1. Local Conditions

by Calico

A recalcitrant Kid Curry strode into the small-town restaurant, followed by a determinedly optimistic Hannibal Heyes.

The sole other customer, back to the door and bent low over sheets of paper spread over a well-scrubbed table, did not look round. Coffee cup and plate pushed aside, she was alternately scribbling furiously, and pausing, head in hands, apparently lost in thought.

Curry picked a table offering a view of both the door, and the window over the main street. With a trail spattered boot he pushed out a chair for his partner.

A motherly looking waitress bustled up.
“What can I get you boys? We’ve some real nice rib-eye steaks, deep-dish pie to follow. Dollar apiece. Includes all the coffee you can drink.”

Heyes winced slightly at the words ‘dollar apiece’.
“Well, ma-am, that sounds real nice, but ya’know, we’ve kinda a hankering for bacon and beans.” He pointed toward the chalked menu where ‘Bacon and beans – 20 cents’ headed a scrawled list.

Kid Curry glared at his partner.
“Steak, twice,” he snapped firmly, adding politely as he turned to the waitress, “Thank you, ma-am.”

“But…”

“Told you once already Joshua. I’m not eating beans one more day.”

Sighing Heyes reached into his jacket pocket, then examined the contents of his black-gloved hand. Taking two dusty and much crumpled dollar bills, he handed them over.

“Steak, twice,” he confirmed. As the waitress left, Heyes turned to Kid with a long-suffering expression, “Don’t know what it is makin’ you so all fired ornery, Kid.”

Kid Curry merely scowled, and continued his watchful observation of the street.

“Should be countin’ your blessin’s. Lost us that bounty hunter days back. Here we are in a real nice town. The sheriff don’t know us. Deputy’s fat and lazy.”

“Town’s kinda slow,” grumbled Kid.

“Lot to be said for slow. Come Saturday cowboys’ll be in from the ranches. Drink; drink some more, gamble…lose. We could enjoy this place.”

”Saturday’s five days away. A man needs money to enjoy a place.”

“There you go again. Not countin’ blessin’s. The saloon had boiled eggs on the bar. Made us $10 to add to what we rode in with.”

“We rode in with 35 cents, Heyes!”

“Well, don’t that make a $10 boiled egg an even bigger blessin’?”

Kid Curry considered this for a moment, and reluctantly nodded agreement.

Two generous platefuls of food arrived, together with a pot of strong, steaming coffee. For several minutes, Kid Curry gave his full attention to the steak. It was excellent. So was the coffee.

His mood lifting, he addressed his partner, “How much money we got left, Heyes?”

“Well, you’ve been pretty extravagant Kid. Coupla beers. Room last night was three dollars up front.”

“How much, Heyes?”

“Paid extra for a bath… Kinda a luxury, that.”

“Heyes, take my word – after two weeks straight on the trail, that bath was a necessity!”

“Had to pay the livery stable up front for feed and grain. Needed a shoe for my horse. Needed bullets, you bein’ so wasteful practisin’. Now, here you are gettin’ all proddy, insistin’ on steak.”

“Heyes, how much we got?”

“Four dollars eighty-five cents.” He pushed back his hat, and smiled ruefully at his partner, “Been a lot, lot, worse, Kid.”

“But lessin we find work, we’re back to sleepin’ out tomorrow?”

Heyes nodded.

The waitress returned. Removing empty plates, she replaced them with portions of pie, cut with a liberal hand. Again, it was delicious. Kid shifted in his seat. Well fed now, the desire to prod at his partner receded.

In a conciliatory tone, he mused,“Could try ‘n’ find ranch work.”

Heyes looked up, “I thought we only took ranch jobs if we couldn’t avoid it.”

“Heyes, with less’n five dollars between us and five days away from a chance of a poker game – I don’t know we can avoid it.”

Sipping his coffee thoughtfully, Heyes deliberated, “Course ranch work does have advantages. Workin’ out o’ town, less chance of runnin’ across anyone who knows us. There’s the fresh air. Chance to think. Chance to appreciate the beauties of nature…”

Heyes tailed off, Kid’s gaze had fixed on the one other occupied table.
“Kid, are you listening to me…?”

“Huh?”

Kid’s hand had frozen, a spoonful of pie suspended in midair, his blue eyes held a rapt look. Heyes slewed round in his chair, and was torn between an appreciative smile and an inward groan. The bowed, scribbling, customer had turned her chair away from the table, and was staring out of the window as if searching for inspiration. She’d turn the head of a man much less susceptible than Kid Curry.

She lifted a sheet of paper from her lap, scanned it, then shaking her head, sighed, “Oh… help, help, help!”

Kid Curry was on his feet in a heartbeat.
“Pardon me, ma-am. Were you speakin’ to us?”

Not to be outdone in civility, Heyes also rose and assumed his most charming smile.

She faced them, deep brown eyes widening, lips forming a mild “O” of surprise.
“Was that out loud? I didn’t mean to disturb you, gentlemen.”
She turned, resuming her position at her own table, back toward them.

Kid Curry persevered, “You were askin’ for help, ma-am? Anythin’ my partner and I can do?”

She turned back, clearly meaning to give a polite but firm, “No, thank you”, but the two appealing smiles, and natural courtesy of the strangers, gave her pause.
“Oh, I couldn’t bother you.”

“No bother at all, ma-am.”

“I’ve been rewriting this,” she tapped the paper in her hand. “It has to be with the newspaper office by two, to catch tomorrow’s edition, and…“ a hopeless gesture at a pile of screwed up abandoned drafts littering her table, “I’m still not sure it reads right.” She smiled at them. An open, friendly smile without a hint of flirtation, “If you aren’t too busy…could I get a second opinion?”

Heyes pulled back a chair at their table.
“Our pleasure, ma-am.”

The smile became a beam. Springing up she swept over and held out a hand.
“Helen Willis.”

With the hint of a bow, Heyes replied, “Joshua Smith, and this is my partner, Thaddeus Jones.”

He noted the wedding ring, with a trace of regret, followed by philosophical resignation. It meant a lot less trouble all round.

She took the offered seat, and with manners formed in the drawing rooms of Boston, instinctively gestured to their chairs, saying graciously, “Please, do sit down.”

Heyes and Curry who had already begun to lower themselves to their seats, sprang back upright, and exchanging a glance of mingled embarrassment and amusement, sat down.

“I’m writing a ‘help wanted’ notice,” Helen began.

“Help wanted!” Heyes echoed eagerly. Then toning down his enthusiasm, “Why don’t you read us what you’ve got so far, ma-am?”

“It starts, ‘Help Wanted’,” Helen looked up from her sheet, “and that’s in capitals.”

Heyes nodded encouragingly, “Fine so far.”

She read on, “Two men for temporary position at Clearwater Ranch. Immediate start. $30 per week, plus full board, offered for right candidates.” She paused glancing up, “Is that enough do you think? To catch people’s interest?”

Kid smiled broadly, “Caught mine, ma-am.”

“Dunno, Thaddeus,” put in Heyes, shaking his head, “$50 a week might be better. Nice round sum. It might attract just the men you’re looking for.”

Helen frowned, “I don’t think I can quite afford $50 per week each. What if I raised it to ‘$40 per week … better?”

Heyes mused for a moment, then nodded, “All helps, ma-am.”

She smiled, and bending over the draft, made a decided alteration.
Sitting back, she continued, “Successful candidates must display, and be able to teach, the following; horsemanship, tracking skills…”

A wide smile split Heyes’ face.

“…Expertise with firearms…”

Kid interrupted, a frown creasing his brow, “You’re not tryin’ to hire guns, ma-am?”

Helen looked up, incomprehension stamped on every feature.

Heyes coughed, and clarified, “I think what Mr. Jones means is… what’d you be wantin’ with this firearms expertise?” She still looked blank. “What’d they be shooting at, ma-am?”

Helen considered for a moment.
“Targets I suppose. Like archery targets, you know,” her hands circled expressively in the air, “…a bulls-eye and rings.” She brightened suddenly, “Or bottles! Don’t cowboys do that – shoot bottles off walls?”

Kid Curry visibly relaxed, and Heyes smiled, “It’s been known, ma-am. Please carry on. Soundin’ real good.”

Helen returned the smile and resumed, “Expertise with firearms. Also of advantage is ability as a raconteur.”

Kid shifted in his seat, bemused, “That last one again, ma-am?”

“Raconteur … you know, a convincing story-teller. Able to keep an audience spellbound with tales of the trail, peril bravely faced … that kind of thing.”

Kid eyed Heyes and grinned.
“Kinda silver-tongued, huh?” he asked.

Helen nodded pleased. Looking over her shoulder Heyes saw the words ‘silver-tongued’ being inserted before ‘raconteur’.

She straightened the, by now rather crumpled looking, sheet and continued, “‘Must be personable, outgoing, and friendly’.” She drew breath and looked up, “What do you think?”

Kid stood, “Think I should fetch you a fresh cup of hot coffee ma-am, friendly like. Joshua, you havin’ a convincin’ way with a story; why don’t you tell the lady about that time I won an all comers shootin’ contest out at Black Ridge?”

“Oh that! Dunno, Thaddeus, I think Mrs. Willis might prefer to hear how I became champeen tracker of all Southern Utah. That tale, havin’ more peril. The cougars bein’ so fierce an’ tricky.”

Kid glared at Heyes, then, remembering the need to be personable, outgoing, and friendly, forced a smile.

“I’d love to hear both,” beamed Helen, looking from one to the other.

“After that,” offered Heyes, displaying a dazzling grin and endearing dimples, “we’ll tell you about our adventures on the Chisum trail, back in ’73 and ’74.”

—oooOOOooo—

“You really believe,” said a sceptical Kid Curry, “that rich folks back east, folks with warm dry comfortable beds, three squares a day, servants to fetch ’n’ carry for ‘em, will pay good money to sleep under a horse blanket, cook beans over a smoky camp fire, and shift ornery, stubborn broom-tails along a trial – for fun?”

Eaton Willis nodded eagerly. His tow-coloured fringe flopped into his eyes. He pushed it back, with thin, restless hands. Walking over, he refilled the glasses, of his prospective employees.

“Mr. Jones, the cities are full of cooped up men, aching for adventure. They long for time in the wide open spaces and dream of the cowboy life.” He grinned boyishly, “I should know, I’m one of them.”

Helen re-entered the comfortable sitting room of Clearwater ranch, as her husband spoke.

“Eaton had never been out of Massachusetts before we inherited this ranch from my grandfather.”

“Scarcely ever left Boston!” he smiled.

“We came out here, Easter time, and I suppose we meant to sell up…”

“But the country was so beautiful…”

“And my mother grew up here, and brought me on holidays as a child…”

“Then one or two friends begged to visit – just to see the West…”

“And they loved it …”

“So did we…” put in Eaton.

“Then Henry said, we should charge room and board…”

“And we thought – no, that’s not very hospitable…”

“But he said, if we charge, folks can stay as long as they like, and not feel guilty.”

Helen drew breath, and smiled broadly at Heyes and Curry, whose heads had swiveled in unison from husband to wife.

“Then Eaton had a brainwave,” she continued proudly, “Why just invite friends? What about people who don’t know anyone living out West? So back in Boston we talked to everyone we knew, asking if they knew anyone who wanted to stay on a genuine Dakota ranch.”

Eaton beamed, “It worked, the first paying guests arrive this week. More than guests – we hope they might become investors.”

Husband and wife exchanged a look.

“But when we got back, we realised we had a problem,” Eaton admitted.

Helen nodded, “Seth and Mary Fletcher have been foreman and housekeeper here since – well since my mother was a girl. Their sons take care of most of the ranch work. There’s Hank, of course, who’s been here years. Seth hires extra hands when he needs them. But… “ She tailed off.

Eaton coughed, “We told Seth about the guests arriving, and he…” he searched for words. “I think Henry and the others got on his nerves back at Easter.” He grinned ruefully, “He said, he’s paid to look after horses, which at least have the sense they were born with – not a parcel of eastern dudes asking dang-fool questions morning to night, causing more trouble, trying to help out, than a couple of coyotes loose in the corral.”

Helen signed, “Hank’s fine with horses, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him string more than three words together to another human being. Adam is so shy, it’s painful! Joe’s only fifteen. And Eaton… well…” She stopped abruptly, and looked toward him.

“Oh, I’m useless,” Eaton admitted cheerfully. “I can stay on a horse, if it doesn’t get other ideas – but that’s about it. As for tracking,” he pushed back his fringe, “I get lost finding the front door.”

