The Red Strokes

By Quale

Moonlight on canvas, midnight and wine
Two shadows starting to softly combine
The picture they’re painting
Is one of the heart
And to those who have seen it
It’s a true work of art

Oh, the red strokes
Passions uncaged
Thundering moments of tenderness rage
Oh, the red strokes
Tempered and strong
Burning the night like the dawn*

Hannibal Heyes left his partner playing poker and headed back to their room at the hotel. It wasn’t the best Brownsville had to offer, but thanks to the generous payment and bonus they had received from Mr. McKendricks the week before, they could afford a decent place to stay. After sleeping out on the trail, herding cattle up from San Juan, Mexico, any bed with sheets felt like heaven.

Heyes had decided to make an early night of it when he realized the cards weren’t in his favor. Usually Lady Luck smiled on him, but not tonight. He didn’t want to gamble away all their earnings. An honest life on the dodge was proving more expensive than he had ever imagined and he and his partner, Jedediah “Kid” Curry, tended to prefer the comforts in life.

He sighed heavily as he reached their second floor room and entered, pulling out his shirttail and taking off his vest. He could hear Michelle Monet moving around next door and knew she was waiting up for Curry to return. They had dined with her earlier that evening, enjoying a little restaurant down the street that the desk clerk had recommended. It made a nice change from the hotel’s fare or the limited selection at the local cantina. Curry had escorted her back to the hotel and a short time later showed up in the Dry Gulch Saloon to join Heyes gambling. He had a strange look on his face that Heyes really didn’t want to contemplate. It was worrisome enough to him that Michelle, supposedly on her way home to New Orleans, was still here in Brownsville Texas with them a full week later—and didn’t show any signs of intending to leave.

Worst of all, Curry didn’t seem to be pushing too hard for her to go. Heyes knew his partner had a weak spot when it came to folks in distress—especially when they were pretty girls—but this particular one seemed to have gotten a hold on his partner that none of the others had ever managed. Curry was showing every sign of being in love with her. She was beautiful, Heyes had to admit, with big eyes so dark they looked black, glossy reddish brown hair, a petite and delicate figure, a charming French accent—and something else Curry had always found irresistible. She needed him. She needed his help and made him feel like her savior. His partner could never resist being the knight in shining armor.

But she didn’t know who they really were. She knew them only as two friendly, helpful fellows named Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones, who appeared to be law-abiding and who were kind to her. If she’d only known the truth about them before it was too late, she might have had second thoughts about getting romantically involved with an outlaw like Kid Curry.

Heyes shook his head and slumped down into the small room’s easy chair. He had warned his partner while they were still in San Juan. They couldn’t afford this complication in their life. Michelle was a pretty girl, lots of fun, and very sweet. He wouldn’t mind taking her along with them, but he knew it was much too dangerous. They were still wanted and likely to be on the run for some time to come. There was no telling when the governor of Wyoming might decide to finally grant them their hard-fought amnesty—if ever. They didn’t have the funds necessary to simply leave the country, and there were precious few other options open to them.

The tentative knock on the door was not unexpected. He opened the door and waved her in. “Thaddeus isn’t here,” he told Michelle, taking in the slightly concerned look on her face and the way she worried at her lower lip with her teeth. “He’s still playing poker.”

Michelle colored slightly. “I wanted to talk to you, Joshua. I thought I heard you come in alone. Please…I need your help.”

Heyes smiled, shutting the door and motioning her toward the chair. He found it somehow charming that she already knew the difference between the sound of his stride and Curry’s. Perching on the side of the bed, he folded his hands together and patiently waited for her to talk.

She looked up at him with those big dark eyes and he could understand why Curry fell under her spell so easily. “I’m in love with him, Joshua,” she said in a rush, the words spilling over each other. “I don’t know what to do. He hasn’t asked me to leave yet, but I can see the doubts in his eyes when he looks at me. I don’t understand it.” Her hands twisted together, the slender fingers clenching and unclenching, turning the delicate skin red. “Josh…he listens to you.”

