Chapter One

On The Horses' Reins

My name is Webb Valentine.

It is now, at least.

You see, when my family moved out west back in the '60s, we weren't expecting much. That being said, we didn't know there was so much that we could lose.

My grandfather, Joshua Carter II, was a southern man, who dreamed of going west to bigger and better things rather than enlisting and going to war with the Union. He married my grandmother for love, or so I've been told by my ma. A poor woman by inheritance, she was more'n obliged to follow my rich Grandpappy around the world. His comrades told him that the only way a man could make a dollar anymore was by investing in land, as more and more territories opened up by the day. Getting a grip on the horse's reins, he used to call it. They said; go west, and buy up what you can get. The war was ripping apart the East coast at the seams, and a lot of folks sought to get around the danger by means of travel. Unfortunately, the Southern army was headed that way too, fightin' back and forth with the Yanks to get a hold of Arizona Territory. Folks thought that us Southern Pioneers would be safe though. Pretty soon, my Grandparents were situated on a stead in New Mexico Territory in a place called Elizabeth. When they died, they left the property to my father, Joshua Carter III, who married my Ma, Eleanor Valentine. Her family were carpetbaggers, but she'd left home after becoming orphaned as a young girl.

Around the time my brother was born, there was a brief period of prosperity that came with railroad tracks.

I have been told that my father used to be among the most decent of gentlemen, of the best stock, and ne'er did an ill word pass his lips, nor a violent swing come from his hands. This is not the man I remember, though. Perhaps it was a string of bad crop harvests and poverty that triggered a change in character, or perhaps he turned to drink to escape some other thorn in the flesh, but the man I remember was foul-tempered and ill-mannered. He let the remainder of our crops wither away and die, and our home soon fell to a ramshackle state.

My part of the story starts on a hot day in August, in Lincoln County.

It was two weeks to the day, since Ma had died. We buried her out back under the big oak yonder. We stood beneath its shady boughs there in our Sunday best, faces scrubbed and shaved, to honour her and pass a prayer through our lips. Peter had the family bible in his hand, open to the Psalms. Neither of us had been to the services since Ma's funeral. Nobody had attended it, 'cept Peter, the Preacher, and me.

You see, before she married my Pa, my Ma had been what they call a 'not-so-nice' girl, which is what polite folks say when everyone knows they're talking about a whore. When she died, folks suspected that she deserved it, from some nasty disease caused by sins of the flesh. Whatever the ailment, it was a fever that took her finally, although I suspect that grief may have played a hand.

The Preacher told us that we could only hope for the best, his meaning being that it better be a cold summer in hell.

"My cup is well filled." Read my brother, as he closed the holy book.

A warm breeze blew over the grave, disrupting the daisies we'd placed there. The day was much too hot for our black coats and trousers.

"Amen." We said in union, and turned to go back to the house. It's a big old thing that once was filled with the sounds of laughter, but now looked decrepit and empty. We'd no choice but to stay there, it being in the family and all. The land was worthless to us though; dry and parched as it is. The flowers and herbs in the garden used to be so pretty, but they'd wilted and shrivelled up since Ma wasn't there to tend them. Without Pa, the cornfields became hopeless. Nothing there to harvest anymore 'cept rocks and tumbleweed.

Pa took off when I was a boy of thirteen, right after a fierce fire took most of the town. He left without a word, and no trace of him has been found since. It was all so unexpected, so devastating, that I truly have never forgiven him. I'll never forget the look on Ma's face, or the sobs that racked her chest when I came downstairs to see her at the kitchen table, and my father's rifle gone from the doorframe.

That day, we gave up our family name, in favour of Valentine, from Ma's side of the family. I used to hear things in town about 'the Carter boys', and it chilled me to the bone every time, bringing back bittersweet memories of the things I wished I could forget.

We hung our coats by the front door, and a little while later, we were on the porch eating what was left of the preserves from the cellar. We'd been surviving on canned peaches, pickled cucumbers, and pumpkin rind for two weeks. The juice dripped down my chin as I put away another slice of preserved fruit.

"Are you going to eat those sunflower seeds, brother? Or are you waiting for them to sprout a hedge?" Peter pestered me.

I tossed the burlap sack over into his lap saying that he can keep the whole bag if he wants. I had plenty of apricots and peaches and things to last me all day.

"I can see that." He said "And did you know those were from the last crop we harvested before the frost last winter?"

I'd almost forgotten, but he was right. My dinner was canned and sealed by Ma's own hand. I picked up the cap and screwed it on tight. Looking closely over the wax that sealed it, I could make out thumbprints from where it was pressed into the cracks and around the rim. I don't feel much like eating, anyhow, I thought suddenly, turning my attention back to the farm around me, and to how there used to be such a nice patch of green over there by the barn, that Peter and I would wrestle in when we were supposed to be getting eggs.

Up ahead on the dirt road that goes around our stead into town, the dust was rising in the heat. It was raising an awful lot, actually. I realised that those were hoof beats kicking up all that dust. My brother noticed it too, and cast a sharp eye out in the direction of the sound, as it got closer.

Four men and three chestnut horses were what caused the steady thumping on the road. The one in front rode a big dun. I recognised these gentlemen right away as being the Sheriff and his men. Sheriff Warwick is an easy man to detect in a crowd, always riding on his animal and looking down on you with his nose up in the air, sniffing out trouble. As he got closer, I could see that he was doing just that.

"What do you suppose he wants, Brother?" I asked Peter. Already I felt mighty pissed, and he could tell.

"Cool your fire, brother." He cautioned, squinting his eyes into the sun. "They probably just want to talk to us."

"I should hope as much." I said.

We stood on the porch as they dismounted, and the Sheriff came up to us with a ledger in his hand. The other three men were the Banker, Mr. Morris, and two deputies.

Mr Morris is a plump old man, pale from sitting in his office all day, in a tailored suit and a felt hat. Warwick on the other hand, is lean and brown, with a groomed moustache and a quick shooter hanging on his belt.

"Good day, boys." He said, tippin' his hat.

"G'day, Sheriff." I said.

"What can we do for you?" Asked my brother.

A brief glance was exchanged between the men, and Mr. Morris stepped forward, taking the ledger from Sheriff Warwick.

"I know this must be an incredibly difficult time for you boys, with your mother passing on and all…" He cleared his throat. "But it has come to our attention that the mortgage on this land of yours is ripe overdue to be paid."

Peter and I exchanged a confused look. What in the world was this man talking about?

Ain't no mortgage on our land, we thought. Pa inherited the deed more than twenty years ago, around the time my brother was born. I told them that and The Sheriff looked at me like I'm a regular moron.

"Son, this mortgage has been in place for the past twenty-four years. It's been officially paid for only the past seventeen." His voice carried a sad tone, but I could tell it weren't real. Peter knew too, but he was real respectful as he asked to the see the papers. I was surprised that he was so calm. I couldn't believe my ears as I was hearing all this.

Peter glanced over the black and white pages in Mr. Morris's leather ledger and furrowed his brow.

"What do you mean by 'officially'?"

The Sheriff tugged the ledger out of my brother's hands and closed it, shielding our eyes from its contents.

"The mortgage on this property was paid on a monthly basis for seventeen years. However, in the bank," He gestured toward Mr. Morris. "There is a savings account deposited with a large sum of money, five-thousand dollars to be exact…"

My mouth dropped open.

"…Which we, out of courtesy for your family, have been instructed to use to pay off the mortgage for the remainder of the time until it's paid off."

"And how long was this debt scheduled to be paid in?" Asked Peter.

"Thirty years." He answered grimly.

There was a brief pause, as I tried working out the numbers in my head. Six years from then I was but thirteen…

"However," Continued Warwick. "It's comes to our attention that since that time, there have been a large amount of debts incurred by the account holder—"

"My Father." I blurted out. Everyone shifted uncomfortably. His disappearance has been a touchy subject since it was made that way. Ma had at times held out hope for him, but I believe everyone else knew he was never coming back. Many times before have my brother and I been expressed sympathy from others, but it was never enough to quell our anger.

The Sheriff cleared his throat again, and said "That's right, son."

I clenched my fists and relaxed them, in my pockets where nobody could see. My brother's blue eyes had a tug of sadness at the corners as he soberly told the men that he understood.

"So I suppose you're going to tell us we have some money to pay now." I said.

Mr. Morris nodded, and proceeded to tell us that there is a sum of seven thousand eight hundred and nine dollars and twenty-five cents that needed to be paid.

All this might explain why I find myself in the middle of a god-forsaken patch of desert chasing after a scared stiff black mare, while Duke Ramsey and the rest of his renegade band scrounge their tiny brains for what out in here in the middle of nowhere passes for a plan.

I approach the wide-eyed pony carefully, keeping my weight nice and even, and try to get within a reasonable distance that I can throw a rope around her neck.

"Easy, girl." I whisper, but she doesn't seem to calm much. I take the hempen lariat and begin to gently spin it. I can see her tense up a bit, stiffening a little in the hot sun, but she lets me wrangle her all right, with nothing short of a few sharp whinnies.

"Come on back now." I say. "Let's get you back to your knucklehead rider."

I lead the mare back into the clearing of sage and dry grass where the bunch has stopped to rest. The whole lot of them are on horseback, except for Duke Ramsey, who stands impatiently with his arms crossed. My brother Peter, Eduardo Jimenez, Twist McAdams, and the new rookie, Casey Gunther, wait impatiently for me to bring the horse around so Duke can finish talking.

He's just in the middle of one of his 'master plans' that never seem to take shape exactly as he describes them. He gets real serious and we all sit and listen to him talk, like the good little boys we are. He seemed to be describing something about a decoy, when I stepped into the circle.

"So someone decided to join us." He says, snarky as ever. "Now listen carefully as I repeat the whole goddamn plan."

"Hey if it wasn't for your bushwhackin' this poor horse here I wouldn't have had to go anywhere!" I throw back at him, to which he swears at me and tells me to get off his animal.

"I never did aspire to be a cowpoke." He says.

"The only thing you're aspiring to be is an idiot." I say as I hop off and get on my own mount, a peaceful Grulla. I look over as I'm adjusting the reins, and see my brother glaring at me, warning me to watch my attitude. Peter never did do a good job of keeping me in line. Can't say I hold him accountable though, since I'm not very good at obeying.

Duke kind of brushes my comment off, like he's too tired to pick a fight with me. He always pulls this thing where when he knows he's beat, he suddenly becomes all responsible-like and refuses to converse with me if "I'm going to be so childish." He's a hypocrite if I ever saw one, which I have, probably enough to last me a lifetime.

"So what's the plan this time, Duke?" I ask him. He's slicking back his shiny brown hair and putting on his hat just right. He spits on the ground beside his horse, and proceeds to tell me that we're to halt the stage that's passing through here at noon, and have some 'confrontational conversation' with the driver and passengers, while we secretly unload the traveller's luggage in the back.

"You," Says Duke, pointing at me. "And Eddie," At the dark haired Mexican, "Will do us that honor.

It's always been like this; Duke being the big-shot leader and the rest of us poor idiots just along for the ride, doing his work for him so he don't get his hands dirty. I must admit, he is one authoritative son of a gun. I guess it's 'cause he comes from the South as well, except unlike Peter and I, he grew up there most of his life, and learned how to boss others around by his great and powerful daddy. Duke loves to talk about his past, you see. He plays up his history for us with all sorts of dramatic turns and airs, making himself seem rugged and experienced, but I suspect that he really lived a very plush and easy-going life. I'm trying to recount that day when we joined up with Duke's gang, as we're riding down the side of the mountain with our pistols in the air, making out presence known with a few loud shots into the sky. It's all routine for us, you see.

It was a cool day. We'd gone looking for a place to shelter us after it started to rain. Peter and I were scratching our heads, thinking of what we ought to do, what with the recent news of our Pa's mortgage, which I still couldn't quite figure out, and putting away a shot or two in Lenny's place way out in Arkansas.

You see, we'd picked up right away on a train to Georgia. We were hoping maybe we could do battle with Pa's relatives there for the money we needed, even though they're just as ravaged as we were for cash. We didn't end up getting that far though. As it happened, Duke's gang was hitching up there for a spell on the way to the bank. It also happened that they were short on men after a recent episode over the border, or so they said. I figure it's more likely the poor cowpokes just up and left, after working with Duke for long enough to be sick of him, which ain't very long indeed.

They were all sitting at this round table, while Peter and I were at the bar, and I was sort of half-heartedly listening to their conversation.

"…We could be rich, boys... Just leave it to me and we'll be rolling in gold... Only a short ride to the promised land, now." The leader was saying. Peter mumbled something about it being another bunch of would-be treasure hunters, but my ears perked up. I've always been interested in things of an adventurous nature, real or not. Peter used to read me stories of Camelot, from long, long ago, trying to teach me to cipher. I never was a very good pupil, but I can scrawl my name out if the need arises and read my bible decent.

Anyways, these boys were conspiring among themselves and such, and…

"Webb! You been into the apple jack or something? You look like your head's swimmin'. Get in position!" Hisses Duke. I spur my horse a little faster, and move her away from the group, which is approaching the frightened wagon train. It seems that the driver is attempting to outrun us, but we've been through that before, Duke is at their front, along with Casey and Twist, lassoing the horses to a stop. Actually, they miss, but the carriage horses stop anyways. Eddie and I are in back, trying to go unnoticed as all the animals come to a halt, and Duke slides out of the saddle to confront the driver.

"Excuse me sir," He says real easy, sidling up with his hands on his colts, one holstered at each side of his waist.

"We'd be real appreciative if you'd let go of the reins and put your hands in the air."

The small, spectacled driver does so.

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang is opening the passenger doors and asking for their purses and pockets to be emptied. The group consists of a few very old women, a middle aged man, and an attractive lady wearing black. I dismount around the back of the wagon and start pulling luggage off the top while Duke keeps the driver distracted. I'm looking for cash, stuffed into the toes of socks, or tucked away in the false bottoms of hatboxes.

Eddie goes through the varied cases of clothes and other items one by one, neatly going through stacks of folded shirts and books. He finds a neat little roll of one dollar bills in one of the women's trunks. My mind is far away, though.

"Come on, lady, what else do you have?" Duke says, pestering one of the older ladies. Twist McAdams is working on the younger woman. I watch as reluctantly, she removes a large onyx ring from her left hand. It's a piece of mourning jewellery.

I a little feel bad for her, but I don't say anything, just finish up the last suitcase and move around the side of the wagon. Twist gives the signal to Duke that's they're all done, and he tips his hat before telling the driver to move along. With seventeen dollars, a wristwatch, and the expensive black ring, we mount up again to take our booty somewhere safe.

This is what my life has become, since Ma has been dead. Just Peter and I, riding with the Duke Ramsey gang, robbing old ladies and widows, saving our pennies one by one.

Yesterday we hit the trail, after our stagecoach hold-up, departing for Clinton, Missouri, to cash in our spoils.

With our quest for the southwest, you'd think that we would be heading that direction, instead of continuing on the path that Peter and I set out on when we met the Ramsey gang, but as it happens, we're heading east, toward the coast, for what Duke refers to simply as 'mechanical stuff'.

Peter says he means engineering equipment; heavy cranks and levers and pulleys all that allow you to extract drill into the earth's surface to extract things of value, ores, or in our case, items of intrinsic value that we would have otherwise, no way of accessing.

Or something like that.

Peter's the smart one, on account of him reading so much. Ma insisted that we go to school, when it weren't harvesting or planting season, and he'd always borrow books from our teacher, Mrs. Wright. I have not spoken to that woman in many years, now, but I do not recall her ever liking me very much, on account of my asking too many questions during lessons.

We arrive in town after dark, around eight, so there's no getting any money out of the stuff we took until morning. Peter announces that he's tired, and that he's going to shack up in the Silver Dollar for the night.

"I haven't slept in a bed since Kansas." He says, swinging his coat over a broad shoulder, and heading off in the direction of the hotel. The rest of us convene downstairs in the saloon, so Duke and Twist can gamble away whatever money we've saved. I'm too poor to drink, and I don't feel lucky enough for the tables, so I sidle my way back out the door to see what fun is to be had elsewhere.

"Need a date, sir?" A blonde woman asks me on the way out.

"No thank you, miss, I don't have a penny to my name."

There's no good be had with them paid ladies, anyhow, I think. No offence to my dear Ma.

Outside, it's cool and still, just a tiny breeze there to sweeten up the evening.

A few folks are still returning to their homes, exiting from the hotel and such, but most are behind the dim panels of golden light that sit at the tops of houses, going about their business, whatever it may be.

In the morning, we'll have to make our way over to the pawnbroker and see what we can get for our stolen goods. I think back, momentarily, to the woman dressed in black, and wonder if she's sending a telegram to her folks now, about the lost treasure, and wondering how she'll carry on without that little reminder of her dead husband, or relative, or whoever the ring was for.

I don't like robbing folks the way Duke does. I don't think he really gives a damn whether they live or die. You know, Peter once read to me in one of those books of his the story of a man from Europe, or someplace, that robbed rich dukes and lords blind, and gave freely to the poor and deserving. Sometimes I think that I'd prefer to do that, but I don't know if our fearless leader would stand for it, and he's the one with the map, which is Peter and mine's only chance at getting our stead back, unless I wake up one day with 8,000 dollars under my pillow.

I retired last night on the floor in Peter's room at the Silver Dollar, after begging the host to let me upstairs. He wouldn't believe that I'd already paid for the room, which I kind of had, in a way, except it was my brother's room and he paid for it. I know I do a good amount of mooching off of him, but he don't seem to mind much.

I wake up with a twist in my neck from sleeping on the damn wooden floor, and a rattle in my bones. I suspect I must be getting old, 'cause I wake up feeling like it every morning. Peter tells me he already has grey hair coming in, so stop complaining, to which I cup my hand against my ear and shout, "What?" because I figure the next thing to go might as well be my hearing.

Twist is still resting downstairs, and Eddie is taking care of the horses. Peter decided to take breakfast in the dining hall. He is rather fond of his toast and tea in the morning, I will say. A real gentleman, I calls it. When we're out on the trail, we eat johnnycake, beans, and whatever animal one of us happens to shoot.

Duke goes over to the pawnshop with the ring, to do battle with the shopkeeper over what he can get out of it.

