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 Chapter twelve A Rock and a Hard Place

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Keays

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Posts : 1431
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 60
Location : Camano Island Washington

PostSubject: Chapter twelve A Rock and a Hard Place   Sun Mar 23, 2014 2:41 am

A Rock and a Hard Place



The flames had spilled out from the clearing consuming the dry grasses and brittle fuels littering the valley.  In seconds, the small brushfire Ames had set became a raging fire and swept across the valley pushed by a light wind.  Scott and Allie saw the flickering smoke spreading and they raced across the stream searching for their friends and their horses.  The meadow was safe, divided from the rest of the Hole by the year-round stream that bisected it.  A few, confused steers mixed into a larger herd of loose horses and the terrified animals rambled around in fear, but the rest of the cattle were gone.  Reassured that these animals were safe, Allie plunged Swift into the stream followed by Scott and his stallion.  Off to the side of the canyon, they could see riders converging on the encampment.  Aware that there could still be armed outlaws on the loose they slowed their horses, drew their weapons, and cautiously hugged the opposite side of the canyon, keeping an eye on the burn area to their left.
Allie felt panic rising as the flames from the buildings leapt to the roofs and gained strength from the pine needles and leaves that were scattered on the dry, wooden shingles. 
Where were her friends?  She glanced at Scott, but his attention was on keeping them covered as they neared the stronghold.  Through the thick, hazy cloud lingering near the ground, she spotted Jed and the others.  She yelled to Scott and dug her booted heels into Swift sending the mare into a headlong gallop towards the men she saw gathering outside one of the cabins.


Curry grabbed Fergie by the arm and pulled him along with the rest of the group as they all made a concerted rush out the door and into the yard. The Hole looked like a combat zone with various structures burning and the air filling with smoke mingled with unsettled dust from the cattle. A few random steers trotted by, bellowing their distress had having been separated from the herd but nobody paid them any heed as all eyes focused on the leader's cabin.

The building was totally engulfed in flames and though Feeley and Ames were already there, they both just stood watching the flames and were making no effort to get it under control. Kid yelled at them as the group ran across the open ground towards the burning structure but neither paid him any heed. Mainly because Feeley couldn't hear him above the crackling of the flames, and Ames was too mesmerized by his creation to care.

Still having a strong hold on Fergie, Curry ran up to Feeley and gave him a violent shove.

“What are ya' doin' just standing there?” he yelled at the 'deputy'. “Get water, something—we gotta get it out!”

Feeley turned on him, angry that some low-life ex-outlaw would think he had the right to push him around like that.

“Back off!” he yelled. “There's nothin' we can do about this—it's too far gone!”

During this altercation, Kyle and Joe were both trying to find something, anything to put out the blaze, but Feeley was right about one thing; there was nothing anyone could do. Jed heard horses galloping up behind them and he turned to see Monty coming up from one direction, and Scott and Allie pulling up their horses from another.

“Oh my goodness!” Allie cried as she and her husband jumped down and ran up behind Jed. “Was anyone in these buildings? Has anyone gotten out?”

Jed turned a pale look to the young woman and the expression in his eyes said it all. Allie's eyes widened with dread as his full meaning took hold.

“No!” she screamed and started to make a dash towards the burning structure.

Both Jed and Scott grabbed her but she fought and kicked like a wild cat.

“No!” she screamed again. “We have to get him out!”

“Allie!” Scott yelled at her. “Nobody's getting in there! It's too late!”

“No...no!” Allie continued to fight against their hold but neither Jed nor Scott were letting her go despite her struggles. Finally she sank to the ground, weeping and Scott went down with her, holding her in his arms and trying to comfort her.

Jed just stood and stared at the burning building, feeling so totally lost as to what to do.

Finally a calmer head prevailed.

“Did anyone hear any screaming?” Monty's quiet voice broke in on the blanket of fear.

“What?” Jed asked as the words sank in and began to make sense. Suddenly memories of that horrid day when Julia Stanton had been trapped inside those flames and had been burned to death. The horrific screams that had emanated from that furnace would stay in the Kid's memory forever. Suddenly hope sprang up into his heart and he looked around with a new vigour. “He's right. If they'd been trapped in there, we would have heard them. Did anybody hear any screaming?”

“No, I didn't,” Feeley acknowledged. “Well, maybe a horse. Once.”

“No,” Wheat added. “Just them damn cows and the fire.”

“That don't mean the smoke didn't get 'em first though,” Feeley felt obliged to point out.

Still, Allie's sobbing began to abate at the possibility now that maybe, just maybe Heyes had gotten out. Jed turned once again on Fergie and grabbed him by the shirt front.

“Was there a back way outa that cabin?” he asked the outlaw.

Fergie remained defiant and didn't answer him and Jed began to shake him for real.

“Did you fellas put in a back exit from that cabin!?” he repeated.

“Why should I help you?” Fergie snarked back. “You'll find out on yer own, sooner or later.”

Kid's smoke strained eyes turned to ice and Fergie tried to back away, seeing a beating coming to him, but Monty stepped in with a hand on Jed's arm.

“Easy son,” Monty cautioned him. “The man could be useful, best not to beat him to a pulp—at least not yet.” Monty turned his attention to the prisoner. “How about it Ferguson? You don't own Tom Duncan a thing anymore and you know it. From what I hear you ain't no killer so why would you be willing to risk your neck for someone who is?”

Fergie still didn't answer. He was struggling with his own inner battle. Old habits die hard and though he was angry and disgusted with Tom Duncan and his irrational behaviour, there was still a certain code of ethics among gang members. He didn't know how much the law knew about what had transpired up here in the Hole and he wasn't about to give anything away.

“C'mon Ferguson,” Wheat added to the pressure. “We already know about Orrison. Duncan done shot him down in cold blood and you know it. He was already turnin' on his own gang members; you don't owe him nothin.”

“Orrison was fool,” Fergie was scrambling to find justification. “He's the one who turned on Duncan first. He should never have come back here. It was his own fault.”

“Yeah?” Jed asked. “And what about Ed Davis?”

Fergie felt a shiver of dread go through him. He already had his suspicions about Davis but he wasn't prepared to let on, not yet. “What about 'em?” Fergie snarked back. “Duncan opened the door for fellas to leave if they wanted to, and Davis took 'em up on it. So what?”

“Well maybe the fact that we come across Davis the other day,” Jed informed the prisoner. “Shot in the back, not ten miles from the entrance to the Hole.”

“Way we figure it,” Monty continued, “either Duncan or one of his men went after 'em and murdered him, again in cold blood.”

Fergie swallowed nervously, knowing in his heart that it was the truth, but not wanting to believe it. “How do I know you're not just making that up?” he asked. “Tryin' ta' get me to turn on 'em.”

“I can tell by the look on your face, you know we're right,” Jed commented. “But if you're still gonna insist on denyin' it, when all is said and done we can take you to where we left his body. Believe me, Davis is dead; shot in the back, by one of your men. Now,” Kid leaned in, his eyes turning hard again, “is there a back exit from this cabin?”

Fergie sighed and then with great reluctance, nodded. “Yeah. Not a real door as such, but enough that a man could get out. Don't know about the horses though. Still, if there was horses in there, we woulda heard them screamin' too, so.....” Fergie shrugged.

“See Allie?” Scott soothed his wife as he helped her to stand up again. “Looks like they probably all got out.”

“Yeah, but if'n they got out, then where the hell are they?” Wheat asked.

Silence settled over the group as the cabin continued to burn and crackle. Nobody seemed to have a good answer for that; it was as though both Heyes and Duncan had simply vanished into thin air. The silence was then broken by one simple word that sent a chill down everyone's spine. The word was a quiet, drawn out whisper from Ames.

“F i r e........”

Everyone turned their attentions to the young man in question, but he was totally oblivious to their stares. He was mesmerized by the flickering light, his ears full of the crackling laughter of the flames devouring what was left of the blackened innards of the cabin. Then Jed lost it.

“You little bastard!” he croaked out as he lunged an attack at the surprised youngster.

Jed was on him in an instant, his hands around his throat until some semblance of reason took over and he realized he didn't want to kill the other man, just beat him to within an inch of his life. He got Ames on the ground and straddling him, started to punch him mercilessly while Ames himself raised his arms to protect his head and cried out for help.

“You bastard!” Jed repeated. “You could'a killed 'im!”

“I was just tryin' ta' help!” Ames protested. “Help! I didn't mean nothin'! Help!”

Jed managed to get in a couple of good punches before everyone else came to their senses and hands reached in to separate the two men. Surprising everyone, Kyle was right there, getting in between his boss and his friend and even took a couple of the blows meant for Ames. But by then other hands were pulling Jed away and the strikes didn't have quite the same punch behind them.

“C'mon Kid,” Kyle tried to reason. “He didn't mean nothin'.”

“Didn't mean nothin'!?” Jed was livid so neither Wheat nor Monty were letting him go. “He's goin' around settin' fires! He coulda' killed Heyes!”

“I's just tryin' ta' help!” Ames whined in his own defence. “I seen ya' goin' into the buildin's ta' flush fellas out, so I just figured I'd help ya'. I like Heyes—I wasn't tryin' ta' kill 'im...”

“Yeah, he's just tryin' ta' help,” Kyle stuck up for his friend.

Jed made another concerted rush at the young man, but Ames wisely kept Kyle between himself and his attacker. Wheat and Monty got a tighter hold and kept him back.

“You ever heard the screams of someone who was burnin' ta' death, Ames?” Kid threw at him with a snarl.

Ames kept his hands on Kyle's shoulders, making sure his bodyguard wasn't going anywhere. “No sir, I ain't....”

“Well if you ever do, I'm hopin' that it's a sound that'll haunt even your nightmares!” Jed yelled at him. “And I personally don't ever wanna hear that sound again—especially comin' from a FRIEND!”

“Yessir...”

“C'mon son,” said Monty, giving Jed a pat on the chest. “Calm down. He's sorry.”

“Yeah,” Wheat agreed, looking at the pale fear on Ames' face. “He won't be doin' that again. Will ya' Ames?”

“No sir.”

Next thing, Allie was in the mix putting herself in Jed's eye line and taking his attention away from the terrified Ames.

“They're right Jed,” she soothed him. “Come on. We know Heyes wasn't in there now, thank goodness. But now we have to focus on where he did get to. Alright? We have to find out what happened.”

Jed looked down into Allie's eyes and instantly began to calm himself. Allie smiled at him and brushed a hand against his soiled cheek.

“You alright?” she asked him.

Jed let loose a big sigh and then nodded. “Yeah.”

Monty gave him a slap on the back. “Good!” he said as he and Wheat released their hold on him. “You can help us get the rest of the prisoners rounded up. Then we can take stalk of who we don't have.”


Half an hour later it was a sorry group of long faces that were sitting down along the broken fence of the round corral. Ferguson, Charlie Jones, Brian Keats and Len Hutchinson sat with their hands cuffed behind them and wondering how the day had got so bad so fast. All around them structures were smouldering and smoke was rising up around Devil's Hole once again. Occasionally a blackened length of ashened timber would give in to its demise and thump to the ground, sending up a puff of dust and ash and the occasional chicken.

The four dirt and soot covered faces sent sidelong glances at one another, wondering what was coming next while members of the sheriff's posse strode back and forth in front of them.

“Okay, Wheat,” Lom finally began, “who we got here, and then who's missin'?”

“Well it's kinda hard ta' tell with all that dirt on 'em,” Wheat complained.

“Wheat,” Jed sent him a slightly threatening look.

“Give me a minute, Kid!” Wheat protested. “We wasn't with 'em all that long ya' understand.”

“That there is Charlie Jones,” Ames suddenly piped up, eager to make amends for his past transgressions. The look on Charlie's face was none too amiable. “And that's Hutch, and him next to 'im is Keats and that fella on the end is Fergie.”

“You little snitch,” Hutch sneered at Ames. “Just you wait....”

“Hey, after what happened to Orrie I don't feel no loyalty at all to you fellas!” Ames stuck up for himself. “Kyle here has showed me more friendship than any 'a you!”

“You and Orrison turned on us first!” Keats countered. “I don't blame Duncan fer not trustin' 'em!”

“And what about your pal Davis?” Jed asked the group. “What did he do?”

“What do ya' mean?” Keats asked. “Duncan offered that anybody who wanted out could leave, and Davis left. Ain't that right Fergie?”

Fergie stared at the ground and didn't answer. The other prisoners all looked over to their comrade and started feeling a little uneasy.

“That's right, ain't it Fergie?” Hutch questioned him. “Davis just rode out, right?”

“You gonna tell 'em Ferguson?” Lom asked. “Or should we?”

“Tell us what?” Jones asked. “What's he talkin' about?”

Ferguson continued to look at the ground, but then he coughed a little self-consciously and looked down the row of dirty, questioning faces. “Well, I got reason to believe that Davis didn't make it,” he informed the others.

“What do ya' mean 'didn't make it'?” came back the general enquiry.

“It would appear that Duncan had Davis killed shortly after he left here.”

“No!”

“I don't believe it!”

“I do,” said Ferguson, stopping the protest in mid-sentence. “In hindsight now, I could see it comin' and then after he killed Orrison, well....I want to apologize to you boys fer not puttin' a stop to it sooner. I just...well....” Fergie stopped then and simply stared at the ground, shaking his head.

There was a moment of silence while this next bit of bad news sunk in.

“Well,” Lom finally broke in upon their revelry, “who we got missin'? I know for sure the two fellas who were on look-out. I chased them for a bit but they got away from me. Who were they?”

