"I know. I'm thinking."
Tom released an impatient sigh. "Think faster, will you? We ain't got all day."
His friend, Billy, frowned at him across the game board. "Chess is harder'n it looks. I still don't see why you think we got to learn it. Ain't checkers good enough for you?"
"Checkers is fine if'n all you want to do with your life is eat dust on a cattle drive."
"I still don't see how playing this high-falutin' game is gonna help us be better lawman," Billy complained. "Time's better spent practicing your quick draw, if'n you're gonna bring in the big-name outlaws."
"Sheriff Trevors plays chess. He says it's better'n checkers, because in chess, you got to think at least three moves ahead. He says you learn strategy and tactics, and that's what you need to outthink the crooks." He looked at the board again. "You plannin' to make a move today or not?"
Billy pushed his chair back and stood up. "Not. I'd sooner get on with all the filin' than give myself a headache over this." He waved his arm at the piles of paper on the desk. "Though I got to admit, I never knew being a deputy meant so much paperwork."
"Let's forget about this game then, alright?" At a nod from Billy, Tom started picking up the chess pieces and putting them away neatly. "We ought to get this paperwork done before the sheriff gets back from lunch with Miss Porter."
"He's having lunch with Miss Porter? We got plenty of time to finish up this paperwork then. She's a looker." He folded the chess board and handed it to his friend.
"You ain't just whistlin' dixie. Good-lookin', rich, and not married."
"Yeah, I guess – " both young men turned when they heard the front door to the sheriff's office open.
"Can I . . . " Tom gulped. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "Can I help you . . . gentlemen?" He looked over to Billy, who was similarly taken aback.
Two men, weary and trail-worn, wearing dusty clothes and sporting shiny six-guns tied down low on their thighs, stepped into the room.
"We're looking for Sheriff Trevors," the dark-haired one said.
"He ain't here right now," Tom told him. The strangers looked at him curiously, and then looked around at the office and jail.
"So it seems. Where is he?"
"He went out for lunch."
"Where?" the blue-eyed man asked. His stance was familiar to Tom from all the dime novels he'd read. The man was a gunfighter; Tom knew it. And he knew if a gunfighter was looking for the sheriff, then that sheriff was in danger.
"To the restaurant."
"The one two blocks over?" the gunfighter asked. "With the fancy lace curtains and tablecloths?"
The men turned to leave. At the door, the gunfighter looked back at the motionless young men.
"Where's Deputy Wilkins?"
"I'm Deputy Wilkins," Tom said.
"No. You're not," the dark one said. "Not by about 40 years."
"That's his grandfather," Billy blurted. "He's retired. Tom and me, we're the deputies now."
The strangers exchanged a quick glance. "Sheriff needs two deputies now, huh? Must be expecting trouble."
"Town's growing," Tom said. "A lot. Sheriff Trevors, he needs help."
"And you're the help?" the gunman asked. He looked the two young men up and down, real slow-like, then shook his head. He opened the door to leave, and the dark-haired man followed him out.
"Sheesh," Billy breathed out after the door closed. "Who are those two?" He fell back into his chair, as if he was exhausted. "That's a mean pair."
"I sure as hell don't know, but we got to warn Sheriff Trevors." Tom reached for his hat. "Grab a rifle. If we go out the back door and run down the alleys, we can get to the restaurant first. Them two are bad 'uns, if I ever seen any."
"Good heavens! What are they doing here?"
Lom Trevors turned away from his lunch companion to see his two new deputies rush into the restaurant, rifles in hand. He barely had time to scowl at them before they came to his table.
"Just what do you think you're doing with those rifles? You expecting the James gang?"
Tom was out of breath. "There's two gunnies come looking for you. They're on their way here now. Me and Billy, we come to back you up."
Caroline Porter put her fork down.
"Gunmen, you say? Coming here?"
"How'd they know to find me here?" Trevors demanded.
Billy and Tom were at a sudden loss for words.
"You told them I was here?" His deputies' silence spoke volumes.
"Who were . . ." Trevors was interrupted by Caroline Porter, who stood up and discreetly waved at someone.
"Mr. Smith! Mr. Jones! What a wonderful surprise to see you again!"
Trevors pointed at the new arrivals. "Are those two the gunnies you're talking about?"
"Yes, sir, Sheriff," came the simultaneous answer.
"You boys lower those weapons and go back to the office. Now. I'm expecting the filing will be done when I get back. Clear?" Both deputies nodded vigorously and beat a hasty retreat, careful to give the suspected gunmen a wide berth. Smith and Jones approached the table, broad smiles illuminating their dirty faces.
"I hope we're not interrupting anything, Lom," Smith said. "Miss Porter." He bowed from the waist. Caroline put one hand over her mouth and giggled. Trevors rolled his eyes.
"Why don't you two sit down before you fall down? You look done in."
"Don't mind if we do, Lom. We have been through a spell. And seeing you here, Miss Porter, is an unexpected pleasure. I apologize if we're interrupting a personal conversation."
"Caroline and I were discussing her bank. There's nothing personal in that."
"Sorry we're not real presentable," Jones said. "We went to your office to check in with you, Lom, and them deputies of yours told us where to find you. We figured to get a hotel room and some lunch after."
"Not exactly in that order, if I know you, K – I mean, Jones," Lom said. "That ain't your reputation."
"What is his reputation, Lom?" Miss Porter asked.
Trevors hemmed and hawed, to the barely-disguised amusement of Smith and Jones. Smith took pity on the tongue-tied sheriff.
"That he's good at his job, Miss. And that his work always comes first, which is why we went to find Lom before freshening up after our long ride. I'm sure you remember how focused Thaddeus is on doing his job right."
"Indeed, I do remember that," she said. "And the same goes for you, Mr. Smith. Your help and knowledge of security procedures were invaluable to me, and the way you ran off those thieves was unforgettable." A thoughtful look crossed her face. "And those skills might be useful again. Lom, don't you think their security and banking experience might be helpful in my current situation?"
Trevors stared at the two men, who looked politely curious. "I don't know about that."
"Gentlemen, I may have a proposal for you, but I need to think about it more. Can we speak tomorrow?" She stood up, and all three men stood too.
"Of course, ma'am. We look forward to it." Smith said, giving her a pleasant smile. "But we don't want you to leave without having your lunch."
"Oh. we've already eaten. Why don't you stay and have lunch on me? I'm sure you're hungry." They started to protest, but she overruled them with a wave. "No, no. Please let me do a good deed for friends." She took a few steps away, then turned back. "Oh, by the way, don't bother going to any hotel. They've been sold out for weeks. Go to the men's boarding house on 4th Street. It only accepts the highest class of pre-selected gentlemen. I should know, since I own it. Be sure to tell the clerk I sent you."
"Ma'am, you are a gem, and a constant surprise. It ain't often someone does us a good deed, and we appreciate it."
The men sat down slowly after she left. Trevors signaled a waitress, who filled coffee cups.
"Those are some tough deputies you hired, Lom. Sure scared me."
"Don't be an ass, Heyes, This town's growing a lot, and I need help, especially since Wilkins retired. They'll do good once I finish training them."
"Here's hoping you live so long," Jones said. "They're awful wet behind the ears, if you ask me."
"They're smart enough to know you two are trouble, even if they didn't know they was face to face with Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry."
"Trouble? Us? We avoid trouble like we avoid lawmen. Present company excepted." He took a sip of the hot coffee. "Mmm mmm. I sure needed that." He waved at the young waitress across the room. She hurried over, coffee pot in hand. "Miss, whatever you recommend for lunch, bring two servings of it. And maybe one more for my friend."
