"No! I forbid it!" cried Esther, stamping her foot in frustration. She had balled her hands into fists and the red glow to her complexion lent her a comical look. Allie turned from her aunt and looked at her mother. Ruth sat on the settee, all of her attention focused on her daughter. She patted the empty place next to her and Allie went to her and sat down.
Kid, having raised quietly from his chair, gripped Esther's elbow and softly said, "Ma'am, I think you better come with me and let Allie and her ma have a private conversation." Firmly, he pulled her with him towards the door. She struggled to free herself from his grip, but could not.
"Let me go! Release me, right now!" she screamed. She swatted at him wildly until he gripped her other arm and shook her slightly.
"No, ma'am, I'm not going to let go of you. We're going to give Allie and her ma some time to talk things out. Do you want to go through that door like a lady or do I have to throw you over my shoulder and drag you outta here like a side of beef?" Kid's cold blue eyes held no hope for Esther. She relented and started to cry softly as Kid opened the door for her. He looked back at his cousin. Heyes was watching Allie and Ruth intently, showing no signs of leaving the room. "Heyes, c'mon, let's go."
Allie spoke, "No, Jed, please don't go. I need you to stay. You, too, Heyes."
"Allie, we don't want to interfere with your family," said Heyes. He looked at Ruth, but her face was impassive.
Allie walked over to Heyes and put her hand in his, "You are my family, too, and I want you to stay."
"How can you say that, Alyssa? You've only known these men a few weeks," Esther didn't want these two criminals to hear her family's secret and she was upset that her niece was involving them.
"I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for them. I was never going to come back to Denver," Allie looked at her mother. She saw the quick flicker of pain in Ruth's eyes and she felt slightly ashamed that it pleased her.
"They may be able to help us, Esther. You and I certainly have made a mess of things. Perhaps, Heyes, you can come up with one of your famous plans to help extricate us from this predicament," encouraged Ruth.
Kid loosened his grip on Esther slightly and she wrenched her arm away, "Don't you ever lay another hand on me, you ruffian, or I'll drill a hole between your eyes!" She hurried over to her sister and niece.
The Kid exchanged a shocked look with his partner. What was it with these women? One minute, they were all soft and feminine and the next minute they were spitting at you like a wildcat. Heyes could have them all; he wanted a woman he wasn't afraid to turn his back on. He went to the fire and threw another log on while the others sat down.
Esther was still furious at her sister's unilateral decision to answer Alyssa's questions; she had no right to make that choice alone! One look at her niece, though, and she knew there was nothing she could do to stop it. Sighing, she blinked back her tears and steeled herself. Her only hope was that Alyssa would still speak to them when this conversation was over. At least, it would be a relief to have it all out in the open. All those years of lies and secrecy would finally be over. She could feel the weight on her heart begin to lift.
Heyes had returned to the straight- backed chair and was leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees. He was tense, but there was no outward sign of it. He could tell that, whatever it was that Ruth was about to say, it was going to be hard on Allie and he was damn well going to make sure she didn't have to face it alone.
Allie was frightened by what she might hear, but she would never let her mother know it. The woman had always intimidated her, until recently, and Allie wasn't about to revert to deferring to her, "All right, Mother. Let's hear it."
"Quit your bellyaching, Stafford. I need you to find those two crooks. If we don't, you can kiss your big paycheck goodbye and you can be sure that I'll be takin' my pay outta your hide," growled Monty.
Stafford shut up. He felt terrible and he was sure he was harming his health, but he could also see that Northrup was not about to allow him to return to his soft, warm bed. They had spent most of the afternoon roaming in and out of the saloons and brothels. Now that night was closing in on them, they would have to start all over again as more patrons sought out their evening's entertainments.
He groaned loudly, but the scowl from the big Texan stopped him from complaining aloud.