He was met with stoic silence. Lom sighed heavily and turned back to his own group.

“Ames,” he asked. “who's missin'?”

Ames took another look at the faces that glared back at him.

“I'd say it was Jack and Wayne who was on look-out,” Ames informed the sheriff. “Them two always chummed up together.”

“Okay,” Lom nodded. “Who else?”

Ames shook his head and shrugged, he couldn't think of anyone else.

“That thievin' Mexican,” Wheat piped up, totally missing the irony of his description. “I never did trust that little...”

“Oh yeah!” Ames agreed. “Jose Yamis. I forgot all about him! He didn't really hang out at the bunkhouse all that much.”

“Yeah,” Hutch grumbled. “Now that you mention it; where was he the night Davis left? I remember him sittin' off by himself as usual when Davis left, but where'd he go after that?”

They all looked back and forth between themselves.

“I didn't see him until the next day,” Fergie commented. “What about the rest of ya'?”

Again more looks were passed around and everyone looked a little sick.

“Well,” Lom observed dryly. “Looks like we have a good idea who took out Davis.”

“That little bastard,” Jones cursed. “If I ever see him again....”

“Okay,” Lom brought their attention back to the matter at hand. “Anyone else you can think of ain't here?”

“Well, Duncan,” Wheat added with a shrug.

“Uh huh,” Lom agreed with the obvious. “Assuming that Jack and Wayne were the two look-outs then this Yamis is probably with his boss, and if they have Heyes....”

Kid's mouth hardened and he spoke up for the first time during these negotiations. “If they have Heyes then they're in for a whole lot more trouble than they bargained on.”

Lom sighed and sent a look over towards the smouldering ruins of the leader's cabin. “Well, things are probably cooled down enough by now that we can take a look around,” he commented. “Maybe we can find some tracks out back that'll give us some idea of what happened here.”


The three horses inside the burning cabin were once again wild-eyed and blowing at the slow flames that were licking their way up the walls inside the structure.  Karma was vaguely aware that her preferred human was in her presence, but the fire had her so stressed that she stayed joined up with the other horses.  Besides, her human wasn't making any effort to connect with her and all anyone could think about was a way out.

Yamis' eyes widened as he crossed himself and began to pray in Spanish.  Heyes grabbed the gag in his mouth with the intention of pulling it out and yelling for help to let people know that they were trapped in the building.  Duncan slapped him across the head then grabbed his arm and began dragging him towards the back of the cabin.

“Goddammit!”  he cursed.  “Yamis—grab the horses!”

“But, Senor, there is no way out!”  Yamis insisted.  “We are trapped!”

“Don't argue with me, you damned Mexican!”  Duncan swore at him.  “Do what I tell ya'!”

It was all Heyes could do to stay on his feet as Duncan dragged him across the room.  Both men were tripping over the broken furniture and now smoke was beginning to build, along with crackling flames, so visibility was getting worse.  Heyes started to cough and again tried to pull the gag out of his mouth, but again his hands were slapped down.  Duncan grabbed him by the collar and pulled him in close to his snarling face.

“Try it once more, Heyes, and I will shoot ya',”  he threatened.  “You wanna get outa this alive, then do as I say!”

Yamis' gelding screamed and reared in fright as the flames continued to eat up the rug and then jumped up and began to devour the shabby curtains as well.  Yamis grabbed hold of the animal's reins and tried to soothe him, but his own fear could not be masked and the horse tried to pull away, knocking over another chair and adding more kindling to the fire.

The gelding jumped around Yamis and pulled over towards the two mares but Yamis held on to the reins and went along with him.  He tried to grab hold of the mares' bridles but ran the risk of being trampled by the frightened animals since regard for his well-being was furthest from their minds.  The outlaw had no idea what he was supposed to do with the horses even if he did have control over them as the only way out was completely engulfed in flames.

But Duncan didn't seem too concerned about that.  He dragged Heyes to the back wall of the cabin and then let him go just long enough to heave against a section of the wall.  Heyes couldn't figure out what he was doing until he saw part of the wall begin to move.  A sliver of daylight began to show and Duncan pushed even harder.  The small section of wall slid over, revealing a two foot square opening, just big enough for the men to escape out of.

Heyes groaned.  As much as he wanted out of this furnace, the thought of leaving his two favourite horses trapped in the cabin to burn to death was more than he could bear.  But Duncan wasn't finished yet.  He took an axe down from its resting place on the wall and began to hack away at the boards above the opening.  Heyes frantically looked around, hoping to find another axe but there was no other so he had no way of helping to get the escape route widened.

Even with the opening in the back wall, the air in the cabin was getting so thick with smoke that Heyes' eyes were burning and tears streamed down his face.  He desperately wanted to remove the gag as he felt as though he was suffocating, but he dared not.  If they got out of this alive, then he'd worry about how to get out of this whole situation—alive—later!

It seemed to take an eternity, but in reality it was hardly seconds before Duncan had the opening hacked high enough for the horses to get through—at least the two smaller ones.  Duncan shouted at Yamis to bring the horses over and then he jumped through the opening without waiting to see if the others followed.  Of course they would.  He landed in the dirt at the back of the cabin and waited for Heyes to come through.  Then he had to jump out of the way as, instead of Heyes, Fannie suddenly plunged through the opening.  She was pretty wide and ended up taking some of the siding with her and added some scratches and gouges to Monty's good saddle, but she made it.

Duncan jumped forward and grabbed her reins as she reared and tried to pull away.  He held her tight, though, and in her fear she took comfort from the solid hold on her reins, even if this man was a stranger.

Next it was Heyes who came through and he had Karma's reins in his bound hands.  She nearly pulled him back inside the cabin when her raised head collided with the wall.  She was too tall to get through the opening without having to crouch and bring her head down but it's a reflex for a frightened horse to bring their heads up.  Instead of making herself smaller, she stiffened up and reared back in her panic.

Heyes was yanked off his feet and collided with the wall as Karma pulled back, but he refused to let go of her reins.  He scrambled back into the cabin and rushed to her head to try and calm her.  Yamis took that opportunity to run past Heyes and exit the burning building, dragging his little gelding behind him.  The smaller horse had no problem getting through the opening and Karma found herself without her equine support group.

Heyes stroked his mare's face and put his hands over her nostrils so that she was sure to get his scent.  This time he did pull the gag out of his mouth and, through the choking smoke, did his best to speak reassurances to her.

“C'mon Karma, easy,”  he choked.  “There's only one way out of here and you can do it.  Come on.”

As terrified as Karma was, she loved and trusted this human more than anybody else and, despite her fear, she trusted him now.  He took a step backwards trying not to panic as the fire began to surround them.  The heat was atrocious but he wasn't going to leave his mare behind.  Karma followed his lead as he jumped out through the opening again, and this time she lowered her head, crumpled her knees, and with a frantic rush, exploded out of the burning building nearly trampling everybody in her wake.

Heyes barely had time to find his footing when he felt rough hands grab him and the cold steel of a revolver was pushed against the side of his throat.

“You make one sound Heyes, or even try to get anyone's attention, I'll shoot you where you stand and then I'll shoot that precious mare just for good measure,”  Duncan hissed in his ear.  “You hear me?”

“Yeah,”  Heyes croaked out.

“Good!”

He gave Heyes another shove in the direction of Yamis who was already leading his horse along the creek bed towards the exit of the Hole.  Heyes stumbled but kept his footing and, leading Karma, he followed after Yamis.  Duncan brought up the rear with Fannie because even he know that for him to try and ride Karma under these stressful circumstances would end in nothing short of disaster.  He'd sort that mare out after he was done with Heyes.

The three men and three horses had no trouble leaving the area.  The foliage, the smoke, and the burning buildings gave them quite enough cover to pass by unnoticed.  Heyes caught a glimpse of one or two of his group running by, but everyone was so intent on the fires that they weren't looking for more fugitives.  His heart really sank when he spied Lom walking by, leading his horse.  His focus was on the two prisoners he was pushing along ahead of him and he was worrying over the commotion caused by the numerous fires.
 
Fifteen minutes later, the two fugitives and one hostage were free and clear of the buildings and the hold proper of the outlaw hideout.  A cautious look around informed them that the way was open and they made preparations to move out.  Duncan approached Heyes and, untying the bandana from around his neck, gave it a quick shaking out and went to re-gag the hostage.  Heyes stepped back before he could stop himself.

“Aw, c'mon!”  he complained.  “Who's gonna hear me yelling out here?”

“Me,”  Duncan told him and, pulling him closer, re-applied the gag.  Heyes glared at him with eyes smouldering like the fire they'd left behind.  “You might just make a handy hostage Heyes, but I sure don't need to listen to your sniveling for the rest of the day.”

“S..i...mmmm...v...l...n...g!”  Heyes growled through the gag.

“C'mon, get on the horse.”  Duncan pivoted Heyes around so that he faced his saddle and Karma. 

Seeing no immediate way out of the situation, Heyes grabbed the horn with his bound hands and stepping into the stirrup he pulled himself into the saddle.  Duncan reached up and taking the loose ends of the bindings, he tied Heyes' hands to the saddle horn.  Heyes slumped. 

“There ya' go,”  Duncan smiled as he gave the hostage a pat on the leg.  “Safe and sound.”  He turned and mounted up on Fannie who shifted anxiously still afraid of the fire.  No longer a one-man horse after so many years on the ranch, she obediently swung around as Duncan reined her about.  “Okay, Yamis, let's get the hell out'a here!”

Yamis didn't need any more prompting and the three horses were pushed into a gallop onto the trail and away from Devil's Hole.

 
Wheat, Kyle, Ames, Feeley and Joe kept watch over the prisoners while Lom, Jed and Monty began sifting through what was left of the leader's cabin.  Truth be told, there wasn't much left and kicking through the layers of ash and burnt wood only produced the occasional 'clank' as a toe hit against the coffee pot  or a tin dish.  About the only thing still left standing besides a couple of the supporting beams was once again, the good ole' trusty wood stove and it had now seen better days.
 
“There's nothin' here gonna tell us anything,”  Lom muttered to the Kid.  “At least there ain't no bodies, man or horse.”
 
“Yeah,”  Jed nodded.  “Still, there's somethin' I wanna take a look for if we got a minute.”
 
Lom nodded.  “Okay, but make it quick. We don't want to give Duncan too big a head start.”

“I'm well aware of that Lom,” Kid assured him, “but this is important.”
 
 Lom nodded again and went over to where Monty was standing at the rear of the structure.  As Lom approached, the older man squatted down and examined the ground around the apparent exit route.
 
“Well,”  Lom commented,  “I seem to recall Heyes sayin' that you were a fair tracker.  You makin' anything out'a that?”
 
Monty didn't say anything at first, but just continued to stare at the ground and move some of the pebbles out of the way.  He stood up, walked a couple of paces and squatted down again.
 
“Maybe,”  he finally answered.  “Looks like they coulda' got out this way.  It's kinda' messy though.  A couple of scuffed boot prints here,”  he stood up and walked a bit further and pointed to the ground.  “Part of a hoof print here.”  He straightened up and putting his hands on his hips he looked in the direction of the Hole's entrance.
 
Lom came up beside him.  “What are ya' thinkin'?”
 
“Well, son, I'm thinkin' if they got out, that's the only way they coulda' gone.”
 
“That means they would have gone right past me,”  Lom growled.  “Dammit!”
 
“Yup,”  Monty agreed.  “And right past them bounty hunters as well.”
 
“Yeah,”  Lom grumbled.  “Or right smack dab into 'em.”
 
The two men exchanged looks and Monty sent a spit out to the side.

“Do you trust 'em?” Monty asked the lawman.

“I gotta admit I've had my doubts,” Lom confessed. “I was hopin' that getting' paid just to join us, and then gettin' all the rewards due on this gang on top of that, they'd stay loyal—but now?” he sent a worried expression towards the hideout entrance himself. “We better get movin' here pretty quick. I got a bad feelin' about this.”
 
 
Inside the smoking shell of the leader's cabin, Jed had surmised the location of the main bedroom and was rummaging through the detritus left behind by the fire.  Part of the wrought iron bed frame was still in attendance and bits and pieces of the mattress and even part of the quilted bed spread could be discerned.  Most of the wooden furniture that had once occupied this room now consisted mainly of burnt shards of wood and partially blackened boards from the dresser.
 
He kicked around in this area a little bit, looking very much like a man on a mission.  The toe of his boot pushed through the ash, dredging up bits of glass from the mirror, some porcelain from the water basin and jug and even what was left from a hard covered book.  None of these things were of interest to him and with a focused expression through the grime and sweat on his face, he continued to push through the gray layers covering the floor.
 
He was beginning to get frustrated with the search, thinking perhaps that it just wasn't here when his toe came up against something solid, but light weight.  He tried to push it up out of the ash but it was so light his toe just pushed it further along the floor.  He stooped and brushing away the gray flakes, he smiled as a tinge of metal shone through.  Picking it up he brushed away the dirt and ash and grinned even more; he'd found it. 
 
The small case was scorched at one end, but still intact and Jed didn't think Heyes would mind that little bit of added history.  He pressed the latch and the lid opened easily to reveal the contents within. A brush and a folded razor both adorned with exquisite pearl handles along with a small mirror and a plate for shaving cream were all safely nestled within.  On the inside of the lid was the inscription; 'To my love; forever in my heart.  Christmas 1890.  Abi.
 
