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 The Devil's Due - Chapter 13

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The Devil's Due - Chapter 13 Empty
PostSubject: The Devil's Due - Chapter 13   The Devil's Due - Chapter 13 EmptySat Dec 05, 2015 12:47 pm

“Lom, again!” yelled Heyes from where he stood under the aspens along the edge of the Hole’s big meadow.  He watched carefully as Trevors plunged his horse into a dead run from a standstill.  The already nerve-wracked animal tossed a buck into his gallop as he entered the gauntlet formed by two rows of screaming, gun-shooting outlaws.   When his rider drew his own gun and fired at the small target nailed to a tree, it was too much for the terrified creature to bear.  The horse gave a second, heartier buck, unseating Lom and leaving him spitting dirt from his teeth.  Laughter taunted him as he stood up and dusted himself off.   Trevors limped painfully after his gelding while shooting a glare at his dark-haired leader. 

“Forget him, Lom.  Go get another mount from the corral.  That jughead hasn’t got what it takes,” said Heyes.

“I’m not sure I have what it takes,” grumbled Lom under his breath.

“What?” asked Heyes with distraction; his attention had already moved onto the last man waiting to go.

“I said I’m taking a break.”  The older, mustached man rubbed his hip and started towards the bunkhouse.

“Fine, but be back here in ten.  We’ve got one more drill to do today.”  Turning his attention to the other men, Heyes called out, “Kid, you’re up.”  He smiled with pride as his younger partner galloped smoothly through the chaos, handily shot the target through the bullseye, and pulled up a few feet from where he stood.  “Good job,” he said as he scribbled into a small journal.

“How much longer are we gonna run drills?  The men are grumblin’ about gettin’ hungry.”

Heyes knew this meant the Kid was the one getting hungry.  “There’s only one more we need to work on, then we’ll eat.”

“Which one is that?”  Curry stroked his heaving gelding.  The animal had not disappointed him.  He’d selected the big bay gelding as his personal mount only last week and was pleased with his choice.
Heyes looked up from his notes and smiled, “Boarding the train.”

“A train?  You got a train hidden somewhere?” 

“Nope, but I got the next-best thing.”

Rolling his eyes, the Kid groaned, “I hate to ask, but what’s the next-best thing?”

Heyes put two fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly.  A few seconds later a top-heavy wagon, linked to a second wagon and driven by Ike, precariously rolled into view. 

Curry’s jaw dropped open and he looked at Heyes as though he’d lost his mind.  “What the hell is that?”  He could see that the front wagon had been fashioned to look like the cab of a locomotive and the rear wagon’s bed was piled high with cords of firewood.  He watched the contraption lumbering across the meadow until it stopped at the edge of the widest section and Ike backed the team until the wagon ‘train’ was perpendicular to the length of the field.

“That’s our train.  We’re going to practice running it down.”

“Like hell we are.  I ain’t doin’ it and I’m pretty damned sure the boys ain’t, too.” 

“We’re all doing it,” said Heyes firmly.

“Oh yeah?   Then why don’t you show us how it’s done.”  Curry dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to Heyes.  The rest of the gang watched from a few yards away, aware that something was going on but not quite sure what.  

Heyes took the reins with a smile.  “I was planning to.  He called out across the meadow, “Ike, you know what to do?”

“Sure do,” replied Ike loudly.

Climbing onto Curry’s horse, Heyes trotted to the far end of the field and halted the big bay.  Ike, seeing him come to a stop, slapped the reins onto the broad backs of the near team of draft mules.  The six-mule team took off and within four or five strides was pulling the wagons at speed.  Heyes dug his heels into the bay sending the horse after the train at an oblique angle.  It didn’t take long for the lightly burdened gelding to catch up to the heavy, swaying conveyance.  Kicking his feet from the stirrups, Heyes leaned dangerously off to the right and caught hold of a rung of a ladder built onto the side of the cab.  The horse laid its ears back and leapt out from under the dangling man as Heyes wrestled his body around and clung to the ladder.  His grip slipped and his legs splayed wildly in the air twisting his body between the wagons.

For an awful instant, Curry thought he was about to see his partner die a gruesome death.  “Heyes!” he yelled, beginning to run towards the impending accident.  But he saw Heyes scramble his feet onto the ladder and climb into the cab.  Ike pulled the team up smoothly and drove back to where the shocked outlaws were clustered around the Kid.  Heyes, laughing, jumped down off the wagon and grinned at his men.  “See?  Nothing to it.  Who’s next?” 

No one said a word and the expressions on his men’s faces told Heyes he was about to have a mutiny on his hands.  “Kid, I guess it’s your turn.  You can use my horse.”  Cold blue eyes stared into his, but he kept the open smile and nodded encouragingly.

Curry was furious Heyes had put him on the spot in front of the men.  He couldn’t refuse now that Heyes had done it; not without looking yellow.  His heart was beating hard in his chest.  Hank had fetched his horse and now held the reins out to him.  He mounted and started to ride away, but Heyes stepped in front of the bay stopping him.  Briefly, the Kid wondered why he pulled up.

