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 The Devil's Due - Chapter 12

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PostSubject: The Devil's Due - Chapter 12    The Devil's Due - Chapter 12   EmptySat Oct 10, 2015 4:53 pm

The gang was eating breakfast in the cookhouse when a single gunshot sounded and the hollow rhythm of galloping hooves alerted everyone friends were arriving.  Heyes wandered outside in time to see Wheat sliding to a stop. He vaulted off his gelding and stood for a moment with his head bowed against the saddle leather, his sides heaving, his lungs gasping for air.  The horse and mule weren’t much better and both were thickly lathered with foamy sweat from a long, hard ride.  Wheat was early and Kyle was missing.  


Heyes jumped off the porch and ran towards the barn.  “Wheat!  What happened?  Where’s Kyle?” 


Exhausted, Wheat turned to his leader.  “He’s been taken.”


“Taken?  By who?  There’s no law in Sweatless,” said Heyes.  


The Kid ran up and stopped next to him, frowning at the older outlaw.  “What the hell happened, Wheat?!”


“It wasn’t my fault!” began Wheat.  “The damned fool decided he was in love with the old hag that owns the hotel, but she already had a boyfriend.  Fella figured out we were outlaws and he got the drop on Kyle.”


Heyes was so angry he couldn’t speak, so the Kid stepped in.  “Hold on a minute.  How’d he find out who you were?”


“I don’t rightly know.  I was with the horses when I saw Kyle kissin’ Miz McGinty goodbye and, the next thing I know, Beauregard’s screamin’ about turnin’ him in for a reward so I high-tailed it out of there before he caught me, too.  Figured the whole gang could go back and bust him out.”  Wheat’s haunted eyes pled for understanding.


Heyes felt his fury quickly ebbing as he took in Wheat’s bedraggled appearance.  The man had made it back here in record time and it was plain the effort had cost him.   “Go get yourself something to eat, the Kid and I will take care of the animals.”


Relieved he wasn’t going to be summarily tossed out of the Hole as he had feared, Wheat smiled gratefully.  “Thanks, Heyes.  What about Kyle?”


“Leave Kyle up to me.”


“I can’t do that.  If you’re bustin’ Kyle out, I’m ridin’ with you.”


“You ain’t in any condition to ride, Wheat.  You’ll slow us up,” said the Kid.


“Like hell I will.  Kyle’s my partner.  Do you know what it felt like to leave him behind like that?  I’m goin’ with you.”  


Heyes was skeptical but he appreciated Wheat’s loyalty and knew he’d feel the same way if it had been the Kid taken.  “All right, go eat and be back here in an hour.   Tell Lom and Preacher to get ready to ride.  We’ll take extra mounts and relay to save time.”


The two leaders watched the tired, defeated man trudge to the cookhouse.   Curry sighed, “Is it always like this, Heyes?”


“Why do you think I need you so bad, Kid?  It’s like herding cats ‘round here.”  Heyes unbuckled the cinches and breast collar on Wheat’s horse and pulled the saddle off, grunting as he lifted it onto a fence railing.


Untying the rope on the pack saddle, Curry began to unload the mule; pulling off the pickaxes and the crate of dynamite and setting them on the ground.  “So why do you do it?  Why don’t you toss out these screw-ups and start over?”  


Heyes shook his head ruefully as he gathered up the tired beasts’ reins.  “I can’t.  How many outlaws do you know who’d be willing to make sure no one got hurt during a heist?   We both know it’s safer to shoot first and steal later.”   He led the animals to the corral and turned them loose to roll in the powdery sand.


The Kid hoisted the crate and waited as Heyes gathered up the pick axes before they started towards the barn.  “I guess you’ve got a point, but these knuckleheads can still learn a thing or two.”


“I hope so.  Otherwise, we’re riding the world’s shortest outlaw trail.”  


oooOOOooo


Carlotta glanced around surreptitiously.  The coast looked clear enough.  She could hear the distant rumble of Beauregard arguing with Mrs. McGinty; or at least he was trying to argue.  He was clearly punching well above his weight and coming off badly.  That should keep them busy for a while anyway.  Gabe was watching the front desk from the comfort of a convenient sofa, and Charlotte was doing her flighty best to distract him, so she should have a few minutes to speak to the prisoner in the smoke house.  She gathered her skirts and bustled over to the door.  She tapped gently.  “Mr. Murson?”


She heard a rustling from inside before a plaintive little voice drifted through the thick wooden door.  “Scarlet?”


She smiled at the sweet hope playing in that simple word when spoken by the simplest of men.  “No, Mr. Murson.   It’s Carlotta Durbin.  I’ve come to see how you are.”