Jed nodded, snapped the case shut again and tucked it away in his breast pocket.  Now all they had to do was find Heyes—alive.  He'd worry about how to deal with Duncan later.  It was then that he heard Wheat's voice coming from the direction of the prisoners.  It had taken on that high pitched tone that it tends to do when Wheat is feeling stressed or put upon.  Jed snorted and shook his head, wondering what had gotten that old reprobate upset this time.  But then he heard Allie's unmistakable feminine tones adding to the disturbance and decided it was time to check out what was going on.



Scott had taken Allie away from the groups of men in order to give her some quiet support until they knew for sure that neither her friend, nor any of the horses had been caught in that blaze. Allie had calmed herself down in order to help bring Jed back to earth, but now she was pacing back and forth and wringing her hands with stress as she kept looking over towards the burned out cabin.


“Why won't they say anything?” Allie complained as she watched the men sifting through the remains. “They must know that we're worried.”


“They're just busy Allie, leave them be,” Scott placated his wife. “I think if there had been any bodies in there—man or beast—they'd be pretty obvious. Do you think Jed would be casually walking around in there if he'd come across Heyes or any of the horses?”

Allie crossed her arms and pursed her lips with a sigh. She stared over at the tall blond gunman and thought about her husband's words.

“No, I suppose you're right,” she conceded. Her expression hardened as her focused changed and she stared over at the prisoners. “If those men hadn't stolen Karma in the first place, none of us would have been put into any danger.”

“Oh now, Allie. Let's not----Allie! Wait!”

But Allie had a bee in her bonnet and all the fear and stress she'd been feeling over the possible loss of her friend and the horses now turned to anger towards those she deemed responsible. Ignoring her husband, she stomped off to confront the outlaws and didn't much care who tried to stop her.

“Allie, come on.” Scott ran to catch up with her and put a hand on her arm.

She shrugged it off and continued over to the group.

“Hey, Miss Allie,” Kyle tried to step in front of her. “What'cha doin'?”

“Don't you worry about it Kyle,” she told him as she deftly sidestepped him. “I just want to have a word with these 'gentlemen'.”

“No ma'am,” Joe stepped up as the official lawman in attendance. “I can't let you do that.”

“Don't be silly Joe!” Allie told him. “I just want to ask these men why they saw fit to repeatedly return to our ranch and rustle so many of our young horses.” Then she sidestepped Joe and looked directly at the group of seated prisoners. They all stared back at her, feeling a little daunted. “You nearly ruined us!” she told them with an angry stamp of her foot. “What was so special about our stock!?”

This accusation was met with stunned silence for a moment, then Fergie cleared his throat and stood up.

“What are you doin'!” Wheat demanded as he stepped between them. “You set yourself back down there.”

“I'm just addressin' that lady's question,” Fergie explained in his own defence. “I know enough of my manners ta' know ya' stand up when addressin' a lady.” he met Allie's eyes and tipped his head. “I'd remove my hat too ma'am, but as you can see, I'm at a disadvantage.”

Allie smiled and nodded back, feeling at a slight disadvantage with this outlaw, horse thief, rustler being so polite to her. It was not what she had expected.

“Well, alright,” Wheat conceded. “I suppose that's okay. But don't you try nothin'!”

Fergie glanced over at Joe as the legal authority and waited his permission. Joe sighed then nodded.

“Alright,” he agreed. “I suppose the Medgars' have a right to know why you repeatedly targeted them. Just make sure you stay put.”

Fergie nodded and then glanced down at the other gang members. They were all looking back at him with a certain amount of anxiety; rustlin' horses was a hangin' offence after all.

Fergie turned back to Allie.

“Ma'am, we never stole your horses,” he said quite bluntly. “Fer one thing, this gang's only been together fer about a year and we been too busy robbin' trains and such to be stealin' horses.”
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Keays

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Posts : 1431
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 60
Location : Camano Island Washington

PostSubject: Chapter twelve A Rock and a Hard Place   Sun Mar 23, 2014 2:53 am

Kyle hooted and Wheat snorted in disgust.

“Then why was Duncan goin' around actin' like Heyes' mare belonged ta' him?” Wheat countered. “Even if it weren't this whole gang, everyone knows the Duncan brothers were a pair 'a horse thieves and you've been runnin' with them fer years!”

Fergie swallowed, feeling the noose tightening around his neck but seeing no way out of it. “Yeah, and that's what got Gerald hanged too. After that me and Tom got outa that line—too dangerous. And even at that, ma'am,” Fergie continued politely, “we never stole that filly 'a yers. I'd 'a remembered her. And we sure never went back to the same place twice.”

“Well somebody was doing it!” Allie was getting frustrated; she thought they had the rustlers dead to rights.

“And again,” Wheat was also getting mad. “how come Duncan's insistin' that mare is his, if'n he didn't steal her in the first place!”

“Well,” Fergie thought about it a second. “when Tom and Gerald were still runnin' animals they weren't above buyin' and sellin' stolen goods from others in the same line. Anything fer a profit—you know. Why I know fer a fact that the previous Devil's Hole Gang used to buy stolen horses, that ain't nothin' new....”

Allie's eyes opened wide in shock and she turned on Wheat like a rattle snake ready to strike. “You used to buy stolen horses!?”

Wheat backed up a step, the pitch in his voice rising slightly in his own defence. “Oh well....I can't say as they was stolen....”

“You were supporting the very people who were ruining us!” Allie accused him.

“Okay Allie, that's enough,” Scott tried to step in between them. “We can get this sorted out later.”

“What's the problem here folks?” Jed asked innocently as he joined the group.

Allie turned on him with fire in her eyes. “You and Heyes were buying stolen horses!?” she accused him.

“What...?” Jed was taken aback.

“He...!” Allie pointed an accusing finger towards Fergie. “has just stated that the Devil's Hole Gang—your Devil's Hole Gang—made a common practice of buying stolen horses! Is that how Heyes got Karma!? Did he buy her off of the very rustlers her stole her from us!?”

“What!?” Kid demanded. “No! That's not how he got her and you know that. Besides.....the year you said Karma was stolen, Heyes and I had already left Devil's Hole and were goin' straight. And he didn't get Karma for somethin' like three years after that. Wheat was runnin' things up here at that time.”

Allie spun back towards Wheat and that ex-outlaw sent Kid an exasperated look just before Allie attacked him with a finger poking his chest.

“So it was you!” Allie insisted. “buying my horses from those....”

“Now hang on, Miss Allie, now that ain't fair,” Wheat told her. “Them boys we used to buy from were local fella's, they wouldn't 'a been rustlin' up your way.”

“No, now that ain't entirely correct,” Fergie informed them, admittedly getting some perverse pleasure out of the commotion he'd started. “Them Mathison boys used to travel far and wide to find quality stock ta' steal. I know fer a fact that more than one of them herds came from ranches in Colorado.”

Allie's eyes widened yet again and her lungs expanded in preparation for another outburst when someone else beat her to it.

“ALRIGHT!”

Everyone jumped and turned to face Joe. My that lad had a good set of lungs when he chose to use them.

“Enough of this!” the deputy ordered. “All this yellin' back and forth isn't getting anybody anywhere.” he looked over to Fergie who had sat himself back down again. “You said the Mathisons?”

“Ahh,”

“Oh, good goin' Fergie,” Hutch snarked. “first ya' rat out on Duncan, now you do it to the Mathison boys as well?”

“Ah hell!” Fergie spit in the dirt. “I don't even know if them boys are still in business.”

“They are,” came Lom's voice from behind the group. All heads turned to the big lawman. “The Mathison family have been rustlin' stock all over Wyoming, Colorado and Montana—maybe even the Dakota's but damned if we've been able to track 'em down.” He looked over to Fergie. “If you know where their stock pens are, you just might save yourself from hangin' as one of 'em.”

All eyes returned to Ferguson and he was looking none too pleased.


Ten minutes later, Lom sent a quick glance towards the prisoners who were still being watched over by Wheat, Kyle and Feeley. Ames was sitting quietly to the side and keeping a close eye on Curry. He didn't care what the others decided; he was going wherever Kyle went.

“If what Ferguson described to me is correct,” Lom commented, “then the Mathison place is in the jurisdiction of Murreyville.”

Jed groaned. “You must be kiddin' me. I ain't goin' anywhere near there; that's Morrison's town.”

“Yeah, I know,” Lom agreed, “but it's likely we won't have to deal with him. Last I heard Mike Schomacher is pretty much runnin' the show there now. And doin' a mighty fine job of it too.”

“I suppose,” Jed conceded. “But as far as I'm concerned we've done what Jesse hired us to do and then some. I have two priorities right now; one is gettin' Heyes back and the other is gettin' home. I got personal matters to attend to.”

“But Heyes agreed to help us take down those rustlers,” Allie reminded the Kid. “You can't just back out on us now!”

“That's when we thought it was Duncan who was doin' it!” Jed pointed out. “And besides, we have helped ya'. Ya' know who's doin' it and ya' know where they are. I say let the law handle it from here on in. I gotta get home.”

“I understand that Kid,” Lom agreed, “but after we get Heyes back, I think we have an obligation to let Schomacher know about this. And he might need us; who knows how many deputies he has or how many ranchers in the area would be willin' ta' help out. We gotta a least offer.”

“Aw, c'mon Lom; you don't need us!” Jed pushed his point. “Rick Layton has his spread near there and I'm sure he'd be willin' ta' help out. They've probably been hittin' his stock too. Plus you have them bounty hunters to help ya' out.”

Lom snorted. “Yeah. I donno about them fellas. I told 'em to round up them steers, not disappear with 'em. Kinda' surprises me, knowin' they were gonna get well paid for this job. But maybe they decided them steers would bring 'em more.”

“That's what ya' get for hirin' bounty hunters, Lom,” Jed groused. “They ain't the most reliable breed 'a man.”

“Oh now, they ain't all bad,” Lom countered. “I've worked with a few who were pretty honourable.”

“Yeah?” Jed was sceptical. “Name one.”

“Well from what you and Heyes told me about Joe Simms, I'd say he was one!” Lom shot back, feeling a little defensive. “And personally, I've worked with Josh Randall a few times and he's a good man too. He always brought his bounty in alive if he could and he treated 'em fair so don't tell me there ain't none that are worth trustin'!”

“Yeah, yeah okay.” Jed sure couldn't argue about Simms and he had to admit that he'd heard the same about Randall from other sources as well. Curry was just thankful that he and Heyes had never come up against him. They very well might not have come out on top.

“C'mon, we're wastin' time here,” Lom pointed out. “The longer we stand around arguin' about it, the further Duncan is gonna get. We split up. Northrup is already on their trail so I suggest that you, me and Scott follow up on that. Joe, you and Mrs. Medgar will head to Porterville with the prisoners. Wheat, Kyle and Feeley can go with ya' just to make sure they get there alright.”

Instantly Joe and Allie were putting in protests.

“Those are my horses—you can't shut me out of this!” Allie insisted.

“I'm coming with you!” Joe insisted. “I have an obligation....”

Lom held up his hands to silence the peanut gallery. “Quiet! Now first off; Mrs. Medgar goin' after those outlaws is gonna be dangerous. Against my advice Heyes and your husband allowed you to come this far, but NOBODY is going to over rule me on this. You're going back to Porterville and that's final. Now I can't force your husband to come with us, but I could sure use him. That's up to you Scott, but you better decide quick cause we're headin' out.”

“But Sheriff Trevors, I....”

“Allie, listen to the man!”  Scott insisted angrily.  “I happen to agree with the sheriff.  This could get very dangerous and I don't want you along either.”  Allie growled, arms crossed, and a scowl on her face. She knew she was defeated and didn't like it one bit.  “I know you don't like Feeley,” Scott continued.  “and I don't blame you for that, but you seem to have a trusting relationship with Wheat and Kyle.  So just stay close to them and you'll be fine.”

“But Scott, I have a right...”

“And our children have a right to their mother!” Scott cut her off. “And I have a right to my wife. You're not comin' with us Allie. If you insist on behaving like this I'll have you tied to your horse like one of those outlaws—and you know I'll do it!”

Allie's eyes widened in indignation. “You wouldn't dare!”

“I would—and you know it!” Scott insisted. “You're not coming with us!”

Allie humphed and turning her back on her husband she stomped off to spend time with Swift. At least her horse understood her!

Scott sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Boy oh boy. Sometimes that woman....”

Lom and Jed were grinning at him.

“Is it settled now?” Lom asked him.

“Yes,” Scott assured him. “It's settled.”

“Good!”

“No it ain't!” Joe piped up. “Now I respect your authority on most things here, Sheriff Trevors. But I work for Sheriff Jacobs, not you. And Jacobs put me in charge of Heyes, to make sure he didn't get into any trouble. Now dammit, if he ain't gone and done it. He's my responsibility. Of all of us it's me and Jed who should be goin' after him, but we'd be happy to accept your help if you're that way inclined.”

Lom found himself smiling at the young man's tenacity. “I ain't doubtin' your capability Deputy,” he assured Joe, “it's just that I can't help but notice that you're pretty beat up. It might be best if you....”

“I'm fine!” Joe insisted.

“I donno, Joe,” Jed commented. “Your finger's broke, ya' got a bullet hole in yer arm and a pin hole in yer foot. You might just be slowin' us down.”

Joe got really riled then. “I have yet to slow you fellas down! In fact I've helped ya' outa more than one scrape! It's the finger on my left hand that's broke, not my gun hand and as long as I keep it taped up it hardly hurts at all! The pin hole in my foot only hurts if I step on it a certain way—so I don't step on it that way! And as for the hole in my arm; again it's the left—not the right and between you, Heyes and Allie playin' nurse maid to it, it's healin' up just fine! I'm goin'! Even if ya' threaten to tie me to my horse as well.....”

