The door to the house banged shut behind them. "You think she does it on purpose?" Hannibal Heyes shook his head.
"Does what?" asked his partner.
"Just once we're gonna ride into Blue Sky and find Ella at home. Just once. She's gotta spend less time at home than any woman alive."
Kid Curry laughed. "I think you have to get over wanting to surprise her, Heyes. Besides, it's Rick Johnson's birthday, right? Sandy said she went out to celebrate with him and a group of his friends. Why don't we go to the restaurant and find them?"
Heyes shrugged, still just a little annoyed. "We could do that. As long as I don't have to get back on that horse again."
"That goes without sayin'." The Kid grimaced at the thought. "Rachel's sure gettin' big, isn't she?"
"I think they're supposed to, Kid." Heyes smiled. "She kinda takes after me, don't she?"
"Well, she's got brown eyes . . . and she makes a lot of noise. Yeah, I guess she takes after you, Heyes." His partner winked.
"And she's awfully smart for a one-year-old baby," added Heyes.
"That she gets from her mother," insisted the Kid, effectively ending the conversation.
But when they arrived at Austin's restaurant, the man at the door took one look at them in their travelworn trail clothes, and said, rather firmly, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but you are not properly attired."
"We're looking for Rick Johnson's party," explained Heyes, with his most charming smile, the one that had gotten him around more seemingly insurmountable difficulties than this one. "There's someone we need to talk to."
The man was unmoved. "That's as may be, sir, but we still cannot let you in, dressed like that. If you'd like to leave a message for the gentleman -- "
"Lady," Heyes corrected automatically. "They gonna be much longer?"
"No, sir, I expect they will be finished shortly. They're just being served their final course."
Heyes turned to his partner. "Let's stop by the saloon for a drink, and if they're not finished by then, we can send her in a message, tell her we'll wait to walk her home."
The Kid shrugged, affably. "A drink sounds better than some fancy restaurant after all the riding we've been doing, anyway." Sitting up straight and using the right fork were not on his list of preferred activities at this given point in time, and at the saloon, he wouldn't have to do either.
They settled down at a quiet table not far from the entrance with a couple of beers, and a sandwich for Kid Curry. A few of the townspeople whose acquaintance they'd made on previous visits greeted them, but they were tired and not in the mood for socializing, so they simply smiled and touched their hats, and said a few words about having just arrived back in town.
They'd been sitting there for awhile, drinking their beers slowly enough that they were still not quite ready for a refill when there was a disturbance at the door. A fairly large and relatively boisterous party had just entered. At first glance, the group appeared to consist entirely of middle-aged, rather well-dressed men, but Heyes almost called out in surprise when he saw a slender, blonde woman among them. They swept their way inside almost as if they owned the place. Actually, one of them did.
What was Ella doing here in the Blue Sky Saloon? Hadn't she told him that the only time she'd set foot in a saloon in her entire life was when she'd once tried to find him to clear up a misunderstanding? Even then, she'd just about stepped inside when she lost her nerve and fled, or so she said. And failure of nerve wasn't something for which Ella was particularly notable. It was just that women like her and saloons didn't really mix.
Kid Curry had opened his mouth to call his greetings, and was surprised to hear Heyes whisper, "Shhh, Kid. I want to find out what this is all about." Heyes pulled his hat low over his eyes, hoping she wouldn't spot him until he'd heard a little more.
Rick Johnson had Ella firmly by one arm, and a stocky, greying, rather powerful-looking man had her by the other. Heyes knew this was Oliver Stanley, a local cattle baron and particular crony of Rick's. Ella's blue eyes were a little wider than normal, and she looked trapped as, in fact, she was. She seemed more like a damsel in distress than Heyes had ever seen her, and he'd seen her when she'd been in real trouble. Bringing up the rear were Mike Norris, the shadier of the two bankers in town, and Harry Blackwell, a businessman and co-owner of the saloon. Ella's law partner, Jeremy Chadwick, followed behind the rest of the group, looking a little uncomfortable, and extremely young.
"Dinner was lovely," Ella was protesting, "but this is no place for me. I'll be saying goodnight now, Rick."
