THE SONOMA VALLEY – A SPRING DAY
Kid Curry rode, at a leisurely pace, into Santa Rosa. Suitably quiet, with a suitably unfamiliar sheriff, it was where he was to meet up with Heyes. Last week the partners had been offered two – yes, two! – well paid jobs. One found by Lom, one by Colonel Harper. This exceeded their usual number of jobs by – well, by two. They swallowed any reservations about splitting up and concentrated resolutely, not to say – yearningly – on the money.
So far, mused the Kid, so good. His job had not only been delightfully trouble free, it had been…A grin creased the sun-kissed face. The jobs had been allocated by the traditional coin flip. Curry could not WAIT to tell his partner that, for once, HE – not the owner of that suspiciously predictable quarter – had been lucky! He would have to wait, though. Heyes was not expected until tomorrow at the earliest. Till then… Curry’s gaze took in a clean looking hotel situated conveniently near an inviting saloon. The smile broadened. He planned, in no particular order, a cold beer, a hot bath, a soft bed, a substantial meal and a little friendly poker.
As Curry dismounted, his blue eyes rested, appreciatively, on two handsome brunettes seated in a smart carriage. The older lady climbed down and headed for a shop. Curry civilly touched his hat and received a polite smile in return. Then, a window in an upper room swung open, a potted Mariposa Lily rocked for a moment on its ledge, then—fell. Soil and shattered terracotta exploded in front of skittish highbred horses. Two feminine yelps of distress, as two nervous matched greys reared and then bolted, their young driver clinging to the reins.
The Kid flung himself back into the saddle and set off in pursuit.
Closer, closer, closer…
Nearly, nearly… Leaning at a precarious angle…
He had hold of the harness. One jean-clad leg swung, one booted foot braced, and with an almost unbelievable, though not completely unprecedented, leap, Curry was astride a runaway horse. He brought the creature under control. The pair slowed to a canter, a trot,
a halt. The blond ex-outlaw swung himself down and strode to check on the pretty young driver.
A charmingly flushed face greeted him. A pair of deliciously fringed deep brown eyes spoke their admiration. Kid Curry swept his hat from his head and gave his very best smile.
“Are you alright, ma’am?”
“That was SO brave!” breathed a pair of rose-petal lips.
“It was nothin’,” deprecated the Kid, modestly, if not truthfully.
“It WASN’T!” argued the enchanting brunette. “It was just like something a hero in a book might do! Thank you, Mister…er…”
“Jones, ma’am. Thaddeus Jones.”
“Thank you, Mister Jones.” A daintily gloved hand was extended. Curry wiped his own battered leather article on the back of his jeans and took the offered clasp. “Juliet Bianchi,” he was informed.
“It’s a pleasure Miss Bianchi,” said Curry, ever the gentleman. “Let’s get you back to town. Your,” his tone held a question, ” mother?” A friendly confirmatory nod. Dusky curls bobbed. “She’ll be worryin’.”
Curry fastened his own horse to the back of the carriage. A shapely figure twisted round.
“Of course, although that WAS very brave, Mister Jones, it was completely unnecessary. I would’ve stopped them.”
“Uh huh,” grunted the Kid, non-committally. He prepared to climb up.
“I would!” repeated Juliet, raising her chin defiantly. She shifted her skirts aside to make room.
“Sure,” soothed Kid Curry, gathering the reins in his capable fingers.
“And he LEAPT Papa, like a, like a…” Juliet searched, but failed to find any suitably brave and ‘leapy’ simile.
“I was SO frightened, Caro,” Signora Bianchi admitted to her husband. “But Signor Jones, ‘e t’rew ‘imself onto ‘is ‘orse and ‘e rode, rode lika the wind.”
Signor Bianchi, one arm protectively around his young daughter, gratefully pumped the Kid’s hand. “Signor Jones, grazie tante, ‘ow can I ever t’ank you?” Juliet’s father had emerged from the town’s telegraph office as the horses bolted, to hear his wife’s panicked account of the runaway pair and the, oh so gallant, cowboy who had ridden after them.
“It was nothin’,” said Curry. He had been pleased with the phrase before and saw no reason not to re-use it.
“You ‘ave saved my mosta precious jewel, my treasure, mia carissima.” Bianchi was still pumping the ex-outlaw’s hand. He decided this was insufficient. He removed his left arm from Juliet and threw it, together with the right one, around the rescuer.
Even the Kid’s reactions were not quick enough to prevent two distinctly Mediterranean kisses being planted on two distinctly ungrateful American cheeks.
“Hey,” protested Curry, pulling back.
“You is an ‘ero!” declared Signora Bianchi. She, in turn, flung her arms round him and kissed the flushed cheeks.
Since anyone looking at Signora Bianchi could see at a glance not only where Juliet got her good looks, but that she would still be utterly gorgeous in twenty years time, Kid Curry did not feel at all ungrateful for this second display of Italian appreciation. He decided not to pull back. No need to be rude, huh?
“Hey,” he repeated, gruffly, color creeping into his face. “It was nothin'”
“You must come-a to dinner,” went on Signora Bianchi.
“Do come, Mister Jones,” supported Juliet.
“Well…” Curry hesitated, his eyes took in the air of prosperity emanating from the Bianchi family. This was likely to be a pretty good dinner. His gaze moved to the grateful, and enchanting, smiles of the two ladies. Okay – they were ‘out of bounds’, but still, no harm enjoying a little pleasant company.
“You come. I open the finest wine you ‘ave ever tasted, from my owna vines,” pressed Bianchi. The beginning of a hurt frown. “You eensult me, you eensulta my wine, if you refuse,”
The Kid had no wish to ‘eensulta’ Signor Bianchi – or his wine. No need to be rude, huh?
THE VILLA BIANCHI – THAT EVENING
“So you were escorting a safe to San Francisco?” Signora Bianchi smiled encouragingly at her guest.
Kid Curry swallowed a mouthful of delicious braised lamb and nodded. “Yes ma’am,” he confirmed. “A Brooker 606 – the very latest model. It was empty, but the bank was kinda nervous in case …” The Kid suppressed a grin. “In case any outlaws with a taste for safe breakin’ decided to steal it, to learn how to crack it.”
“No danger of that! Not with our ‘ero Signor Jones on guard,” said his host. Beams from Juliet and her mother. “You is secur’ty expert, eh?” Bianchi enquired.
“I wouldn’t say expert,” the ex-outlaw demurred.
“You are too mucha modest,” protested Signora Bianchi.
“Well, ma’am, I reckon that Brooker 606, ” the actually not all that modest Kid Curry wore a boyish smug look, as he finished, “was pretty SAFE!”
Trills of feminine amusement. Genial laughter from Signor Bianchi. The Kid wrapped himself around another forkful of lamb and basked in the admiration.
“More wine, Signor Jones?” offered Bianchi. An eager nod. “Juliet, more wine for our ‘onoured good –no?”
“Is good, no, I mean – yes sir. It’s real good,” approved Kid Curry, taking an appreciative sip. Well, to be strictly accurate, it was more of an appreciative glug. His glass was immediately topped off. Ever polite, he lowered the level at once.
“Is good ’cause I worka WEETH the soil. I grow only Zinfandel grape…” Juliet once more filled the Kid’s glass. She received a dazzling smile of thanks and dimpled back, adorably. “The vines first broughta to California in the Golda Rush…” With a kindly look, Signora Bianchi refilled her guest’s plate. “An’ thees grape, it makea not only fine red,” Kid Curry made himself comfortable to fulfil a guest’s primary duty of listening to his host’s monologue. “…But a sweet blush, a dry rosa sparklin’, a late ‘arvest dessert…” The main course was removed. “‘Ow any STUPIDITA can…” The guest was served a tiramisu (with, of course, late harvest dessert wine) so delicious, his attention wandered completely from matters viticultural. “…Bringin’ over Sangiovese vines! Tchah! Maggiore always was stupidita! Pah! ‘E will finda out – at-a the barrel tastin’! Capische? I aska you Signor Jones is Sonama Valley Tuscany?”
Kid Curry, savoring a spoonful of liqueur soaked sponge cake smothered in ricotta and whipped cream, became aware his host was waiting for an answer.
“Look outta the window Signor Jones, is thata Tuscany?”
Curry blinked and obediently looked out of the window at the lush valley dappled by the evening sun. “Er – no, Sir.”
“You see, Cara,” Bianchi turned to his wife, “Signor Jones, ‘e know more ’bouta wine than that …”
Curry did not recognize the next word. However as two exclamations, “Paulo!” “Papa!”, burst from the ladies, he judged he had heard a fine old Italian insult.
Bianchi kissed his wife’s hand and shot her a look of apology. “T’ousand apologies, Cara.” He turned back to his guest. “You un’erstand, Signor Jones, this Maggiore, he makea me …”
Kid Curry realized he had lost the thread of the conversation. He shot a mute appeal at his hostess.
“Guiseppe Maggiore is our neighbour,” she explained. “‘E owna the vineyard south of ‘ere. Paulo an’ Signor Maggiore, they grew upa together, in Tuscany. They come-a to America together.”
“There was a quarrel,” Juliet interrupted, “YEARS ago. About NOTHING.”
“NOT abouta not’ing!” exploded her father.
“PRACTICALLY nothing,” argued Juliet. “All it was…”
Signora Bianchi cleared her throat warningly and looked with meaning first at her daughter, then her husband.
“Va bene, Cara!” accepted Bianchi, trying for a calmer tone. “We changa the subject. We talka of more cheerful t’ings.”
Still with the remains of a scowl, Juliet turned to the guest. “Mister Jones. Changing the subject completely, in America girls pick their own husbands, don’t they? If a girl meets a man she likes, and falls in love, she marries him.”
The Kid blinked in surprise. Not that he wasn’t flattered – but, sheesh! He cast a wary glance at the listening devoted father. The paternal brow was already lowering into a glower.
