Poker Players – and other characters:
Seth Jenkins – Hotel owner – Poker Player 1
Hannah Jenkins – his wife
George Bowen – a hotel guest – Poker Player 2
Doctor Bergman – Poker Player 3
Sheriff Bill Fraser – Poker Player 4
Walter Lewis – an undertaker – Poker Player 5
George Boscastle – a schoolteacher – Poker Player 6
Manuel – a livery hand – Poker Player 7
Theresa – his wife
Hannibal Heyes – Poker Player 8
Kid Curry – his poorly partner.
A HOTEL ROOM – COSIER AND CLEANER THAN THE BOYS ARE USED TO
THUNDER AND LIGHTENING – RAIN LASHES AGAINST THE WINDOW
YUP! “IT’S A DARK ”N’ STORMY NIGHT” OR AT ANY RATE – A DARK AND STORMY EVENING
“Kid – you’ve spent all day grumbling about the wet and the cold. Now, there’s a warm dry bed in front of you – and you get all proddy when I suggest you turn in.”
“Quit fussin’. It’s like havin’ an old woman cluckin’ round.”
Kid Curry was interrupted by a knock at the door. The ex-outlaws threw it a cautious glance. Heyes unfastened his holster before turning the key and opening the door just a crack to check out their visitor.
Mrs. Jenkins bustled past him. A red flannel bundle was clutched under her left arm. Setting down a brimming, steaming glass, she glanced sympathetically at Kid. He rose to his feet at her entrance, but he moved as if every joint ached and kept one hand on the bedpost.
“I’ve come to cluck round, an’ do some fussin’.” She gave Kid a motherly smile. “An’ since I AM an old woman an’ have brought up boys of my own, I won’t be takin’ the back chat you give your partner. That clear?”
“Yes ma’am,” said the Kid, then “I mean – it’s very kind, but no need to trouble. There isn’t nothin’ wrong with me – just him,” he nodded toward Heyes “…Always frettin’ over nothin’.”
“I’m not fretting,” shot back Heyes, “…Just don’t see why I have to listen to you snuffling all evening. I’d rather leave you up here.” Scanning his partner’s flushed face, he turned to Mrs. Jenkins. In a low voice he said. “The thing is, ma-am – he was laid up real bad last winter with pneumonia. Started with a cough and a fever, then he keeled over. He was out cold for near four days.”
She nodded, and placing a hand on the Kid’s shoulder, pressed him gently back down to sit on his bed. Her hand moved firstly to his forehead for a long moment, then she reached down and rested her fingers on his wrist to gauge his pulse.
Mrs. Jenkins smiled reassuringly at Heyes. “I don’t think there’s anythin’ a good nights’ sleep or two won’t cure. Mind, Doc Bergman’ll be in later if you’re real worried.”
Curry began to protest again, but she interrupted him, firmly. “There’s a hot brick wrapped in flannel for your bed. That there…” indicating the glass, “Is a coupla tots of our best whiskey, in hot water, with honey and the juice of one of the last lemons in my stockroom. So don’t waste it!”
“Now get into bed – if I have to come back up here and make you – I’ll want to know the reason why. Is that clear?”
Kid Curry looked from her kindly face, to the crisp white pillow next to him. Since he’d wanted nothing more than to sink into it for the last half hour, he decided to abandon contrariness. “Yes ma’am. Real clear.”
As they left the room, Mrs. Jenkins was chatting on to Heyes. “Sorry he had to walk up the two flights of stairs, Mister Smith, but you did ask for a room with a view of the main street…”
“Just an old superstition, ma’am. And the extra climb’ll do me good, huh?”
“You see…Room #3, the one with the best view of the street on the first floor was already taken…”
Heyes walked down to the bar of the hotel. He’d left his partner asleep and hoped for a little distraction; conversation, cards, or both. Seth Jenkins was behind the bar. A solitary guest looked up sharply at Heyes’ entrance, but then returned to the book he was reading.
“Whiskey or beer?” enquired Seth.
“I’ll start with a beer,” smiled Heyes. “Kinda quiet, huh?”
“Don’t think anyone’ll come in from the ranches in this,” replied the hotel owner, nodding at the window against which rain still hammered furiously. “‘Course the townsfolk…” Seth broke off, as his wife’s voice called from the back. Setting down Heyes’ beer, with a “‘Scuse me”, he hurried out.
Heyes sighed, then brightened, as his silent companion, closed his book with a snap and a satisfied, “Mmmph!!”
“Good read?” asked Heyes.
The man, a short, slight, nondescript fellow, maybe mid- thirties, thinning on top, looked round. Affably, he responded, “Certainly was. Perhaps not the best thing to read on a night like this – not if I want to sleep later.” He turned the volume and pushed it toward Heyes to show the title.
“Tales of the Imagination and…” read Heyes. Then with recognition, “Poe!!”
“You like him, huh?”
“What I’ve read – sure.”
“Borrow it if you like. Long as you drop it back before I ride out tomorrow. Room #3.” A nod at the appalling weather outside, “…IF I can ride out tomorrow that is!”
Heyes slipped the book into his jacket pocket. “Thanks…” ” His expression asked the unspoken question.
“Bowen, George Bowen.”
Bowen sipped his whiskey, then, in a tone suggesting polite small-talk, “Just passing through?”
“Yup. Would have passed through without stopping if not for the storm.”
“Same here.” Bowen turned his head and watched the storm lash against the dark windows – then looked round the snug, welcoming room. “Still. Can’t complain. The Jenkins are running a nice place here.”
A female figure emerged from the kitchen. Not Mrs. Jenkins. This girl was, Heyes observed, a good thirty years younger, evidently Mexican and – the ex-outlaw straightened up in his seat and pushed back a straying lock of dark hair – utterly gorgeous.
“I think the place just got even better,” muttered Heyes, half under his breath.
Bowen nodded. The beginning of a middle-aged paunch was sucked in.
“Otra ronda de cerveza – beer — senors? Or…wheesky? Senor?” Theresa asked Heyes, blushing adorably at speaking to a stranger.
“Served with a smile that pretty, it won’t be beer – it’ll be nectar. The very ambrosia of the gods, Senorita,” silver- tongued Heyes, in his best deep velvety voice and full on dimpled charm.
Confusion in the lushly fringed dark eyes. Clearly, Heyes had wasted a line there.
“Leetle inglese…” A girlish giggle. “But ees…Senora…” A hand displaying a wedding band was held out.
Two sets of male shoulders drooped slightly. Bowen gave up on the paunch sucking.
“Ah!” Heyes gave a mock rueful smile. “In that case, the beer will be a solace to my lonely and aching heart.”
Another furrow of puzzlement on the youthful brow.
“I will take a beer, please, Senora,” said Heyes. “…AND, I will use it to toast your husband – who must be one of the luckiest men in the world.”
An earnest nod, although Heyes suspected only the ‘beer please, Senora’ had survived translation.
“Y…” Theresa turned to George Bowen, “Senor?”