“Hold up there, partner.  I know you’re rearing to go, but there’re a few pointers you and the men need to know.”  Heyes refused to look into the murderous eyes of the Kid and instead turned to his gang.  “We’ll run through this nice and slow the first couple of times until you get the hang of it.  The trick is to match your pace to the train; once you’re alongside it, make sure you get a good hold of that rung.  When you do, spur your horse forward, and keep your feet clear of the stirrups.  You don’t jump.   Let your horse run out from under you and you’ll be fine.” 

“That’s what you say, but you were almost axle grease, weren’t ya, Heyes?” sneered Wheat.

“That’s why we’re practicing.  I’ve done this a few times and it’s never easy.  We’re starting out at a walk and then we’ll work our way up to a run.”  Heyes grinned up at Curry.  “The Kid’ll show you how to do it nice and slow.  You’ll each get a chance to try it.  Then we’ll have a contest.  Best two men get a bottle of my top shelf and a day off to drink it.”  Now the boys were nodding agreeably.

Leaning over, Curry whispered, “We’re gonna have us a little talk later, partner.”

Heyes grinned and slapped the gelding’s rump sending the horse off.  “Show ‘em how it’s done, Kid.”

oooOOOooo

Lom pulled the ice from his hip and gingerly flexed his joint.  It was too numb to ache, but he knew it’d likely keep him awake all night.  He was getting too old for this job, but he liked Heyes and the Kid.  They brought a stabilizing influence to the gang that Santana hadn’t.  Big Jim had been a decent boss, but he could also be a violent, difficult man.  Despite his reputation, Curry wasn’t a hot head and Heyes would rather use his brains than his brawn.  Lom shook his head ruefully.  No one got hurt during one of Heyes’ plans, no one but the outlaws.  He really needed to think on this life some more.

Tossing the melting ice pack into a bowl on the table, the limping man turned towards the door.  A slight breeze blew in as he opened it, rattling some papers on Kyle’s bunk, and sending them sailing to the floor.  Lom bent down and picked up the one closest to his boot.  It was a picture…a damned good picture…and it was of Kyle!  Trevors hurried out the door.

oooOOOooo

A cheer rose from the men as the Kid successfully boarded the fake train.  Minutes later, he was being patted on his back and congratulated.  Heyes stood to one side and watched his partner enjoy the attention.  The Kid was proud; no doubt about it.  He felt someone come up behind him and he turned and saw Lom with a piece of paper clutched in his fist.  “Where’s your new horse?”

“I’ve got something I need to show you, Heyes,” said Lom, urgently.

“What is it?”

“Not here.  I don’t want to get pegged as a rat.” 

Grimly, Trevors limped alongside Heyes towards the leader’s cabin.  Once inside, Heyes sat him down at the table and poured a short drink for him.  “Looks like you could use this.”

“Might want to pour one for yourself.” 

“What’s got you so rattled, Lom?” 

Swallowing his drink in one gulp, Lom held out the crumpled paper.  “Take a look at this.”

Heyes’ face hardened and his eyes grew darker under the lowering of his brow.  “&$%#*!   Moron.  Idiot.  One job, one lousy simple job and he messes up the whole plan!”  Shouting and pacing across the floor, Heyes vented his spleen colorfully.  Abruptly, he stood still and growled impotently.

“You ‘bout done?” asked Lom blandly as he poured another couple of shots of whiskey and held one out to his boss. 
Heyes downed it and slammed the glass on the table.  He strode to the door and yanked it open, bellowing, “Kyle!  Get in here!” then returned to manic pacing.  Lom tactfully left the cabin without attracting his leader’s notice.

The creak of the door hinge halted Heyes mid-step and Kyle poked his head through the open threshold.  “You call, Heyes?”

“Shut the door and sit down,” said Heyes biting off each word while struggling to tamp down his fury.

The tension was palpable and Kyle sidled over to the table keeping one eye on Heyes.  He’d seen his boss angry before and recognized the warning signs.  Easing into a chair cautiously, he braced himself.  “Something wrong, Heyes?”

Heyes slapped the picture on the table in front of Kyle.  “You want to explain this?  What’s the one thing I told you all never to do?”

Realizing he was in deep, deep trouble Kyle started to stammer out an answer.  “I…I din’t know anyone was drawin’ me!”

“So how’d you get the picture?”  Heyes was leaning threateningly over the smaller man.

“I found it!”

“Where?”

“In the lobby of the hotel.  It was on the floor.”

“So why the hell didn’t you tell me about it.”

Kyle colored.  “I figured it’d piss you off,” he said softly, “and it did.”

Heyes deflated and he sat heavily in the chair across from his chastened man.  “Kyle, we’ve got the find out if there’re any more of these.  The last thing you want is a wanted poster with a good picture of you plastered across it.”

“It is good, ain’t it?”

“Good enough to put a noose around your neck.”

Kyle paled.  “I think it might’ve been one of those Durbin gals, but I don’t think they mean any harm.  They was just scribblin’ during dinner one night.”

“They were drawing right in front of you and it didn’t occur to you to find out what they were drawing?!”

“Well, not ‘til I saw that picture.”

“And it also never crossed your mind to find out if there were more of them?”

“Ain’t nobody can draw that fast, Heyes,” said Kyle with a bemused smile.  The smile quickly disappeared when Heyes’ fist slammed the tabletop.

“Get out!”

