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Authors: Stone Wallace

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EIGHTEEN

SHE CAME ALONG
the tree-bordered walking path alone, an early star-specked twilight soon to be upon her—a young, innocent, fresh-faced pretty girl, softly humming a song that perhaps had personal meaning but was not a tune recognized by the two lying in wait. Not that it was of any importance to either. Its only significance was that it signaled the girl was coming their way.

Ehron Lee could watch her approaching from his distance, his presence protected from view by the clutter of trees, branches, and shrubbery. Cora noticed her, too, and breathed out an audible sigh as she saw the girl was by herself. Ehron Lee turned to look at Cora as he heard the sound of relief escape her lips. He didn't acknowledge the sigh, merely tilted his head to indicate that she was to follow as soon as he prompted his horse to slowly trot toward where the greenery opened upon the man-made cutout path.

Evaline Harrison halted abruptly and looked startled as the horse ridden by Ehron Lee emerged and blocked her passage. The stranger didn't speak, just smiled at the girl. Evaline returned the smile tentatively. Her eyes shifted once she saw the second horse, ridden by Cora, move free of the trees and stop behind and on the far opposite side of the stranger's mount.

Evaline tried not to let her uncertainty show, though she felt a quivering in her belly that reminded her of the queer nervousness she used to feel prior to performing a piano recital.

Still wearing a smile, Ehron Lee spoke in a kindly voice, though the words he uttered were hardly pleasant.

“I don't want you to scream or try to run. Listen to what I'm tellin' yuh and no one's gotta get hurt.”

While Evaline couldn't understand what was happening, what the stranger meant by his words, she instinctively knew she was in trouble. Of a sudden her body felt weak and she was overcome with the sensation of light-headedness as the blood flow to her brain seemed to slow, noticeably paling her complexion. She became unsteady on her feet and looked as if she was about to pass out.

Cora grew concerned and was quick to express it. “She don't look well,” she said with an urgency.

Ehron Lee acknowledged her concern. He swiftly slid off the saddle of his horse and took quick strides toward the girl. Evaline had already started to sway and Ehron Lee grabbed her just as her eyes fluttered shut and her body began to topple. His response to her faint wasn't gentle. He slapped her once across the face, startling her back to semiawareness, at the same time alarming Cora with his action. Evaline was conscious, though still very disoriented. Ehron Lee guided her to Cora's horse and helped her mount. Cora lended her own hand. Even though the girl was wearing a long dress, she was made to sit with her legs straddling the flank of the horse.

“You ain't gonna be much comfortable ridin' double, but you hang on,” Ehron Lee instructed her, taking her arms and wrapping them around Cora's waist. Evaline's grip was weak and Ehron Lee had to use force to encourage her to hold on to Cora with more strength.

“We got a long ride, girl,” he said bluntly. “It's up to you if we make it easy or hard.”

Evaline looked at Ehron Lee. Her eyes expressed a sad pleading from which Ehron Lee at once had to separate himself. Because for one quick moment of rationality—of perhaps sanity—he questioned his decision, this girl's part in his scheme of revenge, but just as swiftly he made himself discard this doubt.

It was what he
had
to do. And Judge Harrison's daughter
had
to be a part of it. If Ehron Lee experienced pangs of momentary conflict, emotional doubt . . . they had to be ignored.

Unbeknownst to Ehron Lee, Cora had closely been observing the whole procedure with his handling of the judge's daughter. Perhaps her years of being among hard-bitten criminals had made her more acute to their peculiarities, if rarely their sensitivities, but she sensed definitely the turmoil that seemed to exist within Ehron Lee. She knew that what he was doing with these women was not really what he wanted to do. He had told her that he didn't want to hurt them—and Cora knew that in his heart he
didn't
want to bring them harm. Yet she also realized that Ehron Lee held on to enough corrupting hatred from the cruelty brought upon him to truly execute extreme punishment if denied the justice he felt was owed him.

Once again Cora had to concede defeat as there was no way of dealing with such a vengeful attitude. Ehron Lee and Ward had taken one woman as their hostage. Now with the kidnapping of the judge's daughter, Ehron Lee had made steadfast his intent.

But what she feared most was the uncertainty of the inevitable.

She could not guess the outcome.

NINETEEN

RANDY BOGGS RODE
a long way from Brimstone Canyon, unsure of where he was going or what he would do once he got there. He had a little money in his pocket so he had no immediate concern financially, provided he didn't give in to the temptation of fast women and crooked gambling.

