“Oh! That was sad!”
“I suppose the moral is – be careful what you wish for.”
“Poor Mister Jones!”
“POOR Thaddeus – I may call you Thaddeus?”
“Mind you, Thaddeus had been a naughty, naughty boy! Using his charms on that girl, Em!”
“Boys WILL be boys!”
“Maybe she led him astray!”
“A young man is SO easily tempted by…well, by…” A blush. “Love’s pleasures.”
A pause in the feminine appreciation for Sable-Furs fortune telling. Three pairs of bright eyes looked at two distinctly shaken ex-outlaws. Three pairs of soft, slim hands stopped stitching at three dainty embroidery frames, brought out once their friend had bent over the cards.
“Didn’t you think it was sad, Mister Jones? Mister Smith?”
Heyes and Curry shifted in their seats. The shock of hearing Preacher’s name and of realising that Sable-Furs must, MUST know their real identities had paled into insignificance as the story reached its conclusion.
Heyes cleared his throat and tried for a nonchalant ‘of course I don’t REALLY believe in it’ tone. He failed. “Was that…?” Heyes searched. A phrase from a book he’d read once swam to the top of his memory. “Was that the future that MUST be? Or only a future that MIGHT be?”
“The future is only fixed once it becomes the past. There is always choice.” Sable-Furs dark eyes rose from the deck her hands were now slowly shuffling. “Do you wish to question the cards further?”
The partners exchanged a glance. Roughly translated, this seemed to suggest they were allowed to see if their luck would improve with a fresh deal.
“If fear of finding a worse fate than that offered holds you back, so be it.”
A mute conversation. Another, half-reluctant, nod from Kid. Surely the next try HAD to be better. Two hands reached out.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“The Queen of Wands. Strength – inverted. The Tower.”
Three ladies settled to their embroidery with murmurs of happy anticipation. A fourth began her second tale. “I see a small town and a single, slim figure coming out of the hotel…”
NO PLACE TO HYDE
I see a small town and a single, slim figure coming out of the hotel.
Ten minutes later Jones was pushing stew around his plate in a cheap café. He missed his partner, but couldn’t deny when they were down to their last dollar and Lom told them of two jobs paying hard cash, it made sense to split up and take them. But, knowing he’d have a few days to wait before Smith showed up, wasn’t what was putting him off his food. THAT was the hangover. Jones had spent last night drowning his sorrows over yet another birthday on the run and this particular birthday without even a friend to drink with. Most of the morning had passed in a stupor. The first part of the afternoon had passed working up the strength to lift his pounding head from where it was buried, face down, in a drool soaked pillow. Sheesh! He must have been drunk last night. Lousy, stinking, maudlin drunk. He’d thought solid food might help, but…
Jones gave up on the stew, swallowed the rest of the scalding black coffee and strode out. His gaze travelled down the dusty street. It passed over the saloon, with a shake of his aching head. The last thing he needed was ‘a hair of the dog’. Bleary blue eyes took in a livery, a hotel, a schoolhouse with children clattering down the steps and hollering as they began the run home… Oh! Despite evil gnomes tap-dancing behind his eyes, Jones straightened up, squared his drooping shoulders and managed a wan smile and painful tip of the brown hat. A tall lady – presumably the teacher – was locking the door. She descended the steps at a sedate pace, tying a demure bonnet over upswept honey coloured hair.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. And, what a lovely aftern…” Jones stopped. The rapid straightening up had been a mistake. A tan-gloved hand flew to his mouth. He smothered a belch and swallowed down the acid reflux in his throat. His belly growled in protest and gave a frankly vulgar series of gurgles and pops. “Excuse me, ma’am,” mumbled the ladies man, a faint flush rising to his cheeks.
“Are you not feeling well?” came a kindly voice.
“Must have been something I – I ate,” said a subdued Jones, apologetically. A second belch caught him unawares. “Hic!” he added, explosively. Blushing, he looked up into a pair of smiling eyes. “Hic!” He clutched his churning stomach. “Oh, for Pete’s …Hic!”
“Miss Stevenson,” the lady introduced herself, holding out a hand clad in a neat kid glove.
“Thadd…Hic…Seuss …Hic…Oh **! **ing HIC- hiccoughs! I mean…” Blue eyes widened in horror at this fresh slip. “Sorry ma’am. Hic!”
