The woman's dress was ugly— splotchy brown fabric made dusty by the road hung too loose over her lean frame. The dress had no decorative embroidery or lace. It was just poorly-tailored fabric one step above a flour sack. The bonnet on her head was in no better shape.
None of that mattered to Heel, of course. Truth be told, he couldn't have identified embroidery (much less spelled it). All he saw that morning was a woman walking west along the side of the coach road. They were a good fifteen miles west of Bensonville but still almost twenty east of Muddy Well.
Heel had resolved to pass the woman by; he really had. Many years ago back in the coal country, Heel's ma had made him promise not to be like his pa—always sticking his nose into other people's affairs. And, she'd also made him promise to always keep his promises. The Butterfield stage ran this route regularly, and this part of the territory was pretty peaceful, so Heel figured that the woman was in no real danger anyway.
But, when the woman heard his buckboard's wheels rattling through the tracks, she set her very sturdy-looking valise down and stepped out in front of him. Heel hadn't anticipated this. He pulled back on the reins, slowing Old Scratch to a stop.
He could maybe have driven around the woman or shouted at her to clear the road, but either would be rude, and his pa had made him promise never to be rude to a lady.
"Sir! Sir?" the woman's voice snapped Heel to attention. Enormous shoulders worked under his waxed coat as he reached up to snatch the felt hat off of his head.
"Sorry, ma'am," he said. His voice was slow and loud and broad with the accent of the Pennsylvania Dutch. "I was thinking to myself."
"Of course," the woman said as she took a wide swing around Old Scratch to walk up toward Heel. "More people should do more of that. I am very glad that you stopped; I've been walking quite a while. Do you think that you could let me ride in your coach the rest of the way to Muddy Well?"
Heel gave a slow nod while unconsciously crushing his hat in his thick-fingered, powerful hands. "Yes, ma'am," he said eventually. "I can't say that it will be a comfortable ride with this road the way it is, but I suppose it will be better than walking."
She smiled and clapped her hands—locks of golden hair fell out from her grimy bonnet. Heel thought she was probably a few years older than his own twenty-three, but just a few. "I'll get my valise," she said.
"No, ma'am, I'll be happy to fetch it," Heel said quickly. "Please just get yourself settled on the bench. I don't have a cushion, but there is an old blanket in the back that you are welcome to sit on."
He stepped off the buckboard, expecting her to give up a step to give him space. She did not, so Heel's hurry brought the two of them in very close proximity—close enough to make Heel anxious. The woman looked up at him and said: "Charity. Charity Greene is my name."
Heel took a step to the side to get some space. "I go by Heel," he said as he gestured to the seat and then turned to gather the woman's bag.
The buckboard's bench was made to seat two, but Heel was one-and-a-half all by himself. Settling in while trying to maintain some sort of propriety was a challenge. Eventually, Heel gave up on the notion that he was going to be able to avoid encroaching on the woman, stopped fidgeting, and snapped the reins to get Old Scratch moving again.
"So," Charity said, "Heel? That's an uncommon name."
"That's just what I go by. My given name is Monongahela Heinrich Siegenthaler. People started calling me 'Heel' when I was a kid, so I just kept it up. Easier for everybody."
"Mon-on-heela?" Charity asked.
"Monongahela," Heel said a bit slowly. "It's the name of a river back in Pennsylvania."
Charity looked at Heel and smiled. "Well, I think that's a fine name," she said.
Heel was not a man who commonly provoked smiles from women. He fidgeted on the bench again, trying to gain a little space.
Introductions complete, the two sat in silence for a time as the morning sun continued its rise across the sky. They passed one rider heading in the other direction, but a hat tipped from the dusty man to Charity was the only interaction.
Eventually, Charity broke the quiet: "What has you out for Muddy Well?"
Heel tilted his head toward the crates in the back of the buckboard. "I've got a shipment of catalog-ordered goods for the general store. They were supposed to be on the last stage, but they didn't make it on."
"Is that what you do?" Charity asked. "Deliveries?"
Heel just nodded.
Several minutes passed with no further conversation. Then, Charity: "You haven't asked me why I was out walking the road alone. I want to thank you for your discretion."
Heel shrugged. The rough hem of his coat pulled at the sleeve of Charity's dress, so close were the two still. Truth be told, it had never occurred to him to ask.
