Guns and Hoses
(Many thanks to Calico for the brilliant title suggestion.)
By Maz McCoy
Two ex-outlaws, a Silsby steam pumper and an arsonist on the loose. It can only mean one thing. Staying out of trouble isn’t going to be easy for Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry.
“Did Lom give you any idea what he wants us to do?” Kid asked his partner, as they rode towards the town of Porterville.
“There was nothing in the telegram to give you a clue?”
“D’you think it’s about the amnesty?”
“Boy, you sure are gabby today!” Kid yelled in frustration.
“Normally I can’t shut you up.”
“Nothing new there then.”
Heyes chose to ignore the remark.
“So whatcha thinking about?”
“Just wondering what Lom has in mind for us.”
“I just asked that!”
“Are you listening to a word I say?”
They reached Porterville after dark but there was a light still burning in the sheriff’s office, so they tied their horses in front of the jail and went inside. Lom looked up from his desk when he heard the front door open.
“Evening, Lom.” Heyes walked up to the desk.
The sheriff spun around.
“I’m over here, Lom,” Kid informed him, stopping next to Heyes. “Thought I’d use the front door for a change.”
Lom turned back and nodded.
“You got my telegram then?”
“We did.” Heyes sat on the edge of Lom’s desk and the sheriff reached to move papers out of the way before he crushed them.
“Couldn’t you sit in a chair like other folks?”
“Sorry, Lom.” Heyes stood and as one the boys lowered themselves into the chairs beneath Lom’s notice board.
“Why did you want to see us?” Kid removed his hat and rested it on his knee.
“I have a job for you.”
“Doing what?” Heyes stood and reached for the coffee pot. He held it up. Did Kid or Lom want a cup? Both men nodded and Heyes poured. By the time he handed a cup to Kid, Lom still hadn’t answered the question. “Lom?”
The sheriff sighed. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“I’m going to be out of town for a few days and I need you to take my place.”
A mouthful of coffee shot across the room as Kid choked. Heyes stepped to his friend’s aid, pounding him on the back, until Kid had to move away to stop him. Kid took one huge breath and looked at Lom.
“You want us to be sheriffs?”
“What? No! Not that, no!”
“Then what?” Heyes cast a glance at his partner to be sure he was really okay. He waited for the sheriff’s reply.
“I’m a fire marshal. Porterville has its own volunteer fire brigade now. While I’m gone they’ll need someone to take my place.”
“Why can’t somebody else cover for you?”
Lom looked at Heyes, clearly there was more to be told.
“Wait a minute,” Kid interrupted. “Did you say volunteer? As in for free? As in we don’t get paid for this?”
“There’s no pay, that’s true.”
“So what do we get?” Heyes asked, sitting back down.
“The thanks of the community?”
“Try again, Lom.” Brown eyes focussed on the sheriff. “What’s this really all about? You didn’t bring us half way across the state just to cover for you, did you?”
“Yes, and no.” Lom now had two pairs of eyes staring at him. “Yes, I want you to take my place, but no it’s not as simple as that. In the last two months we’ve had too many fires to be just accidents.”
“Is somebody trying to burn people out?”
“I don’t know, Heyes, but I certainly think we’ve got an arsonist here.”
“And you want us to figure out who it is?”
“Well that would be great, Kid, but I’d be happy if you kept an eye on things while I’m gone and let me know if you’ve seen or heard anything suspicious.”
“Why not have your deputy do it?”
“Because he’ll have enough to do with me gone. You’re just friends of mine who offered to help.”
“Sounds good, Lom, but what if there really is a fire?”
“Kid, I’m sure you and Heyes will do just fine and I’ll introduce you to our fire chief before I leave.”
The two ex-outlaws exchanged a glance.
“What do you say, boys?”
“Would you look at that?” Heyes exclaimed as he stood gazing out of the hotel window the following morning. “She is a beauty.”
Kid’s head shot up from his gun cleaning.
“Gleaming curves shining in the sunlight. What I wouldn’t give for a closer look at her.”
“Gleaming curves?” Kid stood up and headed towards the window.
“Nice head of steam too.”
“Head of steam? You know you can read too much! Sure you know a lot of fancy words but for a woman you need…” He pulled aside the lace curtain and scoured the street for the vision of loveliness. There were no women in sight. “Guess I musta missed her. Where’d she go?”
“Your curvy woman.”
“The one you were just describing.” Heyes looked nonplussed. “The one with gleaming curves shining in the sunlight and a good head of steam.”
“I wasn’t talking about a woman. I was talking about that.” Heyes pointed and Kid looked at a machine sitting outside the general store. There was a lot of metal, all highly polished. There was a confusing array of tubes and pipes. There were four wide-spoked wheels. There were two horses harnessed to it. It was shiny, but it was definitely not a woman.
“That’s what got you drooling?” Kid raised his eyes brows at his friend.
“I wasn’t drooling.”
“Yes, you were.”
“I just said it was…”
“A beauty, with gleaming curves. You know Heyes, I worry about you some times, I really do. A man shouldn’t feel that way about anything except a woman.” Heyes looked hurt. Kid took another look at…the thing. “So what is it?”
“That, my uneducated friend, is a Silsby steam pumper.”
“You don’t say.”
“I take it I should be impressed?”
“Yes, Kid, you should.”
“Because it’s a rotary steam engine.”
“Wow,” Kid said without conviction.
“If I tell you the rotating parts are known as revolvers will that get your interest?”
“Only if it’s thinking of calling me out.”
Heyes chose to ignore that remark.
“The steam engine drives the water pump and that means you can get water a lot higher on a fire than a man with a bucket can.” Heyes eyes practically sparkled. At that moment the steam pumper let out a burst of high pressured steam.
“Well,” Kid mused. “Seems like you’ve got a lot in common with it… You’re both full of hot air!”
The short, balding man polishing the engine looked up as Heyes walked alongside.
“She’s a beauty ain’t she?” He wiped his hands on the cloth as he stood up. “’Course she ain’t the latest model but she’s the first fire engine we’ve had in Porterville.” He held out his hand. “Sam Waterman.”
