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 The Devil's Due - Chapter 18

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The Devil's Due - Chapter 18 Empty
PostSubject: The Devil's Due - Chapter 18   The Devil's Due - Chapter 18 EmptySat Mar 19, 2016 1:42 pm

“They were both lying on the ground.  I couldn’t see who got shot,” cried Charlotte, her head thrust out of the train as it powered off around the bend.


“He helped us,” Carlotta blinked back tears.  “I never thought I’d say this, but I hope Kid Curry is safe.”


Ike thrust a shovel into a pile of coal.  “If the devil himself took on the Kid in a spittin’ contest he’d end up splattered.”  He tossed the fuel into the firebox.  “You couldn’t kill that man with an axe to the head.”


“That’s enough,” snapped Carlotta, holding the gun in trembling hands.  “How far is it to the nearest town?”


“Bear Ridge is about sixty miles straight on.  Shouldn’t take us no more’n an hour.  Probably less.”


“And that’s the nearest?”


Ike stopped shoveling and gave Carlotta a hard stare.  “Ain’t that what I just told you?  This is gonna get old real fast if I’ve got to repeat myself all the time.  Yeah, it’s the nearest.”


She blinked furiously, betraying her nerves.  “I was just checking.  Charlotte, please stop leaning out like that.  You’re terrifying me.  You’re going to fall.”


“So, you want to go to Bear Ridge?”  Ike threw in more coal.  “You’re the boss.”


“Yes,” Carlotta nodded, her voice shaking, “and don’t you forget it.”


“It’ll do you and your sister well to realize that we’ll get there a whole lot quicker if’n you help shovel coal.  There’s usually a fireman along with the driver.  I want rid of you as much as you want to get there; so get workin’, ladies.”  


“Help him, Charlotte.”


“Me?  Why do I have to shovel coal?  Why don’t I hold the gun?  I’m better at that anyway.”


“He gave it to me.”


“Why don’t I hold the gun and you two do the darned work?” growled Ike.  “The sooner we get there the sooner I get rid of you, so I’m all for whatever’s quickest.”


“Fine,” Carlotta nodded decisively.  “We’ll take turns.”  She scowled at Ike’s reaching hand.  “Not you!  You go first at shoveling, Charlie.  We can’t trust him for a second.  It was him who took us into that den of iniquity in the first place.”


Charlotte lifted the other shovel and thrust it into the hatch, bringing out the blade only a little over quarter covered.  She tossed it into the glowing fire.


“Great, that should get us about four feet,” muttered Ike.


“I’m doing my best,” protested Charlotte.  “I’m not as strong as you.”


“You ain’t as strong as wet paper.   Just keep goin’.  I suppose every little helps.”


The youngest women shoveled furiously, keeping going for as long as she could before she finally gave up, her face smeared with smuts, and the wind tugging at her unraveling hair.  She rested on her spade, catching her breath as the countryside flashed by in a blur.  “Can you take a turn, Lottie?”


Carlotta handed over the weapon, huddled into a corner with her sister.  “Got it?  Great, now keep him covered.”


“I’ve just been wonderin’ what you ladies are gonna do if you shoot me,” a grinning Ike leaned on a lever.  “Can either of you drive a train?”


Two pairs of worried blue eyes met in silent conversation.  


Ike bellowed with laughter.  “Ha, gotcha!  Don’t worry.  I’ll help you get away.  Heyes has been a thorn in my side since I brought you to Devil’s Hole.  Every time he sees me he’s fit to be tied.  The sooner you two get outta here the better it is for me.”            


“You mean that?” Carlotta queried.


“Of course I do.  I’ve done nothin’ but clean up horse shit since I brought you to the Hole.  I ain’t takin’ you back for more of that.”  He kicked the shovel.  “Get stokin’.  I want out of the Devil’s Hole as much as you do and Heyes might be headed after this train as we speak.  I want everyone workin’.”



oooOOOooo



As the train disappeared from view, Hannibal Heyes skidded to a stop next to the two inert outlaws and stared at the splattered blood surrounding them with an expression of horror until he noted the steady rise and fall of each man’s chest.  Instead of kneeling down to examine each man’s wounds, he stood with his hands on his hips and a frown on his face.   His booted foot shot out and delivered a hard blow to a soft buttock.


“Ow!” cried Curry.  “What’d you do that for?”  The younger leader of the Devil’s Hole gang rolled over onto his back and glared up at Heyes.  Bill Brown shifted his weight and sat up stretching his gun arm carefully, drenched with blood.  


“You damned near took ten years off my life, that’s why!  Where’d all this blood come from?  I thought you two had really gone at it.”


