Early hours Sunday 17th June 1883
Ned Kingsley stood, rather at a loss, in the street outside the Sheriff’s office. He had not considered the possibility that reporting the presence of Kid Curry in Butte, would meet with sceptical disinterest.
He knew Miss Spencer expected assistance to arrive, in the event she did not manage to warn her friends in time. At that very moment, Mrs. Connor could be facing unspeakable peril, from a notorious and ill intentioned, gunslinger. Even if she was not facing Kid Curry – Ned recoiled from thinking of her, out after midnight, in the company of those two payroll guards. Especially that dark-eyed, laughing, Joshua Smith.
Ned glowered. Smith had kissed her hand, teased her and had the gall to casually use her Christian name; – he lingered over it in his thoughts – Kate!
Ned made up his mind. He had to discover if his paragon was in danger. He must go to her aid. Passing the post office, an idea struck him. He took his work keys from his pocket and let himself in. Retrieving a much smaller key, from a tin on a high shelf, he unlocked a small drawer beneath the counter. Looking around the dark empty office guiltily, he took the twenty-year old pistol his father kept there for emergencies. Ned tucked it into his belt, concealed by his jacket. Then, he conscientiously locked the door behind him and set off toward the Dumas place.
The partners exchanged a despondent, though not yet hopeless, glance. Carleton and Simons planned to kill them positioned before the open Philadelphia Miller out at West Hill. The Brooker 404 out at the mine offices was to be found blown and its contents planted with the dead outlaws. Ellen would be shot with Curry’s gun.
After tying the hands of the two women, though without the elaborate precautions used on the ex-outlaws, Oliver Carleton took a set of keys from his desk.
” Keep them covered,” he instructed, “Williams and that new guy, Pat Galloway, are on guard out front. I’ll have them get the delivery wagon taken round back of this wing. They can cover the alley – stop anyone interrupting while we get these four loaded up. We’ll get them out to West Hill and everything taken care of, well before dawn.”
During this speech, Kid, standing a few inches before the join of the closed velvet curtains, hands firmly tied behind his back, felt something. A small finger had slipped between his bound palms and tugged him insistently backwards. At the same time, there was on his skin the tiniest breath of a draught. The window had been silently opened. Kid maintained his poker face, as the likeliest explanation sprang to his mind.
Curry shifted his weight, as if easing his taut shoulders. He settled a couple of inches back, so his hands rested against the velvet. Meg’s finger was replaced with a small but – as she had believed so confidently, in the face of his mistaken scepticism – decidedly useful, serrated metal edge.
Kid tried, while remaining still and expressionless, to send an unspoken message – not to wholly cut through the bonds. He should not have underestimated the authoress of a hundred escape scenes.
As Oliver Carleton exited, to brief the men on the outer door and as Deke Simons gloated over his increased worth, once he had shot Curry, Kid felt his fingers and palms ease apart, without the cords falling from his wrists. One firm tug – he would be free. A diminutive hand, slipped between the vents of his jacket and pulled at his waistband. Breathing in, while keeping his face set in scorn at Simons’ taunts, Kid felt the muzzle of a trusty British Bulldog slide into the back of his pants, to be hidden by his coat.
Drawing back from the side window of Carleton’s apartment, Meg snapped shut and pocketed her soldier’s knife. She chewed her bottom lip, considering the next step.
If this were one of her novels – it would be easy. Mary-Sue, assuming she managed not to swoon, would undoubtedly go and find the freight wagon in which the villain meant to transport his captives to a grisly fate. With the stealth of a cat, she would conceal her svelte and lovely form amongst handy sacks in the back. Then, at the most appropriate juncture, she would throw herself into the line of fire to protect her true love – assuming the sappy fool had finally made her mind up who that was! Or, with a strength and speed incredible in one so deceptively fragile, she would wrench a weapon from the villain’s distracted hand and hold it to his, now terrified, head.
Although no one liked a flight of fancy more than Meg, years of having to earn her keep, usually the only woman in a crowd of male journalists, had given her a strong practical streak in an emergency. Something told her an establishment the size of the Dumas probably had more than one delivery vehicle. If she picked the right one – she was unlikely to reach it before Carleton’s men. If she did – she could not rely on any handy coverings to hide under. In any case, – without assuming the villain’s henchmen were exceptionally bright – a body shaped lump, in a supposedly empty wagon, might just warrant a good kick to check it out.
No, Meg decided. The last thing her friends needed was for her to throw the villain another hostage. What they did need – was for help to arrive. Preferably well armed, carrying shotguns, wearing star-shaped badges, briefed in advance – and soon!