"Now hold on just a minute," said Rick. "It's my celebration, and I want you here. Besides, now that you're a married woman, it's safe to assume you know the ways of the world. We don't need to shelter you anymore, like we did when you were a maiden lady. Isn't that right, Stan?"
"Absolutely, Rick. And Ella's always complaining that we run a kind of men's club here in the saloon, and a lot of business deals get made while we're here that she gets left out of."
"So tonight we're gonna make you a member of our men's club, Ella," said Rick with a grin. "Initiate you into the fraternity, so to speak."
Ella turned around and looked at Jeremy. "You're not going to help me out of this one, are you?"
"Now, Ella," said Jeremy, "it's Rick's birthday, and you know what you promised."
She sighed loudly enough that Heyes could hear it, and he wasn't exactly sitting next to her. "All right. I give in. Happy birthday, Rick. So this is the saloon. Nice place you have here, Harry." She looked around for the first time, but she didn't seem to see Heyes and Curry. At least, if she had, she would have shown a sign of recognition, Heyes figured.
And the group swept on to a large table in the back.
Heyes whispered to Curry, "Let's move over behind that pillar, where they won't be able to see us, but we can hear them."
"Ain't you gonna rescue her, Heyes?" Kid Curry had more of a tendency towards going to the relief of distressed ladies than his ever-practical partner did.
"Oh, come on, Kid. You know Ella can take care of herself. Besides, I bet she's having fun, for all her protests. These are her friends -- at least some of them are. I guess she's never really had a good word for Oliver Stanley. But Jeremy's with her." Jeremy was more than a little protective of Ella, himself. "And I want to see how she handles the other side of life. It's just a saloon, after all. We know there's nothin' going on in here she has to worry about, right?"
As they moved towards the back of the room, Heyes felt a hand on his arm. He turned to see a vaguely familiar face. "You're Heyes, ain't you? You're the one that married Miss Ella, right?"
He nodded, and placed the face as belonging to Paul Dixon, who kept the drygoods shop in town.
"You gonna go and rescue her from old Rick and his birthday festivities?" Dixon asked.
Heyes smiled. "I don't know. She don't know I'm here yet, and I thought I'd like to see how she handles it herself. I'll rescue her if she needs rescuing." He winked at the man, and tried not to notice that his partner was looking at him a little dubiously.
Dixon smiled back. "Mind if I join you? I always like to watch those two when they get going -- her and Rick, that is. Kind of a local spectator sport, if you know what I mean."
"Suit yourself," said Heyes. "Just keep your voice down. I don't want her to know we're here, just yet."
They made their way to a quiet table, within earshot and with a partial view of where Rick's birthday party had settled. Fortunately, Ella was seated across from Rick and with her back to them. The first thing they heard was, "Now, Ella, if you're going to be a member of our club, you've got to follow the rules. And the first rule is, when you're asked to toast someone, you toast them."
"I toasted Rick's birthday back at Austin's."
Rick broke in. "That was wine, Ella. This is the men's club, and we don't drink ladies' drinks, here. Real men drink each other's health with whiskey. And tonight, you're an honorary real man."
Mike Norris said, judiciously. "We'll let you off on smoking the cigar, won't we, boys?"
"Aww," said Oliver Stanley. "I don't know. That's a real breach of the rules."
"Kinda unmanly," added Blackwell.
"No cigar for Ella," decided Rick, "but she drinks my health with whiskey, same as the rest of us."
A full glass of whiskey was set in front of her by Harry Blackwell, who was pouring from the first of the bottles that lined the table. "A toast," he said. "Rick Johnson, long may he live to trouble us all!"
"Rick!" "Hear, hear!" came the voices around the table. And the six people around the table raised their glasses, clinked them together, and then drained them at a gulp. All except for Ella, that is, who took several gulps to finish, and immediately began coughing and calling for water.
"Water!" said Stanley. "What kind of a request is that?"
But Jeremy put his foot down at that. "Come on, Stan. That's probably the first glass of whiskey she's ever had in her life. Isn't it, Ella?"
Ella, still coughing, nodded vigorously, and Blackwell called over a saloon girl, who disappeared and quickly returned with a glass of water. After she'd drunk it, Ella spoke, in a weak voice. "By the way, Rick, I never said it was a men's club. The phrase I used was boys' club."
Heyes turned to his partner and smiled. "See? They haven't gotten her down yet. And they won't," he whispered. "You just watch."
