"I'll have the steak and eggs, rare and over easy." Sargeson put down his menu and picked up his coffee mug taking a long draw as Perkins placed his order. He'd put off breakfast until after they'd had a chance to thoroughly search the bank again this morning. A heavy meal made a man's senses dull and he couldn't afford for his men to be any duller than they already were. As the waitress made her way back to the kitchen, the marshal leaned over towards his deputy. "When she comes back, lemme do the talkin'."
Perkins made a ridiculous mime of buttoning his lips. "Don't worry, Marshal, I'll be as quiet as a church mouse."
Sighing, the older lawman shook his head. He felt like he was surrounded by children. What did he expect? He was getting so old he'd be working with babies soon. Maybe it was time he started listening to his Gracie. She'd been on him to retire and settle on that little spread they'd picked up at auction down near the border. It was a nice place with good grazing and the idea of herding cows sounded a hell of a lot better to him right now than herding deputies. He saw the waitress coming back with their meals. She carefully placed a hot plate in front of each of them and turned to go.
"Miss, do you have a minute? I've got some questions I need answered."
Turning back, a confused frown twitched the woman's mouth. "Questions for me? About what, Marshal?"
"Ma'am, I need to ask you about your customers last night. You did work last night, right?"
"I work every night. My husband and I are part-owners of this place." She pulled out an empty chair and sat down across from the two men.
"What time did y'all close up?"
"It was late. Almost midnight."
"Are you always open that late?"
"No, sir. But it was real busy last night and, wouldn't you know, by the time the place cleared out some fella came in wanting a late meal." She shook her head at the memory of the strange man who sat and stared out the window for almost an hour. "I must've filled his cup at least six times while I was cleaning up the place. It was amazing he didn't bust a kidney. I thought I was going to fall asleep waiting for him to go."
"Tell me about him." An eager gleam had sprung up in Sargeson's eyes.
The young woman laughed tiredly. "Tell you what? I can barely remember last night. I've got a sick baby at home and I haven't slept in three days."
"Can you describe him for me?"
"Marshal, I was already past exhausted by the time he came in. I really didn't look at him. I just took his order and delivered it when it was ready. Same as you."
"Try." A commanding tone had crept into his voice. This was his best lead and he wasn't about to let it go bad.
"All right," the waitress sighed. "Let's see. Maybe medium height, but maybe not. I don't really know how tall he is 'cause I didn't see him come in and, by the time he left, I'd started dozing off. He was almost out the door before I realized he was finally leaving."
"What about his age? His hair color? Any scars? Birthmarks?"
Perkins watched the back and forth half-heartedly. He was definitely more interested in his meal than the witness.
"He had a big, bushy mustache but, like I said, I didn't pay him much mind." Seeing the frustration growing on the marshal's face, she thought harder. "He was older than me, but not that old. You know, maybe twenty-five or thirty. Could've been older. He had one of those faces that you can forget real easy. Just kinda not much to it."
"And?" growled the lawman. He couldn't make any suggestions, but it was all he could do not to blurt out a description of his favorite suspect. Matheson didn't have a mustache but he could've worn a disguise. Sargeson knew he needed more to go on and it had to come from the witness voluntarily or it wouldn't stand up in court.
"And he had medium-colored hair. Not really brown but not blond either. Kinda in between." The waitress snapped her fingers. "I do remember watching him through the window stepping off the sidewalk."
Sargeson leaned forward eagerly. Finally, he was getting somewhere. "Towards the bank?"
"I don't know. I was picking up plates and I looked down. When I glanced out the window again, he was gone."
"Did he walk funny or anything?" asked Perkins trying to be helpful. He could tell his boss was getting hot under the collar. Springing to his feet, he limped a few steps. "Like this?" He turned and dragged his foot behind him. "Or this?"
"Perkins! Sit down!" Purple clotted Sargeson's face.
As the deputy sat, the waitress stood up. "He walked like everybody else. One foot, then the other. Can I go? I've got orders getting cold."
"Could you recognize him if you saw him again?" asked the marshal.
She sniffed. "Maybe, but I wouldn't know my own mama at this point."
"If'n you remember anything else, let me know." The marshal sat back in his chair as she walked away. His appetite was gone and his breakfast, as well as his lead, had congealed into an unappetizing mess.
"That didn't go so well, did it?" asked Perkins, finishing the last of his biscuits and gravy with a loud scrape of his plate.
"Couldn't have gone much worse. I'd have to drag the suspect in here and hope to hell she recognizes him." Sargeson reached into his chest pocket for the meal ticket that had brought him into the café for breakfast. His fingers came up empty and he began searching his other pockets. " #$%! I lost it!"
"The one piece of concrete evidence I had. It must've dropped outta my pocket!" His fist slammed the tabletop, rattling the dishes, and drawing the attention of the other customers.
"You lost the evidence?" Perkins' widened eyes radiated shock.
"I thought that mouth was stayin' buttoned," snapped the marshal.
His deputy reddened at the rebuke, but he couldn't stop from petulantly asking, "What're we gonna do now? You said we had to prove who was in the bank afore we could arrest him. Even if'n she could tell us who it was, it don't prove he was in there."
"I know what I said."
"And didn't you also say that blood we found don't mean nothin' less'n we can prove who was in the bank."
A strangled groan escaped the marshal's clenched jaw. "Perkins…"
"If'n we don't find that check, what're you gonna do?"
"I'm gonna try real hard not to make you shut the hell up," snarled Sargeson.
Perkins jerked upright, offended. "Ain't me that lost the evidence. You did it all by your lonesome."
Sargeson couldn't think of a reply.
The bedsprings protested loudly as Kid Curry flopped onto them and groaned, "Pull those curtains, will you? I just want to sleep the rest of today and forget it ever happened."
