It had started out just like any other evening. I sat in the lounge, weaving my late mother’s hair into an intricate pleat. Her beautiful, chestnut hair still shone with a deep, warm glow which caught the light of the oil lamp. I curled the work into a bud, and smiled with satisfaction. It would make a wonderful mourning brooch and would remain a tangible connection to the gentle soul who had left behind a broken home; a daughter and a husband who had nothing in common, but their deep love for the same woman. We merely co-existed.
Ten o’clock – time to take my father his nightly drink. I walked over and unlocked the Tantalus, before pouring the amber liquid into a brandy bowl and placed it on the silver tray.
I tapped gently on the door, waiting to be bid to enter as usual, but the call never came. I frowned and knocked again.
“Go away!” came the gruff reply.
What had I done this time? It seemed as though I could never do right for doing wrong. He could hardly look at me anymore. My obstinacy hardened, so I turned the brass knob and pushed open the heavy mahogany door. My eyebrows arched in surprise. My father sat stiffly behind his heavy, ornate desk, facing a dark eyed man whose dimpled smile welcomed me into the room.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know...,” I didn’t get the words out. A hand clasped over my mouth and the tray clattered to the floor.
“Not a sound,” a voice hissed in my ear. I suddenly noticed that the dark haired man held a gun. Panic spiralled in my chest and I froze against the arms snaked around my body. “Do as you’re told and nobody will get hurt. Do you understand?”
I nodded – hard. That voice meant business.
The dark man walked over and shut the door. I felt the arms release me and I scuttled away from the man who had assaulted me, backing off against the wall with rasping breath. The face confronting me was not what I expected.
Angelic blue eyes, topped off with dishwater blond curls, glittered apologetically at me. “Sit down, Miss Galbraith. I’m sorry you got involved in this.”
“What do you want?” I gasped.
He led me to a chair, and pushed me gently down into it. “Nobody is goin’ to hurt you. I give you my word.”
I gave a nod of disbelief. “What do you want?” I repeated.
The dark one listened at the door. “I think we’re clear.” He walked over to me, his dancing eyes and his gun competing for attention. His brows gathered in concern. “A girl? We don’t need this.”
“Neither do I,” I snapped. “Who are you, and what do you want?”
“We just need to speak to your father,” the dark man replied. “I’m sorry you came in on this.”
“Just take what you came for and leave.”
The dark man shook his head. “We came to find out why somebody had been trying to drive us out of this town from the moment we set foot in it.” He glowered at my father. “And now we know, don’t we, Stubby?”
I frowned. “What are they talking about, Father?”
He didn’t answer, staring off into the night with anguished eyes.
The dark man pulled out a seat. “We’re talking about your father’s past, Miss Galbraith.”
“There’s no need to bring her into this,” my father barked. “No matter what I did, she’s innocent.”
The dark eyes narrowed. “She brought herself in here, Stubby, and now she’s here, she’s going nowhere.”
I shook my head in confusion. “His past?”
The blond man spoke. “We wanted to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, Ma’am, but your father had other ideas – he wanted us to leave town - real fast.”
“So far, we’ve been fired, threatened, and beaten up, and left outside town.” The dark one gave a dimpled, joyless smile.
“That was your biggest mistake, Stubby. When somebody pushes us hard, we push back – you of all people should know that.”
I rubbed my face, exasperation mounting. “What’s going on!?”
The men shared a glance and the blond one stepped closer to me, a warning glinting in his eyes. “Keep your voice down, Miss Galbraith. Please don’t make do anything to make sure you stay quiet.”
I looked up at the tall, lean figure and my stomach fluttered with nerves.
“Leave her alone!” my father snapped. His forehead was beaded with sweat. “Please, Isabelle, just sit still and be quiet. These are dangerous men.”
I stared silently, one from the other. If I’d bumped into these men on the street I’d have thought they were handsome, but there’s something about being on the wrong end of a gun that strips away superfluous details. The dark eyes simmered with menacing anger under a patina of nonchalant charm, and the fair man moved like a panther, ready to pounce at any moment. I gulped, sure the sound echoed around the room.
The dark one pushed his hat back on his head. “So, Stubby Walker has changed his name to Galbraith and gone straight? Who’d have thought it?”
Surprise hit me. “Straight? What are you talking about?”
The fair one folded his arms. “Your father’s real name is Walker, Miss – so I guess that makes you a Walker too.
Doesn’t it, Stubby?”
“Walker?” I demanded.
“Your father’s a murderer and a thief,” the dark man stood with a sigh. “He used to ride with the Plummer Gang.”
“Nonsense!” I snapped back. “He’s a respectable man, he runs the local mine and he’s standing for mayor. If this is some kind of attempt at blackmail, it won’t work.”
“There’s no mistake, Ma’am. You see, I’m Hannibal Heyes, and he’s Kid Curry – don’t you think I’d be able to identify members of a gang I used to ride with?”