"C'mon, let's go get some dinner and then we'll start over again at the top of Blake Street. Those two will turn up sooner or later looking for fun. Once we get our hands on them, we'll get Heyes and Curry," said Monty. He was cold and tired, too. He was no spring chicken anymore and the last few days of limited sleep was taking its toll. They'd fuel up on some good grub and then they'd be ready to do some serious hunting.
"Wheat?" ventured Kyle. He was sitting in their room above the Last Chance Saloon watching his partner resting. Wheat was lying on the bed with his hat pulled over his face. He'd been lying there for hours and Kyle had napped, too. Now he was wide awake, bored, and starting to fidget. Earlier, he'd wandered about Blake Street, but nothing had been going on. Just a few low-stakes poker games. He wasn't too good at poker. He almost always lost more than he made, so the games didn't hold much interest for him. The ladies down at the brothels were still sleeping off last night's work, so Kyle had ended up back at their room.
"Wheat?" he tried again. Kyle picked up and dropped a boot, then waited. There was a slight change in the tone of his partner's snoring. The small man sat still for a few minutes.
"Wheat?" there was still no answer. Standing up, he walked over and opened the door then slammed it close. Wheat shot up out of bed and fumbled for his gun. Kyle grinned as his partner dropped his pistol, lost his balance, and fell to the floor, cursing loudly. Pulling himself up by the bedpost, Wheat glared at him.
"Kyle, are you crazy? I could've shot you!" yelled Wheat angrily.
"You'd need a gun to do that and yours just slid under the bed," laughed Kyle, going back over to the chair and sitting down. "It's gettin' dark and I'm hungry. Let's go get somethin' to eat," said Kyle.
Wheat was standing now and straightening his clothes. He picked up his hat and put it on, then grabbed his empty gun belt. Shooting an angry look at his friend, he knelt down with as much dignity as he could muster. His Colt was too far away and he had to duck all the way to the ground and wiggle partway under the bed to finally reach it. Geez, didn't they ever clean under these things? He stood back up, holstered his pistol, and brushed the dust off his chest and sleeve.
"Okay, I'm ready. Let's go get us some steaks and some fun," smiled Wheat. Kyle was the first to the door.
"Allie, please try to understand what I am about to tell you. Esther and I have done things. Things that will upset you; but, please, try to remember that we believed we were doing what was best for you," began Ruth.
Allie felt her stomach clench. Her mother was babbling, but she could hardly hear her. On an instinctual level, she knew that what she was about to hear would change her forever. She felt, rather than saw, Heyes's hand seek hers and she gripped it tightly. "I'll remember," she whispered.
"Our mother's family, the McPhersons, came from the hills of Tennessee. They were plain, uneducated folk, but good people. When Mama was fifteen, she met a man, a very handsome man; our father. She was visiting her relatives in Nashville at the time and Papa was a gambler plying his trade in the local poker parlors. She met him at the general store one afternoon and she always said she knew the moment she saw him that she would never love another man. She never did. They ran away together," said Ruth. Esther was listening quietly.
"What was my grandmother's name?" Allie was leaning closer to her mother. Neither her aunt nor her mother had ever spoken of their parents before. She had asked questions, as all children do, but her parents and her aunt had refused to answer. Allie had always wondered if there was an ugly secret to her heritage and now she was going to learn it. She gripped Heyes's hand tighter.
"Sarah. Her name was Sarah and she was wonderful," answered Esther. "She was lovely, inside and out, and Papa adored her."
"Yes, he did, but love wasn't enough," said Ruth, sadly. "Papa only knew one way of making a living and that was with his cards. They travelled around, depending on his skills to put food on the table. He was very skilled and they lived well until I came along, and then Esther arrived. Mama wanted us to have a home, so she and Papa settled in St. Louis. He found work as a dealer in one of the saloons, and, for a while, we were happy. We lived in a two room apartment. It was small, but Mama made it comfortable. I can still remember it, and while we were not wealthy, we were contented. Until, one night, a sore loser accused Papa of cheating and drew on him. Papa always carried a small derringer and he shot and killed the man at the table."