"Don't forget we're meetin' Carlotta at the depot at quarter to four." Heyes unbuckled his gun belt and draped it over the headboard of his bed before crossing to pull the curtains. As he reached up, he could smell the rank odor coming from his clothes. "Phew, guess I better set some clothes out to be washed before we go."
"Smells like a plan," mumbled the prone figure on the bed.
"Got anything you want done?" Heyes shut the drapes and lit a bedside lamp, turning the light down low.
"Yeah, but I'm too tired to get up and peel 'em off. Shut up and let me sleep, Heyes; hard enough to do this time of the day without your yakkin'."
Bone-tired himself, Heyes pulled off his clothes and rummaged through the pockets, pulling out his lock picks, a pocketknife, his battered watch, a few coins, and a crumpled wad of paper and placing it all on the nightstand next to the book he was reading. He pulled on a fresh pair of long johns and put the soiled clothes into the laundry bag provided by the hotel. He loved staying in nice places. Soft beds, hot baths, and laundry service being his favorite amenities. He put the bag outside the door and crossed back to the bed, lying down, and settling back into the fluffy pillows. He was so tired, he wasn't really sleepy anymore. Picking up his book, he read for a while until he felt his eyes begin to grow heavy. He reached over towards the nightstand for the bookmark he'd been using, but it must've slipped behind the furniture. Grabbing the crumpled piece of paper, he smoothed it out and put it between the pages.
As he was putting down the book, he paused and brought it back to his chest, opening it. The paper slid down and he held it up in the soft light. It was a meal check from the café across from the bank and it was dated last night-late last night according to the time noted at the bottom; too late to have fallen out of a teller's pocket. Maybe it was left by the law or whoever else was in the bank late last night besides them. Heyes tucked the paper back into the book and turned out the light.
As his last thought sunk in, he turned the light back on, dressed hastily, and crept out of the hotel room, book in hand, without waking his unusually dormant partner.
James nailed the lawyer with a look of desperation. "So you mean that my wife has no hope of winning this case?"
The lawyer tilted a head as shaggy as the portrait of Beethoven in the headmaster's office and James felt the same sinking feeling in his stomach as he had when he'd been forced to stand there. The old lion was a classmate of his father who had agreed to assist them gratis and, as such, James had been instructed in no uncertain terms to be diffident to the man's fierce reputation and legal gravitas. He hated being reduced to charity. While his parents were incapable of financially supporting him, at least they'd stood by him despite their horror at learning Angelique's shameful secret.
They hadn't approved of the marriage in the first place. He could still remember the fit his mother had pitched about Earnest's lack of breeding, but he'd been seduced by the Burdons' wealth as well as Angelique's comely figure, both gone now. Well, Mother had been right but at least she hadn't forced him to admit it. Instead, she and his father had shown a willingness to fight for the child's rights. His child. Their first grandchild. He couldn't believe that what had started as such a happy event had gone so far astray. He hardly heard the lawyer say, "Without seeing the documents first hand I can only guide you as to the probabilities of winning. If the earlier marriage took place, and was never dissolved, the law is clear. Your wife and her sisters are illegitimate."
Angelique's gulping sob wasn't quite stifled by the lace-trimmed handkerchief. The man looked over the heavily pregnant woman and frowned through beetled brows at the young husband. "Look after your wife, man. Meetings like this are no place for women and certainly not in that condition."
She dropped the cloth from her mottled face. "This is my father's bank and I am a shareholder. I have an interest in this."
"An interest your husband can ably represent on your behalf," responded the lawyer. "You should be in the confinement of your room at this stage."
"I'll decide where I go in my own home, Mr. Reynolds," she snapped. "I want to hear this."
"Don't be disrespectful, young lady, I am here as a favor to an old friend!"
Chastened, Angelique changed tack. "Please forgive me, Mr. Reynolds. I'm afraid my emotions have run away with me. Surely you can understand how stressful this situation is on me at a time like this, but I must know the truth, sir, or I fear I won't be able to rest."
"Very well then, there is a good probability that you are illegitimate, Mrs. Matheson. You may not be entitled to this house, to be a shareholder, or to a penny left to you," Reynolds tone softened, his message thoroughly delivered. "That said we have a lot to work on. We can look for delays to search for evidence, we can dispute her identity, and her mother's reputation to cast doubt on the real parentage; although the fact he had supported her all his life makes that harder. It does show a tacit acceptance. We can contend that you have no money left and that legal fees consumed any inheritance. There are many ways to hide money if you know how," his face wrinkled into a hirsute grin, "and I know how."
James nodded grimly. "So, we're done for, what with the bank being robbed and losing everything?" He couldn't believe he'd been so desperate as to consider stealing from his own bank. Thank the good Lord he'd gotten away before the marshal arrived. His parents would have turned their backs on him if he'd brought such disgrace to their good name. He must've been insane to listen to Angelique. Never again!
"Not quite everything. I'm sure I can squirrel away enough to give you a comfortable, if much reduced, life."
"Reduced," wailed Angelique. "You mean poor."
"I mean you'll never have to work. You can have a servant, maybe even a small carriage, but you'll have to give all this up. We start putting money away right now, where they can't find it. The main thing is not to feel too sorry for the plaintiff. She's lived a poor life and has already improved her station considerably though this case. That lawyer would never have married a skivvy if it hadn't been for her money." He paused. "I'll make sure it'll take years before she sees a penny. We'll drive her to settle to stop every penny being eaten up by legal fees. I'll remind her of the case of Jennens versus Jennens. That one ran for one hundred and seventeen years."
"How long?" gasped Angelique.
"You heard right." Reynolds nodded his unruly head. "I'll force her to settle. Now about your sisters..."
"If they want anything they can fight for it themselves," sniffed Angelique. "Their behavior has been unconscionable. God himself shall judge them for their wanton disregard for propriety, but I can't help to fund that kind of lifestyle."