“Come with me, I can help,” she laughed. She pointed at a building displaying ‘Doctor R. L. Stevenson’ on a small brass plaque. “Come on.”
Giving up on further speech the hiccoughing Jones followed her, concentrating hard on letting no further outbreaks of wind, odour, nor obscenity escape from any orifice whatsoever.
Jones drank the last of the concoction. It tasted foul. Like Smith’s coffee after a couple of real stinking toads had taken an amorous bath in it and a skunk – not a respectable skunk, some black sheep of the skunk family who the others avoided because of his poor personal hygiene – had used it as mouthwash and spat it back into the tumbler. But…
He blinked his eyes a few times. Risked a shake of his head. Contemplated his quiet stomach.
“Sure do, ma’am.”
The once again bright blue eyes checked out the bottles and jars, jostling for space on the floor to ceiling shelves surrounding him. A marble mortar and pestle and a set of scales stood on the bench in the back office his new acquaintance had led him to.
“You’re a doctor as well as a teacher?” he asked, confused. Now he was not distracted by evil dancing gnomes, he saw she was not so young as he’d first assumed. Maybe a few years older than himself. Still a fine, handsome woman though.
“No.” There was an edge of bitterness in the voice. “My younger brother is the doctor. There wasn’t enough money to train us both and my father believed it a waste to spend college fees on a girl – even if she did have a passion for science. Once I married, all that good money and fancy education would be thrown away.” A pause. “Only, I never did marry. I took my teacher’s certificate, used my wages to help with Robert’s much more important fancy education and… here I still am.”
“Uh huh?” Jones looked around. They seemed to be alone in the building.
She answered the unspoken question. “Robert’s at a conference in St. Louis. I always cover for him in the pharmacy when he’s away.” A wry smile. “I assure you, I may not have a medical degree – but I know quite as much as he does.” Again just a hint of resentment, “I have done these fifteen years.”
“Judging from the effects of that, ma’am, I believe you.” Jones nodded at the empty tumbler, “…That wasn’t like any medicine I ever took before. More like magic.”
Her gaze widened for a moment and then ran over the handsome man seated in the deep leather chair. The soft lashes dropped over intelligent eyes. “You flatter me, Mister Jones.” She smoothed a non-existent wrinkle from her serviceable navy serge skirt. “Are you staying in town long?”
“No ma’am. A week at most. Then I’ll be moving on – looking for work.” A pause. . “What do I owe you, ma’am?” As he had expected, she waved aside any payment. Jones had not missed the fleeting expression of disappointment at the news he was only passing through. Perhaps just a shade smugly, Jones treated her to one of his ‘boyish charm’ smiles, “In that case, ma’am, perhaps I could buy you dinner tonight, to say ‘thank you’?”
“I’m sorry, Mister Jones,” again, just a hint of suppressed resentment appeared. “The terms of my employment at the school forbid me to pay or receive unchaperoned visits from single men not in my immediate family, to drive with them in a horse drawn vehicle, to be seen in their company after dusk, or to engage in any social intercourse whatsoever which might give rise to suspicion, even if wholly unfounded, of moral turpitude.”
Jones blinked. “Er…I only meant a friendly meal, ma’am. I wasn’t thinking of any turpi…I wasn’t thinkin’ of nothing at all!”
Again her clever gaze ran quickly over him. “I know you weren’t Mister Jones,” she sighed.
It was true. Jones hadn’t been thinking of anything – much – at all. Maybe a little innocent feminine admiration as a pleasantly flattering antidote to all the maudlin brooding his thirtieth birthday seemed to have thrown up yesterday. Miss Stevenson was not exactly the usual picture of ‘temptation’. From the tip of her tidy bun to the toes of her sensible and well-shined boots she was clearly the epitome of respectability. Jones didn’t think much of men who fooled around with respectable women, raising matrimonial hopes they wouldn’t or couldn’t fulfil. Maybe he HAD raised a few hopes over the years but not – he hoped – with malice aforethought. Maybe, a rueful grin, getting older had some compensations? Maybe he’d grown out of being so susceptible to an admiring smile?
“I guess I’d better be going,” Jones rose to his feet. “Thank you again, ma…”
“Oh, don’t go just yet,” Miss Stevenson interrupted, just a shade too eagerly. “Stay for coffee. And, I’m sure I can rustle up an oatmeal cookie or two.” An entreating smile. “You’ll need something to wash the taste of the – medicine – away. Call it ‘convalescence’.”
