The long fingers drummed absent-mindedly on the polished table before reaching over and grasping the whiskey bottle. Amber liquid poured out in a ribbon of gold, swirling around the shot glass which was lifted to the pensive man's lips. To the casual observer he was killing time, possibly waiting for a friend, a poker game, or a hook-up with a diverting female; but a closer look would show a man sitting with his back strategically to the wall and dark eyes watching the saloon door out of his peripheral vision so as not to betray him examining every movement. He looked relaxed and happy, like any other cowboy enjoying a hard-earned break from the harshness of life, but in reality he was a man ready to spring into action at the slightest hint of ambush.
Hannibal Heyes sipped carefully at the glass; today was not a day to addle the senses, he'd need his wits about him to deal with one of the best gunmen the West had ever seen. They would meet again after all these years. Would they recognize one another? If he did, would the Kid be pleased to see him again after everything that had happened?
The moment the long leg appeared through the bat-wing doors he knew it was him. He knew that gait; not so much a swagger of confidence, more the carriage of a man who knew he could deal with almost anything. Almost. Heyes' throat tightened; he knew the baggage Kid Curry carried and understood the bluff. Those moments alone were the hardest times, when you have nothing to do but think. The silent cry is the always the loudest.
Heyes watched the Kid stride up to the bar; at the end, not in the middle. He had to watch the room as much as the new leader of the Devil's Hole Gang did. The blue eyes gazed around the bar, widening slightly at the sight of the man from his past. A frown flickered over his face before he glanced around the room to make sure there were no more surprises, but he stood his ground and watched as his cousin walked over to him.
"Kid? How've you been? It's been a long time."
"I'm good. What're you doing here? You weren't followed?"
"Nope." The dark eyes looked his cousin up and down. "You look good. Filled out some, but it suits you."
"Yeah, you could do with puttin' on a few pounds. How'd you find me?"
"Silky. He's got a good enough network to find a ghost," Heyes gestured over to the table. "I got a bottle. Join me?"
"A ghost, huh? I guess that kinda describes me." The Kid paused before nodding. "Is this safe?"
"I wouldn't be here if I thought it wasn't. It's been five years." A joyless dimple pitted Heyes' left cheek. "I thought about you all the time, Kid. I never stopped worrying about you."
"Me?" The Kid shrugged. "You should worry about the man who catches up with me."
"Come and talk to me, Kid. We've got a lot of catching up to do."
"Sure, why not?"
Heyes gestured to the barman for another glass before they strolled over to the table.
"What d'ya want, Heyes? You know us gettin' together is real risky."
His cousin slid a glass across the table. "I want you to come back with me. We've waited long enough for the dust to settle."
"Long enough?" One slim, fair eyebrow arched. "Based on what?"
"Based on the fact that I got a safe place for us. It's like a fortress and nobody comes in or out of there without my say so," Heyes sat back on his chair, "not now I'm leader."
"Big Jim Santana was captured. The boys had a vote; they think I can get them bigger hauls," Heyes tossed back his whiskey. "Well, maybe I kinda promised them something like that.
"So that makes you..."
"Got it in one. I'm Leader of the Devil's Hole Gang... for now."
The blue ice started to melt. "You?" A chuckle started to roll around the Kid's lips. "At your age? There are some who'd say you've done well, but I'm guessin' most'd disagree; especially your Ma."
"Right back at ya, Fastest-Gun-In-The-West. How have you been making a living? Protecting church collections?"
"Mostly as hired help; more for what I might have to do, than what I do." The blue eyes stared into the depths of the glass. "I look on it as keepin' the peace."
Heyes paused. "One day there'll be someone faster, Kid. You'll have to kill or be killed."
A stiletto of blue ice was Kid Curry's only reply.
"There is another way. You can come back to The Hole with me. We'd be a team again." Heyes hand reached out across the table towards his cousin. "You and me; like old times. What d'ya say?"
The Kid sat back in his chair. "What's in it for me?"
"There's safety in numbers and you wouldn't have to be watching your back every minute of the day. You'd have me to do that for you."
The blue eyes narrowed cynically. "What's in it for you?"
Heyes gave a non-committal shrug. "I'm thinking of you, Kid. Sure you could help watch my back; a leader always needs a trusted man behind him, but you know I could get anyone to do that. I got three men, right now, watching this saloon."
"You don't trust me, Heyes?"
"It ain't you I'm worried about."
"So anyone will do? You don't need me then, do ya?"
