Kate the Kid Ch. 05bymadam_noe©
Kid knew Dan was immune to Rafe's male posturing. Dan had a sense of humor that was rare and distinctly his own. Kid wanted Rafe gone, had been hoping he'd turn back, but he was still there.
And the look he'd given Dan when she'd hugged him, well, that had been too proprietary by half. She was puzzled and more than a little sick of the secrecy and lies. MacNeil wasn't giving up his seat in the coach and he surely knew that Jerome was ready to talk.
Dan and Billy chatted companionably and Dan's smile was boyishly open, but his dark eyes scanned the horizon like the pro he was. Kate dropped behind and rode ahead by turns, searching for any signs of life. There were none, which meant they might have a free pass to Sayre.
Dan was her second oldest friend. She'd just left little Cloud and met Spotted Horse as they'd both been running from the city. She with a stolen horse, he with a woman who'd paid for help to escape a bad marriage, Dan's sister. She was now Spotted Horse's wife.
Dan had been at the wedding, the only person there besides Marie and Spotted Horse to bother to talk to her, and he who taught her how to dance. Dan had been like a big brother, the man who'd helped her get the post with the company on the Oregon trail.
He ran in the north plains mostly and they'd worked together several times. Finnegan was an old partner of his, the man Dan had suggested she seek out for her first jobs as a hired gun.
Of their little circle only she and Dan were still working the wild west trails and homesteads. Spotted Horse had been long tamed by Marie and Isabella had always been proper, now Finnegan was settling in to become a miner or a farmer. She was the youngest of the group, true, but she had always imagined their adventures would continue for a long time.
The day passed quietly and Kate took the supper break to explain what was going on. Rafe and Jerome chatted with Billy across the little fire and Rafe shot them dirty looks, probably wondering if they were leading them into an ambush. For a secretive lecher the man was too suspicious by half.
They only made it to Maxwell by dinner and ate quietly in the hotel dining room. There were chicken pies, snap peas, and apple tarts. Everybody ate well and then Jerome and Billy lumbered to their rooms, leaving the guns.
Dan moved up a chair to sit at Kate's elbow and Rafe's jaw ticked.
She was too tired to deal with any crap. "I'm going to bed. You're both more than capable of figuring out the watch schedule."
She grabbed one of the two room keys on the table and left them in silence. All she could hope is that Rafe would make some comment disparaging her and Dan would knock his block off.
She climbed the stairs, found her room, and got ready for bed with that fantasy putting a smile on her lips.
Downstairs Dan and Rafe stared at each other. Rafe felt himself tightening as if for a fight, then Dan cracked a smile.
"Hell boy, if you're lookin' at Kid like that I'd best disabuse you of that notion."
"What," Rafe picked his tone carefully, "do you mean, exactly?"
"I mean I've known Kid, hell, eight or nine years now. In all that time I've seen only a handful of men look at the Kid as a woman, and I've seen her laugh in all their faces."
"Have you, now?"
"Hell, don't go thinkin' like that. Met her when she helped my sister get out of a bad marriage. Kept her husband from puttin' a hand on Marie before I'd given my blessing along with the preacher. Girl has a heart of gold and just as cold."
"Hmm," was all Rafe said.
Dan cracked a smile. "So, you want the first watch or shall I?"
"I'll go around first. I'll ask at the saloons and keep watch on the road before I come get you."
"Don't bother. I'll catch some shut eye and relieve you about one. Okay?"
"Fine. Then I ride shotgun tomorrow, you sleep in the coach."
"Sounds fine by me."
Rafe watched him leave the dining room, headed upstairs, and wondered at the words. Perhaps there was more to Kate than met the eye.
Rafe had no idea what had possessed him, but in the middle of the night he found himself picking the lock on Kid's room. She was in bed, the sheets were in total disarray, and her thin shirt was up almost to her waist.
Damn but the woman had nice legs. They were sleeker than any woman's he'd ever seen, probably because she looked like she was born in the saddle. Her hair was tousled and he saw it was wavy, shining in the low burning candle.
Jesus he was asking for trouble. Hadn't she threatened to kill him if he touched her again? But when she'd been sleepy, she'd been all too soft and pliant. The memory of that had him kneeling on the bed.
He knew he shouldn't be there, should just take his need and go find some willing whore. There had been many who had made themselves available for him, but none with her hair, her strength, her inner fire.
