Henry Maddox sauntered down the dusty streets of Sweetwater, his scuffed boots kicking up clouds of dust into the air. As he neared the end of the main street, he took a sharp turn and stepped up onto the board sidewalk that looked as if it had seen more than one brawl on its wood planks.
He was aware of several gazes following him down the street, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he stood outside the dual-swing double doors that led into the Lone Coyote saloon. Gray eyes traveling across the street, he caught a glimpse of the person who he instinctively knew was the one he had promised to meet.
It was a few moments later that he was seated in the sleepy saloon. The tap of well-used playing cards against the tables and the clink of glasses was enough to lull a travel-wearied man to sleep, but Henry knew better than to be fooled by the seemingly tranquil atmosphere. To others, the saloon was much calmer and inviting than it was at night when it was rumored that the James-Younger gang ventured out of hiding.
But, to him, the air itself seemed on the verge of breaking, the silence lingering there to only be shattered at who knew what time.
Fingering his Colt revolver secured in his belt holster, Henry’s gray eyes scanned the room. Here and there, a cowboy or some other farm hand would be chatting lightly with his neighbor or enjoying a glass of sarsaparilla water. Just over yonder in the corner of the room, the light ragtime music lifted into the air as the piano player’s hands deftly brushed the keys.
“You’re a much-wanted man.”
The man had seemed to visualize straight out of thin air, Henry thought with a slight start at turning around and seeing the figure seated across from him. Yet his composure quickly straightened again, and he nodded in acknowledgement at the desperado that had been named as one of the most dangerous on their side of the Mississippi.
Jeremy Johnson gave his Stetson a slight tug over his line-creased face as his charcoal-colored eyes flicked across the saloon and then returned to Henry’s face.
“I know,” Henry nodded tersely, forking a hand through his chestnut waves in agitation. “So are you.”
“Do you know what Frank James said—”
“I don’t want to hear what Frank James said,” confessed Henry with a shake of his head. “What did you see? How many of the others made it out with their lives and freedom?”
Henry’s mind went back to the train robbery that he and multiple other crossers of the law had made nearly a month ago. Because of each’s individual areas of expertise, they had all agreed to temporarily band together and split the proceeds from the robbery.
Yet somehow, the local deputy hat caught onto the scheme and met them soon after they had entered the train. Of course, Henry had his suspicions as to how one deputy managed to discover the plot.
As armed men began to stand up in the train car, it was every man for himself, and Henry had escaped without a glance over his shoulder.
“Only two,” Jeremy said somberly, shaking his head. “It was—”
“I don’t want to know who it was,” interrupted Henry with a sigh because he knew that knowing who the two were would only bring unneeded vengeful emotions into his heart.
Jeremy nodded, seeming to understand as he rubbed the back of his neck and placed a small leather pouch on the table.
“This is your share of the cash we took last time we worked together. I’m sorry I didn’t get it to you sooner, but there were a few things I needed to take care of first.”
“Thank you,” Henry replied sincerely. “Thank you for bein’ the only one in my life to ever do things the right way. Jer—”
“Don’t say it, Henry. I’ve done my share of wrongdoin’ in this world, and I don’t want you to place undue thanks to me. If it were someone else, I sure as heck would take the loot an’ book it to Goldstrike afore you could blink. But you’re different.”
“I am not different,” snorted Henry with a disgruntled shake of his head. “Jer, look at this.”
He drew from his pocket a carefully folded paper and spread it out before his friend, watching the man’s face intently as his counterpart’s eyes took in the words typed in black and white at the head of the page.
“Pickpocketin'?” Jeremy was incredulous as he finally looked up and met Henry’s eyes. “Henry, I’ve seen you leave a ranch in full daylight with four horses, and you get written up like this for pickpocketin'?”
“I'm better at it than anythin’ else just ‘cause I’ve had the most practice at it,” Henry shrugged, yet the dismay in his face was unmistakable. “They started me at the age of five, and it’s become a bad habit of mine.”
“Never thought I’d hear you sat that,” commented Jeremy with the slightest trace of surprise in his tone. “Henry Maddox, it’s not seen as a bad habit by all the people who we know.”
“Don’t mean I can’t feel no guilt ‘bout it. It used to not bother me as much, but I find myself thinkin’ on how much time someone spent to earn the cash I was takin’. How hard they worked for it. An’ it was all too easy for me to take it. One slip of the hand and—it was mine.”