Kid looked from him to Helen, and gave a shrug imperceptible to all but his partner. Heyes swallowed a smile. Kid’s thoughts had clearly returned to an unspoken, “What does she see in him?”, several times since meeting Helen’s slight, bookish, husband.

Heyes sat forward, “So, all Thaddeus and I have to do is make sure your guests have a real good time playing cowboys, or ridin’ out in the mountains for a coupla weeks.”

Eaton and Helen nodded eagerly.

“And be sociable. Tell ‘em stories about cattle drives, ‘n’ injuns, ‘n’ buffalo stampedes, ‘n’ shootin’ grizzlies.”

There was more enthusiastic concurrence from the young couple.

“And be real patient, even if they follow us round askin’ questions from dawn to dusk?” Heyes looked towards his partner, pointedly, “Won’t have a problem with that will we, Thaddeus?”

With an expression of the utmost mildness, Kid Curry shook his head.
”Never seen me lose my temper, have you Joshua?”

Helen leaned forward, keenly, “You’ll take the job?”

Heyes and Curry held a mute conversation.
None of the expected guests had been West of the Mississippi, so the risk of being recognised seemed slight. There was no reason to suppose the dawn to dusk questions would stray onto the topics of train hold-ups, nor dynamiting safes. Moreover, Eaton Willis was actually counting out the first week’s pay at a desk in the corner of the room. To the ex-outlaws, more used to not being paid at all, being paid in advance was a welcome change.

Heyes rose to his feet holding out his hand to Eaton.
“I think we have a deal.”

—oooOOOooo—

“’Scuse us, Mister.”

Kid Curry wheeled around to see a couple of young cowboys wearing broad grins.
“Scuse us. If you’re corralin’ those dudes…” a snigger, “… think you’ve a maverick cut loose.”
Delighted with their wit they dissolved into laughter.

Kid glowered. At the sight of that icy blue stare, they swallowed their giggles.
“Think one of the fellas you’re lookin’ for is round back of the livery,” gulped one.
Kid nodded thanks, and set off.

He and Heyes had met the stage from Belle Fourche, and three of the five expected guests were now waiting by the buckboard. Two had been missing.
Kid rounded the livery stables.

A short bespectacled man, sporting batwing chaps so new they creaked, a Stetson of dazzling cleanliness, and a plaid shirt so garish it made Kid consider denying all knowledge of the wearer, was following the stable hand from horse to horse.

The conversation – or rather the friendly interrogation reached the ex-outlaw.

“So you are actually an Indian?”

“Lakota.”

“Or, since the term ‘indian’ only arose out of a geographical mistake, by Columbus, I suppose it might be more accurate to say – indigenous american.”

A shrug.

“Aren’t most of your people on reservations now?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Were you brought up in a native village?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Can you shoot a bow and arrow?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you use to hunt Buffalo?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You must miss it?”

Silence.

“I’ve never met an Indian before. It’s my first time out West.”

A shrug.

“I’m not interrupting your work am I?”

A shrug.

“I’m Charles Harper. What’s your name?”

“George.”

“Oh. Don’t you have an Indian name?”

A long stare. Then, deciding the man meant well enough.

“Soaring Hawk.”

“So that was the first thing your father saw after you were born?”

A pause, then, “Ain’t really true. Mostly change our names as we grow up.”

Kid cleared his throat, “Mr. Harper? For Clearwater Ranch? I’m Thaddeus Jones, one of your guides. Come to collect you.”

Harper beamed at him with the utmost friendliness.
Then turning back to the stable hand, he held out his hand, “Goodbye Mr. Soaring Hawk. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

The man stared at the hand, then, wiping his own clean on his shirtfront, shook it. Kid gave him an apologetic smile and tipped his hat. He saw the ghost of an answering smile on the impassive features.

“I haven’t kept you waiting have I, Mr. Jones,” asked Harper, scurrying to match Kid’s stride.

“Not a problem.”

“Are you a real cowboy, Mr. Jones?”

“Thaddeus. Have been off an’ on. Now…” Kid stopped, once they were away from the Livery, “I’m lookin’ for a Stephen Wainwright. Any ideas?”

“We arrived together. He’s my brother-in-law.”

Kid looked at him, “Didn’t arrive on the stage.”

“We chartered a private stage. It saved a wait.”

Kid blinked. Clearly, Eaton Willis had at least one, extremely rich, potential investor.
“Uh-huh. So where is he?”

Charles Harper peered around, then pointed happily.
“There.”

Kid’s face froze. Harper was indicating the direction of the Sheriff’s office. The Deputy was deep in conversation with a suited man, occasionally making a note in a small book. Donning a determined smile, Kid walked up to them.

“… Posse chased ‘em for thirty miles. Course they doubled back to throw us off. An’ rode through water for a spell so as not to leave tracks. But we were wise to them tricks. Caught up with ‘em at …”

The Deputy tailed off, seeing Kid, hat in hand, clearly waiting to be heard.

“Mr. Wainwright? For Clearwater Ranch?”

Stephen Wainwright nodded. Flipping shut his notebook and turning to the Deputy, he shook hands cordially.

“Thank you so much for your time, Deputy.” With a winning smile he added, “Could I talk to you again? It’s a real privilege to hear the realities of law enforcement from an expert. My readers back East will love this.”

The Deputy visibly swelled, “More’n welcome.”

Wainwright greeted Kid warmly.
Walking beside him, he prompted, “I’m sure you’ve some fascinating tales to tell about the Wild West, Mr. Jones?”

Marshalling his two mavericks to the buckboard, Kid grinned, “Let me introduce my partner, Mr. Wainwright. Think you’ll get along real well.”

—oooOOOooo—

Heyes sipped his whiskey, more than content with the way this job was panning out. The ex-outlaws had a room twice as big and four times as comfortable as that usually provided by a small town hotel. He and Kid were digesting an excellent meal. The guests seemed delighted with their guides, and over dinner Heyes had basked in having an audience hang on his every word.

Laura Hamilton, a handsome widow in her forties, was now seated on his right. Helen had pulled up a chair on his left. This arrangement earned Heyes occasional dark looks from his partner. Both ladies were keen to hear what wildlife they would see on tomorrow’s tracking expedition into the hills.

“Mule deer? Pronghorn antelope?” prompted Helen.

“Pretty sure I can track us mule deer, long as you’re real still and quiet when I say,” said Heyes, “Pronghorns are mite shyer. We’ll see.”

“Mountain goats?”

“Easy enough.”

“What I’d really like to see are eagles,” enthused Laura. Both women smiled confidently at Heyes.

“Might see bald eagles. They’re common enough round here.”

“What about golden eagles?” said Laura.

Helen chimed in optimistically, “I know they nest in the hills. Seth’s seen them in the past.”

Heyes shifted a little in his seat, under Helen’s trusting gaze. Confident in his own abilities he might be but there were limits.

“Even a champeen has a problem trackin’ birds. Don’t leave much of a trial, bein’ able to fly.”

Kid walked over and slapped his partner on the back.
“He’s just bein’ modest. If it’s up there, he’ll find it. Course his specialty is mountain lions. Can follow their trial blindfold. Isn’t that right, Joshua?”

Heyes threw his partner a glare.
“What about you Thaddeus? Hear you’re goin’ to turn Charles here, into a real fast draw, in a single lesson tomorrow?”

Charles Harper favoured Kid with a child-like smile.
“I’d love to shoot really well. But I suppose it takes a lot of practice to be accurate and fast?” He added naively, “Would you like to see my new guns, Mr. Jones?”

“Just Thaddeus. Sure.”

As Harper scurried from the room, Stephen Wainwright laughed.
“This holiday is costing Charles even more than me.”
Seeing Richard Fraser raise a questioning eyebrow, he explained, “His sister was a model, supportive wife when I said I wanted to come and see the Black Hills. Then she told me, she’s having the drawing and dining rooms redecorated, whilst I’m away.”

Richard Fraser, who had introduced himself as a lawyer over dinner, gave an understanding smile.
“My wife’s taken the girls to stay with their grandmother in Washington. Planning nearly a month of shopping, dancing and parties.” He laid a hand on the shoulder of his fourteen-year-old son, “Thought Rick and I, would leave the ladies to it for a week or two and have a little adventure.”

Charles Harper’s re-entry interrupted them. He was clutching a gleaming polished wood box to his chest. He laid this before Kid and opened it. Kid let out a reverent whistle at the pair of guns nestling on velvet.

“The very latest!” he breathed, lifting one and checking the balance.

Heyes joined him, “That real mother of pearl on the handles?”

Harper nodded excitedly.

Heyes touched the stiff new holster hanging over the man’s arm.
“Real silver trimmin’ the gun belt?”

Harper beamed, “I had it made specially for this trip.”

Kid squinted down the barrel of the gun and looked up in surprise.
“This gun’s never been fired.” Opening the loading gate, he added, “Don’t look as if its ever been loaded.”

Harper smiled at him boyishly, “I didn’t ask if it was loaded.” Watching Kid close the loading gate, he said innocently, “I didn’t realise it opened like that.”

Heyes and Curry exchanged a glance.

“Might wanna allow an extra hour for that shootin’ lesson, Thaddeus,” Heyes said seriously.

Swallowing a smile at Kid’s expression, Eaton Willis said, “I believe you and Rick want to learn how to shoot too, Mr. Fraser?”

“Richard, please.”

The lawyer nodded and turned to Kid, “It was proficiency with a rifle I had in mind. Perhaps a little hunting?”

Young Rick Fraser, spoke up eagerly, “I’d like to learn to shoot a six-gun, please.”

“You can borrow my spare if you like,” put in Harper, with the utmost good humour.

“Could you teach me the fast draw, Mr. Jones?” urged Rick.

Kid flashed an embarrassed glance at Richard Fraser, who was eyeing the tied down guns of himself and his partner with new concern.
“Won’t be teachin’ no one a fast draw. Tomorrow’ll just be loadin’, cleanin’, safe handlin’, and some target practice.”

A little deflated, Rick persisted, “But you’ll show me all that?”

Kid gave the lad a friendly smile, but looking at Fraser said, “Up to your Pa.”

Richard Fraser met Kid’s eyes searchingly. What he saw reassured him.
To his son, he said, “You’re to do exactly what Mr. Jones says.”

“Yes sir.”

“Never take out a gun without Mr. Jones, or Mr. Smith, being with you.”

“Yes sir.”

“In that case, two more pupils for tomorrow, Thaddeus.”

Kid grinned at Rick, and said, “An’ Thursday we’ll take out rifles and see if we can get us some game for supper.”

Eaton turned to Stephen Wainwright. The ex-outlaws had learnt that Wainwright, had in the past commissioned articles from Eaton, and so was in some sense his boss.

“What about you Mr. Wainwright, …I mean Stephen,” he added, clearly not used to first name terms with the man, “Are you learning to shoot?”

Wainwright shook his head, “I think I’ll join Mr. Smith and the ladies.” He sipped his whiskey and smiled at Heyes, “Rather take my chance with the mountain lions than Charles holding a loaded gun.”

Rick looked momentarily torn, “Are there really lions?”

Helen nodded, “Ranchers offer a bounty on any dead cats brought in.”

“Do they attack horses and cattle?” asked Laura Hamilton.

“Might take the odd foal or a calf if it wanders from the herd,” said Heyes. He settled back in his chair, “Most lions keep a safe distance – and I intend to let ‘em.”

—oooOOOooo—

The next morning Kid was pulling a series of targets into place on flat ground well away from the corral. Suddenly his instincts flared; he was being watched. Wheeling round, hand on gun, he saw two eager young faces peering at him over a fence. Rick and Joe Fletcher, the ranch foreman’s younger son.

“Want any help, Mr. Jones?” offered Joe.

“Sure. Thanks.”

As they lined up the targets, Rick asked, “Is it all right if Joe joins me later? To learn to shoot?”

Kid looked at the pair, “That OK with your folks, Joe? Don’t you have work to do?”

The boys exchanged glances.

“Thought we’d check with you first,” explained Joe, “Then ask ‘em.”

“I’ll help with all Joe’s chores,” continued Rick, “So he can spare the time.”

Kid smiled. Clearly a firm friendship was being formed.
“Better run along an’ ask then. Before breakfast.”

The youngsters lingered, exchanging a mute conversation. Joe spoke up.
“We know you ain’t goin’ to teach us a fast draw. Just safe stuff an’ that. But…” he looked at Rick, who nodded encouragement, “Are you real fast?”