"Fine. They can find their own legal counsel." He made a scratching note of that decision on the paper in front of him. "Do you have any more questions before I ask you if you wish to avail yourself of my services?"
James hesitated. "She is carrying my child. I need to know if our marriage is legal."
"James!" Angelique exploded in indignation.
"Burdon isn't even your real name," her husband countered. "If you were illegitimate everything you told me is no longer true. Doesn't that make the contract illegal?" Divorcing her would ruin him since she was soon to deliver his child.
"You are legally married, Mr. Matheson. Burdon is her real name. There is little doubt as to her paternity. Your child will be legitimate if that's what you're worried about. There is nothing for you to worry about as a father other than the mother's illegitimacy."
"You mean parents, surely," Angelique challenged, drinking in what looked suspiciously like disappointment at the news of their marital bond on the face of her spouse. "Plural. There are two of us."
Reynolds peered at her over a pair of half-moon spectacles. "Mrs. Matheson, no matter what happens here you will have to get used to the fact that you have been used to a degree of involvement not normally granted to women. That was directly due to you being rich, which we now know you are not. If I am to be retained I will not pander to such delusions. The husband is the head of the household and I will deal with him. Are we clear?"
Reynolds turned back to the indignant woman's husband. "I am the best. If you want me, you need to keep your wife under control. I don't do business with hysterics."
James nodded violently. "We want you. I want you. You come highly recommended and I need your help." He'd take this helping hand, but never again would he allow himself to be put in this position. From now on, he was the master of his own destiny. Whatever it took, he'd prove to the world he was a capable man.
"Are you going to let him speak to me like that, James?"
He turned burning eyes on his wife. "Angelique. You are not what I was told you were when I married you and I need to limit the damage you have done to me and my child. You're a bastard and we both know it. You don't get to call the shots anymore. You're not in charge." His voice spiraled. "I've had enough of being bossed around and being your family's lapdog. I am the man of this household and I am going to decide what's best. Is that clear?"
"How dare you!?"
"No, Angelique. How dare you? No other women get to behave the way you have, not even your mother and she was as rich as Croesus. You're not only poor, you're illegitimate, and my child has that cross to bear. You should get on your knees in gratitude to me for being prepared to be your husband, not persisting in silly games. You are not in charge. Got that!?"
Her face turned puce and she grabbed at her belly. "James! What are you saying?"
"I'm saying I've had enough of the power games. And those dramatics won't work with me. I've seen you play them too often. A wife's duty is to provide a son and heir. How good is his position going to be once everyone finds out his mother was a bastard? You've ruined that child. You've ruined its life and marriage prospects. You're no asset to my family. You're a liability."
"James," she clutched at her abdomen. "I can't..."
"Oh, save it. I've heard it a thousand times before. You pull that one every time someone says something you don't like. How do you think every other woman on earth manages?"
She doubled over. "This isn't...I'm not...call..."
James stood. "Save it for the servants. Mr. Reynolds, shall I see you out?"
The lawyer stood, his furrowed brows signaling his concern. "Shouldn't we call someone?"
"Who? A theatrical agent?" He guided the man to the door. "I have put up with this nonsense since I met her. This is nothing new and it's wearing thin. Very thin. I've had enough of her manipulation. It's about time I took her in hand."
"As you say. I wish more men had such back bone." Reynolds put on his top hat. "Good day, madam."
James watched the maid see the lawyer to the front door, and was still wondering how much longer he could afford a full staff when a thump behind him caused his to turn, seeing his wife lying on her side on the floor. "Oh, for heaven's sake. Don't you ever give up?" He turned back to the servant who was just closing the door behind the visitor. "Maggie, call someone to help Mrs. Matheson, will you? She's at it again."
He was halfway down the hall when Maggie called out to him. "Mr. Matheson, sir, someone's knocking at the door. Could you please see to it? I've my hands quite full."
James angrily turned to his maid to remonstrate her for shirking her duties, only to find the young girl at the top of the stairs and burdened with the task of seeing his overly-dramatic wife to her boudoir. "Oh, for Pete's sake, Angelique, when are you going to stop this ridiculous play-acting?" A truly convincing cry of pain didn't stop him from marching back towards the door to greet the latest invasion in his home. Did nobody have a sense of decorum anymore?
Opening the door, he was shocked to find a familiar face smiling at him. "Mr. Corday, whatever are you doing here?"
"I've come to speak with you on behalf of my clients, Mr. Matheson." Hannibal Heyes smirked at the dandified man facing him.
"I've nothing further to say to Carlotta and Charlotte, nor to their attorney. You're wasting your breath," James rudely responded. Leaving the door ajar and ignoring Heyes, he went through the parlor door and crossed to the sideboard to pour a double shot of scotch from the crystal decanter unaware his unwanted guest had followed him. He drank the contents of his glass in one gulp and poured himself a generous second portion.
Heyes watched him. Matheson was definitely rattled about something. A loud scream rang out through the bowels of the mansion and startled both men. Noticing Heyes for the first time, James tossed back his liquor and smiled cruelly. "Pardon my wife, Mr. Corday, she is attempting to use her wiles to weasel her way out of a difficult situation."
Heyes was stunned by the man's coldness. This wasn't the same man he'd met before. "Don't you want to check on her?"
"No need. Now, are we done here?" James poured yet another scotch.
"I'm not here representing the Burdon sisters, Mr. Matheson. I'm here about the bank robbery."
"The robbery?" Confused, James put down his glass and turned his full attention to his guest. "What do you or your client have to do with the robbery?"
"Nothing and I'd like to keep it that way."
"I don't understand." James sat down in a comfortable chair and stared at the dark-haired man before him.
"I'm sure you do understand, Mr. Matheson. I'm sure you understand completely that my clients had nothing to do with robbing your bank." Heyes' countenance hardened.
