Two familiar figures ride side by side. One might expect the balmy sunshine, cheerful twitter of birds and undoubtedly glorious scenery to put a smile on the face of Kid Curry. One would be wrong. The scowl beneath the brown brim deepens moment by moment. By contrast, Hannibal Heyes beams from ear to ear and emits conspicuous waves of self-satisfaction. He is in full flow. We hear the end of what has clearly been a longer speech.
“…You see, I always knew I was right.”
“Why ain’t I surprised?”
“I told you so.”
“You should have listened to me.”
“Like I ever get a choice. Point is I DID listen to you, Heyes. I listened real good. Then I told ya why I thought the plan was too risky. YOU didn’t listen to ME.”
“And I was right!”
“No. You were wrong.”
“Sure. It worked out okay, but that was sheer dang luck.”
“I like to call it genius, not luck.”
“Besides, that ain’t the point. Point is – I said, don’t do this – and you went ahead anyhow. Seems to me, ignorin’ my opinion is gettin’ to be a habit. And now you’re doin’ it again. Here we are ridin’ to Big Mac’s place…”
“His telegram said five hundred dollars. Can’t deny it’s tempting.”
“And I said – he’ll be wantin’ that dang bust again. We oughta stay outta it.”
“And I said – Look at it logically! Why bring us back for that? He knows we’ll say no. Besides, him and Armendariz are family now, they’ll have put all that behind them. Then I said…”
“I know what YOU said Heyes. I was there. And, same as always, we’re goin’ along with what YOU said. We ignore what I think…”
“We do have that longstanding agreement on the thinking, Kid.”
“I’m kinda tired of hearin’ that one, Heyes.”
McCREEDY PLACE – EXTERIOR
Carlotta McCreedy is cutting and placing roses into a basket. As our boys ride up, she lifts her hand in greeting.
She walks over as they dismount. She is followed by Blake, McCreedy’s loyal – if sometimes fight-picking – ranch hand.
“Joshua, Thaddeus,” she says. “Welcome!”
“Mizz McCreedy.” Hats are touched.
Blake gives the boys a friendly nod and moves to hold the horses while Heyes and Curry unstrap saddlebags and the bulky rolls fastened behind.
“Patrick told me he had invited you.” Big Mac is newly christened as Patreek in his wife’s heavily accented English. “You will stay until next week? For the celebration?”
Both blue and brown eyes blink.
“Celebration?” Heyes asks.
“Our first anniversary. Did Patrick’s telegram not say?”
“Musta slipped his mind, ma’am,” says Curry, a hint of incredulity in his voice.
Blake smothers a laugh. “You didn’t think he’d wired you to steal the bust again, did ya?”
“The thought never occurred,” protests Heyes, with shining, almost half-offended, sincerity. “Did it, Thaddeus?”
“Though, to be fair, many thoughts never occur to Thaddeus.”
The look intensifies. Heyes returns the blandest of smiles.
“I am sorry Patrick is not here to greet you,” says Carlotta. “May I offer you some refreshment? Coffee? Or, since I am American now, perhaps tea?”
“You may offer ME coffee, ma’am.” Heyes dumps his saddlebags onto a surprised, but affable enough, Blake. “And I, in return, will offer you…” A gallant arm is presented with dimpled charm.
From the amusement in her voice, while she does not take it entirely seriously, the charm appears to be to Carlotta’s taste. “Why, thank you, Joshua.” She slips her arm through his. “Coffee for you, Thaddeus?”
“Thaddeus will join us after helping Blake with the horses and bags.”
“Oh…?” Carlotta lifts an enquiring eyebrow Curry-wards.
The Kid opens his mouth, but Heyes forestalls him.
“You see, I like to think while I provide the brains of our partnership, Thaddeus provides the brawn.”
Carlotta’s dark eyes take in the blond ex-outlaw. A twitch of her mouth suggests she finds the Heyesian teasing and Curryesque silent fuming entertaining. “I would not say you were so much brawnier than Joshua, Thaddeus.”
The Kid opens his mouth again. Nope. Still not quick enough.
“He isn’t, ma’am. But that’s nothing compared to how much he’s not as brainy.”
Heyes turns and escorts Carlotta back to the house.
“Joshua,” she is saying. “You look different. Have you done something to your hair?”
“Yeah,” mutters the Kid, sotto voce. “He’s swollen the head under it!”
Heyes is alone in McCreedy’s study. He pours a refill of coffee, wanders over to the bookshelves, searches – one slim finger tracing the titles. Ah – Hoyle. He takes it down, flips it open.
Curry enters, still looking proddy.
“Yup. Just the one of me. But it always pays to check your math, huh, Kid?”
“Will you quit with the dumb stuff?”
“The what…?” Innocent wide brown eyes.
“The people’s philosopher, hasn’t read much, can’t express himself, some folk might say kinda stupid stuff. It’s gettin’ old. Quit it.”
“Sure. I’ll quit.” Pause. “When you quit letting it get to you.”
A touch of genuine annoyance creases Heyes’ brow.
“Where’s your sense of humor, Kid? I prod at you – you prod at me. It’s what we do.”
“Yeah. But you’re not just proddin’ ’bout me not bein’ so smart, are ya? I mean – you are – but underneath, you really think it.”
“Kid – seriously? I’m only yanking your chain.” Pause. Curry eyes him, suspiciously. “Be logical. Would a genius like me partner up with someone who wasn’t pretty dang smart himself?”
“Pretty dang smart – but not so smart as you?!”
“Well…” Dimpled ‘let’s be reasonable’ face.
Unseen by our boys, the door handle turns.
“You DO think you’re smarter’n me.”
“YOU think I’m smarter than you. That’s the deal.”
“I think you’re QUICKER than me, Heyes. And way more devious. It’s not the same.”
The door opens the merest sliver – then freezes as Heyes says, “No way will Big Mac pay five hundred dollars just to get us at his anniversary party. I mean, we’re fun to have around – well, one of us is – but all the same. What’s he really after?”
Curry feigns surprise. “Oh, you wanna know what I think?”
Reproachful look from Heyes.
Accepting ‘okay – maybe time to stop sulking’ head movement from Curry. “Heyes, why does a man like Big Mac invite over a pair of thieves? He wants us to steal somethin’.”
The door opens fully, in walks Carlotta.
“So sorry to have left you alone. More coffee? Or…”
Hoof beats and carriage wheels outside. She moves to the window. “Patrick is back.”
LATER – DINING ROOM
Oil lamps cast a warm glow. Heyes and Curry wear the satisfied expressions of men recently wrapped around an excellent meal.
Carlotta wears the expression of a woman, who while happily married, is enjoying the attention of attractive men NOT her husband and has just possibly enjoyed a glass or three of wine. We watch her laugh at something Curry has said. She catches her husband’s eye. A mute message passes.
Carlotta smiles, graciously, at her guests. “You will want me to leave, so you can discuss – whatever business Patrick has with you.”
“Ma’am,” Heyes despatches dimpled charm towards her, “of whatever else we may stand accused, neither Thaddeus nor I would EVER want you to leave.”
A ‘sheesh’ expression registers on Curry.
Carlotta’s tone holds a teasing note as she turns to her husband. “Patrick, I think Joshua and Thaddeus worry as soon as I leave you to your whiskey and cigars – you’ll bring up the bust of Caesar.”
“No, no.” Big Mac shakes his head. “Armendariz and me – we came to an agreement on that.”
Head tilts of interest from the boys.
“Like the disputed land between their ranches,” says Carlotta, “the bust was given to me.”
“And…” Heyes’ smile is quizzical. “…which undisputed ranch do you keep it on?”
“Neither. I gave the bust to Father Ramirez. He sold it and used the money for the poor. Both Ernesto and Patrick agreed – eventually – that was best.”
“Sure is better for my good disposition and my stomach,” says Mac.
