Family is not an important thing. It's everything.
Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox
Love’s Last Gift
The trip down the mountain was both terrifying and amazing at the same time. Evie was fine as long as she kept her eyes on the expanse of countryside she could see from their lofty position on the side of the mountain. But if she looked down, she couldn't help but almost panic. The ledge they traveled on was so narrow that one wrong step would send horse and rider tumbling over the edge. She rode bareback on the mare with Heyes riding Odin in the lead and Kid was astride Rusty at the rear. They had all worried that she might refuse to walk the narrow rocky pathway, but it was becoming quickly apparent that Delilah, as Evie now called her, would follow Odin anywhere he wanted to lead her. Evie could not help but think how like herself Delilah was. For she too would follow the man riding the magnificent beast in front of her anywhere he wanted to take her. Just like Heyes and the Kid had always been, she and Hannibal were a package deal.
“You alright back there, Evie?” Heyes said in a steady calm voice without turning to look. There could be no sudden moves or loud noises that might cause the horses the make a misstep. He had instructed Evie to remain silent, except to answer his periodic questions, and then she should answer in a level tone of voice.
“Good so far,” she replied in almost whisper, not wanting to risk anything louder.
“How about you, Kid?” When there was no reply he asked again, slightly louder, “Kid?”
Kid had heard his partner’s voice but it had not really penetrated the troubled thoughts in his head so that his brain could tell him to answer. When Heyes had said his name the second time, it took a moment but his brain finally acknowledged that he was being spoken to and that he should answer. “Sorry. What did you say?”
“Are you alright back there?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” But he wasn’t fine. He was feeling things he rarely, if ever, felt. They were feelings he wasn’t sure how to deal with because he had never had to deal with them before. And the biggest and strongest was fear. The only thing he had ever really feared since he was eighteen years old was losing his best friend and partner. The fear he felt now had nothing to do with the treacherous walk down this narrow passage – he had done this many times before. It had nothing to do with the risky trip they were making over the next few days it would take to get to Riverton. He wasn’t really afraid of being captured and going to prison or even of being hanged. His biggest fear was never being able to see his daughter or her mother again.
He missed Livvy and their baby so much it made his insides ache. How Heyes had endured being separated from Evie while they were in prison he did not know. He had thought of Livvy everyday while he was in prison himself, but he had not thought he was in love with her. He hadn’t really known what real love was he supposed. But the first time he watched Livvy with his child at her breast, he knew that he had never known real love until that moment. He knew that he would take a bullet for either of them. He knew that he would risk any danger to protect them. And being apart from them and not knowing what was happening to them made him feel frightened, angry and helpless. He couldn't sleep at night. He never thought he'd see the day when he would lose sleep over anything, especially a woman. His whole life had changed the day he found out that he and Livvy had created a child together. And it was a change he had been looking forward to getting used to. Now it seemed like his whole world was falling apart right in front of his face and there was nothing he could do about it.
Most of his life, Kid Curry had been in control of every situation. The day he and Hannibal had decided to leave the orphanage when he was not quite fifteen years old, was the day he had also decided that he would not let anyone or anything else be in control of what mattered most to him. He had become the best he could be with his gun. If everyone else was afraid of him then he had nothing to be afraid of. If he had his partner and his gun beside him then there was nothing he couldn't handle. Even with both of those things right here with him, he still felt helpless, like he had no control over his own life. And he didn't like that feeling. And he knew it wouldn't go away until he found Livvy and Gabbie. And he couldn't find them until they took care of Clayton Ramsey once and for all. And doing that meant making this trip to Riverton.
They rounded a bend and they were on the south facing side of the mountain and they could see the flat land that stretched out for miles at the foot. Once at the bottom they would travel west to the edge of the mountains and then head northeast toward Riverton. All three riders could tell the horses were as relieved as they were when they finally set foot on grassy land.
"Thank goodness. I don't see how in the world you made it up this ledge with me unconscious."
"It wasn't easy. But luckily, Odin here is no stranger to terrain like this. And I'm pretty handy when it comes to handling a horse. Even with an unconscious woman in my lap. How's Delilah doing?"