Fifteen minutes later, he storms out of there clenching his fist, and shouting the man inside to hell's gates and the lake of fire to be given over to all manner of unspeakable things by demons. Eddie, by the water trough, picking my horse's hooves, looks up with a sceptical face. I lean against the side of the building and lift my hat so I can see better.

Kicking up dust, Ramsey comes back over to the saloon.

"So what happened?" I ask doubtfully.

He dusts off his shirt and pants briskly, as if he's just come from an exhausting ride, and says with a long face, "He says it's a knockoff. Ain't worth nothing."

Count your blessings. At least the man is still breathing.

At least I should hope so.

"You didn't shoot at him, did you?"

"I sure as hell would have liked to! Does this look like anything other than fine black onyx to you?" He yells, unclenching a fist and holding up the item within.

"I wouldn't know, Duke." I say honestly. "Maybe you should ask Peter if he's got any books on fancy black rocks." I can't deny the hint of sarcasm in my voice. Duke gives me a sharp look and brushes it off. He's got much bigger things on his mind.

"This is a serious situation, Webb!"

"Yeah I know, I know." I say, standing up and brushing the grey dust off the seat of my pants. Really, I don't know why he's making such a fuss, though. I figure he'll cool down in a while.

"You don't understand, Webb," He says, and raises a finger to the building behind us.

"There's a man in there that's gonna gut us all if we don't get some greenbacks to him by ten o' clock."

Now that gets my attention.

"We've been in town for less than 12 hours and you already owe one of those cheats money?"

It's my turn to yell now.

"What the hell is wrong with you? Keep your fingers out of your wallet once in a while, and maybe those coins will be less inclined to jump out—"

"Listen, Valentine." Duke pokes a finger in my chest. "I wouldn't be talking if I were you, considerin' that debt you tell us about, but frankly, I don't think it's wise to let this drift into idle chit-chat now, considering the situation that we still have to take care of. I think we need to carefully—"

"We?" I ask. "I'm not the one that was throwin' my money away. You figure out some way to dig yourself out of this grave."

Then suddenly, another voice joins us from the second story window above.

"Or why don't you both come up hear and we can discuss this like reasonable men."

Once again, Peter is responsible for the prevention of certain death to one of us, though I swear someday, if not by me, someone else will get so fed up with that lousy weasel that they'll just have to kill him. I don't predict the future, but I can tell you it's sure to happen.

Peter is waiting for us in the hotel lobby with a pot of coffee. He said we were disrupting his morning with our bickering and shouting, or some such.

I never fail to feel like a fool when Duke and I get dragged into a witness with my older brother, so he can smack us with a ruler and make us remember what stubborn mules we all are.

"Now I couldn't help but overhear," He starts once we're comfortable, glancing up at us from the rim of his teacup. We were made quite the ruckus, I suppose. It's his silent way of telling us to cool it.

"…Overhear that we have a problem with a gentleman in the saloon."

"Well it would appear so, brother." I say.

"Yeah we're figuring out what to do about it, ain't we, Webb?"

I nod curtly, not wishing to disagree anymore, even if Duke is an idiot. A conniving, lyin', idiot…

I know Peter won't say anything from this point on, his peacemaking being done, so Duke is free to take the reigns once again, and tell us exactly how it's going to work out.

"Now I've got an idea, see?" He lowers his voice. "But I need all of us to hear it. I'll round up the others and we meet in that hotel room of yours."

My brother nods, and Duke departs to search for our missing members.

I turn to Peter languidly.

"So you think he actually has a plan?"

"No idea."

With the seven of us gathered around, curtains drawn, Duke can unveil his latest and greatest 'plan'.

"I know a gal down here at the bank. Real pretty. Russet red hair, nice legs…"

"We get the picture." Says Casey, annoyed. He is a jealous little thing.

"Right, so I'm thinking that if we ride over there now, we can get her to help us. An inside job, kind of."

"So we're going to rob the place?" Asks Eddie in his sleepy Spanish drawl.

"No of course not we're going to piss on it and carve our names into the woodwork."

Peter, who's strayed to the corner of the room, lifts out a long, sleek shotgun out of his bag, and begins to polish it with his tie.

The rest of us nod, as Duke gives us the orders. We don't have much time, it would seem, 'til Duke has to give back whatever money he lost to the fellow in the saloon. I'm beginning to think that maybe we work better when our hides are in danger, 'cause the more he elaborates on it, the more it seems this plan of Duke's here sounds like it might actually work. The way he sees it, we'll go in there with Duke, Twist, and me, while Peter is posted outside with a rifle, just in case anything goes wrong. Gunther is around the side of this shed over by the livery, holding the horses so we can make a quick getaway. I hope he can manage to sit tight and not become impatient and do something stupid. I hope he don't scare the animals and make a ruckus, either.

Duke's plan is that one of us will hold up the banker, while one of us gets the girl to open the safe for us. Twist is a real intimidating son of a gun, with his big old shiny fly rink head and long black duster, a repeater carbine tucked underneath, so he'll be the one staring everyone down with said weapon. I'll keep the customers busy, and make sure they stay good and put while Duke works his magic. I sure hope that gal is there.

Miss Millie Palmer

158 7th Street,

Allentown, Pennsylvania

My dear cousin,

How are you enjoying the East? I wonder if you are as lonesome without me as I am without you? There isn't really anyone here I can talk to, at least that listens, but I take comfort knowing that you'll always be there to give me a hearing ear, even if we can't lie up in the hayloft anymore, sharing secrets with the barn cats.

Father's business is doing well here, since you left. He plans to expand, if things keep up.

My sister and her dear husband are well, and settled comfortably in their home in town. We still see her often, but I fear for my father. He seems lonely, since her marriage last winter. Ever since my mother passed away, he's been struggling with the liquor, God bless him. However, I know he still cares for his family as much as ever, and that's why he works as hard as he does to provide for us.

That brings me to something else, which I must tell you with some embarrassment: I have been given an offer of marriage!

The suitor is one Guy Francis, deputy to the sheriff here in town. He is around thirty-five or so, I believe, but everyone says he is a kind, responsible man. I have been giving the matter some serious thought, and I must confess I am torn. If I leave home, I am afraid my Father would be too heartsick to cope one his own.

I trust I have your confidence in this matter, as always, and please, write to me soon, for I fear that before I receive a reply, I may be a bride!

With love,

Hattie Palmer

Clinton, Missouri

Chapter Two

Farm-boys and Vagabonds

My guns are strapped on, my coat is buttoned, my hat is tipped low, and my pockets are empty, but that's about to change.

I check to see that both cattleman revolvers are loaded and clean before slipping them back into their holsters.

"All set?"

"Almost," Says Twist. He clips the magazine into his rifle with a snap. "Alright. Let's go make us a pretty penny."

"Just so we can give it back to the man you riled up last night, Twist?" I sneer.

He furrows his brow and gets all defensive.

"That was none of my doing, Webb. You've got old Duke to blame for that. He's the one who decided to go after that girl with the 'pretty brown eyes', or so he said at the time."

"Hey!" Duke cuts him off. "That don't matter right now, what we got to focus on is doing our job."

Yeah, and we ain't none too good at that, neither. Good luck, boys.

"So let's get in there and get this over with."

"Whatever you say, Duke." I shake my head and push open the door.

Inside the bank, where it's cooler and a little dim on account of the lace curtains, there is a tall, lean man with a beard standing behind the teller booth. In front of him are a few townsfolk, doing business in an orderly fashion.

We enter without much notice, stepping in line for a moment like regular folks, while we wait for Duke's signal to draw our guns on the teller. Mr. Ramsey himself is kind of hanging back and looking a little pale. I can't help but think that that's mighty strange. Our fearless leader is never nervous.

Twist is in front, eyes fixed on his target, waiting for the time to strike.

I turn back to the man behind me and whisper: "Duke, is something wrong?" But he just puts his finger to his lips, wordlessly, keeping his gaze focused just like Twist. Everything seems to be in place, as far as I can tell. Behind the teller, a petite girl with fawn-colored hair in a white waist and pink skirt is counting bills into a cash register; Duke's acquaintance and the key to our success. She doesn't seem to see him yet, though.

The line inches forward, and as a middle-aged man passes us by with his exchanged currency.

Then, with a low whistle from Duke, Twist McAdams cuts in front of a woman in blue, steps forward and draws his gun, all in one fluid motion. At the same time, I turn around and put a colt to the other man's neck. The woman let's out a small, shocked wail.

"Calm down, lady." Twist says. For a moment, everything stays silent, as our display of weapons casts a quiet fear around the room, not only in the good people of Clinton, but in me as well, because the girl next to the teller isn't playing along, as Duke moves over to the booth window. Suddenly it seems, our plan has changed.

Duke moves right past her and confronts the teller, beside Twist.

"Sir," He says calmly. "I'd be mighty grateful if you would open up that there safe of yours so we can be on our way."

The old coot's eyes are strong and determined though, as he vigorously shakes his head 'no'.

Duke pulls back the hammer.

The man, with trembling fingers, takes a step toward the safe, which is in the corner far back enough for us to see. He kneels and puts a hand on the dial.

"Father, don't!" Yells the young lady, earning surprised glances from each of us. In Duke's eyes though, I see a spark. The spark of an idea.

Meanwhile, the woman I'm guarding is slipping away for help, but I catch it just in time, and take a large step backwards to block the doorway.

Thump!

Ow! Damn!

The door hits me square in the head, unexpectedly, as the source of the movement stomps into the room. He's clad in black chaps, leather vest, and a shiny metal badge.

This ain't never happened before. I begin to panic, and if Duke wasn't so good at being an angel-faced liar, he would be panicking too.

Twist swivels the nose of his gun in the direction of the lawman, a deputy, by the looks of him. I'm climbing off the floor from my little spill. Luckily, my gun didn't go off when I took the fall.

He looks a bit shocked, as his eyes quickly pass over the scene: Three outlaws, two civilians, and a banker and his assistant being held up at gunpoint on a Saturday morning. I wonder if they see a lot of that here.

The officer is a skinny kind of guy with a brown moustache and a big Adam's apple. He gulps and it bobs up and down.

"What the hell is this?" he asks, real slow.

"Sir, if you'll just cooperate for a minute, we'll be out of here just fine." Twist says in a low voice.

Stunned, the officer stares each and every one of us down, keeping his arms at his side. Where I stand, however, I can see his trigger finger just itching at that holster by his side, brushing the corduroy of his pants just below it, twitching in anticipation. I can tell he's going to try to shoot through the holster, though I can't see what good it'll do him.

Still, I got to act fast.

I make eye contact with Duke for a split second, and in doing so, tilt my head ever so slightly to his right. He gets my message, and faster than you can describe it, he hops over the counter like a deer and ducks down low.

Four shots ring out from the lawman's gun, and loud and whistling, and each one impales the polished wood countertop, leaving splinters in the air. As Twist and I point our guns at the officer, we suddenly become aware of the noise outside, and I take a step back towards the teller booths in preparation.

Sure enough, two more armed officials come busting in the door, wondering what the shooting's about. I figure that the first one must have heard something and told his comrades to go after him if he didn't come back right away.

They check out the scene for a second, just like the first one did. Over next to me, the woman in blue is crying. The gentleman is looking around anxiously, darting his eyes back and forth like he's expecting to get shot, but he don't know by whom.

Then Duke rises from behind the countertop, pistol in hand, and he's pointing it at the girl who was with the teller. Somehow, I don't think this is what he had planned for her.

Grabbing both of her wrists with he right hand, and keeping a gun trained on her pretty cheek with the left, he looks the officers dead in the eyes and politely asks them to put their guns down.

Taking this as a queue, Twist and I both hop over the teller booths as well, and stand beside Duke. The teller himself is just about in pieces right now, looking at the girl with all the terror and horror in the world, and it's making me feel guiltier by the second.

The safe with the money we need is right here at our feet, but I know we need all three guns to be matched equally in this standoff. I think Duke already knows what we have to do.

I stand in front of the back door, and slip my hand behind my coat. I feel for the handle and give it a turn, putting pressure on it so it don't squeak. Then, I nudge Twist with my foot, and we exit in a mad dash through that door, single file, with Duke coming out last.

He's taking the girl with him.

I don't know if he's actually being strategic, or if he's heartless enough to use her as a meat-shield, but he's towing her along. Gunther is around the side of the building with the horses, still, trying to lay low. I know they must have heard the shooting too, if the Sheriff heard it down the street.

"Where's Eddie?" I shout at Gunther.

"He went off to make a distraction, don't worry, I'm sure he'll find us when the smoke clears."

That's not exactly what I want to hear right now.

Casey and Gunther mount up before we do, and when I glance over my shoulder, I can see why. They're already coming out the door and at our heels. Duke still has a gun pointed at the girl, and for a moment, with everyone on their horses, and the lady on the back of Duke's, the men seem distraught. They could take us all out if they wanted to, except that there's that girl there, who was ready to risk her own life so that we wouldn't get into her Pa's vault.

What they don't know is that the Ramsey gang has never shot a man for any robbery. You want to know something else? Half of our guns ain't even loaded. Peter's is, on account of him being a hunter, but some of us, like our rookie, Gunther, for instance, I wouldn't trust with a slingshot, let alone something that shoots bullets.

I never said we was the greatest outlaws the West has ever seen. In fact, we may just be the worst.

However, this captive thing we have going here, well it seems to work, because with no more money than we came in with, and only our lives to claim as a prize, we blaze out of that town like hell is on our heels.

The only problem now is what to do with her.

"Duke!" Gunther calls above the rattle of horse hooves. "What went on back there? I didn't think we were taking her with us."

"Let me go!" She cries, on the back of Duke's horse, trying to grab a hold of the reins.

"Watch where you're puttin' them hands of yours, Miss." He says.

The Banker's daughter stops, and begs some more for us to let her down, with her hair coming loose in the wind and flying around her face. She's quite plain, I'd say, with kind of mousy hair and greenish eyes. She don't look too happy neither, bouncing up and down on the saddle, trying to hold on to something other than Duke, while we press forward at full speed.

"She wasn't there." Our leader says.

"What? Who?" Asks Twist.

"The one I told you about!" He yells. "She wasn't there to help us."

Puzzled, the rest of us glance around a bit at Duke and the girl on the back of his horse.

"Den who she?" Asks Eddie, pointing a finger at them.

"I don't have a damn clue." Duke says.

I shake my head in frustration and think to myself: Way to go, friend. Another perfectly executed plan, just as you said.

Gunther swears loudly, and spurs his horse a little faster. We'll figure out the rest of the 'plan' later, I guess. Right now we're still within road distance of town, and we need to get very, very, far away.

"Wait, I'm confused." Says Gunther from the back of the group. "She's not the one you knew from before…in the past?" He asks.

"No." The rest of us say together.

"Well then who is she?" He wails.

For a moment, no one answers. We don't know anything about this Banker's daughter, except that she saved our necks, really. We think about this, and then Duke asks her name.

"My name is Hattie Palmer." She says. "And you'll be sorry for this."

The boys chuckle a little, and say:

"Alright, Hattie."

"We'll pay for it." Duke says overdramatically. "But only with our souls in hell."

A moment later he gets a sharp kick in the shin, and the horse goes galloping off, with Hattie running the opposite direction.

After picking herself off the ground, she grabs some length from her skirt with both hands and starts taking off, while our brave and fearless leader tries desperately to get control of his animal, who wastes no time in bucking him off.

"Webb, don't just sit there!" Twist shouts at me. "Go over and get her before she brings back the whole town!"

I spur my horse, and soon she begins to catch up to the fleeing miss, who is tiring rather quickly after running a few dozen yards. She stops to rest a moment upon the dry dessert ground, and I come up beside her, standing there with her hair a mess and face wet with perspiration.

"Ma'am." I say, tipping my hat. She looks up at me reluctantly and glances back at the town behind us, small and timid looking in the distance. I imagine she's trying to figure if she can make it back or not, or whether it's even worth it to.

"If you get on the horse, I'll make sure we get you into the next town safely. Don't worry about Ramsey over there. If he gets out of line I'll see to it that you get escorted safe and sound."

She hangs her head, and lifts it up again to gaze at the town of Clinton, in the distance, the hot sun beating down upon its tired grey buildings and roads.

"If they catch up to you, will they kill you?" She asks, unexpectedly.

I think for a moment, and say:

"I believe they may, Ma'am. The law don't look too kindly upon our sort."

I see the sympathy in her eyes, and appealing to the feminine sort of kindness that the fairer sex be known for, extend my hand to help her up. She takes it, and seats herself side-saddle behind me.

"Hold on tight, now. We're going to try to get out of here nice and quick."

After an undercooked dinner of beans and tortillas, prepared by Eduardo, we decide as a group that it would be in everyone's best interest if we dropped our hostage off at the next town, and let her fend for herself wherever that may be, after which we will make a rapid ascent into the hills so that we can avoid that awkward and dangerous encounter with the law that we all know is coming if they catch whiff of our trail. Right now, she's sitting between Twist and Duke, trying to keep from touching either as best she can, and eating a plate of beans quietly, like a shadow among our presence.

"These beans is crunchier than buffalo chips, Ed." Gunther whines, wrinkling up his freckled nose.

"Beso mi culo, gringo." Eduardo replies in Spanish.

"Speak English!" The redhead shouts back. "If you're going to live in America, you better speak…American."

"English." Peter corrects sullenly.

"It weren't his choice, Casey." Paul adds.

Duke gives the newer member a bit of a tired sneer and says; "It's true, you know. I picked Eddie here up from down in Mexico after a scuffle with Angel Sanchez himself, the infamous gunslinger of the Juarez. The 'angel of death', they call him. He helped us out when we needed him. I saved his life, you know. Said he owed his service to us. Like in er… What's that book you told us 'bout, Peter?"

"The Count of Monte Cristo." He replied grudgingly.

"Yeah that's right." Duke gestures toward Eddie. "The faithful and noble Mexican pirate."

"What a great story!" Exclaims Gunther, with alacrity. "I never knew all that."

I catch a little snicker from Hattie, though I don't think the others notice it.

"So…Did you save Ed's life, or did he help you out when you needed him?" Asks Peter, noting the discrepancy in the story.

"That ain't important!" Duke says defensively, slamming his plate down. "Now thank the good man for fixin' us dinner!"

We all mutter acknowledgment. I give Eddie an encouraging nudge on the shoulder, to which he nods a quiet thanks.

Duke stands up, all authoritative-like, and announces that we should all get some shut-eye before we have to get back on the trail again.