My father’s eyes closed with sick resignation. “Is this true?” I murmured.
Heyes stared at my father with hard, cold eyes. “I was young and I’d only just joined the gang, but I remember like it was yesterday. He disappeared with the take from a robbery. Not only that, when he met another member of the gang he shot him dead,” Heyes shook his head. “No wonder you felt the need to put a lot of road between you and the rest of the gang. The statute of limitations has run out on the robbery, Stubby, but there’s no limit on murder.” Heyes fixed my father with a glare. “And you’re standing for Mayor. I’m a great believer in the democratic process, but don’t you think the public should know who they’re really voting for?”
My father’s hands firmed into fists on the desk top. “What do you want?”
Heyes gave a mournful chuckle. “Didn’t it occur to you that we might need the chance to put our pasts behind us too?
You shouldn’t have poked the bear, Stubby.” He paused, dark eyes suddenly flicking over to my father. “We would have earned one hundred and twenty dollars this week, if you hadn’t chased us out of town. You owe us that at the very least.”
“You wouldn’t know the truth if it bit you on the ass. I don’t keep cash in the house. I’m not an idiot. I probably don’t have more than thirty dollars, but you’re welcome to it if it gets you out of here.” My father’s eyes glinted with desperation. “Just how are you going to turn me over to the law without turning yourselves in?”
Hannibal Heyes bit thoughtfully into his lip, before his eyes slid over to me. “How do you feel about knowing the truth,
Miss Galbraith?” He stared into me, watching my heart rate increase, and my breath come in pants of anxiety.
“Keep me out of this,” I stammered.
Heyes arched his brows. “I’d have liked to, really I would, but you’re here now. How does it feel to know your father is a killer? He’s even been in prison. How good are you at keeping secrets, Miss Galbraith? In my experience women aren’t great at it, are they, Stubby?”
“It’s none of her business,” my father barked.
“Her real name’s her business,” Heyes retorted, evenly.
“She’s who I brought her up to be, and always will be. She’s a real fine young woman and I’m proud to call her my daughter.”
I blinked in surprise. My father was never one to have a compliment ready. To say that we had a difficult relationship was an understatement. His contribution to good communication was inversely proportionate to Western Union’s.
“Did you?” I pinned my father with a hard stare. “Really? You killed someone just for money?”
“No! I absolutely did not kill anyone for money.”
“Word has it you shot him down in the street, Stubby.” Kid propped himself on the edge of the desk. “There were dozens of witnesses and it was all over the newspapers. I read about it myself – it made me wonder what kind of outfit Heyes had gotten himself tied up in.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t kill him,” my father growled. “I just said that I didn’t do it for the money.”
Heyes looked pensively at him. “Yeah, as I remember, it you and Dutch never saw eye to eye, did you? You both had a thing for the same girl.”
My father simmered quietly. “He was a no-good, dirty, low-down...,” he glanced at me. “This isn’t the company to say exactly what he was, but he was no loss to the world. He was thrown out of the gang for being too violent. That was why he was in Redhill on his own that day.” He glowered at Heyes. “Remember!? He was a complete animal.”
“Yes...,” mused Heyes. “He came on too heavy with a woman during a robbery. It caused trouble because the men jumped in to protect her.” He shook his head ruefully. “I never allowed that kind of thing to happen on my watch. We were lucky nobody was shot that day.”
“But you killed him and stole their money?” I gazed at the room through filter of tears, “and now they’ve caught up with you?”
Heyes and Curry exchanged a glance. “I promised you that nothing would happen to you and I meant it.” I was sure that
Kid Curry meant to be reassuring, but his brooding presence undermined any platitudes headed my way.
“But what about my father?” I demanded. “What about him? Please don’t kill him. Don’t hurt him.”
Hannibal Heyes walked over and patted my arm gently. “We’re not killers, Miss Galbraith. We didn’t come here to kill him, or anyone else.”
“What, then?” I pressed.
Heyes looked pensively over at the man perspiring by the wall. “We came here to find out why somebody had us beat up and tossed out of town. Now we did, I guess it’s time to move on – and I guess you’d better do the same, Stubby, because if word gets out that you’re here you’ll swing for murder.”
My father visibly slumped with relief. “Yes, we’d better move on, Isabelle.”
I looked around at my home. “Leave here? But mother’s grave is here. I’ve lived here my whole life...”
“They’re just things, Isabelle, we can start again. My skill with explosives got me work at the mine and I worked my way up. I’ve got more behind me now,” my father gave me a weak smile. “I did it once before... I started from nothing.”
Hannibal Heyes flicked up an eyebrow. “Not exactly nothing, Stubby. You took nearly thirteen thousand dollars with you.”
My father’s colour rose. “We needed it, Bella was pregnant with Isabelle. We needed it to give her a decent life – and we did. Look at how she’s turned out. She’s just like her mother, loving, decent and beautiful.”