Bill stood up and reached down to help the Kid up.  “That was my idea.  The boys butchered a hog last night and I had them save the blood.  Figured we had to make it look convincing.  Don’t blame the Kid, I had the bladder hidden under my jacket where he couldn’t see it.”


Heyes ran a distracted hand through his hair.  “It was convincing.  Next time, let me know before you go changing up one of my plans, will you?”


“Won’t be a next time, Heyes.  Me and Scarlet are leavin’ after this job or have you forgotten your promise?”  Bill Brown picked up his hat and brushed the dust off it before settling it on his head.  


“No, I haven’t forgotten, but I expect you to follow the plan.  It’s complicated and one mistake could blow it all to Hell.”  Heyes turned to his partner.  “How’d it go?”


“It went fine.  The girls have no idea what you’ve got planned for them,” answered the Kid.


“Did you give her the gun?”


“Yes, Heyes, she’s got the gun.  And before you ask, yes, it’s loaded with blanks and Ike knows what to do.”


Heyes finally smiled at them both.  “Good.  Get your horses.  It’s time to meet up with the rest of the gang.”  He left the two men and walked back to Wheat and Kyle who were already mounted.


“You didn’t have to cover for me,” growled Curry.  “I can handle Heyes, there was no need to lie to him.”


“I didn’t lie.  I didn’t say you didn’t know about it, I said you didn’t see it.”  Bill chuckled, pleased with his deception.


“Sheesh, you’re almost as devious as Heyes.”


“What d’you mean almost?”


oooOOOooo


The station master lowered his telescope and turned to the people waiting on the platform.  “There it is.  The three forty from Yellow Falls.”  He pointed at the plume of white steam hanging in the air in the distance.  “It’s about twenty minutes late, but as soon as we see the train corner that mountain we know that it’s on its way.”


“So we don’t need to worry?” asked the man in the stove-pipe hat.  


“At this point we can see it go through the valley before it climbs all the way up here.  It takes just over fifty minutes from here, but we don’t have to worry about the payroll when we can see it rumbling on its way,” the uniformed railway man grinned.  “It’s a real handy way to check up on it.  There was one time we didn’t see it come round the mountain, and sent out a posse.  That gave us a real head start on catching the robbers.  If we’d had to wait until it didn’t show up we’d have lost an hour or more chasin’ time.”


“So, the best singer in Europe is on her way here?” said the small man with fluffy muttonchops. As mayor of Bear Ridge, it was his duty to see that everything went smoothly.  He glanced at the welcoming band of musicians lounging about the platform.  “Nothing can go wrong, you know.  She can’t see the West as the land of the heathens.  She’s appeared in front of the crown heads of Europe.  She needs a good ole Western welcome.”  He smiled up at the banner declaring a welcome to the ‘Silver Starling’.   


“Yup, she’s in that there machine,” laughed the station master.  “Safe and sound, and on her way.  Ain’t starlings kinda greedy and surly?  I ain’t so sure that’s a compliment.  We had them all over the trashcans back East.”


“They are?”  The little man’s eyes widened.  “We thought it would be nice to give her a nickname and the nightingale was already taken.  I wanted to call her ‘the thrush’, but the wife said not to.  Quite adamant about it.  She wouldn’t say why.”


“I guess it’s a bit late now to change it.  The banner’s already up.”  The station master clicked his telescope closed.  “Let’s hope she ain’t an expert on birds, huh?”


oooOOOooo



The engine chuffed and puffed, but slowed down significantly.  Charlotte frowned at the ground still flashing by at an alarming rate and wondered if a galloping horse could keep up with the machine now.  She looked out and scanned the countryside, but couldn’t see any outlaws riding along in pursuit.   


Ike tapped on the gauge and peered into the glass.  “Nearly there,” he announced, “time to slow down.”  He hauled on the lever painted bright red and he turned to another in brass.  “Ya see this here?  This is the throttle.  It controls the steam.  To stop you want to close it gradually.  These here are the brakes.  You’ve gotta use both of them.  Got that?”


“Yes, but why are you telling us this?” Carlotta paused at her shoveling.


Ike grinned from ear to ear.  “’Cos this is where I get off.  Good luck, ladies.  Remember.  Throttle and brakes.”  He turned and faced outwards, staring at the ground flying by, dotted  with threatening rocks and jagged plants.


“Get off!?  What do you mean?” exclaimed Charlotte.