We then proceed to roll out our mats and sheepskins and whatever else is tied to our horses' saddles, and lay them out among the sagebrush and tall grass. I aim to fix myself a nice spot by the fire, which is dim now, the embers starting to fade their rosy warmth. As the rest of us spread out around the campsite, further away than I am, I notice that Hattie is stooping down next to the fire as well, and she's got something in her hand. A little alarmed, I approach her, and just as she sees me standing there, I can make out that she's holding a little book. It must have been in her pocket, because none of us have anything of the sort except Peter, and all his are tucked away in his saddlebag, weighing down the poor horse.

Her soft eyes widen in panic, and shut the leather-bound journal in a hurry.

"Don't worry." I say. "I'm not gonna take it."

Her plain features soften, and she quietly utters a thanks. I tip my hat, and she opens up the book again, and resumes her composure with a small, dull pencil. The glow from the fire burns deep in her eyes, which are a bright green. She is not entirely pretty, I suppose, but she is plump and fair, though a little sunburned. She doesn't seem to mind me watching her write, as I roll out my bed. It suddenly occurs to me that our captive doesn't have a place to sleep. I can't help but feel a little concerned for her, being a female among all these men, especially Twist and Duke, who especially ain't no gentlemen.

Just then, Twist comes over with a pail of water and sloshes it out over the dim embers of the campfire. Hattie looks up, shocked, and stares at the douser, though the effect is lost in the blackness of night.

June 6th, 1895

Dear Millie,

I cannot express in simpler words what I am about to say, though they may shock you.

I have been captured by outlaws.

They burst into the Bank this Morning, pointing a gun at Father, and demanding him to open the safe. The sheriff heard the noise, though, and met the young men at a standoff. However, I fear my very presence has kept justice from being done, as the outlaws saw fit to take me hostage, and rode out of town unharmed, with myself in tow. No money was taken, which comforts me, but still, it is a great harm done not only to myself, but to my dear Father. I fear for him, in his distress. I hope he has not turned to drink again, but I know that that wish is futile. I do hope my sister will visit and keep watch over him, though I long to let him know of my safety.

The men, who in reconsideration, appear to be merely farm-boys and vagabonds, plan to let me off their hands at the next town, from which I am to make my way back to Clinton, alone. I feel extremely conflicted over the matter, though. I know that these outlaws are on their way to some bigger heist, and I feel in my heart that it would be wrong for me to just turn around and let them escape. If all goes well, I will be able to send this to you soon. I shall send a telegram to my Father as well, if at all possible. Please do so yourself, though, in case I am not able to deliver the message. For now, I must keep working on a plan to place these outlaws into the hands of the proper authorities. I believe that if I can—

Hattie stands up and asks Twist where she might use the latrine. He replies with a sarcastic "Anywhere you want."

Swiftly, she takes the empty pail from his hand, and stomps off toward a nearby tree.

She certainly is bricky, I think.

"You think she'll be alright, off by herself?" I ask.

"She won't try to take off again, not with all of us here." Twist says.

"I meant for her safety." I explain, irritated.

"Oh. I reckon so."

When I wake up, the next morning, it's barely five o' clock. It's cold outside, without the helping hand of the warm Missouri sunshine. Everything is dim and pink. I glance over the sleeping pack of wolves spread out around camp, snoring quietly. Every once in a while a fly comes and lands on Gunther's nose, until he twitches and it flies away for the time being. Watching it makes one's own nose itch something awful.

Eddie's broad straw hat gently rises and falls on his face, with each breath. All is still and quiet, for the time being. Even desperadoes need sleep now and then.

Scanning the dirty faces poking out from beneath their bedding, I fail to see where the young Miss Hattie has gone. Did she take off from beneath our noses and head back to Clinton?

No, the plains are wide. She wouldn't have gone back by herself in the middle of the night. We travelled far too long a ways in open field for her to pick up and leave. I'm not even sure where the road is from here. Maybe she found it though, and bartered passage from a friendly traveller?

But that don't seem right neither. She don't seem like the kind that would do such a thing, unless she had something of value to offer, and I'm sure that Duke and Twist, the peckerheads, probably made quick work of anything of the kind.

She must be around. I think. Maybe she's off with that book again.

I put on my hat and boots and roll up my pack. I'll have a good look around, I figure. Or else Duke will have my hide when he wakes up and discovers his meat-shield ain't there.

There's this kind of rock mass, about fifty feet or so away; small and overgrown, but nice and sturdy. Sure enough, that's where I find her, sitting on a big stone with her legs over the side, shoulders slumped. I picture my mother there, racked with sobs, when my father left that morning, and the sun barely lit up the room.

"Miss, are you alright?" I ask, rather timidly, as if I were afraid of being heard. The light brown head turns around, and instead of sobs, I see her face is dry as a creek in August. No tears or grief are there, but instead a calm face of quiet thoughtfulness. She doesn't even seem shocked to see me there.

"I suppose you've been sent to find me." She says, matter-of-factly, though not proudly. She can't be more than 16 or so, and speaks without a womanly voice, but one with compassion, kindness, and confidence, things that people seem to lack, as they get older.

I shrug.

"I thought you might've run off on us again. Didn't suppose you'd go very far though."

"And," She goes on, unhindered. "Is that because you think I'm not capable of doing so?"

I think for a moment, and then shake my head.

"No, I reckon you could do anything you want to, if you had the mind. I saw you knock Duke off his own horse, yesterday."

She seems surprised at my answer, and her gaze softens a little, so it doesn't look so hard and serious anymore, just a little sad, and beneath that, a little humoured.

"He's a very unpleasant fellow." She says.

I nod and agree to that. Miss Hattie looks down at me from her rock, and then back up to the sky. She's watching the sunrise from her perch, the golden edges slowly bleeding in over the pinks and purple of dawn.

After a pause, I say:

"Miss Hattie, if you don't mind me saying so, you don't seem to be very upset about being here with us."

She looks back.

"I don't think it should do me much good to be upset about something I can't control. I intend to bear through it just like anyone."

She takes me, I think, to mean that I'm disappointed with her compliance, but that ain't the truth at all.

"You're a mighty strong girl, Miss Hattie, if you don't mind me saying so. Most people would crumble under the situation."

She scoffs at that.

"You seem so sure." She rubs the arms of her shirtwaist up and down, trying to warm up as she's talking to me.

I nod and shrug again.

"We took you away from your Pa there in Clinton. When I lost my Father, I thought I'd never stop crying."

Miss Hattie stops moving her arms, and looks at me again, but with an expression I can't read this time. It's like everything that was on her face got washed away, and suddenly she don't know what to say, or she can't come up with a snarky comment that suits her fancy. I can't tell.

Finally, she says:

"And I always thought you outlaws were a fearless bunch."

The grass crunches softly under my feet as I shift in my boots, and go to sit on rock near Miss Hattie's. I lean back against the stone, and start watching the colors in the sky as well, as they inch their way towards the east.

Picking up a piece of tall grass, I put it in my mouth and start to chew.

"Fearless is a strong word." I say, tentatively. "Reckless? Yeah. Wild? Yes. Dirty? Most definitley. But fearless?" I shake my head. "No. There's always something to fear, unless you've got nothing left to lose."

"And what do you have to lose?" She asks, with more courage.

I scratch at the stubble on my chin, making a mental note to shave, and consider the question. It occurs to me that I've been doing a lot of considering ever since we tried robbing that bank.

"I think…" I say. "That it's not so much what I have to lose, but what I still have to gain."

Chapter Three

Where the Heart is

Duke puts his finger down hard on our trusted and weather-beaten map, rolled out of its leather case and spread out on the saddle of his horse, which is still on the horse, I might add. Old Mary Belle snorts and shakes the flies of her back.

No, this isn't the grand treasure map that Duke's been keeping to himself all this time. Just a regular old railroad map, which is missing part of the west coast.

"Here." He exclaims. "We'll go through Sedalia and take the ferry from Boonville to St. Louis." Peter takes out a pair of spectacles and props them up on his nose, to better inspect the proposed route.

We've been on the trail for two days now.

"Trains cost money, Duke." He says soberly.

At a loss for words, our leader turns to Twist and Gunther, the former who assumes a position of authority and suggests that we'll ride in the baggage car. The old stony man of twenty-two gets a nod of approval. Twist is a half-bred Osage Indian, with sculpted features and dark, serious eyes. I think he's known Duke for a long time. I've only been with the gang for about a year, so I can't be certain. The man never talks enough to get any kind of information out of him, unless it concerns Duke and his schemes.

Peter strokes his beard and glances back over at Gunther, who is watching Miss Palmer.

"And where does she fit in?"

Duke considers this for a moment, and says matter-of-factly that she'll be right at home in Sedalia.

Eddie, having gone unnoticed in the conversation, nudges me with a worried look.

"Webb, remember what happened last time we go to Sedalia…"

A hazy memory leaks out of some recess in my brain...

Oh yes. I do remember. I could blame the whiskey, but that ain't all of it, no how. I suppose I wouldn't have the mind to have drunk so much though, if I hadn't been in such a rank place. I do feel bad about what happened to the furniture, though.

"Duke, we can't leave her in Sedalia." Peter and I both say.

"Why not?"

"B-because she'll be killed!" I sputter. "You of all people should know what goes on in that town."

Duke folds up the map and hands it to Twist, holding deaf ears to our argument.

"It ain't the 70's no more, Valentine. Sturdy girl like her ought to be just fine." He turns around and leans on the saddle to face me, calm and serene.

"Duke, I know what you're thinking, and I ain't gonna stand by and watch you ferry souls to their doom."

Peter groans. He's seen enough to know where this is going. Dragging Ed along, he makes for the other horses to start preparing for us to ride. Otherwise known as 'getting out of the crossfire'.

"I don't see what difference it makes to you, Webb. We'll have to go through there anyways, to get to St. Louis. Besides, she'll be closer to home and all that."

"How is it that you can always turn one of your stupid plans around and make it seem like it's just so sensible and right and decent?" I ask. Twist has left the vicinity, as well. Even he sees the childish arguments we have as a waste of time, as much as he admires our self-appointed leader.

"Well, Webb." Duke says very calmly and composed. "Perhaps you just don't see the critical thinking behind my operations."

"The only operation you're qualified for is extracting your head out of your ass."

"That's enough, you two!" Peter says firmly. We both turn our heads and see that he's come back around to put us two in our places, yet again.

"We're losing daylight with ever second you two waste at each other's throats." He adjusts his hat and looks us both in the eye squarely, one at a time.

"Now I would kindly suggest that we all get saddled up and start heading north."

Duke holds up both palms, flat, and says:

"I wash my hands of this."

I just shake my head and walk away. I'll figure out the details later.

"Alright everybody let's move!" Duke shouts, after what he intends to be a high-pitched whistle. Duke can't whistle to save his life.

"Duke," Gunther says. "You can't whistle to save your life."

"Will you get in the saddle?" He orders back.

The fiery boy grumbles to himself and mounts up, as the rest of us do. Hattie is once again, forced to sit on the back of Mary Belle with Duke. I really do pity that poor girl.

Also the horse.

The day seems to be a bit cooler than what we've seen lately, which is a blessing. I've been getting mighty sick of the sun burning a hole in my neck, though the hat helps a bit. It's just an old railroad thing, but it's got a decent wide brim and it's not too hot.

I have a feeling the weather's not going to be my main concern, however, on this little journey with the Duke Ramsey Gang, and guest. I have to say, I will miss that girl giving them a hard time.

If only she could get Gunther to stop yammering on about God-knows-what for five measly minutes.

It took three days to get to Sedalia. We finally laid eyes on it though, over the horizon, looking like a dim collection of fireflies hovering over a swampy puddle. That's about all this town amounts to, anyways. It looks so bright and welcoming, but when you get close enough, that light reveals what's underneath, and it ain't a pretty sight to see.

Now it's raining, and the town looks like a crumpled up handkerchief sticking out of the mud.

"Well there it is, Duke." I say. "Still thinking about leaving her here?"

"Valentine." He sighs. "You're overreacting. The place ain't near as bad as you make it out to be. Have a little backbone, for once."

The place is quiet, in the bad weather and all, with only a few folks outside. Mostly girls, on the balconies, getting their hair wet and trying not to let their rouge wash off in the drizzle. They'd be much better off inside. There's no one out to see them, except for the stray passer-by returning from some errand or something of the like. When they see us, they immediately start hollering at us and pulling at their bodice laces and whatnot. All us boys smile and tip our hats modestly, except for Duke, who whistles badly, but still profanely.

"What say you boys we hole up at the Crystal Palace for the night?" He asks, without taking his eyes away.

"As long as you don't cause any more trouble." Says Casey. "It's a miracle we made it out of there alive."

"I have to agree, Ramsey." Twist says. "That was some scare."

"Yeah and we still ain't out of it." I say under my breath. I really wish we could just get Hattie out of this whole situation. I'm sure she's got more dignified things to do back at home. Besides, no one should have to spend that long with us. We're not even decent outlaws, to begin with.

She looks back at me, from behind Duke, and I give her a look of sympathy. She fell asleep a few hours ago, and the whole time Duke was playing up the fact that she had her head on his shoulder.

We hitch up outside the saloon, and dismount. We're all glad to be off the saddle for a while. Just as we did in Clinton, about half of us are at the bar before the rest finish hitching their ponies. I tap Eddie on the shoulder and ask if he'd like to play a round of billiards, so we go off to find a table.

Before I go through the doors, I hold back Peter to have a quick word with him.

"Why don't you get a room for the girl until we figure out what to do about her." I say quietly, reaching into my coat pocket. I slip him a few bills, saying that I'll cover it and everything.

"Webb," He says, cautiously. "You can't spend too much time worrying for her when we've just got to let her go. You know we can't go protecting everybody we cross paths with."

"I just don't want to see a nice girl get hurt." I say rigidly.

I shoot a few rounds with Eddie, and we shoot the breeze a little bit and joke around. He's a decent sort of guy, I think. Quiet, but a real good time once you get to talking to him. You can always trust him to keep a secret, too, because like me, he don't trust nobody else in the gang, and he's an honest sort, besides.

When it gets later, and I've lost track of everyone, I remember the favor I asked my brother. I find him at the blackjack table, playing dealer and winning, as always.

"Say, Brother, did you ever do me that thing I asked you?" I'm trying to keep casual about it. Paul is at the table as well, and I don't want him getting all up on my case.

"I can't say I recall." He says, flatly, without taking his eyes from the cards.

I tap my foot, a little flustered, like suddenly the room has gotten very warm.

"Maybe when you're finished with this hand, you'd like to get some fresh air, Brother?"

He looks up at my pleading eyes, with his serious ones, and exhales a stubborn breath, like he knows I won't leave him alone unless he follows me. Scooting back his chair, he adjusts his tie, and bids farewell to the gentlemen.

"I couldn't find her." He says, when we're outside on the balcony. The music leaks out into the night air, carrying along with it the smells of tobacco and several mixed drinks. Peter takes a sip of his bourbon, and then rests it on the banister we're leaning over.

A little alarmed, I say:

"You think Duke did something with her?"

He shakes his head.

"I've been watching him all evening to make sure he doesn't do anything stupid. He's been at the bar all night."

I think for a moment, pondering the odd circumstances. What could she be doing? Out at night in town? Especially this town.

"Webb." Peter says, firmly, to get my attention. "Put it out of your mind."

"Yeah I know I know… Emotional attachment. Whatever you called it." I say, waving it off like a whiff of bad air. I turn back inside to look for a distraction, and find Eddie at a table playing poker.

"You're winning, I hope." I say.

"Si, Chico. My pockets are heavy." He shows me a gap toothed smile and asks me to join, but I politely decline. Suddenly, I realise that Gunther is behind me, pestering me about something. I look up at him and he's begging me to have a drink with him, since Duke and Paul won't let him sit in the same room with them at the moment.

"You get sprayed by a skunk or something?" I ask, sniffing the air lightly, but there's nothing there that weren't there before.

"No." He says in a huff, face getting all red. "They said something about me being a nuisance. I told them that was real mature, and that they should pick on someone their own size, and they just told me to git, I guess."

I sigh.

"Yeah, come on Gunther, let's go have a drink. You're paying for it though."

No harm done, I suppose. Maybe it'll quiet him down. Or else he'll have to go throw up and leave the world in peace for a few moments.

He orders a sarsaparilla.

"Damn, Gunther, if you're going to have a drink, then for God's sake have an actual drink." I swear, putting my shot down on the counter with a thud.

"Well gee, Webb, what's got into you?"

He does have a point. I may be overreacting on account of my foul mood.

I shake my head.

"I don't rightly know."

My companion shrugs it off in a friendly way, and I feel a little bad for being so hard on him.

"Say, what do you think about her?" He asks, tapping me on the shoulder suddenly, and pointing out a girl hanging around by the stairs, fanning herself.

I nod in acknowledgement. She looks like all the rest of them, I suppose. I prefer fast horses and pretty girls, rather than the other way around, myself. I tell Gunther 'sure', though, and let him think I'm paying attention.

He lets out a loud whistle. I tilt my hat, and try to cover my face.

"Say, I'm going to get some more fresh air, I think." I tell him, leaving the counter quickly to let the boy make a fool of himself.

"I think that whiskey's starting to get to me." I smile, making excuses even though he's not listening.

I suppose I've had quite a bit of fresh air tonight, but to tell the truth, I never really feel comfortable in these kinds of places.

Outside, to my surprise, I find Hattie. She's standing by the clapboard wall looking in through the window, peering anxiously through the rippled glass.

"Miss Palmer?" I ask in astonishment. "What are you doing out here?"

She turns around, equally startled, and backs away from the window like she's afraid of being seen.

"Oh, Mr. Valentine."

"That's right." I say. "Were you looking for someone else?"

She shakes her head, and looks around like she ought to be somewhere else, even though it seems to me like she's been trying awful hard to stay right there. Maybe it's people she aims to avoid. I notice that little journal in her hand again, but it's closed, and she's just holding it, like maybe she was writing in it not too long ago.

I decide I better leave her alone, and turn to go and find some other place to sit and think awhile. Then Miss Hattie speaks up and says:

"Wait, were you looking for me?" Uncertainly.

I figure I might as well go ahead and tell her that we figured she might be more comfortable in her own room, so I do, emphasis on the 'we', thinking that maybe she'll be a little less apt to hate the lot of us then, and not think that I'm getting wise or anything.

