I was in the familiar, dimly lit, circle. Hand in hand with the credulous, the sensation seeking, and the heartbroken – desperate to once more hear a lost, loved voice.
Our hostess was so far, I admit, giving a restrained, even dignified performance. Then came the question.
“Do the initials HH mean anything to anyone here?”
Frowning, my eyes met those of the reporter accompanying me.
As had been the case for several years, I was attending incognito. Had she penetrated my disguise?
Suddenly she turned to face me, her previously closed eyes snapping open. Her tone deepened, and a childhood memory stirred as I heard a warm relaxed voice address me.
“Remember – a professional can always keep a secret.”
NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD – (Fargo to Bismarck section) – Spring 1882
We were six hours into our journey to visit Great Uncle Nathan Steiner in Dakota Territory. Mama was pleased at his wish to see us; and absolutely delighted when he wired money for the journey. We had a handful of relatives in America – but Nathan Steiner was the only one you could describe as prosperous.
The excitement of each mile of track taking me closer to the ‘Wild West’ had not quite worn off, but my ability to sit still had long since evaporated.
Reena was leafing through a ladies periodical with a fashionably dressed girl of about seventeen. She was trying to act grown-up, or at least older than ‘very nearly fourteen’.
“So a severe tailor-made outfit can be softened by a dainty frilled blouse worn beneath…”
“With grey, a pink blouse is most effective, whilst cornflower blue provides a pleasing contrast to a brown tweed…”
“I’m talking Erich – look at the scenery.”
I looked. No Indians, no Buffalo, no heroic Sheriff leading a posse. The beauties of Dakota were lost on me.
“Nathan! Nathan, wanna see a new card trick?”
My eleven-year-old brother responded to my tug at his sleeve by unplugging his fingers from his ears and raising his eyes, momentarily, from ‘Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry face Peril at Rattlesnake Ridge’, the Dime Novel he was devouring.
“Leave me alone Erich, or I’ll flatten you.”
“Shush. Now that would just suit you Laura.”
“Reena, can I just walk through to the next coach?”
“No, sit still.”
“Ach, Reena – just let me stretch my legs.”
Reena eyed me. I could see the temptation of getting a little peace by letting me go, war with Mama’s admonitions to take good care of her brothers and make sure they behaved.
“Please, Reena, let me take a walk. I need to go anyway. I need to…”
Her wish to minimize embarrassment in front of her new friend decided it. “Alright – don’t be long. And don’t pester anyone.”
I set off before any spurt of anxiety changed her mind.
We were travelling toward the back of the train. Coach by coach I made my way forward. In my eight-year-old mind, I hoped to keep walking until I hit first the coal tender, then the footplate. Not to be. But – I had the satisfaction of being finally as close as possible to the engine. Peering through the window I could see the funnel puffing steam only yards away. The car was almost deserted, one middle aged couple and a bespectacled youth, as deeply buried in a dime novel as Nathan.
I slipped into an empty seat – and considered if asking if he wanted to see a card trick constituted the forbidden activity ‘pestering someone’.
The train slowed, then stopped at a depot so small it displayed no more exciting a sign than ‘Sixth Siding’. Two railway employees entered.
“Our apologies ladies and gentlemen, we have to ask you to move to a car further back.”
“Sorry to inconvenience you all – but this coach is being requisitioned for a prisoner under escort.”
“May I help you with your luggage, Ma’am?”
“Let me lift that down for you, Sir.”
“Sorry about this, but we at Northern Pacific are always keen to help officers of the law.”
I slunk down in my seat.
A prisoner under escort! Too good to miss.
The guards hadn’t seen me behind the high seat back. Slipping silently down to the floor, I squeezed back into a cavity between outer wall and solid seat support, tucking feet and hands out of view. Hide and seek was a favourite pastime, and I was renowned for my ability to squeeze into the most unlikely crannies.
The external door opened.
From my hideout, I could see men’s faces as they climbed in. Once aboard they became trail-spattered boots moving before my inquisitive eyes.
