Gertrude Morris was a redoubtable woman by anyone’s standards. Her late father had owned large tracts of land and had been a bit of a laughing-stock for his ability to choose the least fertile earth, the most arid areas and the rockiest ranges; but he had an eye for mineral rights and had promptly built up a mining business which quickly wiped the smiles of everyone’s faces.
By the time Gertrude’s mother died, the mines were running dry, but by a fortunate happenstance the end of the mines coincided with the new railroads snapping up land. Gertrude had proven herself to be a canny negotiator and prevailed upon her father to take a combination of shares and cash. The woman who strode down the main street of Mullerville wasn’t exactly popular but was well-heeled enough not to care. Some said she was above herself and held her nose so high she’d drown in a rainstorm, others muttered that she had managed to buy everything but a man; but nobody had the courage to say any of this to her face. The keen, grey eyes were as sharp as her tongue. It was easy to say she didn’t suffer fools because she didn’t suffer anyone; especially not those she considered too smart for their own good. There was a place for everyone and if they didn’t know where that was she had a knack of putting them firmly in it.
The hand which rattled the doorknob of the bank did not belong to a woman who was going to take ‘no’ for an answer. It was ten to five on a Wednesday. It should still be open. In fact, Gertrude was going to make sure that it was. She had shares in this place and was not prepared to be inconvenienced by layabouts and goldbrickers.
“Wheat!” Heyes positively bellowed at the outlaw holding his gun in the face of the matron who stormed in the back door of the bank. “Shut that door. I thought you’d locked it?”
“I checked! I swear I did,” Wheat muttered. He lowered his gun but still kept it levelled at the bantam quivering with anger at the audacity of the man who had confronted her.
“How could you have checked it?” Heyes growled. “She just strolled right in on us. That could’ve been the law.”
Wheat scowled. “Yeah, well it weren’t. It was an old lady.”
“Old! How dare you?” Wheat felt his chest prodded by a rolled-up parasol. “I’m probably no more than ten years older than you are, although it’s hard to tell under all that hair and grime.”
“Wow, that old? And ya can still chew your own meat?” Kyle snickered, rapidly regretting the comment when Gertrude pinned him with an arctic glare. “I didn’t mean no disrespect, ma’am. It was aimed at him, not you.” Kyle shuffled from foot to foot. “I’m sure you chaw just fine,” the woman’s grey eyes narrowed to slits. “In fact, you look like you’re gonna chew me out any minute now.”
“And she’d be right to. Show the lady some respect,” the Kid drawled. Gertrude’s head tilted back as she looked the approaching gunman up and down. “Ma’am, will you please step this way?”
The Kid’s eyebrows gathered in a frown. “Why? Because I said so. Now, I asked you nicely...”
“Your friend is pointing a gun at me. What’s nice about that?” Gertrude whacked Wheat on the arm with her parasol. “Put that thing away. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”
Wheat’s top lip curled in anger. “Yeah, she taught me that women may not hit harder, but they sure hit lower.”
Heyes glared at Wheat before nodding a mute instruction to the Kid and putting his ear back to the safe.
“Ma’am, it ain’t a good idea to hit a man who’s holdin’ a gun on you,” the softness of the Kid’s words didn’t match the firm set of his chin.
The Kid gave a snort of irritation. “You sure ask that a lot. It’s dangerous, now come with me.”
“Dangerous? Nonsense,” Gertrude eyed her moustachioed opponent up and down. “If he was going to shoot he’d have done it by now.” She raised her weapon once more only to have it dragged from her hand by the Kid. “Give me that back!”
“Ma’am, I’ve asked you nicely, now I’m tellin’ you. Come with me and I’ll take you to the rest of the customers. We have work to do and you’re gettin’ in the way.”
“Why?” The rolling blue eyes accompanied a snort. “It’s like dealin’ with a two year old; because I said so.”
“No,” Gertrude shook her head. “Why should I let the likes of you rob this place?”
“Because you ain’t got a choice, ma’am,” the Kid’s eyes narrowed. “Now, I never like to manhandle a lady, so if you’re determined to stay here and watch, go ahead.” He signalled with his head to Kyle and Wheat. “Go and keep an eye on the other customers. I’ll deal with this.”
“This? I’m not a ‘this,’ nor am I a customer.”
The Kid heaved a sigh and folded his arms. “Yeah? How would you describe yourself?”
“The owner. At least, I own thirty five percent of it.” She stared straight at Heyes. “Stop that immediately, young man.”
Heyes seemed oblivious to the command. His dimples deepened and he pulled back from the safe. The Kid gave a whistle of admiration as the door opened like a sigh. “You ain’t lost it, Heyes. That was what; five, six minutes tops.”