"Dammit, Corday, stop talking in circles. Who the hell are your clients and what do they have to do with me or my bank?"
"My clients have recently come into possession of a dinner check from the café across the street from the bank. A dinner check the waitress identified to me as belonging to her last customer yesterday evening."
"What on earth does that have to do with me?" James tried to inject outrage into his tone, but a bead of sweat arose on his forehead and he sounded more fearful than angry.
Grinning evilly, Heyes said, "Oh, and coincidentally, the Marshal visited the café this morning and asked the same waitress all sorts of questions about her last customer last night."
"He did?" squeaked James.
"He did, but she couldn't tell him much and he didn't have what my clients have."
"Concrete evidence that her last client—the one that kept her up so late—just so happened to be inside the bank after hours. Way after hours."
"What good is it if she can't identify him?" challenged James.
"Let's say the Marshal just happened to get his hands on this piece of evidence; say he could put her customer in the bank the night of the robbery - don't you think all he'd have to do is drag suspects into the café until one of them jogs her memory?"
"What do you want?" demanded James.
"Ah, now we're getting somewhere." Heyes crossed to the sideboard and poured himself a drink, smiling in an unsettling way at James. "You see, Mr. Matheson, my clients are rather famous when it comes to bank robberies." He enjoyed seeing a red flush creeping up from James' collar. "As a matter of fact, some folks say they're the best of the best."
"Heyes and Curry," growled James.
"I'm not at liberty to name names, sir, but I'm sure you can appreciate how valuable this information might be to certain people: to the law, or perhaps even to a local newspaper, or possibly even to two, ahem, rascals who might be tired of being unfairly persecuted by a powerful family. Maybe even to yourself."
"I could have you arrested for withholding evidence of a crime!"
"Tsk, tsk, the evidence would come to light then, wouldn't it?"
"Name your price!" shouted James, leaping to his feet, the vein in his forehead throbbing ominously.
Heyes' eyes glittered dangerously as he spoke, "There is no price beyond you dropping this ridiculous vendetta propagated by your deceased father-in-law against my clients and their friends and, further, you desisting from suggesting that my clients had anything to do with the robbing of your own bank." Hell, he loved how that had rolled off his tongue. No one would know he'd been practicing that line all the way over here.
"That's it? Of course we'll drop it. There's no money left anyway, and this was the old man's obsession. I'm done with everything Burdon."
Heyes paused. "No money left?"
"Burdon married again without divorcing his first wife. He had a daughter as a result of that union. That daughter takes the lot, and I'm left here in this nest of self-indulgence with nothing to show for it but an uppity wife and some vague threats from some criminals. Tell your clients to go to hell," he gave a mirthless chuckle, "they might meet Burdon there. He knew a short cut."
"I will assure you, Mr. Matheson, that should you decide to violate the terms of this agreement, Marshal Sargeson will receive the necessary evidence to make an arrest in the robbery of the Burdon Bank. Am I making myself clear?" No longer looking quite so lawyerly, Heyes leaned forward until he was only a few inches from James. "Agreed?"
"Yes, yes, agreed. Now get out of my house!" snarled James as another piercing shriek shattered the air and they heard feet running down the stairs.
Heyes nodded sharply. He left the room as a breathless Maggie burst in. "Mr. Matheson, it's time! The baby's coming! Harry's gone for the doctor. Hurry, the missus is calling for you."
"Dammit it all to hell, will this nightmare of a day never end?" muttered James as he poured himself one last drink.
Heyes slipped into the hotel room just as the last rays of the sun drifted below the mountains to the west. A floorboard creaked as he crossed to the bed and he heard his partner stirring.
"Where'd you run off to?" said a sleepy voice from the next bed.
"I had an errand to run."
"Uh," was the disinterested reply.
Easing down onto his soft bed, Heyes laid his head back. It had turned out to be a good day after all. Tired as he'd been, he'd taken the time on the way back to the hotel to send off brief telegrams to Clem and Soapy advising them that the Burdons would no longer be a problem. He'd felt responsible for years that his friends had to leave their homes, but he'd finally made it right. Sighing contentedly, it wasn't long before he drifted off to sleep.
Carlotta stepped down from the train and smiled in delight at the little group waiting for her on the platform. Great nebulous puffs of steam dissipated in patchy billows from her field of vision until she could get a better view of Bill and Scarlet waving enthusiastically. Gabe and Charlotte bustled forward. There was no denying that they were a stunning couple; Gabe's Viking-blond hair and sharp cheekbones were the perfect counterpoint to Charlotte's gentle blue eyes and honey-colored hair. They were going to have very beautiful children.
"You're home," breathed Charlotte, tossing both arms around her sister's neck. "Welcome back."
Carlotta's stomach gave a little flip at the strangeness of the concept of a new home. "Home? San Francisco?"
"Surely that's wherever we are together," Charlotte planted a kiss on Carlotta's cheek. "I've been so looking forward to seeing you again. How did it go?"
"Not well, but it could have been a lot worse," Charlotte shrugged. "There's a lot to tell you but nothing that can't wait until we get back to the hotel."
"Where are Heyes and Curry," asked Gabe. "Are they gone?"
"Sssh! Someone will hear." Carlotta's eyes darted around. "They're getting the trunks from the baggage car." Her eyes warmed. "Oh, I have bought you the loveliest things for your trousseau, Charlotte. You will be the most beautiful bride this town has ever seen. I can't wait to show you."
"You have? How exciting. Has Angelique had her baby yet?"
The light fell away from Carlotta's eyes. "Possibly, but not by the time I left." She laid a soft hand on her sister's arm. "Don't get upset, but we might never know. She's cut us off."
