One Good Turn
Now, I know I cain’t see too well no more and I cain’t hardly hear a’tall, but I never do forget a face, ‘specially the face of somebody that’s done me a favor.
Like those two done.
I saw ‘em soon’s they rode into town. The way they was covered with dust, I could tell they’d been on the trail for a real spell. They made for the saloon real casual like. Hell, I’d’a been there myself ‘cept my daughter gave ‘em the order to send me home if’n I set one foot in the door and I’ll be damned if that big barkeep, Ralph, didn’t take her to heart. He’s sweet on her, I think…
Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah…
They was tryin’ not to call attention to themselves, kinda tryin’ to fade in with the common townsfolk, and they might’ve succeeded, if’n the younger one, curly-hair, broad-shoulders, one of them there ‘ladies’ men, hadn’t said somethin’ to make t’other one, dark, lean, with a smart look to him, take off his black hat and hit him over the head with it…
I been in this world long enough to see a lot of things more’n once, seen that move more’n few times, but there was something about the way the dark one swung that hat, PO’d, but grinnin’ and the way t’other one just stood and took it, smilin’ himself and shruggin’ at the same time…
Some kinda bell started janglin’ in my fool head and in a minute I was grippin’ the posts of this here General Store I own, lookin’ around me, thinkin’ how it could have been different. Like how it could’a been some other old coot sittin’ here on this bench enjoyin’ the June sunshine and listenin’ to the coins clinkin’ in the change box inside. Some other old coot sayin’ “How’do, M’am,” to the Widdah Harper every Saturday morn like clockwork…
I looked across the street and they was still standin’ there. Don’t know if they heard me. Don’t even know if they noticed I was there. But I couldn’t help noticin’ them.
The sharp one took a gander to the right and left like he was checkin’ the lay a’things, shrugged and then waved a hand at the saloon doors, following his partner in.
I coulda done a lot of things right then. I coulda up and got Sheriff Foote. I coulda run and called that dang son-in-law a’mine. I coulda run straight to the chapel and said a few verses of…well, it’s been a while. A few verses of “Praise be” to somebody… Heck, I coulda even taken a nap. (Lord knows I been wantin’ one since I got up this mornin’.)
It was my feet, though. My feet knew what to do ‘fore my head had figgered it out.
Up and had me runnin’ ‘cross the street to the saloon, they did…
I met Big Ralph at the door. Musta seen me comin’…
“Hold it right there, old timer,” he says, pretty as you please. Old timer!? Now, I may be older’n most, but I don’t cotton to nobody talkin’ down to me. ‘Specially the likes of him…
“Merry told me Doc Wilson put you off the stuff. You don’t want to get in trouble with the Doc, do you? You don’t want me to get in trouble with Merry…”
“Listen, here, Ralph,” I says, just wishin’ the big bear would get the H outta my way. “I don’t much care who you get in trouble with.” He was starin’ at me, starin’ down at me, and I could see he was in no mood to humor an old man. (‘Bout once a week, I could usually get a shot of whiskey outta him, by slippin’ him a coin or two…)
I tried a different approach. “I’m not here to drink… You can trust me.” He looked at me harder, his eyebrows joinin’ hands. “This time you can trust me… Look, I just gotta talk to those two fellers over there,” I said, motioning to the pair, who by now were settled in at the bar.
Still nothing from the Bear.
I was gettin’ mad. Luckily, I could still think straight.
“How’s this,” I says, peerin’ up at him. “I’m gonna put my two hands in these here two pockets and if you see me take ‘em out for any reason, why, you just throw me out on the street…”
He looks at me a little longer (I thought those eyebrows were gonna switch places), lets out this big sigh, shakes his head real slow, and then steps aside!
I thanked him real quick, promised to be a good old coot, and then ran right in.
There they was at the bar, payin’ no mind to the crazy idiot at the door tryin’ to join them. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to say to ‘em…
All those years and all the stuff in-between and me like a mutey!
The curly-haired one looks up and sees me standin’ there with my mouth gapin’ wide an’ he dips his head at me “hello.”
I’m like one’a them monkeys from the travelin’ show. I dip my head back. And not a word.
The dark one’s studyin’ me now and I can see he’s tryin’ to track some real deep thought. He thinks for a sec, then stops tryin’. Just gives me this one-dimpled smile and says, “Can we buy you a drink, Gramps?”
I almost jumped at it, felt my right hand—my drinkin’ hand—twitchin’ in my pocket, but instead I found my voice.
“That’s very kind of you, gentlemen, but I never touch the stuff…”
Curly-hair takes a quick look where my hand is buried in my pocket and grins. “Of course you don’t,” he says.
Then we’s just settin’ there starin’ at each other again.