"Is that all, sir?" Her gaze lingered on Curry's face.
"For now. Thanks." She blushed deeply but didn't move.
"Thanks, Adelaide. We'll let you know if we need anything more," Trevors told her. She finally managed to tear herself away from her rapt contemplation of Curry's eyes.
"Don't you ever stop, Kid?" Trevors asked. "You've been here five minutes, and you've already got some young girl swooning." Curry only shrugged.
"If I might change the subject, Lom – you got any good news for us?" Trevors hesitated. Heyes and Curry put their cups down. Their shoulders sank and their smiles faded.
"Now don't be like that, boys. No news is good news, right? The deal's still on. Just keep walking the straight and narrow path like you been doing. One small step after another, that's all it takes. You'll get there."
Heyes folded his hands on the table. "That's what we've been doing. One small step, then another, then another, and every so often, what feels like a giant leap. But we still haven't gotten anywhere. We're where we were when we started. It's a mite discouraging, that's all."
"I know it is, Heyes. I do know. But what's the alternative? You ain't going back on the owlhoot trail. Are you?"
"No. This honest way of life, it's kind of habit-forming. You learned that your own self."
"I did." Trevors looked at them, taking in their threadbare clothes and thin faces. "Now that I've given you the news you came for, what're your plans?"
"Just to rest up a couple days. And to make a deposit in Miss Porter's safe."
Trevors' eyes widened in surprise. "You've got money? Honest money?"
Heyes put one hand to his chest. "I'm hurt, Lom. Truly hurt. Yes, we do. Between so-called security jobs that no one in his right mind would take, and a profitable stay playing poker in a couple mining towns, we got ourselves a decent stake. And being the honest, hard-working citizens we are, we want to put that money in a bank."
"Especially one that's got a safe even Heyes couldn't crack," Curry added.
"Hmmph." Trevors considered.
"Alright, boys. You want to stay in town a couple days, rest up, and clean up – at least, I hope you want to clean up – I got no problem with that. Just stay out of trouble, alright? I got enough problems on my hands already. Town's booming right now, what with all the cattlemen sending their herds to Wyoming for grazing. Lots of newcomers in town, and they ain't all inclined to be peaceable."
"Which is why you got two deputies now," Curry said.
"Which is why I got those two deputies. I'd like to hire more experienced men, but I don't have the budget to pay them. There's more money working for the cattlemen. Law enforcement ain't the way to get rich."
"Not for an honest lawman anyway." At Trevors' hardened expression, Heyes hurried to apologize. "Of course, we're not talking about you, Lom. You're as honest as the day is long. Me and Kid, we've had a few run-ins with men who use their badge like it was a license to be steal."
"Sure have," Curry agreed in a quiet voice. "A badge ain't a guarantee that the man wearing it is honest."
Trevors backed off. "Yeah. I've seen a few, I'm sorry to say. A couple bad apples can ruin the whole barrel."
"Getting back to what we were saying earlier, we're going to check into Miss Porter's boarding house, get clean, and maybe look for a little work."
"Here? In Porterville?"
Heyes nodded. "Sure. Why not? Miss Porter might have something for us. You heard her say so, didn't you? If the town's booming like you say, someone should hire us for honest work, even if it doesn't pan out with her."
"Yeah." Trevors didn't look happy at the prospect but couldn't find it in himself to object. His lunch companions looked worn out and discouraged, in a way he hadn't seen before. And they had done everything he, and the governor, had asked them to do, no matter how hard or dangerous it was.
"Good. We're all agreed then. And here comes lunch, just in time. Kid was about to eat his hat."
"I guess so. We're agreed," Trevors said. He watched them dig into their meals as if neither had eaten for a week. Caroline Porter was right when she offered to do them a good deed. He could do the same. Even as he was getting used to the idea, an old saying came to mind – "no good deed goes unpunished." He could only hope it wasn't true.
"What do you think, Kid? That's got to be the place." Heyes adjusted the saddlebags resting on his shoulder. The cash he carried made him nervous, since, as he'd admitted to Lom, thieves could always spot someone carrying money. Knowing that he had an expert gunman at his side only reassured him a little.
Curry stared at the sturdy two-story brick building across the street. It looked strong and resolute, as if it could shrug off the dust that rose from the unpaved street. Tall windows were adorned with thick curtains. The front porch, which stretched the width of the building, held large wicker chairs and shiny brass spittoons.
"Looks like a place for high-class gentlemen, alright. Here's hoping they don't turn us away before we get a chance to register. We don't look too high-class right now."
"We got Miss Porter's backing. They got to let us in. Come on, let's move quick before the rain starts. That thunder's getting louder."
They'd barely taken five steps out onto the street when the dark clouds opened up and released a heavy rain. They sprinted onto the porch and through the front door.
The lobby looked similar to most small-town hotel lobbies they'd seen throughout their travels, with chairs, tables, potted plants, and an officious-looking bespectacled man standing behind a broad registration desk. The difference was the carved wooden sign hanging on the wall – "The H. Oliver Porter Gentlemen's Residence." Heyes pointed it out to Curry.
"Guess we're in the right place after all, Thaddeus. And just in time, too."
The desk clerk coughed. Heyes and Curry turned to face him, giving him their innocent, law-abiding citizen smiles.
"Are you two lost?"
"No, sir," Heyes said, as he and Curry walked over to the desk. "If this is the men's residence owned by Miss Caroline Porter, then we're right where she told us to go."
The clerk straightened. "You know Miss Porter?" He slid his glasses down his nose to focus on the two tramps standing before him.
"We surely do. I'm Joshua Smith and this here is my business associate, Thaddeus Jones. Miss Porter told us that we'd find lodging here. In fact, she very kindly told us to use her name when we checked in."
"I see." The clerk pushed his glasses back up his nose. "As a matter of fact, she stopped by earlier with instructions to prepare a suitable room for Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. If you'll sign in, gents, I can give you your keys."
Heyes reached for the pen, then paused. "I suppose I should ask before we officially register. What is the rate?"
"The rate she specified for you is $3.00 a night. That is for the junior suite, with electric lights, a private water closet with running hot water and modern plumbing, and a small parlor. Meals are served in the dining room at 7:00am and 6:00pm. Lunch is not included, but laundry is. Put your dirty clothes in the hamper in your room, then leave it outside the door. Clean clothes will be returned by noon tomorrow. Any questions?"
Heyes and Curry both blinked in surprise. As usual, Heyes recovered first. "No, none right now." They signed in, accepted a key, and went upstairs to their suite.
In the parlor, they sank into overstuffed chairs, threw their hats on a table, and dropped their saddlebags on the floor. The thunderstorm rolled outside, flashes of lightning occasionally illuminating the room as rain clattered against the windows.
Curry stretched his legs out. "Who gets the first bath?"
"Care to flip a coin?"
"No." He put his hands on the chair's arms and pushed himself up. "I'll go first. I'm faster than you."
"We're not talking about guns. We're talking about bathing."
"I'm done talking. I'm going before you pull out your magic coin. Why don't you grab 40 winks? I'll wake you when I'm done, then you can wash while I sleep. Let's put out these stinking clothes right away. We can't go to dinner wearing these."
"All that's left is a couple shirts that're only slightly less filthy."
"They'll have to do. I ain't missing dinner for any reason."
"You never do, Kid. It's one of the constants that I rely on in life."
By the time both men had bathed, shaved, slept, and dressed in cleaner clothes, it was 5:30. Although the thunder and lightning had passed, rain still fell steadily. Its steady patter soothed the exhausted men, who showed little desire to rise from the comfortable chairs.