Jed started laughing, despite worry for his partner. “Whoa, whoa! I'm just teasin' ya' Joe. You're right; you ain't let us down yet.” he turned to Lom. “If it's all the same to you Lom, I'd prefer that Joe come with us. We all started out on this job together and I think we'd all like to finish it together. And he's got a point; Sheriff Jacobs did put him in charge of mindin' Heyes and it sure wouldn't look good if he walked out on that now.”

Lom considered this for a moment and then nodded. “Yeah, I suppose Wheat and Kyle can handle that group over there. It only a couple of days ride to Porterville and they have proved themselves to be capable. I'm beginning to see why Heyes kept them on at Devil's Hole after he took over. Wheat's a bit of a hard head, but he does get the job done. Alright. Let's get organized and get goin'. Daylights wastin'.”



 Gus and Wes had been stunned by the scene that met them as they entered Devil’s Hole.  Although they were still some distance from the cabins, they could see the burning buildings and hear the screams of frantic men and animals.  A haze hung over the valley and the acrid smell of the fire made it difficult to breath.  Both men pulled their bandanas up over their noses and breathed through the cotton fabric. 

“Gus, what’s goin’ on?  I thought they were arrestin’ outlaws, not burnin’ ‘em out!”

“I always thought Heyes was a lowdown, dirty thief but I never figured he’d turn like this on his own kind.  Man deserves to be put down like a rabid dog if’n you ask me.”  Gus spit out his disgust and wiped a sleeve across his mouth.  “We’re gonna have to go in real careful-like if we’re gonna have a chance of roundin’ up Heyes and Curry.  Keep your eyes open.  We’ll angle in to the right and keep that patch of forest between us and the cabins, or what’s left of ‘em.” 

Stainton pulled his gun and checked the cylinder.  Satisfied that he was carrying a full load, he held his gun in his right hand, picked up his reins in the left, and clucked softly to his horse to walk on.  Wes pulled his gun as well and mimicked his friend’s actions.

They hadn’t ridden very far and they were still picking their way through the tall scrub oaks and pine trees when they heard the sound of hoof beats bearing down on them.  Gus gestured for Wes to dismount as he swung off his own horse and ducked low behind the bushes screening them from the oncoming riders.  He watched in amazement as three riders galloped past.  Heyes was in the middle of the other two, riding with his hands tied to the saddle horn and a gag in his mouth.  It didn’t take long for Gus to realize that someone was stealing his paycheck.  Wes started to open his mouth, but Gus punched him hard in the arm to shut him up.  They watched as the riders disappeared into the canyon and then Gus stood up and climbed into his saddle. 

“Well, hurry it up,” he snapped at Wes, “Ten thousand dollars just rode by.”

“But what about Curry?” asked Wes.

“You gone stupid on me?  Everyone knows where Heyes goes, Curry follows.  We get our hands on Heyes and Curry’ll ride into our laps.”

Wes beamed, “Hell, Gus, you’re damned smart!”

“Soon I’m gonna be damned rich.  You, too,” laughed Gus, picking up a lope.  He could hear the faint sounds of gunshots outside the Hole and wondered if his job just got easier.  Good ol’ Blake and Lee probably got those three as they rode out of the slot canyon.

 
The horses dodged and darted through the heavy underbrush shielding the south end of the Hole and Heyes gripped Karma tightly with his legs, guiding her as best he could.  It took some effort on his part to follow the quick shifting of his mare as she sped along between Fannie and the other horse.  He watched Duncan, ahead of him, ruthlessly raking the older mare, driving her on with his cruelty.  The smaller mare had her ears pinned back, angered by her rider, but she was well-trained enough that she did her best to please him.  Heyes could see the faint blossom of blood staining Duncan’s heels and he vowed to teach the man a hard lesson about treating his animals so poorly. 

The Mexican was cussing in his own language and tossing nervous glances over his shoulder.  Heyes tried to see behind him, but he couldn’t twist around far enough to tell whether or not they were being followed.  He only hoped that the Kid realized fast enough that he hadn’t died in the cabin.  Heyes had no illusions about his life expectancy in Duncan’s hand. 

The cool shade of the deep canyon met them as they galloped into it.  There were confused steers lingering about, spooking at the horses, and then drifting along behind them as they passed.  Heyes wondered why he wasn’t dead yet.  Most likely, Duncan was using him as insurance.  After all, he had to know that the Kid would be tailing them, but then he remembered the man’s growled instructions to Yamis that he be taken alive.  Duncan was planning to kill him slowly.  A shiver ran up his sweaty back, chilling his skin, and raising his hair on end.  He had to come up with a plan and fast. 

They burst out of the far end of the canyon and Heyes saw before him a small herd of cattle being rounded up by two of Stainton’s men.  The men looked up in surprise.  One man reached for his gun, but Duncan shot him before he could clear leather.  The other man spun his horse about and took off riding hard for the safety of the distant trees.  Duncan roughly pulled up Fannie and she slid to a stop, Karma nearly colliding into her hind end and tipping Heyes onto her neck.  Yamis pulled up next to the ex-outlaw and yanked him upright; holding onto him, making sure he stayed still.

Duncan lifted his pistol and sighted down the barrel aiming at the fleeing rider.  An ugly laugh escaped him as he pulled the trigger.  His target tumbled off the back of the galloping horse and lay motionless.

“See that, Yamis?  Hell, I’d bet that was almost seventy yards!” said Duncan, gleefully, totally unconcerned about shooting a man in the back.

The Mexican glanced quickly at Heyes and he could see the disgust in the smaller man’s eyes, but it evaporated as the outlaw forced a grin onto his face.  “Si, Senor Tom; that was very fine shooting.”

Duncan rode Fannie towards the two downed men.  The first man was still breathing.  Duncan pulled his gun again and summarily executed the man without hesitation.  He rode over to the second man and, satisfied he was dead, waved to Yamis to join him.  The coppery mare picked up a gallop again and led the way across the grassy field scattering the herd of steers and sending them in all directions.  None of the riders realized they had been spotted.


“Gus, did you see that?  He shot ‘em.  He shot poor Lee in the back!” Wes was furious.  He and Lee went back a long way, since their kid days, long before they’d hooked up with Gus.  And now his friend was dead.

“I saw it.  Must be Duncan.  We’ll get the sonavabitch, Wes.  He’ll pay,” said Gus, grimly.  He picked up a slow jog alongside the churned up tracks.  They’d have no problem staying out of sight and following the outlaws’ trail.  “We’re gonna have to take them by surprise.  I ain’t letting that murderin’ scum get a bead on either of us.”  Wes nodded his relieved agreement.

 
Allie had been angry when she’d mounted Swift and had bid her husband good-bye and, now, hours later, she was still resentful at being cut out of the chase.  She understood Scott’s concerns, but they’d always been partners in everything and she hated him for ordering her to stay.  She also worried for him and his safety as well as Heyes’.  It ate at her that she didn’t know what was happening.

Wheat and Kyle rode alongside the prisoners and Ames led the way, leaving Feeley to ride behind them.  Allie could feel his eyes looking her over.  She glanced back at the man, but he boldly stared into her eyes and she read the desire there.  Her skin crawled.  She’d have to be very, very careful around him, but she was armed and ready.  Ruth had loaned her a derringer and, like her mother was wont to do, and Allie had it concealed under her split leather skirt.  It would be easy enough for her to reach it through the cut out pocket lining.

Closing her legs, she asked Swift to pick up a jog, and she pulled up alongside Wheat, who turned and smiled at her.  “You alright, Miss Allie?” said the big man.

“I am; thank you, Wheat.”  She smiled back at him.  She was feeling better now that she’d put some distance between herself and that smarmy man.  “How long do you think it will take us to get back to Porterville?”

Wheat was surprised by the question.  He known she was mad at being sent back to town and he’d seen her looking over her shoulders several times over the last few hours as though she’d been thinking about defying her husband.  He’d been given strict orders by the Kid and Lom to hog-tie her if she tried anything.  He’d also been praying she wouldn’t.  “Couple a days, I guess.”

 “Could we make it any faster?”

Wheat looked at her sideways.  “I reckon.  You in a hurry to get there?”

“I am now,” she said as she heard Feeley riding up behind her.

 
Monty and Jed stood by Lee’s body staring down at the gaping hole in his chest where the bullet had plowed through.  Scott, Joe, and Lom sat their horses around the two men.  They’d already found Blake’s body.  Rigor mortis had set in on Lee and Northrup had been unable to close the man’s eyes.  It was unsettling him so he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out to copper pennies.  Kneeling down, he placed them on the dead man’s sightless eyes.  “Ain’t no time to bury these boys.  We should pick up the bodies on our way back.”

“How far ahead do you reckon they are?” Lom leaned one arm over his saddle horn.

“Couple of hours, maybe more.  Takes a corpse a while to stiffen up like this,” said Monty, standing up and knocking the loose grass off his pants.

Jed was studying the tracks leading away from the meadow.  “Looks like they went that way,” he said, pointing to the south.

“Yep, and from the looks of it, Stainton and Wes followed them.  See these tracks over here.  They’re coverin’ the others, but they ain’t much fresher.  My guess is Stainton saw or heard the killings and took off after Duncan.  We better hurry it up.  No tellin’ what’s gonna happen when he catches up with those desperadoes.”

Stepping up into his stirrup, Jed pulled himself up onto Gov and waited as Monty mounted.  Northrup was riding one of the outlaws’ horses and the animal fidgeted as he tried to get on.  Once mounted, he led the way, following the tracks at a steady lope.  

Jed rode alongside his friend, grim-faced and silent, his thoughts fueled by his fears.  He was determined to catch up to Duncan as quickly as possible; before the man had a chance to harm Heyes.  He was grateful that Stainton had picked up the pursuit already and was putting pressure on the outlaws.  Duncan wouldn’t risk stopping until he had to. 

 
By dusk, Duncan had led them out of the foothills and had turned south skirting along the grasslands, staying within the trees.  He had kept an eye on the back trail.  The dust cloud he’d seen trailing them a few hours ago seemed to have disappeared.  The forest that concealed them might conceal pursuers as well, but he couldn’t be sure they’d gotten clean away.

The horses were tired after the hard ride so they rode along in a dog trot; covering some ground while saving what was left of their energy.  Finally, it got too dark to continue and the riders pulled up. 

Duncan dismounted and walked over to where Heyes sat Karma, Yamis holding the lead rope on her.  The mare pinned her ears back as the hated human approached her, and sidled away. 

“Bitch!” said Duncan, swinging at her, but she pulled her head up and out of his reach as Yamis scrambled to stay with her. 

Duncan pulled loose the knot securing Heyes to the saddle horn then grabbed Heyes by his arm and yanked him from the saddle, letting the bound man fall onto the ground with a grunt.  Heyes rolled onto his back and stared up defiantly at his captor.  Duncan kicked him hard in the ribs and then pulled the lariat from Karma’s saddle.  Dropping the loop over Heyes’ head he pulled the rope tight and half-dragged a crawling, stumbling, choking Heyes to a tall pine.  Yamis brought over another lariat and the two outlaws tied their prisoner’s feet together and bound him securely to the tree. 

“Let’s see you get out of this one,” chuckled Duncan, giving him one last kick for good measure. 

Brown eyes glared angrily up at him and, for one second, Tom Duncan felt afraid.  That made him meaner.  He grabbed his nemesis’ shirtfront and pulled Heyes to within inches of his face letting the ropes dig into his neck and hands.  “You know what you are, Heyes?  You’re a dead man, only you don’t know it yet.  Don’t you worry none; I’ll give you plenty of time to figure it out."

Heyes locked eyes with his tormentor, but his mind was going a mile a minute trying to come up with a plan to get out of this mess.  He tried to avoid killing anyone, but Tom Duncan had him thinking hard on it.  


Gus and Wes pulled up their horses when darkness fell and made a cold camp for the night.  They’d kept about a mile behind their quarry all evening.  Close enough to close the gap easily, but far enough away that they wouldn’t be heard.  Stainton was confident that the outlaws had stopped for the night as well.  It was only a sliver of a moon and there wasn’t enough light to travel by.  They were out there somewhere close by.

Wes dug into the opened can he held in his hand, shoveled a spoonful of slimy, cold beans into his mouth, and chewed.  He couldn’t get his mind off Lee.  Duncan hadn’t even given him a chance to surrender, had just shot him dead, and smiled about it afterward.  He’d been able to see that smile from a long ways away.  He wondered why he was surprised by that.  He’d seen all kinds of outlaws during his years of bounty hunting.  Many were brutal, cruel men. 

There weren’t many like Heyes and Curry, neither.  He’d grown to almost like those two over the past days.  They seemed like decent-enough sorts.  Why, they were straight now and had rich ranchers and lawmen for friends.  He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to have any part of turning them over to that railroad baron.  That was against the law and, despite being in a profession most looked down on, Wes had a sense of integrity. 

Still, if Heyes had been responsible for setting those fires to burn the outlaws out, maybe he did deserve what Gus had planned for him. He looked at Gus, who was devouring his own cold dinner and unaware of his friend’s thoughts.  He’d help Gus get Duncan, that was for sure, but he wasn’t so sure about taking in Heyes and Curry.  Still, he had enough sense not to let Gus know his current line of thinking.  He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

Gus was planning.  He wanted to make his move soon.  By now, someone would’ve realized that Duncan, Heyes, and that Mexican fella were gone.  He knew Curry was out there somewhere hot on their tail and desperate to catch up to his partner.  He wanted to be sure to have Heyes in his own hands before that happened. 

