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Alias Jones and Smith

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Heyes got broody over certain things. Curry had seen it a hundred times. His partner's quick-thinking brain, which often got them out of tricky situations, also had the unfortunate tendency to twist things into shapes they were never meant to take.

And the two of them sleeping together was one of those certain things.

Yep, he knew just how Hannibal figured it—Curry trusted his judgment, and in repayment he'd corrupted the Kid into committing unnatural acts.

Curry snorted air out of his nose. The horse beneath him plodded on, unmindful. Heyes' horse was just ahead, and in front of Heyes the hay-colored hills stretched on, studded with clumps of dry grasses and stunted trees.

Curry grinned at Heyes' retreating back, swaying as his horse picked out a trail in between the rocks. Nothing about what they'd done last night or the night before—or the week before, the first time—ever felt the least bit unnatural. New, but not unnatural. And sure, he wasn't stupid, knew the rest of the world disagreed, and maybe in the past he'd have agreed with them. But the rest of the world offered no comfort. Heyes did. Always had, one way or another. Curry trusted that above all else.

Leather creaked as Heyes turned in his saddle, catching the grin on Curry's face. His eyebrows rose. "What's so funny?"

"Now how did you do that?" Curry asked.

Heyes shrugged, face gleaming with sweat—the day was blistering hot. He wore his dark blue shirt, sleeves rolled back. "Do what? Turn around and catch you grinning at me? I must have felt the heat of it on my back."

Curry gave him an exasperated look. "All I had to do was think about you and me, and there you go, turning right around as if I spoke to you."

"What were you thinking?" Heyes asked, not so casually.

"Heyes, you worry too much. Wasn't anything bad." He paused, considering. "Though I suppose that depends on who you ask. There's a few ladies I could think of—or preachers, maybe—they might not think on it kindly."

Heyes' horse stumbled, and he turned away from Curry to pat it on the neck. Dust from the horse's hide rose in a puff.

Avoiding me. "What I was thinking about was kind of…good. Real good in fact."

Heyes turned his upper body around, hand on his horse's rump behind the saddle, and rolled his eyes.

Inwardly, Curry laughed. Kind of fun needling Heyes with things they'd done after dark.

"Well if you're gonna moon over you and me, guess it might as well be," Heyes said, short and disgruntled.

"Be what?"

Heyes frowned.

"Oh, yeah. Good. Of course. Well, I'm not mooning, Heyes. Just thinking, that's all."

"Mooning." This time Heyes didn't look back.

"You think I'd moon over you?" Kid scoffed.

"Well, I don't like to blow my own horn, so to speak—"

"Ha!"

"—but I can't imagine you'd be the first."

There it was—that sly glimmer Kid had waited for. "Oh, you couldn't, could you?" Curry suppressed a smile and shrugged. "I was just thinking, not mooning. You know, how your toes curl when you—"

"Kid!" Heyes shot up fast and straight in his saddle.

"—wake up and stretch first thing in the morning." Kid laughed. Nothing was going to ruin his good humor today, not even Heyes' misguided sense of guilt.

"Howdy," a genial voice called from behind them. "Almost too hot to be on the trail today, ain't it?"

Heyes gave Curry a furtive glance that plainly said I hope nobody else heard that, then both of them looked at the stranger approaching. A short, wiry fellow dressed in dark clothes had draped himself lazily over a chestnut horse. Curry exchanged another quick glance with Heyes. Neither of them recognized the man.

Kid fought to keep his hand off the butt of his gun as the stranger drew closer. Old habits, but more necessary than ever.

"I'm headed to Grand Junction." The man was younger than Curry had first thought, around twenty or thereabouts. He drew closer. "The name's Jeremiah." He stopped a few feet away and wiped his brow, then leaned toward them, squinting. "You two look familiar. Have you ever visited Matherville?"

"Well now, who might be asking?" Curry asked.

Jeremiah raised a hand in protest. "My dad owns the dry goods store there. I was sure I'd seen you pass through is all, but I guess I'm mistaken. Sorry. I didn't mean to rile you."

Heyes gave a smile meant to disarm strangers. "What makes you think we're riled?"

Jeremiah nodded and relaxed his hold on the reins so that his horse moved forward next to Heyes. "Okay, good. So let's see if I remember rightly. You're…Smith and Jones. Right?" The corners of his mouth curled, encouraging agreement. "Easy enough names to remember."

Heyes cocked his head, watching Jeremiah. "Why remember 'em at all?"

"Which of you is which?" Jeremiah said.

Heyes' smile disappeared, and Jeremiah's grew wider. Curry curled fingers around his gun, but he didn't draw. Heyes was between him and Jeremiah. Why the hell didn't he move out of the way?

"I'm Jones." Heyes said it fast. "Why are you asking?"

Curry opened his mouth, but Heyes gave a bare shake of his head and pointedly looked down. Jeremiah had a Colt pressed into Heyes' right side.

"Hold on a minute," Heyes said. "I thought we were going to pass a few companionable hours together on the trail."

"I'm Jeremiah Bilson." The young man grinned, wide and glad, and suddenly the Jeremiah who'd resembled Danny Bilson not one wit looked a lot more like him. He jerked the gun up, leaned in close to Heyes and pointed it over Heyes' shoulder at Curry. "Nope, you're gonna get rid of that gun. Easy like, before I accidentally shoot your partner."

Curry did so, reluctantly tossing his gun to the ground.

"That's better. Don't you move, I got my eye on you. Come on out, Harry!"

Heyes rocked back, startled by the shout in his ear.

"Harry!" Jeremiah called again. He jabbed Heyes in the side. Heyes stifled a small noise.

Curry jerked toward Jeremiah before he could stop himself, felt the rage heat his face even more. Jeremiah smiled slowly, raised the gun and wagged it at him. "You two are close, huh? " He dropped the gun and dug it deliberately into Heyes' ribs again. This time he got no reaction from either of them.

Over a rise to the left came another rider, dirty and muscled, so large his legs dangled awkwardly past the horse's belly. His red shirt blazed against the blue backdrop of sky. Heyes shot Curry a grin at the fellow's size.

Curry didn't respond. He felt sick to his stomach. Heyes was trying to take the blame for killing Bilson, and he had the nerve to try and distract him from the fact they were gonna have to fight a damn giant.

Jeremiah cast Heyes a smiling look. "He's pretty darned big. It stops being so funny when he throws a punch. We got drunk once, had an argument and I couldn't sit right on my horse for days after. Everything kept spinnin'."

"These the right fellas?" Harry called, riding closer. He approached Curry and reached into a saddlebag, pulling out a length of rope.

"Sure are." Jeremiah looked at Curry, then Heyes. "I've never lived in Matherville, but I went there to see my brother after I got a letter saying he'd got rich and bought hisself a saloon. By the time I got there he was dead. The law refused to give me a single penny. Said I was too late, no relatives had been found—you ever hear of such a crooked system? Which leaves me with only one thing. Revenge. You murdered my brother, Thaddeus Jones. You're going to regret that."

"Hands behind your back. Slow now," Harry said to Curry. His voice rumbled deep in his chest.

"Who told you we had anything to do with—what did you say your brother's name was?" Heyes argued.

Jeremiah's mouth thinned. "I asked around. Ain't hard. People love to talk. They spelled it out plain. Thaddeus Jones killed Danny."

"People love to gossip. Nine parts exaggeration and misinformation, one part truth. You're going to kill me because of gossip?"

"That I am. For months I tried to find you, but there's a lot of people go by the likes of Smith and Jones. I'd pretty much given up on you, but then I got lucky. Found some people who'd played poker with you, last town back."

"I'm Thaddeus, not him." Curry leaned forward, intent. He ignored the urgent look Heyes gave him.

"That true?" Jeremiah asked, low in Heyes' ear.

"No, sir. It is not," Heyes said, making eye contact with Jeremiah. "Joshua's been my friend for longer than I remember. He's always been protective of me, but in good conscience I can't allow him to take the blame this time."

"You can't do this," Curry said to Heyes. Sweat poured off him. He felt like the ground was dropping from beneath the horse's feet.

Heyes met his eyes steadily. "I'm not doing anything but telling the truth." He looked at Jeremiah. "He's a good friend, but as you can see, a bad liar."

"Didn't you even get a description of who done the deed?" Kid erupted. "It was me! I did it!"

"It won't likely matter," Harry pointed out. He scratched his belly beneath the fiery shirt. "It ain't like we can leave either of you alive."

"We could if they didn't know our names." Jeremiah smiled again. His smile brought back all sorts of memories from the goldmine that were, in retrospect, more like nightmares. "Like I said, I'm Danny's brother. This here's Harrison Pardue, Jr."

Harry's brows lowered. His shirt beneath his underarms bore huge sweat stains. "Keep it up and I'll reacquaint you with my fist again."

"Just making certain we're on the same page, Harry," Jeremiah said, but his eyes had opened wide, like a scared kid.

"I already agreed, Jeremiah. Now shut up and follow me."

"So you know where we're going, right?"

"I'm the one found the place. Quit bothering me and let's get going."

"He's hung over." Jeremiah grinned. "Ain't a bigger drunk in the territory."

"You're making a terrible mistake. They'll hang you and your brother's killer will still be out there somewhere in the world. Is that what you want?" Heyes said, heat in his eyes.

Jeremiah raised the gun and hit Heyes, raking the butt of the Colt across his forehead.

Heyes head whipped back with the force of the blow. A jagged split in the skin opened up nearly the width of his forehead. Blood ran down his face.

"He—Smith!" Curry yelled, nearly uttering Heyes' real name.

"Who's Hey Smith? You trying to convince me his name's Smith? Because it don't seem like you know his name at all," Jeremiah said.

"You're not too bright, are you?" Curry snapped, would have said more but Pardue sank a fist into his stomach and interrupted him. The air went out of Curry's lungs and he saw bright sparkles in his vision.

"Settle down, Josh," Heyes said.

"Don't call me Josh, Joshua," Curry returned, once he'd ascertained Heyes was upright and essentially unhurt.

"I'd like to wipe my forehead if you don't mind," Heyes said to Jeremiah. When Jeremiah nodded he reached up and wiped his forehead with the crook of his arm. In one smooth move, he lowered and straightened his forearm out, striking the gun Jeremiah had stuck into his side.

"Goddammit," Jeremiah cursed. The gun pointed at the ground, but he'd managed to hold onto it.

Curry was ready, but since his hands were literally tied behind his back, all he could manage was a kick. His boot hit Pardue low on the hip, spooking his horse into running off a few paces.

Heyes grabbed the barrel of the gun, but Jeremiah wrested it away. The Colt went off, sound cracking through the clear air.

The bullet hit Curry. At first he didn't know where it hit—his inner arm or his chest.

"No!"

Curry heard the sharp panic in Heyes' voice. The force of the bullet felt like someone very strong had suddenly pushed Curry backward. He reeled, very near fell off his horse. He wanted to reassure Heyes he was all right but then the pain came, a red tide.

After that it went dark.