Take This Job…

By Carol Broyles

It was a perfect rose. With the morning dew barely evaporated, its velvet petals lifted to the sun to welcome the new day. Wearing gloves a trifle too fine for the task, the gray-haired matron snipped the pink-and-white bloom and added it to the basket carried by the man who trailed dutifully behind her.

“Thank you, Joshua,” the woman said automatically. Her voice – frequently sharp as a bear trap – was softened by her preoccupation as she searched the garden for her next prize.

“Ma’am,” Hannibal Heyes responded deferentially.

He shifted the basket to his other hand and waited patiently. The mid-September sun was surprisingly warm and felt good on his neck. The glare from his partner was far hotter as it scorched the back of his head. And Heyes deliberately refrained from turning to meet that gaze head on.

Getting no response from his partner, Kid Curry turned his glower on the twin sources of his irritation. All white fluff and sharp teeth, Muffy and Bitsy sniffed disdainfully on the end of their leashes as Curry took them on their morning constitutional.

Curry had gotten used to the short white jacket he was obliged to don. He had even gotten used to the fancy shoulder holster he had to wear under it in place of his usual rig, but baby-sitting the two ill-tempered, pedigreed curs was just a bit too much. Mastering an urge to shoot the animals, Curry turned his glare back to Heyes, who deserved full blame for talking him into this job in the first place.

Colonel Parker’s wife snipped another rose – this one a vibrant yellow – and placed the bloom in Heyes’ proffered basket. She glanced reprovingly at Heyes’ brown leather gloves, which clashed abominably with his own black trousers and crisp white shirt and jacket, but refrained from commenting. They’d had this discussion before, with Joshua insisting politely but firmly that he’d suffered his last scratch pushing aside the thorny greenery in her floral search and seizure missions.

Elizabeth Parker made a mental note to have her husband the colonel discuss proper etiquette with their two new man-servants. Of course you couldn’t expect the same quality of help in the rustic wilds of Denver as could be acquired in Philadelphia, but there was a limit to what one could be expected to endure.

Mrs. Parker glanced fondly at her adored pets, then noticed the approach of her secretary, who no doubt needed to clear some detail of tonight’s engagement with her. Elizabeth Parker was a stickler for details.

“Wait here, Joshua,” she instructed imperiously before walking to the garden’s edge, where her secretary waited.

“Yes, ma’am,” Heyes replied.

Kid took the opportunity to approach for a quiet tête-à-tête, and Heyes gave him his best smile. In the week since they’d accepted this job from Colonel Parker, Heyes had had to lavish his considerable store of diplomacy and charm equally among the colonel, his wife, and the Kid. From the ominous look in the Kid’s blue eyes, it was time to dip into the well again.

“How we doing?” Heyes asked brightly.

“You know how. I’ve had it up to here with this job,” Kid whispered fiercely, gesturing above his head.

“Now, Kid, don’t you think guarding the colonel’s wife  from kidnappers is a noble endeavor?”

Kid snorted in derision. “Heaven help any man who would kidnap her.”

“It’s only until the end of the month,” Heyes pointed out reasonably.

“Heyes, I don’t think I can last till the end of the day.”

“A good word from Colonel Parker could go a long way in furthering our case with the governor,” Heyes said hopefully, playing his trump card.

“Believe me, Heyes, that’s the only reason I’m still here,” Kid said with feeling. “I don’t mind being a bodyguard, but I wish the colonel would tell his wife the real reason we’re here. When you talked me into this job you never mentioned I’d be the personal vallet of two spoiled dogs.”

“Valet,” Heyes corrected automatically. Kid’s eyes darkened further in preparation of taking a swing at him, and Heyes hastened on to distract him.

“You know,” Heyes coaxed, “I gave you the best job. You love animals.”

“Not these. They are vicious, evil, mangy curs with no trace of … of …” Kid was at a loss for words. “…dogness. Man’s best friend my foot.”

“You just don’t know how to handle them. Here boy…”

Heyes extended a friendly hand, then pulled it away quickly as snapping teeth missed his fingers by a hairsbreadth.

Kid crossed his arms and gave Heyes an I-told-you-so look.

“Joshua,” Mrs. Parker called. “We’ve gathered enough for today. There’s a correspondence I must attend to at once.”

