A Death in Eden
The trees and wayside hedges were just throwing out their first green shoots, and the air was full of the pleasant smell of the moist earth. To me at least there was a strange contrast between the sweet promise of the spring and this sinister quest upon which we were engaged.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
Right after dinner, that first evening, I decided I needed to take a turn and get some air. I refused Sandy's company, since she was obviously very tired, and insisted she stay at the hotel with its manageress and resident chaperone, Mrs. Grey, an almost terrifyingly respectable older woman. I was feeling stiff and confined from our lengthy journey, and I was enjoying the walk so much that even when darkness fell, I was still wandering up and down the streets of Colorado Springs. As I saw two drunken cowboys wobbling down the street, singing off key and in the company of a pair of women showing rather too much arm and bosom to be considered "ladies," I thought about how lucky it was I had left Sandy behind, and how difficult it would have been to explain to her.
It's not that I believe in sheltering people, and here in the West that's hard to do, anyway. But Sandy was such a sweet and innocent girl, especially in those days, that I always felt like there were things she should be protected from. Honestly, I didn't know much about it myself, but I'd always supposed that the saloons provided the girls who worked there with rooms right on the premises. Apparently not the one this quartet was headed out from, however. There was something disconcertingly familiar about the two men, and as they got closer, I knew that they weren't cowboys after all. If you'd have asked me to think up the most embarrassing situation I could imagine, this one was about twenty times worse. I was going to have to try to dodge two of my former clients and favorite acquaintances on this wide open and rather deserted section of street, because they were most definitely not in a fit condition to speak with a respectable lady. From the looks of it, I wasn't quite sure they were in a fit condition to speak at all.
I knew it was already too late when one of them, a handsome young blond with his hat all askew, called out loudly, "Well, who would've 'spected to see her so far from home? Howdy, Miss Ella!" He stopped short in his path, and the quartet had a sort of collision, with the other man ending up in a heap on the ground.
I pulled myself together as best I could, and said in my best courtroom manner, "Hello, Thaddeus. So nice to see you boys are keeping out of trouble." I looked down at the dark-eyed heap on the ground which looked back up at me kind of pitifully. "Hello, Joshua."
"Hello, Ella," he said, his deep voice hoarse from all that off-key singing.
His companion, a buxom young redhead whose ample charms were quite thoroughly displayed, tried to assist him in getting up again. "Is everything okay, honey? Is that your wife or something?"
He looked miserable. "Only in my dreams," he said, trying to enunciate the words through a drink-thickened tongue.
"Didn't know you were so prone to nightmares," I snapped, before I'd thought better of it. It started to hit me, what he'd just said, but I shook it off. It was the whiskey talking anyway, I was sure of that. This was rapidly becoming more than I could handle. While Hannibal Heyes had been . . . well, there's no way around it except to admit it, really . . . something more to me than just a client on several occasions in the past, I wasn't feeling particularly partial to him right now. As I looked at the drunken outlaw being helped to his feet, I wondered how I could have ever thought . . . well, no matter. Right now, all I wanted to do was to get away from there as fast as I could. Remembering my manners, however, I addressed the young lady of the evening. "No, miss, it's worse. I'm his lawyer."
"You're kiddin' me," said the redhead. "You?"
"Yes, miss," I insisted. "There are professions open to women other than your own. Now if you'll excuse me . . . "
"Ella, come back, honey," Heyes was calling to me. "Don't go 'way mad."
I turned, and for a moment I almost found myself wanting to relent. His brown eyes were appealing to me with a longing that seemed to be genuine. But just then, Kid Curry's companion giggled loudly. "Better watch out, Lizzie. This one's stealing your trade." She squealed as Curry pinched her, and then leaned down and kissed her square on the lips.
The redhead clutched Heyes' arm possessively, pressing her breasts against him in a shameless fashion. I felt dizzy for a moment, then recollected myself. I was a lady, after all, and a lady shouldn't be subjected to such things. I looked severely at the quartet, and said, "Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, when you have recovered from tonight's little escapade, you will be welcome to call on me at my hotel. However, I am here on holiday with an impressionable young girl, and this is most certainly not the time for you to make her acquaintance." I turned to walk away.
"Which hotel?" asked Heyes.
I looked around at him and smiled triumphantly. "The Springs Temperance Hotel. Alcoholic beverages most definitely prohibited. Good evening, Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones, young ladies." I nodded coldly and walked away without looking back again, even when the drunken singing resumed. The whores' laughter seemed to pursue me for far longer than I must actually have been able to hear it.
When I got back to the hotel, Sandy and Mrs. Grey were waiting for me in the parlor. I made my excuses as quickly as I could and went up to the room that Sandy and I were sharing, alone. I didn't quite know what to do with myself, and in rapid succession I examined the contents of my trunk, took out my manicure tools, put them away again, read and reread the telegram from my former law clerk and brand-new partner, Jeremy Chadwick, which had been awaiting me on my arrival at the hotel, began to write a reply, crumpled it up and threw it away. I took up a book. I saw it was The Corsair by Lord Byron, and I tossed it across the room. It hit the opposite wall with a loud thud, and fell open on the floor. What nonsense, I thought, the noble pirate, the tragic outlaw. Tonight I'd seen Hannibal Heyes in his true colors. He hadn't behaved any differently than any man of his kind would behave, drinking and whoring, and what's more, he'd never lied to me about it. It was all my own fault, weaving some kind of romantic fantasy around a man I'd met twice in my life, and it was particularly my own fault that I'd taken him as my lover on both those occasions. A respectable woman like me didn't do things like that, and I'd only been asking for trouble. What had I been expecting, anyway? It wasn't as if he had ever made any promises.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. When we'd parted that last time, he'd looked me in the eye and promised me that he'd see me again. But that had been five months ago, and I hadn't heard from him since. I certainly hadn't expected our next meeting to be like this. What had I been expecting? That we'd fall in love and live happily ever after? Hah! A wanted outlaw and a woman who felt like she was suffocating anytime a man tried to get too close, tried to take over her life. Not likely. All I knew was that I thought about him too much, that I fell asleep too many nights remembering his kisses and his touch and his laughter and all the stories he'd told me. Enough! I wasn't going to think about this anymore. It was a stupid, foolish position I'd put myself in, and it had to stop. Besides, I couldn't have told him I was coming to Colorado, even if I'd known he was here, because I didn't have an address to write him.
Still, I couldn't get his words out of my head. "Only in my dreams." Did he really think about me like that? And if he did, what a peculiar way to find out. I didn't know whether I wanted to laugh or to cry, so I did both, at the same time, until both the absurdity and the sadness of it all had worked its way out.
There was a timid knocking on the door, and Sandy's soft voice. "Ella, can I come in?"
"Come on in," I called, and she found me sitting on my bed and brushing my loosened hair. She sat down next to me on the bed and held out her hand for the brush. I handed it to her and she began to stroke my hair.
"Why are you looking so sad, Ella? With your pretty golden hair, just like a fairy princess," she murmured.
"I don't feel much like a fairy princess, Sandy. More like the old witch." The mirror on the wall told me I was still attractive at 32, but Sandy was beautiful, like Snow White in that German fairy tale. Formally Miss Alexandra Nicholls, but never called anything but Sandy, she was an orphan I'd taken in to help me with the cooking and cleaning, and to educate. Sandy was just about the fairest of them all, at least as far as Blue Sky, Montana was concerned. She had luxuriant jet-black hair, and big brown eyes. The stories were that her daddy was an Indian, and that her mama had been a captive who died of grief when her family rescued her and took her away from him. Sandy was raised by her grandparents until she was 10 or 11, and then they died of influenza and she went to the orphanage. Both she and I thought that her daddy must never have known about her, because the natives are known to be very loyal to their kin.
She was seventeen now, and she and I were going to have to part company, soon. With her looks, her gentle nature, and her domestic talents, I was determined that Sandy would make a good marriage. The only problem was that some folks looked down on her as a half-breed. But I didn't really have any other way of providing for her, and I didn't think it was fair for her to have to keep house for a maiden lady forever. I just wished there was some young, handsome man in Blue Sky who looked to have a solid future, and was otherwise good enough for her, who didn't hold her birth against her. If only she'd been a few years older, maybe she and Jeremy might have made a match, but his wife Melanie was a dear girl, too.
Sandy was one of the reasons that I was finally indulging a lifelong wish to visit Colorado. I thought maybe in a would-be resort town like Colorado Springs, we might find her handsome prince. I just hadn't expected to find mine transformed into a swine while we were at it. Well, that wasn't quite fair, but . . . lying in the gutter wasn't a particularly attractive state. The image of his face, flushed from the alcohol, and those longing brown eyes, came unbidden to my mind, but I quickly dismissed it. I willed myself to think of something else -- anything else.
"What's that poor book doing on the floor over there?" Sandy asked me, gesturing to the red volume which lay face down, some of its pages crumpled underneath it.
"It's a long story, Sandy. But let's try to get some sleep." I was going to save my surprise for the morning, but I thought one of us could use some cheering up, now. "That nice couple we met at dinner tonight said that they have a party going out into the mountains the day after next, and we're to meet the rest of the party and the guide tomorrow to see if we'd like to accompany them."
"You mean, sleep in a tent and all?" Sandy looked thrilled, which was more than I could say for myself, but it was the only way to see the best views. We were here, and we were going to see the best views if we had to sleep in a tent the whole time.
"Yes. Apparently Mrs. Stevens is overjoyed to have two more ladies joining the expedition. It's herself, and her husband, and two other men. And the guide, of course."
"A real adventure!" Sandy exulted. Sandy loved adventures. She spent as much of her free time as possible on horseback or clambering around mountains. I liked the wilds that surrounded our town, too, but not with Sandy's energy or unbounded enthusiasm. Sometimes I sat below and watched her climbing, but I trusted to her instincts and her sense of her own limits so much that after awhile, I frequently let her go out on her own while I was working. I wondered if it came from her father's people, if it was in her blood.
"Good night," I said, with rather less enthusiasm, and went to sleep to dream of something other than Hannibal Heyes. At least I hoped so.
Why it was that the Colorado mountains should seem like such a goal to us, when we lived in Montana, a territory so rich in its own mountains that it was named after them, was something I couldn't have explained to you, no matter how I tried. But I'd always wanted to see them, and so had Sandy. This was my first holiday in years -- since Daddy died, who used to take us to San Francisco and once even to Boston and New York -- and Sandy's first holiday ever. But now that my clerk Jeremy had been called to the bar and been promoted to a full member of the firm, my presence around town could be dispensed with for a little while. I'd suggested Chicago, and she'd tried to show some enthusiasm, but it was just about the flattest enthusiasm I'd ever seen. Then I mentioned Colorado, and her eyes lit right up, and that's where we were going. We met the Stevenses in the dining room at breakfast. Greta Stevens was about my age, childless, a small and nervous woman with emerald-green eyes. She had probably been lovely at Sandy's age, but looked worn-out at mine. Her husband, Daniel, was ten years older, an accountant, tall and thin and soft-spoken. They were here on holiday from San Francisco, and they were staying in the Springs Temperance Hotel because Daniel thought it would be nicer for Greta, "with her nerves and all," as he'd whispered to me that first evening at dinner. "The other gentlemen in our party are staying elsewhere."
"The Temperance Hotel didn't quite appeal to them?" I had asked. I remembered that now, thinking of my own intemperate gentleman friends of last night.
Daniel had smiled. "Not terribly." He had quickly sized me up as more a woman of the world than his wife. This seemed neither to please nor to displease him, although I suspect it surprised him. How a spinster from Blue Sky, Montana could be more a woman of the world than a married lady from San Francisco was as much a puzzle to me as it must have been to him, but I supposed it was because I worked in a world of men as an equal, and didn't stay sheltered at home like Greta Stevens. Or maybe it was those French novels I read, that a proper lady oughtn't to -- Balzac and Flaubert and Georges Sand and all the rest -- that talked about a world of desires, of moral corruption and marital infidelity and all those things that occurred regularly in life and hardly at all in the literature written in my own language. And just maybe, it might have had something to do with Hannibal Heyes. Well, that was a train of thought I didn't care to pursue right now.
This morning we were full of meaningless small talk, until the rest of their party arrived. As I recall, the weather was touched upon more than once. I began to fear that even the spectacular scenery we were going to see might not prevent this expedition from being a deathly bore. "Ah, here they are!" Daniel Stevens said, as two men entered the room. One of them was young, nondescript, but with a pleasant face, and I wondered idly if he might not do for Sandy. He was introduced to me as Marcus Thompson. He worked with Daniel in the accounting department of a large San Francisco import/export firm that did a great deal of business with the Far East. But it was the other man who commanded everyone's attention when he entered the room. He was older than the others, with iron-grey hair, piercing blue eyes, and handsome, weathered, hawklike features. His name was Meriwether Abel, and he told us we could call him anything but "Mary."
After the introductions had been made, Abel said politely, "It's so nice for Greta to find some ladies to join us on the expedition. I understand you're a lawyer, Miss Hart." He said it matter-of-factly, not in that way that so many people have of making me feel like I'm on exhibit as a sort of curiosity.
"Yes, I am."
"Well, I'm a member of the California bar, myself, although I'm mostly involved in other aspects of the business these days. I do most of the traveling to our suppliers in China, Japan, and other parts of the Far East."
"I'll look forward to hearing more about that, Mr. Abel," I said, with genuine interest, and I saw Sandy's eyes shining with fascination. She might not have taken to her books, but I could always get her to read travelers' tales -- in fact, I had to let her have first crack at any new ones my bookseller back East sent out.
Abel smiled and looked around at Daniel. "Marcus and I found ourselves a pair of crackerjack guides, but, if the ladies will pardon me, unfortunately they're a little worse for wear this morning. They got to celebrating their good fortune in landing this job last night. But they should be here any minute now."
My insides contracted. It couldn't be. It was. There they were, large as life and twice as
hung over, Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, making their way into the Springs Temperance Hotel. The Kid was extraordinarily pale, and his blue eyes were bloodshot, but Heyes looked worse. His dark hair was all messed up, and there was something in his eyes and in his gait that suggested he might not be entirely sober even yet.
I heard the Kid say, "Smells funny in here, Joshua. Think that's temperance smell?"
Heyes groaned. "Everything smells funny this morning. Come to think of it, why does this place sound so familiar? Can't be too many folks we know would stay in a temperance hotel, least, not on purpose." I expect his brain was pushing its way past the alcoholic mists of last night. I watched his expression change as he made the connection, just seconds before he caught sight of me sitting there with his employers.
Between his poker face and my courtroom face, you wouldn't have known that we had ever set eyes on each other before that moment. He swallowed his surprise about as quickly as could be.
"Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, I'd like you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Stevens, Miss Hart, and Miss Nicholls." They shook hands with Daniel, with Greta, with Sandy, and then they paused in front of me, waiting for me to acknowledge our acquaintance in some way.
Heyes and I must have looked at each other for a full minute before I took his hand and with a frosty smile said, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Smith." I turned to Curry without the vaguest sign of recognition and did the same. "Mr. Jones."
