Maverick regained consciousness in a strange bed. He found himself in a room he had never seen before. He felt his head. It was sore, but he would survive.
Slowly, he got up and stumbled to the door opposite the bed. It was locked, of course. He turned to the window. There were metal bars on the window, like on a jail cell. He shook them, but the bars were solid, and firmly set in the window frame.
He stumbled to the bed and collapsed. Then he noticed another door, in the wall opposite the window. Sighing, he walked across the floor, setting one foot before the other with exaggerated care. He tried the knob, but he wasn't surprised when he found it, too, was locked.
Bending down, he peeked through the keyhole. He saw Angelique Moreau, her hands folded in prayer."Well, now, look at this," he murmured to himself. "Mam'selle Angelique. Angie." Startled, she looked around.
He tapped softly. "The door, mam'selle."
She turned and stared at the locked door.
"It's me, Bret Maverick, the man who fixed your pony cart."
"Mon Dieu!" Angelique hurried to the door and knelt beside it so she, too, could look through the keyhole. "Oh, Monsieur Maverick, how wonderful. You've come to rescue us?"
"That was the general idea, but right now, I could use a little rescuing myself." He ran his hand through his thick, dark hair; his head didn't hurt quite so much as before. He touched the door, examining it a minute. "Stand away from the door, mam'selle."
Angelique nodded and backed away.
Maverick stood. He threw his shoulder against the door – not too hard, just testing it. The door didn't give, not that he had honestly expected it to. He tried again, a little harder. Still, the door remained locked. He took a few steps back, and, with a running start, threw himself against the door with all his strength.
The door burst open. Angelique stepped back out of the way. His momentum carried him foward and Maverick crashed against her bed, tumbling onto her mattress.
Angelique rushed to his side. "Oh, monsieur, you're hurt?"
Maverick felt his head gingerly. "Well, not any more than I was." He stood carefully and glanced around Angelique's room. Like in his room, the window was barred. "Tell me, where is Miss Peabody?"
"They took her away; I know not where." Agitation made her French accent stronger than usual. "Oh, monsieur, we have fallen into the hands of desperate criminals. We shall all be murdered."
"Now, now, mam'selle, it's not that bad." He gently placed his hands on the arms of the distressed Frenchwoman, hoping to calm her.
Both turned their heads when they heard footsteps approach. He released her arms.
"They heard you, monsieur." Angelique took a step forward and sank to her knees. Clasping her hands together in prayer, she exclaimed, "Oh, mon Dieu, death is imminent." She closed her eyes.
Maverick laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I sure hope not, mam'selle." He scurried back to his room, shutting the door behind him as quietly as he could.
Angelique's door opened. Two men peered in. One was in his thirties, a roughly-dressed, swarthy rogue. The other was the middle-aged gentleman who had boarded Mary Lou's carriage at the Black Horse Tavern. Seeing nothing amiss (save a terrified woman kneeling in prayer), they shut and locked the door.
As soon as they were gone, Angelique gathered up her full skirts, rose, and hurried to the door between her room and Maverick's. She put her ear to the door.
A moment later Maverick's door was thrown open. The two men stepped inside, the younger one with his gun in his right hand. Maverick sat on the bed. He looked up as the older man stared down at him, a frown on his lips, his hands on his hips.
"Well, howdy, gentlemen. Mind telling me why you've got me locked up?" Maverick rubbed his sore skull.
The two men shook their heads and left without saying a word.
Maverick immediately jumped to his feet and ran to Angelique's room. He knocked her down in his haste to open the door and dash inside. She plopped onto the table. Her legs were thrown up, revealing several dainty white petticoats.
"Mam'selle, I–" The gambler looked around, saw Angelique smoothing down her skirt to cover her unmentionables. He helped her to her feet. "Sorry, clumsy of me."
"My fault," Angelique confessed morosely. "I should not be so curious – another of my miserable sins." In a much more ladylike fashion, she sat on the bed, her worried dark eyes downcast.