The other hotel guest replied in fluent Spanish. Delighted smiles from Theresa. Fluent Spanish in return. Heyes watched the short, balding man, get a far better response from the pretty girl than HE had managed. Since she was neither blushing, nor drawing back – Bowen was not saying anything flirtatious. All the same… Heyes decided he should take a leaf out of Harry Briscoe’s book and start learning a second language.
After another burst of Latin loquaciousness on both sides, Theresa served their drinks and disappeared.
“Sounds like you speak Spanish pretty well,” remarked Heyes.
“No real credit to me,” demurred Bowen. “My Ma passed on before I was three…” Sympathetic murmur from Heyes. “I was raised by a Spanish- speaking housekeeper. Grew up bi-lingual…”
Seth came back into the bar. “The boss says – if you want supper there’s steak and hashed potatoes, or she can do you ham ‘n’ eggs.” He paused. “Or any combination,” he finished with a smile.
“Steak would be fine,” said Bowen.
“Same here. Thanks,” chimed in Heyes.
Seth’s head craned round the open door to shout through the order. Then, he made himself comfortable leaning on the bar. “I was sayin’ – the townsfolk’ll probably still make it through the rain. It’s Wednesday – always quiet – a group of us have a regular Wednesday poker game. You’re welcome to join …” Heyes’ cheeks dimpled in acceptance. A smiling nod from Bowen. “Only friendly,” warned Seth. “We keep the stakes real low on purpose to KEEP it friendly.” A grin. “Well, to keep it friendly AND ‘cos we none of us have enough cash to make it UNfriendly even if we wanted to!”
Heyes’ dimples did not waver at hearing the pot was unlikely to be of interest. It sounded like he was getting cards and a little conversation for the evening. Asking for more would be – kind of greedy, huh?
The sound of the storm suddenly whirled around the three men, as the door opened and was heaved shut again, the newcomer straining to push back the heavy wood against the force of the wind. A short figure shook itself – putting Heyes somewhat in mind of a terrier dog emerging from a river.
“Our first regular cardsharp!” grinned Seth. “Come on in, Doc! There’s a patient for you upstairs, though – before you get any of Hannah’s steak an’ hash…”
“What do you think, Doc?” asked Mrs. Jenkins, hovering outside the partners’ room.
“What do you think, Doc?” chimed Heyes, in unison. He was hovering right next to her – and competing hard in the ‘who does the best impersonation of a mother hen’ stakes.
Doctor Bergman looked from the anxious brown eyes, to the motherly grey ones.
“I think – Mister Smith won’t get much sleep listening to all that snoring,” he smiled. “Seriously – I’ve listened to his chest, gauged his temperature, felt his pulse…but, it’s my considered opinion that medical expertise is rarely more use than sleep – so – I’m not going to wake him up to examine him properly. I’ll pop back in the morning. I doubt it’s much more than a feverish cold. Though, Mister Smith’s right – the bad spell last year will make him susceptible to it settling on his lungs. I prescribe – twelve solid hours in bed, a cosy seat by the fire when he wakes up, plenty of hot drinks, taking it very easy for a while, staying out of this rain and…one of your wonderful breakfasts, Hannah. No. No. Make that TWO of your wonderful breakfasts – always feed a cold!”
Heyes relaxed. Much of his anxiety had been assuaged once his partner had fallen – noisily – asleep in a clean, warm bed. Most of the rest was soothed by the doctor’s common sense prescription.
The doctor turned to Hannah Jenkins. “Any news from ‘Frisco?”
“Yes!” A smile wreathed the kindly face. “I’m a grandmother! Of a little girl – eight pounds five ounces – mother and baby doing well.” She glanced at Heyes. “My daughter,” she explained. “She and her husband moved away – for him to find work. Seth and I would love to visit…but…” A resigned shrug. “Not for a few years yet,” she finished, her eyes looking suspiciously bright.
“Money may not buy happiness,” sighed the Doctor. “But…it sure does help with train tickets.”
LATER THE SAME EVENING
“So, Mister Smith…” grunted a lean-faced man, graying at the temples, “Just you against me…” An eyebrow rose. “In my trade, you get to learn when a man’s got somethin’ to hide. I think – you’re bluffin’!”
Heyes’ gaze wandered, involuntarily, to the star-shaped badge on the man’s chest. The smile on the dimpled face became – glassy. The brown eyes strayed to the – not-very-exciting – ‘friendly’ pot. Then, to the aces over queens full house in his hand.
“I fold,” decided Heyes.
Satisfaction creased the cheeks of Sheriff Bill Fraser, as he pulled the scanty winnings toward himself.
“Mister Smith,” reproved Walter Lewis, “…Fancy fallin’ for Bill’s ‘you’re bluffin’ eyebrow’ trick! Even I know better ‘n that! And in MY trade, the folk I meet never have nothin’ to hide!”
Heyes looked at the funereal black, declaring Walter to be the ‘undertaker’. “Guess not,” he said, affably enough. “Still,” the hint of a grin, “…We can’t all be good at poker, huh?”
“Walter here runs the mercantile as well as…the other trade,” George Boscastle, the town’s schoolteacher, put in. “I guess there’s not enough business in – the gloomy trade – in this town, huh?”
Walter twinkled, with a dry sense of humour, at Doctor Bergman. “I blame the Doc, here. Some folks have no consideration at all. Friday will be the first funeral in near on two months.”
“Oh, Mrs. Stottlemeyer,” nodded Seth Jenkins. All the locals bowed their heads for a second.
“Descanse en paz,” said young Manuel, the lad who had stabled the partners’ horses in the livery earlier that day. And, incidentally, the lovely Theresa’s husband. Turning to Heyes and the other visitor, George Bowen, he added, “She was real nice lady.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Heyes. “That she’s passed on I mean. Not that she was a nice lady.”
“Eighty-nine,” put in Doctor Bergman, with just a shade of defensiveness. “And, it was real quick at the end. She was still tending her own vegetable garden last week. I don’t mean it’s not SAD – but…” He searched.
“To everything there is a season?” suggested George Bowen. This went down well with the townsfolk. Approving nods. “My deal, I think?” Bowen’s hands, Heyes noted, shuffled the deck with practiced ease. He suspected this visitor, too, was used to richer games.
“So, Mister Smith,” grunted the Sheriff, “…Where were you headed before the storm caught you?”
The usual wariness at being asked ANYTHING by a lawman flickered across Heyes’ face. However, the question seemed prompted by nothing other than a wish to make civil conversation.
“Er, Red Rock,” supplied Heyes, fanning his freshly dealt cards. Seeing one ace after another appear before his eyes had – notwithstanding the paucity of the pot – jolted him into an unvarnished truthful answer.
“And … what takes you there, Mister Smith?” This time the question came from Mrs. Jenkins. She and Theresa had finished their kitchen chores and come to watch the game and relax with a glass or two of wine.
A slight drawing back from Heyes. But… Hannah Jenkins was so clearly only showing a motherly interest… AND… Not a flicker on the poker face, but a certain brightening of the dark eyes as a fourth ace was fanned. “We had word from a rancher down there, he might have a job for Jones and me…” Heyes blinked at his own honesty. Maybe going straight was getting to be – natural.