"Oh. Thank you… That's very kind."

She is a very nice girl. She seems a little disheartened by the suggestion though, but I can't figure out why. I tip my hat and go inside, leaving it up to her what she wants to do.

Peter is back at blackjack again, raking in a good-sized pot, when I sit down to play. I don't have much to spare, but I figure if I'm playing against my own brother, I can't do much harm anyways.

"Count me in for three."

"Minimum bet of five, kind sir." My brother says. Reluctantly, I throw in a few more chips, and he deals out the cards.

"Blackjack." Says the dark man next to me. I bust out after my first hit, and the other two divide the winnings.

After a few rounds, I hear something outside. Not horses, but the sound of metal spurs and belts and holsters, all clinking in unison.

Another group of wanderers just blown into town? Maybe. But something tells me I'm not so lucky this time.

A group of armed men in badges swing open the doors to the saloon and look around. Gentlemen at the tables, ladies on their laps, burning through cigarettes and money. Nothing unusual around here, which can only mean that either these men are looking for a drink, or else they have a specific person in mind that they wish to see.

The piano player stops, as soon as they enter, as everyone turns around to look at the disturbance.

Mostly alike in appearance, the one in front of course stands out as being the sheriff, with silvery hair and a big nose that seems to twitch slightly, as if trying to sniff out crime, so to speak.

"Can I interest you boys in a drink?" Says the bartender, slowly polishing a glass. It's all for show of course. He's probably making a mental note of where the hook with a pistol is behind those bottles of gin, and wondering if it's safe to shoot a warning look to his friend, at the poker table.

Without answering the question, the sheriff says:

"We've come for a certain gang, that I hear is in town. Do you happen to know anything about that, Mick?"

The bartender denies it, and puts both hands on the counter. I can almost see his trigger-finger twitch. I sink into my seat, for my part, and pull my hat over my eyes, and turn my back to the lawmen a little more, keeping watch on them from just the corner of my eye. Silently, Peter flips a card, and I bust out again. Terrible luck tonight, it seems.

The Sheriff pulls out a scrap of paper, a very small neat square scrap of paper, and looks over it saying:

"Well, I've been told this so-called-gang consists of a tall man with long dark hair and light skin,"

Paul digs his heels into the barstool.

"A well-built brunette, medium height, carrying a set of six guns,"

Duke glances behind him and scratches the back of his neck.

"A short-haired man in a duster coat with a crooked nose,"

Twist doesn't do anything, but I bet he's grinding his teeth or something, over in the corner.

"A clean-cut gentleman in a suit and tie,"

Peter flips another card down, with a true poker face.

"A scrawny redhead in overalls, and a tall blonde boy with boils."

Gunther and Casey need no explanation. They gape like the greenhorns they are.

"A good looking, light-haired man in suspenders and a railroad hat."

I feel eyes burning through the back of my head, and wish sincerely I hadn't left my coat with the horse.

"And a Mexican."

Eddie just then comes out of the washroom, sealing our fate with a confused look on his face.

The Sheriff looks up from the note and looks up, pans his eyes around the room, as if he knows just which ones to pick off, and with that description, he probably does. But who would turn us in?

Except…

Damn that girl!

I am sitting in the Sedalia jail, looking around at the stone walls, and the other seven men that occupy them, and recollecting briefly how I got here:

First the Sheriff showed up, obviously, and then I think someone must have pulled a gun, because one of the deputies fired his, and a fellow over by bar near Duke and Twist was clutching his hand and screaming bloody murder.

And things just sort of deteriorated from there.

Gunther dove under a table, and knocked over another guy's drink, this big trapper with a beard, and he turned around and punched Gunther in the nose, and then Casey ran over to help him, and then the deputies had to break that up, and while that was going on, Duke and Twist kind of slipped behind the bar and towards the back door, but the Sheriff must have seen it, because he started firing shots that direction, while another deputy grabbed me from behind, and I sort of elbowed him, trying to shove my way over to the door. Peter disappeared for a moment then.

A couple others stayed to help us out, and the rest got out as soon as they could, and then just as I got over behind the bar, I saw that Duke and Paul were in handcuffs, and Twist was being restrained by another law-dog, and Gunther, Casey, and Eddie were all without their guns and cowering.

A strong hand slapped down hard on my shoulder, and I knew it was the Sheriff, without having to look, but I looked anyways, and behind him, I saw Peter, holding a shotgun and pulling back the hammer.

Across from the three of us, lined up in a row as we were, the other lawmen pulled out their pistols, and aimed straight at me. The Sheriff turned around, as Peter slowly lowered his gun.

I realised that everyone else was either on the floor and injured, or gone and out of sight.

They rounded the lot of us up like cattle, and drove across town into a little jail cell.

"Mr. Wilkinson, what do you want us to do with him?" Asks the thickheaded, fat deputy.

The Sheriff is a slender man, with silvery hair and black stubble on his chin, like salt and pepper. He rolls a cigarette, and replies:

"We'll give them a trial in the morning, Cletus. Just make sure they'll be there when to fetch 'em."

"Oh they're locked up alright." Says another one, skinny and dark. "These polecats ain't going nowhere, no how."

Sheriff Wilkinson nods confidently, and leaves the cell in Cletus' care, while the rest take off, announcing that a drink is in order.

I sit my rear down on the floor and get comfortable, since I figure we'll be in here for some time. Of course, a fair trial for us will probably end up as a date with the hangman's daughter.

"Best make your peace with the good Lord, boys…" Sighs Duke, wistfully.

I don't know why, but this whole thing makes me right mad at him. It's seems like it must be his fault somehow, except I can't put my finger on it.

"That lyin' no good…" Casey growls, speaking of Miss Palmer.

"Hey!" Says Cletus, getting up from his seat next to the only other furniture in the room, a wooden table, and rattles the bars of the jail cell with a meaty fist.

"Keep quiet in there!"

Cletus speaks with his tongue between his teeth when he gets upset.

Duke mumbles something obscene, and shuts up. Next to me, Gunther is nursing his bleeding nose on the sleeve of his shirt. It's slowing down now, but I think the sight of his own blood scares him a little, filling him with visions of the end.

"Don't worry, Philip." I say very quietly. "We'll get out of here somehow."

I can't rightly say that, I know, because I really don't know, but it seems like the kind of thing you're supposed to say to a friend in need.

"Come on, fellas, quiet now!" The deputy in the building says again, sounding more like he's pleading rather than giving orders.

Cletus gets red when he's nervous.

Outside, a heavy rain has begin to fall. It muffles the sounds of the mice, scratching around the cell with us, picking at our leather shoes and running away when we swat at them.

Our guard has been asleep for the past three hours, and every once in a while, a big old fly comes and lands on his lip.

Cletus has a lazy eye.

"Peter," I whisper to my brother. "Are we going to die here?"

But he just shushes me gently, and points to the sleeping man beyond the bars.

Maybe if we woke him up, we could convince him to get us the key, somehow, and make some kind of deal.

But we have nothing to bargain with, and I have to admit, my plans are always pretty weak.

So weak in fact, that I turn to Duke and ask if he has any ideas. I must be either very dumb, or very desperate.

Duke's face lights up when I ask him, and pulls me in close so he can whisper.

"Webb, I think I've figured it out."

Anxious, I beg him to continue.

"What we'll do is get him to give us this key, and make some kind of deal with him."

I almost slap myself for the fact that for a few moments, Duke and I shared the same thoughts.

All hope lost, I slink away from him and sit quietly, try to pray, or something.

I didn't realise I'd fallen asleep. For a second, as I blink my eyes open to the darkness, I think that maybe my brain has come up with some genius plan while I was dozing, like divine inspiration.

The only thing that comes to mind though, are fleeting memories of the hours before.

Of all of us, only Duke and Peter are still awake. That includes our dim-witted watchman. Above his head hangs a metal ring with the key to our cell on it. It's much to high for anyone to reach though, even if you could get your arm through to the shoulder in between the tightly-packed bars. Maybe, just maybe, if you had a whip or something, you could get them down off the hook. But then of course, they'd still be too far away for you to reach them on the ground.

Next to me, my brother seems to be doing something intelligent. He has a little pad of paper out, and is scribbling quietly upon it with the dull stub of a pencil. His fine cursive soon fills the small page, and he signs it, as the Duke Ramsey Gang.

"What's that?" I whisper. He hands it to me. Squinting at the curly letters, I read it to myself, though it doesn't make any more sense to me than it did before.

I pass it back to Peter, who hands it to Duke. He skims over it, and nods to my Brother with approval. He trusts him. Peter is a smart man, to be sure.

Duke gets up off the floor with the note, and walks to the bars. Without bothering to give anyone else a warning, he rattles the bars, waking Cletus with a snort.

"Hey, what are you guys doing?" He asks, rubbing his eyes, and moving them around the room suspiciously.

Duke holds out the paper.

"The Sheriff left this for you while you was asleep, you dumb mule."

There's nothing he can do to anyone here, except maybe sit on us, I suppose. Duke is as cocky and forthright as ever.

Cletus grabs the paper with a big soft hand, and skims over it. His eyes read the paper from right to left, up and down. Just as Peter suspected, he's an illiterate moron. Our luck must be changing, after all.

Cletus blinks and stares blankly at Duke, who grips the bars casually.

"Well?" He asks, as if expecting him to do or say something. "You better get moving."

"I should? I mean, of course. I'm just leaving now…" Cletus replies, dazed.

"I have to go to…" He trails off, waiting for another queue, pretending he knows what he's talking about.

"To the Sheriff's house, boy! A man in your position, forgetting orders that quickly, it's a disgrace." Duke chides him. He makes a very convincing actor. Probably from lying.

"Right!" Cletus says, acting confident. For a moment, he looks around confused, and then, with another prodding look from Duke, he steps out the door, closing it behind him tightly.

"And don't you guys try anything funny!" He lisps back to us.

"Now what?" I ask, but Peter is already moving again, having thought of something clever, to be sure. He takes off his hat and pulls a very small knife from the bottom of his boot. He always conceals it there, for emergencies.

Taking the knife, he saws away at the brim of his hat until he tears it, and then he sticks the point of the knife in and slits the fabric of the gentleman's bowler all around. Within moments, he's pulled out the long wire that shapes the brim, and is fashioning it into a straight line, with a hook at the end. It's not near long enough to reach the key, though.

Duke is handling this problem, with a pile of stones. Carefully taking aim, he throws them at the little hook on the wall. He's not doing a very good job at it.

"Webb," He says, looking over his shoulder. "Wake up Twist for me, would you?"

That's something I try to avoid doing at all costs, on account of his fearsome demeanor in the mornings, but I know we don't have time to bat things around, so I go and do it.

With a gentle shove, he moans and becomes awake.

Duke quickly rouses him to his feet and hands him some of the rocks. Twist has very good aim.

It only takes him maybe eight or nine tries before he hits the hook. In the soft wood, it turns, letting the key-ring drop to the chair below. Twist gets a large rock, and throws it low, underhanded, at the chair legs. His strong pitch sends the chair collapsing on its side, letting the key drop a few inches closer to our cell door.

Duke gives Philip a kick.

"Gunther, get up here." Confused and drowsy, he looks around, and quickly regains his senses with another kick from our leader.

"Come on over here and get your skinny arm through those bars. Here."

He hands him the wire hook from Peter, and stands by to watch.

While he reaches forward with the device, to try and catch the ring on the ground, Peter and I wake the others, who quickly grasp wind of the situation, and watch with anticipation as Gunther makes contact with the key and hook.

Just then, there's a twist of the doorknob, and exchanging panicked looks, Duke and I pull Gunther back, and toss the wire over into the other side of the cell. We're surely done for now, I think. And for a second, I really thought we was getting out of here.

The door creaks open, and the first thing we see is a piece of calico, which turns into a dress, which in turn becomes a girl, whose plain face with green eyes looks around frantically. In her hand is a metal key, just like the one on the ground. Mouths drop wide open, shocked beyond words. Surprised by our lack of speech, Hattie steps forward and says:

"Come on! We don't have much time."

Nobody moves, but on my face is a grin ten miles wide. I'm just as surprised as anyone, but I can't help but be pleased that she came back for us. She came back for me.

And to think we did all that for nothing.

Dear Sheriff Wilkinson,

We are sad to say that you won't get the pleasure of watching us hang today, or any other day in fact. In the words of Mr. William Shakespeare, "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

~ The Duke Ramsey Gang

Chapter Four

Meet Me in St. Louis

"What I can't understand," Says Eddie, as he scrapes the last bit of suds off his chin with the dull razor we're sharing.

"Is why she came back."

I could have sworn he grew a full beard overnight in jail. I would attribute that to the affects of 'hard living' behind bars, but he's known to do that anyways.

I shrug, and say:

"I'm not entirely sure she does either."

For the past six hours, she's been quiet. Not a peep about Duke, or anyone else, or what idiots we looked like when she came in with the keys, about to spring us loose. In fact, the only one complaining is Peter, for the mangling of his hat. Of course, at the time it seemed like a good idea.

Hattie doesn't say anything about why she came back, or how she got the key, or when she decided to change her mind and go with us to St. Louis. She's just sort of here now, I guess.

We took the main road out of Sedalia, for fear of getting lost on our way, and arrived at the river-crossing without any major mishaps, so far at least.

Last night, I hashed it out with Duke over what to do about the horses, when we get on the ferry to take us into St. Louis. He said we should sell them so we'd have more money to spare when we got across. I argued with him over it for hours, saying that I wouldn't part with the animals unless we had to. It turns out, the money we took from the stagecoach outside of Clinton was enough to get all of us across, but we couldn't take the horses anyways, so Duke got his way and we paid our fare to get over the river with the parting of our faithful steeds. I imagine that Duke's mare is glad to be rid of him, but I am a little sad that I have to part with my animal. I'd been growing kind of fond of her, since we'd spent so much time on the trail together. I stroked her muzzle one last time, before she was led off on a rope to her new home, a well-stocked stable with six stalls and a small pen.

We pick up the rest of our things, and prepare to board the ferry. The dock is much less crowded on this side of the river, but still, Hattie gets some odd looks from passerby, in her dusty dress, surrounded by a group of strange and rough-looking men. We bear no markings or style of dress to unify us, but we are as varied as the places we come from. I can't imagine a place where all of us together would ever look like home.

Peter's suit is well-kept, if a bit dusty from our stay in jail. His hat looks wilted and sloppy, without the wire frame that kept it in place. I imagine he'll get a new one in St. Louis.

Twist, Paul, and Duke, all stand together while we wait, proud and handsome.

Casey taps his toes impatiently, while Eddie fingers his mustache. Gunther won't shut up about when the boat's going to get here, talking nonstop with his little pinhead bobbling up and down on his long neck.

Finally, we see a puff of white steam down the river, and slowly the big puffing wheels come into view. "Here she comes, chico." Eddie says to me.

I turn around and face Hattie.

"You ready, Miss Palmer?"

She sighs in a funny way, and says: "As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose."

I still don't know why she's here with us, except that she's been scribbling away in her little book more and more each day.

Dear Cousin,

I can hardly explain the jitters I have, sitting at the bow of the Louisa May, as she paddles east down the Missouri river. I don't know what compelled me to embark on such a journey, but I know it must an act of extreme bravery, or selfishness. For the past few nights, I have been dreaming of my dear Pa, and I wake up wondering how he'll manage without me there.

I wasn't completely truthful in my last letter. When I said I was troubled over my impending marriage, I spoke very lightly. The truth is, I am terrified. I do not want to marry that man. He is handsome, I suppose, and in good standing, but I confess I would soon find myself going crazy if I was forced to go be a wife so soon.

Now that I am away from my family, I can see this, and admit it honestly.

I have wanted to go abroad and study for so long now, it seems that I may have finally found my opportunity. Though at what cost, I wonder?

I've heard that out west, even beyond Clinton, things are different, and a woman can be called a professional. I've even heard tell of a hospital in Oregon with a woman doctor on staff!

I know you must think me foolish, but please pray for me, cousin. I have little faith in my traveling companions...

Beautiful velvety skies of turquoise blue, churning black waves and tall raspy grasses, shaking in the breeze, and waving at me as I pass by.

Maybe I could enjoy it if Casey wasn't yammering in my ear like a sick dog.

"I don't know, Webb, I think she's plain trouble. Ain't no business for a girl to be in the saddle. It might mess with their parts or something..."

"That's disgusting, Casey. Nobody wants to hear that."

"Well I'm just sayin' it can't be none too good for makin' babies."

I block out most of what he says, usually.

It seems that no matter what side of the ferry-boat I move to, there's someone there to ruin the nice pleasant trip with some 'cretinous drivel', as Peter would say. Of course, he's making polite talk with the captain and smoking a cigar, speaking pleasantly about the physics of the boat or something, no doubt.

Dear Millie, (Again)

It may seem counterproductive that I'm traveling to St. Louis, East, but as I understand it we'll be making a turnaround from there, after some restocking of supplies, or some such. I'm not quite sure, still.

I must say, my conscience troubles me not only because of my poor father, but also for whom I am embarking on this strange journey with.

Peter is a fine gentleman, actually. I wonder how it happens that some men get mixed up in such foul things as robbing banks and stages.

The so-called 'leader' of the group is a boorish man of ill-manners, who I can say with some certainly, thinks very highly of himself. He's very handsome, to be sure, but every time he opens his mouth, something very stupid seems to come out of it, and the effects of his chocolaty curls and eyes, and whatever other charms he may possess, is completely ruined.

The Mexican is mostly pleasant, contrary to the stories that Uncle Tom and his friends used to tell around the fire, of wild vaqueros and fierce gunslingers.

For the rest, I can't say much except that they all look up to the leader, Duke Ramsey, very much, and seem to imitate him in each his own way, with the exception of Webb, Peter's brother.

I'm not sure what I think about Mr. Valentine yet. When I make up my mind, I'll let you know.

Until then I remain your dearest cousin,

Hattie

It's nighttime when we reach the city. We took the Mississippi River down all the way to Sulpher Springs. The ferry-boat empties quickly and quietly at the docks, and men and women weave around each other to get where they're going.

Twist and Paul quietly assert that they'd like to go to the saloon and get a bite to eat, but Peter says that we can't stay in town. We have to keep moving, what with our recent mishaps in Sedalia, and our preferring to travel by night and all. I would sorely love to fill my belly, but I guess that will just have to wait.