"Are you two in any shape to conduct this meeting?" asked Marcus Thompson. He had a soft, pleasant voice, one which I was to hear little of over the next several days. But although he rarely spoke, he always seemed to be watching, and listening. My instincts were completely uncertain about him, which was unusual. I almost always got a sense of people quickly -- it was useful in the courtroom. Of course, I wasn't always right, I thought, turning my attention to our guides. But usually. Often enough that I trusted myself.
Heyes gave Thompson one of his patented smiles, even though it looked like it hurt his face to make it. I was glad. "Absolutely. We've done harder things in worse shape," he said, and proceeded to take out a map and trace out the course of the next week for us. They'd also planned out exactly what we needed in the way of horses, pack animals and provisions, although Abel and Stevens kept adding suggestions to the list -- suggestions that I suspected were entirely superfluous.
There was one wrinkle, because Greta Stevens was insisting on a side-saddle, and it had apparently been determined by our guides yesterday that there were none to be found for hire or purchase in all of Colorado Springs. Well, to be precise, Greta Stevens mentioned how she had requested a sidesaddle, and her husband began to insist that there must be some way to get one. He even suggested we delay the expedition several days while we sent to Denver for one. This was met with great resistance from the rest of the party. Thompson pointed out that they had a big audit when they returned, and Abel was bound for China shortly thereafter. Stevens still looked dubious. Finally, I chimed in and managed to convince him that if I permitted Sandy to ride astride, it must be acceptable for a married woman. Of course, I didn't tell him that Sandy was five times the rider I was, and that she'd been riding long before she'd come into my household. Greta Stevens seems considerably less concerned than her husband, but the way she deferred to him made me downright uncomfortable. I wondered if I deferred to Heyes in those dreams of his, and that reminded me I was still angry with him. Or angry with myself, which came down to much the same thing.
Finally, all the details had been settled, and the departure time set for eight the following morning. Abel smiled at the guides, and said, "I expect these two would like to go back to their hotel and get some more sleep."
Heyes and his partner nodded gratefully, and turned away, but not before Abel offered me his arm, which I took, rather ostentatiously.
I managed to avoid them for the rest of the day, although they returned to the hotel several times to consult with various members of the party. Thompson and Abel lunched with us in the Temperance Hotel, but excused themselves to meet "Smith and Jones" for dinner. Abel invited Daniel Stevens to accompany them, but with a quick look at his wife, Stevens refused. Apparently it was a gentlemen's dinner, which was fine with me. I could just imagine what the conversation would be like, and I was almost certain that the buxom redhead and her companion would be a central feature of it.
Tomorrow would be time enough for me to deal with Hannibal Heyes.
At eight in the morning we headed out, more than fully provisioned. In fact, the San Franciscans had insisted on so many supplies that we were trailed by an absurd number of pack animals and looked like one of those expeditions through Africa that people like Henry Stanley kept making. I got the distinct feeling that our guides were more than a bit embarrassed by it.
I wasn't a real wilderness type myself. Despite having grown up in Montana, I'd spent most of my life quite happily in a town, and my wanderings in the mountains had been mostly of the sort that I could do within a day of my home, with merely a horse and a pair of stout boots. When I was able to get away for a ramble with Sandy, I was likely to plant myself somewhere partway up the slope, when I came upon a spot with a nice view, while she insisted on exploring every inch of the hillside.
Heyes and Curry looked quite their old selves, Heyes so much so that my heart caught in my throat despite myself when I saw him. His dark hair was partly hidden under his black hat, and he had a dark bandanna knotted about his throat. His partner was wearing a leather vest, and looked so much the handsome Western man that I could imagine him on the cover of a dime novel. But somehow I never looked at him twice when Heyes was around. There was something almost magnetic about Heyes, an intelligence that illuminated features that were, by anyone's account, quite attractive in and of themselves. I wasn't sure that everyone saw that, though. He could appear simply charming and glib, when he wanted. Maybe I was reading more into him than was really there. But I didn't think so. All my experience suggested I was right.
"Isn't he handsome?" whispered Sandy, who was riding at my side. I wondered which one of them she meant, but then the two men rode apart, and I saw that her eyes were following Kid Curry. Even though I wasn't actually speaking to either of them, as I reminded myself, I was obscurely pleased by this.
We reached the foothills about noon, and picnicked there. When Abel handed around a silver flask to the gentlemen, I thought I caught Heyes stealing a glance at me. I didn't think for a minute he would have passed the flask on without taking a swallow, and I didn't know what to make of the gesture.
Sandy and Abel were the best riders, other than Heyes and Curry, with both of the Stevenses occupying the place below me in the order. At least they were from San Francisco. I didn't have much of an excuse, except that I walked nearly everywhere in Blue Sky, and only rode to pay outlying calls, or on the rare opportunities I had for a day off. But still, my seat was pretty good, and as the day wore on and I got back in practice with the unaccustomed saddle, I thought I occupied a solid middle position, along with Thompson. Mrs. Stevens was having a difficult time with riding astride, and I was concerned whether she was going to make it through the week.
"Can we rig one of the saddles so she can use it as a side-saddle?" I asked Curry. I was still more comfortable approaching him than his partner.
He shrugged, but I could see a certain wariness in his response. I knew he must be confused about my pretending not to know him. "Truth to tell, I've never known anyone to ride that way."
"I learned both ways, and side-saddle is mostly how I ride around Blue Sky. It's just easier when I need to be dressed properly to meet with clients. That's why I was shaky at first -- my body was trying to use a different set of responses. Mrs. Stevens could be a really good rider, but she's used to balancing a whole different way, controlling the horse. . . . "
Meriwether Abel, who had been listening to our conversation, took this moment to break in, and suggested a way to contrive something. It worked just fine, and Greta Stevens proved, indeed, to be a competent rider. Considerably better than her overly protective husband, who hovered at her side the whole time, I noted with satisfaction. In fact, several times that afternoon I noticed her reining her horse in, in order to hold back with him. I wondered if I'd ever get the chance to talk with her alone. Somehow I had the feeling she might be a little different without his constant hovering.
And so we rode on, through the foothills. Our guides had decided we ought to press on as long as we could the first day, so that we could make a longer-term camp for the second night. Nobody had any objections, or at least, none they were willing to voice. Abel seemed to be taking particular charge of me, which was just fine by me, since he was full of fascinating stories. He flanked me on one side, and when the path was wide, Thompson rode on the other. Thompson rarely spoke, and when he did, he generally addressed himself to Abel. But he always seemed to be watching: the horizon, Sandy, our guides, the Stevenses, everything.
Heyes and I managed to avoid each other, all day, although I couldn't help glancing his way occasionally . . . or, if the truth be known, more than occasionally. Once or twice I caught him glancing my way at the same time, his dark eyes expressionless, but we both quickly looked away. I idly suspected that if I'd been quicker I might have caught him more often. But I told myself it didn't matter. Things were better this way, and the trip would be over soon enough.
By the time we made camp it was nearly dark, which in those long summer days made it fairly late. Our guides and Abel did most of the work setting up. I tried to help once or twice, and so did Sandy, but we were shooed back to the fire and told to sit still and enjoy the evening breezes and the fire's glow. The Stevenses and Thompson began to put questions to Heyes and Curry about what Greta Stevens insisted on calling "the Wild West," which made it sound like she was from Philadelphia or Boston, rather than from San Francisco. I was curious to listen, curious to hear what sorts of stories they were going to be able to tell without letting on that they were, in fact, Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, famous outlaws, and not Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones, drifters and occasional wilderness guides.
But there were other demands on my attention. The more time I spent around Abel, the more fascinating a character he appeared to be. His stories of Far Eastern travel were endlessly interesting, like something out of a book. He claimed Sandy and I, and we were both caught up in his stories. But it was to me that he constantly deferred. His attentions were so marked, while always remaining within the bounds of perfect propriety, that I found myself flustered on more than one occasion. Later, as the fire was burning low and the other group beginning to disperse, Heyes made his way over to the three of us. He addressed himself almost exclusively to Abel, after acknowledging Sandy's presence and mine with a brief smile and nod. Heyes asked a number of questions about the Far East and about Japan, in particular, and he appeared to be quite disappointed to find out that Abel had never been to India, although I was sure he knew even less about that country than I did. He had no great information, but an endless supply of curiosity, and I found myself fascinated by the interchange between these two intelligent, adventurous, yet very different men. The advantage wasn't all on Abel's side, either. Heyes' quick wits were evident in his contributions to the conversation, and I couldn't help but be reminded of why it was that I'd always liked him so much. I briefly wondered whether they were showing off for me, but neither of them seemed to be particularly aware of my presence, anymore. It didn't occur to me until later, as I was falling asleep and pondering the day's events to myself, that the two strongest personalities in a group of men were going to feel obliged to try to feel each other out, to test each other's boundaries. I wondered if that was what Rick Johnson, my constant opponent in legal matters back home, tried to do with me. How it must have frustrated him that I didn't play the same game. But Rick and I had plenty of games of our own.
It was a clear night, and the men were going to sleep out under the stars, and Greta Stevens, Sandy and I were to sleep inside a tent. As long as I was going to have to sleep on the ground, anyway, I would rather have done it out in the open, but I wasn't being given a choice. As I made my way into the tent, I saw that Greta Stevens quickly shoved a piece of paper -- it looked like a note -- into her skirt pocket. Peculiar that anyone would need to communicate with her like that on a camping trip, I thought, but it had been a long day, and I was too tired to think for long.
I asked her a number of questions about herself and her life back home, but although she was perfectly friendly, her answers were noncommittal. She seemed a little ill at ease with me, and a bit more comfortable with Sandy. I supposed I made a certain type of woman nervous, by the simple fact of who I was and what I did. And by what that suggested might be missing from their own lives. Truly contented domestic women tended to draw me right into their kitchens and give me a bowl of something to mix for them while they bustled about with their business. They asked me about the courtroom and told me about their children. Greta asked me about Sandy, and about one of my dresses that she'd particularly admired, back at the hotel.
Sandy blew out the lantern when Greta complained of tiredness in her gentle, fretful sort of way. I woke up once in the night with the sensation that I couldn't breathe, and I crept out of the tent. I looked up at the stars. You could almost reach up and touch them, the night was so clear and the starlight so bright. You could practically read a book by it, although how anyone could look away from the stars, I couldn't imagine. I thought I heard the sound of someone moving, and I called out, "Hello?" There was no answer, but it made me uneasy enough that I crept back into the tent, and pulled the covers up and close to me. I reached out and touched Sandy just to reassure myself. I could feel her stirring under the rough woolen blanket. Her soft breathing eventually lulled me back to sleep.
The next day I awoke every bit as stiff and sore as I'd feared. Greta Stevens seemed to be in a similar state, and fretted about it a little, but pulled herself together and took a brave tone. "This trip means so much to Daniel and his friends," she explained. Sandy, of course, was cheerful and without a single twinge of discomfort. I'm not precisely on in years, myself, but I had to keep reminding myself how very young she was.
Daniel Stevens came to the tent and requested that we wait inside for a little while the gentlemen were washing and dressing. In return, he promised that breakfast would be waiting for us. When we did emerge, to the smell of some delicious cooking, Curry handed me a tin plate heaped with biscuits and sausage and all sorts of lovely things.
"Did you make this?" I asked.
"Him and me. Mostly him," he indicated Heyes with his glance.
"Well, my compliments to the chef," I said, and smiled at Heyes for the first time.
He returned the smile, his expression friendly, if a little guarded, and said, laughing, "There's something about a campfire that brings it out in me."
I could tell he wanted to say something more, but I wasn't ready for that, yet. I looked around, at the soft green at our feet, the tawny foothills which surrounded us, and the craggy blue peaks in the distance. "I can see why -- the camp, anyway, if not the campfire. Everything seems so perfect -- so pure, somehow. Almost like the Garden of Eden, before the Fall."
"Watch out then. At your feet," he said quickly.
I looked down, and jumped back with a little shriek, as a snake slithered past me. "Was that . . . "
He grinned that wide, irresistible grin of his. "It was harmless. It was just too good a coincidence to let slip."
We rode on further that day, Abel riding at my side the whole way. I noticed Sandy was riding at the front of the group, between our guides. Well, I was fairly sure I could trust them to look out for her. I couldn't help but observe that "Mr. Jones" was particularly attentive to her, but I kept stopping myself from interfering. Daniel and Greta Stevens brought up the rear, as usual, and their inequity as riders became even more apparent. Sidesaddle, even with a makeshift, Greta Stevens was an excellent horsewoman. Thompson drifted between the Stevenses and Abel and me, quiet as ever, although he did address himself to me several times today, on very general topics like the weather and if I was happy with my horse. He and Sandy hadn't yet said a word, but then, she was so fascinated by our guides that I didn't think he'd have a chance. I shrugged, internally. That hadn't been the primary purpose of the expedition anyway. I just hoped she wouldn't take too strong a fancy to Kid Curry.
Meanwhile, Abel's endless supply of stories had begun to wear on me by late morning. The man could certainly talk, but I wasn't certain how good he was at listening. I was just the tiniest bit piqued that he didn't seem to imagine that the adventures of a lady lawyer in Montana were worth relating. Certain other men I could name -- oh, all right, Heyes for one, and Curry for another -- had their share of stories to tell, but they knew how to listen, too.
At one point Thompson had fallen back, and he called Abel over to him. As he tugged the reins slightly, Abel made his apologies. He needn't have. I was relieved that the endless stream of stories had finally taken a pause. Making the appropriate appreciative noises had become a bit of a strain.
I rode alone for awhile, enjoying the silence. The voices of the others seemed like only a murmur in the surrounding distance, even though they weren't really all that far away. The sky was a brilliant blue, with almost no clouds, and made a spectacular contrast to the tawny outcroppings of rock and the green of the straggling plants that surrounded us.
And then I was surprised to realize that Kid Curry had slowed his pace, and was obviously waiting for me. "So," he said, "I take it you're back on speaking terms with us? Since breakfast?"
"Guess so," I said. I wasn't sure, myself.
"You know, Ella, Heyes would really like it if you would talk to him. But both of you are going to be stubborn and wait for the other one to say something first."
I looked quickly around. "Um, Mr. Jones, should you be . . . I mean, don't you think someone might overhear . . . ?"
He laughed. "Can you hear anything they're saying?"
"Well, no, but . . . "
"Look, Heyes likes you a lot." He'd said it.
"Did he tell you that?" I asked suspiciously. "Did he ask you to say something to me?"
"You really don't know much about men, do you? He'd be pretty mad at me if he knew we were even talking about him. No, he doesn't talk a lot about you, but the idea of taking a trip up to Montana crops up a lot more often than it used to. And that town of yours seems to have taken on this vast significance. You'd practically think it was Denver or San Francisco, the way it keeps coming up in conversation. If it wasn't for the winters being so bad up there, and our luck not always being the best these days, I'm sure we'd have been back more'n once by now."
I couldn't help smiling at that. "If he doesn't talk about me, how come you knew about Billy? Remember, you asked me about him that night in Townsend."
