10 Wife on the Mississippi


Wife on the Mississippi
(The Elizabeth Darkly series #10)

By Maz McCoy

The Mississippi Belle, stern-wheel churning the water, pulled slowly away from the riverbank. On deck the passengers gathered to wave farewell to the city of New Orleans as the calliope played. A cool breeze blew, and a tall, brown-haired man reached for the hand of the woman standing next to him. He raised it to his lips and deposited a gentle kiss on her palm. The woman smiled as his eyes met hers.

“Our grand adventure begins, my dear.”

“Now all we need are two unwitting fools to do the hard work for us.”

“I’m sure we’ll find the men we need before we reach Saint Paul.” He kissed her hand again and she withdrew it, pulling her shawl tighter, to keep out the chill.

“I hope so, Victor. I’ve invested a lot of time in this venture.”

“And you know I appreciate that, my dear, but I promise you it will be worth your while.”

A steward approached them.

“Mr. and Mrs. Winchester?”

“Yes.”

“Your cabin is ready now, sir. I apologise for the delay.”

Victor held out his arm to the beautiful woman at his side.

“Shall we?”

Linking her arm in his, she accompanied him inside.

***

Later that day the riverboat came to a halt alongside the muddy river bank. There was a flurry of activity and a gangplank lowered, connecting it to a series of wooden boards leading over the mud to the safety of the shoreline. Only three passengers disembarked. Once they were out of the way provisions could be loaded. The captain of the mighty vessel stood outside the pilot’s house and peered over the side, casting a knowing eye over all below. Boxes of food were carried on board, a cage full of live chickens made themselves heard and an argument took place between the seller of fruit and the sternwheeler’s chef.

Two tired, dirty and unshaven drifters, saddlebags slung over their shoulders waited their turn, then made the precarious journey across the boards towards the boat. The one in a dark hat led the way.

From the deck above, Victor Winchester watched them with interest. They looked like the cowboys he’d read about. Tough men used to hard work, sleeping on hard ground and working, no questions asked, for whatever a man would pay them. They didn’t look as if they had washed in weeks or had more than a few cents between them. No doubt, desperate and none too bright. These might be just the men he was looking for.

***

“I’m sure this is the place we’ll find the pair I was telling you about.” Victor pushed through the riverboat saloon’s batwing doors and stood admiring the ambiance; smoke filled the air, rough-looking men sat at tables drinking beer or playing cards as a few scantily clad girls worked the room. “Come along my dear, I want your opinion on…” The man turned to urge his companion inside.

“Victor, I don’t think I should…”

“Oh, you don’t think it would be proper for a respectable woman to enter a saloon? I see your point. Forgive me, I didn’t think. It’s the excitement.”

“That’s all right, Victor.”

“Perhaps it would be best if you sat on that deck seat over there? I could…” but something must have changed the woman’s mind because she suddenly pushed past the dapper man into the room. “Oh well, all right then, if you’re sure…”

He followed her inside and found his companion looking at the backs of two men leaning on the bar; each sipped a glass of whiskey. Her eyes wandered over their dusty clothes and then slowly down their backs, stopping at an area below their low slung gun belts. She let her gaze linger as she admired two dusty butts.

“Now that’s something I recognise,” she said, with a smile.

“My dear?” Victor was quickly at her side. The woman moved her eyes upwards to the black hat on one man’s head.

“The hat, I recognise the hat.” She walked towards the men. Victor smiled, he recognised that hat too.

Hearing someone approaching two heads turned. They looked surprised to see the woman. Slowly, the one in the dark hat smiled, revealing two dimples behind several days’ growth of beard.

“Hello Elizabeth. What are you doing here?”

She studied his tired appearance.

“My dear?” her companion asked, surprised.

“Oh, Victor, may I introduce..?” Her eyes held Heyes’ brown ones. “Gosh-you-are…I mean Joshua, Joshua Smith, a friend of mine.” Victor looked disconcerted by Hannibal Heyes’ scruffy appearance. “Joshua, this is Victor Winchester, my…”

“…husband,” Victor finished for her. Heyes’ eyes went to Elizabeth’s, ignoring the hand that was offered to him. Their eyes met.

“Husband?”

“Yes, her husband.”

Heyes turned to Victor, who still held out his hand. Heyes shook it.

“Pleased to meet you, Mister Winchester.”

“Victor Winchester, of the New York Winchesters.”

“Joshua Smith, of the Kansas Smiths and this is my partner, Thaddeus Jones.”

Winchester looked at the equally filthy and bearded Mr. Jones.

“The Kansas Jones’?”

“Where else?” Kid said with a smile.

Victor offered his hand and Kid shook it, blue eyes focused on Elizabeth. Winchester wasn’t sure what he saw in Jones’ expression, but it didn’t look friendly. Surreptitiously, Victor wiped his hand on his jacket.

“Perhaps it’s fortunate that we have met some of your friends my dear.” He placed a possessive hand on Elizabeth Darkly’s arm, as he met their gaze. His message was clear. The woman was his. His wife. “Gentlemen, maybe you can help us?”

“How’s that?” Kid asked.

“I’m looking to hire some men, but wait, let me get us all a drink first and then we can talk.” He beckoned to the bartender and was soon involved in a deep conversation about the varieties and vintages of wine the riverboat had on board.

“It’s good to see you again,” Elizabeth said, keeping her voice low so that Victor would not hear. “I can think of something we could do later that’ll knock that dust off you.”

Heyes said nothing.

“Not interested?”

“I don’t think so.” There was a hard look in Heyes’ eyes.

“Wanna knock some dust off me?” Kid offered, with a mischievous grin.

“Yes, but not in the same way.” She turned her smile to Winchester as he returned to her side.

“I’m afraid it will have to be beer, whiskey or a very poor red wine, gentlemen. What will you have?”

“Whiskey’s fine. Shall we sit down?” Heyes pointed to a vacant table and headed towards it. Elizabeth watched Heyes. Did he move slower? Had he fully recovered from the bullet wound?

“Just what the heck are you up to?” Kid asked Elizabeth, as he caught hold of her arm.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. What are you playin’ at, Elizabeth?”

“I’m not playing at anything.”

“Marry him for his money, did you?”

“I won’t dignify that with an answer.”

“Do you love him?”

“I’m fond of him.”

“But you don’t love him?”

“Given time… What makes you so concerned for me anyway?”

“I’m not.” His eyes went to where Heyes and Winchester sat at a poker table waiting for them. “I don’t know what you’re up to; just don’t rub it in his face.”

“I didn’t know you two were here.”

“Well we won’t be tomorrow. We’re leaving, even if I hafta knock him out throw him over the side to do it.” Kid pushed off the bar and went to join the others. Elizabeth followed.

***

“So where are you two gentlemen travelling to?” Victor asked.

“We’re on our way to Saint Paul,” Heyes explained. “We just finished a job for a friend of ours and this was the easiest way up river to the train depot.”

“Have you been on the Mississippi before?”

“Once or twice.” Kid was watching the looks passing between Elizabeth and his partner.

“What brings you to the river, Mr. Winchester?” Heyes asked.

“Victor. Please call me Victor.” He smiled at the partners. They could be exactly what he needed, despite the way Smith kept looking at Elizabeth. “We are also heading to Saint Paul. I am going to visit some property I was left by my uncle.”

“A ranch?” Kid took a sip of his beer.

“No, a mine.”

“What did your Uncle mine?”

“Gold.” Victor saw the effect that had on the two men.

“Gold?” Kid shot a glance at Heyes.

“Yes. We were hoping to hire some men to help us…” He left the sentence deliberately vague.

“To do what?” Heyes asked.

“Extract the gold and sell it, for a share. Are you interested?”

“We’re always interested where gold is concerned,” Heyes told him with a dimpled smile.

***

“Are you crazy? You can’t do any heavy work?” Kid paced along the deck as Heyes sat in a chair, took a long drag on a fat cigar and admired the scenery.

“I wasn’t planning to.”

Realisation hit Kid.

“Oh no, I’m not doing it all!”

“Well someone will have to and as you said, it can’t be me.”

“Then let Victor learn.” He glared at his partner. “Or better still, Elizabeth. What the heck did you agree to help them out for? Oh wait, I know why!” Kid shook his head.

“You finished?”

“No, but I don’t suppose anything I say will make change your mind, will it?”

“Not really. It’s gold, Kid. Pure gold, fresh from the ground. We can’t miss this opportunity.”

“It’s Elizabeth, Heyes. Nothing ever works out right when that woman is involved.” He sat down heavily on the chair beside his friend. After a minute he turned to face his partner. “Who d’you think’s gonna get hurt this time?

Before Heyes could reply, Victor stepped onto the deck.

“Joshua, would you be interested in joining us for a game of poker?”

Heyes smiled.

“Sure, Victor. I’m not that good but…Why not?”

Kid shook his head as Heyes stood up and followed Victor inside.

***

Hannibal Heyes didn’t say a word as he sat down at the table. Kid placed a whiskey glass in front of his friend and poured from the bottle. Heyes’ jaw was tight. Wisely, Kid kept quiet and sipped his own drink, waiting. Through habit his eyes scanned the room. Eventually he could keep quiet no longer.

“So, Victor’s pretty good at poker then?”

“Hmph.”

Kid suppressed a smile.

“D’you win anything?”

An ice cold glare was the reply.

“How much d’you lose?”

“Can’t you think of something else to talk about?”

“Elizabeth said…”

“You mean Mrs. Winchester.”

“How d’you feel about that?”

“It’s none of my business.”

“Didn’t ask if it was your business.”

“She can do whatever she wants.”

“So it would seem.” Two dark eyes looked at Kid, then back at his whiskey. “One heck of a surprise, though.”

“Yeah.”

“He seems like a nice man; good poker player too. I guess we need to take that job now, huh?”

Heyes downed his drink and didn’t say a word as he reached for the bottle and poured another. Kid watched him and suppressed a smile.

***

There was a knock at the door. Kid looked over to the other bunk in what had to be the smallest cabin on the Mississippi Belle. Heyes was sleeping. Pushing up off his own bunk, Kid walked as quietly as he could to the door and opened it. Seeing Elizabeth standing in the hall way he put a finger to his mouth to silence her and stepped out of the room.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, quietly.