"This is the life, Kid. I could get used to it.""
"You did get used to it, when we were robbing banks and trains."
"Yeah. I could get used to it all over again."
"It's a lot of luxury for three dollars a night. How long do you think we can stay here?"
Heyes stared at the ceiling. "I don't know. Three or four nights, I guess. Lom seems inclined to let us stay for a spell, long as we don't do anything like blow up the bank. And Miss Porter might have a job for us. We can see her tomorrow, find out what she has in mind."
"What kind of job, do you think?"
"No idea, other than some kind of security issue. Whatever it is, it can't be worse than some of the other jobs we've done lately. And we're as safe and secure in this town as we are anywhere."
"Which is not at all," Curry reminded him. "If one of these cattlemen who're new in town recognizes us, Lom will have to arrest us. And there goes the amnesty. Not to mention the next twenty years."
Heyes frowned at his partner. "You are a ray of sunshine, aren't you? Try to have a little faith."
"It's not that I have little faith. I got none. I'm just trying to get through each day without getting arrested or shot. Ain't you doing the same?"
Heyes ignored the question. "Isn't it about time for dinner? I could eat a horse."
Curry stood up. "Let's go then. I got enough energy for dinner, and then maybe another nap before going to sleep."
"Sounds like a busy evening. We best get started then."
The dining room downstairs was populated by middle-aged and elderly men. Heyes and Curry were the youngest by at least ten years. Diners were conversing quietly with each other, until they became aware of the presence of strangers. Gray heads turned to briefly regard the newcomers and then just as quickly dismiss them.
Curry pointed at a table that had one occupant and two empty chairs. Heyes followed him to be table. They came around the seated man and stopped in surprise. The man frowned, as if he didn't want to be interrupted but when he looked up and saw who was there, he smiled. "As I live and breathe. Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones. Have you come to save my bank from another gang of outlaws?"
"We certainly hope that isn't necessary, sir. But if you or Miss Porter needs us, we're willing to step up," Curry told him.
"May we join you, Mr. Pincus?" Heyes asked.
"Of course. Of course."
As they sat down, Pincus said, "I don't know why I was surprised to see you. Miss Porter told me that you were joining our little community here. I suppose I thought she meant sometime in the future."
"We rode in this afternoon, sir. Just ahead of this gully washer."
"That was good timing, Mr. Jones," Pincus agreed. "You'd have caught your death of cold by now, were you still on the trail."
"Yes, sir," Heyes agreed. "We're grateful we got here when we did. And we're grateful that Miss Porter allowed us to stay here in her hotel. We heard that decent lodging is pretty scarce in Porterville right now, what with all the newcomers."
Pincus' expressive eyebrows rose almost to his receding hairline. "Her hotel, she said? She does have some cheek, doesn't she?"
"I don't know what you mean, Mr. Pincus."
"No, I don't suppose that you do. If you – here's dinner, gentlemen. Served family style, and plenty of good, honest lemonade and sarsparilla to wash it down. I promise, you won't go hungry in this place."
"That's welcome news," Heyes said. "I don't mind telling you, we've been on slim rations for the last few weeks. A good home-cooked meal sounds like heaven on a plate."
The hum of dinner conversation in the room was replaced by the clink of silverware against plates, as thirty men focused their attention on the platters of food distributed by two efficient middle-aged ladies wearing spotless white aprons.
Curry placed his knife and fork neatly on his empty plate. "That was a mighty fine meal. Mighty fine. A glass of whiskey is all I'd ask to polish it off."
"None of that, Thaddeus. This is a temperance house. No alcohol of any kind is allowed here," Mr. Pincus said. Shared appreciation of roast beef, fried potatoes, and hot buttered rolls had put him on a first-name basis with the younger men. Neither Heyes nor Curry could bring themselves to address their dinner companion and former banking colleague as anything other than "mister," and he seemed content to accept that measure of respect for his age and experience.
"What brings you to Porterville now, gentlemen?"
"Sheriff Trevors," Heyes said. He took his napkin off his lap, wiped his mouth, and neatly lay the napkin next to his empty plate. "He's an old friend of ours. We like to visit him from time to time."
"And we like Porterville. It's a nice, quiet little town, just right for resting up. At least it was."
"You have that right, Thaddeus," Pincus told him. "It – oh, here's the busboy. He'll take your plates." A teen-age boy with a pimply face silently loaded the dirty cutlery and plates onto a tray. He was followed almost immediately by one of the waitresses offering tea and coffee. Pincus looked surprised when his tablemates refused any refreshment.
"Thaddeus and I are planning to retire early, Mr. Pincus. After our long ride here, and considering that rainstorm ain't giving up, we're too tuckered out to do anything more than go to bed early."
"Never thought I'd see the day when two healthy young men weren't interested in painting the town red."
"Another time, maybe," Heyes said, smiling.
"Just as well, Joshua. The town's grown so much, it's attracted some undesirables. Probably best you don't visit the saloons. There are some hard characters around nowadays. You're very lucky you're staying here instead of the hotels. Management is very particular about who lodges here."
"We're honored Miss Porter's arranged for us to stay in her place." An undecipherable look passed over Pincus' face.
"Is something wrong, sir?" Heyes asked.
"It's just . . . well, I don't wish to be indelicate. I know you are fond of her, but . . . " The pause lengthened. Heyes and Curry waited patiently. Pincus took their silence for encouragement.
"I thought she was well-raised, but she doesn't seem to know what's proper and what isn't." More silence. Pincus sipped his tea. Curry opened his mouth to speak but stopped when Heyes kicked his leg.
"She's just a woman, after all. Really, no more than a slip of a girl. It is totally inappropriate for a female to assume a man's role, particularly in business. Oh, I know she wants to help her father," he went on, misinterpreting Curry's expression, "but we all know women's brains are smaller than men's. They are creatures of emotion, not logic, and logic is what's needed in business, especially banking. I've tried to talk to her father, but she's got him wrapped around her little finger. No good can come of her involvement in her business. And to claim that this hotel is hers . . . well! Talk about cheek!"
"Looks to me like she knows what she's doing," Curry said. "If anybody's got cheek, it's –"
"Well, ain't this been interesting!" Heyes interrupted, smiling broadly. He slapped Curry on the back a little too hard, earning a warning glare from his partner. "I'm sure we'll be talking more in the future, Mr. Pincus, now that we're under the same roof." He stood, pulling Curry's arm to make him stand, too. "That fine meal's making me awful sleepy. It's the same for you, ain't it, Thaddeus?" Curry didn't answer. Heyes' voice became a little more firm. "I said, ain't it, Thaddeus?"
"Yeah," Curry mumbled. "I mean, yes, it has."
Pincus stood up, too. "Get some rest, you two. If you find some energy, why, come down to the parlor later. We play some lively games of cribbage and checkers after dinner. Sometimes, we even play charades."
"Now that does sound like fun. We'll have to keep it in mind for the future, won't we, Thaddeus? Good night now."
At the stairwell, Curry shook Heyes' arm loose. "You don't have to hold me like that. I wasn't going to shoot him."
"You were going to shoot off your mouth, which is almost the same thing. We don't need trouble, remember? Especially on our first night here, and especially with the chief clerk of the bank. We're going to see him every day while we're here."
Curry didn't speak until they were back in their room, with the door closed.
"I didn't like the way he talked about Miss Porter. It's not respectful."
"She doesn't need you to defend her, Sir Galahad. She does alright on her own."
Curry crossed his arms.
"Don't go there, Kid. What happens at that bank is none of our business. We're just passing through."