“Some would say you did work for it,” Jeremy pointed out.
Henry shook his head and stared down at the chips and lines cut into the surface of the table, his hands sliding into his cotton pockets and curling into fists.
“Call it what you will, but that ain’t work,” he answered.
“You could be the richest man if you just head yourself over to one of ‘em business towns and search out the best places to pick pockets. Even Jesse James himself would be a-wantin’ to have you in his gang if you just shone up on your skills a little.”
Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Henry glanced up from the table and met Jeremy’s gaze evenly, his lips compressed into a thin, hard line. He of all people was aware to what feats he could reach if he pursued his uncanny knack for slipping things out of people’s pockets and into his own. Months ago, he knew that Jeremy’s encouragement would have led him to do more such things, but there was now something inside of him that resisted the idea.
“I know this is goin’ to sound crazy,” he said slowly, “but maybe that’s not the life I want, Jer. Maybe I don’t want to go stealin’ from people.”
If he had been expecting Jeremy to instantly stand up and pull his own revolver on him, Henry was in for a shock as the other outlaw wearily passed a hand across his face and sighed. Bewildered, Henry leaned forward and bit his lower lip, unsure of what to say.
“Henry, there ain’t no right way of gettin’ out of it,” Jeremy said in a low voice.
“I’m willin’ to take the chances,” Henry assured him, knowing full well what the consequences would be.
“You’re goin’ to ruin your life as you know it.”
“So you disapprove.”
“I don’t think I ever said that. What I’m tellin’ you is that there’ll be more than a dozen outlaws comin’ after you when they hear tell that you’ve gone and done changed your ways. I’m just tryin’ to paint the whole picture for you.”
“And I am grateful for it…I sure am, Jer. You’ve been like a brother to me and have been by my side when I needed you the most.” Henry felt his voice beginning to tremble, but he hastily placed his Stetson back on his head and looked away. “I’m goin’ to make things right.”
Standing up to his full height of six-foot-three, Henry stretched his back, took the leather pouch, and shoved it into the leather satchel he carried across his body. There was a silence as he looked toward the bright light of the afternoon peeking above the doors to the saloon, but he could see Jeremy Johnson’s every move out of the corner of his eye.
The older outlaw was slowly drawing something from his pocket and placing it on the table, his sharp eyes warily darting around the saloon.
Gradually, Henry turned about-face so as to not attract any more attention to themselves than they had most likely done already. His wide gray eyes fell to the slip of paper.
The man over by the counter with the scar across his neck. He has the key to the jail.
“And do I want to have the key to the jail?” Henry hissed in confusion. “Are you out of your mind, Jer?”
It’s Jasper Turndale, Jeremy scrawled on the paper with a meaningful glance up at his friend.
Sighing, Henry hooked his thumbs in his belt loops.
“I’ll see you when I see you,” he shrugged.
Walking past the round tables to the door, Henry stopped, and his gray eyes swiveled over to a tall glass of brown sarsaparilla water standing on the counter. What did it hurt to have at least a glass before he was back out wandering again? It wasn’t as if he would dare to head into a saloon again.
As he softly stepped toward the counter, his hands hanging at his sides, Henry lifted his long legs over the barstool and nodded at the man behind the counter.
“Sarsaparilla water—please,” he added with a rueful glance falling over his face as he caught the owner’s disgusted expression. However, it was only a moment before the owner had disappeared into a back room and left Henry in peace to enjoy his beverage.
“I see that ranchin’ doesn’t suit your tastes,” he remarked with his eyes focused on the transparent brown liquid sitting in the glass.
“Henry Lane Maddox, never thought I’d see ya again,” the fiery red-headed youth shot back from beside him. “After that last run-in with the law, I saw you booked it all the way to Baton Rouge.”
“Reckon I never been to Baton Rouge in all my life,” drawled Henry with a lazy smile. “Must be a different Maddox you’re thinkin’ of.”
“Don’t reckon so…bein’ that you’re the only Maddox I know. And, for your information, I never went ranchin’. Only cowards take to that kinda life after spendin’ their days with the likes of the James-Younger gang.”
“How’s your family?”