In the morning I guess, we'll stock up on supplies and do the shopping we need to for our mining equipment. There's all sorts of things now, cheap too, from when everyone was going to California and up north on the Yukon, panning for gold. They made amazing contraptions for the purpose of finding shiny metal in the ground. Some of it worked, some of it didn't. We're not going to be wading in rivers though. We just need to dig.

In town, the city lights shine brightly off the surface of the water, and cavorting can be heard clearly on the other side of the Mississippi. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we had enough of that in Sedalia to last the rest of the month, at least.

Next time we get a hostage, jefe, can we remember to put her back?" Eduardo asks, as he picks up our belongings to carry, just like Duke asked him to. We start to walk away from the dock, heading East, to find a path out of town.

"Hey! How was I supposed to know that the plan wouldn't work?" Duke snaps.

When the idea is in blossom, it's his plan. When it blows up in our faces, it's the plan.

"Well, you didn't, Duke. That's why we should have quit while we had the chance, as soon as we'd figured out that your girl wasn't going to be there." Says Casey.

"Oh, so I suppose you think things would have worked out if you'd been running the show, is that it? Well I'll tell you what; next time, you can be in charge."

"Oh great." I say. "So we put him in charge of the next plan that doesn't work."

"Valentine," Duke says. "I'll make sure that you're not around to see the next plan if you keep on like that."

"I wouldn't be missing much." I say in reply.

"Well anyhow," Duke says. "I think that Hattie is a lovely addition to our traveling assortment."

If Peter had said that, it would have sounded chivalrous. Duke doesn't have the same effect.

Hattie makes no comment on this. She just moves few paces away from us, and falls behind.

I follow suit, to keep an eye on her.

"Hey Duke," Paul pies up suddenly. "Where are we going exactly? Doesn't this road take us out of the city?"

"Paul my friend," He replies. "I'm afraid we're not staying in St. Louis."

A collective gasp of surprise comes from all of us, as we all go through roughly the exact same thought pattern, ending with: If we're not getting supplies in town, then what are we going East for?

"Then what the hell are we going East for?" Casey shouts. Twist claps his big hand over Casey's mouth and shushes him. We can't attract to much attention to ourselves, especially now.

"We're going to pay a visit..." Duke says slowly, as if in pain. "...To an old friend."

A moment of silence passes. Wheels turn, old memories stir like clouds of mud in dirty water. When they settle, everyone's eyes widen, with the exception of Gunther.

"No..." Casey says in disbelief, as we all draw upon the same conclusion.

"You mean..."

"Oh Lord..."

"We're going to see... Her."

Gunther looks around, confused.

"Who, Hattie? She's already here."

Chapter Five

Mississippi Queen

Outside the city, in the swampy forest of Fenton's Hollow, where mossy undergrowth and canopies of trees evoke images of Baton Rouge and river-pirates, there's a lady called Ellie Mae who lives in a one-room cabin with a shotgun over the door.

She used to ride with us boys, you see. She joined before Peter and I. I'm sure that she was much more useful and deadly than we reckoned her to be. She was better with a gun that some of the boys, and not bad to look at either. She saved us, uncredited of course, from many a close call...

...And then she left us in Indian Territory. No guns. No horses. Not a damn thing, except this frilly blue dress that we used to make her wear, so she'd look like a lady.

She was mad as hell. She said we weren't treating her like a real outlaw, and she was better off on her own. I guess we knew that all along, but Duke's so stubborn he would never admit to it. He always has to be the one with the heroics, taking credit for whatever good actually came out of the gang.

She used to go around with Duke, and all. He'd always have her as the bait when we robbed stages and wagons out in the country. She would dress up in that nice expensive blue dress and pin up her hair, and then she'd pretend to be hurt or something, and get some poor fool to stop and give her hand with the heavy axle of our old wagon.

They'd never get that far though, of course. We would be in hiding in the back of the wagon, until Ellie Mae gave us the signal to jump out and well, I'm sure you know the rest. The signal, by the way, was 'Mississippi'.

As in:

"These here thoroughbreds are the best team this side of the Mississippi."

Or,

"My old grandad took this wagon across the Mississippi back in the '60s, and it ain't never had a problem before."

That wagon is the reason we're going back. I don't know why I seem to be the only one that sees a lack of common sense in going halfway across the country to get back an awful old cooking wagon so we can take it all the way back to New Mexico Territory.

Paul and Twist would follow Duke to the ends of the earth of course, and everyone else is just too stupid, exempting Peter, Eddie, and Myself, of course.

"Duke, I hate to ask this," Says Paul, as he leaps over a muddy ditch in the path. "But wouldn't it be more efficient to get another wagon someplace else?"

We've all been wondering the same thing, it turns out. Mumbles of agreement come from everyone. Peter seems to be thinking seriously about something, and isn't paying much attention to the conversation, or so it would appear.

"Besides, who knows if El will even give it back to us? We haven't seen her in months and months." Pipes up Eddie.

Duke is red in the face.

"Just bear with me for a while. I just have to get some things from her and then we'll be off again."

It's taken us months to even get this far. We came East to buy mining tools, but now that we're here it seems like that's not the most important thing on Duke's mind.

"Is there another reason you want to see her, Duke?" Asks Casey.

"Just mind your own business, Ferguson."

"Duke," I say. "Last time I checked this venture of ours was everyone's business."

I get up next to him, and we all unanimously stop walking for a moment.

"Ever since she left, all we've been doing is retracing our steps, going in circles, not making any progress at all." I continue, rolling my hand in the air, like a wheel struggling to turn. "I'm starting to believe you're not even serious about finding our fortune."

A quiet agreement passes between the rest of us, as Peter turns his attention to me, and Hattie looks on with an almost invisible presence.

My Brother looks back and forth between Duke and I, and without a word, I immediately detect that he knows something I don't. He gets that look in his face sometimes. It's a glimmer in the eye, or a tilt of the brow, I don't know. Whatever it is, I can feel it, even though the dark obscures our features.

"Duke, just tell me what we're here for."

And for once, no one objects to me speaking up.

Backed into a corner, he puts on a show of confidence, and crosses his arms.

"We're going to get... The map. The map to Eureka."

Dead silence, and then a collective gasp of shock and disgust.

He's brought us all the way over to Missouri, following a map that he didn't have. We weren't after mining tools or covered wagons.

And yet... Still more important, is the fact that for the time that we've been without Ellie Mae, six months or however long, he's been lying to us about having this map.

I would like to say it doesn't surprise me, but that's still a pretty rotten thing to do, even for Duke Ramsey.

"Why you..." Casey lurches forward with both hands out, ready to strangle the liar.

Twist, Paul, and Peter, immediately restrain him, while the redhead flails about to get at our leader.

"Hold up, Casey!" They say, trying to calm him down. If it weren't so dark out here, Casey's face would be tart red.

"Would everybody just calm down?" Duke shouts suddenly. We get quiet, and then he continues, saying:

"Now I think we should all just press on and be mature about this, you hear? Let's not do anything we'll regret later on."

I wonder for a moment if anyone really would regret wringing his lying neck...

Duke looks flustered and sweaty, even though it's cool outside.

Disillusioned and weary, we have nothing to do but continue on under the shaky guidance of Mr. Ramsey, who confidently stomps through the thick forest growth with determined purpose.

Hattie, having been quietly in the background all this time, turns to Peter and asks what map we've been going on about. I wonder if they forgot she was there, or else thought that it was of no consequence.

Peter tells her that Duke has it set in his head that he's going to discover some lost confederate gold left over from the war, and restore the family fortune he threw away by means of his own stupidity.

All this, of course, is said out of earshot.

Hattie smiles a little at the awareness that someone besides her thinks that Duke is a blundering fool. Peter smiles a little too, just enough so that his whiskers twitch.

Peter was always able to keep a nice beard.

After a ways, we somehow manage to wind up at a little clapboard shack, so mossy and decrepit it almost blends in with the rest of its surroundings perfectly. A rusty pipe sticks out of the back, and to our relief, it emits smoke.

We discussed on the way the possibility of Ellie Mae not being there anymore. I'm not sure where Duke found out her location, but I figure it must have been through the grapevine of promiscuous characters and unsavory folk that we are privileged to know.

Thankfully, they were telling the truth.

Around the side of the shack, There's a bathtub, connected to several tea-kettles, sieves, and pipe-work. The bathtub is filled with a cloudy brown liquid, which is partially covered by a tarp. The sides are covered in tar, apparently to keep insects out.

Gunther ventures to go over and sniff at it. He says it doesn't smell bad, and Twist says "Well then why don't you take a sip and see how it tastes?"

He must be hoping it's poison.

Gunther dips a hand in, and brings it to his mouth. He promptly coughs it back up. For a moment we all fear that it really was poison, and Casey asks if he's all right.

"What it is?" Asks Duke.

"It's... It's..." He stammers, still choking. "...Whiskey.

He sneers at the yellow-belly, and walks over to the door, away from the makeshift distillery. Apparently, that's what Ellie has been doing out here all this time. And judging by Gunther's reaction, she's pretty good at it too. Not that I'm surprised. She's good at most everything else.

Duke takes a step back from the door, adjust the collar of his shirt, and smooths back his hair. I roll my eyes and hang back a little.

Then, after slowly drawing back his fist, he knocks, hard and fast.

Inside, we hear stirring, feet moving over the floorboards, a clicking sound. Is that a door unlatching or a rifle being loaded? We edge away, all of us except Duke.

The door opens slowly, and reveals the brim of a tanned leather hat, and the two brandy-brown eyes that peer from underneath. Straight golden hair surrounds a tanned face with equine features: Big eyes, a straight nose, and large white teeth.

Ellie Mae takes one look at our party, and slams the door shut.

Stunned, but not deterred, Duke raps again on the wooden door and waits patiently for it to be opened. When it is, he puts on his dashing smile once again, while the rest of us wonder which face we should be looking at; Ellie's, or the gun she's holding.

"Hello, El." He says.

Hattie peers out from behind us to catch a glance of the woman, who appears not to notice her.

"Duke Ramsey." El says simply, neither question nor statement, more of an accusation, as if that name alone were enough to condemn a man.

"Alive and well." He replies, with a show of teeth.

"So I can see." She says, her disappointment clear. She lowers her shotgun, resentfully.

"I never thought I'd see you again in this neck of the woods. You always were one to show up uninvited."

El turns around, as if she's going to lead us into the house, and then suddenly turns on her heel and raises the gun again.

"Of course, if I know Duke Ramsey, which I do, the only reason he would show his face on this side of the Mississippi is out of desperation."

Duke's smiles fades.

Mississippi, Mississippi, Miss Mississippi Mae.

"Desperation, and a side of greed, that is."

Hattie stands between Peter and I. She turns to me and says:

"Not much of a warm welcome."

And I reply:

"We're lucky she even opened the door."

It makes me think that maybe Ellie Mae is a little desperate too, giving us poor cowboys the time of day. Maybe she's gotten tired of moon-shining out in the backwoods, and longs for the outlaw life again. If that's the case, it must have been very dull indeed, for anyone to want to ride with us.

"Now darlin'..." Duke begins. El cocks the shotgun and narrows her eyes.

Courageously, he ventures to push the barrel away very cautiously, and attempts to take the gun from her. As soon as he starts to pull, El puts an elbow up in his nose, and in one fluid motion, raises the gun and fires.

Gunther is the only one to jump, as the bullet goes off into the sky with a puff of smoke, and Duke grips his nose. Paul jumps forward, but Eddie holds an arm out to stop him.

"Damn!" Duke curses, loud and clear. He grips his face and shakes his head vigorously.

"I would have think you'd learned by now, Duke." I say. "Don't mess around with a woman with her hand on the trigger."

Duke glares at me, and then everyone else in turn, for they're all chuckling along.

Hattie looks and me, and then back to El.

Spurred on past his attempt at politeness, Duke breaks down and blurts out.

"Ellie Mae, I need the damn map, so hand it over and we won't hurt you."

Duke should know better. He of all people, of everyone who's ever been unfortunate enough to cross paths with Ellie Mae, should know better. Especially when she's holding a gun.

She pulls the trigger, with the barrel pointed right between his eyes.

The sudden tension is followed by an immediate calm, as the mechanical 'click', and the fact that our leader's still breathing, tells us that the gun didn't fire. It was only half-loaded.

Duke looks like he's seen a ghost. He touches his neck, to find that it's still connecting his head and body. He cracks a smile.

"I'm, I'm alive!"

And then comes the sudden realization of what's just happened. He frowns, and points a shaky finger at Ellie Mae.

"You tried to shoot me!"

The worst is over. Twist restrains Duke, as Peter ushers everyone inside. Defeated, Ellie stands back and watches scornfully as the rest of us invade her peaceful home. Gently, I urge Hattie along, and warily, she follows us inside the musty-smelling cabin.

Inside is an impressive arsenal of rifles, pistols, repeaters, and homemade fire-bottles and dynamite, tucked away safely in small crates, opposite the wall of home-brewed liquors, pails of fermenting hops, corked bottles of brandy and elderberry wine.

At the far side of the room is a small fireplace, burning brightly with coals, and a hammock hanging from the ceiling near to it.

"Is that a big enough bed for two?" Asks Casey, deliberately earning a chuckle from all of us.

Ellie Mae turns around and gives him a stare.

"I mean, not that anyone would be in the same bed with you..." He says, without realizing the full implication of the words.

She steps forward and raises a hand to strike, but then Paul pulls him back, and she leaves off for a while. The cabin is barely big enough to fit us all.

Gunther looks around unsteadily at the various flammable items, and possibly loaded guns, as if they could go off at any minute.

Twist picks up a bottle of Scotch and sniffs it, gingerly.

El eyes him cautiously, and then lends an eye to the unfamiliar faces in the group; Gunther and Hattie.

"I see you've got yourselves a new rookie." She says flatly.

"Hey who says I'm a rookie?" Gunther squeaks from his long, skinny neck.

No one has anything to say to that.

"And her?" El says, nodding to Hattie. "Have you got yourselves a new dummy to play the damsel in distress?"

Us boys look sheepishly to our boots, and Paul says:

"You were never a damsel in distress to us, El."

She smiles.

"Well thank you, Mr. Larson." She says, before he can finish.

"You're just a distressing damsel."

Her smile drops into a pursed frown, and asks Hattie how she's gotten along with 'these pecker-heads' so far.

Revived at the attention, Hattie perks up again and says:

"I don't know what you've done in the past for these men, but I'm not working for any of them. They took me against my will in Clinton, and I elected to stay awhile, until I get to where I'm looking to go. I want to go out West, and learn medicine."

That was more information than she's given any of us in the entire time we've ridden together.

Ellie looks up from Hattie, and stares us boys down again.

"You kidnapped an innocent girl in one of your foolhardy schemes?"

She raises a light-haired eyebrow and grimaces.

"And dragged her along for what?"

Gunther looks to Eddie, who looks to Casey, who looks to me, who looks to Paul, who looks to Twist, who looks to Peter, who looks to Duke, and Duke looks around for someone else to blame, but he can find none, so he says:

"Well what do you want me to do, bring her back and say: 'Oh I'm sorry, Mister, it was an honest mistake. Here's your daughter back.'"

"Well it wouldn't be the first time!" El shouts back.

"You were the one who said we should elope in Tennessee!"

"Only because you told my father that I was in cahoots with your cowhand!"

"Well you were!"

"If you're talking about the night after the corn-husking dance at the McGuinness farm, then you're sorely wrong. That was a mutual mistake."

"That's not what he told me!"

The can go on like this for hours. Trust me.

Peter shakes his head, with a quiet: "Here we go again..."

Now might be the ideal time to explain how things went sour between the two of them, and I'm not just talking about Ellie 'not being respected as an outlaw'.

No they go back quite a bit further than that, I'm afraid.

You see, Ellie lived near the Ramsey plantation, but unlike him, she was a poor girl. Not many people know this, but she was a milk-maid before she ever became an outlaw. Her Ma and Pa died real young, I guess, and somehow she found herself a way to live. She would never own up to how, though, for she is a prideful woman, she is.

And then she met Duke, after she started working for his Pa, and they started getting real close, and though ranches and plantations are usually full of good hiding spots – I should know. We've holed up in one more than once – they got caught sooner than later, and that's about when Duke's Daddy kicked him out of the family, and scratched him out of his will, or whatever he did that made Duke turn to a life of crime. I've never met the man, myself, but I figure he must have been a real stickler of an SOB. Most of those rich folks are.

Now, when Duke met up with me and my brother, Ellie was still tight with him, somehow, considering all the yellin' and carryin' on they did all the time. When they weren't raising hell, though, they were happy as could be, hand in hand, dumbstruck by love, or so it would seem.

What really happened is that Ellie turned her eyes towards me.

She stopped lending a hand, if Duke was the one asking, and she started sneaking off all the time, to do Lord-knows-what, and Duke got pissed, and after that is when she started going on about not being treated right in the gang, and wanting an equal share in the gun-toting.

Don't get me wrong, I liked Ellie all right. She is quite a girl, but I don't know... After the excitement was gone, I stopped feeling anything. Not that I even got the chance to kiss her, even. Mostly I think she just liked making Duke mad.

I don't think that much has changed.

All traces of his ego gone, for a moment, Duke sheepishly pleads, once more, for the map. He says he'll do anything, anything, she wants, if she'll just give it here.

Ellie puts her hands in her pockets and says:

"I don't have it."

I could almost feel that coming, somehow.

So it turns out that after Ellie took off with Duke's map, after leaving us for dead in Indian Territory, proceeded to sell the map to some old cuss in Kansas.

"But... Why?" Pleads Duke, his pride hanging by a thread, with his hands all stiff like he's reaching out for his lost treasure.

A resounding moan of displeasure echoes through the tiny cabin.

"Look," Ellie begins, a little agitated sounding, "I took the map-"

"Stole." Casey corrects her.

"-And boarded a train to Dodge City. I poured over the thing all night. I figured that the reason we'd been going in circles was because you were too dumb to read the thing, but I couldn't make any sense of it either. It was all sorts of mixed up letters, and words. I wouldn't be able to make it out even if it wasn't covered in all those bloodstains.

So I sold it to a man in town."

"For how much?" Demands Duke, sounding like he's about to explode.

