Dark Lady of Canyon Rock
As the sun began its daily descent, two riders came to the foot of the low hills surrounding the small town of Canyon Rock and paused.
"You owe me ten dollars," demanded Kid Curry.
"For what?" Hannibal Heyes sounded surprised.
"Sundown. You said we would reach Canyon Rock by sundown and we haven't."
"Kid, it's right there," Heyes pointed to the scattered buildings in the distance.
"We aren't there yet and the sun is going down," Curry pointed out.
"Ah, going down and sundown are two different things. Now come on, quit stalling," Heyes said with a laugh. "It's only ten dollars and you forfeit if you do anything to slow us down on purpose."
Curry watched his older cousin spur his horse to a gallop and followed with only a bit of grumbling. It was pretty hard to stay annoyed with Heyes when he was in a good mood. When Heyes was happy, he didn't see why anyone else would be otherwise. After all, the poker had been very good of late, the women friendly and the sheriffs unknown. What could there be to complain about? Well, there was the fact that it had been a very long day in the saddle and that always made Curry a bit surly. But he knew Heyes didn't take his complaining personally. With a sigh, he urged his horse on a bit faster to catch up.
Though they hadn't realized it quite then, their approach did not go unnoticed. A young girl watched them draw closer and closer until they were right on the outskirts of town. The darker haired of the two men was laughing as he reined in to wait for the other. They were certainly enjoying themselves. That was nice to see, Sarah thought. Everyone had been so tired or busy of late, it was nice to see people laughing and having a good time. Well, the other one wasn't laughing exactly but he didn't seem to be unhappy.
Sarah wondered who they were. She didn't think she knew them but they were still a distance off. Maybe once they got closer, she'd be able to tell. They'd started moving again and in a moment she knew that they wouldn't be able to help but see her on her perch atop the large boulder that marked the town edges. As they drew up next to the rock, they glanced up at her. Neither man looked familiar to her though so Sarah said nothing, waiting to see if they would speak or just ride past. Now that she could see them more clearly, Sarah decided that the blond man, in addition to nice blond curls (a thing that dark haired Sarah had always wished for herself) had very nice blue eyes. He whispered something to his friend who just shrugged and then the blue eyes were turned back to her.
"Pardon me," he said politely. "You know, it's gettin' awful late. Should you be up there all alone?"
"That's why I came up here," she explained.
He nodded. "Well, yeah, I can see that this would be a good place for it but you probably should be headin' home."
"You're stalling...all bets are off," the dark haired stranger said under his breath.
The blond man motioned at the other to be quiet. "If you like, we can give you a ride. It's gettin' dark and --"
"No, that's OK. I'll be gettin' along soon. I am supposed to meet my daddy at --" she paused here to reach into a voluminous pocket in her skirt and pulled out a large pocket watch. She looked at it for a minute and looked back at the two men "-- 7:00 and it's only 6. I'm not afraid of the dark."
"Well I didn't mean --"
"Come on," said the dark haired man impatiently. "She's OK here and she doesn't want to come with us." He started to move away. With one more glance, the other man -- the one with the nice blue eyes -- turned to follow.
It was too bad, Sarah sighed inwardly. She'd been bored and the blond man seemed very nice. Oh well, maybe someone else would come along to talk. They'd only gotten a few yards when she saw them stop. They spoke very softly so she couldn't hear them but they kept gesturing towards her so she thought they might be talking about her. As it happened, she was right.
"Heyes, we can't leave her there all alone sitting on a rock in the dark with no one around. She can't be more than 7."
"Kid, you offered her a ride home. She said no."
"She thought I thought she was afraid of the dark. Of course she said no. Don't you know anything about kids?"
"No, and neither do you. What are you gonna do, force her onto the horse and kidnap her home? She'll kick up a fuss and we'll attract a crowd."
"Naw. She won't scream. I'll ask her real nice and you'll see. Little kids like me." He walked his horse back towards the rock.
Heyes shook his head and stayed where he was. Little kids *did* seem to respond better to Curry than to him. He didn't know why. He didn't dislike them exactly. He just wasn't sure how to talk to them sometimes. Heyes found it easier to relate to slightly older kids. The ones who weren't so...kid like.
As Curry approached the rock again, the little girl stood up. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Well, ma'am, you might say that. My friend and I are strangers here and we aren't real sure where things might be so I thought you might be able to help us."
She considered this a moment. "Well, I do know where most things are. What are you looking for?"
"Well, the hotel for starters. We're pretty tired and it's getting late. Could you tell us where it is?"
She seemed to give the matter a great deal of thought and then shrugged, "It's sort of complicated. Maybe I'd better show you." She started to clamber down the side of the rock with an ease and speed that led Curry to believe she'd spent a lot of time getting up to and down from that particular place. By the time she was on the ground, Curry had dismounted and was waiting to help her up onto the horse.
She held out a small hand. "My name is Sarah."
He took her hand and shook it. "Mine's Thaddeus. Can I help you up?" She nodded and moments later they were drawing up next to Heyes who had watched the whole thing from a short distance.
"Joshua, this is Sarah. Sarah, this is my partner Joshua." Hoping Heyes would catch on and play along, Curry added "Joshua, Sarah's going to show us the way to the hotel since we couldn't remember the way."
For a moment, Heyes just looked confused and then he seemed to understand. "Oh, right, yeah. The hotel. Well that would be mighty helpful of you, Sarah." Heyes gave her one of his best smiles but the effect was wasted. She didn't seem awfully impressed. In fact, she seemed to be snubbing him altogether. Curry was having a great deal of trouble hiding his amusement. The ol' silver tongued devil just didn't know how to talk to little kids. It was always satisfying to find something Heyes couldn't do.
"That way." Sarah pointed towards the left side of the main street and the two horses and their riders moved into the town itself.
By the time they reached the hotel, Heyes and Curry had been given more information about Canyon Rock than they could ever imagine needing to know. Once she decided to take on the job of guide, Sarah had thrown herself into the role with great gusto. She pointed out the general store where "Mr. Simmons has the best candies" but who is "awfully grouchy when that is all you want" and the cafe where they were told her teacher "Miss Walters, her name is really Amelia. Don't you think that is a very pretty name?" took her for a special treat after the spelling bee last week. When at last they reached the hotel, Curry helped Sarah down and she dashed up the steps ahead of them.
"Kid, all bets are off when you start helping damsels in distress."
Curry laughed as he tied his horse to the post. "Aw come on Heyes, she's kinda cute. And you would have ended up worrying about her out there as much as I would. At least we're in town now and someone can tell us where she belongs."
"Always getting involved. That's your problem. Always getting involved and complicating things. " Heyes grabbed his saddlebags and flung them over his shoulder. He waited for Curry to get his gear together and then led the way up the stairs leading to the hotel entry.
Sarah was seated on the reception desk talking to the large, hearty looking man behind the desk. "There they are," she announced. "This way." She waved them over and introduced them to Thomas O'Malley, the owner and manager of the Canyon Rock Hotel. "Mr. O'Malley said that they have a room for you and it is all ready. Wanna see it? I know where all the rooms are."
O'Malley laughed. It was a loud indulgent sound. When he spoke it was with a pronounced Irish brogue. "Now, Sarah pet, you let these men check in and get settled before you start running them all over the place. Besides, your father'll be here soon and you'll be headin' home. Why don't you go into the parlor and see if Mrs. O'Malley can't find a pastry for you. I'll come and fetch you when your father comes." Sarah nodded, hopped down from the desk and dashed off without another word, the idea of the pastry obviously one that had great appeal. He watched her disappear around the corner with a smile and a brief shake of his head. "A good girl, though she needs more children around, and something more to do than hanging about with us older folks. Well, we do what we can. Now gentleman, a room. Just sign here and come right this way. As they signed the register, he came out from behind the large desk, pausing to speak to the young, reedy man who had been sorting papers. "Billy, watch the desk and send a message over to Sarah's father telling him she's here when he wants to swing by and get her."
"Yes, Mr. O'Malley." Billy's voice was as reedy as the rest of him.
As they moved across the foyer and up the stairs, Curry told O'Malley about finding Sarah right outside town and how odd it seemed that such a young child seemed to run around this late with no one to look after her.
"Well now, Sarah's mother passed away just a few months back and her father's been awfully busy so everyone keeps an eye out for her. She's smart as a whip that one and a bit of a town favorite so she won't come to any harm." He paused. "It's funny, though. She doesn't normally take to strangers but this week she's brought three to my door. Hmmmm...Ah well, the child is probably lonely and bored with all the same faces. I'll talk to her father about her being out on Canyon Rock, though. You're quite right that the child shouldn't be out there alone." They reached room 12 and O'Malley unlocked the door, standing aside so that they could enter. "If you gentleman need anything, you be sure and let me know."
"We'll be sure and do that Mr. O'Malley," Heyes assured him as he sat down to test the firmness of the bed.
Curry thanked the man, shut the door and wandered over to the window to look out. "Looks OK," he said. "No one seemed to take note as we came in."
"Not bad, Kid. Not bad. Good sized room," Heyes walked over to the window. "Full view of the main street. And look, just across from the saloon -- Fortune's Fool -- well I can't say I care much for the name but like I always say 'Judge not the saloon by the name, but by the players you find inside.' "
Curry looked at him quizzically "When did you say that?"