“I mean I ain’t turning up at Bear Ridge to be arrested.  Throttle and brakes.  Use ‘em.”  He jumped, tucking in his legs and rolling over and over as his momentum carried him off down the slope.  Charlotte watched in dismay as the train carried them on and on, still clutching the gun impotently in her hand.  “What are we going to do?”  She looked forward, the rushing wind grabbing at her hair, making it stream out behind her and whip at her face.  “Look the town’s coming up fast.”


“Grab the brakes,” Carlotta dropped her spade.  “You do that one and I’ll do the other.”


The younger sister cast the gun aside, not even minding that it tumbled over the side of the engine and bounced off into the countryside far behind them.  They each grabbed the brake, and pushed hard, but the horrible squealing sound completely filled in the gaps between the puffing of the engine, overpowering their sensibilities and making their alarm spiral.  


“It’s not working.  We’re not slowing down,” Carlotta bellowed.

          
“Didn’t he say something about the throttle?” cried Charlotte.


“Yes,” Carlotta grabbed out, pulling at something hanging on a chain.  “Was this it?”  The long, torn, scream of the whistle confirmed that it was not.


Charlotte’s eyes filled with tears.  “What are we going to do?  We’re going to crash, I know we are!”


oooOOOooo


“The train’s comin’” yelled the little man with the muttonchops.  He shooed the musicians into position, lined up on the platform.  “Come on, get in line...”


The station master frowned.  “It’s comin’ in real fast.  Shouldn’t it have slowed down more than that?”


“I’m sure the driver knows what he’s doing.  You at the end with the drum; stop slouchin’.  There’s a real lady comin’ here.  She’s sung in front of most of the crowned heads of Europe.  Don’t show me up like that.”


“There’s a few get crowned around here every Saturday night,” muttered the drummer.  “She’ll fit right in.”


“What did you just say?”


“Nuthin’.”


The shrill train whistle sliced through the air once more.


“Hey, it’s slowin’ down,” a bandsman observed.  “Listen to them breaks scream.  It sounds like it’s in trouble.”


“Maybe it’s havin’ some kind of breakdown?”  The station master shook his head.  “He’s slowin’ it down though.  He’s struggling, but it’s slowin’.”


“Yeah, it’s just a worn brake.”  The little man agreed watching the train approach the platform.  “Here it comes, but somethin’ sounds jammed.”


The band started up, the trumpet and the drummer apparently competing to see which of them was the loudest while the rinky-dink of the triangle marked a time signature all of its own.  The mayor stepped forward and removed his hat, holding it to his chest with a contrived benign smile on his face as the train drew up to the platform travelling at about the speed of a galloping horse.  The people crowded forward to meet the vehicle, but it continued on, hooting and screeching every inch of the way.  Everyone watched in disbelief as it carried on through the station, creaking and protesting, until it cleared the station and carried on into the mountainous countryside beyond.


“Am I seein’ things or was that a couple of women up there?” demanded the little man as the band’s music collapsed in on itself in a cacophony of disinterest and resignation.


“Nope,” the station master’s hirsute brows knitted together.  “I saw ‘em too.  Bob!  Get a bunch of men together and get after that thing before it causes a pile up somewhere.  We got a runaway.”


oooOOOooo
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PostSubject: Re: The Devil's Due - Chapter 18   The Devil's Due - Chapter 18 EmptySat Mar 19, 2016 1:42 pm

“Pull that!” yelled Charlotte, hanging on the shrieking brakes.  “I think that’s what he pointed to.”


Carlotta grabbed at the throttle.  “This one?”


“I think that’s what he said.”


“In or out?”


Charlotte turned an exasperated glare on her sister.  “Do I look like I know how to drive a train?  Waggle it.  Find out.  Try both.”


Carlotta did exactly as she was bid and found that when she yanked on the lever it seemed to increase the power, but when she pushed it in the wheels seemed to lock even more until they jammed.


“You’re doing it.  It’s slowing!” cried Charlotte over the howling of the locked wheels.  “Keep doing that.”


The creaking, groaning metal monster puffed and chuffed to a gradual stop, the wheels rasping and grating in protest.  It sat there on the rails, issuing great puffs of steam and huffing like an injured dragon.  Charlotte stood still, grasping the lever as though afraid to let go and released the breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding.  “We’ve stopped?  Oh, Lottie.  Are you alright?”


Carlotta had sunk to her knees as though in prayer.  “I think so.  I thought we were going to crash.  I can’t believe we got out of this in one piece.”


“Yes, let’s get out of here,” Charlotte held out her hand to help her sister to her feet.  “What if it starts up again?”


“Can it do that?”


Charlotte grabbed the rails beside the steps and climbed down to the ground, jumping the last few feet.  “I’ve no idea, but I’m not taking the risk.”  She reached out her arms to support Carlotta’s journey to terra firma.  “Oh, my.  Look how far from the town we’ve travelled.  It must be miles!”