Jones returned the smile. “Not even the starchiest school board could object to a legitimate patient stayin’ for ten minutes of coffee and ‘convalescence’, huh?”
Miss Stevenson disappeared through a door at the back of the dispensing office. Jones heard the chink of china, the glug of coffee. What Jones did NOT hear was the tiny plop and fizz as Em Stevenson, a suddenly resolute set to her chin, added a single black, shining drop from a tiny silver topped bottle to each cup. She stirred – strictly anti-clockwise – seven times. The determined lips moved, silently.
Jones slowly came round from his post-coital stupor. Tousled blond curls lifted from where they were pillowed on…A faint flush rose to his cheeks. He pulled the throw filched from the respectable couch set back in the dispensing office a little higher over Em’s naked body. Then, with a wicked smile, he changed his mind. What did he care if it WAS broad daylight outside? He glanced around at the devastation wrought in the formerly neat room. Bottles and boxes had been swept from every surface, because every surface had been needed for – other purposes. He didn’t care about that either.
He didn’t care about being thirty.
He didn’t care about missing out on a wife and children. What kind of loser wanted to be tied down?
He didn’t care about posses. Nor bounty hunters. Why should he? Wasn’t he the fastest gun in the west? Let anyone even try to mess with him – he’d know what to do!
He didn’t care about the amnesty. ** the governor! And, ** his dumb partner for ever wanting to go straight. Going straight was for quitters!
He didn’t care about ANYTHING.
He was – INVINCIBLE.
And, he was the greatest lover in the history of the world! And, Em deserved him – for a while anyhow, no WAY was he EVER going to be a one woman man – because she was the most uninhibited little w**** he’d ever come across. Pun intended! She deserved …She deserved…
Em’s squeak of surprise as she was roughly roused from sleep segued almost at once into a throaty growl of pleasure…
Jones slowly came round from his, completely exhausted, post-coital stupor. Tousled blond curls lifted from where they were pillowed on…Sheesh!
Scarlet, he scrambled to his feet. Trying not to look, he spread the throw filched from the respectable couch set back in the dispensing office over Em’s naked body. He looked down at himself. Sheesh! Clumsy in his haste he started to retrieve one item of clothing after another. Draped on high shelves, dangling over the ceiling lamp, stuffed under the…How the Sam Hill did THAT get THERE?
As he hopped on one leg trying to pull on the other boot, his mind raced.
WHAT had happened? Well, he could guess that. But, WHAT had come over him? She was a respectable woman! She could lose her job – let alone her reputation if anyone found out.
He winced as he buttoned his shirt. His back felt like he’d done three rounds with a cougar! Fear and guilt gripped him. She hadn’t – hadn’t been trying to fight him off, had she? He looked around at the devastated room. He looked closely at the white arm flung above Em’s head in the tangle of honey coloured hair. He gulped. Finger bruises; not deep, but definitely there. Surely he hadn’t…? It’d be bad enough if he’d sweet-talked her into going against her better judgement, but SURELY he hadn’t…?
He couldn’t remember.
And, the vague images floating in his mind seemed – unbelievable.
It was more like a dim memory of watching some other guy. A guy not without attractions, not without an inner unshakeable self-confidence Jones might even envy, but…Nah! Jones decided he did NOT like this other fella!
He became aware that Em was waking up. A pair of sleepy eyes blinked at him. She clutched the throw modestly, but the half-embarrassed, half-teasing smile she gave relieved at least one qualm. She may, like him, be a touch shame-faced now, but – nothing had happened she had not wanted at the time.
“Hello, Thaddeus,” she murmured.
“You look like a guilty schoolboy. Are you worried I’m going to give you a hundred lines?”
“Em, I’m so, SO sorry. I should never have taken advantage of you like…”
“You didn’t. I did.”
“I took advantage of YOU. I knew you’d never make a pass at me. I knew the normal me would never pluck up courage to …to throw myself at you. And, even if I did – suppose you were ‘a gentleman’ and saved me from myself. So, I decided to use something to help us both along. You see…” Em sat up, clutching her knees and still keeping the throw wrapped around her. “I wanted to feel my heart hammering frantically against a handsome man’s chest – just once. Just once I wanted to feel …”
“You mean…” Jones interrupted, not sure whether to be angry or not. On the whole he thought ‘stunned’ covered it better than ‘angry’. “You DRUGGED me?”
