Strangers in Fort Benton
“Beer,” muttered Hannibal Heyes as he rode into Fort Benton, Montana. “First the livery and then a beer.” His horse’s hooves clomped in dry dust while a breeze cooled by the Missouri river reached out to ruffle strands of his dark hair. The name posted on the sheriff’s office was Matthias Watley. Heyes nodded to the skinny man with the deputy star standing outside.
The deputy yanked open the door and hollered, “Sheriff.”
Heyes’ smile slipped away. “Now what,” he muttered, prodding his horse to a trot. “Stables and then a beer,” he reminded himself. “Everything’s fine.”
A little later, Heyes laid a coin on the counter and motioned for a refill. The barkeep filled his mug and scooped up the coin. After a sip, the dusty ex-outlaw turned his back to the bar. Resting an elbow on the satiny wood, he glanced around the saloon. With a squeak of the batwing doors, a tall, broad man pushed inside. The star on his chest caught Heyes’ attention.
Turning casually, Heyes presented his back to the sheriff. He took a gulp of beer and tried to ignore the looming presence now standing beside him.
“Howdy, Stranger. Heard you just rode in to town.” The sheriff inspected the ex-outlaw “Could tell me your business in Fort Benton.”
Heyes’ smile twitched a bit around the corners. “Rode in from Helena, Sherriff. I’m meeting my partner here. We’re doing a job for a friend.”
“This friend got a name?”
“Colonel Harper. Lives in Cheyenne. We—me and my partner—work for him occasionally. Do you know him?”
“Harper? Can’t claim the honor, but I‘ve heard of him. What kinda work?”
“Oh, deliveries, messages, that kind of thing.”
“Actually, Sherriff, my partner has the delivery, and it’s of a delicate nature, so I’d appreciate it if you’ld keep your voice down.”
“Tell you what, Mr.…”
“Smith. Joshua Smith.”
The sheriff’s eyebrows rose. “Tell you what, Mr . . . . Um. . . Smith…. Come on over to my office, and we’ll talk private like.”
Heyes’ smile didn’t touch his eyes. “That’s not—” His explanation was cut short by the sheriff’s pointed gun.
“I don’t understand.”
“Just come along to my office.”
“Okay, Sheriff, but you don’t need the gun. I’m a real peaceable fella.”
The sheriff gestured toward the door. Heyes grabbed his beer and drained it before accompanying him outside.
Inside the office, the sheriff motioned to a cell.
“You’re locking me up? Don’t I get to know what you think I’ve done?”
“Sure. But first let Deputy Littleton take your gun and your belt.”
Heyes’ eyes turned flinty above his frown, but he unbuckled his belt and handed it to the deputy. The sheriff motioned with his gun before Heyes stepped into the cell.
“What’s this about?”
“I have a suspicion that Smith ain’t your name. I need to lock you up for a bit while I check out an idea I have.”
“My name is Smith, and I’m waiting for my partner. We are doing a job for Colonel Harper.”
“If that’s all true, you’ll be outta that cell soon. But in the meantime I need to check out my suspicions.”
“Yep. I’m real suspicious that your right name might be Hannibal Heyes.”
As the cell clanged shut, Heyes slumped onto the thin mattress and cradled his head in his hands. Again! Why was this happening again? He didn’t know this sheriff or his deputy. He and the Kid had checked that out before taking this job.
He leaned against the wall, pushed his black hat to the back of his head, and pasted on a wide smile. “You’re gonna feel real foolish, Sheriff, when my partner rides in and backs me up. Colonel Harper told us this job is important to your town. I don’t want you getting into trouble.”
Watley ignored Heyes. “Sam,” he said to his deputy, “run on over to the dry goods and ask Jake Harrison to come by. I need his help.”
Heyes slumped and lowered his hat. Jacob Harrison Heyes, he thought. Known here as Jake Harrison. He had hoped to introduce himself to his brother while he and the Kid were in Fort Benton, but he hadn’t imagined that he’d be doing it from behind bars.
The bell over the door jangled, jarring Heyes from his brooding. He schooled his body to stillness, hoping to appear calm. Surreptiously he peered from beneath his hat, observing the man limping into the office.