Don’t know what was wrong with my tongue (yes, I do: I needed a drink…), but finally Black-hat asks, “I’m sorry, do we know you?”
Now I’m grinnin’, ear to ear, and I feel like I should be shakin’ hands and pattin’ backs or somethin’, anyway, but Ralph is behind the bar and he gives me a real mean look so I just try to calm down.
“Yes,” I says, and before I can get started on the ‘hows,’ I see the dark one give his friend a mean look of his own and his friend just rolls his eyes to heaven and looks embarrassed.
Takin’ a deep breath, I start the story anyway…
“Back in ‘78, I was the night watchmen for the First Missouri Savings and Trust. I used to be a teller, but Mr. Marcus Taylor, the bank manager, complained I wasn’t fast enough no more so I got switched to night security… They couldna been too worried about that vault a’theirs, else why’d they put old ‘Stone Hands Riley’ on the job? Didn’t really bother me none. I was two weeks from getting my pension and I’d’a mucked stalls if we had ‘em…”
They was starin’ straight ahead at the bar now, neither one of ‘em sayin’ a word. Well, I wasn’t worried. I knew how the story was gonna end…
“The first week was real quiet. It’s not like this was a mining town back then. I was actually startin’ to enjoy my watch. Louisa—G-d bless her, she was still alive then—would send me off with a nice meal in a pail, sandwiches and pie, or ham and grits, and I’d just sit and think about things. Mostly I thought about what I was gonna do with my pension. See, I had my eye on the general store because Matthew Carlson, who owned it at the time, had his eye on the Aulden Ranch… So that’s what I was doin’, tryin’ to decide what to put on the sign: Willis Riley’s Trading Post or Riley and Sons—‘cept I didn’t have no sons, only daughters. I just liked the sound of it… I was thinkin’ about what name Louisa might like and pickin’ out colors for the letters and, and I guess I was tired out from all that thinkin’ and sittin, ‘cause when I heard the glass drop outta that winda upstairs, I was in a sound sleep and near fell outta my chair…”
No mistakin’ it now: they both looked real uncomfortable. The darker one even looked like he could bolt for the door if the wind was right…
I wanted them to hear the end. I wanted them to hear it all. So I smiled real wide, thinkin’ this might calm them down.
It didn’t. Now they were both on their feet and I’ll be danged if’n the younger one didn’t have his hand on his pistol.
‘Fore I could say anything else, Black-hat lays into his partner.
“I thought you said you checked the book?”
“I did, I did!” said the other, but he looks sheepish, like he’s made some huge blunder. He starts fishin’ through his saddlebag now and pulls out this beat up book with handwritin’ on the cover. “See here,” he says, flippin’ pages for a minute, then stoppin’ somewhere to read out loud.
“Canton, Missouri—not on the list. We’re free and clear, Joshua! He’s just some crazy old man.” He looks at me sideways, but then it’s back to his partner.
“I might be a crazy old man,” I says, quietly, so’s Ralph and the rest of them boys cain’t hear, “but I’m not so crazy I don’t you two boys is Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry…”
Curry’s eyes go real wide and real blue and he drops the book onto the floor.
Heyes says somethin’ under his breath I don’t hear, and don’t care to speculate on, then grabs the book from the sawdust. He flips pages too, stops, reads quick, then takes his hat from where it’s sittin’ on the bar and hits Curry over the head with it again. This time he’s not smilin’.
“It’s Kanton, with a ‘K’, you dang fool!” he hisses through grit teeth.
Curry’s got his head in his hands.
Heyes is smart. I can see he realizes since I knew who they were, I woulda called the law already, so there was no point in beatin’ a hasty retreat for the door.
Real calm, he puts a hand on his friend’s shoulder and steers him back to his stool. “I’ll repeat my offer—can we buy you a drink?”
I sit down next to them. “And I repeat: thank you kindly, but no.” I lean forward so’s no one else can hear. “See that bear of a man standin’ by the door?” They look, then nod real slow. I know what they’re thinkin’ and I’m sorry they’re thinkin’ it. “No,” I says. “That look’s for me… He’s on a list that includes my liver, my doctor and my daughter. If I take a hand outta my pocket to so much as scratch my butt, he’s gonna to toss me out on my old fanny. And the worst part is that I told him to do it…”
For a second, I can see they don’t know what to think. Curry looks more confused than Heyes and Heyes, it takes him a little while longer and then there’s a big hearty laugh and white teeth flashing and Curry’s joinin’ in and well, you get the idea…
Heyes takes a deep breath and looks me in the eye. “So, Mr. Riley, you were tellin’ a story…?”
“I was, wasn’t I?” I apologize. “I used to be pretty good at that. It’s been a while, though…” I sit back, collectin’ my thoughts. For a second I take my left hand outta my pocket to scratch my head and Heyes motions with his chin towards Big Ralph. I thank him, slip it back into my pocket, then go on.