Heyes chuckled. "I just did. Come on, I'm hungry. Let's get cleaned up and grab something to eat before we find out what kind of poker players this town has."
"Don't you think we ought to check out the sheriff first? Just in case. And find out about the other strangers. What if -- "
"Kid, relax. Until last week we'd never even heard of Canyon Rock. What are the odds that it has a sheriff that knows what we look like? Besides, Lom told me his name, can't remember it right off hand but it wasn't anyone either of us had heard of before. This is the simplest job we've had in months."
"It's not a job."
You're right. It's just a personal favor to Lom. And we owe him. After all, Lom didn't have to go and ask the Governor to consider giving us amnesty. It couldn't been easy for him, being sheriff and all. He did 'cause he's a good guy. And he's a good guy who is worried about his...um...well, Miss Porter. So all we gotta do, is keep an eye on her while she's here. Like I said, easy. Stop making it more difficult."
"You're right. I know you're right. It's just that things have been going so well recently...I just figured we were due for some bad luck, ya know?"
"Kid," Heyes slapped him on the back, his dark eyes alight with excitement at the thought of a really good meal and an even better poker game. "You gotta look at the bright side more often. Like me. Now come on.”
Sarah was deeply involved in her second pastry when the beautiful raven-haired woman made her way downstairs to the parlor of the hotel. Over the past few days, many had speculated about who this woman was and what she was doing in a place like Canyon Rock. It was obvious from her clothes and demeanor that she was accustomed to much finer surroundings. Whenever anyone was brave enough to ask (for she was terribly elegant and the French accent intimidated many) they were told the sad tale of her brother who had run off and the dangerous travels she and her uncle had undertaken to find him. "We fear he may have met some horrible fate," she always concluded. "My uncle has gone to track down the source of these rumors. I was too ill from constant travel and worry to continue, so we thought it best that I remain in one place should my uncle need to contact me." While some might have doubted such a vague story, the town of Canyon Rock was a small, friendly place and the inhabitants were inclined to be trusting. Furthermore, you certainly couldn't deny that the lovely Janette seemed awfully pale despite complete bed rest during the day and the large crate full of "tonic" bottles she had brought with her.
As she entered, she nodded to the patrons seated about the parlor and made her way to the settee where Sarah was seated alone. Janette frowned slightly. The child spent far too much time alone. In the time she'd been in Canyon Rock (Could it really have been only a week so far? What a great deal Nicholas would owe her for stranding them here looking for him), Janette could see that Sarah was dangerously bored and liable to get into trouble. After all, was it not at their very first meeting that Janette had found her sitting on a bench alone at night in the middle of the town square. When and if she ever met Sarah's father, she would have a thing or two to say to him.
"A second pastry, ma petite. What will your father say?" Janette sat down next to Sarah and smiled.
"How did you know it was my second?"
Janette laughed softly. "Because you have far too many crumbs on your dress to be accounted for by that one in your hand. Here, give me this napkin." She brushed the child off a bit. "There," she said, "now you look quite presentable. Where is your father? Surely you should be home having supper by now." She glanced around but saw only the usual patrons she'd seen all week.
"Don't know," Sarah said. "Billy sent him a message but he said he might be late."
"Sarah?" a voice called from the entry hall. "Sarah?" It was Mrs. O'Malley. "Ah, there you are, child. Good evening, Miss Janette. Sarah, Billy will walk you over to your father now. Here, wrap that up. You can take it with you." Mrs. O'Malley got Sarah and her pastry together, turned them over to Billy and sank into the chair opposite Janette. "I swear sometimes I worry that child eats only pastry and candies."
"Not surprising really when you see how little supervision she is given," Janette said with probably more heat than she had intended.
"Well now, " Mrs. O'Malley said. "It's a sad thing with her mother having passed on and her father so busy. But he is trying his best. Normally, the school teacher does look after her for a few hours after school but poor Amelia's taken poorly of late. Which reminds me, I thought of suggesting that she try that tonic you take. It does seem to bring a flush back to your cheeks when you take it."
Janette stiffened slightly but not enough to be remarked upon. "I don't think," she said slowly, looking firmly at Mrs. O'Malley, "that my tonic would do anyone else much good. It is quite a distinctive mixture and made up particularly for my condition. In fact," she pressed her point home with great firmness, "it could do more harm than good." Mrs. O'Malley seemed to nod slightly, her eyes not quite focused. "Don't you agree?" Janette prompted.
"Yes, more harm than good." Mrs. O'Malley agreed, her voice flatter and slower than usual. Janette leaned back on the settee. All at once Mrs. O'Malley seemed to get a hold of herself and shook her head slightly. "Still" she said in her normal chipper tone, "perhaps it's best not to mess with those tonics if we're not sure what ails her."
"Quite," Janette said. "Now, tell me if you would, is there news of my uncle and brother?
"Well now, two gentlemen did come in this evening, right after sundown actually, " Mrs. O'Malley said. When she saw Janette's eager expression "Oh dear, no, these couldn't be the two you're expecting. No. Their names were Smith and Jones. They were not at all what you described for us to be on the lookout for."
"Smith and Jones," Janette repeated. Would they travel under such obvious aliases she wondered. Surely not. LaCroix at least could be counted upon to be creative in this regard. "No," she said aloud. "It is not them." She sighed and rose. "If you will excuse me, Mrs. O'Malley, I think I will take a short stroll around the square to get some air." With a nod she left the parlor and went out onto the porch of the hotel.
Once outside, Janette cocked her head slightly to the side and listened. It was very still for so early in the evening. Most people were inside by now, having supper or with their families. She smiled. This was the perfect time to find the people who had no one to be concerned about them. Much as she disliked being in this "West" (she always thought of it with a slight sneer) that Nicholas found so enthralling, she did admit that there were a vast array of choices in the populace. So many people with no connections at all, she thought contentedly. All for the choosing. She made her way down the steps and began her now nightly promenade about town.
Cleaned up and well fed, Heyes and Curry made their way over to the Fortune's Fool Saloon. Heyes' good mood had been so infectious that Curry had stopped worrying about what might go wrong and decided to enjoy all the things that were going right for once. As they got closer to the saloon, they saw a small familiar figure sitting on the bench out front.
"Sarah, what are you doing here?" Curry asked. "I thought your Daddy was coming to get you at the hotel."
"Oh, I met up with Daddy but he said he had to stop in here and speak with Mr. Carter for a minute. Mr. Carter owns the Fool. We'll go home as soon as he comes out."
Heyes frowned and started to say something but Curry spoke first. "Do you want to come in and look for him? We'll help you."
"Oh no," she assured them. "I'm fine. 'Sides, Daddy says I shouldn't go into the Fool. It's not a place for girls he says."
"Well he's right about that," Heyes said.
"But there are girls in there. I seen' em." Sarah glared at him.
Both men paused to consider how to explain the difference and while they seemed to start to speak several times, neither could quite figure out that they wanted to say. As the situation threatened to prolong itself, they were interrupted by a soft voice behind them.
"Ah, and which of you would be the elusive father of whom I have heard so much?" Both men turned to face one of the most beautiful women they'd ever seen. The dark dress (was it blue or black? It was difficult to tell in the light of the Fool's porch) set off her pale skin and dark hair to perfection and her eyes (were they blue or gray? Again, the light made it hard to tell) were so compelling that both men were rooted firmly where they stood.
Sarah laughed, breaking the momentary tension of the moment, and the woman drew a bit closer "Oh, neither of them's my Daddy. Daddy's inside." She crouched down a bit to glance under the saloon doors. "Yup, he's right there and comin' this way. Better go." She reached the doors just as a very tall man came out and scooped her up. As father and daughter made their way down the street, Sarah leaned over her father's shoulder and cried "See ya'll tomorrow. Bye, Janette. Bye, Thaddeus." She turned back around but then looked quickly over her shoulder to see if Thaddeus' friend noticed she'd left him out. She apparently felt she had made her point and laughed as she added "Bye Joshua." Her voice faded as they got further and further away but they could still hear her chattering away for some moments.
The child had tremendous potential, Janette thought with approval. Even at this tender age, putting them nicely in their place. A pity she hadn't had a chance to talk to Sarah's father though. With a sigh, Janette turned to take a closer look at the two men standing in front of her. They certainly were an attractive pair, she decided. Attractive enough to offer at least a temporary diversion in this otherwise uninteresting place.
"Gentlemen. I am Janette DuPre. And you?" She nodded and held out a hand. Let us see, she thought, what they make of this. Rather than grasping her hand roughly and shaking it with unnecessary force as had happened all too often of late, both men showed excellent taste and brushed their lips lightly over her knuckles. A diversion indeed.
"Joshua Smith, ma'am."
"Thaddeus Jones. Um...ma'am." Curry cursed at him self for the momentary stutter. Not for the first time, he was envious of Heyes' famed silver tongue. Heyes' never seemed to stumble over his words in front of beautiful women.
"Ah, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. The two *other* strangers in Canyon Rock. Well, young Sarah seems to collect strangers. I believe you are also staying at the O'Malley's hotel. Did Sarah lead you there as well?"