Gabe's brows gathered at his fiancé's dismay. "Hey, now. Don't take on so. We'll find out. Pa's got ways of doin' most anythin' when he puts his mind to it."
Scarlet and Bill strolled over. "Here, what's all the fuss about?" The tall man's hirsute brows rose. "This should be a happy time. You're back for the wedding."
"Angelique turned her away. We'll never know our niece or nephew." Charlotte's eyed glittered with tears. "We'll not even be told if it's a boy or a girl."
"I told her that you'll know someone who'll be able to find out," Gabe replied. "You will, won't you, Pa?"
"In Denver?" Bill mused on the point. "Sure I can. A couple of telegrams'll do it. I ain't sure I'll get more'n a name though. I ain't no pastor, so don't count on me reunitin' a broken family."
"You promise?" sniffed Charlotte. "It's the first baby from a sister…"
"Sweetie, I promise you anythin' I can do for you in this world for as long as you draw breath, and that sounds like a real easy one." Gabe turned to his prospective sister in law and linked arms with both women. "And that goes for you too, Lottie. We ain't got much, but what we got, we share. You're my sister now."
"Some families are better stayin' broke if you ask me," Scarlet's shrewd eyes examined Carlotta. "Just 'cos you come out the same womb, ain't no reason to stick around if they don't act decent. Some family trees need cuttin' down to make room for new growth."
Carlotta nodded, appreciative of Gabe including her in this moment of intimacy. "You do, don't you? You really do share." She pulled back her shoulders defiantly. "Well, I brought a few things from back home and I'm going to share them to make sure we all have a stable future."
Carlotta turned to her sister. "What things?"
"I went to the bank and emptied the safety deposit box. I have the jewelry, as well as a few other things."
Charlotte clapped her hands in delight. "You do? I never thought I'd see them again."
Scarlet's eyes lit up. "Jewelry?"
"Yes," Charlotte nodded. "My mother had some wonderful pieces. The pearls? Were they in the box?"
"Yes. That's why I waited for two men to escort me back. I didn't want to carry all that on my own. It was too valuable." Carlotta raised her head as gazed back down the length of the train. "Ah, here they are."
A pair of hats, one brown, one black, were headed their way, threading their way through the crowd, flanking a porter pushing a trolley laden in trunks, bags and parcels. Heyes caught the eye of the tall ex-outlaw by Scarlet's side and nodded a greeting to Bill. "Hi there. How have you all been?"
"Good thanks. How'd your trip go?"
"Could've been better," Heyes shook Bill's hand. "Carlotta got what she went for though."
The Kid tipped his hat to the ladies. "Scarlet, Charlotte. Lookin' as lovely as always, ladies."
Gabe stretched a protective arm around his intended. "Yeah. I hope you treated Carlotta like a lady. I didn't like her headin' off with you two one bit."
"They were just fine," Carlotta stepped forward to examine the trolley. "Yes, two trunks, six bags, and six, seven, eight parcels. That's everything. Shall we go?"
"That's all yours," Scarlet exclaimed. "Did you clear out the whole house?"
"The shops," Carlotta smiled. "And don't you worry. I got you something very lovely too. It was the least I could do to say thank you. You could have just thrown us to the wolves, and I have no idea what would have happened to us without you. I think they call it tough love, but you took the time to give rather than take." She gulped, her hard crust cracking slightly. "I want to thank you."
Scarlet smiled, but it was a measured rather than enthusiastic. "Thanks, darlin'. But if you want to repay me the best thing you can do is fill your life with things that make you happy. You're too serious. Take some time to have some fun. Live a little."
Their eyes locked in a moment of understanding. "That's exactly what I've spent this journey thinking about, Scarlet, but let's get back where I can tell you everything."
"It's a good job we brought the wagon," Bill propped his hands on his hips and looked over the laden trolley. "This woman shops the way a hungry coyote strips out a henhouse. She left with one bag. Look at this lot."
"Tell me about it," the Kid replied. "Real protective of it all, too. She had us check it at every stop. What's a trousseau anyway and why can't a woman get married without one?"
Bill's eyes glittered wickedly. "Search me. All Scarlet and me needed was a ladder and a horse faster'n her pa's. I hope it ain't nothin' too exotic. I ain't sure Gabe's worldly enough to appreciate it."
Carlotta laid out an impressive array of sparking trinkets and ornamental regalia spread over the bedspread making Scarlet's eyes light up with acquisitive embers of delight. She reached out a hand to finger the sapphire necklace and the diamond brooches which sat within reach. "Well, I knew you girls had money. I had no idea how much." She picked up the string of pearls and stretched them across her expansive décolletage. "What'd ya think, Bill? Do they suit me?"
Bill leaned back against the wall. "Honey, nothin' you wear'll ever be as fine as the woman underneath. You don't need them, but they sure look good on you."
"That's kinda handy, huh? Seein' as we could never afford it," she chuckled as she dangled them from her hard-working hands and watched them gather in a pearlescent pool on the quilt.
"I had no idea you were carrying this much," Heyes' eyes fixed in on the valuables strewn all over the bed. "You should have told us."
"Should I?" Carlotta snorted. "Tell two notorious criminals that I'm carrying a small fortune? Are you mad?"
"You told us you were fetchin' some jewelry," the Kid replied. "We knew."
"But not this much," Carlotta pointed at Heyes, "and just look at his face. The greed is just pouring out of him. I'm sorry, but I didn't trust you. I wanted to wait until Bill and Gabe were around."
"Carlotta, if we wanted to rob you we'd have done it." A scowling Heyes folded his arms. "You wouldn't have known what hit you."
"But we wouldn't," the Kid cut in hurriedly, glaring at his partner. "We don't steal from our friends. We went to Denver to help you, not to use you. Besides, the whole idea is that we help you to move on, be happy, and forget all about us. That ain't gonna work if you're still mad at us."