“Aw,” the cadence dropped in disappointment.  “Been better.  It’s really smelly in here.”


“Yes,” she sniffed.  “It’s pretty strong.  A smokehouse?  People smoke in here?  I didn’t even know that was a thing.”


“They smoke meat and fish, Miz Carlotta.  To stop it goin’ bad.” She heard him snicker.  “Maybe that’s why they use this as a jail?  But I’m about as bad as I’m gonna get.”  


“Oh, I didn’t know.  I’ve never had to preserve food.  Is it really bad?”


“Yes’m.  Can you open the door?”


“I’m afraid I can’t.  Beauregard has the key to the padlock.”


“Oh....”  The little voice became childlike.  “I don’t suppose you know how to jimmy one off, do ya?”


“I’m afraid not.  It’s not something I’ve ever come across.  I can’t do much to help except see if you need something that’ll fit under the door.”


“I guess some liquor is outta the question.  Some hooch might make me forget how dark and stinky it is in here.”


“I’ll see what I can do.”  She paused.  “Is it true, Mr. Murson?  Are you a criminal?”


“’Course I ain’t.  That scallywag just didn’t like me cuttin’ in on Miz McGinty.  I mean, do I look like a crook?”


Carlotta paused.  “That’s not really a fair question.  Everybody around here does.  No offence.”  


A throaty laugh rattled around the little building.  “None taken.  See, ma’am.  I don’t take nuthin’ that ain’t mine, ‘cepting a few liberties here and there.”


“That may be what has annoyed Beauregard.”


“Yeah, I guess so.”


“I could get you something to read if you’re bored, Mr. Murson.”


“I ain’t much for books, thanks.  Just the liquor will do.  It’s too dark in here anyhow.”


“I’ll see what I can do.”  Carlotta clenched her fists in anticipation, trying to make her next question sound as casual as possible.  “What gang did he say you were in?”


“I can’t rightly remember, Miz Carlotta,” Kyle continued with the flamboyant stupidity of a man who knew everything except when to stop.  “I think he said the Devil’s Hole outfit.”


Carlotta silently pumped her arms in jubilation.  No gang had been mentioned at all.  Lyle Murson had just failed the first test.  Would an innocent man or a member of another gang name them out of nowhere?  Possibly an outlaw from a rival gang, but nobody in the clear would just make up a gang.  It was hardly evidence.  It was a start though.  “I’ll get you your whiskey, Mr. Murson.  You can count on me,” she murmured.  “Can I come and talk to you again?  It might help pass the time, and I feel so sorry for you.”


“You’s as sweet as they come, you and that sister o’ yourn.  You gotta be careful around here.  There’s a lotta men who’d take advantage of a nature like yours.”


“Outlaws?” 


“For sure.  And there’s just them who just ain’t seen nuthin’ so sweet in their lives.  You and your sister are real purty.”


“Would the Devil’s Hole Gang take advantage, Mr. Murson?”


“Hah, Heyes would have any man’s hide for that.  He’s a real stickler for rules.  You’d be safe as a tick on a dog with a stiff neck.”


“You seem to know quite a lot about them, Mr. Murson.  Have you met them?”


There was a long pause before a laugh cut through the silence.  “Would I be here if I had?  They might be good to women, but I ain’t got what you got.  They’re criminals.  I just hear things, is all.”


“Of course you do.” Carlotta stood.  “I have to go now.  I’ll get you some whiskey.  I promise.”  


oooOOOooo


Heyes rode into Sweatless alone.  Curry had agreed with him that it made sense to scope out the situation before charging into town, but had balked at his partner going in alone.  Wheat had assured them the most dangerous person in town was the object of Kyle’s affections  and Heyes had persuaded the Kid to provide backup by stationing the gang in the deep brush on a low hill overlooking the hotel and.  From there, the Kid would have a fairly clear view of the streets.  If there was trouble, he could get to Heyes in minutes.  


The main street was nearly deserted except for a couple of kids clutching readers on their way to school.  He could hear the bell beckoning them to hurry.  A wagon stood outside the General Store and a couple of horses were tied to a hitching rail by the livery, but very few people wandered the sidewalks of Sweatless.   It was a dying town and that’s why Heyes had sent his men here.  No one was likely to ask questions when there was money to be made.  


He pulled his horse up in front of the hotel as a lanky man appeared from inside and began sweeping the front steps.  He recognized Beauregard from Wheat’s description.  Dismounting, he tied his horse and turned to the man who’d stopped sweeping and was leaning on his broom staring at him.