"Nobody's good as you, Kid. You know that." Heyes' eyes brightened. "We're unbeatable together. You'd have a hideout, a place to relax. Surely it must be tempting to be able to lay your head down at night and not worry about somebody sneaking in and blowing your brains out because they want to be the man who killed Kid Curry?"
"You've still got that silver tongue, Heyes."
"Yeah, but it never did work too well on you." Heyes dropped the mask and stared into his cousin's eyes. "I've missed you. I've worried about you. We were great together, unbeatable. We could be the best, Kid. You and me running the gang. What d'ya say?"
The gunman sat back and contemplated the drink swirling in the shot glass. "We parted for a reason. That reason's still there."
"It was a long time ago and he's stopped looking now. I've been told it's been eighteen months since he sent anyone to find either of us."
Heyes nodded. "Sure I have. I wouldn't come for you if I hadn't. Everyone's moved on."
"Everyone?" The Kid stood and tossed down a few coins. "Thanks for the drink. I'll see ya around, Heyes."
Heyes followed the tense, stiff back out into the caustic sunlight. "Wait. I didn't mean..."
"This ain't gonna work," the Kid turned simmering eyes on his cousin. "You've moved on, they've moved on, everyone's just livin' life, just fine and dandy."
"Except you," Heyes murmured. He watched the man in front of him beat down any trace of the emotions threatening to overtake him. "And me." He laid a hand on the Kid's arm. "Did you ever think that I'm the same? That I smile and laugh to throw people off the scent? The brighter the light the darker the shadows, Kid. You show nothing, I wear a mask; but did you ever think we could help each other? You're the only person I can really be myself with."
Kid Curry stared off across the street, watching the two boys who were trying to impress a girl with their roping skills.
"Come back in. If we're gonna part, let's have a moment of complete honesty before we do, huh? You're the only person I can really talk to. Let's try to make some sense out of this."
"Sense?" The bitterness caught at the back of the Kid's throat. "None of it makes sense."
"Exactly. Life is too short to waste, so let's take it by the throat and shake it 'till its pockets are empty. We don't owe the universe anything; what has it ever done for us?" Heyes gave a wry smile. "If you want it to make sense, maybe we've been put here to be a warning to others. If that's the case, let's be one they'll never forget."
They stood in silence, contained in a bubble of contemplation punctured only by a sigh from the Kid. "You see them over there? Those two boys tryin' to impress the girl; they ain't even noticed the younger girl who keeps walkin' back and forth. They remind me of us with Clem."
"Yeah," Heyes chuckled lightly. "She sends her love."
The Kid turned back, engaging with his cousin at last. "How is she? Is she safe?"
"Safe, well, and as honest as they come," Heyes shook his head, "well, compared to the circles I move in anyway. Her pa's determined to keep her on the straight and narrow." He watched the blond head nod in satisfaction. "Come back in. Talk to me. If we can make some sense out of the past we might have a future."
The Kid sighed heavily. "That's when we crossed the line, Heyes. Up till then we could have given up crime and had normal lives. It just took that one job to take everything too far."
Five years earlier...
"All right now, places everyone," instructed the photographer from under the cloak draped over the camera and his hunched back. His three subjects assumed the positions he'd provided for each of them. "That's good. Now hold…it."
"How much longer is this gonna take?" frowned Jed.
"Sir, you must hold still!"
"Please, Jed, for me?" cajoled Clementine, batting her brown eyes at him.
"I don't see how come we have to do this today. Why we didn't wait for Jen? We should've waited for her." Jed Curry tugged at the starched collar of his best suit and was swiftly chastised by the photographer. His partner, Hannibal Heyes, was on the other side of their friend, Clementine Hale, and his eyes were thoroughly examining every object in the brightly lit studio. He was bursting with curiosity, but he kept a fixed expression on his usually mobile face. In Heyes' mind, it was a test of his willpower and skill to maintain a poker face.
"Why should we have waited for her?" said Clem, frowning. "I made this appointment weeks ago. She knew how much it meant to me. She's the one who chose not to be here."
"Clem, you know that's not true. She's working," said Heyes.
"Well, we could've helped her, but my sister didn't want us to come with her on her 'secret mission' for Soapy. She made it very plain that none of us were good enough to help her—Miss High-and-Mighty Genevieve Hale. Hmpf."
"Shh! No more talking and moving," snapped the irritated man under the cloak. The second his subjects were immobilized he snapped the shutter and, once finished, he ducked out of the studio with the plates so that he could fix them in the cyanide he kept in the backroom.
The three young people abandoned their positions and Heyes wandered over to the workbench covered by tools of the photography trade. Lifting each object, he looked it over, and placed it back exactly where he'd gotten it from.