"Ella, everyone in Blue Sky knows about you and Billy and they just love to talk about it. I think you two are just about as legendary as . . . who were those two? In that play that Heyes made me go see in Denver that time? . . . Romeo and Juliet, that was it. You're a regular Romeo . . . no, I guess you'd be Juliet . . . around those parts. Except that they both died at the end, right? Not just Romeo." He was clearly struggling to regain his train of thought. "I must've got told about you and Billy by at least five people, from the deputy sheriff to the blackjack dealer to the fellow that watched our horses while we were in the lockup."
"Well, you know all about that, now. Because of my famous lost love, I get away with doing things and going places that most women can't. If they find out I'm human, I'm sunk."
Curry's smile was warm, now, and his blue eyes almost matched the brilliant blue overhead. "Your secret's safe with me. You did a real good nun impersonation the other night, by the way."
"I'll have you know I was really shocked. I had no idea what to make of running into you two falling down drunk. Nobody in my usual circles . . . "
"Yeah, I can believe that, seeing how little it took to get your friend Jeremy drunk as a skunk."
I took a deep breath. "It wasn't really that part. It was the girl."
He laughed. "I knew that. I just wasn't sure you were gonna say it. Look, Ella, men and women are just different about things like that. Don't mean he thinks about some saloon girl the way he thinks about you."
I wasn't so sure about that. What had been my motivations that first night that I'd spent with Heyes, after all? He was handsome, he was charming, he was leaving. I just hadn't expected that I would . . . "That's what we hear all the time, anyway. About how different men and women are. Of course, there's a lot I hear about men and women I don't believe."
"Well, you can believe me on this one," he said. "And don't tell Heyes I talked to you about this, all right?" And he spurred his horse on again to rejoin his partner and Sandy at the front of the group.
Soon Abel and Thompson had rejoined me. "So, did Mr. Jones have anything important to share?" asked my constant companion.
"Just some about the history and geography of the area. Interesting stuff. You can ask him yourself when we stop for lunch." Abel asking someone else a question? Hardly likely, I thought.
We stopped to eat our picnic lunch not too long after that, and I noticed with a certain amount of complacency that Abel did not approach Curry after all. Curry was particularly attentive to Sandy, helping her down from her horse when I knew she was perfectly capable of dismounting on her own. She sat with him as we ate the overly luxurious meats, breads and fruits that the party from San Francisco had insisted on. Greta and Daniel Stevens sat slightly apart from the rest of the group, talking softly between themselves. I found myself sitting with Abel on one side and Heyes on the other, and every time I thought I might actually break the silence with Heyes, Abel would place another demand on my attention. Our eyes did meet once, Heyes' and mine, that is. Our glances held for a moment, and both of us opened our mouths to speak at the same time, but just then, there was a loud appeal from my other side, and I was forced to turn my attention to the man I was beginning to think of as my persecutor.
Although we rode for the rest of the afternoon, I was flanked by Abel and Thompson, as before, and the stories continued. When we halted to make camp, much earlier than yesterday, I found myself actually relieved, and not just to be getting off my horse. "We don't want to stop too far up into the mountains," Curry explained.
His partner concurred. "This will be a nice comfortable place to settle in and make our explorations from." We were well into the foothills then, in a green, secluded space with running water, and trees on one side. Abel, of course, decided that the men should go fishing, and his co-workers and Heyes gathered up fishing rods. Curry offered to accompany Greta Stevens and Sandy on a walk, which they gratefully accepted. Daniel looked uncomfortable, but when he was certain that Sandy was going along with his wife, he seemed to relax and accepted the fishing rod which Thompson was proffering him. I was included in the invitation, but I'd seen a pretty spot which looked like 20 minutes gentle climb away and I headed there with a book I'd brought along with me. I achieved my objective, had plenty of time to drink in the view, and was a couple of chapters further along with the story, when a shadow was cast across my page.
I looked up and it was Hannibal Heyes, his black hat thrust back on his head. "If you're trying to avoid me you might try a more secluded spot. I could see you all the way down at the foot of the hill." He smiled that blinding smile, and sat down beside me. "What are you reading, anyway?"
I marked my page, and handed him the book, spine first.
"Crime and Punishment?" He shuddered. "That one of your law books, or are you *real* mad at me and trying to figure out what they'll do to me once you turn me in?"
"Neither. It's a novel by a man called Dostoevsky. Translated from the Russian. Look, Heyes, I'm sorry I pretended I didn't know you the other day. I was just too angry to trust myself to speak to you."
"Ella, it was embarrassing for me, too, running into you like that. But you're acting like it was the end of the world. I was just out having a good time. How was I supposed to know you were in town?"
"You hardly left me with a forwarding address."
"We don't have one. You could've told Lom Trevors you were traveling. He'd have found us for you."
"To what purpose?"
"Well . . . because you should have known I'd have wanted to see you again," said Heyes, exasperatingly, and tried to touch the side of my face, though I turned away. "I told you that, didn't I? Do you think I would have been running around drinking with a saloon girl if I'd have known you were in town?"
I turned back to glare at him. "Probably not. Why pay for that sort of thing when you can get it for free?"
"Is that what this is all about? Is that how you think I feel about you?"
"I don't know," I said miserably, my eyes filling with tears. "I can't say that I see much difference."
He moved closer, then, and put an arm around my shoulders and leaned down to kiss me. "There's all the difference in the world."
I pushed him away. "Is that what you did with her the other night? The redhead?"
"For heavens sake, Ella. I'm not sure that it's really any of your business, but I couldn't go through with it, after running into you like that." He looked at me, frowning, his brown eyes fixed on mine. "I ended up spending the time in the bar while the Kid went upstairs to . . . go about his business. You might have noticed I was in worse shape than him the next morning."
I smiled in spite of myself. "I did notice, but I can't say I put together what it meant. I guess I just thought it meant you were more dissolute than he was."
He sighed, but he didn't attempt to replace his arm around my shoulders. "I had to do something with the time, didn't I? And in a bawdyhouse a man's options are kinda limited. I would've played cards, but a man that'll get into a poker game when he's already drunk is asking to lose big." He stopped, sighed again, looked at me. "Look, Ella, just because we're not going to ride off into the sunset together don't mean I don't have feelings for you. In fact, I had the Kid just about convinced it was a good idea to head back up your way sometime real soon. But I didn't expect to see you here. I just didn't think you ever shook yourself loose from that little town of yours. I thought if you did that, the evil Nick . . . Rick . . . whatever his name is? . . . would destroy the civilization of Blue Sky as we know it. But here we are, and instead of enjoying our luck, you're sitting there and sniffling. So dry those tears, all right?" He pulled off his bandanna and handed it to me.
I stared at his outstretched hand for a moment before reaching out to accept his offering. I dabbed at my eyes with it, but I didn't want to blow my nose into anything he was likely to wear again. Since all I could think of was what a fright I must look with my nose red from crying, and that sort of crumpled facial expression that one gets, I supposed I was beginning to forgive him. Or forgive myself, or something. "Actually, Rick's taken his family to Europe. They're hunting for a Polish count or something to marry his daughter Lisette. I thought maybe I ought to take advantage of the time to let Sandy see some more of the world. Maybe even find her a husband -- after all, you know how everything's a competition between Rick and me."
"Sandy's an awfully pretty girl. I don't think she'll need much help in that regard. In fact, if you weren't here . . . " There was mischief in his eyes.
"I said a husband, not some no account outlaw."
Heyes' dimple deepened as he laughed. "Who you calling a no account outlaw? I'll have you remember I was an outlaw of quite some standing, before my retirement. At the top of my game, I might add." And with that, he replaced his arm around my shoulders. I let it stay.
"How do you two know enough about this area to serve as guides, anyway? I thought you were based out of Wyoming when you ran that gang and stayed more in one place?"
"We got around quite a lot even in those days, though. Actually, this was since we've been keepin' honest. We spent a month or two helping out an old miner just up ahead in these hills. He'd hurt his back, needed a couple of young, strong men to help him out." He stretched slightly, as though remembering past soreness, then briefly tightened his grip on my shoulder. I reached up and stroked his hand, almost absently. "About a year ago. Wasn't so bad, though. We've had worse experiences with mining."
He had a strange, faraway expression in his eyes, as I turned my head to look at his face, now so close to mine. "Not right now. But anyway, this time we got the chance to explore around the area. Maybe we'll pay a call on our miner friend while we're out here. Your friends from San Francisco would probably enjoy that -- he's a real character."
"Do you think Meriwether Abel would even notice?"
"Oh, I'm sure he would. Old Joe would become seven feet tall and a hundred years old, and one of Abel's closest friends. He'd be the stuff of legend."
"Cynic," I said, but I laughed.
And with that, Heyes leaned over and kissed me. He pulled back for a moment and looked at me to make sure I wanted him to go on, and in answer, I slipped my arms around his neck and raised my mouth to his. For a few minutes there was nothing in the world but his lips and tongue pressing mine, his arms around me and his body held tightly to mine, when suddenly I pulled away.
"Heyes, didn't you say that you could see me sitting up here from way down below?"
"I think we've been spotted," I said, pointing below. A flash of long black hair was disappearing behind a tree. Sandy had seen us. "Wonderful."
"Sandy sees me kissing a man who, as far as she knows, I'd never met before two days ago, and that not under the best of circumstances. Not a very good example to be setting for a seventeen year old girl."
"How'd you end up with her, anyway?" he asked me, helping me to my feet. "Wasn't there someone named Sandy doing housework for you?"
We started making our way down the incline. I had to hold my skirt up with one hand -- my own stubbornness in wearing a full-length skirt instead of a shorter split riding skirt. "That's her. I pulled her out of the orphanage, over in Butte. She helps me around the house, and I give her lessons, and now, for her own sake, I'm trying to marry her off. Which, despite her many obvious advantages, is a little more difficult than you might think, because her father was an Indian, and she was born out of wedlock, besides. Some folks are a little prejudiced."
"Some folks are more than a little stupid." He held out his arms to help me down a difficult part. "You know, the Kid and I were in an orphanage after our parents were killed."
"No, I didn't know that. I'm sorry. How old were you?"
"Young. Both our families were wiped out in Kansas during the War. I thought I'd told you."
"No," I said. "Everything you and the Kid have told me has been about the more recent past. I guess I just thought you didn't like to talk about your childhood." I thought about my family, and how I'd been devastated losing both my parents when I was in my middle twenties. I thought about how it explained so much about both Heyes and the Kid, how two such essentially decent men could have become outlaws and train robbers. Right there and then I decided that if I managed to get Sandy married off, I was going to head right back to that orphanage on the next train, and take away another girl. "Heyes?"
"Can anyone see us here?"
"I don't think so." He looked around. "No, I reckon not."
"Good." I kissed him quickly on the cheek, and then drew away again, and continued down the hillside.
I looked back and saw that he was shaking his head and smiling.
When we got back to camp, the others had already finished setting up. Nobody seemed to remark on how "Mr. Smith" and I were returning together or how long we'd both been gone, although I kept studying Sandy, looking for some indication of whether she'd really spotted us or not.
It was a fairly warm and clear night, so they'd only pitched the one tent again, for Greta, Sandy and me. The men were going to sleep out, again. I still wished I could sleep under the stars, too, but I'd done enough to compromise myself for one day. We sat around the campfire, eating the fish the men had caught, and Abel dominated the conversation with more tales of the Far East. Tonight Heyes and Curry didn't even try to compete.
I began a whispered conversation with Greta Stevens about her walk and all the lovely things she had seen, as her husband eavesdropped, not as unobtrusively as he obviously thought. Pretty soon I was sure that if someone had seen us, it was only Sandy. Greta wasn't that good a liar. It was one of those things you could just tell about her. I was pretty sure that if I asked her about the note from the other night, I'd be able to tell the truth from what she didn't say, too. Thompson was silent and watchful, as always, although he addressed a few soft-spoken remarks in my direction. I noticed that Sandy seemed to be preoccupied with tending the fire and helping Curry with the coffee and frying the fish the men had caught. Tonight he didn't shoo her away when she tried to help, and they spoke together quietly. I heard them laughing from time to time.
I steered clear of Heyes, not quite trusting myself not to betray our acquaintance with some familiarity, especially after our recent . . . familiarity. A couple of times, as I was concentrating on other things, I was surprised by a sudden, vivid recollection of the feeling of his kisses, or the sensation of his body against mine when we'd embraced. No, on the whole it was better to avoid him. The one time our eyes met his glance was so intimate that I couldn't imagine the whole expedition hadn't noticed. But as I looked around, it appeared they hadn't. Anyway, he and Meriwether Abel were thick as . . . well, maybe thieves isn't the best word to use, under the circumstances. They were playing the same game they had been playing last night, anyway. Abel's attentions to me were much less marked than previously. I wondered idly if he'd seen Heyes and me together, but that didn't seem to be it. He had too many fishing stories for me to doubt that he hadn't left the riverside for a second. No, he seemed to be taking a hint, though. My diminished enthusiasm was reflected by his. That and the fact that he was preoccupied with competing with Heyes, and he didn't know I was an object to be competed for. If he had, I suspected, I'd soon find things very uncomfortable.
All that travel and the time in the open air had really tired me out, and I was the first to retire. Somewhere in the middle of the night I was awoken by a scratching sound on the canvas of the tent. My first thought was coyotes or some other wild animal, but then I heard a soft, low whisper calling my name. It was Heyes.
I was sleeping full dressed, against the cold night air of the mountains, so I just had to put on my shoes and adjust my clothes a little, and I made my way quietly out of the tent. My hair was down, and I put my hands up automatically to twist it into a knot, when I realized it didn't matter, and let it fall down again. "Have you gone completely mad?" I whispered. "You could have woken up Sandy or Mrs. Stevens."
He didn't respond, but reached out and took my hand silently, and led me away from the campsite. The moon had risen, and it was a bright night, so bright that I could see him quite clearly in the moonlight. We walked past some scrub pines, a few leafier trees, and down the course of the stream. Then he suddenly stopped and turned around, facing me, and caught me to him. He kissed me, a passionate, hungry kiss, and soon I'd lost myself in responding. All the cautions and concerns that I'd so carefully set out for myself over the past several days didn't seem to matter now. Not when we were alone together in the darkness like this. When we stopped to catch our breath, he said quietly, "Not likely either of your tentmates would be waking up so easily as that. Mrs. Stevens takes a sleeping draught -- her husband mentioned it -- and the Kid gave Sandy a big slug of whiskey in her coffee when she complained she thought she'd be too excited and restless to sleep tonight."
I didn't bother to voice my disapproval. I was sure Curry had meant well, and besides, hard as it was for me to believe it, Sandy was old enough to make her own decisions. About some things. "Hmm," I said. "Now where were we?" and then his arms were around me again, and his lips were touching mine, and I lost all sense of where I was or how much time was passing. Until a twig snapped, and we leapt apart. "What was that?"
"I don't know," said Heyes, "but it sounds as though we have company." His trigger hand dropped to his holster, and suddenly it struck me as peculiar that I'd been kissing a man wearing a loaded gun strapped to his leg, leaning right up against him, and I hadn't even noticed it. He put an arm out protectively, to signal me to stay behind him, and then called out, "Hello? Who's there?"
