Heyes and Curry pulled their hats down, tightening the stampede strings and squinting their eyes against the dust being whipped around by the gusts of wind scurrying down the street.
“Remind me why we’re here, Heyes.”
“Because Lom wired us to come meet Lancaster here to do a favor for the Governor’s goddaughter.”
“Favor -- so we won’t get paid.”
They both gave disgruntled sighs. They were tired and sick of being jostled for the three days it took the stagecoach to reach Albuquerque, New Mexico. They looked around as best the dusty wind permitted – no one.
Finally a wagon pulled up.
“Mr. Smith? Mr. Jones?” the driver called out.
He got down and held out his hand. “I’m Lars Lancaster, so glad you could come.”
They shook his hand. Heyes, as usual, took the lead. “We’re pleased to be here, but I don’t think you’re the Governor’s goddaughter.”
“No,” the tall, blond stranger laughed, “That would be my wife, Lucy.”
“Lars and Lucy Lancaster?” The Kid whispered to Heyes with a smirk. Heyes gave him a look and turned to their host.
“What exactly is it that we can do for you.”
“Let’s head back to the ranch, I need to get the supplies home, and I can explain on the way.”
“Uncle Wilson said that we could count on you to provide some intelligent security here.”
“Security?” the Kid queried, “there a range war or somethin’ goin’ on, ‘cuz we don’t hire out our guns, even for the Governor.”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Water rights?” Heyes hazarded.
“No, or, at least, not really,” Lars answered. “Lucy can explain better than I. We just have an important race coming up and want a guard for our prize entrant.”
“Oh, you race horses?” Heyes asked.
“No, not exactly, let Lucy explain it to you.”
With that silence descended until they reached the ranch, the jostling and creaking of the wagon, making conversation difficult.
Lucy proved to be a petite, red-haired firebrand, her quicksilver movements and vivacious speech a counterpoint to her tall husband’s taciturnity. She also proved to be an excellent cook, which both ex-outlaws appreciated – it was not often they were able to enjoy good, home-cooked food, and they expressed their appreciation by consuming vast quantities of it quickly.
After they had helped their hosts clear the table and all four were settled in front of the fire with whiskey enhanced coffee, the Kid looked at Heyes, who took a sip, put his cup down, and turned to business.
“So we understand that you need us to provide some sort of security. Security for what? What trouble are you anticipating?” Heyes asked.
Lucy and Lars looked at each other, then Lucy began, “You have to understand that it is very dry around here. We only get a few inches of rain a year. Most of us raise sheep…”
“You want us to protect a bunch of sheep? What about this race Lars mentioned? You race sheep?” the Kid exclaimed.
“No, no. There’s no problem with the sheep; we don’t need your help with the sheep. Really security isn’t the right word, but Uncle Wilson would have thought we were crazy if we told him exactly what we needed. It’s silly really, just a local tradition.” Lucy stopped for a moment.
“What’s a local tradition, Lucy?” Heyes prodded. “And why does this require our help?”
“We’ve always gotten along well with our neighbors,” Lucy began again. “But there isn’t much water, and there is a small piece of land on our northern boundary that we and our neighbors – Lyle and Luella Lassiter – dispute. The problem is that it is an ideal spot for a pond for the sheep. Well we’ve tried everything, we even went to court over it, but no knows who owns the land.”
“Sounds like a fight over water rights to me,” the Kid said. He turned to Lars, “I thought you said this wasn’t a fight over water rights.”
Lars looked uncomfortable.
“Well it’s not a fight, not really.” Lucy hastened to explain. “None of us want it to come to that. So we’ve agreed how to settle this once and for all.”
“How’s that and why do you need us?” Heyes asked again.
“On the 23rd of September every year, there’s a fair in town and part of that fair is a race. This year, we’ve agreed with Lyle and Luella that whoever’s entrant does best gets the land, and therefore the pond. We don’t really think that there will be interference, but feelings are running high amongst the ranch hands, and we need to focus on the sheep. But while we’d like you to keep an eye out and make sure that the rivalry doesn’t get out of hand, we really need help training our entrant.” Lucy smiled at them as if this were the most natural request in the world.
“Ya want us to train your entrant?” The Kid frowned. “We don’t have any idea how to do that. We don’t even know what the entrant is.”
“Yes, Lucy, what exactly is being raced – you’ve told us it isn’t a horse or a sheep, so what is it?” Heyes smiled.
Lars and Lucy looked at each other then Lucy explained in a rush, “It’s a lizard.”
“Lizard?” The two ex-outlaws looked at each other.
Lars finally spoke, “The tripudius lacertilia is unique to the Sandia foothills outside of town. Linda, our entrant is a real beauty.”
The two looked at each other again. Finally, after some thought, Heyes began “This whatever you called it…”
Lucy saw their expressions and laughed. “Lars loves the local tradition,” she explained. “Tripudius lacertilia” is Latin for ‘leaping lizard.’ Some can jump as high as five feet and as far as four feet. Because it is only found around here, the fair has sort of a race to see which entered lizard jumps the highest and farthest. We need you to keep the peace among the ranch hands until next week’s race and would appreciate help in training Linda – our lizard.”
“Uh,” said the Kid, looking bewildered.
“Uh,” said Heyes, looking at the Kid. “We can help keep the peace. Can’t say we have any experience in lizard wrangling, but we’re willing to do what we can.”
Lucy and Lars heaved relieved sighs, “That’s all we need. Why don’t we all get some sleep, then we can show you what to do in the morning. Unlike most animals around here, Linda sleeps at night anyway, so you can meet her tomorrow.”