"I guess you're right. I shouldn't let stupid people get to me."
"Truer words were never spoken. Just let it go, and let's get some sleep. But first . . ." Heyes crossed over to where his saddlebags were hanging over the back of a chair. "First, let's break a rule." He pulled a flask out. "There's not much left, but there's probably enough whiskey for each of us to have a healthy shot. How about it, Kid?"
Curry smiled. "Let's do it. Just don't tell Mr. Pincus."
"I won't if you won't."
"Leave me alone. I'm sleeping." Curry rolled onto his side and pulled the quilt up around his neck. The annoying sound continued.
"Kid. Kid. Wake up, will you?"
"Why?" Curry mumbled. "Do we have to be somewhere?"
"Yes, we do. Breakfast is at seven, remember? It's 6:30. "
Curry's eyes snapped open. "Now you're talking." He pushed the covers off and sat up on the side of the bed. Heyes was facing him, already fully dressed.
"I will never understand how you can wake up so early."
"It's a gift. Good thing, too, or you'd sleep till noon, and remember, lunch isn't provided here."
"I might go down and see if there's coffee. You want me to bring you some?"
"Yeah. I'll take any coffee you didn't make."
"Nice. And here I am, doing you a favor." Curry only shrugged.
In the dining room, Heyes saw the pimply-faced busboy setting the tables. No diners were present yet.
"Excuse me, son." The boy, startled, faced Heyes with wide, nervous eyes.
"Breakfast ain't served for another half hour, mister."
"I know. Can I get a coffee to take upstairs? And one more for my friend?"
The boy considered. "The guests don't get coffee until breakfast. I don't think it's alright for me to give you any before then."
Heyes pulled a nickel from his pocket. "Will this make it alright?"
The boy's eyes lit up. "If'n that was a dime, it would be."
Heyes laughed. "You're a tough negotiator. I like that." He reached into his pocket for another coin. "Will that do?"
The boy held out his hand. "I'll be right back with the coffees."
It wasn't even thirty seconds before he was back, carrying two mugs. "Careful now, mister, them's real hot."
"I see that." Heyes took them carefully from the boy. "Thank you, son."
"My name's Walter, sir."
"Thank you, Walter. Was there something else?"
"Ain't nobody supposed to be in the dining room before seven, and guests ain't supposed to be eating or drinking in their rooms. Them's the rules. Don't tell nobody I did this, alright?"
Heyes winked. "It'll be our secret."
With both hands full carrying the mugs, he couldn't open the door or knock.
"Thaddeus. Open up. It's me." Curry opened the door. He wore slacks and had shaving cream on his face.
"Thanks, Joshua," he said, conscious that he might be overheard. "I sure needed this."
"Me, too." Heyes sat down in the parlor, holding his mug in both hands, while Curry retreated with his coffee to the water closet. When he emerged five minutes later, he was dressed, clean, and still working on his coffee.
"You'll be pleased to know that getting coffee before 7:00am is breaking the rules."
"How'd you manage it, then?"
"Bribed Walter the busboy with a dime."
Curry sat down. "That's what I like about you, Heyes. You're always ready to corrupt the youth of America."
"It'd be blasphemy not to use my God-given talents." They clicked their mugs and relaxed.
"What's the plan for today?" Curry asked.
"Breakfast. Check in with Lom. Talk to Caroline Porter. Deposit our money. Eat lunch. Nap. Eat dinner. Find somewhere to play poker and have a few whiskies."
"Another classic Hannibal Heyes plan. Let's get started."
Caroline Porter sat at the dining room table wearing her dressing robe, surrounded by papers, ledgers, and files that covered most of the table's surface. She rubbed her eyes with her fists, like a child. Her eyes burned with exhaustion. She blinked a few times, trying to clear her vision.
"Siobhan!" she called. "Is there any more of that coffee?"
The cook bustled into the room, carrying a silver pot.
"There's always more coffee, Miss."
Caroline held out her cup. "Good." She took a sip, too quickly. The liquid scalded her tongue.
"Ow! That's hot!" She put one hand over her mouth.
"Of course, it's hot, Miss. That the way it should be served, is it not?"
"I suppose so. I'd just like to eat my breakfast without incurring an injury."
Siobhan looked up at the ceiling. "Do you hear that, Lord? She's willing to eat something. You've answered all my prayers."
"Please, please, do not tell me anymore how I need to eat or what I need to eat. You're worse than my mother."
"I'm better than your mother, Miss. She can't make you eat, but I can."
"Only because you're a better cook than she ever was."
"I'll bring you eggs and bacon and toast with fresh jam. Doesn't that sound lovely?"
Caroline's stomach rumbled loudly. Siobhan smiled but didn't comment.
"Will it be ready soon? I have to be at the bank early."
"You're at the bank early every day, you stay late every day, and you still bring all this work home. You work too hard, Miss."
Caroline stared at her. Siobhan sighed.
"Yes, it'll be ready soon. You can take ten minutes for a good meal, can't you?"
"I better, or you'll never let me forget it."
"And rightly so. I'll have it for you in one shake of a lamb's tail."
Caroline gave Siobhan the best smile she could dredge up. As soon as the cook was gone, the smile fell away. The day was only beginning, and she was tired already. Giving into an impulse, she crossed her arms on the table and rested her head.
When Siobhan returned with breakfast, she found Caroline sleeping where she sat. Her long brown hair spilled across her face.
"Child. Child. Wake up. Your food is ready."
Slowly, Caroline raised her head. "What happened?"
Siobhan put the covered plate down in front of her. "You fell asleep, child. You're working too hard, you are." She watched Caroline pick up her fork and start to eat. "Is there no one to help you with all these . . . this?"
She swallowed, then stabbed more eggs with her fork. "This is delicious." She talked while she chewed, unladylike, but the cook did not correct her manners. "Two men, two friends of Sheriff Trevors, arrived in town yesterday. I think they may be the people to help me."
"No one at the bank now can help you, Miss? Not even Mr. Pincus?"
"No. I need an outsider. An auditor."
Siobhan watched Caroline eat. "Not so fast, Miss. No one's going to take it away from you, least of all me."
"Sorry. I guess I was hungrier than I realized."
"Yes, Miss. I'll leave you be. There's plenty more where that came from, mind you. And I hope those gentlemen really can help you."
"You know how you said a few minutes ago, that your prayers were answered? I think maybe mine have been answered, too."
"And did you get any reports from Mulligan's? Any trouble there last night?" Lom Trevors faced his two young deputies across the broad desk in his office. All three clutched tin coffee cups.
"No, sir, Sheriff. The bartender, Mr. Joyce, he says he's keeping things quiet now. He don't expect no more trouble."
Lom Trevors regarded his deputy, Billy, doubtfully. "He is, is he? How's he doing that?"
"He says he's got a shotgun under the bar, and everybody knows he knows how to use it."
"He's only got one shotgun, against ten or twelve Texans. We'll go talk to him later. I don't want him doing some damn-fool thing like get himself killed."
"No, sir," Billy agreed. "I guess not."
Trevors closed the file on his desk. "You guess right. Tom, when you were out on patrol last night, did you –"
There was a polite knock on the door. "Go see who that is, Tom." Before Tom rose from his chair, the door opened, and Smith and Jones entered.
"You two look a mite better than yesterday," Trevors said.
"Nothing like good meals, hot baths, and a solid night of sleep on feather beds to change someone's whole outlook," Smith said. He looked at the two deputies, who seemed to be frozen in their seats. "Morning, boys. And ain't it a fine day today."