“Where was I? Oh, that’s right. I was sleepin’ in front of the bank vault and you two were breakin’ glass on the second floor.”
“That was an accident,” Curry says and Heyes shushes him.
“One thing’s for sure, we was all surprised to see each other,” I says.
“The First Missouri Savings wasn’t supposed to have a night watchman,” Heyes puts in.
“They didn’t. I was the first,” I reply. “‘Fraid I wasn’t very good at it, neither. When I saw you two, and God help me - I knew who you were, all’s I could think was ‘you can forget the general store, Willie’. I think I started cryin’ like a baby.”
Curry put a hand on my shoulder now. “No way, Willie. You were a man…”
“When I begged you boys not to rob the vault, I was desperate. I told you everything—about the store, about Louisa and me, about the girls, about how I’d always worked for somebody else and how I just wanted to finish my days not havin’ to answer to any more Marcus Taylor’s… I figgered you’d shoot me or laugh or both… Instead, you—Heyes, you stood thinkin’ for a spell. Then you both put your guns back in your holsters real careful like, like you didn’t know what I was gonna do. Curry, you asked Heyes where he heard there was no night watchman at the First Missouri and Heyes, you takes off your hat—that hat, I think—and hits him over the head with it. Then pretty as you please, you boys went back up those stairs and I guess you climbed out that same winda, because when I stopped shaking and went up after you—you was gone.
“You did me a big favor that night, boys. It’s been five years and every now and then I think how I’d like to thank you for not robbin’ that bank. I never thought I’d get the chance.”
Heyes is grinnin’ again. “You wouldn’t have, Willie, if the Kid could spell.”
“Hey,” says the other, lookin’ hurt. “I spelled the rest of it right, didn’t I?”
“Willie,” Heyes says, still smiling, but startin’ to look serious about it. “Just how strongly do you feel about that favor we did you five years ago?”
I know what he’s gettin’ at and I start to tell him how he’s offended me, but then I remember how runnin’ for Sheriff Foote had been on my list of choices just twenty minutes ago and I shut up real quick.
“I’m thinkin’,” I says. “That I owe you boys at least one favor in return. You know what they say about ‘one good turn’…?”
Heyes’ smile gets wider.
“And I’m thinkin’ I know what that favor might be.” I stood and put a hand on a shoulder apiece. (Ralph shifts his weight at the door, but I didn’t care no more.) “What’d you boys say your names were?”
“Smith and Jones,” Curry says.
“Well, it’s right nice to meet you boys. We don’t get strangers much in these parts… Smith and Jones, aye? What honest, law-abiding names,” I says, with a wink. “Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones, I do believe I got me a couple’a extra rooms above my store across the street and for the right price, I could let you have ‘em for the night.”
“What might that price be, Willie?” Heyes asks, teeth showin’ big, eyes laughing. Yep, Ralph better hope Merry don’t come by while they’re at the house.
I lean forward again, so’s Big Ralph cain’t hear. “If one’a you fellers slips that bottle of fine whiskey there into your saddlebag without you-know-who seein’ it, we’ll call it a done deal.”
Heyes chews on this a moment, then stands up slowly. “Guess you better go get that Sheriff Foote you been talkin’ about, Willie.”
“Yeah,” Curry puts in. “That’s not a fair deal.”
I look at ‘em both, givin’ ‘em this sad little sigh. “I hadda try, didn’t I?” It don’t sound like it, but I was smilin’. “It coulda worked…”
“It could at that,” Curry says, clappin’ me on the shoulder. “It could at that.”
“Well, you best get your gear, then,” I says, steppin’ away from the bar. “We’ll figger somethin’ out after some ‘a that stew my eldest left me this mornin’.”
We make for the door. Big Ralph follows us with his eyes, lookin’ nothin’ like the future son-in-law he was hopin’ he might be (I decide right there that I need to have a talk with him or Merry or both of them about that. He may have been sweet as pie to my daughter, but he was not treatin’ me with the proper amount of respect…)
The boys were gone the next morning after I made ‘em breakfast. It was real nice havin’ folks to eat with again. Merry’s been out livin’ on the ranch with Maggie and Joe, every since they had the twins. And I lost sweet Louisa two years lost ago.
I’ve often wondered, since that night back in ‘78 when we all met up in front of the vault at the First Missouri Savings and Trust, if those two boys some call outlaws had any idea what they’d done for me.
If Curry could spell, I’d still be wonderin’, Heyes’d say.
By my count, the score is still uneven. I may have paid ‘em back by keepin’ my mouth shut, but after they’d left, I found that bottle of fine whiskey on my sideboard.
Of course, it only had but one shot in it, but if it’d had more then I’d really owe them…
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