“Well, ma’am,” his tone was gentle. Juliet was so young and sweet; he didn’t want her TOO disappointed. “I reckon it’s best to get to know a man real well before makin’ up your mind. And, as for choosin’ a husband, it’s kinda traditional for a lady to wait to be asked.”
“No, no!” protested Juliet. “I know all THAT! What I mean is, an American girl doesn’t sit around and wait for her family to arrange a match? Getting to know a young man, and marrying for love, is perfectly respectable?”
“You is to stay away froma Michael Maggiore!” exploded Bianchi. “I ‘ave TOLD you…”
“I WON’T stay away! We love each other!” shrilled back a fuming Juliet.
Curry blinked again. Ah! He took another sip of wine and congratulated himself. No one had noticed his, perfectly understandable, mistake.
“We’re going to be married!” went on Juliet, eyes sparkling magnificently.
“I forbid it!”
“You can’t stop us!”
“‘Oo is master ‘ere?”
“Paulo! Mio Caro, whatever you t’ink of ‘is papa, Michael is a nice-a boy…”
“Never! I ‘ave spoken!”
“Michael and I don’t care about some silly vendetta that started a hundred years ago, when we were still children!”
“Giva my precious jewel,mia bellisima, to the son of that …that…”
“Caro, don’t getta so excited, t’ink of your ‘eart!”
“Mama! Tell Papa…”
“Beatrice! Talka to your daughter!”
“I’ll run away! Then you’ll be sorry!”
“Mia Bambina – do you wanna break your poor old papa’s ‘eart?”
The language switched from English to rapid Italian. Kid Curry wondered if anyone would consider it rude if he helped himself to another glass of wine. As the family argument swirled fast and furious, he decided – no, no one would.
Indeed, as the ex-outlaw pulled the bottle towards himself, he decided no one would even notice.
THE NEXT DAY
Kid Curry, cigar in mouth, hat pulled down, boots propped up on a rail, cool beer beside him, lounged outside the Santa Rosa saloon. Keen blue eyes watched a distant carriage, a rider trotting alongside, approach the town through a shimmering heat haze. The rider came into focus, and resolved into a slim upright figure, reins held between tapered fingers clad in battered leather gloves. Closer still. a self-satisfied dimpled smile beamed from beneath a jauntily tilted black hat with silver trimmings.
Deep brown eyes slid sideways. From under the floppy brown hat of the watching lounger, a bright blue gaze met them. The Kid pulled deeply on his cigar and let a smile crease his tanned cheeks. Clearly, Heyes’ job had gone pretty well, too.
TEN MINUTES LATER
Two ex-outlaws, two cigars in two mouths, two hats pulled down, two sets of boots propped on a rail, two cool beers beside them, lounged outside the Santa Rosa bar .
“You’ll never guess what I was guardin’ Heyes…”
“You’ll never guess what I was guarding Kid…”
Kid Curry frowned. However, talking over the silver tongued one was – well, just too much dang effort on a beautiful spring morning. He decided to wait.
“Plants! Who the Sam Hill would want to steal plants, anyhow!” Heyes blew the satisfied smoke ring of a man who has pocketed a substantial fee. “I’ve been playing nursemaid to a set of bud-wood cuttings, Kid. This guy who hired me owns a vineyard – y’know – wine. He’s brought over some kinda special grape all the way from Tuscany.”
“Tuscany!” echoed Curry. “Sangiovese grapes, huh?”
Heyes blinked. “Er, yeah.”
Kid Curry repressed a smirk and appreciated his partner’s surprise. “Makes a medium to full, firm, dry, slightly spicy red that ages…”
“Since when did you know anything ’bout wine except how to drink the dang stuff?”
“Can’t a man appreciate a, a fine bouquet?” the Kid deadpanned.
Heyes did a double-take. WAS that Kid Curry? “Anyhow, ” Heyes pressed on, “this fella, Maggiore, he’s hired me for the rest of the week. Seems there’s what they call a barrel tasting then. He’s kinda concerned about tampering. Apparently there’s this fella called Bianchi and…”
“There’s some kinda vendetta. Tell you what, Kid…”
“Strikes me he might hire you, too.”
“Heyes I can’t work for Maggiore. An’, I don’t think you should take the job.”
“Why not? Good money, Kid. And he’s a real affable fella,Kinda excitable, maybe.”
“I can’t take the job ‘cos I’m hired by Bianchi to guard HIS barrels till the end o’ the week!”
Heyes took a moment to process this. “Maggiore isn’t planning to tamper with anything of Bianchi’s. Told you, he’s a real nice fella.”
“Well, Bianchi isn’t plannin’ to tamper with anythin’ of Maggiore’s,” interrupted his partner, defensively. Hey , he liked his new boss! Then, brow furrowing, “Maybe neither of us should take the jobs, Heyes.” He met an enquiring, not to say incredulous, look from a pair of deep brown eyes. “If you’re workin’ for Maggiore, and I’m workin’ for Bianchi.” The Kid shifted in his seat, “we’d kinda be on opposite sides.”
Heyes folded his arms. “So, let me get this straight. Maggiore wants to pay ME good money to guard his barrels?”
“Bianchi wants to pay YOU good money to guard HIS barrels?”
“Neither one is planning anything, so this’ll be the easiest good money we’ve made since we quit busting banks? ‘Cept, it’s honest!” Heyes pushed his hat to the back of his tousled dark hair and stared at his partner. “And, you want to turn it down?”
The Kid frowned a little more. Then, his brow relaxed. Another long pull at his cigar.
“You persuaded me.”
A grin dimpled Heyes’ cheeks. “It’s what I do, Kid.”
A contented beat.
“You’ll never guess what I was escortin’, Heyes,” began Curry, looking forward to his moment.
A smartly dressed couple exited the town’s bank and began to walk towards the partners.
“Tell me later, Kid,” interrupted Heyes. “And, we don’t know each other! We just happen to be having a beer at the same time.”
“Uh huh,” grunted Curry.
The ex-leader of the notorious Devil’s Hole Gang, rose to his feet and ran lightly down the steps to the street.
“Rosa, mia cara,” smiled Signor Maggiore, This is Signor Smeeth, ‘oo is gonna keep-a safe our …”
Heyes touched his hat to his new boss’s wife and then, politely, returned his attention to what his employer was saying.
From under his hat brim, the watching Kid Curry became aware that Signora Maggiore’s eyes never left his partner’s face. At first she wore a, a slightly dazed expression. Then, as Heyes turned away, this was replaced by a delighted smile. A feminine gaze studied every detail of the dark-haired ex-outlaw from bright silver trimmings to dusty boot heels. The smile broadened. A silk parasol twirled, thoughtfully.
Kid Curry shifted uncomfortably. It was not that unusual for Heyes to get his fair share, a fair share being, oh, about 20% in the Kid’s opinion, of female admiration. But – sheesh! This was his boss’s wife. It could mean trouble! It could, nah! The Kid reassured himself. Heyes was too smart to walk into that kind of trouble, whatever the temptati… Er?
Curry took another look at the temptation. Signora Maggiore sure was a handsome woman for her age. No,the Kid reconsidered, as a pair of lustrous blue eyes flashed HIM a glance from under honey colored lashes. He crossed his legs. Strike out ‘handsome’. Make that, stunning. He hoped his smart partner was smart enough.
“Buon giorno, Signora Maggiore,” said Heyes, fluently. Well, as fluently as four simple words can be.
“How do you do, Mister Smith? My husband informs me you come most highly recommended.” A gracious hand was extended. Heyes blinked. “Is there something wrong, Mister Smith?”
“No – nothing, ma’am.”
Kid Curry lowered his head to hide a smirk. Heyes, who must have learnt and practised the Italian greeting during the last few days with Maggiore, had clearly thrown it away on a lady clearly born, raised – and, from her accent, most expensively educated – back east.
Suddenly, both ex-outlaws’ attention was diverted by the sound of an approaching carriage.
“Maggiore!” shouted the irate tones of Bianchi. “Maggiore! I wanna talka to you!” A fist waved in the air. The carriage veered. A fist stopped waving in the air and returned to where it belonged, on the reins.
With an expression of foreboding, Kid Curry pulled himself to his feet and stepped into the street.
Bianchi scrambled out – scowling. He momentarily switched off the scowl to throw a friendly smile at Curry, a gentlemanly inclination of the head to the watching Signora Maggiore and to help his wife step down. Duty done – he switched the scowl back on.
“I wanna talka to you, Maggiore!”
Two bristling middle-aged men squared up.
“So talk, Bianchi! I keepa the special pair of leetle ears for anyt’in you hava to say!”
“You tella that boy of yours, keep away from my daughter!”
“Isa NO problem! I tell ‘im that already! I tell ‘im, ‘e marries your daughter over my deada body! You tell ‘ER , keep away from ‘IM!”
“Are you sayin’ my daughter is notta GOOD enough for your son?” Bianchi began to strip off his beautifully tailored jacket.
A hesitation. Heyes looked, thoughtfully, at the man with whom he had spent much of the last week. Whatever this WAS about, the essentially good-natured man seemed to have no inclination to imply anything offensive about his neighbor’s daughter.
Bianchi struggled with an inside-out sleeve. “You say my Juliet isn’ good enough for your son, I, – I knocka your ‘ead offa your shoulders!” The jacket was finally pulled off and flung into the arms of a reluctant Kid Curry.
“I did’n say SHE wasn’ good enough!” said Maggiore.
“Y’know, he didn’t say nothin’ like that,” put in Curry. His eyes flicked across the street. The door of the Sheriff’s office had opened. A figure wearing a star-shaped badge watched the scene with mild, ‘don’t make me come over there’, disapproval. Okay, the figure was pleasantly unfamiliar to the ex-outlaws, but – all the same!
“I DO say to my son,” went on Maggiore, “I say, you don’ marry any girl ‘oo giva you a, a stupidita for a papa-in-law!”
“I wouldn’ let mia bellissima Juliet marry your boy, not if he was the lasta man on earth!”