But Kid Curry's eyes were far way. He was thinking about another boys' club, the boys' club that was the Devil's Hole Gang. He could remember two times when there had been women in the hideout at Devil's Hole. The second time, he hadn't been there, but Heyes had brought the woman there himself -- Mrs. Clara Phillips, a lovely young widow who had proceeded to steal the heart of Big Jim Santana. But the first time, back when Heyes and he were still running things, before the long struggle for the amnesty that they'd finally achieved -- the time that the rule about no women being allowed there got made -- Curry could still recall that one vividly.
"Heyes, you gonna be done with that anytime this year?" Kid Curry asked, impatiently.
Hannibal Heyes tossed him the chamois cloth he'd been polishing the outside of his gun with. "Sorry, Kid. It works real well. Where'd you pick it up, anyway? Denver?"
"Yup," said Curry, and began rubbing his own gun with it. The cloth made it nice and shiny without abrading the metal. "You put any thought into our next job?"
"I thought we'd lay low for a little while longer. The Devil's Hole Gang has been pulling quite a few robberies lately, and I figure we've been drawing a bit of attention to ourselves. Might be nice to let up on that for awhile. Besides, we've got lots of money and lots of supplies, for a change."
"The boys are just itchin' for some action, though. Either another job, or go someplace and spend some of that money."
"That just wouldn't be smart right now, Kid. Not after that last time we all went to Denver."
"Guess the boys shocked even that wild town, huh?"
"Just can't take Wheat and Lobo anywhere, 'specially not if they've got that much money burning a hole in their pockets."
Kid Curry reholstered his gun, and stretched his long form out on the chair. "Still, they're gettin' restless. Bill Sampson and Dick Watkins are due back today, right?"
"Think so." Heyes stood up and began to pace the length of the room. "Kid, sometimes leading a band of outlaws ain't all that much fun, you know that? Times like now."
After a moment, there was a knock on the door. "Heyes, you in there?" It was Kyle Murtry's distinctive drawl.
"Come on in, Kyle," said Heyes. "Me and the Kid were just havin' a little talk about what the boys are up for."
"Well , one thing they ain't up for is Bill's little surprise."
"What's that, Kyle?"
"He done brought him a woman back to Devil's Hole."
"A woman?" asked Kid Curry, in surprise. "Nobody's ever brought a woman here before. Kinda against the custom of the place."
"Hard to see to a lady's comforts around here," added Heyes, though of course, that wasn't the reason. The reason was that a large group of men who were deprived of female companionship might not take too well to one of their number having a lady friend. More importantly, things might get difficult for the lady. Most of the men weren't bad fellows, even if they were outlaws, but it was still better not to take that kind of a risk. "Well, Kyle, have Bill bring her in. Since I'm the leader around here, I oughta meet any new residents."
"She pretty?" asked Curry, and then realized that Kyle was probably not the best judge of that sort of thing.
"Reckon so," said Kyle, rather laconically, and turned to go.
He opened the door, and caught Bill Sampson in the act of knocking. Bill was a tall, good-looking man, with sandy hair and clear-cut features. He had a long mustache, which he was inordinately proud of, and spent a great deal of time grooming. His partner, Dick Watkins, was altogether less prepossessing, since he was stocky and hard-featured, and had the second-worst teeth in Devil's Hole, after Kyle himself. He was, however, by far the more intelligent, sensible and kind-hearted of the pair, to the point where Heyes and Curry frequently found themselves wondering why he put up with Bill.
The woman who was with them clearly hadn't figured that out, yet. She was gazing at Bill with a look of rapt adoration on her features. Kyle's brief description appeared to have been motivated by politeness. She was a tall, rawboned girl, plain-featured and freckled. Her hair was a sort of faded brown, but her eyebrows and eyelashes were the white of a redhead's. She wasn't precisely unattractive, but she wasn't the kind of woman you would have thought Bill Sampson would have looked at twice.
"Evenin', Heyes," said Sampson. "This is Miss Martha Champion. She's my new girl."
"Nice to meet you, Miss Champion," said Heyes politely. "Bill, can I talk to you alone?" He pushed past the group in the doorway, and grabbed Sampson by the arm, pulling him outside, and slamming the door shut behind them.
