A soft breath caressed her cheek, followed by the light brush of a whiskered kiss. Allie sighed and murmured. Opening her eyes, she was startled to find a large snout hovering over her face. She jumped up, causing Patches to jerk his head up and snort. The paint horse tossed his head and bolted away, bucking despite his hobbles, stirring up the other horses.
The sky was still purpled with the last vestiges of the night and there was a pink glow to the east. The moon had not yet set and it cast a silvery light. Allie saw that Heyes was gone, his empty bedroll was still next to her. She didn't remember falling asleep, but she must have at some point. Her back and hips hurt from sleeping on the hard surface so she sat up and pulled her bedroll about her. She remembered snuggling close to Heyes and listening to the deep rumble of his voice as he attempted to teach her the constellations. Allie blushed; once again, she'd slept in the arms of a virtual stranger. Brushing aside her embarrassment, she glanced toward the glow of the campfire. She could see Heyes lifting the coffee pot from the fire ring.
Why was she so interested in this man? He was rude, arrogant, and insufferably confident; but he was also charismatic, witty, and brilliant. He could be ferocious and frightening, but she'd seen his gentleness and kindness, too. There were so many different facets to his personality, as though he were several men contained within one body; yet he was completely different from any man she had ever known. Not that she'd known all that many men. Certainly, she never known any well enough to ride off into the wilderness with them, yet she'd ridden off with Jed, and now Heyes, without a second thought.
Jed. How could she love Jed so much, but be so drawn to Heyes? Her Aunt Esther had always told her that love wasn't something you chose. It was like a wild animal that seized you by the throat and sucked the soul from your body. She had never felt anything remotely close to that; but last night, crawling into Heyes's embrace, she had felt something unexpected. It had felt right.
Heyes poured two mugs of coffee and stood up. He saw Kid looking at him from his bedroll. "Hey," he said.
"Hey. What are you doing up so early? I thought we were sleeping late." asked a sleepy Kid.
"I couldn't sleep. Neither could Allie. We sat up and looked at the stars," said Heyes.
"All night?" asked Kid, more awake now. He struggled up and leaned back against his saddle.
"No, I guess we fell asleep at some point. I woke up a little while ago and thought I'd make coffee," said Heyes, walking over and holding out a mug to Kid.
Kid took it, and looked out towards the meadow. He saw Allie sitting up, her bedroll wrapped around her and he also saw the empty bedroll by her side. Studying Heyes closely, he said, "You fell asleep? Together?"
Heyes seemed oblivious to Kid's discomfort and said, "Yeah, can you believe it? We fell asleep on a boulder." He chuckled and shook his head.
"No, Heyes, I can't believe it," growled Kid.
Heyes laughed and said, "We fell asleep, Kid. That's all. Nothing happened."
Kid sipped his coffee and said, without smiling, "That's good, Heyes, because I'd hate to have to kill you right after you came back from the dead." He didn't like it, but what could he say? Heyes had openly admitted what had happened and he knew his partner well enough to know he wasn't lying. At least, he hoped he did.
"Don't look at me like that. Nothing happened," said Heyes with a grin.
"I don't like you sleeping with her!" said Kid.
Heyes laughed. "Too late, Kid. You should've told me that sooner."
Heyes sat down next to his partner. "So is it that serious with you and Allie?" he asked.
"I don't know. If you asked me that a few days ago, I would have said it was. It's just like you said; this life is changing her already," said Kid, ruefully.
"And you think it's for the worse? Seems to me, she's a far sight tougher and more capable than she was," said Heyes. He liked Allie more and more all the time. How could Kid be disappointed in her? The woman had gone from being a decorative item to a strong, independent thinker in just a few weeks. Heyes couldn't believe she was the same young woman whom he'd met on Bill Decker's arm, but that was the point, she wasn't the same woman.
"I don't know, Heyes. Maybe I don't want tougher. She's just different, that's all. I don't want to talk about it, and I don't want you sleeping with her again!" said Kid.
Heyes held his hands up in surrender, "Take it easy. Is it all right if I take her coffee or is that going to make your trigger finger itchy?"
"Ha hah, very funny," said Kid, sipping his coffee and relaxing again until he realized that Heyes had walked away without making any promises.