This was madness, but he told himself he had to touch her. Had to know if she would wake up soft and pliant, expecting Dan Forth in her bed, or if she was dreaming of him.
He slid his hand along her hip and she barely moved, deeply in sleep. Her shirt was open and he slipped his hand inside to cup her warmth, felt the heft of a breast in his palm. He felt so hard and swollen, ready to explode and desperate to feel more.
Instead he forced himself to breathe deeply and evenly as he slowly dragged the pad of his thumb across her nipple. She gasped and moaned at that. Encouraged, he repeated the motion.
"Rafe," she moaned.
"Jesus." He was lost then.
Kate was dreaming about a hunt. She and the other women of the village were preparing for a great feast, roasting vegetables in the fire. Some noise at the edge of the grove of trees called her.
White Eagle was due back soon, and she eagerly awaited his return, but something called to her from the trees. She crept closer and knew someone was watching her. She should have been afraid, should have called to her family for help, but she kept creeping closer.
There in the tree was a wild cat. Her breath caught in her throat as it came closer and she saw the strange eyes belonged to a man.
"Rafe," she called, and opened her eyes.
The room was dark, and something was off. She grabbed her gun and whirled, only to have it ripped from her hands.
She cursed a blue streak in French until a heavy body pressed her down in to the mattress, a hand clamped over her mouth.
"Shhh, it's me," Rafe said.
If he expected this to calm her he was insane. She went soft and pliant, waiting for him to relax, and once he did she kneed him in the balls as hard as possible.
He let out a strangled sound and rolled off of her. She found her footing and gun, clicking back the hammer and pointing it straight at his heart. "Care to explain what you're doing in my room?"
"Dying," he wheezed out. "Jesus, Kate, you didn't have to do that."
"No, I guess I should have just laid there and let you rape me."
She couldn't see too well in the dark but she could see he froze. "Christ, is that what you think of me?"
Never in all the tales she'd heard of Rafe MacNeil had she heard him be anything other than a friend to or a good time to a woman. It figured she'd have to be the exception.
"Get out and stay out. Do I make myself clear?"
He swung up onto his feet and in the scant moonlight she saw he was fully dressed. "You look at me as if you want me. When you're asleep you can't get enough of me. What is it? You have some history with Dan Forth, or is it just you need money to spread your favors?"
He pulled something from his pocket and held it up. "Ten dollars here, Kate, what'll that buy me?"
Rage such as she'd never known gripped her. She didn't shoot him, she wanted to strangle him with her bare hands. The gun fell to the mattress and she lunged for him. Rafe was big but gracefully, and sidestepped, wrapping his arms around her and using her momentum to swing her up against his chest.
Kate was breathless at his strength, paralyzed by the feel of his hard warm body against hers. He had her pinned so tightly she couldn't move, could barely breathe, and they remained locked like that, staring at each other's shadowy face for long minutes.
For a mad moment she thought he would kiss her, for a crazy moment she wanted him to. She whimpered, terrified of losing herself, of making a mistake that would alter her life.
Glancing down into her eyes Rafe saw something that burned his very soul. Finally he loosened and stepped back. "Kate, I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
"Get out," she said lowly and to her shame even she could hear the tears in her throat. Kate was braced for an argument, but he quietly shoved the money back in his pocket and slipped past her, closing the door softly.
Kate trembled for the span of a few heartbeats and then wedged a chair under the doorknob. Her head was spinning, wondering how in the hell she'd given him the impression she was a whore. She meant nothing to him; he and Jerome didn't trust her, and Rafe wanted to use her. And she was panting after him like a stupid girl with a crush. Clutching her gun to her chest, she cried herself to sleep.
In the next room Jerome was waiting for Rafe. When his friend entered, Jerome grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up against the wall. "What the hell were you doing?" he growled.
"Heard that, did you?" Rafe said evenly, unaffected by his friend's temper. "I made a mistake."
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't beat you to a bloody pulp and leave you here tomorrow?"
Rafe pushed him back and dropped to the ground, adjusting his collar. "Because royal ass I might be, I'm still one of the best guns around and you need me."
Jerome stalked back to his bed, swiping a hand through his hair. When he spoke he was too angry to turn around. "Be that as it may, Bella loves that woman like a sister. If you so much as look at her too long and Bella hears of it, I will kill you myself. Is that clear?"
