THE BAR OF A SALOON
“…Beers, huh?” The barkeep lifts two glasses, scans the figures facing him. One in a silver-trimmed black hat, the other in a brown number. Their clothes are dusty, their chins unshaven, their expressions – thirsty. His eyes narrow. “Beers are a dime apiece. You fellas got money?”
“Would we order beers if’n we didn’t have any money?” Deep brown eyes radiate artless innocence.
“It’s been known,” grunts the barkeep. He waits. No dimes emerge. The glasses, still unfilled, are returned to the shelf. “Hey!” This exclamation is a response to Heyes’ fingers reaching into a jar of hard-boiled eggs. “That notice says ‘free with drink.’ You ain’t bought a drink.”
“I’m not going to eat it,” Heyes assures him, holding aloft the ovoid. “You got any money?”
“I ain’t ordering any beer.”
The boys award this a gentle laugh.
“No, I mean real money. I reckon you’re a man who likes a wager…”
“You reckon wrong,” interrupts the barkeep.
A flicker of chagrin in the brown eyes, but Heyes presses on. “I bet you I can make this egg stand on end like this – and stay there. Ten dollars says I can do it…”
“Not ten o’ MY dollars, fella. My money ain’t sayin’ nothin’.”
As the silver-tongued one is not doing too well here, Kid Curry weighs in. “Don’t go thinkin’ he’s gonna slam it down on the counter. He can do it without crackin’ the shell.”
“I’ll bet you five dollars he’s afraid to call me,” says Heyes.
“I’ll bet you five dollars he’s not,” chimes in Kid, right on cue.
“I’ll bet you – let me think…” The barkeep feigns chin-scratching pondering. “I’ll bet you ZIP, that I don’t give a tinker’s cuss what you do with that egg.”
Pause. Our boys droop, thirstily. It’s not easy to convey ‘thirsty’ with nothing but a drooping action, but they manage it. Kid Curry redirects Heyes’ gaze with an eye flick. A slick-looking customer with an impressive moustache and set of side-whiskers sipping beer at the far end of the bar has watched the interchange with mild amusement. Heyes squares his shoulders for another try.
“You, sir, if our friend behind the bar won’t take my money, how ’bout you? Ten dollars says I can stand…”
“That egg on its end without breaking the shell,” finishes the observer. He scoots up the bar to stand beside the boys. “Tell you what, do it with THIS egg – and maybe you have yourself a bet.”
“Which egg?” asks Heyes.
“This one – the one your partner has hidden behind his ear…”
A deft hand movement and an egg appears from a point below the hat brim of a bemused Kid Curry. It is placed – upright – on the counter without so much as a wobble.
“Or maybe you’d prefer to use the one behind the other ear…”
Another perfectly balanced egg is placed down.
“Or the one he’s hiding in his shirt pocket? Hey, let’s stand this one on the small end, huh?”
Heyes, the Kid, and the barkeep stare at the eggs.
“That’s quite a trick!” admires Heyes. He picks up one of the eggs, touches it to his tongue. His face registers surprise.
“I prefer mine without salt,” says the deft one. Two sets of dark eyes meet. A smile crinkles the older man’s face. “Why don’t I buy you two boys a beer and a couple of Joe’s beefsteak sandwiches?” A five-dollar bill materializes between the clever fingers on his left hand. His right hand is held out, “Penn Nichols. But…” An impressive mustachio is twirled. “…I also go by the name, The Great Fabuloso.”
LATER – THE SAME SALOON
A fed and watered – and consequently more cheerful – pair of ex-outlaws sits with the man who can out-egg-balance Hannibal Heyes. The atmosphere is friendly. We gather he likes them, they like him. Why wouldn’t they? He seems a real likeable fella.
“So, Penn, you’re with the travelling circus?” asks Heyes. “Me and Thaddeus saw your posters as we rode in.”
“It’s the greatest show on earth!” Penn asserts, impressively.
Two skeptical faces.
Penn sips his beer and grins. “At any rate, it’s the greatest show seen around these parts for a good few years.” Another swallow of beer. “What do you two fellas do?”
Blue and brown eyes exchange a glance.
“We’re kinda between jobs at the moment,” says Heyes.
“Looking for work, huh?”
“What kind of work?”
“Not too hard on the back.”
“I reckon the whole world’s looking for that kind of work.”
Rueful grin from Heyes. Acknowledging shrug from the Kid.
“Now, if you’d said you were looking for work where the pay’s lousy, you’ll be dog-tired at the end of every day, BUT, the food is good and plentiful, you’d be sleeping in a warm, dry bed AND, you get to see the greatest show on earth for free, I might be able to help.”
“What’s the job?” asks Curry.
“We’re looking for roustabouts.”
“Fetching, carrying, hammering, hefting, shifting dirt, pushing ornery animals around, getting yelled at.”
Two expressions register how familiar that all sounds.
“‘Course, since it doesn’t meet your exact job requirements, I guess you won’t be interested.” His eyes twinkle.
A FAIRGROUND – CIRCUS STYLE BIG TOP IN BACKGROUND
Heyes and Curry, the blond sweating delightfully in his Henley, are doing what fairground roustabouts do. Specifically, Heyes holds a spiked pole in a hole, while Kid Curry hammers it into the earth.
A glance from the blue eyes at the smiling, dimpled face suggests Kid Curry is not entirely happy with the division of labor.
His outer shirt still off (I spoil you! I really do!), Curry is pumping water into a whole row of buckets. Heyes holds the current bucket steady.
Again with the damp Henley (you can thank me later), Kid Curry is shoveling… Well, think what bears do in the woods – that’s what he is shoveling. Lots of it.
“Are you gonna come help, Heyes?”
The camera pans right to show us what generated all the ordure. Heyes is feeding apples to an elephant. A second elephant tries to attract his attention with a little trunk action around the collar area. She not only tries, she succeeds.
“Don’t worry, gorgeous, I got plenty for you, too.”
“Just wait your turn.”
“You don’t like waiting?”
Tug. A shirt button pops.
“You flirting with me, Rosy? You are, huh? Know what? It worked.” Rosy is rewarded with an apple. “Now, you ladies are gonna hafta get along without me for a while – I know, I know, I’ll miss you, too – but, y’see that fella back there? The proddy one. He needs me to go show him how to shovel properly. Okay? Okay.”
As Heyes picks up a shovel, Kid Curry gives him the ‘look’ which is returned with the blandest of dimpled smiles. A couple of flexes from Heyes, but he has yet to make contact with the steaming piles. He puts down the shovel, spits on his hands, picks it up again. Curry’s brows snap together suspiciously. Is the wily one still stalling on breaking sweat? Another Heyes flex. Another Curry scowl. Heyes finally bends and draws back his shovel, a glint of satisfaction in the watching blue eyes, and – Heyes stops, mid-swing, drops his shovel and strides off.
The sound of a ladle beaten around a metal triangle is clanging the message: ‘lunch’!
Long trestle tables are set up, laden with biscuits, bowls of potatoes and greens, jugs of beer. At either end, steaming stew is doled out from vast tureens. Heyes and Curry, carrying laden dishes, scan the tables, recognize someone amongst the diners and head for him. A morose-looking guy wearing a clown wig scoots up to make room. A little fella – that is, genuine three-foot six type little – sitting opposite, grins at them.
“Hi, Billy,” Kid Curry greets him.
“D’you fellas get along okay with Rosy and Posy?” the little fella – who I guess has to be Billy, huh? – asks.
“Just fine,” says Heyes.
“It’s the workin’ end of a shovel Joshua’s havin’ problems with,” inarticulates Kid through a mouthful of biscuit and gravy. He glances sideways, reacts.
Heyes turns, sees what his partner has seen, straightens up.
Penn Nichols (aka The Great Fabuloso) is striding over. His mustachios and side whiskers are now even more impressive, being ink-black and waxed to improbable points. A gleaming top hat is set upon his head. His vest glitters with gold thread. A scarlet lined cloak billows behind him. However, the friendly smile and amiable glint in his eyes are unchanged.
“Thaddeus, Joshua! Has Billy arranged somewhere for you to stay?”
“Uh huh.” Heyes nods to a cluster of canvas-covered wagons in the middle distance.
“Pretty basic I know,” says Nichols, “But, I did warn you.”
“Compared to the hotel we were in last week, our wagon’s the San Francisco Palace,” grunts Kid Curry.
“And Thaddeus is doing a pretty good imitation of a man happy with the food,” chips in Billy.
“Like Thaddeus and me always say, there’s nothing like a hard day’s work in the fresh air to build an appetite,” says Heyes.
Curry gives his partner a version of the ‘look’ which Heyes can interpret any way he chooses.
A shadow falls over the table from behind the boys.
A little of the cheerfulness fades from both Penn’s and Billy’s faces. Curious, our boys twist their heads.
It is a woman. To be specific, it is a shapely, titian-haired beauty, displaying her considerable charms in a tightly corseted low-cut bodice, frilled cut-away skirt and spangled tights. Heyes and Curry, civilly, half rise, their eyes after a split second of masculine weakness managing to avoid anything so crude as a ‘gawk.’
She gestures the boys to sit back down, without so much as looking at them.
“Penn, I thought you were coming to practice the three-section cut?”
“Sure I am.” His tone is conciliatory. “I was just checking on Joshua and Thaddeus – Zara, this is Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones. You remember, I mentioned them? Fellas, this is Zara, my lovely assis… My partner.”
A pair of fine green eyes flickers over the ex-outlaws. A delightfully sculpted upper lip lifts, scornfully.
“I’m sure the foreman is capable of organizing the roustabouts.”
Sheesh. Who would have thought enough disinterested disdain could be injected into the word ‘roustabouts’ to make it an obvious synonym for ‘riff-raff’?
She walks away.
“I’d better go,” says Penn. “Zara’s right. The difference between adequate and amazing on a show is never skimping on practice.”
Off he goes.
Billy breaks it. “I can’t think why Penn puts up with her.”