“Are you sayin’ my boy isn’ good enough for your family?” Maggiore’s turn to strip off some of the most expensive tailoring available in San Francisco. Heyes’ turn to be the reluctant holder of a discarded jacket. “You saya one bad word ’bout my boy, I– I …”
Bianchi’s turn to hesitate. Kid Curry remembered, in all the swirling family argument last night, his new boss never denied his wife’s repeated assertions that young Michael Maggiore was ‘A gooda boy! A nice-a boy!’
“I don’ say a bad word ’bout your boy, only ’bout his _” A tut from Signora Bianchi.
Curry gathered he had learned his second Italian cuss-word. “Of a papa!”
Two figures, elegantly embroidered waistcoats snugly fastened over portly bellies, circled in the dusty street. Four sleeves of snowy white finest linen fluttered gently, as two sets of plump fists were raised in classic ‘sparring’ pose.
“You waita, Maggiore. You finda out ‘oo ees stupidita! The vino Bianchi, it take the golda medal ata the barrel tastin’!”
“Ina your dreams! Once the judges taste-a vino Maggiore …” rapid Italian. Circling.
The watching wives exchanged a glance. Feminine eyes rolled. The partners gathered, firstly, this display of what later generations of women might (rightly) dismiss as ‘pointless willy-waving’ was not new. Secondly, the ladies did not expect actual punches to be thrown.
“An’ keep-a way from my barrels! I ‘ave ‘ired, ” Maggiore lowered his fists and pulled forward an unwilling Hannibal Heyes. “I ‘ave ‘ired the best security expert in California. No! No! I ‘ave ‘ired the best security expert in the ‘ole of the West!” An expressive Latin hand gestured. “Looka thosa eyes! Sharp as an eagle!” Heyes’ arm was pulled. “Looka those arms! Muscles lika tiger! Looka thosa …”
“Hey!” remonstrated Heyes. Sheesh! He scowled at his grinning partner.
“See ‘im frown!” triumphed his pleased boss. “Signor Smeeth, ‘e is fierce as a…”
“Pah!” dismissed Bianchi. The grin was wiped off the Kid’s face, as HIS boss turned. “It is I, Paulo Bianchi, ‘oo ‘as ‘ired the best security expert in the west! No! No! I ‘ave ‘ired the best in the ‘ole of America! Looka ‘IS arms! ‘E is MORE muscles than a tiger!” The Kid’s arm was flexed by a proud employer.
“Hey!” he protested. He gave a clearly amused Heyes, ‘the look’.
“Looka THAT scowl!” exulted Bianchi. “Signor Jones, ‘e knowsa not the meanin’ of fear!” A scornful look. “‘E could take-a your man with one-a ‘and tied be’ind ‘is back!”
“Hah! Signor Smeeth, even with both ‘ands be’ind ‘is back, ‘e flatten your man lika, lika, ” Maggiore searched.
“Like a bug?” suggested Heyes.
“Grazie tante. Like-a BUG!” accepted his boss.
“Hey!” objected Curry.
“No offence, Mister Jones,” smiled Heyes, touching his hat.
Maggiore dropped the belligerent posture. “No offence, Signor Jones?” he echoed. The kindly face looked anxious. As if concerned arguing with his boyhood rival had led him to be rude to an innocent stranger.
“None taken,” responded the ex-outlaw, civilly.
“Va bene,” smiled Maggiore. He returned to his aggressive stance. “Is not youra fault, Signor Jones, that you ‘as been ‘ired by that, that…” More rapid Italian. More circling.
“Signor Smeeth, ‘e is recommended by the best Sheriff in the ‘ole of Wyoming!”
“Is not’in! Signor Jones, ‘e ‘as been workin’ for Wells Fargo! Recommended by a – a Colonel!”
“I was deliverin’…” Kid Curry tried to get his last job into the conversation.
Kid Curry failed. Utterly!
“You don’ needa to be guardin’ YOUR barrels any’ow! ‘Oo wanna get ata YOUR barrels! Oak! Hah! Only a – a stupidita use-a the oak!”
“Why you guard-a YOUR barrels? Even woodworm have-a more sense than go near YOUR barrels! Chestnut! Pah! Dio mio!”
“You don’ say not’in ’bouta my barrels!”
“No! No! I feela SORRY for YOUR barrels!”
“Whata you tryin’ to say?!”
“Bein’ full of your stinkin’ wine!”
“Leasta I makes wine! Not – not ‘orse peeessss!”
“Paulo!” a sharp reprimand from Signora Bianchi.
“You don’ even make-a wine THAT good! You make-a diseased mule peeessss!”
“Guiseppe! Language!” a second sharp reprimand from Signora Maggiore.
“You take-a that back!”
“YOU take-a it back!”
“The last time I drank-a wine from your grapes…!”
“You don’ say not’in’ ’bout-a my grapes!”
“It was, it was – STEWED!”
Gasps of horror from the two ladies. Silence. Change in mood. Bianchi wore the expression of a man who has let his mouth run away with him. Maggiore wore the expression of a man hearing the virtue of his mother insulted in language too coarse for a dockyard.
“You! You! Well, your wine, is – is STRINGY!”
More dismayed spousal gasps!
Bianchi swung a genuine punch.
With the reflexes of a tiger (possibly the same tiger from whom he had acquired his muscular arms) Heyes pulled his boss clear. He kept hold of one excitable – and incensed – Italian.
Bianchi, his fist, with his full (and not inconsiderable) weight behind it, connecting with nothing, toppled.
With the reflexes of something undefined, though MORE sinewy than a cougar, the Kid caught HIS boss before he landed in the dirt. He kept a firm hold of the second excitable, and completely furious, Italian.
Looking up, the partners saw one of their least favourite sights. The Sheriff, disgruntled at having the calm of his quiet, peaceable town disturbed, was coming over.
“I reep ‘im leemb from leemb!” frothed Maggiore, struggling in Heyes’ vice-like grip.
“Dignity, Sir!” counseled Heyes, one wary eye on the Sheriff. “Rise above it! Show him who’s the gentleman here, huh?”
“I tear ‘im to peeces!” foamed Bianchi, fighting to free himself from a pair of steel strong arms.
“Don’t give him the satisfaction!” entreated Curry.
“Trouble?” grunted the Sheriff.
“No trouble, Sheriff,” soothed Kid Curry, trying his best to manage a conciliatory smile over the head of a wriggling vineyard owner.
“Just a little friendly discussion, about the barrel tasting,” smiled Heyes, his hands still full of straining winemaker.
“And, who would you be fella?” enquired an unconvinced lawman.
“This is Mister Smith,” put in Signora Maggiore. “My husband hired him to make sure there IS no trouble before the barrel tasting.” In a whisper, she added, “Guiseppe! Really!”
“An’ thees, ” Signora Bianchi stepped forward, “thees is Signor Jones! ‘E also make-a sure, for mio spouso, there is-a no trouble!” Undertone. “Paulo! Be’ave!”
“Smith an’ Jones, huh?” The Sheriff raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
The partners did not risk an exchanged glance.
“Uh huh,” they chorused in unison.
A cynical eye examined the tied down guns and general air of danger.
“An’ you two are here to STOP any trouble?” The lawman’s tone was heavy with scepticism.
Another pair of “Uh huhs”.
One by one, the now under control, though still quietly seething, vineyard owners were released by their new employees.
“Good!” approved the Sheriff, “‘cos if there’s one thing gets me all riled up, it’s trouble in my town!” Sharp eyes were still examining Heyes and Curry.
The ex-outlaws plastered on their best ‘innocent’ expressions.
“Me too,” nodded Heyes. “I can’t bear trouble. I just want to do the legitimate, peaceable security job I was hired for. And, I guess Mister, er, Tomes, was it?”
“Signor Jones,” supplied Signora Bianchi.
“I’m sure Mister Jones here feels the same!” Heyes tried a charming smile.
“Sure do!” nodded his partner, eagerly. “I like things real quiet an’, an’ law-abidin’! Always have! Can’t abide trouble!”
“Good!” repeated the Sheriff, “‘cos when I get all riled up, I get suspicious! I start to ask a lotta questions ’bout strangers.” A beat. “But, if there AIN’T no trouble, I never feel the slightest bit curious!” A beat. The Sheriff touched his hat to both ladies, turned on his heel and strode away.
Heyes and Curry finally risked exchanging a glance. A mute conversation.
“I reckon we oughta go, Signor Bianchi,” suggested the Kid.
“Leesten to Signor Jones!” supported Signora Bianchi.
“Va bene. Va bene,” accepted Bianchi. “But, ” a quick glance to check the Sheriff was out of earshot, “you ‘aven’t ‘eard the lasta thees, Maggiore!”
“Any time-a you choose, Bianchi,” hissed back Heyes’ employer.
THE VILLA MAGGIORE – THE SAME DAY – CLOSE TO MIDNIGHT
Hannibal Heyes, boots off, Henley open at the neck, stretched out on the snowy-sheeted bed. One arm was tucked behind a head of tousled dark hair. The other held aloft a leather bound book. Tapered fingers turned a page. Fascinated deep brown eyes absorbed the text.
A sound. Whip-quick, Heyes retrieved his gun from where it hung over the polished mahogany bedpost. Silently, he padded across the room and positioned himself beside the window.
A scrape as the sash was raised. A dark figure swung a slim leg over the sill.
“Hold it right there,” cautioned Heyes, pressing the muzzle of his gun into the intruder’s back.
“For Pete’s sake, Heyes! It’s me!” hissed Kid Curry.
“I know,” grinned Heyes. “I recognized your boot soon as it came through the curtain. Just can’t have you thinking you’ve a talent for breaking and entering, Kid.” He tucked his gun into his waistband. “What are you doing here? We don’t know one another – remember?”