“Unfortunately, once the bust found a peaceful home, they found something else to feud over.”
“I’d hardly call it – feuding,” deprecates Mac, unconvincingly. He turns to the boys. “You see, when I married – best thing I ever did – I knew Carlotta’d want to visit the church at Matasca pretty regular – so I had her a private railway coach built. Real fancy – y’know the kind of thing? Armendariz wanted in on the present – so he paid for all the furnishing.”
“They both spoil me,” smiles Carlotta.
“Who can blame them?” Heyes raises his glass in salute.
A modified eye roll from Kid Curry.
“Anyways – the first time Carlotta took her fancy new coach into Matasca, Armendariz and me decided to – y’know – christen it properly. So while she visited her friends, we hired the driver to take us to Costilla Junction and back. We had a few drinks, played cards and – Armendariz won.” Momentary brooding. “Naturally, I had to have me a chance to get even.”
“It has become a regular event,” says Carlotta. “Patrick takes Ernie, you remember the bartender from his saloon, to wait on them both, so he can show he too is a grandee. Patrick and Ernesto drink together. They play two-handed ombre…”
Two never-heard-of-it questioning expressions from two ex-outlaws.
“It means…” She deepens her voice, throws back her head with arrogant pride. “I am the man!” Normal tone. “Which tells you all you need to know.”
Mac’s ample butt shifts in his seat. “Weren’t you about to leave us, my dear?”
“No, Patrick. I said you might want me to leave – not that I was going.” She turns back to the partners. “Two men, almost brothers, who cannot stop trying to prove who is most clever. How foolish is that?” A wily feminine eye flicks momentarily from face to face.
Two more – admittedly slimmer – butts shift.
“Carlotta,” Big Mac protests. “You said us using the railway coach was a good idea. Neutral ground. And the ombre, that’s nothing but a little – brotherly – competition. Just for fun.”
“If it is only for fun why does it bother you so much that Ernesto beat you?”
“He did NOT beat me! The score is three to two. If – I mean, WHEN I get even this Friday, it’ll be all square.”
“Yup.” Heyes sips his wine. “I read about that kind of brotherly competition. I think back East they call it sibling rivalry?”
“As if the ombre contest is not enough, they take turns to provide the refreshment and challenge each other over who can bring the most expensive bottle.”
“It’s not just about the expense…”
Mac is cut short.
“Patrick paid, you will not believe this, over a thousand dollars to ship a case of vintage Maderin from my ancestors’ estates in Armendaritze.”
Impressed whistle from Kid Curry. Larcenous eye flicker from Heyes.
“What can I say?” Mac’s eyes twinkle behind those tortoiseshell frames. “My natural generosity got the better of me.”
A swallow of wine goes the wrong way. “YOUR natural generosity!?” coughs Kid Curry.
“Yeah!” A little of Big Mac’s toughness returns. “You remember that, huh? It’s what’s making me house and feed my dear nephew and his friend right now and what makes me look out for paying jobs for ’em when I can.”
Both partners’ expressions concede that they take the point.
Heyes faces Carlotta. “Playing see your price and raise you on bottles might be expensive, but it’s sure cheaper than the old game of seize the Caesar, and they can both afford it. You’re a smart woman, ma’am; ignore it. No, don’t ignore it. Enjoy making fun of how dumb men can be, but don’t waste your time trying to change them.”
“Lotta truth in there,” nods Curry.
“Indeed there is,” agrees Carlotta. “If these two dumb men…”
“Hey!” protests Mac.
Without turning to face him she reaches out and lays an affectionate hand over his. “…Both of whom I love very much. If they had been content with vying over hospitality, I would ignore it. However, just after Easter, Patrick decided to steal…”
“Steal is a harsh word, dear.”
“…To – remove – the fine Tennessee whiskey my brother had provided, then present it as something he, himself, had happened to bring as a back-up.”
“I wasn’t having him crow how connoisseurs preferred George Dickel to Jack Daniels. Not after I’d brung Jack Daniels the time before.” Mac meets the ex-outlaws’ disbelieving eyes. “He brung it to give to me anyhow! And, I gave it back!”
“So…” Heyes is sweet reason itself. “The point was…?”
“Exactly!” Carlotta is scathing. “Naturally, the next time, Ernesto – er – removed…”
“The bottle of Maderin.”
“Some folk can’t take a joke!”
“There is currently a draw. It will stay that way. Will it not?”
She waits for an answer.
“Yes,” a reluctant Mac finally concedes.
“Yes. Because, both Ernesto and Patrick have given me their word they will not lay one single finger on any bottles. From now on, as in Red Rock’s saloon, only the bartender will pour the drinks.”
“Rules of the house, huh?” remembers Curry.
“Now, delighted as I am to welcome my dear nephew and his dear friend to my home, it does occur to me Patrick may have realised he can – technically – keep his word by persuading, or even paying, someone else to stea… I beg your pardon. To acquire whatever bottle Ernesto brings to the next game, on Friday.”
“Well, my dear,” McCreedy hedges, attempting to radiate innocence, “that’d be – er…”
“Jesuitical? Yes. What a blessing a Catholic education can be.” Pause. “I recall my brother telling me you two gentlemen once ‘acquired’ the head of Caesar from a Philadelphia safe without so much as a fire cracker.”
Two more attempts are made to radiate innocence.
“I warn you all, if I thought Patrick intended to honor only the letter and not the spirit of his promise, I too might hire assistance. And now, having said all I have to say…” She pushes back her chair. “I will leave you gentlemen to your brandy and cigars.”
The three men rise as she makes a dignified exit.
And they sit.
Mac opens and offers first a cigar box, then an ornate silver lighter.
Fine Havanas are lit.
The rancher gestures at the closed door. “A woman of spirit,” he says. “I like that. Not saying it don’t have a downside, but…” Sheepish smile. “Best thing I ever did.”
Murmurs of agreement from two ex-outlaws.
Mac leans forward and speaks low. “You boys prob’ly want to know what you hafta do to earn that five hundred dollars.”
“I’m worried I already know,” says Curry.
“However cool he plays it, Armendariz had his nose put outta joint when I had that fancy wine shipped over. He means to show anything I can do he can go one better. On the quiet he’s had some – they call ’em genealogists – look into the McCreedy family history. What d’you think he found?”
“A murky past?” suggests Heyes.
Big Mac glowers at the dimpled one. “Obviously, way back, my folks came from Scotland and…”
“Ah. A macmurky past.”
Another glower from McCreedy.
“He thinks he’s smart an’ funny,” says Curry. He blows a smoke ring. “I don’t.”
“Both true,” zips back Heyes. “I think I’m smart and funny. Kid doesn’t think. Period.”
Bland brown eyes meet proddy blue.
“If Armendariz is keepin’ this quiet, how come you know?” asks Kid Curry.
“You know as well as me, cash can buy all the information you need. My – sources – tell me Armendariz had a case of real fine twenty-five year old single malt shipped over from what he thinks is MY old clan homeland, Talisker. Since it’s a village in the back of beyond it cost him even more than I spent. He’s gonna open one bottle Friday and make me a present of the rest for my anniversary.” Mac scowls, broodingly.
“Giving his brother-in-law a thoughtful and generous present. How does that man sleep nights?” deadpans Heyes.
“He’s doing it to look better’n me.”
“If the Kid quit grousing and gave me expensive whiskey to make himself look smarter, I mean better, than me…” Heyes shrugs. “I could live with that.”
Blue eyes, once more, deliver the look.
“I’ll make a wager with you boys. I bet five hundred dollars to one you CAN’T acquire that bottle before Armendariz flaunts it in front of me Friday.”
“So…” Heyes clarifies the terms. “We acquire the bottle; you pay us five hundred dollars? Apiece?”