First came a tall blonde man, saddlebags swung across his shoulder. I saw his eyes glancing up and down the coach before climbing in, sharp and keen as blue granite; eyes older than the boyish features. To my delight, as he mounted the step, I saw his gun in its scuffed holster tied down low on the leg. I knew, from my brother’s extensive reading, this meant a fast draw.
Next the ‘prisoner under escort’ was pushed into the train. Angry, scowling, a man who had not yet given up hope of escape, despite the handcuffs restraining him.
He was followed immediately by a man I guessed to be in his forties, tall, dark, lean, and best of all, wearing a Sheriff’s badge.
Lastly, a slim young man gracefully swung into the car, so swiftly I only briefly glimpsed dark darting eyes, beneath a black hat with silver trimmings.
The prisoner was pressed into a seat. A second pair of cuffs fastened his restrained hands to the metal armrest.
The Sheriff took up a seat opposite; the younger men remained standing as the train pulled away.
“You’re goin’ to regret this Trevors.”
“Save it for the judge, Collins. Let’s all just have a quiet, peaceable, journey till we can hand you over at Jamestown.”
“What makes you think you’ll get me there? My brother’s still free. You couldn’t find him, couldn’t find the money. He’ll get me out.”
“Worryin’ Trevors? Better men’n you have got this far before. Not much use capturin’ just the one of us. We’re goin’ to be the most successful outlaws in the West.”
I saw the hands of the dark young man move to his hips.
“I don’t claim to be no expert, but I reckon that title’s taken.”
The Sheriff shifted in his seat, “I think Deputy Smith is referrin’ to Hannibal Heyes ‘n’ Kid Curry.”
Collins gave a bitter laugh.
“That pair of has-beens. Fella in a saloon in Brimstone told me they couldn’t even manage a stick o’ dry dynamite to blow the safe on the Columbine Train.” There was certain stiffening in the stance of the two younger men.
“Told me they ended up leavin’ $50,000 at the bottom of a lake, their whole gang splashin’ about like polecats catchin’ fish!”
“Well,” put in the blond man, “…that wasn’t exactly their best day.”
“And,” continued Collins “they ain’t pulled a job for near on a year. Always was soft – refusin’ to rob bank customers, not shootin’ to kill. They’re finished. Compared to us, Heyes ‘n’ Curry couldn’t plan a hoorah in a brothe..”
This was too much for me.
“That’s not true!” I exploded, wriggling out, “Heyes and Curry are the greatest, they’re heroes. My big brother, Nathan, says so…” as if this clinched it, “… and no one reads as much about them as him!”
Four pairs of eyes widened in surprise as I emerged.
“Son, you shouldn’t be here,” said Sheriff Trevors, “You need to get back to your folks right now.”
“I haf never seen a real Sheriff, close up, before.”
“Well, you’re seein’ one of the best right there. That’s Sheriff Lom Trevors, of Porterville,” smiled Smith.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand as I’d been taught.
“Same here I’m sure. Now, back to your folks.”
“And you two are deputies?”
Each glanced at the other’s badge. Smith gave the hint of a shiver.
“Not exactly. Just temporarily helpin’ Lom out, as we’re a couple of old, old, friends. See – there’s some outlaws these days givin’ crime a bad name. Need cleanin’ off the landscape.”
The blond young man squatted down, bringing his eyes level with mine.
“What’s your name?”
“Erich Weiss, pleased to meet you.”
He shook my hand solemnly, “Thaddeus Jones. And this here’s my partner, Joshua Smith.”
Joshua Smith touched his hat to me.
“So your brother thinks a lot of Hannibal Heyes and – what’s his name, huh?”
“Kid Curry, Sir.”
“Sorry to disillusion you Erich,” a regretful shake of the head, “but I heard -Kid Curry’ is it? – lost his touch. Too much loose livin’ an’ bad whiskey. Word is…” he leaned toward me, lowering his voice and ignoring the glare directed at him by his partner, “…he hasn’t been seen since some cowboy bet him $10 he couldn’t shoot the pip outta the ace of spades at twenty paces.”