“About that. I wasn’t counting.” He stood to admire the contents. “It’s a Griffiths and Sons. Stealing apples from an orchard is harder than getting into one of these babies.” He patted the top proprietarily. “The bank couldn’t have helped us more if they’d bagged it up and left it on the counter.”
“My manager assured me it was the best money could buy,” Gertrude exclaimed. “That cost a fortune.”
“This?” Heyes gave a cynical laugh. “Second, maybe even third-hand. Real cheap.” He scratched the top with a coin revealing some forest-green paint. “It’s been touched up to make it look new. Don’t tell me you trust this man?”
“Yes. The board interviewed him together. He came highly recommended by the Mayor of Barlow, not to mention a Bishop. He beat all other candidates based on his recommendations.”
Heyes and the Kid exchanged a glance before they burst out laughing.
“A Bishop?” chortled Heyes. “Not a Governor or minor Royalty?”
“What’s so funny?” Gertrude demanded.
“It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, ma’am,” the Kid smiled. “Fake references.”
“But they replied,” she stammered.
“Yeah. By letter I’ll bet?” Heyes grinned, “real promptly?”
“Well, yes...” Gertrude’s brows knotted. “They were glowing.”
Heyes bent to grab a wad of cash. “I’ll bet. You do realise he probably wrote them himself and had a stooge post them?”
“I will not stand here and listen to a good man being abused by common guttersnipes.”
Heyes turned slowly and fixed the matron with his most glittering smile. “Common? There’s nothing ordinary about us, ma’am, I can assure you and at least when we rob you we have the courtesy to do it to your face.”
Gertrude glowered at both men in turn. “You are cracksmen; pilfering good-for-nothing larcenists.”
“You missed out ‘crack shots.” Heyes nodded towards the Kid, “especially him.”
“You’re proud of it?”
Heyes pondered for a moment and shrugged. “We’re proud of being good at anything we do. There are too many greedy, violent men in this line.” His eyes darkened along with his voice. “If you’d stormed in on the wrong men you’d be dead by now – if you were lucky. We’re not those kinds of men.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Nope. It’s a simple fact.” Heyes riffled the wad of notes through his fingers and stiffened. “The payroll came in today. The safe should be full.”
“It is full,” Gertrude huffed. “At least, for the moment.”
Heyes pursed his lips and fixed the Kid with a hard stare. “It’s full, but not with money. See for yourself.” He handed over the wedge of notes bound with a paper band. See for yourself.”
The woman turned the bundle in her hand. “It’s money...”
“The notes at either end are,” Heyes arched a brow. “Look in the middle of the bundle.”
“Newspaper?” The matron eyed the outlaws suspiciously. “What have you done?”
“You watched me open the safe, ma’am. The payroll was already like that.”
“Do you take me for an idiot? I refuse to believe you. What are the chances of meeting two sets of thieves on the same day?”
“If you leave the house, about a hundred percent,” Heyes watched the Kid root through the stacks of notes, tossing each aside with disgust. “You may believe in the goodness of your fellow man, but I’ve found most folks are so crooked you could screw them into the ground. They’re honest when you’re watching. If I ran a bank I’d be watching all the time.”
“Well, you would think that; surrounding yourself with guttersnipes. It’s the company you keep.”
Heyes strode over to the ledger, a long finger following his eyes down the column. “Yup, the manager signed in seventeen thousand dollars. So, Mrs...?” He eyed the woman expectantly.
“Miss. Miss Morris.”
Heyes nodded. “Miss Morris, how do you explain the fact that we appear to be down at least seventeen thousand dollars? We never took it,” he folded his arms. “In fact, it leaves us in quite a sticky situation.”
“In what way?”
“My partner and I may not be violent, but there’s a whole gang of men in there who are expecting to be paid from this theft.”
The partners exchanged a glance.
“They ain’t gonna be happy,” the Kid shook his head ruefully. “Newspaper cuttings don’t buy many...” he paused to muse on the general post-robbery expenditure and thought the better of finishing the sentence as previously planned in present company, “beers.” He nodded firmly and scratched his chin. “Yeah, drinks... and things.”
“Your manager is a thief, Miss Morris.” Heyes fixed the woman with intense dark eyes.
“So? Do you expect sympathy because he beat you to it?” she crowed.
Heyes tilted his head. “Hey, you’re in as much trouble as I am.”
The smile fell from Gertrude’s pinched face. “I don’t see why, young man.”
“What would you lose if this bank failed?”
She carefully adjusted her mousey bun. “Well, I do have a lot tied up in this bank.”
“I’m guessing you’d be ruined.” Heyes narrowed his eyes. “It’s got to be hard to start again, for an unmarried woman...”