“Heyes is sleeping.”

“Is he all right?”

“Yeah.” He could see she expected an explanation. “He still gets tired.”

“The bullet wound?”

“Yeah.”

“Is he still in pain?”

“No, it’s just…” He decided to change the subject. “What do you want, Elizabeth?”

“I want to explain.”

“You don’t need to; I know what you’re like.”

“No, you don’t.”

“What are you going to say? That you had no choice? You were forced into a loveless marriage? Or are you going to tell me that Victor’s the man of your dreams and you fell hopelessly in love?”

“It doesn’t sound as though you’d believe the truth even if you heard it.” Kid didn’t answer. “Will you come with us to the mine?”

“We agreed didn’t we?”

“You won’t try to stop Hannibal?”

Kid gave a heavy sigh.

“No, I won’t stop him, but he can’t do any heavy work so your loving husband is gonna hafta get his hands dirty too. Heck maybe even you’ll hafta pick up a shovel.”

“I think Victor can manage that.

“Good. You’re a married woman, now. Don’t mess with Heyes.” Two ice-blue eyes fixed on her.

“You’re very sweet, Kid, even when you’re giving me that gunslinger’s glare.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth. “It’s a pity it never works on me.”

Kid didn’t respond, just watched her walk away.

***

Heyes’ eyes opened when Kid entered the room.

“Everything alright?”

“Yeah.”

“Who was it?”

“Elizabeth.”

Heyes interest was sparked.

“What did she want?” He rested his hands behind his head.

“You.” Kid sat down and picked up his gun cloth. “I told her you weren’t up to it anymore and she should find herself a younger model.”

Heyes gave Kid a look.

“I got her room number for later. Told her I’d wait until her husband was out.” Kid smiled, mischievously. “Seems she just couldn’t wait.”

“What did she really want?”

“You don’t believe she can’t keep her hands off me?”

“You’d run a mile.” Heyes waited. “So?”

“She was just making sure I wasn’t gonna spoil her fun.”

“Oh, right.” Heyes closed his eyes. “Can’t you clean that thing in the morning?”

“I might need it in the morning.”

“Well do it quickly so we can turn the light out. My brain needs all the rest it can get.”

“Didn’t realise it was your brain you’d been thinking with.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

***

Saint Paul was a small but bustling town. When the Mississippi Belle pulled alongside the river bank, the gangplanks were lowered and men began to run to and fro unloading and loading cargo. The cries of workmen sounded as the few passengers alighting at Saint Paul made their way across the wobbly planks to the safety of the shore. Victor helped Elizabeth across the mud as Heyes and Kid followed.

They made their way through the hustle and bustle to the railroad station. Victor bought the tickets and right on schedule the train for Farlow’s Cross appeared along the track, a plume of smoke rising from the chimney as it pulled in. The men stood back to allow Elizabeth to board first. They took their seats and after scanning the faces of the other passengers in the carriage, Kid tilted his hat over his eyes, folded his arms across his chest and appeared to sleep. The train gave a jolt and they were on their way. Victor rummaged in his bag for some papers and was soon lost in concentration as he read. Heyes felt someone kick his foot. He glanced up to meet Elizabeth’s smile. She motioned with her head towards the end of the carriage. She leaned close and whispered in Victor’s ear. He smiled and nodded. Elizabeth stood up, slid past Kid, walked to the door and went out onto the footplate. After a few moments, Heyes followed her. From under a brown floppy hat, two knowing blue eyes watched their departure.

“I needed some air,” Elizabeth announced as Heyes stood with his back against the carriage.

“Why did you want to see me?”

The train gave a jolt and she threw herself dramatically against him. Heyes didn’t push her away. Instead his arms slipped around her waist. Elizabeth smiled and, leaning forward, she kissed him. He did nothing to respond.

“Mmm,” she moaned when she pulled away.

“What are you doing?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“You’re a married woman.”

“And you don’t fool with married women?”

“Not as a rule.”

Elizabeth laughed.

“A thief with principals, how sweet.”

“I don’t steal anymore.”

“You’ve stolen my heart. And you let me kiss you. Rules are made to be broken, you of all people should know that.” Leaning forward once more, she nibbled his ear, her breath hot on his neck. “I’ve missed you.”

“So much that you got married.”

“I want to tell you about that.”

She moved to his mouth, covering his lips with her own. He didn’t draw back from the pressure. His hands kept her close to his body.

“So much for your principals,” she whispered.

“It would be ungentlemanly to push a lady away.”

“I like you being a gentleman.”

“This has to stop.”

“Why?”

“Because we don’t have time for what this might lead to.”

“Ooh, that sounds interesting.”

Finally he pushed her away.

“You have a husband.”

“Oh, him.”

“What is a newly married woman doing out here with me anyway?”

“As much as you’ll let me.”

“I’m going back inside.” He held her at arms’ length. “This is wrong, Elizabeth and you know it.”

“Spoil sport.”

“Victor seems like a decent man.”

She let out a sigh.

“All right. I’ll fight my primitive urges and try to keep my hands off you, but I don’t know if I’ll succeed. ” He turned to open the door and she pinched his bottom. “Oops, failed already!”

***

Kid pushed his hat up with one finger. Across from him Victor was snoring as he slept. Kid watched Elizabeth and Heyes return to their seats. There was a smile on Elizabeth’s face and a certain twinkle in his partner’s eye. He didn’t need to ask what they had been up to. He stared at Heyes.

“What?” Heyes asked, as he sat down and noticed the glare Kid was giving him.

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I always do.”

“Hmph.”

Elizabeth leaned across to him and whispered, “Why don’t you step out with me next time, help me with that research. I haven’t forgotten, you know, and I think I may need to probe deeper.”

The look he gave her was answer enough. She smiled as he dropped his hat back.

***

The train gave a blast on its whistle as it pulled into Farlow’s Cross. A blast of hot air greeted the four travelling companions as they alighted onto the platform.

“First thing is to get some horses and supplies,” Victor announced unnecessarily. “Leave the supplies to me. I’ll find the general store, if you gentlemen will get us some horses and a mule?”

Heyes nodded and taking Elizabeth’s hand, Victor headed across the street.

“You heard the man, Joshua, lets’ get some horses.” Kid placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder and they went in search of the livery stables.

***

“They cost you how much?” Victor walked around the horses shaking his head in disbelief. He knew good horse flesh when he saw it and he wasn’t seeing it now. “Why back home these animals would be…”

“But you’re not back home,” Kid pointed out. “You’re in the only town for miles where there’s only one place to buy horses.”

“Hmm.” Victor looked at the horse he’d been assigned. “I can’t say…”

“Then don’t,” Elizabeth interjected as she looped her arm through his. “We have horses and a mule and all the supplies we need. Why don’t we just get going?”

Victor smiled at her.

“As always my dear, you know the right thing to say.”

Kid exchanged an incredulous look with his partner, then pulled himself into the saddle. Victor did the same. Heyes glanced at him.

“You got your map?”

“Yes, Joshua.”

“Then lead the way.”

Victor smiled and kicked his horse on, Elizabeth followed, then Heyes with Kid once again at the rear wondering why he always had to lead the darn mule.

***

After a long tiring ride they set up camp beside a small stream as night was beginning to fall. It had been one heck of a journey for one day. Heyes and Kid fell into a well practiced routine as Victor wandered around, kicking at stones, looking for the most comfortable piece of ground on which to lay his bed roll.

“Alone at last,” Elizabeth whispered. She crouched beside Heyes as he set about making a fire.

“We’re hardly that, Elizabeth.”

“So, you’d like to get me alone again?”

“You’re putting words into my mouth.”

“I’d rather p…”

“Can I help?”

Elizabeth turned her most charming smile on Victor.

“I think Joshua has everything under control. Did you find a good place for our bed rolls?”

“Yes, I think we’ll sleep well tonight. Are you sure there’s nothing I can do Joshua?”

“You could find us some more wood. This won’t last long.”

“Consider it done.” Victor beamed, enthusiastically. He held out his hand. “Elizabeth, will you join me?”

“Of course, my dear.” She allowed him to help her to her feet. Heyes didn’t miss the squeeze she gave his shoulder as she placed her hand on it for support. Nor could he miss the wink she gave him as she followed Victor.

“You’re playing with fire.” Kid placed the coffee pot on the ground.

“No, just making one.”

“We both know that ain’t what I meant.”

Heyes looked up at his partner and was met with the blue-eyed stare.

“Shut up!”

“Hey, I’m just watching your back partner.”

***

“Does it always get this cold at night?” Victor asked as he pulled the blanket around him and huddled closer to the fire.

“Not always.” Kid held out a cup of coffee. “Here, this’ll warm you up.”

“Thank you.” Victor wrapped his hands around the cup. “It was nice of Joshua to offer to stand guard over Elizabeth.”

“Yeah, he’s real chivalrous that way.” Kid hoped standing guard was all Heyes was doing.

“I appreciate you looking after us, although I’ve always been very good at directions and I have camped out a few times before.” He looked around, then pointed. “That way’s North.”

Kid smiled, then pointed in the opposite direction.

“Oh well. I’m better in daylight.” He took a swallow of coffee. “Elizabeth never told me how you all met.”

Kid stoked the fire as he considered his answer.

“We met through a mutual friend.” Time to change the subject. “How ‘bout you? How d’you meet her?”

“We’ve known each other all our lives because our families have been friends for generations. I fell in love with Elizabeth when we were children, although she was a merciless tease. I’m so glad she agreed to help me find the mine.”

“She’s your wife, what else could she do?”

“Of course but you know Elizabeth. My sweetness has a mind of her own.”

“Yeah, she sure does.”

***

“You finished?” Heyes called over his shoulder as he leaned with his back against a tree. The sound of splashing water had stopped a few moments ago.

“I haven’t even started.” Elizabeth walked up the river bank towards him. Heyes peered around the tree and smiled. Elizabeth’s hair hung loose about her shoulders.

“I can see why he married you. You look beautiful.”

“Why, Hannibal, thank you.” She drew closer. “D’you wish it was you instead of Victor I was calling my husband?” She placed a hand flat on his chest.