Kid hesitated, but the temptation of the two excited faces was too great.
“Wouldya believe I can fire two bullets at the same time?”

Two sets of eyes widened in anticipation mingled with disbelief.
“Here’s one,” said Kid, taking a bullet from his belt.

He tossed it high into the air. Gun leaping into his hand, he fired, exploding the airborne bullet.
“An’ there’s the other!” He returned his gun to his holster with a flourish.

He was rewarded with two awe-struck expressions.

“Ain’t no one that fast!” breathed Joe.

—oooOOOooo—

About half past four, Kid Curry was leaning against a fence, staring moodily at his now splintered and punctured targets. Movement in the nearby woods caught his eye, and he watched the returning tracking party emerge from the trees.

With a friendly wave, Helen trotted up. She had all the appearance of one who has been pushed into water, rolled in mud, then spent the rest of the afternoon attaching leaves and twigs to her clothing and hair. However, beneath the dirt, she was beaming.

“We had a wonderful day, Thaddeus. Saw lots of deer. The fawns were so pretty.”

“Uh huh,” said Kid.
“And I fell in the river learning how to fish, by blocking up a pool and using a knife on a long stick,” she added, delighted.

“Uh huh.”

“We DID see a golden eagle – and Joshua is sure he can locate the eerie.”

“Uh huh.”

“Tomorrow he’s going to let us climb up to see if there are eaglets. He says we can find a viewing spot that won’t disturb the mother.” Helen gave a joyful wriggle in her saddle, “Joshua’s wonderful isn’t he?”

Kid gave a non-committal sniff.

“He let Stephen gather all the wood and taught Laura and I how to build a fire. He showed us all how to gut fish. And let us make coffee. And cook beans. And wash up. And fill all the canteens.”

“He’s generous that way,” said Kid.

“Now he’s going to show me the right way to groom a horse. After I’ve practiced on mine, he says I can groom his. And he’s going to show Laura how to polish his saddle. And he’s told us the most wonderful stories. I can’t wait to tell Eaton all about it.”

Kid eyed his partner trotting cheerfully along in the distance.
“Still,” he said, “we mustn’t wear him out. Think I’ll see to the horses for him.” Straightening up, he bellowed, “Joshua! Get over here!”

Heyes rode up. Unlike Helen, he looked as fresh as paint.

“I’d like a word with my partner, ma-am,” said Kid. “Would you lead his horse over to the stables? I’ll join you in a minute.”

Heyes was surprised, but dismounted handing over the reins with a charming smile. He looked over at a disconsolate Charles Harper standing by the one target seemingly almost unmarked by bullets.

“Where are the others?” he asked. Then, “How’d it go?”

“The boys did fine for beginners. Both got a good eye. They went down to the lake to go swimmin’ ‘bout an hour ago. Fraser wasn’t too bad. Seen worse. Rode with worse in the gang. Said he was gonna write a letter to his wife.”
Kid followed Heyes eyes, and both watched Harper, who was now pacing backwards from his target, holding his gun out stiffly, with both hands.
Heyes raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Kid shook his head.
“We’re swappin’ jobs!” he said firmly. “I’ve got him to hit nothin’ all day. An’ if I explain it one more time, I’ll be feedin’ him that gun sideways.”

Kid took a deep breath, and stared at Harper. Together the ex-outlaws watched him squeeze his trigger wildly, jump at the recoil, then scamper back to examine the target for a non-existent bullet hole. Experience had not yet triumphed over hope.

“Thought I knew how to shoot,” said Kid. “But he keeps asking about exit speeds an’ trajectories.” He paused and looked at his partner, “What the Sam Hill is a trajectory?”

Heyes scratched his head, then offered, “It’s kinda … well it’s a… “ He sketched an arc in the air, accompanying the gesture with a hissing sound to indicate a bullet’s flight.
Kid surveyed his remaining pupil, now awkwardly reloading his gun, “Well, since you explain it so well – he’s all yours.”

Heyes pushed back his hat, and set off in Harper’s direction. At once, Kid’s hand on his shoulder stopped him, “Say you need me to look at your horse – or somethin’. Don’t hurt his feelings.” Looking a little sheepish, Kid added, “Be like kickin’ a puppy, and I can’t help kinda likin’ him.”
Kid wheeled round, before Heyes had a chance to respond to this soft heartedness and walked off, in the direction of the stables.

—oooOOOooo—

As Kid approached the stables, he saw Helen and Laura energetically brushing dirt from their horse’s legs.
Quickening his stride, he called, “Let me do that, ma-am.”

Helen looked up at him quizzically, “Are we doing it wrong?”

“No,” said Kid. “Just dirty work for ladies.”

She smiled, “I’m not likely to get much dirtier, am I?”

Laura added, “Treat us like any other ranch hand. We’ll let you know if we want special treatment for being ladies.” Looking more serious, she went on, “Women are quite capable of most jobs given the chance. Or don’t you agree?”

Both women stopped brushing and waited for an answer.

Under the combined gaze, Kid shifted slightly, “Haven’t thought about it.”

Helen smiled encouragingly at him, “We asked Joshua earlier today, and he assured us he believes strongly in equal legal rights for women.”

Kid resisted an urge to roll his eyes at this new evidence of Heyes’ unqualified success that day.

Laura pressed him, “Do you agree with extending the franchise to women, Mr. Jones?”

Reading confusion on his face, Helen rephrased, “Do you think we should vote?”

Kid relaxed a little, “Already do in Wyoming. Seems fair enough. Government bosses you around the same, and women got as much sense as men.” He mused on this, a frown furrowing his brow. “Probably more. With men it’s hard to go more’n a month without runnin’ up ‘gainst a walk off.”

This seemed to satisfy Laura and she moved off, and began to lug a sack of grain toward the feed trough.

Kid strode over, “I’ll take that, ma-am.” Seeing her about to object, he added, “I’m not sayin’ you couldn’t lift it. Sayin’ I’m not capable of standin’ by to let you. My Ma brought me up to step in if I saw a lady heftin’ more’n thirty pounds. If she was wrong, afraid its too late to change now.”

For a moment, she was going to argue. Then a sudden warm smile crinkled her eyes.
She released the sack, and said, “I think you and your mother win that one, Thaddeus. I just hope I’ve done half as good a job bringing up my own two boys.”
Kid felt his cheeks growing warm.

Swinging the sack onto his shoulder, he hurried away toward the feed trough.
He did not perfectly hear Helen’s remark as he left, but had a horrid feeling it was along the lines of, “Awww… bless!”

—oooOOOooo—

Within the hour, Kid made his way back to the targets. He was greeted by an excited Charles Harper, scurrying toward him.
“I hit the target! Twice!” At Kid’s surprised expression, he qualified this, “Not a bull’s-eye, I only hit the edge.” A beam lit up his face, “But still, I hit it!”

Heyes strolled up, “Want to see a demonstration?”

Kid could not help but smile at Harper’s eager expression.
“Sure.”

“We made a mark for me to stand on,” explained Harper, his eyes searching for a cross cut into the turf. “It’s measured twenty yards from the target.” He planted himself on the mark, “The bull’s-eye is four feet from the ground, so I need to position the gun so the barrel is also four feet from the ground. We decided that was the second shirt button down.” He held out the gun stiffly, “Joshua thinks it needs to be held at right angles to the ground,” Harper shook his head earnestly, “…but I can’t agree. There’s bound to be deterioration during flight, so I’m using an angle of about ninety five degrees.”

The two ex-outlaws exchanged a glance. Heyes met Kid’s incredulous expression with an amused shrug. Then he moved into place a few feet from Harper and began to instruct, “Higher, just a touch higher… Too much… Perfect.”

Squinting at the target, Harper continued, “Then before I fire, I brace against the recoil. And the trigger has to be squeezed slowly, so I take a count of five, remembering not to relax my arm.”

Five seconds later the gun fired. The bullet thudded into the extreme edge of the target sending a splinter of wood flying.

Heyes glanced up at his partner, “Always told you – there’s a formula for everythin’.”

Harper remained frozen a moment longer, presumably still braced against recoil.

Then he wheeled round, “I did it again! That’s three times.” A beam of delight split his face as he looked at Kid, seeking approval.

Kid swallowed a smile.
“You don’t think the other fella mighta moved off by now?” he queried.

Harper looked confused, then gave a sheepish grin.
“You’re making fun of me,” he said without rancour.

“Careful, Thaddeus,” said Heyes,“Don’t get Charles here all riled, now he can shoot.”

Harper looked from one to the other.
Then he donned a mock serious frown, “That’s right. Watch your step, Jones. Or next time you’re standing stock still, exactly twenty yards away, there’ll be trouble.”

—oooOOOooo—

During the next week, the guests learnt a range of skills, with various levels of success. To control a horse, lasso, corral, and follow a trial. The less squeamish learnt to skin rabbits ready for the pot. Aside from enjoyment, the point of these lessons was to drive a small herd of horses south to Fort Robinson for sale.

The friendship between young Rick and Joe strengthened. At Helen’s request, Seth and Mary Fletcher agreed to let their younger son accompany the drive. Seth, who had warmed to Heyes and Curry, told his son to be sure to do exactly as he was told.

“No complainin’ if you both ride drag every day. I never got given nothin’ but drag till I was near twenty. Spent years eatin’ dust. An’ I expect Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones will be puttin’ you on watch most nights. An’ usually the youngest on the trial have to make all the fires, an’ do all the cookin’, and all the packin’ up when you break camp.” With a sideways wink to the partners, he asked, “Ain’t that so?”

“Sounds about right,” said Kid, straight-faced.

“No point in takin’ a coupla dogs and barking yourself,” agreed Heyes.

The two boys looked from one partner to the other.

“I don’t mind ridin’ drag,” said Joe seriously.

“Are we really allowed to stay up all night?” put in Rick, delighted.

—oooOOOooo—

Two days into the drive, the party were relaxing, after supper, taken round a rather inexpertly constructed campfire. The usual fare of beans and jerky, had been supplemented by rabbit stew, and roasted wild duck. Both were thanks to the hunting skills of Joe and Rick.

The two boys basked in the praise of the group.

“I was doin’ just like you said, Joshua,” explained Joe, “Studyin’ local conditions – workin’ out the most likely site for rabbits. Then I lay low.” He narrowed his eyes, assuming an expression suitable to a hardened wily hunter, “Real low, real quiet. Then…“ he paused for effect “…Bam! Bam!”

Keeping their faces straight, Heyes and Curry exchanged an appreciative amused glance.

“Difficult shot, rabbit,” said Kid. “Small, quick, low in the grass. Takes a good eye.” Seeing Rick’s hopeful air, he added, “Bringin’ down that wild duck too. Not easy – not with the sun in your eyes like it was.”

A well fed, contented silence reigned.

Then Rick, with studied unconcern, said, “We saw signs of mountain lions in the hills. Not far off.”

Charles Harper glanced, nervously, round to the darkening woods behind him.

Heyes smiled at him reassuringly, “With eight of us stompin’ round creatin’ dust and noise, we won’t see so much as a whisker.”

Rick tossed another branch onto the fire, and continued with the same deliberate nonchalance, “Have you ever hunted big cats, Thaddeus?”

“Coupla times,” said Kid. “I don’t recommend it.”

Joe frowned at him, “I’d have thought – if you can track ‘em – they’d be as easy a target as game. I mean – they’re bigger.”

“Can’t argue with bigger,” smiled Kid.

Stephen Wainwright laughed.
“My knowledge of hunting is pretty much zero,” he said. “But I suspect it’s not just a question of hitting the target. It’s a question of what happens if you miss!”

The boys looked at him questioningly.

“If you miss a rabbit,” he went on, “it dashes down the nearest hole. A lion might decide to express its disapproval a bit more forcefully!”

“That about sums up the problem,” said Kid.

“But you have hunted them?” pursued Rick.

“Uh huh.”

“Can count me out if there’s a next time,” chimed in Heyes. “Last cat we came across expressed its disapproval of me, so forcefully, I still feel a chill when I think of it.”

“But…”

Fraser interrupted his son, “Time you two boys turned in.”

Rick flushed, embarrassed, “Father…”

“Long day tomorrow – off you go.”

