It was slow going carrying Kid down the steep, narrow trail. Heyes went first as he was taller and stronger than Kyle. His height helped to level the ride for his partner and he took the bulk of Kid's weight from the smaller man. Still, they had to go very slowly over the treacherous ground. By the time they reached the valley below, he and Kyle were both exhausted and the Kid had not stirred.
"Heyes, can we stop for a minute? I'm plumb wore out," said Kyle gasping.
"Okay, but lay him down carefully," said Heyes over his shoulder. Together they sank down and placed Kid carefully on the wet grass. Heyes removed his hat and wiped his sweaty hair off his forehead. Kyle was bent over trying to catch his breath. Heyes scanned the clearing before them, but saw no sign of Wheat and Allie. He hoped that it wasn't too much further.
"Heyes, look! They're over there," said Kyle, pointing.
Heyes could see a thin plume of smoke climbing into the air and he grinned. Kneeling down next to his partner, Heyes used his bandana to wipe Kid's damp face. The knot on his cousin's head was turning purple and he was getting a black eye. "Let's go. I want to get Kid settled and check him over," said Heyes. Kyle reached down and, with a groan, picked up his end of the makeshift stretcher. Heyes lifted the other end and they headed toward the column of smoke.
"Wheat, I see them. They're coming," said Allie. She had been keeping watch ever since they had finished setting up camp and she saw Heyes and Kyle carrying Kid down the last stretch of trail off the pass. They would be going no further today with Kid injured so Wheat had built a fire and it was now crackling warmly. The rain had let up and the sky was clearing with the sun peeking out from the dark clouds. He had put on water for coffee and was boiling the bones of last night's turkey in a pot to make a thin soup.
Wheat could see Allie was anxious for Kid to arrive. "Go on and meet them. I'll keep an eye on things here," said Wheat with a smile. Allie smiled at him gratefully and dashed up the trail. Wheat chuckled to himself; that little gal sure was something. He hoped the Kid was all right, but he didn't envy him the fussing over he was going to have to endure.
Heyes came around a bend in the path and saw Allie rushing towards him. He smiled despite the wrenching pain in his arms and shoulders. "Hi," he panted, "we saw the smoke. Thank you."
"Wheat said you'd follow the smoke. He built the fire. Hi, Kyle," said Allie. She stroked Jed's arm, needing to touch him and reassure herself that he was alive.
"Hello, Miss Allie," huffed Kyle. Sweat was pouring down his face. He was struggling to hang onto the foot of the stretcher.
Allie fell into step next to him and reached for one side. "Here, let me help. I can take a side," she said. Kyle wanted to pretend he didn't need help but he was just too tired to do it. He stepped aside slightly and Allie grabbed the branch. "It's just a few hundred feet. Not far at all," she said.
"Good," gasped Heyes. "Kid doesn't know it yet, but he's going on a diet."
Kyle and Allie laughed.
Stafford had hired five men to cover the few close friends Allie had in Denver and was now waiting with Monty for the men to arrive at Eyser's Saloon for a meeting. Corky was the first to arrive and he spotted the tall Texan and the detective sitting at a large table in the rear of the bar. It was early in the evening and the crowd was light so Corky stopped and ordered a beer to take with him.
He slipped into a chair pushed out by Monty's foot. The big man was sipping a whiskey and eyeing Corky shrewdly. The detective said nothing, but nodded a greeting. Patiently waiting for the scrutiny to end, Corky calmly drank his beer. He knew this game and he could hold a silence all night if he had to. Finally, Monty smiled at him and said, "What's your name again, son?"
"It's Corky Fallon, sir." said Corky politely, knowing he had passed the big man's test.
Monty held out his hand. "Good to have you with us, son," he said. Two men entered the saloon and caught Stafford's eye. He lifted his hand and they made their way to the table.
"Gentlemen," said Stafford, standing at their arrival.
Monty remained seated. He gave them the stink-eye, too, and they sat down and shifted uneasily in their chairs. Corky smiled and the two men introduced themselves as Guttmann and Polson. Stafford signaled the waiter and ordered a round for the table as another couple of men came in. He waved them over. The men shook hands all around, sat down, and gave their names as Campbell and Roeber. Roeber was tall like Monty, but Campbell just topped five foot five. The waiter delivered the beers and went on to his next customers. Roeber ignored the Texan looking him over and chatted amiably with Guttmann, but Campbell glared back at the big man and tried to stare him down. Monty finally smiled slightly. "Boys, this here's Corky Fallon," he drawled as he gestured to Corky, "you'll be reporting to him. I want only one man reporting to me, it'll cut down on confusion. We won't see each other again until the job is done and you get your pay."