“Howdy.  You got any rooms left?”  Heyes pulled off his saddlebags and put them on his shoulder.


Beauregard snorted.  “Got all of ‘em, except one.”  He stood in the middle of the steps, blocking them. He blatantly eyed the tied-down gun and the confident bearing of the younger man.  Stepping aside, he followed Heyes into the lobby and went behind the counter turning the register to his new customer and holding out a pen.


“Business is booming, huh?” said Heyes as he scrawled a signature for his alias, Dan Fortin.


“We do all right.  What’s brought you to Sweatless, Mr. Fortin?” 


“I’m on my way home to Texas.  Just drove a herd into Medicine Bow.”


“You don’t sound Texan,” said Beau, suspiciously.


“Ain’t too many native Texans.”   Heyes was feeling less welcome by the second.  “You renting me a room or should I move on?”


“Beauregard, you’re paid to register the guests, not drive ‘em away!” shrilled a loud voice behind Heyes. 


Heyes spun around to find an older, buxom woman lounging on the threadbare settee across the room.  He hadn’t seen her when he came in and her stealthy appearance startled him.  Avoiding her expansive décolletage, he schooled his eyes onto her face.  Wheat had been less than generous in his description.  Mrs. McGinty possessed a faded, but discernible, beauty.  Giving her his most appealing smile, he tipped his hat.  “Ma’am.”


“Mrs. Scarlet McGinty, proprietress.”  She stood up and purred, “My, ain’t you the handsome one.  Give Mr. Fortin room two.”  


“Two!  That’s our best room,” protested Beauregard.


“It is,” agreed Mrs. McGinty.  “It’s also as far away as possible from the Durbin gals.  Mr. Fortin, I run a respectable place and I expect my guests to act decently while they’re under my roof.  I got two young gals stayin’ here and if’n I find you pesterin’ them in any way, you’ll find yourself sleepin’ under the stars.  Are we clear?”


Pulling off his hat and resting it over his heart, Heyes said, “Completely clear, ma’am.”


Not fooled by his choirboy act, she said, “Good.  Dinner’s at six; don’t be late.” 


Heyes chuckled as she swept out of the room.  She was a force to be reckoned with.  As far as he was concerned, Kyle was aiming too high.  He turned back to Beauregard and the smile slipped from his face.  “Send up a bath,” he said curtly.


Beauregard slammed the room key onto the counter and went to fetch bath water.


oooOOOooo


When Heyes entered the dining room, he saw a young woman seated at the center table and thought she must be one of the Durbin girls.  He briefly wondered where the other girl was.   At another table by the window sat a good-looking blond man roughly his age.  Wheat had said he was the lady’s son, Gabe.  The man looked up and nodded pleasantly, then returned his attention to his meal.  Heyes chose a corner table giving him the walls at his back.  As soon as he sat, Mrs. McGinty abruptly appeared by his side.  “We’re serving beefsteak with fried taters and green beans tonight.  That suit you?”


“Yes, ma’am, and some coffee please.”


Nodding, she left him.  He saw the girl looking at him speculatively and he smiled.  Was everybody in this town nosey?  Heyes pulled out a tattered book from his pocket and began reading as he waited for his meal.  


Bored by dining alone, Carlotta studied the dark-haired man carefully.  His features were unusual but pleasing to look at.  She’d like to draw him.  He’d be a challenge.  Dark brown eyes met hers in mid-assessment and she blushed, fumbling her fork mid-way to her mouth.  Damn Charlotte, for deciding a walk in the fresh air was more appealing than dinner!  Embarrassed by her lack of manners, she stood up and crossed the room.  


“Good evening, Mr.?”


Heyes hurriedly wiped his mouth with the rough napkin and stood up.  “Dan Fortin, Miss?”


“I’m Carlotta Durbin.  May I join you?”


Looking helplessly at Mrs. McGinty, he saw her frowning as he invited the young lady to sit.  “I’d be honored.”


“I’m afraid you’ve caught me being unforgivably rude.  I do hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.”


Heyes grinned, “It takes lot more than a pretty girl to make me uncomfortable.”


“I’m glad you feel that way, Mr. Fortin.”


“If you don’t mind my asking, Miss Durbin, what is a fine lady like you doing in a place like Sweatless?”


Carlotta laughed gaily.  “It is off the beaten track, is it not?  My sister, Charlotte, and I are taking a Grand Tour of the West.  I’m an amateur artist and we were told that there are some interesting natural formations near here.  I was hoping to draw them.”


“And have you?”