Carlotta observed the little wooden houses in the distance with dismayed blue eyes.  The train had stopped in the middle of a flat, featureless valley making it hard to judge how far they had overshot the town.  “Two, maybe three.  I suppose there’s nothing for it but for us to walk.  We need to get to civilization before the gang finds us.  This whole episode has been a nightmare, but we might finally be on our way home.”  


Charlotte grasped at her sister’s hand and pointed at a cloud of dust in the distance.  “What’s that?”


They stared hard, the haze clearing to reveal movement at its center as it travelled rapidly towards them.  “It‘s men on horseback.”


“No!  Is it them?  Is it the Devil’s Hole Gang?” cried Charlotte.


“Who else could it be?”


“How could they have kept up with us?”


Carlotta shrugged, alarm robbing her of logic.  “I don’t know.  How fast were we going?  Didn’t that outlaw say we had to shovel coal because Heyes was likely to be following?  We’ve got to run.”


“Run where?”  Charlotte looked around at the high, hilly countryside.  “There are only a few bushes to hide in.  We’re too high up for trees.”


“Then we need to hide in the bushes,” Carlotta took off, dragging her sister behind her.  “We have to try.  Come on!”


They headed for the scrubby gorse but their riding boots were not made for running, especially on a slope.  They stumbled and trotted as fast as they could, glancing over their shoulders at the rapidly gaining horsemen.  It was far easier to see them now they were gaining on the women, and there was no doubt about their mark, as they changed course to give chase.


“This is hopeless,” exclaimed Charlotte, “we can’t outrun a horse.”


And indeed they couldn’t.  The hooves thundered determinedly towards them, until they could smell the sweat swirling in the cool mountain air.  A man on a huge black stallion battered his way towards them, the ground reverberating around them as the rest of the group caught up and clamored around the two young women who stopped short and huddled together.


“Whoa there, Jet.”  The man pulled back his mount as Carlotta pushed her younger sister protectively behind her.  He turned to call out to a bearded man bringing up the rear.  “It is, Bob.  It’s a couple of gals.”  He pinned the women with a hard glare, noting how they stared at the silver star on his vest.  “You two!  Stay where you are and get your hands up.”


“You’re the law?  Oh, thank you,” Carlotta almost sobbed.  “I thought we’d never find you.”


“Hoped more like it,” barked the lawman.  “Bob, go and check that darned machine.  Take Eddie with you.  He’ll know exactly what’s what.”


“We were kidnapped and held prisoner,” Carlotta continued.


“Yeah?” A bushy dark eyebrow arched in disbelief.  “I guess that’s why you were runnin’ away?”


“We thought you were the Devil’s Hole Gang.  They’ve been holding us for weeks,” she paused, at the yell from a man who was kicking at the wheels of the train.  “You can’t imagine how pleased we are to see you.”


“It is, Jake.  It’s the train from Milton,” the man at the engine bellowed.  


“The name’s Jake Nethercutt and I’m the sheriff of Bear Springs.  I want to know why you two were running away from the law after gettin’ off a stolen train.”


“We told you.  We thought you were criminals.  We were scared.”


Nethercutt narrowed his eyes.  “Yeah, most folks caught with stolen property are.”  He turned to the small bearded man who revealed a bald pate when he swept off his hat to wipe his broad brow.  ”So this here ain’t the three forty from Yellow Falls?  It’s the locomotive stolen from the sidings at Milton last night?”  He glared at the two bedraggled girls.  “Do you know what this means?”


“It’s a train and we used it to escape,” Carlotta’s brow creased.  “What more is there to know?”


“It means that a train was stolen from Milton last night, and because the three forty from Yellow Falls still ain’t appeared, it looks like it’s been used as a decoy to distract us while somethin’ happens to the real train carryin’ the payroll.  If’n you hadn’t been drivin’ that damned thing we’d have sent out a posse ages ago.  As it is, by the time we get you back to town, this decoy will have lost us about three hours chasin’ time.  Not only that, when we get here you try to run away from us.”  He watched both girls gulp hard, their hair like bird nests and faces covered in sooty smuts as his voice hardened.  “And now you expect us to believe you were victims?  How many women know how to drive a train?”


“In fairness, they ain’t too hot at it,” Bob took out his pipe and tapped it on his heel.  “Darned thing’s a wreck.  The wheels and brakes are seized up, not to mention that at least one cylinder has blown.  It’ll be hell to move and it’s blockin’ the main line between here and the east of the county.  It’ll take days to move it”


“We didn’t drive it.  We forced one of the outlaws to drive us away at gunpoint,” countered Carlotta.


