The Horse You Rode In On
The passenger train was hot, and the breeze that blew in through the grimy windows was even hotter. Hannibal Heyes looked out at the dry and uninviting landscape - miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles of nothing, he reflected wryly, relieved he and his partner were no longer afoot. He swatted at a fly, wondering with mild irritation why they seemed to flourish even in a drought.
He shifted slightly in his seat and glanced at his partner. The Kid was sound asleep, exhausted from several hard days avoiding the posse that had chased them from Sierra City. Jumping aboard the train had been their last recourse, but at least this time they had managed to keep their saddlebags. He spared a thought for the horses they had left behind, knowing they’d fare better at the ranch than out in a countryside turned brown by an absence of rain and burned black by the unrepentant sun.
The Kid murmured deep in the back of his throat as the train shuddered around a curve, but he didn’t wake. Heyes didn’t begrudge his partner the rest, nor did he mind keeping watch while the Kid slept, but he was getting more than tired of trying to sit still. He wiped the beads of perspiration off his lip and wondered how long it would be before they pulled into the next station.
He’d removed his faded blue coat, which the Kid was using as a pillow, and his hat, gloves, bandanna, and corduroy vest had followed. He rolled up his sleeves and unbuttoned his dark blue shirt one extra hole, wishing he dared more, his hair damp against his neck. The Kid had shed an equal amount of apparel, sweat shimmering beneath his eyes and making his hair curl tightly.
Heyes settled back into the worn seat, wishing – not for the first time – that it had just a little more padding to it.
The troubling thoughts that had rattled around his head for the last several hours creased his forehead in a frown as he stole another look at his partner. The Kid’s even features had relaxed in much-needed sleep, but Heyes could still see the hardships of the past few weeks etched in fine lines around his mouth and eyes.
He scanned the half-dozen other passengers who dozed or conversed quietly, their voices obscured by the noise of the rails. None of them looked back towards the two men trying to be inconspicuous in the rearmost seats of the car.
A pang of guilt hit him hard – it was his job to look out for the Kid, his only family in the world, and lately, he hadn’t been doing too well at it – they’d been in trouble more often than not. And with only nine dollars and twenty-seven cents between them, who knew what the immediate future would bring, if not more of the same?
Big Jim Santana had told him once he was crazy to give up the security of the Devil’s Hole fortress to wander like a gypsy, chased from refuge to refuge by every lawman, bounty hunter, and citizen wanting an ‘easy’ fortune – and there were times he could believe Big Jim was right. He didn’t dare express this to the Kid, knowing his cousin needed to believe that they were doing the right thing, trying for an amnesty.
He laughed, his sardonic sense of humor reasserting itself as he recalled the expressions on the faces of posse as they realized the two notorious outlaws had escaped capture once again. Things would work out – somehow, they always did. He would just have to continue worrying for the both of them – that’s all there was to it.
Heyes squirmed again on the hard seat, trying to make himself relax and endure the long ride. For the next several hours, they should have nothing new to worry about.
"Where are we?" Kid Curry asked sleepily, yawning as he looked out the window at the small railroad depot, the train’s abrupt halt having finally shaken him awake. He stretched as the steam engine hissed loudly and passengers stepped from the cars onto the narrow wooden platform. A young woman in a bright blue dress caught his appreciative eye, and he watched with interest as she took a man's arm and walked out of the station.
"Mesa," Heyes replied distractedly, looking intently out the window.
The Kid looked at him with concern. "Something wrong?" he asked. Brief replies were uncharacteristic for Heyes, but after several hard weeks on the trail, not to mention that last posse, the Kid could see Heyes was worn to a shadow. Sometimes his cousin just worried too much, he thought, without any idea of how to make him stop.
Heyes ran a quick hand through his dark hair to get it out of his eyes. "Nope. Just lookin' to see what's out there," he said, obviously eager to escape the train, if only for a few minutes. He watched a pair of farmers carry a heavy crate towards the baggage car, then turned to grin at his half-awake cousin.
Most of the other passengers from their car had already departed, adding to the congestion on the platform. The last two or three gathered up their possessions to join the exodus.
The Kid leaned forward to assess the passengers milling around in the noon sunshine, his beige shirt sticking to his back from sweat. His keen blue eyes took in the old man leaning against the platform railing with a cigarette in his mouth. A dusty red horse flicked its tail to chase the flies from its back. Three children ran past, holding hands and chattering. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
He stretched out his long legs and settled back, crossing his arms. "Looks safe enough. You gettin' off the train?" he asked rhetorically.
"I'm goin' to stretch my legs. You want anything? - something to eat?"
"You're askin' me if I want something to eat?" Curry laughed – he could always eat. "Sure - whatever they got. Need any money?"
Heyes shook his head no, adjusted his hat, and climbed over the Kid to get to the aisle.
"Stay outta trouble," the Kid warned.
"Who, me?" Heyes asked incredulously, wearing an expression of such innocence that an angel would have envied it. He flashed a 'trust me' grin at his partner and exited the passenger car.
The Kid tried to relax again, but his partner's restlessness had been contagious. Darn it, Heyes, now you gave me the fidgets, he thought to himself, sitting back up to look out the window. He watched as Heyes walked through the crowd of passengers, narrowly avoiding a collision with the busy conductor who rushed into the office waving a handful of tickets.
Paper crackled as he settled himself more comfortably, and he smiled as he brought it out of his pocket. How Heyes had managed to convince the conductor the blank piece of paper was two paid tickets was still a mystery to him, despite the fact he had watched him do it.
The old man on the platform threw his cigarette down and ground it out with the heel of his boot, then resumed his leisurely lean against the rail. Not a lawman, the Kid judged, noting the man wasn't wearing a gun and wondering why he caught his eye. Fortunately, the man didn't seem to be taking any interest in Heyes, who had entered the station to buy lunch.
As he watched, a second man walked up and addressed the old man. An ugly sneer twisted the old man’s face, and as the two men squared off against each other to argue, Curry could hear their shouts but not their actual words.
He looked sharply past the men to the doorway of the depot, wishing Heyes would finish and return quickly. Whatever was happening between the two men outside, they were between his partner and the train. Adrenaline made his heart beat faster as he stared through the window. Anyone watching him at that moment might have noticed his resemblance to a large predator – a tiger, perhaps, poised for the final leap and kill of its prey – muscles tensed, attention focused, clenched fists instead of a lashing tail to betray his lethal intention.
The second man yelled a final comment and withdrew a small derringer from his coat pocket. Aiming it quickly, he fired, missing the old man completely. The bullet tore a harmless chunk out of the wooden railing he’d leaned against.
The old man screamed and threw himself to the platform just as Heyes stepped out of the depot.
Heyes bought sandwiches and coffee for himself and the Kid, wondering why he felt so jumpy all of a sudden. He wasn’t usually nervous, or at least he managed to hide it well. He looked around the station, wearing an innocuous smile and his hat pulled low to mask the shrewd intelligence of his dark brown eyes. Nothing looked suspicious – just a typical train station in a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by people content to make it the center of their small universe.
He stepped out of the depot in time to see the shot fired. There was an immediate panic on the platform as the sound of the old man's scream lingered in the air and the passengers scrambled for cover. Several women shrieked as they fled, and one man knocked over a pile of luggage in his haste to get to safety. The gunman threw the derringer at the old man and bolted from the station.
Heyes stood warily in the doorway, holding the lunch he'd just purchased. His penetrating eyes raked the scene down to the smallest detail. He watched the old man stand slowly and pick up the derringer by the barrel, staring at the gun as if surprised to find it in his hand. The old man looked directly into Heyes' quizzical gaze, locking eyes as the pandemonium on the platform swirled around them.
Several men from the town ran past in pursuit of the gunman, and a few more surrounded the old man and led him away. The entire incident was over in seconds.
The Kid had leapt to the passenger car exit when the shooting had started, gun in hand fast as summer lightning. He watched the start of the chase and replaced the gun in its holster. Seemed like it was over and no harm done...
"You witnessed the whole thing," a voice at Heyes' elbow asserted gruffly. It was a statement, not a question.
He turned straight into a shiny silver badge, big as the moon. Startled, he looked up to meet a sheriff's interested expression. The sheriff was a big man, half a head taller than he and twice as wide. The silver star he wore seemed to reflect the light on purpose to draw his attention.
"Beg pardon?" he asked with wide, innocent eyes and a confident smile, buying a moment to collect his thoughts. Thankfully, he didn't recognize the sheriff. He sincerely hoped the reverse was true.
"I said, you witnessed the whole thing. Need you to come down to the office and fill out a statement."
Heyes smiled pleasantly and indicated the food in his hands. He had no intention of missing the train or spending any time in the sheriff's office – not if he could help it. "Uh, Sheriff? I really didn't see anything - I was inside, buyin' some lunch to take on the train. Got less than five minutes before it pulls out." As he spoke, the engineer blew the whistle to signal that the train was getting ready to leave. The shaken passengers began to board, talking loudly to cover their distress, while the conductor fussed over the fallen luggage.
"Sorry, but you're a witness to an attempted murder. Need your statement," the big sheriff reiterated firmly, frowning as he stepped forward to block Heyes' path. "You can catch the four o'clock tomorrow."
Heyes smiled disarmingly, the smile that usually melted hearts and moved mountains. "Sheriff, I hate to be a bother, but I have business that won't keep waitin' for me in Denver..." And besides, he added silently, I don't have enough money for a ticket.
"Son, I guess I haven't made it clear to you, so let me try again. You're a witness to an attempted murder, and you're coming with me - now - to make a statement. You can take the train to Denver tomorrow."
A cloud of steam exploded from the engine as the engineer released the throttle. The train jerked into motion and began to inch out of the station.
Heyes was running out of time and options. He considered making a run for it, but the huge sheriff was planted directly between him and the train.
He made another attempt. "Sheriff, I'm carrying papers that must be registered in Denver by noon tomorrow, or our investors will lose a considerable amount of money. Now, surely, the financial..."
The sheriff considered the young man who stood before him - worn clothes, overdue haircut – appeared to be a cowhand fresh off a trail drive. “You can telegraph your ‘investors’ – I’m sure they’ll understand,” he interrupted. His raised eyebrows suggested a healthy skepticism there was any real need for this. He grabbed the young man by the elbow and jerked him back inside the depot. "Son, I'm real sympathetic, but you are not getting on that train." His tone of voice suggested he had run out of patience.
By now, the train had picked up enough speed that Heyes couldn't catch it even if he could get away from the persistent sheriff. He hoped the Kid had seen what had happened to him. He released a deep breath, then shook his head, the epitome of law-abiding cooperation.
"You're right, Sheriff - I'm not gettin' on that train."
The Kid had seen the exchange between his partner and the sheriff. Great, just great, he thought. Didn't look like Heyes was under arrest - yet - so maybe the sheriff's interest in his partner was connected to the shooting they had just witnessed. Either way, it was bad news.
I can't leave you alone for five minutes, he thought with chagrin - he ought to know by now how good his cousin was at getting into trouble.
He grabbed their bags and jumped off the train as it picked up speed to clear the station. The safest thing to do would be to stay away from Heyes until he knew for sure what the sheriff intended to do with him - in case he needed to break him out of jail.
He walked into the depot and asked the way to the hotel. The man he stopped to ask felt like a rabbit over-flown by a hawk. He breathed easier once the Kid had thanked him and moved on.
Heyes scanned the guest register, relieved to see the name ‘Thaddeus Jones’ signed in his partner’s distinctive handwriting.
“What room is Mr. Jones in?” he inquired.
"Number five," the desk clerk told him, his eyes peeping out from behind thick spectacles.
“We’re traveling together,” Heyes informed him.
“Then you must be Mr. – Smith?”
“He said you’d be by,” the clerk said, handing Heyes the key to room nine.
"Thank you," he said, then noticed the mismatch in room numbers.
"Um, number five?" he asked, returning the key to the nearsighted clerk.
The clerk squinted closely at the key. "Oh - sorry - number five," he replied, handing him the correct one.
He went to the room to wash up, glad to see the Kid had deposited their scuffed saddlebags in the corner of the room. The threadbare carpet and stained wallpaper reminded him, ‘you get what you pay for’, to which he added ironically, ‘and if you don’t pay much, you don’t get much‘. The worn dresser was covered with a light coating of dust and two or three dead flies, the water in the cracked washbasin tepid and not very refreshing. He told himself he’d treat himself to a bath later – as soon as he could somehow acquire the money for one. He finished up and headed for saloon, knowing he'd find the Kid there.
The Kid leaned against the crowded bar nursing a whiskey, hat pulled low over narrowed eyes that both watched and challenged the other patrons. His lightly balanced stance and the thumb hooked casually over his gunbelt conveyed their own subtle warning. Heyes was briefly amused by the empty space that surrounded his cousin – somehow, people always seemed to feel safer at a distance.
He ordered a drink for himself, then turned to his blond partner as the bartender poured.
"Howdy, stranger," he said brightly, sipping his drink.
"I swear - you need a keeper. Everything okay?" the Kid asked in a low voice, masking his relief with the sharp comment.
"I think so." Heyes explained what had happened. Once he'd confirmed the second man had been the gunman, the sheriff's interest in him had thankfully evaporated.
They sipped their drinks thoughtfully and considered their immediate future.
"When’s the next stage ?” Heyes asked, grimacing at the taste of the local rotgut. The drinks and hotel room would just about exhaust their remaining funds.
"Saturday," the Kid stated. "Train to Denver tomorrow afternoon." They both knew they didn't have enough money for either.
"Let's try for the train - if we can get us a stake."
"Right," the Kid said. He tossed off the rest of his drink, then added, "...and if you can stay outta trouble - for a change." He grinned to take the sting out of the friendly insult.
Heyes made a wry face at him - that was supposed to be his line. He picked up his glass and headed for the back room to talk his way into the poker game with their last three dollars.
Heyes knew he held the winning hand. His instincts seldom led him astray, and the other players tonight were no match for his skill. One man even seemed hell-bent on intentionally losing, he played poker that badly. This evening's pot was full of money - money he and his partner could really use to leave Mesa. The previous day's game had produced only enough to keep them even with their bills, and as a result they'd been stuck in the little town long enough that both were worried about being recognized.
He watched the other players from behind his unreadable poker face, wishing he had enough funds not tied up in the game to buy another beer.
Kid Curry watched intently from the sidelines - he'd washed out of the game an hour ago. He was less interested in the game than in the players, focused on backing his partner up, like always.
The flickering lamp illuminated little outside the poker circle and cast eerie shadows on the faces of the players. The dim light was fogged with cigarette smoke, the silence of spectators broken by an occasional cough.
"See you, and raise another twenty," the old man named Wilbur said, throwing in the last of his currency. Heyes was curious what Wilbur had done to make the other man mad enough to shoot at him, something the old man had declined to discuss. The gunman had vanished after the incident at the train station, despite the best efforts of a very persistent sheriff.
The player who'd seemed so intent on losing finally got his wish, silently flinging down his cards in disgust and signaling for a drink.
"Twenty, and twenty more," bet the man who'd sucked on an unlit cigar all night long until Heyes could scarcely stand to look in his direction, disgusted by the sight of the soggy, shapeless mass of tobacco. He wished the man would either smoke it or chew it and get rid of it once and for all - but upon further reflection, he realized it was so wet, it likely wouldn't burn, and he wasn't sure that chaw spitting would be an improvement.
His turn, and he threw in the last money he and the Kid had between them with the bravado of a millionaire spending petty cash. If he didn't win this hand, Heyes wasn't sure what they'd do - they'd be flat busted broke in a town with no work and a sheriff who was starting to wonder why they were still hanging around. His sincere smile revealed none of this.
Wilbur had no money left to bet, and he scratched his unshaven chin thoughtfully. His gray whiskers made a raspy noise as he pondered his next move.
"Well..." he drew the word out as long as his thoughts were slow. He looked suspiciously at the men behind him, trying to keep them from seeing his cards as he considered his hand. "Would yew accep’ an IOU?"
The man with the cigar shook his head emphatically. "No IOU's," he stated flatly. A dribble of tobacco-stained spittle dripped down his chin, and he wiped it quickly with a stained sleeve.
Wilbur pondered this, clearly unhappy at the other man's response. "Well..." he said again, lengthening the word into two syllables. "Got nothin' else t’ bet - 'cept’in’ mebbe…my horse..."
The cigar mulled this over, pursing his lips and wrinkling his forehead in fierce concentration. Heyes shrugged noncommittally - he wouldn't mind winning a horse - neither he nor the Kid was particular at this point how they left Mesa.
"Okay by me," grunted the cigar.
Wilbur signaled to the saloon girl, who provided pencil and paper so quickly Heyes wondered humorously where she'd been hiding them – didn’t seem to be any room for them on her person, and he would know. Wilbur set his cards face down on the sticky tabletop, taking elaborate care no one could see them, then wrote '1 HORS & SADDL' in clumsy block letters. He signed his name at the bottom, then added the note to the large pile of bills and coins in the center of the table.
Wilbur carefully picked up his cards and peeked at them again, nodding to the cigar that he was done.
The cigar folded. Heyes looked at him with surprise - which he carefully kept from his face - he had not anticipated the cigar would bail out of the game quite yet, and this disturbed him.
"Up to me, then," he said blandly. "I call."
Wilbur slowly set his cards down on the table. "Two pair, nines high."
Heyes looked at him thoughtfully as he set down his hand - four Queens. He hadn't expected Wilbur would bet everything down to his horse on two pair - and this disturbed him even more.
He couldn't argue with winning the hand or the pot, though, and he smiled broadly as he raked in the cash, amused by the Kid’s evident relief. He picked up the piece of paper, half inclined to give it back to the old man.
"He's out in th' stable, an' th’ groom knows th’ saddle that goes with 'im," Wilbur said slowly. "Yew will take - good care - of 'im, won'cha?"
Oh, what the hell, Heyes decided, not wanting to insult the old man’s gracious acceptance of losing. "I certainly will, old timer," he assured the old man. He caught the Kid's eye, and they headed to the bar for that last beer.
Neither noticed the old man's wistful expression change to one of devilish glee the minute their backs were turned.
Wilbur's horse turned out to be a medium size roan with white hairs sprinkled lightly throughout its red coat, its mane and tail a darker shade of the same dusty red. Heyes had seen better lookin' horses, but he was willing to bet the animal had many miles left in him, and the saddle was certainly in good shape.
Something about the roan puzzled him as he tightened the cinch and adjusted the stirrups. If it had been a human being, he'd have said the person looked sad - an emotion he doubted a horse could feel.