Hannah Jenkins was no fool. She could see this young man – who had won her thorough approval by his evident concern for his sick friend – would rather not be asked any more questions. She turned to her second guest, George Bowen.
“What about you, Mister Bowen… what line of business are you in?” she enquired, chattily.
George Bowen, after muttering ‘dealer takes two’, settled happily into the role of chief speaker… and stayed there.
“I’m in insurance, ma’am. Mainly commercial – specializing in bank policies… You may have heard of my company… Whittaker, Whittaker an’…” On he went.
“Sounds real interesting, George,” lied Heyes. Just to prove to himself he hadn’t gone TOO straight. “…I’ll see you – and raise you fifty cents, Doc.”
“It IS real interesting,” smiled Bowen. And, on he went – again. “…Consolidated funds… variable risk ratings… choice of most appropriate actuarial tables…”
Taking advantage of Mister Bowen pausing to take a pull from his beer glass, Mrs. Jenkins tried for a change of subject. “How’s Mary, Sheriff?” An explanatory glance at the two strangers. “Mary is Sheriff Fraser’s daughter. She suffers – with her lungs.”
“She’s – she’s doin’ well enough, ma’am. This…” the Sheriff indicated the rain, still beating against the windows, “Doesn’t help. She needs…” The Sheriff and the Doctor exchanged a rather despondent glance.
“Not much good me prescribing a dry climate and sea air when I can’t deliver it, is there?” The Doctor’s shoulders drooped.
The Sheriff squared his jaw. “Not your fault, Doc. You never know – we may get a real dry summer, huh?”
“Let’s hope so,” chimed in Hannah Jenkins. A short silence.
The Sheriff cleared his throat. “You were tellin’ us ’bout your next job, Mister Bowen.”
George Bowen did not need inviting twice. Though, perhaps, the man realized the Sheriff was trying to return the atmosphere to cheerful.
” Well – I’ve been working in Sacramento. But… they’ve asked me to move… I’ve no family you see…Guess you could say I’m married to the job… They’re sending me to Saltillo…opening up a new branch there. I was heading to Laredo when the storm hit… to travel on to Saltillo from there…” On he went. And on. “Important job… I missed telegraphing back to the Phoenix office and onto Laredo today… the storm… need to keep in touch… Not too serious… Do it tomorrow…”
A round of bets. And another. Eventually, Heyes’ moment came. “Four aces,” he smugged, pulling the pot towards him.
“Sheesh – not often you see that!”
“You were dealt ’em, too! Never took a card!”
“You ever see that before, Doc?”
“And he never so much as flickered! If I’da gotten me four aces – I’da been grinnin’ like a dang Cheshire cat!”
“We know YOU would, Seth!”
“What d’ya reckon the odds are, huh?”
“I think,” said Heyes, affably, “…that makes it my round?” A smiling Theresa took the coins he offered and headed for the bar.
“Bet you wish a few of those dimes and quarters were twenties and fifties, huh, Mister Smith?” grinned Walter Lewis.
Heyes shrugged. There was a lot of truth in there. Still… “I guess it’d be nice to scoop a thousand dollar pot,” he acknowledged. “But…” he exchanged a knowing glance with the other visitor, “I reckon games with those kinda pots don’t come with such pleasant company. Certainly not with folk so cheerful to see someone else lay down four aces.”
“True enough,” nodded George Bowen.
“A thousand dollars…” repeated Walter Lewis, with relish. “What would we all DO if we won that? If I had a quarter of that – well…” A rueful grin. “I’ve three sons with young wives and growing families – all still in debt from that dreadful winter back in ’81. The money wouldn’t go to waste! That’s all I know!”
From the indulgent smiles, Heyes gathered this was not the first time the regulars at the Wednesday poker game had indulged in a little ‘what if’. He saw the Sheriff look pensive and exchange a tight little smile with the Doctor. Heyes guessed he could tell what those two gentlemen would do with a windfall. Mrs. Jenkins looked wistful and blinked hard a few times. Seth reached over and squeezed his wife’s hand. Heyes reckoned he knew what their first use for extra money would be, too.
“After I’d got a new roof on that dang school-house,” suggested George Boscastle, “…What I’d really like to do is pay the fees for young Zach Parton to go to medical school.”
“Good one,” agreed Doctor Bergman.
“Brightest pupil I’m likely to get in a life- time!” Boscastle informed Heyes. “And his folks are dirt poor, so he going to end up missing his chance!”
“What would you do with a thousand dollars, Manuel?” Heyes asked, quietly.
“Is easy…” grinned Manuel. “Theresa and me – we want real bad our own place. A leetle taberna…” The proud, nineteen year old husband translated for his young bride. Theresa, handing out the drinks bought by Heyes, gave an ‘if only’ shrug. “Is not that we do not like working for the Jenkinses…” Manuel hastened to explain. “But…”
“Manuel and Theresa both send a chunk of their earnings back to their folks,” said Seth, his eyes resting with warm approval on the couple. “It’ll be a long time before they can afford…”
Theresa’s musical voice interrupted.
“She says…” translated Manuel, his hand resting protectively on his wife’s belly for a moment, “Our baby will be a grown man before we get our own place.”
THE NEXT MORNING – DOWNSTAIRS IN THE BAR OF THE HOTEL
“Now Mister Jones…” Hannah Jenkins placed a generously laden plate in front of Kid Curry, “You are to eat ALL that breakfast. That’s Doctor’s orders!”
“Yes, ma’am,” rasped the docile – and hungry – Kid.
“You’re to stay nice and warm by the stove,” clucked Mrs. Jenkins.
Curry glanced at the window. Still grey, miserable and pouring with rain.
“Not a problem, ma’am,” he accepted. He graciously allowed her to place a nice soft cushion behind his back. A footstool was provided. And a rug to tuck around his legs. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Heyes, his attention divided between the less generous portion of ham and eggs on his own plate and the book propped open beside them, glanced over at this picture of his snug – or should that be smug? – partner thoroughly enjoying the fussing. A screen was moved to protect the Kid from the draft. The Kid’s coffee was poured. Heyes pushed forward his cup, hopefully. The pot was put down in front of him. Mrs. Jenkins was too busy buttering toast for the invalid to pour for the erstwhile leader of the Devil’s Hole gang.
Seth Jenkins, accompanied by Doctor Bergman, entered from outside. “Morning,” Seth greeted the two hotel guests, shaking the water from his hat before hanging it up.
Doctor Bergman walked over to Kid Curry. “How are you feeling today, Mister Jones?.”
“This is the Doc,” explained Heyes. “He took a look at you last night, while you were malingering in bed and snoring fit to shatter glass. Not a pretty sight. I had to buy him a tot or two of the best whiskey to make us even.”
Kid Curry gave his partner the ‘look’, before croaking, “I’m feeling a hundred times better, Doc.” A cough racked him.
“Uh huh,” grunted the Doctor. A hand was laid on the Kid’s brow. “Allow me…” An ear was placed against his chest. “Uh huh. Feeling a hundred times better – but that’s still pretty dang rough, huh?” An appraising look at the large dent Curry had made in his breakfast. “Does your food taste okay?”