Corky was surprised at the responsibility but showed no outward sign of it. This fit in nicely with his plan. He had been summoned by Sy this morning and told to be on the lookout for the Devil's Hole gang. The gang was pretty well known in this part of town and there would be a lot of eyes watching for them. There'd be good money to the man who found them and Corky was determined it would be him.
"Here's a photograph of the girl. I want each of you to memorize what she looks like," said Stafford, passing around the photo. Each man spent time studying it carefully and passed it on. "She is riding with a group of men. Two of them are about this tall," said Stafford, standing up and holding out his hand. One of them is light-haired, medium build, about 165 pounds; the other's dark-haired, medium build, around 160. There are two more men. One's short, light-haired, with bad teeth and a chewing tobacco habit; the other's a big, tall man, about Monty's size. He's light brown haired and he's got a full mustache. You'll know them when you see them because the girl's riding a splashy paint horse."
Polson snorted and shook his head. Any yahoo knew that a paint was just asking to be noticed. These men must be idiots.
Monty spoke up, "Now we don't know whether this little gal is along with them willingly or whether she's their prisoner. You'll need to be careful not to spook her or them. I don't want any of you trying to capture her. You're to report back to Corky and he'll get word to me. We'll do the capturing, you only watch; that's all, understood?"
The men nodded and Campbell spoke up, "How do we know we'll get paid?" he said suspiciously, "I want something up front."
Monty squinted at him until he dropped his eyes. "Do you think I'm a fool, son? If I pay you now, what's to stop you from running off with my money?" He didn't see the sudden flush on Stafford's face; the detective had paid those two outlaws two hundred dollars up front and that's exactly what they had done.
"All right then. Here's where each of you are to go. These are the homes of known friends of the gal. Find a place to hide, make sure you ain't seen and keep watch until you're told to stop. When we find the gal, Corky will come get you," said Monty. He passed a note to each man. A single address was listed on each one.
Stafford was growing irritated with Monty's assumption of leadership. Standing up again, he placed his hands on the table and said, "Get going, gentlemen. The sooner you find her, the sooner you'll be paid."
Heyes stood up stiffly from his examination of Kid. "There's no sign of broken bones. We'll have to wait until he wakes up to know if he's hurt inside, but it looks right now like he's pretty damn lucky," he said.
Allie was sitting next to Jed trying her best to clean the mud off him. She smiled up at Heyes, and saw that his words were meant to reassure him as much as they were for her. "Don't worry. He'll be fine. I put some coffee on earlier. Why don't you get some?" she said kindly.
Heyes walked over to the fire and glanced at the horses. Fannie and his gelding were not there. "That damn fool horse of yours wouldn't let me catch her, Heyes. She'd let me get right close to her and then she'd prance off leading that gelding on like a lovesick schoolboy. They're over that way, grazing," said Wheat gesturing. He was crouched by the fire, peeling some potatoes and chopping onions for the soup.
"I'll get her. Thanks, Wheat," said Heyes with a tired smile. He trudged off through the underbrush back out to the trail. He wasn't worried about Fannie, she'd come when he whistled; he wanted to walk off his nerves. Outwardly calm, he was very worried about his cousin. Kid was lucky to be alive as hard as he and that horse had gone down. Knucklehead had always been on the clumsy side, and Heyes had prodded Kid to get rid of him, but his partner was stubborn and had dug in his heels. Heyes wasn't looking forward to Kid finding out that jug-headed horse of his was dead. His spirits sinking, he stopped, and whistled loudly. He listened and soon heard an answering whinny and the noisy approach of the two horses. Fannie came barreling down a faint game trail with the gelding sailing along in her wake. She stopped a few feet in front of Heyes and stretched her neck out sniffing about his head and neck as the gelding chewed at the dried grasses by his hooves. Heyes stroked his mare's silky coat and she leaned her head into his chest. Scratching her muzzle absently, Heyes leaned against her soaking up the warmth of her and letting it seep into him as she stood quietly. Finally, he gave her one last pat, picked up the dangling reins and started to walk back towards camp. Fannie followed placidly behind. The gelding trailed a few feet further back, pausing to nibble here and there at the tall grasses along the way.