—oooOOOooo—

The next day, after lunch, Rick pulled Joe away from the others. The adults were relaxing as the horses rested and watered. Laura and Wainwright sprawled on the grass, hearing a highly coloured account of recovering stashed gold under Indian fire, from an equally prone Heyes. Every so often Wainwright scribbled a note in his trial diary. Charles was cleaning his gun with intense concentration. Kid was stretched out, hat over eyes, napping in the warm sunshine. Fraser had followed his example.

Glancing at the group to make sure he was not overheard Rick breathed, “Bet we could hunt down one of those lions.”

Joe stared at him, surprised, but intrigued.

Rick continued, “You’re real good with a rifle, Joe. I mean getting two rabbits with a left and a right. Joshua said even Thaddeus doesn’t often get a left and a right with a rifle. It’s real fancy shooting.”

“Weren’t nothin’. Just lucky,” responded Joe, pleased, “Ain’t bad yourself. Brought down that duck.”

“Well, that’s the point,” said Rick, temptingly, “We’re both good shots. We’ve learnt enough to track us a lion. And Thaddeus said it’s an easier target than a bird or a jack-rabbit.”

Joe frowned, “Not all he said. Said it ain’t a question of bein’ easy, it’s a question of what a lion can do if ya miss! An’ Joshua said the look of a lion can freeze a man. ‘Sides, we’ve been told we ain’t to go off alone with a gun.”

“That’s because of my father,” said Rick. “Treats me like I was ten years old. Doesn’t realise I’m not a child anymore.”

Joe nodded, “Know what you mean. I do the work of a man on the ranch – well, near enough – but my folks treat me like a little kid.” He kicked at the ground with the toe of his boot, “Wish I could show my Pa. It ain’t fair.”

“If we brought back a lion, it’d show both our folks,” enticed Rick, “Thaddeus and Joshua were riding the trail at our age. Bet they never let anyone tell them not to handle a gun without a babysitter standing by.” Seeing Joe torn, he added, “Then of course, there’s the bounty.”

“Most ranchers offer $40 – $50 dollars for a big cat,” said Joe, in impressive tones.

“So?” prompted Rick. “You game? Rifles are ready.” At Joe’s hesitation, he used his wiliest persuasion, “Unless of course, you’re scared.”
“I ain’t scared!”

Rick darted over to his father, and bent down to speak without disturbing anyone else.
“Father, is it OK if Joe and I go up river to swim?”

Without removing the hat from his face, Fraser gave permission.
“Don’t go far. Stay this side of the bend. We’ll be moving out in less than an hour.”

The boys, backs to the group, collected rifles, and holding these out of sight, made their way up river. Then as the swell of the bank effectively concealed them, they broke into a run, heading into higher wooded ground.

—oooOOOooo—

As the kit was packed into saddlebags, Fraser called over to Heyes and Kid, “I’ll go hurry the boys. Expect they lost track of the time.”

A minute later, his voice called down to the camp, “Joshua. Can you come up here?”

Following him, Heyes saw the concern on the man’s face.

“They said were just coming up river to bathe,” Fraser said.

Kid ran up to join them.
Looking at his partner, he said, “Two rifles missin’; and cartridges.”

Heyes squatted down and briefly studied the ground. Pushing back his hat, he eyed Kid soberly.
“Headin’ up into the hills. Runnin’. Might’ve got a coupla miles by now.”

Kid looked up into the steep woods.
“Reckon we’d better track ‘em on foot?” he asked.
His partner nodded.

Fraser swallowed, as he looked from one serious face to the other.
“If I wouldn’t slow you up, may I come?”

Heyes face softened slightly at the father’s fright.
“Sure. Don’t worry. Probably won’t find anything worse’n mud and bugs.”

Collecting rifles, and ordering the rest of the group to stay put, the men set off on the trail of the runaways.

—oooOOOooo—

After a mile or so, Heyes paused to check the boys’ tracks.
Calling his partner over, he asked, “See that?”

Kid looked grave, “Uh huh.”

Fraser, catching his breath at the unaccustomed pace, followed.
His opinion of the pair’s tracking skills, already high, had risen still further.
“What is it?”

Straightening up, Heyes said, “Looks like they’ve found what they were lookin’ for. Trail of two big cats.” He turned to Kid, “How old wouldya say, Thaddeus.”

“Two hours fresh.”

Heyes smiled ruefully, “Disagreed with you once before an’ was wrong. This time I’d say you’re about right.”

Fraser gulped, “Mountain lions don’t usually attack humans, do they?”

Heyes and Curry exchanged a glance. This was true enough. But two cats together usually meant a mother and cub. That could lead to trouble.
Heyes pushed back his hat and eyed the anxious father.

“Not real likely to attack unless they’re cornered,” he ventured, “Still, I’d prefer to catch the boys before they catch the cat.”

—oooOOOooo—

Less than twenty minutes later, the men caught up with Rick and Joe. In a clearing ahead, the boys had their rifles aimed at a snarling cat only yards away. Even from a distance, it was clear that their hands shook.

Then Fraser saw that Heyes and Curry were watching not the cornered cat, but a ledge about fifteen feet above the youngsters. He gasped in fright. A second mountain lion, unseen by the two boys, crouched there. It was tensed to spring.
Heyes and Curry began to sprint towards the boys.

At the same moment, Joe fired. Despite the closeness of the shot, the nervous jerk of his hand undid him. The bullet merely grazed the shoulder of the first cat. A razor taloned paw lashed out, accompanied by an angry yowl of pain.

Hearing footsteps behind him, Rick wheeled round in panic. Above, ninety pounds of furious cat sprang. With a yell, Heyes dived for Rick, flattening him into the dirt, shielding him from the approaching attack. Kid’s gun leapt into his hand, as he raced toward his partner. To the watching Fraser it seemed a single blazing shot, the gun emptying into the creature as it landed upon Heyes.

Seeing the cat was dead, Kid holstered the empty handgun. He now took the rifle strapped across his back, ignored previously in favour of his instinctive weapon of choice. In one swift movement he aimed and fired past Joe at the first lion, still snarling, though making no other move to strike. Hit cleanly between the eyes, the cat slumped lifeless to the ground.

Turning, Kid dropped to his knees beside his still partner.
Rolling away the dead cat, from a clawed and torn jacket, he said, “Heye… Hey, Joshua. You OK?” Gently touching Heyes’ shoulder, he brought his hand away wet with blood. Kid’s voice cracked as he implored, “You OK? Speak to me?”

With his eyes still squeezed shut, Heyes spoke, “It dead?”

Kid relaxed just a shade, “Both dead. Are you hurt bad?”

Heyes opened his eyes, and taking a few deep breaths levered himself up to a sitting position. Looking at his partner, he gave a shaky laugh, “This is gettin’ to be too much of a habit. Thanks.”

“Fort Worth floor plan, flash before your eyes?”

“In full colour.“

Recovering from his astonishment at the speed of the partners’ response to danger, Fraser ran over and pulled his son to his feet.

“Rick, are you hurt?” he scanned his son’s face apprehensively. Then, anxiety assuaged, he rounded angrily on Joe, “How dare you run off like that? Rick could have been killed. You both could have been killed.”

Stammering a little, Rick spoke up, “It wasn’t Joe’s fault. It was all my idea.” He stared at his boots and gulped, “I’m sorry.”

“My fault too. We both knew it was wrong,” added Joe.

Fraser drew in a shaky breath, and looked at Heyes and Curry, “I don’t know what to say, except thank you. For a moment there I thought I’d lost Rick.” His eyes fell on Heyes’ bloodstained shoulder, “How badly are you hurt?”

Heyes reached around, and wincing, eased the cloth of the jacket from his shoulder.
Kid sucked in his breath in sympathy.

“Probably looks a lot worse than it is,” said Heyes, quickly, “It’s a scratch, not a bite.”

Kid looked at the wound, “Seems to have just about stopped bleeding. Might be better to leave it till we get back to camp and can clean it up proper.”

His partner nodded, and let Kid help him to his feet.

Joe was still staring at the lifeless body in front of him.
“Would it have killed me?” he asked quietly.

Kid gave him a sober look, “No, not likely that one would attack.” In response to Joe’s questioning look, he went on, “It’s a youngster – not full grown.”

“Not full grown!” exclaimed Rick, “It’s bigger than the other!”

“This one’s a male,” explained Kid, “’Bout fourteen or fifteen months old.”

Joe continued to gaze at the body, then turned to Kid, “If it wasn’t going to attack – why did you shoot it?” His eyes fell under the hard stare from the granite blue eyes.

“Kindest thing to do, stop him starvin’ to death,” said Kid, coldly, “He’s about half a year away from huntin’ alone – and I’d just shot his mother.”

As the boys absorbed this, Heyes spoke up, “You’d better cut a coupla poles, to rope the carcasses to.”

“What on earth for?” asked Fraser.

“Worth sixty to eighty dollars at the nearest ranch.” Heyes gazed at Joe and Rick, “These two bounty hunters need to hand in their catch.”

The youngsters heard the distaste in his voice as he used the phrase “bounty hunters” and shifted uncomfortably.

Fraser swung Rick round to face him, “Surely you didn’t frighten me like this for sixty dollars? To buy what?”

Joe spoke up, falteringly, “Rick didn’t want the money, sir. Was goin’ to let me have his share.” He flinched at the expressions turned towards him, but braced his shoulders and continued, “It’s Ma’s birthday soon. Adam and I wanted to buy her a sewing machine – her eyes get so tired – but we ain’t got nearly enough.” He took a deep breath, and went on. “Ain’t no excuse. It was a stupid thing to do. I’m sorry.” He turned to Heyes. “And I’m real sorry you got hurt, Mr. Smith.”

Heyes face softened a little, “Thaddeus and I both did things a lot more stupid at your age.”

Fraser coughed, “I think enough’s been said for now. Let’s get you back and that wound patched up.”

—oooOOOooo—

“Hold still!” Laura Hamilton said. Then with a smile, “For a hero who’s just faced a lion attack, you’re a frightful baby about a dab or two of antiseptic.”

Heyes winced as the damp pad again touched the tear in his shoulder. Laura had surprised the partners by producing, from her saddlebag, a small, but sensibly stocked, medical kit.

“You don’t wanna listen to Rick and Joe about him bein’ a hero, ma-am,” said Kid comfortably. “If you ask me he just tripped over his own feet and fell under that cat.”

Laura smothered her smile at this, as Heyes glowered at Kid. Then she began to wind a clean bandage expertly around his shoulder. She paused and gently touched an old mark on his chest.

“This looks like an animal scratch too.”

“That’s right, ma-am,” chimed in Kid, “Same thing happened to him only last summer. Somethin’ about him shouts – Come an’ get it – to cougars.”

“This scar looks like an old bullet wound though,” said Laura, as she wound the bandage around Heyes. “And there’s another low on your left side.” She paused in her bandaging and gave Heyes an enquiring look.

The partners exchanged a cautious glance.

“Just old nicks,” said Heyes, casually, “Accidents happen on the trail.”

“I did some nursing in Virginia during the War. I know a bullet extraction wound when I see it,” said Laura, mildly.

Interested, Stephen Wainwright moved over, “Obviously there are stories from your past you haven’t told us yet, Joshua.”
His curious gaze lingered on Heyes, as if expecting a response.

Heyes raised his eyes to meet the unspoken question. Both Wainwright and Laura saw a dark look, with a hint of danger, replacing the usual affable, charming expression.

Laura blinked, surprised, then gave a rueful grin, “You think it’s none of our business and of course you’re right. I’m done here – you can put your shirt on.”

Fraser, who could not see Heyes’ face, spoke up, “I can’t imagine anyone daring to take a shot at Joshua, with Thaddeus for a partner. I’ve never seen such a display of speed, nor marksmanship, before.”

“Ain’t no-one that fast,” agreed Joe with more brevity than Fraser, if not equal eloquence.

“We knew he was faster than he let on to you,” added Rick, “The very first day he drew and shot a bullet out of the sky for us. Since then I think he’s been slowing down on purpose.”

This was so true that a faint flush appeared on the Kid’s cheeks.

Fraser, as the import of what he’d said hit him, gazed at Kid with a considering expression. Laura too was glancing from one partner to the other thoughtfully as she packed away her kit.

“Thaddeus has been slowin’ down for years,” said Heyes keeping his voice light, “Don’t know about it havin’ any purpose. Always supposed it was just age catchin’ up with him.” Fastening his shirt, Heyes circled his injured shoulder first gingerly, then more easily, “That’s real comfortable. Thank you ma-am. Now – don’t you folks have to extend that corral and start cooking supper?”