"How much is all this worth?" asked Bill, lights of cupidity dancing in his eyes.
"A lot. I want Charlotte and me to work out which pieces we'd like to keep then we sell the rest to start a family business." Carlotta looked around at her new-found family. "I was thinking of something like a little hotel, somewhere a lot busier and more respectable than Sweatless. How does that sound?"
"A hotel?" Scarlet sat upright.
"Well, I thought that was what you liked doing. If not a hotel, then what?"
Scarlet and Bill exchanged a glance before he spoke. "We'd always hoped to start a little ranch somewhere. And when you've ever been wanted it ain't a great idea to have random strangers passin' through all the time."
Scarlet nodded. "Ain't you and your sister wanted for stealin' a train? It ain't a good idea to put yourself out there too much."
Carlotta sighed in agreement. "What did you have in mind?"
"I was lookin' at a little parcel of land up near Sacramento. It's gets cold in the winter, but it's real sweet in the summer. The land's fertile too and they're growin' a lot of fruit up there." Bill cast out a hand towards the women. "No hard work for you women. Gabe and me can do that, and hire of some hands. It's real beautiful country. What d'ya say?"
"Tending house isn't my thing. I thought more of being a sleeping partner," Carlotta replied.
"You can lay in," Scarlet asserted. "You're providin' a lot in the way of money."
"A sleeping partner is one who doesn't get involved in the business," Charlotte explained. "She means that whatever she finances, she'll leave us to get on with."
"Kinda like some outlaw leaders I know," chuckled the Kid. His eyes widened in faux innocence at his leader's glower. "What? I didn't say it was you."
"I ain't here to wait on you, Carlotta." Scarlet folded her arms. "All this money is all well and good, but I'd rather make my own way and not have you as my boss. I don't work well with people lookin' over my shoulder."
"I can testify to that," grinned Bill. "If she was in the army they'd describe her as 'not amenable to discipline'." He scratched his head. "I can't hardly think of anyone less amenable to it now I start to think on it. She's her own woman, that's for sure."
"I won't be your boss. I won't even be there," Carlotta announced. "I'm happy to put my share up to give Gabe and Charlotte a home. All I ask is that when I get back from my travels they keep me a room so I can visit."
"A room," Gabe stammered.
"Get back?" Charlotte exclaimed. "Where from?"
"I know I'm not the artist you are, Charlotte, but I was starting to enjoy our cover story of doing pictures of women in the West." Carlotta gave a weak smile. "I want to go and do that." She raised a hand to dismiss Charlotte's protests. "You're getting married and you want to spend time with your new husband." She glanced over at a relieved-looking Gabe. "I've always wanted to do something of my own. You know that. I never knew what, but I think I found it. I want to learn photography."
"Photography?" Gabe blinked in surprise. "Takin' folks' pictures?"
"Yes. I want to go and learn how to do it well, and then open my own business. People are always wanting portraits done. It's perfect for me. Respectable but interesting."
"I suppose," Charlotte mused, "but women in the West? You want to take photographs?"
"Yes, a kind of social commentary. Women do things out here you never see further east. It's interesting and I want to do something for me. I want a small business instead of depending on a man." Carlotta smiled at her sister and her intended. "And I don't want to be a spare wheel in your life either. I'll have my own home. I'll also have the freedom to go off and enjoy various projects as they occur to me. I've given this a lot of thought and it's the first thing I can remember being excited about in years. I'm going to become a photographer. There'll be plenty of money to help set you up with a ranch too. We all get the fresh start we want, dependant on nobody; especially not the Burdons. I'm sure they'll expect us to come begging when they stop our trust funds, but we won't. We don't need them ever again."
"Well, you seem to have thought it through and it all sounds fair enough to me." Scarlet stood and nodded towards the jewels. "The sooner we get that stuff locked away, the happier I'll be."
"Oh, I carry it with me. I made a large pocket to wear under my skirts." Carlotta stood and started to gather the trinkets in a linen pouch with ribbons attached. "If anyone wants to take these they'll have to take me with them. I'm not leaving them out of my sight for a moment."
"Right, time for dinner," the Kid opened the door. "Do you want us to wait and escort you down, Carlotta?"
"No, I'm sure I'll be fine. I'll see you down there."
He looked over at a pensive Heyes. "Come on. I'm hungry. Whatever's eatin' you can do it at the dinner table."
Carlotta smiled at the fair gunman as she twisted the key and unlocked her door. "Thank you. I'm in now and perfectly safe. Thanks for escorting me back to my room. You're a gentleman."
"You're welcome, darlin'. I'd best go and see if Heyes is alright. He doesn't usually turn in early."
She nodded, stepping into the room. "Yes, he did look tired. Hopefully he'll be better after a good night's sleep." She smiled once again and closed the door behind her.
"Hello, Carlotta. I've been waiting for you."
She gasped and swirled around to face the intruder. Hannibal Heyes leaned over and turned up the oil lamp, the light flooding his face with sinister shadows. His eyes seemed darker than normal, clouded in intensity and more than a little anger. He tossed a bundle of banknotes on the dresser and folded his arms. "Care to explain this to me?"
She gulped hard, suddenly reminded of the outlaw leader she had encountered in The Devil's Hole. "It's my money."
A sound at the door had Heyes grab his gun, only to find himself staring down the wrong side of the Kid's Colt as he burst into the room. "Heyes? What are you doin'? I thought I heard someone."
"Put that away, Kid. Carlotta was just about to tell me where she got the small fortune she's been carting around with her."
The Kid holstered his gun. "Fortune? She told us all about the jewelry from the safety deposit box. What're you talking about?"
Heyes strode over to the largest trunk and flipped it open. It took no more than a few seconds to clear the few clothes covering the stacks of cash concealed beneath them. "You had nothing more than the clothes you stood up in when I met you, Carlotta. Sure, you got your bags back from Scarlet, but I doubt you carried this amount of money with you. Where did it come from?"