“He missed the pip?”
“Missed the barn door the card was pinned on!”
For a moment I stared, confused, at the honest sorrow in those dark brown eyes. Then I protested, “That can’t be true. Kid Curry can shoot the bug out of a bird’s beak as it flies overhead, even if he’s blindfolded! Nathan, he is always Kid Curry if we play outlaws!”
Thaddeus Jones put his hand on my shoulder, “So you get stuck bein’ – that other fella? That’s too bad. Not easy bein’ the youngest, huh?”
“I like to be Heyes!”
“You do, huh?” grinned Smith, pushing his hat to the back of his head.
“Hannibal Heyes is so silver-tongued, he can fool a bank manager into opening the safe, loading the money into his saddle bags for him; and then haf the local sheriff polish his boots, before he rides off.”
Lom Trevors sighed, “Dime novels! Now – that’s enough. Run on back to your folks.”
Collins sneered and crudely mimicked my accent.
“Yeah – run on bek to your volks. I don’t wanna listen to some come-lately , all the way to Jamestown!”
Trevors drew in his breath sharply.
Smith and Jones turned their heads in unison to glare coldly at Collins.
Thaddeus straightened up slowly, his hand hovering, as if by instinct, above his holster.
“If you wanna ride the rest of the way wearin’ a gag, just keep talkin’. Don’t make no mind to us!”
Collins scowled back at the newly icy blue stare. Eventually, with a would-be contemptuous, “Tchah!” he dropped his eyes, and hunched round to gaze out of the window.
I was staring at my boots, remembering what my Papa said. Anyone who calls you names is not worth listening to; it’s themselves they embarrass, not you. Still, a threatening tightness caught my throat.
“Run along, Erich,” said Trevors, kindly.
Blinking hard, I took a deep breath, reluctant to let my small adventure end so swiftly. After all – who has more practice at arguing for just ten minutes more – than a eight year old, always needing to delay coming in from a game, starting chores, or going to bed.
I looked up, and gave my best confident smile, drawing out my pack of cards.
“Are you a sporting man Sheriff? Would you take a wager? What would you say the odds are that I deal four aces on the first try from this deck? If I do – you let me stay for a while.”
“That a straight deck?” asked Jones, looking at me quizzically.
His partner rolled his eyes, “Thaddeus, you’ll make the boy wonder what kinda company you keep.”
Jones just flashed him a glare and held out his hand for the deck.
“Straight deck,” he said, handing it back. “Does Lom get to shuffle?”
Trevors interrupted, “There’s no wager here!”
“It can’t hurt to shuffle the deck Lom.”
Sighing, Trevors evidently decided it might be the quickest way. He shuffled the pack and I took it with the flourish I’d been practicing since I’d added this trick to my growing repertoire.
I dealt: “Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, Spades.” The four aces lay in front of my audience.
Joshua Smith looked up from the cards into my eyes, a wide grin spreading across his face.
It was not quite the reaction I’d expected, and I grinned back a shade confused.
Thaddeus Jones’ bewildered response was much more satisfactory.
“How did you do that?”
“A magician never tells the secret,” I quoted solemnly “…’cept of course, he might agree to teach another profess’nal.” Even Sheriff Trevors swallowed a reluctant smile at the phrasing.
“Wanna see another Mister Jones?”
He slid into a seat across the aisle from Trevors.
I fanned out the deck and with as impressive a tone as I could muster began, “Pick a card Sir, any card. Don’t let me see your card. Mem’rise it and replace it in the pack. Any place you like.” I shuffled the deck, “Sir, was your card the three of diamonds?”
“Yeah,” smiled Jones.
I leant forward and turning my wrist appeared to remove something from his vest pocket.
“Was this your card, Sir?”
He stared, bemused, at the card in my hand.
Joshua Smith moved forward and took the deck from me gently.
“Think you won your wager there, Erich. Want to go for double or quits?”
I looked at him questioningly, “What’s the bet?”
“You manage that trick again, you can ride with us till we reach Jamestown. But if you mess up – you have to mind Lom and go straight back to your family. Deal?”