“You made your choice.”

“Was that a yes?”

“I’ve learned never to covet another man’s wife.”

“Are you admitting to coveting me, Hannibal?” She moved closer, their mouths just a breath apart. Heyes covered her hand with his.

“You know I have.”

“So were you coveting me on the train?” She could feel his warm breath on her skin. “And now?”

“Now, I’ll take you back to your husband.” Heyes moved away from the tree keeping her hand in his. She pulled him back.

“Wait.”

“What for?”

“This.” Lunging forward she pressed her lips to his. Heyes caught hold of her arms, stopping them from stumbling backwards. Her mouth crushed his and, slowly, she felt his resistance give way and he kissed her back. It was the kiss of a couple kept too long apart. A passionate kiss that…Heyes pushed her away.

“Elizabeth, stop!”

“Again?”

Exasperated, her eyes met his and saw the suppressed desire there. Heyes grabbed her hand.

“I’m not going to do this. Victor deserves better. We have to get back.”

Without a word she let him lead her towards the campfire.

***

Kid looked up from the fire when Heyes and Elizabeth returned. He didn’t need to ask to know something had happened between them, again, he just didn’t want to know what it was.

“Feeling fresher my dear?” Victor asked as Elizabeth moved to sit beside him.

“Very refreshed.” Her eyes were on Heyes but he refused to look at her.

“I’m gonna check on the horses,” Heyes muttered before walking away.

“Looks like we could do with an extra blanket. I’ll join you.” Kid got to his feet and followed his friend.

***

“All right, what’s going on?”

Heyes ignored Kid and continued to check his horse’s hoof.

“Heyes!”

Still no answer. The hoof was dropped. Kid grabbed Heyes by the arm and spun him around. He knew his friend well enough to recognise the guilty look in his eyes.

“Ah sheesh, what the heck have you two done?”

“Nothing.” Heyes dropped his gaze to the ground.

“Then why you looking so guilty?”

“I’m not.”

“Oh yes you do. What happened?”

Heyes took a deep breath.

“We kissed, that’s all.”

“Dammit, Heyes! She’s married and she’s…She’s…Elizabeth! When are you gonna learn?”

“It won’t happen again.”

“Damn right it won’t!” Kid cast a glance towards the fire. “D’you kiss her on the train too?” Heyes expression gave him the answer.

“Can we just forget this?”

“Not yet. You don’t mess with married women, ever. Elizabeth is no exception. Now I say we walk away from this right now. Take them back to Farlow’s Cross and let them find someone else to help them.”

“NO!”

“Why not? The longer you two are together the more chance there is of…”

“Of what?”

“You know what!”

“I told you, it won’t happen again.”

They stood for a moment glaring at each other. Kid placed his hands on his head and sighed.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, ‘cos I’d hate to hafta flatten ya! Or get between you and Victor when he finds out.” Heyes placed a hand on his side and winced. “Don’t even try to get my sympathy for that bullet wound.”

“All right. I hear you. I won’t do anything. I promise. Satisfied?”

“You playing according to Hoyle?”

“Yes.”

“I sure hope so, Heyes.”

***

The first patter of rain on his face woke Kid the following morning. He groaned as he sat up. The fire was a smouldering heap of blackened wood and ash. He stood up and stretched, then gave Heyes’ feet a quick kick. His partner groaned and turned over. Kid kicked his boots again.

“WHAT?”

“Time to get moving, Joshua.”

A mop of dark hair appeared from beneath the blanket and a rain drop hit Heyes in the eye.

“It’s raining.”

“I always knew you were the brains of the outfit for some reason.” Kid pulled on his jacket and turned up the collar, then crouched down beside the fire. The embers were too wet to ignite. Victor threw back his blanket and sat up, reaching for his long coat. Elizabeth lay beside him; the blanket pulled up over her.

“Anything I can do to help?” Victor asked as he stood beside Kid.

“You could get some water for the coffee.” Kid held out the coffee pot.

“Without a fire?”

“Those clouds are moving fast, the rain will stop soon.”

Victor took the pot and headed for the stream. By the time he returned, the rain had indeed stopped and Elizabeth was sitting beside Heyes on a log near the fire Kid had got burning.

“Victor, come and sit beside me.” Elizabeth patted the log and shoved Heyes along with her hip. “Joshua was just boasting about the wonderful biscuits he makes.”

“Is that so? Well Joshua, I’d love to try one.”

Kid hid a smirk as Heyes got to his feet.

“Just don’t ask him to make the coffee.” Heyes clipped Kid on the head as he reached for the food.

***

It was just after noon when they found themselves on horseback looking at the opening to a mine. For a long time no one spoke as they surveyed the scene before them. The entrance leading into the mountainside was partly blocked by the crumbling wooden supports. The remains of tools, boxes and other mining equipment lay scattered around. A wagon with only three wheels stood to one side surrounded by empty boxes with the word dynamite stencilled on the sides. Heyes studied the debris.

“That’s not a gold mine.”

“You sure it didn’t say OLD mine on that deed?” Kid asked as he urged his horse closer.

“It’s a gold mine, I have the deeds right here.” Victor patted his pocket.

“I’d say you’d been suckered.” Heyes climbed from the saddle and the others did the same. Victor headed towards the entrance.

“Hey, wait up!” Kid called. “Don’t go in there without a light. It looks pretty unstable. You could have the whole place fall down around you.”

“Oh, right.” Victor waited. “I need to see what’s inside.”

“Then let’s do it properly.” Heyes picked up an old lamp and shook it, hearing the familiar sloshing sound of oil. Kid tossed him a box of matches.

***

The lamp cast shadows on the mine walls as they ventured deeper into the mountainside. Despite her objections they had insisted Elizabeth wait outside, if only so that someone was there in case there was a cave in. As they moved deeper underground the air grew stale, the tunnel narrower, and the ceiling lower. The three men had to crouch to navigate their way inside the mine. Finally they reached the workface. Expecting to see a glittering wall of gold, Victor held the lamp higher. He was faced with a dense blackness.

“Coal.” Victor’s shoulders drooped. “It’s coal.”

“Yeah, and not much of it by the looks of things.” Heyes scraped the wall with his knife.

“I’m sorry, Victor.” Kid placed a sympathetic hand on the man’s shoulder as he examined the walls.

“Looks like they worked this place until it was no longer viable.” Heyes turned to Victor. “What d’you want to do?”

“I don’t know.” He sat down on a crate. “This is not what I expected.”

“WHAT’S GOING ON IN THERE?” Elizabeth’s voice echoed along the tunnel.

“I’ll go and tell her,” Kid offered.

“Thank you. I don’t expect she’ll be very pleased.”

Kid exchanged a look with his partner. Heyes would stay with the dejected man and Kid headed towards the light.

“I thought this was the answer to my troubles. I guess I was wrong.” Victor kicked a stone and leaned back against a wooden support. “Do you think there’s any value in the place?”

“Well you should have a mining engineer come out here and take a look but I can’t imagine anyone giving up this place if it was still worth working.”

“My uncle stopped working it several years ago. I assumed it was because it was getting too hard on an aging back but now I see it…” Victor smiled weakly. “You’ll be saved from some hard digging at least.”

“Yeah, we will at that. Look, Victor, you…”

They both heard the creak. Then the groan. Victor felt the support he was leaning against begin to move. There was another creak and a snap and the support gave way. Victor leapt to his feet as part of the ceiling came down. Heyes grabbed Victor’s arm and dragged him. There was a hiss, a rumble and a distinctive smell.

“What was…?”

“RUN!”

Victor dropped the lamp and they ran until their lungs were fit to burst reaching the entrance just as the gas ignited.

***

The explosion blew everyone off their feet. Kid landed on top of Elizabeth as Heyes and Victor flew through the air. Rocks and stones rained down on them peppering their bodies. Kid shielded Elizabeth as best he could. A dust cloud blew from the inside of the mine accompanied by a deep rumble and then there was an ominous silence. Nothing moved. Kid heard his own heart pounding in his ears.

“You know as much as I am loving this position, I suppose we should go and see how the others are.” Elizabeth wriggled beneath him.

“You all right?”

“Better than all right.”

Kid moved off her then helped her to her feet. They turned to survey the scene of devastation before them. Heyes and Victor lay unmoving in the debris.

“Oh no.” Kid ran to where Heyes was lying on his stomach, surrounded by rubble, rocks and bits of wooden support. Victor lay a few yards away from him. “Joshua?” Kid dropped to his knees as Heyes began to stir.

“What hit me?”

“About half the side of the mountain.”

“Are you hurt?” Elizabeth knelt beside him.

Heyes groaned.

“I don’t know.”

“Shouldn’t you be checking on your husband?” Kid indicated where Victor lay.

“Oh, of course.” She got to her feet and went to his side.

Heyes touched the back of his head and grimaced.

“Let me see.” Kid moved Heyes’ hair aside, noted the fresh blood and examined the wound. “It’s just a scratch. You’ll live.”

“It doesn’t feel like a scratch.”

Kid removed his bandana and placed it on the bloody gash.

“OW!” Brown eyes glared at Kid. “Did you need to press that hard?”

“You want the bleeding to stop don’t you?”

“Bleeding? I thought you said it was a scratch?”

“It’s a pretty big scratch.”

Heyes reached up and took the bandana.

“I’ll do it. You go see how Victor is.”

“Elizabeth can manage.”

Heyes sat up.

“I’m fine. Go help her.”

Kid studied his partner’s face.

“How are you really?”

“Groggy but I’m okay. Go on.”

“Okay, just don’t go anywhere.”

“I have no intention of moving, ever.”

***

Victor looked pale, his face covered in scratches where he’d hit the ground. Elizabeth dabbed at a cut above his eye, with her handkerchief.

“How is he?” Kid asked as he approached.

“He’s okay.”

Victor looked up.

“Just a few scratches, Thaddeus, nothing serious. That was some explosion. How’s Joshua?”

“Got a bump on his head. He’s complaining, but he’s fine.”

He helped Victor to his feet and, when he was steady, they made their way to where Heyes was now sitting on a boulder, the bandana still held to his head as he rested his elbows on his knees.