“You WIN five hundred dollars. I’m not hiring you to acquire it. Since I’m well known for not liking to lose a bet, you might even argue, I don’t WANT you to acquire it.”
Heyes shakes his head, sadly, at the older man. “I MIGHT argue it. So might you. But, d’you really think Mrs. McCreedy will believe us?”
“Nope. But just ‘cos a man admires his wife’s spirit – don’t mean he has to let her have it all her own way.”
“Even when she’s right?” says Curry.
“Even when she’s… She ain’t right! Women don’t understand.” Mac refills his brandy glass. “I’ll sit patient under her storm afterwards. Be worth it. Do you take the bet?”
“This bet would be five hundred dollars apiece?” queries Heyes emphasising the last words.
“No it wouldn’t!” snaps Curry. “Leastways it don’t matter, ‘cos we’re not takin’ it. We’re straight now, Mac. We don’t steal.”
“Logically, Kid…” Heyes sips his own brandy. “…It’s not stealing. Maybe – accelerated gift giving.”
“Heyes we’ve had this conversation before. In all the dealin’ and double-dealin’ between Mac and Armendariz, who wins every hand? Armendariz, that’s who.”
“Hey!” protests Mac.
“Not last time. Besides, this isn’t the bust, Kid. It’s more like a family joke. We lift a bottle. We give it back. It’s like palming the ace; catch us if you can.”
“Didn’tcha hear Mrs. McCreedy?”
“Sure – she’s going to find someone to catch us if they can. Or – to be more precise, since I’ll be the one coming up with the plan and doing the palming, someone who can catch ME.” A self-satisfied smoke ring haloes Heyes. “Where’s she going to find a man with any chance of beating me before Friday?”
“Maybe she wouldn’t hafta look too far!”
Heyes eyes his steaming partner. Mute exchange. Heyes dimples in affectionate amusement. “No. Someone with at least a CHANCE of beating me.”
“That’s it, Heyes!”
Kid Curry pushes back his chair and stomps out.
Heyes smiles at the reverberating door and turns to McCreedy. “Mac, I think we have a side bet.” McCreedy, a worried frown on his face, opens his mouth to speak. Heyes forestalls him. “Don’t worry. This plays in your favor. If money motivates me – and, let’s face it, it does – money AND the chance to prove I’m right is positively inspiring.” Leaning forward, suddenly serious, “Tell me the layout of this carriage.”
McCreedy pulls his napkin from his lap, folds it in two, lays it on the table. “This is the carriage…” Silver is grabbed “This knife is the baggage area…”
THE DRAWING ROOM
Carlotta sits quietly, book in hand, back to the door.
The door opens. Without turning or looking up from her page, she says. “Come in, Thaddeus. I have been expecting you.”
THE DINING ROOM
“…Counter with the glasses and so on – y’know, galley area. And this mustard pot is the john.”
“The..?” queries Heyes.
“Y’know. Mahogany seat. Drop chute onto the track.”
LATER – THE BOYS’ ROOM
Heyes, stripped to his long johns, is already stretched out on the bed closest to the window, one arm folded behind his head, the other holding aloft a book.
Kid Curry enters. His partner looks over – a head jerk of greeting.
“I take it you’ve been striking a deal with your Aunt Carlotta?”
“Yup. She’s got you keeping your cards close to your chest. That’s how I’d play it.”
Kid Curry makes no answer. He drapes his jacket over the back of a chair.
“So long as there are no hard feelings when you end up with egg on your face, Kid.”
Curry unbuckles his gun belt, hangs it on the arm of the chair. “You’re on my bed, Heyes.”
“YOUR bed? You have a bed in Big Mac’s guest room?”
“It’s the one with a breeze. I put my hat on it.”
“Maybe the breeze blew it off?” Heyes meets his partner’s gaze. A sigh. “I’ll flip you for it.”
“No! I don’t wanna flip, ‘cos I always…”
Heyesian grin. “You always – what – Kid?”
“Okay. My coin and I flip.” Curry digs into his pocket. “Call it.”
The coin spins. Curry slaps it on the back of his hand, looks, and… “Dang!” He plumps, scowling onto the other bed and tugs off a boot.
“Never mind, Kid. You lose some.” Despite the upward inflection Heyes stops – as if stalled halfway through a phrase.
“It’s: You win some, you lose some,” supplies Curry.
“That’s the usual expression – sure.”
Curry registers the point. Scowling afresh, he attacks the other boot.
Grinning, Heyes returns to his book. Then: “Ow! Ooooh.” His hand goes to his cheek.
“Think I’m starting a tooth ache.”
A vague ex-outlaw shape shifts under the covers.
Grunt. Shift. Sigh. “Your tooth?”
“Uh huh. Ow.”
The shape furthest from the refreshing breeze punches its pillows and settles back down.
Pause. Low moan from Heyes.
An edge of contrition in the tone as Curry asks: “‘S’it bad?”
With a grunt the shape pushes back the covers, swings out its legs. “I’ll fetch that oil of cloves I had for my tooth last week outta my bag.”
FRIDAY – SMALL RAILWAY STATION – MATASCA
The scene is cheerfully busy with prosperous looking Mexicans waiting, chatting, strolling, flirting. A train chugs in. Heyes and Curry, accompanied by Blake, descend. They stretch. Heyes raises his hand to his cheek and winces. Kid Curry rolls his eyes.
The threesome walk to the back coach, gleaming with fresh paint, polished wood and gilt trim. Through silken curtains can be glimpsed a luxurious interior.
Big Mac exits first, leaning heavily on his fancy cane. He turns, offers his hand to Carlotta. She smiles at Kid Curry as she steps down and unfurls her parasol.
Behind her, still on the train, is a dapper little fella, fancy sleeve-holders keeping his crisp white cuffs clear of his hands, a slightly vacant, if amiable, expression on his face. The reader may just recognise Ernie, the barkeep of the McCreedy-owned saloon in Red Rock.
Ernie passes a suitcase to Blake.
Big Mac and Carlotta, followed by Blake, stroll towards a waiting carriage of the horse-drawn landau variety. Beside it stands a handsome and immediately identifiable figure. Carlotta breaks from her husband, runs – or as close as a dignified woman of a certain age gets to a run – to hug her brother.
McCreedy follows more slowly. The two men shake hands with a certain stiffness. Armendariz catches his sister’s eye. He yields; Big Mac is enveloped Latin male-on-male style. He responds with the half-embarrassed sheepishness expected of an American male receiving such an embrace.
Carlotta beckons to Kid Curry, who strides over and shakes Armendariz by the hand.
Heyes is clearly too distant to overhear the conversation taking place. He watches what we watch, his expression increasingly consumed with frustrated curiosity.
Carlotta speaks eagerly. Big Mac gestures to quiet her. Still she speaks. Her brother begins to smile. He pats Kid Curry approvingly on the shoulder. Then, Big Mac shrugs and begins to chuckle. Carlotta ceases speaking. She looks from man to man, a wide, questioning smile on her face. Three nods. Armendariz and McCreedy again shake hands. Curry flashes a glance at Heyes and touches his hat. He grins at the oh-so-sweet sight of his partner in puzzled perplexity.
We are outside the church at Matasca. Subdued sounds from a service in progress drift over the scene.
Heyes, Curry, Blake and Ernie sit on a low wall.
Heyes, arms folded, looks annoyed.
Curry has his hat pulled forward against the sun – but, his mouth and chin look smug.
Blake sweats and repeatedly mops his not inconsiderable forehead.
Ernie studies a dime novel with close attention. His lips move when he reads.
Heyes speaks, “You do realise you and that dang woman have completely changed the terms.”
“Yup. It’s a lady’s prerogative to change her mind. And other folks’ minds.” Curry grins. “You can back out if you wanna.”
“With you setting ALL the rules – the odds are stacked against me.”
“Yup. You can back out if you wanna.”