"Looks kinda sad, don't he?" the Kid commented, echoing Heyes unspoken thought. He was saddling the second horse they had bought out of the poker winnings.
"Shhh, Kid, you'll hurt his feelings," Heyes warned half-seriously.
As if it understood, the roan flicked its tail, narrowly missing the side of the Kid's head.
The Kid shot them both a comical look of disbelief, making Heyes laugh.
The clear dawn promised another scorching day as the two outlaws rode out of Mesa, grateful to be moving on at last.
Heyes picked himself off the ground, relieved that nothing was broken. They’d been riding through low hills with sparse brush, hard ground with few holes and little loose rock – an ideal surface for an easy gallop, if dusty. He'd been riding the roan for two days now, and he and the horse had adjusted well to each other - or so he'd thought.
He caught the reins – at least the horse hadn’t run off, a bit of luck – and discovered when he moved that he was going to have a truly remarkable bruise on his backside. He rubbed it with a surreptitious hand.
The Kid had turned his horse around when Heyes had been thrown, and he rode back to where his partner limped next to the roan. “You okay?” he asked, laughing at Heyes’ woeful expression. “What happened?”
“Dunno, Kid – unless…” He looked at the ground, and his tone changed from speculation to certainty, "…he threw a shoe.” He picked it up and put it in his pocket.
“How far are we from the nearest town, ya think?” the Kid asked.
“At least ten miles,” Heyes replied in disgust, slapping the dirt off himself.
“Okay - hop on,” Curry offered.
Heyes put his foot in the stirrup and climbed up behind his partner, still holding the reins of the roan. Riding double mounted was slow and hard on the second horse, but it was better than walking through the drought-stricken terrain.
He gritted his teeth as the edge of Curry’s saddle dug into his bruised seat. He told himself things weren’t so bad when the nearest town had a sheriff who didn't know them and he could look forward to a hot bath and a whiskey to take the edge off his discomfort.
The hot bath felt wonderful, and Heyes had begun to feel like his usual cheerful self again after the second whiskey. The Kid had treated him to a steak dinner – instinctively knowing his partner was out of sorts, not that anyone else could have detected it. And he’d seldom had such a run of luck at poker as he'd had tonight – he just couldn’t seem to lose. He’d ended the evening almost two hundred dollars ahead.
Molina was one of a hundred small towns that seemed to spring up out of nowhere and sometimes vanish overnight. The town closed up after dark – even the poker game had ended before midnight.
The Kid had retired in the company of a pretty blonde saloon girl. Heyes figured he’d give him a two-hour head start, then call it a night himself.
The night desk clerk was huddled in close conference with a deputy when he entered the small lobby. Both men looked up sharply as Heyes walked in. “That’s him,” the clerk said quickly.
“Joshua Smith,” the deputy called loudly. Heyes smiled to cover his nervousness and stepped forward with a confident air.
“That’s me, deputy – what can I do for you?” He brazenly extended his hand.
“Need you to come with me – right now,” the deputy said officiously, ignoring the outstretched hand. His badge shone ominously in the dim light.
“Ah – you mind telling me what this is all about?” Heyes asked with just the right note of honest confusion coloring his voice, sincerely hoping he wasn’t under arrest.
“You’ll see,” the deputy barked, “Move.” He propelled Heyes towards the front door.
The deputy kept hold of Heyes’ arm and marched him down the deserted street. Heyes felt like a school kid being dragged before the headmaster, wishing all he had to look forward to was a lickin’. He was surprised - and puzzled - to find the deputy escorting him to the stable rather than the sheriff’s office.
The warm smell of horse and hay spilled out of the door as they entered the dimly lit building. A few of the horses nickered softly at the late-night intrusion.
“That your horse?” the deputy demanded, pointing to the roan he’d won in Mesa. The horse lifted its head and blinked at them as if aware it was the subject of their conversation.
“Yes - yes it is,” Heyes admitted, wondering if winning the horse had really been all that lucky.
“Where’d you get it,” the deputy demanded sternly. Heyes noted his right hand hovered near his gun. He kept his hands conspicuously away from his own.
Heyes explained briefly, angelic innocence ringing through every word, and then asked, “Why?”
The deputy glared at him through narrowed eyes. “Because that mark,” he pointed at the horse’s hindquarters, where an open figure eight had been branded, “is the same one used by the gang that just robbed the bank over in Hampton.”
Heyes smiled his most convincing smile at the deputy. “I haven’t been anywhere near Hampton,” he assured him, his invisible halo shining as brightly as he could manage. “They got a description of the men?”
“Nope – you got anybody that can vouch for you?”
“My partner – he’s stayin’ in the hotel…” Heyes could tell the deputy was not impressed by this, “…and Sheriff Lom Trevors up in Porterville.”
“Okay – fair enough – I’ll wire Sheriff Trevors – if he vouches for ya, you can leave town." The deputy seemed skeptical that Trevors would do this, but apparently not enough to arrest him - yet. "Stay put until I tell ya you can go.”
“Anything you say, Deputy,” Heyes promised, relieved the deputy was letting him go and secretly amused by the thought of Lom's reaction to the telegram.
The Kid had wanted to ride out that same night, but Heyes figured if they did, the deputy would be just that much more suspicious, and the last thing they needed was another posse chasing them. And certainly, they couldn’t afford to be connected to the bank incident in Hampton – it was better for their chance of an amnesty to stay and clear the matter up. They endured another two days in the small town, twice as jumpy as usual, and when Lom’s telegram finally arrived, neither was sorry to put Molina behind them. Heyes’ continuing luck left them another three hundred dollars richer.
A few lazy days on the trail brought them to Palmerville, a prosperous, good size town. Main Street was a wide dirt road with deep scars that told of rain and mud, long since past. It was a dry day, and the steady flow of wagons raised thick clouds of dust. The hot wind blew grit over the bustling crowd that hurried through the streets.
They quickly sized up the town - Heyes counted three hotels, five saloons, and a sheriff they'd never heard of - it looked like it would be safe, for a few days anyway.
The two outlaws tied their horses outside the hotel closest to the edge of town and went inside to register. The cool interior was a welcome relief from the glare and heat of the afternoon sun.
The desk clerk moved slowly in the heat. He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and looked without favor at the two young men wanting to rent a room. Saddle-tramps, he thought, his heat-inspired hostility expending itself in demanding the fee in advance. He shooed the fly that insisted upon landing on the back of his neck.
Heyes picked up the ink pen to sign in as an excited and overheated man ran into the lobby. "Hey - who owns the horse outside?" he gasped, his bald head shiny with perspiration.
Heyes traded a look with the Kid. "Maybe it's not the same horse?" he asked hopefully.
"Whadda ya figure the odds," the Kid said doubtfully.
The red-faced man continued breathlessly, "It's a roan..."
Heyes turned around reluctantly. "What's the problem?" he asked.
The man grabbed his arm and tried to drag him to the door as Heyes tried unsuccessfully to get a word in edgewise. The Kid laughed as he watched the man gesture wildly and babble something about getting loose and the mayor's wife's prize roses...
Heyes sighed with exasperation and followed the man back out into the heat to settle it.
The smoky saloon was one of the noisiest Heyes ever could remember being in. It overflowed with all the fun and excitement that money to spend could bring to a crowd well-supplied with spirits. The day’s heat persisted into the night, but even this failed to check the enthusiasm of the gamblers surrounding the tables of blackjack and roulette as jackets were discarded, sleeves rolled up, and ties loosened. The back room was full of average poker players, the stakes were good, the all of the saloon gals wore tight skirts hiked up to there – and best of all, no one seemed to be paying any particular attention to the two outlaws.
Heyes and the Kid drank a quiet beer at the back of the bar while an out-of-tune piano accompanied an attractive singer. She smiled gaily at the animated crowd and tried to compete with the cacophony of voices and occasional fight. Heyes tried not to wince as she consistently missed her high notes.
“Whadda ya think?” the Kid shouted over the noise.
“About what?” Heyes shouted back.
The Kid indicated the singer. "Easy on the eyes," he mouthed with a grin.
But not on the ears, Heyes thought. “She should do her singin’ in church," he pronounced.
The Kid looked at him questioningly.
“People’d be more likely to forgive her there,” Heyes laughed, grimacing as she hit a particularly sour C sharp.
The Kid snickered, then turned abruptly as someone jostled him.
One of the saloon girls had pushed her way to the bar. Her sequined dress was cut low to reveal an abundance of interesting curves. Her long red hair was swept up into a precarious bundle that practically begged to be set loose to tumble down around her shoulders, topped by a bold green feather.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he said, wariness hastily covered by the full intensity of his best smile. She knew, and he knew that she knew, that she was the one who owed the apology..
She looked him up and down, clearly liking what she saw. Her knowing green eyes met his baby blue ones. "I'm Liz, darlin'," she said flirtatiously, having bumped into the handsome cowboy in the hopes he’d be interested.
"Liz, why don't you let me buy you a drink?" he offered, signaling for a bottle and two glasses.
"A drink would be real nice." She smiled victoriously, leading him to one of the small tables. "What are we celebrating?"
He glanced back at Heyes, who had acquired a beautiful girl on either side of him, one blonde, the other brunette. Both looked fascinated and were laughing at something he had just said. Figures, he thought.
He poured two whiskeys and set one in front of Liz. "Jones - Thaddeus Jones," he replied, pulling her onto his lap, “and we’re celebratin’ - Thursday.” He drew her close to his chest and inhaled her perfume. Sure smells good, he thought.
"Well, ‘Jones – Thaddeus Jones’, pleased to meet ya. Cheers!" She downed her drink in one quick gulp, enjoying the feeling of controlled strength in his arms. "Now, tell me about yourself."
"Not much to tell - just passin' through," he said with a smile, kissing her. She tasted like the whiskey.
"Ooh - a man of action, not of words," she purred approvingly, putting one arm around his neck and ruffling his lovely curls with the other. "Well then, you listen, and I'll tell you the story of my life - if you like."
"That would be nice," he agreed, kissing her again. She snuggled happily.
"Hey Liz! Customers goin' thirsty over here," the bartender complained from behind the bar.
The Kid exaggerated his disappointment. "You gotta go?" he asked reluctantly, tightening his grip on her.
"Sorry, darlin’, duty calls. Meet me later?" She held her breath, hoping he’d say yes. Those blue eyes of his…
He kissed her. "Maybe," he teased, refusing to release her. "What time?"
"I get off early tonight- 'round midnight."
A longer kiss before setting her free. "See ya then," he promised.
Heyes' winning streak was still with him. If tonight’s game was any indication, they’d soon be up six hundred dollars – and with Lady Luck smiling on him like this, they should think about heading for the fancy casinos of Denver, or maybe even San Francisco.
The game was winding down in the early morning hour, but the crowd had stayed, most of the men remaining to drink, smoke, or make other arrangements with the saloon girls. The plucky singer had finally ended her discordant performance, but the accompanist continued to pound tunes out of the piano. A few happy customers surrounded him, their attempts at singing reminding Heyes of dogs howling.
A short, plump man burst into the game room, pausing just past the doorway to scan the occupants. Clerk or banker, Heyes guessed from the suit, raising his eyebrows at the dramatic entrance. He watched with mild interest as the agitated newcomer circled the tables, his fat cheeks red with heat or drink.
The little banker caught sight of the young man with the black hat sitting behind the pile of chips. “That’s him!” he shouted wildly, lunging forward to grab Heyes by the shirt collar. Heyes had the presence of mind to set his cards face down on the table as he wondered ‘what the hell?’.
A few of the other players stood up from the table, anxious to get away from the disturbance. One knocked his chair over in his haste to distance himself. No one seemed inclined to interfere.
The banker twisted Heyes’ collar around his neck. Heyes wasn’t in any serious danger – yet – but when he tried to say something, he found he couldn't speak - for a small man, his assailant had a remarkably strong grip.
“He stole my horse!” the little man cried, his face turning even redder, and the crowd’s temper abruptly turned ugly. Horse theft was a serious - even a hanging - offense in many places.
Heyes looked around for the Kid, who was nowhere to be seen. What a time for him to disappear, he thought.
With a quick, powerful movement, he broke free and slid through the man's hands, easily bringing his assailant under control by twisting his arm behind his back.
“Whoa, calm down,” he said softly, as if the man had been a frightened horse, holding him steady in an iron grip. Something in his dark eyes warned the little man he’d picked the wrong fight.
"Hold it," a stern voice interrupted, and Heyes looked up to find a beefy sheriff confronting the group, gun drawn and centered on him. "What's going on?" the lawman demanded.
The sheriff’s timing was perfect – there hadn’t been a lawman in the saloon all night. Heyes hoped – but somehow doubted – he’d seen the other man start the fight.
There was an instant confusion of voices. "One at a time, one at a time," the sheriff ordered, signaling for Heyes to release the other man.
Heyes couldn’t imagine why the little banker had accused him of stealing the roan - he was beginning to think he'd give the horse away just for the askin'.
"What's your name, son?" the huge sheriff asked as he marched Heyes down the street. Except for the size, he resembled Harry Briscoe - a lot. If Heyes had been in less trouble, he would have pitied the poor man for looking like Briscoe’s twin.
The sheriff’s badge caught the light as he strode along. It dragged at Heyes’ attention, and he tried not to stare at it.
"Joshua Smith," Heyes lied smoothly. He'd explained to the rat-faced sheriff how he had won the roan, even offered to show him a bill of sale, but the lawman was uninterested in anything he had to say.
"In here," the sheriff ordered sharply as they neared the office.
Typical one-room office with two cells – Heyes had lost count of how many he’d seen, wishing it had been fewer and willing to forego adding this one to the list. A faded sign identified the incumbent as Thomas Jensen. A young deputy dozed inside, his feet propped casually on the desk. He woke and jumped up with a sheepish expression as the sheriff pushed Heyes through the door and glared at the sleeper.
Heyes glanced around surreptitiously. He didn't recognize the deputy. The usual wanted posters hung above the sheriff's desk, and he scanned them briefly to see whether his and the Kid's were among them. They were.
The words on the posters seemed to leap out at him, and he smiled to cover his tension. Didn't appear to be a back exit from the small office, he noted.
"This the man who stole Murray's horse?" asked the deputy, smothering a yawn.
"Yes," Briscoe's look-alike replied brusquely, clearly displeased by the sleeping on duty. The deputy hung his head, looking for a moment like a beat dog.
Heyes looked at the bars of the cells, glad to be on the outside and wishing he thought he'd stay that way.
The sheriff jerked his chin to tell his deputy to hop to.
"This way, Mr. -" the deputy said, taking Heyes’ gun and indicating he should step into the cell.
"Smith - Joshua Smith," Heyes replied, his heart sinking as he realized they meant to lock him up.
The key turned in the lock with a disheartening note of finality.
"Ah - you mind lettin' my partner know where I am?" Heyes asked with the utterly believable tone of patient, forbearing, and absolute respectability. Both the sheriff and deputy ignored him.
The sheriff turned to his deputy. "I'm going to see if the Judge can step over here for a few minutes. Keep an eye on him, Evans – and stay awake.” He slammed the door shut behind him.
Evans nodded with a sullen expression, then resumed his seat – putting his feet back on the desk with an air of defiance after the door closed. Not in the mood for friendly conversation, Heyes judged.
He sat down on the bunk, wondering why every jail he’d ever been in had the same thin, stained mattress in it. His mind working furiously to calculate his escape options, Heyes wondered how long it would be before the Kid figured out where he was.
"Judge," Heyes said, extending his hand through the bars to the white haired gentleman who’d returned with the sheriff. The friendly grin had been fixed on his face so long it was beginning to hurt.
"Mr. - ah, Smith, wasn't it? What brings you to our little town?" the elderly judge asked, shaking his hand. His collar, buttoned crooked, testified he did not appreciate getting up in the middle of the night, and his scowl stated he was not kindly disposed towards the young rascal who had occasioned it.
The sheriff who looked like Harry Briscoe glared at him over the judge's shoulder.
"Just passing through, Judge, on my way to Denver," Heyes replied patiently, the very soul of put-upon but cooperative honesty.
"I'll need to swear you in. You swear the testimony you are about to give is the truth? Raise your right hand and say so."
Heyes raised his right hand and swore, "It's the truth," as if he slept soundly every night with the clearest of consciences.
"You here by yourself?" the judge asked, his bushy white eyebrows drawn together in a curmudgeonly scowl.
"No, sir, Your Honor, got a partner - he's over at the hotel." Enough people had seen them together, he might as well admit it. He kept his expression bland.
The old man looked at him with disapproval. "So you 'won' this horse in a poker game?" he asked distastefully, looking like a preacher confronted by sin.
Heyes nodded. "That's right, Your Honor." He told the story, making it sound like it had only been his Christian duty to take the horse off Wilbur’s hands.
The sheriff had dispatched Deputy Evans on an errand when the judge arrived, and it was obvious the young man had returned with news.
“Uh, excuse me, Sheriff Jensen?” he said hesitatingly.
The sheriff nodded, and the Evans whispered something to him. Jensen pursed his lips thoughtfully, then whispered in turn to the judge.
The judge’s expression turned so sour, he might have bitten into a lemon. Heyes wondered who would end up on the receiving end of the judge's wrath and sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be him. The deputy hid a grin.
“Well, humph,” the judge huffed. “Since the brands don't match, you're free to go. But don't leave town until we hear from Sheriff Trevors." He turned his ferocious scowl on the hapless sheriff. The deputy smirked.
"Your Honor, if that's all you need me for, I'll just be running along," said Heyes, declining the opportunity to press charges against Murray as the sheriff meekly unlocked the cell.
The judge testily nodded permission.
"Thank you, Your Honor," Heyes said, collecting his gun from the deputy. He turned to go.
"Smith!" Sheriff Jensen called peremptorily. His expression of belligerent ‘I have no idea what’s going on, but I intend to find out’ made his resemblance to Briscoe almost uncanny.
"Sheriff?" He kept his voice calm and level.
"Appreciate your cooperation, Smith. Enjoy your stay in Palmerville."
"Sure – and - thank you - Sheriff." He walked to the door at what he hoped was a normal pace, and breathed a sigh of relief once it closed safely behind him.
Heyes was too keyed up to sleep - his normal reaction to a close call - and he was plenty peeved at the Kid for missing the evening's excitement. He had to admit, however, what had happened was not the Kid's fault.
He walked down the dark hallway and slipped through the door silently. “It’s me,” he said as the Kid returned his gun to the holster slung over the headboard. “We gotta talk.”
"Heyes, you got any idea what time it is," his partner groused at him, lighting the lamp and adjusting it for a small flame as Heyes removed his boots. The Kid ran a sleepy hand through his matted curls and lay back down. He never appreciated getting up in the middle of the night - Heyes' favorite time to scheme.
Heyes brushed aside the Kid's complaints. "You know where I was tonight?" He kept his tone easy as he sat cross-legged on the edge of his bed, tucking his feet underneath himself.
"No - where were you?" Curry yawned, looking at his wide-awake partner. He knew from long-suffering experience Heyes wouldn't let him get any sleep until he had talked himself out.
"In jail? For what?"
"Horse theft," the Kid repeated incredulously. "That same horse?" He laughed uproariously. "Let's see - it's thrown you, got you stopped for bank robbery, and now you been arrested for stealin' it?”
"Not to mention the Mayor's wife's prize roses," Heyes agreed with a weak grin. He took a deep breath and willed his anger away. No real harm had been done, and it was pretty funny when he stopped to think about it.
“Maybe it's time you start lookin' that gift horse in the mouth," the Kid suggested.
Heyes smiled, recognizing the quote from Grampa Curry. "We got enough money I can get another one,” he agreed.
"Makes you wonder if that's why the man in Mesa was shooting at Wilbur," the Kid observed wryly.
Heyes thought about this for a few moments. "Maybe," he said. "I was just lucky the brands didn't match. And the Judge is wiring Lom to find out whether I'm a 'respectable citizen'."
"Lom’ll have to hire extra help to keep up with all the telegrams he's gettin' about you." The Kid punched up his pillow and resettled himself under the covers, hoping Heyes would take the hint.
"So when do you wanna leave - tonight?" he asked sleepily, hoping the answer would be 'no' – he’d hoped to spend a few days with his new friend Liz.
"You want to stay?" Heyes asked, already knowing the answer from the Kid’s tone. They both needed the rest, and he hated the thought of another midnight departure as Big Jim’s comment reoccurred to him.
"I’d like to stay - if you think we can.”
Heyes thought it over. Somehow he didn’t think the sheriff was any real threat – maybe because of his resemblance to a certain bumbling Bannerman detective of their acquaintance.
He nodded, rewarded by the happy expression that crossed the Kid's face.
"Kid?" Heyes asked, embarrassed. He didn't quite know how to ask the Kid for help - it was his job to watch over the Kid, not the other way around. Nor could he think of a convincing story to tell him.
"What?" His partner yawned cavernously and closed his eyes.
Heyes' normally glib tongue was caught somewhere between his reluctance to admit he wanted help and his inability to be less than totally honest with the Kid.
When the silence lengthened, the Kid opened his eyes. "What? You mad I wasn't around to keep you from bein' arrested?" he guessed.
"No, not exactly...mad…I was just…thinkin'..." He trailed off, his embarrassment deepening. He could tell his partner thought the whole thing exceedingly funny.
The Kid was not making this any easier for him, and Heyes squirmed a little under his partner's humorous gaze.
"That I should do a better job of keepin' you outta trouble?" The Kid's lips twitched with the smile he was losing control over as he observed his dark haired companion's discomfiture. If it ever crossed his mind to wonder why Heyes kept him around, moments like this gave him his answer - no one else could keep his mercurial cousin out of trouble the way he could.
"I tell ya what, Heyes - I'll do my best," he promised, suppressing another smile as he noticed his partner's expression lighten. "Anything else? Or are you gonna let me get any sleep tonight?”
“Kid, anybody ever tell you how cranky you get sometimes?” Heyes asked, relieved and annoyed at the same time. He blew out the lamp and pulled the covers over himself, willing himself to go to sleep. The Kid’s breathing indicated that he was asleep almost immediately.
Next morning, Heyes was already eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant as the Kid entered the room and looked around for his partner.
“More coffee?” the pretty waitress asked hopefully. There were two waitresses, and they had fought over who got to wait on this particular table. The winner celebrated her victory by making as many trips to the table as she could think up an excuse for.
Heyes held up his cup. “Yes, ma’am, thank you.” He rewarded her with a beaming smile, and she walked away with a dreamy sigh.
She returned almost instantly with coffee for the Kid, and he smiled at her too, causing her to nearly drop the coffeepot. She hastened back to the kitchen, clearly rattled.
Heyes withheld smile and comment, not wanting to rile his partner’s morning temper.
The Kid sipped his coffee and winced.
“Too hot?” Heyes asked sympathetically.
“No – it just don’t take near as much water to make coffee as some folks think it does,” his partner replied grumpily.
Heyes hid this smile behind his hand. Sure as the sun would rise, the Kid would find something to complain about in the morning.
There was a commotion at the door as the waitress returned with eggs and bacon for the Kid. She set the plate in front of Curry as they looked up to see the sheriff enter.
He scanned the room, caught sight of Heyes, and headed for their table.
The Kid did a double take. "That's not...?" he asked his partner with a touch of apprehension – Briscoe always brought them bad luck.
"No,” Heyes reassured him quickly, “but sure looks like him, don't it? Acts like him, too."
The Kid nodded his understanding, his mouth full of food.
Heyes took a sip of coffee to compose himself. “Mornin’, Sheriff,” he greeted nonchalantly as the man walked up. "Quiet night?"
The Kid interrupted his meal long enough to introduce himself as 'Thaddeus Jones'. The sheriff looked like he hadn’t slept much the previous night - the Kid knew just how he felt.
“Just makin' my rounds," Jensen nodded. "Believe I'll join you.” He planted himself in the empty chair and signaled to the waitress. “Coffee,” he told her. She poured him a cup, then diligently refilled Heyes' empty one. He gave her a sly wink, provoking a shy smile as she ducked her head and returned to the kitchen.
The sheriff fixed his beady eyes on Heyes. “What brings you to Palmerville?”
Heyes laughed mirthlessly. “A roan horse - one I'd like to get rid of."
"Seriously," Jensen said in a humorless monotone - he even sounded like Briscoe. "I'd like to know what you do - besides play poker."
The waitress returned with a basket of biscuits, which she set in the center of the table. The Kid winked at her this time, and she turned beet red as she scurried back towards the kitchen.
Heyes shot his partner a ‘stop that’ look. "Oh, anything, really. We're lookin' for work, now that you mention it," he answered the sheriff.
“What kind of work – you ranchers?”
“Nope,” the Kid interrupted mischievously. "Lawyers." It was the most outrageous thing he could think of.
Heyes choked on his coffee. "Uh, too hot," he explained hastily when the sheriff looked at him.
Sheriff Jensen turned back to the Kid with puzzlement, not sure he’d heard correctly. “Come again?” he said.
“No, you were right – ranch work, cattle drivin’, you name it," the Kid said, trying not to wince as Heyes kicked him under the table.
Jensen came to the correct conclusion his leg was being pulled, and a smile slowly dawned on his face. “Lawyers! Haw, haw,” he finally guffawed, slapping his leg. “That’s a good one!” He even laughed like Briscoe. He tossed down the rest of his coffee, chuckling as he stood up and shook his head one more time at the two outlaws. “I’ll letcha know if I hear of anything. Lawyers!” he continued to chuckle as he departed.
Heyes looked askance at his partner, a little miffed the Kid had usurped his role. “Whadda ya think you’re doin’?” he inquired pointedly.
“Just - helpin’ you stay outta trouble,” the Kid explained with a laugh. He swatted a fly, nailing it with one lightning quick movement.
Heyes shot him another ‘stop that’ look – people who weren’t notorious gunfighters generally couldn’t hit flies that quick. “Well, next time – tell him something that sounds more…honest!” he protested.
The two waitresses peeped out of the kitchen, whispering and giggling.
“Might as well get movin’ – got a horse that needs sellin’,” the Kid reminded him, enjoying the chance to tell Heyes to hurry up for a change. He tipped his hat to the two pretty girls, causing a new fit of giggling.
Heyes nodded. Selling the horse shouldn’t be too hard to do…
“What do you mean he’s not worth anything? Why, the saddle alone…”
Heyes was not getting anywhere with the horse dealer, the third he’d talked to this morning. The first dealer wasn't buying any horses because of what he termed a 'cash flow problem'; the second already had more horses than he had room in his stable.
What is it about this durned horse, he wondered – none of his considerable powers of persuasion seemed to be having the slightest effect.
He turned down the offer to buy the saddle by itself, hoping his partner was having better luck. He went to find the next dealer on his list…
"Yes, ma'am, that's right." The Kid kept his temper with admirable self-restraint.
It wasn't the young lady's fault she was so inefficient - after all, she was new on the job. And, she was pretty enough that under normal circumstances, the Kid wouldn't have minded repeating the answers to all of her questions four or five times, just to spend the extra time talking to her.
Her name was Clarice, and she pushed another tendril of blonde hair back into place before adjusting her spectacles for the umpteenth time. She moved slower than molasses in January, he decided, and if she refilled that ink pen one more time, he wasn’t sure what he was likely to do about it.
She smiled up at the tall cowboy placing the advertisement for selling a horse. He was very good looking, and she tried her best to help him fill out the form. Could you spell that? No, not 'horse' – that I know how to spell. Are oh ay en? What kind of horse is that? Oh, it's a color? What color? Then why don't you just say 'red'? Well, it means the same thing, doesn't it? Okay, I'll put 'roan'. How do you spell it? No, you're right, you said that already, sorry. Care of whom? No, 'whom' is correct. Smith and - Jones? What are your real names? Really? Oh, I never noticed. Which hotel was that? The one on the left or the one on the right? Now, let's see - that's... (laboriously counting)... nine - no – ten… (more counting). Wait – it is nine. No, (counting again, using fingers) I’m sorry, it really is ten words. Would you like to count them? Just to be sure? That’s all right. I'll just check the price...
“Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. That’s right, ma’am…”
It took nearly three hours to fill out the eleven word notice, calculate the proper fee, and receive the paid receipt. The Kid was ready to explode by the time he left the newspaper office.
Even when he deliberately tried to lose, he couldn’t – each hand was better than the last. In all his years playing cards, Heyes had never seen the like.
He discarded a pair of sevens, only to receive tens in their place. He discarded a pair of Jacks and the Ace of Diamonds, only to receive two Kings and the Ace of Spades. Once he discarded four cards, receiving - not surprisingly - four better cards in return. He decided to fold, only to have all the other players beat him to it - and won the hand with a pair of twos. He couldn't even throw the game using the obscure rules from Hoyle - one of the players had declared them at the beginning of the game.
He raked in yet another pot, setting his cards down with controlled fury. His plan to lose the horse the same way he'd gained it was a failure.
His favorite girl, a petite brunette named Annie, watched from behind his chair, thrilled by his success and the anticipation of his undivided attention after the game.
“I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead – good evening, gentlemen,” he finally excused himself when he’d had enough.
With a smile that was rather more thin-lipped than usual, Heyes collected his winnings and got up from the table, cursing the strange luck that wouldn't let him lose either his cards or his horse.
He held out his arm to the beauteous Annie – taking consolation in the genuine smile she wore for him. He’d just have to find some other way to get rid of the horse, he told himself philosophically - in the mean time, he had money to spend, and Annie to spend it with…
The other players were not unhappy to see the lucky winner leave the table.
Annie poured him a drink. “Joshua, you know what you need?” she asked, setting down the bottle to run her fingers through his thick hair. They shared a quiet corner of the saloon.
“No – what?” he asked with a wicked grin that revealed deep dimples, catching her hand to kiss first her palm, then her wrist. He started working his way up her arm with great enthusiasm.
“A haircut,” she replied with an equally wicked grin, pulling her arm out of his grasp. Her eyes sparkled with mischief.
Heyes’ expression managed to convey both alarm and disappointment. “A what?” he asked as if he hadn’t heard her properly, catching hold of her hand again.
“Come with me, Joshua,” she ordered, pulling him to his feet while he laughingly protested.
“Yes, ma’am.” He grabbed the bottle of whiskey and followed her, amused and curious to find out what she had planned.
He knew she lived on the top floor of the hotel from his previous nights’ visits. The stairs to her room were unlit and narrow, and he kept a close hold on her – just to make sure, he claimed, that he wouldn’t lose her in the dark.
It was always a good disguise to pretend to have drunk just a little more than he actually had, and as he kept her close, he scanned the dark corridor, on guard against anything that was not what it seemed.
She steadfastly refused to answer any of his questions. “Shhh,” was all she would say, even when he nibbled on her neck while she unlocked the door.
She had obviously spent some time on the arrangements - a bathtub had been brought up, it was full of steaming water, and all the implements for a shave and a haircut were arranged ready for use.
“Ah, I’m not sure…” Heyes began, wondering how much Annie had had to drink herself and whether he should trust his throat to a straight-razor in her hand.
“Joshua,” she insisted, holding a finger to his lips, “Shhh.” She took the bottle of whiskey from his hand and set it on the table.
He took advantage of having his hands free to unpin her hair, and it tumbled down to her waist. Laughing with delight, she reached up to unbutton his shirt while he reached around her to unfasten her dress. She favored red gowns, and the color suited her perfectly. This one had a row of tiny buttons up the back.
They both moved slowly, savoring the moment.
“I’m not sure how you manage all those buttons…” she murmured, not the first time she had commented on his nimble fingers, but this time he was the one to stop her from speaking by drawing her into a long kiss. He shivered lightly as she finished pulling his shirt out of his trousers and put her arms around his bare skin.
He continued to unhook the buttons, until her dress fell around her to the floor. Her shift and drawers followed, until she wore nothing but that wicked smile. He inhaled sharply at the sight of her, returning her wicked grin with interest. He caught her up in a close embrace, pulling the length of her body against his, moving from her mouth to the side of her neck.
She slipped one arm out of his shirt, then the other, somehow without interrupting his slow movement down her torso. She tugged at his gunbelt, provoking a wry smile. She knew he preferred to do this part himself.
“Now,” she commanded, pushing him away and trying to catch her breath, “you finish undressing and get into the tub.”
Still amused by her game, he smiled, a dangerous smile that momentarily revealed the wily outlaw behind the façade of easy-going cowboy. He looked around for someplace handy to leave his gun, dark eyes calmly measuring his options, finally draping the gunbelt across the corner of the table before complying with her request.
The water was very hot and deep enough to cover his chest. He settled back, elbows propped on the sides of the tub and looked up at her expectantly.
“Joshua,” she said softly, stepping daintily into the tub.
“Aren’t you afraid the water will…” he started, suddenly figuring out why the ceiling of his room was water-stained.
“Shhh,” she replied and picked up the soap.
Kid Curry woke abruptly from the dream, covered in icy sweat, his heart pounding. Faint moonlight streamed in through the gap in the curtains, which fluttered in the warm breeze.
He frowned and turned his head to see whether his partner had returned. Heyes slept quietly in the other bed, tightly curled up in his blanket. The early morning hour was quiet except for the occasional burst of noise from the saloon.
What had the dream been about? Curry tried to remember, but the details were already hazy...then it returned to flash vividly through his mind. They were being chased by a posse - needed to ditch their horses - but the roan wouldn't leave them. He'd woken up as the posse closed in, unerringly guided by the inescapable horse. For some reason, his dream-self had found this utterly terrifying.
He wondered if he should wake his partner, then groaned aloud as he realized the utter lack of sympathy he'd get - not to mention the endless ribbing - if Heyes found out he'd had a ‘nightmare’ about the horse.
He pulled the covers over his head and tried to go back to sleep.
The day was already hot, and the sunshine streaming through the window illuminated fine dust particles swirling in the air. Curry rolled over and wondered what time it was. He blinked to clear his vision, doubting his eyes - Heyes was still in bed asleep. For once, the Kid was the first one up.
He threw off the blanket and pulled on his boots. It crossed his mind to wonder whether his partner was feeling all right, it was so unusual for him to sleep late.
Perplexed as to what he should do, he scratched his head, finally deciding to clean his gun as an excuse to stay and find out if Heyes was okay or not. He hadn’t noticed what time Heyes had returned to the room, but it had been very late.
He disassembled and spread the pieces all over the blanket, cleaning each part with care, a familiar ritual that cleared his mind of worry as he focused on fitting the pieces back together, until the gun was reassembled into a finely balanced whole. Heyes slept on, his face hidden by one carelessly flung arm, the blanket twisted around his body.
The Kid was getting hungrier and couldn’t think of another excuse to stay in the room. He decided to let Heyes sleep while he got some breakfast – he would return to check on him as soon as he finished.
He was buckling on his gunbelt when Heyes opened his eyes.
“Late night?” the Kid teased him.
“Mmhmm,” Heyes mumbled, then stretched contentedly. He laced his fingers behind his head and focused his eyes on the Kid.
Curry looked at him again. “Nice haircut,” he observed. Not much had been taken off the length, but it was obviously an improvement over his last, the rough hack his partner had managed with a knife.
Heyes smiled at the memory. “You have no idea,” he replied ironically, glancing at the ceiling – yep, those water stains...
“Well, get up – I want some breakfast,” the Kid demanded.
“Okay,” Heyes yawned, planning to devastate the pretty waitresses worse than his partner this morning.
Heyes caught sight of Murray, the balding banker who’d mistaken Heyes’ horse as his own stolen mount. Maybe Murray would take the roan off his hands…
Murray caught sight of Heyes and turned pale. The younger man had every reason to be angry with him – maybe even violent –after the incident in the saloon. He remembered how quickly the cowboy had turned the tables on him, and the dangerous look in his eyes as he’d released him…
Heyes quickened his pace down the early morning street to catch up with him. “Murray! Wait just a bit!” He took Murray’s arm, keeping a big, friendly smile plastered all over his face. “We need to talk!”
“What about,” Murray asked him sullenly.
“About a horse! Got a deal for ya!” Heyes said brightly.
“What horse?” Murray asked.
“Why, that roan you – admired. I got another horse, and since you liked the roan so much, I thought…”
“Can’t buy him, Mister,” Murray interrupted.
“Why, I’m willin’ to let him go cheap – real cheap – practically free! - just need somebody who’ll appreciate a fine steed like him - give him a good home, you might say – and that’s you, friend! Whadda ya say…”
Murray hesitated, as if sensing a trap. “You’re just tryin’ to get me in trouble with the sheriff,” he accused bitterly. "No deal - and leave me alone!" He pulled free of Heyes’ restraining arm and headed inside the general store.
As Murray scurried away, Heyes stood there, perplexed. He had no idea how to get rid of a horse he couldn’t even give away…
Three days later, they still hadn’t managed to get rid of the horse.
“Well, we could shoot him...”
Curry was only half kidding. He'd returned from another unproductive afternoon spent trying to sell a certain horse. The townspeople were becoming aware of this, and he was beginning to be suspicious about the laughter he heard when he entered a room.
