My deputy, Rusty Irons, was as itchy as a man ever gets. We were at the Laramie and Overland stage station, in Doubtful, waiting for the maroon-enameled Concord stage to roll in. Rusty couldn’t come up with proper bouquets, not in the barely settled cow town of Doubtful, Wyoming, but he managed some daisies and sagebrush he had collected out on the range.
Rusty was waiting for his mail-order brides. That’s right, Siamese twins, joined at the hip, from the Ukraine. He ordered just one, but they sent him the pair. He’d gotten a hundred and fifty dollars reward, offered for Huckster Bob, wanted dead or alive. Rusty got him alive, and collected, and applied the money to getting himself a wife.
And now we were waiting for the stage to roll in. It was an hour late, and maybe more.
Well, my ma always said there’s nothing worse than a sweating bridegroom, and Rusty filled the bill. He had sweat running down his sides. His armpits had turned into gushers.
“Well, you get to be best man,” Rusty said.
“If I don’t arrest you first for bigamy,” I said.
“I looked it up; there’s no law in Wyoming Territory against it.”
“Well, I’ll arrest you for something or other,” I said. “You found a preacher who’ll tie the knot?”
“No, but I’m going to argue that all he has to do is marry me to one of ’em.”
“What’ll you do with the other?”
“I can’t auction her off,” Rusty said. “So she gets to be the spectator.”
“They speak English?”
“Not a word. They’re from Lvov, Ukraine.”
“Well, that’s a good start,” I said. “You won’t get into arguments. My ma always said the best part of her marriage was when my pa was snoring.”
“Well, you’re the result,” Rusty said.
I wasn’t sure how to take that, but thought I’d let it pass without a fistfight. His armpits were leaking worse than ever and I didn’t want his sweat all over my sheriff suit and pants.
“You figure they’re joined facing the same way?” I asked.
“Well, I wouldn’t marry them if one was facing backwards. Here,” he said, pulling out a tintype.
The image of two beautiful blondes leapt out at me. It looked like they were side by side, except they had a single dark skirt.
“This one here’s Natasha, and the other is Anna,” Rusty said.
“You know which one you’ll hitch up with?”
“We’ll toss a coin. Or maybe they’ve got it worked out.”
“What if one wants you and the other doesn’t? Or you want one and not the other?”
Rusty, he just grinned. “Life sure is interesting,” he said.
Word had gotten out, and a small crowd had collected at the wooden stage office on Main Street. Some of the women squinted at Rusty as if he was a criminal, which maybe he was. One man looked like he wanted to propose to the other. But mostly they stared at Rusty, wondering what sort of twisted beast would want to marry Siamese twins. And now there were fifty of the good citizens of Doubtful, standing in clumps, whispering, pointing at Rusty as if he belonged in the bottom layer of hell.
Rusty, he just smiled.
“I’m glad you got me that raise,” he said.
“You’ll need it,” I replied.
I’d gone to the Puma County Supervisors and talked them into raising Rusty’s wage by five dollars, because of his impending wedlock, and his faithful service as my best and most useful deputy. That put him up just two dollars below my forty-seven a month sheriff’s salary, but I didn’t mind.
I saw Delphinium Sanders, the banker’s wife, glaring as hard as she could manage at both of us. And George Waller, the mayor, was studying us as if we belonged in a zoo, which maybe we did. I sure didn’t know how this would play out, or who’d marry whom, but it made a late spring day real entertaining there in the cow town of Doubtful.
Hanging Judge Earwig was there, too, and thought maybe he’d do the marrying if no one else would. Judge Earwig was broadminded, and didn’t mind it if people thought ill of him. He might even marry both the twins to Rusty, seeing as how there wasn’t any law against it. That’d come later, when the next legislature got moralistic. Or maybe Rusty could take his gals to Utah and find a Mormon cleric to fix him up, but I didn’t put much stock in it. Utah had outlawed that sort of entertainment.
That stagecoach sure was late. Dry road, too. Dry spring, no potholes or mud puddles. The waiting was hard on Rusty.
“Hey, Rusty, you got a two-holer, or are they gonna take turns?” some brat yelled.
I went after the freckled punk, got an ear, and twisted it.
“Cut that out or I’ll throw you down a hole and you’ll stink for a week.”