“Not yet.  Charlotte and I were born and raised in the city, Mr. Fortin.  We had no idea how wild and rugged the landscape is out here.  Luckily for us, Mrs. McGinty has taken us under her wing and is educating us in the arts of riding astride and handling a firearm before she will permit us to go too far afield.”


“She’s a smart woman.  This part of the country isn’t safe to wander around in if you don’t know what you’re doing.”


Irked by his smug admonishment, Carlotta felt her temper bristling.  “We are not stupid, Mr. Fortin, simply unprepared.  We will be hiring Mrs. McGinty’s son, Gabe, as our guide, but I prefer to be capable of defending myself and not relying on a man to take care of me.”


“And what about your sister?”


“My sister?  What about her?”


“How does she feel about having to defend herself?”  Heyes was deliberately provoking Carlotta hoping to end the conversation before Mrs. McGinty or Gabe decided to throw him out.  He needed time to find out where they were keeping Kyle.   Deciding on a different tack, he said, “There are outlaws in these parts, Miss Durbin.  You and your sister would do well to steer clear of them.”


“I am fully aware of the outlaw situation, Mr. Fortin,” she said frostily.  “Unfortunately, steering clear of them is more easily said than done.”


Heyes was preparing to ask her a question when a pair of meaty hands dropped onto his shoulders and a voice said, “Is this fella botherin’ you, Miss Carlotta?”


“Hold on a minute, she sat down with me,” said Heyes, defensively. 


Gabe ignored him.  “’Cause, if’n he is, I’d be happy to throw him out in the smokehouse with that other fella.”


“That won’t be necessary, Gabe,” said Carlotta, smiling sweetly at her rescuer.  “I was just leaving.”  She stood up and flounced purposefully back to her own table.  Heyes watched her go with a smile on his face.  He’d gotten what he wanted and without any trouble at all.


Gabe misread his smile and slid into her vacated chair leaning across the table towards him.  “Mr. Fortin, I hope you ain’t plannin’ on bein’ a problem.”


“Nope, no problem at all. Matter of fact, I’ll be on my way first thing in the morning.”


“Good.”  Gabe got up and went back to his meal.  


oooOOOooo


Charlotte’s constitution wasn’t used to so much meat and potatoes.  The food was hearty; designed to fill up a hard-working belly, and not the regime the willowy, artistic, ingénue-about-town was accustomed to.  She felt the need to take the air and walk off the stodgy stew and dumplings which had been sitting uncomfortably since lunchtime.  The last thing she wanted to do was pile more food on top of it, so she had excused herself from dinner, pleading a need for fresh air, so as not to offend her hostess.  It was daylight, the streets were still the place for children and respectable residents, and she had promised to steer clear of Doolin Street.  What could go wrong?


It took her precisely ten minutes of savoring the delights of window shopping for shovels, ropes, and sacks of various dreary staples to make her sigh and raise her head to look further afield.  She could go and walk down by the river, but the uncultivated banks were pebbled and muddy where the water lapped through grasses and pebbles.  She turned to her other choice.  The evening sun was shining on the hill behind the main street, casting a sublime golden light over the trees.  The street leading to the well worn path used by the lumberjacks was swathed in lambent sunlight which made her heart flutter at the sheer imposing beauty of the place.  She might be a city girl, but Denver had nothing like this.  The twittering of the birds and inviting glow over the soaring majesty was too tempting.  Charlotte walked to the edge of the sidewalk and looked both ways before lifting her skirt just the appropriate amount and stepping down into the road.  Up the hill it was. 


oooOOOooo


The path was dual-ridged where wagons and carts had cut their way between the trees, marking out the scar where humans began to scour their way into the wilderness.  It hadn’t rained for a day or so, and in any case the drying winds of Sweatless left the ruts hard and desiccated.  It was a fairly easy walk up the hill on the caked mud, and the incline was steady.      


She proceeded upwards dawdling every now and again where there was a break in the trees to look back down to the town below.  The further she went, the less permanent and more remote the place appeared to be, with the buildings scattered about the valley between the huge mountains.  There was no other significant habitation as far as the eye could see.  It absolutely looked like the end of the Earth.


She turned at a sound behind her, no more than a rustle.  Her heart fluttered in alarm, but quickly switched to a silent giggle at the sight of the doe chewing foliage while eyeing her suspiciously.  It swallowed before swinging around and skipping off with a bound into the forest to disappear into the dappled undergrowth in the blink of an eye.  


She smiled to herself and continued on up the hill.  The view might make an interesting drawing and get them out of the town for a day or so.  This was a chance to find a good vantage point.  It could even be a pleasant day with a picnic if the weather was right.  