Randy robbed banks—may even have killed a man or two in his time—but he also could admit that he was never as ambitious or as carefree as his partners. Those fellas enjoyed the wild times and freely spent their loot on their various entertainments, while Randy was content just to quietly lay low between bank jobs. Still, earning a quick dollar or partaking of some female companionship was not the farthest thought from his mind at this time. Now that he was away from the others, he thought seriously about retiring from his outlaw ways. They'd enjoyed a long run of luck, much more than they were entitled to, he reckoned, but with Brad Riley getting killed at Hell's Doorway and now with the crazy kidnapping scheme Ward and his pal Ehron Lee had concocted, he had the gut feeling that time was running out. Randy determined he wasn't ready to invite a bullet yet; he still had some good living to do. So as he rode the countryside trail to a destination unknown, enjoying the solitude, he gradually became firm in his resolution to hang up his guns.

He considered his options and frankly was surprised that he knew of no alternate direction that satisfied him. He'd lived outside the law for most of his life and truly had never given thought to the prospect of earning an honest dollar. He supposed he could likely find work on a ranch, but did he really want to settle into a routine after years of living by his own rules? Even in his most whiskey-fueled imaginings, he couldn't envision himself working from cockcrow to sundown following somebody's orders. Just a little better than being in prison, the way he saw it.

Maybe he could put down some of the money he had on his own piece of property. Work the land himself.

Randy chuckled at the thought of himself as a farmer—clad in mud-caked denim overalls, his brow dripping sweat from under a straw hat. He might be owing to no man but neither could he see himself adhering to the self-discipline of clearing fields overgrown with weeds, and planting crops. Whatever he might decide, Randy could not see such labor in his future. He promptly canceled that option from future consideration.

He was heading north and soon came to a roadside sign informing him that he was only ten miles from the town of Brackett. He'd heard the name but had never visited the town—“professionally” or otherwise—so he could ride in without fear of being recognized by the citizens.

Randy decided he might just take a few days' rest there.

* * *

Ehron Lee and Cora kept themselves off the main roads as much as possible as they traveled with their hostage back to the cabin. This slowed their progress more than Ehron Lee would have liked, but it was a necessary course. Although the girl, Evaline, cooperated fully, never once raising a fuss, and there looked to be nothing overly suspicious about the trio as they rode along, Ehron Lee knew that should news of the abduction became known, people they encountered along the way might remember seeing the three and the direction in which they were riding. The promise of reward money could do plenty to jog the memory.

When they set up camp for the night, either Ehron Lee or Cora would keep watch over the girl. Ehron Lee remained a trifle wary when he took his shut-eye—and perhaps with reason. While Cora said or suggested nothing to give him suspicion, she fought the urge during Ehron Lee's periods of slumber just to let the girl loose and deal with the consequences herself. Evaline had not spoken at all during their journey, though when Ehron Lee slept, Cora wished she could say something to the girl, maybe offer some words of encouragement—at the same time realizing that no matter what she said or how she voiced them, they would only provide shallow comfort. Besides, if she ventured to speak, she might be overheard; she suspected that Ehron Lee slept with one eye—or ear—open. Perhaps that, too, was the reason the girl maintained her silence. When they sat together by the low campfire listening to Ehron Lee's snores, Cora would catch the girl looking at her in a way to suggest that she wanted to talk, but dared not.

Eventually, with Cora doing most of the guiding since she knew the trail better than her companion, they made their way back to the cabin nestled in the foothills of Brimstone Canyon. Once they were settled inside, they ate a quick meal and took time for rest. Evaline was put inside the bedroom with Janette Watson and made as comfortable as possible, kept under Cora's watch. Ward wanted them both out of his sight for the time being, this decision readily agreed to by both Ehron Lee and Jess. Neither wanted to look upon the faces of the two women until the time was right.

In the meantime, Ehron Lee prepared for the one final duty for Cora to perform.

He wanted her to ride into Colbert City and send off two telegrams, one addressed to Judge Charles Harrison, Bolton, the other going to George Watson, Allensfield. All that would be said in these messages was a place and a time, nothing else. The two men would understand and follow the instructions. Cora complained that sending such vague telegrams might look suspicious to the telegraph messenger. Ehron Lee asked if she was easily recognized in Colbert City. Cora said no, she'd gone there only once or twice, and not for some months. Ehron Lee told her she'd have no worries. Ward Crawford, standing nearby listening, concurred. Reluctantly, Cora agreed, though her hesitation was hard to ignore.