"That's not such a bad sin." Maverick pulled up a chair and sat beside her.
"Do not waste sympathy on me, monsieur," she advised. "Others need it more: Miss Peabody and Mary Lou."
"She's here, the girl?" Maverick asked. His greatest fault had always been that he'd had more curiosity than a dozen cats. His pappy had warned him that such a trait would get him into more trouble than trying to draw to an inside straight.
"Oui, I saw her, a prisoner, when we arrived, she and her sweetheart Emile," Angelique confirmed.
"I thought you said this was an elopement? Why are they holding you ladies? And me?" Maverick asked.
Angelique spread her arms in a Gallic gesture. "It is beyond my comprending, monsieur." She returned her hands to her lap. "I have a feeling it is even beyond the comprending of Emile and Mary Lou." She pointed at him with one lily-white finger. "It just occurred to me. How is it that you are here?"
"I was forgetting." Maverick began patting his jacket, feeling his pockets. "They took my money, my gun, and my knife." He glanced down and saw the prayer book in his front pocket. He reached down and handed it to her. "But they didn't take this."
"Mine?" She stared at him, her dark eyes going wide in wonder.
"Got your name inside, from your mother. I figured it might be valuable to you."
Angelique opened the book and reread the familiar inscription, unable (like St. Thomas) to dare to believe without proof. "It is mine, but where did you find it?"
"On the road, just after I left you. Kind of lucky I was the one to find it, huh?"
"Lucky, oh, no, no, monsieur. This is not lucky; this is no accident. This is by the hand of le Bon Dieu Himself." Angelique raised her face heavenward, looking up at the ceiling. "It is a miracle."
"Well, I wouldn't–" Maverick began.
Angelique held up a hand to stop him. "There is no doubt about it, monsieur. It is truly a miracle." She closed her eyes. Her lips moved silently in prayer.
The gambler was too polite to contradict a lady, but he thought 'twas nothing but a coincidence, and his inability to mind his own business when a pretty woman was involved. "What we need now is another one to get us all out of here."
They heard footsteps in the hall. Both turned to face the door. Maverick leapt to his feet. Angelique rededicated herself to her prayers.
After one glance down at her, wishing she would offer help of a more tangible nature, Maverick hurried back to his room. He silently shut the door, then stood listening at the crack.
The door to Angelique's room opened. A swarthy, mustached man stepped in carrying a tray with food and coffee. He was unwary, seeing only a frightened woman sitting on the corner of the bed, desperately praying.
Angelique did not look up until he slammed the door shut behind him, pretending not to notice him. "Oh, how thoughtful of you, monsieur. You may set it here." She gestured gracefully at the chair beside her.
Scowling at the thought of a prisoner treating him like a servant, he followed her instructions. As he bent down to set the tray down, Maverick burst through the door and grabbed him around the neck. Angelique seized the tray, lest it clatter to the floor and alert their captors. Maverick wrestled with him, forcing him down on the bed.
"Mam'selle, turn your back," Maverick ordered. He had one hand on the swarthy fellow's throat, the other hand pulled back, ready to strike.
Angelique did so, and Maverick punched the man's jaw, knocking him unconscious.
"He has fainted, monsieur?" she asked, putting the man's unconsciousness in the only terms she could manage, between her sheltered upbringing as a gentlewoman and her limited English.
"That's right," Maverick said, not wanting to disillusion her.
"But when he wakes up, he will cry out, no?"
Maverick nodded. "I'll have to rip my shirt." He shed his jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt.
"No, no, no, no, monsieur. Not your shirt. You can not spare it."
"We have to gag him," Maverick pointed out.
"Wait," she ordered. Then, half-plea, half-order: "Turn your back, monsieur."
Maverick turned around. He re-buttoned his shirt and put his jacket back on. A moment later she handed him one of her petticoats.
"Here. If this is not sufficient, I have a further supply," she confessed, trying not to blush.
"This'll be sufficient. Thank you, Angie." Maverick began to tear the bottom of the white cotton petticoat into strips.