“Yeah?”  Nethercutt gathered a huge gob of spit in his throat before delivering it, very nearly at the feet of his suspects.  “You see any outlaw, Bob?  You were at the station when the train went through.”


“Nope,” the hirsute man shook his head.  “T’weren’t goin’ that fast neither.  I got a good look and there were only them two up there.”


“He jumped out before town,” Charlotte protested.


“Ain’t that real convenient?” Bob chuckled.  “I thought you said he was at gunpoint.  Did you shoot ‘im?  We never heard a thing and they tend to echo in the mountains.”


“We never shot him,” Charlotte bit into her lip.  “He just kind of...jumped.”


“And where’s that gun?” demanded Nethercutt.  “I don’t see no gun.”


“It...,” the girls exchanged a nervous glance, “...well, I think it fell out.”


Laughter rolled around the posse.  “Ain’t that real convenient?  Seems like everythin’ was fallin’ outta that there train.  I’m amazed you got any coal left.”


“So, let’s get your story straight,” mused the sheriff.  “You just happened on this train and used it to escape from the Devils’ Hole, even though there ain’t a railroad track for miles near the place.  You used a gun to force an outlaw to help you, who just happened to be able to drive a train,” he raised a finger in the air to punctuate his point,” and that’s important ‘cos there ain’t many folks who can; even at gunpoint.  And that fella jumped outta the movin’ train right along with the gun you used.  Then you ran away when the law were catchin’ up with you once the darned thing broke down; but you are completely innocent.  Is that your story?”



“Well, when you put it like that it just sounds silly,” snapped Carlotta.


“You little ladies must think I’m about as dumb as rat bait.  If’n you were kidnapped, why would you be the one holding a gun?  You’ve helped your boyfriends rob our train thinkin’ we’d buy any crock of shit because you’re females.”


“No.  We really have been kidnapped.”  Charlotte started to cry, suddenly overwhelmed by a new wave of hopelessness.  “Check with our family.  Our names are Carlotta and Charlotte Durbin.  I mean Burdon, we’ve been traveling under the name of Durbin because, well, we left without permission and didn’t want to be caught, but we were, by outlaws.  Please.  We’re from Denver.  They asked our family for a ransom.”


“Two names, huh?  You’d do better to decide what alias you want to use and stick to it.”  Nethercutt’s eyes crinkled as a malevolent grin spread over his face.  “Well, now we know you’re liars, ‘cos the Durbins were here in town only last week and they drew my picture for their collection.  Real ladies they were too, not cheap and rough like you pair, for all your fake airs and graces.  You’re under arrest, and if that train’s been robbed of the payroll I’ll make sure you do at least ten years for aidin’ and abettin’.”


oooOOOooo


Heyes pulled up his horse and lifted his arm signaling to his men to stop.  He waited as the other riders gathered around him on the grassy knoll.  Kid Curry nudged his horse next to his partner’s.   Below them a pastoral scene unfolded disturbed only by the noise and smoke of the erupting train halted on the tracks bisecting the uninhabited meadow.   


“Looks like Preacher’s got it under control,” said the Kid.  The passengers were lined up and filing off the train, one at a time, under the watchful eyes of the lapsed holy man and Hank.  Lobo had the engineer and stoker held at gunpoint next to the steaming cab.  Scarlet sat atop a gray horse and kept watch for trouble.  She was dressed convincingly as a man and, for a split second, Curry wondered who she was.  Recognition allowed him to shift his gaze back to the train.  “No sign of a posse.”       
 

“Wheat, you and Kyle ride down and give them a hand with the passengers.  Bill, you can send Scarlet up here where she’s out of harm’s way.”  Heyes watched the three men ride down the hill and then grinned at the Kid.  “See?  Everything’s working out just fine.  The girls should be off the train by now, safe and sound.”


“They better be.”


“They are,” said Heyes, firmly.  “If they didn’t run out of coal first, the cylinder Ike loosened was sure to slow ‘em down before they started uphill.  Not only that, there was only enough water to get them about seventy miles.  A train can’t run without steam.  Quit worrying, will you?  C’mon, let’s crack us a safe.”


Together, they loped down the hill.  As they neared the train, a lavishly attired woman stepped off the coach and paused when confronted by Hank.  He said something to her and she swung her arm, savagely striking him across his face.  Astonished, his hand flew up to his cheek and he took an involuntary step back, lowering his pistol reflexively.  The woman clubbed his arm with her reticule and stepped on his foot with a spiked heel before seizing him and biting his wrist.  Hank let go of his gun and it tumbled into the dirt.