"Fifty dollars." She replies cooly. "I would have gotten more if not for that big coffee mug stain you left on it."

"How do you know it was me?" He asks defensively.

"Because you never let anyone else look at the damn thing..." I mutter. I get a poke in the ribs, and turn around to see that it's Hattie, giving me a scornful look for my language.

Funny, that...

There's a bit of a silence, while we soak in the knowledge of our prize going missing, and the prospect of having to either go retrieve it, or go on with our lives and give up on the two years we've been looking for it, staring us dead in the face. Neither option sounds appealing, but I suppose one of them is decidedly more optimistic...

Of course it also requires more work, something we; the Duke Ramsey gang, have never been in the habit of doing.

Dear Millie,

I scarcely believe the words I am writing, but I am going west!

I had thought it just a dream, some sort of far off hope to keep me going on long days when I had to mind the bank, and endlessly count stacks of money, and sweep the floors, and such.

Now it seems that my life is taking a turn for the extraordinary, and that those dime novels you're so fond of may not be so far-fetched after all.

From what I gather, these outlaws are after some buried treasure, or some foolishness. They've come out to St. Louis to find this girl named Ellie Mae. She's with us now. In her dungarees and collared shirts, she's not really much of a girl at all, but I find small comfort in her presence, anyhow. You don't know what it's like to ride with eight men. I'm ashamed to say that I do.

But for all this excitement, my guilty conscience preys on me more and more each day, knowing that my Pa must be worried sick over me. Half of me really wants to go home and marry Guy, if it would only make him stop missing my Ma, but the other half of me is someone new and daring, and it frightens me very much.

I will send these letters as soon as I can, and then you must promise me that you'll write to my Pa, and tell him not to worry about me. I know it's not much of a solution... But this may be the only chance I'll ever get to follow my dream. Never mind them and their lost gold of Eureka...

I will go west, and I will become a doctor.

Dear Hattie,

I know not wether you live, or what has become of my dear cousin, other that when I came to Clinton, Missouri –after I received word from your father that you were to be married– I was informed that you had been kidnapped, after a robbery in your father's own bank!

From what I gathered, a group of maybe six of them shot their way out of town, after failing to steal anything whatsoever, besides you.

I would gladly give the devil himself the contents of your Pa's bank if it would ensure your safe return to us. My heart hangs on a shred of hope, that the law will bring you back to us, and deliver swift justice to those who would dare bring this calamity to our family.

Thankfully, your betrothed is an honorable man, and a deputy, at that. The sheriff has seen fit to send him out with a posse of six other men in pursuit of you, my dear.

He seemed so determined to find you, I feel I must hold on to some faith, if only for his sake. The sheer size of the party seems enough to raise the spirits of myself and your sister Susan, though I fear I cannot say as much for your Pa. He's entrusted the bank to your brother in law, Hank, for the time being, himself being much too heartsick to manage it. I haven't seen him so since my dear aunt died, for shame.

Last I heard, someone saw you in St. Louis. God willing, Guy will find some trace of you there.

I pray for your safety day and night.

~ Millie Palmer

Chapter Six

Mysterious Stranger

After a unanimous decision to stay the night at Ellie's shack, our vote was countered with an even more important opinion: hers.

She kicked us all out, but not before checking our pockets for any stray bottles of her moonshine that may have 'accidentally' found their way there. Casey reluctantly handed back an unlabeled flask of brandy, while Twist slipped a similar bottle into the front of his pants, safe from reach.

We're now forced to find our way back to the city in the dead of night, without much of anything to show for our trouble.

You see, after Ellie told us what she'd done with the map, she made it pretty clear that she had no intention of joining us on our adventure... unless she was promised a fair share of whatever we found, if anything.

It's clear that Ellie doesn't hold much faith in Duke's map, or in the legend of the gold itself. I can't say I much blame her. I must confess my allegiance to the Duke Ramsey gang has been less than determined, and sourced from more of a lack of anywhere else to go, lately.

I've wasted so much time with him...

Ellie Mae did make mention of telling us, in no uncertain terms, what her idea of a 'fair share' was, though:

Fifty percent.

What followed was a heated volley between the two former lovers, ranging from five percent, to forty, until they met sort of in the middle at twenty-five.

Nine partners... Not including Hattie, and a twenty-five cut for one of them.

Well, I guess we deserve it.

So we finally convinced her to put in her lot with us, not without a good deal of "it'll be better this time"s, and "gee, we're real sorry how we treated you before"s.

She didn't return with us back to town though, she said she would stay the night by herself in her own place, so she could stow away all her valuables and pack up her things.

And suddenly, we have one more player on our team.

I have breakfast downstairs at the Golden West with my brother, and order a big plate of eggs, grits, and bacon. Peter settles on toast and coffee.

The girl brings our food, and we dig in to it, remarking on how nice the hotel is, and trying to avoid thinking about the long road ahead of us.

Everyone else is still upstairs, sleeping. Hattie said she wouldn't sleep in the same room as us, as it weren't proper, but there wasn't no water closet or anything in our room, just a communal down the hallway. So we made a compromise and hung up a sheet in one corner, to make a little private area for her. Casey and Gunther put it up, complaining and carrying on, and all the while gripping about how they didn't think Ellie would even show up the next day.

"So what do you think of having her with us?" I ask my brother.

"Who? Ellie Mae?"

"No, no, no," I say, shaking my head. "Hattie Palmer."

Peter pats his mouth with a napkin, and says that he reckons she'll be just fine with us as long as she keeps her wits about her.

"She is kind of a tranquil little thing." He adds.

Tranquil? Calm? I hardly think so. I imagine a calm little mountain stream, and think that Hattie may be more of an unexpected flash flood.

"How do you mean?" I ask him.

"Well, most women- or girls, if you prefer- might have collapsed under what she's been through over the past week, whereas Miss Palmer seems to be holding up just fine. Not only that, but she's found a way to take advantage of the situation to suit her own personal goals. That takes rare and prodigious composure, not to mention prudence, and common sense. I believe there may be more to her story than we'll ever have the pleasure of knowing."

I think on that for a moment.

"Maybe not."

I can tell by the way Peter raises his eyebrow ever so slightly, that he has detected a trace of opportunism in my short remark.

Before he can say anything, though, the very subject of our words comes tripping down the stairs, with her hair in a new braid.

She looks startled upon seeing us.

"Oh, I didn't know anyone else was up."

"Thinking of running off, again?" Asks Peter. There's no threat in his question, though. In fact, I doubt very much if Peter would think anything of it if Hattie had left us in Sedalia. It might put him more at ease. I've noticed he's a bit more on edge, since she's been with us, but maybe that's just on account of finding out about Duke's losing the map.

Hattie smiles a little. It's the first time I've seen her smile. It's a sweet, simple, plain kind of smile, but her eyes light up a little when she does it, and it takes me aback.

"Not for the world."

By the time everyone else gets up and is downstairs, either eating, or at the bar, or out back somewhere taking a leak, it's about ten o' clock. Come around ten-thirty, we decide that some re-supplying is in order, and send Eddie, Casey, and Gunther off to do that. Hattie jumps up and says that she wants to come to, and they shrug and let her go along.

A few minutes after they've returned to the hotel, the doors swing open, and Ellie comes striding in, all dressed and ready to ride, to come and collect us.

Duke turns around on his bar stool and sees her. He leaps up and goes to greet her.

"Darlin', you made it!" He puts out his arms for an embrace, but what he gets is a slap in the face.

A few of the people in he dining room turn around to look at the strange girl in overalls, giving this poor young man a good switching, but they go back to their newspapers and coffee pretty quick.

"What was that for?" Duke demands, rubbing his cheek, for the second time in less than a day.

"It's Monday." Eddie answers, from across the room.

Seems like as good an explanation as any.

"I've been wanting to do that for almost six months, now." Ellie says, by which I think she means: "This is for all the times you cheated me, disrespected me, and made me wear that god-awful blue dress."

Peter coughs, and breaks the silence.

"Well, there's no time like the present."

It takes us about an hour to get all our gear together, and ourselves gathered over to the train station to wait for the 2:30 to Dodge City.

We argued the entire time from when we left the hotel to when we sat down on the train platform about which way to go. Duke is still scared stiff to go anywhere near indian territory. Peter was finally able to convince him to go by saying that we'd keep him from getting killed, if at all possible, and not to be so scared of the Indians, as they're mostly keeping to themselves nowadays.

"I'm not skeered." He'd said with a sneer, and picked up his things to go.

I lean over to Hattie on the bench on the train platform where we're at, and ask if she ever plans on putting her little book away to stop scribbling.

"I'm sure you've written dozens of letters by now." I say.

She eyes me skeptically and asks how I know what it is that she's writing.

"Because they all start with 'Dear Cousin'."

She closes her book, with a little agitation, and starts tapping her pencil over the shiny cover.

"I ain't read nothing else, honest." I try to assure her. She doesn't look convinced.

Oh, that reminds me.

I found a volume on medicine while we were all running around town getting ready to leave for the station. It was sitting in a shop window, among other things, and I remembered what she'd said about wanting to be a lady doctor, or something. I bought it for ten cents. It was a real bargain, I think, considering how beat up it was.

I pull it out of my duster pocket and hand it to Hattie, while everyone else is distracted looking for the train.

"Here, I got this for you."

She looks surprised, but takes it, and runs her hands over the tattered spine.

"It's a little beat up, I guess, but it's got some real nice pictures inside."

She flips through the pages briefly, and then looks up at me and smiles.

"Thank you, Mr. Valentine. Thank you very much."

"You're welcome, Miss Palmer."

And then I leave, so I don't have to say anything else, to go and stand by the tracks.

For the duration of the train ride aboard the Gunnison and Beckwith line, which should take up most of the day, the Duke Ramsey gang has themselves an uncomfortable ride in near silence. Luck happens it that Duke should get the seat right next to Ellie Mae, and his pride restricts him from talking. He's got the window seat, so mostly he just chews tobacco and looks out at the greenery passing us by, and spits the tobacco plugs on the floor when Ellie gets up for water or something, so that she'll step in them when she comes back.

Eddie and I share seats, with me getting the window. The rest of us are all paired up as well; Casey and Gunther, Paul and Twist, and Peter and Hattie.

He's showing her something in a book, I can tell, because she looks very interested, and is asking questions and smiling. I'm sure it's about something I don't understand, and including a lot of big words that I can't pronounce.

Is that a twinge of jealousy?

Maybe.

Outside of my own little world, and all my companions, there are all manner of people, old geezers taking soda mint tablets for their train sickness, ladies clinking needles together over piles of yarn and needlepoint, whining children driving their parents crazy, and their well-behaved counterparts, quietly excusing themselves down the aisles.

And then on the other side of the food-chain, there are men in black hats with expensive gold watches, crooked thimbleriggers, beady-eyed poker players in the salon car, taking advantage of the bar, and shuffling round after round of cards on the tables, which are scratched and burnt from countless tumblers and cigars that have rested there.

Eddie leans over to me and whispers:

"That man has been staring at you since we boarded the train."

I follow his gaze to a man in the corner wearing a dark blue suit and a black corduroy vest. He has a western style hat tipped low, just barely obscuring a pair of steely eyes and a neatly trimmed mustache.

He looks calm, sitting with a cigarette, taking slow, careful puffs.

I look away, afraid he'll notice me.

"What about him?" I ask Eddie. I've seen his type before. This is a locomotive, after all. The variety of people that congregate under one roof on the same track is almost frightening. You never know who might be sitting next to you.

For the most part though, the underbelly that pays fare for public transportation are a harmless bunch;

"No sé." He replies with a shrug.

Well then I'll just have to keep my eye on him too.

Opposite Eduardo and I, Duke and Ellie are arguing again.

The blonde pours herself a cup of coffee from a metal canister into a tin cup.

"Where'd you get that?"

"I took it from my cabin." She says matter-of-factly.

Duke begs for a taste, which Ellie refuses for several minutes, until he asks again, and with lost patience, she gives in and holds the cup up to his lips.

Before he can take a sip though, she tips the cup just enough to make it spill into Duke's lap, pain worthy of a good yelp from him, and a small, satisfied smile from Ellie Mae.

Duke doesn't ask for any more coffee after that.

The man in the blue suit is still eyeing me discreetly, so I suggest to my friend that we go into the salon car for a while and play some poker.

We throw down a few hands, and Eddie lands up besting me pretty good. I don't hold it against him, though, because my thoughts are elsewhere. I think about Hattie and I think about gold, I think about my Ma, and even my Pa.

I wish I could erase his memory, and try to believe he never existed.

I know I'll never be able to, though. His blood is in my veins. It doesn't matter if I move away or change my name.

I guess you could say that trying to buy back my family's ranch would be counterproductive to that purpose, but when I think about my Ma, which I do often, all I can think about it going back to our stead, and seeing that tree where we buried her, and trying to remember what her beautiful garden looked like in the summertime.

And for that reason, I am holding on to the slim hope that maybe the gold in Eureka is real, and that maybe if I can get my hands on just a piece of it, I can reclaim the land, and say goodbye to the Duke Ramsey gang forever.

After that, everything will be perfect. I tell myself, though I don't know for sure it's the truth.

We go back into the passenger car after I've lost twenty dollars or so, and sit back down. Hattie perks her head up when she sees me come back in. She's scribbling in her journal again. I wish I could see weather she's reading the book I got her, but the next seat ahead obscures my view. I know she's writing, though, because she keeps pushing her hair back, and she only does that when she's writing something important, which is most everything that she writes, near as I can tell.

I change my glance and direct it to the corner seat where the mysterious man was watching me from, but he's not there. Instead of feeling relieved, though, I get a nervous sensation that something bad is going to happen. Of course, I seem to get that feeling a lot.

Then again, bad things seems to happen to us a lot, too.

Ten minutes later, and the gentleman is still not back in his seat. He wasn't in the salon car when Eddie and I were in there, and he ain't in the restaurant car either, because you pass through that one to get to the salon car.

Where's the little bastard hiding?

After a bit, someone comes down the aisle from the car in front of us, which is curious, because the only thing in front of us are the baggage cars and the engine. He's a priest of some kind, by the looks of him. He's dressed in some fashion of shapeless black robes with buttons down the front, a white necktie, and a flat-brimmed black hat.

He appears to be about fifty-five or so, with graying hair and a black stubble on his square chin.

He calmly floats down between the rows of people, his robes seeming to encompass everything, including his hands.

Duke whispers behind his seat to Paul something about railroad con-men, dressing as priests, and conducting schemes so devious and vile that honest clerics seldom traveled in their cloth.

Ellie says he's a lyin' fool and that he don't know the first thing about scheming.

Then she shuts him up, as the priest has stopped right at their seat.

He turns to them and smiles. I can't see his face, really, but I know he must be smiling quaintly as he asks them if they have the time. He doesn't seem to mind that Ellie's in dungarees and boots, like she always is, and I have to wonder about the old coot's eyesight

"Excuse me, young man." He says pleasantly. "Would you be willing to help me move my bags over to the other car? You look like a strong fellow. I'm feeling a bit drowsy, and I should like to rest for a while."

Duke looks him up and down with about as much respect as he had for last night's thundermug, when he emptied it this morning.

"You want a long rest, Father? I ain't haulin' your bags."

For a second, no one says anything, and I think to myself that lightning might just strike Duke Ramsey square in his big head right then and there, and that would be the end of him and the world could go on living in peace for a while, but my hopes are far too high.

The priest looks at him, cordially, and appears as though he might turn around and go for a moment, but instead he begs:

"Pardon me, son?"

Ellie gives Duke a hard kick, which should shut him up, but he keeps on going against all common sense.

"I said I ain't haulin' your stuff around, and I ain't your son."

And then I notice something on the man's shoulder. Something small and woven, suspended by a string. It seems familiar to me, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is. At any rate, Duke doesn't see it, as he carries on with his misguided misgivings toward the man in black.

It seems like I've seen such a thing before on Priests, but I can't quite remember. There's a name for it.

Spatula... spatulate... scapula... scapular!

This man is the real thing. If nothing else proves that Duke's claims are unfounded, than that certainly does.

"I'm terribly sorry, Father." Interjects Ellie before I can protest, or Duke can say anymore.

"My companion here is a bit of a drunk." She says, while the rest of the gang, nearby, listens and watches intently.

"He may not be a smart man," She adds, earning a look from the subject. "But he means no harm."

The priest, though a bit shaken looking, remains surprisingly stable. He nods and says:

"I understand, Miss. I'll just be on my way then."

For a moment, he appears to be much stronger, younger even, and full of boldness. Then he floats away surrounded by his black robes again, and he appears to be a frail old minister once again.

As soon as he's gone, Ellie punches Duke in the arm, with as much force as our cramped seats can administer.

"You damned fool, what in God's name are you thinking when you open your mouth?" She says harshly, trying to keep her voice hush.

"The old man was a crook." Duke says, unaffected.

I tell him about the scapula around his shoulders, and before he can ask what it is, Peter leans over from his seat behind Casey and Gunther's, and explains to him that it's a religious article that priests wear when they undertake a vow.

Black robes and white collars are easy enough to procure, but something intricate and sentimental merits more authenticity.

I suppose if he was a crook, he could have stolen it off of some dead man, but most of us draw the same conclusion, and Duke is turned against once again, in a frenzy of curses and accusations.

Forced to admit his mistake, or defend it, Duke chooses the latter, and tells us all that he had a look in his eye, you could just tell he was up to no good.

"Mark my words, before the day is out, this train will be under full assault at the hands of a man in black."

As a round of Faro dies down in the salon car, Peter sips a brandy, and I put down my last hand to join him at the bar. I throw down ten cents for a glass of beer.

Outside, the flat plains of Kansas slip by us, too fast for me to see the critters coming out of their fox-holes and burrows to look for their dinner.

Hattie is here too, sitting with Eddie and a few middle-aged women who've decided to forgo a rest in favor of a game of whist.

Last I checked, Gunther had fallen asleep on Casey's shoulder in the passenger car. I have a feeling that when they wake up, someone's going to land up with a black eye.

Lord knows what the rest of them have gotten up to.

The noise of the tracks is enough to drown out whatever else might be going on in the other cars.

Well, almost enough.

Screeeeeeech!

The train suddenly pulls to a stop, sending my drink rolling across the table, and spilling over a jack-high straight.

And the only good hand I've had all night, too.

"What in sam hell was that?" Peter asks.