"What did you call me, monsieur?"
"Angie. Angelique's just a little long, don't you think? Do you mind?"
She smiled as she helped him tear the petticoat. "No, I like it."
"You can call me Bret."
"I like that, too, Bret."
Madame Odin, the Creole woman who had told Maverick that Miss Peabody and Mademoiselle Moreau were not there, sat in the front room of the trading post, knitting. With a frown, she glanced at her husband and the woman who sat between them: the unflappable Miss Peabody. Behind her sat Emile Dussard, a handsome young man dressed in the height of fashion, his hands tied behind him. Behind the young dandy stood the elegantly-liveried coachman and the rogue who'd accompanied Odin earlier as he checked on the prisoners.
"For the last time, madame, take that pen and do what I say." The middle-aged man tried to keep his voice calm and reasonable, but frustration seeped into his tone.
"Do your worst, you scoundrel. You shall not make me a part of this odious plot." Her voice, though dripping with disdain, was calm. No brigand, no matter how contemptible, could ruffle the feathers of Miss Peabody.
"Write," he insisted.
"Do what he wants, Miss Peabody," urged Emile.
"And who are you to be giving advice, young man? You, who got us all into this?" she asked scornfully.
Emile clicked his tongue, and tried to shrug his shoulders, as much as his bonds would permit. "That's done now. The important thing is to get you ladies safely home. Write what he asks," he begged.
Miss Peabody turned away from Emile and faced forward, unwilling to look at him or her captor. "I shall write no lies for this felonious criminal."
"Your final word, madame?" Odin asked.
"My final word," the old woman agreed.
Madame Odin looked up from her knitting long enough to catch her husband's eye. He walked behind the table and bent his head down so his wife could whisper in his ear. Not once did her knitting needles halt, nor even slow.
Odin turned to the coachman. "Fetch the girl."
Without a word, the coachman left the room.
Meanwhile, Maverick was busy buckling the guard's gunbelt around his waist. It was a cheap, inferior pistol, but at least the man had had a decent quality Bowie knife. Leaving Angelique (safe, he hoped!) to watch the unconscious guard, he snuck up to the storeroom adjoining the main room of the general store. He eavesdropped for a second as the coachman and another rogue brought in Mary Lou Carter.
"Mary Lou!" Emile rose to his feet, relieved to see her unharmed.
"Oh, Miss Peabody, ma'am, I'm so frightened." Ignoring her sweetheart, the blonde hurried to the side of her headmistress. Her hair was pulled up in a long ponytail, which fell down in golden waves. She spoke in a thick cornbread and cotton accent.
"Dry your tears, Miss Carter. Our fate is in the hands of Providence." Neither hysterical schoolgirls nor 'felonious criminals' could loosen her stiff upper lip by a single notch.
"Please sit down, madame." Odin placed a hand on her shoulder and gently forced her back into the chair.
Maverick peeked from behind some crates, watching carefully. Between Monsieur Odin, the coachman, and two guards, he didn't want to do anything hasty.
Odin rolled up his left sleeve and displayed a tattoo of a half-naked woman. "Do you see that?"
"Hmph! A vulgar exhibition of bad taste," Miss Peabody declared.
"It has been there for more than twenty years, madame. Indelible. Impossible to remove. Tattoo'd there with ink, forever. With ink like this." He reached out and picked up the inkwell. Odin set the inkwell down, walked behind Miss Peabody, and surprised Mary Lou by grabbing her by the hair. "Should I tattoo the message on the beautiful face of this girl, madame?"
Mary Lou looked up at him, her blue eyes wide with fear, too terrified to utter a syllable.
"Or would you prefer to write what I shall tell you to write?" Odin inquired calmly.
"Write, Miss Peabody," Emile urged. "You have no choice."
Miss Peabody's expression fell. She was defeated.
Maverick peeked from behind the crates.
"Write exactly what I say," Odin ordered as Miss Peabody removed her glove. She picked up the quill and dipped it in the inkwell.