The little pointed chin tilted at him defiantly. “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re insured against theft.”
“Really?” Heyes leaned casually against the safe. “How do you insure against an inside job? Do you really think they’ll pay out?”
Both outlaws watched the woman shift from foot to foot.
“They ain’t gonna pay out if you steal it yourself, ma’am.”
“I haven’t stolen anything!”
Heyes’ grin became infuriatingly broad. “Yeah, that’s what we say when we get caught too.”
“How dare you? If Michael Caruthers has stolen the money it is nothing to do with me. I will make sure he faces the full force of the law!”
“That’s one option,” the Kid strolled over and stood beside his partner, “but then you lose everything.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. The money’s gone and the insurance won’t pay out.” Heyes shook his head ruefully. “You’ve lost everything.”
“Not everything,” doubt played over the grey eyes. “I still have my railway shares.”
“Yeah, that’s the spirit. You’ll have some income. What does respect matter when you have all your family and friends around you.” The Kid rubbed his hands together and headed towards the door guessing that he’d hit a nerve. “Well, let’s tell them. Best get it over with.”
“She looks like she’s fairly comfortable too Kid.” Heyes followed his partner to the door. “It’s a crying shame she wouldn’t listen to sense. Her life will be ruined, well, except for her shares in the railway.
”The sharp nose pricked up like a terrier scenting rabbits in the wind. “Sense?”
The outlaws turned to face her in unison. “Well, yeah.” Heyes kept a hand on the door handle to drive home his message. “You do realise that if we steal the money you’re covered by your insurance, but if Caruthers does...”
“But he did!”
Blue eyes met brown. “Yeah...we know that, but when we walk out and announce that to everyone you’re done for.” Heyes smiled but his posture was reminiscent of a serpent ready to strike, “However, if we’re known to have taken it, you’re insured. The question is; what’s in it for us?”
Gertrude paused. “What do you mean?”
“It’s easy, really. We’ll pretend to have stolen the payroll.” Heyes smile became even broader, “but I need you to do something for us in exchange...”
Gertrude shook her head in confusion. “What?”
Heyes turned to his cousin. “Kid, lock the door. Miss Morris and I need to talk.”
The figure closed the door quietly behind him and quickly melted into the stygian murk of a moonless night. Only the clatter of the heels on the boardwalk betrayed the sounds of the man scurrying down the board walk.
The footsteps suddenly ceased; an indication that the man had either stopped or stepped down onto the damp earth of the road. The hunter following his quarry followed his instincts and pressed on. If his guess was right, there would be no loitering on street corners tonight.
The covert pursuit continued, using the most minuscule sounds through the night. There was no chance of seeing anything other than movement in the blackness, but the old tracking skills were invaluable in keeping up with the target and the hunt continued with stealth and patience until there were the undeniable sounds of a wooden bar being slid through slots.
The Kid smiled to himself. Yup, the doors to the stables were being opened. The man slid inside the building and closed the door quietly behind him. It took no more than a few minutes before the glow of light crept through the cracks around the door.
Thick fingers fumbled with the leather straps and buckles, completely distracting the man from the outlaw leader who moved from the shadows with the grace of a cat.
Michael Caruthers spun around, fumbling towards his holster for his gun.
“Nu uh,” Heyes shook his head, a casual smile gently warning the bank manager against the folly of underestimating the danger of his already drawn gun. “Get those hands up and keep them there.” The door creaked open. “Hey, Kid. Look who I found. The manager of the bank we robbed today; heading out of town by the looks of things.”
“Yup,” the Kid walked over to the saddlebag and flipped it open. “I guess we found the money from the payroll, Heyes.” He picked it up and draped it over his shoulder. “I’d have headed out earlier than this. You must have known The Devil’s Hole Gang would have spotted that most of the money had been replaced by newspaper pretty soon. Why’d you wait so long?”
The bank manager shuffled nervously in the straw. “Nobody spotted it in the bank. If I’d gone before dark, folks might have thought I’d helped you and arrested me.”
The two outlaws shared a conversation in a glance. “Yeah, they probably would. Well, I gotta thank you. We got what we came for and they all think The Devil’s Hole Gang took the payroll this afternoon, so there’s no reason for you to hot-foot it out of town anymore.” Heyes flicked up an eyebrow. “Either way the bank stays robbed.”
The Kid narrowed his eyes. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
Caruthers averted his eyes, unable to hold the gunman’s cold scrutiny. “No.”
“I do.” The Kid strode forward and examined the banker more closely. “Lose that moustache, take off about twenty pounds and the same amount of years...” He reached out and pulled off the man’s hat. “Yeah, it is. It’s Jake Cody. You remember the Codys, Heyes. His Pa was a friend of Soapy’s. No wonder he hung back in the corner like that in the bank.”