“It is not exactly a drug. It is … a little experiment of mine. Administered correctly, it releases all the hidden parts of human nature…relieves us of inhibitions, of guilt, of the burdens of so-called ‘civilisation’…”
“I’m sorry,” she offered, not very convincingly. “But, ‘alls well that ends well’. And,” A naughty grin reminiscent of the uncivilised ‘Em’ of earlier. “You can’t deny it ended well. Several times.”
A rather sheepish grin in return from Jones. She had had no right to do that, but…Well. Like the lady said, no real harm done.
All of a sudden, Em giggled. “One thing you were doing that I HADN’T expected – I mean, aside from all the…Well, aside from all THAT… was claiming to be someone else!”
“What?” Jones snapped.
“You were claiming to be…” Giggle. “An outlaw! The fastest gun in the West!”
Silence from Jones.
Fond smile from Em. “I guess it was you reverting to boyish games, Thaddeus – pretending to be an outlaw. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
“Ridiculous,” he managed, stiffly.
“Can you imagine if you WERE and I gave you the potion? That’d be something to see!” Choke of laughter.
“Why? Why would it be different for him?”
“Because,” Em pushed back a lock of hair, her brow puckered. “…The potion lets out your dark side. The wilder the original character, the riskier it is. An outlaw – a gunslinger – will have released what most of us consider ‘a dark side’ already. AND, he will have seen and experienced events worse than a run of the mill man. Whatever he has kept hidden from himself is likely to be much worse than – say – the law-abiding itinerant cowboy, Thaddeus Jones.”
“Uh huh?” Jones shifted uncomfortably. He really had NOT liked much of what he recalled about ‘the other fella’. Still, he reminded himself, no real harm done.
“What’s wrong? Found a scratch? Same here. My back’s like a …”
“No,” frowned Em. “I rolled on something.” She fished under the throw and drew out a tiny bottle. The colour drained from her face.
“What is it?” asked Jones, suddenly nervous.
“It’s the potion. It’s empty. You must have taken more – or maybe we both did – while we were both…” Em searched. “Not ourselves.”
“Well, still no harm done. A bottle that size could only hold a teaspoonful.”
“The dose which – changed – us, was a single drop. I’m worried that…” She stopped.
“That – what?” prompted Jones.
“That we may change again. At any moment.” Em bit her lip. Then, with a little shake of her head, she made an effort to relax. “Maybe not, huh? And, if we do, what’s the worse that can happen?”
Jones blinked. What WAS the worse that could happen?
Jones sat quiet in his hotel room. Maybe if he stayed away from any possibility of trouble, he’d be less likely to change. Maybe the dang potion would just work its way peacefully out of his system and nothing would happen. Jones filled the water glass and took another long drink to help wash it through.
He thought about his ‘dark side’. He’d always liked to think of himself …No, no, he always liked to think of them BOTH as ‘pretty good bad men’. And, sappy as it sounded, the warmth of that one enduring friendship had kept their slates cleaner than either would have been alone.
But, deep down, Jones knew there was a lot of stuff inside himself he didn’t like. There had been ever since the pair of them threw up a protective shell around themselves back in the home. And, as for keeping things hidden from himself…
On a sudden impulse, he unstrapped his gun, emptied it and tucked it, well out of sight beneath his clean shirts. He dropped the bullets into a vase on the dusty mantelpiece. If HE couldn’t remember what the other fella did – maybe the reverse was true? IF he changed, at least ‘Dark Side’ wouldn’t be armed. Of course, without ‘his’ gun ‘he’ would be at risk – and anything that happened to ‘him’ happened to, er, well – to him…
Jones gave up on the convoluted logic. He leant on the dresser in front of the flecked mirror and admitted that what he was most scared of was NOT something hurting him. What scared him most was the potential killer he saw in the glass adding a body to his tally.