"I don't think we had any proper introductions yesterday. Joshua Smith, Thaddeus Jones, meet Tom Wilkins and Bill Schneider."
"Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, is it?" Tom asked. There was a note of disbelief in his voice that earned a hard look from Trevors.
"I know, I know," Heyes said, walking from the elevated entrance to stand next to the desk. Curry stood silently at his side. "Lots of folks named Smith and Jones. We just happen to be two of them. Besides, as our old friend Lom knows, Smith isn't my real name."
"It's not?" Billy asked.
"No," Heyes said, shaking his head as if he were sad. "My real name is just a little too . . . well, it's real English. Bit of a mouthful for most folks. When I went out on my own, I was even younger than you two. I wanted something simple, something that would fit in better." He glanced at Curry, who was listening to his partner's latest story with amusement. "Something that wouldn't get me beat up."
"You're not really going to tell him, are you, Joshua?" Curry asked. "You don't tell hardly anyone."
"I know, I know, but I feel like I owe something to these two, since we unnerved them so much yesterday. We're going to be in town for some days, and I want them to know we ain't such bad people."
"So what is your name?" Tom asked.
Heyes looked around, as if ashamed. "You promise not to tell?" Billy and Tom nodded. Trevors frowned. "Maurice Joseph Micklewhite."
"Woo-eee! That's a mouthful!" Billy said.
"Sure is. You'd change it too, wouldn't you? That's why I became Joshua Smith."
"I don't have a story like that," Curry said. "I'm just Jones."
"That is quite a story. Almost unbelievable," Trevors said. "What're you two doing today, other than trying to make new friends?"
"We're going to check on the horses, then head over to the bank and see Miss Porter. After that, who knows? Maybe find us a friendly saloon tonight."
"Got any recommendations, Lom?" Curry asked. "If there's herds grazing here now, that means cowboys spending their money on rotgut whiskey and getting into fights. We're looking for a quiet place."
"Town ain't like it used to be, boys. It's quiet one minute, then all hell breaks loose the next."
"We've seen plenty of that kind of trouble. More'n I like to remember," Heyes said.
"There were even times, back in the day when we rode the Chisholm Trail, when we started the trouble," Curry added. "Those days are long gone now. We're looking for quiet games with bad players who don't mind losing a little."
"When you find that sort of place, let me know. I'll put away this badge and play poker for a living."
"You'll be the first one to know, Lom." Heyes assured him. "Right after we clean the place out, of course."
"You sure you don't want to spend your evenings at the Porter Home? Some nights they even play charades. You boys don't want to miss that, do you?"
"If they play chess, I might be interested."
"Mr. Smith, you play chess? I'm learning it right now. Maybe you'd set up with me some time?"
Heyes saw Trevors' expression and hesitated before answering. "It's been a while, but sure, why not? Thaddeus isn't much for chess, so I don't get much practice."
Tom grinned. "I'd appreciate that. I ain't found too many players around here except the sheriff, and he's too busy."
"How about you, Lom? You interested in a game of charades tonight?"
Trevors shook his head. "No, though it's mighty hard to turn down fun like that. I'll be patrolling late tonight. We're expecting another herd in the area today, and that means cowboys hootin' and hollerin' in town. Could be dangerous."
Curry frowned. "Which one of these deputies will be backing you up?"
"Nobody tonight. They're busy elsewhere. I can handle it on my own just fine. I've been doing that ever since I got hired in this town."
"You said the town's changing, though. Lots of new faces. Lots of new idiots who don't know your reputation. Why don't I go with you?"
Curry's offer was met with stunned silence.
"I mean it," he said. "Micklewhite – I mean, Smith – will be playing chess somewhere. That's not my game. And you know my history, Lom. I can handle myself."
"You're not a deputy," Trevors objected.
"Maybe it's better that way. A sheriff on his own, everybody's going to know you're on the job. If you're with a civilian, you're still the sheriff, but people will look at you different. You won't be a threat."
"He's making sense," Heyes said. "And it's not often he does that."
"Sheriff, you been telling me and Billy here about all the hard cases in town, and that there's more comin' all the time, and how we need to watch each other's backs all the time because we don't never know where trouble is gonna start. Don't you think . . . "Tom's voice faltered as Trevors fixed his blue eyes on the young deputy. Tom gulped. "Sorry, Sheriff."
"Alright. You can come, Thaddeus. But, and I mean this, I'm in charge. You do what I say, no questions asked. And remember, you're not a deputy. Clear?"
"Clear. Besides, I've been a deputy before. That's hard work. And you know us, Lom. We avoid hard work like we avoid trouble."
"Somehow that don't reassure me."
"That's settled then," Heyes said. "You two visit the saloons without playing cards or having any fun, and I'll amuse myself somewhere else."
"Fine. That's fine," Trevors said, as if trying to convince himself.
Outside on the sidewalk, Heyes grabbed Curry's arm. "What were you thinking? You got an itchy trigger finger? Or are you playing Sir Galahad for Lom now? The last thing you should do is put yourself in a situation where you might be tempted to draw on some fool."
Curry shook his arm loose. "You're the one who's not thinking. Lom's pushing forty. He's not as fast as he used to be. If he gets himself killed playing hero, we lose any chance of an amnesty." Heyes blinked as he took in Curry's words. "Don't you remember? It's our little secret – just us, Lom and the governor. Keeping him alive and in one piece is the only hope we got for a better life."
Heyes pushed his hat back on his head. "You're making sense for the second time today, and it's still morning. I don't have to like it, though. And I don't have to tell you to be careful."
"No, you don't."
"Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones thank you so much for stopping by to see me today."
The desk Caroline Porter sat behind could only be described as masculine. It was heavy, dark oak, and its broad surface was covered with a sprawl of folders and papers. It seemed to dwarf her.
"Miss Porter, we've known each other long enough that I'd like us to move to a first-name basis. Please call us Thaddeus and Joshua. It'll be so much easier."
"And you must call me Caroline. All my friends do, and I count you gentlemen among my friends." She waved at the swivel chairs before the massive desk. "Won't you make yourselves comfortable?"
Both men settled into the broad, padded seats, their hats on their laps.
"I suppose we should get straight to business, gentlemen. I have an accounting problem, and I need help to resolve it."
"Can't anyone at the bank help you, Caroline? Looks like you got a full staff, and you got Mr. Pincus. He's been here since the year one, hasn't he?"
"Almost, Joshua. He started working for my father shortly after he established the bank, shortly after the war."
"And he's still only chief clerk?" Curry asked. "Seems like he might've risen farther, maybe even to partner, if he's been here so long."
"He hasn't, though. Daddy never promoted him. I've always thought Nathan preferred a quiet life, without carrying the heavy burden of fiduciary responsibility. At least, that's the impression I always have had. It would be hard to ask him why he lacked ambition, you understand. Not very tactful."
"No, I guess not. So, how can we help you?"
She hesitated before answering. "Business is strong. We have a lot of new depositors, our investments are profitable, and the economy is stable. And somehow, the bank is losing money, and it's for no good reason. Except one." She hesitated. "I think someone on staff is stealing."
Both men sat up straighter. "Why do you think that, Caroline?" Heyes asked.
"Because I've been auditing the books. Yes, on my own. When my parents left on their European tour and entrusted the bank to me, I was determined to do everything properly. I wanted to prove to them that I could do the job, even though I am just a daughter, not the son they always wanted to have, who would naturally inherit the bank." Heyes and Curry offered encouraging smiles that said, go on.