The group dispersed and the air filled with the sound of unsynchronized hammering – interspersed with an occasional yelp, as Charles failed to hit wood and made contact with his own hand.

The two ex-outlaws exchanged a low voiced conversation.
“Think maybe you should ease up on the fancy shootin’ from now on,” said Heyes, then with genuine gratitude in his voice, “Not that I didn’t appreciate it, Kid.”

“Uh huh,” mused Kid, “Next time just wrassle the cat into submission will ya?”

Heyes grinned, but his expression became somber, as he watched the group work at their chores.

“Think they suspect?” asked Kid.

“They’re wonderin’.”

He watched in silence for a few moments, “No need to worry, yet. They like us. Won’t want to jump to the worst conclusions.”

Kid nodded slowly in agreement. Then eyeing Heyes, he said seriously, “’Course it might help if you use that silver tongue to give Wainwright a real believable explanation of those bullet holes. Casual like. An explanation that don’t involve dodgin’ posses.”

Heyes pushed back his hat, and put his hands on his hips, “I’m torn between bein’ a solitary survivor from Custer’s last stand, or havin’ sat next to Wild Bill Hickok back in ’76 and bein’ caught by a ricochet. But – “ a wide grin split his face. “- After givin’ it serious consideration – I recall bein’ caught in the cross fire when two rich society beauties fought a duel over me.”

—oooOOOooo—

The following Tuesday, horses safely delivered and paid for, the party rode into the small town of Wolf Creek for supplies. It was new to Heyes and Curry, but both were on the look out for unwanted familiar faces.

“Sheriff’s office on the left. Looks like a Deputy leanin’ on the porch watchin’ us,” breathed Kid, to his partner.

“Anyone we know?” breathed back Heyes, turning away to admire the view to his right.

“Nope.”

“Watchin’ us in particular, or just watchin’?”

“Checkin’ out strangers, I reckon.”

“Joe, Rick,“ called Heyes, as he reached the livery stables and dismounted, “Just run over to the Sheriff’s office there and ask – real polite like – where the best place to stock up on trail supplies is.”

The boys darted off eagerly on their errand.

“Surely they’ll tell us that here?” said Wainwright.

“Kinda polite to say hello,” replied Heyes, casually, “’Sides – don’t you think Rick jumped at the chance to talk to a Deputy Sheriff?”

From the midst of their dismounting party Kid and Heyes watched. The Deputy, a burly, but genial looking man, was clearly making friendly conversation with the two youngsters.

“Just feed and grain,” Kid told the livery-hand, “We’ll be on our way ‘fore evening.”

Rick and Joe ran back over the main street.
“Deputy Shaughnessy says place for supplies is Beckett’s Stores just down the side street next to the Newspaper office,” said Rick.

“Says we ain’t the first team to ride in after deliverin’ to the Fort,“ added Joe.

“Told us a couple of crews… “ Rick drew himself up a little, as he went on, “… like us, rode in this morning.”

“S’right,” put in the livery-hand, as he stalled the horses, one by one, “They’re all in the Broken Arrow down there,” He nodded at the Saloon down the street, “That’s why Pat Shaughnessy is watchin’ the street. Sherrif’ll have told him to keep an eye out for any high spirits getting’ outta hand. Don’t want any trouble. Not with elections comin’ up.”

Joe nodded at this wisely, “Told us Sheriff Bridges asked him to watch out for any undesirable elements.”

“Sheriff Bridges, huh?” repeated Kid, casually.

The ex-outlaws exchanged a mute conversation.
“Never heard of him.”
“Same here.”

Richard Fraser gazed down the street toward the saloon, “I suppose it’s traditional to celebrate with a drink or two after making a delivery?”

“You think it’s a shame to let old traditions die, huh?” said Heyes, with a grin.

“I’d like to soak up some saloon atmosphere,” agreed Whitaker, “But what about…?” His eyes went first to the two boys, then to Laura Hamilton.

Laura laughed, “As a matter of principle I should insist on joining you. However, since I’ve no wish to sit surrounded by stale alcohol fumes and cigar smoke, I’ll make you a generous offer. Suppose the boys and I sort out supplies and meet you back here, in a couple of hours?”

“Don’t like to just leave you,” said Kid, concerned.

“You won’t be just leaving me. Joe, Rick and I can look after each other I’m sure.”

The livery-hand coughed, “Broken Arrow sure ain’t fit for a respectable lady. But Mrs. Grant’s boardin’ house’ll give you coffee an’ lemonade for the boys.”
Without malice aforethought, he added, “Pretty sure Mrs. Grant could fix you up a bath too if you wanted, ma-am.”

Laura blinked, but smiled her thanks.

As they left the livery, she exclaimed to Kid, “Surely I can’t look dirtier than the rest of you?”

“No. You look cleaner. Obviously he didn’t bother Joe and Rick with advice, as he can see they avoid soap on principle.”
The boys grinned at this.
“Well, hot coffee and hot soapy water sounds fine to me,” said Laura, “We’ll meet you back here later.”

Harper began to walk toward the saloon, with the hint of a swagger. Wainwright caught Kid’s eye, and directed his gaze to the gun, so obviously expensive, worn low and tied down in imitation of their guides.
“Erm, Charles,” he called after his brother in law, “Is that gun loaded?”

Harper stopped, turned, and stared down at his own hip. After several moments, he looked up.
“I can’t remember,” he said ruefully.

Kid sighed and rolled his eyes in exasperation.

Seeing the expressions of the group, Harper rather reluctantly offered, “Do you think I’d better not wear it to the saloon – since I’m still not quite… Well, since I’m more or less a learner?”

“Would you like me to take it for safe-keeping?” offered Laura kindly, “Just till we’re back on the trial, where you might need it. After all,” she added, “it’d be a shame if someone spilt beer over it and tarnished the silver.”

She stowed the weapon away in her pack, then strode off, with Joe and Rick, in the direction of the store. Her companions watched her round the corner, then headed, thirstily, for the Broken Arrow.

—oooOOOooo—

The party of men approached the bar. Heyes and Curry surveyed the saloon, and exchanged a glance. It seemed safe enough. No familiar faces.

“Think we’ll have us all a coupla beers first,” said Kid, “Wash away the trail dust. Then mebbe a whiskey or two.”

As the beers were served, the barkeep queried, “Which whiskey you folks want? Real good stuff – or the regular?”

“With the good stuff, you’ll get a clean glass,” Heyes explained with a smile.

Richard Fraser smiled in return and surveyed the bottles behind the bar.
“Is that an Irish single malt I see tucked away down there?”

The barkeep eyed him sceptically – taking in his dusty, trail-splashed state.
“That’d cost ya, cowboy.”

Stephen Wainwright handed over a folded note.
“Five glasses. Make it six – have one for yourself.”

Unfolding the note, the barkeep’s eyes widened, rapidly revising his estimation of this dishevelled party.
“Coming right up, sir.”

At this evidence of prosperity, a seedy bearded individual, wrapped in a grubby apron, ceased lethargically pushing a broom around the saloon floor and approached.

“Buy a drink for an old soldier?” he slurred, eyes riveted to the line of glasses.

Stephen Wainwright involuntarily recoiled as a wave of stale whiskey hit him, then nodded at the barkeep.

Passing a full glass of “the regular” to his help, the barkeep snapped, “Now leave ‘em alone, Lefty. Don’t wanna see you botherin’ customers.”

Charles Harper studied the company in the saloon, over the rim of his glass. Seeing a game of blackjack underway, he leaned over to Kid.
“Will they mind if I ask to play?” he asked eagerly.

“Nope. Think I’ll join you.” said Kid, “Comin’ Joshua?”

Heyes shook his head, and indicated a solitary poker game.
“Might wait for a seat to free up there. Just saw a fella draw to an inside straight.”

Kid and Harper moved across to the Blackjack table. As he took his place, Kid watched the cowboy holding the deck eye Charles Harper. From the calculating smile on his face, he clearly thought he had a pigeon for the plucking. Seeing Harper’s naïve smile as he pushed back his exaggeratedly brimmed hat, and chirped, “Howdy!” Kid thought he might be right. Still, Harper could well afford the pleasure of losing in a real western saloon.

Heyes kept his eyes on the poker table, assessing the players, though with dwindling hopes of a seat becoming free. From time to time, he looked over at his partner. Kid played steadily, perhaps a few dollars ahead. Looking at Harper, he was surprised to see a considerable pile of dollars before the little man. Glancing up at the cowboy still holding the deal, Heyes saw that the Easterner’s winning streak was not going down well. The man looked mean, and scowled as Harper scooped in another win.

Watching the game for a minute or two, Heyes leant over to Stephen Wainwright.
“Your brother-in-law,” he said in a low tone, “seems to have a real flair for cards.”

Wainwright turned from a conversation with a garrulous old timer.
Looking over at the table, he said, “He’s hard to beat at blackjack. No good at poker. Can’t bluff. Can’t tell if you’re bluffing.”

Heyes watched a couple more hands. Moving closer to Wainwright, he breathed, “He countin’ cards?”

Wainwright smiled, “Charles doesn’t need to count to know every card still undealt. Not even if you use two or three decks.” He sipped his whiskey. “That man can’t shuffle a deck without dropping it, but calculates odds without thinking.” Wainwright looked at Heyes. “It’s not cheating.”

“Can’t cheat at blackjack with a straight deck,” confirmed Heyes, remembering the Silver Palace in Colorado Springs.

At that moment, the cowboy dealing at the blackjack table, Zach Caine, stood up, pushing back his chair. Hand hovering ominously, above his tied down gun, he glowered at Harper.
“Somethin’ stinks here. Run of luck like that ain’t natural. Think its time ya left.”

Charles blinked at him stunned, “You want me to leave?”

“That’s the idea. Save a lotta trouble.”

Kid shifted in his seat, and said mildly, “Folk might get the idea you think he’s cheatin’. You didn’t mean to suggest that did ya?”

“Ain’t suggestin’ nuthin. Just tellin’ him to git!”
Harper stood and turned to Kid, “I don’t mind leaving, Thaddeus.” He began to gather his winnings. Caine’s open hand smacked down on the bills.

“Weren’t listenin’!” he sneered, “Tellin YOU to git! Your money’s welcome to stay!”

The other players pushed away slightly, not keen to be involved in any trouble.

A bemused Charles Harper blinked at Caine.
“I cannot countenance letting you appropriate my winnings,” he said earnestly, “Its not the money, it’s the principle of the thing.” He drew himself up to his full five foot four, “I cannot permit you to intimidate me with an implied threat of violence,”

Kid felt a twinge of sympathy for Caine, evidently nonplussed by this reply. However, as Harper did not move, he roughly translated it as, “No.”

Hand once again hovering above his gun, he growled, “I say you’re leavin’ an’ your money’s stayin’. If’n you say different you’ll have to back it up.”

Kid, still keeping his voice calm, although his eyes had taken on a steely blue glint, intervened.
“Case you haven’t noticed, the man’s not wearin’ a gun.”

Caine clicked his fingers at the man sitting beside him, clearly a friend. The second man passed his gun, and Caine laid it on the table before Harper.

Harper stared at the Colt, confused rather than afraid.
Moving away from the table, he said, “I don’t think a gun fight is a good idea.”

Caine’s friend snickered. Caine himself gave a derisive laugh.
“Settle with fists if you want!”

Harper looked the man up and down and gulped. Caine had 8 inches and about 80 pounds on him.

Caine called over to the barkeep, “Might need some sawdust over here. Think this yellow belly is about to pis…” He never finished. To the amazement of everyone, Harper knocked him down.

A couple of circumstances explained this. Harper used the table as a lever to spring forward, and so got his full weight behind the punch. Caine had been turning back his head as the blow hit, and, more by luck than judgment, this gave Harper a perfect angle on the cowboy’s jaw. Lastly, as Caine stepped to steady himself, his foot hit a patch slick with spilt beer. Charles Harper was more surprised than anyone at his success. He gulped, but raised his fists gamely enough, preparing to be flattened in the name of honour.

The heavier man sprawled on his back, glowering at Harper.
“You little rat!” he snarled. His hand went to his gun, but he let out a yelp of fear and pain, as the holster was shot from his side. His weapon was sent scooting across the floor by a second bullet, so close to the first the room heard but a single shot.

Kid’s whose gun had leapt into his hand, now stood beside Harper.
“Sure you don’t mean to draw on an unarmed man. Just removin’ any temptation.”

Caine stared at Kid, a mixture of fear and fury on his face.