“Better ‘n okay,” came the hoarse voice, accompanied by an appreciative glance at Mrs. Jenkins.
Seth Jenkins cleared his throat. “I guess you boys’ll be ridin’ out today?”
Heyes was just a tad surprised. The tone was civil enough – but Seth did not seem quite the friendly host he had been last night. Was he eager to be rid of them?
“Seth,” Hannah Jenkins gave her husband a meaning look. “I don’t think Mister Jones is well enough to ride.”
“They won’t want to be late getting on to Red Rock,” said Seth – was it, nervously? “Not if they’ve a job waitin’. And – you just heard Mister Jones say – he feels better. You could ride – couldn’t you, son?”
Curry glanced at the pouring rain. He shivered. Clearly, being able to ride was not quite the same as wanting to.
“He shouldn’t ride all day in this, should he, Doctor?” persisted Mrs. Jenkins. Another look was directed at Seth. He blushed and hung his head.
Heyes was in no immediate hurry to leave for Red Rock. The offer of an unspecified job from Big Mac was always a mixed blessing anyhow. The dark-haired ex-outlaw glanced at the doctor. He was hesitating. Heyes’ brows drew together. He had the definite impression Doctor Bergman really wanted to say Kid Curry was absolutely fine. The Doctor exchanged a glance with Seth Jenkins. Did both men want the partners to leave? Why? A glance at Hannah. She too was not quite the same. She KNEW the men wanted the partners to leave – but WHY? She sympathized even, but was not willing to turn the Kid out in the rain.
“There’s nothing too seriously wrong with Jones, here,” began the Doctor. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “BUT…” he added, half reluctant, half relieved he was living up to his medical oath, “If he had pneumonia last winter – the last thing he needs is to bring it on again. Better be sensible and rest up a day than risk being laid up for weeks.” He held Seth Jenkins’ eyes.
The nod from Seth was also half-reluctant, half-relieved.
Heyes shook his head. Nah! He was just imagining all that. Maybe these two fellas were just not – morning people?
“I guess I’ll go get on with my rounds,” said the Doctor.
“And, I guess I’ll go give Manuel a hand in the stables,” put in Seth.
Mrs. Jenkins buttered another slice of toast for the Kid and gave a final plump to his cushion. “If you want anything else – just call,” the pampered invalid was told. “You’re to take it really, really easy.”
“I’ll try, ma’am,” came a brave little croak.
Heyes rolled his eyes and went back to his book, became engrossed.
Curry applied himself again to his breakfast. After all – it WAS Doctor’s orders. His gaze went from his partner, to the book, back to Heyes.
“You got a poker game last night, then?” Nothing. “Joshua!” Nothing. “JOSHUA!”
“Huh?” The dark eyes came up.
“You got a poker game last night?”
“Uh huh.” The brown gaze returned to the page.
“Win much?” Nothing. “Joshua!” Nothing. “JOSHUA!”
“What?” This time the dark eyes looked annoyed as they were dragged from the printed word.
“Did you win much?”
“‘Bout three dollars.” Eyes down. “I probably coulda made it three fifty if I’d stayed, but I took myself off for an early night. I wanted to read.” A meaning look. “In peace. Well, peace except for the wheezing grumpus snorting in the next bed.”
Kid Curry wrapped himself around another mouthful of ham. He gazed at the rain. He gazed at his frustratingly absorbed partner. He sighed. The sigh brought on another racking cough. Heyes frowned at the disturbance but did not look up. The Kid’s eyes wandered, alighted on a newspaper on a shelf.
“Will you pass me that paper, Joshua?” Nothing. “Joshua!”
“Sheesh! What now?”
Suffering whisper, “Will you pass me that newspaper?”
Heyes looked from the shelf to the snuggly settled Kid, cutting into his third over-easy egg. “Why? Have your legs atrophied or something?”
“Oh for Pete’s sake!” Heyes strode over, fetched the paper, dumped it in front of his partner. “There you go, Camille!” He went back to his book.
A short silence. Well – apart from the snuffling and sounds of ham and eggs being masticated by a brave little soldier who actually needed his mouth for breathing purposes.
“Sheesh!” exclaimed the Kid. “The mercantile bank at Dallas was robbed…” He checked the date on the paper. “Saturday. Clean as a whistle – didn’t use so much as a firecracker.”
“Uh huh.” No eye movement from Heyes.
“Got away with over $60,000.”
“Mmm.” Complete lack of attention. A tapered finger turned a final page.
Kid Curry rolled his eyes. Another (near) silence.
Heyes clapped the book shut with a satisfied, “Humph!” A smile dimpled his cheeks. A pause. The smile became a tad – fixed. The brow furrowed. “The bank at Dallas was robbed?” he checked.
“Mmm?” his partner feigned complete absorption in his paper.
“That had a Pierce and Hamilton ’78. Did you say no dynamite?”
Silence. Almost. Newsprint rustled. A final lick of egg yolk was mopped up with a hunk of bread.
“Was the Pierce and Hamilton ’78 cracked?”
“Huh?” Casual shrug. “Oh the safe? Yup, they cracked it.” Deadpan. “Why? Is it supposed to be difficult?”
“Kid!” hissed Heyes. “This could be serious…”
“Didn’t seem so serious a minute ago when YOU were busy reading,” snuffled Kid Curry into a damp handkerchief.
“Do they think it was …me?”
His partner ran a finger down the page, scanning. “Nope. Not so much as a mention of you – or the Devil’s Hole Gang. I reckon everybody’s forgotten all about you, Heyes,” he soothed. Innocent blue eyes looked up, “Good news, huh?”
Relief and chagrin warred on Heyes’ face. The Kid’s grin faded as he read on. “They opened the safe by persuading one of the managers to hand over the combination…and persuading the other to do the same with the keys to the vault. Neither man had access to both. They also made sure no guard was on the duty roster that night.”
“Saves time if everyone co-operates,” admitted Heyes. “Persuading?” he queried.
“Both managers were family men. This gang had two young children as hostages…Oh!” Curry’s face registered an extra level of disgust. “Both hostages were found dead afterwards. The reporter guesses they must have seen their captors. They were dead all the time their fathers were – co-operating.”
Heyes grimaced, “At least no one will think THAT was us.”
Kid Curry nodded. “I mighta complained of the wait once or twice – but, I reckon I prefer to see safes cracked the slow way.” With a final shake of his head, he turned the page.
Heyes glanced at the rain. “It’s easing up a fraction,” he said. “I guess I should return this book. Bowen’ll probably want to ride out soon. After all…” A glance at the reputed ‘fastest gun in the West’, currently tucking his rug, more cosily around his legs. “He’s travelling alone. Not dragging along 165 pounds of wheezing lumber…”
“Hey!” Cough. Splutter.
Curry watched his partner stride away and run swiftly up the stairs.
Heyes tapped, lightly, on the door of Room #3. He had been mildly surprised that George Bowen had not yet come downstairs for breakfast. But, not all travellers shared the view of the old adage (and Kid Curry) on the paramount importance of that meal.