Later, with Jess and Cora keeping watch inside the cabin, Ehron Lee and Ward stepped outside into the night air.

They walked by the south fence and finally stopped at the outer edge of the corral, where Ward went about building himself a cigarette. Ehron Lee had noticed that since they'd arrived at the cabin, Ward was smoking almost incessantly, rolling a new cigarette before even extinguishing the one he'd been inhaling and held clamped between his teeth. He'd questioned him about that and Ward merely shrugged, explaining that, as Ehron Lee knew, obtaining tobacco at Rockmound was an earned privilege and that he had a lot of catching up to do. Although Ehron Lee didn't smoke, he understood Ward's reasoning.

Once his cigarette was burning, Ward indulged in a deep drag before turning to look at Ehron Lee.

“How was she?” Ward asked bluntly, referring to Cora.

“She came through,” Ehron Lee answered.

“Know that . . . but how
was
she?” Ward repeated with emphasis.

Ehron Lee didn't answer immediately. He considered his reply as he bit down on his lower lip.

“In truth? Wasn't sure 'bout her,” he finally conceded.

Ward drew another long drag. “Figgered. So you think it's smart to send her into Colbert?”

Once more Ehron Lee took his time answering.

Then with a deliberate exhale, he said, “As I think 'bout it, probably not.”

Ward's face took on a disgusted look. He finished his smoke with a final deep puff, then flicked the smoldering butt to the ground, mashing out its glow with his boot heel, tiny sparks escaping the crushing impact.

“Okay, amigo, then you're the one that's gotta do it,” he said. He spoke his words as casually as if he were dusting cigarette ash from his shirtsleeve.

Ehron Lee gave a nod in agreement. He had already accepted that his being the one to send off the telegrams would be the most sensible decision.

“S'pose at this point don't really matter, does it?” he muttered.

Ward grinned and hooked a thumb at the cabin, toward a single window aglow with light. “Burrows, with us holdin' them two girls, wife and daughter of some purty important men, we gotta figger that no matter how it goes from here, we're both set for a neck-stretchin'.” To take the bitter sting out of the truth of his words, he added, “But if we pull this off like we're plannin', ain't no reason we can't see ourselves maybe enjoyin' a stay in Mexico sittin' in some cantina with a coupla señoritas, washin' back bottles of tequila.”

Ehron Lee allowed himself a moment to absorb what Ward was saying. Then, drawing a breath and eyeing his companion directly, he said, “Just too bad we can't count on Cora.”

Ward gave him a peculiar look, but before he could say anything, Ehron Lee had turned and started back to the cabin.

Ward Crawford was not a man possessed of great human insight but he could grasp the intent behind Ehron Lee's words. His partner was saying that Cora had shown herself as too soft, and as such could not truly be trusted. Although Ward had known another tougher sort of girl those years before he had gone to prison, even he could detect a change in Cora that conceivably could pose a threat to their plan. Ehron Lee's remark served as a reminder for Ward to keep a close eye on Cora, perhaps stay watchful for any hint of suspected betrayal.

* * *

Since he was a free man, one not likely to risk later identification, Ehron Lee saddled a horse and rode into Colbert City. He tethered the horse to the hitching post outside the telegraph office and sauntered inside. He remained nonchalant as he wrote out the messages to be sent to the judge and the prison superintendent. Yet he eyed the telegrapher carefully as the young man scanned the vague wording and registered no reaction. Perhaps because the telegrapher was young, maybe an apprentice, he did his job perfunctorily, barely acknowledging his customer, which pleased Ehron Lee. He pulled money out of his pocket to pay him, and then stepped casually from the office.

Ehron Lee stood out on the boardwalk, feeling a sense of both relief and satisfaction.

Finally it was done: the planning, the preparation, the risks. Each procedure had fallen precisely into place.

Whatever happened now would be solely up to the two men to whom the telegrams would be delivered. They would either obey the simple directions to the letter—or ignore them. Ehron Lee felt confident both would choose to respond to the instructions. Both men stood to lose a lot by not following their individual messages to the letter.

Ehron Lee made his time in town short, climbing onto his horse and riding the miles back to the cabin.

By midweek next, Ehron Lee would be watching from a rocky overlook for Judge Harrison to arrive at the appointed location; the following day Ward Crawford would be there awaiting Superintendent George Watson.

While not explicitly expressed, it was understood that the men were to show up
alone
,
unarmed
. If either dared to challenge those unwritten instructions, the deal was off.

One would lose a daughter; the other, a wife.

BOOK: Black Ransom
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