"Coffee?" said Heyes, holding out a mug to Allie. She smiled and took the mug wrapping both of her hands around the steaming cup.
"Thank you," she said.
Picking up his bedroll, he wrapped it about her, and sat down next to her. "If Wheat's okay, we're going to head out early this morning. I plan to make it a quick trip to Denver. We'll ride hard for the next couple of days. Do you think you can handle that?" he asked.
"Are you in such a hurry to get rid of me?" she said, feeling annoyed with him.
"Yes, I am," Heyes said.
Allie bristled and her cheeks reddened in anger. Heyes chuckled and she gave him a nasty look. Standing up, she started to spit out a reply, but he grasped her wrist and pulled her down next to him.
"Settle down and hear me out," said Heyes. "As my astute partner has observed, the outlaw life is already changing you and it's only been a few days." Allie began to sputter at the idea of Jed discussing her that way, but Heyes continued, "Look at you. Can you tell me you are the same person you were when you started out on this little adventure?"
"I happen to like myself a whole lot better now. I like who I'm becoming and I don't care one whit at all what you two cretins think of me," she snapped.
Heyes laughed, "I like you a whole lot better now, too. I'm not arguing about whether or not you've changed for the better or the worse; I'm just making an observation." Continuing on in a gentler tone, he said, "Allie, you can't stay with us. An outlaw gang is no place for a woman. Not just for your safety, but for ours, too. Wheat and Kyle aren't our typical gang members. They're basically good men who have fallen into the wrong lifestyle and they are loyal to us. That's one reason we keep them around; to even up the odds a little. We have men at Devil's Hole who we wouldn't trust around you. Kid and I can't keep you safe in a camp full of woman-hungry men. Do you understand what I am saying?"
Allie's eyes widened as his meaning sunk in and she blushed even more deeply. "I'm sorry. Of course, you're right. I just hadn't thought about...that," she said apologetically.
Knowing that he had embarrassed her, he reached out to hold her hand. "You need to go back to polite society while you can still fit in. If you stay with us too much longer, you'll never manage it. I don't know how you've managed it so far, knowing you like I do now," he chuckled.
Tears were glistening in Allie's eyes, but she smiled. "I don't want that life anymore. If I have to leave you and Jed, I'll make a new life; a better one," she vowed. Heyes reached up and brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. She looked into his soft brown eyes and saw only kindness and compassion there. Her heart gave a small thump and she began to cry.
"You will make a wonderful life for yourself," he said softly. He only wished he and his partner could start over, too. Settling down with a woman like Allie was not a possibility for either of them.
Kid was sitting by the fire now, watching Allie and Heyes. He felt an ugly leap of jealousy when he saw Heyes reach out and gently touch Allie. Was his partner two-timing him right in front of his eyes? He didn't believe it, but he couldn't help the curdling feeling he experienced in the pit of his stomach. Standing, he picked up the coffee pot and marched out towards the boulder.
"Hey, who needs a refill?" he said with a grin he wasn't feeling. Allie turned her tear-filled face to him and he stopped in surprise. "What's wrong? Heyes, what did you say to her?" he asked crossly.
Allie answered, wiping her eyes with a corner of Heyes's bedroll, "It's all right, Jed. Heyes hasn't done anything wrong. In fact, he's been nothing but honest with me."
Kid wondered what that meant. "About what?" he asked.
"About the impossibility of my staying with the gang; I know he is right. I need to find my own life, not try to borrow yours. I don't belong here and I can't stay as much as I would like to," she said, standing up and hurrying past Jed, almost running for the safety of the camp; the bedrolls flapping wildly about her. Heyes and Kid stared after her.
"Sheesh, you sure know how to charm the ladies, Heyes," said Kid, still watching Allie. Heyes had turned away and was staring at the morning sky. When he didn't reply, Kid turned, too, and the look of extreme sadness and loss on Heyes's face shocked him.
Heyes cursed softly under his breath and he walked away from his partner and the camp, his hands shoved in the pockets of his gray coat and his shoulders hunched.
Kid stood, alone, drinking his coffee and watching the sun rise.