"Yes, ma'am, she did," said Curry.
"Kind of makes you wonder what sort of arrangement she has with them, don't it?" Heyes said with a charming smile. And Janette, who had seen more than her share of charming smiles, gave this one very high marks.
"I believe she gets a payback in pastries, Mr. Smith." She gave an elegant shrug of her shoulders. "Obviously the child is corrupted beyond all hope." Janette smiled at both of them. "Well, I hope you gentlemen will forgive my delaying you. I see that you were on your way inside. I was hoping to speak to Sarah's father, "she glanced down the road, "but that will have to wait for another time."
Curry spoke up quickly. "Well, my partner is planning to play poker this evening but I didn't really have any specific plans. I'd be happy to take you anywhere you'd like to go."
"Poker?" She glanced into the saloon over the tops of the doors. The place was filled with people and this evening's walk had not netted the expected results. Perhaps she would have better luck inside. She hadn't wanted to appear conspicuous before by entering alone but surely, she'd blend in quite well if she went along with these two. "Poker," she repeated thoughtfully. "I don't really know anything about it but it always sounded so interesting. Might I come along? To observe?"
"Inside here, Miss DuPre? Oh I...well that is...Well I'd sure be honored to have you along, ma'am, but I don't think that the saloon is really a place you want to be." Heyes shook his head.
"Surely, Mr. Smith, if I am accompanied by yourselves, no one would comment."
"Comment? Noooo...but you might feel a bit uncomfortable. It's not a very...genteel kind of place." Genteel? Heyes congratulated himself on once again coming up with precisely the right word.
Genteel? Curry rolled his eyes. Heyes was always showing off.
Genteel? Janette was impressed. Not your average cowboys it would seem. Still, they would have to be brought around to her way of thinking. Janette gave a small sigh, the sigh that had won over so many objections in the past, and looked at both men imploringly. "But I did so want to learn some of these games of chance I see played all over. It seems to be the only...public entertainment available at the present time and I have nothing else to do until my family returns."
"Family, ma'am? Your husband?" Curry shifted a bit.
"No, my brother and my uncle. Until then I am quite at loose ends." Janette noticed that both men relaxed slightly. How charming, she thought. They have morals. How much fun this would be. She'd found no one worth toying with since her arrival in this dreadful country. No one had presented any sort of challenge at all. She continued, "There is a small gaming room in the hotel. I suppose that would be suitable enough, no? Perhaps you could accompany me, Mr. Jones and show me the ins and outs of the games. That way Mr. Smith could continue on to the *real* game." It appeared that Mr. Jones rather approved of this idea but his acceptance was cut off.
"Well now, Miss DuPre, I'd be mighty pleased to show you whatever games you like," Heyes said gallantly, "and I can't think of a prettier opponent than yourself."
"Now Joshua you were just saying -- "Curry began.
"Thaddeus, the lady is suffering from boredom. The least we can do is assist her. The Fortune's Fool is a respectable enough place. After all, the lady is only going to watch for a while." Heyes beamed at his partner.
"Well, I am certainly feeling very lucky thus far, " Janette said. "Moments ago, I hadn't any idea what to do with myself and now I have the company of not one but two charming gentlemen. Perhaps this is a sign that this is the night to try games of chance." With a delighted laugh, she linked arms with her new companions and drew them into the saloon.
As Janette closed the shades to her room in the hotel not long before sunrise, she realized that she could hardly remember a night in recent years that she had enjoyed so much. Not only had the game of poker, initially the merest excuse with which to enter the saloon, turned out to be vastly entertaining, but she had two men vying for her attention, something that rarely happened when either LaCroix or Nicholas was about. Few men had the courage to attempt it when only one of them was present. She'd met none to try with both of them looking on. Perhaps, she thought, I should travel on my own a bit more often.
She'd even managed, while both her escorts were taking a break at the bar, a small victory of her own. Realizing that she had to do something about feeding quite soon, she'd stopped one of the saloon girls to ask where she might freshen up and was led to what was loosely referred to by the girl as their "receiving room". The girl had apologized for the state of the room, but as the saloon was not frequented very often by ladies, there was no proper powder room. Janette assured her that the room would suit her admirably. Her escort, a popular girl in the establishment, had intended on returning to the hall floor right away but found herself growing quite tired and unable to rise from the chair that Janette had assisted her into. When the girl awoke from the light stupor she fallen into, she looked around but found she was alone. She couldn't understand why she'd gotten so tired all of a sudden. Nor could she understand, as she stood and straightened her hair, why her neck was slightly sore. She shook her head slightly, wincing but remembered nothing. She shrugged it off as being the result of too much drink too fast, as was usually the case.
There had been a bit of trouble when Janette had first seated herself near the poker table to observe the game. One player had considered her presence bad luck and another threatened to walk away, but when she offered to leave -- pointing out demurely that far from being her intention to cause dissension, it was only her hope to see some truly fine poker played -- all six men had puffed up quite as expected and agreed to play on. Mr. Jones, who didn't play at first, sat next to her and explained as best he could, without disturbing play, what was happening.
At the end of a particularly long hand, which Mr. Smith had won, Janette asked "Now, Mr. Jones, how is it that Mr. Smith ends up with everything? He had nothing in his hand that I could see."
"True, but they didn't know that. It's his job to make them believe different. They had better cards but less confidence. Mr. Smith has plenty of confidence and no cards. That's called a bluff."
"A rather more picturesque word for a lie, in other words." They shared a smile. "So the point *isn't* to have the highest hand.?"
"Well, ma'am, it helps. After all, you can't bluff all the time. People'd catch on. The point is that everyone else should think you have the highest hand, whether you do or don't."
"I would imagine that this is much easier for some people than others."
"There is an art to it. It's called having a poker face."
"That sounds dreadful. Not to mention unappealing."
"Just means having a face that gives nothin' away."
"Ah, I see."
After a few moments, Thaddeus (as Mr. Jones had asked her to call him) was called upon to join in the game. One of the men was being asked to leave the game as he was making all sorts of accusations of cheating. He'd been winning until Joshua (as Mr. Smith had asked her to call him, immediately upon hearing her refer to Mr. Jones as Thaddeus) had begun to play, and was taking his loses quite badly. Janette despised bad losers and this man, in addition to being a bad loser, seemed to think that *she* had a hand in this alleged cheating.
Janette gave him one of her most withering glances and said dismissively, "I don't suppose it has occurred to you that Joshua might simply be a superior player to yourself."
The amazed glances she received were not all admiring, least of all from her verbal target who tossed his chair aside as he stood to loom over her. She stood and stared at him calmly. True, there wasn't much she could do in front of a room full of people (it would be hard to explain being able to throw him across the floor, not to mention hard on her favorite gown) but she wasn't unduly concerned. She'd seen Thaddeus move slightly closer to where she was and a bit to one side where he had a clear field of vision between himself and this odious man.
"Say that again?" the man leaned in but was immediately pushed back by Thaddeus.
"The lady spoke clearly enough, friend. You owe Mr. Smith *and* the lady an apology.."
"Yeah? Well what if I don't?"
"I don't recall offering you choice." Thaddeus' voice was as cold as steel and when Janette looked at him, the echoing coldness in his eyes gave her pause. This was quite an accomplishment when you considered that she'd been traveling with LaCroix for so long.
Suddenly the man moved for his gun but before Janette could do or say anything, Thaddeus' gun was out and pointed right at him. Her eyes widened slightly. She'd rarely seen anyone move that quickly, even among her own kind. As the man backed slowly out of the saloon muttering his apology, Thaddeus walked part of the way with him.
"Are you all right?" Joshua had then asked, concern reflected in his dark eyes.
"Yes of course. He was just...a bit distasteful." she said with a slight grimace. Joshua laughed and the sparkle in the laugh reached those eyes. She'd forgotten how attractive dark eyes could be. Another strike against Nicholas when he returned, she thought. Oh, she knew he couldn't help the color of his eyes. But his laughter, what little there was these days, rarely reached them. The man standing before her knew how to enjoy himself. She could appreciate that. "I think I will go and sit quietly for a few moments though. Perhaps one of these girls --" She stopped one of the saloon girls, spoke a moment and went off, leaving her two companions to regroup at the bar.
Curry rejoined Heyes at the bar and ordered a drink. For a few moments they drank in silence, watching the crowd in the saloon. Then Curry spoke.
"Quite a woman."
"More than pretty."
"Caught on to the game pretty quick."
"Is that all you're gonna say -- uh-huh?"
Heyes grinned. "Nope."
"Then what?" Curry demanded
Heyes reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin and laid it on the bar. "Heads or tails?"
"You want to flip a coin?"
"Well, it's the only fair way. Otherwise we end up right where we always do."
"But -- "
"Whadda ya want to do -- cut cards?"
Curry looked away for a moment and then turned back with a smirk "No, you're right. It's the only fair way."
"OK then. Heads or tails"
"Head or tails what, Joshua?" Curry had never seen his partner turn quite so red. Janette had made her way back to them. Unfortunately for him, Heyes' back had been to her.
"I just wish you could have seen your face," Curry repeated for the hundredth time that morning.
"Kid," Heyes sighed exasperatedly, "you've described it so many times I feel like I have. Now can we drop it?"