"Ohh, I'm so excited, Jed. Now I'll have a photograph to remember you by," trilled Clementine happily.
"Yeah, well, that's the first and last photo anyone's takin' of me. I ain't sittin' through that kinda torture again," said Jed, turning to his partner. "Heyes, he's comin'."
Heyes put down the glass lens he'd been holding up to the light and stepped away from the bench as the photographer re-entered.
"Everything looks fine. Your portrait will be ready by tomorrow afternoon." The man quickly wrote out a receipt and passed it to Clementine. She smiled sweetly at him. "Thank you, Miss Hale. It has been my pleasure to serve you." He winked flirtatiously.
Jed took a step closer to Clem, glaring at the man behind the counter, and wrapping a possessive arm around her shoulders as he led her out of the studio.
The man behind the register cleared his throat and looked at Heyes. "That'll be two dollars and seventy-five cents, young man."
Heyes was annoyed at how easily his partner had left him paying for the picture. If he didn't know better, he'd think that Jed had set him up. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out a five dollar bill he'd been saving as part of his poker stake, paid the man, and hurried after his friends. They were halfway up the street before he caught them. Jed had a hold of Clem's hand and they were laughing.
"You did that on purpose!" accused Heyes as he reached them.
"Now, Heyes, you know a gentleman never allows a lady to pay," purred Clem.
"Very funny. You two better give me a chance to win it back at poker tonight." Heyes fell into step on the other side of Clem and they strolled up the boardwalk.
"Ain't gonna be a game if Jen doesn't get back in time. What do you think she's up to?" asked Jed.
"I could care less," sniffed Clem.
Heyes and Jed smiled over her head at each other. The rivalry between the two Hale sisters had intensified ever since Soapy had taken Clem on as his newest apprentice and she began flourishing under his instruction. At four years her senior, Genevieve could no longer play the sweet, young thing and it irked her. She was jealous of the attention her mentor and her two friends were showering on her little sister and she took every opportunity to torment Clem, who responded in kind. The ill will had been escalating for the past month and Heyes and Jed had been caught in the middle.
The sight of the elegant figure sashaying towards them caused Clem's arms to tighten her grip on her escorts' arms.
"Talk of the devil," murmured Jed.
"Who was it who said that the devil can assume a pleasing shape?" Heyes grinned.
"Probably a demon," Clem snorted.
"She's got you pegged, Heyes." Jed released a clingy Clementine and raised his hat in greeting to the elegant brunette who bustled up to them. "The late Miss Genevieve Hale, I believe? Glad to see you made it at last."
"No! I missed it? I so wanted to get my photograph taken with you boys." The chocolate eyes widened and the little pert nose sniffed. "You went ahead without me?"
"Of course we did," Clementine angled her chin in challenge to her taller, older sister. "We were going to lose the appointment if we didn't go ahead," she smiled triumphantly. "Never mind, we took such a lovely picture without you. It really didn't matter."
"That's what you get for putting your career first," Heyes proffered an arm to Jen.
"Oh, shoot," Genevieve sighed, slipping her arm through Heyes'. "Maybe we can make another appointment?" She eyed her pouting sister archly. "It's only fair that I get to have my picture taken with you boys, too."
"Let's think about that, huh?" Jed patted Clementine's hand gently. "It ain't our fault you didn't show and that's half an hour of my life I'll never get back."
"What did Soapy need you for anyway?" Heyes asked.
"He's trying to hook a mark who has an eye for the ladies," Genevieve strolled along before hooking her sister's arm affectionately. "So he wanted to bring along his 'niece' so we could accidently bump into him."
Heyes nodded. "What's the game?"
"It's a variation on the Glim Dropper mixed with the Rip Deal," Genevieve purred. She clearly relished having the tall, dark man on her arm. "I'm working up to an invitation to his summer ball, where I'm planning on losing an emerald earring. I'll make sure his wife finds it," she arched an eyebrow. "I don't want to really lose it, you know. There are a lot of dishonest people out there."
"Why the wife?" asked Jed.
"She's the daughter of some rich family out East," Genevieve confirmed. "She knows good jewelry when she sees it, so it should help to establish credibility when Soapy gets my father to ask him to do some underhanded deal for him."
"Our father," pouted Clementine.
"Yes, our father. You have to excuse Clem, gentlemen. She's most put out that Soapy chose me for this. He thinks she's too young and innocent. He needed someone more sophisticated." Genevieve rolled her eyes. "Innocent? If only he knew."