“Coming, ma’am,” Heyes said dutifully, repressing a sigh. Mentally reciting to himself the same arguments he’d so recently used on Curry, he followed her toward the huge stone mansion.

Walking through the double doors into the foyer, Heyes knew immediately that something was wrong. He didn’t know how he knew. He just knew. Sensing the blow before it hit, Heyes ducked and threw up an arm, deflecting most of the force from the heavy iron poker as it struck the back of his head. That was fortunate, as the blow might have killed him. What was unfortunate, Heyes thought as he sank to the marble-tiled floor fighting to remain conscious, was his assailant might be inclined to finish the job. That uncomfortable thought was his last before he lost the battle to stay conscious and blacked out.

When Heyes came to, the first thing he became aware of – beyond a massive headache – was the sound of voices. Quarreling voice, which made his head hurt even worse. Slowly regaining the rest of his senses, Heyes decided he was lying on a cold, hard floor in some vaguely damp place.

A basement, Heyes guessed, wondering why he couldn’t see. Open your eyes, stupid, a tiny voice in his mind supplied. And despite his predicament, Heyes smiled slightly. Of course. He complied, then was tempted to shut them again. For they confirmed what his other senses were telling him.

He was lying on a basement floor. And one of the querulous, argumentative voices was Elizabeth Parker’s.

“I certainly will not write a ransom letter. The nerve. To be taken prisoner in my own home…”

The voice continued, but Heyes tuned it out, concentrating instead on the faces of the two others in the room. He recognized the kidnappers immediately. They were the stableman and the gardener, who both looked close to violence at the moment. The secretary had to be in on it too, Heyes mused muzzily. Were all the household servants in on this plot? Heyes wondered but had no time to consider further.

“Don’t write the letter, your highness,” James, the gardener, said sarcastically. “The colonel will get the message good enough when he gets the package with your wedding rings and the finger they were on in the mail.”

He looked ready to carry out that threat when Heyes sat up with a groan. Peterson, the stableman, trained his gun on Heyes, and he raised his hands non-threateningly as he stood up – somewhat dizzily. Heyes noticed from the missing weight that his own weapon had been stripped from his shoulder holster.

“They look like they mean business, Mrs. Parker. Maybe you should write the letter,” Heyes suggested.

“I will not be dictated to in my own home. The very idea that…”

James picked up a pair of cutting shears, and Heyes leaped into the fray again. 

“Ma’am,” he interrupted her tirade. “I’m sure the colonel wouldn’t want you hurt. And,” Heyes added for the benefit of the two kidnappers. “I’m sure he would be angry if he didn’t get his wife back in one piece – angry enough, say, to hire enough men to track you down no matter how far you run or where you hide.”

James paused to consider this. The colonel’s wife, Heyes could tell, was still going to be a problem, however. Smiling brightly, Heyes leaned over her, where she sat at a makeshift writing desk.

“Write the letter,” he whispered fiercely.

“How dare you presume…” Mrs. Parker began indignantly.

“I said write the damn letter.” It was the leader of the Devil’s Hole Gang talking now, and Elizabeth Parker paled slightly. Reluctantly she began to transcribe the ransom note into her own handwriting.

Heyes straightened up and leaned a hip nonchalantly against the desk, smiling amiably at the two kidnappers.

“You know, this is a pretty good set-up,” he complimented them. “You grab the wife and collect the ransom all under old man Parker’s nose. I bet we haven’t even left the house. How many of the household staff are in on it?”

“Enough to get the job done,” Peterson answered evasively.

“Could you use one more?” Heyes asked, his dark brown eyes taking on a decidedly mercenary gleam.

“You’ve got to be kidding, Smith. We all know Parker brought you in as a bodyguard for his wife,” Peterson said, gesturing to Heyes’ own gun, which was stuck in his belt.

As this information was imparted, Heyes heard Mrs. Parker stop writing. Silently he willed her to continue and relaxed slightly when he heard the pen scratching again.

“That’s right,” Heyes admitted. “But there’s sure no love lost between me and the colonel or his wife. You’ve seen what I’ve had to put up with from the old battle ax.”

“Come on,” Heyes coaxed as Peterson crossed to the desk and picked up the ransom note Mrs. Parker had finished. “You could use me. Let me in on the job.”