* * *
Muddy Well began its life as a stage stop at the confluence of three roads. Over the course of a few years, other services and residents accreted around the stop. By the time that Heel and Charity arrived, the slouching road house had been torn down and a prosperous crossroad town sprawled across the prairie. Heel navigated his buckboard down the dusty streets between whitewashed, false-fronted buildings. Their arrival was unheralded and unremarkable: just another transient arriving in a transient town.
Passing the city limits sign, Charity spoke: "I want to thank you again for helping me along. I know it's been an imposition."
Heel made a start at the socially required denial, but Charity continued without a pause: "And I truly hate to do it, but I wonder if I might ask to make another. I've never been here before, and it looks a bit rough. As a woman alone, I'm sure you'll understand that I have some concerns. Could you see your way clear to escorting me until I'm able to board a stage to Denver? I have family there."
Heel turned to face forward, looking over the town. His jaw worked for a few seconds. "Yes. I could do that."
The line offices for the three stage companies that passed through town were located in the rough triangles formed by the intersection of the three roads that give Muddy Water its purpose.
A few minutes' maneuvering brought them to the nearest. Heel dismounted the buckboard and then walked around to help Charity down. When Heel reached out an arm to steady her, Charity took his hand and gave it a soft squeeze. Heel was too taken aback to notice the contrast between her soft fingers and the hard life implied by her clothing.
"I'll need to get into my valise," she said. "I have some money." Heel nodded and unstrapped the heavy case from the back. He kept an eye out toward the town while Charity sorted through it, but couldn't help but notice that the case contained what appeared to be men's clothing.
* * *
Heel stood with his back against the front wall of the stage office while Charity conducted her business. As he looked down Main Street (Muddy Well's name for the coach road that had brought him and Charity to town), Heel noticed a trio of heavily-armed men evidently headed for the town building that served as both City Hall and the Town Marshal's office. Even more than the guns, it was their hurry that marked them out. Someone wearing a badge—maybe the marshal, maybe just a deputy—emerged from the office and braced the men.
Heel was pulled away from watching the drama by Charity's emergence from the office. "They do have a stage to Denver," she said, holding up a ticket, "but it doesn't leave until the morning. Could you help me find some suitable accommodations for tonight?"
"I do need to deliver this stuff to Eddington's first," Heel said.
"Oh, of course," Charity said. "I appreciate all that you've done already and I don't mean to interfere with your affairs more than necessary." She reached out and touched his forearm. "Let's go see Mr. Eddington!"
* * *
Eddington was a gangly man in sleeve garters and a shopkeeper's apron. His left ear was carved out of wood and attached to his head by means of a thin leather strap. The quality of the carving was amazing, but Heel couldn't help but wonder if it didn't just draw more attention to the situation.
And he had plenty of time to wonder about Eddington's choices as the shopkeeper painstakingly compared the contents of the shipping crates to his customers' orders. Charity spent the time in the back corner of Eddington's shop. Heel didn't know what she found so fascinating about the various cooking implements there, particularly when it was so dark in that part of the building, being so far from the entrance and front windows.
"Is this what the company calls pink?" Eddington asked over his shoulder, holding up a bolt of fabric.
Heel, from behind him, said, "I guess it must be, sir. I just haul them."
"Well, I think this is red. Mrs. Pasternak may not accept it, and then where will we be?"
Heel was just getting started on a response when the armed-and-badged man that he had seen earlier came clumping down the boardwalk. Seeing him closer, Heel realized that the man was even younger than he was; little more than just a kid, really. The Schofield on his right hip was polished to a high sheen and the heavily-tooled holster must have cost a month's wages. He carried a small bundle of papers in his left hand. "Mr. Eddington!" he shouted from ten yards away.
Eddington set down the bolt of maybe-slightly-off-color fabric that was causing him such grief and turned around. "Deputy Shivers, what brings you by?"
Shivers gave Heel a nod of acknowledgement, which his body language made clear was all Heel was going to get out of him at the moment. "Murder," the young peace officer fairly shouted, puntcuating it by slapping the roll of papers against his leg.
"Here?" Eddington asked. "Who was it?"
"No, not here. Back in St. Louis." If anything, the young man sounded disappointed. "But the murderer might be coming here. And it's a woman!"
