Despite the clamor and bustle, the silence hung like a slow-burning bridge between them. The smoldering creep of mistrust would soon dissolve any connection across the chasm.
“I have the money,” the young girl said defiantly, but then the defiance ebbed. “It’s simply that I don’t have all of it in my possession.”
“I’m listening,” Herc said. He had not moved. Hands on hips and standing on the tips of his toes, his future teetered on her response.
“Though I trust Estelle and her judgement,” she explained, “The fact remains I do not know you, and I therefore felt it safer to wire the money ahead to Houston. I need not explain to you of all people, sir, what kind of criminal element may be out to set a young traveling woman apart from her money.”
“ ‘Criminal element?’ ” Herc asked, his face puckered up incredulously. “What do you mean by that? Are you trying to insinuate I am some sort of—”
“If the card up the sleeve fits . . .” she replied.
“Oh, well!” Herc moaned loudly. His eyes rolled about and Emma held back a laugh at his comic over-reaction. “You come tromping up here all high and mighty, expecting me to wipe your nose and save your scalp all the way out to Arizona, and the first thing you do is try to cheat me, then slander my character in one swift swipe, why—”
Estelle was once again the beacon of civility. “Hold on, Herc. She has a point. She did not know you, but now she does and I’m sure she has some of the money, so you all can at least get moving.”
She turned and looked up to Emma, caution in her gaze. “How much advance money did you bring them?”
A bit of silence and then, “Five each.”
This brought another stomping fit from Herc. “Five each? Why, that ain’t enough to feed our horses for five miles—let alone us!” He wagged his head and walked a small full circle.
“You do not look as if being well-fed has been a concern, sir,” Emma let slip.
“Now hold on there,” Herc said. He looked down at his prodigious girth and attempted to suck in his gut with negligible results.
“You hold on, Hercules,” Estelle calmed him. “I reckon if you’re gonna get paid in full at the end, you could probably back her pot till then. She needs to get a move on now. And Emma,” she turned her matronly gaze, “you need to hold a civil tongue when speaking to your elders. You forget your predicament and place. You haven’t the luxury of forging hard feelings when you are in such a hurry and need of help.”
Estelle’s words brought back a chill in the thought of her pursuing uncle. She looked again down both directions of the avenue, but saw no unnatural action. Though sure her efforts to conceal her path thus far were adequate, sitting here atop a horse in the middle of the street was not fair concealment. Urgency arose in her once more.
“How much you got?” Estelle questioned Herc.
“I told you, I’m as broke as a dollar mule,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to get my kale from the Baron . . .”
“Forget about the Baron,” Estelle said. “I will get your money from him and send it on to you. How much do you think Silas has?”
This was the first mention of the other guide, and it prompted Emma to ask, “Yes, I thought there were to be two of you.”
If Herc was the leader, she could only imagine the nightmarish possibilities of his partner.
“Silas will be along soon enough.” Herc’s tone was threatening. He then spoke to Estelle, “You know he’s always squirrelish with his fortunes. I reckon he’s probably got at least fifteen dollars, maybe twenty. Hard to know, really, for he don’t let me in on the finances. You ask him when he gets here, but I bet he will be as close-mouthed with you as he is with me.”
“But, where is your partner?” Emma asked Herc.
His face screwed up as if he had bit a lemon. “As I said, Miss, he’ll be along shortly. He’s over at the livery getting our horses and gear. He ain’t gonna be real happy about these developments, I’m gonna tell you right now.”
The warning hung thick for Emma. She had not even yet met this Silas, and she was already on his bad side. Still, it was not enough for her to abandon her escape. She may have to endure a few nights of his icy company, but abiding Theo and his hellish confinement of her body and spirit was worse.
The hairy guide once again set to lamenting his predicament and grumbling under his breath that Emma was, “no better than a common highwayman herself.”
There was a stir at the far end of the avenue Emma had travelled from. She could not pick out the source of the commotion, but the echoes of fresh shouts rippled toward them in a slow wave. Soon the crowd parted in haste. Women, men and children alike dove for safety ahead of what Emma easily mistook as the end of days.
There, in the dust and motion, emerged the horseman of her personal apocalypse, her Uncle Theo. She regretted the route she took which left her so easily observed and wondered how he found her so quickly in light of her circuitous route. Those inconsequential thoughts were soon swept away by stark fear.
Both horse and rider were oblivious to the humanity before their path of righteousness. The old horse, Thunder, appeared as angered as the rider. A poor mangy dog, too slow to react to the onslaught, had his forepaw crushed by a front hoof then was kicked high in the air by a back leg.
The carnage did not slow rider and mount. Soon Theo was close enough Emma saw the hate in his eyes. The whites were swallowed by fiery red veins. There was no lust or longing left. If he dragged her back at that point, surely her punishment would be severe beyond her imagining.
He rode like hot hell, people leaping from his path for their lives. As he arrived astride Emma on her horse, he halted his nag. Thunder’s legs straightened and strained, his hooves scraping the bricks.
Without notice or warning, Theo swung a hard palm, slapping the side of Emma’s face so brutally, many in the crowd gasped. Her head snapped, saliva and blood streamed in pink ribbons from her mouth. The flesh inside her mouth that had begun to heal was once again ripped open.
“Get down from my horse this minute, you ungrateful witch!” her uncle yowled, his chest heaving and his mouth contorted in a rictus of hate.