"The first thing I did was ask my father if I could see the outside auditor's reports. He told me the bank had never needed an external audit, because he hired only honest men to work for him." The men's faces showed surprise. "Yes, I know. Everything he did, every contract, every agreement, was done on a handshake basis. Nothing written. No contracts. Oh, the depositors' had adequate records. . . or so I thought. Now I'm not even sure of that. And there's no one I can ask for help."
"What about Lom?" Curry asked. "If there's a crime, he should be able to help."
"That's what we were talking about when you arrived yesterday. To make an arrest, I need evidence of a crime. So far, I don't have it. The records look right, but I don't have the banking experience or financial background to figure out why we're losing so much money. That's where you come in."
"You want us to do an audit."
She nodded vigorously. "A thorough audit, but in secret. If an employee is committing a crime, I want him to think that no one suspects anything. I don't want him to run off. I need to catch the thief in the act, prosecute him, and hopefully recover the funds he misappropriated."
"If funds are misappropriated," Heyes said. "Could just be accounting errors. Any chance you're wrong about this?"
"I wish. I wish I was wrong. I wish I was as inexperienced and ignorant as someone seems to think I am, just because I'm only a woman. But I've always had a head for business and numbers. I've always excelled at math and science, even though – " to the men's surprise, she was blinking away tears – "even though nobody ever gave me any credit for it. When prizes were awarded for the highest score in mathematics at my school, the administrators refused to give me the top prize I earned because it wasn't ladylike to act like I was better than the boys. And when I told my parents how unfair it was, they told me it was a good thing I was cheated out of my prize, because young ladies should concentrate on useful tasks like sewing and cooking that would qualify them for marriage and children. I was supposed to marry someone who'd run the bank for me. That hasn't happened." She took out a handkerchief and blew her nose. "I suppose they were right about everything, because I'm an old maid at 25. And I had to hire a cook."
'Caroline, . . . " Heyes began, but halted when she wiped tears from her face. Curry reached across the table for her hand and held it tight. She coughed a little, took a deep breath, and worked up a wobbly smile. She did not let go of his hand.
"Of course, we'll help you, Caroline. Though it'd be more accurate to say Joshua will help you. He's got a head for numbers, and he's like a dog with a bone when it comes to solving a problem." He suddenly became conscious that he was still holding her hand, and he released her.
"Can you really help me, Joshua?"
"I think I can. It may take a little time, because I'm not familiar with the records, but Thaddeus is right. I'm good at digging through details. Ain't nothing I like better than a little detective work."
"When can you get started?"
"A better question might be, where can he get started," Curry said. "Not here at the bank, because Joshua's presence will raise questions. Not at the hotel where we're staying, because Mr. Pincus lives there, and you don't want any of your employees to know what we're doing."
"My home is nearby," Caroline suggested. "No one's there now except the cook and the maid."
"Can't go there either. If anyone sees a man come to your home while your parents aren't present to chaperone, there's going to be gossip."
"I'm don't care about gossip," she insisted. "I care about the bank."
"Thaddeus is right. This is still a small town, and you're a young, unmarried woman – sorry, Caroline, but you're a woman in a man's job, and what people think matters. I wish it wasn't so, but that's the world we live in. A lady's good reputation is everything." He smiled gently, trying to ease the sting of his words. "And I won't be the person who makes things worse for you. Me and Thaddeus are here to help you, not hurt you."
She pushed her hair back. "I'm so angry right now. And you know what really bothers me? The bank was profitable until my parents left on their European tour. Since they left, money's flowed out of here like water through a sieve."
The men looked at each other briefly, both understanding her meaning. "You think someone waited till you took over to steal, figuring you don't have the knowledge or training to catch it," Heyes suggested.
"That's not what she's saying, Joshua," Curry said. "She thinks someone wants to sabotage her, make her look bad to her folks and to the town."
'I don't know what to think, Thaddeus. I do know that if I don't resolve this issue, it won't only be the bottom line that suffers, it'll be the bank's reputation. If word gets out that we can't manage our own money, no one will trust that their funds are safe with us. There could be a run on the bank."
"Then let's get started right away with the audit. I'm less worried about the thief's motive than I am about figuring out exactly how the money's disappearing. There should be a paper trail that'll lead me to the crook. How about I work at Lom's office? He's got a small back room there where he sleeps sometimes. Nobody goes in there except Lom and his deputies. He's got a safe, too, so we can lock up everything overnight. No need to be carrying files back and forth, and no one will think twice about you stopping in at a public place where you've been many times before and where you have legitimate business."
Caroline offered Heyes a smile of gratitude. "I knew I could rely on you. When can you start?"
"Right now. Give me the files, and I'll take them back to Lom's and start to go over everything. Meantime, Thaddeus can talk to Lom while they're out on patrol tonight, see what his theories are, and start his investigation by talking to people. For a fellow known to be kind of quiet, he's got a real talent for talking to people and getting them to say more than they think they're saying. That sound reasonable to you, Thaddeus?"
"Yeah, it does."
"If you'll organize these papers, Caroline, we'll put them in my saddlebags, and I'll go straight over to Lom's office and get started." She stood up, and both men rose with her.
"They'll fit in real good with our deposit," Thaddeus said.
"We were planning to make a deposit," Heyes told her. "That's why I'm carrying the saddlebags."
A flush rose over her face and quickly subsided. "I can't accept it. I don't know that it would be secure. I'm so sorry."
"We'll put it in Lom's safe. Not a problem."
She struggled to maintain her composure. A solitary tear trickled down her cheek.
"Caroline." She looked up at Heyes. "We are going to figure this out. We won't allow this bank to fail."
"Joshua and me aren't known for giving up," Curry assured her. "You got our word, and our word is good."
She could only nod.
"Well. Let's pack all this up," Heyes said. "You done us a good deed giving us a fine place to stay, Caroline, and, like the old saying goes, one good deed deserves another."
"Mr. Smith, you want anything to eat?"
Heyes didn't raise his head. "No thanks Billy."
Billy stepped further into the small room. "What is it you're working on so hard, Mr. Smith?"
"Oh, just sorting out some records. Financial things. You know."
"Yes, sir," Billy said, doubtfully. "You sure you don't want dinner? Adelaide from the restaurant brings supper over when we're working late."
"Late? Is it late?"
"Almost nine o'clock."
"Is it." Heyes looked up at the young deputy. "Maybe I'll have something to eat after all. Guess I lost track of time."
"Must be real interesting stuff you're doing."
"Only to security consultants, or agents of the U.S. Treasury. It'd bore you silly."
Billy's eyes got wide. "Treasury agents? Are you a treasury agent, Mr. Smith?"
Heyes put one finger to his lips. "Shh. You didn't hear that from me."
"Not if you say so, sir. I'm good at keeping secrets. You ain't got to worry about me."
"I'm glad to hear that, Billy. You've got the makings of a fine lawman."
"Bill!" Lom's loud voice echoed in the small room. Heyes smiled at how quickly the deputy disappeared. He'd barely started adding up a column of numbers when Curry arrived, carrying a covered plate.
"Solved the problems of the world yet?" Curry put the plate on the desk on a stack of papers. Heyes lifted the plate and moved the papers to another neat pile.
"The problems of the world are simple next to this. I think my eyes are permanently crossed."
"Maybe a little." He lifted the cover off the plate, revealing fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
"That ought to perk you up some," Curry said. "You missed dinner with Mr. Pincus."
"I may have missed it, but I don't think I missed out on anything." He started to eat while Curry watched.
"I let him gossip a little at dinner. He misses the good old days, especially when Porterville was just a small town. He doesn't like all the growth, and he doesn't like the new people, and he really doesn't like the new-fangled thinking and all the changes that've come about since the war. He thinks society's going to hell in a hand basket."