I considered, “Deal.”
Tapping Jones on the shoulder, Smith took his place. “You don’t mind if I shuffle the deck?” he asked. The separated cards ticked rapidly together in his steepled hands, his face glancing away without expression. He paused, and met my eyes for a moment as if in thought.
“Once more?” he mouthed. I nodded. Again his face turned away as the cards were split, and expertly restacked by his hands. Tapping the edge of the deck, he passed it back to me.
I began my routine. “Pick a card, Sir…” Until, “…Sir, was your card the eight of hearts?”
A look of wonder crossed his face, “You did it again!”
Jubilant, I leant forward and reached into his shirt pocket.
“Was this your card Sir?” I crowed, the card held up facing away from me.
There was a long pause, the dark eyes holding mine.
“I think you’ll find you’re lookin’ at a dark knave, Erich.”
My smile dropped into open-mouthed surprise as I turned the card – the jack of spades.
I met his eyes again.
Reaching toward me he continued, “Eight of hearts you’ve lost?” His hand reached into my right pocket; “Here’s the seven…” a turn of the fingers made the card appear, then moving to my left pocket “here’s the nine…” again the movement so deft even I thought it was magic… “So, seems to me the eight must be…” he gently raised the edge of my cap and removing the card held it in front of my face.
Staring at the card, I blurted, “How did you do that?”
He smiled, “I think as a professional, Erich, you already know.”
“Yes but – HOW?”
I looked back at Smith; his eyes now warm with understanding.
“Now Erich, a professional should be able to lose a wager gracefully, as well as win. So you mind Lom now, and go on back.”
Sighing, “Yes sir.” I started to move down the coach.
That’s when the door opened.
Nathan filled me in on the events taking place outside the coach later.
Before that day, when Nathan and I made up a villain for our games, he’d had dark scowling eyes, a wicked jagged scar, a sneer, perhaps even a moustache to twirl. Afterwards, our villains were inconspicuous. Men who melted into a crowd. Men so devoid of distinguishing features, it was hard to describe them. Men you believed because their mild monotone failed to raise enough interest to suspect deceit.
Nathan had been sent to find and fetch me back. Moving through the train, he had eventually come to the connecting vestibule between the first and second cars, where two railway employees were deep in dull conversation.
“Not worked this section before. Usually work Duluth to St Paul. But what with the plans to expand west, management said I had to take extra shifts.”
“Uh huh. Well I’ll tell yah, gets a mite cold come winter.”
“Goin’ to be near another 700 miles laid down this year, I hear.”
“Suppose it means steady work for us.”
Nathan moved towards the final coach door.
“‘Fraid you can’t go any further son.”
“I’m looking for my little brother, sir.”
“He ain’t through there.”
The older man checked his watch.
“‘Bout three.” This obviously had significance.
The younger guard, nodded, “Why don’t you take first break? I’ll stay here.”
The older man moved past a still hovering Nathan, and disappeared down the train.
The remaining guard looked at Nathan, with kindly eyes and a mild smile.
“Worried about your little brother, son?”
“Can’t find him, sir.”
“Well,” he straightened from leaning on the metal barrier, “I’m goin’ to just check the Sheriff don’t need nothin’. You stick close ‘n’ I’ll let you just look in. Put your mind at rest that your brother ain’t there.”
“Thank you sir.”
Nathan moved to stand by the guard’s side.
That’s when he opened the door.
Nathan appeared in the car entrance.
Before he had time to smile, “Erich…” on spotting me, a gun pressed into his side.
The guard moved forward, kicking shut the door, my brother shielding his body.
Trevors sprang up as the door opened, his hand, and those of Smith and Jones moving to their holsters.
However, the sight of my brother, gasping in fright as he looked down at the barrel bruising into his ribs, caused all three to freeze. Obeying a jerk of the assailant’s head, they raised their hands.
Collins swivelled round in his seat. A triumphant grin split his face.
“Zach! Bin hopin’ to see ya!”
Zach Collins surveyed the occupants of the coach one by one, then spoke.