“Well,” Kid chews thoughtfully, his eyes still fixed on the retreating hips swaying elegantly beneath the bustle-froth of costume tail, “…I can think of a coupla reasons right off.”
“And a couple more if he’s a leg man,” deadpans Heyes.
A grunt of laughter from the glum clown beside Kid Curry, who then reapplies himself to his stew in silence.
LATER – BACK WITH THE ELEPHANTS
Billy is taking Rosy through the commands of their act. Concurrently, Heyes, Curry, two stiff brushes, and a barrel filled with soapy water give Posy a good scrub down.
“How long have Penn and Zara been with the show?” asks Heyes. “Hey! How am I s’posed to wash behind your ear if’n you won’t stay still, huh?”
“Penn’d already been with the show a while when I joined, an’ that was back in – oh – ’78. Umgow, Rosy!” Rosy clambers, more daintily than you’d think, onto a gaily colored podium. “He was already top of the bill and gettin’ a slice of the profits as well as a hefty salary – not that anyone grudges him a penny. I reckon it’s his act gets folk comin’ back to see us for a second time and doublin’ the takin’s. Zara was posing on a cream pony wearing nothing much – a first act filler, nothing fancy – then, all of a sudden; Penn picked her out to be his assistant. Uh-gowwah, Rosy.”
“You can’t deny she’s easy on the eye,” says Curry.
“Sure she is. She’s dang good at the switches up on stage too. But that don’t explain why…” A shrug. “Seems she calls all the shots and he lets her.”
“Maybe she has the better head for business, and Nichols is bright enough to use it?” suggests Heyes.
“Maybe.” But, Billy does not look too sure.
Crowds of smiling townsfolk mill in to the Big Top. Heyes and Curry, bags of popcorn in hand, boyish anticipation on their faces, watch the place fill up from a bench at the back.
A roll of drums. A blare of trumpets. White ponies ridden by scantily-clad lovelies explode from the wings and canter showily around. Applause from the crowd. Extra enthusiastic applause from our two fellas. (Hey, I did mention those costumes were scanty, huh?)
The horses part into two whickering, wavering lines and rear up in unison, revealing…
More applause for the scarlet-coated ringmaster as he booms, “Ladeeeeez and gentleMEN! Prepare to be amazed as tonight, for your delectation and delight, your entertainment and enchantment, your appreciation and amusement, we proudly present, the GREATEST show on EARTH!”
Thunderous clapping as Billy, riding an extravagantly-bejeweled Posy and leading an equally dazzling Rosy, trunks held proudly aloft, lumbers into the ring.
Our boys, jaws slack in disbelief, watch some fella with a death wish rest his head in a lion’s jaws.
Shot of a blond and dark head swiveling, left, right, left, right, up, necks rolling in wide-eyed spirals left and diagonally down.
Pan to the space high under the taut swathes of the tent. A spangled acrobat finishes his looping dive and is caught by his partner swinging upside down from his crooked knees.
“And NOW, ladeeez and gentleMEN, the star of our show, that master of magic, that supremo of sorcery, that crown-prince of conjuring, that paragon of prestidigitation and emperor of escapology, the ONE, the ONLY, the GREAT FABULOSO…”
Crash of cymbals. Penn appears from absolutely nowhere in a puff of smoke.
Gasps and thunderous applause.
“…And his lovely assistant, the ravishing, the radiant, the resplendent ZARA.”
Zara descends, cart-wheeling with long-legged grace through thin air from the darkness in the very apex of the Big Top. Okay, you can see the wires, but all the same! The woman may be a cold fish, but no one could accuse her of not living up to her own strictures on the benefits of constant practice.
“Sir, is this your card?” booms Penn.
“I can do this one,” mutters Heyes to Curry.
“Er – nah,” apologizes a bashful ranch hand.
“No?” Dramatic incredulity.
Has-it-gone-wrong style murmurings from the audience.
“Yup,” nods the Kid, “I’ve seen ya do that one.”
“Sir, forgive my curiosity, but did you escort a young lady here tonight?”
Scarlet flushing from the ranch hand. “I mighta.”
Scanning the audience. “Would she do me the very great favor of raising her hand?”
A Sunday-best lace glove is raised by a gal in a Sunday-best shawl.
“Would she do me the additional, even greater, favor of checking inside her left shoe?”
The glove goes down, wriggling. An incredulous gasp.
“Hold it up where the folks can see it, ma’am, and call out what it is.”
“Five of spades,” she trills.
“Sir, is THAT your card?”
“Well, I’ll be a plumb…!” The inference, if not the vocabulary, is clearly: ‘yes.’
“Sheesh,” Heyes exclaims. “How the Sam Hill…?” Evidently, good with cards as he is, he makes no claims to being able to do anything like that.
“This, ladies and gentlemen, is a magic gun. It can fire two bullets at the same time.”
“You don’t believe me?”
A bullet is tossed in the air. A shot rings out. Two explosive cracks.
Impressed, but not too-impressed purse of the lips from Kid Curry as he claps. “That ain’t easy,” he acknowledges.
Applause, but not as wild as it has been. More murmurs.
“Oh?” Self-deprecation from the showman on the stage. “Do I gather some of you have seen that before? Well, have you seen THIS?”
Two bullets are tossed. Four cracks.
Much warmer applause.
A frown settles on Curry’s brow.
Three bullets, six cracks.
Incredulous laughter. Louder clapping.
Six bullets. You can hardly count them, but, yeah, if your ears are sharp enough, twelve cracks.
Disgruntled arms fold across a blue-shirted chest.
“Ain’t no one THAT fast!” dismisses Kid Curry. “He’s hoaxin’ us!”
He meets Heyes’ amused glance. “You think?” teases the fella NOT just having seen his best party trick beaten.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, I will not only escape from these solid steel handcuffs…”
Zara circles the ring holding aloft the said handcuffs.
“I will do so after having been bound with these sturdy ropes…”
Zara switches to tugging ropes to demonstrate their vaunted sturdiness.
“And after being suspended…”
A winch lowers from the trapeze scaffolding.
“Upside down in…”
Drum roll. A huge water tank is rolled into the ring. Hey, that’s Posy – or just possibly Rosy – pushing.
“THIS! Five hundred gallons of water held within six inch thick glass and steel!”
“Now, the cynics among you will be thinking, the cuffs aren’t real, the knots aren’t real, and though that looks like a whole heap of water sloshing in that tank, maybe it’s nothing but a bucketful and the rest is smoke’n’mirrors! SO – let’s have a couple of volunteers to come verify that all these things are the genuine articles. You, sir. Yes, you in the front row, will you come help me? And the gentleman with you.”
Cheerful recognition and applause from most of the audience as a sturdy, grizzle-haired gentleman joins Penn.
“Sir, my magical powers tell me you’re the town sheriff.”
Laughter, though the smiles on two familiar faces have become fixed. Something has told them this fella is the town sheriff, too. It’s the silver star flashing in the limelight.
“Don’t know him, d’you?” murmurs Heyes.
“And you, sir…” Penn addresses the gentleman who has followed the sheriff into the ring, his back to our two boys. “You’re his uncle? That’s real nice. What d’you do, sir?”
The response does not carry through the crowd to the boys. Penn’s voice does.
“A judge? So, I’ve chosen a sheriff and a judge to check I don’t cheat? I’m a fool to myself! I really am.”
Two ex-outlaw faces freeze and two ex-outlaw backsides slide a little lower in their seats as Penn gently turns the more elderly fella around so he faces the audience.
The lovely Zara stands before a huge target holding a watermelon above her head.
Penn is in full flow.
“…So, not only has your very own sheriff, Zach Hanley here – and, if you can’t trust him, who CAN you trust? – verified that what I hold in my hand is a real Colt loaded with real bullets, on which his uncle the judge has made his own mark, I’m about to prove it to any doubters out there.”
The watermelon shatters, spraying blood red juice into the sawdust.
Gasps. Feminine squeals. It is very effective.
“…Now I aim at the lovely Zara’s head!”
Drum rolls. Other scantily clad lovelies have entered the ring to hold up large hoops over which muslin has been stretched at intervals of six feet and twelve feet and eighteen feet in front of Zara.
Again with the gasps and squeals.
The lovelies hold up hoops ripped through and showing what sure look like bullet scorch marks. Zara, daintily, pulls a bullet from between her flawless white teeth and sashays over to let a head-scratching Judge Hanley see it carries whatever mark he decided to make.
VERY EARLY THE NEXT MORNING
The boys are some distance from the main camp. Far enough for Kid Curry to practice his fast draw with the classic shooting cans off a fence, setting ’em back up, exercise without waking folk.
Heyes is fastening and unfastening one bracelet of a pair of handcuffs round his left wrist.
“So, you don’t think we should leave?” asks Curry.
“‘Cos of Judge Hanley? The show’s only here a few days and we’ll spend most of our time hauling ropes or toting buckets half a mile outta town, odds are he won’t even see us.”
“Better odds if we left.”
“Yeah, but – even if he DOES see us – what’s he see? Us still going straight and trying to earn an honest dollar. Might even work in our favor. Maybe he’ll report back to the governor we’re not too proud to shovel elephant-size piles of the steaming stuff trying to earn that amnesty.”
Curry thinks about that. “Lotta truth in there, Heyes.” He sets up his cans one more time and, as he does so, looks over in Heyes’ direction. His brows snap together. “Where the Sam Hill did you get them?”
“You remember that real proddy sheriff in Copper Creek three weeks back?”
“We left his jail so sudden I never got a chance to give these back.” Another serpentine twist of the left hand. “Nah. He can’t have been doing it that way. Kid, let me put these on you.”
Mock hurt expression on the dimpled face. “Sometimes, Kid, I think you got no faith in me at all.”
A pause. Heyes goes back to cuff figuring. Curry holsters his gun and relaxes his fingers above it. The Colt leaps into his hand and six cans bite the dust. He reloads, then tosses a bullet into the air and fires. Two cracks. He throws two bullets into the air. Three cracks. “Dang! How’s he do it?” Another two bullets. Three cracks. “Dang!” Another two. Four cracks.
