"What did you do?" Lucy asked.
The young man in the seat across from her made no reply. He just sat there, staring out the window of the stagecoach.
A while ago, when Lucy Roberts climbed into the stage in Heritage, she stumbled a bit on the step, and he had leaned forward to take her hand. Their eyes met then, but he didn't speak—in fact he'd hardly looked at her since.
But she had looked at him. The truth was, she had scarcely taken her eyes off him. He was intriguing, Lucy thought—sandy hair, square chin, blue eyes. And about her age, nineteen or so. She found herself wondering if this feeling, this . . . fascination, almost . . . might be more than just a passing interest. If it was, there were two things here that could prove to be a little inconvenient. One was that she was already engaged to be married; the other was that he was wearing a pair of handcuffs.
Whatever the case, Lucy thought, he should have the courtesy to answer her question. But just as she opened her mouth to ask him again, he turned from the window and looked at her. She snapped her mouth shut.
"Did I miss something?" he asked. His voice was deep, his eyes tired.
Lucy cleared her throat. "I asked you a question."
"Would you care to repeat it?"
"I asked you," she said, with a glance at his handcuffs, "what it was that you did."
Another long pause. Then: "They say I robbed a railroad office." The tiredness in his face seemed to deepen, and he turned again to the window.
"What do you mean 'they say'? Did you or didn't you?"
Again, no response. They rode on in silence.
Finally the third passenger—the man sitting beside the prisoner—spoke up.
"His name's Charlie McCall," the man said. "He was outside, holding his two friends' horses, when the two run out of the office with the stolen money. They was both shot dead, and McCall here was charged as their accomplice." He paused, then added, "He said he hadn't known anything about a robbery."
Lucy studied the older man a moment. He was burly, with a red face and mustache. A sheriff's star was pinned to his vest.
"Are you telling me he's innocent?" she asked.
The sheriff shrugged. "Don't matter what I tell you. We're on our way to Dodge, to let the judge decide. It's what he'll tell us that matters."
Lucy nodded in Charlie McCall's direction. "I want to know what he would tell me."
The big sheriff chuckled. "He won't tell you nothing, less he's looking at you when you ask him."
"He's deaf," the sheriff said.
She blinked. She turned to the young man again, watching him watch the plains roll past outside the stage's long window. She remembered now: his eyes had been fixed on her lips as she spoke to him.
"His pa was killed in a mine blast, years ago," the sheriff said. "Young Charlie was with him at the time. The boy survived, but could never hear again. Came to live with his aunt outside Heritage." The sheriff squinted. "You're from Heritage yourself, ain't you? A clerk at the bank?"
She nodded, looking at the sheriff but still thinking about Charlie McCall. "Until it closed," she said. "Mr. Larrabee's opening a new bank in Dodge, and said I could work for him again. I'm on my way there now, with the last of his move."
She hesitated. "I'm bringing the rest of his gold. It's in a strongbox, up top." Lucy was aware that the young man had turned from the window and was watching her as she spoke. She found it hard not to look at him.
"You mean you're making the delivery yourself?" the sheriff said.
"Yes. Are you surprised?"
"Well, I don't know. It seems strange—"
"To have a woman doing a man's work?"
The sheriff scratched his chin. "Let's say I woulda thought you'd be happier at home somewhere, married, than escorting a gold shipment for Ben Larrabee."
Lucy Roberts felt her face grow warm. "I can do most anything a man can, Sheriff. Ride, plow, shoe a horse. When I was little, on my pa's farm, I could kill a prairie dog with a rock at forty yards, every time."
"Well, the kind of varmints I'm thinking of are a sight bigger than prairie dogs, missy."
Lucy set her jaw and forced a deep breath.
"I should mention," she said, "that my wedding is next week, in Dodge. So I'll soon be home, and married. Does that please you, Sheriff?"
"Does it please you?" Charlie McCall said, from out of nowhere.
She blinked and looked at him. "What do you mean?"
The young man shrugged. He hadn't intended to be rude, she could see that—he just appeared curious. "The way you looked just then," he said, "you don't seem too happy about it."
She felt herself flush again. "I'm perfectly happy. Billy Ray Feeny is a fine man, and he'll make a fine husband. Not that it's any of your business."
McCall lifted his manacled hands. "My problem's none of your business, either," he said. "But it felt nice to know you're interested."