“Joshua?” Kid didn’t miss the grimace Heyes tried to hide as he looked up. Kid’s eyes asked a question.

“I’m okay,” Heyes assured him. His partner didn’t look convinced and took the bandana from Heyes’ hand. The cut was still bleeding, so he placed it back on the wound.

“What happened?” Victor asked.

“Gas,” Heyes informed him taking the bandana back from Kid.

Victor down sat beside him.

“You mean I struck gas?”

“Yeah, I guess you did.”

“You were lucky to get out of there,” Kid mused.

All eyes looked at the mine entrance, now completely covered in by rocks and boulders.

“Struck it and lost it in one go.” Victor sighed. “I’m sorry Elizabeth. It’s not what I promised you.”

She reached out, took his hand and squeezed it.

***

“I’m going back home.”

Heads rose at Victor’s announcement. Pensive, Heyes stuffed a piece of biscuit in his mouth. The blow to the head appeared to have given him an appetite. The bleeding had stopped, his headache eased and he was already on his second helping of supper.

“Do you plan on getting someone to survey the mine?” Heyes asked.

“No, I think that’s a lost cause. It would no doubt cost me more money to open it up than I could get out of it. I can’t see many people wanting to invest in a worked-out coal mine.”

“You don’t know that. Joshua’s right. We should have a proper survey done.”

“My mind’s made up, Elizabeth. It was a fool’s errand. An adventure, in search of gold, but now it’s over.”

“Don’t I get a say?” Elizabeth fixed her gaze on him.

Kid stood up.

“Maybe we should give you a minute alone.” He whacked Heyes on the shoulder with his gloves. “Joshua.”

“I’m eating.”

“Then a walk will help you digest it.”

“I’m resting my head.”

Kid indicated the couple with a nod.

“Oh, yeah, right. You two talk all you want. Apparently a walk will be good for my nausea and dizziness.”

Kid rolled his eyes.

Getting to his feet Heyes grabbed another biscuit then followed Kid towards the horses.

“If I pass out you’d better not let me fall in anything that smells.”

“You’re not gonna pass out.”

“I’ve had a blow to the head. I’m vulnerable.”

“Sheesh!”

***

“Guess we don’t get paid again,” Kid mused as he leaned back against a tree.

“Sure looks that way.” Heyes sat down on a fallen tree trunk.

“Are all people who go straight as broke as we are?”

“I hope not, Kid.” Heyes took a bite of biscuit. “Any thoughts on what we should do next?”

“Can we afford a train ride?”

“I doubt it.”

“Maybe Victor’ll let us keep the horses.”

“Next time we have to ask for wages instead of a percentage.” Tentatively, Heyes touched the back of his head.

“Still hurt?”

“Yes.”

“You really feeling drowsy? Nauseous?”

“Why you a doctor now?”

“No, but I’ve been hit enough times to know the symptoms to watch out for.”

“I’ll be okay.”

“Sure you will. So are you?”

“A little nauseous that’s all, but I sure am hungry. Weird huh?”

“Yeah, you’re weird all right.”

They looked up at the sound of footsteps. Elizabeth walked towards them. She looked from one partner to the other, then let her eyes linger on Heyes. Kid pushed off the tree. He knew when he wasn’t wanted. He met Elizabeth’s gaze.

“Don’t upset him,” he warned as he walked back to the fire.

“So, you’re heading back tomorrow?” Heyes asked.

“No.”

“Victor decided to stay?”

“No.”

“He’s leaving without you?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of husband…?”

“We’re not married.”

Heyes said nothing.

“We thought it would be better if we pretended to be. It would be more respectable, for propriety. We didn’t expect to find you two to help us. We’re just very old friends and business partners.”

“I see.”

“Is that all you’re going to say?”

“You expect more?”

“I hoped you might be jealous. I was going to tell you when I had a chance.”

“You’ve had plenty of chances.”

“I just wanted it to be when I was alone with you.”

“We’ve been alone.”

“You’re hurt?”

“No. Disappointed.”

“I didn’t mean to disappoint you, Hannibal; I was just curious to know how you’d feel; if I meant anything to you.”

“Woman you leave me speechless.”

“Is that a good thing? I mean it’s not like we have a commitment or anything, after all we both agreed this was just a bit of fun, right?”

“Right.”

“So we’re you jealous?” She watched his face for his reaction. “Hannibal?”

“No.”

“Not even a little?”

“Not even a little.”

She studied his face.

“You were!” She smiled. “Oh, how sweet!”

“I was not jealous. Dammit woman why do you hafta play games all the time?”

“It’s more fun that way.”

“Fun? Playing with people’s emotions and stirring up…”

“Did I get your emotions all stirred up?” She leaned closer. Heyes closed his eyes. “I did!”

“Elizabeth, I’ve been hit on the head, I’m in no mood to…”

She kissed him.

“Maybe you’ll be in the mood later.” She smiled wickedly and walked back to camp, leaving Heyes to watch the exaggerated sway of her hips.

“Oh boy.”

***

“They not married!” Heyes announced as he entered the camp.

“What?” Kid looked at Victor, who had the decency to look embarrassed.

“You’d think she might have mentioned it. I mean it’s not like there haven’t been opportunities!” He glared at Elizabeth. “And you,” Heyes pointed a finger at Victor. “You knew we were her friends. Why didn’t you tell us the truth?”

“Elizabeth thought it best not to.”

“Oh, she did, did she?”

“I can explain.”

“I am dying to hear it!”

Elizabeth turned to face Kid.

“It’s complicated.”

“It always is with you! D’you get a kick outta seeing him suffer? I thought it was just me you like to torment.”

Victor looked from Heyes to Elizabeth.

“There’s more than just friendship between you two?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth admitted.

“NO!” Heyes stated.

“I see.” Victor smiled. “Just how close are you?”

No one wanted to answer that.

***

Victor rode out the following morning, assuring everyone that he could find his way back and that they need not worry about him. Kid had wanted to see him as far as the river crossing but he would hear none of it.

“If I get lost I will just consider it part of this great adventure. North, right?” He pointed off to his left. Kid shook his head and pointed to the right. Victor smiled. “I’ll just follow the wind.” He bid them farewell and they stood side-by-side watching him ride away.

“You sure he’ll be all right?” Kid asked. “This is pretty rough country for a man like him to be travelling alone.”

“He’s not as naive as he made out. Victor’s been playing a part too. He was a Captain in the army and helped his cousin build a cabin in the woods, fighting off bears and wolves when he was just a boy. Oh and he was the tracker when they went hunting. He’ll be fine.”

“So everyone’s been playing games with us. Anything else we should know? You’re really a Bannerman detective and we’re both under arrest?”

“Now that’s an idea.” Elizabeth smiled and looked longingly at Heyes. “They have handcuffs don’t they?”

***

“Are you still angry with me?” Elizabeth asked as Heyes headed to the river with their canteens.

“No. Just amazed that you still have the ability to surprise me.”

“I have other ways to do that,” she called as he disappeared into the bushes.

“I DON’T DOUBT IT!”

Elizabeth smiled and turned to watch Kid tying his bed roll onto the back of his saddle. She sat down on the log by the fire. Victor had gone and she was alone with them again. It was always fun and she liked them both, one considerably more than the other but teasing Kid was too much fun to resist. They were angry with her at the moment but that wouldn’t last. Kid would scowl and mumble but he’d take care of them no matter what. Hannibal…? She didn’t know how long it would take for him to come around. Why she had to be…A rattle broke the silence. Out of the corner of her eye Elizabeth spotted the serpent as it coiled ready to strike. She swallowed; her eyes fell on her gun lying near Heyes’ saddle. Could she reach it in time? She swallowed and judged the distance as little more than a stretch of her arm. How fast could a snake be? If she didn’t do something it would surely strike her anyway. The snake’s tongue shot out tasting the air. The rattle sounded again.

“RATTLESNAKE!”

Elizabeth sprang to her feet. Kid turned, drew and fired at the offending reptile. Elizabeth grabbed the gun, tripped on Heyes’ saddle, squeezing the trigger as she fell. She heard Kid cry out. Heart pounding, Elizabeth raised her head. Kid lay on the ground, his hand grasping the back of his right leg. Had the snake bitten him or..? She quickly scrambled to her feet. The rattlesnake was in pieces. Kid groaned. She spotted the blood on his pants.

“Oh, Kid, I’m so sorry, I…”

“What happened?” Gun in hand; Heyes came crashing through the undergrowth. He dropped the canteens when he saw Kid writhing in agony.

“I shot him,” Elizabeth admitted.

“WHAT?”

“SHE SHOT ME!” Kid gritted his teeth as he clasped the top of his thigh. “DAMN WOMAN SHOT ME!”

“I didn’t mean to!”

“You never do.” Ice-blue eyes glared at her.

“What did you shoot him for?”

“There was a rattlesnake.”

“Where the heck did you think it was?”

“Can we do this later? I may be bleeding to death here!” Kid lay his head back on the ground, his breathing heavy.

“You’re right.” Heyes reached into his boot for his knife. He tapped Kid on the shoulder. “Turn over.”

Kid did as asked, lying on his stomach. His pants were already soaked with blood. Heyes grabbed a handful of the cloth.

“What are you doing?” Kid turned his head to see.

“I’m gonna cut your pants so I can see the wound.”

“What can I do to help?” Elizabeth dropped to her knees beside them.

“Nothing! Stay as far away from me as possible!”

“Kid, I said I was sorry.”

“For all the good that does!”

“Cut it out you two!” Kid heard fabric tear as Heyes cut through the material. A moment later his underwear was cut as well exposing his butt and thigh. The bullet had grazed the top of his right leg.

“How’s it look?” Kid peered over his shoulder at his friend.

“Looks very firm to me.”

“DAMMIT WOMAN, GET YOUR EYES OFF ME! AIN’T I SUFFERED ENOUGH?”

“Nothing I ain’t seen before, sweetie.”

“Elizabeth, you’re not helping.” Heyes pointed to his saddlebags. “Can you go find the whiskey?”

“Anything for you, Hannibal.” She leaned closer to Kid. “You should be glad you had your back turned.”

