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Keays

Keays

Posts : 1447
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 62
Location : Camano Island Washington

Justice Empty
PostSubject: Justice   Justice EmptyThu Apr 21, 2016 6:49 pm

Hannibal and Miranda came down the stairs together, but as soon as they reached the main level, they parted company.  They could both hear Mac’s loud voice as he made small talk with his neighbors, and Miranda felt it best that she duck out, before the other men spotted her.  The last thing she wanted to deal with, was a bunch of ogling men questioning her about her, and her husband’s identities.


“I’ll see you later,” she whispered and gave Han a quick kiss on the cheek.  “Try not to lose too much.”


“Well that’s confidence for you,” Heyes complained.  “How about if I try not to win too much?”


Miranda smiled and left him to his company.


“Ah!  There you are, Smith!” Mac boomed, as Heyes joined the group in the front foyer.  “I was afraid you might have backed out on us.”


“No,” Heyes answered with a small smile.  “Just getting organized.”


“Well, you already know Peterson, here,” Mac began the rounds.


“Yessir,” Heyes conceded, and shook the banker’s hand.  “Good to see you again, sir.”


Peterson’s brow went up at the formality, and he broke out laughing while returning the hearty handshake.  “Oh, this is going to be fun!” he stated.  “Good to see you again too, Smith.  Your buddy not with you this time?”


“No, not this time.”


“What a shame!  Still, you’re more the game player, ain’t ya’?  Decided to come back for more punishment, I see.”


“I certainly hope not, Mr. Peterson,” Heyes commented as he sent a warning smile over to Big Mac.  “Just interested in a nice, friendly little game.”


“Sure ya’ are!” Peterson laughed his usual annoying bellow and slapped Heyes on the shoulder.  “Yessir, this is going to be a fun game tonight.  Wouldn’t miss it for the world!”


Heyes frowned, the feeling that Peterson knew more about what was going on this evening, than he himself had been privy to, was now nagging at his gut.  He sent another pointed look over to the host, but Mac was quick to avoid the silent question.


“You remember ole’ Snyder from your previous visits, don’t you, Smith?”  the big rancher asked, as he motioned over to the weasily little man in the gray tweed suit.


Heyes felt his skin itch just looking at the man sweating in that heavy material.  “Yessir, Mr. Snyder,” he nodded and shook the man’s damp hand.  “Good to see you again.”


“Hmm,” came back the guarded response.  “I understand that you were away on an extended trip.  Mac said you were out of the country for a few years, which is why we haven’t seen you around lately.  Was your trip a success?”


“Ah, yessir,” Heyes assured him.  “It came to a very satisfactory conclusion.”


“Good!  You partner was here on occasion, but he’s not quite the poker player you are, is he—Mr. Smith?”


Heyes smiled, wondering how many of these people might actually know who he and the Kid really were.  It’s dubious enough, counting on Big Mac to keep his mouth shut, but Peterson as well?  On the other hand, why should it worry him?  Mac’s the one who wanted to keep things light.  Old habits sure take a beating before they’ll die.


“And this over here, is Paul Masson,” Mac continued with the introductions.  “He bought the neighboring ranch six months ago and just recently joined in on our little games here.”


Hands were shaken again, as the two men acknowledged one another.  Heyes noted that the rancher was also dressed light formal for the evening and felt an instant comradery with him.


“And our final player tonight is Malcolm Hutchinson,” Mac continued.  “He’s retired railroad.”


Heyes’ smile froze, but he recovered quickly and gave the gentleman a friendly handshake.  It seemed extremely unlikely that a railroad man would not recognize Heyes from his trial, but the look in the man’s eyes, as they shook hands, was more of superiority than recognition.  It may be that enough time had passed, and that Hannibal Heyes was no longer in the forefront of the railroad’s concerns.  Anonymity could have its advantages.


“Mr. Hutchinson,” Heyes greeted him.  “Nice to meet you.”


“Indeed,” Hutchinson responded as he looked down his nose in that insufferable manner that always made Heyes feel justified in stealing from the wealthy corporations.  “I have yet to see you at any of our weekly games.  You must have been coming before I retired.  How is it that a man, who is still in his working prime, can take time away from his business to play games? You’re not a professional gambler, are you, Mr. Smith?”


“I don’t gamble for a living, if that’s what you mean,’ Heyes assured him.  “I simply…”


“He has a wealthy wife!” Mac boomed out with a belly laugh.  “And better yet; she doesn’t mind him spending her money at the poker table.  Just so long as he doesn’t lose too much.  Isn’t that right, Smith?”


Heyes laughed and went along with the joke.  Mac was in fine form tonight.


“Does he indeed?” Hutchinson asked, but then he smiled, as he assumed he was meeting another money hungry scavenger, such as himself.  “I meant no disrespect.  Just curious that a man this young would actually be able to come up with the buy in, that’s all.”


“Well, he did come up with it, and that’s all you need to worry about,” Mac informed him.  “Now!  Time is wasting.  Let’s get in there and play some poker!”


The troop of players filed into the games room, and got themselves settled into their usual places around the circular poker table.


“So, you’ve taken yourself a wife now, have you?” Peterson asked, as they sat down.


“Yes, I have,” Heyes concurred. 


“And she’s a wealthy woman?”


“Yes she is, Mr. Peterson.  But Mac was just pulling your leg.  I pay my own way.”


“Good for you!” Peterson bellowed, and gave Heyes another teeth rattling slap on the back.  “But it still doesn’t hurt to have a wealthy wife in the background, now does it?  Always knew you were a smart man.”


Heyes ignored the comment.  Peterson was so good natured that it never seemed to occur to him that he was being rude.  Besides that, it was game time, and Heyes knew, he had to focus on what was at hand and not let the irritations of other players distract him.  It was time to get down to business.


Mac, as host, announced the game and did the first shuffle.  Heyes felt himself relax with the familiar sounds of a poker game getting underway.  Maybe this all was just innocent fun, and he even smiled with anticipation, until he saw Hutchinson’s suspicious gaze upon him.  Was it just the natural anxiety of an established player having to accept a newcomer into the game; an unknown commodity that could shake up the comfortable regime?  Or did this railroad man actually recognize Hannibal Heyes and was trying to come up with a way to take advantage of that knowledge?  Goodness knows, turning him in for the reward money wasn’t going to cut it anymore.  How unfortunate.


The deck was shuffled, the cards divvied out, and the players set about capturing the elusive best hand of the evening. With a $20,000 buy in, and six players in the game, the pot was already substantial.  But all is relative, and the play started out slowly, with each man at the table giving themselves time to become comfortable with the deck and the new dynamics of the room.


Heyes was tentative at first, still having his doubts as to why Big Mac had insisted he sit in on this game.  It did occur to him that he might just be here to give the game a decent number of players.  But then he vetoed that idea.  Mac’s weekly games were popular, and his usual problem was keeping the numbers down.  No, Mac had limited the players for a reason, and Heyes shifted uncomfortably with his own confirmation that he was being set up. He bet small and carefully, feeling his way and deliberately allowing more than one pot to go elsewhere, giving himself time to become intimate with the deck.  He watched the other players, looking for their tells and pinpointing them faster than he did at a penny-ante saloon game with cowboys and dirt farmers.  Give a man money, and you rob him of his sense.


Peterson had always been easy to spot.  He didn’t care what tells he was sending out, because he didn’t care if he won or lost.  Coming to these weekly games was not about winning, as far as Peterson was concerned.  It was about good business and socializing with current and potential customers.  He was a wealthy man; he bet small and could afford to lose.  And though he lost a lot, he always seemed to be the one having the most fun.


Snyder was more serious.  He wanted to win, but he was such a bad poker player, that Heyes hardly gave him a second glance.  Heyes didn’t need to watch him, as his decisions were so bad, he always cut his own throat, without any help form the other players.  His right eyebrow also went up, when he thought he had a winning spread.


Mr. Masson was a good player.  He enjoyed the game and did reasonably well, but his memory wasn’t as sharp as Heyes’, and he often lost track of where the cards were during the shuffling of a new hand.  He lost more than one pot, because he was sure no one had the Ace, only to have it show up in his opponent’s hand.


Mr. Hutchinson was a typical railroad baron.  Hard, cold and calculating.  But no intuition.  When his hand was weak, he played weak.  He would place tentative bets and constantly look at his spread of cards, as though he expected them to change for the better with each new glance.  When his hand was strong, he was like a bull in the ring; charging forward with large bets and a fire in his eyes.


Mac, well, he was Mac.  This was his house and his game, and it wouldn’t do for the host to always win the pot.  So Mac was there to have fun and create an atmosphere of camaraderie with his neighbors; You never knew when you might need a friend.  Mac was loud, and boisterous, and downright irritating at times, but he knew how to put on a good game.  The food was plentiful, the alcohol restrained, and the game honest.  He was popular enough, and like Peterson, wasn’t too concerned about winning, unless a lot of his own money was on the line.  Mac didn’t like to part with his own money.


Heyes looked up from his mediocre hand and smiled at the other players.  They were all looking at him, checking him out, figuring him out.  What was his tell?  Why was he here?  Was he a ringer?  Or was he really just an old time friend of Pat’s who happened to like playing poker?  Heyes smiled to himself; try as they might, they wouldn’t find anything in his face.


The evening progressed along.  Platters piled high with sandwiches appeared out of nowhere, and disappeared almost as quickly.  Beer was served to help with the sandwiches, but no hard alcohol was allowed, until after the game was done.  It was a well-organized, playing machine, and pots came and went, with nobody really dominating the game.  Snyder seemed to be winning more than his ability would support, but sometimes, luck simply falls into place, and anybody can have a good night.


Having soaked up all the information he needed, Heyes began to play for real.  His photographic memory kicked in, and he watched the cards like a hawk, though no one watching him would have been able to tell.  He looked bored most of the time; his expression blank, and his features relaxed.  No one could tell that his mind was flashing like quick silver, and that a question mark was slowly growing stronger and stronger, behind the warm chocolate eyes.


Concern struggled to take over his focus.  Was he losing his touch in this arena as well?  Were all those drunken nights and knocks on the head affecting his ability to play poker, along with the other inconveniences of his new, secret affliction?  A tingle of fear went through him, but he forced it down and brought his attention and his thoughts back to the cards.  And yet, no matter how hard he focused, no matter how many times he counted it, the cards were not coming up the way he was expecting them to.


 Poker is a game of memory, and Heyes had always excelled at it.  Even after a new shuffle, he usually had a good idea of what cards were coming his way, and where the other cards were going. With each new shuffle, with each new hand played, the cards would start out as he thought they would, but then, it was as though he lost track of them, as though a moment in time had eclipsed, and then, suddenly, there it would be!  A card out of sequence.  A card that wasn’t supposed to be there, yet there it was. 


Heyes was becoming uncomfortable; he was playing to win now, but he wasn’t winning, he was losing.  Pot after pot.  And Snyder was winning. Was it because there were a limited number of players in this game?  Is that what was causing the cards to behave irrationally?  Heyes was sure he had accounted for that in his calculations, and yet, something wasn’t right.  Snyder shouldn’t be winning as regularly as he was, and Heyes certainly shouldn’t be losing! He watched every move the weasily little rancher made; looking for him to be palming a card, or playing partners with another man at the table.  He couldn’t spot anything.


He sent a glance over to Big Mac, and that rancher was watching him from under his eyebrows.  Realization struck, and suddenly, Heyes knew why Mac had been willing to risk $20,000 just to get him into the game.  The rancher knew there was a card sharp playing a con, and he knew, that as host of the game, it was his responsibility to weed the scoundrel out and send him packing.  It was an insult upon his house and to his reputation, and he had no intentions of allowing it to go on.


When you have Hannibal Heyes at your disposal, and you know what motivates him, you can make miracles happen.  Even though meeting the young woman whom Heyes had taken as his wife, was part of Mac’s motivation for inviting the couple to come by during their honeymoon, the real reason behind it was to get Heyes here and into the game.  He’d spot a problem within the first hour, and Mac knew that the ex-outlaw was an honest player.  He might have been a crook and a conman in other aspects of his life, but when it came to poker, Heyes had his morals.  He despised cheaters.


Heyes drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out through pursed lips.  All eyes turned to him, but Heyes simply looked back at them and grinned.


“Everything’s fine, gentlemen,” he assured the group, as he picked up the deck for his turn at shuffling.  “Time to start playing some poker.”


“I thought that’s what we were playing,” Hutchinson growled.


Heyes simply smiled at him and began to deal.


Xxx


“Would you like some tea while we visit?” Carlotta asked her guest.


“That would be lovely, yes,” Miranda accepted.


Sitting out in the courtyard, the evening was still bright and warm, but the intense heat of the afternoon was beginning to wan.  Miranda sat back with a contented smile and allowed her senses to soak in the essence of this place.  She had not seen the ranch before Carlotta had come to live here, but from what Hannibal said, a woman’s touch had improved the ranch, and the rancher, immensely.


Tea arrived and was poured into delicate teacups, and then the two ladies were left to their visit.


“How long have you and Mr. McCreedy been married?” Miranda asked her hostess. 


Carlotta smiled and cocked an eyebrow at her.  “We have been married for eight years.  It took some adjustment, as neither of us had been married before.  We are both very stubborn people, but we have settled in and are agreeable on most things.  I run the household, and my husband runs the ranch.  We are very happy.  You and Senor Smith have not been married long, and with a child at home and another on the way, it is a lot to handle.  Are you adjusting?”


Miranda sighed and stared off into the distance, as she thought about that question.


“I think so,” she said.  “Yes.  I am.  I love Hannibal very much.  And our daughter.  But it has been hard at times.  He is so complex a man; sometimes I wonder who it is, I’m married to.”


“Si, I can understand that,” Carlotta agreed.  “He can be very charming, and persuasive.  I wonder sometimes, how much truth he spoke, when he was playing matchmaker.  I believe, he had ulterior motives for wanting us to marry.”