“But, Heyes…”

“Go!   And send Ike in here.”

oooOOOooo

She frowned, her slim brows gathering in a knot of frustration.  She held up the pad, turning it one way, and then the other.  “There’s something wrong with his face,” Carlotta scowled.  “No matter how many times I re-do it, it looks strange.  It’s like one side is completely different to the other.”

Charlotte didn’t even bother to raise her head from her own drawing.  “Excuses, excuses...”

“No, I swear.  I remember his face well, but I just can’t capture it.  It’s infuriatingly elusive.”

“He can’t be that handsome if his eyes don’t even match each other,” giggled her sister.  “At least one of my outlaws was glorious.”  She laid down her stick of charcoal and picked up a piece of paper to display it.  “I think he is the handsomest man I’ve ever seen; apart from Gabe.  Maybe it’s the water, but the men here are far better looking than they were in Denver.”

“Better?” snorted Charlotte.  “What about Lyle and Whit?  Or that man who scared you in the woods?”

“Yes, it seems to be one extreme or the other,” Charlotte agreed.   “They’re either like Greek gods, or look like their faces caught fire and they were beaten out with a hammer.  There’s no in between,” she turned back to her current work, a picture of Lom with an unfinished moustache, “except, maybe, for this one.  I suppose he’s good looking enough, but he’s a bit old for me.  I like them virile, with broad shoulders and …”

“Yes, we all know the kind of men you like,” Carlotta threw down her pad.  “You led Father a merry dance for a bit there, with one infatuation after another.”  She started to pace, her face a study of concentration.  “This must be one of the towns they use to re-stock their hideout, but I doubt they’ll use it after all this.  I think we need to look at moving on.”

“Moving on?  Where?”

“I need to look at the map.  Where did I put it?”  Carlotta pulled out her carpet bag.  “The outlaws need to go somewhere for supplies.”        

“That depends on how many of them there are,” Charlotte replied.  “They could just send someone else.”

Carlotta turned concerned eyes on her sibling.  “You think the gang is that big?”

“I’ve no idea, but we have to consider it.  We came here to get pictures and we’ve almost done that.  I say we give up and don’t push our luck.  How many have we counted so far?”

“Well, there’s Heyes, Lyle, Whit, the hook-nosed man, the nice one who walked you down the hill, the handsome one, and maybe a couple more who brought horses for them all to get away.”  She did a quick calculation on her fingers.  “Seven, maybe eight?  You surely wouldn’t want to have many more or it cuts into the final share of the ill-gotten gains.  Do you think they’re fair when they do that?  Is there really honor among thieves?”

“Didn’t Lyle tell you that they had some kind of code of honor?” asked Charlotte.

“Yes, but he also told me that it was his job to lie to me,” Carlotta replied.  “I wouldn’t trust him with a balloon in a feather duster factory.”  She spread a dog-eared map out on the bed and kneeled beside it.  “I chose Sweatless because it was the biggest.  I don’t really fancy living in a one horse town.  I doubt the accommodation would be very respectable.”

“I can imagine,” Charlotte smiled.  “They probably have about twenty teeth between the entire population.  No, I don’t like that idea either.”

The eldest sister sucked in a long breath before tilting her head to examine the document from another perspective.  “You’re very chirpy today.  I was afraid that yesterday’s excitement might put you out of sorts.”

Bright blue eyes glittered in response.  “I am happy, aren’t I?  I think I found it all rather exciting.  When I had time to think about being in the hands of a band of criminals, I realized that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be.  They were kind and decent.  Not at all like the brigands in books or plays.

“Charlotte, how can you say that?   These ‘kind and decent’ thugs destroyed our family!”

“I haven’t forgotten!”  Charlotte objected, but then she smiled, archly.  “And ever since that happened Gabe has been most attentive.  He says he’ll accompany me on all my walks.  There’s always a silver lining.  Isn’t that the sweetest thing?  He is so very thoughtful.”

“Yes.  Very,” snorted Carlotta.  “Just be careful, Charlotte.  He may not be an outlaw, but that doesn’t mean he has no ulterior motive.  He’s rather taken with you.”

“He’s the perfect gentleman.  I can’t believe he’d behave badly.”  Charlotte pouted.  “He’s not like the boring, suited men I’m used to.  He’s more…raw.  I have to admit I like that.  Maybe this place is getting to me?  I feel a little…exhilarated.”

“Just make sure Gabe doesn’t know that.  It’s not becoming.”

“I don’t think men have the time or the energy to leave a visitors card on a silver platter out here, Lottie.  It’s less formal,” her eyes gleamed, “more elemental.  They have no time to waste on fripperies; they see what they want and go straight for it.”

Carlotta dropped her head into her hands.  “No!  You can’t be falling for a lumberjack.  Father will be spinning in his grave.”

“Don’t be a snob.  Father was born in a cabin with a turf roof.  He’d appreciate a hard-working, honest man.”

“Really?  Your music teacher and that builder didn’t measure up.  Neither did that banker.  Father threatened to blow their heads off.”

“I think Gabe would call his bluff on that, Lottie.  He’s no coward, and he’s very determined.  You told me that he wasn’t going to stand down easily against those outlaws.  He only did it in the end when his mother made him.  I think he’d have stood his ground for me.”  Charlotte’s brows rose.  “He’s prepared to stand up to Hannibal Heyes and a desperate man on the run.  That isn’t to be sneezed at.”