He stared at the reflection. Slowly, his fears ebbed away. It didn’t look as if he suffered any after effects from Em’s potion. He looked… A smug smile creased his cheeks; he looked even better than usual. Better by the minute. He could almost see his face changing – as he became younger and stronger. Handsome enough to get anything he wanted from the ladies and dangerous enough for no man to dare try and stop him. What the Sam Hill had he been worrying about? He was invincible. He could feel the pumping blood tingle in his arteries. The blue eyes glinted cruelly. The mouth lifted in a mocking sneer as Jones retrieved the gun from where his dumb alter-ego had stashed it. That weakling would rather risk getting shot at, than send any worthless lawman who recognised him by the short route to oblivion would he? Pfffttt! Jones retrieved the bullets, loaded and returned the gun to the low-slung holster with a flourish. HE knew better.
“Are you gonna draw?” sneered Jones at the terrified youngster standing about ten foot away from him in the tense and now silent saloon. “‘Cos – I never enjoy it so much if I reach first.”
“Look, Mister Jones. It was just an accident. I said sorry. I offered to buy you another…”
“Seems to me a man oughta watch where he’s steppin’. Seems to me a man shouldn’t carry a gun if he’s too yellow-bellied to use it. Are you too yellow-bellied to use it, boy?”
“I asked you a question, boy. Are you a yellow-bellied stinkin’ coward?”
Silence. The youngster opened his mouth, almost determined to save a remnant of pride with a firm ‘no’, took another look at that icy blue stare and shut it again.
“For Pete’s sake,” protested the bartender. “The lad told you he was sorry. Leave it at that.”
“I’ll leave it when he answers my question,” said Jones. “Is he gonna draw – or is he a yellow-bellied stinkin’ coward? Well boy – which is it?”
Bill Casey’s face twisted in misery. He ought to stand up to this bully. He knew that. But… What use was pride once you were stone cold and six foot under? He didn’t want to die like this. He wanted to live. Carry on saving for a little place so in a couple of years – maybe when he turned twenty-one – him and Ellie could get married. And, if he died, how would Ma manage without his wages? He had to support her until Charlie and George were old enough to help out.
“I’m a coward,” he muttered. He was never wearing that dumb gun again. Never.
“Can’t hear you,” sing-songed Jones, mockingly.
“I’m a yellow-bellied stinkin’ coward.”
“I’m a yellow-bellied stinkin’ coward.”
“Hmmm? Seems in that case, maybe I should shoot you anyhow.” The colt flew into Jones’ hand. The silence around the saloon was broken by gasps and screams from the saloon girls.
“Did ya SEE that?”
“Ain’t no one that fast!”
The cold blue eyes glinted with triumph at the squeal of terror and telltale damp patch spreading on the youngster’s crotch.
“Bang!” deadpanned Jones, then laughed as he watched a tear escape and a sleeve pull hastily across a pair of lowered and shamed eyes.
The early dawn light filtering through the flower-sprigged curtains brought Jones slowly round from his post-coital stupor. Tousled blond curls lifted from where they were pillowed on…Oh, for Pete’s sake!
Déjà vu swept over him.
He sat up and met Em’s questioning gaze, as she rubbed her arm where his weight had cut off the circulation.
“Are you…yourself, Thaddeus?”
“How the Sam Hill did I get here?” his question overlapped hers. The implication sank in. “Did I…change again?”
Still cautious, Em nodded.
“I didn’t – didn’t hurt you did I?” he asked, seeing her wariness.
The soft lashes lowered quickly, hiding a sudden calculating expression in the clever eyes. “Oh…” A pause. She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I know it’s not the real you. I’m hardly entitled to complain, huh? And…” Em gave a mischievous smile, “I’m not hypocritical enough to deny the pleasure of your company – whichever YOU it is – sure beats a quiet evening marking math homework!”
Jones searched his – or rather ‘his’ – memory. Again it was vague – like recalling events he had watched happen to someone else weeks ago. The first images…Jones flushed, moved as if to cover himself with the sheet, decided any modesty with Em was now just plain dumb and didn’t bother. He STILL didn’t like the other fella, but he couldn’t deny the guy had stamina.
“Er, Em…” he began, tentatively. “Last night, was I saying stuff about you and me strikin’ it rich and headin’ off together South of the Border?”
“It might have come up,” she admitted, cautiously.
Jones braced himself. After the way she tricked him, Em did not exactly deserve perfect chivalry, but he still did not want to hurt her feelings. “You do know that’s just the potion talkin’? As soon as my partner shows up…”
“You have to move on,” she interrupted, in a controlled voice. “You have to move on and you couldn’t take me along, even if you wanted to. I know. ”
Jones scanned her face. Her expression was…Nah. He gave it up. She was not an easy woman to read. Not heartbroken though!