Nothing. He tapped again. Still nothing. “George,” he called. (He and Bowen had reached first name terms, during ‘book chat’ over last night’s supper.) “It’s Joshua – Joshua Smith.”
Heyes tried the door — unlocked. His head peered round tentatively. Much less tentatively, he stepped inside. Empty. Not just empty… Heyes blinked at the stripped bed, clean and dry jug and bowl on the washstand and complete absence of any signs of recent habitation. He checked the number on the door: #3.
The beginnings of a puzzled frown on his brow, Heyes made his way back downstairs.
He found his partner being greeted by a newly arrived Sheriff Bill Fraser.
“Good mornin’,” responded Kid Curry, his gaze resting for a moment on the star-shaped badge.
“Morning,” chimed in Heyes.
“This must be Mister Jones?”
“Uh huh,” confirmed the Kid, cagily.
The Sheriff looked at the partners. “I’m real glad I caught you fellas…” Almost imperceptible stiffening of two sets of ex-outlaw shoulders. “Last night’s storm damaged the bridge over the river. And, it’s too swollen to ford. I came to warn you not to ride south. Smith here…” a nod at Heyes, “Says you’re heading for Red Rock. You’ll need to ride east for ten miles or so – take the stone bridge near the old Fort…”
Manuel came through from the direction of the kitchen.
“…I’m tellin’ Smith and Jones here…” the Sheriff greeted him, “Anyone headin’ due south will soon find themselves turnin’ round and doublin’ back… Leastways till we get the bridge fixed.”
“Appreciate the warning there, Sheriff,” smiled Heyes.
“Doctor Bergman – ‘e say Mister Jones is not to ride today any’ow,” said Manuel, glumly, before disappearing in the direction of the stables.
“You’ll be well enough to head out tomorrow though, Jones?” checked the Sheriff.
“I reckon so,” said Curry.
Heyes watched the Sheriff as he left. Unless he was much mistaken – the broad shoulders drooped slightly at this news that the strangers were not leaving town at once. Why?
“Kid – do you think that Sheriff wants us outta his town?”
His partner gave a ‘maybe’ shrug. “Wouldn’t be the first time, huh?”
“Guess not – but…” Heyes frowned, “He seemed so friendly last night.” A quizzical look from his partner. “For a sheriff,” he grinned, ruefully.
Another frown. After being made so welcome – why did Heyes suddenly feel so unwanted? The Sheriff, Seth, the Doc, even motherly Mrs. Jenkins and young Manuel. A shake of the dark head. Maybe having so many people after him for so long had made him – what was that new word he had learnt the other day? Oh, yeah. Paranoid.
“You didn’t give the book back.” Curry nodded at the volume still clasped in the tapering fingers.
“Huh? Oh!” said Heyes, “He wasn’t there.”
“Must have ridden out early,” said the Kid. Heyes’ eyes went to the window. His partner’s followed. The rain had eased to ‘miserably steady’, but both remembered the torrents of earlier. “Maybe,” temporized Kid.
“I oughta go check on our horses anyhow,” said Heyes.
“Mister Jenkins,” said Heyes, walking into the livery, “…which room is George in? I thought #3 – but it’s empty.” A silence. “I have a book to give back to him.” The volume was held up.
Both Seth’s and Manuel’s hands ceased their steady sweeping of brushes over horses’ flanks. Both men looked at Heyes, seemingly struck dumb by his question. Then, two glances shifted to a spot over his shoulder. Heyes glanced back. The Sheriff was standing in the doorway.
Heyes broke it. “Did I get the room wrong? Or — did he ride out already? Kinda an early start, huh, but I guess maybe he wanted to get on?”
Seth Jenkins opened his mouth to answer. Manuel, his intelligent young face looking as if some rapid calculation was going on, interrupted. “The Sheriff’s come to tell you – the breedge is down, Senor Jenkins. Anyone riding south will ‘ave to double back.”
Seth’s brow furrowed. Thought was obviously in progress. Seth’s mouth shut. Whatever he was about to say before Manuel’s interjection, he had clearly changed his mind.
“You’re looking for…George?” Seth clarified, tentatively, as if the object sought were as unlikely to be found as ‘Atlantis’, ‘Camelot’, ‘Xanadu’.
“Uh huh. Just to give this back.” Once again the book was held aloft.
The Sheriff cleared his throat. “You could tell – George – Mister Smith still has his book, huh, Seth?”
“Won’t be a problem, telling George, huh?”
Heyes resisted the temptation to blink hard. This dialogue appeared to be pulling off the rare trick of being dull, repetitive and yet…still capable of setting his curiosity racing. What was NOT being said?
“Where do you think he is, Kid?”
“Are you not listening to me?”
“Nope,” a newspaper was hoisted a touch higher, “…I’m readin’ and ignorin’ you. Annoyin’ habit, isn’t it?”
“I checked out the other rooms… He’s nowhere. Apart from the Jenkinses’ room – none of the others had even been slept in …”
A newspaper was lowered. “You snuck in the Jenkins’ room? Heyes! I thought we had some kinda agreement on breakin’ an’ entering! Like – We don’t! Not any more!”
“I thought we had some kinda agreement on thinking too, Kid, but you keep welching on THAT one.”
Curry gave his partner the ‘look’. Heyes did not stop pacing long enough to notice. “Where is he, Kid?”
“I THINK…” A break in the pacing. “You’re confusin’ me with someone who cares.” A glance was exchanged. This time, Heyes did get the benefit of the ‘look’. Pacing recommenced. The Kid watched his partner. “For Pete’s sake, Heyes! The man rode out early. He’s not worried by rain. He don’t care if he misses breakfast. He left his dang book behind. He left his room tidy! So what? None of those things are any kinda mystery. Except…” he temporized. “Missin’ breakfast. Even that’s not a big mystery – just means the man’s dumb, same as you! We settled that once before, too.”
“No, Kid! He DIDN’T ride out! He was heading for Laredo. That’s due south. IF he’d rode out – he’d be forced to turn around at the broken bridge. He’d be back here by now, dripping all over the floor. And THAT…” Heyes leant on the table in front of his partner, eyes wide to emphasise his point, “Is what Manuel realized back in the stables. Seth Jenkins was about to say pretty much what you just said – without the grumpy attitude of course – he rode out. BUT, he CAN’T have ridden out. Where is he?”
For the first time the Kid looked faintly interested.
Once more, pacing was in progress. “I reckon that’s why they all suddenly wanted us outta town, Kid. BEFORE I noticed he’d gone. We were alone when he lent me the book. No one would guess I might look for him. Maybe…”
The door of the hotel opened. “Mister Smith – Joshua,” called a friendly voice, as a lanky form strode inside, “Seth says you’re keen to give me my book back.” The Kid’s faint interest evaporated as a bony hand picked the book from the table.
Footsteps from the direction of the kitchen. Hannah Jenkins bustled in.
“Morning George,” she greeted the new arrival. A glance at the clock. “I won’t offer you coffee – I guess you need to be off.”
“Sure. Can’t have the teacher marking himself tardy,” he smiled. He held out his hand, to Kid Curry. “George Boscastle,” he introduced himself. “I’m guessing you must be Mister Jones. I hope you’re feeling a little better?”
