsoever, of catching her – he set off obediently, in the direction of the Sheriff’s office.

-oooOOOooo-

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Deputies Baker and Daly were sharing a companionable silence and strong, inky-black coffee, during a break between their rounds. They started, as the door of the Sheriff’s office burst open, admitting a breathless Ned Kingsley.

“You gotta get to the Dumas place!” he gasped.

“What’s happened?” asked Zeb Daly, reaching for his hat.

“Kid Curry’s in there!”

The two deputies exchanged glances.

“Uh huh?” grunted Baker, “Wouldn’t be you, or that Ben saw him, would it?”

“Ben did – yeah!” nodded Ned.

Daly replaced his hat on the desk.

“Like he saw Billy the Kid two years ago and like you swore blind that Black Bart was in town last summer?” he said, with a grin at Baker.

“This is different!” protested Ned, “We were jus’ kids back then. Besides – it’s someone else sent me, now. She described him. Told me to say she’d recognised him. She knew it was Kid Curry.”

The feminine pronoun took the deputies by surprise. Perhaps this was more than just adolescent boys’ imagination.

“Who?” asked Daly, as both deputies stood and began to check their guns.

“Miss Spencer!” said Ned.

Zeb Daly closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Miss Margaret Spencer – staying with the Connors,” he checked.

“Yup.”

Deputy Daly sat down, propped his boots back firmly on the desk and picked up his coffee mug.

“That –” a gentleman, he controlled himself, “– that lady, spent yesterday afternoon doin’ nothin’ but talk my ear off about Kid Curry an’ Hannibal Heyes. Never heard nothin’ like it. Was tellin’ me how Kid Curry can shoot a bullet outta the air when he’s blindfold; how he can leap from a gallopin’ horse to the roof of a speedin’ train without rufflin’ his curls; how he can disarm five men carryin’ a swoonin’ woman, without lettin’ her lovely head leave the safe crook of his arm! The woman’s got outlaws on the brain!”

“She is writin’ a book on ’em!” excused Deputy Baker, mildly, although he too sat down and took up his coffee. He smiled, “Real takin’ little thing, I thought. I like to hear her chatter on – don’t know how she thinks of it all!”

“She didn’t get your boots soakin’ wet, pickin’ flowers and keep fiddlin’ round strippin’ off an’ puttin’ on stockings till you didn’t know where to look!” said Daly, darkly, “An’ ‘chatter on’ – don’t begin to describe the non-stop yakkin’ I had to listen to!”

“So – you ain’t goin’?” exclaimed Ned.

Deputy Baker glanced at the clock.

“Next round’s due in ten minutes,” he said, “Tell you what, we’ll head out an’ start at the Dumas place. Go in – jus’ check there’s no trouble.”

“But he might have – shot someone – by then!” protested Ned.

Zeb Daly grinned, “If Kid Curry IS in the Dumas, he’ll have better things to do than shoot anyone!” He exchanged a glance with Deputy Baker, “Another few years and you’ll find that out, son!”

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

Back in the East wing of the Dumas Place. Deke Simons pulled Ellen close to him, his right hand across her mouth, fingers cruelly digging into her injured face. The barrel of his gun bruised into her side, close to her heart.

Soon after he had begun to work for Oliver Carleton, Simons had his girl sneak and copy the keys to both ground and first floor doors to the private East wing. He was not a man to pass by future chances of spying out information to get additional income from his employer.

Concealing himself, he had hoped to get the drop on Jones – or Curry – as he left. Hearing footsteps descending the stairs, he saw that smart mouthed partner of Kid’s pass. Finding the woman in his arms was not some Dumas lovely, but the reclusive ‘Mrs. Carleton’ Deke’s mind began to work furiously.

Heyes hand instinctively reached for his holster, but seeing Ellen shielding Deke’s body and her danger, he stopped.

Meeting the gunslinger’s eyes with cold disdain, he raised his hands slightly.

“Don’t hurt her.”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” sneered Deke, “But I mean to find out.” He jerked the gun in Ellen’s ribs, “Reckon Carleton don’t know you’re here, ma-am – I think it’s time for you to go say ‘hello’.” Her eyes widened in fright, pleading with Heyes to help. She struggled to free herself. Deke wrenched the hand covering her mouth tighter, gouging into the tender flesh. She subsided, tears of pain trickling over her cheeks. Heyes eyes flashed in anger, but this merely made the hired gun smile. “You,” he said, indicating the door to Carleton’s suite, “lead the way. Use your left hand. Keep the right one raised – where I can see it. If your partner feels like showing off that quick draw – be on you.”