The Kid glanced at his cousin. Heyes shifted uncomfortably in his chair. They, too, had dealt with too many sore losers over too many card games.
Esther sat up straighter, "I remember that night. Papa got fired and Mama was so upset. The next day, we heard that the man's relatives had sworn revenge on Papa. I was so frightened. We packed up our things and left that night. For years, I had nightmares about those people finding Papa."
"Yes, you did. You used to wake up crying in the middle of the night," said Ruth. "We traveled after that until Mama got sick with tuberculosis. We were in Colorado by then. It was different than it is now. Towns were springing up, but they were few and far between. Papa was gambling for money again. It was the only way he could feed us all on the run. We would travel from town to town, and, when we found one without a saloon, we would set up our tent. At night, the menfolk would come to gamble. Papa sold drink, too. Cheap, awful alcohol he would buy with the money he won. It was so cold and drafty in that tent and I remember waking up in the mornings with frost on the blankets. Mama's illness got worse and it took her swiftly. When she went, Papa was distraught. He blamed himself for not being able to provide for her and he took to the drink, too."
Ruth's speech was changing as she told her story. Allie heard her mother's voice become softer and warmer, less polished, as she spoke. She was fascinated hearing about her grandparents' lives. She'd had no idea she had come from such a humble background and it angered her to think her mother and aunt were ashamed of it. She glanced at Heyes and Kid, but they were both concentrating on Ruth's story.
"Papa kept us with him; he wouldn't risk leaving us alone. Many a night, Esther and I would curl up like dogs on a blanket under the poker table listening to the laughter and grumbles of the men. Pretty soon, we got too grown up to do that and the men who came to gamble started to notice us, and Papa saw them noticing. He taught us how to defend ourselves. We had small derringers that he insisted we carry and we became experts at using them. He made us practice constantly and we had to swear that we would never go anywhere without our guns. One night, Papa was sitting in on a big game and I was bored. I knew better, but the tent was stuffy and I decided to go out for a breath of air. My gun was in the pocket of my coat, but I went out in just my dress. I was only planning to be gone a moment," Ruth paused and took a shaky breath, "I…I was attacked by a filthy man. He pawed at me and I couldn't get away. I screamed, but Papa didn't hear me."
Esther dropped her face in her hands, and began sobbing. Ruth went over to her and knelt down next to her chair and patted her sister. "Esther did. She had followed me out of the tent, knowing I was taking a stupid risk. She saw the man tearing at my dress and she started screaming, too." Ruth looked at Allie.
Esther continued to cry uncontrollably, "I killed him. I shot him dead. It was awful."
"You saved me, darling. I'll never forgive myself for putting you in that position," Ruth was crying, too.
Allie had never seen her mother shed a tear and it shook her up to see the raw emotion. "How old were you? Did he…harm you?" She felt sick to think of the fear her mother must have felt.
"No, he didn't, at least not in a physical sense. Esther saved me, but I was terrified; I was only thirteen and Esther was ten," said Ruth flatly. Allie gasped, her heart breaking for the two small girls they had been.
"The other men claimed we had been trying to rob the man. They said that we were thieves and whores and I had killed him for his money. They locked us up in an old shed while they sent for the sheriff in the next town. It's was awful," cried Esther. "Papa came for us in the dead of night. I don't know how he did it, but he got us out of there. That's when we changed our names. He was terrified that someone would find me."
"So we ran. We ended up in Denver because it was the only big city and we could get lost in the crowds. We changed our name. Esther and I are not Thorpes. Our father took that name when we came to the city. Our real name is Straley. So you see, you are not the only ones with an alias," smiled Ruth gently. "Papa had us dye our hair and he took a job at a grocery store stocking the shelves. We were given a small room in the back. He never gambled for money again. He couldn't risk it." Ruth stood up again and returned to the settee.
Composing herself, Esther dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "It got better, didn't it? We got to go to school and learn. I loved school."