She knew blue eyes were boring into her as she went in search of the alcohol.

“OW!” Kid cried out as Heyes applied his bandana to the wound.

“It’s a pretty deep graze. It needs stitches.”

“Please, tell me you’re joking, Heyes.”

“Sorry. I’ll do the best I can.”

Elizabeth returned with a half full bottle of whiskey.

“Wouldn’t it be best to remove his pants?”

“You’re right. Kid…”

The blond man mumbled something into the ground; something that didn’t sound too polite. Kid pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. His face was pale as he reached for his gun belt. Unbuckling it he placed it to one side, then reached for the belt around his pants. Elizabeth feigned interest in the fire, as the belt was undone and Kid’s fingers went to his buttons.

“Turn your back,” he told her.

“I can’t, Hannibal may need me to…hold something.”

Kid just glared. After a moment Elizabeth gave a huff and turned away. When she peeked back again, Kid’s pants and underwear had been pushed down to mid thigh and he lay back on his stomach. She let her eyes…roam…and smiled. She looked at Heyes.

“Can I help?”

“Pass me the whiskey.” Heyes held out his hand, took the bottle she passed him and then poured the alcohol over the wound. As the liquid seeped into the graze, Kid hissed and squirmed. “Hold still.”

“You try and hold still when…SHEESH! D’you hafta press so hard?”

“I’m trying to stop the bleeding!”

“That definitely needs stitching,” Elizabeth observed as she leaned in for a closer look.

“Will you please keep her away from me?”

“She’s right, though.”

“I have my needlework kit in my bag.” She stood and he watched her walk away.

“NO!” Kid turned, his expression pleading with his friend. Elizabeth stood and he watched her walk away. “Heyes, don’t let her at me with a needle.”

“I’ve done it before, Kid, remember?” Elizabeth was all smiles as she returned to kneel beside him. She poured some whiskey over the needle she held up, already threaded with white silk.

“Heyes…”

“It’s gotta be done.”

“Some friend you are.”

“Hold still.”

“I’ll remind you of this one day when…OW! DAMMIT THAT HURTS!”

Elizabeth pierced his skin again with the needle. Kid swore.

“Oh for goodness sake, you’re supposed to be a tough outlaw, show a little backbone.”

“I’m already showing you more than enough!”

“Hold still!”

“OW!”

“Such a baby. No wonder they call you Kid.”

“You don’t…OW! DAMMIT ARE YOU DOING THAT DELIBERATELY?”

“Just a couple more.”

Kid’s head dropped forward, fisted clenched tight, his whole body tense as Elizabeth finished with a flourish and a knot. Heyes cut the thread with his knife.

“There, all done.”

Kid didn’t say a word.

“Kid?” Heyes saw his friend’s hands shake.

“Just cover it will you.”

“Okay, if I can just figure out how.” Heyes set about preparing bandages for the wound. He sent Elizabeth for some water to heat and when she returned, bloody pants lay on the ground and Kid was safely hidden under a blanket. He lay on his side against his saddle, his eyes closed, breathing heavily.

“I got the water.” She held up the coffee pot.

“Great, make us some coffee will you, Sweetheart?” Heyes smiled as he picked up Kid’s bloody torn clothes.

“Did you send me to get water so I wouldn’t see?”

“That’s right.”

“Spoilsport.”

“He’s suffered enough.”

“For now.” She set the coffee pot on the fire.

***

“You won’t be able to ride for a while.” Heyes handed Kid a cup of coffee.

“Guess you could always throw me over the back of my horse.”

“Not the most comfortable way to travel.”

“I told you one of us was gonna get hurt.

Heyes smiled.

“I thought that was me.”

“So now it’s both of us.”

“She’s not all bad, Kid.”

“Only you seem to feel that way, Heyes and you already took a whack on the head.”

“I guess we’ll stay here for today at least.” He saw Kid flinch and placed a hand on his friend’s arm. “Try to get some rest.”

“Easier said than done.”

***

They spent the rest of the day in camp. Heyes tended the horses, washed Kid’s bloody clothes, mended the tear in them when they were dry then sat reading beneath a tree. Elizabeth sat and worked on a sampler she had taken to carrying with her. Heyes looked up when the woman sat down beside him.

“Good book?”

“Not bad.”

“Am I forgiven yet?”

Heyes closed the book and leaned towards her. She didn’t move as he ran his fingers slowly down her soft cheek. Moving closer his lips touched hers. When he pulled away she smiled.

“What do you think?” he asked, and then, getting to his feet, he went to check on Kid.

***

When night fell Heyes lay down on his bed roll, pulling the blanket up to his shoulders. Elizabeth placed hers next to his. He looked up.

“Is this okay?”

“Sure.”

She lay down and snuggled closer, one arm reached across his waist.

“You don’t mind do you? Now you know I’m not a married woman.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Is Kid all right?” She sounded genuinely sorry.

“I think his pride hurts as much as the wound does.”

“Is he still in pain?”

“Well, he’s not going to be sitting comfortably for a while.”

“So, here we are, again.”

Heyes smiled.

“Yes, here we are.”

Elizabeth leaned in closer, resting her head on his shoulder.

“What will we do while he’s asleep?”

Heyes gave her a dimpled smile. He turned his head and kissed her.

“Mmmm.”

“You like that?”

“You know I do.”

He kissed her again, his mouth lingering longer on hers as his fingers trailed down her cheek. Elizabeth pressed her body against his, enjoying his touch as his hand moved to the back of her head and nestled in her hair.

“Just you and me.” She kissed him as she reached up to brush a strand of hair out of his eyes. “The Kid’s asleep.” Kiss. “No one to disturb us.” Kiss. “What shall we do?” Kiss.

“Not that.”

He kissed her neck.

“Why not?”

She raised her chin, giving him access.

“Because…”

“You kiss me like this and you say because?”

His kisses moved lower.

“That’s right.”

“Because what?”

“It might lead to other things.”

“Fun things?”

“Fun things.”

She moaned as his breath tickled her skin.

“So why stop?”

“Because…”

“Like I said, because what?

“Because I can hear every darn word you’re saying and that’s all I wanna hear!”

Fury filled Elizabeth’s eyes at Kid’s words and she pushed up onto her elbows.

“Dammit, why aren’t you asleep?”

“’Cos I’m in pain!”

She turned to Heyes.

“Hit him over the head, Hannibal. Knock him out and shut him up!”

Heyes caressed her arm.

“We need to get some sleep, Elizabeth.”

“I’m not tired.”

“But I am.”

Grumpily she lay back down.

“It’s all HIS fault. I shoulda aimed higher!”

Heyes smiled as he closed his eyes.

***

Someone muttering woke Heyes. It was Kid. Tossing aside the blanket Heyes yawned and sat up. He looked down at the woman sleeping beside him, then got to his feet. In the moonlight a fine sheen of sweat showed on Kid’s forehead. Kid’s eyes opened when he heard his friend draw near.

“How you doing?” Heyes crouched beside his friend.

“Not so bad.”

“Hurts huh?”

“Yeah.”

Heyes reached out and placed a hand on Kid’s forehead.

“You’re a little warm.”

“I’m okay.”

“Sure you are.”

Heyes stood up.

“You need anything, just shout.”

“Thanks.”

“See you in the morning.”

“Yeah.”

Heyes lay back down, reaching for the blanket.

“He okay?” Elizabeth whispered.

“I hope so.”

“I didn’t mean to shoot him, you know.”

“I know.”

“I’ll be nice to him from now on.”

Heyes leaned over, kissing her on the forehead.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Sweetheart.” He winked, then turned on his side to face away from her. She leaned closer, her breath warm on his ear.

“I’d make an exception for you.”

“Go to sleep.” Her hand began to explore. She opened a button and slid her hand inside his shirt. Her hand found the scar on his torso; her fingers gently brushed it. She felt his body tense.

“I nearly lost you.”

Heyes hand covered hers. He gave it a gentle squeeze.

“You didn’t.”

“I’m glad.” She bit gently on his earlobe. “I’m thinking about seducing you Hannibal.”

“As long as you only think about it, we’ll be fine.”

“Don’t you want me to?”

“Not right now.”

“So I have permission to do so later?”

Heyes sighed.

“Goodnight, Elizabeth.”

“Goodnight, Hannibal.”

***

Dawn was just beginning to break; the fire was little more than a faint glow when Heyes turned onto his back and looked across the campsite. Kid was muttering incomprehensively again as he slept. Heyes looked at the figure lying beside him, threw back his side of the blanket and stood up. Elizabeth wrapped the blanket around her and turned on her side.

“Will you shut him up, I’m trying to sleep.”

Heyes yawned, scratched at the stubble on his chin and crouched beside his friend. He placed a hand on Kid’s forehead. He was still running a slight fever. Kid mumbled again.

“Oh for Pete’s sake, smother him with a blanket will you!”

“You’re all heart, Elizabeth. I want to get his temperature down.”

“Throw him in the river.”

“Nice!” Heyes reached for a canteen, poured water over his bandana, wrung it out and returned to Kid’s side. He placed the damp bandana on his forehead, and then looked across at Elizabeth. She was sitting up now, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“I might as well get breakfast started. I don’t suppose we’ll be riding anywhere today.”

“Thanks.”

Elizabeth looked down at Kid and he shivered, his eyes opening.

“I’ll cook him something nice. Just don’t tell him I said that.” Before Heyes could respond she headed for the fire. Blue eyes locked onto Heyes’.

“Hey, Kid. How you doin’?”

“I’ve been better.”

***

“Hannibal, can you keep an eye on the coffee while I go and have a wash?” Elizabeth picked up her wash kit.

“Need a hand?” He gave her a wicked grin.

“If you’re offering.”

His eyes ran over her body.

“I might be.”

“Tempted huh?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Well you had your chance last night. Today I’m playing hard to get.”

“I can do hard.”

“I can vouch for that.” She turned away and headed for the river.

“Stay away from the edge over there, that bank looks unstable,” he warned. “And yell if you need anything.”

“Now I’m the one that’s tempted.” She sashayed away. Heyes shook his head and looked back at Kid. Two blue eyes studied him.

“What happened to your brains, Heyes?”