All eyes turned to me and I could feel my face burn with embarrassment. A smile twitched at Kid Curry’s lips and the hardness fell away from his eyes. “Yup, and modest too.”
“You never really missed that money and it made all the difference in the world to us. All you would have done is go out and steal more – and it would all have gone on gambling, drinking and whoring...” My father frowned. “Sorry, Isabelle.
It was a hard life and it’s the only language men like them understand.”
“It was a hard life,” Heyes nodded, “but not half as hard as prison, which is exactly where you’re headed if anyone else finds out who you are. It was a year’s hard labour wasn’t it?”
“I suppose,” my father muttered.
“Yup,” Heyes nodded knowingly. “You were only just out of jail when you joined the gang.” His eyes narrowed as though capturing an elusive memory. “Come to think of it, you were only there for two weeks and Dutch left about the same time as you - the next morning, in fact. He said he thought he knew where you might be. The next we heard, you’d shot him.”
“Stop talking about it, you’re upsetting my daughter!” my father reached for his top drawer, but stopped dead when Kid Curry’s gun leaped into his hand from nowhere.
“Keep those hands where I can see them,” Kid barked.
“Money...” My father raised his hands. “You wanted money to compensate for the loss of earnings. I keep it in that drawer.”
“Take a look, Kid. We don’t want any more than we lost.” Heyes rubbed his face distractedly, his mind operating like quicksilver behind his dark eyes. “Yeah, Stubby, you arrived, stole the first lot of loot that came your way, killed Dutch, then disappeared for good. You knew Dutch before you joined the gang, didn’t you? You hated him, but you joined the Plummer gang rather than any other outfit. Why?”
“What difference does it make?” my father snapped.
“I play a lot of poker, Stubby. You’ve got tells, and you’re worried about something. After all these years? Why?”
“Why?” my father spluttered, “because Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry have invaded my home, that’s why?”
“Dutch was real mad, when he got back and found out Plummer had let you join.” Heyes fixed my father with intense, dark eyes. “I never thought about it before, you just came and went. What were you in jail for?”
“Fighting.” My father started to twitch, and even I knew he was hiding something.
“Yes. Dutch said you were real violent. None of us ever saw that in you, not until you shot him. I guess he was right, after all.” Heyes stood and started to pace, stopping suddenly to stare at my father as though seeing him through fresh eyes. “You came to get Dutch, didn’t you? The pair of you hated one another because of that woman. I guess the money was too big a temptation, that was just a chance taken in a campy full of drunken outlaws.” Heyes turned and smiled at me. “I learned from that too, Miss Galbraith. My outfit always had someone sober on guard.”
“Well, good for you, Mr. Heyes. It’s just a shame you never learned to keep your sticky fingers to yourself, isn’t it?”
The words were out of my mouth before I knew it and my stomach turned a cartwheel of fear, but the men exchanged a look before Kid Curry started laughing. “You’re right, Stubby. She’s a credit to you. I guess if the haul from that robbery gave her a decent life, then that money wasn’t wasted, after all.”
“It was your wife, wasn’t it?” Heyes folded his arms, darting a look between my father and me “You wanted revenge. I’ll bet it was Dutch you beat up so bad you got a year’s hard labour, and then you followed him as soon as you got out. It all fits – he just couldn’t keep his hands off a pretty girl, and judging by your daughter she was a beauty”
“My wife was the sweetest, purest creature who ever walked God’s good earth. She wouldn’t have given a lowlife like him the time of day.”
Heyes eyes glittered strangely at my father. “No decent woman would, he was a slimy maggot.” He sighed. “The chance of starting a fresh life with the loot suddenly seemed more important than revenge. That could wait. You said yourself; there was a baby on the way... That must have been a real shock, Stubby.”
Kid Curry walked over to the door. “We’ll be goin’, Stubby. Keep your cash.” He tipped the brim of his hat, “Goodnight, Miss Galbraith. I hope we didn’t frighten you too much.”
Hannibal Heyes gave me a glittering smile. “Miss Galbraith, your father’s secret is safe with us. I believe he only did what many men would do to avenge his wife, and I think he put that loot to the best use he could.” He glanced around the room. “If we were to do a straw poll, just about any man in the country would have done the same, if they’d had the guts. You should be as proud as him as he is of you.”
The truth dawned gradually on me – I had just turned sixteen at that time, and I was way more naive than I liked to think. My father had been in jail for a year before my birth, for beating up the man who had been bothering his wife. He wasn’t a cold, unloving, uncommunicative man. He was a man who had loved so deeply he had brought up the child of the man who had raped my mother while he was in jail. Of course he had struggled at times – who wouldn’t?
I married six years later and he gave me away with tears in his eyes. My something old was my brooch adorned with flowers fashioned from my mother’s hair.