“Uh huh,” confirmed the Kid.
“Did you enjoy it?” the schoolmaster asked Heyes, indicating the volume of short stories.
“You didn’t lend me that book,” said Heyes, bluntly. “It’s not yours.” He reached over and plucked the volume from the teacher’s grasp.
A short silence.
“Ah – perhaps you thought I meant you to keep it rather than borrow it, Mister Smith,” replied Boscastle, still trying for a friendly tone. “Maybe I wasn’t very clear. Tell you what – consider it a gift.”
“It was never yours.”
Curry flashed a glance at his partner. He couldn’t see any reason for Heyes’ abrupt tone.
“George Bowen lent me this book, not you. He was staying in Room #3.”
“George…?” The schoolmaster’s face was a picture of non-recognition.
“No one stayed here last night, except you and Mister Jones,” put in Mrs. Jenkins.
“Sure they did, ma’am,” said Heyes. “He was a little fella. About five foot five. Mousey. Thinning on top…”
“Oh!” exclaimed Mrs. Jenkins, a smile wreathing her motherly face. “Mister Smith means Walter Lewis! You’re mixin’ up Walter with George, who sat next to him, Mister Smith. And, George here lodges at number #3 Main Street. You musta thought he lodged at number #3 here!” Another happy smile from the kind hostess. George Boscastle smiled back, as if to say ‘that’s all cleared up’.
“Theresa!” called Mrs. Jenkins.
“I’m not mixing up nothing!” protested Heyes. He saw that since the stunning Theresa had walked in carrying fresh coffee, he had lost his partner’s attention. The Kid was too busy straightening up, tucking the damp handkerchiefs out of sight and, instead of playing for Hannah Jenkins’ maternal sympathy vote with snuffles and the ‘big blue-eyed look’, was trying to radiate masculine health and – oh yeah – the versatile ‘big blue-eyed look’.
He was receiving a charming smile and blush, as Theresa shyly murmured, “More coffee, Senor?”
“Served with a smile that pretty, senorita…” The Kid’s own winning smile was at full twinkle.
“For Pete’s sake, give it up, Kid. She’s happily married,” muttered Heyes. “…AND, that’s my line!”
Kid Curry slumped back down. “Thanks Senora,” he nodded briefly at Theresa, before digging out the handkerchief and having a good, though scarcely seductive, blow.
“I remember Boscastle here and Walter Lewis just fine,” said Heyes, returning to his point. “I’m talking about George Bowen.” He strode over to the table at which the game had taken place. “When the eight of us played last night, Lewis sat here…” A chair was touched. “Then Boscastle…” Another chair back was slapped by the tapered fingers. “Then me…then…” Heyes tailed off. Kid Curry could see the problem. The cards were still on the table. So were glasses. Presumably the game had continued after the two ladies retired and no one had yet cleared. The chairs had the air of still being in the positions left by men pushing them back to stand up. But — there were only seven chairs. The Kid did a quick count of the glasses. Seven.
“Theresa,” Heyes wheeled around to the young girl. “Last night – how many players?” Puzzlement puckered a velvety brow. The brown eyes began to stray to Mrs. Jenkins for help. “Don’t look at anyone else,” Heyes snapped. “Last night…” Heyes mimed dealing cards. “How many men? Cuánto?”
Comprehension. “Siete,” beamed Theresa. Seven fingers were held up to make sure.
“No!” Heyes could not believe his ears. “No! There were eight of us!”
“Eight…?” queried Mrs. Jenkins, her motherly face crumpled with concern. She bustled over and laid a hand on Heyes’ brow.
“Eight?” echoed Boscastle. A kindly smile, an even more kindly shake of the head. “I hope you’re not seeing ghosts, Mister Smith.”
“Are you calling me a liar?,” snapped Heyes, the beginnings of a dangerous look in his eyes. George Boscastle took a step back.
“Hey,” reproved Curry, “No need to get nasty, Joshua. The man never said nothing like that.” He turned to the schoolmaster, allowing just a touch of warning to enter his own blue gaze. “You’re not suggesting my partner’s a liar – are you?”
“No,” said Boscastle, simply enough and without any evidence of shuffling. “I’m suggesting maybe he’s got quite a lively imagination. And, that sometimes a few drinks followed by a dark ‘n ‘stormy night spent wallowing in Edgar Allen Poe…” he pointed at the book in Heyes’ hand, “Can work tricks on a lively imagination.”
“Edgar Allen Poe,” repeated Kid Curry. “…Isn’t he the fella wrote that ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ story, you made me listen to once, Joshua?”
“Uh huh,” confirmed Heyes, reluctantly.
“Hafta admit, Joshua,” said the Kid, fairly. “I lay awake a few nights, listenin’ to beating noises that weren’t there and jumpin’ at the sound of my own pulse, after hearin’ that. AND, I reckon, next to yours, my imagination’s kinda on the lazy side.”
“Tell me again why you’re draggin’ me to the stables, Heyes?” grumbled Kid Curry, turning up his collar against the last of the drizzle, as the rain finally entered ‘stopping’ phase.
“I want to show you something that’ll make you believe George Bowen existed.” Heyes pointed, “Look there, what do you see?”
“An empty stall. Well – I’m convinced.” deadpanned the Kid.
“What I want you to do is think hard. Was it empty last night? You see, after I left the stables, I got to thinking…”
“That agreement we had, Heyes…” Kid Curry laid a mock-sympathetic hand on his partner’s shoulder, “We need to talk …”
“Our horses woulda been stalled next to whoever checked into the hotel just before us…so THAT…” another stab of Heyes’ finger at the empty space, “Musta been Bowen’s horse… I’m sure, SURE…” Heyes took a breath, “95% sure, there was a horse in there last night. Think, Kid, am I right?”
Kid Curry did think. Hard, as instructed. “Can’t recall,” he finally decided. “Maybe.”
“For Pete’s sake, Kid! You’re supposed to be observant!”
“I was sick, Heyes!” Plaintive cough.
“Try again, Kid. Picture this stall last night. Picture the horse. What was it like?”
“Which bit of ‘can’t recall’ are you having trouble with?”
“I’m sure it wasn’t white…nor piebald…kinda dark.”
“Everything was dark when we rode in, Heyes. It was a dark ‘n ‘stormy night! Remember?”
“It wasn’t real huge, or small…”
“So – not a Shetland pony, nor a carthorse and definitely not an escaping white circus pony. That narrows it down, huh?”
“You see, Kid, if I can find this horse, I can prove – PROVE – Bowen checked in.”
“OR…nobody checked in and this horse – or rather, this empty space — belongs to one of the townsfolk and, here’s a thought, if there was a horse — they’re out riding it! It happens! Heyes, why do you CARE? You don’t know the man!”