"My dear Colonel Carter," Odin began. Mary Lou and Emile looked on helplessly. Two henchmen and the coachman stood behind them. Madame Odin sat on the other side of the table, still knitting. "If you wish to see your daughter alive…" Mary Lou looked up, shocked by his wickedness. "…you will send me the sum of ten thousand dollars."
Madame Odin looked up from her knitting and smiled at the figure her husband named.
"Which sum will be delivered by–"
Suddenly Odin was interrupted as a Bowie knife flew through the air, pinning his sleeve to the wall. Mary Lou shrieked. Maverick leaped into the room, flinging himself at the two henchmen and knocking them to the floor. The coachman beat a hasty retreat. Mary Lou shrieked again. Miss Peabody stood and pushed the table over on top of Madame Odin.
In the bedroom, Angelique turned her head at the sound of the ruckus. She sat guard over the unconscious prisoner, a broken table leg in her hand.
Maverick punched one of Odin's henchmen, knocking him back to the floor. Mary Lou raced to Emile's side. Odin pulled the knife loose and turned to use the blade on Maverick. Maverick whacked him with a chair. As he fell, the second henchman stumbled to his feet. Maverick hit him with the chair, too.
Taking a deep breath, the gambler looked around. Mary Lou was trying to untie Emile's bonds. Miss Peabody was pushing the table against Madame Odin, trying to prevent her from getting up. The Frenchwoman struggled vigorously, then bumped her head against the floor and lay still.
Maverick picked up the knife, walked over to Emile, and reached down to cut his ropes.
Odin regained his feet and attacked Maverick. The gambler fell back against the counter of the general store.
After checking one last time that her prisoner was still unconscious, Angelique snuck out of the bedroom to investigate the sounds.
Miss Peabody picked up a chair and brought it down on Odin's head.
Angelique entered the store at that moment. "Miss Peabody!" she exclaimed, shocked at her employer's unladylike actions.
"Take up a chair, Miss Moreau, and smite thine enemies," the headmistress directed. With an air of satisfaction, she dusted off her hands and straightened her bonnet.
Maverick had drawn back his fist, ready to punch Odin. Now he slowly lowered it, seeing no more enemies to smite. Instead, he reached over and shook hands with Miss Peabody.
"As I often say to my young ladies, there is nothing so salubrious as brisk physical exercise." Her eyes glowed with excitement.
Angelique stared at the remains of the donnybrook.
"It was fine while it lasted," Maverick agreed.
Angelique muttered something in French. "Oh, that I should have come in late and missed the best part," she lamented.
"More self control, Miss Moreau, if you please." Miss Peabody was once again using her schoolmarm voice, calm and slightly disapproving.
Mary Lou's useless young swain approached Maverick, extending his hand. "Allow me to introduce myself, monsieur."
"Oh, I know all about you, Emile. I'm Bret Maverick. We better get these fellows tied up while they're still out cold. Get those ropes," he directed.
Emile hastened to obey.
"What are your plans for these criminals, Mr. Maverick?" asked Miss Peabody.
"Oh, have 'em jailed for abduction, extortion, and robbery."
Miss Peabody nodded her approval. "Splendid. And I shall be there to testify against them."
"But will it not be in all the newspapers?" Angelique asked, a concerned note in her voice.
"Naturally. It will be an object lesson to all other criminals," Miss Peabody declared.
"But what will it be to Mary Lou's papa? He will be most angry," Angelique predicted, "not only with her, but with Miss Peabody's Select Female Academy."
A concerned look crossed Miss Peabody's visage.
"What of the handsome contribution?" Angelique whispered.
Miss Peabody hemmed. "On second thought, Mr. Maverick, perhaps it would not be wise to bring these men into court. Could we not give them their just desserts in some other fashion?"
"Let me worry 'bout that, ma'am," Maverick told her as he tied up Odin. "There'll be no scandal."
"Thank you, sir."