Jake was broader in the shoulders than his brother and not as slim. His brown hair was a match for Heyes’ own, though it was cut short at the neck and above the ears. His eyes were the color of walnuts, rather than the deep brown of roasted coffee beans. His face was narrower than his notorious brother’s, and fine lines gathered around his eyes and mouth. He used a cane to walk. A smile for the sheriff revealed the signature family dimples, but he didn’t spare even a glance for cell’s occupant.
Heyes sat straighter, but adjusted his hat to cover most of his face.
“What can I do for you, Matt?” asked Harrison, sinking into a chair.
“You remember tellin’ me about your brother?”
Harrison frowned. “You agreed to never talk about that. Figured it’s safer for my wife and kids to keep it quiet.”
“I remember. But a stranger rode into town today, calling his-self Smith. He looks so much like ya, Jake, it got me to wonderin’ if he was Hannibal Heyes.”
Harrison’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead. “Here? In Fort Benton?”
“In the cage behind ya.”
Jake rose from his chair and peered inside the cell.
Heyes slowly removed his hat and set it on the mattress. His eyes locked with the lighter ones in Jake Harrison’s face. The ex-outlaw offered the hint of a smile before dropping his eyes and resting his forehead on his hand.
“Is it him?” prompted the sheriff.
Heyes looked up and two sets of brown eyes locked again. Harrison frowned. His eyebrows drew together as he studied the man in the cell. After a pause, he shook his head.
“Matt, I haven’t seen Han since he was 11 years old. I can’t positively identify a man of thirty when I last saw him as a boy.” Jake faced the sheriff. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t know. Could he be my brother? Sure. You figured that out by looking at him. But I can’t confirm it. He was too young when I left, and too many years have passed in between.”
“Dang. I was hoping.” The lawman paused in thought. “Did your brother have any identifiable scars or birthmarks?”
“No, Matt,” Jake replied firmly. “Han didn’t have any distinguishing marks.”
Heyes jammed his hat back on his head and rubbed his hand across his outh. “Sheriff. I told you my name is Joshua Smith. My partner has the delivery for Colonel Harper. I was a decoy. That’s why we’re riding separate.”
Jake raised his eyebrows at the mention of a partner.
“Who’s this delivery for?” asked the sheriff.
“A lawyer. Fella by the name of Edwin Howell.”
Harrison and Watley exchanged an intense look.
“Did Harper tell you what was in the package?”
“We don’t agree to dangerous jobs without knowing the particulars, Sheriff. But like I told you, the job’s confidential. I’m not confident about what I can say.”
Before anyone could respond, the door popped open, revealing the deputy’s face. “Another stranger’s ridin’ into town.”
Heyes jumped to his feet. “What’s he look like?”
“Sam! Don’t answer the prisoner!”
“Follow him and report where he’s goin’.”
“Smith, does this friend yer expectin’ have a name?”
“Jones. Thaddeus Jones.”
“Smith…. and …. Jones.” The sheriff glared at Heyes. “Jake, are you sure you can’t identify that fella in the cage?”
Harrison chuckled and laced his finger through his hair in a manner that Heyes found unsettlingly familiar.
The deputy burst back inside. “He’s headed to Mr. Howell’s office.”
“That’s the lawyer excepting the delivery,” added Heyes. “Can I get outta this cell now?”
“Not yet, Smith. I’m goin’ over to guard that delivery. I’ll be back with this man Jones, assuming that’s who he is, as soon as this business is finished. After that, we’ll see about releasin’ you.”
Heyes slumped back onto his bunk. The bell over the door jangled as the sheriff left.
Harrison looked out the window. “The deputy’s gone too.” He walked back to the cell and examined the ex-outlaw. “Is it really you?”
“Yeah, Jake, it’s me. Thanks for not identifying me.”
“I really couldn’t be sure. You were only eleven.”
“But you didn’t tell the sheriff about the birthmark on my hip. That’s when I figured you wouldn’t turn me in.”
“You thought I might?”
“I didn’t know what you would do. Like you said, it’s been a long time.”
“Han, I’d like to explain—“
“Not here. The sheriff could come back at any minute. Let’s talk later. Somewhere we won’t be overheard, and when I’m not in jail.”
“I’m guessing it’s not the first time. For jail, I mean.”
Heyes’ smile was rueful. “You got that dead on.”
“One thing more. The man you’re expecting?”
“Yep, it’s K— I mean, it’s Jed.”