“You boys, keep your hands up. Trevors, drop your gun – use two fingers of your left hand, real slow and careful like, kick it toward me. Then the belt.” While Trevors complied, he continued, “Sorry to keep you waitin’ Matt. Trailed you. Saw where you was all headed. One man is a lot quicker’n four, so figured I could make it back up the line. I was on the train before you. Course, I had to persuade a fella in the baggage car to loan me his uniform, then talk him into jumpin’, him bein’ a mite scared of the rocks.”
As Trevors’ gun belt was kicked toward him, he gave a half-smile, and turned to Smith, “Now you. Same routine – nice and slow. And your friend can just keep his hands high a while longer.”
Joshua Smith complied, poker faced, but with something dangerous now in those dark eyes not there before.
“Your turn,” looking at Thaddeus Jones, “Last but not least.”
Jones didn’t move. I watched him stare at Zach Collins. Not many men would have stood up to the threat in that ice blue gaze. It had no more effect on Zach’s bland expression than staring through glass.
Silence, save for the rattle of the train.
Then a click from the gun pressed to my brother’s side.
Nathan raised a fist to his eyes – brushing something away.
“I’m not crying,” he blurted, twisting his neck round to look up at Zach, and reddening, “…you won’t make me cry!”
I saw a muscle in Jones’ jaw tighten, as he curled in all but two fingers of his left hand bringing it slowly to his holster, tossing in his gun, then unbuckling the low-slung belt.
As mildly as if commenting on the weather, Zach Collins spoke, “Trevors. Boys. As you can see I’ve got me a hostage here.” His eyes rested on me for a long moment, then moved to Lom Trevors, “In fact, seems I got me a spare. So I can stand to loose one, without bein’ pushed too far.” There was a pause, then the soft voice continued, “Now, I have a certain respect for you Trevors. Wouldn’t want you to make a mistake. Not like the mistake Sheriff Glen Wilkins made. Tried to call my bluff. Got him a dead girl on his conscience, grief stricken parents to do some explainin’ to.”
Matt Collins chimed in, bombastic in contrast to his brother’s calm.
“Fact is, that rifle shot I put in him when he come after us did him a favour. Guilt like that can eat at a man.”
Lom Trevors turned, angry, “Glen Wilkins had nothin’ to blame himself for. You killed a good man just doin’ his job,” his voice hardened, “You killed the son of a real good friend.”
Zach Collins sighed, “Wanderin’ off the point there Trevors. Point is, you know what’ll happen to these boys if you cross me. You know I ain’t bluffin’?”
A beat. “You know that don’t you, Trevors?”
Until that moment I don’t think I’d felt scared. It seemed unreal. The man doing the talking looked like the plump balding grocery-store clerk back home. He wasn’t shouting threats. He wasn’t even raising his voice.
But as I looked at Lom Trevors, I saw him swallow.
He was frightened. Frightened for Nathan. Frightened for me.
I knew it would take something real bad to frighten Sheriff Lom Trevors.
Then – then I was scared.
Zach Collins placidly waited for an answer.
Trevors spoke, “I know you aren’t bluffin’, Collins.”
Again, the mild half-smile, “Good. So when I tell you to unfasten the cuffs on my brother, you’ll do just that. No sudden moves, no tricks. An’ your friends, they’ll just watch. Just to please me – because I know they don’t wanna cross me – they’ll watch with their hands back nice and high in the air.”
Instinctively I checked out the keys as Lom Trevors unlocked the cuffs, and handed them to Matt Collins. A ring too large to palm. Besides, it clinked and jangled – too noisy.
Matt Collins stood, rubbing his freed wrists, grinning at his brother.
“What are their plans, Matt?” asked Zach.
“Trevors is handin’ me over to a Marshall Rennahen at Jamestown. Coupla guards from Fort Abe Lincoln, gonna be there too – must think I’m kinda dangerous, huh?”
“Rennahen? Never heard of him. He don’t know you?”
“Never seen me.”
“Does he know these fellas?”