Beams of light penetrated the forest canopy, drenching the dancing insects and delicate seeds blowing in the breeze with a verdant gold.  The sound of falling water caught her attention, so she strayed from the path onto the glade beside her and followed the much smaller track off to her right.  Branches and brambles grabbed and tugged at her skirts until she gave a huff of frustration and pulled them higher.  Nobody was going to see except a few rabbits or deer anyway.  The way opened up as she got nearer to the rushing sound until she walked into another clearing and gasped in delight.  A high horsetail fall tumbled from a rocky outcrop jutting out above her head, into a deep chartreuse pool surrounded by lush ferns and bracken.  The water overflowed from the rocky basin where the hillside fell away to reveal a perfect view of Sweatless.  This was the vantage point from which she would paint the town.  She could even see a few of the more outlying homesteads from here, but nothing matched the lush beauty of this private glade.  She gazed about in wonder, following the foaming water to the rocky shelf above.


A squeal of shock slipped from her lips at the unexpected face suddenly confronting her.  The man’s menacing black eyes sat above a hawk-like nose.  The gaunt man smiled, breaking the tension.  “Hey, no need to panic, girly.  What you doin’ all the way up here?”  He glanced behind her.  “You on your own?”


“I…I didn’t know anyone was up here,” she quickly thought the better of exposing her vulnerability.  “No, I’m not alone.”


The man clambered down from the rocks on bent knees, grasping a rifle in both hands.  “Who?  I saw you walk from the town.  There weren’t nobody with you then.”  His thin lips spread back in what was supposed to look like a smile, but actually came off more as a snarl.  


“I’m meeting someone,” Charlotte began to back off in alarm.  “Please, just leave me alone.”


The stranger came to a halt, injury playing in his eyes.  “Hey, I ain’t gonna hurt ya.  I’m kinda worried about ya.  There’s all kindsa animals and things up here.”


“I know a saw a little deer.”


“Yeah, and they bring things that eat them like lions and bears.”


“Oh, my!”


“There ain’t nuthin’ good up here for you.  You were real dumb to come up here alone.”


Her bottom lip started to tremble.  “I know…” 


“You lookin’ for someone?”  He arched his brows.  “A man maybe?”  


He smiled again, but this time the hooked nose and cadaveric face came off as hungry and venal to the sheltered young lady.  “No.   Stay away from me…”    


She turned and ran as fast as her legs could carry her, but it was the wail which attracted the attention of Lom and the Kid.  She hit the prickly shrubs and thorns, which grabbed at her petticoats holding her back.  Her throat opened in panic as she tore at the thorns and bushes and toppled over.  She let loose a full throated scream…


oooOOOooo
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PostSubject: Re: The Devil's Due - Chapter 12    The Devil's Due - Chapter 12   EmptySat Oct 10, 2015 4:53 pm

“In the name of…?” Lom locked eyes with the Kid.


The Kid was already on his feet and moving.  “It’s either a woman, or the Preacher has moved from inner demons to real ones.  I’ll take the rocks.  You take the path.  Be careful.”


Charlotte ripped at her skirts, wrenching at them with a sickening rip.  She propped herself up and fell face first into the thorns once more and screamed again, turning to beat at the hands reaching out to her.  “Get away from me!”


Lom ran in from the path.  “What…?”


He stopped dead at the sight of his comrade bent over a screaming woman with ripped clothes who spat and fought like a cornered animal.  “Preacher?”


“She ran like a mad thing, Lom.”  The Preacher turned confused eyes on his friend.  “She’s gone Loco.”


“What did you do to her?”


“Nuthin’.  I just asked if were on her own.”


Lom waded forward and reached out.  “Give me your hand.”  He tugged her to a seating position and hauled her up by her shoulders.  “Here, now.  No need to get yourself in such a fuss.  We’ll get you outta this.  Preacher, her dress is caught.  Get it off the thorns.”  


Charlotte limped over to the edge of the pool, still huffing and puffing hysterically and pulling back from the helping hands supporting her.  She was not a pretty crier.  Tears streamed down her face to the point of making her lashes clump together, her mouth hung open, and a trail of snot started to drip from her upper lip.


A long-legged figure negotiated the rocks in a couple of bounds.  “What’s goin’ on here?” 


“I just bumped into her.  Honest, Kid.  She started babblin’ and ran for no reason.  I never touched her.  Tell him I never touched ya!”


“You expect me to believe you just said ‘hello’, and she ran off in a panic?”  He crouched and faced her through tendrils of her disheveled hair.  “What did he do to you?  You can tell me.”


“I never did nuthin’,” Preacher bellowed.  “Tell him!”


“Yellin’ at her won’t do any good.  She’s scared enough as it is,” snorted Lom.