“Joshua Smith does NOT back out of a wager.”
“He should. No way is he gonna win this time.”
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re not thinking this through logically, Thaddeus. You see, I figure it this way – I win every time, this is a time, so, I will win this time.”
The sarcasm does not rattle Kid Curry. “You won’t – ‘cos I’ll catch you.”
Ernie pipes up. “Pinker of the Pinkertons’d catch him.”
Curry pushes up his brim with one finger. The partners unite for a moment in looking first at Ernie, then at each other. Unspoken question. Two shrugs.
“Who?” asks Curry.
Ernie gestures at his dime novel. “Pinker. He’s a great detective.”
“You don’t wanna pay too much mind to Ernie,” confides Blake. Leaning forward he mouths, “He ain’t too smart. Not like me.”
Ernie reacts to Blake’s first statement. “Pinker IS a great detective. He’s the Pride of the Pinkertons.”
A mute conversation. The ex-outlaw expressions convey – definitely not so smart as Blake.
A pause. Ernie returns, cheerfully enough, to his slow perusal of the printed page.
“How do I know it’s one-on-one?” Heyes asks Curry.
“‘Cos – I said so.”
“Hhm. Maybe you’ve got Blake helping out.”
“Nope. I said – it’s one-on-one.”
“I ain’t even gettin’ back on the train,” puts in Blake. “I’m drivin’ Mizz McCreedy to visit Senora Perez.”
Heyes appears to accept this. To Curry, “How do I know you haven’t got Ernie on your side?”
“‘Cos I dang well said so!”
“I’m not on any side,” offers Ernie, peaceably.
“How do I know Ernie’s telling the truth?”
“That’s easy,” puts in Blake. “Ernie can’t tell lies.”
“Can too!” protests the little bartender.
“Well, he told THAT one – but, mostly, he can’t tell lies. Try him.”
Heyes leans forward with interest. “Ernie. I’m going to ask you some questions – and I want you to lie to me. Understand?”
“What is your name?”
The ex-outlaws both watch, fascinated, as Ernie slowly turns first blush, then rose, then crimson.
“Ernertom John Robin Soton?” repeats Heyes. “That’s an unusual name.” Disarmingly, “Did you make it up?”
“Yes, I did.” Pause. “DANG!”
“Let me give you a tip…” Heyes sounds genuinely keen to help. “When you need to give a false name in a hurry, choose a name you know. Then, not only does it trip off the tongue – you can remember it afterwards. Let’s try again. Really try and fool me this time. Ready?”
“What is your name?”
Mute conversation between two ex-outlaws.
“He’s all yours, Thaddeus,” concedes Heyes.
A sudden peal of bells. The congregation, Carlotta, McCreedy, Armendariz among them, spills from the church.
The waiting foursome get to their feet.
Carlotta, Big Mac, Blake and our boys stand beside the McCreedy coach. It is now the only coach attached to the engine. Ernie can be seen inside passing back and forth as he polishes glasses bartender-style.
“You first, Patrick,” says Carlotta, kissing his cheek. “Have a – a well-behaved time.”
Big Mac pats Heyes on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
“I won’t need luck, but – thanks.”
The big man climbs into the coach.
Carlotta nods at Blake, who follows his boss aboard. She eyes Heyes, narrowly. “How can you still be so confident? The Talisker will be under constant and vigilant watch.”
“Oh, are you coming with us after all? That, I admit, WILL present a challenge.”
“No. More than fifteen minutes of listening to Ernesto and Patrick score points over each other at cards will make me forget I am a lady. Two hours and I might go further, I might forget I am a Christian, and fling one or other of them from the car.”
“You know perfectly well she means MY watch,” says Curry, flexing his fingers and stretching as if limbering up for physical exercise.
Heyes watches his display with a sceptical eye. “There is one problem with that.”
“I’m me and you’re you.”
“An’ you still reckon you can outwit me?”
“I still do.”
“We sure will.”
“You’re not gonna steal the whiskey, Joshua.”
Carlotta interrupts, “Much as I would love to listen to you two bicker all afternoon… Ah!” She reacts to Blake climbing down again from the car. He now carries saddlebags over his shoulder.
“They’re mine!” protests Heyes.
“Indeed they are,” deadpans Carlotta. “Joshua, if you would kindly extend your arms. Blake?”
Blake approaches, sheepishly. “Sorry, Joshua. I gotta frisk you.”
“Because – I set the rules,” gloats Curry. “Big Mac agreed to Ladies’ prerogative, remember?”
Heyes, allowing Blake to pat him down, looks reproachfully over at his partner. “Is this really necessary? If I’m under your constant and vigilant watch?”
“No sense in takin’ chances,” says Curry. To Blake, “Anything?”
Blake is now rummaging through the saddle bags. “In here – two bottles. This one’s cheap brandy…”
“Take that out,” orders Curry.
“It’s for my toothache. Brandy and oil of cloves!” protests Heyes.
“And this one…” Blake holds out the second bottle. “Looks like soft cider?”
Accusing look from ice-blue eyes.
“It’s a hot day! D’you want me to dehydrate?”
“Is that the best you can do?” Curry motions Blake to take the second bottle.
“I need that!”
The Kid ignores Heyes. “Anything hidden on HIM?” he asks Blake.
“This in his vest pocket…” A tiny vial.
“Oil of cloves!” protests Heyes. “Oil and cloves and brandy! I told you!”
“I’ll be generous,” says Curry. “He can keep that.”
Blake hands it back to a disgruntled-looking Heyes. “And – this – whatever it is – in his boot.”
“That’s nothing,” Heyes dismisses.
“It does not look like nothing.” Carlotta squints at the shiny object in Blake’s hand.
“Looks kinda like a lock pick,” guesses Blake.
Both partners have the grace to blush.
“I’ll keep that,” murmurs Curry, taking it from the ranch hand and tucking it deep into his pants pocket.
“All finished?” checks Carlotta. “In that case…” She turns and signals.
The camera pans. Armendariz waits beside his landau, accompanied by a selection of his usual acolytes. At his sister’s signal he turns to an armed-to-the-teeth extra, who reaches inside his jacket and passes over – something. Armendariz strides over.
“Stay back,” Curry tells Heyes. When his partner does not move, he gestures him away adding the mild, “Hup hup hup,” with which one might encourage an ornery mule to shift its ground.
The brown eyes roll in disbelief, but Heyes does step back.
“Ernesto, may I try this famous whiskey?” Carlotta asks.
“Certainly.” Armendariz produces a Stagecoach-John-Carradine-style tiny silver cup, uncorks the bottle – no, from now on let’s call it The Bottle – and, with a flourish, pours a modest tot.
Carlotta drinks. And – reacts. Reverently she breathes, “Madre de Dios! That is heaven in a glass! You are giving us a whole case for our anniversary?” A confirmatory nod. She kisses Armendariz. “You always were my favorite brother!”
Armendariz loosely re-corks The Bottle and hands it to his sister. With a nod of farewell, he heads for the car, slapping the Kid on the back as he passes. “Buena suerte, Senor Jones.” He climbs aboard.
With another stay back gesture directed at Heyes, the Kid steps forward to Carlotta.
“Thaddeus, I place the whiskey in your hands. For the next two hours, your only task is to prevent Joshua – acquiring – it.”
Two-handed – or rather, two-armed, Curry clutches The Bottle to his chest. To Heyes, nodding at the train. “Get in, Joshua.”
A dark eye brow arches at cradled whiskey. “You’re guarding it, Thaddeus – not courting it.”
“Whatever I’m doin’ with it – you’re stayin’ three paces in front. Move.”
Heyes picks up his rifled saddlebags and climbs aboard.
“Good luck,” Carlotta wishes Curry.
The blond ex-outlaw follows the brunet.