The Kid's eyes widened. "How much money is in there?"
"More than twenty thousand," Heyes muttered, "but probably nearer to thirty."
The gunman lifted a bundle of notes, turning it in his hand. "Right, Carlotta. What's goin' on?"
Her hair glinted gold in the light as she turned from one to the other defensively. "What? It's my money."
"I thought you were worried about that trunk because it had all the jewelry in it," Heyes propped his hands on his hips. "As soon as you told us you were carrying it in a pouch under your skirts it got me wondering why you had us protecting that trunk all the way here. You had us go and watch it every time the train stopped."
"That's why you came upstairs early?" demanded the Kid. He tossed the wad of banknotes back into the chest. "You knew she was lying about somethin'." He looked down at the loot and gave a low whistle. "And what a somethin'."
Carlotta raised her chin defiantly. "If you try to steal it, I'll scream. I'll create the worst fuss this hotel has ever seen."
The Kid grinned as the men exchanged a silent amusement in a glance. "Ya think?" He gave her a warning glint. "Don't try it, Carlotta. I want us to part on good terms."
"You robbed the bank, didn't you?" Heyes pressed.
"I didn't steal anything. It's mine."
Heyes sighed. "Look, our reason for taking you to Denver was to make sure you had enough money to be secure for the rest of your lives. It wasn't to turn you into a criminal."
Her cheeks started to color with emotion. "So we'd forget about your reward money, you mean."
"Whatever the reason, we want you to be secure." Heyes stepped forward and grasped her by the top of her arms. He pushed gently. "Sit down. Relax. We're not going to take your money. Not a penny. We're just annoyed that you had us involved in carrying stolen money and didn't tell us the truth."
"Why should I? You didn't tell me the truth about the train robbery."
The Kid dropped his head to hide a grin. "That was for your own good."
"Well, so was this."
"Carlotta, we didn't rob that bank, but nobody would believe that if we'd been caught with the money. Is it fair for us to do twenty years inside for something we didn't do?"
She pursed her lips. "Is it fair for you to walk away from all the crimes you did do?"
"Yeah," the Kid replied. "If we don't get caught we don't do the time. That's the rule."
"Rule?" She threw out her hands. "Rules mean nothing to you two."
The Kid's brow creased. "I wouldn't say nothin'. We've got standards, even if they ain't the same as yours."
"They're exactly the same as hers, Kid. She's a bank robber. How'd you do it, Carlotta?"
"Do what?" she stared defensively down at her hands.
"Rob the bank," Heyes hissed.
She sat with downcast eyes, hesitating before she eventually spoke with tense knuckles whitening to pearl. "It's my money; mine and Charlotte's. I needed it to make sure we had a fresh start and could be independent. It's wasn't hard. I knew Guthrie kept his keys in the coat he hooked behind the door. He always made the junior person lock up because he only wore the coat when it was really cold. As long I swapped them for another set so it felt the same in the coat, he'd never know the difference especially if I changed them back when I picked up the trunk from his office the next day. He only ever patted the pocket to check they were there. I watched him do it for years."
"So you used keys?" Heyes asked. "I guess that makes sense."
"I knew their routine, so I waited until they left and used the keys to get in almost immediately. I thought if I was caught I was a Burdon, using keys, and entering the bank in broad daylight. I could talk my way out of it." She paused. "I knew about the alarm, and I guessed James wouldn't have changed the combination on the safe either. He's lazy, and I was right. He hadn't."
"So you just waltzed right in and emptied the vault?" The Kid sat on the bed beside her. "How'd you get the money out?"
"The trunk was searched," Heyes shrugged. "More than once."
"It was," Carlotta was warming to her subject. She pointed over to the two trunks in the room. "Do you notice anything about them?"
"What are you talking about? What did you carry the money out of the bank in?" demanded Heyes.
"One of the trunks is slightly smaller than the other, but identical in every other way. They sit inside one another like Russian dolls. The smaller one fits perfectly inside the other. I filled the littler one with shopping and gambled on nobody noticing that it was suddenly slightly smaller than the day before. Men never notice anything unless it affects them. I left the smaller trunk behind for them to find as a diversion. If they searched it they'd see it was packed with shopping and nothing else. That gave me the larger one to fill with money." She suddenly became more upright, seemingly proud of her achievement. "All I had to do was reset the alarm and leave through the side door. I hailed a cab and let them load the trunk for me. I went to three different hotels, trying to throw off anyone who might follow me, but it didn't seem necessary. I also had a couple of changes of coats and hats inside to change the descriptions. Nobody even seems to have thought about a woman leaving the area with a trunk around six o'clock." She cast out her hands in a gesture of acceptance. "Nobody. I simply walked away with almost everything in the vault. I checked it in as left luggage at the railway station in case anyone wanted to search my room, and then I came back to the hotel."
The Kid's jaw firmed. "So you had already robbed the bank by the time…"
"By the time the other robbers showed up?" Heyes cut in. "I hate to say it but it wasn't too crazy an idea. James tried to do the same thing, but you got there first."
"James was going to rob his own bank!?" Carlotta exclaimed. "How do you know?"
"Just a hunch," Heyes deflected. "I questioned the waitress in the restaurant across the street. He was in there watching the place for hours. I confronted him about it."
"And you didn't tell me?" Carlotta demanded.
"We didn't want to upset you, but we know he did more than try," the Kid asserted. "He was right inside. So it was you who got there first?"
"Yes. I thought it best just to brazen it out if anyone challenged me," Carlotta's eyes gleamed. "I suppose he thought the same." A thought struck her. "What if he'd caught me in there?"
"It wouldn't have happened. He waited until after dark," Heyes replied.