Heyes’ head snaps up. “You did it?”
Curry blinks. “I did. Wow.” Rueful grin. “Dunno I could do it twice. Not twice runnin’ anyhow.”
Something off to the left catches their attention. Heyes shades his eyes against the early morning sun. A figure is coming toward them: Penn.
Curry holsters his gun. Heyes gets to his feet, tucking the cuffs out of sight inside his jacket. When Penn gets within speaking distance, Heyes greets him.
“Morning. You’re up early.”
“It seems I’m not the only one.”
“That was some pretty fancy shooting, Thaddeus.”
“Nothin’ to what I saw in the ring last night.”
“Oh…” A self-deprecating smile. Like lightning, Penn tosses a bullet into the air, his gun leaps into his hand, a double crack. “I’m fast, sure, and I’d back my marksmanship against most comers, but remember some of what you see in the show is only illusion.”
“Best magic show I’ve ever seen, by far,” says Heyes. Penn gives an acknowledging inclination of the head. Heyesian curiosity crosses the dimpled face, “Can I ask you something?”
“Go on, Joshua.”
“How d’you work the bullet catch?”
“Joshua! A magician never reveals his secrets, except to a fellow magician who swears never to tell.” Pause. A twinkle. “Of course, if you were already a magician and showed ME how to do a card trick, maybe I’d return the favor.”
With a grin, Heyes pulls a deck from his pocket.
From a crop of trees around two hundred yards from Penn and the boys, someone observes the scene. It is Zara, now clad in a sensible serge skirt and calico blouse. From her point of view, we watch what appears to be Penn teaching Heyes a card trick, all three men smiling and on friendly terms. Her eyes narrow.
A movement in the distant cluster of trees catches Kid Curry’s eye. A flick of his head directs the gaze of both other men. They all turn.
Zara steps out coolly and walks towards them. Penn goes to meet her.
A glance is exchanged between the two ex-outlaws. A murmured conversation.
“Is she watchin’ him, or was she watchin’ us ‘fore he showed up?”
“Dunno, but if I was laying odds, I’d say she’s watching us.”
“Think she heard us talkin’?”
“Not at that distance.”
She strides straight past Penn without a sideways glance; Heyes and Curry touch their hats.
“Morning, ma’am,” Heyes greets her. “Seems we’re all up with the lark this morning, huh?”
“Early birds indeed.” To Kid Curry, “Where did you learn to do that with a gun, Mister Smith?”
“He’s Smith. I’m Jones.”
Her eyes rest on them one at a time, thoughtfully. “Of course. Smith,” her head turns to Kid, “…And Jones.” Is that a disbelieving lift of an arched eyebrow?
The boys do NOT exchange a glance, but an almost imperceptible mirror stiffening of their expressions suggests an exchanged glance moment.
“Where did you learn to do that, Mister Jones?”
“You are extremely skilful. I would say, extraordinarily so.” Her eyes study Kid Curry’s features closely. He turns his face partially away, takes a sudden interest in the horizon.
“We were telling Penn how we’d never seen a show so good as yours,” says Heyes, diverting her attention. “In fact…” He changes his mind, shuts up.
“Go on, Mister Smith.”
“It seems to me, ma’am, you two could make even more money and have an easier life topping the bill at some fancy ‘Frisco theatre.”
She glances at Penn, whose expression has taken on a frozen look.
“Penn likes moving from place to place,” she says. “Some folk do.” Pause. Again she scans their faces, her own face giving nothing away. “Do you?”
“Do we what, ma’am?”
“Do you two like moving from place to place?”
Another exchanged glance moment without an actual exchanged glance.
“I guess you could say we’d got itchy feet.”
“Mister Smith, from where I was standing, it looked as if you were picking a lock?” An enquiring tilt of the head, “Are you another escapologist?”
Unnoticed by the boys, Penn reacts to this revelation. He studies Heyes’ face, then Kid’s, harder than before. Worry. He bites his lip.
Dimpled smile from Heyes, though his eyes stay wary. “I think you saw me trying to pick a lock, ma’am,” he lies, “so – nope.” Again curiosity gleams from him. “How do you two work the bullet catch?”
“We.,” she steps closer. “Can you keep a secret, Mister Smith?”
Another step closer.
“You’re sure you can keep a secret?”
She leans in so she can whisper in his ear. At maximum volume, so he winces, “SO CAN I!”
Her eyes meet his. Heyes is, reluctantly, admiring. With a cool smile, she turns on her heel and strides off. With a murmur that might be taken as apologetic, Penn follows.
The boys watch the, admittedly enticing, back view of Zara’s hips retreat to the camp.
LATER – BACK AT THE CAMP
Kid Curry totes bales of hay. Heyes helps out by sitting on one of them, a silver-trimmed, elephant-sized harness and a polishing cloth discarded at his side, a deck in his deft hands.
“Pick a card.”
“Penn taught you another trick, huh? I reckon Zara won’t approve if’n she finds out.”
“It’s nothing fancy. He won’t tell me how they do the bullet catch. Pick a card.”
“Jack of diamonds.”
“No! Pick a card outta the deck.”
“Don’t you have a lion cage to go clean out?”
“I’m working up the nerve. AND, I thought you’d like to come help. Pick a card.”
“For Pete’s sake…” We gather Kid Curry has already picked a few cards today.
“Hello – again.” It is Zara, settling a shawl around her shoulders. She smiles at the boys. Surprised at the affability, they blink. “It’s turning into a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Sure is, ma’am,” agrees Heyes, after taking a moment to adjust to the civil tone.
“If you see Penn, will you tell him I had to run into town?”
“Not a problem, ma’am.”
Another smile as she lifts her face to the sun. “Those clouds scudding across the hills look so pretty, don’t they?”
Brown eyes check them out. “Uh huh.”
“It must put you in mind of a summer’s day in Wyoming.”
Pause. A flicker of an exchanged glance.
“You did say you were from Wyoming, didn’t you?”
“Wyoming? No, ma’am,” Kid Curry shakes his head.
“Oh. I must have heard wrong. Where did you say you were from?”
“I don’t think the subject came up, ma’am,” says Heyes.
It becomes apparent that continued silence will be suspicious, so Heyes adds, “We rode over from Copper Creek.”
“Ah! Copper Creek. How – local. Well, good morning.”
They touch their hats as she moves away. “Ma’am.” “Ma’am.”
Curry stares after her and scratches his head. “Sheesh. Maybe you CAN do magic. What’s got her givin’ us two nobodies the time of day?”
“Must be our good looks and charm,” deadpans Heyes.
Another exchanged glance. Nope. Seems neither of them is buying that.
“Pick a card…”
MAYBE TEN MINUTES LATER
“Will you quit stalling and just pick a dang card!”
“That’s right, Joshua,” comes a familiar voice, “…Practice, practice, practice.”
The boys look around. Penn leans on a rail, chewing a straw.
“His practice, practice, practice is kinda hard on me,” protests Curry.
Acknowledging shrug from Penn.
“If I nail this trick, are you gonna tell me how you work the bullet catch?” asks Heyes.
“Maybe.” Perfectly timed pause. “Maybe not.”
After a moment, Heyes gives a rueful grin.
“I better go practice, practice, practice, too,” smiles Penn, turning.
“Oh,” Curry recalls him, “Zara said to tell you she had to run into town.”
Penn’s shoulders stiffen.
“Into town…?” Pause. “Don’t forget you two have a lion’s cage to clean out.” He strides away.
Brown and blue eyes turn in the direction of a cage in the distance – complete with lions. Nope, make that lionesses – but we all know what they say about the female of the species. Two gulps.
“Y’know, Kid,” starts Heyes, “I recall how well you coped when we were hired to clear that ranch of mountain lions back in…”
“Pick a different card, huh?”
Zara, driving a smart gig, trots into Main Street, dismounts and scans the buildings. Her eyes rest on the sheriff’s office. She pinches her cheeks, fluffs her hair and squares her shoulders.
INSIDE THE SHERIFF’S OFFICE
“Following you, ma’am?”
The sheriff, no fool by any stretch of the imagination, but not immune to the full-on feminine appeal fluttering her lashes at him, walks to the window, stares out into the street.
“Maybe I was imagining it, Sheriff – but…” Flutter.
Appreciative look from the lawman.
“I’m sure if some fella is following you, ma’am, I can understand it…”
“Not that I’m excusing it…”
“I’ll go check it out, ma’am.”
“Oh, Sheriff, as soon as I saw you stride into the ring last night,” admiring glance from under long, long lashes. “I knew you were a man a lady could rely on.”
With something so close to a sheepish look you could shear him and start knitting winter mittens, the sheriff grabs his hat and strides into the street.
The feminine appeal act drops in a second. Zara steps over to the wall and frowns, consideringly, at the display of wanted posters.
The door of the sheriff’s office opens. Smooth as silk, Zara slides shut the desk drawer and flashes a dazzling smile.
“I couldn’t see anyone, ma’am…”
“Oh! I hope you don’t think I wasted your ti…”
“Not at all. That’s what I’m here for, ma’am. You have so much as a speck of trouble while you’re in this town – you come see me, you hear?” Hooking of masculine thumbs into masculine belt.
“Now, you and your uncle MUST use those free tickets I gave you and come see the show again tonight, Sheriff. I insist.”
“Wouldn’t miss it, ma’am.”
Zara steps down from the boardwalk and crosses to her gig, turning to give a last grateful smile to a still mildly ovine sheriff as she goes. She settles herself, and before taking hold of the reins, gives a secret smile and a satisfied pat to the bag she carries hooked over one arm.
As she drives off, a shadow stirs in the passageway beside the general store. Hey, she was telling the truth, someone IS following her. A figure steps into Main Street and, grim-faced, watches her drive away.
It is Penn.
LATER – BACK AT THE CIRCUS CAMP
Heyes and Curry sit beside Billy at one of the lunch trestles. They are some of the last still eating. Curry mops up the very last traces of stew with a hunk of bread. As one of the women clears the bread basket, he swiftly takes another slice. Heyes, his pants leg rolled up, is examining his right calf.