Miranda perked up with interest.  “Why?  What could it possibly have to do with him?”


“I do not know,” Carlotta admitted.  “And I have decided that it does not matter, since all has turned out well.  But I do believe that your husband is a very clever and possibly, a very devious man.  When Mr. McCreedy admitted to me who he and his friend really were, I was not surprised.  Did you not know who he was, when you married?”


“Oh yes, of course I did,” Miranda assured her.  “I knew who he was even before I met him, and I had convinced myself that I would not like him.  I was still in mourning over the loss of my first husband, you see, so I put up walls around myself, to make sure that no one could get close.”


“But, apparently, he did?”


“Yes!” Miranda laughed.


“You see?  As I said; a charmer.  I think, he is a man who is used to getting what he wants.”


“Yes, he is,” Miranda concurred.  “And yet, I was so careful.  I thought I knew him so well before we married.  But now.” She shrugged.  “I don’t know.”


“Do you think you have made a mistake?”


“I hope not,” Miranda stated emphatically.  “I do love him, with all my heart.  Indeed, I love him more now, than when we married.  But there is a dark side to him, and it frightens me sometimes.”


“Yes,” Carlotta agreed. “But that can be said of many men.  Perhaps it is simply that you are getting to know him better now, and you do not like all of what you see.  Give it time.  You are still newlywed.  There is always adjustment.  And, there is something else, I think.”


“Something else?  What?”


“How far along are you?” Carlotta asked her.


“Oh.”  Miranda frowned, as she thought about the timing.  “About three months, I think.”


“Hmm,” Carlotta nodded sagely.


“What?”


“I have never had children,” Carlotta admitted.  “So perhaps I am not one to say, and yet, I have seen it in others.  When a woman is in your condition, especially for the first time, she seems to go through certain changes.  She may become frightened more easily, or quicker to temper.  Perhaps even insecure—jealousy over little things.  Yes?”


Miranda thought back to the re-union in Denver, and how jealous she had behaved over Hannibal’s ex-lover, Allie, even though the young woman was happily married and with two children of her own, with someone else.  She cringed now, at the terrible things she had yelled at her husband, and she will never forget the regret of being the cause of their first all-out married fight.


“You’re right,” she admitted.  “There were times when I did behave irrationally.  And it was before I even knew I was pregnant.  Actually, it was my extreme behavior that tipped our doctor off, that I might be in the family way.”


“Ah, yes.” Carlotta smiled and poured out more tea.  “It seems to me, that a woman who is beginning her new family would naturally be very concerned about the security of her situation.  A mother will want a man with her who is reliable and trustworthy.  Someone who will provide, not just a safe home, but a nurturing one, free from fear and destitution.”


“That would make sense,” Miranda agreed.  “Naturally, a mother would want those things for her children.”


“Naturally.  So now, here you are, about to bring a new life into this world, and suddenly you are feeling fear and uncertainty.  That perhaps you did not choose wisely?”


“Oh dear,” Randa sighed.  “So, you’re saying that much of what I am going through now, is simply because I’m pregnant?”


Carlotta shrugged.  “I am simply saying, that I have seen it many times before.  Not only before, but even after the child arrives.  Do not be concerned.  I have observed that Senor Smith cares for you very much.  I also noted how his eyes light up, when we were discussing your young daughter.  There may be many layers to him, but I think, he tries to be a good man.  Yes?”


“Yes!” Miranda agreed whole-heartedly.  “Thank you.  You are the second, more experienced woman, to tell me that all will be well.  That it is just me adjusting to a new marriage and a new family.”


“Si.  But not just you.  I am sure Senor Smith is also going through his own difficulties.  It is quite a change from his previous life.”


Miranda laughed.  “Yes.  You’re quite right.  We’ve both had to make some big adjustments.  Thank you.  I do feel better now.  But, may I ask you one more question?”


“Certainly.”


“Why do you and your husband still refer to him by his alias?” Randa queried.  “Mr. McCreedy has known all along who they were, and as you have already stated, he also told you.”


Carlotta shook her head.  “My husband did not inform me of their true identity, until he had no choice.  I am not a fool.  I knew there was some secret surrounding them, as their visits here were always brief and private.  My husband rarely spoke of them, and often I did not even know they were coming, until they had been here and gone again.  But their trials were very public—newsworthy, yes?”


“Oh yes,” Miranda confirmed.  “I was always aware of them, as my then husband was involved in banking and big business.  I’m afraid they were quite a thorn in his side!  But it wasn’t until their arrests and trials that their photographs were distributed.  Up until then, very few people had any idea what they looked like.  Even the descriptions on their wanted posters were insufficient, and in some cases, incorrect.”


“I recognized them right away,” Carlotta told her.  “And I confronted my husband, demanding that he tell me the truth.  At first he denied that they were the same men, but as I said; I already suspected something, and I am no fool.  He eventually admitted it, and the fact that he had known who they were, all along.  But he had to keep it secret, even from me, because they had still been wanted men, and he did not want to jeopardize their freedom.”  Carlotta paused here and smiled wisely.  “I suspect it had more to do with him not wanting to relinquish the hold that he had over them.  Knowing who they were was worth a lot of money. Yes?”


“Yes, it was,” Miranda concurred.  “I’m amazed that they never were betrayed.  Honor among thieves, perhaps.”


“Perhaps,” Carlotta agreed, though skeptically.  “I know that in my husband’s case, he simply had use for them.  In some ways, I was surprised that he helped them, but perhaps there is some friendship there now, and perhaps, even some respect.  He certainly admires your husband’s abilities.  Mr. McCreedy does not part with his money for just anyone.”


“I must admit, I had noticed that,” Miranda agreed.  “He is very thrifty.”


Now, Carlotta laughed.  “You are being polite.”


“Of course,” Randa admitted, but then brought the topic back to her original question. “Still, you know who they are now, so why carry on with the deception?”


“Even though I recognized them, once I saw their pictures, apparently there are others in this town, who did not,” Carlotta explained.  “Only Mr. Peterson put two and two together, when he saw the photographs, but it seems that no one else did.  Not even our town sheriff, but then, he never was a very bright man. Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry remained separate people from Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones, and my husband preferred that it remained that way.  So, even between ourselves, we continued to refer to them by their aliases.  It made things much easier.”


“Yes, of course,” Randa agreed.  “I can see his point.  Still, I wonder how much longer he will be able to maintain that deception.  It’s bound to get out.”


“Yes, it will.  Perhaps, even tonight.”


Randa’s brows went up.  “Oh?” she asked, with a mischievous sparkle in her eye.  “Is something up?”


“Si, I believe there is,” Carlotta admitted.  “But I do not know what.  My husband does not confide in me, these things.  But I am interested to know what outcome is of this game tonight.  I suspect that breakfast will be an interesting meal in the morning.”


Miranda smiled and nodded.  “Hannibal suspected that Mac was up to something.  It seems he is right—again!”


“They know one another very well.  Still, I do not think you need to be concerned.  I suspect that my husband simply wishes to take advantage of your husband’s skill at the poker table.  Why, I do not know.”


“I think you are right,” Randa told her.  “I think breakfast tomorrow is going to be very interesting.”


Xxx


The atmosphere in the game room was becoming more and more focused, as the evening wore on.  Three hours into it and Heyes was still losing.  He was down to $15,000 in front of him, and he still couldn’t spot the play.  Snyder was winning big and doing an excellent job of looking extremely pleased with himself.  Heyes struggled to figure the man out.  Either he was a smoother player than his initial ability had suggested, or he was having a run of exceptional good luck.  Heyes wasn’t buying either one.  And not being a smooth player in an honest game, pretty much cancelled out his ability to be smooth enough to cover a play so well, that Hannibal Heyes couldn’t spot it.


He was getting frustrated, even though he knew that the first rule of a professional gambler was to never let the play of the cards get to you.  Don’t get full of yourself when it went in your favor, as Snyder was doing, and don’t allow frustration to cloud your focus when lady luck looked the other way.  Poker wasn’t a game of luck, it was a game of observation and skill, and Hannibal Heyes was a master at it.  Reminding himself of this, he took a deep breath and relaxed.  He then realized that he had been focusing too much on Snyder.  Snyder was not the problem.  It was time to re-direct his attention to the other players.


He felt pretty safe in ignoring Peterson.  The man wasn’t subtle enough to be a card-sharp and besides, he was Mac’s business partner, and, as bankers go, relatively honest.  As for Masson, again, Heyes eliminated him fairly quickly.  He was a good and honest player and didn’t strike Heyes as the type of man who would come in to a neighbor’s game and cheat.  Heyes was hoping that his belief in this wasn’t solely based on the fact that he had liked the man.  He told himself to still keep an eye on him, just in case.


Then his attention slid over to the one man at the table for whom he had an instant dislike for.  The retired railroad baron, Hutchinson.  Again, Heyes wondered if it was simply his first impressions of the man, and of his previous profession, that made him want to suspect him.  And yet, even though Heyes’ first impressions were not always correct, they were correct often enough for him to pay attention to them.  He would be watching Hutchinson.


Another hour went by, and Heyes was down to $10,000, but he wasn’t worried about that.  Now that he realized his true purpose for being included in this game, his focus had shifted from winning, to weeding out the cheat.  Now that he had eliminated Snyder as the culprit, he went back to the basic rules for cheating at poker.  Usually, any cheating that might be taking place, was done by the one holding the deck.  Everyone took their turn at shuffling, but now Heyes paid closer attention to each player, as their turn came up.


Everyone had their own technique when it came to shuffling the deck.  Mac was straight forward about it.  He’d set the deck down with intend, in front of the player to his right, who just happened to be Peterson.  Peterson would cut it, Mac would stack the two halves back together, with the bottom half now on top, shuffle the deck and deal.  He wouldn’t say a word, just chaw on his cigar and meet the eye of every man, as he dealt him his card.  Done.
Peterson almost made a joke of it, he was so unconcerned with the outcome.  He’d smile and greet each player as he flicked them their cards, and the proceeding hand would carry on as usual.  Masson was polite and efficient. Snyder was nervous and bumbling, often fumbling the shuffle.  This, at first was another reason why Heyes suspected him.  Pretending to fumble the shuffle was a good way to hide a slight of hand, but, as stated, Heyes quickly realized that Snyder was simply no good at poker, and that he wasn’t trying to hide anything, other than his own incompetence.


Then there was Hutchinson.  He was talkative throughout his shuffle.  Heyes had found it irritating, but now he found it interesting.  When Hutchinson’s turn came around again, Heyes watched him intently through a relaxed gaze.  The railroad man set the pack down in front of Masson, who was to his right, and then began his usual bantering.  It was casual chatter, some joke or snide comment directed towards whoever had won the previous hand.  Everyone’s attention would be diverted towards the focus of the comment, and by the time eyes turned back to Hutchinson, the deck was shuffled and being dealt out.


Heyes had been just as guilty as the others, of allowing his attention to be diverted.  This was supposed to be a friendly game.  But now, he pulled his own con.  Pretending to glance over to Snyder along with everyone else, he raised his hand up to scratch his temple, and was able to sneak a look at Hutchinson through slightly separated fingers.


Masson cut the deck.  Hutchinson picked up the top half and transferred it to his left hand.  Then he picked up the bottom half and put the two halves together.  And this was where he made his play.  Instead of switching the bottom half of the deck to the top, he put them back together in the same order as before the cut, so having put his previous hand of cards onto the top of the deck before having them cut, he now knew what chards were on top.  Even after a shuffle, he would know what cards were going to come up, and where.  Include a little bit of palming of undesirable cards, and this move gave him a lot of control over who would get what cards.


It also explained why the cards were not showing up in the order that Heyes had expected them to.  He was so relieved that he wasn’t losing his edge, he almost blew his cover by smiling.


Now that he knew who was manipulating the deck, and how, all he had to do was sit back and watch to see which way the hand played out.  He expected to see a pattern start to emerge, and his attention was focused once again, upon Snyder.  Were Hutchinson and Snyder playing doubles, or was Snyder the hapless victim of Hutchinson’s play?  Heyes figured he already knew the answer to that one.  He picked up the cards dealt to him, and settled in to play a new kind of game.


The rounds were made numerous times, with each player adding to the pot according to how well their hands were playing out.  Heyes bet conservatively; he knew he wasn’t going to win this one, and he wanted to keep his focus on the other players.  His main concern was that Mac wasn’t going to give anything away.  The big rancher knew that Heyes was onto the scent and was watching him almost as intently as Heyes was watching Snyder.  But Heyes was better at it.  He dared not make eye contact with his host, as Hutchinson might pick up on it and realize that he was under observation.  Heyes wanted Hutchinson to be relaxed and confident that he was still in control.


The pot was getting bigger and bigger.  Everyone was eyeing everyone else in the hope of picking up any hints of a tell.  Heyes smiled to himself.  If they hadn’t figured out whose tell belonged to who yet, then it was doubtful they’d recognize it, now that the heat was on.  Heyes watched Snyder, waiting for his tell to come.  And then, there it was.  Snyder licked his lips, as he glanced at the pot in the middle of the table, and then he snuck another look at the cards in his hand.  The right eyebrow went up.


Heyes felt realization come to him.  He knew what Hutchinson was doing now.  The pot was huge—the biggest it’d been all night.  The amount in front of Snyder was substantial, but his previous few hands had been low, so he hadn’t been betting high on them.  He had been letting the smaller pots go to others in the game.  Peterson and Hutchinson, not surprisingly, had both been falling behind, but then caught up with Snyder as he was being shut out.  Most of the players were accepting this turn of events, as lady luck finally running out on him, but Heyes knew better.