“I guess,” he gave a self-deprecating laugh, “only the OTHER fella’d be conceited enough to believe you’d give up all this…” His hand indicated the tidy, feminine bedroom with it’s currently rather overcrowded prim little single bed. “And your teachin’ and all…just to go on the run with some no-account drifter.”
Once more the soft lashes fell to hide the clever, clever eyes. “Put like that, it DOES sound ridiculous,” she murmured.
Jones returned to searching ‘his’ memory. The events of last night before rejoining Em remained elusive, but he recalled hard anger. Hatred against a world that had once robbed him of everything. Determination to get even – to take back what life owed him. Despising all the folk too weak to take what they wanted. Despising all the dull ordinary little people who settled for dull ordinary little lives, sweating away at dull ordinary little jobs that were just too dang hard on the back.
A cold shudder ran over him. Some of this, though twisted out shape and unsoftened by any human warmth, was too familiar for comfort.
He recalled the lust to…
Jones’ head dropped into his hands. Please, please not that.
“What’s wrong?” Em asked.
“It’s him. I reckon he’s getting stronger. Stronger and – meaner. Em…” He caught her hand, urgently. “Em. I can’t keep changing. He’s …last night…I’m still not sure what he did, but one thing I do know. He didn’t kill. And that’s what he really wants. He wants to kill.”
The schoolteacher searched the blue eyes, found the pain hidden there. Her suspicions grew. He had lied. This wasn’t and never had been ‘law-abiding cowboy, Thaddeus Jones’. This man knew what it felt like to kill. AND, so did his dark side.
Em opened her mouth to speak, changed her mind and shut it again. She was not sure what she wanted to say and was wise enough to realise in such situations the best thing is to say – nothing.
“You made this dang potion. I KNOW it’s still in me. I can feel it. Can you make – whaddya call it – an…”
“An antidote,” she supplied, quietly.
He was right about one thing. The potion was still in him. She knew because it was still in her too.
“Can you? Can you undo this?”
While she was still hesitating, they became aware of noises outside coming closer. Stomping of boots. Shouts.
“Not here, Deke.”
“We’ll check out the livery.”
Pulling on a wrap, Em slipped to the window and guardedly twitched the curtain to peep out into the dim light of early dawn. “It’s the Sheriff,” she hissed, “…And it looks like both deputies AND a couple of other men!”
“He can’t have left town – his horse is still here.”
“Watch your back. Zeb saw him draw against young Billy. Said he ain’t never seen nothing like it!”
“‘Course we don’t know for certain THIS was him…”
“Lily, that little redheaded piece at the saloon, says he was spinning her a tale he’d ridden with the Devil’s Hole Gang.”
“From what I saw – he’s sure mean enough!”
“What have you done, Thaddeus?” Em’s eyes widened as she watched the busy street below. Householders were being roused from their beds.
“The mercantile was robbed…”
“We’re searching every building…”
“Deke found Joe knocked senseless…taken a pretty bad kick to the ribs too…”
“Looking for a fella callin’ himself Jones…”
“Who’d DO that to a man his age? Sheesh! It’s not as if Joe could put up a fight!”
“Do they mean Joe Godfrey?” Jones gasped, recalling having the old man pointed out to him as having ‘lost the arm at Bueno Vista’.
“Thaddeus, it might not even have been you! You heard – they’re not certain.”
Jones, now buttoning his shirt, strode over to his jacket, pulled a fistful of bills from the pocket. Their eyes met. “For pity’s sake, Em, you gotta help me!”
“I will. I can hide you. Swear I’ve not been disturbed. The Sheriff will believe me…”
“NO! I mean you gotta help me not change back! I can’t…” Jones stared at the stolen money in his hand. “I can’t be this fella. I WON’T. I’d rather…” He stopped. Em watched him. Inside the man a battle was going on. Jones took a deep breath and reluctantly chose the least bad option. Or at any rate, the least bad option if he was trying to do the right thing. “I’ll give myself up – go down unarmed. Say I broke in here to hide, but realise I’m outnumbered. If I’m in a cell – it won’t matter if I change.”
“Don’t!” She wasn’t ready to lose him! Not yet! “…I’m sure I could come up with an antidote. Sure!”