A fella in engineer’s gear with smoke-smudged cheeks approaches Carlotta. “Costillo Junction, ma’am? There an’ back? Same as usual?”
“Same as usual,” confirms Carlotta.
A grimy hand is held out expectantly. Blake pays the man.
Carlotta walks away to the waiting landau. Blake exchanges a mute, head-shaking conversation with the engine driver over the folly of rich folks, then, picking up the two confiscated bottles, follows her.
INSIDE THE TRAIN
Heyes, followed at three paces by Curry, walks, with annoying nonchalance, past a discrete door, a semi-screened galley area, where Ernie is giving a final polish to two fine crystal tumblers set on a silver tray.
Sounds of grating metal. A whistle. The train shudders. And moves. Heyes sways and puts out a hand to steady himself. Brown eyes slide sideways over a small stove, a coffee pot, and fix on a selection of bottles arranged under a counter.
“Keep movin’,” says Curry.
“All your practice herding cattle is finally paying off, huh?” remarks Heyes, as he is chivvied past the two wealthy ranchers, lounging at their ease in leather armchairs. McCreedy is already shuffling cards with practised hands.
“All the way – through the door at the end,” orders the herding one. “You’re sittin’ with the bags.”
“You spoil me.”
Heyes enters an area much less luxurious, though still pretty dang fancy compared to the train interiors the boys are used to. Shelves for boxes and hooks for coats and cloaks line one side. A space for trunks on the other.
“Sit.” orders Curry, from the doorway.
Heyes hangs his hat on one of the hooks, and, in default of an alternative, sits on a trunk.
“Good,” approves his watchful partner. “Ernie – come take the bottle!”
“Ernie!? You are handing the Talisker over to…” Utter disbelief. “…Ernie?! I’d have thought you’d hang on to it yourself.”
“Nope. You said you can outwit ME. Maybe. Maybe you could silver tongue me into imaginin’ the train is bein’ robbed – or you’d spotted Wade Sawyer ridin’ alongside. Anything so I’d hafta let go the bottle. But, Ernie’s got no imagination. Maybe he’s kinda simple. Okay, I use that. I keep his instructions real simple. AND, I concentrate on keepin’ YOU out here away from him AND away from the whiskey.”
Ernie scurries up. “Yes, Thaddeus?”
“Who did Mrs. McCreedy tell you makes all the rules today?”
Curry turns to Heyes, “Hands on your head!”
“You are NOT serious?!”
“Do I look NOT serious?” Very best gunfighter’s stare.
With a sigh, Heyes puts his hands on his head.
Curry turns back to Ernie. “Here’s the Talisker.” The Bottle is handed over. “I’m not lettin’ Joshua out until we’re back in Matasca. BUT, if he does slip away, he’s not allowed to touch the whiskey. Or even dang well THINK about touchin’ it. He can’t even look at it. He can’t even…” Searching. “He can’t do nothin’ with this whiskey! Have you got that?”
Ernie – mouth hanging open with concentration as he listens, furrows his brow. Thinking. Then, “Got it!”
“What isn’t Joshua allowed near?”
“Who isn’t allowed near the whiskey?”
“What isn’t Joshua allowed to do to the whiskey?”
Curry turns to Heyes. “You see!” he triumphs.
“Let me try,” says Heyes. “Ernie, who isn’t allowed to do what to what?”
“I’m not allowed to give saloon credit less’n Mr. McCreedy says so.”
“What?!” double-takes the Kid.
“Sorry!” exclaims Ernie “That’s another one. Er – Joshua isn’t allowed near the whiskey.”
“Right,” says Curry. “Thanks, Ernie.”
Ernie leaves. Curry shuts the door behind him, folds his arms and leans against the swaying wall, eyes fixed – hawk-like – on his partner.
“Well played,” admires Heyes.
Nothing from the Kid. Heyes favors him with a bland smile. Pause.
Heyes raises his hands a few inches from his head, aims a mute request seeking permission from Curry.
The Kid nods, gaze still fixed.
Heyes drops his hands to his lap. Pause. He twiddles his thumbs and directs another smile at the impervious Curry.
Then, swift as a cougar, Heyes is on his feet.
Like lightning, Curry spread-eagles himself in front of the door.
“Well,” nonchalant Heyes, “I need to visit the bathroom.”
“Oh no, you don’t!”
“I’m pretty sure I do.”
“Well, you can’t!”
“Just to be clear, I’m not allowed to relieve myself?”
“You’ll hafta hold it!”
“For close on two hours?”
Curry nods at the back door, through which can be seen the narrow inter-car platform. “Go out there, aim in the direction of the wind.”
Heyes opens the back door and appears to consider the suggestion. The wind blows in a swirl of dust. The train sways. “The thing is, rather like bullets bouncing so you don’t know where they’ll end up, the wind has a way of…”
As soon as the door opened a scowl shows that the Kid has already spotted the whip-back flaw in his suggestion. As Heyes speaks Kid Curry’s expression segues through indecision, distaste – then frustration, all in a moment. “Okay!” he snaps, cutting Heyes short. “You win. Hands on your head! Now!”
Heyes closes the exterior door and complies Curry opens the inner door and calls, “Ernie – bring the whiskey!” To Heyes, “Back up!”
Ernie opens the inner door, The Bottle still in hand.
“Don’t go near him,” warns Curry. “Give it to me. Thanks.” Curry moves into a corner, eyes on Heyes all the while. “Go,” he tells his partner. “Keep your hands on your head until I shut the door.”
Innocent smile, “I don’t need to go any more.”
“What a surprise! Go anyway. You’re not pullin’ this again in ten minutes.”
Affably, “Okay. Today – you make the rules.”
The camera follows Heyes’ walk down the carriage. He hears the door behind him close. His hands drop to his side as he passes McCreedy and Armendariz. Both men watch him thoughtfully, but their murmured dialogue and the clinking of chips, suggest the urgent need to best each other at cards absorbs at least half their attention.
“Spades, huh?” Cards hit the table.
“I take first matador.”
Ernie eyes The Bottle, fast in Curry’s grasp. “You’re taking no chances, are ya?”
“I don’t know HOW Joshua’s gonna steal it.”
Armendariz’ voice calls, “Ernie!”
Ernie trots out – and then back. From the doorway he says, “They want me to serve it.” He holds out his hands for The Bottle.
“Ernie! What did I tell ya?”
“Oh – lots of stuff.”
“This bottle don’t leave my sight until Joshua is back in here, behind a closed door.” He reacts, as a Heyes-shaped shadow falls. “Hands on your head.”
A Heyes-shaped Heyes follows the shadow. “Thaddeus, this is getting…”
“Hands on your head. That’s better. In you go. Sit down. Keep those hands up. Ernie, here’s the whiskey. You may go serve it.”
Ernie takes The Bottle and moves out of view. Curry shuts the door.
Heyes takes his hand from his head. “Are you going to keep this up for the whole trip?”
“It won’t matter I’ll still take it.”
“No, you won’t. You may like to think you’re a genius…”
“I do like to. Because I am.”
“But you can’t beat me at bein’ plain darn stubborn. So long as there’s not a single second I’m not watchin’ you, or watchin’ the whiskey, or both, however smart you are, I can’t see how you’ll take it.”
“Of course you can’t see how I’ll take it. I’d hardly be a genius if you could see how I’ll take it. But I will take it.”
MEANWHILE – MAIN CAR
“Sacada!” exclaims Armendariz. “Ombre wins! And I…” Chips are scooped towards him. “…I Am Ombre!”
Big Mac apparently mimes chewing a wasp.
“No doubt you will have your revenge next game. Ah, at last!” Armendariz greets Ernie, who now approaches from his galley area, bearing the silver tray upon which rest two crystal tumblers and The Bottle, now uncorked. “Maybe I did not succeed in surprising you with my gift…” Suave smile. “…But still I hope to astonish you with its quality. And, indeed, given our current wager suggested by my dear sister, with the fact it is still here.”
