Lost and Found

By Carol Broyles

Hannibal Heyes sat astride his horse in the shade of a copse of trees. His gloved fingers would have thrummed against the saddle horn in nervous impatience, but he had long since learned to banish any outward show of anxiety, so he merely rested his crossed wrists against the horn while his dark brown eyes scanned the trail.

The only signs betraying his concern were an almost imperceptible stiffening of his shoulders and the worry reflected in his eyes, which he didn't bother to mask since he was alone. The wall he'd learned to erect around his emotions was a good one, and few people alive could have looked past the facade of careless unconcern to the gnawing worry underneath.

The Kid would have known immediately. But that point was moot since it was the Kid's absence that caused Heyes' present state of disquiet.

Heyes sighed and pulled his black hat lower on his forehead, staring up the trail once more. The Kid should have been back close to an hour ago. Heyes didn't like sending him into town alone, but the sheriff knew Heyes and would have recognized him on sight. He didn't know Curry, which made him the only logical choice to ride into town and collect the telegraph and money they hoped would be waiting for them.

But just because the sheriff didn't know the Kid didn't mean one of his deputies wouldn't recognize him. Or anyone else in town for that matter. And Heyes knew from experience a man alone was 10 times as apt to fall into trouble as two, which was one of the reasons their steadfast partnership made so much sense and had served them so well.

For the hundredth time Heyes ran over a list of innocuous possible circumstances that would have delayed the Kid in getting back. He didn't really believe any of them, but it gave his active mind something to concentrate on while he waited.

The telegraph wasn't there and the Kid had decided to stay in town to wait for it.

No good. The telegraph - if it were really coming - should have been there by now, and the Kid had promised to come straight back from the telegraph office whether it had arrived or not.

The Kid had stopped by the saloon for a drink.

Again no good. And for all the same reasons.

The Kid was having a romantic rendezvous with a woman.

Still no good. Same reasons.

The Kid had met a woman in trouble.

Heyes' brows knit as he gave this thought more consideration. It was more likely than the others - but still, Heyes could think of few circumstances a very able Kid Curry couldn't dispatch in an hour. Especially if he knew his partner was waiting on him. And worrying.

That left other more likely - and far more dangerous - reasons behind the Kid's delay.

A lawman had recognized the Kid, he'd been surrounded and thrown in jail.

The plausibility of that scenario was what made worry gnaw at him like a rat with sharp, needlelike teeth.

If they hadn't gotten the drop on him, the Kid would have beat a hasty retreat from town, most likely in his direction, with a posse in pursuit. Heyes was close enough to town to hear any shots fired, which he would have in such a case, even if Curry had been forced to flee in the opposite direction.

Curry could also have met up with an old enemy, but again Heyes hadn't heard any shots, making the thought that Curry was cooling his heels in the local lockup the most likely scenario.

Heyes scanned the trail again then glanced up at the sky, marking where the sun stood in its daily journey across the horizon. Nearly 4 o'clock, Heyes guessed, still several hours until dark. If the law did have Curry, they would no doubt be looking for him, and it would be foolish to ride into town without the concealing cover of night.

His every fiber urged him to go now. Despite the danger. To get to Curry as fast as possible in case he was in real trouble. The logical part of his brain rebuked him for that impulse, telling Heyes he'd be no help to the Kid if he rode in half-cocked and got captured too.

Heyes cursed the logic. But he waited.

After dark the small town of Creekmore was a much livelier place, with light and music spilling from the town's two saloons. Heyes had rode in quietly, keeping a vigilant eye out for the sheriff and any other signs of trouble. It was times like this that drove home afresh just how much he depended on Curry's strong, capable presence backing him up.

A surreptitious scrutiny of the jail assured him there was no extra manpower there, as would befit guarding an important prisoner. Heyes had seen no heightened presence of lawmen on the streets either - just a lone deputy (not the sheriff, thank God) making his rounds in an almost bored fashion.

And a few casually worded questions at the first saloon led to the information there was no one at all lodged in the jail this night, although by Saturday, when the local ranch hands poured into town with their pay in their pockets, the town became livelier still and two or three of the rowdier types usually wound up in a cell until their employers came to bail them out on Monday morning.

With this bit of information and no sign of Curry in the first saloon, Heyes drained the last of his beer and headed for the door, intent on checking the inhabitants of the other saloon. He didn't even spare the three poker games in progress a professional glance as he pushed through the swinging doors and strode up the boardwalk to the second.

An hour later found him no further forward in his quest, but he had ascertained the location of the town's one doctor, and his steps turned there now. A feigned toothache elicited a small packet of medicine, his promise to return on the morrow if the tooth - which looked perfectly fine to the doctor - still hurt, and the information the doctor had no patients on the office's two cots and, in fact, Heyes had been his only patient that day.