“Desperate for what?  A bath?  It was Lyle, remember; and I was in the middle of it all.  I was more angry than afraid, so I was very happy when Gabe put down that gun.”  Carlotta shook her head.  “I think we’ve done all we can in Sweatless.  We’ll be moving on from here soon anyway.”

“Where to?” pouted the younger sister.  “You said yourself that this was the most civilized town in the area.  I’m not living in some kind of shack, Lottie.  That’s just going too far.”

Carlotta’s brow creased as she examined the map, tracing routes with her finger.  “We still don’t know what Curry looks like.  I have to get that at the very least before we give up.  If we can’t bring them to justice ourselves we can at least make sure someone else does.”

“But then we lose our trust fund!”

“Yes, but we can force Angelique to sell the house and give us our share of that.  She wouldn’t be able to keep it going without the income.  We could at least be independent if we lived modestly.  I still have a little money invested from mother’s bequest.  I’ll look after you and make sure you find a man who’ll be good to you.  What do you say?  We just make sure we can get pictures of them and go home?  At least we’ll have done something for the family honor.  We owe it to Mother, not to mention William.”

Charlotte shrugged uncertainly.  “But how do we get to see what Kid Curry looks like?  Meeting Hannibal Heyes was just a fluke.”

“We do need to visit some of the other places they might have bought stores from.  We have a few drawings of men connected to the gang, maybe one of them is Kid Curry and we don’t even know it?  We could try to find someone who might know?”
“By moving to some backwater populated by mountain men?”  Charlotte stood and started to pace.  “I don’t think so.  I’m beginning to think we’ve bitten off more than we can chew.  We need to admit defeat and go home.”

“And there’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”

“No.  I think we’ve done a great deal here.  We should be proud of ourselves for getting this far.  Not many could have done this.  Angelique certainly couldn’t, let alone that husband of hers.”

“Fine.”  Carlotta folded the map.  “I just thought you might enjoy a trip with Gabe before we went home.”  She stood and opened the carpet bag to put the documents away.  “After all, it’s our last chance at some adventure and all we’re going to do is show the drawings we already have to some store keepers.”  She dropped the map in the bag and snapped it shut.  “I was going to ask him to act as a guide and bodyguard, but I’m sure you’re right.  We should just go….”  Carlotta watched her sister’s blue eyes widen. 

“A trip?  With Gabe?”

“Yes, but you want to go home.  I understand.  You don’t want to be led out on a long journey with a man like Gabe.  It’d be unacceptable for Angelique and James.  They’d never allow it in a month of Sundays.” 

“Well, they’d never have to know…we could draw some scenery.  It would be an experience.  I don’t suppose we’ll ever get the chance to do anything like that again,” Charlotte clenched her little fists in anticipation.  “Not if we live to be a hundred." 

“It’s the chance of a lifetime: the last adventure before we go back to being respectable ladies.  I think we’d regret it for the rest of our lives if we don’t seize the opportunity.”  Carlotta beamed.  “Only if you’re sure?  I don’t want to put any pressure on you….”
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The Devil's Due - Chapter 13 Empty
PostSubject: Re: The Devil's Due - Chapter 13   The Devil's Due - Chapter 13 EmptySat Dec 05, 2015 12:49 pm

oooOOOooo

“The name’s Ike Schmidt, ma’am,” Mrs. McGinty peered at the stranger over her quivering shelf of a bosom, “from Utah.”
“What brings you out this way?” The words sounded casual but were way more of a demand than a query.  Mrs. McGinty flipped open
the register.  “Make your mark.”  She looked down at the spreading blob of ink spidering across the ledger with disdain.  “You made a mess o’ my book.”

“Sorry,” Ike shook the pen again scattering excess ink on the blotter.  “I ain’t too good at with a pen.”

“Ya don’t say!  You didn’t answer me.  What brings ya to Sweatless?”

“A no-good, low-down, double-dealin’ son-of- a…,” he stared into the hotelier’s glare and decided the description was as complete as it needed to be.  “I went in with a friend on his stake.  He up and died on me when a tree fell on him by his own sheer carelessness.  I ain’t doin’ that work on my own no more.  I’m headin’ back home after I get myself a bath and a bit of human company.  It’s been me and a grave for too long now.  I thought I was goin’ crazy with nobody to talk to.  There ain’t no way I’m spendin’ a whole winter up there.”

She nodded.  “Ya got money?  I need to be paid in advance.”

“Sure I got money.  I got a notion for some fun.  Where’s the best place.” 

“Most go to the Painted Pony on Doolin,” she scooped up the cash and dropped it in the cash box.  “I got a couple of ladies stayin’ here.  I won’t tolerate anythin’ but complete respect for them.  Am I clear?”

Ike beheld the steely-grey eyes and gulped.  “As crystal, ma’am.  You won’t get no trouble outta me.  I just want to kick back and relax after some back-breaking work.  I’ll be movin’ on soon.  I can’t rightly say how long that’ll be.  I gotta get some lonesomeness chased away.”

“As long as that’s all you’re chasin’.  I’ll have the hide off anyone botherin’ my young ladies.”

Ike laid a hand on his heart.  “Ma’am I give you my word that all I’ll do here is eat and relax.  It looks like a real nice place, I want to stay here.”