"No surprise there. Old men always think the past is better than the present."
"Think we'll ever be like that?"
"Like what? Old and boring, or just old?"
Curry perched his hip on a corner of the desk. "Either. Both. I don't know."
Heyes licked his fingers. "I'll tell you one thing. The food in this town's a lot better than it used to be. I'm all for change if it means I can get a meal like this."
"How long you going to keep working tonight?"
"I'll probably give it another hour, till I can't focus my eyes any longer. The last few weeks are catching up with me." Heyes looked up at his partner.
"You still think it's a good idea to patrol with Lom?"
"No. I'm going to do it anyway."
"Stubborn as ever."
"If you say so. I think – "
Curry was interrupted by Lom's appearance.
"Joshua. I see you're enjoying your dinner."
"Yes, I am."
"Did Billy tell you you're paying for it?"
Heyes frowned. "No, he didn't. I don't mind, though."
Trevors put his hands on his hips. "You still planning to walk with me, Thaddeus?"
"Well, if you are, we're leaving in five minutes."
"I'm ready. I already had my dinner at the boarding house."
"Alright." Trevors regarded the two men with a scowl. After he left, they turned to each other and laughed.
"He doesn't change, does he?" Curry said, as he stood up. "I'll try not to wake you when I get in."
"I'll probably be awake anyway, worrying. Don't take any chances, alright?"
"I won't, mother."
Heyes watched the door close. "Be careful, Kid."
"This one's a problem?"
Trevors and Curry stood on the wooden sidewalk on the opposite side of the street from a saloon. It was their third saloon visit of the night. Although the doors and windows were closed, tinny piano music spilled onto the street, and cigar smoke whispered out through the loose window frames. Whenever the door opened, a blast of music and conversation, along with clouds of smoke, escaped the wooden building and, just as quickly, shut down when the door closed.
"More'n you know, Thaddeus. The old places like we already seen, both of them, they're pretty well-run. People like Mr. Joyce, at Mulligan's, used to keep a tight lid on things, but even he's got a shotgun hidden under the bar now. That won't help him when some cowboy gets liquored up and decides someone is cheating him. Then the knives come out."
"They all got knives. They ain't all heeled." He looked closely at his companion. "You did notice I let you keep your gun, didn't you? That I didn't have my boys confiscate it when you arrived?"
"I noticed. I figured it was because you liked me."
Trevors' response was cut short by loud shouts from inside the saloon.
"You sure you want to do this?"
"I'm sure. What could go wrong?"
"I really wish you hadn't said that. I really do."
Inside the ramshackle building, the clouds of cigar smoke that hovered under the wooden rafters almost obscured the surroundings. Lantern light struggled to penetrate the gloom but succeeded only in casting long shadows of the customers who crowded the room. A few rickety-looking tables were surrounded by seated men, quietly concentrating on the cards they held. The general hubbub of conversation and curses quieted when Trevors and Curry entered, but only a few heads turned to acknowledge the newcomers.
"Seems quiet enough to me," Curry said.
"Looks can be deceiving. Let's get us a couple beers, try to blend in."
Curry looked at the unshaven, unwashed mass of men. The aroma of sweat and wet leather that rose from them was almost enough to overpower the acrid cigar smoke.
"We can try."
They slowly elbowed their way to the bar. Curry raised his hand. "Two beers, please." The bartender, who was pulling a beer, cast an exasperated glance at them. Then, he seemed to notice the star Trevors wore on his vest, and his expression went through several rapid changes, so quickly that Curry, who could read a man's face as easily as Heyes read a book, couldn't follow.
The man quickly poured two beers and brought them over.
"Don't think we've met, I'm sheriff in Porterville. Lom Trevors."
"I've heard of you," the bartender said. "That'll be twenty cents."
Curry fished coins out of his vest pocket and placed them on the counter. When the bartender reached for them, Curry put his hand on top of his, so he couldn't take the coins or withdraw his hand.
"An introduction isn't complete until both people introduce themselves. That's the rule in polite society. Tell the sheriff your name."
A flash of defiance showed briefly in the man's eyes, but only briefly. He tried to pull his hand away, with the coins, but Curry's pressure increased.
"Mike O'Keefe." Curry lifted his hand, and O'Keefe took the money.
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" Curry asked. "You own this place?"
"The business. Not the building."
"Thought we heard a ruckus earlier. Any problems?"
O'Keefe shrugged his shoulders. "It's a saloon. It's loud."
"What have you heard of me?" Trevors asked.
O'Keefe looked up at Trevors, whose height and solid build dwarfed him. He seemed to shrink back without actually moving.
"Besides that you're the sheriff? Not much." Curry frowned at what, to him, was an obvious lie. He glanced sideways to see if Trevors saw that, too. Brief exasperation flashed across Trevors' face.
"Maybe you heard more than you're recollecting right this minute. Only important thing to know is, I don't put up with shenanigans in this town. You walk the straight and narrow path, and I'll be your best friend. You break the law, and I'll be your worst nightmare." He straightened to his full, imposing height. "Think you can recollect all that? The bartender nodded nervously. He swallowed a couple times before he could squeeze out a few words. "Sure can, Sheriff."
Trevors nodded gravely. He pointed to the far end of the bar. "In that case, you better pay attention to them boys down there. They're looking mighty thirsty." O'Keefe moved quickly away.
Curry raised his glass in a salute. "Maybe he didn't remember you from before, but he ain't never going to forget you now."
Trevors touched his glass to Curry's. "He may remember, but all that means is, he'll have to work harder to cover his tracks. Or his boss' tracks."
"You don't believe he really owns this business?"
"No. Do you?"
Both men turned around at the sound of curses and a chair crashing on the wooden floor. They saw a cowboy staring down a clean-shaven, neatly-dressed man across a table where he'd been seated, playing poker. Three other players were pushing their chairs away from the table, trying to avoid the upcoming confrontation.
"You're cheatin'! Don't nobody win that much." The object of the cowboy's fury sat calmly.
"You're drunk," the dapper man said. "It's easy to win when I'm playing against drunks and fools."
"I ain't drunk!" the cowboy shouted. Despite the tense scene, men smiled at his statement.
"Here we go," Lom said. "Be ready."
"I was born ready." He pushed himself away from the bar. "Mind if I do the honors?"
Trevors stretched an arm across Curry's chest, effectively restraining him without using any pressure. "Yes, I mind. You ain't a deputy, remember?"
The cowboy pulled a knife out of his boots. The gambler only smiled. He stood and took a derringer out of his vest and casually pointed it at the cowboy.
"What kind of fool brings a knife to a gun fight?" The sight of the gun seemed to shock the cowboy into sobriety. His mouth opened and closed. He blinked rapidly. He lowered his arm until the hand holding the knife hung loosely at his side.
The gambler counted out some paper bills with his left hand, then pushed the money towards the cowboy. "Here's what you started with, boy. Take it and go." The cowboy sheathed his knife and reached for the money. He stopped when the gambler raised his gun and pointed it directly at his head.
"One time. One time only, and only one lesson," he said. His soft voice had hardened and deepened. "Because you're still a boy and haven't learned how to lose honorably like a man does."
The cowboy put the money in his hatband, then put his hat back on firmly, so that it was down almost to his eyebrows. He moved through the silent crowd quickly and left the saloon, letting the door slam behind him. A collective exhalation seemed to move through the room.
The gambler put his gun away, stood, and addressed the three other players, who still sat in their chairs, pushed away from the table.