Heyes’ throat felt tight and dry, even though he’d known something like this would happen, sooner or later. Michelle gave the appearance of being fragile, but in their short acquaintance he’d already learned she was quite capable of taking care of herself. She wasn’t the type to simply let Curry slip away from her.

“I can’t help you,” he said hoarsely. “I wish I could, but I can’t.”

Her eyes filled with tears. They spilled slowly down her cheeks, mesmerizing Heyes and making him feel like the worst kind of villain. “You’re the only one I have to turn to,” she said. “You’ve known him all his life, he says. He won’t tell me why we can’t be together. That’s all I’m asking of you. Just tell me why, so I can understand. He never says it, but I think he loves me.”

“We can’t afford involvements, Michelle,” Heyes said, as gently as he could. “Our lives are very complicated right now.”

“He really is Kid Curry, isn’t he?”

Heyes was startled, although it shouldn’t have surprised him that she would guess the truth considering everything they had been through in the few weeks they’d known each other. “Don’t ask me that,” he said after a long awkward pause. “It isn’t fair to ask me to speak for him.”

“Speak for yourself then,” she demanded, staring him down, even though tears were still making tracks down her face. “Are you Hannibal Heyes?”

He swallowed hard, knowing he could trust her but hating the feeling of being backed into a corner. Sometimes lying to people he liked just got to be too much for him. “Yes,” he said quickly, before he could change his mind. “And telling you that could be worth my life…or yours.”

He got up and went to her, crouching in front of her and taking her hands into his. “You must leave, Michelle. As soon as possible. You know as well as I do that he loves you. You also know, in your heart, it’s impossible for him to stay with you. He will never allow you to stay with us; it would be far too dangerous. The longer we linger here the more chancy it is, for all of us. Thaddeus has a bad habit of wanting to help folks like you. It’s cost him dearly a time or two. This time it’s cost him his heart. If you truly care for him, you’ll go…and soon. Before it gets any harder for either one of you.”

She nodded her head in reluctant agreement. “I can see you’re right.” A sob escaped her lips. “But I don’t want to go, Joshua. I don’t think I’m strong enough to do it.”

He sat on the arm of the chair and enfolded her in a gentle embrace. “Yes, you are. You’re stronger than you think. I’ll look after him, don’t you worry.”

“I’ll tell him tonight,” she murmured, her head resting against his chest.

He stroked her soft hair with one hand. “I’m sorry,” was all he could think to say. He was surprised to realize he truly meant it. In some ways, he would be sad to see her go and would even miss her. The Kid might have been happy to stay with her if their lives had taken a different course. Sadness for all their missed chances filled him.

They sat together for awhile, quiet and lost in their own thoughts.

It was the middle of the night before Kid Curry threw in his last hand of poker, gathered up his meager winnings, and headed back to the hotel. He doubted Heyes would still be awake and he didn’t feel much like talking, anyway. The turmoil inside of him wasn’t going to be relieved by talking to his partner, he knew that much. It had occurred to him earlier that evening, as he was saying goodnight to Michelle in her room, that he was hopelessly in love with her. He realized now that he had never truly been in love before; he’d never felt so out of control and helpless. The moment he’d recognized the trouble he was in was crystal clear in his memory: he was kissing her and suddenly the room was spinning.

The last thing he wanted to hear this particular night was his partner ribbing him about it…or lecturing him. Heyes had told him, when they first met Michelle, that he should watch himself. As usual, he’d been pigheaded and convinced himself he was just having a little bit of fun while Heyes romanced Blanche. Of course, Heyes had been working, attempting to get Blanche across the border to the States to stand trial. Curry didn’t have that excuse. His partner had an annoying and uncanny knack of usually being right; he didn’t think he could stand to hear him say “I told you so” right then. So, he played poker as long as he could afford to, hoping he’d given Heyes enough time to fall asleep.

When he reached the top of the stairs, he could see the light spilling out from underneath Michelle’s door. Before he could decide whether or not to knock on it, it opened and she was standing there, wearing nothing more than a floor length white nightgown, her long brown hair spilling around her shoulders.