Kid turned and groaned as the bullet wound made itself known. Since he’d woken Elizabeth had been charm itself, presenting him with breakfast, placing her blanket beneath his leg to support him as he sat up. If he didn’t know her better, he’d say she was feeling guilty. He’d dozed again as the others ate, waking this time to hear Heyes all mushy over Elizabeth.

“How you feeling?”

“How d’you think I feel?”

“You sure are proddy.”

“Well what d’you expect, I got shot?”

“Want some coffee?” Heyes pointed to the pot.

Kid eyed it suspiciously.

“Did you make it?”

“What if I did?”

“I’m suffering enough.”

“Elizabeth made it.”

“Have you had any?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Just checking she didn’t put poison in it.”

“D’you want some or not?”

“I’ll have some.” Kid watched as Heyes poured a cup. “Where’d she go?”

“Washing. Why the interest?”

“I want to know where she is at all times so she’s never behind me.” Kid sat up. “Sheesh, Heyes I’m not gonna be able to ride today.”

“We already figured that out.”

Heyes handed Kid the cup and waited as his friend took a sip.

“You know this is pretty good.”

“D’you think you’ll be up to riding tomorrow? We’re running low on supplies and I want the doctor to take a look at you.”

“I doubt it, but Heyes I don’t need…”

“Yes, you do.” He reached forward to feel Kid’s forehead. “Your temperature’s back to normal but I still want you checked over.”

Kid knew it was pointless to argue.

“Okay Ma, but it won’t be for a day or two, we got enough to last us?”

“I’ll make sure we do.”

Kid looked around.

“Where’s my gun?”

“Over there. I cleaned it for you.”

“You cleaned my gun?”

“I know how to clean a gun.”

“I know you do but…”

“But what?”

“Nothing.” Heyes waited. “It’s my gun, Heyes. I hafta know it’s been cleaned prop…I mean cleaned the way… The way I like it cleaned. I mean it’s as if I shuffled your cards for you. Maybe creased an edge by mistake. You wouldn’t like that would you?”

“It’s all right. It didn’t take me too long to oil it, clean out the chambers, wash the bullets, polish the butt…”

“Wash the bullets?”

Heyes smiled.

“Elizabeth’s right. It’s just too easy.”

***

“I don’t see why we can’t leave him here and ride into Farlow’s Cross.” Elizabeth paced back and forth beside the river as Kid walked up and down testing his leg.

“I am not abandoning my partner, Elizabeth.”

“He can’t ride and it seems crazy for us to have to spend another night or more on the hard ground when we could be sleeping in a comfortable hotel bed today.”

“Kid can’t ride because you shot him! Don’t you think you owe it to him to…”

“I don’t OWE him anything. It was an accident.”

“I am here you know!”

They both turned to face Kid. He walked towards Elizabeth as she plucked a leaf off a bush over hanging the river and screwed it into a ball in frustration.

“If you want to go into town, go.” He looked at Heyes. “I can take care of myself. Go with Elizabeth. I’ll ride in when I feel up to it.”

“No.” Heyes was adamant as he strode back to the fire. “We stay together.”

“Well, I think we should…” Elizabeth’s words were cut off by a scream – her own – as the river bank suddenly gave way beneath her feet and she went tumbling. Seeing her fall, Kid made a grab for her, his foot slipped and he followed her into the fast flowing water.

“KID!”

From the bank Heyes could see Elizabeth, arms flailing as she was carried downstream. Kid swam desperately to catch up with her. Heyes ran to his horse, jumped on it bareback and set off along the bank, searching for a way to help his friends.

***

As he rode around the bend, Heyes scanned the water anxious for a glimpse of Kid or Elizabeth. Finally he spotted Kid clinging to a fallen branch that jutted out into the water. He had Elizabeth’s hand in a firm grip. Kid slowly pulled her closer as she kicked against the current.

“HOLD ON!” Heyes yelled.

“What do you think I’m doing?” Kid muttered as he gave a tug and pulled Elizabeth into his arms. “See if you can make your way along the branch.”

“All right.” She grabbed hold of the branch and looked towards the shore.

Heyes appeared on the river bank, an arm stretched out towards them. He smiled.

“You two finished your swim?”

“That’s not funny, Heyes. Just get us out.”

“Grab hold of my hand.” He held it out towards Elizabeth.

“I’m not letting go of this branch!”

“I’ll pull you up.”

“And what stops you from falling in?”

“Will you just do as you’re told for once woman!” Kid yelled from behind her. “Grab his hand!”

“No need to shout.”

“I’m losing my grip here, so will you please take his hand!”

“All right! All right!”

Elizabeth tightened her grip on the branch and reached out her other hand towards Heyes. Their fingers were a hair’s breadth away. He stretched again as the current pulled at her.

“Reach!” Heyes told her. “I almost have you. Elizabeth!”

“I’m…try…ing.” Her hand was tantalisingly close, but the water was pulling her away from him. “Hannibal!” They heard the branch creak and then SNAP! It dropped heavily into the water, carrying Elizabeth and Kid downstream with it. Elizabeth’s eyes met his as the current carried them away

“DAMN!”

Heyes ran back to his horse.

***

Heyes pulled his horse to a halt. There was no sign of Kid or Elizabeth. The water was flowing fast as the river ran into a canyon, the walls too steep to traverse. He’d have to follow the river’s course and hope his friends made it out the other side. When he did, assuming they were still alive and unharmed, they’d need their horses. If. There was no more he could do to help them. Heavy hearted Heyes stared at the raging water then came to a decision and headed back to their camp.

***

Kid Curry lay on his stomach on the river bank, breathing heavily. Elizabeth sat beside him. They were both soaked to the skin. Elizabeth made a vain attempt to straighten her hair before giving up. She squeezed it then let it hang wet and bedraggled about her shoulders.

“You all right?” Kid asked.

“Yes. You?”

“Terrific.”

They had been swept into the canyon before the current, thankfully, slowed enough enabling them to swim to shore. There was no way Heyes would be able to reach them here. They had only one option and that was to walk out. Well, maybe there was another option but he couldn’t see either of them wanting to swim for it. Kid gave a heavy sigh.

“You wouldn’t listen would you? Keep away from the edge Heyes said, but oh no you had to ignore him and now look what’s happened.” He glared at her. Elizabeth smiled.

“You really are gorgeous when you’re angry.”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“I know.”

Kid clambered to his feet and groaned, grabbing the back of his leg. He held out a hand.

“Come on.”

Elizabeth took his hand and he helped her to her feet.

“We’ll have to walk out of here.”

“Oh great, in wet shoes.”

“You could always take ‘em off.”

“I am not taking my shoes off!”

“Then stop complaining.”

“Oh that’s charming.”

“I am not trying to be charming! I am trying not to strangle you!”

“Please don’t tell me you think this is my fault.”

“Well it sure ain’t mine!”

“I didn’t fall in deliberately. I didn’t ask you to try to rescue me, did I?”

“No, you didn’t but you’re responsible for the way I feel right now.”

“Oh, and just how are you feeling?”

“In pain!” Without another word he limped off along the river. Elizabeth watched him for a moment, then walked swiftly to catch up.

***

Heyes gathered up their things and stuffed them into saddle bags all the time hoping that he’d see Kid and Elizabeth again, alive and well. He didn’t expect them to escape the waters unscathed and wondered how Kid would fair when he was already injured. They could both swim which was something to be positive about. He threw the saddle bags over Kid’s horse, then turned for the rest of their gear. Kid’s hat lay on the log where he had left it. Picking it up Heyes turned it in his hand a time or two then looped the stampede string over his own saddle horn.

***

“How far do you think we’ll have to go before Hannibal can reach us?” Elizabeth asked as she clambered over another boulder.

“Not until we get out of this canyon. There was a place to cross we passed on the way to the mine. I reckon we’ll be spending the night here. Not quite the fancy hotel room you were hoping for.”

“That’s just great. Why couldn’t Hannibal have jumped in after me instead of you? At least that would be a bonus!”

“Can’t say I’m feeling too pleased about being stuck with the woman who shot me either!”

“You know that was an accident.”

“Really? Sure you weren’t trying to get me outta the way so you could have Heyes all to yourself?”

“Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?” She gave him a shove in the back. “You know I could turn you in for the reward then whisk Hannibal off to South America. We could raise tiny Hannibals together on the pampas.”

Kid shot her a look over his shoulder.

“D’you ever share these ideas with Heyes?”

“You don’t think he wants me?”

Kid laughed.

“No comment.”

“That $10,000 is looking awfully tempting.”

“D’you want to get outta here or not?” He shot her another look.

“I love that gunfighter’s glare. Those big blue eyes all full of anger and manly strength.”

“Sheesh!”

Kid strode on and Elizabeth smiled, watching his butt in the wet jeans. To check on the wound, of course.

They clambered over boulders, slid on algae covered rocks and climbed over fallen trees trunks with their projecting roots. Kid cried out a couple of times when he hit his leg but Elizabeth showed considerable restraint and didn’t say a word. As dusk fell they still had a long way to go. Elizabeth tripped and grazed her knees and Kid was feeling grumpy as his damp clothes clung to him and the wound throbbed painfully. At one point they’d had to re-enter the water to negotiate a rocky outcrop. Once again they were soaked through. When they found a wide sandbank Kid suggested they stop there for the night. He gathered together some drift wood and pulled some matches from his pocket. Kneeling down he struck one. Nothing happened. Discarding it he tried another. Still nothing. He withdrew a third.

“Oh give up, they’re wet they’ll never light! We’re going to freeze to death out here!” Elizabeth sat down heavily on a boulder. Kid looked at her then tried another match. Nothing. He tried another. There was a sudden flare of light and he quickly held it against some small pieces of bark. There was a crackle and a whisper of smoke rose. Elizabeth rushed to his side. Kneeling down she held her hands out to the flames.

“You know, sometimes you’re not as dumb as you look,” she told him.

Kid smiled.

“Thanks.”