“Sure we do,” deadpanned the Kid. “I recall bein’ introduced this afternoon. Thought I’d pay a call. Sociable like.” He pulled himself the rest of the way into the room. “Heyes, Maggiore is gonna fight Bianchi – tomorrow. Some kinda challenge arrived while we were at dinner…”
“An’ Bianchi accepted,” finished Heyes. “I know, Kid. So?”
“So, ” his partner frowned, “I reckon we oughta leave.”
Heyes dropped his hands to his hips. “Leave? Look around, Kid. Pretty fancy, huh?”
Kid Curry glanced round. The room was on the luxurious side. “Uh huh,” he acknowledged.
“An’, I’d be willing to wager you’re sleeping somewhere just as good.”
“An’, dinner tonight. I ate like a king. An’, drank wine good enough for an emperor.”
Curry could not subdue a wistful smile. “Me too.”
“And, I reckon you trust Bianchi to pay you fair and square at the end o’ the week?”
“Uh huh, Heyes!” Trying to keep his voice down, an impatient Kid Curry interrupted. “I get the point! I STILL think we should leave. Bianchi asked me to be his, er…”
“Second?” supplied Heyes.
“Uh huh.” Curry’s brow lowered in a suspicious frown. “How’d’ya know?”
“They’re having a proper duel. I’m Maggiore’s second. Go on.”
“I wanted to say ‘No’. But, Signora Bianchi an’ Juliet, they kinda looked at me an’…” Curry stopped. He saw his partner’s grin as a dark head shook in mock-reproach. He started again. “The point is, I ain’t sure this, duel, is even legal! An’ if Bianchi shoots Maggiore, legal or not, I reckon that Sheriff is goin’ to count it as trouble! An’, you heard him! He don’t like trouble!”
“Kid, you saw them today! These guys aren’t killers! Do you REALLY think after they’ve had a whole night to cool down, either of them will even want to hurt the other?”
Kid Curry mulled. There was a lot of truth in there.
“Most duels, no one gets hurt bad,” went on Heyes. He picked up the book he had left open on his pillow and showed the spine. “I’ve been reading up, Kid.”
“The Code of Honor,” read his partner. “A complete guide to the etiquette and practice of dueling for gentle…” Kid Curry closed his eyes in disbelief. When he opened them again, his tone was heavy with sarcasm. “Oh, well! If’n you’ve found a BOOK on it, I’ll stop worryin’!” End of sarcastic tone. “Heyes! Folk get hurt in fights! Even if’n they don’t plan it that way!”
“Listen, Kid,” Heyes flicked through pages. His finger found the passage he was looking for. “The first duty of a second is to use every effort to effect a, a reconciliation. Now, ” persuasive brown eyes met proddy blue ones, “you like Bianchi, huh? You don’t want him hurt? You don’t want him doing anything foolish and hurting Maggiore?”
The Kid pursed his lips. Nodded. He had no problem with any of that.
“I feel the same about my guy,” went on Heyes. “So, ” he smiled, “we OUGHTA be seconds! We OUGHTA effect this – reconciliation! Keep ’em out of trouble.” An admonitory look at his partner. “Wouldn’t be right just to walk away, Kid!”
Once again his partner mulled. A reluctant nod. He guessed there was a lot of truth in there, too.
“Besides,” soothed Heyes, “even if our guys DID want to hurt each other, which neither of us reckons they do, there’d still be no risk of anyone getting shot.”
“How’d you figure that?” asked his partner.
“They’re using swords, Kid,” Heyes replied smugly.
He received the ‘look’.
“So,” summed up Heyes, “We stick around. We make sure no one gets hurt. We stay away from the Sheriff. We sleep on goose-down. We eat like kings. We go to this barrel tasting; maybe DO a little tasting! We get paid. We ride out. How’s that sound?”
“That sounds pretty good,” admitted the Kid. A beat. “Heyes, ” the beginnings of a grin creased his cheeks “you’ll never guess what I was guardin’ last week…”
A sound in the corridor. Both ex-outlaws froze. Drawing his gun, the Kid moved to where the door would conceal him if anyone entered. A note appeared, pushed under the door. More sounds, unmistakably retreating footsteps. Curry pressed his ear to the crack, listened hard, gave his partner an ‘all clear’ nod.
Heyes unfolded the note. He blinked. A smug smile. A frown. Smug. Frown. Smug. Frown. Possibly the smug smile was winning. The note was tucked into Heyes’ back pocket.
Heyes sat down on the edge of the bed. Kid Curry waited. And waited. Heyes pulled his boots towards himself.
“Heyes!” hissed his partner.
“What WAS that?”
“That?” Heyes looked up, as he dragged on his first boot. “That was a note, Kid.”
“Heyes!” Kid Curry breathed heavily through his nose. He controlled his temper. “WHO was it from an’ WHAT did it say?”
“It said, ‘Meet me in the secluded summerhouse in the scented garden in five minutes’.”
Heyes did not look up. “It was from,” he bent lower, tugged hard on the second boot, “Ro ser ma orey,” he blurred.
“WHO?” Heyes reached for his shirt. The ‘fastest hand in the west’ whisked it away.
Heyes sighed. “Rosa Maggiore,” he gave in.
Envy. Frown. Disapproval. Envy. Frown. The shirt was whipped back from the Kid’s suddenly slack fingers.
“You’re not GOIN’?” he protested.
“Gotta see what she wants,” reasoned Heyes, buttoning.
“It’s midnight. She’s chosen a SECLUDED summerhouse in a SCENTED garden. What the Sam Hill do you THINK she wants?”
“Kid!” reproved Heyes. “You got a dirty mind! She’s a married woman.”
Heyes was by now straightening his hair in front of the looking glass. Kid Curry pulled
him round by the shoulder. “I saw the way she was lookin’ at you earlier! She couldn’t keep her eyes off you!”
This time there was no doubt. The smug smile HAD won. “Guess she’s only human, Kid.”
“Heyes! That ‘married woman’ is married to your boss! That means she’s trouble. An’ trouble is what WE don’t like! Remember?”
“Have a little faith, Kid,” A reproachful look from the dark brown eyes. “I’ll tell her I can’t let her do something she’s bound to regret.” Curry watched a dark blue shirt being tucked into tan pants, by an infuriatingly self-satisfied Heyes. “However great the attraction, she has to resist. I’ll let her down nice an’ gentle. Pretend I’M struggling against temptation too.”
“HEYES!” This time the hiss from Kid Curry was explosive. “I’ve SEEN Rosa Maggiore. There isn’t a man alive who’d hafta PRETEND to be tempted round her!”
FIVE MINUTES LATER – THE SECLUDED SUMMERHOUSE IN THE SCENTED GARDEN
“I wish you’d go away,” whispered Hannibal Heyes to a lush camellia shrub.
“Just watchin’ your back,” breathed back the camellia, sounding uncannily like Kid Curry.
Giving a final smoothing stroke to his hair, Heyes strode towards the summerhouse.
A shapely, feminine figure emerged from the archway. A soft, enticing, mouth breathed.
“I’m so glad you came.”
Heyes looked at the gorgeous woman in front of him. He gave a perfect impression of a sorely tempted man.
“There’s something I want from you, Mister Smith.”
Heyes’ opened his lips to let Signora Maggiore down gently. A dove-soft hand was laid on his sleeve. A fine pair of blue eyes, lustrous in the moonlight, met Heyes’ brown ones. The usually silver tongue cleaved to the roof of Heyes’ mouth. No sound came from the opened lips. He closed them again.
“…I knew the moment I saw you – you were the man I needed.”
Heyes braced himself. Painful as it was, he prepared to do the right thing. He shut his eyes to block out the entrancing …
“You were the man we BOTH needed,” went on the honeyed voice. A confused Heyes opened his eyes. Both? A second, gloriously voluptuous, feminine shape emerged from the summerhouse.
“We needa you Signor Smeeth,” chimed in the captivating Latin lilt of Signora Bianchi.
A – NOT startled! No! No! Simply surprised! And, possibly calculating, y’know – timing options! And – ways and means! A NOT startled Heyes, looked from one bewitchingly gorgeous, older, experienced, practised, knowing woman to the other.
“Er, ” contributed the silver-tongued one. A pair of merely surprised, definitely NOT startled, brown eyes blinked.
Nearby, a pair of cornflower blue eyes belonging, apparently, to a talking camellia bush, also blinked. This was not only morally WRONG! It was also, affronted blink, just plain, UNFAIR!
“We ‘ave TWO favours to ask, Signor Smeeth,” allured the delightful tones of Signora Bianchi.
“Uh huh?” gulped the usually so-fluent Heyes.
“First,” enticed Signora Maggiore, “we want you and Mister Jones to do everything you can to stop our husbands hurting each other tomorrow.”
“They is both good-a men!” chimed in her neighbor. “But men is … ” she searched.
“Men, much as we love them, are idiots,” clarified Rosa Maggiore, succinctly. “We want you to ensure OUR particular idiots stay in one piece.”
“Er, ” repeated Heyes. That was not QUITE was he had been hoping. No! No! NOT hoping! That was not quite what he had been EXPECTING to hear as favour number one. Still, he could only find this wifely concern commendable! “I was kinda planning on doing that anyhow, ma’am. And, though I don’t know much about this Jones fella, I reckon he’s planning the same.”
“What was the second favor?” enquired Heyes, hopefully. No! No! NOT hopefully! Just interested!
“We botha t’ink Michael an’ Juliet is made-a for each other,” said Juliet’s mamma.
“We want you to make their fathers see sense,” went on Michael’s mother.
“So, ” Heyes lowered his voice, to avoid being overheard by camellia bushes, “that’s why you asked me out here?”
Two maternal nods. A faint, but still discernable tinge of chagrin appeared in the dark brown eyes. The ladies exchanged a glance. Light dawned.
“You didn’t think, ” a grin split Rosa Maggiore’s face, “I was going to seduce you?”
“Certainly not!” protested Heyes. Not as convincingly as one would expect from one customarily so silver tongued. Heyes’ realized he had not managed to adopt his poker face quite quickly enough.