She nodded, looking him up and down, her look of derision signaling his failure to meet her high standards.  “Yeah, I guess you ain’t got a snowflakes chance in hell with ‘em anyway.  Room eight.  We’re eatin’ in ten minutes if you’re hungry.”

Ike’s smile spread across his stubbly face.  “Thanks.  I’ll just drop my bags and be right in.”

oooOOOooo

Carlotta swept into the dining room.  “Gabe, we want to go on a trip.  Will you come with us as a guide?”

The fork paused in mid-air.  “Trip?  Where to?”

“Just a few of the little towns here and there.  We want to paint the local topography.”

Gabe’s brow furrowed.  “I don’t think we got one of those.  I could take you to the top of somethin’ instead?  A hill maybe?”

“The countryside, the mountains, the roads, the rivers and the little homesteads along the way…that kind of thing.  Will you do it?”

Mrs. McGinty battered through the kitchen doors and wiped her hands on her apron.  “Do what?”

“We’re going on a trip, and we’d like Gabe to act as a guide.”

“She wants to see the top of something, Ma.  I guess it’s the view she wants.”

Her jowls shook.  “Trip?  No.  I ain’t havin’ that.  It ain’t safe.  There are bears, lions, and, men up there, and every one of ‘em wilder
than the other.”  Her eyes gleamed with apparently eventful memories.  “Real wild men.”

Carlotta folded her arms.  “I don’t think I need your permission, Mrs. McGinty.”

“Nope, but Gabe does.”  She strode over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “He ain’t goin’, and you won’t get far without him.”

“I ain’t?  But, Ma.  I ain’t doin’ anythin’ else right now, and I’ll bet Charlotte’s goin’,” he glanced up at Carlotta, an irrepressible grin springing into action at her nod of confirmation.  “See, they’re gonna need me.”

“We can trust him, Mrs. McGinty.  Do you suggest we use strangers?  Just pick someone at random to take us out into the wilderness?”  Carlotta cast her hand out to the heavily-stubbled stranger shifting a mound of pie and potatoes in the corner.  “Him, for instance?”  She shook her head.  “Our run-in with those criminals made us want to move on.  I’d like us to get some scenic pictures, maybe a woman working on a homestead, or even a mine.  It’s best we get what we came for and go home.”

“Home?”  Gabe’s blue eyes widened in dismay.  “You can’t leave.”

“Why ever not, Gabe?  You knew we were only visitors.  We were never going to stay out here.”

“But I was only just getting’ to know you… both.”  The word ‘both’ was tacked-on and very much an after-thought.  Everyone knew exactly who he was just starting to get to know.  “Ma, I gotta help.  I just gotta.  Besides, who else is there?”      

Ike raised a finger from his seat in the corner.  “You need a guide, ma’am?  I find myself without a wage right now.  I can take you anywhere you want to go.”

Mrs. McGinty propped her hands on her hips.  “Considerin’ that you were heading for the fleshpots of Doolin street not more’n an hour ago, you don’t get to go anywhere near my young ladies, Schmidt.  Remember our talk?”

The man nodded and turned back to his mound of food.

“Fleshpots?”  Carlotta’s brow furrowed.  “Here in Sweatless?  But I let my sister walk around here.”

“T’ain’t nuthin’ for you to worry about, Miss Durbin,” Gabe smiled, reassuringly.  “The cats don’t go near Main Street and we told her not to leave there.”

“She ended up at the top of a hill surrounded by the outlaws watching this place,” huffed Carlotta.  “It’s only dumb luck that they didn’t do anything appalling to her.  If I needed any more convincing that we need to head home, you just provided the reason.”
Gabe glared at his mother and stood.  He puffed out his chest and set his chin in determination.  “Ma, these ladies need me.  You brought me up to make sure womenfolk are always taken good care of.  They’re weak, and none-too clever.  They need our protection.”

Carlotta fixed her hostess with an incredulous stare.  “You told him that.  You?  Weak?  None-too-clever?” she pointed at the hotel owner in disbelief.  “You…?  You?”

“You sound like an owl,” grinned Mrs. McGinty.  “Yeah, I taught my boy to respect women and look after them.  He might get a dim
‘un, and instead of usin’ her he’ll look after her like she was precious.  He knows they ain’t all stupid, but a lot are.  That don’t mean a man should use and abuse her, any more than a clever woman should use and abuse a dumb men; and heaven knows the good God above sent plenty of them to test us.  My Gabe is a jewel, Miss Carlotta,” she waved a thick finger at her prized guest.  “I ain’t havin’ him caught up in none of your rich folkses’ games.  He’s too good to be bait for whatever prize you’re after.”

Carlotta found herself brought up short.  “What do you mean by that?”

The hotelier folded her arms.  “I ain’t sure what you are after exactly, but my instincts tell me that you ain’t tellin’me the whole story, but I’ll guess there’s a man involved.  Did you get thrown over by someone and you’re trackin’ them down?  Maybe you need a handsome boy to make someone jealous?  If you are draggin’ my Gabe into anythin’ dangerous I’ll never forgive you.”