“Just Trevors. Heard these two talkin’. They’ve never heard of him. These boys weren’t stayin’ after the handover. Meant to double back, try and find you.”
Zach Collins nearly managed a full smile at that, “Seems I’ve saved you some trouble boys.” He looked first, briefly, at Jones, then at Smith, “You. Dark hair, dark eyes, ’bout the right height. You’ll do fine. Consider yourself under arrest. You’ll be gettin’ off with the good Sheriff at Jamestown, and if you want these boys to keep breathin’ you’ll answer to the name Matt Collins till sundown. Matt here’ll take your place as deputy.”
Matt Collins grinned broadly, taking the star from Joshua Smith to pin on his own jacket. Retrieving Smith’s gun-belt, he buckled it on, picking up the gun, and glancing at his brother for further instruction.
“Empty Trevors, gun ‘n’ the bullets from the belt – then give it back to him. We want him to look just as he did before, if anyone glances in.”
Trevors fastened on the useless weapon.
“Now Trevors, you’re real worried about this dangerous criminal escapin’, so I think we’ll let Deputy Matt cuff him to you.” The cuffs clicked shut. “You can both sit now – facin’ me – and Deputy Matt, bein’ safety conscious like, will cuff our prisoner’s other hand to the arm rest.” Again the sound of locks closing, “And our baby faced friend with the attitude can have his gun back, so we still see two armed deputies. Course it’ll not do him much good – bein’ empty.”
Matt emptied Jones gun and belt. His own gun belt was fully loaded now, and bullets caused his jacket pockets to gape slightly as he stowed away the final handful.
Pushing me roughly back, Matt Collins stepped forward to hand over the empty gun. I retreated still further, past Jones, toward the far end of the car.
Arrangements made, Zach Collins relaxed his grip on Nathan, and still covering him, eased down into the first seat, lowering the gun to a point not visible to anyone glancing in. His brother leaned against a seat back in the centre of car, facing Trevors, Smith, and Jones. He kept his gun out, but pulling the bandana from his neck, appeared to be casually polishing the barrel.
Zach consulted a pocket watch, “‘Bout half an hour to Jamestown, supposin’ no stops to pick up mail nor nuthin’. Let’s just have us all a nice, peaceable, ride.”
The metrical rattle of the train outside, only made the stillness inside the coach yet more tense.
With a resigned sigh, Joshua Smith leaned back, and crossing his legs rested his left boot across right thigh. A minute later, I realized this was not a casual move. It effectively concealed the hand cuffed to Trevors from Matt Collins’ line of sight.
Through the gap between seat and backrest, I saw Smith’s right hand curl forward to his wrist. Bones and veins on the back of that hand danced under the tanned skin as deft fingers worked.
Realising I was beginning to gape, I looked away. Smith turned his head to his partner. His profile toward me, I felt rather than saw his eyes flick in my direction, but his expression remained innocently bland.
Risking another glance down, I resisted an urge to gasp in wonder. The lock had softly clicked open. Sidling a step or two closer to Jones, I touched his arm. He gave me a reassuring smile, and held my eyes for a moment.
He’d seen! He knew!
Thaddeus Jones let his eyes rest on a spot on the floor in front of the armrest holding his partner’s left hand. I obeyed the unspoken suggestion, moving so my body blocked any view of that hand.
I must have looked scared because, with a shaky smile, Nathan said, “Don’t worry Erich, I won’t let them hurt you.”
Matt Collins reached over and turned Nathan’s face toward him with the barrel of the gun he held, the muzzle digging into his cheek.
“I’d worry ’bout myself if I were you.”
Smith’s voice came from behind me.
“Thought you just wanted a quiet ride into Jamestown. Why not leave the boys alone?” then “It’s alright Erich.”
I looked back. The cuffs were in place – but the lock of the lower cuff was on top of the armrest, under that now so still hand. I knew it was open.
Matt Collins glanced at his brother for direction. At a nod, scarcely perceptible save for the slow blink of the eyes, which accompanied it, he gave a final jerk to Nathan’s face, then removed the gun.