"Bill, are you crazy? Where's she planning on stayin'? You can't have her living in the bunkhouse with all the men, and you know the only people around here with private rooms are me and the Kid."
"Weather's nice," shrugged Bill. "I figured we'd pitch a tent until we could build our own little cabin. You got any objections?"
"Look, Bill, you know I think it's a mistake for men with our way of life to get involved with anyone. But if you love her and you really want to be with her, I'm not gonna stand in your way. Most of our boys'll talk big, but they'll treat her right. But what if someone comes here seekin' shelter and doesn't understand our ways? And a few of the boys lose their common sense when they get drinkin'. You know that. You're gonna have to look out for her, you and Dick, because I can't be responsible for what might happen."
"Heyes, I love this girl." The look in Bill's light grey eyes and on his face was as sincere as Heyes had ever seen him. "I won't let nothin' happen to hurt her. In fact, next time the Preacher wanders up this way, I was aimin' to marry her."
"All right, Bill. Just remember, this is your responsibility. I'll get some of the boys to help you with the cabin. They're gettin' kind of stir crazy, anyway, and I don't think it's time to pull another big job, yet."
Meanwhile, Dick Watkins was trying to get Miss Champion to speak to Kid Curry. "It's all right, Martha, he won't bite you."
The girl blushed and looked down. "It's just he's kinda famous and all. The legendary Kid Curry. I never thought I'd meet anyone like him . . . uh . . . you," she said, with a quick glance at the gunfighter.
Curry gave her his kindliest smile. "It's nice to meet you, too, Miss Champion. Is it okay if I call you Martha? Bill must really love you, to want to bring you back here with him. It's not our usual custom, as he probably told you."
She blushed even deeper when he said that, and twisted her foot as she looked down at it. "Guess he does."
"How'd you two meet?"
"He bought a horse at my daddy's farm. Ain't that right, Dick?"
"He sure did," said the homely outlaw, giving his usual close-mouthed smile, the one that showed very little of his teeth.
"And when he left, he got me along with the horse."
"How'd your daddy feel about that?" asked Curry, curiously.
"All right, I guess. One less mouth to feed, around the farm. Guess he'd rather Bill'd married me right off, but I don't care about that."
But just after she said that, the door opened, and Bill and Heyes reentered the cabin, so Curry didn't find out any more about Martha's life then.
Heyes kept his promise, and a number of members of the Devil's Hole Gang worked together to build a cabin for Bill and Martha. Of course, the other members sat around drinking whiskey, shooting cans off of fence railings just near the workers, and generally making fun of them, but then, the boys at Devil's Hole tended to spend a lot of time making fun of each other anyway.
In any case, it gave them all something to focus on, and by the time they were done, Heyes had come up with a really good plan to rob a train with a particularly fat payroll in its safe, and the gang was happy about that, especially since it went off without a hitch. Of course, Wheat Carlson kept predicting disaster throughout the whole thing, but then Wheat had a way of doing that whenever it enabled him to throw Heyes' authority into question. When things were going good, as they were now, nobody listened to him anyway, not even Kyle Murtry, and Kyle was his best friend.
Things seemed to go well for Bill and Martha for quite awhile, and Heyes and Curry often commented that you just didn't know how these things were going to turn out. Maybe allowing the men to bring their women into Devil's Hole wasn't such a bad idea after all. Bill seemed to be a lot steadier now. Where before, he was one of the men who Heyes was always afraid would do something rash or foolish when they were out on a job, now he was one of the best and most conscientious of the whole gang. Martha was a good cook, too, and sometimes she'd cook for everyone. She kept to herself, though, mostly associating with Bill and Dick, and occasionally talking with Kyle, who proved to be rather shy and polite with her, for all the way he sometimes tried to brag about "women" in the abstract.
It was early spring when Kid Curry found Martha crying on the banks of the creek.
"Hey, Martha," he asked, his voice gentle, "what's the matter?"
"Ain't nothin'," she replied, but her pale lashes were wet with tears.
"Must be somethin' the matter or you wouldn't be crying on such a nice day. It might help if you talked about it."
