“I was getting tired of that town anyway,” Heyes said as he and Curry rode easy along the meandering trail. The western sky was streaked with red and purple as evening settled. The trees alongside them stood shadowy and quiet.
“You think he really went to the sheriff like he said?” Curry asked.
Heyes shrugged. “Don’t know. He was such a sore loser at poker, there’s no telling.” Suddenly Curry whipped around in his saddle, his pistol cocked and aimed toward the trees.
“What is it Kid?”
“I heard something,” he said, peering into the darkening woods.
“Probably just an animal.” Heyes grinned. “But I suppose you can use the practice.”
“Heyes, I’m telling ya there’s someone in there,” Curry insisted.
“You better come out,” Heyes added lightly, humoring the Kid. “He rarely misses.” A moment later, to his great surprise, a human figure slowly emerged from the trees.
She was young, no more than 20 or so years old. Her long dark hair was tangled, her clothes disheveled. She tightly clutched to her chest a travel bag. Curry swiftly holstered his gun and dismounted, as did Heyes, and the two men cautiously approached her. As they got close, they could see her oval, high-cheekboned face was clouded with mean, purple bruises.
“Who did this to you?” Heyes asked gently. Her wide, frightened eyes slid from one man to the other.
“Ma’am, you need help?” Curry asked kindly. A sob broke from her lips, and he caught her as she collapsed, crying fitfully.
The small fire cracked merrily under the dark velvety, diamond studded sky. The light threw dancing shadows on the faces of Heyes and Curry, who pensively watched their guest sitting across the fire from them. She was wrapped in a blanket and held the coffee cup they gave her so tight between her two hands that her knuckles were nearly white. Her travel bag lay at her feet. She hadn’t spoken a word after her tears subsided; other than eating the beans they shared with her, she merely stared into the fire.
“Would you like some more to eat?” Curry offered solicitously. She jerked, as though suddenly aware of their presence.
“What’s your name ma’am?” Heyes asked.
She took a long moment to answer. “Tara Ann Carlson.”
“Glad to make your acquaintance, Miss Carlson. I’m Thaddeus Jones, and this here’s Joshua Smith.”
“We’d like to help you, but we can’t do a thing unless you talk to us.” Heyes added with a touch of impatience.
“I am sorry,” her rough voice answered back. “You have been kind. Thank you for the food and coffee.”
“Seems to me you haven’t eaten in some time.” Curry noted, nodding towards the empty tin plate at her feet.
She looked up at him with big, serious eyes tinged with fear, and he felt a pang of sorrow for her.
“For the last two days, I haven’t had more than jerky and some berries I found in the woods.” She finished her coffee with a long, satisfying gulp, and put the cup down by her bag.
“What’re you doing walking around out here?” Heyes asked.
“My horse spooked, I don’t know why. He threw me and ran off.” She picked up a stick and absent mindedly poked at the fire.
“Who are you running away from ma’am?” Curry asked softly. She poked more intently at the fire and did not answer. She watched the sparks fly up, looked at the handsome faces of her companions brightened and shadowed by the wavering flames.
“Why would you want to get mixed up in my trouble?” she finally asked.
“We’re kinda partial to trouble,” Curry smiled.
“You don’t even know me, you don’t know what I’m up against.”
“We know you need help,” Heyes observed.
“It might make you feel a little better to talk about it,” Curry encouraged. She sat thoughtfully for a moment, then sighed deeply.
“My father was murdered two weeks ago,” she began in a choked voice. Heyes and Curry shared an understanding glance.
“His partner, Michael Strutford, offered to take care of me, but I declined. My father left me quite a bit of money, and I wanted nothing to do with Michael. His presence always … disturbed me somehow.” She took another deep breath to fortify herself before continuing.
“He said there was a document he loaned my father before he died, and he needed it back. I told him if I came across it, I would certainly give it to him.” Her voice grew hard as she stabbed at the fire.
“But that wasn’t good enough. When I came home from the funeral, the house was in complete disarray. Furniture ripped, paintings torn off the walls, papers scattered all over and books pulled from the shelves. Before I could tell the sheriff, Michael arrived and demanded I give him the document.” A sob escaped from deep within her.
“He beat me and told me he was the one who killed my father. He said he would do the same to me if I didn’t give him what he wanted.” She began to cry, dropping the stick and burying her face in her hands.
Curry looked at Heyes, who shook his head disgusted. He knew what kind of man would beat on a woman, one who deserved to be tied to a horse and dragged through the mud. That is, if her story were true. He hadn’t quite decided yet.