The other passengers tried to use the diversion to escape, but a warning shot from the Preacher’s gun stopped them in their tracks.  No one noticed the new outlaws arriving.  Heyes and Curry made a beeline for the payroll car and Bill reined up and dismounted.


The woman managed to recover Hank’s pistol just as a strong pair of arms encircled her waist and lifted her off the ground, pinioning her arms to her sides.  Infuriated, she wriggled and squirmed, her ruby lips pursed and spouting the sort of language that would make a sailor blush.  Female passengers swiftly covered the ears of small children and frowned disapprovingly at the shameful scene before them; the male passengers cheered her on.  


Encouraged, she raged on kicking her feet, catching him in his thighs and stomach, while twisting her body from side to side.  Bill Brown, thrown off balance, loosened his grip slightly and she fired off several rounds before Hank pulled the gun away from her, wrenching her arm in the process.  She abruptly went still and, carefully, Bill lowered her until her feet touched the ground and then released her.  She drooped, exhausted, and a gasp arose from the spectators at their glimpse of Bill’s blood-covered chest.  He doubled over, clutching his stomach, where the woman had delivered her final blow driving all the air from his lungs as a second, shrill cry arose and Scarlet galloped up.


She flung herself from the saddle, her hat flying off and her hair unfurling and ran to Bill, sobbing, but fortunately remembering his alias in front of the witnesses, “Colin, oh Colin, you’ve been shot!”  Unable to answer her, Bill shook his head but Scarlet had already turned furiously away from him.  The woman had her hand in her reticule as Scarlet grabbed her by her frilly collar and pulled her close.  Ignoring the small derringer the woman was withdrawing from her purse, Scarlet wound up her right arm and struck the woman a stunning blow in her face.  The woman crumpled into the dirt, her face covered by her hands, reduced to a pile of lace and linen.  Hank dove in to swiftly grab her purse and the small pistol.  Heaving, Scarlet turned to Bill who had recovered his breath and stood watching her with a bemused smile.  “Shoot, gal, don’t kill her.  I’m fine.  This ain’t my blood.”  With a strangled cry, she threw herself into his arms.


While his words reassured his wife, the crowd cowered in fear.  Who was this man and whose blood was he wearing?  We’re they going to be next?  Up until this moment, a few of the men had been considering trying to overpower the smaller number of outlaws.  Everyone quickly abandoned all notions of escape and passively allowed Preacher to lead them a short distance from the train and settle them on their knees.


oooOOOooo


“What’s going on out there?  I can’t hear the damned tumblers,” said Heyes as he held one ear pressed against the cold steel of the safe.  His right hand turned the large dial as he spoke.


Curry stood just outside the boxcar doors and smiled up at his best friend.  “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you, Heyes.  Just keep workin’.  We’ve got fifteen minutes left.”


Within the time allotted, Heyes heard the final pin drop and he purred with pleasure.  Swinging the door open, he sat back on his heels and laughed happily.


“Is it there?” asked the Kid, leaning in the doorway and trying to see into the safe.


“Oh, yeah, it’s all here and then some.  Here.”  Heyes tossed a heavy canvas sack to his partner before snatching up a second, smaller bag.  Standing, he spread his hands out holding the loot and crowed, “We did it!”


Unable to wipe the pleased smile from his own face, Curry admonished, “Quit patting yourself on the back and get a move on.  We ain’t got all day.”


Heyes jumped down out of the boxcar and the two of them hurried to their tied mounts.  In the saddle, the money secured in his saddlebags, Heyes waved to Preacher, who waved back and started getting the passengers to their feet and filing back onto the train.  Satisfied that their plan was still going smoothly, Heyes and Curry galloped their horses back up to the grassy knoll to await their friends.


oooOOOooo


Bill let Scarlet go and gazed lovingly into her damp, gray eyes.  “You fine, sweetheart?”  Nodding, she wiped the tears from her cheeks.  “All right then, let’s git this gal packed up and on her way.”  Lifting the defeated woman under her arms, he waited as Scarlet lifted her feet allowing her skirt to slide scandalously up her thighs.  Together, they manhandled the semi-conscious woman onto the train and dumped her into an unoccupied seat.  Bill tipped her upright and primly slid her skirts into an appropriate position.  Seated passengers watched them with trepidation as boarding passengers stood and waited for them to complete their work.  Spying a couple cowering by the front of the coach, Bill gestured them over.  They nervously complied.  “What’s your names?” demanded Brown.


“Gus Owens,” answered the man, unwilling to identify his companion.