“He’ll shoot me where I stand if she don’t tell the truth,” Preacher countered.  “I ain’t dyin’ because of some dumb girl’s scared of her shadow.”


“Shut up,” the Kid placed his forefinger under her chin and drew her face towards him.  “What happened?”  Her eyes remained defiantly down, the lids flickering fearfully.  His voice became softer and warmer.  “What’s your name?”


“Charlotte…”


“What happened, Charlotte?  You’re safe now.  You can tell me.”  The Kid undid his bandana and dipped the end of it in the water and began dabbing at her scratched cheek.  “Did he touch you?”



She shook her head before reaching out and grabbing the neckerchief.  She bundled it to her nose and gave it a great rasping blow before handing it back.  The Kid flicked up a brow.  “Keep it, darlin’.  What happened?”


“I was walking and then I saw a face…and … looking at me…,” her voice got higher and higher and continued to spiral as her story unfolded.  “He was … me…alone…lions and bears…rifle…came towards me…I ran…”  Her story continued in a series of squeaks and squeals which made the men frown in confusion.


“So he never touched you?” asked the Kid.


“No, but…”  


More shrill, grating sounds drifted meaninglessly from her mouth accompanied by much pointing and sobbing, leaving none of the men any the wiser.   The Preacher decided it was time to set things straight.  “She took one look at me at started screamin’ like a banshee and carryin’ on like a loon.  I asked if she was on her own, and told her it was dangerous for her to be up here on her own.  She ran, got caught on them thorns and started givin’ out like a newborn babe caught in the snow.”


The Kid fixed her with a determined stare.  “Is this true?”


The sobbing started again and the gunman’s patience snapped.  “Enough!”  The eyes sharpened.  “Is that what happened?”


Charlotte’s sobbing started to subside.  “I suppose.  He just looked so scary appearing out of the bushes like that.  He was asking if I was alone and started walking towards me.  I panicked.”  She cast a hand bearing a soggy bandana in Preacher’s direction, “I mean, look at him.  He’s terrifying.  He could haunt a house.  No offence.”


The outlaws turned amused eyes on their now indignant colleague.  “None taken, I’m sure,” Preacher snapped.  “That’s the last time I try to help a lady.  Talk about stony ground.  Get yourself eaten by a bear.  See if I care.” 


Lom was the first to start laughing.  “She’s got a point.”


“No she ain’t,” barked the hook-nosed man, sitting on a rock.  “There was me lookin’ out for her, and her runnin’ away like I’ve escaped from a freak show.  T’ain’t right.”


Charlotte sniffed into the bandana again, this time more delicately.  “He’s right.  My behavior was inexcusable.  Please forgive me Mr….?” 



The three men exchanged glances before the Kid decided to prevaricate.  “So.  Did you come up here alone?  You don’t sound like you’re from around these parts.”


“I’m not.  I’m visiting with my sister.  Why does everyone keep telling me not to go anywhere on my own?”


“Because you’re a madwoman?” Preacher muttered.  He glanced away for the stiletto of blue ice which cut through him.  


“Because this ain’t the big city, and this ain’t a park with a promenade and a duck pond.  There are bears and things around here, not to mention men who haven’t seen a decent woman in years.”  The Kid held out a hand to help her to her feet.  “Are you hurt?  You’ve a few scratches.  Some iodine should sort them out.”


She stood and gazed ruefully down at her dress.  “I’m fine, but I think this is ruined.”


“Yeah, well.  I can’t rightly say what women should wear walkin’ in the hills.”  The blue eyes scanned her to check if they were likely to get shot just returning her to the town before deciding she was decent enough for the story to pass the angry citizen test.  “It’s not somethin’ we see too often.” 


“Thanks,” Charlotte nodded curtly to a sulky Preacher.  “I am very sorry.  I didn’t mean to insult you.  I’m not used to rough fellows jumping out at me carrying rifles.  I was startled and was unconscionably rude.  Please accept my deepest apologies.”  Her only reply was a scowl from the black, hooded eyes.  “Gentlemen.  I must go.  Thanks for your assistance.”


“You ain’t just gonna let her go, are ya?” Preacher demanded.


“No,” the Kid thought on his feet to cover this idiotic remark.  He gave the gang member a hard warning stare.  “Lom, will you walk the lady back to the edge of town.  If we need you, we’ll come with a horse.  Miss Charlotte, that could have been a mountain lion.  Please don’t go wanderin’ about on your own again.  It ain’t safe.” 


oooOOOooo


“What’s that smell?”  Mrs. McGinty sniffed the air.  “Have you left somethin’ on the range, Beauregard?”