"Yeah. Sure. You're right. Enough is enough. You want me to go check the schedule for the stage while you send the telegraph to Lom?"
"All right. I'll meet you over by the post office."
"Right." Just before he opened the door to their room, Curry turned "Hey, Heyes?"
"Heads or tails?" Through the door almost as fast as he could draw a gun, Curry managed to avoid being hit by the boot Heyes had been about to put on and his laughter echoed as he went down the stairs.
Moments later, as Heyes emerged from the room, Sarah ran past him and down the stairs. He shook his head with a grin. Too much energy this early in the day, he thought. Didn't even stop to say hello. Well, he shrugged, she did seem to prefer the Kid.
When he got down to the lobby it was empty except for Sarah and Billy, who was listening to the little girl with half an ear. She fell silent when Heyes approached.
"Hello," she said without much enthusiasm.
"You just missed Thaddeus."
"I know. I saw him go down the stairs."
"Oh....well, did you wanna speak to him? He's just --"
"No, that's OK. I came to talk to...um...someone else. Ya'll are busy today I guess." She was tracing patterns in the carpet with her shoe.
"For a few hours. Gotta see some people a bit north of here. Shouldn't you be in school now?"
"Miss Walters ain't feelin' well. And Daddy had to go out to the Timmerson's ranch so I don't have nothin' to do 'till Daddy gets back. "
"Well, why not visit Janette? I'm sure she'd be glad to see you."
She frowned a bit at this suggestion. "I can't. Janette rests during the day. Cause she's sick an' all."
This surprised Heyes. Janette looked fine to him. More than fine, actually. He made a mental note to leave a message for her later. Still, he admitted to himself, she did seem awful pale for a while the night before. She'd seemed fine after she'd rested a bit and returned to the bar. Maybe she was suffering from a touch of something. Heyes dismissed it and would have walked away but he realized that Sarah was still frowning. It wasn't the frown she'd given him outside of town, which was clearly to indicate her preference for the Kid. It was a concerned frown and it did not sit well on her face. Heyes looked over at Billy who'd moved to the far side of the desk and lowered his voice as he leaned in a bit to the little girl.
"Sarah, is somethin' wrong?" She was probably just bored but she'd started to grow on him a bit and perhaps if he could help her out, she might feel more kindly towards him. He wasn't sure why but he wanted her to like him. She seemed to like everyone else and it rankled that she appeared not to care much for him.
"No, it's not...well not exactly. But I don't know what Daddy would do...and...Oh, I don't know." she sighed, looking up at him with troubled eyes. "Maybe it's nothing."
"Can I help?" Something really did seem to be bothering her. "Are you OK? Sarah, whatever it is, we'll help you."
"Oh I'm fine. I'm just --" she seemed about to tell him but the door across the hall opened just then as Mr. O'Malley came in with several people and the lobby was filled with noise. "It's nothin'," she said quickly. "It's just something I gotta do...for a friend." Before he could speak, she was out the door. He considered going after her, but decided against it. After all, he had his own business to attend to this morning. Miss Porter was due in today and they needed to be ready to go whenever and wherever she did.
"So we have time to get out there?" Heyes asked as he and Curry walked away from the post office.
"Plenty. Stage isn't due until 11. I still don't know why we can't just stay here and talk to her. All that sneakin' around sounds like a waste of time."
"That isn't what Lom asked us to do. All we have to do is make sure she gets there OK. We don't have to go with her. He doesn't want her to think she's being watched. He thinks she might resent it.."
" She doesn't have to know he asked us. It could be just a...ya know, a coincident."
"Coincidence," Heyes corrected him absently.
"Whatever. But there's no reason -- " Curry realized that his partner wasn't listening. His gazed was directed across the street to the Sheriff's office. Curry looked to see what held Heyes' interest but he couldn't see anything. "What?"
"Your little friend just went into the Sheriff's office."
"Sarah. She just went into the Sheriff's office
Heyes looked around to see if anyone was listening, then pulled Curry into a small alley between two nearby buildings.
"She was in the hallway this morning when you went out."
"She was? Where? I didn't see her."
"I spoke to her right after. She seemed upset about something."
"Well, why didn't she say anything when I came out. I mean, if I'd seen her I'd a stopped and -- "
"Kid, that's it. She was out in the hallway just before you came out. She musta heard us."
"Think about what were saying right before you opened the door." The Kid clearly didn't see any significance to this because he looked as confused as ever. Heyes explained, "She heard who we are."
Curry stared at Heyes in disbelief. "Oh, come on. You don't mean to tell me that you think that little girl was eavesdropping, put that all together and is now in there turnin' us in, do ya'?"
"Why not? O'Malley said she's smart as a whip and she said she had to do something for a friend."
"Turnin' us in is not what I'd call doin' something for a friend."
"Not us, Kid. Janette. She seemed to get more upset when I mentioned Janette. She might think we're a danger to her friend."
"Heyes, that's crazy."
"Why? She must have heard of us. We're...well even *we've* heard stories about us."
Curry frowned over this. "I just don't think you're on the right track Heyes. She likes us."
"She likes you."
"OK then, she likes me. She isn't gonna turn me in." At Heyes' grimace, Curry added, "Or you either. Now come on. We aren't gonna sulk in this alley because some 7 year old girl's got you spooked. I'm going to get something to eat. You can either come or not." Curry walked off leaving Heyes shaking his head.
Caution had dictated that Heyes stay right where he was until he figured out what to do, but hunger overcame caution (as was often the case with Heyes but he is sensitive about it so we don't mention it much) and he soon joined Curry at the Cactus Cafe (which Sarah had pointed out during the arrival in town) and where they enjoyed a hearty breakfast of flapjacks and bacon (which Sarah had recommended during her recital of the town's high points).
Just as they had finished and were leaving, Sarah herself arrived, riding on the shoulders of one of the largest men Heyes and Curry had ever seen. It wasn't just his size that held their astonished gaze, though it was impressive. No, it was mostly the tin badge that decorated that enormous chest. Sarah leaned down to whisper to him and he gently set her on the ground.
Curry looked at Heyes in astonishment. Damn it, he thought. Does he always have to be right?
Strangely enough, their thoughts were not far apart. Damn it, Heyes thought. Do I always have to be right?
Sarah had dashed inside once she was on the ground again and was soon nowhere in sight.
"Probably couldn't bear to watch," Heyes whispered through the side of his mouth as Sarah's escort came closer.
"You guys Smith and Jones?" he asked.
"Yes, deputy. Is there a problem?"
"Well now, that depends," the deputy said slowly.
"On?" Curry prompted
"On you men. We may not have a problem. Then again...we may." The deputy still spoke very slowly. Not in a threatening way or even as if he was considering the effect of his words. Just...slowly.
Sarah came out with a hand full of muffin. "Did you ask them?" she asked her giant friend.
He smiled at her fondly. "I was just about to, Sarah Sue (her grimace expressed her feelings about being called by her full name but she said nothing). I was just working up to it. You gentlemen mind coming over to the sheriff's office for a minute?"
"We're sort of busy this morning -- " Curry began to explain.
"You mind telling us what this is all about?" Heyes asked .
Sarah stomped her foot. "Don't be rude to Deputy Carl. He's my friend." She tossed her head at him and sniffed.
So much for the sympathetic ear of this morning. It apparently hadn't won him many points.
"Now Sarah don't go gettin' huffy. They just wanna know what's what and that's OK," Deputy Carl told her patiently. He turned back to Heyes and Curry. "Well, gentlemen, it's like this. I got a complaint to check out and I told Sarah's Daddy that I'd look out for her this morning, so I am in sort of a bind. I don't suppose you might see your way to helpin' out, just for an hour or so? She's no trouble, though she tells me that you all already know each other, so you'll already know that. I'm sure."
"You want us to baby-sit?" Heyes sputtered.
"I'm not a baby!" Sarah was outraged.
"Joshua, you do have a way with the ladies." Curry's voice was shaking with suppressed laughter as he spoke to Carl. "We'd love to help, Deputy, but we've got a job to do and we've got to be leavin' at 11 to go - ".
"Oh, I'd be back before 11," Carl assured them.
"Please Thaddeus!" Sarah rested her head on his arm and looked up at him. Heyes could have sworn she was fluttering her eyelashes.
"Well, if it's only for a couple of hours --" Curry's words were cut off by a squeal of delight as Sarah jumped up and down.
Heyes' words weren't fit for young ears so he decided to skip them.
Carl shook both their hands, assured them again that Sarah would be no trouble at all and left to do whatever it was that had demanded his attention.
Curry gave Heyes what Heyes considered to be a "So there" sort of look. Heyes gave him a look in return that he hoped expressed that his preference between babysitting and jail was jail.
"Well, what now?" Heyes asked Curry sarcastically. "Tag? Blind Man's Bluff?"
Curry turned to Sarah with a smile. "Well you're the boss. What now?"
Sarah looked at him and returned his smile. Then she narrowed her eyes at Heyes. "You said you'd help me. Did you mean it?"
Heyes was confused for a moment but then remembered what she was talking about. Had she arranged--? Damn, she was crafty. He was impressed. "Yeah. I meant it. What's the matter?"