Around the saloon, the silence following Kid’s shot was broken by awestruck murmurs.

“You see that?”

“Ain’t never seen no one that fast!”

A sturdy blonde young man, wearing a deputy’s badge moved through the crowd.
“Think it’s time you left. Left the saloon and Wolf Creek,” he said to Caine.

Caine glowered from him to Harper, to Kid. Then with an oath, he scrambled to his feet, grabbed his few dollars from the table, and pushed his way roughly out into the street, followed by his friend.

The deputy turned his attention to Kid.
“Pretty fancy shooting,” he remarked in an even tone.

Kid forced himself to smile, and holstered his gun.
“Sorry for the disturbance,” he said.

“Wasn’t you started it,” answered the deputy. Then, cautious rather than hostile he asked, “You and your friends staying long?”

“Movin’ on this afternoon. Just havin’ a drink or two before hittin’ the trail.” Kid summoned up another conciliatory smile.

The deputy nodded, satisfied. Then, touching his hat, he left the saloon, presumably to ensure Caine left town peaceably.

Heyes had restrained Whitaker and Fraser from moving to back up Harper earlier in the quarrel. One Easterner unused to saloon wrangles was enough for Kid to deal with, without letting two more block his aim. Now the three moved forward.

“Never knew you had it in you, Charles,” said Wainwright with genuine admiration.

Harper could not help grinning, but he shook his head.
“It was an unbelievably lucky hit,” he demurred.

“The result was lucky,” agreed Heyes, ”But it wasn’t luck threw a punch at a man that size – that took guts.”

Harper flushed, pleased.
“Think the luckiest thing of all was he never got up and hit me back!” he said, “Thank you, Thaddeus.”

“No problem,” said Kid.

Three young cowboys came up to Harper, shyly.
“’Bout time someone decked Zach Caine, he’s mean as a snake.”

“Had it comin’.”

“That was some punch.” They shook Harper’s hand warmly.

Seeing Harper wince, Heyes asked sympathetically, “Hand hurts, huh? Should stop you pickin’ any more fights till we finish our drinks.”

Others were congratulating Kid.
“That was some shootin’, son.”

“Never even saw you reach.”

Drawing his partner slightly aside, Heyes breathed, “Quite the centre of attention, aren’t you?”

Kid looked around at the many curious eyes on him.
“Uh huh. Think it’s time to move on out.” An idea struck him, “Might be able to divert ‘em.” He tapped Harper on the shoulder, “Charles, when you stood up to that Caine fella, you said it wasn’t the money, it was the principle. You meant that, huh?”

Harper blinked, “Of course. It was only thirty or forty dollars.” Seeing Kid smile at the phrase “only forty dollars”, he flushed scarlet, “I’m sorry. I was forgetting that’s a month’s wages to some of the men here.”

“The thing is,” went on Kid, “…sometimes when a man’s had a run of luck at cards, it’s a nice gesture to stand a few drinks. Sociable like.”

This took a moment to sink in, but then a happy smile wreathed Harper’s face, and he pressed his winnings into Kid’s hand.
“Will that be enough?” he asked.

“More’n enough,” said Heyes, wistfully, as he saw the stack of dollars disappear toward the bar.

“Drinks for everyone ‘till that runs out. On my good friend Charles Harper, here,” said Kid.

“Next coupla drinks are free boys!” shouted out the barkeep.

The crowd around Kid and Harper melted away, and surged as one toward the promised whiskey.

“Let’s go,” said Heyes. Seeing the surprise on the Easterners’ faces, he continued, “These two just won a fight fair and square. We’re leavin’ in case the loser’s plannin’ a re-match.”

Amongst the curious stares at Kid, the partners did not notice one in particular. That of the blear-eyed, bearded, drunk, leaning on his broom and blinking with an effort of memory as he gazed at the blond young man with the astonishing fast draw.

Lefty Gooch had seen that face before. Last year. Before his luck turned so bad. Before his craving for the next whiskey grew so strong, he had been reduced to cleaning up in a small town saloon floor for the odd drink.

Then he remembered where he’d seen the gunman, and his dark-eyed partner. Mills Forks. His heart raced at the thought of twenty thousand dollars reward. Gooch began to move stealthily toward the door. He had to get to the Sheriff.

That was the moment he heard the cry go up.
“Next coupla drinks are free boys!”

Gooch wheeled round, torn. He glanced from the door, to the bottles pouring behind the bar. One drink couldn’t hurt. He’d just have one more drink – then go talk to the Law. As he thirstily joined in the melee at the bar, forgetting everything in the scramble to get his share of free whiskey. He never noticed the party of Easterners, and their two guides, quietly walk out into the street.

—oooOOOooo—

Next morning the first rays of the rising sun struck the eyelids of Lefty Gooch. He was slumped across the table where a final shot of cheap whiskey had tipped him into unconsciousness. Groaning, he struggled awake, shielding his eyes from the glare. He staggered out to the back of the saloon and pumped cold water into his cupped hands, splashing it into his face.

Memories of the previous evening flickered across the fug in his brain. Gooch stopped pumping, and an arrested expression settled on his features. It took several minutes for him to marshal his thoughts, through the hammering of his hangover. Then, grabbing his hat, he set off on a determined – if not entirely straight – beeline for the Sheriff’s office.

—oooOOOooo—

Later the same morning Kid, Heyes, and their party were breaking camp following a leisurely fish breakfast. Heads turned at the sound of hooves approaching from the direction of the now distant town.

“Someone comin’,” shouted Joe, from the stream where he and Laura were rinsing plates.

Then his mouth dropped open in surprise, as a six-man posse rounded the corner, guns drawn. Instinctively Kid started to go for his gun, but Heyes grabbed his arm. Their eyes met, and Kid accepted the decision in the shake of his partner’s head.

The posse pulled up at the edge of the camp. The Sheriff, and a couple of deputies dismounted quickly. Deputy Pat Shaughnessy yanked Kid’s gun from its holster; the other took Heyes’ weapon. As they stepped back, Sheriff Bridges said formally, “Hannibal Heyes, Jedediah Curry, I arrest you in the name of the law.”

A bewildered Stephen Wainwright, dropped the blankets he was busy rolling, and after gaping at the posse, did not manage anything more than a gasped, “What?”

Sheriff Bridges, his eyes not leaving Heyes and Curry, said, “I’ve received information from an eye-witness who identifies these men as outlaws.” He continued, “Tie ‘em up, Pat and get ‘em on their horses. If they are Heyes and Curry they’re worth ten thousand apiece.”

Shaken, Laura Hamilton came forward, dripping tin plates clutched to her chest.
“You’ve made a mistake, Sheriff. Tell him Joshua.”

Heyes tried a sincere smile, “The Lady’s right, Sheriff. Must be some mistake. Mr. Jones and I are trial guides – employed by a most respectable couple. Any resemblance we have…”

He tailed off as Pat Shaughnessy, having fastened his hands securely, moved to help hoist him into the saddle. He was having no effect on the impassive Sheriff.

“Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones aren’t thieves,” protested Fraser, “If they were dishonest they could have made off with the payment we received on delivery. To say nothing of the money we’re all carrying. Would outlaws be working as trial guides?”

“Heyes and Curry might,” responded the Sheriff, “There’s a rumour they’ve been trying to play it straight. Takin’ an honest job fits that rumour, and the descriptions fit them.”
Pat Shaughnessy who had already attached halter ropes to the partners’ horses was now tailing Heyes horse behind Kid’s mount.

“Father, you aren’t going to just let him take them?” blurted Rick, “We’ve got to do something.”
His hand reached for the rifle he’d been lovingly cleaning and reloading.

“Don’t even think about it!” snapped Heyes, and the authority in his voice caused Rick’s hand to drop to his side. In a kinder tone, he went on, “Last thing you wanna do, is get on the wrong side of the law, at your age.”

Sheriff Bridges gave Heyes a long considering look, then turned his gaze to Rick.
“That was good advice, son.” He swung himself back into his saddle, “If they’re not Heyes and Curry, ain’t nothin’ for ‘em to worry about. There’s a train to Cheyenne Friday. Got lawmen there know ‘em by sight. I can escort ‘em in, get an identification, hand ‘em over or set ‘em free.”

“Cheyenne?” asked Heyes, forcing his voice to sound merely interested, but unable to avoid an instinctive, dismayed glance at his partner.

“Yup. Wolf Creek’s two miles inside the border of Wyoming Territory – leastways has been since 1868,” said Bridges, “Didn’t you know that – bein’ such respectable trail guides?”
He gathered his reins together, preparing to ride out.

“Joe,” called Kid, “This stream leads back to the Belle Fourche. Forget the way we came. Just follow the river.”

“We spread the journey to fill the days,” explained Heyes, “Without the herd, and ridin’ straight, you’ll be back to Clearwater by tomorrow night.”

With that, Sheriff Bridges, after tipping his hat to a still stunned Laura, gave the signal to move out. The Easterners were left gaping miserably, first at the retreating posse, then, helplessly, at each other.

—oooOOOooo—

Kid had stretched out on one of the cell cots, watching Heyes pace. From time to time, Heyes paused to gaze through the barred cell door at the Sheriff, busy at his desk. Or, stretching up, he peered through the small grill, serving as a window to the street outside.

Suddenly, Heyes hissed, “Kid, look at this.” Kid moved to join him at the window, and watched as their own party of dusty, dishevelled Easterners trotted into town.

“Tracked us,” said Kid, “You must have taught ‘em somethin’!”

“Think they’ll come an’ visit?”

“Bit unfriendly if they don’t, huh?”

Kid watched the group dismount with varying degrees of awkwardness. Joe and Rick disappeared with the horses in the direction of the livery station. Fraser and Harper were taking covert glances at the jail. Deputy Pat Shaughnessy sat on the boardwalk beneath the high cell window, rifle in hand. Deputy Kurt Muller, also armed, leant against the door to the Sheriff’s office, watching the street.

At a tentative raised hand from Heyes, Fraser gave a faint shake of his head. Both men firmly turned their backs and, with Laura Hamilton and Wainwright headed for the hotel.

“Did you see that?” said a dumbfounded Kid, “ Won’t even look at us!”

Heyes frowned as he watched the group go inside. Moving away from the window, he resumed pacing, brow furrowed in thought.
Something on Bridge’s desk catching his eye, Heyes clasped the bars of the cell door and called, “Sheriff.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Could I borrow that newspaper – just to pass the time?”

The Sheriff glanced at the folded paper on his desk, with certain distaste.
“Suppose so. Tell ya though – just a local weekly, nothin’ but lies and gossip.”
Heyes merely smiled and held out a hand through the bars. Sheriff Bridges handed the newspaper through at arms length.

Kid waited until the Sheriff was again absorbed at his desk, then in a low voice asked, “Time to relax with the paper huh? You got a plan yet?”

Heyes showed Kid the headline that had caught his attention.

Kid read, “Bellamy vows to defeat Bridges in upcoming county sheriff elections.”

“Seems the Sheriff has problems of his own to worry about,” said Heyes with a smile.

“Don’t seem to help us much.” Then, after a pause Kid asked again, “You got a plan?”

“Just an idea. Never hurts to do a bit of background research.”

“Just keep thinkin’ Heyes… That’s what you’re good at.”

Heyes settled down on the edge of his cot, and digging a pencil stub from his vest pocket began to read the paper with deep attention, occasionally underlining a word or two.

About twenty minutes had passed, when Deputy Muller opened the door to the Sheriff’s office.

“Visitor askin’ to see the prisoners, Sheriff,” he called.

In unison, the heads of Heyes’ and Kid snapped round, and together they moved forward to peer through their bars.

“Young Rick,” said Kid, “Woulda thought Fraser might come an’ help. Him bein’ a lawyer an’ all.”

“Time yet, Kid,” breathed Heyes, “Might be what you call a reconnoitring party!”

Sheriff Bridges looked Rick over, “You can visit ‘em if you want son. Long as Muller here searches you first. ”

Rick leaned arms spread against the office wall, as Muller patted him down.

“Don’t forget turn his pockets, and check in the boots,” instructed Bridges, “If that is Hannibal Heyes back there…”

“No indeed…” Rick began to protest.

The Sheriff raised a hand to silence him, “I said “if”. Keepin’ an open mind. IF that’s Hannibal Heyes, need to make sure the boy’s not carryin’ anythin’ that’d pick a lock.”

Heyes and Curry exchanged a resigned look.