He gaped at the sight of her, framed like an angel with the soft glow of an oil lamp behind her. The light shone through her thin cotton gown, clearly delineating her figure. She was obviously waiting up for him.

“Thaddeus.” She reached out a hand to pull him by his arm into the room. The door slammed shut behind them and he was standing there, still speechless, still surprised by her appearance.

“Sit down.” She pushed him into a chair and then knelt to pull his boots off.

He blinked, not sure what was going on. He’d been in her room many times during the week they’d been staying in Brownsville—after all, he and Heyes were still paying all her expenses, and they’d registered her at the hotel as his cousin—but she’d never done anything so strange as removing his boots for him. He cleared his throat experimentally and reached a tentative hand out to touch her hair.

She looked up at him and smiled. “You were gone so long. I was afraid I’d fall asleep before you came back.”

“It’s late,” he said, his voice low and husky. “Why were you waiting? You’ll see me in the morning.”

Her smile faded. His hand strayed to her cheek. As he stroked it, he could feel the wetness there and realized she had been crying before he came along. She leaned into his touch with a soft sigh, rubbing her face against him like a cat.

“Why were you crying?” he asked, still caressing her, hypnotized by the sight of her long eyelashes glistening with moisture.

A soft sigh escaped her lips and suddenly she was in his lap, her arms wrapped around his neck. “I’m leaving in the morning,” she whispered, her breath mingling with his, “and the thought of it made me sad.”

His heart stopped. “Leaving? Tomorrow?” He could barely form the words. He’d known it had to happen soon, but he hadn’t wanted to think about it. She couldn’t stay on with them as long as they were on the run, and it was impossible for him to stay with her. If he stayed in one place for too long, someone was bound to recognize him. Logically, he knew it was best for her to return to New Orleans where she might meet a nice young man worthy of her. He had even told her so while they were still on the trail from San Juan. But his heart had other plans. His heart didn’t understand he had no right to love her.

She brushed a fleeting kiss against his cheek. “Joshua gave me the money for the stage.”

Confusion clouded his mind momentarily. “Money? Is that all you were waiting for?” A red cloud passed over his vision, and he felt a quick stab of jealousy. The thought of Heyes with Michelle, giving her money and interfering where he wasn’t wanted, filled him with an irrational fury. “I would have given you the money, Michelle. You didn’t have to wait around. You didn’t have to ask Joshua for it, neither!”

She looked startled and a little frightened at his sudden outburst. “I didn’t ask Josh for it. He offered it to me. I didn’t ask you because I didn’t want to go. I still don’t. I’ve told you that often enough.”

The heat of embarrassment colored his cheeks, the anger fading as quickly as it had come. “Sorry,” he mumbled contritely. “I was taken by surprise, that’s all. I’m not thinking straight. I’ve given you no reason to stay.”

He wanted to ask her to stay; in fact, he wanted to beg her not to go. But he knew he had no choice. Heyes was only trying to help him by giving her the passage money, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it himself. No doubt his partner had already realized Curry couldn’t bring himself to do it—and they’d lingered too long in Brownsville already.

She didn’t reply with words, but simply kissed him on the lips, running her hands up into his hair when he deepened the kiss. Her lips parted willingly beneath his, giving him free access to plunder her mouth. She tasted like honeysuckle or springtime or something else sweet and fresh he couldn’t quite remember the name for. It reminded him of happier days, before his childhood had been shattered by war.

They had kissed many times before, but never with such passion and desperation. Before he knew it, he was stroking her breasts through the thin material of her gown. Instead of pulling away as he half-expected, she arched into his touch, her nipples stiffening in response.

When they broke apart, her skin was flushed a dusky pink. Curry was breathing heavily and knew he was fast approaching a breaking point. His arousal was almost painful and he had little doubt she could feel it for herself, sitting on his lap like she was.