“Me?”  The Southerner’s nostrils twitched.  “No, Sweetness.  I can smell something though.  What does it smell like?  Is it ham?”


“Yeah.  It might be ham.”


“I can smell it too,” Carlotta placed her coffee cup back on the saucer.  “It is.  It’s bacon.  Smokey bacon.”


“Where is that coming from?” demanded Mrs. McGinty.


Heyes drew deeply on his coffee before putting the cup down and inhaling.  Yes, that was ham right enough.  Where could that be coming from…?  Only the slight widening in the brown eyes betrayed the realization flickering over his face.  He stood, dropping his napkin on the table and walked over to the dining room door.  


The hostess turned and frowned at the dark-haired guest.  “You’re done, Mr. Fortin?”   


“Yeah, I gotta.  Well, you know.”  With a casual shrug, Heyes went out the door.


Mrs. McGinty’s brows rose in surprise.  “A gentleman,” she gave a wink of appreciation to Carlotta.  “Most of the folks we get in here would have just said they were goin’ for a pi…”


“The smokehouse!” Beauregard yelled.  “That’s the smell of the smokehouse.”



Scarlet McGinty dropped her coffee pot on the table with a thud.  “Git out there, Beau.  Grab the rifle behind the desk.  I’ll get the shotgun in the kitchen.”


“The smokehouse?”   Carlotta was the last to catch on.  “Oh!”


The dining room emptied in minutes with Beauregard bringing up the rear after deviating to the front desk to collect his rifle.  Carlotta followed her hostess and her son out through the kitchen to the side of the building where she was just in time to see the new guest at the open door of the smokehouse, half-carrying the blackened, gasping occupant into the fresh air coughing up his guts.  The former prisoner crawled along on all fours, his back arching against the retching, raking bark of lungs seeking fresh air.


The woman raised her shotgun.  “Here now.  You drop that gun and step away from him.  He’s a wrong ‘un.”


Heyes slipped into his most innocent face.  “He was banging on the door when I went to the latrine.  He was going to die in there.”  He cast a hand towards the smoke billowing out of the open door.  “I’m not going to let him die in there.  Are you crazy?”


The hotel owner shook her head.  “He’s an outlaw, Mr. Fortin.  Get away from him.”  


“I ain’t no…” Kyle collapsed again in a paroxysm of hacking.  “Honest.”


“Outlaw or not, I’m not gonna leave a man in a burning building,” Heyes replied, his tone and smile sweet reason personified.  “But how was I to know?  Why isn’t he in jail?”


“We ain’t got a jail,” Beauregard rounded the building.


“No jail?” Heyes dimpled.  “No sheriff either?”


“What’s it to you?” Gabe demanded, thrusting a gun towards Kyle.  “Hands up.  Keep ‘em up.”


“He can’t put his hands up,” Heyes replied.  “He’s collapsed on the ground.”


“Yeah, well he can lie face down then.”  Gabe turned to his mother.  “I reckon he set that fire himself to get out of there.”


“Ya reckon,” Heyes’ sardonic tone was not lost on the young man.


“Lyle?  Can you breathe?” Carlotta stepped forward in concern.  “Do you need a doctor?”  The outlaw lay there wheezing, barely responsive.  “I think he’s really ill.”


“Isn’t anyone going to put the fire out?” asked Heyes.


“We’ll get to that when we got that varmint under lock and key,” Gabe replied.  “Get away from him, Miss Carlotta.”


“Why, he’s sick.  He’s perfectly safe.  He took my sister and me out shooting.”


Heyes’ eyes flicked up to the hill.  The rest of the gang were bound to have seen the smoke and were sure to be on their way.  He just had to buy some time until they got here.  “Nobody?  I guess I’ll fight the fire myself.  How about a hand?  He’s face down on the ground with three guns on him.  What do you think he’s going to do?  Someone could at least show me where the well is.”


Beauregard tentatively lowered his weapon.  “I guess I could.  He’s covered anyways.” 


Heyes’ smile deepened.  One weapon down, two to go.  “Over here.  I’ll follow you.”  He walked along behind the Southerner and quickly wound the bucket down.  “Here.  You take this one and I’ll follow you.”  He watched the man prop his rifle against the well and take the bucket before striding off to deal with the fire.  The dimples pitted even deeper as he watched the firearm plunge into the watery darkness.  “Yup, definitely one down.”


“Lyle?  Speak to me, Lyle.”  Carlotta shook the prone man vigorously.  “I think he’s really ill.  Help me to turn him over.”


“Leave him be,” Gabe shook his head.  