She looked at him for a moment. Even at her best, she wasn't notably attractive, and with her eyes red from crying, and her freckled cheeks streaked with her tears, she was far from at her best. "It's Bill. I think he's gettin' bored with me. He's been spendin' most of his time in the bunkhouse playin' cards with the boys -- well, you must've noticed that. He used to talk about how we was gonna get married, and now he don't no more."
Curry had no words for her. He never stayed in one place long enough to get bored with a girl, but he could see it was the kind of thing that happened. Martha was a nice girl, but she didn't have any particular spunk to her, like Heyes might go for, or that wide-eyed innocence that tended to appeal to the Kid. She probably wasn't holding Bill's interest.
And Bill . . . well, he wasn't exactly Kid Curry's favorite member of the Devil's Hole Gang, anyway. He and Heyes would probably have asked him to leave long ago, if it weren't for Dick, and for Martha, and if they'd have found a good reason for making that kind of request.
"I don't know what to tell you, Martha. Do you want me to talk to him for you?" Curry couldn't think of anything else to offer.
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed quickly. "Don't do that. I wouldn't want him to think I was talkin' about him behind his back."
"All right, Martha," he said awkwardly. "But if you ever need to talk about it . . . I ain't real good with this kind of stuff, but I promise I'll try to listen."
He heard a heavy step on the grass behind him, crunching twigs as it went. "Well, if it aint' Kid Curry puttin' the moves on my girl, I don't know what it is."
Curry turned around to see Bill Sampson just smiling at him. No real jealousy, no real anger. And for some reason, that worried him more than anything.
A month or so later, Bill moved back into the bunkhouse.
Martha came to see Heyes, and told him that she'd like to be moving on, but that she really didn't have anyplace to go. Her daddy had kind of disowned her when she ran off with an outlaw, if the truth be known.
Bill was summoned, and said that he'd stand by his promise to take care of her, at least until other arrangements could be made.
A few nights later, Kid Curry was awakened by a scream coming from outside his window. He jumped out of bed, threw on a pair of jeans over his long underwear, and grabbed his gunbelt from the bedpost. Running out into the living room of the cabin, he nearly collided with Heyes, who was similarly half-dressed and armed.
"What the -- ?" he asked.
"Sounded like a lady's scream to me. There's only one lady in Devil's Hole, Kid."
They reached Martha's cabin, to find that they weren't the only ones there. Martha, dressed in a plain flannel nightgown, was cowering in the corner of the room. A dark-mustached outlaw who'd come to Devil's Hole looking for shelter a few days ago was standing over her, unbuttoning his fly. He turned as he heard the door opening.
"I won her fair and square. I won her from Sampson in the poker game tonight."
Heyes and Curry gave each other disgusted looks.
"Can't win a human being in a card game, Hank," said Heyes.
"This here's an outlaw hideout," said Hank. "I can do anything I want."
"Not while I'm in charge, you can't," said Heyes. "And not while the Kid's around. He don't like to see ladies treated bad."
"Makes me real mad," said the Kid. "And when I'm mad, it messes up my aim. I might aim for your shoulder, and hit you someplace else. Like your heart, if you got one."
Hank blanched, his swarthy skin suddenly white as a sheet of paper. "I'm sorry. I thought she was just his whore."
"She was his girl," said the Kid. "That don't mean he has the right to pass her around when he's done with her. You get on back to the bunkhouse, and tell Bill we want to talk to him."
Hank quickly fastened his pants, and ran out the door on shaky legs.
Heyes stood there, looking uncomfortable, but when he saw that the Kid made no move to holster his gun, he went to Martha's side. "We'll get him out of here tomorrow, Martha. Him and Bill both. And we'll figure out someplace for you to go." He tried, awkwardly, to comfort her as she cried.
A moment later, Bill was walking towards the cabin. Kid Curry stepped outside, closing the door behind him. He wasn't sure what he was going to do, yet, but he didn't think it was going to be fit for Martha to watch.
"Hey, Kid. What do you want? I take it you and Heyes didn't like my way of tryin' to provide for Martha."
The Kid's blue eyes were steely. "It ain't funny, Bill. You can't give a person away to another person. When we got there, he was tryin' to force himself on her."
Bill shrugged. "She'd've got used to him. Hank's not a bad fellow. He could wash a little more often, but she could've got him to do it."