Snyder was indeed being set up.  Give him hands that would get him winning all night.  Get him used to betting big and winning, then snatch it away from him, just when it mattered the most.  Start giving him bad hands, so bad that even he wouldn’t dare bet on them, and risk losing his large pile of winnings.  This would also give the others in the game opportunity to catch up and start betting bigger themselves so that the pot continued to grow exponentially.  Then, when the pot was big enough to satisfy even Hutchinson’s greed, and Snyder’s frustration at having his winning streak come to an end was reaching its peak, give him another hand that just couldn’t lose, and watch him explode.


It was playing out right in front of Heyes’ eyes.  Snyder’s thoughts were like fire written on his forehead.  If he bet everything in front of him, he’d shut out all but one other player, and the chances of that man having a better hand than Snyder’s, were slim.  But was he courageous enough to take that chance?  Lose the bet, and he’d lose everything.  But win it, and he’d walk away with $82,000.  No one had walked away with that much money before, not from one of these games.  They’d stop laughing at him then.


Heyes’ eyes slid over to Hutchinson.  As intended, he was the only other man in the game who had won enough in the last three hands to challenge Snyder for the pot.  That man was watching Snyder like a wolf waiting for the chicken to come out of the hen house.  Silence settled over the game like a suffocating blanket, and all eyes were on Snyder.  It was his move, and he knew it.  Everyone else had already folded, everyone but Hutchinson.


Finally, the decision was made.  Heyes had seen it, even before Snyder knew it himself.  The weasily rancher bit his lower lip and pushed everything he had in front of him into the middle of the table.


“I’ll meet your $5000 bet and raise you another $17,000.”


Hutchinson smiled and pushed in his own $17,000.  “Call.”


Snyder smiled with confidence; he knew he had this won.  Placing his cards on the table, he spread them and showed his hand.  Everyone sucked their teeth and a few quiet whistles made the rounds.  It looked as though Snyder’s original run of luck had returned. 


It was an excellent hand, and a good bet to win, but it wasn’t going to.  Heyes knew all along that it wouldn’t.  Snyder had been set up and played, and he was going to lose.


Hutchinson didn’t even smile.  His eyes turned hard and cold, like a shark tasting blood, as he set his own cards on the table and spread them out.


“Not good enough,” he stated.


Silence, once again, covered the room.  Snyder went white as a ghost, not wanting to believe his eyes.  The only hand that could have beat his, was staring him in the face.  Hutchinson did smile then, and he reached out his hands to rake in the large pot for himself.


“STOP!”


Everyone jumped, and all eyes turned to Heyes.


“What do ya’ mean, stop?” Hutchinson complained.  “This is my pot.”


Heyes sent the railroad man a smile that didn’t come from his eyes.  Hutchinson felt a chill go through him, and suddenly he recognized this man sitting across the table from him.  How could he have not seen it before?  A deep dread settled over him, as he mustered what courage he had to remain in control.  Hannibal Heyes did not take his eyes off of him.


“Mac?” Heyes said.


“Yeah.”


“Will any of your servants still be up?”


“Well, there’s one way to find out,” Mac stated, and picking up the servant bell, he rang it loudly three or four times.


No more than a moment passed when the door opened, and Carlotta stuck her head in.


“Why are you ringing for servants now?” she asked her husband.  “They have all retired for the evening, as we are about to do.”


“What do you mean, retired!?” Mac bellowed.  “They can’t retire on poker night!”


“Do not be ridiculous!” Carlotta shot back.  “Just because you men are foolish enough to stay up all hours, playing a silly game, does not mean that the whole household must do so.”


“A silly game?” Mac retorted.  “Just because you don’t…”


“Mac,” Heyes interrupted this marital jousting match.  “Is Miranda here?”


“Yes,” came Miranda’s voice from almost directly behind him.


Heyes’ smile turned from one of dangerousness, to one of relief.  “Good.  I want you to go around to every player here and write down what cards they each have in front of them.”


“Now, wait just a minute…”


With a flick of his wrist, Heyes brought to hand the small derringer that had been hidden in his sleeve.  Hutchinson choked back the rest of his protest. There were gasps around the table at the unexpectedness of this event, and it was now Hutchinson’s turn to fade from flustered red to white as a ghost.


“Now, everybody just relax,” Mac advised the group. “Most of you may not have noticed, or maybe you were too polite to say, but there has been some hanky-panky going on here at this table, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it!  Now, if you’ll just do what Smith here asks, we can put an end to this nonsense.”


Hutchinson suddenly saw hope at the end of his tunnel.  Grasping at the one bit of information he thought that he was the only one privy to, he threw it out there in an attempt to divert accusations of cheating away from himself.

“Smith, my ass!” he stated loudly.  “That man is Hannibal Heyes!”
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Keays

Keays

Posts : 1447
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 62
Location : Camano Island Washington

Justice Empty
PostSubject: Re: Justice   Justice EmptyThu Apr 21, 2016 7:05 pm

Instantly the table was in an uproar.


“What!?” Masson exclaimed as chair legs scrapped across the floor, and people came to their feet.  “Is that right, Mac?  You brought a known outlaw and card sharp into this game?”


“What were you thinking?” Snyder demanded to know, feeling that he was being ganged up on.  “You brought in a ringer!?”


Hutchinson sat back with a satisfied smile on his face, enjoying the upheaval he had created.  Peterson was also sitting back and watching the fireworks, as he always enjoyed a good show.  But he also knew that Hutchinson was sunk, and this little diversion wasn’t going to save him.
Heyes sat quietly, his derringer still aimed unerringly at Hutchinson’s chest.  He could feel Miranda’s hands on his shoulders, and knew by her firm grip that she was there to back him up through whatever transpired here.


Mac raised his hands to quiet the accusations.


“Everyone settle down!” he bellowed out.  “Sit back in your chairs, and I’ll tell you what’s going on.”


There was some hesitation as those standing looked at one another, and then over at the infamous outlaw in their midst.  Curiosity took over indignation and the room quieted down.  Hutchinson felt himself losing control again, but a quick glance at that unwavering derringer, and the hardness in the ex-outlaw’s eyes, kept him silent.


“Good,” Mac stated.  “Now, to answer your questions.  No, I didn’t bring a ringer into the game.  A ringer would suggest that I had planned on cheating in my own house.  I knew there was something going on here, and I brought in a private detective to root it out!”  Hutchinson snorted at that comment, but was generally ignored.  “Yes, I did know that this man is Hannibal Heyes.  I’ve known him and his partner, Curry, for a number of years now.  I helped Curry get his amnesty, and Heyes to get his parole.  I’ve used them for a lot of jobs, and they’ve always come through for me.  Now Heyes here is no card sharp.  Nope.  He’s just a damn good player!  And an honest one at that!  He’s also a far sight better one than anybody else who professes to be the same.  I figured, if I needed someone to solve my little problem here, then I might as well bring in the best.  Don’t you agree?”


There was some mumbling around the table, but generally everyone nodded agreement.


“Good!” Mac continued, then he turned and actually smiled at Miranda.  “Ma’am.”


Miranda nodded.  She was surprised at her lack of nervousness in this situation.  There was her husband, with cold intent in his manner, pointing a gun at another man, and yet, she was not afraid.  She felt confident and secure, knowing that Hannibal would not let anything happen her.  Carlotta had gone to the office and now returned with a pencil and a sip of paper.  She handed these items to Miranda who then dutifully went around to all the players, and wrote down each man’s hand.


“Good,” Heyes said, and smiled at his wife.  “Now, if you would collect up all the cards and give them to me.”


Miranda complied, and returning the cards to her husband, she stood behind him again and waited to see how this would transpire.  She was feeling immensely proud of her man right now, and had a hard time hiding the pleased smile from her face.


Heyes smiled around at the players, and standing up, he set the derringer down on the table beside him, and he began to set out all the cards in the deck according to their suits.  Once all the cards in the deck had been laid out, everyone but Heyes, was surprised that there were still two cards left over.  Heyes’ grin grew, as he set down an extra King and an extra Ace.  Cards that Hutchinson had used to pepper the hand of whoever he was setting up.  Angry muttering began to grow again, and dark, accusing eyes were turned towards Hutchinson.


“That doesn’t prove anything!” the ex-railroad baron protested.  “Anyone could have put those in there.”  His face contorted with anger, and his courage bolstered by the ex-outlaw being now unarmed, he made the mistake of jumping up and pointing an accusing finger in Heyes’ face.  “You probably just did it yourself to try and prove…”


Heyes reacted instantly and grabbed the outstretched hand.  Pulling Hutchinson in closer to him, he rolled the man’s wrist over and slipping his nimble fingers under the sleeve cuff, neatly pulled out a fifth Queen.


The room erupted once again, with the scrapping of chairs and more angry cursing coming from the players.


“Settle down!” Mac bellowed once again.  “You forget that there are ladies present!” 


Instant silence followed this reminder, and shameful looks flitted back and forth between the two ladies.


“Pardon,” Masson was quick to apologize.


“Yes, we were too hasty.” Snyder agreed.  “Excuse us, ladies.”


Miranda simply smiled and nodded her acceptance.


“You are excused,” Carlotta told them.  “I understand that emotions can run high.  There is a lot of money at stake here.”


They all looked down at the large pot still sitting in the middle of the table.


“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Mac assured his guests.  “We know what cards everyone was holding, and we’ll divvy up the pot accordingly.”


“Oh, well…”


“Yes, that is most fair.”


“In the meantime, Mr. Hutchinson will remain my guest until the morning, when we can have a conversation with the sheriff,” Mac continued.  “I’m sure he’ll want to have a word with each of you in due course.  As for the poker game, I think we’ve all had enough excitement for one night.  Cognac, anyone?”


Peterson started to chuckle, then he snorted and chortled, and finally he leaned back in his chair and set loose his bellowing laughter that deafened the ears and rattled the chandelier.


Xxx


The following morning turned out to be a late start for everyone.  A man was sent early on to get the sheriff from town to come out and collect the prisoner, but he had yet to return. In the meantime, Big Mac was bubbling over with curiosity, if one dared to imagine such a thing, and was insisting on hearing Heyes’ statement first thing over their late brunch of scrambled eggs with salsa, and strong coffee.


“I still can’t see how Hutchinson was doing it,” Mac grumbled.  “And you know how I hate loose ends.  How did you know he had those extra cards in the deck?”


“Can’t it wait until the sheriff gets here?” Heyes asked.  “You know how I hate repeating myself.”


“No!  Dag blast it!  It can’t wait!” Mac insisted.  “That man is so slow; he may not get here until late afternoon.  I want to know now!”


Heyes sent a sly smile to his wife, and she rolled her eyes, knowing that her husband was intentionally egging their host on.


“Would you like some more coffee?” Carlotta asked her guests.  “And some eggs, perhaps?”


“Oh yes, thank you,” Heyes accepted.  “That would be nice.”


Carlotta summoned Juanita to bring refills for everyone.


“Damn the eggs!” Mac bellowed as his fist came down on the table.  “This is my house, and I want to know what was going on.  Now!”


“Well,” Heyes began, as he dabbed his mouth with the napkin.  “If you’re going to insist…”


Juanita arrived with the trolley and began to pour out more coffee in all the cups, and then offered another serving of eggs and salsa from the covered serving platter.


“Oh, thank you,” Heyes smiled up at the young servant girl.  “The eggs are excellent.”


She smiled shyly and nodded her thanks.


“Yes, they are very good,” Miranda agreed.  “I think I will have some more as well.”


“Si, Senora.”


The trolley was rolled around to Miranda’s placing, and more eggs were served out.  Mac was about fit to burst, but even he wouldn’t interrupt a lady who was a guest in his house.


“I believe that I will have some more as well,” Carlotta announced.  “It seems that being up so late has increased my appetite for breakfast.”  The trolley, once again, was put into motion as the servant made her rounds.  “I believe that Mr. McCreedy would also like another helping.”


Juanita sent a nervous glance over to the man of the house, being well aware that he was all set to blow up.  But she knew her job, and she accepted her fate.  She quickly completed the rounds of the table and made a hasty retreat.


“Alright!” Mac stated.  “Everyone’s taken care of.  So now, tell me.”


Heyes sent him an indignant look.  “While I’m eating?”  he asked over a mouthful.


“HEYES!”  Heyes’ brows went up at the use of his legal name.  “I’m beginning to understand why the reward posted on you was so high! I should have left ya’ in prison…!”


“Alright, alright,” Heyes placated the big man.  “I didn’t realize it was that important to ya’, Mac.  You should have said something.”


“Hannibal,” Miranda laughingly cut in.  “That’s enough.  To be honest, I’m curious too.  Come on, tell us.”


He smiled over at his wife.  “Alright.”


“Finally!” Mac announced.  “Now, how did he do it?”


“Well, you were right in suspecting that this has been coming on for a while now,” Heyes began.  “I think Hutchinson was coming in to the games with those three extra cards every week, in order to practice and get his technique down pat.  The smaller game last night would have made it even easier for him to keep track of his play, and so he decided to go for the real thing.”


“Mm hmm,” Mac agreed.  “That was the plan.”


“Oh,” Heyes nodded.  “Well, it worked.  Poor Snyder was being set up perfectly.  Hutchinson handed him a high card every time he was dealing, and Snyder was so happy to actually be winning for a change, that he didn’t even think to question it.
“Then, when the hand was played and the cards brought in to the deck again, Hutchinson simply held back one of his own cards, so the deck would never come up heavy.  He was taking a chance that five cards of the same suit might show up in the one play, but he was pretty quick to get the extra face card out again, as soon as he could.
“It was sloppy really.  Anyone paying close attention to the cards would know there was something going on.  Throwing those extra cards out there like that, messed up the sequence of all the other cards being dealt.  It would start out with the cards showing up, just as I expected them to, then suddenly, it’d change and everything was off.  I couldn’t figure out what was happening at first, or who was doing it.  Of course, Snyder was the big winner, so he was the obvious suspect, but he was too excited when he won, and too disappointed when he lost.  If he’d been the one controlling the cards, he would have been hiding it a bit better than that.
“So, I started watching the other players.  Then I saw the set-up, plain as day, and could see the close coming on a mile away. All I had to do was wait until Hutchinson laid his cards on the table, and I knew I had him.
“I suggest you check everyone from now on, Mac.  Make sure nobody’s bringing in things to the game that they shouldn’t be.”