It was Curry's turn to be confused. "What are you talking about? What's going on?" he asked Heyes.
Heyes shrugged. "I don't know. She's the boss. So, boss, what now?"
"We have to go get something and then hide it."
"What?" the two men asked simultaneously.
"First promise you won't tell."
"Sarah, we can't do that. Tell us and then we'll see."
"Why? You said you'd help me and I can't ask anyone else." When they still hesitated, she pressed further. "If you don't something awful will happen." Seeing that make a bit more of an impression, she added, "something awful will happen to Janette." She had them. She knew it and pulled them along past the next building.
"Here." She said, pushing at them to go inside an large double door.
Heyes objected "Sarah, this is the Sheriff's office!"
She looked at Heyes curiously. "I know that."
"Sarah, the Sheriff could be here any second. We can't take something from here."
"Yes, we can." When Curry started to shake his head, she became very insistent. "There's no one here.
"He'll gone for hours. He said so." Sarah sounded quite sure.
"When? How do you know? Did the deputy tell you?"
"No, he told me himself. Daddy is the Sheriff." Taking advantage of the silence her announcement had produced, she hastened to explain herself further and climbed up on the chair next to the large desk. "This is where it is."
"What is?" Heyes demanded. He was getting antsy just being in the office. He began to peer around as if the Sheriff would appear at any moment. "What are we here for, Sarah?" he asked her firmly.
"The mail," she answered just as firmly.
"You want to steal the mail?" Curry exclaimed.
"Not all of it," she assured him. "Just one thing and I can't get it 'cause it's too high." She pointed at the cabinet behind them. There was a box on the top that was well within their reach but beyond hers. "I put it in there just for a minute and was gonna take it out and hide it better. " She spoke very quickly. "But then Deputy Carl moved the box and when Daddy gets back he'll go through it and he'll -- " She paused for a minute to catch her breath. She looked like she would cry any minute. "I didn't know Carl was going to move it. And I didn't know what to do. I thought I could do it myself and...Why did he have to move the box? It wasn't in the way or -- " she started to choke a bit and finally began to cry. Curry gathered her up and spoke soothingly to her while Heyes reached up and grabbed the box. He placed it on the desk and looked through it. Sarah began to calm down and leaned over to look in the box as well. Heyes stepped back and let her look for whatever it was that was so important to her. He and the Kid said nothing until Sarah cried out triumphantly and held aloft a several pieces of paper. "Here it is." She started to hand it to them but hesitated. "Please don't be mad."
"Sarah, we aren't going to be mad. We said we'd help you but you've gotta trust us." Curry sat next to her on the desk. She nodded and handed him the largest piece of paper. It was a wanted poster describing a trio (two men and a woman) wanted on suspicion of murder. The woman was Janette.
Having returned Sarah to the watchful attention of Deputy Carl, Heyes and Curry had positioned themselves across the street from the stagecoach office. From the spot they'd chosen, they'd be able to see the passengers without being seen themselves. Heyes was not expecting much excitement to result from this particular task -- Lom was overreacting in his opinion. These days, women were traveling alone a lot more often -- so he'd brought a book with him. He hadn't expected to get a great deal of it read but he'd certainly hoped to get through more than he was apparently going to get to. The Kid was restless and couldn't seem to settle down.
"What are we gonna do?"
"Wait." Heyes didn't look up from the book.
"Stage isn't due for another 20 minutes. What do you want to do?"
"Heyes, I meant about the wanted poster."
"Oh, that. Nothing."
"Nothing?" The Kid stopped his pacing right in front of his partner.
"Nothing?" the Kid repeated again.
Heyes sighed and looked up. "Kid, there is nothing we can do right now and I don't really see that we need to. From everything we've heard, Janette never goes out during the day. Ever. I'll think about what to do and we'll deal with it when we get back."
Curry would have liked to argue the point but Heyes had bent his head back down towards the book and Curry had discovered through previous experience that when Heyes was reading there was little or no point in trying to distract him from it. Still, after a few minutes, Curry tried again.
"What about Sarah? She'll be over to Janette as soon as she can. If Janette did kill someone, she ain't likely to enjoy having a kid like Sarah -- the Sheriff's daughter, mind -- knowin' about it."
"Kid, that Sheriff's daughter just stole the wanted poster from the Sheriff. She's the best friend Janette's got, if you ask me. Like I said, there's nothing we can do now." Heyes shut the book when he saw that stubborn look cross the Kid's face and stood up. Well, he could be just as stubborn. "And, in case you didn't look to closely at that poster, Kid, there were two other people on it and it was *suspicion* of murder. We don't even know if it's true. Plenty of people are giving us the benefit of the doubt and --"
The sound of an approaching stage claimed their attention just then and Heyes slipped the book into the saddlebag next to him. The stage pulled to a complete stop and one by one the passengers got off.
"You see her?" Curry asked, since he was standing a bit behind Heyes and didn't have as complete a view.
"Not yet. I thought -- there she is." Heyes stepped aside so that the Kid could see Miss Porter of Porterville descend and make her way into the stagecoach office.
"You know," Curry said with a grin, "Lom sure is lucky.."
"You had your chance," Heyes said, laughing. "Not very gentlemanly. Leaving a lady right after dinner like that."
"Well sure, I had to come help you. You're just jealous 'cause she asked me to dinner and not you. Oh well, Lom's a good guy. Town Sheriff, town heiress. Better for her anyway." The Kid grinned good-naturedly. "Come on, let's get the horses ready so that we can leave when she does. According to Lom she should head right out to the Henderson's place."
A few moments later, they were mounted and following -- at a secure distance -- a carriage hired by Miss Porter to take her to her final destination.
Miss Porter, seemingly unaware of her escort, made excellent time to the Hendersons' and Heyes figured it would take her an hour or two to complete the business she was conducting on her father's behalf. He and Curry had decided to stop and rest their horses by a small creek just off the road where they would be sure to see her as she made her way back to town.
"I still think it would have been easier to just meet her accidental like and come out her with her."
"Now, Kid I told you, Lom said he wanted to send someone with her and she didn't want it. Poor Lom. He just doesn't know what to do with someone set on taking care of herself. He thought he was being concerned and she thought he was being overprotective."
The Kid nodded solemnly. "Women are pretty hard to read sometimes, I guess."
Heyes started to nod in agreement when an idea suddenly occurred to him. "Kid, that's it!"
"Women can be read just like everyone else."
"Heyes, I don't want you to think I wasn't payin' attention -- 'cause I was -- but I don't have any idea what you're talking about?"
Sure. She wants to learn how to play poker. She asked us last night if we'd teach her, remember. Fine. We'll teach her. Once we've played a little and I've got a feel for her style, we'll ask her about the poster. She'll be bound to say she didn't do it but after a little poker, I should be able to tell if she's lying or not.
"Heyes, that's great!" Curry said excitedly. Then his admiration dimmed momentarily. "Heyes, what if she did it? What'll we do?"
Heyes frowned then shrugged. "We'll face that when we get there. We'll have to turn her in."
Curry nodded and then asked, "Without getting Sarah into trouble? After all, someone is gonna ask how we got a hold of that poster."
Heyes shook his head. "I'll figure it out later. It may not be necessary. She may not have done it."
Curry looked at him for a moment and then asked, "You really don't want her to have done it do you?"
"I don't like murder, Kid. And I don't like to think anyone I like could have done something like that except for a very good reason."
"I didn't know you liked her *that* much. I mean, well -- do you? Like her that much?"
Heyes thought a minute. "You know Kid, I don't know. I'm -- she's -- well she's different somehow and I just can't figure out what it is." He seemed to be lost in another thought and then looked at Curry with a puzzled expression. "Have you ever really looked at her, Kid."
"Sure. She's an amazing looking woman."
"No, that's not what I meant. There's something in her eyes. When that guy the other night started acting up, she stood up to him. How many women do you know that would do that? She didn't even flinch. She's not just beautiful Kid, she could be dangerous."
Curry was totally lost. "You're saying you like her because she's dangerous? That's doesn't make any sense, Heyes."
Heyes shook his head. He wasn't wearing a puzzled expression any longer. "No, I'm saying it's because she *could* be dangerous, not that she is. It'd always be a risk. She's a gamble."
"Heyes, I don't understand you sometimes."
Heyes laughed. "That's okay, Kid. Doesn't make much sense to me either."
After completing what was the easiest day's work either of them could remember, Heyes and Curry restabled their horses and started back to the hotel. When Curry suddenly pulled Heyes backwards into a doorway, Heyes lost his footing and was forced to grab onto the Kid's arm to regain his balance. When he started to object at being pulled around like that, Curry shushed him and pointed across the street. Miss Porter had just come from the hotel and was making her way down the street.
"I thought she was supposed to go right back to Porterville," Curry hissed.
"Well she was. Least, Lom said she was." Heyes watched as Miss Porter disappeared into the post office. After another moment, she came out and made her way briskly towards the hotel. It was nearly dark by this time so she didn't appear to notice the two men trying their best to avoid her gaze as she passed. Heyes turned to the Kid. "Hey, you still got that stage schedule?"