The rain began to fall in Denver; the weather having swept in off the Rockies. Stafford was tucked into an alleyway that ran parallel to, and a few houses down from, Mrs. Harcourt's townhouse. He felt the first few drops and cursed. Just his luck. The detective pulled up his coat collar and sank as far back under the overhanging roof as he could. This was the worst part of his job. He hated waiting idly. Monty had stayed at the saloon and Stafford envied him.
He saw a carriage pull to a stop in front of the house. The driver climbed down and opened an umbrella, then stepped up to the front door rapping on it loudly. The door opened and Mrs. Harcourt slipped out, the driver trotting alongside holding the umbrella over her. He handed her up into the carriage, closed the umbrella, and scrambled into his seat. With a flick of the reins, he drove off.
Stafford ran after them trying to keep the carriage in sight. He managed to for many blocks, but the cab started to pick up speed and soon lost him. He stopped and reached out to steady himself against a lamppost until he caught his breath. It didn't matter. It wasn't Ruth Harcourt he needed to watch. It was her townhouse. He smoothed his jacket and started back to his post.
Monty was playing poker and he was winning much to the irritation of the florid man, Jenks, who sat across from him. The man had been drinking heavily throughout the late afternoon and his card-playing reflected his state of inebriation. He continually grumbled under his breath about the tall Texan. Silly things, really, like a cowardly bully and Monty hated bullies. The stupid man was beginning to get to him and he resented that. He prided himself on keeping his cool and this drunken fool was getting under his skin. The fellow to his left called and the cards were laid on the table. Monty had won again. He leaned over the table and drew the pot towards him as the red-faced man jumped to his feet. "You cheated, I know you did. That's the fourth hand in a row and I know you're cheating," cried Jenks loudly. The entire saloon quieted and turned to watch the drama.
Monty drilled him with his gray eyes and stood up slowly. "That kind of talk's likely to get you killed, son. Why don't you just get your chips and get the hell out of here before I lose my temper?" he said.
"No! I want the money you stole," said Jenks, glaring at Monty. He saw a shadow cross Monty's face and shivered with premonition. Realizing the danger he faced, Jenks backed up until he felt the saloon wall behind him, he looked around at the other four men at the table. "You saw him. You all saw him. He was cheating. Aren't you going to do something about it?" said Jenks weakly. The men all scooped up their chips and backed away from the table. Jenks looked from them to the Texan knowing that he'd back himself into a corner both literally and figuratively. In a second of panicked desperation, he clawed for his gun. His fear made him clumsy and he looked down while he drew, hoping he was fast enough. A sharp pain ripped through his left shoulder and he was thrown back against the wall, pinned like a butterfly. He stared at the hilt of a huge Bowie knife protruding from his body. Jenk's knees went weak and he started to sag only to feel the blade tearing through his muscles. Bolting up right, he began to scream at the top of his lungs. Monty shoved the table aside and closed in on Jenks. Jenks stopped screaming and whimpered piteously as the Texan grabbed his pistol, still gripped in his hand, and flung it across the room. The barmaid scooped it up and hid it in the folds of her skirt. She could sell it for a tidy sum later.
Leaning inches from Jenks' face, Monty quietly said, "What the hell were you thinking, son? Is your life really only worth a few dollars to you?" He yanked his knife out on the last word and Jenks screamed again and fainted to the floor. Wiping the blade on the unconscious man's shirt, Monty straightened up and tucked the knife back into his jacket. Nodding to the other men, he scooped up his winnings, pocketed them, and walked out the door. You could hear a pin drop in the saloon until the batwing doors stopped swinging.