"I'm no worse than you are," Clem retorted.
"Ladies," Heyes looked at each woman in turn. "I wouldn't trust either of you as far as I could throw you, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Now, who's for some tea?"
"Tea?" Clementine gave a little skip still clutching onto Jed's arm. "Can we go to the Willow? They have the best cakes there."
"Cake, Clem?" Genevieve looked down her nose at her sister. "You'll never lose that puppy fat. You don't want to look like a tubby little jollux, do you?"
"I'm not a jollux!" cried Clementine. "I just have a round face. Tell her I'm not a jollux, Jed."
"I would if I knew what one was," Jed smiled.
"It's a fat little girl who scarfs down cakes," laughed Genevieve. "Honestly, Clem. You're seventeen now. You have to stop skipping in the street. Your deportment is a nightmare."
"She's full of life, is all," Jed smiled down at the suddenly stiff Clementine at his side. "I like it."
"Thank you, Jed." Clementine thrust out a little pink tongue at her sister. "I don't want to be a cold fish like you, Jen."
"There's a difference between cold and cool, Clementine. A lady should be aloof."
"You know, I'm beginning to think we could leave the ladies to get tea and we could go to the saloon," mused Heyes.
"That's not very gentlemanly," chided Genevieve. "You'd just abandon us in the street?"
Heyes' cheeks dimpled. "Certainly not. We'd take you to the door of the tearoom."
"But why?" simpered Clementine. "You promised."
"Because I'm tired of listening to you two arguing," growled Heyes, "At least in there, the girls are arguing over us."
"But we are arguing over you two, sweetie." Clementine allowed an indiscreet finger to trail over Jed's lapels as she beamed at her glowering sister. "Jen is just too aloof to let you know."
"Well, if this is how you're gonna go about it, I'd say you're wastin' your time."
"Jed! That's no way to speak to a lady!" Clementine pouted and twirled toward her sister. "See what you've done?"
"Darling, I've hardly done it alone," countered Jen.
"C'mon, Kid, I hear a cold beer calling my name. The ladies can fend for themselves," said Heyes, turning on his heels and stepping off the sidewalk.
"Clem. Jen. See you around," Curry lifted his hat slightly, nodded, and caught up to his partner. The two women left standing together on the sidewalk took a moment to savor the departing view before turning on each other again.
"How dare they? This is all your fault." Clementine stamped a daintily-clad slipper on the sidewalk and curled her hands into fists, rounding on her sister.
"Hardly. No man likes to feel cornered. You need to brush up on your skills. I doubt you'll be much use to Soapy with such a heavy-handed approach. He requires more finesse," purred Jen. She smile sweetly and started to depart, but a kid-gloved hand shot out and caught her forearm.
"I'm every bit as good as you are and Soapy knows it!"
"Of course you are, dear, that's why he chose me for his next little project." Jen shook off her sister's grip. She tipped her pointed chin loftily and tossed back her dark ringlets with a careless gesture. "Good day, little sister."
"Why, you self-centered cow, I'll show you," began Clementine, but her sister had already sailed regally up the sidewalk and the words drowned in her wake. Making up her mind as to her next course of action, Clementine hurried in the direction her two male friends had taken. She knew where they were going so she ducked into a shortcut behind the dry goods store, looked quickly about her, hiked her skirts to an unseemly height, and broke into a run for the length of the alleyway. As she reached the next street, she skidded to a stop, patted her hair in place, and stepped onto the sidewalk. She saw the two familiar, broad-shouldered figures nearing Tom's Saloon. She had to stop them.
"Heyes, yoo-hoo! Jed, wait up!" she yelled out in a decidedly desperate tone. The men stopped in their tracks and turned to watch her hurrying at a fast walk up the sidewalk towards them and then she was upon them.
"Clem, you can't come into the saloon with us," said Heyes firmly.
"I have no desire to go into a smelly, old saloon," sniffed Clementine. "I need to talk to you."
"We were just talking. At least, you were." Heyes looked longingly at the saloon.
"Where's Jen?" asked Jed.
"She left. She's not part of what I want to talk to you about," said Clementine. "Please, it's important and I don't want to discuss it on the street. Let's take a short walk and, then if you wish, you can drink yourselves silly all evening." Without waiting for an answer, she slipped an arm through the crook of Jed's elbow and linked her other arm around Heyes'. The two men shared a bemused glance and allowed themselves to be led along past the storefronts by the tiny dynamo between them. The businesses were doing brisk business so Clementine cut over to a side street to attain some privacy. "I've been thinking," she began. Heyes rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to speak, but she quickly cut him off, "Hush, hear me out. How long have you two been apprenticing with Soapy?"