"I don't think you're listenin' to me, Bill. I want you out of here at sunrise. If I ever see you around here again, you'll be a dead man. That goes for Hank, too. You got it?"
Bill's smile faded. "Dick's on sentry duty. He should be changin' with Lobo in about an hour. Just let me find out if he's comin' with me, or not." And he disappeared back into the bunkhouse.
Curry opened the door to Martha's cabin. Heyes was talking to her softly. When he looked up, Curry could see that his partner's eyes were as hard and dangerous as he knew his own were right now.
He spoke, gently. "Don't worry, Martha. Bill and Hank will be out of here at dawn. Heyes and me'll be keeping watch outside your cabin until then. You try and get some rest, and Heyes'll come up with a plan about what you should do."
Heyes stood up and crossed the small room, and the two of them closed the door behind them.
"What did she say?" asked Curry.
"She's just real confused. I guess she really loved Bill, and the whole thing is hard for her to accept." Heyes sat down on the ground, looking dead-tired. He buttoned the top button of his underwear top, and looked down at his bare feet. "I'm goin' back to our cabin to get us some more clothes and some boots. It's an hour until dawn, and it's chilly out here."
Curry sat down, too. All of his senses were at their keenest, and he barely felt the cold. There was no movement from the direction of the cabin.
A few minutes later, Heyes was back, wearing his boots, shirt and jacket, and looking a whole lot happier. He tossed a pile of clothes to the Kid, who pulled on his boots and his unbuttoned shirt, but sat on his sheepskin jacket.
"Any movement, Kid?"
"Nah. Oh, there goes Lobo. Guess he's going to change shifts with Dick."
"Kid, I've been thinkin' about Martha, and I'm just plain puzzled. I don't know what she can do. She's not educated enough to be a schoolteacher. She's a good cook, but she don't have the money or the business sense to open up a restaurant with. I thought about offerin' to take her to Big Kate, over at the Lucky Chance Saloon, but she ain't really pretty enough to be a saloon girl. Besides, likely that line of work wouldn't appeal to her. And she's convinced that her family won't take her back. I just don't know."
At dawn, Bill and Hank left Devil's Hole. Kid Curry saw them off, through the pass. Then he rode back into camp, where he stood behind Heyes and looked dangerous as the outlaw leader gave the men a piece of his mind.
"And you just let him gamble away a person? How many of you were in this poker game? How many of you would have done the same thing that Hank did?"
"It was a big pot," said Wheat. "I don't think Bill was plannin' on throwin' her in until the last minute. And by then, only him and Hank hadn't folded."
"I just thought they was kiddin'," said Kyle. "Then I fell asleep, and I don't know what happened."
One by one, the men made their excuses. All except for Dick, who looked furious. "If I hadn't been on watch, he never would have done it. I never would have let him. But he ain't my partner no more. And if I ever see him again, so help me . . . "
Everyone looked uncomfortable at that. "Well, there was no harm done, in the end," said Wheat. "Miss Martha's okay, ain't she?"
"She's okay, just scared and upset," said Heyes. "But you men could have shown a lot more sense. Martha's gonna be leavin', soon as we can figure out someplace for her to go. In the meantime, the Kid and me are gonna be watchin' out for her, and we don't want to hear that any of you did anything stupid."
When they got outside, he looked at the Kid. "Well, that's it. No more ladies in Devil's Hole. Ever."
The door opened again behind them. It was Dick Watkins. "Can I talk to you two?"
Heyes nodded, and he followed them back to their cabin. When they got there, he spoke. "I'll be leavin' in a day or two. This has left a real sour taste in my mouth."
"Where will you go?" asked Heyes.
"I was thinkin' of Oregon territory. I'm only wanted in Texas, and the reward's not big enough to make it worth the expense of hunting me down all the way in Oregon. It'd cost more'n the reward would fetch to bring me back. I got enough money to start a small farm with. I was thinking . . . " he paused, uncertain. "I was thinking of asking Martha to come with me. I mean, I'd marry her and everything."
"Do you love her?" asked Curry.
Dick shook his head. "Can't say that I do. But I can say that she deserves better than this. And she knows her way around a farm. Besides," he grimaced, "with a face like mine, I figure I could do a lot worse than a nice girl who's just not in love with me. Only thing is, will she regard this the same as she regarded bein' passed along to Hank?"