“I could kiss you.” She looked at him. “Oh what the heck!” Grabbing his face in her hands, she pressed her lips firmly against his mouth. When she pulled away he looked stunned but not horrified. Elizabeth smiled. “See, it didn’t kill you and you didn’t turn back into a frog.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing.” She ruffled his hair. “You really are sweet.” Sitting back she reached down and unfastened her boots. When she had removed them she began to undo the buttons on her blouse.

“Hey! Just ‘cos we kissed…!” Kid protested.

“Oh you wish! Listen blondie, you may light me a fire but you’re no Hannibal Heyes!”

“Meanin’?”

She gave him a look. He understood.

“I’ve had plenty of compliments in that department! I know how to satisfy a woman.”

“Yeah, leave the room!”

His mouth dropped open. Elizabeth shook her head.

“It’s just too easy.”

“I was just raised to be polite to a lady.” She pulled off her blouse and Kid quickly turned away. Suddenly a wet stocking was draped over his shoulder. He sighed. A second stocking fell on his other shoulder.

“Elizabeth, cut it out.”

He removed them and placed them over a rock to dry. Something lacy fell in front of him.

“Elizabeth!” He spun around and caught sight of more flesh than he expected to. “Sheesh woman!” He turned swiftly away.

“Like you’re always telling me, nothing you ain’t seen before and I have no intention of freezing to death in wet clothes.” He heard her approach and two bare arms slipped around him. She pressed herself against his back and whispered in his ear. “You can turn around if you want.”

“I’ll pass on that thanks.”

Elizabeth smiled.

“Don’t you want to get out of your wet clothes?”

“Not right now.”

“Nothing I ain’t seen before.”

He sighed.

“You could catch pneumonia.” She pulled his damp shirt away from his body. “I promise not to look. We can sit with our backs to the fire and each other. You should make sure that wound is kept dry. I saw blood on your leg. What do you say?”

“I know your promises.”

“I’ll turn my back. Trust me.”

“Ha!”

“Unless you want me to take a closer look at that wound?”

“No.”

“Suit yourself.”

She moved away and he peered over his shoulder. She sat as promised, her bare back to the fire. Kid followed the curve of her spine down to…Sheesh. He looked away. He was cold and his clothes might dry if…Yeah, if. This was Elizabeth after all and he wouldn’t trust her not to look. He shivered. Okay maybe just this once. He pulled his shirt and Henley from the waist band of his pants. He tugged off his boots and socks and then, standing up, pulled his shirt and Henley over his head. He shivered against the cool evening air.

Elizabeth cast a quick peek over her shoulder and saw him laying out his clothes on the rocks. She smiled.

“Need a hand?” she asked. He looked up but her back was still towards him.

“I can manage thanks.”

“Do you want me to look at your wound?”

“No.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.”

He removed his gun belt, placing it on the ground then unbuttoned his pants.

“Do you think you’ll get your amnesty?”

“What?”

“I’m making conversation to put you at your ease.”

“Oh, right.”

“So, do you?”

“I don’t know. I’m beginning to doubt it.”

“Why?” Elizabeth turned round just as he pushed down his pants and long johns and stepped out of them.

“Elizabeth!” Kid turned away.

“Sorry, I forgot.” She smiled and turned her back again. “You’re safe now.”

He watched her, making sure she wasn’t about to turn round again and then lay his pants and underwear beside his other clothes. Elizabeth was right, there was blood on his pants. He sat down carefully, his back to the flames. The warmth felt good. He undid the bandage Heyes had fixed around his leg.

“OW!”

“You alright?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s your leg?”

“Bleeding.”

“I could…”

“NO!”

“All right. I’ll just sit here and listen to you whimper.”

Kid removed the bandage and twisted to examine the wound. Several of the stitches had broken. He took a deep breath. He’d have to dry the bandage out before he could use it again. Kid threw the bandage over a rock and reached for his gun belt. He needed to check his gun.

They sat there, backs to each other and the fire, as the heat dried their bodies and warmed their bones. Kid had to admit it had been a good idea and with luck they would soon have dry clothes too.

“Can I turn around?” Elizabeth asked, after they had been sitting there for some time. “My back’s dry and I’d like to dry my clothes.”

“All right.”

Kid could hear her moving about. She held up her stockings to the flames. It didn’t take long to dry them. She pulled them on and then held up her under-drawers. As they dried, her eyes fell on Kid’s bare shoulders then followed the ridges of his spine down to a firm bottom. She smiled as she slid into her drawers, resisting the urge to comment.

“How you doin?” he asked.

“Just fine.” She smiled, holding out her chemise to the fire. When it was dry she slipped it on. “I could dry that bandage if you pass it to me.” He pulled it from the rock, turned and threw it. Catching it, Elizabeth held it towards the flames.

“Here,” she called a few minutes later. He turned slightly as she curled it into a ball and threw it to him.

“Thanks.”

“My pleasure, Mister Curry.”

As Kid tied the bandage around his leg, Elizabeth reached for her blouse. It was still damp so she held it towards the flames. She took a closer look at Kid. Her eyes fell on the scars of old wounds, remembering similar ones on Hannibal’s body. They were both lucky to be alive and yet were still pursued by men all too willing to kill them, without a second thought, for money. Despite their crimes they were good men, with good hearts. Men she trusted even though they didn’t always trust her. She looked at Kid’s skin again and smiled. They were good looking men too.

“Oh no!”

“What?” Kid asked.

“SHOOT!”

“What?”

“FIRE!”

Swiftly Kid grabbed his gun then turned to see Elizabeth holding up her blouse. It was on fire. She threw it to the ground and without thinking Kid stood up, grabbed it and began beating it against a rock. When the fire was extinguished he held the blouse up. There was a large hole burned in the centre.

“Oh damn!” Elizabeth took the blouse from him and her eyes fell on Kid’s naked body. Her eyebrows rose, mischievously and he turned quickly away. “Oh Kid, don’t be silly. Now I really have seen everything. Come and get warm and I promise not to stare. Or compare you to Hannibal.”

He stood perfectly still.

“Not that there’s much to compare.” She smiled as he glared at her over his shoulder then grabbed his Henley and used the sleeves to tie it around his waist, preserving what was left of his dignity. He tested his underwear and finding them still damp, turned and, kneeling, held them towards the fire.

“Woman, you will be the death of me.”

“You sweet-talkin’ me again, cowboy?”

She received a blue-eyed glare.

***

Just before nightfall Heyes made camp, and then settled down with his back against a tree, sipping on a cup of coffee as he looked up at the stars. His thoughts were filled with images of his friends dragged down river by the current. Kid was a strong swimmer and he had no doubt that if they made it to shore he would be able to look after them. If was just that little word…If. Kid was injured and Elizabeth was encumbered by all those layers of clothes. As a coyote howled he set down his coffee and closed his eyes, not expecting to get much sleep.

***

As night fell, Elizabeth sat in her underwear and stockings. Her riding skirt was still too damp to wear. Kid had managed to dry his long johns but everything else was still damp. Despite having seen just about all he had to hide, Elizabeth had turned her back when he pulled on his underwear.

A chill wind blew through the canyon and Elizabeth shivered.

“Kid?”

“What?” He had avoided her eyes for most of the evening.

“I was going to try and get some sleep.”

“Good idea.”

“I’m still cold.”

“Yeah. I wish we had some blankets too.” Kid stepped towards her. “Here.” He held out his shirt. “It’s dry now. Put it on.”

“What about you?”

“I have my Henley.”

“But that’s still damp.”

“Just take it, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth took the shirt and shrugged into it.

“Thank you.” She did up the buttons. “Are you tired?”

“I guess.” He looked at the flames, stifling a yawn.

“So why don’t we both try and get some sleep?”

“I will.”

“We could lie down together.”

His head shot up, his eyes on hers.

“For warmth,” she clarified.

“Oh, I know your ‘lying down together for warmth’.”

“I won’t take advantage of you.” Kid raised his eyebrows. “You know it makes sense to share bodily warmth.”

Kid sighed.

“What do you say?”

“Just as long as that’s all we’re sharing.”

“So?”

“So, I am exhausted and in pain, which must be why I’m gonna agree with you.”

He stood up and limped around the fire towards her. Elizabeth lay on the ground and smiled as she patted the space beside her. Kid eased himself down and turned onto his side, his back to her. He placed his hands beneath his head for a pillow. He hoped she’d let him sleep.

“Thank you, for the shirt.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You’re very sweet sometimes.”

“Thanks.”

“Kid why don’t we…?”

“Elizabeth.”

“What?”

“Go to sleep.”

***

Heyes couldn’t sleep. He was anxious to find Kid and Elizabeth but it would be almost impossible at night. That didn’t stop him worrying about them. He’d made camp, lit a fire, made coffee and chewed on some disgusting jerky. He’d dozed but his dreams had been filled with disturbing images of broken bodies lying amongst boulders or drifting in the current towards un-navigable rapids. Now as he lay staring up at the stars a sudden thought entered his mind and he smiled. If they were safe and unharmed, he hoped Elizabeth was behaving herself. That woman sure did like to tease his partner and Kid had already suffered enough.

***

A coyote howled, the river tumbled by and the ground was hard. Elizabeth couldn’t sleep. She knew Kid was still awake by the sound of his breathing.

“What are you thinking?” Elizabeth asked as she lay facing Kid’s back.

“What makes you think I’m thinkin’?”

“A woman can tell.”

“Hmph.”

“So?”

“I was just wondering how come whenever I’m alone with you I seem to end up naked.”

Elizabeth smiled.

“Just your subconscious desire for me surfacing, I guess.”

“Elizabeth, me and you is never gonna happen.”

“You can deny it all you want, Kid, but I can see it in your eyes.”

“There’s nothing in my eyes.”

Elizabeth leaned over him and placed her hand on his bare chest.

“Then it’s in your heart.”

He turned his head and their eyes met. She moved nearer, her lips tantalisingly close to Kid’s mouth. Each felt the other’s breath on their skin.

“It’s never gonna happen.” He turned away from her. Elizabeth patted his arm and smiled. Her hand drifted lower, touching the wound at the top of his leg. Kid flinched, covering her hand with his.

“Don’t.”

“Does it still hurt?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know. Now can we at least try and get some sleep?”

“Can I tell Hannibal we slept together?”

Kid sighed.

“Tell him whatever you want as long as we can sleep now.”