"Hmm." Eddington said. "Tell Daughtry to get his press oiled. This will fill the pages of the Examiner for a week."
"It sure will," Shivers said. He pulled one sheet from the roll and set it down on Heel's buckboard. "Please post this up in your shop." The Wanted poster was smudged, but the text was mostly legible. It named the murderer as Ellie O'Kinney and the victim as Joseph O'Kinney, her husband. Ellie was described to be 25 or 26 years of age, medium height, pleasing of face, well-formed, and with blonde hair. The reward amount was $5,000—O'Kinney must have been an important man in St. Louis.
Heel looked at the poster to be polite, but the extent of his letters was the ability to sign his name.
"Quite the scandal," Eddington said after reading the poster. "A wealthy woman, at that."
Shivers nodded, "Though not anymore. She can hardly lay claim to the family money now. Anyway, I've got more posters to deliver. Good day to you both."
"You and your wife should be careful," Eddington said to Heel as the young man sprang off, "there's all sorts on the roads these days."
Heel started, "That is true. But she's not . . . "
"So about this fabric," Eddington said, talking over whatever else Heel intended to say, "I'll accept it for now, but I want you to sign a receipt saying that I'm doing so under protest."
* * *
"Did you murder a man in St. Louis?" Heel asked Charity once the two of them were back in the buckboard seat, riding toward a tall building with the word "HOTEL" painted on the facade.
"I . . . no, of course not," Charity said.
Heel nodded. "They're looking for a woman who did. You've got a bushel of paper money and a man's suit of clothes in your valise. You're alone, like you might be on the lam, and are trying to get all the way to Denver. And you were coming from the direction that the woman who did the murdering would be coming from."
Charity breathed in sharply, then paused. She turned to Heel and said: "So why didn't you turn me in already? If you think I'm a murderer."
Heel shrugged. "I figured on asking you first. Didn't seem right to assume. Plus, I promised to escort you. And now you say that you didn't do it. It's sort of a confusing situation."
Heel mulled over his thoughts—this situation caused him to have more than he was accustomed to—as they arrived at the hotel. Another man might have peppered her with questions. Most would have turned the buckboard to the town marshal's office. Heel did neither. He just drove on to the hotel, keeping his own counsel.
When he pulled the buckboard to a stop, Charity asked: "So, what are you going to do? Turn me in?"
The big man's face scrunched up. "Don't see that I have to decide that right now. A hasty decision is usually a bad one, as my ma used to say. You're not going anywhere until tomorrow's stage, so I've got until then to decide. And I promised I'd escort you until you got settled, so I figure to do that now."
Charity regarded him for a moment, and then patted his arm. "You're a good man, Heel. You'll do the right thing."
* * *
Charity had never seen one man hit another so hard. She was no naif as far as violence was concerned: she'd grown up with rough-and-tumble brothers, and then spent time in saloons, and, of course, had emptied a birding gun into her late husband. But Heel's punch—that boulder-like fist propelled forward with all of the big man's weight behind it—took the bounty hunter from a standing threat to a broken, leaking victim in an instant. The hotel clerk wasted no time in making for the back door.
The bounty hunters had appeared while Charity was negotiating for a room. There had been some confusion about Heel's role in her travels and the clerk was dead set against his room being used for any illicit business. Charity just about had the man convinced that Heel was not staying with her and wouldn't so much as enter the room when the three dust-covered gunmen had walked in seeking their own accommodations.
"O'Kinney!" the lead bounty hunter—a sunburned man with an almost comically-large hat—had shouted. This prompted another to quick-step across the hotel foyer to make a grab for Charity. The response to that was Heel's first punch. He still hadn't decided whether he thought the young woman was a murderer, and he wasn't about to let some saddle tramp lay a hand on her before he had.
Back in the fight, the second bounty hunter fared no better. In his haste, the southpaw had gotten the hammer of his pistol caught in a shirt button when he tried his cross-draw. In some contexts, the lost second would have been immaterial. Here, it meant that Heel had time to cover the distance between them, pin the bounty hunter's gun hand with his right, and use his left to propel the bounty hunter's head into the pine wall behind. The bounty hunter slumped, stunned.
Two were down, but there was still one to go. That one had enough distance to pull his Merwyn and Hulbert from its shoulder holster, cock it, and level it at Heel.