There was no response, and we stood silent, unmoving for a matter of minutes. Then, wordlessly, he took my hand again, and we began to make our way back to the campsite. We parted a few yards from the tent, as he made his way back to the circle of bedrolls around the fire, and I paused a moment before lifting the tent flap, intending to slip back inside quietly. I was worried that the moonlight might awaken my tentmates, but when a cloud passed away and the moon's brightness fell on the face of one of them, I knew nothing was going to wake Greta Stevens ever again.
Even in the moonlight, the ashen tone of her skin was unmistakable. She was lying on her back, her eyes wide open, frozen in an expression of surprise and horror. She hadn't screamed because someone's bandanna was stuffed into her mouth to keep her from doing so. There was a pool of blood soaked into the top of her dress (since she, too, was sleeping fully dressed against the cold mountain night) and all over the top of her bedding, and there was a knife protruding from just over her heart.
But perhaps the most terrifying aspect of it all, to my eyes at least, was that Sandy had never even woken up. She lay curled up on her side, less than a foot away from the dead woman, sound asleep. Some of Greta Stevens' blood had seeped over, and was staining her blankets. For a minute I was paralyzed by the thought that Sandy, too, had been murdered, but then she made a soft sound and shifted in her sleep.
I stood silently for a moment, unable to move, unable to think, unable to do anything but stare, and then I screamed for dear life.
Heyes was the first to arrive at the scene, wearing one of his boots and clutching the other in one hand. His uneven gait would have been comical if the situation hadn't been so tragic.
"Ella," he was calling, "What's the matter?"
Wordlessly, I pointed inside the tent, through the open flap. He peered in, and saw what the moonlight had shown me. I heard a sharp intake of breath, just as the other men were arriving on the scene, and he turned around. "Stevens?" he called. "Stevens? You'd better come here."
"What's the matter?" asked Daniel Stevens, groggily. He must have been sound asleep when the disturbance occurred. He had brought up the rear of the group, but now he made his way to the front.
"Don't move anything," Heyes cautioned him. "We're going to have to try to figure out what happened."
Stevens entered the tent, while Heyes held the flap held open so that the light would follow him in. In a moment, we heard his sobs. "Greta . . . no . . . no . . . " He backed out of the tent, and when he turned around and we saw his face, the transformation was astonishing. The quiet accountant was as ashen pale as his wife, and looked something like King Lear in the mad scene. Meriwether Abel came up to him and led him back to the fire, where his cries and bursts of fury alternated with a deep deathly silence for the rest of the night.
Nor did Sandy continue to sleep throughout this whole nightmarish experience. As Stevens gave out his first loud cry, she stirred, and in a moment, there was a strange, low sound, like the cry of an animal. As I slowly regained my focus, I was aware that Sandy was sitting upright, her arms clasped around her legs, and she was rocking back and forth, whimpering. Curry crawled into the tent, and aided her in making her way outside. He gently handed her into my waiting arms. I held her tightly as she screamed and sobbed, and all I could do was stroke her raven-black hair and whisper soothing things. I was steps away from screaming and sobbing, myself. The woman with whom I'd been sleeping in a tent for two days now was dead, in those same peaceful surroundings I'd fallen off to sleep in earlier that night. If it hadn't been for Heyes waking me up to take that walk with him, I would have been in the tent when she was killed. And unlike Sandy, or Greta Stevens herself, sleeping their different kinds of drugged sleeps, I would have woken right up. Even if I hadn't been the target, I'd probably be dead right now, as well. Mostly, I was sorry for Greta Stevens, but right now my own close call was weighing heavily on me. I envied Sandy the free rein she was giving her emotions. Hysteria, they call it, those European doctors. It seemed pretty healthy and natural to me. But then I heard Heyes' voice saying, "Don't move anything," and I determined that I was going to be strong.
Curry sounded angry. "What do you mean, don't move anything? The woman needs to be decently seen to."
"Someone should go get the sheriff," added Thompson. His tone of voice was sharper than I'd ever heard it before, and I wondered if what he'd been watching for had happened -- in spite of, or because of, his best efforts.
"The sheriff is two days' ride away," said Heyes, "and how do we know that the person we send to fetch him isn't the killer?"
"Well, I'm not --" Thompson began angrily. I wanted to hear the rest of what he had to say, but Heyes cut him off.
"Each one of us is gonna say that, aren't we? Look, Mrs. Stevens was stabbed, and the murderer left the weapon right there. We need to wait until it's light, and then we need to take a closer look. But right now, we have to assume that none of us can be trusted." He sighed, running his hand through his brown hair. "Until then, we need to guard the tent, in teams, and not with our friends, so that nobody can claim that anyone is protecting anyone else. Thompson, why don't you take this shift with me? Thaddeus, you help the ladies over to the fire."
"No," moaned Sandy.
"I think Mr. Stevens is frightening her," I said. To tell you the truth, some of the cries that were coming from over there were frightening me as well. The mad scene in King Lear came irresistibly to mind, again. I half expected to hear someone mumbling, "Poor Tom's a cold" or call for the lightning to strike him down on the blasted heath. I scolded myself for thinking something so irreverent when poor Daniel Stevens was suffering such a tragic loss. He had tried to protect his wife -- from what? -- and look what had happened.
"You'll freeze over here," Curry pointed out. "Come on."
"All right," I said, gently handing the still sobbing Sandy into Curry's arms. He looked a little surprised, but I had the feeling he'd be good at comforting a woman. "I'll be with you in a moment," I said and turned to face Heyes and Thompson, as Curry continued towards the fire with Sandy. "Sandy needs a shawl or something. If you two both keep watch on me, would it be all right if I grabbed something from her bags?"
Thompson looked a little uneasy.
"Look," I said, "If I had killed Greta Stevens, would I have screamed and called everyone's attention to it? Wouldn't I have run away or something?"
"In the middle of the wilderness in the middle of the night? You wouldn't get very far on your own." Thompson said, just an edge of suspicion to his soft voice. "Come to think of it, you have your shoes and your jacket on. You're the only one of us who's fully dressed." There was a look in his eyes that made me uncomfortable, something almost wild. No, something desperate, I thought. And maybe hurt.
"Well, of course I do," I said, impatient in my own defense. "Clearly I was awake. I had gone for a little walk in the moonlight and when I got back to the tent, I saw Mrs. Stevens through the open flap and I knew that all was not right. I screamed for you all just about as loudly as I could."
"Or you did that to throw suspicion off yourself," said Thompson warily. "Just why were you going for a moonlit stroll, anyway?"
I sighed and put my hands together primly. "Mr. Thompson, although I know that most unmarried gentlemen are under the illusion that ladies are not privy to certain of the more vulgar biological failings of your own strong sex, the honest truth is that I felt the call of nature." I was certain that my blush showed crimson even in the waning moonlight. "Now, may I get Sandy a nice warm shawl, please?"
Thompson looked at Heyes, who nodded. I took a deep breath and slipped inside. I wanted to be in there as little as I'd ever wanted anything, and it took all my self-control not to scream out or lapse into hysterics myself. But I'd seen Sandy shivering, and all I could do was act on my overwhelming illogical desire to provide her with comfort in the only way I could think of at the moment.
Heyes was speaking softly to me through the open tent flap. "It's all right, Miss Hart. You'll be just fine," over and over again, as I crawled past the place where the corpse lay with its eyes wide open. Sandy's bag was right near mine, at the far end of the tent. I fumbled with the flap, with shaking hands, and the odor of blood seemed to fill my nostrils. Finally, I got the bag open, and fumbled in it until I felt the soft wool of Sandy's shawl. Bunching it tightly together, I made my way carefully back outside.
The night air felt cool, and the breeze was blowing the scent of the pine forests. I inhaled deeply, hoping that it would erase the memory of the horror inside. Poor Greta Stevens. Poor sweet, nervous, well-meaning lady. Who would want to kill a woman like that, anyway?
I felt Heyes' hand on my arm. "Excuse me, Miss Hart, but do you mind showing us the shawl?"
"Certainly not," I said. I unrolled the blue-and-red patterned cloth to its full size. "Nothing concealed inside. Now, if you'll excuse me, Sandy must be freezing."
"Wait," said Thompson. "How do we know there's not something else that she's taken and concealed somewhere else in her clothing?" It was peculiar to hear his soft voice take on such an aggressive tone, but I realized it was all of a piece with his earlier wariness.
"Thompson," Heyes protested.
"I'd say the same about any of us," he insisted. "Do you want to search her or shall I?"
In response, Heyes began gently patting me down. It felt peculiar to be feeling his touch in such a manner, rather than his caresses of what must have been less than an hour ago, but felt like a century past. I was grateful it was him and not Marcus Thompson. "Nothing," he said. "And sorry for the disrespect, Miss Hart."
"It's all right, Mr. Smith. I wouldn't want to be treated differently just because I'm a lady."
He grinned despite the grim situation, and I could just hear what he wanted to say and couldn't in Thompson's hearing. No, you never did want that, did you, Ella?
It was a long, miserable night, and the dawn seemed to take forever to come. I'd made my way to the campfire, but Curry didn't seem to be in any great hurry to leave over comforting Sandy. I had to ask him twice, the second time rather sharply, if he minded if I wrapped her up in her shawl. I felt like a hypocrite along the lines of the Pharisees, intervening between Curry and Sandy, considering what was going on between his partner and me. But it was plain to see that Kid Curry was no more the marrying kind than Hannibal Heyes. Curry would be an easy man for her to fall in love with, and even with the best intentions in the world on his part, I couldn't see that leading to anything but a broken heart for her. Maybe for both of them. Not that Heyes was any safer for me, except that I didn't want the same things for myself that I wanted for Sandy. This was not what she needed.
Heyes and Thompson returned to the campfire a couple of hours before dawn, sending Curry and Abel in their place. None of us spoke. We barely spoke at all that night, any of us, and I'm quite certain none of us slept, except for Sandy, who never left my side, and gradually sobbed herself to sleep in my arms.
At dawn, we reassembled in front of the tent. Now we could all guard each other. People began to make their way down to the stream, one by one, to throw water on themselves and do whatever else was necessary. I desperately wanted to find a way to talk to Heyes privately, to
find out if he had a plan of some sort or if he was as lost with all this as I was. I stopped to wonder why I felt so instinctively that he was the one who could get to the bottom of this. After all, most of our dealings so far had centered around me getting him and his partner out of trouble. And yet, now, I found myself looking to him for ideas, quite naturally.
Finally, I determined that the only way I was going to get anywhere was to throw caution to the winds. As he took his turn to make his way down to the riverbank, I called after him. "Mr. Smith, can I speak with you a moment?"
"Can't a man get any privacy?" he growled. "All right, Miss Hart, come along." He smiled at the rest of the group. "I'll be sending her back alone in a few minutes." Some of the men almost laughed at that.
He didn't stop until he'd gotten well into the grove, and then he turned, and looked at me, expectantly. He thought I needed to be held just like Sandy had. I don't know why, but I could tell. And he was going to do his best to accommodate my feelings, but it wasn't what his mind was on. Just the sort of thing a man would think.
I stopped several feet away, happy to be confounding his expectations. "Sounds like you have a plan. Do you . . . I mean, have you got any ideas about how we can go about investigating a murder? Or wouldn't it make more sense that we all go back to town together?"
He gave me a funny look. "I'd really rather keep the sheriff out of this, Ella. There are wanted posters for the Kid and me in nearly every sheriff's office between the Mississippi and the Pacific, remember?"
I nodded. "Sometimes I forget who I'm dealing with. Sorry."
"Besides, we'd lose any chance we had of finding out who did it, if we all went back into town together. No way to examine the evidence, and plenty of opportunity for the killer to cut and run." He stopped, looked around for a moment, and then paused and gave me what was intended to be a reassuring smile. The worry showed right through, though. "The Kid and me have been in these situations before, a couple of times. One of us was suspected of something, or we were off in some remote mining cabin or someplace like that, and we had to figure out who really did the murder, or who stole the money. Usually I've managed to come up with some kind of plan to figure out who did it."
"A regular Sherlock Holmes, in fact."
"A detective in a book. Not like a Bannerman man. He just comes in and figures out who did the murder or whatever."
"Now there's a potential future for me, after I get the amnesty, huh? The only problem is, I like most of the lawbreakers I know."
"But not the murderers."
His face clouded. "No, not them." He stared off into the distance, his dark eyes inscrutable. "You and I didn't do it, we can clear each other."
"If we have to tell them. I mean, it sounds pretty peculiar, a single lady and her trail guide going off for a moonlit stroll together."
"If it looks funny, it's because thanks to you, nobody even knows that we had ever met before two days ago. I probably should have told Thompson the truth, when you started in."
"I know it was a mistake, pretending I didn't know you. But thank you for not saying anything. I just hope that it doesn't come up that we've both been lying."
"Wouldn't look too good at that, would it?" he asked. "So, why'd you come running after me?"
"Because I had the feeling you had a plan, and I knew you weren't going to tell me in front of everybody. Besides, maybe you can use a good lawyer on your team."
"Does this Joshua Smith even know you're a lawyer? The trail guide one, as opposed to the one that's your client, or the one that's your, you know," he paused, winked.
I blushed. "Consider yourself informed. Next time I want to pretend I don't know you, let's hope it's under less complicated circumstances."
"Next time you pretend you don't know me, watch out or I may just pretend I don't know you, too. Permanently. Now, much as I'd enjoy having you join me, I think you'd better get on back to the others and let me wash up some."
Some time later, we had all reassembled outside the tent. I had my arms around Sandy, who was still glassy-eyed and silent, and who whimpered if she felt me stir away from her. Kid Curry sat near her on the other side. I was right about him and ladies in distress. He was attentive to Sandy's every sound and every movement. Meriwether Abel, Daniel Stevens, and Marcus Thompson sat in a row on the other side of the fire, Stevens staring straight ahead in dumb shock. At least his ravings seemed to be stilled for now.
Heyes sat apart from the rest of us, planted between the two groupings. "First, we need to take a look at what's happened, now that it's light out. We all need to be there together," he said, firmly, "but not all of us need to go into the tent and look real close. Now, I know that none of us are willing to trust all of us, but since we have some ladies here, it seems more proper and decent to have a lady take that closer look. And what Miss Hart told me, when she wanted to speak to me privately, is that she's a lawyer. She said that makes her an officer of the court, so I figure that makes her the closest thing we've got to someone official."
"I'm a member of the bar, myself, in California," Abel trumpeted.
"Fine, then the two of you. If Mr. Stevens doesn't object."
Stevens silently, gravely, nodded his head. So Meriwether Abel and I entered the tent together. I approached the body gingerly, not liking to get too near, and yet knowing I was going to be examining it very carefully. I left Abel to remove the murder weapon, which he lifted gingerly with his pocket handkerchief. I was nearly overcome seeing the little tug he had to give to pull it out. He next called out a description of the pattern of the bloodstains, and we both looked carefully around the body for any signs of struggle. Even in full daylight, it appeared that she had struggled very little. The bandanna had been forced into her mouth, probably at the first gasp of surprise.
"I'm guessing that the killer was somebody that she knew very well," I said to Abel.
"Maybe," he said, "or maybe she was just abnormally calm because of that sleeping draught. You knew about that, didn't you? Her nerves were so bad she couldn't get to sleep without something." There was emotion in his voice, but I couldn't, for the life of me, tell what it meant.
I gingerly reached forward to remove the bandanna.
"Or it could be the owner of this," Meriwether Abel remarked.
The dark blue bandanna was the one I'd seen Heyes wearing when we set out on the trip. And the one he'd handed me to dry my eyes on, just the evening before Greta Stevens' murder.
We made our way out of the tent, carrying Sandy's and my bags, and my bedroll, since it hadn't been spattered with blood, as Sandy's had. Abel slipped back in and removed Greta Stevens' bag. I wondered idly about the note I'd seen her reading that first night, and I even worked up my nerve to look in her skirt pockets. It was the same skirt she'd been wearing the day before, but the note was gone. I hoped I'd never have to do something like that again. Still, she might have concealed it among her things, by now. "We'll have to burn the rest, won't we? The smell of the blood is going to attract predators."
Curry nodded. "Wolves. They've been sniffing around already, in the distance. We're gonna have to bury Mrs. Stevens, as well, if you two have examined things sufficiently."
"You will not!" Daniel Stevens nearly roared. "My wife is going to be buried in our family plot back in California, and nowhere else!"
"Calm down, Mr. Stevens," said Curry. "We'll bury her for now, and mark the spot. You can come back later and move her. But if we don't do it, the wolves are going to come looking for us, or the crows may get her."
Stevens practically leapt upon Curry in his rage, and it took the combined strength of the other three men to pull him off of him.
"Shhh, Daniel, the man's right," said Thompson, softly.
"We'll come back and get her, Daniel. We'll make sure she's laid to rest at your side," Abel said, laying an arm around his friend's shoulders. "You'll take care of her," Abel murmured. "Just like you always did. We'll help you, Daniel."
And the three men went off, accompanied by Curry, to begin digging the grave.
When they'd gone, I turned to Heyes. "Well, I know you didn't do it, but would you like to explain why your bandanna was stuffed in her mouth?"
Heyes frowned. "Probably because everybody saw me wearing it. It was a little damp after you gave it back to me, and I left it lying on top of my pack to dry. It would have been easy enough for anyone to see it and take it.
"Anyone observant enough to notice you'd been wearing it for two days, and you weren't wearing it anymore." I thought of Thompson's watchful eyes, Stevens' wary glances. And Abel . . . well, who knew what he was noticing while he was talking? So far he'd surprised me by having heard several things I hadn't thought he was paying attention to. Of course, as far as the San Franciscans were concerned, any of the four of us -- Heyes and the Kid, Sandy and me -- could have been guilty, too.
Then Sandy chimed in. She'd been so silent that I'd practically forgotten she was there. "Nothing personal against Mr. Smith, but why are you so certain that he didn't do it?"
I could tell Heyes was enjoying himself despite everything by the quizzical look he got at this. "See what happens to people who tell stories, Ella?"
I sighed, and thought that I wasn't the only one in present company to whom that applied. I was making the biggest messes right now, though, that was certain. From Sandy's expression I could tell that she'd noted the use of my given name. "Mister Smith and Mister Jones are old friends, Sandy. In fact, they're former clients. I met them back in Blue Sky a year or so ago, when a bounty hunter mistook them for a pair of notorious outlaws. Then maybe five months back, remember when Jeremy and I went over to Greenville to help out some old clients?"
"You're that Mr. Smith?" asked Sandy. "Jeremy Chadwick can't say enough about you and your friend. I guess it was the biggest adventure he'd ever had, hunting down those outlaws with you two."
Heyes frowned. It was a subject he was a little sensitive about, I could tell. "We weren't really hunting down outlaws, just trying to recover something that was stolen from us. But Chadwick was a big help."
Sandy smiled for the first time since the tragic events. "Not the way he tells it. But he sure was impressed with you two. He said you could do 'most anything."
"And I never did even ask what's happened with him, did I?"
"Everything, just about," I said. "Got married, got called to the Bar, and just two weeks ago before Sandy and I left on our trip, I made him a full partner. Sort of a congratulations present, on account of the fact that he'd just found out he and his wife are expecting."
"This is young Jeremy? Sounds like he's lived about ten years this past five months."
I shrugged. "We all do things at our own paces. Jeremy's just the kind that's made for settling down." If my fiancé had lived, I'd have been married about three years by the time I reached Jeremy's age. You just never knew how things were going to turn out. I wondered, not for the first time, if things would have turned out as happily as was popularly assumed they would have, if Billy had lived.
"Why didn't you just say you knew Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones back in the Springs?" asked Sandy.
"Well, Sandy, I was . . . "
Heyes interrupted me. "She was real mad at us. She caught us doing something she didn't approve of and . . . well, you know how she gets."
Sandy looked at him curiously. She really didn't know how I got. "If Ella doesn't approve of it, it must be something horrid, and I don't think I want to know what. I like you and Mr. Jones too well. But it can't have been anything too bad or she wouldn't be so sure you didn't do the murder." She turned to me. "That's it, right? You know him well enough that you know he wouldn't do anything like this?"
Heyes and I looked at each other. "Well, that's true, Sandy, but that's not exactly the reason," I said. "Mr. Smith and I went for a walk together that night. Mrs. Stevens was alive when I left the tent, and she wasn't when I got back. It was all a matter of forty-five minutes."
Sandy looked at me, a little more wisely than I was comfortable with. "I knew you two were friends. I saw you talking yesterday on the hill."
"Well, now you know," I said. "At least I hope you know I'm not the kind of woman who
throws herself at strange trail guides."
"You were sitting there talking when I saw you." Sandy sounded confused. "I don't know how anybody would call that throwing yourself at someone. Didn't you teach me that if a woman has pure intentions, she can talk to any man, same as to any woman?"
"You're a smart girl, Sandy," I said.
"I don't get called that very often," said Sandy, truthfully. "I'm going to go down by the water for a bit. I want to wash up some. I'll be back in a moment."
When she'd gone, Heyes and I began laughing quietly. "Is that what you teach her?" he asked. "That girl's gonna wind up in a heap of trouble."
"At least she didn't see us when I thought she saw us." I stopped, thinking. "Speaking of seeing us, remember those twigs snapping last night, though? There may be someone else who's aware of our alibi."
Heyes was thoughtful. "And that person could very well be the killer." And with that, he rose and went to join the other men, and I went to join my ward down at the water's edge.
It was afternoon by the time that we assembled at Greta Stevens' makeshift grave. Sandy and I had fashioned a rough wooden cross as a marker, and Meriwether Abel led us in a brief prayer. The men took their hats off, and Sandy squeezed my hand. Abel mentioned that he'd had to bury comrades in the course of several of his expeditions in the Far East, but that nothing was so melancholy as the loss of Greta Stevens, in the flower of her womanhood. He sounded sincere.
I couldn't help but wonder what the flower of her womanhood had really been like. The Greta Stevens I knew was a pretty faded flower, but from the brief eulogies each of the men gave, I got a very different picture. Daniel Stevens was too broken up to speak much, but Abel painted the picture of a high-spirited, intelligent young woman. I wondered what had happened. Illness? Maybe she'd lost a child, or more than one? Or could it be something as simple as her husband's constant overprotectiveness? It sounded as though Thompson had known her the longest, since he made some reference to her childhood. He must have been quite a bit younger than her, but maybe . . . maybe only five or six years younger. And Greta could have been younger than I thought, too. At any rate, his remarks were brief and inscrutable, but there was no doubt that he'd cared very much for her.
Afterwards, we retired to the campfire, which had been relit in order to provide us with coffee. Even though it was a warm day, the flames somehow drew us all.
Heyes began the discussion, and took charge of it so readily that I could see how he'd once been leader of a whole outlaw gang. "Look, I think you all know that the bandanna which was used to gag Greta Stevens was mine, so let's just put our cards on the table about that one. You probably all saw me wearing it. Anyone could have gone into my things and gotten it, especially since I'd left it out in plain sight."
"You'll admit that it weighs against you, though?" asked Thompson, in his soft-spoken but determined manner.
"I don't see it that way, and I've just given you my reasons why. But I can't stop any of you from thinking what you're going to think. Next piece of evidence, the knife. Now, some of you may know that people can leave fingermarks on things, and that everybody's fingermarks are different. Remember the time that came in handy for us getting a friend out of jail, Thaddeus?"
"Oh, yeah. You read about it in that book by that Mark Twain. Any chance of that this time?"
"No. I looked closely and there were no marks on the knife. The killer might have known about the fingermarks, and wiped the knife, or he might have been wearing gloves, and they could have gotten blood on them. We should search for a pair around the campsite, and in everyone's belongings. Nothing remarkable about the knife, either, except that it looks fairly new. Something that anyone might have bought outfitting for a trip like this one."
I thought about how Abel used his pocket handkerchief to remove the knife from the body, and I wondered if he'd done that in an attempt to preserve any marks that might be there, or if it was done to remove them. Or if he even knew about fingermarks at all -- I'd read about them before, but it wasn't the kind of thing that everybody would have known.
"Why are you assuming that the killer was necessarily a 'he'? Are you implying that it was one of the three of us?" asked Thompson, emotionless. He indicated himself and his two San Franciscan friends. "And what if the knife was new? You and Jones could have bought something for the trip as well. Even a lady might carry a knife in the wilderness." He seemed to be measuring facts rather than making accusations.
"I'm not implying anything," said Heyes, "except that as far as I can figure it, it must have been one of the seven of us. If any of you think differently, I'd be glad to hear about it."
Stevens spoke up for the first time. "Can't it have been an outsider? An Indian or an outlaw haunting these hills?"
"To what end?" asked Curry.
"What do you mean, to what end? Do we understand why Indians or outlaws act the way they do? Just because."
"If someone's feeling ornery or vicious, they don't walk past five sleeping men, creep into a tent with three sleeping ladies, and choose to stab only one," Curry responded. "If the ladies will forgive me, stabbing probably isn't what they'd do." Sandy grabbed onto my arm and squeezed it, and I knew that she knew what he meant as well as I did.
Abel had been unnaturally silent throughout the discussion, almost as though he had ceded his dominant position in the party to Heyes and therefore had no further function. But now he cleared his throat. "I'm afraid there may have been an outsider among us last night. I was unable to sleep myself, and I took a walk down by the stream bank. I saw Miss Hart walking, too -- that yellow hair is hard to mistake -- and she was with someone. It looked like it was a man. And, begging your pardon, Miss Hart, but she seemed rather . . . familiar with him."
"It wasn't one of our party?" asked Thompson.
"I couldn't see him well enough to tell. It may have been, although frankly I didn't think any of us knew her quite as intimately as this fellow seemed to." I didn't much appreciate the way he looked at me as he said that.
"I went for a walk, Mister Abel, but what you're implying is . . . " I stopped, not wanting to dig myself any deeper into the lies I had already surrounded myself with.
He continued, unheeding. "I woke up in the middle of the night -- I have no idea when it was, but I needed to, if the ladies will forgive me, relieve myself. The moon was bright and I was restless and I decided to take a walk. I saw Miss Hart ahead of me. As I said, I recognized her by the shine of the moonlight on her hair. I was about to call out when I realized that she wasn't alone."
I remained silent, and I felt all eyes upon me. Sandy looked at me curiously, clearly wondering why I didn't speak up and defend my innocence. I, myself, was ready to sink into the ground and die.
"You sure it was a man?" asked Curry. "Could've been Miss Sandy."
"It was a man, all right. Miss Nicholls is a lot smaller than Miss Hart, and this person was taller than she is."
At that moment, I decided I was never going to lie ever again, no matter what the provocation. At least, not after I lied however I had to in order to get out of this mess. All eyes were on me, and I had just opened my mouth to speak when Heyes spoke up. "It was me. I was on watch and I saw her, so I caught up with her."
"Well, now, going gallivanting off with our trail guide, Miss Hart? Hardly something I would have expected of a lady like you," said Abel. I had the feeling he wasn't used to anyone else's company being preferred when he was around.
"Let the lady explain herself," came the Kid's voice, cool and hard. I was sure he could figure it out, but he was bound to be the only one who'd know for sure.
"Miss Hart is an old friend of ours," Heyes intervened again, seeing I was at a loss for words. "She's handled some legal matters for Thaddeus and me when we've traveled up Montana way. We were just having a talk that night about the awkward position she'd put us in, pretending not to know us that day."
"Why on earth did you do that, anyway?" asked Abel, now genuinely curious.
I blushed. "Do you remember the condition these two were in that first morning when we all met with them at the hotel? Well, I had encountered them the night before, extremely drunk and with a couple of saloon girls, when I'd gone for what was clearly an ill-advised evening stroll. I was so mad at them I didn't trust myself to speak. A lady shouldn't have to see such things, and especially not when she's acquainted with the men in question."
The men laughed.
"Trust a lady to overreact."
Abel continued. "Except that I saw them in the moonlight, and it didn't look like they were talking business to me. It looked a lot more like they were kissing."
I blushed deeper and stammered, "Well, n-n-not exactly." I fell silent, praying to the patron saint of litigators for an inspiration. Only there wasn't one, as far as I knew, litigators and saints not holding much truck with each other.
"Well, Miss Hart, we're waiting to hear all about what you were doing that night."
I opened my mouth and began to stammer something, but once again, Heyes jumped in first. "I'm afraid I was a little overcome by the moonlight and how pretty Miss Hart looked in it. She made it clear very quickly that my attentions were unwelcome. I apologized and we're friends again, aren't we, Miss Hart?"
Curry looked at me, just to see how I was taking it. One glance and he could tell I was on top of things. I couldn't even face Sandy, though.
I cleared my throat, and managed to blush, though probably not for the reason they thought I was blushing. "Well, it was just the tiniest little bit flattering, Mr. Smith. An old maid like me, and all. But what I'd like to do is to ask Mr. Abel why he was following us, anyway."
Abel looked abashed. "Just concerned, that's all. Didn't mean to intrude on your privacy, Miss Hart. I'm awfully sorry if I interpreted things the wrong way."
Later that afternoon, I came across Curry and Heyes sitting on a couple of rocks alongside the stream. As I approached them, Curry rose and offered me his rock. It figured he'd be the one to do it.
Heyes was staring down into the stream, as the sunlight played off its quickly-moving waters, almost as though it was going to give him the answer, if he stared long enough. He didn't turn as I sat down, but just said, "Ella. Glad you came and found us. We were just talking about what we've figured out."
"Well, we've been through everybody's bags, and we haven't found any unaccounted-for gloves. And we've examined everyone's clothes, and there aren't any bloodstains that we can find."
"So the killer was neat?" I wasn't sure what this proved.
"Maybe. Or maybe he disposed of whatever got bloodstained."
Curry spoke. He'd walked downstream a few paces, and was squatting at the water's edge, almost as if he, too, thought he would find inspiration somewhere in the rushing stream. "We haven't found anyplace where it looks like it's been dug up to bury anything. And we've checked the underbrush, as best we could."
I thought for a moment. "Could he have sent something floating downstream?"
"Could be. We haven't found anything, though."
"How are our friends reacting?" I asked.
Heyes turned now, and gave me a funny look. "Haven't you been with them this afternoon?"
I shook my head. "No. I needed to think. I took a walk. Remember that place I climbed to yesterday afternoon?"
"Climb up another fifteen minutes' worth and there's this plateau. Very pretty." I tossed him something sparkly, which he caught, quickly, with one hand.
"What's this?" he asked, examining the stone that now lay in the palm of his hand.
"Fragment of a geode, it looks like. Nothing valuable, just pretty. They're lying all over, for the picking."
Kid Curry started to laugh, and then Heyes did, too, and I knew they were reminiscing about something. "We salted a diamond field, once," Heyes finally explained. "They were lying around for the picking, too." From his triumphant expression I could tell this was something he was quite proud of.
"Literally?" I asked. I knew that if you put salt on fields where crops were grown, you made them useless, but I wasn't sure how this applied to diamonds. I thought they were found in mines.
The outlaws looked at each other for a moment, puzzled by my confusion. "Um, we'll explain it later," said Curry, who rose and walked over to stand just behind and between the two rocks on which Heyes and I were seated.
"Meanwhile, did all your climbing and thinking suggest anything to you?" asked Heyes.
"Not much," I admitted. "Just that I ought to mention that Abel removed the knife with a pocket handkerchief. I don't know if he wiped off those fingermarks you were talking about, or even if he was trying to preserve them, but . . . " I paused, "Did you find anything in Greta Stevens' luggage? A note, or anything?"
"No," said Heyes. "Was there something?"
"I saw her reading something the first night. She put it in her skirt pocket. I checked the body, but I didn't find anything." I shuddered at the memory.
"Kid, you want to go and take another look?"
"Why don't you?"
"'Cause I'm thinkin'," said Heyes, without moving. He'd resumed staring into the stream again, and I began to think it really was helping him to focus his thoughts.
The Kid sighed. "Okay." He turned to me and smiled. "But if he makes any more unwanted advances, yell real loud and I'll come running."
I laughed. "Don't worry. I'll just push him in the river."
"You always hurt the one you love," shot back Heyes, with a wicked grin.
"That's it!" I said. Something that the men had totally overlooked, but that I should have seen. "I've been really slow on the uptake about this, but . . . who's in love with Greta Stevens?"
"Well, Daniel Stevens," said the Kid.
"Obviously . . . or maybe not. But who else? I mean, I couldn't figure out why someone would send her a note in the middle of a camping trip, but making an assignation would be tough on a trip like this when there's always someone around." I looked at Heyes. "I mean, we got caught, and that was in the middle of the night."
Heyes looked thoughtful. "So who would want to get Greta Stevens alone? Well, obviously not any of us. And probably not Thompson. Somehow she doesn't seem like the type who'd appeal to a younger man."
"Thompson is one of those still waters that runs deep, though," I said. "I certainly don't have him figured out, and he was riding along with Abel and me as often as not. But I don't think he was in love with Greta. Also, it sounds like he knew her when he was a child. I could be wrong, but I don't think that would tend to encourage that kind of thing, especially with her being so much older."
"It's funny, though," said Curry. "When we were digging the grave for Mrs. Stevens, he was almost calm about it. You could tell he was upset, but he was keeping things under control. Not like Abel, who . . . "
"Abel?" asked Heyes curiously. "You think a man who travels around the world like that was in love with a little mouse like Greta Stevens? There are some stories he told me about the women in Japan, Ella, that I couldn't repeat in front of you . . . "
"Haven't you ever heard of finding solace for a broken heart? Maybe he's had adventures with half the women in Japan, Tahiti, and even China, but I'll bet almost anything that it was after Greta became Greta Stevens." Not like some men I could mention, I thought to myself, but somehow the thought seemed almost amusing this time. In any case, I felt a rush of emotion, and it wasn't anger, but it wasn't tenderness, either. Affectionate bemusement? I turned to look at Heyes' profile, as he stared into the water, but I found I had to look quickly away. Confusion. I certainly was feeling a fair amount of that.
"You think so?" asked Curry.
"I'm sure of it. Whenever she was around, he couldn't pay enough attention to me. But it was clear that it wasn't me he was interested in. He never was quiet long enough to learn the first thing about me. What he was interested in was in showing Greta that he was over her, which was a transparent falsehood."
"And this means?" Heyes frowned at me, a crease appearing between his heavy brows.
"Maybe nothing at all, as far as her death goes. Maybe that he killed her. Maybe that he was the motive for someone else to kill her. But in any case, it means something. Heyes, remember how quickly he dropped his accusations against us when you claimed you'd been . . . um . . . surprising me with your attentions? I mean, so what? We could have been standing several yards apart talking about politics or horse racing, or he might have caught us being a little. . . um . . . more friendly than we were. It doesn't change the suspicious circumstances. It doesn't mean that it wasn't your bandanna she was gagged with, or that I wasn't the first person on the scene of the crime, not to mention the only person that was fully dressed. Or that you were the second there, minus exactly one boot, as I recall. Face it, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that it was either or both of us. And one little word and he can't tell us he's sorry enough. As though it were a situation he could imagine being caught in himself."
The frown was replaced by a fleeting smile. "Let's just not rush to tell him you were kissing me back, then, all right? But what we're coming down to is exactly where we started out. It wasn't any of us, or Sandy. It could have been any of the three men Greta Stevens arrived with." Heyes looked thoughtful for a moment. "If only there was a doctor in the party."
"Why?" I asked.
"Oh," said Curry. "You mean like that time in the mining camp?"
And Heyes proceeded to explain to me about how he'd figured out that a man's heart beats faster when he's lying, and how they'd used a doctor's stethoscope -- a listening tube, he called it -- to learn who was lying and who'd stolen a whole lot of money from them.
"That's a wonderful trick. I wish I could use it in court. It's the things that people can't hide that give them away." I had a peculiar thought. "You know that book I'm reading, Crime and Punishment?"
Heyes nodded, while Curry looked like he was about to ask the same kind of question Heyes had asked when he first saw its title.
"Well, it's about this student, Raskolnikov --"
"Who?" asked Curry.
"Some Russian in this story she's reading," explained Heyes.
"Anyway, he commits this senseless murder, just to show that he can, and to prove a theory he has. Besides, the woman is an unpleasant person, a pawnbroker. He doesn't even keep her money, and there's no reason for anyone to suspect him, and in fact, nobody does. Except that after he commits the crime, he becomes very ill -- delirious, in fact. And he admits to just about everything. Only his friends don't believe it for a second -- you know the things that people say when they're delirious. But one of his friends has a relative who happens to be investigating the case, and he's not so sure it's just rambling."
Curry smiled. "Heyes tells everyone who we are when he's delirious."
"Just once. I got shot in the head, if you'll recall. You try it sometime, Kid, and see if you don't do the same thing."
"Yeah, but it was a lucky thing that Mrs. Carlson was a good lady, and that she appreciated what we did for her husband."
That was a story I wanted to hear more about later. "Anyway, I haven't gotten that far along with the book, what with everything that's been happening, but I peeked at the ending, and I think his conscience gets to him in the end. But it's too bad we don't have a way of inducing delirium."
The two outlaws looked at each other and began to laugh.
Heyes finally caught himself, and looked at me, his eyes dancing with mischief. "Oh, but we do. You're just not going to like it very much."
"Break out the liquor. In all those extra supplies our city friends insisted on bringing along is probably enough whiskey to float a small ship. They said it was for snakebite, but there aren't that many snakes in North and South America together. We can have a sort of an Irish wake. People get talking when they're drinking. They let things slip they'd never say otherwise."
I thought about that old phrase "In vino veritas," and I thought again about what Heyes had said about me a couple of nights ago in the Springs. I wondered if he meant it after all. But all I said was, "It might work, although I'm not crazy about exposing Sandy to all those drunken men. But what about you two?"
"We'll drink just enough to make it look good, and pretend the rest. Someone did that to us, once." A dark look passed between the two men, and I somehow knew that I wasn't going to get any explanations about this one.
"So, what's your plan? This evening around the campfire?"
"Probably so. Why?"
"I'd rather I could get Sandy out of here. I just don't like the idea of . . . "
Curry intervened. "Sandy's not a child, Ella. You can't treat her like one."
"She's had a lot of sad things in her life, and I guess I keep thinking I can work that fairytale ending for her. Besides, she's such a pretty girl, and I just don't want . . . " I trailed off. It wasn't really that I thought that any of the members of the party would threaten her honor. It was a kind of nameless dread I had on her behalf.
Heyes frowned. "Sandy's a good rider, isn't she? And you trust her on her own?"
"You saw for yourself. She puts me to shame, that's for certain. Every chance she gets, she goes off riding on her own. I go with her when I can, but I have too much work, and she's never given me any reason to worry."
"Okay, then, here's the plan. We won't wait for this evening. Say in half an hour, you and Sandy go off for the rest of the afternoon, to take a walk. Everyone knows you won't get anywhere on foot, so nobody will try to stop you. And they won't find it too peculiar that the two of you want to do a little exploring while you're here, to take your minds off things. You can show them your geodes or something. When you two are gone we make some remark about how now that it's just the men we can relax a little, and we break out the whiskey, see if we can get these men talking. Only the Kid'll go now and bring one of the horses around so that when you've gotten to the other side of the hill, one'll be waiting for Sandy. Remember that old miner we know up this way? I told Ella about him, Kid. She can reach him before dark and be back in the morning. He might be a useful reinforcement if things don't go the way we hope."
"You really think she'll be okay?" asked Curry, frowning.
"Do you trust this old man?" I asked.
"Sure," Curry said.
"Then, yes, I do. Give her some landmarks and she'll find her way there just fine. I'd feel a lot better about it, actually. Especially in case things get messy." I turned back to Heyes. "But what about me? I don't think these gentlemen are going to sink too deep into their cups or start sharing their inmost secrets if I'm there. Do I go with Sandy, or do you have another idea?"
"How are you at climbing trees?" Heyes looked mischievous and serious at the same time. A neat trick, I thought.
"Fair to middling."
"Any good with a gun?"
I pulled a small pearl-handled gun out of the leather pouch I had slung across my shoulder. I handled it with all the gingerness and distrust with which I usually approached firearms, even my own. "Terrible. I can hit the broad side of a barn on a good day. If I'm standing real close, that is. What's all this about anyway?"
The Kid made a sour face. "Ella, with one of those ladies' little pop guns, even I can barely hit the broad side of a barn. Those are just for scaring off people who are coming too close. You could have used it last night to show Heyes just how unwelcome his attentions were." He winked, then turned serious. "You need a real gun."
"Are you offering me yours?"
He laughed. "Nope. I'm making Heyes offer you his, though."
His partner sputtered. "What?"
"Well, that's your plan, isn't it, Heyes? Have her listening to what's going on, and cover us, just in case?"
"Yeah, but why does that mean she needs my gun? Don't we have a shotgun someplace she can use?"
"Wonderful," I said. "You're having me climbing trees without being detected, eavesdropping, and brandishing a firearm about ten times the size of anything I've ever handled. And we've already established that I'm about as far as you can be from a crack shot without being publicly disowned by the territory of Montana. Anything else I'm not good at you want me to try? I'm pretty dreadful at cooking and I was my mother's despair since I can't sew a straight line. Any way we can work those into the plan?"
Heyes laughed. "I don't think that will be necessary. And you'll get to the tree before we bring the conversation over there." He looked critically at my long skirt. "You going to be able to climb a tree in that or you want to borrow a pair of pants?"
I shuddered and began to refuse, thinking I would change into my despised riding skirt. But then I thought about the last time I'd climbed a tree, and why it was the last. I was all of twelve years old, and I distinctly remembered tangling my favorite summer frock in some branches. At the time I was sad because I'd ruined the dress beyond repair, but now all I could think about was how my father had to come and untangle me. That was all I needed -- and even my split riding skirt might hamper me in the branches. "I can see why Jeremy thinks you two are so much fun. You get people doing things they never imagined they were going to be doing. All right. I'll wear your pants, and I'll climb your tree, and I'll carry your shotgun. But don't expect me to do anything more than fire it in the air and make noise with it."
"That's all we're asking," said Heyes. "If it's even necessary. The distraction would give the Kid and me the chance to draw, if somebody's already got a gun on us. But the main thing is that you're listening to whatever results from the conversation."
"Good girl, Ella." Curry helped me to my feet. "Come along and let me give you some shooting pointers for the shotgun."
I really didn't know how Heyes and Curry thought we'd be able to do all of this undetected. But both Stevens and Abel were sunk into a sort of morbid distraction. Thompson had risen to the occasion and was concerning himself primarily with the state of his two friends. I tried to read his expression whenever he looked my way, but he was as unreadable as ever. I thought I saw pain reflected in his light eyes, but then in a moment the expression had flickered and disappeared.
Both Sandy and the horse got off without anyone seemingly any the wiser. She seemed a little concerned to be going off without me -- I think she had this odd idea that she could protect me, which was probably only a little more peculiar than my idea that I could protect her. But Curry was able to reassure her that it was the best thing to do. She seemed to trust him implicitly, maybe more than she should have.
Thanks to a boost on Curry's shoulders, I was concealed among the boughs of a leafy tree. It was so uncomfortable that I was thinking about sleeping on the ground nostalgically. I was wearing a pair of Heyes' pants along with my own shirtwaist and boots, and I had to admit they were more comfortable than I'd expected. I'm tall for a woman, and since he was slim, the fit wasn't too bad, although I still had to belt them in. The not being able to move part was the worst of it, though. My gold locket dangled forward in my bent-over position, and I quickly tucked it inside the high neck of my shirtwaist, afraid all the while that I was going to lose my grip either on the tree or the shotgun.
I felt like I'd been crouched there forever, and I was beginning to wonder if one could suddenly develop a fear of heights in one's adult years, when the voices got louder.
"Don't see why we shouldn't start a new fire over here," said Heyes, and his black hat came into my line of sight, as well as a very peculiar view that consisted primarily of the tops of his shoulders, and then, as he squatted to clear away space for the fire, part of his thighs in those mustardy sort of pants he usually wore.
"What's wrong with the old one?" his partner asked him, testily, and promptly provided a similar view, of hat, shoulders, and thighs. I thought I could detect just the slightest thickening of their voices, and despite myself I began fretting about whether they'd stuck to their plan about faking most of the drinking they were going to be doing. I didn't doubt their self-control so much as wondered whether, like most men, they might not be a little optimistic about how much whiskey they could handle.
But when the trio of San Franciscans came within clearer earshot, I stopped worrying so much about Heyes and the Kid. I could hear the drink in the others' voices much more obviously.
"Less start a new fire. In her mem'ry," came Abel's voice. I hadn't noticed the bald spot at the back of his head before, but it was prominent from my new angle. He was followed by some drunken mumbling and sobbing that must have been Stevens.
"Ligh't'n up now, boys," came Thompson's soft tenor, sounding a little less intoxicated than Abel, but not much. "She wouldn't wan'us to be all sad in this beau'ful wilderness she wanted to visit so much . . . " That was practically the longest speech I'd heard him make, aside from the eulogy.
I had always wondered what men talked about when there were no ladies present, and the next hour or so was an education. Stevens didn't say much, but the remaining quartet boasted and bragged about adventures they'd had, but in terms they hadn't used when Sandy and I were present. Even Thompson had a few stories to tell -- admittedly they were mostly about the cleverness of accountants, but apparently he was quite athletic, as well. Heyes and Curry did a remarkable job of telling stories that had no doubt happened to them without crossing over the line into outlaw territory. What with all the stories that were current about them, it must have been difficult to pick ones out that nobody knew about. But the silver-tongued Heyes, always the spokesman for the partnership, was particularly expert about this. I recognized a few that they'd told me, back when I still thought their names really were Smith and Jones.
As time went on, and more liquor was consumed, the stories began to take a turn that was, for me, frankly more than a little bit uncomfortable. Bluntly, the bragging and boasting turned to exploits with women. I found out a lot more than I had ever known about, ranging to acts I hadn't even dreamed of were possible, largely in connection with Abel and his Tahitian travels. Heyes and Curry were surprisingly modest, although I suspected that had a great deal to do with the fact that they knew I was listening. They made reference to a couple of legendary cathouses, in Denver and San Antonio, but they weren't too specific about the goings on. They were specific enough to surprise me a few times, though. Thompson was quiet about this -- he probably had a respectable sweetheart or something -- and Stevens, naturally, wasn't going to participate. But then, he'd been awfully silent, except for some sobbing and moaning, anyway.
Finally, Abel did what I dreaded he would do. "So, Smith, tell us the truth? Was Miss Hart really pushing you away when I saw you last night? 'Cause it kinda looked like she was kissin' you back." When Heyes didn't respond, he went on. "Wouldn't blame you . . . I kinda had a fancy for 'er myself. A little too proper, though, I thought. But I put that down to bein' a spinster and all -- nothin' a man couldn't fix."
I wondered idly if he would still think I was too proper if he knew I was sitting in a tree, wearing a pair of trousers, and holding a shotgun. I also hoped he'd stop that line of thought before it went any further. After all, I was holding a gun on him.
I suppose in an attempt to draw the conversation away from a direction that was awkward for their secret sharer, Heyes and Curry suddenly broke into a drunken song. I regret to inform my reader than there is little more painful to human ears than the singing of Hannibal Heyes when he's drunk -- or faking it. Kid Curry could always carry a tune just a bit better, to my hearing, but nothing that you'd actively volunteer to hear, either. At least it served its intended purpose. But with one hand hanging onto the tree trunk for dear life, and the other holding the shotgun, I wasn't in any position to stop up my ears. Besides, who knew when snatches of drunken song might not turn into a confession? They were singing something to the tune of "Sweet Betsy from Pike" but the words were a bit bawdier -- actually, a great deal bawdier. In fact, despite my not being quite so proper as Abel imagined, I wasn't sure what all of it meant.
After while, it was noted that Daniel Stevens had passed out. "Poor thing," said Thompson, maudlinly. "S'hard on him. S'hard on all of us . . . " I wished I could see his expression, because his words gave me a funny feeling. I remembered "In vino veritas" and wondered if it was universal.
"Drink to that," said Curry, passing around the bottle again.
"He's not the poor thing," slurred Abel. "He's not the poor thing at all. Greta . . . she was the poor thing. You should have seen her before she married him. She was the prettiest little thing in those days. Just sweet, and trusting, and pretty, but spirited and brave, too. You saw her ride, once she had the saddle she needed. And nerves? Not one bit of it. He did that to her, with his constant criticizing and his treating her like she needed protecting all the time."
"You loved her?" asked Heyes, in a seemingly careless tone.
"Anyone would have, in those days. But I never got over her, poor sweet Greta."
So I'd been right! It was all I could do to keep quiet, up in that tree. If only Heyes asked the right next couple of questions . . . now I wished I hadn't been so eager to avoid their little party, although I knew it never would have happened if I were there, anyway. My litigator's instincts were keyed up and ready, and it was frustrating not to be able to leap into action. I knew how Kid Curry must feel whenever he couldn't go for his gun.
"Was Stevens your rival?"
"You know why she married him and not me? And this'll really get you," he said confidentially to everyone for miles around. "Because she thought he was steadier. He wouldn't always be gallivanting off on her to the Far East -- he never went any farther than the accounting department."
"Hey, what's wrong with that?" asked Thompson, defensively, but he seemed to catch himself. I really wished I could see him, since his voice gave away so little.
"I would have shared the great wide world with her, taken her with me. He kept her in such a small world, it was pitiful to see."
"So that's why you killed her?" asked Curry impulsively. "Because you felt sorry for her?"
"Me? I didn't kill her. I'd have done anything in the world for her, but not help her out of it!"
"Then who did?" asked Curry.
Heyes drew his gun quietly, and pointed it at the man slumped on the ground. "I think we can all guess that. Who gave her the sleeping draught every night and could have given her a stronger dose on the night he didn't want her to wake up until it was too late? Who was so jealous of his wife that he couldn't let her out of his sight for a minute, unless she was safely chaperoned by other ladies? Remember how he never left her alone unless she was with Miss Hart or Miss Nicholls, and hardly even then?"
"Who turned the sweetest, most beautiful girl I ever had the privilege to know into the worn-out mass of nerves you all met several days ago?" slurred Abel. He must have been really drunk, because I would have thought what was going on would have sobered anyone. But then, what did I know about it, anyway?
Kid Curry had drawn now, too. But suddenly Stevens sat bolt upright, and said in a dead cold sober tone, "I think we all know the answer to that, Abel. I couldn't bear it any more, knowing that my wife was carrying on with you like that."
"What?" asked Abel, his drunkenness momentarily swallowed up by his disbelief. "I never touched her. She was a married woman and I'd never . . . But Stevens, you were out cold a moment ago."
The cold voice continued. "Well, it's possible I was doing her an injustice, of course. But it was just a matter of time, wasn't it, with you always watching and waiting, and . . . I wasn't planning to do it. I loved her. But I kept seeing how you looked at her, the whole time you were pretending to make such a fuss over Miss Hart. He paused, and laughed flatly. "Did you really think I'd let myself get stinking drunk with the four of you watching my every move? Don't think I didn't know you suspected me, Abel. Marcus, too. You aren't the only ones pretending tonight, Mister Smith and Mister Jones -- or, should I say, Mister Heyes and Mister Curry? Somebody pointed you out to me once, when you were in San Francisco many years ago. I didn't recognize you right away, but it came back to me the other day. I'm good at remembering faces."
I heard a sharp intake of breath from Thompson, as Abel drunkenly muttered, "What the --?"
"I'm right, aren't I, gentlemen? Those are your real names? Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry? I'm not sure what a pair of outlaws are doing, serving as wilderness guides, but it sure makes things convenient. So, you can see why I'm not particularly worried about your testimony in a court of law. How convenient for me that you sent the ladies away. A pair of outlaws and two men so drunk they can hardly stand -- not much in the way of witnesses to a confession."
"Oh, we have another witness. One that's real comfortable in court." Heyes looked right up at me. "You can come down, now, Miss Hart."
"You're faking it. She's not really up there," said Stevens. I guess he couldn't imagine a delicate flower of womanhood like myself climbing trees. On another day I would have agreed with him about that.
"I'm afraid I am, Mister Stevens," I called down. "And in all my years as an attorney, that was one of the cruelest admissions of guilt it's ever been my unhappy duty to listen to." I clutched the shotgun under my arm the best I could, and I began to make my way back down. There was a seven foot drop at the bottom, and I paused, frightened. I couldn't drop the gun, for fear of setting it off, but I was afraid to jump with it.
Heyes noticed, and he holstered his own gun to come to my aid. Stevens wasn't likely to bolt for it if he knew it was Kid Curry covering him. I handed him down the shotgun, and began shimmying down the tree trunk, in a most unladylike fashion that I could remember being very fond of in my youth. The pants helped me get a grip better than I could have in my usual clothes, but unfortunately, there was some moss on the trunk, and I slipped partway down. I fell to the ground with an inadvertent yelp of pain where I landed on my left ankle. Curry turned just for a moment to see what was wrong, but that moment was enough.
Daniel Stevens, with more speed than I would have given him credit for, had grabbed the shotgun . . . and me. "I'm leaving here right now, and you're not going to try to stop me, or she dies."
I heard Heyes' anguished voice. "Kid, do something."
"I can't get a clear shot at him. Not the way he's holding her in front of him."
If Kid Curry couldn't do it, nobody could. I caught a glimpse of Heyes' expression and I was deeply touched . . . or would have been if I hadn't been so preoccupied with being terrified. Nonetheless, I focused on controlling my voice. "You're just making it worse for yourself," I said, trying to reason with my abductor.
"Be quiet, you whore," he hissed in my ear.
So much for my vaunted ability to persuade people. Judges, juries, maybe. Madmen holding shotguns uncomfortably near my head . . . no. Stevens continued to back away, dragging me with him as he went.
What happened next, happened so quickly that I had to put it together later on from talking to the other people present. Meriwether Abel admitted to remembering very little of the incident, so it's not surprising that nobody quite recalls what he was doing. Marcus Thompson, apparently sobered by the shock of hearing his friend confess to murder, and watching him prepare to commit another, had sprung forward, flinging himself at Stevens in complete disregard of his own personal safety. The shotgun discharged straight into his chest, but in the meantime, I was able to break free, and roll away. Thompson fell backwards, dead, and a moment later, so did Stevens, hit square in the heart by Kid Curry's bullet.
Heyes ran to my side, and knelt down to where I was trying to get up. "Ella, you okay?" In the middle of my pain and shock, I heard the way his voice cracked, and I was touched by it.
I clung to him as tightly as I could, burying my face in his shoulder, and my heart pounded so hard and fast I thought it was trying to go somewhere without the rest of me, but I willed myself not to cry. He held me, and stroked my hair. Despite my best efforts to control them, a few tears leaked out onto his shirt. "You have terrible judgment about employers, you know that?" I asked, when I finally could trust myself to speak.
He laughed and kissed me on the top of the head. "Yours about traveling companions isn't so great, either." I felt him pull away, part way. "Kid, you okay?"
"Been better." I turned and looked at him, his gaze steely when he looked at the still form of Stevens, and regretful when he looked at Thompson, torn up and bloody from the shotgun blast. "I can't help thinking if we hadn't have fed him so much whiskey, he might not have run right at a man with a loaded shotgun like that."
"Don't know, Kid. Guess we'll never know."
"I think he would have," I said. "He didn't do that for me -- not mainly, at least. Remember how we thought Greta Stevens had a lover? I thought it was Meriwether Abel. I guess I was wrong. I guess I read Thompson all wrong."
"So what do we do now?" asked Curry.
"Well, it's getting close to dark, and we can't leave these bodies or they'll attract wolves," Heyes replied. "Don't look like Abel's going to be any use to us in that department." So he reluctantly pulled away from me altogether, and they gathered what they could and covered the bodies. Afterwards, they built another fire as close to them as possible, not that far from the first one. Abel was snoring away -- Curry said he guessed he was out until morning. I just sat there and watched them, growing ever more conscious of the throbbing in my ankle.
After a bit Heyes threw his partner a look. "Mind looking after old Abel by yourself, Kid? I don't think Ella should have to sit watch on the bodies."
The Kid just smiled in reply. I felt as though something that should have been very secret had somehow been exposed . . . but only Kid Curry was going to know, and it was foolish to think he didn't know anyway. I believed what he had said, that Heyes hadn't talked about me. But the two men were obviously so close. If there was one person in the world Kid Curry could read like a book, it had to be his partner. As Heyes helped me to my feet and led me back in the direction of the original campfire, it didn't seem to matter so much. The ankle I had landed on was barely supporting my weight, so I was leaning on him heavily, which made me all the more aware (between twinges of pain, anyway), of how his body felt against mine. Of how much I wanted him. How I could think of something like that after all this, I didn't know. I suppose I was just naturally turning to him for comfort. That was my excuse, anyway.
He sat me gently down on a heap of bedding, and went to gather some more, as well as to stir up the ashes of the fire and get it going. I sat there, watching him go about his business, admiring the well-knit lines of his back as he bent, here, and his lean, strong legs as he rose again. Finally, he came and sat beside me.
"Sorry I couldn't be any more help," I apologized.
"Shhh," he said, and kissed me. After awhile, he pulled his mouth away from mine, and I felt his kisses on my cheek, my neck, my earlobe. "Do you want me to stop?" he whispered. "I could move my bedroll to the other side of the fire if you . . . "
"No," I said simply. "I want you right here." I wanted him to hold me all through the night, and not let go. I reached back to let down my hair, and he smiled in appreciation.
"Ella," he said softly, and his mouth met mine, again.
I finally got my wish about sleeping out under the stars that night, and somehow the ground didn't seem so cold and hard for once.
When I woke the next morning, in the grey light of dawn, he wasn't there. I looked around in a bit of a panic. I could tell from the way my ankle felt that I wasn't going to be getting anywhere on my own, so I'd just have to wait for him to get back. I noticed that the bedding had been rearranged to make it look as though someone had slept on the other side of the fire, but I was certain he'd been with me all through the night. Presently he did return, accompanied by Curry and by a very hungover looking Meriwether Abel. Curry was carrying some fish.
"Good morning, Miss Hart," said Heyes. So we were back to formality, all right, for Meriwether Abel's sake. "Sleep well?" I couldn't help but notice the twinkle in his eye as he asked that.
"Very well, Mr. Smith. But Mr. Abel looks like he had a rough night."
Abel looked a little green. "I'm ashamed to say I don't remember much about it. I know you and Miss Sandy went for a walk, and we broke out the whiskey, and after that, it's a little hazy. Something about you falling out of a tree, and Stevens confessing," he stopped, tightening the muscles of his mouth. "Stevens confessing to Greta's murder. And Thompson attacking him and getting killed, and then you, Mr. Jones . . . "
"I had to shoot him," said Curry, quietly. He was busying himself over the fire, with the fish, so that I couldn't see his face as he said this.
"I know you did," Abel replied. "I'm just sorry I wasn't in any condition to do it myself. I don't quite remember what all I said last night, but I loved that woman more than life itself. Daniel was such a quiet, respectable-seeming man, but he had the soul of a monster. If only Thompson and I could have persuaded her to leave him, but she wouldn't have any of it. She said married was married for life."
I spoke, softly. "I'm sorry. I knew her as a sweet, kind of worn-down lady, but it sounds like she must have been a lot more."
He nodded. "She was. Of course, Marcus and I used to fight about it all the time, which one of us had the better right to protect her: the rejected suitor or her half-brother."
"Half-brother?" I asked. So maybe if the note was from Thompson it wasn't a love note, after all. I looked at Heyes and Curry, and I could tell they were wondering the same thing I was. "Marcus Thompson was her half-brother?"