She scurried the length of the East wing, along the connecting wall and peeped around the front of the building. Activity was dying down fast as Saturday night turned into the small hours of Sunday morning. Meg screwed up her eyes and peered through the hazy light pouring through dozens of windows into Mercury Street. No sign of the Sheriff, nor his deputies, amongst the few people still abroad. No sign of Ned.
Meg made her decision. She had done all she could here, by freeing and arming ‘Thaddeus’. Now it was time – despite all the complications which might ensue – to hurry the arrival of the law. Setting off, at a run, in the direction of the Sheriff’s office, she considered just how deep those complications might be, given what she had overheard. As she had listened to Carleton’s assumptions about the identities of her two new friends – Meg had gone through much the same realisation as Kate. Their expertise and skills in – security – suddenly took on a whole new significance.
“When this is over,” Meg promised herself, “I will be BOILING mad!”
Once Joshua – NO!
She corrected herself – HANNIBAL.
Once he was safe; both from Carleton’s murderous intent and from the danger of being locked away for twenty years – she would wring his neck.
His dishonest, lying, insincere, two-faced, hypocritical, untrustworthy, deceptive, mendacious, bogus, dastardly, crooked, phoney, faking, feigning, false, fleeting, perjured …
Meg’s internal thesaurus temporarily gave way to the need to watch her footing in the dark.
Rounding the final corner toward the back of the Dumas building, Ned stopped dead. He flattened himself against the wall.
Horses were being quietly hitched to a freight wagon in the quiet passage behind the East wing. The gunslinger, whom Ben McBride and Miss Spencer suspected of being Kid Curry stood guard at the far end of the alley. The man handling the horses kept glancing warily in Ned’s direction.
The youth pressed himself more firmly into the shadows cast by a stack of empty whiskey crates. This was not right! What reason could anyone have to travel this late? Why was the preparation so furtive?
Inch by inch, Ned slinked closer.
As a panting Meg covered the last few hundred yards of her run, she saw Deputies Baker and Daly on the boardwalk outside, in conversation with the Sheriff himself.
“Wha…Yaa… Do… hoo… hrrr?” she gasped. Almost doubling over, clutching a stitch in her side, she tried again. “Weren’t… you … tol’… Du…mas… Hry!” she gasped, pawing at Deputy Baker’s sleeve.
The Sheriff looked dispassionately at the red-faced, perspiring, heaving figure.
“Are you drunk, son?” he grunted. “Because if you’re plannin’ on throwin’ up – don’t do it here! Not unless you wanna get dumped – an’ I mean dumped from a great height – into a cell for the night!”
Meg stared up from under her brim, outraged. She forced herself to take two or three slow breaths.
With a final inhalation, she squeaked, “I am NOT drunk!” She straightened, though still leaning on Deputy Baker.
“It is I!” she exclaimed. She tugged off her cap.
In her novels, whenever a heroine “obscured in the lovely garnish of a boy” did this, the freed shimmering, tumbling locks, roused gasps of wonder amongst any watching men.
Unfortunately, her repeated runs on a hot June night, had rendered poor Meg so sweaty under the tweed cap, most of her damp hair remained firmly stuck against her head. A single, rather lank, clump flopped to her shoulder.
The three lawmen were certainly surprised, but there was no sudden start of admiration, nor flurry of excited questions. In fact, as the silence lengthened, Meg realised they were actually expecting the next move to come from her.
“Weren’t you asked to check out the Dumas place?” she asked. “Didn’t Ned Kingsley tell you that – ”
She stopped. She no longer wanted to mention the name ‘Kid Curry’. Whatever he may have done in the past, ‘Thaddeus’ had helped pull one of her two dearest friends in the world from certain death, and had treated her – and Kate – with all the kindness of a brother.
“He said you’d spotted Kid Curry, earlier today, ma-am,” grunted Zeb Daly, “But -” He shrugged.
Deputy Baker, more than a little pleased it was his arm Meg had decided to hold onto, as she caught her breath, explained, “You see, ma-am, – you havin’ such a – lively imagination – and bein’ so – naturally interested in outlaws, what with all your clever writin’ an’ such – we thought maybe you’d been too likely to think any stranger in town, might be a famous gunslinger.” He smiled down at her, “We’re just on our way to the Dumas now – but we plan to check out things, nice an’ quiet like. Then, if you’ve made – an honest mistake – it won’t matter. No harm done.” His eyes lingered on her for a moment, “Pardon me askin’, ma-am. But why are you dressed like that?”