Ernie, following the rules of the house, pours two measures. Each rancher raises a glass, urbanely on one part, grudgingly on the other, in salute to the other. Fine whiskey is sipped…
Or – is it?!
Big Mac, face twisting in disgust, sprays the table as he coughs it out. “What the Sam Hill is that – that pig swill…?”
“You think I am a fool? This is the finest…” Armendariz sips his own drink. A shudder shakes him. More polished than Big Mac, he spits into a fine silk handkerchief. “That is NOT my Talisker!”
Ernie, tray tucked under his arm, The Bottle – nah, maybe just A Bottle, huh? – in one hand, mops up after McCreedy with the other. Open-mouthed, he gazes from his boss to his boss’s rival.
“Well I’ll be…!”
“You’ll be – what?!” demands an irate Armendariz.
“Nothing. It’s just – I think Joshua can do magic!”
Dimples in place, thumbs twiddling, Heyes sits on the trunk.
In bursts an incandescent Kid Curry. “Right! How d’ya do it?”
A picture of innocent incomprehension looks up. “Something wrong?”
“How could ya POSSIBLY have done it?”
“Stolen the whiskey!”
“Yeah, right! Just tell me how – how the SAM HILL you did it?”
Radiating surprise, “Are you telling me the Talisker’s gone?”
“Yes! YOU took it!”
“For Pete’s sake! You’ve been sayin’ all day you’re gonna take it!”
“I am going to take it, but I haven’t yet. I haven’t had a chance.”
Kid Curry breathes deeply. His face a mix of disbelief and growing confusion. “What?”
“Tell me what happened.”
“Armendariz called for the whiskey; Ernie poured it; it wasn’t the good stuff.”
“It was soft cider?”
“No!” Curry fumes. “It was bad – and I mean REAL bad – whiskey. Stuff you wouldn’t keep in the poor folks’ bottle in a town full of two-bit…”
Heyes calmly interrupts, “Because, when I do it, it’ll be soft cider.”
“Blake took your dang cider!”
“My DECOY soft cider, certainly.”
Curry’s brow furrows. His expression conveys that last sentence does kinda sound like Heyes.
“Hand on heart,” says Heyes, solemnly. “I did not take the Talisker. OH! I see! Very clever!”
“Was it Carlotta’s idea? Or did you come up with it yourself?”
“Come up with WHAT?”
“You’ve obviously taken it yourself and hidden it so I can’t get it. We get to the end of the trip, you produce it, you win. Okay, you only win on a technicality, kinda like not declaring straights. It’s sneaky. But…” Admiringly, “Well done, Kid.”
“I – I…” Curry’s eyes reflect the whirl in his brain. “Of course I didn’t take it! YOU took it!”
“You took it.”
“No, you took it!”
A tap. The door opens a crack. Big Mac, beaming with hope, peeps in. From there he can see Curry, but not Heyes on the trunk. Sotto voce, “He took it, huh?”
“I – er…” Curry studies his partner. He receives a guileless smile from the dimpled one. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know! How the Sam Hill can you not know? What have you got with you in there? It’s either a bottle of fine whiskey, or it’s a safe-cracker with a grin like a cat shut in the creamery!”
“He probably hasn’t taken it.”
“No, I haven’t,” confirms Heyes’ voice.
Big Mac’s face falls.
From the other direction, comes Armendariz’ voice, “McCreedy! You said you needed to stretch your legs, not tamper with the – the wager.”
Frustrated, Big Mac closes the door.
“Right,” Curry sets his shoulders. “I’m gonna prove you did it!” He opens the door. “Ernie! Get in here.”
“Ah. You’re calling in the finest brains to work on the problem.”
“You may be smart, Heyes, but it’s gotta be in the car somewhere. I just need to think.”
“But…” Really annoying smile. “…We have the arrangement on that!”
Ernie comes in.
“Ernie,” Curry begins. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
The little man is visibly excited. “Y’know what this is like? It’s like Pinker of the Pinkertons. Can I tell you in my own words?”
“Who else’s words were you thinking to use?” wonders Heyes.
“It’s what Pinker always says: Tell me in your own words the events of …”
“Just tell me!” explodes Curry.
“I took the bottle you gave me. I went down to where the trays and glasses an’ all are. I put the glasses and bottle on the tray; took the stopper out. I carried it over to Mr. McCreedy and Mr. Armendariz…”
“Uh huh,” encourages Curry, listening intently.
“Mr. Armendariz said – some stuff. Mr. McCreedy looked kinda proddy…”
Getting impatient, “Uh huh.”
“I poured out two glasses of whiskey; they tasted it, they said it was horrible. You heard ’em shouting. You came out. You – er – cussed.”
“What did he say?” Heyes sounds genuinely interested.
“It don’t matter what I said!” snaps Curry. “Thanks, Ernie.”
“Has that revealed a vital clue?” asks Heyes.
“I’m only trying to help.”
“You can’t help. You’re the suspect. AND…” The Kid glowers Heyes-ward. “You took it!”
“How could I? You had either me or the Talisker in plain sight all the time. Besides…” Sweet reason in the tone. “If I’d done it don’t you think I’d be gloating by now?”
Curry’s expression wavers. We gather he thinks there IS a lotta truth in there.
“If, I’m only sayin’ IF it wasn’t you, who else could it be?”
“Well – if you eliminate you, ‘cos you’re the one doing the eliminating, there are two other possibilities.”
The Kid thinks, then draws back his head, indicating he takes the point. “Why would Armendariz steal his own whiskey?”
“To stop me stealing it and winning the bet for Big Mac.”
Mulling creases Kid Curry’s brow.
“Maybe you should go talk to him,” suggests Heyes.
Curry approaches the two ranchers.
“Senor Jones,” says Armendariz. “Do you have my whiskey safe? Or has Senor Smith prevailed?”
“Er… Still not sure. D’you mind if I ask you some’n?”
“Unless the question is: Here is your Talisker, Senor, do you want me to pour you a single or a double – I think I might mind, yes. But go ahead.”
“In your own words,” chips in Ernie, peering around from behind the Kid.
“What happened? I called for my Talisker whiskey. I had to wait because you, Senor Jones, would not hand it over to Ernie. Finally, Ernie poured the whiskey. I tasted it. It was NOT my whiskey, because you, Senor Jones, had NOT done as you promised my sister and kept it safe. I became displeased with you. And I still am. And, because McCreedy and I still hope to taste the Talisker I will not allow us to spoil our palates with any other drink. Therefore, I am also thirsty. So is he.”
“Dang straight!” chips in Big Mac.
“The thirstier we get, the more displeased we both become with you, Senor Jones. Will those words, all my own, suffice?”
Kid Curry’s expression suggests he does not relish having displeased the powerful Mexican, however familiar that situation may have become over the years. “Just for the sake of argument – er – if you’d stolen the whiskey yourself …”
Armendariz rises, swelling in indignation. “Are you mad? It is MY whiskey! I do not have to steal it. It is mine! If I stole it, it would not be stealing, it would be having! And if I had it, I would have it! To say nothing of my having given my word of honor to my sister! Do you DARE cast a slur on the honor of Ernesto Armendariz? OR his sister?!”
As this speech progresses Armendariz advances and Kid Curry retreats. By the conclusion, the Kid is backed against the baggage area door. He reaches behind him for the door handle.
Heyes looks up as a flustered Kid Curry enters butt first and at ‘ain’t no one that quick’ speed.
An innocent smile. “How’d it go?”
“I don’t think he took it, Heyes.”
“Because he chased you down the train?”
“He did NOT chase me down the train. I backed off ‘cos – well, ‘cos I’m a peaceable fella and ‘cos what the man said had a lotta truth in it.”
“And Big Mac?”