Mac huffed.  “I don’t want to insult my company.”


“Why not?” Heyes asked with a shrug.  “You did it to me and the Kid all the time.”


“You boys weren’t company,” Mac pointed out.  “You’re family.  Now more than ever. That gives me the right to insult ya’.”


Heyes almost choked on his eggs.  He sent a look to Miranda, and she twinkled back at him.


“Family, huh?” Heyes finally managed to get out.  Then he sent a dimpled smile over to Carlotta.  “Does that mean you’ll agree to Alejandro covering my mare?”


Before Carlotta had the chance to respond to the cheeky inquiry, the group was interrupted by the arrival of one of Mac’s employees.


“Oh, Mike,” Mac acknowledged him.  “What’s the word?”


“Sheriff Richards will be out later this afternoon, sir.”


“See!  I told ya’!” Mac reminded them all. “Laziest man I ever knew.  I suppose we ought to feed the prisoner.”


“It has already been seen to,” Carlotta informed him.


“Ah!  Not too well, I hope.”


Carlotta simply smiled and ignored the implication.


“Is that all, Mr. McCreedy?”


“Oh yes.  Carry on.”


“Sir.”


Mike turned to leave, but Heyes caught his attention.


“Ah, Mike,” he said.  “Did you happen to check for telegrams while you were in town?”


“Yes sir,” Mike answered him.  “There weren’t any today.”


“Oh.  Okay, thanks.”  Mike nodded and left, while Heyes frowned.  “That’s odd.  The Kid sends a message for me to contact him as soon as we get here, and then we don’t hear back from him?  What’s going on this time?”


“Ah, don’t worry about it,” Mac told him.  “He’ll get in touch, when he’s ready.”


Heyes smiled, but the look that he and Miranda exchanged was not so worry free.


Xxx
 
Colorado


“Here!” Jed exclaimed as he examined the ground on the far side of the empty chicken coop.


“Here!” Joe echoed the announcement from the other side of the ranch house.


Both men stood up from their examinations of the ground, and stared at one another.


“Damn!” Joe cursed.  “They must have separated.”


“Well,” Jed scratched his chin, as the two men led their horses towards one another.  “Which one is heading towards Deke’s Canyon?”


“Both, actually,” Joe informed him.  “Your tracks would get you there faster, but these ones are an easier trail.”


Both men stood for a moment, hands on hips, and contemplated their situation.


“We could split up,” Jed suggested.  “If either track starts veering away from the Canyon, then we could rendezvous and follow the right track.”


“They’re both the right track, as far as I’m concerned,” Joe pointed out, his jaw tight with determination.  “From what you told me, Courtney was arranging to get money to her father and brothers, and that’s aiding and abiding.  And they both attempted to kidnap Sally.  By the law, they’re both accountable at this point, and neither one of them can be allowed to get away.”


“Yeah, ya’ got a point there,” Jed conceded.  “So I guess we split up.”


Joe nodded.  “I’ll take this one, and you take that one.  But I want both of them in custody.  No matter where your trail goes, you follow it and bring them in, whoever it is.”


“Yeah, but what if you come across the whole family up there?” Jed asked, now thinking twice about his suggestion that they split up.  “You’re gonna need back up.”


“I’ll handle it!” Joe insisted.  “I don’t want anybody getting away!  The whole damn family is involved in this, as far as I’m concerned, and none of them are getting off the hook!  Including this bastard who has gone into cahoots with them!  Follow your trail, and don’t let him get away from you!”


“Yeah, yeah, alright Joe,” Jed agreed, backing away from Joe’s anger.  “I just don’t want to see ya’ get hurt, is all.  We’re all close to this, but you’re closer than most, and I don’t wanna see you go runnin’ off half-cocked.  That’s how people get killed.  Maybe we should stay together after all, and we’ll worry about the other one later.”


“No,” Joe was adamant.  “We don’t know which trail is going to lead us to Baird.  It could be either one, or both.  We split up.”


“I just don’t think...”


“I’m the law man here!” Joe persisted.  “We split up, and that’s an end to it!”


Jed set back and sighed.  He could understand where Joe was coming form.  He was hurtin’ so bad that he was lashing out at anybody who appeared to be standing in his way.


“Okay,” Jed quietly agreed.  “We’ll do it your way.  But keep your eyes open.  And don’t go trackin’ ‘em after dark.  They gotta stop too.”


“We still got a few hours left of daylight,” Joe pointed out.  “We should be onto them by then.”


“Yeah, I know.  I’m just sayin’; be careful.”


“I will.  You too.”


“Alright.”


Both men mounted their horses and parted company.  The tracks were plain as day and easy to follow, but this only made Jed all the more uneasy.


Xxx


“They’ve changed direction again,” Wheat announced as he swung back aboard his horse.  “Almost looks as though they don’t want to leave home territory.”


“Maybe,” Sam commented.  “But they could also be trying to stay where they have some cover.  If they’d carried on in that direction, they would be coming into the burned out area.  Kind ‘a hard to stay hidden when there’s no trees or foliage.”


“Good point,” Lom conceded.  “You fellas know this area better than we do.  Is there some place over this direction where they might find a hide-a-way, or maybe even help?  Do the Bairds’ have any friends within riding distance?”


A number of snorts came in response to this question.


“Weren’t nobody cared much for the Bairds’,” Floyd commented. “And sure not enough to risk their own lives to help ‘em out with this pickle.”


“They did have some drifter come and work for them every year, around this time,” Clancy offered.  “Damned if I can remember his name though.  He probably don’t even know what’s going on, and if he did, he’d have skedaddled.  I’d say they’re on their own in this.”


“They could be headed towards Deke’s Canyon,” Bernie suggested.  “Curtis and I used to play up in there…”  Bernie’s voice trailed off, and he coughed to cover the catch in his throat.  Those who had been looking at him, now turned away, to give him a moment to compose himself.


“Carson’s Bluff could be a good spot, too,” Kurt offered.  “Lots of cover still left up there.”


“Yeah, but no water,” Sam pointed out.  “If they’re looking for a place to hole up for the night, the canyon has good cover and water.  Lots of rabbits and such in there, too.  Many’s the time, I brought supper home from that area.”


“Well, we’re not getting anywhere, standing here, jawin’ about it,” Lom pointed out.  “The best way to find out where they’re headed, is to follow the tracks.  So let’s get goin’.”


“They sure is makin’ it easy for us, ain’t they?” Wheat commented.  “Man!  If this had been me, you’d a lost my tracks miles back.”


“And you’re complaining about that?” Lom asked him, as they moved the horses out.  “With any luck, we’ll have these fellas rounded up and in a jail cell by this time tomorrow.”


“Uh huh,” Wheat agreed.  “As Preacher used to say, ‘Praise the Lord for man’s stupidity’.”


Xxx


Courtney muttered obscenities under her breath as she pushed her horse along the obscure trail that would take them to the canyon.  Even if she’d had any concern at all about being followed, her current state of mind pushed caution to the wind.  Trotting along the track, she ducked and leaned to avoid being brushed off by low hanging branches, skirted around rocks and over fallen trees and left a track so easy to follow that a blind man with one leg could have kept up with her.


“Damn men!” she cursed, causing her mare’s ears to flick back with concern.  Courtney gave her a jab with her heels to keep her going forward.  “If ya’ want something done right, ya’ gotta do it yourself!” she continued to mutter.  “That’s the last time Luke gets any money from this family.  Dirty, low down, no good, drifter.  I never could see what Pa saw in him.  Ask him to do one simple little job for me, and a mangy mutt and a damn kid are all it takes to scare ‘im off!  It’s not like I want to have anything more to do with those idiots I’m forced to call family.  Give them some money to disappear, and that would be the end of it. But noooo!  Luke’s gotta turn tail and run.  Coward!”

She shivered involuntarily as she thought of having to be in her father’s company again.  “That bastard better not lay hands on me.  I swear, I’ll kill him myself this time, if he tries it.  Once this is done, I am out of here.  And I won’t sell out, the way Isabelle did.  No sir!  Not me!  Tying myself down to some bumbling idiot, just to get away.  That’s not getting away!  That’s just jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  I swear, I think I’m the only one in this family who’s got any brains at all…”  And so on and so on, as she pushed the horse as fast as she could go on the uneven terrain.


Xxx


Jed rode quickly, but quietly through the woods, easily following the trail that the mare was leaving behind her.  Stopping periodically to check the tracks, Jed surmised that the horse was carrying the lighter of the two people, and that Joe was following the stranger.


Thinking about that, he wondered which one of them had the more dangerous quarry.  He didn’t know Courtney well, as she spent much of her time living with her aunt, and when she was in town, she avoided men like the plague.   Whereas Isabelle had always been a shameless flirt, Courtney was the epitome of a disdainful spinster. Courtney was not limited by any pretenses of decorum or feminine behavior and was bound to fight like a cornered mountain lion, if Jed didn’t handle this correctly.


Jed shook his head as he allowed his inner thoughts to take over, while his senses were still tuned in on his surroundings.  What was it with Kyle? He always seemed to try courtin’ the worst kind of woman.  Nine times out of ten, they were just tolerating him, or using him for God knows what.  It’s not like he was rich, or handsome, and goodness knows, he wasn’t hygienic in any sense of the word.  Why Courtney even gave him the time of day was a mystery, unless it was some ploy to get back at her father in some way.  Thank goodness Kyle saw the writing in the trash, and decided to steer clear of her.


Coming to a clearing on level ground, Jed stopped Gov to not only give the young gelding a chance to catch his breath, but to give himself the opportunity to get his bearings.  The fire hadn’t touched this section of the range and the cool dampness in the air, made it breathe fresh and clean. The earthy scent of dirt and wood and green foliage fill his nostrils.  Even at that, Jed could still feel the tightness in his lungs and every once and a while, a cough would escape him, and the burning ache of scorched lungs would surround him, like a vice squeezing his chest.


Looking up at the grey sky, he hoped again that it would not rain.  Even if he caught up with Courtney now, there would not be time to get back to town before darkness fell.  The last thing Jed wanted to do, was try to make their way back down to civilization in the dark.  Especially with what was likely to be an unwilling companion. Spending a night alone in this chill, with that same companion, was only marginally the lesser of two evils.


He unscrewed the cap on his canteen and took a couple of swallows to ease his throat.  He then gave Gov a pat on the neck and gently brought the horse’s head up from the tasty patch of grass, he had been indulging in.


“C’mon, young friend,” he said.  “Let’s get goin’.  One way or another, a couple a more hours and we’ll bed down for the night.”


Xxx


“Why are we goin’ in circles, Pa?” Seth asked, as he gave the mule an extra tug on the lead shank.  “Shouldn’t we be headin’ deeper to the hills?”


Baird shook his head at the idiocy of his sons.  “What did I always tell you boys?”


Seth thought about it for a moment.  Finally, he shrugged.  “I donno.”


Baird snorted.  “It seems your mother’s children got stupider with each one she popped out.  Emmitt! Tell yer brother what I always told ya’.”


“You told us lots ‘a stuff, Pa,” Emmitt pointed out.  “Which one ya’ talkin’ about?”


“About what to do if’n there’s trouble, and we get separated!” Baird yelled back, wondering why he even bothered to have children.


“Oh yeah,” Emmitt recalled.  “If we was to get separated, we was to all meet up at Deke’s Canyon.”


“But we ain’t separated,” Seth pointed out.  “We’s together.”


“Yeah?” asked Baird.  “So where’s your sister?”


“Ain’t she on her honeymoon?” Seth asked.


“Your other sister, ya’ imbecile!”


Seth hung his head.  He couldn’t understand why his pa was always yellin’ at him.  “I didn’t think they counted,” he grumbled.


“Yer right about that,” Baird managed to praise him, and Seth smiled with the recognition. “Under normal circumstances, neither of them trollops would count.  But these is extenuatin’ circumstances.”  Both boys frowned, wishing their pa wouldn’t use words they didn’t understand.  “Isabelle would ‘a been useless, but Court—she’ll come through.  I know damn well that she has money.  She always does.  I never pushed to find out how she got it, but it ain’t like I don’t know, is it?  Both ‘a them girls is trash—just like their ma.  Still, I kind ‘a figured that sooner or later, that money would come in handy.  And I was right, weren’t I?”


“But how do ya’ know she’ll show, Pa?” Emmett asked.  “What makes ya’ think that she’ll just hand over her money to us?”


“Cause we’re family, that’s why!” Baird shouted back at them, causing his horse to spook.  “Dammit!  She either shows up in our hour ‘a need, or I’ll track her down myself and rip that lily white skin off ’a her while she’s still alive and screamin’!  We’re family—dammitt!”


The two boys sent doubtful glances to one another, but kept their mouths shut.  There was nothin’ good to be had by gettin’ their pa too riled up.


Xxx


“Looks like they are heading towards Deke’s Canyon,” Sam surmised.  “It can’t be more than another forty minutes, so I expect they’ll bed down there.”


“Yup,” Lom agreed.  “We go slow and quiet.  Give ‘em time to settle in, then we can surround ‘em and take ‘em, easy.”


“Yeah, sure. If there’s enough cover,” Wheat mused.  “Maybe me and Ames can go on ahead, and scout it out.”


“Yeah,” Lom agreed.  “Go ahead, but stay out ‘a sight.  Get their position, and come back.  Don’t be heroes.”


“In case you ain’t noticed yet, I know what I’m doin’, Lom,” Wheat snarked.  “If a day comes when I can’t sneak up on these yahoos, then I’ll just hang up my holster and retire.”