Jed stiffened, "Why?"
"Almost a year," answered Heyes.
"Don't you think it's about time he let you pull a con of your own?"
"No," said Jed quickly.
"Yes," said Heyes at the same time.
"Soapy said we ain't ready!" Jed stopped and stared at his two companions.
"What are you suggesting, Clem?" asked the darker-haired young man.
Clementine smiled triumphantly and squeezed his arm. "I think it's time we prove to Soapy what we are capable of."
"Forget it, Clem. Soapy'd have our hides," said Jed.
"Now hold on, Kid. Let's hear her out."
"Heyes, you ain't considerin' crossin' up Soapy, are you?" A sharp, brown-eyed glance assured Jed that his partner was only seeking information so he clammed up and frowned down at the young girl between them.
"What if we pulled our own con? One so successful, so brilliantly planned, Soapy would have to concede that you and Heyes are no longer apprentices, but full-fledged bamboozlers?" asked Clementine.
"And what about you?" asked Heyes.
"What about little, old me?" Clementine looked up sweetly.
"What do you get out of it? He isn't going to graduate you so quickly."
"I know that. I get the satisfaction of seeing my two favorite beaus earn the respect and admiration of their mentor."
"Yeah, right," snorted Jed.
"Well, I would also see my sister turn green with jealousy."
"And there we have it." Jed let go of her arm and swung around in front of her. "We ain't doing it!"
Clementine tightened her grip on Heyes' arm. "Fine, you don't have to help me. Heyes is more than man enough to get the job done."
Heyes gently disengaged himself from her other arm. "Only Heyes isn't going to help you either."
"Then I'll do it myself!"
"No, we can't let you do that. It's too dangerous," said Heyes.
"You can't stop me!"
"Sure we can. We'll just tell Soapy what you've got planned and he'll send you home," threatened Jed.
Clementine smiled up at him. "He'll send you away, too, when he finds out you've been practicing shooting behind his back, and he'll send Heyes with you for card-sharping when he expressly told him not to."
"You wouldn't!" said two outraged voices.
"I will, too. And, if I get sent home, at least I have a home to go to. Where do you think you two will end up?" she asked viciously.
Heyes growled his frustration, ran his hands through his hair, and then reached both clawed fists towards her slender neck as though he'd choke the life from her. Jed grabbed both his arms and pulled him several yards down the alley. "Heyes, she's got us. What're we gonna do?"
The dark young man was still glaring at Clem. "I don't know. She's right. Soapy'll axe us if he finds out we crossed him."
"Damn it all to hell! He'll also can us if he finds out we did a con without him. Either way, we lose and I ain't lettin' her blackmail us! She's supposed to be our friend," growled Jed, turning towards the silhouetted figure waiting from them near the mouth of the alley.
Heyes sighed. "Ain't you learned yet, Kid, we're the only friends either of us have? We don't have a choice here. Look at it this way, if we do what she's asking, we might just get away with it." He walked back to Clementine and looked down at her with loathing. "All right, we'll do it, but if we get caught, you're on your own."
Clementine felt only a momentary prickle of guilt, but despite that, she giggled delightedly and jumped from one foot to the other. "So what should we do, the Fiddle game, or maybe the Badger? Ohh, this is going to be so much fun!"
"Yeah, some fun," muttered Jed.
Genevieve Hale turned glowing eyes on Ernest Archibald Burdon; banker, lay preacher, and politician. The man with the extravagant white whiskers was known to have a shrewd financial mind, a fine turn of phrase for debating, and an ability to turn a dollar into ten. He was notoriously mean; the kind of man who kept the Sabbath, and everything else he could lay his hands on. He also liked the ladies, much to the chagrin of his ever-suffering wife, Effie, who watched Genevieve skillfully tread the fine line between coquettishness and respectability.
The young woman had caught Ernest's eye from the beginning of the Summer Ball and Effie had seen his infatuation grow by the minute. She pretended to ignore her husband's folly as she stood by his side listening to the orchestra and admiring the colorful twirl of dancers gliding across the ballroom.
"You do have such a magnificent collection, Mr. Burdon. It is so sad that father isn't able to show you his." Genevieve's cut-glass English accent floated easily over the music. "Maybe one day we can offer you and Mrs. Burdon some hospitality in Kennilworth, if you ever get over to dear old England?"
"Disgusting, if you ask me; all those bugs all over the house," Mrs. Burdon shuddered. "I'd put the lot of them in the bin. It's unhygienic."
