Little Girl Lost

Things without all remedy should be without regard; what's done is done. ~ (Wm Shakespeare)

The Kid was reading a newspaper, feet up on the desk and a cup of coffee in one hand. When Heyes walked in he set down the coffee and folded the paper carefully into thirds. He tossed it over.

"Old friend of yours, I think," he said quietly.

Heyes turned it to read the headline. Boudreaux Heirs Still Locked in Court Battle, blared the largest, followed in only slightly smaller type by Eight Million Dollars At Stake.

He ran his eye down the column. The reporter had included some of the more scandalous doings of that large and contentious family and his glee at their many misdeeds shone through the over-wrought prose. A small sidebar asked, breathlessly, Mystery of the Missing Child-Heiress. What Happened To Little Josephine Boudreaux?

Heyes swore. "You'd think they could let her alone by now."

He accepted the cup the Kid handed him, but the brew tasted harsh and bitter in his mouth.

FIVE YEARS EARLIER

Chadron was just beginning to show on the horizon. Hannibal Heyes let the reins dangle from his hands and watched listlessly as the mules plodded onward.

"Another hour, I reckon," he mused. "Wonder if the Kid will be back."

His partner had taken a job guiding a hunting party up into the Black Hills but it was just Heyes' bad luck that all he could find was teamstering for a broken-down freight line. He wished, not for the first time, that those Easterners had wanted two guides.

He realized that he was humming "The Streets of Laredo," and stopped.

"Are we almost there?"

His eyes widened. He was imagining things, which could happen after several days out in the wilds by himself.

"Mister? Are we almost there?"

He turned around. He blinked, stared up and down, and blinked again.

She was standing right behind him, one hand gripping the side of the wagon-box as she swayed to the jouncing of the freighter. His mouth opened, finally.

"Good Godamighty!"

"You don't need to swear at me," she said defensively.

She was small and slight, and looked like a little girl dressed up in her mother's clothes. Part of Heyes' brain took note of those clothes; they were expensive and well-made in the latest fashion.

"Where did you spring from?"

She tried a cheeky smile. "I've been hiding in the back for three days. I snuck out twice and took food from your campfire, while you were asleep. Did you miss anything?"

"Yeah," Heyes admitted. "But I figured it was a gopher or a fox."

He eyed her with deep misgivings. She had to be a runaway, and from a family that would raise Cain and send Pinkertons in pursuit, by the looks of her. This was trouble, forty ways from the jack - wouldn't that be something, if after all the banks and trains he'd robbed, he wound up in the hoosegow for kidnapping.

"Hold old are you, missy?" he demanded.

"Twenty-one."

"In a pig's eye." If she was a day over eighteen, then he, Hannibal Heyes, was a Philadelphia banker.

Her smile slipped a bit. "My name's Josie Brown. You're Joshua Smith, I heard the man talking to you at the freight yards. You're going on to Deadwood from Chadron, aren't you?"

"What about it?"

"Can I go with you?"

"How about I take you straight to the US Marshal's office as soon as we get into town, instead?"'

"You won't do that," she said confidently. Her tone of voice made him uneasy.

"Oh, yeah? Why wouldn't I?"

"Because you're hiding something." She crawled over the seat and perched herself beside him. "I can always tell when people have something to hide."

"Well, you're wrong this time," he lied. "I'm taking you to the marshal and he'll send you straight back to wherever you run off from. And I hope your pa takes a razor strop to you."

"My father's dead. So's my mother."

"Well, you must have other family. Somebody paid for those duds."

She had a tiny leather purse dangling from her wrist, and he made a grab for it, fending her off easily. He snapped it open and dug out a handful of coins. There wasn't more than ten dollars, all told.

"See?" she said. "I'm practically broke. I'm going to Deadwood to find a job."

"You're going home. There's only one job for a girl in a mining camp, and you don't want it. You'll be better off back with your folks."

"I don't have a home. And if you knew what kind of family I have, you wouldn't send me back to them." Her eyes suddenly filled with tears.

Heyes sighed. "Look, squirt. When you're older, you'll see things ain't never as bad as you think, trust me. When we get into town, I'm goin' to leave you with the marshal and he'll send you back. That's all there is to it."

"I won't go!" She began to sob quietly. "I've been dragged around from one relative to another since I was six years old. My grandfather left me all his money when he died and everyone wants to get their hands on it. I'd …I'd do anything rather than go back."

Her hand slipped into his and squeezed. He shook it off.

"So why'd you run away? You in some kind of trouble?" Heyes only knew of one sort of trouble a girl could get into and Josie Brown – if that was her name – was old enough, and knowing enough, in spite of her innocent face.

"No. I got tired of getting caught in the middle of their fights. I wanted to get away, to someplace nobody knew me."

"Why hide in freight wagon? Why not buy a ticket on the train or the stage?" he asked.

"Because my aunts and my uncles have all my money tied up in lawsuits. They're suing each other over who gets to be executor, or trustee, or something. I forget which. You saw how much money I have, and I had to save for two months to get that."

"My heart bleeds," he said cynically. "And don't bat them baby blues at me. I ain't getting' mixed up in your problems."

"Listen, Joshua," her voice became very beguiling, "I won't get you into any trouble, honest. You wouldn't be so mean, would you?"

He snorted. "Give it up, missy – maybe you can try that song an' dance on the marshal."