Five minutes later found Heyes standing on the darkened street corner, weighing his options. The Kid's horse wasn't in the livery. The Kid didn't appear to be in town. His next best move was to circulate in the local saloons, making friendly conversation and trying to ascertain if anyone had seen the Kid - without arousing anyone's suspicions.

"Kid, where are you?'' Heyes muttered aloud, before turning and heading toward one of the saloons.

"Beggin' your pardon, ma'am, but this isn't the most comfortable way to travel.''

It was a vast understatement, but neither the words nor Kid Curry's polite, soft-spoken tone provoked a response from the woman driving the wagon. Lying prone in the back with his hands and feet tied - the rawhide strips cutting viciously into his wrists - Curry tried to shift to a more comfortable position. He had already managed to shrug out from under the stifling blanket, which had set the lump on the back of his head throbbing, threatening to plunge him into unconsciousness again. But wedged between the sacks of meal, flour and beans in the wagon, Curry had little room to maneuver.

"Can you at least tell me where we're going ma'am?'' Curry tried again.

"You'll find out soon enough,'' the woman replied, sparing a backward glance. Her angular features, which had seemed innocuously vapid when she had asked for his help outside the telegraph office, appeared hard-bitten and predatory.

Using the famed Curry charm, Kid ignored his pounding head and gave her his best smile. Seemingly unimpressed, she turned her attention back to the team after assuring herself he was still securely tired. Kid suppressed a groan, fervently wishing he'd followed his partner's instructions and come straight back from the telegraph office. But he'd never been able to refuse a lady in distress, and when the woman had asked him to hitch up her team, explaining that the man running the livery was gone, he didn't see how he could turn her down.

It would only take a moment.

He had barely started, however, modestly shrugging off the woman's fawning words of thanks, when someone had hit him from behind and he'd gone down like a sack of potatoes. His only comforts were the soft clip-clop sound of his horse's hooves as it followed - tied to the wagon - ensuring that if he did manage to escape he'd be able to make a fast getaway, and the thought that his partner was surely looking for him.

They were pulling up at a cabin - more like a shack - and Curry twisted into an upright position. The sight of the man striding toward the wagon - a cruel smile twisting his lips - made Kid want to lie back down again with a groan of despair, but instead he fixed the man with an unwavering blue stare. The man's smile faltered for just an instant before he reminded himself that the man in the wagon wasn't sporting a six-gun to back him up. And - with his hands tied behind his back - couldn't draw on him even if he were still wearing his weapon.

Wonderful, Kid thought, the idiot. Although it had been a few years ago, Curry remembered him distinctly - as he remembered the faces of every single man he had ever been forced to draw on.

Drunk and rude, the man had taken exception to the attentions a certain blond saloon girl had been paying him. Curry had tried to warn him off, but the idiot had persisted, pushing him into a gunfight, and Curry had shot him in the arm before his gun had even cleared the holster.

"Well, if it isn't Mr. Gunfighter,'' the man said nastily.

"Fowler,'' Kid greeted coolly. "I should have known a yellow cur dog like you would be behind this. And getting a woman to do your dirty work, too.'' Curry jerked his head at the woman who had climbed down from the wagon's seat.

"Shaddup,'' Fowler growled. He had already hauled Curry from the wagon, and now he backhanded him across the face, knocking him to the ground.

Fowler grinned again. It had been his lucky day when he'd spotted the gunfighter riding into town - especially since he was alone, without that dark-haired friend he remembered being at his side the night he'd picked that fight in the Tucson bar. Fortunately his friend Stanton had also been in town, and with Stanton's wife's help, the three had easily gotten the drop on the gunfighter in the livery. Easy as shooting a dog.

Now he looked down at the man on the ground, expecting to see him cower, but he still stared back calmly and unflinchingly, sending an unwelcome shiver of fear down his spine.

Fowler drew back a foot to kick his prisoner, but was interrupted by Stanton's wife, Emily.

"Where's the money, Raif? It'll be getting dark soon, and I want to get home.''

"Got any money, gunfighter?'' Fowler asked, searching the Kid's pockets. He withdrew three dollars and threw it down on the ground beside him in disgust.

"Take his horse and gear. That's worth the $100 I promised James,'' Fowler ordered.

"I don't know,'' Emily began doubtfully. "That's not what you agreed on.''

"I said take the god-damned horse!'' Fowler shouted. "If he's got a problem with it we can settle up later.''

Emily reluctantly complied. Kid considered appealing to her better nature but decided he'd be wasting his breath. Soon she, the wagon and his horse were gone, leaving him alone with Fowler. It was not a prospect he relished.

"What now?'' Curry asked Fowler.

"You and me is going to have us a little rematch,'' Fowler said with a chuckle. "But not now - I've got some preparations to make. And I want to give you plenty of time to think about it first. I'll be thinking about it too - and remembering.''

Fowler grabbed him under each arm, easily with his left hand and somewhat awkwardly with his right, which the Kid noticed he'd been holding at a somewhat odd angle.

"You crippled me, gunfighter. But I'll do worse to you. Just you think about that,'' Fowler promised as he dragged Curry into a back room of the shack. The door slammed and locked, cutting off all the air and most of the light in the hot, musty-smelling room. Faintly Kid heard the scurrying of tiny feet, but he had bigger problems to deal with. Granted this small reprieve, Kid fought against the rawhide strips that bound him, heedless to the damage he was inflicting on his already-chafed wrists.

It was 8 a.m. and Heyes haunted the front of the telegraph office, willing the operator to arrive and open the blasted door. The place had been closed when he'd finally dared ride into town last night, so he'd been forced to wait until today to check it out.

"Morning, sheriff,'' someone down the street greeted, and Heyes turned his head away as casually as he could. A sidewise glance assured him Sheriff Lemore hadn't noticed him, and Heyes breathed a sigh of relief.

Heyes glanced back at the telegraph office and saw the operator had flipped the sign to open and unlocked the door. Heyes shouldered his way inside and affected a casual, professional air.

"I'm Mr. Joshua Smith. Do you have a telegraph for me - or perhaps for a Thaddeus Jones?'' he inquired politely.

"No. I still don't have a telegraph for Smith or Jones.'' The short, bespectacled man behind the counter was brusque but not rude.

"Still?'' Heyes asked, trying not to look too hopeful.

"Fellow was in here yesterday afternoon asking about it - Mr. Jones,'' the man replied.

"Oh, good. My associate is already in town,'' Heyes lied smoothly. "Did he happen to mention where he is staying?'' Heyes mentally crossed his fingers.

"Wouldn't know anything about that,'' the telegraph operator replied, clearly in a hurry to be back about his business.

"I just thought he might have told you what hotel he'd be staying at - in case the telegraph arrived.''

"Nope. I got the impression he was leaving town immediately - headed straight for his horse ... until Mrs. Stanton stopped him.''

"Mrs. Stanton?'' Heyes asked, vowing to kill the Kid himself if he was holed up in a love nest with some beautiful young widow.

"Would she be a pretty woman - in her 20s?'' he asked.

"Mister, you've got the wrong woman,'' the clerk assured him.

"My mistake,'' Heyes murmured. "So he went off with this Mrs. Stanton?''

"Toward the livery,'' the clerk supplied. "I couldn't tell what they were saying - none of my business anyway.''

"An admirable trait,'' Heyes responded. "Just one more thing...'' Heyes slid his last five dollars across the counter to the clerk. "Can you tell me where this Mrs. Stanton lives?''

"Excuse me, ma'am. Is your husband at home?''

"What's yer business with him?'' The woman who'd opened the door of the farmhouse a crack at his knock stared at Heyes suspiciously, her hard-bitten features thawing only slightly under the full force of his best smile. Heyes decided to try a different tack.

"I'm sorry to bother you, ma'am,'' Heyes spoke quickly. "I can see I've come at a bad time. I'd wanted to repay your husband some money I owed him before I went out of town, but I'll be back this way in a few months and I'll try to catch up with him then.'' With a polite tip of his hat, Heyes started to turn away. The door instantly swung wider.

"Wait,'' the woman stopped him. "Whatever you owe him you can give to me.''

"I'm not sure...'' Heyes began doubtfully. "I don't think he'd like not getting it personally. He seemed pretty adamant about it. Are you sure he won't be home soon?''

"Not till tonight. Just give it here.'' The woman held out her hand and Heyes looked past her into the now open doorway, assuring himself there was no one lurking inside with a gun waiting to blow his head off at the slightest sign of trouble. Heyes took a step closer, lowering his voice a shade.

"That's too bad. Then maybe you could tell me where my friend is. Blue eyes, curly hair - you met him outside the telegraph office yesterday.''

"I don't know no one like that.'' She started to shut the door in his face, but Heyes prevented it with an outstretched arm. His voice was still low, but dangerous now.

"You know, I find that strange. Because that's his horse in your corral.'' Heyes stepped inside, pushing past her. "And that's his saddle leaning against the hearth in your living room.''

The woman tried to grab a rifle from above the mantle, but Heyes easily held it in place. Not wanting to be so close to him, she pivoted and began backing away.

"You'd better leave now. If my husband was home...'' she railed, furious and afraid.

"I wish he was,'' Heyes said. "I'd much rather beat the information out of him than you. But I'm not leaving here without my partner ... or at least his whereabouts.''