“I oughta put something on this.”
“Yup,” agrees Billy. “A sock an’ half a yard of pant leg. It’s puttin’ me off my pie.”
A crack of laughter makes it way past the bread distending Kid Curry’s cheek.
Heyes is still studying his booboo. He glowers over to where two sleek lionesses snooze in the sun, paws draped over their noses like the loveable kitties they are under the skin. “What kinda outfit sends a fella into a lion’s cage?”
Mildly, Billy protests, “I did take the lions out first, Joshua.”
More brown-eyed glowering. “Yeah, but…”
“For Pete’s sake,” Curry swallows down his mouthful and rolls his eyes. “You tripped over your feet and hit your leg on a pail! Sheesh! It coulda happened in a – a giant canary cage!”
An offended Heyes rolls down his pants.
INSIDE A LUXURIOUSLY DECORATED CARAVAN
Penn, after a stealthy glance over his shoulder at the door, pulls a case from under the bed, tries it. Locked. Another glance at the door. Listening. Penn takes a lock-pick from his jacket and… What d’you know? NOT locked. Papers. More papers. Nothing of great interest to Penn as he rifles through. Frown. His fingers feel around the base. Tiny satisfied smile as he lifts out a false bottom. Focus on his expression as he reacts to what he sees. Thinking. Decision. He refits the false bottom, closes the case, relocks it, replaces it under the bed.
BACK AT THE LUNCH TABLE
Heyes is still glowering at two blameless felines when something catches his eye.
“Hey, isn’t that Zara’s caravan?”
Billy and Kid Curry turn to look.
“Uh huh,” confirms Billy.
“What’s Penn doing sneaking outta her place?”
Billy and Kid Curry turn back. Both stare at him with ‘duh?’ expressions.
Heyes looks self-conscious as the most obvious explanation for a man being discrete about leaving a woman’s sleeping quarters dawns.
Penn strides over, heading straight for their table.
“Joshua, have you nailed that last trick yet?”
“Sure.” Heyes pulls out his deck, fans it at Billy, “…Pick a card, any card.”
“Replace it in the deck.”
Heyes reaches behind Billy’s ear. “…Is this your card?”
“What about the one under your plate?”
Billy lifts his plate and… Wide grin. “Not bad, Joshua!”
“Not bad at all!” agrees Penn. He leans over. “How about I show you how to do the bullet catch now?”
Three surprised blinks. Billy looks stunned.
“Penn,” he warns, “Zara ain’t gonna like that.”
“Last time I checked,” replies Penn, with an edge to his voice, “I was still the boss, not Zara.” Pause. “So, Joshua, you interested?”
“Sure,” says Heyes, standing up.
“Er – I’m guessing Thaddeus is a better shot? That right?”
“That’d depend on how you’re defining better…” begins Heyes.
“Nope. It’d depend on nothin’. Rosy an’ Posy are better shots than him,” deadpans Curry.
“In that case, both of you come along. Even with smoke and mirrors the bullet catch still needs a marksman.”
THE CIRCUS RING
Kid Curry faces the huge target in front of which Zara stood the previous night. A watermelon is propped on a pole. The remains of shattered fruit are strewn in the sawdust.
“Ready?” asks Penn.
“And Joshua, you’re ready?”
Curry’s gun leaps into his hand and… Splat! A watermelon bites the dust.
“And, while everybody is looking at the mess… Okay. And, now with the hoop.”
Heyes holds up a muslin covered hoop.
“And, Joshua – keeping that torn hoop good and high so our eyes follow it, go retrieve the bullet.”
Heyes goes over to the target, deft move of the hand; a bullet lies on his palm.
“Does it have the mark?”
“Sure does,” grins Heyes. His eyes sparkle. “It’s easy when you know how.”
“Not SO easy,” says Penn. “Thaddeus has practiced sharp shooting day in day out, and, unless I’m mistaken, Joshua, you’ve had a misspent youth palming aces, balancing eggs and generally letting the speed of the hand deceive the eye; all that gives you two a ten-yard start on anyone else trying to do this.” He takes another watermelon from a crate. “Want to do it for real?”
“With someone in front of the target.” He takes up position in front of the target, holding the melon above his head.
Kid Curry exchanges a glance with Heyes. “You sure?” he demurs.
“Relax. If you do exactly what I’ve shown you – it can’t go wrong.”
“I guess not, but…”
“Thaddeus, at that distance you could shoot the dust off my buttons. All you have to hit is the melon. Joshua, you ready?”
Bang! The melon shatters.
“And, in with the hoop… And, shot two. Careful, remember what I told you…”
Hand past his mouth, with a flourish Penn shows a bullet cradled in his palm. “Tah dah!”
A grin of achievement passes between our boys.
Then a cold voice breaks in. “What is happening here?” Zara strides into the ring. Her eyes go from Kid to Heyes and finish on Penn. They narrow. “If you’ve showed them how to do the bullet catch – our best money-spinner – I’ll… I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” Again there is an edge to Penn’s voice as he repeats, “The last time I checked who was in charge around here, it was me.” Civilly, but with the unmistakable tone of a boss giving orders, “Joshua, Thaddeus, I’m sure you have work to do.”
With curious glances at Penn and Zara, they depart.
Zara waits until Heyes and Curry have left the Big Top. Then, icily, “If you’re not keeping our secrets any more, Penn, maybe I won’t either. Still feel like you’re the one in charge around here?” She holds his eyes, challengingly. Penn’s gaze drops first. Zara’s lip curls, “That’s what I figured.”
The ex-outlaws rejoin Billy, who is putting Rosy and Posy through their paces.
“Did he really teach ya the bullet catch?”
Billy opens his mouth to ask.
“We can’t tell ya anything,” forestalls Heyes. “We both gave our word.”
“An’ before that, we gave our word ’bout usually stickin’ to our word,” adds the Kid.
“WHY d’ya reckon he told ya?”
The boys exchange a mute conversation. Search them.
“Maybe…” Heyes is hesitant. “Maybe he just wanted to show Zara he was still in charge?”
Again, a glance at Kid, who shrugs. Well, maybe.
“Don’t look like he did much of a job convincin’ her,” grunts Billy, nodding at two figures in the distance.
Heyes and Curry look over. Billy is right. Penn trails after a proudly erect Zara with much the same air as a whupped puppy.
In long shot, we again see excited crowds stream into the Big Top. We zoom in to a spot behind what, to all intents and purposes, is the backstage area and then, through a lifted flap, into the tent. Billy, in full costume, is briefing two ex-outlaws on their tasks.
“Penn wants you two on helping with the changes tonight. You got the runnin’ order?”
Heyes, consulting a list in his hand, nods.
“And, you’ve double checked ev’rythin’s ready?”
Heyes flicks over to a second sheet, presumably a checklist, and runs a finger down, dark eyes glancing at props and circus costumes around him.
“Yup, yup, yup – er – nope – Thaddeus, where’s the pot of chalk for the acrobats?”
“Guido was doin’ some last-minute practice. He mighta walked off with it.”
“Well, go get it.”
A what-did-your-last-servant-die-of? look.
“I can’t go – I’m checking lists.”
Hint of an eye roll, Curry strides off.
Kid Curry trots down the steps of a gaily painted caravan, a large tub swinging from his hand. Cheerful nods pass between him and members of a stereotypically large and stereotypically sociable Italian family, several of whom are wearing tights and doing stretches.
He heads back towards the Big Top. In a quiet spot, a hand on his arm stops him: Zara.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“How did you talk Penn into teaching you the bullet catch?”
“We didn’t, he just…”
“I’m guessing you knew him before you came here. You have something on him.”
“No, ma’am, we met in the saloon…”
“I don’t believe you. Why else would he teach you…?” Her fingers tighten on his sleeve. “Was he in Wyoming with you? Is that it?”
A chilling of the gaze from those blue eyes.
“Ma’am, I already told you, we only just met Penn, I don’t know why he showed Joshua an’ me that trick an’ I sure don’t know what it is keeps you placin’ us in Wyoming.”
An eyebrow rises. Complete disbelief. “Don’t you, Mister Smith?”
“The name’s Jones.”
Knowing smile. “Of course it is.”
BACK IN THE BIG TOP
The ringmaster stands beside Billy and Heyes. Through the lifted flap, he watches streams of townsfolk arrive and settle in their seats.
“What’s keeping Thaddeus?” wonders Billy.
He and Heyes step outside, the ringmaster turns and looks after them.
“Not what – who.” Heyes nods at a brown-hatted figure in the middle distance.
As the three men watch, Curry – clearly angry – shakes off Zara’s restraining hand and storms towards the Big Top. Heyes reacts to the fiery expression on his partner’s face.
A sudden lull in the surrounding noise allows Zara’s voice to drift over.
“…No one walks away while I’m still talking, Mister ‘Jones.'”
“What’s got you and Zara mad at each other?” asks Billy.
“Nothin’,” fumes Curry. “Here’s the chalk.”
“Take my advice, that’s a woman you don’t want to cross,” says the ringmaster, “not if you want to keep your jobs.”
“We don’t. We’re quittin’,” says Curry.
Three blinks. Searching look from Heyes.
From the main Big Top area, the music starts up.
“Dan,” says Billy to the ringmaster, “GO!” To Kid Curry, “You’re not quittin’ NOW, huh? ‘Cos that’d leave us all kinda – stuck.”
For a moment, Kid Curry remains very much the dangerous ex-outlaw, then, as he looks at the anxious little fella he and Heyes have become fond of, his face softens.
“Nah, not NOW. After the show.”
“In that case,” says Heyes, “let’s get the ladies. Rosy, Posy…” He and the Kid step outside and return leading the gals. Posy kneels down, Heyes helps Billy onto his perch, the trumpets blare, our boys hold open the tent flaps and the first act lumbers on.
Another searching glance from Heyes to Curry, “Why are we quitting?”
