Kate the Kid Ch. 03bymadam_noe©
Kate learned a very important lesson that morning. Some men just couldn't be handled. Before meeting Rafe and Jerome she'd always found a way. Some men could be handled by fancy talking, some with a gun. Some she could handle with sex appeal, if she tried hard enough, some with money. But damn her, Isabella chose to consort with immovable, arrogant, pushy men.
Rafe hadn't joined them for breakfast. Neither had Billy who was eating elsewhere. So she'd had to sit with Jerome and battle off his questions.
"So, where'd you pass the night? Angered Rafe something fierce."
"A friend gave me a room, I haven't seen her in a while."
"A good friend, Kid?"
"How did you meet Isabella?"
That, Kate was happy to talk about. The dining room of the Raven was small and they occupied one of the two tables in use. She ate only some of her bread and eggs preferring to gulp the fresh coffee. She was more used to chickory on the trail but fresh roasted coffee reminded her of Isabella's home. Her home.
"It was eight years ago. I'd just left the Sates and rode hunter for one of the last Oregon Trail teams. Afterwards I took my earnings and went down to San Francisco, the rush had died down to a dull roar, but there was still a boom going on. Still is.
"Isabella had just arrived in town. Don't know why she'd gone all the way to "Frisco, I'm amazed she made the journey. She spoke no English."
"How did you communicate, Kid? You speak Italian?"
It almost sounded like he was mocking her. What must she look like to these men? A country rustic? That raised her hackles. She spoke three languages, could read and write in two of them, the third never having been written down. She could shoot straighter than almost any man, ride faster, track with the best, hunt better than any. Besides that she kept Isabella's books for her, helped cook for the Rockport. She could breed horses, run her own business if she had to. Hell, she could run a saloon. With her abilities she'd spot any cheater at twenty paces.
Her mind had wandered. "No, but Isabella, like any lady of good breeding, speaks and writes in French."
"You speak French?" He asked this between mouthfuls of bacon, looking like an eager child. She almost laughed.
"Are you French?"
"Canadian?" He looked puzzled. Inside she was laughing.
"No." Whatever she was, she'd spoken English before Pierre came along. She was a Brit or an American, or an already bilingual child.
"Well, go on with how you met Isabella, then."
"Well I was working protection for a few Chinese laundries escorting a gentleman to the edges of town as things were getting mighty tricky for the Chinese. I saw Isabella being robbed. Before they could alight her of her purse I took the thief down and brought him in. Isabella looked naïve, she needed someone to look after her.
"I originally just offered to teach her English and how to shoot a gun but we became friends. She never did learn how to handle a gun, that one is stub-born. I stayed on to help her build the Rockport, just knew the right people."
"Well, Kid, I'm glad you were there to help her." Jerome sat back, finally finished with his meal, and sipped his coffee. Kate thought his respect was sincere and his smile heartfelt. She was won over.
The next instant he ruined it.
"Why are you afraid of Rafe?"
Sometimes it was best to cloak the truth in the truth, Kate thought. She polished off her own coffee and scooted her chair back. "It's natural, Jerome. I'm an outlaw, he's a bounty hunter. Like mountain lions and gazelle, we just aren't made to get along."
With that she left for the privy. Jerome sat back and smiled. At least he knew a few more things about her, even if they were assumptions. She had lived in the mountains, she had to have been educated somewhere, and she was probably the Kid Rafe was looking for.
Well, he'd just leave that for the two of them to settle, he thought with a chuckle.
Outside he found the coach waiting, Billy looking too happy on top, and Rafe seated inside. Kid should be coming around soon, he knew. She was like a faithful and mistrusting pet dog. Never around but always there. Jerome climbed inside.
"Where'd you have breakfast?"
"I didn't. I was asking around about our Kid. Seems only a few whores know she's a woman."
"Kate." Jerome said quietly.
"Her real name is Kate, but she told me she wants to be called Kid."
"So I gathered. Jerome, the woman has a reputation as a crack shot, a drinker without equal, and a gambler who can go all night. What the hell kind of people is Isabella associating with?"
He laughed at that. "She only associates with the best, the best at whatever it is they do. So whatever it is exactly the Kid does, we know she's the best."
"I don't know, she gives me an odd feeling."
"I'll just bet, south of the belt?" This was asked dryly. Rafe looked out the window.