Bill glanced at the dowdy woman accompanying him and smiled at her.  She shrank behind Gus.  “Gus, I expect you and the little lady to keep an eye on this gal and make sure she’s left alone until she recovers.  Can you do that for me?”  Gus looked dismayed at being put in charge of such a hellion, so Bill added, “If anything happens, I’m gonna hold you personally responsible.  Clear?”


“Er, yes sir, very clear,” said Gus.  He sat down in the facing bench and pulled his companion down next to him as Scarlet and Bill left the train.  


Minutes later, the outlaws were back on the hilltop.  Heyes and the Kid had dismounted and were hurriedly dividing up the money.  Preacher and Lobo stood nearby keeping their leaders honest and counting along in their heads.  Only Hank seemed to be watching the train as it slowly gained speed and continued its journey.


“Who was that crazy woman?” asked Wheat.


“Don’t know and don’t care,” snapped Scarlet.


Kyle smiled at her adoringly.  “You sure pack a punch, Miz Scarlet.  I’m sure glad I never gave you a reason to haul off and pop me one.”


Scarlet smiled fondly at him.  “No, you didn’t.  You was a perfect gentleman.”


Bill’s black fidgeted nervously under him as he leaned over to smirk at the small outlaw.  “That’s good ‘cause I’d hate to have to kill you, Kyle.”


“Not as much as he’d hate to be killed,” snorted Wheat.   He saw Heyes and the Kid approaching.  “Guess it’s time to part company, Colin.  Sure was nice havin’ you ride along again.”


“Keep safe, Wheat.  You, too, Kyle,” said Bill as Heyes stopped in front of his stallion and caught a rein to steady the prancing animal.


“Bill, here are your cuts and a little something extra for Miss Scarlet.”  The dark-haired leader handed up the small sack he’d taken from the safe and gave them both a dimpled smile.  “I wish I could get you to reconsider staying with the gang.”


“No chance, Heyes.  I got a lot of catchin’ up to do with my lady and time’s a wastin’,” grinned Bill as he took the sack and glanced inside.  A jeweled brooch twinkled up at him and he whistled.  “Mighty generous of you.”


“What is it?  Let me see,” said Scarlet, leaning out of her saddle and reaching for the sack, unable to hide her curiosity.


Bill held it out of her reach.  “No, Darlin’, if you see this you might change your mind about ridin’ off with your poor ol’ husband.  Then what would I tell Gabe?  Nope, I think you’ll have to wait ‘til we’re back in Sweatless.”


“Ma’am, Bill, thanks for all the help,” said Curry, offering up a hand to Bill.  They shook as Scarlet blew a kiss to Kyle.


“Well, it’s been fun but it’s time to say adios,” Bill eased his horse around as Scarlet waved goodbye before they picked up a slow lope and rode north towards home.


oooOOOooo 


The welcoming committee milled around on the station platform waiting impatiently for the approaching train to arrive.  A cheer had gone up as one sharp-eyed man had spotted the black plume of smoke wafting above the horizon.  Their honored guest would be here in no time.  Three armed deputies leaned against the station’s outer wall watching and waiting, too.  The train was late and the sheriff was sure it had been waylaid by the Devil’s Hole gang having decided the earlier train was a decoy to draw off the law.  He was in a foul mood and the deputies were happy to escape the tense mood of the office even though the two gals he had jailed were damned pretty.  Rumor had it they were members of the gang.  No self-respecting lawman would tangle with a gal low enough to run with outlaws.  Pretty as they were, they were untouchables.


The tallest deputy pushed away from the wall and spit out the reed he’d been worrying.  “Look sharp, train’s pulling in.”  The other two straightened and followed him to the edge of the platform.  The mayor’s muttonchops twitched with anticipation and his cronies pressed closely behind them ready to welcome the Silver Starling to Bear Ridge.  The band began playing a festive song.  This certainly was the most exciting day in the history of their small hamlet!


The steaming train’s brakes squealed as the engineer eased the metallic behemoth to a stop.  Necks craned as the conductor opened the door and stepped down holding a small step stool.  He placed the step stool under the threshold and waited at attention.  The welcoming committee held their breaths until they saw the first flash of crimson silk.  The conductor was blocking their view and they grumbled loudly.  When he stepped aside, the committee gasped.  


Ariana Regina, the newly-dubbed Silver Starling, stood in the doorway surveying the crowd through two deeply blackened eyes.  Her nose had swollen to an enormous proportion and loaned her the appearance of an unsuccessful prizefighter.  Unaware of how shocking her face was, she stepped regally down to the platform, her head held high and her raccoon eyes imperious.  The band’s music dwindled away and muttering took its place.