Curry fished it out of his pocket and handed it to Heyes. Moving closer to the lamp outside the store next to where they stood, Heyes considered the time table in front of him. He shook his head and handed the paper back to Curry.
"I don't understand it," he said. "It says that the last stage left at 4. She made it in plenty of time."
"Well if she's gonna be staying in the same hotel as us, that's gonna make it mighty hard to avoid her knowin' we're here, ain't it?"
"Naw," Heyes said with much more confidence than he felt. "She's probably exhausted. Traveling, working all day. She'll probably stay in her room and leave first thing tomorrow morning. We'll wait a couple of minutes, let her get settled and then go in."
Waiting about ten minutes, they made their way cautiously into the lobby of the hotel. They were just about at the stairs when they were hailed by Billy who handed Heyes a folded slip of paper. Walking a few steps away from the desk, Heyes opened it and read it aloud to Curry. "Joshua and Thaddeus, I look forward to my poker lessons this evening but ask if you might make it later rather than earlier, as I have some correspondence to attend to. Shall I expect you at 9:00? Janette."
Curry wrinkled his brow. "You know, we still haven't decided what to do about that."
Heyes put the note in his pocket. "Well, we've got time to figure it out now. Come on."
It was shortly after 9:00 when Heyes and Curry, their plans made, found themselves in the front room of Janette's suite. Janette had arranged everything. She'd even had a special table brought up for her poker lessons. Heyes was confident that by teaching Janette the game, he'd be able to tell whether or not she was telling the truth when they confronted her with the wanted poster. Curry was less thrilled with this idea. Not because he doubted Heyes' ability to "read" other players, but because Heyes' plan involved a period of inactivity on his own part and he was never comfortable doing nothing. He thought they should confront her outright and get it over with. Heyes was aware of how the Kid felt but felt that immediate confrontation was not the safest way to arrive at the truth. Not that he didn't trust the Kid to keep a cool head but Heyes was sure he could finesse the situation a lot easier if he didn't have to keep half his attention on the Kid while the other half was on Janette.
Janette, unaware that her guests had spent just as much of their evening preparing for the poker lessons as she had, was eager to get started and brought out two decks of cards as soon as the men had settled themselves into the chairs around the table. Janette showed a remarkable retention of the minutia that made up the game of poker. Not only that, but she had an ability to remember the cards played out that rivaled Heyes' own talent in that area. Heyes was surprised that he found it a less than easy task to read her bluffs and even more surprised at her apparent ruthlessness about winning. Curry, seeing how puzzled Heyes was, was growing more convinced that Janette was not the novice she professed to be. If she was faking it, he thought, why? He just couldn't figure out what she was up to.
Janette was enjoying herself thoroughly. What a wonderful game, she thought. Lacroix would probably win, of course if she played him but Nicholas? Never. His every emotion played across his face and he would never be able to bluff her. She could see from the reaction of her guests that she was doing well. (At least, she thought, Joshua seems to be impressed. Thaddeus doesn't look like he feels very well). Poker was not as hard as she thought it would be. It was largely a question of memory and this hadn't been a problem for her in...well centuries, frankly. As the evening though, Janette found herself slightly distracted and making a few more errors than before.
"Nom d'un nom!" She threw herself back against the chair in frustration. "How did you know?"
"That you only had a pair? Easy. You were holding them slightly apart from the others. You've been doing it all night." Heyes smiled at her as her eyes widened at the cards in her hand. "It's OK. Playing actual games is different than just bluffing the hands I deal you."
Curry's belief that Janette was an experienced player wavered. She did look absolutely floored by the revelation that she had given herself away and if she had been a more experienced player, he was sure she wouldn't have been able to fake it that well. Still, something was making the Kid uncomfortable and it was more than just waiting for Heyes to bring out the poster. He just couldn't put his finger on it. Something about Janette was...off somehow. He shook his head and realized that his thoughts had wandered. Janette was now frowning over something Heyes was saying.
"See," Heyes was saying, "if you have this hand and you know you're near the bottom of the deck, you should be able to predict, at least with some accuracy, what everyone else is holding." He looked to see if she was following but she seemed not to hear. She was also looking...well, paler, if that were possible. "Janette? Are you all right?" She blinked once or twice and looked up at him, her eyes appearing a shade or two darker than before. But that's silly, he thought. Must be the light. "Are you listening?"
She smiled. She was listening to him, in a sense, though she doubted he would be pleased at how closely. "I'm sorry Joshua. I just felt...tired all of sudden. Would you excuse me just for a moment?"
Both men stood as she rose (Hey, being criminal doesn't mean you have to be rude) and Heyes took her elbow supportively "Are you too tired to keep playing? We can do it tomorrow."
"No, no, I just need a moment to compose myself. I am afraid I was so eager to get this all set up, I didn't rest quite as much as I should have. I'll be right back." She let her hand linger on his arm a moment before she went to the other room.
As soon as the door between the two rooms had closed, Curry was on Heyes' side of the table. "So, what do we do now?" he hissed. "You can't read her bluffs as easy as you thought, can you?"
Heyes looked at the closed door briefly before answering. "No. No, I can't but I still think I can tell if she tells the truth when I ask her."
"When *we* ask her you mean."
"No. I mean when *I* ask her. You won't be here."
"No? And where am I gonna be? If you don't mind my askin' that is."
"What? Why? I thought you said you could tell whether she told the truth or not."
Oh, I can do that. I'm just not so sure about her being innocent anymore. If she isn't, then she'll know where we got the poster and I don't want anything happening to that little girl. I want you somewhere near her until I come and tell you differently."
"What? You really think she's dangerous?"
I don't know, Kid. I told you. She could be. Some people have more potential for danger than others and she's got danger in spades. I've seen seasoned criminals that don't look that calculating. It could be competitiveness. It could be more."
In the far room of her suite, Janette was finishing the second bottle of the three she'd taken out of her trunk. She really should have done this before they arrived, she scolded herself. She'd been doing quite well until she'd become a little too aware of the heartbeats of her two guests. As she opened the third bottle, she noted that it was the last of the human blood and grimaced. The remaining supply consisted almost entirely of cow blood stocked on the assumption that when he was found, Nicholas would insist on it. If she was forced to stay in Canyon Rock much longer she would have to use it. Feeding on the populace of so small a town would become too noticeable much too quickly.
She glanced at the bottle in her hand briefly and then finished it off. Perhaps, if she could convince Thaddeus to leave, the evening might take a more interesting turn. He did look awfully tired after all, and there was something about the way he kept looking at her that made her think he wasn't entirely comfortable there. Having fortified herself, she felt sure she could control the more volatile parts of her nature and just enjoy a little pleasant diversion. And, she smiled. She found Joshua to be very diverting indeed.
When Janette came back into the front room, Heyes was alone. If she was anything other than delighted with this change, it didn't show. Still, Heyes hastened to explain. "Thaddeus was pretty tired and decided to call it a night. I mean, he hasn't really been..."
"Feeling well?" Janette added with a smile. Thaddeus was certainly was an accommodating sort of man, she thought to herself. Leaving his partner alone with a near stranger, and one she was sure he didn't entirely trust. Still, it didn't seem to bother Joshua. That made him either very brave or very careless.
"Yeah. He's been a little under the weather and we were out all day." He allowed himself a smile in return. "You read my mind," he joked lightly. Oddly (or perhaps not) his thoughts echoed hers. She really *didn't* seem to mind being alone with a near stranger, he thought. That either made her very brave or very careless. Heyes was willing to bet money on the former.
"Well, Joshua, shall we continue?"
"The poker lessons." Janette seated herself, not in one of the chairs around the table but in the settee under the window. "You might explain "tells" next." She motioned for him to join her. His hesitation was the merest second but Janette, who was very good at noticing at things like that, saw it. No, not careless but not above a risk either. She admired that and found herself liking him more and more. It would do her good, she thought, to exercise her womanly wiles without the use of supernatural coercion. She hadn't bothered to take the time recently, since she'd wanted as little as possible to do with the majority of people she'd encountered during this visit to America. But Joshua intrigued her. There was a great deal happening behind those dark brown eyes and while she wanted to find out what, she liked him enough to want to find out without using her unfair advantages. She'd rather use her fair ones.
"Now 'tells'," she repeated. "You say that most people give themselves away with these. Surely, if you are bothering to play poker, you would be aware that you shouldn't give anything away."
"Most tells are unconscious. People do them without thinking. Like you when you were holding the pair slightly apart from the rest of the cards. You were thinking of them separately and so, you held them that way."
"So, it is often a question of how you hold the cards?"
"Sometimes, but other times it a behavior, like a nervous habit or something like that."
"I see. Like you."
"Me?" Heyes was surprised.
"Yes. Joshua, surely people have realized that your eyes get even darker when you are holding anything above three of a kind."
The eyes in question widened. "They do?" He looked around for a reflective surface.
Janette's laugh was completely unreserved. "Joshua, I was just teasing you. How could your eyes get any darker? They're as dark as can be." She leaned slightly closer. "And quite attractive," she added.
Heyes was really not sure what to say to this. He was not used to being flattered quite so openly. He stared at her, fascinated at the way she managed to be aggressive, ladylike, predatory and feminine all at the same time. (Silly man -- ed.)
"Joshua," Janette teased him, "are you going to continue looking surprised at everything I say?"
"I guess that depends on what you say."
"Surely you *know* you are attractive."
"Joshua, somewhere out there are broken hearts with *your* name on them, I feel certain of it. Women have been attracted to you before. I cannot be unique in this."
Heyes laughed. "Janette, I don't know who you are or where you're from but you are most definitely unique. What am I supposed to say to that?"
"Not a thing, mon cher." she leaned in and whispered against his lips. "Not a thing."
Few things had ever left Heyes speechless (After all, he was famed far and wide for his ability to talk his way into and out of anything) but this kiss managed it. He'd had been kissed before, of course. Passionately, eagerly, shyly, and even once in Denver hostilely, but nothing prepared him for this. The touch of Janette's lips on his was so feather light he thought that he might have imagined it. He moved to increase the pressure of his mouth on hers when she pulled back very slightly, forcing him to follow and lean into her. He pressed forward again only to have her retreat once more and again, just enough to keep their lips from completely separating. Heyes was not accustomed to being toyed with. He was used to being the one doing the toying. He wasn't sure he liked this new sensation. He started to pull away himself when suddenly Janette shifted slightly bringing her lips down on his with the greater pressure he'd been seeking. All thoughts of pulling away or who was toying with whom fled. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Heyes knew that this was not the best way to broach the subject of the poster but when the back of his brain tried to bring that information to the front, it somehow kept getting derailed. By the time Janette raised her arms to encircle his neck and pull him closer, the back of his brain stopped trying entirely. Some people just have to learn on their own.
Heyes was not the only one experiencing a different spin on an old situation. Janette had always envied Lacroix's ability to control himself and the feeding instinct long enough to enjoy the mortal playthings that he'd chosen. Unfortunately (not only for her but for many of the people she'd chosen over the centuries) she'd never been able to exert that same control when passions began to mount. She'd been getting better recently -- at least, she wasn't draining them so quickly -- but no matter how hard she would concentrate, the thirst took over and the mortal died. This time though, it seemed to Janette that she might be successful. Was it the fact that she'd *just* fed? The fact that Lacroix was not there to criticize or Nicholas to look on and judge? Or was it that it was this particular man? She didn't know and frankly at that moment, she didn't care. All she knew was that the gnawing hunger for blood that she had come to accept as the inevitable result of this sort of physical contact with mortals was not in evidence. Not at all.
Heyes dragged his lips from hers and took a few deep breaths before trying to speak. "Janette, I have to ask you something?"
"Now?" Janette began to explore the spot behind his ear.
"Yes now, before this...goes..."
"What was is it you wanted to ask me?" Her voice was still slightly muffled since she was still investigating the curve of his neck (Tempting fate? Maybe.)
"I...were you in...where...Janette I can't concentrate when you do that."
"Hmmm... then perhaps you'd best wait until I'm done." He couldn't see for sure but he could have sworn she smiled.
He tightened his grip on her arms and set her slightly away from him. Janette, of course, could have put a stop to that right away, but it was often more amusing to let them have the upper hand at least momentarily. Besides, she was so delighted at her new found self control she was feeling magnanimous.
She folded her hands in her lap and looked at him expectantly.
He paused to see if she would in fact stay where she was and retrieved his vest (How had *that* come off? he wondered) from the floor near the settee. He pulled the folded up poster out of the pocket and slowly handed it to her. It was a *big* gamble on his part but he had to ask her right then. To wait until after...well after wherever they'd been heading would have been the act of a cad and Heyes didn't like to think of himself as a cad. Besides, she didn't have any weapons on her (of that he was *very* certain) and if she went for the door, he was confident he could stop her. Janette gave him a puzzled look not unmixed with amusement as she unfolded the paper and he held his breath as she finally saw what it was. Her eyes widened with shock and then her brows drew together in an unmistakable sign of displeasure.
"I cannot believe it!" she cried
"Janette I *wanted* to ask you before but..."
"Did you *see* this?" she demanded, eyes still on the poster
"Well, yes, that's why..."
"This is a *terrible* likeness!" she declared angrily. "Look at this. Nicholas looks quite all right and Lacroix looks better than I have seen him in years! Yet, *I* look like...like...Oh, I don't even know what I looked like at the time. But I didn't look like *that*."
Heyes was thoroughly confused. Whatever he expected, her reaction was the last he could possible have imagined. "Those are your family then? Are you saying that this *is* you?" She looked at him her eyes blazing... in fact... Heyes shook his head. No, it was just the light from the street, he told himself. Her eyes couldn't have just flashed like that.
"I have just told you that while it may have been intended to be me, I refuse to acknowledge that even here in this primitive place, I could look that dreadful." When he didn't answer, she presented the poster back to him. "Do I look that bad?"
"No, of course not. Listen, Janette, I have to know. What is this about? Did you do this?"
Suddenly Janette seemed to realize what he was asking and she took back the poster to look at it again. "Cutter's Corner," she read aloud. She looked up at him. "Yes, we were there but I certainly didn't kill this man," she checked the poster again. "Foster. No. Though, now that I think I knew *of* a Foster. He was the foreman for a rancher that my Uncle took an interest in. The rancher had just hired him and I gather there was ill feeling about it amongst the men who had been working there longer." She shrugged. "It must have been one of them. We were strangers and we left shortly thereafter so they decided to blame us."
"You seem awfully sure of that?"
"What else can it have been, Joshua? I certainly wouldn't shoot anyone."
"Anyone can kill, Janette, if they think it's needed."
She smiled "Oh, I agree and I would if I felt it was necessary. I just wouldn't shoot them."
Heyes decided at that moment that he would never *ever* be able to predict what Janette would say or do next because in the next breath, her arms were around him again. "Now, Joshua," she purred, "if you don't have any more questions..."
Heyes caught himself before he completely surrendered to the next kiss. "Janette, don't you even want to know where we got that poster?"
Janette sighed and reached over to open the drawer on the occasional table next to the settee. Heyes tensed, ready for the sight of a gun or knife. It was neither. It was two folded sheets of paper. "The same place I got these I should imagine." She handed them over and waited to see his reaction.
"Oh." Heyes would never get used to seeing his own wanted poster ... or the Kid's for that matter. $10,000 was a lot of money and he still couldn't believe someone thought he was worth all that. "Sarah seems to have a talent for finding dangerous friends. If her Daddy knew he'd never let her out of his sight again."
"What does her father have to do with it?" Janette asked curiously.
"You don't know?"
Heyes grinned. "Well now, I don't know if I should tell you?"
"Joshua! Or...do you prefer Hannibal?
"Uh, well actually I prefer Heyes. Hannibal is sort of..." he broke off as Janette forced him (good-naturedly of course) back against the arm of the couch.
"Heyes, tell me!"
"Okay, okay I surrender" he said laughing. "The truth is, Sarah's father is the sheriff." Janette stared at him openmouthed for a second and then collapsed on top of him in a fit of ladylike giggles that neither Lacroix nor Nicholas would ever believe possible.
In fact Janette herself was surprised. There had been a time -- long ago of course -- when Janette's laughter had filled the halls of her home but she hadn't laughed like that (or like anything to be honest) in so long she'd almost forgotten how. It was this man, she decided. She liked him a great deal. Oh, she didn't love him as she loved Nicholas (for she did love Nicholas in spite of all her complaints and all their arguing) but she liked him and she wanted him. Not forever and perhaps never again but at this moment, that's what she wanted. He'd brought laughter back to her and her affection for him had brought self control. Maybe that was it, she thought. If you really want something you'll take the time and effort to achieve it. She considered suggesting it to Nicholas in his next maudlin phase but she forgot all about it when Heyes pulled her down to meet his lips.
Curry knocked for the second time, while keeping a stern eye on his companion. What on earth could be taking so long? he thought. The suite wasn't *that* big.
"Maybe they left," Sarah suggested.
That was possible but it didn't seem likely. Curry shook his head. "Naw, they're there. I hear someone. They're coming to the door" Sarah started to edge backwards but her progress was halted abruptly when Curry caught her by the shoulder and dragged her firmly but gently back to his side. "Look, I told you I wouldn't tell your father about you sneakin' outta the house if you came along with me and I meant it but you gotta keep your part of the bargain."
Sarah fidgeted a bit then nodded just as the door opened.
Heyes' glance at Curry said many things. Amongst them -- What the hell are you doing here? Why do you have Sarah with you? Isn't it too late for her to be out? Did I mention *what* the hell are you doing here *now*? What Heyes actually ended up saying aloud was "Come on in."
Sarah ran to Janette, who was still seated on the couch by the window and sat next to her. She started to whisper something but Janette stopped her. "Sarah, I think whatever you have to say, you'd better tell us all. You've been up to some mischief, no?"
Sarah looked at all three adults as if to gauge who would be the best audience to her plea for understanding. Interestingly enough, she picked Heyes. "I didn't want anything bad to happen to Janette. I didn't think you did either. I told you."
Curry stepped forward. "Well you left something out didn't you?" He turned to Heyes as well. "I found her sneaking out of the house. She almost got past me if you can believe it."
"I can believe it." Janette commented wryly with a look at Sarah.