“I’ll tell you later. We got lion tunnels to fix…”
Heyes and Curry watch the show through a lifted tent flap. Drum rolls. A blasted ‘tah dah’ on trumpets, wild applause and the booming voice of the ringmaster.
“Ladeeeeez and gentleMEN! The Great Fabuloso – the Emperor of escapology has done it! Before your very eyes he has escaped not only from handcuffs, not only from ropes which cannot be broken by two mighty elephants, but from five hundred gallons of icy water…”
“How DOES he do it?” wonders Heyes.
“You ain’t gonna ask him to teach you that one?” checks Kid Curry.
A mock shiver. “Nah. Had me a bath last month. Besides, didn’t you and me quit?”
“Ladeeeeez and gentleMEN! While the Great Fabuloso prepares for the finale of tonight’s show, the inexplicable, the unfathomable, the utterly unbelievable, death-defying bullet catch… Please welcome back to centre stage the lovely ZARA as she performs her world famous, fascinating, tantalizing, entirely enticing Fire Dance…”
Applause. Especially masculine applause. Boot stomping from younger ranch hands.
A damp Penn joins the boys and shrugs off their congratulations as they pass him a warm toweling robe, bath sheet, fresh shirt – and generally help him with a quick change into a fresh and identical magician’s suit hanging ready.
The applause from the Big Top swells as Zara’s dance finishes.
“And now, Ladeeeeez and gentleMEN, please welcome back the one – the only – the GREAT Fabuloso!”
“If you’ll pass my gun, Thaddeus…”
Kid Curry passes the gun and turns to hang up the damp robe. Penn checks the barrel, closes it, gives it a flourishing twirl preparatory to slipping it into his holster when…
Both ex-outlaws turn. Penn is collapsed on the ground clutching his thigh, an expression of agony on his face. His other hand gropes for a handkerchief which he presses to his leg; it deepens at once to a vivid crimson.
“Sheesh! What happened?” gasps Curry. “Misfire?”
Penn pushes Kid’s hand away, with a squeal.
Billy appears behind them from outside. “What happened?” He sees Penn, his eyes widen.
“An accident with the gun,” says Heyes.
The applause outside is being replaced with murmurs of frustrated anticipation. The ringmaster appears at a trot.
“Will you get out here… What happened?”
“We gotta get him to a doctor,” says Heyes.
“No! No! Don’t move me. I think the bone’s broken and moving it might…” Gasping. Deep breaths, steadying himself. “Billy, run around to the main entrance, get Clyde to point out Doc Collins. I know he’s in tonight. Bring him here.” To the ringmaster. “Dan, get back out there, tell the crowd that tonight the bullet catch will be done by the Great Thaddeus and just as Great Joshua!”
Our boys begin to protest.
“You HAVE to! The show MUST go on. First rule of show business…”
Behind the ringmaster, Zara is also now staring at the bloodied Penn. To her Penn says, “It’s you does the tricky part, Zara. The show has to go on.” She is not convinced. He adds, “Unless you want to give all those folks their money back?”
At that, her eyes narrow, avariciously. “Do as he says,” she snaps at Billy. “Go get the doctor. Run.” He does. “Dan, go do your stuff – make it sound good!” He heads for the ring. “You two…” Her voice lowers ominously, her eyes bore into Curry, “…You better not mess up!” She stalks off.
“Go!” gasps Penn, clutching his leg, “I’ll be fine.”
“Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Great Fabuloso will not be performing the world famous bullet catch…”
Disappointed murmurs. Buttocks shuffling in their seats. A few discontented groans.
“Instead – Ladeeez and GentleMEN – making their very first appearance on the public stage, to demonstrate the death-defying bullet catch assisted by the lovely Zara, toNIGHT, I am PROUD to present, that swaggering, strutting, supremo of gunplay…”
“Must be mixing you up with some other fella,” mutters Heyes to Kid.
“The amazing THADDEUS! AND – er – Joshua!”
Warm – if confused – applause.
The boys head for the centre of the ring. One may or may not be swaggering; whatshisname is definitely displaying a strut.
A reaction shot of Judge Hanley in the audience. He recognizes the boys, opens his mouth as if about to say something, thinks, changes his mind, settles back.
Once again the lovely Zara stands before the target holding a watermelon above her head.
Heyes is silver-tonguing.
“…Not only has your very own neighbor, Jack Race here – and, he has an honest face, huh? – verified that what Thaddeus holds is a real Colt loaded with real bullets, on which Jack’s made his own mark, he is about to prove it to any doubters out there.”
Kid Curry aims; his eyes are steady, confident.
A moment of silence. Then… Screams. Gasps. One of the lovelies holding the hoops covers her eyes and sobs, hysterically. The ringmaster, eyes starting from his head, rushes over.
Heyes and Curry, faces frozen, stare at the scene before them. Half the watermelon spins, crazily, where it fell to the ground. Zara, however, lies completely still in the sawdust, blood-splattered, spangled feathers half covering what is left of her lovely face.
Reactions shot of part of the crowd.
“He – he musta missed.” The sheriff cannot believe what he has just seen. He gives himself a mental shake, gets to his feet, about to go do – well, whatever a decent lawman does when there’s been a tragedy. He calls to a couple of sensible looking townsfolk. “Bill, Frank, Quincy – consider yourself deputized – get everyone who wasn’t in the ring when it happened outta here. Get ’em to go home.”
Beside him Judge Hanley also gets to his feet. “He couldn’t miss! Not him. Not from there.”
Questioning look from the sheriff.
“I know him, Zach. He couldn’t have missed.” Judge Hanley gulps as an unwelcome thought crosses his mind. “Not by accident anyhow.”
A SHORT TIME LATER
A confused scene. The newly-appointed deputies are persuading the last of the reluctant, gawking spectators to leave. The sheriff is directing two circus gals wielding a sheet to cover the body, though an edge of spangled tulle spilling out at one side and a dark, damp patch at the other allows no one to forget what lies beneath.
Heyes and Curry sit on the ring edging. Though the sheriff’s and Judge Hanley’s eyes keep glancing over, they are able to have a low-voiced conversation unheard. Heyes glances at his grim-faced partner, confusion mixed with compassion in the dark eyes. He lays a hand on the Kid’s shoulder. “Don’t let it eat at ya, Kid. It was an acc…”
“You think I missed? At that distance?”
He meets Heyes’ gaze. Then, they both look over at the busy lawman and Judge Hanley, who glances back, his face tense with doubt and concern.
“They’re coming over,” says Heyes. He stands up to meet them.
“I’m gonna need to talk to you some more, Jones. You too, Smith,” says the sheriff.
Heyes nods. This is not welcome, but it sure is understandable.
The sheriff looks down at the still seated Curry, who is staring at nothing. His face softens a shade seeing that the stolid behavior of the young blond man actually covers a mix of confused guilt and shock.
A silence. Judge Hanley asks, quietly, “What happened, Thaddeus? Did you just – miss?”
Blue eyes meet his. “I musta. Leastways…” Again he slumps. “…I dunno. I thought I’d hit the watermelon. I was aimin’ right at it – I squeezed the trigger – and…” A ray of hope. “Somethin’ musta hit it – it smashed.”
“Seemed to me it smashed when it hit the ground,” says the Sheriff. To his uncle, “What did it look like to you, sir?”
Reluctantly, “I don’t know. It was all too quick.”
Curry looks over at Heyes. A tiny shrug. Heyes’ expression conveys that what Judge Hanley just said is, unfortunately, true. It was all too quick to be sure of what they’d seen.
Billy comes back into the ring, closely followed by a fella carrying a doctor’s bag. The doctor moves towards the covered body.
“It can’t be true…” Billy sees the doctor lift the sheet, breaks off, hand covering his mouth. Dragging his gaze away, he sees Kid sitting, stricken, at the ring side. He gulps. “Thaddeus, you mustn’t blame yourself… Penn should never have asked you to…”
“How is Penn?” asks Heyes.
The doctor looks over, “The bullet was lodged pretty deep. I got it out, but he’s lost a lot of blood. I gave him something to make him sleep.”
Billy tries again to comfort Kid. “All the flyers say it’s a dangerous trick, Thaddeus. She isn’t the first to die in a bullet catch act.” To the ringmaster, “Remember that French fella ’bout a dozen years back?”
“It wasn’t like that. Zara was killed with the first shot. The melon bullet,” says the ringmaster.
“But,” Billy protests, “that isn’t … Nothing can go wrong with that. Not unless the fella with the gun can’t hit a barn door…” He meets a set of dark, dangerous eyes telling him to shut up. He shuts up.
“Or unless he wants whoever’s in front of the target outta the way…” speculates the sheriff.
“I didn’t mean…” protests Billy. “Why would Thaddeus…? It musta been an accident. He musta missed. With everyone watchin’ – anythin’s a hard shot.”
“Like hitting a barn door?” grunts the sheriff, eyeing Curry, consideringly.
Billy flushes red, hangs his head.
“Sir,” the sheriff is talking to Judge Hanley, “when this happened, you told me you knew Jones, knew that he can’t miss.”
Miserably, Judge Hanley nods.
“If he can’t miss, and this melon shot is so dang simple, the alternative seems to be he hit what he was aiming at.”
“Why would Thaddeus want to shoot Zara?” protests Heyes. “There’s no motive. We only got hired a day or so back. He barely knew her!”
“Maybe,” says the sheriff, “…BUT, he knew her well enough for them to be heard arguing before the show.”
“She wasn’t an easy woman to get along with,” suggests Billy, trying his best. “It don’t mean it wasn’t an accident. An argument coulda been what made him nervous.”
“You don’t deny you’d had a disagreement with the woman?” the sheriff asks Curry.
The response is a tiny shake of the head.
“You wanna say what about?”
A swift mute conversation with Heyes. For the sheriff, a slower shake of the blond head, “It was nothin’.”
“Son, I’m not saying a tragic accident isn’t still way up on my list of explanations,” says the sheriff, “but, I reckon I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t keep you locked up until I’ve checked things out; made sure there really is no motive.”