“Aw, sheriff, this is the best thing hit Doubtful in a long time.”
“You’re Willie Dickens, and your ma didn’t raise you right. I let go of your ear, you promise to respect people?”
“Anything you say,” Willie said, and yanked loose, smirking.
I let him go. This was turning into an ordeal for my deputy sheriff, instead of a moment of joy. It wasn’t hard to tell what all of them good folks of Doubtful were thinking. This marriage would have a threesome in the bedroom.
And still no coach.
Then, about the time I was ready to head back to the sheriff office and look over the mail, we spotted the coach rounding the hill south of Doubtful, coming along at a smart clip, maybe faster than usual because them drays looked pretty lathered.
Jonas Quill, the jehu, pulled back the lines slightly, and the sweated horses gladly quit on him, while the coach rocked gently.
“Well, Rusty, here it comes,” I said.
But Quill yelled at me, “We got held up, man.”
“Four armed men, masked.”
By then the maroon door of the coach swung open, and six passengers emerged: four rumpled males, mostly whiskey drummers, and two frightened women, both gray-haired, in bonnets.
No Ukrainian Siamese identical female twins.
Rusty seemed to leak gas.
“Clear away from here,” I yelled at the mob. “We got trouble.”
“Where are they?” Rusty asked.
“Don’t know, but we got business,” I said. “Sheriff business.”
“You passengers, stick close here. I’ll want statements from all of you.”
One woman looked annoyed and started off.
“You, too, Mrs. Throckmorton.”
“I surrender to my fate,” she said.
Rusty looked shell-shocked, so it’d be up to me. “Quill, tell me. What happened and what got took?”
“Nothing got took. Just the twins.”
“My mind isn’t quite biting this cookie, Quill.”
“Three masked men on saddle horses, another in a chariot.”
“A two-wheel chariot hung on two trotters. Man there was masked, too.”
“A chariot like them gladiators used?”
“A two-wheel stand-up cart, with a lot of gold gilt and enameled red on it. They stop my coach, one has a scattergun aimed at me, and they open the door, and point at the twins, and say, ‘Ladies, get out,’ but the twins, they don’t speak a word of English, so they prod the ladies out with their revolvers. That takes some doing, four legs, one skirt, but they get the Siamese twins out, get them into the chariot, and the man with the whip smacks the butts of those trotters and away they go, the three of them standing in that chariot.”
“The others wanted the twins’ luggage, and they loaded it on a packhorse.”
“And you didn’t fight it?”
“They made us drop our weapons,” one of the drummers said.
“What else did they take? The mail? Anything in a lockbox?”
“Nope,” said Quill. “The foreign women and their bags.”
“Did they give any reasons?”
“They said, ‘Don’t shoot,’ we’d hit the women, and that was true. They headed due west, over some off-road route.”
“Good, we’ll have some tracks to follow,” I said.
“Them were my brides,” Rusty said.
“Real purty, they were,” Quill said. “But sure hobbled up. I can see the direction your steamy little brain’s taking, Irons,” the jehu said.
This was getting a little out of hand.
“Rusty, you interview the male passengers, and I’ll interview these women. Meanwhile, you people, clear out of here.”
But no one moved. Half the town, it seemed, had flooded in.
Rusty and I got what we could from all those passengers. Nothing was taken except the Ukrainians. No one was forced to empty pockets. No valuables ended up in bandit pockets. The robbers were young, well masked, rode easily, wore wide-brimmed hats and jeans and dirty boots.
They were all polite; no apparent accents. None of them offered reasons. The Ukrainian twins went peaceably, not understanding a bit of it. They were even smiling. They were treated courteously by the bandits.
“Were they hostages? Would they be returned for a reward?” Rusty asked the drummers.
“Nope, no sign of it,” said one in a black bowler.
“Who’d want female Siamese twins?” Rusty asked.
“They were real lookers,” another salesman ventured.
Rusty whipped out his tintype. “These the ones?”
They studied the black-and-white a while. “Not sure, but seems so,” one said.
“Did these women seem in distress?”
“Nope, they thought this was all pretty merry.”
The passengers had been detained long enough, so me and Rusty cut them loose, cut the jehu loose, and headed for Turk’s Livery Barn. We had some hard riding in front of us.