As he lent back, the pocket of his jacket gaped for a moment. An idea flared.
Drawing on my all too real fright I ran to Matt Collins, one hand rubbing at my eyes, the other reaching up to grasp the lapel of his coat.
“Please, please Mister – don’t shoot my brother!” I sounded tearful, heck, I suppose I was tearful.
“Don’t want to waste the bullet lessen we have to! Now git back.”
He shoved me away. I backed up, turning, both hands knuckling at half feigned tears.
As I faced Smith, I partially lifted a finger from the fist at my eyes, showing him the result of the lift. His poker face never flickered.
Moving up to Jones, I put my hand in his, as if seeking reassurance.
“Don’t let them hurt us, Mister Jones.”
For just a moment, he was dumbstruck as he felt bullets press into his palm.
Then he squatted down to address me face to face.
“Don’t worry Erich. Stay back here with me.” Straightening, he pushed me behind him.
It seemed a long half hour to me.
At last, Zach Collins shifted, and rose to his feet. Moving to a window, he peered ahead at the track.
“Coupla minutes now. Matt, you’ll tell how last you heard Zach Collins was makin’ for Kidder County, so you and Jones here are travelin’ on West, to Steele, to pick up the chase. When we come in sight, I’ll take the boys out back to the vestibule. Don’t forget Trevors, I’ll be watchin’ real close. Don’t cross me.”
The rhythm of the wheels beneath us began to slow. The clatter became discordant and shrill as brakes shifted into position.
“Might get our prisoner ready to leave, Matt, don’t wanna keep the Marshall waitin’.”
Rocking slightly with the irregular motion of the train, Zach again leant to peer ahead, straining for first sight of the platform in the distance.
Matt Collins moved toward Smith. He pulled the key ring from his pocket, and hesitated; clearly considering whether to shift his gun to the left hand whilst unlocking the cuffs. Deciding not, he turned toward Jones, the keys held out.
Before the words were out of his mouth, Smith had moved like lightening, one arm pinioning Matt’s throat, the other catching Matt’s gun hand in a steel grip, bringing it down on the metal armrest. A sickening crack of bone, and howl of anguish, rent the air. The gun fell. Lom Trevors’ hand seemed to scoop it from mid-air before it reached the floor, and in an instant, it was pressed to Matt Collins’ head.
I watched, open-mouthed.
Nathan was watching Jones, and afterwards told me what he saw.
“…’Cept, I couldn’t see it. Was too fast. Ain’t no one that fast.”
Jones gun leapt into his hand, loading gate open. His left hand flashed over, the loading gate clapped closed, and the crack of a shot exploded through the car.
Zach Collin’s head had not fully turned, nor his brain registered Smith’s assault on his brother, before his own gun flew clattering to the floor, wrenching from him a cry of pain as the weapon ripped from his fingers.
For a moment, his face contorted in thwarted fury, the first sign of emotion I’d seen on the man. His eye, then hand, hungered toward his gun.
Jones spoke, “Got me two spare bullets here. Wanna give me a good enough reason to waste ’em?”
Zach Collins gaze met the arctic blue stare.
Defeated he raised his hands.
“Ain’t no one that fast!” asserted Nathan, not for the first time.
We sat proudly with our new friends. They intended to travel down to the Black Hills from Bismarck, meaning to use their wages as temporary deputies to check if the restored Gem Theatre in Deadwood lived up to its reputation.
“Me and Thaddeus, bein’ enthusiasts for what you might call – high-class entertainment,” Smith elaborated, with a wicked grin, and an unspoken appeal for confirmation directed at his partner.
“And for stimulatin’ company,” agreed Jones, a look of anticipation crossing his face.
Sheriff Trevors had kept his rendezvous with the Marshall, and parted from us at Jamestown, two secured outlaws in tow.
After reassuring Reena that we were neither hurt, lost, nor – worse – pestering people, Nathan and I had settled down to make the most of every remaining minute with our new heroes.
Or – were they our old heroes.