"No!" Charity shouted and quick-stepped around the fallen bounty hunters to place herself between Heel and the gun. "I'll go with you. I'll go with you."
Heel glared at the man over Charity's head. The bounty hunter returned the favor, but gave a slow nod. He kept the gun in his hand, but pointed it down and eased the hammer forward.
Charity turned back and gave Heel another smile as she smoothed and then gathered up her skirts.
"Let's go," the bounty hunter said and tilted his head toward the door. He shifted his gaze back toward Heel, worried that the big man would lunge when his back was turned. He was right to worry—Heel was considering it. The bounty hunter might get the gun back up and into play before Heel got his hands on him, but it wasn't a sure thing.
His attention was drawn back in Charity's direction by a sharp crack and the feeling of a hot pin driven into his chest. The bounty hunter saw the smoking Deringer in Charity's hand and then looked down to see the front of his vest beginning to stain with his life's blood. Charity didn't share his confusion. She reached forward, snatching the gun out of the bounty hunter's loosened grip.
"Come on!" Charity said, depositing her Deringer back into a slit in the waistline of her skirt.
Heel looked the woman in the eyes. "You stepped in front of that gun for me," he said. "Doesn't seem like a thing a murderer would do. But, you knew the bounty hunter was shouting for you before you saw him. And you killed him."
Charity stepped forward and laid her empty hand on Heel's arm. "Whatever people may accuse me of, I've never murdered anyone. But now, unless you're going to turn me in, we need to run."
The sound of boots thumping on the boardwalk gave the truth to Charity's analysis. Heel nodded, and then followed as she sprinted out the front door to where the bounty hunters' horses were still tied at the rail. She mounted the smallest, throwing her leg over the Western saddle with no heed to propriety. Heel pulled the lead off the hitching rail and then mounted the largest horse, which in the moment that his huge bulk squashed down on the saddle, would have wished it were smaller, had it the sense. Heel grabbed the lead to the third hunter's horse and tugged it along.
The two hurried out of town, the hue and cry of townsfolk fading behind them.
* * *
Deputy Shivers refused to let sundown stop his inevitable ascent to hero status. The rest of the pursuers had stopped to camp at full dark on the near-moonless night, at which time following Heel and Charity's tracks across the plain had become impossible. The young man had pressed on, however, swapping his blown-out horse with one from the remuda and continuing on the south-southwesterly course that Heel and Charity had set.
Nobody else would buy in, but Shivers figured that the two fugitives planned to hop a train on the steep grade just outside of Spruce Canyon, where a train would have to slow substantially but the forest was thick enough to make it tough for a bull to notice an interloper. As it turned out, he was right, which spoke well of the young man's perspicacity.
Unfortunately for Deputy Shivers, cleverness and impetuousness can be a powerfully dangerous combination for a young man. He was paused on a slight ridge—wondering whether it would be quicker to ride along it or cut across the draw to the other side—when he turned to look at a rustling noise to his right. An instant later, Heel grabbed him from his left.
The big Pennsylvanian lifted the small lawman bodily out of the saddle and slammed him to the hard prairie turf. Shivers lost his breath, but rolled over and tried to rise. The young man was game, but he was no match for Heel in this sort of fight. Heel dropped on top of Shivers, his enormous weight pinning the smaller man to the ground. He pulled the Schofield out of the deputy's holster and flung it away into the night. Shivers tried to shout—not that there was anyone who could hear—and Heel clouted him across the face. Not particularly hard, but certainly hard enough to let Shivers know what was coming if it tried again.
Charity hustled toward the two, a coil of rope from the bounty hunter's horse over one arm. Heel took it from her when she said, "Tie him up. I'll keep him covered." Which she did, with one of the bounty hunter's sixguns.
"I'm sorry about all this," Charity said to the Shivers once they were through binding him, "we'll set a fire for you so that the smoke will bring the rest of your posse in the morning. I may have killed Joseph, but I didn't murder him. I'd had enough of tasting the back of his hand just because he got on the whiskey and felt like taking something out on me. But there's no way to prove it, and I won't let them hang me for defending myself just because his family has money."
* * *
"So," Charity (lately known as Ellie O'Kinney) asked after they were settled on the freight car, "are you going to turn me in?"
"I'm still thinking about it." Heel said. "Don't want to make a hasty decision."