“Joshua Smith.” Heyes shook the man’s hand and patted the engine, his eyes bright with excitement.
Sam rubbed the cloth over the place where Heyes had placed his hand.
“They want a photograph for the paper, that’s why I got her out here, looking her best.”
As if on cue the door to the newspaper office opened and two men hurried across the street. The smaller of the two carried a camera, the other clung tightly to a notepad and pencil. Not wanting to be anywhere near a photographer, Heyes walked to where Kid stood leaning against a porch post, arms crossed over his chest. He smiled as his friend approached.
“Not sticking around for a photograph with your girlfriend?”
Heyes didn’t dignify that with an answer.
“She belongs to the fire brigade.”
“Well I didn’t think the doctor owned it.”
“That means we might get to use it.” Heyes eyes were still on the machine.
“Only if there’s a fire, Heyes, only if there’s a fire.” He placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Can we get breakfast now?”
“You have no appreciation of beauty, Kid, that’s your trouble.” As Heyes spoke a pretty young woman and her mother walked by. Kid’s eyes met the girl’s and he smiled, touching the brim of his hat. She blushed and he watched her walk away.
“Oh I do, Heyes, I do.”
“Do you smell smoke?” Heyes asked.
Heyes looked up from his seat on the porch outside the hotel. His eyes scanned the street. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. No flames billowing into the air, no screaming women, no one shouting for buckets of water. He was sure he could smell smoke. Beside him, Kid took a long draw on his cigar, then looked at the glowing end as he blew a trail into the air. Heyes turned to his friend. Kid smiled, tipping his cigar at his friend.
“Not that kind.”
“Heyes, will you relax.”
“Yeah, I know what you thought. Just like you thought it was the newspaper office on fire and the livery and the hotel. You’re itching to get your hands on that machine. I may have to set fire to something just to shut you up.”
Heyes gave him a look.
“If anything does burn around here, guess who the chief suspect’ll be?” Kid blew another trail of cigar smoke into the air.
“I’m simply taking our duties as fire marshals responsibly.”
“So am I. I’m sitting here, at the ready, should anyone need us.”
Heyes raised his eyebrows.
“I guess there are worse ways to spend a few days.” He eased back in the chair. “And it was good of Lom to pay for our room.”
“Least he could do with us taking on all this responsibility.” Kid took another drag on the cigar.
“Don’t let it keep you awake at night.”
“I’ll try not to.”
Heyes eyes narrowed as he focussed on something along the street. Kid decided to ignore him. Heyes stood up, turned his back to the street and rested against the porch rail. He continued to watch whatever was out of Kid’s view.
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Someone you recognise?”
“Someone acting suspicious.”
“Acting suspiciously, Kid, what d’you think?”
“Well how are they acting suspicious?”
“If I knew that it wouldn’t be suspicious.”
Exasperated, Kid stood up and looked. Ladies walked along the boardwalk, men chatted as they crossed the street, a wagon rolled into town, and two men, laughing, exited the saloon. He looked real hard. Nope. Nothing suspicious. Kid turned his enquiring gaze to Heyes.
“He’s gone now.”
“If he was ever there.”
“You think I’m seeing things?”
“Well isn’t that the next step up from smelling things?”
“Very funny.” Heyes sat back down. Kid knew his friend was thinking. He tried to ignore him but it was as if he could hear the clunking of wheels turning in Heyes’ brain.
Kid stood up.
“Let’s go take a look.”
“At whatever’s making you suspicious. I can’t relax with you thinking. I tried not to think about what you’re thinking about but I knew you were thinking about something. Just thinking about that makes my head spin.”
Heyes stood up and placed a hand on Kid’s shoulder.
“You really should try and relax, you know.”
Without a word Kid followed Heyes along the boardwalk.
They were about to enter the alley beside the general store where Heyes’ suspicious character had disappeared, when someone yelled “FIRE!” The partners exchanged a look and ran in the direction of the shout. They joined others at the back of the newspaper office. Flames rose from a pile of wooden boxes a few feet from the back wall.
“OUT OF THE WAY!” Craig Mullins, the owner of the general store ran through the small crowd carrying a bucket of water. He threw the water on the fire, deposited some empty buckets on the ground and headed back to the water trough.
“We should get the Silsby pump!” Heyes announced.
“We don’t need that contraption,” another man said before Heyes could complete his explanation. “Just grab a bucket!”
Heyes looked disappointed. Water splashed his boots as someone ran by with a bucket and tossed it into the flames.
“C’mon before it sets the whole building alight! Don’t just stand there!” The man turned to a disappointed looking boy standing a few feet away. “That includes you, Jimmy!”
“Contraption!” Heyes muttered. “She’s a highly sophisticated…”
“Heyes!” Kid hissed. Brown eyes met his. “Come on.” He handed his friend a bucket and ran to get water. Reluctantly Heyes followed.
Soon a chain had formed, buckets of water were passed hand to hand and within a few minutes the fire was doused, the wood hissed and steam rose. The fire-fighters stood back pleased with a job well done. Kid bent down and examined the ashes.
“I don’t think this started on its own.” He stood up, holding the remains of a lamp.
“Why the heck would that be out here?” Mullins asked.
“Who’d want to burn a pile of wood anyway?” another man wondered.
Kid exchanged a look with Heyes. Kid held the broken lamp out to the general store owner.
“I sell those every day, we’ve all got them. It could belong to anyone.”
“Just another unexplained fire,” Mullins muttered. “I’d like to get my hands on whoever’s setting them.”
Kid followed Heyes away from the remains of the fire and back to the street.
“What are you thinking?”
“What was the point of this?”
“Well if we were planning to rob the bank, I’d say this was a nice diversion.”
“That’s what I was thinking. The question is, a diversion from what?”
“We should follow the man, you saw.”
Heyes nodded and they headed across the street.
“So what did he look like?” Kid asked as they entered the alley.
“What’s happened to that silver tongue of yours? Ordinary’s the best you can do?”
“I only got a brief look at him.”
“So it could be anyone?”
“No, he wore a dark shirt and tan pants.”
Kid looked his partner up and down.