“No!  If you won’t help me, I’ll do it myself,” she grabbed Kyle’s shoulder and upper arm and heaved with all her might.  She flipped him onto his back.

        
Gabe gasped.  “He’s got a gun tucked in his pants.”


Kyle seized the weapon and jumped to his feet.  He curled an arm around Carlotta and pulled her to him.  “Yeah, I gotta gun and I ain’t afraid to use it.  Drop ‘em.”


“No way,” Gabe growled.  “Let her go.”


“Yeah?  You ain’t gonna risk the lady.  Drop it and I’ll just go real peaceful like.”


Carlotta’s indignation rose.  “Me?  You grab me?  How dare you?”  She started to squirm in his grasp.  “Let me go immediately.”


“I ain’t gonna hurt ya, Miz Carlotta.  They ain’t gonna hurt you neither.  I need you.  Just stay calm and we’ll all get outta this just fine. ”


“Calm?  You’re using me as a human shield.  I’ve a good mind to skin you alive.  I insist that you unhand me.”


“Will you keep still?”  Kyle’s arm clamped across her chest even harder.  “So you insisted and that ain’t workin’.  What’s your next move?”


“I thought you were a gentleman.  I was kind to you.”


“And I’ll be kind back, but right now I need ya to stop strugglin’.  Ow!  Ya got a kick like a mule.”


A howl drifted from the direction of the well.  “My Sharps!  Where’s my damned rifle?”  


Dark eyes watched a cloud of dust disappear down behind the buildings at the bottom of the hill.  Something was moving fast on that path.  Beauregard ran back to the scene and bellowed at Heyes.  “Where is it?  What did you do with my rifle?”


Heyes drew.  “Come on, folks.  Let’s do this the easy way.  We only want our man, and we’ll be on our way.  No harm done.  It was me who slipped him that weapon.  If Miss Durbin hadn’t insisted on turning him over he probably wouldn’t even have drawn it. ”


“I knew I didn’t like you, Fortin,” growled Gabe.


Mrs. McGinty gave a sigh of resignation.  “Gabe, drop the gun.”


“Ma, you ain’t serious.”


“I am.  We ain’t getting our guest hurt for him.”  She fixed Kyle with a glare.  “You promise you’ll let her go?” 


“’Course’n I will,” Kyle grinned, cheekily.  “I couldn’t make that promise if I had my arms around you though.”    


Mrs. McGinty smiled in spite of herself and tossed down her shotgun.  “Drop it, Gabe.”


“But, Ma…”


“I said, drop it, and I meant it, Gabe.  If’n he was a dangerous one I’d have plugged him myself,” she fixed Kyle with a glower.  “And he knows I can do it.”  She turned on Heyes.  “And you.  I take it your name isn’t Fortin?”


Heyes shook his head as he stooped to collect the weapons, the sound of galloping horses thundered closer, rumbling in the background.  “No, ma’am.  It’s Heyes.”   


Kyle felt Carlotta stiffen.  “Nothin’ to worry about, Miz Carlotta.  We’s good bad guys.”


“Let me go!”  She shrugged him off and wheeled around.  “You lied to me.”


Kyle shrugged.  “’Course I did.  That’s my job.”  


“It’s a little of what we do,” Heyes thrust Gabe’s gun in his waistband and put out a hand towards the young woman.  “Everyone line up against the wall please.”


“No!  I’ve been pawed enough.” Carlotta folded her arms.  “You say you want to get out of here, go.  I won’t be pushed around any further.”


“I’ll be going when I’m happy there’s nobody ready to shoot me in the back.”  Heyes gave Carlotta an intense stare.  “Don’t push me.”


“Push you?  I’ve just been used by that man to take a bullet for him.  I have a right to be heard.”


“Sure you do,” Heyes grinned.  “The right to be taken seriously is a whole other matter.  Just stand back please.  I won’t ask again.”  He nodded over to Kyle who waved down the riders approaching in the street.”  Pulling a few dollars from his pocket, he dropped them on the ground.  “Great hotel, Mrs. McGinty, and you’re a good cook.  I’m not here to rob you, just to get my man back.  I’ll pay my way.”


Dust billowed around them as three riders reined their horses to a dramatic stop a few yards away.  “Heyes!”  Kid Curry held out the tether of the horse he dallied.  “Let’s go.”


Heyes nodded.  “Ladies, it’s been…well, easier than I thought.  I like your style Mrs. McGinty.  You look after your people, just like me.”  He nodded towards the young woman scowling at him from the wall, “but I’ve gotta say I admire your problem more than mine.”
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The Devil's Due - Chapter 12
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