She regarded him for a long moment, feeling her anger drain away. She hadn't really been all that upset anyway: McCall's comment had been too close to the truth. She'd been having doubts about Billy Ray—and about her feelings for him—for weeks now. What bothered her even more, at this instant, were her feelings for this mysterious stranger. Even the sheriff seemed to realize something unusual was afoot here, as she and the young man stared into each other's eyes.
Suddenly the window darkened. For the moment, the rolling countryside was blocked from view; the stage had entered a small and scarce grove of trees. Just before they broke into the open again, something THUMPed on the roof of the coach. All three passengers looked up.
"One of the boxes tipped over, I expect," the sheriff said, as the stage began to slow down.
When they came to a full stop, he rose and stepped through the door. Lucy heard voices outside. Thirty seconds later the sheriff returned to the doorway, his face pale as chalk. "You two best come outside," he said.
The handcuffed man rose first, stepped down, then turned and helped Lucy down behind him. As soon as her feet touched ground she froze. Two men in tan dusters stood in the road near the front of the stagecoach, guns drawn and bandannas pulled tight over their lower faces. One of the men, tall and dark-haired, stayed close to the sheriff, whose own gun was missing from its holster. Three saddled horses were tied nearby.
"Line up right here, folks," the tall man said, waving his gun barrel at the side of the stage. As they obeyed, Lucy noticed a third bandit, also masked. He wore a black hat and vest, and appeared to be unhitching the team from its traces.
The tall man—the leader, Lucy decided—was studying the three passengers. His gaze stopped on her. "We won't keep you long, Sheriff," he said, his eyes still fixed on Lucy. "All we want's the gold."
Lucy stiffened, which was apparently just what the tall man had been watching for. He looked at the second bandit and nodded. The second man climbed quickly past the driver's seat and onto the top of the stage. Lucy could hear him above and behind her as he rummaged through the bags and cases stored there. A minute later he stepped down again, carrying the banker's strongbox.
"Good," the leader said. "Tie it down and mount up." He then glanced at the bandit in the black vest, who was unhitching the last of the team. As everyone watched, Black Vest slapped the horse's rump and fired several shots into the air, sending all four horses thundering away into the hills north of the road. Within seconds they topped a rise and were gone.
"Where's our driver?" the sheriff asked. By now Lucy had figured out the noise they'd heard earlier—one of the thieves must have dropped from a tree limb onto the top of the coach. "I didn't hear a shot," he added.
The leader nodded to the east, the way the now-horseless stagecoach had come. "He got whacked on the head and fell off. He'll live, I imagine."
The sheriff's face hardened. "I'll find you, you know. Dodge City's no more'n twenty miles away. I can walk there by dark, and you'll be caught 'fore the week's out."
"Is that so," the tall man replied, amusement flickering in the eyes above his mask. Without saying more, he turned to Charlie McCall, and looked him up and down. The handcuffs were hard to miss. "Well, well. Seems we have a friend in the crowd."
McCall stared back at him.
"Hold out your hands, boy," the tall man ordered, cocking his pistol.
McCall's hands were clasped together in front of him, the insides of his wrists resting on his belt. When he made no move to obey, the bandit raised his gun and thrust its muzzle against the handcuff's chain—and McCall's beltbuckle.
"You want my help or don't you?" the tall man asked.
"He can't hear you," Lucy said, alarmed.
The gunman ignored her. The two men looked into each other's eyes a moment, then McCall seemed to understand. He held his hands out to one side and stretched them apart. The gun roared, the chain separated. Still watching the leader's eyes, McCall rubbed his chafed wrists.
"Go," the leader said, with another wave of the gun barrel. McCall gave him a final look, then turned and headed east, toward the grove of trees they had just passed through.
Once more, the tall man fixed his attention on the sheriff. The second bandit had secured the strongbox behind his horse's saddle and was mounted now, ready to leave. The third man—the one wearing the black vest—strolled over to the group and stood watching.
"You might walk out of here, sheriff," the leader said, "but not in half a day."
"What do you mean?" the lawman growled.
The leader nodded to Black Vest, who cocked his pistol and shot the toe off the sheriff's right boot. The big sheriff grunted once and fell heavily to the ground beside the stage. He lay still for a second or two, his eyes squeezed shut and both hands clutching his wounded foot. Though horrified, Lucy made no sound; she just knelt beside him and held him as he groaned through clenched teeth. She gave the black-vested man a glare of pure fury.
Without a word the bandit holstered his gun and backed away. The leader stepped forward and studied the fallen sheriff.