She smiled devilishly, as if she could read his thoughts.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” he said hoarsely. “If I don’t leave now, I’m going to do something we’ll regret.” He wanted her desperately and he desperately wanted to leave. She was looking at him with such trust and love in her eyes, he thought his heart was going to break into a million pieces. If she told him she loved him at that moment, he was afraid he would never be able to let her go.

“I won’t regret it,” she said, with conviction. “I’m not as naive as you might suppose, Thaddeus.” She gave him a quick kiss on the mouth again, pulling away when he automatically tried to pull her closer.

To his surprise, she began to unbutton his shirt with sure, nimble fingers. He shivered at the touch of her cool hands on his chest. “I don’t want you to go,” she continued. “It’s our last night together. I want to remember it.”

He wrapped his much larger hands around hers, holding them clutched against his breast, and stared at her. He wanted her more than he’d wanted almost anything in his entire life, but he was afraid to let her continue. She wasn’t some two dollar whore he could just forget about the next morning. She mattered to him and he didn’t want to do anything to hurt her. “I don’t think this is a good idea…,” he insisted halfheartedly. His resistance was waning quickly.

She frowned. “I know what I’m doing, Thaddeus.” She tugged at her hands until he released her. “Don’t you want me?”

“In the worst way,” he groaned. “Can’t you tell?”

“Now that you mention it…” With a wicked grin, she pushed his unbuttoned shirt down off his shoulders and helped him out of it. He couldn’t muster the strength of will to resist her.

He was glad he hadn’t worn his longjohns this particular evening. Somehow they didn’t strike him as particularly romantic. Michelle ran a finger gently through the light blond hair dusting his chest, setting off another delicious shiver straight to his core. Without conscious thought, he moaned her name, which seemed to please her.

“I’m a weak man, Michelle honey,” he whispered into the delicate shell of her ear. “I don’t want to stop.”

“I know,” she murmured back, licking his earlobe and then gently biting it. “I’m counting on it.” She sucked lightly on the tender flesh, soothing the nip she had given it.

He gathered her into his arms and stood, depositing her gently on the bed, drinking in the sight of her. Her slender body was clearly outlined beneath the thin white gown she wore. Her nipples were visible through the fabric as rosy peaks and lower he could see the dusky patch of hair where her legs met. She blushed under his scrutiny.

Undoing his belt with one hand, he leaned over her with one knee on the bed, smiling down at the pretty picture she made. His boots were already off, as was his shirt, so it was quick work to finish the job, although he fumbled at the buttons on his pants, the hard flesh underneath stretching the fabric. He swore under his breath and Michelle laughed at his clumsy efforts, a soft, delighted sound almost like a feather’s touch. The oil lamp on the nightstand dimmed at a touch from his hand and plunged the room into a darkness relieved only by pale moonlight spilling through the window.

The bed creaked slightly as he finally joined her, running his work callused hands down her arms and then up to caress her neck. She stilled under his touch, her laughter fading away, her breath gradually deepening as he worked his way down to her breasts. He could see them clearly through the gossamer fabric, but he wanted to feel her bare flesh and warm it with his touch. Slowly, he unbuttoned the gown down the front and peeled it open, tugging it out from underneath her. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on her skin, giving evidence of her own arousal.

She held out her arms to him and he went to her willingly, covering her as she welcomed him into the soft cradle of her body.

A long, lingering caress down her side, across her hip and inward, and he found her center, hot and ready for him. He stroked her gently, smiling and trailing kisses down her throat to her breasts as she gasped his name.

She arched upward against him, begging him to join with her. But he took his time, torturing her and himself, unwilling to rush things and fearful of hurting her. When he was certain she was fully aroused, he slid into her, sighing in pure, unadulterated pleasure as he sank in to his full length.

He knew at the first stroke inside of her she was no innocent. Her body accepted him easily, even hungrily. Her legs wrapped around his back, urging him deeper inside. Soft, mewling sounds came from her throat and he paused above her a moment to enjoy the sight of her head thrown back, her slim white neck arched upward, her beautiful soft hair spread out around her on the pillow.