“Just make sure that day don’t come sooner than ya’ think,” Lom countered.  “Be careful.”
“Yeah, yeah.  C’mon Ames.  Let’s go.”


The grin on Ames’ face spread from ear to ear.  Wheat was his hero, and he wanted nothing more than to be able to prove himself worthy in that man’s eyes.  Lately, all he seemed to be doing was irritating him.  But he knew he could do better.  He would do better.


Giving his horse a nudge, he trotted after his benefactor.


“Okay men,” Lom said to the remaining posse.  “Keep it slow, and keep it quiet.  Move out.”


Xxx


“Where are they?” Ames asked.


“Shh,” Wheat told him.  “Be quiet.  They’re just up ahead.”


“Do you want me to circle around?”


“No,” Wheat declined the offer.  “You ain’t getting’ out ‘a my sight.  We’ll tie the horses here, and walk in closer.  Maybe we can get an idea of what they’re plannin’.”


“Looks ta’ me like they’s makin’ camp.”


“Yeah, well I just wanna be sure, alright?” Wheat snarked in a whisper.  “Now be quiet.”


The two men dismounted, and finding a couple of sturdy tree branches, they tied their horses and began to slowly make their way closer to the clearing.  Wheat moved silently, slinking his way through the foliage like a cougar stalking its prey, but Ames had yet to develop that most important of elusive skills.  Wheat cringed every time he heard a twig snap or a leaf rustle.
Finally, he’d had enough, and he turned to glare back at the younger man.  He put a finger up to his lips and silently shushed him.  Ames frowned and shrugged.  He didn’t understand what he was doing wrong; as far as he was concerned, he was being quiet.  Wheat sighed and shook his head.


Deciding that it was too risky to try and get any closer with all the racket his cohort was making, Wheat hunkered down and tried to pick up on the conversation that was going on in the clearing.  He finally gave up on it.  Though they could hear the muffled voices, the words themselves remained stubbornly obscure, and only the body language gave Wheat any clues about what was going on.


“Shouldn’t we be headin’ back to the others?” Ames whispered.


Wheat shook his head again and motioned for continued silence.  Ames slumped, but set back on his heels to await orders from his leader.


After a few minutes, Wheat suddenly tensed and straightened up just a tad.


“What the hell?” he quietly questioned.


“What?” Ames whispered.


“I knew they was up ta’ somthin’,” he answered.  “Ole’ man Baird is getting’ ready ta’ leave.”


“What?  On his own?”


“Yeah.”


“Where’s he goin’?”


“How the hell should I know?”  Wheat snarked, his voice still quiet, but raising in its tone.  “Listen, you go back and get the others.  I’m gonna follow Baird.”


“Maybe he’s just goin’ huntin’, you know; for food.”


“Yeah, and maybe he’s goin’ ta’ meet up with somebody.” Wheat pointed out.  “Now git.  And be quiet.”


Xxx


In the clearing, the three men went about the business of preparing camp, but Emmitt wasn’t being complacent about it.  He was jittery.


“You sure this is a good idea, Pa?” he asked, as he started building a fire.  “Courtney ain’t got no love fer us.  If she shows at all, maybe she’s bringin’ the law with her.”


“That girl ain’t got the brains ta’ double cross us,” Baird growled.  “She’ll either show with the money, or not show at all.”


“So we just stay here like sittin’ ducks and wait?”  Emmitt complained.  “As far as I’m concerned, we should keep on ridin’ and make camp someplace, that she don’t know about.”


“Then what will we do fer money, ya. idiot?” Baird countered.  “We need money ta’ disappear.  We also gotta set up another meetin’ time, so that when she sells that worthless ranch, we can get even more money.  It’s worth the risk.”


“I say, it ain’t,” Emmett insisted.  “Even if she brings money this time, what makes you so sure, she won’t sell the ranch and keep it all for herself?”


“She might hate us, but she’s loyal,” Baird insisted.  “We’re family, and we stick together.”


“Yeah, but…”


“I could’a just turned you in, myself, ya’ know!” Baird snapped back, getting tired of this argument.  “I don’t know what the hell you was thinkin’; shootin’ Jacobs like that.  Damn.  You better hope he’s still alive, or we could all swing for it.  But we’re family, and we stick together.  So stop yer belly achin’!”


Emmitt shut up then.  He had no comeback for that argument.


“Good!” Baird ended the discussion.  “I’ll wait fer her ‘till dark.  If she don’t show by then, then we’ll wait tomorrow mornin’, too.  She’ll show.”


Baird collected up his rifle, and with stern glares at both his sons, he turned on them and walked into the woods.


Seth and Emmitt exchanged looks, but neither said anything.


Xxx


Baird carried on through the damp, and what was becoming, rather sparse woods.  He walked on like he didn’t have a care in the world, and was completely unaware that there was a cagey ex-outlaw shadowing his every move.  He seemed to think that because he knew this area so well, that nobody would dare to bother him here.  Being aware that a posse could very well be on his trail didn’t seem to cause him any alarm, and he carried on, tromping through the woods, until he came to the second smaller clearing that had been his destination.


Not bothering to check the area or the perimeter of the clearing, he strode confidently into the open, and settled himself down on the large boulder that had decided to plant itself practically dead center.  He sighed and looked around, wondering how long he was going to have to wait for that little floozy to show up.  He wasn’t quite as confident of her loyalty as he had made out to his sons, but she was the only chance they had of getting clear of this area, so he wasn’t going to simply walk away from it.


Again, the fact that all the neighboring towns had been sent telegrams to be on the look-out for them, never occurred to him.  Everyone around him were fools and cowards.  He’d always gotten his way by being a bully, and he saw no reason to suspect that it would be any different now.  All he had to do was wait.


Shivering, he tightened his collar around his neck and looked up at the darkening grey sky.  He could feel the chill seeping into his bones, and now his arthritis was starting to act up as well. What rotten timing.  There’s nothing worse than being stuck out in the woods when the weather turned wet and cold.  Hopefully he wouldn’t have to wait too long.


Xxx


Wheat crouched down just outside the small clearing.  He was biting his lower lip, not only in concentration, but in consternation as well.  He could take Baird easily from this position.  Hell, the old fool wasn’t even holding his rifle.  He’d set it down to lean against the boulder, within reach, but not fast enough to beat a rifle already pointed at him.


But Lom’s words came back to him.  Don’t be a hero.  Find out what they’re doing and then get back here.  But Wheat hesitated, and continued to sit there, arguing with himself.  He had the bastard, right here.  He could take him, easy.  Since when was Lom his boss?  Even in the gang, Lom had been lower in the pecking order, now all of a sudden, Wheat was supposed to take orders from him?  Just ‘cause Heyes and the Kid kowtowed to him now, that didn’t mean Wheat had to.


Having come to his decision, Wheat was in the process of aiming his rifle at his unsuspecting target, when both he and Baird heard the unmistakable sound of a branch snapping.  Wheat cursed, thinking that maybe Ames had ignored his instructions, and come around on the other side of the clearing.  It’d be just like him to give his position away like that.


Baird sat up straighter, and taking his rifle, he aimed it towards the sound.

“Who’s there?” he called out, as more snapping and rustling indicated the bumbling approach of a clumsy somebody.
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Keays

Keays

Posts : 1447
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 62
Location : Camano Island Washington

Justice Empty
PostSubject: Re: Justice   Justice EmptyThu Apr 21, 2016 7:25 pm

The shape of a large animal could then be seen coming through the woods, and Baird was getting ready to pull the trigger, when a familiar voice stopped him.


“It’s me, Papa!” Courtney called, as her mare stepped into the clearing.  “I brought you some money, just like we agreed.”


Baird sighed with relief, and lowered the rifle.


“Dang it, girl!” he cursed.  “I almost shot ya’.  Didn’t I teach ya’ nothin’ about sneakin’ up on somebody like that?”




“No, Pa, you didn’t.”
“Oh.  Well, I should ’a,” he snarked.  “All it takes is common sense, but then none ‘a my young’uns seemed to come with any ‘a that.”


Courtney’s mouth tightened with irritation.  She dismounted from the mare, hoping to get this transaction over and done with.  The last thing she wanted to do was spent a night, not only in the woods, but in the company of her father and siblings.  Get this meeting over with, and she knew that she could find her way back down to the ranch house, even if it was getting dark.  From there it was an easy ride into town.  Spending the night in that old drafty house, even by herself, held no appeal. Her cozy room at the hotel was calling to her.


Forcing her chilly hands to work, she undid the buckles on the saddle bag and removed the brown paper package from its secure pouch and handed it to the man in front of her.


“Here,” she said.  “This is all I have.  Every penny.”


Baird snorted.  He knew that was a lie.  He snatched the parcel from her hands and opened it to count it out.


“There’s $500 there,” she told him.  “That ought ‘a be enough to get you a stake somewhere else.”


“I got more comin’ than this, Court.  And you know it,” Baird retorted, waving the money under her nose.


“What do you mean?” she demanded to know.  “That’s all I got, honest!”


“You get that ranch sold, then we’ll talk about all you got,” Baird told her, then laughed out loud at the look of disappointment that flitted across her face.  “Thought I wouldn’t think ‘a that, huh?  That you’d just sell that place yourself, and disappear with the money?”


“No, Pa,” Courtney denied the accusation.  “Honest, I wasn’t thinkin’ that.”


“Sure ya’ weren’t!” Baird yelled at her.  “You’re a lyin’, thievin’ whore, just like yer ma.  I ought ‘a…”


He took a step towards her, hand raised and ready to strike.  Courtney stepped back, her hand reaching inside her coat pocket for the small derringer hidden there, but she never had the chance to pull it.


At that same instant, gun shots sounded from the direction of the original campsite.  Courtney caught her breath and Baird cursed as they were startled out of their conflict.  Baird swung around in the direction of the campsite and instinctively brought his rifle up to bare, all prepared for battle.


Wheat cursed at his hand being forced.  He’d wanted to take Baird out on his own terms, but now he had to act, and act quickly.  Aiming for Baird’s rifle, he took his best shot.  The bullet hit the stock, and split the wood right up to the metal.


“Dammit!”  Baird cursed as splinters of wood punctured his hand and the rifle spun into the air.  He grabbed the wrist of his injured hand, and he sucked his teeth as blood began to ooze down his arm and soak into the cuff of his coat.


Courtney started to make a dash towards her horse, but her father caught the movement out of the corner of his eye.  He was hurting and angry now, and had no patience left for the nonsense of his children.  He grabbed her, and quick as a snake, he pulled her around to use her as cover between himself and whoever it was who had fired that shot.


“Papa!” Courtney screamed. “What are you doing?”


“Shuddup!” her pa told her.  Holding her tightly with his right arm, he began to rummage through her jacket pockets.  “Where’s that lady’s pea-shooter you always carry.  I know you got it in here somewhere’s.  Ahh!  Here it is.” He pulled it out with his left and aimed it towards Wheat’s hiding place.  “Whoever you are, you ain’t takin’ me alive!” he shouted with as much bravado as he could muster.  “And yer gonna have ta’ shoot a woman to even try!”


Again, Wheat cursed.  He could ‘a taken another shot at Baird right then and there, but he couldn’t bring himself to go shootin’ a woman.  Even that woman.  He kept his rifle aimed at Baird, hoping to get a clean shot, but Courtney was fighting and struggling so much, that Wheat could not be sure of missing her, if he were to fire.


Then, before anybody could make another move, three more consecutive shots rang out in the woods surrounding the clearing.  All three explosions came from different directions, but their close proximity to the clearing caused spines to tingle and fingers to go numb. Wheat ducked and looked around. He thought he caught movement over to his right, but even in the thinning woods surrounding the clearing, he couldn’t make out anything definite.
 
Then Courtney screamed.


 Xxx


The posse was making good time, even though they were keeping their horses to a fast walk through the trees.  The ground was soft and cushiony underfoot, but Lom didn’t want to take the chance of making too much noise as they got closer to Deke’s Canyon.  Everyone was on edge, half expecting to get bushwhacked by the desperate fugitives, as they made their way through the foliage.


Lom pulled up and brought his rifle to bare, when he heard another horse coming towards them, but then he relaxed, when he recognized Ames trotting out from between the trees. The young ex-con approached them, relief showing in his eyes at having found them again.  He really wasn’t that good of a tracker.


“What did ya’ find?” Lom asked him.


“We found ‘em settin’ up camp in a clearing, over that way.  Or…was it that way…”


“Never mind,” Lom told him.  “We’ll follow your tracks back.”


“Oh, good.”


“Where’s Wheat?  He didn’t get himself into trouble did he?”


“I don’t think so,” Ames answered, suddenly looking concerned again. 


“Well, where is he?” Lom snapped when no explanation was forthcoming.


Ames jumped, and so did his horse.  “Oh!  Well, ole’ man Baird set out on his own,” Ames explained.  “And Wheat, well, he decided to follow ‘im, thinkin’ that maybe he was goin’ off ta’ meet up with somebody.”


“Dammit!” Lom cursed.  “I told you fellas to just watch ‘em.”


“Oh.” Ames paled, scared that he had messed up again.  “But…”


“Never mind,” Lom assured him, seeing how the young man was shaking in his boots.  “I suppose, I know Wheat well enough ta’ know, you wouldn’t have been able to stop him.”


“Yeah,” Ames agreed.  “He was kind ‘a insistent.”


“Alright.  How far ahead is this camp?”


“Oh,” Ames perked up.  “Can’t be more ‘n a mile or so, but that way.  Or, is it that way?  Dang!  I can’t tell now.”


Lom shook his head.  “Sam.”


“Yeah.”


“Go over that way, and see if you can pick up the trail,” Lom instructed him.  “I’ll take this side.  The rest of ya’, carry on straight ahead.  And you, Ames.  Keep yer eyes open.  When you think you’ve got your trail again, give us a wave to let us know.”