The bartender too, looks shaken, as he picks up the pieces of the glass he was polishing. The sudden jolt has given everyone quite a stir, especially the old ladies. There are a few cries of 'good heavens' and 'land sakes', as everyone recovered from their surprise.

"I dunno." I say to my brother, not quite sure what to make of this.

"Well maybe we ought to check it out." He says grimly, with a faint trace of exhaustion, as if he'd just like to have one day for a change, when something unfortunate wasn't happening to the Valentine boys.

"Ed, you stay here with the others. Webb and I will check this out."

We go into the restaurant car, to find Duke, Paul, and Twist already on their feet and rarin' to go, guns drawn, jumping out of their seats for the passenger car. We follow their lead, and spring across ready for all hell to break loose.

What we find is a car-full of scared women and children, and gentlemen making themselves look bad by wishing they'd brought along a pistol, or else by being too scared to use it.

In the middle, standing in the aisle, is the man in the blue suit, who'd been watching me all day, with a pair of colts drawn, poised to shoot anyone reckless enough to challenge them.

His eyes shoot towards us, as does one of his pistols, while the other holds the crowd at bay.

"Don't move." He says, and cocks the trigger on his colt.

We all drop our guns to the floor.

"Another perfectly executed plan?" I whisper sarcastically to Duke, who appears very sorry that he's let go of his gun, as he looks like he's got a mind to shoot me.

"Shut up!" The man in blue says.

Held off at gunpoint, and unable to save ourselves, I silently pray that Ellie Mae or someone would come in and save our sorry hides. I wonder where she is...

The opposite car door opens, but instead of her, we get a man dressed in black, from head to toe, with his hands clasped together beneath his all-encompassing robes.

"Father, help us!" A women cries, but she only gets an unfriendly glance from the preacher, before he turns to the man in blue, and begins conversing with him privately, his pleasant demeanor completely gone, and replaced by the stone-cold voice of a criminal.

"Have you relieved these goats of their worldly goods?"

"Collection has already been taken, Father Zithers" Replies his partner.

Father Zithers glances around, scanning the rows like a farmer might eye his garden, seeking out which vegetables appear to be ripe.

He steps towards a slender woman, dressed somberly, with a look of stricken panic upon her. Around her neck hangs a golden cross. With a swift jerk, it's gone, disappeared into the preacher's hand.

"You missed one."

"You cold bastard!" Cries a man near us, jumping out of his seat like he's going to charge the two gunmen.

Before he can put a foot in the aisle, though, the preacher reaches his hands inside his robe, and quicker than I've ever seen a weapon drawn before, pulls out two sawed-off shotguns, aiming them at the poor man's head. So quickly they're in his hands, I can't tell where they were, or how he concealed them. I silently wonder to myself what else he has hidden in there, and decide that I'd rather not find out.

The man who dared challenge him slowly takes a step back, and sits down slowly in his seat, with his hands in the air.

"Jonah," The Preacher says, speaking to the man in blue, while keeping his eyes trained on his target.

"Please check the other cars for any stragglers we may have missed."

Jonah nods, and puts his guns away, now that his partner is taking care of the hostages.

I wonder to myself, as he walks into the restaurant car, if everyone was this frightened when we held up the bank in Clinton. I can't imagine anyone would be so terrified of us, when five of us can't even stop a pair of two train-robbers.

As Father Zithers keeps us squared off, ordering us would-be rescuers to sit down, Peter leans over and whispers to me very quietly that he's got an idea.

Duke, who overhears, asks what it is, forgetting his pride for a moment in the interest of living.

"When Jonah comes back, we'll get him to go into the sleeping car, and when he's gone, we make for the other end of the train. Webb, you can go to the engine and-"

"No talking, son!"

Duke gets red in the face, and looks Father Zithers right in the eye, with a look that could kill, if he didn't look so ridiculous with his hands up in the air, and his gun at his feet.

"I told you," He says, and takes a firm step forward.

"I ain't your son!"

Not quite sure what to make of this display, Father Zithers keeps his gun trained on Duke, while he continues to spiel out useless words, which only serve to distract the other passengers from their prayers for mercy.

"My father is James Dean Ramsey the second, and if he were here right now, he's have you on your knees, beggin' for mercy!"

I've never seen Duke's father, personally, but Ellie once told me that he's a mean old cuss who's never worked a day in his life, and who wouldn't know how to shoot if his life depended on it. I highly doubt that he would do much to strike fear into the hearts of an outlaw, though he's plenty good at scaring small children, I hear.

"Your father is James Ramsey?" Father Zithers asks, with a newly kindled look of interest.

"Yeah." Duke says, looking a little scared.

Father Zithers lowers his gun for a second, and Duke correspondingly lowers his hands. The gun goes back up, and so do the hands.

"The same James Ramsey who kept his plantation after the war, made a fortune off investments in the railroad, and used the money to pay his freed slaves to come back and work the same fields for him, so he could keep his family's land?"

"Yeah."

That's more than I knew about Duke's father before, and I gotta say, it's pretty impressive. From what I see of the other's faces, I can tell they feel about the same.

Father Zithers looks at our gang leader with disgust.

"How did he ever raise an idiot like you?"

I have to say, it feels pretty good to watch somebody else put him in his place, even if it is a crooked old bastard who's pointing a gun at us while his partner is probably planting dynamite elsewhere in the train to blow us all to hell.

Duke doesn't have anything to say after that, but even if he did, he wouldn't get the chance, because at that moment, the screech of wheels, and the shriek of steam fills the train, and a sudden jolt of movement sends us all toppling into each other. Father Zithers loses his balance temporarily, and grabs onto on of the seats, dropping one of his guns.

"What in-"

We take the opportunity, and run with it. Bursting through the car with more composure and synchronicity than we've had all day and all night, the five of us make it to the other end of the car, sweeping our pistols of the ground, and knocking Father Zithers into the arms of an old lady with spectacles, who cries out in alarm.

"Sorry, Father." I say, as I bustle by, kicking the shotgun that fell across the floor of the car. The diversions work. We all make it out of the passenger car with our hearts still beating.

The train seems faster now, even faster than when it was moving before, but I can't tell for sure. Maybe it just feels that way since we're outside it, surrounded by the flatlands that move past us at dizzying speeds.

Balancing on the link between the two cars, and shouting above the noise of the engine, Peter turns back to face us and says:

"I'll get to the engine and see what's going on. Duke, take Twist and Paul and try to find the girls. Webb,"

He looks at me, and I nod.

"Alright, hurry!" He calls back to the others, already ascending the ladder on the side of the passenger car, and making their way above it.

Peter and I go the opposite direction, and climb onto the baggage car. The engine is just ahead. As we reach the top, the thick white steam gets in our eyes, making it difficult to cross.

Cross we do, though, climbing over the hot roof of the car, and dropping down onto the bridge between that and the engine. We both jump over, and find ourselves with Ellie Mae, who's manning the train like a professional, fire in her eyes. I don't know weather she's glad to see us, or just happy that she got the train moving.

"About time you boys showed up." She says, above the roar of the train's whistle.

"Where are the others?" I call back to her.

She shrugs, and says that she doesn't know. She was in the sleeping car when she heard the commotion, and she climbed out and over the other cars. By the time she got to the engine, the driver was gone.

"I'm going to check the baggage car." Peter says, cocking his rifle, and then disappearing.

"I see you've learned how to drive that thing." I say to Ellie Mae. She just grins back at me, and pulls the whistle again.

When I don't hear from Peter, I go into the next car, and have a look around. Suitcases, luggage, a birdcage housing a noisy parrot, and all manner of other things crowds the place, but I see no sign of Peter, or anyone else for that matter.

He's either climbed over to the back end of the train, or he's gone into the passenger car again, and braved the wrath of Father Zithers.

The doorknob on that side of the car rattles. I hope it's Peter, but in my gut I know I'm not going to be that lucky. I glance around madly for somewhere to hide, and spot a hatch on the ceiling. I try it.

Supporting myself on a stack of briefcases, I can wriggle up just fast enough to hear the door swing open as I close the hatch.

Looking up and across towards the back of the train almost makes me lose my balance, but I keep my eyes on the tops of the cars, and start to climb back towards the salon car, hoping that Jonah hasn't made it that far yet, or else Hattie and Ed have found someplace to hide.

As I'm making a leap for the restaurant car, I look back and steal a glance at the enemy I know is pursuing me. I can hear him scrambling over the top of the train, just like me.

Instead of seeing the crook preacher, though, I spot the man in the blue suit, Jonah, who must have made his way back to the passenger car, and heard me up on the roof.

Leaping and running as best as I can on a train moving eighty miles an hour -which I can tell you with certainty, is about as easy as trying to ride a bronco bareback down the side of a canyon- I keep my focus on the salon car, or what I think is the salon car, anyways. I'm not exactly counting, here.

Since the bridges to the passenger, restaurant, and salon cars are covered, I look for a hatch to bring me down into the train, hoping that it's open.

Thank the Lord, it is.

With Jonah right at my tail, I drop down into the car, behind the bar, and almost land on Hattie.

"Webb!" She calls out in alarm, as I apologize for almost hitting her, without realizing that that's the first time I've heard her call me by my first name.

"Where's Eddie?" I ask.

"He's hiding in the caboose. I came back this way to try and help."

Footsteps sound above our heads, warning me to take leave.

"Come on," I say, grabbing Hattie by the arm. "We don't have much time."

Thinking quickly, I open the door to the restaurant car, and then run back in the other direction, into the sleeping car, closing the door behind me.

Hopefully, he'll buy us some time and go back into the passenger car.

When we find Eddie, he's standing behind the door with a lead pipe. He almost knocks us over the head when we enter, before he realizes who it is, and he recoils, and I tell him to watch it.

"Dios mio, you're alive." He says, breathing a sigh of relief, as if he's been holding his breath.

"For the time being." I say cynically, as I close the door tightly. I steal a quick look around the caboose, but it's empty of anything I could put to use.

"So that's your plan?" I ask, frustrated.

"Sorry, chico." Eddie shakes his head. "I've been waiting for you to show up so I wouldn't have to think of one."

I can't help but smile, in spite of our dire situation.

"Figures."

I motion for Hattie and Eddie to keep watch, while I steal a peek up on the roof to make sure none of those SOB's have doubled back.

On the balcony of the caboose, I almost trip over a crate, about the size of a large pumpkin.

Damn, who leaves a box lying around like that?

Then the words stamped on the side catch my eye:

"Handle with care"

It could be china. It could be glass. Or...

"Hey Eddie, you got a knife on you?"

He hands it over, and I cut through the thick twine that binds it as quickly and as carefully as I can. I've got a feeling about what's in this crate, and it's not something I'd ever be reckless about.

I pry the lid open with all my might, until it gives.

Yup. Dynamite. Good old fashioned, home-brewed, dynamite.

And I'm thinking that that's just what we needed.

I turn around and go back inside the caboose, and tell Eddie to take Hattie, as quick as he can, back into the passenger car, as far away as he can.

"Surrender, throw down your gun, whatever you have to do to make it over there alive, just get as far away from here as you can."

"What are you doing?" Hattie asks, panicked.

I pull out a pack of matches, and her look turns from concern to anger.

"Are you crazy?"

I have to be amazed that she figured out my plan so fast, but I tell her and Eddie to go, and practically push them out of the car, before Hattie can beg me to stop and think, or my friend can make any wisecracks about how now isn't the time to be smoking.

With them out and on their way, I sit down and get to work lighting the fuse.

"Hey, preacher." I call out, standing on the top of the restaurant car with my gun drawn, ready to do whatever I have to, though I can't say I'm too pleased about it. I figure I have about five minutes before those explosives blow the caboose to kingdom come. I just hope I don't have to go with it.

For a moment, I get no reply, and I wonder if the sound of the churning wheels have drowned me out. I wonder if Ellie is still driving, or weather I'm the last man standing, and Jonah and Father Zithers have already massacred the rest of the train.

And then I see the door of the passenger car swing open, and a black hat emerges from it, followed by the rest of the preacher.

"I need to have a word with you, Father!" I shout.

He stands fixed where he is, squinting in the dark.

"Come over here and face me, boy!" He calls back in a raspy voice.

I have to get him over here. I have to get him and Jonah into the caboose.

"Not a chance." I reply. "Get you and your partner over here in five minutes, guns holstered, hands up."

I know I'm being a little bold in making such a demand, but it's the only way I can think of to get both of them over here. I know they won't do what I ask, even if they do come, anyways.

Father Zithers disappears into the car again, and I drop down correspondingly into the caboose. I look down at the fuse, peeking out from behind the door behind me, and silently start counting down in my head. I make it four minutes, just to be safe.

Then, the door opens again, and assuming it's either Zithers or Jonah, I jump my gun as fast as I can, fingers crossed.

It's just Peter, though, and boy am I glad to see a him. I put away my gun and smile deeply.

"How the hell'd you get over here, Peter? Them suckers have got everybody boxed in."

"I slipped out while you were conversing with the Preacher. We haven't got much time, though. He's sent Jonah out for you, and I have a feeling it's not so you two can talk."

I nod, understandingly, and then remember that I have a fuse burning in here, and I steal a peek out the door to see if anyone's coming.

"What do you need, little brother?" Peter asks.

I tell him I could use a hand disconnecting the two cars.

"I've got two pounds of dynamite back there ready to blow, and I want to make sure that the rest of the train isn't connected to it when it does."

Peter looks at me like I'm crazy, which I reckon I am, but he doesn't complain, and hurries out the back so he can get to the other car, without risking being seen by Jonah, who's just on time opening up the door, anyways.

I waste no time pointing a gun at his head, though I can barely aim. I don't rightly know if it's the train or my own hands that are causing the weapon to shake so badly.

His own pistol ready to fire, Jonah holds steady for a moment, as our eyes make contact. I blink, knowing that my own may well betray my fear.

"Put down the gun, boy." Jonah says.

I shake my head fiercely, childishly, and think to myself what a stupid idea this was. I haven't got a clue what to do next, but stand here and wait for Jonah to pull the trigger and hope he's a faster shot, which I'm almost certain he is. Those keen eyes, slick suit, with the weathered hands sticking out, out of place with their scars, seem to tell of experience and agility.

Above us, a metallic thump says that Peter has picked his moment to jump across to the other car, his sturdy frame making a good piece of noise, and causing Jonah to look up for a second.

Stealing the opportunity, I shoot Jonah's pistol out of his hand, hitting him just above the knuckles.

Clutching himself in pain, he looks back at me, and takes a wild swing with his good hand, suddenly losing his cool composure in an attempt to regain control of the situation.

I jump back and duck in response, and through the open door behind my opponent, I can see that Peter is on the roof of the sleeping car, crouching in wait.

I swing back at Jonah with a left hook, knowing it will be harder to defend himself with an injured hand on that side. He grabs my fist awkwardly with his other hand, and pulls me forward, towards him, with surprising might, yanking my gun from my hands in the process. I use the force to ram against him, which I know he doesn't expect. My dear cattleman flies out of his hands, and lands at the feet of Father Zithers, who has just emerged from the sleeping car.

Oh, hell.

As Zithers grabs me by the collar, and Jonah tries to twist my arm around and reach for my gun, I look out through the open door and see Peter, poised and ready to disconnect the two cars. He's got a steel pry-bar there with him, which I expect he got from the engine car, ready to help him out.

I silently scream to him in my head for him to get over here and help me out with these two goons, but he looks calm and determined to stay right where he is.

With a little effort, I manage to break free from Father Zither's iron grip, and Jonah's clammy grab, for just long enough to bolt to the other end of the caboose, and get my bearings.

I don't need to beat them, I suddenly realize. I just need to make sure they're here when this thing blows, and I've already done that.

Having used my break as an opportunity to grab my revolver, Jonah doesn't hesitate to fire four shots into the wall, giving me only a split second to take cover. At my feet, I can see that the fuse on that box of dynamite is looking mighty short. Only a few more seconds, maybe.

I have to get out of here.

I scramble up onto the roof as quick as I can, and make my way across.

Neither of the robbers follows me. Too easy to push them off the side of the train, I imagine. Instead, they make it their business to punch holes through the roof of the train car, following the sounds of my footsteps. I feel a bullet graze my left toe, and look down to see how Peter's doing.

The other two are so distracted with me, they don't even notice him.

"Hey, look over there!"

Or maybe they do.

Peter gives the metal workings one last tug with the pry-bar, and dives inside for cover.

I know in a few seconds, this car will be nothing more than a pile of steaming wood and metal, a few wheels, if they survive.

As the inches grow quickly into feet, I know I'll have to jump, even with the threat of Jonah shooting up at me.

I take a deep breath, a running start, and leap.

I seem to fall forever, thought it's only seven feet or so, and less than that in length. For an agonizing moment, I look down at the tracks below, and think that I'm doomed for a hard and sudden collision with them, while the rest of the train leaves me behind for buzzard-food.

And then, I make contact with the car in front of me, if only just barely, and I grab onto the end and hold on with all that's in me, yanking my legs up so they don't touch the ground, and pull me down with them.

And then Peter is there, and he grabs ahold of me, and pulls my skinny self up by his sturdy arms, while behind me, a great noise like an earthquake, and a flash of bright light, sends the caboose down the side of a hill, flaming, and breaking apart as it goes.

Heaving me up into a sitting position on the end of the car, I catch the last few seconds of it; a glory of orange flame, and red glow, followed by clouds of thick gray smoke.

From what I can see, the car is still at least partially in tact, in some places, but I can't get a good look. We're already too far away.

"I can't believe I just did that..." I say, panting for breath, and wiping the sweat from my brow.

"I can't believe I just let you do that." Peter says, regretfully.

"Don't matter, now, does it?" I ask, still staring at the remaining haze in the distance, where the remains of the caboose lie.

"We're safe now, for the time being anyways."

That's the way it always happens, isn't it? There's always something in your way, always some obstacle that forces you to take the long way around a problem, and then, once you've finished with that, there's another to take its place, like a patch of stubborn weeds that just keep springing up.

Gunther meets us halfway back to the passenger car, stricken with panic, his big eyes popping out all funny like.

"Guys, we've got to get off the train."

"It's all right." I say. "We took care of them.

Gunther has always been a little slow in the head.

"No, it's not them!" He says back. "It's one of them fellas from St. Louis, he says thinks he recognizes Duke. There's a bounty out for us!"