The sound of boots on the boardwalk warned them to silence. The bell jangled as the deputy entered.
“Don’t you get sick of that thing clanging?” complained Heyes.
The deputy shrugged. “Sometimes,” he answered. Sitting down at the desk, he placed his hands behind his head. “Sheriff Watley and that fella Jones are guarding Mr. Howell’s office while he gets the paperwork ready to go over to the bank.”
“I should be helping. Keeping me in this cell is keeping me from my job. That delivery is real important to a lot of folks here in town. Do you know what’s in that package, deputy?”
“Yep. Bunch a money.”
“Twenty-two thousand dollars. Now I ask you, deputy, if I were that outlaw Hannibal Heyes, would I’ve been trusted with that kind of money? Think about it. A bank robber trusted with twenty-two thousand dollars.”
Jake gaped at his brother and shook his head.
“It sure don’t seem likely,” answered the deputy. “But maybe that colonel fella didn’t know who he was hirin,’ or maybe you jest couldn’t get your hands on the money with that Jones fella carrying it all.”
“Or maybe, just maybe, my name is Joshua Smith, and I need to be over at the lawyer’s office helping.”
The deputy chuckled. “Whoever he is, he sure can talk, cain’t he, Mr. Harrison?”
“Yes, he sure can, Sam. He sure can.”
About an hour later, Watley returned with a dusty Kid Curry. Curry exchanged a nervous glance with his partner. Jake Harrison’s eyes were fixed on the blond.
“Mr. Jones,” began the sheriff, “this is Jake Harrison. He owns the local dry goods store.”
Kid extended his hand, but when he saw the man, his mouth fell open. He looked at Heyes who rolled his eyes.
“Looks a lot like me, don’t he, Thaddeus?”
“Yep,” Curry gulped. He extended his hand again. “Sorry ‘bout the reaction. Nice to meet you, Mr. Harrison.”
Jake clasped Curry’s hand and flashed him a dimpled smile.
The Kid controlled a shudder.
“So, Jones, is the man in the cell your partner?”
“That’s Joshua, Sheriff. Why’s he locked up?”
“Had a suspicion that he might be Hannibal Heyes. I’m still nervous about lettin’ him out.”
“This might help,” said Curry handing over telegram.
“What’s it say, Sheriff?” asked Heyes and his brother in unison. They glanced at each other with a sideways slide of the eyes. Neither man turned his head. Standing behind the lawman, Curry shook his head.
The sheriff read the telegram aloud.
To: T. Jones and J. Smith
Have additional job stop Gunnie arriving Fort Benton to help banker stop Ask Sheriff for details stop Standard daily wage stop Confirm acceptance by telegram stop
“I guess you really are working for him. Time to let you out, Mr. Smith,but you got to admit you fit the description of Hannibal Heyes. I hope there’s no hard feelin’s.”
“No hard feelings, Sheriff.”
Watley squatted in front of a safe tucked behind his desk. Heyes watched him turn the dial until he caught Curry glaring at him. He shrugged and smiled with one side of his mouth. A wide eyed Jake looked from one partner to the other. After the safe was opened, the sheriff stood up with a ring of keys and a gun belt. Heyes stepped out of the unlocked cell and took his things.
“What details is Colonel Harper talkin’ about?” Curry asked.
"Are you taking the job?”
“We need the details before we can decide,” Heyes answered.
The sheriff sat behind his desk. “Pull up a chair, and I’ll fill ya in. Somethin’ fishy is goin’ on at our bank. A few months back a man arrived claimin’ to work for the railroad. But it’s not clear which railroad he’s workin’ for, and the money he offers for land is way below market value.
“About the same time, Gerald Barstow, the banker, started shaking down businessmen and foreclosing on folks’ land. He’s always been a hard-nosed fella, but this was different. Good people, like Mr. Harrison here,were surprised to learn about really high late fees and things in their loan papers that allowed Barstow to raise the interest rates. Between the depression and Barstow’s policies, folks have been forced to choose between sellin’ to this so-called railroad man at really low prices, or just plain losing everything when Barstow forecloses.”
Heyes mouth formed a thin line. “So someone arranged for a loan from a bank in Helena to help out, and Colonel Harper hired us to deliver the cash here quietly. Then that lawyer—Howell was it?—arranged the paper work to pay off folks debts, or at least bring them current. Do I understand the situation?”