They were damn close to Murreyville.  He’d had some dealing with the law there before, but he’d have to be careful this time.  That Marshal Morrison was the one that had cleaned out Devil’s Hole the last time and it was common knowledge he had a burr under his saddle when it came to Hannibal Heyes.  Still, he could get rid of Duncan and Yamis easily enough.  He’d let Morrison know that he’d been working with the law out of Porterville.  Maybe even tell him that he had Heyes helping him before Duncan could mention the famous ex-outlaw; after all, Heyes was known to work for the governor now and then. 

Morrison had no jurisdiction in going after a free man.  He’d be long gone with Heyes before anyone figured out what he was up to, but he’d have to forget about Curry.  It was too risky trying to get them both now.  Curry would be riding with the law and there’d be too many witnesses even if he could think of a way to get him alone.  That railroad baron would have to settle for Heyes, alive as requested.  Curry would never find him and Gus could take his cash and high-tail it to Mexico. With or without Wes.

“Wes,” he said, capturing the other man’s attention, “we need to make our move tonight.  We can’t wait.  Curry’s gonna be hell-bent on gettin’ his partner back.”

Wes looked up and listened, but said nothing.  Gus was stating the obvious.

“I’m thinkin’ we go in an hour or so before dawn.  It’ll be the darkest part of the night and the watch will be tired.  We’ll have the advantage.”

“I reckon you’re right.”

“We’ll go in on foot.  Take our time and leave the horses here so we don’t make no noise.  We can creep closer in soon and then wait until we hear where they are.  We’ll hunker down there and then take them later.”

“I’m ready when you are, Gus.”

Duncan let Yamis sleep for a couple of hours and then sent him out on watch at midnight.  He was tired and he was the boss, so he was going to sleep.  Heyes had already dozed off hours ago after realizing that Duncan wasn’t planning to feed him.  It had made more sense for him to sleep and rest up than to worry at the ropes that bound him too tightly.  He’d rubbed his wrists raw and had made no progress in loosening his bindings. 

He’d watched, stone-faced, working the ropes, as the two men consumed a meal of jerky and hard biscuits.  Yamis had stood up at one point with a biscuit in hand, but Duncan had harshly told him that he wasn’t wasting precious food on a dead man.  So Heyes had allowed himself to doze off, knowing he needed his strength to stay sharp.


Gus crept forward through the undergrowth.  It was windy and the branches were swaying with the breeze, but it worked to his and Wes’ advantage as the vegetation creak and crackle with the motion masking any inadvertent noises they made.  Wes was twenty yards to his left and working his way around to the other side of the rough camp ahead.  There was barely enough moonlight for Gus to make out the profile of a small man leaning against a tree on the edge of the grassland.  Wes would deal with him while Gus flanked the others.

Kneeling close the ground, Gus heard an odd rustling and peeked up over the bushes to see that the sentry was gone.  That was one problem dealt with.  He began moving slowly to the right.

Yamis had crumpled to the ground after Wes had struck him with the butt of his gun.  Using his bandana to gag the unconscious man, Wes tied him up with a few pieces of latigo and dragged him out into the grasslands where he couldn’t make much noise if he woke up unexpectedly.  Carefully re-entering the forest, Wes worked his way to the camp without making a sound.  He crouched down at the edge of the clearing and waited for Gus’ signal.

One of the horses, smelling the strangers nearby and thinking it was breakfast time, nickered hopefully.  Gus saw the inert, bulky bedroll, and when his gaze shifted to the bound man tied to the tree nearby, he could feel Heyes’ eyes on him.  How could he know where he was? 

Without waiting another second, he stood up and plunged into the camp his gun drawn and aimed at Duncan.  Wes emerged from the other side of the camp, the bushes rustling madly with his passing, and his rifle trained on the still sleeping outlaw.  The two bounty hunters paused, waiting for Duncan to rouse, but he continued to snore softly.  Gus grinned at Wes and nodded.  Stepping forward, Wes poked the barrel of his rifle into the softness of the canvas sleeping bag.  The bag shifted and Duncan farted loudly while rolling onto his back.

  “God dammit, Yamis, it ain’t mornin’ yet; what the hell d’you want?”  He opened his eyes, and was shocked to find two men peering down at him with their weapons at the ready.  “Hey, what’s goin’ on?”

“Take it easy, Duncan, and we won’t kill you,” said Gus warningly.

“Duncan?  My name’s Davis.”

“No, it ain’t.  You’re Tom Duncan and you’re a murderin’ liar,” growled Wes, shoving his rifle into Duncan’s side.  “We’re turning you over to the law and collecting the reward.”

“Ow!” the outlaw cried out and glared up at the dark-haired man standing over him.  Bounty hunters; just his luck.  “Look, maybe we can make a deal here.  See that man tied up over there…”

“I ain’t makin’ no deals with you and I know exactly who that is.  Heyes ain’t wanted no more, you damn fool,” snapped Gus.  He holstered his pistol and pulled out a pair of handcuffs from his back pocket.  “Now roll over; hands behind your back.”

Duncan hesitated for a second and Wes said, “Your compadre’s tied up.  He ain’t comin’ to your rescue.”  Sighing, Tom Duncan did as he was told.

His task completed, Gus left Wes guarding Duncan and walked over to the man sitting at the base of the tree.  Heyes watched him like he was a rattler waiting to strike and was surprised when the grizzled bounty hunter crouched before him and removed the gag.  “You alright, Heyes?”

His voice gravelly from lack of use, Heyes cleared his throat once and said, “Yeah, thanks.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” said Gus cryptically.  He reached around Heyes and untied the rope that was securing the noose around the ex-outlaw’s neck, pulling the loop over Heyes’ head, but tying it around his chest. 

Heyes said nothing. 

“You’re still my prisoner, but I don’t hold with torturing a man.”

“Stainton, you know I’m a free man,” said Heyes.

“That I do; but you’re also a man who’s made a lot of enemies and one of them is paying me good money for you.”
“Gus, that’s against the law.  You crossing the line now?”

Stainton grinned, “I crossed the line a few times over the years, Heyes.  You, of all people, oughta know it’s easy enough to do.”  Standing up, he looked down on his prisoner.  “I’ll fetch you some water and food.  I reckon this piece of shit didn’t bother to feed you.” 

He turned away, and Heyes watched him go.  “I gotta pee!” he called after the retreating back but Gus ignored him. Jeez, could this get much worse?  Not that he was surprised.  Stainton and he had unfinished business and he’d known all along not to trust the man.  Still, he’d rather be Stainton’s prisoner than Duncan’s; at least he had a better chance of staying alive until the Kid arrived.
 

As darkness had begun to fall, Monty had slowed the pace.  He couldn’t risk injuring a horse or rider or they’d never catch up to Heyes.  He knew Jed was anxious to continue on and he saw his blond-haired friend frown when he held up his arm to signal a stop.

“It’s getting too dark to see the tracks.  We’ll stop here and start out again at first light.”

Jed opened his mouth to protest, but Lom cut him off before he could speak,  “Makes sense.  It’d be too easy to lose them in the dark.  I’ll take first watch.  Kid, you can relieve me in two hours.  Scott, you’re up after him.  Joe you can take the early hours of the morning.  Make sure you wake us before five so we can get going when first light hits.”
Morin nodded his agreement with Lom’s plan and watched the play of emotions on Jed’s face.  He saw the look of defeat and the slump of his friend’s shoulders. 

The riders dismounted and Scott took the five horses down to the creek for a drink before they were high-lined.   The animals would have to be content with a small portion of oats to keep up their strength.  It would take too much time in the morning if they were put out to graze tonight. 

“All right, if’n you youngsters are taking the watches I’ll rustle up dinner,” said Monty.  “Ain’t gonna be nothin’ fancy.  Salt pork and beans, I reckon.  I ain’t building a fire just in case Duncan’s keeping an eye out for us.” 

Camp was basic, organized quickly, and a cold dinner quickly consumed.  Lom left to begin his watch and the other four men climbed into their bedrolls.  Monty had noticed that Jed hadn’t eaten much during dinner and he knew that was a good indicator of just how worried Curry was.  Heck, he was worried, too, and there wasn’t much he could say to lighten Jed’s mood.  He rolled over and tried to sleep.

Joe and Scott were talking softly to each other on the other side of Monty, but Jed lay still, staring up at the vast stars and wondering whether Heyes was dead or alive. 

 
“Here, let me help you with that,” said Feeley, reaching both arms around Allie, pressing slightly into her back, and lifting up her saddle.  She ducked out of the way and turned on him.

“I don’t need your help!  I’ve been untacking my own horse since I was eight.”

Knowing he’d ruffled her and enjoying her discomfiture, Feeley grinned and plopped the saddle back onto Swift’s sweaty back.  The mare swished her tail in annoyance.  “Fine, do it yourself then.”  He turned to the next horse. 

Kyle strolled over and pulled the saddlebags off his still-saddled gelding, but kept his eyes Feeley, “Is there a problem here?”  He frowned and spit a slug of chaw at the other man’s boots.

“Ain’t no problem.  I was just trying to be a gentleman, but the little lady had other ideas,” Feeley said with a sneer.  He pulled his saddle off his own horse and walked away.

“Hmphf,” was all Allie said.

“He botherin’ you, Miss Allie?”  Kyle stepped over to Swift and lifted the heavy saddle off her, placing it carefully on the ground out of reach of the sharp hooves. 

Touched by his concern, she smiled sweetly.  “Not anymore, Kyle.  Thank you.”

“You let me know if’n he upsets you again and I’ll have a word with him.”

Putting a hand on his arm and squeezing it gently, she said, “I wish all men were as sweet as you, Kyle.  Oh, here, hand me the saddlebags and I’ll take them.  I’m making dinner tonight and I brought something special for you and Wheat.”

“Really, what?”

She giggled, pleased with his interest.  “I stole a leg of lamb from the cookhouse.  It’s a little seared but it should cook up nicely.  There were turnips and potatoes, too, and onions.  I’m going to roast it for you.”

“Hoo wee, wait’ll I tell Wheat.  Lamb’s his favorite; mine, too.  How’d you know?”

“You told me one time when we were riding down to South Park.  I remembered,” she said, taking the saddlebags and giving him a small peck on the cheek.  Kyle blushed and rubbed his cheek as Allie walked over to the fire ring.  She didn’t see Feeley scowling at her as he unrolled his sleeping bag.

The lamb did roast up nicely and dinner was ready just after dark.  Ames had gone out on first watch; the prisoners were tied up to two big fir trees at the edge of camp, and Wheat, Kyle, and Feeley sat around the fire ring salivating.
“Um um, Miss Allie, that sure does look good,” said Wheat.  He held his knife and fork in his meaty fists.

“Kyle, would you mind taking the roast off the fire while I serve the vegetables?” She used an iron hook to lift a small dutch oven off the coals and placed the pot on the ground next to her.  Using her skirt as a potholder, she lifted the lid and a heavenly aroma spilled out.  She quickly dished up dinner and passed plates to the hungry men then filled one for Ames. 

While the men ate, she took his dinner to him.  He’d been silent all day and she was sure he was still remorseful about the fire.  She’d heard of men like him before and knew that the church believed they were suffering from moral insanity and should receive religious treatment.  She thought that was poppycock; it was plain that Ames was unhappy and she doubted it had anything to do with his religious beliefs.  Unfortunately, nothing would help him much if he gave into his impulses in the future.  He’d been lucky so far, but it had been a close call.  Allie shuddered to think about Heyes being trapped in that cabin and what Jed would’ve done if he’d been killed there.  She saw the young man up ahead.

“Ames, I brought you some dinner,” she called out.  She saw him jump at the sound of her voice and he turned to face her quickly bringing his arm up and wiping his eyes on his sleeve, but not before she saw he’d been crying.  Unsure of her welcome, she stopped, and held out the plate.  “I thought you might be hungry.”

“Thank you, Miz Medgar,” he said politely although his voice was cracking, “but I ain’t feelin’ too hungry right now.”

“That’s fine.  I’ll leave it here for when you are.”  She smiled at him and put the plate on a large flat rock near her.  Turning, she started to leave and then she paused and turned back to him.  “Honey, if you need someone to talk to, I want you to know that you can talk to me.  I’ll listen to you and I promise you I won’t pass judgment on you.”

Tears began coursing down the young man’s face and Allie heart constricted.  She hurried to him and putting her arms around him she held on tight and rocked him.  He sobbed and gulped like a small child and she thought of her own two children and how often they needed to be held and reassured.  Scott was right; one of them had to stay behind; stay safe for the children.  When would she ever stop being impetuous?  Finally, she felt Ames calm.  She pulled away, but kept a tight hold on his hand leading him over to a downed tree trunk.  Allie sat and patted the log next to her, tugging on his hand.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me!”

“Ames, please don’t apologize, we all need to let our grief out sometimes.  Heaven knows I don’t hold back my emotions,” she said with a grin.

The young man laughed.  He’d seen her let go more than once on this trip.  “I guess I’m just real ashamed of what I done.  I could’ve killed someone.”

“So why do you do it?”  She looked at him earnestly and he saw only curiosity in her eyes.

“I don’t know.  I didn’t use to be this way.  When I was a kid, I mean.”