Carlotta shifted uncomfortably.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I need to talk to you, young lady.”  Mrs. McGinty turned, her apron strings fluttering with the momentum of the upholstered hips swinging around.  “The kitchen; if it ain’t beneath you.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Carlotta sputtered, following her.  “What exactly are you accusing me of?”  They pushed their way through the flapping kitchen doors.  “Mrs. McGinty, are you  saying I’m a fallen woman?” demanded Carlotta, “because if you are I will not tolerate
such a slight.  I will leave here immediately.”

The Matron hooked her with an eyebrow.  “Yeah?  Where are ya gonna go?  Look, you never added up from the moment you trawled in here.  I’m prepared to turn a blind eye to all kinds a things, but not when you get my son involved.  What’s your game?”

“I don’t have a game.  “I am not a deserted woman and neither is my sister.  We aren’t chasing an ex-lover either; we are creating a portfolio of pictures.”

“Yeah?  You’d swear that on the bible?”

Carlotta cast out her hands in a gesture of supplication.  “Bring one here.  I’ll do it right now.  I’ll even let Gabe choose where we go and when.  How does that sound?  I simply want to visit some of the other little townships around here before we leave.”

Mrs. McGinty nodded slowly, never taking her eyes off the young woman.  “I guess if he’s callin’ the shots it’ll be fine, but there’s still somethin’ you ain’t telling.  I can smell a lie like air biscuits in church.”  She prodded Carlotta with a thick forefinger, “and you’re squeakin’ like a kid with a duck call, young lady.”

Carlotta gulped heavily.  “I’m sure I’d be intimidated if I knew what any of that meant, Mrs. McGinty.”
 
“Well, let me spell it out to you, missy.  Nobody hurts my Gabe, and if you put him in any danger there’ll be nowhere to hide.  New York State, Canada, Mexico, anywhere…I’ll find ya and make ya pay.”  She folded her arms.  “Now go on your trip with my blessin’s, but mark my words well.  There’ll be nowhere to hide.”  

oooOOOooo

It was a subdued and quiet Carlotta who mounted the horse held for her by the stable boy the next morning.  Her dark-blue riding habit emphasized the starkness of her white blouse and the piercing blue of her eyes, but her closed-down demeanor and stiff shoulders underscored the differences between the young women.  Both the girls looked crisp, sophisticated and elegant on their mounts, but Charlotte was bubbly and bursting with anticipation.  Gabe checked the tethers on the pack mule bearing their bags and tents, darting admiring glances at the younger sister’s ankles  as she arranged her skirts as modestly as she could over the matching breeches.  He slapped the last bag and grinned up at them.  “We’re all set.  I say we head up to Equity Springs.  From there we can swing past Bethesda and head down to Carnage Canyon.”

“Carnage Canyon?” Charlotte whimpered.

“Yeah,  It’s real pretty at this time of year with carpets of flowers and butterflies.  Ya can hardly see where that wagon train crashed off the pass.  There’s a couple of women up that way who run a tented camp for miners and lumberjacks.  I thought you might want to draw them.”

“Oh, you’re so thoughtful, Gabe.  Isn’t he thoughtful, Carlotta?”

“Very,” came the terse reply.

“Are you worried about Ma, Miss Carlotta?”  Gabe nodded over to the matron watching them from the hotel’s front porch.  “Don’t pay her no mind.  Her bark’s worse than her bite.  She’s just upset about me leavin’ so soon after I got back.”  He threw a long leg over his horse and settled into the saddle.  “She’ll be as welcomin’ as ever by the time we get back.”

“That good?”  Carlotta rolled her eyes.  “I can’t wait.”

“Even she calms down eventually, Miss Carlotta,” Gabe kicked his gelding into motion.  “She ain’t never met anyone like you.  She’s just worried about her boy.  She’ll be right as rain when we come trottin’ back safe and sound.   You’ll see.” 

The little party drew level with the hotel and Mrs. McGinty waved, somehow managing to give a glimmer of warning to Carlotta by catching her eye.
     
“Bye, Ma.  See ya soon.”

“Take care,” called Mrs. McGinty.  “Remember, let your horse do the thinkin’ when the goin’ gets tough.  They’s always smarter than a man when there’s a pretty girl about.”

“Well I’s got two, so I guess mine’s twice as smart as me,” laughed Gabe.  He waved his hat in the air.  “Bye, Ma.  Don’t let Beau slack off.”

The little party trotted off down the long, wide main street of Sweatless, their dust eventually melding with the shimmering heat haze rising from the dirt road.  The figures shifted and flickered in the lustrous brume in the distance.  Mrs. McGinty shifted her weight from the rail she had been leaning on and stepped inside the hotel to collect the brass telescope she kept behind the main desk for general prying and nosiness.  She clumped back outside and raised the eyepiece to her eye to watch her beloved son for as long as possible. 
There he was; her glorious boy.  He rode between the Durbin girls chatting ten to the dozen to the one dressed in dark-green.   There was definitely a growing attraction between the two young people and neither of them could stop smiling when the other was around.  Still, it was alright for him to spark her for a bit of excitement, as long as she didn’t break his heart.  She’d be going soon, so there probably wasn’t too much to worry about.  Carlotta still sat stiff and upright on her mount, as uncommunicative and sullen as she had been on departure.  She’d been holding something back during yesterday’s confrontation, but as a guest the issue couldn’t be pushed any further.  If the situation had been different Carlotta Durbin’s feet wouldn’t have touched the ground.