“More,” she gasped, her eyes flying open. She stared up at him, her eyes sparkling in the white light from the moon. “Don’t stop.”

He shuddered, realizing he could restrain himself no longer. Her slightly parted lips invited him to kiss them, so he dipped his head to take up the challenge. Her mouth opened willingly under his assault, welcoming the probing of his tongue. He could feel her hands at the back of his head, holding him close and urging him on.

Slow, deep strokes seemed to heighten her pleasure—and his own—so he took his time, wanting her to feel as much enjoyment as he did. He’d learned at an early age that women liked to be pleasured during sex as much as he did, and were appreciative of a man who was interested in more than just his own gratification. Even most whores he’d known liked his attentions and were happy if he came back to see them again—although he sometimes wondered if anyone who didn’t abuse them was considered welcome.

He didn’t want to think too long and hard about Michelle not being a virgin. It didn’t bother him that he wasn’t her first man; it bothered him that someone might have taken advantage of her. The thought of someone abusing her sent a chilling physical pain to his breast. He knew if he ever discovered someone had truly hurt her, he would kill them without a moment’s qualm or hesitation. Captain MacTavish, who had tried to force himself on her on the way to San Juan sprang immediately to mind. He wondered if MacTavish had been more successful than Michelle had ever let on.

He could feel her shuddering beneath him, melting against him, crying out his name, and he knew it was past time to take his own pleasure.

He tried to pull away, unwilling to spill his seed into her; that was one risk he didn’t want to take with her. It was hardly fair to leave her saddled with a reminder of him nine months later when he knew he couldn’t do right by her. But she clasped him tightly to her, her legs and arms holding him close inside as he thrust deep and hard.

Then his whole world narrowed to nothing more than a long slow burst of almost painful pleasure, and he whispered her name over and over again, knowing it was too late to stop. He was beyond caring.

“This was a mistake,” Curry moaned when he floated back to his senses. He hugged Michelle tightly against his side, petting the back of her head with one hand. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, honey.” He was appalled at his total loss of control, although he could understand why it happened. Michelle had a inebriating effect on him.

She snuggled closer. “There’s nothing to be sorry for, Thaddeus. It was my idea. I’ve been on my own a long time. I’ve done what I had to to survive a time or two, when I had no choice. This time I had a choice.”

He could feel the wetness on her cheeks again and knew she was weeping. “Aw, don’t, honey,” he said, wiping at her face with the back of his hand. “My heart is breaking already. I never should have done this to you.”

“It’s all right,” she soothed, stroking the side of his neck and kissing his shoulder where her face pressed against him. “You’ve done nothing I didn’t want.”

“I can’t stay,” he said, anguished, sure that she didn’t understand what had just happened would change nothing between them. She would still have to board the stagecoach tomorrow and be on her way to Laredo.

But she surprised him again. “I know it changes nothing, Thaddeus. Tomorrow I will leave for Laredo and a train on to New Orleans…alone. You needn’t worry about me. You and Josh have been more than kind to me. You’ve done enough…” She trailed off, obviously wanting to say more.

“What?” he urged her to tell him, giving her shoulders a tender squeeze in encouragement.

“I love you,” she choked out. “Can’t you say it, just once?”

He blinked into the darkness. His mouth opened, but no words came out. The chilling realization hit him that he couldn’t say what she wanted. He felt the love, but he couldn’t voice it. Perhaps it was because he didn’t like lying to her when he didn’t have to. If he made promises this night, he would only have to break them in the harsh light of the morning. He’d lied to her enough, unable to even tell her his real name.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “This was a mistake.” He pulled her close and held her while she wept.

“I’m not sorry,” she hiccupped.

He felt like crying himself.

Heyes was sitting in a chair, half dressed and half awake, when Curry eased the door of their room open and tiptoed inside. An open book rested in his lap. The sun was just breaking over the horizon to the east, spilling a small bit of light into the room through the open window. It was too early for most of the town to be stirring yet, so he had expected to find his partner sound asleep in bed. He was hoping to grab a few hours of shut-eye himself before they had to see Michelle off on the stage.