“I could change any moment, Em. I can FEEL him. Feel him getting stronger. I can’t take the risk.”
“But they could lock you up for – for months. Maybe years.”
Despite himself, Jones gave a wry smile. “You have no idea how many!” Again, he caught her hand. “Listen. I have a plan. Leastways, I have half of somethin’ that could become a plan – and I know a man who can fill in the blanks. My partner should arrive any time now. He…” Jones hesitated, then decided if Em guessed, well – that was the least of his problems. “Once you’ve come up with an – an antidote, or once all the effects have worn off, he’ll be able to break me out of jail. Call it – a knack. His name’s Joshua Smith. My height. Dark. Black hat, silver trimmings. Once he shows up – tell him everything. Take my gun. He’ll know if YOU have that, I trusted you. AND, tell him to make sure it’s ME he’s breakin’ out, NOT ‘the other fella’. Will you do all that, Em?”
A tiny pause before she pressed his hand in return, “Sure.”
“Thanks.” He dropped a quick kiss on her cheek and she heard his boots on the stairs and a call of ‘Don’t shoot! I’m comin’ out with my hands up!”
Em turned to the mirror and raised her fingers to the place Jones’ lips had touched. Her brow puckered. “I don’t know about ‘the other fella’ getting stronger, Thaddeus,” she breathed, “…But you’re sure getting weaker. The man I met yesterday wouldn’t be so – gullible.” A cunning smile lifted her flushed cheeks. The eyes glittered. Her life filled with passion for the first time, Em felt – invincible.
The Sheriff shuddered at the bitter hatred darting blue fire from the eyes of his prisoner. Jones had seemed so – so reasonable when they arrested him this morning. Now he could well believe this was the man who had beat up harmless old Joe Godfrey. He more than half believed the gossip – started by a couple of the saloon gals – that Thaddeus Jones was really the notorious outlaw, Kid Curry. In any case, he believed it enough to wire for a lawman to come in from Cheyenne
The Sheriff motioned the lean figure away from the food hatch with his gun. “All the way back, Jones, hands flat against the wall. Deke here,” Deke was the man carrying the tray. “…Won’t be coming any nearer until you back up. So, unless you wanna stay hungry…”
With a sneer of contempt, Jones did as he was bid. He watched the men; a Sheriff and Deputy both with guns trained on him and a third man to set down the tray at arm’s length and push it through the hatch. Snivelling cowards the lot of them! They were right to be frightened though! If he ever got out…
Left alone, Jones retrieved the food from the hatch. He had to keep his strength up. Ready for when he DID get out. Anger raged inside him at the one man he could never take revenge against. The dumb weakling with the bleeding heart who had tossed aside his gun, raised his hands above his head and walked into this cell. He couldn’t keep changing back into ‘him’ – he just couldn’t!
Blinking awake, Jones raised his head from the thin mattress. He winced as a stiffened muscle in his neck protested at the sleeping arrangements. Dark. Must be the middle of the night. Where the Sam Hill…?
He remembered. He was in jail. Déjà vu again! Though, this time was different. He’d volunteered to be behind bars. Trying to raise his hand for a good scratch Jones felt his arm jerk in its socket. He was cuffed to the bedstead. Why? The Sheriff had seemed a decent enough fella. Not one to indulge in any vindictive…
Images floated into Jones’ mind. He had changed again. He had…
He grimaced at the recollection of the obscene sound of a breaking bone and the cruel pleasure at hearing a squeal of pain. ‘He’ had lured an unwary young deputy close enough to grasp a wrist through the bars.
No wonder the Sheriff had taken extra precautions. Jones didn’t hold any grudge for the bruises he could feel either. He reckoned ‘he’ had deserved them. Still, it could have been a lot worse if he hadn’t been locked up. Couldn’t it? He’d made the right choice turning himself in. Hadn’t he? Sure he had. Probably.
Jones sighed. He disliked nearly everything about ‘the other fella’, but he sure wished he had ‘his’ self-confidence. Being left with even half of it would have been something.
Suddenly, Jones became aware of stealthy movement beyond the outer cell.
“Thaddeus,” hissed a familiar deep voice.
Jones closed his eyes in utter thankfulness. At last.
A familiar black hat followed the voice. A raised oil lamp lighted up a familiar pair of brown eyes.
“Hey…I mean, hey, Joshua,” hissed back Jones, seeing Em appear over his partner’s shoulder. “What the Sam Hill kept you?”