Pulling back on his boots, Rick waited to be let through. Bridges moved to the safe containing the keys to the cell. He looked back suspiciously at the two interested faces.
“Cover me Muller. Don’t want no one watchin’ my hands too close. Gives a skilled man a start on the combination.”

Heyes sighed. Efficient Sheriff’s never made life easier.

Once Rick was in the cell, the two ex-outlaws looked at him expectantly.
“This is thrilling. Wait till I tell the boys at school I was searched and put in a jail cell!” he crowed.

The partners exchanged a glance.
“Thrill of bein’ in a cell wears off real soon,” said Kid.

“I suppose,” agreed Rick doubtfully. But he continued to gaze about him fascinated, evidently committing every detail to memory.

Heyes cleared his throat, “We thought you might have a message from your Pa. Maybe a word or two of legal advice.”

Recalled to his errand, Rick nodded vehemently.

“What’s he say?” prompted Kid impatiently.

“Father says to tell you,” started Rick, clearly trying to recall the correct words, “First, we’re all behind you. Second, don’t say anything to incriminate yourself. Even if just hyper …” he paused “hyper…”

“Hypothetically?” suggested Heyes.

Rick nodded gratefully, “Even if just hypothetically, you are Heyes and Curry, stay quiet.”

“We’re not!” protested Curry. Heyes shook his head in agreement, eyes wide with innocence.

Rick continued, “Don’t answer any questions. AND – if you are questioned, ask for your lawyer.” Rick wound up, adding in explanation, “That’d be my father.”

“That it?” asked Heyes.

Rick shook his head.
“One more thing.” he said, “My father said to ask you, Mr. Smith – as maybe you’re real good at plans…” Heyes blinked at this, and glanced at his partner, whose expression froze.
“He says – ‘Is there any advice you’d like to send him?’”

Heyes grinned broadly. Folding the newspaper, he handed it to Rick.
“Give him this. Tell him to read it real close. AND tell everyone to remember what Mister Jones and I taught y’all – ‘bout studyin’ local conditions.”

After Rick had, with due precaution, been released from the cell, the Sheriff glared at the paper tucked under his arm.
“Whatya got that for son?” he queried.
Heyes spoke up, “Article in there on the townswomen makin’ decorations based on local wildlife for Independence Day. Be real interestin’ for Mrs. Hamilton. No harm in that is there, Sheriff?”

Sheriff Bridges shook the paper, and swiftly flicked through to check for hidden messages.
“Sure she’s more’n welcome, Son,” he said, handing it over.

Rick hesitated a moment then asked, “Sheriff, can I see the wanted posters for Heyes and Curry?”

Bridges looked at him quizzically for a moment, then shrugged.
“Sure. In fact,” he pushed two dog-eared sheets of paper toward Rick, “take these. Got me fresh copies on the wall there.” His eyes turned to his prisoners. “Sure do read kinda familiar. Still, as I say, keepin’ an open mind, till I escort ‘em to Cheyenne.”

As Rick left, Heyes resumed his post at the window.

“Joe’s on the move,” he informed his partner, “Takin’ a lotta parcels to the hotel.”
A beat.
“Pretty quiet out there.”

Kid lay down, hat over his face, preparing to while away the wait with a nap.
“Wake me if it gets noisy.”

About forty minutes dragged by before Heyes nudged his partner and beckoned him over. The ex-outlaws watched Wainwright, bathed, shaved and pristine, in a newly bought, off-the-peg business suit, advance purposefully toward the town’s newspaper office.

Fraser and Charles Harper, both as dapper as purchases made in small town stores could make them, followed him out of the hotel. Harper at his heels, Fraser advanced, with great authority, upon a building at the far end of the street, where at an upper window a sign proclaimed:

“Thomas Anderson. Attorney at Law.”

A gingham-clad Laura then appeared on the hotel steps, tying the ribbons of a modest bonnet beneath her chin. Glancing momentarily across the street, she gave the partners a fleeting smile, before hurrying away in the direction of the church and meeting hall.

With a broad grin, Heyes turned to his partner.
“Know what, Kid? I think all that looks kinda hopeful.”

—oooOOOooo—

The Sheriff looked up from his desk as once again Deputy Muller announced, “Visitors.”

Bridges frowned as the town’s newspaper proprietor, Carl Peters, entered the office, beaming.
“Sheriff, I’d like to introduce a distinguished visitor to our town.” Gesturing flamboyantly at his companion, he continued, “This is Stephen P Wainwright. THE Stephen P Wainwright. Mr. Wainwright, our…” there was the hint of a pause, “ … our current elected Sheriff, Sheriff Jack Bridges.”

“Delighted, sir,” said Wainwright, offering his hand.

“Uh huh.” grunted Bridges, throwing a questioning look at Carl Peters.

“Mr. Wainwright is an extremely distinguished newspaper editor from Boston,” effused Peters, “It’s a great honour for our town to have him here.” He turned to Wainwright with the suggestion of a bow, “In fact, sir, it was your work made me first want to become a journalist.”

“You flatter me, Mr. Peters.”

“Not at all. I try and model my own work on yours. Of course there’s less scope in a small town like Wolf Creek.”

“Too modest, sir. I assure you, I found your local journal fascinating.”

Sheriff Bridges coughed to interrupt the mutual admiration society forming before his desk.
“And how can I help you, Mr…?”

“Wainwright. THE Stephen P Wainwright,” supplied Carl Peters.

“How can I help you, Mr. Wainwright?”

Peters answered, “Mr. Wainwright has offered to write a piece for my next edition.“ He indicated the cellblock behind the Sheriff’s office, “About the prisoners you’re holding.”

“Victims of a disgraceful case of mistaken identity,” chimed in Stephen Wainwright. He gestured as if sketching banner headlines, “Shocking miscarriage of justice! Can we trust the law in Wolf Creek when innocent men are imprisoned on a whim?”

The Sheriff shifted a little, and glanced back to the two faces peering from the cell, nodding vehemently at the phrase ‘mistaken identity’.
“Might not be so innocent.”

Wainwright’s eyes flashed magnificently at the lawman.
“Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones are well known to me. Fine, upstanding, honorable men of integrity. With Mr. Peter’s help, I’ll rouse every citizen of Wolf Creek to cry out against the wrong being done here.”

“I’ll clear the front page for you, Mr. Wainwright,” gushed Carl Peters. Looking thoughtful he continued, “Should sell real well. Your name an’ all; and folks already mighty interested in the upcoming elections. Think I’ll print off double the usual run.”

“Uh huh,” grunted Bridges, “Suppose folks’ll read anythin’!”

“Of course, I’d welcome your input Sheriff,” said Wainwright, “I was hoping for a brief interview – perhaps a quotation.”

By this time, Sheriff Bridge’s frown had deepened to a positive glower.
“’Fraid I can’t spare the time. Muller, show the gentlemen out.”

“Oh, Sheriff, our readers…” protested Peters.

Wainwright held up a hand to silence him.
“No matter. I’m sure the Sheriff has many calls on his time. I believe Sheriff Bridge’s rival in the upcoming elections will be more than willing to be interviewed.”

“Bellamy!!” exploded the Sheriff wrathfully.

“I’m sure George Bellamy will explain how differently he’d handle this. How he’d never lock up innocent men on the word of – well – of a kn own drunkard,” continued Wainwright, ignoring the Sheriff’s deepening colour.

“That weasel. He’d say anythin’!”

Peters and Wainwright turned to leave. At the door, Wainwright paused, ostensibly addressing his journalist colleague.
“Of course, it’d make a much better story if Smith and Jones were released. Justice triumphant! Local Sheriff upholds liberty of the individual! I could write a piece that’d make him a hero.” He clapped Peters on the shoulder, “Not to be. Let’s go do the best we can with George Bellamy.”

Deputy Muller watched them go, and smiled ruefully, “Bellamy’s sure goin’ to make the most of this, Sheriff.“

“If folk wanna vote for a man who’s never done nothin’ but talk big, don’t suppose I can stop ‘em! Got more important things to worry about.” growled Bridges.

However, from their cell Heyes and Curry saw that the Sheriff did not resume work. Instead, he stared across at the newspaper office, the frown deepening on his face. The partners were quite sure he did not, in fact, have anything more important to worry about!

“Don’t think that’s goin’ to get us outta here, Heyes,” breathed Kid.

“Not made Bridges any keener on keepin’ us,” murmured back Heyes.

Kid looked thoughtful, “Might make him more persuadable, you mean?”

Heyes nodded, “All helps.”

—oooOOOooo—

Sheriff Bridges was not left long to reflect on his upcoming drubbing from the local press. A shadow fell across the doorway, and he rose as the town’s attorney, Thomas Anderson, entered the office, hat in hand.
“Sheriff, may I introduce Mr. Richard Fraser, of New York. THE Richard Fraser. “ Interpreting the Sheriff’s frown as a question, he continued with enthusiasm, “Mr. Fraser is one of our country’s most eminent lawyers. I once heard him speak when a student, but never thought I’d meet him in person.

With a feeling of déjà vu Bridges asked, “And what can I do for you Mr. Fraser?”

“I am acting on behalf of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones.”

“Uh huh. If you wanna speak privately to ‘em, I’ll have to search you.”

“I’d like to clarify one or two points first, Sheriff,” said Fraser, taking a notepad from his pocket. “Firstly, I believe, you are holding my clients due to an identification made by a…” he drew in a breath before, with deep disdain, pronouncing the name, “Lefty Gooch?”

A sudden movement in the doorway made all three men turn. Deputy Kurt Muller was restraining a dishevelled and distraught Lefty Gooch, fresh from the saloon. He’d been stood near a dozen drinks from patrons willing to hear the story of Heyes’ and Curry’s arrest. Whiskey fumes dominated the air.

“Fella in the saloon says some fancy-ass lawyer’s tryin’ to get Heyes and Curry out! Makin’ out it’s not them!” hiccoughed Gooch. “It’s them, Sheriff. That’s twenty thousand dollars belongin’ to me, back there.” His bleary eyes swivelled in desperation, if not in focus.

Richard Fraser scanned Lefty Gooch slowly from head to foot.
Turning to Bridges, in a low voice, full of disbelief he asked, “Is this your informant, Sheriff?”

Sheriff Bridges looked with exasperation at Gooch. Not impressive at the best of times, he now appeared to personify the words ‘unreliable witness’.

Lefty whimpered, “It’s Curry and Heyes. I know it is.”

“How do you know? When did you meet Heyes and Curry?” demanded Fraser rounding on the man.

“Wuz robbin’ a stage. Squint Wilson recognised Curry. Said the other fella must be Heyes.”

“So you do not recognise Kid Curry from your own knowledge?”

“Squint knew him. Told me.”

Sheriff Bridges, controlling his temper, said between gritted teeth, “That’s not quite what you said earlier, Gooch!”

Thomas Anderson gave a satisfied smile, “Hearsay evidence, Sheriff.”

Lefty Gooch nodded vehemently, “Yeah, I heard Squint say it!”

“Is this… Squint Wilson… available?” queried Fraser.

Lefty shook his head, “Last I heard he wuz doin’ eight years down in Colorado.”

“You mean my clients are locked up on hearsay evidence from an unavailable convicted criminal,” exploded Fraser.

Sheriff Bridges glowered at Gooch. It did not sound good.
He added a question of his own, “You say they were robbin’ a stage? Never heard of Heyes and Curry holdin’ up stages. Thought they stuck to trains an’ banks.”

“Naw, Sheriff. You’ve got it all wrong. Wuz me an’ Squint robbin’ the st…” Lefty Gooch ground to a halt as he realised where this explanation was heading. He edged back through the door.

Deputy Muller glanced at Bridges, “Shall I let him go, Sheriff?”

“For now,” growled Bridges.

The Sheriff took a deep breath, “Look, maybe Lefty Gooch ain’t exactly an ideal witness. But I have to take ‘em to Cheyenne an’ make sure. That fella callin’ himself Thaddeus Jones drew in the saloon yesterday – and I hear he was real fast. Fast enough to be Kid Curry. Muller here saw it. An’ he is a reliable witness!”

“Indeed he is,” agreed Fraser mildly, “I was there myself. I’m sure your Deputy also reported that Mr. Jones was protecting an unarmed man, from an unprovoked attack; that he drew only after the attacker reached first; and that he did not injure anyone. In fact, he behaved in an exemplary fashion. Not exactly the behavior of a notorious outlaw.”

“True enough,” corroborated Muller, “Told the Sheriff all that. But also told him that I ain’t never seen no one that fast.”