“Never mind that! No!” protested Meg, “I mean – yes! I might have been mistaken about Kid Curry! But – you have to get to the Dumas right away! It’s Mr. Carleton he’s…” she jigged on the spot, “He’s got Kate and his wife and Joshua and Thaddeus…behind the East wing.” Her voice rose as she gabbled, “He plans to take them out to West Hill and …Deke Simons is there… And that new gunslinger he’s just hired… He plans to kill them!” The fingers of one of Meg’s hands dug into Deputy Baker’s arm. The other reached out, in entreaty, to the Sheriff. With another deep breath, she continued more calmly, “Please believe me!” Her eyes went to Zeb Daly, “I know I get carried away making things up – and I know after yesterday YOU think I’m a fool – but this is REAL. I heard him. Please.”
The Sheriff studied her for a moment.
With a jerk of his head, he barked, “Get a coupla shotguns, Zeb! Let’s get down there.” He turned to Meg, checking his revolver as he spoke, “Tell us, ma-am – far as you know – who’s in trouble, an’ where they are?”
Finishing hitching the horses, Caleb Williams threw back the tarpaulin covering the deep back of the wagon and let down the tailboard. Then he strode over to tap on the back door of the private wing. Over the noise of music and gaiety still drifting from the front and upper floors of the main house, Ned could hear heavy locks turning and bolts being drawn back. The door opened. Light spilled out into the alleyway.
What he saw next, in the shaft of illumination from the doorway, made Ned’s heart pound. It was Mrs. Connor! Dressed as he had never seen her before! Her hands were tied behind her back. Next to her, stood another woman, also tied, Ned did not recognise. The second woman was sobbing. Both were thrust out of the doorway, by Oliver Carleton.
“Hold these two,” Carleton snapped to Caleb, “Deke’ll get – my other guests – loaded in the back.” He caught Mrs. Connor by one shoulder and twisted her round to face him. Even at a distance, Ned could see she did not give him the satisfaction of seeing her flinch. “I was kind enough not to gag you. But if either of you starts screaming – I’m going to hurt your friends here real bad! In fact – if you disobey me in any way, Mrs. Connor – they’ll wish they’d never been born! ” he hissed.
“You’ll kill them anyway!” she flashed, chin held high.
“Quickly – or slowly. Your choice. Do you have any idea how long a man can take to bleed to death from a bullet real low through the spine? Or how much a kneecap shot off from behind will pain him – during a long drive?” He met her eyes, “Your choice,” he repeated, “Am I making myself clear, Mrs Connor?”
There was a silence.
“I see that I am, but I would like to hear you say it. Am I making myself clear, Mrs Connor?”
“Perfectly clear, Mr. Carleton.”
He smiled, “Good.”
Caleb Williams grabbed hold of both women. Ned trembled with anger as he saw the man’s fingers dig into Mrs. Connors bare arm, saw how closely she was pulled against him.
As Caleb dragged the ladies away from the door, Ned saw Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones, gagged and bound, step out.
“Take them one at a time. Fasten ’em in the back,” barked Carleton.
Deke Simons pushed Smith roughly toward the wagon, a gun held to his back. Jones remained by the doorway, covered by the mine owner at his side.
Ned saw that, tied as he was, Smith struggled to lever himself onto the high back of the wagon. Deke Simons twisted the bound man round and slammed him hard against the wooden base. The impact caused the horses to twitch and take a pace or two forward. Unbalanced and clearly hurt from the blow, Smith stumbled. The hand holding the gun smashed the butt across his temple and he fell.
“Reckon I owed you that one,” gloated Deke Simons, “Reckon I owe you this too!” His foot drew back to deliver a vicious kick.
“Stop!” exploded Mrs. Connor. She twisted, fruitlessly, in her captor’s grasp, “What kind of – man – are you? He is bound – helpless!” Her eyes flashed, “Coward!”
The gunslinger paused. He turned on his heel and strode over.
Clutching her throat in a cruel grip, he glowered, “I’d worry ’bout myself if I were you! Before this night is out, you’re gonna find out exactly what kinda man I am!”
His hand dropped from her throat and slid down to her torn bodice. Caleb Williams snickered.
It was too much for Ned. Clutching the old pistol in both hands, he stepped out from the shadowed alcove.
“T-Take your hands off her!” he stammered. The barrel of the gun wavered, uncertainly, towards Deke Simons.
The three lawmen, followed by Meg, scampering to match their long strides, approached the front of the Dumas building.
“Zeb,” said the Sheriff decisively, “Inside! Find a room upstairs where you can cover the alley back o’ the East wing. Get in position – don’t alert ’em you’re there. Wait for me an’ Baker to move.” As Daly strode up the steps to the main entrance, the Sheriff continued to Deputy Baker, “The lady says, if we take the back streets – loop round that way -” he nodded to the right, “- head in near where they’re loadin’ up this wagon – we hit Deke Simons, Carleton, an’ another of his men. All armed.”