“If you’re that fast,” pondered Nathan, the logical progression furrowing his brow, “…and your partner can bust out of locks like magic…” He looked from one to the other, meeting two expressions of the utmost innocence, and mild quizzical smiles.
Plucking up courage, he leant forward to Jones, and lowering his voice, breathed, “Mister Jones, are you Kid Curry?”
Jones blue eyes widened, the very picture of offended virtue.
“Now Nathan, would a notorious outlaw like Kid Curry be workin’ – legitimate like – for a fine, respectable lawman, like Sheriff Lom Trevors?” Nathan sat back – lingering disbelief warring with disappointment.
Smith’s smile had widened at his partner’s denial, and the amused twinkle in those dark eyes emboldened me to slink up close, and whisper in my turn.
“Are you really Hannibal Heyes? I wouldn’t tell. I know it’d haf to be real secret.”
He put a hand on my shoulder, and his tone was serious, though his eyes were still warm.
“Erich, its not real polite to accuse folk of goin’ around under a false name. Now, we don’t ask you and Nathan here a lotta personal questions, do we?”
“No sir, guess not.”
I thought for a minute then tried again, “Tell me how you got out of the handcuffs, then. That’s not a pers’nal question, is it?”
“No,” he admitted, “but it is kinda a trade secret.” He looked at me thoughtfully for a long moment, then a flashing grin lit up his face, “Still – I suppose I might agree to teach another professional.” He raised a silencing hand as I began to thank him, “Course you’d have to swear never to tell.”
I nodded soberly, “I swear.”
His mouth moved close to my ear, shielded by his hand.
With a sigh of deep satisfaction, I sat back.
“I’ll never tell. I’ll keep it a profess’nal secret.” Seeing him reach out, I solemnly shook his hand.
The train pulled into Bismarck.
“Guess this is goodbye,” said Jones, as he and his partner slung their saddlebags over their shoulders, and prepared to disembark. Looking down he added, “Nathan, let me see that book.”
Nathan pulled the dog-eared dime novel from his jacket and handed it over. Jones dug a pencil stub from his vest pocket and jotted a few words on the vivid line drawing on the cover.
Looking over his shoulder, his partner put his hands on his hips, bowed his head, and shook it sighing in exasperation. Then, he held out his hand, palm uppermost, looking at Jones from under the brim of his hat, head still shaking in disbelief.
Jones looked mutinous, but then smacked the book into his partner’s outstretched palm. For a moment, I thought Smith was going to tear off the offending cover, but with a reluctant grin spreading across his face, he gave an insistent twitch of the extended hand.
Jones slapped the pencil on top of the book.
Holding the cheap novel at arm’s length, Smith added a line to his partner’s scrawl with a flamboyant flourish.
Rolling the book, he stuffed it back into Nathan’s pocket.
Then, swinging down onto the platform, they were gone.
“What’d he write, Nathan?” I asked, turning regretfully away from the window, as Smith and Jones were lost to sight amongst the crowd.
My brother pulled the tattered novel from his pocket and unfurled it.
“Nathan, keep choosing the best part – Kid Curry,” he crowed, excited eyes meeting mine in delight.
Grabbing the book I read, ‘Erich, a true professional can always keep a secret.’ And beneath, flaunting and confident, were initials more satisfactory to me than any other possible combination of letters.
Our hostess scanned me searchingly as I left that evening, a shade of wary calculation behind her eyes.
In touch with the other side? It would take more than this performance to uproot my scepticism.
Nevertheless, touching my hat to her, I placed a golden double-eagle in the discretely placed tray. Ungrudging tribute to a fellow professional.
Ehrich Weiss, better known by his ‘alias’ Harry Houdini was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. In 1878, his family (father Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, mother Cecila Steiner, and older siblings Aurine, and Nathan) moved to the United States. Until 1887 they lived in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Still in his teens Weiss (Houdini) became a professional magician. He initially focused on traditional card acts. At one point he billed himself as the “King of Cards” and “King of Handcuffs.”
In the 1920s, after the death of his beloved mother, he turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums.
As his fame as a “ghost buster” grew, Houdini took to attending seances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer.