by Damoran Yarrow
Twelve o'clock. Just noon, and the train wasn't due in until two. Heyes wound his watch again, slid it back into his vest pocket. Everything was fine.
He thought about a drink, thought again. Until the Kid got back, he had two dollars and twelve cents to his (or rather, Joshua Smith's) name. Next time he sat down to a poker table, he was going to watch what went into his glass. Someone just might have slipped something into his whiskey last night. He didn't usually play his cards like a tenpenny whore: all show-and-tell, and nothing to back it up. And he didn't usually feel like last week's dishrag the next morning, either. He wished he'd gone with the Kid to Denver instead of waiting for him here in the middle of nowhere. Not that anything could have gone wrong. The reward money was due them, and even with Harry Briscoe taking ten percent "for processing fees," it would still be enough to keep the two of them for at least six months. Normally Heyes didn't approve of bounty hunting, but any man who beat a pretty, young, and rich wife half to death before walking out on her deserved what was coming to him.
Harry Briscoe. If Harry was any example, it would take fifteen Bannerman men to notice that Kid Curry was in town, let alone bring him in. Especially with Briscoe vouching for him. Everything was fine. No reason for checking his watch every five minutes. No reason at all for jumping every time he heard the sound of hooves.
Hooves? Someone was coming, a lone rider. Three minutes past twelve; couldn't be the Kid yet. All the same, he wandered outside for a look, squinting against the noon sun.
Heyes had never seen a horse quite like the large, white stallion that was cantering down the dusty road to Chama.1 No plowhorse, that one, but too big for a racer. He looked like a picture from a story book, as if the man on his back should have been an armored knight, not someone who looked as if he'd just stepped off of a Mississippi riverboat. Heyes took in the black silk suit, slicked-back gray hair, pale skin (obviously someone who rarely saw the sun) and lack of a visible weapon with one thought: gambler. Professional. Not someone he wanted to tangle with, at least not with two dollars in his pocket. He shrugged and turned to go back in. Maybe that drink wasn't such a bad idea...
"Excuse me, sir. I wonder if you could direct me to the station? I have a train to meet." Heyes hadn't expected the accent. Or, more precisely, the lack of accent. The man could have been from anywhere, but not anywhere he could place.
"Just down the hill and into town. You can't miss it--it's the building at the end of the street. And I do mean the street." Heyes grinned, and the stranger smiled in return. "Train's not due till two, though, and there's no telling when she'll actually show. Assuming you want the one from Walsenburg to Taos, which is the only one that comes through town today. If you want the Taos to Walsenburg that's tomorrow. 'Less tomorrow's an alternate Tuesday. The schedules don't say which Tuesday's what."
"It would seem I have some time to kill, then. Does this
establishment serve whisky?"
"Can't say I've heard of a saloon in these parts that don't. Though what this place would call whiskey and what you would may not be precisely the same critter." No point being unfriendly--not with that type.
Heyes was glad to retreat from the June sunlight back into the murky air of the saloon. The light was just too bright this high up. It wasn't natural. The day could at least have the decency to be cloudy, after the night he'd had. When the Kid got back, maybe they could go down to San Francisco, pay a visit to Soapy. It was foggy there. That would have suited his mood. He was feeling a bit foggy, himself. He moseyed up to the bar and got himself a beer that would have been passable over flapjacks: it was warm, dark and syrupy. Disgusted, he headed back to his table, only to find White-horse in his chair. Not that he could blame him; the other two tables hadn't yet been cleared from the night before.
The stranger had set out two glasses, a rectangular box with a checkered pattern on it, and a bottle hand-labeled "Uisca Beatha2" in round, formal-looking letters. "Care for a drink from my bottle?" he asked. "It's not the local product." White-horse indicated the opposite chair, which would put Heyes' back to the door. Heyes sighed, sank into the chair. Some things couldn't be helped.
"That is whiskey, isn't it? 'Fraid I'm not too good with, uh, Latin, Mr. ...?"
"Grey. Aaron Grey. And I think you'll find it to your taste." He poured a shot for his guest, another for himself, long fingers flashing. He was evidently left-handed. That fit. Heyes noted a large silver ring set with some sort of cloudy white stone on the man's right hand as he extended it.
"Joshua Smith." Grey's grasp was firm, his hand cool. The ring was tight. Old habits, thought Heyes. Here I sit, sizing up my next mark. Only he looks the type to make a mark out of me.
He raised his glass, savored the rich, smoky aroma rising from the amber liquor within. The color brought to mind the redwood forest north of San Francisco, ancient trees that would have dwarfed the tallest buildings. He could remember the scent of that forest, the way the light had filtered through the leaves, the young woman who had walked hand-in-hand with him there. Honey-colored hair, green eyes, soft lips. She had stepped into one of the great hollow tree trunks, pretending to hide from him. Her laughter had given her away, though, and it turned out the tree was big enough for two, barely.
With a start, Heyes opened his eyes. Grey was watching him across the table, a half smile on his lips. He raised his glass in a toast: "The water of life!" He took a long, slow sip, eyes half closed.
Heyes shook his head to clear the memories away, then took a long pull from his glass. It was smooth, smoother than any whiskey he'd had before, more like one of Soapy's fine French brandies. The flavor was like the smell, however: rich, dark and smokey. A fine drink, one to savor slowly in order to appreciate its fine points. Like that girl from San Francisco...
"You strike me as a gaming man," Grey was saying. He opened the box Heyes had noticed earlier to reveal a finely carved wooden chess set nestled within. "Do you play?" Without waiting for a reply he began unpacking the pieces.
"A little. I know the moves, at least. But I'm afraid I haven't played in some time." How long had it been since they'd been to San Francisco? Soapy had taught him the game, said he had a knack for it. He'd even beaten the old man once. But he knew he wasn't good enough to play for stakes, not with someone who carried a set around with him.
"A gentlemen's game3, Mr. Smith. Just a little something to pass the time until the train comes in." The unfolded box had become a chess board; Grey's fingers were flashing again, setting up a game. Heyes was annoyed to see he'd been given the white, a courtesy to the one challenged - or to the weaker player. The assumption might be correct, but he didn't like being underestimated. Mr. Grey was going to have to work to win this game. He finished his whiskey and refilled his glass before opening with his king's pawn.
The first part of the game went fairly well. He remembered all the bits of strategy that Soapy had taught him: control the center of the board, develop knights and bishops so that they supported each other, build a strong pawn structure. He castled early, a habit Soapy had said betrayed a cautious nature.
A few moves into the midgame he realized that he'd been playing defensively from the beginning, as if he had the black. Or as if he too had assumed that Grey were the better player. Now he was responding to the other's moves, not leading the game where he wanted it to go. Neither side had taken anything larger than a pawn, and the board was cluttered. Heyes didn't know where to move even if he could recapture the initiative; all of his pieces were so perfectly interlocked that moving any one would rupture his defense system.
More disturbing than the game itself was a strange feeling that, though no bets had been made, something was at stake. If he lost this game, something very precious would also be lost; but what? Snap out of it, he told himself. It's just a game of chess. Just because Grey has the manner and looks of an undertaker.... He cracked his knuckles and forced his mind back to the maze on the chessboard.
Grey's situation was just as locked up as his own. The pale, quiet man was as cautious a player as Heyes, and evidently more accustomed to a defensive game. He took no risks, merely waited for his opponent to make a blunder. Heyes knew that when he ran out of options, that blunder would be inevitable. He drew a knight back to a square it had left only a few moves before, knowing that he was stalling. He'd made the same move the last time Grey had threatened that knight, with the same bishop. It was as if the game hadn't changed at all since the first time those moves were made.
Suddenly, he looked hard at the board. It hadn't changed. He was certain that they'd been in this exact position half an hour ago, and that meant something. There was something he was missing, something Soapy had told him... if only he could remember.
Grey brought the bishop back in again, as he had before. The square the white knight had just left was once more unprotected. Heyes took a deep breath, replaced the knight. If he was right.... "We don't seem to be getting anywhere, do we?" Grey remarked with that same half smile. "Neither one of us will cast the first stone." The black bishop edged forward, attacking the knight for the third time.
Heyes knew the stranger was trying to force him to break the pattern, and it was tempting. He could see new possibilities, new moves he'd overlooked before or discarded as too risky. He might even be able to win. There was nothing at stake, after all, but his own pride. All he had to do was take a chance. How much better could his opponent be? Even if he lost, there was honor in losing to a master player. Where was the honor in sitting behind his pawns? The Kid would have taken the chance, he was sure. He would have made some sort of move, anything to break the game open. Not that the Kid would get near a slow-moving game like chess to begin with.
No. That feeling was still with him, and somehow thinking about the Kid made it stronger. Something was riding on this. Perhaps it didn't matter if he won the game, so long as he didn't lose it. To hell with honor. "Draw," he stated flatly. "By threefold repetition."
Grey looked startled. He glanced at the board, then at Heyes. "So it is. I didn't think you would call it. Congratulations." His hand was still cool, though Heyes noticed as he took it that his own was sweaty. The older man began packing up the chess set. "Would you have the time, by chance?"
Heyes drew out his watch, stared at it. Where had the last two hours gone? More important, where was the Kid? "Two thirty-five. Train's late, I guess. Haven't heard it pull in."
"Ah. I've missed it, then."
"Missed it? I'm sure it's just late. We would have heard it. And I'm waiting for someone who's aboard."
"That may be. However, I was to meet it at one fifty-eight precisely. And whether I've missed it or it's missed me makes no difference; I shall not be aboard. I am never late, Joshua. Sometimes early, often uninvited, but never late."
Heyes felt the hair on the back of his arms prickle as the pale man continued. Did he mean what he was implying?
"You made the right choice, my friend. You would not have defeated me, and there is no dishonor in a draw. That surprised me. I expected a good game from you, but I expected to win. After all, no man has ever defeated me. Perhaps we'll play again some day."
"Not for a long time, I hope." Heyes grinned, but he felt his hands shaking. Either Grey was crazy, or.... "And how are you at poker?"
Again the half smile. "Let's just say you wouldn't want to be left with the Dead Man's hand.4 I'd best be going. I'm expected elsewhere. At two forty-nine." Without another word, Grey picked up board and bottle and left the saloon. Heyes listened for the stallion's hooves, but heard nothing. He went to the doors, looked out. There was no sign of the white horse or his rider.
The Kid was walking up the road to the saloon, however. He looked almost as shaky as Heyes felt.
"Am I glad to see you!" the Kid called. "Damnedest thing you ever saw. Train jumped the tracks about a mile out of town. A miracle no one was killed. Had to walk in to town, then up here; all the horses were sent out to bring the ladies in. I could sure use a drink." Curry stopped and looked at Heyes, who was staring at him strangely. "What's wrong?"
Heyes surprised his cousin by giving him a bearhug. "Nothing. I'm just glad to see you. Come on, I'll let you buy me a whiskey. I think I've earned one."
"Are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Maybe I have, Kid. Maybe not. By the way, what do you say we go down to San Francisco for a few days? I'd like to ask Soapy about a few things...."
1There are two towns named Chama, one on each side of the New Mexico-Colorado border. The one I have in mind is the one in Colorado, population now about 350. I've been told it's on a spur of the rail line from Walsenburg, Colorado to Taos, New Mexico; the line is the Denver & Rio Grande, which is a narrow gauge, and it passes through Veta Pass. I've been through the pass and I can attest that it's a tortuous route. I haven't been able to locate Chama, Colorado on the Denver & Rio Grande maps for that era, but the train certainly passes through Chama, New Mexico for you purists.
2"Uisca Beatha" is a sixteenth-century Irish Latinization of the Gaelic usquebaugh, which means "water of life." Note that Heyes thinks in terms of "whiskey," which is the American and Irish spelling, while Grey prefers the Scottish and Canadian "whisky."
3A convention for a game played for fun or honor rather than for money. Related to a gentlemen's agreement.
4Aces and eights, the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot from behind in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876.
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(Originally appeared in alias Heyes & Curry #2)
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