“Why would Big Mac take it?”
“So he doesn’t hafta pay me for taking it for him.” Pause. “Are you going to even ask him?”
Kid Curry braces himself. Out he goes.
A pause. Heyes buffs his nails on his pants, examines them.
The sound of two sets of rapidly approaching footsteps augmented by a heavy cane is accompanied by McCreedy’s voice growing louder as it draws nearer.
“…If I had it, I’d be rubbing his dang superior nose in it by now! And your dang, dumb partner’s nose! AND my dang dry tongue! And if I had it I wouldn’t HAFTA pay him for getting it ‘cos I’d HAVE it! Do I look like a man who’d pay a man for a bearskin if he didn’t have a bear?!”
In a perfect replay of the scene’s beginning, Kid Curry back-speeds in and shuts the door.
Heyes’ eyes now hold a certain sympathy as he meet’s his partner’s distracted gaze. “You reckon it wasn’t Big Mac either, huh?”
Curry shakes his head. “This isn’t possible. They didn’t take it; I didn’t take it; you couldn’t have taken it, and there’s no-one else except Ernie… Oh.”
“You’re not thinking … I mean…” Incredulity drips. “Ernie?!”
“It seems crazy, but …”
Incredulity ceases to drip and instead gushes, “ERNIE?!”
Mute conversation. Then, Curry’s face registers Idea. “I think I know what happened!”
He exits, leaving the door open.
Kid Curry steps into the screened-off galley area. Ernie is perched on the counter deep in his dime novel.
The Kid’s voice is soothing as he says, “Ernie…”
The little bartender looks up. “Uh huh?”
“I’m not gonna get angry…”
“Oh?” Cheerfully, after a beat. “That’s good. Neither am I.”
“I won’t be angry – but, I reckon you oughta tell me about spillin’ the good whiskey.”
“That’s what happened, huh? Everyone kept on an’ on about how important this dang whiskey is, so when you dropped it and it spilled, you panicked. It wasn’t even really your fault, ‘cos Armendariz had loosened the cork. Anyhow, you got scared an’ you tried to cover it up by fillin’ the bottle with some real cheap old whiskey you happened to have under the counter? Didn’t ya?”
By the end of this, Ernie’s mouth hangs open in admiration. “Thaddeus, that is amazing!”
Curry tries to look modest. He fails.
Ernie holds up the dime novel. “You sounded just like Pinker of the Pinkertons.”
“So, that’s what happened?”
“No! But it was an amazing solution!”
Curry’s face falls. “What? You…you didn’t spill it?”
Ernie is glowered at gunfighter style. No reddening. No flinching. He gives the Kid a friendly grin. Curry’s shoulders slump, indicating he accepts the word of the worst liar in Texas. “Well, someone took it,” he glooms. “If I eliminate me, an’ you, an’ Joshua, an’ Armendariz an’ Big Mac – who’s left?”
Ernie waits, in eager anticipation.
“I guess there’s Blake,” says Curry, slowly. “But he never touched the whiskey, only the soft cider he took off … Ah-hah!”
“Have ya solved it?” Ernie is, in the most endearing way, simply enjoying the dang show.
“I see how he did it!” exclaims the Kid.
“Great! That’s what always happens to Pinker! Was it the very last person you’d suspect?”
“It was Joshua.”
“Well, that bit isn’t like Pinker. ‘Cos Joshua was the very first person you suspected.”
MAIN COACH AREA
Curry, followed by an enthusiastic Ernie, still clutching his storybook, comes out from behind the galley screen.
Big Mac and Armendariz are grumpily continuing their game. Well behind them, Heyes has emerged from the open baggage area and made himself comfortable with a newspaper in a corner armchair. Curry heads for him, weathering the scowls of two displeased and thirsty cattle barons.
Heyes looks up. “Solved it?”
Curry glances back at the card players. The conversation that ensues is conducted in low voices in a palpable effort to not increase the – the displeasure.
Ernie interrupts; “Joshua, you may be wondering why we’ve asked you all to gather together…”
A brown-eyed blink. “Did you ask me all to gather together?”
“Quit it, Ernie,” says Curry. To Heyes, “I know what happened.”
“Ah.” Heyes shrugs at Ernie; “I’m sorry, Ernie. I did try and put him on the wrong trail with Armendariz, but he was always going to work it out. Eventually.”
“Work what out?” asks Curry.
“My guess is Ernie accidentally spilled the Talisker and refilled the bottle with cheap stuff, hoping to get away with it.”
“No, I thought of that, but, he didn’t.”
“How d’you know?”
“He said so.” The Kid meets Heyes’ distrustful gaze. “He said so without goin’ bright red.”
Heyesian mulling. “Okay,” he accepts.
“Anyhow,” continues Curry, “It wasn’t him, ‘cos you’d already taken it. And I know how!”
“You don’t, because I hadn’t.”
“It was the soft cider! You musta known your bags’d be checked. You wanted it found! It was never soft cider, it was the stolen whiskey! Somehow you’d snuck the whiskey from Armendariz while we were still in Matasca. You poured it into a soft cider bottle you can claim back off Blake when we get back and you replaced it with some gut-rot whiskey!”
“Wow!” breaths Ernie, reverently.
“That IS smart,” admits Heyes. “Real smart.” A half-grudging salute. “I under-estimated you, Thaddeus.”
“You admit that’s what you did?”
“Nope. You forget Carlotta tasted the whiskey just before she handed it over and said it was definitely the good stuff. Sorry.”
Curry’s face falls.
“So I’d have to have been in league with her and… Oh!” Heyes stops short.
Heyes strokes his chin, broodingly, “Of course! SHE took the Talisker. She saves Big Mac from paying me. She saves herself from paying you. She stops either Big Mac OR Armendariz carrying on the bottle feud!”
Ernie is in heaven “Wow! Now Joshua is Pinker!”
“Pinker than what? Oh – that.”
“Mrs. McCreedy is definitely the last person. She’s who Pinker would pick,” Ernie tells the Kid.
“Really?” Curry is not convinced. “Carlotta? Nah. She wouldn’t do that.”
“You’re her mark, Thaddeus,” says Heyes. “Her cat’s-paw, her fall guy.”
“You’re tryin’ to make out Carlotta McCreedy, a woman more upright than…” Curry searches. “Than upright stuff, lied to all our faces, without turnin’ a hair, not fifteen minutes after walkin’ outta church?” Thinking. Decision. “Nope. I don’t believe it.”
“You always say there’s a little bad in everyone, Thaddeus.”
Curry’s expression wavers. He does always say that.
“And she’s a woman. If anyone can pull the wool over your eyes – isn’t it always a woman?”
More wavering. There is some truth in there. Waver. Face crumpling in doubt.
He searches the now-sympathetic brown eyes. “Her? You really reckon – HER?”
Heyes lays a sympathetic hand on his partner’s shoulder “She’s played you like a cheap pianola.”
Curry’s shoulders slump in defeat.
“On the bright side,” consoles Heyes, “when we get back, you can tell her you worked it out and let her know exactly what you think of her.”
“Too dang right I can!” the Kid broods.
A pause. Except for the brooding.
Then. A movement from the card table. Both ranchers join our boys. Big Mac speaks first. “Armendariz and me, we’ve been talking. HE’S too dang stubborn to let us drink anything that isn’t this dang Talisker whiskey he brung for me…”
“Ernesto Armendariz is not stubborn,” protests the biggest landowner in Mexico, with dignity. With a little less dignity, he adds, “However, he IS thirsty.”
“He ain’t the only one!” despairs Mac.
“He is also very wealthy,” continues Armendariz. “And he wonders if he threw a little money at this problem…” He holds out several bank notes. “…It might cause anyone here to discover there is, after all, a bottle of Talisker which can come join myself and my dear brother-in-law at our table.”