"As long as Odin's in front of her, I think she'd walk into a volcano. I’m not sure she was even aware that she was only inches away from sending us both over the edge to die a brutal, painful death." Evie shuddered at the picture her own dramatic words had painted in her head. "As beautiful as the scenery up there was, I’m glad to be at the bottom.”
The three riders stood abreast looking toward the west. It was going to be a long, hard ride to Riverton. Three days with only brief resting stops. But they were each ready and anxious to get there, each for different reasons. Evie was anxious to try and help Megan and in turn help the two most important men in her life.
Heyes was just anxious to get the whole thing over with so he and Evie could either start their new life together or continue with living on the lamb, depending on the outcome. And Kid...he just wanted to get the proof needed to put an end to Clayton Ramsey so he could find his woman and his baby.
“Well, let’s not just stand here. We need to get moving. Time’s a wasting,” Kid said as he nudged Rusty forward with a tap of his boot heels.
Heyes turned and looked at the woman beside him. He was leaving behind the safety and sanctuary of Cave of the Crying Wind. He didn’t like the feeling of dread he felt swirling inside his chest. But when she smiled at him and extended her hand toward him, he masked his uneasy feeling with a smile of his own and grasped her hand.
“Everything’s going to work out fine. I’m sure of it,” she said, sensing his unease.
He didn’t reply. He merely nodded, squeezed her hand and continued to smile as she urged Delilah forward. His smile faded and he watched her ride ahead and Kid became smaller in the distance. He had to force himself to snap the reins and set his horse in motion. An image popped into his head, one of a beautiful butterfly flying free and unfettered, floating softly on a breeze…straight toward a spider’s web.
“Did you find them?” Governor Ramsey whispered to his trusted right hand man who had just returned from a three day hunt for the outlaws and his daughter-in-law. His reply was a slow, steady negative shake of the dark head. “Damn. What about my son? Any word from my son?”
Another negative response followed.
“Just as well. It’s too bad really that he didn’t parish in the fire. That would have really drummed up the sympathy and gotten the public behind me. Strange how these people will rally behind an underdog or someone who has suffered a tragedy.”
“Clayton, are you coming?” Lieutenant governor Fritz Guthrie asked impatiently.
“Yes, Fritz, I’m coming,” Clayton sniped back angrily. He didn’t like being treated in such a scolding manner, as if he were a child. He could hardly wait to become president and hand over this bothersome business of governing a territory full of remote wilderness to Fritz.
But first he must drum up a few tears and continue to win over the clueless peons who waited below his hotel room balcony. He really must thank the outlaw and his untrustworthy daughter-in-law. He couldn’t have planned a better scenario than the one that had occurred almost a week ago. It was amazing what a fire and a kidnapping could accomplish. The presidency was as good as his. The only loose end to tie up was the girl. With his son missing, Clayton was suspicious that Clay had been divulging information to his bride and was now in hiding, fearing his father’s wrath. Just how much he had divulged is what he wanted to find out, so that he could get Bartholomew busy with damage control.
What a waste it would be if the girl knew too much and had to be eliminated. He still desperately wanted to create an heir with her. Not such much for the heir as for the creating part. She was like an aggravating itch that he could not reach and therefore could not get rid of. And he would not be satisfied until that itch was scratched. The more he thought about it the more lecherous his thoughts became. He turned again to his silent minion and whispered, “Go and prepare for the hunt once again. As soon as I am finished here I will meet you and we will head out. I have a feeling I know where to find my son. And, Bartholomew, should we happen across the outlaws and Evangeline along the way, remember, kill the outlaws but make sure the girl stays alive. I have unfinished business with her. And make sure that Mrs. Vanderbilt’s whereabouts are still being sought.”
With a curt nod, Bartholomew exited the room. Clayton Ramsey stood for a moment with his eyes closed and like a magician pulling a rabbit from a top hat, he produced pools of moisture in the bottom of his eyes. He stepped through the drapes adorning the balcony doors and out into the sunlight to share the sad and distressing news with the waiting crowd that there was still no word of his beloved son and his missing bride.
“Heyes, do you really expect that to work?”
“You got a better idea?”
“Yeah, I do. I’ll shoot my way into that house and just tell whoever is there that I’m taking that girl with me whether they like it or not. How’s that for a plan?”