Everyone nodded consent, and moved out to their allotted sections in order to pick up the trail. 


Losing contact with one another ended up not being a factor, as the trees were so spare now, that they all had a fairly clear view of their cohorts, as they sought out the trail.  Add to that, the fact that most of the men in the posse knew where Deke’s Canyon was anyway, made following Ames’ trail back a moot point at best.


Ten minutes further along, their endeavor became even easier simply due to the stupidity of the men they were following.  Wood smoke from the camp fire was now very noticeable as it rose up in the cool air.  The posse had no trouble following it to their destination.


The group stopped when they were still a ways out, not wanting to give any warning that they were there.  Lom and Sam joined the main group again, both of them shaking their heads at the idiotic easiness of finding their quarry.


“Okay fellas,” Lom whispered his instructions.  “We’ll leave the horses here.  Ames, you and Kurt will stay here with them.  The last thing we need is for them to spook and head home without us.”


Kurt was about to protest being left out of the final capture, but Lom, foreseeing the inevitable, silenced him before he could get a word out.


“There could be shootin’ here,” Lom said.  “With your thumb the way it is; I don’t want to risk ya’.  We’ll all have ta’ have our wits about us.  These guys may be stupid, but they’re gonna be pretty desperate too.  No tellin’ what they might get up to.”


“But I can shoot just as good as anybody else here,” Kurt complained, a little louder than he should have.  “No reason…”


Lom snarled and waved him into silence. “The reason is, because I say so,” the sheriff reprimanded him in a low growl.  “What if them fellas get around us, and come for the horses?  I need men here who can shoot, too.  Keepin’ these horses secure is important.  I wouldn’t be trustin’ it to just anybody.  So stop complainin’ and do the job I give ya’.”


Ames smiled and puffed up at the compliment, but Kurt wasn’t so easily conned.  He snarked a little bit, but kept his complaining to himself.


“C’mon, Ames,” he grumbled.  “Looks like we got us the easy job.”


Lom sent the young man a look, then gathered the rest of the posse around him.


“Alright,” he said, quietly.  “I want ya’ all ta’ fan out.  Stay low and stay quiet.  Keep your rifles at the ready.  Get to where ya’ got a view of the camp and then wait.  I’ll give ya’ all about fifteen minutes ta’ get into position, and then I’ll announce our presence.”


“You’re gonna let them know we’re here?” Clancy asked.  “Damn.  In the war, we’d a just shot ‘em from ambush.  Safest way.”


“We ain’t in the war now, Clancy,” Lom pointed out.  “This is a legal posse, and no matter what they done, they have the right to surrender.  Just make sure ya’ got ‘em in yer sights.  Floyd and Bernie, you make sure ya’ got Emmitt.  Sam and Clancy, you take Seth.  Now remember, we don’t know who shot Jacobs.  It could ‘a been ole’ man Baird himself.  And to me, that does seem the most likely.  So both these fellas might just be here because they’re under their pa’s rule.  Don’t go shootin’ nobody, if’n you don’t have to.  Ya’ understand?”


“Yeah, okay,” Clancy grumbled.  “But any wrong move, and I’ll plug both of ‘em.  Just ‘cause I run the Merc now, doesn’t mean I don’t know how to use one of these things.”


“That’s fine, Clancy,” Lom agreed.  “Just don’t go imaginin’ a wrong move, when there ain’t none.  Okay.  Who else here has a time piece on ‘em?”


“I got one,” Clancy announced.


“Me too,” came Floyd’s response.


“Good,” Lom nodded.  “Okay, move out.  Remember, stay quiet, but be ready fifteen minutes from now.”


“Right.”


The posse split up, half going to the left, and the others going to the right, and soon they had all disappeared into the lengthening shadows of the woods.


Ames and Kurt tied all the horses nice and securely to the surrounding trees, and then Kurt sat down on a convenient boulder, and let out a heavy sigh.  Ames just smiled and took to whittling an unfortunate stick.


Xxx


Joe kept his rifle out and at the ready, as he followed the hoof prints further and further into the woods.  He knew these back trails better than anybody, so it didn’t surprise him when the tracks he was following soon slowed, and then began to angle around in the direction of the Canyon.  The rider was pushing the horse to move faster than was safe on these trails, but he appeared to be in a hurry, and didn’t care about the safety of his animal.


Joe kept Betty moving quickly as well, but she had been over these trails often enough and was just as familiar with them as Joe was.  She trotted along confidently, and they were quickly closing the gap between themselves and the stranger ahead of them.


Xxx


Jed stopped Gov so he could listen for sounds in the woods surrounding them.  He could see the clear tracks ahead and knew that he was still on the right trail.  What he wasn’t sure about, was how close he was to catching up with Courtney.  The woods here were sparse, but the clouded sun was sinking, causing the shadows to deepen and visibility to become more difficult. The last thing he needed, was to be following so closely that he gave his presence away. He wanted to follow her to her destination, not get her running scared to the point that she would go to ground.


He sat still as a statue, and let Gov know that he was not free to graze.  Stand still and quiet, and listen.  He could hear birds chirping overhead, and the soft breeze rustling the leaves of the trees, but nothing that sounded anything like a large animal moving through the foliage, came to his ears.  He touched Gov’s sides, and the gelding picked up a fast walk again, and they carried on.


Jed stopped every ten minutes or so to listen again.  He knew he was close to her, he could sense that he was, but he still wasn’t able to see her.  Then finally, his persistence paid off.  A soft snap of a branch and an iron shoe striking a rock told him that the horse he was following was just ahead of him, but still hidden in the shadows of the trees. He moved forward slowly, scanning through the branches, seeking any colors or movement that wasn’t natural to the forest.


Then he saw it; a horse’s rump moving forward.  He looked closer, and now that he had a solid reference point, he was slowly able to make out the form of the woman riding.  She was moving slowly and making her way towards a small clearing. Visibility was better out there in the small meadow, not having the trees blocking out the dim sunlight, and Jed surmised that this was where she was planning on meeting up with her family.


Dismounting, he tied Gov to small tree, where he had access to lots of grass, and taking the rifle with him, he slowly made his way through the trees in the wake of Courtney’s path. He heard voices before he saw them, but one more little shift of direction, and Jed found himself with a clear view of the meadow and the two people in it.


Of the three Baird men, Jed could only see the patriarch in the clearing, talking to Courtney. This fact made him a little anxious, wondering if the two brothers were hiding out around the perimeter, keeping an eye out in case Courtney had indeed been followed. He did a quick scan of the whole meadow, and of the trees surrounding it, looking for any signs of the brothers being present. 


Jed didn’t want to leave his own hiding place to go in search of them, so he hunkered down behind a large boulder and decided to wait it out.  If the boys were out there, they’d let their presence be known soon enough, and Jed would deal with them, if they did. If they weren’t here, then Ole’ man Baird would have to head back to them sooner or later, and Jed was determined not to let the man out of his sight.


He frowned, as the voices he heard were becoming angry, and then Baird made a motion to strike his daughter where she stood.  Jed felt his emotion rise as he yet again, witnessed that man raise a hand to one of his daughters.  He felt his jaw tightened and was tempted to break his own cover to stop the assault, but circumstances stopped in to save him the trouble.


A series of rifle shots, followed by six-shooters, followed by more rifle shots shattered the forest silence.  A number of startled birds squawked indignantly, and the rush of their wings as they took flight, momentarily took over from the scene below them.


Jed actually felt himself cringe down, as he couldn’t tell from whence the shots were coming from. Then another rifle shot, this one much closer, cracked through the air, and Baird’s rifle was flipped from his hands.  Jed reacted instantly, bringing his rifle up and aiming it directly at Baird himself.  But before Jed could fire, Baird grabbed Courtney and pulled her up against him, using her as a shield between himself and the unknown rifleman.


“Dammit,” Jed cursed to himself.  He had Baird’s back clean in his sights, but he dared not take the shot. 


From this range, even a bullet from his colt would go right through Baird and into Courtney, and just like Wheat, Jed could not bring himself to shoot a woman, even if it was to bring down a killer.  He stayed ready, focused on the people in the clearing, waiting and praying that Courtney would move just enough so that Jed could get a clean shot in.  But even though she was moving, and screaming, and carrying on no end, she wasn’t being at all helpful in getting out of the way.


Then Jed felt an instance of dread, as a sixth sense reminded him that he hadn’t been watching his own back.  He just barely pushed himself to the side when another rifle cracked and the bullet clipped the rock right where Jed’s back used to be.  Jed jerked back even more, as miniscule splinters of hot rock jumped off the boulder and stung his skin.  In that very same instant, as he felt himself sliding off the boulder, he brought his rifle around and fired at the assailant behind him.


Jed had just enough time to see a man whom he didn’t know, fall from behind a tree, clutching his arm and cursing through the pain of a bullet strike, when another rifle shot rent the air.  This was when Courtney’s screaming really took off.


Jed didn’t have time to deal with her.  He hoped that whoever else was in the woods this day, would deal with the Bairds.  Jed had his own worries.  Scrambling to his feet, he ran towards his victim before the man could gather his wits and take another shot at him.  Five running strides had Jed at his destination, and with one foot on the fallen rifle, he aimed his own rifle at the man lying in the damp dirt.


Luke Shuster had no intentions of fighting off the notorious gunman, because even though Jed didn’t recognize him, Shuster damned sure recognized Kid Curry.  Taking out Curry from behind, in an ambush, was one thing, but staring him down in a face to face battle was more than he was willing to risk.  He leaned against the tree and tried to indicate surrender, even though he still clutched at his bleeding forearm.


“Don’t shoot!” he pleaded.  “Don’t shoot me.  I’m unarmed now, and I’m wounded.  Ya’ wouldn’t shoot a wounded man, would ya’?”


“Well now, that all depends,” Jed drawled as he picked up the second rifle, and unloaded it.  “Who are ya’ mister, and what do ya’ think you’re doin’ takin’ pot shots at me?”


Luke opened his mouth to answer, but their discussion was interrupted by more wild feminine screaming, and what sounded like a wild boar charging through the underbrush.  Jed spun around, his own rifle again at the ready, to see Courtney charging towards him.  Blood was on her jacket and face, and there was a look of absolute terror in her eyes.  She was so petrified, she didn’t even see Jed and she would have run right into him, if not for Joe, who came out of nowhere, and grabbed her.


She screamed bloody murder at being detained, and as Joe got a firmer hold on her, she turned on him, biting and scratching like the she-devil from hell, herself.  Jed dropped the rifles out of reach of his captive, and moved in to assist.  He grabbed Courtney from behind, pinning her arms to her side and trying to stop her from fighting.


“Calm down,” Jed told her.  “Calm down, it’s over.  You’re safe.”


“Don’t shoot me!” she screamed at Joe.  “I didn’t do anything!  Don’t hurt me!”


“I’m not gonna hurt ya’!” Joe insisted.  “Calm down.”


“You shot my pa!  Don’t shot me!”


“Yeah, I shot your pa’,” Joe admitted.  “But I ain’t gonna shoot you.”


“You shot my pa!” she repeated.  “You shot my pa!”


“Courtney, calm down,” Jed told her.  “Nobody’s gonna hurt you.  Just settle down, so’s we can figure out what went on here.”


When Courtney heard her name being spoken, Jed felt her instantly begin to settle.  There was something basic about hearing her name spoken in a soothing tone, that settled her nerves and brought her terrified mind back in to focus.  Breathing heavily, but no longer struggling against the two men, she sank to her knees and began to cry.


Jed and Joe exchanged relieved looks, and both let out sighs to relax their own nerves.  Then Jed saw the light in Joe’s eyes change, and the deputy raised up the barrel of his rifle and aimed it to a point beyond Jed’s back.


“What do you think you’re doing?” Joe asked.


Jed turned around to see Luke Shuster just in the act of reaching for one of the fallen rifles.  He froze in mid-reach and stared up at his two captors.


“Nothin’,” he claimed, as he pulled his hand back from the rifle and returned to his original position.


“Good. Make sure ya’ keep it that way,” Jed said, as he walked towards him.  “C’mon, on your feet.  Who are you anyway?  What’s any ‘a this got ta’ do with you?”


“I was just protecting the lady is all,” Shuster answered.  “I knew she was heading up this way, and I got concerned that she might get lost or something.  Not safe for a lady to be out in these woods after dark.”


“What the hell were ya’ takin’ a shot at me for?” Jed demanded.


“Well it looked like you were gonna shoot her!”


“I was tryin’ ta’ avoid shootin’ her!” Jed insisted.  “You could’a killed me!”


“He’s the one I tracked from the ranch,” Joe cut in.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was tryin’ to kill you.”


Jed’s blue eyes turned to ice as he glared back at the wounded man.  “You’re the one who was with her, at the ranch house?”


“Well, yeah,” Shuster confirmed.  “She and I, we had some business…”


“You’re the one who tried to kidnap Sally,” Jed accused him.


Shuster went silent and turned pale all in a matter of a heartbeat.  He gulped nervously.


“Yeah, but… we didn’t,” he bargained, then pointed an accusing finger at Courtney.  “Besides, it was her idea.”


Courtney had recovered enough from her ordeal to realize that she was being betrayed.


“You cowardly bastard!” she snarled at him.  “And you claim to be a friend to my pa?  This is how you thank him, over all those times he took you in, gave ya’ a job, and put food in your belly?  You worthless…why couldn’t you have just done the job I paid you to do!”


“Mainly because you didn’t pay me for it!” Luke snarked back.  “Geesh, this is what I get for being concerned about you.  I should have just headed on out of here and left ya’ to your own miserable family.  You’re all a bunch of lying, cheating…”


Courtney was on her feet, ready to scratch Luke’s eyes out, but Joe caught her just in time and brought her to a halt.