"That should slow you down a bit," he said. "I think a decent head start is only fair, don't you?" He glanced once at Lucy, then nodded to the others. The man with the gold spurred his horse south, and the leader swung into his saddle and followed. Black Vest stood where he was for a moment, watching Lucy and the sheriff with casual interest. He said, speaking for the first time, "Have a nice stroll, folks."
At the sound of his muffled voice, Lucy's narrowed eyes opened wide. Her face went slack.
"Billy Ray?" she said.
The black-vested gunman, who had already begun to turn away, froze where he stood. His eyes widened also, as he realized his mistake.
He and Lucy stared at each other for several long seconds. Finally he turned and almost ran to where his horse was tied. Behind him, Lucy rose unsteadily to her feet, pale with shock. He fumbled with untying the reins, and seemed to have trouble getting his foot in the stirrup. Once mounted, the bandit raced away in the direction his friends had gone.
He had covered only a short distance when Lucy's shout stopped him. Her face was flushed a fiery pink now, and she stood alone in the road twenty feet from the stage, one hand behind her back.
"Billy Ray!" she called.
He reined in, then wheeled his horse around so he could look back at her. He was between thirty and forty yards away.
She was ready. Her left arm was already extended, her right arm cocked back; in one smooth motion she snapped her upper body forward as hard as she could. The lemon-sized rock caught Billy Ray Feeny in the center of his forehead, and made a sound like an axe hitting the trunk of an oak. He flung both arms wide, opened his mouth in a perfect little O, and toppled backward out of the saddle. His riderless horse shied a step or two, then stopped.
Lucy watched the man fall and lie still. She was breathing hard, and barely heard Charlie McCall walk up behind her. He was half-carrying a dazed and bloodied old man she recognized as the stagecoach driver. Gently McCall propped the old-timer against one of the coach's wheels and gave the sheriff a glance. The big lawman had managed to get his boot off, and was tearing strips from his shirttail to use as bandages. Lucy blinked a few times, getting her bearings, then rushed to the sheriff to help him.
McCall said nothing to either of them. He started walking south, moving neither slowly nor quickly, toward the spot where Billy Ray Feeny's horse stood grazing beside his sprawled form.
"Where's he going?" the sheriff said, his face pale and sweating.
"Let me do that," Lucy said, kneeling beside him.
"Where's he going? McCall?"
This time Lucy raised her head. Charlie McCall was still striding away, the broken handcuff chains swinging from his wrists.
"He's getting away," the sheriff murmured, half to himself. "He's getting away." He turned to her, his eyes wild. "Get my rifle. It's up top, in a brown pack."
"Get it," he said, then shouted, "McCallllll . . . "
"He can't hear you," she said, staring after him, her mind whirling with a dozen disjointed thoughts.
Suddenly the sheriff pushed her away, and she sat down hard in the dirt. Muttering to himself, groaning with pain, he tried to hoist himself to his feet—
And then stopped. He was staring past her at McCall. She turned to look, and at first didn't understand what she was seeing.
Forty yards away, Charlie McCall had put on Billy Ray Feeny's black hat and vest and gunbelt and was mounting Feeny's horse. Without a single look back, he took off at a gallop, heading south across the rolling green hills.
"He's gone," the sheriff said, as if he found it impossible to believe. "He's gone with them."
Lucy stared into the distance until McCall had vanished from sight, then looked again at the sheriff. She didn't know what to think or believe anymore, after the events of the past twenty minutes. She could understand McCall's escape, and taking the gun, but why had he bothered with the hat and vest? He already had a hat.
She decided not to worry about it right now. What she did instead was help the sheriff scoot back into the shade of the coach and then tend to the gash on the old driver's head. After examining and cleaning the cut, she hurried to a gully she'd seen beside the road to get mud for a poultice for the sheriff's foot. Half an hour later both men were in considerably better shape, though she was half covered with dirt and blood and sweat.
And then, just as suddenly as he had left, Charlie McCall rode into sight. He was leading a saddled horse and carrying two extra pistols in his belt. And on the extra horse was the strongbox of Ben Larrabee's gold.
He dismounted and tied both horses to the rear of the stage. "How's the foot?" he said.
The sheriff was speechless, and so, for the moment, was Lucy Roberts. She stared at McCall as if he were an apparition.
"What . . . what happened?" she asked, finally.
He tipped his hat back. "With the other guy's horse and clothes, I was able to get close enough to get the jump on 'em. They thought I was him." He pointed with his thumb. "I left them tied to a big oak beside a pond, about three miles south. They'll be okay till we ride into Dodge and get help." He added, with a disgusted look, "The other horse got away."