He waited for an answer but none came. He turned and saw his room was empty. Cursing, Jerome poured himself a glass of port and cradled his head. He was letting his best friend back them into a corner, and it was going to put everyone at risk. He didn't want to have to choose between his best friend and Bella's, but if he did, at least he knew which way he leaned.
Dan scanned the road in, but he knew that the biggest threat was in town. From what Kid had told him the last hired guns were chased off or dead, so any new ones would most likely be hired in town.
He didn't like secrets, he didn't like bullies, and at that moment, he didn't like Rafe MacNeil. From what he'd heard of the man Rafe was a good man, but the lies and the hiding made Kid wary, and Dan trusted her judgment.
He heard someone behind him and moved quietly, raising his shotgun to the stranger's chest. Surprisingly, it was MacNeil standing there.
"Is anything wrong?"
MacNeil growled and shook his head. "I'll stand watch tonight. Get some sleep."
"Get some sleep," MacNeil said and Dan gulped.
"Fine by me," Dan said, but his distrust ensured he'd keep watch on Rafe the whole of the night.
Billy met the others with a whistling tune on his lips that died at the sight of them. No one appeared well rested, everyone looked grim. "Shit, we're gonna get killed out there, ain't we?"
At four gimlet stares he but his lip and climbed up. Forth sat next to him, the other two men sat inside below, and he expected to see Kid on her horse, but Sweet was nowhere in sight.
"You leavin' us?"
"I'm going to stay behind and see who else leaves. And when I catch up, one of you had better talk," she directed inside the coach.
Billy waved her off, looked up at the sky, and smiled at the sunshine.
"Why are you so happy?" Dan grumbled next to him.
"It's as fine a day to die as any, I suppose. Yah!" He whipped the team into motion and the coach rumbled off, leaving the hired gun to shake his head.
Kate watched the coach roll off and turned, heading for the Western Union office. Inside the operator was an older man with an easy smile and thick glasses.
"San Francisco, Isabella Vercelli at the Rockport Inn, Green Street."
"In Sayre, Jerome's friend is idiot, stop. Someone is trying to kill Jerome, stop. Jerome won't tell me who, stop. Wire the hotel Plemons in Red River NM, stop, with order to Jerome to talk, stop. Have hired Dan Forth to help, stop. Rafe MacNeil is an idiot, stop."
The operator stared at her for a moment then shook his head. "Eight dollars, then."
Kate paid him in cash, letting a ten slide along with it. "Any wire come in asking for hired guns?"
"I don't remember things too well," he said slyly.
Sighing she slid another ten. "Memory better now?"
"Someone did, but no takers. The name Rafe MacNeil is well known here, we're damn close to Texas, kid. No one will take it in Red River, either, you can bank on that."
Great, so she only had to worry once they made camp in Dulce.
Well, she grinned as she left, if she was ever ready for a fight, it was today.
She made Red River in three and a half hours, a full thirty minutes before the coach. The telegraph office had a letter addressed to Jerome, and Kate bought it for five dollars. Sweet was lathered and by the time she wiped him down and buried his nose in oats the coach rumbled in.
It was clear Rafe and Jerome had been sleeping; Dan looked ready to drop. Billy took care of the horses while Jerome purchased lunch, arranging for a private room in one of the three restaurants in town.
They ate in silence until Kate spoke as their plates were pulled away. "Rafe better ride shotgun and let Dan get some sleep. And Sweet needs a rest, I'll tether him behind the coach so he can go at a slower pace. I'll ride inside."
She could feel Rafe's emerald eyes boring into her face but she refused to look at him. He looked rumpled and boyish despite the scowl, and she knew if she met his gaze she'd blush like an idiot.
"Fine," Jerome said, and paid the check.
Kate settled into the coach and sat next to Jerome, letting Dan spread out on the opposite bench. He put his hat over his face and began to snore before they moved out.
"I sent Izzy a telegram, and this was her reply," Kate said softly and handed him the telegram.
Jerome ripped it open and read it, a queasy look crossing his striking features. "Hell."
"So are you going to talk?"
He set the paper down and pulled his hat off, rolling his head to loosen his neck. "I've been friends with Bella, Izzy, for years. But before we...became romantically involved I was engaged to be married.
"George Whittaker Sr. owns a shipping company, like mine. We both ship over land, and I was to marry his daughter. Jane was- is a social climbing woman of...ill repute. It was purely a business deal. Then I met Izzy and begged off. Whitaker was angry, but then Jane ran off with some man she'd been seen with."