"I didn't realize you didn't know that," Abel replied. "It wasn't any secret. Of course, he's so quiet . . . was so quiet, around folks he didn't know. He was a good man, and he loved his sister." His sorrow was obvious, and he had to stop talking for a moment.
There was silence for a few minutes, as Abel visibly composed himself, and when he had, a question. "Seeing as you got us all mixed up in this, Mr. Abel, would you mind tellin' us something?" asked Heyes.
Abel shook his iron-grey head, and said, "Go ahead."
"Just what was the purpose of this trip, anyway?"
"Well, I guess Marcus and I were afraid of . . . not of what happened, but of what he might do if he got angry at her, or jealous. So, as soon as we heard about the trip, we invited ourselves along. He could hardly say no to such valuable coworkers. I guess all I can do is hope that we did the right thing. I'm afraid we didn't -- but then, who knows if he wouldn't have gotten jealous if it had been just him, her and a guide." He smiled ruefully. "Now you know what I was doing watching you and Miss Hart that night. I couldn't sleep for worrying about her. You can imagine how pleased we were about Miss Hart and Miss Nicholls being added to the party. Safety in numbers, and all that. And we knew that Stevens didn't get jealous of her talking to women, or not as much, anyway." He paused, looked around. "Where is Miss Nicholls, anyway? Is she all right?"
"She'll be back later," I said. "Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones sent her off to a friend's -- a miner in the hills -- in case things got out of hand last night."
Abel smiled benevolently. It looked like it hurt him, and I wasn't entirely sorry, remembering some of the things he'd said the day before. "There was something else about you two, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, wasn't there? But I'm afraid I can't remember what it was."
When I had the chance, I caught Kid Curry alone. There was something I needed to say before Sandy returned. I had to bite my lip, because I knew what a hypocrite I was going to sound like, but it couldn't be helped. "Take it easy with Sandy, all right? She's a very vulnerable young girl, and her whole future depends on her making the right choices. As you probably know, I stand in loco parentis to the girl."
Curry frowned at that. "You stand as a crazy parent?"
I sighed. "Lawyer-Latin. Everyone in my family used to talk that way, even mother. Someday I'm going to learn to speak like other people. I stand in the place of a parent to her. I'm the only one looking out for her interests."
"Well, I would never do anything to harm those interests. She's a fine girl, and you're right to say that I'm not the one to give her the future she deserves. But I think there's something she needs to tell you herself."
"What?" I asked.
"I told you -- she has to tell you herself. I gave her my word. But I think it'll make you happy."
"There's not much will make me happy," I smiled at him. "Besides, you must think I'm a complete hypocrite, considering me and your partner and all."
"Look, Ella, you and Sandy are completely different women. She's a young girl and you're --"
He laughed. "I was going to put it in much more flattering terms. You're a grown woman, not someone who needs protecting, like Sandy does. And I think you're good for Heyes. You keep him on his toes." He looked at me, seriously. "And you don't seem to be expecting something that can't ever happen. Or at least, can't happen while things are the way they are right now. You know there's no future, for any woman, with either of us, unless the amnesty comes through . . . " He trailed off, having made his point.
"I haven't been thinking about the future, funny as that might sound," I said. "Considering I'm a woman and we all know about what women are like." I didn't bother to tell him about the suffocating sensation I got when anyone came courting. I'd long suspected that I wasn't the only woman who felt that way, but that I was unusual in being lucky enough to have the choice. I thought about Billy and I wondered whether we would have been happy. I was so young then, and I hadn't gotten used to being on my own yet, that I rather thought we would have been. And then I thought about Greta Thompson, and the weight that Daniel must have been on her. Funny, but for all he annoyed me at times, I couldn't understand why she hadn't had Meriwether Abel instead. That would have been a fine life for her, with all that travel. I was a little sorry he was too old for Sandy. But he'd probably never love another woman, anyway. Still, you never knew . . .
"Ella?" I heard the Kid calling me. "Where'd you go off to?"
"Sorry." I gave him a sheepish smile. "Just thinking . . . about being a woman, and life, and Greta Stevens."
"Not about Heyes?"
"I do think about other things once in a while, you know." I laughed. "Make sure he knows that. I wouldn't want him to get conceited, or anything."
"Guess you've got lots to think about." He smiled at me. Was it an expression of relief I detected? "Got any interesting trials coming up?"
I rolled my eyes. "When Rick gets back from Europe, it's going to be dreadfully busy. Everything's backed up right now, waiting for him." But just then, my ankle took the moment to remind me of its existence and I groaned aloud. "I think I need to see a doctor."
Before the sun had risen too high, Sandy and Old Joe, the miner, had made their way into camp. The grey bearded old man grumbled a little, but he agreed to keep watch while the party of us made our way into town to go see the sheriff. Meriwether Abel made him a gift of many of the pack animals and the extra supplies, which cheered him up a great deal. He taped up my ankle for me, before we left for town.
When we got there, Meriwether Abel and I were able to handle most of the business with the sheriff. A pair of lawyers, even if one of them was an explorer from California and the other a woman from Montana, was enough to gladden the sheriff's legalistic little heart. Heyes and Curry were able to have a minimum of contact, and I didn't once see his eyes go towards the "Reward $10,000" posters for both of them that were pinned right to his wall. Abel never seemed to remember what he'd heard that night, so I guessed the memory was gone for good.
That evening, Sandy and I made our way back to the Springs Temperance Hotel. If it had seemed excessively genteel before, it felt stifling now. "So," I said, "you seemed to be taking a real shine to Mr. Jones, but when I asked him about it, he just said that you might have something to tell me."
"Oh that," she smiled mysteriously. "I really like Thaddeus Jones . . . as a friend. He certainly is handsome, and brave, and he understands the wilderness. But I was just trying to throw you off the track. You see, I have a sweetheart, and I couldn't tell you 'til he'd got his daddy to say it was all right for us to get married."
I was puzzled. "Why on earth not, Sandy?"
She looked down. "Cause it's Ray Johnson." She handed me a piece of paper. "While the bellboy was helping you up the stairs, I checked to see if I'd gotten a transatlantic cable, and I have. It's definite now."
She handed it to me, and I read it. It was tersely worded, but it was a proposal and a consent from his father, all right. "You're marrying Raymond Johnson? Son of my dearest adversary?" A quote sprang to my mind, not one that I had consciously known I knew. "'My only love sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me, that I must love a loathed enemy.' Well, all I can say is, I'm glad I made you read Romeo and Juliet and not Julius Caesar or Richard III!"
She laughed. "Ray's nothing like his father."
That was something I couldn't disagree with, although I wasn't so sure the difference was in the boy's favor. There was something to Rick beyond greed and showiness, even if I was one of the few people who knew it. But Sandy seemed so happy. Well, Ray served as an intermediary between the local cattle rancher's association and the stockyards in Chicago. He certainly had a future, and at least he didn't practice law with his daddy. That would have been a little too Montague and Capulet for me.
"That's wonderful. But if Rick was so opposed to the match at first, what happened?"
"Well, he wasn't opposed to it because of you, if that's what you thought. He just felt like his son could do better than a poor half-Indian orphan. But after Lisette found her a Polish count, and then he turned out to be not only just after her money, but a complete fraud and not even Polish, Rick decided that maybe Ray's impulse to fall in love with a local girl was a sound one after all."
"Did the cable tell you all this?"
"There was another one . . . not for you to see." She blushed, a little.
"Well, even old Rick can live and learn. That's wonderful!" I hugged her, but then I frowned. "Only this makes me and Rick relatives, almost, sort of. I'll tell you a secret if you promise never to tell anyone, especially not Ray."
She looked at me.
"I like old Rick. He may be unscrupulous, and he may lie awake nights trying to figure out how to embarrass me in court, but I like him. And he likes me, too. We're friends, kind of, even though you'll never get either of us to admit it." The funny thing was, next to Jeremy and Sandy, Rick Johnson was probably the best friend I had in the world. I vaguely wondered where Hannibal Heyes fit into the scheme of things, but he was from outside my world, and I wasn't sure that he fit into it at all.
Sandy laughed. "So you'll stand up with me?"
"Of course. Just let me heal up some first, okay?" And I hugged her again, but my ankle gave out and I kind of collapsed onto her, so she helped me sit down on the bed, and went to get the doctor.
The doctor said it wasn't so bad as it looked at first, but that I ought to stay off it for a week, as much as I could. As soon as he left, I groaned loudly. "So much for the rest of our holiday, Sandy. I'm not going to be able to get out and about much."
She looked at me hesitantly. "There's a big camp meeting up at Red Rocks, near Boulder. Mrs. Grey asked me if I'd like to go. It'll be most of the week, starting the day after tomorrow."
I snorted in disbelief. "Sandy, I can't even get you to pay attention to the sermon in church. How many times have I asked you what you thought about it, or about the gospel reading, and all you can tell me is what a pretty day it was outside, and doesn't Mrs. Wilkins look lovely in her new bonnet? It's kind of Mrs. Grey to ask you, but you don't really want to go and listen to all that fire and brimstone preaching, do you?"
"It's supposed to be real pretty around there, and I did love it when we were off in the mountains, until all those horrid things happened."
"This won't be you and me and half a dozen other people, Sandy. This will be you and Mrs. Grey and a couple of hundred, most likely."
"The stars will be the same, and the mountains. And this may be my only chance to get up that way, since Ray and I will be getting married pretty soon." How could someone sound like she was approaching the happiest day of her life, and all I could think of was it sounded like a prison sentence?
"All right, Sandy. Leave your poor crippled friend here all by herself." I feigned martyrdom.
She blushed. "Well, I'm sure Joshua Smith would be happy to help you get around town." After a pause, during which I said nothing, she continued. "And Thaddeus Jones, too, of course. And tomorrow we'll go out and get you the prettiest walking stick."
I wondered all over again what she'd figured out about "Joshua Smith" and me, and I decided I was better off not knowing.
The gentlemen joined us for dinner. Meriwether Abel accepted the invitation to dine at the Temperance Hotel with the alacrity of a man who could still recall a recent, painful hangover, and Heyes and Curry were forced to concur. Besides, it was just down the stairs from my room, and everyone was kind enough to agree that my limited mobility was a factor. The cooking was not too bad, anyway, although I was a little concerned about what it might be when the cook was not under the watchful eye of Mrs. Grey. Well, I'd have to let the worries of the next week be sufficient unto themselves.
Meriwether Abel was going to leave for San Francisco the following day, and he'd decided to accept a permanent posting in the company's new Shanghai office. It went unsaid, but was understood by everybody, that only Greta Stevens had been anchoring him in San Francisco, anyway. He was unusually subdued, and for the first time, he really asked other people questions about their own lives. He turned out to be an intelligent and attentive listener, and he was particularly interested in hearing about the contrast in my own life between the way the community in Blue Sky accepted me for what I was, and the way that people outside still treated me like some kind of circus freak for being a lady lawyer. He hadn't missed the sheriff's reaction when I'd told him. But Heyes did most of the talking, and even the quieter Curry had quite a bit to say, about the wide open spaces of the West.
"I will miss this country," Abel said thoughtfully. "And I regret that I haven't spent more time getting to know this part of it. But I won't be in China forever, after all. You know, there's a place just outside of town where the sunset is one of the prettiest things I've ever seen. It's nearly that time, now. Would any of you like to accompany me?"
Sandy accepted with alacrity, and Heyes and Curry rose to follow her. "Have a nice time," I said gently, and Heyes dropped back.
"We're going to find you still sitting here when we get back, aren't we? Let me help you out to the porch or something," He called out to the others. "You three go on. I'll keep Miss Hart company."
One thing I couldn't complain about with the ankle was that it gave me a reason to lean on him in public. It wasn't going to be as much fun once I got my walking stick. But who knew how much longer he and his partner were even going to stick around, anyway? When he'd settled me on a wicker settee on the hotel's front porch, he took out a cigar from his breast pocket. "Do you mind?"
I made a face. "They make me cough."
He rolled his eyes, but he replaced it. "You're a hard woman, Ella Hart. Never mind, I'll smoke it later, at the saloon." He saw my expression, and knew I was thinking back to that first night. "You're not going to tell me you have objections to my playing a little poker, are you? You wouldn't want me to get out of practice."
I laughed. "Certainly not. Since that's how you get the money to pay your attorney's fees, as I recall. I'm bound to encourage anything with that beneficial side effect."
He sat down next to me. "How much longer are you in town for?"
"I'm not going anywhere until the end of the week. Probably literally, with this ankle. Sandy got herself invited up to some camp meeting up at Red Rocks by the lady that runs this hotel. She's leaving the day after tomorrow, and I guess she'll be gone for about a week. Rick won't be back in Blue Sky for another couple of weeks, and Jeremy's handling things okay on his own." I fingered the telegram in my pocket, with its greeting to "my old friends Smith and Jones."
Heyes shuddered. "A week long camp meeting? Better her than me. So, you'll be here all on your own?"
"Looks that way."
"Well, you know, the Kid and I are in no hurry to move on. Abel paid us in full, with a generous bonus for all we had to go through. I'm sure we could think of something to amuse you. At least, I'm sure I could." And the way he looked at me then, I had no doubt he had some ideas on the subject. Some real good ones.
But I couldn't let things go that easily. My problem is, I never can. "Maybe you can show me how to play poker?"
He looked horrified. "Ella, you're a fine lawyer, and the next time I need to send someone up a tree with a shotgun, you're at the top of my list. But poker's a man's game. Leave us something."
I contented myself with muttering something about bankrupting him at whist, because I knew he'd never call me on it.
We saw Sandy off early in the morning, two days after that, me from the porch in front of the hotel where I waved and smiled, and Heyes and Curry from the coach's side. Heyes soon joined me on the porch and flashed me one of those smiles of his. "You up to a ride? In a stagecoach, I mean?"
"Certainly, if I don't have to walk anywhere." I looked ruefully at the delicately carved, but strong, walking stick by my side. "Where to?"
"There's a pretty little town just on the other side of the pass where nobody knows us. The Kid and I just rode through it a couple of weeks ago, but we didn't stop. I was thinking we could go there until you have to get back to meet Sandy. The hotel there looked nice and . . . well, you wouldn't have to walk much." He looked at me expectantly, and I blushed.
Someplace where nobody knew we didn't belong together. A little hotel where we would register as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and no one would be the wiser. "Sounds good to me, if your partner doesn't mind." I raised my voice a little, to include Curry, who was standing just below the porch railing, waiting to be drawn into the conversation.
Kid Curry winked at me. "There's plenty for a man to do in this town. I'll be just fine until you get back." I knew he was thinking of that first night I'd run into them, too.
So, a few hours later, Hannibal Heyes and I were in a stagecoach all to ourselves, with a four hour ride to what was probably going to be the longest time we were ever going to be alone together in our lives. I looked at Heyes and couldn't help fretting, "What if we don't get along? We've never actually spent so much time together."
His brown eyes sparkled. "Well, if you'd be quiet and kiss me, and stop worrying about everything, I think you'd find we get along just fine." And I did and . . . we did.
* Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet actually appeared in 1887. So, sue me.
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