Two nights later Heyes and the Kid stood against the bar at the local saloon, keeping a wary eye on the tables of ranch hands from the Lancaster and Lassiter ranches. They had come to appreciate what was meant by keeping the peace and had already broken up several fights in the past two days – luckily so far all had involved fists rather than guns or knives, but this was Saturday night.
“Strangest danged job we’ve ever taken on, Joshua,” said the Kid, being careful to use their aliases in such a public arena. “And we ain’t gettin’ paid either.”
“True, but you have to admit it’s not hard on the back and we are getting Lucy’s great cooking and some comfortable beds to sleep in. We’ve had it worse. Besides I’m beginning to get fond of Linda.”
“Yeah, she’s your type of gal, Joshua – small and scaly. But I gotta admit Lucy’s cookin’ may be worth this.”
At that moment, voices were raised and chairs flung aside as two of the rival ranch hands went chest to chest. Our two heroes grimaced and pushed their way between the two, each dragging a man to a corner of the saloon to cool down.
The sheriff, who had entered the saloon just as the chairs went flying, watched them from the bar and when they returned to their posts, nodded genially at them. “Thanks for the assistance,” he said. “This is a quiet locale except around fair time. People sure get riled up about their lizards around here.”
The two exchanged sickly smiles, then shook the hand held out to them.
“Joshua Smith, Sheriff, and my partner, Thaddeus Jones. We’re just doing a favor for the Lancasters, trying to keep the peace.”
“Uh, huh,” said the sheriff, noting their tied down guns. “It’s the same every year and this year I hear the Lancasters and the Lassiters have something extra riding on the outcome. Glad to hear you’re interested in keeping the peace – do it while keeping those guns of yours in their holsters and we can all be friends.”
He shook their hands again and left to continue his rounds. Heyes and the Kid glanced at each other and ordered two beers in relief.
Fair day was warm and dusty. Children darted through the legs of the adults in the crowd, screaming with excitement. Groups of boys huddled in corners setting off firecrackers then running away before anyone could catch them. There were balloons and booths, three-legged and sack races, and various other entertainments. By mid-afternoon and the time for the lizard race, everyone was wound up and ready for the big event.
As the participants prepared to begin the race, Heyes was mounted on one of the Lancasters’ horses to better view the crowds, while the Kid patrolled on foot. They had been alternating all day and, in this way, had managed to keep an eye on the assorted ranch hands and head off any trouble.
Lucy had explained to them that all the participants lined their lizards up in low boxes at the starting line – this was along a wall marked every few inches so height could be determined, while the ground in front was marked so that distance traveled could be determined. The two measures were then added together and the higher overall number was the winner.
Heyes and the Kid were both interested in the race, having spent much of the last few days teaching Linda to jump at the sound of a single shot (the starting sound for the race).
All the contestants lined up, lizards at the ready. Heyes moved in close to the race official, fascinated by the race. His mount shuffled its feet nervously, upset by the crowd. The race official pointed his pistol in the air. Just as he shot the pistol, there were numerous loud bangs as the boys who had been playing with firecrackers let loose with every firecracker they had remaining.
Heyes’ horse leapt forward in terror at the sound and raced down the course and on past the town limits while Heyes struggled to regain control. It was some time before he was able to calm his mount and return to the fair.
The Kid held the bridle while Heyes dismounted.
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked looking his partner over.
“Yeah, fine,” was the disgruntled reply. “I missed the race. So who got the pond?”
The Kid began laughing. “I guess you were too busy to notice, hmm?
“Notice what? Who won?”
“Little Sally Henderson won” the Kid said, indicating a girl about eight years old who was clutching her lizard cage to herself while smiling delightedly.
“Okay so neither the Lancasters nor the Lassiters won the race; who won the land?”
The Kid just laughed. “No one, Heyes. I guess you didn’t notice that you gained a couple of passengers as you raced through the startin’ line.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Both lizards jumped so far up that they landed on the back of your saddle. You looked like you had these two little tails behind you. Since you don’t have them with you now, who knows where Linda and her friend dismounted. The Lancaster and Lassiters’ lizards were disqualified. In fact, all the lizards were disqualified, except Sally’s, which pretty much didn’t move.”
Heyes stared at the Kid, who couldn’t stop laughing. Finally, as what the Kid had told him sank in, he, too, began laughing.
“So now what?” he asked when they had sobered up.
“I don’t know, Heyes. Let’s get a drink or two while you figure out a plan to resolve this land dispute once and for all before it really does become a fight.”
Once again, Heyes and Curry stood outside the Albuquerque stage depot, squinting against the dust swirled by the wind. This time, however, Lars and Lucy were with them.
As the stage pulled up and they began to say their goodbyes, Lucy reached out to hug them.
“Thank you so much. I can’t believe you solved our problem.”
“That’s why we came,” Heyes said.
“Yes, but what an inspired solution. Of course, we should have thought of it – both ranches sharing the land and splitting the cost of digging the pond. You are a genius.”
“Now, Lucy, I wouldn’t say that,” protested the Kid. “It was a pretty easy solution after all. Sometimes he has some good ideas, but his head don’t need to be gettin’ any bigger. Any time you start thinkin’ he’s a genius; just remember the sight of him headin’ out of town on that horse with two lizards clingin’ on like tails.”
Lars and Lucy laughed with the Kid at the memory while Heyes scowled.
“Well, anyway, both of you were wonderful. Come visit anytime. I’ll be sure to let Uncle Wilson know how helpful you two were.”
“Bye Lucy. Bye Lars. You two take care.”
With that they climbed onto the stagecoach and it rolled out of Albuquerque – no one noticed the two lizards peering out of Heyes’ saddle bags as the stage lumbered on.