“I care ‘cos …” Heyes paused to do a quick reckon up, “So far, seven people – the Doc, the Sheriff, the Schoolteacher, the Jenkinses, Manuel and the lovely Theresa – who all seemed real nice last night, who STILL seem real nice, have joined up to tell me a thumping great lie. Why? AND…” he went on, before Kid could open his mouth, “If it hadn’t been for you hamming it up with the invalid act…”
“We’d have been helped up on our horses and waved off with a packed lunch before you could say… ”Not welcome here!’ They ALL want to see the back of us. Why?”
“Understandable in your case, Heyes. Maybe these seven real nice folk got tired of listening to you talk about the invisible man?”
“So,” said Heyes, his hands going to his hips, “You believe them, not me. You reckon I just make stuff up, huh?”
The Kid grinned. “The ship’s kinda sailed on that one, Heyes. I KNOW you just make stuff up!” He saw the real frustration on his partner’s’ face. Without the joshing tone he checked, . “You swear this isn’t some complicated joke you’re playin’ on me? ‘Cos – if it is, it ain’t funny!”
“All right. I believe you. I still don’t see why you’re so interested… You don’t think all these nice folk – well – did somethin’ to him?”
“Y’know what? You’re right. I don’t. If they’re too nice to turn a mean old ex-outlaw like you out in the rain, what are they going to do to some meek little insurance clerk? Except – they must have done something! Where is he? Where’s his horse?”
“It wasn’t a rhetorical question, Kid.”
“A rhetorical question is one which don’t need answering.”
“Uh huh.” Kid Curry filed the definition away for the next ‘big-word’ day.
“So this one NOT being rhetorical is the other kind of question. The kind that does need answering.”
A ‘look’. Again with the pause.
“…Could…could…” The Kid was trying to come up with something. “Could it be me? He don’t know you – but he knows me from somewhere. First thing this morning, he recognized me – slipped straight back upstairs and climbed out the back. Now he’s hiding. Or, waiting to turn me in?”
Heyes looked impressed. Not surprising. Heyes was impressed. Yet another pause. Heyes thinking. “Nah,” he finally said, reluctantly. “Doesn’t explain why everyone else is joining in. If he’s on the wrong side of the law and wants to avoid you – he rides out. No one denies seeing him. If he’s an upright citizen going to the Sheriff – well, maybe – just maybe — he tells everyone not to say a word until the Sheriff’s got you under lock and key. But… Nah! They’re not nervous around YOU. They’re not exactly nervous around ME – not in THAT way. AND, we’re NOT under lock and key. There’s been plenty of time – and that Sheriff’s no fool. Breakfast time would have been perfect. AND, I’ve been doing some MORE thinking…”
“Oh, Sheesh,” groaned Kid.
“George Bowen told me – told us all – he was coming from Sacramento. But that means, he was heading in from the west – same as us. Can’t have been more than a few miles ahead if the same freak storm caught him in the same town.”
“So – why didn’t we see him?”
“Why would we? Do we see everyone?”
“The two most wanted outlaws in the West, travelling through wide open country…” Heyes pretended to think about it. “Yeah, you’re right. Why would we want to watch out for strangers? We just ride with our eyes shut.”
The Kid mulled on that. He did pride himself on his skill at spotting potential danger. “I was kinda sick, Heyes,” he reminded his partner.
“Would you have missed him?”
Kid Curry mulled some more as he followed Heyes out of the livery. He gave something between a shake of the head and a shrug, suggesting ‘probably not’.
“So HE was lying too! Why?”
“But…” A fresh fit of coughing interrupted the Kid’s hurry to get his thought out. “But…” Splutter. “But…if he’s lying about where he’s comin’ from…he could be lyin’ about where he’s headin’…” Cough. Rummage in pocket. Honking blow of nose.
“So, he’s not headin’ south – he isn’t stopped by the bridge. He rode out.” Splutter. Honk.
Once again, Heyes looked impressed by his partner’s idea. Then, another shake of the dark head, as he pulled Kid Curry down the street. “Doesn’t tell us why everyone else is lying. Hurry up!”
“I’m sick, Heyes!” Cough. Disgruntled version of the ‘look’. “Besides where the Sam Hill are you draggin’ me to now?”
“To see the undertaker.”
Double- take from the Kid. “I could still recover, Heyes.”
Ten minutes later, the ex-outlaws were back out on the street, after a perfectly friendly – if apparently surprised — Walter Lewis had responded to Heyes’ nonchalant circling reminiscences about last night’s game. Responded – unsatisfactorily. A not quite so nonchalant question about the number of players from an impatient Kid, was answered with a quick count on the undertaker’s fingers and a cheery, ‘Seven’. Then, Lewis, with the greatest civility, had indicated a coffin in the back and told them Mrs. Stottlemeyer was being buried that afternoon and he had to get on.
At the sight of a silver- haired and snowy-capped female profile, the partners swept off their hats for a moment and then departed.
“You don’t think…” The suggestion from the snuffling blond ex-outlaw was tentative. But, the folks in the town were SO nice, he had to ask, “You don’t think maybe you DID dream him, Heyes? You do have quite an imagination.”
“Kid…” Heyes dropped his hands to his hips and pushed back his replaced hat. “I’m not saying I COULDN’T dream someone up. But, if I did, I’d be walking around swearing Theresa is one of a set of triplets and the others are single! No! She’d be a quadruplet – two for me! The two sisters who are ba-a-a—a-a-d girls! I wouldn’t waste my time dreaming up short, paunchy guys who like to bore on ’bout actuarial tables!”
The Kid had to admit he saw the logic of that.
“Where IS he? WHY are they all lying?”
“Still not a rhetorical question?” checked his partner.
“Nope. Why – you got another idea?”
Musing. Crinkling of blue eyes under a brown brim. Sniffling. A cough. Though, to be fair – the last two were pretty much incidental.
“Yup. Here’s the plan. We both play to our strengths. YOU go do the thinkin’ an’ pacin’. I go follow Doctor’s orders and cover nappin’ by the fire. You only wake me when you have something new. An’ – that don’t include a new question. You clear on the plan, Heyes?”
A look was exchanged. Reluctantly, Heyes nodded. He mooched off through the mud to start the ‘pacing and thinking’. Kid Curry pulled up his collar a little more firmly against the last of the drizzle and mooched after his partner to put in a little hard napping.
A MORNING NAP, A HEARTY LUNCH, AN AFTERNOON NAP, HALF A DOZEN HANDKERCHIEVES, A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF SNORING AND AN AWFUL LOT OF PACING LATER
BACK IN THE COMFY CHAIR, IN FRONT OF THE STOVE IN THE HOTEL BAR
Kid Curry smiled at Theresa as another hot lemon toddy with a little honey and just a tot of whiskey was placed before him.
“Cómo está usted, Senor Jones?”
“Er…better, thanks,” Kid guessed.
Another smile for Mrs. Jenkins as a ‘little snack to keep his strength up ’til supper’ was placed next to the drink.
“You’re lookin’ a lot better,” concurred Hannah Jenkins. A cool hand was laid on his forehead. The Kid suspected his temperature was back to normal and he had better make the most of this round of feminine fussing, as it might be the last. He gave a sniffle and a, not entirely genuine, cough. A maternally knowing eyebrow was raised. Yeah, he thought, the fussing was over. “Dryin’ up nicely now,” Mrs. Jenkins observed, glancing out at the late afternoon sun trying to struggle through the clouds. “I reckon tomorrow will be a real fine day. Perfect for a nice easy ride to Red Rock – do you good.”