“Did he have a black hat with a silver band too?”
Heyes considered this and then…
“He was thin, slight build. He just…I don’t know he just looked furtive.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means he made me suspicious. Come on!”
The alley ran behind the main street and the man could have disappeared into any one of the buildings. Despite a casual search for anyone matching Heyes’ description, they gave up after half an hour and wandered back to their seats on the hotel porch.
“FIRE! FIRE!” Two chairs slammed back onto four legs, as Kid and Heyes jumped up from their position on the hotel porch and ran towards the school building. Other men joined them, some carried buckets. The smell of smoke hung in the air as they approached the school house. Outside Miss Fletcher, the school mistress waved them over.
“In there! Our books! When I got here there was smoke coming out from the store room! Hurry please!”
Kid entered the building first. Thick smoke filled the air and the men ran to the room at the back. There was a fire burning in several boxes of books. A cloud of smoke rose from a smouldering horse blanket stuffed around them. Another blanket was burning in a corner, the flames licked at books on the shelf above singeing the edges. A display of the Pilgrim Fathers was ablaze. Kid pulled the blanket from the box as a man stepped up with a bucket of water. He doused the blanket as Heyes pulled the box out of the store room. More water was poured on the smouldering blanket. An over enthusiastic fire-fighter threw another bucket over the books. Hands waved in the air, wafting the smoke away from their faces. The Pilgrim Fathers sank to the floor in a soggy heap.
“Thank you so much,” Miss Fletcher cried when the fire was extinguished and the men emerged from the school. Kid carried the soaked books outside.
“I’m afraid they’re all ruined ma’am.”
“Oh that doesn’t matter. At least the building is safe. I couldn’t believe it when I arrived. There was so much smoke I was sure we’d lose the school.”
“Any idea who might have set the fire?” Heyes asked as he moved to stand beside his partner.
“You don’t think it was an accident?”
“There was a horse blanket set alight and stuffed into the box.”
“I can’t believe any of the children would do this.” She looked at the ruined books before looking back up and met a pair of dazzling blue eyes, full of sympathy. It might have been the smoke making Miss Fletcher’s eyelashes flutter but Heyes had a feeling it was more to do with his partner. “You were so brave, dashing in there like that. How can we ever repay you?”
Kid smiled. Heyes had a feeling his partner had a few ideas. What was it with him and school teachers? He looked around and spotted a thin man in a dark shirt and tan pants just as he disappeared behind the bank.
“FIRE!” Forks dropped onto the plates with a clang, chairs went flying backwards and two men, one dark haired, one blond, headed out the door of the cafeteria, and ran along the street in the direction of the courthouse. Smoke billowed out of a top floor window as frightened court workers ran from the building. The sound of a clanging bell and pounding hooves heralded the arrival of the Silsby steam pumper!
Heyes couldn’t hide his enthusiasm as he ran to join Sam Waterman and soon the Silsby’s hose was unravelled and the pump started.
“Up there! It’s in the clerk’s office!” a man shouted as he pointed to the room from which smoke billowed. There was the sound of breaking window glass and he ducked out of the way. Sam and Heyes directed the water at the open window as Kid and other men entered the building searching for anyone trapped inside.
Kid reached the stairs as smoke drifted down from the floor above.
“ANYONE IN HERE?” he yelled. There was no answer. The men spread out, each searching a downstairs room before Kid and another man headed up the stairs. Who knew how bad the fire could become? The smoke on the next floor was thicker but came only from the far office. Kid felt a hand on his arm and the man pulled him back.
“I don’t think it’s safe.”
“We hafta check it out.” Kid pulled his arm free, covered his mouth and nose with his bandana and headed into the room.
Heyes pointed the hose at the smoking window and watched as the water doused the wooden frame. This was an amazing machine! Although he knew this was a serious situation Heyes couldn’t suppress the excitement he felt seeing the Silsby in action. He sent a stream of water in through the broken window.
“STOP THE WATER! STOP THE WATER!” a familiar voice cried. Kid’s head appeared out the window. “STOP THE DAMN…” Water hit him full in the face, sending him staggering backwards. Spotting his friend Heyes quickly directed the hose at the ground when Kid reappeared. Water ran from his hair dripping off his nose and chin. His hat had been blown off by the force of the jet. Kid gave his friend an icy, if a somewhat wet, glare. Heyes returned a sheepish grin.
“You all right?” Heyes asked as the water in the hose turned to a trickle in the dirt.
Kid spat out a mouthful.
“Is the fire out?”
“Yeah. It made a real mess up here.” Kid threw something from the window and Heyes sidestepped as it fell at his feet. A soggy horse blanket lay in the dirt.
“Another one,” Heyes muttered, his brow creasing with a frown.
Kid turned as someone arrived behind him in the room. “Deputy’s here. I’ll meet you down there.”
Kid disappeared back into the room and Heyes helped stow the
Silsby’s hose away. As he stood up he spotted the mystery man again. He wore the same clothes: dark shirt and tan pants. Heyes took off after him.
The man quickened his pace and entered the livery stables. Heyes’ pace also quickened as he moved along the boardwalk. A horse blanket was used in each recent fire. The man just ran into the stables….Cogs in Heyes’ brain whirred.
At the entrance to the livery Heyes paused and put his head cautiously around the corner of the doorway. He saw no one. He moved inside and a man appeared from a back room. The man was a giant, towering above Heyes, his sleeveless shirt covered in dust and dirt. Muscles in his arms rippled. This was definitely not a man to challenge to an arm wrestling contest.
“Can I help you?” He ran a hand over his bald head.
Heyes smiled as his eyes scanned the stables for the man he’d been following.
“I thought I saw a friend of mine come in here. Thin fella, dark shirt and tan pants?”
“I ain’t seen no one but then I was in back.”
“D’you mind if I…?” he pointed to the back way out of the stables.
“Help yourself. Ain’t nothing out there, ‘cept the corral.”
Heyes went to look. The man was right. Two horses trotted around the corral but there was no sign of anyone else.
“You haven’t lost any horse blankets lately have you?” Heyes asked when he re-entered the livery.