“Is my client to be condemned, simply because he outdraws a drunken bully in a saloon?”

“Ain’t condemned. Just held on suspicion,” said the Sheriff, “An’ Jones ain’t just fast. He’s fast AND matches the description of Kid Curry. An’ his partner looks real like Hannibal Heyes. Seems one hell of a co-incidence to me.”

“Not at all,” responded Fraser, “In fact, I have an expert witness to answer that very point. If I may?” The Sheriff, curious in spite of himself, nodded. Moving to the door, Fraser called out, “Professor Harper.”

“Professor?” whispered Kid in disbelief. “Is that Charles – can’t remember if I loaded my gun – Harper?”

It was.
Fraser spoke, “Sheriff Bridges this is Charles Harper.” In impressive tones he continued, “Institute professor of applied mathematics at Harvard.”

Heyes blinked in surprise.
Looking at his partner, Kid breathed, “Is that good?”

Heyes nodded, “Think in his world, that’s pretty much, ‘fastest gun in the west’”

The concerted efforts of the party, had not quite managed to eradicate Charles’ rumpled appearance, nor smooth down the tousled hair. A sheaf of paper clutched to his chest was in imminent danger of escaping his grasp. Despite that, he radiated confidence. For the first time in a fortnight, he had been asked to do something he was actually good at. Harper gave the Sheriff a friendly smile.

Clearly somewhat at a loss, the Sheriff resorted to his favourite phrase, “Uh huh?”

“Professor Harper has been studying the wanted posters,” prompted Fraser.

Recognising his cue, Charles spread out two sheets of paper on the desk.
“First Jedediah Curry,” he began cheerfully, “I’ve made a few assumptions, pending a response to telegrammed queries to my research fellows, but I think my calculations will hold up.
Working on a white male population in the mid West of just over half a million, twenty percent will be, or appear to be, about the right age – that’s mid to late twenties to about thirty. Around thirty-three percent will be of the given height – between five ten and six foot. As Curry’s weight is just above average a majority will be, or appear to be, the right build, call it seventy percent. Around twenty-five percent will be fair. The phrase ‘even features’ could include pretty much anyone – so I’ve just rounded down, to exclude those with actual deformities. This leaves me five thousand men matching the description of Kid Curry.”

“Five thousand!” blinked Sheriff Bridges.

“Of that order,” smiled back Charles. Leaning back over his figures and clearly enjoying himself, he prepared to carry on, “Secondly Hannibal Heyes…”

“You can cut straight to the final number,” interrupted Bridges.

Rather disappointed Charles looked up, “Heyes description as dark, and actually smack bang average build for his height, is much more common. I estimate seventeen thousand men in the mid West matching the description of Hannibal Heyes.”

Deputy Kurt Muller greeted this with a low whistle.

Charles placed a third sheet of paper on the desk, smoothing it out.
“Using this base data, I’ve constructed a formula to calculate the likelihood that any pair of men, each matching one description, are in fact Heyes and Curry.” His finger moved rapidly over a web of figures and symbols, “X is a weighting, to allow for the tendency to choose companions of a similar age. Y and Z are multipliers, to correct for instances where two menare, in fact, a sub-set of a group of three or four and more than one combination can be taken as a pair.” With a cheery smile, Harper looked up, “Testing the hypothesis, Smith and Jones ARE Heyes and Curry, the probability is not significantly different to zero.” He stopped, evidently expecting a response from the Sheriff.

Bridges stared at the papers before him, then up at Harper.
“You mean all this figurin’,” he indicated the network of numbers on the desk, “proves they ain’t Heyes an’ Curry.”

Richard Fraser nodded satisfied.

Harper, however, demurred. The word “proof” was not one he liked to misuse.
“The fact they match the descriptions, is no proof they are the wanted men. Other things being equal, we can be ninety-nine per cent confident they are NOT Heyes and Curry.” With a glance toward the cellblock, he added, “After all Sheriff, as a wise man once told me – there’s a formula for everything.”

Kid glanced at Heyes, and a reluctant grin spread over his face.

Fraser gathered up the calculations, “I have no doubt that if Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones are taken to Cheyenne for a hearing, I will secure their release.”
Sheriff Bridges looked up with a resigned expression. He rather believed Stephen Fraser’s confidence was well founded.

Before he was required to respond, raised voices outside caught the attention of all.
Deputy Pat Shaughnessy’s brogue was heard. Stretching up to the barred window the ex-outlaws saw him on his feet, rifle in hand, outside the cellblock.
“Ladies. Afraid I can’t let you speak to the prisoners.”

Kid stared at the dozen or so women gathering in the main street.
“What’s happenin’ Heyes?”

Heyes grinned, “Not completely sure, Kid. Accordin’ to the local paper, the townswomen’s guild meets every Wednesday, about this time. And they’re kinda proud of bein’ a campaignin’ group, makin’ sure women get a say in local affairs. I suspect this is them.” He stood on tiptoe to get a better view, “I suspect that’s Laura up front.”

With the utmost poise, Laura Hamilton mounted an upturned crate placed about eight feet from the jail wall.
“Ladies, here in your own town, in this very jail, two innocent men have been wrongly deprived of their liberty.”

“Shame!” called a grey haired woman toward the front of the crowd, and several ladies joined her.

“You are fortunate to live in the one territory, whose legislature recognises women as equal citizens. I believe we have a duty – as women – to uphold justice here. Can we sit idle, whilst respectable men are imprisoned, on the inebriated ramblings of a notorious drunkard?”

“No!”

“Shame!”

“Now, you ladies were kind enough to ask me to speak to you about my past campaigning work …”

There was a smattering of warm applause at this. Heyes and Curry glanced at each other, impressed.

“But now, I do not speak to you as a social campaigner. No! Like many of you here today – I am first a mother.” Laura gestured back at the cell window, where the faces of the two ex-outlaws could be seen behind an embarrassed Deputy Shaughnessy. “It could be my sons, imprisoned back there! If we allow lawmen to act unchecked by reason – are any of our children safe?” She drew breath, and leaned forward persuasively, “I know these young men. Two of the kindest, bravest boys you could hope to meet. Look at them.” She turned and smiled broadly, arms spread wide, as if wanting to gather Heyes and Curry in a maternal embrace, “Look at the innocence shining from those eyes. Do they look like outlaws? Can’t we see the honesty stamped on those faces?”

A variety of motherly voices began to murmur.

“Oh no…. they look real nice boys.”

“The dark one puts in mind of my Joseph.”

“Can’t imagine what Sheriff Bridges is thinking!”

“That one, has the eyes of an angel!”

The partners gave their best winning smiles and assumed expressions suggesting a blameless life.
Hearing “eyes of an angel”, Kid grew pink, then as Heyes whispered, “Keep blushin’ Kid – they could eat you up with a spoon!” deepened to scarlet.

The Sheriff watched the scene from the office doorway. With a deep frown, he noted Stephen Wainwright moving amongst the women gathering comments.
Striding back to his desk, he snapped a brusque instruction, “Don’t let any of ‘em in, Kurt. Bad enough listenin’ to lawyers, don’t need no females.”

Even as he spoke a diminutive but determined redhead pushed past a meekly compliant Deputy Muller.
“Jack, Jack – Mrs. Hamilton says you’ve imprisoned the wrong men. Release them this minute!”

The harassed Sheriff thumped clenched fists on his desk, “Nothin’ to do with you, Emily. And nothin’ to do with Mrs. Hamilton – whoever she is.”

“There’s no need to raise your voice, Jack Bridges! As a citizen of this town, it has everything to do with me! And you know perfectly well who Laura Hamilton is. You’ve heard me talk about her a hundred times. She’s campaigned on women’s’ rights and social justice for years. Folk say she has the ear of the president! Now she visits Wolf Creek and I’m married to the man who’s locked up her friends, for no reason at all!”

“Now Emily…”

“Only last week Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones rescued a young boy from a lion attack – they’re heroes.”

“But I have to…”

“They’re employed by a most respectable couple…”

“Might be so, but …”

“Mrs. Hamilton is the most charming, cultured, lady. Are you trying to tell me she is consorting with a couple of criminals?”

“Emily, listen…”

“No you listen, Jack. Every woman in Wolf Creek is against you on this. I’ll never hold my head up again, if you persist in this foolishness!”

Deputy Kurt Muller attempted to support his boss, “Mrs. Bridges, ma-am, its just a coupla days till we take ‘em to Cheyenne. If they’re not Heyes and Curry…”

He was interrupted by a plump blond woman bustling up behind him.
“If!! Of course zey are not! Just look at zem!”

Muller wheeled around disconcerted.
“Mama…”

“Kurt, zat boy is ze image of your father ven he was a young man. Do you zink I cannot tell a man with a good honest heart, ven I see him?”

A girl with chestnut curls and a dusting of freckles over a tip-tilted nose whisked up beside Mrs. Muller.
“Same goes for you Pat Shaughnessy! If I hear those poor innocent boys have been dragged to Cheyenne, don’t think you’ll be hearing the last of it this side of Christmas!”

Sheriff Bridges bellowed, “Quiet!” In the stunned silence that followed, with a forced calm he said, “I’ve got no reliable witness, vague descriptions, and a famous lawyer, professor, writer an’ a reformin’ lady, all willin’ to swear they ain’t Heyes and Curry. Kurt – let ‘em out.”

Deputy Muller hesitated, “Sheriff, you sure?”

Bridges nodded, “Can put up with a lotta nonsense bein’ written ‘bout me, in that dang paper. Can stand a fancy Eastern lawyer makin’ me look a fool in front of a Cheyenne judge. But a man’s gotta know when he’s beat. When he’s facin’ a pack of ornery women – its time to fold. Get ‘em outta my town!”

—oooOOOooo—

After escaping the delighted congratulations of the townswomen, Heyes and Curry found their horses saddled ready and waiting for them at the Livery.

“We thought you might want to ride out straight away,” explained Fraser.

“In case gossip about your arrest and release spreads, and someone gets the wrong idea” went on Stephen Wainwright.

“Bounty hunters!!” exclaimed Joe, then blushed, as Wainwright shushed him.

“Bounty hunters might just get the wrong idea,” agreed Heyes, “We’ve just seen, these mistakes do happen.”

“No point waitin’ around for trouble,” nodded Kid.

Fraser cleared his throat, “We also thought you might not have a convenient forwarding address for the Willis’s to send on the rest of your pay.”

Kid gave a resigned shrug.

“So we hoped you won’t mind if we pay it on their behalf.” He held out a sealed envelope. With a cough, he added, “There’s a bonus in there from all of us – just to say thank you.”

“You’re not offended are you?” asked Charles, anxiously.

“It’s not the word that springs to mind, no,” said Heyes taking it, “Thank you all – and not just for this.”

As the partners swung into their saddles, Laura Hamilton spoke up, “I was thinking about what the Sheriff told us this morning; the rumour that Heyes and Curry are trying to go straight. I like to believe anyone can change.”

The partners exchanged a cautious glance.
“Uh huh,” said Kid, guardedly.

Laura smiled.
“Changing the subject completely,” she said, “did I ever mention, that I’m acquainted with the Governor of Wyoming?”

Heyes blinked at her, “Don’t recollect it ever came up, ma-am.”

“I was at school with his wife. We’re still good friends.” She paused, “I was wondering if…”

“If the Governor and his wife, might want to hear all about your holiday?” completed Kid.

Heyes gave Laura his most charming smile, “I’m sure they always like to hear from you, ma-am.” He gathered up his reins, ready to ride out, “Don’t forget to send our compliments to the Governor – compliments from Smith and Jones.”

—oooOOOooo—

End Notes

The (generally acknowledged) first “Dude Ranch” was run by the Eaton brothers, Howard, Alden and Willis, on the Custer Trail Ranch, near Medora, North Dakota.

The three brothers played host to their numerous friends from the East, who ached for western adventure, giving them the opportunity to live the cowboy life.

Guests stayed for weeks at a time, riding, working cattle, helping with chores and hunting. Always generous and hospitable to friends and strangers alike, the Eatons found it increasingly difficult to feed and accommodate so many people. In 1881, one guest realised that the brothers’ endless hospitality was becoming a financial strain, and prevailed upon them to start charging for room and board, so “folks can stay as long as they like.” At that point, an industry was born and a tradition started.

In 1904 the operation relocated to the eastern slopes of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains and Wolf Creek Valley.

[NOT that this story ended up being much about dude ranches!! – But it was the original “plot bunny”.]

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