Shocked, Emma merely held a shaking palm to her reddened cheek. A thin rivulet of blood trickled from her nostril. It followed the lines of tears down her cheek and nestled on the precipice of her quivering upper lip. She licked it away.
The number of people in the street had soon multiplied and converged on the action. Gawkers poured from the nearby shops and apartments and some even came to the windows, hanging themselves out over the street to spy the events.
“You heard me!” Theo commanded. “Get off that horse or I shall whip you within an inch of your—”
“Why don’t you back up, Mister, before you get yourself a boot up your butt,” Herc said, loud and crisp. He braced himself like a porcupine ready to fly quills.
“Who in the hell are you to interfere in my family matters?” Theo sneered. The foam in the corners of his mouth signified the depth of his madness to Emma. He was addressing the short, round Galahad, but Theo’s eyes were unable to truly focus on him in his rage.
“Like I already spelled out, I’m the feller what’s gonna stomp your sorry ass if you don’t go and back the hell up. That’s my client you’re swingin’ on.”
Emma did not turn from her uncle, but glimpsed aside, smiling weakly at Herc. He caught her glance, shrugged lightly and winked at the poor child.
Dismissing the guide and his threat, Theo grabbed his niece by the arm and renewed his attempts to unseat her. He thrashed and yanked, but she did not come out from the saddle. Shot shimmied sideways. Theo released the reins from his other hand and whacked the girl about the head and chest as he screamed unintelligibly.
Herc pushed Estelle aside and withdrew a short pistol from inside his coat.
Estelle spotted the firearm. Her eyes widened in horror, and she tugged at Herc as violently as Theo had on Emma. “No, Herc! You cannot do that! You want the law onto you again, after all this time? This will surely seal your—”
Theo heard the warning to Herc, saw the brandishing of the weapon and, still gripping Emma hard and fast, he tugged a long barreled single-action revolver from inside his belt. He pulled the hammer back and pointed his pistol toward Herc’s portion of the sidewalk.
The aghast menagerie of humanity squatted and ducked, but Herc stood tall among them, trying to aim past Emma and the horses. Neither Theo nor Herc could get a clean line of sight. More screaming and wailing were compressed into the seconds. One poor clod lost his grip from a first floor window where he had been ogling the confusion, and fell onto a bony pillow of people below.
As this potentially fatal stand-off continued, there was once again a biblical parting of the sea of people down the street. Though the crowd had increased greatly, they were used to diving for their lives, so the gap widened rapidly and cleanly.
Right down the middle of the throng came a tall, lean man, riding fast on a beautiful cream and brown steed. The man led a small train of another horse and a lightly packed mule. The rider deftly loosed the rope from the pommel and the other animals lagged behind as he surged ahead, locking eyes with Emma.
The front of his wide-brimmed hat was pushed up by the wind, revealing a handsome, sun-tanned face set in a stern grimace of action. His brown beard was close-cropped andwell-groomed. His blazing blue eyes took in the depth of the situation as he raced through the crowd. He did not slow his dash as his right hand reached not for a rifle, gun or knife, but for the handle of a cast-iron skillet bouncing about on a rawhide lash from the saddlebags.
He gave no call of warning to the embroiled combatants as he closed upon them. In their struggle, none had noticed him except Emma. She was being jerked to and fro, yet she felt a wild thrumming inside her chest. Breathless and frozen on the spot, she gazed upon the approaching rider’s heroics. She wanted him to save her, but was afraid of him all the same.
Directly behind Theo, and seconds from overtaking him, the rider gave a piercing, curt whistle through his teeth. Theo did not turn, so the stranger yelled, “Hey! You!”
Finally, his attention garnered, Theo turned in time to have his nose flattened by the bottom of the skillet. A sickening snap, a coronal spray of blood, a straight-arm follow-through by the rider, and Theo was pretty near lifted straight out of the saddle.
In his pain, Theo’s finger tightened on the trigger and a single shot was fired harmlessly into the sky between the buildings. He spun slowly as he passed through his own gun-smoke. After he hit the road with a bounce, he skidded a rod or two and came to rest on the sidewalk, his hand still loosely clasping the revolver.
He lay in a motionless heap as some of the crowd cheered the rider, while others queried the fallen man’s mortality. In one motion, the rider snatched off his hat, leapt from the horse and landed with sure feet next to Theo. Skillet still brandished, he bent on one knee and checked Theo’s breath. Having satisfied himself the man was alive, he wiped the skillet bottom on Theo’s white shirt, leaving a long smear of blood and soot, and turned to join Herc and the ladies.
Emma was as lively as a stump. She uttered not a word as the rider walked right up to her, grabbed her by the hips and lifted her out of the saddle. He set her gently on her feet. She swayed slightly, so the man kept one hand upon her shoulder to steady her.
“You okay, Miss?” he asked.
“Glurk,” was her response.
“I bet she’s a little shook up,” Herc said as he came up to them. “You got here just in time, friend. This man over here almost broke out in a case of bullet holes.”
Estelle joined them, looking around the crowd of gawkers suspiciously. “I do not think we should be lingerin’ around. You all need to get on the road.”
The words from Estelle broke the mesmeric state the stranger had Emma under. In shock, she looked from Herc to Estelle to the stranger and asked, “Is this . . .”
“Miss,” Herc swelled proudly, “I introduce you to the other half of our traveling group, my partner and friend, Silas McDonough.”
Silas took her hand lightly, and with a wry grin, said, “Miss.”
Emma flushed, smiled weakly, then bent over the gutter to empty her stomach of the biscuits and apple butter.