Two ex-outlaws eye the money. One goes so far as to slightly moisten his lips with the tip of a pink tongue. The other fella says, “I’m real sorry, Senor Armendariz, but no. You’re not gonna like this, but we’ve all been fooled by your sist…”
Heyes cuts in, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, Thaddeus, but…” He stands up. A bottle – no, The Bottle is whipped from behind his back. “What am I bid?”
“You – you took it!” gasps a pole-axed Kid Curry.
“Course I took it. I said I would.”
“Ah-hah!” triumphs Big Mac, slapping Heyes on the back. “I knew you could do it! Hand it over.”
A gentle laugh from the dimpled one. He holds out his hand, palm uppermost. “I believe we had a wager?”
“Sure…” Big Mac pulls out his bank roll, peels off five notes, hands them over. They are tucked deep into the pocket of a pair of tan pants.
“Thank you,” smiles Heyes. “It’s a pleasure doing business with you.”
“The bottle,” prompts Mac.
Another gentle laugh. “Our wager was I acquire the Talisker before Armendariz could show it off. I did that. Now…” Dimpling at both wealthy men, Heyes uncorks The Bottle. “Who’s going to open the bidding?”
“You…!” Mac makes a grab.
“Careful!” warns Heyes, holding The Bottle high above his head. “You wouldn’t want me to spill it…” He tips it, provocatively. “Would you?”
“All I want,” puts in Armendariz, with dignity, “…is to share my fine whiskey with my brother-in-law. Share it generously, as a gentleman should. So, rather than wrangle over having to bid for my own property, Senor Smith, I will offer you fifty dollars.”
“I ain’t wrangling!” protests Big Mac, visibly riled at Armendariz taking the aristocratic high ground. “It’s ME gonna generously share MY fine whiskey with you! I bid fifty, too!”
Heyes gives a ‘stop’ gesture with the hand not holding The Bottle. The bidding battle breaks off. “I’ll accept fifty dollars.”
“You’ll take fifty rather than a hundred,” queries Big Mac.
“You feelin’ okay?” blinks the Kid. He receives the look.
“Ah…” Armendariz has spotted the uncertainty. “From whom will you accept fifty dollars? From me?”
“No. From me,” says Mac.
“From – both of you.” The wily one dimples. “Senor Armendariz gets the left half of the bottle, Big Mac gets the right. No one wins. No one loses – except Thaddeus, of course, and he asked for it…”
The protest of a proddy blond is ignored as Heyes’ silver tongue flows smoothly on. “…You are BOTH equally generous gentlemen who do NOT wrangle over money but DO share fine whiskey over a friendly card game in the best brotherly spirit. Deal?”
A mute conversation between alleged equal gentlemen. Accepting shrug from Big Mac. Acquiescent eyebrow lift from Armendariz. In unison: “Deal.”
Heyes passes The Bottle to Ernie. “Ernie, fetch a two fresh glasses and pour the drinks – rules of the house!”
Big Mac and Armendariz are back at the card table. Ernie takes two tumblers from his tray and pours two measures. Each rancher takes a glass and raises it in salute to his co-owner. Two sips and…
Utter bliss transforms two faces. Yup. This time it is definitely the GOOD stuff.
BACK AT MATASCA STATION
In the background stand Armendariz and Big Mac watching the landau, driven by Blake and containing Carlotta trot closer and closer.
Our boys stand some distance away – out of the ranchers’ earshot.
Kid Curry breaks the silence. “You… You took the whiskey.”
“Of course I did,” replies Heyes, mildly. “I did tell you I would.”
“No. What you told me was, you didn’t.”
“I hadn’t. Not then.”
“And Carlotta was never in on it?”
“Nah. That was only me yanking your chain, Kid.”
“HOW? I mean I always had either you or the whiskey in plain sight.”
“Only until it got stolen.”
“But by then… Heyes, are you gonna tell me how you did it? Or do I hafta flatten ya?”
“First admit I was smart enough to beat you, fair and square.”
Heyes makes the finger across mouth gesture traditionally interpreted as: ‘my lips are sealed’.
Face riven with fuming curiosity, Curry folds. “Okay, I admit it. You beat me. Now, how d’ya do it?”
“With this.” Heyes produces the small vial from his vest pocket.
“Oil of cloves?”
“Well, now it’s oil of bitter aloes I – er – found in McCreedy’s medicine cabinet. Y’know – the stuff you buy from the pharmacist to paint on kids’ thumbs to stop them sucking, or on their nails to stop them biting. Harmless, but real bitter. Of course, if, like me, you don’t bite your nails, you can find another use for it. For instance, when you go past Ernie’s counter to the bathroom, you can put a few drops on the bottom of each whiskey glass so anything poured into them tastes revolting. Then, when the genuine Talisker gets spat out and the bottle is written off as full of cheap gut-rot and forgotten about, you can sneak it at your leisure.”
“Heyes, you’re a genius.”
“I am, aren’t I?”
During Heyes’ smug speech the boys have watched the landau pull up and Carlotta be handed down from it to embrace first Big Mac, then Armendariz. She now walks towards them between her husband and brother, one arm linked with each.
“I’m sorry you have to tell Carlotta you let her down, Kid,” says Heyes. “But – I told you so.”
“S’orright, she’ll understand.” All of a sudden Kid Curry wears something suspiciously like a smirk.
Carlotta reaches them. “Thaddeus, welcome back. How did you fare?”
“He lost,” says Heyes.
Kid Curry ignores him. “Not bad,” he tells Carlotta. “Just under eighty minutes.”
“And we agreed – two hundred dollars for every half hour – or part half hour – delay in Patrick and Ernesto beginning to drink.” She has pulled a roll of notes from her reticule and is counting. “So I owe you six hundred. Is that correct?”
“Sure is, ma’am.”
Money is handed over and tucked away by a smug blond ex-outlaw.
“What?” queries Armendariz
“What?” echoes Big Mac.
“W-W-WHAT?!” chimes in Heyes. “That – that wasn’t the arrangement.”
“Sez who?” grins Curry.
“Joshua,” reproves Carlotta. “When I make an arrangement with my dear nephew-by-marriage, I fail to see why I need consult you over the terms.”
“But – but…” Heyes appears lost for words. Curry appears to savor the loss intensely. “But – but…”
“Four excellent points,” says Carlotta. “You see, Thaddeus told me he did not believe he could prevent you taking the whiskey…”
“But, I was pretty dang sure I could slow you down!” grins the Kid.
“Which suited my purpose because, while I may have, without telling any actual lies, allowed Patrick and Ernesto to believe my chief aim was an end to the bottle feud; what I really desired even more was for them both to return to Matasca still fairly sober after all their foolish boys’ games espec…”
“Carlotta!” reproves Armendariz.
“Especially Patrick,” she finishes.
“Hey!” protests Big Mac. “I wasn’t THAT drunk last time.”
“Yes, you were.” Her eyes hold his.
“Yes, I guess I was,” he admits, sheepishly.
“And yet this time, we can all keep our engagement to dine with Father Ramirez – and I will have no need to blush for any of my family. And for that, I have Thaddeus to thank.”
“You’re more’n welcome, Aunt Carlotta.” Curry is wreathed in self-satisfaction.
A loving wife and sister hooks her arms back through those of her men-folk and leads them, chastened, away.
Our boys watch them go. A pause.
“So…” Heyes’ frown indicates he is fast processing all this additional information. “…You knew you could never beat a Hannibal Heyes plan?”
“So – you planned around that?”
“Kid – you’re a genius!”
“Ain’t I just?”
This story is affectionately stolen from the wonderful BBC radio show, Cabin Pressure, which is written by the even more wonderful John Finnemore. This brilliant man is on record as having no issues with fan fiction, “No, I don’t mind at all, I’m very flattered!” So, bless his generous spirited travelling lemons! Yellow car.