The train pulled into the Denver & Rio Grande train station in Denver late that afternoon. Stafford and Monty had travelled nearly 24 hours and were sick of it and each other. Stafford stood on the platform and peeled several large bills off the wad of cash he had pulled from his pants pocket. "Go find us a hotel room near downtown. I'll meet you at Eyser's saloon down on Blake Street for lunch. I've got to go see my client," said Stafford curtly.
Monty took the money without a word. This man was so insufferably pompous that Monty just itched to take him down a peg or two, but he was free with his money, and Monty was broke. The tall man cinched down his pride; he would do as he was told; for now.
Stafford watched his employee stomp off. He knew the man resented him and he couldn't care less. He found the Texan brash and annoying, but it didn't matter what they thought of each other. Nothing mattered except getting this job done. He had to complete this case; he wasn't about to let it get the better of him. He straightened his hat, adjusted his tie, and brushed the dust off his suit jacket. He wanted to look his best for his important client.
Wheat had awakened feeling much better that morning. The swelling in his arm had gone down and the redness was fading to a dull pink. Heyes had declared him fit to ride and he was now following the rest of the gang along a narrow game trail leading to Tennessee Pass. Heyes knew this country well and he intended to stick to little used trails that cut their way across the Continental Divide. They would follow the Divide to Geneva Creek, skirt the iron fens, cross Guanella Pass, and then they would drop south to the North Fork of the South Platte River. Once they reached the river, it would be easy riding and they could follow it to the plains where they'd cut north to Denver.
The doors to the saloon banged open and the few patrons inside turned at the noise. Stafford stomped inside, his expression grim, and joined Monty at a table. The Texan was enjoying a bowl of stew, but at the sight of his employer, he frowned and pushed aside his meal. "What the hell happened, son? You sure have your tail in a twist, don't you?" said Monty.
Stafford imperiously waved the waiter over and ordered lunch. Slipping into the chair across from Monty, he removed his hat and said, "We have to find the girl or we're both out of a job. My client was not happy to hear that we lost her and the Bannerman Detective Agency has made it plain that I must not fail."
Monty leaned back in his chair, thinking, and said, "That shouldn't be too hard. After all, we know who her acquaintances are. We'll just get us some help and watch them. Her Mama, too; that little gal may just make a beeline for home."
"Hmpf, why do you say that? She ran away, didn't she?" said Stafford.
"Yes, but if Heyes is ransoming her; he'll have to contact her mama. Miss Harcourt is going to lead him and his gang straight to us, son," said Monty smugly.
The weather had warmed considerably, and the snow was melting at the lower altitudes. Along the Divide, though, it was still cold during the days. The horses worked their way through the snow since it wasn't deep yet, but the downhill portions of the trails were wet and slippery. It took the gang nearly two days to reach Geneva Creek. Heyes had spotted the distinctive rust color of the iron fens and the broad terraces they formed, from the ridge above. He stayed on the firm ground skirting the fens, and gave the boggy wetlands a wide berth. Allie, riding alongside him, was mesmerized by the water flowing over the odd ledges and formations. It was an otherworldly sight. "What a strangely beautiful place. What is it?" she asked.
Heyes shrugged. "The spring water here has a lot of iron and minerals in it. It turns everything rusty and coats it with a deposit. It's a peat bog, but it's saturated with the minerals. This is the headwaters of Geneva Creek. We'll follow this down to the South Platte."
After riding on a short distance further, Heyes pulled Fannie up and dismounted. Allie hopped off Patches as well. They had ridden on ahead of the others so they waited quietly in the meadow below the fens for the rest of the gang to arrive. The horses nibbled at the dry grasses while Heyes and Allie watched Kid, Kyle, and Wheat wind down the trail towards them. Heyes had been quiet all morning and Allie knew him well enough by now to realize that he was brooding over something.
"Is there something wrong? You've hardly said two words unless I've asked you a direct question; and I'm running out of questions," she said teasingly.
"I'm just thinking. That's all," he answered.
"About what?" she pried.
He grinned at her and said, "I'm working out some problems for a job I'm thinking of pulling."
"A robbery? You're planning a robbery?" said Allie.