"Gentlemen, I think I've had enough drama for one night. Thank you for the fair play." He quietly folded his paper money and tucked it inside his vest. As he walked towards the bar, the saloon seemed to come to life again. Conversations and music resumed.
"Nicely played," Trevors told him. "Although I ain't fond of concealed weapons."
"Does that include knives, Sheriff? Or just firearms?"
"Knives, guns, pitchforks, artillery, anything that causes damage."
The gambler smiled. "I'll make sure I'm not carrying any concealed artillery while I'm in Porterville." He extended his hand. "Thomas Fuller, at your service, Sheriff Trevors. And your friend with that fine shiny Colt, is this your bodyguard?"
Curry pushed his hat further back on his head with one finger. "Thaddeus Jones. I'm no bodyguard. Just an old friend of Lom's, in town for a few days. We were hoping to enjoy a quiet beer, but your winning streak don't seem to please everyone."
"My own fault, really. It's never wise to play with fools or drunks, and that young man combined the bad qualities of both. Sadly, the pool of players in this town seems to consist mainly of over-served amateurs with delusions of competence."
"Is that so," Trevors said. "You some kind of expert?"
Fuller shrugged and offered a modest smile. "I've been in a few cow towns like Porterville. The caliber of players varies greatly, based on where the trail boss recruited his men. You're getting herds from Texas. Texas is full of hard-up men who know the back end of a steer better than the social niceties."
"If you think you're going to find niceties in a cow town saloon, you got another think coming. I can guarantee you ain't the only man here carrying a concealed weapon. Don't push your luck."
Fuller's easy smile faded. "I hear you, Sheriff. Believe you me, I'm not looking to give your undertaker any business."
"What is your business here, Mr. Fuller?" Curry asked.
"I've worked mostly in banking. I'm here looking for business opportunities that would appeal to investors. Porterville's got a new lease on life with the herds coming to Wyoming territory for grazing. Money follows the herds."
"And where exactly are you following that money?"
"Tonight, to a conflict with a sore loser. Ultimately, I'm looking to invest in businesses that serve Porterville's visitors, even that unfortunate boy with the Arkansas toothpick you saw earlier. Whatever people need, I plan to help provide. Perhaps I could consult with you at a later date, Sheriff, since you undoubtedly know this town better than anyone."
"I'm no businessman. My job is keeping the peace. If you want to avoid doing business with me or the undertaker, put that gun away permanently."
"You mentioned banking," Curry said. "Anything specific? There's already a bank in town."
"I've heard of it. But American business is built on competition. Older doesn't necessarily mean better. Besides, the scuttlebutt is that the Porters' bank isn't as sound as it appears. There could be an opportunity here."
"What kind of opportunity?"
"Nature abhors a vacuum, gentlemen. That kind."
"Mr. Fuller, I got no idea what you just said," Trevors complained. "Speak plain."
"If the current bank is failing, there's room for a new bank to be established. One founded on sound accounting principles and run by experienced managers. Not by a girl play-acting a role for a doting father who has abdicated his responsibilities."
Curry leaned back against the bar, both elbows supporting him, in a casual pose that belied the still expression on his face.
"Are you talking about Miss Caroline Porter? Because, if you are, I should tell you that my partner and I have worked with her on security for that bank, and she's a fine, respectable young lady who works hard every day."
Fuller held both hands up in a 'surrender' gesture. "No disrespect meant, Mr. Jones. I've not had the pleasure of her acquaintance as you have. I only care about financials and getting the best results for depositors and investors. As, I'm sure, the Porters care about their depositors and investors. I only question the wisdom of giving such grave financial responsibility to someone who is new to the business, and who obtained her position through nepotism, not training or experience. I certainly would never infer any doubt on the lady's character or morals. I do question her qualifications, as I would that of any manager responsible for the safety of my money."
Only slightly mollified, Curry turned to Lom for support.
"How'd you hear all that, Mr. Fuller, being that you're new to town?" Trevors asked. "That ain't the kind of thing newcomers talk about."
"The banking profession is like a private club. It's full of loose-lipped people who like nothing better to gossip about other people in the business."
"A rumor ain't worth a continental," Curry said. "You're wasting your time in Porterville."
"It's my time to waste, gentlemen." Fuller tipped his hat. "It was a pleasure meeting you both. I hope to see you again – though not in the line of business, Sheriff."
Trevors and Curry nodded their farewells and watched Fuller weave his way through the crowds and out the saloon. Both turned back to the bar and their neglected glasses.
"I don't like this, Lom. I don't like it one bit. Seems awful coincidental, that he's here when Caroline's having problems."
"Seems awful convenient to me, too. But we still don't know there's been a crime, or what, if anything, is missing. That's what Joshua's got to figure out. If he can." The inflection on last sentence rose, as if he was asking a question.
"You forget who you're talking about. He may seem like a flibbertigibbet sometimes, but there's nobody like him to wade through the weeds. Just give him time."
Both men took a long drink of their beers. They stood shoulder to shoulder, their backs to the general hubbub of the room.
"You're forgetting the other possibility, Thaddeus."
"That she's wrong. That the records are all right, and if the bank's losing money, it's not through any criminal action."
Curry's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about? There has to be some sort of crime, or the bank would still be profitable. I thought you were her friend."
Trevors took another long drink before he answered. "I am. I'm also the sheriff. I need reasonable cause to go to the district attorney before anyone gets charged with a crime. So far, there's no reasonable cause because there's no proof. Maybe there's no proof because there's been no crime. Maybe Caroline's just over-excited."
"Over-excited? Because she's a woman? You're forgetting she's been raised by a banker. She's got a good head on her shoulders."
"She hired Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry to protect her bank. Their old gang shows up, and the bank gets blown to smithereens. That don't say much for her judgment, or for having a good head on her shoulders. As for being raised by a banker . . . you don't turn into a horse when you sleep in a stable, any more than you turn into a banker by living in the same house as one. She's never had any kind of a job before her papa left town."
"I can't believe you're saying this, Lom. You sound like Mr. Pincus. Things are changing in the world, whether you like them or not."
"I don't think about the world changing at all. I think about training two youngsters to be good deputies and about keeping crime down in this town. I need proof positive, not suspicions. Caroline's got to prove a crime's being committed, same as you and your partner got to keep proving you're not committing crimes."
"Do you think we're committing crimes?"
Trevors shook his head. "I don't. Not because we're friends, but because you've proved to me that you're working hard to live honest lives. I only believe what I see."
"And when you look at Caroline, what do you see?"
Trevors took a deep breath before replying. "I see someone who's trying hard. I see someone who's made beginner's mistakes. I see someone who's trying to learn from those mistakes."
"Well, I see something more'n that, maybe because I've been a crook longer than I been anything else. I see a real opportunity for a smart crook to take advantage of that beginner and to get away with a lot of that bank's money. Which is easy to do, because men in this town don't trust her to do things right."
"Maybe. Maybe you're right. The only way we'll know who's right and who isn't, is proof, one way or the other. Here's hoping Joshua can figure that out, without being influenced by her pretty brown eyes."
Curry straightened up to look straight at Trevors. "I ain't had much experience at being a lawman. That's true. I'm still going to give you one piece of advice."
Lom looked doubtfully at Curry. "And what is that?"
"Don't underestimate anyone. Always figure that your opponent is smarter than you'd like to think. Whether that's me or Heyes or Caroline, or even Thomas Fuller. Or whatever his real name is." He drained his glass. "There's a lot more going on with that one than he's saying."
Lom arched, stretching his back. "I think we've patrolled enough for one night, Thaddeus. There ain't nothing we can do until we got more facts."
Curry wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Fine by me. This beer is flat anyway."