A smothered snicker from Rosa Maggiore. An apologetic snort from behind the raised hand of Beatrice Bianchi. Then, the effort of polite restraint was abandoned. Two unaffected peals of female laughter rang through the romantic, moonlit garden. .
The ex-leader of the Devil’s Hole Gang scowled. He shot an apprehensive glance at the nearby shrubbery. It WASN’T funny!
“No offence Mister Smith,” chortled Rosa Maggiore, kindly, “but I’ll resist your charms, somehow.”
“Don’a worry,” giggled Beatrice Bianchi, giving him a motherly smile, “you is very nice, Signor Smeeth, but, I controla my lust. Okay?”
Heyes shot another look at the camellia. It was, damn it all, quivering! The scowl deepened.
“I think you’ve made a mistake, ma’am,” he said, coolly. Oh, alright. It was more cross than cool. “I’m no match-maker. ” He turned on his heel and began to stride away.
“We’ll pay a bonus if you succeed,” called Rosa Maggiore.
“Two ‘undred dollars,” clarified Beatrice Bianchi.
Smooth as silk an ex-outlaw leader spun once more on his heel and strode back.
“Two hundred dollars,” he checked.
“IF you succeed,” repeated Signora Maggiore.
Heyes mused. “I dunno,” he said, eventually. “Your husbands seemed pretty set against it. And,” he mused, “family business. Interfering might whip up a whole mess of trouble.” A regretful shake of the head. “I’m kinda keen to avoid trouble. Sorry, ma’am.”
“Don’t say ‘no’, Mister Smith,” responded Signora Maggiore. Glorious blue eyes glittered.
“That would be a HEYES …” Pause. “A HEYES-ty decision.”
Hannibal Heyes froze. He shot the lovely Signora Maggiore a sharp look.
“I must tell you sometime about the time I was a passenger on a train that was robbed by outlaws, Mister Smith,” she smiled.
“Uh huh,” grunted Heyes. The dark eyes took on a warning look.
“Signor Jones,” trilled Beatrice Bianchi, “we know you is ‘idin’ in the bushes! Don’ be a, ” smile,”beeg KEED!” smile, “Come out!”
“No need to be shy!” called Rosa Maggiore to the camellia, “come and hear what’s WANTED from you and your partner. It would be CRIMINAL not to!”
A beat. A blond ex-outlaw, blue eyes holding a steely glint, strode to stand beside his partner.
“Forget the, oh so impressive, dangerous looks,” smiled Signora Maggiore. “We know you never killed anyone and that for over a year you haven’t even committed a crime.”
“We t’inka you is nice boys,” concurred Signora Bianchi. “We don’ care ’bouta the twen’y t’ousand dollar on your ‘ead! We just want an ‘Annibal ‘Eyes plan! You,” a luscious pair of brown eyes challenged the blond ex-outlaw, “you like-a my Juliet? No?”
“Sure,” responded Kid Curry. He DID like Juliet!
“And you,” contended Rosa Maggiore, to Heyes, “you like my Michael?”
“He’s a real nice young man,” conceded Heyes. It was true. He was!
“So, using your, ” Signora Maggiore smiled, “your SPECIAL skills to bring them together. That’s not WRONG?”
Heyes and Curry exchanged a glance. It was not exactly WRONG.
“And, if we use a little friendly persuasion? Offer to keep certain, memories away from the Sheriff. That’s just motherly love?”
Another exchanged glance. Motherly love? A smart man thought twice before messing with THAT!
“We aren’t threatening you if you FAIL,” oozed Rosa Maggiore. “We just want your word, you’ll TRY!”
“Besides,” chimed in a stunningly persuasive brunette, “you two cannot FAIL. You isa SO talented, an’ SO brave-a…”
Two lovely ladies tried the effect of flattery on male egos. Two ex-outlaws exchanged a mute conversation. “Time to fold?” “Uh huh!”
“Ma’am,” declared Hannibal Heyes, “I have a plan!”
“So, that’s the plan for Michael,” said Heyes.
“I’ll make sure he knows what he has to do,” nodded Rosa Maggiore. “And the fee for your friend, not a problem.” Her velvety brow furrowed. “But, where do we find a man for Juliet to pretend to be in love with? Someone unsuitable, who will make Signor Bianchi realise just how perfect Michael is by comparison.”
“Oh,” smiled Heyes, “I don’t think we’ve far to look.” His gaze lingered on the listening blond ex-outlaw.
“Ah!” breathed Signora Maggiore. Her gaze too rested on the figure leaning, arms folded, against the summerhouse.
“Is-a good,” concurred Beatrice Bianchi. A third pair of eyes fastened, approvingly, on Kid Curry.
A questioning expression came over the Kid’s face. He glanced over his shoulder to see what everyone was staring at. He looked back to receive a dimpled beam from his partner. Light dawned.
ABOUT HALF AN HOUR LATER – OUTSIDE THE VILLA BIANCHI
“Remember Signor Jones,” said Signora Bianchi, as she and Kid Curry approached her home, through a moonlit vineyard, “…you ‘ave to make Paulo believe you is not kinda man a Papa wan’s payin’ ‘is leetle girl attention. Not good-a match. Capische?”
The ex-outlaw gunslinger with no home, no money, no steady job and a price on his head, rolled his eyes. “I can try, ma’am,” he deadpanned
“AN’!” the mother’s tone sharpened, her eyes flashed magnificently, “if I find you ‘ave laid a finger on ‘er,” rapid Italian.
Curry had no idea what the threat was, but, it sure sounded scarier than facin’ another gun across a saloon.
“Only pretendin’. I got it!”
Signora Bianchi relaxed. “You is good-a boy,” she accepted, patting his cheek.
“Hey,” a sound made the Kid wheel around. Someone was skulking among the trellises.
A gun leapt into a practiced hand. “Who’s there?” he snapped. “Come out – an’ keep your hands where I can see ’em!”
A small figure, dressed in borrowed trousers far too big for her slim form, stepped out.
“Juliet! Whata you doin’ outta ‘ere?” demanded her mother.
“What are you?” shot back Juliet. “with ” pointing finger, “HIM! In the middle of the night!”
“You answer me Juliet, or I,” rapid Italian.
Juliet raised her chin defiantly. “I had a plan! I went over to the Maggiore place, climbed into Michael’s room to be, to be RUINED. I told him, if he got me with child, then Papa would HAVE to let us marry straight away. Even if I wasn’t pregnant – the scandal would be enough! We could let the servants discover our naked bodies entwined, the scarlet proof of my lost maidenhe…”
“Juliet!” protested an outraged mother.
Curry, whose mouth had begun to gape open, closed it. A question struck him. “What are you doin’ back already, then? It’s not dawn. I doubt it’s even turned one.”
Juliet dropped the ‘defiant tragic heroine’ pose. “Michael said it was a dumb plan and sent me home,” she pouted, sulkily. “He wants to stick with HIS plan.”
“What’s his plan?”
“To wait until we’re twenty-one and can legally marry without Papas’ permission. If they both cut us off without a dime, so what? Michael says he’s perfectly capable of finding work to support me. AND, he plans saving any naked entwining for the wedding night.” Juliet raised a pair of appealing eyes to the Kid’s face. “Don’t you think that’s just STUPID, Mister Jones?”
“No!” he declared, firmly. “I think that sounds like a good plan!” Under his breath he added, “dang sight better’n ours!”
“I talka to you later, young lady,” promised Juliet’s mother. “But first, me an’ Mister Jones tell you OUR plan. Is besta both worlds. We move the weddin’ night,” she interrupted herself, “and, you waita till the weddin’ night or I,” more rapid Italian. “We move the weddin’ night to be real soon, an’ persuade Papa to say ‘Si’!”
“Go on,” prompted Juliet.
“Well,” Juliet considered, looking a reluctant fake suitor up and down, “I guess it’s worth a try.” A grin. She slipped her arm through his. “Thaddeus. Darling!”
EARLY THE NEXT DAY – OUTSIDE THE SANTA ROSA TELEGRAPH OFFICE
Hannibal Heyes strode out of the telegraph office pulling on his battered leather gloves. A slim young man, with more than a passing resemblance to Rosa Maggiore, was at his side.
“Do you REALLY think she’ll come, Mister Smith?” asked Michael Maggiore.
“Yup. Aside from the fact your mother’s paying real good money, this girl’s a sport! She’ll enjoy it!”
“And, however, y’know,” a blush swept over the youthful cheeks, “forward I am, she’ll know it’s only pretending?”
“She won’t turn a hair!” reassured Heyes. “Just act smitten and follow her lead.”
“And,” a worried look came into Michael’s earnest eyes, “this Mister Jones who’s going to make up to Juliet, he knows SHE’S only pretending? Because, Juliet can be kinda,” Michael chose his word carefully, “uninhibited. She’s so, so innocent she doesn’t realise the effect she has on men. I don’t want him to think…”
“Mister Jones and I have an arrangement,” interrupted Heyes, “he lets ME take care of the thinking!” He swung himself into the saddle and gave Michael his most reassuring dimpled smile. “Relax! Would Juliet’s mother pick this Jones fella for the part if he wasn’t,” a grin, “a real good-a boy?”
Michael mulled on that. Mister Smith did have a point there.
“I’ll see you later. Right now, ” a hat was pushed back. Reins were gathered in tapered fingers, “there’s a duel that needs a second who’s read up on the rules!”
A CLEARING IN THE WOODS – BETWEEN THE BIANCHI AND MAGGIORE VINEYARDS
Kid Curry clutched a long slim box to his chest and listened to Signor Bianchi. Once again English had given way to a flood of voluble Italian. Kid Curry’s broad shoulders drooped. He didn’t have to understand the language to get the gist. He cast a glance over at a spot about, oh, about a regulation twenty paces away. A pair of shoulders in a dark blue shirt was also beginning to droop. From the way Signor Maggiore was waving his arms around, Curry guessed Heyes had as little luck as himself getting a word in edgewise.