"But why set off the alarm?" mused Carlotta. "Did he do that to make it look like some real amateurs robbed the place to cover his tracks?"
The gunman rubbed his face. "Probably." He glowered at Heyes. "You'd have to be real dumb to try to rob a bank with an alarm when you know nothin' about them."
"Yeah, well. It looks like Carlotta was long gone by then," Heyes replied.
"Yup, you'd have to be as smart as a bucket of bait to do somethin' like that," the Kid mused.
"We don't know anything about anyone else who went into the bank," Heyes growled.
"Except that the most their ideas man has up top is nose hair…."
"Will you give it a rest, Kid? We've got the idea."
The Kid folded his arms. "I hope so, Heyes. We all know that you'd have to have your chimney clogged to try to rob an alarmed building."
The brown eyes shimmered with irritation but he turned back to an oblivious Carlotta intent on moving the conversation on. "You were really stupid to do that alone. If that's what you wanted to do we could have helped."
"We could?" asked the Kid. He caught another glare from Heyes. "Yeah, I guess we could've."
"I didn't need your help," she insisted. "You'd be none the wiser if you hadn't gone poking around in my luggage. Charlotte and I are set up comfortably for life. Angelique can have the bank and the house. I think it's a fair division."
"Maybe not," Heyes arched a brow. "It seems that your father was married before and never got divorced. His daughter by that marriage is claiming everything. I think James was desperate."
"No!" she gasped. "It's not possible."
"It's not only possible. It's true," the Kid agreed. "It looks like your trust fund would have been gone soon anyway."
"Oh," Carlotta's brow furrowed as she mulled over the news. "Well, she wasn't worried about our welfare when she cut us off. She'll land on her feet."
"Are you sure? Last time I saw her, she couldn't even see her feet." The Kid hated the idea of a lady in distress, especially a really large pregnant lady no matter how mean she was.
"Believe me my sister knows how to take care of herself. When we were children, she would come up with the most outlandish ways of stealing our allowances. If there is money to be had, you can rest assured Angelique will find a way to get it, but she's not getting my money."
"Like I said," Heyes snorted, "just like us. There are always ways to make stealing the best option when you put your mind to it."
"It's not stealing. It's my inheritance and she was ready to steal it from me!"
"Maybe not. Maybe it's the inheritance of the legitimate daughter," the Kid suggested.
She shook her head. "I can't worry about that. For the first time in my life I'm putting myself and Charlotte first, and it feels good. Really, really good." She stood in the lamplight, her shoulders back and her eyes radiating a vitality and energy which had previously simply smoldered under a layer of shame. Life seemed to beam from her clear blue eyes, lighting up her face and making her blonde hair gleam with a spirit which dissipated into the shadows. "I now know why you two do this. I was driven to act to survive, but who knew it made you feel so alive? Every nerve was alight. Every sense was heightened. And the relief when I got out of there? There's nothing like it." She stared from one to the other. "It's like drug, it really it is. I was so elated I didn't sleep all night."
Heyes dropped his head into his hands, rubbing away his concern. "You got lucky, Carlotta. That feeling drops away fast when you meet someone who wants to turn you in. No matter how high you get, there are pits even deeper. It's not a great life."
"Yeah, we've been runnin' from your old man for years, not to mention the railroads and the law and we gotta keep on runnin'."
Heyes smiled. "Uh, remind me to tell you about that little errand I ran yesterday."
"Not now, Heyes."
"But that feeling of power as I sat eating dinner in the hotel pretending to be like everyone else," her smile had a lick of wickedness cutting through the purity. "But I wasn't like them. I dared to be different. I didn't just let life happen anymore, I made the changes."
The Kid watched her chest rise and fall in excitement and shook his head ruefully. "Well, you've done it now. It's over. You never need to do anything like that again, huh?" She stared back at him, still with a sphinx-like smile on her face. "Carlotta. This is serious. You'll end up in jail."
Her smile widened with a tinkling laugh. "I know. I just understand how you got into this life, is all. The excitement has given me quite a lift, and I needed it so much. I've finally found myself."
"So you're going to calm down and live a quiet life?" asked Heyes.
"I'll live my life as I please for the first time in my whole life." She crossed over to the door. "Now, if you don't mind I'd like to get to bed. It's none of your business if I decide to have a little adventure now and again."
"Adventure?" Heyes stood. "Exactly what kind of adventure, Carlotta?"
"None of your business. You have managed to achieve what you wanted. We're not going to continue the vendetta, we have enough money to be comfortable for the rest of our lives, and I am in no position to go to the law." She turned the knob and opened the door. "It occurs to me that works both ways." She smiled the warmest beam they had ever seen from her in all the time they'd known this complex, brittle woman. "You leave in the morning, and your work here is done. I'm genuinely grateful to you and you have nothing to worry about as far as the female side of the family is concerned. Go in peace, and if our paths ever cross again I hope we can meet as equals and friends."
Heyes crossed over to the door, pausing to allow her to drop a light kiss on his cheek. "Carlotta, tell me you're not going to turn to crime for a cheap thrill."
She held his gaze, her smile widening. "All right, I won't."
"Won't turn to crime or won't tell me?"
Carlotta turned back to the gunman and kissed him too. "Goodnight."
"I want an answer," pressed Heyes.
She ushered them out of the room until she was addressing them through a crack in the door. "I know."
The door closed in their faces.
"Kid, I think we might have created a monster."
"I don't know about that, Heyes, but at the very least we might have created a rival." Earnest blue eyes fixed on the outlaw leader. "What are we going to do?"
"Nothing we can do but turn in," Heyes shrugged. "We've got a long journey back to The Hole ahead of us tomorrow."
The Kid nodded and turned, walking back towards their room. "I got a feelin' we ain't seen the last of Miss Carlotta Burdon."
"Me too, Kid. Me too."