"They are beetles, not bugs, Effie. I've told you before, bugs have piercing mouth parts while beetles have chewing mouthparts." Burdon picked the decanter and poured himself bourbon without offering anything to anyone else. "In any case, they are dead; fastened to the felt with a pin. They're going nowhere."
"I don't find them disgusting, Mrs. Burdon," Genevieve clasped her hands on her lap, "but Papa brought me up with his insect collection. You should see his butterflies, they are beautiful. We display them in cases in the hallway instead of art. They are arranged in groups and they look as fine as jewels. They are grouped in families, I think."
"Genus," Mr. Hale corrected his daughter in his own adopted English tones. "They are arranged by genus, Arrabelle." He looked around at his marks with raised eyebrows. "Honestly, if only I'd had a son. Girls just can't grasp scientific matters, can they, Mr. Burdon?"
"They can't grasp much, but when they're as pretty as little Arrabelle here, they don't need to." Burdon studiously ignored his glowering wife. "A pretty girl is like a flower come to life, walking over God's good earth. Where would we be without them, huh, Abbott? I bet her mother was a real looker." Burdon nudged Mr. Hale. "Huh, look at those eyes."
Genevieve's painted-on smile beamed through the knowledge that it hadn't been her eyes Burdon had been staring at. "Yes, I favor my mother." She turned to Mrs. Burdon. "Do you have children? Are they here?"
"Yes, Miss Abbot. I do. I believe my..."
"William is here," Burdon cut in over his wife and gestured towards the dancers. "He's over there with the Clements girl. He's very popular with the ladies as you can imagine. He takes after his father."
"My daughters are..." Mrs. Burdon continued.
"Yeah, I have three daughters, but we all know it's the boys who carry on the family line, don't we, Abbott?" Burdon stood. "Women are mere receptacles in God's plan. We praise the chef or the dish, don't we? Who admires the oven?"
"Oh, my goodness!" Genevieve decided she'd had enough. "My earring. I've lost it." Misty eyes fixed on Mrs. Burdon. "It's my mother's emerald. I must find it."
Mrs. Burdon peered at Genevieve's ear. "I did notice it not so long ago. They are stunning. Let me help you, it can't have gone far. Stand up, dear."
Genevieve clasped her hands delicately to her chest and allowed her enormous, panicked doe-eyes to do most of the work. The matron's deft fingers swept over the cushions of the couch and probed into the cracks; she paused, before a triumphant smile lit up her face. "Here it is." She held the jewel aloft to admire the verdant richness in the light. "So beautiful. The emerald drop is flawless and the diamond setting just catches the eye. I've never seen anything quite like it."
"Oh, thank heavens," Genevieve's eyes glittered with faux relief. "It was my late mother's. I don't know what I would have done if I'd lost it."
"Wonderful craftsmanship," Mrs. Burdon raised a marcasite lorgnette to examine the precious stone, and the exquisite Italianate design of the diamonds set around both the emerald and the clasp. She pursed her lips and gave Genevieve a knowing look. "And very expensive."
"Precious, to me," this was one of the only truths the young flim-flammer had uttered since she entered the ball. "I remember her wearing them. She was the most beautiful woman in the county. They make me feel close to her."
"My wife knows good jewelry when she sees it. She's of real good stock. Her folks made a fortune in sugar and slaves. She grew up with the best of everything," Burdon beamed proudly, "and then she met me."
Genevieve replaced her lost earring, stretching her neck to the side and showcasing the alabaster décolletage emerging from the pastel green taffeta.
"You need to be more careful with those," Mr. Hale chided. "Your mother inherited those from her own mother. They've been in the family for generations. I'll have to think long and hard about allowing anything else out of the safe."
His daughter glanced up at him though long lashes. "I will Papa. Goodness, my heart just juddered to a stop when I thought I'd lost it."
"You do right, Abbott," Burdon slapped Hale on the back. "You've got to be strict with these girls. Now boys; that's a different matter altogether. You haven't got a son, have you?"
"No, we were never blessed with a son. Just two beautiful daughters."
"You have another daughter?" Mrs. Burdon beamed. "I would love to meet her. You should have brought her too."
"No," Hale shook his bald head. "She is too young for a journey like this; it would interrupt her coming out."
"Coming out?" Burdon frowned. "They do that in England, too? Cotillions?"
"Certainly," Genevieve giggled. "When but women of a certain class come of age in England they are presented at court before any ball takes place."
Burdon looked even more confused. "Court? The law?"