“Not that I know of. Haven’t counted them for a while though. Not a lot of need either. I’ve either got some or I ain’t.”
Thanking the man, Heyes returned to the courthouse. Outside, Kid, his shirt darkened from the water Heyes had fired at him, stood leaning against a porch post, arms folded across his chest.
“D’you see that fella again? Your mysterious fire-watcher?”
“I saw him. He disappeared into the livery stables.”
“You catch up with him?”
“Nope. He got away again. I swear I’ll get him next time.”
Kid pushed off the post.
“I’m hoping there won’t be a next time.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah.” He looked at his friend. “D’you think he’s started the fires?”
“It’s beginning to look that way.”
“Another distraction, d’you think?” Kid asked as he pulled a clean, dry shirt over his head. Heyes sat at the table in the hotel room, scribbling on a piece of paper. “Heyes?”
“I said d’you think it was another distraction? The fire?”
“Could be. The question is why?”
“Well that’s something best pondered over a beer.” He placed his hat on his head and rested his hand on the door handle. “Shall we?”
Once again Heyes was bent over the paper he was writing on. Kid sighed and walked over to the table. Standing behind his friend he recognised it as a drawing of Porterville, with squares representing the various buildings. A spire on the church, a dollar sign for the bank and the bars of a cell for the jail. He’d seen many similar sketches when Heyes was planning a robbery. This time different buildings were marked with an X to show that they had been victims of the arsonist.
“Solved it yet?” Kid asked.
“No, but there is a pattern. A fire at the back of the newspaper office, here, a smouldering box at the school house, here, another in the court room, here. There have been two other reports of similar events here and here.” Heyes tapped squares on the paper. “Neither of which required the assistance of the fire brigade. There were a couple of bigger fires before we got here, burned two houses to the ground and they were, here.” Again the map was tapped.
“But the small ones have all been since we arrived in town.”
“All in one area. Why there? I wish I knew what it meant.”
“Means we’re prime suspects as the arsonists.” Heyes shot him a look. “Or they’re building up to the big one.”
“You know, Kid, you might be onto something there.”
“Why don’t you forget about it just for this evening?” Kid suggested as they walked across the street to the saloon. “We’ll have us a drink, play a little poker and you can…”
“There!” Heyes pointed along the street at a familiar slim figure.
Heyes took off at a run. With a heavy sigh, Kid followed his friend. The blond ex-outlaw picked up his pace when Heyes disappeared from view down an alley. He turned into the narrow passageway and stopped. Heyes lay on the ground struggling with the skinny fella, who was smaller and obviously younger than he’d expected. Heyes’ quarry was none too pleased at being accosted by a stranger.
“GET OFF ME! LET GO!”
Heyes tried desperately to keep a hold of the youngster but he wouldn’t stop wriggling.
“WILL YOU JUST HOLD STILL?”
A fist collided with Heyes’ jaw.
“OW!” A boot kicked his shin. “DAMMIT!”
“You got everything under control there, Joshua?” Kid asked with amusement as he leaned against a building.
“Will you just stop tryin’ to get away!” Heyes grabbed the youth’s collar and pulled him upright, but the lad wasn’t finished yet. He squirmed and Heyes pushed him up against the wall. Heyes instantly removed his hands as if bitten by a rattler. “What the..?” He stepped away, stunned, a fist caught him square in the jaw and Heyes stumbled backwards, landing in the dust.
“Don’t you touch me again!”
“You’re a girl.”
“You’re a real genius!”
A girl? Kid raised an eyebrow and he pushed off the building, smiling as the girl swept the black hat from her head and a cascade of brown hair tumbled down her back.
“Ma’am.” Kid touched the brim of his hat.
The young woman, who looked to be in her early twenties, began straightening her shirt.
“You’re a woman.” Heyes looked dumbfounded.
“My partner’s a little slow about these things,” Kid informed her as he moved closer. “I, on the other hand, recognise a pretty face when I see one.” He gave her a charming smile and she kicked him in the shin. “OW!”
The woman ran. The partner’s exchanged a tired glance then Kid gave chase. Quickly catching up with her he grabbed her around the waist, swinging her into the air. She kicked and wriggled, grabbed onto the wall at the back of the saloon and Kid went tumbling to the ground on top of her.
“Get off me before I scream for the sheriff!”
“We’re working for the sheriff!”
Teeth locked around Kid’s forearm but he pulled free before she could bite him.
“THEN LET GO OF ME!” She squirmed and kicked.
“Will you calm down? We only want to talk to you.”
“You got a funny way of showing it!”
“Well, I don’t know many women going around town dressed as a man and setting fire to things!”
The woman pulled away from him but Kid kept a firm grip on her wrists, sitting on top of her, his legs straddling her, he pinned her to the ground.
“I did not set fire to anything!”
“Then maybe you should tell us what you’ve been doing? You’ve been seen sneaking away after every fire. I’d say that was a mite suspicious, wouldn’t you?” Heyes stated as he stood over them.
The young woman shot a glare at Heyes as he waited for her reply.
“It’s none of your business.”
“On the contrary. We’re Fire Marshalls. It’s very much our business.”
“Marshalls!” she scoffed. “Pretty poor ones I’d say by the number of fires someone’s been setting.”
“You’ve been setting.”
She glared at Heyes, then pushed at Kid. “Will you get off me?”
“You gonna run?”
Kid climbed off her, then held out a hand to help her up. She met his gaze, obviously saw nothing threatening there and took hold. Kid pulled her to her feet, catching her around the waist before letting go. The woman tried her best to ignore him and walked purposefully towards Heyes, brushing herself off as she did so.
“I did NOT set those fires.”
“So what were you doing there, every time?”
“Like I said. That’s my business.”
She looked at him, clearly having no intention of telling him her name. They stood, just a few feet apart, staring at each other.
“Can we buy you a cup of coffee and discuss this inside?” Kid stepped between them, looking from Heyes to the woman and back again.
“I can be civil. I’d like to hear what you know about these fires too.”