She started crying in earnest then, and when he wouldn't let her jump off the wagon and run away she began to scream and kick. By the time they pulled up in front of the marshal's office Heyes had a scratched face and a hole in his thumb where her needle-sharp little teeth had savaged him. He handed the girl over to a startled-looking deputy, snapped out an explanation, and got out of there.

"Please don't do this to me! Joshua! Joshua?" She wailed after him. He closed his ears and scowled.

After that he deliberately kept to the bad side of town, waiting for the Kid to get back. The trip to Deadwood wasn't supposed to leave for a few days and if that changed, well, the freight company knew where to find him. He was congratulating himself on avoiding both the law and Josie Brown when one evening she turned up in the saloon where he was playing poker.

Two young toughs who looked like trail hands were at her elbow, and she was wearing a scarlet satin dress that showed every angle of her thin young frame. The silly kid had painted her face, too, very clumsily, with a layer of white powder and a heavy smear of lip rouge. She left her escorts and ran up to him.

"Joshua! I've been looking for you."

"I'll bet." He bit back the temptation to tell her to wipe that stuff off her face.

"Have you changed your mind about taking me to Deadwood? I have some money, now."

He forbore asking how she got it.

"Not on your Nelly, sister. Besides, my partner's going too. You can't hide from him for the whole trip."

She hesitated for only a minute. "All right. Him too, if that's how it has to be."

"What d'ya mean 'him, too?'"

"I'm willing to work my way there. So what if there are two of you?" She tossed her head.

Heyes realized, with a start, that her offer appealed to a dark part of him, deep inside. He was no saint and neither was the Kid - he pushed the thought away.

"Forget it, Josie. Go home."

"If you're too yellow to take me, I'll find another outfit that's going," She shrilled at him. "Maybe one with a man in it!"

He felt his face get red and he called over to the cowboys, who had been watching sulkily. "Why don't you get your girl friend out of here?" he said. "Before I give her a good spanking."

He didn't mean it; the day had never dawned when he'd hit a woman, not even a spoiled little brat like Josie Brown. But she turned and stumbled blindly away from him, out to the street.

Except for a brief tangle with a pair of would-be holdup men, the two-week trip to Deadwood was uneventful. He and the Kid didn't dally - they picked up another load of freight and turned back towards Chadron. Their wagons reached town just about daybreak and after dropping off the teams and signing the lading sheets, they headed for a cheap café and the promise of hot coffee and breakfast. Heyes had just gotten outside of his second cup when the tall figure of Chadron's town marshal came through the door and made straight for their table.

"Oh, hell," he muttered.

"You're Joshua Smith." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yessir."

"Sam Foster." The man reached for a chair and sat down, uninvited. "You come by my office a couple weeks ago with a gal name of Brown. Josie Brown. "

"Yeah," Heyes acknowledged. "She hid out in my wagon on me, marshal, I didn't know – "

"Keep your shirt on, Smith," the marshal advised. "I ain't blamin' you. Just wanted to tell you what happened to her."

Heyes shot a look at the Kid. He didn't think he was going to like what was coming.

"Turns out her name wasn't Brown, it was Boudreaux. Same as her granddaddy, fellow named Lucien Boudreaux. He made guns."

"I've heard of him."

A sly, sharp Frenchman with a knack for munitions, Boudreaux prospered during the War. The old man was said to be worth several millions when he died, Heyes remembered.

"Seems he left young Josephine all his money. And then she up an' runs away from home."

"Bet that ruffled some feathers."

Foster took the makings out of his pocket and rolled a cigarette before continuing. "Usually does, with this kind of money involved. We had a notice from the Pinkerton Agency about her, so we wired her folks right away. They sent word back to hold on to her until they could send somebody to pick her up."

"Trouble was, I left her at a hotel with a guard outside her door, but she clumb out the window and disappeared over the line. We finally tracked her down at a fancy house on River Street and brung her back. She's a wild little piece – bit my deputy."

Heyes unconsciously rubbed his hand. "So they came for her, I s'pose. Which one of 'em has her now?"

"None of 'em." The marshal struck a lucifer and held it to the end of his cigarette. "She stole a horse and lit out for the Badlands."

Heyes stared at him. He knew he wasn't going to like what was coming.

"Some buffalo hunters found her."

"Did…did they bring her back?"

"Hell, no. It'd been almost a week. Even buffalo hunters got noses. No, they left her out there, cached under some rocks. We're waitin' on another wire from her family, to tell us what they want done. Anyways – I thought you might want to know."

"Them hunters said she was settin' up against a rock, real peaceful. Looked like she was asleep. Gave them quite a turn." Foster stood up. "Well…so long."

Heyes sat and watched the ham gravy congeal on his plate, turning his fork over and over. The Kid finally spoke up.

"Wasn't your fault, Heyes."

"Maybe." He pushed his chair back. "Stay put, Kid. I got somethin' to do."

It took him the rest of that day and most of the next. When he got back to town, Foster was waiting for him, on the boardwalk outside the marshal's office.

"I was beginnin' to wonder if I'd have to go after you," he remarked. "You find her?"

"Yeah. I found her." Heyes leaned on his saddle horn and met the marshal's impassive gaze. "And she's stayin' right there."

"Meanin' what, exactly?"

"Is that an official question, Marshal?"

Foster thought it over for minute. "No. Reckon not."

"I left her in a good place. Kind of pretty, where she can look up at the stars. I don't think they'll be able to find her and take her back," he said heavily. "I owed her that."

The marshal nodded. Heyes gigged his horse towards the freight yards. If he tried hard, he could almost shut out the sound of her voice.

Please don't do this to me! Joshua! Joshua?