Having finished tying up the henchmen, Emile went to Mary Lou's side. He took her hands in his and peered into her blue eyes.
"And there will be no more of that, young man, not while this young lady is in my charge." At Miss Peabody's scolding, Mary Lou lowered her eyes bashfully. "What you do later does not concern me. Out with you now, and harness the pony to the cart." She waved him away.
Emile reluctantly dropped Mary Lou's hands and went to obey Miss Peabody. He blew Mary Lou a kiss.
Angelique stopped him before he reached the door. "My cape and prayer book, Emile."
He nodded and left, before anyone else could give him any other orders.
"And this time, Miss Moreau, you will not let her out of your sight until we are safely home. Hurry along, now," Miss Peabody ordered.
Angelique nodded and escorted Mary Lou to the door. She stopped, turned back, and said, "Au revoir, Bret. May le Bon Dieu bless you always."
Maverick waved. "Bye, Angie."
Angelique smiled, and led Mary Lou out.
Dismayed by the familiarities, Miss Peabody turned from Angelique to Maverick. "Angie? Bret?"
"Oh, we kinda got got acquainted. We were locked up together," Maverick explained.
"I do not approve of the use of nicknames. Good day to you, Mr. Maverick." She turned and walked out.
"Good day, Miss Peabody."
Once more, Maverick rode off, hurrying toward Samantha Crawford and the Opera Ball. He had dumped the prisoners on a steamboat bound for Natchez-under-the-Hill. Just about sundown, he came around a bend in the road, a few miles outside New Orleans. An all too familiar sight greeted his eyes.
A pony cart stood in the middle of the road. Miss Peabody and Angelique were attempting to replace the right wheel on the axis while Mary Lou watched helplessly.
He urged his mount forward and dismounted next to the ladies.
"Bret! Oh, if you but knew how I was praying for your reappearance." Angelique turned to Mary Lou. "Is it not so, Miss Carter? Did I not ask you to pray also?"
The schoolgirl nodded her head.
Without a word, Maverick drew the Bowie knife he had confiscated from Odin's henchman. He cut a leather thong from the trim of his saddle. He gestured to the two schoolteachers to lift the wheel, and then lifted the cart enough for them to return the wheel to the axle. He bent down to tie the wheel in place with the thong.
"Oh, I do so regret delaying you again, Mr. Maverick," Miss Peabody apologized. "Was there not an urgent matter of business requiring your presence in New Orleans?"
"Well, the fact is, I was taking a young lady to the Opera Ball tonight," Maverick confessed. "But I'm so late now I guess she's made other arrangements." He stood and kicked the wheel to test how secure it was. "Miss Peabody, may I remind you that you still have to get a nut?"
Miss Peabody nodded.
"A nut," Angelique repeated.
"Into the cart, Mary Lou," Miss Peabody directed. "You, too, Angelique."
As Maverick remounted, Angelique told him, "I'm so sorry, Bret. If there were only some way I could make it up to you."
Maverick touched his hat to the ladies. He started to ride off, then stopped his horse before it had taken a second step. "Whoa, now, you just said something there. Miss Peabody, I'd like the honor and privilege of escorting Mademoiselle Angelique to the Opera Ball tonight. With your permission, of course."
A shocked expression crossed Miss Peabody's face before she forced her features to regain their usual calm demeanor. "Well, we're both in your debt, to be sure, Mr. Maverick, but I'm afraid–"
Maverick interrupted her before she could say another word. "Thank you, ma'am, thank you kindly." He reached down and scooped Angelique up, perching her on the saddle before him. He nudged the chestnut gelding forward and rode off without another word.
"Young man!" Miss Peabody protested.
"Isn't he just the most divine thing ever?" Mary Lou asked.
Miss Peabody stared down the road after them, then turned and gave Mary Lou a disapproving glare. It was obvious she was going to have to delete Sir Walter Scott's "Lochinvar" from the literary curriculum.
And Bret Maverick and Angelique Moreau rode off into the sunset.
* ~ * ~ * ~ *
* ~ *