Heyes’ shoulders slump, but his expression suggests much as he doesn’t like it, he can understand the sheriff’s point of view.
The sheriff turns to his uncle, “What d’you think, sir?”
“The Thaddeus Jones I thought I knew wouldn’t shoot a woman in cold blood,” says Judge Hanley at last. “BUT, I’m with you on things having to be checked out. If there really is no motive…”
“Of course there’s no motive…” interrupts Heyes, hotly.
Judge Hanley meets Heyes’ gaze, squarely.
“Zach has to do what he thinks is right, Joshua. So do I. If you can help clear Thaddeus’ name – no one’s going to be happier than him and me.”
THE JAIL – THAT NIGHT
A mature – okay, that was just an attempt at tact, the correct word is old – fella wearing a deputy badge is snoozing, boots up on the desk. The clock on the wall chimes midnight. A splutter. The boots come down. A thatch of grey hair is scratched. Then an armpit. He shambles through to the cell where a familiar-looking blond fella is stretched out on the bunk staring, moodily, at the ceiling.
“I’m gonna go do my rounds now.” No answer. “You okay? Another mug of coffee ‘fore I leave?”
Cold look. Then, the blue eyes soften a touch. Whosever fault this is, it isn’t Grandpa’s here.
“Nah, I’m fine. You go do deputy stuff.”
Kid Curry is left alone. A scratching sound. He hears it. Frown. A stealthy creak. Deeper frown. Another creak. He turns his head, reacts.
We see what he sees, a dimpled face beaming through the bars and two deft hands working a lock-pick. The cell door swings open.
“By my reckoning, the deputy’s gonna be gone ’bout fifteen minutes,” says Heyes.
“Is this a jail break?”
“Looks like it, huh?”
Kid sets his jaw. “No!”
“No! If we disappear, Judge Hanley thinks I’m guilty of – of some’n. Even if it’s only havin’ a yellow streak. He’s gonna hafta tell who we are. The governor will hear ’bout it. It’ll be goodbye amnesty.” Pause. “Y’know I’m right?”
“Sure you’re right, but I reckoned it had to be your call – you being the one locked up, facing the noose and all.” He receives the ‘look.’ “I’m guessing you want me to go with Judge Hanley’s plan.”
“He wanted me to help clear your name. Well, not your real name, but I got the gist.” Pause. “Well, if this isn’t a jail break…” Heyes relocks the cell. As if it’s an afterthought, though it clearly isn’t, “Before I go, what were you and Zara arguing about?”
“She was hintin’ stuff – tryin’ to trip me up ’bout our pasts.”
“Think she knew who we are?”
“Dunno. She sure wasn’t buyin’ plain old Smith an’ Jones from Copper Creek.”
In dumb show we see Heyes present himself, officially, at the sheriff’s office, Judge Hanley beside him. Heyes hands over his gun, lets himself be patted down. He and the judge follow the sheriff through to the cell area.
“Us clearing your name’d be easier if we had a better idea what went wrong in that ring,” says Judge Hanley.
“I’ve rerun what happened over and over. I took aim. I fired. And…” Pause. Meeting his partner’s eyes, “Far as I know, I didn’t miss. At that distance, I can’t have missed.”
“Trouble is, Thaddeus, you not being likely to miss is pretty much why Judge Hanley thinks maybe you belong in jail.”
“The only alternative to missing I know of is hitting what you aim at,” says the judge. “Did you aim at her head?”
“No! I aimed at the watermelon.”
“And didn’t miss? I reckon a coupla hundred witnesses would disagree. One of them being me. Another one being Joshua, here.”
“I…” Deep sigh from Kid Curry. “I dunno. It don’t make sense.”
“Unless…?” Heyes is thinking hard.
“Past couple of days, you’ve been yapping about magic guns that shoot two bullets at the same time…”
“You do know the gun’s not really magic?”
“Uh huh. BUT maybe what happened in that ring was two bullets at the same time. Yours aiming at the melon, the other aiming at Zara’s head. When I say the same time, I mean so close we only heard one shot.”
“You mean – someone else shot her?” queries Judge Hanley.
“If Thaddeus is saying he didn’t shoot her by accident and the whole point of me being here is to convince you he didn’t shoot her on purpose, someone else is pretty much the only way I can go.”
“It sure looked as if he shot her,” hesitates Judge Hanley.
“If someone’s using the bullet catch act to hide a murder, it’s gotta be ‘cos they want it to look like the man in the middle of the ring shot her,” says Heyes.
Judge Hanley thinks about that. “I suppose. It sounds pretty devious.”
“All right,” agrees Heyes, “It don’t sound too likely, but we can do a coupla things; we can go check with the doc if he thinks the bullet could have come from somewhere other than where Thaddeus was standing, and we can go check out the Big Top. If someone else did make that shot with hundreds of folk watching, where was he standing not to be seen?”
Judge Hanley stands up. “I said I’d keep an open mind and I will, let’s go.”
Heyes, Judge Hanley, the sheriff, Doc Collins and Billy are all in the centre circle of the Big Top. The doctor stands pretty much where Kid Curry stood last night. The other men are gathered around the target, which is covered in a sheet, presumably to cover the bloodstain.
“Like I said,” Doc Collins is in explanatory mode, “Zara was hit right between the eyes.” He indicates a spot between his own bushy brows to emphasize the point. “The bullet – this bullet…” He holds it up. “Went in a straight line to the back of her skull, which is where I dug it from last night.”
An idea strikes Judge Hanley which lights up his kindly old face. “Let me see that bullet.” It is handed over. “See!” He shows it to Heyes. “There’s nothing on it. I mean – it isn’t one of the bullets that Jack Race put his mark on!”
The sheriff sees the point at once. Eagerly, “Does that mean it isn’t the one Thaddeus fired?”
For a moment, Heyes is silent. We see his brain busy behind those clever eyes. Then, “No,” he says reluctantly. “It don’t. The marked bullets aren’t… They never go into the gun. That’s part of the trick.”
“That’s pretty honest of you,” says Judge Hanley, scratching his head.
Heyes meets the old man’s eyes, “If I thought I’d get away with being dishonest, maybe… But I reckon if I didn’t tell you, someone else would – or you’d check up on the bullet catch act and catch me in a lie. Thaddeus don’t want me to trick him outta jail, he wants his name cleared fair and square. So do I.”
The doctor clears his throat. “I’d say not only was she shot by someone facing her full on, no angle, she was shot by someone who don’t miss.”
Judge Hanley throws an unhappy look at Heyes. He and Heyes know, better than anyone, who that describes.
“Just because she was hit plumb centre, don’t make it not just a miss,” says Billy.
“Makes it a hell of a coincidence,” grunts the sheriff.
Heyes takes the bullet from Judge Hanley.
“It’s a .45 caliber bullet alright. Like from a Colt,” says the sheriff.
“Colt .45s are pretty common.” Heyes examines it, carefully, dark eyes narrowing. “Could the bullet have come from behind Thaddeus? Hypothetically?”
“Hypothetically? Sure,” agrees Doc Collins. “Actually?” He scans the Big Top behind him. “I don’t see where from, not without a couple of hundred folks seeing the shot.”
“There IS somewhere,” pipes up Billy. He trots past Heyes and the doctor, who both follow. The little guy keeps going towards the side of the tent, unhooks and lifts a flap. “There’s quite a space here and you can get outside and through to the prop area. It’s the same on the other side. We use ’em if an act needs to enter from two places at once – it surprises the audience.”
“You could stand there unseen,” says Heyes, slowly.
“That’s kinda the point,” agrees Billy.
“The angle’d be right.” The doctor stares back at the distant target. “It makes it an even fancier shot. Though, that’s not medical stuff, so it’s not my call.”
“It’s my call,” says the sheriff, who has joined them. He too stares at the target. “Anyone who shot from here hasta be a guy who can blow the spot outta an ace from the length of a street anytime he chooses.”
“Not impossible,” says Heyes.
“Nope,” acknowledges the sheriff. “Neither is getting dealt a royal flush from a straight deck. Just – very long odds.”
“Who else knows about this place, Billy?” Judge Hanley asks.
“Everyone who’s worked here a while.”
“Who else might have a grudge against Zara?”
Wry smile. “Everyone who’s worked here a while.”
From the sheriff, “Who works here, might have something ‘gainst Zara AND could make that shot?”
From both Heyes and Billy; thinking, idea, mute conversation, reluctance. “I reckon you oughta get the boss to answer that, Sheriff,” says Billy.
Penn, wearing a dressing gown nearly as flamboyant as his stage costumes, lies on his bed, his splinted and bandaged leg propped up. The same group as were in the Big Top are with him (snug fit in there) and a conversation is clearly in progress. Penn is speaking.
“…Who among us circus folk could make a shot that exact over that distance? With a Colt, not some fancy rifle? Well,” self-deprecating smile, “I would have said only one person; me. From the look on Billy’s face, he would have said the same. Good thing I have a perfect alibi.”
“You sure do,” chimes in Doc Collins. “Before I dug that bullet out of you and set the broken bone, you couldn’t have moved an inch, let alone made it around to that side vent. Even if someone had dragged you there, no way could you stand and shoot.”
“Didn’t think I’d have reason to be thankful for this.” Penn picks up a glass which holds a now clean bullet and passes it to Heyes. “I thought I’d make it into a lucky charm for my watch-chain; now I’m dang sure I will.” With evident pain, he shifts himself higher on his pillows. “I guess me thinking I’m the best shot around doesn’t rule out there being some other marksman hiding his light under a bushel.”
“Maybe not,” admits the sheriff.
“What I don’t understand is why you have Thaddeus in jail? It was an accident. They do happen, even to the best of us. My leg proves that! If anyone should be in jail – it’s me. It was all my fault. I should never have asked Thaddeus to do the trick. The nerves must have got to him, his hand shook; an accident. After all, why would he want Zara dead? He barely knew her…”
“I said that,” says Heyes, still examining the bullet dug from Penn’s leg.