A blurred, black figure swung in front of her lens.  Someone had stepped into her sight of vision, between her and her son.  She twisted the barrel to adjust her perspective, watching as the shape shifted and mutated into a head wearing a battered hat.  A bit of fine-tuning saw the features form into those of her only other lodger, Ike Schmidt.  His profile changed to the back of his head as he rode out of an alley much further down Main Street.  A quick glance both ways made him briefly look as though he was gazing straight down the barrel of the telescope, making the woman pull back her head for an instant.  He pulled on his reins to direct his horse and rode on, following the others at a distance.  She closed the instrument with a snap.  “Beau…reee…gard!  Check that Schmidt fella’s room.  He never checked out and he’s sneakin’ outta town on us.  Be quick about it.”

“Didn’t he pay in advance?” bellowed Beauregard.

“Exactly.  So why’s he creepin’ away without even askin’ for some of it back?  He don’t look like no dude with his own trust fund.  He’s throwin’ money away.  Somethin’ ain’t right.”

oooOOOooo

They’d been riding for hours when a distant sound floated in the bright sunshine.  Gabe twisted around in his saddle, his clear blue eyes scanning the horizon.  “Did you hear that?”

The women paused, unsure if it came from the scrubby bushes.  “Yes, I heard something a bit like a howl.”  Charlotte glanced around apprehensively.  “What is it?  A bear?  They told me there would be bears.  Herds of them.”

“I don’t think bears travel in herds,” Carlotta replied.  “I definitely heard something though.” 

“Bears don’t howl, less’n you shoot ‘em,” Gabe urged his horse into motion again.  “Could be a coyote.  It’s hurt, whatever it is.”

“There it is again,” Carlotta turned her head trying to locate the source.  “It’s echoey, but I think it came from that direction.”

“Yeah,” Gabe trotted over to the crest of the hill and dismounted.  “I thought so too.”  He reached the edge of a steep precipice and dismounted, leading his gelding behind him.  Screwing up his eyes against the bright sunshine, he scanned the drop below.   The sweeping rocks caught the sun, marking out the jagged peaks against the dazzling cloudless sky, with the reds, blues, and greens of ore bearing seams glistening in the sunlight.  Huge stones lay scattered about, tumbled by an impatient Mother Nature over the steep sides of the valley all the way to the bottom, where a thin ribbon of white, gushing foam had cut its way through the rugged gorge, wearing down anything which got in the way.       

“Hellooooo!”

“There it is again,” Carlotta dismounted and joined Gabe at the edge, wondering at the majestic expanse of crags stretching out beyond the deep valley below them.  Her toes dislodged some scree, sending the stones and gravel rumbling down the sheer drop below.
“Hey!” Gabe threw out an arm driving her back to solid ground.  “The rock face could be been crackin’ and fallin’ away underneath us.  Get back.  The whole thing could go.” 

Carlotta scuttled hurriedly back, her curls jiggling with every step.  “I heard a voice.”

“I’m sure I did too,” Charlotte raised herself up in her saddle to take advantage of her higher vantage point.  I can’t see anyone.”

“Hey, you up there!” bellowed a voice, bouncing off the rocks on the way up.  “Down here.”                   

Gabe cupped his mouth with both hands.  “Where are you?  Shout again.  Are you hurt?”

“Yeah!”  A man called.  “I’m down here.  I slipped and broke my leg.  Can you see me?”

“Nope!” 

“Is that danged fool horse of mine still up there?”

“No horse here,” Gabe returned.   “Did you get thrown?”

“Yeah.  Somethin’ spooked her.  Can you help? A couple of men’d be great to help me get back up there.”

Gabe darted a look at his charges.  “Just me and a couple of women.  How bad are you hurt?”

There was a long pause which made the little party look at one another with worried frowns before the man spoke again.  “I guess I could make it up eventually if we took our time.  If you can lend me a shoulder I’ll be grateful.  I ain’t got much choice, have I?”

“Not much,” Gabe replied.  “Hold on.  I’m comin’ down.”  He turned back to the sisters.  “Can you two light a fire?  I’ll get him back up here and he can rest until I see how badly hurt he is.”

“How can we get him back if he’s badly hurt?” asked Carlotta.

“I’ll get him up here if I have to carry him every step of the way.  We can build a litter to drag behind us.”  He shrugged.  “I’m real sorry ladies.  It looks like we’d better head back to Sweatless tonight.”

“Of course,” Carlotta nodded.  “We can plan another trip.  Go, help the man.  What can we do to help?”

“Collect some wood and build a fire.  Maybe you can tend his injuries when I get him up here?” Gabe tethered his animal, making sure that the other animals were also secured before he grabbed a rope made his way to the edge. 
 
“Be careful, Gabe,” Charlotte called.  “We don’t want you hurt too.”

He flashed a reassuring grin.  “I’ll be fine.  Just get a fire goin’ and I’ll be back up as soon as I can.”  He disappeared, scrambling and scuffling his way down on bended knees, shifting stones and gravel with every treacherous step.  The slope was littered with irregular, pointed stones, creating crevices which threatened an injured ankle in almost every step, but he continued gingerly until he reached the bottom.  The gushing steam burst in foaming gurgles over the rocky riverbed, marking out the lowest point in the valley.  Gabe propped his hands on his hips and looked around.