“Gretchen Pickering.” The young woman took a sip of her coffee.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Pickering. I’m Thaddeus Jones and the grumpy one here’s my partner, Joshua Smith.” Kid rested his elbows on the table as he leaned towards her. “So, Miss Pickering, why are you running around town dressed as a boy?”
She cast a quick glance at Mister Smith who had hardly said a word since they arrived at the cafeteria and took their seats at the table in the corner furthest from the door. Gretchen had declined Mister Jones’ offer to buy her something to eat. Mister Smith did indeed look grumpy but he was dark and handsome. Mister Jones was his opposite, blond, blue eyed. For some reason, despite their unconventional meeting, she got the feeling they were good men, although she’d been wrong about men many times before.
“Miss Pickering?” Kid prompted.
“Huh? I’m trying to catch whoever’s starting the fires.”
“You don’t believe me, Mister Smith?”
“I prefer to keep an open mind.”
“By deciding I’m already guilty?” Kid smiled at her reply; well she did have a point there. “I told you, I didn’t set those fires.”
“So why are you trying to catch whoever is?” Heyes watched her expression.
“My father’s house was the first to be burned down. We lost everything, including the only photograph he had of my mother.”
“I’m sorry.” Kid stopped himself just before he placed a hand on hers.
“So am I.” Heyes tone was conciliatory. Gretchen looked from one man to the next.
“Thank you. My father believes it was just an accident. Maybe a lantern fell over. Who knows? I agreed with him until the other fires started. There have been so many, how can they all be accidents? Now my father wants us to move back East to my Aunt Edna. I don’t want to go but if we have to I’d like to find out who did this and why, before we leave.”
“So every time there’s a fire you put on your disguise and sneak around to watch?” Heyes finished his coffee.
“It’s not a disguise. This is how I dress.”
“All the time?” Kid asked, incredulous.
“Yes. What’s wrong with that? I work at the livery stables. This is a very practical outfit.”
“It may be practical but it’s hardly…”
“You’re a pretty girl. It’s a shame to hide all that away.”
“I’m not a girl and I’m not hiding.”
“Why are you working there?” Heyes asked.
“We need the money. My father is a carpenter. All his tools, his finished pieces were all in the workshop attached to our house. He lost them all. So I got a job with Brutus.”
“Brutus?” Kid queried.
“Brutus McKee. At the livery stables. He’s new in town and needed help with the horses. He’s very sweet.”
Sweet wasn’t a word Heyes would have used to describe the man.
“Where are you staying now?”
“The Todd family have given us rooms in their boarding house.” Suddenly she looked up at them. “I need to know why our house was destroyed. I know it won’t bring back the things we lost but… Will you help me find out who is doing this? Please?”
“We will, Miss Pickering,” Heyes assured her and she smiled.
“What do you think of her?” Kid tugged his shirt over his head and hung it on the bed frame.
“Gretchen?” Heyes sat on the edge of his bed and pulled off his boot.
“No, the Governor’s wife.”
Heyes looked up.
“Of course I mean, Gretchen. So what do you think of her?”
“Why, you sweet on her?”
“I think she’s a very determined young woman.”
“You sweet on her?”
“So d’you think she was telling the truth?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I can’t think of any reason for her to be lying. Her story’s too easy to check out.”
“What do you want to do tomorrow?”
“Get a bath, then take a look at the buildings that have been affected by the fires.”
As he sat down in the bathtub, Hannibal Heyes gave a contented sigh. The water felt so good to his tired muscles. He leaned back and closed his eyes, stretching out his legs until his feet touched metal. Jackson’s bath house was a new addition to the barber shop and a very welcome one. Across the room, in his equally full and steaming tub, Kid rubbed at his soapy hair, then ducked his head under the water. They had decided on a morning bath, shave and breakfast before taking a walk over to the fire riddled part of town. It couldn’t hurt to get a look at the affected buildings and ask a few questions of the residents there. Not knowing why the fires were being set gnawed at Heyes.
“Reckon Lom will be in touch today?” Kid asked as he wiped water from his eyes with a towel.
“Checking up on us, or making sure the town’s still here?”
“I think he trusts us with the town, it’s just the bank he’s never sure about.”
Heyes laughed as he rubbed soap into his hair. Kid reached for another towel and began drying his hair.
“Why would you set fire to a town?” Heyes asked.
“In that case I’ll stick with what I said last night. They’re building up to a big fire or…”
“I’ve got it!”
“Kid, what happens every time there’s a fire?”
“I mean in the town. Someone yells fire and then what?”
“People run to help.”
“Exactly!” Heyes’ eyes lit up. “People run to help.” He nodded, clearly pleased with himself.
“We’ve already discussed the idea of a distraction.”
“I know but…”
“FIRE!” The partners exchanged a look of disbelief at the shout. “FIRE!”
“You have got to be kiddin’ me!” Kid muttered, as towels were grabbed and, dripping wet, they reached for their clothes.
Sometime later, two tired men, their clothes smelling of smoke, their faces blackened, entered the saloon. They leaned on the bar, each resting a foot on the brass rail beneath it.
“Two beers,” Kid ordered when the bartender looked his way. He removed his hat and placed it on the bar, his shoulders slumped forward. “If anyone else yells fire today, I’m gonna ignore them.”
“I’m with you. I mean, how many fires can one town have?” Heyes reached for his glass and took a long drink.
“I have parts of me aching that I didn’t even know I had.”
“I thought trail riding was hard on the back but lifting all that lumber out of the fire’s way…”
As one they reached for their glasses and downed the remaining beer.
“We wasted money on that bath.”
“You feeling lucky enough to win some back at poker?”
“Kid, I don’t think I have the strength to hold up the cards.”
“Another drink, boys?” the bartender asked as he reached for their empty glasses.
“Didn’t see Gretchen this time did you?”
“No, Kid, I didn’t.”
“D’you think that’s significant?”
Heyes stared at his friend.
“Where’d you learn a word like significant?”
“All your reading wears off on me I guess. So, do you?”
“I don’t know. I mean…
Two sets of shoulders slumped. Two heads hung in despair.
“You know I said I was gonna ignore it?”
“Well, what if it’s a family in trouble?”
“You had to think of that didn’t you?”
