The light of the morning sun had already penetrated the burlap sack covering Charlene's head but when somebody wrenched it off, the golden brightness still blinded her to her immediate surroundings. She shook her head to clear it, feeling her hair swirling about her ears and the nape of her neck.
She had been unceremoniously dumped on a rough wooden floor. Safe to assume it was the ranch house that Pops had overheard Padgett talking about. Her hands and ankles were still tightly bound together and the constant chaffing during their short ride to the house was already causing pain to shoot up her extremities. At least she could see now. Still blinking against the brightness, she could make out that the room was larger than she had expected, with a high ceiling looking more like a converted barn than a house. The walls and ceiling had been constructed with a traditional timber frame, though the beams appeared to be sawed rather than hewn. Vertical board siding covered them, with battens over the cracks. Not wind-tight but evidence of a well-to-do ranch operation.
There was no ceiling, allowing her to see that the roof framing was a simple gable design with evenly spaced cross beams. Heavy oak-framed furniture with worn leather seats lay scattered about in disarray. Seemed the place had been vacant for a while. Plenty of signs of rats or other vermin now making their home there. Only two doors that she could see.
"Well, well, what do we have here?" came a low growl from a large beefy man with the face of an ox. An ox with a thick black mustache and lots of facial stubble. A pair of ugly suspenders, uneven in their width, strained to hold up his pants over a stained white shirt. This had to be Frank Padgett himself.
"Caught us a little red-headed birdie," said the man who had captured her on the trail. He with the Mexican accent that she had heard referred to as "Reymundo". "I say let us see how she chirps."
"We'll git to that in good time," said Padgett. "Any sign of the old man?"
"Sure. We saw 'eem just where you said and we let 'eem pass on by so we could take us the birdie."
"Good. We'll give him some time to make it back to the town site and then undertake our next ambush. Never hurts when your foes spread the word and help the good folks of Clear Creek understand what it means to go up against us. Good thing we got ourselves a little extry information." He winked at somebody behind Charlene and out of her sight. He had a rope with him which he started to coil over the front door latch. "We can string him up and let him swing from the rafters. We'll do justice for all the false claims he was sellin' to innocent folks last night." A rumble emerged from his chest which Charlene supposed was a laugh.
Carmondy stalked into her vision, bent down and cupped Charlene's chin in one of his dirty hands. "I've been waitin' long enough, boss. Ever since I seen her in that dress, I been wanting to see a lot more of her. I call first dibs." His other hand carried an enormous hunting knife with a keen edge. He started to move it toward her shirt front, evidently intent on cutting away the buttons.
"Aw, Car, we all know you spoil them for the rest of us," said another man, this one young and fleshy with a high-pitched, almost squeaky voice. "Let me have a go at 'er first." He stood up from a stone fireplace where he had been poking a small log, trying to build up the flames a bit more.
"Nate, you wouldn't know what to do with her." Carmondy's comment was greeted with amusement all around.
Now Charlene could see yet another man rise to his feet from where he had been sitting in the shadows along the north wall. This was "pony tail", the second man who had snatched her off her horse earlier. The room grew quiet as he glided toward her, movements smooth and quiet like the stories of Indian scalp hunters. His eyes focused directly on her own and for a moment it was as if nobody else was in the room, such was his intensity. He radiated malicious intent like a heat mirage in the sun-drenched desert.
"She's mine," was all he said in a dry, husky voice. Nobody disputed it, content to watch as if hypnotized.
Closing the distance decisively, he put a hand on either side of her shoulders and lifted her to her feet. Charlene felt the blood drain from her face, fearing what would come next. Courage, girl. She would be damned before she would let these men paw her without a fight.
But the man moved with slow purpose, letting his gaze flow over her face, as if studying it for later recall. He was patient and didn't seem worried that any of the others would interfere. He was so close now she could feel his breath and smell its smoky aroma. Remaining as still as possible, she couldn't repress a shiver when he reached up to push a loose bit of her hair behind an ear. Damn it. Got to treat him like he's nothing more than a mean old dog. Don't show fear.
The air was still as if there was nobody in the room but the two of them. Hers was not a mere feeling of being trapped but being snared like a rabbit with a hungry coyote slinking toward her.
"I have a better idea." came another voice from somewhere behind Charlene, breaking the tension.
A sense of dread flooded through Charlene, washing over her fear of Pony Tail and what he might do next. That voice. That easy southern drawl was unmistakable.
Still in character of Tandy Flint, the bounty hunter.
As if to prove her suspicions correct, Billy moved around in front of her so she could get a good look. There was no hint of recognition in his steely eyes, no sense of remorse evident in his features. Just pure business with a glint of evil.
"I saw her in that dress too," he said to the other men in the room. "I think it would be a mighty nice treat if she were to dance for us."
"Oh yeah," said Carmondy, a statement echoed by the others. "That'll do nicely! She needs to get nice and warmed up before we sample her charms. Step back, Cat. Give her some room. Boy, I wish she had that dress on."
Reymundo dragged a table over to the center of the room and said, "Behold, a stage!"
Two of the men grabbed Charlene and thrust her up onto the table where she stood timidly looking down at the gleeful men. But then her eyes landed on Billy and his eyes met hers. Was that a nod? A bit of encouragement or at least understanding of her dire predicament? Hard to tell. She tried to pierce his stare but whatever might have been there was closed down, his lustful leer like all the rest. What did she really know about him anyway? Pops had hired an actor who looked the part but she wasn't aware of him checking into his background at all.
Got to clamp down on her anger at his betrayal. More fundamental worries were coming her way.
"Anybody seen a whip?" asked Padgett laughing. "We might need to get her started."
"I've got a gun," said Tandy. "Nobody will hear it way up here and it might urge her along a little bit to play her . . . role." On this last word, "role" he looked hard at Charlene.
"Role . . . "
This was just a role she had to play. Was that what Billy was trying to communicate? Merely play along and stall for time? Pops was out there somewhere and was mounting some sort of a rescue even now.
So Charlene pasted a big smile on her face and began to sway her hips from side to side. She started as slow as she dared, knowing the longer she could drag out a dance, the longer before things would turn bad.
Somebody started humming a risqué tune, was joined by another, while somebody else started slapping his hand against his thigh creating a steady rhythm.
Charlene kept a slow role of her hips going while raising her arms above her head, touching the beam that ran across the ceiling and slowly caressing it like a lover. She had seen dance hall girls and burlesque shows before so knew a little of what was expected. And she knew what these men wanted.
Some grunts and mumbles of interest emerged from her small audience but she knew she couldn't limit her dance to swaying hips. Already they wanted more and it wasn't until she stuck a foot out towards Padgett and motioned for him to remove her boot that the interest level raised to a cat call or two. Padgett wasted no time in yanking it off, peeling off her sock at the same time. The cool air tickled her bare foot and she could feel the tingle travel up her spine.
Have to stall, she thought. But she also realized that the more she teased these men, the greater their eagerness would grow. And their impatience.
She noticed Billy nudge Padgett, speak something into his ear. Padgett nodded absently, his focus on Charlene's pretty ankle. Billy quickly turned toward the door, putting his arm around Pony Tail, and guiding him out of the building. She wondered what that was all about but was certainly glad to see the evil Pony Tail leaving.
Was Billy helping? Or had he turned traitor in return for better pay . . . ? Were they even now, on their way to kill Pops?
* * *
Leland's mare stumbled slightly as the right fore-hoof sunk into a leaf-covered prairie dog hole but she recovered quickly. Leland pushed her hard in his anxiousness. He never liked uncertainty and the current situation definitely fit the definition.
What had happened to Charlene? The most likely answer was that somehow Padgett and his men had intercepted her instead of the intended target, himself. Had they taken her to their hideout? If so what would be their intentions? Did they kill her? He shook his head in consternation, fearful of his thoughts straying too much. For now, all he could do was follow the trail and see if he could come across a clue of some kind. Something that would tell of her fate.
To his left, Leland heard a twig snap.
It was an unnatural and unexpected noise and instantly, all his senses were on high alert. "Who's there?" he demanded, immediately wishing he hadn't. Giving away his location was stupid but the nervous quaver in his own voice bothered him more.
Amidst a rustle of branches, a wiry youngster with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail emerged onto the trail in front of him. "Hold it right there mister," he said. He held a gun in a gloved fist, trained on Leland's chest. "We got him, Tandy."
Billy's voice came from behind in that same southern drawl that Leland had come to admire so much when Billy was performing his Tandy persona. "That we do, Cat. That we do."
The young man named Cat got down off his horse, his movements sure and easy. He waved the gun at Leland and said, "Why don't you ease on off your horse, mister. You ain't goin' nowhere." He spoke with a cockiness that irked Leland's ears. He seemed hardly more than a boy.
Leland climbed down and followed Cat's unspoken motions to put his hands behind his back where Billy started to tie them together with a length of twine. "What's in this for you, Tandy?" he said guardedly. "Thought you had a bounty on Padgett."
Billy grunted and said "The pay was better to join him than it was to bring him in. Simple as that." He cinched the twine tighter and finished off the knot. Leland mentally kicked himself for ever getting involved with the smooth-talking actor in the first place. It had seemed a smart addition to their little team at the time but now that he thought back on it, the man seemed slick as snot.
"OK," said Cat. "Let's get back to the ranch before she finishes her dancin'. I don't cotton to all that twirling about too much but I'll be pleased to lead off the next part." His grin was devilish. "Hope she can last 'til we git back."
Leland's heart had dropped into his gullet at these words but at least he knew Charlene was still alive. He had to take some solace in that.
Cat started to move toward him as if to check his bonds, when suddenly, Billy shoved Leland forward roughly, colliding him into the slender outlaw and knocking both to the ground. Billy then leaped around Leland and bashed the prone Cat in the head with the grip end of his gun, right behind the ear. Cat lay still, a trickle of blood starting to flow down his neck and drip onto the dust of the trail.
"The man wouldn't shut up," he said, smiling at Leland. He moved back behind and began to untie the older man's wrists. Leland's evolving opinion of the actor took another jerk. Was he friend or foe? "Why didn't you just shoot him?"
Billy grinned again and said, "You know I can't hit the side of a mountain with a bullet. And besides, this way was more satisfactory."
Leland felt like he had to test the water a little. "I knew you hadn't swapped sides. There's no way in tarnation you would sell me out for a few more greenbacks."
Billy winked back at him. "Well, as you said before, Padgett only thinks short term. So when I came to him with the idea of telling him your plan in exchange for some cash, he was eager to offer me more than his bounty. How could I say no?"
"How much more?"
Billy grinned and said, "Never mind that now. They've got Charlene and they're holed up in their ranch house. She's stalling for time so I could get out here and find you. We need to rescue her before . . . " he trailed off.
"Understood," Leland replied. "At least we've got one less scoundrel to worry about," he said looking down at their victim. "And I have a new surprise cooked up, fresh as of this morning, that may help."
Together they tied the unconscious Cat to the trunk of a thick pine, jumped on their horses, and rode for the ranch house as swiftly as the narrow trail allowed.
* * *
Charlene wasn't sure how much time had passed but she was running out of it. And clothes. Only two pieces to go before she was completely exposed. She tried to slow things down even more but the tempo of the rhythm keeper had increased in pace. She could easily read the sheer longing in the men's faces. Padgett's tongue was running over his lips again and again like he was preparing for a feast. She swore there was a bit of drool leaking out.
Dancing from one corner of the table to another, back and forth, her breathing was much faster now. She had to admit, dancing without her corset was much easier than with it, free to move about with ease and contort in all sorts of ways. Sweat trickled down her neck and beneath her bust wrap, her flat tummy glistening. Typically, she wore her bloomers cut off shorter than most girls did. Above the knees allowed for easier movement and more comfort beneath her trousers. That had proven to be a poor decision now though since these men seemed especially intent on the thin white fabric that barely concealed her gyrating thighs. It stuck to her skin in places where her perspiration made it moist and Charlene was dismayed to think it was probably transparent there as well.
"Enough stalling little birdie!" Carmondy called out. "I need to use that hanky you're wearing over your twins. Give it here!"
Charlene had no choice. She slowed her dance back down to the same gentle sway of her hips that she had started with and began to loosen the knot holding the cloth wrapped around her breasts. That didn't take as long as she hoped either but she managed to keep the cloth in place with one hand while wiping a drop of sweat slaloming down her chin with the back of the other.
Like a gunshot, the door banged open. It let in a stream of bright daylight as well as her grandfather shambling in followed by Billy. The turncoat used one arm to pin Leland's arms behind him and the other to hold a sharp-looking knife to his throat.
"Oh good," said Padgett, turning toward the disturbance. "You're in time to enjoy the festivities." He yanked a thumb at the table where Charlene was trying desperately to keep the cloth up around her chest.
Billy's eyes went wide while Leland's grew narrow with rage. "What the . . . " he began. "What kind of perverts are you?" he demanded, eyes darting from one man to another. "Charlie, get your drawers back on and . . . "
Billy saw his chance. Taking advantage of the brief distraction he let go of his captive and tossed Leland's tin-lined box into the fireplace. Earlier, Leland had explained how he had wanted to make a black powder explosive but hadn't enough powder nor enough time to get gunpowder from bullets. So the tin box was, instead, merely a smoke bomb and the fuse would need to be lit somehow. Billy figured the flames of the fire ought to do the trick.
Nothing happened. Charlene and all the men in the room stared at the fire as if waiting for somebody to say or do something. But from the fireplace came . . . nothing. Padgett began to laugh, slowly at first and then rolling into a full-on gut-buster.
His laughter spread to the others but then, growing impatient, Padgett silenced the room with a shot into the ceiling from his pistol. "I guess we all know where your true loyalties lie, bounty hunter!" He lowered the gun, aiming at Billy's chest.
From out of the fireplace came an eerie whistle accompanied by a mournful hiss, building in a crescendo that began to hurt the ears. With a bang, the tin box burst apart and balls of smoldering pitch burst across the room, filling the space with dense smoke.
Billy was the first to react. He grabbed the rope that was hanging over the door latch and started tying a loop in the end. Leland dropped to his knees to avoid potential gunfire. He managed to grasp Billy's knife from the floor where it had dropped. He struck out blindly through the smoke. Aiming for where he had last seen one of the outlaws he felt solid contact with something fleshy. A high-pitched scream erupted from his target. At first Leland was horrified to think he might have stabbed Charlie. But no, he could see her through a thin spot in the smoke to his right where she had snatched a big hunting knife from Carmondy's belt. She reached forward to thrust it into the man's back but he twisted away at the last second. The knife's edge did bite him in the forearm before he batted it away, the blade skittering across the wooden floor.
Billy had taken full advantage of the smoke and clambered up to the overhead rafters, using the back of a chair to propel himself upwards. From there he spotted Reymundo, the stringy-haired Mexican with the bad breath. He dropped the noose-end of the rope around the man's scrawny neck and leapt off the beam to the floor. Reymundo was yanked off his feet and into midair, arms and legs flailing in all directions.
A frustrated Charlene had lost the hunting knife but she crawled in the direction Carmondy had knocked it. She had re-tied her bust wrap but hadn't had time to do a good job of it. Now it was loose and threatening to fall away completely. But she spared no thoughts for that at the moment. Reaching out across the floor, she felt her way through the smoke, hoping to stumble across the knife. Instead she found her discarded trousers.
Carmondy's voice came from near her ear, shouting something about how he was going to kill her for what she had done. But not until after he had seen her completely unshucked.
Charlene's eyebrows jutted inwards. What an empty-skulled idiot! She screwed up her courage, climbed to her feet, and came up behind Carmondy's position. She whipped the trousers around his neck like a calf lassoed for branding. Grabbing both sides, she heaved back with all her strength. They both fell to the floor where they struggled but Carmondy's strength was too much for her. He managed to free himself and move away, although doubled over and coughing severely.
A gunshot rang out and once again everybody froze in place. The smoke was beginning to dissipate now and Padgett could be seen with one arm raised in the air, his pistol aimed at the ceiling.
"I shoot the next person that moves!" he roared.
Leland glanced about, gathering his bearings. He saw one plumpish man writhing about on the floor trying desperately to remain still but failing. A stab wound was visible on his thigh and Leland realized this was his own recent victim. Another man was dangling from a rafter, his hands pulling at the rope that wound around his neck, trying to pull himself up and keep breathing. Billy was near the door where his hand was holding the other end of the rope, having tied it securely to the latch. Carmondy stood next to Leland, hunched over hacking, but Leland wasn't sure if this was from the smoke or some other cause.
"You, girl!" yelled Padgett pointing his pistol at Charlene now. "You git over here right now!"
Charlene glanced over at Leland, and then at Billy.
"Don't look at them, girl! They can't help you. Now, git!"
With one last look at Billy, she seemed resigned to her fate. She muttered, "Well, I suppose everybody has a role to play and this one's mine." She added a little emphasis on the word "role" just as Billy had earlier and gave him a penetrating stare. She nodded, turned and walked towards Padgett, fervently hoping Billy had gotten the message. His role was famous gunslinger bounty hunter. Could he play it when it counted?
"That's far enough," Padgett said, stopping her about three feet in front of him. "That smoke has cleared up enough now I think." He held the pistol steady, still pointed at Charlene's chest. "I want everybody to have a clear view of what's going to happen now. I have a great desire to add a hat band to match my suspenders and you, my lovely, are going to supply the raw materials."
He smirked once more, raised his gun arm to its full length, cocked the pistol, and prepared to squeeze the trigger.
Charlene wiggled just enough. Her bust wrap fell to the floor.
Padgett's eyes moved downwards, hesitated for a second, and then the sound of a gunshot all but deafened those in the enclosed room.
Leland cried out, "Charlie!" but then immediately saw that it was Padgett who had been thrown back by the shot. His pistol dropped, gun hand spurting blood. Swinging his head to the left he took in Billy's Colt .45 Peacemaker nestled in his right hand, smoke swirling from the barrel. Billy looked every inch the bounty hunter named Tandy. Hat pulled low on his brow. Long duster swirling around him. Steel-gray eyes bright with the significance of what he'd done.
"Huh?" Carmondy mumbled, hands till clasped about his own neck.
Leland, remembering the knife still in his hand, swung out back-handed. He allowed the blade to sink a full six inches into Carmondy's eye socket, killing him instantly. The outlaw fell straight back, his body slamming to the floor with a crash. Blood spurted from his head and began pooling around him, seeping into the cracks of the floorboards.
Charlene grabbed a burning log from the fireplace and whapped Padgett over the back of the head. He was knocked cold, putting an end to his pain-filled yells and curses.
* * *
Later, Leland, Billy, and Charlene sat on the floor of the ranch house, staring at the prone figures of four men. Padgett, Reymundo, and Nate lay next to each other, gagged and bound. Carmondy still lay where he had died in a pool of blood now dulled with dust.
"I reckon we ought to get going," said Leland, running a hand through his hair. "We need to collect Cat Maes from where we tied him up back on the trail. Then we get the whole parcel to Denver to collect the bounties."
"You got that right," added Billy. "And we want to be sure to get out of the area before all your tonic customers figure out the stuff don't work and decide to string you up."
Charlene, now fully dressed once again, smiled and shook her head. "Fact is Billy, it does work. At least for most folks. Pop's elixir is made from cocaine, morphine, and a touch of arsenic, among some other stuff to make it taste more like medicine. If it don't cure what ails you, you'll at least be happy for a time anyway."
Leland and Billy joined her in easy laughter and then Leland said, "Come to think of it, there might be more money in selling elixirs than in collecting bounties. Especially here in gold and silver country. Perhaps a change in occupation is in order . . . "
"Where's the fun in that?" said Charlene. "As long as we follow your plans, everything always goes just as it should." She smiled her sweet smile once again but then swiveled her head over to Billy, looking pointedly at him.
"That was some shot you made on Padgett's gun hand. I thought you said you couldn't shoot straight to save your life." She had one eyebrow raised in curious doubt.
Adopting an 'aw shucks' look on his face, Billy glanced at her shyly and answered, "I was actually aiming for his head. But something distracted me and my bullet swerved off course." His face grew even redder than before.
"Thank God for your poor aim . . . and being prone to distractions," said Leland. "Alive, he's worth twice what he is dead."