Heyes and Evie exchanged frowns. Evie just shrugged, letting Heyes know he was the one who was going to have to deal with the grumpy Kid Curry. She walked away leading Delilah from the stream and back to the small secluded campsite they had just set up as the sun got low in the west. She left the two partners to talk and joined the other two horses who were enjoying a rest at their camp.
“We can’t do that, Kid and you know it. We’ll be in even hotter water than we already are. It’s gonna take a little more finesse than that.”
“I’m fresh out of finesse, Heyes. I just want to get that girl and get out of there so I can get on with finding Livvy.”
“I know. Just trust me, alright? My track record has been pretty good for the past sixteen years so I don’t know why you’re so doubtful about me now.”
Kid breathed a heavy sigh and hung his head for a moment. “I’m sorry, Heyes. I guess I just ain’t as good as you are at masking my hurt and my anger. When I’m mad I let it show and I can’t help it.”
“Yeah, I know. You’ve always worn your heart on your sleeve. And I understand how you feel, wanting to get to Livvy as quick as possible. Have you forgotten that I’ve been in your shoes on more than one occasion? And belief me, going in there and shooting up the place is not gonna make you any less anxious or desperate to find her. We have to do this right, Kid if we hope to ever get back what we’ve worked so hard to have. Otherwise, finding her is sort of a moot point.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Heyes. You’ve got Evie here with you. You can take off to parts unknown at any time. If I don’t catch up to Livvy, I may never see her or my daughter again. If she’s scared she will run with that baby. I just know it.”
Heyes placed an understanding hand on his partners shoulder and looked him in his piercing blue eyes. “Kid, you have my word that I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that we find the proof we need to put the governor away and clear our names. And after we do that, if Livvy has disappeared Evie and I will help you in any way we can to find her. I promise. Just stick with me and trust me, alright? We can’t do this without you.”
“Alright, Heyes I trust you, you know that. I’m just nervous about the whole thing and being nervous is not something I like feeling. And this plan of yours is not making me feel any better.”
“Kid I’m beginning to think you’re losing confidence in me again.”
“Heyes, I’m beginning to think you’re on to something there.”
Heyes shot his partner a scathing look but before he could retort with an equally scathing remark, Evie’s scream split the air. Heyes ran, his partner’s attitude temporarily forgotten. His only thought was getting to the woman he loved, who was in obvious distress. He rounded the edge of the tree thicket they had taken refuge behind expecting to find her being mauled by a wild animal or being manhandled by one of the governor’s henchmen. He stopped short when he saw what was causing her screams. Kid, gun in hand, nearly ran into the back of him when he stopped so abruptly.
“What the hell…” was all he could think to say.
“Don’t just stand there gawking! Get over here and help me before they kill each other!”
The two former outlaws quickly moved to help her separate the two feuding stallions that were on the verge of all-out war. Heyes wrangled Odin while Kid managed to reel in the fiery Rusty.
“What happened? What did you do to them?” Heyes asked rubbing the quivering withers of the black.
Evie’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “What did I…I didn’t do anything. They were perfectly fine when I came back from the stream with Delilah. Then all of a sudden they were both raring back and snorting and screaming at each other and I tried to get in between them but the knocked me down so I thought I should yell for help.”
Heyes came to her; sorry he had accused her and took her in his arms. “I’m sorry. Are you alright? You’re not hurt are you? It’s just that these two have been together for months and they’ve gotten along just fine. I don’t understand why all of a sudden…”
“Aw, no,” Kid groaned in dismay, “she’s in heat.”
“Oooh,” Heyes groaned with equal dismay.
“What is it? What’s so bad about her being in heat? Horses do that all the time don’t they?” Evie asked.
“Yeah, but you don’t ever want two studs together in close quarters around a mare in heat. It’s asking for disaster,” Heyes explained.
“Oh. I guess neither one is willing to share, huh?”
“That’s an understatement. What you just saw them doing to each other was just the beginning. If we hadn’t separated them they might have killed each other for real,” Kid added.
“And it won’t get any better for the next few days. That’s going to make traveling the rest of the way to Riverton fun. We still have a day and a half ride before we get there,” Heyes complained.
“I’m no horse expert, so how long does this last?” Evie asked.