The bar tender placed two beers in front of them.
“Well, what if it is?”
Heyes looked at his beer, then at his partner.
“Come on, let’s go.”
The town had been quiet for two days. Two glorious days. No one had reported smoke. No one had shouted FIRE! And no one had asked Heyes to help with the Silsby steam pumper. For the first two, Heyes was grateful but he missed getting his hands on a shiny machine that responded so readily to his touch.
Gretchen has also been noticeable by her absence. If they had time they would have strolled over to the Todd’s boarding house but they had a train to meet.
Heyes stood with Kid on the platform of Porterville station. Kid leaned against one of the station supports, arms crossed characteristically over his chest as he looked down the line at the approaching train. Plumes of black smoke rose into the air but this cloud was accompanied by the clang of a bell heralding the arrival of an iron horse.
“I hope that’s the last smoke we see before we leave town,” Kid muttered as he pushed off the post. Heyes nodded his agreement and they watched the train pull to a halt alongside them. Passengers began to disembark, friends were greeted, luggage was unloaded and a familiar tall man stepped down from the rear carriage.
“Howdy, boys!” Lom called as he strode towards them. He looked around and nodded his approval. “Glad to see the town’s still here.”
“D’you think it wouldn’t be?” Heyes asked.
“D’you think we’d steal it?” Kid added.
Lom took a moment before answering.
“No, to both questions. So, was there any trouble?”
“Not the kind we hafta stay out of.” Kid led the way down the slope to the street.
“So any more fires?”
Heyes and Kid stopped in their tracks. They exchanged a look. Lom waited.
“What?” Neither man spoke. “Heyes? Tell me. You didn’t let them burn the jail down did you?”
“Aww, Lom, as if we would!”
“Don’t ‘aww, Lom’, me, Kid. Just tell me what’s been happening.”
Heyes placed a hand on Lom’s shoulder.
“How ‘bout a drink?”
Kid placed his hand on Lom’s other shoulder.
“Why? Has my office burnt down?”
“How many fires?” Lom’s beer hit the saloon table with a thud.
“You heard, Lom.” Heyes reached for his own beer.
“It’s a wonder the town’s still standing.”
“We did help put them out.”
“I know, Kid and I’m grateful to you boys for that.”
“We met Gretchen Pickering too.” Heyes put down his glass.
“Gretchen? Her home was burned down right at the start of all this.”
“She told us.”
“Has a pretty good right hook too.”
“What did you do to her, Kid?”
“Me? Why’d you think it was me? Ask Heyes. He’s the one she hit.”
The sheriff turned to face the dark-haired man.
“We didn’t do anything. She was sniffing around after every fire and we just thought she might be involved. She enlightened us to the truth.”
“With a blow to his jaw,” Kid smiled.
“I’ve been trying to figure out what the fires are for,” Heyes informed the law man.
“What have you come up with?”
“Not a lot. Lom, is there anything important on that side of town? I asked at the newspaper office but no one seems to know anything. All I can come up with is that the land is valuable for something.”
“Well, I haven’t heard of any big land deals.”
“No one’s been approached by anyone wanting to buy their property either.” This statement from Kid drew two dark surprised stares. “What? I asked around too you know?”
“So why burn or scare people out?” Lom looked from one man to the next.
Heyes went quiet. Kid knew that look. His partner was thinking.
“Heyes?” Lom watched as the ex-outlaw’s brows furrowed. “What is it?”
“What happens every time someone shouts fire?”
“You asked me that before” Kid reminded him. “Just as someone shouted ‘fire’.”
“And we said people run to help out, right?”
Heyes sat up in his chair.
“Every time there’s a fire the fire brigade respond!”
“Heyes, I hate to interrupt your statements of the obvious…”
“Lom, that’s the answer. The question is what do they want us away from?”
“I think you’d better start at the beginning.”
Heyes looked at his partner and then to Lom. Both men were clearly confused.
“When there’s a fire, the members of the fire brigade go to check it out. That leaves a lot of buildings empty. The question is why would anyone want that?”
“So they can look inside.”
“Look for what?”
“I don’t know, Lom, but we need to ask some questions.”
“You handled yourself real well today. Did everything we asked of you.” Heyes patted the Silsby pumper affectionately.
“She’s worth every penny the town paid for her,” Sam Waterman said as he closed the shed doors. He took out his pocket watch. “Jimmy should be by any minute. I can practically set this watch by that boy.”
“Jimmy Polanski. He’s as fascinated by this machine as you are. Hasn’t been a day since we bought it he doesn’t come by to take a look or help out cleaning her.”
As if on cue the shed door opened and a young boy, about fourteen years old stepped inside. He removed his battered hat and scratched his brown hair. Blue eyes opened wide and he smiled as he looked up at the Silsby.
“Evening Mr. Waterman. She sure was fine today weren’t she?”
“Yeah, she was.”
“Did ya see how high those flames were? I reckon she could pump water even further than she did.”
“We don’t have any buildings more than two storeys so we’ll never know will we?”
“What about Amos Hackman’s new barn? That roof’s awfully high.”
Waterman stopped what he was doing and looked at Jimmy.
“Just don’t go wishing for a fire there so we can try her out.”
“I won’t.” As he walked to the back of the shed he suddenly noticed Heyes standing there. “Oh hello, Mr Jones.”
“Sorry, I ain’t too good with names. Did you see how high the flames were today?”
“I saw ‘em.”
“I wish Sam’d let me hold the hose bt he says I ain’t strong enough. I bet I am.”
“The force of the water can…”
“I knew she was gonna be good when I first saw her.” Jimmy’s gaze fell on the Silsby. “My Pa read about her in the newspaper before they bought her; about how good she was. That back wheel is taller than my sister. I reckon the Silsby’d put out a fire at Mister Hackman’s barn.” The boy turned back to Waterman. “What d’you want me to do today?”
“Just give her a wipe over with a rag, Jimmy.”
“Okay.” The boy headed off to find a cloth.
Heyes watched the boy, thoughtfully.
“I think I know where the next fire’s gonna be.”
“What?” Kid swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Heyes closed the hotel room door and removed his hat.