"Not that kind of court. She, and all the other eligible young women of a suitable background, will be presented to the Queen before embarking on a season of balls to formally introduce them to society. She will only meet the very best people. All upper class young women do it, but my sister is irrepressible. My aunt, Lady Methville, will see her through the season. She'll certainly have her hands full with Helena." She smiled at the older woman. "You remind me a lot of my aunt. I think she'd like you. You know how easily girls can get their head turned in a swirl of ball gowns and suitors. They need a firm hand to keep them on the straight and narrow."
"You did that?" Mrs. Burdon's eyes bulged. "You met Queen Victoria."
Genevieve smiled her coyest smile. "Of course. Hasn't everyone?"
"These balls. They're big?" Burdon was glancing around the room, competitively measuring up his own summer ball and wondering if it was good enough.
"They're tiring," Genevieve replied, diplomatically. "I prefer less formality, where people can relax and truly be themselves. Don't you? This feels far more like a celebration to me. I like it here." She glanced around at the kaleidoscope of gowns sweeping past as they danced around the room. "Maybe I should live in America, Papa?"
"Where is William?" Mrs. Burdon frowned. "He really should meet Miss Abbott."
"He has left, Madam," the servant bearing a bottle of champagne whispered discretely. "There was a card game, I believe..."
Mrs. Burdon's eyes hardened to steel-grey. "Ernest, can I have a word?"
"Not now, Effie." He puffed on his fat cigar. "Abbott and I have some business to discuss."
"But William has left without saying anything to us."
"Effie! This is business. You can talk to him about that tomorrow."
"You know, Clem can be harder to shake than one of them Mississippi snappin' turtles when she sets her mind on something. I'm sure glad Soapy's got her workin' tonight, 'cause I'm sick to death of her yammerin' on about that con of hers. We're gonna have to come up with a plan real soon just to shut her up," said Jed Curry.
"I'm trying, Kid, believe me. Let's not talk about it, okay? It's time for some beers and poker." Heyes pushed open the batwing doors and stepped into the gloom of the saloon followed by Jed. It was nearing the supper hour and the place was beginning to fill up. The two men blinked several times in response to the acrid miasma of cigar smoke and stale sweat filling the room and then made their way to the bar.
Curry gestured to the bartender, holding up two fingers and then tapping the bar top in front of him. Almost instantly, two frothy beers were plunked down. He pushed two-bits across the copper surface and watched as it disappeared under the portly man's grimy apron. The beer was cold. In most places, ice was simply too hard to come by to be used to chill drink, but not in Denver. You could get pretty much anything you wanted in Denver. He lifted his mug and pulled a long, deep draught, humming with pleasure before eying the red-headed bar maid serving a table of card players.
Heyes' eyes followed his gaze. "Looks like a pretty good game." A mass of chips filled the middle of the green baize table. In front of each player stood more stacks of neatly organized chips. There was a small fortune being hotly contested and a crowd had gathered around to watch.
A sandy-haired, goateed man seated with his back to the wall looked up. His eyes scanned the room with the authority of a seasoned card sharp and he locked on Heyes and the Kid for a second, noting the cut of their expensive, tailored suits. He nodded to the empty seat next to him.
"Uh, I think that fella figures he's found his next mark," drawled Jed, smiling at the man and lifting his beer in a casual salute. "He's all yours, Heyes; game's too rich for my blood."
"Yeah, little does he know that Soapy footed the bill for these fancy duds. I'm sure not gonna set him straight. I'll see what the buy-in is, maybe I can finagle something," said a dimpled Heyes. He finished his beer, set the empty mug on the counter, and started to walk towards the table. Before he could reach his destination, he felt someone brush rudely by him, and he saw a well-dressed young man, close to his own age, lurch towards the gambler.
"I've got my stake, Mr. Dunham, five thousand. It's all here," said the young man, breathlessly, "Am I too late?" He tossed a bundle of bills on the table and plopped down in the empty seat.
Heyes stopped and turned back to the bar, bellying up to the rail in order to be inconspicuous, but he kept his attention on the table. That was a hell of a lot of money for someone that age to carry around and he wanted to hear how the man came by it.
"William, we thought you'd reconsidered joining us." The gambler's smile didn't reach his eyes, and Heyes saw the naked cunning written in them. "Are you sure you're not getting in over your head?"
"There's plenty more where that came from," said William. "Deal me in."
"Really? Well, then, let's play."
Heyes watched several hands before he walked back to where the Kid stood at the bar and ordered another beer. He didn't say anything as he waited to be served and Curry thought he was upset at being cut out of the game.