Both Peterson and James laughed nastily.

“Smith. You already are,” Peterson said before they walked out of the small basement room and locked the stout wooden door behind them.

Heyes looked puzzled.

“I wonder what he meant by that?”

“What he meant, Mr. Smith, was that the person he had me name in that ransom note as my kidnapper was you,” Mrs. Parker informed him acidly.

“Oh,” Heyes said, deflated. So much for plan A, he mused. Too bad he didn’t have a plan B – yet.

Kid Curry stared at the barrel of the gun that was pointing straight at his chest. Colonel Parker’s cold eyes blazed with fury as he held the gun in one hand and the ransom note in the other, and Kid was certain the colonel was making a decided effort not to shoot him.

They’d been closeted in the colonel’s study discussing Elizabeth Parker’s disappearance – and Heyes’ – when the note arrived by messenger.

Kid had watched Parker’s pasty complexion mottle with fury as he read the note. But when he’d drawn a gun on him, Curry had been taken completely by surprise.

“You son of a bitch. Were you in it together? I’ll see you hang – after you finish serving your 20 years in prison,” the colonel threatened.

“What’s this all about?” Curry asked, raising his hands.

“Read it for yourself,” Colonel Parker said, tossing the letter on a table and taking a step backward. Kid frowned as he quickly scanned the note’s contents.

“You can’t believe this! You’re the one who hired us to protect your wife from kidnappers,” Curry argued.

“An obvious mistake on my part,” the colonel said dryly. “Now turn around. We’re going to pay a visit to the sheriff.”

Kid didn’t budge.

“It wasn’t Heyes,” Kid said slowly and with absolute certainty.

The colonel hesitated.

“What makes you so sure?”

“If we’d pulled this job, would I be crazy enough to still be here?” Curry asked.

“Maybe your partner decided not to split with you this time. I hear he’s the brains behind the operation. He doesn’t need some two-bit gunslinger to kidnap one helpless middle-aged woman. So maybe he decided to sell you out and keep all the ransom for himself,” Colonel Parker sneered.

Kid’s blue eyes darkened to a dangerous hue as he fought to control his temper.

“Colonel, you don’t know shit about loyalty,” he said icily. “My partner didn’t kidnap your wife, which means he’s in trouble too – if he’s not already dead. And I’ll be damned if I’ll sit in a jail cell when he needs my help.”

The tiny click resounded in the silent room as the colonel cocked the pistol.

“Are you willing to bet your life on that?” Colonel Parker asked.

Curry placed both fists on the table that separated the two men, leaning forward to stare resolutely into the colonel’s eyes. The gun barrel was only a foot from his chest.

“Absolutely,” Kid vowed.

Heyes prowled the confines of the basement room, searching it for a means of escape or anything he could use as a weapon.

The ringing in his ears, Heyes realized belatedly, wasn’t from the blow. Mrs. Parker was talking again. He forced himself to concentrate on the words.

“…wasting your time, when all we need to do is shout for help,” Mrs. Parker finished.

“Ma’am,” Heyes explained patiently. “At least one of those men is outside guarding that door. If we go and start making a lot of noise, the very nicest thing they’ll do to shut us up is come in here and truss us up like a pair of Christmas turkeys. Do you want that?”

“Don’t be impertinent, young man,” Mrs. Parker remonstrated him, and Heyes sighed. “I haven’t forgotten what you said to those ruffians about throwing in with them. Or your other comment – battle ax was it?”

Heyes threw up his arms in supplication.

“I was just trying to get them to let their guard down. And as for the other, I only meant…”

“I know what you meant,” Elizabeth Parker replied with a glint of humor making her steel-gray eyes twinkle.

“You do?” Heyes asked, surprised.

“Contrary to my husband’s belief, I’m not a total idiot. And it’s obvious Mr. Smith,” she placed particular emphasis on the pseudonym, “you’re not the sort of man to work as a servant.”

“How long have you known?” Heyes asked suspiciously.

“From the first day you and Mr. Jones arrived. He’s even less suited to be a servant than you. At least you can feign a subservient air – marginally. Although I must say I thought you were going to break that morning I sent you back to the house six times for things I forgot.”

Heyes shook his head, amused. When you were busted, you were busted.

“So what do you think, Joshua?” Elizabeth Parker asked, turning serious.