“Settle down,” he ordered her.  “Enough of this.”


“Hey!!” came a very familiar voice from the clearing.  “You fellas gonna stop yer jawin’ and get over here?  We got ourselves a dead man ta’ deal with!”


“Wheat!” Jed called back.  “Is that you?”


“Yeah, a course it’s me!” he yelled back, and Jed could hear the rolling of his eyes.


“Is the rest of the posse with ya’?”


“I expect that’s what all that other shootin’ was about,” Wheat reasoned.  “Seems ta’ me, we might think about joinin’ back up with them fellas, before it gets too dang dark ta’ see us trippin’ over each other.”


“Yeah,” Jed agreed.  “We’re comin’.”  He turned to Luke and grabbed his good arm.  “C’mon, stand up.  You can walk.”


“Yeah, for now,” Luke whined.  “but my arms bleedin’ like a stuck pig.  Ain’t ya’ gonna do anything about it?”


Jed snatched Luke’s own bandana and tied it snuggly around the wound.  Luke flinched and tried to pull his arm away.


“There,” Jed said, and deliberately gave him a pat on the same arm.  “That’ll do ya’ until we get settled in for the night.”


“I’ll go collect up the horses,” Joe offered as he helped Courtney to her feet.  “Where did ya’ tether yours?”


Jed jutted his jaw in a northerly direction.  “He’s just over there, havin’ lunch.”


“Mine’s right beside him,” Luke offered without waiting to be asked.


Jed frowned as he collected up the rifles.  Apparently Luke had known about his presence for some time before taking that pot shot at him. Jed felt like he was losing his touch, and he didn’t like that feeling one little bit.  Grabbing Luke by his bad arm, Jed pushed him into a walk ahead of him and ignored the yelp of pain that his rough handling caused. With Courtney leading the way, the small group made their way towards the clearing and a rather impatient Wheat.


Courtney slowed down as they approached the lifeless form of her father, lying face down in the grass.  There was a gaping wound in the middle of his back, and blood soaked his shirt and seeped into the ground around his form.  Courtney looked at him with disgust distorting her features, and as she walked to him, she leaned over and spat on him.


“That bastard,” she said as she wiped her mouth.  “Using me as a shield.  He never was any damn good.”


Xxx


Emmitt and Seth finished getting the camp set up for the night.  The horses and mule were rubbed down and tied out where they could reach grass, and the two young men settled in around the warming fire and got coffee going to help ward off the coming night chill.  Dinner of biscuits, bacon and beans was hastily thrown together and put over the fire to sizzle and simmer until their pa returned, with or without Courtney.


The posse members had quickly, but quietly, gotten themselves into position around the small meadow and waited to get the signal from Lom that it was time to make their move.  The inviting crackling of the fire, and the smell of fresh coffee was soon joined by the aroma of frying bacon, and soon, everybody’s mouths were watering.  Men shifted uncomfortably, as stomachs growled and reminded them all of how long they’d been on the trail.


Finally, after what seemed like an interminably long fifteen minutes, Lom’s voice announced the posse’s presence.


“Emmitt and Seth Baird!” he yelled out to them.  “This is Sheriff Trevors, with a posse from Brookswood.  You are surrounded!  Lay down your weapons and surrender to the law!”


Coffee cups dropped and the pot of beans was knocked over as Emmitt slid off the log he and his brother were sitting on, and he disappeared from view.  Clancy took his shot as Emmitt moved, but missed him, and sent the bullet into the log instead.  Seth yelped in surprise, then jumped to his feet, his hands in the air in a show of surrender.


“Don’t shoot me!” he screamed.  “I surrender!”


But his words were drowned out, as the mule began a loud, obnoxious braying, and all four equines began to fight against their tethering.  Repeated bangs coming from Emmitt’s six-shooter added to the fracas, as he started to fire back at the posse from behind the log.  More rifle shots answered the challenge and Seth hollered in fright.  With hands coming down to cover his head, he scrambled for cover behind the same log, just as Emmitt made a dash away from it.


The horses and mule had gotten loose and were making a mad gallop for the trees that took them right past the hiding place of the fugitives.  Emmitt took advantage, and as the horses came through, he grabbed the mane of the closest one, and leapt aboard.  He lay down flat along the horse’s back and let the animal take him where it would, and just hoped that it would be to safety.


Rifles opened up again, trying to take down the runner, but there was too much commotion, too many large shapes on the go, and in the chaos, every shot missed its mark.  Then both Bernie and Floyd had to scramble out from their cover as the run-away horses crashed through the underbrush and nearly ploughed into the two men.


Clancy kept on taking shots at the fleeing man, until Lom put a stop to it.


“Stop shooting!” Lom yelled.  “Yer gonna hit one of us!  Floyd, Bernie, get after ‘im!”


The two men in question, gathered themselves up off the ground and started running after the small group that could still be heard breaking through low branches, as they ran for safety.


Xxx


Ames and Kurt perked up when they heard Lom yell out the warning to the Bairds, and then both were instantly on their feet when the unmistakable sounds of a shooting battle commenced.


“Damn!” Kurt complained.  “I knew I should ‘a gone with ‘em!  What good are we doin’, sittin’ here guardin’ a bunch ‘a horses? We should be over there, helpin’ out!”


“No!  Wait!” Ames called after him, but it was too late.  Kurt had grabbed up his rifle and was on the run, towards the battlefield.


Ames sent an anxious look back towards the posse horses, who were already up on their toes and blowing.  With eyes rolling white, they looked like they were ready to explode, and Ames briefly wondered why they were acting so nervous, as gun shots weren’t new to any of them. But then he heard it too; the sound of large animals charging through the woods towards them.


Turning to face the onslaught, the first thing Ames saw, was Kurt, kneeling down and trying to get his rifle to cock, but his bandaged thumb was getting in the way, and Emmitt was barreling down on him with all intents and purposes of running him into the ground.  At the last instant, Kurt ducked to the side, but Emmitt’s horse still clipped him hard, and sent him flying into a tree trunk.


Ames felt his heart in his throat.  The other two horses and mule were coming out of the woods as well, but Ames knew they were going to gallop right on past him. He could hear their own posse horses fighting against their tethers, squealing and snorting as they pulled back and banged into each other with their efforts.


 But it wasn’t those sights and sounds that had Ames frozen to the spot.  The third horse was coming straight for him, and the rider, now in control of the animal, was pushing it forward, to run faster and hit harder.  Ames could see the look of desperation in Emmitt’s eyes as that man brought up his six-gun and aimed it directly at Ames’ face.


It all happened in slow motion.  Ames could see every detail of the wild-eyed horse baring down on him.  He could see the nostrils flaring and the mane dancing on the air, as the animal’s muscles stretched and contracted with each ground covering stride.  He could see the gun pointed at him, even make out the hand that held it.  He saw the thumb pull back the hammer and the finger tighten as it squeezed the trigger.  He saw his own death barreling down upon him, and there was nothing he could do to avoid it.


But then, nothing happened.  The gun didn’t fire.  Ames saw disbelief flash through Emmitt’s eyes, and in that second before the horse crushed into him, Ames stepped to the side.  He felt the muscled shoulder of the animal glance against him, and even that was enough to send the ex-con sprawling into the dirt. 


Then the horse was past him, and Ames rolled clear.  Coming up onto his knees, he turned and brought his rifle up, just as Emmitt hauled on the tether line and pulled his horse’s head around.  He was so angry at having missed his target, that he was coming around for a second charge.  The horse powered into the dirt, sending up clumps of fallen leaves and detritus as he came on again.


Ames yelled, pulled the trigger of his rifle, and then dropped, to lie flat on the ground.  He felt, rather than heard the horse jump over him as more dirt and leaves pattered down onto his back, and then this was instantly followed by a larger, heavier object hitting the ground and banging into him before it settled in a heap.


Ames looked up and instantly jumped away.  Emmitt was lying there on his back, an angry grimace upon his countenance as his blank eyes stared up through the trees.  There was a large, gaping hole under Emmitt’s chin, where the rifle bullet had entered, and even though, thank goodness, Ames couldn’t see it, the back of his head was completely blown off where the bullet had exited.


Ames pushed himself further away from the gruesome sight, and felt like he was going to be sick. Distraction came at just the right moment, as Clancy and Bernie came huffing and puffing upon the scene, and saw in an instant, what had happened.


Ames was still sitting and gasping for air when he felt a hand upon his shoulder.


“You alright, son?” Clancy asked him.


Ames just looked up at him with wide rimmed eyes and then looked back at the corpse splayed out on the ground. 


Clancy gave him a pat.  “That’s okay, son,” he said.  “You done good.  You just, go and be sick, if ya’ wanna.”


Ames nodded and thought that wasn’t such a bad idea.


“Kurt took a bad hit here, Clance,” Bernie called over from where he was examining his friend.  “He’s out cold.”


Clancy straightened up and walked over to their fallen comrade.  “Let me have a look,” he said as he knelt down beside the lad.  “Yeah, that’s a good ‘un, alright.  He’s gonna have quite a headache when he wakes up.”


“His head ain’t broke, is it?” Bernie asked, anxiously.  “He is gonna wake up, ain’t he?”


“Yeah, he’ll wake up,” Clancy assured him.  “C’mon.  Let’s get this mess back to the camp site.  It sounds to me like Lom’s got everything under control back there.”


Xxx


Lom, Sam and Clancy quickly made their way into the clearing, rifles aimed at the log where Seth had ducked for cover.


“Let me see your hands!” Lom called out.


A pair of pale, shaking hands slowly rose above the log and waved at them.


“I surrender,” came the hidden voice.  “I didn’t do nothin’.”


The three armed men approached the log, and with three rifles leading the way, they leaned over it and looked down at the quivering boy who was lying on his back, staring up at them.


“I surrender,” he repeated in a shaky voice.  “Please don’t shoot me.”


“Get on your feet,” Lom ordered him.


“Yeah, yeah,” Seth agreed.  He tried to push himself up, but his limbs wouldn’t listen to him.  His arms and legs were shaking so badly; it was all he could do to sit up.


Lom grabbed him under the arm and pulled him up enough so that he was, once again, sitting on the log.  The lad sat there like a miserable lout, and looked around at the disaster that used to be their camp site.  Fear rolled in his eyes, and he was shaking so badly that Lom began to take pity on him.


“Nobody’s gonna hurt ya’, unless you do somethin’ stupid,” he said.  “Ya’ understand?”


Seth swallowed, but nodded adamantly.


“Dammit,” Lom cursed under his breath as he went over to the fire and poured out a cup of coffee.  He set it into the shaking hands that could barely hold it steady.  “Here, drink that.  Maybe it’ll calm ya’ down a little bit.”


All heads jerked towards the sound of a single rifle shot coming from the direction of the posse remuda.  Lom’s jaw clenched in concern, hoping that it wasn’t one of his men going down.  The realization that Emmitt hadn’t had a rifle with him when he made his run, gave him some hope, but he wanted to be sure.


“Sam…”


“Yeah, I’m on it,” Sam told him, and he quickly made his way to the edge of the clearing, and disappeared into the woods.


Unclipping the hand cuffs from the back of his belt, Lom knelt down beside Seth and snapped them onto his still shaking hands.


“Seth Baird, you’re under arrest for the assault, or conspiracy in the assault of a lawman,” Lom told him.  “Do you understand that?”


“But I didn’t do it!” Seth protested.  “Emmitt did it, and Pa made me come with them.”


“Then ya’ got nothin’ ta’ worry about,” Lom commented.  “But until we know what happened, none of ya’ are goin’ anywhere, except to a jail cell.”


Seth’s shoulders slumped, but he sat quietly, sipped his coffee, and accepted his fate, like he always did.


“It’s gonna be dark here real soon,” Lom observed.  “Let’s get this fire stoked up again, and see what we got for supper.  It looks like we’ll be spendin’ the night, right here.”


“Yep,” Floyd agreed.  “Looks that way.”


Within ten minutes, the spilt beans and burned bacon had been cleared away and fresh chow set up to cook.  The rifles and Seth’s handgun were unloaded and set aside, and the camp site made ready for a one-night occupancy.


Lom and Floyd had just poured themselves a cup of coffee and settled in to await the return of their own party, when they heard the call from edge of the darkened woods.


“Comin’ into the camp!”


Lom recognized Clancy’s voice and nodded.  “Come on in!”


Shapes began to emerge from the darkness, and the three men around the camp fire stood up in alarm as the group became clear.


“Crap!” Lom cursed as he came forward to investigate the two forms draped over saddles.  “Who’s down?”


“This one’s Emmitt,” Clancy informed him.  “He’s deader than a rat in a river.”  An audible groan came from the direction of the prisoner.  “That one there is Kurt, but he’s just got a bump on the head.  I expect he’ll wake up soon enough, and be as cranky as a bear in winter.”


“Okay,” Lom acknowledged.  “Put Emmitt over there. Wrap him up in his own bedroll, so we don’t have to look at him.  Sam and Ames, you fellas get Kurt settled in here by the fire.  We can all keep an eye on him.”


Ames ignored the orders and stumbled past Lom to sit down by the fire, himself. Lom watched him go by and wondered why the lad was thinking it was time for a rest.


“Let ‘im be,” Clancy spoke quietly to the sheriff.  “He’s the one that shot Emmitt.  I don’t think he was prepared for it.”


“Oh,” Lom nodded. 


“I can do it, myself,” Sam offered, as he sent a sympathetic glance over to Ames.  “I’ll make sure he’s comfortable.”


“Okay,” Lom agreed.  “Ahh, Floyd, how about you and Bernie keep watch around the parameter for now.”


“What do ya’ mean?” Bernie asked, feeling his own tummy growling.  “There ain’t nothin’ ta’ see.”


Lom felt his hackles rise.  This was one reason he didn’t like taking such young fellas out in a posse like this.  They all seemed to think that they knew what was best.