The brown eyes searched the cells, checking Jones was the only prisoner.
“Oh, Em and me reckoned there was no hurry,” beamed Smith, in his normal tones. “Had to finish supper first. I’m afraid we didn’t save you any. Still, wouldn’t want me breaking you outta jail on an empty stomach, would you?”
A glower from Jones.
“Mister Smith cracked the safe where the Sheriff keeps the cell keys,” exulted Em. “Isn’t that clever?”
“Not as clever as this one,” smiled back Smith, nodding at the excited schoolteacher. “She came round to put a splint on some fella’s wrist and doped the coffee pot. AND, she says they won’t even have a headache when they come round. Most civilised jailbreak I’ve ever…” He stopped. A wary glance at Em. She must have guessed, but no need to rub it in. “Most civilised jailbreak I’ve ever imagined. Hypothetically,” he amended. An admiring look. “I reckon you work magic with the potions in that dispensing room, ma’am.”
The smile on Em’s lips froze for a second. Once again Jones felt a wave of déjà vu as the soft lashes lowered and he heard, “You flatter me, Mister Smith.”
“Is it true though?” urged Jones. “Did you manage the antidote, Em?”
The lashes rose. Her eyes met his and she nodded. A small hand held out a corked bottle. “Wait,” she pulled out the stopper. “I took a dose myself to check it worked – but maybe one drop more to be sure.” Wicked twinkle. “You don’t want me reverting and throwing myself at Mister Smith here, do you?”
“Well, ma’am…” began the dimpled one, as Em took a ladylike sip.
“Don’t!” warned Jones, cutting off his partner before any silver tonguing could join the dimples. He took the bottle from Em. “You’re sure this works?”
“You’ll know it works as soon as you taste it,” she assured him.
Jones drank. His eyes widened. Yes! YES! He could feel it. ‘The other fella’ was gone forever. He met Em’s watching gaze. She gave him a tiny nod, a flash of justified pride in those clever eyes.
His partner beamed through the bars. “Now I’m supposed to check its really YOU. That really you in there, Thaddeus?”
“You know it is! Get me outta here!”
“Looks ugly enough,” mused Smith, teasingly. “Sounds grumpy enough. Still – maybe we should wait. See how grumpy he gets if we make him miss breakfast.”
“It’s ME! If you don’t get me outta here – I’ll – I’ll flatten ya!”
His partner, still grinning, had already undone the cell door and had knelt to pick the cuffs.
“Whatever you put in that potion, ma’am – couldn’t you have added a little something to keep him civil?” The cuffs clicked open. Jones stretched his cramped shoulder and rubbed his wrist. “D’you hear that! Not a word of thanks. Do you reckon a fella this ornery deserves his gun back?” joshed Smith. “Nah! Neither do I. The thing is ma’am, he’ll only complain he walks with a limp if we hold onto it.”
“Horses ready?” grunted Jones, buckling on the well-worn gun belt and, after checking the chamber, slipping the spotlessly clean colt into its holster.
The three of them slipped past the unconscious lawmen and, after checking the town was deserted, into the silence of the small-hours streets. Two tethered horses whickered a soft greeting.
Em met Jones’ eyes, gave a tight little smile. “Time to say goodbye.”
“I guess so.” Jones turned, gun leaping into his hand. “Goodbye, partner.” A cruel grin answered Smith’s incredulous stare. “Once thoroughly respectable Miss Stevenson has struck it rich claiming the ten thousand on your head, we’ll head off to a new life, South of the Border. Just like we planned yesterday.” His lip lifted in contempt. “You’re getting old as well as soft,” he crowed, as six bullets, so rapid they seemed a single shot, ripped through the lean body and sent it first spinning, then crumpling into the dusty gutter. “You never used to be so easy to bluff!”
Jones turned over the corpse of the man he now recognised as nothing more than a useless, weak burden with the toe of his boot, then hefted it across his saddlebow.
He didn’t need him! He didn’t need anyone! He only needed…
Jones threw a look of triumph at Em, already mounted on Smith’s horse.
He only needed her. Her and the potion to keep ‘the other fella’ quiet forever.
They rode out together before the first of the roused townsfolk made it down to the street. Both – invincible.
—oooOOOooo— —oooOOOooo— —oooOOOooo—