The sheriff was still gawking at him. "I . . . I thought—"
"I'm no criminal, Sheriff," McCall said. "I'll go with you, like before, but I'm no criminal."
The sheriff swallowed and nodded.
McCall turned then to Lucy, and their eyes held for what seemed a long time. "There's one more thing to do," he said. "Get the rope off that saddle, would you?"
It took only a short while to drag Billy Ray Feeny's limp body back to the stage. He was still out cold, but he was alive, with a blue knot the size of a fist just above his eyes. "I saw you throw that rock," McCall said, when he finished tying the man's hands and feet. "Not bad."
"Well, he is a dog, and this is the prairie," she said. She managed to keep her tone light, but she was all too aware that this outlaw sprawled on the ground at her feet was the man who, until an hour ago, she had intended to marry. It was still a bit of a shock. She could see that the sheriff knew also. McCall, of course, didn't know. He had been down the road, attending to the driver, at the time she'd recognized Feeny, and of course couldn't have heard her call his name.
Lucy was also aware that she was at least partially responsible for this whole mess. She remembered now: Billy Ray Feeny had been in the bank, visiting with her, when Mr. Larrabee asked her to escort the gold to Dodge City for him. It didn't take a genius to figure out the rest.
Even so, she was secretly grateful it had happened. She had not only discovered, and corrected, what had almost been the biggest mistake of her life—she had also met a man totally unlike anyone she had ever known before.
"You probably saved our lives," she said. "And my job, and my boss's gold."
McCall looked surprised. "You knocked the guy off his horse," he reminded her. "I couldn't have done anything without the horse."
"I guess we make a good team, then." She smiled, searching his eyes.
To her delight, he blushed a little. "I guess so," he said.
The plan, such as it was, didn't take long. She and Charlie McCall would ride into town on one horse and the driver on the other. The sheriff would stay here, in the shade of the stagecoach, with the still-unconscious prisoner, until they could return with the local law and a doc. "Besides," the sheriff said, "I have to stay. If this guy wakes up I intend to shoot him in the foot."
Within ten minutes they were ready. With McCall's help, the stage driver was boosted onto the one horse, and he and Lucy climbed onto the other. Before leaving, while the sheriff was making himself comfortable and the driver had already started out down the road, McCall turned to Lucy and said to her, over his shoulder, "Guess you heard the sheriff say he'd speak for me? To the judge?"
She smiled and nodded. "He told me the charges were sure to be dropped."
McCall looked thoughtful. He didn't appear as happy about it as she thought he should be. "I suppose that means I'll soon be headed back home to Heritage, then," he said.
A silence passed. She just watched him, waiting.
"About your wedding . . . " he said, and swallowed. "When's it supposed to be, exactly?"
She hesitated, studying his face. From the direction of the stage, the sheriff was humming a tune. It occurred to her that Charlie McCall wasn't able to hear it.
Carefully, making sure he was watching her lips, she answered, "The wedding's off."
He blinked. "What?"
"It's off. I'm not getting married."
"Ain't that kind of sudden?"
"You have no idea," she said, with a smile.
He frowned and cleared his throat. "Does that mean . . . Could that mean you'd come back home too, then? To Heritage?"
Lucy felt a terrible weight on her heart. Just as she was about to speak, the driver called from up ahead, to see what the delay was. When she glanced ahead, past McCall's shoulder, he turned to follow her gaze.
"I'll have to stay in Dodge, Charlie," she answered, as he waved the old man on. "After all, my job's there."
But then she realized, as they faced each other again, that her words had gone unheard. He stared at her for a second, then asked, "Did I miss something?"
She swallowed. "I answered your question," she said.
But then something happened. The look in his eyes, at that moment, was so intense, so full of concern and expectation and emotion, it made her skin tingle. Suddenly the weight lifted, and Lucy knew for certain what this strange feeling in her heart was. She knew it as surely as she knew her own name. Out here in the middle of nowhere, sitting on a horse that had belonged to a man she thought she had known but hadn't known at all, sitting behind a man she had only just met, she realized she had finally found her gold, and it wasn't the kind you buy or steal or put in a strongbox.
"Would you care to repeat it?" McCall asked. He looked as if he might be holding his breath.
She reached up and brushed a wisp of hair off his forehead. "What I said was . . . I won't be staying in Dodge after all. I'm coming back home, to Heritage."
Slowly, both of them grinned.
Up ahead, the old-timer was still staring at them, waiting. McCall glanced at him, then turned again to Lucy.
"Guess it's time to go," he said, still smiling.
"Well, let's go then. You're driving."