The outlaw approached her. He smiled again - a cold smile this time that didn't reach his eyes - and she took another step back, coming up solidly against the far wall.

This was all just a bit much, Curry thought in disgust from where he stood pinioned to a tree, the pocket watch Heyes had semi-jokingly stuffed in his shirt pocket before he'd left on his errand in Creekmore hanging from a limb at eye level. "High noon,'' the idiot had said with a cackle. That's when they'd have their showdown and the Kid would meet his death. Yep, it was just wonderful, Curry thought for the hundredth time. After years on the outlaw trail and a hundred death-defying scrapes, he stood an excellent chance of being killed by a man who'd read one too many dime novels. Could his day get any worse, he wondered, trying to flex his arms and clenching his teeth as pins and needles knifed through him as his arms protested the fact they'd been tied behind him since yesterday evening. And of course ... Kid eyed the pocket watch with disgust ... it was almost noon now.

It was too ridiculous. Heyes would laugh his head off if he could see him now, and Curry would welcome it - if only Heyes were here. Come on, partner, Kid willed him. But if Heyes was going to find him, he'd have surely done so by now. For even though Kid would never admit it to Heyes, he firmly believed his partner was a genius because he had proved it over and over again. Heyes' natural intelligence was honed sharper by his cunning and instinct for survival. In fact, situations that would make other men panic were what brought out Heyes' flashes of real genius. Maybe it was fear that kicked it into gear - transcending the plane from merely clever to brilliant - but whatever it was Kid respected it and had learned to depend on it.

As the watch ticked on inexorably, Kid thought a bit of panic might not be out of order now. But he knew when the time came his own mind would focus, shutting out everything but the job at hand - survival - like he always did. Even with his arms screaming in pain Kid was fairly sure he could beat the man in a halfway decent gunfight. Trouble was, Kid wasn't sure he'd even get that much of a chance.

As if in answer to that thought, Fowler came striding through the trees behind the shack to where Curry was tied. The man took a swig of whiskey - to stiffen his nerve? - and Curry hoped he was drunk. It would slow his reflexes. Kid's own throat was parched with thirst, and even the whiskey looked good at the moment. He didn't think he'd be offered the bottle, however, and he wasn't

disappointed.

"You ready to die, gunfighter?'' the man leered. Curry leveled his calm blue gaze on him, unblinking, and the man took another swig.

"Let's get this over with,'' he said in a bored voice that never failed to unnerve further his usually nervous opponents.

"Not yet. Still got some preparations to make,'' the idiot said. He stepped behind Curry, and Kid couldn't see what he was doing. He could feel him loosening one arm, however - his gun arm - although the ropes tying his other arm and looped around his chest and waist still held him to the tree. The man was tying another rope to his gun arm, though, and when he finished it dropped to Curry's side like it had lead weights attached, which, unfortunately, it did.

"Buckshot!'' the man crowed. "Fifty pounds of it - to even up the odds.''

Curry tested his arm. He could still move it, but slowly. And the pins and needles were really going to town now. Was he kidding? No, Kid knew, he wasn't. Suddenly he wished for Heyes' silver tongue.

"Don't see how you'll get much satisfaction killing me this way,'' Kid said. "Why don't you just shoot me in the back of the head?''

"Oh, don't you worry about that, gunfighter. I'm going to get all the satisfaction I need.'' He replaced Curry's gun in the holster.

Kid tried again.

"Suppose I just don't draw. How will that fit into your plan?''

"You'll draw, 'cause if you don't I'll shoot you in the leg. Then the other leg ... you get the picture, gunfighter?''

"Yeah, I get it,'' Kid said wearily. It was straight up noon. "Let's get on with it.''

"Whatever you say.'' Fowler positioned himself 10 paces away. He grinned hugely, his fingers flexing over the butt of his pistol. "Dra...''

"I wouldn't do that if I were you.'' The words were accompanied by the click of a gun's hammer being pulled back, and Fowler froze.

"You have no idea how glad I am to see you,'' the Kid said with real feeling, and Heyes, having confiscated Fowler's pistol, glanced at Curry with a relieved smile.

"I bet,'' he answered. "You want me to take the bullets out and let you two continue this fascinating little contest?''

"Just untie me,'' Kid said, then groused. "What kept you?''

Heyes motioned Fowler onto the ground, then strode over to do as the Kid requested.

"Lost my watch,'' Heyes deadpanned, snagging it from the tree.

"No, on second thought, don't untie me. 'Cause if you do I may have to kill you.''

Heyes hid a grin as he cut through the ropes. He was still grinning hours and many miles later as they rode down the trail.

"What?!'' Curry finally asked.

"You know, Kid. This is the first time I've ever saved you in a gunfight.''