Allie squeezed his hand.  “When did it start?”

Thinking back, Ames answered slowly.  “First time was just after my Pa run me off.  Guess I was nearly fourteen.”
“You’ve been on your own since fourteen?”

“Yes’m.  It was better that way; Pa used to beat me regular.  I weren’t nothing but a problem for my folks.”

“Surely your mother didn’t feel that way,” said Allie, not able to remain impassive at what she was hearing.

“I reckon she did.  When I got too big for her to yank my drawers down, she’d go after me with a fry pan.  Let me tell you that hurts something terrible.  She’d get awful mad at me for being lazy and eating too much; Pa, too.  My big sister fared better.  She always was runty and didn’t eat much.  Pa sold her to a brothel when she was eleven.  I saw her once years ago, just after I left home, but she didn’t want to have nothing to do with me.  Said she’d put me and that life behind her and, if I was smart, I’d do the same.”

“You must’ve been heartbroken,” said Allie.  She was appalled by the man’s story, and her heart bled for the child he’d been.

“Yes’m, I was.  That was when I lit the first fire.  Burned that brothel to the ground, but I made real sure no one was in it at the time.  The ladies were at their monthly physicals.  Watching it burn felt awful good.  I left town in a hurry.  After that, I drifted here and there.   Never was good at anything and didn’t ever have no friends.  Not until I got to Devil’s Hole.  Orrison was my partner, but, I guess, Kyle was really my first friend.”

“And you never set fire to anything in the Hole?” Allie already knew the answer; if he had, he wouldn’t be here telling her his story.

“No, ma’am.  Didn’t ever want to; it was home.  First home I ever had where I felt like I belonged,” said Ames. 

“Why did you light it on fire this time?” 

“I guess it all changed for me when Duncan tried to kill me.  It was like my Pa and my Sis all over again; getting run off; nowhere to go.  Lucky for me, I met up with Wheat and Kyle.  When I lit the fires, I told myself I was helping, but I knew, deep down, that I wanted to see that place gone and never have to think about it again.”

She wanted so much to help this boy.  It was obvious that he was a lost soul, but she couldn’t take him in, not with his illness, not with her children.  She’d talk to Kyle about his friend, and Heyes; perhaps there’d be a place for Ames in law enforcement.  He needed to belong somewhere, that was as plain as day.

Patting his hand, she said, “Put your past behind you, honey; there’s nothing you can do to change it; but you can decide who you want to be from here on out.  Believe me, I know.  I never felt loved until I learned to love myself.  You are a good person, dear, and you can make a good life for yourself if you only let go of the hurt.”  Standing up, she left him sitting on the trunk, thinking.
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Keays

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Posts : 1431
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 60
Location : Camano Island Washington

PostSubject: Chapter twelve A Rock and a Hard Place   Sun Mar 23, 2014 3:05 am

Feeley watched that Medgar woman walked back into the camp.  She’d been gone too long and he could guess what she’d been up to.  On her own, no husband watching over her.  He’d learned over the past week that she’d once been Heyes’ woman and she’d ridden with Wheat and Kyle for a while.  No respectable woman would behave that way.  She was probably some stepped-up whore Heyes picked up from a brothel and here she was panting after a man again.  Why Ames?  Why not him?  He was a good-looking man and more experienced than that youngster. 
  
He’d seen Wheat and Kyle tossing glances in the direction she’d gone, and he knew they’d been concerned about what was keeping her, but they’d waited for her to return.  Had she done this before?  Were they jealous of Ames?  He had a pretty good idea she had done it before and it annoyed him that she’d made it so plain she didn’t want him; like she was too good for him.  Instead, she’d sashayed off with the fire bug.  Fuming, he rolled over and closed his eyes. 

 
Just after dawn, Wes cinched down the leathers tying Duncan to Fannie’s saddle and picked up a lead rope.  He led the outlaw over to where Gus sat his buckskin and held the lead to Yamis’ gelding and handed him over to Stainton.
Gus wrapped the lead around his horn and gave Yamis to Wes.  Wes tied that lead to Duncan’s saddle and a horse train was formed.

“Now, you sure you don’t want me coming with you?” said Wes.

Stainton’s eyes flicked over to the tree Heyes was tied to.  “I’ll be okay.  If these two give me any trouble, I’ll kill ‘em.”  Yamis swore softly, but Duncan stared angrily at the bounty hunter.  Gus snorted at his expression and said, “Too bad, Duncan, looks don’t kill.  You’re shootin’ blanks.” 

Wes snickered at the reference and slapped the buckskin on its ample hind end.  “I’ll meet you at Fromer’s mule barn.  We’ll be in the Indian hole.”

“See you in a day or so.  Keep a good eye on Heyes.  He’s a slippery devil and we’re gonna get some big money for him.”  Gus and the buckskin started off, tugging at the leads binding the other horses to him.  Fannie and the gelding followed placidly behind them.

Wes stood watching his partner ride off and then turned to Heyes.  The ex-outlaw had been watching Stainton ride off, too, and he shifted his attention to the dark, curly-haired man before him.

“You thirsty, Heyes?” asked Wes, picking up a canteen.  He was getting hungry and he pulled out two lengths of jerky from his saddlebags lying next to his bedroll and shoved one in his mouth, biting off a chunk.  Gus had been in such a hurry to get rid of Duncan and the other man that he’d skipped breakfast; wanting to set off for Murreyville immediately. 

“Thanks, I could use a slug of water,” said Heyes. 

He’d been studying Wes since he’d met him and still didn’t have a handle on the man.  A quiet person, Wes seemed to defer to his partner, but Heyes had noticed very little expression on the man’s face and that could only mean that he was hiding something from Stainton.  Heyes needed to know what it was.  Wes walked over and held the canteen up to Heyes’ lips.  Taking a long pull, Heyes swallowed and smiled, “Thanks, Wes.  I appreciate your decency.” 

He knew from prior experience that bounty hunters came in all shapes and sizes.  Some cruel and brutal, not much better than the men they looked down on; and others who were, by and large, average men doing a job they truly believed in.  Heyes could only hope that Wes fell into the latter category.  “So, I take it Gus has plans for me.”  He took a bite of the offered jerky and chewed thoughtfully, waiting.

“He does.  He’s made a deal with the former president of the Central Colorado Railroad.  Seems you cost the man his position and he wants to discuss a few things with you.”

“Discuss?  You and I both know there won’t be any discussion, Wes.  How much is he paying for me?”

“Ten thousand.  Same as the reward on you was.”

Heyes whistled.  “I can see where that might be mighty tempting.  Still, Stainton seems like an okay sort.  Kinda surprises me that he’d cross the line into trafficking.”

“Trafficking?”

“That’s what you call it when you sell someone against their will,” explained Heyes, “Someone who’s not wanted by the law.”  He paused, letting his words sink in, and then added, “Slavery’s another word that would work.”  Wes jumped at that and Heyes knew he had him.  He hadn’t been sure but he’d thought, from the dark eyes and curly hair, that Wes might have some colored blood in him; looked like he was right.

“I don’t hold with slavery,” growled Wes. 

Heyes nodded.  “Still, that’s what it would be.  At least, for as long as I was alive.”

“That ain’t no concern of mine.”

“Lots of folks feel that way about slavery.   That’s just the attitude that let hundreds of thousands of good people get ripped from their homelands only to die on some rich man’s land.”

“Shut up, Heyes!  I can stuff that rag back in your mouth if’n you don’t.”  Getting up, Wes started back to his bedroll.

Looking at the other man walking away, Heyes called out, “Didn’t mean no offense by that, Wes.  I hadn’t pegged you as fighting for the South.  My apologies!”  He saw the man flinch and he smiled grimly.

Wes sat down on his bedroll and stared out across the grasslands.   How had Heyes known?  Even his closest friends hadn’t known.  He’d been passing for white ever since he’d come west with Lee in ’68.  They’d been trying to shake their pasts ever since the war ended and it wasn’t until they reached in the Rockies that people stop staring speculatively at them.  Lee.  He couldn’t believe his childhood friend was dead.  Shot in the back by that filthy coward, Duncan.  He’d seen his own mother shot in the back by the overseer because she’d fail to perform up to his expectations.  Impossibly high expectations foisted on a woman whose only sin was that she’d been used and discarded by the ‘massa.’  She died in his arms, her blood staining his skin.  He looked down at his hands and remembered.

He and Lee had escaped not long after that.  Lee’s mother had been a house slave and, when she turned up pregnant by a visitor to the plantation; she was sold to a master in Georgia.  There’d been nothing to keep the two boys slaving their lives away in the tobacco fields.  They’d lit out of Virginia the first chance they got and joined up with the Union Army.  They’d fought hard for what they believed in and it wasn’t slavery.  Heyes’ words had scorched him to his core.

Heyes knew his words had struck home and he felt ashamed for using the man’s heritage against him, but he was fighting for his life.  He snorted softly to himself.  The outlaw was never far away, was he?  He might wear a cloak of respectability, but put his back against a wall and he’d come out fighting using whatever he had to in order to save his own neck.  It had never mattered much to him before, but now that he was a father he was finding it repugnant.  How could he raise Sally to be the woman he hoped she'd become if he continued to be morally ambiguous?

“Hey, Wes, I still have to pee; how about it?”  Wes stood up and came back over to untie his prisoner.  Hauling Heyes to his feet by his tied arms he led him into the bushes without a word.  In a thicket of serviceberry, he stopped.  Heyes smiled at him and gestured with his head towards the ground.  “You gonna untie my hands or do you want to do the honors?”

Frowning, Wes loosened the straps holding Heyes’ wrist and pulled his gun.  “I reckon you can get yourself out, but don’t try anything.”

“Believe me, there’s only one thing I’m interested in right now.”  Wes kept his eyes and his gun on Heyes’ head, but the ex-outlaw’s attention had drifted south.  A steady stream gushed out that seemed to go on forever, but finally he jiggled, re-buttoned his fly, and looked up smiling again.  “Thanks.  I owe you one.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Wes, smiling back.  Damn, Heyes had an infectious smile.  He really didn’t want to like this man.  Not knowing what was going to happen to him.  He knew the railroad man wouldn’t pay all that money to get his hands on Heyes just to talk to him.  He didn’t like to think about what Heyes would be facing. A hanging at the very least, torture at the worst. 

Tightening the man’s bindings again, he thought about what Heyes had said earlier.  He wasn’t wrong.  Gus was planning to sell a free man to the highest bidder.  What did it matter if he used to be an outlaw?  He’d been turned free by the law and he was no longer wanted.  What Gus was going to do was wrong and he wanted no part of it.  Maybe he should just ride on out and leave Heyes to face his fate. 

“You don’t have to go along with it, you know,” said a soft, baritone voice next to him.  Unsettled at being read so easily, Wes grabbed Heyes’ arm and tugged him along.  “Wes, you’re the one who’s going to have to live with it; you have a conscience, Gus doesn’t.  It’s easy for him; will it be easy for you?”

“I told you to shut up, Heyes!”  Wes swung his arm and backhanded Heyes who went with the blow.
 
When he turned back to the darker man, blood trickled from the corner of Heyes’ mouth.  “I guess I got my answer. Good luck to you.  Lord knows I got enough on my own conscience keeping me up at nights to worry about you losing a little sleep.” 

They walked back to the tree in silence.  Wes re-tied him and then set about breaking camp.  Heyes watched him prepare to leave.  The man was good.  He knew how to clean the clearing and leave the ground looking undisturbed.  He saw that Wes made no effort to hide Gus’ trail to town.  He was leaving that as a red herring; just what Heyes would’ve done. 

He wondered if the Kid was coming after him yet.  It would have taken hours for the flames to die down enough that his friends could comb the wreckage for bodies.  He’d have been long gone by then, riding hard with Duncan.  Had his partner even figured out yet that he was still alive?  He knew Jed would come after him, but would he get here in time? 

Heyes knew his plan was working and that he had Wes thinking hard about not turning him over to the railroad man, but would he be able to get the man to free him?  Gus wouldn’t be gone that long and he couldn’t count on Jed being able to find him.  Heyes had to get free before the man returned and he had to make it look good.  Stainton would kill Wes if he thought he’d let him go.  Heyes had to work this one out carefully or he’d have another man’s blood on his hands.  He didn’t want that; was working hard to avoid violence.  Still…like Duncan, Wes and Gus had made one, possibly fatal mistake.  They’d assumed that Heyes was unarmed.  He wasn’t.  He still had his lock picks.  Though small, they were damn sharp.


Gus had made good time to Murreyville.  Neither Duncan nor Yamis caused him much trouble.  What could they do?  He had them tied up good and proper.  Duncan had tried some nonsense earlier; striking up a conversation, trying to convince him he’d make Gus a rich man.  Gus had shut him up right quick by agreeing that, yes, Duncan was going to make him real rich, real soon.  He hadn’t heard much from either of them since. 

Pulling up in front of the sheriff’s office, he was pleased to see, through the paned window, that the sheriff was sitting at his desk.  He wanted to off load these two, collect his money, and get back to Wes as quick as possible.  He’d been worried the whole ride that Curry might’ve caught up to them by now.  It was a possibility that the man would figure out that his partner hadn’t died in the fire.  If he’d done that, he’d be riding hard to catch up and Duncan had left a sloppy trail for anyone to follow.  He hoped that Wes had gone to Fromer’s by now.  No one would find them in that Indian hole. 