“I think,” Heyes began reluctantly, but figuring she deserved the truth, “that unless my partner comes through that you and I are in a lot of trouble.”

Ruby Chapman made her way toward her suite of rooms with a feeling of relief. It was hard work feigning concern over her employer’s disappearance. Ruby smiled in satisfaction. She’d even mustered a few well-placed tears when the messenger had arrived bearing the ransom note written in Elizabeth Parker’s own hand. Ruby decided she just might return to acting – assuming, of course, she ever decided to work again. Her share of the ransom money should keep her in comfort for quite some time. Of course, having her own money would allow her to pick and choose her roles instead of taking whatever part was offered. And the fancy clothes she’d wear would be far preferable to the prim gray suit she was obliged to wear as Elizabeth Parker’s social secretary.

Ruby closed the door to her room and lit the lamp. As the light filled the small sitting room adjacent to her bedroom, she started, for sitting in one of the room’s two chairs was Thaddeus Jones, his long legs stretched out comfortably. He looked far different from the other times she’d seen him. Instead of his uniform he wore the rugged clothes of a cowboy, complete with worn leather boots and six gun. The masculine style only accentuated his good looks. His hat was tossed negligently onto the table. And the blue of his shirt brought out the deep blue of his eyes, which looked at her so invitingly as he smiled at her.

“Did I startle you?” he asked teasingly.

“Surprised,” Ruby allowed. “What are you doing here. And dressed like that?”

“The colonel gave me my walking papers. I don’t think he thinks very highly of me as a bodyguard for his wife,” Curry said with a boyish smile. “Although after today, I can’t say I blame him.”

“Bodyguard?” Ruby pretended surprise, although she’d known all along his true role in the household. In fact, when the little group of conspirators had been deciding who to lay the blame for the kidnapping on, it had been she who’d insisted on using the other new arrival instead of Mr. Jones, who was always so nice to her, going out of his way to open doors and carry packages for her, even the ones that were so light Ruby could easily manage herself.

Yes, it was she who insisted on framing Joshua Smith. Though he was unfailingly polite, his cynical brown eyes seemed to look right through her. Even in his role as Elizabeth Parker’s servant, he always gave the impression that he was six steps ahead of you, which Ruby found decidedly unnerving.

“Yeah. The colonel hired me and that other fellow at the same time to look after his wife, although he didn’t tell her the real reason we were here – didn’t want to worry her , I guess,” Curry explained, then laughed. “I guess he didn’t do too well with either of us.”

“So he fired you?” Ruby asked.

Curry shrugged.

“I’d have done the same thing in his place, I guess,” Kid said, standing up. “But I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to you.”

Ruby’s heart beat faster as he took a step closer, slowly drawing off his gloves and tucking them into his belt. He put his arms around her, then lowered his lips to hers. He took his time with the kiss, at first merely tasting her, then deepening the kiss, probing with his tongue. When he finally drew away, he ended by tugging her full lower lip gently with his teeth.

Ruby was more than a little breathless when he finished, and although he’d stopped kissing her, he still held her loosely in his arms, which made it difficult for Ruby to gather her thoughts or bring her rapid breathing back to normal.

“I’m going to miss you, Ruby,” Kid whispered, his voice husky.

Ruby had always been ambitious. From the age of 7 she’d been able to visualize exactly what she wanted, then would single-mindedly set about making it so. At the moment what she was envisioning was herself in San Francisco, drinking champagne, dressed in the finest clothes, living in luxury – and with the handsome blond cowboy at her beck and call. She liked the picture very much.

“Come with me,” Curry whispered.

Step one, Ruby thought triumphantly.

“No,” Ruby said seductively. “You come with me.”

Kid smiled delightedly and kissed her resoundingly on the lips.

“Where?”

“San Francisco.”

“Why not?” Curry said amiably. “Let’s go. Get your things.”

He started pulling her toward her wardrobe.

“No. Not yet. We can’t leave until next week,” Ruby dug in her heels.

“Why not?” Curry looked confused. “You’ve got no reason to stay with Mrs. Parker gone.”

“Well, that’s true … but … I must at least give the colonel notice…” Ruby protested.

Curry laughed shortly.

“He didn’t give me any notice when he fired me. Come on, honey.”