“Yes, you do, Mr. Smith,” interjected Jake.
Curry frowned. “Why haven’t you arrested this railroad fella and the banker?”
“Because they haven’t done anything illegal. I don’t like what they’re doin’ but I can’t arrest folks for being greedy jackasses. They gotta break the law first.”
“What do you think this gunfighter they are sending to town will do?”
“Not sure about that, Jake,” replied the sheriff.
“Most likely his job is to intimidate people into selling or leaving town altogether,” offered Heyes.
Curry nodded. “Seen this kinda thing before in the range wars down in Texas and also in Wyoming.”
“So how can we help, Sheriff,” asked Heyes.
“Extra man power. Keep an eye out in the saloons and on the streets. Look out for anyone makin’ threats and help protect the folks who owe the bank money.” The sheriff looked from Heyes to Curry and back again.
“You two any good with those six shooters?”
Curry smiled. “I usually hit what I aim at.”
Jake shifted nervously, and Heyes coughed to disguise a chuckle.
“What about your partner?” the sheriff persisted.
“He’s kinda slow,” Curry said, “but he’s accurate.”
“You gonna take the job?”
Blue eyes met brown in a silent conversation. The Kid answered. “Yeah. We’ll take it.”
“Then I should deputize both of ya.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Heyes rattled off with a sideways glance at his partner. “We’re working for Colonel Harper, not you. Besides having two strangers arrive in town and then show up wearing stars would draw attention. We’ll just pretend to be drifters. That will make it easier to keep our eyes on things.”
“You could be right about not drawing attention.”
The tension ran out of Curry’s shoulders.
“We’ll send a telegram to Harper on the way to the hotel,” added Heyes.
“No. Bath first, then the telegram,” argued Curry, his eyes turning to blue ice.
“Fine, Thaddeus. No need to get proddy. I’ll telegraph him. You head to the hotel. Save me some bath water.” Heyes paused and pushed his chair against the wall. “Mr. Harrison, we could use some more information, from the business perspective. Details about what the banker is doing. If you have the time…” Heyes’ voice grew soft and his words trailed off. Curry watched with concern. “Would you mind coming up to our room so we can ask you some questions?”
“I’d be glad to, Mr. Smith,” replied Jake with a reassuring smile.
About an hour later, a bathed and shaved Hannibal Heyes paced between the beds in their hotel room. He wore his dark blue shirt and tan pants. The door opened, and his gun was half drawn before he recognized the Kid’s red shirt. Curry pushed inside and set an unopened whiskey bottle and three glasses on the dresser.
“Thanks, Kid,” Heyes said as he attacked the seal on the bottle. After splashing about two fingers into a glass he raised the bottle in unspoken question. Curry nodded. Heyes poured again.
A soft knock sent the blond to the door with his colt drawn. “Who is it?”
“Jake Harrison,” came the muffled response. The Kid cracked open the door without holstering his pistol. He peered outside before pulling it wider. Harrison stared at the drawn colt.
“Sorry,” whispered Curry, holstering his gun.
“You two must need to be careful.”
“Yeah,” Heyes murmured before boldly meeting his brother’s gaze. “Twenty thousand dollars is a big temptation.”
“I won’t turn you in, Han. I thought I made that clear earlier.” He stepped closer. “I just want to apologize. Explain why I wasn’t there when . . . you needed me.”
“You want to apologize to me?”
“I wasn’t there for you. For either of you.” His look included Curry.
Heyes placed a hand on Jake’s shoulder. “If you had been there, you would be dead. You were only nineteen. If you had survived, you couldn’t have taken care of us? You would have starved with Jed and me. I couldn’t find a job at nineteen. Not with the depression and unemployed men from the war.”
“At nineteen you had five hundred dollars on your head, Heyes. Makes finding honest work kinda tricky.”
“Thanks a lot, Kid.”
Jake studied the blond gunman. “I haven’t even said hello to you, Jed. I’m sorry.”
Curry smiled and extended his hand. They shook and then slapped each other on the back.
“You were always an amazing shot, even as a little guy learning to hunt. If you are half as good as your reputation. I’m in awe.”
“He’s better than his reputation,” beamed Heyes.