“What are you doing?” he asked quietly, throwing his hat aside and slipping out of his haphazardly buttoned shirt. He should have known it was impossible to keep his partner from finding out where he spent the night.

Heyes yawned and rubbed a fist at his eyes. “Waiting for you. I got worried.” His eyes narrowed as he took in the other man’s disheveled appearance and bare feet. “Seems I shouldn’t have bothered.”

Curry grinned sheepishly, raking one hand through his unruly blond curls. “Sorry. I thought you’d be asleep long before I quit playing poker.”

“I had a visitor for a while. Got me to thinking.”

“She told me. You didn’t have to give her the money. I would have paid her way.”

“You didn’t look like you were going to…anytime soon, at least.”

“I know.” Curry paused in his undressing. “Thanks.”

Heyes nodded a curt acknowledgment. “You’re welcome. Look, I know it’s none of my business, but do you think that was a good idea? Staying with her last night?”

Curry could feel himself turning bright red. He was suddenly totally exasperated—not with his partner, but with himself. He’d known it was a bad idea to get involved with Michelle from the very beginning, and he’d done it anyway, in spite of Heyes trying to stop him.

“No,” he agreed. “It wasn’t. But it happened, all right? It’s not the first mistake I ever made, and it isn’t even the first mistake I’ve made since we went to San Juan. It happened, and now she’s leaving. We’ll probably never see her again.”

“You think she’ll still go? As easy as that?” Heyes asked, skepticism dripping from his words. His tongue was sometimes described as “silver” but it could pack a lot of venom when he wanted it to. “I think she figured out a way to hold onto you.”

Curry shook his head and turned away. His partner tended to have a low opinion of most women, for some reason even Heyes himself admitted he didn’t understand. Someone, somewhere, had disappointed him badly, Curry figured, and he just couldn’t ever get past it. “You’re a miserable cynic, Heyes. She’s not like that.” He lay down on the bed, crossing his arms behind his head and closing his eyes. His own opinion of people tended to be formed based on their own actions, not on the behavior of other folks.

“I didn’t think so,” Heyes conceded, “but I didn’t think she would set out to seduce you last night, either. I had the impression when we parted last night she was simply going to tell you good-bye. I didn’t know it was going to be such a grand send off.”

“I’m too tired to argue,” Curry sighed. “What’s done is done. You could use some rest yourself; you’re getting cranky.”

He could hear Heyes getting up from the chair.

“Yeah, I’ll bet you’re ‘tired.’ Fine,” Heyes grumbled sarcastically. “You never listen to me, anyway. I don’t know why I bother.” The mattress sagged as he joined his partner on the bed.

Curry suddenly grinned up at the ceiling, remembering the past few hours. “Jealous?” he couldn’t stop himself from asking.

Heyes elbowed him, hard, in the ribs. “I’ve got more important things on my mind. Like trying to keep us safe and alive.”

“Ouch!” Curry rubbed at his side. “That’s the difference ‘tween you and me, Heyes: I know how to enjoy life.”

“And I don’t?”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

“Aw, shut up, Kid. Go to sleep or clean your gun again or something.”

Curry’s grin widened. Heyes would get over his peevishness once they were on the move again and Michelle would soon be no more than a distant, poignant memory. There was a bitter ache in his heart, but he was used to the pain of leaving those he cared about behind. He and Heyes were accustomed to having only each other to depend on. He faded off to sleep feeling as relaxed and satisfied as he could remember being in a long time.

Hannibal Heyes didn’t like to admit he was wrong, but this time it appeared he had misjudged Michelle. From the look on Curry’s face as he talked to the girl in front of the stagecoach, she really was leaving. The tears from the night before seemed to have dried up and she had a look of calm acceptance about her. He watched as Curry kissed her and then helped her up into the coach. As the vehicle pulled away, his partner stood there staring after it, his heart in his eyes.