Their raised voices were obscured by the noise from the busy saloon below.
“Kid, that’s a terrible idea - even for you!”
Heyes was outraged, partly because he was so horribly tempted by the idea. He'd spent an equally frustrating afternoon negotiating with an angry stable owner, upset because a certain roan had kicked down his stall. The damages hadn't been cheap.
“Okay, then let’s turn him loose…” the Kid countered stubbornly. He was tired of trying to cajole dealers into buying the horse, tired of placing ads in the newspaper, tired of getting up in the middle of the night to listen to Heyes complain...
“No! There's a drought out there, or hadn't you noticed!” Heyes was tired too - of being in trouble because of the horse, of the Kid's jokes...
They were both tired of trying to avoid the ubiquitous Sheriff Jensen, who kept turning up at the most inopportune moments, plaguing them every bit as much as if he had been Harry Briscoe himself. First it had been the telegram from Lom. Solicitous inquiries about their progress in finding work had followed. Lately it had been frowning observations that they were still hanging around Palmerville, punctuated by humorous questions about their success in the horse trading business.
They'd even tried riding out of town, leaving the roan behind them. It had somehow gotten loose from the stable and joined them on the trail - the Kid's dream of the inescapable horse come true.
They stood nose to nose, each thoroughly out of patience with the situation and each other.
“…this can’t go on forever. There has to be a way to get rid of that damned horse! You’re the genius - think of something!” The Kid stomped out of the hotel room and slammed the door behind him.
Heyes squeezed his eyes tightly shut and sighed, wishing the whole thing didn't give him such a headache. It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried…
Curry stood at the crowded bar, moodily sipping his whiskey and staring into space. His normal poker face was set in a stony mask, and his blue eyes were stormy.
Laughter, hastily smothered, sounded somewhere behind him. He ignored it.
"'Scuse me," someone called out.
He ignored this too as he contemplated all the reasons why he was fed up with his partner, this town, and a certain red horse…
"'Scuse me!" came the laughter again, followed by a tipsy "Shhh!"
He turned around slowly, his jaw set at a belligerent angle. He was not in the mood to trifle, and nobody had better be in the mood to trifle with him…
His eyes turned an even darker shade of blue as he beheld three staggering, overly happy cowpokes standing with their arms linked, half-holding each other upright. The nearest grinned at him - he obviously found something mighty funny - and the Kid was completely disinterested in what this might be.
They were beneath his contempt, and he turned back to the bar with a dismissive shrug.
The trio giggled at him.
"Hey Mister!!" the nearest giggler called out once more. "'Scuse me, but have you got a..."
The other two chorused in, "horse - for - sale?"
The three broke out in fresh gales of laughter, in serious danger of toppling over as they swayed back and forth on unsteady legs.
Curry took another sip of his drink, shoulders hunched and arms tightly crossed. If the three hadn't been so drunk, they would have known they were tangling with the wrong man. Had Heyes been there, he'd have been trying to calm his partner's temper, which by now was well past the point of spontaneous combustion. The bartender held up a warning hand, shaking his head at the three.
"'Scuse me..." the nearest giggler hiccuped behind him, oblivious to the warning signs.
Well, he didn't fight drunks. That's all there was to it. He just had to ignore them, and they'd go away…
A hand landed heavily on his shoulder and spun him around. The room suddenly hushed as the crowd recognized the imminent explosion of deadly temper.
The drunk didn't have time to finish the taunt as the Kid's fist connected with his jaw, all the frustrations of his day behind it. The man hit the floor with a resounding thud, a perfect example of the expression, 'he never knew what hit him'. He lay there in instant beatific peace.
The other two held each other vertical and blinked in innocent incomprehension at the lethal menace confronting them.
"N-n-now, M-m-mister..." the one on the left stammered but trailed off into silence, cowed by the realization they had started something they did not want to finish. His partner had turned as white as a ghost and looked like he was going to be sick.
The Kid glared at them wordlessly, then turned around to finish his drink as they melted away into the hushed crowd. The now-snoring drunk on the floor was dragged off as the noise level gradually crept back to its former level. No one else bothered the surly blond man as he tossed down the last of his whiskey and ordered another.
Heyes found Murray in his office working at his desk. Books were stacked high in unsteady piles, papers strewn everywhere in an untidy mess. He wondered whether the office had been ransacked recently, or if this was just Murray's natural state of disorganization. He stopped himself from speculating whether the bank’s security was in equal disarray.
"Mornin', Murray," he said affably. He settled his hat on the back of his head.
"What do you want, Smith?" the banker asked ungraciously. He was busy moving documents from one pile to another on his desk, making an occasional annotation. "I told you to leave me alone!"
"Now, Murray, I’m just bein' friendly, is all. Seein' how I'm leavin' outta here soon, I thought I'd invite you to have a drink 'fore I leave. Make sure there’s no hard feelin’s, you might say." He 'accidentally' bumped into a stack of books, catching it just barely in time to keep it from tumbling to the floor. Murray put a hand out to help steady the stack, his expression aggravated.
"I have an audit in two days - I am trying to get ready for it,” Murray said pointedly, his words carefully measured. “What do you want?”
"Oh, I bet you could find a few minutes to have drink," Heyes said. "'Specially when somebody wants to do you a favor."
"Why don'cha come have a drink with me and find out? Take a break from all this paperwork." He gestured as he spoke, knocking over a huge pile of documents. "Ooh, sorry!" he said quickly, trying to catch them and succeeding in spreading them all over the floor instead.
"Now see here, Smith..." Murray growled, unsuccessfully trying to catch the papers.
"Never was much for paperwork myself," Heyes admitted cheerfully. "Now, about that drink?"
Murray sighed in exasperation and stood up, watching ruefully as Heyes knocked over another stack of books, one that he managed not to catch in time. "A short one, Smith - I really do have things to do..." He looked distinctly unhappy as he surveyed the worsened shambles Heyes had made of his office.
"Of course, Murray - whatever you say," Heyes replied, steering the banker out of his office towards the saloon.
The Kid let himself into the hotel room, closing the door forcefully behind him. His partner was lying on the bed, firmly barricaded behind a book.
"Heyes," the Kid said loudly. The no-nonsense tone of his voice proclaimed his readiness for a fight. He'd had it - up to here - with that damned horse...
Heyes ignored him.
Curry felt his tenuous grasp on his anger begin to slip.
"Heyes!" he shouted impatiently, ready to tear that damned book out of his partner's hands if he didn't put it down - immediately.
Heyes lowered the book barely enough to glare at the Kid over the top of it. His dark eyes were inky with his own black mood, which he did not bother to hide from his cousin.
The Kid had been about to launch into a furious complaint but checked himself when he recognized Heyes' state of mind. Few people ever saw Hannibal Heyes in a towering rage, and fewer still would get in his way when he was in one. The Kid was not afraid of him but knew better than to ‘get proddy’ when he got like this. He quickly amended what he had been about to say.
"What'd you find out," he inquired more quietly, belatedly noticing the dark rings under Heyes' eyes. Whatever else was going on with that damned horse, Heyes had not been sleeping well lately, something the Kid had been ignoring.
Heyes lowered the book a scant inch further, his jaw tightly clenched and his mouth set in a grim line.
"He wouldn't go for it," he replied shortly, his gravely voice matching his raw temper.
Heyes had wasted an entire afternoon trying to convince Murray to take the roan. No matter how he presented it, the little banker would have nothing to do with the idea. Heyes returned to the hotel to find the stable owner waiting for his return - it seemed the roan had bitten one of the hands. In addition to paying the doctor's bill, he'd been threatened with arrest for keeping a public nuisance. To top off his day, he'd had to find a new stable for the roan, something that had not been easy to do - or cheap - as the horse's reputation spread.
"Okay," the Kid said reasonably, wondering how long it would take Heyes to cool down. "So what's the plan?"
"I'm thinking, Kid," Heyes said coldly. He hid himself behind the book again, evidently unwilling to discuss it further.
"Well, when you're done thinkin', I'll be in the saloon," Curry said curtly. He hated it when Heyes shut him out like this, with an underlying current of fear that Heyes might not let him back in. It had happened once before, with the result that he hadn’t seen Heyes for six months – the memory of that fight still chilled him. I don’t expect you to fix everything, you know, he thought angrily, realizing a split second later that he often did just that.
Heyes merely turned a page, supremely indifferent to his partner’s announcement. He missed the hurt expression that flashed across the Kid's face, making him briefly look like he was ten years old.
His cousin stared at him in speechless anger a few seconds longer, then turned on his heel and left, slamming the door explosively behind him.
Heyes put the book down with a long exhalation after the door closed. He knew he had been staring at the same page for an hour without making the slightest bit of sense out of it.
He studied the water stains on the ceiling, already sorry for being so short with the Kid - none of this was his fault. He kicked himself for hurting the Kid's feelings.
If he continued to lie there, he'd end up feeling horribly guilty. A break would do him good, he decided, maybe help him shake off his sour mood and the fierce headache that went with it.
He threw the book across the room, childishly pleased by the sound it made against the wall, then went to find his partner to make peace.
"I don't know - maybe we could give him to Kyle - you know, somebody whose luck is already so bad, he wouldn’t notice the extra – or it'd cancel each other out," Heyes told his partner as the two sat peaceably on the front porch of the hotel. They smoked cigars – Heyes’ peace offering - as they tried to solve the dilemma of the horse.