Heyes turned the handle and stepped inside, conscious of the threatened woman held behind him. As the door opened, Kid leapt to his feet. Seeing the malicious face of Deke Simons close behind his partner he made an automatic move for his gun. Heyes gave a small shake of his head and flashed him a mute warning. With an effort Kid relaxed his hand back by his side.

Carleton also rose in surprise as the door opened, grabbing the weapon he had laid upon the desk.

His surprise turned to cold fury, as he saw Ellen clasped in Deke’s grasp.

“What the hell are you doing here? I told you to stay home.” His mind began to work as his eyes moved from her to Heyes, still with his hands raised, to the triumphant gloating look on Deke Simons’ face. Still levelling his gun he asked, “Has she been listening?”

Ellen’s expression of mingled fear and reproach, answered that question, despite her futile effort to shake her head. The details of what had happened may have continued to elude Carleton – but he understood the broad sweep. Aiming his gun at Kid, while his eyes moved from Kid to Kate, Carleton breathed, “And you two – you two were in on it? Making a fool of me?” He let his eyes linger on Kate, if anything even more admiringly than before. No longer playing her role, a flush crimsoned her from neck to forehead under his gaze, “You clever little Jezebel! You clever, lying, two-faced, b_!”

Anger flared hot in Kid’s eyes and he took an impetuous step forward despite the gun levelled at him. Carleton, whip quick, caught Kate’s wrist with his free left hand. Twisting her arm cruelly, eliciting an involuntary cry of pain, he dragged her close. Holding the now halted Kid’s eyes, Carleton let the barrel of his gun travel slowly up the curve of Kate’s bodice, until it rested in the hollow of her throat.

“I don’t think so, Jones,” he gloated. “Do you?”

“Somethin’ else you oughta know,” offered Deke Simons, “His name ain’t ‘Jones’.” He met Kid’s eyes, “Is it?” His glance flicked toward Heyes, “I don’t suppose this one’s called ‘Smith’ neither.” Kid flashed a look at his partner and saw this development was as new to Heyes as to him. “This – ” went on Deke, nodding back toward Kid, “Lucille reckons this is Kid Curry! So it don’t take much figurin’ to work out this smart mouth is Hannibal Heyes. They’re worth $10,000 apiece.” He paused for a minute before adding, meaningly, “Dead or alive.”

Carleton looked searchingly at the two ex-outlaws.

He wrenched Kate’s arm in it’s socket again, as he snapped at her, “Is that true?”

“No, of course it’s not true! It’s – ” Kate stopped. An arrested expression swept across her face.

Heyes closed his eyes in involuntary dread, as he saw her quick mind make sense of this revelation. She was by nature unsuspicious, slow to doubt the truthfulness of anyone. But she was far from stupid. Heyes watched, the expertise of Thaddeus Jones with firearms; Joshua Smith’s knowledge of safes; ‘Meg’s’ uncanny ability to open a Philadelphia Miller first try; and the – admittedly vague but still suggestive – wanted posters she had used to guide her sketches all week, slot into place in Kate’s mind. It took only a couple of seconds.

“No!” said Kate, firmly, “It’s nonsense!”

But her loyal lie no longer carried the spontaneity needed to sway Carleton.

Kid felt as if punched in the gut. The glance Kate sent him now, silently tried to convey continuing affection and sisterly support. But, for a fraction of a second, as he too watched the light dawn, he caught a fleeting moment of reproach and deep, deep disappointment. Even if they did not get out of this – he hoped, above everything, he had a chance to tell Kate the partners had gone straight. Were straight. That one of the worst things about life on the run was lying to people you grew to – care about.

Carleton looked at Kid warily.

“Better take no chances,” he said. “Drop your gun. Use your left hand – couple of fingers only. Real slow. You – ” to Heyes, “you keep your hands up. Neither of you think of trying anything smart. Not if you want this pretty face – ” he twitched his barrel to a point under Kate’s chin, ” – staying in one piece.” Kid dropped his gun as instructed. He kicked it toward Carleton. Carleton smiled, “Now you,” he said to Heyes, “Then go stand next to your partner.”

Soon both guns were at his feet.

“Pick ’em up,” he told Deke. Looking at Ellen, he warned, “You make so much as a sound or a move, when he let’s you go – I hurt her real bad! And it won’t come close to what I’ll do to you!”

She whimpered, but nodded understanding.

Levelling his gun at the ex-outlaws, Deke collected their weapons and deposited them on the desk behind Carleton.

“Now you,” Carleton glared at Ellen, “Get their hands tied. Remember – Deke’s watching real close. Tie them tight. You know what happens when you cross me. Don’t even think of trying to trick me.” Her eyes widened in fright, she shook her head frantically at the suggestion she would trick him, but seemed frozen to the floor. “MOVE!” he snapped.

Ellen scurried over to stand behind Heyes and Curry. She wrung her hands helplessly.

“What’ll I use, Oliver?” she whimpered.

Carleton’s eyes flashed with temper, “You are the most useless, whining, waste of space, to ever draw breath! This lying hussy,” shaking Kate, “- she’s worth ten of you!” He released Kate’s wrist and gripped the top of her bodice. With a swift movement, he rent off half the net and gauze, flinging it across the floor. “Use that! She’s not going to need it, during what I’ve got planned for her!”

Again, Heyes saw his partner start a fruitless lunge, only to be checked by Carleton’s gun digging deeper into Kate’s flesh and the sound of a hammer being cocked. As Kid stepped back, eyes ice cold with fury, the hammer was carefully lowered.

Carleton’s hand took hold of the dress lining, “Need more?” he laughed, to a sobbing Ellen.

“Leave her,” snapped Heyes, his voice tight with anger. To Ellen he said, “Use the cords – behind you.”

Tearful and trembling, she collected thin silk tie-back cords, hanging unused, either side of the heavy velvet curtains, drawn across the windows behind the ex-outlaws. She bound Kid’s hands and wrists behind his back, closely watched by Deke, who still covered them.

Heyes heard the gunslinger’s brusque instructions, “Lace your fingers together, Curry – tie ’em like that – tighter – I wanna see white! – now the thumbs – now the wrists – tighter, till it digs in – and a loop pullin’ down on the thumbs – round the wrist again –” and watched him check the finished job, yanking until Kid winced.

He sighed inwardly. Deke Simon’s might be a mean skunk – but give him his due – he knew this part of his job!

With the hands of both partners firmly secured and two tight gags in place. Carleton relaxed just a shade. He released Kate and motioned her and Ellen to stand – well away from both Heyes and Curry and their confiscated guns. Deke joined him in front of the desk.

Carleton’s mind raced.

“This is the way I figure it,” he began, “We don’t want to kill them here – unless we have to. Might be much better if there’s some – tragedy – out at West Hill.” He frowned in thought, “How’s this? Drawn by talk of the richest copper strike ever – Heyes and Curry think they’ll rob the Brooker 404 out at the mine offices. Hannibal Heyes – being too smart for his own good – decides they’ll empty my personal safe at West Hill as an extra flourish.”

Heyes closed his eyes, momentarily, at the irony. It would be the second night running he had cracked that safe!

“My – loving wife – hears a sound. Being – as you’ve seen – stupid and too inquisitive for her own good – interrupts them. Gets herself killed.” Carleton watched Deke Simons react, “You got a problem with that?”

Deke glanced at Ellen Fraser.

“Not as long as you’re payin’,” he said.

“You wouldn’t be feeling – curious – about my reasons?” Carleton asked.

“Couldn’t care less – if the price is right?” Deke grinned. “‘Course the right price hasta be over an’ above the $20,000 on these two.”

Carleton nodded agreement, “But I think there’s something you’d like even more than money – for the over and above.”

“Doubt it!”

“What about being known as the man who outdrew and killed Kid Curry?”

Deke stared, broodingly, at Kid.

Eventually he said, “Still cost ya. But let’s say – that’ll sure lower my rate for the job!”

Carleton went on, “We head out for West Hill, after meeting for a couple of Saturday night drinks. Ride into a robbery in progress – you wipe out Curry and Heyes. Unfortunately just too late to save –” he jerked his head at Ellen, “– her.”

Deke’s ruminating gaze shifted to Kate. “What about that one?”

He was answered with a humourless laugh, “Be a terrible waste to shoot her! I can think of much more enjoyable ways of dealing with that one.” Carleton’s eyes met those of Deke Simons, “And I’m feeling generous – I’ll share.”

-oooOOOooo-

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