“Murder needs a motive. No motive at all for Thaddeus.”
“I said that, too.”
“They were arguing right before the show,” says the sheriff.
“They were?” Penn looks shaken. He flashes a worried look at Heyes, who gives a confirmatory shrug.
Penn rallies. “That’s nothing. Zara had a sharp tongue when it came to dishing out orders to roustabouts, that’s all. And, whatever else she may have been, she was no fool. Would she stand in front of a target for Thaddeus if there’d been some kinda fight going on? AND, if Thaddeus were going to murder Zara during the act – he wouldn’t do it on the first bullet. That’s the straight shot. The mistakes can happen on the trick shot – the second shot. He knew that, same as I do. If you were faking an accident – you’d fake it where accidents can happen if folk don’t do the switch right…”
“I didn’t say that,” admits Heyes. “It makes sense though. Kinda.”
“Not to me it don’t,” frowns the sheriff.
“I think I get it,” says Judge Hanley. “You’re saying an accident would be more natural later on – there’s what we lawyers call a precedent for it. If you were fixing the shot to look like an accident – you’d fix it on the second shot. So even though an accident is a lot less likely on the first shot, the very fact it IS unlikely, means it’s more likely to be one.”
The sheriff’s brow wrinkles as he works this out. He opens the door of the caravan, nods to a waiting deputy, who hands him a box. It is the self-same box we saw Penn frowning over yesterday. Penn’s expression does not flicker, but there is a certain wariness in those clever eyes.
“I searched Zara’s caravan earlier,” explains the sheriff, “in case there was anything suggesting a grudge or… Well, anything. I reckon she kept most of her personal stuff in here. It’s locked – can you open it?”
A twitch forward from Heyes. He realizes he is not the one being asked.
“I don’t have Zara’s keys,” says Penn.
“That’s not quite what I asked. Your flyers claim no lock is safe against you. Thought I’d check before I bust it.”
A moment. A shrug from Penn. “Without prejudice, Sheriff. If Joshua will pass the letter opener and the paper spike.”
Penn does something deft which causes an admiring lift from a Heyesian eyebrow. A click. Penn hands the box to the sheriff who opens it and lifts out papers.
“Seems to be her bank book. A set of accounts. Schedule of wages. That kinda thing.”
“I woulda thought you did the business accounts, sir?”
“I do. There they are. All in order. Feel free to check them.” Penn indicates a ledger, next to pens, ink bottles and so on, on a small desk. “Zara liked to make her own tallies too. She was,” he searches, “…A careful businesswoman.”
Heyes is taking advantage of the invitation to check the ledger. “You make pretty good takings.” He turns a page. “I’d have thought profits woulda been higher.”
“Pretty good takings, but pretty high expenses, too,” says Penn, evenly. “Grocery and butcher bills mount up fast when you’ve lions and elephants to feed.”
Judge Hanley looks down at the same page as Heyes. “It all seems safely in the black from where I’m standing, Joshua.” A smiling glance over at Penn, “I don’t know what you use all the red ink on, it’s not here, huh?”
Heyes eyes flick to the empty glass bottle with the scarlet dribble staining its label which stands among the black ink. He loses interest in the ledger, turns back to Zara’s now empty box. A frown. He reaches in, taps the base. “Judge Hanley, do you think this box looks bigger on the outside than in?”
The old man’s shrewd eyes look where Heyes is looking.
Penn reaches over and taps too. “No!” he scorns. “That’s solid wood. You’ve spent too long with my props, Joshua. Seeing tricks where there are none.”
“I think Joshua might be right,” says the judge. His fingers are working. “Ah!”
He lifts the false bottom. He and Heyes see what is hidden. Over on the bed, Penn gulps and sends an apologetic look at Heyes.
“What is it?” asks the sheriff.
“I’m afraid,” says Judge Hanley, “it looks very much like a motive for Thaddeus to murder Zara.”
We see what he and Heyes see and what Penn saw yesterday. Beneath the false bottom of Zara’s box are two very familiar wanted posters.
FIVE MINUTES LATER
Heyes wears handcuffs and his holster is empty. The sheriff looks harassed. Penn and Judge Hanley both look kinda guilty. Doc Collins and Billy look – well – a mix of shocked and excited. The room is a babble of voices until the sheriff cuts through it.
“For Pete’s sake will all of you all SHADDUP!”
To Heyes: “Yeah, if Kid Curry knew Zara snuck those posters from my office, Hannibal Heyes’d probably know, too. And, yeah, if you’d known, you wouldn’t have been so keen on spotting the hidden compartment in the box.”
To Billy: “Yeah, Thaddeus Jones being Kid Curry don’t make half the stuff you say ’bout it maybe bein’ an accident any less true.”
To Penn: “And, yeah, him being Kid Curry don’t make it any less true that he’d have done better to fix an accident on the second shot, not the first. Makes it MORE true if anything, ‘cos he woulda had a dang good plotter helping him plan.”
Half affronted, half flattered expression on Heyes’ face.
To his Uncle: “And, yeah, if Heyes and Curry have some kinda half-promise of an amnesty deal, would they mess it up to shoot some circus gal when they could just have slipped away and rode out? And, yeah, I do recall that in all the trains and banks he robbed, Kid Curry never shot anyone.” Deep, deep breath. “I know ALL that, so you can ALL stop tellin’ me. It don’t make any difference. If this is Hannibal Heyes and that other fella is Kid Curry, the only place they’re gonna be in my town is in jail. Leastways till this is all cleared up. IF this does all get cleared up – maybe I’ll release ’em, nice and legal-like, into the jurisdiction of this fella Lom Trevors Heyes keeps bleatin’ about.”
Totally affronted expression at the term ‘bleating.’
“That’s a big IF, and a big WHEN. Until then – jail!” He makes as if to usher Heyes out.
“Sheriff,” plaintive cough from Penn, “before you go, could you pass me that draft the doc mixed for me?”
Surprised blink from the sheriff. Why is Penn asking him? However, he leans over and places the draft within reach.
“And, Sheriff.” Another cough. Though why the injured leg is suddenly affecting Penn’s lungs is a mystery. “May I ask Joshua to shake my hand one last time, to show there’s no grudge?”
“You can shake both his hands,” allows the sheriff. “So long as they stay fastened together.”
BACK IN THE CELL
Heyes and Curry are both behind the bars, sitting on a bunk.
Glum silence. More silence. Of the glum kind.
Heyes breaks it, “Penn don’t agree with ya, Kid.”
“About breaking jail. He’s in favor of it. I know ‘cos when he shook hands with me, he gave me this.” Heyes pulls something from his vest pocket, shows it to Kid. Something else falls out.
About the object lying on Heyes’ palm. “What is it?”
“A wax impression of the key to this cell. He musta took it when the sheriff bent over him.”
“Could ya… I mean, just from that, could ya…?”
“Yup. I’m a genius. Thought ya knew that.”
“It’d still be good-bye amnesty.”
Mute conversation. No jail break. Not yet.
Kid picks up the tiny object that fell out of Heyes’ pocket. A bullet. Questioning look.
“It’s the one the doc dug outta Penn’s leg,” explains Heyes, taking it back. “I didn’t mean to take it. Musta been still holding it.” Once more he examines the bullet. “What does this remind me of?”
“Hundreds of other identical bullets?”
The dark brows draw together, “Maybe not completely identical, Kid.” Heyes jumps to his feet and grabs the bars. “Sheriff!” he calls. “Sheriff! I want you to check some’n out for me!”
Doc Collins is outside the cell, the sheriff and Judge Hanley beside him. He reaches into his pocket, passes Heyes a bullet. Heyes holds both bullets – the one he had from Penn and the one brought by the doctor – up to the light. In dumb show we see Heyes directing the sheriff and judge to look closely. We see, but do not hear, Heyes’ silver tongue in full flow. The sheriff scratches his head – not convinced. Beseeching expression and gesture from Heyes. Pause. The sheriff raises a considering eyebrow. Mute conversation with his uncle. Judge Hanley nods. A ‘why not?’ shrug from the sheriff.
Heyes and Curry are cuffed, with deputies standing close enough to be seen as ‘on guard’ without being so close as to rub the ex-outlaws’ noses in it.
The sheriff fires a gun into sacks of meal from short range. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. He takes the second gun handed to him by his uncle, turns to a fresh pile of meal sacks. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. All done.
Judge Hanley and Doc Collins open the sacks, start to sift. One. Two. Three… They are fishing out the bullets.
“Penn didn’t argue ’bout handing over his gun?” asks Heyes.
“This?” The sheriff holds up the second Colt he fired. “Nope. He was surprised, but handed it over as nice as pie. Let’s look at those bullets.”
He and Heyes do just that.
“You see,” says Heyes, eagerly, “THESE all have the same kinda scratches. The bullet that came outta Penn had the same scratches as the one the doc took outta Zara – and these have the same. They came outta the same gun. THESE, the ones that you fired outta Thaddeus’ gun, the same one he was using last night, they’re scratched too, sure – but it’s different.”
The sheriff is studying hard. Acknowledging purse of the lips.
“It’s like I hoped,” triumphs Heyes. “Guns are like folks – they have fingerprints. You see, fingerprints are…”
“Unique to each individual,” cuts in the sheriff. “Yup. I read Twain, too. Okay, I’m convinced. Leastways, I’m nearly convinced. The bullet that killed Zara came outta Penn’s gun. That clears Ki…” He stops. With a wary eye on the deputies, which tells us he has NOT blabbed who his prisoners are, he corrects himself. “That seems to clear Thaddeus. So, who and how? It can’t have been Penn. You two saw him get shot! Unless the doc is wrong and he somehow dragged himself…”
“I’m not wrong,” interrupts Doc Collins, firmly. “He couldn’t have moved. I don’t want to make things hard for Thaddeus and Joshua, but – no way.”
Frustrated puzzlement on Heyes’ face. He starts to pace.