"Yes, dear, you did, and you were an excellent student. Do you remember how proud Papa was when you won that spelling bee?" said Ruth.
Esther nodded and tentatively smiled, "It wasn't all bad, was it?"
"No, it wasn't," agreed Ruth. "Do you remember the fun we used to have playing cards at night?" She smiled at Heyes. "You are purported to be passable poker player. Perhaps, we should play sometime."
"I'd like that, Ruth," said Heyes encouragingly. It saddened him to hear their pitiful tale. The two sisters had lived a hard life, like he and the Kid had, but they'd risen above it somehow. Whatever choices they had made, they must have been better than the ones he and his cousin had made. His respect for her was growing with every word she spoke.
"We used to gamble for matches. Papa would borrow a box from the grocery and he would spend hours teaching us to play," reminisced Esther. "Ruth is quite good. You should see her riffle the cards."
The thought of her prim, straight-laced mother playing poker was incredible to Allie. Who were these women, and were had they been hiding her whole life? "Why don't I know that? Why were you such a stranger to me?"
"Alyssa, please be patient. When I have finished, you can decide who you think I am," said Ruth, continuing, "Papa worked hard those years, often working odd jobs after hours at the store. He hired a woman to come in and teach us deportment and the feminine arts of cooking and sewing. Mrs. Grimwold was a frightful old biddy who had worked in some fine houses. I hated her. She forced Esther and me to walk up and down the aisles of the store for hours with books on our heads while she read terrible poetry to us."
"Papa wanted us to learn to be ladies. He never spoke of his own family, but I think they may have been wealthy. He certainly had fine manners," said Esther.
"That's true, dear," Ruth went on, "We tolerated our lessons for Papa's sake. He was determined to do his best for us, but he never got over losing Mama. Every night, after he'd put us to bed, he would sit in the darkened store and drink himself to sleep. He used to say that it was the only way he could see Mama again. He would talk to her when he was drunk; long, rambling conversations. I remember lying in bed wishing I was old enough to drink, too, so that I could speak with Mama again."
"He died when Ruth was seventeen. I was fourteen. We found him, one morning, in the store. He had the most beautiful smile on his face and we knew he was with Mama in heaven," said Esther softly.
"What happened to you? What did you do?" without realizing it, Allie reached out for her mother's hand. Ruth held on to her daughter.
"We were very lucky. You see, the people who owned the store were kind and they had no children of their own. They took us in and treated us like family; and, in return, Esther and I worked in the store," said Ruth.
"Do you still see them? Are they still alive?" asked Allie.
"Mr. Matthews is, but Mrs. Matthews died several years ago," said Ruth.
"Mr. Matthews?! We always shopped there! Why did you never tell me?" Allie could feel the anger rising in her again. Why had her mother never told her any of this? Could she really be that ashamed of her life? Didn't she realize that she was a victim?
"Allie, let Ruth tell her story. I'm sure she had her reasons," admonished Kid.
"You still haven't told us what you are afraid of, Ruth," pressed Heyes. He could see that she was faltering and he wanted to know exactly what the dangers to Allie were.
Corky had waited for hours in the darkened corridor on the floor above the detective's apartment. Monty and Stafford were looking for the two outlaws down on Blake Street and he was supposed to be working the other parts of town, but he knew this was his chance to burgle the smarmy man. He was going to enjoy it. The detective rubbed him the wrong way.
The lock gave easily to his picks and he eased the door open, slipping inside quickly. He tucked the picks back into his pocket and went to work. He had to be careful not to be seen so he crossed the room and pulled the drapes. An ornate, silver letter opener sitting on some papers on the small desk caught his eye and he reached for it, glancing at the letter beneath. The name on the letter head jumped off the page and he snatched it up, reading the document. Corky's face drained of all color. His hand shook as he put the letter back in its place and carefully returned the letter opener, arranging it exactly as it had been. He opened the drapes on the window and nearly dashed out the door. He had to tell Sy what he had discovered!