“Here!  Over here.”

Gabe followed the sound, turning until he saw a figure lying beneath the cleft of an enormous rock about a hundred yards away.  He scanned the incline above, wondering how badly injured the man was.  “Did you fall down from up there?”  he yelled.  “It’s a sheer drop of about a hundred feet.  You must have broke your back.”

“I crawled over here,” the man replied.  “I thought I’d be here for ages.  I got some shelter and there’s water close by.”

“Smart move,” Gabe made his way over, skipping from rock to rock.  The figure still lay prone, his hat pulled down over his face until Gabe reached the booted feet.  He frowned.  “Can you sit up?  Is your back hurt?”

The man pushed himself upright, tipping his hat back.  Gabe gasped in surprise, recognizing the stubbled stranger from the dining room in Sweatless.  “You’re…what’s the name again?  You were in the hotel.”

“Schmidt’s the name I gave your ma.  Ike Schmidt.  T’ain’t my real name though.”  He pulled out a colt and pointed it straight at the young man.  “I need you to be real quiet.  You brought your own rope?  Now that’s what I call good service.”

oooOOOooo   

The skittish young gelding leapt sideways nearly unseating his rider and banging hard against the muscular shoulder of the older, heavier mare beside him as the sound of gunshots reverberated through the narrow slot canyon leading into Devil’s Hole.
Kid Curry scowled when the mare he was mounted on flattened her ears and nipped at the foolish three-year old barreling into her side. 

“Ow, dammit,” Hannibal Heyes grabbed his thigh; the mare having missed her mark.  “That bitch just bit me!”  The younger horse pranced nervously under him; its nerves thoroughly frayed.  The dark-haired man rubbed his leg.  “What’s wrong?”
The Kid was looking in the direction the shots had been fired; the lookout point.  “Nobody’s due in ‘til Tuesday, right?”  Without consciously thinking about it, he drew his Colt and checked the chambers then looked at his partner.

“No, there ain’t.  Let’s ride back and see who it is,” said Heyes.  The two outlaw leaders had ridden out to check on the sentries they’d posted using it as an excuse to exercise their new mounts.  Hank and Lobo were manning the lookout at the mouth of the canyon.

oooOOOooo

“That Ike?” said Hank, peering over Lobo’s shoulder trying to sight through the eyepieces of the binoculars the grizzled outlaw held to his eyes.  “Who’s that with him?”

“He’s got sacks over their heads, but it’s some big fella and two gals,” responded Lobo.  He dropped the binoculars around his neck and picked up his rifle from the rock it had been leaning against.  “Cover me while I go down and see what he’s up to.”

“Heyes ain’t gonna like him bringin’ little gals like them two into the Hole.”  Hank, on the other hand, liked it just fine.

“Well, they’re here and so’s Heyes.” Lobo nodded at the scene unfolding below them.  The Kid and Heyes slid their horses to a stop in front of the four riders, guns drawn, and angry frowns on their faces.  “Five’ll get you ten, Ol’ Ike’s a goner.”

“I ain’t takin’ that bet.”

oooOOOooo

“Ike,” said the Kid coldly.  He sat his horse quietly giving his man a hard stare.  Heyes was so angry he couldn’t speak but his eyes spoke volumes.

Swallowing several times, Ike finally burst out, “Heyes!  Kid!  I din’t know what to do.  Weren’t but a minute after I got to town that these three rode out goin’ who knows where so’s I followed ‘em.  I got the drop on ‘em and searched their belongin’s just like you said I should, but I couldn’t just let them go after I found this.”  The thin-faced man dug into his pocket and pulled out a folded paper.  

Shaking it open, he held it out for his bosses to see.  “Heyes, this here’s a picture of you.”

Heyes snatched the portrait.  “I can see that!”

The Kid sidled his horse next to Heyes and leaned over to see the drawing.  “That’s a pretty good likeness, Heyes.”

“Thank you,” said Carlotta proudly despite her voice being muffled by the burlap flour bag tied over her head.  She’d recognized that
deep voice anywhere.  “You have a difficult face to draw, Mr. Heyes.  I think I captured its uniqueness quite nicely.”  Charlotte and Gabe sat their horses silently, both of them waiting to see what happened next.

Heyes loudly crumpled the drawing in his fist and then shoved it into his jacket pocket.

“How dare you?”  Carlotta was furious.  There was something about this imperious man that rubbed her the wrong way.  “I worked for hours on your squinty, lop-sided eyes.”

“Are there any more of these drawings?” snapped Heyes, ignoring her insult.

Ike nodded, “There’s one of Wheat, Preacher, Lom, and another one that looks just like you, Kid.”

Upon hearing that last name, the three captives stiffened with fear.  Curry drawled to his partner, “Yep, we got us a real problem, Heyes.”

“Ike take them to our cabin but keep them blindfolded and tied up,” barked Heyes.  He didn’t say another word until Ike and his charges had disappeared into the narrow slot canyon.

The Kid shook his head.  “He’s right.  We can’t just take the drawings and let them go.  They’ll just draw more.”

“I know,” said Heyes.

“So what are we gonna do with them?”

“That, I don’t know.”
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The Devil's Due - Chapter 13
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