"And you think they have something to do with this?"
Jerome shook his head. "It makes no sense. Jane's reputation is shattered now, and I'm the second man to have cried off. The marriage and the merger is impossible now. Whittaker might want to kill me, but why bother to send me these?"
He pulled a packet from his jacket inside pocket and passed it to her. Kate read the notes, the warnings not to marry Isabelle, not to move his company past the frontier into the western states.
"Sounds like the combination of a woman scorned and a greedy man to me."
Jerome nodded and took the notes back. "Did Izzy ever explain to you how her husband's will was structured?"
"Not in detail."
"Her husband left his brother in charge of the company, but Izzy is the owner. I've drawn up papers so that when we're married not even I can touch it, it will pass to our children. Franco would inherit the company if anything were to happen to Izzy before she had children."
"She's safe at the Rockport, she has friends in Frisco, and no one would let any harm come to her. They know I'd kill 'em."
"No threats have come through to Izzy, but it makes sense. Did she ever tell you why she came to America after Benito's death?" he asked and Kate shook her head no. "Franco tried to court her right after the funeral. Bastard wants her to have his children, that would be the quickest, cleanest way to inherit."
The gears in her mind turned. "So you think this Franco has hired someone to kill you, hoping Izzy'll turn to him for comfort? He's either ten kinds of stupid or he don't know that woman at all."
"Both, I should think," Jerome said with a smile. "So what do I do?"
"You concentrate on staying alive. When we settle into Santa Rosa I'll work with Dan on figuring this out. You should have trusted me from the start, Jerome. This is what I do; I find people. I'm good at it too, out here better than Rafe."
"I know, I'm sorry. He's not very trusting and I guess I didn't want to think this was serious. You're right; Izzy trusts you, I should have as well."
Kate shifted in her seat, unsure "So tell me, what did Izzy say that finally made you talk?"
"She said that if I didn't, she'd let you shoot me anywhere you wanted."
Kate couldn't help it; she laughed until tears rolled down her cheek.
Dulce was a small town that would never grow far. There was the coach line that came through, and it was a regular stop for ranch hands returning from cattle drives. There was a tiny bank, a small hotel, a boarding house, two saloons, and a whorehouse. That was about it.
Kate led them to the cleaner saloon where a meal could be bought, but there were still games afoot, and women lounging around waiting for a good time. Sitting between three of the best looking men she had ever seen, Kate sat through no less than eleven whores soliciting the men.
After the meal Billy left with one and then Dan. As he went Kate could feel Rafe's eyes drilling into her once more, but what did she care what her friend did? Then Jerome left to secure the rooms and she and Rafe were left alone.
"Guess it's my turn to keep watch," Kate said.
"And what would that entail?"
"There's no telegram office here, no way to hire anyone. The hotel has two rooms only. The whorehouse has rooms by the hour only. Anyone who comes in will pass through one of the saloons and stay there. I just have to keep an eye on them."
His jaw ticked. "I can't leave a woman alone in a saloon all night."
She laughed heartily, drawing a few glances. "And how the hell do you think I got along for twenty four years without you? I managed just fine."
His eyes narrowed and she knew he wanted to argue, but how could he? "I'm doing this as a favor to Izzy, MacNeil, just as you're doing this as a favor to Jerome. You know what that makes us? Nothing."
She left him there and glanced around the room. Local ranch hands, men out for a lark, no one to be wary of. Satisfied, she went to the rougher saloon and looked for a game.
"Deal me in, boys," she said and pulled a chair up to a poker table.
The men there were grizzled, men who sometimes herded cattle, sometimes looked for trouble. "Fifty just to buy in, puttin' up, boy?"
She peeled off the bills and slapped them down with a grin. "Call me Kid."
Now Kate was pissed. She hadn't even been cheating, and she was facing three pairs of angry eyes and one accuser. She was no fool; the man wanted a fight. He'd heard of her, probably wanted to test her.
"Outside, now," she said and he nodded.
The bar, which had been paying rapt attention to the argument, spilled out into the night in a cacophony of drunken chants and epithets, urging the violence on with pure bloodlust.
The hand and she squared off, both walking back ten paces, parting the crowd as they went. The moon was a quarter full and only the saloons had gas lamps outside, light spilling out their windows.