"Sure, I'm an outlaw. I do some of my best work in the saddle," said Heyes, enjoying the flabbergasted look on her face.
"But Kid said you made out well after robbing Bill," said Allie, "Why would you pull another job so soon?"
"That has nothing to do with it. It's not about the money; it's the challenge," said Heyes.
"You really are a thief!" she said.
"A very good thief," said Heyes with a grin.
"And you're proud of it," she said.
"Oh, don't give me that. You were marrying Bill Decker for his money. You're a thief, too," laughed Heyes.
Allie stared at him and then burst out laughing. "You're right! I'm a thief, too!"
Allie recovered quickly and then became curious. "What are you planning to rob?" she said.
"Oh, I don't think you need to know that. Let's just wait and see. Okay?" he said.
"What do you do with it all?" said Allie.
Heyes had switched his attention to watching Kid ride up and distractedly said, "Do with what?"
"The money; you and Jed must've stolen millions over the years. What did you do with it?" she asked.
Heyes snorted, "We spent it."
"All of it? How could you have possibly have spent all of it?" Allie gasped.
"Why would we keep it? It's not like we're saving for our old age," said Heyes, shrugging.
"You should think about the future. You could do anything you put your mind to; you don't have to be an outlaw," said Allie.
"Believe me, I've put my mind to it and I don't see that we have a future. We're too famous. It's not like we can just stop and settle down to normal lives. We get recognized all the time; it would be suicide to try to go straight. It's a miracle that Kid and I have made it this far," said Heyes flatly.
Allie said softly, "But you aren't afraid to die. You already take so many chances; why not risk trying to change your life?"
Heyes didn't answer. He watched his cousin picking his way around the fens. "It's my fault we're in this mess. When we started, we stole to survive and we got good at it. We could have kept a low profile; only taken what we needed, but I had to make each job bigger than the last. I had to prove that we were smarter and better than everyone else. My ego, my needs, backed us into this corner, backed him into a corner,' he said bitterly, "and for what? It all seems so stupid now. Our lives have no meaning."
"So give your lives meaning," said Allie simply.
Heyes turned and looked into her eyes. "We're trapped. We can't change our lives now," he said sadly.
"Maybe you can't change your life, but you can change other lives," said Allie. Heyes's full attention was on her now. "You said you don't steal for the money; that it's not important to you. Well, prove it to me. Give some of the money you steal to the people who do need it. The money you would waste; give it to charity, to the needy. No one has to know where that money comes from; no one cares. You could make such a difference; you could change people's lives for the better."
Heyes stared at her as her words sunk in. She was right. He liked the idea. He grinned broadly at her, seized her in a hug, and swung her about laughing wildly. Allie was breathless when he set her back on her feet.
Kid had arrived while Heyes was hugging Allie and wasn't pleased at the sight. Kyle and Wheat rode up behind him. "What's going on?" he said in a carefully neutral tone.
"I just discovered that Allie is the smartest gal in the world," Heyes said, giving her a loud kiss on the cheek, before releasing her. She laughed at his enthusiasm.
"Oh. Guess I already knew that," said Kid feigning disinterest. He wanted to ask what they were talking about, laughing over, but he wasn't sure he wanted to know. "Why are we stopping?" he said.
"I thought we'd take a break here and let the horses rest a while. We've been pushing them pretty hard," said Heyes to his partner.
While Kid was dismounting, Heyes whispered to Allie, "We'll talk more, okay?" She nodded.
Kid said, "It feels good to get out of the saddle." He watched Wheat dismount slowly. "You feeling okay, Wheat?" he said.
"I'm fine. Just stiff, that's all. Arm's feeling pretty good now; 'cept these stitches are itching something fierce," he said.
"You go sit down, Wheat. I'll hang onto the horses," said Kyle, reaching out for Wheat's reins.
"Thanks, Kyle, I think I will," he said. Wheat shuffled over to a fallen tree and sat down. He pulled out some tobacco and rolled a smoke. Cigarillo lit, he took a long drag, and exhaled with a sigh.
Kyle, too, had indulged his own habit and put a large wad of chaw in his mouth. He was now chewing hard like the two horses he held and all three had a contented, faraway look in their eye.