Leaving the two vineyard owners stripping off their jackets, rolling up snowy sleeves and indulging in a few practice lunges, the two ex-outlaws met in the centre of the clearing.
“So,” deadpanned Curry, “we’re both a complete wash-out at effectin’ re con sili a, you know, getting’ them to make-up. What else do seconds do?”
“The problem is,” said Heyes, pulling the slim copy of ‘The Code of Honour’ from his back pocket, “they have this Italian thing they call,uh, O mer ta…”
“Means neither of ’em will draw back from an …”
“You see once a challenge is given…”
“Heyes! I know what the dang problem is! They’re both stubborn as mules! Now what?”
“Now we, ” Heyes’ finger ran down a page, “We inspect the swords.”
Kid Curry placed the box on the turf and opened it. A beat as both ex-outlaws stared down.
“Yup,” Curry broke the pause, “They look like swords to me. Next?!”
“MY fella is the challenger, so, YOUR fella gets first pick.” Dropping his hands to his hips, Heyes called over, “Signor Bianchi, would you come choose your weapon?”
“That’s a feint, ” Hannibal Heyes informed his partner, as they watched the foils of two circling Italians flash together, “And a close parade, and a forte, and…”
“Heyes!” hissed Kid Curry.
An offended beat.
The eyes of the partners moved in unison following the swordplay. A synchronised wince.
“My fella isn’t planning to do more’n pink Bianchi,” confided Heyes. An enquiring look from the Kid. “Give him a little prick,” explained Heyes.
Kid Curry’s horrified flinch lasted less than a second before light dawned. “Uh huh?” he grunted. Then, “My fella says pretty much the same.”
A synchronised drawing back of heads in reaction to a particularly fine carte met by a perfect parry.
“Bianchi reckons,” said an impressed Curry, “Thirty years ago, he was one of the best swords in the whole of Tuscany.”
“My fella says pretty much the same,” nodded back Heyes.
The clash of steel on steel became less frequent. The eyes of the partners, still moving in unison, slowed. The eyes exchanged a glance.
“I guess thirty years tells on a man,” mused Heyes.
“The extra thirty pounds aren’t helpin’ neither,” observed the Kid.
Two puffing Italians, shirts clinging to plump bodies, sweat rolling from balding pates continued to circle. Just. The suspense became non-existent.
“Heyes,” started Curry, “You’ll never guess what I was guardin’ last week.”
Suddenly, “Owwww!” A howl of anguish from Bianchi. “Dio mio! My-a back!”
At precisely the same moment, “Ahhhh!” from Maggiore. “Basta! My ‘eeep!”
Hands pressed to the offending strained back and wrenched hip, the once finest swords in Tuscany staggered over.
“Impossibillissimo to carrya on!” gasped Bianchi. With the remains of a flourish he offered the hilt of his sword to Kid Curry. “Take-a over Signor Jones.”
“Va bene,” wheezed Maggiore, offering his own blade to Heyes. “Gooda luck Signor Smeeth!”
The Kid moved incredulous eyes from the proffered weapons to Heyes. Heyes turned a page. “In the event of a principle being unable to offer satisfaction on the field of honour, a second is duty bound to …”
He looked up to receive the full force of ‘the look’ from his partner. Pushing back his hat, Heyes responded with his very best innocently dimpled smile.
“So,” growled Kid Curry, facing his partner in the centre of the clearing. He laid aside his hat and began to roll up his sleeves, “What do we do NOW?”
“Well, Kid,” Heyes kept his voice low, to avoid being overheard by the two vineyard owners observing from about ten yards away. “I reckon we start off with a short bout of parrying. We make it look good.” Tossing his own hat aside, Heyes tucked one hand into the small of his back, stretched out his left leg behind him, bent the right knee and tried out a few ‘looking good’ lunges with his sword, “But we just aim at each other’s blades/”
“Uh huh? Then what?”
“Then, I come up with a plan for the next bout,” smiled Heyes.
Curry rolled his eyes, but nodded.
Still keeping his voice low, Heyes instructed, “Okay Kid, on – three! One, two, ENGARDE, SIR!”
“Huh?” The Kid defended himself from a flourishing blade, “thought you said ‘on three’!”
“Signor Maggiore’s service!” declared Heyes, reverting to language remininescent of childhood fights with sticks when playing ‘musketeers’. Clink, clank. Swoosh! “Ha hah! By my word, sir, you shall not pass!”
“You always did read too much!”
The partners, both looking delightfully sweaty, conferred.
“Okay,” gasped Curry. “That made it look good! What now?”
“The way I figure it,” panted back Heyes, “you drive me back towards that tree, me parrying desperately, as you press your assault, then, a quick half circle. I send your foil spinning from your hand. My blade pins you against the trunk. You yield.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t even pink you. Honor is satisfied , and…”
“Y’mean, I lose?”
“Best role, Kid. The noble and gallant loser always gets the embrace from the fair maiden.”
“We didn’t BRING a fair maiden! YOU be the gallant loser!”
“Kid,” Heyes gave a smile of sweet reason, “you’re going BACK to a fair maiden, AND, her Papa feeling you’ve kinda let him down, would be a bonus. I’m doing you a favor here!”
Hands on hips, the Kid gave his partner the mother of all ‘looks’.
Heyes danced backward, pursued by a, possibly not acting, glowering Kid Curry.
“Don’ a ‘urt ‘im bad, Signor Jones,” called out a worried Bianchi. “Justa – justa peeeenk!”
A half-circle. Heyes aimed an upward blow at Curry’s blade. Nothing. A second blow. Still nothing. “Kid! Let go!” Heyes hissed. With a definite scowl, Curry tossed his sword into the air. The steel glittered in the sunlight, as it spun in a graceful arc before burying itself in the turf.
With a triumphant “Aha!” Heyes’ tip dug into Kid’s shirtfront pressing his partner against the conveniently placed tree. ” ‘Od’s blood! Coward! Wretch! Insolent boy! You cannot escape me!” exulted Heyes.
“Hey,” hissed Curry, warningly.
“Pardon, sir, I spoke in haste. You are a man of spirit,” amended Heyes, obligingly. “I could kill you, sir, but I give you your life. I would regret to draw the blood of so brave a gentleman. Yield, sir.”
“I yield,” growled the Kid, loud enough to be heard. Under his breath, “Remind me to flatten you sometime for this, Heyes!”
THE VILLA MAGGIORE
After checking out her own particular idiot was completely unscathed, Rosa interrupted his admiring descriptions of how Signor Smeeth had won a great victory for the honour of the Maggiore estate.
“Mister Smith,” she cut in. “A telegraph arrived for you while you were out.”
Heyes stepped aside, to open it. A slight frown appeared between the dark eyes.
“Is not bad-a news, I ‘ope?” asked Maggiore.
“Huh?” said an apparently distracted Heyes. “Oh, no. Not bad news.” A beat. “I’ll need to ride into town for a hour or so tomorrow, if that’s okay, Sir,” said Heyes.
“Isa no problem.” Though clearly curious, Maggiore was also too much of a gentleman to pry into his employee’s business.
“My sister is arriving.”
“Uh huh. I’d like to meet the stage. Make sure she’s settled into the hotel.”
“‘Otel?! Rosa! Mia Cara! Tell Signor Smeeth! We don’ let any seester of ‘is stay in no ‘otel! She stays ‘ere! She is our – our most ‘onoured guest!”
Heyes and Rosa exchanged a glance. Yup! Signora Maggiore had not underestimated her husband’s hospitable nature.
THE VILLA BIANCHI – OVER DINNER
“Is nota your fault, Signor Jones,” reassured Bianchi. “You foughta well! ‘Onor was satisfied!”
“I’m sure you were VERY brave, Mister Jones,” smiled Juliet. She added a definite flutter to the smile, and topped up Kid Curry’s glass.
Curry looked distinctly ungrateful for the flutter, which was in any case thrown away since Juliet’s father did not catch it.
“I hope, Papa,” continued the would-be romantic heroine, “you and Signor Maggiore are satisfied now!” Curry found his hand squeezed by a brunette raising worshipful eyes to his face, as she shifted her chair closer. “Poor Mister Jones, or, may I call you,” flutter. Admirably convincing blush, “Thaddeus?”
“Uh, sure,” said the Kid, uncomfortably aware he was falling short in the fake-flirting requirements.
“How could you drag poor, poor,” pouting lips caressed the name, “Thaddeus,” Juliet pressed on despite the wooden performance of her current leading man, “into your silly bickering? All over that silly, silly quarrel more than a dozen years…”
“Was NOT seelly!” snapped her father. “Maggiore, he, he,”
Curry’s eyes looked keen. He had to confess to feeling curious. What WAS this quarrel about?
“Never mind!” fumed Bianchi. “I not-a talk ’bout it! It make-a me too. But, ” a paternal frown, “you stay ‘way from ‘is place! You stay ‘way from ‘is son! You ‘ear me, Juliet?”
“Oh, Michael,” sniffed Juliet, dismissively. “You don’t have to worry about HIM! THAT’S all over, Papa.”
Bianchi blinked in surprise.
“Michael is far too young and and conventional for me,” went on Juliet. “I want a man with an air of, of mystery, even danger. A stranger, whose past we know nothing about! Who just appears and does something manly and heroic. That’s so romantic.” Juliet accompanied her speech with more fluttering admiration at the Kid. Bianchi followed his daughter’s gaze. Concern began to dawn on the fond father’s face. Ever fluent, Juliet went on. “I think OLDER men are SO much more attractive. A girl likes to feel a man has wide experience. That he knows how to handle women. That she would be, be putty in his practised hands…”
From the lowering of the paternal brow and the wary look shot in his direction, Kid Curry gathered that, unlike Juliet, Bianchi did not appreciate the sound of experienced, practised hands, even with an air of romantic mystery and danger, going anywhere near his daughter.