He unwrapped the lead to Duncan’s horse and dismounted.  The outlaw glared down at him fiercely, but Gus could see the bead of sweat on his forehead despite the coolness of dusk.  The Mexican was impassive.  He sat his horse and awaited his fate.  Stepping up onto the sidewalk still holding the lead, Gus pounded on the door.  He heard a voice inside call out and the sound of a squeaky chair rolling back.  Footsteps drew nearer on the other side of the door and it was pulled open by a huge man.

“What’s going on out here?” growled Mike Schomacher staring at the gray-haired man before him.  His eyes cut to the two horses the man held onto and studied the faces of the men tied onto them.  “Who do you have?”

“This here is Tom Duncan, and that Mexican fella goes by the name of Yamis,” said Gus.

“Duncan?” Mike mumbled as he stepped to street level to scrutinize the prisoners. Even without the boardwalk adding to his height, the bit sheriff as almost at eye level with the mounted me. Duncan couldn't help but feel a twinge of anxiety as the man drew near to him. Even the horse tensed and rolled it's eyes with concern. “Gerry Duncan’s brother?”

“The same.” Gus conceded, trying not to feel intimated by the huge presence of this particular lawman. “I’m Gus Stainton and I’m collecting the rewards on these two.”

“Alright.  I got paper on Duncan.  Have to look up the other fella,” Mike stepped back onto the boardwalk and called into his office.  “Carter, come on out here.  We got prisoners coming in.”  A fresh-faced young man not long out of his teens came up behind the sheriff.  The bigger man stepped aside and nodded to the prisoners.  “Help us get those two off those horses and settled in the cells.  Put them across from each other.  Not next to each other.  Got it?”

“Yes sir, Sheriff,” said the blond, young man hurrying over to the horses with Gus behind him. 

Together, they made short work of jailing the prisoners and Gus soon found himself across from the sheriff’s desk watching as Schomacher sifted through his wanted posters.  Gus was trying very hard not to stare at the sheriff and though Schomacher was aware of the other man's discomfort, he was used to such scrutiny from strangers and ignored it.

The deputy had been dispatched to fetch the prisoners some dinner and Gus’ stomach growled at the thought. But he wanted to get his money as quickly as possible and get back to Wes and Heyes.  He also wanted to get clear of this bear sitting across from him in case the man accidentally fell on him. Jerky would have to do.

“You’re in luck.  The reward on Duncan was just raised to five thousand; looks like he was responsible for that train wreck outside of Carr,” said Mike, his head down reading the flyers before him.  He missed the happy smile on Gus’ face.  Duncan hadn’t.

“Hey, Sheriff,” called Duncan.  He paused as two faces turned to him.  Yamis stood up and grabbed the bars to his cell door.  He knew his boss was up to something.  “Why don’t you ask old Gus here who else he’s holding prisoner.”

“Shut up, Duncan, he ain’t my prisoner.”  Gus had known Duncan would tell the sheriff about Heyes and he was ready for him.  “Heyes helped me bring you two in.”

Heyes?  Mike watched the two men carefully.  There was only one Heyes that he knew of and he knew he’d been working for the law, but he had a hard time believing the Heyes he knew would throw in with a bounty hunter like Stainton.  Something was up.

“Yeah, that so?  Then how come he was tied to a tree the last time I saw him?” said Duncan.

“Don’t listen to him, Sheriff,” said Gus, swinging his eyes back to the lawman.  “Duncan had Heyes prisoner.  My partner, Wes, and me ran them down.  Heyes is workin’ for Lom Trevors out of Porterville.  I left Wes behind to free Heyes and get him back to Trevors.”

“How come you didn’t just free Heyes and all three of you come here?  Seems safer to me,” asked Mike.

Shit, thought Gus, what now?  “Er…um, Heyes didn’t want to ride in here, Sheriff; this bein’ Morrison’s town and all.  Surely you can understand that?  Said he and the Marshal like to kill each other if they came face to face.”

Mike nodded, “Too bad, I would’ve enjoyed seeing Heyes again.”  Without realizing it, he rubbed his jaw.  He really would like to see the ex-outlaw again.  Despite the injury Heyes had done to him, he’d liked the man.

“He’s lyin’, Sheriff.  He didn’t have no intention of freein’ Heyes, I tell you.  He’s up to something,” yelled Duncan.

“Yeah, I’m up to turnin’ your ass in and gettin’ my reward.”

Mike returned to sifting through the posters.  He didn’t believe that either man was giving him the true story, and he wanted time to think about what he’d just heard.  He felt all eyes on him, but he ignored them, slowly studying each poster. 

Carter returned with the dinners and slid a plate under each cell door.  Duncan and Yamis were so hungry, they settled down on their bunks and ate ravenously.  Gus’ stomach tightened at the small of a hot meal, but he kept his eyes on the lawman. 

Finally, Mike looked up.  “Here it is.  Yamis is worth fifteen hundred now.  That’s pretty good haul, Stainton.  Sixty-five hundred for two men.  Where do you want me to wire the money or do you want to wait here for it?”

“Well now, Sheriff, that’s just it.  I don’t want to wait at all and I don’t know where I’ll be going next,” said Gus.  “I was hoping to get back to Trevors right quick.  He’s cleaning out Devil’s Hole and he needs our help.”

“Cleaning out the Hole?  So that’s why Heyes is working with him.  How the hell did you get into the Hole?”

Gus smiled.  “It was pure genius, I tell you.  That Heyes really is the criminal mastermind folks say he is.”

Duncan looked up, his mouth full, “He ain’t so smart.”

“He is, Sheriff.  He had us drive a herd of steers into the Hole.  ‘Caused a ruckus like you wouldn’t believe.  Took out Duncan’s gang like the amateurs they are.”  Gus chuckled at the memory.  He’d have to remember that ruse for the next time he had to clean out a viper’s nest.  “Trevors has rounded up all of Duncan’s men by now.”

“How’d Duncan take Heyes prisoner?” asked Mike, intrigued by what he was hearing.

“Don’t know the answer to that.  I just saw Duncan and Yamis lighting out of the Hole with Heyes tied up. 
Followed them until I could get Heyes free.”

Duncan snorted derisively, “You mean until you could get your greedy hands on him.  Heyes came after me, Sheriff, and I whupped him good.”

Mike turned to Duncan.  “So why did you take him with you?  Wouldn’t you have made better time without a prisoner?”

“Heyes and me have some unfinished business.  I was plannin’ on finishin’ it.”

“You were gonna kill him?”

“Now, I never said that, did I?” said Duncan with an evil grin. 

Mike had his answer.  He turned back to Gus. “So do you want me to wire the reward to Porterville?”

“Well, sir, that’s kind of out of my way.  Wes and me have some business down south after we’re done here.  Do you think you could just give me the cash now?” wheedled Gus.

Mike studied him for a long minute and then nodded.  “Alright, I’ll see if I can get Mr. Wilkes, our bank president, to open up and give me the cash.” 

Relieved, Gus smiled.  “That’d be just great if he could.”

The bounty hunter was up to something and Mike was going to find out what it was.  One of the few advantages of being so big is that most people assumed he was stupid. Mike smiled quietly to himself as he realized that these men were no exception. He’d go find Mr. Wilkes and get the money, but he’d also have the livery tacked up his horse.  He was following this man back to Heyes.  He’d see for himself what was going on here.  “Meet me back here in an hour, I’ll have the cash for you.  Carter, you keep an eye on these two while I’m gone and don’t get too close to them.”

“Yes sir, Sheriff.”


Gus was just finishing his second beer, when he heard shouting in the street.  He ran through the batwing doors along with the rest of the saloon’s client and watched in horror as Duncan galloped down the street on the coppery mare he’d left tied in front of the sheriff’s office. 

“God dammit it all to hell,” he swore as he ran across to the office.  He saw Schomacher running towards him from the opposite direction.  They arrived at nearly the same time and the big man shouldered Gus aside in his haste to get inside.

Mike found Carter locked in one of the cells and Yamis lying in the aisle in a pool of blood, his throat cut.  “Carter!  What the hell happened?”  He was jostled as Gus skidded into him.

“Sheriff!  I’m sorry.  I…they…Yamis fooled me.  He faked choking and I had to help him,” said the young deputy.  Mike opened the door and yanked him out, looking him over.  He was bruised but not bleeding; unlike Yamis who was dead.

“Dammit, Carter, I told you not to go near them!” bellowed Mike.

“He was turning blue, Sheriff.” Carter was visibly shaking, not only from the assault he'd just experienced but also by the raised tones from his boss. Schomacher was normally so soft-spoken that for him to be 'bellowing'  could only mean that someone was in big trouble. Carter hoped it wasn't him. “I thought he was dying,” he finished somewhat lamely.

“That’s what he wanted you to think!” snapped Gus, not helping matters.

“I know that now!” yelled the young man,desperation causing him to put up some defense. “I was careful.  I left my gun on the desk and took the club in with me.  He…he…tried to take it.  We fought and I clubbed him good.  Broke his knee I think, but I slipped and he pushed me back hard.  I dropped the club and he hit me with it. When I came to, he was dead and Duncan was gone.”

“Yamis must’ve got the keys.  Duncan must’ve killed Yamis.  He would’ve slowed him up.” Gus said it as though it was an acceptably pragmatic solution to a sticky problem.  Mike didn’t like this man at all.

“Carter, get the horses and call Milt in.  We’re going after him,” ordered Mike.

“But how do you know which way he went?” asked the deputy.

 Mike turned to Gus.  “You said Heyes and Duncan had unfinished business.  Take me to where you left Heyes.”
Gus was thinking fast.  Wes would be gone by now, he would’ve taken Heyes to the Indian hole, and he’d have been damned careful about leaving a trail.   There wouldn’t be much risk taking Schomacher to the camp.  If they ran into Curry, it might just save his neck to have the lawman along.  He nodded his agreement.

 
The first posse hadn’t been in the saddle long when they reached the clearing that Duncan and Stainton had used the night before.  Monty dismounted and handed his reins to Scott.  He wandered around the clearing several times pausing here and there to study the ground and vegetation.  Jed thought he’d scream with impatience, but he knew they couldn’t afford to make any mistakes so he waited as did the others.  Finally, Northrup walked back to them.  He stopped next to Jed and put a hand on his friend’s leg.

“Okay, here’s where it gets kind of tricky.”

“Isn’t that the trail?” asked Joe, pointing to the east.  He could clearly see tracks heading away in that direction.”

“Yep, it’s one of them; but now we’ve got two to choose from,” said Monty, looking up at Jed, “and since it’s your partner we’re tryin’ to save, I reckon you get to decide which one we follow.”

“Two trails?” asked Scott.  “I only see one.”

Monty chuckled.  “Son, ain’t I taught you nothin’?  It ain’t always what you see; sometimes it’s what you don’t see that matters.”  The big Texan walked over to the obvious trail and turned back to his friends who had walked their horses up behind him.  “Now, over here, we have us a trail that clearly tells us that three riders went this way, but see how the tracks run.  Not single file, not side-by-side, but fanned out one set slightly to the right of the next set.  Like a packer haulin’ in supplies on a bunch of mules.  Each one of them tied to the next.”

“So someone’s leading the other two horses,” stated Scott.

“That’s right, son,” nodded Monty, before walking to the south side of the clearing.  “Here’s where it gets interestin’.  We followed five sets of tracks into this camp; where are the other two?”

The four mounted men looked around the clearing.  They could see no other sign of tracks.  

“They swept the tracks,” said Jed, picking up a walk around the perimeter and then quickly pulling up Gov to a standstill.  “Here!” he said pointing into the forest. 

Monty smiled at him.  “Good, that’s the way I read it, too.”  He hadn’t been one hundred percent sure but he knew Curry to be a good tracker himself.

“I don’t see a thing,” said Joe, studying the ground before him.

“Exactly.  You should see pine needles and leaves, twigs and tiny tracks of birds and squirrels; right?” said Monty.  “That’s how we know they swept it.  They tried to toss some needles back over it but it don’t look right.  See how the branches are all bending just ever so slightly to the south.  Something big passed through here and I’m guessing it was a couple of horses.”  Taking the reins from Scott, Monty climbed back onto his horse.

Jed pushed Gov into the narrow space between shrubs and rode noisily into the vegetation disappearing quickly. 

Monty turned to Lom.  “Someone needs to follow the trail to the East; see who took it and where they were headed.”

“They’re headed to Murreyville.  It’s less than ten miles away.  I know the Sheriff and the Marshal there.  Marshal Morrison’s the one who took the Hole a few years back,” said Lom, “He hates Heyes.”

“Heyes wouldn’t go that way willingly.  If he was forced to, we gotta get there before he and Morrison lock horns,” said Joe.  “But, what if he didn’t go that way?  What if Stainton was taking Duncan and Yamis in and Heyes and Wes went south?”

“Good thinking, Morin.” Lom agreed.   “I’ll take this trail.  I can deal with Morrison.  Scott, you come with me.  Joe, you and Monty go with the Kid.”  He and Scott turned their horses towards the East and with quick nods towards their companions, the group parted company.

A few moments later, Joe and Monty heard Jed’s voice drifting back to them from further up the southern trail.  “Over here.  The tracks start up over here.” 

The four riders plunged into the woods crashing through the branches after the retreating hind end of Kid Curry’s gelding.

 
It was much easier for Mike and Gus to follow Duncan’s trail.  The outlaw had made no effort to hide his tracks, but had ridden west out of town by the same route he and Gus had arrived.  Duncan didn’t care if he was being chased by a posse.  He expected to be.  It was all over now.  The Hole was gone, his gang was in ruins, and it was all because of Heyes and his damned mare.  He’d see them both sent to Hell.  He dug his spurs into the small, coppery mare he was riding.  She gave a disgruntled buck but dug her hind end in under her, picking up speed. 