“Sure will,” agreed Seth, who was coming downstairs after changing out of the black suit he had donned for Mrs. Stottlemeyer’s funeral.
“Gentle exercise is the just the thing for a convalescent,” nodded Walter Lewis, who had come in for a coffee and warming tot of something after his duties.
“And fresh air. Nothing beats gentle exercise and fresh air,” chipped in George Boscastle. He was also indulging in a post-interment coffee.
“Mañana – adios,” beamed Theresa. “Better!”
Kid Curry suspected all these kindly folk were right and riding tomorrow would do him no harm at all. All the same, this mix of thoughtfulness AND scarcely concealed hurry to be rid of him – or rather, of Heyes – was odd.
Straightening up among his cushions and reaching for his snack, the blond ex-outlaw began to think about the missing poker player. Sure, he couldn’t get worked up the way Heyes had. Sheesh! Heyes found deducting a close runner up to safe cracking and odds calculation. Still, Kid munched on his sandwich, ruminatively, it was weird.
Right on cue, Seth asked, “Where did Mister Smith go?”
Once the Kid had taken care of his side of the plan – the napping – Heyes had decided to leave the invalid to watch his own back. The curiosity- tormented one had taken the pacing and thinking out into the fresh air, muttering something about checking the roads out of town and seeing if any horses looked familiar.
“Just stretchin’ his legs,” he said. “In fact,” less distinctly, as he finished off his sandwich, “I think you’re right about the gentle exercise and fresh air doing me good. Reckon I’ll go find him. Take a turn round the town before supper.”
A FEW MINUTES LATER – OUT IN THE FRESH AIR
Heyes was, indeed, stretching his legs. Those long, lean, booted limbs were currently stretched from a tilted back chair up to the rail outside the Sheriff’s office. The Sheriff’s boots were propped up to the left. Both men were smoking, if not a fine, at least a ‘serviceable’ cigar and were watching the sun, which had finally put in an appearance after all that rain, sink in the sky. The silence from the Sheriff was companionable enough. The silence from Heyes held a lingering frustration, without tipping into any ill will. Heyes had, almost, given up on any further direct, or indeed indirect, questioning about last night.
There seemed little point.
Everyone had their story straight, and…
The former leader of the Devil’s Hole Gang gave a shrug as he tipped his hat to Doctor Bergman tooling past in his gig from some visit to a patient, the legs of his all black horse splattered with mud. At a deferential distance, Heyes had observed Sheriff Bill Fraser and the Doctor mingle with their neighbours at Mrs. Stottlemeyer’s funeral earlier. Both were clearly, popular, respected; without being sappy about it – loved, even.
The Sheriff gave every impression of being a conscientious lawman posted to a quiet town to finish off the final years of a worthy career dedicated to keeping the peace, before drawing his modest pension. The Doctor radiated honest dedication to his role as a healer. Heyes was finding it difficult to cling to his absolute certainty they and their friends were also liars. Heyes KNEW liars. These townsfolk were sure not regular liars.
Had he imagined an extra player last night? The mind COULD play tricks.
Almost prepared to believe himself wrong – well, maybe – Heyes raised a hand to his partner, smiling wickedly as he saw the Kid suppress a shudder at the pair, once again, mixing socially with a lawman.
Minutes later another pair of boots were propped on the rail. Kid Curry joined in the important masculine business of blowing smoke rings while supervising fading afternoon light and the dripping of spent rain from roofs. Silence. Apart from occasional nose blowing honks from the fastest gun in the West.
A subtle change in the nature of the silence. The partners noticed the Sheriff staring off to the east. They followed his eye-line. A rider was approaching. Steady trot.
“Stranger?” asked Heyes.
“I guess you like to check out all visitors heading into town, huh?”
Kid Curry rolled his eyes. The would-be nonchalance from Heyes did not fool him. He suspected his partner meant to wheel around for a casual – ‘who else rode in during the storm?’ question.
“So yesterday – you would have checked out…” Heyes tailed off. The Sheriff was not listening. He was still squinting at the approaching rider. Though still distant, the stranger was close enough for them to see he looked, if not a city slicker, something close. Neither slowing, nor speeding up. Perfectly normal. Then, a dip in the road hid him. What was there about this to crease Bill Fraser’s forehead and darken his eyes? To make his whole frame slump?
“Seems dang quick…” murmured the Sheriff.
“What seems quick?” asked Heyes. A pair of –– eyes flicked to his face, as if recalling the presence of the partners. Was that anxiety on the Sheriff’s face? Or more than that, fear?
“Seems quick to be travelling after the storm,” said the Sheriff, his brow still knitting into furrows, as if trying to make up his mind about something. “Musta set off when it was still pelting down. The weather headin’ east the way it is.”
Heyes frowned. He was back to his first position. This man WAS lying. Or, at any rate, not telling the truth – which is not quite the same thing. That is NOT what Bill Fraser had meant by his involuntary comment of ‘seems dang quick’.
But, what had he meant?
Heyes broke the silence. “Wouldn’t surprise me if he was coming looking’ for someone.” Wide, bland smile from the ex-outlaw leader. “Would it surprise you, Sheriff?” . Kid shot his partner a warning glance. Heyes socialising with a lawman was one thing. Heyes going out of his way to annoy the fella was another.
Bill Fraser came to a decision. “I’m sorry to hafta do this, Mister Smith,” he said, with evident sincerity, as he stood up and drew his gun. “But you’re under arrest.”
“Huh?” protested Kid Curry, also rising to his feet. “The man only asked a question!”
“You’re under arrest too, Mister Jones. For consorting with a known criminal. Namely – him.”
“You’re both sentenced to – say – between twelve to twenty-four hours in the cells.”
“Or, until he leaves, huh?” said Heyes, quietly, nodding at the approaching rider in the distance. Another searching look at the lawman in front of him. The Sheriff opened his mouth to reply, changed his mind, shut it. He looked away, bit his lip.
“Would you hand over your gun please, Mister Smith?” A pause. Heyes’ and the Sheriff’s eyes met, held. Bill Fraser took another decision; he re-holstered his own weapon; then, held out his now empty hand. To his partner’s surprise, after a moment’s thought, Heyes did, indeed, hand over his gun. “And you too, please, Mister Jones.”
Curry looked from his partner to the Sheriff. He drew. The muzzle of the colt pointed at the lawman. No move from Bill Fraser. “Don’t, son,” he said, gently, “Please.” No fear. Just concern. Kid Curry had no doubt whatsoever Fraser was more worried the man he assumed to be upright citizen ‘Thaddeus Jones’ took no step that was not law-abiding, than about any danger to his own skin. Heyes gave his partner an almost imperceptible nod. The Kid let the weapon twirl round his finger, so the handle was towards Bill Fraser. A fatherly hand patted his shoulder before it was taken. “Thanks, son,” came a gruff voice. “Let’s get you two locked up.”