“You know that new barn they’re building just outside of town?”
“Yeah. You think that’s gonna be next?”
“What makes you so sure?”
Heyes turned his hat in his hand clearly uncomfortable.
“I met someone today. He helps out with the Silsby and is real fascinated by it.”
“Got some competition for her affections, huh?”
Heyes ignored his partner and ploughed on.
“Sam told me he always turns up when there’s a fire. Always offers to help out.”
“Well this person sounds like you, Heyes.”
“I’m serious. I think he could be the one.”
“So based on his fascination with a steam pump you think he’s our man?”
“A kid? You think a kid’s been setting these fires?”
“Yeah, unfortunately I do.”
“What about the land deal and the reason for getting folk out of their homes?”
“I hate to admit it but I think I was wrong.” He met Kid’s gaze. “I don’t have any evidence, just a strong feeling, that it was Jimmy. He’s not a bad kid just a little…slow. You know?”
“I guess we’d best go see Lom.”
“All right but first I’d like to check on that barn.”
Heyes hoped he was wrong about Jimmy but he didn’t think so. As they approached the barn Amos Hackman had just finished building, on the outskirts of town, there was a distinctly familiar smell in the air. A black shadow of dread ran through Heyes’ blood.
“Smoke?” Kid asked.
Heyes nodded and they picked up their pace, breaking into a run as they turned the corner of the building. A door on the side of the barn stood open and they could hear the horses’ nervous snorts and whinnies. They stepped inside and a small form collided with Heyes. Eyes wide with fear, Jimmy looked up at them.
“Mister Jones! I didn’t do nothin’.”
A sure sign that he had.
Ignoring the boy’s inability to get his name right, Heyes placed his hands on Jimmy’s shoulders.
“What have you done?”
“It weren’t me!”
“Jimmy tell us where you started the fire!”
“I…I didn’t mean to…”
Not waiting to hear the boy’s response, Kid ran deeper into the barn to be confronted by a sudden wall of flames as a stack of hay caught light. Looking desperately around he grabbed a horse blanket and began to beat at the flames.
At Kid’s cry, Jimmy wriggled free from Heyes’ grasp and ran into the barn.
Kid turned at Heyes’ cry and the boy ran past him into the tack room. Heyes gave chase as dark smoke swirled confusingly around them. There had to be something else on fire but where..? Another pile of hay suddenly burst into flames.
“The kid’s set incendiary devices everywhere! I thought you said he wasn’t smart?” Kid complained as he beat at embers near his boots.
“I’ll get him.” Heyes ran towards the tack room. “JIMMY!”
Kid cussed under his breath, doing his best to put out at least one of the fires. The whickering of the horses drew his attention and he turned his head in the direction of the stalls to see one of the feed boxes alight.
“JOSHUA! GET OUT HERE! I NEED YOUR HELP!”
Kid ran to open up the stalls and release the horses. A large chestnut mare, eyes wide with fear, lashed out at him with her front hooves.
“Easy, girl, easy.” Kid’s words did little to soothe her and the mare made a sudden lunge for the open stall, pushing Kid out of the way, and slamming him elbow first into the wall. Pain screamed through his left arm but he had no time to examine any injury. The hay was well alight and beyond saving. Kid opened the remaining stall doors and stood well clear as he ushered the horse to safety.
“JOSHUA!” Still Heyes had not reappeared. What was he doing in there, talking the kid into submission? Kid grabbed a bucket and headed for the water trough in a vain hope of slowly the fire’s progress.
“What’s happening?” a man asked, as Kid appeared in the barn doorway.
“The barn’s on fire! Get help!”
The man needed no further asking and ran off to summon assistance. Kid would do his best to hold the flames at bay one bucket at a time if he had to. Dragging the bucket through the water he ran back inside.
“JOSHUA! GET OUT HERE!”
Heyes finally appeared in the doorway to the tack room.
“Jimmy won’t leave!”
“Well he’d better, this place is gonna go up if we don’t get help.” Kid met his partner’s gaze. A question was asked. “Go get him. Drag him out by his hair if you hafta but do it quick! I’ll do what I can but you don’t have long. If the rafters catch light …”
“I’ll do my silver-tongued best.”
Kid smiled and Heyes disappeared back into the tack room.
“JOSHUA! TIME TO GO!” The rafters were alight, the stalls were burning. The air was filled with acrid smoke and Kid’s head was beginning to spin. Around him other men had joined the fire-fight and outside the Silby’s was in full flow, but Jimmy or no Jimmy, they needed to get out of there fast. However, there had been no reply from Heyes. “JOSH!” Kid headed towards the tack room when there was a loud crack overhead and a burning rafter plummeted to the floor a couple of feet in front of him. It was getting dangerous in here! “JOSH GET OUT HERE NOW!”
“Mister Jones. Mister Jones, LOOK OUT!”
“I’m okay,” Kid assured the man staring down at him. He lay on the ground a few feet from the barn trying desperately to stop everything from spinning. Sheesh his head hurt. He looked around but there was no sign of Heyes. “Where’s my friend?”
“Still in there I think.”
“What?” Kid pushed himself to his feet and found himself face to face with Lom and about to throw up.
“You all right?” the sheriff asked, already sure he knew the answer.
“Joshua’s still in there.”
“We’ll get him out.”
“I’m going in.”
“You’re hurt you need to…Dammit!”
He took off after Kid, catching him easily as the blond man swayed from side to side. Lom grabbed hold of Kid’s arm.
“You can’t go in there, it’s too dangerous!”
“Let go of me, Lom!” Kid shook off the sheriff’s arm and their eyes met. Lom had seen that look before and he knew not to argue with it. Kid turned and entered the burning barn.
“HEYES! HEYES!” Kid searched frantically, not caring who heard the name he called out. He could see no sign of his friend through the flames and the smoke. Crouching low, to keep below the poisonous air, he stumbled towards the tack room at the rear of the barn. Kid coughed and placed a hand over his mouth. His head hurt. He had no idea what had hit him. The smoke was thick and acrid. He untied his bandana then fastened it across his nose and mouth. His vision blurred and his eyes stung as he continued his search of each stall. Nothing. A beam had fallen, blocking the entrance to the tack room. Kid looked beyond it, but saw only flames. He turned away and then…Something was there…A hand!