Kid pulled a valise from the wardrobe and began stuffing her clothes into it.

“Thaddeus, stop!” Softening her tone, Ruby wrapped her arms around his waist and looked up at him seductively. “A week isn’t so very long to wait.”

“You don’t want to go,” Curry accused.

“It’s not that.” She plucked at his shirt sleeve. “But if we wait a week, I’ll be coming into some money – money that will keep us in style in San Francisco.”

Ruby looked up at him entreatingly then had to repress a shiver as the warmth disappeared from his blue eyes and they turned cold, like two twin frozen lakes. The arms that held her were still gentle but unyielding as she tried to jerk free.

“Ransom money, Ruby?” Curry asked, his voice as icily stern and unforgiving as his eyes.

“What do you mean?” Ruby asked breathlessly.

“I mean Joshua Smith is a friend of mine. More than that, he’s my partner, and I’ll kill any man – or woman – who tries to hurt him.”

Ruby started to protest, but Kid silenced her with a finger across her lips.

“I really don’t want to hurt you, Ruby,” Kid said sincerely. “But I will. So why don’t you just tell me where my friend and Mrs. Parker are?”

James sat at a table outside the basement room their prisoners were confined in, cheating at solitaire and wishing his relief would come. Gus, that worthless excuse for a chauffeur, was 20 minutes overdue, and besides, he was hungry.

Scritch, scritch.

James looked up, hairs pricking on the back of his neck. If there was one thing he hated, it was rats.

Scritch, scritch.

No. Not rats. The sound was coming from the door at the end of the hall, which led to the stairway. Picking up his gun from the table, the losing card game forgotten, James crept stealthily along the hall to the door.

Scritch, scritch.

James eased the door open.

It wasn’t dynamite. But the object hurled at his face had as much impact as any explosion. James screamed as the small white dog’s teeth sank into his chin. Barking deafened him as another small white projectile swarmed around his legs then sank its needlelike teeth into his instep.

Curry put James out of his misery by cracking him solidly on the skull with the butt of his revolver. Satisfied that he’d overpowered the last of the kidnappers without firing a shot, Kid twirled his pistol and stuck it in his reclaimed holster with a flourish.

Kid took the precaution of pulling it once more before he unlocked and opened the door where Ruby told him the two prisoners were being held.

The precaution turned out to be unnecessary, for the first thing Curry saw as his eyes adjusted to the gloom was the brilliance of Heyes’ smile – the real one that made it to his eyes. The one Heyes reserved for when he had just opened a safe. Or when he was particularly pleased with something the Kid had done. Or if the two of them, against all odds, defied danger or impossible circumstances, then lived to tell about it.

Curry smiled back, relieved.

“How we doing?” Kid asked.

“Better now,” Heyes answered, then extended a hand to help Mrs. Parker to her feet.

“Although your timing leaves something to be desired, young man,” Elizabeth Parker supplied the codicil as she walked past him and greeted her adored dogs.

Heyes couldn’t help but laugh at Curry’s expression.

It was a gorgeous day, resplendent with the kind of bright blue sky and crisp air you only get in autumn. The freedom of the trail as they rode under the orange-tinged leaves – combined with the generous reward the Parkers had given them – had Heyes in high spirits. Curry was uncharacteristically silent, however, and Heyes kept shooting him quizzical glances as they rode their horses at a leisurely pace along the trail.

“What?!” Heyes finally asked.

“What, what?” Curry replied.

“You know what. What’s wrong?” Heyes asked.

“Nothin’,” Kid replied evasively.

“It’s not nothin’. Come on, what’s wrong?” Heyes persisted.

Curry shifted uncomfortably in his saddle.

“It’s just that…” Kid thought better of it and shut up.

“You know you’ll tell me eventually.”

“You’ll laugh.”

“I won’t laugh.”

“Promise?”

“My word of honor,” Heyes vowed. Kid shot him a look to tell him just how much stock he put in that.

“I won’t laugh!” Heyes promised. “But I don’t understand why you’re so down in the mouth. You should be glad to be rid of that place.”

“I am. I am,” Curry assured him. “It’s just that…”

“Yeah?”

“I miss the dogs,” Kid confessed.

Heyes’ sudden fit of coughing sounded suspiciously like laughter, but he managed to keep his promise.

Barely.


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