Curry looked serious. "You're not a complete stranger, like Hank was. You're a friend. And you're not gonna force yourself on her, like he tried to. You're just askin', and making her a pretty good offer."
Heyes chimed in. "You could tell her it's more like a business partnership. Maybe the two of you will get to like each other more as you go along."
"Martha seems like she's likely to fall in love with the first knight in shining armor that comes along," added Curry. "That could be you." He didn't add how easily it could have been himself, though he thought about how Martha had looked at him when he'd been kind to her that day by the creek.
Dick nodded. "I reckon that's the best way. A marriage in name only, at least at first."
Two days later, Dick and Martha left Devil's Hole for good. The men gathered to see them off, and when they'd gone, Heyes took the opportunity to announce his new policy.
"Much as we're all sorry to see Miss Martha Champion leave us, the incidents of the past couple of days have made it clear to me that our custom was the right one. There will be no more ladies in Devil's Hole, and from now on that's a rule, not a custom. Since you boys can't be trusted to act like men around a lady, from now on, Devil's Hole is officially a boys' club."
But this was a different kind of boys' club. While Curry had been lost in his reverie, Heyes had been watching Rick's friends as they continued introducing Ella to the experience of "manly" behavior. What they were doing were certainly things he'd done himself, often enough. And they'd stopped making Ella join them in the toasts after insisting she have a second whiskey, or was it a third, though they'd continued right along. Right now they were engaged in cleaning her out at poker. He'd showed her the hands, once, but she hadn't caught on very quickly, and she wasn't making any progress tonight.
Rick and his friends were teasing her in other ways, too, though, by flirting suggestively with the saloon girls who were hovering around the table, conscious that most of the powerful men in town were seated around it. Actually, Heyes suspected they were toning it down quite a bit from what their typical behavior would have been, and Ella seemed to be taking it in stride, until Rick actually pulled a girl down onto his lap and pawed at her.
"Rick!" Ella protested. "Leave her alone."
"She likes it," said Rick. "Don't you, honey?"
The girl just giggled, and she gave Rick a quick kiss before she stood up.
"I'm not embarrassing you, Ella, am I?" he asked, smiling from ear to ear.
"Rick, you live to embarrass me," she said.
"I think that's my cue," Heyes whispered to Curry.
"I think your cue has come at least half a dozen times since we've been here," said Curry. "Sometimes I don't know what she sees in you." But he grinned when he said it, and there was amusement in his voice.
Heyes smiled back. "Sometimes I think she'd agree with you about that."
He made his way quietly up to the table, and leaned over and whispered into Ella's ear, "Hold on that hand."
"Okay, I hold," she said, and then leaned back and whispered to him, "I was wondering when you were going to make your presence known. I saw you sitting over there about fifty dollars ago. Just how long have you been here?"
"Before you came in," he admitted. "We got into town and you weren't home. It's been an interesting evening."
"Hey, no coaching the players," said Mike.
"Yeah, that's not fair. Let her lose like a real man," said Harry.
She turned back to Heyes. "My birthday present to Rick was to agree to come along on his evening out with his friends. I should have known it would turn into a 'Let's embarrass Ella' contest."
He looked at her carefully. "They're doing a pretty good job. You're blushing a shade of red I've never even seen before, you've lost over a hundred dollars at cards, if I've been keeping track right, and if I'm not mistaken, you're just the tiniest bit drunk."
"That's what I thought -- that they were doing a good job, I mean. My attorney has advised me not to make any admissions about any of the rest of it," she said, indicating Jeremy, who smiled uncomfortably. She turned back to face the game. "Okay, I'm . . . what is it called? I'm folding. I quit. Goodnight."
"You can't do that," said Rick.
"Gotta keep playing as long as you've got chips. House rules," said Harry, whose house it was.
"I've never heard of a rule like that." She looked up at Heyes. "Have you?"
"Can't say as I have, and I've played more cards in more places than any of you fellows, I'm pretty certain."
"But those are the rules of this house," insisted Stan.
Ella looked glumly at her cards for a moment. Then suddenly she jumped up, and surprised Heyes by slipping her arms around him and pulling him down into a long, deep kiss. After a moment, he began to respond, completely disregarding the unabashed stares of the people around them.