“Because I’m sayin’ so, that’s why!” the sheriff snapped at him.  “Carlson and Baird are still out there somewhere.  Now I think I might ‘a heard some gunfire earlier, but there was so much commotion goin’ on here, that I ain’t certain.  Now, maybe Wheat will come back, or maybe Baird will.  Or maybe both.  Which one would you rather have come sneakin’ up on us, while we’re all sittin’ down havin’ supper, like we’re on a church picnic?”


“Oh,” Bernie conceded.  “Sorry.  It’s just, I’m hungry is all.”


“We’re all hungry,” Lom said, his tone softening. “Don’t worry.  We’ll take turns.  You’ll get fed.”


“C’mon, sonny,” Floyd said, patting him on the back.  “You go left, and I’ll go right.  But whatever ya’ do, don’t go into them woods.  Stay in the firelight, where we can all see ya’.”


The first shift of night watchmen set up their guard duty, while Clancy first helped to get Kurt laid out by the fire, and then worked on getting Emmitt settled in. 


Seth sat on the log, looking alone and dejected.  He couldn’t really see what Clancy was doing, but he knew that it was his brother over there, being trussed up like a goose at Christmas.  He wasn’t sure if he was more hurt than he was scared.  Emmitt was his older brother, and he’d always looked up to him, even more than he did his pa.  But Emmitt could be mean, too.  Everybody always seemed to pick on Seth, even his sisters wouldn’t give him a break.


So, was he really upset, that Emmitt was dead?  No, not really.  But now, he was the one who would be getting the brunt of his father’s nasty temper.  Hell, Pa would probably blame him for Emmitt getting himself shot.  He sighed dejectedly.  This day hadn’t turned out at all like their pa had said it would.


On the parameter of the camp site, Bernie was again, starting to resent being on guard duty, and could only think of his empty stomach, when he knew for sure that he heard a branch rustle, and then a twig snap.


He spun around, his rifle pointing into the darkness, and his eyes straining to see.


“Who’s there!” he called.  “Say who it is, or I’ll shoot!”


“Take it easy!” Carlson’s voice came in from the dark.  “All I need is ta’ get shot by some bloody greenhorn.”


Lom came to stand beside Bernie to make sure he didn’t do something stupid.


“That you, Carlson?”


“Yeah!  Who else you expectin’—Hannibal Heyes hisself?”


“Sounds like there’s more than just you there,” Lom commented cautiously.  “Everything alright?”


“Sure, everything’s alright,” Wheat told him, as he came into view, leading his horse.  “Picked up a few stragglers, is all.”


Lom and Bernie stepped back, as the whole party came filing into the clearing.


“What in tarnation!” Lom exclaimed.  “Who ya’ all got here?”


“Surprise, surprise,” Wheat announced with a smirk.  “I run inta’ the Kid and Deputy Morin out there in them woods.  I also got Miss Baird; the one who ain’t married, and this one here, cryin’ that he’s hurtin’, goes by the name of Luke Shuster.  Oh, and I also got Ole’ Man Baird.  But he’s deader than a fence post, so maybe he don’t count.”


Lom felt himself getting irritated again, right after Wheat announced his first two companions.  Even in the darkness, the anger in his eyes was more than apparent.


“What the hell are you two doin’ up here?” he asked the Kid.  “I told you fellas ta’ stay in town.”


“It’s a long story, Lom” Kid told him.  “I smell bacon and beans.  How’s about we tell ya’ about it over supper?”


“Fine!” Lom snarked, giving it up as a lost cause.  “Get your horses tended to, and then come eat.  Miss Baird, fancy meetin’ you up here.”


“That’s another part of that long story, Lom,” Jed commented over his shoulder as he led two horses across the clearing.  “Can somebody bandage up Shuster here, before he bleeds all over the biscuits?”


“I’ll do it,” Courtney grudgingly offered.  “Just get me some supplies.”


Xxx


“Hey, Jed,” Sam greeted his friend as he approached the remuda.  “I’ll take care of the horses for ya’, so you can go and get some supper.”


“Ain’t you hungry too, Sam?” Jed asked him.


Sam sighed.  “Not really,” he admitted.  “Emmitt’s dead, and I got a real good like at his head, after they threw him on the back of that horse.  It kind ‘a took away my appetite, if you know what I mean.”


Jed glanced over to where the body was laid out, now nicely wrapped up in its own bedroll.  “Yeah,” he consoled.  “I guess I do. That ain’t somethin’ ya’ ever really get used to.  Who shot ‘im?”


“Apparently, Ames did.”


Jed looked over to the campfire and saw Ames sitting there, looking a little green around the gills.  “Really?” he said, with a touch of incredulity. “I never would ‘a thought it.”


“Yeah well. I don’t think he thought it, either.”


Wheat joined them, bringing the rest of the horses.  “What’s up with Ames?” he asked.  “He looks like his best friend just died.”


“He’s the one who shot Emmitt,” Sam repeated.  “I don’t think he’s feelin’ too good about it.”


“Huh!  Damn,” Wheat commented, and looked back over at the young man.  “Well, shoot.  You think I should go over there and give ‘im a pep talk?”


“Aside from Kyle, you are the closest thing he’s got to a friend,” Jed reasoned. “Seems fittin’ you should be the one ta’ talk to ‘im.”


“Damn,” Wheat cursed again.  “Where’s Kyle when I really need ‘im?”


“I’ll look after the horses,” Sam offered again.  “You fellas go and get settled.”


“Yeah, fine,” Wheat groused.  “I’d rather look after the damn horses than go play nurse-maid to a wet-behind-the-ears, fire-bug. Damn.”  And he started to walk away, towards the fire.


“Wheat,” Jed called after him.  “Try to be at least a little nice to him.”


“What do ya’ mean?” the craggy ex-outlaw asked.  “I can do nice!”


“Sure ya’ can,” Jed agreed, but with a slight smirk.  “Just don’t be yellin’ at ‘im.”


“Damn!” Wheat cursed again, and carried on his way.


Xxx


Courtney and Luke headed towards the increasingly crowded fireside, when she suddenly saw her youngest brother. “Seth!” She called, and ran over to him.  “Are you alright?”


“Yeah, I suppose,” Seth answered.  “So, they got Pa too, did they?”


“What do you mean, too?” Courtney asked, and then looked around her.  “Where’s Emmitt?”


Seth jerked his chin in the direction of the occupied bedroll and then turned his gaze to Ames, who was sitting across from him.  “He shot ‘im.  Shot ‘im deader than a fly in buttermilk.”


Ames glanced at Seth, then looked away again.  He felt like he was going to be sick.  He would have gotten up and left the fireside, but he was so darn cold, he needed to stay by the warmth.  Besides, his legs were so shaky, he doubted he could have stood up right then, anyways.


“Huh,” Courtney grunted, not even giving Ames a glance.  “Oh well.  Can’t say as I’m gonna miss either one of ‘em.  Where’s that bandaging material?”


“Right here,” said Joe, as he dumped the meager medical supplies at her feet.  “Make it good. We don’t want ‘im bleedin’ to death before he can stand trial.”


“Stand trial for what?”  Luke demanded, as he sat down on the log by Courtney and Seth, to get his arm tended to.


“Aidin’ and abedin’ for one thing,” said Jed as he joined the group.  “And taking a pot shot at me, for another.”


“I told ya’!  I thought you were going to shoot Miss Baird!”


“And she’s up to her neck in this as well,” Jed countered.
 
“Now just wait a minute!” Courtney insisted as she stood up and stamped her foot.  “I didn’t do anything!”


“No?” asked Jed.  “What about attempted kidnapping?”


“We weren’t going to hurt her!” Courtney insisted.


“Attempted kidnapping?” Lom questioned.  “What in tarnation is going on here?”


Everyone started talking at once.  Lom held up his hands and waved them into silence.


“QUIET!” he yelled.


Two of the horses in the remuda snorted.  Nobody else made a sound.


“Until I get informed of what’s goin’ on here, all three of ya’ are under arrest,” Lom continued.  “And it sounds ta’ me like there’s a list of crimes here that we can choose from, not the least of which is the attempted murder of a lawman!”


“Ah, no, it ain’t,” Jed spoke softly.


Lom turned to him.  “What do ya’ mean, it ain’t.”


The sadness in Jed’s eyes spoke the truth, even before he opened his mouth.  “It’s murder of a lawman,” he forced himself to say.  “Jacobs died a couple ‘a hours after you fellas left town.”


Even spoken as softly as they had been, everyone in camp heard the words.  Silence fell heavy, as those who were just hearing it for the first time, tried to soak it in.


“Damn,” Lom softly commented.  “I didn’t know the man well, but he seemed like a decent sort.”


“Yeah, he was,” Jed agreed.


All eyes moved to Seth, and there was instant hostility in the air. Seth gasped, and fear erupted from him like a spewing volcano.


“No,” he said with a definite quiver in his voice.  “No.  It wasn’t me.  It was Emmitt.  He shot Jacobs.  It weren’t me!”


“Yeah, and all we got is your word fer that,” Clancy growled.  “I’ve known Carl Jacobs fer years, and he was a better man than you whole lot of Bairds put together.  And you done killed ‘im!”


“No!” Seth sounded like he was going to start to cry.  “No.  I got my rights.”


“Your rights be damned!” Clancy cursed as he moved in on the lad.  “We ought ‘a string you up right here and now.  That’s how we’d a done it in the war!”


“No!” Courtney screamed, and actually put herself between her brother and the irate mercantile man.


Lom was just as quick to intervene, and Joe moved in to support his fellow law man.


“Hold on, Clancy,” Joe told him.  “This here is a legal posse.  We’re not a lynch mob.  Now, I got more reason than any of ya’ to want justice done.  But we’ll do it legally.  He’ll stand trial for what he did.  But you’re not taking the law into your own hands.  He could very well be tellin’ the truth.”


“How are we gonna know?”  Floyd asked.  “All the witnesses are dead.”


“I don’t know how…” Joe started, but was cut off.


“I do,” Jed spoke up.  “We got all their guns, right?”


“Yeah,” Lom agreed.  “We collected them all up.”


“And we know that Jacobs was shot with a .45, right?”


“But they all carry .45’s!” Clancy pointed out.  “How are we gonna be able to tell whose gun fired the bullet?”


“I don’t know,” Jed admitted.  “But the more time I spend around men like David and Steven, the more I accept that there’s a lot I don’t know.  Even Heyes don’t know all that evidence stuff.  But I’m willin’ ta’ bet, that if we hand over all them guns, along with the bullets, those men who are smarter than me, will be able to figure out which gun belonged to which fella, and which gun fired that bullet.  The only question is, if David kept the bullet that killed Sheriff Jacobs.”


“Fine,” Clancy snarked.  “I guess I know when I’m outnumbered.  Damn, but that’s a hell of a thing.”  He coughed to cover up the tightness in his throat.  “Jacobs dead.  Damn.  That just ain’t right.”


Xxx


Ames felt the warmth of a blanket being draped over his shoulders, and he looked up to see Wheat settling himself down on that log, beside him.  The discussion about hanging Seth had dwindled away, and folks were finding places around the fire to set and eat.  Wheat slapped some beans onto a plate, picked out four slices of bacon and grabbed a hot biscuit, then surprised Ames, by handing the plate to him.


He took it out of habit, but looked down at the food as though it was crawling with worms.  “I ain’t hungry.”


“I’m sure you ain’t,” Wheat grumbled, as he dished out his own plateful.  “But yer gonna eat, anyways.”


“Why?”


“’Cause I say so, that’s why,” Wheat snarked, then sighed, when he caught the Kid sending him a look.  “Listen, there weren’t nothin’ wrong with what you done today.  Especially if Emmitt was the one who pulled the trigger, like Seth there, says.”  Both men were silent for a moment as Wheat thought about the situation.  “It don’t seem right,” he continued.  “I ain’t got much use fer lawmen, mind ya’, but fer a sheriff, Jacobs weren’t too bad a fella.  I know, Heyes and the Kid seemed ta’ think he was alright.”


“Yeah, he was alright,” Ames quietly agreed, as he continued to stare at his food. “It’s just that…I ain’t never…Have you, ever…?”


“What?  Kilt somebody?”


“Yeah.”


“Can’t say as I have,” Wheat admitted.  “Come close once.  I kind ‘a wish I’d a come closer.  But then I wouldn’t be sittin’ here, eatin’ beans with a bunch ‘a law men.”


Ames looked up and scanned the faces illuminated in the firelight.  Everyone was eating, and quiet discussions were going on between groups as they all adjusted to the bad news from home.


“They ain’t all law men,” he said.


“Believe me,” Wheat countered.  “If they’re ridin’ with a posse, then they’re law men.”


“So that makes you a law man, too.”


“Ain’t no need ta’ insult,” Wheat snarked.  “You keep that up, and I’ll just go on over there and sit with the Kid, and leave you on yer lonesome.”


“Sorry,” Ames mumbled, and hung his head again.


Wheat instantly regretted his harsh tone.  “When it comes down to it, I guess you’re a law man too, ain’t ya’?”


Wheat cracked a crooked smile, when Ames actually laughed a little.


“Yeah,” Ames agreed.  “I guess I am.”


“So what you done, was legal,” Wheat continued as he sopped up beans with a biscuit.  “Not like when ya’ go around, settin’ fire ta’ things.  Now that’s just downright loco.  That ain’t you no more.  Ya’ hear me?  That was the old you.  Yer a man now.  If yer gonna hang around with me and Kyle, then you gotta show a certain amount of sense, and respectability.  You done that today, boy.  You showed your stuff.  Now eat yer supper and stop feelin’ bad about it.”


Ames smiled again, and nodded.  He picked up the fork and speared a piece of bacon.  Once he started to eat, he realized that he was hungry, and soon, he too was wiping up bean sauce with fresh pan biscuits.


 
To Be Continued.
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