“You’re not worried he’d call you out for sleeping with his woman?”

“So you’re his woman now?”

“You don’t think I am?”

“I’m too tired to know what to think.”

“Don’t you think I want to be Hannibal’s woman?”

“I don’t think you know what you want but I do know Heyes likes you. Although I have no idea why.”

Elizabeth kissed his cheek.

“I quite like you, you know.”

“You’ve got one heck of a way of showing it. Now can we please get some sleep?”

“All right. Goodnight, Kid.”

“Goodnight, Elizabeth.”

After a few moments she felt his body relax, his breathing deepened into the steady rhythm of sleep and he released her hand. She placed a gentle kiss on his shoulder and rested her head on his body as she whispered, “What if I wanted you?”

***

Heyes was awake before sunrise. He quickly cleared away the camp, saddled his horse then set off along the riverbank as the sun broke over the mountains. Today, one way or another, he’d find out what happened to his friends. A knot tightened in his gut and he suppressed dark thoughts.

***

As soon as they were dressed, Kid and Elizabeth made their way along the riverbank. In dry clothes the task was no less arduous but it was a lot more comfortable. Kid decided it would be best if he led the way with Elizabeth watching where he placed his feet and then mirroring his moves.

“Do you think Hannibal will be waiting for us?” Elizabeth caught hold of the hand Kid offered. He pulled her up onto a boulder.

“He will be, once he realises there’s no other way to help us.”

“I’m sorry you won’t get any money.”

“We’re used to that.”

“Meaning?”

She jumped down into his arms.

“We seem to have a gift of taking jobs we never get paid for.”

“You have me in your arms.”

“Don’t get excited.” He set her aside.

“Do you ever want to go back to robbing…?” A rumbling sound stopped her mid-sentence. They looked up just as a cascade of stones tumbled down the hillside, followed by larger boulders and rocks.

“MOVE!” Kid yelled, grabbing hold of her hand and pulling her along. The rock fall continued. Debris and dust hit them, some painfully. A large stone hit Kid’s back, momentarily winding him. When he realised there was no escape from the landslide, Kid pulled Elizabeth towards an overhang. He heard her cry out, and then he pushed her to the ground, covering her with his body. He placed his hands over his head as a thundering wall of rocks, stones, and dust landed beside them.

***

Heyes heard the rumbled of the rock fall and urged his horse on. There was a gully leading down to the river up ahead and it was his best chance of reaching his friends. He couldn’t take the horses down there but he’d climb down and search for them. He needed to see them both safe.

***

When the dust finally cleared, rocks and boulders were piled beside them. If it hadn’t been for the overhang, they would have been buried beneath the land slide.

“You alright?” Kid was still lying on top of Elizabeth. He pushed himself up. “Elizabeth?”

Again there was no reply. The woman had not moved. Kid eased off her body, giving her a slight shake.

“Elizabeth? C’mon don’t mess around.” He leaned closer and the sight of blood on her forehead, startled him. “Oh, no! Elizabeth? Sweetheart?”

Gently he moved her hair aside, revealing a nasty looking bruise and a small, bloody cut. Elizabeth stirred and groaned.

“Take it easy.”

“Oh, my head.” She touched her forehead, as she raised herself onto her knees. Kid placed a hand on her arm.

“Easy. Take it slow.”

“I feel sick. Oh, my head hurts.”

Kid removed his bandana.

“Let me see.” Elizabeth sat back on her heels as he placed the bandana on the wound. She flinched but did not pull away. Her eyes met his.

“Is it bad?”

“No, bruised and cut but nothing too deep.”

“Guess I won’t need stitches then.”

He smiled.

“I guess not.”

“No chance to get your own back.”

“Not yet.”

She took the bandana from him.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“It makes a change. You’re usually the one that’s bleeding.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes waiting for the nausea to pass.

“How bad does it hurt? D’you feel sick? Dizzy?”

“Sick, yes and a splitting headache.” She looked at the rubble. “We were lucky.”

“Yeah.”

Elizabeth smiled and looked at him questioningly out of the corner of her eye.

“Did you call me, Sweetheart?”

Kid shifted awkwardly.

“You didn’t respond to Elizabeth.”

“So you did call me, Sweetheart?”

“I was trying to get your attention.”

She smiled wickedly at him.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Hannibal. It’ll be our secret.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I called the mule, Sweetheart.”

“HELLO!” a man’s voice called.

Kid got to his feet and moved to the water’s edge. He looked up, searching for the caller.

“HEYES?”

“KID? ELIZABETH?”

“HEYES! WE’RE DOWN HERE!” Shielding his eyes with his hand, Kid scoured the top of the cliff for a sign of his friend. He spotted a familiar silhouette. His partner waved.

“YOU OKAY?”

“ELIZABETH’S HURT.”

“BAD?”

Kid looked at her.

“Tell him I’m fine.”

“NO, SHE CAN STILL TALK! SHE SAYS SHE’S FINE!”

“THERE’S A GULLY FURTHER DOWNSTREAM. I THINK YOU CAN CLIMB UP THERE.”

“OKAY.” Kid turned back to Elizabeth. “Did you hear that?”

“Hard not to the way he was shouting.”

“D’you think you can stand?”

“It’s my head that’s hurt, not my feet.” She stood up quickly, swayed and he caught hold of her. Elizabeth looked surprised by her own weakness, and then smiled when she found herself in Kid’s arms. “I’m feeling so much better now you’re holding me. I think I may have to stay like this for a while longer.” She rested her head on his shoulder.

“You’re shameless.”

“Thank you.”

“Wouldn’t you rather be with Heyes?”

“And miss out on this?”

He held her until she felt stronger.

She pushed away from him.

“Let’s go, Blondie.”

***

Heyes stood at the top of the gully, watching as Kid and Elizabeth made their way towards it. From what he could see Elizabeth didn’t look too badly impaired by whatever injury she had sustained. As he watched her, he realised she was wearing Kid’s shirt. He couldn’t wait to hear their explanation for that. When they reached the gully, Kid took a few moments to study it, searching for hand and footholds and a possible route to the top. Confident that they could make it, he returned to Elizabeth, who had settled herself on a rock.

“How you feeling?”

“Okay.”

“D’you think you can make it up there? It won’t be an easy climb.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Not really. I could go along the river and see if there’s another way.”

“No, I’ll do it.” She stood up.

He smiled, reassuringly.

“You’ll be fine.” Kid held out his hand and she took it. Although still unsteady on her feet, she followed him to the base of the cliff. Kid caught hold of an outcrop in the rock and hauled himself up. He rested on a ledge and turned back to Elizabeth.

“Put your foot there,” he pointed and she did as he suggested. “That’s it. Now give me your hand.”

Elizabeth grabbed his hand and he pulled her up beside him, holding her close.

“You have your arm around me again, Kid.”

“Save your breath for climbing.”

He set off again. Kid climbed and helped Elizabeth follow. Slowly they made their way through the scrub and up the narrow gully to where Heyes was waiting. When Kid next looked up, there was a hand held out before him. Gratefully he caught hold and Heyes pulled him up and over the edge.

“Thanks.” Kid turned to help Elizabeth over the ledge.

“Oh, Hannibal!” she cried, flinging herself into his arms. Heyes took a step back to steady himself as Elizabeth hugged him tight.

“Are you alright?” He looked at the bruise on her forehead.

“I am now that you are here,” she gushed as she hugged him. “Just hold me, Hannibal.”

Heyes obliged. Over her shoulder he met Kid’s gaze and his partner rolled his eyes.

“She’s wearing your shirt.”

“Yeah.”

“Anything you want to tell me?”

“Nope.”

“Okay.”

Elizabeth pushed away from Heyes.

“That’s it? I’m wearing another man’s clothes and you just accept it?”

“Kid said there’s nothing to tell.”

“And you believe him?”

“Of course.”

“I have been alone all night with another man. We slept together!”

“You actually let him get some sleep?”

Kid smiled.

“You two are incorrigible.”

Heyes took her hands in his.

“I trust my partner. And I know how he feels about you.”

She thumped him on the arm.

“Weren’t you worried about me?”

“Of course I was.” This seemed to satisfy her. Heyes turned to Kid. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s the leg?”

“Sore.”

“I’ll set up camp and make us some coffee.”

“Terrific. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse.”

***

The fire glowed brightly as Heyes removed the coffee pot. Kid lay back against a boulder, his body turned to one side to take the pressure off his leg. He took the cup Heyes handed him with thanks.

“It seems we’ve all been a little bruised,” Elizabeth observed as Heyes sat down beside her. She wore a clean blouse taken from her saddlebags. “How’s your head?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

“Not bad. You?”

“The same.”

“My leg still hurts like hell in case either of you are interested.”

“Of course we are, Kid.” Heyes had re-bandaged his friend’s leg earlier. Kid turned to face them.

“So what’s the plan for tomorrow?”

“You up to riding?”

“On my belly over the horse? Can’t wait.”

“We could stay here another day.”

Kid shot a glance at Elizabeth.

“Staying put’s too dangerous with her around.”

Elizabeth opened her mouth to say something..

“Then we head back to Farlow’s Cross, agreed?” Heyes looked at her.

“Is that where you put me on a train and send me back home?”

“If that’s what you want?”

“Hannibal, you know exactly what I want.”

“Oh, sheesh, don’t you two start that again.”

Heyes turned to Elizabeth.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m not sure I want to go home immediately. Where are you headed?”

Kid turned quickly.

“Oh no! Don’t even think about it!”

“About what?” Elizabeth feigned innocence.

“Riding with us.”

“What a brilliant idea, Kid. Why I never would have thought of that. You’re not as dumb as you look are you? We could be like the three musketeers.”

“Weren’t they all men?”

“Then we can be like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I’ll be Etta Place. They’re after two men riding alone, not a happily married couple and their…Their…” She searched for the appropriate description. “Servant.”

Blue eyes narrowed. Kid turned to his partner.

“Heyes tell her, no.” His friend kept quiet. “Heyes?”

“Kid, you know she may have a…”

“NO!”

“But, Kid…”

“NO!”

“Don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea. After all…”

“NO!”

The End….for now

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