Curry continued." Anyway, I caught her coming this way and when I started to take her home she started to fuss. " He shook his head at the memory. "You've never seen fussin' like this. Look." He held out an arm.
Janette gasped "Sarah! You bit him? Sarah, ladies do not...Oh, well...well you should not bite people who are trying to help you in any case."
Heyes was inspecting the wound on the Kid's arm (not his shootin' arm thankfully) and patted Curry on the back, "You'll live," he pronounced sarcastically. "You won't even need a bandage."
"Yeah. Well, maybe not, but she's ornery. She started makin' so much noise I was afraid she was gonna wake the whole town, so I brought her here."
Janette interrupted. "May I ask why? After all, it is much too late for her to be out. You should have returned her home. "
Curry shifted his gaze to Heyes "Well, I couldn't, ya see... she um...Joshua, could I speak with you minute? Alone?"
Heyes shook his head. "I know already. She told you didn't let her be, she'd tell her father who we really are. Right?"
Curry nodded and looked at Janette, who handed him the two posters Sarah had given her, as well as the one she'd given them. Janette explained. "Shortly after I sent down the note for you to the desk, Sarah arrived in a terrible state. She said that she had taken them in return for a favor."
"More like for blackmail," Curry said throwing the paper down on the table. "Sarah, what would you have done if we hadn't helped you? Would you have turned us in?"
Sarah looked as if she would cry. "No, 'course not, but I heard you talking and Daddy has had ya'll's posters up for so long I was sure he'd figure it out, so I was gonna hide them under a newer one. That's when I found Janette's, when I was looking for another one. There weren't any more so I figured I'd just take 'em. I didn't want you to know I knew who you were 'cause I thought you'd leave without helping me get them so... so, I didn't tell you and I gave them to Janette."
"Who you didn't tell about hers either, right?" Heyes asked.
Sarah nodded. "Daddy wasn't gonna be in the office much the rest of the week 'cause he says we gotta spend more time together -- Mrs. O'Malley gave him what for about it yesterday -- and he's takin' some time off. So I figured Carl wouldn't notice if I didn't have them posters back for a couple of days and by then you'd all be gone. And safe."
Heyes hunched down in front of the couch and looked the little girl right in the eye. "Sarah, I want you to know how much we appreciate your trying to help us but you can't keep doing stuff like that. You can get in a lot of trouble helping the wrong people."
"But you're not the wrong people."
Heyes shook his head. "Sarah, you had no way of knowing that. The Kid and I are wanted. If anyone found out what you did, you *and* your daddy could be in for a lot of grief. Now promise me you won't try anything like this again.
Sarah sniffed quietly but said nothing.
"Sarah?" Heyes prompted.
Janette put her arm around the little girl's shoulder and turned Sarah to face her. When she spoke, she spoke firmly yet quietly. "Sarah, ma petite, I did not do this thing they want me for, and both Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones -- and that is how you must think of them always -- are very kind men." Sarah had stopped fidgeting or sniffling and was listening with rapt attention. "In both these things you are very lucky because the next time, whoever you try to help may not be so innocent or kind and they may try to hurt you." Janette leaned down closer. Whatever it was Heyes saw flash in Janette's eyes this time, it couldn't have been light from the street. They'd closed the shutters earlier. Janette was still speaking to the little girl in that same calming tone of voice. "What you did was very brave but very dangerous."
Sarah nodded. "Very dangerous." she echoed slowly.
Janette sat back up. "Now," she concluded, "you will forget that you gave us these posters. You will forget that you even saw them. Do you understand?"
Sarah nodded again slowly. "Yes. I understand."
Heyes noticed that Curry was nodding a bit as well. He stood and shook the Kid by the shoulder. "Hey? Hey! You OK?"
Curry blinked, shook his head and looked confused for a second. Then shrugged. "Must have been more tired than I thought."
Heyes looked over at Janette but said nothing.
"Thaddeus." Janette called softly "I think she's asleep. Can you get her home without her father knowing, or shall we help you?"
Curry glanced at Heyes and taking his cue from his cousin, scooped the little girl up. "Naw, I'll get her back. I'll see you...later." Heyes held the door for him and shut it when he'd left.
Janette leaned back with a sigh. "Heavens, she needs more supervision. I shall worry about her from time to time."
"Me too." Heyes agreed. He still stood by the door, making no move to return to the couch.
"I don't think you'll have to worry about her telling anyone who you are. I explained it very thoroughly, don't you think?" Janette smiled at him invitingly.
"About that..." Heyes began.
"Yes," Janette prompted. When he neither moved nor spoke Janette rose and crossed to him. "Mon cher, I didn't hurt her. I simply caused her to forget. It is a simple thing. A knack. A tone of voice. Nothing more." She caressed the side of his face, tracing the outline of the dimple she'd found so delightful.
He caught her hand and held it away. "You're different. Why? What is it? What is it that I see in your eyes?"
Janette thought about trying to hypnotize him but after watching him at the card table and the way he seemed to read the other players, she'd concluded that he was most likely a resistor. Besides, she did not want to. It was an invasion of sorts and she didn't care to do that to him. "I cannot tell you what you see there. You are the one who sees it. You tell me what it is?"
"You're dangerous," he stated.
"As are you," she pointed out. "And as you said, in the right circumstances, as are we all."
There was more he wanted to ask her, more that he wanted to demand she tell him but just then another knock interrupted them and the door opened. In the doorway stood two men, both blond, pale and dusty from travel.
The taller of the two looked at Heyes and then at Janette. "My dear," he said in a mellow, resonant voice "It did not even occur to us that you would have company at this hour. Shall we come back at a later time?"
The second man gave a start. "No, LaCroix. We must leave now. You know..."
Janette interrupted as she went to embrace the two men. "Nicholas, I am so glad you are safe. Mr. Smith, may I present my Uncle and my brother -- Nicholas."
Heyes nodded but said nothing. The look Nicholas was giving Janette was far from brotherly in Heyes' opinion. Furthermore, they didn't look anything alike. Well, he and the Kid were first cousins and they didn't look anything alike so it didn't necessarily follow. Still, they did all have that extraordinarily pale complexion. Maybe whatever it was that ailed Janette was a family thing. There was something about the taller of the two men....Heyes couldn't put his finger on it but he looked familiar somehow.
Janette came back to Heyes and said, "You understand, I am sure, why we must leave, no? You know better than anyone, that it can be dangerous to stay too long in one place."
Heyes' slight smile produced a smile from Janette and she kissed him on the cheek. She may have whispered or he may have only imagined it, it was so softly said. "I shall remember you...Hannibal. Don't forget me."
As soon as she stepped back, the one she called Nicholas was at her side and her Uncle (Lacroix, Nicholas had called him) was holding the door for Heyes. "Good night... Mr. Smith?"
Heyes went to tip his hat when he realized he'd forgotten it. As Lacroix reached back behind the door to get it, Heyes glanced back into the room and saw Janette give Nicholas a very unsisterly embrace. Lacroix following his gaze, shrugged. "They have always been so...close. Refreshing isn't it?" With a final, low chuckle Lacroix closed the door.
The next morning Heyes and Curry wanted to get an early start out of Canyon Rock. While they packed, Curry filled Heyes in on his activities after he'd left to take Sarah home. On the way back, Curry had returned the posters to the sheriff's office. The job had been much easier than he expected since Deputy Carl was fast asleep at his desk and there was no one else there. Seeing as he had time on his hands, he'd gone to the saloon and played a little poker.
"Figuring you'd be a bit late. You could knocked me over with a feather when I came back and found you asleep. I figured you'd..."
Heyes cut him off "Kid, I told you. Her kin came in and she had to go."
"You should've come over to the saloon."
"I didn't feel like playing poker."
Curry stared. "Heyes, are you feeling OK? Maybe whatever Janette's got is catching?
"Can we stop talking about Janette, please? Now, did you check the schedule for the stage?"
Yup. Got it right here. Miss Porter oughta be on the stage right about now."
"Okay, well, let's get going then." Heyes picked up his bag, glanced around to make sure they hadn't left anything and followed the Kid down the hall.
As they were settling their bill, Mr. O' Malley brought them a note. "The lady didn't say which of you should get it. Just said either one."
Heyes took it and put it in his pocket until they reached the street. He offered it Curry, who simply shrugged and leaned in to read over Heyes' shoulder.
"Dear Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. I appreciate your concern but I am well able to take care of myself, which is exactly what I told Lom when I telegraphed him to tell him not to blame you for my delayed return. I had further business to attend to and took the train rather than the stage. Oh, and some advice -- when following people, don't sign your own names on the hotel register. Might I suggest the use of an alias? -- Prudence Porter, Porterville Bank."
Both men looked at each other in disbelief for a moment and then started laughing. They laughed about it for quite sometime. Once they regained their composure (prompted by the stares of passersby), they retrieved their horses and started out of town. They saw Sarah walking with her father and she waved but didn't seem inclined to come over. They waved back and moved on.
I think you've fallen out of first place, Kid," Heyes said with a grin.
"Heyes," Curry said "women, no matter what age, are really hard to read. And that is the only thing I have to report to Lom about this trip."
You're right, Kid. Some of 'em are a gamble. But you know," Heyes gave the Kid a big grin "Those are the ones I like best.
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