SAME SCENE – LATER
Heyes still pacing. Sheriff, judge, doctor, deputies and Kid Curry have made themselves comfortable. In fact, Kid Curry, legs stretched out, hat tipped over his face, appears to be asleep.
The sheriff pulls out his watch. “Three o’clock. He’s been wearing a groove in the dirt for nearly an hour.”
“That’s nothin’,” grunts Kid Curry, “he can keep it up all night.” Calling out to his partner, “You keep thinkin’, Joshua. That’s what you’re good at.”
Heyes still pacing. The judge and doctor have joined Kid Curry in the hat-covered dozing pose. The deputies play tic-tac-toe in the dirt. The sheriff, a picture of restrained impatience, checks his watch. Nearly four.
Heyes stops. Ineffable smugness dimples his face. Got it!
“It WAS Penn!” he crows. “I know how he did it!”
Heyes and Curry (both still cuffed), the sheriff, judge, doctor and Billy face the injured man.
“You saw me! You saw me put a bullet through my leg. The doc’s told you – I couldn’t have moved.” Penn is not angry as he says this to Heyes, he is more – curious – to hear the response.
“He couldn’t have moved. I know,” avers Doctor Collins.
“He couldn’t move after the bullet went in,” allows Heyes, “but when was that?”
“Just before he was due to go back onstage,” says Billy. “We all saw it.”
“No!” Heyes’ eyes sparkle. “We didn’t. Think what we ACTUALLY saw, and remember we’re dealing with a master illusionist…”
FADE TO FLASHBACK
“If you’ll pass me my gun, Thaddeus…”
Kid Curry passes the gun and turns to hang up the damp robe. Penn checks the barrel, closes it, gives it a flourishing twirl preparatory to slipping it into his holster when…
Heyes voiceover: “We hear the gun go off. We see Penn collapse, clutching a handkerchief to his leg. The handkerchief turns red. We assume it’s blood. But, right here in this caravan, there’s an empty bottle of red ink.
“Sheesh! What happened?” gasps Curry. “Misfire?”
Penn pushes Kid’s hand away, with a squeal.
Heyes voiceover: “Penn makes sure Thaddeus doesn’t get too close a look at that wound. He sends Billy for the doctor. No offence, Billy, but you’re a good choice. Short legs take longer to cover the ground. He asks me and Thaddeus to go do the trick shot – having conveniently, and inexplicably, taught us one of his best money spinners earlier in the day.”
“Go!” gasps Penn, clutching his leg, “I’ll be fine.”
Heyes voiceover: “I reckon as soon as we’d gone…”
Penn checks Heyes, Curry and the ringmaster are busy on stage. He pockets the stained handkerchief, picks up his gun and, lifting a tent flap, sprints up the canvas-walled corridor to the hidden side entrance. He opens the narrowest gap possible, aims at Zara, waits, waits…
Heyes’ voice in the flashback; “…So, not only has your very own neighbor, Jack Race here – and, he has an honest face, huh? – verified that what Thaddeus holds is a real Colt loaded with real bullets, on which he has made his own mark, he is about to prove it to any doubters out there.”
Kid Curry aims; his eyes are steady, confident.
Unseen, way behind him. Penn aims; his eyes are steady, confident.
Heyes voiceover: “That’s why the accident was staged on the first shot. It woulda been more believable on the trick shot, but Penn couldn’t risk Billy getting back with the doc before he’d finished…”
Penn races back to the prop area, lies down, presses the gun to his leg, bites his lip, shuts his eyes and… Bang!
Heyes voiceover: “No way was it gonna be overheard with all the shouting and screaming going on.”
Penn collapses back in genuine agony, clutching a fresh handkerchief to his leg in a fruitless effort to stem the blood. Seconds later, Billy appears, leading Doc Collins.
BACK IN THE PRESENT
Incredulous stares at Penn, who is not denying Heyes’ version of events.
“He shot through his own leg in cold blood?” Doctor Collins cannot believe it.
“He had no choice,” says Heyes. “His wound had to be disabling. He had to have a doctor swear he couldn’t move.”
“But – he hasn’t said one thing to incriminate you boys,” Judge Hanley is puzzled. “If he wanted to throw the blame on Thaddeus…?”
“He didn’t,” said Heyes. “He wanted an accident. He had no idea there’d be anyone in the audience who recognized ‘Thaddeus Jones’ and would tell the sheriff – ‘I know that fella and know he can’t miss.’ He thought me and Thaddeus would get questioned and then ride out. Later, Penn STILL didn’t know anyone but him had recognized us. He tried to help us break jail. All he wanted – and expected – was for us to disappear. Two fellas called Smith and Jones among thousands.”
“Why shoot Zara?” asks the sheriff. “And, if you’re gonna shoot her – why not just shoot her? She stands in front of your target every night. Why not simply stage your own accident?”
“Because,” sighs Penn, “it would raise questions. A good sheriff – and you ARE a good sheriff – might have found my motive.”
“Which was?” prompts Judge Hanley.
“She was blackmailing me. Had been for years. Ever since she recognized me.” Wry smile. “You already know the Great Fabuloso is an alias. So is Penn Nichols. I learnt how to be real good with a gun, how to pick locks, how to make folk look in the wrong direction, and how to make the cards do what I want, the same place these boys did. My real name is Jefferson Oscar.”
Frowning. Then, remembrance dawns on everyone except Billy and the doctor.
“You led the Jawbone Creek gang,” says Heyes. “You were the best safe cracker in the business until…” He breaks off. We gather modesty forbids.
“You were supposed to be the fastest draw south of the Dakotas back then,” adds Curry.
“You’d a pretty big price on your head,” says Judge Hanley.
“Nothing compared to some folks,” replies the fella we shall continue to call Penn, with a meaningful glance at a couple of ex-outlaws, “but enough to be of interest to bounty hunters, even after I’d gone straight.” Bitterly, “Bounty hunters like Zara.”
“She didn’t hand you in,” points out the sheriff.
“Why would she? She made more than the price on my head from me each year. And, she enjoyed the – the gloating. I knew she’d recognized these two boys. I’d suspected they were – from a background like mine – when I saw the things they could do. I knew that once Zara’d enjoyed herself with a touch more gloating, she’d use them. One way or another. I didn’t want that. They had to be like me – going straight. Why else were they shoveling dung for peanuts? She’d ruined it for me. I didn’t want…” He stops.
“You were doing us a favor?” grunts Curry with an edge of cynicism.
Another wry smile. “My selfish and unselfish motives were pretty mixed up, Thaddeus. Maybe you two know how that feels?”
Mute conversation. “Maybe,” Heyes agrees, fairly.
“Like Joshua says, I didn’t think anyone else would recognize you – I thought you’d disappear.” He leans forward, though the movement makes him wince, “I want you to know – if it had ever looked like Thaddeus was gonna hang, I’d have confessed. I want you to believe that.”
“The Jawbone Creek gang musta broke up back in – what – ’75?” says Heyes. “Hasn’t the statute of limitations…?”
“On our last job, one of the posse chasing us got killed,” Penn cuts him off. “Not by my gun, and I’m pretty sure all the fellas shooting were only trying to – to dissuade further pursuit. Doesn’t stop it being murder and doesn’t stop me being guilty – all those in a criminal conspiracy that ends in a murder are equally guilty whoever’s finger is on the trigger.”
“That’s bad luck,” says Heyes after a pause.
“No, it’s not. It’s bad choices. I’m sure you two know how they feel too, huh?”
The ex-outlaws, or maybe that should be the other two ex-outlaws, exchange a glance.
“Yeah, we do. We were – luckier.”
“And you stopped while your luck held. Good for you. I mean it. Good.” Pause. “Anyhow, the statute of limitations doesn’t cover murder.” Pause. “Quite right, too.” Pause. “It was the gallows for me even before this week’s – events.”
“Penn…” Heyes cannot think what to say. Finally, “I’m sorry.”
Four figures sit at a small railway station; Heyes and Curry, no longer handcuffed, a little ways apart, the sheriff and Judge Hanley.
“Penn,” grunts Curry, “he coulda been us.”
“Nope. In all the trains and banks we robbed we never…”
Curry cuts Heyes off. “We sure tried to discourage pursuit from a few posses in our time. We coulda been him.” His boot kicks at the dirt. “Despite everythin’, I still kinda liked him.”
A sigh from Heyes, “Me too.”
“Fellas,” says Judge Hanley, coming over with his nephew, “you know that, legally, Zach and I have to have you escorted to Wyoming.”
“We thought we’d hand you over to some lawman there called – er,” pretended memory loss from the sheriff, “Lom Trevors.” Deep intake of breath. “Long journey,” he muses. “Gonna cost the town to cover all our travel and accommodation.” Mock regretful shake of the head. “I sure don’t like leaving this place with no sheriff for so long.”
“Especially as, after all that effort, we suspect this Lom Trevors might have some kind of – arrangement – with these boys. Seems wasteful,” agrees Judge Hanley.
“Still, legally, we hafta try.”
“Oh, legally, sure.”
“Of course,” the sheriff studies the horizon, “if these boys slipped through our fingers, nothing much we could do.”
“How would we know where to look? We’d have done our best – they’d just be too dang tricky for us.”
“That Hannibal Heyes is one tricky fella. And that Kid Curry – ain’t no one that fast. What with their horses being tethered right over there so handy…” The sheriff nods over at two mounts. “…And their guns being snug in the saddlebags, those two might just make off right under our noses.”
A mute conversation between blue and deep brown eyes.
“I think I could use a cup of coffee,” says the sheriff.
“Me too,” agrees Judge Hanley. “Maybe two cups.”
“If we stepped over to the cafe for – oh – half an hour or so, d’you reckon our prisoners’d still be here when we got back?”
“Sure,” smiles Judge Hanley. “Let’s go.”
And, watched by two half disbelieving ex-outlaws, they stride off without a backward glance.
Pause. Blue eyes flick left, brown eyes flick right. More pause. Then, in unison, two hats are clamped to dark and blond heads and two sets of boots race for the waiting horses.