THE VILLA MAGGIORE – THE NEXT DAY
Signor Maggiore stood to one side of the doors opening into his gardens, watching. In the middle distance his son and heir was showing a slim, well-dressed brunette a fine view of the vineyards. As the brunette turned, to look up and laugh at something Michael had said, she became recognisable as Mrs. Kurt Schmitt, née Alice Banion. That is, she would have been recognisable to anyone who had seen her before. This, of course, did not include Signor Maggiore.
Alice and Michael stood close. From the disapproving frown on Maggiore’s face, in his opinion, too close.
“Guiseppe,” reproved Rosa Maggiore, from her seat at the piano, “Why all the scowling? I thought you liked this tune?”
“What-a does ‘e SEE in ‘er?”
“Michael! Whata does ‘e see in this” the usually kindly tones became a growl, “Meesees Alice Zimmerman?”
“Mister Smith’s widowed sister? It’s perfectly obvious what Michael sees in her. She’s beautiful, amusing, vivacious…”
“She is-a too OLD for ‘im!” protested Maggiore.
“Five or six years older at most,” dismissed Rosa. “You’re eight years older than me, Caro.”
“Is diff’rent!” He forestalled the inevitable questions on this point by pressing on. “She is too much int’rested in-a the business.”
“She’s just being friendly,” soothed his wife.
“Isa not jus’ frien’ly,” fretted on Maggiore. “She keeps droppin’ questions.” He slipped into mimicking an eye-fluttering, flattering smile. “Whata is your usual profeet, Signor Maggiore? Isa the land free’old, Signor Maggiore? Is Michael your on’y son? Will he in’erit the ‘ole…” Maggiore tailed off. He scowled harder at the just out of earshot couple. “I t’ink she is a – a gold-a digger!” he pronounced, darkly. And, with an ironic degree of accuracy, bearing in mind how Heyes and Curry had first met Alice.
“Guiseppe!” came a spousal directive. “She’s a guest! AND, Mister Smith’s sister. You are to be polite. Do you hear me?” Husbandly scowl. “Guiseppe!”
“‘Course I be-a polite!” huffed Maggiore.
“Besides,” appeased Rosa, “Won’t Michael be sensible enough to spot if her motives are mercenary?”
“No!” Maggiore exploded. “She wind-a ‘im roun’ ‘er little finger, because,” he searched for a nice way to put it. He searched some more.
“Because she is a – a…”still searching.
“A what?” Rosa kept a look of innocent enquiry on her admirably straight face.
“A widow,” hedged Maggiore.
“So,” a blushing man, who had been subjected to Alice in full-on ‘enticing’ mode, spat it out, “She knows ‘ow to ‘andle men!”
In the background Heyes joined the billing and cooing pair. The fatherly scowl deepened, as Michael, a sappy smile over his youthful face, strode back to the house with ‘Mister Smith’. In the background, Alice, after blowing a flirtatious kiss, disappeared.
“What a wonderful, intelligent, woman Mrs. Zimmermann is,” sighed Michael.
“Mmph,” managed his father, conscious of his promise to ‘be polite’.
“And, such a full and varied life she’s led!” enthused the young Romeo.
“She was telling me about when she and Mister O’Sullivan lived in Deadwood.”
“Meester O’Sullivan?” queried Maggiore.
“Her late husband,” responded the supposedly smitten one.
“I t’ought ‘er late ‘usband was Meester Zimmermann? A wealt’y, old, San Francisco ship owner?”
“O’Sullivan was her second husband,” filled in Heyes, with a helpful smile. “A wealthy, old, Deadwood gold miner.”
“So, ” Maggiore digested this, “Zimmermann was ‘er – ‘er t’ird?”
“Fourth.” Heyes assumed an expression of fraternal fondness. “Alice always was in demand. A real, sociable girl. Mind you,” he mused, “I reckon she’s thinking of picking someone UNDER sixty for her fifth. She says black just isn’t her colour.”
Maggiore’s expression suggested, while he might think this brotherly speculation, accurate, it gave him no comfort at all.
Alice, who was stroking the velvety nose of a chestnut filly, turned as Heyes entered the Maggiore stables.
“How am I doing?” she asked.
“You’ve convinced Maggiore you’re a man-eating gold-digger,” smiled back Heyes. “AND, he’s too nice to insult another man’s sister to his face, so, he’s kinda stuck with you. Just, keep doing what you’re doing.”
“No problem,” she twinkled. “I mean, this Michael is pretty easy on the eye!”
“Hey,” protested Heyes. He pushed back his hat. “He’s spoken for! And, YOU’RE happily married remember?”
“That means ‘no touching!'” grinned Alice. “It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the view!”
“What did you tell Kurt?”
“The truth. I needed to fly to the aid of the two old, old friends who helped us get our stake. AND, that Kurt’d be able to afford the fancy new stoves he has his eye on.”
“The truth and nothing but the truth, huh?” nodded Heyes. “And,” a dimpled smile, “the whole truth?”
Alice gave him a ‘look’. “The truth and nothing but the truth goes with the ‘happily married’ territory. The WHOLE truth! Why, Joshua!” Piquant smile. “That would leave no room at all for a little healthy feminine mystique!”
MEANWHILE – IN THE CELLARS OF THE VILLA BIANCHI
Kid Curry perched on an empty barrel, moodily cleaning his gun by the rosy glow of a couple of oil lamps.
A rapid step on the stone stairs. The slight, but undoubtedly determined, figure of Juliet Bianchi bounced in front of the blond ex-outlaw. Hands on hips, eyes narrowed in disapproval, she did not look pleased.
“Thaddeus!” she snapped. “What do you think you’re doing, hiding away down here?”
“Hidin’!” grunted Curry, keeping his eyes on his weapon, “from YOU!” A disgruntled blue gaze met an affronted brown stare. “All that stuff you were comin’ out with at breakfast! That wasn’t flirtin’! That was,” he searched. He scowled. “Has anyone ever told you, you’re a shameless baggage and oughta be spanked?!”
“Oh, pooh!” dismissed Juliet. She shrugged a petulant shoulder. “It’s bad enough you LOOKING as stuffy and disapproving as dreary old Uncle ‘Tonio! NOW, you’re starting to SOUND like him!”
Kid Curry blinked. His chagrined expression suggested not only was he not used to pretty young girls consigning him to the ‘dreary old uncle’ category. He didn’t like it one little bit.
A creak from the cellar door. Juliet’s keen young eyes peered upwards. “It’s Papa!” she breathed.
Curry, with a nervous glance at the stairs, shifted his barrel back a foot or so from the nubile loveliness in front of him. He holstered his gun.
“This is WONDERFUL,” exulted Juliet. “He’ll catch us skulking down here, together. He’ll be SO mad! He’ll think we’re, y’know, spooning!”
That pretty much summed up why the Kid had shifted away in the first place.
Juliet flung her arms about her reluctant mock-suitor. “Oh, Thaddeus,” she sighed, loudly, “your burning kisses set my blood on fire!”
“Juliet?” came the voice of an angry father. “Is-a that you down ‘ere?”
“Oh, Thaddeus!” convincing moan of pleasure, “You’re so, so passionate!” Cross hiss, “At least TRY and look keen! Sheesh!” To the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps,
Curry found his hands firmly plonked onto a pair of delightfully curved feminine buttocks.
“Take-a your hands off-a my daughter!” exploded Bianchi.
MEANWHILE – (HEY! DIDN’T I SAY THAT ALREADY?) – OVER AT THE VILLA MAGGIORE
“What a fine instrument,” admired Alice, running an appraising finger over the Maggiore piano, “And, you play SO well, Signora.”
“Alice,” put in Michael, “I mean,” besotted puppy-dog eyes, “Mrs. Zimmermann, was once a professional singer!”
“Between husbands,” nodded Alice.
“Perhaps,” Rosa Maggiore sipped her coffee and smiled encouragingly at her spouse,
“We could persuade her to sing for us, Caro?”
Maggiore, doing his best to stay polite, managed a smile in return. “You would ‘onour us, Meeseees Zimmermann.” After a second’s thought, he added, more warmly, “Me, I like-a fine a Verdi aria.”
“What do you say, Alice?” dimpled Heyes. “Think you can oblige with an aria?”
Alice gulped down the last of her own coffee and headed for the door. “I’ll be right back!” she promised. A piquant little face glanced back over a muslin swathed shoulder. “Luckily I packed my costume!” Dark eyes twinkled seductively at two generations of Maggiore men. “Of course, you’ll have to use your imaginations to picture the swing!” With a rustle of petticoats, Alice whisked out of the room.
Maggiore cast a startled glance at his wife. “Swing?” he mouthed.
MEANWHILE – (I KNEW I’D SAID IT!) – OVER AT THE VILLA BIANCHI
Back in the main part of the house Juliet was striking her very best ‘all for love and the world well lost’ pose.
“Papa!” Dusky curls were thrown back defiantly. “Thaddeus has something he wants to ask you!” A beat. “Haven’t you, Thaddeus, Darling?” Another beat. A dainty boot kicked a not so dainty ex-outlaw ankle.
“Ow! I mean,” an unlover-like glower, “Sure.” Kid Curry met the gaze of an outraged father. “I need to speak to you, Sir, in your study.”
“Speaka to me?” Bianchi’s tone rose, as the implications of this sank in. “SPEAKA to me?”
“Caro!” Signora Bianchi pulled her husband aside. “Signor Jones is askin’ nicely to speaka to you! Isa no need to lose-a your temper!”
“You like-a Mister Jones, no?”
“I like-a ‘im fine as – as a guest! Or as – as a secur’ty ex-a-pert! As a son-in-law, we know not’in’ ’bout-a ‘im!”
“So, speak-a to ‘im! Find-a out! After all, ‘e did save ‘er the other day. And, Paulo,” fond maternal eyes lingered on Juliet, “Look at our-a Juliet! She is so-a ‘appy!”
Bianchi DID look. Juliet, who had clearly missed her vocation as an actress, did look happy.
BACK AT THE MAGGIORE PLACE
“Just a little sunshine,
Just a little rain,” trilled Alice.