"Here she is." And like that they were off.
"Kid!" Jerome called out as they left the town behind for the green fields and open pastures of Missouri.
"Yeah?" She rode her Arabian close. Jerome noticed the animal didn't even bat an eyelash. It was one well-trained mount, one he'd give his eyeteeth to purchase.
"Where will we be at the end of today?"
"Little town of Perry, Oklahoma. Should be there about nine tonight. It's a rough area so when we get there, stay close to me."
"All right, no problem there." Jerome smiled. "Say, what's your horse's name?"
"Sweetwater, name of a farm he was raised on. I call him Sweet."
"Ever think of selling him?"
She snorted and tugged lightly on the reins. Obligingly Sweet sidled away. "Hell no, but I stud him every now and then."
He turned back to Rafe and comically sighed, hand over his heart. "She studs horses too. What a woman." The Kid was already back ahead of the wagon.
"I asked to see if anyone followed us, nobody saw anything suspicious. So if the threats are real they haven't followed us yet." Rafe returned with an even tone and a scowl.
Jerome shrugged out of his jacket in the warm sun. The coach rumbled down the well rutted road at a good clip, the green grassy hills giving way to flatter land. He stared at a passing clump of wildflowers.
"Mildly comforting, suppose they're just better at hiding than we think?"
"Could be. We know Franco is still in Naples, but he's a wimp, would hire others. I know of a lot of guns, none of them around."
"Why don't we ask Kid, Rafe? She might know others."
Rafe put his booted feet up on the bench next to Jerome. He slumped back and thought about it. "I don't know just yet if we want to involve her."
"You don't trust her?"
"Do you?" Rafe threw back.
Jerome looked out the window, she'd gone riding ahead. "I don't know how to answer that. Isabella, well, she only befriends people with good hearts. She's always spoken of the Kid as if she were some sort of wounded forest creature. Isabella admires her toughness, no matter what form it takes.
"She's the kind of woman who'd love a bank robber as long as he gave to the poor. So I can say that logically Kid probably has either done or still does some bad deeds, but for good reasons."
"I wish I had that kind of faith," Rafe rolled his eyes. "No one on the wrong side of the law has good reasons. If she wanted to help humanity, why not start an orphanage? Become an teacher or missionary? No, she shoots people with those two massive guns, curses like a sailor, and does things no other woman does. Isabella is misguided on this."
"You just see the worst in people, don't you?" Jerome pulled out a rolled cigarette and lit it.
"And you see the best?"
He laughed. "No, I'm a realist, as a businessman I have to be. I see the good, the bad, and the potential for both in people. I respect honesty and though I know she's not perfectly honest, something tells me Kid has reason to be scared."
"Isabella's worn you down, old man."
"Rafe, what were you once? Tall me you weren't this dark when you were married to Faith."
The large man shifted about uncomfortably. He didn't like talking about it much. "You know what I was. My mother was a whore, I never knew who my father was. My mother died of the pox when I was five, Andre found me wandering. His family took me in, educated me.
"I married Faith, his daughter. Andre wanted to become a lawyer, Faith and I were to have the plantation, even," he choked slightly and looked away, "even when I lost her I was still to run the plantation, until Andre had kids. Then her damn brother came back home."
Jerome knew the tale well enough and had no wish to relive the destruction that followed. "So what drove you to become a bounty hunter then?"
"I had no money, no land. So I learned how to shoot. I decided I didn't like killing people and I didn't want to be a Marshal. That left bounty hunter. Where are you going with this, Jerome? You know all this."
"You see, Rafe, you're a man made from circumstances. Aren't we all? Isabella was a countess, but the death of her husband and an unscrupulous brother in law drove her to become an innkeeper. Kate says she has no family name, no last name. Imagine what it must be like for a woman alone in this world, with no family to help her. How can she earn money if she has no taste for whoring?
"It isn't easy, certainly nothing is as easy as what you make slipping on a gun."
"Slipping it on just to fight and cheat and steal is the cowards' way."
Jerome chuckled. "And I suppose you do everything the legal way? And what about all the people she's turned over to the authorities?"
Of course, there came no answer.
They stopped three times, two breaks to rest the horses and once for lunch. At lunch Kid was able to sneak Billy away. For some gold he was willing to share their conversation in the coach earlier. It didn't surprise her that they'd discussed her, but the threats against Jerome did.