With a generous advance from Sy, Corky had been able to post numerous spies around the Devil's Hole gang's usual haunts. He'd also hired his own man to watch his assigned 'friend of Miss Harcourt's'; leaving him free to shadow the detective. He watched Stafford dashing after the cab and decided to use the opportunity to case the townhouse. Corky was a burglar by trade and he couldn't resist; but, more importantly, he knew it might prove useful to know the layout of the home for his current job. He saw a maid leaving by the back door and watched her walk up the alley. Waiting until after she disappeared around a corner, he crept about the exterior using the landscaping for cover, peeking in the windows to make sure no one was inside. He arrived again at the back of the house and walked up to the door, quickly jimmying the lock. Slipping inside, he found himself in a small kitchen. A long hallway stretched to the front door. There were rooms off the left side and a staircase leading to the second floor. Creeping quietly in case there was still somebody in the house, he softly ascended the steps and found another, shorter hallway. There were two bedrooms on his right and he glanced into each one, noting the windows and the neighbor's townhouse looming next door. It would be too difficult to break in on the second story; too much exposure. He hurried down the stairs and back to the kitchen. Opening the small door on the right hand wall, he found steps leading down into a basement. and he trotted boldly down them. There was no light except for the faint sunlight streaming through the small, grimy windows set high in the walls, but he could see they were big enough for a man to slip through. He walked over to the closest one and slipped open the lock. The window opened quietly and he slid it shut again. Looking around, he saw a coal chute at the rear of the basement towards the alleyway. That would be a tight squeeze but he could manage it should someone discover the unlocked window. Satisfied, he ran up the stairs and slipped out the back door unseen.
The night stars peeked through the dark clouds smothering the sky. Wheat and Kyle had turned in hours ago, but Heyes and Allie were sitting up keeping a watch on Kid. They'd settled him next to the fire for the night and had put their own bedrolls over him to provide additional warmth. Allie was leaning back against her saddle with her knees drawn up and encircled by her arms. She rested her head on her knees and watched as Heyes poured another round of coffee. Her stomach was already soured from the previous mugs she had, but she reached across Jed and took the mug held out to her knowing it would keep her awake. "Thank you," she said softly. Heyes looked exhausted and he was not trying to hide his worry since his men had gone to sleep. It touched her heart that such a secretive man allowed his mask to drop in front of her. Heyes leaned over and touched his partner's neck lightly. He stood up and crossed around Kid to sit down next to Allie. "You love him very much, don't you?" she asked.
Heyes looked into her eyes. "We've been partners all our lives. He's my best friend," he said simply.
Allie laid a comforting hand on his arm. "He will be fine. I know he will. He's not running a fever and don't you think he might have by now if he had more serious injuries?" she said.
"You're probably right, but I'll still feel better when he wakes up. He'll be a bear to live with for a day or two, though. Kid doesn't suffer well," chuckled Heyes.
"You've taken care of him for a long time, haven't you?" said Allie.
"We take care of each other. Kid watches my back as much as I watch his; probably more," said Heyes.
"That's not what I mean. You've taken responsibility for him all your life, haven't you? He told me about your childhood," said Allie. "How you took care of him after your parents died. That was a huge burden for a young boy to take on."
"It had to be done. There was no one else," said Heyes.
"You did a wonderful job. He's a fine man," said Allie.
"You call helping him become the 'fastest gun in the West' a good job? I should've made different choices for us. I was the oldest. He listens to me," said Heyes bitterly.
"You were a child yourself. You made the best choices you were capable of making at the time," said Allie.
"You weren't there, you have no idea what terrible choices I made," said Heyes, staring morosely at the fire. Allie snuggled next to him, feeling the cold seeping in, and laid her head on his shoulder. Heyes wrapped an arm about her and pulled her close. It felt so comforting to have her near.
"Children live in the here and now. They don't understand long term consequences. The choices you made might have been poor according to others, but they are the choices that kept you alive in a very dangerous world. If you had made more conventional decisions, you might not have survived at all," said Allie, lifting her head and looking into his eyes. "Heyes, you have to learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes; and for Kid's mistakes, too. I know you are proud of him and you have to acknowledge that your influence contributed in a large part to who he is," she said.
She saw the raw emotion in his eyes and, impulsively, she melted against him lifting her lips to his own. Heyes tensed slightly at the feel of her mouth then crushed her to him kissing her hungrily. She moaned at the sensations leaping inside her and reached her arms up around his neck. Heyes roughly pulled her arms from his neck and pushed her away. He stood and stepped back staring down angrily at her puzzled face. "We can't do this," he snarled, stalking off into the night and leaving her glowing with shame. What had she been thinking? She jumped up and raced after him.