“HEYES!” Kid crouched low and looked under the beam. He could just make out his friend, lying on his back, eyes closed. “HEYES!”
Eyelids fluttered. An arm moved.
Kid clambered over the beam, pushing bits of fallen wood out of the way as he scrambled to reach his friend. Pieces of burning timber fell from the rafters above, one landing in Kid’s hair. He batted it away as he finally reached his partner. A fallen beam lay across Heyes’ legs. Kid dropped to his friend’s side as a bout of coughing consumed him as the air burned his lungs. When he could breathe again, Kid noticed the bloody gash on Heyes’ temple.
There was no answer.
Kid studied the wood covering Heyes. A large beam appeared to be holding down a smaller one. Fortunately neither was actually on Heyes’ legs, but they were preventing him from pulling free of the debris around him.
Kid grabbed hold of the biggest beam and pulled with all his strength. He could feel the heat of the glowing timber through his gloves and shirt sleeves. Teeth gritted, he hauled. Slowly…Slowly…The beam moved. An inch. His muscles in his arms and back screamed with agony. Just a little more…just…a few…more…inches. Kid cried out with effort. The beam crashed to the floor, freeing the ones beneath it. Kid pulled the debris from around his partner’s legs.
Kid hauled his friend to his feet, leaned him against a stall then
hoisted Heyes over his shoulder and headed for the barn doors.
“They’ve been in there how long?” Lom stared in horror at the front of the burning barn. He’d been fighting the flames that threatened to engulf the neighbouring buildings but…“Dammit! Why didn’t someone get me?”
“There they are!” At someone’s shout, Lom turned to see Kid silhouetted as he staggered towards them. Heyes lay limply over the blond man’s shoulder. When he was a safe distance away, Kid sank to his knees just as Lom reached them. The sheriff helped lay Heyes down. “DOC!”
Lom turned his attention to Kid. The blond man’s body was racked by a bout of coughing. He fought to draw fresh air into his heat seared lungs. As the doctor arrived and began ministering to Heyes, Lom placed a hand on Kid’s shoulder. It was all Kid could do to nod an acknowledgement before he lost consciousness.
Kid Curry opened his eyes and the room came slowly into focus. Oh boy, he had a headache. He coughed. OW! Sheesh, his lungs hurt. He moved to sit up and discovered his hands were wrapped in bandages. Both arms bandaged to the elbows. A moment of fear gripped him. How bad were they burned? In particular, how bad was his right hand? His gun hand? He was still staring at the bandages when the door opened and Lom entered the room. Kid wasn’t quick enough to hide the question or fear in his eyes as he looked at his friend. Jaw clenched, Kid didn’t say a word.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” the sheriff assured him.
“How bad is it?”
“The doctor bandaged them as a precautionary measure.” He could see Kid was waiting to hear more. “The heat burnt through your gloves. He said your hands will be sore for a couple of days but there’s no permanent damage. He left a salve for you to use.” Lom picked up a jar beside the bed to show him. “You’re a little singed but you’ll survive.” He settled into a chair. Kid stared at his hands once more, the right hand in particular, not totally convinced.
“If you don’t trust me take the darn bandages off and have a look!”
“I trust you. Lom, it’s just…”
“I know. What’s Kid Curry without his gun hand? I’d hate for you to be just a mere mortal like the rest of us.”
Kid’s face darkened.
“Has the doctor seen him?”
“What’d he say?”
“That he needs time to recover. You both do.”
“What did he say, Lom?”
“Heyes’ breathing’s laboured from smoke inhalation. He could have concussion from the blow he took to the head. There’s no damage to his legs apart from a lot of bruising. Until he regains consciousness we won’t know anymore. For now he is resting comfortably.”
“Can I see him?”
“Nothing stopping you getting up, except that Margaret stole your clothes. Never known a woman so desperate to get a man naked.”
They exchanged a glance. Kid raised an eyebrow. Was the sheriff blushing? Lom coughed to cover his embarrassment.
“Your clothes were dirty and smoky, she wanted to wash them. I’ll go see if they’re done.”
Kid smiled at his friend’s discomfort, then a thought struck him.
“Lom.” The sheriff turned back. “What about Jimmy?”
The sheriff shook his head and Kid watched him leave. He held up his hands and studied them; his thoughts on the young boy who had lost his life. He hoped Heyes was all right. Only one way to find out, but first… Kid began to unwrap the bandage around his right arm.
“I’m fine, really,” Hannibal Heyes assured his partner as he sat in a chair on the porch in front of Lom’s house. “Will you stop fussin’!”
“I’m not fussin’.”
Heyes met Kid’s blue eyes.
“Yes. You are.”
Kid stepped back and leaned against the porch post. He crossed his arms over his chest.
“Is this better?” he asked.
“Yes.” Heyes sat back and gave a heavy sigh. He watched a man ride by on a horse, a small boy sat behind his father, holding him about the waist. Kid followed his friend’s gaze.
“You know it wasn’t your fault.”
Brown eyes met blue ones.
“I know, but I just keep thinking I should have realised earlier. If I hadn’t been so focussed on it being about a land deal or a distraction for a robbery I might have realised sooner that…”
“You hadn’t even met the kid.”
“But I’d seen him around. I noticed Gretchen was there every time, why didn’t I spot Jimmy?”
“Gretchen’s a pretty woman. Understandable you’d spot her.”
“You know that’s not what I mean and besides I thought she was a man.”
“And you thought an adult was to blame, not a child.” Kid pushed off the post. “Heyes, you risked your life to save him. You couldn’t do any more than that.”
“I shoulda saved him. I got him out of the tack room but he ran off. I thought he’d got out.”
Before Kid could reply, Gretchen Pickering turned the corner of the street, heading towards them. He noticed his partner sat up straighter in his chair and pushed his hair out of his eyes as the young woman approached. Kid smiled. It seems Heyes was going to be all right after all.