"Oh, Lord..." Peter says, exasperated, as if he's in need of a very long rest.

Gunther nods his head quickly, and gulps.

I look at Peter and we share a look of dread, wondering what Duke's been doing all this time to make the situation worse.

"Gunther, where are the others?" I ask, hastily trying to recount where I'd seen everyone last, and how fast it would take them to get here from the other end of the train.

"Eddie and the girl are headed this way. Ellie's trying to stop the train again, and Twist is trying to get some horses down from the stable car, while Duke holds them off.

Oh, great. And here I think we're gonna be heroes for saving the train from those baddies, and now we have to turn around and hold up the same train, so that we can get off of it.

Mind you, at least we ain't robbed nobody. Everything of value is back with the caboose, stuffed into Father Zither's robes.

That's not to say that if we had a full set of horses, and some good daylight to work with, we would as much as hesitate to relieve those passengers of some of their earthly goods. I guess maybe we're no better than the preacher and his partner, if you want to put it truthfully.

It's things like this that keep me up at night, wondering why I'm still running with Duke and his gang.

Maybe I'll feel better when we get away from this God-awful freight from hell.

Once again, the train comes to a grinding halt, letting us know that Ellie has done her job. She should be at the front with Twist at any moment, now.

The three of us go into the salon car, where Eddie is keeping watch through the window. Sure enough, we can just see out of the corner that there is a team of horses, all being held by Twist McAdams, who's surely waiting for the rest of us to get off the train.

"Where's Hattie?" I ask, seeing as the two were together, last I knew of.

I glance over to the bar, where Ms. Palmer was before I blew up the caboose, keeping out of sight behind the counter.

"She's in the passenger car. She forgot her little book, I think."

I rush forth into the next car, to find her standing next to Duke, with his arm around her waist, pointing a gun at her head.

"Duke!" I yell, which causes him to look up from the passengers he's terrifying and give me an annoyed look.

"What are you doing here, Valentine?"

"What the hell are you doing, Ramsey? Put that thing down before I put another hole in your head."

He does so grudgingly, still keeping his right hand poised and ready to fire a shot, although he's only aiming at the floorboards now.

"Trust me, that's the last thing he needs." Hattie says in response to my last remark.

"Now you apologize to these good people who've just gotten robbed and threatened by another man, more frightening than you." I demand, taking a step forward, and drawing my gun. Duke knows that if I want to, I can have it pointed at his chest faster than he can blink.

Whenever this sort of thing happens, Duke looks at me real hard with something that might be described as fear, that is, if Duke Ramsey could ever admit to being fearful. It'd be better recognized as uncertainty. "You ain't the boss 'round here, Valentine." He says.

I think how funny this might seem to all of them, watching and wondering who's really in control here. Anybody with a lick of common sense could see that Duke's leadership skills are more than below par. I just hope he looks as stupid to everyone else as he does to me when he's trying to give orders.

I turn to both sides of the car, to each frightened face in turn, and say:

"Pardon my boss, here. He may not be a wise man, but he's an angry son of a gun when he means to be, and trust me folks, you don't want to see that happen."

I holster my gun, letting Duke know I don't mean to argue any more with him just now, and the passenger car breathes a sigh of relief.

Outside, a loud whistle pierces the air.

Without wishing the rest of the people a pleasant day, I usher Duke, Hattie and I off of the train, where Twist has five horses waiting for us. Eddie and my brother are there, too.

My friend and I jump onto a horse together, and Ellie and Hattie also ride together. The rest get their own.

I glance over my shoulder, and see through the windows of the passenger car that a woman is screaming and pointing at us through the glass.

"Come on, let's get out of here!" Duke yells, as he gets onto his mount. We spur forward into the dark, away from the train in the opposite direction while it keeps heading through Kansas.

Chapter Seven

It takes us another full day of riding to get to Dodge City, with half of us griping for most of the way, and the other half babbling about the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and recounting tales of the folk heroes who fought there.

Gunther and Eddie seem real excited at the prospect of seeing what they call, 'women, wine, and the wild west', and getting their hands on some of the legend they talk so much about. I suppose we've all heard the stories of the lawmen and outlaws of the west. Maybe that's part of what drove the others to being in Duke's gang.

Now those legends are gone, though, and the only thing that remains is there memory. Even the famous saloons have vanished, destroyed by the fire of '85.

Peter tells me that the Earp brothers now live in Colorado, and that Bat Masterson is a traveling gambler.

Their days of law-enforcement are over, and what was once the wickedest city in the West is now just another ordinary town. The cattle drives are gone, along with the businesses that profited from them.

Peter tells Gunther that he's in for a disappointment if he's hoping to see the China Doll brothel and the Long Branch saloon still up and running, but he doesn't want to hear it.

I searched the saddle bag on my new horse, a gray dappled mare, to see if there was anything of use in it. The contents as I found them are this:

A spare shirt, about ten sizes too big for me.

A box of .45 ammunition, half full.

An envelope of tobacco, no paper.

And a pair of boots, once again, much too big for me. I wouldn't wear them anyways. I prefer my lace-ups.

In the toe of one of them is a silver dollar. I tuck that in my shirt pocket, and throw the rest of the stuff back in the saddlebag. I'll see if I can't sell the boots for something, though with the way they smell, I greatly doubt it.

After we'd ridden a good distance away from the train, and we were certain no one was coming back for us -seeing as how we'd taken their horses- we made camp and slept for a few hours, until the sun came up. After that, we kept riding, stopping only once to fill our canteens at a stream, until we felt about ready to drop out of the saddle. We stayed away from the main road, and followed the direction of the setting sun, when it got to be about that time.

Thankfully, my brother carries around a compass with him, and besides that he's a wonderful navigator. We made it into town at around eight.

Cautiously creeping our way through Front Street, one at a time, we hitch our horses in the livery, and travel in twos to the saloon. It's too late to make any head-way in our quest for Duke and Ellie's map, and none of us have eaten since we've been on that God-awful train.

Thankfully, we boys make a habit of keeping our valuables within reach at all times, and most of us still had some money tucked in our socks, enough to buy us a decent meal. Despite our protective nature, we decide to split up, still paranoid that someone from the train might recognize us, and constantly looking over our shoulders to see if we recognize any of them.

Gunther, Eddie, Paul, and Hattie go and sit over at a table, while the rest of us pull our collars up high and order at the bar.

Pretty soon, I'm digging into a big plate of biscuits and gravy, and gulping down a frosty mug of beer. The others are equally involved in their food for a good long while before anyone works up the energy to talk about what we've come here for.

"So who's this guy you sold it to?" Asks Duke, looking around as if he expects him to be right around the corner. Either that, or he's still checking for lawmen. It wouldn't be the first time we've been arrested in a saloon.

"Is he here in town?" Asks Peter. Both of them are intently staring at the blonde-haired girl, waiting for answers, as she continues cutting through her steak. She keeps her composure cool though, and keeps stuffing pieces of juicy steak into her mouth, pausing every once in a while to spit out a hunk of gristle.

"No," She replies between bites. "He's a rancher, I think. Northnerner. Old as hell, too."

I guess that's slightly encouraging. More so than a whole pack of cowboys would be, at least.

Then again, those old timers are a stubborn bunch, and I'd hate to have to rob an old man.

"So where does he live?" Duke asks.

Ellie shrugs her shoulders and picks up the shot-glass in front of her. We watch in admiration as she tips it back in one giant swig.

"I don't know." She answers, to the dismay of everyone else at the table.

"I met him in town. Never been to his place. He was here ranting and raving about something to the sheriff, about some cattle rustlers or something. He seemed a little looney to me, so I thought maybe I could pawn off that scrap of paper to him. Turns out I was right."

Well that's just great. There's nothing I love more than doing business with disgruntled yankee farmers who've gotten too much sun.

Duke runs his hand through his hair and rubs his forehead, like he can feel a headache coming on. Very carefully, trying not to raise his voice, he says:

"Why did we bring you with us in the first place you damned difficult woman..."

"I seem to remember saving your sorry self plenty of times before, Ramsey, and I'm prepared to do it again, though you're giving me grave misgivings about that."

"Well I seem to remember saving us from those two ruffians on the train, Ellie Mae." He bites back, losing a little of the self control he was trying to maintain.

"You didn't save us." Ellie says with disgust. "Webb did. All you did was provoke that old preacher into madness."

"I told you he was up to something." He says, pointing a finger.

"Gentlemen..." Peter says firmly, thumping his glass on the countertop, and reminding us all to keep quiet.

"And Ellie." I say. He nods.

"We could sit here and argue all night about who saved who from the jaws of death, or we could put our heads together and try and figure out where to go from here."

I swear my brother is more like a Ma to us than anything else.

Duke and Ellie quiet down, and listen to him, as soon as Peter's sure that they're both good and behaved.

"Now, I think we should get a full night's rest. Tomorrow I'll ask around and see if I can't find out any information about this guy we're looking for."

Duke nods, knowing the advice is sound, and says he agrees.

"Now I'm going to see if I can't find a bath somewhere in this place. Ellie, care to join?"

He gives her a propositioning look. She replies by lifting his whiskey glass and splashing him with its contents.

No matter how many times she does that, I still think it's funny. It doesn't escape the notice of the others at their table, either, for they're watching us argue.

He sputters, and wipes his face.

"You'd better get cleaned up." Ellie says.

Peter's face tells me that he's mentally assigning points to these arguments, and that Ellie's score has just gone up.

Duke gets up in a huff and sulks off somewhere, hopefully to wash up.

After an awkward moment, Ellie turns around and looks in the direction of the washrooms.

"Damn." She says, before picking up another shot off the table, tossing it back, and getting up to follow Duke.

"I'll never understand those two." I say to Peter.

"I don't think they will either." He says with a mysterious look in his eyes that can only be described as a twinkle.

The next morning, I get up to realize that everyone else is already awake and gone.

We paid for two cheap rooms, which combined with our supper last night, ate up most of our funds. Besides that, we've only got what we had on us when we jumped the train.

I get up and wash up quick like and go downstairs to see if anyone's there, but the main room is quiet, without the organist playing, and the sights and sounds of the evening patrons, and the gaslights.

I think to myself for a moment that they might have left me, that Duke decided he just couldn't handle me anymore, or that he wanted one less person to share the treasure with, and convinced everyone to take off, but I know Peter wouldn't go for all that, and neither would Eddie, for that matter, and so my doubts are unfounded.

Then I look through the window and see the back of Hattie's head.

Outside, she's sitting on a sunny bench beside the building, reading a hard-covered book.

She looks up and sees me, smiles, and puts down the book, marking the page with a small wildflower she'd found somewhere.

Suddenly at a loss for words, I can only smile back.

"Did you sleep well, Miss Palmer?" I venture to say.

"I did, thank you Mr. Valentine." She says.

I ask her where the others are, and she says that they're all out and around town.

"Duke, Ellie, and your brother are all out looking to find information about the man she sold the map to, so we can find him, and they sent Gunther and Eddie off to try and sell what you found in those saddles. I'm not sure where Paul is. Your brother said for them to let you sleep."

I find that kind of funny, that he would say that just for me, and wonder what impelled him to.

"When did they set out?" I ask.

She shrugs her shoulders delicately.

"Just a little while ago. I've only been out here for a chapter or two." She says, referring to the book she's reading, Under The Lilacs. She holds up the cover for me to see.

"I found it under the bed in our room when I was looking for a shoe."

I remark that that's curious, but secretly wish I could have found it first.

Since everyone's out, I figure, I might as well do something interesting while I'm waiting around for them to finish tracking down this man, and hawk off our stolen goods.

Suddenly overcome with a kind of shyness, I scratch my neck and smooth my hair and clear my throat and ask:

"I was wondering if you might want to see a moving-picture with me, here in town. I hear they've got one of those machines in the other saloon."

To my surprise, she agrees readily with a smile.

So we sneak over to the place, looking over our shoulders to make sure nobody in the gang sees me slacking off, and find ourselves in a saloon not unlike the one we stayed in, but with the addition of two wooden boxes, about four feet tall, standing hunched against one wall. Above them they've got drawings of the films they show, and a little peephole for you to put your eyes up against, so you can look through and watch the pictures. Beneath that is a coin slot.

This saloon, being a little more lively than the other was at this hour, gives Hattie and I a glance or two as we enter and cross the room, but nobody seems too excitable, either from the earliness of the day, or from the drink they took last night.

I pull out the quarter I found in that smelly boot, and put it in one of the machines. I tell Hattie to look through the top, as inside, lights begin to flicker.

"It's called a kinetoscope." I say. I know this because Peter has told me all about it, and how this man named Edison invented it, and that back East, he's got a whole moviemaking studio, and that in New York, someone even invented a way to project movies onto a screen, so more than one person can watch it.

As it is, Hattie and I take turns watching. It's some French thing, about a gardener who gets sprayed in the face with his garden hose when this little boy turns it on, and then he goes chasing after the boy to give him a spanking.

We both laugh, not only from the humor, but from the sheer novelty of seeing someone move around in this wooden box.

The moving-picture only lasts a few minutes, but it's enough to make both of us smile and chuckle, as the little boy gets it in the end.

The lights inside shut off, and the magic of the picture is gone.

"Amazing." She says, pulling her eyes away from the receding light. We walked outside into the sunshine, and blinked against the brightness of the day.

"To think they that they can create such things for pleasure, and yet yellow fever and cholera remain untouched."

I stood there quiet, for a moment, as memories of my Ma came back to me with a chill. She was a strong woman, to be sure, but even her strength was no match for the disease that crept up swamp rivers and stole children and families in the dead of night.

"It was the fever and ague that took my Ma from me." I admitted to her.

"I'm sorry." Hattie said empathetically. "My Mother, too."

"Maybe someday you'll find the cure." I venture to say, remembering what she'd said about wanting to learn medicine.

Before she can reply though, I feel a strong hand around the back of my neck. I turn my head and see that it's Paul, and he's got Hattie's shoulder in his other hand.

"You better come with me." He says coldly.

Paul- whom I'd convinced to take his hands off our necks- led us to the rest of the gang, who were standing around in a circle behind the livery where our horses were at. Whatever they'd found out, I took the proximity to our mode of transportation and the seriousness of Duke's face to mean that we were soon to depart.

"Webb I swear you're lazier than a fat hog in August."

Whatever that means.

"I needed a rest." I say.

"He was in the other saloon with her." Paul says, jerking his thumb at Hattie. I give him a glare. Duke shakes his head and looks at me distastefully.

"So what'd you find out?" I ask, eager to change the subject.

"Apparently he lives on a big property a little south of here." My brother informs me.

"Rancher?"

He shakes his head.

"He's got a cabin and a couple acres of wilderness. They say he-"

"They say he's stark raving mad, and shoots trespassers on sight!" Interjects Gunther, his big eyes bugging out of his head."

Peter gives him an aggravated look, on account of him interrupting, before continuing to speak.

"Yeah. Something like that."

"So basically what we have is a trigger-happy old loon who's been cooped up in a clapboard shack for too long?" I ask.

"Kind of like if Ellie were an old man." Says Eduardo, to which we can't help but smile. She doesn't find it too amusing though, and she cocks her hip and scowls.

"I say we go there during the daytime and wait until he leaves." She says. "I don't know about you, but I don't want to take my chances with him waking up to find someone in his house rifling through his belongings."

"What if he doesn't leave?" Gunther asks.

"He has to leave sometime. Right?"

A pause, as we think about this, and decide that we'd rather not know how often he sees daylight.

"Well I'm with Ellie on this one." I say.

"No." Duke objects. "We should go in the dead of night."

"What if we can't find it in the dark?" Ellie argues. "Maybe he sleeps with it under his pillow."

"He could keep it in his boot, for all we know." Casey adds, sounding doubtful about the whole thing.

Hattie interjects suddenly, announcing her presence among us with a loud complaint.

"This is nonsense... You all are willing to risk your lives for some old map? A piece of paper? How do you even know this man really has what you're looking for?"

I have to admit, it's been a while since we've had any women among us, including Ellie Mae. I mean she's sort of a girl, but deep down she's really just as greedy and reckless as us men, so it don't account for much. We ain't used to hearing a voice of reason, especially when it comes to objecting to Duke's foolhardy ideas. For a minute, everyone else kind of looks around dumbly, as if we ain't thought of that before, and it's making us feel a little insecure. Duke won't stand for that, no, not any trace of doubt can possibly come between him and his gang.

Without the blind faith of others, Duke Ramsey has nothing to stand on. That's something I learned right early on, and it holds true still.

"Listen, Missy." Our leader says, with a sideways glance. "That scrap of paper, as you call it, leads to one of the most valuable treasures in the territories, just waiting for someone to come along and find it. But that's only gonna happen if my gang can work together as a team, stop fussin', and listen up to what I gotta say. You understand?"

I can tell Hattie feels – what's the word? – patronised. She's unimpressed by such big talk, as I am equally unconvinced that it really means anything.

"Well then, I guess we should all stop fussing and listen to what the 'gang leader' has to say." Says Ellie Mae. I still think her suggestion was a better idea, but now there's nothing any of us can do about it.

"Well hold on just a minute here." Duke says. "Now maybe there's something to this idea of Ellie's."

Strike me dead, Lord, it's the rapture.

"Now maybe it would be a good idea to go while it's still light – after all, we could still have a posse on our trail for all we know, and we need to be getting a move on as quick as we can."

"Duke, are you serious?" Gunther says, in as much surprise as everyone else. "You gonna listen to her?"

"Yeah I just might, and you know that means you gotta listen to me, so just shut up for a minute while I think."

Duke strokes his stubbornly sculpted chin before cracking his knuckles against the side of his face.

I hate when he does that. It's like he does it just trying to irritate, and if he is, it does a swell job, I'm telling you.

"Alright so here's what we'll do. We'll go now, during the day, and wait until he goes out, see? Then we can split up and search the house for it."

Sigh.

"That's a good plan, Duke!" Gunther says enthusiastically.

"Idiota," Eddie says. "That was the same plan as Ellie say five minutes ago."

"Shut up, all of you." Paul commands.

There's a slight commotion that ensues, with several of us trying to speak up at once in defence of someone else, before Peter stops us and reminds us what we're all doing again.

"If we're going to go while it's still light, we'd better hurry up." He says, pointing to the sun, high up in the sky.

"We don't know how long we'll be waiting for the old man to leave his house."