"Heyes! Wait, please wait. I'm sorry," she cried out softly. She followed the sound of his footsteps crashing away from camp. Running blindly towards the noise, branches clawing at her face and body, she sobbed at her foolishness and begged him to wait. She had to talk to him. He didn't love her, she had thrown herself at him, and now he would hate her for her betrayal of his partner. She wouldn't be able to bear his scorn. This is what her aunt had meant about love. She had felt the love ruthlessly gripping her heart as she kissed him.
She tripped over a small root and fell hard to the ground. Lying in the sodden leaves, she sobbed uncontrollably now, grinding her face and her sorrow into the ground.
Heyes heard her cry out as she fell and turned back in the direction the sobbing was coming from. He found her quickly, and seeing her lying in the dirt crying her eyes out, he went to her and lifted her up gently, rocking her in his arms.
"Hey, hey, c'mon. Stop crying. Please, it'll be okay," said Heyes holding her tightly.
Allie buried her face in his shoulder and quieted to an occasional sniffle. Lifting her filthy, tear-stained face to him, she whispered, "I'm so sorry. I don't know why I kissed you like that."
Heyes smiled slightly and said, "It just happened. That's all."
"You aren't mad at me?" she asked, afraid of the answer.
"No, I'm not mad at you. I was mad at me. I kissed you, too, remember?" said Heyes with a small chuckle. He let go of her and she sat back.
Allie searched his face in the moonlight. He was upset, but she could tell he wasn't angry anymore. Sitting up, she wiped her face with her dirty hands and smeared mud everywhere. Heyes laughed softly, and pulled off his bandana. "Here, you're a mess," he said, not trusting himself to touch her. He'd been shocked at the flood of emotions he had felt when he kissed her. He wasn't sure he'd ever felt anything like that. It had shaken him and it had brought him to his senses. Kid loved this woman and Heyes would be damned if he would steal his partner's girl.
"I can't do this to Kid. You know that don't you? He loves you," said Heyes so sadly that Allie felt her heart breaking.
"I love him, too, but I know now that it's not the kind of love I need," said Allie. Heyes stared at her, listening, and she continued, "He wants a wife and a family. I don't know if I want to be someone's wife or a mother. He wants someone to cherish and care for; I want to be free and he knows that. I've been completely honest with him."
"That's good, because neither of us are exactly husband material," said Heyes snorting.
"I'm falling in love with you, Heyes," said Allie.
"You can't, Allie. It won't work," said Heyes. He wanted to make it work. He wanted to sweep her up in his arms and never let go, but he couldn't.
"I know, but I'm not sure I need it to last forever," said Allie in a small voice.
Heyes looked at her, confused. It was not a feeling he was used to. What was it about this girl that made him feel like an awkward teenager? She was always throwing him off-balance; making him unsure of what to expect from her. It was only one of the reasons he was falling in love with her, too, but he knew that he could never admit he was. Kid might understand, but he couldn't do it. Not to his partner, and not to Allie.
"You don't need me. I know that, and I don't want to be needed. I just want to love you; no strings attached," she said.
"I'm sorry, it wouldn't be fair to you or Kid," he said lamely. His mouth said one thing but his eyes said another and Allie could see the tenderness and fear he was feeling.
Allie studied him. He looked away. "So, as reckless as you are with your life; you're a coward when it comes to your heart? It's ironic, isn't it?" she whispered. Heyes looked at her quizzically. "You and Jed had parents who you loved and who loved you very much and they died when you were far too young. You've spent your whole lives coping with the pain of that loss. You're afraid to love again. I have lived my whole life with parents who wished I didn't exist; yearning for something I didn't even understand. If it wasn't for my aunt, I doubt I would ever have known what love was. All my life all I've ever hoped for is someone to love who would love me back and I fall for the man who doesn't want me, not the man who does." A small tear welled out of her eye and slid slowly down her cheek. Heyes reached over and brushed it gently away; she smiled sadly at him. "Silly isn't it? I would risk anything for love, and you, who risks just about everything else, won't risk love. What a pitiful pair we are," she said.
Heyes swallowed tightly and said hoarsely, "It wouldn't work. You can't live my life and I can't live in yours."
"Why are you so afraid to love me?" said Allie, leaning into him again. Heyes stood up again and look down.
"Because love given, is love lost," said Heyes with absolutely no emotion at all.
Many thanks to you all for the great comments; it means so much to hear that you are enjoying the story. For those of you who have mentioned that you see the end in sight, there's still a lot of tale left to tell! Thanks again, IO