Halfway back to the camp where Gus had left Wes, the bounty hunter pulled up his horse and waited for the lawman to stop next to him.  “Duncan’s going back to camp, but my partner and Heyes aren’t there anymore.  I told them I’d meet them at Fromer’s old homestead.  There’s a cutoff up ahead that goes there.  We might lose Duncan if he can’t pick up their trail, though.  Wes will have swept it clean.”

Mike nodded, “All right, let’s take the cutoff.” 

Why would Stainton’s partner have swept the trail?  There’d be no reason to; Stainton knew where the camp was; unless, someone was following them, too?  But, why and who?

Gus took the left fork and pushed his horse into a gallop.  Wes would be there about now.  He’d get Heyes hidden in the Indian hole.   Gus would have to get this sheriff out of the way so that he could collect payment on Heyes.  He and Wes could put him in the Indian hole.  Lock him in there with food and water.  That wouldn’t be killing him, now would it?  He’d just detain the man for a while.  Give them a chance to get Heyes off their hands and hightail it to Mexico.  Schomacher’s deputies would come looking for him in a few days and they were leaving a trail a two-year old could follow.  It would work.


 
Duncan slowed his mare, he’d seen something up ahead; a bright patch of color where there should only be green.  Pulling Fannie off the trail, he rode deeply into the forest and waited to see who was coming towards him.  He didn’t have to wait long before he could see, through the shelter of the brush, that two men were coming down the trail.   

He recognized the lawman from the Hole.  He was one of the men who had attacked his gang, so was the other man riding alongside the lanky sheriff.  Duncan drew his gun.  It would be so easy to shoot them dead.   He hesitated as they passed through his line of sight; if he did that, he could give away his location to Stainton and the other lawman.  Curry must be nearby, too; the camp wasn’t far away.  Slowly and regretfully, Duncan holstered his gun and waited until the two men were long gone.  Roughly booting the mare along, he drove her through the tangled brush.  Coming out onto the trail again, he pushed her into a gallop. 

 
Wes and Heyes rode into the yard of the abandoned homestead at a gallop.  Not wanting to be caught by Kid Curry, Wes had ridden hard for the rendezvous place.  A two-story gambrel barn stood weathering in the elements.  Boards were missing here and there and, as they rode up, swallows flew out of the empty spaces and circled over their heads. 

As his horse slid to a stop, Wes jumped from the saddle and held tight to Karma’s reins.  The mare lifted her head and rolled her eyes at him while he pulled Heyes from the saddle and turned her loose to trot around the yard with his own horse, snorting and prancing.  He dragged Heyes towards the off-kilter doors of the big barn and pushed him through them.  Light streamed in through the boards and dust motes danced in the rays.  Wes hurried them both down the aisle to the middle stall.  He shoved Heyes inside and tied him to the post supporting the half-door and left him gazing about the huge structure.

Jed and he had seen many old, deserted places like this one in their travels around the West.  The buildings stood as mute testimony of broken dreams and the harsh realities of living in an inhospitable environment.  For every successful ranch, there were a dozen like this one.  It was one of the things they’d counted on in their outlaw careers; places to hide, forgotten by all but the animals that sought shelter in them.  Like they had.

He heard the horses returning.  Wes put Karma in the stall next to Heyes, threw her some hay, and led his gelding into the one he occupied.  The darker man tied the horse in the corner and went to fetch both animals a bucket of water from the old well that stood in the center of the yard.  Heyes talked soothingly to Karma and she settled down quickly standing in the corner closest to her human, her ears flicking back and forth at the sound of his deep voice.

Wes hooked a bucket in each stall and came back to Heyes.  They hadn’t said two words to each other all day and Heyes wondered if Wes was working himself up to something.  Something bad.  He concern grew when the man untied him from the post.

“Looks like maybe you made your decision,” said Heyes.

“What?”

“You planning on killing me, Wes?”

Wes’ mouth gaped open.  “I ain’t no killer, Heyes. Though after today you might be deservin' it. I already told you Gus plans on turning you over alive.”

“Ain’t that the same as killing me?  Only it won’t be quick or clean.”

“Shut up, Heyes!”  He grabbed the ex-outlaw and hung onto him as he pushed the gelding’s hips over to the wall and cleared the old straw from the middle of the floor.  Using his booted foot, he pushed around the dry, powdery dirt underneath and revealed a heavy wooden door fitted into a frame in the floor. 

Heyes felt the tendrils of fear in his belly and clenched his jaw as he saw Wes yank up the hinged door and peer into the darkness below.  It was an Indian hole.  Most of the old ranches in these parts had them from the days that war raged between the whites and the tribes.  For the ranchers it was a safe place to hide their families during an attack, but to Heyes it was the black hole of his prison days all over again and he felt the darkness rising up to seize him.  He panicked and pulled back hard, yanking his arm from Wes’ grip, and trying to scramble out the door.  He was caught before he got very far down the aisle and felt himself being dragged backwards.  The blackness was on him and the last thing he heard were his own screams echoing down the long corridors of his mind.


Duncan reached the clearing and cursed violently when he saw that not only was Heyes and the other bounty hunter gone, but it was plain from the churned up ground that Curry and the law had already passed through.  He gouged Fannie’s sides and the sweaty, tired mare summoned the strength to gallop on.


Mike and Gus reached the top of the hill and saw the overgrown driveway leading down into the yard of the Fromer Ranch.  There were no signs of life about the place as they rode through the gate and pulled up. 

“This way,” said Gus, pointing at the old barn behind the dilapidated house.  The damned sheriff wasn’t giving him much of a chance to get the drop on him and he was running out of time.

Mike followed him and they pulled up to the corral fence next to the barn, dismounting and tying off their horses.  Mike had been careful the entire ride to keep Stainton in front of him and he paused now to let the other man walk ahead of him.

Gus glanced at the barn, but walked towards the old farmhouse hoping for an opportunity to take the sheriff prisoner.  He stepped up onto the sagging porch and entered the house with Mike right behind him.  Mice scurried away as they entered and the smell of decay and rodent was strong.  Rusty old cans of food sat swollen and unopened on the shelves over the sink.  A table lay overturned on its side, two chairs still standing sentinel around it.  Someone had left here in a hurry.  

He’d used this place more than once to shelter in a storm, but he’d never taken the time to poke around the house.  Crossing the room, he pushed open the only other door and jumped back into Schomacher, who peered over his shoulder into the room.  There on the bed was a skeleton, grinning up at the ceiling, and robed in tattered rags.  Protruding from the ribcage was an arrow, its feathers faded by time.

“Guess we know what happened to Old Man Fromer,” said the big lawman.

Having a hard time finding his voice, Gus only nodded.  He turned and pushed past the sheriff anxious to leave the grisly sight behind him and get out into the light.  As he walked out onto the porch, he felt the sheriff’s hand drop onto his shoulder only a second before he heard the man’s pistol cocking and its barrel pressing into his back.

“Let’s stop fooling around, Stainton.  Why don’t you take me to Heyes?”

“That’s what I’m doing, Sheriff.”

“Nope.  Seems to me, you’re stalling for time.  Where’re Heyes and your partner?” 

Gus knew it was time to cooperate and he had to hope that Wes could help him take out the lawman. “They’re in the barn.  The hiding place is in there.”  He led the way across the yard and into the barn.


Duncan pulled the spent mare up and let her pant heavily under him as he watched Stainton and another man, a man with a badge, go into the old, weathered barn.  Heyes must be in there.  He jumped off the mare and tied her to a fir tree.  She was too tired to make a noise and stood with her head hanging towards the ground, her sides heaving with tortured breaths. 

Duncan hurried across the yard to the two horses tied by the barn.  He’d seen the butt of a rifle protruding from its scabbard on one of the horses.  He approached the animals quietly and they eyed him warily, but made no sounds as he deftly slid the weapon out and cocked it muffled against him under his arm.  He stealthily crept to the loosely hanging barn doors and leaned around one far enough to see the two men inside go into one of the stalls.  Silently, he slithered down the aisle.  He could hear the rustling of straw and the nervous stamping of the horses’ feet.
“No tricks, Stainton.  Lift the door,” said a deep, commanding voice.

Duncan flung himself forward and covered the last two yards in one leap, pulling up the rifle and screaming, “Don’t move!”

Both men started at the yelled order; Stainton throwing his arms in the air, while the big lawman slowly put his gun down, his other arm raised in surrender.

“Well, well, ain’t this nice?  I’da had a hard time finding this, Stainton, thanks.  You, Lawman, get down on your knees, hands behind you.  Stainton, face down, NOW!” 

Duncan tied up his two prisoners quickly and efficiently, securing their hands and feet and lying them on their sides.  He stared down at the door set flush in the floor.  He could feel Heyes on the other side of it, swore he could smell him, and the blood lust rose to smother all of his reason.  With a great heave, he yanked open the door.
 
 
To Be Continued.
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Silverkelpie

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PostSubject: Re: Chapter twelve A Rock and a Hard Place   Tue Apr 01, 2014 5:58 pm

Sorry for taking so long to comment.  Work just gets busier and busier!  Another fantastic instalment, ladies and the title is spot on.  The action was captured as superbly as usual and the whole scene was very visual.  Heyes seems to be in a tough spot with Duncan!  What a place to leave it, but you were always great with the cliff-hangers.  I get the feeling that Allie is going to give Wheat and Kyle the runaround too.  I hope it won't be too long before you put us out of our misery.   cowboy 6

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PostSubject: Re: Chapter twelve A Rock and a Hard Place   Tue Aug 12, 2014 4:22 pm

You are really mean - leaving us with another cliffhanger. I see a definite pattern emerging. The entire chapter was intense, full of angst and possibilities for things to go horribly wrong, but you also provided some glimpses of hope and reassurance.
Heyes ingenious plan went very wrong thanks to his own impulses and Ames' sickness.
Thank goodness Heyes and the horses got out of the burning cabin and he has Karma back. Unfortunately Duncan and the Mexican did escape the flames too (you really manage to bring out the nasty in me). At least the Mexican gets his reward for killing gang members on Duncan's orders (see - nasty).
Good to see Big Mike again. He could be a good ally for Heyes and he is not fooled by Gus. I am still worried about Morrison though. I have a feeling he is bound to pop out of the woodwork once more and I'm not at all sure what he might do (or rather, my suspicious and rather unforgiving mind has some very clear ideas what he might decide to do and starts snarling).
You did a very good job with the bounty hunters. At first they all seemed to be the same; nasty, not to be trusted, a threat to our boys. Now the two surviving members are developed into proper characters. One seems determined to stray to the dark side, the other seems to be rough but basically honest. I have hopes that Heyes' silver tongue might still help him with Wes. You did an incredible job with his back story, on which Heyes had gambled. He brings back images of Joe Simms.
Heyes is in real trouble once again thanks to his going off half-cocked once again. Captured by Duncan is about as bad as it can get. Luckily Duncan is too busy getting away to do too much damage for now. But for Heyes it must be almost like being helplessly at the mercy of Carson or Boerman again. Being taken by the bounty hunters is not much better, because of the sinister fate that awaits him at the hands of the railway baron. But it is a little reprieve for now. A little hope returns, thanks to Wes' showing a conscience, only to be dashed in the most cruel way by the dark hole in which Heyes is to be kept. He must be out of his mind with fear of being returned to the place where everything but his body died (and that was a close call). I retain two tiny shreds of hope - where are Wes, Jed, Monty and Joe when Duncan arrives at the barn? And why did you make such a specific mention of the lock picks?
Poor Jed - it must have been hell for him thinking he did not have his partner's back and Heyes might be dead. No wonder he goes after Ames as he does; it is not Jed anymore, it's the Kid, bad temper and all. Loved the way you had him search for Heyes' shaving kit, it was very touching. It shows that he will not believe that they might not get to Heyes in time. And it is the only thing he can do for his partner at the Hole. He knows what the kit means to Heyes. Once he catches up with Duncan, I wonder who will get the honours... (my nasty side begs me, me, me - just alone for the treatment of Fanny).
Allie surprises me. Knowing what Heyes in facing and that now both mares are in Duncan's grasp, how can she even think of going after the rustlers or insisting that Heyes and the Kid must continue to help her, once it becomes clear that Duncan is not the rustler. And I am also surprised that she agrees to go to Porterville. Before, even Heyes was sure she would not be left behind, no matter what. I wonder if she has her own plans. You also notch up the anxiety for her safety by revealing more of the creepy Feeley's character (good choice of name). Her scene with Ames was another touching scene. We gain better understanding of what drives him through her being understanding to him. Even though he nearly killed Heyes, I still feel sorry for him. That is seriously good writing, even my nasty side remains quiet. Maybe there is still some hope for Ames? Apparently he needs to feel accepted and safe. But I am glad that Allie does not plan to risk her ranch by taking him in.
You craftily bring in shades of grey, where before it was more a black and white picture. Force your readers by your skilled writing to start to like some of the outlaws (Wayne, Jack, Fergie) and even bounty hunters (Wes, Lee). Turn the arsonist into a victim.
Once more I enjoy little flashbacks to ASJ. I am not sure I always catch them, but when I do, I love it, e.g. reminders of Joe Simms in this chapter.
And now I need to find out what happens to Heyes.

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Chapter twelve A Rock and a Hard Place
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