They didn't trust her enough to tell her. Well, that was fine, she mused. She'd keep her eyes peeled for criminal element without their consent.
Billy told her, while he chewed an impossible amount of tobacco, that they'd spent the rest of the day reliving exploits and playing cards. It cost her eight gold pieces.
Sweet was in high spirits so she busied herself riding fast back and forth. Once she'd spotted some Cherokee and sent them a long ago learned signal of friendship. They'd let the coach pass without bother. It was almost a shame. Cherokee this far out were really just bandits. They'd rob Jerome of his watch and she and Rafe of their guns. Normally alone she'd face them readily, but she'd be willing to be robbed just to scare Rafe.
She'd love to see fear on that man's face, not his usual scowl or knowing smile. She'd been seeing the scowl more and more that day.
There wasn't too much she knew about him. He'd been a planter or something in New Orelans before joining the first major migration. Poverty had made him a gunfighter and there'd been a few fights in Texas. He was quick on the draw and a sneaky bastard. But for some reason he'd gone good, and he was a force to be reckoned with, keeping west Texas clean of her element.
People had talked. It was said Pinkerton himself had left Chicago for Texas to entice him into work. No matter the offer, MacNeil had refused. He worked freelance for private citizens, or randomly hunting criminals. He mostly kept to Texas and since she did not, Kate had never had to worry before.
But now it had been said he was after her. What for? There were only two bounties on her head. One for horse thievery, that was years old. The bastard whose horse she'd stolen had chased her long and hard, offered $1,000 for her head. Unheard of for a simple horse, and a long-forgotten incident to any and all.
The second was for robbing a bank in Missouri. That was a misunderstanding most people, but the damn law, understood. She'd been up in Columbia hunting a fellow down. She'd walked into a bank as the Statler brothers were robbing it. She'd drawn her gun to stop them but the fool manager had shot at her. Winged her leg a little and the brothers had escaped.
Outside she'd shot them and grabbed the money, intending to return it. The manager had followed spraying buckshot towards her. So onto her then horse she'd hopped and rode off with the take.
The Statler brothers were caught and hanged after the Coffeyville incident a year later, but the manager from Columbia told the sheriff that she was in on it. To return the money would have been foolhardy, so she'd kept it. And her accidental bank robbery was laughable legend amongst her friends, common knowledge to her foe, but believed to be real by one determined sheriff. He'd posted her name up with a $1,500 reward.
No bounty hunter in their right mind would be after her for that, not unless they were stupid. She'd shot the only two who'd been dumb enough to try, and Finn had killed the last one in an unrelated incident. So that left the $1,000 horse bounty. How could that be? It was too old for anyone reasonable to care, and far below MacNeil's abilities.
No, it was more likely there was a personal grudge. Someone out there wanted her caught. Someone who's brother she must have turned over to the law. But Rafe was heavy material. He didn't kill for profit, he brought people in. If someone wanted revenge, she was easy to find, easy enough to challenge. The Kid never walked away from a gun fight.
So what was he doing? He was too smart for one bounty, the other was too old. Was there one she didn't know about? If anyone would know it would be ol' Finnegan. That night she planned to telegram him.
When they stopped for their evening break outside Fort Supply, Kate noticed something out of the corner of her eye. A shadow darting so quickly, it had to be Indian. But the Cherokee from earlier knew her signal as friend, ally. Who would bother them now?
"Stay here," she warned Jerome as she mounted.
"What's going on?" Rafe shot up as she drew her .45.
"I said stay here. Rafe, keep your eyes peeled, we may have trouble. I'll be back." Even carrying her bedroll and saddle bags Sweet moved swiftly. As she approached the brush an arrow sailed past her head.
A warning. If she was meant to be hit, she'd be hit.
Rafe called out her name. She held a hand up and froze. Silence greeted her in the twilight, nothing moved but the wind.
She turned Sweet around nimbly and walked him over to the arrow in the ground. Fluidly she hopped down and jerked it from the earth. It was Cherokee, two feathers on top, three on the bottom, and two white stripes painted. She knew what it meant.
From her saddlebags she pulled her knife and cut two deep grooves before fishing out her own small bow. She'd made it herself and it was rarely used, kept only for such occasions as secret communication.