Jasper finally looked Henry in the eyes, his bright hazel eyes clouding over as he downed another gulp of his whiskey.
“How am I supposed to know how they’re doin’? I haven’t been home in five years, Henry. You wanna fight or just stop askin’ me no-good questions? ‘Cause I sure as heck am fine either way.”
“You always wanted to make a scene,” smiled Henry with a shake of his head. “Don’t you remember what happened last time you dueled someone?”
“I had just finished gettin’ patched up after that vice deputy had practically run me over with that fool horse of his,” Jasper defended himself, his face flushing crimson. “I did well, considerin’ the circumstances.”
“Well, good for you, then,” Henry shrugged as he took a sip of the sarsaparilla water and moved to stand up.
“Where are you goin’?” Jasper asked. “Don’t think you finished your drink here yet.”
“I only take one drink when I do have one,” Henry informed him grimly.
“Fool,” muttered Jasper.
“Reckon I’ll see you around. Have a good one, Jasper.”
All of a sudden, a gun shot rang out in the air, a smoking hole bored in the wood beam right above Henry’s dark brown Stetson. Without thinking, he slid over the smooth wood counter and pressed his back to the other side with his heart racing.
“Stand down, Maddox,” shouted out a clear voice. “We can do this with or without a fight, but, either way, you’re coming with us.”
Cautiously, Henry peered over the edge of the countertop to see three men standing in the doorway, and Jasper carefully slipping out the dual-swing double doors.
Abandoning all caution, Henry jumped back over the counter and stood before the three armed men as his pulse pounding in his temples.
“The man you’re lookin’ for is leavin’ town right now,” he shouted in frustration. “Jasper Turndale is on the run.”
“We didn’t call you Jasper Turndale,” sighed the blond-mustached deputy, his gun still hanging in the air between them. “Henry Maddox, I believe it is. Wanted for pickpocketing.”
Henry couldn’t help but to roll his eyes and grunt in exasperation. These people were unbelievable. They were there to arrest a man for pickpocketing when there was a gunslinger loose and on the run.
“Come with us, if you will, Mr. Maddox,” the deputy said.
“You’re makin’ a mistake,” Henry warned them.
“I’d actually consider this to be a very profitable day,” remarked the deputy with a nod to the two other men who instantly moved forward.
“What’s this, Silas?” one of them gasped while gaping absurdly at the iron key he had pulled from Henry’s pocket.
“The key to the jail,” stated the deputy bluntly. “I assumed that it was him who took it—to free those other train robbers and all. Men, take him away.”
Metal wrapped around his large wrists, chafing his bones and cramping his toned muscles flexing underneath the handcuffs. He hung his head, chin resting against his chest while he told himself that it was all for the best. It was what he deserved after the lawless life he had shamelessly led.
Yet it was none the easier as they half-dragged his tall frame out of the saloon and into the dusty street. For a moment, he blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the intense light, but he knew that what he was seeing approaching him and the others was no mirage.
“Take this man to prison and schedule him for the hangin’ tomorrow mornin’,” barked Jeremy Johnson as he shoved a wiry figure down into the dust and wrenched the man’s hands behind his back.
“He’s lyin’—don’t listen to him!” cried out the person writhing on the ground, his head finally twisting to look the deputy in entreaty.
“This is Jasper Turndale, and that is the key he stole from the jail,” Jeremy said gravely with a nod at the key. “I’m no lawman, but I don’t think you should jail Henry here for pickin’ this outlaw’s pocket.”
Incredulity registered on the three men’s faces as the looked from Henry to Jasper glowering on the ground.
“I told you they’re lyin’!” yelled Jasper angrily. “You fools, they’re gonna get away with this.”
“It’s two against one,” Silas said deliberately, “and you are also a man wanted for armed theft, horse rustling, selling whiskey to the Indians, and—I can go on if you would like.”
A growl from the young man indicated made Henry grin as Silas unlocked the handcuffs around his wrists.
“You are still wanted for pickpocketing, just so you know,” the deputy informed him, a twinkle in his blue eyes.
“This was the last pocket I ever picked,” Henry promised. “I think this man here can vouch for the fact that I am—”
“An outstandin’ citizen,” Jeremy finished with a smile at Henry. “Deputy, I think you can let this man go knowin’ that you’ll never see him on the other side of the law again.”