Jake scrutinized his brother. “Five hundred dollars on your head at nineteen? Really, Han? That’s one thing I’m glad Ma and Pa didn’t live to see. It would’ve broken their hearts, especially those words “dead or alive” that appear above your name.”
“I like to think that if they had lived, I wouldn’t have a price on my head. But I may be making excuses for myself.” Heyes poured another whiskey. “Would you like a drink?”
Jake nodded. Heyes refilled his partner’s glass and poured for his brother.
“Jake, there is something I want you to know. Kid—or Jed—and me. We’ve stopped outlawing. It’s been over a year since we robbed anybody. We are trying to go straight.”
Jake grabbed his brother in a hug and then held his shoulders. “That is the best news I could’ve heard. I’ll give both of you any help that I can. Is that why Colonel Harper trusted you with all that money?”
Blue eyes met brown.
“The specifics are confidential, but the Wyoming governor has promised to help with our legal troubles if we stay clean. Harper’s a friend of the governor. He knows who we are and likes to recruit us for dangerous jobs.”
“I see. One other thing, Han. You didn’t show a hint of surprise at seeing me. Are you that good a liar?”
“Maybe. I’ve had a lot of practice. But I wasn’t surprised to see you. I knew that you lived here in Fort Benton, and I knew that you were using the name Jake Harrison.”
“Kid and I were here five years ago. I saw you.”
“Why didn’t you talk to me?”
“It was five years ago, Jake.”
Heyes sighed. “What do you think we were doing here five years ago?”
“I don’t know. What were the two of you doing here five years ago? Heyes could see his brother putting together the pieces. “You were planning a robbery.”
“But the bank here has never been robbed.”
“And the good people of Fort Benton, Montana have you to thank for that. I couldn’t risk wiping out my brother’s savings. Once I saw you, the job was off.”
“I know what you two have been doing all these years. I can hardly help from knowing with the wanted posters and the newspaper articles, but it just isn’t real to me. The two ornery boys I knew who were always getting into mischief. Now that’s real. The wanted men Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry with ten thousand dollars a piece on their heads, that’s not real to me.”
“Unfortunately, it’s real to us,” stated the Kid.
Heyes poured everyone a refill during the silence. Kid put his feet up and reclined on his bed. Jake limped over to a chair in the corner and placed his cane by the wall. Heyes continued to pace.
“What happened to you, Jake?” he asked. “How’d you get that limp, and how did you end up in Montana?”
“I got injured at Shiloh. Captured too. I spent the next two years at the Camp Douglas prisoner of war facility near Chicago. That place was horrible. When they offered to let us out in exchange for serving in the Union Army out west, I volunteered. I was afraid they wouldn’t take me because of my limp, but they needed men badly enough to ignore it. So in May of ‘64 I was sent to Fort Benton by the Union army. Galvanized Yankees they called us.”
“You were in a prison camp?” Curry asked.
Heyes chuckled. “After all the laws that Kid and I have broken, it’s my honest, straight arrow brother who serves time.”
Jake shot Heyes a dark look. “Anyway, after I was mustered out in ‘67, I went back to Kansas. You know what I found. Two dead and haunted farms and no family. Folks in Stanton couldn’t help. The courthouse had burned down taking all the records with it. I didn’t even know that you two had survived until I saw your wanted posters.”
Curry sat up straight. “Emily Ann is still alive. At least she was.”
“Your baby sister?”
“We got separated when they sent Heyes and me to a home, but Emily Ann was adopted. I don’t know where she is now.”
A knock caused the Kid to pull his gun while his partner walked to the door. Once Curry was in place, Heyes called softly, “Who is it?”
Heyes opened the door. When the deputy was inside, the Kid lowered his colt.
“There’s another stranger in town. Sheriff wanted ya to know.”
“Thanks,” said Heyes as the deputy left.
Kid moved to the window while the dark haired partner rummaged in his saddle bags. Returning with binoculars, he stood against the wall on the other side of the window.
“Yeah, and it’s makin’ me nervous.”
Heyes handed him the binoculars. Curry inspected the stranger, sighed, and handed them back.
“Who is it?’
“Sam Ackerly. He’s dangerous, Heyes. He might be as good as me.”
“In Texas. Maybe Colorado.”
“He knows you?”
“Well, Kid, he don’t know me, so here’s what we’re going to do.”