She shot the answer back aiming high, calculating it well. It landed just two feet from the brush and a hand reached out to grab it. She repacked her knife and bow and mounted Sweet swiftly. She rode back into their very temporary camp with a scowl of her own.
"That arrow you saw was a warning from a friend. Someone is following us."
"Him?" Jerome asked, pointing to the brush.
"Put your hand down!" She hissed. "No, he was warning us, he's a friend. Someone else."
Rafe looked around. "I don't see anybody."
"Of course not. It's twilight but they're probably still far enough back we can't see." She was still looking anyway.
"How would the Indian know?" Jerome looked intrigued.
"There's a raiding band watching the road, I saw them earlier when I rode ahead. They recognize me as a friend so they let us pass without robbing us. They're damn good at hiding, and were still watching the road. If they sent a scout up to warn me it means they didn't rob them, and they're not friends. If they didn't rob them, whoever it is are bad news. Care to enlighten me, gentlemen?"
She stood stock still as Rafe and Jerome looked from one to another. Secrets were exchanged but never said aloud. Billy looked lost but scared. He was the only one showing fear and she credited him as the wisest.
Another arrow sailed in, landing at her feet. Sweet didn't even blink but the team whinnied. "Quiet them Billy!" She bent to pick it up and read the markings.
"Two men, heavily armed."
"How do you know?" Jerome asked, curious.
"Yeah." Rafe peered closer at the arrow. It looked ordinary to him and he looked to her for an explanation.
"The Cherokee and Lakota both use arrow markings for communication." She said this as if it explained all.
She looked up and saw the blank expressions. Kate had no choice but to sigh. "Look, let's get moving. I'm tethering Sweet to the back and I'm riding shotgun with you Billy."
"Why don't you ride inside with Jerome, and I'll take shotgun?" Rafe asked through gritted teeth.
"My Indians, my path, my experience here. Okay, MacNeil? If you can tell me how to identify a Cherokee at first sight I'll let you ride up front."
He paused his jaw flexing. "Damn woman." He followed Jerome inside and Kate tethered Sweet loosely. He would follow anyway, there was no need to anchor him, and loose like this he could escape if the coach went wild.
She climbed up with Billy, situated the shotgun between her legs and undid her holsters for a faster draw. "Let's get moving."
"No problem," Billy flicked the reins and off they went.
"You can move this if you need to, right?"
"You expecting trouble, Kid?"
She took a deep breath. "When they go to all this trouble to warn us I definitely expect something. Until those two idiots below us come clean, I have no idea what."
Inside the coach Rafe had his own gun out, on his lap.
"Damn but I wish I had learned how to use one of those." Jerome motioned to it.
Rafe shrugged. "You could always learn. Maybe we should get a piece in camp tomorrow."
"I thought you said no one was following us."
Rafe had the good grace to look sheepish. "No one I asked knew anything was up."
"I think it's time we talked to Kid about this. It's obvious she knows what she's doing. Hell, she's doing a better job of protecting us than a team of Pinkertons, all without even knowing anything's going on."
"Exactly, she's doing fine, just leave it alone. The last thing we need is more people asking questions, more attention drawn to us."
Jerome leaned his head back against the wall of the coach as it lurched on at a more hasty pace than earlier. "I trust you here, Rafe, only because you know about these things. But I point out to you that while she is a mere young woman she has been doing this for eight years, at least. And you? Only four. Someday you're going to have give her some respect for something, let it at least be that."
Rafe made no response, he just looked out the window. He was making a reputation for himself as the best because he trusted his instinct. It was never wrong, and it told him there was something off about her. She was wanted somewhere, for something. He'd bet his life on it.
Simply for Isabella he'd never take her in, but he didn't have to like her, or trust her in such a situation. For all he knew, she was behind the notes. Maybe she wanted to keep Isabella, and Bella's money, to herself.
Or maybe it was Jerome said. Maybe Rafe was just too quick to assume the worst in people. Maybe he just didn't trust them after all that had befallen his life, and maybe it was only made worse by his chosen profession. He didn't deal with good people on a day to day basis.
Whatever it was he wished he could feel differently. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her thick lips, covered them with his own in his mind a hundred times. He felt her long supple limbs wrap around him, he felt himself sinking into the familiar softness of female.