He met Baker’s eyes. Deputy Baker screwed up his mouth and shrugged.
“No,” said the Sheriff, “I don’t much like the odds either.” He drew breath, “If’n we take this alley -” he nodded left, “- turn in the more direct route round back of the East wing – we meet this new gunslinger we keep hearing ’bout, standin’ guard. Even if he ain’t Kid Curry, hafta assume he knows his job. AND since he’s mebbe a good 50 or 60 yards from the others – we go in that way – it gives ’em plenty of time to get a pistol to a woman’s head ‘fore we’re in range.”
“We’ll have Zeb coverin’ ’em from above,” said Baker.
The Sheriff sniffed. He looked at Meg, who was clenching her fists hard to keep from screaming in impatience.
“You definitely heard they weren’t planning to hurt no one ’till they got back to West Hill?” he checked.
“That’s what they said,” she hopped from foot to foot, anxiously, “But anything could be happening!”
“Bound to drive out this way,” decided the Sheriff, nodding again to the alley curving darkly away on the left. Other way’s too narrow, “It might be better to edge up, so this new gun don’t see us – let ’em finish loadin’ – wait for ’em to move. Get the drop on ’em as they approach the turn! They’ll still be in range for Zeb.”
Deputy Baker shrugged again.
“Your call,” he said.
They moved off.
The Sheriff wheeled.
“You ain’t to follow us no further!” he barked at Meg, “You’re to go on home! Do you hear me, ma-am?”
The small, trotting figure, halted. Heyes would not have trusted the bland, wide-eyed innocent face with which she greeted the Sheriff’s order for a moment.
Deputy Baker gave her a reassuring smile.
“Don’t you worry ’bout nuthin’, ma-am. Gonna work out just fine. You’ll see.”
Deke Simons spun round, releasing Kate and stared in surprise at the adolescent boy waving an antiquated pistol in his direction. A gloating smile spread over his face. Signalling Pat Galloway, at the far end of the alley, to stay where he was, the gunslinger moved to a position directly facing Ned Kingsley, his left hand hovering by his holster.
Kate, horrified at this development, called out, “Ned! No! Please put that away. Please!” To Simons’ impassive back, she pleaded, “He’s just a boy! He has nothing to do with any of this! Please don’t hurt him.”
Carleton stepped forward, impatiently, leaving the – as he believed, securely tied – Curry an arms length behind in the doorway.
“We don’t have time for this, Deke!” he snapped.
Deke Simons did not turn at his employer’s voice, but replied evenly, “I never walk away. Never.” He watched the nervous youngster facing him in the dim light, around thirty-five feet away.
Heyes, head pounding, had pulled himself out of the dirt and was struggling back to his feet. He exchanged a mute conversation with his partner. Both knew, at that distance, with that old pistol, even if he managed to pluck up nerve to pull the trigger, Ned had no chance. If Simons reached, the boy would be gunned down for sure.
From his position, much closer to Ned than Heyes, Kid also realised Ned had not even cocked his gun. From Deke Simons’ next words, it became clear he too knew he faced no real, immediate danger.
“She -” Simon’s head jerked back in Kate’s direction without taking his eyes off his opponent, “- she says you’re just a boy. Is that right? You just a boy? Gonna throw down that gun an’ say – ‘Sorry, sir. You put your hands wherever you like, sir.’?”
“Do as he asks, please Ned!” urged Kate.
Glancing indecisively at Kate, Ned lowered his barrel a fraction.
The gunslinger’s grin widened.
“That’s right! See – she don’t want me to stop. Let me hear you say – ‘Sorry sir. That w- , she was askin’ for it, sir!’.”
Ned jerked the pistol level again.
“D-don’t you dare call her that!”
Simon’s hand moved a fraction closer to the butt of his own gun.
“If you’re planning on usin’ that, boy, you might wanna cock it first,”
Ned’s eyes moved from his opponent to his own weapon. The pistol wavered and lowered, as he released one of his clutching hands and rather uncertainly moved it to carry out the gunslinger’s taunting instruction.
Deke Simons reached.
A reverberating, echoing, shot rang out.
Simons’ gun flew from his grasp and scudded across the alleyway. With a howl of agony, he stared in disbelief at the shattered mess that had once been his left hand.
Only Heyes was both deductive and quick enough, to glance into the doorway and see his partner’s freed hand emerge from his jacket, after depositing a short-barrelled, double-action revolver made – by fine Birmingham craftsmen – in a handy pocket size.