"Whew," said Mike. "Can't remember the last time my wife kissed me like that."
"Oh, she probably never did, what with you bein' so ugly and all, Mike," said Stan. "But if I ever met a respectable woman who kissed me like that, I might just sacrifice my bachelorhood after all."
But a voice sputtered from the other side of the table. "Ella! That's . . . that's not . . . not in public! Remember, you're a lady! You're not supposed to . . . "
She disengaged herself from Heyes, and turned to see that Jeremy, and the other men, were smiling, but that Rick Johnson looked genuinely taken aback. "He liked it," she smiled at Rick, then quickly glanced at Heyes, who grinned. "Didn't you, honey? I'm not embarrassing you, Rick, am I?"
And to his credit, Rick Johnson began to laugh. "Ella, you live to embarrass me, don't you?"
"Just evening up the score a little," she said. "Now, if you . . . er . . . real men will excuse me, I'm feeling just a little dizzy and ill from the whiskey and all your cigar smoke." She took Heyes' arm. "You don't mind seeing me home, do you?"
"Not at all. Besides, with the kind of poker they play around here, well, it just wouldn't be fair to them, my hanging around." He looked mischievous, challenging them to respond, but they all knew he could beat any one of them, except maybe Rick, unless he was having a really off night or the luck of the cards ran pretty severely against him. Possibly even then.
Ella smiled. "Happy birthday, Rick. But next year . . . I'm getting you a book or a necktie, like I usually do. Losing at cards to you is just too expensive, and these gentlemen's evenings are a little bit . . . tiring."
"Do I see a perfectly good empty seat at a perfectly good poker game?" came Kid Curry's voice, from behind the group.
"You sure do," said Ella. "Any objections if he takes over for me?"
"Just that we're not gonna wipe him out the way we did you," complained Mike.
"Come join us, Kid," said Harry, rather more hospitably. "You don't mind if I call you Kid, do you?"
"Maybe I'll walk out with them," suggested Jeremy, hopefully, beginning to stand up.
"You sit down, Chadwick," said Rick. "No one said you could go," and Jeremy rather resignedly sank back into his chair, cheering himself up by mumbling something about what he would make Rick do on his birthday.
"Don't be too rough on 'em, Kid," said Heyes.
"Oh, don't worry about me," said Kid Curry, taking the seat Ella had recently vacated with an air of almost arrogant ease. "Is that whiskey I see over there? Would somebody pour me one? And are there any of those cigars left?"
Heyes and Ella walked to the door silently, but when they'd stepped outside, he asked, "So, what did you think of your first evening in the saloon?"
"That it's also my last evening in the saloon. It's . . . that's fun for you, isn't it? The whiskey and the cigars and the cards and the women running around in those . . . little . . . dresses? You really enjoy all that, don't you? And all the men having some kind of 'I'm more manly than you are' contest."
"Well, yeah." He nodded. "It is fun. And it's . . . what we do." Men. Westerners. Outlaws and cowhands and bankers.
She shrugged. "I don't think I understand it. I feel sick, and dizzy. And I felt sorry for the women, getting stared at like that, and not getting to choose who touches them. Not to mention, if I'm going to throw away money as quickly as I did at that poker table, I'd just as soon buy things with it."
"When I play cards, that's not the direction the money usually flows in. I don't always win, but I usually come out okay." He looked at her curiously. "It wasn't so bad as all that, was it? You seemed to be laughing a lot."
"Well . . . it had its amusing moments."
"And you might not like the way the whiskey tastes, but you must like the way it makes you feel, just a little."
"Not enough to want to make a habit of it." She looked at him curiously. "You know, sometimes I wonder if we have anything in common at all. Men and women. You and me."
"You ever bored when you're with me?"
She shook her head. "Never."
"Me neither." Then, suddenly he grabbed her and drew her into a kiss. After a long moment, he pulled away. "I'm not embarrassing you, Ella, am I?" He thought just how pretty she looked at that moment, her hair slightly disheveled, and her face flushed from the whiskey and the excitement of the evening. Her expression betrayed the fact that she'd been more amused by evening's experiences than she was willing to admit to.
She looked right into his dark eyes, and said, "You most certainly are. And you'd better not stop."
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