He waited a few moments, until the coach was pulling out of sight, before leaving the porch of the hotel and joining Curry in the dusty street of Brownsville. Placing one hand on the younger man’s shoulder, he squeezed it lightly. “Feeling all right?”

“Wonderful,” Curry said, although not very convincingly.

“Maybe someday we’ll get to New Orleans,” Heyes ventured, trying to sound sympathetic. Truthfully, he was glad the girl was finally gone so they could get on with their lives. His partner had been too distracted by her.

“Yeah, maybe someday we will.” Curry turned to head for the saloon. “I feel like a drink.”

“I’ll buy,” Heyes offered, hurrying to catch up.

The saloon was mostly empty this early in the day; they had their choice of seats. Curry picked out a corner table and threw himself into a chair against the wall while Heyes ordered the drinks.

“What now?” Heyes asked as he set a mug of beer in front of his partner.

Curry shrugged. “Can’t think where I’d like to go next. Nowhere. Anywhere.” He cocked his head and studied the other man a long moment. “Are you at least going to apologize?”

Heyes grinned, not even trying to pretend he didn’t understand. “Yeah. Okay. I was wrong about her. She left without any fuss. Sometimes folks surprise even me.”

“Women surprise you a lot, Heyes. You just don’t like to admit it,” Curry teased. “Michelle thinks she knows who I am.” He took a long swig of beer. “I denied it, of course.”

Heyes snorted into his own brew, almost choking on it. “But she does know, Kid. She asked me last night.” He stared at his friend.

“And you told her?” Curry looked incredulous.

“Well…I told her I couldn’t speak for you. But then she asked me about Hannibal Heyes and I just didn’t see the point in lying to her after everything we’ve been through. She seemed to have figured it all out for herself.”

Curry frowned. “But if she knew for certain you’re Hannibal Heyes, then she would have to know I’m really Kid Curry. That means she knew before we…” He looked like he’d been kicked in the gut. “Why would she do that, Heyes? She never said a word to me; never told me she knew until just before she got on the stage. Even then, she didn’t let on that you had already told her. She didn’t try to turn us in or blackmail us. She just left.”

Heyes shook his head, puzzled. “I’m sure I don’t know, Kid.”

Curry stood up, shoving his chair back hard, his features painted with sadness and regret. “I reckon we best be moving along. She might be planning to turn us in when she hits Laredo.”

The cynicism didn’t sit well on his partner, Heyes thought, but kept the observation to himself. He had to admit the caution was probably called for. They had met betrayal from those they trusted before. “Back to San Antone, maybe?” he suggested. “We might be able to find work there. If nothing else, there’s good gambling to be found. We could rest awhile…we’ve got money enough to last a fair piece.”

A heavy sigh was his only reply as Curry downed the rest of his beer and turned to go.

Heyes trailed after him, feeling wretched that he had ever questioned Michelle’s motives. Now Curry would always wonder whether she had really loved him or had only used him. Chances were, they would never know the answer. If she had betrayed them, they would be long gone before the law came looking for them—and if she hadn’t crossed them, they’d still be long gone.

“Maybe she just loved you,” he said as they stepped out onto the dusty street, wanting to ease his companion’s obvious pain. The sun was blazing hot even though it was barely noon.

“Yeah, maybe,” Curry agreed impassively. He’d perfected his poker face over the years and sometimes even Heyes couldn’t read what he was thinking. He squinted into the distance, staring down the road Michelle’s stagecoach had taken. “I hope you’re right.” Shooting a glance sideways at his partner, he said, “‘Cos I’d hate to end up a miserable cynic like you.”

Heyes wasn’t certain whether he should feel insulted. “Best thing to do is walk away from it,” he pointed out. “I can’t help it if I’m logical that way.”

Curry strode off, heading for the hotel. “Right. Let’s get packed, then. No sense in waiting around to maybe be arrested.”

Heyes shook his head sadly and followed after. “Aw, damn it.”

Oh, the blues will be blue and the jealousies green
But when love picks its shade it demands to be seen

*All quotes from The Red Strokes by Garver, Sanderson, Yates & Brooks

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