The mayor was paralyzed for a moment, but quickly mastered his surprise.  Despite her injuries, he’d recognized her from her posters.  Rushing forward, he gushed, “Miss Regina, the town of Bear Ridge welcomes you.”


Miss Regina looked past the mayor to the motley collection of tent buildings and tin shacks that were interspersed with actual wooden structure to comprise the small business area of Bear Ridge.  She was going to kill her agent for sending to this hellhole and getting her into this mess.  With a disdainful sniff, she returned her gaze to the mayor.  “Where’s yer sheriff?  I wanna report a goddamn robbery and assault!  Those lowdown, lead-pushin’ owl hoots’ll pay for crossing me up ‘specially that duded-up floozie.  Why, I’m damn lucky I’m still above snakes!”  Her voice cracked with a congested nasal whine.


The mayor recoiled at her coarse, backwoods speech and looked helplessly at the rest of the committee before turning back to his guest and stammering, “Above snakes?”


“Alive, you id-jit.  What’d you think I said?” snapped Miss Regina.  She thrust her bag into the mayor’s arms and plowed through the crowd, ignoring her admirers.  The station master, who had sauntered over to watch the spectacle, stepped forward and offered to take her to the sheriff.  She haughtily accepted.


oooOOOooo


“So, Miss Regina, is that everything?”  The sheriff had sat quietly listening to the woman’s tirade until he could no longer stand the sound of her voice.  This day had gone from bad to worse in a big hurry.  His eyes assessed the angry woman seated across from him.  She wasn’t what he’d expected.  It wasn’t the fact she looked like she’d served as a doormat for a stampede, it was her entire demeanor.  He met whores with more class.  He glanced at the station master.  The man was seated behind Miss Regina and had been taking notes about the robbery to forward to the railroad’s main office.  The tall deputy had posted himself by the door to the cells.


“No, that’s not everythin’!  They took my joo-ells with ‘em and I want ‘em back.  I worked damned hard for ‘em.  Why if you saw the men…” she paused as if suddenly aware of how basely she was behaving.  With a supreme effort, she visibly composed herself and continued; her voice and cadence completely altered into a reasonably authentic European accent despite her bulbous nose thickening her speech.  “That horrible woman who assaulted me has my jewelry.  I can’t bear to think of it.” 


Momentarily dumbfounded by the extreme metamorphosis, the sheriff quickly perked up.  “Woman?”  He cast a meaningful glance at the station master.  


“Yes, there was a woman.  She was dressed as a man, but it was apparent to everyone she was a woman.  Her husband called her Scarlet.”


“Scarlet?  Did you get any other names?” asked the Sheriff.


“She called her husband, Colin.”


“Colin, huh?  Say, Matt, wasn’t there a Colin Flanagan who used to ride with Santana outta the Hole?”


“There was,” said the tall deputy, nodding, “but I heard he was killed a few years back.”


“Well, I guess there’s more than one Colin in this world and I don’t think that one was married.”  The sheriff frowned and mused, “I ain’t never heard of the Devil’s Hole gang allowing women before and now all of a sudden we’ve got three of ‘em riding with the gang.”


Miss Regina stiffened.  “There are other women involved?”


“Yes, ma’am,” answered the deputy.  “Sheriff, maybe it’s not even the Devil’s Hole gang, maybe it’s a family gang like the James and the Youngers.”


“Could be,” agreed the sheriff.  He pushed up out of his chair.  “Ma’am, whoever it was, you can rest assured we’ll do our best to bring ‘em to justice.”


“And recover my property,” added Miss Regina.


“Well, ma’am, that might be a smidge harder to accomplish.  Crooks don’t hang onto jewelry, too easy to identify.  They’ll melt down the settings and fence the gems.  Why your jewelry is probably on its way to a shady jewelsmith as we speak,” said the sheriff.


Deflated and defeated, Miss Regina stood.  “Sheriff, gentlemen,” she said, addressing the lawmen gathered around her, “please forgive me.  I am afraid that my ordeal has rattled me far more than I realized.  I would like to be escorted to the hotel to freshen up, if you would be so kind.  Please notify the mayor that I will be unable to perform as scheduled and will need to rest my voice.”


The tall deputy offered her his arm and left with her.  


The station master shut his notebook and tucked it away in his vest pocket and stood up.  “You really think it might be a new gang, Sheriff?”


“I don’t know what I think,” grumbled the sheriff, “but I’d bet you fifty bucks that little gal’s name ain’t Ariana Regina.”


The station master smiled. “Whoever she is, I’d say the Silver Starling’s the perfect name for her.”
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The Devil's Due - Chapter 18
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