"Maybe next time, Heyes," said Jed, slapping a hand on his shoulder. "It shouldn't take too long for him to fleece that kid; then you can have a crack at him."
A brilliant grin flashed at him. "It's the kid I want a crack at."
"I think I just found Clem's mark."
Jed grinned and looked again at the heavy-set boy with jet black hair. He was staring at his cards as though his future was written in them. It didn't take a pro to see that the boy had no poker face at all. "Better hurry, Heyes, or he's gonna be broke soon."
"Nope, his new best friend's gonna make sure he walks away with his cash. The sharpie's cheating and I know how he's doing it." Heyes put down his beer and straightened his jacket. "Play along with me, Kid. Okay?"
"Don't I always, partner?" Jed followed Heyes through the crowd until they stood before the table of five players. William was engrossed in his hand, but Dunham looked up with a smile.
"Sorry, Gentlemen, game's full up. You'll have to wait your turn to play."
"I have no intention of playing, sir," said Heyes pleasantly, shocking his partner with a phony English accent. The other players, including William, looked up at him with little interest.
"Then what can I do for you?" said Dunham, suspiciously.
"Delightful you should ask. You, sir, are a master. May I have the privilege of shaking your hand?" Heyes thrust his right hand towards the man and, in a reflex reaction, Dunham clasped it.
Confusion crossed his goateed face and he stood politely, still holding onto Heyes' hand, thinking a mistake had been made. "Mister, I'm not sure who you think I am…"
"Oh, it's very simple, really. I am an aficionado of poker, sir, and, I must say, I've never seen anyone quite as capable as you," gushed Heyes.
Dunham relaxed and smiled. "Well, thank you, sir."
"Capable of cheating, that is," said Heyes as his left hand slipped an ace from Dunham's right sleeve. He held up the card for the crowd to see and angry mutters arose. Chairs slid back from the table, screeching across the wooden flooring. Bodies pressed closer and hands reached out, clutching at Dunham's dress coat. Someone shouted to the barkeep to fetch the sheriff. One of the other men seated at the table, slipped his hand inside his jacket, but stopped short as he felt Jed's hand drop on his shoulder.
"Uh uh, you don't want to make any wrong moves," said Curry coldly. His right index finger poked roughly into the man's back mimicking the weapon Soapy forbid him to carry. The man lifted both hands up, holding his wallet in one. Jed 'holstered' his gun.
The sheriff arrived and hustled Dunham off to jail while the other men at the table divided the chips up according to their antes and then split Dunham's stacks. William stuffed his money into his jacket pocket and stood up, facing Heyes and Jed.
"Sirs, thank you. I'm in your debt. May I buy you a drink? I'm William Burdon."
Heyes bowed formally, "Please, allow me to introduce myself, I'm Juan Ignacio Arturo Espinosa of the Principality of Asturias and this is my hired man, Clyde Hoggs." He smiled charmingly at William and swept an arm towards a frowning Jed, who was not nearly so pleased with his own alias.
"Asturias? Never heard of it," said William.
"Ah, we are a small but important part of the glorious Kingdom of Spain. Perhaps you are aware of the wealth of coal and iron that flows from our region into the coffers of the monarchy?"
"Er, no, but I don't get out of Colorado much. You don't sound Spanish," said William.
"That is due to my education at Oxford, my good man. Father, the Duke, always said that English was the language of commerce and trade. He insisted that I learn it. Alas, my accent is terrible, but my native tongue is so rusty I fear to speak it."
Heyes nodded, "Yes, the Duke, my father, God rest his soul."
"He's dead? I'm sorry to hear that." William's eyes widened as a thought struck him, "I guess that makes you the Duke now?"
Waving a dismissive hand, Heyes chuckled, "The Duke of Caudal, the Prince of Asturias, but what's in a name? You, my new friend, may call me Juan, and I will call you William," Heyes threw his arm across Burdon's shoulders and steered him towards the bar, waving the barkeep over, and ordering a bottle of the saloon's finest Scotch. "Let's drink to our meeting, shall we?"
After several glasses of Scotch, William excused himself to use the facilities. Jed watched him go out the back door of the saloon and then rounded on Heyes. "A prince?! Are you crazy? You expect him to swallow that?"
"Looks like he already has," said Heyes smugly. "Besides, it was a test. If he buys me as a prince, he'll be the perfect patsy for Clem's Spanish Prisoner." A wide, gleaming smile creased Heyes' face.
It was slowly mirrored by Jed's. "The Spanish Prisoner, huh? Yeah, that just might work."