Signor Maggiore made a huge effort and tore his popping eyes away from the black stockinged legs beneath the all-too-brief crimson, spangled tunic. He glanced over at the infatuated face of his only son. He went back to staring at the feathers, and, the naked shoulders, and the… He gulped. He caught his wife’s eyes watching him. He gulped again and shifted his gaze resolutely to the singer’s face.
“Hello love! Hello love! Hello love!
Won’t you sta-a-a-a-y?”
The soaring high note came to an end. Michael and Heyes applauded enthusiastically.
As for Signor Maggiore. Well! Let’s just say his applause lacked a certain, something.
AND – THE BIANCHI PLACE – (KEEP UP!)
“‘Ave you a reg’lar profession, Signor Jones?” asked Bianchi. He was trying to be reasonable. After all, until half an hour ago, he had liked Signor Jones just fine. It would not be fair to hold his initial dusty, trail-worn appearance against him. There was nothing wrong with being poor, hardworking and honest! Hadn’t he, with his once best friend Maggiore, arrived, thirty years ago, poor, honest and hard-working? Blinking through the New York mists, at a land of opportunity. Tired (it’s a long trip). Huddled (in their overcoats). Yearning to breathe free.
Kid Curry, who was playing his role much better, with no adolescent brunette constantly upstaging him, stretched out – just a little too casually – in the fine leather chair in his employer’s study. A pair of booted legs crossed at the ankle.
“I can’t say I’ve had what you might call a regular trade for well over a year now,” said Curry, truthfully. “I find steady work kinda hard on the back. Still,” a glance around at the prosperous surroundings, “A fella marryin’ into all this wouldn’t hafta worry about that none, huh? I’d never have to lift a finger again. Except,” Man of the world wink. “To keep the little lady happy.”
Bianchi reddened, but swallowed his retort. Maybe Signor Jones had just phrased that badly?
“‘As you any experience in-a the wine trade?” he tried.
“Only drinkin’ the stuff,” said Kid Curry, pouring himself a generous glass and, Bianchi winced, licking a drip from the lip of the carafe. Signor Jones, while a little rough at the edges, had displayed natural good manners until now. Were they company manners? Was this his usual mode of deportment?
“Was,” a hopeful look, “Was any of your-a fam’ly from Italy, Signor Jones?”
“Irish,” responded the Kid, disposing of his wine in a single, unappreciative, gulp.
Bianchi’s expression suggested that, without denying the many virtues of that fair Celtic land, he did not rate ‘Irish’ in quite the same category as ‘Italian’. But, maybe it did have a bright side?
“So,” the very last remnant of hope from a fond father, “You is Cat’olic, Signor Jones?”
A bemused frown creased Kid Curry’s brow. “Kansan,” he deadpanned.
NEXT DAY (AFTERNOON) – AT THE BARREL TASTING – NEUTRAL GROUND
Hannibal Heyes stood by the two year old barrels to be tasted. A dapper man, wearing a sash labelled ‘Judge’, stood beside him. Both men held glasses containing an inch or so of ruby liquid.
“We call it the five ‘Ss’,” enthused the judge.
“See,” two glasses were held aloft, “we put the wine against a white background.”
Heyes obediently raised a piece of snowy card behind his glass and tilted the liquid. A dimpled smile invited the judge to carry on. Pleased to have found an intelligent student, the judge continued.
“Swirl.” They swirled. “Sniff.” They sniffed. “Sip, and savour.” They sipped. A pair of expressive dark brown eyes suggested Heyes was indeed, savouring.
One taster expectorated. One didn’t.
“You swallowed AGAIN, Mister Smith,” reproved the kindly old gentleman. “Try to remember one spits!”
“I was brought up not to, Sir,” apologised Heyes. “It’s proving a hard habit to break.” A hopeful glass was held out. “Let’s keep trying, huh?”
In the background to the left, a whispered marital row between Rosa and Guiseppe Maggiore grew gradually louder.
“I is notta sayin’ she ‘asn’ gotta charm. In lotta ways, I like ‘er! She is bright-a girl! I jus’ don’ wan’ ‘er mama to my to my gran’children!…”
Inaudible whisper from Rosa Maggiore.
“I is NOTA para…paral…”
“Parochial!” was supplied by sharp, wifely, hiss.
“I isa NOT! I jus’ wants Michael to marry a, a nice-a, innocente girl, more-a ‘is own age!”
Maggiore’s eyes darted sparks at a cosy corner, where Alice was clinging to a besotted Michael like a seductively experienced limpet.
“See, swirl, sniff.” Encouraging smile from the judge. “Sip and savor…”
A solitary spit!
A tanned throat under a loosely tied dark blue bandana swallowed.
“Sorry,” Heyes shook his head, regretfully. The glass was held out. “Still, as my wise old grandfather used to say, ‘if at first you don’t succeed…'”
In the background to the RIGHT, a murmured spousal spat between Beatrice and Paulo became more and more audible.
“She is sayin’ if-a I don’ say ‘Si’, she will …I don’ t’ink ‘e is all ‘e seemed … I is beginnin’ to wonder if…”
Rapid Italian hissing from Beatrice Bianchi.
“I is NOT imaginin’ t’ings!” Worried frown. “I jus’ wants mia bambina to marry a, a nice-a, respectful boy, ‘oo I know will treat-a ‘er…”
More rapid wifely hissing.
“An’ I does NOT ‘ave only myself-a to blame!”
Bianchi’s eyes searched the small crowd, suspiciously. He spotted the lean, graceful, though uncomfortable looking, figure of Kid Curry. The discomfort was doubtless caused by the burning glances and caressing hand of Juliet. Our heroine clearly rejected limpets as mere amateurs in the ‘close-clinging’ stakes. She was all over the Kid like a veritable rash!
“Did you get the, uh, the anise? And the toasty vanilla on the nose?” enquired an eager oenologist, still instructing the receptive Mister Smith.
“Hmmmm?” mused Heyes, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “Not sure.” A glass was held out.
“Try and remember to spit this time,” reminded the judge, topping him up.
Two whispered family rows exploded simultaneously, as two fathers, goaded beyond bearing, pulled away from unsympathetic wives and pushed through to reach their respective offspring.
In unison – two despairing paternal howls rent the air:
“Why can’ you marry a nice-a ITALIAN girl – like-a – like-a Juliet Bianchi?!”
“I wanna you marry a nice-a ITALIAN boy – like-a – like-a Michael Maggiore!”
Two matchmaking mamas stepped forward.
“IF,” started Rosa Maggiore, “Michael does as you want, and asks Juliet to marry him, will you give the betrothal your blessing? AND, stop with the silly bickering?”
“IF,” continued Beatrice Bianchi, “Juliet obey-a you, like-a the dut’ful daughter an’ ACCEPT-A Michael, you promise to be ‘appy? AN’, quit-a with the stupidita vendetta?”
“Is-a not silly,” muttered Maggiore. Barely audible.
“Don’ call-a it – stupidita,” mumbled Bianchi. Under his breath, so his wife could choose not to hear.
The eyes of the feuding fathers met. A mute conversation.
We’ve beena tricked.
Maybe we wasa wrong
I’ll backa down – if you will…
A scheming student of wine stepped forward. “On three?” he suggested.
More mute conversation. Affirmative cock of an eyebrow from Maggiore. Confirmatory twitch of a moustache from Bianchi.
Heyes smiled. “Uno, duo, tre,” he conducted.
Whiskery cheek kissing. Latin male hugging.
The Kid, a mix of relief and chagrin on his face, mainly relief, found himself tossed aside like an old boot.
“Michael!” squeaked Juliet, launching herself at her true love without a backward glance.
Alice forestalled ‘Romeo’s’ more civilly delivered ‘thank you and good-bye,’ and melted into the background before she was flattened by an airborne romantic heroine.
THE SAME DAY – STILL AT THE BARREL TASTING – EVENING
Two proud Papas arms still around each other, were in full flow to the happy couple.
“This-a wine,” said Bianchi, “will be-a perfect in ’bout a year. We lay-a down a case to wet the ‘ead of the first gran’son! Our little Paulo Guiseppe! Va bene?”
“Va bene,” nodded Maggiore. “An’ this-a wine,” a proud hand gestured, “it need-a ’bout two years. So this-a one, we lay down to christen little Rosa Beatrice…”
“Is good!” approved Bianchi. “THIS wine,” Juliet and Michael were moved along, “this is-a real good! We lay down for t’ree or four years! For little Tonio.”
The star-crossed lovers exchanged a glance.
“Are you getting all this?” dead-panned Juliet, under her breath, “Because, I hold you responsible for hitting ‘perfect cork date’ each time!”
MEANWHILE (AGAIN WITH THE MEANWHILE!) – IN A QUIET CORNER SCREENED BY BARRELS
Boots propped up on a couple of handy barrels, glasses in hand, two ex-outlaws enjoyed a moment of quiet reflection.
“It was nice to see Alice again,” mused Curry. “She seemed pretty happy with her fee, when we saw her off on the stage, Heyes.”
“I’m pretty happy with ours.” Heyes smiled and tapped his vest pocket fondly.
“Signora Bianchi and Juliet reckon we oughta ride out first thing tomorrow,” went on the Kid, “before the proud Papas stop planning grandchildren and start thinking ’bout how we musta been in on this together.”
“Suits me,” smiled his partner.
A contented, wine quaffing, beat.
“This particular zinfandel,” confided Heyes, “Seems remarkably even-keeled.” He savored, as he had been taught. “I’m getting black fruit. I’m getting briar shades of earth. I’m getting toasty notes…”
“You’re getting ‘soaked’,” his partner muttered, under his breath.
Glasses were refilled.
“Now, I’m getting black pepper…”
“Heyes,” interrupted the Kid.
A smug smile. “You’ll NEVER guess what I was guardin’ last month.” A beat. Nothing.
“Heyes? Heyes? HEYES?!”