“I’ve seen it last for three days and then I’ve seen it last for ten.
Most times it lasts about five days to a week.”
“Poor thing. Here she is, burned out of her home, stuck carting me around, which she isn’t used to, and now she’s the prize for two feuding males who are determined to kill each other to proof themselves worthy of her attention. She must feel dreadful.” Evie approached the mare with the intent of consoling her with what she assumed was some much needed affection. She was greeted with a squeal and a nip of the teeth.
“Ouch! She bit me!”
“Oh, yeah, did we mention that a mare in heat can sometimes be mean and grouchy? You might want to rethink that feeling sorry thing,” Heyes said on a chuckle.
“What are we going to do about Rusty and Odin? Shouldn’t they be kept as far apart as possible? I don’t want them to hurt each other.”
Heyes looked at his partner who silently nodded in understanding. But when he attempted to take the mare out of the campsite so the two stallions would not fight, she protested violently. It was apparent that she was not going to be separated from Odin. And so Kid decided that he and Rusty, both being odd men out would sleep down by the stream and away from the other two couples. After a hasty meal of fresh caught fish, Kid said goodnight to Heyes and Evie.
“I feel bad. I hate for Kid to sleep by himself. And poor Rusty must be heartbroken,” Evie mused as she lay on her back beside her beloved and looked up at the stars.
“Sweetheart, horses don’t get heartbroken. It’s Kid who’s heartbroken. I wish I could do something or say something to ease his mind, but he thinks Livvy is going to run away with the baby. And I gotta say, I’m not so sure his fears are unfounded.”
“Livvy loves Jed. I know she does. When Gabbie was born she was so desperate, just like I was to get you two out of prison. She was afraid of telling him about the baby, but I think it was fear of rejection. But that didn’t happen, just like I told her it wouldn’t. So I don’t know what she’s afraid of now. But if she does take off with that baby, I will find her. And then I will throttle her behind
for it. I don’t know what that woman is thinking?”
“She’s probably thinking that she can’t live a life with a man she’s not sure is going to live long enough to see their daughter grow up. And that’s the way you should be thinking too.” He rolled to his side and looked down into her beautiful moon washed face. “I still have trouble believing that a woman like you could ever love a troublesome, old outlaw like me.”
She touched his face and stared deeply into his soulful brown eyes. “You’re a part of me, Hannibal Heyes. It doesn’t matter where I go or who I’m with, a part of you will always be inside of me. You’ve been there from the moment you first kissed me in that cave with the lightning flashing all around. I swear I thought I had been struck by lightning after that kiss.”
“Yeah, I remember it that way too. I think I’ve loved you since that moment or maybe from the moment I first laid eyes on you. You know I had so many dreams about the life we were going to have together. I pictured us living on a little ranch with some cattle, a few horses and chickens. We’d have a garden out back of our cozy little house where you could grow vegetables and flowers. And we would have two kids…one boy and one girl.”
She turned to lay face to face with him and smiled gently as he revealed his dreams to her. “Who do they look like? You or me?”
“The little girl will look like you of course and the boy like me.” His eyes took on a faraway look as he stared into the night beyond her shoulder. “It was a nice dream. I wish it could have come true.”
“Who says it still can’t?”
“With a murder charge on my head? I gotta tell you, sweetheart, this whole plan to get the governor’s daughter out of the house where she’s basically a prison and get her sobered to the point that she can recall an event that happened years ago so that she can clear us….well, it’s a long shot. I don’t like to bet on long shots. I’m afraid my dream is going to remain just that…a dream.”
“We are going to see those dreams come true. They are not just your dreams but mine as well. We are going to have the life we’ve dreamed of even if we have to take on new identities and move to Europe. We can go to Spain or France. Oh, or Italy! We can raise goats and have a vineyard and make our own wine. And still have all the little Hannibal’s and Evie’s we want. And I want at least five, remember.”
“That’s what I love about you. You’re eternally optimistic. Your faith never waivers, does it?”
“I don’t want you to lose your faith either, after I worked so hard to help you find it again. I love you. And with God as my witness we will never be parted again.”
“You amaze me, you know that?”
“You’re pretty amazing yourself, Mr. Heyes. And I think you should show me just how amazing you are right now.”
He didn’t mistake the seductive gleam in her eyes. His lips sought hers and found them. She returned his deep kiss with the passion that only a woman in complete and total love could have. The sound of nearby grunts and squeals had both their heads rising to find their equine friends engaging in some romantic moments of their own.
“Oh, my goodness! Love is definitely in the air tonight isn’t it?”
Heyes chuckled deeply in his throat. “Yeah, for everybody except two lonely guys down by the creek.”
“Oh, yes, poor Kid and Rusty. I feel so bad for them both. You should go talk to him and make sure he’s alright.”
“I have a better idea. Why don’t you go talk to him? I think I need to get those two separated over there or we’ll have a baby Odin on the way.”
“Would that be so bad?” Evie rose and started to leave the secluded little campsite in search of her adopted big brother.
“Ouch!” she yelled out in pain as her bare foot connected with a sharp stone hidden in the grass. She dropped to the ground and cradled her throbbing foot.
Heyes was at her side immediately taking her wounded foot in his hand, rubbing the hurt away. “I’m sorry we couldn’t get you a pair of shoes or a change of clothes, sweetheart. When we saw that newspaper with our names and descriptions plastered all over them in that first town we came to I decided it just wasn’t worth the risk.”
“That’s alright. Sore and dirty feet are a small price to pay if we can pull this whole deal off. It would be considerably easier to pull off if my feet weren’t covered with stone bruises and honey bee stings and I had a proper dress and shoes, but we’ll just have to improvise.”
He planted a kiss solidly on the bottom of her injured foot, not caring that it was dirty. “The offer still stands for you to wear my boots.”
“No thank you. I tried that remember. I tripped and almost broke my neck because they were too big. I’ll take my chances with the rocks and the honey bees. Are you sure you don’t want me to help you with the horses? Or maybe you want me to send Jed back….”
His upheld palm quickly silenced her, then he stuck his thumb into his chest as he said smugly, “Horse whisperer, remember?”
Evie raised her eyebrows and tried to suppress a grin as she spun on her bare feet and headed around the tree thicket in search of Kid Curry. She found him sitting by a meager fire staring into the small flames. She was beginning to think she was going to be able to sneak up on him undetected. She was almost upon him and he hadn’t even acknowledged her presence. She was either extremely stealthy in her bare feet or he was extremely preoccupied. Evie figured it was a combination of both. She was just about to accomplish the unbelievable and take Kid Curry completely by surprise when all of a sudden…”Ouch!”
Kid was on his feet, gun in hand in less than a second. He rolled his eyes and slid his gun back in its holster. “Another honey bee?”
“No, I hung my toe in a darned root.”
Kid helped her hobble over to the small fire he had made beneath the big tree he had been leaning against. “What are you doing walking around out here in the dark? I thought you and Heyes would be cozied up under a blanket by now, seeing as how this is the only night we’re going to be stopping for a decent sleep.”
“We’re worried about you. If I hadn’t stumped my toe on that root you never would have known I was there. That’s not like you. And you barely touched your supper. That’s really not like you. And I bet you won’t sleep two winks tonight either. Even though we haven’t seen a human being since we left that town where we were going to buy me some shoes. We’re not likely to meet anybody until we reach Riverton and it would probably be perfectly safe for you to catch a few hours of sleep. I’m sure you’ll feel more yourself if you do.”
“I’m not likely to be myself for a while, Evie. Not until I find Liv and the baby.”
“Jed, Livvy is in love with you. I don’t think she would just up and disappear on you. She might lay low while all of this is going on but once the dust settles, she won’t be able to stay away from you. She was just as anxious as I was to get you out of prison and the only reason she waited so long to tell you about Gabbie was her own stupid, unfounded fears.”
“You weren’t there, Evie. You didn’t see her face or hear her voice when she told me she couldn’t marry me. I think she’s still afraid. You see what she did when she was afraid before…she kept my daughter from me for the first seven months of her life. Who knows what she’ll do this time.”
“Listen to me, we are family. You, me, Hannibal and Livvy are all family. And I know Livvy better than just about anybody and family is the most important thing in this world to her. She went without any family except Libby for so long that I know she would endure whatever hardships came her way to keep this family together. And if she wants me in her family she has to take you. You’re part of the package deal and she knows that. But you’re right, she is afraid of something. But once this is all over and the governor is exposed and you two are cleared, she’ll come around, I just know it.”
“What if we don’t expose the governor and the charges against me and Heyes stick? Then what?”
“Don’t even think like that. I think the whole reason that you two went to prison in the first place is so that I would meet Clayton Ramsey and set everything in motion for us to bring him down. The man is evil, evil. And with God as my witness, we’re going to save his daughter and expose him for the lying, murdering good for nothing he is. Then we can all get on with the lives we were meant to have – happy lives.”
“I sure hope you’re right.”
“I know I am. Everything happens for a reason. I truly believe that. And on the other side of this trial is the reward we all want and deserve. Don’t give up hope, Jed. And you know what Hannibal always says;” Don’t go borrowing trouble.” You don’t even know that Livvy isn’t waiting for you in Porterville.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s just that I have this nagging feeling that she’s already lit out to someplace where I can’t find her. I just wish I’d had time to talk to her and convince her that her she didn’t have to be afraid of me putting her or Gabbie in harm’s way or that our age difference would change how I feel.”
“That’s not what she’s really afraid of.”
“What do you think she’s afraid of then?”
“What anyone who invests their heart into a relationship is afraid of. When you put your heart in someone else’s hands you risk losing it to them and getting it broken. I think Livvy’s has been broken so many times she’s afraid to give you her heart completely and so she guards it.”
“But how do I convince her that you have to take that chance if you want to experience the good part of being in love with someone.”
“You just show her that’s all. Show her every day with everything you do and say that she is worth all the risk that you’re taking with your heart, and then she will give you hers completely.”
The corners of Jed’s mouth lifted slightly in a tiny smile. “You know my pa told me sort of the same thing when I was just a boy. Thanks for reminding me. I love you, Evangeline Webb,” he said as he stretched out one arm to invite her into a warm embrace.
She moved into his arms and hugged him tightly; cherishing the protective love of the man she had come to love as a brother. “I love you too, Jed Curry. No more fretting about Livvy. That’s going to be kid stuff, no pun intended, compared to what we’re going to have to do tomorrow when we reach Riverton.”
“Has Heyes got all the details of that plan worked out yet?”
“I’m not sure. I left the self-proclaimed horse whisperer to defuse the sticky situation with the….”
The very distinct voice of Hannibal Heyes, yelping in pain carried through the trees and down to the creek side where they sat.
“Well, well. Do my ears deceive me or has the horse whisperer been bitten?” Evie asked with an amused gleam in her eye.
“I do believe the mighty have fallen. You’d best get on over there and check on him,” Kid said around a huge grin.
“Are you sure you’re going to be alright out here by yourself?’
“I’m sure. I really need some time alone anyway, to get my head…and my heart straight. Thanks for what you said, Evie. It helps. Really it does.”
“That’s what family does, Jed. They take care of each other.” She leaned over and placed an affectionate kiss to his whisker roughened jaw before she got to her feet. “Get used to it.”
He watched her disappear around the bend of trees. He settled down on his bed roll, his head pillowed against his saddle and thought about what she had said. She was right. Maybe Livvy was waiting in Porterville. And if she wasn’t, he would find her. Nothing would keep him from finding the woman he loved and their daughter. After all just as Evie had said…that’s what family did. His eyes were growing heavy. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and for the first night since he had left Cheyenne, he slept a peaceful sleep.
Evie peered cautiously around the edge of the trees and into the clearing where Hannibal was. She laughed silently to herself as she watched him talking to Delilah. “Now I understand that a girl’s got urges just like a man, and when it gets real bad you gotta do something about it. And who could blame you for wanting a fine stud like Odin? But when you go to biting me that’s where I draw the line, you understand? I won’t be having any of that. Now I need you to just calm down and start acting like a decent young lady. There’ll be time for romance when we get you two to a nice, clean stall somewhere. And one more thing…don’t go telling anybody that I let you get the better of me a minute ago. I have a reputation to uphold after all.”
“Do my ears deceive me or has the mighty horse whisperer just admitted defeat? Oh,dear how the mighty have fallen indeed.”
Heyes turned slowly around, a wary smile on his face. “Ahem. Uh, you heard that did you?”
“Don’t tell the Kid.”
“Too late. We heard you yelp in pain when she bit you.”
He looked at the ground with a look of disgust on his face. “Great. Now I’ll have to hear it from him all day tomorrow.”
“I hope you do. That way I’ll know he’s in a better mood and not fretting so over Livvy. And besides, it might be good for you to be reminded every once in a while that you’re not perfect at everything.”
“There is one thing I’m perfect at,” he said in his deep, silky voice. He strolled towards her with deliberately slow steps and bent close to her ear and whispered the most illicit things that Evie had ever heard. Her mouth was agape and her cheeks were flushed when he looked at her. For a moment he thought perhaps he had gone too far and he had offended her. But her embarrassment quickly turned into a bewitching come-hither look that had Heyes once again amazed. She took his hand and led him to their fireside bedroll.
“Perfection can’t just be declared, Mr. Heyes. It has to be proven.”
She sank to the ground and pulled him down with her, where he proceeded to provide her with all the proof she needed.
The trio rode silently along a dirt road on the outskirts of the town of Riverton. This road would lead them to the childhood home of Clayton Ramsey, and to his daughter, whom they believed would be their salvation. Thick, dense shrubs and saplings grew among the many trees that grew to the west of the roadside. To the east there were fields and ponds and the occasional farmhouse. But there had not been any sign of a human being since they had left the mountains. For that they were grateful. Kid and Heyes knew better than to tempt fate by saying anything about their good fortune. But Evie, not being seasoned yet in the lifestyle of a fugitive broke the silence that they had been riding in for the past three hours.
“You know we haven’t seen a soul since we left that mountain. Don’t you find that kind of strange that we would make it almost the whole way and not see any body. What luck, huh?”
“Aw, no,” Kid groaned. “Why’d she have to go and say that?”
The words had barely left his mouth when the sound of voices came rising up the hill they had just ascended and were now on the other side of. The three quickly dismounted and scurried into the thick brush along the roadside. In their haste to hide they forgot about the feuding horses and Rusty began to snort loudly. Kid led the fiery stud several yards away and tethered him to a tree then rejoined his companions.
The stood silently and waited. The voices became louder. And they were not the voices that they had expected to hear. There were only two and one was distinctly female. All three poked their head up timidly over the top of the thick bush in front of them to get a peek at the source of the voices. It was a young couple strolling leisurely along, cuddled close together. They stopped just in front of the hiding trio.
“Oh, Albert, I love you so. How I wish Papa would stop being so stubborn and give us his blessing so that we could be married.”
“And I love you, my darling, Sylvia. But what can we do except try harder to gain his approval?” the young man said as he stroked the flaming red hair of the young woman.
“I don’t care about approval anymore. I just want to be with you always. Sometimes I’m tempted to tell Papa that you’ve already soiled me. That way he would have to let us marry.”
“No, Syliva, I won’t let you jeopardize your reputation and destroy your father’s already meager opinion of me. We will simply have to leave it up to fate.”
“Oh, very well,” Sylvia pouted. “But don’t expect me to like it, having to sneak around just to see you.”
Heyes rolled his eyes and Kid stifled a groan as the couple spent the next five minutes locked in a passionate embrace, their lips never parting.
“There’s a swimming hole not far from here. It’s on my papa’s land. Are you in the mood for some skinny dipping?” Sylvia said playfully.
“You are truly incorrigible, Sylvia, which is one of the many things I love about you. Lead the way, my love.”
Heyes peeked up and over the bush then stood upright and announced, “They’re gone.”
“Whew, that was a close one. I thought we were caught for sure. But it was only two young lovers going for a skinny dip,” Evie said.
“Yeah, I thought we….wait a minute,” Heyes said as a huge grin split his handsome face. “I’ve got an idea. Evie, stay here with the horses. Kid, follow me.”
The boys were gone for what seemed like an hour when in fact it was only fifteen minutes. She was standing in the middle of the dirt road with her hand shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun looking for any sign of them, when they appeared over the hill running like two kids who had just been caught stealing a pie from the window sill, or should she say like two ex-thieves who had just stolen a young couples clothes. They breezed past her and headed for the trees where the horses were hidden. “Come on, Evie, hurry up!” Heyes yelled over his shoulder. She trotted off after them as fast as she could in her bare feet.
“What did you do, steal their clothes?”
“Yep,” Heyes replied with a huge grin and raised eyebrows as he stuffed the articles of clothes into his saddlebags. “Here,” he said as she tossed her a pair of black satin oxfords with a two inch heel. She rolled her eyes thinking how silly she was going to look with a pair of dainty black heels on while wearing grimy men’s trousers and shirt. But beggars certainly couldn’t be choosers so she slipped them on and found that they fit her perfectly. She pulled herself atop Delilah’s back and sped off behind the two thieves. They raced away from the scene of the crime until Heyes felt they had traveled far enough away to be safe.
“I can’t believe you did that?” Evie admonished as she slid from Delilah’s back. “You left those two poor people without any clothes. Now what are they going to do? You heard her say how her father disapproved of him. Now they will have some heavy explaining to do won’t they?”
“Aw relax, I did them a favor. They were leaving it up to fate and fate just stepped in. When she comes home with no clothes on and explains that her clothes got stolen while she was skinny dipping I guess her pa will have to let them get married won’t he.”
Evie stood there thinking about it for a moment. Then she looked down at her feet in snuggly encased in black leather and satin. They were really nice shoes and they were quite comfy. Evie shrugged. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Good luck, Sylvia and Albert,” she shouted in the direction from which they had just come.
“I knew you would appreciate my efforts eventually. And you’re going to be even more pleased with this.” He pulled a gorgeous white silk gown embellished with a purple floral print from is saddle bag. Evie’s breath caught in her throat. She had not gotten a good look at what the girl had been wearing from their hiding spot. It was one of the most stunning gowns she had ever seen. She took the gown and held it to her breast, gauging the size and length.
“I think it’s going to fit. When can I try it on?”
“The sooner the better.” Heyes took a deep breath and pointed towards the northwest. There on a distant hill, with the orange glow of the afternoon sun emblazoned upon its faded whitewashed walls, stood the home of Clayton Ramsey.
“That dress is going to make all the difference in our plan. And there’s one more thing that I think you’re going to need,” Heyes said sheepishly as he slowly withdrew and held aloft the contraption of agony that Evie despised so much.
“Oh, no. Do I have to?”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but every woman, especially the woman you’re going to be pretending to be, doesn’t get dressed without a corset.”
Her face dropped and her shoulders drooped. “Very well. Give me the blasted thing. But I’ll need help with the laces.” She snatched it angrily from his grip and marched off behind some bushes to change.
“What about you and me?” Kid asked as he watched Heyes pull the clean and proper men’s suit from the saddlebag. “Which one of us gets to be the fancy gentleman and which one gets to be the man servant?”
Heyes dug deep in his pants pocket and pulled out a coin. “Call it.”
Amelia Dunlop scurried towards the front door of the house she had been governess to for the past fifteen years. Who in the world could be knocking on this door at this hour of the day? The sun was sinking and supper was just about to be put on the table. Not that supper amounted to much, these days with only herself, Robert and Megan here to be feed. But the cook always made enough food to feed a small army. She supposed the cook, like herself, tried to keep things as proper as if Master Ramsey and Dr. Graves were home. She prided herself in making sure that she followed through with all of the instructions left to her by the good doctor and the man who paid her salary, Governor Ramsey. And one of those instructions was to maintain the status quo and not to vary the routine from which she was accustomed to following when Dr. Graves was here.
She wondered who could be on the other side of the door. She knew it wasn’t Dr. Graves or the master. Dr. Graves had told her he would be gone for at least three weeks, perhaps more, depending on how serious the illness he had been called to Cheyenne to treat turned out to be. And visitors did not come here…had not come here since Clayton had moved his insane daughter here. Amelia turned and looked up the staircase towards the second floor where Megan was kept. She smoothed the crisp white apron over her grey skirt and patted the sides and top of her head to assure that the tightly coiled braid was still securely wound on the top of her corn silk colored head. Satisfied that she looked the part of the professional keeper of the house, she opened the front door, not knowing what or whom to expect. Her curiosity was piqued when the door swung open to reveal three strangers standing on the front veranda. ..three beautiful strangers.