"Yeah, but we don't know where Kyle is right now," the Kid reminded him.
Kyle was a member of the Devil's Hole Gang. When Heyes had been the gang's leader, he had thought of the inept but loyal outlaw as his 'bad luck charm' - Kyle was not the brightest star in the night sky, and if there was a way to get into trouble during a job, Kyle would find it.
They smiled in unison as their most recent memory of the hapless Kyle crossed their minds. Kyle had heard about a country named China and had taken it into his head to visit - and the last they'd heard, he'd been seen digging a hole trying to get there.
"Still, with Kyle's talent for losing his horse, one he can't lose might be a good idea," Heyes mused aloud.
They had patched up their differences without apologizing, each knowing the other was sorry from the expression on his face when Heyes arrived in the saloon a few minutes after the Kid.
Liz joined them for a few minutes, teasing ‘Joshua Smith’ about a certain lady barber. The Kid punched his partner lightly on the shoulder before retiring with Liz, trying to let his cousin know he meant well, even if he didn’t always understand.
Heyes nodded slightly, touched by the Kid’s inarticulate loyalty. He stayed outside to enjoy the night air, his chair tipped back and his feet against the front rail. The normally busy street was empty, dimly illuminated by the moon and occasional gaslight, and the evening had brought out plenty of flies. Their buzzing added to the tinkle of off-key piano and occasional shouts from the saloon.
"There he is, Sheriff! That's him!"
Heyes winced, a mightily put-upon expression on his face as Sheriff Jensen and Murray closed in on him. Not again, he thought wearily, rubbing his eyes with a gloved hand.
But Sheriff Jensen had drawn his gun. "Hannibal Heyes, you're under arrest."
Heyes' eyes flew open. "Beg pardon, Sheriff?" He couldn't believe his ears. He ignored the gun pointed at his midsection.
"You heard me just fine, Heyes. Put your hands up, or I'll shoot." The hard note of determination was decidedly un-Briscoe-like.
Murray grinned greedily, displaying remarkably bad teeth for a banker. His bald head reflected an oval of brightness from the nearest gaslight.
Heyes slowly put his hands up, the picture of relaxed poise while Jensen leaned forward to take his gun. He fervently hoped the Kid had gone to Liz's room, not the other way around - of course, his partner was likely to be arrested soon no matter where he currently was – they were too well known by now in the town. He wondered how many other men might be searching, and hoped against hope the Kid would not be caught - cursing himself for letting them stay so long in one place.
"You're makin' a big mistake, Sheriff - you know I'm Joshua Smith…”
Sheriff Jensen motioned for Heyes to get to his feet.. “Get movin'.”
Heyes persisted. “Sheriff, you might not believe this, but this same mistake happened to me once before. If you’d check the description carefully, you’ll see I couldn’t possibly be…”
Jensen stopped him with a wave of his gun. “I said get movin’, Heyes.”
Murray’s grin faded as he watched Heyes argue with the sheriff. “Gotta watch this one, Tom, he’s supposed to be a real smooth talker.”
Heyes tried again – at least he might buy some time for the Kid. “Sheriff, you already checked with Lom Trevors – he told you who I am."
"Well..." Jensen said slowly, as he considered the truth of this. "We'll just have to check you out again, that's all...”
Murray tried to interrupt again. Jensen shushed him impatiently. “All right, Charlie, I heard ya! Now – shut up, Heyes – and I told you to get movin’ – I ain’t gonna tell you again!”
The sheriff was afraid, and Heyes didn’t like people who were afraid, especially when they had guns – they tended to shoot at the first sign of trouble. He stood up carefully, his dark eyes watching alertly for any mistakes the sheriff might make - but Jensen never dropped his gaze, and his gun didn't waver at all.
“That is dead – or – alive, Heyes,” Jensen reminded him coldly as he stepped down off the porch. “Your choice.” The memory of Heyes’ escaping his jail once already made him doubly determined it wouldn’t happen twice.
Murray chuckled, rubbing his hands together lightly as he contemplated the ten thousand dollar reward. "How soon can I get my money?" he asked the sheriff as the they escorted their impassive prisoner down the dark and deserted street.
The outlaw’s eyes, nearly black in the gloom, glittered for an instant with the merest hint of warning. Murray shivered as a thrill of fear ran down his back - he would be glad when the dangerous young man was safely under lock and key.
"Like I already told you, when the Wyoming authorities confirm his identity, and not before." Tension pitched his voice high.
The little banker was clearly unhappy about having to wait. "What about the other one?" he asked, the question Heyes had been dreading.
"Evans has his hotel room surrounded by now - they should be bringin’ him in shortly. What do you think of that, Heyes?" Sheriff Jensen chuckled nervously as they neared the front door.
Before Heyes could reply, the sound of a gun being cocked provided the answer.
"Throw your guns on the ground," the Kid's disembodied voice ordered, "and put your hands up."
Sheriff Jensen and Murray complied silently as the Kid stepped out of the deep shadow concealing the narrow alley running between the two buildings. Both men swallowed hard as they looked from the barrel of Kid Curry's gun to the steely glint in his eyes. The resemblance froze them both in their tracks.
"Excuse me, Sheriff," Heyes said with exaggerated politeness, retrieving his gun with a rascally grin.
“You can’t…” Jensen started, dismayed by the rapid reversal of fortune, falling silent at the look the two outlaws turned in his direction. Murray had turned so pale, Heyes thought the little banker might faint.
The two outlaws locked their would-be captors in one of the jail cells, then quietly slipped through the back alley to where the Kid had horses ready. Heyes noticed the roan was not one of them.
Heyes raised his eyebrows to inquire how the Kid had escaped capture.
"Heard them coming up the stairs," the Kid said by way of explanation, handing the reins of one horse to Heyes. "Let's see if we can lose the roan this time."
They grinned mischievously at each other and made a hasty exit from Palmerville.
No posse caught up with them, but the roan showed up two days later.
They had taken a route that would have been difficult, if not impossible, for an experienced posse to track, and they had traveled at a pace that had exhausted both them and their horses. How the roan had managed to find them - or catch up to them - mystified both men.
"I gotta admit, Kid - I'm pretty well stumped." Heyes did not often find himself in this position, and he hated to admit to it.
The brilliant sunshine gave an extra sheen to the roan's red coat as it trotted obediently behind the horses ridden by the two outlaws.
"Yeah, well, maybe we can give him to Kyle," the Kid said slowly. "Shame we can't give him to Murray."
Heyes nodded, reflecting on the little banker who had apparently figured out who they were. Murray certainly hadn't been shy about turning them into the sheriff. Seemed like it would be only fair to return a 'favor'.
As they rode in companionable silence, Heyes thought about how they might give the horse to Murray. A ghost of an idea began to occur to him...
"That's right - the report on a horse stolen over in Palmerville. Think we may have found it - we'd like to know what the brand marking is, and whether there's a reward," he told the friendly deputy in the small town of Andersen.
The deputy nodded and dug into a deep stack of papers. He pulled out one from about halfway down the pile. "This might be it - here," he said, handing it to Heyes.
Heyes tried not to stare at the wanted posters behind the deputy – he’d taken the chair that faced them, causing the lawman to sit in the one that put the posters behind him.
The brand on the roan they had 'found' didn't match the one in the report, and there was no chance of their collecting the fifty dollar reward offered by one Mister Charles Murray of Palmerville.
"Oh, well," the helpful deputy told Heyes. "Better luck next time."
"That's all right, Deputy - thanks for your time."
Heyes smiled as he left the office. Now that they knew what brand marked the stolen horse, it would be a simple matter of changing the roan's brand and turning it in as Murray's.
The Kid leaned against a porch column cross the street, waiting for his partner to emerge from the sheriff's office - no sense in them both taking the chance of visiting it.
Heyes caught his partner's eye and nodded slightly, signaling that the visit had gone well. Curry uncrossed his arms, and both men headed over to the saloon to discuss their next move.
Curry and Heyes had never been horse thieves, but with their wide acquaintance with the less respectable side of life, they knew who to talk to. Soon they were in touch with a friend of a friend of a friend - someone who could change the brand on a horse...
Changing the brand turned out to be easy - Wilbur's unlucky roan wore a figure eight, open at the bottom; Murray's looked like a capital letter 'A'. Their friend's friend was a real artist - the original brand was completely obliterated by the time he finished with the roan.
The two outlaws stopped in the auspiciously named town of Second Chance where the Kid – who’d lost the coin toss - turned the newly branded roan in to the sheriff.
"How're we gonna know if it works?" the Kid worried. It was bad enough to have to look over their shoulders for lawmen, bounty hunters, and posses all the time. Adding that damned horse to their list of pursuers - well, that was just too much.
There was a small game of poker in the back room of the Second Chance hotel. The players were friendly, but the pot was small, and so was the state of their funds - all they had in their pockets was the fifty dollars reward for 'recovering' Murray's stolen property.
Both men froze as a voice rang out in the saloon.
“Hey you – yeah you – #$%@# you - and the horse you rode in on!”
The drunk at the end of the bar was yelling – but not at them. They looked at each other and burst into laughter.
Heyes contemplated the cards in his hand. He was going to lose - for the first time in over a week - and this delighted him. His strange luck with cards and a certain horse was over.
"Oh, it worked, Kid, believe me - it worked," was all he said.