Slowly her sobs eased and quieted all together.
“Why didn’t you just give it to him?” Heyes asked.
“I would have gladly if I had it!” she cried. “It wasn’t in any of father’s papers or in his safe.” She looked questioningly at Heyes, who wore an unreadable expression.
“You don’t believe me?”
“Of course we believe you,” Curry reassured her. “Did you tell the sheriff?”
“I couldn’t. Michael refused to leave my house until it was found. That night I managed to sneak out the back window and get away from him.”
“You can’t run forever,” Heyes pointed out.
“I know.” She lowered her head. “He’s following me. He was in the town I left just a few days ago. I don’t think he saw me. Then I lost my horse, and I’ve been hiding in the woods…” She put her hand up to her mouth to cover a yawn.
“Why don’t you get some sleep,” Curry suggested. He slipped off his jacket and rolled it up for her to rest her head on. “We’ll figure something out in the morning.”
She smiled tentatively up at Curry. “Thank you.” She was sleeping soundly in minutes, her breath soft and regular.
“Heyes, we gotta do something,” Curry said quietly.
“Kid, we don’t know anything about the man who’s chasing her. She says it’s about a missing document, but something just don’t seem right.”
“You don’t believe her?”
“I’m not sure what to believe.”
“Well she sounds convincing to me. And you got to admit, Heyes, she didn’t beat her face herself.”
“That’s true enough. But like she also said, we don’t know what she’s up against. And Strutford don’t sound like the kind of man that would let her get away from him. Twice.”
“You think he let her go intentional like to see if she’d lead him to the document?” Curry asked doubtfully.
“I don’t know, Kid.” Heyes gazed into the fire; then his eyes fell upon the travel bag at her feet. “We could even the odds a bit though.” He suggested, pointing.
“Heyes, how can you even think it. That’d be invading her privacy.”
“She’s already invaded ours, hasn’t she?”
“It ain’t right.”
“Maybe not, but what if it gives us a better idea of what we’re getting into? Look, Kid, I’m not against helping her. But I don’t want to go blindly stumbling into something I don’t know much about.”
The two men locked eyes for a moment, then Kid broke away. “All right.”
“I knew you’d see it my way.” Heyes silently crept to her bag, watching her sleeping face for any movement. The bag snapped quietly open, and he began to search inside. He abashedly removed a corset and other underclothes, shooting a lethal glance at Kid as he chuckled. Then he pulled out a book.
“It’s a bible.” Heyes opened the thick, hard leather cover and flipped through the silky pages, but nothing was hidden in there as far as he could tell. He then pulled out a fat wad of cash, all hundreds by the look of it.
“Whoee, her daddy sure did leave her some money.” Heyes whispered, waving the bills at his partner.
“Put that back, will ya?” Curry frowned.
Heyes grinned and continued his search. Along with the clothes, bible and money, he found a canteen, some beef jerky, a bar of soap, a washcloth, a metal comb… and a small, gold plated gun with pearl grips.
“Hey Kid, look at this. Double barrel Derringer. Pretty nice, huh.”
“So she has a gun. What’d you expect Heyes? She’s a woman on the run.”
“Just glad to know it’s there.” Finally he pulled out a little red book with the word “diary” stamped on the cover in gold. “Jackpot.”
Heyes put everything back in her bag, except the diary, and sat beside Kid. “This should tell us something.”
Kid looked guiltily at Tara, then peered over Heyes’ arm as he opened the small book. The handwriting inside was hard and masculine.
“Must be her father’s.” After reading a few select passages by the light of the dwindling fire, the two men had a much better idea of what was going on. James Carlson and Michael Strutford were business partners. That is, until James suspected Michael of cheating their clients and paying off the local sheriff and judge. James Carlson repeatedly expressed concern about his partner’s activities and worry for his daughter’s safety. His last entry seemed to suggest he knew where to look for evidence to support his suspicions. There was nothing more.
“What do you think?” Kid asked when Heyes finally closed the book and replaced it in the sleeping woman’s travel bag.
“I believe her a lot more now.” Heyes admitted. “But I don’t know what we can do to help her.”
“Can’t we tell the sheriff in the next town?”
“And hope he don’t recognize us?” Heyes shook his head. “Besides, there ain’t much he can do as things stand. There’s no proof Strutford did anything illegal.”
“Heyes, you gotta come up with something.”
Heyes sighed. “Kid, you know I always do.” Satisfied, Curry threw his own bedroll down and settled in to sleep. He left Heyes sitting, staring into the dying flames.