Heyes’ eyes lit up with recognition, warming the smile which had previously been no more than artfully arranged. “Jake Cody! Yeah, it’s been years. How are you doing?”
A nervous smile flickered over the man’s face. “My arms ache from holding them up for so long; other than that, I’m good.”
“You found an easier way to steal?” the Kid grinned. “We knew there was some kind of flim flam goin’ on when Miss Morris told us all about the references.” He strode over and removed the man’s gun before patting him down for concealed weapons. “You can drop your hands, Jake.”
“There was no need to remove my gun, Kid. I’d never try to outdraw you.” Jake dropped his arms and shrugged. “I’m a thief, not an idiot.”
“No?” Heyes shook his head, ruefully. “Replacing the payroll with newspaper? Didn’t you think anyone would notice?”
“I’d have been outta here tonight but for you lot,” Jake sighed, heavily. “What were the chances that I’d be robbed that very day? I’d spent nearly a year planning this and then you lot waltz in and take the lot from right under my nose.” His eyes widened hopefully. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’d be interested in splitting it three ways?”
“Dream on, Jake,” Heyes holstered his weapon. “You’ll find another mark. I’m guessing your family provided the references?”
“Yup.” Jake sighed. “It was worth a try, I suppose.”
“Yeah, it’s always worth try.” Heyes nodded. “Now get out of here, Jake. They’re onto you. Miss Morris knows you’re a fake. We found out that the newspaper was substituted at the bank.”
Jake’s brow creased in curiosity. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because she wouldn’t get the insurance money if it was an inside job, that’s why.”
“You’re getting soft, Heyes,” Jake scowled. “I can’t believe you fell for that ‘little-old-lady’ act. The woman’s a coyote. That face of hers may be her own chaperone, but at least it gives a man a clue about her nature.”
“Her nature?” the Kid scowled. “She’s a woman alone who’s had to make her own way in the world. You’re a thief, Jake. She had to protect herself against men like you.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “I might have guessed you’d be stickin’ up for her, Kid. You always had a soft spot for the ladies. I never pegged her for your type, though. She’s a mouse studying to be a rat.”
“She’s better than any of us, Jake. You’ve just gone too far to remember that she’s more than just a mark.” The Kid gestured towards the horse. “Get saddled up and get out of here.”
Jake moved nervously towards the horse and finished tacking her up. “I never thought I’d see the day that Kid Curry would get so soft.”
Arctic blue eyes glowered across at the confidence trickster. “That ain’t your problem, Jake. What you want to worry about is seein’ me get angry and you’re headin’ that way real fast.”
Jake swung himself up into the saddle. “I guess. Good seeing you boys again. Maybe we’ll meet again.”
“Let’s hope not, huh?”
The Kid flung the door open and the animal battered off into the darkness. “I knew there was a reason we got outta that game. Men like him make my skin crawl.”
“Lost your taste for flim flam, Kid? Is that any more dishonest than what we do?”
“Yeah, it depends on the mark. We only ever went for greedy; he goes for easy. He destroys lives; ya gotta have standards or we’re no better than the kind who hit our folks.”
Heyes nodded. “Yeah, we’ve played fair. She got the evidence for a decent insurance claim, so her bank won’t go down. We’ve explained to her how to choose a better manager and recommended a good safe; but none of that compares to the service you provided, Kid.”
Heyes grinned, mischievously. “She had to be seen as the woman who stood up to The Devil’s Hole Gang to have credibility in this town and let’s face it, that’s all she had, apart from a little money, until she met you.”
“What’re you talkin’ about, Heyes.”
“You carried her back into the bank as part of the act. I saw her face when you threw her over your shoulder. She loved it.”
The Kid frowned. “It made everything look real for folks when we took her into the bank. I’d never manhandle a woman without her permission. She asked me to do it.”
“Yeah, I know that, Kid. All those years without human contact does something to a person; that was a special moment to her. She gave us the schedule of payrolls being carried on other lines of the railway she part owns in exchange for us giving her the evidence for an insurance claim,” Heyes’ eyes danced with devilment. “You on the other hand, gave her something entirely more personal.”
“Shut up, Heyes.”
“Why?” Heyes chuckled and followed his partner from the stable. “You’re one of life’s givers.”
“Yeah? Keep this up and see what I give you.”
They wandered out into the darkness and disappeared into the shadows, bickering lightly.
“What’s wrong? Can’t you take a compliment?”
“The problem with havin’ a war of words with you, Heyes, is that you’re the only one who gets to use any.”
“There was something on your shoulder, Heyes. Honest there was.”